Short Story: An Ear of Grain Reaped in Silence

She checks the mirror again. No-one’s following. Her fingers drum on the steering wheel as she waits for the suspended light to click over from red to green. She takes a right turn, then a left. Parallel now to the main artery, on a narrower street lined with 1920s stone apartment buildings. Here there are fewer behemoth malls with their attendant fields of parking, or used-car lots with fluttering flags, or drive-through liquor stores. Fewer brightly lit eateries with plastic furniture, plastic cutlery and plastic conveyor-line service. Fewer hanger-like hypermarkets with eternal aisles of frozen goods, day-glo packaging and geometrically stacked tins of fruit. There are fewer people here. Fewer cars. Fewer cameras. Yet still she checks her mirror again after crossing each intersecting road; assessing the traffic behind her and checking her precious cargo on the back seat. Her cellphone left behind on the bedside table, her other car charging in the garage, Eddy motors on in her rusty old Ford. Untracked.


The leg has been hanging there for 270 days. It has lost almost one third of its initial weight but inside its blanket of muslin it has been absorbing, maturing, ageing, waiting.

A beast was selected for its broad, straight back, its curvaceous buttocks and thighs. It was granted a final meal then gently led from the paddock to the wooden shed where a rope was loosely, discretely looped around a hock. A single, sudden expert bolt to the brain brought oblivion. The pulley overhead squealed as the rope tightened and the load was hoisted aloft. A swift, scooping motion with a sharp, double-bladed knife skilfully severed the main pathways to the heart. For several minutes its sanguineous sacrifice flowed while the long-dead creature twitched, final cortical disturbances triggering lifeless muscles. The drained brute was lowered into a tub of tepid water where scourers repeatedly scraped and abraded its skin until the flesh concealed below was exposed. Back overhead, and a delicate, skilled hand and knife slid inside, unzipping the carcass, allowing the entrails to spill and fall off. Meanwhile, fortifying organs were carefully stored for future use. The remaining shell was hosed clean and taken to a chilled room where it hung overnight, solitary in the darkness.

Cleavers, hammers and saws; rendered into its constituent parts. A rear leg, severed from the pelvis, was placed into a box. Gentle hands pressed on the arteries, drawing away any persistent blood, before massaging seasonings into the flesh. Inundated with curing salts, then pressed under a heavy concrete slab, where two weeks of pressure and sodium chloride drew out any moisture which remained. The plump, pink limb transformed into a shrunken, mummified stump, ready now to begin its long wait.

Eddy drives towards the city’s outskirts, senses still tingling, hyper aware of her surroundings. Cautious and ever observant. She passes industrial complexes; mazes of shiny piping and anonymous, unbranded silos. High overhead chimneys belch fumes, and she rolls up her window as the acrid smell catches in her throat. She glances anxiously in the mirror at the rear seat. A little further, where the road is now fringed by soaring concrete walls topped with savage razor wire and indiscrete cameras. Pointing inwards, they do not concern Eddy. All that rises above the barriers is a cloud of dust and, even in the closed car, the unmistakable stench of digestive waste. Eddy knows that merely a few metres away, doomed beasts wallow ankle-deep in their own mess, thousands in a grassless wasteland. Further still and the direct heat from the dipping afternoon sun forces her to roll down the window again. Now the landscape has begun to green, but not verdant; monotone. Stretching on, minute after minute, row after row on either side of the road, an endless rippling ocean of corn. Mile after mile without variation. Until, eventually, on the distant horizon, trees. She is getting close.

They have trafficked with gods and been sacrificed to them. They have been revered, feared, demonised, mythologised, castigated and domesticated.

Amalthea, mother of Zeus, was a goat nymph who fed her divine son on a diet of her milk and honey. Later, the creature was honoured at the Festival of Dionysus, where the skills of the scribe producing the supreme “he-goat song”, a tragōidia, were rewarded with a live animal. In more northerly climes, the sacred honour of drawing Thor’s chariot was bestowed upon hircine helpers. In both hemispheres, celestial systems of astrology have reserved a place for caprine beasts. Cultures separated by thousands of miles and years have revered these creatures as symbols of fruitfulness, and bones in Neolithic, Ancient Greek, Hebrew and Egyptian graves bare testament to their sacrificial past. It was such service in pagan fertility ceremonies that captured the attention of Christians though. And the Greek Satyrs, mischievous woodland men-goats with permanent erections and a lascivious reputation for lustful rutting, drew the Church’s ire. Hence, the cloven-hoofed, bearded, be-horned incarnation of the devil was born. Meanwhile, it was the Hebrew faith which provided the parable of lots cast between two of the beasts; one to be ceremonially sacrificed, the other cast out into the desert bearing the sins of humankind: a scapegoat.

