2018—Red Dust & Pearls, finalist Newcastle Short Story Award anthology.

Nola couldn’t stomach the poets. But I never thought she’d try and kill one. She was getting ahead of herself. Badmouthing the snotty-nosed twerps behind their backs, was one thing, bumping one off in broad daylight, was something else altogether. The first I heard about it all was when two policemen turned up on my front doorstep holding copies of a slim volume of poems titled Divinity.

            It would seem that Nola while reversing her clapped-out bambino fiat from the car park of the writers’ centre where she worked as a volunteer, had backed over not only a poet but a prize-winning one. The poets, of whom there were too many according to Nola, were outraged. They asserted that the mowing down of one-of-their-own had been premeditated and were busy penning poems they could perform as means of nonviolent protest. The poets had become, in literary parlance, performance poets. No matter the venue or that the audience was always branch stacked with other poets. Or this is what Nola told me, along with the fact that the poets ate their own body weight in food at every performance. 

            I decided, the policemen and I needed to sit down and have a talk, man to man.  I invited them into my home where I told them to pull up a pew.  I gave them mugs of tea and freshly baked damper with generous dollops of butter.  I was buggered if those bumbling show ponies were going to paint Nola as some sort of criminal. So, while one of the now greasy-fingered policemen flicked through his copy of Divinity, I explained how Nola’s life hadn’t amounted to much, and how at the age of seventy she was finally  starting to realize a lifetime’s dream of writing a romance novel called Red Dust and Pearls.  Both of the policemen furrowed their brows and jutted out their bottom lips.

            I put another chunk of damper onto each of their tin plates. Then I sat myself down to give them an outline of Nola’s novel which is about a beautiful young woman named, Marigold, whose a pilot for the Royal Flying Doctor Service up North, in the outback. Being headstrong yet tenderhearted, she soon catches the fancy of a local cattle baron. Brock, the cattle baron, is ruggedly handsome and filthy rich. And when he’s not zooming around in a helicopter, he’s on a stock horse galloping across the dusty red plains with the wind raking his sun-bleached hair, a rollie dangling from the corner of his mouth. And at night when the inky sky is ablaze with stars, he’s sitting by the campfire, sharing a brew and a yarn with the stockmen, his loyal cattle dog, Bluey, lying asleep by his feet.

            The policemen, while eating damper and sipping tea, nodded their appreciation. ‘Sounds good,’ said the policeman with the greasy fingers, who’d now fashioned his copy of Divinity into a cylindrical tube which he spied through. ‘I wouldn’t mind being Brock.’

            For Nola, it was a far cry from her own life.  She lived in a two-bedroom flat in outer-suburbia where she looked after her disabled adult son and cleaned other people’s houses to make ends meet.  Any spare time was spent knitting beanies for charity and reading romance novels by the truckload.

            The prize-winning poet, who’d barely been touched by the rear bumper bar, according to Nola, had also wangled a paid residency at the writers centre.  Years earlier with the help of a fat grant she had written a couple of very slim volumes of poetry which were published. But Nola said that sales had been lousy, and the books ended up being pulped. The poet had a pen name — The Poetess, and her email address was poetess@ hotmail.com.  She also had a stack of business cards made from recycled paper with Poetess for Hire printed on them.  Nola thought the poetess was an oxygen thief.  Who was I to argue?

            Nola used to get real excited by her story and loved nothing more than telling me about the extra bits she’d tacked onto Red Dust & Pearls. She asked for my opinion whenever she saw me at the writers’ centre, while we made cups of tea for the poets.Or mopped floors. Or took out the rubbish. Nola had made the mistake of going to the writing centre’s A.G.M., where she'd put up her hand. Volunteering to do whatever was needed. I suppose it gave Nola the chance to discuss her work-in-progress with a gentleman like myself who appreciates the ways of a woman’s heart.

            ‘I’m having Brock rescue a Japanese tourist who’s been taken by a six-metre crocodile. Then when the Royal Flying Doctor arrives to take the chewed-up and spat out tourist to Darwin Hospital, Brock meets Marigold, and sparks fly,’ enthused Nola one day when we were cleaning the windows. ‘What ya reckon?’

            Clutching scrunched up newspaper and a bottle of Windex in my rubber-gloved hands, I gave her the thumbs up and told her I was stoked to be hanging out with a soon-to-be-famous writer.  Nola’s face crumpled and tears slid down her face. I put an arm around her shoulders and handed her my hanky.

            I’m not sure how it all came about, the poetess wanting to read Nola’s romance novel because her so-called feedback crushed poor Nola. You see while Nola was great at cooking up stories, her writing was a mess. 

            The poetess wore a pink nylon wig, and her website was a bragsite, carping on how she could do pretty well anything, including whistling Waltzing Matilda while doing backflips through burning hoops.  But when she read Nola’s romance novel, she whined how it was formulaic and sexist and would never get published. 

            Nola took it on the chin and muddled on with Red Dust & Pearls, putting commas where she thought they ought to go, looking up spelling in the dictionary, and shuffling paragraphs around until they were all roughly the same size. I helped by figuring out where Marigold should blush and when Brock should burn with desire.

         Nola said, she’d only scratched the poetess with her car. The poets claimed she’d put her foot on the accelerator. Nola counterclaimed, she hadn’t seen the poetess. The poets bellyached how they were a persecuted lot.  And between them they supposedly had a gazillion photographs on their mobile phones as professed proof of the bambino fiat ploughing into their pin-up girl. The photographs which had been photo-shopped to look like the poetess had been backed over by a bulldozer repeatedly were posted on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. In reality, she’d been boozing at a performance gig then stumbled dead drunk into the car park before crashing headfirst into Nola’s car at the exact moment Nola was putting her key into the ignition.

         Nola didn’t mean to hit the poetess, although she might have been tempted. She told me about the day previous to the incident when she was washing dishes from yet another performance gig in the kitchen sink. The poetess, who was wearing a pink tee-shirt with the words, Vegan for the Voiceless, emblazoned on the front, trooped in and flung open the fridge door. She pointed to a block of cheese sitting on one of the shelves.

        ‘This cheese is contaminating my food.’

          Nola stared at the poetess and then at the cheese, wondering what was going on.

         ‘Remove it,’ said the poetess. ‘Please,’ she added sarcastically.

           Nola dried her hands before picking up the cheese. ‘I’ll take it home.’

            Ms Cheesed-off eyeballed Nola as if she was the hired help.  She handed Nola  one of her business cards before leaning back on the open fridge door. Nola glanced at the pink card with the words Love makes Poets printed on the front. To her horror, she heard herself say, ‘Thanks.’  By way of reply, the poetess gave a one-shouldered shrug before leaving Nola to close the fridge door. It was at this point, Nola got stroppy. She was angry with herself for kowtowing to the woman.  

            Nola was adamant the poetess had merely sustained a graze to her forehead, which had been put right with a couple of band-aids from the writing centre’s first aid kit.   The poets maintained that Nola’s car was dented from having run over the poetess whose blood was now smudged onto the duco and soaked into the tread of the rear tyres. Pink nylon strands from her wig were found on the brake lights. The poets bleated how it was very nearly curtains for the poetess who was  saved in the nick of time after being rushed to a nearby hospital. But due to complications, she would have on-going medical problems and a pronounced limp.

          ‘I’ve been stitched-up,’ lamented Nola, when I last saw her at the writers centre.

            I clicked my tongue.

            The poets had managed, somehow, to fabricate an ironclad case against Nola. She ended up doing time in a rural minimum-security prison, where she continued to work on her novel. The first time I went out to visit her, I was surprised to see her in such good spirits. 

            ‘I’m thinking,’ Nola explained excitedly about her novel.  ‘When the noonday sun is high in a taut blue sky and baking the red earth, Brock and Marigold ought to go swimming in the cool, clear waters of a billabong where Brock hints to Marigold, he wants to marry her. What do you reckon?’

            ‘Reckon I could live with it, just fine.’

