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This Wasn't Supposed to Happen by Corey McHattan

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Short Stories

This Wasn't Supposed to Happen

a novel by Corey McHattan

 

one

 

Nights like this, where the four of us enjoy a sit-down dinner together, don't happen as often as I'd like any more. Between night classes at uni, work, and our separate social lives, such gatherings are special, to be treasured for their rarity.

Or maybe not. As Karen serves out a Caesar salad for her and myself, Ben plonks down a plate covered in baked beans and Daniel starts eating, cold, a few sausages that he first cooked three days ago. I suppose the fact that they're actually eating in the kitchen rather than stretched out in front of the TV will have to suffice.

"Are you guys planning a big one tonight?" Karen asks the boys, and I notice that they're far more dressed up than usual.

"Are we what," Ben replies, as Daniel titters next to him. "You know how Damo got that job as a barman at the Smithy?" I don't, but feel obliged to nod, and Karen does the same. "He never used to be able to look after us because his supervisor was such a hard-on. But now he's got a new boss who's a nihilist. He doesn't care about anything, least of all employee fraud, so the free drinks will be flowing all night."

Honestly, that's all the two of them think about. Going to pubs to drink beer and chase girls. I mean, I love them and everything, but sometimes I wish they'd broaden their horizons a bit.

"What are you girls up to, then?" Daniel asks, as he shovels a sauce-smeared sausage into his mouth.

Karen mumbles something about having a quiet night in. Daniel looks at me expectantly. "Sasha?" It looks like I have no choice.

"Uh, I've got a date actually," I say, quietly. Predictably, Ben starts hooting, and Daniel joins in. Karen just stares at me, probably shocked that I haven't told her until now.

"So do I know the lucky fellow?" Ben asks.

"You go, girl!" Daniel adds.

"Wednesday's a funny night for a first date." That was Karen, ever the pragmatist.

"His name's Carl," I reply. "I don't think any of you would know him; he only moved here a few months ago. He works, he does some financial, investment thingÉ something to do with money. Please, please don't make a scene when he gets here."

"You don't have to worry, kiddo," Ben says as he gets up, and pats my head on his way past. "As much as I'd like to meet the guy, free beer awaits."

Daniel follows him, as always, and the two of them head off into the night.

 

two

 

I'm lying on my back, staring at the ceiling and trying not to move, when there's a tentative knock at the door. I ignore it, optimistically hoping it will go away. What a night. All my senses have been affected: my eyes hurt, my ears feel like they're stuffed with cotton wool, my nose is blocked, my tongue feels like a slab of leather, and my skin crawls.

But the knocking starts up again, louder, and this time with an accompanying "Daniel, are you awake?"

It's Sasha. She knows better than to wake me up after a big night on the piss. It must be important.

"Yeah?" I eventually force out, and immediately feel like vomiting. Where's my rubbish bin?

"Daniel, is that you?"

Who else would it be, I think. But even thinking of smart comebacks is painful. So instead I say, as loudly as I dare: "What?"

"I'm really sorry, Daniel, but your car is blocking me in."

She woke me up for that? "My spare keys are... (I try to sit up but vertigo overpowers me and I have to lay back down and take some deep breaths before quickly finishing) ...they're on the fridge."

"Daniel, you know I can't drive a manual."

Not even down the driveway? Aaaagh. What am I going to do, in my condition? Then the answer comes. "Ben. Get Ben to do it."

After a moment, I hear footsteps padding away from my door and inwardly sigh with relief. Now I just have to lie here and concentrate on not throwing up. As I breath in... and out... in... and out..., I find some small consolation in the fact that, to have a hangover like this, last night must have been one hell of a night. One to tell the grandchildren about.

If only I could remember what happened.

 

three

 

The scene is a decrepit kitchen of a mid-'70s vintage. Buckled lino, retro orange-and-brown colour scheme, cramped, dank and dark. Two fridges stand to attention, a rugby prop and his slightly smaller brother, both tattooed with stickers promoting various radio stations, country towns and political movements. The walls are bare apart from a print of Munch's 'The Scream' with "Look at this mess!" written under it, and a small clock. There is a moderately large pile of dirty plates and glasses piled up to the left of the sink, the cold tap of which is drip... drip... dripping.

A man of about twenty, Caucasian with sandy blonde hair, is sitting at a laminex table, reading a tabloid newspaper. It soon becomes apparent that he is unwell. His hair, which had at first appeared tousled in the style of the day, on closer examination appears to be matted with a brown, viscous substance, probably beer. His eyes are bloodshot and underscored with black bags. His hand trembles slightly as he holds the newspaper, but apart from that his body is remarkably still.

Another male of about the same age walks hesitantly into the room. If it is possible, he looks even worse than the seated figure. After noting the time on the clock (it is 2.30 p.m.) he eases himself into a chair. The newspaper reader finally looks up from his newspaper and acknowledges Daniel (for it is he). Tentative grins are exchanged, and Daniel, with what seems a herculean effort, summons the energy to speak.

"Some night."

"Tell me about it. You look even worse than me."

After a significant delay, Daniel replies. "Thanks."

"Did you have any luck?"

Daniel shakes, then holds, his head. After another lull, he manages one word.

"Y'self?"

"Ah... yeah. She's sleeping now."

"Yeah? What's she like?"

"Nice, real nice."

"Well done, mate." A Pinteresque pause. "In my condition, I'm just glad I made it home."

Ben laughs. "Sure you are."

The conversation continues spasmodically for a while, encompassing cricket, plans for the coming few days, and Daniel's complete inability to recollect anything that happened the previous night, before eventually petering out. Daniel shuffles out the door, stage left, and back to bed.

 

four

 

It's not until the next day (the day after the day after the night before) that I start to feel something even approaching 100%. So when Ben, my flatmate and best friend, suggests we go down to the pub, it being Friday night and all, I just look at him. Sure, I feel a bit guilty about wasting the night before a day off work, but there's only so much punishment the human body can take.

Instead, I settle down to a night in front of the TV with Sasha and Karen. But, it being mid-January, silly season is in full swing. All we get is crap repeats and third-rate movies, and we're soon wishing someone had rented some videos. But as none of us can be bothered leaving the house, we get to talking instead.

It's as good a way as any to kill time; Karen isn't too keen on Sash's new boyfriend, Carl, and her putdowns are intermittently amusing (I think 'subhuman sleazoid in a Saab' is my favourite). Then we exchange the usual gossip on mutual friends, who's shacked up with who, who's come out as gay, who, after a brief walk on the wild side, has decided that they're not gay after all, that sort of thing. I do my fair share to keep the conversation going, and laugh along when told about poor Ernie Deggart, whose nipple ring has apparently turned septic. He's even had to have most of the said nipple removed (serves him right; nipple rings are so 1997). But it isn't until the talk turns to Michelle, Ben's conquest on Wednesday night, that things get really interesting.

"That girl Ben brought home the other night was nice," Sash is saying, as Karen nods. I hadn't met her on Thursday, as I'd spent pretty much the whole day in my room with the blinds drawn. Apparently she'd stayed for dinner, which was unusual- Ben normally hustles them out the door before the sheets were dry. Anyway, Sash and Karen had eaten with them, and it seems they all gotten along like the proverbial house on fire.

"She was pretty too," Sash continues. "I'd kill for hair like that. And that little dolphin tattoo on her arm was gorgeous. I think I might get one."

As Karen scowls at Sasha's whimsical rambling, I draw a mental picture. This Michelle sounds vaguely familiar; maybe I know her from somewhere.

"She needs to do something about that laugh of hers, though," Karen replies. "What was with that? Huh-huh-ha-huh, huh-huh-ha-huh. Who laughs like that?"

Then it hits me. I know exactly who laughs like that. I can't believe it. I'm overcome by a jealous rage. I try to hide it from the girls by remaining silently still. I think Sasha notices anyway, and tries to change the subject, but the fun part of the night is over for me, and I become a spectator to, not a participant in, the discussion.

Eventually the girls' laughs turn to yawns and they head off to bed, but I stay up. After a bit of channel-flicking, I find a Jackie Chan movie on SBS, and his endlessly inventive martial arts mayhem keeps me going until Letterman. I put the time to good use, planning exactly how the confrontation scene is going to be played out, endlessly replaying, rehearsing and editing in my mind with the painstaking intensity of a modern day Stanley Kubrick. When he gets home, he'll walk right into the perfect ambush. He won't know what's hit him.

 

five

 

I'm hardly in the front door when suddenly Daniel is in my face, wanting to know how my night was. Unfortunately for him, though, whenever he has an ulterior motive he always gives himself away by overcompensating. Tonight is no different:

"How was your night? You're home pretty early? Quiet out, was it?"

See? Normally, I'd just exchange grunts with him on the way to my room. Yet here he is, badgering me for every inconsequential detail like he's me Mum or something. Then, as if he wasn't being obvious enough already, when I start telling him how I only came home early because Glenn's girlfriend spewed all over the dance floor and we got kicked out of the Grand, he can't even keep the pretence up long enough to feign interest. He looks all over the place, at the ceiling, his shoes, my shoes, anywhere but my face. He even has to stifle a yawn at one stage, in the middle of what I think is a damn short explanation. I wouldn't be surprised if he starts tapping his feet next, in his impatience to get to whatever the hell it is he wants to talk about.

"...and so that's why I'm home so early."

He says nothing, and still won't meet my eye.

Now, this is another thing about Daniel that infuriates me sometimes. Any other person, having got the formalities out of the way, would have launched straight into whatever it was that was annoying him, but not Daniel. Maybe he thinks his attempts at subtle psychological warfare have some effect on me. If he does, he's wrong.

"Well, goodnight then," I finally say, calling his bluff. He lets me get to the hall before he speaks up.

"I had an interesting chat with the girls tonight," he calls.

"Yeah? Tell me about it in the morning, I'm bushed."

"No, no, it's kinda funny, I think you should hear it now." I stop just around the corner, out of sight but well within hearing distance. "It seems that Sash and Karen were quite enamoured of Michelle, that girl you brought home the other night. You might remember I didn't see her because I was busy spewing my guts up for most of the day. Anyway, they were going on about how nice this Michelle was, and her tattoo, and her laugh, and I realised that she sounded very much like a girl I met on Wednesday night."

So that's what this is about. I remain hidden, evaluating my options. He's caught me out, but I didn't think he'd be as pissed off as he obviously is. Buying time looks like my best short-term option.

"Uh, yeah, you might have met her. It was some night, people everywhere." Dammit, he said he couldn't remember anything.

"I'm sure I was talking to her for a fair while. Yeah, it's coming back to me, we were sitting at a table, just the two of us, talking. It's a little hazy and confused, but unless I'm going mad I'd bet my car that there was something going on between us. So what I want to know is, how the hell did you end up with her?"

A-ha. His tone, as always, gives him away (you should see him play poker). He's hardly got a clue what happened. I step back around the corner and face him.

"You don't remember?"

Eventually he shakes his head like a guilty schoolboy.

"Well, I don't know how to tell you this mate ... she came out the front of the Crown and was asking if anyone knew a Daniel Hamilton, so I said yeah and she half-dragged me inside. Turns out that, uh, while you were cracking on to her you kind of, well, you passed out. She had to go through your wallet to find out your name. We went back inside and there you are, slumped over in a corner. I was proud of you though mate, you still had a good grip on your schooner. Anyway, we both kind of dragged you out to get a taxi and then, while we were waiting there, you know, it took a while, we kind of got to talking, and we got on pretty well. So yeah, eventually we put you into a cab, went back inside, and that was that."

Silence.

