Flash Fiction: Red Mood

She thinks of it as his red mood. Alcohol hurried it along but lately it had become so regular that it no longer needed a big drinking session to bring it about. That scared her more than she could say. In quieter moments, when she used to be able to knit as he watched tele of a night, she’d find her mind searching for a rhythm in his actions, a discernible pattern that she could learn regardless of the workings of his mind. Something that she could gauge with markers along the way so she could change tack and unpick the knots that only he could see.

He cried the first time. Huge bawling sobs which jarred her out of the fog of pain. She’d crawled across the kitchen floor, stockings slipping on the polished lino then sticking where her blood had sprayed. With a trembling hand, she’d reached out, unsure of how he would react. Everything that had been certain before was skewed. He’d grabbed her, holding her so tight that she winced which only made him cry more. His head in her lap, her fingers tight in his dark curls. The hair now is long gone with just soft wisps edging his scalp, leaving nothing to hold onto anymore.

Lately, after years of nothing more than a rough passing shove or a sly meanness in his words, the blows had started again. With the children gone, returning for ever briefer visits with her beautiful, bold grandchildren, she offered to volunteer in the town. She’d always helped out at the annual show and fundraisers, but with Theo spending more time at the pub or helping his friends with endless projects, she started working at the op shop.

The other women made her laugh. For years they’d admired her careful needlework and she was asked to show a couple of the younger women, still in their fifties, how to do it. There was coffee and cake and gossip. At first, Rita used to stiffen, feeling almost prudish as they spoke openly about their sex lives, their husbands, the joys and disappointments of their children. She kept quiet, realising that everything was fair game. It took her a while to catch the surreptitious glances cast her way when they spoke of the aggression of their men whose lives were winding down as their physicality faded in a town that had lost its livelihood. She felt relief, briefly, knowing that she wasn’t the only one. Then she realised that they knew.

Rita called in sick for her next shift, too shamefaced to return. But Theo heard her lie and had asked with rare interest what was stopping her from going. She nearly told him, and part of her wanted to yell and scream at the disgrace he had brought upon them both. All those years ago she had known at the moment of impact that he had broken more than her nose. But she hadn’t realised that the breakage would keep on splintering for the rest of her life.

At the next women’s gathering, during a rare lull in the conversation, Rita cleared her throat. She kept her eyes down, her voice so soft at first that it was like something she was whispering to herself. But slowly, she spoke a little louder, not daring to look up. The words took on a rhythmic flow. It was the story – her story – that she had carried for so long, a litany of her life with Theo.

They let her speak, even Marcie who constantly interrupted and talked over everyone. As Rita spoke, condensing decades of hurt, pain, and confusion into a few sentences, she began to feel lighter. The burden wasn’t gone, but it felt less all-encompassing than before.

When she’d said enough, there was still silence. Rita looked up, her cheeks aflame with a sense of disgrace that was never far away. Marcie reached over and took her hand, and Rita was startled to see the tears on her cheeks. ‘Stupid old bastard, that Theo.’ Then the room was alive with laughter and tears and she was no longer quite so alone.

Inspired by a call for pieces inspired by red and published recently in The Wild Goose Literary e-Journal in April 2018.

[Photo: smoke clouds billowing towards Katoomba]

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Writing Prompt: The Seed

It was all he had left of his old life. The only tangible object, separate to himself. When he looked in the mirror there were faint glimpses of what he had been. The sharp lines of his cheekbones, the clarity of his brow, the deceptive softness of his lips, all of these had faded. It seemed impossible that the image in the mirror was the man he’d become.

It had become a morning ritual. Get up (this step was harder than he thought it ought to be), wash and dress. Turn to the mirror to make sure the shirt buttons were aligned with their correct holes, then shuffle over to the armchair in the generously named living area. He’d cadenza down into the chair and gaze at the husk of the once succulent fruit and lose himself for a while in thoughts of earlier times. Back to when his body was taut, muscled and capable of anything that he put his mind to. His life had seemed overripe with possibilities.

Some mornings he frowned, adding additional wrinkles to his furrowed brow, trying to identify the turning point, that precise moment in time when equilibrium shifted, when his seemingly limitless strength started to trickle away. He was yet to identify that moment but he knew that the decline was quick and relentless. It took him too long to realise that he was waning, that all that was strong and sure was gone. His memories of home seemed to leach away too, and all that he had left was the dried husk of a pomegranate.

It had travelled with him across the world. His mother had pressed it into his hands in her last act of benevolence. He hadn’t been able to eat it and had wanted even then to keep it with him. A vague plan formed of growing new life from its seeds when he found somewhere that would hold his heart. But somehow he never found that place. It puzzled him and yet there was peace in knowing that the pomegranate was still with him, a spent force perhaps, but with the promise of warmth and sunshine, of life.