For 10 millennia, a provider to millions around the globe: warm clothing, bone tools, fuel for fires, hair for calligraphy brushes, sustenance as meat and milk. And now, a bundle wrapped in cloth, stored in a warm kitchen, reaches the end of its journey from raw milk, left to curdle, drained and pressed on its way to its soft, fragrant final destination.

The narrow twisting road has an easy familiarity, each bend and turn measured by repetition. The flanking trees comforting in their concealment, each recognisable despite their apparent uniformity. The impenetrable undergrowth and towering canopy cooling. The contentment of a destination almost reached. The succour of a road travelled many times since her first visit. Since Eddy’s life morphed into one of stealth and suspicion. At one time, she had been a foot soldier, helping fight many winning frays: a proposed reduction in government subsidies to corn and soy farmers overturned; the prohibition of antibiotic use in concentrated animal feeding lots rescinded; a farmer successfully sued for saving seeds, risking contaminating the company’s patented GM grains developed to increase yields; a co-operative of producers successfully restrained from making farm-gate and outdoor market sales which were in breach of new health and safety regulations; record damages paid to a meat processing firm by a local newspaper who broke the food libel laws by publishing a photograph taken inside one of its plants. Although a soldier in their battles, she had never been fully conscious of the war that was being waged. And then everything had changed.

A fruit of love, growing millennia ago in the lush warmth of Tenochtitlan. Its skin a seductive, shining scarlet and its hidden internal cavities containing moisture and the possibility of new life. A symbol of desire and fertility presented to newlywed couples.

Then 600 years ago, its seeds were ripped from their native home and transplanted over the ocean by covetous conquistadors; the seeds, but not the name. It became an apple: of love, of gold, of paradise. To mystics who believed in its power to aid lupine transformation, it became a peach; lycopersicum, the wolf peach. And just as it was revered by many, elsewhere it was feared. Encumbered by its superficial similarity to the mythical, biblical fruits of temptation, the apple and the pomegranate, it was seen as a powerful threat to moral values. And while actually innocuous, its familial ties to the mandrake and deadly nightshade relegated it for many years to an ornamental position, with pleasure taken in its yellow five-pointed corollas and crimson orbs, but not in its taste. Then came the cases of wealthy casualties, unable to resist the lure of the luscious berry, falling victim to its acidic juices forming a deadly elixir when combined with the lead contained in their tableware. Meanwhile, those without the means for pewter plates survived unscathed.

Over the years though, acceptance grew and this creeping vine fruit finally assumed its rightful place: nestled in salads, chopped onto bread, atop pizzas, in sauces, in soups, in hangover cures, in tin cans, glass jars and bottles. And, with the fullness of time, the Aztecs’ “plump fruit with a navel” had regained its true name, tomatl.

A veil was lifted on a hidden underworld: obscured, preventable outbreaks of food poisoning; epidemic levels of childhood diabetes; sickening animal cruelty; exploitation of undocumented workers; lobbyists in positions of legislative power creating toothless regulatory agencies; the crushing of all competition and suppression of all investigation. A pastoral fantasy masking a toxic, self-serving production line. And Eddy, a blind enabler. At first there had been a sliver of doubt, then a nagging suspicion, until some gentle probing brought her into contact with the exposers of secrets; mainly farmers unable to match the legal might of the wealthy corporations and unwilling to be beholden to those who display little concern for the beasts, workers, suppliers or consumers they hold sway over. The war for complete control would wear on regardless but now, confronted with that normally buried, Eddy could play no further part. A recent divorce and a newly discovered respect for the custody courts prompted the establishment of her own family law practice. And now business is healthy, and demanding, but she still undertakes the fraught, draining journey two, sometimes three, times a week. The journey to this isolated, unsealed road through the forest, hours from the city. She briefly checks her mirror once more before pulling over. Out of the car, she approaches an unremarkable tree on the edge of the tangled undergrowth. Hidden behind the trunk is a lever which operates a simple pulley. A blockade of bushes and ferns lifts just high enough for a car to pass under, then lowers, and once again the entrance is concealed.

Buried, in the darkness, underground. Slowly gaining strength, nourished by minerals leeched from fertile soil, nurtured by the empowering moisture from above. Anchors thrust down deeper while tentacles explore skywards in search of the restorative, photosynthetic
power of the sun and air. Ever upwards until strong enough to produce a head of encased berries: bran, endosperm and germ. Crunchy packets of energy on fragile browning stems, ready for harvest.

