Burned

“The business dies without it,” declared Mr M with palpable anxiety.

“We know it arrives tonight, but we don’t know where.”

Nadia’s father and his associates were still desperately poring over a heavily coded message and a map when she snuck into his secret room. Suddenly, the door swung open. Nadia leapt for cover.

“What the hell Benny!” admonished Mr M, “knock 3, wait…knock 2, wait…How many times have I told you?”

“Sorry boss,” whimpered Benny, grasping for the pride he’d felt moments earlier after returning from the first meaningful task he’d been entrusted with; buying burner phones. He chose the ones with flame symbols on them, thinking that was why they were called burners.

Phones were hastily shoved into pockets and the men returned with increasing concern to the code and the map.

“Where is the drop site?!” Mr M demanded of his subordinates. Nadia felt her father’s anger and snuck out of the room. She didn’t know exactly how he paid her private school fees, but she had some idea what ‘hostile takeover’ meant in his line of business. She counted 10 seconds then burst back in with exaggerated clumsy innocence. An uncomfortable silence lingered.

“What about the Eels last night, eh” Mr M said eventually.

“Um…ah….yeah,” replied Stan.

“They’ll win the comp this year,” declared the boss calmly.

With doe eyes and rehearsed timidity, Nadia apologised profusely and asked for the day’s newspaper,

“…for the crossword.”

Her father thrust it at her and his boiling frustration swept her out the door.

Mr M didn’t understand his 13-year-old daughter’s obsession with cryptic crosswords, any more than he understood the code which hid the location of tonight’s shipment. When he emerged in a frantic search for whiskey, Nadia told him. He wasn’t convinced, so Nadia explained the hidden meaning behind each clue, and subsequently the precise location of the drop. Her father didn’t know whether to feel shocked, angry, usurped, proud, humiliated or impressed, so he succumbed to all of the above.

“You got lucky this time,” is all he could muster. Nadia smiled inwardly and returned to her cryptic as her father gathered his boys and rushed to the drop site.

“Move the second I call you on your burner,” added Mr M after he’d explained the meticulous plan to intercept Mr Smith’s shipment.

“Now spilt up!”

“How does the boss know so much about Mr Smith’s operations?” Benny asked Stan when they set off for their posts.

“They were partners until Smith crossed him, took every penny from their biggest haul years back.”

Truck after truck arrived.

The boss waited and breathed deeply. Revenge and riches were within arm’s reach. He was bursting with excitement and desperate to reveal himself to Mr Smith with the haul safely in his possession.

This is it. His trembling hands dialled the number and raised the phone to his ear.

‘Welcome to Flame mobile – your call has been placed in a queue and will be answered shortly…’

Cordelia

“Cordial”

“What?”

“Cordial, that’s her name,” smirked Kayden, as his buddies sniggered concomitantly.

“No, it’s Cordelia”

“Yeah, Cordial” and the remainder of Kayden’s posse sniggered again.

Cordelia rolled into the car park on her trusty hardtail and confirmed her presence, before Mr ‘Ev’ Evans continued checking attendance. The new teacher marked off a number of boys before arriving at an unfamiliar name:

“Adian”

“Eeeuuh,” protested the smallest member of Kayden’s posse, “It’s Ai – dan, not Ad-i-an.”

“Sorry,” replied Mr Evans, “it’s spelt A. D. I. A. N. – Adian”

“Eeuuh, that’s not how it’s said, it’s Aidan.”

“OK, settle down. So that’s Aidan, plus Brayden, Hayden and Jayden…”

and the three remaining boys grunted reluctantly at the teachers.

“Alright guys,” advised Ms Symonds, “we’ll start today on the skills track and the pump track, then we’ll go for a free ride, maybe right to the top today. Oh, and there’s a little surprise for everyone today.”

“That’s gay,” muttered Kayden under his breath. “Why can’t we just ride?”

It was futile to engage with Kayden, so the teachers led half the group to the skills area and the other half to the pump track. One group of students sized up the skills track: balance features, cornering challenges, a little rock garden, a seesaw and one final drop. The students laughed, stumbled and strained their way around the skills track with varying degrees of success, while Ms Symonds offered advice at various obstacles,

“Throw your bike forward off the drop,” she reminded them as they filed through the final obstacle.

“Good TJ”

“That’s it Matty”

“Exaggerate the throw Cordelia, so you don’t land on your front wheel like that”

Thud, whack, ouch!!!

Stuart crashed to the ground in a tangle of limbs and metal. His full rigid Malvern Star offered no shock absorption from the half metre drop and even the WD40 his Dad had sprayed all over the chain upon arrival couldn’t save him. He dusted himself off and assured Ms Symonds he was ok to continue amid a cackle of mocking laughter from the posse.

“He rides like a girl,” Kayden muttered.

“Kayden, don’t be sexist,” Ms Symonds admonished.

“What, I didn’t say anything about sex.”

“No, sexist, when you make bad comments about girls or women.”

“So what, there’s no girls here anyway.”

“What about Cordelia?”

“You mean Cordial?”

…and the boys laughed on command.

Stuart limped away from the obstacle course to put his bike and his pride back together.

“I didn’t do it properly either,” whispered Cordelia sympathetically, and Stuart’s rosy blush turned bright red.

Hayden and Jayden had excused themselves from the skills session and were obsessing over the positioning of their GoPro. Ms Symonds wondered when they’d ever do anything worth posting to their much-hyped Youtube channel.

“Yes Matty,” she complimented as he negotiated the drop.

