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The Wave by Astra Warren

Twist In The Tale by Astra Warren

The Bus by Jill Baggett

Colours Together by Rosanne Dingli

Drowning by Sheryl Persson

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Short Stories

 

The Wave

by Astra Warren

 

Neil has asked me to write this before we leave, for anyone who

comes here after us; so that you who read it will know who we were

and where we went. A sense of history made us bury it at the foot of

a post with a metal plaque nailed to it, in the same way as the first

discoverers of what used to be called Western Australia.

 

I write looking out at our walls for the last time. They are not

very high - we can just see over to where the towering eucalypts

loom against the light filtering through the overcast - but they are

high enough to keep out the dogs; the walls, that is, and the double

row of sharpened stakes driven diagonally into the foundations on

the outside. Any dog attempting to leap over has always ended up

impaled until the rest of the pack pulled down the carcass.

 

It is five years now since The Wave. In that year, my first as a

School of the Air teacher at Kalgoorlie, I had been eagerly

anticipating my twenty-first birthday party at the York Hotel. It was

my choice of venue. I loved that old hotel, with its cupolas crowning

the facade and floor length mirrors at the curve of a magnificent

carved staircase. Dad, a widower, was a mine manager and could afford

to indulge my whims. The occasion was to be as much a public relations

exercise as my party. Everybody who was anybody in the Goldfields was

on the invitation list.

 

But The Wave changed all that.

 

We knew, of course, about the increase in volcanic activity

around the Pacific rim and in the Indonesian islands. Every news and

current affairs programme, as well as newspapers and magazines, had

roped in a scientist or seismologist to expound on what was happening

to our earth.

 

Theories proliferated until they became tedious. Most people switched

off, or adjourned to the kitchen to crack another beer until the

soapies came on.

 

Later we guessed that The Wave had been caused by a

really big upheaval, or even several simultaneously.

 

It arrived in Kalgoorlie without warning, almost peacefully. At

four o'clock on a bright Spring afternoon, children were into their

after-school activities, mothers shopping, the mines on their change

of shift, many people out and about in the cool of late afternoon.

 

Rising out of the Bight came an enormous surge of water. Like a

dam breaking, except that this had the wind and weight of oceans

behind it, it rose over the coastal cliffs, inundated the Nullarbor,

and washed eastwards and westwards through the scattered settlements

until it lost momentum against the inland plateau of Australia.

 

In fifteen minutes, water was up to the second storeys in

Kalgoorlie. Some people drowned immediately, trapped in buildings or

vehicles, but many floated on the rolling mass, struggling to the

surface. There was no smashing surge, and most buildings remained

intact.

 

What really did the damage was the savage undertow when The Wave

rushed back into its oceanic trough.

 

As the water spent its force, it had seemed to hover, to hesitate,

then sucked backwards with a ferocity that collapsed buildings and

hurtled bodies along like matchsticks, scouring the surface and

filling holes and hollows with the detritus it carried in its depths

like a liquid glacier.

 

I had stayed late at the School of the Air, working on lessons

for the next day's transmission. Poking my head into the radio room,

I waved goodbye to Neil, our principal, who was still on air to a

remote station.

 

I was crossing the dusty carpark when a rush of air made me glance up.

Stunned, I saw the curling, dust-frothed edge of a wall of water twice

as high as a house. Almost instinctively I dived into it and flailed

upwards. As I surfaced gasping, the only things showing were the tops

of tailings dumps and, unbelievably, the School's

wireless mast. I grabbed it as the water carried me past, hanging on as

the water settled and grew calm.

 

There had been a mullock dump just to the north of our buildings. Many

times I had looked out of my window, hating that ugly black

excrescence, never dreaming it would save my life. As

the water began its savage retreat, the heap deflected the rip to each

side of the flimsy buildings we were housed in. The dump slowly

collapsed and was washed away, but it had served its purpose. As the

water subsided, I floated down the mast hand over hand until I was

sitting on the flat roof of the radio room, shocked and shivering.

 

How long I sat, stunned by what had happened, I have

no idea. Water was still waist deep when I became aware of a wading

figure and a desperate voice.

 

"Sue. Answer me. Sue. It's me, Neil. Pull yourself together."

 

Hair and clothes plastered to his lanky frame, he shouted at me.

 

Slowly comprehending, I shuffled to the edge of the roof and hung

down from the guttering while he supported my drop to the ground. He

was as shocked as I was, but in command of himself.

 

"I can't believe it. After you left, I went outside for a quick

smoke. The water just picked me up and threw me onto

the dump. I scrabbled in under the crest and escaped the backwash.

I saw you on the mast and hoped you would have the sense to float

down."

 

"Neil." My voice shook. "What was it? What happened?"

 

"This was it, Sue. The big one. The tsunami. The inevitability

we've all been trying to ignore."

 

We stared at each other. My mind began to race, questions tumbling.

How many escaped? My dad - dear God, he had been underground. Neil's

wife and family? The children? The town? The stations? How far had it

spread?

 

"I can't cope Neil." My voice quavered like an old woman.

 

"What do we do? Dad - he was underground..."

 

The schoolmaster surfaced and took charge.

 

"What to do? Well, it'll be dark in a couple of hours. And cold. Our

chances of finding anything or anywhere dry are zero. See what

we can salvage, then I'm going. To look for Annie and my kids. We'll

dry off walking."

 

I went with him, of course. In the fading light we sloshed through the

mud and water, feeling for bitumen underfoot,otherwise we would not

have known where the roads were.

 

Kalgoorlie had been swept off the map. The locations of a few of

the older solid stone structures were recognizable by corner stones

or buttresses protruding like broken teeth. The ghost town image had

come to Kal. We came to a place where bitumen went off to right and

left. Standing at what had been the main Roe Street intersection, we

gazed, stupefied with horror, at total desolation. The very flatness

of the area had contributed to its destruction. Nothing had impeded

the surge and ebb of the water.

 

In desperation, Neil quickened his pace, not caring whether I

followed. I sat on a splintered tree stump in exhausted reaction as

his figure receded. I might have dozed off, or even passed out.

Eventually I became aware that he was back, standing choked and bowed

in faint moonlight.

 

"Nothing," he whispered. "Nothing. The house, the street, the whole

suburb. There's a few tree stumps. Everything's gone. Gone.."

 

I took his arm to make him move, and we retraced our steps to the

battered school. Despite gaping holes, it was a shelter. At last,

huddled together for warmth, we dozed in exhaustion, waiting for

daylight, taking refuge from a terrible reality.

 

I cannot speak of the next nightmare days. My mind still recoils

from the beating it took as I struggled to come to grips with an

empty world. Neil reasoned that if anything were left, it would be

equipment round the mine sites, too heavy to be washed away, or debris

caught under the levelled dumps. So every day we went off in

a new direction, taking the loud hailer used at so

many happy camp sports days. Although we sent its hollow voice echoing into the

silences, only twice we glimpsed movement - dogs who fled at the noise,

domestic pets running wild.

 

The excavation that had been the Superpit had become a lake, already

being used by waterbirds. We scavenged anything we could

carry and earmarked other things for possible later

attention - a battered 4WD, a truck weighted down with a load of girders, a

concrete mine bunker intact with explosives. In Boulder, we danced

for joy when we discovered storage cellars under the older houses,

filled with mud but with canned food and tools buried in the slime.

 

At least during the day we were warm as the land began to dry out

under a hot sun. Each morning, we stacked our campfire with damp

rubbish, hoping that the column of smoke would bring in any survivors.

 

Our first arrival was an exploration surveyor, who had been floating

on his motel swimming pool when The Wave lifted him, airbed

and all, and carried him twenty kilometres beyond Kalgoorlie. He was

dumped when the water receded and had walked back, barefoot, still

clutching his airbed.

 

He was heaven-sent. Years out in the field had given him a bushman's

knowledge and gift for improvisation. He and Neil tackled

the School of Air transmitter and emergency generator. The fuel

drums were intact, and one magic afternoon, the set

crackled and hummed, and we were on air.

 

Our call sign went out for five precious minutes. Neil repeated it

over and over, until an excited response came in from one of the

northern stations.

 

In the next days, we established contact with a network of five

inland stations that had been beyond The Wave and unaffected. The

furthest north had been able to contact Meekatharra on the Royal

Flying Doctor link. In this way, terrible news was relayed to us.

 

The whole South-West had disappeared. The southern shoreline was

now at the foot of the Stirling Ranges, and tidal water washed through

the streets of Northam. The hills of Albany were deserted

islands. We had to get used to thinking north and east, because

there was no longer any south or west.

 

There had been no answer from Port Hedland or Darwin Schools of the

Air bases.

 

In these days, other survivors struggled in until

there were seventeen of us, sheltering by night and contributing what they

could to survival. We spent two days working on the 4WD and truck we

had found. There was great jubilation when both eventually chugged

in. After that, scavenging was easier; we were able to bring in

heavier items, like drums of fuel and building material from the

minesites.

 

I try to remember a time frame, but now in my memory, each day

merges into the next. Survival took all our time. It was only at

night, alone in the dark, that mental distress took over. One would

often wake to hear the sound of someone's anguished sobbing.

 

We became a tightly knit group. There was always a helping hand when

a task became too daunting or frustrating. Impelled by mutual need, we

chose partners for comfort and support, rather than any illusion of

love. Neil and I simply drifted together. Even though he was twice my

age, it seemed a natural progression after all we had

been through together.

 

So I cannot remember which came first, the dogs or the cloud.

Perhaps they happened together.

 

We had been aware for some days that the sun's light was veiled

by a light overcast. Often there was drizzle, which at least

replenished our fresh water. I had been troubled when we were out,

by glimpsing slinking shapes shadowing our movements.Whatever else

had disappeared, dogs seemed to have proliferated. There were always

pups running alongside the packs, watching and learning.

 

One morning, there was a scream from one of the women who was fetching

in water. She fell up the step and slammed the door shut,

blood running down her arm. That was the first attack.

Soon the dogs became bolder, prowling at night and scratching at the

doors.

 

We had to build a barricade. Our first was a hasty defence of

fuel drums, and we fetched in the girders long ago unloaded from the

truck. It became necessary to guard the outside working parties from

attack.

 

One night, a slavering Rottweiler managed to leap and scramble

over the makeshift fence. The men cornered it and beat it to death,

but we had to devise a stronger defence. We used the Roman idea of a

wall and ditch system with sharpened stakes. It was effective, but made

us feel imprisoned; we could only go out under escort in one of the

vehicles. The almost continual drizzle through heavy overcast, which

we later realized was clouds of volcanic dust, combined with heat and

humidity, swiftly turned a dry landscape into a jungle. Eucalypts,

that even before had a rapid growth rate, now tower massively. We, who

had been used to wide panoramas, feel closed in and threatened.

 

So after five years, we have to make a decision. The gloom,

compounded by encroaching vegetation, makes us all edgy. Any work

has to be done outside, as, even at midday, the interiors are

shrouded in twilight. The children - four of them now, including our

son - find the confinement of the compound trying.

There is the constant menace of the dogs.

 

Fuel supplies are running low and no more to be found.

 

Radio contacts tell us that a large community isestablishing itself

in the centre. Groups are going in from the south and

east to where a huge freshwater lake has formed; artesian water is bubbling

to the surface through cracks caused by earth tremors.

 

Desert is becoming fertile land, and the dust cloud is not so dense there.

 

We have all decided to go together, as far as the fuel will take

us. The men have built a covered shelter on the tray of the truck.

Those who wish may settle at other places along the way, but Neil

and I are determined to make the whole distance. If we are lucky, we

may pick up more fuel, otherwise we shall have to walk. We have been

told that with all the changes, the Nullarbor is now a treed and

grassy plain, so it may not be so hard.

 

I wonder whether this account will ever be found? You who read

this, if you still believe in a God, I commend you to His care in this

hostile and abandoned place.

 

We leave in hope and optimism.

 

Our children are the future. For their sake we must go on.

Kalgoorlie

December 25th, 2012

 

ends

 

 

Success at last?! 2470 words. This story was awarded 2nd prize in Hills FAW competition.

Top


 

Twist In The Tale

by Astra Warren

 

Guido was afraid.

 

Not with the startled fright of seeing a snake cross the path,

or the alarm of a shadow moving silently in the night, but the

deep, persistent gut chill of primal fear.

 

The man in the expensive overcoat had passed up and

down the corridor three times, each time peering into the

compartment where Guido was alone.

 

Checking on him, Guido was sure of that.

 

Guido had first noticed him on the platform in Milan,

because he was standing alone and slightly apart from the

noisy clusters of second class passengers waiting beside the dark

loom of the train. Dressed in a dark woollen overcoat over a

well-tailored suit, briefcase in hand, he would have been more at

home with the first class already boarding further down the

train. But as attendants banged open the second class coach

doors, the man moved forward, mingling with women in head

scarves, men in shabby stained raincoats, and backpackers bowed like

snails under their loads. Guido, aware without overtly

watching, knew that the man was boarding two coaches further along,

then forgot about him in the corridor crush of frantic mothers

and crying children, men struggling crabwise with suitcases, and

the shouting of seat numbers in all the languages of

Europe.

 

Guido waited until the turmoil subsided, then, with

the train humming and pulsating like a runner straining against

starting blocks, found his window seat. He heaved his small

case up onto the rack and settled down, carrybag between his

feet.

 

For travelling companions, he had a couple of

serious-faced young backpackers, already pulling out maps and

guidebooks. Scandinavians, he guessed, judging by their sturdy,

well-fed bodies and the assurance that comes from living in a

free society. The other seats were occupied by a voluble

Italian family. Strange how Italians can all talk at the same time and

still understand one another, he thought. He hoped

that they would be getting out at Trieste to make the

connection to Venice, then with luck, he would have the compartment

to himself, able to stretch out for the long night ride

to Belgrade.

 

He leaned his head back and dozed, thinking with

pleasure of seeing Maria and his children again. Each year he

saved for the trip to visit his mother in Milan, but this time he

was returning with a gift from her which would make

living a little easier in their austere world. While they struggled

to make ends meet, his brewery job was at least regular work and

guaranteed them living space in the ugly concrete apartment

block near the factory. Then in a gripe of fear, he remembered the

man on the platform.

 

One could not be too careful.

Despite the easing of restrictions as Yugoslavia

moved closer to the Western block, informers and secret police

were still everywhere. After his father's death, it had taken

two years to obtain the permit for his mother to return to her

family in Italy. He knew his visits each year would be recorded

as suspect.

 

As he had expected, the Italians and the backpackers

got out at Trieste. No-one else came to the compartment: there

were no reserved tickets on the seats.

 

The train rolled off on its long night journey. When

the ticket inspector had passed, Guido put an abandoned

newspaper on the opposite seat and put his feet up, waiting for the

coffee trolley. The man passed three times with a quick

searching glance into the compartment. Guido pulled down the

corridor blinds, but the man returned again, this time sliding

open the compartment door.

 

Guido's heart raced and the knot of fear constricted.

He hunched into his corner.

"These seats are not taken?" The English had a

guttural Austrian accent.

 

Guido shrugged then shook his head.

 

"Then I will take one." Arrogance in the tone and

gesture. He took off the overcoat, and deliberately folded it

onto the rack. Guido noted the gold Rolex, silk tie and

leather Gucci shoes. The man opened a newspaper and began to read.

 

But Guido sensed the waiting silence: the icy coil at

the pit of his stomach began to tighten. Relax, he told

himself, compose your face into an idiot happy expression. Signs of

anxiety conferred an advantage on the opposition. Eventually

the man spoke.

 

"So. This is cosy, nicht wahr? Shall we read? Or

sleep? Or perhaps, a little conversation? We have a common

understanding of English I see."

 

Guido, streetwise, would not be drawn.

 

"But you are a man to my liking. Of few words. But

perhaps much experience? Do not look at me so warily, my friend. I

mean you no harm. In fact, we may be able to help one another.