Guillotined blades of grass, bound into bundles, stacked to dry before being brutally beaten. The freed heads then tossed between baskets until the passing breeze carried away all the feathery husks to expose the kernels enclosed inside. These crushed between two stones and ground to dust. The pulverised grains then combined with a single-cell fungus. An alchemic process activated by warm water; starch molecules broken down into sugars, metabolised and converted into carbon dioxide. The result; a bubbling, expanding, elastic putty. Pounded and rested, pounded and rested, ever swelling. And finally engorged, spilling over the edges of tins, fresh and steaming from the oven.

A process ever overseen by the watchful eye of Demeter: the goddess of the harvest who separates the grain from the chaff; a goddess honoured for her gift of fertility, and celebrated in an agrarian cult and festival of women; a goddess whose grief for a daughter taken whilst gathering flowers was capable of causing drought and famine; a goddess whose mourning and determination led Zeus himself to intervene; a goddess whose abducted girl was returned to her by deceitful Hades, but only periodically. A life lived in two worlds. Bountiful reunions followed by months of arid anxiety. The seasons and their harvests evermore dictated by a handful of pomegranate seeds and a mother’s love.

The car bumps along the rough, confined track hewn through the dense forest, headlights searching the way. And then Eddy re-emerges from the gloomy tunnel into low evening sunlight, morsels of dust caught suspended in the air. In the centre of the large grassy clearing stands a grand timber barn and several smaller outhouses. Around this focal point radiate wedge-shaped paddocks, some containing pigs, or chickens, or goats, the stacked boxes of beehives, others with ordered vegetables gardens, crawling vines or orchards with heavily laden trees. Eddy pulls up behind the large structure and lifts Dionne from her booster seat in the back of the car. Taking the girl’s hand, they start walking towards the barn when Dionne spots Terry in the berry patch. The young girl releases her mother and runs to the elderly man who greets her with a quick hug before she too begins delicately, expertly placing blueberries in the hand-woven basket that lies between them. Eddy watches for a while, her daughter instantly absorbed in the task, before continuing around to the front of the barn. Here, the overhanging roof creates a shaded veranda, and a long table is flanked by two wooden benches. Others have already laid a plaid tablecloth, plates, cutlery and glasses, and are flitting between the various outhouses and internal rooms within the barn. Eddy is greeted warmly and then joins them in ferrying goods to the table. Clear glass jugs brimming with creamy milk. Bottles of raspberry wine, stored since last year’s harvest. Small lidded clay pots holding sticky golden nectar. A dish of steaming boiled potatoes, dotted with parsley, butter beginning to dissolve down into their midsts. Sliced sausages, as black as coal, and a whole chicken, its golden skin crispy and crackling. A wheel of quiche filled with fluffy eggs and recently-picked capsicums and eggplant. A large bowl abundant with leafy greens and nutty avocado, topped with the scarlet, golden, and maroon orbs of heirloom tomatoes. On a wooden board rest three uncut loaves of fresh wheat bread, the smell drifting the length of the table. Beside them, a crumbly block of goat’s cheese and delicate tissue paper slices of cured ham. Others begin to gather from their various tasks, joining together in lively conversation, basking in the nurturing companionship, savouring the abundance their combined efforts have yielded. Terry and Dionne arrive hand-in-hand and the girl adds her basket of berries to the bounty before sitting next to her mother at the table; joining together in appreciation for all they have.

January 2017

Flash Fiction: Dust to Dust


(Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma)

It infiltrates everywhere. Coating windowsills and forming precipitous piles against skirting boards, present in every corner. Tightly-sealed drawers are thrown open to reveal lightly-coated cutlery and tablecloths and t-shirts and hairbrushes. Books, untouched for years on crammed shelves, are opened to release sooty cascades from their spines. Each morsel of food, a beach picnic of old; every attempt to wash, a gritty exfoliation. Rubber seals around window frames and under doors are redundant, as it flows through keyholes, drifts through air vents, presses up between floorboards and rains from the cornices; a powdery invasion.

Outside, there is the perpetual battle against the grimy mounds that accumulate on the front porch, a daily struggle against absolute entombment. It’s easier now though. No longer the clamber up the rickety ladder, the mask narrowing vision and amplifying deafening asthmatic breaths, to sweep clear the roof panels. Not since distant, perpetual fires weakened the sun to a hazy, tepid shimmer.

