Dust to Dust by Penny Lane
By Penny Lane, Nelson Bay, New South Wales
Emily swept sluggishly at a trail of dust on the kitchen floor. She scowled to hear her husband, Eric, muttering into his beer.
'Can't wait to leave this dump and move into town, when the old boy dies. I'll have my beers on that veranda of his then.'
A mouthful of peanuts stifled the monologue.
'You ought to go into town before dinner,' said Emily, 'and see your uncle. You can take him a casserole.'
'You go. I'm dog-tired.'
Emily gathered up the newspaper that had occupied Eric's afternoon, then propped herself on her broom and looked out through the screen door to where the two dogs were running and snapping at each other. A barking whirl of black thumped against the wire mesh of the door.
'You're as dog-tired as those two mongrels out there,' she said.
'Don't go on. You'll do just as well as me when the old boy carks it.' A peanut plopped from his mouth onto the table as he spoke and he brushed it onto the floor.
Emily shoved the broom at the peanut and opened the screen door to sweep the nut outside. Eric followed it out through the doorway and stomped off. The dogs scampered around him, their tails like trip-wires at his feet. He kicked out at them and they cringed, but then they followed him across the yard. Beyond the yard he walked through a clutch of spindly gums to sit above the dry bed of the creek, watching puffs of dust hover and settle.
The drifting of the dirt and the cavorting of the dogs were the only activities on the little farm these days. The farms around his were doing all right, he knew, but it was a hard slog, a hard bloody slog. What was the point of all that effort when his uncle would soon kick the bucket and the old boy's house and money would be his?
He felt almost guilty about Emily and her casserole now bumping over the potholes into town without him. Blast that woman making him feel like this. When he moved into town, she could damn well stay out here in this dust hole.
When Emily returned it was dark and Eric was sitting at the kitchen table tossing peanuts to the dogs through the open screen door. Moths smacked inside the lightshade.
'Hopeless, you are,' Emily said, slamming the door.
Eric smiled, knowing he'd soon be living in town without her.
'So, how was the old boy?'
Emily thought his smile was because he expected her to tell him his uncle was looking weaker.
'Not so good. Pale,' she said.
'He was just sitting on his veranda again. "Waiting for the dawn," he said. Do you think he'll just sit there all night?'
'Mmm. He might catch his death.'
'He didn't even want to eat,' said Emily.
'He might starve to death.'
'All he wanted, he said, was to see the dawn.'
'He was always bloody poetic. Always on about morning mist and sunrise and the early bird catching the worm. Well, the worms are about to get him now.'
Emily stared at the moths dead on the floor. She'd sweep them up in the morning. Maybe when Eric inherited his uncle's house, he'd move into town and she could stay here. She could keep the dust and the moths outside then.
The old uncle saw only three more mornings. The town lawyer arranged the funeral. Eric and Emily were the first at the church and they sat in the front pew and imagined there would be few others there. They turned when they heard the humming and shuffling of a throng of people behind them.
'Will you look at the crowd,' said Eric.
'But we're the only ones dressed properly. The others all look like they're going to a party.'
The lawyer walked to the other front pew, nodding at Eric and Emily and guiding a woman in bright pink chiffon to sit with him.
'Pink. Like a lollipop. At a funeral!' said Emily.
The service was short, the congregation sang vigorously and the lawyer delivered the eulogy.
'Life of the party, twinkle-toes of the dance floor. What rot!' said Eric as he and Emily walked behind the coffin in the sunshine.
Emily turned and saw the lawyer and the lollipop following close behind them.
'Went well, I thought,' said the lawyer, patting Eric's shoulder. 'Short and cheerful, just like your uncle wanted.'
He reached out to the woman with him, cupped a pink chiffon elbow in his hand and steered her face to Eric and Emily. He smiled at them.
'I'd like you to meet your uncle's beneficiary,' he said. 'This is Dawn.'
****Four years ago Penny Lane retired from a career as a primary school teacher and mathematics consultant for the NSW Department of Education to live and sail in Port Stephens and, when she can drag herself away from there, to journey with caravan or tent (and husband) into the outback. Wherever she is, she reads. And she writes: travel journals, short stories, verse, unpublished novels, family history, 25-words-or-less competition entries...
