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Tuesday, 21 April 2020

KENILWORTH DARK CHAPTER ONE

To stave away the lockdown blues, I'm now serialising a new story here once a week. Here's the first imstalment of the adventures of Kathryn 'Kitty' Dark, set in Kenilworth...

KENILWORTH DARK
CHAPTER ONE: DECEMBER 2018
There wasn’t anybody in when Kathryn knocked on the door. Or, at least, there didn’t seem to be. It was dark. No lights were on. Only a streetlight illuminated the driveway from the pavement. It was harsh, bright, white: one of the new LED streetlights. Much less atmospheric than the yellowy glow of older lamps, but then it wasn’t really atmosphere that she was after. She was looking for Dad.
Kathryn ruffled in her handbag again for keys, but vainly. She knew they weren’t there. It had been so long since she was last at the house that she was sure she had lost them down the back of a sofa or under Carl’s bed. She did remember one night when she was so drunk that she kicked her bag over and everything spilled over the bedroom floor. She bent down to pick things up but fell over and then Carl tumbled on to the bed with her and that was that. She gathered her things together in the morning, but it was in haste, so she wouldn’t miss the bus, so the keys could still be there. It was highly unlikely that Carl had cleaned under the bed, so he wouldn’t have noticed. Besides, she’d deleted him from her phone so that was also that.
So anyway. Dad. Kathryn knocked again. No answer. It was icy cold. There was no chance of a white Christmas but a wet, cold, dull and dreary one was on the cards. Christmas lights sparkled down the street, blinking blindly their devotion.
“Dad! It’s me! I forgot my keys!” Kathryn called, banging with the side of her fist now. The door thudded, solid in its frame.
“Are you sure he’s in?” The question came from over the fence, a low one on the drive shared with the neighbour. It was the neighbour who was talking. Diminutive in height but large in volume, Barbara was there in her dressing gown over admittedly quite stylish boots. Retired, grey in curls and white in teeth, Barbara peered down the side of the house, which was dark, unlit and empty but for the bins.
“Oh, hello Barbara. Yes, I’m sure he’s in. I rang him when I arrived at the station and again when I got in the Uber on my way over”. Kathryn resumed banging on the door.
“I don’t think he can hear you. Don’t you have a key?”
“I do, but I think I lost it. Dad!”
A light came on in the hall, visible through the frosted glass pane in the door. The house was born in the thirties, but the door was newer, hence the frosted glass. There was a shuffling and some muttering, growing louder as a blur neared the door.
“Who is it?” growled the voice from inside.
Kathryn sighed. Barbara shrugged, waved and went back in to her own dimly lit house. “It’s me, Dad. Kathryn. I just spoke to you twenty minutes ago from the taxi”.
“Oh. Alright. Come on in, then”.
“I haven’t got my key. You need to open it from inside”.
“Oh, right. Hang on”. Some rattling and the sliding of a bolt, then the door was open. Warm air opened out like a hand as Kathryn stepped in. She stooped and hugged the old man. To be fair, he wasn’t all that old, but he seemed to act older sometimes. He was in his fifties, having fathered Kathryn in his early thirties. Sometimes it seemed that his responsibility had stopped there.
“Didn’t you hear me knocking?” she asked, putting her bags down in the hall.
“No”.
“No. Well, I did. I was arguing with somebody”.
Kathryn followed Dad through to the kitchen. “There’s somebody here?”
“No”. He filled the kettle, clicked it on. “On the internet”.
“Oh, you’ve not been arguing with strangers about Brexit again, have you?”
He banged a pair of mugs down on the kitchen worktop. “Two days before Christmas and parliament have gone on holiday with no deal sorted out. These Tory bastards in their ivory castles dripping with gold, lording over us minions, counting the cash their business interests are going to rake in when we crash out of the EU with no jobs, no future… ah bollocks, I’ve had enough”.
“Well, yeah. It’s Christmas though. And I’m here,” Kathryn said, trying to change the subject.
“Theresa Bloody May,” he muttered, as he dropped a teabag into each cup. “Lying witch”.
“Can I have coffee, Dad?”
He picked out the teabag and popped it into his mug alongside the other one. “I’ll have a double then. Coffee it is for you, Miss Picky”.
“Thanks Dad”. She watched him pouring the steaming water, then took her mug, cradled it as a hand warmer. “She’s not a witch, though. I don’t know of any coven who’d have her”.
“Well, you’d know”.
“Yes. Yes, I would. As you know”.
“You’re not still on that, are you? Studying all that? Did you ever get on a proper course at university?”
“Hilarious, Dad. Yes, and yes. Got any biscuits?” Kathryn started opening cupboards.
The centre of the kitchen was a hefty pine table, handmade years earlier. Kathryn sat, sipping her coffee, running her fingers over the smooth undulations of the table’s surface. Here was where she’d drawn a star with biro when she was eight and had been forced to scrub the ink off. The shape was still carved into the wood, part of it now. Here was the burn mark where Dad had placed a hot pan whilst trying to make jam, and failing. The whole strawberry-smelling boiling mess had gone in the bin. Here was where Mum had stabbed out her last cigarette.
A half-empty packet of custard creams landed on the table.
“These are a bit soft, Dad. How long have you had these?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Last year sometime. I don’t really eat biscuits”.
He sat opposite her, wincing at his strong tea. “So”.
“Yes, Dad?”
“It’s lovely to see you, but… why now?”
“It’s Christmas. Thought I’d come and stay with my Dad at Christmas”.
Tentatively, he put a hand on hers, half intending it to be a parental squeeze, but instead it became a pat, and a brief one at that. He withdrew, tucked his hand under the table. Kathryn looked at her hand, where her father’s touch had briefly visited.
“I mean,” he said, “it’s been three years, Kitty”.
She laughed, almost a snort. Stifling it quickly, she said, “Oh, sorry! It’s just – no one’s called me that in years. Kathryn always. Or Miss Dark. I’ve started getting that now. Guess I’m just getting old”.
“Not to me. You don’t look any different, just a little…”
“What?”
“Suppose it’s the big boots, the ripped jeans and the big jumper. And your hair”.
“My hair?” Involuntarily, she ran her fingers through her fringe.
“Well, it’s a lot shorter. When did you get it cut?”
“Ages ago. I…” She avoided her father’s gaze. “I’m sorry it’s been so long, Dad”.
“That’s – well, it’s good you’re here now, for Christmas”.

