Tag Archives: family

The Mystery, Lauren Ford

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It was simple enough: click on the link, pay the money, and wait for the package to arrive. There was mild suspense: what would the documents reveal? What deep, dark secrets was the government releasing? Would I finally discover that my grandfather was a post-World War II Soviet spy who had generously been given asylum in this distant, exotic, desert land?

One week passed and my suspense waned with the days, but my imagination scuttled under the dull, energy-efficient light of my slapdash dining table desk. I was picturing an awkward, middle-aged, cardigan-wearing government employee slowly foraging through a large X-Files warehouse of boxed files.

Weeks meandered by, and I had almost forgotten about the whole order until a deadline popped up on my screen reminding me to submit my latest poetry drafts to my supervisor. I had nothing more to write; my poetry was merely outlining the mundane, predictable details of my grandfather’s blotchy journey through Europe in the late 40s before suddenly disembarking a boat in Sydney in 1950. There was no depth, conflict, intrigue. Maybe I had to make it all up; it was only poetry, after all.

Now I was torn between fantasy and bureaucratic reality: were they debating whether these files were safe enough to be dispersed into the public netherworld? Or was it simply a matter of my order (which email confirmations and bank debits assured me had been received), sitting somewhere in the midst of a pile on some underpaid employee’s—or worse still, work experience teen’s—cheap Office Works desk tray.

The former was undoubtedly more glamorous, but I had to admit that the latter was a whole lot more realistic. So, I continued to wait, trudging on through the muddy waters of my grandfather’s story and producing substandard poetry about this mysterious, unknown figure.

And then finally, the documents arrived. There were four in total, which confused me somewhat, since I had only ordered two, but I quickly realised they had sent each email twice. It was unromantic, really, to receive the secrets as a set of auto-generated, accidentally duplicated emails.

The first set was uninspiring: his arrival date, boring employment papers, and a mildly thrilling passing reference to him breaching some regulation by not telling the government in a timely enough manner when he married my grandmother. I couldn’t think why this could possibly have been sealed for so long.

The second set began with an official letter stating they were sensitive regarding the security of the Commonwealth. My excitement burned as I wriggled further into my cold, metal, pale green IKEA chair and readied myself for the Great Revelation.

It started harmlessly enough: a letter from my grandfather requesting his naturalisation certificate. And then nothing. Thirty pages of documents about another Romanian-Hungarian with exactly the same name, who had arrived in Sydney 5 months earlier and ended up at the same migrant hostel in Orange, before settling in Queensland. I sighed. This journey through history was taking me backwards.

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The Memory, Melissa Farrell

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I have this early memory of my mother. We’re in the house where we lived for a couple of months before we moved to Italy, while my father was in Naples organising our new home. I must have been two years old because I turned three soon after we moved. This memory is like looking through a lens that won’t quite focus. I’m sitting on a blanket. There is some sort of pattern to it, but I can’t quite make out the detail. A collection of soft toys lies beside me. One might be a rabbit. I’m looking out through the bars of a wooden cot. My mother and a man. Sitting close together on a couch. Murmurs that don’t take quite take the shape of words. My mother stands. Leans down and kisses my forehead. Then she and the man disappear down a set of stairs into a darkness below. That’s it. That’s the memory.

We were in Italy for three years. My father had an engineering contract in Naples. I have some memories from our time there but they’re of moments lying outside the context of the larger world: sipping a sour orange soft drink from a thick glass bottle, riding in the back of a car through honking traffic, walking through an endless space while clutching my father’s hand as we gaze at paintings on the walls.

My sister, Anna, was born in Italy. She was born several months after we arrived. She was a chubby white baby who our Italian nanny would bath outside in a big wooden barrel. The nanny’s name was Giulia and she could only speak a few words in English. She taught me to speak Italian. I’ve forgotten the language over the years since we returned to Australia, having nobody to speak Italian with. I can remember stories Giulia told me, long stories about strange creatures who lived in magical forests. She must have told me these stories in Italian, but I remember them in English.

We have photographs from our time in Italy. Black and white ones. There are lots of my sister and me. Even in tones of black and white you can see my olive skin, inherited from our father’s side of the family and further deepened by the southern Italian sun, in contrast to my sister’s pale skin that would turn red but never seemed to hold a tan.

I watch now as my sister passes her new son to our father. Our mother stands by his side. I can smell the brandy in the morning coffee she holds tightly. He carefully takes the baby and leans down to kiss him on the forehead. The baby has my sister’s pale skin and a soft white fuzz on top of his head. My sister’s smile is wide as she watches our father with his first grandchild. I pull out my phone and take some photographs. It’s time to create new memories.

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Checking In, Kylie Needham

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This is how my sister told it to me.

‘Mum’s stuck in Immigration. They’re not letting her get on the plane.’

‘Can they stop her?’ I was tidying the kitchen after Ben and the kids had left for Saturday morning sport. I hadn’t thought of my mother in months; hadn’t seen or spoken to her in seven years. Still, my question was stupid. I knew as well as anyone else no one could stop my mother doing a thing.

‘They’re showing her articles about Nigerian love scams. Like she doesn’t know.’

‘She called you?’ I flicked on the kettle and got out a teabag. Conversations with my sister had a way of eating time.

‘No, I called her. To tell her about Nanna.’

‘What’s happened to Nanna?’ I put the phone on speaker so I could at least pack the dishwasher and feel like I was getting something done.

‘Last night she wrote letters to everyone except mum, cooked a batch of Ladies Fingers, and then swallowed a bottle of Temazepam.’

I nodded. Almost every member of my mother’s family had threatened suicide at one time or another. None had ever succeeded. Uncle Elio came close when he drank a bottle of Domestos.

‘Anyway, I was ringing mum to tell her Nanna’s on life support.’

‘What’d she say?’

‘They should turn it off.’

‘Who was dumb enough to give Nanna Temazepam?’ I asked, filling my teacup with boiling water and at the same time remembering the kids had finished all the milk. I’d have to add it to the list.

‘Some shit doctor she goes to. She told him her daughter’s run off with a black man and she can’t sleep, so he wrote her a script.’

Unfortunately for everyone, my sixty-nine year old mother had recently discovered the Internet and, with it, Facebook. There she discovered her new husband-to-be: a fifty-nine-year-old white American guy from California. Really he was a twenty-three-year-old black Nigerian guy named Richard (I had doubts about the name) who stole a photograph of a middle-aged Turkish real estate agent and used it for his profile picture.

‘How is she?’

‘Nanna? Pretty pissed off she’s still alive.’

‘No, I mean mum. Will she get on the plane?’

‘Who knows? She’s going nuts they won’t give Richard a visa and let him come here. Calling them all racists. And she’s fighting Florrie on Facebook.’

‘Who’s Florrie?’

‘Richard’s girlfriend. In Nigeria. She’s hot, looks about twenty. I’ll text you a picture.’

I thought of the officials at Immigration, laying down documents in front of my mother and showing her articles about lonely women who’d been tricked into online romances by smooth-talking scammers. Women who’d lost everything. Women who’d gone missing. Women who’d been murdered.

‘Stupid bitches,’ I could hear my mum say, pushing back her chair and standing up to catch her plane.

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Empty Shells, Lani Watt

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When I was a kid, I remember my Grandma taking me for a walk along the beach. It was a day just like this: scorching hot sun prickling my skin like needles; the humidity encouraging the sweat to plaster my shirt to my back. But the sea breeze was heaven. And the water lapping over my feet as I walked the shore reminded me why the beach was the best place to be at that very moment.

I was a bit of a rough nut, as everyone liked to tell me. Shells were being tossed haphazardly into the basket Grandma used to keep her sewing threads in, sand littering over the top of them. ‘Why?’ was my favourite question at that age. I wouldn’t learn until I was growing up myself just how annoying that could be. Patience of a saint, Grandma had.

‘Grandma, where do shells come from?’