“Perfect Angus”

“Yes, that’s it Cordelia” and the students bounced off the drop for the last time.

All except one.

Stuart picked his way through the skills course on his unforgiving retro bike, before nearing the final drop. Ms Symonds moved her hands instinctively towards the first aid kit, and the remaining students held their breath. The rigid front forks inched closer and closer to the edge of the drop while Stuart’s eyes widened in terror.

Would he make it?

Then something snapped and the terror disappeared. Stuart slammed down on the pedals, and with two strokes his front forks took flight. He leaned back, and with a strength belying his skinny arms he thrust the bike upwards and forwards.

Everyone waited.

His front wheel remained airborne and his back wheel finally left the boards. Arms extended and weight back, the bike flew down, down, down towards the dust. From tangled mess to perfect landing, Stuart had nailed it. A casual thumbs up from Cordelia turned his cheeks an impossible shade of red. He could always blame sunburn. Yep, he would blame sunburn.

Meanwhile, Ev was guiding his new students through the pump track.

“Look through the corner,” he said,

“Where you look is where you go”

Rider after rider rolled the bumps and swept through the turns. Some smoothly, others with a grating screech of brakes.

“Brayden and Adian can you not skid around every corner!”

“Why?”

“You churn up the track, you damage it for everyone else.”

“So?”

“Well, are you going to repair it?”

“As if, that’s so gay.”

Ev focussed his attention on the more receptive students, before realising one was missing.

“Kayden, are you going to join us?” he enquired. Kayden instructed the teacher to talk to the hand, while the other clutched his phone.

“I need it now,” he was saying, “hurry up and bring it…”

Kayden didn’t lower himself to skills sessions. His Santa Cruz Megatower 29er wasn’t built for technique practice or advice from ‘gay’ teachers. The brand-new, shiny, super expensive machine played the supporting role on his much-hyped Youtube channel.

The teachers swapped groups before deciding it was time to ascend.

“Let’s go,”

“What about the surprise?” asked Matty.

“Ah,” the teachers looked at each other, “…we’ll tell you when we get to the top.”

“Tap out a tempo on the climb, take your time, and we’ll meet at the start of Sidewinder. TJ, can you lead?”

“Wait!”- Kayden wasn’t ready.

“What’s the matter Kayden, are you OK?”

“Yeah, I’m waiting for my Mum. I need my other GoPro.”

“When will she be here?”

“I dunno!” Kayden snapped.

Again, discussion was futile, so Ms Symonds waited with Kayden and Adian, while Ev started the climb with the rest of the group.

Cordelia tapped out a rhythm on the long, slow climb, and the hill sessions she’d done by her house seemed to be paying off. Behind her, Stuart was puffing and panting on his heavy metal frame. Ev sensed a greater motivation in Stuart today – maybe it was the blonde ponytail up ahead.

Back at the carpark, a young boy stepped out of a late-model Hilux with a confidence Ms Symonds recognised. He walked to Kayden and thrust a GoPro into his hand.

“You might be riding with us soon,” remarked Ms Symonds in a friendly, off-hand manner.

“Nah, this is gay,” replied the young upstart, before being summoned impatiently by his mother,

“Get in the car Zayden!”

With his second GoPro attached, Kayden granted Ms Symonds permission to begin the climb. It wasn’t long before they caught Jayden, Hayden and Brayden, who were already pushing their bikes up the hill. The teacher was forced to dismount and listen to the posse whinge about the heat and the steepness of the climb,

“…they should put a chairlift in,” said Adian.

Ms Symonds distracted herself from the drudgery of the hike-a-bike by examining the bikes the posse members were riding. She was very happy with her Giant hardtail, especially after the dropper post had been added, but she was amazed at the machines in the hands of the 14 and 15-year-old boys. Kayden led the hike with his Megatower, while his minions trailed on Commencal , Canyon, YT, Nukeproof…all new, all carbon fibre. Ms Symonds began calculating the combined cost of the posse’s bikes, and how long it would take her to earn that much money. She stopped when it got too depressing.

“Now we can have some fun,” Ev assured them at the top of Sidewinder “…and I’ll be filming you guys on this trail, then on Taipan, Billy’s Bobsleigh and Sewerside, and the final edit goes into a video we’re going to show at the presentation night.”

“What, in front of everyone?”

“Yep. Classmates, parents, teachers – everyone.”

“Sick, cool, great…” they replied, with excitement and a hint of nervousness. The pressure was on.

“Send it!” and they were off.

Kayden’s posse had forced it’s way to the front of the convoy and led off with hoops and hollers and skids. They popped over the little jumps and sent dust flying from every corner and berm. Dom and Paddy followed and pulled off a ‘turnbar’ and ‘one foot’ on the little kickers in a determined effort to star in the video.

Ev knew some of this footage was usable and was even more excited when he reached the end of the trail and turned around to see Matty pull off an ‘ET’ on the big jump which concluded the trail.

“YEEEEUUUUUWWWWWW” they all screamed as Matty skidded to a halt.

“Ev, is that going in the video?” Matty pleaded hopefully.

“Maybe”

Next was Sewerside. Starting beside the stinky water reservoir, it was steeper, a bit more technical and a whole lot of fun for anyone light on the brakes.

“Relax, and keep your hands off the brakes as much as possible – just like Tracey Hannah,” Ms Symonds encouraged.

“Go!”

Off they sped, twisting and turning their way through the top technical section over rock gardens and drops. Jayden was the first to fall at the rock garden, followed by Hayden on the second drop. Only their egos were bruised, so the group careered its way down the hill straining to make their way onto the final cut.

