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The Woman in White Marble

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 Stories by Gabrielle Barnby

Gabrielle Barnby works in a variety of genres including short stories, poetry and children's fiction. She lives with her husband and four children in Orkney, Scotland. Gabrielle's short stories and book reviews have been published in Northwords Now and The Stinging Fly. Various pieces of her poetry and prose are available in local anthologies including Waiting for The Tide, Come Sit at Our Table and Kirkwall Visions, Kirkwall Voices.

Gabrielle also edits monthly writing pages in Living Orkney magazine and runs local writing workshops. She has been commissioned to compose and perform poems at local anniversaries and events and last year performed in the Orkney Storytelling festival.

In 2015 her first collection of short stories The House With The Lilac Shutters was published by ThunderPoint. In the same year she won The George Mackay Brown Short Story competition.

Gabrielle's debut novel will be published by ThunderPoint Publishing in 2017.

More information about her work and occasional pieces of flash fiction can be found on her website gabriellebarnby.com. She is also on facebook and twitter @GabrielleBarnby.

 

 

Monday
Apr242017

Orkney ~ from Spring to Summer

As I walk past a curlew flies up from the heather where the cotton flowers bob. It’s purpose is to distract me from a nest on the ground nearby, or so I think until a menacing herring gull swoops low a few seconds later. The domestic season is here, no more proud territorial marking, no more feathered balls of song perched on the stock fences. Whether cuckoo or true, the parents scurry and with willing self-sacrifice worry any passer by out for a morning walk.

In the ditches, because there are not really hedges here, there grows such a variety of things – ladies mantle, cuckoo flower, dandelion, daisy and dock. The cow parsley is blowsy and shoulder high on the east side of the road, but still busy growing massive scrolled leaves in the western ditch.  Above them, last year’s papery bone-coloured stalks sway loosely in the prevailing breeze. Every few meters the deep red-green buds of campion sway like searching beaks in the breeze. Their cerise flowers open in bright flourishes set off by the shiny yellow faces of buttercups held up like torches above their crowns of leaves. There is the occasional nettle, and ferns grow here and there, opening and uncoiling their striking green moth’s antennae against a backdrop of flat couch grass. This year the grass flowers are thick and luxurious, with thick grey-green spears and burgundy tails bent over with the weight of seed.

Mixed in among the wild flowers there are jail breakers, the most glorious of which is the red opium poppy. The startling danger of the petals is instantly centre stage whenever it appears. Petals scatter and create a bloody carpet leading to the wily, blowsy, snakehead buds. Their green lips pull apart in a quite improper manner to reveal a slit of redder than red. They form huge clusters in the banks where they take hold, a gardener’s envy. Then around close by there are outposts, like discarded pieces of a lover’s clothing, carefree and abandoned among the grasses and in the thicket were things hide.

There is ‘frost fern’ whose name I do not properly know. A fine white flower almost like the spray from an orchid grows out of its scruffy low mound and for a few weeks glows like no other at dawn and dusk.

There are garden-escaped centuria too, one is pale pink, fading to mauve, spreading its leggy stems from its dark base on the crowded ground. Here and there with white or sky-purple petals is another I have in the garden. It’s leaves are separated into tiny leaflets, like a citadel it grows from a central spike that holds aloft tiny orange-throated flowers.

The dandelions will be over soon, buttercups will reign by the side of the road. The bees will browse the red clover and a dozen or more flowers that I am too ignorant to know or recognise. Vetch is one I remember now, with its tiny pink petals that intertwine here and there.

The image is of an ordered whole, yet it is an insatiable battle. It is a riot, everything climbing on backs and shoulders, rolling over and seeking up and under.

In the field, a lamb gently butts then suckles from its mother, her untidy fleece wafts in the breeze. The ewes are black-bottomed and scraggy, the wire fences covered in moulted wool like some strange mana left behind by the haar (sea fog) that comes after fine weather. Careless, the lamb’s tail flicks back and forth in pleasure as it drinks.

Dust kicks up as a tractor with a red trailer goes by. The farmers will be wishing for rain because the late planted barely that has sprouted, but not made deep roots, is looking poor and like it may fail. The seeds have spent their energy, given their effort. Like so many things, it is a question of good fortune whether the next generation will thrive.

