Adult Activities: A Tale Of Domestic Detection, by Rae Litting (short story)

For the first three years of our marriage I believed every single word Geoff said.  Looking back I suppose this was overdoing it.  But Geoff was a remarkably honest person.  He never cheated on his tax.  If he didn’t want to go to an office party he never said he was busy, he told them that he didn’t want to go.  If you asked him whether he liked a dress he would say, “Not really, but you wear it if you like it.”  Not particularly romantic to be sure.  But honest to the core.

When I met Geoff he was a bookish young man with rather thick glasses.  I always thought he wore the glasses because they fitted his image. It wasn’t until be removed his glasses and attempted to kiss me for the first time that I realised he actually had poor eye-sight.  He managed to miss my lips and gently caressed my ear.  His favourite form of entertainment was to go to talks.  The Writers’ Festival was his idea of heaven.  Frankly, I would rather watch TV.
My utter faith in his honesty was shaken by a seemingly trivial incident.  I had spent a Saturday over at my mother’s helping her to spring-clean.  My mother is given to extreme cleaning, and I have always accepted that her house has to be kept pristine, even if my own is bordering on the grotty.  I returned to find Geoff sitting in front of a crossword puzzle looking forlorn and alone.
“Did you miss me?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, and I heard him add under his breath, “That woman is a selfish bitch.”
I was shocked – I had never heard Geoff say a bad word about any of my relatives.  “You said you liked my mother!” I exclaimed.
“Did I?” he replied.  “Well, I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.  You can’t help the fact that she’s a…. your mother.”
The very next Monday he told me he had tickets to a talk at the library.  “You can watch The Lydia Black Mysteries while I go,” he said. “I don’t really like that show.”
I was upset, because I prefer to watch The Lydia Black Mysteries with Geoff, whether he enjoys it or not.  “What’s the talk about?” I asked.
“To tell the truth I forget,” he said, evasively I thought.  “I bought a ticket when I was returning my library books.  I thought the talk sounded interesting at the time.  Heavens, I hope I still have the ticket.”  And he scrabbled around in his wallet, where he discovered a rather tatty piece of white paper.  He peered at it short-sightedly, and I saw on it the words ADULT ACTIVITIES.  “Yes, that’s it,” he murmured, shoving it back into his wallet in what I took to be a furtive manner.
Adult activities!  He was going to a porn night!  And this was a man who refused to watch R rated movies.
Of course I had no doubt this “talk” was not at the library at all.  Distrust coursed through my veins like a mighty river.  This was not just a lie to save my feelings.  This was blatant dishonesty, and I was going to catch him out.  It would mean missing Lydia Black, but it was what Lydia herself would have done.  It would mean following him in the second-best car.  The only time I had ever tried to follow anyone before I lost them when the lights turned red.  But I was a woman wronged, and I expected the Fates to be on my side this time.
So when Geoff left the house I waved him goodbye from the sofa, then bolted for the door as soon as his car had drawn away from the house.  I had to wait until he was some distance down the road, but we live in a cul-de-sac so there was only one way out.  Geoff is a careful driver, and in my wild Lydia mode I soon caught up with him.  It was dark, and I hoped that in his rear-view mirror my car just looked like two indistinguishable headlights.  Actually he was heading for the library, but I guessed his real destination.  It must be the rugby club across the road.

Soon I was drumming my fingers impatiently on the steering wheel.  Geoff seemed very cool for a man on his way to a night of tawdry sex.  What had caused this bizarre change in his behaviour anyway?  Oh hell, what made me ask that question?  The answer was obvious.  He was bored with me.  I was certainly not the most exciting woman on the planet.  But Geoff was not the most exciting man.  He was a comfortable, conventional sort of person.  He suited me very well.  No he didn’t.  He was a liar and a pervert.  I had misunderstood him all these years.
Geoff pulled into the library car park.  Ho!  He was ashamed to be seen parking in the rugby club.  I had some difficulty finding a park myself, and by the time I got out of the car I noticed a number of people assembling.  My goodness, you would be surprised the sort of people who go to porn nights.  Grey haired couples, chubby middle-aged women, even a young woman in a Muslim headscarf. And unbelievably, they were heading for the library.  There was a sign up advertising the night’s talk, which was called “Dirty Deeds”.  My faith in the right-ordering of the universe was in tatters.  How could libraries offer this sort of entertainment?  Is this where my rates were going?  I would write a letter of complaint.  First I would sit through the disgusting evening myself, and gather evidence. Then I would write and complain.
I waited until Geoff had entered the Entertainment Room before sidling up to the desk to buy a ticket.  A young librarian told me I was in luck, they had only a few tickets left.  I wondered that she was not embarrassed to be selling tickets to such filth.
I reckoned rightly that  Geoff would sit as near to the front as he could, due to his poor vision.  The room was nearly full, so I took my seat up the back.  I looked around nervously to see if I recognised anyone, but thankfully I did not.
The speaker rose – now he did look the part.  He was small, overweight, and dishevelled.  His skin was blotchy, he had dark rings around his eyes from want of honest sleep.  He fiddled with the overhead projector in which I had no doubt all manner of lurid photography was lurking.  He tested a microphone.  He obviously intended to give a commentary – I thought explicit sex would be explicit enough without explanation.  But then I had never been to a porn evening before.
Geoff was talking to a man sitting beside him.  They seemed to know each other.  Had they been to this sort of entertainment together before?  Geoff was laughing.  He wouldn’t be laughing when he knew who was watching him from the back of the hall.
The first slide came up – DIRTY DEEDS written in lurid scarlet letters.  There was a sub-text underneath and I strained my eyes to read it.  It was written in a pale mauve colour, and I expected it to say something like “Lust in the suburbs” or “How to get more sex more often.”  Oddly enough it said, “Socio-economic determiners of the Global Financial Crisis.”
To this day I do not know what the socio-economic determiners of the Global Financial Crisis were.  There were no explicit bedroom scenes to delight or shock the audience.  There were not even any recognizable pictures.  There were graphs.  I could not understand any of them.  I suppose I was relieved.  Perhaps I was also a little disappointed.  Then I was heartily ashamed of myself.  Then I was bored rigid.  I crept out, and on the way to the door saw a large poster advertising CHILDRENS’ ACTIVITIES – School Holidays at Your Library.  I went home in time to catch the second half of The Lydia Black Mysteries.
It’s a good thing I left early, because Geoff arrived home soon after.  “How was the talk?” I asked with as much innocence as I could muster.
“Awful” he replied.  “The speaker was hopeless.  No-one could understand him.”  There you are.  He really is the most honest man alive.  “How was Lydia Blake?” he asked.
“She was a bit silly really,” I replied. You think I confessed to him?  Not likely.  Sometimes silence is wiser than honesty.

