Midnight. That’s when they leave. Warm in her small black Golf, Laura checked her watch. Eleven thirty. She turned the radio up. ABC RN babbled on. She leaned back in her seat. The moon hung above the gumtrees—yellow tonight, like a welcoming light, the round one above a door to some other suburban life.
Category: Prompt Response Page 1 of 10
And this was the problem, everything here reminded her of them. Coffee was what she was drinking when the introduction to Mélanie had been made. The woman walking past the café in a béret? Mélanie surely wore one. The croissant in front of her? God knows what the two of them had got up to with croissants behind her back. As for that baguette the waiter has handing across the counter to that sylph…
It dawned on Meaghan that the café had gone quiet, pin drop quiet. She looked around at everyone staring at her — the mother holding her baby tight, the business man holding his briefcase like a shield, the waiter nervously flicking his eyes between her face and her croissant. She looked down at it to see that she had turned her freshly strawberry jammed pastry into something that would have seasoned homicide detectives rushing out for fresh air. Carefully placing the knife back on the table, Meaghan mumbled a “Merci, mon petite derrière” in what she believed was an apology. The café began to return to an appropriate level of hubbub around her as the world began to swim behind a upwelling of tears.
As the rainstorm of self pity began to burst, a face popped into view, nose almost touching hers. “Man, oui? Heartbreak?” Meaghan nodded gently, not wishing for the tears to start pouring out. The crockery rattled as the table was slapped with a resounding “Ha!!” In the time it took to for Meaghan to sweep a few escapee tears from her face, a whirlwind had deposited a figure of elderly elegance and two decadently size glasses filled with a dark drink to her table.
A hand extended languidly across the table, hovering there until Meaghan worked out it was to be taken in hers. The hand’s owner introduced herself, “Camille. Now, drink up. Heartbreak requires anesthésique in the near term, détermination in the long.” Camille retracted her hand and picked up her glass, motioning for Meaghan to do the same. With a “à la tienne!”, Camille knocked back the drink. Meaghan went to do the same and nearly choked as the brandy hit the back of her throat. Not wanting to look like she couldn’t keep up with Camille, Meaghan managed to get it all down. Languid was a now look she could go for.
The waiter stepped in, refilled their glasses, and in a mixture of french and english and floating waves of her hands, Camille began to run through what Meaghan assumed were her heartbreaks. From Jean to Oliver, Dominique through to Jacques by way of Serge, each accompanied either by a shot of brandy, a snort of derision, or a sigh of regret. Cyrano, Christian, Blaise, maybe back to Dominique, maybe a different Dominique. Aramis, Anton, Antoinette, Alexandre; Meaghan thought she was preparing to make her way through the alphabet. The brandies continued on, accompanied with more pastries, tears, cheeses, laughter, and a hearty stew. The hours passed as Camille went though them all, finally completing the catalogue as the sun set behind the Eiffel tower.
In the quiet then descended between them, Camille looked at Meaghan, “Et vous?”
With a heart fortified with brandy, Meaghan told Camille about her one and only heartbreak, her singular love, her fiancee bringing her to Paris only for him to introduce her to his lover. Camille smiled at her, “You’re still young, more time for heartbreak. Go, sleep, go risk your heart some more.”
Meaghan sat silently, digesting Camille’s advice. The moment didn’t last long as Camille started waving her hands at her. “Shoo, go. Don’t waste time. Break hearts, yours, theirs.”
Meaghan thanked Camille for the anesthésique, the stories, the company, and walked out into the street. Wavering as she walked, she made her way back to her Airbnb and collapsed on the couch. Sleep came quick for the first time since Mélanie was introduced. A deep, dreamless sleep of the very, very brandied.
Waking the next morning, Meaghan was hungover, but strangely clear headed. She showered, donned her sunglasses, and thought about toast. Instead, a cup of coffee was brewed and she sat on the couch, suddenly single, migraine at the ready, and perhaps with a new purpose in life, she let the morning sun warm her up. A thought bubbled into her head, she smiled a wicked smile, and pulled her iPad close. A quick search, a quicker purchase, and a quick transfer of funds from their joint account into her brand spanking new solo one, Meaghan was ready to text an old crush.
A few moments later, none the wiser to his new financial predicament, Meaghan’s ex’s phone chimed. An email, a gift from Meaghan. He showed it to Mélanie, who read it out loud. Let’s move on, it read, enjoy your time together. You should have an adventure, it continued, on me. Skydiving, you’ll enjoy it — to a point.
Phoebe took that as a sign. Or maybe a lack of a sign. Maybe both. She’d been looking for signs in everything the last few days. The rooster crowing at dawn, that was a sign. A predictable one for sure, but a sign nonetheless. The next door neighbours cow facing in the opposite direction to most of the other cows in the village. That was a sign. An inscrutable sign that one. But again, a sign. It didn’t particularly matter what the signs were, they were all pointing in favour of Phoebe’s plan.
She took a quick swig of water, readjusted her pack, and stepped fully into the shadow of the forest. The path here was fairly even, well trod by gatherers and the occasional hunter as it began to weave its way through the trunks. Any sounds of the village were filtered out as the forest soaked it all up. She could hear her breathing as she went, the odd trill of birds up high in the canopy, her footfalls on the path, but that was all. She continued on.