"If it makes you feel any better, she asked about you before she left yesterday."

He's still looking at me a bit strangely. Although I try not to show anything, inside I'm willing him on. Finally he cracks. "I really passed out in the middle of the Crown?"

"Yeah mate. I guess all those free drinks must have caught up with you."

He doesn't look very happy, but I can tell he's conceded defeat. "Oh well... I guess that's alright then. If I blew my chances with her, I suppose I can't begrudge you taking advantage."

Good old Daniel. A pushover as always.

 

six

 

My holiday job is stacking soup cans in aisle two of the local supermarket (I left my run a bit late and this was the only work I could find). Everything has to be lined up with geometric precision, in some kind of bizarre homage to Andy Warhol. If you do this kind of work for long enough, you see cans in your dreams. Rows and rows of them, stretching out to eternity...

And that's not even the worst part. As with any service assistant job, mine would at least be bearable were it not for the customers. There really are some odd specimens in the human race. Like the old lady who pissed herself at the checkouts and then yelled at a little kid for doing it (I only know about this because who do you think was called to clean it up? "Mr Mayfield, mop and bucket to checkout six, Mr Mayfield.") Or the cretins who whinge and moan at me of all people when we don't have the Acme washing powder at $1.67 "like here in the catalogue" or we've moved the maple syrup and now they can't find it. As if I had anything to do with it. As if I could give a shit.

Then there's the homeless guy, who often comes in, gets a barbecue chicken from the deli and then tries to sneak out without paying. He's been caught a few times and he's banned from the store (I don't know how he stands it; they're incredibly hot, and one day I saw the fatty juices running out from under his trackies and into his shoes, for God's sake). Contrary to store policy, I think anyone that desperate deserves a break, and usually turn a blind eye when he's about, even going so far as letting him 'escape' right under my nose. Except the last time, my supervisor caught me and gave me a dressing down in front of the rest off the staff, the customers, everybody.

"You. Daniel, is it? What just happened here? You've been here for long enough now, you know that guy is an inveterate thief. And you just let him waltz out the door. I'll have you understand that every chicken he steals is five dollars that gets added to the prices that these people pay. Don't let this happen again."

But if he was so worried about his chickens, why wasn't he chasing after the homeless guy?

 

For nearly two months I live through my supermarket purgatory before the university year starts up again. I endure by focusing on the weekends, when I usually blow half my paycheque at the local pubs (no luck with the ladies, although Ben snares a couple). I break this up with regular periods spent in quiet loathing of Ben, or more specifically his parents' endless supply of money which means he spends most of his days swanning around at the beach, or perfecting his skills on my Playstation so that when I arrive home, tired and sweaty at 5.30, he proceeds to whip me in our customary few rounds before dinner.

Thus it comes as a welcome break from the summer monotony when, two weeks before uni goes back, me and Ben receive twin invitations in the mail to the 21st birthday party of Eugene Jones, an old friend from our high school days. Ben RSVPs for both of us while I'm at work the next day (typical), and later informs me that most of our old year from high school will be there. Although I'll most likely spend the night in much the same way as an other Saturday night (drinking, talking to my mates, ogling the womenfolk) it'll be good to catch up with my old schoolfriends, all but a handful of whom I've pretty much lost contact with in the two years since school ended. A lot of them went to uni down in Sydney, and most of those who didn't drifted into a more adult world as they had babies, looked for work, found jobs, or did all of the above. But Eugene was school captain (quite a feat for someone who carried that name like an albatross around his neck through six years of high school) and, having kept in at least infrequent touch with most of the student body, he's confident of a good turnout.

"Do you think Caroline will be there?" Ben asks, when he's finished recounting his conversation with Eugene.

"I don't know, Ben. Do you really want to put yourself through that again?" I should mention that Caroline had been the leader of the most popular clique in our year (if we had pep rallies in Australia, Caroline would have been head cheerleader) and had thus, according to the rules of high school romance, been intimately involved with Ben on several occasions in his capacity as captain of the football team. How cheesy can you get? Of course, it all ended in tears when school had finished and any reason for them to remain together evaporated. Ben went off to uni, and last I heard, Caroline was living with some guy. Ben still has a soft spot for her, though, more so than for any other girl he'd ever been with.

"I don't want to hook up with her, you dickhead. Besides, I think she's engaged. But it would still be good to catch up on old times."

Right. I know from past experience that a ring on a girl's finger is no deterrent to Ben. But I'm not in the mood for an argument either, and decide to diplomatically change the subject. "So, old Eugene's invited a few people then?"

"Has he ever. We were about the 200th people just to reply. His Dad's hired a big top to put in the backyard. I think he must have invited just about every one he's ever met."

"Yeah, it'll be like 'Hello, what do you do?' 'Oh, I'm the nurse that delivered little Eugene.' 'So you're a friend of the family are you?' 'No, this is the first time I've seen him since then. Hasn't he grown into a handsome young man?' "

Ben snorts the way he always does when something really strikes him as funny and he's not just trying to impress some girl. I continue:

"Still, I won't care as long as the grog flows free all night."

"There shouldn't be any trouble there. His Dad owns a pub, remember. They're starting with ten kegs and there's plenty more where that came from."

"Sweet."

 

seven

 

"Sash!" Karen calls to me from the lounge room. "I'm about to start the video if you want to watch it."

I don't really. Labyrinth and The Never Ending Story are more my type of movies, but I'd feel bad if I left her out there to watch it alone.

"What is it again?" I call as I make my way down from my bedroom.

"It's the latest John Grisham adaptation," she says, holding up the cover. I wince inwardly. More spunky young lawyers doing their thing. Hopefully it won't be as bad as Ally McBeal.

I settle down in the bean bag while Karen lies sprawled across the couch. Judging from the first few minutes, it might not be too bad. The lead is more classically handsome than spunky, and I can amuse myself by imagining the two of us together in some enchanted world, fighting the forces of evil.

After a while it becomes apparent that the boys are preparing to go out somewhere, traipsing back and forward from their bedrooms to the bathroom. They put more effort into personal grooming than any other guys I know. When all four of us are going out on the same night, trying to get into the bathroom is a nightmare.

Eventually they seem to be ready, and, as they always do, offer themselves for inspection.

"How do we look?" Ben asks, as Karen pauses the tape.

"Fine," Karen, and I reply simultaneously. And it's true, they do look good. Actually, looking at them, you'd never guess that Ben is the ladies' man. He's taller, and he's got a more muscular build, but there's something about Daniel's dark hair and his eyes that really appeals to me.

As they go back to their rooms, and Karen restarts the tape, I think about when we first met them, myself and Karen having ourselves been thrown together somewhat. We had each been one half of the two sets of best friends who had occupied this house before the boys moved in. We didn't really have much to do with each other, but then our respective friends had both finished their courses and run off to Melbourne together. Looking back now, it's kind of funny; I'd lived in the same house as Claudia and Janine for over a year, Claudia I'd known since I was six, and I never realised they were in love with each other.

After Karen and I had got over our shock and sense of rejection (neither of us is gay but I think we both felt a little like we'd been orphaned) we decided that we didn't want to leave the great house (and even better rent) we'd secured. So we set about searching for two new flatmates. It was a bad time to be looking, just as uni ended the year before last, when most people were either well entrenched in their current accommodation or looking to leave and get jobs. So when Ben and Daniel called up, we nearly fell over ourselves to sign them up. Karen was a bit iffy about Ben being an engineering student (I think maybe law students have something against the engineering faculty in general), but they were both really nice, and despite being a couple of years younger than us both, there was no-one else even half-decent around so we didn't really have a choice.

They've both re-emerged from their bedrooms, and are heading out the door.

"Bye," Daniel calls.

"Don't wait up," Ben adds, cheekily.

That small, seemingly insignificant comment makes me think that the difference between the two of them, and the reason why Ben will probably always be happy in life, but Daniel might struggle, is confidence. Ben's the type of guy who would barge into a shop, charm the salesgirl and get a discount on whatever he was buying without giving it, or the girl, a second thought. Whereas Daniel wouldn't think of haggling, would really want the girl's number, but would be too shy to ask.

But the real problem is, Daniel hasn't realised this yet.

 

eight

 

Wow. I've never seen this many people in a suburban backyard before. There must be at least three or four hundred under the big top, although big top doesn't really do justice to the truly colossal structure, the massive expanse of fabric, which hovers over their heads. Then there's the tables, heaped impossibly high with food, and the besuited waiters scuttling around with more on trays. Then I look up and notice the decorations. He must have spent hundreds, if not thousands, on them alone, all the streamers and baubles and fairy lights. It's like a birthday, a wedding and Christmas all rolled into one.

As me and Ben stand there, gobsmacked, people stream past us. And it's only 10 o'clock. The trendies, the social lateness crowd, haven't even turned up yet.

"I didn't know Eugene's last name was Gatsby," I say to Ben.

He doesn't get it. "Let's mingle, shall we?"

This is our slang for assessing the potential of the various females in a room. Clearly, tonight this will be a mammoth task. "Maybe we should split up," I suggest.

Ben agrees, and our paths diverge. But I've barely begun my work when I'm accosted by a familiar face.

"Daniel!" he cries, from a considerable distance. "Remember me?"

How could I forget. Johnny Bugge, former class clown, who it seems hasn't changed. "It's the Bugman!" he offers, unnecessarily. "How have you been?"

"Good," I reply. Why waste breath? But he defeats me by simply standing there with an expectant grin on his face until I am forced to add "...and yourself?"

"Great, really good. I spent a fair bit of time after school ended just bumming around Queensland, fruit picking, that sort of thing. Did a Tafe course in Brisbane, but I decided it wasn't for me. So I'm back here, you know, my parents have given me one last chance. And get this, I've enrolled at the uni. So I guess you and me will be seeing a lot more of each other."

I hope my voice doesn't betray my lack of enthusiasm. "I'm really happy for you."

"So what's uni like? I hear there's some really smart chicks there..."

It's ten minutes before I can escape, during which time the conversation descends to such a level that I can actually feel brain cells committing hari kiri. Finally breaking free, I look across the seas of heads and notice that Ben has already struck up a conversation with someone. Judging by her body language, she is not disinterested in him, and when, a moment later, she turns her head slightly, I am unsurprised to see that it's Caroline. I guess he had a head start there, but this still means I have some catching up to do.

I saunter up to a couple of girls who are chatting near one of the larger poles. The wine glasses they're both clutching are a good sign; God bless alcohol as a social lubricant.

"Eugene's really thrown a great party, hasn't he?" is my opening gambit. Pretty lame, I know, but Eugene is the most obvious thing we have in common. Hopefully I can work from there.

"I suppose it's not too bad," the blonde one replies, as the brunette studies the roof of the tent.

"Yeah, he's a pretty good bloke, old Eugene."

"We wouldn't know. We're only here because our boyfriends are in his economics course."

I should have known from their dresses that they were out of my league. Anyone wearing a $500 Gucci gown to a 21st is obviously going to treat a lowly arts student like dirt. I quickly conjure up a superfluous excuse to be somewhere else. Superfluous because, as far as they were concerned, I was never there in the first place.

I decide to retreat to the bar in a tripartite attempt to fully exploit Eugene's hospitality, restore my fragile confidence and survey the room in order to choose my next target a little more wisely. When I finally get there, after fighting through swarms of people to rival those in any nightclub, my admiration for Eugene grows. There are at least eight bar staff working, so everyone gets what they want and gets it quickly. I take my schooner and lean against one of the supports of the giant tent poles to survey the scene.

