Encounter

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I remember the first day we met. I was standing in the shelter of a closed shop doorway, waiting for the rain to pass because I didn’t bring an umbrella and I wasn’t in a rush. I was scrolling Facebook on my phone, holding my coat collar up against my neck. The evening was blue; car lights swept past like sunbeams, the sound of tyres on wet concrete rolling by. You stepped in like you were running from something or someone – I stared at you for a good few seconds before you noticed me.

‘Hi,’ you said.

‘Hi.’ I pressed closer to the wall, turned to face the road.

‘You ok?’ you asked.

It was a weird question from a stranger. If I’d been crying or something, sure. But I was just trying to be alone. Why did that suggest something was wrong?

‘Yeah. Are you?’

‘Uh,’ you laughed, rubbing the back of your neck. ‘Funny story.’

Somehow I knew it wasn’t going to be funny.

‘So I’m kinda…’ you continued, ‘in trouble.’

I was reluctant to offer help. Trouble could mean anything – drug money, crazy exes, stolen goods, an overdue power bill, forgetting to call your mum. But I couldn’t help it. I asked, ‘What kind of trouble?’

You said, quite matter-of-factly, ‘These guys wanna kill me.’

I stuck my head out of the doorway to look in the direction you’d come from. ‘Which guys?’

‘Don’t look! Just … some guys.’

‘Are they looking for you now?’

‘Probably.’

‘What do they look like?’

‘I dunno. That’s the worst part. They might not even be guys. It could be you for all  know.’

‘Is this some weird pick-up?’

‘No! God … I mean – not that I wouldn’t – ah, so … no, not – it’s not. It’s real.’

‘And why … ?’

‘I may … have something they want.’

‘Which is … ?’

‘I can’t say. If you know, you’re as good as dead as well.’

The sky opened further and poured more rain, torrential. We could have been standing behind a waterfall.

‘I’m Jacinta,’ I said, sticking out a hand.

‘Really? You’re doing this now?’

‘You’re supposed to tell me your name and shake my hand now.’

You looked at me like I was some kind of poisonous creature, unsure whether I’d choose to sting you or not. But slowly, cautiously, you stretched out your hand. ‘Jake.’

‘Nice to meet you.’

‘You … too. I guess.’

‘You guess?’

‘I just … a lot is happening right now! Sorry.’

‘Look,’ I said, putting my phone away and facing you now, but still leaning my back against the wall. The rain felt like a fourth wall, enclosing us in an echo chamber. ‘No one else knows you’re here.’

‘How can you know that?’

‘Whatever you’ve got … stolen … whatever. Do you have it with you?’

‘No.’

‘Is it dangerous?’

‘In the wrong hands, yes.’

‘How do I know the wrong hands aren’t yours?’

‘Why do you want to know? Trust me, you look like a nice girl, you don’t wanna get involved in this mess.’

‘What if I do?’

I realised I’d taken a step closer. I realised the rain had let up, that the evening sky had lightened and a faint setting sun was beaming through the heavy clouds. We didn’t know each other then, didn’t trust each other. But in that moment I felt your walls coming down.

Footsteps came and went, but no one killed you that night.

 

[A 20 minute writing exercise inspired by the following phrases: I remember, the telephone rang, when it all changed, an important meeting.]

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]

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

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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.]

April

Every night before she went to sleep, April told herself stories in which her mother returned to find her. She would send an email or a postcard, or April would pick up the phone to hear an unfamiliar yet familiar voice. Sometimes, she would open the door after the bell rang to see her standing there: older than she remembered, and smaller, but always wearing that mustard yellow coat. Her lips were red and her eyes were wrinkled, even when she wasn’t smiling. Her mother was much smaller than her (because everyone told April she got her height from her dad), as she fought back happy tears and opened her arms out for a hug.

Sometimes, the story ended with April falling into her mother’s embrace and smelling the perfume on her neck, the shampoo and hairspray in her hair. They would head inside for tea, elbows linked. April would pull the Florentines down from the high shelf and they would chat, catching up on years of stories, long after the tea had been drained from their cups and the afternoon sun had faded into night.

Other times, April would step back. More than once, she simply shut the door in her mother’s face and waited so long on the other side that by the time she opened it, her mother was gone. Sometimes, she yelled. The most satisfying endings were when she told her mother, right there on the doorstep, with her own feet inside and her mother’s clearly outside, every word that she had spoken bitterly into the dark through hot-watered eyes over the last ten years.

How could you, she spat. How dare you.

In those stories, April never wanted to see her mother again. She missed her dad like crazy, every minute since she lost him just a few months ago. But she didn’t need a mother – or anyone – who was willing to walk out on her with no goodbye. Who could just disappear from her life with no sign of returning.

How could you.

But as her own belly started to balloon, and the life inside her took shape in the ultrasound pictures – a head, arms, legs, a heartbeat – the more April toyed with the happier ending to the story.

Maybe she wanted the baby to have a grandma. Maybe she was so scared she just wanted someone, anyone, around. Maybe she wanted to understand her mother, so she could pinpoint the ways she could be different, better, and not just because she would be there.

Or maybe. Maybe. Maybe she just wanted to understand so she could let the baby go and not feel like a criminal.

[Character exploration for one of multiple current WIPs]

Back then

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Photo taken at the Creative Write-it studio.

Back then, the days seemed to stretch on forever. It was like the sun was always shining, and even when it was dark you could still feel its heat emanating from the concrete and wood and sand under your bare feet. Back then, it didn’t matter if you were late or early or on time; time was a melty thing, and everyone was always around anyway. Remember all those days we spent at the pier, running towards the end of it leaving pieces of ourselves behind along the way (thongs, shorts, singlets), (or perhaps we were becoming more ourselves by shedding them), and leaping off the edge into the cool, grey-blue lake that stretched out to the forest we could never quite swim to? Remember how we’d climb up again and sit, dripping, the shape of our bums and hands soaking into the wood beneath us, our toes skimming the surface of the water? Remember how we’d talk about the kids at school, and our brothers and sisters, and our parents, and how when we grew up we wanted nothing else but to just keep on being here? Together?

The sun was soft in the evenings, soothing our pink skin. All the colours blended into shades of grey and yellow.

Back then. ‘Back then’ is what I dream of when I miss you, and I miss summer, and I long for the chance to run and jump, knowing there is no other place to be but right here, and that the cool, grey-blue water will always catch me.

[a little writing exercise inspired by the cover of Cloudstreet by Tim Winton]