            Each time I saw Nola, her novel was getting closer to being finished. But then one day, she hit me with the news.  ‘The poetess, remember her? She’s here now at the prison. She got a residency.’

            ‘Stone the crows.’

            ‘I’ve stopped working on my novel.’

             ‘Whoa!  You’re kidding me?’

            ‘No. I think the poetess is right.’

            ‘About what?’

            ‘My novel, being sexist and predictable.’

            ‘But it’s my story,’ I stammered. ‘Don’t cut me loose like this.’

             ‘Them’s the breaks.’

            ‘What about Marigold?’

            ‘Girl like her?  She’ll find another story.’

            I stared down at my boots, noticing the red dust in its creases.

            Nola gave a weighty sigh. ‘You should see her limp.’

            I scratched my head. Nola was between a rock and a hard place.

            ‘Me and the poetess have started a writers group, Behind Bars Performance Poets,’ Nola explained carefully.

I went quiet.

            ‘She thinks I’m gifted and shouldn’t be wasting my time writing trash.  We’re writing an anthology of poetry together, Caged Dreams.’ 

            My heart sank. Nola had written me off. She was on a roll. I was cactus.

            Nola started to rabbit on about doing a poetry performance gig in the prison cafeteria and inviting the poets along.

            The time had come for me to roll up my swag and shoot through. But I was gutted. I knew romance writers were a fickle two-faced lot, but to get knifed in the back like that? It had me beat. I never wanted to clap eyes on another romance writer ever again.  Still, I put on a brave front and bid my fair-weather friend goodbye.

In the dying light of evening, I removed the rollie from behind my ear, lit it, and took afew drags. I started to walk out of the prison. My footsteps were heavy and slow as I made my way along an avenue of ghost gums. A bunch of pink and greys took off in flight. By the time I got to within cooee of the entrance, I’d finished my smoke and placed the butt into the top pocket of my checkered shirt. I stopped by the entrance where a kindly looking female guard stepped forward. She was holding my dog Bluey for me, on a leash. I tipped my hat. She gave me a smile before handing me back my most loyal friend.


2016 —Machine Man, highly commended. Hope: an anthology. Inaugural Brother-hood of Saint Laurence Hope Prize 2016, Newcastle Short Story Award.

Last night I decided it was time to kidnap an old lady. Not any old lady. Not a loud mouth. Not the type you get on the radio. I listen to them all the time at the car wrecker’s yard where I work.  They’re always banging on about something. How people have no manners and how everything costs and how useless the youth of today are.

      The boss of the place where I work is called Black Jack. He’s mad about cards, especially poker. I live in a caravan that he owns. It sits beside the office. He lived in it for years so it’s got everything I need. There’s a shower and toilet block out behind the office. I don’t pay rent. I just have to keep an eye on the place at night and on weekends and feed the guard dogs. The yard sits bang smack in the middle of suburbia.

       Once, when Black Jack first started the business it was a light industrial area. Then, about twenty years back, the factories got torn down and replaced with houses whose owners were always bellyaching to the local council about having a car wrecker’s yard in their neighborhood. Black Jack, in a nice way, told the council to fuck off.

        I wanted a Mum like the one I saw on T.V. last night, when I was having dinner. I always have grub in front of the T.V. The television set is my family. Sometimes I’ve even thought about changing my surname to T.V. Paul T.V., that’s me. I was eating lasagna. Frozen dinners are great, well they are once you’ve zapped them in the microwave. If the television set is my family, then my microwave oven has to be my brother. I talk to it enough. People might think I’m being stupid. Say that a microwave can’t hear, and can’t be related to you. Some people suck. Some people have ice cubes for brains. 

         I think my ancestors could have been gadgets. I’ve worked in the auto-wrecker’s yard since I was fifteen. It’s my home, metal is my family. Black Jack, my best buddy, tells me ‘that’s cool.’ Black Jack is ancient and wise and tells me my ancestors could have easily been gadgets because of all the body piercings I have. He tells me it’s a wonder I don’t spring a leak when I drink a can of coke.  He tells me that all I need now is bolts either side of my neck and I’d look like Frankenstein.  Black Jack calls me the machine man because of all the bits of metal I’ve got sticking out of me and that if I ever got lost he’d find me easily with a metal detector.

