Mick stabbed the toast into his plate of beans and bacon. He wanted to throw the plate at the pristine kitchen wall, but Elspeth wouldn’t like it, and he would be the one to clean the mess up anyway.
Sod his lousy meal. Sod his right hand. Sod life. What was he waiting for anyway?
Why did he stay on here? He should have left years ago.
Mick sat and stared at his meal, hating his world and his crippled, useless body.
He sighed. Losing his temper was never a solution, as he knew too well. Pushing his chair back from the table, he picked up his dinner plate. He’d always loved a plate of beans and bacon and a slab of toast with buttered slathered all over it, but his appetite had gone with his temper. He picked out what was left of the bacon and ate it, then scraped the rest of the meal into the chook bucket. He’d watch a bit of news on the telly, then turn in for the night.
He almost didn’t hear the knock at the front door. Jessie’s bark warned him, as it always did.
It came again, a timid little knock. As though someone really didn’t want him to answer the door, but had to make the attempt.
He dropped the empty plate into the sink and listened again.
The front door, why was someone at the front door? No-one ever used the front door. Even the charity collectors brave enough to come this far out came ’round to the back.
He shuffled out of the kitchen, his bad leg trailing a little, and stood in the hall, still not quite believing the knock was real. The weather was lousy tonight. The wind had come up from the south and brought rain. He wouldn’t leave a dog out in this. The track down to the main road would bound to be flooded by morning.
“Is anyone there?” The voice was female and nervous.
As he undid the latches, Mick wondered what sort of idiot would be out on a night like this.
The massive front door, rarely used hinges protesting, creaked open. Not one idiot, but two. Two women stood on Mick’s front veranda, damp and shivering in the gale. An ancient van, painted with signs of the zodiac and rainbows, was parked on the track in front of the house.
The shorter, older one spoke first, in a breathy voice like a young girl’s. “We’re really sorry to trouble you. We were looking for somewhere to camp for the night, and I think we’re a little bit lost.” She looked up at Mick and swallowed nervously, “Do you have somewhere we could stay?”
Mick looked at the women. Spoken words took a long while to form these days, and he’d learned to take his time and not rush things, otherwise, they took even longer. He liked the older woman. Although she would have been in her forties, maybe even older, she was wearing some sort of hippy outfit that suited her curvy little body. Her dark curly hair with strands of grey in it reminded him of the fleece of a lamb he’d had when he was a kid. Silver bangles jangled as she moved, and long silver earrings threatened to tangle in her hair.
The sour look on the younger one’s down-turned mouth put Mick off her straight away. She was taller than the other woman and a good twenty years younger. Lank mousy hair hung onto her skinny shoulders, and her jeans and top were grubby. That girl didn’t want to be here, and everyone around her would be sure to know it.
Both women were starting to look nervous.
“Round the back.”
“What?” said the older one, startled when he finally spoke, “You want us to go around the back?”
Mick nodded and shut the front door. Elspeth wouldn’t like the rain getting in on the hall carpet.
He heard their voices and the sound of the van starting up, then shuffled the length of the house to the back porch. He was still getting into his boots when the little dark one came up the back steps.
“Kayla stayed in the van,” she said, less nervous now, “She didn’t want to get any wetter. I’m Marcie, by the way.” And she held out her right hand to him.
Mick looked at it, the small palm, the silver rings on her delicate fingers.
He brushed past her, collected his flashlight and headed for the back door.
Hay bales were stacked to the ceiling on the eastern side, but there would be room for the van, the women and their tent, and the hay would give them a bit of protection from the wind.
“No fires,” he said when they got there.
“Oh,” said Marcie, “Can we string up a clothesline? We’re both soaked!”
Mick nodded and turned away. He stalked back to the house, his shoulders hunched, oblivious to the rain. Two women. In his barn. Jessie hadn’t barked, so perhaps they were alright. And Elspeth didn’t seem to mind.
He washed up his solitary plate and frying pan and turned out the lights. He’d missed the news on telly now, he might as well go to bed.
The barn was empty the next morning, with only some flattened hay to show where the women had parked their van and set up their tent. Mick wondered how long it would take before they were back.
