Andrew James Whalan

Poet Blogger Writer

Category: Stories (page 1 of 3)

The Wish

“You shouldn’t encourage her,” Juanita’s mother pontificated.
“Me? I thought it must have been you.”
“I never said a word. She made it all up. By herself.”
“She has some imagination, I’ll grant her that. But she’s only a child. She’ll get over it. In time,” said her dad patiently.
“Reality catches up with us all,” sighed her mother.
“It’s just a pet. One of many,” replied Juanita’s Dad.

The back screen door groaned. Both parents looked at each other. Always they were bound to the unspoken rule. Parents must be seen and not heard. At least not in front of the children.

A click of heels announced itself. A pink tutu swayed first side to side then up and down. A moppet curl appeared as if from nowhere.
In leapt Juanita. She skipped lightly, her face beaming, her voice joyous.

“I said my prayers,” she said. “Just like I was told to.”
“Juanita…”, her Dad began. Her eyes smiled at him.
“Who told you that?” Snapped her mother.
“My friend. The one you can’t see.” Juanita’s voice was like running water.
“Sometimes, things don’t…,” counselled her mother. Juanita tossed her curls. And laughed. Neither parent could look at her. Nor could they speak.

“We know Misty is sick,” interjected her father.
“And sometimes sick people don’t get better,” added her mother.
“They do. She said so. I said so. And Misty will too”, Juanita said confidently. “So there,” she concluded.

Her tousled hair flew. She nodded.”I know.” She pointed to herself. Then she pointed upwards. “And He does too.”
And she danced away. The back door thudded shut. Mother and Her parents exchanged forlorn looks both clouded by doubt.

“I don’t know where she gets it from,” her mother said, “she’s only going to be disappointed.”
“Well, I didn’t tell her. She certainly didn’t get those pious thoughts in her pretty little head from me,” her father chuckled. “I have a whole canon of atheism to defend. She’ll get over it.”
“I know. Losing a pet is a horrible experience for a child to go through. And she’s making it far worse by denying it,” her mother replied.
“I’m going to have to bury it, you know,” her father said grimly.
“If she’ll let you. She still goes back to it hoping it will wake up.”

Both parents looked outside. Juanita was bent over a prone black body. They only turned away for a second. But that was enough for both of them to feel a warmth steal in from outside. Enough to make them shiver.

A scratching like steel wool against a fry pan. Then a dull sproing. Then a rusty metallic groan. The outside screen door had swung open again. Both parents looked at each other.

Unusually or rather as usual then there was a thump. Soft rubber paddling on wood. Then the soft pitter patter up the stairs. Four paws padded in. Black eyes glittered from a smooth furry head. All suffixed by a hungry meow.

“What?” both parents spoke at once.

A click of heels. A pink tutu. A shake of curls. A flutter of angel wings. Then Juanita appeared. Skipping, dancing, smiling. “See!” Her parents still couldn’t.

Two Souls

A kiss. A heavy unmoving kiss. Like my first : open mouthed and no movement. A kiss that flowed over me and washed  me downstream.

I woke a little. I drew a breath. I held it. I threw up my arms. I pushed her away.

She didn’t want me. I wasn’t interested. I had other fun. Now all I could feel was soft down. Under a heavy weight. Then I couldn’t breathe.

But rather than the suffocating dark, I could see all of the basement. And smell its smell : antiseptic mixed with sweat. And her still over me, pushing the pillow flat over my face.

My car, her car now, washed and waxed last by me, was parked off to one side. Tools, another computer never to be assembled, motherboards, network and graphic cards, hard drives, memory cards and floppy disks were scattered across my bench against the front garage door. At the back, arranged in a circle, a new sofa-bed, a hairdresser’s chair, a table and the dentist chair. In the middle, on a raised table, cleaned and ready, sat the tattoo machine, ink wells ready for another day customer.

I hated the dentist drill whine it made. My ears, first, then my jaw, all hurting as if ready for another root canal. She made sure that each morning, her electric pen woke me up, clientele or not. Hence the industrial strength earplugs. Which is why I had heard nothing.

The sofa bed, extended and unmade, blanket over pillow. And me under it. Never to be woken. Unless…

“State your case!” The voice came from behind me. From the white light from where I had reemerged.
“Who are you?” I asked. Silence ruled the afterlife it seemed to me.

“Your testimony must proceed followed by our consideration and then any actions or sentence will be sanctioned or pronounced. This process will take some time”, belled the white light’s voice.

“I remember being told that in a previous life,” I snapped. “I just want to get on with this, get it over and done with. I want to make sure she pays for what she has done to me!”
“I want revenge,” I said, “Revenge for what she did to me.”

“And what would that be?” The sound enveloped me and the basement. Yet there was no echo.

