by Dwina Giles
A sort of love story
Squatting cross-legged on the carpet Chris reaches out to the low coffee table and adjusts her notebook by just one centimetre. She stares at the screen. Taps her teeth with knuckled thumb. Small lines of concentration appear on her brow.
Chris is thinking.
The first draft of a short story is always the hardest. She knows all too well the effort of forcing her imagination to work and the fight that follows as she tries, one way or another, to get the right words into the computer. She’s no Barbara Cartland.
‘Write about what you know’ was the golden rule of the creative writing course she had taken a few years back. It was a time when she had felt that she would go ga-ga unless she could break away from the social zero that seemed to be her daily existence. Or was that just a broken heart taking excessive time to heal? Chris the writer shrugs and lets the old technique reassert itself as she commences an internal dialogue with the ‘I’ who is me, Christine the real person.
OK, it’s going to be about a boy called Sean.
Instantly I rebel.
How can we make Sean the subject of something as ordinary as a short story?
Because we know him so well. What we write will ring true and what we make him do will be in character. And we love Sean, don’t we?
But me no buts! I’ll just get on with it.
I lose my patience.
Then for goodness’ sake don’t adjust that computer again. I always know when you’re copping out!
Chris sighs, straightens up then reaches for the keyboard once more. This time she starts to type:
I am thirty-four years old, no siblings, parents dead. I was working as a librarian in the charming New South Wales country town of Orange, where I lived on one of the hilly cross streets up from Captain Cook Park in a house that I still own. It’s little and old but pretty, surrounded by rose bushes that flourish in the high country’s extremes of temperature to produce the heavy, heady scent that welcomed me home on still summer afternoons. I like my sort of work and I’m good at it. I keep very fit, watch my diet and dress smartly. I joined—and left—many interest groups including, of course, Creative Writing. I consider myself good company.
I was also desperately lonely.
Then Sean came along and everything changed.
My job was to advise primary schoolchildren on appropriate reading. In that capacity I visited numerous schools, to sit in a corner of the library during lunch break ready to talk to any pupil who approached me. Of the many who quizzed me on Hogwarts School, the first was a shy little redhead who sidled up one lunchtime to whisper,
‘Miss, can you get me some Harry Potter books. You know, by JK Rowling?’
That was nearly three years ago. Sean was eight (and three quarters, he was quick to instruct me) and, I soon discerned, already an accomplished reader. But there was something different about this little boy. He was polite and correct with me—not withdrawn, far from it—but solitary, always contained within his own space. Then I recognised what I should have seen straight away. Sean was kindred spirit. He was lonely, too.
I was intrigued, so I asked the Principal.
‘Oh, there’s no problem in class and within school hours he has plenty of friends. But you’re right, he is different.’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘Well, Sean doesn’t live with his parents, or even with one parent—at least a quarter of our school seems to be in that sad situation. No, Sean lives with his grandparents.’
‘His mother was killed in a car crash, oh, nearly two years ago and his father, well, his father couldn’t take it nor could he cope with Sean. Too many memories, apparently...’ the Principal was scathing, ‘…so he went off on some government job where he made sure Sean was unable to accompany him. Not exactly dangerous, I believe, but a place where families are just not encouraged. Oh, he sends plenty of money to the grandparents.
‘I keep in touch with them,’ she added, ‘they’re good people, but old, just old. It’s not a good situation for the boy. He’s got so much to give.’
She paused for an instant, tapping a finger against a book she was carrying—a bit nervous, perhaps—then cast an appraising look at me that said “you have no responsibilities, you don’t do much, why can’t you do a bit of unofficial social work?”
Well, I thought, unfortunate as it is, I’m certainly not going to raise the subject with Sean just like that. Redhead or not, he’ll retreat straight into his shell. In any case, no way would he take kindly to me knowing about him behind his back. But despite questioning, at length, the prudence of the idea I did feel drawn to the little boy who read so well, talked a blue streak when he was interested and only grudgingly allowed other pupils to take some of my time.
The Principal had noticed all this. That’s why they’re Heads of School, I thought.
‘He really is looking for grown-up companionship. You sure you can’t help?’
At home after work I stared unseeing at the TV as over and over I examined my emotions and the sort of journey that might stretch out before me. I knew enough about emotionally deprived kids to be well aware of what any initiative on my part might bring about. Would this be a voyage of discovery or an irresponsible escapade? And why was this worrying me so? Wasn’t I over it yet?
That night I got little sleep. In the morning I phoned the Principal.