Time is now marked in weeks. The hazardous journey to town along roads marked only by inactive pylons, the tyres sinking in fine powder, leaving behind a stilted wake. Waiting silently: the charging of the truck and the sole battery tasked with preserving life; the dwindling pages of tickets exchanged for plastic bottles of murky water and metallic vacuum packs. Waiting passively in a line that diminishes week by week.

Rushing home now, ahead of the approaching storm. A whirlwind of particles eddies across wooden floors as the door is slammed shut against the growing gusts. From the sofa in the front room, wrapped in grimy blankets, listening to the gale screech through the eaves, watching as the minuscule grains impatiently coat the glass. The drifts rising higher and higher until the dust blocks out all remaining light.


April 2017

Flash Competition: Persistence

The journal The Molotov Cocktail recently held a competition entitled Flash Rage, soliciting submissions of less than 1000 words, inspired by the spirit of protest. Although my entry did not make it into the top ten, it was included in their ‘Close but no cigar’ list. My story, below, is called Persistence


January 1908

The bitter metal digs into my waist; cold, even through my woollen jacket, my blouse, petticoat and corset. Unrelenting. Bound; here at the seat of power, calling out to those in control. Solid in our cause, singing in unison. Undeterred.

“Our voice, our vote.”

With the shrill scream of whistles and the thud of weighty feet, the uniforms arrive. Bolt-cutters in hand, the chains snap as they are severed. My boots scrape on the kerbstones as we’re dragged into the road, unsilenced.

“Votes for Women.”

The bitter metal digs into my wrists. He spits in my ear.

“Ain’t gonna ‘appen luvvy.”

October 1910

The bile-green walls close in on me. Encased behind impenetrable doors and frosty barred windows. Antiseptic odours fused with faeces. Tormented cries echo down to me along sterile corridors, and my brain screams in reply. They have told me this is for my own good. They don’t want me to cause myself harm. Who knows what I might do in my next, hysterical attack.

I would like to go to the park though, to go for a walk, see trees. In truth, I would like to go home. I would like to see husband, my family. But I have been made to understand that that is not going to happen.

July 1922

Skinny little legs protruding from shorts. A bulky satchel bowing him over like a man five times his age. It is brimming with knowledge: formulas and dates and capital cities, explorers and discoveries, stories and ideas and truth. Overflowing with opportunity.

Our mother hands him a metal lunchbox, then prods him out the door. I watch him as he trudges reluctantly up the path, looks back forlornly, then disappears along the lane.

“Why can’t I go too?” I whine.

“How many times do I have to tell you? It’s just not possible, not for you.”

March 1977

Grandma’s gift is scrunched in my clammy little palm. So many choices, such an important decision. I stare down at the banknote, then back at the plastic children on the dais ahead. A confusing array under hot lights: floral dresses, lace-trimmed socks, pretty ribbons, caps, sporty shorts, checked shirts, tidy little suits with waistcoats. Mum nudges me.

“What do you want to get?”

I point to a blue t-shirt, baggy and emblazoned with a team logo. Mum smiles but shakes her head.

“No, not that one my love. That’s not for you.”

June 1993

The doctor beams ecstatically, having delivered the “glorious news.” My heart racing, skin cold, hollowness consuming me.

“What happens if I don’t want it?” I mumble.

His face blanches, the stupid grin transforming into a sneer.

“Well, if that’s the case,” he sighs deeply “we can look into adoption.”

“And termination?”, my voice barely audible.

“Elsewhere that may be possible, but that is most definitely not an option for you here.” His cold eyes penetrating. “Absolutely not going to happen.”

February 2012

“Take the offer,” she urges.

An offer of anonymity; for him. A slap on the wrist and affirmation that it was merely a momentary lapse in judgement. An alcohol-induced slip up. But I want justice. I want everyone to see the bruises on my body, the dirt in my hair, to taste the bile of fear with his hands on my throat, to feel the burn as he shoves inside. I want him to share my humiliation, my suffering. I want people to judge him, just like they judge me now. The lawyer shakes her head.

“I must advise you, a victory in court, a custodial sentence, those are highly unlikely to happen.”

August 2014

A whirling maelstrom of ideas and opinions perpetually circling the globe. Idealistically, naively, I had added my voice. A critical analysis of a game, a questioning of the status quo; pounced upon by self-appointed gatekeepers protecting their exclusive domain. A coordinated defence mounted; a multi-fronted attack. Weaponised sharing, multiplying exponentially.

“What do you know about it bitch? Get back to the kitchen!”

