The Odyssey House Short Story Competition winners for 2023 have now been notified and their stories can be found below. The theme for 2023 was Burning Bridges and we thank everyone who entered.

Congratulations to our winners!

The Short Story Competition will open again in the second half of 2024. Happy Writing!

Winning Entries

Dance to Drugs

Brenda Campbell

 

My arch lifts in anticipation. I always start with the left. For good luck. I slide my foot, toes taped, into the soft fabric lining, brush my fingers along the pink satin, adjust the drawstring, get the fit right. Are my toes snug, flat and comfortable against the en pointe’s rigid box? I tie the silky ribbons, feel their velvety touch on my ankles. I’m in the wings, waiting for my cue. The theatre is hushed, the orchestra stirs, the baton lifts, tap, tap, tap, and Tchaikovsky’s beguiling music fills the theatre. It’s The Nutcracker, I’m the Sugar Plum Fairy and I’m in the Land of Sweets, my first turn as soloist. I glide onto the stage. 

But no, not really, that’s my past. This is my now. I’m sitting in my local cafe, the booth furthest from the counter and the nosy waitress, nursing a long black, warming my frozen hands on the mug, and watching the heavy rain splatter against the window while I wait for one of my couriers. The ambitious one, the one who thinks he can take over my patch,  just because I’m a woman. But I’m no easy pushover, I know more about this business than he’ll ever learn, and I did it the hard way.

I’m in the enviable position of being both a seller and user of my product. Perfect set-up for quality control. My business operates on supply and demand. I’m on the supply side. Of course I occasionally test my product for purity, alert for tainted goods. I have a side hustle or two as well, but I mainly deal in party drugs, or E to my clients, the glitterati. I’m all for them having a fun time.

This is my second career. My first was in the magical world of ballet. The sublime art that has entranced audiences for, well, I’m not sure, but its definitely been around a long time.

That it even existed had bypassed me, until my school’s art teacher escorted her class, fifteen ten year old girls, to a touring ballet company’s recital. Another  Tchaikovsky masterpiece, Swan Lake. The performances were second rate I later realised, but I sat in that darkened theatre, utterly entranced. I’d discovered my life’s passion. When I got home that night I told my parents about the performance and begged for ballet lessons. Soon, a local dance school became my regular Saturday morning hangout. And happily for me, it turned out that I was good, very good. By the time I turned thirteen I’d  progressed to en pointe shoes. 

‘Amazing potential’. That was the phrase I heard in the original conversation between Mum and my Saturday morning teacher. After that I heard it repeated many times. Just after my fifteenth birthday, I waved goodbye to my family from a train bound for Melbourne, where I was to board at the Majeste Ballet Academy. I was meant to stay and study for five years, along with twenty other budding ballerinas, after which I was assured, I would be picked up by one of the premier companies, as soloist, if not principal. Yes, I was that good. But none of that happened. I struggled from day one to fit into what I thought was a harsh regime. Prescribed meals, flavour abandoned in the rigorous pursuit of calorie control, every morsel of food we ate, apart from the Tim Tams we sometimes smuggled in, was strictly monitored. It was an unbelievable grind of hard physical labour; boring barre work and even more boring daily class. I’d been practising just that since I was ten years old and I wanted more, immediately. I knew I was headed for the top, after all, I had amazing potential didn’t I? So for two years I kept at it. Glimpses of the glamorous life that awaited me kept me going, the adulation, the applause, the flower littered stage, the rapturous audiences, and, my eventual passport to my current situation, the stage-door Johnnies. At the time, the other budding ballerinas and I thought that the admirers who hung around the stage door were sophisticated benefactors. They’d whisk us off  to expensive restaurants, shower us with presents, idolise us. Yes I was a fool, we were all fools, but that particular veil stayed in place until my own stage-door Johnnie whisked it off. But that was much later.

The academy’s ballet mistress, la Dominatrix we called her, ruled supreme. Tall and spare, her hair in the requisite bun, a forbidding expression that varied only between a frown and a deeper frown, she had absolute authority. We curtsied when she arrived in class, when she left and if we bypassed her anywhere else in the Majeste complex. If we encountered the academy’s director, a board member, other teachers, even staff members, more curtsies. I baulked at the plumbers who came in to retile the bathrooms. 

