Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Roslyn Ross
The old woman had lived in the cottage by the sea for as long as anyone could remember.
It wasn’t that she was so very far from the small town, but the old woman never visited and no-one visited her. It was just the way that it was in the way that things can sometimes be.
“ But why would anyone live like that?” they said, time and again over the years, cloistered in crowded shops and lingering outside church after Sunday service.
It was the child who changed everything. The pale-faced girl who looked as if she hadn’t eaten in months was the one who finally visited the old woman. The child had come into town barely six months ago, clinging to the dusty fall of her mother’s skirts. The two of them together, hands on either side as if lifting something precious from the ground, had taken down the To Let sign in front of the house before even asking Father Michael if they could have it. Of course he said Yes!
He was like that, everyone knew it, a pushover for anyone needy. He would have straightened his rumpled collar, tugged at the wrinkle of his faded jacket and given her that smile of his, as if to say, ‘she was in safe hands and all would be well.’
Grace, that was her name, the hippie woman, and her daughter, who had been given the ridiculous name of Favour.
The day that Favour chose to walk out of town was a hot one. Her mother was busy with the washing from the hotel. It kept them going, ‘kept the wolf’ from the door as Grace always said. Favour had always secretly thought that she would rather see the wolf resting quietly at the door, than her mother, hanging row after row of tattered towels upon the line that had been strung between two gum trees.
“Take a hat Favour,” her mother called after her, as she walked through the tangle of weeds that claimed the back yard. “It’s a hot day and these towels will be dry in no time but it will cook you to a turn if you don’t watch out.”
The road that led out of the town shone white and hot , as if the day bared brilliant teeth. She had come upon it suddenly, as one does with such things, and it was some time before Favour realised that she was no longer doing a circuit of the tree-ringed town, but had left the whispering shade behind and was far along the chalk-dust road.
It was even longer before she realised that she was lost. It seemed, or so she thought, a small thing to turn around and walk back the way that she had come, but in the forgetting of a sly, hot day, she had taken too many unexpected turns and now found herself upon a narrow, track that wound through silent paddocks where the grass grew high and summer-dry.
There was nothing for it but to go on. Favour did not realise she had made such a decision, but within the refusal to turn back, it lay content and determined. There must be something at the end of this, she told herself.
And it was just at that time, when the Sun laughed loudest, and opened wide its unforgiving mouth, that Favour turned what could have been a corner, or may have been yet one more moment of forgetting, and found herself looking down upon a small stone cottage, and, beyond it, the cool, green glitter of an endless sea.
The track wound down through hills that rose on either side, the paddocks beneath were neatly fenced with a line of wire and bone-white branches; a twisting of rust and bleached wood, each made humble by the suck of the sun.
At last she reached a wrought-iron gate that hung in patient waiting beneath the shadowed arms of a huge oak tree. There was nothing to be seen, but the wash of brilliant sky and the roll of hill and paddock, that stopped, as she had done, at the small, securely bolted gate.
And there was nothing to be heard, well, not a sound that could be named as such. If she had really listened, Favour would have heard the wind drag worn teeth through the silk of trailing grasses on the distant hills; if she had really listened she would also have heard the click and rhythmic rustle of the cicadas hidden in the roots of the tree; if she had really listened she would have heard the shrill keen of the circling hawk; and, if she had really listened she would have heard the thunderous beating of her own heart.
But listening is a skill that human beings are encouraged to lose, despite the fact that when they are born, it is what they are best at, and so, like all others of her kind, Favour heard many things, but knew little, because she was not really listening.
Favour jiggled the lock, but nothing happened. The rusted bolt had been shot fast and true. With less than a minute to decide if it was what she truly wanted to do, Favour climbed over the gate. If she had thought for a moment of turning back and taking the long, hot and known way home, she might have considered it. But she did not, and in the way of lost children, she jumped in an instant from one world into the next.
It was on the other side, beyond the reach of the brooding oak, that Favour saw what she had imagined she would see. The land dipped down, as if to hold the stone cottage tightly in ancient arms, and beyond, between the glitter of the sea, was an orchard, the branches of the trees heavy with fruit.
With the drawing of one deep breath the child stepped forth, intent now upon her only known purpose. It was then that the day opened wide its promise and within an instant, Favour was taken up by the rush and scramble and bark and roar of what seemed like a hundred dogs … or perhaps one dog with a hundred heads.
