Cold case

After Leslie left, Ron hooked the caravan up and drove to an overgrown paddock hemmed in by forest where he used to camp as a boy. He unhooked the van and chocked it as best he could in the sodden soil. Then he got into his dressing gown, lit a cigarette, turned on the radio—the signal crackling at the edge of its range—and started his new life.

Not that it felt new. He’d always fancied himself a recluse. The city never allowed him that pleasure. It was full of damned people going about their damned lives. One of them had been Leslie.

Ron ate sandwiches and listened to the birdsong and the insects. The creek in the distance. The radio’s incoherent fuzz. It might have been music or talk. Now it was a vestige of his past. In the morning he’d get the gas bottle filled. The store on the highway wasn’t the sort of place where they’d ask questions. He could last on what he’d brought for weeks. Then he’d move on. Another lonely side road.

Leslie went back to collect her things. The place looked ransacked. Police issued an alert. No one came forward. Ron’s name went onto a list of vanished men. Dead men, travellers, hermits. His brothers in isolation.


The thought that counts

Alice needed a boost so on the afternoon of their anniversary Roscoe zipped himself into his rabbit suit and headed towards her office.

Twenty years before, he’d been doing his Easter Bunny routine for a chocolate shop when a car skidded into a school group. He heard screaming as he lumbered across the road. The woman glaring his way was Alice. He remembered her throwing up her hands and gesturing like she was pulling her head off.

Oh yeah, the rabbit suit. He removed the head and the screaming stopped.

‘Are you trying to scare them to death?’ she’d said. ‘This one needs a splint. Find me something straight.’


Roscoe hadn’t checked the gas. When the car spluttered to a halt he pulled on the fluffy feet and rabbit head and ran the last three blocks. The street near her building seemed unusually busy. He spotted Alice at the top of the stairs and hopped through the crowd his arms extended for a cheer up hug. ‘Happy anniv——’

Crash! A burly security guard brought him down.

Alice screamed. The crowd in front of Parklake Pharmaceuticals cheered. The rabbit head fell off. Alice screamed again. A chant went up. Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit.

That’s when Roscoe remembered the animal rights mob that had caused Alice so many problems at work.


2011-Richard Holt / small stories about love (

The great ice creams of Europe

We’d come to the conclusion that making love was like ice cream. We liked it as much as ever. But that didn’t mean we wanted it all the time.

There was so much rushing around—kids’ activities, work, keeping up with friends. Often we wanted no more than to snuggle with cocoa in front of the television.

Shiralee came to stay. She had a new partner and she’d discovered herself as a lover. It was understandable, I guess. Silas had been an inconsiderate slob. Everyone knew it. It just took Shiralee a lot longer to cotton on. Now, when the rest of us were slowing down, she was making up for lost time. Oh boy was she making up for it. She’d waited until she was forty-three for her first orgasm and the world needed to know about it (and all the others since).

‘Look, it’s great and all,’ said Lauren. ‘But can’t we have one dinner without talking about your sex life?’

‘Oh,’ said Shiralee, genuinely surprised. ‘Oh. Sorry. So what’ll we talk about?’

‘Ice cream,’ I said.

Lauren shot me a quizzical look.

‘Remember when we backpacked through Europe. God we had sooo much ice cream.’

‘Really?’ said Shiralee. ‘I’d never have thought of you two as the ice cream kind.’

‘You’d be surprised,’ said Lauren, smiling. ‘Remember Venice?’

2011-Richard Holt / small stories about love (

What I was never told

If they’d been ghosts I’d have known. They’d be vaporous and fleeting.

But they were something else—a kind of memory so solid I knew it like a friend, but not a memory of anything I knew. Not something I could recall. Until the last time I saw them.

As always it was a moment of drama that brought them to me. Jessica was being born and things went suddenly wrong. That room with its screaming and its machines and its scramble for life—its jolt into desperation—was no place for strangers.

Yet it was then they appeared. I saw them in the doorway, holding each other as always. As the orderlies rushed Deborah to surgery they moved aside. Their eyes met mine. They reached out for me. As I tried to touch their extended hands they vanished.

And I remembered. A backwash that caught me and took me into deep water. The burning of saltwater in failing three-year-old lungs. They came to me through the foam. I fell in and out of blackness as they struggled against the tide. A lifeguard got out to them. They handed me to him as a huge swell crashed onto us. I rolled with the guard onto the beach. But they went under. Embracing each other as the sea took them.

