Saturday, January 29, 2011

Last night down by the Merri Creek

This is the story I wrote for The Age last summer, which became the inspiration for my children's novel "Angel Creek". I have been working on "Angel Creek" all year, and next week I will hold a finished copy in my hands. For such a small book, it has had a long history.
I had been struggling for over three years with various incarnations of angel stories and had recently discarded a second YA novel that just wasn't working. As well as all the thousands of words and enormous amount of time lost, so too was my confidence diminishing. Writing a novel about angels was proving to be far more difficult than I had first thought.
Why angels? I promise my obsession began long before the publication of the Stephanie Meyer series and the successive paranormal romance boom. In fact, if anything, this sudden interest in all things otherworldly only made me lose faith in what I was doing all the more. I definitely didn't want to be seen as a band-wagon-jumper-onner!
The truth is I had become obsessed with the idea of creating young angels symbolic of a severely repressed adolescence, almost Amish-like, and what would happen once they were let loose in a godless world. But two novel drafts later, I still hadn't managed to make my story work. So, last summer, when I was asked to write a story for The Age again, my head was still full of angels. To brainstorm a fresh story, I took my youngest son for a walk along the Merri Creek. And it was from a walk with my seven-year-old, seeing the world through his eyes, that this story was born.

Last Night Down by the Merri Creek

Pik, Gino and I climb over my back fence and shimmy down the bank towards the Merri Creek. It’s Christmas Eve. This year we’ve had rain and the creek is flowing fast, and all the rubbish from the city is pushed up onto the banks or caught up in the reeds.

Gino’s the first to take off his shoes. ‘Look at all this junk,’ he calls. ‘Bet there’s some cool stuff here.’ He walks along the riverbank lifting up tangles of plastic and string with the end of his stick. There’s a road bridge up ahead and the streetlamps light up the path. Not under the bridge though. At night the tunnel yawns blackly like the mouth of a beast.

‘Hey, let’s go in,’ Gino dares.

‘Cool,’ Pik says, but I can see he doesn’t want to. Me neither, but I’m not going to let them think I’m scared just coz I’m a girl.

We follow Gino along the bank towards the tunnel. A car clacks across the bridge but otherwise there’s no one around. Over the noise of the cicadas we can still hear our parents in my backyard, laughing loud and silly.

At the mouth of the tunnel, Pik and I hesitate as we watch Gino swallowed up by the dark. But then his voice calls out, ‘Not scared are ya?’ and I grab Pik’s hand and pull him in behind me.

After a while I can make out Gino’s form crouching by the water. He turns and beckons to us, then puts his finger on his lips for us to be quiet.

‘What is it?’ I whisper.

‘Dunno. Some bird, I think. Caught up in the rubbish.’

‘Don’t scare it,’ I say. ‘Maybe we can get it out?’

‘Gimme your stick,’ Gino says.

I hand Gino the stick and crouch down by the water’s edge to watch. Pik crouches next to me. I can hear his breathing.

Gino leans out across the water and hooks the end of the stick under a pale-coloured wing. It’s huge. I know all the birds that hang around the creek and I’ve never seen a wing that big. The bird flaps frantically and the three of us fall back onto our bums, laughing nervously. I’m trying not to laugh too loud coz I’m worried about that poor bird. I’m hoping we can save it.

‘Maybe we should get Dad to help?’ I say. ‘Or wait till tomorrow?’

‘It’ll be dead by tomorrow,’ Gino says. ‘Come on.’ He begins to wade out into the water. The creek is flowing fast and I know that I am breaking every rule my parents have ever given me by letting this happen. I look at Pik before I step into the icy water and see the whites of his eyes in the dark. Mud oozes up through my toes as I wade out after him. Gino is close to the bird now, which seems to be trapped behind a rock. As I approach, he bends down to study it. Suddenly, he reels back, arms like windmills. ‘Oh my god!’ he gasps. ‘It’s not a bird!’

I feel my heart thump about wildly in my chest. I don’t want to believe him but something in his voice has turned my skin cold. I peer over the stone into the rushing water and in the shadowy depths I see the pale, pale face of a young boy staring up at us. His eyes are like glass.

‘I’m getting Dad,’ Gino says. He is already striding back through the water and I hear the fear snag his voice. On the bank, Pik starts to bawl. I can’t take my eyes off the boy’s face. I know I should feel frightened but somehow I can’t turn away.

‘Get my dad, too,’ I say. ‘I’ll stay here. Hurry!’

I hear the squelch of their feet as Gino and Pik leave the tunnel and run back along the creek. I turn away from the boy’s face to examine the tangled wing. Something is not making sense. Then, I understand. I call out to Gino and Pik but they are already too far away and my voice ricochets around the tunnel over the noise of the rushing water.

The angel looks up at me with frightened eyes. I perch on the rock to steady myself and try to unwrap some of the rubbish caught around the wing. But when I pull at the plastic, his other wing comes thrashing out of the water. I let go. ‘Hey,’ I say softly. ‘Keep still. I’m trying to help you.’ I stroke his feathers and the angel stares back at me, his peaked chest palpitating like a frightened bird.

Looking more closely I see that one end of the plastic is caught around the rock. I take hold of it and unwind it carefully, my hands dipping in and out of the creek. The angel keeps still, looking up at me through the murky water, its eyes bright and wild. There is only one last piece to go and the angel will be free.

The water in front of me rears up, there is a flash of light and for an instant I am blinded. I hear a whoosh of wings and he is gone. In the distance I hear the voices of my dad and the others running towards the tunnel as a single white feather spins slowly down into my lap.

They never believe my story. Not Mum, not Dad, not even Gino and Pik. But I still have that feather. And no one’s ever found a bird that matches it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

There's gonna be a revolution!

My middle son, who is fourteen, has just inherited his older brother's laptop. Within only a matter of weeks he has become addicted to facebook. Some nights I get up to go to the loo and, even though I've asked him to turn his computer off hours ago, he is still sitting up in bed awake, on facebook.
As it's still the school holidays, this hasn't been too much of a problem because I know he can sleep in the next morning, and during the day I can monitor how much time he spends on his computer. But school starts back soon and I knew I'd have to get this addiction under control by then. So, one night I lay awake in bed worrying (as I'm prone to do) about how I could make sure he turned his computer off at night. I don't have anything against him chatting to his friends on facebook - but until two in the morning? I don't think so.
Then (as can often happen at night, along with all the worrying about what a bad mother I am) I had a stroke of genius. The wireless router is in our bedroom! All I had to do was SWITCH IT OFF AT THE WALL! Incredible! With one flick of the switch: no internet! (Don't worry, I can't believe how it took me so long to come up with that one either!)
So, the next evening after dinner I broke it to my teenage sons. Sons, I told them, every night starting that very evening I was going to switch the wireless off at the wall at 10pm. And, just because I was feeling cocky, I threw in another challenge: not only that, but I had decided that we were going to have wireless-free Sundays. Every Saturday night at 10pm, the wireless connection would be switched off at the wall and only come on again on Monday mornings. For one whole day a week, none of us would be able to lose hours of time and precious brain cells on youtube watching cats do stupid things. We would be liberated!
I looked at my sons expecting them to dissolve into hysterics or smash something against the wall but they just shrugged. I was astounded. Hmm... perhaps they thought I was bluffing? After all my 17 year old son told ME off for checking facebook messages on my iphone at the table the other day! I know. It was a new low.
Perhaps they think I will suffer more them? After all, the new rule was going to test out my resolve as much as theirs. But somehow I sensed my sons were almost relieved. My eldest has already admitted he hates how much time he spends on the computer, but since his grandmother brought him his own laptop two years ago it sits in his room like a magnet, tempting him, luring him in to facebook-youtube-blog-land (as it does to me!) Now, on Sundays, our laptops will become just a lifeless piece of junk and our lives can open up to: conversations! walks in the park! board games! I am half thrilled at the prospect, half terrified.
This Sunday will be our first. I'll keep you posted. Who knows? If it's a success, I might even push for wireless-free weekends.
Now THAT'S revolutionary!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Short Story no.2

