The Pearl Bond

[This story has been through a lot of drafts, mainly fixing errors in sentence structure, timing and tense.  I also took on the feedback of an editor who felt the story was too sad. I believe there is a catharsis in hopeful realism which reflects how our actions affect others.This story is one probably told, or played out many times before, but like all writers I hope my developing voice  and distinctive moments help the reader see things from a different perspective.]

 
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; it was a portrait taken on the night of her 25th birthday. He looked so happy, as 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 and with his gentle smile softened the sculptured lines of his face. His was a distinguished, attractive face, and beloved. 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, even with her personal success as a musician in theater orchestras, did not fill the void left by a lack of family. Marie-Claire felt the heavy cloak of 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 the her mother’s favourite, Beethoven’s Fifth 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.

***

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? 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 tried not to 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 late father’s sister 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 my sister, 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. He raised his voice, and said, “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, “I went away to boarding school, then university. My Mum broke it off with Dad because he wouldn’t marry her. He never loved me enough to leave his wife, she told me. But he supported me through my entire education.”

“Dad told me you went to Blue Mountains Grammar and then to Knox, completed a Masters in Civil Engineering at Sydney U, and travelled overseas to work on important projects in the developing world. He was proud of you. He loved my mother very much but she would never have accepted you. He was glad he was your father.”

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, “You seem to have inherited more than my father’s looks. Despite his failings, he had a sensitive, modest side. In my teen drama queen days, he used to calm me right down.”

She smiled at him, partly in relief because the fact that her mother had died before her father hadn’t come up.

For a moment, she felt as if her mind and body separated with the strength of her longing for that familial sense of connection.

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 you when you were a boy, 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

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Challenge Taken

[[A challenge with the following criteria was given to me:

I received this challenge from a friend.

The conditions :

Up to 1000 words flash fiction with the following title “ I (almost) died of boredom” in the form of a personal monologue and ending with the sentences in bold. I haven’t presented them here, but there is nothing to stop you from scrolling down and reading them first. Thanks Joshua, it was nothing if not interesting, and it did stretch the legs during a time when I just haven’t felt like writing. :))

The exercise was done twice, Mk 2 had a female protagonist and a different (supposedly exotic) profession, but I decided to leave that until another time.

I am doing some serious writing now with my five day a week discipline, and a third draft of my first novel will be in a competition, and out to beta readers in September. OK, it’s a realistic competition where one of the prizes is developmental editing… What you read here is usually very raw, and show cases my commitment to the sheer fun of writing, and no one is ever going to take that away from me.]]

Anyway I would have called it “Investigator” but dutifully it is entitled

I (ALMOST) DIED OF BOREDOM 

 

For five years I investigated work injury compensation claims, watching people who could hardly walk doing push ups at their local community centre. Early in the game I would work out  who was lying — call it exaggerating, a little white lie, looking after mum in her old age or giving a kid the best education justified for these people telling (and writing) anything to the agency. These jokers made the others in the system who needed help wait and jump through hoop after hoop. My blood used to get right up the day I knew I was gonna get that incriminating ( love that word) video.

Then I did a line in following the young wives of old blokes who were getting nervous that the ladies were getting a bit on the side. That surprised me in that half of them weren’t trying to get any. They were attending Uni, or going to book club, or attending spa days with their friends, or at the gym three times a week. Fifty percent of accusations that fracture relationships start with insecurity in the mind of one of the parties. It surprised me… although I’m not willing to admit that anyone who wants it can’t get plenty. I, for example, have an active love life… ahem.

The day Mack Freedman walked into my office in his charcoal Armani , is that how you say it? I knew he was a different sort of client. He was dressed for business, smartly, and he wasn’t carrying forms in a briefcase, or pictures in an envelope. He looked around my office, and down at my well-used adjustable office chair that I put out for clients. He remained standing. This is how I remember the conversation, do you mind if I attempt to imitate the other party’s voice.

“Mr Freedman?”

He nodded.

“What can I do for you?”

“I want you to gather evidence that my wife has hidden assets that she’s not declaring on our divorce papers.”

“OK–”

“I’m sending you an email to John@masterspi.com. It contains my wife’s photo, address, financial details, and details of what you need to do to be paid. Get a list of every asset she has globally, anyone she contacts, and where she goes. You have 12 weeks, and I will pay you $1500 per week plus expenses. The form for itemising expenses will be attached to the email. If you don’t wish to take the job let me know by reply email by 5pm tomorrow. If you return the finance form this will indicate acceptance. I want a report every four weeks. Don’t call me unless you have something unusual to report. See you on August 15th at 10 am,unless you pull out.”

He turned his back on me.

I thought, no negotiating then you ponce. I’d leave you too.

I decided the money was OK  and I needed something to do.

Forty eight hours later, I fell asleep after watching Bella Freedman eat snacks of pizza and drink smoothies, on a fancy couch for six hours while watching Netflix.