The high street – although it wasn’t High Street, it was rather Warwick Road – was teeming. No snow, although it was Christmas Eve. It wasn’t Dickensian London. It was Kenilworth in 2018, all coffee, second-hand books and hairdressers. Kathryn looked up and down the road from the other side. Not much had changed. There was the Tree House Bookshop at the top of the street. Sainsbury’s was way down the bottom. Kenilworth Records, situated above the barbers, had gone, decamped to Leamington in search of hipsters or middle-aged men willing to haggle over the price of old progressive rock albums. It used to be accessible via the alleyway down the side of the barbers. Strange thing. Whenever Kathryn looked directly at it, there it was. When she looked away, out of the corner of her eye, something seemed to shift. Something was different. There was something there. Another shopfront. She focused, looked directly at it. No, just the alleyway.
“What you lookin’ at?” The voice came from Mike, the old school friend she was waiting to meet.
“Oh, it was just…” she trailed off.
“Should’ve gone to Specsavers,” he said, smiling, pointing to his side, signalling the joke. They were standing outside Specsavers.
“Funny”.
They hugged, the squeeze of old friends.
“Drink?” he said.
“Obviously”.

Sitting in the pub, they took their coats off, and said as one, “So…” They both laughed. “You go,” Kathryn said.
“Okay,” Mike sighed, combing his curly hair through his fingers. He smoothed under his chin with the back of his hand, subconsciously trying to hide the extra weight he had put on since they last saw each other. “It’s brilliant to hear from you, but it’s been ages. Gotta ask: why now? Merry Christmas, by the way,” he added, raising his glass.
She clinked hers against his. “Dad asked the same question”.
“Yeah?”
“I told him a different answer”.
“You haven’t given me an answer yet”.
“Well,” she paused, setting down her drink. “I heard from my Mum”.
Mike was puzzled. “But your Mum’s dead,” he said.

TO BE CONTINUED.







Monday, 30 March 2020

THE LYREBIRD ON THE DOORSTEP - A SHORT STORY

Here's another free short story. All of these were originally published in my 'Moving Targets' anthology, which you can still get here in a more convenient form.

For now, however, here's a story based on the legend of the lyrebird, set in Australia, with a young girl having to adjust to a new way of life. It's about art and creativity too. It's actually one of my favourite things I've written. Not perfect, but I think I managed to achieve what I set out to do with this one.


THE LYREBIRD ON THE DOORSTEP
by Jason Cobley

illustration by Jim Cameron

Neomie sat on the back step, frowning. She kicked her scuffed sneakers in the dust, her jeans dragging with the heels. A pebble took to the air, flicked up by Neomie’s toe. She imagined that it was aimed at her mother.
                Beyond the end of the garden, the Yarra Valley opened up like a split melon, spreading out all the wildlife of Victoria like seeds. The sights and sounds of the bush seemed to go on forever. Infinite blues and greens stretched away into the forest. It was so different from what she would see and hear every day back in Melbourne. It was a new life and a new world of platypus, koalas, emus, wombats and eagles.
                Before the family moved out this way, Neomie would dream about seeing the birds and animals that her parents told her about, and that she only saw in books or on television. In her dreams, she would fly with the eagles and climb trees with the koalas. The reality was a little different. Eagles were scary and koalas slept a lot. Boring, boring, boring!
                No friends, no school yet, no shopping malls. No TV, no Internet, no life! Everything still in boxes, Mum and Dad too busy to even talk half the time, ten year old Neomie was sent to play outside. Where? Play what? Who with? She couldn’t even e-mail her pen friend in England. School had set that up, a project for sharing experiences in different countries. After all her friends had got bored with it, Neomie still carried on. For Neomie and slightly older English girl Hannah Partridge, the language of boredom was universal. Neomie wanted to scream out loud. Instead, she kicked up pebbles.
                There was only a week to wait until Neomie would be able to start her new school, but it was a week too long. Ten was an age where the time between breakfast and afternoon was, well, ages. Never mind a week!
                Neomie scooped up a handful of pebbles and, one by one, bounced them off the bark of the nearest tree. The last pebble sailed past the trunk and skittered into the undergrowth.
                “Careful!” a thin voice called out.
                She looked up to see where the sound came from. Nobody around. There was no one peeking out of bushes. There was no one sitting on a rock. There was no one waving hello. Neomie was puzzled. Maybe she dreamed it. Maybe her mind wandered off into a daydream. She wouldn’t be surprised if she had. There wasn’t much else to do on her own.
                Neomie listened hard to see if she could hear the voice again. Just beyond the low fence and lush ferns at the end of the garden was the wildlife sanctuary, which surrounded the family’s new home. It was where Mum and Dad worked, and it was full of its own sounds that wove in and out of the air like a musical picture. A chorus of frogs croaked their news to each other, and an orchestra of birds chirped and tooted and sang over the buzz and chatter of insects.
                Neomie missed the hoot of horns and the revving of engines that she would hear from the road outside her bedroom window back in Melbourne. All her parents ever wanted to talk about now was the animals. All that she wanted, more than anything, was to leave the buzzing insects behind and return to the city, with her friends, her school, her shops.
                Suddenly, from behind the tree, a bird appeared. It was a blur, diving into the undergrowth like a seal into water.
Neomie called out, “Hello!”
No answer. There was a rustle, and a little head peeped out from behind a gum tree. It was a teardrop on its side, with a thin pointed beak and black, open eyes. The rest of the bird emerged from its hiding place, its tail feathers fanned out. The wispy feathers riffled as it strutted towards Neomie.
High above, Neomie heard something chirrup. In front of her, the fanned-out bird repeated the same sound, like an echo but closer instead of further away. It strutted out of the grass, its pointy bird feet crunching the gravel that led up to Neomie on the back step.
“G’day, bird,” said Neomie.
Time seemed to stand still, as if Neomie was suddenly inside a photograph. “G’daybird,” replied the bird. Or did it? Was it some other sound? Did Neomie just imagine it?
Neomie felt her scalp prickle. This was weird. The bird splayed out his plumes of feathers and twittered, cawed and whooped. It cocked its head and shook its tail, fanning out over its back. It opened its beak wide and made  a rising falling tone that sounded exactly like a car alarm going off. Neomie’s father’s car alarm, in fact. Next was a buzzing that ended in a spluttering tick-tick-tick. Was that a chainsaw?
“Holy Dooley!” Neomie whispered. She had heard her Dad say that. In fact, it was one of his favourite expressions. Now seemed the right time to use it herself.
The bird seemed to look at her quizzically.
“How did you…?” she began.
The bird let out a croak like a frisky frog and strutted off, disappearing back into the forest.
Neomie spent most of the afternoon scouring the trees and bushes, looking for the bird. No such luck.
Over dinner, after Mum and Dad had exhausted their tales of bandaging injured wombats and lecturing ungrateful pommies on local wildlife conservation, Neomie told them about the bird.
Dad leaned back in his chair, gathering his hair back behind his head with his hands. He had the same dark mop as Neomie, with little kinks and curls here and there. “A chainsaw, you say?”
“Yeah, Dad. Fair dinkum! It was like the real thing, right there in front of me!” she said, her eyes widening with the wonder of it all.
Dad smiled. He liked it when Neomie was enthusiastic about animals. It was what he did all day, look after animals, and it was satisfying to see his daughter starting to see what was so good about it. “Do you know what bird it was?” he asked.
“No,” she said, “but it was kind of dark, with these spread-out feathers in its tail.”
“Sounds like you met a lyrebird. They’re amazing mimics. They copy all the sounds they hear in the forest, sometimes to attract a mate, other times to avoid predators. I came across one once, me and Bill Millwood were taking photos in the forest, and we thought we could hear another photographer. We could hear the shutter closing, even the motor on the camera. We turned around, and there it was, the flamin’ bird! Making camera noises, it was.” He smiled at the memory. Bill Millwood was his best friend, who had died a few months earlier. That was why the family had moved here, to help run the visitor’s centre at the wildlife sanctuary, after Bill passed away.
“Wow.”
Dad leant forward again, and took a forkful of his food. Mum had been sitting at the table with them, but had eaten quietly, not talking much to Neomie. Now, she was getting up from the table with her plate, off to the compost bin with her scraps. Dad took the chance. “You need to talk to Mum,” he said.
“Why?”
“You upset her this morning, arguing about this place.” He waved his fork around to vaguely indicate that he meant where they now lived. Not Melbourne.
“Is she… Will she be angry with me again?”
“Nah, she’ll be apples, but you need to talk to her. Now.” He jabbed the fork in the direction of the back door, where Neomie could see her mother in the garden. Although she didn’t really understand why, Neomie knew that she was more like her father than her mother. She looked more like Dad, she talked more like Dad, and Mum said she even thought more like Dad. How did Mum know what was going on in her head?
Mum was watering plants with an old metal watering can. Her fair hair was blonde with a tint of red that hinted at the copper-coloured hair of her own mother. It was long and frizzy, tied back but long strands hung over her face. Neomie wanted to go and tuck them behind her mother’s ears, but she was afraid that Mum would think she was trying to pull her hair. Mum often misunderstood what Neomie was trying to say. She thought that Mum didn’t want to listen. Dad said that the two of them just spoke different languages.
Neomie stood on the same back step where she had sat earlier that day. She felt ashamed when she remembered pretending to throw stones at her mother. Mum looked up from her gardening.
“Mum,” she began.
“Yes, Neomie?” Mum was still annoyed.
“Sorry, Mum.”
“What for?”
“For earlier.” Obviously.
“Why?”
This is what made Neomie angry. Mum wouldn’t let her just say it and get it over with. She always wanted her to explain, and say it the right way. Neomie rolled her eyes. She took a deep breath, and said the words that she knew Mum wanted to hear because she had made her say them so many times before. “I’m sorry for saying what I said. I didn’t mean it when I said I hate you. I was just annoyed because I’m so bored and I wanted to go to the shops and you said no because it’s too far away and you had to work.”
“That’s all right, Neomie. If you go and do the dishes with Daddy now you could have some ice cream when you’ve finished.” Mum turned off down the garden and carried on watering.
Neomie stood for a moment. Did Mum actually listen to what she said? Especially the bit about being bored?
There was a flutter somewhere among the trees. Neomie’s eyes darted to where she thought the sound was coming from. Was that the lyrebird again? What was that sound? She held her breath so that it wouldn’t drown out the faintest sounds and she concentrated hard with her ears. Was that a croak? Was there a “hello” amongst the chirps and chirrups?
That evening, Neomie and her father watched television together. Mum popped in now and again, to chat or to bring them drinks. The rest of the time she spent in the room that she called her studio, painting. Mum liked painting wildlife, watercolours mostly. She had even sold a few back in Melbourne. Finding new things to paint was one of the other reasons for moving out to the valley. She had been working on a new painting for a few days, but Neomie wasn’t allowed to go in the studio. That had been one of the other reasons for the argument that morning.
As Neomie drifted off to sleep later that night, she listened to the sounds of the forest change. Different animals called out to each other in the darkness. Before she fell asleep, she wondered whether they called out because they were gathering all their friends together for a party or whether it was because they were lonely.
*              *              *
Neomie was sitting on the step again, but this time it was different. The sky above was a creamy blue and the light shining through the trees seemed to be tinged with vanilla.
Like a parting curtain, the green leaves in the undergrowth made way for the lyrebird. It strutted out, then stopped in front of Neomie. It flashed its fan of tail feathers like a magician showing off his cards before tucking them away again. For my next trick… thought Neomie.
“Hey,” said Neomie.
“Hey,” said the bird.
“You spoke!”
“Yep.”
“How?”
“Well, there’s a question. Sure you want to know?”
“Yes!” Neomie was so excited she didn’t even notice that she was no longer sitting on the step but crouching down beside the lyrebird.
“First of all, let me ask you a question,” said the bird. It was weird. His beak didn’t move much. The sound of words just sort of came out, as if he had a speaker inside him.
“Okay.”
“Where are we now?”
“In the garden.” She looked around as she said it, noticing that there seemed to be a few extra shades of green since this morning.
“Yes and no. This is the Dreamtime.”
Neomie remembered learning something about this at school, something about it being to do with Aboriginal culture. It was maybe even everything to do with Aboriginal culture, an entire history, but she wasn’t sure.
“The what?” she said.
“The Dreamtime,” replied the bird.
“I mean, what is it?”
“Well, it is the story of things that have happened. It is also the story of how the universe and everyone in it were created and how everyone is meant to work together.”
“Are we in a story, then?”
“Yes, if you like.”
“I must be dreaming.”
The lyrebird didn’t answer. He paraded back and forth, occasionally pecking at the earth.  Neomie waited. Everything around her was so different. She felt as if she were standing in a painting of the garden rather than the garden itself. Colours shimmered, as if stirred by hidden winds. 
Eventually, the lyrebird spoke. “Dreamtime is the time before time, when all things were made.”
“Then how can I be in it? I’m only ten.”
“You are seeing the edge of it as part of your Dreaming. I am your Ancestor Spirit. Once, most of the spirits slept in the earth until The Father of All Spirits sent the Sun Mother to wake us. When she did, she sent out her heat and light and gave us forms. Some of us are the trees, the plants, the flowers. Some of us are the animals, the insects, the fish. Some of us are…”
“Birds?”
“Yep. This is your Lyrebird Dreaming.”
Neomie looked around her, at the brushstrokes of the trees and the stippled leaves. It made sense, sort of. And she wasn’t afraid.
“I can understand you. Is that because I’m just imagining it?”
The lyrebird’s neck stiffened. He looked at her sharply, as if hurt. “There is a difference between the Dreaming and making things up. This should be as real to you as anything else, if you know how to listen.”
Neomie looked at the ground, her toe scraping a line in the dirt. “Mum doesn’t think I listen either,” she mumbled. “Dad says it’s like we speak different languages.”
The lyrebird spread his wings, freeing his feathers with a shake. Tucking them back in, he said, “In the Dreamtime, in the time before time, all the animals and birds spoke the same language. There were no arguments, because every animal or bird understood each other. There was so much food to go around that there was no need for any animal to hunt another animal. Every animal got along well, and even danced the corroberee, where they would paint designs on their bodies and share information from the Dreaming.
One day, all the animals decided to hold the biggest corroberee that had ever been seen. Every flying fauna, crawling creature or slithering species was invited. They all rehearsed their parts in the dance. The Yellow-Faced Whip Snake practised his turn with the laughing Kookaburra, long before the snake would become the cackling bird’s food.
The best dancing bird in the land, the Brolga, put himself in charge of the dancing. He always put himself in charge, that one. He would pirouette and prance with everything he did, even when he was just going to the water hole.”
The lyrebird seemed to shrug, as if irritated by the thought of the brolga. Neomie felt a bit uncomfortable, so she reached out to stroke his head. He jerked away. She withdrew her hand, embarrassed.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It just seemed like… You sound like you know the bird that you’re talking about. He sounds a bit up himself.”
“Yes, well, he was. And I did know him. If you’re patient, you’ll see that this story is about me. It is my Dreaming.” The lyrebird leaned in to Neomie’s hand and nudged it with his head. “You can stroke me if you want. I’m just not used to it.”
Neomie patted the bird gently with her fingers. “What did you do at the carib – corrib –“
“Corroboree. It was like a huge party. Big-headed brolga was boss of the dancing, like I said, and the Dingo and Kookaburra were going to sing. I didn’t have any particular plans. I thought I’d just show off my tail feathers and join in. After all, I was hosting the party. All the animals gathered at the water hole beside my nest. They all came. First were the birds: the Crow, the Eagle, the Galah, the Kookaburra; then came the Wombat, the Frog, the Platypus; the Kangaroo and Wallaby arrived last. They always like to bound in, those two, making an entrance. In the Dreamtime, your ideas of future and past don’t work quite the same way, but none of us could remember having been to a party as big as this one before.
We had a great time. We cringed at the Kookaburra’s stupid jokes. She thought they were the funniest things ever. She laughed so loudly that the Koala was shaken from his tree. He landed with a bump, but curled himself into a ball and went back to sleep. Koalas are like that. No one else laughed as much as the Kookaburra. Rather full of herself, she was. In fact, some of us laughed at her, rather than with her, especially the Frog. The Frog, who always did have a cheeky side to him, decided to mimic the Kookaburra’s voice, He got everything exactly right, all the irritating notes in her voice, and told jokes that were far funnier than hers. Even though many of us had heard them before, we thought it was hilarious. I admired his bravery, because the Kookaburra could be quite prissy when it suited her, but she took it well and laughed even louder. He was a good mimic, that Frog. Such innocent times, when we could cavort around like that.
After that, the Brolga danced. We all just stood back and watched to begin with. The Brolga was the rightful master of the art of dance.”
“What’s a brolga?” asked Neomie.
The lyrebird tossed his head as if offended, but he was too polite to show it. “You don’t know much about us birds, do you, young lady?” he said.
Neomie shifted uneasily, drawing a line guiltily in the dust with her toe. “Well, I’m from the city…”
“Hmm. Well, the Brolga is a large grey crane, much bigger than me. With his featherless red head and grey crown, he carried himself as if he were the king of the birds. In a way, he was. What he could do with those feet and his spindly legs would put any dancer to shame. He would trumpet ‘Garoo’ or ‘Kawee-kree-kurr-kurr’ whilst spinning or leaping in the air. Yes, the Frog could do that, but usually when the Brolga wasn’t looking. After a while, we couldn’t hold back any longer and had to join in. All the animals and birds began dancing, some trying to follow the Brolga’s moves, others doing their own thing. Some just stumbled and fell over. Not every animal is made for dancing, unfortunately. But we were all too polite to tell the stout and sturdy Wombat that he wasn’t as graceful as the Brolga. His stubby legs made him a great digger but not so good when trying to pirouette.
The Frog, who was never very tactful at the best of times, thought that the Wombat looked hilarious, stomping clumsily next to the Brolga, so he had an idea. Now, the Frog isn’t really a bad animal, he just got carried away, caught up in the merriment and the fun. He copied the Brolga’s voice, and, hiding in the crowd, told the Wombat that he looked fat, stupid, and clumsy, and that his dancing was a joke. He actually was all of those things, but nobody likes to be told that kind of information. Up to this point, the Wombat had looked up to the Brolga, but now he stopped what he was doing and glared at the Brolga, who had no idea that his fat friend was upset at him. This only made the Wombat angrier. How dare the Brolga talk to him like that! Not even the Crows would be that insulting!
illustration by Davey Candlish