On my next Friday visit to Sean’s school there he was waiting, first by far, just as I had grown to expect. Casually, I mentioned to him that I liked to walk on Mount Canobolas, the extinct shield volcano that dominates the scenery around Orange and is the highest peak between the Blue Mountains and the Indian Ocean, more than three thousand kilometres away across Australia.
In an instant I had his full attention. His mouth opened just a tiny bit as he stood before me in his quietness, willing me to keep going.
How could I not?
So I explained how I adored the mountain, with its dramatic rocks and chasms, glorious wildflowers and the mysterious paths through thick bush where there were surprising numbers of kangaroos and wallabies to be seen or, if I was lucky, an echidna.
‘Once I even saw a lyrebird shaking his tail feathers in full display. Just like a peacock, only more, well, musical.’
Sean smiled as he picked up my description—I knew he would—and his eyes lit as I had never seen before.
‘Cool! I’d like to see things like that but my Grandpa is not very good at walking anywhere.’
‘Perhaps,’ I said with care, ‘I’ll have a word. Maybe you and I can go together. Would you like that?’
He was transformed. ‘Oh yes please!’ Then his face fell. ‘But how will you tell them?’
‘Why don’t I come back with you after school?’
‘They’re old, you know. And on Saturdays I usually help with the grocery shopping.’
‘Well, how about shopping together then a picnic on Sunday?’
So I returned at three o’clock to wait by the school gate, just like a real parent. Sean almost ran to me, but he looked worried.
‘They don’t know you, perhaps they’ll be scared.’
‘Ah, but I have a letter, Sean, written today by Ms. Roberts.’
His smile returned. Clearly, anything from his Principal was beyond question.
The grandparents were indeed very old. Although pleasant enough they were wary until they had read the letter of introduction and checked my Education Authority identification card.
‘Well,’ they eventually said, ‘we don’t mind Sean coming with you on Sunday. But he must help with the shopping. That is his Saturday job.’
‘It’s all right,’ I replied, ‘we’ll go together. I get my things on Saturdays, anyway.’
They exchanged glances and looked back at me with what was suspiciously like relief on their faces. But they weren’t foolish.
‘You don’t mind if we phone Ms. Roberts?’
‘Grandpa!’ Sean was mortified.
‘No, of course not. It’s right that you should. Look, I’ll come round tomorrow morning. OK Sean? About nine thirty?’
He gave me the widest of grins.
That night again I couldn’t sleep. What had I taken on? But it’s only temporary, I told myself—Sean had a father who I was convinced must be returning sooner rather than later. You can’t push life into the background forever.
Next morning dawned bright and it was an excited little boy who was waiting by his front gate as I drew up in my tiny car.
‘Where shall we go, Miss? I usually take the bus with Gran. Shall we go to our supermarket?’
‘Sure,’ I replied, ‘that’s my shop, too. Look, Sean, we’re going out as friends, right? Call me Chris.’
His eyes widened as he contemplated the very thought of addressing an adult—almost a teacher!—by her first name. But he nodded.
The revelation came when we were walking around the supermarket aisles. Sean knew the stock intimately. He knew about use-by and sell-by dates, contents (nothing that doesn’t say no added salt or no MSG). He even had some idea about genetically modified. Most of all, though, he spotted every special offer, package deal and two-for-one in the store.
‘Gran says always look for a bargain. Money doesn’t grow on trees.’
I stifled a smile, realising that was exactly my philosophy. Sean was a better shopper than me, though. Living alone makes you lazy. It was a sad reflection of my lifestyle—and exactly the kind of thought I had trained myself not to dwell upon.
Not always with success.
All in all, though, this first was a very successful outing, made perfect for Sean when we went to Tognarelli’s. I sipped my latté while he demolished an architectural wonder of icecream constructed by Francesco himself.
‘Usually we go straight home on the next bus.’ His voice was wistful. ‘Gran doesn’t much like sitting in cafés.’
‘How about tomorrow? Pick you up about eight thirty? Should be good weather.’
Sean closed his eyes in bliss. ‘Oh yes, Chris. Yes.’
The first time he had uttered my name! A small tremor ran through me as I recognised that bonding had begun.
Sunday was magic. Such a banal term, I thought afterwards, but so apt.
I’d taken great care to pack a comprehensive picnic lunch and with it stowed in the boot we drove to the peak of Canobolas, where the huge TV towers dominate the skyline. From there we walked down a sidetrack. We were early enough to be alone and apart from identifying many of the wildflowers I was able to point out ’roos and a lone wallaby gradually slowing down in readiness for the day’s heat. We even spotted a hare.
‘Don’t see many of those.’
‘A rare hare!’ Sean shouted, laughing.
