The following story is a guest post by Victoria June Norton. If you enjoy the story, check out her book “Purple, Emerald, Gold” on Amazon.
Beatrice Ellington fed the ducks on Monday. Not with bread torn from a loaf gone stale – she knew that would clog their tiny stomachs and pollute the water. Instead, she tossed them salad greens that she picked from her garden on the edge of town.
She was fiercely defensive of her garden. All things lived in a complicated bio-network of unruliness. She no longer planted or weeded and would joyfully rub her hands together if a new seedling poked its head above the untilled soil. She loved that the free growing plants attracted little creatures.
To practise her post-stroke speech in the privacy of her own home, she carefully enunciated as she spoke aloud. Like a child drilled in a spelling bee she pronounced the botanical names of things she recognised. She spoke with care, setting her face in a fixed position, so the drooping muscles that spoiled the symmetry of her face wouldn’t be so obvious.
“Eastern water dragon lizard – Physignathus lesueurii; Millipede – Ommatoiulus moreleti; Strawberry – Rosaceae Frugaria.”
Beatrice sometimes collected wild growing dandelions and milk thistles on her gait-challenged walk to the creek. On a rare day she would fling the ducks a half-cup of tangled red composting worms from the dank bin that sat near her rusted out rainwater tank.
As usual, the raucous ducks peddled across the creek to greet her, and like contestants in a dodgem car rally, they caromed off each other and onto the water’s edge. She had not named the birds, yet she recognised each one by the pattern on their faces, their rank within the group and she knew their family histories. She particularly liked a small bird with a damaged wing, an edge dweller somewhat ostracised from the group. She felt empathy within her own damaged body.
On this Monday, she threw grub-eaten spinach and gone-to-seed lettuce as far as she could into the water with her palsied left arm. She called her condition the ‘Accident’ to distance herself from owning it, this awful thing that stole so much from her.
She was rueful in the knowledge that trying to selectively feed the natives she nicknamed her ‘Blackies’, had no effect on the proliferation and distribution of the non-indigenous Muscovys and Mallards. Yet she was perversely persistent. One time she hurled a rock into the creek to frighten away the interlopers, but the swoosh and ripple made the ‘Blackies’ fly off too, and for a time she lost their trust.
She disliked the aggressive Mallards, which out-bred the natives after a few breeding seasons because they weren’t fussy who they mated with. At times she felt like being more proactive, that perhaps she would join a wild life group like WIRES, but she knew she’d never put herself out there like that. She was never comfortable with people and had always been scornful of petty social machinations. Since the Accident she distanced herself from human contact as much as she could.
On this particular Monday, at just past sun-up, Beatrice set up camp. She picked this bend in the creek because it was a place the joggers and mothers-with-prams avoided, due to the rocky path. She settled on the only seat at this part of the water’s edge, a solid concrete bench.
First she placed the linen tea towel on the seat beside her. It was the same one she used for her dishes last night, but it wasn’t really dirty. The dishes were clean weren’t they?
Next she unpacked the open wicker basket. Beatrice rubbed the handle, so smooth and shiny to her touch, and remembered her mother filling it with fragrant, fresh cut roses from the garden. A single rose bush, a Mr Lincoln, clung to a broken lattice frame and was all that remained of the dozens of prize-winning roses her mother had cultivated. The thorny bush tore at Beatrice’s tissue-thin skin, as frail as an heirloom wedding veil, so she didn’t cut the flowers anymore, she simply watched them bloom and die.
Her mother inexplicably left the family home the day after Beatrice’s sixteenth birthday, and was not heard from again. Beatrice remembered her with anger and sorrow. A ritual with a single red petal, plucked from the Lincoln and wiped gently across her cheek, mimicked the lost touch of her mother’s hand. This memory brought on sudden tears that she caught in her hands. Childlike, she wiped them against the sleeves of her dress. It wouldn’t do to show her emotions. Her father had insisted long ago that she keep her feelings in check, now a habit hard to break.
She poured herself tea and opened the greaseproof paper that wrapped her wholemeal toast.
Finally, she unclipped the little jar of strawberry jam, the last one she preserved before the Accident attacked and stole her cooking dexterity.
The Lions Club had installed the seat in memory of some community hero who died there trying to save a child from drowning. She was there when it happened, but right now she couldn’t recall his name, or the child’s. He went on to become Mayor. She turned to read the name on the little brass plaque on the back of the chair, trying to take it in as a new memory, but knowing she never would.
In her agitation she dropped the knife. It left a smear of red across her dress and she wiped off as much as she could. Wash day was on Wednesday, and she’d wear the frock til then.
The local hooligans had defaced the seat with paint-sprayed uncouth words and illegible scribbles. This annoyed her less than to share the spot on the water’s edge with anyone else. Especially that Harold Whitaker, cantankerous old man that he was. He had a horrible barking dog, a terrier of some sort, and it always chased her Blackies away.
Here he was now – ready to interfere with her day. He’d stop and talk to her. He’d want to weed her garden. Paint her fence. Fix her guttering. Sometimes he’d say her home was going to wrack and ruin. Other times he’d go on about how she fed the ducks, that it upset nature’s balance and encouraged vermin. Why did he not see she was doing exactly the opposite of all that? It was her determined choice to let the weeds, flowers, vegetables, garden creatures and ducks flourish – survivors all, just as she was.
She turned her body sharply to indicate her irritation and the ratty brim of her straw hat tipped to shade her damaged face. She had stopped speaking to him after last year’s illness. He had no need to know how much she struggled to speak at all, or how much her once fine features had changed.
