Man on a Wharf

Man on a Wharf – Story 3

The Drums

by Chalky MacLaan

Pushing through one last dense wall of foliage, Harold reached the edge of the cliff. The escarpment fell away before him, its grey face covered in mildew and moss. He found a comfortable spot in the shade of a frangipani tree and sat.

Taking a long swig of brandy from a battered hip flask, he looked out at the harbour below. He tried to count the ships, but as usual, he lost count after thirty.

Harold sighed and leant against a tree. It was hot. The air was heavy with moisture and walking felt like swimming.

Wiping his brow with a hanky, he thought of home: dry old Adelaide. It was only two months ago that he’d said goodbye to his wife and boy to head north, but it felt like years.

Ever since the war had started, Harold had been desperate to join the army. His was a ‘necessary job’; “Keeping the lines of communication open,” was what the admissions officer kept repeating on his daily visits. When his old boss had told him about the position up in Darwin, he took it on the spot. That way he could be closer to the action, where his countrymen were fighting the Japs like heroes.

Peering out over the precipice, Harold could just see a group of soldiers heading towards the wharf on the road below. He shut his eyes as he felt the mute drumming of guilt in his chest.

Heroes! Harold was definitely no hero. He had been running from things all his life. Twenty-eight years ago he’d run. He’d hid. When he had been needed, he’d hid behind a thin veneer of an excuse: principles, pacifism; pathetic! He’d just been scared. Since then, the tickle of the coward’s white feather had been there to colour every element of his life.

Harold had been sneaking away from the office every morning since the new telegraph supervisor had arrived. He was supposed to be available during the day to fix the equipment if it failed but the new bloke liked to do his own repairs. Periodically, Harold would go back and check in, but he was never needed. Some of the day he spent chatting with the girls but he got the impression that he was getting in the way.

With the sound of bees buzzing in the flowers nearby, Harold looked at his watch. It was almost ten o’clock: time to go and reconfirm his obsolescence back at the office.  As he sat up, he snorted out a laugh. He really had thought that coming to Darwin would make him feel better, justified, something. Instead, the uniforms that surrounded him made him ache with rheumatism of the heart. Hell, even his new boss was a veteran.

The bees buzzed louder. Perhaps he had disturbed a hive.

Getting to his feet, Harold looked around to see if he could spot the source of the ever increasing sound. It was coming from the north, beyond the city. The buzz grew to a deep rhythmic thrum and then to a roar that echoed like a thousand thunder cracks.

Harold fell to his backside as a small aeroplane appeared from nowhere and whooshed by, close, overhead. He put his hands up and shielded his eyes as two more planes flew past. They were military aircraft.

The sky filled with planes which fanned off from the main group in all directions. Harold lay back, frozen in wonder, watching.

Then, he heard the drums – Boom! Boom! Boom! – A never ending syncopated rhythm that turned Harold cold and would forevermore fill him with terror every time he heard his own heartbeat.

Sitting up and looking out at the harbour, Harold’s face went pale. Several ships were burning: warships, fishing boats, even one clearly marked with a large red cross. People were running from the wharf, a great wave of bodies spilling out from the rising smoke, when, out of nowhere, a plane dived and the crowd exploded.

Turning away, Harold was sick in the bushes. He stayed bent over for a minute, trying to control his breathing.

A whistling sound woke him from his trance just before he was thrown forward into the foliage. With the cliff face crumbling behind him, Harold ran. He ran through the trees and then ran through the open. “I must get to the shelter,” he repeated to himself as he flew past government house.

Running onto Mitchell Street, he heard cries coming from a burning building to his right, but he kept running.

He could see the post office and the entrance to the air raid shelter. His chest constricted at the thought of safety and he ran even faster. Was that one of the girls waving at him from the door?

Without warning, the road rippled like some great being was shaking the wrinkles out of it and then it melted away. Brightness and heat hurled itself against him and he was thrown, tumbling backwards into a wall. Crying out, Harold rubbed his eyes, trying to clear them. All he could see was red.

Sirens and people wailed; planes and flames roared; and soldiers and bombs shrieked all around him as Harold scrambled to his feet and felt his way along a wall, taking shelter from the heat in an alleyway.

Panting, Harold brought out his hip flask. He drank every last drop and sank to his knees, tears streaming down his filthy face. The image of the girl waving at him, only a minute before, repeated in his mind. Opening his eyes, he squinted at the wall. Objects wavered in and out of focus as his vision started to return.

Maybe the shelter had survived? Maybe the others were safe? Pulling himself up and leaning against the corner, Harold peered out at the post office. Through the dancing flames and the clearing dust he could see nothing but ruins. It was gone; the office, the shelter: all gone. Ghostly remnants of brick walls framed a scene of utter destruction. A small tear meandered down his sooty cheek.

His leg throbbing, he crawled back into the shelter of the alley and hid. Men cried out, screaming, imploring, begging for help. The alleyway amplified and distorted their howls in a great cacophony of torment. His body shuddering, Harold put his arms over his head and blocked his ears with his shoulders.  He sank forward, his head hitting against the wall. There he stayed until the silence.

It was done. The plague that had filled the skies was going. The small strip of sunlight in the alley blinked as the last plane passed over.

He had to get out of here. Harold raised himself, his face twisting in pain as he put weight on his injured leg. He limped out of the alleyway, gathering determination with each step.

As he reached the road, he broke into a lopsided jog, pain shooting up his side. Dodging wreckage and debris, Harold headed North-West along Mitchell Street, towards the edge of the city. He kept his head down and tried to keep his pace up, praying that his leg would hold.

