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.


  1. Sally. I love it! I don't usually read a lot of short stories but the picture of the blue egg and the way you started, 'Did I ever tell you about the time..' had me intrigued immediately.

    I want to see a picture of the little man now.

    Congratulations on the Sunday Age publication! Awesome story!

    Renee :-)

  2. Thanks Renee. I'm glad you liked it. I had a lot of fun writing it. The hardest thing was keeping the word limit down. The Age wanted only 800, but I couldn't get it down to less than 1100 words! Fortunately they still managed to fit it in.

  3. Oh! That is so sweet! And it's really quirky in terms of perspective; you rarely see a children's story written from an adult's POV...or perhaps you do and I'm just out of touch. Either way it's gorgeous, sally. x

  4. Thanks, Jen. I know what you mean. All the "rules" of children's writing say no adults allowed, but I think it's nice to break the rules sometimes.

  5. Adorable story, Sally. It's great that it was published in the Age as there aren't that many short stories around - it's usually picture books or novels.

  6. Thanks Robyn, yes, The Age have asked me a few years in a row now to contribute a short children's story to their summer edition, which I think is a great initiative. Look out for Martine Murray's next Sunday!

  7. I thought it was lovely; and my 7 year old said it was cool! Although very different, it reminded me of Thing by Robin Klein - I never get tired of stories about dinosaur eggs.

  8. Thanks Alison - glad your seven-year-old liked it! My seven-year-old thought it was a monster, but another friend said she thought it was a large bird. I like the way an unfinished story can allow the reader's own imagination to fill in the gaps.
    I will look for that Robin Klein story!