Hello All- I’m posting this Australian fiction short story in its entirety, so feel free to skip this post if that’s not yer thing obviously.
Make a cuppa and spend five minutes with Lucy and Eris, as several readers commented that they’d prefer a longer read, to sink into it, so I decided to post the full story.
This piece won tiny accolades in several small writing competitions here, although it’s a few years old now.
I hope you enjoy it, and thanks so much for reading.
In gratitude for words, G xO
“Roadside”- (c) bone&silver 2018
Lucy’s silver waterfall hair tilts when she moves. The tiny peace badge on her jumper glints. She leans like a rusty hinge to stroke the cat, book forgotten. Elegant fingers smooth the purring animal. She always wears gloves when gardening, and marinates in moisturiser every night. Like Cleopatra, she wishes she could bathe in milk. She knows she looks good for her age, but still bristles against seeming ‘invisible’ to anyone under thirty. She can remember wearing miniskirts, and going braless to parties, brave and ready for the freedoms the new birth control pill could bring. To be seen as an ‘old woman’, slow to cross the road sometimes, makes her blood yell with rebellion. But despite strong legs from cycling now that she’ll never drive a car again, her spine aches.
She joked once that the ache mirrored her soul.
In the kitchen, husband Eris has a cake in the oven. Spicy ginger and orange, her favourite. She loves a piece after yoga, or while listening to political debate on the radio, arguing opinions between mouthfuls. She nearly choked on a walnut in the carrot cake one day, but insisted it was the Prime Minister’s stupid policy remark that really caused her problem.
Eris is battling the weekend cryptic crossword. It’s guaranteed to keep any chance of Alzheimer’s at bay he claims. Certainly worked for his Mum, still beating him at gin rummy, aged eighty-nine. But he’s stuck on twenty-five across. And Lucy’s sulking through the baking scent, bricking out his tendrils of conversation.
The cake timer ticks.
He lowers his pen. ‘I’m sorry to upset you Lu. I know we’re both in this together. And that it’s rotten. But I’ve got my needs too y’know.’
‘God you’re a stubborn woman. Can’t we talk about it, please?’
The smell of the cooking cake meanders. Lucy’s cat purrs, slinking across the floor, while another two sleep on a windowsill in the late sunshine. The timer ticks on.
‘I know you’ve got the tree. And it comforts you.’ He moves into the living room. ‘But I’ve got nothing. I just want somewhere to go. Can you leave the damn cat alone and look at me?’
A tree stands tall along a straight road, sentinel on the only corner for five kilometres. A ring of wildflowers in pink and white hugs its base.
He slides the animal gently away with his foot as it twines around his legs. He doesn’t really like cats, although they live with four.
‘Don’t touch him! And don’t touch me! I hate you!’ Blowing the lid off her temper, Lucy pushes past Eris. She shoves open the kitchen screen door, and slams out into the garden. Her exit seems trailed by black vapour that sucks energy out of her husband.
‘I can’t fucking believe you’re hassling me about this. Isn’t it hard enough already?’ she yells from the lawn.
He can hear the tears catching round her words, and hurries with arthritic knees toward the door.
‘Stay away from me, Eris, I mean it. Leave me alone.’ Her command whips between strands of hair as she runs out the garden gate. ‘I’m a nightmare.’
In the kitchen, the timer’s bell rings.
‘You’re being a nightmare today, that’s for sure,’ he mutters, following her outside. ‘Don’t be silly Lucy,‘ he calls. ‘Come back inside. It’s getting cold, and you’re barefoot. Let’s not scream at each other in front of the neighb…’
‘Stop telling me what to do. Sod the neighbours. Leave me alone!’
At the base of the tree, the wildflowers thrive, leaning into the wood, casting fine lace shadows. At odds with the thin dry soil and scrubby weeds everywhere else.
She didn’t notice the bus driving down the hill. All she could think about was running away from her husband. Tyres screeched, muffled cries from passengers, the stench of a skid across tarmac. Then a sickening quiet, as if everything in the area was holding its breath. But still it came: the soft punch of metal meeting flesh.
She twisted and fell.
‘Oh my God. Lucy!’ He runs toward her, feeling like his legs are moving through mud. Damn knees.
In the kitchen, the smell of burning begins.
As eucalyptus leaves drop from the branches, they flicker past the homemade roadside marker. Neat, white, firmly nailed into the trunk.
Thirty minutes later, the bus and its ruffled cargo have travelled on, feathers smoothed. Lucy and Eris sit on their rough garden bench under a weeping tree. Tears are being dried. Hers and his.
‘I do understand you need a proper headstone to mourn at, Eris.’ She touches his knee. ‘I’m sorry. I just resist making it so official. And you know I hate cemeteries.’
Her weak smile gifts the words to her husband. He strokes the silver hair, remembering how much he has loved it since the days it was gold. He cleans with his handkerchief the blood that sits in small cuts on her forehead and elbow. Bruises are already darkening the skin around her eye, cheekbone, and exposed shoulder through the torn jumper.
She was lucky. Argument and burnt cake are forgiven.
‘You’re hard work all right, there’s no doubt about that,’ he jokes. ‘You’d better turn out to be worth it.’
