Eclectica: An anthology, p.6Publishing Portfolio
How is life at Parafield these days? …
Remember me to the boys.
At the pilot’s clipped command, “Attacking now”, the plane slid sideways and rolled over onto its back into the dive, quickly accelerating down. The engine snarl rose to a scream. The plane shivered with the added stress and torture on the airframe, competing with the turbulent air. Norman sucked in a deep breath as his body stressed against the harness and he braced himself, holding onto the aircraft supports. His mind cried out to God even though he doubted his existence. “Not me. Not now.” And then the blackness …
… slowly the sense of falling returned.
The cacophony of noise invaded first. Then he was aware of the floating dust particles trapped by the cockpit canopy and the stress on his body held taunt by the harness. His arms and feet floated in the confined space. The noise of the descent consumed all. He struggled to control his stomach as his mind screamed out again to God, “Who is in control of this plane?”
There was a metallic clunk and the plane jerked and then the stress of levelling out. The pilot’s cryptic comment, “Bomb gone,” and he took a deep breath. “Not this time,” he thought and God was safely tucked away. Then repetitious training kicked in, his mind on the job and his hands on the gun as they turned for Darwin. He searched the sky behind as they were vulnerable, low, slow and climbing. No Zeros in sight, so he allowed himself the luxury to look back at the receding target. A near miss left the small coastal ship bobbing in the grey-green ocean. Within the churning explosion-ripple heads bobbed in the white foaming water. People overboard in the Timor Sea.
From Miss M. Stephens
Just a few lines to let you know how we are … Stan’s death hit us hard …
We still have the parties on Saturday night, but it does not feel the same any more … Everybody still lets their hair down and has a good time …
The girls are not as close to the new boys …
Peggy says Dick gets very moody sometimes. I hope he soon gets himself again. Some of the boys have quite a lot to forget and it will take some of them a long time …
Oh my lovely, lovely boys …
Be careful and look after yourself.
The ripple spreads on the surface of the Murray River, startling my father back to the present. He jerks the rod and begins winding in the fishing line.
The sudden movement breaks my concentration and my shell reactivates as I slide in behind the tree to hide and wipe the tear stain from my cheek.
My mother’s voice comes calling through the bush.
“Norman! Robert! Tea time. Jean, go and get your father and find Robert.”
Twelve years later, when I was still growing up, the isolation and misunderstandings had grown with each tracasserie. Like the ripples on the river, the gulf between my father and I spread.
It was just after another ANZAC day. My father walked into a city pub one evening. It was a grand old two-story building with ornate fifty-year-old architecture. The gaudy signs hid the need for a facelift. Inside he leaned his carry bag against the wall. The pervading smell was of stale smoke and beer. He wandered over and breasted the bar. Down the other end a small group chatted together, competing with the whirring over-head fan. One of the barmaids broke away from the conversation to serve him. Her hand trailed along the bar wood, which had a sparkle from years of polishing with spilt beer. She had a pretty smile and was dressed in a see-through blouse. He ordered a couple of drinks and rolled his cigarette. Leaving with a pleasant smile she returned to the merriment at the other end of the bar.
He sat alone smoking and sipping his drink. Down the bar the jokes filled the room with laughter. One of the barmaids had a lovely laugh which tinkled through the empty glasses. As one of the men leaned over the bar, the youngest barmaid sprang back against the shelves behind her to escape his grab. His aside made her blush and the rest of the party laughed at his mischief.
When he had finished his smoke my father emptied his second glass of beer. Then he quietly strolled across the room, letting the laughter follow him out through the door. He crossed the road into a park dominated by a mature Morton Bay Fig. The stars sparkled in a perfect clear night. He did not notice that, as he walked with purpose over to the trunk of the fig and sat down. Then he shot himself.
Epitaphs from friends and acquaintances expressed disbelief. “I can’t understand it; he was such a quiet and easy-going chap. He didn’t seem to have a worry in the world.”
I never understood his silence.
I must go back to the river again,
To the place old memories lie.
To ponder the silent questions
That made my mother cry.
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By Julie Sharp
When Elyse walked onto the upper deck and was greeted by hoots from the drunken bosun and the off-watch crew, she knew something had finally happened after two strained weeks on the river. They hollered Nacio’s name in combination with a few unflattering epithets, some of them waving their swords about in the air, but she barely heard them, because her gaze was snagged by the sight of blood on the deck.
She followed the red trail down to the passengers’ quarters. Her jaw clenched at the sight of Nacio leaning against the doorframe outside her cabin, his hands pressed against his bloodied shirt.
“Bastards,” she said.
“I tried to inform the bosun of this fact,” he responded. “Unfortunately, he didn’t appreciate the suggestion that recognising my illegitimacy was a reflection of his own vast store of knowledge on the subject. Man can’t take a joke.”
“And you can’t make one, either. At least not when you’re bleeding all over the deck.”
Why was it that the men in her life were either humourless, or else burdened with an over-abundant sense of their own wit?
