Welcome to the October Furious Fiction story showcase – our monthly spotlight on our community’s creativity and the opportunity to have YOUR OWN story featured or acknowledged. Here were this month’s criteria:
- Each story had to feature someone looking through either a TELESCOPE or BINOCULARS.
- Each story had to include a five-digit number. (E.g. 90210 or 10,000 etc)
- Each story had to include the words BLIND, WIND, FIND and MIND.
(Longer words were okay if original spelling was retained.)
As expected, out came the bird watchers and peeping toms. Out came the astronomers and spies. The nosey neighbours and the timber-shivering pirates! There were blind people trying to see; five-digit zip codes and pass codes. Interstellar planetary missions and neighbourhood watches. Quite the mix!
EYE SPY WITH MY LITTLE EYE
This month, we wanted stories to include LOOKING at something through either a telescope or binoculars. Of course, sight is one of the most common of the five senses to bring to life in a story – as a reader, we typically ‘see’ what a character sees. However, by introducing this extra prop, it enabled a story to be told of the WHAT (what was being observed) and the WHY (the motivations for doing so).
- Looking through a telescope or binoculars literally helps focus a story on a subject or object being viewed.
- By providing this relatively unusual prop, it required a reason for it to be in use and a character that is immediately more interesting for this basic motivation.
- Successful stories subverted expectations by combining a location with an unusual thing being viewed, or vice versa.
- Ultimately, it’s about creating some kind of conflict, surprise or humour through this act of viewing from afar. All in the name of engaging your reader!
Please enjoy the selection of stories below, as well as a longlist of highly commended pieces from the many hundreds received. Congrats to all those featured this month and we hope to see YOU lining up for the next Furious Fiction challenge on Friday 3 November!
UNTITLED by Cosette de Lorenzo, QLD
‘Course it has to be a Saturday morning when the world implodes. ‘Course I’m a bit peeved about it, cause that’s when the good cartoons are on the telly y’know. Ma tells me shuttup, tells me God doesn’t care about the good cartoons. Well, I think, God doesn’t care about you either if he’s sending a rock from the sky to turn us all to mush. I don’t dare say that to ma, she’s going kinda outta her mind about it all, got the rosaries laid out on the kitchen countertop and everything.
Steve’s in the front yard, keeps looking at the sky through a telescope he found in some junkyard. Steve’s not my real dad, I think you should know. He’s a bit of a sod sometimes but mostly he’s alright. When he brought that lump of junk home I even slapped him on the back like a real man, told him great find, Steve! It wasn’t really, but you gotta feel a little sorry for the guy. Even now he’s bent over, squinting into it like a blind man with a hunchback, trynna figure out how long till we’re all pulverised. He lets me have a look and I can’t see a whole lot, but I say wow Steve, that’s stupendous! I learnt that word in school this week and I know Steve is impressed even though he doesn’t say it.
Anyways, the news is hogging the cartoon timeslot. The news man is a bit round and kinda splotchy, what ma would call a little unfortunate looking. Sorry to say but it’s true. They normally put the good looking ones on the weekdays. The news man says the rock is coming soon and then the Earth will be shattering into 10000 pieces more or less, and Helen, I never told you but I love you. Christ almighty, he’s heaving now, sobbing like a big old baby. I haven’t cried since I was six and even then that doesn’t really count ‘cause I fell off the trampoline and broke my arm and the nurse said even a grown adult would cry about that.
I ask ma if I still need to do my chores and she smacks me upside the head. Asks if I’m trynna wind her up on purpose or if I’m just dim. Don’t know what her problem is.
So I go back out and stomp up the pavement, squish as many teeny tiny ants as I can. I don’t even feel bad about it because they’re all going up to heaven anyway. Wonder if they know it yet? Maybe they have little ant telescopes too. Probably even work better than Steve’s.
The sky’s glowing amber now which is pretty neat. Ma comes out to the front yard, pulls me in tight, makes a big old fuss and tells me how much she loves me. Even Steve’s huddled in with us; left the telescope alone for now. Hope they have cartoons in heaven. That’d be stupendous.
It seemed only fitting to begin this month’s showcase with the END. And it looks like the end is going to arrive on a Saturday morning, much to the chagrin of our young protagonist. We loved the unique voice and the occasional acknowledgement they are narrating to us the reader. It’s all so delightfully matter of fact – the question of whether ants have telescopes being very meta as these human ants await their fate. A stupendous story that while perhaps not described as depicting a ‘happy’ ending, it’s certainly one that defines ‘acceptance’!
BY ALL APPEARANCES by Cheryl Lockwood, QLD
“Arr, me name be Pete.”
“Well, Pete, thanks for coming in. My name is Roger and I’ll be conducting the job interview today. Great hat by the way, nice feather.”
Roger extended his hand in greeting.
“Arr, I be pleased to meet ya, Roger. Watch the hook, it be a little sharp at the point.”
Roger carefully took Pete’s hook between his fingers and gave it a slight shake.
“Do you mind if I ask what happened?”
“Oh this?” Pete gestured to his eye patch. “I be blind in one eye.”
“Um, I meant the hook actually, but now that you mention it…”
“I didn’t realise it could be that serious.”
“Arr, it aint matey, but I forgot about the hook and the damn eye be itchin’ something fierce. Woke up with an eyeball stuck to me hook, I did.”
Roger sucked in his breath and made a that-sounds-nasty kind of face.
