On her selection

Dennis’s attractions always seemed to be for the wrong women.

At the age of six, there’d been Sister Mary-Rose. She was the first of a string of unsustainable affections. Even the impression left by the officer who’d booked him speeding last spring had lingered until summer.

He’d been single so long the women in his office had ceased regarding him as eligible for anything other than a chat. Some thought there might be more than met the eye to his friendship with Matt in the CEO’s office.

Half-way through Elizabeth’s interview for the publicist position, Dennis noticed her expressive hands. They matched an animated face. Her hair was a gorgeous honey brown. Her voice mellifluous. But why had she stopped? Why was she looking at him so expectantly? Why were Rob and Janine staring too?

‘Oh, sorry. Now, um, Elizabeth,’ he recovered his composure, ‘can you describe a project you’ve been particularly proud of?’

He would later argue, rather too vigorously, for another candidate. In the end the panel decided to sleep on it and reconvene in the morning.

That night, in the pub, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

‘No decision yet?’ Out of her interview clothes Elizabeth was even lovelier than he remembered.

No doubt remained. At the morning’s meeting he’d be pushing for her selection.

Secondhand

Every Sunday Gunther loaded his truck and drove, in the dark, to the carpark. By dawn it would be junk heaven. He sold furniture. He knew how to clean it up so city suckers could see how good it could look. Never mind the woodworm or the dodgy joinery.

Edie, on his left, sold books and magazines—everything from classic hardbacks to dog-eared Playboys.

On the other side grumpy Col sold garden tools from a tarpaulin. So, when things were slow, it was Edie he’d talk to.

She’d started off doing markets with her husband. When he died they’d been the only thing that got her out of the house. She liked the routine.

Gunther had bought a bush block after his divorce. It had a massive shed on it, bigger than the house. Pretty soon he started filling it with things he thought he could sell in town. That’s where it started for him.

He’d stopped even thinking about romance when, one rainy Sunday, Edie arrived with an old picture frame. ‘More your sort of thing,’ she said. I found it in a skip.’

‘You’ve got a good eye, Ede. That’ll sell for maybe forty-five.’

‘You know, we’d make a good team, Gunther.’

‘Maybe you’re right, Edie. More fun with two.’

Flat pack love

The flat pack guy announced himself with a scripted greeting. ‘You recently purchased shelf units and requested installation. My name is—’

‘Sven?’

‘…Craig, and I’m here to assist. May I come in?’

‘Not much good out there.’ She’d hoped for a hunky Scandinavian.  Craig was an acceptable alternative, but a touch robotic.

As he unpacked pieces into regimented piles they talked.

‘Interesting work?’

‘Sure. Did you know flat-packed furniture accounts for…’

Monica studied his strong back as he inserted patented hardware into pre-drilled holes. ‘Can I get you a tea?’

‘We’re not allowed.’

‘You really play it by the book, don’t you? I’ll take a punt on white and none.’

‘Black,’ he said, ‘and one.’

By the time she got back the shelves were almost up.

‘Blimey, you’re quick.’

They started to talk. Craig even played the flirting game like it had rules. ‘Just to let you know,’ he said ‘I’m not seeing anyone right now.’

‘Good. You must love your job.’

‘I was made to do it.’

‘You get to meet lots of people?’

‘Just idiots who can’t follow instr——.’ Craig swallowed. ‘I…well…it’s just that…I didn’t…’

Monica let him squirm for a full minute. ‘Nothing in the manual’s gonna get you out of that one.’ She laughed and put her hand on his slumping shoulder.

West

After the plant closed, Bob went into a slump. More of a plummet. Ingrid made sure it stayed hidden. All the neighbours knew was that they’d bought a campervan and were going to see the country.

Bob didn’t have much say in it. Ingrid found the van and the finance. She did the fit-out while Bob slouched on the couch. Then one morning she walked in with an axe and, in one blow, nearly sliced the TV in two.

‘What the bloody—‘

‘Get up off that damned couch, Bob. We’re going for a drive.’

‘Are you mad?’

‘In the van.’

‘Damn crazy idea.’ But he followed.

She slipped a note into the Korngolds’ letterbox, threw the axe into a locker and climbed into the driver’s seat. ‘Which way?’

‘Wha…?’

‘North, South, East, West?’

‘Bloody hell, Ing. You’ve lost it.’

‘What I’ve lost is you, you idiot. I’ll drive until I get you back. Which way?’

 

Barbara Korngold tracked Ingrid down two thousand kilometres west. The finance company had been sniffing around.

Bob said, ‘Stuff ’em Love. Those bastards can wait.’

‘So we’re like a couple of outlaws, now.’ said Ingrid, squeezing his arm.

‘Bonny and Clyde,’ he said.

Corellas chorused in a nearby river gum. The late sun blasted red onto a rocky desert range.

Remembering last summer

I bumped into Jen at a coffee shop. ‘Liz, hi,’ she said, as if she wanted to talk.

‘Grab a seat.’ I put down my paperback. ‘Where’s Rebecca?’ They’d planned this trip together.

‘I don’t even want to talk about her,’ Jen said. ‘A day into our trip and she meets some guy at the pub. Next thing it’s as if I’m not even there. And then, all of a sudden, she just leaves. Texts me to say Jay’s folks have invited her to join them.’

‘Jay?’

‘Yeah. He’s not even nice. Half the time he just ignores her. But he’s got all the stuff. He’s got the fancy boat, the big beach house, the sports car. God I never knew she could be so selfish.’

‘It’s pretty poor. Hey, I’m just hanging around,’ I said. ‘Why don’t we team up.’

‘Oh, I’m alright.’

‘C’mon Jen, It’ll be fun.’ The pleasures of holidaying alone had been wearing thin. I was pretty much over quiet contemplation. Besides, I remembered it all from last season. The flash speedboat, the jet-skis, the cellar full of wine. The self-important smile. And being treated like an ornament.

Then one afternoon he redecorated, and I caught the bus home.

Watching

It was the stragglers’ hour. Trains came spasmodically. Commuters loitered in an orderless scatter of waiting.

A couple emerged on the next platform. From across the tracks Len followed their progress beneath the television timetables. As they walked they separated and came together like the sides of an accordion. They spoke continually, Len thought perhaps in agitation, but the brisk wind whipped their words away.

In a movement, both fluid and violent, the man snatched the shopping bag from his partner’s arms and tossed it onto the tracks. Len detected the sway of drunkenness as the stranger stepped away. And the sway of fear as the other stood her ground.

He came at her again. She held him back with words and hands. He tottered uncertainly.

Len watched mute.

A woman called from the platform beyond theirs. ‘Are you alright?’

Two glares for her concern, Len thought—it was hard to tell from where he stood.

His train pulled in. Its slowing windows animated them in jagged flipbook frames. The thrust and counterthrust of something turned terribly wrong between two strangers.

Len climbed aboard, taking a seat near the window. As his train pulled out he saw the woman scream in anger then turn away, just as an express, coming the other way, took away his view.

Best friends once

Now they were suddenly more than friends their thoughts for each other could shift quickly. The proud tilt of her head might so easily be arrogance or his charm smarminess. But for the moment they were happy.

They were walking by the lake, arm in arm, half turned towards each other.

There was a growl on the path behind them, a yelp and a scramble. A young girl’s fearful call. They turned. An Alsatian cross, brindled back bristling, leapt for a cowering pug.

The girl screamed.

‘Do something,’ called Phee.

Preston looked around for a stick or rock. A weapon, so he didn’t have to approach. He pulled on a branch but it was too green to snap.

“Preston, do something!”

Teeth, fur, saliva, blood. A deathly howl and gurgle. A girl’s inconsolable whimpering.

Preston tried to yell, “Back. Back,” but the words stuck fast.

A man lumbered out of the scrub. With barely a glance at the others he clipped a chain on his blood-drunk dog, then punched it hard across the jaw.

‘Oi,’ said Preston.

The man spat on the ground then turned and left, saying nothing.

Phee cradled the distraught girl. ‘Well that was pathetic,’ she hissed.

She knew nothing of the scar that circled his thigh, nor the snarl of his childhood neighbour’s out-of-control mongrel.

Deluge

Moments before the water reached the top of the wardrobe, Gil managed to kick through the ceiling. Plaster shattered into the rising soup of brown.

‘Up. Quick,’ he called above the din.

But the long minutes on their cramped island had drained Donna’s strength. So Gil pulled himself through, then reached down, caught her under the arms and hauled her up.

The water rose quickly to ceiling level. Gil smashed a hole onto the roof. It would be a final resort.