It was less than an hour. Mick had been feeding the chooks when he heard the van coming back up the road.
This time, Marcie came up to the back door.
“I’m sorry, there’s a creek, it’s flooded…”
She had that wary look in her eyes again.
“Two, three days,” Mick said, “Maybe a week.”
“A week! We were on our way to a music festival. I read tarot cards, you see, and sell screen-printed tee shirts and hand-made jewellery. I do the tee shirts myself.” She looked near tears. “I was relying on the money from the festival to buy some more stock.”
“Her?” said Mick, nodding in Kayla’s direction.
“Oh, Kayla? I’ve sort of adopted her. She ran away from home, I don’t know all her story.” She lowered her voice. “There was a step-father involved, I think she was abused. She was hitchhiking. I picked her up off the side of the road and told her it was a very dangerous thing for a young girl to be doing all alone.
“Not that it would matter if it was an old boiler like me!” Marcie laughed.
She wasn’t an old boiler, thought Mick, even though she might have been close to fifty. She was still a good-looking woman and would be until the day she died.
Would Elspeth mind her being here?
He wanted to smile but dared not.
“Barn,” he said instead and went to wash out the chook pail. It may not be raining any more, but the heat would cook them in a tent. They’d be able to dry out their clothes too.
The shadows were lengthening across the paddocks by the time he came back to the house to cook himself some dinner. He was almost there when he spotted a small, dark-haired figure in a veggie patch down by the creek.
“No-o-o-o!” he shouted, waving his hat at her as he tried to run the rest of the way.
Marcie had struggled to her feet by the time he reached her.
“I’m sorry, I thought I’d do a bit of weeding by way of paying you for our being here. Have I done something wrong? I’m really sorry if I’ve upset you.”
“No,” said Mick, his entire body trembling, “Not there. Not apple.”
The tree was in blossom, and pink and white petals carpeted the ground beneath it.
“Not near the apple tree?”
He nodded his head. “Stay away apple.”
“But the other end is okay?” Marcie pointed to the tangle of rhubarb and silver beet and tomato vines.
“Yes,” answered Mick. “Okay.” He nodded vigorously.
Elspeth would be pleased. She’d loved her veggie garden, and he’d never got the hang of gardening. With plenty of water in the creek now, he’d be able to keep the veggies alive all summer long.
He didn’t need Jessie’s bark to tell him something was wrong as he let himself into the house. He could hear the telly going, and it wasn’t seven o’clock or the national news but one of those horrible quiz shows. He got his dusty boots off as fast as he could, then shuffled up the hall to the front room.
Kayla was standing in front of Elspeth’s china cabinet. The door was open, and she held one of the delicate Dresden shepherdesses.
Mick was too frightened to speak.
“These’re worth somethin’, aren’t they?”
“Wife’s,” he managed.
“You’ve got lots of ‘em.”
He just looked at her, praying she would move away from the cabinet. Eventually, she placed the figure carelessly back where it had come from. Mick quickly shut the door, turned the key, took it out and slipped it into his pocket. He’d put it back after the women had left.
Did he want them to go? Not the little dark one, out there weeding the garden. This one, this Kayla, he wanted gone, wanted her out of the place, wanted her to just disappear.
She stretched out her legs on the floral tapestry couch, resting her dusty sneakers on one arm. He cursed his lack of strength. Not long ago, he would’ve knocked her feet to the floor, then given her a clip around the ears for her attitude.
“Watcha lookin’ at old man?” she sneered, “In ya dreams. Just like all the others, aren’t ya, desp’rate to get inta m’jeans.”
Mick shook his head, backing away from her. There was something wrong about this girl. She stank, for a start, the bitter odour of unwashed body and unlaundered clothes. Her pupils were dark pinpricks in pale irises. One of her long sleeves had ridden up to show scabs and sores. And why was she wearing a long-sleeved top in this heat anyway?
“Aah,” she leered, “It’s not me you’ve got the hots for, it’s Marcie! Just wait ‘til I tell ‘er.”
Mick turned away. He couldn’t stand to be in the same room as this horrible child. If only he could get rid of her and keep Marcie.
Would Elspeth mind?
He stood before the bathroom mirror, looking at his reflection in the fly-speckled glass over the green enamel basin.
“You were a good-looking man when I married you, Michael John Flanagan. It’s high time you did something about yourself, you’ve let yourself go.”
Elspeth always used his full name when she was annoyed with him. She was right, he knew. His tangled hair reached almost to his shoulders and was more grey than black now. His beard wasn’t much better.
He hunted around in the bathroom cupboard until he found what he was looking for.
Marcie was still in the garden, on her knees pulling out weeds, her back to him. He admired the way the little knobs of her spine formed a pattern under her thin cotton shirt until she realised he was there.
He held out the scissors to her.
“You want me to cut your hair for you? I’m not sure I’d do a very good job.”
Mick nodded. “Cook dinner. Roast lamb.”
Marcie smiled. “In that case, how can I refuse? If you’re happy to put up with the result, that is…”
Mick nodded again.
He pointed to the back porch, where he’d put a stool from the kitchen and an old towel.
“Now? No time like the present, I suppose.”
She walked beside him as they returned to the house, and Mick thought how right that felt.
After he’d put the lamb in the oven, he used the scissors to hack away at his beard, then tackled what was left of the stubble with a razor. He almost didn’t recognise himself in the old mirror.
They ate dinner in near silence. Marcie enjoyed hers and complimented him on his cooking. Kayla picked at her meal with her fork, one elbow resting on the table. Mick cleaned his plate. His roast wasn’t as good as Elspeth’s, but it wasn’t too bad either.
“Creek going down.”
“That mean we can get outta this hole?”
“Kayla, that’s no way to talk to our host! Especially after this lovely meal.”
“Tomorrow,” Mick grunted.
Later he lay in the dark, thinking about the long, sharp scissors Marcie had used to cut his hair. Where had he left them?
Thinking about the two women, asleep in the tent in the barn.
Jessie’s bark woke him just before dawn. Before he was even completely awake he heard the van go back down the track to the ford.
They’ve gone, he thought, and Marcie didn’t even stop to say goodbye.
After breakfast, he picked up the chook bucket and headed out the back door. A flash of colour from the barn caught his eye. They’d left their tent.
Why would they leave their tent, he wondered, and take off while it was still dark?
Jessie barked again, and he knew something was wrong even before he unzipped the door flap.
At first, he thought Marcie was asleep. She lay on a pink-flowered quilt, dressed in a thin, brightly coloured dress she must have used for sleeping in. Her silver rings and earrings and bangles were gone. She looked naked without them.
The flies hadn’t got to her yet, which was something to be grateful for. The only decent thing that little bitch had done was zip up the tent flap before she left. Mick zipped it again as he went out.
He thought it all out as he dug her grave.
If he called the police, he’d have to explain why there was a woman who’d been stabbed to death, in a tent, in his barn. He remembered the fuss there’d been when he said he wanted to bring Elspeth home to bury her. He knew people in town thought he had something to do with her death, even though it had been an accident. And since his stroke, they looked at him with even more suspicion in their eyes. As though not being able to use his leg or arm properly or even smile with his whole face made him evil somehow.
No, he wouldn’t phone the police.
He wrapped uo Marcie in her floral quilt and buried her in a coffin made from her tent. She would stay with him forever now, along with Elspeth, and Jessie, the best dog he’d ever had.
Together under the apple tree.
(c) Jane New
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A sneak preview of my time-travel romance “Dancing Time”, out soon on Amazon.
“Your coffee, miss.”
Rachel’s thoughts were focussed on the sepia-toned photo on the table in front of her. She looked up at the server, confused for a moment.
Propping the photo against the salt and pepper shakers in the centre of the table she mindlessly spooned several teaspoons of sugar into the white china mug and stirred the drink.
“You want anything to eat?” asked the server.
“No.” She wanted to study the picture, not eat. “No, thank you. This will be fine.”
