Practically together

Queenie stood in her dressing gown, wind lashing at the hem, looking across at the old gum. At the sound of it crashing across the road we’d all come out to gape. We were the newcomers. We’d bought plots when Queenie subdivided. Our fancy houses surrounded her cottage on the land she’d farmed for decades until Ern’s death and the drought and the creep of suburbs all around had forced her hand.

Though the developer christened the place Loxton Valley to Queenie it would always be ‘the farm’. She knew us by name, like her new herd.

My neighbour, Sam, a laconic old bloke, came out to see what the fuss was. ‘Jeez, Queenie,’ he said, ‘the big fella’s down. I’ll call emergency services.’

‘Unless anyone else has done it?’ said Queenie, casting her eyes sceptically towards the rest of us.

No one replied.

‘Figured as much,’ said Sam. A look passed between them. Sam was an old farmer himself. His children had set him up in a townhouse here after his hip gave out and he had to relinquish his own place. There was a practicality to the two of them that those of us from the city never quite grasped.

‘Ain’t gonna clear itself away, you know,’ said Queenie. ‘C’mon Sam, lets you and me sort it out.’

 

Shadow over us

Lester had grown morose. He’d always been uncommunicative, expressing his feelings through the things he did. He’d spend weeks landscaping around the house and at the end of it all, if I was lucky, he’d say something like, ‘I hope you like it.’ And of course I would. His projects always made our lives better in some way.

But lately the silences were just that. There was no project beneath them. Nothing to demonstrate his affection. I wondered if he was planning to leave, though he formed relationships so laboriously, another woman seemed unlikely.

I began loosing sleep. I’d wake in the dark, conscious of him awake as well, as if he never slept.

I confronted him.

At first he said nothing. No surprise in that. A week passed before he came to me, almost in tears. The courage it took him to ask me seemed about to overwhelm him. ‘Please, Zara,’ he said, ‘I want to brush your hair.’

As he dragged his mother’s hairbrush through my unruly curls he began telling me about her. For nearly an hour he brushed and he talked; her strict rules, her hardness, the struggle of their lives together and of the best of times when she’d finally relax, the brush stripping her hardness away.

Curtain calls

Lance had done student reviews at uni. Denise thought treading the boards again might be a good antidote to the stress of his practice.

At his first rehearsal he nailed the lead in a romantic romp, which vexed some of the regulars. He’d play opposite Emmaline Tomlinson, a full-figured woman with a comely smile.

Rehearsal was a revelation. Emmaline’s kiss in the final scene was as round, full and luscious as she was. Denise, he’d come to accept, was a pecker. He hadn’t married her for her kiss.

Emmaline suggested an extra rehearsal. Her place would be perfect—her husband was away.

He hadn’t been in such a state since his teenage years. The waft of perfume as she opened her door didn’t help.

But Emmaline played it straight from the script. No improvisation. Just a cup of tea before he left. And a kiss at the door for good luck.

Long after the season finished Lance imagined Emmaline’s soft, breath-stealing lips whenever Denise kissed him. He imagined them late at night, too, while his wife snored beside him.

 

(this is an edited version of the story A stage for Lance, published on this day, 2010. See about small stories about love)

 

Speed

If Don had put his termination money into the mortgage they’d have all but paid it off and things would have been good. But he spent the lot on a new BMW. When Larissa suggested this had been selfish—that they were a family and, besides, the old Ford had been fine—he said she didn’t trust him.

He went searching for something to salve his injured pride. Camille liked his swagger and his veneer of affluence. By her estimation their age difference meant he’d be temporary fun. Safe, which was what she was after.

Don imagined a love greater than anything he’d known. Greater than the courting years and Larissa’s three pregnancies and raising their kids. Greater than being there for each other through Larissa’s parents’ illnesses, and his. Such a love.

One early morning, his ears ringing from the music at the club and his vision blurred by pills and vodka shots he drove the new car into a pole.

Two days later he woke in white, surrounded by machines. He opened his eyes to his wife’s pitying face.

‘Camille?’ he asked.

Larissa shook her head.

 

(this is an edited version of the story Mid Life, published on this day, 2010. See about small stories about love)

 

The strand

They’ve tested my hair. One strand against all the years we’ve looked after each other.

I don’t know what will happen if they find no thread between us?

My lawyer says it’s for the best. He says, ‘what do you think?’

I say, ‘I used to love her once, you know.’

‘That doesn’t matter any more.’

‘I know,’ I say.

My suit makes me feel I’m not quite me. At the chambers’ door a scrubbed-up bear pats me down. ‘Procedure,’ he says. He follows me to the too-big table.

