Winner of Southern Cross TV Flash Fiction Award 2015
When we relocated to Ballarat, my mother enrolled me in an Anglican school.
On the first day, the teacher announced first period was chapel. I didn’t know what that was. ‘It’s like church’, my mother explained as she was leaving. I had never been to church and did not find this comforting. The teacher watched us through hawk-like eyes, already disapproving.
We were required to form two lines outside the classroom: a line of boys and a line of girls. We were to walk, holding the hand of a boy, out of the junior school and into the senior school. Inside the chapel, we were to sit down on the wooden pews and listen to the sermon. The service was delivered to the whole school and initially, being very young, I understood nothing and the hour served as a time for my mind to wander free of the punctuation of a teacher’s instructions. Later, I observed that sometimes certain of the students would come to the front of the chapel, kneel, and imbibe something proffered by the priest. The significance of this ritual was unknown to me, but it seemed to bestow a certain dignity on those who participated.
Sometimes a student would rise to stand at the pulpit and carefully read a portion of the bible. I wondered how these students were chosen. I was an excellent reader and it seemed only a matter of time before I would be asked to step up to the pulpit and demonstrate my skills.
But as I moved up into Grade Four and then Five, my perceptions came into focus. I resented the walk to chapel in gender-demarcated lines, and the cumbersome uniform that seemed to have marched on through the ages, unaffected by the vagaries of fashion. When the sport teacher caught me abstaining from the Lord’s Prayer in assembly, and leant down so that his ear was next to my lips, I remained resolutely, obstinately silent.
I stopped being afraid.
At some point in my early childhood I must have seen a film about the civil rights movement, because I have a clear memory of an image coming into my mind during chapel one day of a black man stepping up in front of a crowd and delivering a rousing, audacious speech.
I became aware of the opportunities a microphone and an audience could bring. I imagined a teacher approaching me and marking out the chapter and verse. I saw myself nodding docilely and waiting for the moment when the stage would be mine. I could almost feel the microphone at my lips as I pictured myself stepping up and leaning forward, the whole school’s eyes and ears on me, every teacher, every student, the older kids, the younger kids all waiting, expecting to hear another dull bible story when instead – !
Exactly how I would have expressed my views, had I the chance to hijack a service, I never decided.
In any event, they never picked me.
Shortlisted for Field of Words Flash Fiction Competition 2016
After drawing water and placing the billy over the flames, mother sits by my side. She stares into the fire as the stew cooks.
‘Have to chop some more wood tomorrow.’
‘Going to be getting cold soon.’
We smile at each other.
It wasn’t always like this. We used to live in the city and I went to school with the other kids. We had to move out here because of the city folk. If we ever go back there, mother says the guards will meet us at the gate and drag her away, and maybe me too. She is a marked woman, we know, and because I am her child I am marked too.
One day some travelers appear. A man comes over the hill with a worn rucksack over his shoulder and a little girl clutching his hand.
‘Have any work to do for a feed?’ the man asks and for all her talk about not trusting anyone, mother clucks at their cold hands and settles them in front of the fire.
‘Don’t you go to school?’ the man asks me that night, his daughter huddled beside him at our rickety table. He talks through a mouthful of stew and when I confess how long I have been there he stares.
‘Don’t you wonder what is beyond these hills?’
I shake my head and he laughs. ‘You must be the most uncurious person in history!’
This rankles but he doesn’t notice because he is pulling a timber wolf out of his rucksack. He places the puppet over his hand and moves his fingers to make it talk.
The child wrinkles her nose at the wolf. ‘You’re not real,’ she says, and takes its hairy muzzle in her fingers. She turns its head around to face her father. ‘Look,’ she tells it. ‘Daddy’s hand is in you!’
The travelers retire early and leave at sunrise. The little girl waves goodbye, turning to look back as she walks. Mother clears away their remains and soon there is no sign they were ever here. For a long time I stay with her, boiling the billies and chopping wood, but one day I put on my walking shoes and fetch a water bottle.
Some hours after I set off, the city wall comes into view. Images fill my mind of the guards dragging me away, but I force myself to keep walking and as I get closer I see the people are smiling at me.
‘Morning, lass,’ says a woman steering a heavy load. ‘Welcome to the city.’
Mother says it was a trick. That I would never have got back out if I had gone through the gate. She chops vegetables and refuses to hear of moving to the city. The cold is setting in now. We keep the fire banked up and burning all night. No travelers come past here now. We are miles away from any other people. It’s because of the city folk.
Shortlisted for Southern Cross Television Flash Fiction Award 2015
When Leslie gets to the ledge and turns around to face me with her composed, middle class ‘photo’ smile, I realise how easy it would be to step forward and give her a push. There are no witnesses around. It’s at least a 50 metre drop, and we have not seen a soul for almost a whole day.