Spilling out of doorways on either side of the road, people threw their belongings into cars and onto trucks, shouting to one another. Others joined the growing crowd on foot in their exodus from the city centre, pushing into the flow.

Ahead, near the edge of town, a bombed building had spilled its walls into the street, narrowing the access. Trucks and pedestrians were all crowding to get past.

Harold pushed forward, bumping against a tall man. The man turned, his wrinkled face twisted in anger.

“Watch it mate!” he growled. Harold stumbled sideways and slipped on some loose stones. He scrabbled, trying to stand up, but the crowds pushing past made it impossible to get his footing. He reached out for something solid and pulled himself up onto a piece of wall. Sighing with relief, he turned to watch the crowd shuffle past.

“Help!”

The cry was only faint. Where was it coming from?

Harold looked around. He heard it again. It was coming from the ruins.

Looking between the road and the building, Harold was torn. He wanted to get away, but with his leg, he realised he was not going to be able to get past the crowd and rubble for some time.  With a sigh, Harold crawled over the piles of bricks and carefully lowered himself into the room.

“Hello?” he called into the darkness.

His call was answered by a moan. Moving further into the darkness, his eyes started to adjust, the light from the hole in the wall creating a ghostly twilight. He thought he could make out a bar and stools surrounded by a rippling sea of broken glass.

Ahead of him, in the middle of the floor, Harold could just make out a shape. As he approached, the shape started to take form. His chest constricted as he saw the lifeless, grey face of a man, blood seeping through his apron. Harold swallowed.

He could hear heavy breathing now. It was coming from the other side of the bar, under the collapsed section of roof.

“Are you alright?” he croaked, his mouth dry in the swirling dust.

“I’m stuck!” came the reply; the voice sounded foreign.

Moving as quickly as he could, Harold approached the source of the voice. He crouched down and peered into the tangle of iron and wood.

There he was. He was young and dressed in civilian clothes, but his haircut marked him as a soldier.

“Thank God!” he groaned, with an American twang. “Get me out of here!” His eyes were enormous in his pale, frightened face.

Harold squeezed into the confined space and moved next to the man. The American’s left arm and leg were pinned down under a ceiling beam.

Getting a firm grip, Harold braced to lift the beam. A sharp pain from his leg made him pause and then, his face pulled tight, he strained with all his strength and lifted the beam a fraction. The American rolled over and pulled his trapped limbs free. The way the man’s arm moved as he rolled, Harold could tell that it was broken, but the rest of him looked fine.

“Thanks!” said the American, his face twitching. He slid and crawled his way out of the pile toward the hole in the wall.

Anxious to get out as well, Harold started after him. He stopped suddenly as a bolt of pain shot up his leg, temporarily paralysing him. Breathing deeply, trying to rid himself of the pain, Harold tried to move again.

Creak! The pile of rubble above him groaned in expectation.

His heart racing now, Harold lurched backwards, bumping a beam with his elbow.

The pile shuddered and with little more than a scraping sound, fell inward. Harold shut his eyes as he felt the weight pushing down on his body.

Realising that his head was still free, he screamed, hoping the American could hear him. But his cries settled like dust to the floor of the empty pub, unheard and unheeded, as the drumming returned.

 

Author’s Note:

This week’s story makes quite a departure from the style and subject matter of the previous weeks’ work. I wanted to write a piece of historical fiction with a complex central character. This, I found quite a challenging task and until Mrs MacLaan read it, I wasn’t even sure it was good enough to publish online. She assured me that it was and I hope you’ll agree.

This story is actually the prologue to a novel that I would like to write one day. It would be mainly set in South Australia during the Second World War and would focus primarily on Harold’s wife and son. Ever since I came up with the idea for the story in the mid-2000s, I have wanted to start the story with the bombing of Darwin.

The events of 19th February 1942 are very important to Australia and its history as it was the “first and the largest single attack mounted by a foreign power on Australia” (Wikipedia, 2014). The bombing was melodramatically portrayed in Baz Luhrmann’s  2008 blockbuster Australia. However, as spectacular as the special effects were, I felt disappointed by the depiction; not least because I planned to show it much more accurately it in my story. For this reason, over the last few years, I have been doing quite a bit of research.

We visited Darwin two years ago and I had the opportunity to tour important sites and visit museums dedicated to the bombings. One photo I had taken at the military museum of a map of the bombing sites was particularly useful to me. During our visit, I was quite taken with the cliffs overlooking the harbour. I had never imagined Darwin to have such striking geography, considering the surrounding countryside is almost entirely flat. When I needed a spectacular location from which my protagonist could witness the destruction, it was foremost in my mind. I hope you will forgive me for keeping my character back from the actual wharf!

I hope my portrayal was as accurate as it could be. I apologise if I have made any mistakes. I particularly want to acknowledge the real postal and telegraph workers who died that day. Many of their relatives are still alive and I have tried to be respectful in my references to them.

I want to thank those who follow this blog and go out of their way each week to read my posts. Hopefully, you are enjoying travelling with me on my writing journey.

Happy reading!

 

Works Cited:

Wikipedia, 2014. Bombing of Darwin. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Darwin
[Accessed 6 April 2014].

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Old Stories

Old Stories – Inside

Author’s Note:

This week, I’m going back to my high school days. I wrote a fifty word short story for a year eleven English assignment in 2000. All 250 of us had to write one and then a winner was chosen. To my great surprise, my story was the winner.