She’s opposite, dressed like she owns the place. The eyes I could have died for once avoid me now.

Call off the goons,’ my guy says.

‘Just a precaution’ says her lawyer, throwing a cheap manila folder on the table next to a jug and water glasses. The door closes behind me.

 

(this is an edited version of the story Nurture, published on this day, 2010. See about small stories about love)

Sanctified

‘Lord I was down. I was down and out and I was on my knees. I stared into a bottomless pit through the neck of a bottle. I was motherless. Fatherless. Lord, I was alone. Then you sent her to me. And she said to me, ‘come, walk a while.’ And she took me where I could eat. And I ate. And she took me where I could bathe. And I let myself be washed. And my sins were cleansed.’
Tyrone Paul raised his eyes to the congregation. He knew when he had them. His eyes met Loretta’s. Not until they were sure did she pass the collection plate to the first of the worshippers.
‘Yay,’ he continued, ‘though I was desolate, a sinner, unworthy, he showed me love. He picked me up. Through the agency of that blessed woman he saved me. And that is why we come to you now,’ he said. ‘As man and wife in the Lord we come to save you.’
Someone called, ‘hallelujah,’ and the room filled with a spontaneous chorus. Loretta fell to her knees. They loved it when she fell before them. Beneath the cries of adulation and subjugation she listened for the clink, clink, clink of their coins. The rustle of their notes. Suckers.

Op shop incident

Following is a longer piece of short fiction. The background, for readers outside Australia, is the demise of small, volunteer based, charity shops as charities adopt more corporate models…

 

‘Kelvin Curtley,’ he says. ‘Head Office sent me.’

‘Head Office?’ says Merle.

‘Harry mentioned something,’ says Doreen.

‘So is Harry Head Office, now, is he?’

‘Must be,’ says Doreen. ‘Suit rack’s over there, lad. That one’s way too big.’

‘It’s Italian.’

‘Italian, Merle.’

‘Armani.’

‘I thought you were Kevin.’

‘Kelvin.’

The door out the back clicks. ‘That’ll be Stan,’ says Merle.

‘Did they tell you why I’m here?’

‘Nup.’ Merle grabs two cups from the shelf. ‘Cuppa, Dor?’

‘Oh yeah, lovely thanks.’

‘What about you, young fella?’ she asks.

‘Eh? Oh, no thanks. I’ve just…’

‘Had one, eh? Macchiato, was it?’

‘Sorry?’

‘Don’t snivel boy. We know why you’re here. You’re going to do us over like the others.’

‘Do you over?’

‘Tell us how to run things. Eh Dor, remember that lass with the fluffed up hair and the bloke’s spectacles. What was her name?’

‘Felicity.’

‘She had one of those MBAs.’

‘Yeah. Mighty Big…a…a…opinion of herself. What ‘ve you got then, Kevin?’

‘Kelvin.’

‘Don’t think he’s got an MBA, Dor.’

‘A diploma,’ says Kelvin

‘Oh a diploma,’ says Merle.

‘Goodo,’ says Doreen, ‘you can add up the book for us.’ She pulls an exercise book from under the counter.

‘What can you tell me about your stock, ladies?’ says Diploma Boy.

‘Ladies, Dor. Very hoity-toity.’

‘Lah-dee-da, Merle.’

‘Your stock?’

‘Don’t get antsy lad? Strange question. Nothing beats a ham hock in my book.’

‘Marrow-bone girl m’self,’ says Dor. ‘You got a bone of choice, son?’

‘What are you…?’

‘More of a chicken boiler, are ya?’

‘I have no idea…’

‘You brought it up, lad. Well, anyway, you’d better tell us what you’ve got in mind.’

‘Simple really. Evidenced based analysis of supply chain, stock control and customer needs. Alignment with retail trends. First up, though, I’ll just observe for a while.’ Diploma boy takes a seat and opens his leather clipboard.

‘See, Dor. It’s simple. He’s just going to watch. That should be helpful. They pay him for that, I suppose. Don’t sit there Laddy.’

He looks around like some old dog that’s peed on the carpet.

‘That’s Stan’s chair.’

The bamboo-strips at the end of the hall clatter.

Slowly—very slowly—Stan shuffles towards the front of the shop.

‘So what does Stan do?’

‘Stan? Stan’s Stan,’ says Doreen. ‘Morning Stan.’

Stan grunts and flops into his chair.

‘They’ve sent us another one, Stan.’

Another grunt.

A couple of goth kids swing through the door. ‘G’day, girls. Stanley, how ya doin’, mate? Any new stuff in?’

‘Box of records out the back,’ says Doreen.

