So this is the page which will be my storage shelves for some of my short fiction which I’ve never done anything with. I hope they open some minds to fresh ideas, or at least amuse. Serve warm with baked custard and sweet sherry…enjoy.

 

 

 

 

wash-day3

WASH DAY

The day began darkly. It was winter. Beside the growing hole Tom’s small body curled in on itself. George’s hands, around the handle of the shovel were cold, and his nose ached with the tears. Nearby, under the house, he could see the steam beginning to rise from the top of the copper. Wash day and his dog had died in the night.

The hole was almost deep enough. He wanted to get it done before the kids got up and saw poor Tom, frozen in that peculiar shape. They’d only cry, all six of them. Even among the boys they were all sops.

George wiped his face with the back of his hand. Sweat and tears came away at once, and he rubbed them onto his pants. Sixteen years Tom had been with him. Longer still than any of the kids, or his wife, even. He’d had him from a puppy, even though he’d been his father’s dog. And now all stiff and cold.

Caroline came out with a cup of tea just as he was placing the old dog in the hole.

“Daddy here’s, oh…” she stopped, although she hadn’t even seen the little prone form yet. The marks that tears had made on his face enough to stop her in her tracks.

“Go inside and make breakfast,” he said. “The copper will be ready soon.”

Her mouth did not fully close as she turned and went back into the house, mug steaming in her hand.

Malcolm, Sara, Natalie, Paul and Eric stood at the window, craning their necks to see. There, as Caro had said, was Dad’s Tom, with Dad piling dirt in upon him. But his back was to them.

“You’re lying,” Paul said, the eldest boy, twelve, gangly and authoritative. “He never.”

“It’s true,” Caro said, toast in her hand. “Well, why wouldn’t he cry, too? Poor Tom Tom.” And she herself began to sniffle.

“How did he die?” Malcolm asked, solemn face pressed against the window for some glimpse of the tears Caroline had been so disturbed by.

“I didn’t ask that,” Caro said.

“What should we do?” Eric asked, taking the toast from his crying sister so that she could have both hands free to hide her face.

They all stood silent, and the morning grew no lighter.

Then, “He wants the washing done still,” Caro said. “And the breakfast made.”

“But Tom!” cried Sara.

“There isn’t anything to be done about him. Dad’s taken care of him.” Paul said, though even he sounded wobbly, bewildered. “We’d better get on with it.”

Paul and Eric and Sara collected all the dirty linen and went outside to be given orders. The others remained in the house – Caroline because she was afraid Dad would be angry that she’d seen him crying, and now couldn’t stop herself – and the others to make breakfast for the seven of them.

Dad had his hands full with the dead dog. “Just shove it all in the copper,” he yelled over his shoulder, “and give it a good poke around with the stick.”

“Careful, careful,” Sara whispered to the boys. “It’s hot.”

“Shut it Sar,”Paul said, and fed the sheets and knickers and socks into the maw of the steaming beast. Eric put a few more smallish bits of wood into the hot water donkey for good measure. Usually none of them were allowed this close to the copper. Mum had always told Dad to do all the work around the boiling beast, and leave the kids to peg and fold.

“Should we put soap in, Dad?” Paul called after a minute where all three watched the swirling waters.

“Course you should put bloody soap in,” George called, angrily. He’d just realised, after half filling the little grave, that he’d buried his dog with his collar on. And he wanted to keep that collar. He’d plaited it himself out of leather strands, and had even manufactured its buckle out of wire and an old, blunt nail, when he was younger. A memento. A keepsake of his faithful hound. He began, carefully, to take the soil out again.

“Dad, the water’s really bubbling.”

“Christ, well don’t burn the clothes. Get them out if you think they’re ready,” George said, and muttered to himself, “you little numskulls.”

“How?” Eric whispered to his brother. Paul tried to fish some of the clothes out with the stick, but it was hard to see them in the soapy, boiling water, and it was a slow job. It was Sara who found the wooden tongs, and, glancing over her shoulder at her hunched father, plunged the things into the foam, and pulled out the first thing she could. It happened to be a bedsheet, very long, and awkward, and heavy, and while the boys were occupied trying their own experiments with the stick, the top of the sheet fell held high above Sara’s head as she tried to wrangle it out without it touching the floor, dripped scolding water onto her face, her neck and her shoulders. The little girl screamed and dropped the sheet, which splashed onto the side of the copper and pelted her bare shins with more boiling water. Eric started to scream too, “What, what?” and Paul yelled for his father.

“What is it, you goose,” George cried, coming up to them, all covered in earth. Sarah’s face was red, and George saw the situation almost immediately. He grabbed his daughter in his arms, smearing her with grave dirt, and ran her to the garden hose. He sprayed the water on her face while Paul and Erik stood by, asking questions to which they expected no answers, and three white faces appeared at the window above.

She was not too badly burned – the sheet had time to cool a little as she had wrestled with it to the point of injury. But she was terribly frightened, and pained, George saw, and he hugged her to him as he cupped the freezing water onto her cheek and neck. But she was not nearly as shaken as he. To have let her so near to disfiguration, to serious injury because he’d been grieving over an old dead dog…he would never forgive himself.

“Daddy,” she said, looking up at him when the cooling water had calmed her a little. And she put her hand, amazedly onto the wetness on his cheeks, “You are crying.”

He did not set her down until she had seen a doctor, who applied a cream. Sara remained cheerful throughout the episode, once she had got over her fright.

“You’re very strong, Da,” she said thoughtfully as they walked back to the house.

“You have quite strong hands,” she said more softly, and she held out her hand for him to take. George didn’t see it. He was staring at their house, now in view. What on earth would their mother have thought? He’d failed in his duty to care for their children. Sara trailed behind a little. “Are you tired?” he asked her when he realised she was no longer at his side. She seemed to consider the question, to weigh it behind her sharp little eyes. Then she nodded.

“It stings. The cream’s cold, but it hurts too.” Before she could reach out her arms, her Daddy had picked her up – for the second and last time in her life – and she rocked, perched on his hip, with her head on his shoulder, eyes closed, all the hundred meters and twelve stairs to her house and her bed.

Paul and Eric, after a brief fight over who’d been to blame, had filled in the hole around the dead dog, for the sheer helplessness of their situation. George, after tucking Sara into bed and telling her to rest, came out to find the earth tramped down, and a cross of sticks marked out on the ground. So the collar would stay with Tom, then. It felt sacrilegious to dig him out again now. As he sat and ate his cold breakfast, George already missed the soft warm body on his feet, and the nose nudging his knee, and the feel of the old dog’s fur, gone soft with age. Paul, seated beside him, and reading a small novel, looked up, and put his hand on his father’s arm.

“Don’t fuss, boy,” George said more gruffly than he’d meant to, and went downstairs to finish wash day on his own.

 

 

 

 

Alive! Must be seen to be believed!

Alive! Must be seen to be believed!

 

 

IN EARNEST

 

It was the kohl. He couldn’t get it off. It was frustrating him to the point of tears. It stuck to his lower lids, a black, tarred smear. Ugly. It was stupid of him to use it in the first place. Stupid, misplaced vanity.

     He’d come down from the makeshift stage, jumpy with the excitement of performing, “See a world’s wonder, Ernie and Janet, two people, one head!” Had passed by the smaller tent where the dancing girls and acrobats changed. Liona had looked up from fixing her sequined belt, and looked away. The adrenaline had drained from him like gasoline through a siphon.

“Earnest, honey, Irma needs you.” The molasses thick voice of the bearded lady floated in through the loose flap of the tent as she hurried past, broad arms full of costumes.

Anyhow, it didn’t really matter whether the sticky black stuff stayed on or not. His face wouldn’t be noticed in this or any other act. He threw down the tissue, wet with his own spit and Vaseline, and wrapped his thick, specially made coat around him, creating an illusion of paunch. It had been made especially for him when he’d first joined Henri’s Carnival.

“Earnest!” the sharper voice of Bill hurried him as he fastened the bits and pieces of his cloak. He grimaced at the large belly-lump under his coat, and then lifted the red and yellow striped flap aside to reveal a world of shadows and light. Angels and devils. He paused as a sliver of light from the acrobats’ tent shone leaping, tumbling shadows into his eyes.

“Hurry up,” Bill said, steering Earnest with his scaly hands. Bill’s makeup was good tonight; though he hadn’t yet changed into his costume that showed off his alligator’s skin to its best advantage.

“I’m going, Bill, let me alone.” He wrestled free.

“Well don’t you go screwing things up, Ernie. Irma’s already knee-deep in lonely farmers’ wives, and she’s counting on you.”

Bill gave him a friendly shove, and disappeared into the back of the freak show. As Earnest hurried away towards the fortune teller’s booth, he heard the collective cries of disgust and delight for Bill’s show. Felt again that thrill that always had him going back for more. He was a showman. On stage the catcalls made him, an eighteen year old kid from the sticks, into something super-human, something better than all those folks hollering.

 

* * *

 

“Earnest, where you been? It’s almost seven-thirty already. They’re going crazy for me out there.”

“My show ran late,” he lied.