Since we have been in the Tablelands I have felt a third presence between us.
Not that we have been completely isolated as we walk. Two other couples and a group have passed us – we are not fast walkers – and exchanged pleasantries and anecdotes. This has given me a break from Leslie’s incessant talk talk talk which I experience as a sort of violation. We have the calls of birds and the snaps of twigs and the crunches of leaves to attune our ears to but all I can hear is the same whining voice I have been hearing every day in the kitchen, on the phone, the moment I get home from work. The smack of her lips when she closes her mouth can be enough to make me want to silence her forever.
And there it is again – that other presence. A force that has come from within me. A potential.
The other couples that have passed us have both been straight couples, and have taken us for friends or sisters, and we have not bothered to correct them. For all the physicality between us we may as well be sisters. The group was a younger set, and they caught on straight away, but we did not keep pace with them for very long. They were enthused, and full of advice about where to get the best hiking boots and how to prepare and carry the lightest food. One young woman even had an open tray of seedlings fastened to the top of her backpack.
‘They get the direct sun while I walk,’ she explained. ‘And then we have fresh herbs for dinner.’
Leslie had made her usual comments about hippies and young people. I know her so well she does not even need to be here. I could hold up both sides of the conversation.
She is standing there with that fixed smile on her face, waiting for me to take the shot. For some reason, I am reminded of an afternoon, decades ago, when a group of neighbourhood kids and I – just because we were bored – decided to catch a neighbour’s cat and set it on fire. My brother was there, egging me on. The boy next door got the petrol.
I was the one who lit the match.
I still remember its yowl of pain as it went up in flames.
I step towards my girlfriend, with my hands raised.
Shortlisted for Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Award 2016
When I was eight, my mother was arrested for stealing wallets from a school staff room during an emergency teaching shift and fraudulently using credit cards. She said she had been an easy target as she’d been on the campus that day. She could not afford a private lawyer, but wasn’t poor enough for legal aid, so she pleaded guilty and got a bond. Later that year, we were driving home from school when she said ‘There’s police behind us.’ They took us back to the station, strip searched both of us, charged her with a handful of fraud offences. The guy who was her alibi witness could not give evidence. He was told he’d lose his job if he did. That is what she told me. Just this year I said to her ‘I’d like to know what really happened.’ ‘Well so would I!’ she said. One year she got put away for six months, and I was shipped off to a foster family. They had a handicapped daughter the same age as me, and a crate full of pears that they kept in the pantry, which I ate late at night. On the weekends, a volunteer from the church would turn up to drive me to the prison to visit her. They asked a lot of questions as they drove me through the Adelaide hills. My mother got released at the end of that winter, the same year she told me the truth about Santa.
Shortlisted for Field of Words Flash Fiction Competition 2015
They sit there all day in the end, the café emptying around them as dark falls, the girl transfixed by the woman. They aren’t ready to go home when Rosemary closes up and so they walk through the dead town to the end of the road where a path leads down to the far beach, away from the shops and cafes and carpark, the one no one goes to. The secret beach, they have said to each other all summer. The girl is thrilled to be sharing a language with the woman. They have reached the stage of friendship when they can call each other and say, ‘It’s me.’
As they leave the road and start down the dirt path the girl is laughing at the woman’s impression of a man she met in Paris, and not noticing the sudden drop, stumbles. The woman takes her arm and the girl breathes in her scent of suede and little dogs and expensive perfume. She is imitating his accent and gesticulating and the girl drinks her in, mindful that the woman is leaving, that a whole bare year stretches out in front of her, that each step they take along the path is bringing them closer to her departure.
They come to the beach. Rosemary had given the woman a little glass box filled with sand from the beach as a farewell gift that afternoon. The woman was charmed, and the girl wished it had been her idea. The tide is halfway out, and the moon almost full. They start along the sand, going slowly, sinking into it, and the woman turns to talking about the man. She is still not sure about him. But she is going back so that says something doesn’t it. What does it say, the girl wonders, searching the woman’s eyes. And it has been more than a year now, and it somehow works, in spite of the different countries, it’s still alive. Sometimes she has thought it has died for an hour or a day, but then there it is again. She smiles. You will meet him next time.
Next time, the girl thinks.
‘We’ll just go a little further,’ the woman says. They are almost at the cliffs and there are two figures huddled together on top. The girl thinks she can make out that one of them is leaning towards the other, his hands wrapped around a glass or a mug. The other has his arm draped around the first.
‘Hang on – is that two guys?’ the woman laughs. ‘Do we really want to go any further?’
The girl thinks, Oh.
She sees the woman drive back to her house, zip up her last suitcase, board the plane and return to the man, again to be swallowed up by the world of men and women.
They walk back into town and the warmth of the two figures retreats into the distance.