2011-Richard Holt / small stories about love (

Stoic to the last

There was one rule for a happy marriage. Just say yes. Jason had given up on disagreement. Besides, he was usually wrong. Better to have Ellen happily with him, than to argue all the time.

She walked in, threw her bag and jacket on the floor, kissed him and disappeared towards the pantry.

‘Busy day?’ said Jason, picking up her things.

‘As usual.’ She flopped onto the couch with a glass of wine.

‘Might have one myself,’ he said. He didn’t really want it. But it would be nice to have been asked.

‘Why not? You must be out on your feet.’

That sarcastic tone again. Jason held his tongue. He pulled a casserole from the oven. ‘Dinner’s up.’

‘Oh, I forgot to tell you, I ate at work.’

His stomach rumbled. He’d have eaten hours ago if he’d known. ‘Never mind.’

He’d wanted dinner together. He needed to talk to her about the diagnosis. But it didn’t seem the time now. Not while she was angry. She’d ask him eventually.

But he came in from hanging washing to find her already in bed and the light out.

She woke the next morning to silence. ‘Jase, you up?’ she called. ‘A cuppa would be nice.’


A note beside the kettle read Dear Ellen, Don’t worry. Everything’s fine.

2011-Richard Holt / small stories about love (

Whistler’s mother

If Wanda hadn’t been in the back seat with the bub she’d have been killed, too. While she waited to be cut from the wreck she cried out, ‘baby, baby, baby.’

No one could say for sure if the crash was the cause. But as he grew her son spoke little. He had something better than words. He whistled sweeter than a songbird. Any song he’d heard, at the supermarket or on the radio, he’d soon be whistling in pure high notes that hung in the air.

The whole town came to know the whistler boy. Wanda did everything she could for him. And whenever she started crying he’d comfort her by crawling next to her and whistling.

Years and decades passed that way. He grew taller than her. Still when they went out he whistled and the townspeople smiled.

Wanda took a bad turn. She told him to get the phone for her. But he wouldn’t. He cuddled her and whistled, instead, as her heart spluttered. She thought of how he’d get by without her and how his big clumsy hands were the only ones she’d been held by in all the years since a boy who’d been too young to want to be his father lost control on a gravel road.

2011-Richard Holt / small stories about love (

Impress your friends

Sam thought long and hard about how to get Frieda to notice him. Eventually he chose hypnotism.

It wasn’t as easy as the book made out. After a week’s secret practicing he tried it on his sister, Adie. ‘Look at this pendant,’ he said.

‘Hold it still, willya?’

‘Look deep into it.’


‘Aren’t you getting sleepy?’

‘Sleepy? Ohhhhhh. Yeah, I am. I’m getting sleepy alright.’

‘Very sleepy…’

A few minutes later she was walking around on all fours sniffing things. She crawled into his room.

Sam clapped his hands, the signal to break the spell. Nothing happened.

Adie grabbed his I-pod in her mouth.

‘No. Bad dog!’

Adie growled. She took the I-pod into her room then came back for his new hoody.

He clapped again. He admonished. He tried to grab the collar of her shirt.

Adie growled. Next trip she took his console.

‘Bad dog.’

Adie growled, and dropped the game on her bed with the rest. Then she stood up. ‘You’re an idiot, Sam. This is my stuff now. Or I’ll tell Mum you tried to hypnotise me.’


Adie growled again.

Sam gave up hypnotism. He wrote Frieda a poem but couldn’t summon the courage to face her with it. He needed an intermediary. His thoughts turned to ventriloquism.

2011-Richard Holt / small stories about love (

Splendid isolation

He found a place where he wouldn’t be judged when he shouted at her. The only listeners would be birds.

Then he suggested a drive in the country.

‘Are you nuts? I hate the country.’

‘I’ve packed a picnic. Like old times.’

‘Old times. Ha.’ Her lip curled. Her chipped teeth showed. ‘OK. Old times.’

As they drove into the pasturelands she began to relax. ‘You still think everything can be fixed, don’t you?’

‘Between us? No Heddy. But you could be better.’

‘You think I’m sick?’