A Haunted House by Virginia WoolfWhatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure--a ghostly couple.
"Here we left it," she said. And he added, "Oh, but here tool" "It's upstairs," she murmured. "And in the garden," he whispered. "Quietly," they said, "or we shall wake them."
But it wasn't that you woke us. Oh, no. "They're looking for it; they're drawing the curtain," one might say, and so read on a page or two. "Now they've found it,' one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. "What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?" My hands were empty. "Perhaps its upstairs then?" The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.
But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The windowpanes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling--what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. "Safe, safe, safe" the pulse of the house beat softly. "The treasure buried; the room . . ." the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?
A moment later the light had faded. Out in the garden then? But the trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun. So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burned behind the glass. Death was the glass; death was between us, coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs. "Safe, safe, safe," the pulse of the house beat gladly. 'The Treasure yours."
The wind roars up the avenue. Trees stoop and bend this way and that. Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain. But the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window. The candle burns stiff and still. Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.
"Here we slept," she says. And he adds, "Kisses without number." "Waking in the morning--" "Silver between the trees--" "Upstairs--" 'In the garden--" "When summer came--" 'In winter snowtime--" "The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.
Nearer they come, cease at the doorway. The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass. Our eyes darken, we hear no steps beside us; we see no lady spread her ghostly cloak. His hands shield the lantern. "Look," he breathes. "Sound asleep. Love upon their lips."
Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.
"Safe, safe, safe," the heart of the house beats proudly. "Long years--" he sighs. "Again you found me." "Here," she murmurs, "sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure--" Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. "Safe! safe! safe!" the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry "Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart."
The Lehman's Armchair
By Hayley Katzen, Ewingar, New South Wales
They gave him 'The Complete Works of Beethoven' when he retired from Finn & Sons. In the car Edith patted George's shoulder.
'Tight-fisted accountants,' she said, barely moving her coral pink lips. George nodded and thought about the record player in the boot of the car, wedged between his faded black graduation gown and the family portraits framed in ornate gilt.
George set the box of records on the hall table beside their tickets for the Paradise Cruise.
He was tearing plastic off the box when Edith called from the kitchen: 'George, have you got those suitcases down?'
In the shed, behind the box of children's' books, Edith's food magazines catalogued by year and his mother's silver, George found the suitcases - and a nice little corner next to the high window.
He wiped down the suitcases with the cloth Edith handed him and placed a case on either side of their bed. As Edith read to him from the brochure, he packed his new Hawaiian shirts and thought of the nice little corner in the shed.
The next morning, after George had said, 'You must go, I'll be fine,' for the fifteenth time, Edith left alone for the Paradise Cruise. George lay in bed, the curtains drawn, under strict instructions to call the doctor if the tablet didn't work.
By noon, the migraine cleared. George carried the record player from the car and set it up on the old workbench in the shed.
For thirty years, the record player had lived in his office. Edith didn't like classical music. George only discovered that about Edith after they were married. The radio in the 'Just Married' car with its shaving cream paintwork had been tuned to Classic FM until Edith stretched across and jiggled the dial. 'I can't abide that sort of racket,' she said.
The children's television and Edith's radio never left any space for the record player. So George passed evenings matching their voices to instruments. Some nights Edith's voice was a drum beat. On others he heard it only as the trumpet, bold and brassy. His daughter was harp-like and his son's breaking voice had the discordance of a triangle.
So it had only ever been at the office that he'd listened to his records. Until now.
A week later, the back of her neck sunburned, Edith came home sporting a Paradise Cruise Gold Medal for bingo.
'I think you should take up bowls,' she said.
'Why would I take up bowls at this stage in my life?'
'Precisely because you are at this stage of your life.'
George carried his plate to the drainer.
'And George, I talked to Mary. She said she came by last Wednesday night. The lights were on but no-one was home.'
'No,' said Edith. She paused, 'Where were you George?'
'Here, Edith. Right here.'
Edith scraped George's uneaten meatloaf into the bin. Then she bit her lip and looked out at the purpling sky and her voice softened to a slow drumbeat.
'Is there something you're not telling me, George?'
'No, Edith, there's nothing.'
