December 2020 Competition Winners are: -
Jonathan Bayliss of Pontypool
‘Taste the Darkness’
Shannon Savvas of Cyprus
Richard Smith of Newcastle under Lyme
Joint Third Prize:
Don Horne of Australia
‘Taste the Darkness’
I can’t be sure what came first. The deafening thundering sound, the earth-shaking under my knees or the shockwave of hostile air and coaldust charging down the narrow tunnel towards our confined space. We were accustomed to coaldust, but nothing as frightening as that, filling our eyes, going down our throats and into our lungs. Then, in an instant, there was silence. It lasted a moment, before my little sister Gwendolyn started crying and calling my name. She had just turned seven and worked underground with me for only a few months. The fear in her young voice was palpable.
‘Alwyn, Alwyn, where are you? I can’t see! My eyes! What’s happening? Alwyn, Alwyn!’ I remember the sound of her little chest, desperate for oxygen, coughing and wheezing for all she was worth.
I managed to gasp a response, ‘Gwen, it’s OK, I’m here, feel my leg, I’m here up ahead of you.’
We found ourselves on our knees and elbows, partly submerged in sludge, inside our cramped three-foot-high tunnel. Gwendolyn’s little fingers grasped around my ankle and she started to cry with relief. As she sobbed, I sensed her hand trembling as she gripped my leg as tightly as she could.
The strange thing was, my first thought wasn’t a concern for her fear, but a hope that her tears would clear her eyes and her nose. I was eleven, and scared too, terrified, but I didn’t want to frighten her any more than necessary. Having worked in the pit for five years they nicknamed me the veteran drammer. Drammers like me pushed and pulled the small low trolleys along the coal seam track, once the older colliers finished filling them with coal. Like many of the youngest girls and boys, Gwendolyn’s job was doorkeeper, the men called them trappers. They opened and closed the haphazardly air sealed doors along the numerous tunnels.
Gwendolyn looked up to me, so I needed to stay calm - she depended on me.
A long time passed before the dust finally settled, our ears stopped ringing, our mouths cleared, and our dreadful dark tomb came into a grim focus. Gwendolyn had her small oil lamp, but I had nothing because I had been heading towards lights twenty yards in front of me when it happened. I’d heard the sound pitfalls make a few times over the years, but nothing like that - a completely different noise. Nor had I ever experienced the ground shake like that before or encountered such a dramatic surge of debris and dust. Right away, I realised, it must have been an explosion - a big one.
There was another reason why Gwendolyn couldn’t see well earlier. She had a nasty gash on her right eyebrow. It was pouring with blood and her eye was swollen shut. My shirt sleeve was filthy, but I tore it off and made a makeshift bandage for her head. The bleeding seemed to stop.
We shuffled closer and huddled together, I realised we were trapped. The trolley I’d been pushing appeared almost entirely entombed. In the dim light, its steel rear wheels barely visible, splayed out sideways. Hundreds of tons of coal and rock had crushed it. I’d been lucky, two seconds later, two yards further along and that would have been me.
A couple of yards behind Gwendolyn the roof had caved in on our side of the door she was attending. We were stuck in a soaking wet space, five yards long, less than one yard high and hardly wide enough for a grown man to crawl along.
Gwendolyn’s voice quivered as she sobbed, ‘Are we going to die, Alwyn? I don’t want to die; I want my mam.’
Pulling her in closer to me I reassured her, ‘We’ll be OK Gwen. The rescue men from the pithead will have us out soon. We just need to sit tight, and they’ll be here. We’ll be fine, honest.’
Gwendolyn responded to my reassurance, yet her dusty cheeks remained streaked, and deep inside I desperately tried to reassure myself we would survive.
It was probably a good thing neither of us owned a watch. I couldn’t remember if Gwendolyn had learned to tell the time anyway, she certainly couldn’t read. Gwendolyn’s light was an indication it had been a while since the explosion, because it had slowly dimmed and eventually gone out. Nothing to see any more, although we contended with the acrid smell of burnt kerosene oil and hewn coal which surrounded us. The explosion happened with such speed even the rats had no time to avoid it. We had company, I counted two of them crawling over my left foot before I managed to kick them away.
My teeth started to chatter, and my shirt clung to my back from the incessant drip after drip raining down on us through the wood-propped slatted ceiling. I couldn’t see them, but I knew my hands would have been blue. Somehow, exhausted from fear and poor air quality we fell asleep, I’ll never know for how long.
