‘Greenwood’- By Paul J. Laverty

She parked in the driveway. She didn’t open the car door, just sat there. The house looked different. Bright red gutters replaced the old, peeling green ones. There was a new beige garage door. Yet the garden, the street and the suburb surrounding it was much the same.

She tried to think of the last time she’d been here. Boxing Day. Four years ago. After that Danny didn’t want to. Especially when his real habit crept in.

She remembered their last year of high school. She used to spend most nights here. In his room, drinking homebrew, smoking cones, watching Wes Craven movies, listening to Queens of the Stone Age. Making love. That was fifteen years ago, but it felt like a lifetime.

Mummy, when are we going in?” her six-year-old, Hunter, asked from the backseat.

Mikhaila lit a cigarette. She immediately regretted it as Val would smell it on her and add that to her shit list. She was already wearing a black sleeveless top that couldn’t hide the love heart tattoo which Val had never disguised her disdain for. The one her son had designed.

In a minute, hon.”

She reclined the seat slightly and took a drag. She might as well finish it now it was lit.

Back in high school she was seen as a good influence. Their Daniel had never got anything but D-grades. All he wanted to do was skate. And then she came along. Pianist. President of the student council. Plans to study medicine. Singer in an up-and-coming local band. Danny’s marks moved up to a C. His parents liked her. For a little while, she felt, anyway.

Mummy, I’m thirsty,” her four-year-old, Courtney, whined.

Her band got signed. Got on the U.S. festival circuit. She didn’t want him to come. It was work, after all. But he did. And with a lot of time and a little money on his hands, the soft drugs became hard.

Then quick as it began the band ended. Artistic differences, youthful arrogance. Their visas expired. She and Danny returned home. Settled down. Somehow their relationship rolled on. They had one kid, then another.

She wanted to get married, she wanted to take his name. She knew this would make them happy. She saw how they treated Lauren, Danny’s older brother’s wife, once they’d married. She couldn’t even have kids. But Lauren was a respectable primary school teacher, not a former frontwoman of a failed synth-pop band who flashed her legs (and occasionally her tits).

Danny always had an excuse ready and loaded about not conforming. She even got the blame for not baptising the kids Catholic even though Danny said he’d take care of it. She wasn’t even Catholic but she wanted to. She knew how it would make his parents happy and her life easier.

I’m hungry,” said Hunter.

I’m bored,” said Courtney.

They moved down south. She got a job in a clothes shop. His tattoo venture didn’t get off the ground, and he couldn’t cope with the normality of just existing. Of being a partner. A husband. A son. His addiction took hold and knowing he was failing at all that mattered he chose to take his own life on the one night she’d come back up to the city to have dinner with her remaining friends.

Mummy, can you hear us?”

Last month in the Family Court it all came out. Val claimed it was Mikhaila who had turned her son onto the pipe. That she was unstable, she was an unfit mother. Val even alluded to how it was Mikhaila’s fault that her son had ended it all with a leather belt tied around his neck.

Val didn’t mention how Mikhaila had never touched serious drugs. How Danny had lost them the home she paid for, her car, her job. And left her a bereaved single mother at age 31.

The judge gave the grandparents one weekend of visiting rights a month.

The front door opened. Mikhaila stiffened, quickly put out her cigarette and opened the window. But it wasn’t Val. She saw the dark greying features. The strong jaw. The dignified gait. It was Brian, Danny’s dad. Almost exactly how Danny would have looked if he made it to 60.

Hello, love.”

Grandad!” the children squealed racing out the car to throw themselves at him.

Hello, Brian.”

She’d always liked Danny’s dad. He wasn’t a strong man, but he was a nice, quiet man who, in his own way, and faced with great adversity, had tried to stick up for her. Mikhaila saw the curtains twitch and spotted Val’s stern features gazing through the glass. Her eyes bore right through Mikhaila and then softened when they settled on her grandchildren.

You doing okay?” Brian asked.

We’re getting there.”

He reached into the back and lifted Hunter and Courtney’s backpacks. “We’ll drop them back Sunday night.”

Thanks.”

I know it’s hard, but it’s important we do this. For the children.”

The kids waved and disappeared through the door. Mikhaila reversed down the driveway. Drove down the quiet street, parallel to the street she grew up on, and made it out of the suburb. The narrow-minded suburb where nothing ever happened, which she’d tried her whole life to escape, but never could.

It wasn’t until she hit the freeway that she realised she had nowhere to go.

 


Photo by Ryan Graybill on Unsplash

Words by Paul J. Laverty

Paul J. Laverty is a Scottish-Australian writer. Emerging from University of Melbourne with a Graduate of Diploma of Arts, he was shortlisted for Overland’s 2018 ‘Fair Australia Prize’, and his work has been featured in publications such as Underground Writers and Better Read Than Dead.

 

The Angel

It would be silent if it weren’t for the echoing hymns, the lingering seminal cries and the whispered prayers of ghosts. It would be silent if it weren’t for his footsteps.

He acts as if he is making a choice, running his fingers along the cold, unsaved wood, looking left and right. Eventually, he chooses a pew halfway down the middle row and settles in, just like he does every evening.

He forces himself to remember. Wading into the shallows, colder than the cellars of hell, his skeletal fingers stretch, searching. Into the reminiscent void, he cries out for guidance. There is no answer. The tide tugs his overcoat until the woollen fabric is heavier than lead. And with a guttural sigh, he lets go. The tidal wave of memory drags him under. The flood fills his lungs. This is not holy water with which to cleanse. It is holy water with which to drown.

