A recent short story, part of the collection Social Distancing & Other Stories available here
‘So where are ya off to today?’ Jennifer asked. Marian’s next-door neighbour was sitting in her usual place, on her porch. She dropped her right hand out of sight; Marian did not approve of smoking.
Marian was a stylish woman. She dressed and groomed herself immaculately, not in the latest fashion, which had gone off the rails as far as she was concerned, but in a style, a rather expensive style, suitable for her age. She was proud of the way she looked. Today she wore a pale blue summer blouse with a blue and grey tartan skirt. At her front door she had looked at herself in the full length mirror, turning this way, then that. Fine. She had walked out of her front door to wait for the car.
‘Elsbeth and Mal are taking Mia and me on a picnic.’
‘Yes. Is that so strange?’
‘Have ya ever been on a picnic?’
‘Dressed like that!’
‘Of course not. Don’t be silly. I think I was thirteen when I last went on a picnic. Why? What’s wrong with how I’m dressed?’
‘Well, first of all, Luv, those shoes! You can’t wear heels on a picnic.’
‘Luv, you’ll be walking through grass and stuff. You’ll sink in. Don’t ya have a pair of nice flatties?’
‘But then I will have to change my dress.’
‘And that too. Won’t ya be sitting on the grass?’
‘Why ever for?’
‘That’s what ya do at a picnic.’
‘Oh, I don’t think so. We’ll be on one of those wooden outdoor settings. The ones with the seats attached and supported on a slab of cement, installed and maintained by the local council.’
‘But ya still have to get to the thing. What about those beige trousers I’ve seen you wear?’
‘My gardening clothes!’
‘Well Luv, you’ll be far more comfortable in a pair of trousers, I reckon.’
Marian always thought of Jennifer as over friendly, but the kind of over friendly that could be construed as common. ‘I’ll be fine. Mia likes to see her Grandmother looking smart.’
‘Suit ya self Luv. How’s Mia’s leg?’
‘Oh, Jennifer, you keep mentioning that. That was ages ago.’
‘Yes. She’s almost ten now and not so clumsy. Quite the little lady.’
‘Jeeze she made me laugh!’
‘I’ve never seen the need for humour at someone else’s expense.’ Marian would’ve chided herself if she had been aware of the corners of her mouth sliding down in hoity disapproval.
‘Oh, I know. It’s just that when someone is being so serious like and then falls on their mush, it just cracks me up. I can’t help it. I’ve always been a sucker for a banana skin.’
Neighbourliness sometimes forced Marian to invite her neighbour into her apartment, although she would always try to arrange things so that it was Jennifer’s they chatted in, but when it was her place she would always, once Jennifer had left, use a soft disinfecting cloth to wipe down everything Jennifer came in contact with especially if she had used the bathroom. Marian knew it was snobbish but that wasn’t a problem as long as other people didn’t see or hear it.
The little round table and two chairs that sat on all the little verandahs in the line of self-contained units came with each unit. They were identical; Marian thought that was a pity. On Marian’s table was a pretty blue and white ceramic pot on a matching saucer, containing a large blooming red gerbera; on Jennifer’s there was a black plastic pot full of dirt.
‘Ah! Here they are!’ Marian exclaimed as Elsbeth, Jamal, and Mia pulled up in their car. ‘Bye Jennifer!’
‘Bye Luv!’ She waved at the car.
Marian walked down her little path past her neat beds of carnations – she had a lovely crop this summer – well aware of her tartan skirt swishing as she went. All women need to know exactly what their skirt is doing at any given moment, she liked to think.
‘She looks like she’s going to a party, not a picnic,’ Jamal said quietly behind the wheel. Elsbeth smiled at her husband.
Marian stopped at the car’s back door and waited for Mia to open it for her. ‘Morning darling, Mal, and you, you pretty thing!’ she cooed, smoothing her skirt under her as she sat.
‘Morning Grandma! Morning Marian! Good Morning Mum!’ they all chorused.
‘You must always open a door for a lady, Mia,’ Marian chided kindly.
‘Aren’t you a little over-dressed for a picnic, Mum?’ Elsbeth said as kindly as she could manage.
‘Oh, you know me, Elsbeth. Doesn’t she, Mia,’ and she tapped Mia on the nose. Mia smiled. Elsbeth and Jamal shared a look. ‘So where are we off to today?’
‘To a pretty little spot on the banks of a creek in the Royal National Park, Winifred Falls,’ Jamal said as he maneuvered out of the drive-way and into the traffic.
