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Going Home

Writing to a Set Word Count

 

A Two-Minute Read:

This is a short story I wrote as a writing challenge some time ago. The task was to create a story in fewer than a thousand words that revealed something in the ending that hadn’t been obvious earlier in the tale, but that would show when the story was re-read.

As a copywriter, I was often asked to write to a fairly strict word count. (As a fiction author, of course, the word count is less important) Keeping to a prescribed article length forces a writer to be frugal and accurate with word choices. These skills come in handy when writing fiction of any kind.

Here’s the story—I hope you like it.

 

Going Home

 

Sarah loved her new job. It was as if she were born for a career in aged care. Although her main duties were clerical, she spent as much time as possible mingling with the residents.
“Older people have so much to offer,” she’d frequently tell her family, “yet so few take the time to listen.”
She especially loved Mr Bristol. Jim Bristol appeared to have lived the sort of life many only dreamed of. There was scarcely anything he hadn’t turned his hand to at some time, it seemed to Sarah.
Some days Sarah spent her entire lunch break listening to stories from his sailing days or his time as a circus roustabout.

“Do you have any family, Jim?” she asked him one day. “You never seem to have any visitors.”
“Just one son,” he replied. “Never had a lot of time for me, always too busy with his business affairs. Last time I saw him he was on his way to New York, then I heard that…”
“Sarah!” It was the director. “Got a moment?”
“Sure Dr King, be right there.”

Dr Aaron King allowed Sarah more than a little leniency with her break times. Sure, she was a chatterbox, but she always got her work done, and the residents adored her. Nevertheless, she did have an office to run.

“I need that report by day’s end, you know, not next week,” he chided. “I’m sure Mr Bristol’s stories can wait ’til Monday.”

The truth was, each day always held a whole new batch of tales from the old man. He certainly had lived a full life, and loved talking about it.
“See you after the weekend, Mr Bristol,” she said, gathering her things before hurrying back to her office. “We can pick up where we left off.
“Keep yourself rugged up, won’t you—I don’t like the sound of that cough,” she added as she left.

When Sarah arrived for work after the weekend, there was grim news. Mr Bristol had fallen gravely ill, and the nursing staff were worried about pneumonia. The night shift had been forced to call in a locum GP in the early hours of Saturday morning. He was prescribed antibiotics but was yet to show any improvement.

When Sarah was finally able to call in on her lunch break she was shocked at his appearance. He attempted to give Sarah his usual cheery greeting but could only manage a few words before he was consumed in a coughing fit.

“Don’t try to talk, Pet,” she said, keeping her voice as calm and soothing as she could manage. “Save it for our next chat. I’m sure you’ll be a little better tomorrow.”
He nodded, holding a fist against his chest in an attempt to stifle another lung-rattling spasm and holding his mask in place with the other hand. Sarah glanced anxiously at the nurse who was waiting to take his temperature.
“We’ve taken a sample to test for Covid,” she explained. “I don’t think that’s it, though. The cough came on far too suddenly.”
“It’s not all bad news though,” Jim rasped between bouts of coughing. “My son came to visit. He’s planning on taking me home next weekend.”
The nurse looked at Sarah, raising her eyebrows.
“Well let’s hope you’re better by then. I can’t see them letting you go home in this state,” Sarah offered. “I look forward to meeting this boy of yours. Maybe I’ll give him a piece of my mind for leaving you here all this time! Just joking.” She added.

He wasn’t his usual talkative self, so once the nurse left Sarah sat for a short while and chattered merrily until she saw his eyes closing and head nodding. She decided he needed rest more than conversation.

“I’ll be sure to call in tomorrow,” she said. “You get some rest. I’ll bring some fruit and a paper.”

All that week he remained in his room. The test had come back negative, and he had shown some improvement with his breathing. He was able to get out of bed, but only for short periods. Somehow, though, Sarah sensed that the spark was fading, just a little. He was still adamant, however, whenever Sarah visited, that his son Brian would be taking him home on Saturday. Sarah said little about it but didn’t hold out much hope of a home visit any time soon.
He still had a few stories to tell, but his tales lacked the passion they once had. He could only talk for short periods without coughing and was obviously growing weaker.
When Friday came, Sarah popped in, bade him a cheery “See you Monday!” and left hurriedly, truly doubting her own parting words.