In truth it was no more than six, and they were of all different shapes and sizes which only added to the confusion that one small child can feel in a strange and possibly dangerous place.
Whether the wind chose that particular moment to speak, high and shrill through sharp, bared teeth; or the hawk circled low and shrieked a new and more insistent warning; or someone whistled, clear and bright … Favour had no way of knowing, for she fell, into that place beyond knowing, where safety was assured.
When she opened her eyes it was to a new world.
The first thing that Favour heard when she woke up was the whistling of a kettle. At least it sounded like the whistling of a kettle, although higher, sweeter and somehow melodic, unlike the black-bellied banshee monster that her mother set upon the wood-fired stove at home. The second thing that Favour heard was the slide and pad of something that sounded like large, feathered feet. And the third thing that Favour heard was a little voice inside her head that kept repeating: ”Don’t open your eyes. This is a dream. If you open your eyes you will make it real.”
“It’s alright my dear, it’s quite safe to open your eyes.” The voice was clear and gentle and very real.
Favour was so startled that her eyes opened in an instant but before she could see anything she pulled the soft, woollen blanket over her head and disappeared into a mist of lavender and rose.
“You can know too much Favour,” her mother often said, folding yet another tattered towel. “It doesn’t get you anywhere, just makes life more complicated.”
“And what do you think you would find out if you let yourself know, little one?”
Favour gulped and threw back the blanket but it took quite a while for her to open her eyes.
The old woman who stood smiling at her side, wore a dress of pastel blue, pulled at the waist and falling to the floor. Her hair was drawn like spun silver, into a soft bundle at the back of her head; the lines on her face were deep, but shining; her brow high and clear; and her eyes, they shimmered like the soul of a sun-kissed sea.
“Where am I?” said Favour.
“Where do you think you are?”
Favour shrugged. The last thing she remembered was the gate …. No, it was the dogs.
“I’m lost.” Favour dropped her head and began to cry.
“There, there little one. No-one is ever truly lost. You just don’t know where you are and are frightened you won’t remember how to find your way back.” The old woman took her hand and stroked it gently and then said: “Come, we will have some lunch and you can tell me all about yourself and we shall decide how to get you home.”
Favour nodded and wiped dusty, dog-smelling fingers across her tear-streaked cheeks. She carefully turned back the blanket and sat up on the couch. Her shoes were placed neatly on the floor and so she put them on, taking a long time to tie the laces while she thought of what next she should say.
“My name is Rose.” The old woman did not look at Favour as she spoke, merely smiled, in that slow, bright way that she had, and continued to set the table with what looked like more food than Favour could ever remember seeing.
“And my name is Favour,” the child replied, feeling better and beginning to think that after all, no matter how strange things might feel, she was safe.
“I know,” said Rose softly, “and what a perfect name it is for you too.”
Favour did not even think to ask how she knew, in fact, she didn’t really hear the first part of what Rose had said. Perhaps it was because she was feeling very, very hungry, or perhaps it was because she was not really listening.
“Take something,” Rose said, pointing to the table.
But Favour did not know what to take with so much food from which to choose. Did she want the soft, white bread with its dry, crisp crust, or the fat slices of pink lamb smothered in chutney which she could smell with every breath? And then there was the cake, plump and moist and perfumed with cinnamon and almonds and what looked like a big bowl of peaches poached in vanilla and brown sugar.
“Choosing is the hardest thing of all,” said Rose. “That’s why it’s often better for people to not have too many choices. If you don’t know how to decide then close your eyes and let your nose tell you what you want. Your nose is never wrong.
Favour nodded and closed her eyes. She breathed deeply and found herself enveloped in peaches and vanilla.
“I’ll have the peaches,” she said, opening her eyes and picking up the bowl to hand to Rose.
“What are you going to have?” She turned to take the bowl from Rose.
“I think it is a peaches kind of day,” said Rose with a lilt to her voice like a hidden smile.
“I think it is too,” said Favour, in between mouthfuls of cream-drenched fruit.
“It’s a special fruit the peach,” said Rose, setting her bowl down on the table and picking up her spoon. “It’s a woman’s fruit.”
