Four weddings: (1) A spanner in the works

The kingdom’s pride having been dented by the turn of history, and its reputation tarnished by scandals it was decided a wedding was in order. The elder prince, having been the cause of the scandals, was passed over. Prince Oliver would be the one. He’d been linked romantically to a pretty enough girl. The palace went into overdrive recreating her as Lady Alice, the nation’s dream princess. In the same way that, in days of old, public spirits had been lifted by war, so they would be lifted now by love, and the problems of the realm would be forgotten for a moment.

Ronald Quinn was the royal mechanic. His task was to ensure the fleet of vehicles that would ferry the guests to the cathedral were in tip-top condition.

By the time the festivities began he was back at home—there were no invitations for workers like him. He settled in front of the television.

As the motorcade snaked round the final corner a puff of smoke issued from the lead vehicle. It spluttered to a halt and burst into flames. Guardsmen converged on the princess’s car. The decorum of the afternoon was shattered.

Erica Quinn squeezed her husband’s arm. They had not forgotten the atrocities of this same royal house on their homeland three hundred years before.

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

Hypothermia

In extreme cold the heart slows. The body protects itself. It shuts down.

Riley had been Lee’s school friend. They ran into each other again through work and became close enough for Lee to invite Riley on the annual Easter trip.

Riley arrived at the lodge with a small daypack and shopping bags of packaged food.

‘Travelling light?’ Lee ushered his friend into the communal loungeroom. ‘A few introductions. Guys, this is Riley. Lisa you know. Germaine and Lachlan. Germaine’s just had her first retrospective. My brother Tony. Veronique, Tony’s wife. Their kids, Giles and Fran, over there. Sue and Gordon and their kids are on their way. They’re doing dinner tonight. Cajun. Blackened perch.’

It was the sort of meal Riley only ever ate at restaurants. Over the clinking of glasses of fine wine the couples talked of parenting, mortgages and the adventures of their courtships.

Riley had little to say. He wasn’t being rude. He’d just lived a life without such deep attachments.

By the third day immersed in this world of families, the loneliness of his life, which had never been a problem, weighed heavily on him.

A thick fog rolled across the mountain. While the couples talked in the kitchen Riley slipped out into it, unseen by the others.

Hopes and fears

She went daily to the café to order tea, read the paper, breath uncluttered time and catch glimpses of him. Her bronzed barrista. They exchanged anonymous small talk and smiles, hers experienced and knowing, his broad and untarnished by life’s failures.

He was no older than her son. Ah Max. For all the money and time she spent on him he’d grown up selfish and naïve. She loved him but worried for him.

She wondered how this café boy had become, instead, the uncomplicated person he seemed to be, always with a face to brighten the day, always with a clever line to laugh along with.

‘Let me guess,’ he’d say. ‘Peppermint tea, extra water?’

‘Predictable.’

‘I know you’re just setting me up. One day you’ll surprise me.’

The private excitement of such exchanges gave her energy to face her days’ domestic necessities and her afternoons at the office. He made her feel attractive, lifting her above the inertia of her life before Terry left her.

She walked in one morning wearing a new outfit.

‘Heh, nice jacket,’ he chirped. ‘The usual?’

‘’fraid so.’

‘I’ve got a new job. It’s my last day.’

Charmian swallowed hard, cursing her daydream delusions.

‘We’re having a party when we close up tonight,’ he added. ‘I’d love you to come.’

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

Litigation

The moment Kyle received Veda’s letter Deborah was consumed by outrage. Veda wanted Kyle to admit responsibility for the split.

Deborah blamed his fear of commitment on how Veda had treated him. She trusted Kyle’s version. He’d loved Veda—her sharp intelligence, the attractive face beneath severe glasses. Her sarcasm, a weapon against opposing counsel, seemed an attractive trait. But it hadn’t been reserved for courtroom rivals alone.

Another letter arrived, addressed to Deborah. It retold the story with a fanciful twist. …I’m aware of your misguided affection for Kyle. I intend to pursue him for damages… emotional distress. If you intervene I will include you in this action.

Your former friend.

Former friend! The extent of their friendship had been the essays Veda had bought from her at university.

