Dog bird mountain

Once I lived in a shack on a mountain, with only a dog for company, and a rescued bird. One afternoon the dog limped home from the stream, scratched once on the hearth and died. I took it as a sign to move on. So I set the bird free and said my goodbyes to that lonely place.

The track through the forest had grown thick with vines and I could find no way down. Then I heard the familiar whistle of my little bird. It seemed to say, come, this way. It flew ahead, up the hill.

So I followed, climbing until we came to a broad plane. At the edge of the plane was a drop to a fertile valley. I called to the bird. ‘How shall I get down?’ But the bird had flown.

Then I heard below me the sound of scraping. In a moment a head popped over the edge—a woman draped in coils of rope. She laughed when she saw me. ‘How did you ——’

I pointed behind me. ‘I followed the bird.’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I think I saw it. It urged me to keep going when I was about to turn back.’

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (


Pyjama morning

As if something magical had happened a time arrived when all the kids were away. Leonie was holidaying with friends, Bill was at camp, and yesterday they’d put Gail on a plane for the music exchange. She looked more like a woman than they could have imagined, so self-possessed, so determined. They’d allowed themselves a moment for pride, and another for self-congratulation. Who said this parenting caper was hard?

Don and Bridget slept past nine. Nine! Even after rising they lingered in pyjamas.

‘We could get movies and pizza and forget the housework.’ Don scooped fish chunks into Pusska’s bowl.

‘Or we could let our hair down.’ Bridget looked at him and laughed. ‘Metaphorically.’

‘Any ideas?’

‘Remember that spot in the hills?’

How could he forget? ‘I’ll make a picnic. There’s a nice bottle in the fridge. Some dips and things.’

‘Sounds great’ she said, leaning closer to kiss him, ‘I’ll have a quick shower.’

Don started pulling things out of the fridge. He flicked on the radio—the News theme meant it was already eleven o’clock.

Bridget stepped into the shower feeling as light as a teenager in love. As the warm water washed over her Don burst in. ‘What was Gail’s flight number?’

For a moment, before she saw his face, she thought it was some sort of joke.


2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (

A public private partnership

He’d been an accountant when they met, a little on the boring side. But she’d always had half an eye on settling down and Darryn offered stability.

When Ellie was born he’d been there the whole way, helping out with late night feeds and changes. They bought the house in Carlington Place, at the top of the hill. Everything seemed perfect.

It would have stayed that way if the firm hadn’t got into sports management. It connected Darryn to a different crowd.

At first it was just a few late nights. His bonus that year made up for the inconvenience.

As the league expanded there were more and more trips away. Darryn bought sharp suits and stopped wearing a tie. He wasn’t around so much after Holly was born. In a world of young men, cashed up and unconcerned, and even younger women who’d do anything to hook up with them he had become one of the hangers on, feeding from the crumbs.

One morning Gemma opened the paper to a grainy photo of her husband in boxer shorts. Player Agent in Football Groupie Sting. Her head swam. She needed air. She stuffed Holly in her pram and headed outside. A phalanx of slouching photographers straightened and began clicking as she walked between them.


2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (


I’m sitting in a dingy bedroom, holding the hand of my wife’s lover.

‘You’re the best thing ever happened to her,’ he says through shallow breaths.

‘Except you,’ I say.

‘The best, Allyn….’ He spits in a paper cup. ‘…not most important.’ An attempted laugh convulses him.

‘She told me you were a conceited bugger,’ I say.

He tries to laugh again. His grip loosens. ‘Where is she?’

‘On her way,’ I say.

‘No hospital.’

‘We’ll see.’

Gabriella never hid her love for him. They’d lived together for eight years, bouncing off each other’s volatility, until she started forgetting who she was. So she left him, but never entirely.

I loved Gabe for her passion and her openness. When Edgar told her he had only months left I knew she’d go to him.

She asked me to join her as the care he required intensified.

Even skeleton thin and drugged to his eyeballs I couldn’t help warming to Edgar’s crazy, restless spirit.

‘You need anything?’ I say


‘She’s coming.’ I lift his head and put a water glass to his lips.

He makes a gesture like he’s smoking.