On the stain-glass windows, there are angels, floating over the Virgin in the sombre evening glow. One is different from the rest. Instead of revering the hallowed infant, her eyes glass the boughs of the Church. The man raises his face to meet her gaze.

In the cherubic creature he sees a likeness to himself. He’d cradled a similar likeness once. Held her hand. Tied her shoes. Told her stories. Watched her feathered soul ascend from the petite casket to be captured on the way to paradise. There she stays. A little angel immortalised in the stained-glass.

 


Words by Laura Benney

As well as studying to become an English teacher, Laura Benney has a passion for writing. In between completing assignments and reading voraciously, she is currently working on several projects, including a novella. Her childhood dream was to become an author.

 

Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

‘Botanical’- By Sarah Ingham

 

There she was, her beautiful, beaming face complete with deep smile lines and ‘happy wrinkles’ as it always had been. The large photograph, while in colour and in focus, didn’t even come close to giving her justice. Where was her loud, echoing laugh and warm, squeezing hugs? Where were her comforting words that always seemed to fix the world, no matter how crazy it got? Where was her permanently lingering smell of cooking and home? Alas, all her quirks and comforts were to never be seen again, because she was buried in the family plot at 2pm.

Grief overwhelmed me absolutely. The world was covered in a grey haze that I couldn’t break through. However hard I tried, I couldn’t utter more than a few words without the energy of speaking being too much for my heart to handle.

I opened the squeaky wooden door into the big house. The silence opened into oblivion, twisting and turning into darkness beyond. I could hear the dust settling all over the house. Emptiness filled me like concrete. I morphed into a solid state, sinking slowly onto the well-worn sofa. Even the sofa didn’t feel good enough for my raging emotional state, it was too soft. I needed something that would make my back hurt.

I don’t know how long I sat for, on that sofa. Seconds surely. Hours maybe? I got up, feeling dehydrated. At least I could feel something physically, that was a plus, right? I found myself in the kitchen, getting a glass of water. It was probably the first thing I’d had in days.

Filling the glass up, because I felt like I should probably drink something lest I starve, I headed back to the couch. This time, when I sat down in the place where my butt had left its indentation years ago, I noticed the few changes she’d made since I had last been here. A new TV, a few new ornaments and some new picture frames. A picture of me I had sent to her from my last trip to the beach. Something I’d thought so trivial, yet she had treasured it to the point of framing it and placing in a prominent position upon the mantle.

I looked around and saw her prized Peace Lily plant resting in the corner of the room. Observing the brown and drooping leaves, I moved my gaze to the other plants. All almost brown and distressed, they looked like they were sleeping. Her stupid plant collection had been the one true love she had, besides the love she had for everyone she met daily. Just looking at the sad things made me think about how unfair life was. These plants, with expected life spans of a few years, had outlived the greatest woman who had ever lived. These plants even got to see her right before she died. Bloody things. Stupid plants. I placed my foot on the small stand holding one up and pushed. The glorious sound of breaking terracotta made me smile with absurd glee. Dirt sprayed the floorboards and the stem of the tree-like plant snapped.

That was more like it.

*

Waking in the small hours of the morning, I realised had passed out on the couch. I peeled myself off of the cotton blend cover. The still-full glass of water sat on the table, both taunting me and reminding me that I had I was still neglecting myself. I knew I wasn’t going to drink it though. I just didn’t care enough about me, and my insides still boiled with anger. It was probably going to sit there and laugh, so it went into the nearest pot plant.

Clearing out her stuff was the hardest part. Hours upon hours of seeing photos and knick-knacks that must have been so very sentimental. Entering her bedroom and inhaling her scent, my heart started beating like a hummingbird. It was just as she had left it, like most things that the dead leave behind. Bed unmade, underwear and socks that had nestled in crevices and been stuffed hastily into drawers. The curtains were wide open, and I could see more plants still scattered on the windowsill. The stupid things were just growing and growing, unaware that the world was now hollow. Their carer and provider was gone. They didn’t need to grow anymore. Their purpose was done. Kneeling on the lint-ridden carpet, I became a vessel for the thousands of memories poured over me like rain. My mouth opened and a raspy sound escaped me. She was gone. She was in the ground, entombed in a wooden box. In the next few weeks she would be lying there, just waiting for the worms and beetles to bury through the wood and into her body. This was not fair. How could such a beacon of light just be snuffed with the flick of a wrist? Her place was here. I needed her more than the burrowing bugs. My wet face leaked onto my shirt and the surrounding furnishings. The tears had burst through my emotional dam, flowing from somewhere deep within. She wasn’t here, so I settled for curling up on the ground that she had walked on.

Although most of my anger had left, sadness had taken up residence in its place. I wandered from room to room like an unsettled ghost. Physical pain broke through my haze and I yelled expletives as I jumped backwards. A shard from the broken pot had embedded itself in the soft arch of my foot. Removing it slowly, my eyes were drawn to the tree that once dwelt inside. The plant still lay, snapped and broken, on the cold floor. A wave of sympathy washed over me. The plant didn’t do anything, and I had taken delight in its death. I knelt and gathered up the grubby remains.

In her messy shed, I placed the plant in another terracotta pot and filled it with soil. The top of the plant was already brown, so I snipped it off with secateurs. As the small nub of the remaining tree sat there, I smiled. For the first time in weeks, I smiled. I had caused this plant to die, but I had also revived it.

