The Way Out

“The police tell her not to look back…”

“Shut up Ben! Everyone knows that one, don’t you have anything new?” complained Millicent.

“What? It’s a classic,” sulked Ben.

“I’ve got a good one,” said Millicent. “And I can guarantee that none of you have ever heard it before because it happened to me and I’ve never shared it with anyone.”

“I’m going to bed. We’ve got a long hike in the morning and I don’t want to spend the night jumping in fear at every sound I hear. Good night everyone,” said Stacy getting up and going into one of the tents.

Brad got up and put a few more logs on the dying fire and everyone huddled in closer to hear Millicent’s story.

“This happened long ago when I was a kid. I was twelve and we were camping near Kalgoorlie. My Dad had just bought a metal detector so we spent our days prospecting for gold. He was convinced that he would find a gold nugget like the Welcome Stranger nugget. Mum and I were bored after the first few days. I spent most of my time in the tent reading and imagining the fun my friends were getting up to without me. The nights were fun though, we’d have a camp fire and roast marshmallows. Dad would tell us scary camp stories, like the one you just tried to tell Ben, that’s how old it is!

“Anyway, every night his stories got scarier and scarier. We were camped out in the middle of the desert and I would go to sleep each night imagining the wild dingoes circling our tent. In the desert the night sounds are amplified. It was a miracle I got any sleep at all. Each morning I’d check around our tent for animal tracks, but there were only ever kangaroo tracks, so I was worrying for nothing. Except on the last night. Everything changed that night.”

The others leaned in, the flames from the fire leaping up and casting eerie shadows on their faces. “Don’t stop there. What happened next?” asked Claire, holding on tightly to her partner Matt.

“No, I shouldn’t say any more,” said Millicent sitting back on her chair. “It’s been a secret for nearly ten years, it should stay that way. Ben, you can tell your story.”

“You can’t get half way through a story and then just stop Millicent,” pleaded Matt. “That’s like those people who write enigmatic posts on Facebook. They know people are going to ask what they are talking about. You have to finish the story now.”

“Do you all promise that you will never tell this story to anyone?” Millicent asked leaning in and looking from face to face. They all nodded. “ I need to hear you all say the words.” A chorus of “I promise” went up around the circle.

“Okay. On the last night I woke to the sound of raised voices. I could hear my father arguing with another man. As I said, we were in the desert camping on our own. We had driven into Kalgoorlie for supplies once, but other than that we hadn’t seen anyone else during our time away. I didn’t know what time it was, but it was pitch black. Looking out of the tent I could see the dying embers of the fire and the lights of a car outlining the silhouettes of my father, my mother standing just behind him and the man he was arguing with. It was too dark to make out any of the stranger’s features, but his voice was distinctive. He spoke with a slow drawl, each vowel drawn out a beat too long. I could see that he was carrying a shotgun. I sat at the entrance to the tent listening to the exchange.

‘And I told you, this is private property, you and your family have no right camping here, let alone prospecting here. This is my land, what you find on my land belongs to me,’ said the man.

‘I’m sorry, we had no idea. There weren’t any signs or we never would have camped here,’ explained my father.

‘Now I’m not asking again, you need to hand over what you’ve found during your time here,’ continued the man.

‘I already told you. I haven’t found anything of value, but you’re welcome to it,’ my father explained. I could see the man gesture to my mother with the tip of his rifle to go and collect what my father had collected. She came to the tent and was surprised to see me sitting at the entrance. She put her finger to her lips to silence me. I could see her hand was shaking. She reached into the tent and pulled out the small pouch where my father kept the few little gold nuggets he had found and took it back to the man. He looked inside and then put the pouch into his front pocket.

‘Now pack up and get off my land before I shoot your tires out,’ he instructed.

‘Please,’ begged Dad. ‘It’s the middle of the night, we’ll leave at first light. I promise.’

‘You’ll leave now,’ the man said in a voice that bore no room for an argument.”

“So you had to pack up and leave in the middle of the night, that is pretty scary,” said Matt.

“That’s not all,” said Millicent. “We quickly packed up our tent and camping equipment under the watchful eyes of the stranger with his rifle. There was no moon that night and somehow my Dad must have taken a wrong turn because instead of getting back onto the main highway we found ourselves driving around in circles. My mother was getting hysterical and my father was strangely silent. I imagined his knuckles white as he clutched the steering wheel. After an hour or so of driving around with no road in sight, my Dad pulled over and decided that it would be better to wait until daylight to see where we were. We spent the rest of the night sleeping fitfully.

“With the rising of the sun we were no clearer about where we were. We had a quarter of a tank of petrol, enough food for our last breakfast, a little bit of water and a shot of Cameron’s insulin.”

“Cameron? Who’s Cameron?” asked Claire.

“Cameron was my brother,” answered Millicent. No-one knew where to look, a shiver ran through Claire’s body. Matt pulled her closer to him and nodded to Millicent to carry on.

“We had been planning on driving back to Perth that day. We were going to eat breakfast and stop in Kalgoorlie to get petrol and stock up on water and snacks and then drive home. Worst case scenario, as long as we found our way to Kalgoorlie by nightfall we would be okay.

