One Ring

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Robin Hillard


If you drive east out of town, over the potholes of Ryan’s Road, you will come to a tiny settlement. Three houses. Where we live. When Duncan’s books began to sell we bought a little piece of land where I could make a garden while he wrote. We did not know what trouble we would have with our neighbours.

Like the morning our peace was shattered by banshee screams. Susannah burst out of the house next door, in her dressing gown, yelling at Annette.

I cursed. I did not want Duncan disturbed.

What was Susannah’s noise about? “My ring,” she screamed. “My beautiful sapphire ring!”

There was a story behind That Ring. As I had been told, it was left to “The Bulloch girl” by an elderly aunt, and Susannah claimed that it was meant for her, the will was drafted before her sister was born. Annette argued, with some reason, that a thirty-three-year-old was not a “girl,” the will had been rewritten several times, and she—barely out of her teens, should have the jewel. They went to court. Susannah won the case.

By now, Annette’s shrill voice rose over her sister’s scream. If it were not the ring, they would have been fighting about something else. We realised, almost as soon as we moved in, that they hated each other. Annette used to work in town, so why did she make that long, bumpy drive every day, to share a house with the sister she despised?

“It’s the will,” Duncan explained. “Jonsey told me all about it.” Jonsey lived in the other house on Riley’s road. A wrinkled old bushman, he scampered out of sight when I appeared, but he often chatted to Duncan.

That house had been the Bulloch family home, and as long as one of “the girls” lived there, it could not be sold. Neither sister would let the other have the house, so they stayed where they were.

“They could live anywhere,” I said, “with what they’ve saved.”

“Apparently there is a brother too, and he would get a share, if the house was sold. If we think the sisters fight, Jonsey says, we should see them with the Bulloch boy. The only thing those two agree about, is their contempt for him. So they have to stay in the place.”

Elderly spinsters in the family home. For sixty years. Out here on Ryan’s Road.

Maybe one longed to live beside the sea and the other dreamed of city life. But neither would let the other have the house! What a horrible story.

I made myself a cup of tea while Duncan paced in the study overhead. The uproar had broken his train of thought and he could not get back to work. Damn those two harpies.

I took a basket of washing to hang out. I had started our country life with plastic pegs, in the usual bright colours. Then the blue ones started to disappear. Something snapped them off the line, leaving my clothes to blow about in the dirt. Was this a peculiar kind of rural kink? Did it give some one a thrill—to take a woman’s clothes off the line and steal the pegs?

Then, one morning, I saw the thief. A beautiful glossy blue-black bird! When I found him in the illustrated guide, all was explained. He was a satin bower-bird, and somewhere, in the forest behind our land, he had a mound. There, according to the book, he spread pretty things, to attract a lady bower-bird. Blue was his favourite colour, and after his struggle to pull them off the line, I hope she liked those special ornaments!

I did not grudge a courting bird the pegs, but, when it breaks, plastic can make sharp splinters that could hurt a feathered Romeo. The bird would be safer with treasure he usually found in the bush. After our first mistake, we had learned to be careful of helping wild life.

We loved the birds, and when we first moved in, I scattered handfuls of grain every day, to encourage them. A couple of white cockatoos found the food and told their friends, the flock got larger and noisier, and our neighbours complained. We ignored Susannah’s invective and Annette’s whine, but when the sisters took their objection into town, a red-faced ranger came to visit us. He explained about the balance of bush life. “Attract too many predator birds,” he said, “and we lose the small species.”

We stopped feeding the cockatoos, and after a couple of protesting afternoons the flock disappeared, as the birds looked elsewhere for an easy feed. Then Annette complained about the blackberries, which were choking the native bush when we bought the house. Duncan’s brother had helped us choose the place, and kept his promise to help us clean them out. With the blackberries were gone, Susannah objected to our woodpile. It was too close to her fence. She was sure it harboured snakes. Duncan moved the wood, but the sisters found more reasons to complain and we tried to ignore the two of them.

Neighbours. Just what we left the city to avoid. The original owner of our home and the sisters’ grandfather had been good friends, which is why the houses were so close, both fronting Riley’s Road. When the sisters were not squabbling, they could lean on their fence and moan at us.

