The ‘I Love Writing’ 2020 Short Story Competition is a joint project between the Bellingen Readers & Writers Festival and I Love Bello Shire.
Entries closed June 30. A strong field made judging tricky, but after much deliberation we’re proud to announce the winners and present their stories.
Laura McNeil, 11: What They Need
All he wanted was people to like him. But as he crunched his meaty hand into the cliff, he knew that the impression he was giving the innocent people of Wendall was far from friendly.
Tremors dance the cliff,
The townspeople face dismay,
A giant’s heart beats.
The giant’s eyes crack open and an almighty bellowing roar vibrates under the townspeople’s feet. Horror floods their faces as they catch a glimpse of the beast. The beast extends his long gangly arm, the townspeople scatter backwards, the beast’s arm narrowly misses striking them.
But his bold blue eyes contain love.
The beast’s heart breaks as he notices the fearful, hateful expressions on the townspeople’s faces.
He had never had a family of his own.
A single tear slips from his eye.
Nobody notices, except one small girl who steps forward, her pale blue dress faded and her hair in a messy ponytail. She walks slowly over to the giant and carefully taps his stone leg.
There are cries from the townspeople.
“Come back Delilah!”
“Be careful!” cried another.
“But he’s sad,” Delilah stutters.
The giant slowly crouches so as to be at the same height as the girl. Delilah holds the giant’s big hand and whispers something to him that nobody else can hear. “Do you want to be my friend?” The giant’s fist reaches out. The townspeople gasp. The mammoth fist strokes the small girl’s ponytail.
Small tears are exchanged.
Meaty fists clutch skinny palms.
Both have what they need.
Hannah McNeil, 10: The Frog Wars
Well this is meant to be a sizzling start but right now I can’t risk opening my mouth. Want to know why? Because I find myself with my friend Germ, crouching low in the middle of an empty car park with a massive oak leaf thrown over us. We’re hiding so the seagulls don’t see us, they are on the lookout for the shimmer of our glossy green skin. One more thing you need to know, is that Germ spreads disease wherever he goes. So here I am, crouching down, with my heart thumping and my mouth shut tight, while Germ coughs and sneezes everywhere. Before I can tell him to shut up he is yelling, “Bonus! Bonus! Incoming fly at 90 degree angle!”
His tongue jumps out of his mouth, flicking clear saliva that splats my face like bird droppings. Germ’s long froggy tongue has flicked the cover from over our head. So, now, we’re out in the open, slumped on the hard carpark concrete and the sun is burning our backs like we are being roasted on the barbecue. What else can go wrong? Oh yeah, the war of seagulls have spotted us and are closing in quickly. We run.
Quickly bouncing high off the concrete, I stop and turn around to see the beady black eyes of the seagulls that are now shading my body. The seagulls take to the air, pull their wings back and glide. They are fighting planes, trying to bomb us. Germ screams like a little girl who can’t find her undies with the princesses on them.
The screeching planes head for the ground . We close our eyes tight and hope for the best.
Lara Gulliver, 11: Golden Boy
“Oh how I love it when you play with me” whispered little Golden Boy in the ear of the old tree. “Oh but it is my pleasure, for you shine so brightly that you are thought to be a shining star” replied the tree, who was really quite vain. You see, he only ever let Golden Boy sit upon his wide branches. The other children were forced to play on the hard concrete in the playground over the hill.
A figure became visible in the mist at the early stretches of dawn. “You shouldn’t be out here!” the figure yelled with a strong but beautiful voice of a young woman. “Oh but mother-” “quick, hide in my branches, she won’t see you”. Inside the tree it was scratchy and bare, he heard the faint whisper of the tree’s raspy voice “you are so lucky to be free” he sighed… “Tell me my friend, why do you want to be free?” asked Golden Boy, “Well… because I am not happy, I’m very lonely when you are not here”. “Oh dear tree you do not have to be free to be happy, the only reason you’re lonely is because you resent all of the sweet little children who wish to play in your branches” he whispered so quietly in his soft voice that the tree could almost not hear.
Finally the tree understood, content with his life he took one final breath, then his heart stopped.
Andrew Thompson, 10: The Immortal Zombies
The year 2123 the world is corrupted and packed with emortal zombies. It’s too deadly to go outside the base. The zombies have grown in numbers size and strength, nothing can slow them down now. The zombies have no heart or brain. The only way to kill them is to place a heart in the chest then shoot them. That’s what I’m going to do.
I’ve left the shelter now, and I’m in the forest. It is cold and dark. I’m running low on food and water and now streams are too dangerous to drink because the water is contaminated. The first zombie I see is right in front of me, all I have to do is put the heart in the chest and kill it. The zombie bit me. I’ve become one, but I need to finish my job. I place the heart in its chest. Now all I need to do is kill it, I’ve done it before but now I’m a zombie, I need to find a cure quickly. I drink some water to keep myself hydrated and sure enough I’m cured. I need to do this to the other zombies to end the virus soon.
Lincon Condon, 9: The Evil Heart
Once upon a time there was a terrible heart which ruled the world, everyone was frightened of it. The heart tore down trees and made explosions which set fire to the earth. One day the heart disappeared, no one knew why? When the heart was gone the world was peaceful, but still people believed it would come back.
For ages the world was peaceful, but one terrible day the heart came back! Fires raced across the earth burning all of the trees and plants. One stormy night some hikers set out to find the heart, they hiked up the giant mountains with massive waterfalls and rivers.