Every two months the academy presented performances at a theatre in the city, an opportunity for the elite students to participate. It was open to the public, and that’s when I was approached by the artistic director of Dancelines, a not-quite-famous touring company, but I only discovered that later. The older budding ballerinas performed the lead roles while I was one of many swans, but he singled me out, told me I was a brilliant dancer. Why wouldn’t I believe him? His company was one of Australia’s premier ballet companies he said, and about to begin a tour around Australia’s larger cities. He promised me the soloist position within six months. Naivety and ego fuelled my decision, plus my growing desperation to get out of Majeste. I accepted the contract. Then I broke it two years later. Was I destined to only last anywhere for two years? 

 My departure from Majeste was loud, bitter and permanent. The loud was me screaming at la-Dominatrix when she called me a fool, slapped my face and forbade me to leave, the bitter was her expression, the deepest frown yet and the permanent was the academy door slamming behind me. I said goodbye to the other budding ballerinas, promising to keep in touch, wishing them all the best. I’ve never seen or spoken to one of them since. But I was free to dance, thrill an audience, receive the adulation I thought I deserved. 

The two years I’d spent at the academy served me well, I became Dancelines’s soloist and eventually principal dancer. We toured Australia, not the major cities as promised, but smaller towns. That didn’t matter, I revelled in the applause, the accolades, the shower of postperformance bouquets, sure I’d arrived. Though I wasn’t exactly famous, I had plenty of admirers, the stage-door Johnnies. 

But pain, a ballet dancer’s constant companion, became a bigger threat for me when I suffered a slight ankle injury during rehearsals. It developed into achilles tendonitis. Then another threat appeared. When I was elevated to the principle position, one of the ensemble dancers, beautiful and talented (more than me?) became the soloist and my understudy. She hovered, watching, learning my roles, waiting for me to make a mistake, fall, die, whatever it took for her to take my place. I knew exactly what she was doing, I’d done the same when I joined Dancelines, though my progression was much quicker. An unexpected stroke whisked the principal away and me straight into her place. So, night after night I danced through pain, my rival’s unwavering gaze, until the stress began to tell. I was making mistakes. Were they obvious?

 Luckily, at least initially, a new stage-door-Johnnie appeared just when I was beginning to despair. He offered me a solution. My pain and anxiety dulled, but so did I, and my dancing suffered. He had an amazing assortment of drugs; prescription, benzodiazepines, GHB and my favourite, Ecstasy. They were packaged ready for his couriers to collect and distribute. His name really was Johnnie, so he claimed, and I moved into his apartment and began to share his life, his drugs and his business. 

And that was my segue from the brutal world of ballet straight into the brutal world of drug-dealing. I discovered the drug trade is a bit like ballet, glamorous and exciting on the surface, but ruthless and risky underneath. Not long after I settled into my new life with Johnnie, he suffered a fatal overdose.  But by then I was confident enough to run his business.

I took over his patch.

The cafe’s automatic doors slide open. The courier has arrived, late and full of attitude. He struts to my booth and slips in beside me. I don’t see the knife, but I feel its sharp point pierce my skin and the searing pain as he forces the blade in. Without a word he leaves. 

I slump onto the bench. Tchaikovsky’s soft music fills the cafe. I’m back in the the Land of

Sweets.

Fireflies

Jacqueline Hodder

 

Fireflies

‘You want me to tell you about the fireflies?’

Mika mentioned the story when I first arrived at the rehab centre and asked who would like to be interviewed. Now, as I sat opposite the young woman with the long, golden hair and watched as she untwisted her hands and smoothed her flyaway locks I noticed how they trembled. She plucked at the strands of hair as if tuning an invisible instrument while her eyes gazed into the distant blue. 

This young person – Mika – wasn’t a musician, not that I knew. She wasn’t yet defined by a vocation, she was too young. She’d not completed studies or taken on long-term work because addiction got her before she had the chance to gain her confidence. And now, here she was, hidden away, deep in the mountains outside Melbourne. 

The therapeutic community was started by an idealist who’d done too many drugs himself. Andrew understood the silent cry of those who self-medicated with toxic substances and so, when he was clean, he opened this community; Willow Bend. This was a place where the broken came to be fixed, where people like Mika came to restore themselves and regain their lives, and it is where I found myself on a Monday morning in November, a new Spirax notebook open to an empty page, blue Bic in hand, iPhone recording.

‘I’m studying how rehabilitation centres assist addicts recover by, hopefully, helping them find meaning and purpose for their lives.’

