Her bad habit

Melissa finds divorce inconvenient. It’s easier to simply move on. She arrives in Manderville with a suitcase and a healthy bank balance.

It’s the kind of bar where restless businessmen have time on their hands. She sits, cross-legged in knee-length cotton. Her glass is empty. She waits.

‘You look like you need a top up.’

‘Well, that’s mighty kind.’

‘What’s your poison?’

She pats the stool next to her. ‘Gin and tonic.’

‘Barman, scotch and ice, gin and tonic.’ He puts a note on the bar. Takes a seat. ‘You from round here?’

‘Just arrived.’

‘I feel like we’ve met. Where you from?’

‘Ealing Falls,’ she says. She remembers. Harbourtown with Randy. Before that Lars in Holton City. She still has their rings. Ben was a disappointment. Six months wasted in Langley. Going back. Other towns.

‘You ever been to Edensworth?’

‘I don’t believe so.’ Hell, Edensworth was Robert and his stupid dogs. Melissa sips her drink, then rises. ‘Just ducking to the powder room,’ she says.

That smile, he thinks. ‘You sure remind me of someone.’

She flattens her skirt. ‘Maybe from a photo. I used to model. Now don’t go anywhere, I’ll be right back.’ As she hurries off she curses silently, then turns her thoughts to the next town, the next bar.

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

Your garden

It was the drenching time when steam rises from the forest and, at night, purple clouds shudder white and rumble out to sea. You knocked at my door, your rapping barely discernible among the banging of vines on walls.

‘I need somewhere to sleep,’ you said.

‘My floor is all I have,’ I said. ‘My guest things are packed away.’

‘You didn’t expect me so early?’

‘I didn’t expect you, I’m afraid, at all. But you’re here. Come in.’

You stepped inside and removed your coat, which you hung over a chair.

‘Can I get you tea,’ I asked.

‘You don’t know me?’ You looked disappointed.

‘I don’t believe so.’

‘I’ve come to the wrong house.’

‘It’s the only one.’

‘I was told to come.’

‘Who by?’

‘A swan. In a dream.’

‘Did it have a name?’

‘Oliver.’ You sat on the rug by the open window, smelling of nutmeg and frangipani.

I offered you fruit. ‘How far have you come? How did you get here?’

But you didn’t answer. You lay your head on a cushion and fell asleep.

In the morning, when I woke, the rain had stopped. You were clearing a garden in my yard. Every weed you pulled was a thread of my loneliness plucked and tossed aside.

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

Thicker than water

A storm broke over the swimming hole. By the time I’d gathered my wet things I was alone. Warm summer drops fell from the darkening sky. Night came quickly and the forest closed in, dense and unyielding. Lightning silhouetted claw-like branches.

I saw her like a shadow in the flash and wanted to see more though it seemed reckless. I turned and turned. Nearby a branch fell with a clatter.

Lightning again and there she was. In front of me, beckoning me forward. As beautiful and fateful as the flower of the Bella Donna. I could not run: her eyes held me. Her arms like ice wrapped around me. I stuck fast upon the fascination of my own disbelief. The body she pressed against me was as perfect and desirable as it was cold. She craned her head. I looked into her hungry mouth. Enough to break the spell. But too late. Her teeth pierced my neck. The warmth returned and with it the desire to feed her and feed with her. Again and again.

She spirited me away—took me under her wing. Our union consecrated next evening in the churchyard where she brought our prey. A pretty couple. A boy for her. For me a maiden—the first of many. The taste of immortality.

 

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

Black dog blues

The hardest thing was everyone thought Adeline was the one they could tell their problems to. She’d always been there with a friendly word. Outwardly she seemed as bright as ever. But lately every piece of sadness, offered her way in the hope of wisdom and sympathy in return, weighed heavy until she felt the world was nothing but trouble and she had no role in it other than to stop it crushing her.

Raymond rang to say Jim was talking about moving out. ‘After five years he just says he doesn’t know where we’re going any more.’

‘Have you told him how you feel?’

‘Of course I have, Adi. He knows.’ There was the tiniest hint of anger in his voice. He waited for a response.