‘Look at yourself.’ The silence between them hummed with accusation and denial. They never said ‘addict’ or ‘junkie’ any more except when Victor was shouting, and he was determined not to shout today. ‘I want to show you a place. Maybe we can make a go of it.’

In the end she agreed. It was that or keep sliding. Life in their shared patch of green went through every stage of hell before things started feeling right. Heddy rediscovered the dreamy optimism Victor had loved in her. They started planning an organic garden. They bought chickens and a goat.

Then, while Victor was in the town buying supplies, she left on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle. Victor found the plastic syringe cap on their laundry floor. Only birds heard his screams.

2011-Richard Holt / small stories about love (

The perfect house

As soon as Leesa walked in she knew it was the place. ‘It’s perfect. Just the right size. And it’s a real house, not just a shack.’

The secluded location was ideal. There’d be no one to disturb them.

As they went from room to room—five in all, kitchen, bath, a small living area and a cosy bedroom—their excitement grew. ‘Yeah,’ said Cameron, who didn’t generally say a lot, ‘it’s the one alright.’

When they reached the bedroom Leesa wrapped him tight and waited for the spark in his eyes. He dug his fingers into her buttock and drew her up and they allowed themselves a moment’s rapture.

‘We’ve got everything we need,’ he said. It was a half question.

‘Sure.’ She handed him the bottle, its silky liquid catching the light through the window. ‘The sun’s about to set. Come on. Let’s go up on the hill to watch.’

They stepped into the crisp valley air outside. Cameron uncapped the bottle. He pulled a rag from his pocket and stuffed it tight into the neck. Within minutes they’d be on the rise opposite, enthralled by each other and by the beautiful crackle and spark and glow as the old timbers blazed in the night.

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (

Peeling the onion

On the afternoon of her birthday Emily found a package on her verandah. She couldn’t recognise the scrawl on the card—happy birthday my love. It wasn’t Carl’s neat script. 

While the answering machine played she tore open the polka dot paper and opened the box inside. Tabitha, her moggie, coiled around her ankles.

Inside the box was another box, wrapped in crepe. She tore at it, her excitement tinged with a little trepidation. Who could have gone to so much trouble. 

Another layer fell away. Another layer revealed nothing of value. More paper. She remembered Daryl. The taunting of the endless unwrapping was his style. She remembered how bitter he’d been at the end.

The next layer was wrapped in brown paper. Emily had stopped thinking about what might be in it. When she wondered who else would want to torment her and she came up with a role call of former boyfriends. Wayne, Con, Benjamin, Zac—her relationships all finished in acrimony. Even Liam. They’d been engaged once, but she hadn’t seen him for years. 

The layers kept coming. Brown paper gave way to newspaper. Emily felt empty.  Each new layer compelled her to the next.

The package shrank to the size of a matchbox. Beneath a layer of stained kitchen paper she glimpsed green velvet.

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (

Little deceptions (2): circling

Will Saddler sidled up to Alec. ‘D’you reckon you can win?’

‘Win what?’

‘The fight. You and Shane.’

A fight? Maybe Alec had said some stupid things. But Shane had stolen Maeve—that’s how it felt. It hurt worse than he could explain.

Lenora leant across. ‘No one ever fights over me.’ She handed him the note.

After school, behind the art room. Unless you’re chicken.

‘I hope you win,’ said Lenora.

Maeve’ll go with whoever wins,’ said Will.

‘Yeah. How can I beat Shane Penrose.’ Alec kicked at the dust.

They paced circles within the circling crowd until someone yelled ‘get on with it,’ and Shane charged. Smack. The first punch split Alec’s lip. The next cut his cheek. Shane kneed him in the guts. All Alec could do was stay standing. If he fell he’d be murdered. As his head swung from the next strike he caught sight of Maeve, screaming in the middle of a group of girls. He lifted his fist and swung round like a discuss thrower.

The blow caught Shane flush on his nose. He went down like a wet sack. Through the blood in his eyes Alec watched her run to his fallen rival.

‘A lucky punch,’ he heard her say. ‘Just a lucky punch.’

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (

Little deceptions (1): shoulders

When he woke this morning nothing could have kept Alec Gray from school. He left with a spring in his step. Maeve O’laughlin had said  she’d go out with him.