As Veda strode up the courtroom steps Deborah approached. ‘Back off Kyle, Veda.’

‘Or what?’ Veda tried to push past.

Deborah waved a bunch of papers.

‘What the hell?’

‘All your own work, remember. “Why waste my time on stupid essays?” That’s what you said.’

‘You wouldn’t. I’d be ——’

‘Ruined?’

‘No!’ It was Kyle, jumping from a taxi. ‘Deborah,’ he said, ‘leave her. It doesn’t matter any more. It’s you I want. But not like this.’

Without another word Deborah handed the papers to Veda then went to him.

Insomnia

Bradley snored beside her. How long had she been listening to him tonight? Wanting to tell him it was him who should be awake, punching his pillow, peeling in overheated desperation out of the doona  only to pull it back when the cold got too much. But he slept, as always, like a baby. A big noisy stupid baby. He should have been the one kept awake by unresolvable dilemna. But that was her fate and hers alone. All becasue she’d said it was OK. It was in the past. All because she loved him too much—and he her, she knew that. Loved him too much to tell him how much it had hurt. That thing she told him was forgotten. His little affair. His mistake. His moment of weakness.

He snorted, twisted round, and flopped the dead weight of his sleeping arm across her back.  How long had it been?

Constellation

Away from the city stars shone brighter. On moonless nights they filled the sky. Don crouched to prod the embers.

Tomorrow he’d drive to an unfamiliar town. He’d find an address, knock on a door and wait—the last seconds of waiting that began when he was five. His mother would be sixty.

He wished Elise were with him. She’d know what to say. She always did.

‘It has to be just you,’ she’d said.

‘But without you I’d never have found her.’

‘It’s your time. That’s why I’m staying here.’

‘Can I call you?’

‘When you’re on your way home.’

The afternoon of the reunion Elise waited by the phone. A swirl of apprehensions weighed upon her. Would the meeting go well? Would Don cope? Would he be changed by it? Of course, but would it be for the better?

At five the phone rang. ‘I’m on my way.’ His voice was strong. Energetic. It wasn’t what she’d expected.

‘You sound good.’

‘Yeah,’ said Don. ‘I suppose I am. I’ll tell you everything when I’m back.’

‘It’s too far to drive straight through,’ she said.

‘I’ll stop near the border again. Another night under the stars—might be nice.’ Then he told her how much he missed her. Told her in words she’d never heard from him before.

Tricks

‘I had a dream about Victoria.’ Gemma waited for her mother’s response.

Robyn kept peeling. ‘Did you. That’s nice Dear. Was it a good dream?’

‘Oh yes. We were playing hidey. You were looking for us.’

‘I was in it too?’

‘Yes. You were in it.’

‘Where was Daddy?’

‘I don’t know?’

‘In his shed I expect.’

They laughed together. It was their favourite joke about Marcus.

‘So I hid under the bed. Only you saw me and you followed me in to find me.’

‘I’m pretty hard to trick.’

‘But we did. Because Victoria was already hiding there. I jumped under and when you said, “I’ve got you. Come on out,” Victoria popped out instead.’

‘That’s lovely, Dear,’ said Mum in her quiet voice. ‘It’s a lovely day. Run outside and play..’

‘I’ll go and tell Daddy.’

‘Yes. Tell Daddy about Vicky.’

Gemma knocked on the shed door. She told him her dream. ‘You shouldn’t play tricks on Mummy,’ he said.

Then he went inside. Gemma watched through the kitchen window as he and Robyn hugged for a long time. They didn’t notice her. They never saw her spying. Spying was her favourite thing to do. Without spying it was boring, out here all by herself.

 

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

 

Cyclist

He’d let himself go over the years. No girl would look at him. So for his thirty-fifth birthday Tyson bought an exercise bike.

Tyson loved that bike. He could watch TV while he worked out, pumping imaginary miles in front of game shows and Oprah. His weight came down.

But in spite of his fitter physique had the girls at work continued to treat him like a portly uncle. The conversations he’d imagined never eventuated.