“Um, and the hook?”
“Forgot to strap on me wooden leg and took me a tumble. Fell right on me sword, I did.”
“Wooden leg? Forgive me, I didn’t notice. Do you find it difficult to get about?”
“Only when I walk, but it aint so bad.”
“I like your attitude, Pete. Tell me, what’s behind that tattoo of yours?”
“Just me arm, Roger.”
“Oh, I meant… never mind. By all appearances, you seem like you’d be right for the job. I assume you know how to handle one of these.” Roger placed a wooden box on the desk and opened the lid. He carefully removed a shiny, cylindrical object.
“Arr, that be a fancy piece.”
“It’s the 22453…the latest on the market.”
Pete held the telescope to his eye, winding the end to adjust the focus.
“Can’t see a thing,” he grumbled.
“Perhaps, try your good eye.”
Pete let out a gruff laugh.
“Arr, I be forgettin’ again. Now, don’t you be frettin’ matey, I can still put in a decent day’s work.”
“Well, we are equal opportunity employers and happy to hire workers with a disability. How do you feel about parrots?”
“Arr, can’t stand ‘em. I be allergic ya see.”
“Oh dear, this is awkward. It is generally expected that anyone hired as a pirate will carry a parrot on their shoulder.”
“Arr, a pirate? What do ya mean…a pirate?”
“You’re here for the pirate’s job, aren’t you?”
“Nay, matey, I be here for the secretarial position.”
“Really? I guess you can’t judge a book by its cover. The secretary interviews are next door. Could you ask the next in line to come in on your way out?”
Pete limped out and spoke to a petite woman in the next room.
“I think they be ready for ya, Mam.”
The woman stood, straightened her skirt, adjusted her glasses and walked in to Roger’s office.
“Hello,” she said politely, “I’m here to apply for the pirate job.”
Don’t judge a hook by its cover! And here we see Pete struggling through an interview, with some clever comic relief in the form of handshakes, wooden legs and parrots. Of course, Pete isn’t actually there for the assumed position at all – no, he’s after the secretarrrrrrrrial position, and the switcheroo at the end is both hilarious and also a gentle nudge to never assume anything based purely on appearances.
THE BIRDER by Michael Yates, WA
Every time I walk through Central Park, I find something new. This time it's a simple park bench, one of 10,000 benches that occupy the park. Most are in plain sight, where you would expect them to be. But this one is hidden amongst the trees, out of sight from passersby walking on the trail winding through the park.
The bench is a standard two-seater, and one of those seats is occupied by an old man looking at the birds in the trees through binoculars, a birdwatcher or a birder, as I like to call them. They are everywhere in Central Park. I hear several types of rare birds migrate through the Park, making it a popular place for birders visiting from around the world at certain times of the year.
I wonder what he is watching, I think to myself.
I meander over and sit down next to the man who never deviates from using his binoculars to view whatever bird he is watching in the trees. He must have found something riveting to look at.
“Good day, sir,” I say as I offer a welcoming smile.
The old man lowers his binoculars and reaches his hand out to shake, “Good day to you, young man.”
I oblige, grasping his frail hand and gently steering it up and down.
“So, are you watching anything special today?” I curiously ask.
“The Cerulean Songbird, which is very rare indeed,” the old man excitedly replies.
“Your binoculars are incredible,” I say in awe, “Quite beautiful,” I add.
“They are almost two hundred years old. These binoculars make people see differently,” the old man claims.
“How so?” I curiously ask.
‘Here, take a look through them yourself,” the old man offers as he hands me the binoculars.
I place them to my eyes and look through them only to see complete darkness, “There must be something wrong,” as I move them away from my face, turn them around, and identify the problem.
“They still have their caps on,” I exclaim.
“Did I leave the caps on?” The old man laughs.
“Well, yes,” I reply, frankly.
“You see, blindness has come with age, but I have done a lot of bird-watching in my time. I have a catalogue of birds in my mind. I come here and look through my binoculars and visualise the birds I have seen before. Occasionally, someone will sit next to me and treat me like someone who can see. It feels good to have a discussion with someone who doesn’t pity my blindness.”
“But how do they make people see differently?” I inquisitively ask.
“Well, you saw me differently, didn’t you? You were interested enough to come over and have a chat.”
“Would you like me to describe the birds I can see in the park today?” I ask the old man.
“That would be wonderful,” he replies with a smile.
What starts out as a sun dappled walk through scenic Central Park by our polite protagonist soon becomes a more meaningful encounter. We had many bird watching stories this month – for obvious reasons – and again, with one of the mandatory words being BLIND, we also saw many blind characters. But this story successfully combined both elements and left the main character and the reader with a nice lesson about seeing ‘things’ differently. A pleasant park bench exchange to enjoy under the leafy canopy away from the chaos of the world.
2555 by Kate Gordon, TAS
Of course, she knew what was happening. It had happened to her father. A slow sort of fogging, darker at the edges and in the middle, milky.
That was on the good days. On the bad days, she saw a galaxy, wind blowing dandelion clock stars across her vision. And her mind was never quiet, because who can find quiet with a galaxy in their eyes, stars bursting into life, bursting into death?
Her father went blind when he was sixty.
She was fifty-three.
How long had he had symptoms, before mentioning anything? He was the sort of man who never admitted a cold, never went to the doctor until he couldn’t stand.
At best, she calculated, she had seven years left.
But what if hers was worse than his?
