Just One More Time

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 One More Time

 The dew on my face and arms felt like sweet kisses. The light breeze carried the dampness which had eased the heat of the night. I pumped the pedals of my bicycle in a steady rhythm. Kookaburras’ laughs echoed through  a stand of stringy gums as I left the paved road and travelled into the bush along a  narrow path through the bush grass. The packed hard clay was covered in loose white powder that rose in puffs as my bicycle tyres made tracks through it. The low sun glinted on the toffee brown river, and moisture glossed the pale olive leaves of the gums, surrounded by their tan and beige curling skin, as if they were the first sunburn victims of the hot season. The  black bush ants crawled over and around the detritus of the gums, collecting treasure and returning to their great hills on the bush side of the track. The wending track led to the curve of the Ovens where a wide bank of sand sloped gently down from the stands of wattle, stringy bark and black boys; what amounted to the last of the  bush left behind the golf links. The main point of coming here was the water hole that spread out at this curve of the river. It was called the ‘Golf Links’ locally and most of the kids in a five kilometre radius knew it was a good place to go on the river, you could sit and sunbake on the wide bank of sand, and the water was free of dangerous currents.

Dismounting my bike and lying it down upon the sand, I  removed my t-shirt and shorts revealing a o bronze-coloured bathing suit with patches worn thin from sun-baking on last year’s river sand. Familiar as the scene before me was, it was mid-November and months since my last early autumn swim here. The lack of mechanised sounds was newly sacred. I held my breath and stilled my whole body as if I  might be able to melt into the atmosphere. Here there was the faint buzz of a dragon fly over the sun dappled water. I could hear the water’s slap slosh against the huge carcass of a river gum that poked its’ limbs into the air mid-stream. A huge Gum on the opposite bank supplied the limb for an old rope swing, that was being attacked at that very moment by the sharp beak of a magpie. Its’ mates were gargling with glee higher in the tree, observing with reddish brown eyes the laughing Kookaburras.

I gasped as I entered the cool river, but it wasn’t enough to deter me. The volume of water allowed a good depth where the sand bars dropped away , but the current was lazy. I stretched my limbs in the yellowish water; its colour was due to clay and the valuable sand quarried from further downstream.  The lethargy of what had seemed an interminable warm night washed away, I struck out towards the huge tree using my best version of the Australian Crawl. Another dragon fly darted in front of my face and away.  With around thirty strokes I reached the half-submerged tree and, at first slipping and banging my knee, found a foothold on a knot just below the water and clambered onto it. The breeze was just occasional puffs now, so I could settle against the remains of an upright limb and be as still as possible without freezing.

Slowing my breathing I waited; then I had a heart quickening thought. Checking around me, I  looked for any active snakes that might be sunning themselves or swimming toward the log from the high approximate bank.  After looking around for a while I settled again. The gum platform was wholly in the shade, not a popular landing spot just yet, though I was waiting for an Azure Kingfisher to do just that. To see the sapphire breasted and smallest local member of the Kingfisher family was my goal before heading home for breakfast. Stilling every muscle, I fixed my eyes on the closest bank – the spherical opening into which I had seen one of the feathered fishers disappear the previous week. My right leg with which at knee height I straddled a hideous knot was becoming numb when I saw it. It flitted over the lower log far to my left just within the line of peripheral vision. I turned only my head and focused. Its black beady eye was like the dot of an exclamation mark on the sunny stripes of its’ head. Its wings became blurred like a hummingbird’s as it hovered, darted and hovered again, the rising sun making a jewel of its sapphire-bright breast. I leaned closer for a better view, shivered and  huffed ;it was gone.  I felt the smile on my face all the way back to the gritty shore. When I arrived home, tea and toast with apricot jam  tasted so good  when consumed with my memories of that delicate and delightful creature.

Three hours later after showering and chores and the ritual of sunscreen, which was seldom reapplied, I met two of my friends, Tricia and Teresa at the intersection closest to the river path, with towels, drinks and excited chatter.

When we arrived on the sand the boys, Tricia’s brother Michael( known as Mick), his friend ‘Michael W known as Mike, and Peter, Tricia’s boyfriend  were already hollering and yahooing. They had climbed the opposite bank and were taking turns swinging on the rope far out into the middle of the “waterhole” between he banks. We girls chatted and splashed in the shallows then struck out towards the opposite bank. Traversing the hard packed clay to reach the tree was slippery when we were dripping but sliding back towards the water was more amusing than dangerous. It surprised me how close the limb used for the swing was to ground and the water. A person had to run and swing with all their might, letting go at the perfect moment, or they might crash into the bank. I watched the four of my friends swing until they were getting tired before I got up the courage for a go.

I ran and pushed my legs forward so hard it felt like my hips and waist would separate. I felt keenly the lack in my short, slight frame. For a second the sight of the water frightened me.

Should I let go?

The heavy rope grazed my hands. I released one hand which went in front of me, and then the other. The water stung my outstretched arm like a Chinese burn, as I  plunged under the surface. Then I was up, breathing, laughing with more relief than pleasure, as I determined to try again. This time I would swing out further, and let go both hands at once. The others were laughing and calling out advice. One of the two Michaels said, “That was bloody awkward.”

I put on my game face and struggled up the bank.

One morning in late December the whole group arrived together. After about ten minutes in the water, we were overwhelmed by the stench of rottenness. If a person launched out on a trajectory  across the stream to the area below the rope swing,  lifting their head for a breath midstream,  a foul gas made them want to choke.