A little business deal, let's say?"

 

"There's no way I can help you." Guido was too

abrupt, too hostile.

 

"But there you are wrong. I have my talents, but you

also have many advantages. For instance," he folded the paper

and ran a glance over his own clothing and then deliberately,

assessingly, over Guido's shabby coat, frayed cuffs and crumpled

trousers, "you can be what I am not - invisible. Not to be

noticed. Able perhaps to slip through surveillance?"

 

"No." Guido was vehement.

 

"But I think you must reconsider. You really have

no choice."

 

His tone was menacing.

 

"I can call for help, tell them you made certain

suggestions, offered - services - in return for money, two men

alone with the blinds drawn. It happens, let us understand. I am

respected in international business circles, my name is known in

Milan and Belgrade. My word against yours."

 

Guido knew he was right. On these cross-border

trains, criminal incidents were common; Guido knew who would be

believed. Easier to play along than risk certain arrest and the

inevitable search.

 

"What's the deal?" he muttered truculently.

 

The Austrian smiled complacently.

 

"My name is, what shall we say? Karl will do. That is

all you need to know. I have a package, you have a bag. I am

certain to be searched, you will slip through. What could be

simpler? I have a key to a parcel locker at the station. You use

it to deposit my package in the locker, take an envelope

containing 5000 euros from inside, and go home. Leave the key in

the lock, I will be close behind you. I will never see you

again, and you do not know me. It has worked many times before."

Guido's mind raced. 5000 euros. Five times as much as

he was carrying. And on the black market... He tried to

appear reluctant.

 

"It seems I have no choice."

 

"Ahh." A slow sigh of satisfaction.

 

"See, I picked you on the platform at Milan as an

intelligent man. Just unfortunate in your circumstances. It is a

pleasure to do you a favour."

 

He opened his briefcase, took out a bulky package and

a key, and passed them over.

 

"Now I return to my seat. I have been to the

restaurant car and never spoken to you."

 

He slid the door open and, incredibly, clicked his

heels and saluted Guido with courtly grace before turning

away.

 

He had forgotten his coat.

 

Guido took it down and hesitated only a moment.

Inheritor of centuries of the cunning necessary to survive under

oppressive regimes, he unzipped his carrybag, slid his envelope

into the coat pocket and went to the door. Karl was

returning.

 

"Thank you, my friend. So easy to forget when one has

an embarrassment of clothes.."

 

The sneering look made Guido flinch.

 

At Belgrade's main station, the checkpoints had their

usual long queues, delayed further when a commotion broke

out at the foreigners' gate.

 

Guido saw his overcoated acquaintance being hustled

along between two policemen, one of them holding Guido's

envelope.

 

When their official returned, the word passed down

the line.

 

"Currency violation."

 

Under the flurry of gossip, Guido had his documents

stamped by the distracted official, passed through and found the

parcel lockers in the draughty concourse. He unlocked number

184 with its key, took out the envelope and slid it down

beside the package in his carrybag, and left the key in the

lock.

 

Just as he had been instructed.

 

(This story has won an award and has been previously published.)

Top


The Bus

by Jill Baggett

 

Blue, streamlined and new the bus sped along the dusty road. I watched lazily out the window at the eucalypts seeming to run backwards over the red earth of Central Australia.

A sudden blur caught my eye, the bus swerved but too late to miss the large red roo. The front headlight made a sickening crunch as it shattered on impact and the luckless animal was thrown unconscious to the side of the road.

It took the bus a hundred metres to stop. Pete, the driver, looked shaken as he looked back to his passengers, "Everyone okay?" he asked. Several of the men got up to go and help him check the roo's condition but we all knew it was beyond help.

On closer inspection Pete found he'd hit an air bag on a rock in the effort to pull up and we were virtually stuck on one of the loneliest roads in the world.

"I hope we don't miss the opera, not when we've come this far." My companion, Betty, looked anxiously at the group of men as they tried to assess the damage.

Her worries were echoed by Elroy, the American accountant occupying the seat across the aisle.

"They advertised 'The Opera in the Outback' as Australia's number one social event in the States," he drawled, "but they never said we mightn't get there."

"Of course we'll get there," I probably sounded more confident than I felt. "We have till tomorrow night and Pete can phone for help on his mobile surely."

Pete climbed back on the bus and reached for the mobile as Gloria, the platinum blonde divorcee, who had been loudly telling anyone who would listen about her romantic liaisons, giggled excitedly and called out, "Don't try too hard Pete. My this must be heaven, a bus with ten men all unattached, let me at 'em."

I thought it was probably lucky the unattached men, all except Elroy, were outside and didn't know of the designs Gloria had on their bodies. Elroy blushed and laughed nervously.

"Not till tomorrow morning?" I heard Pete shout into the phone, "I've got 35 people on this bus including one couple in their eighties, what am I going to do with 'em?"

I didn't hear the reply but it can't have been to Pete's liking because he slammed the phone back into its holder and exclaimed under his breath, it was probably lucky I didn't hear that either.

"Righto Folks, all out and stretch your legs, we're here for the night, have to make the best of it." He walked down the aisle to assist Joe and Eileen, the eighty plus year olds, who were busily adjusting their hearing aids, probably thinking they'd heard wrong.

"Could be worse," Fergus, a scientist from Melbourne sighed as we climbed out of the bus, "we have food and water and blankets with us."

"Great," snarled Bob, who'd found nothing to be happy about all day, "we're playing scouts, are we? Boy, I'll never let you take me on another rotten trip Jean." His mousy little wife was saved a further tirade by a sudden gunshot, distant but doubtlessly gunfire.

Everyone stood still and listened. "Where is that coming from?" Jean looked nervously at her husband, echoing the thoughts of us all.

"How should I know or care?" growled Bob. "Hey. You. Driver, what's yer name, where are we going to go to see a man about a dog, there's ladies here and those beers I had for lunch are ready to part company with me."

"The name's Pete," he answered in a more civil manner then Bob deserved, "and we'll employ the usual bush rules, men to the left and ladies to the right of the bus. " Another shot rang out. "Don't go too far," he cocked his head to the side and listened anxiously.

"Oh joy," I whispered to Betty looking across the saltbush and scrub to the distant line of trees, "what'll we do?"

"Start walking," she grinned heading off, "the need is desperate."

We trudged along with a group of chattering women, marvelling at the amount of flies that settled on everyone's back when Sheila, a formidable matriarch of elephantine proportions, pointed to the horizon, "What's that Girls?"

Everyone followed the direction of her finger. On the northern horizon was a cloud of dust, seemingly stationery.

"What's the matter?" Eileen fingered her hearing aide, "we can't stop yet, there's no trees, oh dear." She'd been leaning on the arm of Anita, a young nurse who'd been mothering everyone who'd let her since the bus had left Adelaide.

"Sheila saw that dust cloud, look," she pointed Eileen's head in the right direction.

"It'll just be a willie-willie Ducky, nothing to worry about," Eileen told Sheila comfortingly.

Sheila sniffed, I don't think anyone had called her Ducky before.

 

We were hot and dusty by the time we got back and glad the sun was starting to go down, streaking the sky with the vivid colours of a blue and orange outback sunset.

A pile of firewood of immense size had been gathered in preparation for the chill of the desert night and the billy was already boiling, chops were cooking on a small barbeque fire. Gloria had already attached herself to Michael, a wheat farmer from the Riverina. They were arm in arm and chuckling.

"Didn't take her long," Betty grinned.

A flock of cockatoos flew overhead screeching and landed noisily on the dead branches of an ancient tree some distance from our group.

"Don't they look just like white flowers?" I was thrilled by the sight, "Things are looking up Bett, those chops smell delicious."

Elroy joined us. "I heard Pete on the phone again, I think we've got a problem, he's worried about the gunfire. I heard him asking for the police to come and check it out." He rubbed his forehead, "Think I'll sit on the bus."

"He's a strange one," Betty said, "he's never with the men, do you notice?"

 

"Come and get it," Martin, a chef from Mildura called. He'd taken charge of the cooking and his efforts were applauded by everyone except Bob.

"Never did like barbeques, darn flies would carry you away." He swatted the battalion surrounding the plate and knocked his beer over in the effort. "Blast," he threw the plate of food in the fire, "can't you do something to get us out of here Driver, what's yer name?"

"Pete, and no I can't."

"Hush Bob," Jean began.

"Shut up, I'm going for a walk."

"I wouldn't do that," Pete said quietly, "it's not safe and it'll soon be dark, easy to get lost out here."

"Maybe for the likes of Elroy," Bob nodded to the bus before stamping off bad tempered towards the road.

The sky was turning purple and the first stars looked like dots of crystal when we'd finished eating. Anita had built up piles of sand to make seats for Joe and Eileen and everyone else found their own comfortable niche while Pete lit the campfire and we settled in to make the best of the night. I thought I could hear an engine in the distance but couldn't be sure so didn't mention it.

Elroy stepped down from the bus combing his hair. He fussily cleared stones and twigs from an area next to Jean and sat down. "Let's tell ghost stories, might be fun," was his greeting.

There were a few groans and nervous laughs but then Fergus spoke up and surprised us all by agreeing. "Okay, but only if they're true," he stipulated, "scientific evaluation might be interesting." He took a notepad and pencil from his pocket. "Start us off Elroy, but only the truth mind you."

"Sure thing," Elroy nodded, "This only happened to me last year." He rubbed his eyes and paused for dramatic effect before continuing.

"I was on holiday in Europe and walking the Rhine through Germany. I stopped in Cologne this night and went to a hostel there for accommodation. Now this hostel was quite a landmark, a 500-year-old structure, an old fort, it stands on a hill overlooking the city. Quite impressive really walking up to it. There was only myself and five Australian girls staying there that night, the manager lived in a separate building halfway down the hill.

"You were in good company then," Gloria giggled from the shadows.

"Agreed," continued Elroy, "we shared some coffee and talked till 10pm when the lights were turned off by the master switch in the manager's quarters. There was nothing to do but turn in for the night."

Another giggle and an unheard comment came from the shadows where Gloria and Michael were sitting.

"The bedrooms were stone chambers with a wide stone passageway connecting them. My room was at the opposite end of the passage to the girls. We'd only been in bed about ten minutes when it started." He stood up and made running motions, hands agitatedly pushing his hair back from his eyes. "Loud footsteps, running in heavy boots, clanging of metal, all these sounds could be heard coming down the passageway between the girls room and mine. When they reached my door they stopped and my door flew open, heavy oak and shut tight though it was, it banged against the wall. All the noise stopped immediately," Elroy sat down.

He put his hand over his heart as if to still it, "But I could feel my heart beating it was pounding so fast. Must be some sort of gimmick for tourists I decided once I'd cooled down. Then it started all over, same as before, lots of noise, footsteps of dozens of men, door flying open, the full bit, then, once again, silence. I was starting to get annoyed. Once might be funny I thought, twice was darn annoying."

He raised his hands gesturing to the group. "then it happened again. 'Enough,' I thought and made my way down to the girls room. Not much light came into the fort because the windows were all narrow slits but I found my way to their door and called, 'Can I come in?' I swear the whole five called "Yes". 'They're scared,' I thought as I pushed open the door and saw them all sitting on one bed.

Elroy stood up again and pretended to be looking through a narrow window. " 'How do we contact the manager?' I asked, 'we're not getting any sleep at this rate.' "

"We can't," "there's no phone and the gates are locked till 6am," Clare, one of the girls said. "What do you think's going on Elroy? There's all these heavy footsteps running past our door but there's no-one there. It's spooky."

"To say the least," I agreed and told them about my door banging open. We decided I'd bring my mattress into their room and we'd spend the night together. Things quietened down after midnight and I think we did eventually sleep but I was determined to give the manager a piece of my mind in the morning."

Gloria must have been interested, she didn't make any comment.

"What did he say?" Fergus leaned forward, pencil poised.

"He looked worried, said it hadn't happened for a while, that he'd had no complaints for months, was sorry, wouldn't have turned the lights out if he'd known etc. etc."

"It seems there'd been a massacre at the fort 250 years ago. Ever since there have been reports of happenings like we'd experienced, which resulted in the army handing over the fort to the hostel movement. Clare said, 'they must have thought tourists were braver than soldiers,' " he laughed and sat down, "that's it for my story," next please."

People clapped and someone called out, "Well done."

Fergus sat chewing the end of his pencil. "Hmm," he mumbled, "who's got another one for us?"

"I wonder where Bob is? He's been gone for so long." Jean looked anxiously into the dark beyond the firelight.

It was then I heard the unmistakable sound of an engine in the distance.

"Think that's the mechanic coming with our part Pete?" Martin asked hopefully. "I want to get out of cooking breakfast," he grinned.

"Sorry, it can't be them," said Pete, "they told me there's no way they can have it here before daylight. Anyway there aren't any lights that I can see. I don't know what we're hearing."

Anita was helping Joe and Eileen turn their sandy chairs into beds. "No, we don't want to sleep on the bus," Eileen was saying. "I want to hear the stories, I haven't done this since I was a girl," she chuckled happily. "That's comfortable Dearie, I'll just turn my hearing aide up a touch."

"Well," Anita said standing in the firelight, "my training hospital had a ghost, so I'll go next."

"Don't all hospitals?" Sheila asked sarcastically.

"But this one was real, truly it was," Anita's eyes widened, "and everyone believed in her. Don't you want to hear?"

Sheila shrugged and said, "Of course, don't take any notice of me, I'm just missing the hotel bed we were supposed to be in tonight, and I'm nervous out here, keep thinking I hear╔ oh never mind." She heaved her bulk into a more comfortable position, "Go on, let's hear it."

"It all started with the flu epidemic of 1919," Anita began. "St Bridget's was an old hospital even then and it was where most of the victims of the disease were brought. A young girl, Agnes, had begun her nurses training there the year before." She paused to move closer to the fire.

"Agnes became obsessed with fear and eventually refused to nurse anyone with the virus. Murphy's Law being what it is she fell victim to the flu and died within a few days."

"Almost immediately rumours started and within weeks several people had seen her, always in the ward where the flu victims were nursed and always working quietly, praying with the dying and giving drinks of water or cool cloths to the feverish patients. She's been appearing ever since, always in a caring role and only when someone is dying. I saw her myself," Anita looked around the group to gauge the reaction.

"St Bridget's was an old hospital, full of creaks and shadows," she went on, "it was easy to be spooked at night and we never told our patients about Agnes but we all hoped she wouldn't come visiting during our shift. Her ward was the women's medical ward by the time I was there and no-one wanted to be on alone at night." Anita paused for a sip of tea.

"Patients saw her more often than nurses. A typical event would be the nurse would go to check a seriously ill patient only to be told by the patient in the next bed, 'the old fashioned nurse just saw to her Nurse' or, 'a nurse I haven't seen before, in a different uniform just did that', etc. She looked quite real and solid, I don't ever remember anyone saying they'd seen a ghost."

"Well, what did she look like when you╔where are they going? I wouldn't go too far away," Sheila called across the fire.

We all turned to where she was looking. I was just in time to see Gloria and Michael disappearing into the shadows, "We'll only go far enough," Gloria giggled. Betty and I exchanged a grin, little knowing it was the last time we'd see them.

"I only caught a glimpse of her," Anita was saying. "I was at the nurse's desk writing the night report when I looked up and saw a woman in grey with a starched cap just going through the ward door into the annex where we nursed our very ill patients. I felt such a chill come over me,' she shivered involuntarily, "and I thought exactly what every nurse there at the time would have thought, my heart sank with dread."

"What did you do Duckie?" Eileen was holding Joe's hand.

"I ran to the adjacent ward to get my friend Carolyn to come with me, I'm ashamed to say. I knew Mrs Smythe was near death in the annex and I was just too afraid to go and see to her alone." She folded her arms tightly, Jean put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"As we approached her bedside I could see the oxygen had been disconnected and put neatly aside, her pillows had been placed on the chair and she lay there╔quite dead. Mrs Reynolds, the patient in the next bed, didn't really surprise us by saying, 'I knew she'd died Nurses, because the nurse in the old fashioned uniform came and said a prayer with her before she turned the oxygen off and lay her down off the pillows.' Do you believe that?" Anita looked for reassurance.

