short story

Competition Winner, First Prize: 'Authentic Italian Pizza' by Melanie Kennard

We're thrilled to be able to announce our winner of The For Pity Sake Inaugural Short Story and Poetry Competition. Melanie Kennard takes the prize for her fantastic work 'Authentic Italian Pizza'. Big congratulations to Melanie, who receives a permanent discount to our Manuscript Appraisal Service and a book pack of some of our finest titles. We hope you enjoy her story as much as we did.  Slap the dough on the bench. Sprinkle flour over. Roll it out. Add sauce. Toppings. Mozzarella so delicate it melts with the slightest touch. Salami, shaved in translucent membranes. Capers, small, green, salty. Red capsicums, grilled, their skins charred. Fibrous eggplants, grown at home – the smaller the better. Fully adorned, slide the whole thing into cavernous mouth of the oven. Add more wood to the burner. Wait for the cheese to melt, the base to crisp. Pop it in a box. Order up. Another satisfied customer leaves, the smell of the pizza teasing the noses it passes.

Beppino’s has always prided itself on its authenticity. Italian pizzas made by a real Italian. Never mind that Nonno had his first taste of pizza in Australia, as a man of 40. ‘Ah, cara mia,’ he’d sighed, recounting that infamous first taste. ‘It tasted...like heaven, on a crispy base. And, I knew!’ This sentence always punctured by an exclamation. ‘What I had to do with my life. I said to myself: These Aussies, they think they can make authentic Italian pizza – let them see what a real Italian can do.’ Beppino’s opened mere weeks after this first tasting, and Nonno, along with his wife and daughter, began creating a legacy in their town of three-thousand.

Now the pizzeria is almost empty. Only you, your mother and brother, plus a group of late customers. The chair behind the counter, the chair Nonno resigned himself to when he got too sick to work, emphasises the emptiness of the shop. You slap base after base down on the counter, preparing the final pizzas of the night. Pile them with the vast quantities of toppings that had been Nonno’s joy. After the first season of Masterchef you’d complained; ‘But Nonno, Gary and George say pizzas should have fewer toppings!’ Nonno had merely laughed. ‘What they know, eh? They not authentic Italians!’ The pizzas that night were piled so high that you had ridden home to cut more eggplants, more tomatoes from the garden, as many as you could fit into the basket attached precariously to your bike.

When not in his take-out shop, Nonno could always be found in his other pride and joy – the large veggie patch behind the house. Here he grew all vegetables known to man, and a few you sometimes believed were made up. As a child this was your favourite place to be, digging in the soil alongside your Nonno. His back arched, twisted as he lovingly tended to the garden. Stooped from years of work, yet still fiercely proud. You, his tiny granddaughter, beside him. Overalls covered in dirt, holes worn in the knees, a bright purple hat your crown. He in a checked shirt and jeans, no hat. ‘Like a real Aussie!’ he’d insist, buttoning his shirt each morning. Yes Nonno. Like a real Aussie.

As the illness spread through his bones, your Nonno found he no longer had the strength to garden. Your mother busy with her work, your brother with his studies, and neither interested anyway, the garden fell to you. At first the old man would sit in a chair by the patch, watching you as you worked, calling advice when he felt it was required – which was all the time. ‘Not like that Raffy! Gently! If you don’t love your plants, how they gonna love you?’ The goat circling the garden, prevented from sampling its delights by a chicken-wire fence, would bleat angrily alongside Nonno’s yells. ‘Exactly Mussolini!’ Nonno would exclaim, scratching behind its ears. ‘See, Raffy! Even the goat knows you’re doing it wrong!’ And you, covered in dirt, would try again, show the plants love. Keep them healthy for the grandfather who was not.

When winter came, the old man no longer made his way to the garden. Although he claimed he was ‘As fit as fiddles’, you knew the illness was spreading; no matter how much he denied it, no matter how much you denied it to yourself. Working in the garden, your fingers bitten blue by the cold, the worry seeped out of you and you acknowledged the reality. ‘Take me,’ you whispered to the potatoes, the carrots, the pumpkins. ‘Take me instead.’ That winter, under your care, Nonno’s garden thrived, nurtured with your pain, watered with your tears.

The day finally came when you could no longer deny it, not to each other, not to yourselves. Lying in his bed, eyes shut, breathing laboured, your Nonno acknowledged the inevitable. ‘Ah, cara mia,’ he sighed, his wrinkled hand wrapped around your dirt-encrusted one. ‘I think it is almost my time.’ You couldn’t respond, couldn’t even cry. That night, for the first time, you opened Beppino’s alone, knowing that this was how it would be from now on. You, at home, in the dirt, lost in a maze of vines. You, at the pizzeria, swallowed in puffs of flour, suffocated by the heat of the oven. The same as always, but forever different.

This morning you stood in the doorway to his room, looking at the neatly made bed, at the worn boots, the faded button-up shirts, the jeans full of holes, never to be worn again. ‘You coming?’ Your grief interrupted by the weight of your brother’s hand on your shoulder, heavy, comforting. Although dressed for the occasion, you shook your head. No. You couldn’t go, couldn’t do that. Your mother and brother went to church wearing their best, accepted death with prayers for a man who didn’t believe in God. You, however, tore off your mourning garb and replaced it with your own jeans, one of the old shirts, and faced death in the garden. Your Nonno, forever in the dirt of the cemetery; you in the dirt of his garden.

By the time the funeral is over and people begin converging on the house, your jeans have new holes; the old shirt a large tear in the left sleeve. Ignoring your appearance, your mother insists you come inside, meet the long-lost relatives you didn’t know existed. You watch as your mother delights in the words of a cousin she hasn’t seen since before you were born, or allows an uncle to hug her. Even Ben is getting into the swing of things, politely making small-talk with various relatives, catching up on unshared history. Only you refuse to participate, standing by the windows, your face turned towards the garden. ‘That’s a nice garden,’ a woman comments, standing behind you, a glass of juice in her hand. ‘It was my Nonno’s,’ you explain, not meeting the stranger’s eyes. ‘Oh,’ she takes a surprised sip. ‘I didn’t know he gardened.’ You look at her, at the whole room, with disgust. Not one person from town is here, not one person who knew your Nonno, who knew he gardened, who brought him seeds. Not one person who ate the results of his toils in the dirt off his golden pizzas is here. The wrongness of this makes bile rise in your throat.

Still in torn jeans, ripped shirt, you slip out of the house unnoticed. Clutch desperately at the handlebars of your bike. On the main street is Beppino’s, its neon sign switched off, devastated by the loss of its proprietor as much as you are. You unlock the door. Switch the lights on. Head to the back and grab a well-worn apron from a hook. Scrub your hands until the water runs clear and all signs of the garden are removed. Begin measuring out flour, water, olive oil, yeast – all the things that make the perfect pizza dough. Put it aside to rise. Head to the pantry, where tins of tomatoes, best for making sauce with, still line the walls. You grab tin after tin, empty them in a large pot with all the other necessary ingredients. Leave the sauce to simmer, check on the dough. Everything is ok, nothing requires your attention. You sit down on a stool in front of the counter. There is nothing left to do. Now you can cry.