*

After taking care of my cut and sweeping up the dirt, I brewed some tea. Nestled on the couch, I sat next to the newly rescued tree and noticed something. The plant that I had carelessly tossed my water into was reaching high towards the ceiling. The leaves that had looked so pathetic and lifeless yesterday were a brilliant emerald green, and a few of the white tear-drop buds had opened. I stared. Were these things so easily satiated that a few millimetres of water was all that they needed?

I found a small watering can and did my rounds of the house. Within the next few hours, the majority of the little things were looking a touch happier. Within weeks, they were back to their usual selves. Within months, they were thriving.

The caring of the innumerable plants kept me busy. The places that mum had them worked out well. The watering and moving kept my mind in the present, whilst also reminding me of the past.

The memories of my mother and her passion for plants came streaming back. Her careful hands caressing the green growth and tending to them daily. Her obsessive movements and belief that her plants were sensitive to our moods. The music she would leave on when no-one was in the house just so they wouldn’t be bored. As my knowledge and love for these strange sprouts grew, so did my sense of awe for my mother’s green thumb.

These things that she had loved, I would take care of them for her. I had never understood before, but the care of such a small thing was so rewarding. The fresh air in the house, the excitement when hours of hard work paid off with a tiny bloom or new leaf. They taught me to check in with myself, make sure that I was watered, happy and getting enough sun. The healing process was long and tedious, nevertheless, I finally flourished in the world without my guiding light. The world would never be the same, but at least I wasn’t completely alone in this new stream of life.

The legacy lived on through the maintenance and love that I would pour into these sprouts. They would become my beloved prodigy, just as they were hers.


Words by Sarah Ingham

Art by Tom Murton

sarahI’m Sarah Ingham, and I’m completing my first year of a Bachelor of Professional Writing and Communication. I have folders of unfinished writing, and I am so glad that I can put my ramblings to use! Being a part of Tulpa Magazine has made me feel like I can release my full artistic voice, and I love it dearly. I hope that I can continue to write my way into a writer, editor or publisher position after finishing my degree. Until then, I hope that you enjoy my imaginings.

 

Tom Murton is an illustrator and graphic designer, with an Honours degree in the Creative Arts from Flinders University. His work includes illustration for the comic series Hail, the short comic Stranger,professional graphic design work, as well as a library of personal sketches and illustrations.

‘The Silent Door’- By Dan Cardoza

After grandmother passed away, grandfather, a very stern and dignified gentleman, would routinely join us for our late afternoon supper. Mother would make sure he was not disappointed. The last meal I recall was a braised rabbit, fresh from the butcher shop, complete with a special wine sauce, fennel seed, and a sprig of rosemary, followed by a memorable dessert.

Rarely was there an occasion that demanded the use of the massive brass lion’s head door knocker ––a piece of classic Art Deco elegance. Most guests at our home simply knocked in a staccato, contemporary fashion, more suited for twenty-first-century knuckles. Grandfather, who would not have it any other way, cherished any event that he thought demanded a grand entrance. His hallmark knock became almost legendary.

Every Sunday around 1:00 P.M., we would fox our ears in anticipation of his two heavy-handed thwacks. His knocks upon the lacquered chestnut entrance door resonated in the woody bellow and melody of a stately gavel, complete with a formal Sound Block. We fancied our home in Lombard, a Chicago suburban castle.

We loved his company, his long visits. He was a fascinating man. He would hide envelopes in the family room, while mother and I did dishes in the cramped kitchen. Behind mother’s needlepoint pillows, under the large armed comfy sofa, behind the ornate Vienna Stuchy clock set atop the chunky redwood mantle, just about anywhere, and everywhere. Of course, mother and I never acknowledged that we were aware of his secret gifts until granddad left following super. As soon as the front door closed behind him, I would search for the envelopes as if they were painted spring surprises. The gifts of kindness frequently included fifty dollars, one hundred, it varied. Mother would religiously call him once he returned home to thank him for his graciousness, with her best surprised-daughter voice, and sincere appreciation. The following Sunday would always relent to another troupe encore. But this time, there would be no following, Sunday.

Three, maybe four years after grandmother passed, we noticed that the deep knocker tone faltered. We imagined the sound more abrupt, maybe a little harsh. Mother and I found humor in the transformation, saying grandfather was just impatient to enjoy his pre-dinner coffee and cognac.

Following super, grandfather would begin to shoot questions toward mother, an easy target. This evening would be no different.

The questions I found hurtful, even the ones that seemed to miss the mark. Have you heard from Jim? Maybe there is a reason he left? Why don’t you move closer to the city for improved work opportunities? Mother never answered quickly, sometimes not at all.

During the times of our frequent visits, grandfather invariably picked up dessert, which he would serve himself, usually after finishing his after-dinner coffee concoction. Dessert would be the evening’s crowning event. The last one would be no different. Grandfather’s choices varied. On any occasion, he might present a freshly made key-lime pie, with a hint of bitterness. Once he even brought blood orange grapefruit serving it with a ghost of sugar, never sweet enough for our taste. Following the last shared meal, grandfather brought a sour cream peach pie. He was the only one to savor an extra slice.

It’s been some time since grandfather passed. Mother misses him sometimes.

I will never forget one late winter evening. In the grip an infamous Chicago snowstorm, mother asked if I would do her a favour. Put on my warm parka, go outside and rap the lion’s head knocker, two times in succession, and if I would please do this intermittently for a short while. I never thought to question her.