Some people nodded and some chuckled, there were more yes than no answers, Anita looked pleased. "Anyone for a cup of tea?" she asked.

"Can we please go and look for Bob? Jean asked Pete timidly.

"No use in the dark, I'm sorry Jean, it's clouded over and we wouldn't even have moonlight on our side. He'll be able to see our fire though, he'll be back, probably just sleeping it off." Pete stared into the blackness along the road.

"I've got a real puzzler for you," Fergus cheerfully changed the subject. "I like it because it was investigated by England's leading scientists of their time and they could never explain it."

"Oh great," Elroy leaned forward.

"My grandfather told me this story," Fergus began. "His father was a night watchman in the British Museum in London in the 1880's. There was a great deal of interest at that time, as there is now, in Egyptian antiquities and the museum had a whole floor devoted entirely to relics of the pharaohs."

"One afternoon, before his father's shift began a new exhibit was put in place. When he arrived that night he found an elaborately carved sarcophagus, brilliant blue in colour, set on a low pedestal in the centre of the room. The plaque told him this sarcophagus contained the mummy of a princess, the daughter of a pharaoh who had died when she was six years old."

I felt sad as I thought of a child's body lying as an exhibit in a museum.

Fergus continued. "My great grandad studied the new attraction for some time, it was quite exquisite apparently, then he turned to leave and continue his rounds. As he reached the door what do you think he heard?" No-one answered, so he went on, "Sobbing, he heard the sound of someone sobbing, 'pitiful enough to break your heart,' is how he described it to my father."

Fergus paused as if deep in thought for a moment.

"He thought the obvious, that a child had been accidentally locked in the museum at closing time. He called out, 'Don't be afraid, I've a key to let you out,' but no one answered and the sobbing grew louder and more heart wrenching as he searched under and behind the exhibits. Imagine his shock when he realised it was coming from the blue sarcophagus."

I felt goosebumps on my arms, not for the first time that night. I looked at Fergus's intent face.

"Great grandad thought someone was playing him for a fool. He tried to open the sarcophagus but it was quite impossible, the seal was unbroken and the sobbing went on and on. He tried calling and talking to the occupant to no avail. The sobbing gradually eased into a sniffle as a child will that cries itself to sleep. Great grandad resumed his watchman's duties preparing to let his workmates know he didn't think much of their sense of humour first thing in the morning."

"Pretty tasteless humour," Sheila sniffed.

"That's exactly what visitors to the museum thought the next day," Fergus pointed at Sheila, "there were so many complaints that the curator ordered the sarcophagus to be prized open."

"What did they see?" Elroy sounded breathless

"A mummy," Fergus said," the mummy of a six year old girl. Nothing else. As I've already told you Britain's leading scientists were called in to investigate but they could find no cause for the pitiful sobs which had been heard by dozens of people, staff and visitors to the museum alike. It was decided not to put the little princess back on display, but to put her in storage in the basement of the museum. My grandfather told me he would sometimes go down there as part of his job but he never heard a sound from her again. He thought she hadn't liked being on display."

Fergus stretched. "Nearly thirty years had passed when it was decided to hold an auction and sell off unwanted items in storage. To make a long story short, our little princess was bought by an American. This man had a travelling sideshow and thought a genuine Egyptian mummy would be a great drawcard. He paid a lot of money for her, 10,000 pounds I believe and decided to travel with her on the voyage across the Atlantic, to make sure she wasn't damaged en route. He even had her placed in his cabin on the ship."

"Give me the creeps," muttered Sheila.

"Ah ha, yes, but now comes the punch line," Fergus looked pleased with himself. "Our little princess found a place where she could rest in peace after all. Can anybody guess?"

He looked around at our puzzled faces. "The ship her new owner chose for the voyage to America was the Titanic. Sort of puts a different slant on why it sank, doesn't it?"

Gasps were heard from the astonished listeners and my goosebumps increased in number ten fold. Our reverie was suddenly disturbed by the sound of the engine again but much closer now, and, surely that was a cry, a call for help? No, I couldn't be sure. I looked at Betty to see if she'd heard it but she was busy discussing Fergus's mystery with Elroy.

"Great stuff Fergus," Pete applauded. "I'll finish us off with a tale Folks then we'd better get some shuteye. We'll be back on the road early and we've got a long way to go to the opera venue yet."

"The aborigines have always been in tune with the mystical nature of Australia," he began. "Stories handed down through the generations explain strange occurrences as the mischief of mythical beasts disguised as men, and the people accept it as truth. White men demand explanation," he glanced at Fergus, "for the inexplicable."

"There's a town, so isolated it's rare even now for anyone to go there, almost a ghost town. Has anyone heard of Yarramin?" He looked around the group.

"A few, yes, it used to be on the northern rail line. Was a death knell for the town when the trains stopped running. Anyway, many strange things have happened at Yarramin over the last 50 years, events that can't be explained and I believe have been the cause of many people moving away too."

"What sort of things?" I was intrigued.

"I'm told it all started in the 1940's. One sweltering hot and cloudless day, when the air was dead still, stones fell from the sky, hundreds of them, big enough to dint the tin roofs of the houses. After that strange events became almost commonplace. Every now and then a person would disappear with out trace, but it's said folks would hear distant cries for help for days after a disappearance. There was a time in the 50's when two children were seen walking along hand in hand by several of the town's people and they just faded and disappeared before their eyes."

"Heck, I remember hearing about that when I was a kid," Sheila exclaimed, "I heard my mother reading the report out of the paper to Dad, yes, that's true. He said it was like the Bermuda Triangle╔"

"It's thought it may be possible there are places in our atmosphere that can act as gateways to another dimension when conditions are right," Fergus said quietly, "it's a possible explanation for stones falling from a cloudless sky."

"The strangest thing happened in the early 60's to my way of thinking." Pete resumed. "The whole town was woken by the sounds of gunshots and galloping horses early one morning."

He paused thoughtfully for a moment. "Everyone got up to see what was happening, it was unbelievable, all this noise, thundering horses hooves, but no-one saw a thing, nothing. In the morning hoof marks covered the dusty road and many people had bullet holes in their windows. It wasn't long after that the trains stopped running and many people moved away. Now Yarramin is just a small service centre for the sheep and cattle growers."

He stretched. "Think I'll hit the sack, see you folks in the morning."

Most people decided to sleep on the bus but Betty and I chose a sandy hollow near the fire. Jean just stayed sitting, staring into the fire.

No one had a very comfortable night and we woke early. There was no sign of Michael and Gloria and Bob had not returned.

"I have to go look for him," Jean pleaded, "I'll stay in sight of the bus. Look, you can see his footprints easily in the dust."

"Okay, but don't leave the road," Pete agreed, "we'll pick you up along the way. Here's some water and wear a hat."

"I'll come with you," Anita offered, "look, maybe this is our mechanic coming now."

We all looked to the horizon where she pointed and could plainly see the dust cloud in the far distance.

"Yep, probably is," Pete nodded. "Will take him a while to get here though, distances are deceiving out here. I'd best look for Michael and Gloria too, any helpers?"

Several people volunteered, including Betty and myself, the others went with Jean, she was happy to be finally doing something.

It wasn't hard to follow Cupid's path. Two sets of footprints showed clearly in the sand, clothes strewn along the way. We found a hollow in the scrub where they must have lain but they weren't there now. We couldn't see any footprints leading away. "Darn fools, wandering off like this," growled Pete exasperated. We called into the bush and thought we heard an answering shout from the direction of the road. "At least they had the sense to go back towards the road," griped Pete.

In the distance we could see the other group, they were standing still, staring intently at the ground. The dust cloud was closer now and you could see a truck at its heart.

"Wonder what they've found? Come on, we'll go see," Pete walked off and we all followed.

As we approached the other group we were surprised at their silent stance, there they were just staring at the ground.

"What have you found?" several people asked together.

Fergus pointed to the ground ahead.

"What? I can't see anything," Pete sounded puzzled.

"That's it exactly," Fergus turned to face us. "We were following Bob's footprints easy as a wink and they just stopped. No tyre marks, nothing."

Jean began crying softly. Anita put an arm around her.

Fergus looked perplexed. "At first we thought the vehicle or the shooters we heard last night may have picked him up but you can see there's been no traffic along here for days." A few indistinct tyre tracks only showed here and there in the dust of the road.

"Here's our rescuer," Betty echoed everyone's thoughts, "maybe he's picked him up further along."

The battered old truck pulled slowly to a stop, brakes protesting. The driver stuck his head out the window, red hair a tangled mass and a three day growth stubbled his craggy face, "Howdy Folks, bet you're glad to see me," he laughed loudly.

It was then that Jean's tears stopped and she started to laugh hysterically. Astonished, we all followed her eyes. I felt the world spin under my feet.

There, on the driver's side of the truck, in untidy blue lettering, were the words 'Yarramin Mechanical Services &endash; We Send You On Your Way.'

"Way to where?" Betty whispered.

"Where are Bob and Gloria and Michael?" Elroy shouted.

I've wondered that a lot myself in the months since these events happened. Where are they? Can anybody tell me?

 

 

Top


 

 

Colours Together or The End Of Something

by Rosanne Dingli

 

'And then they sent me to a convent,' said Edith.

 

'They?'

 

Edith looked at the other woman strangely. She thought the question should

have been about the place, rather than the people. Had she not already told

her about the people?

 

'They.' This time the woman sitting across from Edith phrased it as a

statement. Perhaps she was impatient, rather than inquisitive. After all,

was it not her duty to construct questions so that patients could talk their

own way out of seemingly impermeable problems?

 

Edith stood up and moved to the window, then crossed to stand in the corner,

knowing the psychologist would mentally register all her body language.

'Once,' she said, intentionally changing the tone she had used for the last

few minutes and rising an octave, 'I took a bus ride in the opposite

direction to my destination.' She smiled, looked at the big aquarium and

back at the counsellor. 'I wanted to find out what would happen if &endash; just

for the contrariness of it &endash; I rode twelve miles in the other direction from

where I should have been. It was an important appointment. Something to do

with a part-time job.'

 

'And did you find out?'

 

'Find out?'

 

'What would happen if you rode away instead of towards?'

 

'I was about nineteen. I was all about finding out, um...' for a minute,

Edith could not remember the woman's name. Then it came to her. '╔ Barbara.

Have you ever broken a routine just to annoy those who expected sameness and

reliability from you?'

 

The counsellor nodded, but her eyes were hooded. A shake of her head

followed quickly enough for Edith to applaud her mentally for reacting so

quickly.

 

'Why did you do it?' asked Barbara, back in her prescriptive role.

 

'I was unhappy. I only found out years later that I was very unhappy at the

time. It came to me, as a shock, while cooking chicken. I had bought a new

recipe book I thought was exciting. Can you imagine that? Exciting. A

cookbook.' She looked at the older woman, who was nodding encouragingly.

'You know how you can get these clear insights about your own past?' Edith

stopped talking, knowing she need not continue for the counsellor to

understand. A straight stare at those grey eyes put Edith squarely in

control. Or so I think, she almost said aloud. How do I know I'm in control?

Then, 'You know, when I do my hair, I often wonder why grey always starts

where it is most noticeable.' She waited for Barbara to raise a hand to her

own hair, cut attractively to frame her face but streaked visibly with white

at the temples. She had a marked widow's peak and marvellous unlined skin.

But the psychologist's hands stayed in her lap, the one holding the pencil

twitching slightly, as if she were about to write.

 

Later, in the car, Edith would think about Barbara and wonder to whom she

told her own concerns; how she managed her own problems. She had no idea if

the counsellor herself was married, straight, happy or well adjusted.

 

The aquarium pump seemed suddenly noisier. Edith went back to sit on the

sofa, taking care to place herself in a corner, as if to nestle in a

protective angle, her back to the wall, facing the door and the window. She

watched the other woman noting her every move and gesture.

 

'And do you often think about ageing?' asked Barbara.

 

'I used to think about it a lot in my twenties. I would look at the bottom

of my handbag &endash; you know, crumbs and receipts, bits of tickets. That sort of

thing. And I would think of time passing. Warranties expiring.'

 

'You said something about cooking chicken.'

 

'Isn't it time for me to go?'

 

'We still have a few minutes.'

 

'Now you think I'm being evasive.' Edith regretted her last two exchanges.

'I don't really want to go. I can't remember what I said about chicken.'

 

'It came to you while cooking chicken that you had not been happy at

nineteen.'

 

'I was desperately unhappy at nineteen. But I don't think anyone would have

noticed it about me then. I didn't know it about myself then. I realised

years later and thought, how funny &endash; perhaps knowing it now may affect the

next few years. And it did.' Edith reached for her handbag. 'Funny, isn't

it? I always get into a great conversation when it's time to go.'

 

'Do you want to come next week?'

 

'I'll call the receptionist. Next week is going to be difficult.'

 

 

 

In the car, it was cold and damp. It was as if yesterday's rain still clung

to street and houses and cars. Edith remembered the cookery book, remembered

her own hand turn to the Chicken Marengo recipe to see if it matched her own

version of the dish. She remembered thinking about Napoleon.

 

'Napoleon had a horse called Marengo,' she had said to Mark that night,

sitting across the table from him and trying to prise drumstick off

thighbone on her plate with a fork. Mark raised his eyes and launched into a

monotonic encyclopaedic sketch of Napoleon's predilection for chicken, his

fondness for the horse.

 

Edith had listened to his drone, numbly, and almost fully satisfied he had

fulfilled her prediction that he would talk in such a way. Now, she could

remember exactly how affronted she had felt by the smug display of

superiority. He always has to count aloud how many steps I am behind him,

she remembered thinking. And now she was a patient &endash; or rather a client, as

they liked to call therapy subjects at the clinic. She pictured herself

sitting in Barbara's office the following week and telling the older woman

about that meal with Mark, years ago, saying, while trying to look

complicatedly interesting: Isn't it funny how you remember things like tough

chicken and congealing sauce years after you hardly register them?

 

They sent her to a convent, was what she had said today, but she omitted

what followed. The nuns, the conversation with the parish priest in a cold

stone corridor one side of which was open, overlooking the courtyard through

perfectly carved pilasters. He had smelt of cigars and Brylcreem: a tall

dark priest with thick glasses and a perfect smile.

 

'Your family is concerned for you,' he had said.

 

She wanted to say they were not her family, but her in-laws.

 

They had kept her there a fortnight. They called it a rest. Then there was a

huge bunch of irises and daffodils, the purple and yellow going so well

together she had damned Mark for sending it, because she would have to hate

the flowers and the colours now, forever.

 

She imagined Barbara's question. 'So do you resent Mark's attempts at

reconciliation?'

 

Edith laughed in the car, thinking of the sentence she would form for

Barbara. I scooped up the huge bunch of flowers, took it straight to the

convent chapel and held it over a candle flame, singeing the iris petals.

Then I lay the bouquet on the lower altar step, listening to the slight

rustle of the crepe paper as I did. I stepped back and looked at purple and

yellow together for a long time.

 

And then Barbara would say, 'How did you feel?'

 

And Edith would predictably steer the conversation away from flowers, the

convent and feelings: to some adolescent memory, just as was expected of

her. Some adolescent memory to do with sacrifice, resignation or despair.

Simply to see how swiftly the psychologist could follow her.

 

It had started to rain, to drizzle slightly. The windscreen filled slowly

with a patina of tiny drops until Edith's view of the street was totally

obscured. She sat immobile in the parked car until her feet felt frozen

stiff.