Back inside, I had barely settled to my cup of tea when there was a loud cawing, and the rattle of a beak against flywire. I opened the screen and Jamieson, the crow, hopped in. When he first appeared we guessed, from confident way he came into the house, that he had been hand-raised. Somebody rescued a fledgling, then, as soon as it could fly, very correctly, set it free. Jamieson, now definitely a wild bird, still liked an occasional treat from a human fridge. He was the exception to our “don’t feed” rule.

Lately he had found a mate. Another crow—Duncan called her Jemima—who joined him in our tall gum tree. I hoped they were making a nest.

The tree gave our neighbours another excuse to complain. “It’ll be down, as soon as there’s a storm,” Annette said “And it’s too close to the power line. It’s dangerous.”

Duncan did not agree. “There’s only one branch near the wire,” he said, “I’ll get Rod to lend a hand, and we’ll trim it up. No need to wreck the tree.”

I wished he would get on with the job. Annette had worked in Government offices—suppose she reported our gum? Men—coming trucks and chainsaws, and they would not be as careful as Duncan and Rod.

Susannah had gone inside. I could hear her tearing the house apart while Annette added her shrieks to the noise. Then Annette rushed outside, Susannah following, and waving a knife. Both women were screaming. Sixty years of frustration boiled into the fight. The noise was worse that a thousand cockatoos. Duncan gave up trying to work and joined me in the yard. Another figure came trotting up the road. Jonsey wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

It took both the men to hold Susannah back, while I dragged her sister away. “I haven’t got your bloody ring,” she screamed. “You can search the bloody house.”

That Susannah would certainly do. I looked at my washing, and had a mischievous thought. Blue sapphire ring. Blue plastic pegs. If that was the answer it served the harridans right.

We bought this piece of land so Duncan could write, and he needed a quiet place to work. I would see that he had it.

Maybe Annette had taken the blasted ring. Maybe a tramp crept in, unseen, and snatched it from the bathroom windowsill. Or maybe—I thought of the blue pegs—the ring was part of a bower-bird display. I took my theory next door.

That gave them something new to think about, and while they thought about the ways of bower-birds, Duncan could work on his next book. He seemed to be getting the rhythm of a tale and, as usual when things are going well, he stayed up all night.

For once, I joined him for a late coffee and I could not sleep. There was noise next door. What were the women doing at this hour? I shoved on a pair of boots and stumbled out. If they were going to make a row at night I would complain. If I wanted to talk to the woman I was too late. It was Annette, heading down Riley’s Road in the old truck. Where could she be going at this hour? She turned off the road and onto a forestry track. The one that had been closed two months ago. Ten minutes later Susannah was in the yard, and starting the car. Was she following Annette?

They came back together, just before sunrise. Call me nosey if you like—but I was curious. I crept up to the fence, to their window, and listened. They shared my suspicion of the bower-bird, and Annette had crept out, while her sister was asleep, to find the mound. Susannah heard the truck and followed her. I could not believe my ears. To hunt for a bower-bird’s mound among the trees! In the dark! As if she had a chance of finding it.

The sisters must have realised how hopeless it was. Each trying to trick the other. Searching at night. I heard them make a pact. They would go to the forest together, in daylight and search until they found the ring. And when they retrieved the sapphire? They would have to share the ring.

The next day brought a monumental storm that tore a branch off our beloved gum. If the sisters had not been obsessed by their hunt, they could have made a genuine complaint. The tree was dangerous. A lump of timber had fallen across the fence, which would have to be fixed. But first we had to deal with the tree. Jamieson was flying around, cawing his distress, as if he expected us to save his home.

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Duncan said, phoning his brother for help. Rod came with ladders and chainsaw and they got to work. It took a couple of days but we ended up with a smaller—and healthier—gum tree.

“You’ll never guess what we found in Jamieson’s nest?” Duncan told me over a celebratory drink, “Something blue.”

“Not?”

He nodded. “Looks like there’s more than one kind of bird thief.”