I enjoyed the snow, under any circumstance, but after a while, my arm grew tired. It was then that I slowly opened the door, and peeked through the glowing crack. Mother’s face was shining brightly in a wash of yellow light thrown by the tall family room lamp. She was fast asleep in her favorite corduroy high back chair, wearing a shallow smile.


Words by Dan Cardoza

Photo by Dương Trần Quốc on Unsplash

‘The Day I Stopped Looking at the Stars’- By Cameron Lowe

The day I stopped looking at the stars was the day I stopped imagining. I used to spend many nights watching Alpha Centauri sparkle, spy onto the surface of Venus through my telescope, and imagine UFOs flying through the cosmos. Most of all, I would wonder what planets were circling around those distant stars. Were they ones full of life like our own planet? Were they barren wastelands like Mars? Gas giants like Saturn? This mystery fuelled my imagination. I found myself telling stories of new worlds and alien life to everyone I knew.

So why did I stop looking at the stars and imagining extraterrestrial worlds? One simple word: reality. Becoming a teenager, they started telling me to stop living in a fantasy land and start living in reality. Their vision of reality was simple: study hard, get a job, buy a house, get married, have children. To me, their version of reality was a living nightmare. It was primarily based on luck and left little time for imagination. I ignored their lectures and continued to go out and look at the stars, allowing their red, yellow, and blue surfaces to inspire and comfort me.

One day, they told me I was no longer allowed to look at the stars. They deadlocked the doors, gave away my telescope, and kept me from going out. They said it was time for me to grow up and face reality. I put up a fight to keep my imagination, but they fought harder to destroy it. They drained my imagination of its many weird and wonderful worlds through lectures of how important a good job was and keeping the door locked.

The last few strands of my imagination were torn up the day they got me a job at a local shop. The wage was bad and couldn’t even cover my weekly expenses, but they said it was a start and would one day get me a house. I did all I could to get out of there. I applied for countless better paying jobs, but got none of them. That local shop closed down not long after my fortieth unsuccessful job application, leaving me jobless. Their version of reality had backfired, leaving me worse off than I had been when my imagination ran wild.

I went out to look at the stars again. Tears formed in my eyes as I looked up at Venus. Seeing it again brought me back to, a time before reality had set in. I remembered all the nights I spent with my telescope, exploring the surface of other planets, looking for UFOs, wondering what else could be out there. Looking at the stars again, all those dreams and possibilities of life beyond our own planet returned. As they did, my imagination reignited. Stories of first encounters and journeys to the stars ran rampant in my mind.

The day I stopped looking at the stars was the day I stopped imagining. Now, looking at them again, my imagination has returned. Now I write down what other these alien worlds look like, weaving them into stories that make them real. They continue to try and crush my imagination but now use them as motivation to keep me going. For as long as I continue to look at the stars I will continue to imagine, something reality doesn’t offer.


Words by Cameron Lowe.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Meet-the-Team-Cameron2Cameron Lowe is a horror and sci-fi writer, editor and student. He’s had fiction and articles featured in Speakeasy Zine and Empire Times. He loves to read, play video games, and drink green tea. He’s one of the 2018 editors at Empire Times. He tweets at @cloweshadowking.

‘The Red Dress’ by Suzanne Bowditch

The woman in the dress shop told her mother, Janelle, it fitted perfectly. ‘This is so now you know,’ she’d said, standing next to Rosie in front of the ornate mirror. ‘Red is the colour. Haven’t you seen it on the best catwalks?’

Janelle shrugged, pulling the dress down over Rosie’s knees. A whisper of gauze beneath, to complete the look, scratched the backs of Rosie’s legs. She barely noticed. Instead, the smooth taffeta had felt luxurious on her fingertips, the rich colour flattering on her pale skin.

Please mom?’

Her mother sighed, then nodded. ‘Just remember that it never looks the same worn at home,’ she said, but Rosie had already pulled it off her shoulders.

The ring of the bell had signalled their exit. Rosie’s grin was wide as she stepped outside, the parcel firmly tucked under one arm.

*

Now, in the shade of her bedroom, she wasn’t so sure. The taffeta clung to a bosom that was still as unfamiliar as the smattering of spots across her nose. The dress fitted just below her waist, straining across her stomach; puppy fat and wobbly thighs hidden underneath its folds. Why hadn’t she noticed in the shop? She pulled at the thick unyielding material, supposedly meant to fit across her shoulders in a chic 50s style. Turning sideways, the patterned black and red flowers seemed to mock her, spread as they were across her back and finishing on her bottom. She felt like an overgrown rose garden that had fallen into disrepute.

You look lovely, Rosie.’ Her mother stood in the doorway. ‘It was a good choice after all.’ Janelle’s slim arms were folded across her chest, her jeans snug across slender hips.

For the thousandth time, Rosie cursed her own well-rounded body, a throwback to her grandmother. Why couldn’t she be long-limbed too?

Her younger sister Taylor bounded into the room, plonked herself on Rosie’s bed. Taylor wore a seersucker top and teeny denim shorts over tanned legs that seemed to go on forever. She tucked one limb under the other, like a young gazelle.

You look like a flowerpot!’ she said, giggling. A sprinkle of cute freckles and sparkling blue eyes completed Taylor’s look. Naturally gorgeous.

Rosie turned away, her brown eyes filling up. I can’t show I’m upset; I can’t! she thought, glancing at her reflection for a second time. If the flowerpot look was in vogue, she’d win it, hands down.