 

My hand moves to the heater switch, she thought, and I turn it on. But she

did nothing. In a minute she would turn on the wipers, clear the screen,

look up and down the street, drive away and never come back. The clinic was

now only a large grey blur. She looked at the windscreen wiper lever and at

her immobile hand, still clutching car keys in her lap. She would not come

back to this place, to sit and talk with Barbara about Mark leaving her,

about Mark going off and not returning, just when she was on the point of

abandoning him herself.

 

'Do you think he robbed you of the satisfaction of leaving him?' Barbara had

asked once.

 

'When I was sixteen,' Edith had answered, 'I had a fever, and continually

called out our cat's name. Idaho! Idaho! It surprised my mother so much she

never forgot it, because I'd always been indifferent about the animal. Funny

how a fever can change things. For a while.'

 

Barbara had nodded, wanting Edith to go on.

 

The key ring was cold in her hand. Very quickly, she put the key into the

ignition, switched on heater and wipers almost simultaneously. The street

had darkened only slightly. A wet dog slunk across to a bus shelter, shaking

rain off in a visible halo. Edith imagined the smell.

 

She shifted her feet and drove swiftly out of the parking space and into the

stream of traffic, of which she only became aware as she joined it,

automatically, pressing the brake pedal at a red light and looking across

and the adjacent car. The driver was invisible because of wet windows and a

grey gloom that had descended on everything.

 

Look hard at this place, because you'll never see it again. Edith laughed,

aloud, throwing her head back. A shrill car horn brought her attention to

the green light. 'All right, all right!'

 

 

 

Ink flowed from Edith's pen smoothly, in a satisfying stream. She stopped

drawing small lines on the paper and started writing. She wrote about

Barbara, about sitting in the car, driving blindly in heavy traffic until

she realised with some surprise that she had arrived home safely and had

parked in her driveway with no recollection of the last twenty minutes or

so.

 

She wrote quickly, then stopped and copied words into her journal. Word for

word, without corrections, Edith copied. Then she proceeded to write about

the conversation with Barbara. When she stopped, moving slowly through the

warm house to the kitchen, she had filled seven or eight pages with what had

occurred before the stay at the convent, what had happened after, and all

about her determination to hate irises and daffodils.

 

'It was not until I was alone,' she had said on one occasion to Barbara,

'that I realised how I hated living with a man. And it was not until much

later I knew for certain it was not a man╔ not any man - but him. The man.

Mark.'

 

Barbara had nodded. How many times did she have to listen to identical

stories from identical women? But for the names and a few other changes, the

story's the same one. It was a line from a song.

 

Barbara knew her routine. She was a good psychologist, but not so good Edith

could not feed her lines, or predict how a session would go. Had Barbara

actually said the words, or had Edith imagined them for herself? Who had

said something about laying ghosts?

 

'And it was not until later still that you realised...'

 

Edith picked up the phone and dialled numbers swiftly. There were hums,

beeps and a soft automatic voice at the other end.

 

'The past affects the future, it is true,' she said into the mouthpiece,

'but it doesn't do a thing for the present.'

 

'Suburb?' asked the voice.

 

'I'd like the number for the Convent of the Sacred Heart, in the hills,' she

said to the operator.

 

'Croydon? Yes,' said the anonymous operator's voice. 'I like what you said

about the present. The number is 377 5662. Have a very nice day.'

 

Edith put the phone down slowly. She walked to the stove to put the kettle

on. 'You too,' she said aloud to the operator, who was long gone. In the

street, a car had braked sharply and run into the back of the vehicle in

front of it. The bitumen was very wet and everything was glistening under

the street lamps as if coated with oil.

 

 

 

Barbara was absolutely right. The cliché was also true. Nobody could solve

your problems for you. Edith shifted in the car seat and manoeuvred a way

out of the heavy traffic to commence ascent to the hills. The car smelled

different because of the large bouquet of flowers on the back seat. The

florist had given the carefully arranged daffodils and irises a spray of

water after she had wrapped them in a transparent conical tube printed with

a pattern of blue stars. They were dewy and fresh.

 

'It looks lovely,' she said politely to the woman behind the counter. She

had never bought such a large bouquet and was startled at the price. She

thought again of her counsellor, her psychologist; the woman with greying

hair she would never see again. Pressing the car radio button off, Edith

plunged herself into comparative silence and drove on. She listened to the

sound of crunching tyres on the new road and the small rustle from the

cellophane around the flowers when she took a bend.

 

I'm laying my own ghost, Barbara, she said in her head to the psychologist

she was pushing out of her life. Or had she said the words aloud in the car?

Expiating my own past!

 

Edith pressed the radio button again and listened to the news. She would

soon be there. Trees massed at the sides of the road. She had met only two

cars coming down the hill in the opposite direction, but there were a few

following her swift pace upwards. The convent came into view after a sharp

bend, just as she knew it would.

 

'Thank you,' she said simply to the nun who came to the large glass front

door. 'I came to say thank you. I never thanked you. Now I've thanked you,'

she ended weakly. The nun looked at her mildly and smiled. The repetition

did not startle her, or annoy her. Nuns had a kind of equanimity Edith

envied.

 

'What a lovely bouquet!' the robed woman exclaimed. 'I've always loved these

colours together.'

 

'Yes,' said Edith. 'Yes. So had I. So have I. So do I.'#

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

ROSANNE DINGLI

Author of Death in Malta, Counting Churches,

The Astronomer's Pig and The Bookbinder's Brother.

http://www.jacobytebooks.com/authors/authorbios/rdingli.htm

http://rosannedingli.tripod.com

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Drowning

by Sheryl Persson

 

I gaze. The ocean glistens. Strangers stroll by, invade my solitude. Their mantra - "Doesn't the water look tempting?" They have no idea just how tempting the water is to me. How could anyone know? Although I think there were a few people who may have had some idea.

About me; me and drowning. Drowning. I can say it. That precious, dazzling, emerald word. Drowning. A weightless word that washes through me.

The ocean sings to me. Each night I hear her songs. I dream. I feel fine sand filter between bare toes as I walk towards the sighing depths. Water weaves its way about my body. Frisson. Ice fingers stitch curious pleasure. And then that moment, when toes stretch, but there is nothing beneath. Feet agitate just for a moment. Solidity has slipped away. Soft water lulls me, strokes my nose, my eyes, probes &endash; deeper &endash; deeper.

The days are torment. I can think of nothing but that swollen, fluid world. It is subcutaneous, buried deep and the longing never leaves. I yearn to be folded in velvet waves, to sink slowly down to fathomless, arctic depths.

My mother suspected. At first, she lived in fear that she would find me cold and stiff, face down, floating on the surface of the pool - just as she had found Martin. But I think her greatest fear, the inconceivable horror, was, what had really happened on that day. Sometimes she scrutinised me, as though she was staring at some kind of fiend or perhaps she looked beyond me, at nothing at all.

Rasping, strident her voice would erupt, a screaming crescendo, "Stop staring at the water Ophelia! Stop it! You've got to stop it. I don't understand how all this happened. Oh God! What's wrong with you? "

I could only stare back, with eyes that pierced her shell, confirming her fears. We shared matter, blood and cells. That she was responsible for my being, my existence, gnawed at the core of her sanity.

My mother had always stopped short of asking me. Had I stood silently by the swimming pool, watching Martin as he toddled towards the edge? Had I seen his trusting face reflected in its mirror?

Martin was the perfect child that I had never been, the sunshine that I could not provide. My grudging smile, my seldom laugh, were counterfeit compared to his. He was always centre stage with his bag of tricks and swag of gurgling baby words. In the family circle I was a point on the circumference and he was its centre. Everything radiated from him. Visitors came, admired, encouraged. I was peripheral, a chimera excluded from happy chatter, the sharing and the music.

Me - cellophane, opaque, oblique. How I felt. How I wanted to be.

It wasn't my fault. Where was she that day? I could see Martin's head bobbing in the water, round, like a curled echidna. He wasn't unhappy or frightened. I could tell. Not once did he struggle or cry out. He was a dancer, contained neatly in the crystal of a fortune teller's ball, his legs and arms made studied arabesques. Slow motion, descending towards soft green, where mysteries hid, waiting to welcome him to their swirling, kaleidoscopic world.

I saw a silver creature slipping from the depths. She sang a song, each note clear and sharp as shattered glass. She kissed Martin, gently, with her violet mouth. Martin wore her colour on his lips, breathed deep and drank the water in. The creature carried him triumphant to the surface. I watched. The water held him firm and still.

At this moment, I knew, Martin had what I wanted.

Yes, my mother suspected. The torment never left her. It sat heavily on her shoulders and scraped deep lines into her face. It pulled the blackout curtain across her eyes. But I couldn't help her. How could I? Things were what they were.

........................................................................................................................................................

 

"Have you been into my room Mum?"

"Don't I have a right to go into your room? We share this house you know. Even though we don't share much else."

 

"You've taken my books again haven't you?"

My books, each one an exodus, my passage to that fluid world, that shapeless realm where I belonged. The shadow world beckoned every day and, at night - the song.

Maybe it all began with the books, the one about the little mermaid, a tattered treasure, hidden in a fissure in the mattress on my bed. Shafts of memory. I see my father reading, turning pages. I touch the texture of the page. My fingers feel cold scales. I swim with creatures, free in embryonic fluid, a phantasmal realm where colours swirl and shimmer.

I was so young but I could sit motionless for hours and gaze in wonder at just a single page, and witness my own metamorphosis. My father would read and I would howl rather than hear one word about the deal between the sea hag and the mermaid. How could the mermaid betray her kind, desert her own domain, become a reptile and crawl from the ocean onto the land. Was it this mermaid's song that I heard night after night?

No. I would not listen to those pages. I barricaded sound, kicked walls, pitched shrill screams towards my father's mouth. While he was dealing with his shock I would beg to hear the end, which to me was the beginning &endash; the mermaid swallowed by the ocean, to wash and ebb, fermenting foam, to float forever and forever.

"And what if I have taken your books? I'll keep destroying them. You've destroyed us. You're obsessed Ophelia. I thought if we moved things would be different. We could put the past behind us as much as possible. I know how hard it is to shake off some of the memories from the old house. But you don't try. You spend all your time reading the same morbid things over and over again. It's unhealthy. You never speak to us. You have no friends. Ophelia, you really do need help."

The words were always the same. I saw them pouring from her mouth, a speech bubble, suspended to the right of her grimacing face. It was so easy to pop the bubble with thoughts of my own. Then there was only the drone of sound, vacuous tendrils, suspended, trailing in the air.

"We know you're clever. But if you don't start making an effort soon, you'll never get anywhere. And you have to try to get on with people. You know you frighten people don't you? Things have to change. You have to change. You never come out of your room unless you're sneaking off to spend hour after hour gazing at the bloody ocean╔."

Words disintegrated on her tongue. She stood helpless, a tormented animal, nerves raw, caught in her own trap, under my accusing gaze.

"You've been following me haven't you, you and Dad? You both blame me for your misery and you hate the fact that I've managed to salvage something from this hell that we're in. You can't stand that, can you? I don't need help and I don't need you. And you're right. People don't like me. They are frightened of me. They look at me just the way you do. That's what it's been like all my life. Don't you get it? I have to be near the ocean because it's where I want to be. I'm suffocating here. Just face it. You can't change who I am or what I am. You can't change the past and bring him back. You can't change a thing and you'll never ever understand."

No one could understand how it felt to stand alone at dawn, looking at a line of infinite green meeting infinite blue, the power, the mystery, the timbre of rolling, incessant waves and the swirling, streaming tides and eddies playing their own symphony, conducting my life, their instruments plucked just for me &endash; and the sibilant song rising from dark, unfathomable caverns of the deep.

I looked at my mother and the only bond left was hatred. "If you don't give me back my books, I'm warning you, you'll be even more miserable than you are now. Give them back to me now! You know exactly what I am and you know what I can do."

Suspicion became knowledge. She knew. She knew. The blood drained from her face. My mother's horror was palpable and ricocheted in the void between us. She retched on the truth and gagged on my name, remembering that other Ophelia, whose name she had chosen for me. Cringing, almost convulsing, she retreated from my room. She would never enter it again.

She had probably destroyed my books. But I could always get more. Without them I can't breathe. But I have learnt them by heart.

When I walk into the water, my arm looped through Virginia's, a calmness transfuses my limbs. Dressed for death and oblivion we wear black, identical flowing skirts, which lap hungrily at our ankles as their folds mingle and twine with waif-wide weeds. We kiss slowly, tenderly, and then I watch the river embrace her, lift her, ready to carry her beyond the threshold of her tormented life. She floats, just for a moment, a smile tucked into the corners of her mouth, purple lids closed in contemplation. She is carried on a tide of grey-green wintry water, to the river mouth and a sleek shroud of silt and soughing mud.

And I swim with Fish. I can never remember if he is Pickles or Lamb. It doesn't matter. Together we swim enthralled, towards the sylph sounds of the song. Glorious, variegated fish swim about us in profusion, dart deep into the caverns of our skulls, stirring blood, nibbling nerves, a joyous frenzy, infused with light and colour.

But there's another story, and it's not in my books, the story of Christopher and Stephanie. I envied them. I envied their life and their death. When I saw them so very briefly that final time, I wonder if they knew. I wonder if they could see it in my eyes that day, as they drove past laughing at me and flinging their taunts. I wonder if they knew that I could see them floating in the blackness, the void, suspended forever in watery pitch.

That glowing brother and sister act, the idols, who fed off the clumsiness and ugliness of others. She was too beautiful, a living mermaid with flowing coal-seam hair, a prism, blending all the colours of the rainbow. I would watch her rising from the ocean, skin glowing olive shedding hesitant, glistening droplets. I would see her travelling in the train, immaculate in white or blinding bright in colours borrowed from exotic birds. The rest of us, brown sparrows pecking at her crumbs.

Poseidon's pups. The god and goddess of the ocean.

Sometimes I watched silently as they prepared for a dive. Christopher and Stephanie would slide into black seal skins, coil their streamlined bodies in chunky weighted belts, and glide down to the shadows, cavort with creatures of the deep and feast myopic eyes on the treasures of their de facto kingdom. I hated them. What right did they have to a world that was really mine.

A newspaper headline strobed the words, "Brother and Sister Drown in Diving Tragedy" - and I smiled. A tragedy? Drowning? Did they drown like Ophelia strewn with flowers and torment and neglect? Or was it as I had pictured it? Panic, plunging depths, the earth's black core. Engulfed by the darkness, the vastness of a sinkhole that resented human trespass. No one would ever know. They 're still there now, suspended in the black water coffin. I can see them clearly, together, limbs occasionally touching, bumping, looping - until eternity.

There is immeasurable pleasure in knowing that you might be responsible for things that others can't explain, that you might have powers that make you different, the cause of separation, isolation.

........................................................................................................................................

 

Just recently, I've noticed a subtle change in the way I look. My skin seems firmer, paler, and I've been scratching at scaly flakes which appear randomly, on different parts of my body. Hard and glistening, I scratch them off and they shine like pearl drops, opalescent on the ground where they fall.

At night I find that I am sleeping less. The urge to spend more time in the sea, is growing like an oyster, a hard knot of irritation within me. In the darkness I hear the thunder of waves. I hear the multitudinous life that thrives below the surface. Tides wash in and out. My ears ring with the sounds of the sea. It inhabits my head, my body, my very being. Above all else, I hear the keening of the song and she sings my name, over and over again.

There are so few words now between my mother and myself. She knows that most nights I don't come home until after dawn. I need very little food to sustain me and sometimes, we sit together at the breakfast table, uncomfortable, suspicious. She watches me, as though she is watching an insect that has crawled from the dark recesses of some putrid cupboard. If we happen to touch, she recoils as at the icy skin of a corpse.

About me now, there is always the smell of the ocean, of pungent, salty brine and stagnant weed. People quickly look the other way as I scuttle through the streets towards my destination. I am anonymous. I speak to no one. At times I feel familiar words forming in my head but the pathways to my larynx, my throat, my tongue are blocked. My lips feel hard and coarse, the skin thickening, tightening, contorting, oval shaped. My needs diminish.

