Earlier stories written in 2018 and 2019 can be found on the World War I and II page. Date of publication is given at the end of each article.
A House of Sticks
by Margaret Boyes-Pringle
They are knocking down the house next door. A big yellow excavator with hungry jaws is licking his lips, rearing up in a wild roar and tearing at the roof and the walls. We can hear the thunder of his stomping paws, the thrashing of his giant limbs pounding the earth in his urgency to destroy and get to the sweet flesh within. We can smell his hot and choking breath redolent of the sins of centuries. As casually as if he were cuffing the sky, the chimney stack is decapitated, the redundant torso collapsing in a sudden shudder of dust and noise.
The guttering, screaming in agony, is toyed with and tossed in the air before his swallowing, but it is our house that is shaking. Our walls are shuddering, windows rattling, even the coffee pot on the stove has the jitters. So do we.
Feeling safer outside we decide to watch for a while. From a distance we huddle in the shadows with our neighbours. It’s shocking to see how quickly the demolition takes place. Rooms where Jenny and Paul’s three boys grew up, mates visited and grandchildren came to stay are all gone. The bullnose verandah Paul built has been bulldozed. The windows that held Christmas lights, and the doorstep that held pumpkins at Halloween, will never delight children and neighbours again.
As the men pack up for the night they leave the house half gutted. Hanging out of the roof like an untethered umbilical cord, a section of heating duct waves aimlessly in the hot wind. Like a ruptured womb, Pink Batts muscles bleed around it. It’s the sight of this that makes a slow, increasingly maniacal laughter rise within me. A home has gone.
There’s a big bad wolf in the neighbourhood and he’s come to blow down a house. There’s no-one left inside to obey his cry to ‘let (him) in’. No one left to flee. Built in the 1950s, it’s a house made of sticks not bricks, and cannot withstand his huff and his puff.
© Margaret Boyes-Pringle 2023
published 19 January 2023
Blood and Bone
by Geoffrey Dobbs
(Editor’s Note: This article was the winner of the Bayside Literary Prize in 2010)
Three men came with a truck at dawn. The plants were glistening with dew and the first birds were fluttering from bush to bush. A possum, weary from its night excursions, was settling into its nest in the spreading branches of an old gum tree. The birds heard them first and fled, screaming a warning. The possum heard the warning, stretched, opened one eye briefly and then closed it again. Thousands of insects, ants, earwigs, cockroaches and slaters scurried away as their world shook. Spiders scuttled off or clung tightly to their swaying webs.
Gary, the backhoe operator, was middle-aged, his grey hair swept back into a ponytail. He had a lined face and a pendulous pot belly held in place by a wide leather belt. The first cigarette of the day dangled from his lips. Standing in the driveway, he surveyed the decaying house, now almost invisible behind the garden shrubs that clustered thickly and protectively around it. Only the sagging terracotta roof, spackled with green mould, was still visible.
‘I reckon we can be in and out of here in a couple of days—whad’ya say Baz?’
‘No worries,’ grunted the second man, squinting through bloodshot eyes. He was thin and wiry, and his craggy face was edged with grey stubble. Cradled in his arms was a huge chainsaw, primed and ready to go. ‘I’ll fix that bastard first,’ said Baz, eying the tall, spreading gum.
‘I’ll rip out the rest,’ said the foreman, ‘and this bit’ll be done by lunchtime. Billy, your jobs to yank it all into a pile so’s we can get it into the dump bin for tomorrow.’
Billy, trailing behind them was slight, pale and gangling. His face sprouted a few hairs that seemed to have appeared by accident rather than intent and he wore his greasy baseball cap back to front.
‘Okay,’ yelled the foreman, ‘no pissing around, let’s get moving!’
The house they were demolishing had belonged to old Ruby. She had died months before, but it had been nearly six weeks before anyone in Laburnum Close realised she was dead. When alive, her rare appearances had been alarming: her scrawny, withered figure clad in dirty, ragged skirts and frayed cardigans would suddenly lurch out onto the footpath screaming incoherent abuse at passers-by. She had once been a teacher with a husband called Bert and had lost an only child to polio.