‘Oh! Is it maintained by the council?’
‘I suppose so,’ Jamal said.
‘Didn’t you check?’
‘It’s where Jamal took me for our first date,’ Elsbeth said.
‘We want to show Mia.’
Oh, so I’m just along for the ride, am I? ‘How sweet,’ she said. ‘Look at all this traffic!’ She commented on the traffic five times before they got to the park turn off. ‘I thought your first date was to see that film, you know, something about chocolate.’
‘That was Chocolat,’ Jamal said realising too late that he seemed to be correcting her pronunciation. He made a sorry-face meant only for his wife.
‘Oh, sorry,’ Marian said turning to look out the window at the bland and uninteresting suburbs.
‘No, Mum. That was our second date.’
‘Dad was expecting there to be other people there, but there wasn’t,’ Mia said cheekily. ‘They were all alone,’ and then added, ‘Ooooooo!’
Marian turned sharply to look at her grand-daughter. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
Mia ground the backs of two fingers against her lips and closed her eyes, ‘Mmmmmm.’
‘Oh stop it, Mia! You don’t know anything about it.’
‘I do so too,’ she said with confidence.
‘You’re only ten,’ Marian said looking askance at Jamal in the rear-view mirror.
‘I’ll be eleven soon,’ Mia countered. ‘Nearly a teenager.’
‘But not yet!’ Marian said. ‘You’re too young,’ she added while frowning again her disapproval at the back of Jamal’s head.
‘So, how is that neighbour of yours, Mum? Jenny, isn’t it?’ Elsbeth asked to change the subject.
‘Jennifer,’ Marian corrected. ‘She’s fine. Still smoking.’
And that seemed to be the end of the conversation as Marian returned to the nondescript view of grey-green bush now that they had left suburbia behind. Elsbeth rested her hand on Jamal’s thigh.
Marian Schiller, a third generation German Australian is fifty eight and a grandmother for the first time. Her daughter, Elsbeth (Elly) at twenty two married a journalist, Jamal (Mal) Aboud, a handsome second generation Lebanese Australian.
Marian had said nothing about her disappointment at her daughter’s choice of a husband, just like she chooses a hat, she thought, she fell in love and just had to have it; but she was self-aware enough to know that she had to control this feeling and that it was possible that other similar feelings might be lurking in her subconscious and that surfaced, like twinges in her lower back, when she least expected them. She wanted to be good. She had not been so good in the past, and at each slip the disapproving look from her daughter cut her deeply. Such looks were meant to only come from parents to children.
It wasn’t long before Jamal pulled into a small, graveled parking area.
‘Are we there?’ Marian asked with some alarm. The bush didn’t look anything like the park she was expecting.
‘Almost,’ Jamal said. We’ve got a little walk to the falls.’
‘A walk! How far?’
‘Only a few hundred meters,’ Elsbeth said. ‘Come on!’
‘Will we see a kangaroo?’ Mia asked as they all got out of the car.
‘We might,’ Marian said.
‘They’ll be asleep,’ Jamal said, opening the boot. ‘Pre-dawn and dusk are the best times to see them.’
How would you know? You’re not even Australian. ‘Where’s the path?’ Marian asked instead.
‘There,’ Elsbeth said, pointing across the road to a low gate. Jamal took the esky out and handed a bag of supplies to Elsbeth. ‘We might see some deer.’
‘It’s closed!’ said Marian with some hope. ‘Are we allowed to go down there?’ Recent summer rain made the path look extremely uninviting.
‘Just no car access,’ Jamal was carrying the esky and picnic bag. ‘I can help you over it, if you like.’
‘No, thank you. You never said we were going bush-walking.’
‘I said there’d be a little walk to the park.’
‘This isn’t a park.’
‘It’s the Royal National Park!’
‘I was expecting a park with grass, Mal, and a normal cement path not a bush-track. It’s just rocks and mud.’
‘I could piggy-back you.’
‘You will not!’
‘Come on Gran,’ Mia said. ‘It’ll be an adventure. Like explorers.’
‘It’s Grandma, young lady. One shortening is more than enough. There’s no need to shorten it again.’
‘Come on Mum,’ Elsbeth said with the rug and a bag of supplies. ‘We don’t have to hurry. We don’t have a train to catch.’
The four picnickers crossed the tarmac and stepped over the low gate. ‘If I break a heel ….’ Marian said with some force but then she needed all her concentration to navigate through and over, mud filled furrows, caked ruts, puddles and patches of gravel, leaf litter, and deer dung. The two adults and child had to wait for her many times.
