These days of concern and self-isolation due to COVID-19 are strange times indeed. To lighten the mood, here is a little story I wrote, before the craziness got too crazy, for the March Australian Writers’ Centre Furious Fiction competition.
‘While these visions did appear…’
From my place in the wings, I can see Ella and her best friend Toni. Ella clutches the edge of the stage curtain, her jaw set with determination to not mess up her scene. Her parents are out there in the audience, their faces probably tight with worry. I know they’d had misgivings about the whole thing.
On stage, Bottom leans back in Titania’s arms. His ass’s head wobbles precariously but stays in place. Titania rests her head on the cushion of soft ferns in the fairy bower.
Ella had gasped when she’d first seen the set, hung with greenery to conjure a park, a woodland meadow. The play cast its magic over everything. In the dressing room, she’d looked into the mirror and squealed.
‘I’m a fairy!’
She wears her yellow gown and fairy wings as if born to them. A long blonde wig completes the disguise, transforming snub nosed Ella into a fairy sprite. Even Rick—the handsomest boy in the school—is convincing as Bottom, the fool with a donkey head. It is all working.
Now here is Ella’s cue. She bounces out on stage beside her fairy friends. Ella has just two words to say, and I know she won’t get them wrong.
Peaseblossom calls, ‘Ready!’
Moth and Mustardseed chorus, ‘And I!’
Within minutes their scene is done and they all run off stage again, giggling and hugging each other.
Ella spots me in the wings and rushes over, her round face one huge smile. She puts her arms around my waist and hops up and down, her excitement spilling over like a fizzy drink.
‘Shhh!’ I warn, but I can’t help smiling back. ‘You did great, both of you.’ I put my finger to my lips, and they quieten to watch the action until the play’s closing lines.
I give them a gentle nudge.
‘Curtain call! Go and take your bow, girls.’
Ella and Toni hold hands with the other fairies and bow to the audience, beaming. The applause and cheers rise to a crescendo. I blink away tears. When the curtains swish shut for the last time, the whole cast rattle off the stage together, breathless with joy.
I wait with Ella and Toni until their parents find them. Ella’s dad is shaking his head. Oh no… Is he unhappy with Ella being in the play? I’d fought hard for the chance for Ella and Toni to take part. Does he still disapprove?
Before I could speak, he takes my hand.
‘Thank you, Ms Roberts!’ he says. ‘What a wonderful night. It worried me it might be too much for Ella, up there on stage. I know the school hasn’t had special needs students in the play before. How can we thank you?’
I grin. ‘Just look at their faces.’ I turn to Ella and Toni. The girls’ eyes shine as they grin back. They are still fairies, inside and out. ‘That’s thanks enough.’
The young woman shimmied across the floor. Bumping her hips to make the coins on her belly belt jingle, she executed a perfect, sinuous camel move, the undulations of her lithe body casting a spell on her audience. She glimpsed the slack mouths and vacant eyes of the watching men as she brought her finger cymbals together with a rhythmic click click, keeping time with the drummer on his darabuka. The music and drumming rose in a crescendo, many of the men clapping along in time. It spurred her to dance faster, spinning around until she finished with a dramatic sweep of her long filmy scarf, before letting it fall to the floor.
She flung her arms out, head high, gleaming hair cascading down her back. Bowing low, she swept up the scarf and disappeared through the curtain, out of sight. The men, she knew, would awaken from their trance and turn back to their meals, order more drinks, perhaps even speak to their wives. They were like small boys, so easily bewitched by female flesh and a sparkling dance costume. She despised them and pitied them in equal measure.
In the small space between kitchen and bathrooms where the dancers and musicians gathered before each performance, she drank a glass of water as her breathing returned to normal.
Zamir grinned at her as he put down his drum.
“Your dance sizzled tonight!”
Yasmin smiled at the compliment, and then grimaced.
“Those men… no respect!” she complained. “Some nights it’s like a—what do you say—strip joint?”
Zamir let out a shout of laughter. “No strip joint ever had a dancer like Yasmin to entertain the audience. You are the queen of dance out there.”
Yasmin sighed. “Thank you, my friend. I know you appreciate the dances. As I enjoy your beautiful darabuka playing. I wish only that our audience were more… more…”
“Civilised?” Zamir supplied helpfully, and it was Yasmin’s turn to laugh.