There are a lot of familiar faces, but not as many as I'd thought there would be. I count about ten old mates, a couple of ex-girlfriends, and a few other people I know in various ways. Just as nostalgia had almost overwhelmed by baser instincts, and I was about to go over and chat with a group of old schoolmates, a beautiful woman wanders through my line of vision and distracts me. As she is alone, and seems to be sauntering around without any real destination in mind, I decide to intercept her path. Let's hope this foray is more successful.

Unfortunately, I don't get off to a very promising start. Just as my direct route has almost intersected with her more circuitous one, she veers off to the left, increasing her pace as she does so. But I'm not going to be deterred that easily. Guessing that she must have seen someone else she wanted to avoid (I was pretty sure I'd never met her before, and besides, I'm not that ugly) I continue my pursuit.

I finally catch her near the other edge of the tent. "In a hurry to be somewhere?" I ask, in what I thought was a pleasant tone.

"Please, I thought I made things pretty clear at the Crown that night," she replies wearily.

"That night? What night? I think you must have me confused with someone else. My name's Daniel; we've never met."

"Very funny. What kind of a jerk are you, anyway, stalking me across the room like this?"

Just as I am about to abandon charm for open hostility, I notice a tattoo through the lace sleeves of her dress. In the shape of a dolphin. Suddenly, all my memories of that night are unlocked and dance around my mind, taunting me like schoolchildren. even though Michelle has been quite discreet about all this, I can't help the feeling that every pair of eyes is on me, and with a mumbled "I'm sorry" I turn away, shamed, humiliated, and ready to vent myself on another, more deserving victim.

I find him on the back verandah of Eugene's mansion. He's leaning over the balcony, Caroline next to him. The intervening time has not calmed my mood at all, and I march straight up to him.

"You prick," I say. "I didn't pass out at all; at least, not until you'd already stabbed me in the back. What kind of friend are you?"

"Hey, steady on mate," he says. "What are you talking about?"

Trust Ben to play dumb. It's not much of a stretch for him. "What do you think I'm talking about? I just ran into Michelle, and surprise, surprise, a few blurry old memories suddenly came into focus."

Ben says nothing. After a pause, Caroline says "Who's Michelle?" and, since I'm feeling particularly malicious, I reply, "Just a girl Ben stole from me the other night."

This gets a response. "Hey, it wasn't like that alright-"

"Yes, it was. It was exactly like that. Remember, she fell over, I helped her up and was talking to her for ages at our table. Then you got back from the bar and came over all charming. And then, this is the best part, I went to the bar to get drinks for the two of you, but when I got back, you weren't there. There I was, stuck with two schooners and a bourbon and coke, and that was the beginning of the end."

"It wasn't like that, mate," Ben repeats quietly.

"It was a lot more like that than the load of bullshit you tried to sell me when I first remembered Michelle." I've got him, and he knows it. He's won't look at me, and Caroline has let go of his arm.

"You just told me your womanising days were over," she says.

"Yeah, he's good at that. Telling you what you want to hear." I'm building up to my climactic exit now. "And you couldn't even go to her house. No, you had to bring her to my house and have sex with her in the next room. You let her stay for dinner for Christ's sake. Some friend," I finish, and turn to leave.

"Do you really want to know what happened?" Ben yells at my back. I turn.

"It'd be nice to hear the truth from you for a change."

"Okay, then. You want to know, so I'll tell you. I take no responsibility for this. What really happened was, she was bored shitless listening to you. She was just about to leave before I got there. And as soon as you went back to the bar, she suggested to me that we get the hell out of there before you got back." In each sentence he emphasises the critical words with such passionate venom that I know it must be true. "Yeah, that's right. And do you think I wanted to bring her home? She lives with her parents, Daniel. And she didn't get up until just before dinner. Is this is what I get for trying to protect my friend?"

"A real friend wouldn't have left me," I reply meekly.

"Ah, fuck off," he counters, and I do.

 

nine

 

God, they've been going on like children for days now. "Karen, would you tell Ben that his car is blocking me in." "Tell dickhead to move it himself." That sort of rubbish. Sasha might be used to it because she's got two younger brothers. But I'm not, and I've had just about enough of it.

I don't care if Ben did steal Daniel's girl. And I especially don't care that by confronting Ben about it, Daniel ruined any chance Ben had of getting back with his fucking high school sweetheart. They shouldn't be treating women like possessions. I've heard the stupid, pointless story several times now, from both sides, and as far as I'm concerned they deserve everything they get.

But of course, it's not them who's suffering. Oh no, that would be too fair. Instead, me and Sasha have to put up with living in a house where every second word is an insult. That's when they're speaking to each other, of course. Usually there's just a hostile silence. The females in the house are reduced to children whose parents are constantly bickering, futilely hoping that they'll make up and things will go back to normal. Which I suppose is an ironic consequence of their infantile behaviour.

Men!

 

ten

 

It's been two weeks since Eugene's party. Not much has happened in the meantime. I quit my job (I hope I've got enough stashed away to last me most of the year) and uni's started up again. It's going alright, I suppose. The end is in sight now, this being my last year and all, but I was thinking about this the other day and I'm not sure I've really learnt anything in the whole time I've been there. I mean, English and Sociology are both interesting, but I'm not sure where an Arts degree will take me in the real world.

I'd thought third year might be a bit harder, but I've already settled back into my comfortable groove of reading a novel a week and writing my standard English essays where only the names of the characters change. Sociology is even worse, I simply spew out a mixture of the few texts I've bothered to read that doesn't even make sense to me and quietly collect my credits and passes (I only picked it as a major because the tutorial discussions are usually amusing. Especially when a political conservative, through some cosmic mistake, somehow finds themselves doing a sociology course. Seeing them beaten into submission by the radicals and quelled into left-wing orthodoxy is as compelling as any car crash). And if I hear the word 'post modern' one more time I think my head will explode.

Haven't been out much. In fact I haven't been out out at all. The only times I've left the house is to go to uni, the shops, and to the mechanic to see about the rattle in my car. The old Camira's showing her age a bit, but I knew a guy there and he did a patch-up job for $50.

And Ben? I guess nothing much has changed there. After the first few days of open hostility things have settled down a bit. We're still not really talking though. But the thing is, it hasn't been as hard on me as you'd think. Me and Ben have been friends for a long time, we go way back to primary school (although we weren't that close then) and he's always just been there. We hung around together at high school, then when the group broke up and we were the only two who stayed in town to go to uni, the friendship stuck. When he rang me up, over a year ago now, telling me that he couldn't stand living at home any more, I didn't really give it a second thought. I'd been feeling the walls closing in at my house as well, and Ben seemed as good a bloke as anyone to live with.

And, until now, that's been that. We still have our own independent circles of friends, who we keep in contact with to varying degrees, but it's Ben I sit around on Sunday afternoons and watch the footy with, Ben who always backs me up in the perennial toilet-seat debate with the girls, and Ben who I've gone into town with on Saturday nights.

That is, until now.

He still went out last Saturday, alone, avoiding my eyes as he walked out the door. It made me feel miserable, of course, but then after a few minutes Sash came out and started telling me about her day and before I know it I'm out in the kitchen playing Trivial Pursuit with her, Karen and Carl, having the time of my life. I didn't even think about Ben again until I was reading in bed, and heard him arrive home.

At ten-thirty.

 

I'm sitting in the uni cafeteria on a Tuesday, eating my lunch alone (my sociology friends prefer to get lentil burgers from the Veganmobile), when I hear a vaguely familiar voice.

"Daniel buddy!" calls Johnny Bugge. "Howya going?" He slides into the seat next to me, uninvited and certainly unwelcome. "Listen," he continues, leaning well into my personal space. "I want you to meet a friend of mine. Daniel, this is Mullet. Mullet, Daniel."

It's not hard to see how he got his name. His black hair is cut into some strange fusion of the Ramones and 70s-era Bowie. As I offer my hand and a hello, he merely grunts. Judging by his clothes (flannelette features prominently, above blue jeans), and the smell emanating from him, he is no stranger to the world of reefers and bongs.

Johnny nudges me. "He's a IT student, they're kind of socially retarded. So how've you been?"

"Good," is my standard reply.

"Really? 'Cos you know, I heard off Blacky that you and Ben were havin' a bit of a blue."

"News travels fast."

"So it's true? I thought you two were inseparable."

"Yeah well, things change."

With a sense of tact that I would have thought was beyond him, Johnny senses my discomfort and at least tries to change the subject. "The Bugman sympathises, man. And have I got the perfect antidote for your domestic blues. The Universal is on Thursday. You know, the orientation party for the first years. It'll be a blast! My first one as an actual student of the university."

"I hope you enjoy it."

"No, man, you gotta come. It's the highlight of the social calendar. The Purple Sneakers are playing, with the Eton Rifles as support. It'll be a kickarse, first class, booze, babes and bands bonanza. Five bucks to get in and cheap piss to boot."

They must really have caught me at a weak moment because it's starting to sound enticing. The Purple Sneakers have been my favourite Australian band for some time, and I think my body is starting to go into social drinking withdrawal. I could do with better company (really, I'd probably be hard pressed to find a worse pair of drinking companions), but it's really tempting.

"But the best bit is, there's a beach party theme."

Bingo. Any resistance evaporates. Hundreds of nubile young things dancing around in bikini tops is bait too tempting to resist. "Sounds pretty good, actually."

His wretched little face lights up. "Yeah? Excellent. Me and Mullet plan on getting there about eight, tank up before the crowds arrive, eh?" He gives me a friendly nudge with his elbow, which is going just too far.

"I'll probably get there about nine. Now get out of here, before I change my mind."

He doesn't even have the pride to be insulted. "Come on, Mullet, let's go." He slaps me on the back and Mullet awkwardly nods goodbye, leaving me to my chips, gravy, and peace.

 

eleven

 

I see he's going out.

Good. I couldn't care less.

He can go to hell for all I care.

Sad prick.

 

It is Thursday night though.

I might call up Glenn an' that, head down the Commercial.

There's fuck all to do here.

Not going to that stupid thing at the uni though.

Yeah, the Commercial, that'll be good.

I'll go ring Glenn now.

(THIS ENDS THE FIRST PART OF THE WORK)


The Movement of a Body over Earth

by Donna Mazza

 

Higher still and higher

From the earth thou springest

Like a cloud of fire;

To A Skylark P.B. Shelley

 

 

 

David was a mover. The family marvelled at his baby steps and he soon stretched his leg over the seat of a

green plastic tractor and began to pedal. He loved the shuddering he felt through his feet and lips and belly

when he pedalled his tractor down the gravel driveway. He rose and fell and gasped and thrilled at the

speeds he could reach and he wanted more. He was in love with movement.

 

David's Grandmother had a Holden which she had painted apple green with a brush. He and his sister

would pull the black brush hairs from the paintwork. He loved to trace his finger across the chrome letters

on the side of the car. They said "Special". The springs in the seats were soft and he knew the pattern of

bumps on the road into town. David would laugh when the car bounced up and down, the seats would

creak and he would squeal with delight.

 

When he was eight years old, David was bouncing and moving on a brand new purple bike with black

rubber grips on the handles and bright yellow suspension springs. He was free to move and travel and he

began to explore.

 

His life became a journey marked by tracks and monuments. The river track led to sunken fishing boats

and a colourful wreck with a porthole, which he dreamed of raising to the surface. When the tide was low, the ribs of a

long boat poked from the grey river bed. David waited for those days and he would stand beneath the paper bark trees

and imagine sailing away for daysin the beautiful slime covered boat.

 

The dirt track was a thrilling ride of curves and bumps and hollows. Smooth paths of dry mud twisting

through a swamp at the end of the street. David's purple bike flicked back the overhanging branches of

paper bark from the track. Yellow springs compressed and expanded. He was a coloured blur of velocity.

 

The tracks which led deep into the bush were the most inspiring of David's early journeys. Fellow

wanderers had marked the place with the refuse of movement. Austin, Ford, rusting shells of Morris,

chrome names and badges, gears he could change, steering wheels he could turn and soar up into

daydream clouds. He collected and pretended. Bits and pieces filled his room, his mind, his cubby house.

He loved the shells. If he closed his eyes, he could hear them whispering.

 

His father had a motor bike when he was seventeen. He said it was a BSA and he didn't have a licence. He

told David of the day his bike caught fire in front of his parents' house. Petrol pops and burns. He and his

four brothers dug a hole around the burning bike and buried it right there in the front yard. David saw this

in his mind, over and over. The roaring motor and the flames and smoke suffocating in the sand, buried

alive. David wanted to dig out the relic so badly. He dreamed at night of restoration.

 

When he was fourteen, he sat in the back seat of his father's blue Ford Fairlane and fixed his finder-eyes

out the window. One day, he spotted the peach coloured curves of a vintage fender poking from the

corrugated walls of Mr Leach's shed. His heart raced. The Fairlane reversed with a high pitched whine,

clunked over the cattle grate and down the gravel driveway.

 

The corrugated shed was an epitaph to mechanical movement. A baby blue Austin Healey Sprite had a hole

through the black vinyl cover. There was a smell of old grease and a rusty tractor. The beautiful Bentley

with gas lamps and shiny paintwork was fully restored.

 

" Its a Ford Ten. 1947. Made just after the war. There's another one for parts if

you want it. Been there for years. I'll probably never get around to it. Want to fix up the

Austin Healey. Six hundred for the both of them. You can borrow the car trailer.

 

David's face shone a light brighter than the gleam off the Bentley's chrome. He thrilled at the thought of

having greasy black fingernails and a shining vintage car like Mr Leach.

 

David's peach coloured Ford was still. It rested in his Grandmother's shed and he worked. He loved its

curves and its chrome. It smelt of mustiness and old grease and he did too as he worked. He dismantled the

old car right down to its skeleton. He stripped all the peach paint and he rust-proofed the metal.

 

He spent weekends and days after school and had visits from his friends and his brother who would help

and chat and look in awe at the relic in the shed. His sister would bring lunch and the dog and they would

picnic in the car and talk about his plans for restoration and one day when he would drive his Ford in a

vintage car rally. He dreamed and he worked. His fingernails were always black.

 

David desired movement and the Ford was still. He had worked for months on restoration and enthusiasm

turned to restlessness, squirming in his belly. He wanted to drive.

 

The Ford Ten was heavy. It was old steel, made to endure. It took the combined strength of his parents, his

grandmother, his brother and sister and next-door neighbour to push the old Ford out of the garage and

up the rise of the lawn into the sun. His father still puffed from the exertion while he connected the jumper

leads, red to red, black to black. The Ford would draw the electricity from his blue Fairlane.

 

David sat in the driver's seat with his sister and her dog beside him and his brother in the back. The key

was turned on and he pressed the red start button. Metal scraped, things rumbled and turned. David's feet

pumped on the accelerator, clamped on the brake. It tried, the old red button sprang back and forth. So

many years of stillness and seizure. He could feel vibrations of movement in the floorpan. It was a thrill,

buzzing inside him. He pressed his thumb to the red start button again and it struggled, trying to turn over.

The Ford had rested so long. Smoke rose, he could taste petrol fumes and finally there was a roar and he

knew he could move. He revved the engine, the red and black leads were disconnected.

 

David's face shone with gladness and the old Ford lurched forward and rumbled around the clothes hoist.

He stopped and clunked into reverse, whirring backward on the lawn. He was moving but he wanted more.

 

The family loaded the Ford Ten onto Leach's car trailer and towed it back up to his farm. David was so

excited. He sat proudly behind the wheel and took off up the gravel road. The thing rattled and drifted all

over the place, and it was so slow. It just never moved with the smooth grace of his imagination. That's

when he lost interest.

 

His dream of restoration had caught him up and trapped him in the shed. David's dream became a spider

spinning sticky webs around him. It tried to wrap him up, keep him in one place. It demanded stillness,

completion, focus on the details. David didn't want its limitations. The world inside his mind was growing

wider. He longed for the freedom of movement.

 

He scraped the greasy blackness from under his fingernails. He packed all his tools into a red box and left

his Ford Ten to be cocooned by webs.

 

Far away dreams have charmed him. He dreams of journeys and new places. They comfort like a to and

fro lullaby, vibrating through his body as he moves across the earth.

 

Some days David rocks in the berth of a ship. Feels the rushing breeze of the Underground. Climbs

narrow stairs, twists up to stony ramparts. Hears a roaring gush of waterfall interiors, feet slipping on,

gripping green rocks. Sings into zebra eyes. Feels the rise and fall of turbulence 18,000 feet above a blue

glacier. Runs, spread-eagled, in the face of Atlantic gales. Almost flying, feet above the ground in the wind

on the edge of a pale cliff. He soars with the romance of movement. And singing still dost soar, and

soaring ever singest.

 

 

 

 

A Face Around the Edges

by Donna Mazza

 

Jean was seventeen and she loved spring. She could wear her rosy dresses with short sleeves and ride her

bike. She loved to go to the pictures, it would lift her up on wings of dreaming. Sometimes she would rise

right out of her seat and float with her cheek pressed up against Nelson Eddy's on the screen. Her favourite

film was "Maytime" where he sang buds of romance in the warm sun. Jean would dream of love at the

pictures and sing with Nelson while she rode her bike in Australia.

 

Florence was pregnant in spring and she withered. Her husband was away on military service and she

needed lots of care so her sister's daughter Jean would visit and sometimes stay for a few days. Jean would

sing Nelson down the road to her Aunt's house and sit with tea watching daffodils, snowdrops, soldier boys

popping through the dark earth. The baby was due in May time, which was spring in Hollywood.

 

In May time Aunty Florence had a fragile boy. Jean would watch his little lips move on the teat of the bottle

and rock him side to side. She loved the little thing and she would sing Nelson Eddy in the sun while she

pushed his pram down the street and he grew before her eyes. His blonde hair would shine and Jean would

talk to him and eventually he talked to Jean. She would ride on her bike in her war-time shoes every day to

see her boy Jack.

 

Jean was engaged to a man on an invisible horse and when she was with Jack, she would turn her ring

around to the flat side and practise being married and his mother. When she was with the man, she wore

the diamond side and he was her hero. Little Jack was two when Jean got married in a blue dress and went

to live with the man and his horse.

 

One day her Aunty came to visit with the boy. They played all day in the sun. He smiled to feel the calves

wrap their rough tongues round his hand and try to swallow him whole. He giggled and sat on the back of

the big draught horse which stood like stone, munching. Jean's dog Pete followed them all day and little

Jack squealed and played and felt a warm chicken egg in his palm and they were happy. Then shadows

stretched and they went to the station and he cried and called and Jean rode away waving and sniffing tears

all the way home.

 

Time continued passing and Jean's belly swelled. Outside her farmhouse, she watched the windmill spin

shadows on her soldier boys. Jean had a blonde baby girl in spring and she said she didn't see Jack for

years.

 

In 1938, an Italian psychiatrist applied a pair of tongs used to stun hogs before slaughter to the temples of

a man and shocked him out of a delirious state in which he spoke only gibberish.

 

"For years", she said and when she met the handsome young man with the blonde hair he spoke of Morris

and Austin and Holden and had tall friends. It was 1959. In the City, he sold cars to people who looked

back at him and did not understand and he felt anguish. There were so many things in life he thought he

could never be and the dreams of never-be began to eat out tunnels in his heart and brain. He longed to lie

in the long grass and feel the sun on his arms and feet and let calves swallow his fingers with their rough

tongues, so he went to visit.

 

Patients may appear outraged or shocked after receiving the treatment.

 

Sometimes he came to visit with his tall friends and they would walk into the hills with their guns and shoot

rabbits. Jack would carry the dead rabbits back to the house. The gunshot echoes called to him in the

never-be tunnels of his mind. They just wouldn't go away, they went on and on with maddening repetition.

His father said he would never-be. Never-be strong and powerful. Never-be clever. Never-be a man. The

gunshots would mingle with the critics and the persecutors who lived in the walls of the tunnels. They would

taunt him, telling him lies that he believed and destroying all hopes he had that he may ever be.

 

"You used to think I was special when I was little, didn't you Jean?"

 

"I used to pretend you were my baby and I was very sad when I left you, then I had my own baby."

 

"You are so lucky Jean."

 

"One day you will have children of your own to love, Jack."

 

They stood on the verandah in the dim light of the house. The sky was huge in the summer and night

seemed endless warmth. They stood silent in the worlds of their own anguish trying hard to appreciate the

night's tranquility.

 

At 17, rock star Lou Reed was given shock treatments designed to "cure" his homosexuality at a New York

state mental hospital.

 

The next time she saw him, he looked mad. She was a little frightened of the man who was the boy she

loved. His eyes were strange, spinning and not there. She knew he had been to the asylum but she never

knew that they stuffed a white rag in his mouth so he wouldn't bite off his tongue. She never knew how many

volts jolted through his body. He didn't stay in the hospital for long, but he went back again many times.

They would strap him down onto the bed and the Doctor would turn the dials and lights appeared on the

machine. The needle on the meter would rise and he would jerk around and his face would turn red and

twist unrecognisably. He felt as if his brain was bursting open like a bulb. Maybe he would be a soldier boy

when they split him apart.

 

They claim that it temporarily lifts depression by causing transient personality changes similar to those

seen in head injury patients: euphoria, confusion and memory loss.

 

She never saw him again, but she heard some stories and others were secrets that the doctors wrote in his

file and his parents whispered. The never-be tunnels in Jack's brain were filled with sparks and light. The

light was blinding. It hurt. He felt confused. The electrodes were clamped to his head but not to his heart

and the darkness was getting wider inside him.

 

Anecdotal evidence suggests that confusion and memory loss after treatment may even precipitate suicide in

some people.

 

He was 22. People thought he was crazy and he began to believe them. He lost hope. The light in his brain

was scrambling things. He could feel darkness creeping up inside. He paid all his bills, wrote all the

cheques. He sent his mother some flowers for Mother's Day and wrote a cheque for them too.

 

In July 1961, Ernest Hemingway shot himself just days after being released from the Mayo Clinic, where he

received more than twenty shock treatments.

 

She got the telegram in May time in 1962. He shot himself. She said he put the gun in his mouth and blew

off the top of his head. His father found him in the shed. His mother was sick in bed when he did it and she

heard the shot in the night and she felt it in her heart and it echoed there forever. Jean sang Nelson Eddy to

herself and made a pot of tea.

 


 

The Blue Dress

by Laurel Lamperd

 

 

Marlene first noticed the woman because of the blue dress. It was the same as the one she wore. The woman even wore a pearl choker like hers.

She didn't feel worried at seeing another woman in the same dress. In fact, she was pleased someone had liked it enough to wear it. Charles didn't like it. He didn't like any of her clothes. He said she would have to acquire a better dress sense now he was a politician.

She glanced around for Charles and saw him talking to a tall blond woman. How handsome Charles was. He was forty-five and had a figure of a man of thirty.

She and Charles had married after her father died and left her a fortune. Her aunt said Charles was marrying her for her money. `A man of thirty has to have a reason to marry a forty-six year old woman. `

Upset, she told Charles.

He said it was rubbish. `The sooner you away from your relations, the better. They're the ones who want your money. `

`Who was the blond woman you were talking to? ` Marlene asked Charles as they drove home from the reception.

`Which woman? I spoke to quite a few tonight. `

She ignored his sarcasm. `The tall blonde you were speaking to by the door leading to the terrace. ` She didn't tell him she'd seen them go out to the terrace. Charles would accuse her of spying.

`I can't remember her name. ` He proceeded to tell her what she had done wrong that evening. The tirade lasted until they arrived home. She was glad they had separate bedrooms and she could escape from his criticisms.

The woman, who had worn the blue dress, was at all the functions Marlene went to with Charles. She seemed to guess what Marlene would wear and wore a similar dress. Tonight she wore a brown dress with yellow flowers, a replica of the one Marlene wore.

The tall blonde was at most of the functions too.

Marlene asked Barbara Clarke, the hostess, who she was.

Barbara looked embarrassed. `That's Amanda Liddell, the fashion designer. `

The woman in the yellow flowered dress, smiled from across the room. Marlene knew what that smile meant. Your husband and Amanda Liddell are having an affair.

Marlene's head throbbed. `I have a dreadful headache. Will you phone for a taxi so I can go home, please, Barbara? `

Barbara looked concerned. `Shall I get Charles? `

Marlene glanced at Charles who was still in conversation with Amanda Liddell. `No, I won't bother him.

Reaching home, Marlene went into the living room and poured herself a brandy from the bottle Charles had left out. She stood by the fire, warming herself by the few coals left in the grate.

The woman sat in the corner of the room. Marlene noticed she had a glass in her hand too. The skirt of the brown dress with the yellow flowers, fell in folds about the woman's legs. Marlene thought it didn't look as pretty as it had in the shop. She thought it looked like curtain material.

Charles had said that. He had shouted as they were leaving. `What are you wearing that dress for? It looks like curtain material. `

She had wept. `I'll change it. `

`We haven't time. `

She had scurried to the car ahead of him like a frightened rabbit.

She poured herself another drink and felt a glow in the pit of her stomach. She ignored the woman in the corner of the room.

She didn't get up the next morning until after Charles had left. The bottle of brandy stood empty on the small table beside the bed. She had brought the bottle up here so Charles wouldn't see it. She didn't usually drink so much. She went downstairs and made a cup of tea and swallowed two aspirin.

She was halfway through the tea when she saw the note Charles had left propped up on the table.

`I'm going away for the weekend on business, ` he wrote. `Will you pack a bag for me. `

The woman sat at the end of the table. `He's going away with that fashion designer. `

`I could have told you that, ` Marlene said. `I heard him make the reservations yesterday. `

`What are you going to do? `

`What can I do? I'm not the first wife whose husband is having an affair with a younger woman.

`He's going to leave you for that hussy. She wants to be a cabinet minister's wife. `

`Charles isn't a cabinet minister. `

`He will be. He has the personality to be one. He'll bring in the women's votes for the party. He could end up prime minister. `

`It won't be good for his political image if he leaves me. `

`That will soon blow over. A talented young woman is an asset to a cabinet minister. An old hag like you is bad news. `

`I'm not that old. `

`Come off it, Marlene. You're sixty-one next month. That's old against a glamorous thirty year old. `

Tears welled in Marlene's eyes and ran down her cheeks.

The woman went on drinking tea.

Marlene rested her head on her arms. It wasn't fair. It was her money, which had put Charles through law school and helped him get elected. Now he wanted to dump her for some upstart who wouldn't have looked twice at him when he was a truck driver.

`You should get rid of Charles, ` the woman said.

`That's what he wants me to do. `

`I mean get rid of him permanently. `

`What do you mean? `

`Buy some rat poison and put it in his coffee. You could give a star performance at the funeral. The prime minister will be there. You'd be on TV. `

`I don't want to be on TV. `

`You're going to be one way or another. The journalists will soon get wind of Charles' affair with Amanda Liddell. `

`I'll go away so they won't find me. ` She would go to the weatherboard cottage in the hills, which she had inherited from her aunt.

She packed Charles' bag and left before he was due home.

It was blowing wind and sleet. The woman sat beside her.

Marlene was twenty kilometres from home when she realized she hadn't brought her jewelry box.

`What a fool you are forgetting that, ` the woman said.

`Why didn't you remind me? ` Marlene screamed as she turned the car around. She narrowly avoided hitting an oncoming vehicle.

`Look out, ` the woman yelled. `Drive carefully, ` she added as Marlene put her foot down on the accelerator.

The lights in the living room were on when she and the woman arrived home. `I can't go in. Charles is still there. `

`Sneak in the back way. He won't know you've been. `

Marlene managed to reach her bedroom and pick up the heavy wooden jewelry box from its hidden place. As she reached the top of the stairs, Charles came out of the living room.

`I thought you'd gone, ` he said. `I heard a noise and thought there were burglars in the house. `

`I came back to get my jewelry box. `

He started up the stairs. `Why do you want your jewelry? `

`I like to have it with me. `

`Just take the pieces you need. `

`He wants to give your jewelry to his lady love, ` the woman whispered.

`Shut up. `

`What did you say? ` Charles said as he reached her.

`Nothing. ` Marlene was glad the woman was out of sight from Charles. She held the box tightly.

`You should leave your jewelry home. It's worth a lot of money. `

She clutched the box tighter.

`You've been acting strangely lately, Marlene. `

`He'll say you're mad next, ` the woman whispered.

Marlene glared at her.

`Give me the box? ` Charles demanded. He reached to take it from her.

In frustration, she threw it at him. It struck him on the head and knocked him off balance and sent him tumbling down the stairs. He lay in a heap at the bottom.

`You've done it now, ` the woman said. `He looks like he's dead. `

`No, he can't be. `

It was a few minutes before Marlene could gather courage to see if Charles was dead. He was still breathing.

`Hit him on the head with the jewelry box, ` the woman said. `If he lives, he'll have you put away. `

Marlene picked up the wooden box and bashed Charles on the head a few times.

`He looks dead now, ` the woman said.

He did look dead, Marlene thought. To get away from Charles' body, she went into the living room and stood by the fire.

`What are you going to do with the jewelry box? ` the woman asked.

Marlene stared at the box.

`Throw it on the fire, ` the woman said. `They say get rid of the murder weapon. You'll have to do something about Charles, too. You'll have to phone for an ambulance. `

`I'll leave and pretend I didn't know anything about it. `

`They'll know you came back. You left the car out the front of the house. Someone will have seen it. `

`What about the jewelry? `

`Leave it where it is. They'll think you arrived home and interrupted the killer. `

Marlene placed the box on the centre of the coals in the grate. She avoided looking at Charles' body as she went into the hall to telephone.

 

It was a hive of activity after that. Ambulance officers coming and going, the police arriving, asking questions.

Marlene sat by the fire and told them how she had discovered Charles' body at the bottom of the stairs.

`It looks like the killer battered the victim to death with the jewelry box, ` she heard one of the

detectives say. `If we could find the box, we'd get his fingerprints. `

Marlene glanced at the fire. It had made a nice little fire with the dry wood of the jewelry box.

One of the detectives brought in a few pieces of wood. `This will keep you warm, ` he said as he placed them on top of the coals. `I'll get someone to make you a cup of tea. `

Marlene nearly asked for two. She thought the woman would like one as well but the woman seemed to get what she wanted herself.

There, she was right. The woman was sipping tea and smiling, yes, actually smiling at her.#

 

 

Lancashire Legacy

by Anna Jacobs, published by Hodder & Stoughton UK

Hardback October 2001, paperback March 2001

 

PROLOGUE

 

January 1876: Western Australia

 

The man they called Fiery Dan took his time, slipping quietly through the

West Australian bush, taking great care to avoid any cleared land or farms,

always heading south. He was used to his own company and did not feel the

need to hurry. This job must be done right because if he completed it

successfully, he would have the thing he craved most, the only thing he

craved now&emdash;enough money to return to England.

The damned Government had brought him out here when he was little more than

a lad, had ill-treated him in almost every way known to man&emdash;yet he had

survived, served his sentence, learning to live quietly beneath their yoke.

Eventually they had set him free, certain he had been taught his lesson.

The shadow of a smile twitched at the corners of his mouth. Oh, yes, he'd

been taught his lesson well and had not cared that some of his teachers had

darker skins than his own, had only cared for what they could show him: the

ways of this new land, especially the uses of fire. Fire had brought him out

here, rick burning to be precise, and fire would get him home again to

England. And in the meantime, fire had been his revenge&emdash;as two of his former

tormentors had found out.

When he had been offered this job, he had sailed round the coast to Western

Australia on the same ship as his employer. He had watched the family and

seen the bitterness on Mrs Docherty's face. She had not wanted to come here

to Perth, poor shrew. And though Mr Docherty spoke of revenge, Dan reckoned

it was only habit, something to talk about. If he had really wanted to hurt

his enemies, Docherty wouldn't have waited this long. Dan hadn't.

He turned off towards the small settlement they called Brookley, travelling

openly and stopping at the inn there to order a glass of ale. Good ale, it

was, too. He sipped it slowly, listening and watching, then ate with

appreciation the hearty meal the innkeeper's wife brought him. She had been

gentry once, he could tell. Wasn't gentry any more, though, for her hands

were reddened and worn with work. It pleased him greatly to have a lady like

her waiting on his needs. Serve the bitch right for coming to this

god-forsaken land! But he spoke to her pleasantly, drank only moderately,

then went on his way armed with the knowledge he needed.

He waited for three days in the whispering shadows of the forest before he

acted. The homestead was built of wood, dry old wood that had stood in the

sun for years slowly turning silver-grey. If sparks started flying, it'd

catch fire easily and burn beautifully, with the bright colours and great

crackling noises Dan loved so much.

How comfortably they all lived there! Why should these folk have so much and

he so little? Well, that was going to change. He didn't know what they had

done to offend his employer, didn't really care. All he cared about was the

money he was to be paid.

He woke before dawn, eager to finish his task. As summer heat beat around

him, teasing sweat from his scrawny body, he sipped sparingly from the

lukewarm water left in the tin canteen, hoping the sea breeze would blow

strongly enough today. Bloody breezes! Fickle as women, they were. All over

you one minute and gone the next.

Mid-morning he sat up, nose raised to sniff like a questing hound. The air

was stirring. Was that a hint of salt in it? Yes, yes! A feral grin

stretched his features briefly then faded, leaving the sullen mask with

which he habitually faced the world.

The breeze began to gust more strongly, bringing cooler air from the sea,

making the gum leaves whisper and rustle. This breeze often blew on hot

summer afternoons, bringing the relief of cooler air after the searing heat

of the morning. It would be his tool today.

Rising purposefully he hurried towards the place he had chosen. There he set

his first fire and lit it with one of his carefully protected safety

matches. The wind whipped the smoke inland and a bush just beyond the tiny

pile of dried grass and twigs caught fire, then a small gum tree which

turned within minutes into a flaming torch. From there the fire spread

quickly to other trees.

And still the wind blew, so strongly that there was no need for him to light

other fires. As the blaze grew fiercer, clumps of burning leaves broke off

here and there, floating through the air as the wind, the beautiful wind,

bore them eastwards.

He laughed aloud, the sound hidden by the crackling of the flames which were

roaring their pleasure as they fed from the eucalyptus oil in the leaves. He

could not have stopped the fire now if he had wanted. No one could. Let it

burn! Let the whole damned country burn as far as he was concerned!