When I saw Mack on August 15th I was able to tell him that this was what she did, along with daily walks with her Sheltie, called Lindsay.  On Thursdays she went to the local coffee shop,Nick Nax, for lunch with the head of her favourite charity, Lighten my Load, that rehabilitated child soldiers in Africa.

He wanted to know the name of the owner of the coffee shop so he could have him investigated for financial dealings with Bella. I told him it would be extra to break into the owner’s files.

Another month went by with Bella and I catching sight of each other eating pizza and chocolates in our respective, mostly glass, habitats. Her’s was swankier than mine.

One night she came out of the house at 2am and rapped on the blue Ford’s window. I bumped my head as I sat bolt upright from a dead snooze, to watch her laughing face, followed by her brisk trot back to her place.

The report on September 15th prompted Mack to investigate the pizza delivery place. By then I had changed my lunch and dinner orders to items from Bella’s preferred pizza cafe.This considerably increased my expenses but I filled out those forms for Mack.

Bella had a change of routine. I had tapped her phone. A call on the 5th told me she was going to meet her sister on October 7th for a week’s holiday at a hotel she enjoyed in Surfers Paradise.

When I told Mack he got excited, “ This is it. She tells her sister everything.Get into that room before they get there and bug everything.”

Even the airport, the plane, and cheap hotel were a nice change from sitting in my blue Ford Falcon on the south side of Bella’s place or hiding in her garden.

Once I’d done the bugging of Bella’s hotel room, I went for a walk on the beach.

Mack was beside himself with all the long-winded, girly details I was able to supply him with.

“Get into the room. Hide on the balcony. Look for folders in her laptop when she leaves the room. I know she’s hiding something.”

That night,October 14th, I was still hiding on the balcony of Bella’s room at 2 am. The night was cool and I fell asleep. I pitched forward off my perch on the balcony table onto my face, at 2.45 am. I fractured my nose and gave myself serious concussion. Bella rescued me and called an ambulance.

While I was recovering from amnesia, I fell in love with her.

Mack was disgusted to find that Bella had purchased only one asset during their married life, and her effective lawyer negotiated well.

“In the end he had to settle for the family holiday house, on the French Riviera, called Vitalitè Noire. After he sold it, paid my medical costs, and accrued expenses he was able to invest in another one bedroom shoe box in Parramatta.”

Pehlwani Potting Mix

[A weird episode paying homage to the Australian Tall Story – a true form of traditional culture down under.]

Gorgeous bright tomato red orbs floated behind my eyelids. The sun-ripened ones that yield to a knife like butter and give out juicy seed-laden flavour; I dreamed of them with a longing like homesickness. They would be bloody delicious layered on toasted buttered rye bread, a sprinkle of salt, a dash of pepper,and, in memory of my grandma, a pinch of sugar. I would devour the breakfast of my juvenile summers with passion born in boyhood, if I could only grow that premium ingredient.

With some help from my silver-haired neighbour Theo, the first sunny Saturday of spring saw us building a large L-shaped garden box made of sleepers. It reached almost to waist height on me, and we half-filled it with manure and straw.

“ The best thing to do is get some quality potting mix and mushroom compost to add to that,” said Theo.

I was enjoying the digging, sweating and pungent smells. It would be worth it to have real tomatoes to eat and share. He continued to explain how after the potting mix and compost I should add a layer of topsoil ,and plant the tomato seedlings about sixty centimetres apart.

“ Don’t forget your cages. Are you gonna grow Super Beefsteak? “

“ Yeah, I’m gonna give them a try. Eight of those will give me plenty of tomatoes for my needs.”

“ You’ll get the maximum yield out of this small space.”

I was grateful and sent him home with a six pack of German beer, since a cash payment was refused. He smiled, and a little later I heard the sound of the football semi-final through the fence.

My trip to the nursery was expensive. I selected four ten litre bags of compost, and, thinking of my back, eight five litre bags of topsoil. Finally, the assistant showed me bags of potting mix.

“This a new type we’ve ordered from an Indian supplier. It’s meant to be good.”

The tired looking burlap bags with their faded red print were much cheaper than the last lot of potting mix I had bought to add to the garden when I planted red-flowering Grevilleas in my south-east facing front yard. I nodded yes. After I paid for a heap of bags and some Super Beefsteak seeds to be planted in pots to produce the seedlings for my garden, I knew my dream was costing me. I added eight tomato cages and we loaded up the Ute.

It was half-time when I returned, and Theo helped me stack the bags in a neat line, where I could easily open them with the edge of a shovel and transfer the material into the boxes.I emptied four bags of compost into the boxes and my aching back seemed to say call it a day.

I’ve been too long in a desk job, I thought. I trudged indoors and took a hot shower.

Late Sunday morning I finished the job , and gave it a half-hearted turn with the shovel which had lost its new gleam. I sprinkled the top soil over the top, and gave the lot  a water.

Perhaps Theo will turn it some more for me if I ask him.

I schlepped back inside and prepared two cheese toasties and scoffed them down. While washing them down with cold beer, I imagined how much better they would taste with tomato in them.