That didn’t sound enough. Not enough minutes to see the faces of her daughters. Not enough days to see the sunrise.
All the things she hadn’t seen.
She asked Henry to drive her to the shop. She wasn’t sure she should be driving now, but she didn’t tell him the reason. She’d tell him soon enough. She only said she wanted to spend time with him, and he seemed surprised but happy at that.
“What is your best pair?” she asked the lady behind the counter.
They were heavier than she expected.
But they fit her hands like they were meant to.
“I never knew you were into bird-watching,” Henry said, when they reached the top of the hill.
“I was,” she said. “When I was a kid. I went with my dad. Blue wrens were his favourite. I want to see blue wrens. As many as I can.”
He peered at her. And then, slowly, his eyes widened, ever-so-slightly. And she knew that he knew.
He sat beside her, without saying a word.
They sat together, for two hours.
120 minutes of sight.
They didn’t see a blue wren that day.
“I’ll bring you back tomorrow,” he promised her.
He went back to the car.
She stayed a little longer.
She watched the sky turn from blue to yellow and then to pink.
And finally to black.
Another ‘blindness-meets-birding’ gem. Beautifully told with a gentle touch, this story straddles both the here-and-now and the what’s-to-come – a big picture view that is fitting considering the subject of deteriorating eyesight. Some strong turns of phrase define the illness (‘stars bursting into life, bursting into death’) as our protagonist prepares to follow in her father’s foggy footsteps. The title, originally cryptic, reveals its meaning and we were also impressed that not once is the word ‘binoculars’ used, yet we instinctively know they have been purchased. The final three lines again illustrate the duality of the themes – expertly written!
THE AUCTION by Natalie Clair, UK
“And now Lot 56212. A rare find – a nineteenth-century telescope and box, used onboard a whaling ship. Predominantly brass, remnants of the leather covering. Opening bid, five hundred pounds.” The auctioneer rubbed his nose, pulled down his shirt cuffs, and surveyed the crowd.
John’s hands started to sweat; he started to lift his number.
“Five hundred.” Wrapped in a fox stole, a woman languorously lowered her opera glasses behind him.
“Five fifty.” John shuffled forward in his seat.
“Five fifty in the room. Six online.”
“Six fifty,” he called out in a voice his colleagues wouldn’t have recognized.
“Seven hundred.” The fox drooped down the woman’s shoulders.
“Seven fifty online.” The auctioneer smiled, his cheeks flush. “Eight hundred from the woman down there. I have eight hundred in the room?” He glanced at his colleague at the computer screen. She shook her head.
John mentally added up his bank and savings accounts. Not nearly enough. He glanced across at the woman. The fox was back on her shoulders, a glint of satisfaction in her cheeks.
He stood up and raised his placard.
The drive home had been monotonous. John sipped on a steaming mug of chamomile and tied his dressing gown around him. The wind whipped up outside, stray branches banging against the window. He rolled down the blinds and turned to the box on the table. Faded and crumpled, emblazoned with a forgotten address in London. He tore it open and lifted out the telescope.
Tarnished brass, copperplate writing on the nameplate. John Malone.
The photos were spread out in front of him, those few daguerreotypes the whalers left behind in Halifax. Dazed men, hoods of their seal-skin jackets pulled up. John Malone, his grandfather. The edges were curled, stained by his father: boot polish, oil, and droplets of Guinness. An absent father who escaped in the Merchant Navy, never stopped searching.
He lifted it, peering through the telescope’s eyepiece. A stray hair clung to the lens. Black, like his. He lowered it and walked over to the Polaroid in the jewelled frame, Mother on her birthday. He remembered the uncertain smile and clenched hand, her mind ravaged by dementia. The sudden grab for his arm, and the desperate question ‘Where’s your father?’
Thunder grumbled, the lights flickering.
Decision time. Down to the basement, the terrifying heat of the furnace.
The telescope clanked as it landed in the flames, amber and black fingertips closing around the name of John Malone.
Told in two parts, this story doesn’t promise clear answers, but it does provide a compelling brace of scenes. The first, a brisk and believable blur of bidding – the fellow bidder’s fox aptly stealing the show and providing a nice counterpoint to John's bidding attempts. And then, a beat, and we are now home. It’s here that we realise that John is no ordinary collector of brass antiques – this particular object is far more personal. The scene is laid out deftly here, easy to picture and the final description of the amber and black ‘fingertips’ provide a fabulous, albeit mysterious ending to this Antiques Roadshow meets Who Do You Think You Are!
VIEWING TIME by Sarah Fisher, QLD
Atop the mountain lookout, sunlight glints off the metal cover of the coin-operated telescope. Three sisters, clutching coins in fists slick with the sweat of anticipation, drift towards the lone viewing tower, which has stood as sentinel over this valley for more than forty-five years. To be precise, the telescope has witnessed 16,519 sunrises; and, less precisely, has digested in excess of a million coins.
Priscilla steps up first, deposits her coin, squints into the eyepiece, then gasps. What does she see?
Ancient creatures she’s seen only in textbooks roam the grassland and soar above it, but from the horizon, an army of storm clouds advances. The seething mass approaches, puffy white tops towering above the bulging, black base, grumbling ever louder. Lightning streaks from its belly – blinding flashes setting the grass alight. Reptilian birds screech their warning and lumbering diprotodon take heed, galloping to safety as fire – nature’s housekeeper – licks the land like a child does an ice-cream, delicately savouring its bounty. The rain, when it comes, drenches the landscape, salving the wounds from fire, filling waterholes, flushing rivers and streams, and seeping into the ground to replenish aquifers.