“What the hell is that stink?” my school mate Richard who had joined us for a ‘stinking hot day’ swim remarked. The group now standing on the clay ledge hidden beneath the water under the tree, looked like they were walking on water if you shut one eye and watched from midstream. The earthy smell of wet clay and floating gum leaves was a dead second to the stink. Dead was appropriate because the boys couldn’t resist wading upstream in the shallows, and discovered the bloated carcass of a reddish brown cow. The flies had turned her eyes into a dance hall, and the white wriggling mass around her gut was evoked by their rough descriptions of the flies’ activities.

“How long do you reckon it will take for the stink to stop?” Tricia asked.

No one replied. Combined with the hunger evoked by half an hour’s swimming, and five turns each on the rope swing, the smell of the rotting cow was turning stomachs.

“Let’s come tomorrow early before it gets too warm”, suggested Peter ,” It shouldn’t stink too much then.”

We decided to go back to Tricia’s place, change and go to the local Olympic pool. We spent two hours that afternoon swimming around in the sanitised blue pool.  We ate pies and  something called redskins – tacky raspberry toffees named with political incorrectness. We tried to get comfortable on the prickly buffalo grass of lawn, but unless you could get comfortable on the warm concrete it was useless. The ‘buffalo’  stood up to the wear and tear of hundreds of feet, but the leaves poking through your towel gave you an irritable red rash on your back.

The next day when I called Tricia, she told me that her mother had “gone ape” when she heard about the dead cow. Michael had told a colourful tale of how far he had swung on the rope swing that day, and how great it was. Then he described to their younger sister Tessa, in graphic detail, the death and the smell of the unfortunate cow. Tessa objected to the story, and informed her mother that Michael had seen a dead cow in the river swimming hole.

 When their mother heard she said, “That water hole is pretty still isn’t it? That cow could have died from a disease and there it is sitting rotting, right by where you’re swimming. It’s unsanitary, that’s what it is.”

Michael could see where this was going so he tried to convince his mother it would all be OK. “ It’s not right where we’re swimming  Mum, it’s about 300 metres upstream on a sand bar.”

“So, it’s upstream from where you’re swimming? That’s it, you cannot go there swimming until it’s been removed.”

 That was part of the beginning of the end of swimming in that great Waterhole in the Ovens River. When the other mothers found out, and that took about an hour, swimming at the waterhole was considered the most dangerous thing for your health next to building the Panama Canal before inventing a vaccination for Yellow Fever. It was the most horrifying thing imaginable. We were relegated to the sanitised, safe local pool.

This meant – no early morning swims – you had to wait until the pool opened. It meant a regulation swimming costume at all times. There was no thrills like seeing Kingfishers diving for food, or watching canny Kookaburras find a young snake mid- morning. There was no swimming between the hot and cold patches that occurred naturally in the river, floating with the sun on your face, or cooling down by dogpaddling in the shade of an old gum. No chance of swimming in the river during the early or late stages of a freak summer storm, endangering your life, as you watched charcoal clouds with purple lightning blow south. The pool shut before you could watch Venus appear on the horizon, its reflection in the water. And the danger of jumping or diving  from the high board couldn’t match the thrill of that rope swing.  At the pool, it was warm to hot concrete, and the freezing deep end; and the boastful, rough bombings of the Yarrunga boys who owned the territory around the diving board. It was a long summer where swims were restricted to around two hours before three o’clock when the pool was in full sun, and the long rides home meant you were hotter than when you started out.

It was the  summer when I turned sixteen that put paid to the Golf Links though. There had always been the odd beer bottle down there, and the remains of a fire now and then. Evidence of hijinks by older teenagers who could drive or were the kind that got that creepy bloke who hung around the railway pub bottle shop to buy them beer or ‘brandivino’.

The summer of 1979 was a hot one. We began to enjoy the golf links around November that year. We went for a walk between 11 and 12pm on the 31st of December, and the temperature gauge on the local radio station showed 31.5 degrees Celsius, lit by the glow of the nearby street lights. One thing I loved about those hot summers were the freak storms that came over the mountains to cool things off. When you rode your bike home the evening  one was coming in, you could feel the radiant heat from the footpaths and the buildings on one side of you , and the gusts of wind a few degrees cooler , smelling of damp dust, promising the rain that hadn’t hit you yet, on the other side. You were a moving object between two forces of nature, it was weird and wonderful.

We began that summer with picnics, canoe paddling upstream, and four hour sessions in the water until we couldn’t get the wrinkles out of the skin on our feet and hands. There was the odd day we didn’t go down to the Golf Links, but they were days on which we woke earlier  and did the paper rounds we’d taken over from some boys we knew. Sometimes we couldn’t be bothered, and though I hate to admit it now I read a fair few Mills and Boon novels in the afternoons that summer, and Thomas Hardy to balance things out. My first foray into science fiction as well with 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think that’s why I never feel like Mills and Boon are much more than a way to waste life’s most valuable commodity.

We noticed more than one ashy fire site with half-burned branches, and a lot of beer bottles that summer. Unfortunately, some person unknown had dropped some broken glass in the sand, and one afternoon we had to wrap one boy’s foot in a towel, while another dinked him home on a bike. His mother took the injured boy to the local emergency department, and while he wasn’t allowed to come back (I think he was reluctant anyway) we didn’t tell our parents. It was some time before they found out.

We were annoyed by the glass, and I by the intrusion into what I liked to think of as one of my special places. Still I wondered what it would be like to sit around a fire by the river. When I did years afterwards in non- bushfire season it was fun. The tall solemn shadows of trees contrasted with the liveliness of leaping flames creating a circle of light on those seated at the fire; the breezes gusting causing a kind of musical chairs to avoid the smoke;  and smoked toast and burned marshmallows eaten from the end of gum twigs make a bush camp fire one of life’s rustic pleasures.

