Yellow Light

The restaurant window is a square of yellow light.  Wine glasses on the tables, napkins folded, table cloths perfectly symmetrical.  In there it is warm like rice.  Out here it is cold like wine.

Street lights are staining the sky, cars swim past and their headlights flicker.

Next to the restaurant window, a cinema begins.  Inside there is royal red carpet and posters of faces and words.  Warm like a lounge room.

My hands are uncovered.  My thumbs are frozen.  If my date texts me, I won’t be able to reply.  The moisture in the air is curling my fringe.  It will be ruined by the time he comes.  My oppressed heels are trying to escape out the bottoms of my boots.  There are no seats out here, so I have to stand until he comes.

This top accentuates the line of my shoulders.  It curves around my hips until it meets the lip of my jeans.  I should have brought a jacket.  But the line of my top accentuating my shoulders was too convincing.  He’s missing it.

There’s a man standing in front of the yellow window now.  I envy him for his leather jacket.  His feet are moving about impatiently, his hands thumbing the insides of his jean pockets.  Hair combed back nicely.  He is looking lustfully at the red cinema.  He has his back to the yellow light restaurant, otherwise he would stare lustfully into there as well.  His lips are chapped like mine and he licks them as I lick mine.

He doesn’t notice my staring at him.  He thinks I’m just looking into the yellow restaurant.  Really I’m looking at the way his hair is beginning to curl like mine, the way his eyes paw the ground, the way his feet can’t be still, the way he licks his lips.  Then his brown eyes stop darting and look straight into mine.

This is a pretty empty street.  The restaurant and the cinema would probably both be out of business if they weren’t both so warm.  No one can see our eyes kiss, that miniscule second in which our gaze joins in the middle.  No one can tell my date and no one can tell his.  Not even the people in the restaurant and the cinema are looking at us.  They’re too busy with folded napkins and faces on posters.  We have privacy.

It’s a long moment.  It surprises me.  He smiles after a while.  I think our moment is up, but instead he stops licking his lips and opens his mouth.

“Waiting for somebody as well?”

I reciprocate his smile.  “That’s right.  He’s late.”

He looks at his watch, pulling back the sleeve of his jacket a little way.  “I’m early.  I’m always early.”

“Where are you going to go when she comes?”

“A restaurant across the road.  It’ll be warm in there at least.” He rubs his hands together.

“It’s better to be early than late.”  My hair is completely curly now.  He’s missed it all.

“It’s a Chinese restaurant.  I hate Chinese food.”

He is watching the second hand of his watch wander around the clock face.

“I wish men were gentlemanly again.” I remarked.

He walks over to stand next to me after a while.  Now we are both looking into the yellow light of the restaurant.

“It looks so warm in there.” He rubs his hands together again.

“Warm as rice.”

He chuckles and it is a deep, lukewarm sound.

“I hate waiting.”

“So do I.”

“When does the term ‘stood up’ apply?  I want to go home.”

“You could call him?” he suggests.

“My thumbs are numb.  And I won’t forgive him no matter the excuse.  It’s far too cold out here.”

He has waited for twenty minutes already.  He has not touched his phone either.  We both stand there, incomplete pictures not even looking for our other halves.

He pasted our pictures together.  Still staring into the yellow light of the restaurant, he slips his cold hand into mine.  His fingernails are short and stubby like mine.  His skin is soft.  And our clasped hands warm themselves.  I can tell he is smiling.  I am too.  The people in the restaurant and the cinema still aren’t looking, but if they were they would see our completed picture.

Very carefully, so that he wouldn’t notice, I turned my phone off.  I think he did the same.  Nobody interrupted us and no one passed us by.  Even the cars with their flickering headlights had stopped coming past.

Without discussing it, we decided on the warm-as-rice restaurant.  We sat in the corner so that nobody would look at us still.  Our hands clasped under the table so that my thumbs weren’t frozen any more.  His chapped-lipped smile was my favourite part of the night.  His embrace was warmer than rice and his lips colder than wine.  We walked past faces on posters in the cinema and watched the most expensive film.  Then we went home and wondered why we did it all.

Why not?

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Picture of a Writer

Now, this is my ACTUAL character description for English.  The one that I handed in was edited a bit more, but I like this version better.

Slender fingers curled around the cup of fragrant tea.  It was a vicious black from Morocco – stunning to the taste buds – that made her smile when the perfume filled her nose, the bitter taste her mouth.  As she savoured the drink, her thoughts flew.  Faster than any aeroplane could have taken her, she travelled to Africa.  Morocco was, to her knowledge, a place filled with sand and Bedouin and spices.  She could smell the tang in the air, feel the gritty sand on her tongue and hear the foreign language like music to her ears.

She put the cup down and stretched her fingers.

Looking down at them, she realised that if a stranger saw them, they might believe she had a skin disease of some sort.  Her right hand was spotted, dotted all over with splodges and stains from the ink.  Her fingers were almost black and she stretched them out in front of her face, studying them.  It was as if they were disappearing into the darkness.  If she held them up against the window, they might seem to disappear completely, becoming invisible against the black of the sky, as if her fingers were slowly being eroded away.  What a queer, sad disease, she thought.  Lucky that she didn’t have it.

Now those fingers picked up the pen again – a fountain pen as she had always insisted upon using.  The pen itself had been a present, thankfully.  The ink was frightfully expensive, but nothing that her budget could not pay for.  The pen had lasted her for eight years now – apparently unheard of in the world of stationary, as the expression on the shop assistant’s face had told her.  Her friends had insisted that she had more than enough money to pay for a new one.  She knew that she did.  But instead, the money sat unused.  It had been barely touched.  But what did it matter?  She was comfortable enough.