‘Mum, take it easy’ Elsbeth said more than once.
‘Don’t you worry about me,’ Marian called back with eyes fixed on the treacherous ground. ‘You just keep your eyes open for snakes.’
‘Look Grandma!’ Mia shouted as she crouched by a layered clay bank at a patch of mossy soil. ‘There’s lots of sundews here.’
‘What!’ shouted Marian from a few meters back.
‘Insectivorous plants, Grandma! Sundews!’
‘That’s nice, dear,’ Marian said without looking up.
‘Can you see Dad?’
‘Yes, you’re right.’
‘But, they’re so small.’
‘And delicate. I wonder what they eat.’
‘Come on you two!’ Marian said having caught up with them. ‘If we don’t get there soon we’ll get there and have to turn around and come straight back again.’
‘You’re doing very well, we’re nearly there,’ Jamal said.
‘I’d believe you if it wasn’t for that smirk on your face.’
‘It’s just around the next bend, Mum,’ Elsbeth was ahead.
‘So is Christmas.’
Less than fifteen minutes later they came to a clearing overlooking a creek running over a low cliff of layered granite ledges. Little waterfalls cascaded into a wide, clear, and still pool, soft looking and tea-colored from the surrounding melaleucas and leaf detritus in its shallows.
‘It’s beautiful!’ Mia exclaimed.
‘We knew you’d like it,’ Jamal smiled at his wife.
‘Look Daddy! Caves under the waterfalls! Can I go look!’
‘You be careful Mia!’ Marian cautioned. ‘There could be things in there. And don’t get wet!’
‘Oh, Marian, I don’t think a little water will hurt,’ Jamal said as bright-eyed Mia headed for the shadowy caves.
Marian looked at her son-in-law askance. ‘Well, there’s definitely no picnic tables.’ And no grass.
‘Look Mum!’ Elsbeth said. ‘Over there’s a low ledge in the shade. You can sit there quite comfortably, I think.’
‘That’s a great spot!’ Jamal confirmed.
‘Getting there is the problem.’
‘Marian, you may have to take off your shoes,’ Jamal said.
‘Stay here. We’ll take everything down and Elsbeth can come back with my walkers for you.’
‘Your feet are much bigger than mine.’ And your walkers aren’t the cleanest either.
‘It’s just to get you down to the ledge. You can’t do that in heels.’
Marian waited. ‘Mia!’ she called. ‘Don’t go too far.’ She had to say something.
Elsbeth laid out the rug on the ledge and emptied the esky: chicken and mayonnaise sandwiches, drumsticks, bottles of juice and water, a container of cherry tomatoes, half a watermelon, cheese and crackers.
Marian sat on the edge of the ledge fanning herself with a plastic plate.
‘Mia!’ Jamal called. ‘Lunch is ready.’
‘Elsbeth,’ Marian whispered. ‘I can’t see any toilets.’
‘No,’ Elsbeth said. ‘But I‘ve bought a toilet roll.’
Marian stared at her, then at the surrounding bush, and back to her again. ‘You can’t be serious.’
‘M-u-m,’ said Elsbeth. She handed her mother a drumstick wrapped in a napkin.
Marian lowered her make-shift fan and glanced around for the cutlery but saw none and so let Elsbeth put the drumstick on her plate. Marian picked it up like a non-smoker taking a cigarette.
‘Isn’t this wonderful!’ cried Mia as she joined her family on the rug. ‘Can we go swimming later?’
’Oh n …’ began Marian.
‘Sure,’ Jamal said.’
‘You can see right to the bottom,’ said the excited girl.
‘Do you know what creatures live in that water?’ Marian asked to suggest caution.
‘Fish and small crustaceans I expect,’ Elsbeth said.
‘There may be glass,’ Marian continued. ‘You know how people can be.’
‘Don’t worry, Grandma, I’ll leave my shoes on. They’re made for water. You can use Dad’s and come in with me.’
‘No, thank you very much!’
‘Would you like some juice, Mum?’ Elsbeth asked.
‘No thank you.’
‘No thanks, Mal.’
Elsbeth smiled at her husband. ’Do you remember where we sat?’
‘In that cave, I think.’
‘Did you bring a picnic like this?’ Mia asked.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I think we had a bottle of wine, though’.
‘That’s right. Koonunga Hill Shiraz. It was your favorite, remember?’