“You and your opinions can fuck off and die!”

“Don’t block me snowflake. Get off the Internet if you can’t take it. Stop being a victim.”

“Think we’re going to take advice from a cunt? Never going to happen!”

November 2016
I can withstand the criticism, the whispered innuendo, the outright attacks, the blatant lies. Because I know I’m right. I have worked a lifetime dedicated to the craft. I am qualified, experienced, professional. I have proven myself capable at every turn. I have fought and won endless battles and I deserve this opportunity.

And my competition? A slapdash novice, unversed in complexity and subtlety. A foul-mouthed bullying abuser; a proven incompetent who has bluffed and wheedled and golfed his way upwards. It should be a cinch. It should be mine.

January 2017

In the bitingly cold air, our breath condenses in a haze, hovering overhead. We are a sea of pink wooly hats rolling unrelentingly into the distance, stretching on towards the seat of power. We have communicated, coordinated, united and now gathered in our thousands, tens of thousands. We raise a rallying cry, our voices united in our demand for control; control of our own opinions, our own choices, our own education, our own careers, our own participation, our own appearance, our own bodies. Undeterred, unsilenced, we march onwards.

We have been warned.

We have been given explanations.

Nevertheless, we persist.

Jacqueline MacDonald, March 2017

Brain Training: Micro Flash

Writing flash fiction, generally tales of under 1000 words, is a great exercise to force yourself to be succinct and make every word count in storytelling.  There are also plenty of opportunities out there to hone these skills further with micro flash writing.  Whether you do it to develop writing dexterity or just to keep your brain in tune, it’s a fun exercise and my personal favourite is the New Zealand Book Council‘s (@nzbookcouncil) Rāmere Shorts (#Rāmereshorts). Every Friday, on Twitter, the challenge is laid: six randomly chosen words which must be included in a short tale within the 140-chararacter limit of a tweet. That generally amounts to around 15 to 20 words, with flexibility granted around word form, grammatical accuracy and punctuation.  The challenge is also given a competitive edge with a winner selected at the end of the working day, the prize being purely the honour. Each week, working within such tight boundaries, a surprisingly varied ranges of entrants surface, including the topical, lyrical, comical and emotional.

Give it a go with some past Rāmere Shorts challenges:

bully, robotic, glitter, pandemic, wax, dizzy.

mask, winter, careless, prayer, insane, homewards.

blender, mask, moonwalk, gobsmacked, duck, blink.

Here are some of my own efforts.

And my own personal favourite:


3rd April 2017


111 Emergency Words : Shortlisted Entries


In June, four of my flash fiction stories were shortlisted in the 111 Emergency Words competition.  The rules were that stories must consist of exactly 111 words and be on the theme of the police, ambulance or fire service.  Here are my four stories.  Smoke and Dust received an Editor’s Choice prize.

Smoke and dust

A sudden, shuddering jolt. Searing heat. An echoing boom. Concrete columns cleaving and crumbling to dust. Steel reinforcements twisting and screeching. Beams bending and buckling. Splitting, rupturing floor tiles; the heave, the rumble and the sickening drop. Crackling oak and splintering beech. Sheering metal and snapping cables. Shattering glass, raining biting shards.

Howls of shock and wails of fear. Skin pierced, punctured and lacerated. Gashed flesh. Severed and perforated limbs. Bodies torn and pounded. Crushed. Smashed. Scorched.

All cloaked in a billowing, expanding veil of smoke and dust. Choking. Suffocating. Then resting. And, for the merest moment, a stunned, empty silence before sirens in the distance begin to wail, increasingly loudly.

Clock Watching

He glanced at the monitor’s clock again. Still twenty minutes until shift’s end. The morning had been uneventful; seconds stretching endlessly rather than ticking by.

He surveyed the room. Banks of identical desks; grey partitions exposing only the tops of heads. Operators slouched in ergonomic chairs while overhead vents pumped chilled air.

He turned back to his monitor. Nineteen minutes. Then he’d collect the kids. And groceries for dinner. He began forming a mental list.

His screen blinked into life. Suddenly other operators bolted to attention like alarmed meerkats, adjusting headsets lazily allowed to droop around necks. So many incoming calls. He accepted one.
“Emergency assistance. Which service do you require?”

In the Line of Duty

She hesitated on the doorstep. Hands sweaty, she wiped them down the sides of her perfectly-pressed trousers. She removed her hat, slotted it under her arm and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear.

This was her first one. Two years in the job; her boss had told her she was ready. But can you ever really be ready?