Mika rounded her gaze on me. I was struck by the clarity of the blue irises and the force of her stare.

‘That’s pretty cool,’ she said. 

I chewed at my lip. The words were a spiel I rolled out at every interview and to my ears, they sounded hollow, giving short meaning to a complex experience.

As I waited for Mika to continue, I noted she’d cast aside her Birkenstocks and pulled her knees to her chin, her maxi dress floating in the slight breeze. She tugged at another strand of hair and twisted it around her finger.

‘I’ve done some stupid things,’ she said.

I paused. I was going to say, ‘who hasn’t?’ but it sounded glib. I was giving voice to someone in pain and she didn’t need me interjecting.

‘I suppose,’ she continued after a moment into which the distant call of a magpie echoed. ‘I suppose that’s what drugs do, they make you do stupid things. And

I’m stupid because I let them make me do stupid things. Does that make sense?’

I nodded. I wrote in my notebook: ‘Self-flagellation, drugs, heartsore’.

When I checked my notes later, back at the University office, I sectioned the words I wrote (and recorded) into categories; ‘drugs’, ‘actions’, consequences’ as I entered them into a qualitative data set. The language of a PhD research project is clinical and I’m relieved my supervisors allow me the opportunity to tell stories as part of my candidature. Telling stories honours the people I’m interviewing, people like Mika.

‘You don’t want to hear about the drugs though, do you?’

I shook my head. ‘Not really. I want you to tell me how you’ve found meaning, some sense of why you’re here, what life is and if that comes through an experience where drugs are involved, or not. It’s all part of your story.’

Mika’s eyes drifted towards the forested horizon. An impression of my golden retriever came to mind, the dog’s sad, mournful eyes anxious for a scrap of attention, but I shoved the thought away. Am I being patronising? There’s a danger I’ll play the superiority card here because I’ve never struggled with drug addiction although I do know something about shame.

I’ve always considered myself a ‘good girl’ because my identity relied on me being obliging but I remember when I admired the sparkling silver necklace in the Bourke Street Myer’s store so much I slipped it into my pocket and walked out, only to return the next day and steal the matching bracelet. I still don’t really understand what drove me but I’ve a sense it’s something akin to the shame Mika’s alluding to, the feeling of disconnect between what we think we know about ourselves and the choices we actually make.

Mika smiled and I softened. I let out a breath.

‘God, you don’t want much do you?’ she said.

‘Sorry.’

She laughed. Her chortling surprised me, it was a guttural noise rising from deep in her throat. The magpie stopped singing.

‘It’s Ok, Natalie – that’s your name right?’

‘Yes, Natalie -‘

Mika held up a hand.

‘First names only,’ she said. ‘I don’t mind talking to you. There’s nothing else to do here and if I can help that’s even better.’

I returned Mika’s smile. She had a vulnerability about her that wasn’t just physical with her long thing legs and tiny body curled into itself, it was also in the way her hands threaded in the tangle of golden hair, pulling at the locks until they broke.

‘I remember the fireflies,’ she said. ‘I remember them because they were so pretty.’

She sighed and lifted her eyes to the vast outside. She seemed to enter a trancelike state as she talked, her voice soft, melancholy.

‘I was staying with my sister and her family. She has two small kids and I just adore them. Tina and Cheyanne. They’re only five and two. Cheyanne just started school and I used to take her, once or twice a week. We’d hold hands and skip down the street and sometimes we’d race each other home. I made playdough with Tina and baked muffins with both of them when my sister was out at work. God…’

The whisper of the long hot day swept through the trees in the form of a warming breeze. Mika’s dress billowed under the chair. I sipped at my peppermint tea and wrote the word, ‘Family’ in my Spirax notebook.

‘They were all out one night. Some BBQ or something and they probably shouldn’t’ve left me but they thought I was clean. They didn’t understand addiction totally, not like they do now. Anyway, I took some E and that’s when I saw the fireflies outside. They were calling to me and telling me all sorts of shit. Actually, it was beautiful shit. Shit like ‘follow us and we’ll lead you to a special place’ and then I saw these golden coins and I knew it was a treasure trail and if I just followed the trail it’d take me to a world where everything made sense. So I followed them down the road, away from the house. And somehow I knew it was pure and I wanted to be pure too so I took off my clothes and there I was…’

My hands were sweating. I rubbed them up and down my thighs as I shifted in my seat. Mika sipped some water and then continued.