One evening in 1979 around the end of January, we stayed late enough to find out what was with the intruders and their activities. It was one of those hot days when we’d only come to swim around 4 pm. By 7pm the sun was lowering over the river, and hunger and sand rash were beginning to niggle. There was a roar behind us, and we heard the sound of tires drumming on the bush track, cracking branches, and making Magpies flutter away.

Two  aged Ford vehicles pulled up; one a beat up ute  and the other a sedan. One of the blonde Yarrunga louts got out, a stout yobbo who I remembered from his braggadocio by the pool, with him was his mate, the brother of another girl I knew from school.  Two dark-skinned boys from the big local  Italian community got out of the other ute.  They called out to us and we waved as country kids do. I had started to wear glasses late that year, after six months of struggling to see the blackboard and headaches, so at first I didn’t recognise one of the Italian boys as a crush of mine, a raven haired and broad-shouldered member of a family who lived around the corner from my house. When they came down on the sand, we expected them to come into the water though we didn’t want them there. Mick, Tricia’s brother had come across from the rope swing, and said hello to the blonde boy who grunted and waved. Then they opened the boot of the sedan, sat on the bonnet of their respective vehicles, and downed about three long necks each, dumping them into the remains of a recent fire.  The blonde boy’s mate got a box of matches out, and two of the others staggered around looking for dry branches. Mick who was already close to six-foot and had a bad temper, and an easy confidence that was rare amongst his peers, approached the blonde boy and his voice carried into the water. “Lighting a fire here in the Summer is a dickhead move.”

Mick had expressed this point of view when we had suggested a fire, and the only fire we had  was out at Boweya, on his Uncle’s farm.

There were some rude gestures, a bit of muttering and some more beer drinking but  the tension remained. As they drank, they got louder, and were standing on the bonnets of their cars throwing bottles and smashing them against a blackened log sitting  in ash. I had already thought about going home but was afraid to go past them to my bike,  leave on my own. By then I had realised that dark-eyed raven-haired ‘boy’  was the someone I had admired for a while from afar. He was one of two boys that were quieter but were intently drinking.  It was sunset and the shadows were long when the blonde boy walked down onto the sand , dropped his shorts, and mooned us. This was followed by  uproarious laughter, and whooping. They were impressed with themselves.

Mike W said “Ignore him. “ Richard laughed which seemed to encourage them. We did a few more rope swings. Then I said to Tricia, “I’m seriously cold. I’m going to get my bike and go home.”

She nodded and followed me to the shore. I was stepping out of the water when the blonde boy and the two Italian boys mooned us. We decided later it was unlikely we could ever “unsee” their pale bottoms backlit by the lowering sun.  I  looked away, grabbed my faded beach towel, t-shirt and footy shorts, and went to my bike. Mick was on the sand yelling at them as I rode away.  Behind me was  the rattle of metal, and the sound of rustling in the bush grass, looking back I  was relieved to see Tricia and Richard coming behind me on their bikes.

I heard a rumour that Mick and Damien his cousin went down there the next week and “had words” with the ‘mooners’. But Richard’s parents were joined by other parents all talking about the trouble down at the Golf Links, and apparently where we swam was 50 percent private and 50 percent crown land. We started going out to Boweya to a pleasant dam on Mick’s uncle’s property.

The next November when I went exploring around town on my bike, taking the longer rides I always did when school was winding down for the year, there was barb wire intersecting the track to the Golf Links.  A sense of loss came over me as I realised that it was attached to a fence that was built to keep us out. Searching for an access point, I came away with scratches on my calves and disappointment weighing on me. It was a place where I had relaxed, had adventures, pondered life and communed with nature. It was a loss I felt keenly for the years that remained in Wangaratta.  I had watched the first activities of the Azure Kingfishers there when the apricot rays kissed the river, and longed for those moments just one more time.

Revised Version of The Turner’s Skeleton Comes to Town

Hello Readers

I didn’t want to lose the previous version and preamble, so I took the easy way out and left it here.

Note: This story is written in the second person

IN the story entitled The Turner’s Skeleton Comes to Town, a being that is trapped in the underworld gets to visit an artist, wreak havoc at Christmas, and remember the experience.

The writer explores the themes of the world of imagination and the kind of immortality available through creative pursuits. The story is attentive to setting, more than other earlier works, references the horror genre, and is more obviously self-reflexive.

Experiments with weirdness continue.

 

The Turner’s Skeleton come to town

I chose that title because I was sick of being an entity without agency, and I wanted to tell my story. I want you to imagine you are me. Afterwards forget May, my dear, that you’ve been unfortunate enough to see me. When these brief Christmas moments ripped from eternity are gone, forget that you thought that this was real. Go on thinking it was a strange dream. That you found your own freedom to celebrate Christmas, no longer working yourself to exhaustion. That’s a lot of freedom for you.

Why did you struggle so much?

Your freedom to this Skeleton who’s done the bidding of your ancestors for two hundred years, seems infinite. Since I’ve had a chance to meet you I understand more about choices, and about surprises. For these brief minutes indulge me as I imagine you are me, and you imagine too.