I recalled my past. First the angry words, the hefty blows, the affair. The creation of an open marriage. Open until I was caught out! She said that if she can’t keep me where she wanted me then no one could! And this night I left her furious. I don’t know what provoked her. I turned around and her face was red. Her pupils were dots again. I stepped back quickly. I tried to stand beyond arm’s length. But I was too slow. And she did it again. She windmilled her fists at me. I tried to demonstrate but couldn’t.

I waited until she fell asleep. I left her in front of the TV. I walked quietly, no stomping when you’re angry remember, into the bedroom. I shut the door, got my nightclothes on, put away today’s clothes and prepared tomorrow’s.

Until she shoved me out.
Then I fled to the basement, hid under the camp blanket and my stolen pillow. And fell asleep. Until she woke me twice. And now this ghostly court.

“Isn’t this the next life?” I asked, “Isn’t this something you should already know?”

“Indeed that is true. But as Ghost Guardians we cannot let anyone back into the previous life unless they have a valid case!” There is no humour in the afterlife it seems.

“Isn’t revenge enough?” I replied.

“Under the appropriate mitigating circumstances,” was the reply.

“Which are?”

“We are asking the questions here,” they intoned.

I nodded. Although I didn’t have a body to do so.

“Why are you asking me this? You should know. Now can we just get this over and finished with. Let me do what I need to do.” I was furious.

“Have you considered forgiveness?”

“Forgiving her?”, I expostulated.

“Yes.”

“Are you, are you…After what she did to me!” I said.

“It would easier for all concerned,” they replied.

“You know this as well as I do. She has stated so that she would never forgive me nor accept my forgiveness.” I was turning out to be a better lawyer in the afterlife.

“Would that be appropriate and thus mitigating circumstances then?” I concluded.

“Indeed. You may proceed. But we must make you aware of the overarching and constant consequence of being granted revenge!”

“Which is?” I replied.

“That you forfeit your eternal soul to us until she relents!” Which was no different than in the previous world!

“Revenge once granted allows you freedom of action. You may haunt, appear as a vision, you may even speak to her, speak to others, appear or disappear at will, even rearrange or reanimate objects. All within the constraints we set. In the meantime, we ask that you show the proper respect for due process.” said the Ghost Guardians.

“And if she doesn’t relent?” I replied.

“Then she and you are both doomed for eternity!”

“She will never relent, she will never forgive,” I replied. “But you know her soul better than I ever did.”

“Perhaps if you spoke to her?”, the Ghost Guardians said gently. And their voices were like silken music.
I nodded again. Perhaps two souls for the price of one?

And now I’m lying on the bed under that pillow waiting for her to stop killing me so I can start gently haunting her back to another afterlife.

 

 

Daddy Tick Tock

3:06am. He’s crying. The father groggily wakes and looks at the digital clock on the bedside table. The shrouded corpse far across the bed doesn’t move. He hears the seconds dripping.

3:05am. He’s still crying, even if time has ticked backwards. Confused at first, he realises it was 3:05 then 3:06. But the last three hours sleep? Gone in an eye blink. He’s still crying.

And once his other eye opens, the real day will begin. Post the forced wake up, yesterday’s washing must be hung out, snack for breakfast, shower in between, shave while not being cut by an unsteady hand, the new washing hung out to dry, perhaps most of last night’s housework, then the final reluctant rush to work. She’ll sleep through. And the son too.

Maybe a deep sleep on the bus might save me, he thinks. Yeah! But that’s some hope! Then nine hours of bobbing his head up and down with the interruptions and interrogations every minute or so. Selfish people with trivial wants, urgent phone calls or exaggerated crises. Then he’ll tank ten cups too much of coffee. And on the way home, he’s as jittery as Methuselah the bus driver.

And silently, as a burglar, he enters the empty house of no welcome. A kitchen of bowls, cups, saucers, baby bottles, plastic spoons and congealed saucepans. The lounger with scattered clothes both clean and dirty to be gathered, or worse. Somewhere in the fridge, there is a covered dinner of leftovers. Usually his only friends are the freezer, the microwave and frozen pizza.

He slips hopefully unnoticed to visit to his son. As he creeps through the hallway, she’s there. The mother of their child, back to the nursery door, wordless and childless, a pillar of salt with eyes blazing.

He draws close. He takes the usual half step backwards. Then he pushes down the door handle and skips into the open space. If he’s quick, he’ll glimpse his son. Some days he doesn’t make it that far.

“Perhaps this is the day,” he says to himself. “The day when St Thomas finds out who his father really is.”

There he is, in yesterday’s dirty jumpsuit. A covered head, a small contorted face, dolls hands protruding. “My son?” he thinks. He reaches to touch the arms stretched each side of the cot. He stops his breath to listen to the whispered intake of another’s. But she steps inside, blocks his way, steps into him and shuts the door.

“I didn’t disturb him,” he soundlessly whispers. But the standard admonishment is always administered.