The Frog was so pleased with himself that his trick worked that he tried it on another animal. I should have tried to stop him, but he hid himself in the long grass near to the Emu, who was trying to leap like the Brolga. Of course, as the Emu is a flightless bird, she was finding this difficult. Pretending to be the Brolga again, the Frog’s voice took on a mocking tone and said, ‘Dance, Emu? You can’t even fly!’ The Emu was so embarrassed that she wanted to hide her head in the sand until it was all over. Unfortunately, most of the other animals could hear it as well. In the chaos of everyone dancing and laughing, no one could be sure that the Brolga wasn’t actually speaking. The Emu looked at her small wings, and she started to twitch with anger. I could see what was coming, but I couldn’t get to the Emu quickly enough. By the time I had flapped my own wings twice, she had rushed headfirst at the Brolga.
That Frog just didn’t know when to stop. There was me, shouting at him to be quiet, but too many of the other animals hadn’t yet noticed. They couldn’t see him, as he stayed hidden. I discovered later that he had crept behind a eucalyptus tree, where Koala might have noticed if he had been up there, but he was still sleeping on the ground. He had already used up more energy than he normally would. Even as the Emu started pecking furiously at the Brolga, the Frog started jeering. He called out all kinds of impolite comments, his voice disguised as the Kangaroo and the Kookaburra. He pretended to be the Eagle and insulted the Platypus. ‘Hey, Platty!’ he said. ‘Why do you look like two animals stuck together? You look like a duck pie!’, which hurt Platypus’ feelings immensely. She was already sensitive about her shape, like the Wombat. Frog made up a song for the Wombat, which he sang in the Kangaroo’s voice. Admittedly, it was quite catchy. It went, ‘Roly-poly-foly-woly Wombat ate a dozen grubs and then a bat’. But no one else sang along.
I looked frantically for the Frog, but I couldn’t find him. In the meantime, all the other animals blamed each other and started throwing insults all over the place. The Snake and the Cat pulled the Emu and Brolga off each other, but not before the Emu had damaged the Brolga’s leg. He had to stand on one leg to rest his knee, which the Emu had pecked and pecked until it bled.
I spotted the Frog behind the tree. He was laughing, enjoying the spectacle of feather and fur flying all around him as the animals and birds fought all around him. Even the Koala joined in when he was woken up by the Frog calling him a lazy lump. He thought it was one of the Crows cawing in his ear. Suddenly, the Frog leapt up. Still, no one noticed that it was he who called out, “Fight! Fight! Fight! Last one standing is an Earthworm!’ As you can imagine, this didn’t please the Earthworms much at all.
I headed straight for that mischievous Frog, but he jumped up out of my reach onto a tall rock, where he could look down on the chaos. I spread out my tail feathers to get everyone’s attention. Normally, my feathers are so beautiful that I can’t be ignored…”
Neomie felt she should interrupt at this point to agree with him, out of politeness at least. “Well, they are quite pretty,” she said.
The lyrebird looked at her, his eyes hard glittering beads in the strange light. “Of course. Now, if I may continue, there is a point to this story.”
“Sorry.”
“All right then.” He fanned his feathers, shook them, then tucked them back in, as if to emphasise his point. “I fanned my feathers and ran from animal to bird to animal again, trying to tell them it was the Frog’s fault. I pleaded with them to stop, but either they couldn’t hear me above the growling, screeching and squeaking, or they didn’t want to listen. There were other animals that were far more important than me. It went on and on.”
“How did it stop?” asked Neomie.
“The fighting and arguing got worse and worse and louder and louder. The air was so full of noise that the Wind went away to the open spaces beyond the forest, and I found it difficult to flap my wings to reach the Frog. He was urging them on and on, until suddenly the sky filled with new shades of colour. The noise had woken the Spirits.”
Neomie had never heard the like. “Wow,” she said. “Fair dinkum?”
“Yes. They stopped the fighting and made us all stand still. They were very angry indeed and we were all very embarrassed.”
“What are they like?”
“Who?”
“The Spirits.”
“Well, they’re Spirits.”
“I’ve never seen one.”
“Oh yes, you have. You just don’t know it. The Spirits are Now, Then and Soon. They are Sky, Sea and Sleep. They are visible and invisible, with you but alone.” As the bird said this, he looked up at the sky, as if recalling a lost sad memory.
“Oh.” Neomie thought she understood, but she wasn’t sure. It was probably better to let the bird continue.
“The Sprits decided to punish us. We had always been able to talk to each other and understand each other, but the Spirits took that away because of the fighting. We lost our common language. From that moment onwards, each animal and bird spoke its own language. Dogs would only understand other dogs; wombats would only understand other wombats. Some animals kept the beauty of their original voices, particularly the birds. If you listen to the forest, you can hear us birds calling out to each other. We enjoy each other’s music, but only a crow knows what another crow is saying, and it’s the same with the kookaburra and… Anyway, that isn’t so bad. But I did feel sorry for the Frog, even after all the trouble he caused.”
“What did they do to him?” Neomie was desperate to know.
“That naughty Frog. His own voice had been so beautiful, and he was so skilful at copying other voices. It was such a sad loss.”
“What happened? Tell me!”
If the lyrebird could have shaped his beak into a smile, he would have. She could tell he was teasing her. “Have you ever seen a frog?”
“Yeah, loads!”