A bell at the door jangles, and you look up, your eyes rimmed red with grief. For a moment you hope to see your Nonno, a smile pasted to his face as his enters his shop. The smile he always wore when he was here, even after he got sick, goofy and sincere at the same time. But it is not your Nonno. Ben holds a large wash basket in his arms, filled with all kinds

of veggies from the garden. ‘Christ!’ He gently places the basket on the counter and takes the stool next to yours. ‘You did right to get out Raf,’ he says, using a napkin to wipe your eyes, your face. The tenderness and concentration of his features mirrors Nonno’s face from when you were a child and had a scraped knee. Not only the expression, you realise, but also the love behind it. ‘One of the cousins found the last of Nonno’s grappa and they’ve all gotten into it. Except mum, of course. She’s trying to get rid of them now.’ You smile at the memory of Nonno’s grappa – the way it stung your throat, made you cough, the one time you tried it. Nonno’s laugh as he thumped you on the back, cheered. ‘Now, cara mia, you real Italian!’ he’d said, dancing you around the kitchen. Getting up, you grab the basket, take it into the kitchen. Ben follows. Side by side you slice eggplants, zucchinis, tomatoes. Grate balls of mozzarella into snow that forms mountains in the bowl. Stir the sauce and spoon tastes of it into one another’s mouths, as you and your Nonno have done for as long as you can remember. At exactly five Ben switches on the neon sign, turns the notice on the door from closed to open. Rummages around in small cupboard where Nonno kept his papers and receipts. Emerges a few minutes later with the white chef’s cap that Nonno always wore. Places it on your head, tucking a strand of hair behind your ear as he does.

Slowly, customers drizzle in. Ben stands at the counter, taking orders, laughing at the stories people tell about your Nonno. You stay in the kitchen, making pizzas for the people who knew your Nonno best. Soon your mother arrives, joins you. For years she refused to enter this shop, to do the work she hated having to do as a teenager. Now, next to you, she does it with a mixture of happiness and grief, the old resentment gone. Every now and then she looks across the long bench to you and smiles, before turning her attention back to the pizza she is preparing, rolling the base as thin as possible so that it crisps up the way your Nonno insisted it should. The way an authentic Italian pizza should be.

All evening there is a steady flow of customers, but by eleven, the last order is served, lovingly taken home with a group of hungry teenagers – teenagers who, like everyone else in this town, knew and respected your Nonno, the Beppino of Beppino’s. Together, you, your mother and your brother prepare one final pizza for the night. A pizza whose toppings you squabble over. You finally decide to put a bit of everything on it – it would have made Nonno proud. When it comes out of the oven, steaming, you sit at one of the small tables, covered in a red-checked tablecloth. The table seats four, but now there are only three of you. Somehow, with the pizza in front of you, the fourth place does not feel so empty. Your mother slides the sharp blade of the pizza wheel through the steaming concoction. For a moment you all are still. Then Ben grabs a slice. Your mother follows. Finally you. Silently, you eat.

Competition Winner, Third Prize: 'Shazza's Sheep' by Tee Linden

We're thrilled to bring you the winners of our Short Story and Poetry Competition this week. We were all charmed by Tee Linden's 'Shazza's Sheep' and awarded it third prize. Congratulations to Tee. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did. She wakes in a sweaty puddle on the couch. Though her nightmares come less often lately, when they arrive, they are brutal and unforgiving. Her heart is pounding, loud and irregular, the beat of a cracked skin drum.

Lightheaded, she sits, illuminated by the freestanding lamps that she leaves on while she sleeps. She practices her breathing and tries to shuck the feeling of her dream but it clings around her brain like slime.

He was in her nightmare. He always is. Sometimes he doesn’t look like him, but she knows. Of course, she sees him everywhere. She sees him in the street, she recognises him at the movies, and she sees him buying lemons at the grocery store. Each time, in the instant before his face dissolves into the features of an unknown person, she feels her heart will liquefy and seep right out of her chest.

Throwing the blankets off, she gets up. She doesn’t want to go back to sleep. She always fears sleep but it is inescapable, so she makes concessions: the couch instead of a bed, the light on, the radio playing. Though inescapable, sleep can be delayed. She delays it whenever she can, trading lethargy and deep dark circles for dodging bad dreams. She delays it now.

Not only has the nightmare coated her arteries in black ice, but the room is draughty and she can’t afford to heat it. She pulls a hoodie on over her sweats.

The carpet of her rented, one bedroom apartment is dusty. No matter how many times she vacuums, the fibres remain clogged with years of dead skin from the apartment’s previous inhabitants. The grout in the bathroom is yellowed. It flakes when she scrubs it.

She loves her apartment.

It is hers and here she answers to no one.

Moving past the green cupboards of her kitchen, she opens the bedroom door. She owns a bed but it is always covered in plastic painting sheets. Paintbrushes sprout from mugs on the side tables. At the foot of her bed, in an easel, is her latest work. It is large; it dominates the room and imbues the space with the scent of fresh paint.

She stands before it in the early hours, considering it. Massaging out the ache from her sore fingers. Trying to take away the chill. It is a painting of a grazier herding sheep.

She tends to think of her life in before and after.

Before, she was a wife; she lived on her husband’s sheep farm an hour north of Hobart on a good day. Her name was Sharon. Shazza, at school.

After, she lives in the central coast, south of Port Mac. She is a painter. Her name is Michelle. Mish, down at the gallery where she works part-time.

Shazza’s sheep appear in most of Mish’s paintings. She’d participated in a show recently, at the gallery, and most of the pictures included sheep in some way. She paints Shazza’s sheep with curling wool and secretive faces. She paints a man, a grazier, constructed from black and red vines, featureless head hanging low, almost inhuman. When he is there, he is always in the foreground, herding like some footless demi-devil sprouting up from the hills and lording over the landscape and everything in it.

She misses Shazza’s sheep. There are moments, unexpected, when the weight of the guilt absolutely crushes her. Those sheep were there for her, they’d looked after her, they sat with her when she cried and she abandoned them. He wouldn’t care for them the way she did. He never cared for them. She misses them.

She does not miss the blood in her urine.

Tasmania is always dour in her paintings. The sky is always grey, choking with storm clouds. The grass is always too green. It was never that ominous. And she knows the grazier isn’t that large, that he doesn’t have the power or the presence of a demi devil. She remembers it wrong. Except for the sheep. The sheep are perfect.

She paints Shazza sometimes, always on the porch staring out, always so much smaller than a woman should be. No one ever asks. Mish’s paintings are strange. Size distortion is the last thing people notice.

She leans close to the flock of sheep in her latest project, breathing fresh paint. Shazza’s sheep, with their whirling wool, are furtively rebellious. They are always cheeky, but she realises these faces are more vicious than her other paintings. Their teeth are sharp.

Head still sticky with the nightmare, she doesn’t remember painting them that way. Some crowd the grazier, turning on him, inundating him. Some run from the man, free and brave, uncaring of his rabid dogs. Her design pleases her, seemingly new.

Returning to the green cupboards of her kitchen, she finds a mug and makes a cuppa. Her cold fingers ache from cracks long since healed as she waits for the kettle to boil. The radio plays. Her frigid fingers hover over the steam wafting from the kettle spout. It doesn’t warm her and it doesn’t melt the ice in her veins. When the mug is filled she curls her fingers, laced with Shazza’s aches, around the ceramic. It’s too hot. It burns. She sips it, scalding her mouth. It starts to melt away the cold from the nightmare.