He hoped the fire would ruin those smug rich people, wished he could ruin

the man who was paying him as well, a man who had started off poor like him

and then made a fortune out here in Australia. Who was Docherty to order

folk around as if they were dirt?

Rotten cheating devils, the lot of them! But this fire would get Dan back to

Lancashire before he died. That was all he cared about now.

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

January 1876

 

Cathie stood in the shadow of a big gum tree near the lake and stared across

at her mother and step-father, who were standing on the long veranda of

Lizabrook homestead. She felt a sharp pang of jealousy at how close they

always seemed, how much they still loved one another. At eighteen, she was

of an age to want a man of her own, but since she and her family lived in

the depths of the Australian bush, she wasn't likely to find one. She wanted

other things, too, and if she'd been a man she'd have found a way to become

a doctor. She'd been patching up her brothers, sisters, and all the family

pets since she had developed an interest in the workings of living bodies at

the age of nine.

But women weren't allowed to become doctors. It sometimes seemed to her

women weren't allowed to do anything but marry and have babies and do

endless housework and washing.

Feeling even more restless than usual she walked a few paces further on,

taking care to keep out of sight. She stared down at the grave of her real

father. Would things have been different if Josiah Ludlam had lived? She

didn't really know because her mother rarely spoke of him, but Cathie

doubted it.

Picking up some twigs and gum nuts, she began to vent her frustration by

hurling them into the water. She had to find a way to escape from here or

she would go mad with frustration. Even the lake wasn't a real lake, she

thought scornfully, but a band of shallow water lying beside a half-cleared

swamp. It could look really pretty if her step-father ever found the time to

clear the rest of the swamp, but he was always too busy. All he cared about

was that the half-dug lake gave them enough water to last through the long,

hot summers. They weren't gentry to need fancy gardens for parading round

in. Her real father had been gentry, though, and her mother had once said

that the lake had been his idea.

"In another of your black moods?" a voice teased and she turned to smile at

Brendan, her childhood playmate.

He smiled back, his teeth showing white against his dark skin. He was very

like his mother's people, as if his body refused to acknowledge the part

played in his creation by his Irish father, though his next brother's skin

was much paler than his.

"Don't you ever get tired of living here at Lizabrook?" Cathie demanded.

His smile faded. "You know I do. But at least I'm treated like a human being

here. The minute I leave the homestead people treat me like an animal&emdash;and a

worthless one at that&emdash;because of this." He jabbed at his skin.

She reached out to squeeze his arm. They were both misfits, but it was even

harder for him. Maybe that was what drew them together. She was closer to

him than to her half-brothers. Glancing over her shoulder to make sure they

were out of sight of the homestead, she took off her shoes and rolled down

her stockings. "Let's have a paddle. It's so hot today."

"Aren't you supposed to be helping your mother?"

Cathie shrugged. "The housework will still be there when I get back." It

always was. Boring, dreary work, the same day after day.

***

Liza Caine stood on the verandah and leaned against her husband, enjoying

both the feel of his arm around her shoulders and the sea breeze which had

just begun to blow, bringing some welcome cooler air. Smoke was drifting

across from the big external kitchen where Dinny was baking bread and

roasting meat, for everyone at the homestead took the main meal of the day

together. If you listened carefully you could hear Dinny singing one of the

little aboriginal songs that went with the various daily tasks. Her friend

seemed to have a song for everything.

Liza and Benedict often stood here together for a few moments before the

midday meal, chatting quietly of this and that. She and her third husband

had been happy together for thirteen years now, but with five young folk

about the place it was sometimes difficult for them to find time alone.

Their two younger children, Josie and Harry, were still in the schoolroom

with Frau Hebel. Finding the money for a governess was a strain, but they

weren't close enough to a school for daily attendance and both of them

wanted their children to be decently educated, so when a friend had told

them about Ilse and said she wanted to find a position in the country, they

had appointed her simply on the friend's recommendation, and had not

regretted it.

>From the far side of the house came the sound of Dinny's husband, Fergal,

whistling happily as he worked in the small furniture manufactory in which

he and Benedict were partners and which supplemented their farm income.

Sadly, this had not done as well as they hoped because there simply weren't

enough people with spare money in the colony of Western Australia to sell

to, even though the pieces were beautifully crafted and embellished with

Benedict's skilled carving. And some people were such snobs they were

certain colonial goods must be inferior and therefore only wanted furniture

which had been brought out from the mother country. The same people

continued to talk about England as "home", but Liza didn't feel like that.

Western Australia was her home now.

Across the beige, sun-burned grass of the paddock two figures came into

view, arms waving as they paused to argue about something.

"That's where Cathie's got to, is it?" Liza muttered, frowning across at her

elder daughter. "I told her to give the parlour a good bottoming today. Just

wait till she gets within reach of my tongue! And wasn't Brendan supposed to

be working in the vegetable garden, Benedict?"

"He was indeed. He'll never make a farm worker, that one. But he's Fergal

and Dinny's problem, not ours. I only pay him day rates now for the times he

actually works." Benedict glanced down at his wife's troubled face, thinking

as he often did that she looked too young and pretty to have grown-up

children. "I'm getting worried about Cathie. Be honest, love. She's been

causing you a lot of trouble lately, hasn't she?"

Liza sighed. On good days her daughter was energetic and lively, making

everyone around her feel happy&emdash;but the good days were getting fewer and she

had taken to slipping away instead of helping about the house, spending

hours tramping through the woods like a truant child. If these outings had

made Cathie happy, Liza would have been more tolerant of them, but lately

nothing seemed to please her daughter. "I don't know what to do with her,

that's for sure," she admitted.

"It's about time I had a word with that young madam." Benedict silenced his

wife's protest with a kiss. "She claims she's a woman grown, but she

certainly doesn't act like it."

Liza hesitated for a moment then said quietly, "She needs to meet people,

see new things and I don't think she'll settle down otherwise. And a lass of

her age needs to meet young men, too."

Benedict made a soft exasperated sound. "She's too young to be thinking of

marriage."

"I was carrying a child by the time I was her age," Liza pointed out.

"Not by your own choice!" he snapped.

Liza closed her eyes as his words brought back the memories of just why she

had come to Australia. Her father had wanted her to marry their neighbour, a

widower of thirty-five, and when she had refused Teddy Marshall had raped

her, to make sure she would have to marry him. Only she hadn't. She'd run

away to Australia instead, sailing with her former employers, the Pringles,

as their maid.

On board ship she'd discovered she was pregnant and then Josiah Ludlam had

married her, wanting the child more than he wanted her, for he'd never

touched her as a wife. And that child had been Cathie. Was it any wonder

that with a father like Teddy Marshall Cathie wasn't an easy girl to manage?

And yet she was a warm, loving girl, the first to rush and help you in times

of trouble.

Liza realised Benedict has asked her something. "Sorry, my mind was

wandering."

"I was saying we can't afford to send Cathie back to England for a visit,

let alone spare someone to go with her."

"We could if we sold some of the jewellery." She had inherited some pretty

pieces from her first husband and they must be worth something.

"We can manage without touching that, thank you. I can't leave the farm and

I don't want to lose my wife for a whole year, thank you very much, and the

other children need you just as much as Cathie does, especially Josie."

"We could send her back on her own."

"And where would she stay when she got there? I've not heard from my

brothers in England since my parents died."

She knew that hurt him. Losing touch with your family was common out here,

though. "You've got your sister here. You see her and her family sometimes."

"Once a year, if I'm lucky." Benedict stared blindly out across the lake.

After a moment's silence Liza resumed the discussion. "Cathie keeps asking

about the Ludlams lately. Do you think we should tell her the truth about

who her real father is? She wants to know why her father's family never try

to contact her and yesterday she threatened to write to them. Well, she

knows I keep in touch with Sophia Ludlam."

He made an angry growling sound in his throat. "Eh, that wouldn't do. Mrs

Ludlam's no connection of Cathie's, for all the lass bears their name. I

think we're going to have to tell her the truth. We can't go on like this,

love."

"Perhaps we should make up some tale&emdash;say it was a stranger who attacked me

and left me pregnant? If she ever met her real father, it'd break her

heart." Liza shuddered. You never forgot it when a man raped you, as Teddy

Marshall had done when she was eighteen. And the older Cathie grew, the more

she resembled the Marshalls, for she was a tall, sturdy girl with a strong

temper and a stubborn determination to get what she wanted from life&emdash;though

she could be kind, too, and had a way with children and sick people that was

nothing short of miraculous. Her younger brothers and sisters adored her, as

did Dinny and Fergal's children.

Fortunately, in Cathie the strong Marshall features had softened and she had

her mother's thick dark hair, not their sparse beige-brown locks. Liza had

told her many a time that she would be pretty if she would only stop

frowning at the world, but Cathie considered herself too tall and solidly

built, complaining that no man would ever love a great lump like her.

"It was a lot easier when they were younger," Benedict muttered. "Now there'

s Lucas saying he wants to see a bit of the world before he settles down,

though at least he wants to see the rest of Australia, not go back to

England."

"It's easier for a young man to travel and anyway, he's not so angry at the

world as she is. Lucas is very sensible. His mother would have been very

proud of him, I'm sure, if she'd lived."

He looked down at Liza indulgently and could not resist planting a kiss on

her rosy cheek. "We have a confusion of children between us, don't we, my

love? One of mine, one of yours, and three of ours."

"And another of mine whom I never see." Her voice broke as she said that,

for her son Francis had been taken away from her by her second husband's

family and had grown up in England. His loss was an abiding sadness.

Benedict gave her another hug and said bracingly, "They're a fine healthy

brood, thank God, except for Josie&emdash;and even she's been better this year."

Liza hesitated, wondering whether to tell him she might be expecting another

child, but decided against it. It was too early yet to be sure and she'd had

false alarms before. Besides this had taken her by surprise, and she was not

yet used to the idea of becoming a mother again.

***

Cathie and Brendan strolled by the edge of the lake for a while longer, both

reluctant to return home and face a scolding.

Suddenly he sniffed the air. "I can smell burning. The kitchen roof hasn't

caught fire again, has it?"

They both swung round and saw the blue-grey smoke rising behind the house.

"Hell, that's a bush fire&emdash;and the wind's blowing it in this direction!"

Brendan was starting to run towards the house even as he spoke.

Cathie raced after him, her skirts flapping about her legs and her boots

pounding the ground, the untied laces whipping from side to side.

Bush fires were the thing everyone feared most in summer. They could destroy

your life in an hour.

***

At almost the same moment, Benedict also stopped talking in mid-sentence to

sniff the air, rush round the veranda and stare at the woods behind the

house. "Oh my god! Liza, that's a big one! Let's hope our fire breaks will

keep it back."

Even as he spoke, the sea breeze seemed to grow stronger and they heard the

dreaded roaring and crackling sounds of a fire gone on the rampage.

He ran to ring the emergency bell that would summon everyone on the farm.

Even before he had let go of the rope he saw Brendan and Cathie running

towards him and other people coming out of the various outbuildings. They

all knew what to do, because Benedict made them practise at the start of

every summer. So far the cleared land had protected them, but this fire had

a strong sea breeze behind it and was gaining ground fast.

Under the governess's supervision Josie and Harry rushed to gather some

treasured possessions and clothes, stuffing them into the sacks kept in

their bedrooms for that purpose. Liza did the same for herself and Benedict,

then left Ilse to shepherd her charges down to the lake. Benedict had

deliberately left a small spit of land jutting out into the water when he

dug out the original swamp, because like all settlers he knew the dangers of

bush fires.