‘Turns out I left my ciggy burning. When my sister came home she had nothing left, nothing except the fairy lights wrapped around my naked body as I danced down

that street.’

A cicada screeched but other than the rustle of leaves, there was a deep silence, a pulsing tension I could almost touch.

‘Mika…’ I began.

Mika shook her head and shrugged her shoulders.

‘The fireflies saved my life,’ she said. ‘They told me to follow them and they’d lead me to a special place. Well, I guess they kind of did.’

Mika nodded at the buildings and space around us. The tension lifted as I smelt the sting of eucalypt stirred by the breeze.

‘But they lied too,’ she said. ‘They saved my life but I lost the one thing that made sense and I don’t know if I’ll ever get them back.’

I glanced at the last word I’d written in my notebook, ‘Family’.

Mika uncurled her legs and stretched them out in front of her and then curled them back in again, retreating in on herself. She twirled a strand of hair around her finger and bit at the end before letting it go.

‘The fireflies were so beautiful,’ she said, grabbing her toes as she leant back in the chair and closed her eyes, ‘but I hope I never see them again’.

Disco Inferno

Ben Dalrymple

 

It’s one of those old country bridges. You know the ones. Timber frame held together with steel plates. A buckled road of boards so warped the threads of ancient asphalt that hold it together are moments from snapping loose. I wasn’t sure if the fire would take at first. Some accelerant was always going to be necessary, though I worried that I hadn’t brought the right fuel. Petrol would probably have been smarter. But it was from rum that the very first sparks of this fire had come all those years ago. Rum that gave it life. And now it was going to be rum that fuelled the final blaze at the end of this journey. In the distance I hear music. Or maybe it’s in my head. As the flames flicker into life and start to lick their way along the boards, they hear it too. Those awkward first shuffles as the dance begins. A toe to the left, a toe to the right. Turn your eyes to the sky and with me whisper “woop woop”.

 

Rum and footy. As reliable as the sun sets on dark winter’s day; or any day. And with it the inevitable violence. I used to love school growing up. Weekdays brought respite; some time for bruises to heal. I felt safer on weekdays. I knew I wouldn’t come out of my bedroom to find Mum cowering underneath the dinner table in the corner of the kitchen. By the middle of the week she’d be smiling and sometimes even have a laugh with my brother and me. Footy happened on the weekend, or sometimes on Friday night. There’s something about a beating on a Friday night that scars just that little bit deeper.

 

It’s the only bridge out of town. I’m cutting that bastard off; from me, from the rest of the world. I’ll go so far away they’ll never find me. He’ll never find me. He’ll never find me, Mum, I promise he’ll never find me. And when I find you, I promise he won’t find us. The rhythm picks up, the flames find their feet. That tentative lick of toes eases into a searching Thriller zombie glide. Slide to the right, slide to the left. Hunch your shoulders up and down and with me sing “woop woop”.

 

I don’t even know who his team was. It didn’t matter, win or lose with a skin full of rum he’d come home in the kind of mood I reckon a bull must be in just before he charges. He was looking for a fight but in his head it was us, Mum or my brother and me, who were the ones picking it. He never made the first move, as he saw it at least. But he always threw the first punch. He always threw the only punches. The slightest mistake was enough to set him off. Mum over-steamed the beans; I set the table the wrong way; my brother sniffled through his fifteenth cold of the winter. It didn’t matter. To him those were all red rags. And to him that was all the justification he needed to beat some sense into us so that we might learn from our mistake.

 

Or there were the late games. Night games where I’d already be in bed before he was home, clutching desperately to the dream that I might yet sleep through one blessed blood-free weekend. An illusion. You’d smell him before you saw him. The mistake this time was not being awake so that he could recap the game, blow by bloody blow.

 

Confidence in the dance grows. Where before they flickered, the flames now puff out their chest. They’re feeling the rhythm now; the dance becomes infectious and the music gets louder. Shake your hips boldly and stamp out the beat. Raise a hand in the air and with me sing out “woop woop”.

 

Naturally he is a hero in this town. The local Member, salt of the earth, pillar of the community. Reliably at the pub for the game; just one of the boys. He was able to rally everyone together when the drought was biting hardest. Personally drove his boat through the floods to rescue children stranded from the school as the water rose far faster than anyone had predicted. And he even managed to get the town’s wonderful historic old wooden bridge heritage listed. Such a triumph! What do they know about the soul of a community down there in their cosy city offices to think that concrete and steel were needed here? It was always a mystery that the family of this Titan seemed so accident prone; that nary a week passed that they weren’t sporting some injury or another.