“If you have been to Kalgoorlie you will know that the surrounding area is flat, so there were no hills for us to get a view of where we were. We knew that where we had been led to nowhere, so there was no point following those tracks. We ate our breakfast and set off to the south. Where we had camped was only about a kilometre from the road, so my Dad reasoned that we couldn’t be that far from a road, but we drove to the south for an hour and didn’t get to a road. My mum was starting to panic, imagining us running out of petrol, so Dad stopped the car. The fuel light was on. Running out of petrol was a real possibility. It was warming up and we needed to watch our water, but Dad and I decided to keep going on foot, to see if the road was close. We walked for an hour and saw nothing except mirages and some lizards lazing of the red rocks. Following our tracks we headed back to the car.

“Our problem was that no-one would be looking for us and that when they did start looking for us they wouldn’t know where to look. We had told our friends we were going prospecting near Kalgoorlie, but that was as specific as we had been. The only person who knew where we had been camping was the stranger who was responsible for the predicament we were now in. It was unlikely he would say anything if and when a missing person’s report was made.

“We always commented on the idiocy of tourists who got themselves lost in the Australian outback and yet here we were in that same situation.

“We spent the rest of the day trying to stay cool and rationing out the water. As night fell Dad dug a small hole and set up a piece of plastic in the hopes of catching some dew in the night. Hungry, we did our best to sleep. I did doze off because when I woke my mother was crying and holding Cameron. He hadn’t had any insulin since the morning before and had slipped into insulin shock. He was shaking and sweaty, losing water that his body couldn’t afford to spare. If we didn’t get him some food soon he would slip into a coma and die.

“Dad was searching through the car looking for any food we may have missed, boiled sweets, anything, but I knew there was nothing as Cameron and I had looked through it thoroughly the day before. As Mum held him she was trying to get him to take small sips of water, but he was shaking too much. I had seen him like this once before, it was scary, his eyes rolling back in his head, the whites showing. Cameron was my twin, I never understood why he was born with diabetes and I wasn’t. It didn’t seem fair. He was a nicer person that me, a better, kinder person. If I could have taken his diabetes from him I would have in a heartbeat.

“That day we watched helplessly as Cameron slipped away from us, offering what little comfort and support we could. By nightfall, Cameron had taken his last laboured breath. We had no tears but were bereft. I spent the night lying by my twin brother’s side.

“At first light, I set off towards the east, we had not gone in that direction yet. My steps were mechanical. I felt nothing as I put one foot in front of the other, there seemed no point in finding our way out now except that Cameron could be given a proper resting place.

“I hadn’t been walking for very long when I saw a house, a shanty really. Leaning against the veranda was a rifle. I walked towards it and picked it up. I had never held a gun before and was surprised, it was lighter than I expected it to be. I turned it over in my hands inspecting it. It seemed a simple object, not many parts. The trigger was obvious, there was a catch which I assumed must be the safety. I put it up to my face and looked down the sight, imagined pulling the trigger. I was about the put it back where I had found it and knock on the door to ask for help when from behind me I heard a voice. It was a voice I recognised. It was the voice of the stranger who had made us pack our things up in the middle of the night. Adjusting the safety catch I turned towards the direction of the voice. I put the gun up to my face, saw the stranger in my sight and pulled the trigger. I was surprised at the jolt I got from the gun and had to steady myself so as not to fall backward. I was also surprised at the stranger who now lay before me, a blossom of red spreading on his chest.

“I used my T-shirt to wipe down the gun and placed it back on the veranda where I had found it. I walked back to my parents with the news that I had found the way out.”

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Nine Months

“Don’t b late home 2nite,” Sally smiles to herself as she hits send on her message to Jack.

“K, wasn’t gonna b, why?” Jack replies.

“MUCUS!” she sends, smiling to herself, imagining the look on Jack’s face when he reads the message.

“Hope y washed your hands b4 texting this, LOL!” he sends back.

“Hey, you want to grab a drink after work?” asks Ella popping her head over the partition dividing the workspace.

Sally looks up from her phone, eyes shining, “Sorry, not tonight my friend.”

“I know that look, please do not say that word, you know it grosses me out,” begs Ella.

“What, mucus?” laughs Sally. “It’s a perfectly normal part of the fertility cycle. Mucus, mucu…”

“Blah, blah blah, I can’t hear you,” laughs Ella with her hands over her ears. “Are you done now?”

Sally nods, “Cross my heart, sorry, with any luck you will never have to hear the ‘m’ word out of my mouth again after tonight.”

“Are you feeling lucky tonight?”

“I really hope so Ella, I don’t think I can handle the disappointment of not getting pregnant again. Every month the let down gets worse. Jack never talks about it, but I know it’s taking its toll on him emotionally too. The doctor says that if we don’t fall pregnant this time we’ll have to look at IVF, which we will have to take a loan out for, so fingers crossed.”