Gwendolyn fell fast asleep, although she twitched and whimpered in the crook of my arm. Soon afterwards, I awoke to a thudding noise, sensing it getting louder and louder. The noise came from near to where Gwendolyn’s door once was - our way out. It felt like an eternity, but the thudding was relentless and rhythmical, they were digging us out. I woke Gwendolyn and for the umpteenth time as we sat listening, we said the Lord's prayer out loud with our hands clasped together against our chests.
Then, in the darkness, voices, they sounded faint, but I was convinced I could hear voices.
‘They’re coming Gwen! I told you we would be OK, didn’t I? Won't be long now.’
A terrifying blackness, no words could describe, had immersed us for hours and hours. We hadn’t been able to see a hand in front of our faces since Gwendolyn’s lamp went out, ages ago, and now, a tiny glimmer of light appeared. The relief was overwhelming and we both started screaming out loud. Whoever the men were, they responded, the tempo of their hacking and mandrills increased dramatically. The reassuring chink of light suddenly exposed more of itself and our eyes squinted with delight, before crying with relief and joy.
Gwendolyn’s vice-like grip released from around me and she vanished, as I realised, they were hauling her, feet first through the emerging hole. Then my turn came, they pulled me through by my forearms and placed me on a coal trolley alongside her. I held her hand as they gave us some water and took us at a lightning pace to the lift cage, hundreds of yards away.
As we reached the ladders and rope lift, the men helped us off the trolley. I tried, but my legs wouldn’t hold my weight to stand, cramp, cold and the fear in me must have deadened them. As they closed the door on the basket-cage to take us to the surface, I turned to one of the rescuers, ‘What about my dad and my uncle Wil? They were up ahead of me hewing at the coal face.’
‘We’ll get them out soon Alwyn, they’ll be OK.’
I never saw my father or my uncle Wil again.
Last summer, Jack laid strychnine in the attic of their house on the Greek island of Evia. Claire had not known dying rats screamed. Just as she hadn’t known the same agony would haunt her nights within the year.
She kicks her legs out. The duvet is suffocating. Time is in limbo. She changes position. Side. Back. Onto the other side.
Jack, oblivious to her simmering distress at supper, and oblivious now, snores beside her, encroaching, stifling, overpowering. She rubs her restless legs against each other like a cricket. The movement stills Jack’s snorting and rasping for a few seconds. He rolls away. She has room to breathe. Another sleepless night. Night after night, day after day, she is trapped in a horror story. In the darkness, she longs for the freedom to scream like that rat with the knowledge of her own dying. Dying is never painless.
Sweat pours from her. More than anything, Claire wants to not face the coming days.
But it is not the dying which brings her pain. Dying will bring respite. She retches into her damp pillow, fights the fear gripping her throat.
It is leaving Jack behind, alone.
She’s spent years protecting her daughters, their friends in tiaras and tutus – allowed over to play but never to sleep over, small patients told always by trusting parents that the doctor is a good guy. Timely interventions. Always on guard, always aware, always watchful. Exhausting.
She’d overheard the talk:
Even works with him.
God is a shit, she thinks. As if she had a choice.
Jack snores, his sleep deep. Untroubled.
She turns her back, curls into herself. She inured herself to the looks, the raised eyebrows, the pursed lips. She never let him out of her sight.
I protected your little girls; she screams silently at her critics. Misrepresented lives, mine and his. Yet he gets to live, I get to die. I can’t even die in peace. Knowing.
Claire’s watched him watching their granddaughter, Maddie. Naked moments when an ember of desire glowed in his eyes. Her skin prickles with fear.
Jack stirs. She feigns sleep. He goes to the toilet.
Hegetstolive-hegetstolive-hegetstolive bullets through her spongy brain, ricochets off the underside of her skull, and slices her ventricles.
You get to fucking live, she accuses silently when he rolls back into bed, draping his arm across her waist. His breathing occupies the silence. His body heat burns her skin. A question worms between her anguish.
Why should he get to live?
She glances at the clock. Nearly five. Tomorrow she will think about how. She turns her pillow and falls deeply asleep.
Jack rises early. Not for God. Never for God. Sunday mornings are for golf with Max his partner and best friend. Their best man.
Claire has the morning alone.
To plan how to kill her husband of thirty years.
As she clears away his breakfast mess, she wonders if she chose the harder, not easier option when she’d walked in on two-year-old Lily giggling and nuzzling her daddy’s pyjama-clad penis in a game her child didn’t understand all those years ago. Bile surges again in her throat remembering her own and Jack’s flustering panic; their mutual pretense it was nothing more than some silly dad/kiddy play. Both hoping the other was fooled.