The hikers got tired but they knew they had to keep moving. After a while they came to a salt water river, they were so hot that they jumped in. When they were in there something spoke to them, the voice less than a whisper said, “hello there, I have been waiting so long for you to arrive.” The hikers were shocked, then the voice spoke again “come up to the surface and you can see me.”
So the hikers swam back up to the surface. They probably went up because they were scared and curious. When they were finally at the surface they looked down into the water, at first they couldn’t see anything but then a small dark shape emerged from the water finally they was what it was, an Octopus! The octopus said, “are you looking for the heart?”, Y-y yes,” the hikers stammered. “Then follow me.” “Ok,” said the hikers and they set off.
While they were following the Octopus it told them how the heart had been stolen. They came to a dark pool with bones at the bottom in which the heart lay. The Octopus said, “I need you to go down and find the heart since I can’t touch it.” So the hikers went down and came back with the heart. The Octopus said that he needed to eat it, because it was his missing heart. After he had done that the hikers went home and told everyone, finally the world was peaceful.
Judged by Lisa Milner and Elisa Hall.
Maxyn Dorz: The Crow
If the sheep had still been around to graze the pastures, the toppling water tower would have startled them enough to lose their wool there and then. Instead, the rusty shell of the tank cracks unceremoniously over the grass and weeds that have begun to consume it, and its contents spray far and wide in a few seconds of elated freedom, before settling and trickling down the blades of green. The nearby farmhouse has relied on the water tower as a source for years, but it too has fallen. Since the man left.
The woman sits in a worn chair on the wraparound veranda that once supported so many purposeful gaits, but now droops with age, almost caressing the ground. She holds a hot drink in trembling hands, oblivious to the flies that have claimed the sandwich which teeters on a lopsided table beside her. The crow eyes her suspiciously. It’s perched nearby, on the edge of a rusted barrel. Watching patiently. In the far field, a mouse scurries from a shed into the overgrown grass, and then the crow is off. Hunting.
The crow returns hours later to thick black smoke, twisting into the sky as if to strangle it. The woman stands before a pile of belongings that are being eaten feverishly by greedy flames. She looks down at a picture frame for a long moment, before pitching it into the destruction. Next come ties and shirts and books and CDs, one after one disappearing into the orange and yellow and quickly reduced to ash. She screams suddenly. Inhumanely. Startled, the crow is off again, chasing the smoke into the dusk.
The next day the crow returns just as an unfamiliar vehicle comes to a stop out the front of the farmhouse. A stranger walks back and forth in front of the house, before finally knocking on the door and entering. The crow leaves to search for and snatch up a snail, returning hours later to find the woman alone, entering the stranger’s car and manoeuvring it slowly to the nearby pond. She exits just before its wheels kiss the murky eddies and it continues without her, travelling down into the choking weeds and uncharted depths.
For the rest of the day the woman chops wood with a large iron axe. Aggressive and erratic. The crow watches from a nearby stump until the instrument is flung its way with an unmatched fury. It spreads its obsidian wings and escapes to safety. Chased by howls. When it returns, the woman clings once more to her axe as she marches towards her car. A mouse scurries under her bonnet. The woman pulls out of her property. The crow follows her down the road.
An absent sun pales the sky to a murky blue-grey as the woman parks her car before a modest suburban house. She stands at the entrance and screams at the brick structure until she chokes on her tears. Punches her chest. Claws at her heart. Finally, a man exits the house. The crows’ attention is on the mouse, which has decided to stick its head out from under the woman’s car. It walks forward. Tentatively. Unaware of the stalking crow. Without warning, the woman raises the axe from behind her back and brings it down on the man as the crow dives for its prey. The mouse doesn’t stand a chance.
A distraught woman and her child run from the side of the house, onto the street. The axe is lifted again. The woman strides towards them. From the end of the street, a song plays in time to flashing red and blue. In a nearby tree, the crow spots a nest of eggs and soars towards them. The woman raises the axe on the child, as another bird intercepts the crow with ferocity, sending it spiralling. From the flashing lights sounds a terrible bang. The crow falls.
Oliver Pham: A Night To Reflect
I raise my head, awakened by the arguing at 5:30 in the morning, blinded by the sun gleaming through the holes in the roof. I get up, still beaten by sleep and open my door. The creaking from it sounds as if someone is scraping their nails down a blackboard. Another daily reminder of how little money we have. I walk to the cupboard and grab the last can of kidney beans and sit down on our scratchy wooden floor while mum tries to get another box of donations from the Smith Family. I look over and see Dad in the corner, always on the phone, always with saggy bags around his eyes from sleep deprivation. He has got a job interview tomorrow and keeps on saying, “this is the one. I feel it.” I’ve heard these words for the past month. My baby brother Jack crawls over to me, giggling and oblivious of everything that’s happening. He picks up a kidney bean and shoves it in my face, always making me smile and laugh.
Sometimes when I get overwhelmed, I walk away from everything and go out for a ride. It’s not a dirt bike, nor a bicycle, it’s really just a bit of metal with wheels on it and a whipper snipper motor that dad attached for me on my 9th birthday. Since we live right next to the trails it’s easy to just go for a ride. I start up the engine and black smoke sputters out of the exhaust. It should be fine, I thought to myself. I ride past the neighbours and onto the trails. Sun glistens through the trees while clouds of dust follow behind me and goanna’s scurry up the mountain side as they see me coming. The sun sets swiftly leaving me with no time to notice. The moonlight shines through the trees as I start to worry.