Stomach sinking. Deep breath. She lifted the heavy brass knocker, aiming for gentle beckoning rather than a thud of doom. Behind, in the hall, shuffling then the metallic click of locks. The instant look of concern induced by her uniform.

“Mrs Wilson? I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

Snatched from the Jaws of Death

The screeching wail of buckling metal and the drone of machinery. Urgent, murmuring voices. And beneath the cacophony, the metronomic tick-tock of the indicator.

The haze in her head clearing: sheets of rain in a sky prematurely dark; the blinding, distorted glare of headlights; hands tight on the wheel, crossing the intersection; a deafening, blaring horn. Then nothing.

And now, a biting pain in her neck, the belt pulled tight. Suspended in the overturned pile of metal, blood flowing to her head. Through the spiderweb of shattered glass, upside-down boots. Like a tin can, the peeling back of metal as the jaws of life reach in to free her.

June 2016

Flash Fiction: Competition Update

New Zealand Flash Fiction Day 22nd June

I will be reading my story Black as Coal at the New Zealand Flash Fiction event in Auckland Central Library on Wednesday 22nd June, the shortest day.  Event begins at 5.30pm, all welcome. Details here.

111 Emergency Words Flash Fiction – Public Vote

Three of my 111-word stories on the theme of Fire are online and available for public vote here  between 12th and 18th June.  They are called Snatched From the Jaws of Death, Smoke and Dust and Clock Watching, I also have a shortlisted story, called In the Line of Duty, in the Police caregory and voting is open from 26th June to 2nd July.

Short Story – Family Photographs

Family Photographs

She had captured the moment perfectly. The instant was frozen with thin strands of coloured paper still hanging in the air amidst the faint smoke clouds created by tiny amounts of gunpowder. Below, sitting cross-legged on the wooden decking, her three-year-old nephew had his hands tightly clasped to his ears and his eyes screwed shut. His second cousins were leaping and grasping at the air above his head, trying to catch the raining confetti. Slightly apart, in her pretty yellow party dress, her niece stood with her arms outstretched, holding a large box decorated with patterned paper and a large bow. Bright, shiny banners and clusters of colourful balloons were strung overhead from the verandah roofing. Off to the right of the frame, a small huddle of people were gathered at the edge of the deck. They were viewed from the side but she could still clearly identify her older brother and heavily-pregnant sister-in-law, and her cousin in a loose-fitting singlet, proudly showing off his hard-earned muscles with his wife looking tiny next to him. Behind them, a silver flash of hair marked the imposing presence of her uncle. They all had champagne flutes or spent plastic party-poppers raised before them. Opposite, at the extreme left of the shot, her mother could be seen through the open ranch-sliders, still inside the dining room, her hand outstretched. She had just given her husband a gentle, reassuring nudge forwards and he now stood on the threshold between the house and the deck. The initial look of surprise and slight concern on his face had subsided. His wide eyes had narrowed and his gaping mouth had metamorphosed into one of his trademark grins: a web of wrinkles circling his eyes and a flash of perfectly aligned whitened teeth. In that fraction of a second, from her position in the yard, she had caught her smiling father facing the loving welcome of his family.

Satisfied, Elle turned off the camera and walked back across the yard towards the house amidst the hubbub of excited chatter. She skirted the line of relatives waiting to pass on their congratulations and gifts to her father. Her Uncle Bill hung back at the far end of the deck and Elle went to join him, picking up a glass of champagne from the table on her way.
​”Thanks for coming over Uncle Bill. It’s really good to have you here.” She gently clinked her glass against the one in her uncle’s hand.
​”Well, your little brother only turns sixty once, doesn’t he?” her uncle replied with a thin smile. Elle didn’t really know Uncle Bill that well. He had moved to Australia before she was born and this was only his second trip back home in all those years. The last had been almost twenty years ago for his mother’s funeral, when Elle was only a little girl. She had visited him and her cousins a few times in Perth, mainly for family occasions like weddings, her aunt’s funeral and, a couple of years ago, to celebrate Uncle Bill’s retirement from the force. When she was a child, she’d found him intimidating, carrying a natural air of authority that was enough to keep the cousins all in line. Elle’s brother knew him better. He had gone over and joined his cousin working at the mines for a few years. His kids and their cousin’s children were similar ages and had spent a lot of time together too, and it was Elle who sometimes felt like a stranger in the family. She knew her uncle and father had had some falling out years ago that had never really been resolved and, despite repeated pleading, her father had never been to Perth. When she started organising the party, she had hoped that she could initiate a reconciliation between the two men. Her brother had called her an idealistic idiot; had told her she was just like dad. Her mother had been slightly more encouraging, quietly musing that, “perhaps the old bugger’s softening with age.” Elle wasn’t sure which of the men her mother was referring to, but assumed it was Uncle Bill. She’d always thought of her father as easy-going and quick to laughter, and couldn’t imagine him being capable of holding a grudge. But Elle had had to make a lot of assumptions. As the youngest, she always felt that certain things were obscured from her, no doubt on some pretext of protecting her, but she was sick of being treated like a child. She’d decided she was going to invite Uncle Bill and show them that whatever had happened could be left in the past.