‘They come from the sea,’ Grandma explained as she handed me one that I had decided was a pretty cool looking one. Aqua-blue, shiny, clean. It didn’t immediately go into the basket with the others.

‘Why?’ I shot back, studying the shell.

‘Maybe they’re the souls of the beautiful people who passed away when they’re no longer with us. It’s a lovely view for them don’t you think, darling? Perhaps this is why we feel compelled to collect some and not others. They’re the souls we’ll always stay connected to,’ Grandma mused. I still remember the knowing smile she gave me then.

That was when I started to gather the shells out of the basket and put them back in the sand, carefully, with the opening facing out to the water. I kept that one cool shell she gave me.

‘What are you doing, sweetheart?’ Grandma asked.

‘I don’t want to take someone else’s friend home.’

Some things as you grow up just stick with you. I remember looking back over the beach from the direction we came, seeing hundreds of shells littered all over the place. It was nice to think about, even back then. But now, since I lost you, I keep coming back here.

I’ve been sitting here yet again looking at the beach. I keep getting drawn back here. This was our place. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to come here to feel like you’re still with me. But today is the first day I have ever sat right down beside an empty shell that is almost identical to the aqua-blue one I kept way back when. Your favourite colour.

Now I’m older, I don’t know if I truly believe Grandma’s sweet musings of the world and the beauty of the relationship between shells and the beach. What if they’re really not empty shells? I can’t leave this one here, I have to take it with me. Just in case.

For some reason, today it feels easier to turn away from the water and walk away without looking back.

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Powerless, Niko Campbell-Ellis

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It had always been a struggle for Cate, seeing her grandchildren wanting for something so easy to give. Holding out a book to their parents and asking them in perfect English and Korean to “read it to me. Please, pleeease.” Seeing them head out into a frozen Seoul winter day without a coat and only cloth slippers on their feet. Seeing them slapped for not eating properly, not speaking properly, for getting a bad report from school. Tory was only seven for God’s sake, and Nano only five. Lucky, or perhaps not, Kara was too young for school.

It wasn’t something she wanted to face but these three little people, wild, fierce and desperate for love, forced her to see that her son was an idiot and her daughter-in-law a cold-hearted bitch. They were such an odd pair. Sure, she could see the attraction, they were both beautiful, but they had nothing in common. Cate knew that Tory, coming when he did, glued Sam and Akari together and that without him they probably would have split. But in their shoes Cate would have left, pregnancy or infant notwithstanding. And now the crazy pair had added two more kids to their brood.

The straw that broke Cate came a week ago. Nano had not eaten her dinner. She didn’t like it she said and Cate could understand that. Was there no room for the child to have her own opinion? Apparently not. Akari pulled Nano from her seat and delivered a slap to her knickered bum in one practiced movement.

Lip quivering, Nano still refused the food. Arms crossed, mouth clamped shut, a shake of her head. Then Sam, Cate’s only child, the one who had been brought up in a home of gentleness and love, her Sam grabbed the plate and shoved his daughter and her meal outside onto the balcony. “Come inside when you’ve eaten it all.” His words swirled around the heated apartment in an eddy of icy air.

Cate had looked from Sam to Akari and back again. They avoided her eyes, watched Nano instead.

“It’s freezing out there…

She’s only wearing a singlet and undies… she doesn’t even have any shoes on…

Let me take some warm clothes out to her.”

“No.”

Both parents spoke at the same time.

“She can come in anytime she wants,” Sam said, not taking his eyes off his shivering daughter. “All she has to do is eat it.”

“Sam, this is cruel.”

Cate could see Nano watching them through the glass. Stoic, she wasn’t crying and she wasn’t eating. Her arms were still crossed but Cate couldn’t tell if this was defiance or an attempt to keep warm. Every breath haloed around Nano as it hit the cold air. She locked eyes with her grandmother.

“Sam, it’s freezing…

Sam, let her in…

Akari?”

Cate started to cry. Outside in the cold, Nano began to eat.

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In This Otherwise Normal Day, Laura Neill

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She was supposed to call at ten, and it was already 10:26.

Tara sat at the kitchen table, her gaze locked on her phone. A full cup of tea was growing cold on the bench beside her.

When the screen lit up, she snatched the phone.

“Hello? What did they say?”

“They said we should all come now.” Her mother sounded groggy.  “We can have until this afternoon with him.”

Tara pushed back the chair and moved to the window. Outside, the sun bounced bright off the white picket fence.

“Darling?”

“Yes.”

“He’s been asking for flowers – could you get some? Bright ones. The nurses gave us some extra vases.”

 

At the supermarket entrance, the flowers stood in steel buckets under a Fly Buys Special sign. Chewing a thumbnail, Tara surveyed her options. Daffodils that sulked, stale-looking, their cellophane wrappers stickered with orange dots. Snapdragons with petals curled and scorched around the edges. Roses in tightly wrapped greenish buds that wouldn’t blossom in time.

Her throat constricted. Nothing here was beautiful enough, bright enough, and she was running out of time.

Tara grabbed a basket, loaded it with daffodils and headed to the express lane, dripping a trail of water behind her.  One by one she unpacked them onto the conveyor belt.

“How are you going today?” the cashier sang in a well-worn melody, tapping a plastic talon against the screen. Her name tag read ‘Marion’ and below it, ‘you can count on me.’

“Fine thanks and yourself?”

“Good thanks.” She started scanning the bouquets and arranging them in plastic bags.

Her lips pressed tightly together, Tara studied the artillery of breath fresheners and chewing gum in front of her.  Extra, Double-mint, Tic Tacs, Fisherman’s Friend, PK.

“Nice day isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.”

His favourite gum had been PK – he’d always kept a stash on the cut-crystal change tray beside his bed. He’d slip her a couple of pellets when Nanna wasn’t around, smiling that secret twinkly smile.

“Twenty-nine fifty thanks.”

It had been years since Tara had chewed a piece of PK. She couldn’t remember what it tasted like.

“Do you have a Fly Buys card?”

What else would she eventually forget? Those big fix-it hands, cool and leather-dry, or the smells of car oil and fresh mint on his shirt? His crinkly smile, his salt and pepper hair?

“Wait, I’ll take this.” Tara grabbed a stick of PK and handed it to the cashier. The woman sighed and jabbed at the screen again, then pushed the pin pad towards her.

“Thirty dollars.”

She peered into the bag.

“They’re nice and bright, aren’t they?”

“Yep.” Tara whispered.

“Have a nice day then.”

Her vision swimming, she snatched up the bags and hurried out through the mezzanine, past the bottle shop and the cafe with its smells of freshly-baked bread and coffee.  She weaved around shoppers, prams, baskets and rattling trolleys, all a neon-lit blur. She was a stranger, an alien, out here in this otherwise normal day.

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Hollow Love, Brianna Sawyer

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‘Love me,’ she begged.

The figure encased in shadows stilled, eyes glistening. Above, sticky droplets dribbled off stalactites, freezing to ice pebbles as they fell through the frigid air.

‘Please,’ she fell to her knees, unable to support her quaking bones.

 

 

 

12 hours earlier

Love knocked on the wooden door and twisted the handle. Stepping inside, the smell of stale bread and mouldy cheese made her scrunch her face. Her mother sat in bed, staring at the ceiling. The moth-bitten blanket engulfed her petite frame. Spider webs clung to the closed curtain and tittering squeaks could be heard in the walls. Love swallowed, and lifted a tray of goat milk and crusty bread.

‘Mum, you have to eat something,’ Love said, glancing at her mother’s chest bones, which protruded against her veiny skin.

Hollow rolled away, tufts of brown-silvering hair spotting her head. Love straightened her spine and placed the tray on the side table. Breathing through her mouth, she pulled the ratty blanket up and tucked it under her mother’s chin. Turning away, Love walked to the door, but stopped to glance over her shoulder.

‘I’ll be back soon,’ she paused, looking at the flaking citrine wallpaper, once a vibrant yellow. She cleared a lump in her throat.

‘I love you, mum.’ Love held her breath, waiting.