Unable to face it or him, she colluded. But she never left him alone again. Not with Lily nor Maxine with whom she was pregnant at the time, nor any other child within their circle of home, school or village. Trouble was, she couldn’t watch him out in the world.
Washing the cups, her mind returns to the confusion she’d felt then. What to do? Accuse? Shout? Leave quietly? Flee? Divorce? Her happy life hadn’t prepared her to cope with evil. Every option brought frightening consequences.
Then, paedophilia was barely whispered or thought about. Euphemisms ruled with uneasy laughter – kiddy-fiddlers, creeps, sickos. It occurred elsewhere, not in the cosy comfort of village and professional life. And what would become of her babies? Never knowing their father, or worse, knowing him for what he was. The anticipated stigma of revulsion made a coward of her. The girls never knew. She hoped.
Changing the sour and sweaty bed linen from the night and gathering Jack’s trail of damp towels for the laundry, her mind returns to Max, Jack’s practice partner. He’d called her into his surgery on Friday to confirm the hidden menace growing in her lungs.
‘Tell no-one, Max,’ she’d said.
‘Of course not. You and Jack will want–’
‘Especially not Jack.’ Her hands consoled each other in her lap. She’d worked long enough in the practice to know what was coming.
Max had frowned and put his arms across her shoulders.
‘He needs to know. To help you deal with this, to decide what’s the best course of treatment.’
She shrugged him off.
‘You said there was no cure.’ She’d taken a deep breath willing her voice to remain calm. ‘I need time to think. I’ll tell Jack when I’m ready.’
‘Palliation can offer much…quality of life–’
‘Quality of death you mean.’ Her hand flew to tuck her hair behind her ear.
For a dangling moment, his eyes locked on her hand repetitively soothing an errant swatch of hair. ‘Stop it Claire. Don’t shut him out. We’re friends.’
‘And I’m your patient. You’re bound to keep my, my confidentiality.’ She stood at his consulting room door. ‘We’ll talk next week.’
‘I know Jack won’t understand my keeping this from him.’ Max said holding her x-ray report.
Know him? You haven’t a bloody clue, she thought.
‘Say nothing, Max.’
Her anger at Max’s ignorance had been unfair. Namesake and Godfather to Maxine, he was a close and loyal friend. Jack buried his proclivities deeply and sometimes Claire wondered if she had misread the situation, but every once in a while, a look, a gesture, a discomfort on Jack’s part would confirm his reality and her nightmare.
Trivial tasks done, she makes a pot of tea, retrieves her stashed cigarettes and lighter from the onion pot and takes a tray outside to the table under the beeches. She’d broken the heavy habit years ago, for the girls really, but under duress she still reaches for their comfort. There will be a lot of smoking today, but sod it, she thinks, it won’t make any difference now. The chittering birdsong and warm sun are seductive, peaceful. The burning inhalation of nicotine focuses her mind.
How to kill Jack.
Monday’s surgery is packed. At eleven she takes Jack, then Max morning coffee.
‘Sit down a moment,’ Max says. ‘Mrs. Wells can wait.’
Tucking the hair behind her ear she launches into her prepared speech.
‘We need our holiday without this hanging over our heads. It may be our last holiday and I want Jack to enjoy it.
‘We’ll leave for Greece next week as planned.’ She glances at Max. ‘After, well, together you can decide what’s best.’
‘Forget, Jack. Three weeks away means you’ll lose a month. You should be seeing a surgeon this week.’
‘I’m not asking you, Max. I’m telling you.’ She rolls a fresh sheet of paper down the examination couch. ‘I’ll get Mrs. Wells.’
Their shabby house on Evia hidden among pines and eucalyptus by the sea, welcomes them as it has for fifteen years. No neighbours, no cell reception, the village a twenty-minute walk along the shoreline. For Claire it had been ideal in so many ways.
They fall into a familiar routine. Claire swims and reads. Max, who isn’t a swimmer, fishes before dawn then spends the rest of his day odd jobbing, catching up on medical journals and this year’s big read, Bob Woodward’s Fear.
Evenings they walk to the village. Jack plays backgammon with the local doctor while Claire buys fresh produce for the next day, making any necessary calls from the only telephone at Maria’s supermarket. They stroll home and sit outside, drink wine, gorge on melons and cheese. Jack prepares his tackle and bait and Claire keeps tally of the shooting stars making impossible wish after wish, and this year, rehearsing her own tackle and bait:
A tragic accident.