On this day he strode on past her with determined boot steps. He seemed in a hurry. He didn’t have the dog with him. He didn’t even glance her way. Perhaps he was looking for his dog.
“How rude,” she muttered.
Something niggled in her memory; a deep male voice; the scent of orange blossom; a vague picture of a strong, chiselled face; the sensual touch of a hand held tenderly; the taste of desire in a kiss. But it didn’t coalesce into anything meaningful. She promptly forgot about Harold as her thoughts rambled on.
The day passed. Her evening began as she poured a small glass of sweet sherry at eight o’clock. She looked forward to reading, a favourite pursuit since girlhood.
She laid her current selection of library books out in a fan shape around the table, herself the pivot point. Who afforded new books these days? Piles of overdue books with pages marked with coloured papers towered negligently on the floor and on the other chairs. She must return them soon or they would suspend her borrowing privileges again. Her planning and organising was corrupted by the damage to her mind, making her irritable, a feeling more and more common to her.
She sat in her dining room under the dusty Tiffany lamp until the carriage clock on the mantle chimed midnight to conclude her work.
She scrimped on her budget to leave room for stationery supplies, which she ordered by mail and paid for by cheque. A tall bearded man delivered them in his white van. Beatrice thought he was a sticky beak, always asking how she was when it was none of his business.
For many years Beatrice had written a commentary on every book or novel she read, both fiction and non-fiction, and posted it addressed to the author in care of the publisher.
Now, on this Monday, working to complete her evening’s work, she tidied away the papers and pens. Beatrice wrote her letters by hand, in the beautiful, flourishing cursive script she was taught by the nuns of Saint Joseph’s. She thought of her many years service to the Parish typing letters for Father O’Reilly and receiving a small stipend in return. She couldn’t cope after the Accident and Father reluctantly let her go. That she was able to write at all was a Blessing.
She was working her way through several large and beautifully illustrated books. Today’s tome was ‘Every Australian Bird Illustrated.’ Editors allowed so many mistakes to go through to publication, there were commas missing and don’t get her started on the dashes!
One letter she received very plainly said she was not welcome to comment. She simply corrected the spelling and added a comma and sent it back without a stamp.
Infrequently, an editor’s reply to her unsolicited corrections and critiques would thank her for her comments, and this spurred her on. She was sure that her correction of incomplete facts and distorted knowledge was helping future readers to a better definition or a better resource. She expected the publishers to rely on her exemplary effort, and reprint each corrected work, although she never checked. It would have been good to mention whether she had a career.
Her peeve of the moment was the Mynah bird, brought here from India to combat insects in the cane fields, a hundred and fifty years ago. Invaders like the feral ducks, they took up places in nature occupied by the little natives, like the yellow-eyed miners and the honeyeaters.
Beatrice contemplated poisoning all the feral birds. She read a Bryce Courtenay novel that told of a man who wrapped bread around snail bait pellets, and fed them strategically to pigeons, a last meal of sorts. But the thought of causing pain to any of God’s creatures stopped her. They were doing what came naturally to them after all. They were in the wrong place and the wrong time for reasons of human choice, not their own. So she fretted over them, angry and sympathetic at the same time.
She didn’t waste her time with magazines or newspapers, and never owned a television. The single social medium she allowed herself was the 1930’s Astor Bakelite radio inherited from her father. He had set it on the ABC radio frequency and she saw no need to change it. Its crackly voice kept her company.
She had used the public telephone at the end of her street twice in her life. When she called an ambulance to her father after his heart attack and seven years later to call the doctor on the night he died. She hadn’t needed to make a call since then.
She bathed with a flannel and a bar of yellow Sunlight soap in a chipped enamel bowl of warm water, filled by a kettle heated on the gas stove. She refused to pay for hot water and she switched her system off after her father’s funeral.
The night Beatrice suffered the stroke was as ordinary as any other, until it was time to pack away her books. Stunned, she fell and hit her forehead on the chair. Thinking the fall was the cause of the excruciating pain in her head, she took herself to bed, guiltily foregoing her bathing routine. Next morning, as she tried to leave her bed, she realised something was terribly wrong with her left arm and leg. Stoically, as was her nature, she struggled against the semi-paralysis, and for the last time, drove her father’s old Holden to the doctor in town.
Beatrice made ready for bed now, in an iron-framed single that had always been in her room. She wouldn’t use her father’s larger room, or double bed. She felt uncomfortable in there. It was a parental place, off limits as a child. But there had been no choice about nursing him so intimately in that room, after his heart attack had left him bedridden. She gave the room a thorough clean after he died, stripped the bed, and locked the door with a click of finality.
Beatrice listened to the familiar creaky sounds of her own bed, a soothing creak that had long been a lullaby. Her crooked body lay still and ready for sleep, cradled by the kapok in her musty mattress.
Her thoughts stirred in reminiscence. There came an idea of feeling loved and cherished, and somehow Harold’s handsome young face came to mind. She imagined his strong arms around her and met the look of longing in his eyes.
A proposal of marriage; a delicious kiss; then the refusal she had to give – it was her duty to care for her father.
Was it a fantasy? Her recollection was not to be trusted.
She reached under her pillow, inside the cover, the one her mother decorated with embroidered violets, now threadbare but oh so smooth on a tired face. She withdrew a small blue velvet bag and took out a ring. Heavy gold told of its age, the ruby warm and glowing even in the darkened room. She put it to her lips, savouring the memory, and then gently replaced it under her pillow.
Beatrice fed the ducks on Tuesday.