The light in the forest slowly went from a bright jade through to a deep emerald as she went, the path slowly getting worse as she reached the limits of where the hunters and the the gatherers normally went. Phoebe followed the path as it narrowed and thinned until it became barely a thread of a track, marked only by stones placed carefully. The green around her slowly faded away as she continued on, the sun having set and the full moon now rising above the forest. The trilling had stopped and had been replaced by other noises, scurrying in the undergrowth, a growl here and there. Phoebe wasn’t concerned. The creatures of the forest had long learnt to steer clear of anyone walking this path this deep in the forest.
Phoebe reached the rock shaped humorously like a turnip and stopped. She looked carefully around her. From here she needed to take the alternate path, not the one marked by her ancestors, but the other path; the one the forest had marked out. She shaded her eyes from the light of the moon and before long she could see the line of glowing mushrooms leading off to her left, deeper into the forest. A quick swig and a readjustment, and she followed the mushrooms deeper in.
The trail of mushrooms took Phoebe around a small hillock before bringing her out into a clearing ringed with the glowing mushrooms. She sat on a tree stump just outside the ring and rummaged through her pack. Munching on an apple she found in there, she pulled out what she would need next – a thin rope and an axe.
The apple core was tossed out of the clearing and she set to work. Tying one end of the rope to the stump that she had been sitting on, Phoebe tossed the other end over a thin tree and bent it down to her. She tied a knot there, part way along the rope, and taking the free end of the rope and her axe, made her way into the centre of the clearing. She gave the rope a quick pull and her knots held. She took this as a sign. A sign the she could tie knots well. Phoebe looked up to the moon and waited, listening carefully, ignoring the sounds of the forest around her, and as the moon reached its highest point in the night sky, she heard it.
Phoebe could just make the voice out from under the earth. It was expected. She stood still and silent and waited.
“Join us over here.”
Phoebe could hear footsteps now, just beneath where she stood. She could hear them walking in circles, trying to find her, pausing now and then as they quietly called out to her.
“Join us. Join her.”
Phoebe finished tying a small noose in the end of the rope and waited, listening to the footsteps as they closed in on her. She felt them as the stopped just below her, boot to boot. Phoebe waited. She could her the rustle of clothing, that fine rustle of silk, as the creature beneath her crouched down. She could hear the dirt begin to move as a hand began to push its way though the earth beneath.
As the creatures fingertips broke the surface, Phoebe pounced. She shifted her footings and plunged her hands and the noose through the earth, dropping to her knees to force them through. Slipping the noose over the creatures feet from below, she stood up again to bring her hands back into her world, making the noose tight as she did. Phoebe sprinted toward the tree stump she tied the rope to before, pulling the axe from her belt as she did. The tree that the rope and been thrown over shook violently as the rope whipped and pulled. Phoebe took that as a sign that she had caught the bastard and brought her axe down hard on the tree stump, severing the rope.
The bent tree straightened up, causing an explosion of earth from the centre of the mushroom ring as it pulled her into the world the creature from beneath. Phoebe looked at the creature dangling now from the tree, her knots holding fast as it struggled, its fine blue and gold silken robes whipping around as it tried to free itself, its gossamer wings beating out a hurricane as it tried to get them clear, the creature screaming threats to shred the one that did this.
Phoebe stalked up the fairy with her axe and held the iron blade just shy of its face.
“Don’t move, or I’ll push this iron through you slowly. Where. is. my. sister?”
“What in the name of all that is unholy is that thing?”
Kobal’s leathery chest puffed out with pride.
“This year’s hellhound, master. I stitched it together myself.”
“It’s an abomination.”
“Thank you, master. I’m also quite pleased with this year’s creation.”
Vilstrax closed her eyes and thought happy thoughts while she counted to ten — spit roasted unicorn, the pleasant aroma of brimstone, over boiled Jerusalem artichokes on toast — before again regarding the creature that Kobal had brought before her.
“And what, prey tell, did you stitch this years effort out of?”
“Ah, master,” replied Kobal, giving one of the hellhounds three heads a scratch under the chin. “After reviewing what went wrong last year, and the issues with the year before that, I went with a much more stable breed this year.”
Vilstrax thought back to the year before last. Kobal had stitched together the hellhound from two cocker spaniels and a dachshund. It had not been a creature that inspired fear in the general population. Indeed, one of the smaller humans tried to adopt it. Last year’s hellhound, Vilstrax had to admit, had potential. Kobal had stitched it together out of three kelpies. It was fast, liked to chase and bite its prey, and lasted about four minutes until it tried to chase five rabbits at once. Even as a demon responsible for the unspeakable torment of humans, Vilstrax still internally winced at the memory of that mess. She couldn’t blame Kobal for playing it safe this year, but still, Hell has standards.
“Kobal, what did you use?”
“Labradoodles, master. Quite popular and very intelligent. Hypo-allergenic, too.“ Kobal gave the hellhound a good scratching under the ears. ”Aren’t you a smart girls, yes you are.”
Vilstrax regarded the brick at her feet. Perhaps using Kobal as a baseline, then yes, the hellhound was a smart girls. This was going to be a long ritual, fortunately it was a long night. Best to get on with it.
“Kobal, release the hellhound!”
Kobal squatted down as best as his skeletal frame would allow. He whispered something into each of the hellhounds ears, their eyes lighting up a dull glowing orange as they received their instructions. Finishing, Kobal stood and gave the hellhound room as it began to sniff the air, its three majestically curly heads working in unison as it triangulated an elusive scent. It wasn’t long before the three heads were in agreement and this year’s hellhound took off in pursuit of its quarry.