As he rushed ahead of me and back, then dashed into bushes and out again, doing what kids should be doing on a country walk, I imagined what Sean must have been through, what he had missed and what life must have been like for him after his mother was killed and his father had…what?..decamped?
Yeah, that sounds about right.
Now he was changing before my eyes. Had I been observing him? Checking how this first real date was going? Maybe. All I know is that, all reserve gone, he was as open towards me as a puppy. And as trusting. I felt responsibility descend upon me and I shivered at its implications. I was now both in loco parentis and best mate.
Well, you chose to do this. Deal with it.
Sean, of course, noticed nothing of this. Or did he? Was he sensing my presence, too, sizing up the strength of this sudden adult generosity and wondering if it would be a one-off? Or was he just seizing the day?
And was I in my insecurity attributing adult emotions to a nine year old?
At any rate, he never stopped talking. That is, until we returned for our picnic. Then there was thirty minutes of almost complete silence as he put away a good two thirds of the sandwiches, fruit and cake I had brought.
It was late afternoon by the time I delivered an exhausted but happy little boy to his grandparents. They were a little relieved that all went well, then eager, perhaps over-eager I thought, to encourage further contact. But in the event that was exactly what happened and for a simple reason. Almost immediately I fell in love with this intelligent and normal little redhead who very obviously was forming a great attachment to me.
Well, that was my rationale. In truth I needed companionship just as much as he.
So, over the weeks we talked, we planned, we argued. I took him to his sports matches. We saw each other in all our moods. We complemented one another. Yet, as an adult, my word prevailed and Sean was heedful enough to accept this.
Soon he decided there no longer any need for him to monopolise my time in the library on Fridays so we developed a sort of shorthand whereby he would merely return his book then whisper ‘Tomorrow?’ and I would smile and nod, aware of an ever-increasing emotional commitment that I would need to honour. Children are not puppies.
Nearly every weekend we would do something—mostly outings and walks, particularly on Canobolas, which Sean had come to consider his personal playground. We had our own route that took us away from the tourist paths. One day, on a whim, we followed a steep trail and found a miniature gorge, complete with stream and, to our total delight, a real cave. It became our hideout where we spent many happy hours eating our sandwiches and speculating on the possibility of native Australian occupancy hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
And it was there, one afternoon a few months after our first walk that Sean suddenly began to speak of his mother. We had been watching a kookaburra and with some intensity he was head down trying to draw it in the sand of the cave. He was very matter of fact.
‘I was pretty young then, Chris, I can’t remember much. She went out shopping and didn’t come back. I remember the funeral, though. And all the flowers.’ He paused, then lifted his head and looked directly at me. ‘I didn’t cry.’
But I think you should have, a lot, I thought, and if I’m not very careful I might do just that, right now. The urge to take him in my arms was overwhelming. But, hey, mates don’t do that sort of thing.
He didn’t talk to me about his father, except to say he would be coming back to take him away to live. Someday, that is. Oh, and with a touch of defiance (what had he overheard his grandparents saying?): ‘My Dad is great. Really great.’
At that I nodded. Whatever I might have thought it was not my place to intrude. But I had to look away and swallow very hard.
For a year our friendship flourished and then the axe fell. One Friday, instead of striding up to my desk in the library, Sean was as a thin grey ghost. He dragged his feet unwilling to my chair, scarcely responding to my greeting and reluctant to look me in the eye. I was alarmed, for by now I knew him pretty well. But my heart knew what he was about to tell me.
‘What is it, Sean?’
‘Miss’ (he never called me Chris in school), ‘Miss, I’m going away. My Dad’s been moved to another country and I’m to live with him now.’
Despite all my preparation for this moment, I was stunned.
It all happened very quickly. Too quickly. Before I knew it Sean had gone. All I had was a first and final close embrace that I thought would never end and a fervent promise to write. Plus heartfelt thanks from his grandparents for all I had done. Oh, and a letter from his father formalising gratitude for my efforts. Good writing paper, headed Mr C J Carey, Austrade Consul to United States of America, I hope we can meet when we get back home, and an illegible signature.
This next bit is ridiculously short because, frankly, I’m ridiculously ashamed of my ineptitude. They still laugh at me, although with a caring eye.
For a week I was numb, bereft. Then I went into denial. Sean would hate his neglectful father and somehow get himself back to Australia (and me, of course). Finally I accepted the situation. It didn’t relieve my depression though, and it was a long time before I could force myself to go on one of those glorious mountain hikes. Then one fine Saturday morning I set off alone, knowing the spirit of a small carrot-top would walk alongside all the way.
This time I was lazy and rather than parking the car at the top and walking I turned off towards our own special track, driving slowly and carefully. I knew the path became narrower and narrower but I had spotted an alternative route so yet again I turned away from familiar places.