       I tell him he wouldn’t. Not here at work, where we’ve got tones of busted-up car bodies. He gives me a friendly cuff and tells me to bugger off. He tells me that I need a girlfriend, preferably one who’s into heavy metal. He asks me if I’ve got a hunk of metal hanging off my dick. He knows I don’t. He jokes that still being a virgin at nineteen is criminal. He threatens to take me to a brothel.  There’s no way I’d tell Black Jack, or anyone, that I’ve already lost my virginity, and in a way, you don’t want to brag about.

      Instead I tell him that I like being a virgin, and that I’m saving myself for someone special.  Black Jack laughs. He laughs a lot, he laughs at everything. He laughs when he’s meant to be serious. He laughs when he’s meant to be sad. Black Jack would laugh at a funeral. I would want Black Jack at my funeral, laughing like a hyena. This is how Black Jack expresses himself, through laughter. And it takes a while to learn how each of his laughs is different. When I told him I wanted a Mum, he stared at me, and sort of gave a snort laugh, a laugh that said, ‘tragic.’

        I ignored his snort laugh. What would he know? Nobody knows the play like the player. I like that saying. I heard a tow truck driver say that once and memorised it. My brain’s a magnet; everything sticks to it, except for the school stuff from when I was a kid.

        The old lady I saw on T.V. last night was nice. I want a Mum like her. She was advertising Mother’s day. She was all soft and snowy-white and she didn’t say anything. She smiled when her daughters gave her presents. I wondered if she had a son.

         When I told Black Jack about her, he grabbed hold of me by my tee- shirt and hauled me up so I was real close to him when he hissed at me to stop fantasising about old ladies. That it was sick. That before long I’d be hanging around morgues, wanting to have it off with dead people.

        I told him he was exaggerating. Black Jack answered back with a laugh that said — ‘dill-brain.’  Black Jack explained to me that the broad on T.V. wouldn’t want a kid with bits of metal thinmajings hanging off him, not to mention the dyed orange hair and half his arse hanging out the back of his dacks. It didn’t sit with the establishment. Apparently, I was anti-establishment and didn’t even know it. 

        Black Jack’s an awesome guy. He reads the newspaper every day, cover to cover. He’s cool. He’s the chief. Nut, is the other guy who works with me, stripping written-off cars for different parts to sell. Nut’s okay, it was him who put the idea of pinching an old lady into my head.

        One day I happen to say, ‘wish I had a mum to do my washing and cooking.’

             ‘Geez ya bloody big girls blouse,’ Black Jack yelled back at me while we were taking a car apart. ‘Get yourself a girlfriend for fuckssake— get more than your washing done.’

        ‘There’s plenty of pussy at the old folk’s home around the corner.’ Nut cried out from under the bonnet of a car he was working on. While he and Jack were laughing, I was thinking. Nut was right; there were lots of old ladies at the nursing home. Sometimes they’d wheel them out to air out in the sun. I use to see them sprinkled round the lawn like daisies.

            ‘Go kidnap one,’ said Nut.

            Jack and Nut couldn’t stop laughing at the joke. But I thought it  was a good idea.

             That night when I was eating dinner in front of T.V. I got to thinking about what Nut had said. ‘Go kidnap one.’ I took my plate to the sink, and then went to the Calendar. Soon it’d be Mothers Day.

           I’d heard that nursing homes are full of old people, forgotten, left to dribble their days away until they finally cark it, and then their relos divvy up the spoils and get on with their lives. There were Mums out there for the asking. I told myself that it’d be like going to a dog refuge home and picking out a stray mutt. No one would notice if I took an old lady out for a day. It didn’t matter to me if my new Mum was old. I had a young Mum once. It didn’t work. I was always running away from her until the day Black Jack scooped me up and gave me a home.