“Will you tell the sisters?”

“And let them wreck our tree. No way. Let Jamieson keep the ring. Besides,” he grinned, “the hunt is keeping the neighbours out of our hair.”

He waved at the window. It was getting dark, and, next door, the old truck in pulled, bringing the sisters home. We watched them walking, together, into the house.

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Robin Hillard has lived in three Australian states as well as England and Canada. She has chosen to live in Toowoomba which is only slightly larger than a city ought to be. E-mail: robinhillard[at]ozemail.com.au.

Winter’s Ghost

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Robin Hillard


The Kellys lived in the house at the end of the street, that Jamie and I called “the last house in town,” to remind ourselves that we were stuck in the bush. The paved road stopped after the Kellys’ house, but we had to drive on, over a bumpy dirt track. Every time we passed the Kellys’ place, with its lawn and swimming pool, I wished we could stop there.

All we had was a weatherboard cottage with peeling paint. When Mum saw it she burst into tears, but George told her it was cheap. “We won’t be here for long,” he said. At first, as we reached the end of the street, he would wave at the Kellys’ house: “That’ll be us one day.”

By December the promises had stopped, and we were sweating through the Australian summer, still stuck in the bush with the dust and the flies. The Kellys’ house seemed like the beginning of civilization when we drove into town, and the end of everything on the way home, but if George said anything at all, it was a reminder not to get involved with “nosy neighbours.”

I did not like Australia and I did not like George.

We had known him back in London. When Dad disappeared he moved in with Mum, and the next thing we knew he was dragging us out here. “The sun always shines in Ozzie-land,” he said. “You’ll get a bit of colour in your cheeks.”

But we arrived in August, winter on this side of the world, and whatever George might have said about the weather, the Gippsland winter was cold.

He just laughed at our grizzles and told Jamie to toughen up. When my brother started to cough, Mum went to Vinnies and got him a jacket and bought a couple of sweaters for me. Vinnies. St. Vincent de Paul. They sell secondhand clothes for charity and George was so tight that Mum did all her shopping there: clothes, furniture, and even our school uniforms.

“Gotta be careful of the dosh,” George said, when she complained. We even had ratty old secondhand beds with stained mattresses.

Now, in the summer heat, he sat huddled on the veranda looking silly in his thick coat. He said he was cold. In December! In Australia!

“I bet it’s a ghost,” Jamie whispered, “rubbing fingers up his spine.”

The ghost of London’s winter, chasing him across the world!

“The ghost of all the nasty things he’s done,” I whispered back.

Jamie giggled, but I pressed my hand against his mouth in case George heard. We didn’t want to make him mad.

I pulled my brother inside. If George was in one of his moods we’d better keep out of the way. The sitting room was the coolest place in the house, so I turned on the fan and sprawled out on the floor. We were almost comfortable till George stormed in and switched off the fan. “It’s like a bloody freezer here!”

I thought of a freezer. A big one, like the Kellys had. Soon after we arrived, Di Kelly invited me to her place after school; she went to this huge freezer and pulled out two ice creams with the kind of wrappings they have in the shop. George was really mad when I got home, and told me to keep away from “that toffee-nosed town crowd,” so I never went to the Kellys’ house again, but as I sweated under our tin roof I wished I could jump into their pool.

George was still going on about the cold.

“You better toughen up,” Jamie said, giggling. The stupid kid. George fetched him such a swipe he ended up on the floor, screaming.

George would have hit him again, but Mum burst out of the bedroom and grabbed his arm. “The neighbours!”

That was stupid too. There was no one closer than the Kellys’ house.

It stopped George though. Which was something to remember. In Australia he was scared of the neighbours, and maybe when he hit us we should yell real loud. Jamie had the sense to scuttle outside, I wanted to follow, but with George between me and the door I had to stay where I was. And hope he would not notice me.

He headed for the bedroom, but was out again before I could move.

“What the flakin’ hell is this?” he was waving a receipt. It must have fallen from Mum’s bag. “Five hundred dollars for a flakin’ dress! You stupid cow!”