The second story I was asked to write for the Sunday Age came with a new challenge. This time the editor wanted to publish a two-part story for children over two Sundays. This is harder than it sounds. I knew that each story would have to feel fully resolved enough not to be frustrating for the reader but that I would also need a cliffhanger at the end of part one to make my reader want to read the second part.
Then the second part would have to give the reader a brief summary of the first part in case they hadn't read the story the week before. A bit like a TV episode really - but all within 8oo words per story! And a very tight deadline, of course.
So, as it was summer I set out to write a story that felt like it contained the essence of my childhood summers. Of barefoot kids going feral, making gangs, sussing out newbies and inventing dares. This is it.

Old Hannah’s Hut.


At the top of Blind Man’s Bluff, at the end of a rocky, winding track, there is a falling down old hut like a crumbling piece of gingerbread. Nobody takes the track right to the end of the Bluff, even though it’s the shortest route to the beach because everybody knows that Old Hannah Stringbean lives in that hut.

And everybody knows that Old Hannah Stringbean eats children.

Last summer, Billy O’Donohue dared the new kid three footy cards and a bag of mixed lollies to take the shortcut to the beach past Old Hannah’s hut. The new kid, Emilio Something-Or-Other, had floppy black hair and a crooked smile and he looked like the kind of kid I’d like to be friends with. But only Billy O’Donohue talks to the newbies ’cause his dad runs the caravan park. Billy is the boss of our gang.

It’s easy to tell the difference between the newbie kids and us locals because newbies are usually pale and blotchy and they squint into the sun. But Emilio was different. He had dark skin like ours and his eyes were like the smooth black trading stones us kids dig out from Dead Man’s Creek. Nobody knew where he came from or where he was staying. He sure wasn’t a parkie or Billy would’ve known everything about him. He got me dead curious. Sometimes I would see him watching us from a distance with those dark stone eyes while we did our gang things.

So one day Billy gave him the dare.

On the day of the dare there was no wind. This is unusual for the bluff. Down on the beach you’re protected from the wind by the cliff face that towers above like a great hulking ogre. But up on the bluff you have to walk close to the ground, bent forward like a hairpin, so as not to be swept over the edge. Usually us Bluff kids take the long way to the beach, round the cliff edge and past the caves. It’s a horrible, blustery walk, and your calves get all scratched up by the blackberry bushes, but nobody ever takes the shortcut past Old Hannah’s hut.

Us kids would rather get scratched up than eaten any day.

We all gathered at the track, Billy, me, and the rest of the gang. Even the twins were there and they never usually come up to the bluff. Billy stood facing Emilio, who flicked his long black fringe out of his eyes. I liked the way he stood there, all silent and still like a tree, with the rest of us all jumping around and jittery.

Suddenly, three footy cards and a measly pack of mixed lollies didn’t seem like something worth dying for. I wondered if I should warn Emilio about Old Hannah. But Billy shot me a fierce warning look before taking Emilio’s outstretched hand.

‘See you down at the beach then?’ Billy said to Emilio. He squeezed the newbie’s smooth dark palm in his suntanned freckly one.

Emilio nodded.

We watched him saunter down the track until he came to the giant paperbark, which was the furthest that any of us had ever dared to go. There Emilio paused. And did the strangest thing. Even though I was standing right at the back of the gang and was the furthest person away from him, Emilio looked me right in the eye. Only for a second, then he was gone.

One of the twins began to cry.

I knew then that it was up to me to save him. I looked at Billy who was standing with his arms tightly crossed, carefully watching the tree in case Emilio reappeared. Billy’s face twitched in disbelief and awe. I had to think fast. I guessed it was only a matter of minutes before Emilio would arrive at Old Hannah’s hut. An idea came into my head.

‘How do we know he sticks to the path and doesn’t just cut through the bush?’ I said to Billy.