Then it appeared.

“Nooooo!!!” screamed Stuart. A startled wallaby stood dead still in the middle of the trail, rooted to the ground. Stuart was going way too fast to stop and somehow threw his bike from side to side to avoid the poor animal and scare it off the trail into the bush. He returned his bike deftly to the trail and hung on with sweaty palms and gloveless fingers over the rocks, drops and gravel at the bottom of the trail.

More great footage, thought Ev.

Cordelia was beaming.

“Stu, you almost hit that wallaby”

Stuart was embarrassed, and mumbled,

“I just tried to get out of the way.”

“Yeah, with a tail whip – that was so impressive.”

This was the best day of Stuart’s life.

During the traverse to Taipan, Ev suggested to Kayden that he and his buddies contribute their GoPro footage to the presentation-night video. Even through his designer sunglasses, Kayden could be seen rolling his eyes.

“Nah, this is for Youtube – not for some gay school video.”

Discussion was futile.

Before sending the excited teenagers off Taipan, Ms Symonds reminded them to concentrate on their technique. They were getting tired. Plus, technique equals speed,

“…just like Jolanda Neff.”

“Who?” blurted Kayden.

“Jolanda Neff, world champion, world cup champion, she’s a Cross-Country rider from Switzerland, and she won a lot of races with strong technique on the descents…

“What, some chick!!” Kayden

“Yes, some chick who would beat anyone here, including you”

“As if,” and Kayden trailed off to his boys to issue orders for the impending descent.

“Don’t forget to smile for the camera,” Ms Symonds told everyone, and they were soon hurtling down Taipan.

Ev let all the riders glide onto the trail hoping to capture the kaleidoscopic train wind its way down the descent. The juxtaposition of vibrant colours on red-grey dusty trails enhanced the footage, and the beginnings of the final cut were coming together in his mind.

Brayden soon hit the deck after an ill-fated attempt to skid around a berm, and the camera focussed right on him as Ev turned his head to negotiate the corner.

“Smile,” he said as he whizzed by. Brayden didn’t see the funny side. Could he include that in the final cut? Ev asked himself, just before he witnessed something astonishing.

Cordelia was cruising through the flow trail with her distinctive blonde ponytail swishing around the turns, when he saw it;

Reddish-brown.

A metre long.

Venomous.

Just 2 metres in front of Cordelia.

Oh no!

A taipan. Smack bang in the middle of the trail.

Ev was helpless.

Please no!

Cordelia spotted the snake just in time.

Instinct took over.

Down, back, up..

In one deft movement she bunny-hopped the world’s third-most venomous snake before pushing into the next jump and flowing around the berm. The snake slithered off for cover and the newby teacher exhaled. She’d saved her own life, and probably his.

That was close.

Only two people had seen it. Soon, the entire school would.

Students and teachers soon found themselves at the top of the final run: Billy’s Bobsleigh. Tired, thirsty, sweaty, dusty, hungry and happy, they took in the amber glow of the afternoon sun and sipped from water bottles.

“This is it,” Mr Evans declared.

“Your last chance. Everyone has footage, but the final cut hasn’t been made. Now, remember to be careful and concentrate, and think about one thing:

Drop Dead.

The students gasped.

Silence ensued.

Yes, Drop Dead. The highest drop on the the hill. Wooden boards which followed a berm then stopped abruptly. Nothing but fresh air.

Remember, you can take the ramp to the right, or take the drop. It’s entirely your choice. You’re all capable. It’s the same technique you’ve been taught, just higher…

“A lot higher,” – said Matty.

“Yes, a lot higher,” confirmed Ms Symonds.

“If you take the drop, focus straight away on the little jump just after you land. Now, I’ll ride down first and wait at the drop. I’ll watch you down the trail, then hide under the drop and film you all go past. No matter what you choose, you’ll be on film.”

As Ev set off to position himself for filming, he heard Kayden barking orders at everyone. he gave the signal, then pressed record.

The smiling students cruised up and down the embankments which gave the trail its name. The first bike approached and Ev recognised the distinctive whirr of a bike he wished he could afford. He heard the violent screech of disc brakes as the rider succumbed to fear, and Brayden’s Canyon Strive rolled tentatively down the ramp. Three more carbon fibre contraptions repeated Brayden’s efforts, then the remaining students threw their bikes to the right and down the ramp.

Thud, whack, ouch!!!

A bike crashes to the ground in a tangle of limbs and metal. Ev peeks out expecting to see the trusty Malvern Star sprawled all over the trail, but instead he spots the shiny Megatower beside its owner writhing in pain. Ev zooms in cheekily on the whimpering Kayden, and while he decides whether to leave that shot in the final edit, he calls,

“Kayden, get off the trail!”

But it’s too late. Kayden submits to the pain and can only look skyward. The final rider whirls down the trail. Ev hears the tyres grip the berm and roll onto the boardwalk. He points the camera at the ramp to the right but at the last second senses the bike approaching the drop.

Is this it?

Is someone finally going to take on the drop?

Before he can mentally prepare for a mid-trail rescue of a broken-boned teenager, he sees it.

The front wheel separates itself from the wooden board and there’s no turning back. The back wheel follows and bike and rider fly out into the bright blue sky and fill the frame of the camera. It’s magnificent. The tropical afternoon sun dances off the frame of the bike to backlight the rider perfectly. The lens tracks the bike as it plunges toward the rocky trail with rider still in place. The danger is not over. The landing has to be stuck, and this is no mean feat from a drop of such height.