“What do you mean it’s a woman’s fruit,” asked Favour, scratching her nose with the handle of her spoon.
“Not everyone knows it is a woman’s fruit,” Rose went on, as if talking to herself. “Jack, the motor mechanic in town made that mistake.”
Favour had only ever seen Jack once when he came to ask her mother if she needed any wood chopped for the winter. She hadn’t liked the look of him at all.It was the way he looked at her mother that upset her, that sliding of one eye to the side, a crooking of the head and a tongue, tipping the edge of thin, dry lips.
“But how do you know it is true?” her mother said from behind a muffle of ragged towel.
“She said it was true,” said Favour.
“Did she?” Grace took the peg from her teeth and pushed it down onto the ridge of green cloth.
“Well,” said Favour, picking up the cat and stroking its long, silky hairs as if they were thoughts, “not really, I guess. But it must be true or she would not say it, would she?”
Grace picked up the empty laundry basket and turned it upside down to empty out the crinkled leaves that had blown into it from the grapevine that arched across the side of the house.
“People often say things that are not true Favour and you must remember that,” said Grace with a sigh. “That’s why you must be careful what you repeat. Who knows what ears could be listening and what trouble could come of it.”
Just for a moment Favour thought she saw the pointed tip of a very pink ear behind the hedge that ran across the front of the house, but she knew that could not possibly be true. The only thing behind the hedge was her mother’s bicycle and the neighbor’s dog, Artemis, whose ears were long, floppy and the colour of ripening corn.
But there was an ear, as there so often is. This ear was not pink either, but rather scarlet in colour and quite hairy and it was attached to the balding head of Father Michael who had been coming in through the back gate to drop off the latest church bulletin when he had heard the child telling her story.
Father Michael was a sucker for a good story. It was one of the things that made him an excellent priest and such a terrible gossip. And don’t think for a minute that the two cannot work very well together. They do, or rather they can, until mouths run away with words and words run away with mouths.
And it was not that Father Michael retold Jack’s story with anything other than compassion, for he rather liked Jack, although he did not really approve of his lifestyle, nor his atheism. And it was not that Father Michael did not think that telling Jack’s story might be helpful in making others stop and think before they made the same sort of mistakes. It was just that he got so excited by the story and the telling of it that things changed just a little as the words emerged. Not much mind you, but enough to make the story a little different and much more interesting.
A story is like a wild seed that falls into fertile soil and before anyone can say, ‘but’ it has spread like a weed, infesting and strangling anything that opposes it, like common sense, courtesy or even truth.
It was Mrs Hardcourt who heard the story first. Her son, Simon, was turning a bit ‘wild’ and everyone was concerned. If anyone could benefit from the story, reasoned Father Michael, then he would.
There is nothing more powerful than a person on a mission, particularly when the person believes they are acting in a way that will be of benefit to others.
“I don’t believe it!” said Mr Newman when Mrs Hardcourt took him to one side at the bus stop and whispered.
“The Father himself told me so it has to be true,” she said with a narrowing of her eyes that dared Mr Newman, who was slender of both body and spirit, to challenge her.
“Well, I never,” said Mr Newman, sucking his tobacco stained teeth and lighting up yet another of the full-strength Camels that were his only weakness in life.
Mrs Hardcourt stood, arms akimbo, the plastic plaited shopping bag dangling against her sturdy thigh. She sniffed and said: “I always thought there was something odd about that one.”
Mr Newman nodded, even though he thought that Jack was probably one of the least odd people living in the town. He had his own business, a couple of nice kids, a jolly and energetic wife and he spent a lot of time working to raise money for the school. But now, with this story about him, well, it was hard to say whether he was who he appeared to be.
“Well, I never,” said Mr Newman again, just for good measure, as he bent down and stubbed out his cigarette in a crack in the bitumen footpath.
And in no time at all, for, as everyone knows, bad news always travels fast, the whole town knew the story. About half believed it and about half didn’t, split in that way that human beings often are inside so that they can hold two conflicting views at one and the same time. Unfortunately, Jack’s wife was one of those who believed it and in no time at all, less time than it had taken the story to spread in fact, she had packed her two cream suitcases, and her two little girls and had gone home to her mother.
It was when she heard the news that Favour understood what the old woman had said as she walked away: “Words can change things. They are like a light which destroys shadow. Be careful.”