The trip downriver toward the capital, with a boat load of sailors and her father, Lord Syrus, had done nothing to change her opinion of men. Syrus was courteous enough, but he was so stiff, and in one of his thundering moods, terrifying.
And then there was Nacio, the singer-cum-actor, who had fallen in with them because he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and had stayed because … well, she wasn’t sure why he had stayed. At least he was amusing—when he relaxed for five minutes and stopped trying to prove himself to the crew.
Elyse unlocked the door to her cabin. “Elyse, I can’t …”
“Keep your mouth shut? I noticed. Apparently loss of blood also means you lose all of that wit you supposedly possess. Although, come to think of it, I’m not sure which comes first. No——” She held up her hand as he opened his mouth to protest. “Obviously no one else is going to volunteer to help you, so if you want me to fix that bloody mess then you need to be quiet, or else I’ll send you back to the bosun and he can stitch you up with his sword. Now, sit on the bunk.”
His face was pale—too pale. She was about to offer him her shoulder to lean on, but he chose that moment to faint into her arms. She staggered across the cabin under his weight, awkwardly manoeuvring him onto the bunk. She pressed her hand against his forehead: cold and clammy.
“What in Jhadda’s name possessed you to fight the bosun? Other than the obvious answer: that you’re such a terrible actor, so he had to rough you up or else watch half his crew jump overboard. Didn’t I warn you that a play would be lost on sailors? The singing, however …”
The boat lurched and Elyse pitched forward, bracing herself against the wall. She was suddenly inches from his face, and she caught the scent of honey on his breath …
Time to clean and close the wound. She pushed herself upright and lit the candle on the table next to the bunk, then pulled her wooden case from underneath. Scissors, wa
She used a blanket to prop him up against the wall, shifting his hips to the side as she did so and settling herself next to him. She had done this before on animals but not on a person. She took a deep breath and forced herself to focus.
His shirt was bloody, sweaty, matted to his skin. The cut was not deep but it was long: from the hollow of his shoulder it slashed diagonally across the left side of his chest in a wicked arc. She used the scissors to cut up the centre of the shirt and then peeled it away from the wound. The blood was already thickening. He wasn’t going to die, but there would be a scar.
She cut a strip of bandage and poured some water from the flask, then cleaned around the wound. She closed her eyes as the sharp smell of tanis hit her nose. Her head felt abruptly clearer, as if washed out by a sudden, sweet rainstorm.
Her eyes flew open as he tried to sit up; she pushed him gently back against the bed.
“You might be able to push the bosun around, but I wouldn’t try your luck with the unofficial ship’s surgeon. Especially when she has a needle.” She kept her voice calm and soothing. “It’s a good thing you’re awake now, because I’d hate to see what might have happened if you started like that while I was in the middle of stitching you.”
He cocked his head to one side. “You might have had to slap me. Again.”
“You might have deserved it. Again,” she said, but there was no acid in her voice.
She threaded the needle and then held the tip next to the candle flame. “Why are you doing this?” he whispered.
“Obviously the mate is indisposed, and this needs cleaning and stitching now.” She pulled the needle away from the flame and placed it on the bandage to cool. “Ready?”
“No. But I’m not really in a position to argue, am I?”
His mouth quirked in that sardonic smile, but his blue eyes were a little too wide as he looked at the needle.
“I could ask my father for some gin——”
“Just do it.”
She nodded and shifted herself a little closer. She ran her fingers lightly along the skin at the lower end of the wound. He closed his eyes and tilted his head toward the ceiling.
“Relax …” she whispered.
She began to hum, the tune small and lilting, drifting about like a leaf on a lazy stream. She kept her hand on his chest as she did so; his heartbeat calmed and his muscles relaxed. She kept humming as she held the skin together with her fingers and then pushed in the tip of the needle. He flinched but did not cry out, and after a moment his muscles eased again.
Thread through, tie off, snip with scissors. Thread, tie, snip. She continued to hum as she stitched, the rhythm of the song weaving around them both. His breathing was soft but steady; the only sign of pain was the occasional twitch of his muscles as she touched him just before pressing the needle into his flesh.
She smiled to herself. She could do this.
The touch of Elyse’s fingers as she began to stitch the wound was like a shot of scaldi poured directly into Nacio’s veins. He turned his head away, but even then each brush of her fingertips against his skin was almost as painful as the wound itself.
The rational part of his mind was so calm, so clinical. It will be over soon. She is just doing what any decent person would do, helping the wounded. Needle in, needle out. See, not so bad.
And then he made the mistake of opening his eyes.
She was unaware of his gaze. The deep, red curls of her hair fell across her forehead, framing her small face and her green eyes. Her brow wrinkled in concentration, the end of her tongue poking out between her lips. She was so like a child—completely focused and completely oblivious. Oblivious to the heat caused by every touch of her skin against his own.
The tune she was humming was small and gentle. Unfamiliar to him. It was almost a lullaby, but without a regular rhythm. He closed his eyes and followed the melody in his head for a while, then began to pick out some notes, humming a counterpoint, the tunes weaving together like two threads on the same skein. This joining of voices, this making of music from a source deep inside—this he understood. His muscles slowly unknotted as the music flowed. High and low, deep and sweet, strong and gentle.