The rider sails over Kayden and his Megatower, and with perfect technique the hardtail lands gracefully on the trail and two slim legs cushion the blow, before sending the rider high up into the next berm and sailing over the ensuing jump.

Ev is already anticipating the reaction of the entire school body when they watch the footage on the big screen, and he runs out to catch the final shot. He points the lens at the long blonde pony tail as it snakes its way effortlessly down the trail.

A Request

“You’ll have to go back,”

Oh no, thought Tim, I’d really don’t want to. What will she say?

Tim was extremely reluctant to return and demand a refund, because of what had happened since he’d purchased the medicine from the chemist.

The specialist explained why Tim was entitled to a refund, and the difference between the correct medicine and the one he was given. Meanwhile, Tim weighed up the consequences of demanding a refund or forgetting the matter entirely. The hit to his wallet had been hard, but the hit to his dignity might be more severe, and more lasting.

“…and make sure you speak to the pharmacist directly, not just the front desk staff. And if they don’t want to give you a refund, call me straightaway, I’m happy to speak to them.”

Thoughts raced through Tim’s mind while he sat in the consultation room. I could just do nothing, the specialist might forget. But the doctor’s conscientiousness made that unlikely, and is why Tim made the four-hour round trip for the appointment.

The specialist continued explaining the mistake and the reason that Tim had broken out in red rashes from head to toe after taking just one tablet. Tim wasn’t completely focussed, but did hear the words:

“…ended up in hospital after taking that medicine…” Tim had been lucky.

I guess I have no choice, he surmised, but the task ahead soured his mood on the long drive home.

Tim’s finger hovered over the button.

Follow.

Should I? he pondered.

Should I request to follow her?

He’d been struck by her physical beauty as soon as he’d approached the counter, even as she was partially obscured by the cashier and the plethora of medicines which surrounded her. She’s obviously intelligent, too. She looks quite young but that might be the result of her genes, and she must have spent at least four or five years at university before taking up this current position. She’s not too young for a man of Tim’s vintage. She possessed the two qualities Tim genuinely admired in women – brains and beauty. He certainly didn’t subscribe to the the theory that men should never date a woman who is smarter than them. He craved an intellectual sparring partner. Maybe subconsciously he wanted intelligent children, maybe he just wanted someone who could converse. Either way, he knew he would like to get to know this woman more.

He felt his heart beat faster as his finger remained fixed over the button. He imagined the optimal outcome, and his heart beat faster again.

When he first entered the pharmacy, he thought he would be in and out in a few minutes, but he’d been unable to find the correct bottle of tablets, so approached the cashier, who wasn’t able to help.

“The pharmacist will be with you shortly,” she offered.

While he waited for the pharmacist to bring him the medicine, he surveyed the chemist aimlessly. Locals waiting for scripts. Parents buying cold and flu tablets. Tourists stocking up on sunblock and repellent. Then his eyes rested on the board.

The supervising pharmacist had a Sri Lankan or Indian name, while the pharmacist on duty had a name that stood out. It was uncommon in these parts. The pharmacist who had caught Tim’s eye was clearly not from the sub-continent, so she must be the owner of the second name. He rolled it over in his mind a few times, committing it to memory, and realised that unlike most people from this suburb, he had visited the land of her ancestors. He had an ‘in’, a conversation starter. He then tried to remember some of the words he’d picked up from his travels through that country. They trickled back, but then he remembered that those words belong to languages in the south, and her family name comes from the north. No problem, he still recalled a few words of the northern language – at least enough to surprise her. Maybe even impress her.

His finger continued to hover.

Is it creepy?

Will she think I’m a creep, a stalker?

Will she remember me from the pharmacy? We’d spoken for quite a while as she explained the tablets and their likeness to the ones I couldn’t find on the shelf. It was a typically mundane conversation that had been made substantially more enjoyable by her presence. Surely she will notice my profile pic when she sees the request.

Is it normal, is it flattering?

Lot’s of people meet online these days, via social media, via Tinder and all sorts of dating apps and dating sites. Millenials connect via socials, even if many of them don’t admit it – and the photogenic pharmacist was a millenial. People lived most of their lives online, so of course they could meet a partner online. COVID had even forced people to socialise entirely online, so sending an electronic request to initiate a connection with another person is surely somewhat normal these days.

On the other hand, is it too forward?

Will she wonder how I found her? If she remembers it was me, she will know that she never told me her name, nor asked for mine. She was definitely smart enough to deduce that I’d taken it from the board in the pharmacy. She was also smart enough to realise I’d committed the name to memory while in the store – after all, it was not a ‘common’ name.

She might think it was endearing that I’d gone to so much mental effort to remember her name, or she might find it very disconcerting. Some might even call it the early stages of identity theft, or cyber bullying. What’s more, the social media account looked like it hadn’t been updated for quite some time, so she might become suspicious upon seeing a follow request completely out of the blue.

He must think I’m single, she’ll also think. Did he check if I was wearing a wedding ring?

Yes, Tim certainly did. As soon as she emerged from behind her counter.

Will she think less of me for not saying anything in person? Should I have expressed my interest face to face in the pharmacy, upon first meeting? It was hardly a romantic setting. A chemist, surrounded by cures for illness, next to a shabby old man with all manner of health complaints waiting for who knows what medicine. And the middle-aged lady coughing through her nicotine-clogged lungs and showering the chemist with coronavirus: very romantic. Plus, she was giving me medicine, and knew what I was likely suffering. This is what people try so hard to hide on a date.