I light him a cigarette.

He takes one weak puff then waves it away. Taking my hand he kisses my fingers.

Then it’s finished.

And the front door opens.


2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (


Our family had expectations. People like us married people like us. Love—there’d be time for that. My sisters and I would honour our name with acceptance of the decisions made for us. The lives we glimpsed on TV and in books would not be ours. We would tolerate each sacrifice. As bodies already, so our souls would be given up. Through this our parents would retain their standing.

Robert knew nothing of these customs. His eyes were soft, always looking to the distance. When he talked he took his time. For him the world was constantly interesting and there was always more to learn. Nothing mattered unless he’d decided for himself there was a reason why it should.

On my birthday he gave me a watercolour of an arching clump of wild roses in a field.

I propped it against the books on my dressing table. It was the last thing I looked at before I turned out my light, and the first I saw next morning.

My father’s car was in the driveway when I came in from school. I ran to my room, heavy with dread. Robert’s picture lay in torn pieces on the floor.

As I gathered the paper I heard my mother’s voice, commanding and emotionless, from the kitchen. ‘Daughter, come.’

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (

Burn Out

On the night after his release, still half full of surgical plates and pins and his beautiful face forever scarred, Marlon received a text and I knew we were through. ‘They’re racing tonight,’ was all he said.

‘Marlon, you promised.’

 The last time we’d been up there he’d just finished rebuilding the Monaro. We cruised out along Highway 8, the grumble of low revs like a big cat on a leash.

It was a perfect night—no rain, no wind, no coppers. I pushed my fingers into his thigh, wrapped my other hand around his shoulders and whispered the reward he’d get when he won.

The corner of his mouth turned up. He said nothing. He let the engine talk instead giving it enough gas for the grumble to become a purr.

I dropped the flag for them that night. Marlon and Billy—I’d been with him a couple of years before, but he was all brag and bluster. I smelt burnt rubber and unburnt petrol. They sped past, all smoke and noise. Horn blasts and headlights all around. Then Billy’s mustang twitched. It dived across as if it had been flicked aside. Marlon had nowhere to go.

The last thing I did before he left was tell him exactly how Billy was now. From now on he could ride his luck alone.

A table for two

‘Our discreet service’, ‘only genuine singles’, ‘romance starts here’. Elise sighed and signed up. In ‘partner profile’, she entered information potential dates would see. The other section was designed, the site said, to assist ‘deep compatibility indexing’. Some mumbo-jumbo about couple matching software made her want to laugh.

Her first date was with Adrian, a metal-worker from the country. He didn’t sound like her prospective partner but she decided to let the process take its course. They agreed to meet at a café in town.

She liked Adrian immediately. He was a nice guy. But she didn’t want a nice guy. She wanted special. Besides they seemed to have so little in common. He seemed fidgety, unsure of himself. After bumbling through a pleasant enough morning tea he finally said what they’d both been thinking, ‘I reckon that compatibility thingy needs tweaking.’

They started trying to work out what they’d said that could have matched them. He liked soccer. She hated sport. He was politically conservative. She was small ‘L’ liberal.

What about about education?’ said Adrian. ‘I’m doing a correspondence course in Ancient history.’

‘Oh, yeah,’ said Elise, laughing. ‘And I studied to be a podiatrist.’

Adrian’s face reddened. His jaw sagged


He gulped. ‘Our deep compatibility. You’re a podiatrist. And…well…I have a…you know…a thing about…well…feet.

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (

I hate Bryony

I have decided, because she has hair like silk and a smile that’s all teeth and quiver, that Bryony and I are through.  Her Miss-capital-‘P’-popularity-who-me routine doesn’t do it for me any more. I’m going to hang with the science girls again.

I don’t need her beauty tips, or the knowing pity that comes with them. Each one ‘as seen on Bryony Longley’.

I’ll return her pirated DVDs, her mother’s erotic novels, her notes on kissing. That part of my education is over. I don’t need her telling me when a guy is hot. I don’t need her explaining how easy ‘hard to get’ can be. I could have written the book on that.