Angie, the girl, spots Diploma Boy, slumped in a bean-bag. ‘Oh God, they’ve sent you another one.’

‘He’s just looking, he reckons.’

‘That’ll be useful,’ says Angie.

 

It’s a good morning. There are lots of mums out looking for kid’s gear. Terry drops by for a chat on his way to the mission. The smarmy bloke with the market stall comes in and buys two toasters. Diploma Boy says, ‘that’s the sort of customer you want.’

Angie and her boyfriend emerge with an armful of records.

‘What d’you reckon Merle?’

‘Make it ten, eh?’

‘Um, sorry to bother you…’ It’s Diploma Boy looking sheepish.

‘Oh you don’t bother us,’ Doreen says.

‘…but can you tell me where the toilet is?’

‘Down the back. It’s one of those old ones. Not very trendy. Works a treat.’

‘It’s got a chain for flushing,’ adds Merle, ‘We call it the supply chain.’

Diploma Boy shuffles off.

‘Quick,’ whispers Angie. ‘See what he’s written.’

‘Oh Angie, we couldn’t.’

But the boyfriend has grabbed the clipboard.

‘Look out girls. It’s got lots of red on it.’

‘What’s he say?’ says Merle.

‘Governance controls, question mark.’

‘Who does he think we are,’ says Merle, ‘the Prime Minister?’

‘Pricing policy. Stocktake required. Delete old stock.’

‘Great way to run an op-shop,’ says Merle. ‘Just keep the new stuff.’

‘Redesign layout, shelving, counter, signage & public realm interface.’

‘That’d be the window, ‘ says Angie.

The boyfriend turns the page, ‘What! That bastard. Pardon me Merle. But he’s…he’s…’

‘He’s coming. Quick.’ Merle grabs the clipboard and gasps. ‘That bastard!’

‘What is it dear?’

She turns the page towards Doreen. In thick letters it says, Attract better clients. Get rid of Stan.

The back door creaks and Merle flings the clipboard back onto the beanbag. Nobody says anything. Diploma Boy nods as he enters. Slowly—very slowly—Stan edges his walking stick sideways; catches the lad round the ankles. Diploma Boy falls face down in a box of smalls.

Then slowly—very slowly—Stan’s hand comes up. He’s holding something. Something big. Hard looking. Very hard. It’s a pressure cooker. Very heavy. It comes down fast, with a CLANG like a church bell. Blood drips onto ancient bloomers.

‘Oh, Stanley, honestly. Not again,’ says Merle.

Stan drops the pot.

‘Nice one, Stan,’ says the boyfriend.

‘Nice Italian suit,’ says Doreen.

‘Best we close up early, I reckon,’ says Merle. ‘Cuppa anyone?’

 

Duet

Jade had been working all week on that one song. It always seemed just a tweak away from what she wanted. But something about the chorus had stuck. And it was the chorus she needed to get right, because that’s what she’d started with—those secret words about Bryce. Emotions knotted together. But without a tune to support them they were nothing.

Around noon he popped his head in. He was her teacher, her mentor; more generous than other men she’d  known. The care he took with her made age seem such a minor thing.

As he took a seat beside her on the piano stool she quickly shuffled her score, covering the chorus with the verse pages. But Bryce didn’t need the music. His office was next to the rehearsal room. He’d heard her struggling with the song for days. ‘Try this.’ He played, almost exactly as she had but with something extra in the arpeggio sections.

‘Turn them into triplets,’ he told her. ‘it only takes a note between to make the spark you’re after.’

 

(this is a reworked story based on An incomplete arpeggio, published on August 29, 2010. See about small stories about love)

Father and son

(The following is not exactly a story about love. Just a piece of micro-fiction that came out of a writing exercise…)

‘Father.’ Angus pushed the blade of his shovel hard into the frozen ground. He seemed suddenly older than his years. ‘Father,’ he said again, ‘why are all the children weeping?’

His father paused long enough to say, ‘Are they weeping then? I thought perhaps it were the wind.’ Then his pick-axe crashed down. He kept his eyes on the flattened field, the edge of the trench, the blade as it struck and struck and struck again.

‘Ay, Father. T’is the little ones.’

‘Blessed cold it is for them. Go warm yourself a while, Boy.’

A fire crackled nearby, wet sticks fizzing within the glow. Angus glanced towards it before driving his blade again into the soil.

‘Warm yourself, Boy,’ his father repeated, sounding almost angry now. Shocked, Angus turned to see silent tears gathering on the old man’s face.

The boy put down his shovel. He walked slowly to the fire. It’s warmth felt good on his raw-skinned palms. From above, the sound of wheeling crows merged with the distant orphan cries.