‘Why did you call me?’

‘What?’

‘Why did you call?’

‘Because of Jim. Because he’s not happy.’

‘Why does everyone need to be happy?’ She said the last word like it was poison.

‘I don’t want to loose him.’

‘I’m not your mother, Ray.’

‘What’s wrong with you?’ His anger boiling up. His anger!

‘I don’t need this,’ she said.

‘I could call back later.’

Silence

‘Adi?’

Silence again. The sound of tears. Then a deep sigh. ‘You do that Ray. You call back.’

Adeline hung up before he could respond.

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

Keeping mum

Half way to Mum’s place Dad stopped for cheeseburgers. ‘Special treat,’ he said.

‘Mum won’t be happy,’ I said.

‘About your mother. Don’t tell her about the baby. Not until I’ve talked to her.’

Dad saw my disappointment.

‘I mean it, Jude.’ He gave me his serious look over his burger.

 

We’d finished dinner and were about to watch Shrek when Mum’s phone rang.

‘Lester. Everything OK?’

I hit ‘pause’.

‘I’m taking this in the other room,’ she said. ‘Start without me.’

When she came back she was quiet. She didn’t laugh at the bits she usually laughed at. When the movie finished she made me do my teeth and tucked me in.

‘No reading?’ I said.

‘You read, Jude. You’re a big girl.’

Then she kissed me like I was going away.

I’d always loved the sound of her voice through walls—muffled warm like a friendly ghost. But when she called Auntie Jean I wished I couldn’t hear. ‘I wanted the big family,’ she said. ‘I wanted more. Not him.’

But next morning it was as if nothing had happened. While we were making breakfast she said, ‘What do you think? About Dad and Liz having a baby?’

‘It’s good,’ I said.

‘Hmmm. A little brother or sister.’

‘Yeah,’ I didn’t know what she wanted me to say.

 

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

The final blade

Alisha slips out of her sequined robe and takes her position against the wall. She flashes a toothy, showbiz smile. A blade thuds beside her hip. The handle vibrates a moment.

The audience gasps. Cheers. They admire her nervelessness. They admire his skill. A dagger grazes her shoulder. She smiles. Beside one ear. Beside the other. He surrounds her with blades.

Pinned like a specimen she watches his eyes—this man she once loved. He took her away when that’s what she needed. Pretending not to be scared—that was easy. That was her whole life in that house with that father.

‘Throw whatever you like at me,’ she’d said. She faked her age and went on the road. It had been almost perfect. Then, when he started noticing the jitters of age, the knife thrower turned on her with false accusations as if she were to blame. She moved into a different trailer.

But good assistants are hard to find. And what else does she know? She watches his eyes. They go to her soft belly, her hard heart. They search around her before settling, where they should be. He throws. His last knife nails her hair to the wall. The crowd gasps and cheers again. She steps away, ducking out of the hairpiece suspended on the wall.

 

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

In the Saturday magazine

There’s a piece in the paper about Laura. She was young when I knew her, always wanting to race the wind, to crash through. Like she crashed through me.

Laura. My first girlfriend.

What would she say if she knew I’d never forgotten? I wonder. The article says she has a partner now—a theatre director. That’s him in the messy suit, standing behind her, in the background. Laura looks focused, the way I remember. She’s a bit fuller in the face perhaps, but the same dynamite figure. The same determination. She’s living a high-flying corporate life and she’s just been appointed dean of a new design school.

The article teases out the influences on Laura’s career. ‘There are few things Laura Illingworth regrets,’ it says, ‘though she admits to mistakes in her early relationships…

‘I sometimes wish I could go back and explain my restlessness, because I didn’t know how much I was hurting people I actually cared about,’ she says. She recalls her first great love. ‘It was seventeen years ago…’

I do the sums. My pulse quickens.

‘…a boy called…’

But it’s not me. The one she left me for perhaps. How brittle I must be to feel this scrap of past so badly.