The next day after work I walked to the nursing home that was only about ten minutes away. The nursing staff gave me weird looks when I entered the grounds. I told them I was visiting my Mum. One of the nurses, said, ‘you mean your grandmother.’

        I sort of laughed it off before walking into the nursing home where I tried to pick an old lady who’d make a good Mum. There were lots to choose from. I tried to look for the most deserving. When I saw all those old women looking at me longingly as if to say, ‘take me, take me,’ it made me feel lousy.

         Finally I picked a lady that was all curled up in a wheelchair. She had white hair that was long and pulled back into a small bun at the back of her head. She reminded me of a bird, tiny and defenseless. She needed a son to treat her right, and to protect her. I called her Mum right from the start. She gurgled when I told her that I was her son. She recognised me instantly. I could see it in her eyes. I told her that I’d be taking her out on Mother’s Day, back to my place, back to the caravan where I’d cook dinner for her.

One of the nurses came up to me. ‘You must be the first visitor Iris has had since she’s been here.’

‘Yeah? I would have come sooner but I’m from Queensland,’ I lied.  ‘Only got here yesterday.’

The nurse gave me a funny look. As if I was a lying bastard. But I kept a level head, and smiled down at Mum.

The nurse kneeled down next to the old lady and yelled into her ear, ‘Iris has been with us for over five years now.’ She looked up at me. ‘It’s kind of you to visit her.’ Mum followed the nurse’s gaze, begging me with her watery eyes, to take her home, right there and then. I knelled down in front of her and took hold of her thin bony hands. ‘I’ll be back to see you tomorrow.’

The nurse brought her hands together. ‘Oh, you’d love that, wouldn’t you Iris?’

I gave Mum a small kiss on her cheek and left. But I felt bad for abandoning her, all alone, in a place where the smell of piss made you want to puke. What kind of son was I?

            That night as I lay in bed, I began to make plans for Mother’s Day. I‘d have to clean up the caravan. Go to Target and buy a decent dinner set. Buy a card and a present and flowers. Then I’d go to Woolies and buy a frozen dinner. But which one? I decided on Shepherd’s pie. I’d had it before, it was pretty runny and I knew Mum would like it.

            Black Jack noticed that I was different. ‘Hey machine man, you’re pretty quiet these days. What’s up?’

            I shook my head, feeling the metal piercings in my face.

            ‘Notice you been going to that nursing home a lot lately.’ Black Jack sized me up. ‘Not doing anything stupid are you?’ He stopped. ‘I find out that you’re fucking old ladies— I’ll kill you.’

            ‘I’m not fucking old ladies.’

            ‘What then? Is it community work or sumthing?’

            ‘Yeah, sort of.’

            Black Jack didn’t laugh. He didn’t have a laugh for what he suspected me of.

            ‘I swear to God.’ He shook his head. ‘I’ll take a hammer to you if I find out you’re fiddling with any of those old ducks at that joint.’


            ‘I like talking to old people’

            Black Jack gave a shrieking laugh, short and razor sharp with disgust, slicing into me like I was a hunk of cheese. ‘Bugger me, as to what they make of you at that nursing home.’

            I wanted to tell Black Jack that none of them ever said anything. Never called me names or stared at me like I was some kinda freak. But I kept quiet. Black Jack was onto me, and he’d be watching me closely. I didn’t fancy being whacked to death with a hammer.

            I was lucky, with Mother’s Day being on a Sunday the yard would be empty, and locked up with me having the keys to the gate. Black Jack had keys too but he’d be tied up in a game of poker at some mate’s place.

            I searched out a good hiding spot in the caravan to put all the stuff I bought for Mother’s Day. It was easy with the dinner set; I just replaced the old stuff with the new.  And the perfume I’d bought Mum I hid in my pots and pans cupboard, way out the back behind the soup pot, same with the card. Hiding the frozen dinner was dead easy, just shoved it in the small fridge freezer.

            I’d wrapped the presents but the card had me stumped. I couldn’t write, and I wanted to tell Mum something. I wondered if Nut would help me out.

            ‘I didn’t know you had a Mum?’ said Nut, when I found him in the office and asked him if he’d write something in the card for me

            ‘She lives in Melbourne,’ I lied.

             ‘What do you want me to write?’ he asked, sitting down at the desk and grabbing a pen.


            ‘How about?’ Nut waved his head around as if he was sloshing words about, hoping the right ones would come out. ‘Happy Mother’s Day from Paul?’

            ‘Yeah, sure.’ I didn’t have the guts to ask that he write Love Paul.

            Back in my caravan I stared at that card for ages, wondering if I could write the word Love myself. I got a pen. Held it.  But I couldn’t write. So instead I drew a love heart and XXX next to it.

            I was pretty excited when Mother’s Day arrived. By six I was out of bed, checking the yard, feeding and chaining the dogs up, before having a super, long hot shower and shave and putting on the new clothes that I bought for the occasion. The shirt and trousers were creepy, they weren’t my usual black tee-shirt and jeans, but for Mum’s sake I didn’t want to look too anti-establishment.

 I set the table. Straighten up the caravan. I’d cleaned it big time the day before. I took another look at myself in the wardrobe mirror. I put gel in my hair and tried to flatten it a bit. I thought about taking out the bits of metal that pierced my nose, lips, eyelids, forehead, tongue and ears, but something stopped me. Mum loved me for who I was. I knew that.  She’d never once complained about them.

            Finally, I went out and bought Mum a bunch of flowers from a street vendor set up not far from the wrecker’s yard. I asked the vendor what kind of flowers they were; he told me they were chrysanthemums. When I brought them back to the caravan I realised I


didn’t have a vase. No matter, I put them alongside her plate. I checked everything once more. I wanted the day to be perfect.

            I was at the nursing home dot on ten. There were lots of other people this time, checking out the mothers they’d thrown away.  Mum was in her usual spot, sitting in her wheelchair, she was all ready to go.

            As I pushed Mum’s wheelchair out of the nursing home and onto the path I began to point out different things that I thought might interest her. She listened carefully as I told her about what a nice day it was and how blue the sky was. I pointed out the letterboxes, and how each one was different. She liked that. When we got to the yard I began to tell her about all the different cars, what kind of accidents they‘d been in, and what parts they were being stripped for. I showed her where all the doors were kept, doors were our number one seller. She was rapted.

            Getting Mum into the caravan was easy. I just picked her up out of the wheelchair and carried her in. She was as light as a feather. I tried to sit Mum at the kitchen table. She flopped around, but I quickly secured her by stuffing the pillow and blanket from my bed around her.

‘Mum, you all right?’


Mum stared at me. And in her eyes I saw a reflection— me. She was looking at me with love. I smiled at her and she made a small kind of happy gurgling sound.

‘Well, this is my home, this where I live Mum. Do you like it?’

I could tell Mum liked it and that she was proud of me. I felt a warm inner glow. Suddenly I remember the present and card. I dived down and grabbed them from the cupboard and put them in front of Mum. She gurgled. I was beginning to understand her gurgles. This gurgle was one of surprise. And how I shouldn’t be spending my hard earned wages on buying presents and a card for her, instead I should be saving my money to buy my own home. I told her that it was the least I could do, after all she’d done for me. I pointed out the flowers to her and she gurgled that chrysanthemums were her favourite. I helped Mum open her present, she gurgled and her head wobbled, she was stoked. I sprayed a bit of the Lilly of the Valley perfume onto her wrist, like I seen on telly. I show her the card, and she gurgled back, ‘I love you too.’

I got the Sheppard’s pie out of the freezer and zapped it in the microwave. Feeding her wasn’t easy; most of it she just dribbled out her mouth, but that was okay. I cleaned her up. After dinner I took Mum back to the nursing home. I knew I was a rat for dumping her. But what else was I to do? If I kept her here at the yard, Black Jack would go ballistic. Anyhow I visit Mum all the time. It’s a shame no one else does, but I don’t mind being her only visitor, after all, I am her son.