Kobal and Vilstrax took off after the hellhound. She wasn’t sure what it was hunting other than a human of questionable quality, but the hellhound had locked onto something. It made its way down the small street that ran through the small village that they had selected for this years ritual, sniffing the ground and the air and the bit in between as it went, following the invisible trail that had been left behind. Eventually the hellhound slowed and began following a path up to one of the houses. Vilstrax and Kobal followed it at watched as it began pawing at the door, determined to go in. Vilstrax grinned a grin of too many needle-like teeth as she unsheathed her sword. Kobal pulled the hellhound back from the door as Vilstrax strode up to it, her sword lighting up in flames as she did so. She barely broke her stride as she kicked the door clear off its hinges.
The hellhound rushed into the house, snagging a jacket on on of its heads as it did so. It bounded up the stairs in a clatter as it dragged the coat rack, four coats, and an umbrella as it homed in on its prey. Vilstrax and Kobal followed, the light from Vilstrax’s sword illuminating the way. At the top of the stairs, they found the hellhound scratching away at a door and again, the door flew inwards as Vilstrax barged through.
The hellhound bounded onto the bed within and began nudging and slobbering on the sleeping occupant who awoke to a three headed hound and a face with more teeth than necessary grinning at him. Before he could scream, Vilstrax had the suddenly awake human by the throat and lifted him up until his hair brushed the ceiling. The hellhound began chewing his pillow.
“Kobal, what is this human most foul guilty of?”
Kobal sniffed the human. “Murder, master.” A quick lick of the humans leg, “The murder of millions, master. The worst of the murderers in this village.”
Vilstrax regarded the human in her grasp. It didn’t look like a warrior, a slayer of millions. She looked around the bedroom. She’d been in the bedrooms of those who had slayed millions. This was not one of those. Plus, surely if there had been a murderer of millions up here, she’d still be stuck down below sorting through the immigration paperwork.
“What, praytell, is this human the murderer of millions of?”
With a fingernail the length of a breadknife, Kobal poked the human. “Yesterday he committed genocide, master. He stamped poke and he squished poke and he poisoned poke until there were no poke more poke left poke.”
Decapitated teddy bears, an ice cream van at a playground on a hot day that had no ice cream left but continued to play that damn music in to eternity. Vilstrax was rapidly running out of happy thoughts.
“Kobal, what did this human murder?”
“Those little tiny black creatures, master. That scurry across the earth. He poke murdered them.”
Vilstrax closed her eyes. When she opened them, the fire in them had gone out. She flicked her sword and the fire on that went out as well. She took in the havoc that the hellhound had caused in the bedroom, the pillows were destroyed and it had somehow tangled itself up in the doona. Its purpose finished, it was snoozing happily on most of the bed. She gently lowered the human back onto the bed beside the snoring hellhound, apologising profusely for disturbing his slumber and offering the hellhound as compensation.
Vilstrax threw Kobal through the window just as the sun crested the horizon. He was dust before he the hit the ground. The sunlight shone on the curtains as a breeze gently billowed them, allowing fingers of light to play over Kilstrax’s form as it began to crumble.
There should be other beds in here, but there aren’t. My health insurance buys me a room to myself, so I’ve got it, but it looks like at least two other people have been wheeled into a corridor somewhere to make it happen. I’m not sorry. I like the privacy. I want to be alone.
With all this space, you’d think I’d have a bathroom, but I don’t. I have to get out of bed, stagger across the excess yardage of this room to the door, cross the hall and use the shower and toilet facilities in the corridor. It’s like friggin’ Beirut in that corridor. Not that I’ve been to Beirut. Or Mogadishu. Or Baghdad, or any other place that people without any experience of a warzone liken to normal, safe things that aren’t anything like a warzone, in their efforts at hyperbole. Anyway there’s stuff happening in that corridor that makes me long for the cold sterility and endless synthetic flooring of my private room.
So that’s where I stay, and stare at the long wall of timber panels that look like they should be storage, but aren’t. It’s very weird. This is a weird room. Maybe because the last one I stayed in was – and I can’t believe I’m using this word to describe a hospital room – cosy. And not just by comparison. Its cream walls had faintly art deco sconces and the floor had a kind of bald carpet that muffled the sounds of people’s shoes. Here, people squeak in and out without mercy. And in that previous room, I had tables and shelves, filled with flowers and knick knacks from home. But it was a longer stay, and six weeks ago, and the first tidal wave of bad news. People rise to the occasion.
There’s nowhere to put flowers in this capacious room, no furniture except my bed, my IV trolley, my wheely table, and the crowded bedside table with its stupid phone with the tangled cord. Mum is the only one who calls on that phone, everyone else just sends me a text. But when that phone rings and I reach for it, the cord is so tangled that the entire thing comes with the receiver. The weight of it falling off the table creates a medical emergency as I try to catch it and am punished with crippling pain from the enormous incision down my abdomen. It’s not Mum’s fault. But it’s a stupid phone. And a weird room. And I want to go home. And not have this happening to me. And.
I’m not allowed to go home. Not until I can master the sadistic toy that the physio gave me. It has a tube, and a clear plastic housing that contains three coloured balls. When I say coloured, they’re all blue, but one is pale blue, the next is a middling shade of blue, and the last is dark blue. When you blow in the tube, first the light blue ball hits the top of the plastic housing. If you blow hard enough the next one also hits the top. But you have to blow really hard to get all three balls to the top in the one breath. And right now, it’s just not happening. Crippling pain, and all that. The things they come up with to measure your progress. Blowing into a tube will determine my fate. Like a random breath test. Ha! Fucking sadist.