Nights are becoming longer, days colder and I am happy waiting at the ocean's edge, peering through the emerald mantle that spreads to the horizon and beyond. Some nights I realise that I have been standing for countless hours, neck-deep in the water. My skin may be cold to touch but I don't shiver. I return to my parents' house, an alien within its walls. Perhaps I rest. I don't know. Eyelids refuse to close. I scrutinise my face in the mirror and stare at my eyes. They are fixed wide open and do not blink. No lashes. Engorged, dark pupils stare back at me. And there reflected in black pearls are truths that I have never seen before.

Tonight I leave the house with ocean sounds throbbing, beating a cacophony. It is difficult to walk - the weight of air is intolerable. I am gasping, suffocating - gulp air into my reluctant mouth. I feel soft serrations, sifting, vibrating in and out on each side of my neck.

The water. I have to reach the water.

I hear a muffled howl, look back at the shadow of my mother, her hand outstretched, her finger pointing at me. Is it accusation or wretched terror? Is she calling me back to an empty world where I've never belonged, a stifling world of torment, of restraint?

I stand where water meets land, a fine line etched with spume.

"I knew you'd come."

I recognise the voice, a voice that knocks at the grey matter of my brain.

"Ophelia."

A silhouette, a figure shrouded in mist, stands between me and the depths. So close. I stare hard and the face becomes defined. Here at the ocean's edge, looking straight at me. Martin.

"You'll like it here" he says so simply. "I've been trying to get you to come for such a long time." The voice flows softly. Paralysed, I wait for more. I wait for acid words.

"Come and help me swim. It's such fun in the deep. I'm waiting for you Ophelia. I know Mummy and Daddy blamed you for what happened but they didn't understand did they, about drowning, about the music and the lady who sings. In the ocean nothing can hurt you, and your eyes can never cry. No one can punish you, or ignore you, or make fun of you, Ophelia. There are beautiful gardens here, all colours and shapes and stars. It's the sky turned upside down. I've missed you Ophelia."

Martin's words are in my head. He reaches out. But a searing pain shoots into the taut muscles in my legs. I try to move, one foot and then the other but they don't respond. Involuntary jerking. I look down. Two legs are fused in one, joined, stuck fast each to the other - pallid, scales and skin and shimmering moonlight.

Martin smiles his little boy smile, waves, beckons. I fall.

Then, I am crawling, edging, pulling my way into the water. And suddenly, easily, I am buoyed, weightless, gliding closer and closer to him. I take his delicate, tiny hand in mine. A child's song, a child's voice is tinkling on his tongue. We are together, drifting &endash; deeper &endash; deeper &endash; deeper.

The familiar song soothes me, infiltrates my mortal form with its silk tones. I float fluid and free.

A shudder. My body. Hooked, tugged, wrenched.

No melody. Shrill sounds pulse. My hand no longer holds the soft fingers of a child. Gripped. Barnacled claw, scratches, slashes. Monstrous creature, abominable, medusa spewing snakes, clutching, dragging &endash; down &endash; down - the depths - darker than squid ink - colder than frost.

Gaping maw shrieks, venom song, wild tornado howl, shatters, explodes, ignites.

Vermillion.#

 

"Drowning" was shortlisted (final 5) in the 2002 Hal Porter Short Story Competition.

 

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Letters

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Articles

 

 

 


Reviews

 

 

 

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ

 

The Passion of the Christ does well in unflinchingly portraying the violence and hatred suffered by Christ: but virtually in proportion to the degree to which Christ is merely reduced from prince to powerless pulp, the film fails to keep pace with his passion. Christ's passion perhaps has a focus in the garden of Gethsemane, where he implores the Father to release him from his inevitable, pre-ordained, approaching atrocious fate. The film begins here, but rather than a sense of the Son with the Father, Christ's beholder is, like a demon out of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, Satan and the serpent instead--a poet's licence doubtless no scripture-writer would feel so at liberty in exercising. As if undergoing fresh temptation at this point, Christ crushes the serpent under his heel.

The use of subtitles in the film, translating the characters' original tongues, is only interesting in so far as the original tongues, if properly spoken, are interesting. Considering that the story of Christ is the story every tongue shall confess, it would probably be a better endeavour managing to convey the passion in a living tongue, rather than subtitling original tongues, as if writing Christ's story this time in reverse.

I think the use of the flashback technique in the film is also mistaken: making Christ's family life and fellowship with his disciples look like mere nostalgia, or even, foolishly, regret, against a subsequent seriousness of boy-whipping. Christ's life before his crucifixion is integral with his ultimate destiny upon the Cross. As Peter had infallibly to understand there was no before and after that entered into the question. Even to say that Christ's boyhood, early manhood and teaching were "history" in relation to the present reality of crucifixion might be mistaken, since it is through Christ's life that time is dated.

One might wonder why Christ, whose every word is gospel, seems to hesitate or stutter when speaking to his disciples, as if mincing his words was being nice. Christ is playful with his mother, but even when a boy, according to scripture, Christ was sovereign, instructing his parents when they noticed his absence, "How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house".

Similarly, Judas Iscariot in the film is too human, not demonstrating how, as Christ himself said, Judas was a devil, the son of perdition. Judas seems to shirk or baulk at his betrayal, yet it was him who was against Christ and not for him--no ifs or buts--and Christ sent him to it quickly. Thereafter he seems to suffer pangs of human guilt and turmoil, but this too must be unlikely, if not erroneous. However, the film does seem to stumble (or manage to not stumble) on a correct symbolism of Judas's end: hanging from a tree in hellish mockery of Christ's public execution, hanging on a tree.

The film excels in its depiction of human evil. The violence of Christ's scourgers and judges, the hatred of his accusers, are convincingly portrayed. One cannot help but feel occasionally moved by the portrayal of the corporal and capital punishment suffered by Jesus Christ.

M. Haig

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Greenberg's Dance of Death by August Strindberg: Sydney Arts Festival, January-February 2004, Theatre Royal

Greenberg's Dance of Death is a faithful production. Care is taken with the set, so that the original epoch of the play, Scandinavia in the 1890s, is authentically portrayed. Like Bernard Shaw's meticulous stage directions, the action is detailed and realistic: sherry poured from ornate antique decanters, reports of the day snipped from newspaper journals with scissors. Sound effects of the sea, the seaside and civilisation are produced with a sense of strict chronology. This faithfulness goes to emphasise the stage presence of the lead actors: Ian McKellen, and Frances de la Tour.

A character, in any case, worthy of note, is Karl, portrayed by Owen Teale. The way in which Teale entered the set, with a portentous nervous almost sententious slowness, made it look like he was the one worth watching. What was most in evidence, however, to begin with, was the real pusillanimity of Teale's acting: demonstrating predominantly that there are reaches of the soul and sensibility beyond his own power of plumbing, or structuring on stage.

It was interesting to experience Strindberg's Scandinavian modernism, which reminded of Ezra Pound--a cold sweep of air still strongly suggesting the chaos of modernism's ruins. --Although perhaps, on the other hand, the play's domestic tragedy, by which its art is defined, is a reality, like the nature of Roentgen's rays, uncertain of illuminating anything for us now.

M. Haig

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First Chapters

Beyond The Plough - Janet Woods (sequel to "A Dorset girl)

1st chapter excerpt.

 

Dorset 1837

 

The hallway of Cheverton Manor was decorated with ivy and prickly holly

boughs, bright with blood-red berries. A huge log blazed in the hearth. Pine

cones and needles had been added for the fragrance they provided, causing

sparks exploded up the chimney as the resin heated.

Siana Forbes paused on the stairway on this, the first day of her second

New Year without her husband. She was young to be a widow, barely

twenty-two. Of medium height, her figure crackled with pent up energy. It

seemed long ago that she'd flown in the face of convention and discarded the

black of mourning. Her burgundy coloured riding habit followed the curves of

her waist and breasts. Beneath her skirt she wore white silk pantalettes,

but not for warmth. Her late husband had introduced her to such

undergarments on her wedding day, now they were part of her daily apparel.

Edward Forbes gazed down at her from his portrait. Silver-haired and

elegant, he appeared to be the essence of propriety. Actually, he'd been

downright wicked in his ways. The painted twinkle in his eye and ironic

twist to his mouth made her smile. The artist had captured him well. Siana's

blood still ran hot if she thought of Edward for any length of time. Even

now - now she'd come to understand that her love for him had been born from

necessity, and his for her, from lust - Siana felt honoured to have been his

wife.

Edward had lifted her from the depths of despair, educated her and given

her a life so unlike the one her mother had known that she often had to

pinch herself to believe it. She had enjoyed her short marriage, had enjoyed

her husband in all his moods and ways. Her grief had been genuine when he'd

died before he'd had a chance to see his son and heir.

The young baronet was upstairs in the nursery. Christened Ashley Edward,

a name his father had indicated on his death-bed, the little squire was a

strong child who resembled his father in feature. His hair was dark,

containing the glossy sable blackness of her own. His eyes were the same hue

as her own too, a dark, mysterious green, the colour of pines, her husband

had described them as. Supposedly, they'd been passed down through the blood

of the Welsh marcher lords, the ancestors her mother had claimed as their

own.

Siana loved Ashley with all the intensity a mother feels towards her

first child. She loved him more because he would never know his father or

experience his guidance, and more still because his future was not his own

to decide. Cheverton Manor and the estate surrounding it would be his life

work. It was a lot of responsibility for such a small boy to shoulder.

It was early as she made her way to the door, stopping only to greet the

servant who came to tend the fire. Her own maid was still abed. No doubt

Rosie would scold her for going out with her hair hanging in a loose braid

down her back. Not that anybody would be abroad at this early hour on New

Year's day to see her.

Outside, the morning was raw. The night mist still lingered, floating in

shifting layers to writhed around the stark winter tree shapes and hide the

sky. The air was sharpened by wood smoke, which rose from the manor's

chimneys to be trapped within the damp blanket of vapour.

Siana slipped the bridle over her mount's head and led Keara from her

stall. Her horse stamped impatiently at the stable floor with her hoof and

snickered softly when Siana struggled to lift the saddle to her back. A

pretty bay, with a dark tail and mane, her soft brown eyes were ringed with

dark lashes.

'Stand still, Keara,' Siana told the mare, as the saddle began to slip

sideways.

She jumped when the steward took over the task, scolding, 'You should

have had the groom kicked out of bed, Lady Forbes.'

Siana eyed Jed Hawkins warily. The steward was a big man, bigger than

her late husband, to whom he'd been devoted. Grey-bearded, and weathered,

with eyes like dark honey, the enigmatic and taciturn steward was totally to

be relied on, but slightly intimidating on occasion. She hadn't noticed him

much before Edward's death. But Edward had been her shining star, and it now

seemed as though Jed had suddenly stepped out of his shadow. She hadn't

heard him coming up behind her.

'It's the first day of the New Year,' she said by way of an excuse.

'New Year or not, the groom still has his duties to perform. One of them

is to escort you. Surely you were not thinking of going out alone?'

'Sometimes I need to be alone, Jed. I have a strong urge to visit the

place I grew up in. I've not been back there since my mother died.'

As he tightened the cinch around her mount's belly his eyes softened.

Gruffly, he said. 'All right, lass. I'll follow on after you and you won't

even know I'm there.'

'You're not my father, you know,' she dared to say.

He gave her a level look. 'No, but I would have made a better one than

that preacher man, Gruffydd Evans, ever was.'

She cocked her head to one side, trying to fathom him out. 'Perhaps you

should wed and produce children of your own instead of trying to be a father

to me.'

Jed chuckled at that. 'Before he died your husband told me to watch out

for you. I intend to follow his orders to the letter.'

'Edward said that? It's odd that your loyalty to him stretches beyond

the grave. What were you to him?'

He lowered his eyes. 'Youthful companion, comrade-at-arms, friend.'

'Why did he charge you with my care when you're no relation to him?'

'Because he knew he wouldn't be here himself.' Before she knew it, Jed's

large hands had circled her waist and he'd lifted her on to the saddle. She

hooked her knee around the horn and gazed angrily at him. 'I refuse to let

Edward control me after death, so the order is rescinded. Wherever you were

going at the crack of dawn, you can continue on.'

'I was going nowhere. I've just come back.'

Her eyes flared with curiosity. 'From where?'

'You'd be surprised.' Jed grinned slightly to himself, a gesture which

reminded Siana forcibly of her late husband, when his mind had been absorbed

by the ways and means of love.

Jed was unmarried, but no doubt he would be aware of how to obtain the

certain intimacies necessary to men. She clicked her tongue and rode out

before he could see the colour flood her cheeks, feeling sorry she'd

embarrassed herself by asking, but nevertheless, her curiosity about Jed now

biting at her.

Half an hour later she stood under the winter-bare limbs of an oak tree.

This was the spot where her mother had died giving birth to a still-born

infant. Her mother's blood had poured from her body to nourish this tree. A

little way off stood the remains of a labourers' cottage. The walls were

blackened by fire and grass grew amongst the tumbled bricks.

Her mother's bastard daughter, Siana had been brought up in the cottage.

Although she'd survived the constant brutality of the Skinner family, her

mother had not. The last of the Skinners still living were Siana's

half-siblings, Josh and Daisy. They shared the blood of her own mother, and

had become Siana's responsibility upon the woman's death.

She smiled as she thought of them. Despite his youth, at the tender age

of sixteen, Josh was well on his way to becoming a man of substance. Five

year old Daisy lived at the manor.

Melancholy crept over her. She'd sworn never to come back to this place

of sorrow again. For a day or two though, something had been drawing her

back. She'd tried to ignore this uneasy fey sense of hers. It was inherited

from the Welsh side of the family, who had cast her mother from their hearth

and home - kin, Siana had never met.

But the previous night she'd dreamed of her mother. The cottage had been

undamaged, and Megan Skinner had beckoned her from the doorway. When she

woke, Siana realized she could ignore the call of the sight no longer.

Sliding from her horse, she strode across the grass and into the

miserable remains of the cottage. A glance behind her showed Jed a little

way off, motionless inside the drifting breath of the mist. Her heart gave a

little tug. Jed resembled Edward from this distance. But he would, she told

herself. She'd given him Edward's horse, and Jed had the same way of riding,

moving with his mount's gait instead of trying to force it to his own

rhythm.

She closed her eyes, listening for the first sigh of wind over the hill.

It usually came keening in from the sea at this time, travelling five miles

over the land to bring with it the sharp smell of brine and seaweed. It was

too early perhaps, for the wind remained mute and the silence pressed

tension against her ears.

There was something here in these sad ruins, something alien to it. She

listened for its voice, connected with a faint whisper. It was the sound of

a breath perhaps, but not a breath expelled. It was held inside, trapped

within heart-beats thundering with panic. Whatever it was, it was scared of

her. A stray dog? She stretched out her hands and could feel its presence

tingling warm against her palms.

She smiled. The sight she'd inherited from her great-grandmother Lewis

had not visited her for some time. In the past it had sometimes brought her

a warning. At other times the gift of healing. This time, she sensed

something both needful of her and precious.

'You needn't be afraid,' she murmured and, opening her eyes, gazed

around the gloomy interior of the place. It was not a place of happy

childhood memories for her. Here, she'd known nothing but misery. That

misery still lingered within the burnt spaces, as if the heat of the fire

had shrivelled it, but hadn't been fierce enough to kill it. She should have

the ruins pulled down, scatter the stones far and wide.

The kitchen had caved in long ago, the bricks piling in one on top of

the other. The sky showed through the remains of charred roof timbers, which

supported nothing but mist. Over to her left, where the second storey wall

was still intact, a rough shelter had been built of the charred bricks.

Inside, something moved a fraction.

It was not a dog, but a small child huddled against a bundle of dark

rags. The girl whimpered with fear as Siana picked her way over the fallen

bricks, ignoring the faint, sweet stink of corruption in the air.