The crowd of well-wishers surrounding her father subsided as the children went off to play and the adults to top up empty glasses.
​”We should say ‘Happy Birthday’,” Elle said, glancing at her uncle before crossing the deck to where her father stood. As she approached him, he stepped forwards and placed his hands firmly on her shoulders, looking at her sternly.
​”Well, I hear this was all your doing,” her father said gruffly but with a smile emerging in his eyes. He pulled Elle in and kissed her on the cheek before wrapping her in his arms for a vice-like hug. Her father had always been a strong man, playing for the first fifteen at high school, kept fit by his years working as a landscape gardener and still active with fishing and golf. She could barely believe that he was actually turning sixty. “And I see you managed to persuade your Uncle Bill to cross the ditch,” he whispered to her as her head rested on his shoulder.
​”You’re not angry, are you dad?” she asked without breaking their embrace.
​”No, no worries. He’s family after all.” Her father gently pushed her away, gave her another quick kiss on the cheek and strode across the deck towards his brother, his hand outstretched in front of him. The two men performed an exaggerated, manly handshake, slapping each other on the side of the arm. “What are you drinking that piss for?” her father said loudly, indicating his brother’s glass. “Let’s get you a real drink.”

The afternoon was filled with the squeals of the children around the paddling pool in the yard, the hum of conversation broken by regular peels of laughter, the clatter as another empty bottle was dropped into the recycling crate. Sausages and steaks sizzled on the barbecue, regularly turned by either her brother or her cousin, while the kitchen was crammed with women filling bowls with pasta salad, potato salad and Greek salad, or slicing loaves of bread, warm from the oven.
​”Do you think we’ve got enough food?” Elle’s mother asked anxiously, as she balanced serving tongs on each of the overflowing bowls. Elle just smiled at her. Her mother always over-catered and they both knew that they would spend the next two days trying to make inroads into leftovers. And sure enough, less than an hour later, everyone was moaning and complaining of having over-eaten.

​”Not too full for cake I hope,” Elle’s mother announced brightly as she emerged onto the deck, proudly carrying the cake she had baked and decorated, the air around it hazy from the glow of candles. The family erupted into a discordant version of ‘Happy Birthday’ as she placed it on the table in front of her husband. Elle snapped off some shots as her father took a large gulp of air and extinguished all the tiny flames, his eyes clenched closed in a secret wish.
​”I’m not one for big speeches,” he started, accompanied by the groans of those who knew this to be not exactly true, before going on at length to thank Elle and his wife for organising the surprise and everyone else for attending. “It’s lovely to have the family together.” He paused. “It’s even nice to have Bill here,” he finished, smiling wryly and raising his beer bottle in a toast towards his brother.

The sky darkened and the air filled with the scent of citrus candles. Voices grew louder, drowning out the sound of the television emanating from the lounge, where the children had decamped after their afternoon exertions and were slumped on a collection of cushions. In the usual manner, which still surprised and jarred with Elle, the women had gravitated towards one end of the table and were sharing recipe ideas, while at the other end the men were speculating on which rugby teams would be successful this season. Listening in, Elle was surprised that her father was contributing very little to the discussion, a subject on which he was usually voluble. He was seated pensively at the head of the table, allowing all the talk to wash over him, taking regular sips from a large glass of his favourite single malt. All conversation was then momentarily disturbed by the rumbling avalanche of bottles onto the wooden decking when her brother tried to balance another on top of the precarious mound already in the crate.

