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Fiction

Fiction | The biscuit years

When a letter arrived from an Elizabeth Irving — a name he didn’t recognise — Bill passed it to his wife. His eyesight was poor and he didn’t want any trouble. Still, the pale blue airmail envelope looked innocuous enough. Probably a misunderstanding. Someone had looked up William Reynolds in the phone directory —these things must be online nowadays? — and sent it to him by mistake. The envelope had been posted from Dili, each stamp showcasing a different exotic snake.

‘Know anyone in East Timor?’ Margery swatted the air with the limp envelope.

‘Not a soul.’

‘I’ll put return to sender then?’

‘Alright, let’s do that.’

Bill settled in a lounge chair by the window facing the back lawn, ready to forget the whole thing. Four magpies were having a go of it in the birdbath; water sloshed over the rim as they squabbled about. Margery was still flapping the envelope when the phone rang; she placed the letter on the coffee table and turned away to answer it. The magpies flew off, flicking drops of water from their wings.

That would be Margery’s daughter, Jody. She was single and lived fifteen minutes away but rang her mother three times a day on average for a long chat. Jody used to be a primary school teacher but now she pumped petrol at the Caltex. Which, according to Jody, she liked better. Margery said it was looking after other people’s children that ruined her daughter. At the Caltex, Jody enjoyed the downtime. No pressure.

Bill could understand the appeal of a job with no pressure. Thirty-six years in the biscuit factory until it shut down. He never minded the work, not a jot: the conveyor belts, the malty smell, the monotony of pushing buttons, packing, sorting, checking rows of round golden biscuits for those that got mangled in the machinery and came out irregular and blemished. Most of his days at the biscuit factory were calm except for the odd time when something happened, and an alarm sounded. Like that day Glen Clark had his arm ripped clean off. Got it stuck in a piece of machinery. Bill tore off the t-shirt under his overalls and bunched it in a ball to stop the blood. The shirt flowered red in an instant and soaked through until it was only Bill’s giant hands (he was a big guy at six feet seven) stemming the blood. He kept talking to Glen as if it was no big deal — trying to keep the panic from both their faces — like afterwards they’d pop down to the Albion Hotel and grab a beer. When Glen’s arm got sewed back on it looked like something out of a Frankenstein movie. Dead flesh, useless. Glen’s wife left him after that. Bill had said to his first wife, Grace, aren’t we the lucky ones?

Margery yapped on the phone in the hall; Jody must be having one of those odd times at the Caltex. Margery had a habit of repeating everything her daughter said over the phone so he could follow their conversations as though listening in on another handset.

Recently, Margery had taken to referring to her daughter as ‘Our Jody,’ so he could share in her pride. South Australian licence plates you say? Grey Toyota Tarago, two males in their mid-twenties. YOU HEARING ALL THIS BILL? Some out-of-towners filled up and took off without paying! BILL! Margery poked her head into the sitting room from where she stood in the hall. ASLEEP! What did I tell ya! He just drops off like that. Sometimes I can’t tell if he’s sleeping or dead.

Bill wasn’t asleep. The blue envelope lay before him and he felt uneasy leaving it there; it was addressed to him after all. What if Margery steamed it open and had a little peek before sending it back? No. He’d walk it down to the post-box himself later when it wasn’t so hot. He leaned forward and put it in his shirt pocket. The sun’s warmth beat through the window and settled like a shawl across his lap. Bill let his eyes rest again and tried to trace a map in his mind to something he’d entirely forgotten.

The last few decades, the pre-Margery years he called them, were like doors slammed shut. When he married her eight years ago (second marriage for them both), they agreed not to talk about the past. No point really, they were too old and tired for all that now.

He rested a palm on the envelope in his shirt pocket, pressing it there. It weighed next to nothing, but Bill began to feel his chest constrict. Of course, it might not be the same Elizabeth.

 

He found her — Elizabeth and the other one — on the side of the road while driving home from work one afternoon. The first thing they asked him was about the smell: why does the air taste like gingerbread? He told them the whole town smelled like molten molasses because of the biscuit factory.