They sat on the rain-soaked capping tiles as a surge of brown sent everything from drowning cattle to neighbours’ houses swirling past. It swallowed the first row of tiles. Then the next.

A helicopter swooped low over what was left of the general store. It hovered. A rope dropped beside them. As they waited, the water nipping their feet, Gil looked at his wife and said, ruefully, ‘Dose it change anything, d’ya reckon?’

‘No Gil’ she said. Then paused. ‘Maybe we can part friends.’

There was a long moment of what seemed like silence. Water rushing by in an unstoppable stampede. Helicopter blowing hard. But silence nevertheless.

‘Geeze,’ said Gil. ‘It never rains but it bloody pours.’

They were laughing together for the first time in months when their rescuer dropped onto the roof beside them.


Stories come from all over. This began with terrible floods across eastern Australia, and coincided with even more tragic flooding in South America. It is written in the knowledge that there are harder stories being told that owe nothing to the fiction writer’s craft. Those stories are being exchanged between people who have lost homes and livelihoods and loved ones. This story is posted with respect to those affected – not because their sorrow is its inspiration but because stories are important. They connect people. Having written it (because it came to me – not because I went looking for it) I feel it would be disingenuous of me to withhold it. The Queensland Premier’s Disaster Relief Appeal is accepting donations towards flood relief.

Placido’s Mark

I guess I nearly scared the pants off Placido when I asked him out at the start of our final semester. I’d barely said boo to him for three years. I liked that he was different

In a course like ours there was plenty of bullish masculinity. For some, everything was a competition, from making that first ten million to who would finish up with me. Morons.

But Placido kept to himself. In the end that was all he needed to give him a kind of charisma. Not that I thought he’d ever be more than a middle manager. But he was a nice guy, hilariously funny when I got to know him. And he could spring a surprise when he wanted.

‘I’ll beat them all,’ he told me one night.

‘Beat who? At what?’

‘I’ll be making seven figures before they’ve even graduated.’

‘How?’ I asked.

‘All will be revealed.’

A few nights later he showed me a booklet. Nice package. Smart looking. The back page took the form of a patterned tattoo image.

‘Every one’s different. Computer generated. They’re a new formulation. Last up to a year.’

‘So?’

‘They have powers.’ He winked.

‘What powers?’

‘Seduction,’ he said. ‘They give people hope.’

‘Snake oil?’

‘Call it what you like,’ he said

‘Seduction,’ I said.

Love train blues

I was waiting for the Love Train. Heard the whistle sounding. The buzz on the tracks. A crackle and hiss. An announcement. This train runs express to Disillusion.

I kept waiting, now more pensive than excited. An engine approached on the opposite track. Men and women who’d recently left the place I wanted to be straggled onto the platform. They said nothing to each other. Their faces were blank.

I waited through the afternoon. The Love Train didn’t come. Every hour or so there’d be a train to somewhere else—the 3:10 to Passing Time, the 4:45 to Dulling. I waited into the black of the night. No stars above.

The lights on my platform dimmed. I was left alone in darkness.

Then a glow reflecting from the tracks caught my eye. A whistle. Attention passengers, the electronic voice crackled, the train arriving at Platform One is the Love Train.

The engine came into view, a single carriage behind it. I climbed on board. A single seat for two. No other passengers to be seen. The conductor approached. ‘Ticket to Love?’ she chirped. I moved aside to let her sit.

It wasn’t what I expected. The train took a sidetrack. Disappeared into the night.

The mist

I knew as soon as Bree skipped into the bar that something was up. No one could be that happy. ‘What’s got into you?’

‘It’s Keith,’ she replied.

I might have guessed. Bree had embraced her new role—lover of another woman’s husband. But when she told me she was moving into a flat he’d bought her I couldn’t hold my tongue. I asked her if the great love she thought they had would pass the foghorn test.

‘Foghorn? What are you talking about?’

 

I’d read every detail of his last hour until I felt I’d been there. It was the sort of story the papers couldn’t resist. Two boats, adrift without engines. A thick fog rolling in so nothing could be seen and nothing heard except the occasional shouted words of two loan sailors separated by the mist. The rescue boats searching the wrong area, doing circles in the impenetrable white. And then the foghorn getting louder. Closer. Until it was upon them. The hulking shape above. The splintering crash.

 

And the last words. They’d been repeated at his funeral, as evidence of the injustice of his death. ‘Tell my wife I love her.’ The mourners flocked around her. And I was cast adrift in the fog of my own sorrow.