Then the flight back to the kitchen, the clothesline and the laundry. Undresses himself in the dark, and slips unnoticed into bed. To sleep wakefully.

3:06am. He checks. Yes they are now both awake. Dreamily, he finds a small mercy. That cry isn’t the endless one-note scream. He forages for the proper definition: a night terror?

A terror shared both by father and son. For nothing can wake her.

If it was that one-note call from hell, it would be okay. He would be at battle stations ready to repel demon boarders. He’d sprint in the dark. He’d take a nanosecond to snatch the child from cot. Forget about unlatching the cot side. Leave that for later. He’s stolen the baby. For then there’s the piercing shriek that dissolves them both. Then that hour long second to pass inconsolable baby to consoling mother. Then silence. Then the bottomless ocean of post pregnant sleep. Which only subtracts a little more from him.

It’s the mummy cry, he recognises. Not to be confused with the daddy cry. Perhaps that doesn’t exist, he thinks. It might if fathers could become pregnant. No it’s the natural order of things, he muses. But it’s still wrong.

“How can she sleep through this? It’s her cry, not mine.” Perhaps a few more moments and she will wake…

He dunks face first into the first pillow, then smothers the back of his head with the other. He turns over and in on himself. He binds himself in his blanket. And he sets a imaginary alarm. She’ll wake this time and there will be peace for all.

Eyes half open he watches and sleeps. The pile of blankets to his right doesn’t move. She’s going to sleep through.

3:07 He’s still crying. Was there a minute of sleep? He can’t remember. In the dusk, the wall of sheets and blankets opposite is unclimbable. But a small gap, might be enough. If he gently disturbs her, she’ll softly wake, yawn and stretch, hear her baby, go to him, St Thomas will be comforted.

And it will be like the old joke. Now we all can get some sleep. That’s the punchline but what was the joke? He scrabbles across and meets two pillows, one on top of another, pressed down under the blankets. He could burrow through but the danger of course is real. For once awake, there will be the usual set-to in front of the baby.

Yet again it’s come to this, he thinks. Maybe this will be the time, when he’ll be lulled to sleep by his father. And know it.

That would be a welcome addition. Then St Thomas will know he’s not a baby napping stranger. Or an absentee father practising for the future. Knowing that, we both can sleep, peaceably, however long that takes. With his mother grateful for the sleep won.

Now, he’s the reproached lover who has started the long walk back. He approaches the cot, walking on the sides of his feet, approaching unheard. But he’s caught out again, even before unlatching the cot. Same as last night. Same as yesterday. Same as the last three months. Or four?

Through the cry, he hears rustling. He looks back. Blankets, sheets and pillows have flown upwards and outwards. The mother, dishevelled, now a phantom. She strides quickly towards the nursery. He’s too tired to shrug off the blow. He never did duck or flinch before. In case you’re wondering , he rehearses, the mark is shaving rash. That is, if anyone asks.

What is she doing? She’s plucking her head. Pulling her hair out? She’s pulling at her ears. Two or three snatches then, two bright objects appear. She throws the earplugs to the floor.

She bares her white teeth and snarls. “Why didn’t you wake me?” Most of that is lost as St Thomas screams even more loudly. She gathers the child, still robed in her blanket and departs to her queendom.

He’s left standing there, too tired to rub his cheek. He thinks, it’s too late to go back to sleep. But too close to dawn to get up. Same and again.

One happy addition, as they say, but all subtractions from now, he thinks. Twelve weeks, two days out, now, isn’t it? Or is that when mother and child came home? Twelve years after that. Then the six or so teenage years. Chained in a land he will never understand.

3:11. He’s crying.

Your Breath

Watching you stumble from one breath to another, I'm trying to breathe for you. I want to Inhale the oxygen, and pass it through my lungs into yours. And from there into that heart that I love so much. And take your breath and exhale it all for you. But I cannot. All I can do and it seems of no use at all is hold your hand. And wait and hope. We always wanted you to grow to a fullness that would exceed ours. But right now I don't know if that will happen. And my fear is that you'll catch my doubt. A doubt enough for youto quietly slip out that door with perhaps barely a nod to us as you leave.

As for your mother, she doesn't know. And that's what she cannot handle. A little uncertainty perhaps which can be overlooked or postponed. But not the uncertainty that is now resident. She worries that it will take over and we will be living moment to moment. She can't say that to me as it would betoo great a worry. She won't say that to you. Or even afterwards. No matterhow things turn out.

You're not as tough as you thought you were. This illness is your companionnow and ours too. I could advise you:  if you can do something, don't worryand if you can't do something, then do nothing and don't worry.  I can't 
take my own advice. I simply don't know how it will turn out. And I can't 
tell anyone, least of all you.

So I should make myself comfortable I suppose. I try not to look at the numbers and zig zags on the machine. Me being me, automatically I try and analyse them to determine a trend. The numbers seem unchanging like a clock that keeps time but never tells it. I grab a spare pillow, wedge it against myplastic hospital grade chair and find a position of least discomfort. 
Unlike yourself.