They couldn’t have been more than six and eight years old. Wide-eyed, wriggly creatures — no meat on their bones. Their faces were smattered with freckles and they wore their hair in long plaits and sported matching rah-rah skirts and t-shirts that read: Let’s make it great in 88. The eldest girl told him their mum and her boyfriend had dropped them off. Bill couldn’t think of her name — something exotic, glamorous, a name that should stick in your head. She was a gorgeous thing, dark and scowly not at all like the little one who was plainer and fair. Different dads, most likely. After waiting some time for them to say more, he asked ‘Well, why’d they’d do that?’

The girls shrugged. There had to be a reason, an emergency, a problem with the car, an accident perhaps, they nipped into town for something, and the girls were misbehaving so they were being taught a lesson…his mind skittered through the options, hopeful.

‘Are they coming back?’

They didn’t answer. The elder one traced the sole of her shoe back and forth in the dust with a bored look. The little one, Elizabeth, couldn’t stop staring at him; must be taking in his size. Everything about him was big. His head reached the roof of the car and the great hulk of his arm and shoulder rested out the open window. He winked at her. The sun bore down on the girls; they squinted at him in the light.

‘It’s pretty hot out here, girls. How bout we go into town for some ice cream?’

That’s how he got them into the car and if anyone had asked him what he was doing, what his plan was, he wouldn’t have been able to say. Once they pulled out onto the highway, he threw a packet of broken biscuits he’d taken from work over to the backseat, and the girls tore into it, dropping crumbs everywhere. He watched them through the rear-view mirror.

Lord, they’re lovely.

He knew where Grace was, what she was doing: at home, blinds drawn, marooned in the recliner, his tiny wife was as lost in that armchair as she was to herself. Their marriage of ten years was unspooling at a rate of knots; what it would take to gather it all up again?

Grace had always seemed so capable. They’d met at the butchers where she worked as a bookkeeper a few days a week. She had dewy skin and soft blonde hair that fell just above her collarbone. Her billowy blouse was perfectly squared with shoulder pads. She had been chatting to one of the butchers about an invoice, unfazed by the blood-stained aprons, slabs of meat, the queue of customers forming at the counter. She was holding everyone up. Bill was first in line.

Bill drove the girls slowly down the main street towards the general store as though he had all the time in the world, his hands slack and heavy on the steering wheel. The car rolled past the RSL, the petrol station and the cop shop. The windows were wound down; the eldest girl had let her plaits out. Her hair whipped lazily about. When they reached the bowling club, ladies in crisp white uniforms were measuring the green, their big round bottoms facing the road. The girls leaned out the windows with zany smiles, their jangling arms waving at the women, calling Cooee, Cooee at the top of their lungs. Bill laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of it. The afternoon was cracking open.

He parked near the general store and told the girls to wait in the car; they nodded, like they were used to being told what to do by strangers or left in hot cars. Inside the store it was cool and dark and the refrigerators hummed loudly; he grabbed two Paddle Pops from the freezer and collected two bottles of lemonade and one of ginger ale from the fridge. He had known the shopkeeper, Kelvin, his whole life.

‘You want this on the account?’

‘Nah, I’ve got change.’ Bill reached into his pocket for coins.

‘How’s Gracie? Has she got her sweet tooth back?’ Kelvin nodded at the ice-creams.

‘Not yet.’

Kelvin followed Bill outside with a broom. The two girls’ arms shot out from the car windows for the ice-creams.

‘Pretty girls,’ Kelvin called while sweeping the dirt and dust off the bottom step.

‘My nieces from outta town.’

‘Yeah?’

Kelvin kept quiet after that. Bill knew half the town had heard how Grace had been acting lately; he also knew that Kelvin knew he had no siblings, no nieces or nephews.

Back in the driver’s seat, he turned to the girls.

‘Shall we drive for a bit? I know a park.’

The car continued its crawl through the quiet streets. The ice creams were dripping wet rainbow slop all over the black vinyl upholstery of his Kingswood. But he didn’t care for the car. He’d always thought it was the wrong colour. Canary-yellow, it stood out in town like a block of churned butter. Elizabeth fussed, kicking her sandaled feet because ice cream was running down her arm. In the mirror, he watched the eldest girl grab hold of her little sister’s arm and lick it clean for her. He looked away.