“I didn’t think y-you’d mind”

“Of course I flakin’ mind. That’s why we’re stuck in this flakin’ place—your idiot husband flashed his money around. You know what happened to him.”

Did she? Did Mum know why Dad left? We were used to him going away, but usually after a policeman came to the house. This time he just disappeared.

Mum muttered something that made George really mad. He dragged her into the bedroom, threw her down on the floor and started dragging clothes out of all the drawers.

Mum was crying and he slammed the window down. “D’you want the whole town listening in?”

She shut up.

Then he seemed to calm down. He was talking slowly, with his posh voice. “I am a junior sales manager of Argyle Electrics, and we live on my wages. That’s all the money we’ve got. And you want to swan about a flash dress? How much more did you spend? Eh?”

He shook her and, when she did not speak, answered for her in a high squeaky voice. “Just going into town, George. Just a little shopping, George.” Then, as his own horrible self, “What’s wrong with the dresses you’ve got? Your old clothes not good enough eh?” There was a thump as he knocked her onto the floor. “I’ve had told you a hundred times to keep your head down. Just like I told your Roger. You stupid bitch.”

He stormed out and headed back to the veranda where he huddled in a patch of sun.

I turned on the fan, and then went into the bedroom where Mum was still on the floor. Crying.

“What did happen to Dad?”

“Shh.” She whispered. Acting really scared. “Roger made George mad. He was so stupid.”

“I bet it was the money.” I was whispering too. I remembered how Dad had come home with a lot of new stuff, and Mum had tried to get it out of sight. I don’t know what it had to do with George, but when Mum saw him coming she sent me to Gran’s place with Jamie. When we came back Dad was gone.

Mum was burning hot from crying so I opened the window to get a bit of breeze.

I could hear music coming down the track; the Kellys must be having a party. Maybe later they would light the barbecue. That’s what Australians do when they have visitors, everyone sits on the lawn and they do their cooking outside. Last time they had what Mum called a “spit,” and roasted half a sheep. There was a bit of a breeze and, like the music this afternoon, the smell of their dinner came right down the track. It made George mad. He did not mind a bit of steak himself, but he said the smell of burning made him sick.

This time I could not smell a barbecue but George clumped inside, complaining, and slammed the front door shut. “Doesn’t anyone use their kitchen in this flakin’ place?”

Mum’s eyes were red from crying and she turned her face away, but George did not notice.

“It’s so flakin’ cold,” he said.

“Maybe it’s the ghost of last winter.” Mum’s window opens onto the veranda and she must have heard us talking about ghosts, but I wished she would shut up. She would only make George mad.

“You flakin’ stupid cow,” he said, and I thought he was going to hit her again. “That’s a flakin’ stupid thing to say.” Then, to me, “I don’t know why I brought you lot along. I thought your Mum had class, but look at her.”

That wasn’t fair. Mum didn’t have money for clothes, or make up, or for getting her hair done, so how could she look like the girls in the shop, the ones who worked with George? Was that why she wanted a new dress?

As suddenly as it started, George’s shivering stopped, and he was sweating like everyone else, and cursing the heat.

I thought about one of the shop girls. Beverly. The one George said had class. Was she the reason he got mad at Mum?

When we landed in Melbourne he was using his nice voice.

“Just hold off a little, luv,” he begged at first, when she wanted to buy us some clothes. “Let things settle down. Then we’ll take our loot and find somewhere nice. I promise.”

“Loot.” That always made trouble for Dad. It was never enough to get us “somewhere nice” and it always brought the police around. I hoped George had his loot with him, and that the Australian police would drive down the track, stop outside our gate and come bursting in to look for it. Then they would take George away.

It was not much good wishing. George was always reminding Mum how much it cost to bring us to Australia “with all the flakin’ papers.” There would not be much loot left for the police to find.

He was shivering again, and from the way he talked you’d think it was Mum’s fault. Only decent thing about the move, he said, was the climate. Missing the flakin’ cold—and here it was: “Like the ghost of flakin’ winter.”

There, he said it himself. Maybe it was a ghost, a bit of London winter coming to get him—for whatever he did before we came away.

Maybe it’s Dad’s ghost. I pushed that thought down quickly, in case he read my mind.

In December even the nights were hot, and I woke in a puddle of sweat. Someone was screaming. George.

I thought he was fighting with Mum, till I heard him shout at Dad. “Roger, y’ flaking idiot—do y’ want to bring the police around?” Then, as if he got an answer from the empty room: “Suppose the money’s marked? Did y’ think about that?” and talking more softly: “O.K. old chap, come on. Just a little drive, eh.” Yelling again: “Y’ want me to blast y’ away, y’ flakehead. Y’ll flakin’ well come.”

Jamie was awake. I climbed into his bed and held him tight, so he would not make any noise.

We heard George getting up, still yelling about a flakin’ burning car, and watched through the window as he rushed down the track. Mum went after him.

Jamie and I followed them.

George headed for the town screaming about “flakin’ Roger—flakin’ burning.”

He got as far as the Kellys’ place. Mr. Kelly came out and stood in front of him. He said something quietly, took George’s arm and walked him home. Then he talked to Mum, who pretended she had just got out of bed. Jamie and I kept out of sight.

I didn’t know want to face the kids at school. Everyone thought George was our Dad, and here he was yelling in the street like a drunk with the horrors.

But Di Kelly didn’t laugh at me, and she didn’t crawl around, pretend friendly, like people do when they smell a good story. I don’t think she told the others, because no one stared at me or acted strange. It was as if nothing had happened the night before.

But when I got home I saw the Kellys’ car, and as I went inside I heard Mrs. Kelly talking about a thing she called AA. Alcoholics Anonymous. “It made such a difference to Jack.” Jack? Was that Mr. Kelly?

I could not see George joining it, this “Alcoholics Anonymous,” and I wished Mrs. Kelly would go away—before he came back. He might not yell at her, but he would be mad at Mum. He’d say she was getting mixed up with the neighbours. Which he thought was the worst thing we could do. Even worse than buying new clothes.

“You don’t want them nosing around,” he said once, as we passed the Kellys’ house.

Mum must have been feeling perky because she spoke up, and said she had nothing to hide. “It’s not as if I robbed a bank.”

That was the first time he hit her. He gave a sideways swipe and we nearly crashed into a tree.

“It isn’t the drink,” Mum was saying now, as I pulled Jamie away from the house.

We knew it wasn’t the drink. There was something wrong with George’s head, something that made him go freezing cold on a hot day, and sent him screaming down the track, yelling at Dad.

Maybe it was a ghost. The ghost of a London winter, chasing him across the world.

“Dad’s dead,” Jamie said suddenly. “Dad’s dead in London and we’re here. We’re going to be here forever and ever.” He started to cry. “I bet George killed Dad. I bet he burned Dad in the car. That’s what he was yelling about.”

It made sense. Too much sense. I had to get Jamie away before George came back.

We ran down the track to where the town begins. To the house at the end of the street. The Kellys’ house.

“Dad’s dead,” Jamie shouted as we burst through the open front door. Mr. Kelly must have thought we meant George because he grabbed his car keys and rushed out. But Mrs. Kelly had the car.

“She’s at our place,” I said, trying to pull him down the track. “And George is going to be mad.”

“George killed our Dad,” Jamie was yelling and crying as he tugged at Mr. Kelly’s other hand.

That was when George came by, in our old car. He must have seen us with Mr. Kelly but he didn’t stop. He headed down the track in a cloud of dust with Mr. Kelly rushing after him.

“Oh. Oh. Oh.” Jamie screamed the number he had learned at school. Call 000 to get the Australian police. Our class had learned it too, but I never thought I would make an emergency call. Maybe, if I used the Kellys’ phone, George wouldn’t know it was me.

You wouldn’t believe how quickly the police came, with flashing lights and sirens, right past the Kellys’ place and down the track.

By the time we got back to our house, the police were outside with a megaphone, and George was screaming through the window. He had an arm around Mum and was yelling about a knife. We could hear Mr. Kelly’s deep voice, telling everybody to keep calm.