She gazes at him, seeing him afresh for a moment. Almost forty years together, but still he can surprise her.
‘I can’t believe we have to find a way to live through this.’ She pulls at leaves that want to tickle her shoulder. ‘And I am a nightmare.’ A twig is snapped. ’You don’t deserve this.’
A cluster of leaves is wrenched and dropped, with fresh tears.
Around their homemade seat, the plants in her garden push back attempts to contain them. A palette of colours ramble. Daisies nudge native grasses, roses dance with succulents. An indecent blend that always draws a crowd to the garden Open Days.
Again he strokes the silver waterfall. ‘What’s happened happened. No reason. No purpose.’ A deep breath. ‘None of us deserved it. All we can do is keep breathing, keep eating, keep learning and loving. That’s all I’ve got Lu. I just keep hoping it’s enough for you.’
The hot tide rises again in his eyes.
Eris had used his best two pieces of wood and neatest copperplate writing. Did it straight away, first thing on the Monday morning.
She looks into her lap at the wrinkled hand holding her own. A recent memory slips in, of Eris dancing to his favourite Curtis Mayfield Motown song. He was in the kitchen, and hadn’t heard her arrive. His eyes were closed, body spiralling, lip-syncing the lyrics like a geriatric drag queen having a make-up free day. He was a boy in that moment. The boy who took ballet lessons from age eleven, until he discovered the complete freedom of improvised movement. Even now, at sixty-five, he was a regular at the weekly freeform dance classes held in the heart of the city. He went every Wednesday evening, at peace in his long blue nylon leotard, always returning content. Despite the knees. She had never gone, although she would love to. But she didn’t want to steal anything more from Eris.
Lucy’s response was slower, less practical. She watered the wildflowers every week, while her aching fingers stroked the tree’s marker: ‘Callahan family. Lost here. Gone home to God. Sunday Feb 7 2005’.
Friends have called her resilient, dealing with loss as she has. Two generations of family erased in one accident. Daughter, son-in-law, and only grandchild, a precious girl. But this afternoon, she’d recoiled from Eris’ headstone request as though it stung, and not even beloved cats or favourite cake could soothe the arrival of the rains inside her.
Sitting close on the bench, she squeezes his hand. Feels the hairs on the back of his fingers, and suddenly thrills at the passions they have shared. She remembers clasping him, pulling his hair. Remembers trying dirty words, then giggling together, under the pant of loving breath. She smiles. She can’t help it.
‘Thatta girl Lu. We’ll be okay.’
‘God, I must be crazy. After all that’s happened today, believe it or not, I’m feeling a bit cuddly,’ she says.
A laugh snorts out of him. He shakes his head, and pats her hand. ‘I don’t honestly think I could rise to the occasion, honey.’ Pause. ‘I’m still very upset about that lovely cake, and not finishing twenty-five across.’
They chuckle as the last sun warms their faces. A paint shop of tints jostle for sunset, eager to start. She helps him stand, while he brushes her hair away over the bare shoulder. Walking back along the garden path rubs them between lavender and lemon myrtle, scenting the air, but she’s hobbling a little, as is he. A lone bee rushes home before curfew, like a teenager.
‘You can’t get a limp too Lucy. That’s my signature movement.’
‘Again with the telling me what to do. Now is that wise? Haven’t we been through this already today?’
A perfect duet of smiles.
‘I’m surprised you didn’t dent that bus y’know. You hit it pretty hard.’
‘But I went with it y’see. Our motion became “as one”. You’ve taught me a lot Eris, with your dancing and prancing around all these years.’
Another duet as they reach the backdoor. He naturally pauses to let her go first, but she stops. ‘No, you go ahead darlin’. I want to get a look at your cute bum.’ She pats him on the rear, and he laughs out loud, creasing eye corners and cheeks.
The screen door closes behind them, and soon the sound of a kettle whistling floats into the garden. The tinkle of cups, saucers and plates becomes a chandelier draped from a nearby tree. Crystals of conversation decorate the shrubs. Wood smoke begins to flavour the air around the house, and ss dusk fades the scene to shades of grey, it feels like a contented breath is drawn.
Through the window, Lucy’s outline examines the dreaded crossword. She presses an icepack to various bruises. A plump cat crashes through the cat flap, too early for dinner, but meowing at her just in case the rules have been amended in its absence. Eris moves back and forth, readying tea. He clicks on the radio, and its sound is added to the chandelier outside. His face softens as he begins to hum and then sing along to a tune, body unable to resist a jig or two. His wife slides glances at both his face and wiggling rear end.
‘I love you Eris. I don’t think I tell you enough. I know you know, of course, but I think I need to tell you more.’
He stops pouring the tea, and puts the knitted pink cosy back over the pot. Both hands cradle it for a moment, feeling the warmth passing through the wool.
‘I know you love me Lu. You don’t have to say it.’ He winks. ‘Now make yourself useful, and finish that bloody crossword.’
Friends have called him courageous, dealing with loss as he has. Two generations of family erased in one accident. Daughter, son-in-law, and only grandchild, a precious girl. Used his best two pieces of wood and neatest copperplate writing. Neat, white, firmly nailed into the trunk. First thing on the Monday morning.
They have called him generous of spirit as well.
He never once held it against his wife that she was driving the car.