It was almost as heady as making love.
She touched him again. Oblivious. He shook his head inwardly. You really have no idea, do you?
Her singing faltered.
“I … What?” she asked.
He refused to look at her. “Please …” he whispered. “Just finish it.”
The silence stretched. Too long. He opened his eyes. She was looking down at her trembling hands. What had caused her to stop? And then, at long last, the pain of the slice down his chest pushed its way to the front of his mind.
“Elyse,” he said, his voice much calmer than he felt. She looked at him. “I have no idea. I can’t …”
“Yes. You can. You must. Because there’s no way I can finish this myself.” He dared to take her hand and place it on his chest. “The song helps. Please. You can finish this.”
It seemed to be enough. Her brow cleared. He began to sing, seeking refuge in the music. The press of the needle through his flesh faded to the periphery of his awareness. She joined her voice with his, this time picking out a harmony. Her fingers were faster now, steadier. He opened his eyes and allowed himself to watch her. She finished the stitching and gave a relieved little nod. The corner of her eyes crinkled as she smiled, admiring her work.
He had to remind himself to breathe. Gods, you are exquisite.
Her head whipped up. “What?” She looked like a startled deer. He was as confused as she. “I don’t … What did I do?”
She turned, as if to leave. Stupidly, without thought, he grabbed her shoulder. Her body tensed under his fingers and he cringed, knowing what would come next. She hated unexpected touch, unexpected intimacy—he had the aching jaw to prove it. But she stilled, and he dared to speak.
“Elyse, please. Whatever I did, I’m sorry.”
What had he done? Even as he apologized, he raked his memory for something that might explain her sudden urge to flee. He looked at his shirt, still red with his own blood. And then he knew.
The image of his own bloodied hands filled his vision. It was the image that had caused him to wake in cold sweat and blinding fear on so many nights in the past few weeks; that had caused him to cry out in his sleep; that had brought on the merciless insults of the crew.
And that blood had belonged to Lord Syrus.
He had entered that fight five weeks ago believing that Lord Syrus was the enemy and that Elyse was in danger. His strategy was simple enough: kill the villain, rescue the damsel.
But the villain wasn’t a villain after all—he was Elyse’s father. And she didn’t want to be rescued.
When all had become clear, Lord Syrus had pardoned him. But despite the past few weeks of companionship, despite her kindness now, he could not change the past.
“You despise me,” he said.
“What? No, I … Why would you say that?”
The weeks of putting up with the taunting of the crew now seemed pathetic rather than brave. “I really am a joke, aren’t I? The crew spends half their time goading me and the other half ignoring me. Hell, I can’t even parry with a half-drunk sailor without ending up bloodied and pitiful.”
There was a long silence.
“Why did the bosun do this to you? Truthfully?”
Because I was stupid enough to think I was defending your honour against the accusations of a bunch of drunken louts, when all they wanted was an excuse to bloody me up—and I played right into their hands. But he could not tell her that. She already thought him enough of a fool.
“It doesn’t matter. I should go,” he said. The cabin, her scent, his own thoughts—they were all too close.
“Nacio, stop.” She pressed her hand gently against his good shoulder, forcing him to lie back against the wall. “I don’t despise you. I can’t despise you. You are frustrating and confusing and occasionally stupid. You almost killed my father, so it doesn’t surprise me that you’re terrified of him. But I know that somewhere under all that wit and bravado, you were scared boneless and yet you still took up a sword for me. And I’m sorry it took me this long to say it, but thank you.”
He looked at her as she spoke. Not just looked at her, but saw her. Scarred by ruthless, manipulative men. Separated now from the only life she had known, from all the people she had loved. And she felt she needed to apologise to him.
He hadn’t known it before, hadn’t allowed himself to know it before. The reason for all his anger, the reason for the taunts of the crew and the cold indifference of Syrus: he loved her.
He had been trying for so long to fill the void inside. With wine. With work. With music. Nothing had ever come close. Until now.
When she finally looked up at him and spoke, he met her gaze.
“I grew up in the world of noble politics, a world of plots and masquerades and lies. Tell me something true,” she whispered.
He thought for a moment, then suppressed a laugh.
“I’m a terrible sailor.” He sat forward, halving the space between them. “I’m a terrible swordsman.” Her scent tingled in the back of his throat. “And I’m a terrible actor.”
The corner of her mouth twitched in a smile. His hand was miraculously steady as he reached out and pushed a stray curl from her forehead. Her breathing quickened, in pace with his own pulse. That wasn’t scaldi in his veins—it was something else entirely.
He brushed his fingers over the soft, smooth skin of her neck, her jaw. She shivered under his touch and closed her eyes.
And I can’t believe you haven’t slapped me yet.
She opened her eyes.
He closed the space between them. He kissed her slowly, gently, eyes open. One of her hands brushed the exposed skin of his chest. He withdrew slightly. The after-image of her lips on his burned.
Eclectica: An anthology by Publishing Portfolio / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes