Old Saltie, p.1Sue Bagust
And other stories by Sue Bagust
© Sue Bagust 2013
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents have been produced by the author’s imagination or have been used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, or to any actual events or precise locations is entirely coincidental or within the public domain.
My sincere thanks go to members of the Ravenshoe, Gympie and Pomona Writers Groups for showing me how to write short stories and generously sharing their expertise. Even bigger thanks to Pat Ritter, my big-hearted mentor who encouraged me to publish my stories, and thanks especially to my husband Roy, who has the patience of a Saint. If you have enjoyed reading this book, I would love to receive your feedback. You can contact me on my e-mail: [email protected]
‘What did you say?’ I stared at mine host in horror.
‘I said,’ he repeated slowly, ‘that you have to be very, very careful of Old Saltie. She’s a right old bitch, cunning as all get out, and she’ll have you for dinner as quick as look at you. She’s quick, cunning, ruthless, a born killer and you have to be very, very careful in her territory.’
The smart little bastard was a telepath, no doubt of it. He’d been reading my mind – that was exactly what I’d been thinking about Old Saltie, my revered and respectable mother-in-law, the dishonourable Mrs. Saltash. He had picked my thoughts straight from my brain to say them, out loud, to this wide-eyed group of happy eco-tourists in the happy eco-tourist paradise of Crocodile River. How was he doing it?
The khaki kid went on with his talk: ‘Old Saltie hasn’t killed anyone yet, but we know she’s there and she’s just waiting for the opportunity. She’s a man-hater, all right.’
He’d described the old bat perfectly. Funny, when Gail and I first married, I’d thought her mother was a real character and laughed at her witticisms, and even admired her stubbornness. I called it determination then. Just goes to show how young I was, or how much in love I was with my Gail, not to recognize the danger in her mother’s glittering little reptilian eyes. She was so sweet on the surface, all cosmetics and gleaming spun sugar, but underneath there was always a quick slash of spiteful words disguised with a giggle, a stiletto to the heart delivered with a smile, and a grim determination to rule whatever roost she chose as hers.
Unfortunately, since her last stroke, her current roost was our spare room and she now ruled my house with indefatigable venom.
My thoughts returned to their cycle of quiet horrors. There was no way out: the only way to freedom, for myself and my wife and our children, was if Old Saltie died. Despite her latest stroke, the horrible old woman was getting healthier every day, and looked as though she was settling in to outlive the whole family.
‘Yeah,’ the khaki kid continued. ‘Old Saltie is just waiting for her moment to strike, which is why all the rivers and riverbanks are out of bounds for everyone. We know she’s there, we just don’t know where, so we ask everyone to please keep to the marked paths and to do your river watching either in a boat with one of us authorized guides or from your verandahs over the water. Never go wandering along the riverbank by yourself, and especially not at sundown, which is when most croc attacks happen.”
‘Croc,’ I exclaimed. ‘Crocodile. Old Saltie is a crocodile.’
Not only the khaki kid looked at me in amazement, the whole group of happy eco-tourists was doing the same thing. Fair enough too, seeing the whole damned holiday camp was called Crocodile River. They must have thought I was a special kind of stupid. I smiled weakly and tried for an excuse.
‘Sorry. It’s been a long drive to get here.’
They relaxed slightly; some even offered faint smiles of commiseration. They were all young, healthy, fit, some obviously on their honeymoon and focused more on each other than on the khaki kid. Most weren’t Australian, except possibly for the lost-cause, dread-locked, hairy-legged couple, dressed in every colour of the rainbow. I had a private bet with myself that they would be vegetarian. Over the years I have noticed that becoming a vegetarian often made you lose your sense of style and colour, along with all your razors.
I reckon there wasn’t one in the group over 25 and here was I, unfit, overweight, over 40, having my annual holiday hijacked by the Old Saltie in our family, insisting that our children, my wife and I should become ecologically aware by coming to this damned, out-of-the-way, over-priced, tourist trap. I reckon she only chose here because the kids had asked if we could go to Disneyland, which gave her the opportunity to lecture us all on The American Takeover of Australian Culture and Values. As if she cared; all she cared about was getting her own way. She was just a bloody-minded old woman, who would automatically take the opposite view, just because she could.
‘Please make sure you warn everyone in your groups who hasn’t come to the Introduction Lecture,’ instructed the khaki kid. ‘And welcome to Crocodile River. We hope your stay will be enjoyable as well as instructive.’ He offered a blazing smile blinding us with the contrast of his artificially whitened teeth in his tanned, young face, smartly turned around and marched off to the Information Centre, probably to stock the shelves with more crocodile teeth pendants, Akubra hats and khaki shorts to sell to the tourists.
I walked slowly back to our cabin, thinking furiously. It was incredible, amazing, a miracle? Certainly it was more than a co-incidence, with two Old Salties present. Equally certainly it could be an answer to all my problems. But I couldn’t ….. or could I?