Billy screwed up his face, thinking.

‘One of us has to go after him to check that he’s not cheating,’ I said.

‘Well I’m not going!’ Billy said and he glowered at the twins who trembled in fear.

Everyone in the gang spoke quickly, nominating someone else for the job. I couldn’t say anything or it would look suspicious but I knew it was only a matter of time before somebody nominated me.

‘Carla should go!’ one of the twins squeaked. ‘She’s the oldest!’ and suddenly everyone joined in: ‘Yes, Carla should go!’

‘Great!’ I sighed. ‘Typical! You owe me big time, Billy O’Donohue!’ I yelled as I jogged down the track.

Around the bend Old Hannah waited in her hut.



I ran down the track towards Blind Man’s Bluff. As I approached the giant paperbark, shedding long strips like sunburnt skin, I turned to look back at the gang. They were clustered together, motionless, mouths open, watching me in disbelief. Around the bend, at the end of the track, was the falling down hut where Old Hannah Stringbean sat waiting hungrily for any foolish kid to wander past. And now I was heading straight for it. All because of a stupid dare.

Old Hannah had been the source of all our nightmares for years. Billy O’Donohue had a cousin who knew a girl who had wandered into Old Hannah’s hut and had never come out again. The girl had been a newbie. She hadn’t known better. All us local kids knew that Old Hannah ate children.

Behind the hut, carved into the steep cliff-face, were the steps that provided the shortcut to the beach. Nowadays, since Old Hannah had moved in, if you met up with the gang at the Bluff Caravan Park, you had to go back along the main road and past the shops, which took ages, or skirt along the cliff to get to the beach. Nobody was game to take the steps behind Old Hannah’s hut any more.

I looked around. Emilio was nowhere in sight. I peered down the track into the dense bushland. There squatted the crumbling old hut. Two dark windows glowered at me. I crept slowly along the path, my heart pounding in my ears. In the distance I could hear the surf crashing against the cliff below. Sheltered by the steep incline was a little beach with snowy white sand and speckled pink cowrie shells. This beach belonged to our gang. It was the hardest beach to get to, but the only private place for us locals to meet when The Bluff swarmed with tourist kids over the summer. It was our secret beach. No newbies allowed. That’s where Billy and the gang would be waiting. I wondered how long they’d wait. Twenty minutes? An hour? A day?

I thought about Emilio then who, with his dark skin and darker eyes, seemed so different from all the other newbies, and how he had just turned up this summer from nowhere, hanging around our gang, watching us, and suddenly I knew why he had agreed to Billy’s stupid dare. If Emilio made it to the beach without being eaten by Old Hannah Stringbean, he would be the first newbie in the history of us Bluff kids to be accepted into our gang. I prayed that he had found another way through the bush. That Old Hannah hadn’t taken him. I had to make sure.

Ten more steps and I would be at the hut. Then seven, then five. I paused. From here I could almost see through the windows into the darkness of its belly. Those windows watched me hungrily. I tried to calm my heartbeat so that I could hear above its pounding. Was that the sound of crunching bones? Was Old Hannah feasting on poor Emilio? I should have never allowed the dare to take place. I should have stood up to Billy O’Donohue once and for all. If I made it through this, I wouldn’t listen to Billy O’Donohue ever again. Nobody would. If I made it to the beach alive, I would make myself leader of our gang. And Emilio would be second in charge. After all, I was the oldest. Who did Billy O’Donohue think he was? Just ’cause his dad ran the caravan park. That didn’t make him boss.

I took a deep breath and crawled up to the window to peer into the hut. There sat Old Hannah, with her back to me. Her long grey hair snaked down her hunched shoulders. She seemed to be gnawing on something. I felt faint with fear. I wanted to run away, but I had to know if Emilio was in there. As I watched, Old Hannah slowly pushed her chair back and stood. I leapt up. But then, before I could run away, I caught sight of someone sitting at the table across from her. I gasped. It was Emilio! As my mouth dropped open, he saw me and smiled. Striding over to wrench open the door he called out to me, where I stood frozen.

