Neilma Sidney Short Story prize winner, Golden Hour

The ginger cat has killed again. All that’s left is a small pinkish organ lying on the carpet—everything else has been eaten. The cat climbs into Faye Bedwell’s lap and urges itself at her, working its hindquarters and pushing its face at her neck, making her dream of a foxtrot on a purple carpet and the pink neck of a dance partner. Her mouth opens with a thrill.

The doorbell chimes and the cat springs away. Faye crams her glasses on and heaves out of her chair. It chimes again. Her fingertips are as numb as meat these days, scrabbling at the security chain. There’s a man, bald, little podge in front, clipboard. He’s looking for a Donald and Faye Bedwell.

‘That’s me.’ Smoothing her dressing gown collar. ‘My late husband.’

‘Mal Turner.’ He looks like a Mal. Stubby. ‘Marcos and Platt Solicitors.’

The loose ends that dangle from the financial particulars. ‘My husband died last Easter.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that, Mrs Bedwell. Mrs Bedwell, did you and your husband ever reside in Grafton New South Wales?’

‘Years ago, more than twenty years. We left in 1974.’ The year after the big win, but she doesn’t mention that. Don didn’t like her telling people. She pulls the door slightly so he can’t see in.

‘Just confirming Mrs Bedwell, are you able to tell me your former address in Grafton?’ He taps a pen on the clipboard.

‘8 Noel Street.’

‘I’m going to ask you, did you know a Dawn Bennett at that time?’

Something in her sits up straight. ‘Dawn. Across the road. What’s this about?’

He slides a yellow envelope out of the clipboard. ‘It’s all in here.’ She angles it to the sunlight. Their names are typed on the front: DG and FM Bedwell.

‘Sign here Mrs Bedwell, just to say you received the document.’ He holds out the pen until she takes it. She does a spidery signature and he’s out the front gate with a click.

Back in her armchair, she slits the envelope. There’s a cheque for two hundred dollars. The letter says Dear Mr and Mrs Bedwell, we wish to inform you. Beneficiary of monies. Estate of Dawn Margaret Bennett, deceased.

Faye presses her fingers to her temples, blinking. Dawn. Paid us back the two hundred, have you? Twenty years late, dead too, by the look of it.

Ask anyone born before 1950 and they’ll tell you a rabbit story. In the ’30s everyone grew up on them. That’s all people had to eat. Faye Bedwell knew how to cook a bunny. You stewed it slow with an onion. Don’t bake it. She tried that once and it looked like a baby when she took it out of the oven, all hunched up hard. Never again.

Faye grew up in Texas, Queensland. There was a rabbit works, and every man, woman and child had a trap in their hand. Spring, tongue, chain and spike: you’d bury it just under the dirt, then Mister Bunny comes hopping along and snap! At the factory they skun, packed and stacked six thousand a day. Faye had a little yellow one her dad had pulled out of the burrow but the dogs ate it. Everyone was rich until myxomatosis killed the town. Don and Faye got married and moved south. Grafton had a new meatworks and Don got shifted into the office after six months. They started paying off a tidy house in Noel Street with a park and a school around the corner. The perfect position, they used to tell each other. But she could never hold those slippery babies inside her, and the way things turned out it was always just Don and Faye at the showground dances or the jockey club, their arms encircled for the waltz, the quickstep, the rumba. One more for the road, then home in the dark to the quiet house.

They should have been grandparents by the time Dawn Bennett moved in over the road with her 10-year-old. Quinn was spindly with a shy smile. He used to come across to Don and Faye’s and play with their cats. After Dawn got the boyfriend, the kid came just about every afternoon. Sometimes he’d even turn up in the mornings with his toast and vegemite on a plate.

‘Wayne’s over,’ Quinn tells Faye at the door. He follows her into the kitchen.

She reaches up for the biscuit tin. ‘Is he nice to you?’

He shrugs, hunches over and buries his face in the tabby’s fur. Faye can see the pale knobble of his spine where his neck begins. He’d be about twelve by now.

‘Mum said I have to go back to my dad’s.’


‘I’ll be alright. I just go out the back if Dad’s in a bad mood. Me and me little sister bring the rabbits into the chook shed and play with them.’ He’s got gentle fingers on the cat’s neck, smoothing the fur over and over.

‘Pet ones?’ Remembering the old trucks loaded with rabbits.

‘They’re Louise’s. Two white ones and a brown one. We’re animal-lovers.’

‘Louise your half-sister, is she?’

He nods. ‘Yeah, me little sister.’ It’s hard to get a smile out of him these days but now there’s a curve to his mouth.