Mondayitis was exaggerated by muscular pain, and I left for work in a daze. I did remember to shut the rear security gate that sat almost flush with the concrete driveway in the back yard.

I returned from work around 4pm and decided to leave the car in the street because sweeping the concrete free from spilled soil and potting mix seemed a good use of a fine afternoon. After some water and a few stretches, my entrance into the backyard was almost enthusiastic.

A hissing sound caused me to freeze mid-stride.  Instinct raised the hair on my neck and prickles sprayed across my back. To my left was a four-foot black snake rearing up, its’ hood flared.

Cobra!

I bolted for the rear door of the house. Without looking behind me, I kicked the rear door shut, and striding to the lounge I snatched the cordless phone from the lounge side table. I dialled 1223 and asked the operator to connect me to the Hobson’s Bay Council.

What am I going to do if they don’t answer?

It was now 4.20 pm

Holding the phone to my ear I walked down the hall to the small study that overlooked the yard. Raising the blind, I stared at the black horror that dominated the white gravel space beside my garden box. I was relieved that the garage door was down, and the small garden shed was shut. The clipped lawn under the rotary hoist offered no hiding place.

I shivered.

The receptionist put me through to the environmental fauna department.

“Animal control”, a young voice said.

“ My name is Phil Dwyer, and I have a Cobra loose in my yard at 234A Sykes Avenue, Altona.”

“A Cobra, Mr Dwyer? How do you know  it’s a Cobra.”

“It’s black with a hood.”

“It’s black. Does it have any markings.”

“I didn’t stop to see if there were any markings. I walked out my backdoor and there it was, ready to strike, so I came in here and rang you.”

“Would you mind holding please Mr Dwyer? Don’t approach the snake, please stay on the line.”

Don’t approach the snake. DON’T approach the SNAKE. I mocked in my head, as annoying musack played.

I moved as close to the window pane as I could to see what was happening. The snake was gone and in its’ place was a tall, muscular, dark-skinned man in black spandex.

Where did he come from?

He walked under the rotary hoist, and each wedge of the clothesline separated and dropped to the ground. The center pole of the hoist melted into the ground, and the sections of clothesline arranged themselves into a strange fence on each side of the small lawn. A silver snake erupted from the garden bed. As it grew and shimmered before my eyes,a tall muscular pale man in grey shorts appeared. The dampness of drool soaking through my beard told me my mouth was hanging open.

Grey shorts man stepped across the fence and the two men began to wrestle. They were well matched physically, and a few minutes later sweat had soaked them and was dripping into the ground. Their heavy breathing became audible.

The voice was back on the phone. “Mr Dwyer, two animal control officers will be at your residence in about forty minutes. Don’t approach the snake, but do what you can to stop it  escaping from the yard.”

“Yes,” I croaked. The man asked for the address again and I repeated it.

“ Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

“No.”

The line went dead. My hands trembled. The wrestling pair had locked arms and their heads seemed to press against each other’s shoulders. The ground was turning to mud under them, chunks of ripped up grass thrown around by their gripping feet. Black spandex man was gaining the advantage now. The panting grew loud enough to hear beyond my yard. Theo’s head appeared over the side fence, and he stared at the wrestling match. I raised my hand to wave, but he couldn’t see me from where he was.

I was grasping my hands together, leaning my forehead on the glass. My breath appeared as a mist on the glass.

Grey shorts man was now doing well, and locked his arm around black spandex man’s neck. Quicker than I could blink black spandex man had his arm locked under grey short man’s left shoulder pulling it forward, while pushing against his right shoulder. Black spandex man twisted his body, throwing grey shorts man off balance with a swiftness that made me gasp. He pinned the man’s head and shoulders against the muddy ground. The lower half of the man’s body writhed in the mud.

Black Spandex man threw back his head and laughed. The kind of laugh I’d heard as a kid when I watched Victorian melodrama on a school trip to Sovereign Hill in Ballarat.  

My heart rate slowed. I would have put my money on grey shorts man for a win, based on first impressions.

The men got up and began to wrestle again. Maybe I was in with a chance, best of three bouts?

I will never know what happened but right at that moment they became snakes again.  The pole rose out of the ground, and the rotary hoist looked as solid as the day it was installed.

There was a thump on my front door. When I opened it Theo was standing there. His hair looked like it had been gelled into a spiky do.

“ Mate, was there a wrestling match in your backyard?”

I nodded yes.

“And now there are two snakes?”

I nodded again.

“Do you have any of that beer left?”

He headed for my kitchen fridge.

The front door was still open when the animal control officers arrived.

Ha hem. I mean environmental fauna officers.

They called out, “Hobson’s Bay Council, Mr Dwyer?”

Darn.

When I opened the screen door they showed me their identity badges, and followed me through to the back yard.

When the Cobra was in the sack, one of them said, “Do you have a licence to keep a snake, Mr Dwyer?”

“Call me Phil, and no I don’t have a licence. I don’t know how this snake got here. It appeared after I started my gardening project. For that matter after I bought this potting mix from India.”  