Tubes run into you and out. For a moment, I hope that it's all unreal, thatjust for fun, they've attached them to your skin only. I'm really waiting for someone to rush in and say it's all been a joke. And you'd wake and 
laugh with me too, until we thought of how to tell your mother. But she 
might see the fun in it too.

There's no change in the numbers or the fuzzy lines on any of the machines.
The door opens. Men and women rush in. Your eyes flickers open. I'm raised to my feet and quickly shoved outside. A joke? No a sarcastic cosmic one. Ishout out in my head, that was a random thought, I was idly thinking, 
I didn't mean it. Much as a child, I fear the horrible thought made true.

I wait for news and fear the over calm manner of those who deliver it.

Drenching Human Sheep

“All rise!” The Court Clerk brayed in a tone of bored authority. The words echoed and then died against the wooden paneling.

There was a pause. The door to the left opened. A short bobbing woman entered robed and wigged even though convention didn’t demand it anymore.  The pause followed her and held its breath.

There was a scraping and shuffling as lawyers, defendants, witnesses and audience rose. And bowed their heads. The judge sat down, her head hovering over the bench above. She feathered her hand at the crowd. With a more respectful scraping and shuffling now, all resumed our seats.

“Even to its practitioners, there are things about anaesthesia that remain a mystery – such as – where exactly it fits in the spectrum of consciousness.”

Thirty seconds in and he was already uncomfortable. He started to shake his head slowly from side to side. His hands were no where to be seen. Like children of a past generation, he was seen and not heard. Short, shorter than the judge by a half head, he bowed his head over the stand in boredom. All that could be seen was a brown shiny bald patch circled by a patch of hair. In another life, he would be bowed over a pew at prayer, held to a vow of silence.

“A state of general anaesthetia is not rendered not by a single drug but by a lights-out cocktail.”

“We don’t care for such pseudo-academic twaddle,” the anaesthetist growled.

“We put people under, hold them under and then bring them back. It’s a simple occupation really. You’re making it far too complicated.”

Unbidden, unusual and unhelpful even if he was being tasked with giving expert testimony. Which in fact he wasn’t. Especially considering this was a coronial inquest.

“Yes, they’re all a secret society, even when I put them on the stand as expert witnesses,” thought the cross examining lawyer in exasperation. But he set aside those thoughts as well as the academic treatise he was reading.  Unlike his interlocutor, the lawyer was grey of hair and of skin too, tall and spare with an economy of movement that belied his age. Only the twisted folds of skin under his chin marked him as ten years later than he looked.

“What about accidental awareness?” his soft voice filled the courtroom.
The anaesthetist stirred. His face peered over the edge of the witness box, red cheeks, centred by the pasty nose of the heavy drinker or worse topped by two monstrous eyebrows.

“It happens,” he said impatiently. “But you make it far more serious than the situation warrants. We monitor the patient closely. We take the action required. Like I said, yesterday,” he drawled with emphasis,”we’re not surgeons. More like farmers,” his tight mouth fluttering at his joke,”drenching sheep. It’s really straightforward, nothing to worry about.”

His voice now which was a dull monotone, more suited to calling out blood pressure, respiration, pulse and blood gases now was a bellow.

“Yes I can see why now. How all those nurses and junior doctors complained. Yes I can see too why he kept being exonerated, without even a reprimand, all those complaints dismissed as mere professional differences rather than personal ones. Sheep dip indeed.”

The anaesthetist didn’t react to the lawyer’s unspoken thoughts. Had they been spoken, his clever counsel would have interjected anyway and dismissed them as irrelevant. But clearly too, he hadn’t been fully briefed.

“What if there’s a incident?”, the cross examination continued.

“We’ve procedures in place. Should it happen,” he said gruffly.

“Thank you for your testimony,” the lawyer concluded. The anaesthetist shrugged, relaxed and almost smiled as he stretched back in his chair waiting for the judge to discharge him.

The silence at first inviting and expectant, continued. For the lawyer was still standing.

The lawyer paused and continued,”Your testimony regarding the science of anaesthetisia.”

Then he intoned, “Now I want to walk you through the incident at hand, the incident that happened on the 28th December, the night of the emergency.”

“What?” He growled. The eyebrows fluttered in time with his silent mouth as he sought his lawyer. But she crossed her legs and folded her arms. And avoided his eye.

“I answered that fully and frankly in my statement tendered to the court.”

“Yes he is his own lawyer! And his counsel knows it!! He’s had enough experience too!” the cross examiner nearly laughed to himself. But his task now required complete absence of all expression: the perfect listener!

“Indeed that is perfectly true,” the lawyer countered. “But the court wishes to hear your story in your own words for the record.”

“It’s all in my statement. There’s nothing to tell. I anaesthetised a patient that died during the subsequent surgery.” Another lost look at the defence lawyer.