Siana held out her arms to her. 'Don't cry, my sweet little angel. Come

to me, I promise I won't hurt you.'

The waif came creeping into her arms, cold and quivering for comfort

like a wretched runt of a kitten. The dark rags became the form of a woman

in a donkey brown gown.

Siana removed her jacket and cuddled the child within its warmth, moving

her away from the sight and smell of death, so she could begin to forget.

The thin little body pressed against hers, a pair of dark blue eyes regarded

her intently for a moment, then closed. The child's honeyed hair clung in

damp ringlets against her scalp.

'You have me now,' Siana whispered to her, her heart aching for the

child's plight, for she'd almost been in the same situation herself once,

though not of an age to be aware of it.

As she left the cottage with her burden the first breath of wind came

over the hill to push at the mist. Then it blasted with some force against

her body, flattening her thin shirt against her shift and chilling her to

the bone. She moved into the shelter of the trunk of the oak tree, waving to

Jed to come forward.

He towered over her, gazing down at the thin scrap of humanity in her

arms. 'Not one of ours,' he said, dismounting. Removing her jacket from the

girl, he handed it back to her, then tucked the child cosily inside his

topcoat. Siana used his bent knee as a mounting block to scramble into the

saddle.

She gazed down at him. 'Her mother is in the cottage. She's dead.'

'I can smell it on her. The poor soul must have been there for several

days. As soon as we get back I'll send some men out with a cart to take the

body to the undertaker.'

She couldn't help but tease him a little when he tenderly stroked the

child's head. 'You're right, Jed. You would make a good father.'

'Aye,' he said comfortably and, giving a quiet chuckle, mounted

one-handed and brought his great, black gelding under control. They started

back towards Cheverton Manor side by side, the child asleep against his

chest.

 

Top


 

from The English Lover by M Haig

 

 

With long white fingers Julia selected from the french fries that had come with her vegetable burger.

She was wearing a light denim jacket and matching denim jeans and lace-up Robin Hood style boots covering the bottom of her jeans, and a white shirt under her jacket. Her long brown hair hung down to her shoulders.

I remembered noticing her dress habits when I had met her in Zurich: she would wear quite conservative clothes during the day while at work, expensive tailored trousers, Cashmere sweaters, leather shoes, a string of pearls around her neck, then when socializing at night, she would wear tattered old leggings, faded, torn shirts and cheap Doc Martin's. A complete reversal of the usual pattern of plain, staple clothing during the day and dressing up at night. It was a novel new mindset of the 80s, 90s, a headspace, that suggested that while a kind of routine, a plausibility, continued to apply during the workaday hours, during the more vital, selective, discriminating convivialities and intercourse at night, a greater catholicity of taste and appearance was called for, a more germane presentability.

All that seemed to be missing, from her dress since then, was the greater formality she had adopted during the day, the neat string of pearls, the Cashmere sweaters, the expensive tailored trousers. That was her adaptation, acclimatization, I supposed, to a different Australian culture, a more antipodean orientation to a less tenaciously cold or hot environment; an adaptation that, like the rough, popular footwear and apparel she was wearing now in Australia, she might so easily slip out of and dispose of when returning to England, like an old MI5 stunt spy trick.

She was quickly finishing her vegetable burger, lightly sipping the Semillon I had poured for her.

"Would you like to come along to lunch on Sunday, at Lion Gate Lodge?" she said.

"Lion Gate Lodge!" I exclaimed. "What's that?"

I was actually beginning to feel somewhat abashed by her local knowledge that, in so short a space of time, so automatically, seemed somehow to be outstripping, even to be superseding, my own.

"It's a new café round near Mrs Macquaries Chair, you know round near Farm Cove".

"Lady Macquaries Chair", I stressed resentfully.

She batted her eyelids: "Oh really! Round near there then".

"Well, do you want to come?" She asked, more sedately than before. "I'm going to be meeting some Yugoslavian friends of mine there".

"Sure", I said quickly, seeing that even my relatively mild, if heartfelt, expostulation about Lady Macquaries Chair, might have caused her to decline somewhat in interest.

"Great", she said, smiling, with a radiance that seemed to be not noticeably less lustrous than it had been when I had arrived.

"But I've got to go", she said, standing up. "What about you?"

"Yeah, it's about time I headed back".

We walked through the busy lunchtime crowds of the Quay, and into the city along Pitt Street. We parted at the windblown corner of Bridge and Bligh Streets.

"Well, I'll see you", she said, on the higher side of Bridge Street, looking down at me, clutching a bundle of brief papers, her hair twisting in the wind, like Catherine, or Heathcliff, on the windy crests of the barren moors.

"Yeah, I'll see you", I said.

 

She was sitting outside in the shade of the balcony when I met her at Lion Gate Lodge on Sunday, enjoying the warm temperate air under the eaves, the midday play of sun amongst the tropical climbing plants.

She was wearing the same light denim jacket and jeans, Reebok cross-trainers, as earlier in the week, the same plain white shirt, nut-brown hair still freely hanging down on her shoulders.

She seemed to be in some sort of a reverie:

"Hi", she said, turning to greet me when she saw me approaching, smiling sweetly but with a more demure, muted humour than usual.

She looked sad, dreamy about something, in contrast to her apparent ebullience, cheer of earlier in the week.

"Anything wrong?" I said, sitting opposite her at the four-seater table.

"No", she said, but keeping the expression of dreamy sadness, melancholy reverie, speaking low and huskily from deep in her throat. "John and Julietta should be here in a moment".

"Why don't you get a drink", she said.

"Yes, I will", I said. "Do you want one?"

"No, I'm fine", she said, pointing to her glass on the table still half-filled with ice and water.

As I came back from the bar with a schooner of New, her Yugoslavian friends had arrived, sitting in the other seats on her right and left.

Julia's mood seemed to have changed, with this influx of new people, regaining its usual vivacity, at least the vivacity she had been showing since I had run into her on the train in town, dispersing the vague dreamy gloom she'd been in when I had come into the café. Her friendly vivacity was not something I remembered about her from Zurich--she had seemed all business-like during the day, coding to a select coterie at night, the self she had paraded, presented then, had been to me at least, cold, aloof, unobtainable--but I put the difference now simply down to the new circumstances, the new commitments, the effects of time's effluxion itself. Everything that had happened before seemed to have no bearing on anything that might happen now.

"This is John and Julietta", said Julia, indicating her two friends with her right and then her left hand.

And: "This is David", she said, gesturing to me.

John and Julietta smiled brilliantly as I sat down, John brightly, Julietta more sedately--demurely, but no less brilliantly--blending her welcome into her calm olive good looks.

They were a formidable couple. He was tall, slim, bearded, with a shock of dense curly black hair not at all thinned or receded from a worrying if not entirely candid brow--a canvas of hair and flesh that concealed the darker workings, machinations, I imagined, of the profoundly complicated brain. Motile, furtive eyes danced and darted, glittered behind plainly clasped, unframed, monkishly astute, spectacles. He seemed all energy and excitation, his dark-haired, wiry body gyrating constantly on his small seat, as his likely-lad lion's head wound and nodded like a voodoo, like the devil himself, a never-fixèd mark of strange activity and attention.

She was smaller, more petite, but dark-complexioned like him, the other half of quite a swarthy duo. She looked Maltese or Cypriot, somehow in any case from the Mediterranean cradle. In contrast to her husband (I assumed, at any rate, by their show of amity, unity, like-mindedness, or conspiracy, that they were an espoused couple), she was tranquillity itself: turning her almond eyes in one direction then another, with a complimentary smile, while she calmly conversed, laughing now and again intermittently with a peal of charming laughter, her manner well-balancing between ennui and interest, roughness and refinement.

"They're just visiting for a couple of weeks", said Julia.

"Oh yes", I said.

"Yes", said John. "We've come for a writers' conference that's on in Sydney for the next couple of weeks".

"Oh yes", I said. "You're writers, are you?"

"Yes", John nodded, with a sort of two-way-actioned hitch of his lion's head. "We both teach English at Oxford University and also write novels".

"Really", I said genuinely aghast, unable to refrain from fetching him a look and then her.

I tried to find an appropriately respectful question.

"That's extraordinary", I said. "And the conference here in Sydney--what's it about, writing fiction, or teaching English?"

"Interdisciplinary really", said John. "A lot to do with gender, cross-culturality, that kind of thing, cross-fertilization of interests, mentor schemes, learning plans".

"And", he smiled at his wife, "we thought we might do a bit of research while we were here. We've never really had Australian interests", his head kept its fluid motility, "but it's never too late to start, is it. You never know when you're out and about, busy with business, what might pop up", he said, with a light friendliness and sociability, that was quite superb.

Julia looked at her friends proudly.

"It's a pity you didn't get to meet John and Julietta when you were in Zurich", she said. "I think I met them just around the time that you were leaving".

"Really", I said. "What were you doing in Zurich?" I asked John and Julietta.

"We relocated there for two years on secondment to the university", said Julietta.

"From Oxford?" I said.

"Yes".

A sudden question came into my mind:

"How do you come to be teaching English at Oxford?" I said. "Julia told me you were Yugoslavian".

"Julietta's Yugoslavian", said John. "And so am I. I was born in Belgrade, but my parents were English, and they brought me back to England when I was about six years old, to go to public school in England. They were in Belgrade just after the war, posting from England in a gun factory, before returning to England.

"I met Julietta when I was already researching in Oxford". He smiled broadly, blinking blue eyes behind his dual lenses. "She was just another student I took quite a fancy to".

"But why don't we order lunch", said Julia.

She hailed the waitress.

We ordered salads, mineral water, white and red wine. John and Julietta ordered olives, taramasalata.

I asked John and Julietta about their novel-writing.

"It's not exactly like Frank and Queenie Leavis", said Julietta, "but sort of".

"You write in Yugoslavian, Serbian, Croatian, do you?" I asked her.

"No, English", she said.

"Really!" I exclaimed. "You can do that, can you?"

"Of course I can, fuck it!" snapped Julietta, to my surprise and alarm, slapping the perspex table with the palm of her hand. "Why fucking not. I can write in fucking English any time".

"Really, is that so", I replied, trying while continuing to speak, to see the offence she seemed to be feeling so I could avoid it. "But how? I mean, if you speak Yugoslavian, how do you cross-fertilize over into English? I mean, to be a novelist. I don't mean writing essays, articles, ordinary books: but novels. That's a whole new kettle of fish, isn't it--at least to a layman such as me".

"You're fucking stupid, aren't you", said Julietta, glancing her female attractiveness at me, like an internet pop-up screen. She waved her hand with the obvious ease. "What's fucking stopping you. You immerse in the culture at hand, with the freshness of your own personal perspective. It's really amazing, if you put your mind to it, what you can actually do".

"But", I wondered, furrowing my brow. "It's really a problem, isn't it--so far that I can see. Even Conrad's a bit strangely dodgy now and then, isn't he, even when attaining to passages of more felicity than ever, even when there actually is no other way of putting it. If you make that cross-over into a language not your own--just think of the baggage you jettison then for all time to come--it's literally staggering--you're more naked then than a babe, than the very day you were born".

Julietta watched me, with pursed mouth, while I was speaking, apparently unfazed, unmoved, uninfluenced.

"You just wait and see", she said, snapping her fingers at me. "We'll keep the cauldron brewing with double-trouble just fine".

"And what about you, John", I said. "You write novels, too, you were saying".

"Yes", said John, enunciating precisely, his smile flickering with his motile features. He drew back his head and jerked himself about in speaking, like a larger Leo Sayer or George Harrison beginning to move like Lennon & McCartney.

"I never thought I'd be a novelist. In fact I can remember staring at that blank sheet of paper literally for hours, reflecting that I'd never understand the meaning of it.

"God knows really how I got into it, in fact--novel-writing. Most of the time I feel I really couldn't care for it one little bit really. It's an odious occupation, if you ask me. I just sort of drifted in a kind of English studies and've never managed to extricate myself from it.

"I did a bit of composing there for a while", he said, with even a kind of ruby smile on his bearded lips. "I thought it was a good supplement to literary interests.

"I can't say, however that I ever made any progress in either field really". He ticked his hand between two imaginary points to indicate the literature/music dichotomy.

"That's what's good about places like Australia", he said. "There's a freshness here you feel you can escape to".

Julia had remained silent through most of the lunch. She seemed with all the talk to have redescended into the reverie she had been in when I had arrived. She was slumped down inside her denim jacket. But Australia and the 'new world' in general--Argentina, Venezuela--seemed to be something that interested her.

"I suppose", I said, "if there's hope anywhere in the world, you might as well look for it in the most unlikely places".

"What do you mean", she gently remonstrated, "in the most unlikely places? It's not exactly 3rd world round here, is it".

"No", I said, "but it's hard, isn't it. I mean, what do you say it's all about, being round here, Southern hemisphere, ex-colony, separate solar system?"

"I don't know", she said, "it's just a sort of extension of everything, isn't it", she said. "You just sort of go on with it and you end up with something new round here. It's not hard or anything. As far as I can see, it's actually easy, easy peasy pie. You've got all your gardens and buildings and things and that's all there is about it.

"Yes", I said, "I think you're right: it's sort of an extension".

"I suppose you're right, though", she said. "I suppose there are a lot of troubled people around here. Just look at all the lonely people, all the pimps and lesbians, bozos, fucked-up people. If only there was some way of healing it instantly, as if you had a wand or something".

John and Julietta, having finished their coffee, were sitting quietly, not offering to leave, but also not contributing a great deal now to the conversation.

"Why don't we walk", said Julia.

"Yes", said John. "We should head back to the hotel soon. I've got to prepare a paper for the conference tomorrow". He flickered one of his smiles: "If I can resist the view. It's truly quite stunning, that flood of golden antipodean light on the harbour. I can understand all these high-rise concerns capitalizing on it in every way", he said, hitching a still-smiling nod over in the direction of the city.

"Yes", I said, struck by his remark. "I suppose they would orientate somehow, structure their business somehow, so they could soak up as much high-rise glamour, as much luxurious, not-to-be-merely-price-tagged, privileged perspective as they could".

 

We walked along the headland, which jutted out into the harbour north of Lion Gate Lodge.

We walked down the bank by Mrs Macquaries Chair. Julia and I went up to inspect and sit on the old stone slabs of the chair.

"You said it was Lady Macquaries Chair", said Julia, reading the inscription.

"Yeah, it is", I said.

"No, it's not", said Julia.

I leant over and read the inscription: 'Mrs Macquaries Chair' was written there.

"Oh", I said, embarrassed, and grinned: "Sorry, I thought it was Lady Macquaries. I remember a friend of mine telling me it was Lady Macquaries. Sorry".

Julia set her arms akimbo, a tall figure looming in the Sunday sunlight:

"That's the frigging last time I take you for an authority".

I went on grinning, expecting her to shrug off her chagrin. But, instead, to my amazement and bewilderment, it only seemed to intensify, as if there was some Stoical reason, a consideration of Seneca, a sort of Robert Palmer Powerhouse refrain, written in stone, upon which like Gibraltar a ship must needs always be foundering.

She tsked, louring like a Pip's gibbet:

"I frigging told you it was Mrs Macquaries Chair".

"Look, I'm sorry", I said, becoming exasperated myself. "I didn't realize. What's your problem anyway?"

I glanced over at John and Julietta nearby, worrying about the effect an argument with Julia might have on them.

"Take it easy", I pleaded. "Okay".

I read the rest of the inscription:

BE IT THUS RECORDED THAT THE ROAD Round the inside of the Government Domain Called Mrs MACQUARIES ROAD So named by the Governor on account of her having Originally Planned it Measuring 3 Miles and 377 Yards Was finally Completed on the 13th Day of June 1816.

"It reminds me of Bishop King", I said. "You know the poem:

But heark! My Pulse, like a soft Drum

Beats my approach, tells Thee I come;

And slow howere my marches be,

I shall at last sit down by Thee".