Little did I know that not only did I win the competition but I also won myself a nemesis…

Sitting on the other side of the gymnasium as the winners were read out was a tall, dark, slightly sinister looking student who had coveted the award for himself. “Who is this new-comer, this upstart, who has usurped my throne of literary greatness?” he snarled to himself, twisting his long fingers together. “I shall, from this day, call him Macklin… My mortal enemy!” A dry cackle was said to have come forth from his very depths, chilling many spines.

Well… something like that. I didn’t actually meet him until the following year, when we were in a year 12 English class together. We got along pretty well really. Apparently, he and his friends had built quite a mythology surrounding this ‘Macklin’ character and I was surprised that until he told me about it, I hadn’t been aware that I had a nemesis. However, I liked the idea and it stuck.

Anyway, the criteria for the story was simple: Write a short story in fifty words exactly. Here it is…

Inside

By Chalky MacLaan

She was alone. The huge walls surrounded her on all
sides. To the left, through a little door, was the future and
to the right was the past. The light faded as a crimson clad
man stepped forward and towered above her,
saying, “The museum will close in two minutes.”

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Man on a Wharf

Man on a Wharf – Story 2

Camera Obscura

by Chalky MacLaan

My head was spinning in an alcoholic daze as I turned my van out of the pub car park. I switched the radio on and headed towards the back road that meanders between old dockside warehouses. Their great, crumbling edifices towered either side like the walls of a canyon.

As I entered the abyss, what was left of the moonlight was extinguished. I squinted ahead, trying to see the road, the van’s headlights barely reaching a few metres. I flicked the high beams on. As I did so, the stupid cheap-arsed reversing camera screen flashed on, its wireless transmitter mistakenly brought to life with the brief change in current.

The screen’s brightness temporarily blinded me. The van swerved sharply as I hit a pot hole. I over corrected and the van drifted as if it were on ice. I swore to myself as I regained control.

“Fricken’ camera!” I thought, as it flickered back to black.

I had installed the camera a year earlier when my first grandkid had just started walking. The missus was worried that I’d run over the little tacker when I was reversing, so I bought the cheapest one I could find and installed it myself – anything for a quiet life!

It kept turning on for no reason and sometimes it would randomly show footage from other wireless cameras that I drove past: an empty driveway, the inside of an Indian supermarket or the inside of a store room where a couple of teenagers were getting friendly with each other.

With the van back under control, I thought I’d better take it a bit more carefully. I was not likely to run into any cops out here, but it was not unheard of for a patrol to do a quick sweep of the docks. One more offence and I’d lose my licence. My days of delivering parcels on my treadly were long behind me.

A pain in my bladder suddenly made me wince. I really needed to pee. I pulled to the kerb, switched off the radio and killed the engine. Stepping out into the complete darkness, the silence whistled past my ears as if all sound were being sucked into a vacuum.

As my eyes started to adjust, I noticed an alleyway fifty metres or so behind my van. I jogged to it, the sound of my footsteps like the drumming of a heartbeat. As I turned into the alleyway, I felt the hairs on my arms stand on end as a cold sea breeze brushed my skin.

When I had relieved myself against a wall, I turned back to the van. I could just make out its white bulk against the darkness.

It was then that I heard a sound. It was a faint, high wailing…. moaning… screaming? What the hell was it? A cat? Or…

The sound faded, the last remnants of it being carried off by the breeze. I waited to see if it returned, but it didn’t.

Fear took hold of me and I sprinted for the van. Despite my gut and age, I made it in a few seconds. I swung myself into the driver’s seat and locked the door. I sat for a moment, hyperventilating, wondering what to do. Should I go and see what’s wrong? Should I call the police and risk losing my licence? I decided to just go home. “It was probably nothing anyway,” I told myself.

I switched the headlights back on as I reached for the keys. I started to turn the engine over when the monitor flickered again. Static filled the tiny screen and then, all at once, a scene appeared that made my heart skip a beat.

A man was bending over what appeared to be a naked body. Thick black rivulets meandered out in all directions like demented sunbeams, disappearing off screen.

The man stood up, his beanied head coming close to the lens. He blocked the body from view completely, but it was clear that he held a large, bloody butcher’s knife in his right hand. He seemed to survey his handiwork for a few moments and then he bent down, grabbed the body and dragged it off screen. I studied the screen, trying to see the body as it went past the camera but the picture was fuzzy and the contrast too bright. What I could see now was a trail of liquid smearing the tiles.

Despite the chill, sweat started to drip from my brow. I leant down to the ignition, thought again, and grabbed for my phone. I held it for a moment in my slippery palm, went to press a button and stopped. I couldn’t ring the cops, they’d never believe me. I couldn’t leave either. Suppose the murderer heard me start the van and came out brandishing a shotgun or something? My hands started shaking.

On the screen, the man could be seen walking back through the room, his gumboots distorting the black ooze on the floor. Then, the screen went dark as the light in the room was extinguished. Maybe the man was leaving? I froze with horror, “What if he came outside and saw me here?”

As silently as I could, I pushed the door open and staggered to the asphalt. As I squinted across the road, looking for a hiding place, two beams of light appeared from a side street a hundred metres ahead of the van. “It’s him,” I told myself, “run!”

I ducked around behind the van, and using it as cover, ran back to the alleyway. I threw myself around the corner, the stench of piss hitting me as I crouched down.

I could hear the engine of the vehicle as it came nearer. I held my breath and prayed to the god of shadows that the murderer wouldn’t see me. Even though the corner hid me from sight, I looked down, afraid my eyes might reflect a stray beam of light.

After what felt like hours, the vehicle roared past and shot off into the night.

I exhaled and leant back against the wall with relief. He was gone and I was safe. Feeling the dampness of piss starting to seep into my windcheater, I stood up and strode to my van.

When I had almost reached it, I stopped and looked up the road toward the spot where the headlights had emerged. What if the body was still alive? It had only been a couple of minutes; there could still be a chance. Now that my initial panic was gone, I was starting to think about the poor bugger in that warehouse, in agony and alone.

Shutting my eyes and taking a deep breath, I gathered my courage. I went to the back of the van and retrieved an old torch. It wavered slightly as I switched it on and then it settled into a steady glow. I turned its beam up the road and followed it. The darkness at its edges was total.

Just up the road and around the corner, I found a set of double doors standing slightly apart. I put my ear to the cold corrugated iron and listened. I could hear nothing but the creaking of old wood and the distant splashing of water. I pushed against one half of the door. It opened with a sharp creak.

I stepped through the gap and shone the torch around. The warehouse was huge. It was so big that the torch beam couldn’t penetrate the gloom. Running my hand along the wall, I turned to my left and, stepping carefully over rusted machine parts, made my way to one end of the building where I found a row of doors.

I shone my light inside the first door, pushing the door open with my foot. It was an empty office.

I tried two more doors and they were both empty too.

The fourth room was different. Its door was open wide. From the darkness inside wafted a metallic odour carried on cold air. I felt like I was being brushed all over by invisible fingertips as I stepped into the room. I kept my torch down low near my feet, fearing to lift it too soon.

With every footstep, time seemed to slow and it felt like an eternity until my torch fell upon the tiles at the opposite end of the room. “Maybe there‘s nothing in here after all,” I considered, lifting the torch with new found confidence. I shone the spotlight to the left and… It was like some grotesque parody of an abstract painting. Blood smears, sprays and stains covered the floor and wall.

I stepped forward and quickly scanned the torchlight back and forth across the room, my breathing quick and light. Where was the body?

In one pass of the light, near the door, I noticed a table covered in objects. I moved closer to inspect them. At one end was the butcher’s knife. At the other were various tools, one of which looked like a power saw. My bowels turned to water. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t.

I tried to think, to decide what to do, but a persistent humming sound was making my mind shaky with confusion. I did another sweep of the room with my beam and in the furthest corner saw a steel plated door, a trail of red smears leading to its base.

I froze as a roar of creaking metal filled the air. The double doors were being opened. The murderer was coming back!

As two blinding headlights tore into the black insides of the warehouse, I decided my best chance was to run for the double doors. As I went to leave the room, I was knocked back by an assault of bright white light as the warehouse lights were turned on.

I dived for cover behind the door frame and, trying not to breathe too loudly, considered my options. The warehouse was so light that I had no chance of escaping unseen. “Maybe he won’t come in here,” I assured myself.

I listened intently for his footsteps. There they were, coming straight towards me.

I followed the blood trail towards the steel plated door. I found myself sliding and my torch skidded away from me. I heard the man’s footsteps pause and then break into a run. I scrambled to my feet, opened the door, threw myself in the room and, with a small hiss, the door shut behind me. As I stood there, trying to quell my panting, I was cold with fright. My hands out in front of me, I carefully felt my way along.

I stopped… My hands felt something cold, something sticky, something wet. I felt like chucking as I slowly backed away. I knew that texture. That was skin: Cold, clammy, dead skin.

Hiss!

The door opened. I turned to face my executioner; I had nowhere to hide.

He came towards me; I flinched. The light fell on his face as he came and suddenly I saw, not the cold eyes of a killer, but something softer.

“What are you doing?” said the man, appearing confused as I was.

I took a step backwards, bumping into the body and setting it swinging. I yelped and swung around, the light coming in the doorway illuminating the object. The beheaded pink-skinned carcass hung from a big silver hook. Behind it hung a row of other dead pigs waiting to be dissected.

“If you don’t mind,” said the man, “could you kindly bugger off? I have to get the whole lot of these ready for deliveries tomorrow.”

“Sorry mate,” I said and I slunk off to my van.

As I pulled away from the curb, my heart only just settling back into its old rhythm, I thought about how nice a cooked breakfast would be right about now.

Author’s Note:

This week’s narrative was inspired by a true story… well, at least in part. No, I don’t drink and drive (Hey, I barely drink!) nor do I go wandering around creepy old warehouses at night.

I did, however, install a ‘cheap-arsed’ wireless reversing camera in my mum’s campervan. Sometimes, when she is staying with us, I borrow her van to get to work to give myself a precious extra half an hour’s sleep. At various points on the journey, the reversing camera screen will come alive with footage from people’s wireless security cameras: Someone’s driveway, someone’s television feed, an empty room, an Indian grocery store. I even received a feed from someone’s in-card baby monitor camera one time. This experience gave me the premise for this story.

In this week’s story, I really wanted to experiment with a first person narrative. In the past, my least successful stories have been from a first person perspective and I wanted to give it another go. I always had trouble sustaining a voice different from my own. With the help of the wonderful Mrs MacLaan and her editing prowess, I think I was able to created an interesting and consistent voice.

Also, at school this week, I introduced my year eleven students to the concept of the ‘unreliable’ narrator. I had a lot of fun using this technique to help make my story and its twist reasonably credible.