She scribbled a few short words, taking another sip of tea to make the image clearer.  There it was.  The scent of Morocco pervaded around her, enrapturing her senses.  She closed her eyes and the image appeared upon her retinas.  Walking through the streets of Morocco, with no knowledge of the language, her protagonist had no choice but to keep her head down and follow along with the others.  Soon the procession of the Moroccan King halted.  His Majesty himself looked out from the sedan chair, his eyes singling her out.  Fearfully, she met his gaze.  Then unexpectedly, he smiled, a slow, cunning smile.

No.  She threw the pen down.  That wasn’t how it was supposed to work.  The Moroccan King, an exalted, spoilt persona, on his first outing from the palace, was supposed to fall in love with the protagonist.  But that smile, that cunning, sly smile, was not an expression of love.  She closed her eyes and let her memory replay the scene.  Yes, she had not mistaken it.  He did not love her; that was it.  The story could not go on as planned.  She sighed and sat back in her chair, swilling the remains of the tea in her cup, watching the tea leaves collect at the bottom.  She sniffed at it once, then pulled back in distaste.  The story had betrayed her.  A character had moved against her.  She would have to replan once again.  The Moroccan King was planning to use the protagonist to his advantage, to seduce her and then-

“Lottie!” A voice came from downstairs.

She sighed, sitting up in her chair.  “What?” she yelled back down.

“You forgot to turn the kettle off!  Almost burnt the bloody house down!”

“Sorry!”  Not only had the Moroccan King betrayed her, but so had the Moroccan tea.  She looked down at her blackened hands, the pen that leaked ink onto the antique desk.  Perhaps English Breakfast would be better for next time.

Mariana’s Waiting Room

This isn’t a sequel to An Eight-Year-Old’s Philosophy, it’s just an addition.  You don’t need to have read it to understand this, at any rate.

In the waiting room, there are many adults, but only one child.  As the ceiling light flickers and buzzes erratically, her small, wide eyes are drawn upwards in curiosity.  The adults look across to her from time to time, some anxious, others irritated.  Her thin legs swing whimsically as she watches and waits.  Her olive skin is marred with a streak of dirt and while her pendulum legs swing, she picks at the brown underneath her fingernails.

Soon, a doctor comes, his footsteps clattering quickly on the linoleum.  This has an effect on every person who waits.  They sit up, hopeful, nervous, some expecting the worst.  The girl’s legs stop swinging and she clasps her hands tightly.  All eyes are on the unshaven man as he clears his throat.  He does not utter a name, simply nods to the girl and she shuffles over to him quickly, unaware of the eyes that follow her.  He takes her a few steps into the corridor, then bends down to talk to her.  Her eyes cannot stay in the same place for long.  They skip and dart to corners and facets of the room, taking in colour and shape as well as sound.  The doctor barks a command and her attention snaps back to the one place.  As he continues to talk, her hands begin to tear at the hem of her jumper, seeking out loose threads and pulling distractedly.  It is a destructive act.

The adults are watching intently, their eyes unblinking.  They lean over in their seats to watch the scene – the too-large, bulky doctor squatting to convey his message to the tiny, distracted girl.  And then, the news is broken.  Those small, wide eyes blink and, for the first time, meet those of the doctor.  Her hands stop pulling at her jumper.  The adults outside watch as the first tears slide down her cheeks and are wiped away by small, shaking hands.  The doctor’s heavy hand lands on her shoulder in an oversized gesture of comfort, but the girl pushes it away quickly.  Her hands clench into fists and she stamps her foot.  Her voice rises out of her small chest, surprisingly loud.  She demands things of the doctor, yet he shakes his head, speaking from that script that all doctors know.

“There’s nothing I can do.”

The girl begins to wail.  The sound is like an alarm and the adults look up collectively, their eyes wide and staring.  Alarms are common here, yet this one makes them shudder more than any.  It is a sound of desperation, of raw emotion and grief.  It is the alarm heralding the journey of a small child into adulthood, at too young an age.

But in Sarajevo, she is lucky.  Her friend never made it into adulthood.

Instructions to Defeat a Thunderstorm

A memoir that I had to write for english class.

A thunderstorm is a stunning rarity here – like a shapely, uneven pearl.  It is something beautiful, certainly, but dangerously beautiful.  In the last three years, there have been about three thunderstorms that I can remember.  In one instance, I was babysitting two children.  One of them, the older one, has Asperger’s.  Sometimes he is capable, putting himself to bed and eating his dinner without a qualm, but other times he becomes like a small child.  He cries for his mother and curls up on the couch like a sea urchin.  Only his mother’s calm words can uncurl him.  But on the night of the Second Thunderstorm, we decided to brave it together – the two children and I, with the help of their favourite television show.   We turned up the volume as the wind howled around us, the thunder booming in our ears, so that we made the most of their high-tech surround sound speakers.  Together, we watched ninja battles and shuriken wars as the thunderstorm swirled and shook around us.  By the time their mother came home, it was over.  Our ears were ringing from the noise and the children marched sleepily off to bed without a complaint.

But the First Thunderstorm was my favourite.  When it happened, I was alone.  I was without the instinctual, parental protection of my mother and father, without my siblings to yell and fight around me.  I had nothing to drown out the noise of the thunder, the high shriek of the wind, the moving of the chairs on the deck above, the violent flashes of lightning and the damp, foreboding smell of the coming rain.  But I swallowed my fear and walked, with my head high, to the piano.