 

Margery was off the phone and Bill was glad not to have her yabbering away in the background. He glanced around for her. Through the window, he saw her wrestling wet bedsheets onto the Hills Hoist. She cranked the handle so they wouldn’t drag on the back lawn. She waved at him, “Yoo-hoo sleepy head.” Margery was big-boned, with limp hair and a ruddy face; when she laughed, she threw her head back like a rooster. She was good to him, Bill often thought.

For their honeymoon, they visited Alligator Gorge and Bill got the idea they might join the grey nomads, hitch a caravan to their car and travel the country top to bottom like other retirees. He had never travelled much. When they set off, Bill felt his carotid artery pulsating like a hot barb. Margery had brought Jody on the first trip of their married lives and on every trip after that. He got over it, swallowed it down until that feeling in his neck dissolved. He even joked with Margery he’d got a two-for-the-price-of-one package          

Bill turned the name Elizabeth over in his mind like a marble rolling this way and that. Why would she be in East Timor and why get in touch now? He was an old man and hadn’t given thought to any of this in over thirty years but he didn’t trust the vagaries of his mind. Suddenly, it seemed overwhelming, almost twisted, the way he’d coveted those girls.

 

The park was the local school playground. It sat next to a cluster of old weatherboard houses that made up the primary school. Bill had gone to this school. The playground had a sandpit and monkey bars, a slide that was too hot to touch in summer and some swings. As a child he’d always been too big for swings; he could never fit on those narrow plastic seats.

Bill knew he’d got lucky with Grace; she never minded his size, his rough-hewn features. They were a funny looking couple; she was only five feet two. Her gentle giant, she’d called him.

Rosellas and galahs were settling in the soft light of the late afternoon, clicking their beaks on the grass under the trees. As the sun dipped, the girls threw their Paddle Pop sticks in the sand, and kicking off their sandals, raced for the swings.

Bill sat on the creaky steps in front of one of the classrooms. Elizabeth undid her plaits and shook them loose like her sister’s. He finished his ginger ale in two long swigs and wished he’d bought another. The girls pumped their legs, squealing. The rah-rah skirts lifted high in the air showing their white underwear. When they grew tired of swinging, they raced over to where he sat on the steps. He uncapped the bottles of lemonade and passed them one each.

‘Do you have any kids?’ Elizabeth asked between sips.

‘I had a son.’

‘Was he big like you?’

‘He never had the chance to grow.’

If someone had asked him at the time — two years earlier — what grief felt like he would have said wet and heavy. Like you need to be wrung out. But nobody ever asked.

The girls wanted to play tag. Kids can do that, just flick a switch. He heaved himself up as the girls fled and scattered across the playground. He decided to make a roaring noise and held his hands out from his body like a Yeti. The girls screamed, delighted. He was weaving and bellowing about the playground when Glen Clark’s car slowed, engine idling on the road beside the school. He wasn’t driving of course, his mother was. She had moved in with him after his wife left.

Glen sat in the passenger seat and raised his good hand at Bill. They stayed another moment watching him run around like a bogeyman before Glen’s mother gave the horn a quick toot and sped off. They kept playing as the light grew dark until Zerelda — that was the name of the eldest girl, he remembered it now — tripped and fell over the roots of a Moreton Bay Fig. She bit her lip as she went down and spat blood when she sat up. Bill checked her front teeth, testing each one with a light push of his thumb while she sat in his lap. She never cried.

In the police station, the girls sat either side of Bill, a small hand each pressed in one of his large ones. Zerelda’s lip had stopped bleeding but was messy and tender. The guy on duty, Kieran, had been a few years ahead of Bill at school. Bill remembered him as a bully, pushing kid’s heads into toilet bowls while hitting the flush button, and slamming kids against lockers. Always steered clear of Bill though. Kieran nodded at him but kept things business-like. The girls answered a load of questions like it was nothing, as if they’d done it all before. Kieran buzzed, filling out paperwork in his large, scrawly handwriting; he seemed pleased to be busy.

