Rosanne Dingli

Rosanne Dingli

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A free short story

Pic courtesy of
Everyone loves a short story - they go really well with a cup of tea and a Tim Tam. Or two Tim Tams. Short stories are coming back with a vengeance ... or did they never really go out of style?

I know more than one reader who has admitted to reading them on the sly, keeping them hidden away with her stash of Tim Tams.

If you are cold and lonely, put the kettle on, break into that packet (I know you have one somewhere) and let it rip.

If I were on an island, I would be able to hear the sea. I hear nothing here. This place is silent. If I turned on the CD player, the sound of theatre organ would fill not only this stone room, but also space around the house between the veranda and the stand of trees on the bank before the dam. The organ would be audible as far as the top paddock.     
Pic courtesy
I found a horse in that paddock once. It stood with its broad brown chest against the wire fence and looked at me as if it knew I was alone, as if it knew I would be mystified about how it got into the paddock with no opening in sight. Horses know about women. This one looked at me: my hair, brown as its mane, my eyes, wide with surprise at finding it there. I did nothing about it. I gave it a pat and two apples from my duffel coat pockets; the ones I was going to have for lunch when I reached the waterfall at the end of the property. I turned my back to it and walked away, wondering whether it would still be there when I returned.
‘You alone here?’ asked the stranger when I answered the door that night. She was short like me, but with longer curly hair. She was bundled in a homemade jacket whose pockets were deep and full of her gloved hands.
‘Yes, all alone.’
‘Thanks for holding Freddie.’     
I gave her coffee in my bright kitchen with the new copper range hood.
She placed her sheepskin gloves on the counter and held the mug in both hands. ‘Always alone?’ She was curious. ‘You could come up when you like. Talk to me. Ride Freddie. I’m not always alone, though. Six weeks on, six weeks off.’ She shrugged and gave a crooked smile.
‘Is he up north?’ I asked, wondering. How would it be: alone but not alone?
‘Drilling. He’s offshore.’ Then she changed the subject. ‘You’ll like it here when you get used to it. Bit of a drive to town but you’ll like it.’

If I were on an island, I would hear waves crashing against cliffs. I have filled the silences here with names of trees that rustle in the wind whirling through the valley below my house. I have named each bird that squawks or twitters outside my small windows at daybreak and dusk.
In the morning I looked towards the top paddock although Freddie was gone. There was an echidna near the dirt track to the main road. Big as a copper sink, moving slowly even as I neared. It lowered to the ground, immobile, when I stood in front of it. ‘Echidna!’ I had never seen a real one. Just then the sprinklers in the home paddock came on. Reminded me to bring in the goats. It was so cold at night. Only a few; they came with the property. I knew nothing of goats or what to do with them. They all fitted in the barn.
My neighbour said her name was Rorie. Funny name for the country. Said her parents had called her Aurora but school soon changed that. Her dark eyes and hair were like mine, but she was livelier. Dressed strangely. Must have made all her own things.     
‘I make coats out of blankets,’ she said, one afternoon in her cluttered kitchen. I had climbed the rise that hid her house from mine. Freddie was in her small paddock. Gave me his back. ‘Glad you took up my offer. Another three weeks to go.’ She pointed absently at a calendar on the fridge. Days were crossed out in thick marker.     
‘Do you really miss him?’
She nodded.
I thought I understood. But with only my own company for the last two years, and not doing badly for it, I could only wonder what it was like for her to have six weeks at a time of constant company. She showed me a room full of yarn and bits of blanket. She knew how to spin. Thought of my goats. Thought of their coats. Thought of my rooms, my house, where no one ever stayed but me.

If I lived on an island, where goats stood on sharp outcrops of rock, balancing gingerly on cleft hooves, I could watch them nibble their way through a dry hedge. I would smell their musty coats and hang a discordant bell round the neck of each one. I would shield my skin from the burning sun and swish a flexible rod to herd them. Here, my ragged mob huddles close to the barn. Their wall-eyes all look the same way and hoarse cries almost stop me placing the bar across the barn door when I lock them in for the night.
              Rorie is in my kitchen, placing a tray of pumpkin scones carefully on my counter. I wonder if she is still counting days. 

‘They need distance,’ she says, and at first I think she is talking about goats because of my afternoon thoughts. ‘Men - they need distance. Have you ever been married?’
I do not want to tell her but I nod yes. Soon I suppose I shall tell Rorie about how he pulled away from all the intimacy and all the closeness, which still burns me if I touch the memory of it.
 ‘Now we live on opposite sides of the country.’ I look at her face to register her reaction. ‘But he has a wife since... Funny...’
‘Funny,’ she takes on, finishing my sentence. ‘Funny how they pull away as if for fear of being smothered, then are the quickest to find someone else.’
Can I see sympathy or wistfulness in her smile?
‘Like I said,’ she continues, ‘they need distance. Jim needs to be on a rig. Needs to be with me too, but only a bit at a time!’ She makes it into a joke.
‘You’re lucky to understand,’ I say, in spite of myself.

If I lived on an island, I could fish from a jetty made of wood so old no one remembered when it was trees. Grey and splintered, it would hold me up as I stood in black rubber boots, bucket of stinking burley beside me. I would taste the spray with each wave that sloshed against the ancient piers.     
Here, there is no salt in the air. The ground glints with an occasional crystal, but it is quartz in the ground, or mica. I pick up a flake of mica on my finger and taste it with the tip of my tongue. It is not salty.
Freddie is in my paddock again and I have no idea how he got in. I lead him out by his halter and carefully shut the gate behind us. I catch my thumb in the chain. Exactly in the same place where I made a bruise once, soon after moving in. The anniversary of the day he left me I paced a proprietary trail round my new land and caught my thumb on that chain.     
Rorie is teaching me to spin. Some of last year’s wool from the barn. Perhaps I can knit a rug or a blanket. First I have to spin it all; a dun colour, fading to off-white and grey. I will turn it into skeins and balls, waiting for the needles. Then I will make a square blanket with a knotted fringe around the edges. I savour the prospect of knitting by my fire, alone. Theatre organ music and the clicking of metal needles. Crackles and sparks from the grate.

If I lived on an island, he would come back on a boat. But there are no boats here and the sea is four days away by car. The road is muddy and red, my mailbox sticking out like a sentinel with luminous numbers glowing in the rain. This is not an island, so he will not row and come alongside an old wooden jetty, tie up the boat and hop lightly onto the boards.
He needed space, the space of a crowded city two thousand kilometres away. It was becoming too close where we were. For months, it was just us, rods and nets and a boat. Just us, and scaling fish and laughing and waiting for the low rumble of the shrimp boats coming in. Waiting for the beam from the lighthouse to blink past our window in the dark.
Here the only sounds are those of birds rustling in my trees by day and possums shifting in the roof at night. I am small. My head comes level with the top of the big fridge out the back. To reach for sugar sacks and the vinegar in the pantry, I have to stand on a chair. In the three years we were together, I grew.
I sip coffee in Rorie’s sitting room again, where the fire glows softly in a closed stove with a glass front. She has vegetable soup boiling on top. Her thumb is flattened with spinning. She tells me Jim is coming home in three days.
‘I grew,’ I say. ‘I filled everything. I filled his head. He moved. First from side to side and then backwards.’
Rorie nods. ‘Mm.’ She does not look up or she will see my eyes. She does not want to feel sorry for me. ‘Had fun on Freddie this afternoon?’ she asks instead.

If I lived on an island, I could walk round its shores; jumping streams, climbing promontories. I pace the perimeter of my property, finding the surveyor’s peg at the west corner and following the fence to a dip where the chimney of Rorie’s house is just visible above the rise. Smoke. Jim is there with her and for six weeks from now. He came in a taxi.
Freddie is in my paddock for six weeks. I feed him apples from the box in the kitchen and every morning I shall ride him to the edge of the reserve until we reach the bitumen. From there I will imagine the lay of the land in the valley behind the screen of trees; how the lake must shimmer in the sun and how the hum of traffic interferes with the bird chorus at dusk.

Out here, it is still and quiet; we shall have rain tonight. If I hurry back, I will save the fire from going out just in time, placing some small sticks and a huge log from the pile on top of it; watch it roar back to life to lick the bottom of my big black kettle.
‘I am pushed into a corner,’ he had said, ‘and all I hear is organ music. All I see is you and me. All I smell is fish and boats. All I touch makes calluses on my hands. It’s like living on an island and I am marooned.’    
The sound of theatre organ fills not only this stone room but space outside my windows that stretches into the bush, past my fences, where the echidna lumbers about. I stretch my arms out to fill my house. I look again at the smoke from Rorie’s chimney. Smoke enough for two.


This story appears in my collection called Making a Name and other stories - available where all good paperbacks and ebooks are sold.

How did this story strike you? Leave your impression as a comment - it's always appreciated.

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  1. I like this, it's very atmospheric. it says a lot but leaves my imagination free to fill in the gaps in all sorts of interesting ways. I understand the feeling like the flow of the tide round your island, but there are reefs there and I know that these can surprise me.
    I like the horse too and wonder what he knows that you haven't told us about. Is that why he keeps coming to your paddock or does he too feel the need for a different space when Jim comes home?
    There's a lot in this short story and I shall enjoy reading it again and again and probably again.

  2. What a lovely story, Rosanne. You've captured the breakdown of the relationship beautifully and in such rich language. It made me shiver from sheer pleasure.

  3. Thank you, Ian and Helen. I wrote it ages ago, while the memory of living outside Canberra was still fresh.