***

The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

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Below The Deck, by Reena Mukherjee (short story)

Nathaniel had never seen so many of them before. They came in their dozens, flooding in, all wanting the best of everything – the most expensive suits, the priciest bowlers…standing behind the counter, the young man wondered what in the world these ragged seamen could hope to find in a store such as Gentry’s Wardrobe. From what he could tell, the great majority of them were completely inebriated – the reek of strong ale on their breaths could be smelt from over twenty feet away.
Turning to consult his ledger, the astounded shop assistant tried to hide his anxiety. As Nathaniel fought to supress the sense of paralytic fear rising within him, his usual wit managed to take over. “We have a shipment of stock to come in by the next boat, my good sirs,” he said after a moment, hoping that the pirates (if that was what they were) had sobered a little as they had grown accustomed to their new surroundings. One of the men closest to Nathaniel leaned over the counter, stopping only when his face was just an inch away from the young man’s. His chin was coated with a week’s worth of stubble, and the smell of his breath – cheap alcohol mixed with the foul stink of rotting teeth – filled the air between them. “By the next boat, you say,” he said, eyes narrowing as his mouth quirked up into an amused smirk, “and what might she look like?”
As Nathaniel McCarthy made his way back home through the deserted London streets, he thought about the mysterious visit from the unshaven, cutlass-wielding army of men who had stormed into Gentry’s Wardrobe that afternoon. If his owner found out that they had even set foot in the shop, he would be livid. But something about their very presence confused him. Pirates, in London, drunk and in a store like Gentry’s Wardrobe? Something just did not add up, and Nathaniel felt, despite his better judgement, that he needed to find out what.

Unlocking the door to his flat, the young shop assistant let himself into his humble abode, hanging up his coat and hat. He trudged up the stairs to his room, lost in thought, nearly stumbling over the worn mat placed at the top of the stairs. “Hello, dear,” his landlady said, walking past him down the stairs, “rough day?”
Nathaniel smiled at the elderly woman hobbling down the staircase. He would not say for certain that she would be capable of this much longer, and the thought pained him. With his mother dead and his father never known to him, she had been his mother and friend for several years now.
“You could say that, ma’am. Busy, in any case, what with Mr Oakfield out of town,” he smiled. The woman looked at him with a peculiar smile, before shaking her head, “My dear boy,” she said a length, sighing fondly, “do you know what you need? A nice young lady friend, that’s what. I’m getting old, you’re of age, and I’d like to see you settle down before the day comes that – ”
“Ma’am, please!” Nathaniel said quickly, not caring that he had quite rudely interrupted her, “Please don’t say that! You’ll live to be a hundred, I’m sure.”
His landlady shook her head sadly but said no more, bidding him goodnight and continuing her own struggle down the stairs.

Nathaniel McCarthy awoke the next morning to sunlight filtering in through the small window of his bedroom. Stretching and blinking as his eyes adjusted to the light, he reluctantly but immediately got out of his bed and went to look in the mirror. As his synapses caught up with him, he remembered exactly what it was that had sparked his speedy arousal this Saturday morning. Today was the day he would make the trip down to London Docks – the trip that would explain the conundrum of the intoxicated pirates and possibly be the only bold and adventurous thing that this lanky, dull shop assistant of average height and income would ever do in his entire life.
Dressing quickly, Nathaniel ran his fingers through his unruly locks in a habitual but pointless attempt to tame them. Today, he had exchanged his waistcoat for a simple tweed coat and swapped his pocket watch for one of those awful cigars he kept about the flat as a precaution for the rare occurrence that a visitor might drop by. It was hardly an impression he was proud of, but one had to look the part. Jogging down the stairs, he muttered a hurried greeting to his landlady who was already up and pottering about the kitchen, slipping on his shoes at the door and leaving the flat with a spring in his step for the first time since he had moved into the complex.
Today was going to be different, Nathaniel could feel it in his bones. If his wit and determination persisted, he would get to the bottom of this riddle, and perhaps lighten the feeling of guilt that came with the knowledge that – somewhere out on the high seas – a ship of innocent traders was in danger of being attacked as a result of his initially harmless white lie.

When Nathaniel arrived at the London Docks, the place was teeming with the usual morning confusion: horses, carts and people of all classes and purposes milled around, while sharp-eyed pickpockets darted in between them. As he battled his way through a melee of unshaven ruffians, Nathaniel’s eyes settled on the one sight he had come in search of. Tucked behind the larger cargo ships, its wooden masts protruding just above the smokestacks of the other boats, hid a great, wooden ship. The flag of the wooden vessel had been lowered to half-mast, but the black and white pattern was just perceivable as the battered sheet fluttered odiously in the salty breeze.
The shop assistant looked hesitantly over his shoulder before boarding the pirate ship. Unarmed and clueless, he would have been the perfect target – and, therefore, had the best chance at learning exactly what was going on in the world of rogues that had resulted in these rum-reeking cutthroats openly parading the British streets.