Dinny's two youngest children were already rushing along the edge of the

lake to join them, carrying some of their own family's possessions.

Liza dumped the box containing the family's main valuables on the ground by

the water's edge and cast a quick glance at the sky behind the house,

horrified to see how quickly the fire was spreading. A dark haze of smoke

blurred the skyline now and below it flames were shooting high, racing along

the ground and leaping from tree-top to tree-top as well. If only the breeze

would drop! She decided to bring out a few more things, just in case.

"Josie, you stay here and keep an eye on the little ones. You two boys go

back to the houses and grab whatever clothes and blankets you can. Anything

useful. But keep an eye on the fire."

Josie nodded, her thin face even paler than usual. With her tendency to

wheeze, it was no use her trying to do things in a hurry. Harry, who was

almost as big as she was though nearly three years younger, was already

rushing back towards the house.

A chain of people formed to swing buckets of water up from the lake while

Benedict dumped their contents on the wooden shingles of the roof, for the

rainwater barrels were empty at this time of year. Liza was torn between

saving possessions from the house and joining the others. Benedict shouted,

"Get out what you can&emdash;just in case. Ilse, you help her! Brendan, get the

animals out and shepherd them towards the water."

By the time Liza made her second journey clutching a bulging blanket, the

flames had jumped the fire breaks and were racing across the tinder-dry

grass towards the farm. She heard those passing buckets utter a groan of

disappointment, but they kept on working.

Within minutes one of the outbuildings had caught fire. Liza paused to stare

at it with tears in her eyes, then followed Ilse determinedly back into the

house.

When Fergal and Seth moved towards the blazing building, Benedict yelled,

"Leave it to burn! Brendan, go with your father and see what you can rescue

from the workshop. But be careful!" There was glue inside, which would fuel

the fire, and piles of sawn wood were set out nearby to season. He didn't

feel optimistic about their chances of saving much of that if this wind kept

blowing so strongly, but perhaps some of the finished pieces of furniture

and tools might be carried to safety.

They held the fire at bay for over an hour, breaking line at Benedict's

orders to beat out smaller fires in the straw-like grass of summer. Fergal

and his son managed to carry out the finished furniture and expensive tools

from the workshop, stacking them on the little spit of land where the

children were installed with a jumble of possessions. Even there they had a

job and were doing it, keeping watch with buckets of water standing ready to

tip over anything which caught light from the sparks whirling everywhere.

By now smoke had turned the sunny day into a false twilight and people were

choking and coughing as they toiled frantically.

When the far end of the workshop suddenly burst into flames, Benedict

groaned aloud and Liza sobbed. She knew how hard he had worked to develop

the small furniture making business so that they would not be totally at the

mercy of the weather and the farm yield.

The whole workshop was soon burning fiercely, adding black and acrid smoke

to the grey woodsmoke. Cathie ripped up a sheet, soaking the pieces in the

lake and bringing them to people to tie across their mouths, for hot air

burned harshly in the throat. Faces lost their identity as they became

smoke-blackened and there were just the buckets, heavy with water, tugging

at your shoulders one after another.

As the fire approached the homestead itself, Liza went to join the line of

those passing buckets. She found herself working side by side with her

daughter and marvelled at Cathie's strength, for her own arms were aching

and heavy. When she dropped a whole bucketful, she moved out of the line,

panting, knowing she had to take a break for a moment or two.

Dinny and Fergal's house was closer to the fire. It seemed to catch light

all of a sudden and be engulfed in flames within minutes. Liza saw Dinny

stand still for a moment, rigid with pain, then move back into line with her

lips pressed tightly together. Her heart ached for her friend, ached for

them all.

Before she could move into the bucket line again, Benedict came and tugged

her arm, saying hoarsely, "It's no use, love. Our house has caught fire at

the other side. We'll move out what bigger furniture we can from this end,

then we must retreat to the lake and leave it to burn."

Liza stared at him blankly for a moment before the meaning of his words sank

in. She saw the anguish in his eyes and knew it was mirrored in her own,

then he turned to Cathie and said, "Take your mother to safety, love! She's

exhausted." Even before he had finished speaking, he had turned to check

that everyone else was all right, counting heads with a sooty finger, then

leading the way towards the house.

Liza shook her head at her daughter, who was pulling her towards the water,

and drove back the tears and momentary weakness with anger. "I'm all right.

I'm going to help carry things out." She moved towards the house before

anyone could try to stop her.

People staggered past, carrying whatever came to hand from the smoke-filled

interior, dumping their burdens near the water and then running back inside.

But after only a few journeys, the heat from the blazing end of the house

was so intense, and the smoke inside so thick that Benedict shouted to them

to stop and take refuge near the water. He counted heads again and nodded in

relief to find all accounted for. Neither he nor Liza would ever forget that

her first husband had been killed by a falling beam in another house fire.

Liza wept openly as she stood there watching everything they had worked so

hard for being devoured by the flames, which seemed to shoot through the

blackness of the smoke as if to mock the watchers with their searing power.

As Cathie put an arm round her, Liza noticed paler stripes down her daughter

's smoke-blackened face and it took her a moment to realise they were tears.

She felt exhausted now, so leaned on the strong young arm, standing in the

middle of a silent group of people.

Moving like an old man, Benedict came to join them. He nodded to Cathie,

"You've done well, lass." Then he bent his head to kiss Liza's dirty cheek,

"I'll build you a new home, love. I promise."

She forced back the tears. "We'll build it together."

Then they could only hold on to each other and watch their home burn to the

ground. Ilse stood beside Josie, shocked to the core by what had happened,

for she too had lost many of her possessions.

By sheer chance the fire only went round the southern part of the lake, for

to the north the cleared farm land interrupted its mad race till&emdash;too late to

help the Caines&emdash;the sea breeze dropped. The swampy ground to the south had

also slowed the flames' rampage down, but by then all the buildings that had

made up Lizabrook Homestead were reduced to ashes.

Lucas was the only member of the family missing and they were worried he

might have got caught by the fire on his way home from Mandurah. There was

no way to tell, no way to move through the burnt land till the layers of ash

had cooled down.

"Lucas is a sensible chap. He'll be all right," Benedict said, as much to

reassure himself as Liza.

As night fell people slept on what they could, staying near the lake for

safety. Benedict and Fergal took it in turns to keep watch, just in case a

stray spark set the northern side of the lake afire.

The following morning Dinny and Brendan went to check the land which she and

her son knew better than anyone. She might not have been born here, she

might have Irish as well as aboriginal blood, but she had put strong roots

down and considered this her place now&emdash;and was equally sure it had accepted

her, as had the aboriginal tribe whose land it was.

They found that the main fire had burned out, though the ground was still

hot in patches and the occasional tree trunk was still smouldering. Everyone

at Lizabrook Homestead gathered to work out what to do and they were a

solemn group, conscious of how very much they had lost. There was a grimness

to Benedict's face that had not been there before.

Liza felt numb and disoriented. Once she looked at the governess and saw

Ilse staring into the distance, tears welling in her eyes. "It's a harsh

land," she said softly.

"I hadn't realised how quickly it could happen," Ilse admitted.

"How much did you manage to save?"

"Most of my clothes and my books. Also the photographs of my family."

"That's something, then."

Benedict announced, "We can start rebuilding almost immediately, if we can

get some sawn timber from Mandurah. We'll make mud bricks this time for the

walls. They don't burn as easily. The new house will have to be smaller at

first, I'm afraid." He looked at the governess. "I hope you'll still stay

with us, Ilse."

"Of course I will. And I'll help in any way I can as we rebuild."

So Liza had to hug her, then she and the governess set to work moving the

pieces of furniture that had been saved to the shade of the few trees left

standing in irregular groups near the water and covering the better pieces

with what blankets and sacking remained.

"We'd just stocked up the provision shed with sacks of flour," Liza mourned

as she worked with Dinny to take stock of the food that had been saved. "Now

it's all wasted.

"Do you not have fir insurance?" Ilse asked.

Liza shook her head blindly. "No. They don't insure places like this. You

just&emdash;look after yourselves." Then she went back to work.

Benedict's oldest son, Lucas, appeared mid-morning from the direction of

Mandurah, followed a short time later by some of their neighbours from

Brookley. Liza burst into tears of sheer relief that Lucas was still alive,

for he was as dear to her as her own children.

Cathie who had been watching her mother and worrying about how strained she

looked, made her sit down on one of the chairs they'd saved.

"I'm sorry," Liza gulped. "It's just&emdash;I'm having another child and I always

get t-tearful&emdash;"

Benedict overheard her and came striding across to kneel beside her and

cradle her in his arms. "What a way to tell us!" He turned to gaze at the

blackened ruin of the home he had built with his own hands, adding quietly,

"And anyway, who does not want to weep today?"

***

Fifty miles away in Perth, Christina Docherty paced up and down the veranda

of the house they had rented, waiting for her husband to return from a

meeting in town. Her sons started shouting at one another nearby and she

stopped for a moment to frown in their direction, then shrugged and left the

governess to settle the fight.

When she saw Dermott striding back up the street, she jumped off the veranda

and rushed to greet him, careless of her dignity. "You've been gone for

ages!" she complained, linking her arm in his. "Did that man turn up?"

"Yes." He grinned. "I'm sorry to tell you my sister's farm was burnt out by

a bush fire."

"Good. Maybe now we can sort out our own lives. I'm fed up of living in this

hovel." She had never understood his stupid obsession with getting revenge

on his sister. To her mind, what had happened had been an accident and Niall

Docherty was a lout who deserved all he got. She had only met him once, when

he came to her mother's inn, but that had been enough to take his measure.

Dermott had always followed his brother's lead. The two of them had come to

Australia, hoping to get money out of their sister's rich husband, and Niall

had been about to rape Dinny when Liza shot him, as far as Christina could

make out. Serve him right. She'd shoot someone who tried to rape her, too.

But of course she didn't say that to her husband, who still idolised his

brother's memory.

Dermott put his arm round her. "Well, we'll be moving soon, though not back

to England. I thought we'd spend some time at that farm I bought cheaply in

Melbourne. It's closer than I'd realised to my dear sister's homestead." He

frowned. What if he'd burned his own property along with hers?

She looked at him in horror. "Dermott Docherty, have you run mad? I thought

you were just going to sell that place! You don't know the first thing about

farming and I certainly don't want to live in the country, least of all here

in Western Australia. I married you to escape all that!" She had been

horrified when her father forced the Pringle family to emigrate to

Australia. Her mother had made the best of it, but then Dorothy Pringle had

always made the best of things throughout her unhappy marriage. Christina

despised her for that. As for her father, he had lost all their money with

his stupid schemes. No wonder she'd run away with Dermott.

"Well, I hadn't realised it was just down the road from Lizabrook. I swore

when Niall died that I'd make my sister pay and&emdash;"

"She has paid! She's lost her home. Surely that's enough?" Even though Kitty

had hated Liza, who had made all the eligible men fall for her, she didn't

wish her any more ill than that.

He scowled at her. "Might be enough. Might not. Anyway it won't hurt for me

an' Matthieu to live fairly quietly for a year or two, and I fancy trying

the life of a country gentleman. I can always sell the place later."

She moved away from him, close to tears. When he set his mind on something

he was bull-headed about it and she'd learned to fear his sudden whims. "We'

re living quietly enough here in Perth, Dermott. I can't believe how small

this place still is and how backward compared to Melbourne. I don't call

this a capital city! And the Australian countryside isn't like England."

"We'll do things my way, Christina!"