Taylor had a point.

That’s enough of that Taylor! Rosie looks beautiful.’ Janelle tapped her watch, encased around a slim wrist. ‘You’d better hurry Rosie, Amber will be waiting. Dad’s downstairs.’

Thanks mom,’ she replied, ignoring the sly giggles behind her.

That was her, ever the trooper. Rosie, the solid one of the family who let everything slide. It was water off a duck’s back.

*

The party was just starting as the car pulled up outside a huge house. Rosie could hear music blasting and the shrieks of laughter from people arriving. Everyone was chatting and having fun. She clambered out behind Amber and smoothed the folds of the dress, annoyed that the netting had caught on the handle of her dad’s car. How she wished she’d chosen to wear the blue dress instead. It had been worn before, an old faithful, but she felt much more comfortable in it.

Amber gave her an excited look, hooked an arm under hers as they walked up the driveway. A couple of giggling girls ran past, dressed in bright colours and flouncy skirts; a flash of skinny legs in pumps.

I’m starting to think that the ’50s were the least flattering time in history!’ Rosie moaned, scraping her pumps over the gravelled driveway.

Come on, you look fine.’ Amber frowned. ‘You know how cool Lily Anderson is, her parties are epic. We were lucky to get an invite.’

It’s okay for you. You look as if you’ve not eaten for a week! Whereas me…’

She sighed, pulling at the shoulder sleeve for the hundredth time.

A dark-haired boy walked past. His head down, hands in pockets, shuffling his feet.

Why was Alex Tomlinson invited?

Hey Amber, get you a soda?’ Blake Magill slid up behind them.

See you later, Rosie,’ Amber giggled, then ran up the driveway.

Great. Now she was truly on her own. She shivered, deciding to turn back. Mom would have fixed popcorn for her and Taylor. She could snuggle into her pyjamas; sorted.

Just at that moment, Alex sidled up. Rosie’s heart sank.

This was turning out to be such an awful night!

Hi Rosie,’ he stammered.

Hi Alex,’ she replied, hoping to sound as offish as she felt. Alex’s eyes looked deep blue, his eyelashes thick and dark. He had on a baseball jacket and sneakers, a vast improvement on the nerdy school tie and sensible lace-ups for a school day. This close, he didn’t look half bad.

Say, why don’t we try that new place down by the pier? I can get my dad to drop us.’ Alex looked encouraged. ‘Then we can take a walk along the beach…. if you want to that is?’

She could see a faint blush spreading across his face. Rosie had to think. Ice cream down the pier, against an awkward party?

*

Alex had kept to his word, and they’d strolled hand in hand along the beach. The wind had ruffled her hair, and she’d felt alive for the first time – ever. He’d dropped her home after.

Now, the red dress hung from the back of her wardrobe. Its ruffles and sequins shone from the street light outside her bedroom window. She remembered how it had hugged her curves, and how she’d looked through Alex’s eyes.

You got me a boyfriend,’ she whispered. Then she turned over and went straight to sleep.


Words by Suzanne Bowditch

Art by Emily Cooke

About the Artist:

49548081_291720338156778_4967218626596700160_nHi, I’m Emily! I’ve loved art ever since I was young and am now starting to take my artwork seriously. I mostly draw digitally, however, I do sometimes prefer paints, fine-liners, and pencils! I usually do a lot of character design but I sometimes branch out by trying different techniques!
At the moment, I just draw whatever I like as well as create some commissions and designs for people, but I aspire to work in the game/entertainment industry so I will be studying to further my work! I am inspired by a lot of the games I play as well as a general love for all things fantasy. I use my art as a way to communicate that love as well as just putting the worlds and characters I create in my head on to paper!
I run the art page Melancholy Socks, which is on Facebook, Tumblr, Deviantart, and Instagram. Check me out!

‘Only Fools Gamble’ By Sasha Pcino

Ricadonna Russo had spent her morning in a state of domesticity. Light reflected off all surfaces like a beacon; and the aroma of caramelised onion blew through the house with the hot zephyr of summer. She sighed as she pulled her gloves off by the fingertips, placing them on the stone counter in the kitchen.

Ricadonna, at thirty-five, had not lost her la bella figura. She was wearing a black A-line dress with lace sleeves and an apron tied over it. Her skin was vibrant, but the faint cobweb of lines round her eyes had become more prominent than a decade ago – as had the laughter lines (though what on earth was there to laugh about?).

Her hands, as rich as cream, reached for the box of birdseed, stored at the bottom of the pantry. She took it outside to feed Banjo, but as soon as she saw the birdcage she gasped. She dropped the box, seed scattering all over the veranda. The cage was empty. Her heartbeat quickened. She looked up at the treetops. The trees swayed from side to side as if they were dancing. Banjo was perched on a branch, close to the clouds, in the eucalyptus tree. The vibrant green-breasted budgerigar tilted his head and looked down at her.

Ricadonna got on her haunches slowly, so she did not startle him, and scooped up a handful of seed off the concrete. She rose to her feet and whistled as she held out her slender arm like a branch, the seed in her cupped hand, in hope the bird would recognise her and fly back. But the bird puffed out its chest, looked at her again and then flew off into the cloudless sky. The uninhabited cage, hanging from the veranda, rattled in the wind.

Ricadonna stood there for a moment, shocked. Banjo, where are you going? Do you know? The telephone rang. She let it finish like a song but it started again. She threw the handful of birdseed on the lawn, wiped the seed shells on her apron, and disappeared inside.

‘Hello,’ she said in a resigned tone; her chirpy ‘telephone’ voice had flown off with the bird.

It was her husband: ‘I’m going to be home late, honey.’

They spoke briefly about how their morning had been and the weather before exchanging goodbyes.

As she hung up the receiver, the computer – set down at the desk in the corner of the living room – pinged not once, but twice. She sat down in the chair, staring at the screen. There was a text message from a woman with the unfamiliar name of Annalise. Her husband had not logged off and the computer was synced to her husband’s smartphone. It read:

Hotel looks gorgeous.’

Then:

‘See you tonight, my darling.’

Suddenly, with the rapidity of a flash of lightning, so many incidents began to make sense: always making phone calls in private; deleting his call history; and the foreign floral fragrance on his shirt a fortnight ago. Ricadonna walked over to the bar, feeling the grit of the seeds, which she had scattered earlier, in her shoes. She poured two fingers of whiskey into a crystal glass, clutching it tightly in her clammy palm. Her father had been a decent man. If he was alive, he would take a gun to her husband’s head. My late husband, she thought. She tested the words: ‘My late husband.’

She tried to think but the heat of the sun coupled with the heat of the moment made a hot murk in her mind. She poured herself two more fingers of whiskey. That would help her think or, at any rate, give her the courage to think. She looked outside at the birdcage and then at the tree where the bird, now flying free, had been perched forty minutes ago. Freedom, she whispered under her breath. Free-dom.

She pulled out her clothes from the wardrobe and scattered them, still on the coat hanger, on the beige bedspread. She didn’t know where she was going. Maybe a hotel, hopefully not the one they were going to, for a couple of nights and then to her mother’s house. Her mother. She would understand. Yes, she would.

On her haunches, she pulled out the old brown suitcase from beneath the bed. It was heavier than she remembered. The last time they had used it was on their anniversary weekend away to Vanuatu. She flicked the latch and opened it. She gasped. There was at least half a million dollars in the case, the wads packed with the efficiency of a well-planned holiday. This changed everything. A lot. She wondered if it was honest money. Probably not. No. Definitely not. People didn’t shove hundreds of thousands of dollars of honesty in an old suitcase beneath a bed. Her husband was a businessman. That breed of man that walks on blurred lines. He had side businesses, hidden in the dark crevices of society, and he conducted most of these businesses from a poker or blackjack table behind the facades of respectable business.

Ricadonna grabbed a holdall and shoved the clothes in it. She untied her apron and flung it on the bed, then heaved the holdall onto her shoulder, picked up the suitcase and walked through the house, looking at everything with the sentimentality that comes with finality, to the dining room.

She set down the luggage on the tiles and tried to pull off her wedding ring, but her fingers had thickened over the last couple of years. She pulled and pulled until the ring flew off and hit the tiles, rolling and then twirling until it lost momentum. She walked over, picked it up and looked at the inscription: R & D. She set it down on the table in the dining room, and scrawled a note, placing it under the ring.

She put the holdall on, picked up the suitcase and opened the front door. The sun’s heat was harsh. She walked to the Flinders Street Railway Station, the suitcase hitting her leg with each step. At the crossing, she wiped her upper lip with her shoulder, then looked left and right before stepping out onto the road. A horn blew. She turned to find a car slamming on the brakes.

She gestured an apology and continued walking, thinking about the three words she had written on the note: ‘Only fools gamble.’


Words by Sasha Pcino

Photo by Arnel Hasanovic on Unsplash

Profile photoSasha Pcino is an Australian writer who is working on her first novel The Bastard Brians, a family saga set on the east coast of Australia. She has worked as a journalist and a copywriter (for which her work won the Queensland Multimedia Awards in 2014) for almost a decade. She has a Master of Professional Practice (Creative Writing) from the University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland. She has also spent time abroad in Italy, Japan, France, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

‘Supplanted’- By Lyndal Phillips

Photographer’s assistant, Annabelle Thwaites, had long considered stealing Sebastian and taking him home. But Derrick, her fiancé, was rather territorialand sure to disapprove.

Sebastian was a superstar revered for his ability to bring dead corners to life. The dramatic height and magnificent scale of his sculptural aesthetic photographed well.

Bloggers were besotted by his whimsy and charm. Influencers posted images of his stick-thin trunk. He was the hero of fashion shoots, store fronts, interiors magazines and show rooms.

Until he wasn’t.

His descent from divine to maligned commenced when he topped the So Hot Right Now list in the July edition of New Idea. A celebrity designer described him as ‘funky’ and that, quite frankly, was the finish.

When plastic versions of him were seen sprouting from faux ceramic pots in Target, the buzzkill was complete. Sebastian was doomed to die next to millennial pink throws, pompom pillows and raw hide rugs.

It was at this point that Annabelle was forced to intervene. As the crew wrapped on Sebastian’s final shoot, she commandeered a props trolley. Taking care to accommodate his broad frame, Annabelle lugged Sebastian into the trolley and together they trundled across the cobblestoned laneway behind the studio.

A little detour, via the hatch of her waiting Daihatsu, was all it took for Annabelle to rescue Sebastian from eternal ignominy in the Phine Photography storeroom.

Derrick arrived home that evening to find his view of the television obscured by a smugly ensconced Sebastian. Unimpressed, he issued an ultimatum.

‘Me or the plant?’

‘He’s a fiddle leaf fig, Derrick,’ she said.

‘Well, whatever he is, I hope he’s worth it.’

 


7Lyndal Phillips is an aspiring writer who lives in Melbourne, Australia with her family.

Lyndal posts book reviews on Instagram @lyndalwrites_reads and on her website www.lyndalwrites.com

Photo accompanying story by Manny Pantoja on Unsplash

‘The Hands of the Dead’- By NM Cunningham

The fluorescent light of the corridor flickers and the unmistakable scent of formaldehyde fills the void. I blink blue, the synaesthesia response I know well. The floor, old speckled linoleum, has streaks of black and tracks of wheels where gurneys transport the deceased from the mortuary to the lab.

There’s a buzz of noise from the twenty students gathering nearby, and a nervous energy permeates the air. A rush of hellos greets me and the chemical odour becomes stronger the closer I am to the door. Everything takes on a blue hue; unconnected senses merging into one, growing stronger with each firing neuron of my brain. I know this feeling; it hits me hard when the surrounding smells make colours in my head. Some people around me I know and some I distinguish only by face but one of them glows a preternatural green with the uplifting scent of oranges. My gut churns with what I know lies beyond the white curtain.

A mobile phone rings, silencing the low talk and the curtain parts and we’re ushered stage left to a preparation room. No one speaks as we place our bags in lockers and don our white gowns, tie our hair back tight and clean our hands. The only sound is of latex pulled taut and bouncing back with a snap.

We are ready, like a choir dressed in white. Our performance judged by the hallowed elders of medical school.

In the lab, the room is surprisingly bright, and the blue brightens across my field of vision to a stark unfiltered white haze. Given there are no windows, no flickering, just pure light, it’s as if we are about to ascend to a higher plane.

We don’t know who’ll they’ll be. We’re given a number and five of us stand around the metal table. When we pull back the sheet, it’s a woman, her face covered with a smaller sheet. In her seventies maybe, or older, her hair soft, wavy, and silvery pale grey.

I stare at her, thinking of my grandmother, but when the sheet pulls back, it reveals an unknown face. I jerk my head back, the unfamiliarity of her features yanking me from my reverie. She is a stranger, her beauty hidden behind soft, fleshy cheeks and colour-drained lips. There’s no real hue to her, only the blue of death remains.

Over the coming weeks we come to know her; the old scar on her left calf muscle, the moles of her back, the puckered skin of a low cut on her abdomen, the trauma of childbirth etched into her womb underneath. The sun-beaten pigment of her neckline and the faraway rheumy stare of her cataract affected eyes. It’s all there, the life she lived in flesh, muscle, sinew, and bone.

Her physical state is like any elder, but it’s not the glassy stare, the gooey internal orange of her gut or the flesh of her heart that sticks with me. It something else, the colour of her no-longer-present.

We’ve dissected every part of her, moved her in reverence from side to side. We greet her like an old friend as our scalpels cut through dead flesh, muscles, and tendons to the sweetbreads of organs in her abdomen. There are days when she’s nothing more than a lump, and other days where I weep for her, longing to know, was she happy? Was she sad? Did she live the life she wanted? What was her scent, her colour? Her favourite book or piece of music?

We are at an end, there is one part of her remaining the final piece in the story of one woman’s life.

It’s the hands that strike me the most, without the pigment effects, I see it clearly. The skin spotted, veined and with calloused where she wore rings, or maybe they bore hard work. I stare at the lines on her palm. Everything is there, yet it took months to get here. Her hands tell me a story, and I feel like an interloper, as though I shouldn’t be there. I wonder whose hands she held, who she nursed and brought to her breast, who she caressed in the throes of passion, whose hand she held when they told her they would soon die.

The hands of the dead tell more than a story of someone’s life: they tell us more about our own perceptions, our own fears about living and dying. I retreat from the post-mortem examination and the blue haze returns with a guilty spark. Her hands tell a story, but it’s not my story to tell.

Our final destination is the pub, our class done, dust to dust. Unlike the lab, it’s dark and dingy with an ambience of stale beer and cigarettes; the familiar, comforting smell of the wasted youth of my peers. There’s a clink of glasses from the neighbouring table. We drink. My synaesthesia returns, and although it takes more than one beer to vanquish the smell from earlier, the red in my vision dominates over the remnant blue.

I stare at my own hands, wondering in death and in the absence of colour, what stories they’ll tell.


Photo by Joyce McCown on Unsplash

Words by NM Cunningham

NM Cunningham is an aspiring writer who lives in Adelaide, South Australia with her family and several spiny leaf stick insects.

A love of science and reading set her on her first career as a research scientist in agricultural science and a love of writing her second – as a science communicator and scientific editor. For her third career she hopes to capitalise on her previous pathways for inspiration and focus on creative fiction.

She currently works as a research scientist in entomology and aspires to weave a love of nature, agriculture and science into her stories.

‘The Cards You’re Dealt’- By Denise Picton

 

When Margaret Rose was sixty-eight years old, she became obsessed with planning her funeral.

Before their regular get-togethers her more generous friends would laugh about her fixation and lay bets about how long it would take her to raise the latest plans when they met. The record for restraint from the time of her arrival was sixteen minutes.

Her less generous friends had taken to joining her only for structured activities like movies and concerts, making it hard for her to speak. Bruce and Shirley Williams admitted to Frank and Judy Baker that on two occasions when she had pulled into their driveway unannounced, they had ducked down in the kitchen below the level of the windows, and stayed in a crouching position until she gave up banging on the door and reversed away. On one occasion, after Margaret had continued to peer through windows, knock on the door and call out their names for over twenty minutes, Shirley’s need to pee had become so acute she had waddled like a duck under sill height to the bathroom, and that night had to take double her usual painkillers for her arthritic knees.

Margaret’s latest plans called for her coffin to be pulled to the cemetery by black horses in a glass hearse, for all the flowers to be pure white, and for all the women in attendance to wear a black veil.

She regularly changed her mind about the person she wanted to lead the service. The current lucky incumbent was Bruce Williams. She provided him with an order of service and her latest choice of music to background the data-show of her life, which ran to twenty-seven minutes. Her current choice was Alison Moyet singing ‘When I am laid in earth’. She said this song made her cry every time she heard it, and she knew it would be a relief to her friends to be encouraged to show their grief in response to a haunting melody.

Margaret asked Bruce for his views on the third version of her memorial booklet. She had printed two hundred copies of each of the first two efforts, all of which had since been taken to the tip. She decided it might be wise to seek feedback before the third attempt went into production. When Bruce asked why she had changed it again, she answered that the first one was too cheerful, she hadn’t liked the shade of grey they’d used in the second, and she realized it now needed to be a booklet of eight pages given the number of photos and client commendations she’d collected about the quality of her work before her retirement.

No-one understood why Margaret Rose was so fixated on her funeral, given she was – as Bruce maintained at the secret non-Margaret gatherings her friends orchestrated every week – as fit as a mallee bull. Shirley thought it was because Margaret had been an event manager for most of her career, and missed having something to organize.

Margaret’s latest idea had been to have an enormous black and white photo of her face printed and cut into a series of large format postcards. There were one hundred and fifty cards in all making up her face. She wrote a guest list to match that number and sent each person on the list a card to keep ready for the day.

On the back was a printed note: ‘Please keep this card in a safe place until Margaret Rose’s parting. Do not use for alternative purposes. Do not bend. Do not trade your card for that of another. Do not use as a coaster for cold or hot drinks. You may upload this card to eBay following the funeral if you do not wish to keep it as a memento. If you sell it, the recommended reserve price is two hundred dollars.’

The Bakers between them had part of her left eye, and the Williams were offered a slice of her lower lip. Margaret had an additional one hundred made in plain black for the extra people she was sure would be keen to attend, and suggested to Bruce that those not on the A-list be placed around the edge of the room to create a border. She gave Bruce a seating plan and explained he would need to put names on the chairs in the order provided so that when he asked for the room to hold their cards above their heads, her face would be complete. She had booked a videographer to stand on the balcony above the choir to record the formation of her face as compiled by her grieving friends.

One Saturday night when the gang met at Paul and Barbie Stewart’s place, Margaret turned up a little late with a white hire van. She rushed in and asked Bruce and Paul to help her out with a box from the back of the vehicle. She said it wasn’t heavy, just too awkward for her. The men brought the box into the centre of the lounge room. Barbie Stewart looked daggers at Paul because the box spoiled the look of her carefully staged lounge room design.

Inside the box lay dozens of black hats, each with a veil attached. Margaret had collected them from sales and op shops for over two years, because she knew that not everyone would have a black hat these days. She asked Bruce if he could make sure the box was at the door of the church along with the mirror she had wrapped carefully and placed in the bottom of the box.

At that point, Shirley rushed out to see to the chops on the BBQ to stop herself from laughing. Barbie asked where Margaret was thinking of storing them. When she said she was hoping the Stewarts would keep them in their garage. Paul, knowing from long and often bitter experience what his wife’s mouth looked like when it was forming the word ‘no’, jumped in and said of course they would.

After Margaret left that night, Shirley and Judy started trying on the hats. They agreed they wouldn’t wear one in a fit.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Margaret Rose died suddenly of a heart attack before she turned sixty-nine. Shirley, who went to Pilates with Margaret’s doctor, reported that it was unexpected. There had been no sign of illness or hints that imminent death might be on the cards.

Bruce put the funeral notice in the papers and rang around Margaret’s friends and neighbours to give them the news. Everyone was shocked.

Bruce found a box in Margaret’s lounge room with name-tags for each chair along with an updated seating plan. He put the box of name-tags under his arm on the morning of the funeral, but Shirley told him not to be ridiculous. Two hundred people wouldn’t turn up, and those who did wouldn’t bring the silly cards with them. Bruce took his along anyway, and Frank pointed to the bulge in his own coat pocket when Bruce asked if he’d brought his card.

The funeral was a small affair. Only twenty people attended. Judy was the only person who put on a black hat. When the time came for Bruce to ask the congregation to lift up their face cards, it was a poor showing, and those who complied felt a little foolish. Barbie Stewart’s snigger was clearly audible. Her head was bare, and her card had been thrown in the rubbish the night it was allocated.

Bruce thanked those who had played their part in the event and made sure he shook hands with the florist, horse wrangler, caterer, and videographer. He asked the lass who made the video what she would do with it, and she told him she had been instructed to send it to Margaret’s accountant.

Some months later, Margaret Rose’s lawyer advised the beneficiaries of her will of their good fortune. Margaret had decided that her sizable estate was to be shared amongst those who held up part of her face at the funeral. A great deal of money was therefore shared between an eyeball, her left nostril, the tip of her right ear and part of the deep crevice that ran between her lips and her jaw.

 


Words by Denise Picton

Image by Malcolm Green on Unsplash