The ‘mystery/suspense/thriller with a twist ending’ genre is one of my favourites, so I was really looking forward to writing this story. I found my method acting skills from drama school helpful when I was trying to create suspense and build fear and panic into my character. So much so that when my mother in law walked past the window while I was writing one night, I jumped a mile and almost needed a new pair of underpants. She thought it was hilarious.

Happy reading!

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Old Stories

Old Stories – Sticks and Stones

Author’s Note:

While you wait for the next instalment in the Man on a Wharf series, I thought I’d share an old story that I wrote nine years ago. I wrote Sticks and Stones in 2005 when I was taking a creative writing course at Flinders University as part of my Bachelor of Arts.

As I’m sure will be the case with the stories on this blog, some of my stories are better than others. Of the ten or so stories that I wrote, this story received the most praise from my classmates and tutor.

I think what made this story special was that it was autobiographical. I grew up in country South Australia and was an outsider for many reasons. Like the child in the story, I was bullied frequently. While the bullying was quite horrendous at times, I was blessed to have amazing parents who taught me to forgive my enemies and who created a safe environment at home.

Bullying and its potential negative consequences is such a big issue these days. Everyone has a theory on how it should be handled: From retaliation through to reporting. Unfortunately, you can’t change other people. Bullying, while it can be improved, will never be completely eliminated.

I wanted to show how, despite the terrible things that others can do to you, you don’t need to wear that all of your life. If you have a safe place to go to, loving friends and family of your own, then you can cope with just about anything.

If you like this story, it is available for free as an ebook from itunes and smashwords.

Sticks and Stones
by Chalky MacLaan

I pick it up quickly, my bag that is. I look around the room at my classmates, they are all talking. Talking, talking, talking to each other in groups. Groups of monkeys, they seem like. Monkeys, picking each other’s nits. They are so involved in each others’ lives, so interconnected with one another. It makes me sick to be here on the outside of the group, looking in and wishing that I was not here, on the outside. It makes me sick, so sick I’m leaving now.

I walk through the porch of the old, wooden classroom that has been here, in this school, for decades, gradually wasting away in the scorching outback sun. I walk outside and feel that same scorching sun hit my face. It feels like someone has just thrown me into a furnace and dropped an anvil on my head at the same moment. I shake my head to throw these images away and scamper to the bike shed, where I need to be before the older boys catch sight of me. I scarcely look around, but I’m pretty sure that the boys aren’t there, because I can’t hear their taunts. I can’t hear the taunts that I so often think about, dream about, cry about. All I can hear is the birds; the whistle of the north wind in the tall, deformed trees that have been growing in asphalt since forever; and children, younger than myself, singing as they are being led towards the line of yellow school busses, beyond the staffroom. I long for the sound of cars, busses, motorbikes, trains, planes and every other sound that represents a place that is not this town, this prison, as I like to call it.

I unlock my bike from the bike shed. No-one else has to lock their bike up, only me. And still a bike lock does not guarantee that my tyres will be fully inflated when I ride home in the afternoon. Today, however, my tyres are fine. I sometimes wish that I could fill my tyres with a gas that, when let out by one of the older kids, would magically transform them into a person who is different than the norm, like me. Or at least expose the fact that all of the other kids are not clones of each other as they pretend to be, but individuals.

I start to ride. I ride fast, I ride hard, I ride home. It’s not far to home, only down this street, around the corner and down that street. It seems easy enough. I turn the corner, only to be confronted with a nightmare: A nightmare of red. Their red, sunburned necks fade into the red of their short hair, with no distinction. I’m scared. It’s the older kids. I can see my house, I can see it. But the way is blocked. I have to ride on. Ride on through the red sea.

They’ve seen me now. I can’t turn back. They bend down to the ground, down to the dusty, dirty ground, as I ride past, fast and at last they’re behind me. But wait for it. Thunk. It hit my wheel. Thunk. It hit my bag. Thunk. It hit my head. The rocks came flying. And so did those taunts.

Thunk. “You fat wombat.”

Thunk. “Go back to the city.”

Thunk. “That’s for your dad, you freak.”

The bike kicks up the dust and it mixes with the tears that start to fall down my cheeks. The responses to these taunts, flow freely around my head, but I’m always going to be too scared to voice them. I am now out of their range, until the time comes when they devise freak-seeking missiles. I turn into my drive and dump the bike on the lawn. I wipe the mud from my cheeks, take a deep breath and go inside. As I enter, I step out of the furnace, and the anvil is taken from me. It is cool, and there is a nice smell of biscuits or cake or something in the air.

The assault continues as I walk to my front door. I look out the window and see the older boys still hurling rocks. But it is quieter now. Muffled by the walls of the house, I only hear a soft: Tick. Tick. Tick. My mum comes up behind me. She puts her hand on my shoulder. I smile. From here, through the window, they are exposed as the buffoons they are. Their red faces, their red necks, the red dust that makes them cough. They look ridiculous. I laugh. They can’t get me in here, this is my house, this is my zone. Here I am not different. Here I can be the city-loving, slightly overweight, son of a teacher that I am.

The tick, tick, tick of the rocks dies down as the boys get bored and walk off. It’s over for today. I shut the curtain and get on with my life.

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Cover image: David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Man on a Wharf

Man on a Wharf – Story 1

Something in the Air

by Chalky MacLaan

Barnaby Jenkins moved his backside to try and find a more comfortable position, but that only made it worse. It felt like there was a whole brass band marching around his insides.

“Mr Jenkins, do you mind ceasing your acrobatics,” barked Miss Fondley.