Somewhere in the course of the afternoon (was it in the playground under the shadow of the Moreton Bay Fig when the girls’ skinny limbs reminded him of daddy longlegs, or was it in the car, driving by the bowling club when the sun stung so bright, and Cooee Cooee echoed about the cabin?), Bill decided to foster the girls. He hadn’t spoken to Grace but had a good feeling: she’d come right with these two. But Kieran arched an eyebrow and gave him a little smirk.

‘It doesn’t work like that.’

‘These girls were abandoned on the side of the highway. They have nowhere to sleep tonight, do they? Let me take them home to Grace.’

‘A relative will be located, or they’ll go into the system. There are waiting lists… procedures,’ Kieran explained.

Bill gave the girls’ hands a little squeeze. He’d get on the bloody list. Kieran went into another room and made some calls; he was gone a long time. When he finished, he came out to tell them there was a next-of-kin.

One afternoon, a few weeks after he said goodbye to the girls, Bill went to meet Glen at the Albion Hotel for a drink. Glen couldn’t work anymore but they still met once a month like old times. Glen rested his dead arm awkwardly on the sodden coasters on top of the bar, and everyone who came up to order a drink had a good look at it, staring a moment too long. The colour was off, somewhere between ash and indigo. It was the same colour Bill’s son had been when he was born, that’s how they knew something was wrong with him. Bill heard later that if the limb had been put on ice straight away, properly taken care of in transportation, things might have turned out differently; Glen might have more sensation and movement in it. Bill tried to apologise for that once but Glen cut him off and said, you saved my life, I’d have bled to death if you went looking for an icebox. It was there at the bar that Glen told him some people were talking about the girls.

‘What are they saying?’

Glen shrugged.

‘You were seen by the bowling ladies and Kelvin; a bunch of others saw you driving about that day. The Kingswood really stands out. You didn’t bring them into the station straight away and the playground…’

‘And who told them about the playground, Glen?’ Bill slammed his glass down on the bar harder than he meant to.

Glen’s face flushed and Bill realised it was Glen’s mother who had plenty to say about everything.

‘They say one of the girls had a split lip.’

‘Jesus. I never. Would never…’ Bill’s eyes felt hot; his throat dry.

‘I know you wouldn’t. I know you never.’ Glen looked into his beer.

Grace left him shortly after that. One night she slid the divorce papers across the dining table towards him, and that was that: ten years of marriage culminated in a few stapled pieces of A4 paper, mostly white space. She had gone and got herself an Irish passport. Turns out her grandfather was from Cork. She was going to start anew and be with her people. By people, she meant Irish relatives she’d never met.

On the day she left, they spread their boy’s ashes in the backyard. They flung them about on a blustery day. The wind was fierce but without any clear direction. Mostly, it seemed the ashes were raining back down on them, sticking in their eyes and hair. There weren’t many of them, their son wasn’t quite three when he died of congenital heart failure. He never saw or heard from Grace again.         

           

Bill’s eyes snapped open. He had to read the letter without Margery around. His mind felt all jangled and bruised, the loss of Grace and his boy fresh again. He was confused about the girls. What had Grace said before she left? Grief deranges people. Look at us… In the early days of their marriage, if they argued, Grace would speak sternly like a principal, her voice somewhere below shouting level. When she said those things to him about grief, her voice came out in weak puffs, like she was exhaling them and the last of their marriage.

Margery had moved from the backyard, and he heard the tap at the side of the house, pipes knocking loudly because of the pressure. Every afternoon Margery connected the garden hose to go and water the daphne, pansies, and chrysanthemums in the front yard.

Bill opened the envelope as carefully as he could, prising the fold from the tacky glue with a long thumbnail. He held the letter to the window. He could make out the writing without his glasses but read each line twice to be sure he got it right.

Dear Mr Reynolds,

My name is Elizabeth Irving (formerly Elizabeth Grove), I wonder if you remember me?

It’s been thirty years since that day you picked my sister and me up, and we cruised around in your car on that hot afternoon. It’s only now with the hindsight of an adult that I realise your actions would be considered inappropriate today.

He winced, the fine, cursive handwriting suddenly looking a little sinister, like the snakes on the stamps. His hands trembled as he held up the thin paper. Margery wouldn’t like the sound of it.

I remember everything about that afternoon, the hot vinyl seats in your car, the taste of broken biscuits, ice cream, the playground, the glare of the fluorescent tubes overhead in the police station, my hand in yours. The way you cried when the police officer said it was time for you to go home and he wouldn’t let you hug us. You kept saying “Oh Grace, Oh my Grace.” In my young mind at the time I thought you were saying something religious, but now that seems unlikely.

In case you wondered what happened to us, we were flown with a police escort to the east coast of Australia where our mother’s only sister adopted us, rather begrudgingly, I think. Our mother was charged with child abandonment, but the police didn’t track her down until many years later and by that time she was dead. She’d been living under a new identity.

Our aunt had a son, Gordon, close in age to us. He was foul and used to pin us down and dribble spit over our faces. I’m not close to him. I have no other family left. My aunt passed on, and Zerelda died of an overdose at nineteen.

Christ, Bill whispered. His arms faltered with the weight of the flimsy bit of paper in his hands. Beautiful Zerelda.

So that brings me to the purpose of this letter. Did you notice the stamps? I’m living in East Timor, where my husband is stationed with Médecins Sans Frontières. We are expecting our first child. Maybe that’s why those few hours we spent together have been on my mind.

You see, a sonographer and local medicine woman told me it’s a boy, and the thing is, if you don’t mind, I’d like to name him after you. I hope you don’t think I’m completely messed up. I did have an unhappy childhood but I’m quite normal. I never suffered like Zerelda. I just want to acknowledge the one happy memory from when I was a kid. What I really want to know is what your friends and family call you. Is it William, Will, Bill, Billy? Whatever it is, when you get back to me, that’s what I’ll name him.

Yours,

Elizabeth

Margery finished in the garden and opened the front door, stomping her feet on the welcome mat. Warm air and the smell of daphne followed her from the front lawn as she moved down the hall. Bill began to fold the thin, delicate paper, quickly slipping it back in the envelope.

The sun shone on him through the window and he settled into its glow, allowing himself to enjoy it. He might be a simple man but saving Glen’s life and picking up those girls were likely the best things he’d ever done. Tomorrow, he would reply to the letter.

He turned towards his wife as she approached the sitting room. A few strands of hair clung to her mottled cheeks with perspiration. He patted the settee beside him. Would he tell her about Elizabeth and the letter, about the baby? No, he decided, the episode belonged to the pre-Margery years. It was mixed up with Grace and his little blue son, with Glen Clark and the biscuit years. He reached for his wife’s hand and said ‘Now, how’s our Jody?’

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Raelee Chapman's short stories have been published in Westerly, Southerly, Mascara Literary Review, Best Australian Stories 2017, and Singapore Love Stories. She divides her time between Singapore and Canberra.

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Comments

  1. Beautiful story – the last paragraph is golden. Reminds me what I love about short stories.

  2. What a beautiful examination of the way grief shifts and transforms over a lifetime. The echoes here are particularly lovely – Bill, Grace and their son, Elizabeth and her sister, Glen. Subtly and beautifully done, thank you for the lovely read.

  3. What a beautiful story brimming with equally beautiful writing. I’m so moved as I write this. Thank you.

  4. Oh, I loved this. That skill that Cate Kennedy describes as ‘… arriving late and leaving early’.
    Such skill displayed and space left for the reader. Realee is my kind of writer.

  5. Thank you for such a lovely read .It was beautifully tied up at the end- full of all those very real emotions .

  6. What a creative, beautifully written short story! Sometimes unfortunate things happen despite good intentions and it is nobody’s fault. It is also wise to move on from one’s painful past with deliberate, conscious effort. Reading the story felt like a compacted novel and the descriptive language meant I could visualise it like a movie. Thank you, Raelee.

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