“What sound do they make?”
A light went on is Neomie’s head. “They croak!”
“Exactly! The Spirits punished Frog by giving him a croak. There would be no more singing and mimicking for him. It always sounds now as if it is painful for him to even call out to his friends.”
The lyrebird looked modestly at the ground. It almost seemed that he was ashamed. Neomie had seen him show so much pride in himself up to this point. “What about you?” she asked. “What was your punishment?”
He looked up. “Punishment? Oh no, Neomie. I was given a reward. Because I was the only animal who had tried to stop the fighting, they decided to make me the only animal that would still be able to talk to all the others. Apart from me, no animal or bird can talk to one of a different kind. They can only talk to their own. And now, outside of the Dreamtime, in the world of people and gardens and cities, I am the only animal able to talk to all the other animals. I can imitate their voices. And other sounds too. I am always there in the forest, ready to talk peace between animals, ready to listen, ready to answer the call of the loneliest of all animals. That’s why the original people of this land respect me as a peacemaker.”
Neomie wondered which animal was the loneliest of all. Then she realised. Every animal is lonely at some time or another. And so is every person. But it was OK, because there is always someone to listen, whether it is a person, or an animal, or a bird.
“Do you ever get lonely, Mister Lyrebird?” she asked.
He hesitated. “There is always an ear to hear me, whether it’s of my kind or another,” he said. “You’re never lonely as long as there is someone to listen to you, and no one is ever lonely if you listen to them. Remember, listening is different from hearing. You just need to learn to speak the same language.”
Neomie thought of her mother and of that morning. She remembered what Dad had said. She and Mum just spoke different languages. She suddenly remembered something. The step. Where was it? She looked around, trying to find the step and the door to the house. Everywhere she turned there were trees, bushes, flowers that were thick brush strokes of colour on the canvas of the garden.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a fluttery grey shape move like a blur into the trees.
“Lyrebird?” she said.
Gone.
But what was that sound? From deep within the forest, she heard a thin, birdlike voice call out, “Goodbye, My Girl Dreaming!”
*              *              *
Neomie awoke later than usual. Lying in her bed, with the sun streaming in stripes through the blinds, she could hear clattering in the kitchen. She lay there a moment, listening. Plates and a cup were clinked carefully in the empty sink, and then a whoosh of water as the dishes were rinsed. Then there was the rattle of the cutlery drawer as things were put away. Must be Mum. It didn’t sound like bang-crash Dad at all.
Neomie dressed quickly, brushed her hair and teeth, then ran along the corridor to the kitchen. Dad was at the table, sipping coffee. His plate of bacon and eggs was half finished in front of him, the knife and fork placed together at one side. Dad always ate just enough, never more than he needed. Coffee, on the other hand, was a different matter. He could sit and sip the thick blackness all day.
“Hey, Dad,” said Neomie, sitting across from him.
“G’Day, Sport,” he said with a wink. Dad could always be relied upon to be Dad.
“Where’s Mum?”
“In her studio. As it’s Saturday and we ain’t working today, I thought we’d let her have some time painting and you and I can go out and so something. We could head into town.”
Town was hardly Melbourne, but there’d be some shops. Ice cream, a magazine, maybe. If they picked the right day, the one-screen cinema might have something on that she hadn’t seen. There were possibilities.
“Maybe, Dad. Can I talk to Mum first?”
Dad smiled to himself, then picked up his fork. “Seeing as I’ve got this brekkie to finish, you’d better do that now, before I leave without you.”
The air in Mum’s studio was fresh. Originally, it was probably built as a conservatory or sunroom, for there were big windows all around its three outside walls, and the open skylight let in the morning sun. It was cool, though, shaded by the garden trees that had grown up along one side. Beyond them was the edge of the forest.
Neomie stood in the doorway, watching her mother painting. She wore a smock over a linen shirt, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. For the first time, Neomie realised that Mum’s view from her studio was the same garden in which she spent most of her time. Although the back door from the kitchen was next to the studio, she hadn’t given it much thought, as Mum didn’t like her coming in.
Mum was sitting on a stool, with her paints, brushes and water laid out beside her on old table once used for pasting wallpaper. As Neomie watched, she dipped her brush in a blob of blue paint, then dabbed the merest flicker of it onto the canvas in front of her. Neomie’s eyes moved from her mother’s hands to the painting.
What she saw made her gasp.
The painting, in strong, smiling colours, showed animals and birds dancing around a pool. In the cool pool, fish bobbed, whilst a platypus, a wombat and birds of many shapes and sizes were posed as if dancing around the pool. Amongst the birds were a brolga, a kookaburra, and a lyrebird.
If Mum had heard Neomie, she didn’t show it. She carried on painting, adding tiny details to the lyrebird’s tail feathers, as Neomie came up behind her. Without saying anything, she placed her hands on her mother’s shoulders. Without thinking, she leaned forward and kissed her mother on the top of her head.
Mum turned around. There was a hint of a tear in her eye. She looked up at Neomie from her stool and said, “Hold out your hand”.
Neomie held out her hand. Mum placed the handle of the paintbrush in her palm.
“Your turn,” she said.

 THE LYREBIRD ON THE DOORSTEP

by Jason Cobley

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

MONEY - A SHORT STORY

Hi everyone. I hope you're all keeping well. Here's another free short story to maybe help with those isolation blues. If you like what you're reading here, do check out the novel I'm working on. We still need support. Although this is hardly the time to be asking for money, more than ever it's rewarding to come together on something creative. For supporters, I'll be posting an exclusive new extract from the novel in the next couple of days. In the meantime, here's 'Money'...

MONEY
by JASON COBLEY
(illustration by Jim Cameron)

“Good morning,” chimes the voice in the phone. “Welcome to MidWest Bank. If you are a customer, please enter your sort code and account number”.
            I obey. “If you require information about balances and withdrawals, press ‘one’. To open another account, press ‘two’. To enquire about an existing complaint or register a new one, press ‘three’…” I stop listening to the details. I just want to know how I can get to speak to a person, or what passes for a person in some automated call centre in Glasgow or Bombay or wherever it is. “…customer service advisor, press ‘zero’”. I press. I wait.
            “You are in a queue. Your call is important to us.” The voice thanks me for my patience; then it plays me a tinny panpipe version of Wind Beneath My Wings.
            While I wait, I lean against the brushed steel rail. The food court is behind me, busy with shoppers, the escalator below. I could really do without having to phone the bank on my mobile in the middle of a shopping mall. I could just go to the nearest branch – there’s one on the floor below – but by the time I’ve queued only to be told I need an appointment, I might as well stand here looking spare. Besides, I have another reason for not going. There might be people I know working there. I am shivering. I really wish I’d worn a coat, but, well, I don’t have one. This jumper has to do. I could put on another layer but I need two hands to do that and it would be just my luck to get through at that exact moment. I wish I could buy a hands-free kit.
            “Hello, MidWest Bank, how can I help you?” It’s a Scottish accent, possibly Edinburgh, and quite friendly. I tell her my problem. She takes my account number, sort code, security number and my mother’s maiden name, and then puts me on hold. Maybe I didn’t give enough information. Blood type needed, maybe?
            Another voice in another department interrupts the wispy panpipes of My Heart Will Go On. I explain again. “I applied for a credit card almost two months ago. I sent in the forms, and since then I’ve heard nothing”.
            “Yes Madam, let me look at your details on the screen.”  This involves forty-five seconds of static silence. “I can see here that your application has not progressed since 21st April.”
            “I think I just told you that. I’m calling to find out why.”
            “I don’t know. I’ll have to transfer you to the relevant department…”
            I have to resist the temptation to throw the phone down towards Tie Rack. “No, hang on. Can’t you tell me anything?”
            “I can see that you were sent a letter on 11th May. Have you received that?”
            “Letter? No. What does it say?”
            “I can’t tell you that. It’s confidential information.”
            “But it’s addressed to me, and you’ve just verified who I am. Emma Green”.
            The voice, disembodied and dispassionate, ignores my rising frustration. I feel my own voice reaching squealing level. I swear I’ll stamp on this handset in a minute. I should know better, but I’m feeling desperate. “I can send you another letter, Miss Green.”
            I’ve lost. I could let off some steam into the phone but I’d only get a pre-programmed response and probably look pretty undignified in front of dozens of strangers. “Do that, then.”
            “Can I help you with anything else?”
             “No thanks.” I hang up; thrust the handset into my pocket. I look around; I suppose to check whether anyone had been listening. No, everyone has better things to do. None of the countless people going about their own business even notice me.
            I lean forward on the rail, looking over the edge at the people standing patiently on the escalators, moving between layers of shops, boutiques, cafes and more people. So many are clutching bags splashed with the names of chain stores. How do they all afford it? They’ve all got credit cards, that’s how. Until payday, I can’t even buy myself lunch.
            My foot kicks against the black bin bag at my feet. It bulges with old clothes. My gift to Oxfam or whichever charity shop will take it. I had sat down, once I had put Tom to bed, and gone through the wardrobe. I tried to slide the wire hangers along the rail but it was too full. Spilling the clothes onto the floor, I was searching for anything new-looking enough to put up on EBay, but it  seemed so thin, cheap and washed out. Like me. So I bagged it up, brought the bag with me.
            I slide down the barrier and sit beside the bag. I clutch it on my lap, like a teddy bear. I think of Tom when I do this, biting my lip. I have no idea what to do next. My other three credit cards are at maximum. I can transfer at least one of them to another zero per cent interest rate for a few months when it finally comes through, but in the meantime I’ve still got to make this month’s payments. The monthly bills are going out by direct debit in the next couple of days, including the electricity, the rent and repayments on the two loans. Yesterday, I went to pick up the phone to “consolidate” my debts into “one convenient monthly payment”, but then I realised I had already let BT disconnect me. I survive on the mobile, with the pay-as-you-go. Most people ring me. Most of my friends and Mum know how hard it’s been for me and Tom, managing on our own, without The Bastard. Mum calls him that now as well. It’s kind of funny. Except it isn’t.
            I had met Darren at work, at the bank. Midwest. How ironic is that? Not the one in this shopping mall, mind you, another one. We were both behind the counter, young (well, youngish) and enjoying life, such as it was, with no responsibility and no chains. He was confident, good-looking in a cheeky sort of way, and I was probably an easy target: quiet, not a party girl, but slim and pretty and, to be honest, grateful for the attention. He scooped me up, moved me in, got me pregnant, then moved out. It wasn’t that simple I suppose, but it felt that quick. I couldn’t keep working after Tom was born. It was too much, on my own. I went into the bank one day to try to see him, to show him what he’d walked away from, but the word was that he’d taken a transfer to another branch. In a way, it’s a pity. He’s got a beautiful son that he’ll never know anything about. In another way, he’s a total and utter bastard and I want to stick hot knitting needles in his eyes.
            I’m not really very comfortable, sitting on the cold, hard floor. My knees, tucked up to the bag, are starting to ache. I stretch my legs out to help the muscles back into a more comfortable shape. As I do this, the tip of a bulbous white trainer glances over my scuffed shoe. It isn’t that exactly that makes the teenager trip, though, it’s the fact that a stray thread from the frayed hem of his dragging jeans catches my toe. He trips, skids, falls on his knee. He swears as the lid of his tub-sized industrially thick milkshake clips off and the contents spill down his hand. His friends laugh through their baseball caps as he blushes through his spots. Embarrassed and angry, he sees me getting up, trying to apologise. Or maybe he just sees red.
Half of the milkshake lands on my chest, a lump dropping to my lap. The remainder hits the polished floor. I don’t react, I just look. He looks back for a moment, then runs towards the escalator with his friends. Other people also look, but they have their own concerns and look away, suddenly interested in a shop window or their fingernails.
I’m lucky that I have a change of clothes with me. As furtively as I can with half the shopping centre regarding me with a mixture of suspicion and sympathy, I jump the queue for the ladies’ toilets. They can all see the state of me: no one argues. In the cubicle, I tear open the black bin liner. I sift through the old t shirts and threadbare jeans and pull out the warmest thing I can find. I peel off the milk-caked clothes that I am wearing and pull on an old musty, bobbly half-zip fleece and a pair of cheap supermarket jeans, dark blue with a knee-sized hole in one leg. I stuff everything else back in what is left of the bin bag, but I can barely hold it together.
On my way to the exit, outside the bank, the ripped bin liner finally gives up and empties its guts onto the floor. On my hands and knees, I gather it all together: some clothes a picture of who I am now, some a faded reminder of what I once had. One is even an old hat that I bought on a whim and wore once. I leave it upturned and, tired, I sit with my back against the glass of the bank’s display window, my head below a sign offering fixed rate mortgages.
My eyes are closed when I hear the first tinkle of coins. I look. Someone has dropped two ten pence pieces and two five pence coins in the hat. Whoever it was has moved on.
Then there is someone else. A man, six feet tall, slightly chubby but good-looking in a cheeky way, drops a pound coin and a handful of coppers in the hat, seemingly his change from buying the Marks and Spencer chicken salad wrap that he is holding in his other hand. He winks at me as he chomps down on it, then walks into the bank.
Transferred.
He doesn’t recognise me.
Maybe I’ll go in.

MONEY
by JASON COBLEY