He never cared for Shazza’s sheep, she thinks as she sips her hot tea. They were inheritance, one taken coolly.

Anger seeds in her chest. It takes form: a silky, radiant flower. It comes so often now. Anger was never a part of Shazza’s life, but Mish dealt with it in rapidly recurring bouts. As if she were exchanging her fear for thorny anger.

He dragged the sheep around without respect. He hurt them carelessly. When Shazza asked him not to, he laughed at her. When she pleaded, when she tried to make it about the money they were losing due to broken limbs, he grew violent. Like he was jealous of her sheep. Maybe he was jealous of her empathy; something he was clearly lacking – though could produce an adept mimicry of at will.

She wonders what happened to the sheep in the after. Sometimes she hears them bleating from the paintings. Maybe they blamed her. Maybe they hated that she up and left and started a new life.

Maybe they blamed him.

She found herself absurdly hoping the sheep understood that she couldn’t stay. They say animals have a sixth sense, maybe they knew she would have died if she stayed. Maybe not this year, or next year, but eventually. So she’d cried as she whispered goodbye to her sheep, and drove to Devonport and waited for the nine a.m. ferry. She’d left his car. She’d left her sheep. And she’d left Shazza. Unzipped Shazza like a dress that could be shed and left her on the docks.

She feels the angry tears threatening, her eyes hot and portentous. The air before a storm. She drinks her tea and stares out the dark kitchen window at the empty street below.

She had to leave her sheep. She had to unzip herself because of him. And she hated him. Her hate for him, that glossy, burning flower in her chest that slowly feeds on her freezing fear, her hate burns incandescent for a moment. It fills the kitchen, it presses down against the dusty carpet, and it crams against the walls. The tiny apartment is too small to contain it. Angry, frustrated tears spill over her cheeks. The anger burns too bright to sustain and it cedes control of her mind, retreating back inside.

She is worn out by the time she returns to the bedroom, returns to the paint vigil. The painting is unmoving. She falters, her teary eyes narrowing. Drying.

The sheep are swarming the grazier. They are too close.

Her mug of tea is steady in her hand. Something is amiss because she didn’t paint them that close to the grazier. She knows that. She wouldn’t dare.

Instead of holding his hands out to strongly guide the sheep, the man now looks as if he’s almost pleading. Scared? He is never scared. Why did she paint him that way? He seems small.

She can hear the sound of her breathing over the muted music playing in the other room. The unhinged feeling that she’d felt for so many years, the feeling of being a heartbeat away from losing her mind, surfaces from deep within her the way a whale emerges from the sea.

She watches the painting, the sheep swarming the grazier. She feels that glossy anger from the kitchen, beating secret deep. It bids the sheep, it sings to them. It spurs them on. Closer. Get closer.

It was that anger that painted this, she realises. She didn’t even notice what she’d done before. Subconsciously, she painted Shazza’s sheep as sharp-toothed things; her anger cowed the grazier, made him small. Her anger is in the painting and it is dreamlike and goading. She smiles, and she can feel her teeth showing far too much.

He is the reason for her anger and she’s glad she painted this. He made her fear and he hurt her. He fogs her dreams, even now, and he chills her blood. He stole Shazza from her and she wants him to pay for it. That’s why she painted this, and that’s why it looks different. She wants Shazza’s sheep to take the grazier down. She wants the grazier to cower.

When she looks at the painting, she can’t deny she wants revenge. At the very least, her angry subconscious wants revenge.

She feels sapped. All that anger and fear she’d felt was sucked away, like the realisation of why the painting seemed so strange had absorbed them from her. The painting absorbed them from her.

She watches the painting, her ego stripped bare, sipping her tea until the mug is empty. Too tired to avoid sleep any longer, she returns to the couch and allows the dreams to conquer her once again, the radio playing behind her head.

*

She wakes, immediately and without transition. She is suddenly and sharply conscious and she feels well rested, better than she’d felt in months.

The radio is still on, now playing talkback. The hosts are chatting about a freak death in Tasmania. A man, living alone on a sheep station.

This is why she woke up. Her ears are receptive; they caught the words and woke her up. Her spine is a steel pole. Her hands are damp. Her eyes are open, bright stars.

“...what looks like a pack of wild animals.” The words ring in her ears. And in an instant, she knows. Deathly still, she sits in Mish’s one bedroom apartment, dusty carpet beneath her toes.

As if in a dream, she stumbles on sleepy feet to the bedroom, breath held in her lungs and limbs cold. A weird certainty gently folds through her, thickening with each lumbering step. Opening the bedroom door is like opening the fridge; cracking the seal on a bright and cold dimension.

Everything is normal. The plastic painting sleeves still sheet the bed and her bedside tables are pot stands for mugs of brushes. Everything looks normal. Everything should be normal. But she sits dumbly on the bed, facing the painting, the plastic sheet crinkling beneath her thighs.

The painting still has verdant hillside and the grey sky still hovers gloomily. But the crowd of Shazza’s sheep, and the black-vine grazier, are gone.

Check back in throughout this week to learn about our second and first prize winners.

Beginnings and Endings - a short story by Diana Thompson

Have you submitted your entry to our short story competition yet? After receiving some new material from some of our authors in the last few weeks (including Peter Yeldham and Dorothy Johnston) we're thrilled to be able to bring you a brand new short story from our romance writer, Diana Thompson. Check out more of Diana's tantalising work in our store

‘I remember the first time I saw you, wearing a figure hugging yellow sun dress, a standout against the deep gold of your summer tan. I'll never forget the brilliance of your electric blue eyes and your messy French braid straining to contain your thick blonde hair. Even then it was difficult to resist tucking the escaping wayward strands behind your delicate ears. From the cute dimples when you smiled at me, to the hot pink toenails peeping from your wedge sandals, in that instant I knew I was a goner. Highly inappropriate, now I think about it, me hiring you to tutor my younger sister Grace in piano, but I took my duties as her appointed guardian seriously after our parent’s untimely death a year ago. Anything to make her days happy and provide a safe and secure home for her.

What I’d expected when I had placed the advertisement was a middle aged schoolmarm, not the drop dead gorgeous vision of you in front of me. I just googled piano tutors and your name was at the top of the list. It was only later that I read your resume and realised you were a child prodigy and had played in concert venues all over the world. I’d hit the jackpot that day. 

I remember trying to control the tremors in my hand as I shook yours and how at that moment I didn’t want to let go of you. Did you know that from that moment, I rearranged my entire working schedule so that I could be at home for all of Grace’s lessons and not miss a minute of seeing you during those few weeks over the summer holidays?

It took me three weeks to work up the nerve to ask you out for a date, and I can remember how I was both relieved and excited when you agreed. I’ll never forget our first shared meal, at the “Boathouse” down on the pier and how we chose the seafood platter, feeding each other the delicious fresh morsels, washed down with boutique beers. I can remember your first time trying an oyster. You smothered it in seafood sauce and when I asked how you liked it, your answer was,

“Well it tasted really nice, except for the fishy slimy bit.”