I lifted a discarded potting mix bag to show them.

The officer eyeballed me, tapping his pen against his left fist. The other officer left the yard to put the sack and its’ occupant into the council van.

“Where did you buy the potting mix?”

I told him and he wrote the details in his notebook. When he asked, I showed him my car licence.

They left, and Theo and I had a second beer.

“You can have some of my tomatoes Phil. I decided to plant some too, but I won’t be using any of that potting mix. It’s probably to blame.”

We discussed the wrestling match a bit, but after that night we never mentioned the weirdness again. I was grateful for that but I always wondered where that silver snake went, even after we emptied out those garden boxes.

 

—The End–

 

Spun Gold

[[ Here is a late Christmas story that I got distracted while developing.  I hope your new year holds recovery, healing, peace and joy. I hope you don’t have too many  unpleasant challenges and when you do that you can see the silver lining, and being unafraid make those experiences part of the wonderful,unique person you are.]]

Spun Gold

 

David did something he hadn’t done in five years. He went to his bedroom window, pushed aside the sheer curtain, and took in the view over the narrow front street bordering the estuary, at the front of his house. He saw a bent lady with silver curls walking along the near foot path. She wore a lavender cardigan that dipped on one side as if it was stretched or buttoned crookedly. She carried a battered basket on her arm. Seeing her made him sadder. He wished he could see kids playing cricket, or kicking a football. Sighing he walked out of his room, and down the hall.

He pushed the door of her room open. The dust motes drifted in the light from the window. The red oval of Carlie’s football, and the black and white round of her soccer ball, along with other bats and balls were tumbled in a big basket by her bed. Her giant fluffy brown bear seated on the end of her bed, stared out of glazed eyes. On her pillow, were two golden strands that looked like hairs. A shiver went down his spine.

Last night after returning home from a Christmas party he was alone like the thousand plus nights before. A well-meaning couple, Dean and Tracy, whom he had met at the camera club a few months ago, had taken pity on his obvious singleness and invited him to pre-Christmas drinks and nibbles at their house. He decided to go and not go a dozen times before Dan came to pick him up. Dan was the one friend left from his youth, the one friend who remained from the time when Dave and Jan were a couple. Dan had come to make sure he went because he was Dave’s self-appointed life-coach and he wouldn’t let up.  Dave had run out of energy to keep saying no, and so he went.

It was pleasant enough. He found himself laughing at a couple of jokes. Dan slapped him on the back, and they both knew that meant Dan was happy to hear him laughing. He was left alone for a while but then Tracy decided to introduce him to a couple of her friends. Sally and Tina were attractive with glossy hair and curvy figures. They carried the conversation for an awkward half-hour. In the first ten minutes Tina tried to flirt with him, but he felt like he was watching his own body looking at this attractive woman, picturing the coy words ballooning out of her mouth, a viewer of his own b-grade video. He felt nothing because that was all the permission he had given, show nothing to others, for so long.

My default setting. He frowned.  

He was a little embarrassed about standing there like a dummy. Tina was worthy of admiration just for the polite recovery she made from his lack of response, but soon he was left alone again.

He stepped closer to his bed, and looked down at the pillow again, golden strands, two of them. They were so luminous for discarded strands of hair.

Spun gold?

He hadn’t thought of that phrase since his daughter Carlie had mocked at the description on the back of the box containing Princess Barbie given to her by Aunty Judy.

Carlie. His heart beat staccato. Carlie.

Carlie who would have found a neighbourhood friend and been in the street playing cricket, or kicking a football, or even a soccer ball. She loved sports.

He stood at the foot of her bed staring at the strands, trembling. He imagined her standing beside him, and looked around at the pictures that hung in groups on the wall beyond the window. Carlie nestled in his arms at six months old. In the next, she was running away from him, looking back at him, aged 2 years. Tiny Carlie holding a soccer ball half her size, with Jan crouched behind her.  With her friend Suzie, at age 6, the two of them giggling. Carlie kicking a football.

Carlie who would never be a sassy, wonderful woman with the biggest collection of sport paraphernalia this side of the Murray. She had hair that floated and glistened like spun gold when she ran, though the most she’d let you say was that it was pretty. He missed the youth and the fun of her antics and companions. He could hear his breathing loud in the room. Sadness overwhelmed him, and for the first time since he stood by her open grave, he wanted to resist it.

Carlie was a goer. I wouldn’t want her to think I was a slacker.

He had preserved some good memories through his camera lense. He let his gaze linger on each one.

He had dreamt about her last night, perhaps the hairs were an hallucination, more grief rising from the aquifer inside him. In the dream, the kind of one she might have had, he watched her kick three goals on a field that changed in each scene. First it was a muddy country oval surrounded by wooden benches, then it was the oval at her primary school, with white posts painted at a recent working bee. Rows of parents stood to one side cheering at her high, long kick. Finally, it was the Melbourne Cricket Ground with three men in white jackets and him. When she sent a strong kick from the centre of the field straight between the posts, one of the men had blown a whistle and she had turned and smiled at him the way she had before she fell on the road that terrible day. Her smile had filled his mind, and the sound of the whistle his ears, as if he had been wide awake. He wondered if he’d released the grief from her very last moment with his dream of that final alive smile.