“You knew she was dying.”

“No. Her vital signs were all falling. BP dropping, pulse down,breathing shallow, blunt trauma and she had lost a lot of blood.”

“That’s correct and that’s in accordance with the medical records tendered. However, according to Accident and Emergency, she had been stabilised, prepped and ready for surgery.”

“No, not from where I stand.” Came the reply.

“She had deteriorated before you administered the first part of the anaesthetic,” the lawyer continued.

“Yes.”
Then the lawyer stood and unwound himself to his full height.

“Why didn’t you call it? Why didn’t you at that stage abort the operation?”

“Why did you administer the second part of the anaesthetic?”

“I put it to you that without authorisation you carried out an act of involuntary euthanasia on a dying patient.”

“Just like drenching human sheep,” came the reply.

The Last Selfie

The last moments are the scariest, he thought. As he had been told. Apparently you first bob like a cork. Then you are swamped. Then you stretch your arms out to push yourself out of the water. And giving up, your arms and legs climb upward. Then downward. Thus overloaded you sink to the bottom faster than an anchor. So much time to contemplate, he thought.

The wave had already broken and the spray filled the sky. So much power, so much grace, how fortunate to witness. He reached for his phone. But there was no coverage. There’s no one to tell it to now. No photo, no text, could he break into the internet using his thoughts? But there, there was so much bile, cat videos, fake news that would overwhelm his story. Although it might go viral he thought, the last selfie of a drowning man. The channel between him and the point was now frothing green and white. Apparently once you sink to the bottom, it’s like falling asleep and drifting off. He really was annoyed now. He was never going to get his few seconds of fame on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram now. He looked and now the trough was full and flowing towards him. And then the water started building up again. He looked up and saw the spray over arch him again.
A second wave. He assembled the new facts of his predicament with studied detachment resolving to record and relate it for another time. The wave fell and crushed him silent.

Baby Crush

A bald head crowned by a few curls peeks out. Two eyes large and watchful wait and see what I might do.

I’m not moving. I stand silent. I’m a daddy statue.

Tiny hands cover her eyes. She tries to catch my gaze.

No way. I’m having no part of it. Not yet.

She opens them. She peeks carefully at me. Then covers herself with the blanket.

“Peep bo!” The blanket speaks.

That’s my moment. My eyes close. Although I keep the good one only an eighth open. Enough to cheat. Enough not to get caught.

Each time she closes her eyes, I open mine. Each time I see her open her eyes, I close mine!

Blanket on. “Peep bo!”
Blanket off. Blanket on. “Peep bo!”
Blanket off. “Peep Bo!”

“Peep bo!” I say again. Before the blanket went on.

I chuckle as the blanket giggles and rolls on the floor. Then smile at her laughter while she wriggles her way out. Usually she beats me to it. Then as she unwravels…

“Peep Bo!” She got me that time.

The blanket again wraps itself up. It giggles and rolls on the floor. Then she crawls out. And stands a little taller than this morning. Now her jumpsuit is too small for her. But that’s no matter now.

Two arms stretch to the sky. She starts to waggle her fingers. Twinkle twinkle? Yes i’m happy to sing that with her. But no peeking. Otherwise she’ll catch me lip syncing.

Then she stops stock still.

No. I was lucky there. Then not so lucky.

“Jump game.”

Oh no! Daddy workout time.

Arms stretch high. “As high as the sky.”

I squat down. I waddle towards her. I put my shoulders under her arms. Then my hands around her waist.

I lift her up. Until her head is level with mine. Her eyes are already laughing. Daddy’s doing the heavy lifting now.

I stand up and throw her high into the air.

Giggles, then laughter.

I stop just before I let her go. I’m not a dad, I’m an astronaut trainer. Besides she’ll never get vertigo from me!

“Again. High as the sky.”

More deep squats. More overhead presses. My knees ache. My shoulders sing. I sneak a glance at my burden.

She’s frozen in time!! One arm up, one arm out, frozen in a ballet pose.

Carefully I shift her to my stronger arm. I lean forward, most weight pushed backward and draw back the coverlet, sheet and blanket. Then i place her in her bed as if one false move would be the last. She slumps flaccid in her bed. I cover her up. I start to lightly leave…

Her hand finds my finger. And crushes it. I hold my breath. I listen to her breath slow and deep measuring eternity one second at a time.

The Great Blow

I couldn’t feel the heat through my uniform. I couldn’t smell the smoke that made me cough. I couldn’t even hear the roar of the wildfire.

The hell and brimstone I heard preached so often is happening to me.

And I pray. I place myself in front of God, in faith. It’s like the book of Revelations, I’m amongst the elders, all of us importuning him, surrounded by this fire.

I pray some more. But things just get worse. I cannot pray, its no use, he can’t hear me over the praise of the elders and the firestorm’s roar.

Perhaps it would be easier to join those already lost. A fate too hurtful to behold, let alone poorly describe. Men, women, children, even horses and livestock touched then aflame, then blackened to nothing.

But for me it would be a double damnation. It won’t avoid the certain punishment to be levied upon me for sending people to their death.

My charges and I were in windowed wooden coffins. In better times, you would call them train carriages. But with flames underneath and cyclonic gusts around, we were going to be crushed and cremated. All of us in this life and me in the next.

I remember looking at Edward Barry’s locomotive, the box cars filled with the last refugees and the caboose up front. And I thought, if salvation came to them, it would be more painful than to us. But it would be quicker.

And as for mine, I’m in a carriage where no-one can move. Women, children, some men and their belongings piled like sacks of wheat. I know they’re crying, praying, perhaps even screaming. But I can’t hear them over the roar.

And outside! It’s as dark as night from the firestorm’s clouds. Yet I see the dance and weave of Elijah’s fire as it leaps and jumps every which way. White, red, yellow, orange even blue lightning falls from the sky. Sheet, forked, even ball, lightning that is pure flame.

Next to the line, away from the rails, I see burning telegraph poles, no use wiring anyone now, its too late. And stumps, leaves, branches and sawdust too turned to ashes as if struck by lightning. Let alone the torches that are the trees. A fire that never ends. Even Elijah stopped calling down fire from heaven when so entreated.

And I entreat God again. For now I have fallen forward in front of him. I cannot stand in his presence. I ask that if I could stand that it would be in their stead. Lord, my life for their lives. This is all I ask Lord.

Then I could go down to the depths, sure and certain of that one truth. That I have been damned to all eternity for my irresponsibility. And my small comfort, a drop of water on my hell parched tongue, that I saved the lives of my charges.

He sends me from his presence. Perhaps he couldn’t hear me over the fire. Perhaps the elders were praising him and their voices drowned out mine. Perhaps the saviour’s last but one words were true and he really had forsaken me.

I knew how King David felt. He had to choose Absalom’s life or the plagues on his people. I have chosen a plague of fire.

I had always hoped that I’d lose my faith ere the few breaths before I expired. Hopelessly now I list the many ways we could die. For the cyclone could blow us off the track, telegraph poles could hit the train or fallen trees block the track, the locomotive could derail. Or the windows smash and flames fill the carriage. Or we get cremated. Or…

The train quickened up then. We had left Sandstone. Or what would be left of it. The wildfire too started to be left behind. Next is the trestle at Kettle Creek. I hoped that was the sanctuary where those poor unfortunate souls tried to flee. The ones that didn’t board the train at Sandstone and thought they could out run the fire to safety.

Yes I saw along the way that some of them didn’t make it. How they died, words cannot describe. One moment they were running, the next the fire like a rattlesnake took them in its coils.

If we get over that bridge, then there’s a quarter mile or so between us and this wildfire. And then I can start believing again.

But the train stopped. I push myself up, squat, stretch and stand now hoping no one has seen me fall.

My door opens and the dark moves. A charred black brakeman from the freight train. I don’t recognise him. Even though he’s short, squat, much like all of his ilk.

He speaks. I’m relieved. He is a man, alive. He’s no dark phantom sent to haunt me before my demise. I can’t hear him over the roar. Doesn’t he know that? His lips move like a wooden floor groove. He might as well be silent.

I don’t need to hear him. For I know what he will say. He’s about to tell me that we can’t go on. That the caboose, box cars or locomotive in front of us cannot move. The fire has won the race to the Kettle Creek trestle.

I haven’t answered him. In his rising panic, I can only see his gloves as he starts pushing and shoving me backwards and forwards. He’s being insubordinate and I mean to deal with him accordingly. There’s no time for his anger.

I got angry then. Real angry. I mean I should be angry at God but that did Job no good at all. Nope, I’m angry at me.

I grab his overalls and draw him close. He shouts in my ear, “Powers, the Kettle River trestle is alight.”

He’s asking me if we should go on. I’m the conductor and these are my charges. But it’s already too late. Because of me.

This steel and wood trestle is the only way back to Superior. But now the fire has won and it will take all of us.

This was the wildfire that had turned buildings to flames before my eyes. And then melted fireman’s hoses. And had stopped the train from being watered. And had fused the tracks as they left. And now had finally chased us down.

These last two dry and crackling months had sullied the beautiful Minnesota landscape. Hills once peopled with pencil pines, olive and green meadows all competing with each other to catch the passer’s eye were now an ochre treeless desert.

Today, September 1st was so hot I felt I was living in a pan with the lid on. And on the journey to Hinckley, the smoke which looked like a mist at first became thicker and darker until it was as night. And I noticed something queer : sometimes the leaves, and sawdust and branches left by the sawyers were smouldering.

