Category C: Highly Commended (2020) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: Linda Grace
Title: Dead lucky
Look at all them city folk, marchin’ like ants with a purpose. Feel like a fish out o’ water, I do, coming in to town. And as for that soupy smell soaking into the walls o’ the nursing home. Takes a bit o’ getting used to, but I wouldn’t miss a date with me ol’ girl. Not for anything in the world. This bugger of a stroke - the big one – has been doing its work on Gracie a good while now.
There’s no need to knock when I poke me head around the door. Her face hasn’t seen the sun for a spell but God’s truth, one tiny smile and she looks seventeen again. Like that pretty little girl I met at the pictures, eager to love and get on with life.
Gracie touches me face with her good hand. Her eyes are like watery milk. I comb her hair with me fingers. Me body remembers it like when we were lovers. I offer her juice through a straw, but she turns her head like a baby.
“Tell me another story, dear,” Gracie whispers between breaths. “And I thought you’d never ask,” I say, moving the green vinyl chair up close to her bed. This is our little ritual. Gracie never tires of it, and I never run out o’ stories.
So I sink into the chair, fish another butterscotch out o’ me pocket and suddenly a story comes tumbling out.
“It was a long time ago,” I begin, crunching the butterscotch in two. “There was this skinny little rascal of a kid, ya see. Bugger of a start he had in life.”
“Go on dearest,” Gracie whispers, her small hand patting my knee like a puppy. Her fingers are ring-less on account o’ some thieving going on in the nursing home.
“Born to itinerant folks, he was. They weren’t much chop. Packed him off to the O’Reilly’s farm. For a short spell, they said. But farmer O’Reilly was skint too. Saddled with two daughters, he would o’ sent ‘em packing if he could.
No gongs for guessing his childhood was tough. O’Reilly took a whip to his backside almost daily. One day his folks moved up north for work but they never sent for him. Not a dollop o’ mercy in either of ‘em.
So on his fifteenth birthday, two shillings got the lad a ride on a freight train heading for Melbourne to look for work.
“Did he have a girl?” Gracie asks with a rascally grin.
“Well, he loved the pictures, ya see. Filled in the empty hours on Saturdays. One day a young lass in a green velvet coat walks up to the box office, but only buys one ticket. No beau. No chaperone. No surprises she turned heads. Blind Freddie could see she was pretty. And as for that bloke in cattleman’s boots. Fat chance, he thought to himself. But when they were seated next to each other, his heart was a gonna. Still can’t remember the picture they saw.”
Gracie’s eyes close, but she’s not sleeping.
“The lad was smitten. It wasn’t impossible to imagine her as his wife. So they met the next day, and every day after that, until he got the word. To ready himself for a war no-one could ever be ready for.”
I stroke Gracie’s fingers. The ones that aren’t gnarled in a ball.
“Go on, dearest,” Gracie says. “What happens next to this lovely couple?”
“Mug punters. Aussies, some still with a rash o’ pimples on their cheeks, volunteered boots ‘n all. Thought the war would be done in a month. Brotherhood ‘n sacrifice ‘n all that. Bunkum! Bullets got pumped into soldiers like poppy seeds. Bodies twitched and died in a stink rising from the mud like an abattoir. He still sees his mate Billy with his head split open like a pumpkin. Billy’s eyes were pleading to empty his gun. Bastard thing jammed. Shrapnel razored through him hoisting Billy over his shoulders. Spongy mud kept filling his boots. Didn’t even know he’d been shot. Soldiers clinging to life with limbs blown off were left to die on the battlefield, but he couldn’t help ‘em. Word spread the next day that Billy and a bunch o’ young fella’s got buried in an unnamed grave.”
“What hap … what happens to her beau?” Gracie’s voice is trailing off. Each breath is slower than the one before.
“Patched him up as best they could. Helped he had a bonzer girl to think about. Weak as a newborn foal he was when they sent him packing with a useless bunch o’ papers and an honourable discharge. Fat lot o’ good it did. Work dried up and the lad was flat broke.”