Here’s Dawn’s voice from out in the street. Quinn has to get home. Dawn never comes in to Faye’s; she stands at the gate and sings out. Faye and Quinn look though the venetians. Over the road, Wayne’s up on the verandah with his legs wide, gripping the rail as if he’s the skipper. Quinn moves a little closer to Faye, not quite touching. He’s like a cat that’s been mistreated, rubbing itself around your legs but not letting you pat it.

Faye watches Quinn quick-stepping over the road. She watches Wayne.

‘What does he do?’ she asks Don later.

‘He works at the dog track. Drives the lure.’

‘I don’t like the way he looks at Quinn,’ she says. ‘It’s like a cat watching a bird. I don’t like the sound of the father either. Poor old Quinn goes back and forth like a ping-pong ball. Why are some people allowed to have kids?’ Her hand stealing to her breasts.

They stand at the window staring out at their lawn. The sun is low, touching the trees golden.

‘It’s just unfair,’ she says.

Donny puts on a record and holds out his arms.

Fourth prize in the 1973 Sydney Opera House lottery went to an anonymous North Coast couple. After the poor Thorne boy was taken by that Hungarian, the papers stopped publishing the names and addresses of winners. Predators could be anywhere. Everyone wants your money. Don retired early from the meatworks. He and Faye bought a Holden Statesman in Contessa Gold with power windows. They took a run to Sydney, coming back with the latest home stereo system boxed up in the boot. They booked a South Pacific cruise with P&O. Quinn, now fifteen, was supposed to look after their cats while they were away. They made a pyramid of Whiskas tins, one for each day, and taped an envelope to the top. Inside was fifty dollars. When they arrived home the cats weren’t purring to greet them, turning up two days later bony and miaowing. There were six tins of cat food left in the laundry and a mess of feathers under the clothesline.

A week later, Faye bends over a verandah pot of maidenhair, snipping off the dead fronds. Across the road, Dawn’s curtains are pulled shut. There’s still no Quinn. His Pago Pago cannibal fork waits for him on the mantelpiece. Here’s Dawn mooching along the footpath, head down, breasts bobbing for all the world to see. Nothing on her feet. Why didn’t they wear bras these days?

Faye comes down to the gate and raises her hand in something between a wave and a halt.

‘Lovely morning,’

Dawn, caught, stops. Her nose is blotched pink, her eyes ringed. ‘How was your holiday?’

‘Glorious, but the cats were half-starved. I don’t know where Quinn got to.’

Dawn’s body seems to sag for a moment. ‘Sorry, Faye.’

‘Back with his dad, is he?’ Whoever that might be. ‘I thought people would have been more responsible.’ She waits, squeezing her secateurs open and shut.


It’s the shape Dawn’s mouth is making that stops Faye from saying her piece.

Don was always the softy. ‘Something must have happened,’ he says when she tells him about it.

Four months go by and there’s still no Quinn.

‘He’ll be at his dad’s,’ Don says. ‘He’ll be back.’

It’s unusual to be away so long. Dawn’s Datsun is in the front garden with grass tufting up the rims. Dawn keeps her head down as she walks past with her shopping, eyes on the ground. The look of her, they aren’t game to say anything.

‘None of our business,’ says Faye at the window.

‘That Wayne character’s fading out of the picture,’ says Don.

‘I don’t like him,’ says Faye.

Don’s been looking at the real estate pages. There are lovely waterfront estates in Surfers Paradise with orange sunsets and palm gardens and sliding doors. Dance clubs everywhere. He’s talking investments. But they stay on at Noel Street, telling each other it’s the sun pouring in through the glass, the cats stalking across the red carpet, the pink camellias outside. They watch Dawn go in and out. Quinn’s cannibal fork stays on the mantelpiece. The cats nestle in his beanbag, dozing.

They book another cruise. This time it’s Honiara, Suva and Auckland, twenty-eight days. On the Saturday a week before they leave, Don’s up the street having a haircut and Faye’s in the bedroom with the suitcases. There’s a tap on the front door. It’s Dawn. Faye fills the kettle and pats a kitchen chair.

That night after dinner, after the dishes, Don says it’s the right thing to do. He gets out the cheque book and writes a cheque for two hundred dollars non-negotiable, payable to Dawn Bennett.

‘Sweetheart, if that’s what it takes, we’ll put up the money. Private detectives charge top dollar.’ His signature unfurls across the dotted line. ‘But why would he run away?’

‘A misunderstanding,’ says Faye. She can’t bear to repeat what Dawn said: that Quinn’s supposed to have got his half-sister in his father’s shed and interfered with her. That he’s had two beltings, one from his father and one from Wayne, and hasn’t been seen since.

There are gaps and small lies.

Faye puts the cheque in an envelope and takes it over to Dawn.

‘I told Don you needed it for a private detective,’ she says. ‘He wouldn’t believe in psychics.’

The two hundred is for a round-Australia ticket on a Pioneer bus, get on and off any time. Dawn’s packing a bag. The psychic Irene has informed her there’ll be a journey. Dawn will have to set out, aided by her inner pathfinder. Quinn is far away, direction unknown. There are farms, red soil, trees. Dawn will know (but it’s possible, according to Irene, that the cards instead of answering Dawn’s question may be showing something important she needs to know.) This in return for ten cartons of Peter Stuyvesants and a large bottle of Alberto Balsam shampoo.

Faye has to force herself to believe. But. You’d give anything to see their face again. The unbearable sensation when a child slips away.

She sends Dawn off on the Friday morning, the bus crunching over gravel, Dawn’s face looking out of the window, daunted.

‘Gone to see her sister in Kempsey,’ Faye tells Don.

Don and Faye go on their cruise. They see Honiara, Suva and Auckland. They dance the nights away; it’s salsa, bossa nova, anything. They drink too much. It gets chilly on deck, watching for land. Day after day they face the florid sunset. At last they’re home.

In the morning, the cats have to be picked up.

‘You go,’ says Faye.

Don backs the Statesman out of the garage. When he’s driven off, Faye goes over to Dawn’s. They sit on a couch, turning to face each other. They hear Don returning from the cattery. They hear a lawn mower, a siren somewhere, a dog barking, an aeroplane.

Later, Faye tells Don there’s nothing so far from the detective agency. A few leads being followed up but nothing to go on yet.

‘Investigations take time,’ he says.

What Dawn told Faye on the couch. Oh, the country she travelled through on that Pioneer bus, sitting bolt upright at the window watching out for her boy. The thickets of twisty trees where he might be lost, like a Hansel trying to find his way home. Tractor drivers, not him. The places that rolled by, here then gone. The shimmering road, tumbleweeds dancing, the woolly trees, the bright grasses. She slid Quinn’s photo in and out of her handbag at takeaways, fruit stalls, bus stations, shops. She slept in her seat with her head against the glass. She walked orchard fence-lines. She ate roadhouse food—fried tomatoes and sausages and eggs, golden warm beneath the night counters—all the way along the Pacific Highway, the Hume, the Goulburn, the Sturt, the Castlereagh, the Bruce, the Northern. She crossed the Nullabor, watching the stars spray out across the night sky. She walked whole towns in apple country and irrigation districts, asking. They’d shake their heads and she’d get back on the next bus, moving onwards in a fug of diesel fumes and onion on her fingers. Quinn’s photo in her hand. But oh, that fine pretty country in the golden afternoons, when she could have almost imagined things might have souls. The pink grasses, the sun on salt lakes. A moment when a cloud of little black and white birds rose up. Long quiet shadows, leaves drooping, lines of messy trees, a gentle weary cast to the paddocks. From Shepparton to Dubbo there was a young woman next to her; they took turns sleeping on each other’s shoulder. The girl, a musician, said the cello was like a voice, deep and sad like weeping in the late afternoon. On the thirtieth day, Dawn got off in Grafton, walked home and put her things away.

‘I should have believed him,’ she told Faye on the sofa. ‘Wayne’s the one you had to watch.’

For years they keep spotting him. Early one morning Don sees a kid in a beanie climbing into a south-bound truck. Faye sees him in a van in Brisbane, on television in a football crowd, at Sydney airport, on a Cairns beach. They move to the Gold Coast, writing their new address and phone number on a card for Dawn. They travel. They learn new dances. They grow old but Quinn remains spindly, pale, innocent, forever moving out of the line of sight.

After Mal from Marcos and Platt has gone, Faye eases down onto her knees and picks up the pink organ left by the ginger cat. That used to be Don’s job. It’s a stomach or a spleen from a mouse, little scuttling hiding one with tiny feet and ears. The cat stares from the table as she wraps the thing in a tissue, tucking and folding, ready to bury in the soft dirt under the hibiscus.


Claire Aman

Claire Aman, the winner of the 2022 Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize, lives in Grafton, NSW—Bundjalung Country. Her 2017 short story collection, Bird Country, was shortlisted for the Steele Rudd and Colin Roderick awards. Her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Australian Book Review, Island, Southerly and other publications. She directs The Long Way Home community writing project.

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