“Henri’s gonna be hoppin’ mad. Just get in position already,” Irma snapped, her tattooed hands waving.

He slipped out of his cloak, and with his top half bare sat beside the fortune teller’s table, selecting a card at random, as he had for thirteen years. It was the Moon. It didn’t mean anything to him. He guessed he’d just keep drawing like this every night until he pulled Death. The first woman came in with Irma. She looked plain, dressed in brown, with stockings laddered a little just below the hem of her skirt. No one well-off ever came to fortune-tellers.

“Take a seat, honey,” The fortune-teller said, frowning at Earnest as she pulled the card from his hand and re-shuffled it into the pack. The drab woman, with a brown hat to match her suit, stared at Earnest, at the protuberance that grew from his chest. The little, lifeless doll-like body, with its head embedded in his chest, its limbs malformed, hips unnaturally thick and fleshy, and the skin delicately veined. His parasitic twin.

“Is he part of it?” she said, slightly accentuating her “s”, as all church-going Christian women of this sort did. Earnest didn’t have much truck with religion. His Mother’s church hadn’t wanted anything to do with her when they knew she’d given birth to the devil. She’d believed them. For a long time, so had he, waking from nightmares in which the little body came alive. He’d woken, isolated, panting in disgusted terror, clawing deep red lines into his chest. But it wasn’t something you could run from.

“These are my assistants, Earnest, and Janet,” Irma said, pointing to the legs, bottom and arms that dangled, puppet-like, from Earnest’s torso.

Earnest concentrated on moving his twin’s arm. It made him feel miserable when he did. He referred to it as “It” not as Janet, for it was no more female than it was a separate entity. But people loved a freak. He made more money if he dressed it in frothy doll’s clothes and little-girl shoes.

The readings continued, with Earnest twitching “Janet’s” limbs when required. They lapped it up, these simple people.

 

The last person to enter was a well-dressed man. He smelt of expensive tobacco. The man payed no attention to Irma, but stared hard at Earnest; at his face, down at the little arms, legs and bottom dangling from his chest, then up at Earnest’s face again. The grey-green eyes, set deep and close beneath a crop of pepper hair, burrowed like a tapeworm through Earnest’s confidence. It was the same hungry look the pastor had given him at age five, when he’d decided to exorcise Earnest’s “demon”.

He was so intensely uncomfortable that he forgot to waggle the little arm when Irma asked, “Are there spirits in the room?” and she had to nudge him. He waggled the arm, with all its amphibian, fused-together fingers.

“Amazing,” Said the man quietly, watching the movement closely. He suddenly reached out and grabbed hold of the parasitic hand. Earnest felt little sensation, but moved back swiftly, covering his twin with crossed arms.

Christ! The man looked for all the world as if he’d like to saw Earnest in half for the acclaim of a crowd.

“Sir, please don’t touch. Didn’t you see the sign?” Irma laid a hand on the gentleman’s sleeve.

“I’d been told it was just a carnie trick,” The man said. “Do it again, son.”

Not on your life, Earnest thought.

“You leave now or you pay an extra four bit,” Irma said. Her voice lost its ethereal tone.

“You don’t understand,” the man addressed her, leaning forward. “I’m a doctor of medicine. I’ve come to help you,” He spoke this last to Earnest. “I can perform the operation that will remove this.” He reached out again, but Earnest flinched away, holding the parasitic body against his, the way it sat when it was strapped to him under his coat.

“I’d no idea you had control over its movement,” the doctor went on, as if to himself. “It will make the procedure more difficult, perhaps, but all the same…”

“Get out,” Irma said roughly.

“Its removal will certainly benefit your health and your lifestyle, just think,” the doctor said.

“Get out.”

“It’d be the first operation of its kind,” the doctor said, “you and I would be famous.”

Earnest sat in the dark on the steps of his caravan. On the side his likeness was painted, with the words, “Earnest and Janet, a Spectacular Double Act.” He drew a line in the dirt with a stick, and scuffed his heel through it. The sounds of mirth from the dancing girl’s tent made him lift his head. He redrew the line.

 

* * *

“Christ Ernie,” Bill said to Earnest’s image in the mirror, scratching at the scaly skin behind his neck. “He was probably just some crazy anyway.”

“You’re shedding again,” Earnest said.

“You wouldn’t do that to poor Janet would you Ern?” Percilla asked, as she oiled her beard. “And besides, you’d be losing a hell of a lot of money, for yourself and for us.” She was trying to be sympathetic.

“Its name isn’t Janet. Its name isn’t anything.”