As he carefully descended onto the deck of the ship, continually glancing about him, Nathaniel became aware of the distinct sound of snoring from below the ship’s deck. That explained why the ship had not already left port. There was also another sound, coming from deep within the boat. Nathaniel could be sure of this because it was barely audible – little more than a muffled thudding. Warily navigating his way around the ship, the salesclerk began the descent to the hold of the pirates’ vessel, slightly apprehensive of what he would find hidden in the shadows.
“Lay down ya weapons and surrender, boy.”
Nathaniel McCarthy, twenty five and living as a citizen of the greatest empire on Earth, never thought he would see this day. Down in the ship’s hold, he was being held at gunpoint by a pirate who seemed to be the very one he had fooled the night before with mentions of a boatload of expensive goods headed for the docks. However, being a man of good conscience, that was the least of Nathaniel’s current problems. The sight was enough to make him sick. All around him in the infested hold of the ship, women lay, bound and gagged. The worst of it was not that they were women…but that they all appeared to be with child.
“Thought we were sleepin’ off the booze, didn’t ya? Thought you could fool the mighty warrior of the seas, didn’t ya?” The pirate grinned, yellow teeth flashing as he tore the cutlass from his belt. Nathaniel’s mind made the connections fast. “I don’t believe it!” he cried, shaking his head in disgust, “I’ve heard of assaults and lootings and the slave trade, but this… this is low, even for you!”
The pirate captain – or at least, that is the position he appeared to hold – laughed without mirth. “We are pirates, my dear lad! The scourge of the seas, a force to be reckoned with!” The edge of his sword stopped just short of Nathaniel’s chin as he leaned forward. “Don’t ya think we’ve sold our hostages, ransomed our enemies? But this, my lad, pays ’andsomely! And we’re doing our bit for those ol’ folks up in the cities. They want the little bundles; we want the big cash.”
Nathaniel was more and more horrified by the minute. “Have you no brains whatsoever? You’re trading women as surrogates! Do you count them as loot now, too? Have you any idea what the price on your heads will be if the British government hears of this?” By now, the man was beginning to realise exactly what he had got himself into… a new and wicked business that these rogues would do anything in their power to protect and advance.
The pirate’s mouth curled up into a malicious smirk, “But they won’t find out, will they, boy? Who’s gonna tell ’em? They ain’t gonna be any the wiser for years! Not till we’ve bought ’em all out – every single one of ’em pollies in the big red chairs!”
The salesclerk swallowed, but squared his shoulders. “You’re right, Captain. There’s no one to tell them. You will become the highest power of the seas – the richest, the most feared. The clever are with you – the fools alone are against you.”
“And which might ya be yourself, lad?” was the interested reply. Nathaniel looked upwards, meeting the pirate’s gaze with unwavering determination and what he hoped was sincerity, “Those who know me like to say I’m sharper than a cutlass.”
This time, the pirate grinned, but the look in his eyes was unreadable. “Take him to a cabin an’ lock him up!”
Another pirate materialised out of the shadows behind the shop assistant, roughly grabbing and binding his wrists. When he had secured him, this pirate – shorter and scruffier than his captain – led him off, shoving him harshly into a small room and causing him to stumble. Only when the thud of the heavy oaken door slamming shut reached his ears did the sales assistant begin to worry.
Nathaniel waited for the footsteps of the departing pirate to die away before he looked around his room. It was entirely devoid of any type of furnishing or ornamentation, and the only feature of the vacant cabin was a small, square window in the side of the room. However, it was little help, as it faced the expanse of ocean rather than the busy docklands. Even if Nathaniel yelled his lungs out, his cries would only be washed out to sea. When the ship started moving again, it would be even more hopeless, as – even if anyone were to hear him – no sailor in their right mind would near a pirate vessel if they could help it. Nathaniel – and the women aboard – were trapped.

Hours passed and night began to settle in. Nathaniel’s shoulder throbbed painfully but the unrelenting door did not sport a single dent. Exhausted, he slumped against the wall, burying his head in his hands. To his temporary relief, the boat had not started moving yet, so there was a chance that they would not set sail until the following morning. But even then, the case appeared to be hopeless.

It was late at night, certainly past midnight, that Nathaniel was once again attempting to break the lock on the cabin door. His elbow ached from thumping against the metal, and he rested against the door for a second, trying to get his breath back. Nathaniel was staring at the wooden-planked floor, when a tiny, jewelled instrument – no more than the size of his finger – slipped into the room via the gap at the bottom of the door. Surprised but wary, the salesclerk kneeled and picked it up, inspecting it carefully. He might not have had much experience in women’s accessories, but from a single glance, Nathaniel McCarthy could tell that the small object in his hands was a hairpin.
Click. The young man could have cried out in pure exaltation as the lock slid back and the door was unbolted. But of course, he did not. Were he to open the door and find a pirate waiting for him on the other side, his efforts would have been in vain. Deemed a liar, he would most likely be executed in whatever form amused the pirates most. Instead, Nathaniel waited patiently on the other side of the door, listening for footsteps and doing his best to pick up any heavy breathing.
When he was fairly certain that no one was on the other side, Nathaniel drew the door back without a sound and furtively peered around it. He was met with an empty passageway, and the sounds of hearty merrymaking from above. He must act now, or never. Quickly, he ran to the ladder that led to the hold, careful that none of the floorboards creaked under his weight.
On his way past the drugged, pained women, Nathaniel stopped to kneel by the side of one. She seemed at a first glance to be only semi-conscious also, but the pattern of her breathing soon told Nathaniel otherwise. Perhaps the drugs they had administered to her had worn off, or perhaps she was resistant to the substance – either way, it did not make a difference. All that mattered was the fact that, though the clothing she wore (most probably the same that she had been captured in) may have been torn and soiled, the silk was most certainly of a costly variety. Her skin was fair and clear, and all else about her spoke of a comfortable life and an upper class upbringing. The pin had to have been hers.
Gently, he placed the hairpin in her hand, and smiled surreptitiously as her fingers moved covertly to grip it. He whispered his plan in her ear, and then, aware that time was of the essence, he was off again. Reaching the ladder, he sighed in relief as the boat began to sink slightly. On his way out of the cabin, Nathaniel had displaced one of the wooden planks which made up the flooring, and water was very slowly filling up the hold. The pirates would feel it in no time. Now, the salesclerk hid behind the empty barrels of rum up on the deck, watching the pirates.
Already tipsy, the band of ruffians were dancing and singing and rejoicing over their latest hostage. It was about a minute, therefore, before one of them shouted, “Aye, she’s got a leak! She’s got a leak! Tom, bring ‘er up on the land!”
Smirking triumphantly, Nathaniel waited patiently until the boat was moored properly, before he quickly lit one of those horrendous – but extremely handy – cigars, and dropped it into a barrel. Not a moment had passed before flames began erupting from within the wooden drum. All chaos broke loose.
“Fire! Did you not hear me?! Fire! Off the ship! Boys, off the ship, if you value your lives!”
“Fire! Put her out!”
“No chance – we can’t save her! She’s already aflame!”
While the pirates dashed for their lives – some even jumping overboard into the water, Nathaniel acted fast. He leapt off the ship and nicked an empty cart, and swiftly loaded the women who had assembled on the deck (as per his instructions) onto the makeshift wagon. Pulling himself up into the saddle, he flicked the reigns, and they were galloping at breakneck speed out of the dicey environment.
Looking in the mirror, Nathaniel adjusted his bowtie and straightened his waistcoat. His landlady stopped to regard him with an approving smile. “You look like the right gentleman you are, Nathaniel. Off to see Miss Clemonte again, are we?”
“As a matter of fact, I am,” the other answered, a light rose-coloured hue tinting his cheeks. “She says that she still can’t comprehend how much I’ve done for her, and how I managed to get her out of that wretched prison before any of the pirates touched her.”
“You’ve always been quite the hero in my eyes, Nathaniel,” the woman said with a kind smile, patting his shoulder. “Good luck today.”
“Thank you, ma’am. I’m confident everything will go just fine.”
“As you should be. See you this evening.”
When the landlady had shambled off, Nathaniel McCarthy turned back to the mirror with a light smile, regarding himself for the second time in the space of a week. Something had definitely changed. He still earned a mediocre income, he was not any taller than he had been last time, and his frame was still gangly and lean. But despite this, when Nathaniel took a closer look, he found exactly where the change had taken place. The change had occurred in his eyes. Once a little distant, they had now become focused and alert – reflecting that bright, sharp brain of his and the wit and bravery he managed to demonstrate in times of hardship. Nathaniel McCarthy was finally someone – and he was a hero.
Still ordinary? Maybe. Still dull? Definitely not. Nathaniel may not have stopped the slave trade, but he had managed to save lives, and at the end of the day, that was all that mattered.

