The Beckoning

Five minutes? Or five months? I can’t be sure of time anymore. All I can do is listen from afar.

“I don’t know why I’m even telling you this,” she says. To the stranger over the phone.

At last it has begun. Though it is over for me.

Her hovering over me in the bedroom. Closing the curtains again and shrouding me in endless twilight.

I can see my waxen face reflecting the light from her eyes as she leans close. “Is there anything you need?” she is asking.

I hear my whispered breathing stop. Now no longer interrupted by my interminable whistle. Which bloody well annoyed her like metal scraping a frypan. Now I can’t even comfort her in that anymore.

I see her running for Dad. Down the stairs into the lounge room. Him still and silent. Him joining me temporarily in his state of suspended animation.

“So again it fell upon me,” she continues to her stranger.

I remember the phone calls. First the ambulance. I saw them brisk but unhurried. Felt them lay their gentle hands on me. Saw them again shake their heads. And her face falling apart.

Her calling relatives. Screaming at them for not posting on Facebook. There’s plenty of time for that, I thought at the time. Yell it all out at the funeral, I say. But of course, I’m silent now.

Until two weeks later. When Dad joined me. She found him caught mid-breath, remote still clutched in his clawed hand waiting for the next show. Waiting for the cup of tea, just like I used to make. That she never could of course.

As she tells the stranger on the phone.

And her life full of laid-back lawyers, bone-picking relatives and real estate agents all wanting their part. While I listened near but too far away to be of comfort.

“I didn’t even know what probate was,” she yells into the phone.

“Me neither,” he replies.

And I’m with her again. Leafing through photo albums, scrolling through social media posts, she sits cross-legged surrounded by stale clothes and dusted furniture. Every so often, she picks up a keepsake, holds it close, bows her head and weeps. As she tells her stranger.

“I’m still finding out who I am,” she says. “After all the years, I spent caring for them.”

The stranger nods. “It sounds cliched,” he says, “but there must be some silver lining in all of this.”

I see my daughter look down. I hear her breath. And as she speaks I see a new light in her eyes.

“I can never replace them,” she says. “But I can live a life that honours them.”

“That’s why we’re here,” the stranger replies.

She puts the phone down. It has begun.

And all I can do is agree and disappear.

Meeting the Mother in Law

In the middle of Australia’s same sex marriage plebiscite,  a hair colourist has a heart-felt awakening.

“Meeting the Mother-in-Law,” the nail-polish label said. She held it up. And it suited her. Although it didn’t quite match her hair.

I looked away and resumed lipstick scrabbling. I was happy caching my favourite shades: Dark Plum, Faded Pink, Pale Honey. But I could feel her eyes on me. Waiting.

We were completely alone in the cosmetic section of David Jones : Melbourne’s largest department store. White counters and mirrors. By now we should have been surrounded by  cosmetic consultants immaculately made-up and coiffured whispering in seductive tones.

She tapped me on the shoulder. I jumped back a half step.

“Excuse me,” she said, “Would this suit me?”

I smiled. I nodded. Then I thought: I know her. I’ve seen her before somewhere but I don’t know where. Maybe on TV as an extra in a commercial.

“Do you think you could get me the matching nail polish?”

I shook my head. “I don’t work here,” I said softly.

Time stopped. We looked at each other, waiting for the other one to speak. This is the first time, I thought.

“Although it does suit you,” I said turning professional. “You’re an Autumn. Green eyes, fair-pale complexion.” She was a photograph brought to life; one I would never dare touch up. Apart from the hair.

She smiled and her eyes caught mine and it was all I could do not to disappear.

“Thank you,” she replied.  “You’re a stylist, aren’t you?”

“No. I’m a hair colourist. Or at least I’m studying to be one.”

We swapped introductions: Tennille meet Ally, Ally meet Tennille. And before she left I managed to give her my business card. And I tried to think nothing of it. Which wasn’t easy . Because every minute afterward drifted for days.

A week later, I was checking the salon appointment book. The usual regulars same time same day same shade of grey: blue, purple, pink rinses. And another name, familiar yet unfamiliar. Could it be? I felt a twitch : like static electricity.