Miss Fondley reminded Barnaby of a koala. They’re not actually cute and cuddly; rather, they are pudgy, emit a strange grunting sound and have a nasty temper.

Barnaby’s stomach started to rumble. The sound vibrated through the silent classroom like a small swarm of bees. While everyone’s heads remained down, feigning concentration, twenty seven pairs of eyes rotated in Barnaby’s direction.

A small snigger erupted from behind him. He stole a quick glance and, face reddening, saw Sonya Henley laughing.

Sonya Henley was, quite simply, the most exquisite, splendid, stunning, appealing, dazzling and downright hot creature Barnaby had ever laid eyes on. In her amber eyes flickered a flame so bright it melted Barnaby to the core every time she shoved him out of her way. Her copper coloured hair always fell in cascades down her back as she sashayed away from him with his lunch money.

The giggle spread gradually around the back of the room like some sort of epidemic, and as it did so, Barnaby’s embarrassment turned to anger.

Miss Fondley growled and the giggling ceased.

Why did everyone have to be so mean? Another pang in his gut made him forget his anger. If felt like someone had just switched on an industrial strength mixer down there.

He tried to read the questions in his text book, but nothing could distract him from his stomach’s gurgling.

From somewhere behind him, one of the boys made a squelching sound. Trying to ignore it, Barnaby silently wished that school would finish early so he could be alone with his stomach full of noxious gas.

The mocking squelch resumed. Barnaby had had enough. He turned around sharply and…

The sound was incredible. It started with a small whizzing whine like a mosquito with ADHD and gradually built into a sound like a thousand croaking frogs flying helicopters. It then settled momentarily into a throaty roar and… poof… it was gone.

The room was silent. No one moved. Barnaby held his breath.

Then, Miss Fondley picked up her newspaper, folded it, stuffed it into her little brown bag and marched out the door, grunting, “Class dismissed!”

Without so much as a look in Barnaby’s direction, everyone else followed closely behind, leaving him alone in the room.

Barnaby looked around, not quite believing what had just happened. He sniffed the thick air, a look of disgust only vaguely masking one of pride at the musty funk hanging in the air.

Barnaby sat in his seat staring numbly towards the window. “I got my wish,” he thought.

When, after ten minutes the class hadn’t returned, Barnaby decided to leave too. He started towards the door and suddenly stopped short. “What if…” The idea was too bizarre to consider.

*     *     *

Barnaby sidled up to the crowded bus stop. Not wanting to be too conspicuous, he put his headphones in, turned around and let himself become lost in the beat of his music.

Thump!

Barnaby snapped quickly from his trance as something slammed into his head.

Thump!

He spun around to see another rock come flying. Barnaby dodged and it grazed his cheek. Tony, a tall, red-faced boy with ears like shrivelled lemon quarters and mean eyes snickered from the other side of the bus shelter, fresh dust falling from his palms in little billows.

His head smarting, cheeks blushing and heart pumping, Barnaby did his best to remain calm as he hailed the approaching bus. He climbed aboard, hunting for his ticket.

The doors hissed shut. Barnaby’s stomach lurched as the bus pulled out quickly into traffic. He felt that old tingle deep within. He struggled to  hold back tears.

“Oi, mate,” whined the bus driver, his eyes swinging dangerously away from the road, “show us yer ticket.”

The ticket was gone. “I just wish that something good would happen for a change,” thought Barnaby.

The driver’s eyes shot back to the front as he slammed on the brake. The bus swerved sharply and… urr-tuurr-puurble-urble-weeeeiiiit! Barnaby’s gas escaped in a squeaky stream as he flew sideways against the door like a deflating balloon.

“Hey… Darn’t worry about the ticket, mate,” cawed the driver, looking remarkably calm considering he had almost sent thirty-four unwitting people to their premature deaths, “the roide’s free. Youse have a good day, eh!”

“Thanks,” murmured Barnaby as looked up the aisle to see every seat occupied.

A rotund lady in a red blouse reached out with her wet satiny hands and grabbed Barnaby.

“You can have my seat, love,” she slobbered as she manoeuvred her mass out of the seat. Barnaby tried to refuse, but she moved quickly past him.

The man next to her also sprang up. “Have the whole seat. You’ve had a hard day; I can see,” he reassured as he disappeared into the back of the crowded bus.

Barnaby sat down, flabbergasted. It was as if his wish had come true: Good things had happened to him. He then remembered the wish he made in class that had also come true. Did he have a magic genie-god-mother? Was he magic? Was it all a coincidence? He decided to experiment.

He wished for a drink.

Nothing happened.

This time he wished that the balding man across the aisle would shout out a random phrase in German.

Still, nothing happened.

Another intestinal groan interrupted his thoughts. “That’s it!” he thought as he started lifting the left side of his derriere ever so slightly off the seat. An apprehensive strain flashed across Barnaby’s face as he silently let go.

It dispersed quickly, wafting down the aisle. Barnaby wished whimsically with all his might.

He wished for a fish,
He wished for a dish,
He wished for a tune
and a shiny spoon and…

Immediately, his fellow passengers presented him with a tin of tuna, a plastic bowl, a spoon and a rousing rendition of ‘Somewhere Beyond the Sea’ in four part harmony.

Barnaby’s face froze. Thoughts whizzed into his mind like metal filings to a magnet as he thought of all of the things he could do. He’d never have to eat dried apricots again. He wouldn’t ever have to pick up dog poop off the lawn. He would be able to teach Tony and the rest of the boys in his class a thing or two. And Sonya, well…

Barnaby pressed the ‘stop’ button, jumped out and charged home to consume every tin of baked beans in the house.

*     *     *

It wasn’t the video about seasickness at the maritime museum that had made Barnaby feel ill. Nor was it the hot, summer sun or the colossal volume of baked beans that he had consumed the night before. He was nervous.

He looked ahead along the old cobbled street and caught a glimpse of Sonya sidestepping a bollard with a grace reserved only for angels. Barnaby’s heart beat faster as he jogged to catch up with the rest of the class.

They turned a corner and there it was: the lighthouse; perched on the edge of a river wharf, its bright red paint and spider web of supporting struts captivating in the bright sunlight.

“Jenkins! Hurry up!” snorted Miss Fondley. Everyone turned and stared as he caught up.

“Just two up at a time. Jenkins, you’re first. Who’s going with him?” The birds stopped their twittering and the wind its whistling, it was so quiet. However, for once in his life, this did not bother Barnaby one bit. With a quiet wish and an almost inaudible hiss, Barnaby walked forward.

“I will!” said a voice that sounded like the swish of velvet mixed with the tinkle of wind chimes. Barnaby kept walking as Sonya glided into the lighthouse behind him.

As they ascended the spiralling stairs, the air was a little bit heavier that it might usually have been.

“I like your shirt!” said Sonya, trying to squeeze beside Barnaby on the narrow stair.

“It’s just my school uniform. I wear it every day,” Barnaby replied, a self-satisfied smirk crossing his face.

“I think you have lovely hair. Can I please sit next to you on the way home? You are so smart!” Compliments spilled out of Sonya’s mouth like a waterfall, making him buoyant with confidence.

Arriving at the top, Barnaby stepped gingerly onto the balcony, gripping the guard rail for support and trying not to look down. Sonya joined him, her eyes on Barnaby’s.

Then, he felt it. It happened rapidly this time, his lower body expanding with gas until the point at which he thought he must’ve looked to Sonya like a bloated pear. Those beans were doing their job exceedingly well. He stood on his toes, squeezing tight, trying to hold it in as he made his wish. “I wish she’d kiss me.”

Squinting one eye, he slowly lowered his feet. As he did so, the most amazing, spine-tingling, hair-raising noise came forth from deep within Barnaby. It sang and echoed like whale song. The lighthouse creaked with nostalgia as a deep foghorn element entered the cacophony. And then, it ceased, the last remnants of sound being carried off across the wharf by the breeze.

Sonya moved close to Barnaby. The flame in her eyes burned bright as she moved in for the kiss. Barnaby leaned towards her, not quite knowing what to do. As their lips met, Barnaby was surprised at how wet they felt against his own flaky lips.

They stood there in that manner for what seemed like an eternity, noses squashed into each other’s cheeks, lips locked, when Barnaby noticed Miss Fondley staring at the back of Sonya’s head, her marsupial face twisted with murderous intent.

Miss Fondley pushed Sonya aside and grabbed Barnaby around the back of the neck. Barnaby braced himself and squeezed his eyes shut as Miss Fondley planted a kiss firmly on his mouth. Barnaby twisted out from her grip and started to run around the landing, trying to find a way out.

“Come here, beautiful,” croaked Miss Fondley.

Then, Barnaby noticed a tremor. He looked over the side of the platform and his face froze in horror. Streaming from every direction, women of all shapes and sizes were headed towards the lighthouse. They looked like an army charging a besieged castle, except on their faces was a look of expectant urgency. Barnaby saw one elderly woman, her spectacles crooked and hair wild, jump on a teenage girl and tackle her to the ground.

Suddenly, onto the balcony burst a wave of women, clawing and fighting their way towards Barnaby. He ran, trying to find an escape, when, in front of him, another group emerged. He was surrounded.

The women advanced, their lips pursed, their hands outstretched, grabbing, trying to touch him. He was grabbed by both groups and dragged to the floor.

“No!” he cried out, fighting to free himself. But he was pinned down, fifty jets of warm panting breath making him gag.

He made one desperate movement and managed to flip himself over. In this position, he was able to raise himself slightly and commando crawl out from under the pile of grasping bodies. He hauled himself onto the small ledge above. He fell back, out of sight, panting.

He tried to make a wish, but he was all out of gas.

It was what felt like an hour, but was really only sixty seconds, before he felt the old rumbles in his tum.

Barnaby made his wish, lowered his pants, and hanging his backside out over the railing for maximum effect, he let fly.

Author’s Note:

As you may have gathered, the genre of this piece is tween boy fiction. I realise that it may not be a genre that you have read in a while and that it doesn’t really appeal to the sense of humour of most sophisticated readers. If you have got this far and are still reading, thank you for suspending your disbelief and temporarily becoming a young person. Given that so many young boys don’t want to read (I know – I teach them), I feel that it is important that stories are written in this genre.

I was very excited when I came up with the idea of a boy who could control others with his farts. I felt this would appeal to the target audience and is the kind of premise a tween writer like Andy Griffiths or Paul Jennings might use.

It is a great premise and posed many questions, the most interesting of which, for me, was: ‘If a tween boy was given the power to control others, what would he use it for?’ I decided that he probably wouldn’t use it for world domination or creating a slave race, but rather to solve his immediate tweenage problems: getting out of boring chores, getting revenge on bullies and getting the love of his life to notice him.

I was also inspired by Roald Dahl to include a sense of comic poetic justice in the story. Barnaby doesn’t get away with abusing his power over others, ending up even more isolated than he was before. As they say: ‘With great fart comes great responsibility’.

This idea is one that could be extended and developed extensively, opening up the possibility of a series of novels if people enjoyed this story. What other adventures could Barnaby have? Does he learn to use his powers for good? Do the other members of his family have the power too? What about his evil twin sister, what would she do with the power?

I found the process of writing this story satisfying, but I found the process of editing my own work (one which I have not had much experience before) extremely exciting. When I had finished writing, the story had 2760 words. Through six drafts, I managed to cut this down to 1976 words and the story is so much the better for it. Having a clear idea of audience and purpose made it reasonably easy to cut the story down. Anything unessential to the plot, convoluted and flowery language and many adverbs were removed to make the language more succinct.

I hope you enjoyed my first piece. Now to start the whole process again.

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Apologies

At the end of this, my first week of the Man on a Wharf challenge, I find I am already going to have to modify the task.

Last night, I finished writing my first story. I have spent my week nights writing madly, but in the meantime somewhat neglecting my occupational and parental duties and getting a little stressed in the process.

On another, but related topic, yesterday, I had the privilege of listening to two of Australia’s top children’s writers, Mem Fox and Andy Griffiths, speak at the Adelaide Writer’s Week. One of the things they highlighted as very important is the drafting process. Mem Fox is a picture book writer and she detailed how over the course of twenty or so drafts, she recently cut down a 490 word book to 360 words. That’s 27% of the story that she eliminated! Incidentally, that is exactly how much I need to remove from my first story before publishing it online.

When writing for children, it is important that the writer keeps the audience engaged by stripping down a story to its essentials. One very useful writing tip that Mem gave us was to cover the first paragraph and see if the story can still hold without it. If so, then delete it and cover the next paragraph. If it can still survive without this next paragraph, then delete that too. Continue this until you can go no further without compromising the story. This, she explained, helps to deliver the child straight into the middle of the action, without taking them through the some of the introductory nonsense or ‘throat clearing’ (as Andy called it) that we adults think we need to put at the beginning of a story.

As I have chosen to write my first story in the ‘tween boy’ genre, I would like to apply this wisdom and draft my story significantly before showing it to the world.

In addition to the above, I have thought of many writing issues about which I would like to have time to blog and won’t if I’m writing fiction every night.

Therefore, dear reader, I propose a slight change to my challenge. All rules remain the same except that I will post a new story every fortnight to give me time to fulfil life’s other duties and draft my work carefully. This will also leave me time to blog about other things in the intervening weeks.

I hope you will forgive me for this. I promise you; I am still committed to the challenge but want to remain sane in the process.

Below I have provided a little teaser photo for the first story:

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What I read:

What I read:

While you wait for my first story in the Man on a Wharf series (I promise I’ve started), I thought I’d let you know a bit about what I like to read and my literary influences.

I read quite widely for both entertainment (mainly) and literary fulfilment (occasionally). Some of my reading choices are quite embarrassing and others I am very proud of and would recommend them to others.

I also really enjoy listening to audio books and reading aloud as the beautiful nature of spoken language really becomes evident. I commute for at least two hours per day, so have plenty of time to read and listen to books.

Here are some of my favourite authors. As an Australian, I particularly recommend getting a hold of some of my Australian suggestions (Markus Zusak, Arthur Upfield, Shane Maloney, etc.).

I hope you enjoy reading books by these authors as much as I have.

Highly Recommended Influences:

  • James Lee Burke – He is one of the most poetic prose writers on the planet today. He kills the first person narrative style with his subtlety and haunted characters.
  • David Morrell – He is the master of the thriller. He weaves amazing plots; however it is his well rounded and developed characters that makes him stand out from the crowd.
  • Arthur Upfield – He brought the Australian outback to the world through the mystery pulp novel. He captures time and place expertly.
  • Raymond Chandler – One of the most witty writers of his era. His first person narrative jumps off the page from the first line.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald – Gatsby is a novel I can read over and over and still gain something new. Restrained and poetic writing.
  • Markus Zusak – The Book Thief is my favourite book in the world… Ever! Unique techniques, captivating characters, poetic language… It has it all.
  • Shane Maloney – His novels are simultaneously hilariously funny, great satire of the Australian political environment and very well written murder mysteries.
  • Lee Child – This man finds a new and mind-blowing premise for every book. A prolific and successful writer, his main character hangs around in your mind long after you’ve finished the novel.
  • Roald Dahl – Deliciously subversive children’s stories that were a staple of my literary upbringing. I love exploring his unique perspective with my school students.
  • John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men is one of the most brilliantly crafted pieces of literature. He exercises restraint whilst using many techniques. I love teaching this book to my students.

Embarrassing Influences:

  • Clive Cussler – He spins a good yarn. I particularly like the Isaac Bell stories. The historical and transportation oriented plots of these novels tickle my fancy. Plots are Cussler’s strong point.
  • Dan Brown – Causer of much controversy, he can also spin a good yarn. I like the use of conspiracy theory to capture people’s imaginations.
  • Matthew Reilly – I admire how he is able to write a book of solid entertainment. Many people come to reading through Matthew Reilly. No literary value, but a very important writer none the less. He’s also Australian.
  • Ian Fleming – Who doesn’t like a bit of sexist, misogynistic but action packed bondiness, eh?

PS – A ‘yarn’ is a term to describe a long and rambling (and often implausible) story. In Australia, it is usually a complimentary term. We use this word a bit in Australia, but I’m not sure how widely it is used everywhere else.

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