Fell in the water.
Knocked his head.
She tried to save him.
After so many years, they belonged here. She would be believed.
‘Jack, why don’t I come out with you tomorrow?’
He looks up from the bottom step where he’s laid out lines and hooks.
‘You’re joking, right? You hate early rises, you hate small boats. Raw fish makes you retch.’
She forces a smile. ‘I just thought–’
‘Anyway, I’m out with Costas and his brother tomorrow.’ He’s puzzled but turns his attention back to his hooks. ‘Perhaps another day.’
Claire returns to the stars.
‘Wonder how Maxie’s getting on,’ Jack says, a few minutes later, smiling. ‘Little Maxie. All grown up. I should’ve taken more time to know her better. Too late now.’
Claire hugs herself to stop shaking, relieved her daughter is holed up far away in gloomy London. ‘I hope she’s working on her dissertation,’ she says. ‘And not out partying.’
The next afternoon, Maxine arrives with her backpack and laptop.
‘Surprise!’ She shouts barging in on their siesta. ‘Enough of the wild sex and running around naked. I’ve come to finish my dissertation in the sun.’
Fast running out of options a few days before flying home, & urgently needing to think, Claire announces she’ll drive to Karistos, twenty kilometers down the coast, for last minute souvenirs.
‘Me too,’ Jack says. ‘We’ll have lunch at that taverna you like, what’s it called? The Seagull, right? What about it, Maxie, coming?’
‘No thanks, Dad. I’m on the final draft. Besides, all this activity has worn me out.’ She grins. ‘Make a day of it and give me some peace.’
‘Don’t be cheeky, one day you’ll appreciate a quiet life,’ Jack says, grabbing car keys and sunhat.
‘Christ, I hope not,’ Maxine mutters, waving them off.
Claire sits rigid and lost in the car, bracing as Jack throws the wheels around the curves of the narrow road skirting the sea cliffs.
After shopping they lunch at the Glaros. They order red mullet, salad and oregano-sprinkled potatoes.
‘And let’s have some of that Fleva Syrah you really liked last week,’ Jack says. ‘Just a glass each? Or shall we splash out on a bottle?’
Right there, right then, Claire’s shooting-star wishes light up in her head, a burst of clarity. Of solution.
‘Oh, I think we deserve a bottle, don’t you?’ she smiles. ‘Maxine said make a day of it.’
Nursing her glass, she keeps his filled. Two hours later he is tipsy and sleepy.
‘I’ll drive,’ she says. ‘You’re in no fit state. Have a sleep and I promise not to crash the gears.’
Traffic is sparse mid-afternoon. Within minutes Jack is snoring, head thrown back, mouth open. Juddering over the town’s speed-reducing bumps, she surreptitiously releases his seat belt. Fifteen minutes later, high on the coastal road she releases her own belt and increases speed. Tears blur her eyes; saltiness stings her tongue.
No goodbyes, she thinks, only regrets. Speeding into a left hairpin bend she turns the wheel right. The car flies like a seagull out over the cliffs and rocks, before plummeting into the sea and sinking.
Pay attention, son, I’m telling you a true story, and if you don’t believe any of it, well I’ve got to be honest, I don’t care, but if you was ever to call me a liar over it, then you might start to care a lot. You’ve met my business partner Reggae Bob and his chains. Those little things you’re wrapped in right now? Christmas treat. Some of the chains he’s got you could pull a lorry with, or drown in, if you get me.
Yeah, Reggae Bob; very big and very nasty. Got to blame the parents, but what can you do? I like to think I help him out a bit, channelling all that aggression into something useful, if you get me. Here’s something you might not know, being young and stupid and everything, he hates reggae music, something about an old girlfriend, but I don’t ask. Don’t ever put reggae music on the jukebox, son, not while Reggae is about. He’s more of your heavy metal type, to be honest. We like nicknames round here, see. Got to be a point to them though, don’t you think?
Anyway, he was in the pub when it all kicked off last Christmas, not that I needed him, it wasn’t that sort of bother. He’s not much use, to be fair, when there’s nobody needs the shit kicking out of them. Goes without saying, Big Bob the barman was here. Course, he’s small and weedy, but that’s the point. Takes all his strength to pull a pint; fuck knows how he managed to pull his wife. You getting the hang of this yet? Just nod, that’s it, you’re a bit tricksy to understand with the masking tape and everything. Good lad.