Her mother’s body language gave no indication of hearing her, though Love knew her hearing was fine. Love squeezed her eyes shut then reopened them, nodding sadly as she let the door click softly behind her.

 

 

 

The breeze from the ocean slipped around the three huddled figures along the edge of the sandy cliff-face. They shivered in their black bearskin coats. The sun peeked over the horizon, bathing their bodies in an orange warmth which did nothing to rid the chill in their hearts. After all, today was another funeral.

‘Why would Cliff venture up onto the cliffs? His deathname was plain enough, why would he go anywhere near them? Doesn’t make a lick of sense.’ Love questioned, shaking her head. Arrow’s pale blue gaze flitted over to her.

‘Why am I an archer’s apprentice, when my deathname is Arrow?’ Arrow quirked an eyebrow, combing her fingers through her wind-woven red tresses. ‘Old-man Cliff didn’t want his deathname to control his life no more. Suppose he wandered up to the cliffs to see what he’d been missing during his cliff exile.’

‘Exile? Deathnames aren’t punishment, Row. They’re precaution,’ Love said automatically, staring down at the funeral procession happening below them on the sand-bed.

Arrow scoffed. ‘What a load of mud. You’ve seen the self-barricaded townhouses. That’s not precaution, Lo, that’s paranoia.’

Love mumbled noncommittally, her attention snagging on the gaping black mouth of the Calling Caves, where every newborn received their deathname from the oracle within. The villagers called him The Caller. As Love stared, the black hole seemed to widen, revealing a cloaked figure by the entrance. She shivered, the wind tearing through her coat and making her eyes stream.

‘This makes nine funerals in five days, don’t it?’ Arrow clicked her tongue against her teeth. Love wiped at her watery eyes, fixing her attention back on the grey body atop the funeral pyre.

‘It’s unheard of,’ Love agreed.

‘What’s unheard of?’ Trip piped up, sweeping a tangled strand of black hair out of his preoccupied eyes. He was heavily involved with the making of a sandcastle. Conversations never excited Trip; they never shaped into anything with gritty substance.

‘Your complete and utter lack of attention,’ Arrow shot back, pointedly looking at his sand abomination. Trip shrugged and Arrow huffed out a breath of smoky air. Love sat between Arrow and Trip, and she felt her heart ache in response to their bickering.

Love knew there were different versions of love you could have for someone. She made a hobby out of identifying them in the people she encountered. The bakers’ cherub-faced daughter twirling on her toes so her baby brother stopped crying. Arrow’s mentor shooting her proud smiles when an arrow hit its mark. Trip stealing glances of Arrow when she was busy detangling her red mane. Seeing these gestures, Love had also become an expert in spotting a lack of love. After all, she dealt with the absence of it every day of her life. The wide berth the other villagers gave her. An ever-expanding detachment between herself and her friends. Including her own mother. But Love understood why.

No one wanted her to die.

It didn’t stop Love, however, from craving that which would kill her.

‘I should get back, my mum…’ Love trailed off. Arrow’s frown softened considerably. Trip had even stopped moulding sand into a misshapen castle, which was then quickly conquered by the whistling wind.

‘My mum, she—she’s refusing to eat anything now. I try feeding her dense foods and warm liquids, but it’s not working. Her body is shutting down. She—she’s just giving up.’ On me, was the add-on both her friends knew lingered there, unspoken. Arrow squeezed her shoulder a moment, then let go.

‘Her deathname is Hollow,’ Arrow said quietly, and bit her tongue when she saw Love wince, ‘do you think an outer-region disease is emptying her out?’

Love breathed in the crisp cool wind, looking out to where the ocean caressed the sky. Love was half convinced she was the disease.

‘I’ve tried the medication we had in storage, but with no food in her stomach, the meds just make her sicker. I don’t know what else to do.’

‘Talk to her,’ Trip murmured, accompanied by a solemn head nod. Arrow’s mouth twitched.

‘This advice coming from the man-of-few-words himself. Surprise after surprise, it is with you,’ Arrow replied. Love laughed as Trip mimed an arrow plunging through his heart. Arrows twitching mouth stretched into a smile.

Then the pyre sparked a blaze and their smiles melted away. They all looked on as licking flames engulfed the lifeless body. Moisture gathered in the corner of Trip’s usually untroubled brown eyes. Arrow shuffled behind him and wrapped her arms around his chest. Love shut her eyelids but couldn’t shut out the images of her mother, bedridden and helpless, morphing into a pale corpse surrounded by hissing flames as her skin peeled off her bones. She kept shaking her head but the image kept searing her brain, like a branding iron. A shake to the shoulder made her eyes fly open. Love gulped down cold air to settle her laboured breathing.

‘Trip’s right, talk to your mum, Lo,’ Arrow whispered, her head resting against Trip’s shoulder blade.

‘If she can stand to look at me,’ Love snorted, tearing her attention away from the fire. The Caller was hovering by the entrance of the Calling Caves. She blinked—despite the roaring wind, his cloak remained completely still.

 

 

 

Hurrying through the main courtyard, Love could smell fresh garlic and sizzling meats in the brisk air. Drawn to the stand by the sweet fragrance, Love exchanged her pouch of four chicken eggs for a slab of caramelized lamb and rosemary sprigs. To her left, she saw the closed sign on the door of Cliff’s Carrot Cakes. Now there was no one left to tend to the fireplace inside, allowing the front window to gather a thin skin of ice. Turning away, her eyes travelled to the boarded-up houses and businesses lining the cobbled courtyard. Wooden slats were secured over windows and doorways, dozens of nails sticking out haphazardly.

Every so often, Love caught flickers of light between the wooden beams when a person moved behind them. Collision, a mother of twin sons, Arti and Choke, had locked her family behind the walls of their home. A widower named Rod had closed his metalwork shop and disappeared when he lost his wife, Bee, to an unidentified infection. Taking a deep breath, Love could taste the salty ocean air and the tang of fear lingering along the skin of everyone she passed. Scratching at her arm, she looked up. Love stood before an unlit townhouse. Trudging forward, she pulled the key which hung around her neck and opened the front door. Letting it swing shut behind her, she was greeted by a wave of rotting flesh.

 

 

 

Rinsing her hands at the sink, Love reached for the ragged towel. Atop the tray, she tossed the caramelized lamb with rosemary sprigs and set a chipped limestone jug of water next to the platter. Walking down the dimly lit hallway, she paused before entering her mother’s bedroom. Her hands were trembling, making the contents of the jug slop over the side. She needed to talk to her mother; Arrow and Trip were right. Without knocking, she turned the door handle and entered. Love kept her eyes on the tray, but could hear her mother’s shallow breaths.

‘It’s lamb, your favourite,’ she said, setting the tray on her mother’s lap. Love picked up the jug of water and lifted it to her mother’s lips. Tilting her head back, Love managed to get the water into her mouth without it pouring down her chin, unlike the times before. Setting the water down, she looked at her mother’s sunken cheeks and the purple discolouring under her cloudy, brown eyes.

‘You’re killing yourself,’ she said, moving the tray onto the side table. Her mother continued to stare upwards, her gaze unfocused. But her mouth tightened slightly, Love noticed.

‘Say something. Talk to me.’

The silence was a crushing weight.

Love sprung from her perch on the lumpy mattress and paced the room. Glancing at the corner, she watched a black beetle scuttle under the bed. Love couldn’t even muster disgust at the sight, more revolted by the sickly creature lying on top.

‘I don’t know what to do anymore, I don’t know how to help,’ Love began, twisting her hands together. ‘I’ve fed you, bathed you, cared for you. All for nothing? Is that it? You’re happy to waste away? I know death haunts us here, in this paranoid village. It lies on the end of every breath. But I’m haunted by your death every time I shut my eyes. The house is falling apart. I’m falling apart. Because you’re giving up. You’re giving up…’ Love bit her lip, hard. A metallic taste flooded her mouth.