She’d run carelessly, pursuing a ball into the path of the red SUV. He had been 20 metres away. There had been nothing he could do despite Jan blaming him as she beat his chest and soaked his shirt. Then he’d drunk heavily for a long time, and Jan had left.  

When he finally managed to live sober, he had moved through days by rote, and wept in the silent early hours. During the long visits to his parents, where his mother grew terse at his half-eaten meals, he trembled at one glimpse of photos featuring his wife or daughter. At the sound of excited children, his throat would tighten. He did some work; the odd joinery contracts which involved the most standard fitting. Most weekends he slept the days away if Dan didn’t come knocking.

Now, it was the 23rd of December five years later, and the well of bitterness seemed spent. He gazed at the strands, afraid to touch them, and made a decision. Leaving the room, he went down the hall to the little room, they had used for storage. Pulling out a stepladder he climbed and got the artificial tree from the highest shelf. Two boxes were stacked in the corner, marked Christmas. He moved the tree and the boxes into the hall. His eyes were streaming from all the dust on the plastic around the tree. Slowly, holding the tree a few inches off the floor, he went downstairs to the laundry. Unwrapping the tree, he shoved the plastic out the door into the yard.

He shook the tree and only a tiny amount of dust floated towards him. He grabbed a silver-coloured bucket from the shelves by the trough. He carried it and the tree into the lounge. Once it was stable he went upstairs for the decorations, and began to attach them to the branches. He finished his decorating, by placing the angel at the top of the tree the way Carlie loved it. He was taking photos when he heard tapping on the front door.

When he opened the door, there was the lady he had seen earlier. In her hands, she held a shiny,  leather football with a gold ribbon around it. She smiled, and held it out to him.

“I found this right next to your open gate. I figured you dropped it on the way in from Christmas shopping.”

He gaped, and then smiled back. “It’s not mine. Do you have a grandchild or someone?”

“I do. I have two grandsons, and they love to kick the footy. They’re visiting on Boxing Day.”

She squared her shoulders, and smiled widely.

“Look, I know there are no kids for two blocks. Who’s to say who dropped this? Why don’t you take it, and give it to your grandsons?”

“I could keep it at my house for them to play with.” She hugged the ball to her chest. “Happy Christmas. What’s your name?”

He nodded, “I’m Dave.”

“I’m Elsie, and thanks for the football.”

He noticed a gold strand trapped between the laces.

“Don’t thank me”, he said to her back.

Shutting the door, he ran upstairs to Carlie’s roomsherrin_australian_rules_football

He bent over the pillow and touched the strands.

They’re real.

He lifted one and it sagged. It felt soft and pliable. Like real worked gold.

Weird.

He smiled.

From then on, he would tell his friends “My Carlie, she was special, a real goer.”

He didn’t talk about her a lot, except on the 23rd of December. He spoke with pride as if she was the star player on the best football team.

The End

football image: https://www.flickr.com/people/121166191@N02, Kerrie

gold ring image: http://www.slaets.eu/jewels/mattioli/tibet/00129-tibetring/000559/

Party Goers

It was last week, as far as I can ascertain, that I got angry at my silver-bodied, sapphire-eyed robotic friend. With his wide set eyes, and triangular large hooked beak above a square chest, he bore some resemblance to an eagle. I had thought he was my lifelong buddy Jack: lean and curly haired, with stooped shoulders, tanned hands and a manic manner.  How could I have confused my friend with a six-foot avian monster?

It began one October night when the moon resembled a large golden bowling ball from the local alley. We had dropped in at six pm to play a game with Jack’s younger twin brothers.  Initially, I refused  the eight pound ball thinking that’s two bloody pounds too heavy.  The attendant offered me no choice. The lanes were crowded,the balls picked over, and that ball was “it”. The fluorescent strips reflected off the metallic ball with its glittery surface. It had hardly been scratched. As if the ball were trying to impress me, I bowled  three strikes in a row. After that it was 8s and 9s with the occasional strike, but I had enough of a score to win the game.

Jack suggested we drop in  to Lorene Bailey’s after we dropped off his brothers at the local cinema. “She’s having a bunch of people over for some coldies and pizza, and then a bunch  of us are heading to the clubs.” I had been nursing my wounds after my most recent girlfriend had dumped me, and after three Saturday nights in a row at home, I was keen to be out. Leaving Lorene’s at 9pm with half a dozen friends, we headed to a new place in town The SF Bar. On entry I was expecting pictorials of San Francisco, a city I had visited briefly once, when I was greeted by large murals of robots, CPUs spaceships and staff dressed like Trekkies or Star wars fans. The DJ wore a storm trooper mask, and the loud music made me want to dance. First we did a few shots,  and then two tall blonde girls, who we thought were tourists, agreed to dance with Jack and I. I had never felt so graceful and rhythmic on the floor. I felt like  I was in a Zayn Video. Perhaps I could compete on Dancing with the Stars; my Mum loved it so much. The overhead strip lights melded into two long ribbons of turquoise and scarlet. I had never felt so high. Jack hugged me, and I hugged him back. We were gleeful huggers.I called out, “ I love you, bro”,  without a care for who might hear. I felt a brief stinging sensation in the back of my arm, but I thought nothing of it. I was in love with the world at that moment, including  with the Barbie-like hottie I was dancing with.  

The dancing went on and on, with different settings appearing all around me. I was dancing on Bondi beach,  on the curve of a rainbow and in the middle of the Milky Way.  Barbie and Jack were everywhere with me.I became really tired and felt like I was sinking into a pile of feathers. When I woke Jack was smiling at me, and asked me if I’d like some breakfast. We walked into a room with long tables in it, featuring a mural from Tatooine with Luke Skywalker framed against the rising moon. On the tables were platters of sausage, egg and bacon, toast with butter and pots of jam, assorted pastries and fruit.   The Barbie girls served us. They winked and even I marvelled how long and black their eyelashes were.  We ate until we could hardly move. “Wow”, I felt like my voice was coming from far away, “they’re very generous for the $15 cover charge. I thought that was steep last night.” Jack nodded, but didn’t speak, and for a moment I thought I was looking at a birdlike robot.

Now, I wonder how often I replayed that scene or whether I was drugged so long it took all this time. I went to the bowling alley with Jack and his brothers on the 9th of October. When I woke up in the black pit full of rocks spouting mini waterfalls and swags of moss, the back of the bird robot was in front of me. Out of him still issued Jack’s voice, “Come on Paul, have another shot. Its awesome, come on .” I blinked and closed my eyes several times. I held my bony hands up to my face. My gut growled angrily, my mouth so dry I wanted to lick the damp moss. There was not a rainbow or a Barbie in sight. No Jack either. I couldn’t feel my legs, and when I moved my arm I felt something coarse and irritating.

What had caused this change? The last time I saw a little red dot in front of my eyes, instead of clutching at it I had batted it away. During my dream, the red dots had appeared with monotonous regularity, and I had grabbed at them, until the most recent ones. I shuddered with fear and cold.

I hunched over in a crawling position and began to move towards the only gap in the stone wall which showed light, light that looked like daylight. It hurt my eyes. My knees ached, and my legs stung and burned. I made slow progress. When I looked back the robot bird was still hunched over a narrow black table. He didn’t seem to notice that I had moved so I crawled on. When I finally reached the gap I looked back. There was a body on the table, a human body. My heart raced. Was it a body? I had thought I was in a nightclub with the Barbies and Jack. Everything had been a delusion.  Or was everything I was experiencing now an hallucination. Should I be scared of the robot?  

I struggled over a large boulder that sat in the gap that I had crawled to. I fell forward scraping my cheek on the rough surface. I cried out, and when  I landed and touched my cheek, I felt warm and sticky ooze. I remembered having the same experience sometime before I ever went to The SF Bar. I was in reality. That’s what I decided;  I would take a risk to avoid worse confusion. There was a bruise on my knee, but I could now feel my legs enough to stand. I looked back and saw the robot bird had moved away from the table, and was reaching into a cabinet bolted to the stone about three feet from the ground. I could now see the body clearly and it looked like Jack.

Jack. I had to do something for him. This was real. Freaking far out but real. Was the bird a robot, or a madman in a suit? If he was a robot, who had made him? I felt  a strong pulse in my neck. I had to have a plan. The robot moved away, and a sliding door appeared at the back of the cave room. He lurched through it and thunked away. The door slid shut behind him. I crept from my position to the table with the body on it. I touched it. It felt like latex, not human at all. The lean figure and black corkscrew curls were close to real life but in this light, I could see that this was android Jack, not my friend. Was there an android of me somewhere too, and was the real Jack with it?

I looked around, and picked up a sturdy piece of steel tubing.  My mind was clearing and I realised that robot bird probably knew what I was doing. There were computer screens, and glass bowls full of tiny parts. This was a laboratory, and most likely equipped  with surveillance. It seemed surreal, but someone was making androids that looked like real people. I had to find Jack. I gave myself a really good pinch, and a slap on the cheek ; I made sure I wasn’t dreaming . I marched toward the sliding door.

It slid open, and I was in a long tunnel. There were lights on the wall about every three metres, and I could see lighted doorways to my right and left.  I had to guess which way robot bird had gone. I went right and into the first lighted room. Seated in chairs along the wall to my left was what looked like my entire soccer team in still life. I touched Buddy West on the cheek. His skin was plasticky and dry,like Jack’s android. Perhaps I was an android? I slowed my breathing and realised the heart beating in my chest had to be flesh. It felt the same as I remembered. I thought back to my first day at school. It felt real, the touch of my mother’s hand. Mrs Reinhardt’s long legs, and loud voice. Running up to Jack on the playground: Do you want to be play poison ball? An android wouldn’t have memories, I assured myself. I pinched my arm again.