“Well if anyone deserves a baby it’s you, you’ll make a great mum. I’m sure tonight’s the night, just relax. I read somewhere that stress can have an affect on whether or not you fall pregnant, so think calming thoughts for the rest of the day. Are you planning a romantic night, or do you intend to just jump each other’s bones?”

“Romantic I think. I’m going to get champagne, light candles, I might even scatter some rose petals on the bed. We’ve become so focused on getting pregnant that the last few times have been perfunctory. Jack made a comment about feeling like a sperm bank. I want to make it up to him, show him how much I love him.”

“Sweet, I’m sure he will appreciate the extra effort. Okay, I’d better get back to work, I want to hear all about how tonight goes,” says Ella as she ducks back down leaving Sally to get on with her work.

Sally only works a short bus ride from home so is always the first one to get home. She had stopped on her way home to pick up a bottle of French champagne, which now sits in an ice bucket with two champagne flutes, gifts from their wedding. She has a quick shower and walks naked from the bathroom to the bedroom. She moisturises lavishly and dabs perfume behind her ears, onto her wrists and behind her knees. She brushes her hair and toys with pulling it up into a ponytail, but in the end, decides to leave it out. She looks through her lingerie drawer and debates whether to go with sultry seductress, or girl next door. Deciding on sultry seductress she pulls out a red silk negligee which Jack had bought her last year, but she has barely worn. She pulls it over her head, the soft fabric cool on her skin. She sends a text to Jack, “ETA?”

“40 mins an hour tops,” comes his reply. No rush then she thinks, she has plenty of time to get everything ready. She goes to the living room and chooses a playlist. Ed Sheerin’s “Thinking Out Loud” plays as she walks to the kitchen and pulls four of the red roses out of the bouquet she had bought on the way home. Starting at the front door she begins pulling off the petals and making a trail of them leading to the bedroom. With the remainder, she sprinkles the petals on the bed. She then stands back and admires the room, once the candles are lit it will look very romantic. Jack will definitely be surprised.

Sally goes to the front door and unlocks it and then grabs the champagne and glasses from the kitchen and takes them through to the bedroom. “Front door open xxx,” she messages to Jack. She walks back into the kitchen to grab a lighter to light the candles and is walking into the bedroom when she is grabbed roughly by the waist, her feet lifted off the ground. She tries to scream, but as she opens her mouth something is shoved inside her mouth making her gag, she can taste her vomit and smell motor oil.

She is flipped over onto her bed. Above her stands a man wearing worn denim jeans, a blue and black checked shirt and a clown mask, the mouth a permanent laugh. “Don’t move and you live,” he says, his voice low and gravelly. He begins to undo his belt and Sally whimpers, crawling backward up her bed, feeling with her fingers for anything on the night table to her right. “I said don’t move bitch!” The man, his belt undone now, comes towards her in two easy steps. He slaps her face, his big meaty hand making an audible noise as it connects with Sally’s tear-drenched cheek. He wrenches her up by her arms and using his belt, he ties her wrists to one of the bedposts.

In no time he has his penis inside her, sliding in easily, her fertile body betraying her. Four violent thrusts and Sally feels him ejaculate, his body shudder. She lies still, tears seeping out of her closed eyes, not wanting to look at this man who has violated her. She feels him withdraw, senses him move beside her, feels the belt loosen then her arms drop. She listens to his footsteps retreating on the hardwood floor.

She counts to ten, then to twenty, then to one hundred. Tentatively she reaches across to her mouth and pulls out the cloth sodden with her snot and tears, a little bit of vomit and an essence of motor fuel. She curls up, her knees to her chest and lets the deep, racking sobs out.

After the rape Sally refuses to talk about it, making Jack promise to tell no-one. Jack calls the police when he arrives home a few minutes after the rapist has left and they go to the hospital where a rape kit is collected. Sally takes a week off work saying she has the flu, but other than that she pretends that everything is normal, until now. Sally’s period is late, it has been late before, but only three or four days late. Her period is now two weeks late. She tries not to think about it, to put it out of her mind, but every time she goes to the toilet and looks down to see her spotless underwear it was there as a reminder. Jack raised the subject the night before, but she shut him down, refusing to talk about it and then going to bed early.

Sally’s phone beeps, it’s a message from Jack, “Babe, want me to make a drs appt?” She ignores it and turns her phone to silent, putting it in her top drawer. She turns back to her computer and the design she was working on.

Ella pops up above the partition, Sally sighs involuntarily and sees the look of hurt cross Ella’s face. She has distanced herself from Ella since the rape. Where they used to have lunch together two or three times a week and chat daily, Sally has made excuses not to go to lunch each time Ella has asked and has cut short each conversation they have had. She knows it is just a matter of time before Ella asks how her romantic night was and she doesn’t want to have to lie about it.

“I’m grabbing a coffee, do you want to come with me Sally?”

“Nope, thanks though, I’m hoping to get this design finished today so I’m going to work through,” Sally answers forcing herself to look up, make eye contact and smile.

“Is, er, is everything alright Sally, have I offended you in some way, or has something happened between you and Jack? You haven’t seemed yourself lately. If I’ve done something I want to know or if you and Jack are having trouble, well, I’m your friend, you can talk to me.”