‘You’re my mother,’ her voice cracked, ‘why don’t you love me?’

From the gloom, a scratchy voice spoke.

‘You know why.’

Love looked away.

‘Do you think I’m selfish because I want to be loved?’

‘I think you’re foolish,’ her mother coughed, sputtering. Her unfocused gaze, however, remained fixated on the ceiling.

‘Because being loved is how I’m going to die?’

‘Yes,’ croaked Hollow.

‘You think I have a death wish?’

‘Yes.’

‘I get it from my mother, apparently,’ Love snapped.

Hollow’s face seemed to cave inwards. Her eyes closed, then fluttered open and rested on Love’s face. Love thought they resembled the eyes of funeral goers: pained and resigned.

‘I’m sorry,’ Love bowed her head. Her mother opened her mouth but no sound came out. She tried again.

‘Not loving you kills me,’ Hollow said, barely above a whisper. ‘It eats me up inside.’

The quaver in her mother’s tone made something quaver inside Love. She dropped to her knees beside her mother, feeling the confession settle like a weight on her chest. Her mother’s face broke apart, knowing Love had come to the realisation Hollow had known for some time. Tears began spilling down Love’s cheeks and Hollow reached out a trembling hand to wipe them away. It made Love cry harder. She gathered her mother’s hand in both of her own and pressed her lips to it. Love could feel the thin bones pushing against her mother’s cold, rubbery skin. She thought back to Cliff’s Carrot Cakes, cold, abandoned. Love couldn’t help but feel as if her mother had lost her fire too.

Suddenly, the hand she held went limp.

Releasing a shaky breath, she placed the arm across her mother’s stomach, then stood. Her knees wobbled. Looking down, Love saw her mother’s gaunt face and half-open eyes, staring blankly. She backed up until she collided with the wall, flakes of teal raining down on her. Unable to support her weight, she collapsed on the carpet matted with stains.

Love, herself, felt like a stain for existing. For on the bed, her mother lay utterly still. Her chest did not rise, as her heart, devoid of love, could no longer beat.

 

 

 

In a daze, Love raced down the sandstone stairs. The ocean tides at the bottom were flooding the stretch of sand between the staircase and the Calling Caves. Plunging forward, Love waded through the freezing water which climbed to her waist. Hoisting herself free from the seawater, Love stood facing the black mouth of the Calling Caves. Inside, the cave walls were coated with moisture. A ping ping ping of falling water echoed throughout the chamber.

Where are you?’ she screamed, breathless.

‘Where I’ve always been,’ came the reply.

‘Bring her back. You can save her. You have a direct connection to the Fates.’

The Caller didn’t respond.

‘Please, just bring her back.’ A black-robed figure seemed to detach itself from the darkness. Love lurched back a step. The Caller tilted its mouth. The smile looked slightly unhinged. Love shook, her lips turning purple.

‘What’s dead, stays dead,’ said The Caller.

Love squeezed her eyes shut. Behind her eyelids, she saw her mother’s body, still and lifeless. Hollow.

‘Love me,’ she begged.

The figure encased in shadows stilled, eyes glistening. Above, stalactites dribbled sticky droplets which froze to ice pebbles as they fell through the frigid air.

‘Please,’ she fell to her knees, unable to support her quaking bones. Her breath turned to puffs of cloud in front of her.

‘You wish to die,’ The Caller stated. Love shook with silent tears, nodding. A hissing rose from The Caller. Love froze, realising the oracle was laughing. Something cold snaked down her spine. She heaved herself onto her shaking feet.

‘Are you my people’s oracle?’

The figure grinned, shifting into the dark recesses of the Calling Cave.

‘What are you?’ she breathed.

‘Impatient,’ it teased, a clicking reverberating against the cave walls. ‘Want to know a secret, Little Love?’ The voice twisted around the caves, coming from every direction. Love flipped around, certain the creature was behind her.

‘You were never going to die from love.’

Love flinched.

‘It was all for nothing?’ She saw her mother’s motionless body behind her eyelids, pale and cold. ‘You’re lying,’ she spat.

The creature bared its pointed teeth. ‘Insulting a God? Little Love, I could squash you into the Earth where you belong and watch you wriggle like all the other worms. Nothing but insectile, pink flesh rolling in your own filth.’ It hissed, spittle flying from its mouth. ‘But you do secrete tasty treats.’ The creature breathed in deeply, nostrils flaring as its eyelids fluttered closed.

‘Why are you here?’ she panted, her voice trembling. The creature opened its bulbous black eyes and smiled sharply.

‘To call and collect.’

Why?’

Why?’ the guttural voice mimicked, ‘Mmmm. I like to toy with my food, Little Love, before I feast. And your mother was my favourite. Playing with a second generation to manipulate the first. The sweet patience it took. The sweetest reward. There’s nothing more delicious than a sacrifice.’ The creature whetted its pale, flaky lips.

She faced the creature as it loomed closer. Her eyes welled with pain and resignation.

And the Death God welled with satisfaction. It bared needle-like teeth, saliva slipping down its jaw.

Love closed her eyes and let her guilt swallow her whole.

 

 

 

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Morgan, Kimberley Milton

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Creak. I pull my blankets up to my chin and listen to the Milkman’s symphony. The gate strains as he makes his way into their front yard, trundling up the steps of their veranda to leave four glass bottles of milk. He stomps back down to close the white picket gate behind him, careful not step on the perfectly manicured lawn as he slouches over to the next house. Each time a gate is opened it reveals its squeaky hinges and I find a sense of comfort in this irritating flaw in our neighbourhood. I brace myself for the Milkman’s entrance to our neighbour’s front yard, but there is an extended silence.

My chest fills with a sudden nervous flutter and the blankets surrounding me begin to feel like a straight jacket holding me down. I fling them off and rush to my window. I slowly pull back the curtain and my vision fills with white. The domes have made it to our street.

Suddenly, a gap appears in the dome and three figures slowly emerge. I can see a man in a white suit, the black tie around his neck draws my eye to his throat and I am filled with hate. Next is a small woman, loose strands of red hair peek out from the curlers that cover her head. Her pink nightgown is pulled in at her waist by the arm holding her. My eyes move up to the tall figure beside her, his eyes the same blue as Tenille’s. I strain to look past the tall figures that are her parents, desperately searching for a sign of Tenille’s red hair and kind smile.

‘Tennile!’ I scream. I press my hand against the glass, as though I can will it to disappear. I want to run outside and rip through the dome, save Tenille from whatever horrors she is about to face. But my legs feel like they are stuck in ice, burning and stiff.

‘Wake up Nathaniel,’ I slap myself. ‘This is just a dream. Snap out of it.’ But nothing changes. My window is still filled with the white material and the gap in the dome remains sealed. But the slap has done something else and my legs are once again free.

I run to my bedroom door and fumble with the doorknob. ‘Shit,’ I scream as I punch the door. Finally, I get the door open and run down the stairs, taking two at a time, not at all concerned with falling down. With a click I unlatch the front door and am temporarily blinded by the glare from the dome.

I will my vision to clear as I seek out the two people I have questions I most need to see.

‘Who was it?’ I pause between each word. The calmness in my voice terrifies even me. Tenille’s parents just stare at me. Their stupid dumbstruck faces make me want to scream. Their slippered feet shuffle backward as I move toward them.

I repeat the question, this time a little louder. I’m close enough now to see their eyes darting around, looking for any chance of escape. This only makes them look guilty.

‘Who was it?’ I’m screaming now, shoving her dad. ‘She would never have a writing instrument and you know it. Don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about.’ I turn to Tenille’s mum and look straight into her eyes. Her dad seems like he’s going to make a move to stop me, but he’s abruptly taken away by a white suited man.

‘I know it was you.’ I whisper. ‘Tenille saw you with your precious diary. She told me all about how you would write in it when you thought no one was home. What did you do? Hide it in her room and call them?’ My head turns toward the men in the white suits.

My head snaps back to my arm as a sharp pain radiates down it and I see Tenille’s mum clutching my bicep, her fingernails digging into my flesh.