“Oh deary me, what happened then, my love?”
“He drank on account it was better to drink than go crazy. Gazing into the bottom of a glass, he stayed at the pub long after the grog was gone. Come Friday the house keeping was spent. Not a penny left. These days they got a name for it, but back in them days, he was too proud to weep like a sissy. And his Mrs suffered more than any good woman should.”
Gracie’s leaky eyes open. They say without words she still loves me. My body trembles. I’m relieved I still have her but I still haven’t got used to living without her. I push away the chair. We lay cheek to cheek till I feel Gracie falling asleep.
I tuck her arm under the blanket and kiss her on the forehead. “I’ll be seein’ ya, sweet heart,” I whisper in her ear. “Same time tomorra.”
I lift my coat off the back o’ the chair and leave quietly. Gracie’s mouth is slack. A sigh is trapped between bone and flesh. Her body’s not her own anymore. Makes me chest tighten seeing it.
“I’ll miss you, Walt,” Gracie whispers between breaths. I get a stab every time she says it.
I still imagine I’m hearty but in the train’s window I see an old bloke, skinny and bald, apart from a few strands crossing over. His shoulders stoop. His trousers hang like they belong to a much younger man. Who could have imagined such decay in old age? That living can weary the heartiest.
The train door opens and kids in backward caps spill out. There’s a stink in the carriage from a rotting meat pie and too many bodies. The rumble muffles conversations. Me arms are rocking with the train, remembering the weight o’ Gracie. I fiddle with the band on me finger. I never told Gracie I was lucky. Dead lucky. That I stumbled into happiness. But happiness, truth be told, is not all I remember. I still got some memories I thought I was done with. Like the woman I plundered. Came to me shop after closing one day, clutching a bottle by the neck. Can’t even picture her face anymore. Except for her lips. Red and overpainted. The bugger of it all was I didn’t even like her. Dumb as a door knob, I was. Gracie could o’ gone either way, but for worse or for better, she chose to stay when I wasn’t me shiniest self.
“Worse things happen at war, Walt,” she said. “I know you, dear, better than you know yourself. The shame a good man suffers is enough punishment I should think.” Or at least that’s how Gracie chose to see it.
King and country be buggered. It was Gracie, not the war, who showed me what a real man oughta be. What decency really is. I was done with grog I decided after that. What a bonzer girl, my Gracie Jane. Bonzer girl, indeed.
Smelly kids with fat bags and whacha-ma-callits poked in their ears scramble over me gammy leg. The train pulls into the station and kids crowd the door before it opens.
A sharp chill in the air is impossible to ignore as the wind bites through layers of wool. When I unlock the front door, there’s a silence I reckon that’s deeper than ever, but it’s good to be home. In the kitchen, a pinny hangs on a hook still waiting for Gracie to fill it. When I put the kettle on, I hear Gracie’s voice as clearly as if she were next to me. Sit down, dearest. Let me make you a nice cuppa.
I notice the shakes are getting worse as I open a can o’ tinned peaches. I turn on the telly and as I sink into the recliner, I could o’ sworn I saw Gracie ghosting in her empty chair.
When next I wake, the light tells me its morning but I haven’t gone to bed. I’m stiff all over but nothing really hurts except for the creak in my neck. There’s a slow ringing in me head which I thought was a dream. I reach across to the stand and answer the phone.
The man’s voice is measured. And calm. My hopes instantly spike thinking Gracie’s coming home, and then suddenly dive. My ears fill with blood. My heart drops down to me bowels. The nurse’s words are weighted in a message I never wanted to hear.
“But Gracie’s the reason I’m still breathin.’ She’s the only one me heart beats for!”
I don’t ask him when. Or even how.
I put the phone down. Knuckle away tears. I’m older than Gracie and with my gluey lungs, I should o’ gone first.
There’s no happy ending.
No sense o’ peace.
Only scrambled thoughts and the promise of oblivion in a bottle o’ grog.