Usually, as my fingers hesitantly press the first few notes, I am frightened by the loudness of it and engage the soft pedal.  On that day, however, the noise of the thunder and wind drowned out any fears of anyone hearing me.  My hands flicked through the music book, looking and looking for songs to play.  Finally, I pushed it aside.  The best of my repertoire was committed to memory.

The first song that I played was beautiful.  The notes sung as my fingers brushed over the keys, the pedal joining the harmony into a clear picture.  It felt strange, as the thunder crashed around me and the lightning lit the black and white keys, for such a peaceful, almost religious song to be playing, to be hanging in the air like a canopy, sheltering me from the storm.  But it also felt cowardly.

The second song that I played was sad.  The notes hung and then dropped abysmally as my fingers wavered, just barely in my control.  The pedal kept some notes behind, clashing, but the thunderstorm rid the air of dissonance.  My heart beat in my throat and my chest felt overwhelmed with emotion.  Finally, the song ended on a peaceful, calm note and my fingers lifted slowly from the piano.

The last song that I played was fast, challenging.  Not only challenging to my fingers, but challenging of the storm that battered the house, the trees outside, that moved the chairs on the deck, that filled the room haphazardly with blinding light.  I had never played that song so fast before in my life and my heart sped along with the tempo.  I played it faster and faster still, to keep pace with the thunderstorm.  The song was powerful, larger than I ever thought it could be.  The melody reared up before me, a roar to meet the storm outside.  When I had finished playing, I was breathless.

But the storm had subsided.  Daylight was breaking again outside and the wind had fallen to a slow breeze.  I had challenged the vast power of the thunderstorm, and in my foolish recklessness, I had won.

The View from Cafe Russe

This is a character description that I had to do for english class…  the only problem is that it isn’t a character description – it’s a short story.  Hence, it’s not going to be handed in.

Angela Northing was born in 1923 to a non-assuming family.  She married a non-assuming husband and had four non-assuming children.  But, despite all odds, she quite failed to be a non-assuming person.

When she first walked into the Café Russe, near the bell tower and in view of the harbour, she ordered a coffee, sat down for a few minutes, then, throwing her scarf briskly over her shoulder, walked out again.  Her shoes made a clattering sound on the pavement as she strode away, the waiters watching with vague interest from the counter.

The next time that Angela Northing walked into the Café Russe, it was at very much a slower pace.  Like the winter sky outside, she looked tired and torn and worn.  In a tired voice, she communicated that she would like a strong coffee, very hot, if you please.  Without waiting for the fragrant mug to be produced, she sat herself at a table, sighing deeply as she offloaded the baggage of her handbag and umbrella.  She thanked the waiter graciously as he placed the drink on the table.  Her gold wedding band lay dull on her fourth finger as she sipped.  Though she was not normally a generous person, Angela Northing tipped the waiter before she left.

From that day she became a regular customer.  And after a while, the café staff became used to her melodramatic changes in personality.  One day, she rushed in with only a moment to spare.  Another day, she stayed for three hours, reading two whole books and smiling casually at the waiter, who asked on multiple occasions if she was waiting for somebody.

In the fifties, as the world became cold and apprehensive, the café changed its name.  Café Russe reminded the people too much of Russia (which was considered only cold and communist, not good for anything, really).  The Queen’s Café was deemed a more acceptable name, and so the change was instigated.  She stayed away for a few weeks, but then Angela Northing was back, tight-lipped and quietly spoken.  Some of the waiters wondered at her silence, but then they noticed the way she pulled distractedly at the gold band on her finger which came off loosely each time, as if it didn’t quite fit.

One day during autumn, she walked past the entrance as leaves swirled gaily around, crunching underfoot.  But she was not alone.  A man was there as well, standing very upright, his hand protectively around her wrist.  He motioned to the café, said a few words, a gesture, an offer.  But she ushered him away.  This was her café; it was not to be spoiled by his presence.

And in May the following year, as the frosty wind pulled at the tiny buds appearing on trees, the Russian man came.  He was frosty like the wind, smelt of cigarette smoke and always wore a scarf tucked up over his mouth.  He rarely spoke, and when he did the words were laced with a thick accent.  And people stared, oh, how they stared.  For he was Russian which, in that time, was synonymous with the devil.

The next morning, Angela waltzed into the café, precisely on time.  But her seat was occupied.  She walked delicately around the man, peering at him.  Then, as she stood at the counter chatting amicably, the waiter noticed the deft movement of her hands, slipping the gold band from her finger and dropping it into her pocket.  When her drink was ready, she sat down opposite the foreign man and simply smiled.

But she never married the Russian man.  She never divorced her husband.  Conformity, like a constant guiding hand, pushed her away from the foreign, alien nature of the Russian, like it did everyone else.  And quietly, in a non-assuming way, she lived the rest of her life looking through the painted glass of the Café Russe, at the life she could have had.

Danzig

Had to write this for english class.  Started off as a character description, but sort of… evolved.  Now I can’t use it as part of my assessment – damn!

When the train pulled into the grimy station, she was the last off.  Scarf wrapped protectively under her chin, buttoning her coat up with gloved hands, her young eyes surveying the platform, she stepped out.  Her thin shoes made a light tapping sound as she walked through the station.  Her head, she kept down, pushing pieces of blonde hair out of her face.  Unlike most of the people in the busy station, she looked for no familiar faces.  Her destination was the most important thing to her as she strode past the trains, past the thick stench of the engines, and out into the fresh air.  Into Danzig.

There, she lifted her eyes, scanning cathedral spires and rooftops, watching the birds soaring, hearing the wind caress the trees.  She reached for her gloves, pulling the haggard material over her hands, seeking warmth.  Her gait was slower now, having escaped the train station, and she walked at almost a dreamer’s pace.  Her eyes were never still, roaming near and far, taking in a city freshly emerged from the summer.  The cool wind was at her back and she pulled her coat around her, ignoring the patches where the material had worn thin.

Her stomach rumbled suddenly and she remembered that she hadn’t eaten in a while.  She had not noticed throughout the entire train ride – over four hours.  But the nervous pounding of her heart, that paranoia that caused her to look over her shoulder at every grey-coated stranger that walked past, had deadened her hunger.  Now that she was out of Austria, in the safety of Danzig, the free city, she could breathe again.  Every passer-by looked friendly, their smiles warmed her heart.  She soon found herself a small café, a backstreet trattoria.  The coffee was warm and thick and her fingers picked apart a pastry as she stared out at the city.  Although Poland was backward – more backward than Austria – there could be derived from Danzig a sense of comfort.  Perhaps it was the absence of a threat.  Perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of the city, the ability to discover.

Out of the café and into the chilly, autumn streets, she pulled an old piece of paper from her pocket.  There were so many creases – from where the item had been folded and refolded – that it was almost impossible to read the address.  But she knew it by heart anyway.  She only kept the paper for comfort.

On the main street, a paper-boy was hollering the day’s news.  His cries echoed through the streets and the small alleys branching off it.  More Jews arrested in Austria!  Radio station at Gleiwitz broadcasts anti-German message!  Honiok found dead on the scene!  Before continuing on, she quickly threw a few coins into the paper-boy’s basket and had a paper thrust into her hands in return.  She folded it under her arm and kept walking, the dead leaves of autumn crunching under her feet.

She counted the house numbers carefully, pulling out the piece of paper to check every now and then.  The house that matched was of dark wood, the windows covered with thick curtains as if trying to keep the city out.  Her knuckles hurt when she knocked slowly, three times, on the heavy door.  The woman who answered was tall and gnarled with age.  She was invited in by a beckoning hand, nails like talons.  “Yes, I’m expecting you.  You are the right person, aren’t you?”

“Anne-Marie Lowenstein, yes.”

“Come inside.  The autumn wind is cold.”

Anne-Marie looked behind her, at the trees with their dishevelled, browning leaves, at the shivering streets of Danzig.  Then she looked back in front.  Her eyes hit the one spot on the wall, the symbol that made her heart leap.  Hanging from the stair rail in the old lady’s house was a swastika.

“No.” she backed out of the house, refusing to meet the lady’s eyes.  “No, you’re working for Hitler.”

“No sense in denying it.” The lady admitted.  “He’s coming soon enough.”

Anne-Marie shook her head.  “No.  No, he never will.”  Her feet carried her back onto the porch, onto the street and finally, out of sight of the house.  Her heart was beating wildly and her pace had quickened almost to a run.

As she passed the paper-boy once again, she could not help but hear: Hitler invades Poland!  Government falls to the Nazis!  War declared in Europe.

Pictures from a Christmas Eve

The first of my English tasks, this one was pretty simple.  We had to write about a childhood memory.  Personally, I HATE writing about myself, simply because my life just isn’t full of interesting material to write about.  But I tried to make this pretty, if anything.

A lot of planning went into that tiny slot of time – only ten or fifteen minutes between when my parents’ television show finished and when they would come around, closing windows and checking that their children were asleep.  Then they would haul out the washing basket filled with presents.  The Christmas tree stood in the rumpus room, a live tree, as had always been the case.  Chasing the kittens around underneath the prickly branches, I would breathe in the sharp, woody scent of the pine needles, always reminiscent of Christmas.  Now, if I were to creep out into the kitchen, I would glimpse the tree alight with small, electric lights, flashing harmoniously and filling the empty room with light.  But, as it was, now was reserved for a different practice.  Cautiously, hardly making a sound, the CD player was moved next to the window, my favourite CD fetched from its proper place (on my floor, next to the socks) the bedcovers on the top bunk pulled back, lest mum come and I be forced to leap deftly into bed before she could chastise me, and the lights turned off to create the right mood.  Then, with the cool, summer-evening air breathing in through the open window, I sat on my desk chair and gazed out the window.

My eyesight was never any good, and glasses eventually came a few months later, but for now I enjoyed the slight blur in my vision, melting the city lights into the rest of the dark landscape.  The CD hummed in its player and the Christmas carols started soon enough.  I flicked through the tracks, eventually coming to the second last, the perfect song.

The CD was from some English choir with a name that now escapes me singing in a grand cathedral and accompanied by an organ.  Even now, I have never heard better renditions of each carol.  The particular one that I chose that night was soft, starting out with only one voice singing the simple tune, the notes falling to and fro.  The voice was then joined by others for the chorus, a sequence of notes that made my nine-year-old heart sing.  I sat with my chin resting on my palm, staring past the fly-screen and watching the lights melt into the bush.  The crickets chirped friendly songs in my ears.  The song lasted for three minutes.  In those three minutes, my usually loud and erratic nine-year-old countenance was utterly peaceful.  Now that I look back on it, I describe it as contentment.  Everything was perfect, just right.  There was not a thing I would have changed, except perhaps given myself more time.

Because as soon as the song finished, the CD moved along its course and, too caught up in my reverie to notice, the CD player then blurted out, at full blast, the final song.
‘HARK THE HERALD ANGELS SING!  GLORY TO THE NEWBORN-’

I jumped up and punched the stop button before flying up the bunk-bed ladder and into the doona.  The next moment, I heard footsteps in the corridor and the door creaked open slowly.  I closed my eyes and tried my best to look fast asleep.  My mother stood on tiptoe, leaning over to check that I was asleep.  Satisfied, she moved away and continued out of the room and down the corridor.  In my crumpled position on the bed, a small smile danced on my lips.