Do you remember how we talked and laughed for two hours without taking a breath, until the staff threw us out to prepare for the dinner crowd?

I remember taking your hand in mine and walking along the beach, sharing gelato in waffle cones. You weren’t sure about my green tea and lime combo and chose a safer option of raspberry and vanilla instead. I couldn’t help teasing you about your rainbow painted toenails and wondered whether you were making a political statement in your own quiet way. But no, you were simply calling them your happy toes, celebrating their freedom from the constraints of heavy socks and winter boots. I remember as the sun was setting, you shivered in the cooler air and I wrapped you in my jacket and held you against my chest. I remember the steady beat of your heart beneath my hands and the softness of your lips as we shared our first kiss. You tasted of raspberries and vanilla and I’ll never forget your sighs as our kiss deepened and you wrapped your arms around my waist, hugging me close. I knew then that I wanted you to be mine for forever.

Three months, two days and four hours later, I remember dropping down on one knee and proposing to you on the beach where we had our first date and shared our first kiss. You probably didn’t realise at the time that I was terrified that you would turn me down. What could a junior partner in an architect’s firm, with the family responsibility of a younger sister offer a world class concert pianist? You had job offers flowing in from all over the country and I was so proud of your incredible talent and so afraid that I would lose you to fame and fortune. But you proved me wrong once again when you dropped to your knees, took my face in your hands and said a resounding yes.   

The day of our wedding, I couldn’t stop myself from meeting you halfway down the aisle. You looked like an angel. My angel. And when we finally repeated our vows and before the celebrant had time to pronounce us husband and wife, I already held you in my arms sealing our union with a scorching kiss. I will never forget, knowing you were mine now, forever.’

My phone rings loudly, snapping me out of my memories. It’s the office and I ignore the call and let it go to voicemail. I know they’re worried about me and only trying to be supportive, but I can’t face going back to work, not until I can get my shit together and beg you to forgive me. I’ve always been the strong one. Had to be for Grace. But without you in my life, I’m nothing.

My finger hovers over the send button but there is still so much I need to say. I look around our living room at the three weeks, two days and four hours of accumulated garbage. Stacked pizza boxes fight for space in the kitchen with empty Thai takeout containers. Beer and wine bottles fill the overflowing recycling bin. Time I took back control and cleaned the place up instead of wallowing in misery, day after day. Time I cleaned myself up before Grace comes home from college for the holidays. She would be so disappointed in me and even though she wouldn’t voice it, just one look in her eyes and I would see it. I’ve caused enough distress and disappointment to myself and everyone around me. I refuse to let depression suck me any further into its dark void.

The couch has become my only comfort. My safe place in an empty shell of a house. No sounds emanating from the music room as you practice, hour after hour. No delicious baking aromas in the kitchen, from your passion for cooking. Nor the blasting of the sound system playing your eclectic favourite songs, anything from heavy metal to Simon and Garfunkel. Just the never ending silence of my own company.

I return to the keyboard.

‘Sleeping alone in our bed is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Without your body pressed against mine, listening to your soft sighs as you settle in for the night, I toss and turn endlessly. I miss your drugging kisses and your passionate response to our lovemaking. Even the everyday habits that form such an intrinsic part of who you are and who I love. It’s the little things I remember. No sugar in your coffee, but honey in your tea. Dark chocolate - not milk. Filling the vases with fresh flowers every week.  

Your bedtime ritual of applying hand cream to your long fingers and wrists, keeping them soft and supple and callous free from hours of piano practice. The soothing scents of lavender, rose and geranium, all of your favourite essentials oils still linger in our room, reminding me every day that you are absent from my life.

I remember us celebrating the announcement of your concert tour to Europe with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. I’ve always been blown away by your incredible talent and I was so proud of your achievements at such a young age. 

What I wasn’t proud of was my uncontrollable jealousy towards Erik, your new conductor. It was the first time in my life with you that I felt inadequate. I expected an older man, balding with a bit of middle age spread, not a thirty five year old with movie star looks and more talent in his little finger than I could ever hope to achieve. I felt shut out by your shared passion in music and it didn’t take a blind man to see how he looked at you.

 That I could understand.

Every time he took your hand at each concert finale, together bowing to the audience, it cut more deeply into my heart. He was touching what was mine and although you never gave me any reason to doubt our love, my jealousy overwhelmed me. Only able to catch quick conversations on Skype between venues just added to the tyranny of distance. I was missing my other half. 

The final straw was when Erik answered your telephone in your hotel room, late at night and well after the concert had finished. I’ll never forget his exact words.

“Arianna is in the shower right now. I’ll let her know you called.”

The bottom fell out of my world in that instant.          

What I’ll never forget is the terrible argument we had when you came home and the unforgivable accusations I cast at you. I’ll never forget the hurt in your eyes and I’ll never forgive myself for causing you that pain. I can understand why you left. Hell! I’ve regretted every word I spoke since that moment. I know I was projecting my insecurities onto you and pushing you away in the process. Pushing you right into his waiting arms.

I broke what we had and I was too stubborn to listen to what you had to say. Too consumed by jealousy and a hurt so deep, I thought my heart had been torn out.

Arianna, I love you more than life itself. You are the other half of my whole and I hope you can find it within your heart to forgive me. I miss every minute of every day without you and I’ll even stoop as low as pulling the Grace card. 

She misses you too!

All I’ve ever wanted was for you to be happy, and if being with Erik makes you happy then as much as it will break my heart, I will give you your freedom. But I will never stop loving YOU.’

My finger hovers over the send button. I’ve never bared my soul so openly before, but I can’t hold my feelings inside any more. I’ve had so many regrets over the last few weeks, but it is with relief that I finally press the send button. I feel as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I need to shower and shave. To regain a semblance of myself and face life again. It will be different without Arianna, but what choice do I have?

Sleep still evades me, but at least this morning I have the energy to return to my ten kilometre run down to the docks and back. I’ve missed pounding the pavements, the heat of the sun on my back as it rises and the sweat pouring out of me washing away the toxins. I’ve missed both the physical and the mental benefits from the burn in my muscles to the clarity of thought it brings.

Standing at the sink, a towel around my neck soaking up the sweat, my doorbell rings as I gulp down the last of the orange juice, straight from the carton. Can’t be Grace, college doesn’t end for another couple of weeks.

I open the door and my heart stops beating.

“Hey,” is all I can muster.

“Joshua, can I come in?” Her words are tentative and her body is tight with tension.

I let her pass me and follow through to the living room. I still can’t speak. The memories of our first meeting slam into me once again. She turns.

“Joshua, I have to say this quickly. You were right. Erik was manipulating both of us. I confronted him about your phone call. The one he never told me about. I’ve never had feelings for Erik. We are just work colleagues although he has now admitted he wanted more. You are my husband and the only man I love. Can you ever forgive me for giving you any doubts? You are my other half, my life.” She grabs both ends of my towel and pulls me towards her.

I can see the truth in her eyes and her love for me reflected there.

Our lips meet and I know that my life as I know it has returned.

"Crossing The Rip" by Dorothy Johnston - Part Two

Celebrated crime writer Dorothy Johnston, author of works such as The Swan Island Connection and Through a Camel's Eye continues her short story 'Crossing The Rip'. Missed the first part? Catch it here! And have you got your entry in for our short story competition yet?