***

The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

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Murder At Beaumont Manor, by Jo Hart (short story)

On arrival at Beaumont manor, I was ushered into the sitting room by a middle-aged maid whose eyes were red from crying. Finding a dead body is bound to have that effect.
“Please take a seat, Detective Thomlinson,” she sniffled. “Mr. Beaumont will be with you shortly.” She bustled off, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief.
I took in the grandeur of the sitting room, filled with dark-wooded furniture and artwork from every corner of the globe, before turning my mind back to the situation at hand. I knew little about the victim. The few items recovered from his body told little about his life: his overalls, shirt and boots, a set of keys, a pocket knife, a small box and ring, a handkerchief and some loose change. Hardly different to any other labouring man, if you didn’t count the pruning shears protruding from his chest.
Hank Beaumont, a bulky man with grey-tinged reddish hair and a ruddy complexion, filled the room with his presence. His moustache still bore traces of breakfast.
“Sorry to call so early,” I said, rising to shake his hand.
“No need to apologise, I appreciate you coming so quickly.”
We sat in seats opposite each other, divided by a coffee table where the maid soon deposited a tea tray.
“Bad business, this,” Beaumont said as he spooned sugar into his cup. “Austen Grey has been the gardener here nearly ten years. He was a magician with the roses.”
“It was the maid who discovered the body?” I asked, though I’d already read the report.
Beaumont nodded. “Poor thing. She’s completely beside herself.”
“And Mrs. Beaumont?” I asked. “How is she taking it?”
“Not well. She’s been locked away in her room all day.” He sipped his tea. “I suppose you’d like to see where he was found?”
He downed his cup and I left mine untouched, not really being much of a tea drinker. The green landscaped gardens bloomed with roses. The sweet scent was almost overpowering. Beaumont led me down a paved path to a small orchard of peach and pear trees.
He tucked his hands into his pockets and rocked on his heels. “The police took the body, but we’ve left the scene untouched.”
Austen Grey had been pruning the trees when the fatal event occurred. His ladder lay in the grass and, upon examination, I found the place where the ladder’s feet had gouged the soil. The pruning shears, covered in the gardener’s blood, had already been taken into evidence.
Beaumont coughed. “Looks like a nasty accident if you ask me,” he said. “Lost his balance on the ladder and fell on his own shears.”
“Except the police found him lying on his back with the shears sticking out of his chest.”
Beaumont coughed again and rocked on his heels more vigorously. “You mean to say he was murdered?”
“The coroner said there was no sign of a struggle,” I continued. “I’d say he was murdered by someone known to him?”
Beaumont’s face lost all colour.
“Of course maybe he was just taken by surprise,” I added. I indicated for him to walk with me back to the house. “Your manor is quite secure. Locked gates, high walls. It would be difficult for an intruder to enter your grounds?”
“Yes. A man of my wealth can’t be too careful against thieves.”
“Who was on the property at the time of Mr. Grey’s death?”
Beaumont thought it over. “I was in my study writing a letter to the bank and my wife had taken to her room with a migraine. Then there was Lotty, who found him when she went to take him some lunch.”
“Is that all?”
“My good friend, Professor Newell, dropped by earlier to leave me some papers, but he had left well before Lotty found Austen.
“I’d like to talk to Miss Lotty.”
We returned to the sitting room, where the tea tray had already been removed. Beaumont left me and returned with the frazzle-haired woman. After assuring me I would be able to find him in his study, Beaumont left the maid and I alone.
“Let’s start with how you found the body,” I prompted.
She nodded. “I was takin’ Austen his lunch like I always do when he’s workin’ in the orchard, only when I get there I see him layin’ there on the ground with his shears stuck in his chest.” She sniffled and pulled her handkerchief from her apron pocket.
“What did you do then?”
“I ran back to the house and told Mr. Beaumont and he told me to ring the coppers, so I did.”
“Has anyone ever expressed ill-intent towards Mr. Grey?”
The maid fidgeted in her seat and wrung her hands. “I-I shouldn’t say. I’ll lose me job.”
I leaned forward and gently took her hands in mine. “I know of a family who is hiring right now, if it comes to that,” I assured her.
She gulped. “It was two nights ago. I was just finishin’ up my duties when I heard yellin’ comin’ from Mr. Beaumont’s study. I shouldn’t have eavesdropped, but curiosity got the best of me. Mr. Beaumont was sayin’, ‘How could you do it to me, Scarlett? How could you desecrate our marriage bed with the gardener!’ I was in shock. I’d have never thought Mrs. Beaumont to be an adultress, but he was sayin’ clear as day that he’d seen her sneakin’ off with him. And she never argued back so she must have been guilty.”
“Did you hear anything else?”
“No. I heard footsteps towards the door then, so I got out of there quick as a wink.” She looked up at me with watery eyes. “Do you think Mr. Beaumont killed Austen?”
I left the maid to find the answer for myself. Mr. Beaumont was in his study, as he said he would be, and with him stood a tall, lean man in spectacles. Both smoked pipes as they studied some papers on the desk.
“Ah, Detective Thomlinson, you’ve finished speaking with Lotty, then. I’d like you to meet my good friend, Professor David Newell.”
I shook hands with the professor, whose handshake was limp in comparison to Mr. Beaumont’s.
“I teach architecture at the university,” he told me. “I’ve been helping Hank with some designs for a new building.”
“You were here the day Mr. Grey was murdered,” I said, turning down Beaumont’s offer of a smoke.
“Yes, dropping off some information on building structures. I was gone before it all happened, only heard about it later when Hank called me with the terrible news. Murdered, you say? Hank led me to believe it was an accident.”
“Well, I thought it had to have been,” Beaumont said gruffly. He took a few hard puffs of his pipe.
“You didn’t happen to see anything suspicious as you left the grounds, did you, Professor?” I asked.
“Not at all. You really think it was murder?”
“I’m afraid so. Would you mind giving me a few moments with Mr. Beaumont, I have some more questions to ask of him?”
“I’ll go implore Lotty for some of her delightful finger buns,” he said.
“How would you describe the state of your marriage?” I asked when I was sure the professor was out of earshot.
Beaumont walked over to the unlit fireplace and stared into its depths. Smoke puffed up from his pipe and only the sound of the mantle clock broke the silence. Finally he spoke.
“I suppose I might as well tell you everything, though it makes me look guilty as sin. I assure you, though, Detective, I had nothing to do with Austen’s death.” He took another few puffs on his pipe before snuffing it out and placing it on the mantle beside the clock. He turned to face me, his hands clasped behind his back. “Scarlett and I had an awful row the night before Austen died. I believed her to be having an affair with him.”
“What evidence did you have for such an accusation?”
“There had been… signs. The smell of a man’s aftershave on our bed sheets that wasn’t mine. Long walks that she’d come back from looking slightly dishevelled. Then I saw her one day from my bedroom window, sneaking off with the gardener. She was looking about, as though making sure no one would see them together. I didn’t follow them to catch her in the act—I couldn’t bear the thought of it—but that night I confronted her. She denied she’d been sleeping with him, but she couldn’t give me a reason why they’d been sneaking off together.” He looked at me imploringly. “I know you’re probably thinking I went out there and killed him in a fit of jealous rage, and believe me the thought crossed my mind, but I swear to you I am no killer. I’d planned on firing him that very morning and drawing up divorce papers, but David talked me out of it. With the new business expansion it would all be bad publicity and he convinced me to wait until after the grand opening. You can understand now why Scarlett is so distraught over his death and hasn’t left her room.”