I decided to retrace my steps and go left past the sliding door to the other room. As  I left the soccer team behind, I became aware of how quiet it was. I could hear my breath. All my hallucinations had been noisy, so much had happened, and it still seemed more real than the memories of  my life. I had to find Jack and get back to the surface. As I approached my destination, I heard a familiar voice : don’t do this, please, let me go home. It was Jack and I figured he was talking to the robot bird. I slunk to the wall, and came right up next to the door, peering in. The robot bird was lying flat on his back in a pool of thick  oil, and Jack’s voice was coming out of it. Jack stood to the side of the robot with his hand still on the bottom of a 15 litre drum.  Jack himself said, “Where are you from? Where is home?”

‘The robot replied in a dull mechanical voice,” The other side of Jupiter, on a small planet called Janus.”

“Why did you come?”

“I was sent here to take our robot research to the next level. How would robots go interacting with humans and making androids? This was the question the Janus council wanted answered. We used every means possible to make you think we were human, and then we created androids from real humans we befriended. The plan was to fill this city with a population of androids, and then invite the council to inspect our work.”

I was so angry I bounded out from my hiding place. “What would you have done with us?”

The robot bird’s eyes glowed, and his beak creaked open. “You would have been kept on hallucinatory drugs until after the council’s inspection. When the experiment finished, you would have starved underground while the effect of the drugs wore off. A mostly painless death.”

I walked over, and stomped around the robot bird. His sled like runners were off the ground now, and there was no way he could gain any traction. A very simple trick had been his undoing.

My first words on being reunited with Jack were “How did you work out you could stop him this way?”

“I woke up about two weeks ago”, said Jack. “ I saw how awkwardly he got around, and I found these drums of refuse oil right down the end of the passage. Slowly I moved them up, and then when I had the chance I created this trap. It was the only thing I could think of.” I slapped him on the back, and waved the length of steel tube at him.  “ Hey, do you think Lorene Bailey’s an android?”

“ I doubt it”,  said Jack, “but the Barbies probably are. A pity.” We laughed. Then the robot spoke again.

“This black liquid is not a substance we have on my planet”, said Robot bird.

“ Too bad. I reckon some of those drugs you gave us aren’t substances we’ll ever want on our planet again.”

As Jack and I left the room, we headed  to the end of the passage to locate the soccer team, and anybody else who’d been unfortunate enough to think the waiters  in The SF Bar were  human.  After walking about another kilometre we reached a sliding door that opened to reveal rows of cells. All the soccer team were there and most of the other people  looked familiar.I wondered if I should tell the team we had most likely forfeited the last game of the season. I reckoned  we’d been missing around fifty days.

I spotted an older Mrs Reinhardt. I was puzzled as to why she would have been at the SF club. “I dropped in to my niece’s 21st for about an hour. This was the result.” She was the soberest of the lot, most of them were still high, and we had to act like we were heading to the party of the year to get them to follow us. We couldn’t move the three suits we found in the end cells. They danced manically to some tune  we could not hear. Jack found some spare bottles of water, and left them nearby. They would have to find their way out when the drugs wore off.

I led everyone back out through the main room where I’d woken up. I must have been there to start the process for my android, because no-one looked like me. I felt good about that. An android would not cut it in my opinion.

We arrived back at the surface, and looked around. The whole complex was inside an old army bunker about an hour from town.  Bloody kneed, and half-starving we would have to walk home.  I had the feeling some of us had missed our Year 12 exams, and that there were missing person reports out on us.  

I began to rehearse the most plausible story to tell the ‘rents.

The End

Eight Six Word Stories

[[ I decided to play with six  word stories. I gave them titles  but decided that might be cheating, and take away some of the enjoyment. If you do think of a catchy title, or want to send me a six word story of your own, feel free to use the comments and I will reply. We might be able to do a feature on six word stories. I always feel I should acknowledge a famous six word short story by Ernest Hemingway: For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.]]

1.

Just married buggy race, prostrate bodies.

2.

Broken eggs and scattered feathers.  Weeping.

3.

Lightning bolt. Smouldering tree.  Razed settlement.

4.

Straying glances.  Nightly trysts.  Removal  van.

5.

Student news. Red faces.  Town gossip.

6.

Ghostly visits.  Dying trees.  Abandoned heritage.

7.

Aisle Carpet clean, fumes. Fainting Groom.

8.

Pier Wedding photo shoot. Misstep.Splash!