Triti steps up next, deposits her coin, peers through the telescope, then groans. What does she spy?
A valley no more. In its place is a festering sea of putrid garbage. Bulldozers in their thousands crawl over the mounds of human waste; scooping, dumping … but barely scraping the surface. Triti adjusts the focus, zooming in. Reduced to scavenging, people pick through the detritus, delving for the precious resources buried in the filth. Fires rage, fuelled by toxic waste. When the storm clouds come, they dump acid rain which does nothing to dispel the noxious miasma that blankets the contaminated, ruined landscape. There are no rivers and streams winding their way through the countryside; they were long ago clogged with plastic, along with the entire food chain. What animals remain to battle the rising temperatures, are filled with plastic too.
Finally, Hope steps up, deposits her coin, allows the lens to guide her gaze, then smiles. What does she find?
Now that the Earth has emerged from successive ages of fire and of ice, creatures Hope does not recognise roam the grassland and soar above it. She watches as a volcano belches smoke and fiery rocks from its gut. Lava dribbles down its sides delivering molten minerals from deep underground to the surface. The wildlife close to the volcano scurries to safety – shrieking, roaring, or trumpeting their displeasure at the interruption to their business of grazing or hunting. What Hope doesn’t hear is yelling or sirens or engines. Humans are a memory. Hope wonders … is the only record of them buried as fossils or oil? She scans the landscape but finds no trace of a new species digging for the past.
The sisters retreat, comparing notes, while the coin-operated telescope salutes another sunset and enjoys a short respite from those visitors who see only what’s in their mind’s eye.
This thoroughly original take on the coin-operated viewfinders you often see at lookouts may involve a fantastical element – but these scenes it portrays are rather familiar, each beautifully and horrifically described. (We in particular love the description of the fire as nature’s housekeeper – licking the land like a child does an ice-cream.) Each of our three viewers sees a different world – a kind of past, present and future of sorts. An impressive visual narrative that is frighteningly illustrated with skill.
BINOCULARS by Kim Graham, VIC
Binoculars in hand, I wait for my next foray into the world of others; a cup of weak tea and a digestive biscuit beside me. When I was younger, my tea was strong and milky and sweet; with age my purse strings have tightened, and my tea has suffered. I nibble mouse-sized crumbs from my biscuit.
Oh! Here are the twins, leaving for school. I lift the binoculars and watch. Her hair is in plaits with bright blue ribbons streaming off them – I love how this looks! Her brother is in his Carlton jumper; maybe his team won? Their mother walks them to the gate then watches them walk away. She’s waving even though their backs are to her. I call her Beth. The twins turn, ribbons dancing in the wind, smile, and wave; Beth’s face becomes suffused with joy…mine does too.
Further down the street a door slams; I swivel my binoculars. A sullen faced teenager slopes out of the house, hands in pockets, dressed all in black with a t-shirt that says ‘Three Blind Mice’ – I’m assuming they are a band, but this could just as easily be a statement about politics or culture. I tuck away these thoughts to mull over later. Once the exodus to work and school is over, there’s many hours to fill before everyone returns home. I sigh, it seems only yesterday that she’d skip out of her house in pink flashing sneakers. I remind myself that it’s just a phase teenagers go through to find themselves. Her Dad roars out of the garage in a sleek black car and is gone.
And here comes little Isabelle. I know her name because I heard her Mum call out to her once. Hers is the only name I know of all those who walk past. I love how Isabelle walks; for every third step there is a little hop or leap, sometimes a twirl or pirouette. Bubbles of exuberance that can’t be contained. She spots a chalk hopscotch on the footpath, and leaps from 12346 in a twinkle, bypassing 5. My heart feels light as I watch her skip past. And then, something catches her eye – a reflection of light off my binoculars, movement? She turns in my direction, I lower the binoculars, her face is solemn, feeling caught, my mind is panicked. And then, she smiles and raises her hand, I tentatively wave back…then she skips on.
I sip my tea again, almost no taste. This is the tea bag from last night; on its third use and spent. Plus, there’s no milk left and another two days before I’ll be able to afford more. I rummage in my mind for memories of tea past to let imagination fill the gap. Will I nibble on my biscuit again? Too soon, as it’s a long way then to dinner. Isabelle’s smile and wave feel like nourishment, and despite my hollow stomach I nod off in the morning light feeling contented.
This stream of consciousness begins rather voyeuristically but ultimately becomes more sad as we see a nosey neighbour guessing at the streetside storylines taking place behind the letterbox. A nice inclusion of the five-digit number and in the end, a glimpse into the ultimate reality show for someone whose own life has become a collection of crumbs and used tea bags.
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL by Rachel Crane, NSW
Coogee Beach was infested every summer. Primary schoolers crowded the whitewash, pudgy stomachs bouncing on body boards. Snotty toddlers waddled in rock pools and pre-teens commandeered the sand with phones. The parents seemed oblivious to the urine-soaked pools, the snack wrappers left on the beach, the desecration.
If it was busy, I could initiate two rescues a day. It was easy to find them from the lifeguard tower with my council-issued binoculars. Their fish mouths gasping upwards as they bobbed around. I’d radio call the beach rescue team, and the victim would be pulled to safety, spitting foul phlegm onto the sand and crying into their careless parents’ arms.
