Story telling from Australia
You never know what you’ll find in Broken Hill’s fabulous cooperative bookshop, aptly named Under the Silver Tree.
A couple of months ago, when we were visiting Broken Hill, I found an entry form for their writing competition, deadline looming, max 2,000 words. There were two prompts, one something to do with love and miracles, the other along the lines of, ‘No matter how bad a situation is you can always make it worse.’
I filled in the form, paid the very reasonable entry fee of $10, and submitted a story. It was a funny story, written in response to the prompt about making things worse. Then, at the last minute, I submitted a response to the prompt about love and miracles. To my surprise and delight, that second entry won the short story category.
So, thank you to everyone at Under the Silver Tree. And to those who asked if they could read my story, here it is:
by Deb Hunt
‘I didn’t think much of that,’ said Marian, reaching forward to switch off the radio. She shifted the lumpy pillow on her lap and glanced at the clock.
‘What would you take to a desert island?’
Colin didn’t answer.
‘A tool from that shed of yours I shouldn’t wonder,’ his wife added.
Colin knew what he’d take from the shed and it wasn’t any of his tools, not that he could tell Marian that. Would his wife be any happier on a desert island? If he thought she might be, he’d move there tomorrow. They’d take off their shoes and socks and frolic in the sea. There’d be no more athlete’s foot for him – the salt water and hot sand would see to that – and he’d fashion some kind of hat from a palm leaf to keep the sun off. There was a time Marian would have laughed at the sight of him wearing a palm leaf on his head. Not now. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her smile.
‘Time for the off,’ he said, pulling himself up from the sofa and neatly avoiding the question. Today’s garage sale was just down the road, hardly worth taking the car really, but Colin was hoping to get lucky. Hoping to find what he’d been searching for, unlike last week when he’d driven home empty handed and moody with disappointment.
Engine running, he waited in the car for Marian to finish checking every window was locked and every appliance turned off. He spent the time mulling over what he would take to a desert island. Could he take the whole shed? Would that count as one item?
He shifted in his seat and switched on the heater, enjoying the thought of transporting his entire shed and all its contents, especially that comfy chair with the green piping round the arms.
Through the misted car windscreen, he watched Marian step out of the house, pillow tucked under her arm. She never went anywhere without that pillow. Even on a short trip to the supermarket, she’d pop it in the back of the car. ‘You never know,’ she’d say. He once made the mistake of laughing. ‘You never know what?’ he said, instantly regretting his flippancy when he glimpsed the bewilderment in her eyes. Marian’s pillow was like a child’s security blanket, cushioning her against the world. A bit like his shed.
They drove the short way to the garage sale in silence. Colin thought back to the fuss his shed had caused when he’d first suggested it.
‘What do you want a shed for? You don’t even like gardening.’
He couldn’t argue with that, he’d never done a day’s gardening in his life. He could hardly tell his wife that he wanted a shed so he could escape, so he could live a fantasy life at the bottom of his own garden.
‘I love you, and I’ll always love you,’ he longed to say. ‘I just sometimes need to be on my own.’ He didn’t say it for fear of upsetting her.
He finally got what he wanted when they moved. They both thought a move would be good for them, a fresh start.
He spotted the shed through the dining room window the day the agent showed them round. Spotted a kid through the window next door too. Afterwards, sitting at home over a cup of tea, they talked about the suitability of the house, the fact that it was a corner plot, the number of kitchen units, the size of the spare bedroom, the colour of the bathroom. Neither of them mentioned the child. It was perfect, they both agreed, but Marian kept looking all the same. She even phoned agents on the other side of town, agents who didn’t cover their area, but they had nothing. Corner plots were hard to find. In the end, they settled on the first one. The one with the shed and the child next door.
Colin felt like a kid himself, hardly daring to believe he might get the present he’d always wanted, counting the days until the week before the big move when he woke at two in the morning, flooded with fear that they might be doing the wrong thing.
They moved into their new house on the coldest day of the year, and there was the shed at the end of the garden, wrapped in frost and brittle cobwebs. He left it until the weekend to explore, when Marian was at the hairdressers.
Standing in the gloomy shed, old green anorak draped over his shoulders, feet itching inside a pair of battered deck shoes, he breathed in the dusty smell of compost and damp timber. He’d been expecting the shed to be empty. Instead, the shelves were crammed with tins of paint, jars of nails, envelopes full of dried flower heads and seed trays dribbling compost onto the floor. He tugged open old kitchen drawers and found woodworking tools and garden implements, picked them up one by one, turned them over, felt the weight of them in his hand, astonished that anyone would leave behind such a collection.
‘They moved to a unit, no garden apparently.’
Marian’s sudden appearance in the shed took him by surprise. He’d lost track of time, immersed in his newly discovered past life. A woman’s voice called from the other side of the fence.
‘Sasha! Time for tea!’
Marian stopped going outside. She didn’t even go out to wake him the night he fell asleep out there. The temperature dipped below freezing that night. He could have died of hypothermia.
He tried a bit of woodworking, made a passable attempt at a few wooden toys, but he’d never been much of a one for DIY. It was enough just to sit there, looking back at the house, thinking about what might have been, watching his wife through the window, carrying that pillow around.
Colin brought his attention back to the present, pulled up at the address for the garage sale and stuffed a couple of carrier bags into his pocket. He pressed his dry lips to Marian’s cheek. ‘See you later love.’
They had a set routine at garage sales, always walked in opposite directions, always within sight of each other, but never so close that they could see what the other was buying.
He watched his wife wheel her shopping trolley away then turned towards the pick ‘n mix of trinkets discarded from other people’s lives. There was only one thing Colin wanted. He found it hidden behind a pushchair that partially blocked his view.
‘Excuse me, how much for the magazines?’
The owner winked. ‘Nice pile there, mate.’
Colin blushed. The magazines on top were often decoys, hiding a collection of porn underneath. He’d look through them later, not here.
‘Ten bucks the lot.’
He wasn’t about to argue. He fished in his pocket, pulled out a ten dollar note and stuffed the magazines into his carrier bag. Marian was up ahead, waiting at the car, lumpy pillow under her arm.
‘What did you buy?’ she asked.
‘This and that. What about you?’
‘Oh, not much.’
He went into the kitchen when they get home and made them both a cup of tea and a sandwich. Sometimes Marian fell asleep in her chair after lunch, then he could slip away. Other times he’d be the one to nod off and wake to find it was time to start peeling carrots, scrubbing potatoes or laying the table. Hopefully not today. He was keen to check his magazines.
He spread butter on four slices of bread and cut thin slices of cheese, careful to use the white chopping board and clean it afterwards.
‘I’d take my pillow,’ Marian called from the living room.
He brought their tea and sandwiches back into the living room on a tray.
‘What’s that, love?’
‘I’d take my pillow to a desert island,’ she said, looking directly at him as he offered her the tray. Colin was surprised to see there were tears in his wife’s eyes. The tray wobbled.
‘Would you like to know why?’ she asked, her voice trembling.
Colin felt his heart race. Did he really want to know?
‘I daresay you’d need a pillow on a desert island to get a good night’s sleep,’ he said, carefully.
She looked away. ‘What would you take?’ she asked, flatly.
‘Oh, I don’t know, love. I’m off up the garden for a bit.’
He left his sandwich untouched on the side table, unlocked the back door and escaped into the garden. He couldn’t explain, not after all these years.
He lowered himself into the baggy green armchair and examined the contents of the bag. He dumped Model Railways Monthly and hurled the inevitable porn into a box – he’d burn those later – then breathed a sigh of relief when he found several copies of Country Living and Woman’s Weekly. He gathered them up and put them for safekeeping inside an old pram, tucking them in beside a few copies of Family Circle he hadn’t been through yet.
Relieved, Colin sat back and felt down the side of the chair for his scrapbook. The pages crackled like dry leaves as he flicked through the familiar faces, smiling when he came to his favourites. This was what he would take to his desert island, no question.
He hadn’t set out to create a family album, but that’s what it was. A family of four, three girls and one boy. He could trace them right back to the day he’d reached for the scissors and cut out that first image of a small baby, soon after Marian had lost their first. Each loss was marked by the appearance of another child in his album. It had been surprisingly easy to find pictures of babies and toddlers, then children and teenagers, all of them fair-haired like him and Marian. Over the years his magazine children had survived the usual dramas and crises of family life. He’d found pictures of children laughing, hugging pets, crying over cut knees, learning to walk, proudly displaying new school uniforms, kissing boyfriends, walking down the aisle, even taking holidays abroad with families of their own.
He looked back towards the house, the scrapbook open on his lap as the evening light faded. Marian was pottering about in the kitchen, pillow tucked under her arm. Barren was such an ugly, cold word.
The last of the light glinted on a film of cobwebs and cracked glass as time spiralled backwards. He saw Marian on the day they got married, as clearly as if he were standing next to her at the altar of St Michael’s. He felt a rush of love as he watched her shift the pillow into her arms and begin rocking it.
Marian looked surprised when he walked back into the house, even more surprised when he sat on the sofa next to her and patted her arm.
‘Do you know what I’d take to a desert island? I’d take you. Couldn’t leave my nearest and dearest behind, could I?’
He took a deep breath and placed the album in her lap.
‘And I’d take this. It’s something I should have shown you long ago.’
He held his breath as Marian leafed through the pages. Her tears fell on the pages like rain watering a drought-stricken land. After several minutes she looked up.
‘Thank you,’ she whispered. ‘They’re beautiful.’ She put the album aside and handed him her pillow. ‘And I should have shown you this.’
Colin reached inside the lumpy pillow, feeling soft fur under his fingertips. Gently, one by one, he removed a collection of soft toys, smoothing the ears on a rabbit, touching the nose on a teddy bear, cradling the toys as tenderly as he might have cradled a baby.
‘Why don’t I make us both a cup of tea,’ he said.
His wife nodded, smiling at him.