‘I certainly do. Still is my favorite. But,’ he said to Mia, ‘we made sure we took the empty bottle back with us.’
‘You drank a whole bottle?’ Marian’s raised eyebrows were at their limit.
‘Between the two of us.’ Marian caught the cheeky look he shared with Elsbeth and then checked if Mia had seen it.
There was silence for a while as all four people took in the surroundings.
‘Isn’t it gorgeous, Mum?’ Elsbeth said.
‘Yes, it’s very nice,’ Marian said to maintain the peace.
After everyone had eaten enough Elsbeth packed away the left overs while Mia took off her shorts, she had red swimmers underneath, and leaving her sneakers on she waded into the water.
‘You be careful now, Mia,’ Marian warned. “Shouldn’t she wait at least half an hour after eating?’
‘That theory was debunked years ago.’
‘I think, Mum, that only applies for physical exertion. She’s just cooling off.’
‘Ooooo!’ shrieked Mia, ‘it’s so cold and so soft. It’s like silk,’ and she ducked under the water.
Marian stiffened but took some comfort as both parents were watching their daughter. All three had that shaky investment in an only child. After about five minutes Mia came back and lay spread-eagled in the sun on the ledge. ‘That was great!’ she said.
‘Shouldn’t she have some sunscreen on?’ Marian suggested.
But Mia preempted any reply by jumping up and asking, ‘Can I go for a walk in the bush?’
Marian, tight lipped, looked at her daughter.
‘Sure,’ Elsbeth said. ‘Do you want us to come too?’
‘No. I can manage.’
‘You can walk around the pool,’ Jamal said, ‘just keep us in sight.’
‘As long as you can see or hear us,’ Elsbeth added.
‘Goody!’ said the girl as she jumped up and picked her way across several ledges and into the grey-green foliage.
Marian looked concerned. ’Shouldn’t she be wearing a hat.’
‘She’s in the shade,’ Jamal said.
All three adults kept their eyes on the flashes of red through the distant foliage. ‘I can’t hear you!’ the girl called from the undergrowth.
‘But we can see you!’ her father shouted back.
‘You look like an explorer!’ added Elsbeth.
‘You know, Marian,’ Jamal said, ‘we’re so proud of her and how she’s recovered from that silly accident.’
‘She’s regained all her confidence and then some,’ Elsbeth said. ‘She’s been chosen to captain the netball team. Six months ago that would’ve been impossible.’
The chat continued with proud parents explaining the advances and set-backs of Mia’s fall outside Marian’s apartment almost a year ago. Each parent occasionally checked on Mia as they talked.
Mia had got to the head of the pool where another little creek entered but she couldn’t get across because of the steep drop to sticky mud so she took a fallen and jagged tree truck to get over the creek and jagged rocks some meters below.
Marian had only taken her eye from her grand-daughter for a second to find a napkin and take a piece of watermelon but when she looked up …. it was her sharp intake of breath that alerted Jamal who, in an instant, turned, clasped a firm hand over Marian’s open mouth and forced her, with both hands, onto her side onto the rocky ledge. He held her down keeping her silent – her eyes bulging with surprise, shock, and indignation – as both parents held their breath as they watched their daughter, deep in concentration, maneuver her way over the rickety log to the safety of the other side.
When Marian felt Jamal’s grip on her weaken she struggled against him; he let go of her, and she staggered to her feet and with all the outrage she could muster growled, ‘How dare you!’
‘Mum…’ began Elsbeth.
She turned to her daughter and spat, ‘Shut up!’
And all three watched Mia pick her way back to them on the opposite side of the pool but before she got there Marian retreated as quickly as was possible to a flat rock away from the family.
‘That was great!’ Mia said. ‘I saw a lizard! Where’s Grandma going?’
‘You need a medal,’ said her father. ‘We don’t have any gold, but we have some watermelon.’
Mia laughed and took a wedge.
‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ Elsbeth said and headed off after her mother.
She found her leaning against a boulder brushing her clothes down.
‘Mum,’ Elsbeth spoke in as conciliatory a tone as she could muster. ‘Just a minute.’
Marian turned to face her daughter. Her face pink with rage. She had a twig in her hair. ‘That man attacked me!’
Elsbeth’s face lost all its attempt to pacify. ‘What do you mean ‘that man’?’
Elsbeth matched her mother’s vehemence. ‘Yes, he’s my husband, your son-in-law, the father of your grand-daughter and he has a name.’ The two women glared at each other. ‘Well, go on!’
‘ … what?’
‘What is his name?’