Will she think me cowardly for not speaking face to face, and for hiding behind a social media account to connect with someone?

His finger descended.

Requested.

Armed with the proof of purchase, the doctor’s business card and the bottle of offending pills, Tim approached the pharmacist.

“Um, hi…”

Image: Ilan Dov

World War III.

The world was thrown into chaos. Bombs tore apart entire towns and the dead bodies piled up on the streets too quickly to be taken away or buried. The stench brought more tears to the eyes of those in constant mourning, and the corpses of deceased relatives provided cover from snipers and crazed gunmen. Drones battled for airspace and fighter jets blasted through the skies with such frequency the people had stopped checking if they were friend of foe.

The constant bombardment was deafening and frightening, and broken only by the cries of orphaned children.

Food was scarce. The hungry had already looted the stores and the fields. Stomachs rumbled in tune with the tanks, and the people grew accustomed to the rancid taste of permanently blackened skies.

Most people forget who they were fighting; forgot who the enemy was, or was supposed to be. In the early days, when the mediums of communication were still functioning, they listened to their leaders identify and attack the enemy with impassioned speeches. The enemy wore a certain uniform, spoke a certain tongue. Soon the patriotism wore thin and the increasingly vehement verbal attacks fell on deaf ears. The people fought for survival, not for their nations, or their leaders.

Despite the danger and hunger. Despite the destruction and the obliteration, a greater fear loomed. The fear of the MAD Button. The button of Mutually Assured Destruction which would release the nuclear weapons counties had been stockpiling in the name of deterrence and pragmatic foreign policy.

Nothing would survive.

The people asked themselves, how did we get here?

It all started on a lunch line.

Yes, a simple lunch line preceding the buffet at an international summit for the world’s super powers. The summit had been convened to combat the latest pandemic, the impending environmental disaster and the refugee crisis. It had also promised to deliver world peace. It plunged the world into war.

The disaster began when event organisers suddenly announced a casual outdoor setting for lunch on the final day, deliberately forcing world leaders to line up for their food, assuring attendees it would,

“…pivot their personal and professional brand towards an empathetic and approachable persona, while positioning leaders as down-to-earth…”

Entourages hastily consulted brand managers, and wardrobes were adjusted accordingly. Donald ignored his minders and snapped on his famous red baseball cap, “…to protect me from the sun” he claimed. Leaders were reminded to smile and keep conversations light, and to remember that cameras could now capture them from every angle.

While the world’s most powerful people grabbed a plate and stood in line, trying desperately to hide their discomfort and impatience, a voice was heard from the back of the line.

“Scotty, let me in,” Donald called to his friend when he spotted the fried chicken piled high.

“Um,” Scotty deliberated, assessing the personal and political risk of letting his friend push in and jump the queue. His minders were snacking on granola bars back in the makeshift office, so Scotty had only a few seconds to make a decision that would have irreversible ramifications.

He’s an ally, his mind told him, but he’s probably the most hated leader in the world, even more hated than me. Well, I’m not hated, just ignored really – that’s why they all walked away from me after the joint photo and left me standing there like the kid no one plays with. Luckily I had my phone in my pocket and I could pretend to check some emails. I think I got away with it.

Should I let Donald in? Everyone’s looking, especially Vladimir and Xinping. What will Aussies think? My supporter base loves Donald, and I can’t upset them. But even people in his own country are getting sick of him, what if he doesn’t last, what if I align myself with a failure, a loser? Will I lose votes? How will it affect me? I know Peter wants my job, and Rupert created Donald before he created me.

Then there’s Xinping. He doesn’t look happy. Will this mean more tariffs, more restrictions on exports, more lost votes?

Who would buy our beef, wheat, our coal…? If my party loses farmers and miners, we’re stuffed. Gosh I wish my staff were here, they’d know what to do. They never told me I’d have to make decisions when they made me PM.

“Drink beer,” they said

“Go to the footy,” they said.

And Vladimir, he’s always looking for a fight, or a chance to take his shirt off.

Time kept ticking away…

I could ignore him, Scotty thought. I could play with my phone again, or talk to the woman behind me. What’s her name again? Angie, Andrea, Annabel – I think it starts with an A and she seems to be important, she talks a lot at meetings, nagging us all to do something about electric cars – nagging about something else – women eh! Wait, she’s the one who gave me the dirty look when I mentioned clean coal – nah, I’m not talking to her.

Donald called again. His stomach was rumbling, like the war tanks he had just sold to the leader of a nation he’d never heard of, while other leaders discussed plans for world peace.

“Scotty, come on man, let me in”

Spilt seconds ticked by. Scotty felt the sweat run down his back and hoped it wasn’t showing on his face. Yes or no. I have to decide, right now.

With a smirk, he said yes.

Donald strolled triumphantly to the front of the line, beside his friend Scotty. Vladimir and Xi fumed, and declared in unison:

“This is war!”

Image: http://www.istockphotos.com

Schooled

Three years it had been since Maiko made her vow.

“I’m going. I’m leaving. No more waiting, no more excuses.”

Three years.

Maiko had convinced herself she’d outgrown her school, and outgrown the monotonous routine which swept her from one place to another with such relentless regularity that it had become organic.

Maiko’s cynicism belied her age, and it is why she rejected the flowery sentiments of her elders as they extolled the virtues of the school:

Unity

Safety

Belonging

Growth

Learning

“Spare me…what about Conformity?”

She had decided to finally break free. She would do it this time.