“Ernie, what’s going on?” said Henri as he entered, tucking his whip into his belt, “you used to be such a show stopper, a charmer. We love you like a brother, but you gotta at least try not to look miserable in front of an audience. Jesus Christ on a bicycle! You looked about as happy as a mullet being fried tonight.”

Percilla shot him a look.

“What? What?”

Earnest worked Vaseline deep into Bill’s neck, as the alligator man downed a jug of water.

“Some crazy stunt-doctor offered to cut our two-in-one show down to a one man-er,” Irma said, coming in behind Henri. She’d pulled her hair tight back from her head, making her look starkly human.

Bill patted Earnest’s hand on his neck. “I dunno, Ernie. Sometimes I reckon I’d get rid of this skin if I could, but then, I wouldn’t know what to do with soft skin like yours.” He laughed softly, a wheezing hissing laugh Earnest knew well. Its snaky sound was more to do with long nights smoking with Percilla, and bad lungs than being the Alligator Man from the Bayou.

“Baby, your skin is perfect just the way it is,” Percilla said, checking her reflection in a handheld mirror.

Bill gave his soft “Ts-s-s” sound again, genuinely amused.

“And sometimes I wish I had wings so I could fly,” Henri said sarcastically. “You all gonna pack up tonight or leave it ‘til hell freezes over?”


* * *

 

“Well you aren’t seriously thinking about it are you? You don’t want to be one of us no more?” Bill said into the darkness as he rolled over on the bunk above Earnest.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Earnest said, one hand on the irregular lumps beneath his nightshirt. “It just doesn’t seem fair.”

“You can say ‘why me, why me’ all you like but if it weren’t you it’d be somebody else.”

“It isn’t that Bill,” Earnest said, reaching to put a hand on the bunk’s frame as he swung his legs out of bed. “It’s not that at all.”

Bill’s eyes rolled, invisible in the darkness, but present in his exasperated tone, “Then what?”

“It just doesn’t seem fair that when I got four legs, some people have got none.”

“Some people? Some… ah, like The Incredible Acrobatic Torso Girl, Liona. She ain’t even been here three weeks yet. What you got on her Ernie? You sweet on her? You are aren’t you? Hoohoo, tss-s-s. I didn’t see that one coming.”

“Keep it down. I’m not… you can’t tell no one, Bill, she don’t like me too much,” Earnest said weakly.

“Jeeezus!” Bill said, whistling through his teeth. “That’s a real strange one.” And he began to laugh, “Tss-s-s. Legless girl and four legged man, you’d be two an’ a half people. Alligator boy as best man, and a bearded bridesmaid. T-s-s-s. Ain’t that just the icing on the cake?”

“Shut up!” Earnest began pummelling the bunk above him; then he began to laugh too. Bill’s laughter was infectious.

“Ts-s-s-s. You are somethin’ else, Earnest J. Helico. You are somethin’ else.”

 

* * *

 

The full moon painted the squat red and yellow tents silver between the scrubby trees surrounding the fairground. Earnest, deep asleep below Bill, dreamt. Beneath his nightshirt two small arms hugged his torso, just as they had every night of his life.

 

Toads

TOADS 

Margaret

“Meaty, get back ‘ere you big bugger!” Crouching, Rick grabbed his escaping toad by its sinewy hind leg, and pulled it back to the starting line. He looked up at his wife, almost, but not quite sheepish. She looked down at him.

“You’re a shit,” She said.

Margaret had a phobia of toads. Ever since her brother had thrown a dead one at her that he’d peeled off the tarmac at the tiny airport they’d had back home. She turned and left the shed where her husband and three boys would race the horrid things, and then use them later for golf practice.

“Did Mum just call you a shit?” The voice of her nine year old followed her across the lawn.

 

Dr Samuel Heatherington. D.Psych.

My brothers and I clearly remember that time Dad came home. There was obviously some tension between our parents, which we were able to completely ignore because of the exciting distraction of our father. Mum always got antsy when he came home. There was nothing too unusual about their confused and confusing behaviour to each other. No, the reason we remembered with such clarity, that holiday of Dad’s was because of the incident with the toad. We’ve talked about it many times since, my brothers and I, at family get togethers after a few beers. Though we all remember events differently, our recollections of the night of the toad are all the same.

The toad was the catalyst. Mum was an anxious woman; she had a lot of little fears and irritations. We defined her by them. So when it came to toads, we knew absolutely that she was petrified of them. It was part of the thrill. Three little boys, four if you count Dad, were rebelling against their mother. There was nothing vicious in our attitude to toads or to Mum. We three were simply having fun, which we did with our usual self-absorption, and which happened to involve slamming the great dinner plate sized toads, of which Mum was so afraid, into the rusty sides of the water tank with Dad’s old golf clubs. He never used them for anything else.