“No, really everything is great. Of course you haven’t offended me and Jack and I are great. I’m just not sleeping very well, that’s all and the Clarke job is trickier than it first looked. Each time I submit my plans to them, they want to make changes,” says Sally. “Now I really do have to get back to it.”

“Okay, but when the Clarke job is finished we are going out to lunch, no excuses, okay?”

“Sure,” smiles Sally. She’ll cross that bridge when she comes to it.

When Sally leaves work that day she has a screen full of text messages and missed calls from Jack. She doesn’t reply, just puts her phone in her bag and heads out without a goodbye to anyone.

When Sally gets off the bus, instead of turning right towards home, she turns left towards the small strip of shops. Here there is a chemist. Sally purchases a pregnancy test and then heads home. Two years ago when she and Jack had first started trying for a baby Sally would buy an early detection pregnancy test every time she was a few days late. She and Jack would sit in anticipation willing the blue line to appear as the minute ticked on, sometimes imagining that there was a faint trace of a line only for her to wake with her period the next day. After the sixth or seventh month, she had stopped buying them, the disappointment too great.

When she gets home she opens the test and goes to the toilet. By the time she has flushed, the second blue line that has always been so elusive is standing out brightly against the white background. Placing it on the table, she takes a picture of it and sends it to Jack with the message, “What now?” She doesn’t expect an answer and she doesn’t get one.  She keeps herself busy getting dinner ready.

“Is it your first baby?” the technician asks brightly as she smears Sally’s stomach with gel. “Sorry, bit cold, but it will warm up and it’s worth it when you see your bub.”

Jack squeezes Sally’s hand.

“Are you nervous?” asks the technician moving the transducer around in the gel.

“Not especially,” answers Sally.

“Just quiet then,” states the technician. It isn’t a question. “Look there’s the baby’s heartbeat, nice and strong. Here’s the head, here’s one arm, the other one looks like it’s tucked up behind, we might get a better look at that a bit later, legs. Baby’s head is pointing downwards, only a few months to go and you’ll get to meet him or her. I bet you’ve started getting all clucky?”

“Ah, no, not really, I guess we should start to think about buying some things for it, a cot and whatnot,” comments Jack.

“Well yes, a cot comes in pretty handy, they’d have given you a list at the pre-natal classes, I can get you another one if you’ve lost it.”

“We haven’t signed up for classes, the list would be helpful,” says Sally in clipped tones.

The technician pauses and looks from Sally to Jack giving a little shake of her head. “Do you want to find out what sex your baby is?” her voice all business now.

Jack says nothing looking to Sally, “No thank-you,” Sally replies.

“Right, always nice to keep it a surprise I think,” comments the technician. “I’ll just take some photos and then you can hop down. There you go, all done.”

“Thanks, bye,” calls Jack an arm around Sally as they leave the room.

“Wait!” calls out the technician. “You forgot your photos, that’s usually the first thing people ask for,” she says, a scowl on her face. “And here’s that list I mentioned, these are just the basics, most people buy more than what’s on the list, but this is a good starting point.”

“Ah, thanks,” smiles Sally. “Pregnancy brain.”

Back at work, Ella jumps up as soon as she hears Sally arrive back, “Well, where are they?”

“Where are what?” Sally asks.

“The ultrasound photos of course, I haven’t been able to concentrate on anything all morning thinking about them.”

“Oh, sorry, I think I left them in Jack’s car,” shrugs Sally.

“Are you for real Sally? Photos of your baby and you left them in Jack’s car,” Ella says incredulously. “You are so vague and forgetful these days, make sure you bring them tomorrow, I want to see them, okay?”

“Sure, sorry.”

“Remind me 2 bring photos 2morrow, Ella clucky,” texts Sally to Jack.

“I had the strangest couple in this morning for their final ultrasound,” comments Jenny the technician, dusting the sandwich crumbs from her uniform.

“Strange how?” asks Roxy sitting down to join Jenny at the break table.

“Well the mum-to-be barely looked at the ultrasound, I think the dad only looked out of politeness, then when they were leaving they forgot to take the photos with them. That’s a first! When I think of my sister who’s just had her second miscarriage and is so desperate for a baby and then these two come in and don’t seem to give a damn. It makes my blood boil, where’s the justice?”

“Maybe they were having an argument or something,” comments Roxy.

“Oh no, they were very loving towards each other, it was just the baby that seemed to be an inconvenience. Some people just don’t deserve the gift of parenthood.”

Sally heaves herself out of her chair, feels like a beached whale, there is nothing glamorous about the last month of pregnancy where every movement is a gargantuan effort. She has been having contractions for just over an hour, but they are still twenty minutes apart and she has read that they need to be minutes apart before going to the hospital. She wants the pregnancy to be over so she can get her body back, but that also means meeting the product of her rape and having to look into the eyes of a baby who will be a daily reminder of that violent act. For the last few weeks she has been having vivid dreams where he is back in the room, on top of her, she can smell his sweat and feel the gag in her throat. He has never been caught, she fears her dreams could come true.