One of the police kept George talking while the others rushed through the front door. Then someone grabbed him from behind and we couldn’t see anything till they came outside, two policemen holding George, and Mr. Kelly following with his wife and Mum.

I don’t think they found any loot, but the police wanted to know how Dad disappeared and they gave Mum something called “witness protection” which meant she had to fly back to London and go to court.

That is why Jamie and I are still in Australia, staying with the Kellys until Mum comes back. Now, after we’ve been into town, we can stop at the house at the end of the street. And every afternoon, as we jump into the pool, I think of George shivering on the hottest days, and the ghost of a London winter that followed him across the world.

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E-mail: robinhillard[at]ozemail.com.au.

Danny

Best of the Boards
Robin Hillard


In her article on grammar, Beaver says that ‘anymore’ does not mean ‘nowadays’, so her friend should not have said, “Anymore I shop at the Pottery Barn.”

That made me think of one particular seaside holiday, and a child who made the same grammatical mistake.

*

“Anymore I can swim,” Danny said when we met on the beach, “and anymore I got a Batman shirt.”

I was not interested in talking to Danny; he was only a little kid. I went on making a sand tower, and when he could not get my attention he wandered off.

Our parents had rented a holiday house, and Danny’s mother lived next door. There were only the two of them and I wondered where his father had gone. Mum told me Mr. Chandler was away.

“Put away,” said Dad.

As I was going outside I heard Mum talking about “an unfortunate woman,” because someone called he would soon be “getting out.”

“They should have thrown away the key,” Dad growled.

I was not interested in grown-up conversation, and once we were I home forgot about the little boy.

Then, when it was nearly time for the next holiday, I saw him again. He had come to our school, and was in the babies’ class. The teachers called him “Ann”, and I might not have known him, in his pink dress if I had not heard his shrill little voice: “Anymore my Dad has a car.” And, in answer to a question, “Anymore we live here now.”

I only knew one child who talked like that, but when I called him he started to cry, and ran behind the shed. I did not bother to chase him. Who wanted to play with the babies? Not me.

I wanted to be with the big boys, Peter’s friends, but my brother always sent me away. “You’re too small,” he said. “And girls can’t play football.”

But things were different now. As soon as I saw Danny wearing his pink dress I knew what I was going to do. If Danny Chandler could turn into a girl, with pretty clothes, why shouldn’t I be a boy?

I did not make the change at once, because I was a fairy in our class play, and boys could only be trees, but I decided that after the concert I would play football. I was too excited to keep my plan to myself.

“Soon I’m going to be a boy,” I said at breakfast time, “so you’ll have to let me play with you.”

Peter spluttered into his milk. “Mum, Jandy’s going to turn into a boy, so she can play football. Jandy thinks she’s going to be a boy.”

He went on and on until I started to cry.

“I can be a boy,” I insisted. “Danny Chandler was a boy last year and now he’s a girl. I am so going to be a boy.”

“It’s very sad about Daniel,” Mum said. Then she went on with some silly stuff, talking as if Danny disappeared. As if he was lost. “I’m sure he’ll be all right,” she added, in the voice she uses when she’s not telling the truth.

“Of course he’s all right,” I was cross. All this fuss about a little kid, when I wanted to talk about me. “Danny’s here. At school. He’s in the babies’ class. And he’s a girl.” That was the important thing. “He has a pretty pink dress. And he cries a lot.”

Mum told me not to be silly, but Dad wanted to know about the little girl. “What makes you think she’s Dan?”

“He just is. ‘Anymore my Dad’s got a car’ and ‘Anymore I live here now.'” I copied Danny’s voice, running the words together like he did.

Dad said something quietly to Mum, and they sent me out to wait for the school bus.

My friend Maryanne had a new Barbie doll, so I did not think about Danny/Ann again, till, right in the middle of spelling, Dad came into the class, with a policeman and a nurse, both in their uniforms. They took me into the office and Dad made me tell them all about Danny.

“You should check it out,” he said, before sending me back to my room.

My desk was by the window, so I saw Danny with the nurse, getting into the policeman’s car. He did not come back to school again.