After calling for a policeman to stay with Mr. Beaumont until we knew for sure one way or another if he’d killed his gardener, I announced myself at Mrs. Beaumont’s door.
“Come in,” came her sniffled voice from within.
Her room was in stark contrast to the rest of the house. There was no dark furniture within her light and airy room. Everything was painted in whites and decorated in pastels. The woman in question sat by the window in a peach-coloured nightgown. Strangely, the room smelled of pipe smoke, though the lady herself was not smoking and I could see no trace of a pipe.
“Please excuse me, Detective,” she apologised. “I’ve been terribly upset by this gardener business and I’ve not yet dressed.”
“Is it true he was your lover?”
Her brilliant blue eyes widened. “Oh no! It’s not true at all!”
“Your husband seems to think otherwise.”
Her face crumpled into a frown. “He’s got it all wrong.”
“Then why don’t you tell me how it really is.”
She bit her lower lip and glanced wistfully out of the window. “You’ll think badly of me, but really how could I help it. I was only seventeen when I married Hank, barely even a woman. He was already thirty-three, and a rich and worldly man. He showered me with gifts and took me places I’d never been. It was all very exciting for a young girl. Looking back, I know that I never really loved him, not now that I know what real love is.”
“You fell in love with Austen Grey?”
She turned to face me, her electric blue eyes full of passion. “I’m in love with David Newell.”
“The professor?”
“It was almost an instant attraction. He understands me in ways my husband never has. We find ways to steal moments together. Sometimes when Hank is out of town or when David comes to drop off papers we’ll sneak off together behind the tool shed at the back of the garden. We try to be discreet.”
“But you got sloppy.”
“Yes.” She gazed back out of the window. “We weren’t careful enough and Hank started to suspect my unfaithfulness. Then he saw me stealing away with the gardener and thought he was my lover. I just know my husband killed him, and it’s all my fault. I should have told him the truth when he confronted me. My silence killed Mr. Grey.”
Tears ran down the woman’s pale cheeks and dripped onto her peach nightgown creating dark spots in the material.
“So why were you sneaking off with Mr. Grey?”
“He saw us – David and I – out behind the tool shed. He threatened to tell my husband everything unless I paid him off. That’s what Hank saw that day – I was giving Austen his payment.”
“I have one more question, Mrs. Beaumont. I can’t imagine you are so upset over this man’s death that you would spend all morning holed up in your room crying. In fact, I would think you would have been happy for him to be out of the way so he would no longer be able to threaten and blackmail you.”
Her orb-like eyes stared up at me. “Because I have ruined everything! David and I desperately needed for my husband’s new venture to go ahead so David could get paid for his contribution to the project and we could start our life together. Now with the murder, and all the bad publicity that will come from it…”
Mrs. Beaumont burst into hysterical sobs and I could get nothing further from her that was coherent. It seemed the case against Mr. Beaumont had grown stronger. Then again, Mrs. Beaumont and Professor Newell had equally good reason to have murdered Austen Grey. Perhaps he had asked for more money than they could afford to give him and, with the threat of their affair being revealed, one or both of them had silenced him permanently.
I had all the occupants of the house called together in the sitting room; I wanted none of them out of my sight until I’d determined who was the responsible party.
Scarlett Beaumont sat subdued on a red cushioned chair, chancing a quick glance at her secret lover. The professor avoided looking at her completely, instead studying the Monet on the wall opposite him. Hank Beaumont looked at his wife in a pained way before concentrating on lighting another pipe. The maid, Lotty, stood by the door, at the ready, should her master or mistress require something of her.
I cleared my throat to ensure I had their attention. “I think for us to get to the bottom of Mr. Grey’s death some truths need to come out into the open. The first of those is that Scarlett Beaumont was not having an affair with Austen Grey.”
Beaumont whipped his head around to face his wife. “You weren’t?”
“No, not with Austen,” she replied. “But I have not been faithful to you. I’m so sorry.”
“But then with whom?”
“That question can wait,” I interrupted. “For now.”
Beaumont’s jaw tightened, but he nodded. A dead man was more important than a faithless wife.
“Mr. Beaumont, tell me exactly what you were doing when you found out about Mr. Grey’s death?”
“It’s like I told you before, I’d finished my lunch and retired to my study to write a letter to the bank about getting a loan for the new building. I’d been at it for close to an hour when I heard Lotty come screaming up to the house. She was saying that Austen was dead. I told her to call the police.”
“And Mrs. Beaumont?” I asked, turning my attention to the lady of the house.
“I told my husband I had a migraine, but…” she looked at her husband guiltily, “but really I had company.”
Beaumont scowled and stepped towards her, but I held out a hand to hold him back. “In due time, Mr. Beaumont.”
He held himself off with effort and ground his teeth to prevent himself from speaking his mind.
“So assuming Mrs. Beaumont is telling the truth, both she and her company were occupied at the time. Lotty, you were taking Mr. Grey lunch and you saw no one coming from the orchard on your way there?”
“No, sir.”
“What did you do with the lunch when you found the body?”
“Pardon?”
“Did you drop it in shock, for instance?”
“No, it was still in my hand.”
“And you ran back to the manor?”
“Yes.”
“Without dropping any of the lunch?”
Lotty frowned. “I guess not.”
“You’ve know Mr. Grey a long time?”
“Nearly ten years, ever since he came to work here.”
“You know him well then.”
Lotty glanced around at the others in the room, who were so caught up in their own thoughts of guilt and adultery they were barely paying attention to our exchange.
“You loved him?” I asked.
Lotty’s mouth opened and shut silently giving her the appearance of a goldfish. Her cheeks flushed red.
“You know what I think,” I said. “I think you and Austen Grey were lovers. I think when you overheard Mr. Beaumont accusing his wife of sleeping with Mr. Grey you thought your lover had been unfaithful to you. I think you went down to the orchard in a rage, knocked him off his ladder and stabbed him with his pruning shears.”
“No! It’s not true!” Lotty’s eyes welled up with tears and she wrung her apron between white hands.
The others looked at her agape.
“Lotty?” Mr. Beaumont said.
“This is all her fault!” she screeched, pointing a shaking finger at Scarlett Beaumont. “What was she doin’ sneakin’ off all the time anyway? What was she doin’ sneakin’ off with my Austen. If she wasn’t sleepin’ with him, she was still meetin’ with him for some secret reason. There shouldn’t have been no secrets between me and him.”
“He was blackmailing me, Lotty,” Mrs. Beaumont said. “I was paying him off so he wouldn’t tell Hank about my infidelity.”
Lotty eyed us all, as the new information slotted into place in her brain. “What did he need money for anyway? We were happy enough.”
“Perhaps I can answer,” I said. “The police found a small box in Mr. Grey’s trouser pocket – a box containing a small diamond ring.”
Lotty dropped to her knees and buried her face in her hands. “Sweet Lord, what have I done?”
I escorted the limp and pale maid from the manor.
As the voices rose within the manor, I somewhat doubted Mr. Beaumont’s new business project would be going ahead any time soon, at least not until he found a new architect.

