Writing Prompt: It Would Only Take A Couple of Clicks …

It would only take a couple of clicks to do it, to get ahead of Jacko, but I wasn’t sure I should do it. It wasn’t out of pity. Don’t get me wrong. Jacko was a bastard and most of the crew would be pleased to beat him at a session, let alone over a day. He was the gun shearer in the area and everyone knew it. His reputation seeped beyond the district boundaries so that people passing through knew of him if they had friends or relatives in the surrounding towns.

We’d matched each other, sheep for sheep, all day. At first he’d hammed it up, singing out and showboating with his shears, sighing loudly as our calls for ‘sheepo’ came increasingly in tandem. Then, after morning smoko, he started sledging. I ignored him, which made him worse. But I focused my energy on working faster and cleaner, wasting less movement and needing less tar. By lunch we were even again.

He shouldered me as he passed me on the way back, and the afternoon was full of sly tricks and sleights. We were down to the last two sheep of the day, and the rest of the crew had backed off, some cleaning their gear as we went for it, click for click. I was sweating so much I could hardly see, my hands slick with greasy wool that filled the pocked holes where burrs had torn at my skin. All I could see were sheep bellies and chests and legs and a blur of khaki eyes, boggled by fear.

I could hear Jacko grunt with effort, then curse as his sheep buckled. It happens. They’re not as stupid as people think. They pick up on emotions like other animals do.

To hell with it. I gave one last burst of clicks, tossed off the fleece and sent the sheep on its way. The shed erupted in a cheer as I unbent my back, every muscle screaming in protest. As the cheer faded I heard Jacko’s final click. He didn’t raise his eyes to mine. It wasn’t easy to be beaten by a girl.

[Photo: sign at Rydalmere]

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Flash Fiction: Trapped

It had come to this. Thirst had hounded them all for days until the ceaseless circling of the roped off waterholes created tracks deeply rutted by their hooves. All of the usual spots had been blocked, barricaded with old fencing wire and tin. In desperation, one or two brumbies had charged and stomped, aiming flying kicks at the covers, but there was no reprieve. Smelling the water but not being able to drink was torture.

Two dry nights were spent warily watching the last waterhole. On the third night, some of the brumbies were on their knees, trying to inch closer to the moisture contained within the maze of fence runs. With a frenzied whinny one entered the compound despite knowing there was no way out. The gulping sounds drew the others in, no longer able to resist the trap.

This piece was a writing group challenge to write a piece of up to 150 words inspired by the word ‘Trapped’. It was based an image that had been rattling around since I had listened to a podcast about Eric Rolls and the Pillaga, months before. I couldn’t shake the image of the brumbies from my head, so the only solution was to write it out. You can find the section about brumbies around the 14 minute mark of the podcast.

[Photo: horses on Norfolk Island]

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]

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]