 

Margaret

Inside the house she turned the wireless on to block out their noise. She’d looked forward to Rick coming home for three months. She had, for three months, held his image in her head, while she pleasured herself in bed at night. For three months, she had been worried he wouldn’t return to their house on Enoggera Creek, wouldn’t get paid, or if he did, would find a miner’s tart to keep, and leave Margaret with little or no income and a child for each of the first three years of their marriage.

She’d forgotten how he smelled oily. Like the wool fat she’d used on her nipples when she was breastfeeding. Had forgotten that, though he was good looking, he was also useless at fitting in with their routine.

 

“Don’t eat that for breakfast,” Margaret had taken the thick hunk of chocolate cake away from her youngest son Ben that morning.

“Oh, it’s alright Mum,” Rick had said, still reeking of beer, and had infuriated her still more by patting her arm as he passed the plate back into Ben’s grubby, grasping fingers, “It’s alright. It’s just a bit of a treat.”

There were sticky chocolate finger marks on the walls later on. It would have been cute if it didn’t happen every day.

 

Dr Samuel Heatherington. D.Psych.

When it came to bedtime, we three boys were just as bad as the children in the Peter Pan book, which Nanna Jess had given Ben as a baby. When Dad was home, bedtime was a highly exciting affair, and for an hour or two, we would race around the house as he egged us on – often because we’d just eaten something sweet we shouldn’t have – banging into walls, and often winding up wounded. One of our favourite tricks was wearing Dad’s huge leather boots on our diminutive feet, and tripping round the house, stomping like dinosaurs and kicking each other, and generally being very boisterous. This exasperated Mum no end. She always had to play nurse at the end of the night. I can’t think how many boxes of bandaids we went through.

 

Mum tried to keep us to a routine, but no matter how well we’d settled into it in Dad’s absence, it was always, always broken on his return. It was a code among we three boys that we must strive to stay awake the longest hours that we could, in order to evade school the next day. Dad didn’t think much of school. That bedtime though, in the last week Dad was home, we could all tell, even if Dad couldn’t see it, that there was something almost desperate behind Mum’s irritation.

 

Margaret

She’d spent two hours on Thursday night trying to get Ben, Laurie and Sammie to sleep so she could talk seriously with her boyish husband. He’d made faces at them behind her back until they were hysterical and wriggling with pent up excitement, and every time she’d left their bedroom, they’d army crawled out behind her.

“Listen, Rick,” she’d begun, sitting down with him at the table.

“Are the boys in bed?” he’d asked her, as they had crawled up behind her back.

“Yes, but…”

“Are you sure?” He wiggled his eyebrows. His face was a cartoon, Margaret thought. A cartoon mouth that he could turn up or down in a cartoon’s curving line. A cartoonishly clean-shaven face. Thick, dirty blonde curls drawn by an animator.

The three boys had burst into high pitched giggles.

She had wanted to tell him she didn’t want another child. He’d been joking around about a fourth, but when they lay together in bed, she could tell he was at least partly serious.

“The boys are growing up now, Chicken,” he’d spoken the words into her stomach one night, his breath blowing goosebumps onto her skin, “and it gets lonely up at the mines.” She doubted that.

She had wanted to tell him, with a feeling that she might start crying if he didn’t listen, that perhaps she didn’t want to live this way anymore, that maybe she and the boys could move closer to the mines. That she hated working in a pub, and regretted his long absences.

“Go to bed,” she yelled at her children. “For God’s sakes, go to bed.” She was tired and stressed and hot. Ben had begun to cry at the sudden change of mood.

“Alright, alright,” said Rick, before Margaret could apologise – Ben’s baby tears woke the deep fear that she’d failed them all again – “don’t get your knickers in a knot.” Laurie and Sammie had snickered. “Can’t you have any fun?”

Rick had picked Ben up, and got him all excited again, telling them stories in the lounge, about ogres and drop bears and hoop snakes, and fake snored until they’d all fallen asleep on the floor. She was the ogre of their nightmares, Margaret knew. Sometimes the force of her illogical anger scared even her.

“They have to be in bed earlier than this,” she told Rick later, “otherwise they fall asleep in school.”

“Let them have a day off then, Chicken, one day doesn’t harm,” he’d replied.

Margaret could yell all she liked. The only thing it did was to make her more of a tyrant, and left her feeling tired and ill.

 

And while Rick stayed at home, eating and playing and sleeping, Margaret had, everyday, gone to work at the Normanby on the bus as usual. She liked the girls she worked with, to a degree. Three of the younger ones were pregnant, and balanced trays of drinks against their bellies. All the rest had young children. Margaret kept herself to herself, mostly, and hoped that their fecundity would not rub off on her.