 

Bolder, the flames begin moving with purpose. The intensity of their dance builds so that now it is not they that feel the music but the music that feels them. Behind their pulsating moves the disco lights come up. Dim at first, the strobing blue and red gets brighter and brighter as the flames reach higher and higher. Hands high in the air, reach up for the sky and with me call out “woop woop”.

 

One day Mum wasn’t there. The night before was one of the worst I can remember. Hidden in my bed, too scared to look, I could hear the orchestra of screams and thumps, of crashing furniture and then… and then, suddenly, nothing. I could tell that Mum had just given up and in the morning she simply wasn’t there. She left on a Monday. In my heart I’ve always thanked her for that. It put most of a week between her exit and Dad’s rage, just enough to take the edge off it. She couldn’t take us, I know she couldn’t. By then there was barely enough of her left to be able to take herself. She’d always copped the worst of it. Somehow it’s easier to justify a black eye on your wife’s face than some bruises on your kids ribs. She knew we’d get by, that something (or someone) would take the brunt of Dad’s rum-fuelled frenzies. 

 

But they didn’t. Something had changed in him and the next weekend what little restraint he’d held before was gone. Someone turned out to be my brother. One smack to the head too many. He “fell down the stairs in a tragic accident, the family already torn asunder by the mysterious disappearance of the boy’s mother”. They say no permanent physical damage was done, but he retreated into someplace safe in his own head. He’s in a special home now. We’ll go see him when I find you Mum.

 

The siren song of the treble is accompanied by a grumbling industrial base. Each collective breathe of the dancers greeted by waving leaves in the trees nearby. Behind the wall of orange and yellow the blue and red strobes now dazzle the dancefloor. The passion is hot; the dancers will soon burn the boards clean away. A crowd is enthralled, in awe on the sidelines. Arch your back to the ground, throw your soul at the sky and with me scream out “woop woop”!

 

Woop woop. Woop woop. Woop woop….

 

They can’t get me on this side of the river. He can’t get me. That bridge is the only way in or out. Even still, it’s time to leave this party. Free. I’m free now. My last scream to the heavens was loaded with all the pain I’d held for so long. Now I’m empty. Right now I have nothing at all left to give, but I feel more alive than I can remember ever feeling. I’m coming to find you Mum. We can be together again and it can be a weekday every day.

 

The Dancing Queen

Carolyn Nicholson

 

Jamie was happy living in London. A young professional with cash to spare, she had a wide circle of friends with regular invites to fabulous parties, full of good humour, potent cocktails, and dancing, there was always dancing.

Jamie loved to dance. The music or the occasion never mattered, she was always first on the dance floor. Her father, a professional ballroom dancer until his mid-thirties, runs a dance academy. Jamie, along with her two siblings, attended classes three afternoons a week, throughout their school years.

She has always been close to her family and is missing them, terribly. Why then did Jamie move halfway around the world? Was it for love?

Reality television would have us believe that to be interesting to others we must have a backstory, something that sets us apart from everyone else, that shows we deserve a shot at … what? Fame? Fortune? A chance to be someone?

Jamie came to Australia to be no one. To be unseen. To be forgotten. 

If only she too could forget.

***

It started out as many a Friday night before. Jamie’s boyfriend, Cameron, was away with his rugby mates and she was at a launch party for a new vodka brand. By ten Jamie was ready to leave. By eleven, not even the offer of free Espresso Martinis until midnight was enough to keep her there.

Jamie didn’t want to risk offending her host, so she snuck out a side door and asked the Uber driver to pick her up at the next main intersection, a brisk five minutes’ walk from the venue.

The night was cool, but not cold. Jamie left her calf length, peacock blue coat unbuttoned and made her way down the steps and along the footpath. Heavy footsteps fell in behind her. Jamie crossed the road and as she did, she glanced over her right shoulder. There was a man, three houses back, dressed in typical London office attire, with a satchel across his body and over-ear headphones. He too crossed the road, his head downcast.

Jamie relaxed. He looked safe. Most likely a commuter coming home after drinks with his mates. Annoyed with herself for letting fear get the better of her, she turned right. 

That’s when it happened.

Two thick, muscular arms reached out and wrapped around her body, pinning her own arms to her sides. Jamie was pulled through shrubbery and forced to the ground. One hand covered her mouth. The other went up her skirt, pulling her underwear down, tearing skin from her thighs. Jamie tried to fight but her attacker was too strong – she would learn later he was high on ice – and too determined. There was no time to think.

He loosened his grip only long enough to pull down his pants. 

Afterwards, she will recall every detail. 

Every punch to her face. 

Every whispered threat in her ear. 

But in the moment, all she could hear, all she could smell, was her own fear.

His weight pressed down on her, making it hard for Jamie to draw breath. Then suddenly, the weight of him was gone. A man shouted, “call the police”. She heard a grunt. Someone jumped over her, their foot clipped the side of her head.

Jamie sat up. Her head spun; her vision blurred. The commuter was kneeling nearby, his mouth was open, his eyes wide. Something shiny protruded from his chest.

‘Help! Please help me!’ Jamie screamed. 

A woman ran from one of the nearby homes. She removed her jumper as she dropped to her knees. She gently laid the commuter down and wrapped her clothing around the knife. She instructed someone to apply pressure. 

Sirens wailed. 

Paramedics arrived. 

There were more hands on her body. 

The rest of the night and the days that followed added to Jamie’s trauma. The commuter died. The police failed to catch Jamie’s attacker, now murderer. Every news station in the country wanted to interview Jamie. Her friends and colleagues wanted to know what happened. Her parents wanted her to come home. Cameron was guilt-ridden. As the weeks dragged on, with no suspect in custody, Jamie felt herself sinking into darkness.

Depressed.

Afraid.

Alone.

Jamie’s world narrowed. 

Then Cameron’s employer offered him a job in Australia. At the time, it felt like a way out, a chance to escape, to create a new life for themselves. They took hold of the opportunity offered and ran.

***

Three months on, Jamie is still lost. With no way back to her old life, she’s desperate to find a way forward with this one and started seeing a psychiatrist. The work is slow and painful. Jamie isn’t sure how much it’s helping. It’s after five and she still hasn’t been to the supermarket, the house is dark and cold. Jamie worries there’s a limit to

Cameron’s patience. 

 

‘Come on. Let’s have a look at him,’ Cameron encourages Jamie, early the following

Saturday morning.

‘I’m not sure.’ Jamie shelters behind Cameron.

‘Doctor Mailman suggested you start taking some risks. This is a way of helping you do that and feel safe. It’ll be good for you. For us.’

The animal shelter worker is holding out a lead, waiting for Jamie to take it.

‘You ‘right?’ The worker looks from Jamie to Cameron.

Cameron gives Jamie a nudge with his hip. ‘Course she is. It’s just been a while since she’s been around dogs. Hasn’t it, James?’

Jamie nods as she takes the lead. ‘Can we even have a dog with our lease?’

‘Sure can. Aussies love dogs and my boss got it all sorted for us. Come on, let’s

show Gus how nice we are. Bet he’s feeling a bit anxious.’

He’s not the only one, thinks Jamie.

 

‘Ready, Gus?’ Gus nudges Jamie’s leg, then sits expectantly. Jamie attaches the lead to his collar. ‘Okay. Let’s go.’

In the four weeks since bringing Gus home, their daily walks have increased in distance and now include a long run for Gus in a leash free dog park. Jamie has to admit, Cameron was right. Getting a dog was good for her, for them. Gus gives Jamie a sense of purpose every day and his temperament is the perfect fit for her. 

Gus, a mixed breed of unknown origin, is obedient, calm, and protective. Wherever she is, Jamie feels safe with Gus, knowing he has her back. So much so, Cameron has to announce himself at the doorway when coming home late at night, if he wants to avoid a repeat of the terrifying night Gus had Cameron backed up against the wall. Teeth gnashing, fur bristling, Gus was ready to rip Cameron’s throat out before Jamie calmly commanded him to “leave”. 

The first time Jamie took Gus to the dog park she was terrified; of losing Gus, of the other dogs, but most of all, of their owners. They all seemed to know each other. They stood in groups or sat together at one of the benches, chatting away like old friends. It was intimidating for Jamie. 

She’s determined today’s going to be different. Intent on making connections within her community, Jamie pushes through the dog park gate, and her fears. She glances nervously around the park. She sees her target group, a mix of men and women of various ages, some with young children chasing after the dogs. They come to the park around this time every day. Jamie takes a deep breath. She releases Gus from his lead and walks into the group. Displaying more confidence than she feels, she introduces herself. ‘Hiya. I’m Jamie. How’s your day?’