The Bicycle Girls

One day Molly cried as she sat on her bicycle on the corner of Raglan and Urquhart Street.  “Mum”, she cried, “I hate this stupid bike.” Her knees brushed the handle bars as she cycled along.  She had overheard fifteen-year-old Nikki from next door remark, “She looks like a clown.” Molly thought Nikki was mean. She looks it, thought Molly, as she thought of Nikki’s jet black hair that she wore in a style that Molly’s mum said reminded her of a sea anemone. Molly couldn’t work out exactly what a menenemy was but she picked up the word enemy and that was enough. Nikki wore black lipstick and studded leather bracelets on both wrists. Her favourite attire was torn jeans and a t-shirt with cut outs. Molly loved to wear pink, and look at pictures of celebrities in evening gowns in her Mum’s magazines. Once Nikki said hello and Molly ignored her.

Nikki liked people but she hated to conform to a way of dressing or acting because someone told her to. Her own Mum didn’t like the way Nikki dressed, or her staying up to the early hours on school nights. Nikki didn’t think it was worth wasting an education on her at the moment if anyone had bothered to ask her. She went to school to get out of the house, watch people, and hang out with her bestie Rango. Rango wa rangy, redheaded and intelligent. Nikki had named him Rango because he was a rangy ranga. When he laughed she knew he wasn’t offended. Rango even understood why Nikki liked to listen to late night talk shows and call in with suggestions of how people’s problems could be resolved. “Ya should be a counsellor one day Nik; ya understand people and ya still like them. That’s cool.”

Nikki thought about what he had said on the way home the following Friday. She recalled an incident when an older lady had rung in one night to a talk show to whinge. Two of her pot plants had been taken from her verandah, and a third one smashed. “What’s wrong with these young folk? Don’t they have better things to do?” Nikki had called in later, because she recognised the lady’s voice and story: It was Mrs McLaren from across the road. Nikki had seen the mess on the way to her dog sitting job just the week before. The next week at school she spoke to Rango about it. At first he wasn’t interested but she kept bringing it up, so on Wednesday at lunch time he made a suggestion. “Why don’t you find her some pots that are hard to smash, you know thick plastic ones?” That got Nikki thinking.

Two doors down from her dog sitting job there was a house with a ton of plants in what looked like plastic pots. The following Saturday morning she noticed the house was very quiet when she passed. That afternoon on the way home it was the same. She glanced around to make sure no one was watching. Grateful for her hooded sweatshirt, she ventured onto the verandah. Thick terracotta coloured plastic pots contained pansies and ferns. Two of those would be just right, she thought. She snuck around at dusk with a bag trolley from her Dad’s dusty cob-webbed shed. The pot wasn’t too big or heavy, and she wheeled it the four blocks to her house, and left it in her Dad’s shed. Later that night, when all was quiet she crossed the street with it, carefully balanced, and placed it in front of Mrs McLaren’s door. She did the same thing the next day. By the end of the week it was all over the neighbourhood that the young louts had “brought me some plants”. Mrs McLaren walked with a spring in her step, Nikki noted.

Nikki enjoyed the McLaren episode so much, that she wanted to do another good deed. Rango seemed dubious when she told him what she had done. “I wouldn’t be doing anything to let on to people that it’s yous”, he muttered. Nikki nodded, but she was already planning how she might get Molly a bigger bicycle. Molly’s Dad wasn’t around she knew that, and her Mum only worked four days a week. She didn’t look like the kind of person who wouldn’t give her girl a bicycle if she could.

Three days later Nikki spotted the perfect bicycle. It had 16” wheels, a pink frame and sparkly streamers dangling from the handle bars. It looked shiny and new but it was leaning against the front fence a few blocks from home. Nikki had hardly noticed bikes since she was around ten years old, but it was amazing how many you noticed once you were focused. An hour until dark, Nikki thought, if it’s still here it is Molly’s. She felt enthused, and began to hurry. Buster the dog she was walking that evening got so excited that he dragged Nikki back to his home. As she returned home to wait until dark she was so preoccupied the pain in her arm did not bother her.  The family meal of chops and chips dragged. Dad was quiet and Mum and her brother discussed his upcoming Soccer game. Nikki bolted to her room before she could be asked to help with the dishes.

As soon as it was completely dark, she snuck out the back door. The rest of the family were lolling on the couch watching telly. The car lights gleamed as Nikki returned to the house fence where she had seen the bicycle. Its careless rider had left it just where Nikki had seen it. She pulled her hoodie over her head walked past the bicycle, and then turning around, she strolled past the fence and grabbed the bike. She returned home and waited in the street until the exterior light of Molly’s house was turned off. Crossing the road, she carefully opened the front gate, parked the bike on Molly’s porch and snuck home. As she entered her back door, she saw her Dad, “where have you been young lady?” He bellowed. She shrugged, “just walking.” She ran to her room and shut the door.

A few days later she saw Molly riding on a pink bike. “Hey”, Nikki said, “cool bike.” Molly looked at her and smiled. “I got two of these for my birthday. One from mum, and another from… I don’t know.” She shrugged then showed off, riding one handed. Nikki stared as Molly whizzed past her down the footpath.

The End

 If you are curious about what a sea anemone looks like check out this link: http://ww2.valdosta.edu/~jlgoble/Sea%20Anemone%20Diadumene%20Dia%2030cm%201.JPG