She calls Jack at work and tells him it’s time to come home, she has no idea how quickly the contractions will move from twenty minutes apart to minutes apart, best to play it safe she thinks. She moves around, finds it’s easier to deal with the pain this way. When Jack gets home forty minutes later the contractions are ten minutes apart. Despite her protestations he insists on taking her straight to the hospital. Her bag is packed, has been ready for the last two weeks in anticipation. Each time she sees it when she opens the hall cupboard she is filled with a sense of dread. She knows that dread is not the predominant feeling a mother to-be should be feeling.

Her biggest fear is a baby that does not look like her. Loving this child will be hard enough, but if it bears a physical resemblance to her rapist she does not know how she will cope.

“And last push, big push now Sally, you’re doing great,” says the midwife. “Here we are, a little boy. Here you go dad, you can cut the cord. Now we’ll just get him cleaned up and then you can have a proper look at him Sally.”

“Here you go, looks like this little one might take after Grandma, or Grandpa,” says the midwife laying the swaddled baby in Sally’s arms. “Are you alright Sally, you look like you’ve seen a ghost?”

A Trip to Remember

I couldn’t remember boarding the train, or why I was on it, but this did not bother me. I felt a strange sense of contentment, a sense of belonging. I was pleased to note that I had dressed well for the trip; I was wearing a smart suit, and the shoes that Sally, my daughter, joked were my ‘going out shoes.’ The carriage was about half full, with a mix of people from the very young to the very old. There were probably more of the older generation like myself on the train, but there was a baby, just a few days old by the looks of it. I hadn’t noticed it asleep in a basket until the train shuddered on the tracks and the jolt woke the baby. It woke up with a loud and piercing cry. He, or she, it was hard to tell as it was dressed all in white, was soon picked up and rocked back to sleep then placed back in its basket again where it now lay, fast asleep, rocked by the motion of the train.

The carriage I found myself in was not modern by any stretch of the imagination, the leather seats were worn from many years of use. My seat was soft and comfortable, like an old glove. The carriage was lined on both sides with large sash windows, most of them open to a make the most of the impressive view as we travelled through the countryside. The toot of the train and the occasional waft of smoke alerted me to the fact that we were on a steam train, a very old train indeed. I hadn’t seen a working steam train in years, the last time I had been on a steam train was back when I was a young girl, just 19 years old travelling from Wyoming to New York City, determined to find fame and fortune. Fortune I found, fame was more elusive, and it became less important as I matured and realised that happiness was the most important thing in life. Looking back on my life I could honestly say I had led a happy life. I met Frank, my late husband, within a week of moving to New York, and together we had built a home full of love and laughter.

Looking out of the window, I tried to place where we could be by looking out for geographic clues and landmarks. We were travelling up a slight incline through thick forest. I did not recognise this particular part of the country, but I guessed that we could be in Oregon or Montana. The air was clean and fresh, not too hot and not too cold, the perfect temperature. At times the thick trunks of the forest trees looked so close that it was tempting to put my hand out to touch them, and I had to remind myself that I was a respectable woman who was in her eighties and not a child. I smiled to myself as I recalled the first train trip my parents had taken my brother and me on. I could still remember what I wore: my beloved Mary Jane patent leather shoes- I could see my reflection in those shoes, the pink dress with the bow at the back, and my braids so tight they pulled. We were dressed in our Sunday best and as such, forbidden to eat anything on the journey even though the tantalising aromas of the dining car wafted our way each time the interconnecting door was opened and the tea lady with her trolley of tempting cakes and sweets kept catching my eye when she passed us. We travelled from St Paul to Chicago to stay with Aunt Nancy while my father had an important meeting in the city. After that trip we had moved to Chicago, my father getting a job there. There was never a reason to take another train trip as a family.

As I sat back in the comfortable seat I tried to remember the last time I ate, but no memory came. I didn’t feel hungry, or thirsty. I resolved to make an appointment with my doctor when I got back home, maybe my memory was starting to go and I’d end up in the newspaper, a nasty looking mugshot and the headlines reading Do You Know This Woman? I could just imagine Sally’s reaction. Aside from finding it hilariously funny, it would be the final proof she was looking for that it was time for me to leave my home and move into a nursing home. Well, I just wasn’t ready, Dr. Knoff would have to find me some pills or brain exercises to do, I wasn’t going down without a fight. When my best friend Pam was put into a nursing home, she went from a vibrant woman who played bridge twice a week to a near vegetable who ate what could best be described as baby food and spent her days staring at the television in less than a year. I was a firm believer that nursing homes were a modern curse on the aged and I wasn’t going down that path.

On this train most people, like myself, seemed to be commuting alone, however, there were a few couples, and some of the extroverts had struck up conversations with others. Never one to make friends with strangers I was happy to sit back, to watch and listen. Opposite me sat an elderly gentleman, he was dressed in a suit as were most of the men in the carriage. Like me, he seemed content to look out of the window or to watch the others in the carriage. A few times I caught his eye and quickly looked away, not wishing to strike up a conversation. Across the aisle sat a young couple. They were holding each other’s hands and carrying on a very intense, but hushed conversation; I strained to hear a snippet of what they were saying, but could not. The woman was unnaturally beautiful, porcelain skin and the greenest eyes I had ever seen, her wavy auburn hair fell in soft curls around her face, she appeared to be agitated. She was dressed in a ruffled green dress, they both looked very smart. I guessed that they were going to a wedding, running a little late no doubt.

