This story is by Vivien Turner and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
By eleven o’clock on this cold July evening, the frost had begun to settle on every surface.
The dogs had been restless these past two hours, since before my mother started getting their daily meal ready. As she was putting on the final touches, they all took off outside in a great rush just as there was a loud ‘bang’ followed by a cracking sound. In the stillness everything echoed. It seemed to come from somewhere out the back. My mother, stopping for a second to listen, heard nothing more. The dogs returned inside to sit in their allocated feeding places as if to reassure her that nothing was amiss.
Soon after starting, the dogs tore off again through the back door. My mother, used to country noises, was inclined to think either possums or cats responsible, often jumping onto the pine house roof from the carob tree to avoid running into dogs on the ground. They found nothing by which to be alarmed, and so returned to finish their meals.
My mother was dressed in her cold weather layers. The magnificent wood stove that kept the place warm when my father was alive, had been sold at some point, to provide funds until the next litter arrived. It had been replaced by a portable electric unit, and when it was cold like this, the oven would be turned to ‘low’ and the door left ajar to ward off the worst of the chill.
A second ‘bang’ definitely was the sound of a heavy footed possum on the roof. ‘Plod, plod, plod’, rather than the faster, easier-moving, cat. So what was that previous noise? Plates licked clean, the dogs sauntered outside again. The usual routine was to stay out a short while then come back in and settle for the night on the mats under the corner bench, where the oven stood.
About ten years before this my mother, and my only sibling, a younger brother, had a huge disagreement over dog breeding. Since the age of twelve he had helped her with many aspects, such as genetics, he could ‘show’ any dog to perfection, was a talented groomer, and knew how to spot good dog conformation. Our mother was happy to do the physical care of breeding but must have grown tired of it. In addition she usually would pay him in kind, if at all. No special relationship had ever been set up where he could make a living at it. He was in his mid thirties and there were some deep resentments there. There had been legal action threatened but in the end he went interstate to live. He never contacted her again.
Whilst clearing up from the feeding, another noise, something of a high pitched laugh, echoed across from the other side of the yard. The dogs were on to this! They banged and clattered their way through the doorway, all pushing to get out first. My five foot mother picked up the Dolphin torch from the kitchen table and brought up the rear out into the night.
It was dark out. There was little moonlight, in spite of the clear sky. Only a light at the back door invaded the darkness, giving some perspective to the immediate area. Further out from this ring of light was dim and somewhat distorted, except for the whiteness of the softly glowing frost on the un-trodden ground.
From the shadows cast by the carob tree, (next to the house), and then the woodshed, a little closer to the stone cottage, she had a clearer view of all four dogs barking madly at the boarded off back of the old stone cottage. It had been boarded off by council safe living regulations, as no longer habitable, many years before.
From past experience, I knew that trying to get my mother to do anything until she was ready, would end in longer delays. So where-ever possible, I did not mention contentious topics. The fifth of six children, she had never been able to treat other people’s opinions favourably. She secretly enjoyed any competition where there was an outside chance of her holding out the longest. My father knew this only too well!
The two blocks my parents bought had only one house between then and that was my grandfather’s wife’s property in the mid 1960’s until the late 1970’s. This was on my mother’s side. The entire property was subdivided and sold off when my parents bought a hectare of it for dog breeding in 1978. This because my step grandmother was admitted to hospital with severe anxiety and depression as a result of my grandfather’s continual hinting at her demise whilst handling knives and other possible weapons. He was diagnosed with senile dementia, and taken somewhere to be cared for in an aged care situation. The cottage itself had some dark secrets.
The dogs came back to my mother and, as if to round her up, ran around her in circles and barked more emphatically the closer she got to the old cottage. Then, once there, they sat and only gave an occasional whimper. My mother, armed with her torch’, suspected someone was in the house when she heard the creak of floorboards on rotting joists from inside the cottage. “Who is in there?”she asked of no-one in particular. “Come out at once!”she demanded. Nothing, no answer, just quiet night.
My mother suddenly realised that she was alone with dogs and her only defence (if it could be called that) was a large waterproof torch. An idea occurred to her. She wondered whether there was still an axe in the woodshed, even though it was years since anyone had chopped wood. Hunting around in the woodshed, with the aid of the torch, she found an axe. She swung it to see if she could still manage it – she thought she could.
My Mother was truly alone, her home was at least a hundred metres from any other home. Her phone did not have more than one bar reception on most occasions. To be able to talk she had to drive to a hill half a mile away to get reception. This because a person who cared more about his monthly bottom line than the welfare of the elderly, had sold her a mobile phone not fit for purpose. If I needed to contact her, like when her sister fell gravely ill, and died a week later, I had to ask the local policeman to ask her to ring me. She was unlikely to leave to ring now.
It occurred to her that my brother might be in there. She tried to think of other reasons for the noises she had heard but became convinced that it was my brother. Was he friend or foe? Why did he not answer? She decided that was because he was not a friend.
Armed like this she walked back to the cottage. She had to decide what to do. She knew it was dangerous to go inside, but by now was convinced my brother was in there. She strained towards a hole in the wall, being careful not to touch anywhere in case the stonework was loose. Yes, she could see him in there. She could! She called his name, the floorboards creaked slightly but that was all. Whilst up close to the building she smelt something she had never smelt before – earthy and pungent. That did not seem right. She decided that she would continue as before, with the dogs warning of changing events until I could be contacted.
She went inside and made coffee. The dogs lay down in the warmth of the kitchen. My mother drank coffee and ate biscuits. The dogs slept with an ear open, just in case.
At about seven the following morning, my mother rang me on my mobile. She sounded far away and confused as she tried to speak to my voice on my ‘leave a message’ spiel. I had been sound asleep in my bed nearly two hours’ drive away. When I rang her back, she told me my brother was in the old house; I told her we were leaving right away. My husband drove and I rang both the police and her local doctor who said they would visit.
I had spoken over the phone to the doctor, having written to him before to ask him to check my mothers’ mental acuity. On this occasion her called me back and said he found her outside casing the old house with an axe. He told her “Don’t go round carrying an axe”. He still refused the need for cognitive testing. The policeman, had been over to investigate what was happening with the old stone house. He found the front door pulled down; split off from the frame. There was a recent smell of marijuana, and inside the house, now empty, papers and weed and end buts scattered on the floor. He knew who the young teenage boys were; he’d had to evict them before.
As we headed inland towards my mother’s property the fading of a heavy frost was evident by a rising ground mist. At her house it was fully daylight and there was no sign of confusion. We were greeted by the haunting strains of a family of Kookaburras. The eerie sounds echoed over the valleys of the Barossa whilst we discussed demolition of the stone cottage, over coffee and toast. Within months a local tradesman had begun the task of pulling it down.
As the dogs aged, the long hoped-for next generations of pups never arrived.
My brother never returned to South Australia whilst our mother was still alive. She did, however agree to the male and his sister going to him when she went into care.