Copyright © 2017 Gabrielle Barnby

Monday
Dec192016

Gift

One day in late summer I overheard my mother speaking on the telephone to my grandmother.

‘Just give her some money.’

A week later it was my birthday. A wrinkled five pound note flopped like a wilted leaf from my card. It had been touched by many hands, used to buy bread, milk, cigarettes or perhaps a part contribution to a pair of shoes.

Why did tears prick when I first saw the grey and blue queen? I’d known it was coming so there was no shock or surprise. This was a gift of love from a modest weekly pension sum, yet it felt like something newly dead.

In the evening, waiting for my thank you call to be answered, a small sharp pain of love rose in me that rarely broke the surface for air. The thanks I gave were sincere.

The treasure was pushed into an ink-stained beaded purse, ready and waiting. Folded in its silken bed, the slip of paper held a swell of emotion that was hard to explain; hard to endure.

If the zip’s teeth were opened the money was there, the sadness too.

I had become a person who my grandmother no longer knew with confidence and a person my mother no longer cared to or could explain. I was a wild cat that acted in strange exotic ways, leaping, scratching and spraying, like some demented creature in the zoo whose call no one understands.

‘You know me, you know me. Look at me and see. See the things I want, my world is only just below yours. I’m here. I’m here. Better still – see the things I need because I do not know what they are. I do not know and you give me this money and all I will do is make a mistake.’

The point is this, and how could I have possibly known this at the time – I trusted you to know better than me.

Not to say I hadn’t been disappointed by your gifts before: too soft, too small, too hard, too easy, too pink, too yellow… Oh, yes, I should mention that I am not at all hard to please.

But it had always been a comfort that you knew better, consulted each other and made wise choices – even if they were completely wrong.

The delight of something being chosen for me by the people who love me – that was always the gift.

Of course, I knew that the note concertinaed in its pocket-size cocoon had potential; it could be transformed.

There were things that I wanted that were disapproved of, secret things I coveted, things whose very idea possessed me, gripped me tighter and tighter until they strangled all common sense. The purse held the key, the freedom I so longed for…and at times oh, I so longed to let myself be unwise.

 

Months later, now more thumbed, more creased and more mine I forgot who gave me the money in the first place as I handed it over to the shopkeeper behind the counter in the chemist. He took the lion’s share and returned some small change, then parcelled-up in a paper bag two bars of lily of the valley soap.

Gifts for Christmas, for my mother and grandmother.

Copyright © 2916 Gabrielle Barnby

Monday
May162016

Listener

Listener

 

Further on down the road the trench digger’s engine became silent. Peter laid aside his shovel, wiped the sweat from his brow and picked out a paper bag from his toolbox. Still warm, the beef and pastry were fair reward for the morning’s work.

There was no one in sight, either east to the gully of Binscarth or west beneath Hoy’s proud purple back. The fields glowed violent green, waiting to be cut.

Peter leaned against the mottled dyke by the lengths of bright blue pipe his gaze fixed on a far spot where the seals sometimes rest ashore. Suddenly, there was a voice close to his ear with the burr of a wandering bee.

‘Find anything?’

The shock made Peter stumble away from the wall. He shook his head in answer.

Seeing the strangers bicycle and recovering his wits, Peter offered forward his piece. The man broke off a share. His fingers were soft and pink, out of place with his weatherbeaten face and faded cap and jacket.

The stranger squinted towards the brackish loch.

‘I know this place,’ he said.

Peter didn’t care to know more about this particular place. There was a strangeness to this stretch of road, as if time was different here.

Beyond the water in the depression between the hills were the standing stones and the new archaeological dig. Things had been found that in his opinion should be left in peace. But it was here, where the road came close to the single giant stone next to an old sycamore that Peter felt most uneasy. The stone was wedged like a knife thrown into the ground and had a lopsided point that mimicked the head of a man with an outstretched arm.

‘You found them,’ said the stranger. ‘You heard their whisper.’

Peter’s heart pounded.

An oystercatcher’s flat staccato broke over the field, rising in tempo to an infinity of noise, and then just as suddenly it was gone.

The stranger talked in a low voice, irresistible and melodic, his lips close to Peter’s ear, his gaze strolling the distant shore of the loch.

‘A long time ago this was their home, when for five summers in a row the grass grew high and lush. Winter rushed past in a handful of weeks before light returned and the animals bore young. It was in the second of these summers that twins were seen in every animal.

‘Life came forth from every corner: cats sprawled with kittens, great baskets of fish were hauled in, lambs and calves too big to be delivered naturally were pulled from their mothers; crows feasted on the afterbirths.

‘The abundance troubled only one man, Abner the storyteller. He distrusted nature’s bounty and a heavy depression lay upon him. No one had been surprised when his wife Callista conceived and delivered healthy twins – though her moonblood had lost its rhythm years ago. A toast of fresh ale was drunk and they were named Helka and Halvor.

‘During those five years not a single child died, neither by fever, chills or accident. There was no need for tales of trows to explain lost children, no one cared about the journeys of the dead. The continuation of life was assured.

‘As they grew the young twins begged Abner for stories, but he shook his head, amusing them instead by making croatie-buckies appear behind their ears.’

–        You must find him. Put the kai in a line, so I can pass easily from one to the other.

–        Surely, it does not matter. There are so many. 

–        Don’t you understand, it must be all!

‘Only when the twins pulled Abner out of his woven chair would he venture outside. There he would watch their elder brother bending low in the barley. Sigurd smiled to see his father outside and came in from the field with a stumbling gait.

‘Sigurd had been conceived nearly twenty years before in a summer of drought. He was born after a severe winter when many animals and men succumbed to the cold sleep of death.

‘Callista who had been so proud, Callista who had been the most beautiful of women that winter as her belly grew, had cried out in despair when she saw her baby’s bent-double foot, his shrivelled corkscrew leg.

‘In that first year of Sigurd’s life she had been caught between love and hate for the baby. Every time Abner left their hut he searched the darkness in her eyes before leaving mother and son together. Time passed and Abner never thought to have more children. Sigurd the Lame fought through illness, pain and ridicule.’

–        Women, bring the vessels. Children, the garlands.

–        We must do what he says.

–        Fine beast though.

–        Good in calf.

–        Mind on, milk and butter too.

–        Hush women! Why am I kept waiting!

‘Above all, Sigurd loved his mother. He noticed that when he was outdoors and acted like other boys she sang as she tended the fire. He grew determined not to become a storyteller.

‘Callista marvelled at his increasing strength. But as Abner watched, he saw his son was more than a farmer.’

–        The sun touches the horizon, her patience run out!

–        What can we do?

–        We will honour Helka and Halvor instead! Bring a new garland. The sun will not wait.

‘A quiet temper does not mean a lack of feeling. No one who knew Sigurd well would have spoken to him as rashly as the stranger who stayed that fifth corpulent summer.

‘Welch arrived in the lengthening days of spring. He had no desire to work, nothing to trade; he was handsome and made his living telling stories.

‘He told dark voluptuous tales that made women’s eyes glassy, their mouths dry and their wombs tight. He told stories of weapons and war that swelled men’s hearts and tantalised the young. He told of wicked rulers, lost innocence, passion and blood.

‘For his listeners the gloaming came unnoticed, night fell unheeded. In morning the bright doorway pained their eyes, their stomachs were empty, their throats parched but still they stayed.’

‘At first Callista returned to her own fire, scolding her husband, “Why do you allow a stranger to usurp your place? Why must you sit mute all day?”

‘But her mind lingered over Welch’s stories. She cleaned and cooked without diligence, half-listening to the twin’s babble. Soon, there was no supper waiting for Sigurd when he returned from the fields, no butter or cheese made from the buckets of milk brought to the hearth.

‘Father and son sat over an empty table while the twins splashed each other with milk. Sigurd shook his head and rose to his feet.

‘Droplets of haar clung to his cloak as he tramped to the Listening House. When he drew back the cloth over the door a dozen impatient eyes turned briefly from Welch toward him. Inside the air was fuggy and close, the smell of urine and sweat rose from the listener’s bodies.

‘Sigurd moved through them in his slip-shod way, easing aside the folk at Welch’s feet. “Mother, we’re hungry,”  he said. But Callista did not move.’

–        The twins will have the honour of being first.

–        Hold the basin. Catch the blood to sow the new harvest.

‘She blinked, confused by the interruption. Her cheeks were flushed, her body tense. “No one is kept there against their will, Sigurd,” said Welch. “You must come home, mother,’ Sigurd repeated. ‘His stories are not good like father’s. You must all go home.”

‘A few listeners squinted towards the door, perhaps remembering where they should be. Welch uncrossed his legs and stood, his face level with Sigurd’s, a sly smile on his lips, “No one wants to go.”

‘Sigurd half closed his eyes, as if to acquiesce then with a quick movement he grabbed Welch’s tunic, pulled up the cloth and thrust down the cord around his waist revealing the goosey flesh and bearded face of his manhood, the girlish pink of his nipples.

‘Welch cried out like a virgin, but Sigurd held off his struggles. He made sure everyone could see the specimen that had beguiled them. “Look at the man!” he called out.

‘A sharp pain in Sigurd’s arm forced him to release his grip. Welch’s mouth was red with blood. Sigurd turned away in anger and disgust.

‘He walked past his mother out into the mist. A handful of listeners formed a knot by the door and watched him go. Eventually, they returned inside.’

–        It’s Sigurd’s fault.

–        It had to be done. He didn’t listen.

‘Sigurd returned to his father. He concocted a sort of flat barley bread and they ate it together; the twins drank milk. Sigurd bound his wound, but it festered and soon became another useless limb.

‘The injury to Welch’s pride enkindled in him an excitable, wicked power and from that evening he sowed a new mania in his listener’s minds. Sigurd feared what was coming and took his animals to the wetlands. His kai lay among the wild iris like brown scars on the earth.

‘At dusk on solstice they slit and bled the kai. In place of Sigurd’s animals they sacrificed Helka and Halvor.’

–        The harvest is sown with blood.

–        The harvest is secured.

–        The harvest is saved.

‘A week later Sigurd saw the cloud embrace the moon like a long lost child; he knew catastrophe had come and passed. He ground a poppy head between his palms and drizzled the black seeds on the earth. It was time for the reckoning.

‘He found the earth black with blood and crows. Abner was alone in their hut. “Where are Helka and Halvor?” asked Sigurd. “They were the harvest,” said Abner. These were his final words.

‘Sigurd searched the circle of stiff-legged kai, gagging at the smell. He found the twins embraced under a withered garland of red campion, pale and perfect, untouched by the crows. He bound them together with his cloak and carried them to a secret place.

‘Once they were buried he returned directly to the Listening House. Inside, the people murmured and wept, holding each other in the shadows, their faces shrunken and distorted. Huddled in the centre was Welch. He chattered and raved, pouring fourth sound like an animal going out of its mind. Sigurd carried him outside.

‘The crows flew in great wheeling arcs overhead while he bound Welch’s arms and legs. He swung the gabbling man over his shoulder and began to walk. The swaying and muttering crowd following behind. Sigurd carried Welch around the loch, to the foot of the western hills. He tore off the branches of an old sycamore tree and bound Welch to its trunk, one arm free, his head and shoulders proud.

‘Sigurd turned to the crowd, “Come. Leave this bitter harvest.” Seeing his mother he put out his hand, and she followed him.

‘They left Welch to die; the crows pecked out his eyes and tongue as if he were a caddy lamb. The hard times began, years of starvation, sickness and grief.

‘Sigurd took his father’s place and his stories were hope and life. Eventually, only the land remembered the harvest of blood. Rare sensitive souls hear an echo, the whisper of the twins final comfort to each other.’

‘I could tell they were old…’ said Peter, in an uneven voice. ‘ I didn’t have the heart…I covered them over.’

Peter moved his hand back to his shovel, but the storyteller caught his arm and spoke urgently, ‘Do not worry that you feel like an ordinary man, Peter. Live without apology, live with your hands open. Because the love is in the risk.’

The storyteller slowly released him, then looked up and down the road.

 ‘Time has been stopped long enough.’

He limped back to his bicycle, and with his one strong arm lifted it clear from the weeds. Peter watched him go until he was no more than a speck wavering in the mid-summer haze.

Copyright © 2016 Gabrielle Barnby

Friday
Nov132015

Jeopardy

The couples met outside the railway station under the high sun. Liza thought their shadows looked like the stick figures children draw, tilting and tottering in pairs on pin legs.

            Liza’s husband had driven her to the station. The ride saved her legs and kept her white shoes free from the already irritating red dust. The hot season seemed to get longer each year and the days when the grass grew fast and lush were over in a blink of an eye.

            In the car, Liza arranged her skirt just so. It pleased her that the flash of her ankle and calf still didn’t look like they belonged to someone who might reasonably expect to be a grandmother.

            She’d thanked Bunny when he pulled over and said, ‘I’ll see you on Thursday after lunch.’

            He nodded then tapped the steering wheel thoughtfully with his index finger.

            ‘I’ll walk round with you. Carry your bag.’

            She was about to say that there was no need, but he’d already unclicked his belt and was turning his shoulder away.

            Liza adjusted her necklace so the clasp sat properly at the back of her neck then checked her appearance in the mirror before getting out. The shadows under her eyes after a poor night’s sleep were less obvious now she had her make-up on, yet the redness in the corners could not be disguised. The excursion to Sydney with her long time friend Delia, which she had been looking forward to, was today something she could have gladly given up.

            Delia arrived arm in arm with her husband Jim. His work boots were dusty, as they always were. Liza noticed Delia was wearing her practical beige flats rather than the red pumps she commonly wore with her blue and white suit.

            ‘Ready?’ said Delia.

            Liza nodded.

            The men shook hands.

‘G’day, Bunny,’ said Jim. ‘How’s it going?’

‘Good. Good.’

Bunny began to slide Liza’s bag from his shoulder.

‘Don’t put it down,’ she said, ‘It’ll get covered in dust.’

‘It’s already getting everywhere,’ said Delia.

Liza noticed her friend look down at her shoes.

            ‘Gonna’ bring me back some of those cherries,’ said Jim.        

Delia didn’t answer. Instead she touched her cheek to his and lightly kissed the air.

‘Have a good time, ladies. Don’t spend too much,’ said Bunny, passing Liza her bag.

            He smiled at Delia.

            Liza and Delia moved under the station roof into the thick shade. The men remained in the sun. Standing with the hotel behind them and their shoulders almost touching they formed a pose that could have been for a photograph. The hotel had a tin roof like every other building in town and the rendering carried scars from baking summers and poorly applied layers of paint. Its temporary status as the largest building in town a hundred years ago had earned it the name ‘The Grand Hotel,’ but even the current owner referred to the place as a ‘shithole.’ A coarse expression, yet Liza could not disagree with its accuracy. It was a place she entered rarely and never unaccompanied by Bunny.

Glancing back, Liza had the sudden impression that the men were also made of wood and corrugated iron, like two neighbouring houses. The light reflected from the flat surfaces of their foreheads and shoulders. Bunny was stocky with hardly a neck. The slope from his chest to his stomach resembled the steep hills beyond the plateau. Jim was taller, with space to spare inside his clothes.          

Silhouetted against the bright archway to the platform she knew Bunny couldn’t see her properly. Liza kept her gaze fixed on Jim, but today there was a sort of limpness to him that Liza suddenly found embarrassing despite her long held private feelings for him.

It was the tiredness she told herself. With her digestion she should have known better than to eat so much meat the evening before.

            ‘I printed the tickets,’ said Delia.

            The close buzz of her friends voice made Liza’s fingers twitch. She disciplined herself to remain composed.

            ‘You’re so organized,’ she said, turning away from the men.

            ‘No point not being organized, Liza. Seems an age since we last did this.’

            They made their way to the train. It had come from Melbourne and arrived early. Delia walked ahead of Liza counting the carriages until she found the first class coaches.

            ‘It’s worth a few more dollars...’

            ‘... except that one time …’

            ‘…you mean those children…’

            ‘…all that squealing…’

            ‘…and there was that terrible row …’

            ‘….said he was a tourist…’

            ‘… short of dollars for a ticket…’

            ‘…just like an aboriginal, you couldn’t blame the guard…’

            Delia swept her skirt up casually with one hand as she stepped up onto the train –  it was a kind of affectation to Liza’s way of thinking to do something like that when it wasn’t necessary when the skirt was not properly long.

            Glancing down at the sleepers punctured the brusqueness of Liza’s movements. The gap between the platform and the train was insignificant yet it was cut with shadows in such a way that they seemed to contradict the position of the sun relative to the body of the train. She was disoriented for a moment and once inside moved down the aisle touching the seat tops as if to keep her balance in the motionless train.

            ‘I’ve found where we are,’ said Delia. ‘Shall I put your bag up next to mine?’

            ‘Yes, yes. I’ve everything in my handbag,’ said Liza.

            ‘Shall we get morning tea?’

‘I’m still recovering from last night.’

            ‘From the barbie? I didn’t see you eat very much. Never mind, we’ll share. I’ll get an extra cuppa.’

            Delia placed her bag – a quadrilateral with stiff handles – on the aisle seat and headed in the direction of the buffet car. Liza took the window seat, a copy of ‘Woman’s Weekly’ resting on her lap, observing the platform.

            Jim always cooked the meat. Liza admired the way everything was eventually a uniform dark brown. There was something nonchalant about the way he nudged the sausages, turned the steak, some fathomless judgement that had seemed so … skilful. No, it was more natural than that; it was intuitive.

Delia had supplied drinks and brought out homemade salads, she ferried cooked meat away and brought marinated meat to Jim at the grill outside. Jim was at the centre of it all.

It didn’t matter that Jim was her best friend’s husband. It didn’t matter that they had aged. She loved his soul; he was her perfect match.

            The situation had advantages – they saw each other regularly. There was no need to make arrangements to meet. Although, of course it was inconvenient that Delia and Bunny were somewhere nearby, frequently in the same room.

            Liza sighed, and turned to look out of the window.

            On the platform a pasty-faced man with acne usually reserved for teenagers was pacing up and down, stretching his legs during the half-hour stop. The man strayed into the sunlight by the footbridge and squinted past the station oil tank into the town. Dissatisfied with what he saw he looked down the track then catching Liza off-guard. He stared directly into the window of the train. He blinked, pressed a finger against a particularly inflamed area of chin then turned and walked away. He paused further along the platform to look back up at the footbridge then re-boarded the train.

            It would be so easy to unbalance someone descending the footbridge, she thought, simply by catching hold of their bag and giving a sharp tug. It wouldn’t be unexpected for women of their age to have a fall.

            Liza’s heart fluttered.

            It was a ‘mean thought’. That was how Liza described these impulses to herself.

            She had a collection of mean thoughts: upending hot cups of coffee onto Delia’s lap, switching the pills in Delia’s medicine cabinet, or a giving a gentle push at a pedestrian crossing – this would be much easier to do in Sydney surrounded by all those people. The thought excited her.

            Liza had fewer mean thoughts about Bunny, even though he was as much part of the problem as Delia. She had such store of apathy towards him that it undid her ability to make progress in her thoughts whenever he was concerned.

Never, never had she liked the sound of her married name. She hadn’t blushed with pleasure or expectation at the best man’s toast, ‘Ladies and Gents, I give you the bride and groom, Mr and Mrs Hoppit.’

No, it was another impulse that brought blood to her cheeks.

Thirty years later and everyone still called him Bunny. And he still fixed electrical appliances. And he still liked to wear a baseball cap on Saturdays and drink three cans of beer watching the footy. He was not her soul mate. How could a man like that understand what she needed to grow, how she needed to be nurtured?

The kerlunk-kerlunk of the slamming doors then the shrill sound of a whistle on the platform shook Liza from her reverie.

‘Here we are. Not a minute too soon,’ said Delia, sitting down. ‘The scones are scorching. There’s a decent pat of butter and you’ll take the cream. Cholesterol – Jim’s problem, not mine, I know, but you get in the habit of not having things. Poor Molly Flinders had that big heart attack, now she can’t get out of a chair without getting breathless. I went to see her to drop some old magazines round.’

‘Garden was always neat as a pin,’ said Liza, easing out a polystyrene cup from the tray.

‘She can’t keep on top of it anymore…’

‘… and the glasshouse…’

‘… she put me on to cherry tomatoes…’

 ‘…very disease resistant …’

The train lurched forward. The carriage moved as if an animal rather than a mechanical locomotive pulled them along.

They talked, ate their scones, looked out of the window, looked at their magazines.

‘… and the narcissi this year…’

‘… a real treat…’

‘… some to Sissy Morgan after her hysterectomy…’

‘… should have had it done years ago…’

‘… not easy coming off the feel-good pills …’

The hills already had a sort of bleached-green look as they flowed by, only occasionally were there lush patches along a gully or around a billabong. The shiny black hides of the cattle would be hot to the touch, the animals stressed by the heat. Liza wondered, as she had summer after summer, whether they knew this was only the beginning. She resolutely kept her cardigan on as far into the summer as possible, trying to convince herself that it wasn’t really hot.

The increasing temperature triggered a memory that made her shiver against the back of her seat. She felt Jim’s hands on her shoulders as he patted her cardigan back into place. It was a small familiar gesture she’d seen him use with Delia. Her nipples pressed painfully into her bra.

She’d turned to face him, slightly breathless.

‘There you go.’

‘Thank you – Jim.’

They held each other’s gaze. It had been such a tender confirmation in Liza’s mind of everything that existed between them. But today, even the ‘kiss’ might seem different if she allowed herself to think about it.

The conversation began again with Delia.

‘…. only solution was to get one of their own…’

‘…it made of a mess of their leather suite…’     

‘… never overly fond of animals…’

‘… “more discipline,” I said…’

            At twelve o’clock Delia took their lunch pre-order tickets to the buffet. She returned with chicken pies, served with green vegetables and a plastic cup of fruit salad garnished with a rosette of sweetened cream.

            Liza inserted her plastic knife beneath the piecrust and prised open the lid. Steam escaped from the pale pastry. A mean thought came to her. She hid it away and scooped a little of the filling onto her fork to cool.

            ‘.. . not a proper dessert. Margery will have dinner waiting …’

            ‘… I’d be happy with a snack…’

            ‘… always hungry after sitting all day. It’s a mystery…’

            ‘… lucky to have a sister in Sydney …’

            ‘…now I worry about leaving Jim …’

            Liza’s forkful of greens halted in the air. A bump from an uneven stretch of track almost set them into the underside of her nose.

            ‘Jim? What do you mean?’

            ‘Oh, you know …’

            Delia bent over her meal, concentrating on cutting the coarser stalks of broccoli. She didn’t say anything further, just sat there chewing, rather like a camel, Liza thought.

            Liza’s heartbeat quickened at the sound of Jim’s name. Since they first met it had been the same. It was exciting being together in the same room, whatever company they were in, even when the children had been quite young.

            ‘… a bit gluey,’ said Delia, ‘but it’s better than a sandwich. Not eating yours?’

            ‘… a bit hot, I’ll just wait …’

            Delia folded her arms across her chest. She turned and looked across the aisle. She hummed quietly as if she was thinking, tapping one foot in time. Liza regarded her for a moment. There was something different about Delia today.

            The creamy contents of the pie were sticky and salty. Against her will Liza’s thoughts strayed to her kiss with Jim. She remembered its intensity, its gentleness, the weakness that had run though her body and then Jim apologizing, flustered and gentlemanly.

            ‘I’m so sorry,’ he had said. ‘I thought you were…’

            She had placed a finger on his lips.

            ‘No need to apologize.’

            He’d blushed. It had never happened again.

            Back in the present the glutinous mass at the back of her throat suddenly seemed impossible to swallow. She took a gulp of water and forced the mouthful down. Delia looked away politely as Liza repositioned the dislodged bridge supporting her front teeth. Afterwards, Liza did not return to her meal. 

            The eucalyptus-fringed farms went by and the afternoon wore on. Outcrops of tilted rocks lined with layers of grey volcanic dust jutted out of the hills. They seemed so at odds with the landscape as to appear recently emerged, tearing through the thin red soil and having only just coming to a standstill shortly before the train rushed by.

            The memory of the incident during the barbeque nagged Liza. Jim had been taking a portion of egg salad from a dish on the counter in the kitchen to accompany the pieces of brown meat on his plate. The spoon had tipped. The egg slipped and toppled onto the rim of his plate, spattering mayonnaise onto Jim’s shirt and egg and lettuce onto the floor.

            He’d held the plate aloft and grabbed a napkin. In doing so he lost a sausage over the other side of his plate. It landed on the cheese board leaving a charcoal stripe on the French brie before also rolling onto the floor. He’d perched his plate on the edge of the sink to rescue the sausage and it had slid into the washing-up basin.

            He shook his head and dabbed at the mayonnaise, sausage held aloft in his opposite hand. Liza had noticed that his sunspots were worse than her own. He’d wiped his moustache with the side of his hand then given a sheepish sort of grin.

            ‘I’m bloody useless without Delia.’

He’d looked out onto the verandah where Delia was laughing with Bunny and shook his head.

            Liza had taken her slice of beetroot and hurried away, out of sight of the sausage, the grease stain, the sinking plate in the basin.

            How could a soul mate be like this?