Today was perfect. It was a grey sky, and the glare wouldn’t be too blinding. The swell was relentless with clear green rips sucking greedily out to sea. Control tower had broadcast we had 11,000 visitors at the beach today. No-one could be blamed with that many people, no-one.
It was hot in the sun, but my gaze didn’t waver. A boy I had been watching closely left the toilet block and sprinted on tiptoe across the burning sand to the water. I grimaced as he washed his filthy hands and moved the binoculars to his mother. My stomach grew warm in anticipation as I saw she was still dozing, tanned stomach skyward and a hat over her face.
I dropped the radio and quickly wiped the binoculars clean of salt spray. I zoomed in so closely on the boy it was as if I could spit on his windblown hair. He did not look back at his mother as he waded more deeply, but I quickly swivelled to confirm she lay unmoving. The boy looked hopefully at some nearby children who were laughing and splashing, but they paid him no mind.
He continued forward until a large incoming whitewash made him stumble and fall, laughing. Before he could regain his footing, he was sucked backwards, and the next wave pounded down upon him. I refocused the binoculars to get a closer view of his face and managed to see the moment his smile turned to fear. His head disappeared repeatedly as the rip commenced its merciless journey out through the breakers. I found myself repeating the words Rinse and Repeat in my head, then giggled. No-one else noticed the boy. The beach crew were busy with a bluebottle sting and my radio remained on the ground.
I played my favourite game and held my breath with him every time he went under, trying to work out which would be the last. He was well beyond the flags now, and only surfacing occasionally. I knew it was over when I couldn’t hold my breath any longer and he still hadn’t resurfaced. I quickly turned my binoculars to his mother, ready to watch her panic, the second act. She was still asleep, so I laid down the binoculars to rest my eyes for just a minute.
This is dark. So often we are presented with a story of a killer in a sinister dark-alley setting, ‘mwahaha’-ing with almost comic evilness. And yet what is made clear here is that it’s much more disturbing when it is someone in a position of trust. Choosing a lifeguard is a clever way to bring the binoculars front and centre into this story – in fact, the device plays a large part in revealing the action, piece by piece. What begins fairly normally soon departs the typical ‘Bondi Rescue’ script as our narrator ultimately reveals their true self. The early ‘no-one could be blamed’ line thus becomes foreshadowing and the quiet horror of this sits with you long after the final line.
INFINITY, QUANTIFIED by Anthea Vernet, USA
There are 23,600 astronomers and physicists in the U.S., so the government says. Worldwide, the total number remains unknown. There are too many and too few to count, and for the most part, no one bothers to.
The astronomer thinks in years. Light years; the distance traveled in 365 days by the fastest thing known to man. Pitifully small, and already greater than most minds can imagine.
The Hubble Space Telescope can see stars 15 billion light years away. The universe stretches–is stretching–more than five times that distance.
It's unfathomable. Not that they care.
They peer through their telescopes, and try to see the beyond. They send drones and probes into the void, hoping to touch the borders of the stars. And maybe, if they're lucky, they'll get pictures of the world outside the world.
They can never find infinity.
They will reach for it nonetheless.
The physicist thinks in seconds. Atomic seconds; the time it takes for the caesium-133 atom's frequency to oscillate 9,192,631,770 times. Such a small moment, but anything can happen in a moment.
Matter is windless space with a few particles sprinkled in. Every moment those particles fall into greater chaos, and most everyone is blind to it.
The world runs by the second; they cannot. Not that they care.
They peer through their microscopes and look for the forces that bind the particles. They measure and quantify, trying to rationalize the stuff of the universe.
They cannot count the uncountable.
They will number it nonetheless.
There are 23,600 astronomers and physicists in the U.S., so the government says. Worldwide, the total number remains unknown. There are too many and too few to count, and for the most part, no one bothers to.
There is a beautiful symmetry to this story and we loved how it described two areas of science that are ultimately obsessed with different ends of the spectrum – the large and the small; the infinite and the tiny. An original take on the brief and one that does indeed make some fitting and ironic parallels.
WATCH AND ACT by Caitlin Mahony, VIC
My legs shake as I reach the top of the ladder.
“I’ve got you,” shouts Rob from the ground. His wide legged stance and white knuckles are the only reason I haven’t plummeted to my death. Yet.
At the top of the ladder I shimmy, trying to get off the rungs and onto the roof tiles. I tell my arms and legs to stop shaking. My nostrils fill with the sweet smell of burnt eucalyptus, reminding me of teenage bonfire birthday parties on paddocks. I stretch my leg out and place one foot on the roof tiles.
“That’s it, nearly there,” shouts Rob.
“Shut up for a second!” I need to concentrate.
I take a deep breath, swing my other leg over, and let go of the ladder. The binoculars flap around my neck. Firm ground again, but the incline stops me from relaxing. I scramble higher on the roof. Reaching the very top I straddle the house, trying not to think about getting back down again.
“What can you see?” shouts Rob.
“It’s a good view up here.”
“Can you see the fires?”
Scanning the horizon, I see familiar landmarks; that old gum on the hill where the cockatoos congregate, the steeple of the church where we attended Mira’s wedding, the floodlights the tennis club had installed last year. Beyond them all is a looming cloud of smoke. Demonic with its brown red colouring, it is moving towards town, pushed by the wind.