[Photo: pomegranates]

This story was inspired by a dried pomegranate, one of several props in a writing group exercise.

Flash Fiction: 100 Words – Superpower

No-one suspects an older woman. Especially one who has reached an invisible status. She had felt a creeping despair when she realised that people – men in particular – would rarely acknowledge her existence. No longer worthy of an assessing glance, there was an anger at first which mellowed as she realised that there may be some benefits. As a child the superpower she most admired was invisibility, and now she had it. She tested this new power with small acts of theft and deception. Being able to fade into the background was a blessing. Her wildest dreams were now within reach.

[Photo: near Parliament House in Wellington, New Zealand]

Writing Prompt: A Christmas for the Senses

The spit and sizzle of ham frying with eggs sends an aromatic waft up the hallway. The bedrooms are all empty now as we’ve been up for hours, allocating out the stacks of roughly wrapped gifts, squinting at times at the scratchy writing on gift tags. Ben, the eldest, makes sure that whilst we can shake and squeeze the presents, there is no ripping of paper or unveiling of gifts. Not yet.

The old Christmas tree, tucked into the corner of the living room, is flashing bright colours through the glittering tinsel. Glass ornaments shimmer with alternating colours, and the odd candy cane at the back of the tree is still intact. Most have been picked off long ago.

From the kitchen comes the sound of carols, badly sung by Dad. Every year he insists on playing Bing Crosby, the old, worn-out cassette tape now replaced by a downloaded version. It doesn’t improve Dad’s singing and as he booms out ‘White Christmas’ we call out suggestions on how it would be better if he stopped. He just gets louder and cheesier. Mum is in the kitchen too, and her laughter eddies through to the lounge room. She’s on the phone to family, too far away to visit.

Daisy finds a box of chocolates on the coffee table and we hook in, hands scrabbling for soft centres, Ben moaning as he bites on a hard toffee. My chocolate was orange-flavoured, my favourite. A good omen, I think, as I run an assessing eye over the tottering pile of gifts. There is one from Santa, supposedly, which is small but soft to the touch. Ben is arguing with Daisy over the last of the chocolates so I slip a finger under the wrapped corner. I ease it in slowly, frowning at the touch of fabric. It is soft. Then a cushion hits me in the head as Ben roars ‘No peeking!’ and we are all off, running and tumbling towards the kitchen to lodge our multiple complaints to management. Dad greets us at the doorway with a raised hand and we fumble to a halt.

‘Your Mum’s on the phone. Five minutes till breakfast. Go and get the yard ready – your cousins will be here shortly.’

Off we go, Ben leading the way as usual. Backyard cricket is the Christmas afternoon game and we get out stumps for one end, find the bat and then Daisy and I are sent off to find the balls. We look in the dog house, around the perimetre of the pool, and I find one nestled in the big pot of mint. I hold it close for a moment, smelling summer.

Then Mum’s calling us and we find our spots at the table outside. Plates of toast, fried ham and eggs are passed around. A big plate of cut fruit sits in the middle of the table, watermelon, pineapple, rockmelon and grapes glistening. We eat quickly, keen to open presents. All eyes are on Mum, and after what seems like an age, once we’ve eaten breakfast it’s finally time.

We race each other back to the lounge room, Bing Crosby still crooning in the background, as we start to rip open the presents, exclamations of delight mingling with moments of disappointment. A jumper with a reindeer on it?Really? What was Aunty Kay thinking of? Mum reminds me that it is cold in Canada at Christmas time but still.

I work my way through my stash, saving the mysterious parcel from Santa until last. Whatever it is, I’m sure that it’s going to be good.

[Photo: Santa spotted at Blackheath]

Writing Prompt: She Rode Off On A Harley

She rode off on a Harley. For a woman who had never caused a fuss or drawn attention to herself, it was an act of defiance. And it wasn’t even her Harley. It belonged to one of my mates, Deano. Lucky he was asleep although how he slept through the roar of the engine and the broad spray of dirt and gravel flung against the wall of the house as if tossed with a careless hand was beyond me. I guess we had drunk a bit the night before.

I was barely awake at the time and had knuckles digging into both of my eyeballs, trying to get a visual confirmation on what I was hearing. There were no raised voices – that would have been expected. I didn’t even twig that something was wrong until Eden woke me up. He said it was urgent, that I had to do something. I’d shrugged him off, rolled over in the bed, but he kept at me. He yanked the blanket off me, throwing it across the room. I swore at him, foul curses that would have earned me a clip across the ears if Mum had heard me. Then I had to get up. It was freezing. The fire must have gone out overnight. But that never happened. Mum was always up with the first light, getting a start on the washing or cleaning or getting breakfast ready.

‘Where’s Mum?’ I’d hissed the words at Eden as I dragged on yesterday’s clothes. They were tumbled and dirty, right where I’d left them. Mum was obsessive about clean clothes. We’d joke that the only way to keep anything out of her endless washing cycle was to not take it off. She must be crook. ‘Well?’ I took a step towards Eden but he slipped around the doorway and scooted off down the hallway.

It was then that I heard the roar of the bike. Loud, rumbling, deep and low enough to give the windows at the front of the house the jitters. I’d made it to the front door just in time to see Mum’s right hand give a rough salute as she disappeared with some mate of Deano’s off into the distance, my old school backpack loaded up and the sleeve of her favourite cardigan catching and waving in the wind.

[Photo: bikes spotted at Marulan]

A History Lesson

Recently I attended a talk by Grace Karskens, a noted colonial historian. Her published works include The Rocks and The Colony. Karsken’s talk was about her upcoming book, Recovering Vanished Places: Stories from the Hawkesbury/Nepean River.

History is approached by Karskens by an ethnographic focus, a wide lens which includes archaeology, ecology and geography amongst other studies. Sources range from official documents and historical texts to newspaper articles, paintings, local and family histories, letters, poetry and folklore to provides a broader context to understanding history on a deeper level.

Part of the challenge lies in what cannot be found or ascertained. Of course not everything is recorded or accessible, and sometimes all that remains is a sanitised version of real events.

Something that resonated with me was the snatches and snippets of past events that are woven into stories. As a writer I feel at times that my mind is swirling with scraps of stories, real and imagined. Some are recent, others are not my memory fragments but those of parents, grandparents and other relatives. And it isn’t just family that provide threads to weave stories from; chance conversations with friends and strangers also provide material.

Whilst some fictional scribblings require little in the way of research, unlike academic endeavours, it was interesting to hear Karskens talk of how obsessive the need to know can become. It is this attention to detail and intellectual vigour which creates work which resonates with readers. Again this has similarities in the fictional space. Research is an important aspect across many genres: as a reader few things jar more than reading something factually wrong in a story.

The talk provided a taste of what is to come, a book which promises accessible and illuminating insights into vanished places along the Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers. There is a link to a TED talk by Karskens here.

What lessons from history do you take on as a writer?

[Photo: view of Hawkesbury River near Wisemans Ferry]

Writing Prompt: Write About Someone Doing An Everyday Task

The prompt: write about someone doing an everyday task that reveals something fundamental about who they are.

She had started before first light, making her way to the laundry in the yard and getting the boiler started as the household slept. The clothes had been sorted the day before and she’d made sure that there was enough kindling and firewood to get the laundry done. The first load was ready to hang out by the time the dawn chorus began to swell around her.

She tucked the basket on her hip, the canes creaking a little. Mary made her way to the clothes lines, long strands of wire held in place by wooden poles which seemed too feeble to hold the heavy sheets and household clothes but they were up to the task.

Just before starting to hang the linen she paused, listening for movement, sniffing in the cold dark morning for other wood smoke. A small smile tugged at her lips. She would be the first to have her washing out again. Last week she’d noticed that Maggie from next door had hung her washing out the night before. It didn’t count, doing it late in the day. With the dust and muck from the mines it wasn’t worth it anyway; the clothes would need washing twice if you tried that trick.

With wooden pegs tucked into her mouth, Mary flicked and pulled and straightened the cotton sheets until they flapped neatly in the light breeze. A quick glance upwards at the lightening sky as the stars retreated then she was heading back towards the laundry, stepping carefully on a well-worn track, her mind slipping forward to what the day ahead would require of her. The weekly rhythm was ingrained and she liked to get a head start on washing day to set herself up for the week ahead.

[Photo: display of laundry at Cascades Female Factory in Hobart]

Writing Prompt: Something Adorable

There are times when my writing seems to dwell upon serious themes. At a writing group session a couple of months back, we worked through several prompts together. There is the option to share your work if you are comfortable to do so, and I did although I was aware that the pieces were darker than usual. At the end of my second piece I’d scrawled “One of these days I’ll write something cheerful”.

The very next prompt was a short challenge to write about something adorable, something as cute as a button. This is what I came up with.

Little girls in fairy costumes,

waving magic wands

Dark green leaves of maiden ferns

delicate, curling fronds

Laughter swirling on the breeze

the wonderful sound of joy

Bright brown eyes of my Buster boy

as he spots a favourite toy.