One morning the exercise bike’s handlebars snapped. Tyson recalled the old bike hanging in the shed. He hadn’t ridden for years. But the wobbles passed and soon he was peddling hard along the nearby riverside cycle path.

He hit a pot-hole. His front tyre deflated instantly. ‘Stupid idea,’ Tyson dismounted. He was two suburbs from home with no option but to walk. He’d be late for his 11 o’clock meeting. He wanted to throw the bike into the river. He wanted never to ride anywhere again, other than his lounge room.

Then a woman on a smart road bike pulled up. ‘Puncture?’

‘First day out,’ said Tyson ruefully.

‘Jenny.’ She held out a hand.

She produced a repair kit and as she worked they talked.

Tyson still missed his 11 o’clock. They rode to a café for coffee.

His exercise bike would remain unrepaired.

 

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

Blown away

The valley was once a patchwork of greens—fields of grain, pasture, orange groves. Benjamin and Catriona planted maize. Chickens scratched around the little house. Each day wonderful aromas—baking pie crust or stewing fruit—drifted through the kitchen window. Catriona could look out from her chores and see the flowerbeds.

At week’s end Benjamin would stop by them to pick blooms for her. She would set them on the table where they listened in on discussions of cropping and housekeeping and being together.

Then the rains stopped. The dams dried up and, with them, the line of credit they relied on.

After five dry years the dust started. It blew into the valley and settled, covering everything.

One afternoon Benjamin walked out into a cloud of it so thick Catriona soon lost sight of him. He was gone one hour. Two. Three.

Out of the rust-coloured swirl he emerged, at last, his hands cupped in front of him.

Catriona hurried him through the door, slamming it before too much dust followed him.

He opened his hands. Nestled in his palm was a tiny, miserable daisy. ‘The last one anywhere,’ he said.

The next day they packed what they could into the old truck and left the farm, without even bothering to lock the door behind them.

 

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

Chemistry

Our mother disappeared when we were two. She left a note telling us how much she loved us, and a casserole dinner. Then she set off for the desert—her country. The last thing we have of her is a photo sent along the way. She’s standing next to the car with her hand swatting at something.

Dad has the photo in a frame in his room. Every few years he heads outback looking for her. Zeb and me—we have to look after ourselves. I don’t think it’s ever occured to Dad that normal dad’s don’t leave their kids like that. But Dad hasn’t been normal for as long as we can remember so we mostly look after ourselves even when he’s home.

He’s a scientist—nuclear physics. In his world everything has a reason. Mata was so different. He has a book where he’s written her stories. ‘Mata flew on a hot breeze with pink cockatoos’. ‘Mata was a cat but she didn’t want to kill for food’. ‘Mata left a shadow by the window to watch her while she slept’.

Dad says she’s out there somewhere. We think so too. But he’ll never find her. He’s always looking for evidence. He thinks logic will track her down. He should be looking for signs.

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

Oncoming traffic

I’d been driving up from the valley three or four times a week for three years. For three years Jim had been promising he’d get his licence. One night, after a long day at the office, I put my foot down. I told him either he let me teach him to drive or we were through.

A couple of months later I was questioning my judgement. His progress was painfully slow. We’d bunny-hop a few metres then stall. He’d get angry and tell me it didn’t make sense. We’d calm down and try it again. And again.

It took another nine months before he was ready to face his test. Or so he thought. I was actually angry when he scraped a pass. And he was annoyingly victorious. He insisted on driving home. But he took a wrong turn onto a freeway exit and finished with me screaming at him while cars whizzed passed, horns blaring.

‘That’s it,’ he said. ‘I tried. You drive.’

I climbed over him and backed all the way up the ramp.

The oncoming traffic wasn’t the only thing I needed to extract myself from. I looked at Jim and he was shaking all over. When I patted his leg to comfort him I felt more like his nurse than his lover.

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

Playing a part

Harrison pulled up his squad car outside ivy-covered gates. Below him the city sparkled like a jewel. It looked like heaven from a distance. He pushed a button set into the stone. A crackling honey voice wafted , ‘Ye-eesss?’

‘Police, Miss Marchant.’

‘Ah, yes. I’ve been expecting you.’