 

‘No, that’s Roger.’ Jamie laughs at Cameron’s confusion. ‘He’s from Ireland and owns the Mt Eliza bike shop. Daniel’s the one with the cap, he paints houses. He introduced me to Patricia, whose daughter, Amarlie, runs the local community centre—’

‘And its Amarlie who interviewed you for the dance instructor job and got you thinking about doing a teaching degree.’ Cameron takes Jamie’s hand as they walk across the dog park. ‘See? I do listen.’

‘Yes. Yes, you do.’ Jamie pulls Cameron to her and wraps her arms around him, holding him close as Gus runs around them. 

‘What’s this about?’ Cameron asks, smiling down at Jamie.

‘You. You listen. You care. You saved me, Cam.’ Jamie’s voice breaks.

‘You saved yourself, James. You’re the bravest woman I know.’ Cameron takes her face in his hands and kisses her. ‘I love you.’

‘Hey! What’s going on over there?’ Daniel calls out.

‘There are children present,’ Roger adds.

‘Ah. You’re just jealous, mate.’ Cameron laughs, casually placing his arm around

Jamie’s shoulder.

Jamie’s phone vibrates against her left leg. She pulls it out. The display reads

“Private Number”. Jamie hopes it’s Amarlie calling about the job.

‘Hello?’

‘Jamie? This is Detective Chief Inspector Rutter, from the London Met.’

‘Oh. Hello, Detective.’ Jamie reaches for Cameron’s hand.

‘I’ve got good news.’

Jamie squeezes Cameron’s hand tight.

‘We got the bastard!’

Possibilities

Bronwyn MacRitchie

 

 

He’d been intoxicated again. But this time the blows didn’t come. This time he ignored me and swayed down the hallway into Ruth’s room. He leaned into the cot without releasing the side rail and stroked her head.

‘David, leave her. She’s asleep.’

‘I haven’t seen my baby girl all day.’ His slurred, sing-song delivery was directed at Ruth. ‘We’re going to have a little nap together, aren’t we darling?’ He lifted her over the rail, fumbling with the blankets as he cradled her in his arm.  

‘Please don’t.’ I reached out. A pointless gesture.

He shoved me aside and carried Ruth into our bedroom. 

‘You’re not getting near her, get that.’ 

I felt hopeless. Confrontation often turned into aggression and fear for what might happen. I see-sawed between anger for him and concern for Ruth.              ‘Please, David.’ He stared at me with hatred as he closed the door and left me standing in the hallway. 

I dreaded these moments. Despite being unpredictable when drunk, he’d always left the baby alone. Evenings after work with his drinking buddies and the volatile behaviour that followed, had sculpted a pattern of conduct difficult to endure. 

His snores reverberated through the closed door, so I knew he would be asleep for a few hours. I opened the door quietly and peeked in. He was lying on his back, fully clothed, mouth open. The stink of stale beer filled the room. Nestled in the crook of his arm, her thumb still in her mouth, Ruth slept. Her first birthday had been two months ago. 

I crept in, terrified. Ruth sighed. His fingers unwound. I froze. Snores continued. I slid my right arm beneath her, trepidation at every move. The sound of my fingers against the sheets, the rasp of my shoes on the carpet. Every sound was amplified. Cautiously lifting her, I backed out of the room. I grabbed my handbag, crept down the back stairs and ran to the station. With moments to spare, we boarded the train to Sydney. One hundred dollars would not go far. 

I had an alternative to being a victim.

 

When I arrived unannounced at a friend’s house, she wasn’t surprised.  

After three months, I found a job and – we moved with a few borrowed items – into a two-bedroom flat. The baby-sitter in the next street made everything close and convenient. I told my mother the address and insisted it remained confidential.

My father did not know but frequent phone calls assured him I was okay.             My block had eight flats on two levels. Ours was on the ground floor, but since the building sat on a steep slope, the bedrooms were almost two meters from the ground. At night, when the lights and outside sounds subsided, I could hear the cockroaches scuttle about under the sink. 

It didn’t take long to get into a routine and both Ruth and I enjoyed our stress-free living. Each Friday, the residents, of varying ethnicity, set a table on the lawn behind the flats and shared food, wine and conversation. Ruth, being the only toddler, had the undivided attention of the older children residing there. I loved this feeling of community and, except for my mother, visitors were rare. 

When the doorbell rang at eight-thirty on a Sunday night, I assumed it would be a neighbour and cheerily opened the door. With a carton tucked under one arm and a cigarette in the other hand, there stood David. He smelt of beer.               Seeing him standing there left me shocked. ‘How did you get this address?’

‘Your mum was very helpful.’

My fury expanded into painful betrayal. Even with the guarded steps I had taken to hide from this man, she had chosen to reveal my whereabouts. 

‘I’d like to see my baby girl. Where is she?’ 

His charm had soothed my mother, but I wanted to punch him in the face.

‘She’s asleep.’ Keep calm, don’t incite, comply.

‘Would you wake her. I just want to see her, that’s all. Promise.’       

I couldn’t discuss this in the hallway, it might escalate into a nasty scene.

My trust barometer fell below zero and I felt nothing but disgust. Smug bastard.                ‘You’d better come in.’ I stood back and directed him to the only chair in the room. He sat, opened the carton and the can hissed as he pulled the ring. 

‘I’ll go and wake her.’ Yep, and give her to a smelly drunk.

Between the kitchen and bedrooms was a hallway. It muffled the sounds from the kitchen. As I closed the adjoining door and walked into the hallway, my head swirled. With one entrance to the flat, my escape route was blocked. What to do? The choices seemed hopeless. 

Ruth lay in her favourite sleeping position, backside poking in the air, the satin of her blankie resting against her cheek. For a few seconds I watched the rise and fall of her tiny chest and thought of the promise I had made to myself. David had no power here. My plan was risky, but for me and Ruth, the alternative was worse. 

I opened the window and checked the distance to the ground. I can do this. There’s no time to toss around possibilities. Waking Ruth gently and using our silence signal, I sat her on the windowsill then hopped up beside her. Our legs dangled over the side.  

‘We’re going on an adventure tonight, but we must be very quiet,’ I whispered, heart thumping. In the soft evening light, her sleepy eyes looked into mine. The creaking floorboards in the kitchen indicated David was pacing. 

She nodded. 

‘No noise, okay?’

Pushing off the ledge, I surprised myself by landing on the grass without breaking any limbs, but haste was essential. Ruth seemed a huge distance from me. I held my arms up to her, working hard to keep the panic out of my voice. What if David came in the room now with Ruth on the ledge?

‘Jump, sweetheart. I’ll catch you.’ My voice carried in the still night air and in dread at being heard, I felt nauseous. ‘It’s okay. Keep your eyes on me.’              How do you convey haste to an eighteen-month-old without anxiety? Ruth sat motionless on the ledge. 

‘You can do it,’ I beckoned with my fingers. ‘Jump sweetheart.’ Please, now. Please do it now.

She launched herself, landing with a hefty thump against my chest. 

‘Good girl,’ I breathed with pride and relief. Switching her to my hip, I ran.             I ran down the slope onto the pavement and kept running on adrenaline and fear. Not daring to glance behind me, I ran. I was terrified his car would drive up beside me. Terrified I’d lose Ruth.  

After three blocks, Ruth decided to experiment with the jiggle of the movement by vocalising the wobble in her voice. It entertained her until I burst through the doors of the police station, lungs heaving, legs unsteady. 

‘What’s up, love?’ asked the officer behind the counter. 

I couldn’t speak. 

‘Sit down and take a few minutes to catch your breath,’ he said. ‘Would you like a glass of water?’

I nodded. ‘Can’t…my hus…beer…frigh…,’ I thought my chest would burst open from the pounding against my rib cage.

‘Take your time,’ he said, handing me a paper cup filled with water.              Ruth was sitting on a carpet in the corner extracting a colourful clown from amongst the scattering of children’s toys. An officer sat cross legged opposite her. I described the situation and gave them my address. 

‘We’ve got a car in the vicinity,’ said the sergeant, ‘They’ll check it out. Is there somewhere else you can both stay tonight? Someone I can call for you?’             Despite my mother having disclosed my whereabouts to David, she was the only one I could call. Her breach of my trust would take time to repair. A few minutes later the sergeant relayed a message from the patrol car.

‘The officers found the door in the flat open and all the lights on, but he wasn’t there.’ 

When Mum arrived, I was numb and exhausted. With his charismatic charm, David had managed to convince her he had only good intentions. I wasn’t fooled.

It took years before I shared my secrets with Mum again. I never heard from or saw David again.

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