Do you find your writing tends to find an emotional rut, and if so how do you get out of it?

[Photo: pottery dog amidst ferns at the Driving Creek Railway, Coromandel, North Island, New Zealand]

Putting Creativity Out There

Over the last couple of years I have been writing fiction. This has mainly been in the form of short stories along with the first draft of a novel. The words have been growing slowly, building up in the background.

Some of the short stories have had an airing in my writing group, and this has been invaluable in a number of ways. Following constructive feedback, I have usually come away with a couple of areas to rework. I’ll admit that there are times when the feedback has been a bit challenging to hear, but usually once I digest the suggestions and revisit aspects which were confusing, the work feels stronger. I have been filing away the updated pieces, satisfied with the knowledge that they were as good as I could get them at this time.

There are lots of writing competitions out there, but I have been a bit reluctant to send these pieces out into the world. Late last year I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert which made me think that perhaps it was time to let some of my work go, to see if it could stand up on its own. In my writing group there was encouragement to get our work out there with a clarion call to collect rejection slips as we set our stories free.

I had been keeping an eye on competitions through a free weekly newsletter from the NSW Writers’ Centre and had printed out an entry form for a writing competition in Victoria. The form was filed and promptly forgotten until I discovered it, a day or two before the closing date. Fortunately submissions were online and I picked a story that met the competition criteria and sent it off before moving on to my next thought. When I came across the competition form a month or so later I tore it up, thinking that was the end of it but at least I’d tried.

Then I received a phone call. From Victoria. A phone message to let me know that I had won first place. I listened to the message a couple of times, stunned. The judge’s comments on the website said my story was charming and well-constructed. I felt giddy with delight. My story, inspired by a podcast about the vital role played by memorial halls in small country communities, had been good enough. You can find the story here.

So I will continue to create and dream and polish and put my work out there. I have recently come across the following in Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves. It sums up how to behave as an ambitious writer:

The ambitious writer doesn’t hide her short stories in a drawer when she completes them, she sends them out. She starts with The New Yorker and works her way down. She doesn’t hesitate to approach a successful writer and ask questions, or follow an agent into the elevator so she can give a pitch. Even if she’s shaking in her Hush Puppies, she goes after what she wants. Being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, getting lucky, a chance encounter, a fortunate happenstance – all these might play a role in getting what you always dreamed of, but the ambitious writer is the one with energy and fortitude and stick-to-itiveness that the Elmer’s folks would like to patent.

Do you let your creative work go out into the world?

[Photo: three green owls]

Book Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

A cursory browse of book reviews about the debut novel by Jane Harper, The Dry, indicated that this was a well-written crime novel set in a fictional town in rural Victoria with a strong sense of place and characterisation. It is all this and more.

Aaron Falk, a Federal Police investigator, returns to his home town of Kiewarra to attend the funeral of his best mate from childhood, Luke Hadler. But the funeral service isn’t just for Luke; it is also for his wife and young son. And according to the police, Luke is responsible for their deaths. Falk’s return to the town to attend the funeral is ensured when he receives a cryptic note from Luke’s father, referring to a secret relating to the reason why Falk and his father were forced to leave the town decades before.

This is a book about secrets, big and small, in a town where everyone either knows everyone else’s secrets or has a theory about what they might be. Falk’s reappearance in the town sparks a spate of attacks, directly and otherwise, as the holders of the biggest secrets become increasingly desperate. There are twists and turns and dead ends and the frustrations of running an informal investigation quickly become apparent. And to make it all the more interesting, Falk isn’t your normal type of detective.

The story is set against the backdrop of the worst drought on record. It is so dry that everything crackles, the heat is so intense and there seems no end to it. The climate is a constant presence in the story.

I listened to this book as read by Steve Shanahan and it was addictive. I found myself arranging pockets of time so I could listen in sections, then during the breaks I was thinking about the characters and what had happened and who might be responsible for the various crimes. The questioning of how well you can really know someone, and how the keeping of a seemingly small secret can have major implications, is cleverly demonstrated.

The portrayal of raw emotions following the deaths is deftly portrayed, from the grief of the parents left behind in a small town to bear the scrutiny of their neighbours, to the anger of memories of earlier incidents. Everyone has an opinion and viewpoints are hard to shift; disdain shows through the pretence of hospitality and there is also blatant narrow-mindedness. But there are moments of humour and mateship too.

This book made me ponder more than once on the role of secrets in each of our narratives, whether intentional or otherwise. I highly recommend it as an engrossing read.

Harper’s website is here, including links to the first chapter, book updates and reviews.