And whenever I hear that song, the same smile dances again.

An Eight-Year-Old’s Philosophy

I wrote this story specifically for the SMH Young Writer of the Year contest, for which the trigger word was ‘chain’.

It was something she saw on the streets near Sniper Alley, coupled with a dream she had that night, which led to the development of Mariana’s philosophy.  In the yellow light of early morning, the streets had seemed to shine in an unearthly light.  Fragments of broken glass reflected the sunlight, bathing the two figures in creamy yellow.  Their shadows were so strange, Mariana thought, one long, tall one, and her own tiny one.  She felt the urge to laugh a little, but Kamil had told her to be silent with that adult sense of urgency that she didn’t quite understand.  Kamil was the tallest person she knew, even though he was only thirteen, the second-oldest person in the shelter.  She began to pretend that she was a princess and he was her bodyguard, leading her by the hand through the streets and knocking away shells and bullets with his bare hands.

They were on their way to the markets.  If they didn’t get there early enough, all the good food would be gone.  And Kamil said the soldiers were lazy, so the early morning was one of the only times that they could walk safely.  They passed by the square – which was hardly a square anymore, only an empty place surrounded by rubble – and the anticipation of Sniper Alley loomed closer.  The houses had started to look more like skeletons now and Mariana huddled close to Kamil.  She remembered what Johan had said about ghosts – that they hid behind the rubble and grabbed you as soon as they thought you were alone.  They liked children because they could eat them without anyone noticing.

They were near the marketplace now, Sniper Alley only to their right.  Kamil’s eyes would quickly dart there, and then stare back in front.  He was looking for Danger.  Older people could sense the Danger, but not Mariana yet.  She could hear it, though.  It was a swift cracking noise, like the firecrackers her neighbours used to have on Christmas day, or it would be the heavy whine of a shell, the painful burst of noise as it landed.  From Sniper Alley, the cracking began and Mariana almost yelped in fright.  Kamil pulled her down behind the desecrated remains of a building, his eyes staring fearfully at Sniper Alley.  A man yelled out – in pain, in fright? – and then there was no noise.  Kamil slowly peeked his head out from behind the wall, saw the blood and ducked back down, pale.  Mariana knew he was afraid.  Kamil was often afraid, but he still acted like an adult.  He pulled Mariana up and they walked on swiftly.  “Wait, wait!” she pulled away from him, “What if he’s not dead?  What if we can help him?”

Kamil shook his head.  “We can’t.  It’s too dangerous.”

Mariana thought her heart was going to burst.  She looked out at the deserted street, her eyes finding the puddle of red in the centre, the remains of the man.  She could not pull away, her gaze was stuck fast.  “What’s that?” she whispered to Kamil, still trying to pull her away.  “There’s something silver on him.”

“It looks like a chain,” Kamil answered, “Maybe he got caught in a fence or something.  Come on.”  He pulled her away this time and they continued on to the market.

But the image never left Mariana.  That night she dreamt of it.

As she walked along the deserted street, the menacing Alley, she came across the man, close enough to touch.  He was still breathing, his eyes staring blankly up at the golden clouds.  A chain was wrapped around his wrist, silver but stained with the man’s blood.  She looked up at the building, saw the round point of the sniper’s gun.  In her dream, she could see the sniper clearly.  He wore an expression of agony, as if he were in the worst pain imaginable.  Around his wrist was curled another chain, but this one dug deeply into his skin, until the sniper’s own blood covered the silver metal.  From that point, she woke.  And for the rest of the day she pondered exactly what it could mean, with her determined eight-year-old intellect.

At the end of the day, she arrived at a reasonable conclusion, she felt.  She did not tell Kamil, thinking he would be worried about her, but she told Georgios instead.  He understood her and he would not tell any of the others.  After Catalina and Kamil had told them all to go to sleep, she crept towards Georgios and whispered her theory to him as the soft, black night drifted around them.  The theory was this: that every person in the whole wide world is connected by a silver chain.  If somebody dies, their chain is cut, but the person that killed them is hurt by their own chain.  The chains are there because people have to care for each other – if there were no wars and no shells and snipers, then the chains wouldn’t be there.  Georgios nodded and said that it was a good idea.  Then he kissed the top of her head like her older brother used to do and told her to go to bed.

Over the next few days, it was very difficult for her to forget about the chains theory.  It was everywhere around her, it seemed.  If she heard about a person killed by a shell, she would think about the owner of that shell and how his invisible chain would be cutting into him.  What if his shell had killed more than one person?  Would it cut deeper then?  She thought she could hear the chains clanking and tinkling underneath the soldiers’ uniforms, but when she asked Georgios if he could hear them, he said he couldn’t.  Maybe it was only her, she thought, because she had discovered them, like a secret treasure chest.  Nobody else could see them, but the soldiers could still feel them cutting into them.

She thought about asking Johan about the chains.  He always boasted after Esfir died about how he had shot the sniper who had killed her.  None of the other children, not even Catalina and Kamil, even knew that she had been shot by a sniper.  It had all been a big mystery.  But Johan told them he had solved it.  He had avenged Esfir’s death and killed someone with his gun, like a real soldier.  “See,” he would tell them, “I don’t even need to join the army.  They would take me now, if they saw what I could do.”  Mariana thought he was being silly.  Nobody could join the army when they were twelve.  But Johan always seemed so happy – not sad, like the sniper in her dream had been.  His jumper was too short for him, so Mariana could look at his wrists.  There were never any chains or any red marks or scars that they could have produced.  Perhaps, she thought, Johan never killed that sniper after all.