All that day I was a child again waiting for Christmas midnight so I could open the presents. I rushed through the rinses from Toorak and South Yarra gabbling agreement as they poured out the trivial tribulations to me.

Except for one subject: the upcoming vote: Australia was deciding whether same-sex couples should marry. Nearly all of them were against it.

Except for one old biddy who whispered, “You know it isn’t right.”

I suppressed a sigh. Not another one, I thought.

“Everybody should be with the one they love.”

“Yes,” I said more strongly than I expected. Up until then, I’d ignored the media cacophony. Too many people arguing and calling each other names. Besides I had to keep up my classes: four days a week.

Then Ally appeared. I felt a small spark go through me. I took a deep breath and turned professional. Make the customer comfortable.

But it went all weird. We’re trained to get the customer talking. We even practice it in class: role plays listening to each other during the customer service module.

But I told Ally everything. About home: a one pub town in central Victoria. My move to Melbourne. The little bed-sit in Fitzroy. Coffee even how the weather is different.

She laughed at that. Her laugh was like bellbirds in spring. Instant joy to anyone who heard it. And that smile that made dimples in her cheeks. Which drew my eyes to her mouth. I didn’t know why then.

And as her eyes danced, she asked me, “What do you think I do?”

“You’re a social worker,” I blurted out. Another laugh.

“You’re psychic aren’t you?”

I shook my head and explained. It was a game I played with my clients: matching their occupation to what they wore. Usually it was easy: pensioners, well-off retirees, executives were obvious. But some were more challenging: except social workers who dressed dowdily to fit in with their clients. Although I’d never tell Ally that.

“So how did you know?”

“The pashmina,” I replied.

“Our insignia,” she laughed again.

“And what does this social worker do?” I asked.

“Why?”

She dropped her voice.

“They need to be listened to. It’s important that everyone can be heard.”

I felt a thrill of electricity pass through me. She’s opening up to me. Really listening.

“Like customer service training?” I ventured.

“It’s more than that,” she replied. “They need to feel that we’re standing where they are.”

I nodded.

“Like you, I’m still learning. I’m studying a Master of Counselling. Four days a week.”

“And out-of-hours?” I ventured.

She dropped her voice and whispered. “I’m an activist.”

And then it knocked me on the head. That’s where I’d seen her before. On TV. Campaign for Yes advertisement. Spokeswoman for Same Sex Marriage.

“And you?” she asked.

“I’ve already decided,” I said.

“Like most everyone else in this area,” she replied.

“But quietly,” I said. “Otherwise my friends and relatives won’t ever talk to me again.”

She nodded knowingly.

Which meant she must be…but she didn’t say. And despite that, that was the moment I fell for her.

I tried to stop myself. I’m a girl, I said. She’s not a boy. Thank God for that, I thought and laughed to myself.

Relating to boys was like talking to prisoners through a glass wall: fear, anger, revenge: all the symptoms of misogyny.  But all boys felt awkward, fumbling and overbearing. Unlike girls. Only thing was I had done nothing about it.

She became my regular client and secret love. Every few weeks, I’d practice what I’d learned on her. And it was fun. She was open to new ideas and easy to work with. I felt like she was my forever client.

She’d tell me about her studies. She didn’t treat me like a dumb hairdresser. More like a professor or a tutor: an equal. And any dumb questions I had, like the psychology she explained. I learned from me. And applied it to my more difficult clients.

As Ally said, “If we could all listen, really listen to each other, we’d understand and there might be peace.” Which described how I felt when I was with her.

Still I kept telling myself: this is only a friendship. You’re overfeeling things I said. Until I found myself replaying her words in my head. Seeing her face in my dreams. Hearing her laugh. That smile, those dimples and that mouth. And her hair: now red, vibrant and defiant: a perfect match for Meeting the Mother-in-Law: the lipstick and nail polish she always wore.

But any time I asked her about her private life, she answered, “I haven’t got one.”

“And you?” Ally asked back.

I shook my head. That night after class I went home and cried. She and I were going nowhere.

The following day, I thought, I’ll put off her next appointment. I’ll set her up with one of the other girls. Maybe Muriel: she’s more experienced than me. But I couldn’t even pick up the pen to change the appointment. And when I did, the phone rang.