            It was no surprise that her digestion was upset.

A sickly feeling came over her. She pictured Delia tumbling over the upper concourse rail in the Queen Victoria Building, falling down, down onto the historic black and white floor tiles. Then in another scene she imagined Delia toppling backwards into the water at Circular Quay and floating away with the quiet white jellyfish.

            Liza’s eyes began to close. The taste of chicken pie repeated inside her mouth. She leaned back against the seat. In a few minutes she was asleep.

When she woke dusk was falling. Delia had taken away their lunch trays and had brought fresh tea from the buffet car. They fell into conversation.

            ‘… they’ve a new television, takes over the whole room…’

            ‘… unsurprising it blew a fuse …’

            ‘… he’s going to fix it …’

            Outside the window the landscape seemed diminished in scale. They passed the scorched trunks of gum trees topped with grey-blue foliage sprouting from the scarred but living trees. Lights winked through the mauve light. The sky, in fact the whole land, was briefly bathed in rich shades of ochre. Then suddenly, as they reached the outskirts of the suburbs; all the colour drained to a queer monochrome.

            ‘… waiting for us. Even though it’s not far…’

            ‘… get a taxi…’

            ‘… I suppose you can, never tried …’

            They rose together from their seats as the train slowed. Liza saw their clothes were creased. She was tired from the long journey. There was no need to crowd each other, only a few passengers were not staying on until Sydney Central. Regardless, Liza followed her friend closely and bumped on the back of Delia’s knees with her bag as they swayed down the aisle.

            Delia insisted Liza alight first. She crossed the gap to the platform and thought about how an accident might happen. She sighed.

            Margery was waiting. She waved energetically then hurried towards them.

            Despite what had happened at the barbeque Liza suddenly felt she must act. She’d had enough of waiting. There was the train and there was Delia. But Margery was too close, even on the dimly lit platform she would see. The train was already beginning to crawl away from the station. Last night hung in her mind; Jim, how could you be so clumsy? Caught in a moment of indecision Liza hesitated. She wasn’t certain at all.

Suddenly, Delia cut across her path in the darkness, nudging against her overnight bag and causing her to stumble towards the track.

            ‘Hello, Delia! Careful there, Liza. Don’t want an accident. Here you are. Let me take that bag. I’ve had some shocking news – quite literally. Liza, at least let me take something. You’ll never guess, but it was about Bunny.’

            ‘Bunny?’ said Liza.

            ‘Yes, I had a phone call. There’s been a terrible accident. He couldn’t let go, poor fella. Kept gripped on because of the current. Tried to slide his hand along…’

            Liza released the handle of her bag. She noticed that Delia had gone very pale. What was Bunny playing at now? What was Margery saying?

            The final carriages sped away from the station. Yes, she had been right; Margery had been too close and perhaps Bunny had finally done something right.

            ‘…he couldn’t let go.’ Margery repeated, staring at Liza. ‘They didn’t know where to switch the mains off. In the end got a wooden chair and levered him off the television.’

            ‘What?’ said Liza.

            ‘Thought I was going to be the bearer of bad news. Sure, he’ll be good as gold by the time you get home. A bit scorched here and there. Bunny’s a survivor!’

            ‘What a relief,’ said Delia.

            Liza nodded and did her best to smile. A weak numbness washed through her body. Margery began walking towards the steps down from the platform.

            ‘Car’s parked around the side. Tough journey? You both look shattered. By the way how’s Jim, Delia?’

            ‘Still can’t give him away.’

            ‘Really,’ said Liza, ‘you shouldn’t say that...’

            ‘Why? Not everyone’s got a Bunny. And I never heard you say a good thing about him in your whole life.’

Delia stopped under the greenish exit light. Liza saw that her friend’s face was flushed, her nostrils flared. She stood, blocking the way forward. Liza remembered her stumble on the platform then all at once she saw everything in a new light.

            She thought about Jim floundering at the barbeque while Delia and Bunny sat laughing outside; Bunny tapping his fingers on the steering wheel and walking her to the station. Bunny always there, always coming along: Bunny, Delia, Jim and her. The four of them together and Bunny and Delia left on their own while she was with Jim. But what had Delia ever found to talk about with Bunny?

 ‘No,’ said Liza. ‘I didn’t think I ever needed to.’       

Copyright © 2015 Gabrielle Barnby