It’s Christmas Eve. This – indicates hospital room – is not a Christmas tradition of mine. This is a first. Well, it’s obviously not my first hospital room, but it’s my first Christmas Eve spent in one. Not something I want to turn into a tradition. Once is definitely enough.
They try to make the best of it. They had some awkward carolers come visit. Volunteers, I suppose. A bunch of strangers file into the room and admire all the space. ‘This is a big room, isn’t it?’ and smile at you like you’re the lucky one. Then they start singing at you, trapped in your bed and tied down with tubes and attachments, a captive audience. Because nothing says ‘festive season’ like people you’ve never met invading your private space to shout glad tidings and joy at you, after an assault on your body carrying off parts of your organs and all of your remaining sanity. Anyway.
Dad’s little act of love was typical. He lugged in a portable flat screen TV and a DVD player, so that Nick and I can watch Love Actually tonight. One of our actual traditions. Dad had to purloin an extra wheelie table to accommodate the set up. I couldn’t spare my first wheelie table. They expect me to eat dinner, so I need a place to pretend to eat off. It’s a charade we all enjoy. And good to know that with Beirut happening in the hallway and two ailing people possibly ousted from this room, spare wheelie tables can still be purloined. Perhaps I am the lucky one.
The reality of which might slowly be uncovered.
Gradually, as if via drips from a leaking tap, things might turn out to be ok. Perhaps starting tonight, when Nick will give me my Christmas present early, allowing my ear lobes and throat to sparkle and glint in the sunlight of the following day – at home. Later still, when the cancer is eradicated the first time, and then a second time. And continuing, years later, when this Christmas Eve is just a bad memory – awkward, lonely, and painful – but undeniably laced with gratitude. When the scars from the incision are fading, but the ghosts of the past still haunt the blood tests of ordinary life.
They opened me up in hospital and took some things out. They unwittingly put other things in, that I didn’t have before. Some of them are things that I still carry, without even realising. But the load gets lighter, and the future less improbable as time goes on.
So perhaps that’s what my Christmas story is about. Hope.
‘Try to be patient honey, getting in a strop isn’t going to help.’ Gary’s wife was fiddling with her phone in the passenger seat, tapping with a flat finger while she swiped up, down and side-to-side in a rapid pattern comprehensible only to herself. The display on her screen whizzed past in a slideshow of machine gun images as she switched between Facebook (pics of the packed bag, captioned ROAD TRIP! with champagne glasses emoji), Instagram (#vacay #girlsquad #blessed) and the group message app (En route. Flat white. CU soon xx). Every so often her nails clacked on the screen and she cocked her wrists at increasingly unnatural angles to avoid chipping her extravagant nails. They were painted a glowing shade of green not usually found in nature but more than likely ironically named ‘mint’. There were sparkly diamantes embedded in the varnish.
‘A strop? A str-?’ Gary checked himself, took a breath. Mariana was headed off on a girls’ trip to New Zealand, and him getting worked up about traffic, or anything else for that matter, would likely mean his ears would burn for the next five days while his marriage got a good working over by the ‘girls’ – all in their fifties – over cases of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and plates upon plates of cheeses and olives and artisanal breads. Nope. Better to stick with the brownie points for dropping her at the airport.
There was no changing lanes while these bastards refused to let you in. He waited patiently, indicator ticking, while a bus manoeuvred from one lane to another, and then snuck in behind it. The big orange buggers could provide good cover if you timed it right.
Mariana broke into his thoughts again. ‘Now, don’t forget Max’s pills. And I left his food in the freezer, the individual portions just need to be zapped for about 45 seconds. But blow on it first, he won’t eat it hot.’
‘Yes all right, I know.’ The instructions for the dog were far more involved than any advice she’d left about the kids. Their two silent teenagers would only appear when they needed food, money or a lift somewhere, and he’d been parenting them for close on nineteen years, so holding the fort there was no issue. But Mariana did usually see to the dog.
The traffic was moving a little steadier now, he might actually be able to drop her off and be at work by 10am. That would be something. He’d been dodging the GM for a few weeks in the hopes that next year’s sales forecasts wouldn’t need changing after the market shocks of the weekend, so he’d probably better get in first and have Sabrina run the report again – BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!
Gary touched the brakes and Mariana’s phone flew out of her hands and onto the floor.
‘Fuck! ARSEHOLE!’ Gary exploded. A taxi had cut into his lane just as they were merging to exit towards the airport.
‘Jesus, Gary, it’s ok, we’re ok!’
‘Did you see that? Bloody taxis, I swear to God…’
‘It’s ok, we’re nearly there, just relax hon.’ Mariana’s voice was muffled as she bent her head under the dash to retrieve her phone. ‘Ah shit, I’ve lost a diamante.’ She held her fingers up to scrutinise the nails. ‘Damn.’
Gary pulled the car into the drop off zone outside the international terminal. ‘Well at least we made it in time, and in one piece. Except the diamante.’ He leant over the give Mariana a kiss on the cheek. ‘You right with your bag? I can’t stay here long, that bloke in the vest is going to move me along. Got your passport?’