So, me and the two Bobs, we was having a decent Christmas Eve. Lots of punters, a few regulars, good will to all men. Lovely. Anyway, it started getting late and people started leaving. Not the regulars though, they was hanging on for the lock-in, not that we have to lock them in these days, but it’s a bit of a tradition, if you get me, and I like a bit of tradition. Yorkshire puddings with a roast, a few last words for a condemned man, that sort of thing. Anyway, I like to look after the regulars. Not that there’s many of them these days. No loyalty most people these days. Cheapest pint wins, see. Sad really.
The three army lads, they’re always here at Christmas. They went to school together just over the way there; joined up together, served in Iraq together, you know the sort of thing. Balti Dave and Mel C – looks like that Spice Girl but we don’t make a big thing out of it – they’re still in, but they bring their mate along when they’re home on leave. Now there’s a story, the mate. Lost both his legs in Iraq, he did, but he kept his sense of humour. Sign of a top bloke, smiling against the odds. You smiling behind that tape son? That’s the ticket. You’ll get through this alright, you see if you don’t.
Anyway, they call him Caspar on account of when he got blown up he went white as a ghost apparently, and bless him, well, bless them all really, but bless him specially, he stayed positive. I can’t see how he could have gone white as a ghost, mind, him being as black as he is, but then I wasn’t there was I? Sometimes you just have to take people on trust. Like when I lend people money and I trust them to pay it back, if you understand me. Don’t nod like that son, your head’ll come off.
That’s better. So anyway, them three was here, over by the fire, and next to the window was Nike Chris and Elvis the dwarf. Now there’s a pair of funny buggers if ever you met any. Nike on account of the trainers he always wears, obviously, and old Elvis, he actually dresses like Elvis. It’s probably something to do with being chucked about so much. Self-esteem issues, is my guess. That’s a sorry way to earn a living, being thrown about by a load of piss heads at a stag do. I mean, fuck me, chuck a dwarf? There’s some very sick people out there son, very sick.
Just between me and you I think he looks more like George Michael, but what do I know. He seems happy hanging about with Nike, mind, that’s what I’m saying. They run a business together now. I don’t think anyone knows what they do, but Nike tells everyone that Elvis is good with his hands. There you are then, it takes all sorts, if you get me. Yeah, funny buggers, but decent enough. No harm in either of them.
So there was Reggae and Nike and Elvis and Mel C and Balti Dave and Caspar and Big Bob and me. Course Tea-Total Tim was here as well, no surprise. It’s a mystery how we attract so many funny buggers to this pub. Seems to me they could straighten those legs of his, but he’s happy collecting the social and he’s trained his dog to jump through the gap where his knees should meet, so he gets a few quid from larking about for the tourists.
So anyway, all the drifters had gone and it was just me and the regulars. Some nice Christmas tunes on the jukebox and I was about to lock the door when this couple comes barging in. I didn’t even know it had started to snow but they was covered in it. Turned out it was one of them snow bombs like in the papers.
Anyway, this bloke and girl, they was an odd looking pair, so no surprise they ended up in my pub. She was about half his age and half his size but we don’t judge here, son, you should have worked that out by now, and she was wrapped in a big heavy coat which must have been his, because he was only wearing a jumper. Half frozen they looked. Anyway, not going to lie to you, they didn’t get off to the best start. The bloke looks round then points down at the woman’s crotch and says over and over, ‘Work, work’.
Well Reggae was off his feet like lightning. ‘We don’t want that sort of nonsense,’ he says. ‘We’re all respectable round here.’ Quite right, but he can be a bit intimidating so I calmed it down a bit.
‘You can stay for a warm if you buy a drink,’ I told them ‘but no funny business.’
Anyway, they wasn’t getting what we was saying because the bloke he says again, but quieter like, ‘Work, please help, work.’ I don’t know where they was from, but it weren’t Tunbridge Wells, if you get me.
It was Caspar what twigged it first, and before you know it, he’s gone over to them on those shiny blades of his, he can’t half shift on those things. He was in them Victory games that Harry set up, God’s truth. Didn’t get a medal, but he was there. Funny thing though, blades. I think of blades, I think of Reggae and his aggressive tendencies. Not that there’s any need for you to worry about that, son, not for a first offence. Now don’t start, come on son, no need to cry, there’s bubbles coming out your nose, look. Try and act a bit grown up, there’s a good lad, no-one made you borrow the money.
Where was I? Yeah, so Caspar puts his arm round the girl and says to us, ‘He means labour. She’s in labour, she’s having a baby.’
Well, talk about stop the fucking film.
When it started again we was all over it. We got her next to the fire, and given what was going on, I decided to light it so they could get warm. On the floor she was, leaning against her bloke, legs in the smear position. The army lads was all trained in this and that, so Balti Dave gets straight on his phone for the ambulance, no messing, and Mel C decides to investigate down under, if you get me. Anyway, when he looks up he’s holding her knickers and he says, ‘I think the water’s broke,’ and he gives the girl a double thumbs up and smiles best he can.
‘There’s no ambulances yet,’ says Balti Dave. Christmas Eve, see. Busiest day for the emergency services, straight up.
‘Has anyone ever delivered a baby?’ asks Elvis.
‘My ex-wife had a baby once,’ says Tea-Total, ‘but I was in the pub.’
‘Fuck me, Tim’ says Big Bob, and he doesn’t usually swear, so you can see how stressful it was for all of us.
Then Nike Chris pushes through and says, ‘Leave this to me’.
So we did.
And I’m no expert, but it looked like he knew what he was doing and it wasn’t long before he shouted ‘There’s a head,’ so we all crowded round trying to get a look, sort of instinctive like, if you get me. Then we all realised, sort of all at once, that there’s a young woman there having a baby, and there’s a load of men staring between her legs like none of us had seen a snatch before.
I mean, you can laugh now, but even Reggae went a bit sheepish at that one. So we all suddenly got busy. Elvis went to fetch some bar towels and I sent Big Bob out to the kitchen to boil the kettle and anyone not doing anything useful sort of drifted back to their seats, so no harm done.
Then after a while the rest of the baby arrived, all screaming and upside down, like on the telly. Elvis got it wrapped in towels and Big Bob passed round cups of tea and the girl was hugging the baby and the dad was smiling and crying. It was a lovely thing to see, son. Really lovely.
Then it was sort of all over as quick as it started. The ambulance finally arrived along with a couple of curious coppers, but they’d had enough of Christmas so they just left us to it once they had a few details. The girl and her bloke went off in the ambulance with the baby. It was a girl by the way, the baby. To think we was there when she arrived, all brand new and stuff. Cracking. Next thing I knew I was handing out brandies to all the lads and when we was all ready and comfy like, with the fire going and the front door locked finally, we drank them down together. Nearly like having a family, it was.
Anyway, you’re probably wondering what that’s all got to do with you. Well, tell you the truth, I saw you here all wrapped up in those chains, waiting for your kicking and looking sorry for yourself and I got to thinking about last Christmas and how it’s Christmas Eve again, so I thought I’d start my own little tradition, if you get me. So the thing is, how do you fancy a brandy before Reggae comes back?
Come on son, no need for more nose bubbles. I’m just playing, I’m a loan shark, not a monster. I’m starting a new tradition, right enough, and this year you’re it. You get to walk out of here, no harm, no foul. Let’s just get you out of them chains and get that tape off. There you go. There’s the door.
Just one last thing son. If you tell anyone about this, Reggae will be bringing the lorry chains next time, if you get me. I don’t want people thinking Knees-Up Benny is going soft. Not good for business.
Yeah, yeah, son. Happy Christmas to you too.
Early whispery sunlight in the farm office has yielded to sharper, more penetrating morning rays which had vaulted the wide verandah, seeking every corner of the room. They have been bouncing off the polished pine floor – the furniture and fittings becoming stark and featureless in the bright light, reminding me of the landscape beyond the farmhouse. Suddenly the room turns a dull sepia haze and everything goes quiet, even bird chatter is stilled in the overhanging trees. It signals that something could be changing in the weather and I need the desk lamp to keep working on our updated plan for the bank. Their deadline is today.
I urge myself to stay focused and to ignore what’s unfolding. But my fragile resistance crumbles, and despite my better judgement I turn from the laptop to see what’s happening outside. The office doorway is now framing dark clouds rolling in from the west, a murky sky blanketing our farm.
The clouds are providing some relief from the stranglehold the merciless sun has on our desiccated land. Can feel faint hope struggling to escape from that deep place where it has been left bullied and suppressed so many times.
I return to my laptop, trying to concentrate, but the thickness of the clouds has now become mesmerising, my imagination releasing miracle water to nourish the paddocks and renew the pastures. I should stop being so gullible, because I know the result will be the same. Hope will morph into despair when the clouds callously slip away to drench far-off farms, leaving us with nothing more than deceit and emptiness.