“Yarra Hair,” I said. It was Ally.

“Tennile, I need your help,” she said. “An emergency appointment.”

I pencilled her in the book.

Friday night and the last appointment.

“Tennile,” she said as she made to leave, “I feel so dowdy. None of my outfits suit me. I look like a business casual slacktivist. I need your help. Will you go shopping with me?”

I nodded a little glumly as I locked up the salon. She had a date and needed my help, I thought.

“We need to apply what you’ve learned on me,” she said provocatively.

And I did. Dress ups with my best friend. We wafted through Melbourne’s high couture establishments: trying on and swapping outfits. And I made sure I used everything I had learned from her to eventually convince her: as an Autumn she looked fabulous in russet red or olive green. Not the washed-out whites, greys and mousy browns she tended to favour, I added.

And loaded down with shopping, she said to me, “What about a drink?”

I agreed and we lugged our shopping four flights of stairs to a silent bar somewhere in Swanston Street. Her and me squashed in a booth drinking cocktails while an acoustic guitar strummed love.

“Now we can share secrets,” she began. I caught my breath. She had set all this up, so she can administer the shock.

“You first,” I said hesitantly.

“You know I’m gay,” she began.

“I..I thought you might have been. But you don’t look…”

Ally laughed. “I’m straight-passing. Often have to turn down unwanted…”

And this was the shock? I should’ve drawn myself back. But inside I was secretly delighted. My beautiful counsellor was finally opening to me. Perhaps what she had taught me had finally found a use. And the peace that came with that was the perfect calm.

“Unlike me.”

“I’m sure there are many men who would love to get together with you.”

“Talking to guys is like yelling through glass. My lips move but they can’t hear anything. In the end I gave it away.”

“Took a vow?” she said leaning closer to me.

“Gave up awkward,” I replied.

“Like now?” she was even closer.

“No,” I said softly leaning in.

It was then the music stopped and the barman stopped by.

“We’re closing up,” he said.

“But..but this is Melbourne,” Ally replied.

“Sorry love.”

And with that we found ourselves on the street calling an Uber home.

Hers came first.

So, it was on the corner of Swanston and Collins Street, she said goodbye.

“What about the weekend?” I asked. She shook her head.

“I have to go.” And then she leant forward and kissed me goodnight. I made sure I kissed her back.

“Yes, Yes, we won, we won!” The day of the vote and we were clustered in front of the TV while the results rolled in.

New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania all voted Yes. Even Queensland!

Champagne corks popped. Popcorn scattered. And then Ally disappeared.

To the bathroom, I suppose. But I wasn’t prepared for the surprise she had for me when she returned.

For she started waving her fingers concert-pianist style, eyes shining. All I could see was a red blur.

“What’s this, Tenille?”

“Umm, new nail polish,” I said.

She nodded, smiling, hopping from one foot to another. Until she stood still.

I looked down at her fingernails. Red, defiant and vibrant: Meeting the Mother-in-Law.

I reached forward and took both her hands in mine.

“Let’s do this,” she said. And we did.

Not the Naughty List

“Get back to work,” a fat voice bellowed.


Sherry Wintersleigh yawned, stretched her arms wider and opened her eyes.


“What, what, what,” she began.


“He’s always like this,” whispered a passing elf.


“But Christmas is…,” Sherry said. The shadow standing over her shook his finger at her.


“You heard what I said,” bellowed Santa. “On your feet.”


“Finished,” whispered Sherry as she stood. Santa scowled down at her.


“Well, ho, ho, ho,” he replied. “To the mailroom. Now.”


“But, but…” said Sherry as she uncurled her arms and rubbed her eyes.


But by then Santa had gone.


“Better hurry,” said another passing elf.


So many passages, so many corridors, so many wrong turns, Sherry said to herself, as she wandered, only occasionally lost now through the North Pole.  


Until finally she found it. Mail Room. She tried the door handle. It turned and clicked but didn’t open. She looked up. There was a handwritten sign that said, Press for entry.


She pushed the door bell.


“Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells,” the door chorused.


Christmas is so over for you now, she thought.


She opened the door, pushed aside a Santa sack which and stepped inside.


“Glad you could make it,” said a friendly voice.