Eventually, the chilly evening air of the end of summer started to bite and forced everyone to retreat indoors to the open-plan kitchen-living-dining space. The children were all now asleep on their mound of cushions, oblivious to the chatter all around them. Elle was in the kitchen, helping her mother load plates, dripping with salad-dressing and meaty juice, into the dishwasher. Raised voices over the steady buzz of conversation made both the women look up from their task. Her father had pushed himself up from his armchair and was standing, swaying slightly, glaring at Uncle Bill.
​”You were just a government lackey, helping them support a fascist, racist regime. Where were your principles?” Her father was yelling at him, his face flushed, drops of spittle projected in front of him. Uncle Bill remained seated.
​”I was doing my job, George. You’ve never understood that” he said calmly.
Her father launched the half-full beer bottle in his hand across the room. It smashed into fragments as it impacted on the wall just above Uncle Bill’s head, knocking the framed photograph of Elle’s brother’s wedding to the floor. Nobody moved. There was a moment of absolute silence before her nephew began to wail, frightened out of his slumber. Then her uncle wiped the splashes of sticky liquid from his face before concentratedly standing up and striding to the hall. Still no-one spoke and they all started slightly as the front door slammed behind him. Elle turned to the window and watched her uncle climb into the front passenger seat of the hire car parked in the driveway. He stared straight ahead of himself, motionless. She turned back again just in time to see her father take the opposite direction down the hallway, the slam of the bedroom door behind him marking his exit. Frozen, she watched as her mother crossed the lounge and retrieved the fallen photograph, carefully repositioning it on the wall. Then she stooped to pick up the pieces of broken bottle from the carpet. Elle’s cousin’s wife was the first to speak.
​”Here, let me do that,” she offered.
​”No, no, that’s okay. You should go and see if Bill’s alright,” Elle’s mother said, only the slightest of a quiver in her voice.
​”Well then,” she hesitated and looked over at her husband who was already corralling their two boys towards the door, “Thanks so much for the meal. It was really nice to see you all.” The front door opened again and from the window Elle watched as the children were manoeuvred into their car seats while her cousin got into the driver’s seat. He said something to his father but the older man showed no sign of having heard, his face still stone.
​”I think we’d best be getting off too mum.” Elle’s brother was the next to flee the scene. His mother was still hunched over the puddle of beer, trying to soak it up with a cloth, as he kissed her on the top of her head. “See you next week.” He walked past Elle on the way to the hall where his wife and children had hastily assembled. “See you soon sis. Thanks for a great party,” he sneered.
Elle put down the dirty plate she was still holding in her hands and started to sob. Her mother tipped the pieces of green glass into a newspaper that was lying next to the woodburner, wrapped it up and came over and placed it on the kitchen bench before putting her arm around Elle’s shoulders.
​”Why do they hate each other so much?” Elle sniffled through her tears.

Without speaking, her mother went out into the hallway and Elle heard her rummaging around in the cupboard. She came back with an old spiral-bound scrapbook, its paper pages curled at the edges and its cover stained with what looked like a circle of coffee. She placed it on the kitchen bench before them. As her mother flicked through the pages, gently prying apart those that had become stuck together, Elle saw the yellowing news cuttings that her mother had labouriously collected and preserved. There were flashes of headlines from before she was born, over thirty years earlier. ‘Smoke Bombs, Mass Arrests’, ‘Epic Battles Off-field’, ‘It was as if the sun had come out’. Pages held hand-drawn flyers: ‘Mobilise’, ‘Rally against the tour’, ‘Boycott the Blood of Apartheid’. She saw blurry photographs: a light plane flying low over a stadium; barbed-wire surrounding a sports ground; a group of civilians sitting on a rugby pitch encircled by police, separating them from an angry, jeering crowd. And then her mother stopped at another, larger black and white photograph, given a page of its own at the back of the scrapbook. The right hand side of the shot was dominated by police officers in shiny black helmets, their vizors reflecting the light and obscuring their faces. On a wintry September day, they stood in a regimented line of replicas, their black greatcoats covering all distinguishing marks and features. The front row of men were poised, batons held in hand at their hips. Facing them, on the left of the shot, was a more ramshackle group of men dressed in sweaters, jeans and their own protective headgear. These were a miscellany of cycling helmets, motorbike headwear and hard hats, with faces hidden behind vizors, hockey masks, goggles and bandanas. Makeshift shields made out of plywood panels were the only thing separating the two antagonistic sides of this face-off.

​”That’s your father,” her mother said, pointing towards one of the foremost men in a motorcycle helmet, holding the thin wooden protection before him. “And that’s your Uncle Bill,” indicating the police officer directly opposite her father.
Elle stared, trying to peer through the reflective glass to gain a hint of recognition of either of the men, sensing the electric tension in the distance between them.


By Jacqueline MacDonald

June 2014


 For more information on the 1981 Springboks tour of New Zealand see: