Atti

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Atticus told me to write a story about something beautiful. But what is beautiful? A bouquet of flowers, a symmetrically-featured face, a snow-capped mountain, a satellite view of the earth orbitting the sun?

He clicked his pen as he thought of his own ‘beautiful’ story.

‘Can you stop?’ I said. ‘It’s distracting.’

‘Sorry.’

He stuck the end of his pen in his mouth and cracked his teeth against its edges.

I gathered my notebook and went outside to sit on the deck.

There was nothing but fence and straw-coloured hills and sky. The cows and sheep must have been over the hills, grazing in the shade or drinking from the water hole. The gum trees rustled in the breeze, and goosebumps appeared on my arms. I stretched my legs into the sun, but kept the rest of me in shade so I could see my pages.

You know what’s beautiful, I wrote. The lines in the wood on the deck right here. You can follow them with your fingertips and go on journeys to everywhere. And you have to wonder what came before – what kind of tree was this wood made of, and which year of its life did this line signify? What happened that year – or the years and years before – to make the grain swirl in this way? Who sat under this tree, who climbed it, who lived in it, who scratched their initials into the bark? 

What’s beautiful is even thinking about these things. How does the sun feel if you’re a tree? Can you feel yourself growing?

Does your stump still exist out there somewhere, left to grow tall again while you are here, a plank of wood for me to sit on, stretching my legs out in the sun and writing about something beautiful?

Bare footsteps padded towards me, thumping and peeling away from the inside floorboards. The door opened then slid shut again to keep out the flies.

‘Time’s up,’ Atti said.

‘You didn’t say there was a time limit.’

‘Sometimes you can’t know these things.’

‘But-‘

He snatched my notebook and held it high, ignoring my protests and jumping in pointless attempts to get it back. Giving up, I sat on the pile of firewood, crossed my arms, and waited.

‘Not bad,’ he said at last. ‘I’m impressed, little sis.’

‘You have to show me yours now.’

‘Didn’t write anything,’ he shrugged.

I got up and ran inside, but all his stuff was cleared from the table. My blood boiled like only he could make it.

‘I hate you!’ I called.

‘You don’t,’ he laughed.

‘I do! Why’d you make me write that stupid thing anyway? It’s not even a story.’

‘It doesn’t matter. Don’t you get it?’

Just then, mum and dad pulled back into the driveway. Dad got out of the car and opened the gate, and mum drove the car in, crunching gravel all the way. Atti left to help them bring the shopping in, and I cleared some space on the bench.

I gave one-word answers and nodded as they rattled on about the things they saw on the drive, the locals they spoke to, the daylight robbery prices of things at the shops.

And I forgot to say to Atti, No, I don’t get it. Why did you make me write about something beautiful? What did you write? I know you wrote something. I know it.

Now that he’s gone, I wish I’d remembered.

[a 20-minute story inspired by the following random words: beautiful, earth, orbitting, slow, Atticus, drinking, red, tree, running]

Bucket

He fetched a large bucket and placed it out on the balcony in the rain.

‘Free water,’ Dad said.

‘Yeah but water’s always free…unless you buy it,’ I replied.

‘This water’s better. Trust me.’

‘Ok.’

Staying with dad was always an adventure. He did weird things like put tea towels in the bathroom and use garden tools in the kitchen. Once he made a salad with two small shovels because he couldn’t find the salad mixers. None of his plates matched, and he let us use the coffee table as a footrest.

The last time we saw him, he’d just gone outside to check the water in the bucket. It had rained all night – we stayed up late in the fort we’d built between the couches listening to it, flinching every time the lightning lit up the room, and bracing ourselves for the rumble of thunder. Mum waited at the door while we said bye and got our things.

‘Kids!’ Dad called from the balcony. ‘Come see this.’

‘Mick, we need to go. Daniel has a dentist appointment in ten minutes.’

‘Just a sec, Luce. Just let me show them this.’

We walked through the sliding door onto the balcony. The air cut through our clothes like ice, but the sun warmed our backs.

‘Look at that,’ Dad said.

In the bucket, a brown-speckled duckling swam in circles, making chirpy-quack sounds.

‘Might be missing its mum,’ Dad said.

‘Or its dad,’ I replied.

[a 10-minute writing exercise using the prompt ‘He fetched a large…’. From Pilot 2016: A Diary for Writers]

The Edge of the World

[a short story written in 2009, that I just found and felt like sharing] 

It’s like standing on the edge of the world. Evelyn’s mama lifts her high enough to see over the wall, to the land of concrete below, the planes resting between flights, the long trailers of suitcases like worms and the people like ants following each other in lines, trying to find the best way to lift the planes and carry them back to their hole.