I don’t need Bryony apologising for me. Certainly not to Col Shorten. ‘She’s just a bit shy, Col.’ Oh, thank you Bryony. Wafting those lashes at him like a whale sifting krill.

‘You mustn’t mind her,’ you said. But he did. Don’t you see? Didn’t you realise? Tomorrow my life without you begins.

And when I walk into the hall on prom night I’ll be more gorgeous than any designer knock-off will ever make you, because I’ll have Col on my arm. And you’ll have Matthew Partridge, his face caked in acne cream, his brain a glacial slurry of near-frozen thought.


2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (

A cryptic remark

It was a puzzle how Leslie and Martin had ever gotten together.

Leslie had been minding her own business. She’d been making it perfectly clear that’s what she was doing. Her head was down, hair falling across her face, a newspaper folded neatly on her lap. She’d been scribbling on it while she waited at East Kingsley, but for the moment her pen was raised, its button between her teeth.

Martin sat beside her only because it was the last seat. His eyes drifted sideways. Intrigued by what was there, he focused his attention. His mind started turning things over. He couldn’t help himself. As the train pulled into Kingsley he lent across to her. ‘Great legs.’

‘What!’ Leslie bunched up against the wall to make a gap between them.

Martin blushed deeply. ‘I’m sorry. Five down. What Betty Grable had gets regal. It’s an anagram.’

Leslie started crossing out letters to check. ‘You’re right.’

‘I really am a klutz,’ said Martin. ‘I didn’t mean to frighten you.’

Leslie laughed. ‘The trouble is I can never quite get them.’

‘Me either,’ he confessed and he showed her his paper, open at the same page. Between them they filled each other’s gaps. By the time they reached Central they’d made an arrangement to do the next day’s puzzle together.

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (


As Sal crams more stuff onto the roof-racks Jack scowls. ‘It’s too much.’

‘You’d know, of course.’ She throws a rope across, walks around, pulls it taut and secures it with two quick turns. She’s still in great shape.

‘You training again?’

‘Have been for weeks. Pass up that chair.’

‘It’ll never fit.’

‘It’ll fit if I make it.’ Sal hoists it onto the piled gear.

Jack opens the passenger door so he can reach to tie it down. ‘We could just be friends. No pressure.’

‘Is that your way of admitting you’re not up to commitment?’

‘I am. I can do it. But slowly. Not all at once. And I can’t be always there for you. My life doesn’t work that way.’

‘Rubbish. Besides, you’ll never develop unless you’re prepared to change.’

God she sounds like one of her self-help books. Jack puts his hand out as she walks past so it brushes her waist.

She makes a last adjustment to the load. ‘I’ll call you from Mum’s. Look after yourself.’

‘You too,’ he says. Jack looks at the old car, full of stuff and loaded high on top. ‘You’re asking too much of the old jalopy. I sure hope it makes it.’

‘It will,’ she says.

‘Yeah, you’ve said that before.’


2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (

Doing an Audrey

Great Aunt Audrey’s portrait wore a supercilious expression. In our family anyone acting superior or haughty was told to stop ‘doing an Audrey’.

After Great Uncle Harold died, Audrey had raised five children. Our grandmother, Beatrice, the youngest of the brood, had never known her father. ‘And my mother,’ Beatrice would say with pride, ‘she never remarried, you know.’

Beatrice had once been a powerhouse, with her shock of orange hair and her boundless energy. But she was frail and forgetful now. We regretted not finding out more from her about the family.

The portrait had been suffering from years of grime and dust and smoke. We sent it for cleaning. A fortnight later the conservator called, in quite a state. ‘There’s another figure. All that heavy drapery was added later to cover it. What should I do?’

We told her to restore the original. Perhaps Audrey and Harold would be together again.

After another month Audrey was back—a rustic gentleman by her side with bright eyes and thick red hair. After all these years her expression made sense.

I fetched Alice. ‘Come have a look. I think it’s your father.’

Alice took one look. ‘Heavens, no. That’s Uncle Charles. He lived with us for many years. And then he went away.’

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (

Nightshift (3)

Eduard had to remind himself he hadn’t engineered the situation. He’d known Sophie and Gordon when they first arrived. He’d put Sophie on at the hotel and then found work at a shopping centre for Gordon. Those first jobs put them on their feet.