Opposite the young couple sat a middle-aged man and an elderly man, judging from their conversation they had been strangers but were chatting amicably now.

“I am, sorry, was a stockbroker,” said the younger of the two.” Awful job in hindsight. I was married to the job, making money was all I cared about. Talk about a rude wake-up call though, heart attack on the trading floor, I’ll be the talk of Wall Street for all of five minutes,” he said with a laugh. “What about yourself?”

“Oh I’ve been retired for nearly twenty years, I used to be a doctor, never married, a bit like yourself, my job was my life and then you realise too late that work is not worth the sacrifice, or the loneliness. If I had my life over, I’d do it very differently.”

“Me too,” agreed his younger companion. It was quite clear to me from the way that he spoke that the younger of the two was probably going to go out and make the same mistakes he was complaining about now all over again. Some people never learn I thought to myself shaking my head.

Frank and I always used to make up stories about the strangers we encountered on our travels. Strangers in a restaurant became more important than the menu on holidays as we wove intricate stories about the lives of people sitting nearby. The best thing that could happen would be to encounter the same people another night so that we could continue on with our narrative about them. It was times like these that I missed Frank the most, and I wished that he was with me now.

I snapped out of my daydream at the sound of raised voices from the seats behind me.

“This isn’t Disneyland,” complained a little boy. “You promised that we were going to Disneyland. When are we going to Disneyland?”

“Shush Ben love, people are staring,” cooed a woman who I assumed was Ben’s mother. “I’m not really sure where we are, darling?”

“Well…the last I remember was driving in the hire car from the airport. We had just got onto the freeway and Ben and Ella were fighting in the back. I remember yelling at the kids to be quiet, then…” spoke a man quietly, as if to himself.

“Oh, yes, now I remember,” interrupted his wife, her voice full of sadness. I wondered what it was they had both recollected to make her so sad.

“Remember what Mummy?” asked a girl. “What do you remember, are we on the way to Disneyland, is this the train to Disneyland?”

I strained to hear the answer, but neither parent replied. I certainly hoped this wasn’t the train to Disneyland. I thought I could hear the sound of someone crying, but it was hard to hear over the little boy calling out ‘Mummy.’ I wished that one of them would answer him to shut him up.

 

I looked up to see a portly man walking down the aisle towards me. He looked me in the eye and smiled, I looked away, out of the window. I felt the seat compress beside me and glanced over, “Natural causes was it?” asked the man. “For me, it was drowning, bloody embarrassing too as I was a champion swimmer as a teen.”

The Department of Human Services

She is a twitchy ball of energy, a body in motion and if I were to asked to place a bet I would have said from the outset that this was not going to go well. The Department of Human Services is a misnomer, a public humiliation where people are made to wait like cattle and publicly state their name and purpose then wait hopefully for their name to be called. I don’t make eye contact as I sit in my chair and watch her in the queue, as I wait to be called for my Medicare claim. Brown bare feet, but clean, bouncing from ball to ball. She wants to move but is tethered by the line, to slow for her today. I can feel her tension, one wrong look or word and she will blow. Glancing up I see she is draped in a blanket, it is a Summer’s day outside. I guess she has been sleeping rough, but not for long. She carries nothing other than the blanket and a handbag. She is

Brown bare feet, but clean, bouncing from ball to ball. She wants to move but is tethered by the line, too slow for her today. I can feel her tension, one wrong look or word and she will blow. Glancing up I see she is draped in a blanket, it is a summer’s day outside. I guess she has been sleeping rough, but not for long. She carries nothing other than the blanket and a handbag. She is with a man, he is pushing an empty stroller, one of those cheap ones you can buy for under $30, it is empty. Whenever he tries to talk to her she shrugs him off. Together they get to the counter, words are spoken, quietly at first.

“Don’t listen to him, fuckin’ white cunt!” She says to the staff member behind the counter. A security guard rushes over, tells her that if she doesn’t calm down she will have to leave. She tells him to fuck off and leave her alone. Someone who looks important comes over. I don’t want to stare, but it is hard not to.

It’s quiet again and I don’t see her waiting like the rest of us, like her companion. I assume she has been made to leave.

Behind me I hear a ruckus and I realise that she is still here. Instead of making her leave they took her straight to a consultant, I’m impressed to see a shred of humanity does exist at the Department of Human Services. Her male friend is over talking to the staff member and her. “You stay out of it you white cunt!” She yells at him. He moves back to his seat with the rest of us “Speak Australian! Why can’t you speak Australian?” She is yelling at the consultant. There is hysteria in her voice. If she doesn’t yell she will burst into tears, this is not how she planned the morning to go.