That night we had my favourite pudding, ice cream, and chocolate cake, and Mum kept saying how clever I was. She used a lot of words I did not understand—“kidnapping” and “custody”—so I had more pudding and let them to talk.

Then Peter wanted show me off to his friends. “She’s a real little policeman,” he said. But Maryanne was coming to Saturday lunch and I did not have time to play with the big boys.

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Robin Hillard has taught in Australia, England, and Canada. She has published a book of poetry and had stories and poems published in a number of print magazines and ezines. She now lives in Toowoomba, Queensland. E-mail: robinhillard[at]ozemail.com.au.

In The Andersen’s Garden

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Robin Hillard


It was always there, the memory covered, most of the time, by daily trivia. Then my brother came to stay with us.

“Did you ever wonder what happened to Lyle?” he asked that first evening, as we swapped stories of our childhood.

I felt my face burning and an iron band tightened around my chest as I struggled to breathe, symptoms my mother called my allergy. “Even the smell of tomatoes brings it on,” she said, but she did not know about Lyle.

Bill was still talking. “Bit of a mystery at the time,” he said, “the way the fellow disappeared.”

It happened when I was eight, and Billy four.

Dad’s mother had cancer and when our parents had to go to her, they left us with their friends, the Andersens. The Andersens lived on the edge of town with a large garden, a huge tin shed that was Mr Andersen’s castle, and an enclosure known as “the chook yard,” where a big black rooster bullied his harem of hens.

Mr Andersen had retired but he was always busy, working in his garden or doing odd jobs for neighbours. Sometimes they paid him, but mostly it was “a favour for the dear old girl” or “a bit of pruning for a poor old chap.” Although he did not get much money, he often came home with car full of junk that someone was going to throw out. “It might come in useful,” he would say. “I’ll put it in the shed.”

Billy and I loved the shed. We never knew what we might find as we poked around: pieces of old furniture, bottles half-full of strange liquids, and rusty tins with faded, unreadable labels.

The shed was not my favourite garden place. That honour was reserved for an old mulberry tree, with branches that arched to the ground, making a little, hidden house that I claimed as my own. When Billy followed me I pushed him out.

Those first weeks were heaven. Mrs Andersen, who had no children of her own, treated us like small adults, and Mr Andersen spoiled us both. Then Lyle moved in.

He was there one afternoon when I came home from school, leaning against the kitchen wall and watching Mrs Andersen.

“You always were a good cook, Phyll,” he said, grabbing a handful of peas. Mrs Anderson frowned, and pulled the bowl away.

“Hey, who’s this?” he asked, looking at me. “Aren’t you a pretty one?”

Mrs Andersen told me sharply to “get changed now, and go outside.” She sounded angry. She had never sent me out of the kitchen before, especially not without my glass of milk, but I did not argue. As I changed out of my school clothes I heard her telling the man to “watch yourself, Lyle.”

Lyle would have followed me outside, but Mrs Anderson called me back for my milk, and as I filled my glass she stood between the visitor and me.

“You won’t be staying long,” she said to him, but he laughed again.

“I’m sure big brother will give me a bed, after all we’ve done together.”

“Sid’s not like that any more.” She banged the lid on the saucepan and might have said something else, but Mr Andersen walked in.

He frowned when he saw Lyle, but when his brother talked about “old times,” and something he “would not want to have to tell,” Mrs Andersen spoke up. “I suppose you can stay for a couple of days,” she said, crunching up her face like somebody taking nasty medicine.

So Lyle stayed, and I did not like him at all. He called me “little girl,” and was forever trying to stroke my cheek. Mrs Andersen did not like him either, and always seemed to know when he had me cornered.

“Betsy— I need you.”

“Don’t go,” he would whisper—grabbing my arm with his sweaty hand.

I would yell an answer, as loudly as I could, ready to peel potatoes or help make up a bed, anything to get away from Lyle.

Then he disappeared.

It was a Saturday morning. Mrs Anderson had taken the car into town, Mr Anderson was working in the garden, and Lyle was dawdling over his breakfast. I did not want to stay in the house so I took a book and Jessica Jane, my favourite doll, and headed for my own safe place—under the mulberry tree.