It feels like standing on the edge of the world because behind them is Kai Tak Airport’s main building – large and multi-levelled with laminated floors and fluorescent lights, shops and food and people concentrating on getting from one place to the next. Behind that is the city, all shiny hotels and shabby apartment blocks, local people’s laundry stemming from windows and flapping over the street like flags. Evelyn’s kindergarten is in there somewhere, amidst the flashing neon signs and the sweet sizzle of fried taro. People stand beside street vendors slurping noodle soup from plastic bowls. Glossy Peking ducks hang in restaurant windows, with soy-sauce chickens and crisp pork bellies; there are businessmen in sharp shirts and pants, old men laughing behind counters of herbal medicines or hiding within caves of red incense, firecrackers, and smooth-carved firewood. Women walk with baskets slung over their shoulders, like human scales, each basket loaded with jewel-like oranges, or bean sprouts. Children play marbles in front of their parents’ shops; a blind man flicks the strings of his liu qin, sending streams of quivering, high notes into the air. There are huge white buildings with columns and arch windows, where gweilos work and they keep the British flag raised to make sure nobody forgets. All of these things, the feeling of always being in the middle of a busy market, the polished rich people and the dusty poor people, the smells of street food, the repetition of stinky herbal shops and colourful grocery stores, Evelyn and her mama’s apartment, the playground at the bottom of their building, her kindergarten, all of these things, mixed together somehow to become the same memory, are what will come to Evelyn when she thinks of her old home. In front of her, beyond the concrete floor, is the oily grey-blue water of Kowloon Bay, dotted with junk boats, surrounded by city buildings thick along the coast, and mountains so dense with trees they look like broccoli. Beyond that, Evelyn is struggling to picture anything but the man with the crinkle-faced smile, the one they are moving for.

She doesn’t want to go. But she has to – her mama says so. Her mama says her new baba will be waiting for them in Melbourne – and won’t it be nice to have a baba again? Her mama also says Australia is full of gweilos. Evelyn has seen them on the streets of Hong Kong Island, where she has lived all her life with her mama in a one-bedroom apartment on the seventh floor. Tall men and women, pinky-white skin, blue eyes, green eyes, fried daufu coloured eyes. But if Evelyn closed her eyes when they reached the front of the street vendor queue, or stepped up to buy their bus ticket, she wouldn’t have known that their faces didn’t match the Cantonese shooting out through their lips.

There were two blonde sisters at Evelyn’s kindergarten. Their parents were British, but the girls were born in Hong Kong and sometimes it seemed like they had forgotten they weren’t Chinese. Evelyn never forgot, though – she couldn’t help looking at their fine blonde plaits, the way the loose strands turned white when the light touched them at certain angles. The girls’ cheeks flushed magenta when they ran around too much; their lips were the colour of lychees and their eyes reminded her of sunny day skies. When Evelyn looked at them she thought of fairies – pretty and fascinating, but also mysterious and strange. Evelyn was never really sure whether she wanted to play with them or not.

Evelyn wonders whether, in Australia, people will call her and her mama black ghosts because of the colour of their hair. She imagines going to a school full of gweilo fairy children, where all of the blonde, brown and red-haired teachers stand tall and proud. What if no one is sure whether they want to play with her? What if no one wants to be her friend? Her mama tells her she will have to learn English. What if English is too hard? All of the other children will already speak it – what if she can’t learn fast enough, and can’t talk to anyone – how will she make any friends then?

Evelyn and her mama go inside, holding hands, Evelyn’s other hand clutching her dolly tight. They wait in line, give their tickets to a man at the door, then follow everyone else onto the concrete outside. The sun is shining and the water is just a thin strip now. The planes are as big as buildings.

The echoing bang of her mama’s heels against each metal step. Rows of seats, blue carpet, hidden cupboards in the ceiling. Towards the back, Evelyn’s mama buckles her into a seat and sits beside her, nudging her handbag under the seat in front with her feet.

A loud whooshing noise sweeps through the plane. Evelyn buries her face in her mama’s body, breathing in her perfume. She feels the plane begin to move, slowly at the start, slowly for what seems like forever, and just when she thinks maybe they are already flying, and she is about to lift her head and look out the window, the plane lurches forward and she is sucked into the back of her seat. Her eyes are closed, and her mama is squeezing her.

‘Look! Can you see? We are flying!’

But Evelyn is too scared to look.

*

Evelyn’s mama says they are going to live in a house – big, pretty, with flowers in the garden – just like the Botanical Gardens! – and Evelyn will have her very own room.

‘But I want to sleep with you, mama,’ Evelyn said on their last night.

‘You can’t,’ her mama replied. ‘You are a big girl now. Big girls have their own rooms, and they sleep by themselves in their own beds. Aren’t you a big girl yet?’

‘I am a big girl.’

‘Then what is the problem?’

‘What if I have bad dreams?’