She is wild now and suddenly the Department of Human Services has plenty of available staff. A semi-circle of men in suits has formed around her as if they plan to catch her like a stray dog if she tries to run. This only makes her look more desperate, angrier, she is backed into a corner like an animal, trapped. Whatever she came for, she does not have the negotiation skills to back down from this, it has escalated beyond her powers of control and she is stuck.

The Pram v.2

“Hayley, boom! Whaddup dog?” called out Caleb as I climbed onto the school bus. I smiled indulgently and took my usual seat near the front. Caleb was probably my best friend. He had spent a week in Perth with his cousin over the Christmas holidays and had come back all gangster. Maybe it was because we were country kids and nothing very exciting happened in our small community, but every time Caleb spent time with his cousin he tried on a different personality, hoping to find one that fitted; one that was different from farm kid.

At fifteen, Caleb and I were the oldest kids who caught the district east bus to school; next year we would both be going off to board in the city. I was the last stop before we got to school. I settled down with my book for the thirty minute drive into town, blocking out the excited back to school chatter. I was re-reading The Hunger Games for the third time. Katniss Everdeen had all of the qualities I wanted; she was honest, bold, and brave.

Glancing up from my novel, I noticed a red pram by the side of the road. It stood out starkly against the dry brown countryside. It was wedged against a tree and looked brand new, the metal was still shiny, the cloth unstained. The bright red of the pram against the faded summer foliage reminded me of a scene from a movie Caleb and I had to watch in English with a little girl in a red coat.

We were in the middle of nowhere. There were no farms around here, and my farm was the last farm before we got to town. Between here and the town was just uncleared bushland. How did the pram get here? I wondered where the mother and baby were now.

I thought about the pram during school that day and wondered about its owner, the baby it was bought for. The community we lived in was sprawling, but we all knew each other’s business. There had been no births recently. Why was a brand new pram left on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere? Had something terrible happened to the baby and the new pram been banished from sight, an unwelcome reminder?

On the way home from school I looked out for the pram. It was still there, still in the same position as it was the next day and the next. Looking out for the pram became a ritual. I longed to see it gone one day, to see it united with its owner, a bobble-topped baby peaked out from under its awning.

I started to read articles in the newspapers about babies to see if I could find the pram’s owner. I read the most abhorrent things. Mothers mad with post-natal depression: drowning or smothering their babies, wracked with guilt and sadness, slipping through the system that is set up to protect them. I learned the word infanticide. I read of babysitters shaking babies, physical abuse, neglect. I learned that even doctors, whom mothers trusted the most, sometimes sent babies home to die. I was surprised there weren’t more empty prams.

While waiting for the bus one afternoon, I spoke to Caleb about the pram. I asked him where he thought it came from; he asked me what I was talking about. He had not noticed it. I told him what I had learned, felt the tears well up as I did. Caleb pulled me close and hugged me tightly saying nothing. We sat together on the way home that afternoon, not talking, just looking out of the window together. Just before my stop, Caleb told me to stop worrying, to stop learning these new words. He said it looked like the pram had probably just fallen off the back of someone’s trailer on their way home from a holiday.

I resolved to look at the pram less, to pull myself out of the melancholy funk I had found myself in thinking about the pram. I was in my last year in at my district school; my life was never going to be like this again, next year everything would change.

The next day on the bus I did not look at the pram or the day after that. I no longer worried over news stories recounting abominable acts. I was fifteen; I had a life ahead of me for that.

Times that I happened to glance up and chance to see the pram I was surprised to see it still there. This was the type of thing that the local boys would usually have collected.  I remember when Caleb’s little sister had grown out of her fold-up stroller, we had spent an afternoon careening down the mud in it and into the dam until eventually it collapsed and sunk to the bottom.

By the end of summer, the red cloth had faded to a dull pink, one of its wheels had deflated, but the pram had not budged.

Winter was a good one for us farming families with lots of rain, and the dams were full. The pram fabric was disintegrating, the pink fading further.

Caleb and I both had to go to Perth for interviews at our respective boarding schools in the October holidays; we were nervous and apprehensive. Our mums took us down, and we stayed in the same hotel and made a holiday out of it. Caleb didn’t talk like Snoop Dogg anymore, and for the first time, I understood how easy life would be if we could simply wear the persona of another.

When we got home, we had six weeks of Year 10 left and then our days at our little district school would be over. No more school bus, no more familiar faces. I wanted to press pause and hold on to time. I think Caleb did too although he would never say this. We were both quieter around each other, more reflective.

On the last day of school, there was a graduation ceremony held for us. This was the tradition for all Year 10s regardless of how many students the school had graduating. Caleb and I didn’t have to wear our school uniform that day. Mum had bought me a new dress when we were in Perth, Caleb also had new clothes. We would catch the bus for the last time that morning. Our parents would be coming to the graduation and we would drive home with them.

Caleb and I sat together on the bus. We would never be this close again. Neither of us said very much, both caught up in our thoughts: excitement, apprehension, fear. I was happy that Caleb had been with me for this chapter of my life. I would miss him, I think he felt the same about me.

