Updated: Jul 26
Image: Old Hands (Source: Google freestock)
Short stories are topical right now. 'Short stories have the power to transport us to another world. In just a few brief moments they can educate and entertain us. They can make the everyday seem extraordinary'. These words are the introduction to 'The Best Australian Yarn Short Story Competition 2023' (The Best Australian Yarn 2023). The competition, sponsored by Navitas has an impressive $75,000 prize pool. The deadline is 1 August, so get writing.
In the meantime, here is a short story I wrote. I'd love to hear what you think.
My Auburn Angel.
In the time before you, there was nothing I feared. There was nothing that I was afraid to lose. I was reckless with time. I knew yesterday was gone, and tomorrow would appear over a cloudy, water-coloured horizon. I was invincible, or so I thought. You took all of that from me.
Now, as I reminisce, I understand that I had been treading water. There was the occasional surge towards a vortex or a struggle against the tide, but before you came into my life, I had been without direction, without purpose. Now that I have known you, I understand. My life, all of my life, has been because of you.
Image: Antique timepieces (Source Amazon)
Before you, time was so pedestrian that I would spend it carelessly. Now, I am a vicious Cerberus guarding each moment with you. I snarl at any fool who dares to steal a moment away from our time together. Now, I hunger to spend every diminishing moment with you. All others become pale, inconsequential strangers.
The first moment I saw you, I knew there would be only you for me. It sounds overly dramatic. Nostalgic. Some might interpret it as some old, romantic fool's rose-coloured recollection from a time now so long ago. It might sound cliché, but it is the truth. I remember our first encounter as clearly as if it was mere moments ago. Mr Perry was asking you how thick to cut your steak. His thumb was poised an inch from his blade. Even before you spoke, I was captivated by your perfume. The sweet scent of gardenia still takes me to that day.
Image: Perry's Quality Butchers (Source: Vintage Views)
'I'll be with you in just a minute Cyril. I’ve got them twenty-five pounds of our best snags packed and ready to go. I just have to finish serving young Edith here, and I'll be right with you. You and the boys sure love our snags. What’s the occasion this time? Another big night at the footy club, I suppose?’
You glanced at me over your shoulder. The butcher's fluorescent tubes were treacherously tuned to make the produce look redder. The light gave your long hair a glowing halo as you turned. I couldn’t discern your expression. Perhaps it was impatience that an interloper was about to interrupt your order.
I couldn't speak. Even when Mr Perry repeated his banal banter in response to my unusual silence, I was oblivious. From that moment, every sense was tuned to only you.
The original Mr Perry is long gone now. For years, we'd still get our meat from 'Perry’s Quality Butchers'. Young Mr Perry, his eldest son, who was left the family business, must be in his sixties now.
Although I can remember exactly how I felt, I can't recall what I said that set our lives on such a wonderful path. I must have made the Manning Colts' Trophy Night sound as glamourous as the Brownlow Medal Count. Whatever I said, I'm glad I summoned the courage to ask you. I was overwhelmed that you took a chance on me and said yes.
Later that night, before midnight of course, when I dropped you home, I walked you to your door and paused on the doorstep of your parents’ house. When you placed your tender, hand in mine, I was embarrassed by my turpentine-calloused hand. When you kissed my cheek, my fate was sealed. For more than seventy-five years, I have remained smitten.
The lights in our eyes have dimmed from what they once were, but our love has exceeded everyone's expectations except our own. Your parents and friends were dead against us seeing each other from the start. The teachers at your school tried to warn you off me. If I were them, maybe I would have too. An apprentice painter was hardly a great catch. I'm so thankful you didn't listen to any of that talk.
Image: The Manning Rippers, 1949 (Source Manning Historical Society)
I held your hand when our son, Robert Cyril, was born. I thought my fingers were going to break. I held your hand when our Sharon Rose was born too.
You gave my life meaning. You gave my life purpose. Love has bound us together through rollercoasters of chaos and joy. It hasn't always been easy, but looking back, the hardships we've endured have only served to bring us closer. In your fifties, you had that scare. It scared me too. I couldn’t imagine that my life would be worth living without you. You clenched my hand so tightly during those days of chemo that my hand became as numb as my heart. I feared that I might lose you. But we pulled through.
Image: Grandchildren (Source: Pinterest)
Two children and now five grandchildren. There’s no doubt, I've been a lucky man. I've never understood how time within your constellation is never constant. The years with you have flown by so quickly, yet time away from you has dragged. Now it is time that is determined to tear us apart.
I stare at your liver-spotted hand with its spider web of veins, prominent and blue. I feel your hand tremble, but my grip does not waiver. Arthritis has swollen your fingers and keeps your wedding band permanently affixed. You wouldn't let them cut it off.
'If I haven't taken it off in fifty-seven years, why would I take it off now?' you said.
I've never been able to win an argument with you, and now I am too tired to try.
With the back of my hand, I caress your cheek. Your skin is translucent parchment – yet I feel your beauty still shines through. I push your hair across your forehead. What was once glowing auburn is now as white as mine. I stoop awkwardly, my back creaks, and I grip the bedhead to steady myself as I place a kiss upon your forehead. I never thought you’d be the first to go and I would change places with you in a moment. I don’t know what will be left of me when you are gone.
Image: Edith's hands (Source: Freestock)
That's when I feel a hand on my shoulder. I stand upright, my back groans in complaint and I shuffle around to see a nurse standing before me. She looks like she should still be in school. She could be one of our grandchildren. I guess she is someone's grandchild.
'I'm so sorry, Cyril.' she says as she guides me to the chair.
The nurse reaches around to the drip that has been a relentless metronome counting down our time together. The rhythmic drip, drip, drip that has played out a silent tune finally stops.
Image: A silent metronome (Source: Free image by rawpixel)
I bury my head in my hands. The ward seems unnecessarily bright now. Suddenly the sounds are loud and harsh. I imagine I can smell sweet gardenia above the antiseptic sterility of the ward, and I mumble to the nurse, 'I know. I was just saying goodbye'.
Image: Sweet Gardenia (Image: Freestock)