But the residents of Laburnum Close knew nothing of this. Safe in their neo-Palladian chateaux and Tuscan haciendas that had replaced the original Californian bungalows—all, that is, except Ruby’s—they regarded her as an acute embarrassment who smelt of stale drink and had far too many cats. On windy days dead leaves from her rambling, bushy garden scattered across their pebbled plots and imitation grass or lodged annoyingly in the branches of their iceberg roses. Yet no one noticed Ruby’s absence.
It was a walker delivering flyers, who rang the police. While trying to cram an already jammed mailbox, he noticed a strange and sickly smell wafting from the house. Later that day, residents of the Close watched from their front gates as two policemen, wearing masks, carried away a bundle on a stretcher.
Without Ruby’s restraining secateurs the garden grew darker and thicker. Its baleful presence cast a dark shadow over the Close, standing out like a rotting tooth in a mouthful of porcelain caps. Dogs would veer away from it on their evening walks, dragging their owners to the other side of the road. Strange, stealthy rustling noises were heard at night. The unfed cats grew desperate and brazen.
It was weeks before the council responded to complaints and removed the cats; many weeks more before a grand nephew, who worked in the mines in the Kimberley, sold the property to a developer.
Now the backhoe roared and charged. Roses, camellias, rhododendrons, quivered, wavered, clung on with their last roots and sinews before falling, severed. Baz threw rope and tackle over the gum tree and then scaled it, cursing his hangover. With short, tearing bursts he sent branches crashing down, occasionally yelling abuse at the boy, flailing about below. ‘You’ll get yerself killed, yer useless prick!’
The boy yelped with delight as he saw the possum leap from its disintegrating nest and try to scamper to safety over the lopped branches. Seizing a garden rock, he hurled it at the animal, crushing its back. ‘Got yer!’
They worked in a frenzy. The backhoe charged repeatedly further and further into the depths of the block. Some older shrubs resisted but the hoe simply retreated and came back with a louder roar and more force, digging even deeper into the dank earth.
Meanwhile, the canopy of the old gum had vanished. Baz mopped his brow and stood back, eyeing the trunk and its smooth, creamy bark with contempt. Then he revved his saw like a racing car, crouched, angled himself and speared the machine into the tree just above the base. The tree spewed out its woody entrails.
‘Watch yerself, yer dopey bastard,’ he yelled as the boy struggled past dragging a huge rhododendron, leaking sap.
The trunk fell. ‘Look at that would yer! Bloody perfect!’ But the trunk was still partly attached to its base from which protruded several large, sharp slivers of wood. The saw had had enough though. With a choking gasp it stopped dead. Its owner swore and yanked repeatedly at the starter, but the machine only spluttered helplessly.
‘Leave it for tomorrow,’ yelled Gary. He turned to the boy, ‘Billy get off yer arse and go get us a few beers, we’re done for today.’
They squatted in the driveway in the afternoon warmth and knocked back the cold beers. When finished, they crushed the cans and lobbed them at the remains of a long dead cat, which had been dragged from its resting place by the backhoe. ‘Puss, puss!’ squawked the boy as the last can landed.
That night a warm breeze soothed the raw ground and a light fall of rain eased into its wounds. Then Asparagus asparagoides, the Bridal Creeper, that Ruby had planted over sixty years before, stirred where a few remaining strands still lurked beneath the gouged soil. Quietly, swiftly it spread, weaving a dense mat across the garden. Beneath the huge pile of severed shrubs, tendrils found their way into the soft ground, gaining purchase. And deep beneath the gum tree, roots sucked in every last drop of moisture and pumped it up through woody cells. The moisture passed on into the trunk, giving it a last touch of green life. All night, the garden readied itself.
Next morning, the men arrived to complete their work. Whistling, Baz ambled towards the remains of the gum, an even bigger chainsaw cradled across his chest. As the motor roared, his feet sank into the damp earth and his thick-soled boots pushed their way into the creeper which, ever so gently, coiled around them, pulling him off balance. He pitched forward with a cry of alarm and, before he could save himself, fell heavily across the chainsaw. A great arc of blood and bone soared across the garden splattering its richness over the scarred ground and the dying plants.