There I was, sharing an adventure with the Famous Five when there was a heavy breathing over me. I looked up to see, looming though the branches, Lyle’s face.

“You look very cosy, little girl. Mind if I join you?” I did mind, very much, but what could I say? He came very close and I tried to wriggle away.

“Hey, sit down lass—don’t be such a hurry there.”

He grabbed my arm, and held me down, against the trunk so I could not move.

Something tinkled on the lawn outside, Billy’s tricycle bell.

I screamed for him to come, and could hear the wheels approaching then moving away. Poor Billy! “You must never, never come in here.” I had said, when I claimed my special place, now I was calling him. What could a four year old do?

“Ssh— we don’t want the little man here.”

“Billy!” I choked on the shriek as a big, dirty hand went over my mouth and I could not breathe.

There was a rustle in the branches. It was not Billy who answered my scream, but Mr Andersen.

“Go inside Betsy,” he said sharply, pulling Lyle out of the way. I scrambled past them and ran up to the house where I rushed into my room and slammed the door. I buried my face in the pillow and sobbed.

When Mrs Andersen called me out for lunch I was very relieved that Lyle was not there. I must have looked awful, but no one asked any questions, and when I choked over my food Mrs Anderson gave me a hug and took the plate away.

I went back to my room and wished I could cuddle my doll, but she was still under the mulberry tree and I knew I could never go back, not even for my beloved Jessica Jane.

There was a gentle knock on the door and a quiet, “Betsy girl!”

It was Mr Andersen. He had collected both my book and doll, and as he gave them to me I remembered how he had come earlier, just when I needed him most, and suddenly I felt safe again. I snuggled contentedly into my bed and lost myself in Enid Blyton’s world.

Mr Andersen worked all afternoon, in the garden under my window. “We must get those tomatoes planted,” he said to his wife, and I heard her murmur agreement before she went inside.

By the end of the day he had made a trench, a little longer and wider than my bed, and he must have got up early the next day, because, before I had my breakfast he had the hole filled in, with good, soft garden soil.

But where was Lyle?

He did not come back to the house. For a couple of days I expected him, and shivered whenever a door slammed, or a branch rubbed against the window but when he did not appear by the end of the week, I began to trust Mrs Andersen when she said: “That Lyle’s gone for good this time.”

Then the policemen came in their big car. There were two of them, standing at the front door asking for Lyle, and they did not sound friendly.

Mr Andersen told them his brother had moved—no, he did not know where—and yes, he would let them know if the man came back.

The policemen did not believe him, they kept repeating the same questions, and one of them took Mrs Andersen outside, as if he thought she had something different to say. They did not look at the tomato plants standing, like a rank of guards, in the new garden bed.

“Your brother will certainly not come back,” Mrs Andersen said again, as the police car drove away. “Good riddance to him.” How could she be so sure when even the policemen thought he would turn up?

“Better water those tomatoes, eh love?” Mr Andersen said grinning, and I looked at the oblong mound of earth.

Our grandmother died, our parents returned, and Billy and I went home. I tried very hard to forget about Lyle, but sometimes, in my nightmares, I was back in the Andersen’s garden, with great hands reaching up, out of the dirt, to grab me, and, when I woke up, I stuffed the blanket into my mouth to smother my screams. And I developed allergies; as my mother said: “just the smell of a tomato can make Betsy ill.”

Now, as my brother talked, the memories came back. “Quite a mystery man, our Lyle,” he said, “I always thought he’d met a sticky end.” I tried to steady myself as the room swayed around me, Bill’s words pushing into my head. “But it seems he was conning some old girl—got his hands on her money and took off. I met her son. He said Old Andersen followed it up—and made good the loss. He was a corker bloke, Old Andersen.”

He certainly was. The room stopped spinning, my breath came easily, and as I felt the cool air on my face I knew that if I had a dish of juicy red tomatoes I could eat them all.

pencil

E-mail: robinhillard[at]ozemail.com.au.