***

Jo Hart’s author website: www.thegracefuldoe.wordpress.com

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The Australian Literature Review
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Short Story Competition – June 2013 – Theme: Mystery or Detective

The Australian Literature Review has been running monthly short story competitions for AprilMay and June.

The theme for June is: Mystery or Detective

Stories should have a strong mystery element with clear stakes for the characters, and this mystery could be pursued by an everyday character or a professional.

Entry is free. Stories should be submitted to auslit@hotmail.com as an attached document or in the body of the email.

PRIZE:
– a book pack (titles below) courtesy of Simon & Schuster Australia
– feedback of 400-500 words on your story by Phillipa Fioretti

House for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodThe Island HouseBlack RosesClose My EyesRed SparrowThe Accidental ApprenticeSumerford's AutumnThe Burgess Boys

Stories for May are due by midnight on the 20th and the winner will be announced on the 30th. Stories should be previously unpublished.

Shortlisted stories each month will be displayed on The Australian Literature Review, helping writers reach readers and gain recognition.

Writers outside Australia are welcome to enter to have your story shortlisted and displayed on the site but only writers in Australia are eligible for the monthly prizes. International writers should indicate in your email if you live outside Australia.

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The fan fiction competitions for The Life and Times of Chester Lewis and for Possessing Freedom are also open to entries of 2000-4000 word stories until August 31. Each has a first prize of $2000 and entry costs $10 if you pay your entry before the end of June.

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The Australian Literature Review
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May 2013 Short Story Competition Winner

Congratulations to Rachael Mead for her short story Night Skyline, which has won the May short story competition (theme: small town setting).

Night Skyline shows the story of a Country Fire Service worker who attends a road accident.

Thank you to the other shortlisted writers and to everyone who entered a story.

The May short story competition is one in a series of three monthly short story competitions running in April, May and June. So you still have a chance to enter for June.

PRIZE:
– a book pack (titles below) courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia
– feedback of 400-500 words on your story by Alison Booth

AuslanderOnce You Break a Knuckle: StoriesCanadaUnaccustomed EarthWaiting for SunriseUmbrellaTenth of DecemberSan Miguel

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The fan fiction competitions for The Life and Times of Chester Lewis and for Possessing Freedom are also open to entries of 2000-4000 word stories until August 31. Each has a first prize of $2000 and entry costs $10 if you pay your entry before the end of June.

***

The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

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May 2013 Short Story Competition Shortlist

Congratulations to authors of the following stories, which have been shortlisted for the May short story competition (theme: small town setting):

Night Skyline by Rachael Mead

This Must Be The Place by Kris Cerneka

The Old Jenson Place by Tarran Jones

The Man Of Black by Tyler Gates

Protocol Seventeen by Rachel Sanderson

The May short story competition is one in a series of three monthly short story competitions running in April, May and June. So anyone who missed out on being shortlisted for May still has a chance to enter for June.

PRIZE:
– a book pack (titles below) courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia
– feedback of 400-500 words on your story by Alison Booth

AuslanderOnce You Break a Knuckle: StoriesCanadaUnaccustomed EarthWaiting for SunriseUmbrellaTenth of DecemberSan Miguel

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The fan fiction competitions for The Life and Times of Chester Lewis and for Possessing Freedom are also open to entries of 2000-4000 word stories until August 31. Each has a first prize of $2000 and entry costs $10 if you pay your entry before the end of June.

***

The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

Posted in auslit, short fiction, short fiction competition, short stories, short story, short story comp, short story competition, short story competition 2013, short story competition shortlist, short story competitions | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Protocol Seventeen, by Rachel Sanderson (short story)

A settlement designated non-critical will be deleted where it prevents access to supply of a critical resource. A record will be made prior to deletion.

We travel in guise as tourists. We have three days to complete the job and document what we can, as required under protocol seventeen. I’m confident, though I’ve never done this before. We know the layout. Seventy three houses, a third appear to be habited which is high for this region so far as anybody knows, though nobody knows much – it’s a long way out. We spot a few commercials too, some still in use by the look. One main street and a web of smaller streets coming off it. Beyond the town was farmland once. Farmland! I laugh when they tell us that, imagining chickens and cows, things out of a story. It’s deadland now.
‘How does this town even still exist?’ I wonder aloud.
When we disembark, we find ourselves alone on an empty slab of grey concrete where it’s cold and almost dark. There’s a sign, unlit, white letters on black: Roseville.
‘Seriously, who’s going to care?’ Jenna says, looking around. ‘Who wants to remember this place?’
‘It doesn’t matter who cares, it’s protocol’, I say. ‘That’s why we’re here.’

***

<21390517>
The team is pleased to report successful drop off and initial recon completed. While only eleven individuals were tagged on the first pass, it is anticipated that we’ll locate more tomorrow. Conditions are poor, vis is low and the temperature is subopt for actuals. Note that while the primary layout is accurate, it seems the detailed sim graphics were out of date. There are a number of new houses that appear to have been fabricated post-conflict; we suspect unauthorised. Therefore population is higher than originally estimated. Request data be updated to reflect this finding. Will provide further input tomorrow as a matter of priority. Request permission to offline.
<Permission granted>

***

‘I want to look around.’
‘Are you kidding?’ Jenna leans back on the bed and crosses her arms over her chest. ‘It’s freaking cold out there. And it’s dark. You can’t see a thing.’
‘I just want to look. We’re meant to be tourists, that’s what tourists do, right?’ Jenna shakes her head. ‘I’m off pay till tomorrow.’
‘You’re not curious? Not even a little?’
For a second I think I’ve got her. I see her forehead crinkle as she considers it. We’ve worked together a few times and I know, how can I put this, I know she doesn’t limit herself to regs outside of paid hours. But she shakes her head again. Already she’s got her deck up and is adjusting the display.
‘The connection’s bad. You’ll spend your night swearing at that thing,’ I warn her, but she only shrugs.
I shut the door, zipping my jacket, checking that my headgear is airtight. We saw a few people out without it this afternoon, but I haven’t run the tests yet and I know better than to trust untested air. That shit can mess with you for weeks.
The woman at reception downstairs gave us a code when we checked in. I could see Jenna trying not to laugh. Now I key the code into the cold metal lock and I’m almost surprised when it works and the door hums open. I’m introduced to a blast of cold air. I feel it on my hands and neck, the only body parts I’ve left exposed.
It’s dark outside. It doesn’t get dark like this in Citadel. I can’t think of the last time I was in true darkness outside of the crib, and the crib is different, of course. It’s not like you’re going to run into anything unexpected. It’s not like you’ll even be aware. I hesitate a moment, almost think better of leaving. I almost head back upstairs to Jenna.
But the only way to see is to get out there. So I step over the threshold and the door whirrs shut behind me.

It’s a block to the main street, which I figure is where I should go. I adjust the headgear once more, and set off. Truth is, I haven’t travelled actual like this in a long time. We used to do it all the time, my brother and me, when we were kids. We’d pretend all sorts of crazy, run around the streets causing havoc. But Citadel streets are quiet now. You know how it is; the crib is essential. You have to be in the loop. You mean to get out more but you don’t. Before you know it, you’re virtual almost all the time and it’s been weeks, months since you’ve done anything the old way. So it’s no surprise that my senses are on high alert. I can’t see much, the streets aren’t lit, but there’s a yellow glow coming from the occasional window, faint sounds of voices, strains of music. And the cold! It’s so cold. I’m wearing heavy, layered clothes but it doesn’t seem to help.
I walk past abandoned houses with yards overgrown by weeds. There are reminders of the war, even here – the occasional pit of a bullet lodged in concrete, the dark residue of fire. The drought has done its bit too. I can’t imagine what it might have been like in better times. I don’t even know if there’s ever been such a thing as better times here.
Better times come from better ways of doing things sings itself in my head.