‘Carla!’ he called. ‘You took your time! Come in and meet my grandmother!’


Sunday, January 16, 2011

My first Sunday Age story

The first time I was asked to write a children's story for the Sunday Age I was given some fairly strict parameters.
The editor had chosen three children's authors to write the stories. Andy Griffiths was doing humour and Alison Lester was doing a mermaid story, so could I please write something urban, preferably a school-setting, with a multicultural slant? Um, OK. In a week to arrive on your desk before Christmas? No problems. (eek!)
As it actually turns out I don't mind a bit of pressure, and as I've mentioned before, I love working within boundaries. I've noticed when I run writing workshops with kids, that they do, too. If you give a bunch of kids a pen and paper and say 'Write a story' they will all stare at you blankly, but if you say 'Write a story about a dragon, or a mud-fight, or the the most embarrassing thing you remember' you barely get the last word of your sentence out before they are madly scratching away. I'm the same. Give me some parameters and I can reign that wandering mind of mine in enough to know where to start.
I knew that I was being asked to write a multicultural story because I had published quite a few children's books with Asian-Australian characters, the 'Fang Fang' stories being the most well-known. Having grown up in South-East Asia myself, changing schools every two years and often arriving in a place where no one around me spoke English, I am often drawn to stories of 'the outsider'. I was more than happy to explore this theme again. However, because I knew Andy and Alison were getting to write funny and magical stories I was very wary of my story seeming all PC and earnest, so I decided to toss in a little magic myself.
This is my story:

The Wish

I walk out of the bedroom in my new school uniform and everybody cheers. Ma, Ba, Auntie May and Uncle Di. Even Nai Nai looks up from the television for a moment to clap her papery old hands together. Only cousin Betty sits in the corner of the lounge room and rolls her eyes to the ceiling.

“Aiya! So pretty!” Aunty May screeches, pinching my cheeks so hard that my eyes water. “Better than the Chinese school uniforms, huh? So much easier to clean.”

I tug Ma’s arm and pull her to one side. “Ma, please don’t make me go,” I beg. I’m trying not to cry in front of Cousin Betty but my throat feels so tight it’s like I’ve swallowed an orange.

“You’ll be fine Little Pumpkin Gourd,” Ma says, calling me by my Shanghainese name. "Cousin will look after you, won't you Magnificent Treasure?"

My cousin sighs. “They call me Betty, here, Auntie,” she says shaking her head and looking at Ma like she’s just a squashed up old dim-sim on the road.

I don’t like the way my cousin talks to my parents. We were all born in the same place. Just because she has lived in Australia for three years and can speak English doesn’t mean she’s suddenly grown an extra brain.

“OK, everyone in the car,” Uncle Di says, clapping his hands together and we all bustle towards the door. I drag my feet but Ma’s hand is like a claw in my back.

“Don’t make me lose face in front of your Auntie May,” she hisses in my ear.

Suddenly, Nai Nai makes a noise. Everyone turns around surprised because Nai Nai rarely talks. She just sits in front of the TV watching the ads all day and sipping thimble-sized teacups of bitter black herbs. Nai Nai raises a shaky arm and points at me. I look at Ma who puts the claw back into my back, but this time pushes me towards Nai Nai.

Betty groans. “We’ll be late! Just ignore her.”

“Let Nai Nai wish her grand daughter well on her first day of Australian school,” Auntie scolds. Betty huffs and stomps out the front door towards the car.

I shuffle over to Nai Nai’s couch and she grabs my hand in both of hers. Her fingers are knobbly and worn and as smooth as polished rosewood. She slips something into my palm. I look down at the tiny silk pouch embroidered with red and green dragons.

“Thanks Nai Nai,” I say. “What is it?”

Nai Nai leans in close and I can smell her musty breath. “A wish,” she says. Then the ads come on again and she pushes me towards the front door.

Fifteen minutes later Betty and I tumble out of the car in front of my new school, the sound of both our parents calling out well-wishes in our ears. Betty walks beside me for a moment, but as soon as the car is out of view she runs on ahead and is quickly lost in the sea of children.