She hadn’t revealed her intentions of course. The school was famously suspicious of non-conformity and of those labelled ‘Free Thinkers’. Kai was a ‘Free Thinker’. He was sceptical, outspoken, uncouth and rebellious. He was accused of ‘swimming against the tide’. Kai was gone.

The mysterious object which regularly appeared glinting in the distance was her salvation, and lunchtime was the perfect opportunity to escape. While the rest of the school descended en-masse to engorge themselves on their daily sustenance, Maiko quietly slipped away and was soon separated from her peers. Her absence would be noted, but not until she had put sufficient distance between herself and the school.

A magnetic force lured Maiko to the mystical object and she floated towards it involuntarily. The temptation and promise of liberation drew her further and further from the school, and feelings of freedom overwhelmed her. She let herself drown in the intoxication of heightened alertness and unparalleled awareness, and thoughts of safety and belonging washed joyously from her consciousness.

The intriguing entity loomed larger and Maiko was able to make out some of its finer details. She drank in its kaleidoscopic facade and the sensual wondrous beauty which so captivated her that its very existence justified her bold escape.

Maiko was also very afraid. She knew intuitively that once she made contact with this object she could never go back; could never return to the school. This is what she wanted, what she’d dreamt of and longed for. But it had taken her three years to seize this moment.

Maiko drowned her fears and approached the enchanting object with a heady mixture of terror and excitement. She marvelled at the clash of colours which enveloped its shape, as well as its provocative swaying.

Just at the moment of contact, a wild thrashing of pulsating, animalistic energy rushed past Maiko and launched itself at the wondrous object with such force that the apparition was entirely unidentifiable. Maiko reeled in shock and remained transfixed as the frenzied being latched onto her prize and wrestled it savagely.

“Nooooooooo,” cried Maiko in utter despair. “My salvation???????????”

The thrashing subsided. Slowly the body fell limp. The being revealed itself.

Kai?

A look of unbridled fear shot from Kai’s eyes and speared into Maiko’s soul. Kai disappeared skywards. He was gone: forever.

Hungry, chastised and humbled, Maiko swam back to the school.

Image: Element5Digital

Gift for life.

Gift arrive today.

What gift arrives today? replied Gwen, who recognised Wilson’s number but not the content of the message from the jovial and effusive charity liaison.

Arrive Gift today, make you happy forever.

Eternal happiness was not the first grand claim Wilson had made, but the transactions between Gwen and the children’s charity usually flowed in the opposite direction. Appreciation letters were common, especially approaching Christmas, but never before a gift. Thabani’s letter had impressed Gwen and Dara immensely, for its linguistic competence and the cute drawing of a tropical palm tree, despite the children’s home lying in the heart of southern Zimbabwe’s arid region.

He’s clever, Gwen had told Wilson.

No, is not Clever, is Thabani, he’d replied.

“You should give Wilson some lessons in grammar, and tactful language,” quipped Dara light-heartedly. The grammar lessons did not eventuate, nor did the sponsorship the couple had initially requested. They’d been matched with 3-year-old Rose and had been quite content. But they soon discovered that Rose would not be receiving their benevolence. When they contacted Wilson, he informed them Rose had never existed. Maybe they were thinking of Primrose, or her identical sisters Prudence and Privilege.

Sensing their disappointment, and determined to find a child to benefit from the couple’s goodwill, Wilson had messaged soon after,

You want Charity?

Us, charity? This wasn’t making any sense. Gwen understood the difficulty of communicating in a second language, her students faced it every day, but now Wilson seemed to be offering them charity. What is happening?

To be honest, Wilson, we’ve almost lost hope, they’d confessed after hearing the news of Rose and failing to secure another sponsor child.

No, not lose Hope, Hope and Faith I see today with my very own eyes, this I am sure.

Gwen was buoyed by Wilson’s irrepressible optimism and his continued dedication in undeniably challenging circumstances, and she and Dara were determined to provide an impoverished child with a better life. But even after endless trials and tribulations with their charitable efforts, they still had no idea why they would now be the recipients of a gift.

“Maybe it’s a thank you for the water pump we funded, suggested Dara. “or the equipment for the sewing and carpentry workshops. Wilson did say the sewing machines were ‘great for Blessing’ though I’m sure he meant to say ‘a grateful blessing’.”

“Perhaps, but why send us a gift, and how can Wilson be sure it’ll arrive today? Nothing sent between here and Zimbabwe has ever arrived on time.”

Then the couple heard a noise. A noise that would change their lives forever, just as Wilson had promised.

Ding, dong!

Gwen opened the door. Standing in front of her was not a harried delivery driver demanding a signature. At their door stood a shy young African boy gazing up at her with big, brown eyes.

“Hello, how are you?” he whispered.

“My name is Gift Matebe.”

Image: Jess Bailey

It’s Over.

It’s over. Just like that. Anthony was in no way prepared for this. Something was certainly different when she first appeared that night, but it gave him no indication of the revelation that was to come.

He stared in silence for a moment and his mood sunk. He felt undeniably alone. He felt tears well up but he was too despondent to cry. He wasn’t sure how to react so he just went to bed. It was probably late enough.

“I sleep better when I’m depressed,” he’d often told himself. It’s not scientifically proven, but it made sense to him. When he was depressed a numbness replaced the agitation that otherwise kept him awake. The realisation that it was over drove him to seek solace in the covers and escape the cold winter evening.

At about 2pm the next day it hit him again. His one day a week in the office had so far distracted him from the heart-breaking news, but now it returned to haunt him. Normally the promise of an evening in would carry him through the final monotonous and arduous hours at work better than an afternoon caffeine hit, but not today.