The light was dull, the bay flat and grey, but there was a gap on the horizon, a hole between the clouds, with yellow and pink shining out of it. It seemed to Elspeth, waiting for the ferry, that if she stared long enough at the horizon she might pass right through the hole and out the other side. The girl taking tickets let her on even though she only had three dollars, and this unexpected kindness gave her heart.

Elspeth thought of what she’d learnt in the museum, hugging the knowledge to her sides as though it were her own secret, not just information that had been sitting there waiting for anyone to find. She looked up at the sky again, noting that the tear had widened. Now it seemed as though Simon Bantree might be waiting on the other side. Elspeth wondered if he’d looked up and seen his murderer before he died, and for the first time she felt sorry for him. She also felt so hungry that she began to wonder what the ferry did with its garbage and thought about walking around the cafeteria to see if any food had been left on plates.

A pilot boat passed them, moving swiftly, an orange arrow in the dusk. Elspeth was surprised to realise that she’d been gone all day. She could no longer make out where the water ended and the land began, and thought again of her ancestor crossing in his row boat, in the days when there had been no ferries, no container ships or pilots to guide them. The pilot approached a big ship, orange too, exactly the same colour. The small boat drew right alongside and they stayed like that, fixed like a mother and her baby for such a long time that Elspeth began to believe they would never separate. It disturbed her, like those bridesmaids and their escorts, with their hands flung out in a rhythm.

While they were docking, Elspeth remembered seeing the rug with the blue and purple pattern a second time, in the back of a mini van. There’d been quite a lot of cars in the parking area behind the pier, so that meant it was probably a Saturday or Sunday, but she could not remember which. The mini van had been white, but then they nearly always were.

By the time she left the ferry, it was already practically dark. In fact, it would have seemed dark to a person walking outside from a lighted room. But Elspeth had her night eyes, having stood in mist and drizzle on the upper deck. She walked all the way from the terminal to the parking lot behind the pier, no longer feeling tired or hungry, but filled with a strange inward light. Her hands glowed like those phosphorescent toys that seemed to belong to an age and kind of person she had never been. She recalled feeling envious of a girl who’d brought one to school, and the recollection brought nothing but contempt.

A white mini van was parked under the lighthouse, away from street lights, up against the tea-tree. A man was opening the door. Elspeth stood in the shadows watching.

There was something about the man that she felt she ought to recognise. His shadow was square-shaped. Could it be Mr Mahood? Mr Mahood was short, with broad shoulders and wide hips for a man. But Mr Mahood drove a big Toyota Landcruiser that Billy said was worth sixty thousand dollars. His wife drove a new white Hyundai and as soon as his kids were old enough, Elspeth knew they’d all have cars of their own.

Elspeth drew nearer to the van. She’d thought that she’d been moving silently, but now that she was quite close, the man suddenly straightened up from where he’d been arranging something in the back, and looked her in the face.

It was a stranger, somebody Elspeth had never seen before. His expression was blank underneath a beanie pulled close around his head.

‘Hello,’ he said. ‘Where are you off to?’

‘Nowhere,’ Elspeth said.

The man’s voice was mild, like water flowing from a tap that was neither hot nor cold.

Elspeth thought of the tea-tree all around them, the dark caverns and tunnels. The man was young and not very big.

‘What have you got in your van?’ she asked him, taking a step sideways.

‘Just my fishing gear.’

Elspeth felt soothed by the man’s voice, and very tired. She almost asked if he had anything to eat.

‘Did you catch anything?’ she asked, taking another step.

The man laughed and said in a soft voice, ‘Not yet.’

He took two quick steps towards her. Elspeth dived under the bushes.

She knew the place, having built cubbies there since she was five years old. She knew the steep drop down, where the tea-tree made a roof and where she could run bent double.

Torchlight parted and destroyed the cover of leaves and branches over Elspeth’s head. Down near the ground the undergrowth was thick and the man’s torch scarcely penetrated. Elspeth’s hands glowed. She scurried like a rat.

Dread made her arms and legs so heavy that, after the first rush, she felt that she could scarcely lift them. She knew she should have run back along the road to the nearest house. Her secret way was slow, and even if she yelled her lungs out nobody would hear her. Elspeth sobbed with fear and anger, for having gone anywhere near the van, for choosing the wrong way.

For what seemed like a long time after that, she thought of nothing but running and falling. A branch tore at her mouth and she swallowed blood. But then she was out and there was only the street to cross, and she was she was on the other side and climbing the dark porch of her own house, beating on the door and yelling.

Elspeth ate a bowl of cornflakes, but went on feeling hungry, not only in her stomach, but in every other part as well. She noticed that the policeman had strange-coloured eyes, and that his cheeks hung down as though he expected everyone to disappoint him.

The policeman made phone calls, then asked Elspeth to go back to the beginning and tell him everything again. When she described the tea-tree tunnel, he looked annoyed and frowned.

Elspeth’s mother stood with crossed arms in the doorway and a face full of spite. The twins half hid behind her in their matching dressing gowns. Only Billy was fully in the room with her. Billy kept his face blank, but when the policeman asked Elspeth something for the third time, he got up and fetched her a glass of water.

‘Why didn’t you tell us about the body straight away?’

‘I was scared.’

‘Of what?’

Elspeth couldn’t say, everybody knew I hated Simon. She made herself not look at Billy.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said.

The phone rang in the hallway. When their mother came back from answering it, there were red lines along her cheekbones and her eyes looked as though they’d been polished.

The policeman closed his notebook, frowned again and said, ‘That’ll be all for now, young Miss.’

For the rest of that night, Elspeth felt detached from what was going on, from whether the policeman had believed her, and the fact that her mother shut herself in her room and did not come again.

There was a soft knock on her door; Elspeth knew that it was Billy. She rolled over in her narrow bed and squeezed her eyes shut.

In the silence of the house after Billy gave up and went away, between the wood and plaster of its walls, Elspeth returned to her holes and tunnels in the tea-tree, crouching there, cold and hungry and afraid to move. She tried to summon Harry Tregear as a comfort, and went over her discoveries in the museum. Harry had been sentenced and convicted for stealing a rabbit, though he was only nine.

Elspeth felt exhausted, yet afraid to sleep.

The fear didn’t leave her after she got up next morning and went off to school. The past could not be relied on, and she didn’t see how she could prevent herself from repeating her mistakes.

Over the next few days, Elspeth saw quite a lot of the police. She stepped warily around her mother, and was careful not to say anything to set her off.

For a short while, at school, she found herself a heroine, especially among kids like herself, who’d been bullied by Simon. They knew about child molesters. They’d had it all drummed into them. But Simon had seemed indestructible.

They were sober, the children, Elspeth and Billy too, when they heard the driver of the mini van had been arrested. Their small sisters, though conversant with Simon’s cruelty, as well as the dangers of talking to strangers, were content to leave it there, that a menace had been lifted. This relief that the tyrant was dead - none of them dared speak about it to grown-ups - kept the children close, and closely gathered around Elspeth, who was touched by the magic of deliverance. She had run away and then come back. She had had the presence of mind to recall the colours of a rug.