‘You think you’re so clever; that you know everything. You know nothing Nathaniel.’

She releases my arm, but reaches up to my sleeve and gently brushes away the creases.

‘Soon no one will remember her.’ She whispers into my ear. I clench my jaw and my hands form fists, my knuckles turning white.

‘Nathaniel?’ My mum calls. She is running across the grass of our front garden towards me. Her face is a mirror of the sadness and desperation I feel. Tenille’s mum drops my arm and backs away, moving towards her husband.

‘I’m so sorry, Nathaniel,’ she takes me in her arms and holds me against her; I can feel the steady beating of her heart. I suddenly drop to the ground, falling from her arms. She bends down and holds me whilst I weep. In the distance I can hear the Milkman’s symphony.

 

*

 

All this crying is so boring. So she’s gone, big whoop. She’s not dead. But I guess they don’t know that. I can see my big brother crying and my mum crying and Mr Smyth crying and Mrs Smyth not crying. She really needs to try harder than that if she wants to look normal.

I have had to put up with this family for eight years. It’s exhausting trying to be happy and cheerful all the time. But soon I finally get to take my Circle Standard and become a Nineling. Mrs Smyth says she has big plans for me.

Master Isaiah really knew what he was doing when he created the test. All you have to do is draw a circle. Simple right? Wrong. Draw a perfect circle and you are thrown out of Mallar because they think you are insane and dangerous. So I figured it has to look weird and not like a circle that should be enough to pass. The only problem is that they stick a big needle in you before you take the test so you go into, like, some sort of trance thing. But that’s where Mrs Smyth came in. She failed the Circle Standard, but no on ever knew because she swapped her circle with someone else and they disappeared forever. So now she steals writing implements and gets kids that she thinks are special to practice drawing imperfect circles, or sometimes gets them to sometimes just fill a whole notebook with perfect circles to get it out of their system.

I think I’m up to notebook number seven. I need lots of practice at not being perfect.

 

*

 

Two months have passed since Tenille disappeared and I seem to be the only one who remembers she existed at all. Whenever I mention her name or start talking about a memory I have of her, everyone just looks at me like I’ve gone crazy. Especially my sister Morgan, who has been acting really strange, but that could just be because she’s nervous.

In a couple of weeks she will take her Circle Standard and become a Nineling. She’s been spending a lot of time in her room with her door closed. I can hear strange scratching sounds coming from inside her room and every now and then she will let out a frustrated cry. Mum thinks that she’s just tidying her room, but I don’t think that she’s right.

People of Mallar.’ Master Isaiah’s voice booms from the speakers in our house. ‘Please make your way outside to welcome the Ninelings. Each one has successfully passed the Circle Standard. Please help me in congratulating them as they march through the streets. I look forward to their contributions to our fine city.’

The smell of springtime fills the air as we make our way out the front door. The sudden clean air and warm sunshine makes my fears seem ridiculous and they melt away.

Before long the sound of cheering and chanting can be heard. The sounds of muffled footsteps begin to build and before long the streets are filled with a new batch of Ninelings. The sound of their tiny footsteps mirrors the sound of soldiers marching towards battle.

Soon the Ninelings begin to pass by. Their little faces are beaming. Some are jumping up and down with excitement, breaking the illusion that a perfectly trained army was marching towards Mallar, but they were quickly put back in line by their parents who are all proudly watching from the crowd.

Morgan stands in front of me. I find it hard to believe that this sweet little girl, wearing a blue and white checked dress, could be anything but cute. She is waving so enthusiastically to her friends that I am afraid her arm might act as a propeller and she will take off into the air.

Suddenly, there is a slight change, almost as though a ripple passes through her. It is so subtle that I may have missed it if I hadn’t been looking directly at her. Morgan is staring straight into one of the Nineling girl’s eyes. She moves her hand to her neck and at first it looks like she is scratching, but her thumb extends out and draws a straight line across her throat, her head slightly tilted to the side, her face blank. Any remnant joy has been wiped away. Morgan moves her hand from her throat to her ear in an effort to appear inconspicuous. The joy that she had showed earlier returns to her face and she continues waving to her friends as they pass by, as though nothing has changed.

I can’t move. I am pierced by fear and my body goes into immediate fight or flight mode. The tell-tale signs of fear begin to appear. Sweat forms on my brow and my breath quickens. My heartbeat is so loud and fast in my chest; I am sure everyone around me can hear it. Clearly someone does, because in the next moment Morgan whips her head around to look at me.

‘You okay big brother?’ A huge grin spreads her lips wide. It would have seemed like a cute gesture from a little sister to a big brother, but after what I just witnessed I see it as a warning. All I can see is her mouth, full of teeth.

I reach forward and touch my mum’s arm to get her attention.

‘Mum, I’m just going inside to get a drink.’ She gives me a quick nod and then goes back to waving and smiling at the children, pulling Morgan to her and giving her a big hug. ‘This will be you next year,’ she announces to Morgan, squeezing her so tight her shoulders are forced up to her ears.

The next morning at breakfast I can’t look at Morgan the same way. The threat that she made to that little girl is still etched in my mind. It plays over and over on a loop.

‘Nathaniel?’ I am snapped back to my kitchen, where Morgan sits opposite me munching on her piece of toast with strawberry jam. ‘What are the white domes for?’

I freeze and scan the room for any signs of mum or dad. ‘Where did you hear about them Morgan?’ I whisper.

‘I just remember the look on your face when Tenille’s house was covered in that dome. Too bad she’s gone. She was nice.’ A sweet smile spreads across her lips. She pushes back her chair as she stands up. ‘You know nothing Nathaniel.’ Her voice is low and measured and it terrifies me. She turns and skips away.

Words escape me and I chase after her. How does she know?

‘Morgan! Open the door. Tell me what you know.’ There is silence behind the door. I reach down to turn the doorknob, but it’s locked. ‘Damn.’ I clench my fist and pound on her door again, over and over, calling out her name. The sound has done nothing except draw my parent’s attention.

‘Nathaniel, what are you doing?’

‘I just need to talk to Morgan.’ My mother’s face softens as she senses the desperation in my voice.

‘How about you sit down with her this afternoon? You are both going to be late for school if you don’t leave now.’ She places a hand on my shoulder and directs me to the stairs. ‘Have a good day at school sweetie.’

I grab my backpack on the way out and reluctantly start trudging off to school. I glance over my shoulder at my sister’s bedroom. She’s standing in the window, framed by two pink, chiffon curtains. Morgan doesn’t move, or smile or wave. She just stares at me. I turn around and focus on my shadow as it moves ahead of me, quickening my pace to leave the image of my sister behind.

I can’t focus on anything at school today except for what happened this morning. My teacher is droning on about algebra, but my head is swimming with questions. Should I tell Mum? Is Tenille still alive? Does Morgan know what happened to her?

The more I think about my sister’s strange behaviour, the more I begin to realise she’s behaving the same way as Mrs Smyth. Both are normally so kind and sweet, but that day when Tenille disappeared and she grabbed my arm was unlike anything that she has done before. The cruelty behind her eyes signalled her words as a threat. ‘You know nothing Nathaniel.’ Her words replayed through my mind and I freeze. Morgan said the exact same words this morning.

Suddenly, I spring from my chair and it rocks precariously on its legs, threatening to fall to the ground. Every head in the classroom turns towards me.

‘I’m not feeling well.’ I announce as I lift the lid of my desk to retrieve my backpack.

‘Okay Nathaniel, just go to…’ but I don’t hear the end of the sentence as I have already bolted from the classroom.

I run home, my feet pounding against the pathway and my backpack thumps against my back. Each perfectly manicured lawn taunts me as I run by. The perfection is too much.

1:00 pm on a Wednesday should place my sister in class, my dad at work and my mum at the grocery store. This is the only opportunity I would get to search my sister’s room.

The sound of our gate creaking no longer fills me with comfort. It only reminds me of the horror of that morning. But as soon as the door closes behind me I am overwhelmed with relief. It creates an instant barrier between Morgan and myself.

I race up the stairs, two at a time and fling open her bedroom door. Her delicate chiffon curtain sucks against the open window as I enter her room. The pink pillows are arranged on her bed in the usual way, but I can see a small white corner peeking out from underneath them. This seems too easy. I push aside the voice and rush towards the pillows. This was it, Morgan’s secret. I needed to know what she has been hiding.

I slowly open the front cover of the book, expecting to see a blank notebook, or perhaps a diary. We’d been taught that people used to keep track of their lives with forbidden pen and paper, instead of using computers like we do today.

I open to the first page and my throat goes dry. Adorning every page are circles, hundreds and hundreds of perfect circles. I drop the book and it falls flat onto the floor, opening up to the middle spread revealing even more pages, each circle mirroring the other. The breeze from the open window rifles through the pages as through they are moving by themselves; revealing their secrets to me. The sound of the turning pages mimics the sound of waves lapping at the beach and it lulls me into a false sense of security.

I pick the book up from the ground and flick through it. Every page is the same. There is barely any space left and almost all the white areas have been filled with menacing circles. I start turning the pages faster and faster.

That’s when the curtain is suddenly drawn against the window. Someone has entered the room. I slowly turn around, my breath struggling to move in and out, as if it is getting caught between my teeth. Morgan and Mrs Smyth stand in the doorway.

‘You shouldn’t be here big brother.’

 

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Twenty Seconds, Charlotte Smith

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Cindy McMann slept sprawled across her older sister Stacey’s lap, in the police interview room, as Brian watched through the other side of the mirrored glass. He knew he was not going to be their saviour and his heart raced as he listened to the monotonous dial tone on the end of the phone. His wife was a lead caseworker with child services and he would often call her at a time like this for advice. He had worked on a couple of cases similar to this one in the past. Junkies overdose all the time and it seemed as though it was always the kids who found their parents. Usually these kids were already in and out of foster care, and not to say he didn’t care as much about those type of kids, but he did find it a lot easier to hand them over to the authorities. He thought most of them were little shits anyhow. He had proved this suspicion over and over in court. There was no better feeling to Brian than watching their faces as his evidence proved these suspicions.

There was something about the McManns that intrigued him though. The father of the girls, Jason McMann had moved out from Scotland over 30 years ago as a loud mouthed, 18-year-old, leather clad, tattooed lead singer for ‘The Toasties’.  His high school girlfriend followed him and also married him two years later. The band remained a success throughout the 90’s and even won a few awards. They were the Kimye of Australia at the time, with their eldest daughter Stacey always snapped in the papers with her curly blond bob and designer overalls, waddling after her parents at different events.

As the girl got older, she would pose for the paparazzi, wearing her school uniform and showing off trophies she had won at school. The pride for their only child at the time emanated from Marienne and Jason McMann as they would allow the girl to chat away to local journalists and pose for photos.  Brian observed the girl now, with her hair pulled back into a braid. Stacey looked exactly the same, just slightly more mature. Cindy was almost identical to Stacey with brown curls bouncing across the 3 year old’s face. Brian reflected back to 2003 when the girls’ father announced he was leaving the band. Quickly the family had transitioned into living a low-key lifestyle. After a few years the paparazzi stopped recognising him and by the time his youngest child, Sophie, was born even the shows that no one watches on late night television had stopped showing footage of The Toasties.

Although Brian and Meryl were too old to listen to rock music themselves, their son had collected all ‘The Toasties’ albums over the years so they had become quite acquainted to the deafening claps of thunder coming from their son’s room throughout the 1990’s. Now, years later Brian found himself in the position of needing to help the same child who was once plastered over the weekend papers. Interrupting the dial tone was his wife’s soft voice. Brian tried to stop his own voice from shaking as he explained the situation to his wife. In most scenarios like this it was rare for there to be no next of kin. Through the glass he could see the pained expression of Stacey McMann, causing his voice to break as he explained the situation to his wife.

‘They will probably be put in temporary care together until something gets sorted. Not my area to assess Brian, you know that.’ Meryl hated not being able to help her husband, but in cases with no next of kin it was always so icky. She could never let herself get involved, as she was one to get attached. That was the last thing she needed at 57 years of age.

‘It’s Jason McMann’s kids, love.’ He didn’t know why he said it; he knew he was breaking regulation.

Sensing her husband’s emotion, Meryl took a deep breath before addressing him. ‘I know you can’t see it now, love, but rock stars die all the time. They leave lots of money behind too. These kids will be fine.’

As Meryl hung up the phone Brian felt the tension release from his shoulders. He knew nothing about the financials of the McManns, but he assumed his wife was probably right. Looking back into the interview room at the two girls, Brian felt a tinge of guilt over the thought of the girls ever reading his report about their mother. According to his report all the evidence at the scene in which Marianne McMann’s body was found showed signs of an overdose. There were drugs and drug paraphernalia found inside the pockets of Marianne’s leather jacket. The autopsy was yet to be carried out, but he could predict the results of that just by looking at the scene in the home where Marianne was found. Forty years of experience under his belt gave him insight into these sorts of cases, and although he was intrigued by this high profile case, he couldn’t let that blur his judgement when it came to reporting the evidence he had come across. He wondered if he could ever avoid going to the press with the case to prevent the media shitstorm.

Tensely, Brian watched as his partner entered the room and comfortingly handed Stacey a hot chocolate. In fact, everyone in the police station tensed at that moment. The coldness drew closer as Brian was introduced to the child services worker. Brian shook his head thinking he could only hope for the best from then on. Reminded of what his wife said he was comforted with the thought the kids would have lots of pocket money in the future.

*

The heat of the sun snuck through a slit in the curtains and covered Stacey’s face as she squinted and tried to readjust her eyesight to the morning sunlight. The stained walls surrounding the bed reminded her of where she was—the boarding house attached to the private girls’ school. She stared at the bland, off white walls and thought of the colours that splashed her own bedroom, wishing she could go back there. She did have the keys, and it was her home. She knew from the reading of the will that the house had been left to her. Nothing about the boarding school was familiar to her despite having attended the school her whole life. After the death of her mother the school had awarded her a scholarship that provided free boarding and education costs. The musty, sweat-stained air reinforced the unfamiliar feeling that bubbled away in her guts—a feeling that was weening its way into her life way too regularly lately. The shuffling of soft footsteps in the hallway reminded her that a boarding house manager was going to knock on her door shortly to make sure she was awake. The warm sheets surrounding her were the only things stopping her from getting out of bed. The safety and security of the sheets wrapped around her shoulders, replicating the feeling of safety that both her parents used to provide to her. The feeling she would never feel again. Stacey would always be loyal towards her parents regardless of what everybody else thought or said. They had provided her with everything she would need in life so why would she cave to the rumours? She hated how everyone treated her now. The whispers as she passed the other girls in the hallways at school taunted her. They watched her as she walked past, the sympathy etched in their eyes following her in the afterhours. Living in the school meant she could never escape the looks of judgement. No one would ever say anything to her face, their furrowed brows and soft smiles said it all though. Stacey had never wanted the sympathy; she had never understood it. Regardless of the circumstances she knew she was still better that the stupid judge’s A-grade daughter, or the wanker bankers’ prefect daughter.

As Stacey’s mind wandered from the present to the past, the replay of memories that had been unable to escape pushed their way into her thoughts. The image of her mother, Marianne, lying dead on the couch, her face looking so content and dreamy never left her mind these days. She wondered whether Cindy would ever forget the image. She was still angry at whoever leaked the autopsy to the papers. Stacey knew it was because someone had seen an opportunity to make some quick money. She was so enraged when the rumours about her parents came out.  Despite fighting with her self over the lies she knew deep down that her parents weren’t completely innocent and they had used drugs at times. They were not junkies though! Stacey’s body twitched as she felt the hot tears roll down her cheeks and she imagined her father sitting at the end of the unmade bed, smiling his goofy smile and convincing her to go out and face the world. A soft rapping on the door echoed through the emptiness around her. ‘Stacey. It’s time to get ready or you’ll be late.’ Stacey wiped her face and leapt off the bed and across to the door, catching her foot on the pocket of her suitcase and spilling all its possessions on the way. When she reached the door and opened it she shyly tilted her head up to see the school’s social worker standing at the door, sympathy etched in the furrow of her brows. Stacey tried to fight the urge to yell at that sympathetic face. Even the social worker didn’t understand her. ‘I didn’t expect you to get up so quickly. No school today, Stace. By the time we finish with the lawyer and child services it will be too late.’

The tension in Stacey’s shoulders tightened as the thought of Cindy sitting in a strangers lap in the child services office fought its way into her mind. Trying to distract herself from the negative thoughts brewing she turned her attention to the spilt contents of her suitcase. Within seconds she had given up and sat back on the bed. As she drew in her breath, barely letting it reach her sternum, her chest tightened. Staring at the contents strewn across the ugly faded red carpet she caught a glimpse of her mother’s favourite leather jacket. After weeks of arguments with the police, she had won and the jacket was rejected as evidence and handed down to her, the rightful owner. The jacket was covered in zips, the typical attire of her 90’s punk rock mother. As a child, Stacey would play with the zips and it would keep her captivated for hours while waiting backstage for her father to finish gigs, or on the tour bus or planes or whatever other event she had been dragged along to. She remembered how after years of being teased by all the zips she had eventually discovered only 4 out of the 28 zips actually opened and contained secret pockets. Finding the exact zip she wanted she wiggled two fingers into the opening until she felt the plastic slide between her fingers. Pulling the contents of the satchel out of the pocket, Stacey sat on top of her unmade bed and let the tears scroll down her face as she contemplated whether to use the drug or not.

*

Meryl watched her husband curiously. For hours he had been sitting in the dim corner of the living room on the PC their son had bought them a few years back. It had always sat in a dusty corner of the living room taking up the space where her old sewing machine used to be. Meryl had never seen the point in actually owning a computer. She had one at work and something always seemed to go wrong with it. Her husband, Brian, also hated the stupid PC, taking any opportunity to openly voice his hate for technology. Yet, here he was intrigued with something on the clunky thing in the corner of their living room. Her curiosity begging to know what it was that kept her husband so intrigued pulled her out of the reclining chair and walked her to the corner. Brian sat inspecting a photo. ‘It’s Cindy McMann, love.’ Her husband’s words echoed as Meryl observed the girl’s pale skin and brunette curls that complimented the sparkling blue eyes staring back at her. She thought of the little girl in the foster home and her heart sank.

Ever since the death of Jason and Marienne McMann, Brian had been hinting at his wife to help the children. The idea of fostering came up, but Meryl had insisted she wanted to keep her professional life as a foster care caseworker separate to her home life. The eldest girl, Stacey, had since turned 18, so Brian’s latest idea was to adopt the youngest child, Cindy, and provide her with a happy life with the possibility of Stacey being a big part of the little girls’ life. Since this conception, Brian had visited all the specific agencies and had completed all the required paperwork. Although, Meryl still had her doubts she had agreed to consider the idea. She hadn’t signed anything yet, but did feel obliged as it wasn’t often Brian insisted on things. She did have doubts of their capabilities though, especially as Brian approached 60. Adopting a child was not her idea of a quiet retirement. She thought of her son and his pregnant wife and wondered how they would react to the idea.

Feeling her husband’s hand grasp her arm, she turned her attention to him. The creases around his eyes deepened as he stared across to the television, his grasp tightening as he listened to the afternoon news reporter. ‘Yes, that’s correct. It is the daughter of the late Jason McMann. She was a boarder at St Michael’s Boarding House, a prestigious school here in Sydney. At the moment it looks drug related. There was a leather jacket found with what is thought to be heroin. Parents of the community must…’ Meryl listened to the comments from the reporter as they splashed pictures of the teenager across the television. The picture bracing the screen was the cover of an old women’s magazine. The photo, taken fifteen years earlier at Bondi Beach, showed Jason and Marienne McMann cuddling Stacey between them on the shoreline. Meryl had seen the photo years earlier. Looking at it again now, she couldn’t help but to notice the resemblance between Stacey and Cindy.

‘This is fucking ridiculous. Do they not consider this poor little girl?’ Brian angrily banged his fist onto the keyboard, causing the desk to shake and spill the unsigned adoption papers across the floor.

Meryl watched as her husband stormed towards the television remote and turned the news off. She remembered being told once that it only took twenty seconds for someone to die of a heroin overdose. The thought gutted her that it only took twenty seconds to change a life in such a negative way. Catching a glimpse of the adoption papers scattered on the floor she thought of Cindy and she knew what she had to do. It would only take twenty seconds to change and reverse the negativity. She could feel Brian’s eyes burning through her as she picked up a pen from the desk and began sorting the adoption papers until she came to the final page.

 

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The Outskirts of Benslimane by Josie Gleave

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I am called brave for leaving my home and moving to the other side of the world, but I know that any bravery I might have comes from my sister. She is the one who can effortlessly introduce herself to a crowd of new acquaintances or play the peacemaker in an argument. She climbs back on the horse that just bucked her off. I wanted to be her.

I have not seen my sister for over a year since I moved. It feels like ages to us who are often mistaken for twins. I stand on the edge of Paris at the Levallois-Perret train station where we are meeting for only a few short days. I arrived early, and she will fly in from her summer job in Morocco where she has been training horses for a family she claims is one of the wealthiest next to the King.

As I pace the platform, I pose the question: how does a twenty-something, female, Arizonan horse trainer end up in Morocco? There is a blank space in my mind when I think of that country. Instead I imagine a desert of sand and a solitary tiled palace with extensive stables full of black horses. I think of our parents in Arizona who I know have been uneasy for her safety. My own feelings of concern were that she would not be taken seriously or treated fairly. Americans feel loved within their homeland, but that warmth is not always reciprocated when abroad.

Like bees flitting out of the hive, Parisians flood the station. They are a swarm of blue suits and black dresses. I scan the faces of each traveller finding none that resemble my own. When the flight calms and I anticipate waiting for the next train, a statuesque female with long, straight hair rises on the escalator. She is zipped in a black jacket with an embroidered Arabian horse head over the heart, tired blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a rhinestone belt with a horseshoe buckle. We squeal each other’s names and hug. Together we weave through the streets, passing her lumpy duffle bag back and forth to rest our shoulders. My mind is teeming with questions and so I begin.

 

‘How did you end up in Morocco?’

 

It started with Riley’s phone call. He used to shoe for the same stables I worked for in Arizona, and so we would see each other from time to time at the show circuit. He rang me one day saying he had a job for me body clipping some horses for a photo shoot. He said the guy would pay well, three grand for the lot. I said I could get it done and asked for the location of the stable. He said Morocco, and I thought, like the country?

He called me on Monday, and I was on a flight that Wednesday. I only stayed a week that trip so I could get back for the second half of the university semester, but I got to know the owner, Anas, and his situation. His three main properties: the Villa, the Centre, and Comagree are all on the same road on the outskirts of Benslimane. His racing stable is on the coast of Mohammedia, a half hour away. Most of the show horses were stabled at the Villa while the Centre and Comagree had a mixture of agriculture fields, olive and citrus groves, donkeys, goats, cows, sheep, and miniature horses. Anas tries to make money out of his work, but his dad is content keeping him out of the city. See, Anas does everything extreme. He took partying to the extreme. Now he has over 500 head of horses. That is extreme. But it keeps him out of the city. That week, I just body clipped. Anas found out that I can ride and asked me to come back.