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

The vacuum

Evelyn kept a place set for Hector. Every meal, even if she had friends around, she’d set his spot at the end of the table where he’d once sat to read the morning paper. The marks on the wall were still there where he used to rock back like a naughty child. She’d told him so many times not to do it. But after the accident the last thing she wanted was to fix the dents he’d made in the plaster.

Four years passed before she met Murray. The day he moved in she pushed the table against the wall so that, even if she didn’t set Hector’s old place, it would remain his alone.

One morning, while Evelyn was shopping, Murray decided to vacuum. Not just a quick once over, but a proper job. When she arrived home the table was out from the wall. There was no way of knowing which end was which. Evelyn took one look, walked to where Murray, dressed in her ridiculous cleaning apron, was reaching for cobwebs, and hugged him. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered.

‘No worries,’ he said, a little perplexed. It was just housework after all. It wasn’t as if he didn’t pull his weight.

 

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

Fate and the hand dealt

This morning, while walking through the park, I tripped, and dropped what I’d been eating. I looked for a bin. Then I saw the pond. You’re not supposed to feed the birds but I couldn’t see the harm. So I tore my food—toast with peanut butter—into pieces and tossed it towards a group of ducks. Moments later first one, then another, quacked, looked plaintively my way then flipped over, stone dead. Anaphylactic Ducks! It was going to be one of those days.

I tell this only because tonight I’m supposed to be meeting Chelsea. Usually if I’m having a day where even good intentions go bad there’s nothing I can do about it. So I’m thinking of texting her to say I’ve got rabies or something and maybe we should put it off.

But the phone rings. It’s Chelsea, sounding all choked up. ‘Oh, Lance, a terrible thing’s happened.’

At the sound of her toffee-cream voice I’m no longer Lance with rabies. I’m  supportive, sensible Lance again. Because Chelsea’s special. ‘What is it?’

‘I’ve been at the park. Somebody’s been poisoning ducks.’

I recall her animal rescue work and how much I said I admired it. ‘Terrible,’ I say.

‘It’s really thrown me.’

‘Stay there,’ I tell her.  ‘I’ll be right over.’

 

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

Tomorrow is a village far away

At the bottom of our apartment block is a playground, but it’s mostly used by the gangs.

Not today though. There’s been trouble. Ambulances came last night. The police—they usually stay well clear—are here in force.

The stairwell smells of stale piss and we’re glad to reach the sun-battered concrete of the compound.

I sit on one end of the see-saw and Oscar on the other. We bounce slowly up and down as we talk about leaving this place. We’ve had word from Oscar’s uncle. Tomorrow we catch the bus to his village. We will live with his family in the hills where there are no gangs. Oscar will help with the animals and the crops and I will help in the kitchens and take care of the little ones. Perhaps we will have a family of our own. We will be poor but safe.

A policeman approaches across the yard. ‘Papers,’ he calls, waving his revolver.

We pull our battered documents from our pockets. As he’s checking them a single shot rings out. The policeman leaps behind a swing. My eyes shoot to Oscar. He seems unharmed. Only then do I breathe. Warm liquid rushes into my lungs where only air should be.

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

So he told her

Ivan’s story won the contest. Not the story he’d written. The one he’d told Britt. The one she’d then told Mark because he was a writer and that’s what she wanted to be.

Ivan’s story was real—still painful. He only told it to Britt because she said he needed to trust her, and trust was important. So he retold it, by way of explanation. It was the story of what had happened between him and Petra. All the elements were there. Passion and betrayal. Abandonment, to and of each other. He hoped there might be redemption, too, now he’d met Britt. Because surely she’d been thinking about more than something casual when she’d asked him to be honest with her. ‘I don’t want us to have to carry around scars some other girl gave you,’ she said.

So he told her.

And then she met Mark at a seminar. He was a writer out of the surly, manipulative, borderline alcoholic mould. And he was published. The distance he put between himself and the world hung before her like a swing bridge over a canyon.

 

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

Aftermath

As soon as the shelling seemed to have past Orlando made for the stairs.

‘Where are you going?’ Silla cried.

‘I have to see,’ he said, kissing her forehead before continuing.