I turn onto the main street. A figure is approaching. The details are obscured by darkness. I see it is a man, but something is not right. As he gets closer it becomes apparent that the colour has faded from his hair so it’s almost white. His skin seems to have lost whatever holds skin firm; it sags and wrinkles unevenly around his eyes and his neck, hangs in drooping folds under his chin. He weaves slightly as he walks, can’t seem to hold a straight line. He limps. His right leg is non-functioning, doesn’t bend at the knee. I observe his approach. Of course, I think, of course. A place like this: no coin, no juice, everything subopt. But still, this is something I didn’t expect to see. He’s old, I think. Unmitigated age. This is what it looks like. Old without the stems. This is how we all used to end, once. I breath a quiet expletive. Jenna won’t believe this, I think.
At first it seems he’ll walk straight past me. He is muttering under his breath. He is looking at the ground. He won’t even see me, I think. In fact he doesn’t see me and I am frozen to the spot, unable to process, as he lurches closer, and before I know what’s happening he’s walked into me, and I feel the solid weight of his body, smell the rank odour of sweat and something else I’m not familiar with, some scent that is sour and bright. He grunts.
‘You,’ he says. ‘What’re you doing here?’
‘My wife and I…’ I begin the line I’d practiced for a week.
He makes a noise. At first I think he’s angry. It’s a low, gravelly, roaring sound. His shoulders are shaking, his dilapidated face is turning red. Then I realise he is laughing.
‘Fuck me,’ he says. ‘My wife and I, how long since I heard anyone use words like that?’ Then his voices changes, becomes harder. ‘So what are you?’ He straightens up and holds my gaze. He’s a big man despite the degeneration. I am suddenly uneasy.
‘You an old-timer? Is that it? Why are you here?’
I start to stammer. I feel the firm ground of confidence rapidly dissolving beneath me.
‘I’m a tourist,’ I say. Stick to what you planned. Don’t deviate. ‘My wife and I are travelling together, from Citadel. We want to see the regions, learn more about our past…’ I trail off uselessly. The broken, grey houses around me make the words ridiculous.
‘Well, tourist,’ the old man says, considering me. ‘Welcome to Roseville.’

I follow him down an alleyway. I am surprised how quickly he walks, given his physical condition. There are smells in the air that I don’t recognize, discernible even through the filtering apparatus covering my mouth and nose. Rank, burnt, pungent. The man who is now my guide tells me his name is Jim. I don’t know why I’m following, something about him compels me. Suddenly he stops and I almost walk into him. We stand at the front door of a house with boarded up windows at ground level and broken windows above. A slither of light is just visible at Jim’s feet. He bangs a few times and the door opens. A warm, smoke-filled fug hits me. Voices rise in greeting and, uncertain, heart pumping, I am ushered inside.

People look up as we enter, but only for a moment. I’m surprised they don’t seem more curious about my presence. Guise is effective, I think. Maybe they do have tourists here from time to time. Maybe I’m not the first. There are a few others like Jim, old men, faded and withering, sitting around a table. They are sorting through small, brightly-coloured rectangles of paper, laying them down in columns and rows on the table, picking them up. One of them gives an impassioned cry and lays all his rectangles down at once, then there is discussion and disputation and someone collects them all and mixes them up and it all starts again. I am led past the table to the other side of the room where Jim calls a few words to a dark-haired woman across a high wooden barrier who hands me a bottle.
‘Roseville’s finest,’ Jim says.
I hold it. It is true glass, I think, a rare old thing, and tinted green. Jim is given one too and he raises his like he’s signalling to me, knocks it gently against mine.
‘May all your days be good ones,’ he says. I fumble for a response but it seems, if I follow his lead, the correct response is to drink. I quickly unsnap the headgear, tuck it back into the pouch that sits around my neck. I raise the bottle. The liquid is cold and bitter and gently buzzes on my tongue.

He begins to speak. It seems that he has been waiting for me, an interested stranger, to tell his story to.
‘I was born here in Roseville, you see. Lived here all my life,’ he punctuates his speaking with a dry laugh. ‘You and your woman will look round tomorrow morning, and be gone by the afternoon, sure enough.’
I’ve flicked my recorder to on, surreptitiously. This is what I’m here for.
‘My father moved here in the fifties, he saw trouble coming, and thought it was time to get away from the city. Started his own business here. Did alright too. Smart man my father, though he didn’t foresee how far the trouble would travel. But who would have, eh. Ah, you’re probably too young to remember all that.’
I nod, and say nothing. My earliest childhood memories are suffused by the war that tore the old city apart: the thumping bass of explosions, my mother’s face, pale in the darkness as she pulled my brother and I out of bed and into the shelter. The old man continues.
‘Born here, I was, and I’ll die here too, like my father did. He’s buried in the cemetery on the edge of town. I go there sometimes when I need to think. It’s a strange thing, I’m older now than he was when he went. Older than my own old Dad. That I didn’t expect. Won’t be long now and I’ll be joining him I guess.’
I order another round of drinks and he grunts his gratitude.
‘So have you ever been to Citadel?’ I ask.
‘Nope. Not one for travel. My children left, years back. My grandchildren are all Citadel-born, city kids through and through, but it’s too late for me now. My home is here. No, I couldn’t leave.’
I’m nodding, trying to contain my disbelief.
‘So you… you like it here?’
‘This crap-pile you mean?’ he snorts. ‘I know what it looks like to you, son, but you have to understand, all my memories are here. My whole life. I met my Nerida about a block from where we are today. We lived together on Drayton Street for gone forty years. She died there. I saw my kids grow here, and these old bastards,’ he gestures to the table behind us, ‘are what I have to make do with for friends.’ He waves to the woman behind the barrier. ‘Let’s have another, Etty, before I get too bloody sentimental.’

I’ve had too much to drink. My body’s not used to this sort of input. I stay a while longer then leave Jim there with his friends, say I have to check in on my wife, which is not entirely a lie. I let out a belch in the icy air and it echoes off the walls of the houses on either side of the street. I weave my way back through the quiet streets of Roseville. I don’t let myself wonder which house is Jim’s or what corner it was he met his love on.

Jenna is asleep. I hear her breathing. I’m swaying a little as I close the door behind me. I’m tired and drunk but I’m not yet ready to sleep. I should upload the night’s recording now, I think. That’s how we operate – transfer data as close to collection as possible, for safety’s sake. But something stops me. I’m not sure what.
‘Ben?’ Jenna’s voice is muffled and vague.
‘I’m here,’ I say.
The sensation is strange, a kind of aching in the center of my chest, a sharp compression in my throat. I wonder if it is from something in the air. I get ready for bed without turning the light on. I try not to disturb her. Somewhere between taking my jacket off and setting my deck to recharge, I stop. I’m shaking. I feel as though the air itself is quivering. Soon this will all be gone and all that will be left is what I capture. Words and images. Sound and light and the numbers they are made from. And maybe that’s all there is, under it all, I think. Maybe that’s all we are: a string of zeroes and ones. I suddenly feel so very tired.
‘Jenna,’ I say quietly, half hoping that she won’t hear.
She makes a small, sleepy sound.
‘Jenna, I think I’m getting too old for this.’
‘Old?’ she says. ‘That doesn’t even make sense.’

***

The Australian Literature Review
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