Marian just stared at her daughter. There was fear and uncertainty in her eyes.
‘His name is Jamal,’ Elsbeth said.
‘I know that.’
‘Then why don’t you use it?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You call him Mal. No one calls him Mal, except you. And I know exactly why you call him Mal: because it sounds more white!’
Marian stared at her daughter and she could feel terror creep into her veins. She turned and headed into the bush. ‘I’m going back ….’ she began but her throat closed up and deprived her of air and fight.
‘Is Grandma alright?’ asked a worried little girl.
‘She’s a bit upset,’ Elsbeth said as she started to tidy things up and repack the esky.
‘I explained a little bit,’ Jamal said.
‘She’s gone back to the car. We’ll have to go,’ Elsbeth said.
‘But, what …?’
‘Darling. We’ll explain when we get home. Let’s just pack up and save all your questions until then. You know we’ll answer them all, don’t you?’
‘And, Mia, that means not asking in the car,’ Jamal said. ‘It will really upset Grandma. It’s going to be a very quiet trip home.’
And it was. The atmosphere in the car was tense. Elsbeth turned the radio on but it didn’t help. Mia glanced over at her Grandmother who stared out the window, and saw her hair in disarray and a brown smudge on her cheek. She only glanced at her Grandmother once.
As soon as the car came to a stop outside Marian’s unit she opened the door and said with great difficulty, ‘I have to go to the bathroom. Thank you for a lovely day.’ She left the car door open and hurried to her front door, fumbled with the keys, opened it, left it open, and disappeared inside.
Jamal turned off the engine. ‘I’ll go and talk to her.’
‘Is that wise?’
‘I think so.’ Jamal got out of the car.
‘I don’t understand. Why is Grandma so cross?’ Mia began to cry.
‘Oh, darling,’ Elsbeth got out of the car and into the back seat to comfort her daughter. ‘It will all get better. Bad things always get better.’
Jamal entered Marian’s unit, closed the door, and waited in the middle of the neat living room. There was a framed photo of a smiling Mia and Marian on a little lace-covered table beside her chair. A bud-vase held a red carnation and next to it a pile of books whose spines were arranged in ascending order of size and all aligned with the table edge. He heard the toilet flush and then waited to hear the bathroom door open and close.
Marian appeared in the doorway and stopped. Surprise and then anger flashed across her face.
‘I want to explain,’ Jamal said.
‘There is nothing to say.’
‘Yes, there is. Will you let me try?’
Marian sat in her chair.
Jamal sat on the couch. ‘You were going to warn Mia.’
‘She was in danger.’
‘She was managing on her own. Concentrating.’
‘She could’ve fallen!’
‘Yes, if she had been distracted.’
‘I was only thinking of her.’
‘I know. So was I. I wasn’t thinking of you, Marian. Like you, I was thinking of Mia, maintaining her concentration.’
‘You attacked me.’
‘Yes. Because I was thinking of Mia.’
‘So I did the wrong thing.’
‘… yes; about to do the wrong thing.’
‘I see. I’m a danger to my own grand-daughter now, am I?’
‘Today. Yes, you were. Had you had time to think about it you would’ve remained silent. I’m sure of that; and hoped like us, that she would make it. But there wasn’t time. Reaction always comes before reason. Your reaction was wrong. I had to stop you. I had to. I hope I didn’t hurt you.’
‘Not that anyone can see.’
‘Mia is safe. No harm done. Not to her. Now, my focus is on you.’
Marian flashed a look at him.
‘I’m very sorry I did what I had to do. If I had time for reason I would’ve done it differently. But, like you, I reacted before thinking. We both reacted before thinking.’
Marian looked at him again, but only briefly.
‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Marian, for what I did to you. But I don’t regret it. I was only thinking of Mia.’
‘So you’ve said.’
‘As you were. And I don’t want what happened today to be like a never-healing sore on this family. So, if there is anything I can do to make things right; like they were. I will do it.’
Marian looked at him. And looked longer this time. And her back slowly straightened. Finally, she spoke. ‘Yes, there is something you … something I would like you to allow me to do.’
Jamal stood as well.
She walked over to him and slapped him hard across the face.
As Jamal closed the door on Marian’s unit, Elsbeth and a much calmer Mia, watched him walk down the path, around the car, and slide into the driver’s seat.
‘How did that go?’ Elsbeth asked.
‘ … fine,’ Jamal said without looking at his wife. ‘Everything’s fine.’
‘Well that’s a relief. Let’s go home.’