In February, I was out on a limb trying to come up with a ‘branching out’ themed short story to enter Country Style Magazine’s short story competition. Thanks to some inspired suggestions from comments to that post, I managed to cobble together an entry just before the cut-off date.
Winning $5000 and being published in a magazine would be lovely but that’s not why I do it. The occasional challenge of entering a competition exercises my short story writing around a topic, word count and deadline.
Winners were to be notified prior to publication in the August magazine, which is out now. I haven’t had a call, so I can share it here.
when the bough breaks
I remember her as she was then.
This is not going to work out.
Her reflected pale visage flanked by her mother-and-sister-in-law-to-be in the backlit mirror of that mining town hair salon whose windows faced Shoey’s supermarket car park. Fair fine hair coiffed into an uncharacteristic chignon heightened the strange dream sensation.
Despite her calm mien understanding was revealing itself viscerally. Realisation of the mistake reinforced by her mind refuting all avenues of extrication. Flash of insight accompanied by gut instinct left her with the resolute conclusion she’d have to proceed.
Exit and explanations at this late stage weren’t going to happen. Yesterday was her twentieth birthday. Today was her wedding day. For better or worse.
Less than a year before, walking home one late night from her second job behind the bar at a local hotel, she turned the corner from the main road at the rose garden house, breathed in scented air, looked up, saw a bright star and silently chanted her customary… star light star bright first star I’ve seen tonight wish I may wish I might please make my wish come true tonight. Only this time she said the words, actually made a wish. “I wish for someone to love me. Just for a little while.”
The wish came true.
As they do.
Be careful what you wish for.
It manifested in the form of a new neighbour. A young bloke who for the first month had roared in and out of her apartment complex in a blue Toyota four-by-four. She’d spent the day studying, and lost track of time. A knock on her door made her realize it was late and she was starving. It was him. Hair damp, wearing ironed jeans and shirt.
“Do you like car races?”
“What are you asking me for?”
“I thought you might want to go?”
Momentarily she responded, “Wait”. Fled inside. Looked in the mirror. Looked for clothes. Found none better than what she saw in the mirror. Picked up her handbag and walked out the door.
The car races were cancelled due to rain. Over dinner at a fast food restaurant they got to know each other.
Her flatmate commented “He’s a bit of a yob”. She agreed. There was no avoiding him. Walking past his door. Taking the rubbish out. He was at the pub on nights she worked and ordered beers he didn’t drink much of.
He came to her door again.
“The car races are on tonight.”
Meeting his parents was like being welcomed home. Home that was a modest white cottage on a farm. She met his mother, father, sister, two large cats and small fluffy white dog. A special roast dinner.
The following Sunday after his parents attended their church meeting, he drove her out to the farm for his mother’s Sunday bacon and egg breakfast. Soon she accompanied him for mid-week laundry drop off and dinner.
As other things changed his presence didn’t. When new hotel owners took over, she didn’t ask to stay on. When her lease ended he helped her shift to another apartment in the same complex.
A change of job meant driving to a neighbouring town. After several months her new flatmate moved out. He suggested they get a place together.
Her new job didn’t require her to study so she deferred that semester. She read books instead. He never did. He preferred her to watch movies with him.
Several months later, officially a couple, they attended his cousin’s wedding. They met curious looks, expectations and enquiries with “It’s early days yet. Plenty of time”. Several evenings later, sitting on the sofa watching TV he dropped to one knee, produced an engagement ring and asked her to marry him.
“On your birthday.”
“Next year my twenty-first is a Saturday.”
“Wait a year?”
“We could have both.”
“What about this year? The day after.”
“Only three months away?”
Not ready to say yes.
But she wasn’t ready for things to change either.
He wanted to tell his parents straight away. They were pleased. Living together wasn’t right. He spoke to her Dad whose only comment was “Good thing”. Testimony to new wife, baby and business concerns rather than regard.
She wanted her mother’s borrowed wedding dress but it had been passed on. He chose a fairy-tale princess white gown & veil with a faux pearl circlet. Grey suits for him and the best man. Her baby half-sister flower girl a smaller rendering of his frilly pink bridesmaid sister.
The day before the wedding among her birthday mail was an envelope addressed to him in female handwriting. He shredded the note it contained.
Despite her epiphany, on the last Saturday of spring they stood before a celebrant, family and friends.
She looked like the bride doll from Santa the Christmas after her mother died.
She thought to make the best of it, and went on much as before. She hadn’t resumed part-time studies but continued working, enjoying her job and co-workers’ company. Her mother-in-law remarked it didn’t look right.
He sold his ute. To buy a newer model with a big truck kit he sold her car as well. They didn’t need two. She could walk, or he’d drive her.
His parents celebrated the first wedding anniversary with a family dinner. His father had a proposition. A late wedding gift. Five thousand dollars. Possibly his wife’s moonstone bracelet. When the baby was born.
They’d talked of babies. She’d said she thought not. He’d said she would change her mind. All women he knew wanted babies.
His work took him out of town. His friends took him out at night. She went out with her friends. Her mother-in-law remarked it didn’t look right.
He wasn’t there to drive her around. She went to the bank, arranged a loan and bought a second-hand Corolla.
On work weekends he stayed away. When invited, she drove to where he was. She spent Saturdays browsing the shops or walking the beach. They went out with his friends.
He liked her to look nice. To wear make-up whenever she left the house. Not too much. He had an eye for the female form. It was harmless. When he compared her, he meant well.
He’d had a couple of girlfriends. He talked about how sexy they were. He said he thought she was pretty. He didn’t like other men looking. He offered to pay for D cups. The kind fellow walking past smiled at her. He didn’t like that. Her encouraging looks. She hadn’t.
Grateful for an unwitting kindness.
If he was home on Saturdays, after she did housework she cooked dinners from magazine recipes to take to the farm. He liked her cooking, often enough finishing her dinner if she didn’t eat quickly. She played card games with his parents. He watched TV in the back room. They stayed overnight for his mother’s Sunday bacon and egg breakfast.
They drove to his grandparents at their hometown eight hours distant. His father sped like no time was to be lost. His mother took a sleeping pill. He went out with his friends. He didn’t come home. His father went looking for him. Found him at daylight outside a pub in the next town with a mate and an old girlfriend. He had nothing to say.
He didn’t want to feel bad so he told her. It didn’t mean anything. He was drunk. He felt better that she knew. He was being honest with her.
It was her fault.
She’d tried so hard.
He couldn’t be home for her birthday. He gave his workmate’s girlfriend money to take her out for dinner. He was going to buy her a present but he’d spent the money at the pub.
He went on a boys’ trip. Her aunt and uncle invited her to join them for the weekend at the beach. The weather wasn’t good. She returned home early. He’d been and gone. So had someone else. A lipstick on the dresser. It didn’t belong to her. Any colour except red.
She drove to her aunt’s. Her aunt said “I knew he was no good”. Her aunt confronted him. Told him what she knew. Told him what she thought. Her aunt and uncle picked up her belongings.
His parents telephoned. Could they visit? They knew but didn’t want to. Another old girlfriend. They wanted her to make it right. She couldn’t. She never spoke to him again.
She took back her maiden name. Left her job. Found a place to live in the city. She accelerated as her car reached the highway. Up through the gears over the crest of the hill. She didn’t look back. Not ever.
As I flick through pages of photo album memories I see her as she was then.
“Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.”