The ghosts wake your bones from the deepest sleep you’ve had in the past fifty years. It doesn’t matter if you think their reason does not approach the urgent. The head ancestor calls you from your grave deep beneath Devonport. The earth trembles and opens as if it were put into a sifter, and it shakes away from you as you rise. Reaching the surface, you roll in the refuse of what feels and smells like mature bottlebrush. You don’t have flesh to wobble, tremble or bruise but your mandible rattles along with your knees. Like an amputee you experience some sensory stimulus where your failing flesh used to be. Your senses of smell, touch and hearing remain; your sight is you believe controlled utterly by what the ancestors want you to see. Most of the time they lead you blind. You experience continual surprise when you are vertical and moving. You smell and touch things without smashing into them. Vegetation parts around you. A weighty substance drips from your jaws and rolls down your stout bones. It smells like hot metal and murderous mercury. You shudder. When it reaches your knees, you feel the stickiness of webs and the wriggling of avid arachnids. You stand erect, brushing the drooping leaves with your vertebrae. You know that this job is another payback for some Turner descendant’s resented mendacity about the practice of Christmas tradition; briefly summed up with the prosaic words, “someone’s not doing it right”. These words were uttered by the ghost of the two generations’ past Matriarch. You wish that these ancient ghosts were unaware of the attitudes of their descendants. Alas they are, and you are the suffering servant of whims.

Lately, you have learned that May Turner.

Who is she?

You get the answer. May is the great granddaughter of the Matriarch, who has become aware that May is enjoying developing her considerable artistic talent. May is failing in her duty to personally prepare every Christmas delicacy anticipated by her three adult children and their partners.

Begads! There are imprecations galore during the discussion amongst the ancestors. May is enjoying selfish pursuits in no other space than her privileged husband’s shed. She has converted it into a painting studio, with the help of a skylight, some shelving, and reorganisation. While arising from your deep clay grave you were shown in the crystal skull, a magical device that has nothing to with your own cranium, the indifference shown by May. This indifference was displayed when her husband came home from a business trip to discover his shed had become unrecognisable.

Now remember you are taking my point of view, don’t look smug. It’s irrelevant now that you got a fantastical deal on that skylight.

You consider the rumour that has reached you: this past July May did not make Christmas pudding herself. You welcome your remaining sense of smell as the warmth of plump raisins and brown sugar saturated in brandy reaches you. She called Chef Jenny, a local caterer, to make the puddings she would present to her family. You are here to contaminate those heavenly scented creations. A strange sensation like a tic in the middle of your spine starts while molten drops pour from your eye sockets. Words like shame and regret nudge you. You try to control this process, but it does no good; the more you think about those words the more the molten drops pour. Webs and spiders appear up to what used to be your waist.

You approach Chef Jenny’s restaurant pantry. In imagination the morning sun is turning all the melted frost to prisms on the nearby grass. There is a vague recollection the sight might be called beautiful though you are blind to it now. Sensing you are close to the back of the restaurant, you smell cigarette smoke. Someone must be standing there. You go forward and find an unlocked door. Your joints are stiff, and your phalanges seem to rattle as you try to open the door. The smoker is heedless. You remind yourself that no one can hear you unless they have previously seen you. They cannot see you by sun: sufficient LED light can expose you to someone with 20/20 vision.

A welcome thought: perhaps this will make you useless to the ancestors in the 21st century, and they will let you sleep in peace.

With difficulty you open the screen door and find yourself in what must be a food storage. There you smell bicarbonate of soda, spices, dried fruit, and odours you don’t recognise.

As you clank your bones against stainless steel drums, a voice shouts, “Is that you Roy? I’m going into the suppliers to get some fresh stuff. They sent me something I can’t use.”

You wonder about the powers of what you presume is Chef Jenny. It seems no one told her that she couldn’t hear you. Your whole slavery is a mystery, if the ancestors are being mendacious with you, who will stop them?

You stand stiffly by the shelving as Roy’s voice answers the voice within. “I’m still outside. Maybe something has collapsed in the pantry. I’ll check.”

You hear the door bang, heavy footsteps, living-body odour and cigarette smoke.

“Everything’s OK.”

He walks away from you, and then you hear, “I’ll start the stock for the casseroles, and peel the potatoes.”

“Thanks. You should be able to make the sweet and the savoury pastry before I get back too.”

You hear another door slam, and water running. The sound of metal surfaces contacting one another. The thud of a heavy door closing.

You move forward until you feel the straight side of a stainless-steel bin. You reach past it and feel a long expanse of the same stainless steel. You climb onto the bench, and opening the lid of the bin, dangle your phalanges in. There are six bins containing various types of flour and sugar. All of them get the treatment. Your right shoulder twitches as you scent delicious brandy again. Following your senses, you get closer until you extend your forearm, and your finger bones touch glass. You are surprised. Surely you shouldn’t be able to smell through glass. Perhaps there is residue on the outside. You enjoy smelling for a while.

When you leave by the door you entered through, you hear footsteps and Roy’s voice calls, “Who’s there?”

What’s happening? Is there something about this place that causes people to hear you?

You hear a crunching sound and a cloud of dust surrounds you.

You see a bright red automobile pull up beside you. Later you learn via the ancestors’ report that she wore blue, a grey wool hat on her curly black hair and a multi-coloured scarf around her neck. The person walks around the building you just came out of. The perfume of roses and sharpness of oil paint, tempt you to follow the small person you think must be a woman.

She (you decide she must be a woman) returns a minute later with a box containing what smells like raisins and brandy, warm spices, with brown sugar and butter. You realise something could be awry with the plan. Is this May? You sense the answer is yes. You realise you must go with her and determine her identity. Because if it is May, your mission is uncompleted. The puddings she has were already prepared when you arrived and will not be affected by your treatment.

She stares when the back door of her car opens and shuts. What could you do? A word ‘panic’ seems to take form and shimmer around you. You sit tall and silent in the back seat amongst her jumble consisting of a coat, books, a paint smock, and exercise books. She stands quietly staring at her car. She shakes her head and gets in.

You hear her say, “Must have something to do with giving free reign to the imagination. I’ll get used to it.”