"How do you know all that stuff?" said Julia, still arms akimbo, her knitted brows seeming to retain their wrath.

"I dunno", I said. "I suppose I just read them one day".

"What", said Julia, "you're a genius, are you"

"Yeah", I said.

We walked along the other side of the headland back into the city, as far as the Land Titles Office.

John and Julietta had a short walk along College Street to their hotel in Oxford Street.

"Well, good luck for the conference tomorrow", Julia and I said to them.

"If ever you're in Oxford", said John, "you should pop in or else give us a buzz".

"Sure", I said, surprised by the invitation, the ease with which I seemed to have acquired such a prestigious contact.

"The university's not really what it used to be", said John. "You'd be surprised what we get up to on campus these days. Oxford's really not much more than a provincial university nowadays--Leicester, Warwick, Birmingham".

"Well, it was nice meeting you", I said, smiling at John and then at Julietta.

"See you", they said, smiling in return, arching their brows, and turning away with the wind that blew down College Street.

M. HAIG

Top


 

Death In The Sea Of Grass

by K R W Treanor 2003

 

Being published in May 2004 by "Books Unbound", (www.booksunbound.com)

 

 

Chapter One

 

"I will never get used to the idea of a woman doing this sort

of thing," said Redmond Trevelyan as he watched Claire Winter peering

into the unlovely remains on the bench. Her red-blonde hair was

bundled up in a Java cloth headscarf not unlike those worn by the

market women. She wore an overly large white lab coat that had been

ineptly basted to reduce the length of the sleeves.

"You men are a squeamish lot," said Claire. "Surely you can't

think that anyone who has seen or experienced childbirth is going to

be put off by a slightly dead body? Besides, if I don't examine this

man now, who will? Do you think you can get a pathologist to come to

Tshaniland from Johannesburg to investigate the death of a black boy?"

"All human life is important," said Trevelyan.

"Yes, you're right, but that isn't a view held by everyone.

Old opinions change slowly; in some ways this might as well be 1835 as

1935. Anyway, you've got enough on your plate with a possible royal

visit coming up, so why don't you go while I get on with this? The

sergeant and Percy will help me if I need it."

Relieved, Trevelyan left the shed that served as the police

mortuary for the Protectorate of Tshaniland and headed for his office.

Equally relieved, Claire watched him go. She preferred to do

postmortems without having senior government officials hanging on

every snip and stitch. Her total experience in forensic medicine prior

to coming to Africa had been a three-month residency in the Suffolk

County Medical Examiner's office in Boston, and a lot of reading on

the three-week sea voyage to Cape Town. She was more experienced now,

but still uncomfortable with an audience. "More water, please, Percy,"

she said, motioning her assistant to rinse off some of the blood so

she could get a clearer view. While he did this, she had a quick look

at Gray's Anatomy, which lay open to the section on the upper abdomen.

It made her feel a bit more confident when the things she found in a

real body matched up to the drawings in Gray's.

Outside, Trevelyan took a deep breath and hoped that this

murder would be solved quickly. He wondered if the young doctor would

be able to provide him with clear evidence as to what had happened to

the dead man. Somehow he doubted it. Squaring his shoulders, he went

up the steps to his headquarters.

"Nee sabona, Tata, I see you, Father," said the crisply

uniformed aide-de-camp at the front desk as Trevelyan entered the

foyer.

"Nee sabona, Khaba," replied the Commissioner, sketching a

salute to his right-and-left-hand man. "Any chance of tea?"

"I'll get Tolo to bring you a tray for two," said Zadok Khaba.

"You have an appointment with The Ear of the Queen in ten minutes."

"Oh, Lord, what does he want now?" sighed Trevelyan, running

possible problems through his mind. The Queen's liaison officer was

not so much a thorn in the side as a constantly twinging sore tooth.

If it wasn't a complaint about a breach of protocol it would be

something to do with the Honors List. Hananiah Molapo was as

single-minded in his pursuit of a knighthood as he was in the

interests of his young queen. Not for the first time, Trevelyan

wondered if he could survive on his pension if he retired from the

Colonial Service of Great Britain. The peace of an English county

tugged at him, some days more strongly than others. Days when he had

to see Molapo it tugged strongest of all.

Stepping behind the Zanzibari screen in the corner of the

office, he rinsed his hands and face in a bowl of water. Looking in

the cracked mirror over the washstand, he combed his hair and

moustache. A face weather-tanned by years in the African sun looked

back at him, its gray eyes looking tired but still alert. Several

years of administrative work had not much blunted the keen awareness

developed during Trevelyan's years as a district officer, in the bush

more often than in a town. The waist was a bit thicker, perhaps. He

sucked it in and squared his shoulders. Must get out for a bit of a

walkabout some time soon.

He went to the back window of his office and looked out over

the enclosed yard, where two dusty Land Rovers and three bicycles were

parked. In the lane behind the yard a fox furtively sniffed a metal

trash bin, hopeful of a meal.

He briefly considered pulling out his revolver and shooting

the beast. It would relieve his tension for a moment, and save some

farmer's hens from a gory visit. The chance of hitting the fox from

this distance was slight, and the commotion that a gunshot in his

office would stir up so great that Trevelyan sighed and sat down at

his desk. One had always to be on guard against doing anything that

would bring disrepute on His Majesty's servants abroad. Taking

pot-shots at vermin would be considered undignified. Not to mention

embarrassing if he missed. Stacking up a pile of folders that begged

for attention and would not get it yet, Trevelyan prepared to receive

Hananiah Molapo.

Precisely on time, Khaba showed Molapo into the office. After

the obligatory and prolix opening exchanges, Trevelyan showed the old

man to a chair. Today Molapo was tailored by the best of two

continents: Harris tweed jacket, French silk tie in a subdued stripe,

and a Java cloth skirt in a green and black paisley pattern. The

goatskin loincloth--by accident or design--matched exactly the lighter

gray in the tweed. An intricately braided elephant-hair bracelet

encircled one thin brown wrist. A gold-framed pince-nez depended from

a black satin ribbon and clicked softly against a porcupine quill and

bead breastplate. Over it all, the old man wore an invisible cloak of

dignity that unified the disparate garments.

"So, Ear of the Queen, what service may I do you today?"

Trevelyan asked, having judged the time ripe to approach the reason

for the visit.

"There are many things that concern Her Majesty, the Great

She-leopard and her advisers," said Molapo, rubbing his hands gently

together with the sound of leaves rustling.

"Yes, I imagine there are. But perhaps one thing in

particular...?" persisted Trevelyan, waving Tolo into the room when he

appeared at the door with a tea tray.

"Ah, tea, just one of the many benefits of our beneficent

English protectors." The old man, with no perceptible sarcasm, leaned

toward the pot appreciatively. "And Brandon's Biscuits as well. How

very nice."

Sighing inwardly, Trevelyan poured tea and prepared himself

for a long afternoon.

 

Back at the mortuary, Claire Winter was finishing the

postmortem examination.

"Where was he found, Sergeant?" she asked the uniformed man

who stood as close to the door as he could get and still remain in the

room.

"In the Sea of Grass, madam, about here." He indicated a spot

on the flyspecked wall map of Tshaniland. "There was much blood. I

think the jackals had found him, and it is certain that the kites had

done so. That is what drew me to investigate; all those birds." He

looked uncomfortable, but not for anything would he have admitted his

feelings to this foreign woman.

"Well, I can give you some preliminary findings, but I'll have

to do a bit more work before I can say for sure. It appears he was

shot, but not with a bullet: with an arrow. You see this?" She held up

a ragged fragment in her tweezers.

Sergeant Moliesa, carefully avoiding looking into the gaping

corpse on the table, stepped over to look at the tiny clue.

"It's a feather, or part of one, Sergeant," explained the

doctor.

"From the kites, perhaps? They were fighting greatly over the

body."

"No, I don't think so. Watch." She stepped over to the

soapstone sink with its one corroded tap and rinsed off the fragment.

Patting it gently with a clean rag, she went to the door and held it

up again where it could catch the sunlight. "See? It's red. And it's

dyed, not natural. I think it's from a commercially made arrow, the

sort of thing people use at archery clubs."

"I do not think we have any archery clubs in Tshaniland," the

sergeant stated firmly.

"Well, it needn't be a formal club. It could be from someone's

backyard archery set; it's become quite a popular sport in some

areas."

"So if this person was killed by an arrow, then he was killed

by a foreigner. A white man." The sergeant was not slow to pick up the

direction of Claire's thoughts.

"That's a bit of a jump on thin evidence. Let us say that it

is more likely to have been someone who has some skill as an archer,

perhaps a foreigner."

Claire returned to the corpse. "However, there was damage

beyond what the arrow did. As I see it, the man half-turned, perhaps

in response to a call from his killer. The arrow tore from left to

right and slightly upwards, slitting open the stomach and lodging in

the liver, managing to sever the hepatic vein and several arteries on

its way. Then another wound was inflicted, probably by a knife. See

here, and here: these are cuts from a sharp blade." She indicated the

injuries. "I wouldn't testify under oath about it, but I think the man

was dead of the arrow wound before the cuts to the upper abdomen were

made. The killer was careful to take the arrow away with him, but

missed that small fragment of feather."

She stepped back and looked at the corpse again. "Could it

have been a muti murder, done to get parts for magic? Don't pretend

that sort of thing doesn't happen any more; we both know it does," she

added, cutting off any protest before it came.

Sergeant Moliesa frowned and said, "Occasionally, in remote

areas; but the parts they usually take for such things do not seem to

have been taken."

Claire knew what he meant; both the heart and genitals were

still in their proper places, although she would not have said so

aloud for fear of scandalizing the sergeant. In Tshaniland there was a

convention that men's private parts were never spoken of directly: all

manner of coy circumlocutions were used if the matter had to be

mentioned at all.

"Yes, although the murderer might have been interrupted. But

if it wasn't done for magic, why was it done?" Claire mused.

"An enemy has done this," said the sergeant firmly. "Someone

hated this man, and hunted him down."

"Yes, but why cut up his stomach? He would have bled to death

in ten or fifteen minutes. Why take the chance of staying at the scene

of the crime and then cutting him up further? There isn't any folklore

about this that I am aware of. Not like cutting out the tongue of

traitors, as used to happen in the old days," said Claire. In the

previous century there had been a ghastly punishment inflicted on

anyone convicted of treason by the High Council. The guilty one's

tongue was cut out and he was hung by the heels until sundown. Few

survived this, and those few probably wished they hadn't.

"Well, I'll write up my report later and send it over to the

Commissioner. I don't suppose we know who this man is yet?"

"No, but some woman will come seeking him, a mother or a wife.

Can you keep him here until that happens?" asked the sergeant.

"Yes, but not indefinitely. The cellar is cool but we don't

want him around too long. Why don't you go, Sergeant? I doubt I will

learn anything more of importance." Claire saw the look of relief

cross the hard-set features. The sergeant stood to attention and

marched himself out of the mortuary, no doubt headed for the nearest

cold beer. She didn't blame him; this was one of the nastier deaths

she'd had to investigate in her fourteen months in Tshaniland.

"Percy, I'm nearly done here; you can take him away to the

cellar in about ten minutes," she said to the small, thin man who had

been hovering around, passing swabs and scalpels. Percy rarely spoke,

and what he thought of his job as her assistant Claire had never

discovered. He received an extra four shillings a month to supplement

his pay as night watchman at the Main Roads Depot. She supposed that

the extra cash made up for the unsavory nature of the responsibilities

in the morgue.

Returning to the corpse, it was pretty clear to Claire that

the arrow wound had been the cause of death, but she gave a cursory

look to the rest of her involuntary patient. She felt a roughness on

the left tibia that was probably an old break that had healed strongly

but not quite straight. The man might have limped very slightly. Other

than that, there was nothing of particular interest.

Reaching for the black silk that she used to sew up those cuts

that wouldn't be seen once the body was in the coffin, Claire started

to whip together the edges of the ghastly wounds. As she did there was

a tiny sound, like a rock falling onto a hard surface. She stopped to

see what it was. There in the gory underlay of the body was what

looked like a piece of broken glass. Picking it up with tweezers,

Claire rinsed it well and put it in a glassine envelope to look at it

later.

Claire finished sewing and stepped back for Percy to take

over. With the care of a nanny presented with a dirty child, he began

sponging and cleaning. When he was done, a cloth soaked in methylated

spirits would be draped over the body, followed by a canvas sheet, and

the whole parcel stowed in the stone cellar where the temperature was

considerably cooler than the mortuary proper. It wasn't ideal, but it

was the best this little country could provide. One day the budget

might run to a refrigerated compartment, but at present Claire was

lucky to get a modest wage for her part-time medical examiner's work,

never mind a well-appointed workplace.

Stretching the knots out of her back, Claire left her gloves

and lab coat for Percy to take care of and made her way across a

courtyard to the back door of her house. After stopping to scrub her

hands in the kitchen, she went down the hall to the front room where

her nurse-secretary-guardian angel held sway.

"Anything new, Duchess?" she inquired.

"No, Doctor, it has been very quiet. To-oo quiet, perhaps?"

smiled the large black woman, quoting from the radio serial which

purported to be a true life African adventure, broadcast every Tuesday

afternoon. Duchess and Claire had taken to having their afternoon tea

by the radio and enjoying the fifteen minutes of foolish escapism and

the frequent unintentional humor.

"I'm sure that won't last. In fact, I hear someone at the gate

now." Claire got up and went into the hall to the front door, to the

despair of Duchess, who was trying to teach her the proper behavior

for an important person like a doctor. Doctors did not answer their

own doors.

Quite unconscious of her faux pas, Claire opened the door to

find a pair of young women on the doorstep. One held a thin stick with

a white envelope wedged in a slot at the top.

"We see you, Doctor," said the taller woman in Sitshana.

"I see you also, little sisters. Will you have tea?" responded

Claire in the same language, getting a giggle from the younger woman,

who rarely saw any foreigners and still found them exotic.

"May your cooking fire never burn low," said the elder,

speaking the formal Sitshana thanks phrase used between women, then

switching to English. "However, we must hurry back as soon as you have

answered this message." Refusing to come in and sit down, the young

women retired to the stone front wall, where they watched Claire open

and read the letter.

"I'll just write an answer and you can return to the Great

She-leopard," Claire called.

The letter was from the Queen and requested (in demanding

tones) that Claire pay a visit to the royal village as soon as

possible.

Claire rummaged in her desk for her fountain pen and wrote at

the bottom of the letter, "I would be pleased to call at Enkalovu this

afternoon at 4 o'clock."

Not for the first time wondering at the odd customs the

English had spread around the world in the wake of their empire

building, Claire went out and fixed the envelope in the cleft stick

and watched the messengers trot off toward the royal village. The idea

of the stick was to keep messages from becoming dirty or crumpled, as

well as to keep the importance of the mission in the messenger's mind.

The Batshani had adopted the custom enthusiastically, as had many

other people in Africa and Asia. Everything from grocery orders to

important legal papers transited the country in cleft sticks.

Returning to the office, Claire looked at the appointment

book. "Mrs. Wilson-Gore. Did she say what she is suffering from this

time, Duchess?"

"No, but I'm sure you will find it interesting. After her is

Mrs. Mohale, the magistrate's wife; something is wrong with her

younger daughter. After that you are free for the day until you go to

the German Farm to give some injections this evening. Then you are

finished."

"Well, in that case you can hang up the Closed sign at

three-thirty and go home early. I am summoned to Enkalovu and won't be

back for a while, I imagine. I can do the men at the farm on my way

back." Picking up the file folder for Mrs. Wilson-Gore, Claire went

into her office to re-read the previous notes. So far this year Mrs.

Wilson-Gore had suffered from self-diagnosed typhoid, cholera, malaria

and snakebite, which had proven to be influenza, colitis, hay fever

and spider bite, respectively. No doubt today's illness would prove to

be something equally simple.