Sometimes, she thought of telling the others about the chains, but she knew they would laugh.  Georgios never laughed, only smiled and nodded as she told him.  As a group of soldiers walked past the shelter one day, Georgios would help Mariana spot the chains on their hands.  When they couldn’t see any, he suggested that maybe they were a new unit of soldiers who hadn’t killed anybody yet.  That made Mariana feel better.  Georgios always believed her.

When it was nearing winter, Georgios became sick.  A cough grew in his chest and exploded with each breath.  When Mariana sat curled in his lap, she could hear each wheezing breath, as if he was struggling to breathe.  That was why, when his turn came to fetch water from the stream under the brewery, he could not do it alone.

They went in the afternoon.  Georgios had rested all morning, but still he breathed heavily as they walked.  Mariana kept close to his side the whole way, chattering quietly about how many lollies she would buy with the coins she found in the gutter.  The neared the brewery, heading through the quiet, dead street.  There once were houses here, but most of them had been blown away.  Still, half a house remained next to the brewery, the wallpaper singed dark, a couch vomiting stuffing in the front room.  Mariana shuffled carefully past, eyeing the burnt child’s crib, the wood leafing off in matchsticks.

They reached the brewery and skidded down the steep path behind it, soil and stones stubbing their bare toes.  The stream was cool against their feet, the water filled their buckets easily and Mariana drank deeply, cupping the brown water in her hands and sloshing it over her face.  They took the buckets back up the slope and slowly, awkwardly, dragging the weight of the buckets, they walked home.

Night fell before they were halfway there.  The darkness closed around them.  The city, once full of lights, was now darkened and empty.  Footsteps clattered on the quiet streets, a dog barked and shouting could be heard in the distance.  Mariana’s hand grasped Georgios’ tightly.  The city was never this quiet.  The bombs would start soon.

And they did.

A yellow glow bloomed in the distance – the first shell of the night.  Sirens yelled and people shouted.  Mariana’s pace quickened and Georgios started to puff sickly.  The shelter wasn’t too far away, she thought, but in the charcoal night she could hardly see in front of her.  Bullets sounded near them and she jumped up, her breath rasping in her throat, trying to supress her urge to run.  Quietly, she urged Georgios to hurry.

The bullets neared closer, their cracking reminded Mariana of the bright colours of that Christmas day.  A spark of yellow lit up the corner of the building.  The bullets were close, trying to find them.  The Danger had its eye on them.  They broke into a run, leaving the buckets behind them.  A bullet found them and water sprayed everywhere.  Urgency pumped through her veins instead of blood.  Her legs weren’t fast enough to carry her.

In a moment of sheer self-preservation, she broke away from Georgios.  Her hand felt cold and bare after clinging to his for so long.  The bullets continued and there was a small cry and a soft thud.  She turned quickly, her fear momentarily forgotten.  Georgios was kneeling now, his eyes sad but… a small smile adorned his face.  He opened his hand slowly and she saw the silver chain glint softly in the moonlight.  The end was shorn off, it dangled from his wrist.  He let it drop as he fell sideways, a tiny stream of blood appearing at the corner of his mouth.

Mariana ran the rest of the way home.  Catalina wiped at her tears and kept her safe in her embrace.  Kamil gently patted her on the head.  She couldn’t tell them what had happened.  The pain had dug a deep cavity inside her chest and with each breath it stung like an old wound.  She felt as if the chain, the one connecting herself and Georgios, was digging deeper and deeper into her skin, around her chest, around her throat.  She wondered if that one sniper was feeling that same sort of pain.

As she grew she remembered the chain around Georgios’ wrist.  Why had he done that, why hadn’t he just told her the truth?  She began to realise.  Georgios, eleven years old, had understood when she hadn’t the preciousness of that eight-year-old philosophy.

I think this is my favourite short story so far.  I was writing it in English class (illegitimately…) and just as I came to the most heartwrenching scene, my laptop ran out of battery and I made a very strange noise.  Consequently, everybody looked at me and the teacher, of course, knew that I wasn’t listening to her.  Oh well.  It was quite embarrassing, but I got a good story out of it.

Echo Children

This is one that I wrote for a competition in which you were given a choice of three stimulus pictures.  I chose one of a truck stuck in a lake.  Enjoy.

Patrick was the first to see the truck, outside the farm boundary.  Usually they weren’t allowed to stray past the fence, but he was getting older and believed exceptions should be made.  As he sat on the fence it stood out like a shiny, silver mirage, half-submerged in the swampy lake.  It was an ever-present temptation.  He had to see it.

He enlisted Mairin’s help first of all.  She would know how to get there.  Even though there was only a year between them, he already suspected that she was a lot smarter than he was.  When he first showed her, he could feel the scepticism emanating from her, like an unpleasant body odour.  “Why would you want to go there?”

He shrugged.  “I think it would be fun.”

“It might be dangerous.  You could get hurt, climbing all over that thing.”

“I’m fine.  I can look after myself.” He snapped.  She hated that tone in his voice and soon walked away.  She was too much of a goody-two-shoes to help, he knew.  He would have to enlist help from another source.

The next day he awoke early, running over to Ly’s house and knocking hurriedly on his window.  “Ly!  You have to come see this!”  The blonde-haired boy rubbed his bright eyes sleepily.  When they reached Pat’s house and looked out over his fence, Ly’s eyes reclaimed their brightness.  “What’s that?” he said excitedly.

“I think it’s a truck.”