The car begins to move, and you struggle to keep your knees from knocking together.

After a while the car stops, you hear a car door open and shut. You hear another door open and you smell the gorgeous scent of the rich pudding again. You hear a beep and a thunk. The footsteps retreat, and the smell gets less and less. The chirping of birds seems louder and louder in the silence. A chill breeze brushes your knuckles.

 You think, how will I get out of this car?

Despite the breeze you are feeling very warm, when you hear a beep and the sound of the locks on the car thudding into place, you jump. The back door of the car opens, and the woman leans across you feeling for something in the mess. Remember she cannot experience you with the senses you have – smell, touch and hearing, and in sunlight she cannot see you. The explanations of the Matriarch seem to echo in your rib cage. She doesn’t know I’m here.

You feel the woman pull out two flat papery things from under your thigh bones. You feel a stronger breeze and take the chance the door is open. Quickly, with a reptilian glide you slip out the door and behind her, she leans over and slams the door. You hear the beep again. You follow. You smell damp bark chips, musty wood, then feel stuffy warmth, and smell oil paint and musk roses. You brush against a wooden bench and sit. You feel the woman right next to you. Pages rustle, you feel the brush of an elbow. You lean away and shuffle until air meets you and you drop to the hard-concrete floor. The woman gasps. You wait for a long time in the silence. Pages rustle again. The woman says aloud, “I am May Turner. I am an artist now and always.”

You nod though no one can see you. You are in the right place.

A long time passes during which you hear the woman talking softly to herself, and the scratch of pencils on paper and canvas. She pauses once, and you hear the grind of a pencil in a large sharpener. You are surprised when you hear quick movements and feel her right next to you. The clatter of wood, the smell of paint, the swish of liquid, the tap of wood against glass, the warmth of roses and oil moves past you again. The canvas is being daubed with paint. You find the sounds and smells soothing.

Bang!

Your skull is ringing. The air is cold, and you hear footsteps. There is silence all around, and as the nagging of the matriarch is remembered: you long for oblivion. Realisation brings the knowledge that you are in the same space, but May is not. Banging your head again, you realise you are lying with your skull under the bench where May stores her paints. Giving a serpentine wriggle you move away from the bench and towards the sound of a metal door tapping in the cool breeze.

Erect, you walk out onto the path. The air now carries wafts of the scent of beef and onion. You walk one direction, and the savoury odour grows faint, you turn the opposite way: it grows stronger and so do your steps. A doorway opens before you.

The rumble of a male voice, answering another male, and breaking into loud guffaws tells you that May is not alone. A steel blade taps against wood. You hear the bubbling of the savoury stew you smelled.

“Evan set the table please”, May’s voice sounds chirpy instead of soft and tremulous. A heavy tread brings a six-foot source of body warmth right up next to you, and the rattle of metal cutlery sounds to your left. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. The heavy tread gets further away,

May’s voice is low and insistent now. “Evan what about glasses and spoons.”

Footsteps again. The draw is open and the stainless-steel clangs now. He opens an overhead cupboard, and you hear the tap of glass against glass. Three pairs of feet moving around now. Crockery, a waft of beef and onions, the scraping of chairs.

“How was your day?”

No reply except the sound of forks on plates, slurps and chewing.

You can hardly believe it when you lean your tired skull forward, then look up. A blurry image rises in front of you: three torsos floating on a rectangular cloud, two are big, and one is smaller. The black curls you hear about later in the Matriarch’s report appear as a cloud of their own, just for a moment. You nod your skull, and when you turn your facial bones towards the domestic noise again, the image is gone.

Chairs move back from the table, and you hear heavy footsteps move away. A loud sound of cheering, and muted voices talking in the background. Right by you the sound of metal scraping ceramic. A sigh. Softer steps on the move are May’s. You follow. She moves into a narrow space, stops at a door. Creaking sounds and you feel a draft making your vertebrae rattle.

The tap, tap and echo tells you she is descending into the drafty space. You stumble on the first step and feel yourself mess up. Shaking and crashing you descend, landing on cold concrete at the bottom. May almost steps on you as she reaches the bottom of the stairs. You roll away from the faint warmth emitted by her presence. She stops, a cupboard door creaks. The fragrance, the warm spicy fragrance of Christmas pudding is both a pleasure, and the welcome sign that your mission could soon be completed. Muffled thuds, and the snap of doors closing. Footsteps ascend the stairs, as you lie coffin still. You go to the cupboard and find it empty. The fragrance lingers. You haul yourself up the stairs by both rails, hopping onto every second step. The door is ajar, and you find yourself in the hall.

Where is May?

In the kitchen eating uncontaminated pudding?

You feel disorientated but find your way back to the living area. Muffled roaring and cheering, excited voices but none sounds like May. You return through the door by which you entered and listen for the sound of the shed door. You hear it shut.

A gladness that you have no voice is sensed. In frustration you would use it now.

Gah!

The shed door opens to you and you are back in the concrete space, with pungent oil and softer rose. Too late you realise you stand in the glare of an LED lamp.

Insistent words from May, “Who are you? Who are you?”

Turning, you rattle and stumble away. Lurching from side to side, staggering back along the gravelly driveway, down the rough verges of the country lane. Wearily, you huddle under the bottlebrush that marks your entry into the nether realm of the ancestors. Stuck, you cannot return without finishing the mission, and you cannot risk the exposure of LED. A night that seems as long as a century passes.

When you finally feel the warmth of the sun, every bone is dripping with wetness. Standing you find your joints clogged with thick sacks of spider silk that make it cumbersome to move. The arachnids have insulated their progeny from the frost at your expense.