Mariana laughed loudly as she climbed out of the car. She opened the back car door to pull out her wheelie bag and spoke to him through the open door. ‘I’m fine, the bag’s easy. It’s all good honey. You’re amazing, you know. One minute you’re all tetchy and the next you’re making jokes as you drop me off. Love you babe.’
Gary was sheepish. Such displays of affection were appreciated but habitually rare in a twenty year marriage. But he wasn’t sure what was funny. ‘Love you too. What joke?’
‘The one about the passport! Trying to get me all worried. I’m only going to New Zealand!’
Gary stared at her. ‘Hang on. Wait! Did you not bring your passport?’
‘What? No! Of course not! I don’t need it!’ She was still laughing, but a little less confidently.
Gary pulled on the handbrake, shut off the ignition and stepped out of the car. He walked around the rear of the car just as one of the hi-vis-clad workers started towards him, clearly concerned that an errant vehicle was going to be clogging up valuable stopping space.
Gary stood on the kerb with Mariana. ‘Maz, love. Be serious with me now. Have you got your passport?’
She was looking at him uncertainly now. She adjusted the handbag slung over her shoulder and re-gripped the handle of the wheelie suitcase. ‘No. I’m only going to New Zealand. I don’t need my passport… Do I?’ Her face started to fall in confusion.
Gary brought a hand to his face and dragged it down slowly, pulling down the sagging skin and burnished stubble until he was quite sure that this moment was not, in fact, a dream.
‘Maz. New Zealand is a different country to Australia. You need your passport.’
‘I do? Are you sure? Oh my God… Fuck.’
‘Oh my God.’
‘You can’t stay here, you need to move your vehicle , sir.’
Gary turned to the drop off zone attendant. ‘I know mate, we’re just having a mild crisis here, can you give me a minute?’
‘You need to move, others are waiting…’ The man in the vest pointed to the traffic starting to back up behind them.
Mariana looked stricken. ‘Oh shit, what am I going to do?’
‘Go inside, talk to the airline, I’ll get going now. If I don’t move now you have no hope. I’ll go get it.’
‘I will. Go find the girls, see if you can delay your flight, whatever you can do. I’ve got to get going. You might still make it but I have to leave now.’
‘Ok. Oh my God. I can’t believe… Oh my God. Alright honey. Thank you. Thank you. Gary?’
Gary was climbing back in the driver’s side door. ‘Yes love?’
‘Love you babe.’
‘Love you too.’
As he pulled back out into the traffic, a Nissan Micra tooted its high-pitched indignation. Gary’s tyres squealed as he accelerated away, middle finger raised at the end of his outstretched arm through the open car window.
The people of Unst were proud of their town with its humble red and white buildings nestled at the base of the fierce Mountain. They knew who they were within its confines; resilient, no nonsense people content with the simple life they had maintained for generations. They also knew too much about each other to be anything but proud. A lesser sentiment would have torn the small, isolated community apart.
The history of Unst was central it its existence. The heroes and traitors of its past, the twists and turns of its evolution provided a map for the souls of its people. The detailed folklore of Unst had been written down with great care and added to by each generation. It was taught in the school and recounted in the street. Every family knew the names of the builders responsible for their home’s construction. Every business knew the reason for its origin. It was not unusual for an illustrated history of a building to be displayed at the entrance on a large wooden board and for the characters from its past to be revered as the guardians of the present day inhabitants.
Within days of returning to their homes, the people of Unst had restored the familiar rhythms of town life. The fishing boats set off from the dock each morning and reappeared with full hauls at twilight. The school bell rang out a daily tempo for the women and children, and the hotel radiated light and music every evening except Mondays. The familiar cycles of life completed the people of Unst.
Everyone was happy to be back in the town except Margaret. She took an extra week to return from the mainland and when she did reappear, was sullen and refused to reopen the Store, causing great anxiety throughout the town.
The Convenience Store was central to local life. It stocked the things people never thought they needed until they did; needles and ear-buds, twine and tape. It’s warm, cluttered interior provided a safe place to meet and share the secrets that could not be divulged in the hotel or on the street.
The Store’s absence from daily life hurt the people of Unst, unsettling their social rhythms and diminishing their sense of self. And yet, some whispered, Margaret’s behaviour wasn’t altogether surprising. The Store had a troubling history of distinguishing itself from the rest of the town and its ongoing closure was surely just another manifestation of a bigger problem.
The Convenience Store was one of the oldest buildings in Unst yet the records were silent on its origin. There were only rumours. Some said it had been built to house the barrels of fish that kept the earliest settlers alive but others whispered that it had been the town’s first morgue, hastily constructed after the unmentionable events of 1822. Whatever the truth, no names were ever attributed to the building’s creation and the only features Margaret’s family had ever displayed at the Store’s entrance were the wooden barrels stuffed with weekly specials and fishing nets.
Then, one morning without any warning, the Store’s lights suddenly came back on. This was particularly good news for the fishing fleet which had been caught in a storm the previous day, leaving many of its nets in tatters. And if truth be told, there had been a far greater need for earbuds amongst the people of Unst than anyone could have imagined. So the Store’s reopening was greeted with a great sense of relief and Margaret was quietly forgiven for her retreat from town life.
And so it was that everything appeared to return to normal. The fishing boats set off each morning, the school bell rang out through the day and the lights of the Unst Convenience Store went on and off in time with the rhythms of the town.
But something had changed.