Last Tuesday, Margaret had run into an old woman on the bus who came in regularly for her counter meal at the pub. She never came with anyone, but she was everyone’s friend. She’d always stay until six o’clock, when the pub closed. Margaret had often wondered what she went home to.

“Are you working today, love?” The older woman had asked, her white perm bobbing a little as spoke, contrasting greatly with the smeared yellow brown windows of the bus.

“Every week day, I’m there,” Margaret replied.

“So am I. Ever since my husband died.”

And Margaret had suddenly felt utterly, irrevocably alone.

  

Margaret hated her work. The patrons didn’t make much of a difference, whether they were pleasant, as they usually were, or rude. It was just that she’d been raised differently. She’d been raised with her hands in clay, outside of Melbourne, helping her mum and brothers turn pots, telling each other stories, and listening to the rainforest drips on the tin roof. It was delicate, involved, artistic work. Pouring pints, and carrying plates of roast beef to little old ladies, no matter how sorry she felt for them, was not. She’d thought about giving up, but she never quite trusted Rick to come through with the money each month. It was all a lot easier when Rick was at the mines. There was something soothing about an uninterrupted routine.

 

So Margaret had been looking forward to this, Rick’s last weekend at home. She thought she’d let her hair down a bit, have fun with the boys. She’d forgotten she wasn’t one of them. Rick had planned a barbeque at their house for Saturday, without telling her until Friday. They hadn’t got a barbeque to begin with, so Rick had built one out of bricks and wire left over from the time he’d half built a chicken coop. He’d promised the boys chickens as pets, but had left before the thing was done, and it had sat there, useless, ever since. Margaret seriously doubted her sons’ virtues as pet owners anyway.

 

Dr Samuel Heatherington. D.Psych.

Nellie, who lived over at Kedron Brook had come over with her husband Robert, their boy, Kent, and girl, Frida. Nellie was the perfect mother. She had bought her children a dog for Christmas last. We were all jealous of Frida and Kent, and they had the misfortune of pretentious names, so, often we were quite rude and horrible to them. Nellie arrived that afternoon armed with homemade sausages, a chocolate sponge, and a plateful of butterfly cakes for the kids, sporting only the juiciest strawberries. All the men loved Nellie.

 

Margaret

Margaret envied Nellie. She never raised her voice to her children, and they were polite, and clever. And Robert. Well, Robert had been Margaret’s first crush in high school. He’d moved away, though, and had never known. Thank God. He exuded a school camaraderie for her now, that neither of them had ever felt at school.

“How’s it going there, Rick? Hie, it’s Margaret, how’re your folks doing, Margie? Do you still make those clay pots? Margie used to make the most fabulous clay pots,” he’d tell his wife, gesturing with his glass of wine. And then he would relate all the doings and happenings of the people they’d been to school with: who was getting married, who had made money in England, who had died in an “awful” accident.

Margaret tried not to look at him too much. She found herself feeling quite awkward around him, as he seemed to be around her. She’d eventually realised, with relief, that he was really quite boring. But she liked Nellie. She did.

 

 

Dr Samuel Heatherington. D.Psych.

Laurie, Ben and I were having a great time down near the creek, where we always played. We had an audience, too, and we exposed to them our most depraved, dirty and horrid characters. Frida and Kent may have been polite and charming, and loved by all adults, but their downfall was that they were easily led, and underneath, I suspect, just as nasty as we could be. Most children of that sort are. All the men, Dad’s friends mostly, I think – I recall Nellie and my Mother being the only two women present – were standing around Dad’s barbecue. Mum and Nellie were inside, trying to cook our dinner in a frypan on the stove, because Dad’s barbecue, while decorative, simply incinerated food. We’d first amused ourselves by chucking mango seeds and Poinciana pods into the flames, but had quickly bored of that, and were now trying to catch a water dragon in the thick grass down the bottom of the yard. This we did by alternately throwing bits of brick and rock at it, and darting forward to try and grab it. Mostly we just liked to tease the dragons enough to make them run, because they raised their legs in such a funny way, propelling themselves over ground like a paddle boat.  Frida was in such a state of manic excitement that she offered to try and catch it by its tail.