I begin to head home. Darkness surrounds me. Gradually I slow down, the engine starts sputtering in unusual ways and the little torch I attached turns off. I halt to a stop. The engine completely surrenders and drops of sweat drip off my body. Panic rushes through my nerves, and my heart sounds like a drumbeat on repeat echoing through my head. Anxiety hits me as I realise I’m stuck. For a minute, I just sit on my bike, in complete silence hoping this isn’t real.
I start to wander around; I need to think of what I’m going to do. I begin to shiver. I yearn for the warm fuzzy blankets that mum sews for me with her council pickup sewing machine. I remember the cigarette lighter I had in my pocket which I stole from my uncle Liam. I’m not a genius but I know a bit of fire and petrol makes a lot more fire. I gather leaves and sticks; everything is still wet from the storm last night. I position the sticks into a little tepee and shove the wet leaves underneath it. I grab my bike and push it up the hill and position it next to the sticks. I tip it on its side; the gassy smell of petrol makes me feel lightheaded as I pour the remaining contents of it from my bike onto the fire. I quickly grab the lighter, my hands trembling from the cold. I count in my head 3,2,1, boom. My arm hairs sizzle as the fire singes them and makes them bald. The warmth of the fire makes me feel like I’m at home, the small fireplace lit and all of my family around it with dirty sticks we found, roasting marshmallows. I reminisce about the warmth that always existed in my home, despite having little money or material things, I always felt the tender love from my parents. Sure, there were some stressful moments with some bickering here and there with banter rebounding backwards and forth between Jack and I. He is young and his sentences aren’t’ clearly formed but he does sure know how to defend himself when he feels that something is unjust. A tear slowly drips out of my eye as the fire starts to die down and I get colder. I would do anything right now to hear one of Jack’s regular tantrums.
I start to walk, searching for some firewood that’s not wet and won’t dampen the dying fire. I finally find some and run eagerly back to it, hoping that these sticks will save me from enduring a night of bitter coldness. It’s no use though, each stick I add just brings more smoke. The flickering flames are so small now that I can barely see them. They don’t seem to be generating any more heat. I wonder to myself; will I make it through the night or will the grim cold seep into my bones and organs causing me to sleep permanently? What about my family, surely, they have noticed that I am gone? Are they out searching for me now? Why haven’t they found me yet? Dad should know my usual route that I ride or maybe he thought I went in the other direction. I know they would do anything to find me. These are my options as I see it. I could die tonight, or I start praying right now and who knows, maybe someone might hear my prayers. I want to go home, and I am willing to do anything right now.
My eyes slowly begin to drift asleep as I lay down on the wet dewy leaves. I feel my blood freeze as hunger courses through my shivering body. I feel a warm soothing sense of hope as sleep finally takes its course. Two lights sparkle in the distance through the forest trees.
Lily Ryan: I peer over
I peer over the top of my beaten up school library book and lock eyes with my best friend, Lucas Mitchell. Electricity races through my veins and my breath quickens as I slowly turn away from his view, in order to hide my flaming pink cheeks. I check the clock in desperation to leave class, and I’m satisfied to see there’s only a few seconds remaining. As per usual routine, the bell blares through muffled speakers, ordering us to go home.
“This is so wrong, I can’t feel like this,” I say to myself as I weave my way through the dozens of over-tired students, majority heading in the same direction; church. I don’t follow.
I lazily step off the bus, dreading the conversation that’s bound to arise once I step through those front doors. The questions I’ll have to tip-toe past and the mask I’ll have to put on. My hands meet the icy door handle and a glint of electric blue glimmers in the corner of my eye. I am struck with the realisation that I have made a very bad decision.
“If anybody at school was to see this I could’ve been beaten, or even expelled,” I shakingly whisper. I anxiously begin scrubbing at my neatly painted nails with the cuffs of my ancient school jumper, hardened lint pulling back the delicate skin around my cuticles, like a cat clawing at a scratching post. A stinging sensation begins in my eyes and travels into my throat, growing an unswallowable lump.
I enter into this discriminatory place we are programmed to call our home, making a direct beeline for my bedroom – my only escape. But I am abruptly stopped by a large, bear-like hand grabbing at my wrist. My face is painted crisp white as I realise my fate.
“What is this!” my father screams into my face, warm saliva spraying over my frightened face. “Do you have any idea what people would say if they saw this? They could assume that you go completely against our church’s teachings.”
“I don’t know what’s up with you at the moment, you’re a different person, where’s the Lennon we used to love?” Mum calmly replies. I can’t bear to hear the oblivious criticism any longer. I take a breath and release tension held in my jaw that I didn’t realise was there to begin with. My mouth attempts to form words and sentences but my voice does not oblige.
After several attempts, I’m finally able to utter the words I’ve been trying to deny my whole life. The words that I’ve been taught are wrong and shameful. If I choose to acknowledge these words, I well and truly know my life could be over. I can either choose to live my life in denial, never being fulfilled, constantly longing for happiness. Or I can follow my heart and break free from this burden I’ve held on my shoulders for the past 15 years, but risk my whole community turning against me. The decision I must make is as clear as day.
Leonie Harrison: Ready Or Not
‘Ready?’ she said.
Of course I wasn’t ready. Not then. Not now. But it was Angie. Turn your head; make you weak at the knees Angie. How she ended up in my bed, my life, is still a mystery to me. Angie was open as the sky, a fearless, superhero who overpowered everyone with her charm. Me, I lived in a carefully constructed box. Once she ripped the lid off, life was never the same. I was never the same.
‘Let’s go to Paris,’ she said.
Paris? Doing a quick calculation. We could do that. Everyone should go to Paris at least once right? But Angie meant the toss it all in’ kind of let’s go to Paris that churned my stomach. What about my job? The flat? What would we live on? Angie banished my fears with a flick of her wrist.
‘We have savings,’ she said.
Savings? Angie had savings? Surprised she even understood the concept. Ah, my savings. ‘What would we do there?’ That was the point. We wouldn’t do anything.
‘It’ll be an experience,’ she said.
You need to know this about me. I’m an accountant. I deal in known quantities. I don’t do experience, yet despite the fact that I felt as if I were jumping off a cliff, it was Angie, the girl who’d stolen my heart, and just in case the gods realized they’d made a mistake and whisked her away, I said yes.
Paris was predictable. Cafes, bicycles, policemen with moustaches and funny hats and every street a living, breathing catwalk. Where I was blasé, Angie was giddy. ‘Smell it,’ she said. ‘Taste it,’ she said. ‘All that history, the romance, the color, the flavor of it all.’ I found myself caught up in the pure joy of seeing the streets of Paris through her eyes, sipping lattes in the predictable cafes and watching artists on the left bank. This was Angie’s world and I bathed in the glow of her.
Our third floor apartment was no more than an alcove at the top of the stairs, our limbs all tangled together in the three quarter bed where we did our bit to help Paris maintain it’s reputation as the city of love. Days merged into weeks into months. Then Angie handed me a small plastic stick I mistook for a thermometer. Two pinks lines. I didn’t understand. Then it hit me. I walked the streets in a daze. Me. A dad. It seemed like hours but Angie said I was gone all of ten minutes until it dawned on me that I’d walked out without a word. She was waiting for me at the door. I scooped her up, both of us laughing and crying. We lay in the dark for hours not able to sleep.
‘We’re having a baby,’ I whispered.’
‘I know,’ she whispered back.
Ben changed everything. Seven pounds of wonder that fit in my two hands. Numbers are my world. Numbers are safe. They are grounded in simple truths. As a numbers man I understood exactly what seven pounds meant. As a father I couldn’t begin to fathom of the weight of responsibility I felt when I held my son for the first time.
Difference matters. At least it did to Angie and me. Maybe we could have made a go of it in Paris. Angie’s right, I never gave it a chance. Like a homing pigeon, I winged my way back to familiar territory, back to London and a job in finance. It wasn’t sexy but it was safe. That was the beginning of the end. Angie didn’t want safe. She wanted fire. She wanted edge. She wanted alive and the more secure I tried to make us, the more it tore us apart. Five years we lasted.
‘It’s over,’ she said, and although it broke me in two, I knew she was right.
Funny thing is we flourished in our separate worlds. Me, Mr. Feet on the Ground, threw my hat in with two young guns in a new start up in innovative healthcare. They came up with the ideas. I crunched the numbers. Angie went from part time assistant to manager of a local gallery. Ben spent three weeks a month with Angie, one with me. We both cried the day he left home to study architecture. There were other relationships, but neither of us found anyone to fill the gap that was us. Life was good. We thought it would last forever.
‘Dad?’ My heart did its usual back flip whenever Ben or Angie called. It turned to ice with his next words. ‘It’s mum.’ I heard only fragments of what followed. ‘Biopsy. Rare. Too many white cells. Not enough platelets.’ The words came thick and fast. Leukemia. Angie had Leukemia. The bad kind. Ben crying. Me too stunned to speak. I hung up the phone in shock only to ring straight back. Both of us crying now. There’d been bruises on her arms and legs that she couldn’t account for. She’d ignored them. I wanted to scream at her. Didn’t she know every second counts.
The first round of chemo we all came through more or less in tact. The second took her hair and her curves. She turned bandanas and wigs into an art form but that didn’t hide the bruises under her eyes or the fact that she had to sit down after five minutes of walking. By the third, we knew the odds were stacked against her, but somehow, she managed to conjure up a ghost of her killer smile that made us feel good even when we were falling apart.
Summer turned to autumn turned to winter. The first buds of spring began to form and we began to hope, but the numbers ran out. Angie slipped away one late afternoon with Ben and me beside her.
There are days it still catches me by surprise. I’ll think about calling her to talk about work or what Ben’s been up to and it slams into me and I’m all hollowed out again. Those days I forget to eat dinner and I don’t bother to turn on the lights when it gets dark.
Today is okay. Today I remember. Today me and Ben will scatter her ashes and he’ll make sure I eat tonight. I hear the front door slam and turn my head at the sound of his footsteps. He puts a hand on my shoulder.
‘Ready?’ he says. The same question his mother asked a lifetime ago.
Of course I’m not ready. Not yet. Maybe never.
Kristin Vlasto: Lake Serenity
I’m not going to bore you with the logistics of space travel or recount how my past and my programming got me here to this solitary posting on a rancid planet. There’s no point describing my physical appearance to you, except that I understand the human desire for visuals. If you need to see me, think about the female replicants in the film Blade Runner, but take away the sequins and picture a thick outer layer of matt brown latex over mechanical limbs and you’ve got me. I was not designed to please the human eye. I have no heart, not even a mechanical one. Unlike the fictional replicants, I’m a functioning relic of 21st century robotics; a machine of circuitry and solar powered cells. Deep inside my chest is one of the few remaining biochips, most likely programmed by a teenager during an era obsessed with gamification. Please forgive the tone of my narration; I only have four AI stats that define my ‘personality’.
58% inventive: My mission- helping mankind solve their trash crisis.
29% patient: The reason why I haven’t ripped my own circuits apart.
11% cynical: Yay (!)
2% pride: No joke. I guess they thought I needed a will to live.
On a clear day this place can be aesthetically pleasing. Under a thin white sky, the vast quantities of trash come to mimic the geological landforms of earth; rolling hills, deep valleys, multi-coloured mountains and glaciers of compacted whitegoods carving the landscape, creating deep ravines where rivers of oil and putrefied organic matter flow. My small factory is positioned beside a wide crater that gradually filled with liquid, swelling over the years to form a vast lake. In time the lake’s contents reacted with the mineral composition of the planet, turning the pool a deep blue-violet with a glossy surface and a slight effervescence. The cynic in me calls it Lake Serenity.
The garbage arrives weekly on a rectangular shaped freighter that simply hovers over a coordinate, rattles close to the surface and evacuates the load through crude dispenser doors. The only requisite for trash planet was a field of gravity strong enough to retain the refuse, but not so powerful as to interfere with the aeronautical operations of the super-junkers. There’s no oxygen here, no human-life sustaining conditions, and in a way that is ironic, given the miracle product I manufacture.
Filtration day is always a thrill. I flick a switch and a valve opens, sucking liquid through a pipe positioned with an intake inlet just below the surface at the centre of the lake; a spot with the least contaminants. The moody blue fluid fills a sterile vat and then seeps through a series of increasingly fine filtration compartments and strainers, ensuring the end product contains no microparticles larger than pollen. The fluid is measured into large glass canisters and stacked neatly, ready for transportation to earth. The sludge collected on the strainers is carefully removed after every operation and stored in thick-walled holding tanks.
In the early days I had done a series of increasingly stringent tests on the sparkling blue liquid and deemed it safe for human consumption. At the very least it was an attractive drink with UV light reactive qualities and a texture both fizzy and silky. I finalised my report, along with a copy of the positive test results which indicated that it may even have restorative qualities for human cells. I’d also done a few tests on the by-product and deemed it unfit for human consumption. At room temperature the sludge was stable but when warmed to 37 degrees, the solution became volatile and would attack the cell walls of organic matter.
It took an interminable amount of time for the earth agency in charge of garbage shipments to respond, but eventually a craft was sent that hovered above my factory yard, lowered a freight platform and signalled for me to load my product. It was six months before a second collection vehicle arrived, this time taking five times the volume of the first and confirming its early popularity. The drink was to become so popular that the vessels would make a pick up every second week.
I was eventually provided with a detailed brochure of product marketing, distribution and reception. Most interesting to me was the fact that my partners on earth had been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for turning trash into a health tonic. ViBlu© was first used as a mixer in nightclubs. The purple glow under UV lights made it popular with bartenders and the slogan ‘outta this world’ backed up by the truth of its off-world origin meant it was a marketer’s dream. When consumers reported an increase in energy levels, it was stocked on the shelves of health food stores and juice bars across every mega city on earth. Pretty glass bottles, glowing with vitality and sweetened with just enough skyberry flavour enhancer to suit the human palate. When scientists noticed that the ultrafine protein strands in ViBlu© soothed human nerve cells and resulted in a significant smoothing of wrinkled skin, the population went crazy for the stuff. A stunning example of human ingenuity.
I waited for personal recognition but none came. Maybe I was just an outdated clump of circuitry covered in brown latex, with a human programmed biochip in the place where my heart should be.
So, without an imagination it is impossible for me to picture the impact of the contaminated batch of ViBlu© on the human population. I don’t know if cells popped, if bodies exploded dramatically, if they withered over a number of days or if the effect was more like a slow spreading rash across the globe. What I do know is that the junkers have stopped and that no matter how patient I am, I’m only 2% satisfied, and forever is a long time.
Kristin Vlasto: Curtain Call
The smell in the theatre on opening night was unmistakable. Mixed with the usual scent of mothballs and fresh paint, the audience added a base note of cigarette smoke and top notes of floral perfume and breath mints. Rosie was sitting in the front row, off to one side, wishing she had a friend with her. Her mother had insisted that this was a ‘grown-up’ play, not normally suitable for ten-year-olds. She was allowed to watch it because her parents were playing leading roles. She had been reminded on several occasions that the play was not real, it was all an act. Rosie glanced at the front page of the program.
The Final Curtain
Can you ever truly know a person?’
Performed by the Cedarwood Amateur Theatre Society
The lights dimmed, voices hushed and Rosie held her breath in the expectant blackness. She could hear the heavy drag of the curtain drawn back and squinted to make out shapes on stage. But when the light came, it was from the back of the hall. Standing in the centre of a milky white spotlight was her father. All heads turned to see him in a formal blue suit, his face unnaturally pale and his hair combed neatly back. He did not speak but kept his eyes straight ahead as he moved slowly within the spotlight towards the stage. He turned to face the audience for a few seconds, before laying down on a plinth, centre stage, that was shrouded in heavy green velvet. The spotlight flickered then, and went off. Rosie inhaled sharply, but released her breath when a warm wash of light spilled across the stage, revealing the whole set. Her father was lying still on the plinth, but she could see her mother now, playing the undertaker in a neat beige suit and red lipstick, arranging fake roses and placing them in a vase on a table stage left. She approached the central figure, made an exaggerated gesture of closing the man’s eyes, and neatly folded his arms across his chest. At stage-right there was a painted window framing an outdoor scene; a green hillside, the silhouette of a tree and a sun rising, or was it setting? It was hard to tell.
Rosie had been coming to this theatre since before she could crawl. She loved the make-up, the props and especially the costume room with its rows of woollen suits, stiff crinkly taffeta dresses, maid’s uniforms, army coats and hat racks with strings of fake pearls, bow ties and the assortment of masks and wigs. She loved with all her heart to climb into the rafters and look down on the stage during rehearsals or curl up on a blanket backstage as the final night afterparties slipped on until the rowdy early hours. But this time Rosie hadn’t been allowed to watch any rehearsals and when she asked why, her mother said that the director had made all the crew sign a studio agreement not to discuss details.
Home had become increasingly tense in the lead up to opening night; there were slamming doors, curt exchanges over the dinner table and a battered cigarette pack had been fished out from a bottom drawer. All this culminated in a late night heated argument when Rosie, ear pressed to the wall after lights out, heard her father say, ‘I told you, it didn’t mean anything.’
‘Don’t you dare tell me you were getting into character.’
‘What a cliché. You disgust me.’
The play itself was made up of a series of monologues. The undertaker would open a door, welcome a character to the stage and then take her exit, leaving each person alone to pay their respects to the dead man. The light would change to a muted blue as each character triggered a flashback or memory. First was his brother who made the audience laugh as he reminisced over daring childhood adventures, then made them cry over a petty conflict that would never be resolved. Then came a childhood friend. A sporting coach. An officer in uniform. In between flashbacks, the set returned to the present as the woman in the beige suit arranged paperwork, trimmed the man’s nails, made phone calls. When she welcomed a young woman with blonde hair and a flowing floral dress to the stage there was a long pause, as if someone had forgotten a line. In the audience, Rosie could hear muffled voices, whispers, someone sniggering. During her monologue the woman gave an impassioned performance in the blue light; she clutched the man’s hand, she draped her blonde hair across his face and appeared to cry real tears. She made to leave and then paused before sweeping melodramatically back to his side. As the audience drew in a collective audible breath, she kissed the man hard on the lips, making her exit all the more dramatic.
During intermission, the audience were abuzz with cheap wine and conversation. A few journalists were asking people what they thought of the play, the acting skills of the dead man, if it was a successful deconstruction of identity? Rosie sat on her own with a watery hot chocolate. She kept thinking of her dad, arms crossed, eyes closed. Kept thinking of her parent’s fight. Kept thinking of those tears and that kiss. Those angry words.
In the final act, the curtains were drawn back to reveal the same room, but on the following day. The light was different now, it was that of an early morning, and through the painted window the sun was rising. A soundtrack of sparse birdsong bought a kind of fresh lightness to the stage. Bunches of flowers and cards encircled the man on the plinth, and to one side rested a wreath made of ivy. The funeral was over and the woman in her beige suit was finishing up. She took a white folded sheet and flicked it open, before fluttering it over the dead man’s body. She took a long look at the audience, the perfect image of serene composure, before leaning down and whispering something in his ear that no-one else could hear. And that should have been the end of the play. The curtains should have closed and the audience should have given the cast a standing ovation during the final curtain call. Instead the man’s body gave a sudden jerk, his hand fell from below the sheet and Rosie could see it contort into a fist. She saw the quick rise and fall of his chest as he clutched off the sheet with his other hand, revealing his purple red face, bulging veins, eyes rolling back. The audience were frozen. He was very convincing. There were a few voices, open mouths, but no one moved from their seats. Then he put down shaky legs and staggered off the plinth onto the stage, all the while clutching at his chest and sucking for breath. When he collapsed and started convulsing, a few people in the audience climbed out of their seats and made for the stage. Rosie saw her parents then as if she were looking through a foggy tunnel. She saw her mother drop to her knees beside her father and commence CPR. She tilted his head back, put her red lips to his, and gave him three quick breaths. Then she yelled for someone to call an ambulance before starting on the chest compressions.
The cast never got to complete their final curtain call on opening night. Instead, a famous photograph now hangs in the foyer of the Cedarwood Amateur Theatre. It depicts a dramatic tableau. In the foreground the few audience members still sitting are simple silhouettes. The greater part of the frame is taken up by a stage littered in crushed flowers and broken vases; the white light stretches the deep shadows into a mosaic of jagged fragments. At the back of the stage stand a few actors, their forms partly obscured by darkness; a man in an army coat, another in a sports uniform. At stage left the light falls on a blonde woman, crying thick mascara tears. Her shoulders are curved over, her arms are wrapped around her knees, and the floral patterns on her dress give the illusion that she is a part of the crushed flower carnage. A man dressed in a dark blue suit is propped against the right wall of the set. His hair is slicked back, his face is a greying shade of pale, but he is smiling with lips that are smeared with a greasy gash of bright scarlet lipstick. On his right sits a woman in a beige suit, her hair dishevelled, holding the man’s hand. On the left is a girl of ten who is leaning in and stroking the man’s face. Framed in a painted window on the wall behind the trio is the simple scene of a sun setting. Or is it rising? It’s impossible to tell.
Beth Gibbings: Working With The Enemy
Sometimes when I came to see Marion she would tell me a story about her past, as if I’d come for her biography rather than advice about extensions. She would tell me of a time in her life, a small moment, then stare out the window as if she were an actress pondering the disappearance of a lost relative in a crime drama. Sometimes it was about her time as a nurse before she had trained as an architect, last week it was from her childhood.
‘When I was four years old,’ she had said, ‘my best friend drowned.’ There she was at the drawing table, 2H pencil in hand, staring out the window overlooking the dentist’s courtyard, grey hair brushed back from a tall brow. ‘Or I might have been three. I remember visiting the family home, my mother and his mother formal, quiet and me in the corner not comprehending that I was playing with a dead child’s toy soldier. I think it might have had quite an impact on me. At this point in the story she would turn to me. ‘The funny thing is no one’s interested when I tell that story. Why do you think that is? Is it that people have no heart?’
That day I had been impatient to the point where I was breathless from taking the stairs two at a time. The workers had pulled the old asbestos sheeting out ready for the new bathroom wall, and found a measuring discrepancy that meant there was not enough space for a wheelchair to turn around.
I unrolled the plans from my previous visit. ‘Sometimes people are too caught up in their own worlds to hear what others are feeling,’ I said, handing them over.
‘Does that happen to you as well?’ She put the documents to the side, rotated in her ergonomic chair back towards me. ‘I thought it might be because I was boring.’
Behind her was the bookshelf, with books not stacked according to colour like my mother had, but in categories. The largest was on architecture, some names familiar, most not. There was a section on song writers and musicians from the 1970s, New York mainly, and another on conceptual artists. A small section on midwifery, including one on natural pain-free childbirth. It was the same book my mother had when she was pregnant with my brother and I, filed in the green section. ‘What a bloody myth,’ she would say, if ever I picked it up.
Marion’s gaze was accosting me, as if looking at books was verification that she was indeed, boring. ‘I was thinking about my mother,’ I said. ‘When she was in labour with us, how the nurses ignored her. She knew it was going wrong, and they said she was just being hysterical.’
Marion looked annoyed, turned back to the desk, started ruling lines on a projection. ‘That’s hardly what I meant.’
In between visits the renovations progressed, hampered when it wouldn’t stop raining, and then again when a strike in Italy delayed the tiles. But I had to come back to Marion when the carpenter found the rise on the sloped entry was too steep. She’d used old accessibility specifications and it was something the council couldn’t turn a blind eye to.
‘I’m quite intuitive,’ she was saying today. At the table, pencil poised over plans, eyes ahead. This time I noticed Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, (grey spine) in a political section. ‘More so when I was younger. Sure the usual things of knowing who was about to phone, but sometimes more serious than that.’
I came back from contemplating Mandela’s journey. ‘What do you intuit about me then?’
‘Intuition is different to clairvoyance.’ Now she was pencilling intently, shading the side of a building. Despite my need it wasn’t my risers she was working on but a curved building, with the plan view looking like a spiral. She turned the drawing around, attacking from a different angle.
‘But since you asked. I know that you’re aware that I was that nurse.’
‘What nurse?’ I wanted to ask, to feign ignorance, but it would be a lie. Images of my mother, knowing it was wrong, pretending to push when they told her, no answers left, begging for the obstetrician. The midwife hesitating, taking her time, because it was a Sunday, because. Because why should the specialist come in for a public patient?
From the street I could hear teenagers lining up for ice-cream after school, late afternoon turtle doves in the courtyard. In the room only the sound of pencil scrubbing on paper, back and forth, back and forth.
‘It takes my brother ten minutes to get to be able to say ‘good morning’ with his communication board,’ I said. ‘His wheelchair is automated, but sometimes it malfunctions, and the engineer only comes north once a fortnight. Glen had a job in the IT industry, but he’s the first person to be laid off when a downturn hits. And yet he’s still cheerful. He doesn’t blame anybody.’
Outside the kids were moving off, the sound of a motor bike filled the air. The cockatoos were starting their journey to the mountains.
When the works were finished, the stairlift operational and we’d moved in Glen invited Marion around to toast the completion. It was pre-twilight, and we’d been out on the stone-paved deck facing the Bluff. Glen had ordered in local wine and I’d served canapes. After he’d retired inside Marion rolled a joint, and we watched as the sky turn purple.
‘Nelson Mandela thought that forgiveness liberates the soul,’ she said. ‘Does that apply to forgiving oneself though?’ She took a long draw on the joint, blew out smoke.
‘I knew there were times I was being cruel as a nurse,’ she continued. ‘A lot of us were offhand with pregnant women, and I told myself that that was just how things were, part of the culture.’ She turned to me. ‘You all deserved better than that.’
I nodded slowly, no need for words. The sun was dropping quickly, the automatic patio lights would soon come on. The house was working well for us, comfortable in the landscape. She had found a form that suited the two of us, twins who were meant to be identical.
‘Why did you choose me as your architect?’ she asked, as if she had she known what I was thinking.
‘Glen wanted to know what you were like.’
She looked towards the mountain, her face now only a silhouette. Hercule Poirot after the mystery had been solved.
‘Fair enough,’ she said. Quietly, as if to herself.
Peter Smith: The Heart Of The Forest
‘There is a natural order to all things. It is a spiritual landscape of consciousness that serves a greater purpose. Everything is connected in this tapestry of existence and separation is a myth designed by lesser species.’