“Alabaster,” she said. She couldn’t see him for the room was filled, floor to ceiling with Santa sacks. She pushed another sack aside to see better. It fell to the floor with a gentle bump.


A wizened grey elf was crouched over a trestle table. His face flickered. Santa’s administrator. She heard scratching and leaned forward to see. He was writing.


The candle next to him sizzled. Sherry jumped.


“What, what, what,” Sherry began.


“Sit down, and I’ll tell you,” Alabaster said.  


Sherry crept forward, bumping into and stepping over sacks, pulled out a folding chair and sat opposite.


“All these letters,” he gestured around him.


The mail was late this Christmas, Sherry thought to herself.


“Are from children who,” he paused.


Sherry leaned forward.


“Don’t believe in Santa anymore,” he finished.


Sherry looked down at her hands. Oh no, she thought. Not the Naughty List.


Alabaster looked up and smiled.


“No, not the naughty list at all. An opportunity instead.”


He held up a letter.


“We write back to them. We tell them the truth.”


Sherry gasped. The Naughty List was now starting to look like the best job at the North Pole.


“What, what, what do we tell them?” Sherry whispered.


“That the person who gave them the present works for us. And yes sometimes they get gift-giving wrong. But only you can make it right. By giving love and joy and peace until next Christmas day.”


Sherry stood up, clapped her hands and shouted for joy.


Alabaster pushed a pile of letters, a pen and pad towards her.


Sherry began writing.

The Curious Case of the Endless Linen

We would arrive at the same time. Opening time. 7:30am.


I’d see him standing at the door, five or six laundry bags at his feet. A small wizened man, the classic caretaker from central casting.


Behind the double glass doors, I saw the proprietor waiting. A grey man worn down by time and with little time left.


With no eye contact between them,  the doors would be unlocked. Working as one, the two men would drag the bags to the back of the laundromat. Next to the washing machines.


I would glance briefly and continue walking. After all I had a train to catch.

But my curiosity once aroused could not be sated.
Perhaps a large family? Perhaps a washing machine broken down for weeks?


I set my queries aside until the following day.  I’m a minute or so early for the train. There he is again.

Parking his car, opening the boot and dragging the bags to the front of the laundromat.


And yesterday is the same as today. The doors opened, they drag the bags inside. Clearly two men united in an unspoken understanding.


And I have questions. Perhaps there were still clothes remaining? None of my business but I though it odd.


The next day it happened again. And continued all the rest of that week. And the following weeks. Every day (except Tuesday) for some reason.


My imagination by then wanted to break all restraint.

Perhaps I was witness to some ongoing illegality. Perhaps there is a logical explanation.


Each day I would slow down as I drew near. I didn’t want to arouse suspicion. Perhaps today I would find out. But each day (except Tuesday) was the same.


Maybe they were body bags. Don’t be so stupid, I admonished myself. Said laundry bags are too lumpy and flaccid for that. Besides there were far too many for an ongoing mass murder.


Perhaps its something more obvious. Maybe I’m watching a drug swap.  


My rational mind bit back. Seriously Andrew? A drug deal at 7:30every morning on a busy suburban street with regular police patrols? And never on Tuesdays?


Perhaps it must be a boarding house. Maybe a private school.

Again the lash back. They have their own laundries Andrew. And never on a Tuesday?


A week later, I’d missed my regular train. Which meant that when I walked past, the laundromat was open.


I heard the far away purr of the washing machines. That familiar smell : part crisp white clean and part wet-dog.


I walked ever more slowly. I quickly glanced inside.


There he was. Opening a washing machine, reaching inside and pulling out its contents. Flaccid sheets, lumpy towels all piled into a basket.


He turned. I averted his eye. But I saw enough.

One opened laundry bag. And another. And another. Sheets and towels spread out on the wooden floor.


All the same colour. A lurid, garish yet seductive red.


My curiosity satisfied I never noticed him again.

Breathe For Me

Breathe for me.
Watching you sip each breath, I want to breathe for you. 
I want to inhale oxygen, pass it from my lungs to yours. And from there into that heart I love so much.


You hold my hand. I hold yours. You must hear my words for you. Wait and hope. 