“You can’t,” said Ben, “you’re a girl.” But Ben, being the youngest, was generally ignored anyway, and Frida darted towards the hissing lizard. As she grabbed at its striped tail, the dragon spun itself around, so that its open mouth was staring Frida in the face, and she leapt back in fright. We boys could all see that the dragon was going to get away. Ben and Laurie and I didn’t mind so much, but Kent was in just as much of a state as his sister, and seemed to think there would be dire consequences if it did escape. He let fly the whole brick he had in his hand, and I watched, fascinated, as it flew in slow motion towards the dragon – which scurried away – and Frida’s foot. She looked up at her big brother just before it landed, about to rouse on him, when there was a sudden crunch, and the full weight of the brick landed on her big toe. The resulting scream brought all the adults within hearing distance down on us.

“She dropped a brick on her foot,” Kent kept repeating, with too wide-eyed an innocence to be believed. “She’s had an accident.”

 

Margaret

Margaret and Nellie had been inside trying to cook the steak and sausages. They’d already lost two steaks to what Rick had passed off as a barbecue. Margaret was trying to hold a proper conversation with her friend, while she tried not to think about what she’d just heard.

She’d taken out drinks for the men, Rick’s friends from the mines, approaching them from the back.

“How ‘bout that Christine?” One of them said to Rick, “I’ll have a loan of that sheila when you’re done with her.”

They’d all clammed up into a guilty silence when, with a sarcastic flourish, Margaret plonked her tray of beer on the table in front of them.

It was not that she was surprised. Mostly, she was angry that they had the gall to mention the whore in her back yard. She went back inside the house to stab the steaks. Good old boring Robert followed, with a pained look.

 

The men were too full of grog to notice that the kids were throwing bricks at a lizard. Indeed Rick had noticed, but had thought it quite amusing. Margaret felt her face heat up when he told the distraught Nellie that “Kids will be kids.”

“Oh, shut up, Rick,” Margaret had said sharply, leaving him open mouthed, and had gone inside to find something in the way of a bandage.

Frida had been driven off screaming, to the doctor, but Rick and his friends had stayed out in the yard, drinking, until morning. Margaret had gone to bed. She felt a little sick.

 

When Rick’s hangover had gone away, and Margaret no longer had to force the boys to keep quiet, it was play time without her once more. She almost felt sorry for poor Meaty.

Margaret turned the wireless up so she didn’t have to hear the wet sounds of the toad carcasses ricocheting off the water tank, punctuated by the excited shouts of the three boys. They never cleaned the sticky offal off the walls of the tank.

Out of the window, she saw Laurie leap onto Rick’s back as he raised a golf club over his head.

 

She would spend the next week trying to get the boys to stop whinging, Margaret knew, once Rick had left again for another three months. Last time there had been a row, and Samuel had locked her out of the house when she’d asked him to clean up the mess he’d left on the table, while she went to pick basil from the garden. He’d run around frantically, slamming the doors, as if he was afraid of her. She’d managed to get in through one of the windows that had stuck open when it had been painted some years ago. “I hate you, I hate you,” Samuel had screamed. And she’d slapped him across the face. Her heart beat fast, panicky. Margaret would never be able to look at him again without knowing what she had done. She knew he’d never fully trust her again.

Margaret moved throughout the house, picking up bread-crusts and milky glasses. The house that was always perfect while her husband was away, that she had moulded to her liking, became a strangulating, aggressive thing; a thing to be fought, when Rick was home.

It was so odd, Margaret thought, as she tidied, that when he was here she became just a useful extension of the house. She’d carved her name into a hidden skirting board when they’d moved in eleven years ago, because she’d been so excited to have her own house. She had spent weeks before painting patterns on her own crockery, and embroidering towels, and sanding the cupboards that Rick had made. That first night, listening to the possums bucketing around on the roof, they’d made love on the floor.

She put her pile of dirty crockery purposefully back onto the settee. If she peered behind the closet in their bedroom, she could make out the tiny scratch marks that spelt out who she was. Margaret. I am Margaret. She smiled to herself. She was Margaret.

 

That night, Rick made the boys go to bed at eight. They were confused, they wanted to make the most of him before he left.

“Jeez, they’re hard to get off to sleep,” Rick said, raising an eyebrow as if Margaret was to blame.

“Of course they are, Rick,” she hissed at him in the hallway, “you’ve been keeping them up for the last few weeks, and they’ve been eating sugar from the bowl.” She’d caught them, when she’d come back from the out house. Mostly, thought, Margaret was angry because she knew the reason for his inconsistency was completely selfish. It was time for the obligatory ‘goodbye’ sex.

 

The smell of the Mock Orange Margaret had picked as it opened in the evening was overpowered by Rick’s oily smell.

“Everything’s ok between us, isn’t it Margaret,” he stated as he sweated above her. The bedroom was hot. The bed frame made a light clicking noise as Rick exerted himself. Margaret didn’t reply.