But that didn’t prepare me for what happened when we arrived late afternoon. We weren’t even a quarter of hour by my watch’s reckoning before fire fell from the sky onto Hinckley. Now so many times, on this very railroad line, I’ve seen fire creep through grass and sweep through trees but I never saw anything like that. Or hope to again.

Then the wildfire engulfed the town. People appeared from everywhere, a crushing crowd rushing the train. Men pushing women and children and their baggage just piling on the train in no order at all. Too soon the carriages were full. And there were more people pushing and shoving.

Somewhere in that tumult the freight train arrived. As it soon as it did we knew it wasn’t going anywhere. The heat had melted the turntable.

I don’t know who got it into their heads first, but William Best and Edward Barry and myself took it on ourselves to hook the caboose, three box cars and the loco to my train.

We helped the crowds onto the box cars. It was all women and children as far as I could tell. Any men that made it were infirm. I remember the children crying as if they were my own.

And then it was time to go. Edward Barry sounded the whistle. The train didn’t move. William Best had put on the emergency brake.  I went to see. And he leant out and pointed.

For there was a new crowd of people, scared, wild eyed and pushing forward. Perhaps some of these were from the gravel pit or other parts of town I couldn’t tell in the dark and the noise.

I delayed the train some more. I went forward and helped pile them in the box car. I was lifting children up and over each other. One of the boys, a tall strapping fine fellow, started helping from inside. A couple of the little ones around him joined in. We managed to get all the women and children aboard.

But by then, paint was peeling off the box cars. I ran back to my carriage. I turned and saw grown men falling down as if dead. Only a hundred or so yards away.

“Can you wait?” A woman small, standing there. “My daughter…”

But a clap of thunder silences the roar of the fire. I turn. Buildings are exploding as if dynamited. I didn’t think. I just acted. I grabbed her arm and pulled her aboard. We got out of Hinckley fast enough before the ties and rails melted. It was too late for the rest of them by then.

Now I’m still angry. Not at God. Now there’s a waste of time arguing. For I know he will outlast me. I’m not even angry anymore for letting the train go late. For I’m not doing enough now. And that makes up my mind for me.

The brakeman asks again. He runs back to the locomotive. The train moves forward. I must have nodded.  I was struck silent.

I turn back to my charges. I don’t know what to do. I bowed my head and pray hopelessly. It was the only way I knew how. In the midst of my desperate reverie, I felt a gaze alight on me, like a match struck in the dark. I almost laughed at that ironic thought.

I opened my eyes. The first thing I see is a moving heap of coats and dresses. I squint a little. The two eyes that are its inhabitant stare right through me. She looks the size of a six or seven year old. I’m not much figuring ages that’s my wife’s purview I’m afraid.

A ragamuffin girl, perhaps it’s all the clothes she has ever had. They’re falling off her, a street urchin, skinny, bony, looks like nobody’s orphan to me. She must have sneaked aboard when I was looking the other way.

She speaks. At first I hear nothing over the roar.

She doesn’t have to say it again. For my years of being a train conductor have given me one unsung skill.

“My soul clings to you, your right hand upholds me,” I lip read.

I hear another voice, one that fills the train, a voice that only I can hear now. The one I had been waiting for.

I start to go backward through the train. It seems almost cooler now. Perhaps providence has sent us a breath of air. I straighten my cap, sip the new air and check my watch chain.

I tip toe through the pile of bodies. I’m fearful of waking them up. But more fearful of them drowning or burning in their sleep.

I wake the men, infirm though they are, roughly with a push or shove. Or a squeeze of their shoulder. But I apply no such ministrations to the women or children, though, a touch of the hand is enough.

I look for God’s ragamuffin but she has disappeared. Perhaps she hid herself under a seat. There’s no time now to go a looking for her.

I don’t shout. That moment’s past. I might as well be Job arguing with God when he spoke from the storm.

Then the shudder that we knew would come runs through all of us. The carriages are starting to cross the bridge. I shiver and shudder myself and will the train across each beam of the bridge.

I only found out later that the trestle fell when we were two thousand yards ahead of it. But by then we had made it back. Over more burning trestles that wouldn’t fall.

I had given up on my fear by then.

The Happiest Dental Patient Ever

Was this the last one? I went to the surgery door and called his name.

He looked up at once. And his eyes twinkled at me. And he smiled as if he had been in last week! 

He walked in arms swinging by his sides as if it was too easy. Tall, thin and vaguely familiar. But he wasn’t on my books at all. He couldn’t be. He was a walk-in as far as I was concerned. 

I didn’t know him from elsewhere in this town. Today was just my second day. I still was remembering more important matters. Such as which room was mine, the name of the receptionists, where the autoclave was, in case my assistant forgot to bring in the instrument tray. Which saving my anxiety, she did.

But this guy! He swings into the chair like a test pilot promoted to astronaut! And I think to myself, is he another one too? Another professional? If he is he’s pretty confident in what we all do!