"Well, I don't see why we have to stick with Matthieu Correntin. We don't

need him any more. We've enough money now to live like gentry in England."

There was an edge of steel in his voice as Dermott answered, "A bit more

never hurts. I want to be really rich when we eventually go back to England

and Matthieu's both clever and useful." If Dermott had heeded his partner's

advice he'd never have had to leave Melbourne, something he regretted as

much as his wife after spending a few weeks in a backwater like Perth&emdash;though

he wasn't going to give her the satisfaction of telling her so.

Realising they were standing in the middle of the street arguing and that a

neighbour was approaching, he muttered, "Say hello to Mrs Fenton. She may be

short of money, but she's still got some useful connections."

Christina took a deep breath and turned to smile at their neighbour, who was

taking the air dressed in her widow's black. "And how are you today, Mrs

Fenton?"

"I'm well, thank you." Agnes started to move on.

Dermott said quickly, "Perhaps you'd like to join us for a cup of tea and

hear our news, Mrs F? We've just bought ourselves a farm."

"Another time, perhaps, Mr Docherty. It's a year since my husband died and I

'm off to town to buy something a little lighter than unrelieved black. In

fact," Agnes looked down and grimaced, "I don't think I'm even going into

half-mourning. I've had enough of dark colours." With an inclination of her

head, she walked briskly on.

As she passed a shop window, Agnes glanced at her own reflection with

approval. She might be approaching fifty, but she had retained her figure

and her health was still good.

Catching sight of a friend in the distance she hurried along the street,

eager to chat. She was so bored with living alone! And with being a widow.

What she needed was a man, both to support her and to share her bed. She had

debated going back to England, but she did not fancy living on her

son-in-law's charity or even that of her son in Sydney. Besides, she'd have

more chance of finding another husband here in Australia than in England

because women were still in short supply&emdash;though this time she'd be a bit

more careful. Her late husband had been a spendthrift and latterly a

drunkard as well.

But she needed to find someone before what was left of her money ran out.

***

In Lancashire Magnus Hamilton went to see the doctor after tea on the Friday

evening to talk about his mother, whose behaviour was growing increasingly

strange and who had recently taken to wandering the house at night,

disturbing everyone's sleep.

Clifford Barnes, an earnest man in his late forties with a reputation for

caring about all his patients whether they were rich or poor, showed Magnus

into his consulting room, looked at the younger man sympathetically and

gestured to him to sit down. He eased himself into his big comfortable chair

behind the ornate mahogany desk, hesitated for a moment then said what he

had to say bluntly because he knew of no way to soften this type of bad

news, "I'm afraid your mother is suffering from softening of the brain,

which has led to a degeneration of the mental faculties. It&emdash;um, happens to

some older folk." He sighed and added, "Regrettably, there is nothing

medical science can do to help."

Magnus stared down at the dark red carpet with its pattern of squares and

lozenges, struggling to come to terms with this, his thoughts fragmenting

and twisting away from the dreadful news. He had often wished he could

afford a carpet as soft as this for his mother's swollen, aching feet to

tread on. He had wished to do all sorts of things for her, because Janey

Hamilton had been a good mother to them all, but although he earned an

adequate living as foreman in the workshop of Ludlam's cotton mill, he had

little put by. Since his father's death when he was eighteen years old, he

had had to support his three brothers, sister and mother, so there had never

been enough coming in for luxuries like fancy carpets.

He was foolish to indulge in dreams! You'd think he'd have grown out of that

by now. He'd grown out of just about everything else&emdash;his own plans for

finding a wife and having children, his desire to better himself, his love

of learning. He had enough on his plate just surviving at the moment.

He looked down at his long legs, remembering the way he had grown out of his

clothes so quickly in the years of his youth, until he reached his present

height of six feet four inches. That had given them an extra expense, for it

cost more to find clothing that would cover his tall, spare frame decently.

You couldn't buy things from the second-hand clothes shop, but had to have

them made specially. His mother had gone without new clothes for years in

order that he be decently clad for work. He'd known that and been unable to

do anything about it, for it was his wages that kept them all.

When Dr Barnes cleared his throat, Magnus realised he'd been lost in his

thoughts and squared his shoulders to ask, "What's going to happen to her,

then? I mean&emdash;what can we expect?"

"I'm sorry to have to tell you that she'll grow more and more vague and will

gradually lose the ability to care for herself. She'll have to be looked

after like a helpless baby in the end. And that may happen quite quickly or

slowly. One can never predict."

"Oh, God!" For a few moments, Magnus buried his face in his hands and fought

against his emotions.

"I can arrange for her to be taken into the Benevolent Home. They treat the

poor creatures in their care pretty decently, I promise you, not like the

old days. We're more enlightened about such things nowadays." And the Ben

was no longer dependent on the Ludlam family's grudging charity. The days of

men, even millowners, acting as if they owned a town and its inhabitants

body and soul were past.

"I'd never put her in there!" Magnus didn't even have to consider it. His

mother hated the Ben and had always tried to avoid even walking past it. The

poor inmates who were not violent sat outside in the sun on fine days, their

faces usually blank, and there was always the sound of the ones who were

really bad from inside, moaning and screaming, especially when the moon was

full. He would not confine his mother to a place like that for her final

days, however sad her mental state. "We'll continue to care for her at home,

thank you, doctor. We'll manage somehow."

Dr Barnes nodded. A decent fellow, Magnus Hamilton. Scottish originally, but

the family had lived here in Pendleworth for many years. He always had a

fancy that Magnus must have Viking blood in his ancestry, he was such a

giant of a man, with that bright red-gold hair. A woman would make the most

of such hair, but Magnus cropped it as short as was decent and shaved his

face too, as if he didn't want to be bothered with his appearance, though

most men were wearing at least a moustache these days, if not a full beard.

The doctor let silence hang between them for a few seconds longer, then said

simply, "As you choose, Magnus. But the offer will always be open. People

with your mother's affliction can be very difficult to care for towards the

end."

Magnus walked slowly home feeling sick to his soul. He hadn't needed a

doctor to tell him something was dreadfully wrong. They'd been hiding his

mother's vagaries for a year or two now and his sister Mairi had had to give

up her job at the Emporium to care for her, though she had loved serving the

customers and seeing half the town pass through the big haberdashery and

fabrics shop. It was Mairi who had insisted on calling in the doctor, saying

she'd never forgive herself if they didn't try everything they could.

When he got home Magnus could hardly bear to look at his mother, who was

sitting rocking quietly in front of the fire while his sister set the table,

her expression grim.

"She's been bad again today," Mairi said abruptly. Her mother had pulled the

tablecloth off, though luckily there had not been much on it, and had then

cast it aside to begin moving her hand backwards and forwards over the wood

as if she were sandpapering it. When Mairi had tried to stop her, knowing

that she would rub until her hand was raw, Janey had thrown a temper tantrum

that had left them both exhausted. Sometimes Mairi felt she could not bear

another day like this.

"Where's Hamish?" Magnus did not want to tell his news twice.

"Out at the Working Men's Institute." Mairi hesitated, then added, "Someone'

s giving a talk about Australia."

The words burst out before he could stop them. "Not him as well!"

She shrugged. Not for her to fight her younger brother's battles. If Hamish

was determined to emigrate, nothing she said would make any difference. It

hadn't when their other brothers set their minds on Canada. "What did the

doctor say about Mum?"

Hamish glanced towards the rocking figure. "I'll tell you later."

"She doesn't understand what we're talking about now, you know."

"She does sometimes so I'd rather wait. I don't want to upset her."

"Then I'll tell you my news instead." Mairi took a deep breath. "Magnus,

Elwyn Bebb at chapel has&emdash;well, he's asked me to walk out with him."

"And you want to?"

She nodded vigorously. "Aye. I do."

"Then I'm glad for you." But he could not prevent himself from feeling

envious, though he tried not to show it. After all, Mairi was twenty-six,

some might have said a confirmed spinster, and she was needed at

home&emdash;desperately. If she married, how would he look after his mother? Well,

time to worry about that when it happened. Mairi deserved some happiness. It

had been hard for her these past two years. "I am glad for you." He went

over and gave her a cracking great hug.

Afterwards she held him at arm's length and studied his face. "Why don't you

find yourself a lassie, Magnus?"

He shook his head, his eyes going to his mother. "What have I to offer

anyone now but hard work? It's getting you down and she's your mother. How

could we ask a stranger to live like this?"

Mairi leaned against him for a moment. "You're a wonderful brother, Magnus,

and a caring son. You'd make a good father." She glanced up, seeing that

grim expression return to his face. He seemed to have forgotten how to smile

lately. She could remember him a few years ago, before their mother had

started to grow vague and forgetful. How lively he had been then, in spite

of the hard work! Always the one to lead a sing-song with his clear baritone

voice. Going down to the Institute to hear a lecture on anything and

everything, so eager was he for knowledge. And now? Now he spent his time

mainly at home in the evenings. Oh, he still borrowed books from the library

and still tramped across the moors occasionally on fine Sundays, something

that he had always loved doing, but he was a quieter, sadder man.

First their brother Athol, always the adventurous one, had left the country

and gone across the sea to Canada, then his twin, Dougal, had followed him,

unable to live without his brother, though the two of them had parted in

anger.

With each departure Magnus had grown a little quieter. Now, Hamish was

talking of Australia and she&emdash;she had fallen in love with a plump little man

with a heart of gold, whose kindness shone out of his face, and she was

hoping desperately that he loved her, too. Elwyn had asked her out walking,

talked of going to the lantern show at church the following week, smiled at

her warmly whenever they met and lingered to chat to her. Surely . . .

She shook away those thoughts. "I'll make you a cup of tea, shall I?"

Raising her voice, she added more loudly, "Mother? Would you like a cup of

tea as well?"

Once their mother would have jumped up and insisted on making it herself,

now she just stared at them blankly as if she didn't understand the

question. It was heartrending to see the changes in her.

Mairi looked at Magnus, her eyes brimming with tears and saw that his eyes

were over-bright, too.

 

 

 

 

 

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Tapenade - a recipe for delight

Peter Mayle in his Provence books refers to tapenade as, "the butter of Provence," and describes it as glistening dully but invitingly in saucers and pots. It has an affinity with wine and seems not to spoil the palate. It is very tasty, and taken with a crusty loaf and a bottle or two of good wine, should be extremely efficacious in easing a stricken scribbler out of writers block. It may be spread on biscuits, pita bread, toast or scones.

There are many recipes about, with some including complex items, like first catching your anchovies or handy tips on how to shake olives out of the tree,but I offer this very simple recipe based on one said to have been introduced to the Vivian family by Sir Feckles Vivian, who got it and a nasty rash from a Provencale kitchen maid. It has been adapted with an eye to the shelves of Woolworths.

Ingredients:

1 350gm jar of Black Mountain pitted olives

2 tins (of 45gm) of John West or about 80gm other anchovies

1/3 of a 150gm jar of capers. (It is possible to make your own with nasturtium seeds)

2 teaspoons of whole grain or Dijon mustard

juice of half a lemon or half the juice of a lemon or certainly a tablespoonful or thereabouts of lemon juice.

1/2 cup good olive oil, or thereabouts.

Method:

Drain the olives and capers and mash or blend the ingredients together. I prefer to stop short of a paste and use a stab blender for coarse blending.

It should all spoon back into the olive jar, to be topped up with oil. Don't be tempted to overdo the lemon and the mustard as they can dominate and spoil the flavour.

Purists may prefer to whittle whole olives, pickle their own capers, catch and salt their own anchovies, but I prefer the Woolworths method and simplicity.

 

 

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