First thing Monday she hurried to his room. Her worst fears were realised; he had passed away Saturday morning. In his place, there was just an empty bed and a couple of boxes containing the remnants of his once full life. She stood in the doorway and let the tears flow, washing away the grief she knew she couldn’t hide even if she’d wanted to.
Aaron King’s voice came from behind her: “That’s all he had to show for all those years. What we’re going to do with it all, I don’t know. There’s no next-of-kin in his records.
“If there’s anything you want to keep—you know, as a memento—I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”
“What about his son?” Sarah asked. “Didn’t he call to see him last weekend?”
The doctor’s brows furrowed. “His son?” Then after a moment, he said, “Oh yes, Brian, I believe it was. Sadly, he died twenty years ago in the US. No other family at all I’m afraid.”
Sarah stood in silence for several seconds. “So,” she whispered,” you did take him home after all, Brian.”

The End

 

 

The Last Waterhole

The Last Waterhole

North-Western Australia—circa 1885.

Nundru sat resting in the shade of a gnarled river gum and watched as the two men drew closer. For some time now he had observed their halting progress from above as they trudged westward, following the base of the escarpment, and leading a strange-looking animal laden with what appeared to be tools of some kind. Now, as he watched them draw gradually closer to where he could see their faces, he realized just how weak and hungry they obviously were. They had eaten little in the three days since he first spied them. They also hadn’t drunk today, so clearly they were out of water.
He’d heard of these strange light-skinned men who sometimes ventured through his land, but until this day he’d never seen one. Fascinated by their appearance and the strange clothing they wore, despite the searing heat, he had followed their progress from the top of the ridge. As they drew closer, he could see they were near the limit of their endurance.

***

Nundru was tall, even among his own people, and his fresh-faced good looks and trim physique gave the appearance of an overgrown boy. He still lacked a man’s beard, except for light stubble, and even sported a few freckles. The fresh zig-zag scars on his back and chest, however, and the missing front tooth, showed him for what he was; a newly initiated man of his tribe. His shock of unruly hair had a tinge of redness that glowed in the sunlight like a tangle of rusty steel wool, whilst his eyes mirrored the dark browns of the ironstone cliffs that towered overhead.

Nundru’s time of solitary reflection was nearing an end. Tradition demanded that all men of his people spend one transit of the moon alone to connect with the spirits of the land in order to complete their initiation. Tomorrow, he would return to his family; no longer a boy, but a man.

Picking his way carefully down the slope, his gangly appearance belied by his sure-footedness, he determined to approach these visitors. They clearly had no idea how to find food or water. They had walked straight past two goannas and a wallaby already today. Even the youngest children of his tribe would cope better than these poor individuals!
As they neared what would be the last waterhole they would encounter for several days, the strange animal stopped suddenly. Raising its head and sniffing the air it made to turn toward the cliff. One of the men yanked on the halter, shouting at the hapless beast and dragging it away to continue on their journey.

Nundru was at the base of the incline now. When the newcomers grew close he stepped into the open and called to the men, telling them they should go back.
“Water there,” he said, pointing with his boomerang. “No water that way, you will die there,” he added, pointing eastward.
The two men stopped abruptly. They exchanged glances, speaking to each other in a language Nundru had never heard. Not one word was familiar. In fact, to his ears, it sounded more like animal sounds. He wondered if these were really men or some strange race of spirit people.

Nundru gestured again, repeating his warnings and waving his spears to stress the importance of his message. He was careful, however, to keep the points toward the men, lest they think he was about to fit his woomera and attack them.
“You must go back. Over there.” He pointed again, this time more agitatedly. “You will die that way.” He pointed east again. “No water there.”
The strangers looked at each other again, speaking in their strange tongue.

Suddenly, one of the men pointed a stick at him. There was a loud crack! and a puff of smoke. Something (a hot stone?) struck Nundru in the side of the neck, almost knocking him to the ground.
He dropped his spears, bringing his hand up to his neck, and saw blood oozing through his fingers and down his forearm, dripping from the elbow.
Unable to speak, and struggling to breathe, Nundru stood swaying for a second before first dropping to his knees and then falling back against the gravelly slope.

“Fuck me, did you see that, Bill? He’d have killed us for sure if I hadn’t got him first.”
“Too bloody right, Mick. You can’t trust these savages. They’d kill a man as quick as look at ‘im.”
“Should I finish him off?” asked Mick.
“Nah, save yer ammo, he’s done for,” Bill replied. “C’mon, let’s keep going. See that outcrop about a mile ahead? Where that boab tree is? There’ll be water there for sure. Trust me, I know how to read this country.”
“The black prick was probably tryin’ to stop us before we got there,” Mick said as he slipped the rifle back into its holster. “Like you said, ya can’t trust an Abo.”

As they moved away, Nundru tried to raise his hand and speak but could do neither. The last thing he saw before his eyes glazed over was the three figures moving off through the shimmering heat—away from the last waterhole and toward the arid desert.

The wedge-tailed eagles and crows would begin feasting on his body before sundown. Tomorrow—or the next day—they would feast on the two white men and their horse.

The End.

###########################

As I said in my earlier message, this story was inspired by a dream I had one night when I was camped atop a ridge in north-western Australia. I tend to dream vividly. My wife says I have a twisted mind and an over-active imagination.

That may, or may not, be accurate but I’m not one to argue with her.

When I think of Nundru I can see him standing before me. I hope you can too. I got his name from a small town in South Australia called Nundroo. The town, Nundroo, is about 1,000 kilometres west of Adelaide, on the Eyre Highway not far from where the Nullarbor Plain starts. (When I say ‘town’, though, it’s really nothing more than a roadhouse and a couple of houses)

The next story I send will be longer, I promise.

‘Til next time…

Thomas.

 


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GOLD! An Excerpt.

The following is an excerpt from the novel GOLD! It’s a little over 1,000 words, so should take around five minutes to read. The action takes place near the Two Brothers gold mine, north of Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, in 1980.

GOLD! An Australian Family Saga/Drama Novel
GOLD! is Available on Amazon as EPUB or Paperback.
(Links below)

But first — a brief synopsis:

Malcolm Kincaid is a self-made man. He is also a ruthless businessman and opportunist. He knows what it takes to build and maintain a business empire, but how far will he be prepared to go to achieve his goals — and what will he sacrifice along the way?

Rachel, Malcolm’s one-time fiance; his business partner, and father of his child, finds herself forced to work with the man she has grown to despise.

Unaware of his true parentage, their son, Lachlan — after first studying for a law degree — advances through the ranks as their company grows into a mammoth corporation, while Rachel does her best to mitigate Malcolm’s increasing influence on him. This task becomes more difficult when Malcolm appoints Lachlan as manager of a new mine.

Lachlan soon has his own set of challenges: A fractious and sometimes domineering wife with a drug dependency; a child of his own, and a conscience that often leads him into direct conflict with his Machiavellian ‘uncle’.

Over the years, Malcolm Kincaid uses, abuses, and dominates associates and family alike, crushing all opposition in his pursuit of wealth and power.
When he allows the pollution of an Aboriginal settlement’s water supply, however, he faces justice of a kind he could never imagine.

GOLD! is a tale of greed, betrayal, family conflict, rape, and murder. It is also, however, a story of love and loyalty, and of how one man’s pride and prejudice can lead to terrible retribution.

(This excerpt takes place about one quarter into the story.)


November 17th 1980.

Malcolm had already opened another can of beer by the time Jamie started the Land Cruiser and headed down the access road toward the Goldfields Highway. He stood on the verandah, watching as the receding taillights glimmered in the deepening twilight.

As Jamie neared the mine turnoff, he popped a cassette into the Cruiser’s player. John Lennon launched into ‘Beautiful Boy’, Jamie’s current favourite song, and he cranked up the volume as he swung onto the bitumen. Thirty minutes and he’d be home. Home to Rachel; and his own Beautiful Boy, 17-month-old Lachlan.