Though Elspeth did not turn away from the attentions of the other children, she did not encourage them.

Billy cornered her in the backyard one afternoon, knowing, with the instinct he had for an advantage, that Elspeth was scared to hide under the fig tree. She was crouched down in the open by the fence.

Billy squatted beside his sister, near enough to touch.

‘What did he look like?’

Elspeth moved away and scratched in the dirt with a stick.

She said without turning round, ‘Did you ever want to kill him?’

‘No.’

Elspeth thought again about how Simon had left Billy alone. ‘What’s Mum doing?’ she asked.

Billy was relaxed. Her questions hadn’t bothered him. Brother and sister sat in a silence which gradually lost its threat.

Finally, Billy said, ‘I wouldn’t have done it.’

‘Done what?’

‘Picked up the rug and looked.’

Elspeth wanted to ask her brother how he knew what he would, or would not have done. But she understood, even as she began to form the question, that Billy would not have been the least bit bothered by the wedding party; he would not have needed to go and sit by himself near the gun emplacement. The whole chain of events which followed would never have happened to him.

It seemed pointless to say any of this. Elspeth thought of things growing in dark places where she couldn’t see, but where torchlight might pick out her form. She thought of roots grown huge in torchlight, whose sole purpose was to trip her up. It made her sick to think how she’d once played in the bunker, running up and down the filthy steps, how she’d been deaf to the twins calling out to her to come back.  She heard their shrieks behind her, then ahead, then knew the shrieks were real, and coming from the house.

‘Elspeth!’

Elspeth sighed and wondered for the millionth time why it fell to her to break up her sisters’ fights, when Billy was much better at it.

He confounded her by jumping to his feet in one smooth movement, saying, ‘I’ll go.’

Elspeth looked at her brother with surprise, then sat back and crossed her legs.

After a while, Billy came back to the fence. He didn’t say what he’d done to shut the twins up, and Elspeth didn’t ask. They watched the kitchen light come on behind closed curtains.

‘Dad’s not coming back,’ Elspeth said.

‘How do you know?’

‘I just do.’

Billy was looking at her oddly, not in a Billy way at all. Elspeth realised that this was because he couldn’t dismiss her opinions as easily as he had before.

When he repeated his question, Elspeth said, ‘Mum knows.’

She waited for the words to sink into her own brain as well as Billy’s, who’d never had to think about what it meant to be replaced. And indeed, he might not be. If her father kept in touch with any of them, it would be his son.

‘Why doesn’t she tell us?’

‘She’s scared to.’

‘I’ll find out where Dad is,’ Billy said. ‘I’ll go and bring him home.’

Elspeth would have liked to say, ‘I’ll come too’, but she didn’t. She thought that Billy would have to make his own mistakes.

The two children stood up. Elspeth went to their mother, while Billy waited for a moment then followed her indoors.

"Crossing the Rip" by Dorothy Johnston, Part One

We're in the midst of celebrating the art of the short story with our For Pity Sake Short Story Competition (have you got your entry in yet?).  Here, celebrated crime writer Dorothy Johnston shares a never-before-seen short story, 'Crossing The Rip'. Dorothy has just released 'The Swan Island Connection', the second in her Queenscliff mystery series. The Australian Crime Fiction blog recently said: "There's an excellent balance here between character, setting and plot" and gave a fantastic summary of the book. 

Here's part one of 'Crossing The Rip'.

To Elspeth’s family belonged the distinction of having been the first to bring a dairy cow across the Rip. Her great-great-great grandfather had ferried the cow, whose name was Mrs Collins, in a small boat, together with sacks of flour and rice, her great-great-great grandmother and their four children. The boat had nearly capsized, drowning them all, but it was the cow he was remembered for. Mrs Collins had given birth to twin calves shortly after their arrival and had become a matriarch, outliving many of the human immigrants.

Elspeth had been told more times than she cared to remember that Mrs Collins had been named after the first governor’s wife, the governor who had landed at Sullivan Bay with three hundred convicts, of whom her grandfather with all those greats in front of his name had been the youngest, at nine years old, which happened to be her age right now. He had grown up and been pardoned and had been enterprising enough to realise that the new settlement at Shortland’s Bluff would need fresh milk and had decided that he was the man to provide it.

Within the family, the story was believed to give them a prestige it would have otherwise lacked, and the children of each generation had been schooled in its details. Elspeth was aware of a further unwelcome distinction, and that was her own name. She had tried, during her first three years at school, to comfort herself with the thought that she was different, to believe that her difference provided some sort of balance against the teasing meted out by girls with names like Jenny and Susan, and boys called Jim or Simon. That great-great-great grandmother had been called Elspeth too – no doubt it had been a more common name in her day.  Her mother had taken a more sensible approach with her younger siblings. Her brother, christened William, was known as Billy. Her twin sisters were Margaret and Ann.

Her father had always called his eldest daughter Ellie. But her father was away from home. Her mother, through pre-occupation or a preference for her son had, after saddling her with a dreadful name, ceased to pay her much attention. Elspeth knew there would be no help from that quarter. Even to hint at what she’d done might bring so much trouble down on her head that it would be second only to being sought out by a murderer. Indeed, the one might lead to the other.

Elspeth had often been warned that the gun emplacement wasn’t safe, and already she’d been scolded for getting home after dark.

It was the wedding that had thrown her. But for the wedding, Elspeth would have climbed the steps by the lighthouse and continued on home. She wouldn’t have gone anywhere near the gun emplacement. The sun had been setting and she’d been walking towards the lighthouse looking for cuttlefish, having a bet going with Billy as to who could find the biggest.

She’d looked up and seen a group by the rocks. In light already dimming, they’d appeared from a distance as no more than black shapes. A flash had told her that photographs were being taken, which meant a wedding, though anyone who’d climb down all that way in her wedding dress in order to be photographed had to be nuts.

By the time Elspeth remembered the cuttlefish, she was almost up to the group, now separated into bride and bridegroom, three bridesmaids and their partners, photographer and his assistant. Suddenly all the women jumped into the men’s arms and stayed posed like that, right arms held out and bunches of flowers at the ends of them. The jumping and the staying upset Elspeth in a way she didn’t understand.

The sand had been all churned up with the footprints of people and dogs. In less than an hour, Elspeth knew, the rising tide would wash them away, and the place where the wedding party pranced and laughed would be swept by currents so swift and unpredictable that no one in their right minds would venture near them.

Elspeth looked down and saw deep marks in the sand, as though made by a huge dog such as a Great Dane, or a giant cow.

Feeling restless and upset, she walked along the cliff path as far as the gun emplacement, where she saw a bundle of something wrapped in a rug. Without stopping to think, she walked over and lifted up a corner.

Before she fell asleep at last, Elspeth spent a few moments wondering what it might have been like to be part of that far-off family who’d crossed the Rip, and what that other Elspeth would have done.

Normally, Elspeth liked a foggy morning. She liked rushing ahead of her sisters on the way to school, hearing their shrieks of half-put-on, half-real fear disappear behind her, their voices growing weird and distorted once she could no longer see them. Billy would never admit to being scared of fog, though there’d been a time, not so long ago, when he’d cried and shrieked for her to wait for him as well.