My Old Saltie banged her cane on the verandah rail to get my attention as I mounted the stairs. As if I could miss noticing her; she was relaxing over a cup of tea, while Gail and the kids did all the unpacking and settling into the cabin, even though this eco-holiday was her idea. The old bitch would live forever, with attendant slaves at hand.
‘Where have you been?’ she demanded.
‘At the welcome lecture’
‘Lot of nonsense’
‘Perhaps. They did say not to walk along the riverbank at sunset.’
‘Why not? Lot of nonsense,’ she repeated.
‘It’s their riverbank. They make the rules.’
I shrugged my shoulders philosophically and went inside to help my wife and daughters unpack and tell them what I’d learned. As I relayed to them when the dining hall opened, what time breakfast was served, when the crocodile spotting boat tour left in the morning and all the other eco-delights in store for us, as well as what the khaki kid had said about the rogue crocodile, I listened to sounds of my own rogue crocodile. Sure enough, I could hear her stumping quietly down the steps to walk along the riverbank at sunset, just because she’d been told not to, and waited with a little thrill of anticipation for the screams and the splash that would surely come, that had to come, when two Old Salties met at last.
The first time Chris hit me I didn’t believe what had happened. It just wasn’t possible. It couldn’t have happened. Not to me. Not to us. I stood there, unable to say a word, feeling my cheek burn from the slap delivered with the full force of Chris’ arm.
We had been arguing. I don’t remember what it was about. It was just a silly argument. If we had been kids, we would have degenerated into an aimless Did-too, Did-not, Did-too – but we were adults, and Chris had hit me – and it wasn’t a playful slap. It was a painful slap, delivered forcefully, and designed to hurt.
Afterwards, of course, there were tears, apologies, and lots of promises that it would never happen again.
For a week we were super polite to each other, being so careful of each other’s space, like guests in our own home. But suddenly, shockingly, it happened again, and this
Even though there were more apologies and promises, I delivered my ultimatum. One more time, and we were finished. I would not live like that, with violence in a home. A home is a welcome refuge to return to, a place of love and caring, warmth and laughter, not a battlefield.
Chris agreed with me, and together we agreed to try again.
The next time it happened, it was just two days later, and I asked Chris to leave that day, to be gone before I came home from work that night. It hurt to tell Chris to go; partly it hurt to admit that what I had thought was a perfect relationship wasn’t perfect; but my eye hurt worst of all.
I worked that day like a zombie, on automatic pilot, laughing at all the “walked into a door” jokes about my rapidly blackening eye, telling workmates that I’d done it playing squash.
I kept wondering if it was something I had done, or hadn’t done, or maybe something I had said.
I just couldn’t understand how something so good, could suddenly become so toxic. It just wasn’t possible, to change so quickly. I couldn’t even get a reality check with my friends. I couldn’t tell anyone what had happened; I was too ashamed.
When I got home that night and found out what Chris had done before leaving; slashing my clothes, smashing my furniture, emptying the larder onto the kitchen floor, I still didn’t tell anyone.
My flat looked like the aftermath of a cyclone but I just sat there in the mess, trying to make some sense of the wanton destruction.
That’s when my sister walked in. We weren’t identical twins, but were twin enough to be able to sense trouble for the other, to be there for each other. When we were younger we had our own language, and even now we could sometimes tell what the other one was thinking. Although we looked different, we were two halves of a whole, even though she was small and dark and pretty like our mother and I looked like our father, tall and blond and skinny.
She comforted me as best she could, and helped me to tidy the mess as best she could, and it was when she was picking up broken glass out of the carpet that she sat back on her haunches and said “You need to be sure this doesn’t happen again.”
“It won’t”, I assured her. “Chris isn’t welcome back.”
“But Chris has taken the spare keys.” That was something I was trying not to think about.
She saw my sorrow and continued in a fake Irish brogue “And it’s best to be sure, to be sure.” It was an old joke we’d shared many times, but it helped to put a veneer of normality into my vandalized home.
She continued with sensible advice I really didn’t want to hear: “First we need a locksmith and then we need to get something legal, an AVO or something, to make Chris go away and stay away. I’ll go with you tomorrow”.
So that was why my petite, pretty sister and I were sitting, side by side, waiting to see a magistrate, hoping we were in the right section of the building, when the Women’s Refuge person came in, surveyed the room dispassionately, and announced loudly “I’m here to help anyone with domestic violence problems”.
“Here”, said my sister with a relieved smile, raising her hand, and our self-proclaimed saviour rushed to her side, putting her arm around my twin’s shoulders, cuddling her, glaring at me. “Never mind, dearie, I’m here to help. You won’t be bothered again.”
“No”, said my sister, “Not for me, for my brother”, gesturing to me. “He needs an AVO against a violent partner.”
“What!” exclaimed our horrified saviour “No. Not me. I don’t do men.” and abruptly left us to sort out our own problems.
