The Turners’ Skeleton Comes to Town

The Turner’s Skeleton Comes to Town

[ Many thanks to the Creswick Critique group, especially David, Frank and Christine, whose earnest commentary on former versions of this story, got me out of the hotchpotch  this story was, and into the weird version I truly wanted. You got me thinking…

Happy Writing Friends ! ]

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?) the great granddaughter of the Matriarch is enjoying developing her considerable artistic talent. She is failing in her duty to personally prepare every Christmas delicacy anticipated by her three adult children and their partners.

Egads! she is enjoying selfish pursuits in no other space than her privileged husband’s shed. She has converted it to 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, nothing to do with your own, 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, sensing you are close, you find an unlocked door, besides which you smell cigarette smoke. Someone must be standing there. 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. Your joints are stiff, and your phalanges seem to rattle as you approach 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.  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, the smell of sweat 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 the smell of petrol fumes meets 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) 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. Instead, you sit tall and silent in the back seat amongst her jumble consisting of a coat, books, a paint smock, and  dog-eared 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 none  of which 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 feel you cannot return without finishing the mission, and you cannot risk the exposure of LED. A night, that seems as if it is 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.

You stumble into a large mud puddle at the entry to May’s driveway. A film of mud now sullies everything about you. The contact of rough granite that forms the entrance posts 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 and natural beauty together 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 smeared glasses with champagne. The blonde comes back with one of the puddings. Golden custard, white ice-cream, 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.

In the skull you can see May’s family 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 another long, deep sleep in your shady career.

A sweet dream visits you there in the blackness. In it you find the key to the vision box, and the escape hatch. You return to May’s shed studio. You enjoy watching her paint for what seems like forever. The memory of avid arachnids is obliterated by the artist’s canvases infused with awakened imagination and forgiving acceptance.

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 her 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 tell my story?

The End

© D. E. Rebbechi – O’Donnell

25 April 2018 – V.12

 

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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

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

 [[I don’t think even a sentence edit can rescue this two years’ old story, but my journey continues word worts and all.  I am surprised by what impulse led me to write this story; unlike more together writers I cannot tell you all that I was thinking. I do know that I wanted to showcase an unreliable narrator, thus practice is my excuse. Any body can write badly, but it’s a rare few that know that they’ve done it and why! Of course you need a time away from the writing, distance, and courage.]]

I got angry at my silver-bodied, sapphire-eyed robotic frenemy.  With his wide set eyes, triangular  hooked beak and square chest, he bore some resemblance to a large 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 ten pin. 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 for consistent strikes.  

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 points 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. We enjoyed Lorene’s party but we weren’t there all night.

We left  Lorene’s at 9pm with half a dozen friends, and headed to a new place in town The SF Bar.  The security didn’t seem too fussed that half of us were underaged.

On entering the club 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 loves 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 are huggers full of glee.

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 seemed to go 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.Everything stopped and I 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 that the experience  filled all the days until now. 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 is going on?

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. 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. Had that been a dream or had I been kidnapped?  Or was everything I was experiencing now an hallucination. Should I be scared of the robot?  

I struggled over a large boulder that sat by the gap  I had crawled to. I fell forward scraping my cheek on the rough surface. I cried out, and  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.

This must be real.

 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 like my whole head and neck were pulsating. I had to calm down. 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. 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 decided the heart beating in my chest had to be flesh. It felt just like  I remembered.

I thought back to my first day at school, and holding my mother’s hand as I walked to the classroom door; the touch of my mother’s hand was real. 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 breathing. 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.  

The real Jack 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.  The question I had to answer was 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.

‘ Our wonderful luck.  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 woken before  the  android process began, 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 hidden inside an old army bunker about an hour from town.  Though most of us were bloody kneed, and half-starved we would have to walk home. Not one mobile phone was intact from the experiment so we couldn’t call anyone.

Most of us had missed all of our Year 12 exams, and  there would be 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!