It was a mistake. Suddenly the trees overloomed and the grading ended, leaving only a precipitous rangers’ path. The raised line of grassy dirt between four-wheel drive tracks was high enough to scrape at my little car’s exhaust as we descended deeper into the gloom.
Enough, I thought, let’s get back. But I had gone too far and now there was no room to turn. I tried reversing but a steadier hand than mine was needed. In some alarm I pressed too hard on the accelerator. The wheels spun, the car lurched sideways and immediately started to slip over the edge of an almost vertical slope to the creek far below. I couldn’t stop it. In full panic I wrenched open the door, flipped my seat belt and dived out. I was a millisecond too slow and one of the back wheels crushed my thigh as I tried to roll away. I actually heard the noise of the bone breaking. The excruciating flash of pain was accompanied by smashing noises as my lovely car swept aside bushes and saplings on its plunge into the gorge.
I had rolled down about five metres and struggle though I might there was no way I was going to make it back to the track itself. Despite shock and severe pain my prime emotion was fury at my idiocy. This didn’t prevent me from passing out, though, and when I came to it was late afternoon.
Well, I lay wedged against a small tree for the whole of that night. I tried shouting until my voice gave out, then some semblance of sense returned and I knew that I would have to conserve every bit of energy until I heard some sign that there might be help around.
All next day I remained there, gradually becoming weaker and beginning to believe I might not survive. Thirst was a real problem and with every heartbeat my leg felt like an anvil upon which some huge hammer was crashing. With this sort of luck at least a compound fracture was my dismal and irrelevant thought.
As Sunday faded into dusk I lost consciousness once more, perhaps for the last time.
‘Down there, down there!’
My eyes snapped open into the glare of a high-powered spotlight.
‘Quick, a stretcher!’
Then against the dazzle I discerned flash of red as a pocket rocket exploded down the bank and into my arms. Sean clutched me with desperate force, his face nuzzled into my neck. I was almost beyond emotion but I could feel the wetness of tears. It was the first time I had known him to cry.
‘Chris, Chris, we thought you were dead!’
I passed out again but, I’m sure, with a smile on my face. Next thing I knew I was tucked up in a hospital bed. ‘Tonight you sleep, tomorrow your leg’ was all I remember the sister saying. A day later I was post-operative and ready for my first visitor.
I had no doubt who it would be.
But I was surprised—well, sort of. I had two guests. Sean, of course, plus a larger edition of same, with equally red hair and heart-thuddingly handsome in the way I was sure Sean would become.
‘This is my Dad,’ he said with huge pride. ‘He’s the one who started the search.’
‘And it was Sean who showed us where to find you.’
For that’s what had happened. They had arrived back on a totally unexpected trip home and Sean insisted that they should visit me. When I couldn’t be found and my neighbour, with whom I always left my key whenever I went away overnight, had no idea where I was, Sean’s father had raised the alarm. But it was Sean who deduced my likely whereabouts and led my rescuers to within metres of my position, even in the dusk of early evening.
The larger edition leaned over the bed and took my hand.
‘Hi, I’m called Chris, too. We can’t keep meeting like this. One of us will have to change names...’
Sean’s eyes gleamed…‘because we come as a two-for-one special offer package deal.’
And as he would say triumphantly not many months later, ‘that’s just what she did. Now she’s my Mum.’
From a furious pace of typing, Chris comes to an abrupt halt. She pauses and slumps forward. Her knuckles beat a further tattoo on her top incisors. Has she told her readers enough? What does she want them to believe? With unfocused eyes she considers a myriad literary possibilities then thinks “my story is told”.
Well, maybe just one bit more.
I gasped, sat upright and placed both hands on my belly. A huge idiot grin split my face, for that was definitely a kick! I hugged myself in quiet exultation, listening to raised voices from the yard where an lbw dispute—something that mystified Sean’s American playmates—was developing between son and father. I made to rush towards the door and then stopped.
‘Perhaps not,’ I whispered to the daughter inside me, ‘we women have to do things in a ladylike manner, don’t we?’ So, serene and happy, I crossed quietly into the garden to give my own umpire’s decision on how things were going to be from now on.
Chris sighs, stretches, saves to hard disk and flash drive then closes her netbook, pleased the first draft is in the can. Primping and preening, editing and smoothing, all these things are unalloyed pleasure for a writer. The hard yards had been made.
And, I add, finalising the internal dialogue with myself, well done, Chris!
Who smiles to herself as she feels another tiny flutter. Typing cross-legged at low tables might be out for a while, but there’s still a bit of hard yak yet to come.
One way or another.