But as my sister said through our gales of laughter, at least now we knew that we were waiting in the right place.
Marg woke with a shudder. What a rotten dream. And it started just like a normal day. In her dream she woke from sleep as the sun reached her face, stretched, yawned, and got up as normal. She went to the bathroom, then to the kitchen, where Hector stood, cup in hand, staring out into the dawn. As normal, she went up behind him and hugged him close, and he turned in her arms –
Then Marg screamed. Because Hector wasn’t Hector any more, but a giant lizard wearing Hector’s clothes, reptilian eyes glittering, tongue flicking with hunger, breath stinking of carrion.
What a rotten dream. Thank God it was only a dream. How Hector would laugh about being turned into a giant lizard, if only in her dreams. Physician, heal thyself, he’d say, and tease her about her id and ego and Freudian slips. Thank God it was only a dream.
Marg hurried from the bathroom to the kitchen, eager to share her dream with Hector and banish her lingering night fears with laughter.
Hector stood, cup in hand, staring out into the dawn, as Marg went up behind him and hugged him close, and he turned in her arms, reptilian eyes glittering, tongue flicking with hunger, breath stinking of carrion.
Marg surveyed the room complacently. The church was packed solid, standing room only at the back, hot and still, with dust motes shimmering in the solid multicoloured light below the windows. Her earliest childhood memories in this church was watching how sunlight thickened and shimmered into rainbows as it crossed through stained glass; it was like a doorway into another world if you could only take that first step.
This was an excellent turn out, even for a week day. You could count on the Bouviers to turn up en masse, to celebrate or to cry, whichever was appropriate at the time. Hector always said that the Bouviers were the genuine article you could trust; real country people who always knocked with their elbows when they visited, because their hands were full carrying a home-made cake or a casserole.
Marg thought this was almost as good a crowd as the one who had come to help her farewell her Hector, so many years ago. So many years, yet it was as though he was here beside her today. She could almost smell him: tobacco and sweat and engine oil, but it was mostly tobacco she remembered, probably because tobacco smelled sweeter than sweat and engine oil.
She laughed silently to herself. If Hector was here, he’d be telling her to stop daydreaming and to pay attention if she didn’t want to miss what was happening in the real world. She must be imagining the faint smell of tobacco. Nobody smoked, these days. The smell in the packed church was modern, of deodorants and perfumes and ironing spray, competing with the fragrance of massed flowers.
The flowers for this funeral are beautiful; it would be a shame to daydream and miss this occasion. Wreaths from the family are on the coffin, but there are more wreaths stacked in a neat march along the sides, and even down into the body of the church. It is impressive to see so many tributes, even though Marg always wondered just when and why our society decided that to cut live flowers to arrange in stiff circles was the right thing to do to honour a death. Surely there must be some reason for it, although Hector said that people often did things for no reason, just because everyone else did, like taking grapes to visit a friend in hospital.
It takes an effort to drag her attention back to the present; it’s almost as though Hector is here with her. Who was that woman talking – oh, this year’s president of the CWA. What’s she saying?
“Years of service. Well-respected. Greatly missed”
What she means is the CWA has lost another willing horse. Marg used to serve on so many committees herself, when she was younger, all to help some good cause in the community. Hector would tease her about her good-deed crafts and cake stalls, and not being able to say no and mean it, but still he was always there waiting with a grin and a ready joke to pick her up when she was ready to leave.
Oh dear, daydreaming again. Hector was right; she is off with the pixies far too often. Although she’s always been a dreamer, she is definitely getting worse as she gets older. What’s happening now in the real world?
The CWA eulogist has been replaced by a man … who is it … she can’t see clearly from here. It is true that your eyes do grow misty with age. Oh it’s him, but how he’s aged. Today he
“A dearly missed sister, a lifetime of memories”
Not recent memories though, she knows for a fact they’d drifted into keeping in touch by sending each other the latest e-joke, fooling themselves that they still talked to each other like nearly everyone else in this new electronic world. If it wasn’t for Facebook most people wouldn’t even be able to catch up with the latest crop of new babies in the family.
What was that smell?
It certainly can’t be tobacco. Not these days, today’s smokers are a dying breed, huddled outside buildings like criminals, sneaking a smoke. She could almost hear Hector chuckling at her joke.
She could also imagine just what Hector would have said, if anyone had tried to make him go outside to smoke. Not like the old days, when you had ashtrays for smokers in your home, even if you didn’t smoke yourself. She herself had a beautiful big cut glass ashtray packed away somewhere; a wedding gift from the days when it was good manners as a hostess to provide ashtrays for smokers; but now – she must only be remembering that familiar, loved smell of tobacco.
Oh, dear! They’d changed speakers again while she was dreaming; now it was the new minister who doesn’t have anything real to say about a parishioner he has only met twice. What’s he saying?
Old Saltie by Sue Bagust / Humor / Actions & Adventure have rating 2.7 out of 5 / Based on35 votes