“Yes, civilised! If only they knew a little about the richness of the music and dance we perform for them, they might not slobber as they do. Now,” she stood and collected her coin belt and bag, “I must go. I promised my little Rana I would be home in time to read a story before her bedtime.”
Hurrying through the darkening streets, she held close the hope for her daughter. Rana would not have to dance in a restaurant to earn a living. No, she would have a good job in this new country. Yasmin would make sure of it. She had a plan.
Yasmin’s eyes widened when she saw the envelope in the mailbox and its sender: Macquarie University. Once inside, she opened it and read through the document once, twice, then gave a deep sigh and looked up at the ceiling as tears gathered in her eyes.
An offer to study for a physiotherapy degree next year.
At last, here it was. Her plan. Her new life.
As Christmas 2019 approaches, my thoughts turn to the many different ways in which Christmas is experienced in Australia and around the world. Whether you see it as a religious celebration or an important cultural festivity (or both), each of us has our own take on the ‘season’. For many, it’s a precious time, an opportunity to get together with family, or friends, or neighbours, to share good food, perhaps exchange gifts, and relax as we move towards the end of another year. For others, it is a super-stressful time to be managed, coordinated and even endured, all the while hoping that the gifts bought are suitable, the food stretches far enough, and Uncle Bert doesn’t get too loudly tipsy. Yet others spend Christmas Day alone, whether by choice or necessity.
Which of the above group do you fall into? Or maybe your plans are hybrid – some time with loved ones and some much needed time alone? Or something completely different?
As we travel through the years, our Christmases change as we do. The thrill of Christmas in childhood, of trying to work out which of the mysteriously shaped packages under the tree are for you, morphs into sneaking presents into the house and hiding them in a spot where our own, or others’ children, won’t discover them. Family members come and go, new people are welcomed and others farewelled. And the elders in a family, who once held all the Christmas reins and (expertly or otherwise) guided Christmas activities year after year, become unable to do that because of ill health or other reasons.
So my Christmas post this year is a short story in honour of one of those elders, to whom I owe a thank you for many special Christmas memories of my own. It’s fiction, but I’m sure you’ll get the idea.
‘Please, can someone help me?’ I call for a nurse. It’s the tenth time tonight. I’ve slipped down the bed and I can’t sit up and I can’t reach the buzzer for help. Something’s wrong with my legs. I don’t know what happened to them or when.
My cheeks are wet. I stare out my window at the thin moon just beginning its rise into the night sky. It’s beautiful but my heart is pattering strangely. Am I frightened? It’s worse at night. I don’t think I used to be like this. It’s the spider webs in my head that make me fuzzy and slow and scared, all at once. Especially when the sun disappears each evening.
There’s a rustle and a nurse appears, wearing a tight, zipped up smile and a pink shirt.
‘What’s the matter, Ida?’ Her heels click as she walks to the bed.
‘I can’t…I can’t…’
Why is she here? Did I call her? I gaze up into her smooth young face, trying to remember. She puts an arm around my shoulder and slides me up onto the pillow.
‘Is that better? You were halfway down the bed!’
‘Katy? Are you Katy?’ I’m squinting to see her face in the half light.
‘I’m Sally, the night nurse,’ she chirrups. ‘I was here last night too, don’t you remember?’ She tidies my bedside table as she speaks, picking up a hairbrush, nail scissors and tissue box and lining them up in a row. I stare at these things. Where did they come from? I give her a watery smile and close my eyes. It doesn’t matter. Objects appear, disappear and reappear in my room every day. It’s very hard to keep track of things as well as thoughts.
I remember Katy, though, with her smooth red hair and soft hands. Katy visits, so the nurses tell me, though I don’t remember the last time I saw her. I strain and push inside my head but my treacherous memory fails me again. I like it when Katy comes. I taste strawberries when I think of her. I have a photo, somewhere, of Katy and me. We are at a table outside, eating strawberries. It must be summer, because I remember flowers in the garden beds nearby. There were eleven different flowers in the garden. I don’t know why I remember that and I don’t remember what type of flowers, but they were pretty. In the photo, Katy is laughing; her hair tumbled about her shoulders and her hand touching mine as we lean together across the table. I don’t know where that photo’s gone. I’d like to see it again. I’d like to see Katy again.