Something about her tangle of hair, her quick tongue and her swagger had caught his eye long ago. He’d taken years to get to know her. They’d moved through being classmates to being friends. Now they were more than that. At last he was part of the pairing up of sweethearts that went on around him. He’d laid bare his hopes and she’d accepted them and life would never be the same.

When the bus pulled up Maeve was already on board. She lowered her eyes when he looked her way, then whispered something to Shane Penrose, sitting next to her. Penrose laughed.

Shane was Cricket Captain. Alec batted fifth drop and bowled occassional off-spin. But he’d won them the Lleyton Hall game on a sticky pitch. That had to be worth a little loyalty.

Besides Shane was going out with Hillary Watters. Everyone knew that. Alec shouldn’t get worked up. Maeve would explain later.

Alec took a seat further up the aisle. From his position he could see the avenue of shoulders that came to a stop where Maeve and Shane sat squeezed close together.

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (

The sealer’s wife

She’d been just a girl, watching as the men came ashore. Not ordinary men these. Men with different skin. They came on enormous boats that had trunks growing from them.

She got too close. A giggle betrayed her. There was a chase. She would have outrun them but a low branch brought her down.

She became the wife of the sealer, Delaney. There was no ceremony; nothing but the days and nights he kept her indoors. She heard skirmishes, the shouts of her people, cracks as loud as hollow trees in bushfire, then nothing but the wind.

He gave her a new name. Eliza. He spoke in the sealer’s tongue. He gave her lessons. He taught her obedience, respect and love. He told her stories of God and baby Jesus. He dressed her in fibrous skins and then, when she’d learned to wear them the way he liked he undressed her again for his pleasure.

Her people stopped coming that way. She made the company of other wives. Some had been from her place. Others had been brought from distant parts.

She bore a child with ochre hair.

One evening, when the sealer was drunk, she slit his throat with a skinning knife and walked, with her child, and the other women and children, into the beckoning scrub.

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (

Mad about Johnny

Yes, I know.

You were expecting someone else. You were expecting Johnny. You’re wondering what I’m doing here. You’re wondering who I am.

I’m the person you’re going to hurt. I’m the one who’ll die a little when you kiss. I’m the one who’ll suffer when you take him to your dim-lit bedroom.

He won’t have told you of me. He never does. When you’re like Johnny and me you understand completely. I know him like you never will.

You aren’t the first, you know. The others are all gone now. They won’t be back.

I’ll wait here with you—it’s no trouble. When Johnny comes I’ll fade back. I’ll take my blows unseen. From the cover of the bushes there I’ll watch you snake your hand around his back. I’ll watch you close your eyes. I’ll watch.

And when your sordid thing together is finished and Johnny is alone again I’ll come for you.

A threat? No.

I’ll come to talk. To make sure you haven’t hurt him too.

Madness? Who are you to ask? Who are you? Who?

He’s coming. The Harley’s throb.

I’ll go away to watch now, while you enjoy his arms, his skin, his touch. And we will speak again when he has gone.

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (


At artschool Janine was a quiet observer in a world of practiced wierdness.  Veronica’s knitted Eifel tower, for instance, or Penny’s sugarcube abstraction. Conrad splashed paint around to death metal. Claude painted black squares. And Janine sketched.

On her bedroom shelves were books, ordered by date and subject. One shelf was boys. It started with her first crush, the school sport captain, Tony MacIlwraith in hard lead pencil, brittle and silver. Ellusive. Rodney Cook started that way but made it up to HB before he kissed Jenny Sidebottom. Felix Dunne made 2B, darker with a hint of lusciousness.

Across from her studio was an engineering classroom. Friday after lunch they studied drafting. She watched one boy in particular make delicate marks with protractor, compass, and ruler.

Janine waited outside his classroom. ‘I’ve been watching you.’


‘Through the window.’


‘I’m Janine,’ she said.


‘Can I see your drawing?’

He unscrolled the paper. His cross section of a machine was exquisite.

‘I draw too,’ she said.

That afternoon they shared coffee and talked about lines.

Within a week she’d started a sketchbook for him. She looked at her pencils. 4B? 6B?

At the campus bookstore she found a permanent marker. Its line was black and perfect. It could not be removed. It liberated her from the uncertainty of graphite.

2011—Richard Holt / small stories about love (