There was a gasp when he pushed the door open and saw what was left. ‘Stay here,’ he said, his voice insistent.

The door shut. Silla heard scrambling, running, volleys of shots, silence again.

Orlando did not return. She let an hour go by. The occasional firing became more distant. When she could wait no longer she climbed out of the cellar and saw for herself the destruction.

She knew where he would go. With head low she ran through deserted streets to the house of her old school-friend. As she came through what had been the gate she heard Orlando, as she feared she would, calling Maria’s name over and over, exactly as he had during his dreams. When Silla came level with the house she could see him, Maria in his arms, curled up pale. Pooled in his lap was the blood that had drained from her as he held her. Silla went to him and put her arms around his shoulders. She thanked her God he was alive. ‘Come home, Darling,’ she whispered. ‘Come home.’

 

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

Unfortunate business

There’d been times when Ben wondered if there might have been women other than Marlo. But her loyalty to the kids made him dismiss such thoughts, thankful she’d been their mother. Until now. Now the thing that had kept them together was tearing them apart.

It was Daniel. He was old enough to take responsibility. Instead he’d gone off the rails. She didn’t want to know.

‘You’re being ridiculous.’ She cranked the TV volume.

‘Turn the bloody thing off, Mar. You can’t keep your head in the sand. The boy needs help.’

‘You mean that unfortunate business with the Henderson girl? Good heavens, Ben, he’s a young man. He ——’

‘If his mates hadn’t been there who knows where we’d be. And the money from your purse—don’t kid yourself about that either. He’s hurting everyone, including himself. And you keep finding excuses.’

‘Oh, you’d understand, of course.’

Ben ducked as the remote whistled past.

‘You’d know. Where were you when he was growing up? Who bandaged his knees? Who fed him and washed his stinking sports gear? Where were you?’

He’d mostly been unblocking toilets and septic tanks. But he couldn’t say it. Couldn’t say anything. So he snatched his keys from the sideboard, unsure where he’d drive or when he’d be back.

 

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

Lost in translation

Mandy had just started learning to make words with her hands. Between her stumbling efforts and Kel’s patient corrections they found time to fall in love.

A couple of months later she was nearly as fast as he was. The bouts of laughter they drew from each other felt like being drunk on happiness.

Mandy told her parents to set another place. She explained what to expect.

‘What, hand signals?’

‘Signing.’

‘You sure it’s the right thing.’ Her mother started madly wiping anything in sight. ‘He might be happier…you know…with his own kind.’

God he laughed when she told him. That night he watched her parents. He read  discomfort on their faces and on their lips. He tried to talk but they refused to hear him. Neither would they direct conversation to him through Mandy.

‘Rude, aren’t they?’ she signed.

Kel shrugged and passed her the salt.

She smiled.

‘And very fat,’ he said.

Mandy passed the butter. Her shoulders began shuddering. Her father looked at her sternly.

What the hell, thought Kel. ‘Look. There’s a rhinoceros up your mother’s nose.’

Mandy dissolved. As she sunk under the table straight-faced Kel picked up the water jug and offered to refill her mother’s glass.

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

The overtaking lane

Trees whip past in walls of blur. Leslie turns up the CD.

Last time she travelled this road she was hitching. There was no rush. She stopped in a town near the border. Got a job picking fruit. That’s where she met Jason.

The towns all get bypassed now. This new highway’s made for speed.

A slow moving truck looms as she flies over a rise. Pretty soon she’s on the brakes, stuck behind half a house on a prime mover. She changes down. Settles back, tapping the wheel—half to the music and half in frustration. The trees no longer blur. They wave to her passing. She wants nothing more than to be back in overdrive on a clear road.

She remembers Jason’s skin smooth and sunbrown. The strength of his embrace, solid as if he meant her to understand him by it. He made no small talk. When he unbuttoned her, he uncovered feelings in her that had been dormant in the arms of every other boy.

Round a bend the road opens up. The lane divides. Leslie plants her foot, takes the truck in a moment. She’ll be in Melbourne by sundown. Her thoughts turn from past love to tomorrow’s presentation. The trees blur again around her.

 

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)