Her mama stroked her hair, coaxing her into sleep. ‘If you have bad dreams, you can come to me. But you must try to sleep by yourself, ha? Big girl now. Ha?’

‘Yes, mama.’

She had shared a room with her mama since she was born, and shared a bed with her for as long as she can remember. Every night, in that cosy double bed, Evelyn curled into her mama’s arms and wrapped her own arms around her dolly. The three of them fitted perfectly into that space; it had never occurred to her that they would ever need anybody else.

When she was born, Evelyn slept in a cot beside the bed. But then her Chinese-American baba flew back to visit his parents, and on his way to the airport to come home, the taxi crashed into another car. This is what her mama said. She told her that on the night she learned that he was never coming home, she lifted their baby from the cot and sat with her on the bed, letting hot tears fall onto the baby’s brow. The baby blinked with surprise when each one landed, and if they slipped down her fat red cheeks and touched her lips, she licked them. Evelyn’s mama lay down and continued crying, keeping her eyes on the baby beside her. A dark patch swelled on the pillowcase. Baby Evelyn, she said, looked back at her, gurgling, perfectly content. That’s when she knew that the two of them would be all right.

‘Then why do I need a new baba?’ Evelyn had asked before the wedding.

‘Mama cannot give you everything you need,’ her mama told her. ‘Your new baba will look after us; he will send you to a good school so you can grow up smart and have a good job and look after your mama when she is old. Ha?’

‘But why can’t he live here?’

‘Because he lives there. Ai,’ her mama kissed her hair. ‘Everything will be better from now on. You will see.’

Evelyn looked at her mama, wondering.

‘Do you believe me, little one?’ her mama asked. ‘Do you trust mama?’

Still, Evelyn wasn’t sure.

‘Wei, can you hear me?’

Finally, Evelyn nodded. Her mama’s face stretched into a smile, and she gathered Evelyn into her arms and squeezed. ‘Do not worry about anything, okay?’ she whispered. ‘Mama will always look after you. You are my baby.’

*

‘Wake up, wake up! Look, you can see Australia!’

Evelyn’s dream, in which the blonde sisters were holding her hands and leading her into a classroom full of children who looked just like them, fades into black. The steady rumble and whoosh of the plane fills her ears again; she breathes the soapy smell of the seats. She remembers where she is, that her room for the last ten hours has had a window and an armrest, the back of her seat and the back of the seat in front of her for walls. Her mama is beside her. Her dolly has fallen onto her unbuckled shoes on the floor.

The plane is in a cloud, and when it shakes a little, Evelyn whimpers. Her mama points outside again, and she dares to look. The cloud opens up and far, far below is a land – green and yellow and brown, and as the plane gets lower, she can see that it is speckled with white square houses.

Her mama’s arm is around her when the wheels hit the ground. They collect their suitcases and wait in lines, and they are walking through sliding doors, into a room full of people waiting, watching the same doors they came through. Just as her mama had said, there are a lot of gweilos. They wear slippers, shorts and t-shirts and floaty beach dresses, their arms spread wide to greet their loved ones emerging through the doors. And then the tall, slender man Evelyn remembers appears from somewhere in between them. His black hair is flecked with more grey than there was at the wedding; it is combed and gelled to the side. He is wearing a suit and holding flowers and a new dolly with a bright pink and yellow dress. When he sees Evelyn and her mama, and they see him, his face crinkles all the way up to his hairline because his smile is so big.

Catching the Light

Alannah stared through the rusty gate at the abandoned house on the other side. Its peachy walls were faded, peeling, and crumbly; vines crept up towards the roof like a disease. Most of the kids at school said this house was haunted. But Alannah had been inside this house in her dreams. She had seen warm, glowing light inside the rooms, and tiny specks of dust drifting down the halls, catching the light in ways that made them sparkle. Alannah knew something about this house that no one else did.

She knew that inside this house, there lived some kind of magic.

She fiddled with the padlock holding the gate closed with a heavy chain. To her surprise, with little effort, the padlock clicked open. She looked around – the street was empty – before she slipped the end of the chain out, pushed the gate open just enough, and clicked it shut behind her.

All the plants were overgrown, the larger ones overpowering the smaller ones, smothering them, taking over. Roots grew over foliage and reached into the far corners of everything.

She followed the pathway to the front door. She took a deep breath, and then she knocked.

Her knocks seemed to echo for days. When there was no answer, she turned the handle. The door clicked open, and she stepped inside.

The foyer was painted a brighter peach, unaffected by the weather. In fact, everything looked clean, new, grand. It did not look like the inside of an abandoned house at all.

‘Hello?’ Alannah called. ‘It’s me, Alannah.’

She looked down the hallway and saw the dust particles floating through the air, catching the light in ways that made them sparkle. Hypnotised by how pretty they were, she walked through them, feeling them brush her skin like feather-light raindrops.

A warm glow emanated from a room at the end of the hall. Slowly, quietly, Alannah moved towards it.

[a fifteen-minute writing exercise inspired by three random words: peachy, rusted, magic.]

Characters

I’ve had these characters floating around my head for more than a year

At first it was like looking at them through frosted glass, but as each day goes by the glass gets clearer, and soon it will thin and become nothing at all

*

I’ll be able to reach out and touch them;

sit beside them and feel our shared bench shift under their weight;

ask them questions and see the truth of their answers in their eyes, rather than only hearing the words themselves

*

Soon, I’ll know them – as well as anyone can ever know another

As well as anyone can ever know themselves

(they are, after all, a part of me)

And I won’t have to say, ‘Tell me your story.’

Because it will already be written.

I have a favourite feeling.

Image via lilacsunandsea

Image via lilacsunandsea

I have a favourite feeling. It’s wading through mountain streams with my shoes stuffed in my pocket. It’s climbing over boulders and squeezing between trees, sliding down muddy slopes, getting somewhere in a way that requires awareness of every step, every muscle in my body, dirt in my fingernails, and probably a scratch or bruise (or two) just to remind me that I’m not that different from the girl who used to dream of a tree house in the backyard. It’s Matty putting his arm around me wordlessly while we walk Nala through the park after dinner. It’s watching sunrises unexpectedly, quietly, because I woke up, or someone woke me up to watch it with them. It’s writing when the words seem to know who comes next all by themselves. It’s daytime catch-ups with the girls that I grew up with. It’s lunch dates with my mum. Dad sitting opposite me to talk about his day. My brother calling to ask for advice on one of his first days away from home. Nala climbing into my lap and trying to fit the same way she did when she was small.

My favourite feeling is sitting on the cool sand of a beach, feeling the sea breeze messying my hair and filling my head with endorphins. It’s candles that smell like somewhere else (lemongrass, coconut, oranges, vanilla), Early grey tea with milk and honey, a single square (or two) of dark chocolate, a moment to myself to write something that is not necessarily for anyone but me. It’s cold days indoors under a blanket, with a book I can get lost in. It’s a hot shower on a cold day. A cold shower on a hot day. It’s remembering that for all the small things on my mind, the list of things to do that never seems to be entirely crossed off, I have actually crossed off more things than I ever imagined would even be on that list.

That I am shaping the life I want to live, that I’m getting there.

And my favourite feeling is not being able to sleep at 3am, knowing tomorrow (today) is going to be a struggle. But also knowing it’s ok because an urge to write pulled me out of bed, and I wrote this, and it feels like everything good that has ever happened.

Wombat

PO-FP03-giant-wombat-and-banjo-boy

Giant Wombat and Banjo Boy, by Flossy P. This poster is available from Lalaland.

The night was quiet, like there was nothing else stirring in the whole world. Eli wriggled his bare toes in the grass. He had his banjo over his shoulder, and he was wearing his favourite striped t-shirt and jeans, with his dad’s vest over the top. He’d been wearing his dad’s vest a lot lately.

He waited, leaning against a tree with only one green leaf clinging to a low branch. The moon was the shape of a banana. Eli searched for constellations. His dad had been so good at finding them, but Eli hadn’t inherited that skill.

Suddenly, he heard the gentle padding of large footsteps coming his way. Eli turned around to see the wombat, which seemed even larger than it was yesterday, looking at him as it stopped and bowed its head. Eli reached forward to pat it hello, and as his hand brushed its coarse, chocolate-brown coat, he could swear he saw it smile. A moment later, they were both sitting on the grass. Eli was playing his newest song, humming a tune that didn’t have words yet, while the wombat closed its eyes and went to sleep.

Eli curled into the warm folds between the wombat’s belly and its right front leg, the music still playing in his mind. He had met the wombat every night this week, since the first day he saw it walk past his bedroom window. He followed it all the way to the park. When it noticed him, it seemed frightened at first, trying to dig a hole to get away. But Eli approached slowly, sat down not-too-close, and started playing. Eventually, the wombat lay down, and in that moment, Eli felt they became friends.

The downside of having this friend was that he worried about the wombat all the time. Where did the wombat go during the day? Where could it have a hole big enough to live and sleep in, but not be suspicious to people – people who feared difference, who chose to see it as out of the ordinary, instead of extra-ordinary, because that was safer?

Eli woke as the world around him began to brighten with the sun. The stars were gone, but the banana-shaped moon was still visible in the clear blue sky. His shirt was damp from the dewy grass. The wombat was gone, but he could see the giant, flattened patches of grass where it had walked gently, softly, away.

[a 20-minute writing exercise inspired by the image above. We have this poster framed at the Creative Write-it studio.]