I wander over to a bench and sit in the shade of a tree that smells like pepper and lemons. Kids run back and forth happy to see each other after the long holidays. Everyone seems to know somebody. I can’t see anyone sitting on their own. I miss my friends in Shanghai and picture them riding their bikes to school in the snow.

A bell rings and all the kids run in one direction. I see Betty in the distance and jog to catch up with her. All my new books rattle around in my backpack. I stand behind her in the line but she won’t turn around to look at me. A teacher walks up to us and asks me something in English that I can’t understand. Then she looks towards Betty to translate. That was the deal. But Betty just turns to me and smiles sweetly before saying in Chinese, “Onions and pig’s breath and toenails.” Then she turns back towards the teacher who nods, satisfied, and walks back up to the front of the line.

That’s when I feel those salty tears prickle my eyes again. I put my hand in my pocket where the silk pouch is hidden and think about turning Betty into dog poo or a tadpole or smelly green slime, but the fact is that I need her. Betty is horrible, but not as horrible as being completely alone in a brand new school when I can’t even understand what people are saying. I can’t imagine how things could possibly get worse, but they do. Much, much worse.

In class, Betty has to sit next to me but she won’t look at me at all. Instead she whispers to the girls on her other side who stare at me and giggle. I can’t even do my work because Betty translates anything the teacher says into nonsense until at the end of class the teacher comes over looking quite annoyed that I haven’t even opened my books. All I can do is concentrate on not crying. The teacher stands over me exasperated until I can bear it no longer and I pull the silk pouch out of my pocket to wish myself back into my classroom in Shanghai.

Then suddenly Betty grabs the pouch from my hands.
"Where did you get that?" she snaps in Chinese.

“Give it back!” I shout. “It’s mine!” I reach over the desk to grab at my wish and all my books topple loudly to the floor.

The teacher throws her arms up in exasperation then puts her hand out to Betty. Betty looks at me smugly and plops the little silk pouch with my wish inside it into the teacher’s outstretched palm. Then the teacher clip-clops angrily back to the front of the class. The bell rings. Betty runs outside with the other students.

When everyone has gone I let those tears slide right down my face and drop onto my desk. I have never felt more alone. I look at all my brand new books on the floor and my scratchy new school uniform and even though I know my parents have been saving for three years for us to move to Australia where the streets are wide and clean and the children all go to university I know I can never be happy here and the thought makes those tears slide down all the more.

Suddenly I hear someone come into the room. I am so busy trying to wipe my tears away that I don’t see her until she is standing right in front of me. I recognise her as the girl who was sitting behind me in class.

“Hello?” I offer because it’s the only word I know in English, but to my surprise, she answers in Chinese. I haven’t heard Chinese spoken that way before but she looks a lot like me and suddenly my heart soars.

“I’ve got something for you,” she says, smiling, and to my surprise, she pulls the little silk pouch out of her pocket and puts it on my desk.

“I can’t believe it! How did you get it back?” I ask.

“I explained to Mrs Hutcher that you needed it for your asthma. So just make sure you cough every now and then, OK?”

I laugh and she does too.

“Aiya, that Betty is horrible,” she says, shaking her head. “How’d you get stuck with her?”

“She’s my cousin,” I sigh. “Mum sent me to the same school so that she could translate for me until I learn English.”

“Well, I think you’d be better off sitting next to me,” the girl says. “You’re not going to learn much from your cousin are you? Don’t worry, you’ll pick up English quickly. I did. My Chinese name is Small Pickle. Yeah, I know. Terrible, isn't it? But my friends here call me Sammy. So, what’s in the pouch anyway?”

“Nothing,” I say.

And it’s true. I open it up and the faintest whisper of blue smoke drifts towards the window.

I think I used it well.