This recurring pattern has taunted us time and time again during the four years of this prolonged drought. My very being feels absorbed into the landscape - cracked, dry, shriveled, with gritty dust clogging my lungs.
“Mummy can we go see if them chooks have laid some eggs?” Our daughter Jodie drags me back to reality.
“I’ve nearly finished my work sweetie. The sun is sure to be out again pretty soon and we’ll go down to see daddy.”
Jodie has never seen rain in her entire life, born two months after our last fall. She can’t imagine creeks running bankers and dams filled, crops coming to life and thriving. My poor girl doesn’t know the joy of tilting her head, closing her eyes, and feeling that cool, cool water run down her face. Or poking out her uplifted tongue to let it run into her dry mouth. The word rain has no meaning to her - she might vaguely associate it with our worried faces when Adam and I constantly talk of dry pastures, dying stock, failed crops and swirling dust.
She returns to our wide verandah to continue the make-believe tea party with her precious Teddy Pooh and Patched Princess. Wish I could be enjoying my own special make-believe too, as I force my mind back to the gut-wrenching numbers I have to deal with on my laptop.
I steal another glance at the clouds. Mustn’t give up hope of a drenching, despite Adam’s heated outburst over breakfast, before daybreak. Can still feel the sting of his hostile words, “Christ Lisa. Stop talkin’ money all the time. We ain’t got any and that’s that!”
I knew all the theory about staying calm, but my brittle defences quickly fractured as I rushed into the fray, “One of us has to try and make some damned sense out of it.”
“Wasta bloody time you ask me even thinking about starting again if we ever get some rain. And you wouldn’t put money on that. Just let the bloody bank take what’s left.”
“Please don’t even think that Adam,” panic grabbed at my chest as I tried to hold tears in check. “This is our life. And whether we like it or not Jodie’s future is tied up in it too.”
“Just about run out of future Lisa. For her. And for us.”
“Dammit. I’m not giving up. I’m doing my best juggling what payments we can make, looking for relief fodder if there’s any going around, and trying to drag in some more Government money. But I need you with me. I can’t do it alone.”
We parted with short burning fuses. “Take your lack of support to the shed then. There are things you can start on and I’ll be there as soon as I’m free of the blessed book-work.”
“Leave the bloody book-work. I need your help with the hammermill to get the feed ready.”
“It has to be done this morning. I need to update our plan. Just make a start and get ready for me.”
“Uh, uh,” was all I got, as he slipped away into the early daylight.
My resentment churns as I keep replaying that encounter. Where has my gentle, loving, Adam gone? I think about the upright, optimistic young man who took on managing the farm under distressing circumstances, full of ideas - and now he’s just a mirage, barely discernible in the heat and dust. Can’t stop tears trickling down my cheeks. Long ago we cut hired help and I took charge of all of our book-keeping, and it’s an endless struggle to manage our dwindling business.
It’s been in his family for three generations. An only child, he went to Ag. College then helped his father manage the property, injecting his new ideas. I’m a city girl, forced to learn quickly through hands-on experience. Friends from boarding school days invited me to a Bachelor and Spinster Ball in the district, and that’s where I met Adam. I still remember his rough hands holding mine as we danced for the first time, and his whisper that my hair smelled like the rose garden at the front of his farmhouse.
Tragedy struck the family just a few months after we settled into married life on the farm. Adam’s parents were killed when a speeding truck rolled their four-wheel drive on a trip to town. Adam rose to the challenge, but nine months later we were dealt another blow when this wretched drought started. That was four years ago. Been up and down the accounts since our early breakfast to see if we can cover some outstanding bills, and where we must plead deferments.
The sound of a gunshot reminds me that I should be down helping in the shed. Probably Adam after the foxes that have been hanging around the chicken shed, robbing us of valuable hens and eggs. He’ll be getting worked up again because I’m late joining him, anxious to carry out work with the hammermill.
Adam told me once, that back in his Ag, College days there’d been a dark period when he was depressed after a breakup with a girl. But he managed to climb out of it with help from a Counsellor and then he met me. I’m fearful there could be a new wave of depression emerging, and dread it being the end of the farm and us. I’ve tried to make some calls, talked to our GP, looking for help for him, but that’s not easy out here in the bush - everyone’s feeling suffering and loss, not just us. Not enough Counsellors to go around. Waiting lists everywhere.
