Beta readers are a godsend!

Just a quick note, ‘At Curlew Cry’ is off to beta readers. It would have gone out sooner, but at the last minute I added another chapter.

Now, I have to get stuck into Book 4. Working Title—Misty Mountain Murder. Set in the village of Paluma on the range behind Balgal, but slightly to the north, up a very steep and windy road. some people get motion-sickness on the journey. Honest. It is so beautiful there and covered in rain-forest; full of birdlife, including Cassowary, and nocturnal mammals. What a delicious palette to choose from!

I have written a short story set in Paluma…and because you’ve all been good I will put it up here for you to read, probs in one or two instalments. It’s not a murder mystery, but I hope you still enjoy it. It has been published as one of the short stories in my book, ‘Forgotten Memories and other Fiction’.

PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORY

The woman stood close, but not too close to her husband. No part of her body touched his. She artfully designed her stance to give the impression of togetherness. Neither did she have contact with either child; after all they weren’t hers and though they were biddable enough she really was too busy with her own affairs to be bothered with them. The Nanny was doing a perfectly adequate job without the need of direction.

The man, for his part, sat erect in his carefully pressed suit, sporting a healthy moustache, as all great men should. He chose to balance his younger child, Suzanna, on his knee. Showing himself to the world in the best light — an up-standing citizen, a gentleman and a caring father. Unfortunately, the tilt of his head and uncompromisingly upright stance, to say nothing of his smug expression, belied outward appearances to anyone with a keen enough eye and perceptive enough heart.

Suzanna was terrified. She had never before been allowed so close to the great persona of Father. His hidden hand shoved at her spine forcing her to sit straight and still.  She let her hands rest in her lap. Her nose was itchy but Father had already growled at her for fidgeting. She dared a quick glance at Sebastian, but he was looking like thunder and busy with his own thoughts.

Her brother stood, independent and furious, to one side. His lips pressed together, almost invisible and his eyes glinted, hard as emeralds. He loathed having to dress in this horrid girly outfit. He determined that when he grew up he would destroy all photographs of himself in dresses. He stood well out of reach of the man he could never please.  How he longed for the freedom he found when Father was away on one of his many trips, the latest of which had brought into Seb’s life this strange and aloof creature who Father insisted he address as Mother, but who was nothing like his mother. Sebastian stared out at the camera, searching for some morsel, some vaguely happy moment in the family circle. There… there she was, drifting, ghost-like, through his mind; almost faceless now, a hint of sandalwood, a red-gold halo of hair surrounding a kindly face, warm, soft — lost! Gone the instant he caught sight of her. He felt the new woman’s presence behind him, prickly and arctic cold, trussed up in her ridiculous new outfit. She looked silly and out of place in Townsville’s turgid, tropical heat, as did he in the equally ridiculous dress he had been forced to don for the obligatory formal, family photograph

He could hardly wait to return to the primitive farmhouse in Paluma, where he was free to do as he willed; run wild with his native friends and never, never wear dresses! Surely this visit to Townsville would soon be over, all the talk of Boarding School would end, as it always did, and life could return to normal.

The photographer milled and dithered around instructing them, in his slightly effeminate voice, where to stand and what to do. They, of course, ignored him. ‘Merde!’ He shrugged eloquently and ducked under the cloth behind the camera. He had placed the Fitzsimmons Family in front of the building, which was not really a building. It was a façade, as he sensed their happy family was.

Pierre used the cardboard cutout to give some semblance of civilization to his photographs in this desperate, dusty backwater in which he found himself. His sharp eyes waited for the right moment. The young photographer slyly caught the woman when her face showed some of her inner turmoil – her head lifted proudly, her jaw squared and her eyes hidden in shadow. 

**********

The photograph meant nothing to Sebastian.  He stared uncomprehendingly at it, then looked vacantly at the man in front of him… Possum, yes old Possum, his new mate. He had shoved the picture into Seb’s hands. 

“Knew it was you, but had to search out this old thing to be sure. You look just like yer old man, even have his bloody moustache,” ground out the gnarly old bloke in his tobacco ravaged voice. He sat on the rough-hewn stool outside his dilapidated timber cabin, puffing one cigarette after the other.

Seb reached up and ran his slender finger over the brush on his top lip. A puzzled look flitted across his normally expressionless features as he ransacked his brain for an image of his father. Nothing. There was nothing.

Possum scratched at his crotch. “I’m actually Arthur Benham,” he stated, jerking his arthritic thumb at his chest. “Name mean anything to you?” he queried. Once, many years ago he had been this boy’s ‘Uncle’, his mentor and confidant.

Seb lifted his eyes to meet the other man’s, trying to maintain his wayward concentration, which the past months in the Pacific Theatre had dissipated. His focus blurred and his mind wandered off on a tangent, then his body wandered off as well, down the path toward Rehabilitation Unit Six’s designated area. He still clutched the photo. 

Poor bastard, Possum thought.  He ran a hand through the wild thatch of graying curls that had given him his name, shrugged and lit another ciggie. Poor bloody bastard. Bloody useless war. Fuck the King. Gone are the good old days. He sucked on his rollie and blew smoke through his nostrils in disgust. Guess they weren’t so good for the lad, poor young codger. His father was a right bastard. A jumped up, pompous mug. 

*

Michael Fitzsimmons Esquire, dragged his boy away from the wattle and daub cottage to the dray waiting in the dusty street. Fitzsimmons had his little girl under one arm. She lay limp and uncomplaining. The boy struggled and called in the native Nyawangi language to his Aboriginal nanny, Leila.

“Save us. Auntie, I don’t want to go. Save us.”

She, poor creature, stood in the doorway trembling, wailing and sobbing her heartbreak. 

Possum was tempted to intervene but he knew starting a blue in centre town was going to achieve nothing. Fitzsimmons was a big bastard. Anyway, they’d be all right. He was their Dad after all. Never-the-less, as Fitzsimmons lifted his hat in greeting, Possum emphatically turned his back.

*

With a rattle and thump a truck chugged to a stand-still just up the street.    Unit Six’s sole truck stood in the middle of the road, steam pouring from its radiator. Shaking himself from the cloying grasp of the past, Possum sighed and got up to offer his help to the driver.

 A young woman slid from the passenger side, and spoke up to the driver. “I’ll walk from here and send someone back to help you.”

Laughter greeted this offer, “That’ll be the day, Love. She’ll be jake! Here comes old Possum. He’ll give me a hand.” Seb came level with the vehicle. “Hey you!” The voice called Sebastion to attention. “Grab the lady’s kit and show her to the women’s quarters. ‘N be quick about it!”

The young man shoved the photo into his shirt pocket and ambled across to comply. He lifted the case onto one shoulder and reached out to take the Lieutenant’s other bag. 

“Thank you, I can manage,” her voice smiled into his inattentive ear. His hand stayed suspended awkwardly in the air between them.

“Blimey Mate! Just take the thing to the quarters, will you! You’ll have to excuse ‘im Ma’am,” the voice inside the truck smirked. “Capt’n’s mad as a bandicoot… Shell-shock, o’ course. This bloody war!” he growled as he searched around inside the cabin for the truck’s crank handle.

During the short walk to the building in question, Bess tried to engage Seb in conversation.

“So, uh, I’m Elisabeth, Bess, Williams. Registered Nurse. And you’re, Captain…?”

“Nah, just Seb.”

They passed under the winged arch over the gateway to the Unit’s compound. 

“Army?”

“RAAF.”

“Oh, Where were you based?”

“Singas. Cigarette?”

“No, thank you.”

“Here you go then, that’s Maiden’s Manor, er the female sleeping quarters.”

“Thanks… Oh, Captain,” she called as he turned and started to walk away. “Where is Commander Connelly’s Office?” He faced her again, the lost look lifted for an instant. Bess felt the colour in her cheeks. “I, I should report to him as soon as I d…drop this in, I suppose,” she stammered.

“That’s the sick-bay over there. His office is just to the right as you enter.” He gave a lop-sided half-smile that had her heart skipping a beat or two. “And it’s just Seb.” Then his face shut down and he was gone.

“Poor fellow,” she murmured to herself, “And so handsome too.”

Sebastian reached up to his pocket to get another cigarette and as he drew out the packet a photo fell to the ground. He bent to retrieve it and was startled by the blare of a horn from a speeding US army jeep. He jumped out of the way but the vehicle ran over the photograph. Seb snatched it up. “Bastards!” he shouted.

He studied the mired picture — a man, a woman, two children. Something stirred inside, then was gone. He wandered toward his favourite nook in the surrounding rainforest, staring down at the picture all the while. Heavy mist descended rapidly and unheeded around him.  The foggy blanket had given rise to Paluma’s previous title, Cloudy Clearing (so named by Arthur “Possum” Benham himself). 

Only when Seb could no longer see the photo in his hands did he stop and look around. He turned slowly on the spot. The cloud was now so dense that only the closest trees were visible. They did not look familiar. He cursed himself for a fool and stepped in the direction he thought the camp lay. 

The sun was sinking, and the temperature plunged as darkness fell. Sebastion shivered in his cotton shirt with the sleeves torn out. He had to find shelter or perish. His sharp eyes searched out the buttress roots of a giant rainforest tree. He broke off some large fern leaves and with those and some fallen palm fronds fashioned himself a not-so-cosy lair.

He woke cold, stiff and hungry the next morning, at least, though it was still dark, a cacophony of raucous birdcall proclaimed it to be morning. When he poked his head above his covering of leaves he saw that the mist still shimmered amongst the tall, forest trees, a ghost army of half visible memories. Bloody Munan Gumbaru. The Aboriginal name sprang effortlessly to mind. Munan Gumbaru. He rolled it over and over. Munan Gumbaru — Misty Mountain…How did he know that? He shook himself. Whatever it was called, the fog did not augur well for finding his way, back to camp. His eyes searched the immediate vicinity trying to discover some small sign that he was in familiar territory. As he stood undecided, a browsing bettong scrabbled noisily into the leafy undergrowth setting off another wave of catbird cries, which triggered the rifle-birds and a multitude of smaller birds.Well, I can’t stay here, he decided. If I don’t move I’ll bloody freeze. 

There you go…. more next time, Cheers,

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