My lashes feel damp as I close my eyes and lay my head back on the pillow. The moon beckons, a peaceful quiet place where I’m not afraid. Murmurs drift towards me from the doorway as I sink into the pillowy softness.
Sally, the nurse, is speaking to someone.
‘I’m sorry, Katy, looks like she’s asleep…’
My Furious Fiction https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/ entry for August. The requirements for the month’s competition were all adjectival! Our story had to include these words and phrases: shrill, piercing, cold and greasy, ink stained, sweet and pungent, scratched and weather worn, shiny, silver. Using this many adjectives in a 500 word story is harder than you’d think!
My story is a little ode to the Sydney building industry in 2019.
ZIPPER by Denise Newton
The noise was shrill, piercing. Anna sighed and pushed aside her uneaten toast.
“God, I’m so sick of that sound.”
Blake nodded in sympathy. The work in the apartment upstairs was unrelenting. Drills, nail guns, electric saws. Lucky for noise regulations, or they’d be at it day and night.
“Not long now, I hope.”
Anna just shrugged and Blake knew she was right. The people upstairs were very strange. He looked down at his plate. The fried eggs, that had smelt so delicious earlier, had turned cold and greasy. His stomach turned.
When they’d seen the ad, they’d been so excited. Their dream of purchasing their own home could finally come true. The asking price was within their reach. Hell, it was far below what they’d budgeted for. They’d grinned at each other and he’d called the agent straight away.
They should have known better. Hadn’t Mum always told him that when something seemed too good to be true, it usually was? But their excitement got the better of them and they signed the contract two days later. The vendor, a short man in an overstuffed suit, had signed with ink- stained fingers, as though this was the last of a long series of contracts he’d signed that day. Perhaps it was. Each one as dodgy as the last.
So. Here they were, enduring the constant assault of noise from the building works above, the croaking pipes, the ominous rumblings from somewhere in the building, that always began in the deep quiet of early dawn.
“Like the building is haunted,” Anna said, only half joking. She’d made a pot of herbal tea and she passed him a cup, a sweet and pungent brew that he found strangely relaxing. Anything to take his mind off the mistake they’d made in buying into this building.
He began to ready himself for work, collected his coat, and tied the laces on his scratched and weather-worn boots. He’d just kissed Anna goodbye and was making for the front door, when the floor moved. It actually moved, right under his feet. The jolting was accompanied by a louder version of the rumbling that woke him at night. A grinding, unearthly sound. He froze.
Anna stared at him. “What the hell…?”
“Get under the table! In case it’s an earthquake…”
“Earthquake, here? That’s…”
“I’m going downstairs to see,” he interrupted.
“I’m coming with you.”
He knew better than to argue. She followed him down twenty flights in the gloomy stairwell. They exited onto the street with shaky legs.
Hand in hand, they gazed, incredulous, at the huge crack that had appeared in their building. It looked like a giant zipper. An ugly, misplaced zipper.
Their shiny, silver dream of owning a home disappeared into the morning light.
This was my Furious Fiction entry for July. https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/
The story parameters for the month were:
500 words or less, the story was to be set on a train of some sort, something had to be frozen, and there had to be three sentences of three words in a row.
CRAMMED by Denise Newton
The stench is terrible. I know my faeces and urine are mixed in with the rest. But that’s hardly my fault. Rounded up, taken against my will, crammed into this carriage with dozens—no, hundreds—of my fellows. I’ve stopped counting the sunsets and sunrises, so I can’t tell how long I’ve been here.
I don’t care about the hunger but my thirst is ferocious. The roof of my mouth feels as if it’s lined with gum and my tongue is stiff, almost frozen in place. When I look at the faces of my companions, I can tell they’re suffering in the same way. Hot and thirsty. Deafened by noise. So terribly frightened.
We travel in what seems to be an endless straight line, in the heat of days, with orange sunlight slipping in like razors through the bars, and then through tunnels of night. Sometimes we stop and I hear crunching footsteps and muffled voices outside. I don’t know what they want with me. What their plan is. Or where they are taking us.
In the dark, I close my eyes occasionally and try to imagine I’m somewhere else. I do try. I think about the lush grass at the edges of the house paddock, the cool of it beneath my legs. I think about the river and the blue bowl of the summer sky. But then the dark presses in against my face and I open my eyes wide in terror, open my mouth to cry out, but shut it again because really, what use is it? There’s no one to hear my pain and fear except those squashed in here with me. So I remain silent, listening to the complaints and groans and snuffles of those nearby, and the roar and rumble of the engine up ahead. We hurtle on through time.
Wait…are we…? Yes, I think we are slowing. Gradually the speed drops and the engine shifts down with a whine. It takes a long time but eventually my companions and I lurch forward, then settle back as we come to a halt. We look at each other. What’s next?
There’s a clang of chains and the dull thud of ropes being unfastened and dropped to the ground. A metallic clunk and the sun spears through the back door as it is lowered. Men appear, shadowed against the light. Men with hats and boots and dusty trousers. They move us out, two at a time down a ramp. The air trembles with their shouts and our cries. I blink in the harsh light. The road train stands there, all three trailers with their high bars and many wheels. Our prison, for however long it took us to arrive here.
One man calls to the others. His words carry across the thick dust to my ears.
‘Load ‘em onto the ship,’ he shouts, ‘this lot are headed to Indonesia. Good lot of beef rendang here.’
He smiles but I don’t see the joke.
This was my effort for the https://www.writerscentre.com.au/category/furious-fiction/ contest in June. The parameters for the month were:
The story (500 words or less) had to have a ‘party’ of some kind in it, as well as a ‘button’, and include the words ‘The air was thick with…’
Australia had not long concluded a Federal Election so I guess that theme was foremost in my mind.
Here’s my entry:
I Care by Denise Newton
‘Vote One for the I Care party?’ The volunteer’s face was hopeful. She clutched narrow black and white leaflets close to her chest like a protective shield.
I watched people pass by her on their way into the polling place. Some shook their heads in a curt dismissal. Others gave an apologetic smile. Most simply ignored her. None took the proffered paper. I was intrigued. She didn’t falter, even when a young man made a rude gesture at her with his finger and knocked the papers from her hand, scattering them like clumsy confetti on the ground. At that point, I stepped across to help her pick them up.
“Thanks!” She gave me a wide smile as I held out the leaflets to her.
“Hope you don’t mind me saying, it looks like no one’s interested in your party,” I said, as gently as I could. Why was she persisting in the face of such apparent disregard?
“So why do you bother?” My question was blunt, but I wanted to know what drove this young woman to volunteer her time on a chilly election day, standing in a blustery wind that nipped at the edges of comfort.
“Oh, well…” she undid a button on her coat, before slipping some of the leaflets into an inside pocket. “I want people to know there’s a point to it all, you know?”
I shook my head, bemused. “A point?”
“People get all riled up about things. I just want them to know that some people care.”
“Care about what?”
“Care about them.” She smiled at an approaching couple, and held out a leaflet. They sidled past. Her smile didn’t falter.
“But…what does your party promise to do?”
“Oh, we don’t promise to do anything. Just care about people.”
I began to chuckle. “Don’t all parties promise that?”
“Of course not. They promise to build roads, or employ nurses, or turn back boats. No one promises to care. But the I Care party—that’s the only promise we make. Everything follows from that.”
I examined her. She didn’t appear to be psychologically disturbed, but then I was no expert. Perhaps the I Care party was a cult of some sort? She was dressed normally, no weird hippie gear, and she didn’t look undernourished, as I thought a cult member might.
“And what would you do if your party won a seat?”
She gave a small shrug, as if the answer was obvious.
“We’d care, of course!”
I gave a little shake of my head. “OK, well, nice to meet you. And—er—good luck.” I held out my hand. She shook it, her blue eyes crinkled in another smile.
I left her then, entering the polling place to cast my vote. The air was thick with the odour of antagonism, carefully hidden beneath a screen of civility.
In the voting cubicle, I watched in disbelief as my pencil marked a ‘1’in the box next to the I Care party candidate.
April’s Furious Fiction
Guidelines for this month were that each story had to include three pieces of dialogue, taken from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest by Anthony Burgess, and Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty.
Here’s my effort:
Mystery Flight B
“What’s it going to be then, eh?” The ticket seller tapped his foot, waiting for a response.
Rod hesitated. “What’s today’s choice again?”
“Mystery Flight A, return; or B, one way only.”
Rod heard the tumour speaking to him through his stomach wall. Take B! You don’t need to come home…
“OK… I’ll take B, thank you.”
The man looked pleased. “Good choice! Not many taking that one nowadays, but still, you never know.”
No, Rod thought, you never know.
Three hours later, he was in a cramped seat, the belts clicked, ready to fly. As he waited for the pre-flight checks to be done, he thought about his sister’s reaction when he’d called her.
He’d repeated it.
Silence. Two beats, five. A rustling as she covered the phone’s mouthpiece, turned to someone, probably Phil.
“He’s never done anything like this before,” she whispered.
“Ros? I’m leaving in a couple of hours. I wanted to say…goodbye…Not sure when I’ll be back.”
“How are you going to live, wherever it is you’re going?” Her panic zinged through the air between them. He was surprised: he hadn’t thought she’d care that much. Since both their parents had died, there wasn’t a lot holding them together. And Phil hated him. Rod shrugged. He didn’t have much time for his brother-in-law either, so that was fair.
He said, “I’ll manage. I’ll find something to do.”
“Well…will you at least let me know when you get there? Let me know how you get on?”
“Of course I will,” he promised. He would if he could. “Better go now. Say hi to Phil. Look after yourself, OK?”
The pilot’s voice came through the intercom. Professional, reassuring. “Good afternoon, folks. Welcome on board today’s Mystery Flight B. It’s a beautiful day for flying so be sure to take a peep out the window. Enjoy the flight.”
Rod smiled at the elderly man who’d taken the seat beside him. The man smiled back. He had a mane of snowy white hair and a long, snarly beard. He looked very…dignified.
Rod leaned back in his seat as the sounds and sensations of take-off started. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, the light had gone from outside. Had he fallen asleep? He pressed his face to the window. Gave an involuntary gasp as he took it all in. Glimmers from floating stars. Earth, a blue and white marble far below, floating on a sea of inky dark velvet. The paper-thin layer of atmosphere, once a cradle of protection, now a toxic soup that threatened all life beneath it.
The man next to Rod leaned forward to look. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution,” he said.
Rod only nodded and turned his face to the window again.
Just for fun, let me know in the comments if you worked out which bit of dialogue comes from which novel.
ZAHRA by Denise Newton
“Ma’am, would you please step to one side?” The official was polite but firm. There was no option: Zahra obeyed his directive. She adjusted her headscarf with her free hand. It trembled a little. She tried to hide the hand under a fold in her long jacket. Everything about her – her clothes and her spirit -had become a little creased on the flight from Kabul. She was very tired.
The official led her behind the bustling immigration area to an interview room. It was quiet inside. Zahra saw four chairs and a desk. There was a large round clock above the desk. The other walls were all white: blank white walls. Another official, dressed in the same uniform as the first, sat on one of the chairs. She indicated that Zahra should sit on the chair facing her. Zahra did so, slipping her hands – both of them shaking now – inside her sleeves. She would not show these people her fear.
The second official had Zahra’s passport. She leafed through the pages, glancing up once or twice. After several long moments she said, “What is the purpose of your visit to Australia?”
Zahra replied, carefully as she’d rehearsed “To visit my son. He is very sick.”
“And where does he live?”
“He lives in an apartment in Bankstown.”
“How long do you plan to stay?”
“Just one month.” Zahra’s mouth was dry. It was hard to pronounce the English words properly. She must say everything properly. For Hanif’s sake. For her son.
“Is your son an Australian citizen?” It was the man this time. He’d come to sit near Zahra. He was too close to her. His knee was touching her thigh. She tried to move back a little in her chair. She wanted to spring to her feet, to run outside and away from these people in the uniforms. But that would mean she would not see Hanif. She had to see Hanif. So she breathed out slowly and answered the man: “No, he is not citizen. He has temporary visa.”
“How can we be sure that you will return to Afghanistan at the end of the month? That you won’t try to stay here?” The man was frowning at her now. He frightened her. Did he mean to be frightening? Zahra didn’t know.
“I leave in one month. I see my son, then I leave. I want to nurse my son. He may die…he is sick. Very sick.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs.Asadi.” The woman stood up .”We cannot verify your visa documentation. We cannot allow you to enter Australia until this is done. You will need to stay in a detention centre until we have checked your credentials.”
The man took her arm to lead her from the room. Zahra turned her head to look at his face, searching for some understanding or compassion. The man had stopped frowning. His face was blank: it was empty.