The roar of the machine drowned his screams and it was several moments before the foreman saw the unfolding horror. ‘What the …Billy, Billy, for Christ’s sake, help him,’ he yelled. As Gary stumbled through the creeper, his eyes glued to the bloody remains of the chainsaw operator, he too tripped. Falling heavily across the stump of the gum, he was instantly impaled on its yellow fangs.
It was too much for the boy, who turned and ran and might have escaped unscathed had it not been for the dead cat. As he reached the driveway, it reared up at him out of the earth with a foetid hiss. He fled, screaming and demented.
A night and a day passed before help came. Enriched by its booty of blood and bone the garden grew and spread. Its roots thrust deeply into the earth. Roses coiled upwards, bearing not flowers but enormous, razor sharp thorns. The gum tree’s roots delved and burrowed down and down until they grasped bedrock. Its trunk thrust out strong new limbs. The pile of severed shrubs ballooned into a massive, tangled ball.
When the police and the developer finally came to investigate, the site was dark and impenetrable. As they nervously prodded the huge growth two large, black birds, too big surely for crows, emerged from within and flapped sullenly away.
A few weeks later a For Sale board appeared. It is still there, partly collapsed, its bright, enticing colours now faded. But you can still just read the words ‘outstanding development site in premier location…’
The garden waits. And broods.
© Geoffrey Dobbs 2010
published 9 April 2021
by Ilse Zipfel
“Hi, it’s me in Paris with family.”
“Check time scheduled for train tickets to see us next day!”
It was a long track my neighbour and I had walked through thickest forest floors to seek out slightest gurgles under mossy rocks.
Up on hills overlooking fields of healthy meadows criss-crossed by rushing narrow waterways we navigated this forests’ life-giving pure cold springs.
I felt to understand pristine nature is life, and we belong, and now see how trees live and give according to seasons.
Interruption via mobile phone.
Two days later would be another birthday, my seven 0.
Who wants to stand up at four in the morning, organise the long car drive to be on time for the first ICE train from Freiburg to Paris?
Me, I confess, eating at least half a dozen apples on the way to there.
Oh by unbelievable wow my son’s family pick-up at Gare du Nord
was a long wait to be: An hour delay for me to pace heroically the noisy halls of this huge train station.
Sharing over lively next days and nights were lived getting children
enthused visiting Notre Dame Cathedral before lining up to the Eiffel tower for instance.
Hide- and- seek: let parents do supervision I smile.
Friends surprised driving over from Zurich to be with us.
Our times together were filled with delicious food preparations, walks and storytelling, some understanding of our long and excruciating European history, our hopes toward intelligent peacefulness.
I discovered our apartment was directly opposite Madame Curie’s
former Pechbrenne laboratory; we discussed its times, development,
great and greatest minds, uses.
We travelled back by car to my Black Forest families and friends.
A distant world.
©Ilse Zipfel, 2020
published 22 June 2020
by Greg Every
What a first world problem it is to contemplate the meaning of compassion in preparing to create something to read at a writing group.
Unable to define the term I had to look it up. One definition was understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it.
I find that I am able to acknowledge the suffering of some others but that is not the same as understanding their suffering. Wanting to do something for the suffering of others is one giant leap and another thing altogether.
During my corporate career, I was a person with little empathy for others. I was awoken from this selfish coma one day when a social worker from the Western Suburbs called on me seeking support for a program he was running.
He was a man with compassion. He did understand the suffering of others. And he wanted to do something about it. He worked to help street kids and in particular to dissuade them from using the drugs that were putting their life at risk.
As he explained it to me in these words: ‘What I am doing is trying to make sure these kids are alive tomorrow.’ This comment shook me up quite a bit.
Alive tomorrow? How could this be happening in our suburbs. But I was told it was.
Les Twentyman told me how it really is and about the real-world that he lived in. A world where homelessness, suicide, drug abuse, imprisonment and sleeping rough were common. Les understood the sufferings of others. He more than understood. He wanted to do something about it and society is better because Les Twentyman has compassion and is the personification of it.
We gave Les what he wanted, which was a not unreasonable sum of money for his cause.
I was reminded of Les and his compassion when one of the Coles Myer directors, who was seeking a $25,000 donation for a major opera company, called in.
He seemed surprised when I told him that I was not prepared to offer him a donation for his cause because if I gave him $25,000 there were five community support groups I could not provide $5,000 to. Or 25 groups to which we could donate $1,000.
Later, as a president of the Rotary Club of Beaumaris, I was placed in the position of deciding which causes to donate our meagre funds to.
Would we sponsor a Peace Scholarship with the hope of helping make the world a safer place.
Or a cause which supports international emergency disaster relief. Was it to support Rotary’s goal of helping eradicate Polio? Or was it best to spend our money on supporting the training of indigenous health workers so they could help their communities.
In his own unique and perceptive way Les Twentyman helped me to develop some compassion where little had existed before I met him.
I can’t help alleviate the suffering of others but I can, through Rotary I believe, help a few.
©Greg Every, 2020
published 24 June 2020
by Juliet Charles
Just her type. Tall, dark and … not quite handsome – interesting. Well, not even really tall – and the dark hair was definitely thinning; he was more solid than slim. But there was something. She did find him attractive. He lived in her street; indeed, passed her driveway often enough. Their paths crossed endlessly when she was walking and he was returning from work. That he worked, she deduced from his rather crumpled suit; and coming from the station, he was obviously a commuter. She admired the fact that he left his car home; undoubtedly due to environment awareness.
Once they both attended an auction two streets away and he stood alone at the edge of the crowd smoking a cigarette. She was a smoker then too! What a coincidence! Obviously, he was curious about neighbourhood activities. Another tick. She wondered, not for the first time, if he was married. And cursed her shyness and lack of confidence. Why didn’t she smile and say hello? Chat even. But what if he didn’t want to speak to her and she was rebuffed? No, better to save your dignity.
One day she was having coffee in a neighbouring suburb. And he was there – with a woman. Clearly his wife from their body language. Desultory chatting over newspapers; companionable silence rather than animated chat. Obviously not new lovers. She was relieved really. She had saved herself the embarrassment of making contact.
And so it went on over the years. It became rather awkward. For they never acknowledged each other beyond an occasional tentative smile from her and a similar response from him. No matter how often she changed her route, or the time she walked, it seemed so did he! Once they nearly collided, negotiating a corner. She thought more than once, that he might think she was stalking him! The thought was horrifying but darkly comic.
An invitation arrived in her letterbox for a street party at No. 28 just before Christmas, with instructions to bring food, drink and a chair. She brought the first two – she wouldn’t be staying long. The party was at the end of a long u-shaped drive and she met many people she had never seen before – and she – a resident for over 20 years! And then he walked in. Plucking up courage, she hovered on the perimeter of a small group until the right moment. ‘Hi’ – she said brightly. ‘We’ve passed each other on the streets so often that I thought it was time we met. ‘Hello, I’m Adrian and this is Meg’. For the next few minutes they all chatted animatedly. She volunteered her work details. ‘And what do you do Adrian?’ ‘I work for the Government’. Just – that. She waited – smiling, face upturned. But that was it. Embarrassing. The topic changed and she drifted off. After meeting more, mostly 40-something neighbours, she scuttled off with her pink plastic wine glass to her little house at the other end of the street. She was appalled. Why did she babble on like that? Why did she feel a need to impress?
Next day she was at the Supermarket buying a paper. He leaned in to her with a lovely smile and said what a great night it was, wasn’t it? She agreed. No, he didn’t remember the names of the hosts either. ‘I just call everyone Mate’. He touched her on the shoulder and they parted. Driving home, she saw him on the street with his shopping bags. Should she pull over and offer him a lift? No, she swiftly decided, that would be definitely creepy! She drove on.
She didn’t see Adrian for a while. And then Covid 19 hit. Enforced isolation provided just the incentive to walk more – and further. One day, returning from a long trek to the beach, she saw Adrian approaching. She greeted him and he stopped and smiled. Then, socially distancing between the footpath and the gutter, they chatted about all kinds of things – how they were filling in their time – wasn’t YouTube great? – Opera, ballet, plays? Adrian was working from home and, needing constant breaks, was walking 20,000 steps a day. She was duly impressed!