You were to grow to a ripeness greater than mine could ever be. You were to take my place and exceed it. After all, what else are parents for?


Though you must sense it, please don’t catch any of my doubt. Doubt enough that you could quietly slip away with maybe a nod as your leave.

Hold instead if you can my hope and love for you. Love and hope which will always exceed doubt. 


Your illness is your present companion. And ours too. You may be able to fight it. You may need more strength, strength you don’t yet have. In either case, don’t worry.

Even though I don’t know how it will end, I do know that it will end. You can draw comfort from me even if it takes all my strength. That’s a small passing sacrifice. 


If you could open your eyes, you’d probably laugh at me. Turning round and round like your Kitty trying to find a soft spot : a hard cushion on a metal chair. Don’t worry when you see me. Even in this small discomfort, I’d be happy to accept yours. 


If you looked closer, you’d see I’m trying not to look. Trying not to look at the green numbers, the zig-zags and the flashing lights. Trying not to match them to your pulse, blood pressure, heartbeat and brain waves. 


Trying not to look is all I have for you. I hope you understand if that isn’t enough. But you have all I have. 
You should wake soon. You’ll look at me and your eyes will light up. Your hand will squeeze mine. You’ll look at the tubes running into you and out of you and laugh. You’ll wave at them and say, “Just a joke Dad, slept in again, gotta get up and outrun you today.” 


You would send them away right now,wouldn’t you?


The door opens. A whitecoated crowd enter. Your eyes flick open. You’re an observer now. You long to catch my eye, I feel it. I stumble as they shove me outside. 


You mustn’t listen to what I’m thinking. Especially now. You know you don’t have to make me wait anymore. 
Still I’d rather hear from you first. Asleep, awake or unconscious, let me know. Until now you always kept in touch silently with me.


The door opens. They let me return. 


You look so serene now. Any minute now you should be opening your sleepy eyes and shaking your tousled hair, and asking me, “Am I serene Daddy?”


Your eyes shouldn’t flutter like that. 
You’re lighting the first candle aren’t you? So when I arrive I know its you. 

The Prayer Book

“Is this yours?” 

Five fingers first appeared. Next a hand.

Holding what? A notebook? A leather-bound notebook? Perhaps it’s a small purse? Or perhaps a pocketbook? 

A prayer book. I leaned across my luggage trolley for a closer look. The Way of the Pilgrim: A Devotional Journey. I read. Oh no. 

“Is that yours?” the finder repeated.

A waif. With the classic pixie face. And eyes, kind eyes that knew everything about you. 

“No, I’m not interest…” I began. 

“Thank you for finding this.  It must have fallen out when I was going through my bag. I thought I had lost it forever.”  

A voice off to my right. I looked. Another trolley. Unlike mine however it was empty.

I looked across at its pilot. Sensible shoes, street clothes, a veil. A nun. Her smile was radiance itself. It sparkled off her glasses as she looked at me. 

“I’m in a hurr…”, I began.

The nymph handed over the prayerbook. As she did so, its pages fluttered. Spidery looped old-fashioned writing on each page, I noticed. More like a diary. 

“Paging passenger Mr som-e-thing winter,” the loudspeakers above us boomed. “Please make yourself known to the check-in counter. Paging Mr sim-ee-on winter, please make yourself known to the check-in counter……Oh, it’s you.”

We laughed. “Mr Winter has found his spring, it seems,” intoned the nun.

She looked at her wrist. “I have a great-niece to catch,” she said. She rolled off towards the arrivals lounge travellator.

“Where are you flying to?” I asked the tree-fairy.

“Singapore,” A small smile. “I’m Leila. And you are?” 

“Elisabeth.” We had reached the last labyrinth: a block maze of passengers and luggage fenced in by ribbons on poles. I docked myself into the first row. My phone buzzed. I opened my handbag and pulled it out. 

“Where are you?” the text announced. Always organised, always on time, always in touch. Jemima and I were a perfect match : opposites in every way. 

I texted her back, “Check in queue.” 

“At departure lounge. You’ll be late.”

Panicker. I started to type, “P..a..n.” 

“No need,“ Leila said, “Your flight’s been delayed.”

I spun twice, saw the departure board. No change. 