It was at this hour that he would customarily gift himself a mental power nap, a brief daydream, as he pictured the scrumptious evening meal, the choice of dessert and the pure pleasure of “slipping into my trackies and ugg boots for a few blissful hours in your company.” Rain pouring on his roof enhanced the comfort that was always better shared.

“You don’t share my comfort, you are my comfort,” he’d always said.

Colleagues had labelled him mildly and harmlessly eccentric as he broke into random grins and light chuckles provoked by the memories of the previous night’s adventures. He hadn’t smiled today. The pleasant memories stored themselves in the recesses of his mind but would remain suppressed for quite some time.

He trudged to the break room and shoved some instant into a mug with too much sugar and some ‘girlie milk’ – no full cream left.

Today, pouring rain reminded him that he’d forgotten his umbrella.

Working from home would be even harder now. At first the idea had excited him. No more commute. Snacks and meals at arm’s length. No need to shave, no need to dress up. He’d reached a top score of 3390 in Solitaire; surely that was something to celebrate. But now the emptiness was omnipresent, taunting him in his open-plan living area with impromptu workspace. The single lounge chair looked lonelier than ever.

“I’m supposed to leave it all behind and move on,” he chided himself. “I have to accept that it’s over. It’s life. Nothing lasts forever, as myriad soppy love songs remind us. I should start dating again,”

But how does one date during a pandemic?

Social distancing is not conducive to romance. Flirtatious conversations in dimly lit restaurant corners are just a memory, and dancing is discouraged or banned – although maybe the latter is a bonus for Anthony.

What of the post-date?

Various scenarios run through Anthony’s mind.

He enters his unit with the lovely young woman. He offers her a seat and a drink. She relaxes in the lounge chair while he sits on the kitchen chair and the table renders them more socially distanced than in a restaurant or on public transport.

“Maybe I should paste on the lounge chair a green circle with “Sit Here” and a tick on it,” he suggests to himself.

The single lounge chair could, on the other hand, be a pretext for intimacy.

“We’ll just have to share,” he flirts.

“Or there is space for both of us on the bed.” In his wild imagination this sounds cheeky and charming. In real life it’s probably sleazy.

Self-isolation and

a wild imagination,

a dreadful situation and

a lethal combination.

“Loneliness is as unhealthy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” claims the psychologist on the radio.

Anthony thought sitting was the new smoking and he reminds himself to stop sitting alone in cafes lest he be fined or kicked out. On that reasoning, his daily exercise routine is therefore redundant. Maybe there’s no point dragging himself out of bed on winter mornings to slosh through the mud and rain. It always boosts his mood and offers a great sense of accomplishment, but if he’s virtually smoking 15 ciggies a day, what’s the point?

The clock grinds towards 5pm and he prepares to walk home. Then he stops.

Why go home? What have I got to go home to? You’re not there, and his mind races back to the previous evening…

He’d sat in numbed silence. It had finally come to an end. You’re gone.

What do I do now?

He started at the screen

Play Season 1 Episode 1.

Argenta and Gold.

It’s time to act, decided Bethany, as she reflected on the preponderance of silver which cast a gloomy pall over her bursting trophy cabinet.

She summoned the detective.

“It’s impossible,” declared detective inspector Gordon G. Wilson, before offering an explanation.

“The problem is Sapphire’s collar. It has heat, fingerprint, voice and retina activation. What’s more, the replacement collar would have to avoid detection from Sapphire’s first groomer, psychologist, stylist, brand manager, second groomer, nutritionist, physical trainer, photographer, massage therapist and third groomer before the dogs even enter the arena.”

Bethany was unmoved.

“You fail to understand detective, that this is my last chance to beat Lady Hamilton. There are strong rumours of ill health at Hamilton Manor.”

“It simply can’t be done,” Wilson reiterated.

The hand that had been lovingly stroking Argenta now reached for a photograph. Bethany slid the single polaroid across the lavish suite’s ornately finished table.

“I’m sure you’ll find a way detective,” she stated, fixing him with a cold unflinching stare.

Wilson sunk in the chair. The colour could be seen draining from his face even in the faint light of the flickering fire. He excused himself and set to work. He would need 12 months and all of his police smarts to accomplish this task.

Bethany was bursting with nerves and excitement. She clasped her clammy hands as she positioned herself behind the judges in the hotel’s elaborate auditorium. Her heart pounded as the parade of pampered Bichon Frises elicited gasps of adoration from the audience.

“Sapphire!” beamed the announcer, and the audience burst into rapturous applause. Bethany’s stomach churned with familiar disgust until she remembered her clever ruse. Her beloved pet was wowing the audience and the judges.

“Argenta!” strutted in to the arena and Bethany’s conflicting emotions resurfaced. Her breath shortened and her mouth dried.

‘Argenta’ paraded brilliantly and camera flashes lit up the auditorium.

Then something happened. Something almost imperceptible. Sapphire lacked her customary rhythm, her famous je ne sais quoi.

Had the judges felt it?

Had Bethany felt it, or was she simply intoxicated with the overwhelming emotions of this daring subterfuge?

The wait for the judge’s decision was torturous.

“The winner of the gold medal, category Bichon Frise, 2020, is…”

Bethany couldn’t breathe.

“Sapphire!”

Wilson now found himself in the same chair, in front of the same fire. The detective’s eyes settled on the photograph sitting next to another silver medal on the ornate oak table.

The detective pleaded his case.

“The switch was made. The task was completed, as per your orders.”

“Then where is my gold medal?” demanded Bethany, who had banished Argenta to the pound.

“It confounded us too,” testified Wilson, “until we swapped the collars back after the competition and discovered that the rumours of ill health were well founded,” outlined Wilson.

“But how? Lady Hamilton was alive and well and gloating pompously on the dais yet again,” protested Bethany.

“The Lady was always healthy,” Wilson paused,

“but Sapphire wasn’t.”

Image: Gabriel Crismariu

Sunday in Suburbia.

“So, what brings you on this auspicious journey?” asked the woman seated opposite Steve.

“Apart form the opportunity to become one of the world’s last true pioneers?” he chuckled in reference to the promotional material.

“I’m Dita, by the way, and this is my partner Norah”

Polite and stilted conversations had begun after the captain informed passengers they could remove phase one of their elaborate safety apparatus. They slid band 1 out of clip A before lowering band 2 in order to reach clip B which upon release gave access to clip C…

“It started one sunny Sunday,” began Steve, and Dita certainly didn’t object to a longwinded story on this seemingly interminable journey.

“Varna kicked it off, her Huskie barking his lungs out at 6am and that was the end of the sleep in.”

“Any idea why he was barking?”

“Probably protesting about the tropical heat and humidity.”

“We won’t be meeting a huskie or Varna where we’re going,” said Dita confidently.

“Then Victor fired up his lawnmower for a few hours. He loves cutting grass.”

“At least he was cutting his own grass this time,” added Steve’s wife Patty.

“That’s not fair,” Steve chided her politely, “you don’t know that for sure.”

“Oh yes I do, I caught the pretty young thing scurrying down the side passage with a guilty grin on her face on more than one occasion.”

“Did you tell the wife?” asked Norah

“Absolutely not,” declared Patty,” I don’t like to be nosy.”

“Plus, not our concern anymore. Not where we’re going.”

“Very true – but is that the only reason? I mean, it was an arduous application process,” to which the new friends rolled their eyes in sync.

“What about that one question – Can you list 10 delicious and nutritious recipes featuring potato, silverbeet and cabbage?” and they laughed concomitantly.

“But actually, there were more reasons”

“Mack owns the weekender across the road and spends his weekends working on D I Y projects with his Mackita.

“Mackita?” enquired Dita.

“Mrs Mack,” explained Patty. “One of Steve’s hilarious jokes I’m afraid.”

“Well she is Mexican – he’s Mack so she’s Mackita,” he stated proudly.

“Meanwhile, Marcel went to war with his garden and that chainsaw left horrific wounds on every living organism in sight – I bet he’s STILL going.”

“At the same time, Ozito launched into another renovation. I guess he has to justify that garage full of tools and add-ons”

Patty was required to explain again.

“More champagne comedy,” she said sarcastically. “Ozito is our patriotic nextdoor neighbour. Raises and lowers the Aussie flag every morning and evening without fail.

“So, I guess you can say we’ve come all this way for some peace and quiet,” surmised Steve.

As the journey entered its final hour, passengers were ordered to begin strapping themselves back into their safety apparatus. The vessel shook and shuddered in anger.

Finally, the captain uttered the words they had waited so long to hear.

“Welcome to the moon.”

Image: Greg Evans

Show Me.

“Show me”

No, sorry Dad, I can’t. Not now, Sophia wanted to say, but she knew even one word would release a torrent of emotion. The brisk winter morning and the flecks of salt water whipped into the air had already moistened her eyes and loosened her tear ducts.

“Show me” he cajoled, but to no avail.

Sophia’s parents and her eldest sister were the only people permitted to see her off from the terminal. Friends, family and colleagues had farewelled her at the dinner two nights earlier where her mother had told the large crowd,

“Sophia’s work brings joy and hope, plus opportunity to so many people. We wish that for once she would focus more on herself and find…

but before her mother went there, Sophia shot her a look which said ‘not now mum, not now’ at which her mother changed tack,

…or at least that she could do this work closer to home.”

“You’ll do great things” is all her father could manage, lest he cry endlessly in front of his friends and family. That was not the done thing for an ex boxing and wrestling champion.

His little girl was departing, again, but this time there was no scheduled return date and a much greater risk which no one wanted to acknowledge verbally.

As Sophia felt the familiar warmth of her mother’s embrace, she found herself contemplating which melancholic musical score would best accompany this moment. The girl who eschewed modernity, who chose sailing over flying, paperbacks over kindles and letter writing over messaging, thumbed mentally through her vintage record collection searching for an appropriate title, until she switched her attention to her big sister.

The longest hug was reserved for her father. She was the baby of the family, and even when her work thrust her into battles with world leaders, corporate heavyweights and, on one occasion, a feared local warlord, she was still Daddy’s little girl.

The ship hauled itself from the dock, and once Sophia had finished waving, she slid her chilly hands into her coat pockets. There she felt a piece of paper. Unfolding the paper, she saw a stamp pasted in its centre. The stamp featured a koala, and it was the stamp which had sat proudly on the first letter she had sent to her father, all the way from her nextdoor neighbour’s house where she had embarked with boastful pride on her first epic adventure – a sleep over.

Her father had even sprinkled glitter on his letter in honour of Sophia’s insistence upon decorating her letters well into adulthood. She imagined her burly father hunched over his work bench surrounded by power tools and trophies, adding glitter ever so delicately to her parting gift.

The letter comprised of four words. Four words which always elicited a smile from Sophia, even in her darkest days. Four words her father had used to slice through her despair and sadness, her anguish and tantrums.

“Show me your teeth.”