“How did a truck get there?” Ly couldn’t take his eyes off it.

“Maybe the owner crashed…  Ly, maybe there’s a dead body there!”

“We should go see!”  The hurdled over the fence and into the dense scrub.  Soon their boots were covered with buzzies and bindies, which they picked off before they entered the swamp.  The truck was now incredibly close, and the boys could see it was quite large in size.  They had seen the sort of vehicle on the highway – the sort of carrier that might hold petrol or cement or another liquid of some sort.  “What if it had petrol in it, Pat?” Ly said anxiously.  “It might blow up!”

“It’s been there a little while.  It would have blown up way before now.”

Ly nodded, reassured.

They entered the dank swamp.  The water swirled around their feet as they negotiated their way from dry patch to dry patch.  “Don’t fall in,” Pat warned, “We would be killed if we got all wet!”  Finally the two of them stood in front of the immense vehicle.  The top of the lights were just visible, poking out of the water like two great big eyes.  Pat touched the cool metal, stroking the truck like a jewel.  Ly was already climbing, having found a ladder to the top.  “Phew, it stinks up here!  Maybe it did have petrol in it after all.” He said.  Soon Pat joined him on top of the truck.  From their position balancing on top of the vehicle, they could see the whole swamp and make out both of their houses in the distance.  Pat imagined that he was the truck driver, stranded in the swirling sea and waving for help.

“Do you think he was stranded here?” Ly said.

“What if there’s a body somewhere here?” Pat said anxiously.  He slipped across the silver side of the truck and swung his head down to look through the window.  The driver’s seat was empty.

“Perhaps he got out.” Ly suggested.

“He must have.  There ain’t no body here.”

“What if he got trapped inside the silver bit?”

“In the silver bit?” Pat repeated, incredulous.  “How’d he have managed that?”

Ly shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Maybe we should check just in case?”

Pat crawled to the end of the long silver vehicle, where the circular hole gaped.  “It’s so smelly!” he gasped.

“Baby!  Hold your nose!” Ly laughed.

Pat did so, wishing he had a peg like they used in the TV shows he watched.  He peered curiously into the hole.  The blackness inside swirled around like swamp water.  “I can’t see anything!” he yelled back to Ly.

“Try calling out.”

Pat took a deep breath.  “Hello?” he yelled into the hole.  His voice reverberated eerily and a chill played on the back of his neck.  Three times he heard his own voice come back to him.

“I think there is someone in here!” he called to Ly.  “Three people!  I can hear them!”

He yelled again.  “Who are you?”

Who are you?

Who are you?

Who are you?

“I’m Pat, who are you?”

I’m Pat, who are you?

I’m Pat, who are you?

I’m Pat who are you?

He frowned, looking to Ly.  “They say that all their names are Pat.  That’s strange.”

“Maybe you’re not doing it right.” Ly came over.  “Let me try.”

“Hello!  My name’s Ly.”

Hello!  My name’s Ly.

Hello!  My name’s Ly.

Hello!  My name’s Ly.

Ly sat back up, crouching next to Pat.  “Silly!” he punched him.  “It was only your voice echoing!”

“Really?” Pat said warily.  “I honestly heard someone!”

“Yeah!” Ly cried.  “You heard yourself!”

They padded back through the swamp.  Pat looked behind him every few steps, keeping an eye on the truck.  Suppose the three people had gotten out somehow, wandering alone through the bush.  They were probably very hungry, having sat in the truck for days.  What if they died?  Pat would think it was his fault.  Ly didn’t seem to notice Pat’s anxiousness, chattering on about how his father might teach him how to drive the tractor soon.  After a while, they started to play, tramping back through the bush, playing tips and jumping over logs and bramble bushes.  The sun was coming out now, warm and fun to bask in.  When Pat returned home, sweaty and panting from the run, he imagined himself as a cat, warming his belly in the sun and falling asleep in its yellow light.  But the memory of the people in the truck kept him awake.  His mother was out on the land already, tending to the sheep while Mairin milked the cows.  He managed to sneak inside without being seen by both of them.  Carefully, he filled a plastic bag with food from the fridge and cans from the cupboard.  Soon the bag was full of tinned spaghetti, cauliflower (which he figured he had a duty to give away), beans, some cheese and a tomato.  He tucked this motley bundle inside a backpack and, scurrying so as not to be seen, he bounded over the fence and into the bushland once again.

The backpack was heavy and the sun hot.  Pat had to sit down regularly to slow his breathing and wipe the sweat from his brow.  The hills were alive with life at this time of year.  Birds chirruped happily around him and small, unknown creatures moved in the grass at his feet.  He wasn’t afraid of snakes and besides, he had listened to what his father had told him.  If you ever meet a snake you had to stay still and not move a muscle!  But Pat was a little uncertain that he could do that, especially with the sun beating down like it was.  When he reached the truck, his backpack had made a painful rift in his shoulder.  He would be glad to be rid of the food.  The swamp water had soaked his shoes, a comfort in the hot summer, but now it would be difficult to climb.  As his slippery feet met the rungs of the ladder, he hoped he wouldn’t fall.  He was too far away for people to hear him cry out.

He reached the top of the truck and admired the view once again, sitting the backpack beside him like a small, lumpy friend.  He could see his mother’s minute form tending to the tomatoes in the veggie patch, he could see Mairin bringing the milk in.  If he looked to the right a little more he could just make out Crissie and Gordie walking near the shed.  They were far away from the property.  They probably wanted to be alone.  Apparently when people fell in love all they wanted to do was be alone.