Pushing the steaming mug to one side she concentrated on the photograph. The man would have been in his mid thirties, she guessed, perhaps ten years older than she was now. Dark hair, carefully parted and brushed to one side, curled around his ears. He was clean shaven, with a well-defined jawline and a finely moulded mouth. His eyes were a light colour—grey or blue or hazel, it was impossible to tell. A high, stiff-looking collar ensured he held his pose for the camera. A softly knotted, striped, silk tie complemented a buttoned up waistcoat and a smartly tailored jacket with satin lined lapels.
What colour were his eyes? Rachel wondered.
She reached for her coffee. She needed it, she realised, as the caffeine registered. She’d barely eaten since leaving Hobart late that morning.
The brown, cardboard frame bore the photographer’s imprint and a year: Wm. Simmondson, Zeehan, Tasmania 1898. And on the back, scrawled in pencil and barely legible, was another name: G. Lewis.
What did the G. stand for?
Gordon perhaps, like the river? Graeme? Garry? What names were popular in the eighteen sixties, when he would have been born? Where was he born? From the photo he looked English, but he could have been Australian, or American, or Northern European. He was light skinned, but that gave her little to go on.
Rachel looked up at the waitress.
“I’m sorry, miss, but the café’s about to close. I have to clean up.”
Rachel pushed her chair back and gathered up her big, tapestry bag and overcoat. She’d have to find somewhere to sleep, it was far too late to drive home now. She’d passed a motel on her way into Zeehan, she’d find it again and see if they had a room free.
After paying for the coffee at the counter she let herself out of the double glass doors of the Heritage Centre and Mining Museum, bracing herself for the chill and the inevitable rain. The downpour must have recently ceased however, and weak sunlight filtered out from under heavy, dark clouds in a final, feeble attempt at cheerfulness before night descended.
She would walk for a while, and clear her head before she did anything else.
“The forecast said thunderstorms for tonight, miss.”
Rachel hadn’t realised the girl from the café was standing behind her, waiting to lock the main doors to the building.
“Going to be huge, I heard. I just love thunderstorms, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Are you planning on being in town for long?”
“Just overnight, I think.”
“You’re in luck then, there’s a big fancy dress gig on at The Gaiety tonight. Still a few tickets left, if you’re interested in going.”
“What’s The Gaiety?”
“It’s the old theatre, you can see it from here.” The girl pointed up the street to a Victorian era building. “It’s all been restored, and they’re having the grand re-opening party tonight. Dancing girls and all.” The girl looked Rachel up and down. “You could go as you are.”
Rachel knew what the server meant. Her long, patterned skirt skimmed the top of her laced up, low heeled, ankle boots. The short red velvet jacket she’d found in an antique shop flared over her hips and was a perfect match for her white, high-necked, embroidered blouse. Her red curls—always unmanageable—were tucked into a floppy, black, broad-brimmed hat. She’d pinned an elaborate broach in the shape of a sunburst to the front of the huge, ex-military greatcoat she’d retrieved from an army disposal store.
She was the only person she knew who still wore a petticoat.
Her passion was searching second hand shops and garage sales for old, interesting treasures. She’d carefully restore any ancient garments she found with needle and thread and her great-grandmother’s treadle sewing machine.
Her hobby had led her to the photograph.
On a perfectly normal Saturday a week ago she’d been browsing through a cardboard carton of rubbish outside a nineteenth century sandstone cottage in one of the steep back streets of West Hobart. Old brass door handles competed with chipped pottery and broken strings of beads. She’d given up on the prospect of finding anything interesting, when the hint of a frame caught her eye. Carefully sliding the junk to one side she extracted the faded photograph now tucked safely in her bag.
After paying the owner the fifty cents asking price she’d taken her unlikely prize home. In her basement flat in New Town she propped the photo on the mantelpiece together with her other finds from that day—a small brown jug with a lovely glaze and a sewing basket from the 1950s—and gone to her afternoon ballet class. After sitting behind a computer at work all week ballet was an excellent way of keeping fit and working off steam.
But the photo of G. Lewis refused to leave her alone.
Those light coloured eyes followed her around the room when she was home and haunted her memory when she was at work.
Fantasies of long-fingered, masculine hands caressing her body kept her awake until the early hours. When she finally managed to sleep thoughts of him invaded her dreams.
Six days later she’d reached her limit.
To be continued…