Two days later they met again. Really, given his habit of walking three times a day, it was no wonder! This time the subject turned to travel. ‘Well, my sister’s gone back to England now. She was here for four months catching up with family. You met her at the Street party – Meg’. ‘I thought she was your wife’, she said. ‘No, I’m divorced’ he replied. She quickly turned the subject back to travel. ‘I think I’ve left it too late to walk the Camino Way – I’m too old’, she blurted. ‘Of course you’re not’ he said. ‘You’ve got heaps of time – and you’d be fit enough. You don’t have to do it all, just part of it. Ah – I’ve got photos of when I did it – let me know if you’d like to see them some time’.
And she thought she just might. It was a different slant on ‘come up and see my etchings’.
©Juliet Charles, 2020
published 24 June 2020
You really don’t get it
If I hadn’t sworn not to on my kitten’s grave, I’d tell you what Skye told me she did with her new boyfriend. But don’t worry. She’ll tell everyone when we start back at school.
Meanwhile life continues pretty much the same here at the MacMillans’. My sister didn’t break up with her boyfriend after all. She said she never did, but her door was shut for day after day, like I told you, and only mum allowed in, and a pathetic mewling sound coming through our wall.
We had a brief holiday from mum and dad’s arguments a couple of weeks ago. Dad took Mum for a dirty weekend up to Tooborac. He said it wasn’t why they were going: it was to try some Heathcote Shiraz and to celebrate us (meaning me) being grown up enough for them to leave us at home for the weekend (and do our own washing and do their cooking for them once a week without any increase in pocket money).
Anyway, they came back, and for a week they were making calf-eyes at each other and talking about doing things in the garden. Dad said he’d paint the picket fence, which has been ‘primer pink since we paid those men to install it a year ago, Eric’. (That’s my Dad.) They came back through hills with giant grey boulders that reminded them of some replayed TV show they’ve been watching on 72, because dad won’t pay for Netflix. Mum said she’d like to bring a piece of it back and stick it in our front garden, which Mum said is boring, just a lawn with a driveway down one side.
Well last week she went off riding with her bike group – can’t she see that she is past lycra? – and while she was away two massive trucks pulled up in the street. One of them had a pull-out crane, and the other some big grey boulders. It was Dad’s mate Rusty who he met at a Richmond match. The two of them stood out on the nature-strip admiring Rusty’s pull-out crane, and then he climbed into the cabin and the crane lifted the boulders over the picket fence onto our front garden. I knew that was not a good idea. One of the boulders was humungous, as big as half a car.
When Mum got home she threw a spaz, just like I knew she would. Out on the front porch, where all the neighbours can hear. Dad looked surprised. ‘But you said you wanted a piece of that hillside. Can’t you see it now?’ He is such a nerd.
‘What if I don’t like it?….. Can you get it back where it came from?’
‘Oh Marcia, (that’s my Mum), You don’t realise. I was just so lucky that Rusty happened to be bringing his crane past to get it serviced just when his mate Dusty was bringing his low-loader back empty from Echuca, and he knew a farmer from the Richmond cheer squad…’ He really is a nerd. He thought he had won the argument.
‘Well what if I did like the boulder, but wanted it over in the corner of the garden?’
‘I’d have to ask Rusty to bring his crane over.’
‘So, you could get Rusty to bring his crane over when Dusty is going back to Echuca.’
‘No,’ says Dad. ‘You don’t realise how tricky the timing of it all is. I’ll probably have to pay Dusty to make a special trip. All right. That’s what I’ll do.’
‘No. Don’t worry about it.’ She turns to go inside, and then throws out ‘You just don’t get it, do you?’
She’s right. But such a bitch. I won’t be like that when I get a boyfriend.
©John Maddick, 2020
published 24 June 2020
by Leon Webber
I am a fly and I irritate humans by flying in their eyes, nose and ears. Maybe I could be called an ‘eyes, nose and ears specialist’.
When I land on a cup or plate, they wash them, or when I land on a piece of food, they throw it away. They are not quick enough to catch me which irritates and makes them more annoyed.
I do object to the use of chemicals to kill me. It is against the law to use chemical weapons and nerve gas, plus an inability for humans to live together peacefully in spite of belief in a kind and forgiving God. It will be just a matter of time before they destroy themselves and leave the world for us flies to enjoy peacefully.
We will have the last laugh.
©Leon Webber, 2020