Finally, he stood up again, dragging the rucksack alone the silver edge to the hole at the far end.  “Hello?” he said, with trepidation.  What if they’d found a way out while he’d been gone?  No, it seemed they hadn’t.  Three times they replied back to him.  Hello?  Hello?  Hello? 

“I have food for you.”  This statement was repeated back to him three times.  Pat was confused.  How could they have food for him when they had been trapped in a truck?  Nevertheless, he unpacked the contents of his backpack and slowly dropped them down.  The tomato was the last to go, making a squashy plunk sound as it hit the bottom.  Pat hoped it hadn’t smashed.

“I hope you like it.” He called down.  The words were repeated back to him.  Pat was confused – what did they hope he liked?  Perhaps Ly had been right.  Maybe he was only hearing the sound of his own voice.

“If you’re real, why don’t you say something original?” Pat yelled down.

If you’re real, why don’t you say something original?

A thought came to Pat.  What if, just as he doubted they were real, they doubted he was real?  But then again, he had dropped down the food.  They hadn’t given him anything.  Perhaps they had nothing to give.  Pat felt such pity for them.  They sounded as if they were only children, his age.  Perhaps their father had been the truck driver, and then he had crashed into the swamp and gone to get help, leaving his children alone.  He could only imagine how frightened they’d be, all three of them.

“It’s alright,” he said, “I’ll keep you company.”  And when their three voices replied, Pat felt a warm feeling inside his chest.  They would stay here for each other.

He followed the sun’s journey across the sky until it buried itself behind the trees.  The golden light of afternoon spread through the hills.  The metal of the truck started to cool as the sun set.  Although he was certain his mother would be worried, Pat made good on his promise to stick by the children.  They would be so lonely if he left, unbearably lonely – although they never talked to him anyway.  He could imagine them sitting huddled together in the dark, four boys sticking to each other for comfort.  As the evening dropped into view and its dark coat enveloped the hills, Pat wrapped his arms around his feet and began to sing softly.  He didn’t really know any songs, so he made ones up.  He sang songs about small children, about his home and his family and what he did on Saturdays.  They didn’t make sense, most of them, but they were a comfort to him.

In the end, Mairin came for him.  Her small figure startled him at first, thinking it was one of the children who had managed to find a way out.  Eventually she spotted him and, calling him silly, led him home.  “Mum was so worried about you!  What were you thinking?”

Pat shrugged.  “You wouldn’t understand.”

I ended up winning a prize in the Aussie Schools Writing Contest for this piece.  Check it out: http://www.affordablemanuscriptassessments.com/

Oxygen

I don’t think this one is as good as the other ones.  But it’s here anyway for people to read.  It’s a very short story.

His breath came out in a stream of bubbles in the soft water.  He watched them travel up to the surface, where the sun shone bright and fresh, creating a dazzling reflection of the world above.  He could stay here forever, he thought, if only his lungs would permit.  He watched the mirage of light play above his head for a few more seconds before he broke the surface.

His hair clung to his eyes, his nose.  It blinded him as he choked on air.  Perhaps he was never meant to breathe this air, perhaps water was his oxygen.  His mother always said he was water baby.  He pushed the sticky hair off his face and rubbed water out of his eyes.  His first glimpse of the earthly world was a disappointment.  It was exactly how he remembered.  The marble steps, the glass roof (so close to freedom, yet so far away.  It made him feel like a caged bird), the dark wallpaper of the corridor.  He hoisted himself up on the edge of the pool, his clammy feet finding the cool marble.  Running a towel through his hair and then wrapping it around his waist, he walked slowly into the corridor, making almost no sound.

His mother was already awake.  His fragile, senile mother.  Strands of Vera Lynn drifted from her bedroom, warped by the scratchy phonograph.  His sister had offered several times to buy her a new one, but she held this one close to her chest, as if it were an old treasure.  He shouldn’t disturb her.  From the music he could gather she was in one of her states again.

He found Jacqui in the garden.  She was cutting roses again, watching the petals drift slowly onto her lap, scarlet like blood.  He wandered out into the open air to join her, not even conscious of his semi-nakedness.  Jacqui glanced once at the towel, and then at his face, then went back to her cutting.

“Pruning again?”

She didn’t answer him.

“If you want, I could ask Charles to show you how to do it properly.”

“No.” Her voice was monotonous.

He left her, working his way back to the house.

After a short shower and some new clothes, he stepped into the bright kitchen.  He wore a light, breathy shirt and a pair of dark pants that were almost too short for him.  He was growing quickly now, and eating as much as for two people.  He fixed himself a sandwich quickly and wandered the empty, traditional corridors as he ate.  The house was too quiet now.  If his father had been here, the place would be bursting with noise, as it had been when he was a boy.  Hell, he was still a boy, but half as happy.  Quietly, he turned towards the window and looked out at the long expanse of the sea.  His father had been lost to him there.  Although his mother and sister had been home the entire time, they were lost to him as well.  No one was ever quite the same.

Suddenly, he felt a burst of anger well up deep inside of him.  It filled his chest, his lungs, making him breathless.  He longed to run to his mother, tear the Vera Lynn off the phonograph and snap it in half.  No matter how much you play that bloody record, it won’t bring my father back!  Then he would run straight to the gardens and snatch the roses out of Jacqui’s hands.  Why couldn’t she get on with life, like he did?  Why couldn’t anyone?

With swift footsteps, he sped towards the indoor swimming pool.  He reached the marble edge of the water and tore of his shirt.  The material ripped easily in his hands.  When he jumped, he felt weightless until the water grasped him, pulled him under.  Opening his eyes, he found his old mirage.  He would stay there as long as the water would keep him.  Who needed oxygen, anyway?