The barrels of specials still appeared at the entrance of the Store each morning and the fishing nets and hooks hung in their usual place. But the warmth and familiar smells of the Store were gone and Margaret, who had always been such a welcoming presence, now refused to come out from the back, replaced by a sign instructing customers to leave their money on the counter.
A town meeting was called. Something had to be done. Perhaps Margaret needed an assistant. Her life had surely become lonely since Ewan had died and it was well known that arthritis was slowly crippling her hands. Or perhaps the time had finally come to address the Store’s unacknowledged past. After all, a building in Unst without a history was like a body without a soul. Even if its origins lay in tragedy, this needed to be acknowledged and the building’s guardians restored to the town. That was the way of the people of Unst. Their heritage was their strength and Margaret and the Store had shut themselves off from the past for too long.
And so it was decided. Margaret would be appointed to head a Special Committee of History and an illustrated board would be made for the Convenience Store’s entrance. The meeting adjourned in high spirit and a small group, fuelled with excitement and beer, headed out into the night towards the lights of the Store, keen to tell Margaret the good news. But within a blink, the Store’s lights went out and when the delegation arrived at its door, they found it locked. Undeterred, they carried on to Margaret’s home a few minutes further down the path – she could only just have left the building and they would surely catch her along the way.
But when they arrived at Margaret’s house they found it was also dark and silent. Their knocks and calls went unanswered and Margaret’s notoriously pesky cat, Mercury, was nowhere to be seen. A tentative step inside revealed a home that had been abandoned. The fire had not been lit for days and the food on the shelves was rotten. Later, there were whispers that Margaret’s house had been gripped with the same still cold that enveloped the Store.
The people of Unst were proud of their town. They knew who they were within its confines and were completed by the rhythms set across generations. Their past was their present and their strength. The living history of Unst could not be denied.
Indeed, it would go down in the annals of the northern region that only four weeks after being evacuated from the base of an erupting mountain, the extraordinary people of Unst had returned to their homes unscathed and re-established their ancient lifestyle. The fishing boats left the dock each morning, the school bell rang time for the women and children and every morning, just before dawn, the Convenience Store lights came on and the barrels of specials appeared out the front as if, some said, by magic.
Grandpa could fix just about anything. He worked for the railways as a communications technician and throughout his life developed skills in carpentry, woodturning, electronics, building and lock-smithing, just because he could. He had a workshop in his garage, where tools hung in the right place on a painted backboard and where blood blisters were inflicted on unsuspecting fingers by old-fashioned vices. Coffee tables, side tables, bookshelves and chests were cut, sawn, created, assembled and finished off in that workshop, and my siblings and I would play with the sweet smelling curls of the wood-shavings until we shredded them into dust. Later, those shelves and tables furnished our shared flats as young adults, fresh out of home. I can still breathe in that smell and recall that garage. Everything in there, including grandpa’s dark blue overalls, was spattered with varnish, paint and woodworking glue, adding an astringent tang to the deeply dusty, woody scent.
Behind the door of the garage hung an old canvas bag with a cord threaded through its top as a drawstring. The bag was filled with tennis balls, the grey bald kind, and a few fluffy yellow ones, and it was where we checked for the suitable tool for whatever game we might need to play in Grandpa’s backyard – tennis, cricket (both kinds – French and Australian), Brandy, ‘keepings off’ – as long as we met his terms of avoiding hitting the apple tree, plum tree, crabapple tree or vegie garden, the last of which was seasonally replete with my favourite red and yellow tomatoes, which could be filched at any time with his blessing.
Grandpa had his teeth removed when he was young – possibly as young as 14 – and oh, how he loved to take out his dentures and flap his bare gums at us to provoke shrieks of terror and mirth combined. ‘Give us a kiss!’ he’d mug, and us, just little kids in awe of our incredibly old grandfather, screamed and ran as he grinned maniacally. He’s chase us down the hallway like the most hilarious and benevolent Igor.
I’m not sure why he had his teeth removed: if I had to guess, I’d say Grandpa’s assessment of the cost/benefit analysis came down on the side of practicality. He’d have seen being toothless as preferable to a lifetime of paying for fillings and visiting dentists. Mind you, he told us it was so that he could eat all the lollies he wanted, which he did. He would do a special trip to a wholesale outlet once a week and would come home to fill up his lolly jars. There was never a time when a sweet treat was unavailable. He always, ALWAYS had a roll of peppermints in his pocket or about his person, and when other adults weren’t looking he’d whisper conspiratorially, ‘Want a pep’mint?’ When my mother, grandmother and aunt went through his clothes after his passing, they found peppermints in every pocket of his trousers, cardigans and jackets. It prompted both tears and laughter, but it was also completely unsurprising.
Grandpa was down-to-earth, had a strong work ethic, and a deep-seated sense of justice. He didn’t like anyone to fuss over him but he was happy to heap praise on us grandkids. He rewarded me with gold coins for every A grade I achieved at school, and joked that I would send him to the poorhouse. He had principles and wouldn’t stand for nonsense. He was a teetotaller and at mum’s 21st birthday party he accidentally got everyone drunk because he didn’t trust anyone to run the bar but himself. My father, just starting to court my mother, did the right thing and alerted grandpa to the over-generous measures of alcohol he was dispensing and averted potential disaster.
