Category C: Commended (2018) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: Sylvia Karakaltsas
Title: Stanley Place Boys
Maggie Petersen watered her garden, proud of the size of her snapdragons and gladioli, where at the edge of each heavily mulched bed stood a meticulously handwritten sign indicating the scientific names of the plants for passers-by to read. She swung her hose in a great arc to be rid of the kink which hindered the flow to a trickle, and the hose, untangled, surprised Maggie when the water spurted all over her.
Stanley Place, was a hilly court where each of the six red brick veneered houses looked much the same as they had when built in the early seventies. Families the same then, as now; children played and rode their bikes fast, sending their younger siblings screaming to their parents. Maggie’s house, at the highest point, commanded a view across the court and freeway, like a castle. Women gossiped and talked about their children at their letterboxes and men shared a beer, watched footy and tinkered with their cars behind garage doors. In a few years, this would end and the court would be filled with teens’ hotted-up cars, revving loud with their music.
Maggie, easily annoyed by the ruckus, didn’t hesitate to yell out to the older kids to play nice. Her wide-brimmed straw hat sat atop greying hair, her floral dress, in fashion in the 70s and belonging to her mother, was studded with old paint and grass stains. Her sturdy black shoes were fastened with Velcro and the children laughed at her getup and mimicked her behind her back.
Enjoying the cool of her damp dress in the summer’s heat, Maggie was nearly finished. There was one corner of the garden she never touched, where the large prize winning rose bush grew lush, to ten feet, and flowered year round with a fragrant perfume which gave her, her only joy. If anyone had noticed they might have asked, “How, Maggie Petersen, does your rose bush flower all year round? What’s your secret?” In readiness, she’d rehearsed an answer, “None of your damn business.” She wrestled over the word, ‘damn’ and decided she’d say it if one of the men asked her. But no one ever did.
“Nich-kol-ars! Ay-mee! Dinner time!”
The screeching call from the petite blonde at Number Three next door echoed.
“In a minute.”
As Maggie turned off the tap, the windows of the houses opposite were like gleaming canvasses reflecting the dying golden glow of the setting sun, before it was finally snuffed out. From the corner of her eye, she thought she saw the dark shape of Jamie in the growing shadow and it gave her a start. Squinting hard, it was little Molly Flynn from Number One. With the hose in one hand, Maggie tilted the fingers of her other hand in a stiff wave, but there was no acknowledgement. The child, no more than five, dressed in denim overalls with tousled blonde hair, continued to stare until Maggie spoke. “Your mother is calling you.” The child, with no knowledge of the sadness that had come before, sucking hard on her thumb, bolted like a startled deer.
Maggie tightened the tap and carefully coiled the hose, watching the children disappear into their houses. The smell of barbeque sausages made her stomach rumble and she gazed around the court to work out which house it came from. One by one, television screens beamed the tennis final through unadorned windows and muffled cries and shouts floated in the sudden welcome breeze. The streetlights flicked on and Maggie dragged herself reluctantly into the stifling dark of her own house.
Maggie was at ease tonight as she stepped out of the shower and towelled her long grey- streaked hair. Slipping on a clean black dress, she combed her hair and tied it into a bun on top of her head. If she’d paid herself any attention, she could have looked more like her age of forty, but cared little if others thought of her as being much older.
Earlier at dawn when the air was cool, she’d prepared a stew for the week. Heating some in the microwave, she made a gin and tonic, her one birthday indulgence for the year, and took her meal to the rusting table and chair in the cool of the front verandah, where she could smell the perfume from the blood-red roses. Chirping crickets took up immediately with their high-pitched mating calls, which competed with a drunken argument from Graham in Number Five, where his son, Jamie, a talented guitarist, had once lived. A cat meowed for dinner, a dog barked and a truck changed gear on the freeway nearby.
The dark-haired kid in a footy top and shorts from Number Two pedalled by in a hurry, flinging his bike on the lawn and rushed inside. “Where the hell have you been? Dinner’s been ready for an hour,” came the scream from his mother through the open flyscreened door. In a few years, her boy would escape the dull monotony of the court and his mother’s nagging, leaving her touched by the stigma of being alone.
The breeze dropped and the air was thick with humidity. Maggie looked up and hoped for rain. She saw Jane in Number Six, a single mother, sitting in her lounge, crying on her sofa, as she did every night, next to her eighteen-month old daughter who, oblivious to everything was licking an icy pole. Mick, an intelligent boy who would have been the only one to go to uni, had lived there once. She remembers him with Stevie and Pete from Number Three, when they raced their dragster bikes against each other.
Tonight of all nights, Maggie did not want to see Jane’s sorrow when she had her own. No more tears, she wanted to tell Jane. Wear your pain like a mask, like me and everyone else. She saluted her before she sipped her drink and pondered in the heavy summer darkness.
“You should have stopped him,” Maggie had said to her mother.
“Stop blaming me. There’s no point going over this again. It won’t bring Stevie back,” her mother said.
But she did blame her mother. It was her mother’s fault that her 15-year-old twin brother went out that night after the argument. The cake in ruins, their happiness siphoned away. Maggie seen the hotted-up black charger outside Number One, where Ray and his family once lived.
She and Stevie grew up and played with Ray, Pete, Mick and Jamie in the court, much the same as kids today. Later, everyone had turned out to see the shiny black charger Ray had bought second-hand, with the savings from working as an apprentice fitter and turner. The oldest at 18, he was broad shouldered, tall with black, glossy hair grown just past his collar. First to leave school, first with a car, he was somebody and everyone knew it.
Maggie, with promise and hope ahead of her, was the first to be asked to the drive-in. She’d snuck out with only her brother knowing. In the dark, Ray pulled her across the sticky bench seat, surprising her with a sweaty hand slipping down her top. She hadn’t thought of her boobs as being big enough to be of interest. She froze in astonishment and stared at the screen before collecting her wits and stopping him from going further. She was never asked out in the car after that.
But on the night of the argument, exactly 25 years ago, her brother, Stevie had run out of the house and into Ray’s car crowded with Pete, Mick and Jamie. It revved and the music boomed. After a couple of burn-outs, it roared out of the court, forever.
Except for Number Two, which was vacant at the time, police doorknocked each house that night, and a succession of screams and despair was heard. The next day, Maggie stepped along the black tyre marks, left by the car, while her mother, who would later suffer the fate of many from lung cancer, lay on Stevie’s bed, weeping in the cool darkness. After a while, television and newspaper reporters chased someone else’s story and the doors of Stanley Place shut tight hiding the ache from the outside. Eventually, moving vans loaded belongings and except for Graham from Number Five and Maggie, the rest left. Fresh, hopeful faces, each with their own story to build, arrived and laughter came back to Stanley Place.
She no longer remembers what the argument was about, but on this day each year, Maggie lifted her drink in salute to Stevie, Ray, and the other three boys of the court. As she paid tribute to her brother by muttering a prayer in front of the rose bush where his ashes lay with her mother and father, raindrops mixed with tears, fell hard against her cheeks.