He was ushered into a room that seemed to serve no purpose, other than to be the bottom of a sweeping staircase. It was on the landing, halfway up, he first saw her in the flesh. Martine Marchant, pronounced with an inflection, born Mary Martin in a two-bit town that had since blown away. And she was magnificent. Backlighting traced her curves through fine silk.

‘We’ll talk upstairs.’ She beckoned then turned.

Harrison was a hard cop with a brittle heart. Before long she had him wrapped around the same little finger that had beckoned him upstairs.

On his second visit he took flowers.

On his third he took a pearl broache worth a month’s pay.

But his fourth came after a chance conversation with a neighbour who’d been on the road the night of the murder. He took cuffs and back-up.

It was Miss Marchant who greeted him. But the woman whose rights he read, minutes later was someone altogether different—the dustbowl daughter the actress had once been.

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

The sign

‘How did you and Mum get together?’ says Joey.

‘We were backpacking—1968, the Summer of Love.

‘There were eight of us on a train going to a little town in France. I’d hardly noticed your mother. I had my eye on an American girl.

‘We all thought we knew what we were doing but we didn’t. None of us spoke French. We mostly got by pointing and looking hopeless.

‘We all got out at one station, then realised it was the wrong one and jumped back on just before the train pulled away. We figured ours must be the next stop but we weren’t sure ‘cause our maps were out of date.

‘At the next station we piled out again. I was second last. Just as I was hauling my pack off the train your mum yelled, “NO.”

‘She dragged me back on board. “It’s the wrong one,” she said, pointing to a sign. “This is Sortie.”’

‘And?’

‘I was still explaining what sortie meant when the train left. It means way out. ‘Way out’, alright! That’s what we used to call crazy things back then.’

Edie wanders in from the backyard. ‘Don’t believe a word of it, Joey-boy’ she says. ‘Now how’s that homework going?’

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

The cutting room floor

It seemed the perfect final year project. They’d be able to do it unscripted, which suited both Blaine and Ethan. And it fitted the fascination with all things seedy that had brought them together. An afternoon trawling the internet identified the sordid side of dating. Suburban sleaze. Perfect. They could infiltrate the scene, shoot the footage hand-held and pull it together in the editing suite.

They signed up to a ‘discrete adult parties’ website. To christen the project they took a camera to the mall and bought new disco outfits. Back at their flat they celebrated with wine, snuggles and Teen Zombie Killer 3.

The first party was in a warehouse. They arrived separately, in character, circulated until the early hours, then thanked their host, Arlene, a large woman in culottes.

‘You two seem to have had a good time,’ she said

‘I never expected to meet another film-maker,’ said Blaine.

‘Perhaps we could film your parties for you?’ Ethan added

An email arrived. We love your film idea. Let’s talk.

They agreed to put jealousies aside and the project progressed well. After the fifth party they had the footage they needed. Blaine booked an editing suite for Friday night.

‘But there’s a party Friday,’ said Ethan.

‘You’re not serious?’

‘Blaine,’ he said, ‘I think we need to talk.’

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

Dockside story

Deb and Honour watched the battalion disembark for three weeks R and R, cashed up and looking for a good time. The soldiers came ashore with square-jawed smiles and seams pressed sharp and straight as razors. ‘Ever seen anything like it?’ said Deb.

Honour just whistled in response.

‘Where will they go?’

‘Friday night? The dance at the Palace.’

‘How’re we gonna get in there?’

‘Easy.’

That evening they each claimed to be visiting the other. Their mothers sent them off with stern looks and change for the tram fare.

They met in town and caught the train to Mandalay, where they changed into gowns behind a hedge before joining the women milling around the foyer. Two tall soldiers strode their way.

At midnight the four of them, the two girls and the soldier boys, caught a taxi back to the city. Deb and Charles went for a walk by the river. He held her hand, his grip strong, his eyes attentive. Deb glanced back. It looked as if Honour was arguing with Max.

Honour didn’t join her friend at the end of the month as Deb waved Charles off, tears in her eyes and his ring on her finger. He told her he’d come back after the war, and take her across the vast ocean to be together.

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