On the way home from school in the back of the car, I glanced out of the window. I saw the frame of the pram as it lay rusty in the dry scrub, its shape and form no longer recognisable. As we drove away, the last slither of pale pink fabric was picked up by the wind and danced across the windscreen before being carried away by the breeze.

Let’s Talk Toilet Paper

I’ve written about this before, but as I visit people’s homes I am often dismayed that they STILL HAVE NOT LEARNED. So I’m going to write about it again.

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Its not just me, lots of people hold very strong opinions about toilet paper orientation. In the 80’s, American newspaper columnist, Ann Landers, (correctly) wrote that toilet paper should have an over orientation and received over 15,000 letters on the subject, it was one of her post popular columns.

Sociology professor and writer of  “Bathroom Politics: Introducing Students to Sociological Thinking from the Bottom Up”, Edgar Allen Burns, got first-year sociology students to examine the way toilet paper should be hung as a way of illustrating social constructivism. Other sociologists and psychologists use this activity to show students the difference between minority and majority orientation.
The toilet paper debate has even made it to prime time television. All in the Family saw Archie yelling at Meathead for hanging the toilet roll under. In a 1995 episode of The Simpsons, where the kids are taken by Child Protective Services, Marge refers to her home as a “squalid hellhole” where the toilet paper is “hung in improper overhand fashion”.
The book Why Not? by  Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayres believes that the debate is about symmetry and they compare having an under orientation with peeling a banana from the bottom, or driving from the back seat of the car. I agree! It is obvious that when the paper is hung in an under orientation the pictures on the paper are upside down, this is not what the manufacturers intended because they know that it should be hung in an over fashion.
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My old Alice Springs newspaper, The Centralian Advocate, has even weighed in on the debate claiming that over is more economical and therefore it is better for the environment for rolls to be hung over.
There are lots of statistics on the subject, allow me to share a few. A 1999 survey by Cottonelle showed that 68% of people preferred over. Another survey by Cottonelle on the 100th anniversary of Thomas Crapper’s death showed the figures had jumped to 74% over. The results of the later survey were announced at the Academy Awards, I kid you not. This survey also indicated that overs were more likely to notice, be annoyed at unders and change the roll’s orientation at a friend’s house. The survey also showed that men were more likely to notice and be annoyed than women (not in this house).
There are even results based on class and politics. A survey by Sinrod (1989) showed that 60 percent of people who earn $50,000 or more prefer toilet paper to be over and 73 percent of those who earn less than $20,000 prefer it to be under. Another study shows that politically conservative people prefer under where more left wing people prefer over. Really!

Can you judge the traits of a person based on their toilet roll orientation? It seems so. Gilda Carle, a therapist and Cottonelle consultant, has the following theories:
If you roll over, you like taking charge, crave organization and are likely to over-achieve.
If you roll under, you’re laid-back, dependable and seek relationships with strong foundations.
If you don’t care as long as it’s there, you aim to minimize conflict, value flexibility and like putting yourself in new situations.
Wikipedia

And lastly, how do the rich and famous do it?

  • Oprah claimed on her show that she was under, 68% of her studio audience disagreed with her.
  • Paul Burrell, the butler to the Princess of Wales, shared that the royals have an over orientation.
  • Tori Spelling is on record saying that “over is more chic”.

Stay tuned for other scintillating debates such as should the toilet seat be up or down?

Writing competitions

Are you feeling creative?

Consider entering one of these comps and win money and glory.

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Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers

Entries open on Monday 30th May and close Sunday 10th September 2017. More details and terms & conditions of entry will be announced in April.

The Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers is for writers aged 30 and below to submit longform work. Entries between 5,000 and 10,000 words across all nonfiction genres, including memoir, journalism, essay and creative nonfiction, are welcome.

http://expressmedia.org.au/programs/the-scribe-nonfiction-prize/

Heywire Competition

The Heywire Competition is for people aged 16 – 22 who live in regional areas to tell a story about their life, in text, video, photo or audio form. Entries close 15th September 2017.

http://www.abc.net.au/heywire/

Peter Cowan 600 Word Short Story Competition 2017

Competition closes 31st March 2017.

The competition has an open theme and entrants may submit stories up to a maximum of 600 words.  Entries must also be unpublished and not have received any previous awards or recognition in any other competition.

In addition to the open category, there are categories for entrants aged between 12 and 18.

http://pcwc.org.au/competitions/

The 2017 Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize

Entries close Friday 12th May 2017.

The Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize is a competition run by the University of Southern Queensland and is open to all Australian citizens or Permanent Residents. Entrants can enter up to 5 poems with a fee of $6 per poem.

The prize is $2500.

https://www.usq.edu.au/bela/school-of-arts-and-communication/bruce-dawe-poetry-prize/how-to-enter

Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards

2017 competition opens 1st March and closes 30th June

Poets are encouraged to take inspiration from wherever they may find it, however, if they are looking for some direction, competition participants are invited to use this year’s optional theme ‘All Over The World’ to inspire their entries. http://www.dorothea.com.au/How-to-Enter-2017-awards

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