Grandpa was a passionate Hawthorn supporter. He spent many years with my grandma sitting at Glenferrie Oval watching the Hawks play, and in later years watched them on the telly. Grandpa’s hearing wasn’t great, so he always had the volume up REALLY loud. Unfortunately, for years he had heart problems, including angina, and sometimes the footy would become so exciting he was worried about having a heart attack before he would find out the result. Grandpa set up a system in which Grandma would listen to the footy on the wireless inside while he worked away in the garage. He would check in with her at the end of each quarter, ‘What’s the score, Ed?’ If all went well with the Hawks, he could go ahead and watch the 6.30 replay without incident.
It was his heart that gave way in the end. We didn’t realise that for many years he was taking care of my Grandma, Edna, and had kept her dependence on him quite the secret. He’d done the shopping, the cooking and attending to all the business of the house without anyone cottoning on. He loved her dearly, and on their 50th wedding anniversary he made the only speech I ever heard from him. A man of so few words publicly, he presented her with a medal, made in his own workshop, an award for putting up with him for fifty years.
On the morning he died, Grandma Edna was feeling cold, she just couldn’t get warm. He brought her a cup of tea in bed, and when he felt that her hands were still so cold, he said, ‘Move over Ed, I’ll get in and warm you up.’ And then his gruff old heart stopped.
There’s a lot that’s inexpressible about my love for my grandpa, just as it is difficult to describe a piece of music like Fauré’s Requiem. A requiem can be maudlin and depressing, but this one is neither. When the melody of Part VII: In Paradisum played at the funeral, and Grandpa’s casket glided back behind the curtain, there was such a finality about it that broke my heart; I gave way to grief. But when the music plays now, in it are carried these precious memories of him.
I don’t know if my childhood memories are as true for others as they are for me, but they are part of my narrative, and the indefinable sense I have to this day, of my dear gruff Grandpa. Fauré’s requiem once made me let him go, but now it brings him back.
This post was originally published by the author in 2014 at https://alphabetinmyipod.wordpress.com/
“The thing is, Garry, I have to start thinking about my legacy because Alan is going to hell and the bastard is going to take everyone with him. This policy is the last chance for all of us to cut through, to leave our mark.
Garry sat impassively, pushing strands of linguini around the bottom of his bowl as the familiar speech continued.
“I’ve given thirty years of my life to the party and I’m damned if I’m going to let them kill me off quietly. Yes these are unpopular cuts but we have a rationale, Garry. My rationale! I developed it at the ‘89 conference and it’s never seen the light of day. The bastards never had the guts.
As he gained momentum, Neville began waving his fork around, sending flecks of salsa verde flying onto his advisor’s pristine white cotton shirt.
“Surviving three years of Labour is like surviving the Titanic, Garry. And like those desperate people floating in the Atlantic in 1912, Australians have been left with very few options. But the Nationals have a plan. We want to take the life rafts away. Not because we are sadistic maniacs. Not because we see no hope. But because we want you to swim. We want every single Australian to find his (or her) inner Thorpie and butterfly away from the flotsam and jetsam of Labor’s economic wreckage. Not cling to it until they drown!”
Garry stared out the window at a lonely street lamp glowing defiantly through the sleeting rain. He wished he was out there with it.
“You can’t be a winner until you become a fighter, Garry. That’s what my father told me. And that is what I am going to tell my electorate.”
Neville aggressively tapped a piece of paper lying on the table between the two men.
“It’s my parting gift to the voters and I want it to shine through in my final policy statement!”
Garry sighed as he moved to subdue his employer.
“It’s too radical Nev. The electorate don’t like radical, especially when it relates to their health. The focus groups are very clear on this. People don’t agree that pricing life saving treatments out of their reach will improve their resolve to stay healthy. They just want drugs.
Garry pushed the piece of paper back across the table towards Neville.
“This statement is suicide.”
“Treasury agree with me.” Neville retorted.
“No,’ Garry corrected his boss. ‘The treasury memo said that if 20% more chronically ill people were denied treatment, they would die prematurely and we would save billions on long term health care.”
“Well I like that thinking too.” Neville replied pretending his full attention was now on the last piece of garlic bread.
“We would be willfully sending thousands of people to their graves.” Garry persisted.
“Or to the gym, Garry. There could be all sorts of unforeseen benefits from a tougher approach.”
Garry looked at the time on his phone and felt his edges beginning to fray.
“It would also kill off your career two months before it’s natural death. Is that how you want to end your time as Health Minister?”
Neville leaned across the table towards Garry as far as his girth would allow. He was not for turning.
“Alan wants to see me go out in a box no matter what I do. I could have been PM you know.”
Garry looked about the crowded restaurant for the waiter and pointed down at their near empty wine bottle before reluctantly turning back to his boss.
“…Tim said I was the most cutting edge strategic thinker the Nationals had ever produced. Alan was terrified of me until that bullshit in Malaysia. And if he hadn’t lied his pants off to the Commission, excuse the pun, I would be sitting in the Lodge right now. You too, Garry. Don’t forget that. I would have taken you with me.”
“You’re taking me with you now.” Garry thought ruefully.
The waiter arrived at the table with another bottle of Hunters Hill Merlot and silently filled their glasses.
“I’ve never been able to shake it off, you know.” continued Neville. “Last week, some old duck at a Rotary lunch said she wanted to see me bled to death on television – a Rotary member!”
“Do you think you’ll go up or down?” asked Garry taking a large swig of wine.
“What?” Neville replied absently.
“Heaven or Hell?” challenged Garry. ”Which one are you going to?”