Edith turned back to the table and wiped it down with the cloth. George stood watching her. He reached out his arm, then he dropped it. He thought he should put his arms around her, kiss her, but kissing had become a habit for them. It was what they did when he left for work in the mornings. He didn't quite know how to kiss her at a time like this. George walked down the passage and out the screen door, clicking it shut behind him.
In the shed he scanned his records. He set Mozart to play and picked up the Silvo and the shine rag and the little salt dish. This was his second bottle of Silvo. The high shelf was lined with polished milk jugs, cigarette holders and sweet dishes. He liked the way the sun caught the silver, sending uneven stars blinding outwards.
He didn't hear her come in. He had his eyes shut, shining rag in one hand, salt dish dangling in the other. Mozart all around him.
When the record ended Edith said, 'What are you doing, George?'
He opened his eyes.
'Hello dear,' he said, looking down at the shining rag.
'Why are you sitting in the Lehman's armchair, George?'
'They threw it out.'
'I know that George.'
Edith turned and he heard her resolute steps on the concrete path to the house. George thought he should go after her. He lifted the stylus and put the record back in its cover. And then he pulled out Beethoven's Fifth and blew a speck of dust from the vinyl. He set the stylus against the record and closed his eyes.
***Hayley Katzen ditched life as a legal academic for life on a cattle farm in the bush west of Casino, NSW. When she's not in the cattle yards or a kitchen full of homegrown produce, she writes stories about the secret longings and moral dilemmas that haunt the battlers and dreamers of rural Australia.
The Last Lesson by Alphonse Daudet
I started for school very late that morning and was in great dread of a scolding, especially because M. Hamel had said that he would question us on participles, and I did not know the first word about them. For a moment I thought of running away and spending the day out of doors. It was so warm, so bright! The birds were chirping at the edge of the woods; and in the open field back of the sawmill the Prussian soldiers were drilling. It was all much more tempting than the rule for participles, but I had the strength to resist, and hurried off to school.
When I passed the town hall there was a crowd in front of the bulletin-board. For the last two years all our bad news had come from there—the lost battles, the draft, the orders of the commanding officer—and I thought to myself, without stopping:
"What can be the matter now?"
Then, as I hurried by as fast as I could go, the blacksmith, Wachter, who was there, with his apprentice, reading the bulletin, called after me:
"Don’t go so fast, bub; you’ll get to your school in plenty of time!"
I thought he was making fun of me, and reached M. Hamel’s little garden all out of breath.
Usually, when school began, there was a great bustle, which could be heard out in the street, the opening and closing of desks, lessons repeated in unison, very loud, with our hands over our ears to understand better, and the teacher’s great ruler rapping on the table. But now it was all so still! I had counted on the commotion to get to my desk without being seen; but, of course, that day everything had to be as quiet as Sunday morning. Through the window I saw my classmates, already in their places, and M. Hamel walking up and down with his terrible iron ruler under his arm. I had to open the door and go in before everybody. You can imagine how I blushed and how frightened I was.
But nothing happened. M. Hamel saw me and said very kindly:
"Go to your place quickly, little Franz. We were beginning without you."
I jumped over the bench and sat down at my desk. Not till then, when I had got a little over my fright, did I see that our teacher had on his beautiful green coat, his frilled shirt, and the little black silk cap, all embroidered, that he never wore except on inspection and prize days. Besides, the whole school seemed so strange and solemn. But the thing that surprised me most was to see, on the back benches that were always empty, the village people sitting quietly like ourselves; old Hauser, with his three-cornered hat, the former mayor, the former postmaster, and several others besides. Everybody looked sad; and Hauser had brought an old primer, thumbed at the edges, and he held it open on his knees with his great spectacles lying across the pages.
While I was wondering about it all, M. Hamel mounted his chair, and, in the same grave and gentle tone which he had used to me, said:
"My children, this is the last lesson I shall give you. The order has come from Berlin to teach only German in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine. The new master comes to-morrow. This is your last French lesson. I want you to be very attentive."
What a thunderclap these words were to me!
Oh, the wretches; that was what they had put up at the town-hall!
My last French lesson! Why, I hardly knew how to write! I should never learn any more! I must stop there, then! Oh, how sorry I was for not learning my lessons, for seeking birds’ eggs, or going sliding on the Saar! My books, that had seemed such a nuisance a while ago, so heavy to carry, my grammar, and my history of the saints, were old friends now that I couldn’t give up. And M. Hamel, too; the idea that he was going away, that I should never see him again, made me forget all about his ruler and how cranky he was.
Poor man! It was in honor of this last lesson that he had put on his fine Sunday clothes, and now I understood why the old men of the village were sitting there in the back of the room. It was because they were sorry, too, that they had not gone to school more. It was their way of thanking our master for his forty years of faithful service and of showing their respect for the country that was theirs no more.
While I was thinking of all this, I heard my name called. It was my turn to recite. What would I not have given to be able to say that dreadful rule for the participle all through, very loud and clear, and without one mistake? But I got mixed up on the first words and stood there, holding on to my desk, my heart beating, and not daring to look up. I heard M. Hamel say to me:
"I won’t scold you, little Franz; you must feel bad enough. See how it is! Every day we have said to ourselves: ‘Bah! I’ve plenty of time. I’ll learn it to-morrow.’ And now you see where we’ve come out. Ah, that’s the great trouble with Alsace; she puts off learning till to-morrow. Now those fellows out there will have the right to say to you: ‘How is it; you pretend to be Frenchmen, and yet you can neither speak nor write your own language?’ But you are not the worst, poor little Franz. We’ve all a great deal to reproach ourselves with.
"Your parents were not anxious enough to have you learn. They preferred to put you to work on a farm or at the mills, so as to have a little more money. And I? I’ve been to blame also. Have I not often sent you to water my flowers instead of learning your lessons? And when I wanted to go fishing, did I not just give you a holiday?"
Then, from one thing to another, M. Hamel went on to talk of the French language, saying that it was the most beautiful language in the world—the clearest, the most logical; that we must guard it among us and never forget it, because when a people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language it is as if they had the key to their prison. Then he opened a grammar and read us our lesson. I was amazed to see how well I understood it. All he said seemed so easy, so easy! I think, too, that I had never listened so carefully, and that he had never explained everything with so much patience. It seemed almost as if the poor man wanted to give us all he knew before going away, and to put it all into our heads at one stroke.
After the grammar, we had a lesson in writing. That day M. Hamel had new copies for us, written in a beautiful round hand: France, Alsace, France, Alsace. They looked like little flags floating everywhere in the school-room, hung from the rod at the top of our desks. You ought to have seen how every one set to work, and how quiet it was! The only sound was the scratching of the pens over the paper. Once some beetles flew in; but nobody paid any attention to them, not even the littlest ones, who worked right on tracing their fish-hooks, as if that was French, too. On the roof the pigeons cooed very low, and I thought to myself:
"Will they make them sing in German, even the pigeons?"
Whenever I looked up from my writing I saw M. Hamel sitting motionless in his chair and gazing first at one thing, then at another, as if he wanted to fix in his mind just how everything looked in that little school-room. Fancy! For forty years he had been there in the same place, with his garden outside the window and his class in front of him, just like that. Only the desks and benches had been worn smooth; the walnut-trees in the garden were taller, and the hopvine that he had planted himself twined about the windows to the roof. How it must have broken his heart to leave it all, poor man; to hear his sister moving about in the room above, packing their trunks! For they must leave the country next day.
But he had the courage to hear every lesson to the very last. After the writing, we had a lesson in history, and then the babies chanted their ba, be bi, bo, bu. Down there at the back of the room old Hauser had put on his spectacles and, holding his primer in both hands, spelled the letters with them. You could see that he, too, was crying; his voice trembled with emotion, and it was so funny to hear him that we all wanted to laugh and cry. Ah, how well I remember it, that last lesson!
All at once the church-clock struck twelve. Then the Angelus. At the same moment the trumpets of the Prussians, returning from drill, sounded under our windows. M. Hamel stood up, very pale, in his chair. I never saw him look so tall.
"My friends," said he, "I—I—" But something choked him. He could not go on.
Then he turned to the blackboard, took a piece of chalk, and, bearing on with all his might, he wrote as large as he could:
"Vive La France!"
Then he stopped and leaned his head against the wall, and, without a word, he made a gesture to us with his hand:
"School is dismissed—you may go."