May cannot see you by sunlight. The mission must be fulfilled.

A cloud of dust greets you at the entry to May’s driveway. A film of mud now sullies everything about you. The contact of rough bluestone tells you that you’re entering the driveway. The path to the shed is before you and you retrace your bumbling steps.

Silence in the shed. You move around the whole space. Meditating on each smell, a trance of sensation you have not felt in a hundred years bubbles around you. Let this be the last moment before oblivion. Please.

Does the matriarch laugh, or is that some vividly remembered sound?

You stand. You move to the bench where you heard May’s voice. You sit.

For seconds your vision exists: the canvas in front of you is haloed. A skull of silver in a bed of magenta roses. A tiny blue-winged bird with a black head, and fan-shaped tail sits on the skull. The skull is yours. You without the weight of your body. You objectified.

Macabre beauty for a transcendent moment.

A flash and it is gone.

Your spider bugged cage of being crashes back to your present hell.

Search for the puddings. Search for the puddings. A rhythm of vibrations that you sense as words, as if a heart still beat beneath your rib cage.

On a whim, isn’t it all about whims, you return to the cellar discovered the night before. The cupboard when opened contains the strong smell of pudding.

Why were the puddings taken away the night before?

You place your bony digits inside and shuffle them until arachnidom is awakened. The glistening glowing eggs descend like dew, and the puddings are cursed.

Returning to the place from which you came, you sleep the deepest sleep of regret found in two hundred years. The ancestors awaken you too soon – five months later to the day in fact. They restore your sight, so you can join them in watching their practical pettiness in the crystal skull.

May and the two men, plus another man whom you’ve never seen before, along with two women, sit around a table decorated with red candles and golden tinsel.

In front of each one is an empty, gravy smeared plate. The cheeky blonde woman gets up, and turns to Evan. “Now you can eat the traditional pudding you been trying to steal for months.”

Everyone at the table laughs. The man next to Evan fills their empty, smeared glasses with champagne. The blonde comes back with one of the puddings. Glossy egg custard, vanilla bean ice-cream, fruity brown pudding in deep crystal bowls is placed before them all. The blonde gets the rest of the pudding, in case second helpings can be stuffed into swollen bellies. The Matriarch snickers in anticipation. They eat, and sigh with satisfaction. They are discussing putting on a DVD of The Grinch to nap by when it happens.

The one called Evan vomits wriggling arachnids across the already destroyed repast, and the remains of a writhing pudding. There is screaming. There is running. Your spine aches with regret. The ugly pointlessness of spite.

The warm intent of May’s painting: the curves of Skull amongst velvety roses is the imagining you choose. It is your first choice for ages. The painting of you was a gift, and you responded out of not only duress, but habit. You literally have no heart left. You are surprised to see, in your big toe, a twitch that used to accompany the feeling of shame. Released from the viewing, you stumble back to your coffin for the longest, deepest sleep of your shady career.

A sweet dream visits you there in the blackness. You return to May’s shed studio. You enjoy watching her paint for what seems like forever. Avid arachnids are obliterated by the artist’s canvases infused with awakened imagination and acceptance of death. The dream changes over the weeks, into something that reminds you of life before you were an ancestor’s lackey. Sometimes you quiver with a kind of after world malaria — so the ancestors presume. They are reluctant to trust you with another job.

You dream May has painted a landscape with red waratahs, golden callistemon, blue hills, and plains of ochre. There you are suspended in mid-air at the centre, depicted with your bony digits against your mandible in a landscape consisting of your most beloved elements. In the background between the hills is a miniature selfie of May surveying her work. It’s vibrant, as comforting as a family quilt. You become a kind of muse, and you imagine that you are free from the infinite world of the dead.

You dream the one you visit sees you and hears the story with rapt attention. Your apology is accepted. It will be a secret between the two of you, this weird family secret that relieves the artist from the duty of making pudding when she could be making art.

She laughs saying, “Though you made puddings artful to say the least.”

You both admit to being glad that Evan has learned again to accept the very existence of Christmas pudding made by Chef Jenny.

The tiny bit of agency inspired in you by another’s boldness is spent, but the romancing of the skull in oil paints remains.

Did you really see me?

Will you paint a thousand words about me again?

The End

 

The Pearl Bond

Marie-Claire slipped into her short black evening dress. Its cunning cut flattered her tall slender figure and showed off her shapely legs. The V-neck of the bodice was enhanced by a pearl and aquamarine cross, attached to a string of pearls, the gift of her maternal Grandmother. She decided to pair the cross with the blue Tahitian pearl studs that once belonged to her father’s Aunt. They were a prized gift on her 18th birthday, a little over 17 years before.

She remembered Cousin Michelle had whispered to her as she opened the box containing the ear studs, “I’m sure my Mum would have wanted you to have these.”

She’d been thrilled with the gift of the unusually coloured pearls. She modelled them for her father. He patted her shoulder as she stood in front of him saying “Dad, what do you think?”

“They’re lovely,” he said, his eyes and smile stayed on her. She knew he was proud of her all together.The thought of her father gave a pain that seemed to sit behind her sternum. She blinked away tears.

His photo stood on a tallboy near her bedroom door. It was taken a few years before he had died; photographed on the night of her 25th birthday. He looked so happy, like they both did before her mother’s death.  His cropped black hair bore two silver streaks along the hairline, passing back from his forehead and above his ears. His blue eyes were bright.  His high cheekbones, which she had inherited, cast a slight shadow above his square jawline. His bow-shaped mouth had a full lower lip. With his gentle smile it softened the sculptured lines of his face. His was a distinguished, attractive face, and beloved by her. She hummed Dad’s favourite The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies as she waltzed back to the mirror and looked at herself.