Chapter Twelve
Rabbit

Warren Burroughs—Rabbit, to friends and coworkers—couldn’t remember a longer, more frustrating day. What started out as a routine run from his depot in Coolgardie, to Kambalda—a mining town 60 kilometres to the south—and then up to Menzies with a ‘hot shot’ delivery before returning home, had turned into an epic comedy of errors.
Delays and unexpected problems were a fact of life in the transport industry, but today had been one to take the cake.
A round trip of a little less than 400 kilometres, the whole thing should have been done and dusted by mid-afternoon. When dealing with mining company hierarchy, however, things rarely went to plan. Although he had been on the road by six am, and arrived at his Kambalda destination before seven, it would be well past midday before he was on his way north again. The mine site office had not been aware he was even coming, let alone prepared his load.
Communication glitches like these were common. He settled himself in the corner of the office to wait while the staff located the replacement pump he was to deliver. Then, of course, they had to complete all the necessary paperwork and finally arrange someone to load it onto the back of his ageing Kenworth for the next leg.
Next came the news that the low-loader organised to bring the pump out to him had broken down. He was welcome to drive on-site to collect his load, but first, he’d have to do a short induction course. Once he completed this, it was time for lunch, so there was another hour’s wait before he got the OK to proceed onto the mine site and collect his cargo.
After leaving Kambalda at a little after 1:30 he eventually reached his drop-off point around 4 pm.
Fortunately, things went more smoothly this time. Probably because they had been champing at the bit waiting for the pump; the breakdown having halted production for the past 24 hours.
Then, at 5:30 pm, he was at last on his way home. All he had to worry about now, he thought, was dodging kangaroos.
He was just passing Lake Goongarrie, a sprawling salt lake on the east side of the road, when a voice called over the two-way radio.
“G’day there, Rabbit, you old bugger!” It was a voice he knew well.
“How you doin’, Ralph?” Rabbit replied, “Havin’ a good run? How’s the new rig going, by the way?”
The north-bound road train, its three trailers loaded with supplies bound for Menzies and beyond, thundered noisily past. Rabbit’s unladen rig swayed as it did so.
“Oh, you know,” Ralph said, “same old shit, different shovel. I’m having a better day than you, apparently. I hear they held you up a bit down at the Kambalda site.”
The bitumen grapevine was working to its usual standard, Rabbit thought. “Yeah, you could say that,” he replied. “Sometimes I swear that if I had a duck, it’d bloody well drown.”
Ralph laughed, though Rabbit didn’t hear it and continued with a sigh, “Yeah, you know the drill. This is WA after all; ‘wait awhile’.”
“You got that right,” Ralph replied. “Oh well, you keep it safe and stay upright Rabbit. I’ll catch you on the flip side.”
“Roger that. You too, Ralph.”
The radio was already starting to crackle, so there was no time for any real conversation. Still, it was good to hear a familiar voice now and then. Rabbit wondered how the old-timers had coped in the days before CB radios came into being. For that matter, spare a thought for the old bullockies and camel drivers who’d often go for weeks or even months without seeing another soul.
Rabbit reached down and upped the volume on his cassette player. A familiar Slim Dusty tune filled the air, and he began to sing along, grateful there was no one else there to suffer his discordant rendition. He noticed a light-coloured four-wheel-drive approaching the highway on his left, about a kilometre away. Someone had been working late, it seemed. The land around here was dotted with many small and medium-sized mines. As desolate and uninviting as it looked, this was a genuine gold mine of opportunity, this barren land.
As he approached the mine access road, Rabbit eased back on the accelerator. Was that clown going to stop? Surely he’d seen the truck coming. His rig was hardly invisible!
Before he knew it, the Land Cruiser veered straight onto the road not fifty metres in front of him.
Rabbit jumped on the brake and clutch simultaneously, and as the tyres squealed in noisy protest, he braced himself for impact.


Jamie knew he should have stopped before driving onto the highway. He knew because he had driven out from this access road so many times before. He also knew that had he not consumed so much beer in the last few hours, he would have stopped.
But now it was too late for recriminations; too late for anything but to hold on and hope for the best.
The Kenworth’s bull bar caught the four-wheel-drive on the right front side, spinning it around like a toy. The rear of the Toyota then collided with the leading edge of the big rig’s trailer, which sent it careening off the roadway and straight into the large quartz rock with ‘Two Brothers Mine’ painted on it in bold, red letters.
Although the Land Cruiser was barely doing more than thirty, the force from the impact was enough to drive the engine block through the firewall and into the driver and passenger area. The steering column struck Jamie square in the middle of his chest, breaking several ribs and squeezing his lungs to around half their volume.
Immediately after the collision, the scene was eerily quiet. Rabbit’s eighteen-wheeler remained upright, but the driver himself was unconscious and would be for several minutes. Few truckies in those days, and in truth even in these days, bothered with seat belts. A trickle of blood snaked its way down his forehead and dripped onto the dashboard.
In the wrecked Land Cruiser, Jamie struggled to stay awake. A vain struggle, however. His heart, fuelled by adrenaline, was pumping hard; pumping his lifeblood out of his body, from severe crush injuries to his legs, and onto the floor.
Strangely, the cassette player was still working. As Jamie drifted into unconsciousness, John Lennon was singing; “Life is what happens to you as you’re busy making other plans.”

 

*********

 

Thanks for visiting, and for checking out this brief excerpt. You can sign up HERE to join my mailing list. I’ll be sending out occasional freebies and bonus content from time to time, as well as offers from other authors whose work I admire.

The first bonus you receive will be an unpublished short story (around 7,000 words) called The Ravine. It started life as a chapter of the book, but I culled it because it didn’t fit with the genre. There’s a touch of the supernatural in it, if that’s your thing.

GOLD! is, for the most part, a story about family relationships and secrets. I didn’t want this chapter to muddy the waters.

GOLD! is available from Amazon as an eBook or Paperback.

Amazon.com.au/dp/0648961109 for Australian readers or amazon.com/dp/0648961109 from the US site.

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