The odds

Five weeks after he’d been sacked Henry Mullins stepped out as usual at 8:07, walked to the station in time for the 8:16, arrived at Central at 8:45 and walked up the hill towards the office. He smiled at the doorman at number 12, browsed the magzines at the convenience store then kept walking. The King’s Arms was just opening. He stopped in for a stout. But when he felt in his pocket he had no coins. He knew his account was overdrawn.

Then he found a forgotten note in the bottom of his briefcase. He carried his glass to a poker machine and fed the change, enough for two games, into the slot. He pulled on the handle. Queen, Jack, Ten, Ten, Joker. He sipped his beer. Wondered what Jan would be doing. She’d get to the shops eventually, and her card would be rejected, and then Henry didn’t know what he’d tell her. He sipped again. Pulled the handle.

 

Jan took the call as she was about to leave for the supermarket. ‘Hello Love.’ He sounded jumpy. ‘Listen there’s been some foul-up at the bank. I’m sorting it out. But don’t try to use the account for the moment.’

‘Is everything alright, Henry?’

‘Everything? Yes, fine Dear. Fine.’

Sampled

She was just plain Celia, a would-be keyboard player. She moved in and started using my stuff. I showed her everything, from the heritage synths to the software that would have made them redundant if it weren’t for their romantic imprecision. Warmth, I called it. Old time fuzz, she said.

She started DJing locally. Changed her name to C Lea R. Started mixing her own tracks. To my ear they were unsophisticated but punchy. What I never appreciated was that Celia was the whole package. All I was was a music nerd with a roomful of gear. Celia was the sound, the look, the attitude. She was the front to plonk a disc in front of anyone who’d listen and wait, all big eyes and techno-feral innocence, until they played it.

Her break came; the remix compilation of a pop hit called With You No More. After a month secretly working on it she played it to me. I was shocked. When I’d shown her my old 4-track she’d used it all around the house. One night it had been recording when we argued. Now that argument was the refrain for her mix.

She left to play a show, returning the next afternoon. She stepped from a flash car wearing a new outfit, motioning to the driver to wait.

The next tree

One morning Brooke looked East, pinpointed the tallest tree and began walking. When she reached it she repeated the task, until, at the edge of the city, her journey gathered pace. She moved swiftly across the farmlands, tree-to-tree, towards the great forests.

There, progress slowed again. Choosing the tallest became difficult. Sometimes she travelled only metres before having to repeat the task.

At last she came to a clearing with a towering Ash at its heart. From a platform high in its canopy came a bright, ‘Hello.’ A rope ladder dropped and a wiry boy zipped down, landing beside her. His name was Julian.

She explained her task, feeling sure it was complete.

‘Oh, but there’s a taller tree than this. I’ll take you if you like.’

They walked for three days until a mountain giant loomed before them. The tallest tree.

‘Why not protect this one?’ she asked.

‘No one else knows about this one,’ he said

‘Then I’ll help you save the other.’

‘It’s too late. That tree will soon be cut down. I stay only to be with it.’

‘Then I will stay too.’ Brooke took his hand between hers. She had found a love with the strength she sought. And if it were not entirely for her, well so be it.

Hooked

Brian and Elaine, just in case anyone should get the wrong idea, had separate interests, thank-you very much. Brian had bowls and golf, model trains and fishing. Elaine had charity work, square dancing and bingo.

The caravanning trip would be a test of this determined independence—their holidays always were. On the third afternoon, in a one-horse town, Brian heard about big snapper biting off a headland further north.

‘What am I supposed to do all night way out here?’ said Elaine.

‘You could always come. I’ll set up a rod.’

She looked at him suspiciously.

‘I won’t tell anyone.’

 

By ten Brian was ready to pack it in. The only bites he’d had were crabs stealing his bait. Elaine gazed at the stars, her rod lying beside her where it had been since the first cast. Call this fun.

‘C’mon Love, reel it in and we’ll get going.’

She picked it up and started winding. It gave a little wobble, then a jerk. ‘Is it s’posed to jump around like that?’

Brian was over in a flash. He reached for the rod.

‘Oi, what do you think you’re doing?’

‘You’ve got a fish. A good one too I’d say.’

‘And all mine,’ Elaine said. ‘Now get your hands off my rod and calmly tell me what to do.’