“Oh, fuck off, Garry.
When the dense bushland finally gave way to a lush green lawn, Mrs Babcock cried out with relief and, lifting her skirts, trotted at an impressive pace across the lawn towards a large white weatherboard house.
Her daughter, Eleanor, marched silently after her mother, pulling her younger sister behind her. She noted with annoyance that the pathway they had strayed from was now just a few short strides away. Her sister Olive, who had expressed no sensible opinions since leaving Melbourne, simply whimpered as she was dragged up the front steps of the house to the well lit verandah.
All in all, it took the women a full five minutes to travel the short distance from their carriage at the roadside to the door of Mr Terry’s Retreat. Their brief but unexpected detour through the bush had left them quite shaken and they presented an ashen faced proposition to their host when he finally opened the door.
‘My goodness ladies, whatever has happened to you?’
‘Oh Mr Terry, it has been too terrible for words.’ Mrs Babcock cried, throwing herself into Mr Terry’s arms. ‘As soon as we got here, Olive wandered away from the carriage and disappeared. We had to go into that dreadful bush, calling and calling, only to find her sitting amongst the leaves babbling something about the trees. I said, this is not the time for a botanical exploration Olive. We are here about your nerves. But she took no notice, and now I fear something has taken hold of her mind.’
‘Dear Mrs Babcock,’ soothed Mr Terry pulling a twig from her hair, ‘let me bring you all inside and we will find you some blankets and a cup of tea.’
‘Or something a little stronger for me if you don’t mind’, whispered Mrs Babcock. ‘My nerves have completely fallen to pieces.’
William H. Terry was unquestionably Melbourne’s most renown clairvoyant. His Books and Herbal Remedy Store in Collins Street was always busy with devotees of the spiritualist movement and those with a curious nature. The shop also served as the headquarters for the Progressive Spiritualists’ League and hosted a constant stream of international mediums including the astounding Dr Peebles and Mrs Emma Hardinge Britain.
On the last Sunday of every month, Mr Terry hosted a seance group, the Energetic Circle, at his Sandurst home several hours carriage ride from Melbourne. The Circle welcomed anyone interested in spiritualism and, as in the case of the visiting Babcocks, those in search of answers.
Mr Terry guided the women into a large drawing room, handsomely decorated with heavy mahogany furniture and a large Turkey rug. A dozen or so people stood around a piano chatting and drinking sherry. Calling to his housekeeper to fetch blankets and more sherry, Mr Terry sat the women down on comfortable chairs in the middle of the room and turned to his other guests.
‘May I introduce Mrs Babcock and her daughters, Eleanor and Olive, who are visiting us from Adelaide.’
The group made welcoming noises as they moved gently across the room towards the new arrivals.
‘The ladies came to see me in Collins Street on Friday and we spent quite some time discussing remedies for a number of their conditions. I suggested they might benefit from a visit to us this evening. And here they are.’
As the Babcocks settled themselves with their blankets and sherry, the other guests sat around them arranging their chairs into a rough circle. Several conversations began at once as they often do with the middle class.
‘It was only last week that I wrote a piece about your wonderful city for ‘The Argus’, Miss Babcock. In my opinion, your religious architecture is some of the most impressive in the country…’
‘… how could you not have heard about the suffragette outrages in London? Oh my dear they are climbing the telegraph poles and cutting the wires!’
‘… I eventually found a mixture of wormwood and laudanum was the most beneficial for my movements.’
Olive, who had remained aloof from the conversations, suddenly spoke up with such force that she brought the room’s chatter to a halt.
‘They say there are spirits in the trees. Do you think there are spirits in the trees, Mr Terry? I think I saw a spirit in the trees just earlier.’
Mrs Babcock was acutely embarassed by her daughter’s interjection.
‘For heaven’s sake Olive, Mr Terry doesn’t want to hear that nonsense.’
‘Not at all Mrs Babcock,’ Mr Terry replied gently and sitting next to Olive, took her hand. ‘I believe there are spirits everywhere. Why it was in this very room at our last circle, that we were seated just as we are now when we heard a loud tapping noise coming from the table behind you.’
Everyone turned to look at a heavy, polished wooden dining table with several high backed chairs arranged around it.
‘To our amazement, the table rose several inches from the floor and moved over the carpet, landing right where it sits now. You will note, ladies, its unusual positioning over to the far edge of the rug.’
Mrs Babcock and Olive stared at the table, clearly alarmed by its unworldly properties. Eleanor also stared silently but with her gaze directly at Mr Terry.
‘So if the spirits are content to commune with us through a table, Miss Olive, I have no doubt they will also happily occupy the trees.’ Mr Terry finished with a dramatic raise of his eyebrows and a broad smile for Eleanor.
Olive turned to her mother and her bottom lip began to tremble.
‘You see my problem Mr Terry,’ Mrs Babcock said emptying her sherry glass and looking for a refill. ‘Poor Olive is either in the midst of some dreadful preternatural attack or she has completely lost her senses and I fear I am losing mine along with her.’
‘There now, Mrs Babcock’, Mr Terry comforted. ‘The Energetic Circle is regularly visited by benevolent spirits with messages and guidance for those in need. I feel there is a very good chance that you may receive their assistance this evening.’
Mrs Babcock coloured at the thought of communing with the spirit world and immediately agreed that the evening could hold the answer to all their problems. Olive’s pale countenance and Eleanor’s steely glare suggested otherwise.