Elspeth felt more or less herself until she’d left the twins behind, and was on the path that followed the line of sandhills. She did not have to pass behind the gun emplacement or the lighthouse. She could turn off before she reached them - that was the most direct route to school – but on foggy mornings she sometimes took the longer way around, in order to come close to the lighthouse and be deafened by the fog horn.

Now, even if she’d wanted to, she could not have heard her sister’s cries. She timed the gaps between each blast of the horn – one thousand, two thousand – and it seemed as though they were growing shorter. Elspeth kept walking, pleased that nobody knew exactly where she was. If she did not show up at school, Meg and Ann would say, ‘Yes Miss Primrose, she went on ahead of us.’

Primrose was a stupid name for a teacher, and Elspeth hated the way her sisters sucked up to her. She turned right and took the steep track that led towards the lighthouse. As a vague idea of wagging school turned into a resolution, she understood that what she wanted most of all was time to think.

Elspeth shivered, spooking herself for a moment by the thought that the body might still be there. But of course it wasn’t. Her mother had put on the news while they were eating their breakfast. The police had found it; they would have taken it away.

Close to the lighthouse there were tunnels underneath the tea-tree, secret places covered in vines where Elspeth had dragged Ann and Margaret on long Sunday afternoons when she’d been deputed to look after them. Billy had been allowed to stay home and help their father, on weekend projects such as carpentry and painting. Elspeth had felt left out until she’d understood that there was something absolute in the division, and that her father loved her in spite of it. He often stood up for her in her fights with her mother. She wished he would come home.

Elspeth was free for a whole day if she chose. Could she claim that she’d stumbled against a tree and been knocked unconscious, only coming to as the bell rang? She crouched down in the darkness. In the tea-tree tunnel, with the fog all round, it was almost as dark as night. At first, she hadn’t recognised Simon Bantree, hadn’t even realised that the shape inside the rug was human. Then – oh, stupidity of all stupidities – the squashed-in head had been right there in front of her, and it belonged to Simon, her worst enemy.

Could the police find out if she had touched the rug? Would her fingerprints be on it?

It was cold underneath the tea-tree. The fog made Elspeth’s hands and face feel clammy, and bits of dirt and twigs stuck to her clothes. She felt cramped and cold and hungry. She hadn’t wanted to sit at the kitchen table eating breakfast. Her mother had shrugged and said, ‘Suit yourself.’ Perhaps this wasn’t such a good place to spend the day after all. Elspeth reasoned that, if she was going to leave, it would be better to do so now, while it was still early.

She crawled out and made her way towards the gun emplacement. To the right, there was nothing but white vapour, though the surf was loud in the gaps between the fog horn blasts. Unless someone saw her going in, it was doubtful they would think to look for her inside the concrete bunker, though it was a place she often visited. On clear days, she liked to look out across the Rip, through the slits where guns had pointed. The concrete was crumbling and falling in on itself, stained almost black in places, with bits of metal poking through. Elspeth liked the way the slits framed the beach and ocean.

She lifted her head at the sound of voices. As the fog began to lift, she saw a line of policemen walking slowly along the clifftop. Elspeth shrank back inside the bunker and crouched down, trying to think of Simon as a person, a boy her own age. She tried to reflect on the fact that he would never grow up, and to count, in her mind, all the kids who might have wanted Simon dead, and one who had actually killed him.

Elspeth remembered that she’d seen the rug before. She’d pushed the memory right down to her toes, but now it came back. It occurred to her that the teacher might not think of her absence as wagging. They might send out a search party. The idea came to her that she would catch the ferry to Sorrento. She wasn’t running away, and had no plan to stay out overnight. But she needed more time, and if the teacher rang the police and the police came looking for her, then she’d have to face their questions.

Elspeth decided to make her way by stages to the landing bay, keeping to the trees and bushes and avoiding the police. She would have scorned anyone who believed in ghosts, but if Simon’s was anywhere, Elspeth was sure that it was in front of her, where those bridesmaids had jumped with posies on the ends of their arms.

Elspeth made her way along the left-hand side of the road. When a police van passed her, she kept her eyes down. It was then that she remembered seeing the rug in a pile of things on the pier - it must have been the Sunday before last.

She’d been taking some bait out to Mr Mahood and he’d paid her two dollars for it. Mr Mahood only ever came down to fish on Sundays. He and his family had bought a big two storey brick place at the Springs.

She had not seen who the rug belonged to. It was a purple and blue rug, very nice. Elspeth told herself that she would not think of lifting up the corner. Before leaving home, she’d taken the money she’d saved from a box under her bed, and felt the two five dollar notes warming her pocket as she walked.

There were no other foot passengers waiting to board the ferry and only five cars lined up. Elspeth felt conspicuous, especially since the fare was more than she’d expected, seven dollars one way, which meant she wasn’t able to purchase a return. She hesitated and the ticket seller gave her a mean look.

Instead of sitting in the lounge, Elspeth stood at the top of the steep metal staircase leading to the cars, which crossed the Rip in a kind of cargo hold, though a huge and open one. That morning, with the fog still thick over the bay, the cars were invisible except for their outlines and glinting metal here and there. Nobody took any notice of Elspeth, and for some reason, though she shivered with cold, she felt safe. She was alone and on the water. She was going somewhere.

Elspeth remembered how Simon Bantree used to wait for her after school, how he called out from behind the pine trees, ‘Hey Spit! El-spit!’ and how she walked on without turning round, and how the stones followed, while, in the background, other kids, safe from his attentions for the time being, laughed. She remembered the fury she always felt, and how she wished that he would just get sick of it, and how often her mother was annoyed with her for coming home scratched and dirty. Billy had been one of the few boys Simon left alone. How had he managed it?

Elspeth was the first passenger off the boat, jumping down the stairs and then the ramp. She ran along the pier. She wouldn’t think about the three dollars in her pocket, or else she might be tempted to spend it on a bag of chips. The fog was thinning and shredding over the headland as she began the steep climb towards the shops.

The noise of a car engine made her turn her head. In a strong, sudden ray of light, she recognised the driver. It was one of the bridesmaids from the wedding.

Elspeth recognised the bridesmaid’s hair - ‘big hair’ it was called. She had a big build too. She remembered feeling sorry for the man who’d had to hold the bridesmaid up, and how stiff her arm had looked with the flowers like an extra hand.

Elspeth sat on a bench in the Pioneer Gardens, but instead of relaxing, her thoughts returned to home. She wondered what her mother would say when the teacher rang to find out why she wasn’t at school. She worried about her father, who’d been gone too long.

Elspeth stood up and began to walk around the gardens, then read the sign outside the historical museum at one end of it. Free entry it said. She climbed the steps and wandered around looking at old-fashioned clothes in glass cases, and bits of glass and metal that had been washed up from shipwrecks. It was all dusty and boring. In another room was a display of the first settlement at Sullivan Bay.

There was Mr Collins in his soldier’s uniform, a life-sized statue. He had a funny blank face and a red coat. The real Mrs Collins, the one their cow was named after, had stayed behind in England and Mr Collins, Elspeth went on reading with more interest, had taken a second wife from among the convicts. A huge oak barrel was on display. The convicts had sunk it in the sand in order to get drinking water.

Elspeth found a book that listed all the convicts by name, and settled down to go through it, looking for Harry Tregear, the youngest of all, who’d grown up to be her great-great-great grandfather. She wondered what his crime had been and kept looking till she found it.

She stayed in the museum till a woman came to tell her they were closing. She felt terribly thirsty and drank deeply from a fountain in the gardens.

 

To be continued...

 

Hungry for more? Check out a free chapter of Dorothy's audiobooks, or order one of her novels now.

 

 

"Life with Claude" by Peter Yeldham

One of our most celebrated authors, the legendary Peter Yeldham, has a new book coming soon. In fact, "The Last Double Sunrise" is now available for pre-order! While waiting for your copy to arrive, it's worth visiting some of Peter's memories about one of his more mischievous family members: 'Claude'. Peter spent many years in the United Kingdom, writing celebrated scripts for radio and television, and even working with Spike Milligan.  Peter's story presents plenty of inspirational fodder for the theme 'new beginnings', which is the focus of our very first short story competition. Since we announced last week, our inbox has been filled with exciting entries! We're looking forward to receiving even more and bringing you the winning entry before Christmas. If you're stuck for ideas, we think this post from Peter presents plenty of opportunities for inspiration. 

My wife and children decided it was time for a dog when we moved from a flat in Old Brompton Road, South Kensington, to a house with ten acres, just a half hour from London.  We’d had various pets since Marjorie and I married; first a cat, when we lived in North Sydney, where our daughter Lyn was born.  This was in  the days before computers, when I typed on a portable.  The cat, her name was Cleopatra, found a cosy spot to park herself.  Each day she sat on my desk, inches from me and the typewriter, purring as I wrote radio scripts. When I finished each page I had to lift her, since her chosen  residence was on the typed pages of dialogue which she kept warm. If I got stuck at this point, and paused for thought, she’d start to purr again, as if to say ‘do get on with it.’

We had to leave Cleo with friends when television was about to be imminent,  and our government gave both licenses to media moguls Packer and Fairfax, who then expressed little faith in local actors and writers being able to handle this new attraction.  “I’ll treat Australians the way I’ve always treated them,” promised Packer.

“In that case let’s go to England,” I said to my wife, and three months later we were on a ship with our children, Lyn aged five, and Perry two years old. We were mad, our friends and family said, but they had no idea how mad.   It was our secret, we had no return fare, and not much spare cash for when we arrived in London.

But this is about Claude, so let’s skip the  two hard years when we might have fled home, but couldn’t afford it. Our bank, The Bank of NSW, now Westpac, refused to lend us the fare. We had no collateral they said, and we are still very grateful to them.  If they’d been generous enough to help, I’d have been back home writing radio scripts and listening to Cleopatra purring.

Instead we stayed another eighteen years in England, the kids went to school there, and after twelve years in London, we found the perfect house in Surrey, and decided it needed a dog.  Marge and Lyn went out one day to buy a small sweet doggy.  At least that was their intention; he may have looked small and sweet to them, but it was clear he wouldn’t stay that way, as he had enormous feet. We christened him Claude, and from the day of his arrival he grew. They had clearly been won over by his friendly demeanour, but they’d brought home a bloodhound, a breed who not only grow, they also follow scents. Before long Claude was living up to this status, tracing aromas he’d detected all over most of southern England.

We lived in Surrey, but his nose took him to Hampshire and Sussex, from where we'd get phone calls saying: "We have your gorgeous dog, but we'll keep him safe until you collect him." In vain Marge asked them to turn him loose, just don't feed him and, he'll find his own way home.  The reply was always that he was much too precious to do that.   So off she went, to the next county or the county after that, and Claude would come home in the car, flop down to rest for a brief time, then set off on another journey.  When he did come home our cat who was perched on a kitchen bench, would whack him across the ear as he went past.  It became easier for her to reach him, because this small sweet doggie had grown so large.  For instance, when I was sitting at meal times I could feel his hot breath as he peered over my shoulder to check what was on my plate.

"Sit down, Claude," I'd say.

"Dad, he is sitting down," the kids liked to point out.

There was an invitation from the lady where we’d bought him, we called her “Mrs B-Hound” because she raised them and, looked a bit like some of her merchandise.  She was having a Sunday gathering of the faithful, at least thirty bloodhounds who all looked identical to Claude were meeting in a forest near Chessington Zoo with their owners.  It was a bizarre and hilarious day.  A canine picnic where thirty hounds all chased scents and got lost in the process, where our son and daughter said the owners all looked like their pets, and poor Mrs B-Hound who’d invited us all, had to call an early end to the meet as everyone was having difficulty identifying which bloodhound was theirs.  The humans were becoming terse and the dogs barked and seemed to have trouble working out who owned them.  Claude, as if deciding the whole thing was a debacle, took off in search of somewhere more interesting and, of course, we were the last home, as we had to go in search of him.

After some months, finding the trips to collect him from other counties becoming even more frequent, we sent him to an obedience school who vowed promised to control his roving.   Two weeks later he came back with a new best friend called Jason; the owner had been taken ill and somehow we’d inherited Jason, a peaceful Labrador.  The school told us the two spent all day together and, such a friendship would be a calming influence.  So we adopted Jason and hoped for the best.  The next day Claude disproved the theory by going on his longest exploratory trip, almost reaching Brighton.

Marjorie had to drive there to collect him.  Our son Perry attempted a solution.  He rode his horse to Epsom Downs, with Claude loosely following them. When they reached the Downs Perry rode at a furious gallop to exhaust the hound.  Claude raced alongside them, enjoying it immensely.  When they returned home, the horse and Perry were exhausted.  Claude had a brief rest, but by the time the horse was unsaddled Claude had sniffed the wind and was gone again.   It seemed the British Isles might soon be unable to contain him.

Some weeks later Marge was driving home, when she saw the back view of the village policeman who appeared to have a large animal on a leash.

"Oh, thank you.  That's my dog," she said, pulling up beside him.

"Is it, Madam?" the copper said, turning to face her.  He was covered in slime from the village duck pond and so was Claude, wagging his tail in cheerful recognition.  Seeing him splashing among the ducks, the cop set out to catch him and had fallen in. A bunch of school kids had witnessed this and roared laughing at the sight, leaving the law wet, bedraggled, and seriously displeased.    He stumped off, threatening that Claude could face arrest, and a large fine if his behaviour continued.

That night we held a high level conference on his future.   It seemed there was no way we could confine him to Surrey. Soon he'd be on his way to Devon, after that Cornwall or Wales. A heart-breaking decision was reached after some gin and tonics.  Claude had to go.  We took him back to the breeder, to Mrs B-Hound, who found him a new owner in Kansas.   We never forgot him, and often wondered where he might be now.  We couldn’t help imagining him at full stretch across the prairies, headed for the next state, or perhaps on his way north to Canada.

 

The Inaugural For Pity Sake Creative Writing Competition

For Pity Sake is thrilled to announce our Inaugural Creative Writing Competition. Open now for poetry and short story, entrants can submit pieces under the theme New Beginnings. We'll publish the winners right here on the blog, and you'll win a free appraisal from our editors, plus a selection of our books!

We'd love to hear from you!! Enter now!