The front door opened and Mrs. Wilson-Gore's twittering voice

rose and fell as Duchess greeted her and ushered her into the office.

As expected, it was a protracted visit about nothing very serious.

Eventually Claire saw her patient out, raced through the rest of her

appointments, and at quarter to four was driving her elderly Austin up

the road to the royal village, Enkalovu. In her pocket was the small

stone she had found at the autopsy.

On the drive she considered what sort of problems the Queen

was going to dump in her lap. From the day they had met seven years

ago, Malaila's life had fascinated and baffled Claire. It was an

amazing amalgam of folktale, National Geographic and current affairs.

When she was an intern at Boston General in 1928, Claire had

been assigned small medical problems on which to practice her newly

acquired skills. Malaila had come into the outpatient department in

misery, with easily diagnosed chilblains. The prescription, a pair of

Claire's grandmother's homemade mittens, was received as if it had

been a gift of emeralds. When an impala fur bed cover had been

delivered to her one-room apartment, Claire discovered that the tall,

brown-skinned girl she had treated was not just any foreign student,

but the heir apparent to the throne of Tshaniland, a place she had

never heard of.

Seeking the girl out among the many students at Commonwealth

University, Claire found her in a modest apartment off Kenmore Square.

"The bed cover is much too grand for such a small favor, and besides,

I'm paid for my work," she explained to the thin, grim-faced woman who

acted as Malaila's duenna or governess.

"The Great She-leopard would be offended if you refuse the

gift," the woman explained. Claire had no idea whom that personage

might be, but stayed for the offered meal and soon knew more than most

people in Boston about the tiny British protectorate of Tshaniland in

southern Africa. The Great She-leopard was Malaila's mother, the

Queen, whom she would succeed in due course.

The duenna, Elspeth Masilani, was a distant cousin of the

Queen. Her job was to watch over, feed, and protect the heir while she

undertook her college education.

"The Princess will be the first in her family to complete a

university degree," Elspeth explained proudly. Claire understood that:

she was the first woman in her family to have gone past high school,

and was a source of endless pride to her own mother.

Despite the slight difference in their ages, Claire and

Malaila became friends. The girl had never experienced any but the

best treatment, and was often jolted by the new environment.

Everything from the demands of her teachers to the weather to the

racial prejudice of some of her classmates came as a shock to Malaila.

One day, after hearing a jeremiad from the Princess, Claire

became exasperated and said, "You've only got two choices: give up and

go home, which you tell me will please the conservatives in your High

Council; or grit your teeth and carry on to the end, which I think

will please you. What's it going to be?"

After that Malaila buckled down and graduated with a grade

average of 3.7 out of a possible 4.0. Asked why she had chosen to

study geology when there were easier and more useful courses a future

ruler could pursue, she said it was because geology was serious

science and if one was going to test oneself, it should be against a

worthy foe. Privately she admitted to Claire that English Literature

bored her rigid, and she had no skill at arts or music, which left

only the hard sciences or mathematics.

It was because of the Queen's knowledge of geology that Claire

had brought the odd little stone from the autopsy. Malaila could

probably identify the stone and explain how it had become attached to

the corpse. The grasslands where the man was found formed a thick mat

and it was unlikely that any small stones lay about on the surface. It

was probably not important, but it was an anomaly that rang a tiny

alarm bell in Claire's mind. Deep in thought, Claire drove through a

herd of goats with barely slackened speed, managing more by luck than

skill not to hit any.

"Nee sabona, Tshadola," said the guard at the gate as Claire

drew up and stopped.

"Nee sabona, butilo," she replied, mentally chuckling at the

idea of this six-foot-four-inch man being anyone's little brother. He

had addressed her as "tshadola," which meant something between an

adopted sister and a special friend, and was a title not given

lightly.

Enkalovu, the royal village, was an interesting combination of

old and new. There was a store-cum-trading post, a doctor's office, a

post office, and a community hall, all made of unremarkable stuccoed

brick, and roofed with red clay tiles. There was a handsome little

stone church, built by the Bristol Bible Society in the hopes that it

would shelter scores of converts one day. The society was still

waiting patiently for the converts, but was acknowledged to have one

of the best choirs in the country.

The royal residence was a large gray stone building, behind

which clustered a small village of woven grass huts that housed the

Queen's staff and relatives.

Claire was shown into the Queen's sitting room, a modest

chamber behind the grander formal reception room. Never quite sure how

much their early friendship had been changed by Malaila's assumption

of the throne, Claire remained standing until the Queen arrived.

Shortly thereafter a tall, sleek young woman in a gray silk suit

strode into the room and threw herself into a chair.

"You are looking very elegant today, Great She-leopard," said

Claire. "Official function of some sort?"

"Tea party for the new diplomatic wives, cucumber sandwiches

and fish paste and all that. I got away as quickly as I decently could

and left them to be given the grand tour of the palace compound. It

makes them feel superior, until they get to the throne room and see

all that gold. Never mind about those boring women, sit down and read

this!" demanded the Queen, thrusting an envelope at Claire.

Inside was a newspaper clipping from a Washington newspaper

headlined "Baltimore Girl to be Queen?" With it was a letter. Claire

raised her eyebrows interrogatively at Malaila, who flipped her hand

impatiently and said, "Read it all."

The newspaper piece was a bit of fluff by a society writer,

suggesting that one Wallis Warfield Simpson, about to become a

divorcée for the second time, might be about to wed the Prince of

Wales and in due course be Queen of England. The enclosed letter was a

chatty three pages from one of Malaila's college friends, saying how

exciting it was that an American woman might soon be on the English

throne. Claire read as rapidly as she could, very conscious of the

Queen's drumming fingers on the arm of her chair.

"All right, so what? Newspaper gossip. Why has this upset you?

The Prince has had lady friends before and will no doubt have them

again. How does this affect Tshaniland?" asked Claire.

"You don't understand! What if he wants to bring her here? I

cannot receive such a woman at Enkolovu!" Malaila sprang from her

chair and began pacing the floor like her namesake totem animal.

"But why should he?" Claire was more puzzled than ever.

"His Highness is supposed to be going to the grand opening of

the Birchenough Bridge over the Zambezi. Apparently, it's the greatest

engineering feat of the decade. Once he gets that far, he's bound to

carry on to visit us; he enjoyed himself no end on his last visit, and

promised to return. What's more likely than that he'll take the chance

to visit us after the bridge opening? And he'll bring her and then

there will be an international incident, and--argh! Why do these

things happen?"

"For heaven's sake, calm yourself. Number one, nothing has

happened yet and nothing may ever happen. Number two, you have a staff

of skilled speakers who can talk the hind leg off a wildebeest: they

will find a way to say no without appearing to do so. And number

three, you can always be out of reach: a retreat to consult the

ancestors, perhaps? Failing that, I can check you into the Clinic for

exhaustion. It wouldn't be that much of an exaggeration, come to think

of it."

"If I were the King of England, I would have the woman

removed. Either pay her to go, or have her dropped into the North Sea.

That would solve the problem."

"You know that isn't how things are done in England. Once,

perhaps, but not now. The very idea of King George hiring an assassin

is ludicrous."

"I bet there are days when he'd like one," said the Queen with

a grin. "All right, perhaps I'm worried about nothing. Forgive me,

Claire. Let's sit on the back veranda and drink gin and gossip."

Once settled with a generous gin and tonic, Claire filled the

Queen in on what had been happening lately. Little of what she said

appeared to be news; the Queen's intelligence network, known as the

"Ears of the Queen", clearly had already reported most items of

interest.

As she listened, the Queen opened a drawer of a small table

and brought out a package of Camels. "No, do not lecture me. It's my

only vice."

She lit the cigarette and drew the smoke in deeply. "Don't

frown at me, Claire, it will give you wrinkles."

"I will say nothing, but you know my opinion of tobacco," said

Claire.

"Yes, you're in the camp of James the First in that, aren't

you? A lot of doctors recommend an occasional cigarette for

relaxation."

"A lot of doctors recommended bleeding their patients and

killed them in the process," said Claire with some asperity.

"We'll have to agree to disagree on this matter," the Queen

said with an air of finality. "Now, the dead man with the slashed

stomach: what do you make of that? So far no one seems to be missing,

but probably word has not reached the outlying areas yet."

"I suppose the DC will have an article put in the newspaper:

that might bring the man's family to look at the body. I hope it's

soon; the weather is warming up and we don't have a refrigerator."

"I'm working on that: I had the Minister of Finance put an

item in this year's budget and it might just squeak through. I haven't

forgotten." The Queen had enticed Claire to Tshaniland with the

promise of a lucrative private practice with wide and fascinating

experiences, as well as a soon-to-be-upgraded national forensic

center. The center presently consisted of one stone building, a

microscope, centrifuge, soapstone autopsy table and Percy as an

assistant. The private practice kept the wolf from the door, but

payment was as apt to be made in negotiable domestic fowls as cash. If

it weren't for the few foreign patients, Claire would be poor indeed.

"I've got something interesting to show you. Tell me what it

is and I'll tell you where I got it." Claire gave her the stone that

she had retrieved from the gore of the postmortem.

Malaila took the stone to the window, held it up to the light,

bounced it on her palm, and tapped it against her front teeth.

"I hope you have a good explanation for this; otherwise I'll

have to call the guard and have you speared," she said, only half

joking.

"Why, what is it?" Claire asked.

"A diamond, about twelve carats and quite good quality. More

to the point, it's one of what we call the 'Tears of Alilo,' a

lavender diamond, and absolutely forbidden to be owned or even touched

by outsiders."

"Oh, dear. I only brought it to you because you know about

stones, I didn't think it was anything valuable. That makes where I

found it even more puzzling." Claire told the Queen of hearing the

small noise during the postmortem and finding the stone beside the

wreckage of the dead man's abdomen.

"Initially I thought that the stone had stuck to the clotted

blood, which would be unusual given that the man was apparently killed

in the Sea of Grass and there aren't many loose pebbles lying around

there. I brought it to you more as a curiosity than anything else."

"It's a curiosity all right. How did a murdered man come to

have such a thing on him?"

"Or in him--it's possible the stone was inside him, although I

can't think why," Claire mused.

"I can. In the South African diamond mines people sometimes

swallow stones to get them out of the miner's compound. Some of the

big mines have taken to fluoroscoping departing workers to identify

swallowed stones. Many of our men have been to work in the mines of

the Transvaal, and they've no doubt heard all the tricks for secreting

diamonds," the Queen explained.

"But we don't have any diamond mines here, so how would that

matter?"

The Queen gave Claire a rather odd look, then turned back to

the window and re-examined the stone. "Perhaps this man worked in

South Africa in the recent past."

"He was definitely some sort of workman, because his hands and

feet were callused. But that would apply to almost any adult male,

except a clerk or a teacher," said Claire. "Tell me about these Tears

of Alilo."

"They are rare. Over the years they have been found here or

there in alluvial deposits. There are some in the Mafulunga: you

probably would have seen them there. The tradition is that any such

diamond found must be brought to the Queen."

Claire thought back to the last time she had seen Malaila in

her full ceremonial costume, complete with the Mafulunga headdress.

She didn't recall noticing any lavender diamonds, but in an uncut

state, probably they didn't look any more impressive than the

translucent lump she'd taken from the gore of the autopsy table.

"And Alilo was the original Lady of the Winds, wasn't she?"

"We prefer to say she is the original Lady. Her spirit is

still with us in the Cave of the Winds, and sometimes she chooses to

put on flesh and speak to us again." Malaila was suddenly not a

twentieth century college graduate, but a personage to be ranked with

Ayesha or Sheba. Claire always found it rather spooky, the way the

younger woman took for granted that one could talk to a six-times

great-grandmother. Her tall figure seemed to get taller, and her

curiously oriental eyes glittered when she spoke of the ancestors.

Something in Claire's eyes must have told the Queen the effect

she was having, for she smiled suddenly and sat down. "Sorry; I've

frightened you."

"Well, not frightened so much as disconcerted me. You get this

look and it makes me feel as if you've turned into someone else."

"Don't worry, I'm not dangerous to you, Tshadola."

Claire thought that she wouldn't want to get on the wrong side

of Malaila; there was something about the young queen that made one

suspect she'd be a very bad person to cross.

"You get a sort of Chinese look when you talk about the

ancestors," observed Claire.

"It is said that a Chinese princess was shipwrecked off the

coast of Mozambique and was rescued by a group of Batshani who had

gone to get sea water for the Umshola festival. She came back with

them to Tshaniland with her maidens and one old man who must have been

some sort of shaman. The royal family is supposed to be descended from

these people, who settled down and intermarried. I used to wonder

about whether it was just a myth or fable, but there's a historian in

Germany who has discovered documents that support the story. Or so I

am told by Reverend Berghof."

"Watch out, he may be trying to convert you," laughed Claire.

"I don't think I would enjoy his brand of stringent northern

Christianity. If I were going to convert, I would choose something

with more incense and ceremony. I used to enjoy going down to the

harbor and watching the Blessing of the Fleet when I lived in Boston.

Those Catholics really know how to celebrate."

"I can just see you now, arriving for Mass in the Mafulunga

and your monkey-fur skirt and all that gold!" chortled Claire.

The Queen joined the laughter, then clapped her hand over her

mouth. "We must not make light of such things: we are naughty girls,

as Elspeth would say."

"How is she? I haven't seen her for months. What does she do

now that you don't need her the way you did in Boston?"

"I am worried about her. She has odd spells sometimes, but

pretends they're nothing. I tried to get her to visit your surgery but

she would have none of it and said she'd brew up something the inyanga

gave her for coughs. I did what I could to make her life easier by

putting her in charge of the regalia room and giving her a helper, but

you know how stubborn she can be. That is not your worry; let us get

back to the important thing: how do we find out where that diamond

came from?"

"We? I'm just a humble doctor, not a detective. Surely you

have people skilled in finding out things."

"Yes, but they don't have your access to some places we may

need to investigate."

"I think we should get Mr. Trevelyan involved if you are

really determined to find out about the diamond. He's far more likely

to get results, and as this is a case of murder, he needs to know

about the complication of the diamond, as that might have a bearing on

the killing," Claire said.

"He is a man of discretion, if a bit patronizing. I will leave

it in your hands what you tell him, but I must know where this diamond

came from. It's much more important than you could understand."

Claire felt a bit miffed at this statement. There were times

when Malaila treated her like a not-too-bright child. "I did manage to

get all the way through medical school, Your Majesty," she said.

"Don't get huffy, Claire, it's childish. I'm only asking you

to take it on trust that this is important, but if you insist, I can

turn you over to Mr. Moleponi to explain the history of the Tears of

Alilo and their place in the mythology of Tshaniland."

"No, no, that's all right; I'll take your word for it," Claire

said hastily. Some things it was better for one not to know, and Mr.

Moleponi's lectures came into that category. The official Tshaniland

historian, the old man spoke as if he had years, if not decades, in

which to make his listener understand the importance of a topic.

Claire vividly remembered his speech on the occasion of the first

anniversary of Malaila's accession, which coincided with her own

arrival in the country. After the second hour, most of the audience

had fallen into a stupor bordering on coma. It was worse than

listening to someone read the "begats" from the Old Testament.

"If there's nothing else I can do for you, I must be going; I

have to call at the German Farm before I go home." Claire collected

her handbag and gloves and stood up, awaiting official dismissal.

"You haven't finished your drink," the Queen protested.

"No, not when I have to drive up Dead Man's Hill after dark;

thank you anyway."

"All right, you may go. Keep me aware of what you find out,

and I will set some eyes and ears at work here." Without a further

word, Malaila swept out of the room, leaving Claire in mid-farewell.

Pondering the complex creature that she doubted she'd ever be

able to say she knew well, Claire got into her rackety car and started

it on the second attempt. With only one backfire, she got to the main

road and headed back toward Entshanini.

 

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