The recession wasn’t his idea—heaven knows it nearly sent him broke. The factory job he found for Gordon after the store cut his contract was a favour Eduard could barely afford.

Sophie had come to him, worried that the long nightshift hours had changed Gordon. Eduard had been a refugee himself years before. He was as close to a friend as she had.

They started meeting to share coffee and the honey rich cakes of their homeland. There was comfort for them both in this. Sophie talked of her frustrations and her fears. On one meeting she’d put her hand in his as she recalled the war they’d fled to get here. Eduard had closed his other hand over hers, and they’d remembered in silence.

Eduard began thinking about how hard he’d worked. One of the things he’d forgone had been company.

Then, quite suddenly, Sophie’s spirits had lifted. It was Gordon, she said. He’d found his old spirit again. The exquisite possibility Eduard had only begun to realise faded.


2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (

Nightshift (2)

After four months on night shift, asleep when she was awake, awake when she was going to bed, Gordon rose to find Sophie still at home.

‘Soph. Wh——’

‘I took the afternoon off.’

‘Is everything alright?’

‘What do you think?’ she said. ‘We see each other only in a daze. We don’t talk. We leave notes.’

‘We must work.’

‘Gordon, are you still happy?’

Through all they’d shared—the war, the lost ones, their finding hope in this strange country—it was the first time she’d seen his tears. ‘I arrive home and you are asleep,’ he said. ‘You are so beautiful I dare not touch you. I dare not wake you. And then when I wake you are gone.’

‘Promise me something,’ said Sophie. ‘Every night, when you come home, you will come beside me, and put your arms around me. You will smell my hair like you used to. And every morning, before I get up, I will kiss you. Then we will each know.’

Gordon wrapped his big hands around her and wept.

When he embraced her again, early next morning, she let him think her asleep. And later, when she kissed him, he kept his breath steady, disclosing nothing. In this way they remembered what they’d slowly been forgetting. How lucky they were.


2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (

Nightshift (1)

Two months after they arrived Sophie found a maid’s job at the Chancellor—one thousand rooms, each larger than the one she and Gordon called home.

Her boss, Eduard, was a good man. He’d arrived the same way years before. ‘Like a bird blown off course’. Eduard put Gordon on at a department store downtown.

In the evenings Gordon and Sophie talked about their workdays and reminded each other of their good fortune. They bought a television, new shoes, a dress for Sophie. Gordon said she looked like a movie star. They started thinking about a better place.

Then the market crashed. Eduard came to Gordon. ‘I can’t keep you on here ——’

Gordon swallowed.

‘—— but I’ve got something else. It’s not much.’

The factory job was hard and dirty. Gordon could put up with that. But sleeping in the morning, working at night—‘a man,’ he told Sophie, ‘is not a bat.’

Their once happy room contracted. It became little more than a place for passing time with foolish TV programs and conversations dulled by drowsiness.

It got so bad Sophie started leaving notes inside his lunchbox. She wondered if he even read them, until she found them in his overalls, in a well-thumbed envelope. On it, in his native language, were the words, because we are here.


2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (

On going back

The old house was in many ways just as it had been when he’d left. There was the woodshed, the pen for animals awaiting slaughter, the shutters keeping out the dust. The door hung crooked as always. He gave it a nudge. It swung easily, as if opened from inside.

Was this really where he’d planned his ascent? Or had he returned in search of something else. In his years here he’d been happier, in many ways, than wealth and influence had ever made him.

The slatted wooden table was now pocked by borers. He sat on a rickety chair and imagined his mother ailing here alone. After her letter he’d moved her into a fancy place. She’d lived another three good years—kept alive as much by pride in his achievements as by the doctors he hired. He visited her at Christmas.

A songbird trilled from the pines. He remembered the sparkling eyes of the town girl she’d told him to forget. It was at this very table. ‘You and I are simple folk. Fly too high, fall too far.’ Until the day she died she’d blamed his sadness, his loneliness, on not heeding those words.

Thurston Harkness, who owned half the state, stared out a glassless window at wild hills and whispered to himself.