She had inherited his midnight hair, high cheek bones and full bottom lip, but she had her mother’s softer jawline , rounded nose, and  deep brown eyes. She liked to think she was the perfect mix of both parents, especially tonight. She was going to a performance of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra; this ritual was in honour of her mother. She had performed it every year since her mother had passed ten years before. This sad event was followed, three years later, by her father’s passing.

Facing her mid-thirties she knew that even with her personal success as a musician in theater orchestras there was a  void left by a lack of family. Marie-Claire felt the aloneness  as a burden she would love to cast off. She began humming The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies again; her father had loved every bar of The Nutcracker, by Tchaikovsky. She wondered why she wasn’t humming Beethoven’s Fifth which was her mother’s favourite since the evening’s outing was in memory of her. She glanced at her antique watch, and decided not to put her mother’s old vinyl recording on the player.

It was a November evening and the frequent rain had lessened.

I’ll walk to the Opera house, she thought as she reached for her coat. As she did so she felt the pearls at her neck give way.

“Frig,” she said as she tried, in vanity, to catch the pearls in her hand. They bounced against the architraves and the pendant fell to the ground. She felt a pearl half way down the back of her dress. She wriggled to dislodge it, and it became the caboose of the train of pearls resting at the base of the wall. She scooped as many as she could into a bowl that sat on the sideboard. Seeing the time on her watch, she hurried out the door, a tear in her eye.

***

Liam seated himself in the concert hall at the Opera house twenty minutes before the concert of Bruch and Mahler’s music was to begin. He was the first person to arrive, and when most of the attendees arrived about eight minutes before the curtain, he noticed  Marie-Claire finding her seat from where he was seated: two seats behind her, and to the left.

What a stunning woman, he thought observing her graceful figure. Her elegant neck was enhanced by a simple up-do formed out of shining black hair. The dip in the back of her dress showed flawless ivory skin. She turned her head as she stood to allow a patron to pass into a seat to her right, and he got a glimpse of one brown eye framed by sooty lashes, a sculptured cheek and generous mouth.

 

The lights dimmed, and his enjoyment of the first strains of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 softened his disappointment at being distracted from the woman’s beauty. He listened, losing himself in the music. Already Ashkenazy was conducting a piece that lived up to its’ reputation as a dramatically varied piece of music. He settled as he heard and felt the strains of the music change from the plaintive tears and storms of its’ opening phrases, into a sweet melodious passage, seemingly answered by the next passage with folksy cheerfulness. After 50 minutes, the orchestra had also finished  the first two movements of Mahler’s Symphony in C Sharp Minor.  The third movement was Liam’s favourite but it would start after the intermission.

 

His eyes focused on the beautiful woman. He observed that she stood, stretched, and looked around. She moved out into the aisle and looked through the door at the queue winding its’ way to the bar. She stood for a few minutes, looked at her watch, and returned to her seat. He observed that she wore a pair of large smoky blue pearls in her earlobes.

The second part of the concert began, and he stood up, sat down and shifted his legs to allow those who had lingered by the entry doors to move into seats to his right. Liam relaxed as he heard the music begin again; he really couldn’t understand why so many of his friends labelled classical music as boring.

The conductor reminded the audience that the evening was meant to showcase the best of Bruch and Mahler. He assured them that he and the Orchestra had enjoyed their rehearsals for this special presentation.  

“Now, we will continue with the next three movements of Mahler’s symphony. The third movement is a light-hearted movement, played Scherzo. Following it will be movements four and five, slow and forceful. Please sit back, relax and enjoy the music.”

 

The concert ended too soon for Liam. He stretched his arms as the audience members in his row left. He enjoyed the luxury of sitting thinking about the wonder of the music.  

I must open my eyes to catch a glimpse of that gorgeous woman, he thought.

He was relieved she was still seated. She seemed a calm oasis, as the disarray of the concert hall swept past her. She stood for a moment when an audience member returned to secure a dropped pair of glasses from under a nearby seat.  When the stranger had left, she stood for a few seconds before lifting her coat from the back of her chair, and he noticed that one of her earrings was missing. He looked again.

Nothing in the left ear.

He called, “Excuse me, you’ve lost one of your earrings.”  

In the hub bub, she did not discern his voice. She was moving away now. He moved to her seat, and felt down the back of it. At the base the pearl was stuck, by its post, into the weave of the fabric. He glanced around for the back of the thing, but was unable to see it.

I must catch up with her.

He pushed his way past some stragglers and down the hall leading to the foyer.

She’s tall, he thought and paused.

He closed his eyes to avoid distractions, remembering other details. Opening his eyes again, he saw her. There she was to his far left, exiting the foyer. He bolted, from a stand still, yelling, “Excuse me.” He felt like an idiot as he slowed to a stroll, puffing and panting, about five metres behind her.  He waited until they were under a light, and amongst other people. He gasped out the words.

“Excuse me, I believe you lost one of your earrings in the concert hall.”

 

***

Marie-Claire stared at him.

Could it possibly be?  she blinked. it must be him she thought.

The thought made her shiver. He looked so familiar, and one eye was brownish and the other green, the way she remembered from her girlhood.

She shifted her clutch to high up under her right arm, felt her earlobes. He held out his right palm with the blue pearl in it, and gestured toward it with his left hand.

“I didn’t find the back, I’m sorry.”

She felt him watching her as she took the pearl and zipped it into an inside compartment of her purse. She tested the ear stud in her right earlobe, pushing against the back to check it was secure. She stared until she became aware he was folding his arms, continuing to look back at her.