Then, because I grew rather attached to Little Pumpkin and wasn't quite ready to let her go, I eventually turned my story into this:

My two oldest sons did the beautiful bird illustrations that head each chapter of the book. Here's one of them.
Gorgeous, huh?
Then we dedicated the book to our French-Australian friends, The Short Family, who have voyaged back and forth across the oceans as much as we have.
So, this book, little as it is, ended up being quite a special one for me.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Short stories and blue-speckled eggs

I have a children's story in the Sunday Age newspaper today.
I love short stories. I wrote short stories for years before I even considered embarking on my first novel. They are how I learned to write. As a young mother in the suburbs (nearly eighteen years ago!), they were my little windows of creativity. My eldest son had long afternoon sleeps as a baby - sometimes up to three hours. I would carry an idea for a story around in my head all morning while I did housework or shopped or attended to his needs. Then, the minute he was asleep, I would rush to my computer and the story would spill out of me like a fever. I trained myself to write 3000 words in two hours. They were my lifeline. Dozens and dozens of them were written over those years. Some of them stored on floppy disks (remember them?) that can never be retrieved. But that doesn't matter. It was the act of writing that was most important - not the outcome.
I continue to write short stories just for the pleasure of it. And the training they give me as writer. Those short sharp episodes. The practice of efficiency. Glimpses into a lit window, then off again. Occasionally, if I'm asked to provide a story for a publication, I might pull out one of those stories, dust it off. Rework it or shorten it or lengthen it depending on the required word count. None of the stories, that writing practice, is ever wasted.
Over the last few years, The Sunday Age has asked me to provide a children's story for their summer edition. The deadlines are always tight, the stories always need to be written in that frantically busy period just before Christmas, and I always wonder if I'll be able to come up with something in time. Then, when I create that little space in my busyness, sit down and begin, I am reminded all over again what a joy writing short stories can be. Occasionally I might be given some guidelines: word length, themes, but these boundaries only stimulate my imagination all the more - give me something to press against.
Then, of course, there's the excitement of seeing my story in the paper. Of course I buy copies for my parents, too. I don't know if the excitement of seeing my name in the paper will ever wear off. But even more exciting are the letters that come afterwards from my young readers. For two of my short stories, the letters I received were so inspiring that I was encouraged to turn them into children's novels. One of them became a Penguin Chomp titled, 'Just One Wish'. The other is the basis for my latest novel, 'Angel Creek', due out in February.
So, for those of you, who don't receive The Age newspaper, I have posted today's story below. If I can find them all, I will post the other stories over the next few weeks.

The Egg-Sitter.

Did I ever tell you about the time I found an egg in my garden? No, not a bird’s egg. Nothing like that. Much bigger. The size of a watermelon and covered in pale blue spots. Right in the middle of my veggie patch. While I was standing there looking at the egg, wondering where it had come from, and what clumsy critter had trampled all over my tomato plants, there was a knock on my front door.

I wasn’t expecting anyone. It was that dead time between Christmas and New Year and finally I had some peace and quiet to work on my novel. Instead I was distracted and disturbed by that egg. And now an unexpected visitor. I opened the door.

‘Ahem,’ came a gruff voice. ‘Someone called about an egg?’

I looked down and there, standing on my front door mat, was a stout little man in a three-piece suit. Only as high as my knee. Standing there looking up at me, his hands crossed over his round belly.

He cleared his throat again. ‘Erhm…the egg?’

‘Oh!’ I said, startled out of my staring. ‘Um, yes, I do have an egg, as a matter of fact. It’s out the back.’

He followed me through my kitchen and into the garden. ‘Who told you it was here?’ I asked him.

‘Sorry, Madam. I don’t get given that kind of information. Just get told where my next job is.’

He handed me a crisp white business card, with gold lettering.

It read:

Poulterkin and Sons

Egg-sitters since 1801

No egg too big or too small

And, sure enough, when I looked up from the card, the little man was climbing up onto the egg and making himself comfortable.

‘So… ‘ I said. My day was getting stranger and stranger. ‘You’re here to sit on that egg…’

‘Until it hatches.’

‘Until it hatches. Of course. How long exactly do you think that will take?’

