by Damian Nelson, Marist College Ashgrove
The old neighbourhood has changed I thought as I waited that night for my brother Phil. Graceful Queensland houses with their wide verandahs and gardens of poincianas and fig trees now gone to be replaced by blocks of units that muscle their way right up to the road. Just above where Sherwood Road swept up into the high street, my father used to bring me and Philip to get ice-creams from a little Italian delicatessen while he picked up his laundry next door. We would joke around while we ate our ice-creams, then he would make us wipe our hands before he packed us back into the car along with his seven shirts and three pants – seven shirts for seven days.
I can see that the deli and dry-cleaners are long gone now to be replaced by a cavernous liquor barn where a cashier picks things from beneath his finger nails.Toowong is where we would transfer for the bus to school each day and then later when we both went to University. It was just up the road outside Woolworths where Phil tapped me on the shoulder one morning and told me that he was giving up his Law and Business degree and that I wasn’t to tell Mum and Dad – especially Dad. University allows you to get on in life was what Dad always told us.
****It was cold and the night sky seemed full as if to rain when a cab swept past me and then did a violent turn into a darkened laneway. Someone smiled at me from the cab interior – it was Philip.
Philip emerged from the laneway but wouldn’t go any further into the street light. I walked over to my brother and at that moment the lights of a car coming down Sherwood Road illuminated the injuries on his face. Just below one eye was a rich red swelling bruise. Even on his dark blue hoodie, I could see blood.“What the hell has happened to you?” I asked. Even as I asked I felt the tiredness that comes with uttering pointless words.
Phil shrugged and smiled. “Just a misunderstanding over some money,” replied Philip before breaking into that big, broad, put-you-at-ease, don’t ask me any questions, lingering but pain –filled smile.****
I can never remember seeing my brother cry - not really cry anyway. He had a talent for deflecting pain and injury it always seemed to me.One morning when I was in Grade Nine we both got to school late because Phil was meeting an All Hallows girl up near the trade union steps – he called it the Spanish steps. Both of us travelled to and from school together – Mum always insisted on it, thinking that Phil would always be my protector. She was right in a way.
We snuck in the back gate at Rogers Street but the booming voice of Hishon the deputy headmaster alerted us to the fact that we had been sprung.“You two – hey you – Kearney!”
“Keep walking,” said Phil, “it’s just bubble guts”.I stopped immediately – defying a teacher’s command, let alone that of the deputy headmaster was unthinkable to me. Phil kept walking, pretending not to hear. Then he turned and saw me just standing there. I had begun to cry. My brother just shrugged and walked back towards me.
Soon we were in the foyer of the main administration.“I don’t want any explanation or excuses Kearney. I see you’ve managed to get your younger brother involved in your schemes this time.”
“He’s got nothing to do with this – leave him alone!” said Phil.A secretary looked up from her typing. Time had seemed to stop with this unfamiliar rebuke to Hishon, in this, his carpeted and wood panelled sanctuary.
Hishon rocked back on his heels as if from some unseen and unfamiliar force. He then allowed himself a smile across his florid pudgy face.“Get in here!”
Hishon’s office consisted of a cluttered desk in front of some dustless shelves – the only book in the shelves was a small copy of Gentleman Junior and Priddle’s New Maths for Queensland Schools.Hishon adjusted some papers on his desk and looked at us over thick tortoise shell glasses.
“I can only imagine how disappointed your parents are going to be when..”My crying interrupted him.
Hishon looked at me, his mouth contorted with contempt.“For God’s sake – act like a man.”
With that, Phil stepped forward and offered his hand with a single thrust.“Here! Here. Just get on with in.”
“So that’s how it’s going to be.”Hishon withdrew a long leather strap from somewhere under his desk, walked around to a spot that afforded him space and balance to administer the punishment.
“Yep!” replied Phil thrusting his hand forward again.My brother’s boldness threw Hishon for a second but regathering himself he brought the strap down on Phil’s hand. The cut of the leather made my brother’s eyes close with sudden pain but then he fixed that smile back on his face. Philip held there for the next blow of the strap and then four more and then the six on the other hand.
Hishon’s face got redder with each swing.Get that smirk off the face or we’ll do it all again! Hishon snarled.
Hishon then turned towards me – it was my turn. Suddenly Phil began to cry while crossing his arms and putting his hands still raw from the strapping under his armpits.“Leave him alone. He’s done nothing wrong!” he pleaded through his tears.
Hishon’s face beamed smug and triumphant.“Alright – get out the both of you.”
We both stood out in the corridor on the hard shiny lino. Phil’s tears had disappeared as if they had never happened.His impromptu performance had saved me from 6 on each hand but before I could thank him, he was off to his first lesson, bounding up four flights of stairs on which patterned sunlight now fell through the stain glassed depiction of St Joseph leading his wife and infant child to safety in Egypt.
****“Where’s your car?” asked Phil. “We just have to pop home to get some things.”
On the way home, Phil kept dabbing at the bruise on his face.“Is everything Ok?”
“Yeah sure,” he purred as he watched both sides of the streets through which we passed. “A mate was just letting off steam – he was pissed off about a few things. We’re sweet now”Nonchalantly, he asked me if it was the Cunningham Highway that took you to Sydney.
Phil was an expert liar. He told Mum and Dad he was deferring from University rather than tell them the truth that he had shed that part of his life the way he had shed other things. He even moved out of home without Mum and Dad ever realising. He used it just enough to show proof of life but his lodgings were mostly couches in friend’s garages or the backseats of cars. Mum was always happiest when he returned home with a load of washing or to sit down to a meal so that she and dad could ask after him and his ‘plans’ for a return to study next year. His replies were always artful constructions that left Mum and Dad full of pride and hope for their eldest son.
When we entered our street at Fig Tree Pocket, Phil suddenly got edgy in his seat. He asked me to stop the car a few doors down from our house.“Just get us a few clothes – and if anyone asks then just say … just say I’ll see them in a few days.”
Phil sometimes allowed you onto the front step of his lies but was always polite enough to not let you through the front door.As I came in the house, Mum emerged from the soft blue light of the living room where she had been watching TV with Dad. She was stooped over and was rubbing her hands and looked sleepy and frail in her nightgown.
“I’ve left you some tea Sean – just put the plates in the sink when you finish won’t you love. Will Philip be home tonight?”.
“I don’t know Mum – I think he might be.”I closed my eyes as I said it but couldn’t quite close off the sound of my well-intentioned but deliberate untruth.
Passing through the living room, I saw Dad asleep in his chair, the changing blue hue of the TV washing over him as he lay there with his belt unbuckled around his big waist.I went into Phil’s room. There was not a thing out of place and that was the way that Phil wanted it. He confided in me once that if the police ever raided the house he had heard they were more likely to go easy on a clean room. It worried him that Mum might have to clean up the mess.
Gathering some things from his cupboard, I saw the smart black jacket hanging there. Mum had bought it for Phil so that it would keep him warm on cold nights at Campus. It was an expensive jacket and into it was woven hope, success, security and something of substance that a young man might wear in the old boy’s tent at a home game while you shared beers. The jacket hung there still with its store tag attached.I slipped out of the house, avoiding Mum and my Dad who was still sleeping the sleep of the exhausted man and father.
It was yet to rain that evening but Mum’s hydrangeas, wet from her ritual evening hosing, brushed cold water onto my arm.Later, soft, almost anaemic rain had begun to fall as we drove towards the Cunningham Highway. Into the darkness, past car parks and taverns that used to be called Hotels, past cheap flats crowded with University students, past people with hands in their pockets and eyes upon the ground on their own secret errands.
We turned off near Ipswich and soon the road was a dark highway save for my headlights.Out of the night landscape, came a lighted sign for the Yamanto roadhouse.
“It’s in here – turn here,” directed Phil.As I pulled in, a faded red station wagon parked to one side of the diner flashed its lights. Like Phil earlier that evening, the driver deemed it unsafe for some reason to expose themselves to the light.
“Just pull up beside the red car.” Phil’s tone was focused and curt now – everything was directed to conducting the night’s business and getting on his way.Phil got out and approached the station wagon, his gait full of animal wariness. The only part of the driver I could see was a pair of hands tapping on the steering wheel. I went into the small shop that sat beside the diner. I remembered how my brother often got into trouble from Dad for taking all the biscuits so I bought him a packet of Tim Tams.
Outside the shop, the sight of the Tim Tams lit up his face. For one brief moment, he was a young boy again as he tore open the packet and bit into a biscuit. He looked around, smiled and nodded. He got the connection.“Got to go now,” he said through a mouth full of chocolate and biscuit.
He could see that I wanted to say something, something that might hold up his schedule.
“Here – come out of the light,” he said.“Wait!” I said as I ran back to the car. I had forgotten to give him one thing.
I came back with the smart, dark jacket that Mum had bought for him. He looked at it blankly. His face then seemed to soften as if getting some well-known joke. As he put the jacket on for the first time, Phil suggested that it probably wouldn’t fit.He stepped a little into the light that shone hard upon his bruised face. He was right. The jacket hung loosely upon his thin frame.
“What do you think – double degree material?”“It looks like you stole it,” I said.
We both laughed before the cold night air made us both shiver. Phil opened his mouth as if to say something then looked at the red car and the hands tapping upon the steering wheel. The car roared to life. It was the signal to leave.He got into the car before I could say another word and it sped quickly to where the roadhouse verge meets the highway.
Two semi trailers barrelling down the Cunningham on the Sydney run were holding them up from entering the highway. I thought about running to the passenger side to wave goodbye to my brother but then suddenly the road was clear and the station wagon was on the Sydney road before I could even move.
by Karen Moni
It has been wonderful this year to see the increase in entries to the open section. I have been judging this section since its inception and the gradual increase in entries over these years reflects both on the prestige of the competition for teachers and also on the growing number of teachers willing to share their creative writing efforts in the public arena. Congratulations to all entrants!
Apart from the number of entries, the very broad range of stories submitted for this year’s open section, and the overall high quality of the submissions made the judging difficult but rewarding – it was satisfying to be able to make awards across all the categories.
Some brief overall comments. First, in teaching about short stories we often focus on the “hook” and immediacy of action, and most of the entries began strongly. The challenge for some authors then, was integrating the motifs or emotions expressed in the opening seamlessly into the story- there were some awkward junctures and misfires. Second, the world created by the author needs to be authentic. This is a difficult task when the number of words are limited – and the best entries revealed the world of the story through the characters rather than direct description. In the winning story, for example, the author reveals both the narrator’s feelings and a dreary setting through the narrator’s impression of “a cavernous liquor barn where a cashier picks things from beneath his finger nails”. Finally, longer isn’t necessarily better – an engaging read and quality of writing are the main criteria. The word limit for this section is generous, and those stories close to the word limit, in many cases would have benefited from more ruthless editing.
First prize: Sherwood Road
Although difficult to categorise in terms of genre, this is in many senses a classic short story that demands multiple readings to unpack different layers of interpretation. The story is tightly plotted, and the ending enigmatic. The tale, told in the first person, of a mysterious and menacing meeting between two brothers moves between the dangers and tension of the present moment to episodes in the early lives of the two young men, The writing is skillful – every word counts. Of particular note are the creation of locale and the immediacy of the action. There is so much going on at so many levels in this story and I was excited by the rich possibilities of this story for engaging students in English classrooms.