One month later, I was back on a plane to Morocco for the summer. To show me the land, Anas took me on his daily rounds. Every night he drove to each property to check up on the horses. He had pastures upon pastures of foals, yearlings, two year olds, three year olds, and pregnant mares. He didn’t remember all of their names, but somehow he knew every pedigree. He would point to a horse and say, ‘This horse was by this and sired by this horse and its grandfather was by this.’ Sometimes he sat up all night long researching pedigrees, and if you weren’t careful and didn’t go to bed on time you would be stuck there with him. Anas wanted to bring back the pure and traditional Barb. If you look them up, Barbs look like fat little ponies, but when you see them they are big boned with huge necks. According to Anas, a few years ago the Moroccan government was lax about accurate breed records. The Barb was disappearing and so anything that looked like a Barb was listed as a Barb to build the registry. While looking for a true bloodline, Anas was also breeding pure Egyptian Arabians and racehorses. He had more than a couple of projects in motion.

Anas set me up in the Villa. I had a room to myself with hot and cold running water and even occasional air conditioning. I was taken care of. The only problem I had was a rat that paid me a visit one night. Already I had a little mouse and two big geckos sharing my accommodation. There was no room for a rat. I locked it in the bathroom, but struggled to sleep. Every time I started to doze, I heard it scurry and bang into a wall or I dreamed that it was nibbling on my toes. In the morning it had left through the same hole it entered. I duct taped it tight.

From six in the morning to five at night, I worked with the horses. Anas had unrealistic expectations for the stallions’ progress, but I still tried to please him. He wanted them prancing and doing tricks, but most couldn’t ride in a straight line. Half of them weren’t even broke before I arrived. I split my horses into two groups. The first I turned out to pasture to let them run and play in open space. The others I lunged in a round pen and the next day I rotated. I schooled the halter Arabs by training them to position their necks high and back legs outstretched and then I worked on breaking the stallions. Some of those studs were raunchy. I mean, I would take them out of their stalls and they would try to bite my head. They would strike at me, rear up, and come at me. When I was breaking Markmoul under saddle, all he would do was buck. What I found to work with Markmoul seemed to ring true for stallions in general. The more consistently I worked them and rode them, the better they became. They were easier to handle and weren’t retarded. Let a stud sit for a bit, and they turn into mischief-makers. So I give them a job and it makes them happy. I think men are the same way.

My two years of high school Spanish were obviously of no use that summer. The people spoke a concoction of Arabic and French. A couple of guys at the stable took it upon themselves to educate me, which started as pointing at an object and stating its name. I kept a vocabulary list on my phone and botched the spelling of every word so I could read it later. Ayoub and I became friends through this process. He worked at Comagree, but was close to my age so we went riding together and explored old ruins and roads. I don’t know what language we spoke, but we could understand one another. We carried on full conversations in this odd foreign dialect that probably wasn’t really a language.

One of my favourite evenings was when Ayoub and I drove to Mohammedia. I had been before to see the racehorses, but never at night. That is when the city comes alive. Whenever we were unsure of directions, we pulled over on the side of the road and Ayoub would call out to a lone vendor selling snail soup or cactus fruit. The people were helpful and friendly, almost too friendly with a tendency to jump in your car and take you to the place you are trying to go. We arrived at Mohammedia, walked along the boardwalk and watched a little carnival on the beach where there were horse rides and camel rides for children. Somehow Ayoub convinced me to ride the Ferris wheel. Terrible idea. It went around and around for what felt like an hour and it went fast! I am not great with heights, but that was hardly my primary concern. First of all, it was a carnival ride. Second of all, it was a carnival ride in Morocco. The hinges looked shabby with ropes and knots holding things together. My nervousness only encouraged Ayoub. He tried to shake the carriage so it would rattle and swing and then he would laugh and laugh.

Early in the month, Anas asked me to show some of the Arabs in halter. I told him I would if he really wanted me to, but I didn’t think it was a good idea. The horses wouldn’t have a fair show with me. Women aren’t exactly repressed in Morocco, but they don’t show horses. Even if I trotted out with the best Arab gelding, I would still be a woman. Anas knew the risk, but still thought that I deserved to flaunt my work. I told Anas his horses would have a better shot with me training and a man showing.

Morocco has its own politics and rules around horse shows. I let that be. In no other way was it a problem that I was a woman. The guys treated me a bit differently, but that was because I am a white American, and as a trainer I was a little bit higher than them. After they saw me manhandle a couple of the studs and bust my butt working and getting dirty just like them, they accepted me.

One day, all the guys and me were at Comagree looking at the Barbs used in Fantasia. We had just gone to the festival and seen the main competition where twenty men on Barb horses, dressed in traditional garb, gallop towards the audience and shoot their rifles into the air one time. The goal is to fire in unison so it sounds like one single shot ringing out, not popcorn. These Barb horses are a fiery breed. They are taught to dance and rear upon hearing certain Arabic words. One of the guys brought out this grey Barb and jumped on bareback. The horse took off down the road, reared on command like The Man from Snowy River, sprinted back toward us, and skidded to a halt. The man jumped off and said to me, ‘You?’

‘Yeah!’ I swung up on the grey without a thought of possible dangers. It was my chance to prove my riding ability. We galloped to the end of the road, and I repeated the Arabic commands. The Barb pranced and then reared, pawing the air. We shot off again and slid to a stop. The guys clapped and cheered for me. I slid off the Barb’s back and couldn’t stop smiling. Amongst the commotion, Said asked me something in Arabic. I was used to nodding and agreeing with what was asked of me even when I didn’t understand. Next thing I knew, he was kissing me! I guess you can’t say yes to everything.

As much as I loved Morocco, I did miss speaking English. What a relief when Enda arrived from Ireland. At least I had one person I could talk with easily. Enda was hired as a farrier, but he also helped exercise the horses with me. He loved to ride. But he had one problem; he had a massive appetite. Hajiba was our amazing cook who sourced most of our food from the properties. Everything she made was saucy and delicious, but Enda still said he couldn’t survive on three meals a day and no alcohol. He was pleased when the guys at Comagree invited both of us to another Fantasia festival. It turned out to be more of a post-wedding, bachelor’s party for some guy from the next town over, but it meant Enda’s belly would be full after the feast. I sat next to Enda and Ayoub and tried to not feel out of place as the only chick in the tent.

The people aren’t that big on plates or forks in Morocco, but they do have a strong sense of community. The men passed around a community bowl of water to dip your hands, community towel to dry your hands, and then one community glass of water to drink. I started with the cup, but turned my back for a second and it was gone. By the time I noticed, it was halfway around the table. I didn’t want it back. The one thing I did get to myself was bread because it is eaten at every meal and used as utensils. When the banquet was laid before us, everyone dove in fingers first and used the round khobz to shovel lamb, potatoes, and carrots into their mouths.

After we ate, four girls entered the tent and danced. Everyone clapped along as the dancers waved their arms and flicked their hands as if flinging off water. One of the girls continued to sway as she climbed on top of the table. Then she turned to me and tried to pull me up alongside her. Um, no. But she didn’t give up. She urged me to join her until the guys hollered for my submission. So I thought, when in Rome…. There was a lot of hair whipping and hip shaking, but I can’t deny that it was fun. Once I jumped off of the table, everyone in the tent was on their feet dancing, clapping, and flicking their hands. I found Ayoub in the crowd and stayed close to him. He showed me some steps he knew, and I tried to teach him country dancing spins and dips. Enda was beside himself. ‘How can a people act like this without a drop of alcohol?’

What I loved most was making friends. There was this one guy who lived down a road where I often went riding. I don’t know his name, but we called him Avocado because he had green eyes. Whenever he saw me passing, he came out of his house to give me a piece of fruit. I loved that. People didn’t have a whole lot, but they didn’t need a whole lot. From what I saw, most of the people were happy. They were religious. They believed in a God. They believed in helping each other and doing what is right and being kind.

Oh, I almost forgot. Anas told me this joke. Why is the donkey’s nose white? It’s because his enemy is the children who pull his ears. When he went to Heaven he peeked his nose in, saw all of the children, and ran off.

 

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