The little man shrugged. ‘Hard to tell, really.’

‘Right. Well. Are you okay if I get back to work then?’

‘Don’t mind me,’ he said. ‘Just pretend I’m not here.’

But this proved extremely difficult. My studio looks out over the garden, and every time I lifted my eyes from the computer screen, there he was. That little man. Sitting on that big egg in the blazing sun. I sighed, pushed back from my desk and strolled outside.

‘I was thinking of making myself a sandwich and a cup of tea. Would you like something?’

‘Oh, that’s terribly kind of you. I was in such a rush to get here this morning I didn’t have time for breakfast.’

‘Great!’ I said. ‘Ham, cheese and tomato, okay?’

‘Oh,’ he said, reddening. ‘I don’t eat ham. Or cheese. And I’m not very keen on tomatoes, to tell you the truth. Would you happen to have any honey?’

‘Sure. One honey sandwich coming up.’

‘White bread?’

‘White bread. How do you take your tea?’

‘White with ten.’


He blushed again. ‘I know. I should be cutting back on milk. But I’ve got a long day ahead of me.’

I made the tea and sandwiches and we sat in my garden chatting. Turns out he was a keen gardener. I admitted I’d never had much luck with tomatoes. Put them in every summer but they were always disappointing.

‘So, what’s in there?’ I asked, finally. ‘I mean it’s much too big to be a bird’s egg.’

‘Oh, no, no!’ He chuckled. ‘We leave bird eggs to the birds. They’re perfectly capable mothers.’

‘Well, what then?’

He looked down at his hands. ‘Sorry, dear. Top secret. Part of the job, I’m afraid.’ And he made a gesture like he was zipping up his mouth. ‘Thanks for the tea, though. Now, if you’ll excuse me…’

That afternoon I rearranged my bookshelf and sorted through my filing cabinet. I was far too distracted to work. Every now and then I’d glance out the window of my studio towards the vegetable patch and see the little man perched on the big blue-speckled egg. Occasionally, he’d nod off, but most of the time he just gazed peacefully up into the birch trees. I finished up and wandered outside.

‘I’m going to start thinking about dinner soon,’ I told the little man. ‘I don’t suppose you’d like to come in and join me?’

The little man’s eyes widened. ‘Oh no! I couldn’t leave the egg. Especially now it’s getting cooler.’

‘Can I bring you something then? Some dinner?’

‘Just a cup of tea, would be lovely. Thank you. But can you make them heaped teaspoons this time, please? I like my tea sweet.’

And so it went on. All that night and all the next day. All the next day and the next. The little man sat on the egg. Rain, hail or shine. I took him cups of tea that were so sweet you could almost stand a spoon up in them, but apart from the honey sandwiches, that was all he ate.

I grew to admire that little man, I have to say. I’ve never seen anyone with such patience. And I think he grew rather fond of me, too. When the weekend came around, I was faced with a dilemma. Friends had invited me down to the beach to celebrate New Year’s Eve, but I was loathe to leave him on his own. I knew I wasn’t the greatest company, but I guessed I was better than no one.

‘Go, go. Of course you must,’ he insisted. ‘It’s not healthy for someone your age to stay cooped up all summer with only an old egg-sitter to chat to.’

So, I drove down to the beach. I tried to join in the fun, the conversations, the festivities. The fireworks that year were the biggest they had ever been. But I couldn’t help thinking about the little man and worrying about him all on his own. The next morning, I got up before anyone else was awake. I drove all the way back to the city without stopping. The streets were quiet and litter was strewn everywhere.

‘Hello?’ I called as I unlocked the front door. ‘Hello?’ I strode through my kitchen and out the back door. ‘I’m home.’

But he was gone.

Where he had sat day after day was a small tomato plant, already brimming with tomatoes. When they ripened, everyone said they were the best tomatoes they’d ever tasted. Which was just as well, because all the bushes I’d planted had been squashed flat. And leading out of the veggie patch, up the garden path were the biggest footprints I’d ever seen. Big three-toed footprints that sunk deep into the earth.