She said, “I’d like to thank you for being so kind. Can I buy you a drink?” She felt her hands trembling as she adjusted her clutch again. He smiled broadly; as if reassuring her. Her face felt stiff with shock. It began to rain.She thought, what an odd meeting this is on the anniversary of mother’s death. She would not approve.

His voice was light-hearted,interrupting her thoughts, “That would be lovely.”

They walked down the block to a Café, in which half the tables were full. She walked ahead of him and asked for a table for two.

She didn’t say his name before he said, “By the way, I’m Liam.”

They waited in silence for the two Irish coffees they ordered. They touched hands awkwardly across the shiny surface of the table in the booth by the front window. Soon they were sipping the coffee,still in silence. She like a schoolgirl visiting the Principal’s office.

“The whisky in this is good,” she said and he nodded.

Another 60 seconds ticked away as they sipped.

“I can’t thank you enough for returning the pearl stud. The pair of studs belonged to my Aunt whom I only met a few times. Having them makes me feel more connected with my Dad’s family, now that he’s gone.”

Liam said, “Is your loss recent?”

“My Dad died seven years ago, but I still miss him. But it’s the anniversary of my mother’s death today.”

Liam hunched forward and the pressure of his thigh scrunched the folded handkerchief in his pocket. He said, “I have two half-sisters, one that I met once, and one in her teens. Anyway, I’m used to comforting sisters, if you want to cry.”

He could feel a flush starting at the back of his neck.

Marie-Claire spoke, “You look almost exactly like my father at your age – around 30?  You could be his 30s’ doppelganger.”

The left corner of her mouth went up, and her forehead creased.  “This is awkward.”

She reached into her bag and opened her wallet. She extracted a photo and slid it across the table. It was a picture of a man.  

He looked at it and said, “This man looks a lot like me I agree, in fact he might resemble my father.”

His hands began to sweat.

“I’m going to ask you a question. Don’t be shocked.”

He stared at her mouth.

“Did you ever live in the Blue Mountains? Is it possible that your mother was my father’s mistress? I believe I’m that half-sister you met once. The woman who gave me these pearl studs came with me and my father on a visit to your house all those years ago. Do you remember?”

His hands seemed to flutter on the table like the wings of an injured bird. His eyes began to water. He grabbed his drink and gulped noisily.

“Yes,” he breathed out.  His voice grew louder,  “I had hoped your mother would have changed her mind long before he died. When I heard nothing, I knew there was no point making a scene by turning up at the funeral. If I had gone to the funeral I would have known who you were tonight.”

He glanced sideways and saw the reflection of the bar tender, he was leaning across the bar looking at them.

Marie-Claire placed her hand over Liam’s wrist.

“My father told me about you a month after my 21st birthday. He said, that boy we visited is my son, to Mary Davies. He is your half-brother, Liam Souther Davies. I am so proud of him, but your mother can never know about him.”

She sighed. “My father and I were pretty close, but it took some time to digest the news. I never mentioned anything to my mother.”

Liam cleared his throat. He placed his fists on the edge of the table.

She went on, “About six months later he stopped making his fortnightly trips to the Blue Mountains. I got busy with my career as a musician. But I could have made inquiries. I am so sorry.”

Liam felt tears on his cheeks. She was rubbing his arm. He grappled for the handkerchief in his pocket, and grasping it turned his face to the wall, wiped his eyes and blew his nose.

When he was calmer, he said,  “My Mum broke it off with Dad because he wouldn’t marry her. I went away to boarding school, then university.He never loved me enough to leave his wife, she told me. But he supported me through my entire education.”

“You became a Civil Engineer didn’t you?”

He nodded, and ran his finger around the base of his glass.

“Didn’t you travel overseas to work on developing world projects?”

He shrugged, ” I did a bit of work in Tibet and Burma.  I went to Cambodia too. “

“Dad talked about you with so much pride. To him you were the epitome of intellectual prowess and kind heartedness combined. “

The words spilled out.  She didn’t know whether they were to comfort him or make herself feel better.She reached for his arm again, and he shuffled it away toward his side of the table.

Liam shrugged, “I appreciate that he knew about what I did, but I don’t know how important those projects ended up being.”

She said, “Despite Dad’s failings, he had a sensitive, modest side. Always downplaying his success. You seem to have inherited more than my father’s looks.”

She smiled at him, partly in relief because the fact that her mother had died before her father wasn’t noted by him. Would he be upset that Dad had never sought Mary out? For a moment, she felt as if her mind and body separated as the strength of her longing for her parents surged through her. She thought, I don’t want to regret this chance. Her strength returned and she resisted the urge to rush away.

“I remember that meeting when we were young, you were about eleven.”

He nodded, and they sat in silence, musing.

He smirked,”I showed you my maps.”

“We both knew we would travel,” she said.

“And we did,” they said together.

Their mutual eruption of  laughter surprised them.They returned to silence, and Liam began to look pensive.

“I can’t believe he is dead.”

Marie-Claire touched his hand. She extracted a card from her purse.

“This is enough for one night, but please don’t be a stranger.”

He took the card and read her name. Marie-Claire Blaxland Souther.

She said, “I’d love it if you kept in touch. Don’t hesitate to call or email.” She wondered if he would keep the card.

She felt his eyes on her back, as she walked away. She crossed the pavement with tiny steps, aware of the slippery soles of her patent leather heels. She approached a taxi parked outside the Café window. Leaning inside, she escaped the rain dampening the pavement. She could see Liam still seated in the booth. As the taxi pulled away, his solemn face  appeared as if  superimposed over the blurred reflections in the street’s slick surface.

 

The End