Unlike me. I make a bad patient. And I’m even worse, now that I lecture. And  worst of all, provide expert advice when things go badly. If it was me, I’d be jelly.

And I ask,”What can I do for you?”

He says, “Just a check-up, ma’am.”

And I laugh, and ask, “ma’am. No one says that anymore!”

He says as unbidden, he swallows, swishes and spits, “The school librarian made us say it.

And while he’s drawling, he puts on a posh accent, “Don’t call wimmen Miss, Ms, Mrs unless you know if they’re married or not. And she said never call them Madame. And never said why. Reckoned I worked out that one!  But our French teacher wouldn’t answer to anything else! Reckoned ma’am is the least worst thing to say. Yeah. no. It’s okay most times except when I say it to the really young girls. They hate it. They scowl at me and swear under their breath while they’re texting!!”

Between us the ice is broken. And it seems familiar somehow. I laugh, and ask, “What do you do?”

He said leaning back and opening wide, still talking like a Northern Texan, “Professional bludger. Tell people stuff they don’t need.Write documents no one ever reads. Better get started, eh?”

And that’s the giveaway. He’s from the deep north of Queensland like me. Even with his mouth wide open, he still makes each word twice as long like a native. And that “eh!” That’s a deadset giveaway right there! And then I laugh to myself. Sometimes I still lapse back, I think. Just because I shifted states.  Another lapse now too.

Meantime, the work begins. I peer into his mouth with my mirror and sickle probe. I check and call the numbers and state to my assistant who scribbles dutifully. He’s as patient as Job. Except a lot more silent!

I say, “There’s a small hole in your back molar. We could leave it for another appointment. Or we could whiz through it now. It will only take another half hour.”

It didn’t matter, I thought. He was my last patient for the day and I was running half an hour early. My husband still had his lectures tonight so time didn’t matter.

He nods me through.

Drill, chip, wash, clamp, check, double check, tighten the clamp, fill, let set, wash and clean. It’s like doing dentistry on the Dalai Lama, I suppose. He’s so composed and relaxed. Simple and straightforward. By the book, I thought, the textbook. Which made a refreshing change from the day I had. 

And then a memory returns to me. “Didn’t I do a root canal on you?”

He just laughs, “Yep you sure did, wasn’t the once-off either, took a couple of goes, if I rightly reckon.”

And I remember, he didn’t flinch an inch that time either. That’s why I know him but he’s not on my books. 

I say, “You would have been my easiest patient.”

As the filling sets, he laughs and tells me why (out of the corner of his mouth of course). 

“It was easy,” he says, “I had the full metal jacket as a kid, a couple of teeth removed, wired up, that mouth guard thing and braces. Thought it would never end. Always knew this would!”

Captured By An Audience

You never really wanted to go out there. You’re outnumbered for one thing. You know that any false move in front of them will be the last and final one. You’re thinking that the light is too bright, your  voice will be too soft, your tread too heavy, your stance too awkward. You’re really scared to death, deep down. You don’t know why what starts you on those first steps out there. You shuffle tentatively at first. Then you’re puzzled as to why you then confidently stride forth. It’s as if you’re already a success. Like you’ve already been applauded and called back for more. And then you meet.

 

You’re all alone, just you and them. You never expected them to listen, even for a moment. You start as you always do. You focus on relaxing yourself. Or you’re trying to look relaxed. Or acting as if you already are. But now you don’t have time to be confused. You’re already speaking. And listening to your tone, your rhythm, your timbre and your breath.  For it’s as if to your great relief, at the very last moment, someone far more confident than you’ll ever be has stood in for you. And saved you. And for that you silently give great thanks.

 

But in all of that you kept on speaking. And you never think that ten seconds in, they’re looking you in the eye. And that after eleven seconds, you can look straight back at them. And that after thirty seconds in, they’ve stopped fidgeting, all of them. You watch extra carefully and realise you’ve never seen so many people sit so still for so long, ever. You start to become aware that perhaps these people may have started to listen to you. You’d never think that there could be such a thing as an inviting silence. And you’re in it,far too involved now to realise how rare and precious is the privilege they have extended to you. And you meditate upon that and think perhaps you really do have something far more to say than your trite rehearsals. And you keep on speaking amazed and astonished.

But you were waiting for the whisper, the voice too loud, just  enough that will silence you and your words forever. But it never speaks. It is struck silent by the silence.  It never speaks because there’s nothing for it to say. Yet you say it just the way you’ve said it before. And in the reality, it’s better than you’ve ever heard. You never think the pause for breath, which seemed in practice so short and now is an everlasting chasm of time, is perfect comic timing.  You make the joke that you’ve heard far too many times before. You know they’ve heard it for the first time. As now do you.

 

You find yourself unexpectedly relaxing and experiencing that joy of the endless moment. And you’re left wondering why you ever were afraid in the first place!
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