“Flight 941 has been delayed.” Less embarrassed this time. 

The little dryad was right.

I stared. “Are we on the same flight? Did they get in touch with you?” 

One, two, then three shakes of the head. A nod. She knew. 

I stayed silent after that. I watched the people in front of me.

When will they be called? How long does each person take? How long will it take to get to me? And why would I own a prayer book? 

Leila looked at me. Another nod. She knew.

She spoke. “You’ll find the words he wrote to her that lead you back to him.”

“How did you…?” I began.

By then she had disappeared.

But in her prayer book I found his words. She knew.

Celine Dion’s Lyricist

Music.

My pager beeps. Must be seven o’clock again. Third time this week.

I stride through the dining room. I brush past the pianist. Her head is bowed, brows knitted, fingers melting into the keyboard. She doesn’t look up.

The first notes of “My Heart Will Go On” fill the room.

If only the Titanic had never hit that iceberg.

I open the double doors to my study. I close them and snuff Celine Dion silent.

I’m in a Queensland sauna. Boxes, shelves and filing cabinets jostle for room. The only spare space belongs to an office chair opposite a PC.

Like Mao’s ballet dancer in a phone booth, I twirl myself and the chair around and sit. I unclip my pager, fish out my Maxibon sized mobile and turn on the PC.

“Hi, I’m returning your page.”

The duty operator yawns, stretches and scratches himself. The computer room aircon roars like a tsunami. In the last moment, before the wave breaks, his voice whispers its last.

“Just a sec.”

Paper crackles through the phone. His voice:rat-a-tat: Caller name, phone number, said she had trouble with a search. My clammy fingers slip on the pen as I scribble it all down.

“Which search?”

“She didn’t say.”

Again. I hang up. I login and perform the standard checks. All working.

“I’m Andrew, returning your call.”

“Look, it’s really urgent, I need to do this search tonight, for my credit check tomorrow.”

“I understand,” I say. I click the dummy credit check search and enter his details. Still bankrupt but yet to be extradited.

“Mine worked,” I say, “I’ll wait while you retry yours.”

“It’s not working. I really need this tonight.”
In the mid-Atlantic, the Titanic soundtrack seeps under my door.

“Though my heart is broken,” I snap silently to Celine.

“I’ll try and access their database manually,” I reply.

“They’re not working at the moment,”I continue. The air clings like treacle. I flap my arms: no sweat relief.

Celine re-enters. “Love has finally spoken. My heart will go on,” I riposte.

“Can’t you call them now, get them to reset their line or something?”

“I could email them.” And wait till morning.

My shirt is wet now. I open the double doors. Music and cool enter as one.

“Is that music? Are you in a piano store?”

“My daughter is practicing for an invitation-only concert.”

“You’re calling from home?”

“The piano’s in the dining room next to my study.” She breathes out.

“Look, the credit check, isn’t due till mid tomorrow morning. I could try it early and see.”

“Thanks for your call.”

I open the double doors wider.

“Thanks,” I say, “Your hold music helped calm that customer. ”

My daughter looks up and nods. And starts from the beginning. As do I.

At the end of my performance, I ask, “Do you think I could sing that at your concert?”

The piano lid silently closes.

“Maybe work as Celine Dion’s lyricist?”

She had to laugh at that.

The Wish

“You shouldn’t encourage her,”  her 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,”  her dad said patiently.
“Reality catches up with us all,” sighed her mother.
“It’s just a pet. With so many, shellfiget soon enough,” 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. And never 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 swept 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?” Her mother snapped.
“My friend. The one you can’t see.” Juanita’s voice was springwater.
“Sometimes, things don’t…,” counselled her mother. Juanita tossed her curls. And laughed.

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

Her tousled hair flew. She nodded.”I know.” She pointed to herself. Then she pointed upwards. “And He does too.”

She danced away. The back door thudded shut. Mother and father exchanged forlorn looks.

“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 bent over a prone black body.  Her parents turned away for a second. They both felt a warmth steal in from outside. They looked at each other. And shivered.

Steel wool scratched as if against a fry pan.  A dull sproing. The rusty metallic groan as the screen door opened again. Both parents stared at each other, mouths agape.

For 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!”

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.

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.