“Isn’t it,” he said. “Put a bit of effort in, Chicken, I’m leaving tomorrow.”

She ground her heel down his calf, and hoped it hurt.

 

When Rick had finished, and had twisted himself over her side of the sheet, Margaret slid her naked body upright. She listened to the usual soft thuds of the mangoes on the roof, chewed to the seed by the fruit bats that nested at Indooroopilly by day. Her skin felt tight and stretched in the sticky heat of the bedroom. She stepped through the house, into the breezy central hallway, not needing a light to show her to the open door. Outside, the air cupped her warmly, and the little bush-cockroaches that wound around her feet every now and again stirred in her what her father would have called ‘a kick up your heels mood.’ He used to joke, Margaret thought breathlessly, as she padded through the carpet of jacaranda flowers to the tank, sounding the words silently with her mouth as if she was rehearsing for a play, he used to joke that he’d give her a ‘kick up the arse mood’ instead.

 

Their house sat at the top of a long strip of land, the tank and shed at the bottom, a precaution against flooding. From the top of the ladder on the tank, she could watch Enoggera Creek rushing industriously away through the thick scrub. To her, the creek was an officious nanny, bustling through the undergrowth, nipping the little bits of greenery that got out of place. Lord, she wished she was so efficient and cheery.

She liked to come up here sometimes, when she knew no one was awake, to skinny-dip in the dark, sweet, tank water.

 

Another woman looked up at her from the tannin-black surface. A darker, rippling face with full, white-moon breasts and a night-time smile. She wished she could be this beautiful reflection always. She was struck, for the first time, that she was quite sensuous looking. It made her feel powerful. Margaret reached out a hand to touch the softened image, when a dead toad floated beneath her dangling fingers. One eye was poking up at the sky, the heart emerging from its mouth, as it did the bloated backstroke with its brain in the lead.

Margaret cried out, recoiled, and lost her footing on the metal rung. She hit her chin, snapped her head up, caught a bare shin on the wooden step at the bottom.

“Ffffff,” she said when she could speak. She’d bitten her lip. She sprawled there, alternatively rubbing and pressing the bruises, tightly, angrily. Bloody mongrel toads. She knew she shouldn’t be so afraid of them. Possums stirred the blue quandong branches overhead, and the small movement startled her. She suddenly had a mad idea. Margaret began to laugh.

 

Dr Samuel Heatherington. D.Psych.

I was the first to wake up when the noise started. I could see something tapping at the window. I remember it so well, the memory heightened by adrenaline. I was so alone in the night, with my brothers buried deep in their unconsiousness. I thought for a horrible second that Laurie wouldn’t wake up when I hit him. Then the moon came out.

 

Margaret

 “There’s something moving,” she heard Sammie whimper.

“MUMMY!” Laurie yelled, as he caught sight of the dead and mutilated toad moving about outside the window glass. That woke Ben up.

“Mummy!” Sam, Ben and Laurie yelled with staggered timing. They didn’t once call for Rick.  

 

Dr Samuel Heatherington. D.Psych.

 

We never threw bricks or played golf with animals again. We’d been taught a lesson I’ve never forgotten. For years afterwards, we had bad dreams, and every time, we’d call for our Mum. I don’t think Dad ever really understood why we stopped playing things his way. We never told him about the night of the toad. In our time of need, he’d slept through it all.

 

Margaret

Margaret watched her husband kiss her boys goodbye. Her lip was a little swollen, but was masked by the red lipstick she’d applied for the occasion. Her shin barely throbbed beneath her dress. Sammie, Laurie and Ben were quiet and pale, and unresponsive. Ben clung to his mother, sucking the collar of her dress.

“Well,” Rick said, perplexed, “didn’t you all have fun? Didn’t we have some fun last night?” Margaret smiled sweetly.

 

When they were at school, Margaret wiped the toad blood from the boys’ window, threw away the stick she’d used last night, and dug a small hole in the flower bed. She compacted the earth over the dead toad with her hands, dusted them on her pants, and went into her house for a nap. 

 

Dr Samuel Heatherington. D.Psych.

We quickly grew out of our father, and he grew bored of us, as any child grows bored of toys. His visitations grew less and less frequent. It was usually only on a whim he came at all, and certainly not for the long periods we’d so enjoyed in our childhood. We heard we had a step-sister somewhere. Perhaps she was the new plaything.

For a while, the toad population grew, but we never did anything about it. It peaked, and declined. Eventually, and at about the same time – when we were embarking on the great journey of high school at State High – the toads, and our father stopped coming to our house entirely. Perhaps our mother frightened them away.

 

 

 

 

 

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