I raise the binoculars to my eyes and point them at the horizon towards the centre of the cloud. Sweat soaks the back of my singlet. The sweet fiery smell grows stronger, more acrid, a scent of the sinister. Through the binoculars at first I see smoke gushing upwards from the bush. Sweeping the landscape I find licks of flame poking up from some of the trees. My heart pounds. I watch for a little longer hoping I had just imagined it, knowing that I hadn’t.
“I see flames,” I shout.
“But the emergency app just says Watch and Act.”
“It’s coming, we don’t have much time.”
“Well you better get off the bloody roof, and we better hit the road.”
I grab our tub full of essentials and run to the car while Rob collects the dog's things. When I get back to take the last few bits and pieces the dog is wagging her tail in excitement at the lead in Rob’s hands, blind to our panic.
We slam our doors and pull out of the driveway. I turn on the radio.
The fire chief’s voice is calm through the crackly reception, “Around 25,000 hectares burnt. People in the following towns should leave immediately: Daylesford, Hepburn Springs, Coomera, Wheatsheaf…”
I take one last look at our house over my shoulder. Hoping it’s there when we get back. I wipe a tear from my eye.
As bushfire season begins in what is predicted to be a hot summer in Australia, this story paints a very real picture for anyone who has either directly experienced this force of nature – or who has simply witnessed the swiftness of their destruction. While the title gives some clues, this story begins in ambiguous fashion, climbing a ladder to get onto the roof. It’s not until the vantage point is gained that the smoke-singed curtain is pulled back to reveal a community in confusion as nature’s nightmare scenario approaches. Fingers crossed that fictional stories like this don’t also play out in real life this season.
MITE by Tracey-Ann Palmer, NSW
Mitch’s life was perilous. As an eyelash mite, he was ever mindful of lid-quakes, floods and the winds that threatened to pull his eight legs from their tenuous purchase on Jenny’s lashes.
The lashes of Jenny’s left eye were Mitch’s world – he was born there, would hopefully find a mate and in two weeks (human time) he would be a father and then he’d live long enough to see his children have their own offspring. He would decompose inside Jenny’s hair follicles and, along with the bounteous supply of skin cells and oils provided by her eye, he would feed the new generation. He had heard of other mites who had ventured to the eyebrow, but he’d seen seven full dark-light cycles and felt he was too old for that type of nonsense.
Jenny was an ornithologist. Her passion was lyre birds and she lived to see them. She would spend hours peering through her binoculars in search of these magical birds. When she found one, she would settle into the undergrowth and watch them dance, listen to their calls, and above all, be captivated.
Jenny heard a familiar noise and raised the binoculars to her eyes. The lyre bird was in full display, courting a female and Jenny was entranced. At that moment Mitch turned his eyes towards the light, peered through the lenses that were pressed against Jenny’s eyes and gasped. Until that moment, Mitch’s world was but a few millimetres wide. No more. He gaped, clutched his lash tightly and absorbed every detail of the most beautiful thing imaginable. He was blinded by longing as the creature waved its feathery ‘lashes’ provocatively.
“Beautiful,” whispered Jenny. She pulled out her notebook and recorded: 91023, 10.07am, Lyrebird Dell walking track, Superb Lyrebird, full display. She put her binoculars down and took out her camera.
Clinging to Jenny’s lashes, Mitch stared into the gloom. His glimpse of another world imprinted on his mind. He crept further up the eyelash that he ever had before and longed for another vision.
The ‘mite/might’ of storytelling is that you can present a viewpoint no else quite expected. And here, the reason we singled this one out is that even though Jenny is doing all the work viewing a lyre bird through her binoculars, the surprising main character actually gets to see it too because they live on Jenny’s eyelashes! Quirky and a great example of the ‘story behind the story’ that you sometimes overlook!
I SEE YOU by Sally Eberhardt, QLD
I can’t unsee you.
You in your over-sized sunglasses, wearing the most expensive brands, swanning around with your handsome husband in your recently renovated house with its immaculate landscaping.
It’s all so sickeningly perfect.
You never stop to chat – you always dart back inside to ‘something on the stove’, or rush out to have your fake hair extensions put in or your fake nails done. No time for the likes of me – just a wave and a smile as fake as your tan.
That’s a bit bitchy of me. Your tan could be real.
It’s not fair. What did you do to deserve this?
When you disappear for weeks I find myself picturing you sipping margaritas beside an azure pool in Acapulco, unwinding in a hot tub in St Moritz after a hard day on the slopes or watching tropical fish from an underwater hotel in the Maldives. You are living My best life, ticking off things on MY Bucket List.
I bought a telescope today. Second hand from eBay but it does the trick. All the better to see you with, my dear.
I should stop torturing myself. My best friend said I should be more mindful and practise gratitude every day. She should just be grateful SHE doesn’t live across the street from you and your perfect life.
I can’t unsee you.
I can’t help wanting to know all the intricate details of your fabulous life. I investigate the labels on the clothes on the washing line. I salivate over the brands of your kitchen appliances. I covet your expensive accessories. Your Chanel handbag cost more than my second-hand car. I know – I Googled it.
I observe you coming and going in your sleek black Mercedes. I watch you punch in the code to the security gate. 13875. I wonder if the numbers mean something special – a birthday or anniversary perhaps? I can’t even guess your age… if only I could see your face without perfectly applied makeup…
If I place the tripod stand just so, and adjust the focal length, and contort myself into a position worthy of a Russian gymnast … I can catch your reflection in your ensuite mirror.
I know it’s petty but I do hope you are an old hag underneath all that foundation and powder. That might explain why I never see your husband show you any affection. In fact he looked downright cross with you the other day. I saw him snarl while you cowed in a corner. I wonder what you did to deserve it.
At last I see your naked face.
I see you are beautiful.
You are a beautiful woman with bruises and scars.
You are a beautiful woman hiding the truth behind dark glasses and darker lies.
You are a beautiful woman isolated and controlled by fear and shame.
You don’t deserve this.
I was blind.
Now I see you.
And I can’t unsee you.
Earlier, we presented another story of not judging someone simply based on appearances – told in a more comic way. Here, while the same principle applies, it takes on a more dramatic guise – initially an inner monologue of envy and conjecture… the stories of the lives we imagine others are living. This obsessed neighbour has judged this book – “You are living My best life, ticking off things on MY Bucket List” – yet once the layers and pretence are finally removed, the tune changes as they realise that there may be more than meets the eye. A good way to highlight a different kind of blindness – with a nice piece of repetition (last month’s focus) providing a new meaning at the end.
TWO LITTLE WORDS by Nikki Reid, VIC
He holds the binoculars shakily to his eyes. Squinting through dark tubes at the lush green lawn of the backyard across the street. A backyard he knows all too well. A young girl in canary yellow bathers runs giggling through the spray of a sprinkler. She stops momentarily and looks up at his window and he retreats into the gloom of his dark bedroom. He does not want to be seen but there is nothing sinister in his peeping. Only longing. He used to watch Judy from this window. Barefoot and running across the same backyard. Golden hair and laughter trailing behind her.
A surprised yelp from the girl floats across the evening air as the wind carries an unexpected attack from the sprinkler. He laughs out loud and startles himself with the sound of his own voice. It sounds foreign to him. Hoarse and raspy from underuse. He doesn’t speak a lot these days. There’s no one here to listen. But he knows the power of words. Even the smallest of words can create the most impact.
More than 65 years ago Judy spoke one word to him that changed the trajectory of his life forever. That tiny little word that led to years of laughter and tears, dancing and adventures and worry and fear. To countless smiles and celebrations, anticipation and frustration. To 10,000 little moments of joy. That one little word was a powerhouse of possibility, devotion and promise.
It has now been 5 years since Judy spoke another word to him which again changed his life forever. This little word was whispered so quietly yet held just as much power. It signified a shared understanding of care and duty. It held all of the memories. And oh, so much love. A whole lifetime of trust given and chances taken. That little word was a seal on the most glorious envelope of time. Which now finished could only be revisited in his short dreams in a too empty bed, or in his mind as he peers out his window in the day.
Now he doesn’t need words. He lives quietly behind the blinds in this empty house. In this dark room. And he finds Judy through the dark tube of those binoculars. In the lush green lawn of the backyard across the street.
A mix of memories and nostalgia, we again have a lonely neighbour looking out on the world and feeling both connected and disconnected to it. The use of each of the two single words is a nice way to tie together the memories and illustrate another story of loss and longing.
BEA’S STORY: A WIDOW’S STEPS by Laura Speed, NSW
I slowly take a step out of the house, hesitating on the doorstep, unsure if I can take another.
“Come on – it’s just lunch down the road,” Katie gently coaxes from the step below.
I make no effort to move towards her.
“Would you really leave a friend alone and starving in the gutter?”
My only response is to roll my eyes.
“Bea – you need to leave the house. It’s been months.”
Katie reaches out a hand. It hangs in the air, waiting patiently, for mine in return. Her gaze is disconcertingly sombre, and I find myself reaching forwards, unable to refuse it.
The café is only at the end of the street, but my heart is beating like I’ve run a marathon when we arrive.
“Where do you want to sit?” Katie gives me the choice.
Daniel’s favourite booth is free. It’s in the corner, nestled between the back green wall and the window. I feel a rising tide of tears approaching the surface as I look at it.
I rush to take a seat somewhere else. Anywhere else. I sit down, elbows on the table, and bring my hands up to hide my eyes.
“I’m sorry Bea,” Katie whispers, kneeling beside me. “Do you want to go home?”
I peak out of my cocoon, glimpsing at the corner table through my fingers. The table he will never sit at again. The table we will never sit at again.
“No, no I’m good.” I swallow against the lump in my throat. “Wouldn’t want to leave my best friend starving in the gutter.”
It’s the first time I’ve opened the blinds before 10am in a long time. After a few more lunches with Katie and a realisation that the sun is actually good for me, I feel ready to run again.
I need to feel the movement in my body. The muscles in my legs thrusting me forward and blood pumping into the dormant parts of me. I need to feel alive without feeling guilty about it.
Stepping out of the house is easier now. I cross the road to the park and take a deep breath at the starting point. No timer yet. My only goal is to complete the run.
I sit at our spot, feet dangling from where I am purchased on the rock, looking out at the ocean. Still slightly puffed from the hike, I take out Daniel’s binoculars. I run my fingers over the black rubber, ghosting lines his fingers once made.
The wind is chopping up the sea a bit today, making the whales harder to spot, but I don’t mind. It’s the first time I’ve managed to do something we used to do together, without breaking down, since he died. As I squint through the tiny holes, searching along the horizon, it feels like he is next to me. And instead of the thought sending a flood of tears down my cheeks, I can finally smile at the memory.
Like stages of grief, this story cleverly uses the structure of step counts (giving us ultimately our five-digit number!) to illustrate the taking of that first step, followed by a slow reawakening of memories and places for Bea as she gets over losing Daniel. It takes her first to a cafe they used to frequent and eventually to a favourite spot where she can finally start to see the way forward. An original way to tell a sadly all-too familiar story of love and loss.
STAR DUST by Rebecca Lawrence, NSW
Jemima adjusted the Observatory telescope and ushered the next small school child towards her with a beckoning hand. “Mind your step”, she said, in her kind teacher voice, as his little legs launched himself up onto the thigh-high platform, and his eyes settled on the small glass holes that would reveal to him a million stars and galaxies thousands of light years away.
“The stars you can see through here, some of them may not actually be alive anymore. What you are looking at is the light from stars that may already be dead, because it takes so many light years for their light to reach us. Isn’t that cool!” She loved the idea of it, that she could show others a window into the past and make the past as beautiful as a shining star that still lives on, even past its own death. The little boy pulled back from the telescope and looked up at her quizzically, “But how do you know which ones are dead, and which ones are still alive?”
“Well” she replied, and felt a shiver as she thought about it herself, “I’m not sure, to be honest, but does it matter? Does it matter if they’re alive or dead, if we can still see their light?” He seemed content with the answer and nuzzled his warm body against hers as he peered back through the looking glass. She imagined him looking back on his own life, as an old man, remembering back to the night as a child when he peered back into the past of the universe. What would he find?
As a child, Jemima had shared a crappy plastic telescope with her younger brother Andrew. They always had trouble when they tried to wind the focus knob, it would get stuck and most of the stars would dance like blurry dots, but they didn’t care. They loved thinking about the stars, how far away they were, pretending to count them not by ones but by 10,000’s, and how, when they got to 100,001 pretending that Andrew would get another life, because the life he had in this life was too short. His hair had fallen out, he barely had any veins left for the chemo, and he was slowly going blind as the tumour in his brain grew the size of Saturn. They used to joke about that. That one day the tumour might just pop out both his ears, and form a ring around his head, like one of Saturn’s. A spectacular silver halo of gas and star dust. Perfect from a distance, a chaotic war of ice and rock close up.
She gently touched her own head as she thought of it, and the little boy shuffled away, head down, disappointed his turn was over. Jemima lifted the next child onto the platform and began the story again.
There is something beautifully circular about jemima remembering the telescope stargazing she enjoyed with her late brother and being able to now share this love – of the stars AND of Andrew – with a new generation of wide-eyed children. The look of wonder on the boy’s face and then the new child stepping up for her to tell the story again… it’s a great way to illustrate a legacy and a memory being kept alive – and a fitting way to end of this month’s showcase!
THIS MONTH’S ‘LONGLIST’
Each month, we like to include an extra LONGLIST of stories that stood out from the hundreds and were highly considered for the showcase. Remember, all creativity is subjective, but if your name is here, well done – and we hope to see you ALL next month!
THIS MONTH’S LONGLIST (in no particular order):
- THE PURSUIT by Athena Law, QLD
- TONOPAH by Lois Winsky, USA
- THE SECRET AMONG THE STARS by Madelyn Grace, NSW
- BANGS FOR YOUR BUCK by Jaclyn Riley-Smith, TAS
- NORTH STAR by Cay Macres, USA
- STUCK IN THE 80s by Richard Gibney, Ireland
- UNTITLED by Jessica Marshall, NSW
- TIME FLIES WHEN YOU’RE ON THE RUN by Ann James, USA
- FANCY by Adrian Lane-Mullins, QLD
- UNTITLED by Archana Datt, NSW
- PURSUED by Elizabeth Hilton, QLD
- AND YET IT MOVES by Pam Makin, SA
- FUTURE (UN)SEEN by G.T. Weedon, VIC
- THE ARRIVAL by Alastair Millar, Czech Republic
- THE FROG CATALOGUE by Sarah, VIC
- FAR AWAY EYES by Terence Gallagher, USA
- NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH by Lydia Terry, QLD
- FLORIA’S REVENGE by R.M. Levi, ACT
- ROTTNEST MONSTER by Alison Davis, WA
- APPLIED ORNITHOLOGY by Kristof Mikes-Liu, NSW
- RACE DAY by Jenny Groves, VIC
- UNTITLED by Ray Webb, Canada
- THE ASPIRATIONS OF 64107 by Rhonda Valentine Dixon, QLD
- A VERY ORDINARY DAY by Dan Watts, WA
- MY FRIEND SAL by Julie Souter, NSW
- SOUNDS OF SILENCE by Nina Peck, WA
- THE CLOCK IS TICKING by Eoghan McAuliffe, NSW
- AS THE CROW FLIES by Jacob Crane, NSW
- A LITTLE BIRDIE by Frida Pankiewitz, Germany
- CAPTAIN’S CHOICE by Danielle Barker, NSW
- YELLOW WATTLE by Natasha Collis, QLD
- LESSONS FROM OUTER SPACE by Sharmila Shankarkumar, USA
- STAR CROSSED by Carl Newby, QLD
- THE NIGHT OF FALLING STARS by Julia Ruth Smith, Italy
- UNTITLED by Harriet Hay, WA
- ARE WE THERE YET? by Jessica Southern-Reid, NSW
- I WISH I COULD SEE THE STARS by Sarah Oakes, UK