This endless drought is testing our spirits to the limit. Crops gone. Stock dead or sold, even some breeders. Clinging to prime remnants, and the bank squeezes us tighter every day. Government aid too little, too late. No jobs around town either. Isolated storms have blessed some people in the district, but not us.
Is it my fault I wonder as I replay Adam’s taunting jibe, Stop all that wishin’ Lisa. Clouds just bounce off it. This morning was the first time he’s ever mentioned walking away. I’m shaken, but maybe he’s right? Until now we’ve been determined to survive as a family, but now I’m frightened it could finally be tearing us apart. I try to imagine how he must be feeling. It’s gut-wrenching for him because the farm is a symbol of his family. His sense of failure must be immense.
Are the clouds even thicker now? My heart begins to race because my nostrils suddenly fill with the smell of rain. That smell is unique. Dust and moistened eucalypt leaves combining to create a fresh antiseptic odour, carried on the breeze. I even remember it from my school which was nestled in an urban bushland estate; running outside with special friends defying teachers and jumping in puddles amongst the trees. Being sent to the Headmistress for reprimands and letters to our parents. Now it fills my nose and lungs, and it warms my heart. It is telling me that somewhere nearby rain is blessing the parched land, and people are hugging and celebrating. I’ll go find Adam - this will lift his mood.
Flashes of lightning dance through the room, mixed with sharp cracks of thunder, and I quickly shut down my laptop so I don’t lose my valuable work if there’s an electrical surge. The heavens open, and the noise on our iron roof is deafening. Water is quickly flooding through the parched yard, soaking into the wasted pastures; beyond the roads will soon be rivers of mud if this keeps up.
A frightened Jodie has suddenly appeared at my side, “Mummy I’se not scared but Teddy Pooh and Patched Princess, they’s so scared of the noise.”
I collect her friends and we settle in one of our big floral-patterned lounge chairs,
"You know we don’t have enough water from the bore to take a full bath?” she screws up her face and nods. She’s heard it before. “Well it’s like that up in heaven. They have droughts too. And then God sends water to the angels. Plenty of water.”
“Jus like our water?”
“That’s right. Angels fill their baths and they jump in, splashing their wings to give themselves a thorough soaking. Like the birds do when there’s a bit of water in the animals’ trough.”
Jodie nods, “‘specially those big crows.”
“Yes, those noisy crows. Well sweetie, the angels are delighted, and they move their wings up and down, up and down, splashing water over the sides of their baths. Clouds bump into each other making that big noise we call thunder. The water comes down through them for us to use. And that’s rain.”
I can just imagine Adam right now walking up to us in the rain from the shed, a huge smile on his face, loving the drenching he’s getting, probably removing his hat as well. Might manage a snap of him soaking wet, climbing the steps to the verandah – a wonderful memory for our long-ignored album.
Out front I’ve sparingly used waste water to preserve what’s left of his mother’s roses, languishing in baked dry ground. The rain will be bringing life to them I bet, pink and white and yellow, and we’ll be happy again.
Jodie slips off the chair and heads for her room, where her favourite doll Mandy is propped on the bed. I quietly step close to the door to keep an eye on her. Drawing Mandy close to her in a cuddle she’s talking to her, “Don’ be ‘fraid of the noise Mandy. It’s special angel water from heaven, and it won’t hurt us. They’s got a big bore up there and they’s sending some down to us.”
I’ll leave her to it. Adam should be with his girls right now, this is such a wonderful day. I’ll just go and call him to come in. We’ll be hugging and celebrating with the angels today.
The December 2020 Competition Short List
Christmas Delivery by Richard Smith of Newcastle under Lyme
Taste the Darkness by Jonathan Bayliss of Pontypool
Last Train to Baker Street by Steven Singleton of Ruislip
Her Hope Betrayed Her by Valerie Miller of Australia
Splashing Angels by Don Horne of Australia
Breathe by Shannon Savvas of Cyprus
The December 2020 Competition Long List
Ivy and Me by Margaret Wardell of Long Buckby
Christmas Cards by Hazel Whitehead of Bishops Waltham
Christmas Delivery by Richard Smith of Newcastle under Lyme
Taste the Darkness by Jonathan Bayliss of Pontypool
The Farm by Alexander Mckibbin of London
Last Train to Baker Street by Steven Singleton of Ruislip
Her Hope Betrayed Her by Valerie Miller of Australia
Splashing Angels by Don Horne of Australia
Breathe by Shannon Savvas of Cyprus
Consequences by Shannon Savvas of Cyprus
The Bin-cident by Caitlin McAllister of London