Before time began, the Father Trees were created.
They were created to exist forever with one purpose in mind, to create the lungs of Gaia and to work with her in her role as Mother Earth to promote and protect all life.
Every forest on earth has a Father Tree that is well hidden in the centre of the great expanse of growth. Their sacred task is to lovingly seed all other trees, who then evolve into new species adapting to the ever-changing climates and conditions. The forests create homes for the animals and shelter and protection for the traveling species of birds.
The forest nurtures and feeds all the animals so they can grow in abundance and then offer back to the trees their own body gifts that fertilise the earth. There is an exchange of breath between the animals and the trees. The exhale of the animals is the inhale of the forest as the landscape continues to exist in loving unison.
The Father Tree communicates with all trees through the root system held in the bosom of Mother Earth. As he is the heart of the forest, she is the soul of all things, gently allowing the life force energy of all to return to her, to be held until its return in the creation of new form.
This is the natural order of things and it has always been this way.
The Father Tree that lived in the great southern land was more watchful than most. He had observed in very recent times that the energy of the forest was changing. For millennium he had watched over all and nurtured the trees into existence, and the animals that followed. He could sense the unrest through the consciousness of nature and had worked with Mother Earth to protect the landscape. At times he would help to restore the natural balance by asking Gaia to bring her underground water closer to the surface to sustain the forest, or ask her to take the souls of the forest back into her bosom to hold them there for a while. They worked in loving collaboration with their sacred task to create and protect the tapestry of existence.
The recent unrest had disturbed them both. Mother Earth held the remains of the old forests within her. Over time they had broken down into deposits deep in the earth that served the landscape through the holding of ancient wisdoms in mineral and fossil deposits. All that had been learned across time unknown, was lovingly help deep within her. Now it was being removed and burned, creating a much greater reliance on the Father Trees to build new forests, so Mother Earth and all her animals could once again breathe the air easily.
At the same time the forests were shrinking. Unlimited expansive networks of Gaia’s lungs had been decimated and the Father Trees could no longer keep up with the seeding of the new forests.
The Father Tree of the great southern land was the first to notice the heat. He felt it a long way off, though some of the trees he had seeded were burning. Through the root network he could feel their distress and his message to them was clear. “Tell the animals to flee”. He crafted the message so the trees could show the animals in which direction to go and he asked the birds to lead them. Nature came together in a wave of loving support.
For some of the animals it was too late to flee and Father Tree asked the trees to open and take animals within them into the gnarled holes in the bark and the hollowed out sections of their trunks and branches. Mother Earth also responded by leading the ground animals to burrows and holes, some long abandoned, as a way to escape the approaching inferno. Some were not able to make it and as the flames took their bodies, Mother Earth, Gaia, the Mother of all and keeper of souls drew their life force energy into her being, to be held there, until new bodies for them could be created from the natural order.
As Mother Earth looked after the animals, Father Tree supported the trees through the crisis. He told the trees to draw their energy right back into their trunk and surrender their foliage to the flames. As the flames intensified, he told them to draw their life force down into the roots. As the loving energy of all trees was anchored in the root system held by Gaia, they received loving support from other trees, even those far, far away.
Father Tree spoke to Mother Earth and asked for her underground water, though she had none to offer at that time. It had been taken already, and without it the forest burned with a ferocity never seen before. Father Tree felt his forest burn and Mother earth swelled with the souls of the animals that joined her, though together they held strong, united in their sacred quest to protect all life.
The trees that were left were engulfed in the smoke, created from the burning of their tree brethren and a deep and profound sadness filled the landscape as so many thousands of years of growth was engulfed in flames.
Father Tree spoke again to Mother Earth and asked if there was underground water remaining in other places. Gaia replied that other continents still held some that had not been taken. Father Tree who had seeded forests for all time and held the wisdom of the ages, had a thought. He knew that while the root network stopped at the shorelines, the smoke would travel to the other continents on the winds of Mother Earth. So he sent a message through that huge plume of smoke that travelled on the great winds…
“To all other Father Trees, in all places. We are burning and our underground water has been taken. Please send your water through the air and help us.” The smoke circled the world and the message was heard.
Mother Earth drew the underground water into the root systems of the trees in far off lands across the oceans, far more than they needed. The Father Trees around the world taught the forests to draw the moisture up into their branches and into the leaves, where it could evaporate into the air.
On the currents of the wind, the water travelled around the world and hung in the air above the great southern land and gathered, and gathered, becoming larger and heavier and then the clouds burst and fell as rain. It fell for a day, then another, then a week, then two weeks.
The flames were quenched and where once there was forest, an eery blackened landscape could be found. The Father Tree was relieved and Mother Earth sighed under the burden of the many animal souls she carried.
Father Tree started to organise the re-creation in loving unison with Mother Earth. Birthing energy was generated through the root systems of all trees and offered to those affected by the flames. The life force energy burst in the new growth along all the trunks and branches of the burnt trees. They started to flourish with some urgency, knowing that every leaf that returned was restoring the natural order of all and serving the animals and birds.
It would take time for Mother Earth to release the animal souls back into the bodies to be created, though for her, time was different. She was eternally patient and loving of all upon her.
Father Tree and Mother Earth smiled at each other and remained watchful as they continued on their sacred journey to support and protect the tapestry of existence.
Though it would take much time for the trees and animals, they knew that all would be well…ultimately, as for them time did not exist.