Category Archives: Short Stories

Sylvia’s Thread of Life

Sylvie’s Thread of Life.
A Short Story Written By
Jo Skehan
(Approx. 1500 words)
Copyright held by Author.

Sylvie stood for a moment looking at the soft mound of earth recently placed carefully and
respectfully by the groundsmen. Dressed in black with a bright red scarf, one of John’s
favourites, and a wide brimmed black hat with no veil. Sylvie didn’t want to look too much
like the grieving widow.
Her three daughters walked slowly back to where the highly polished, black cars were
parked waiting to take them home. Home to what? Sylvie wondered to herself. A sob caught
in her throat. Stifling it, she kept her resolve to stay strong for the girls. Mind you they
seemed to be handling it rather well considering. Youth handled loss so much easier.
Sylvie sighed, wiped a tear away and followed the girls to the cemetery’s gates. Briefly she
looked back at the mound of dirt where John now lay. Peacefully she hoped.
‘Are you okay Mum?’ her eldest Harriet looked concerned. Sylvie nodded and climbed into
the sleek black car. Stroking the fine leather upholstery, she mused how much John would
have oohed and aahed over it.
Arriving back at the house, they found family, friends and neighbours milling about in the
kitchen and lounge. Jean, the housekeeper who cared for the family for decades had
allowed them entry and was already feeding them and pouring tea, coffee, sherry, wine and
whatever else they desired in an effort to ease their grief.
Harriet gave Sylvie a reassuring hug as they watched Emma and Chloe greet the crowd
gathered with their best hosting skills taught over the years by Sylvie. All was not in vain
then Sylvie thought. The pain in the pit of her stomach just wouldn’t go away, no matter
how many deep breaths she took, or forced smiles she gave. When would she begin to feel
normal again? Would she ever feel normal again?
John and Sylvie had been childhood sweethearts. A quaint old fashioned title for kids who
enjoyed each other’s company Sylvie thought. Their relationship continued and grew into a much deeper partnership over the years, so by the time they were twenty, they knew there was no one else for either of them and announced their engagement. Six months later they married in the local church, from where John was farewelled today Sylvie remembered with a shiver.
‘Are you sure you are okay Mum?’ Harriet asked again. Sylvie nodded and managed a faint
smile as Chloe pushed a glass of wine into her hand.

Three little girls were born over the next and happiest six years of John and Sylvie’s lives.
They bought this house, renovated it, created a child friendly garden out the back, and filled their days taking the girls to the zoo, parks and holidays at the beach in between work and school. They had a purpose. They were together raising their girls, living life, preparing for their retirement. Together.
Today, after saying goodbye to John for the last time, Sylvie was devastated to realise she
had no purpose without her life partner. The thread of her life had been severed. The main
thread that for so long, seamlessly kept them all together, happy and proud to be a family
unit was broken. What would she do now without that thread? Sylvie could feel the pieces of her life breaking off and falling away bit by bit, chunk by chunk already.
Harriet was married with her own family now. She had a fine husband, two gorgeous boys
and a busy career. Emma was a successful young doctor who liked to take jobs overseas to
further her experience in both medicine and life. Chloe, their youngest, was an IT expert
with her own business now flourishing in the small unit she rented on the beach. A keen
surfer Chloe spent her free time in the water with her likeminded friends.
They were parts of Sylvie’s life that had already left the family home, but kept close in the
family circle as if by a piece of elastic thread thanks to John’s insistence they all return
home for the major events in life such as Christmas, Easter, and where possible birthdays.
Would they continue to keep up this tradition now he was gone to them forever?
Days passed by in a blur for Sylvie. She felt no real purpose in her life without John. Her
part time job had been put on hold when her boss thoughtfully suggested she take time off
to cope with the loss and sadness. Each morning Sylvie got out of bed and made her cup of
tea which she then took back to bed. An avid reader, Sylvie always enjoyed reading for an
hour or so both morning and night in the sanctity of her bed. It was a habit she had insisted on keeping when the girls were young for the sake of her sanity.
As before she spent time with friends. She went for walks with the dog Buddy twice a day,
for something to do more than for the health of their aging blue heeler. Each day she heard and thought of things to share with John before she remembered he was not at home to laugh with her or shake his head in the same frustration she felt. At the end of each day Sylvie felt sadder and lonelier than she could ever remember feeling. She was half a partnership, half a woman and it didn’t sit well with her at all.

The crunch came on the day Sylvie checked the bank account and found both John’s
superannuation and life insurance had been paid in, giving her a very healthy sum of money to plan her future with. What future she asked herself? As far as she was concerned there was no future for her now without the love of her life by her side.
At a loss as to how to overcome her present emotional state, Sylvie turned to her best
friend Julia. Friends since their school days, Julia was single again after divorcing her errant husband of almost thirty years. With her lump sum payout of the marriage involving the sale of the home, investment properties and a half share of the business, Julia was now a lady of leisure enjoying her new life in a swanky city apartment overlooking the river. If anyone would have some ideas as to what Sylvie could do to brighten her world it would be Julia.
Julia’s suggestion to sell the family home met with a firm no from Sylvie. She couldn’t do
that to her girls, not yet anyway. Instead they redecorated the rather dull, old and boring
interior of the house in Sylvie’s tastes. The result was a modern, colourful, comfortable
place to live.
Julia’s next suggestion of travel met with a firm no from Sylvie also. She and John had
intended to travel Europe and America on his retirement, but that day didn’t eventuate
before his heart gave out on him unexpectedly.
Joining clubs, taking up golf or bowls were suggestions met with howls of laughter from
Sylvie. Absolutely not her thing she protested. The laughter made her feel a little brighter
though. The women decided to sleep on it for a few days and see what they could come up
with. Sylvie was now back at work and not enjoying it in spite of the new wardrobe Julia
insisted she treat herself to. Joining a gym crossed Sylvie’s mind as Buddy was too old and
tired these days to want to go for walks. His days and nights were spent snoring in his cosy
bed.
That was it! Sylvie was flabbergasted at her own idea and wondered if the loneliness and
frustration of the situation was cooking her brain. The more she thought about it, the more she liked the idea and decided to set it in motion.
A few days later she arrived at Julia’s apartment carrying a little bundle of white fluff in a
special carry bag. Sylvie visited a dog breeder a few days before, and bought an adorable
little Westie puppy called Sasha. She was lucky to get her only because Sacha was the
smallest of the litter and hadn’t yet sold.

Sylvie buzzed Julia’s apartment in the luxurious lobby. Julia was thrilled to see her and she
asked ‘To what do I owe this wonderful surprise visit?’
Sylvie thrust the carry bag in her friend’s arms and said, ‘I think I have found the answer to mending my broken life thread.’ Little Sasha was overjoyed to be the centre of attention
and pranced around Julia’s expensively furnished lounge.
Both ladies were delighted with the pup’s antics and hugged each other. This little bundle of joy would give Sylvie a purpose in life,
The smile on her face was the living proof that any broken thread can be repaired with love.

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Under the Banksia Tree by Jo Skehan

golden banksia

 

 

The heat of the day hit him like a plank of timber as he emerged from the controlled coolness of the hospital. He had spent the night in a pleasant enough private room on the fourth floor, fasting in readiness for surgery this morning.

An emergency had pushed his surgery to the following day, and one of the nurses suggested he take a walk. He hated sitting around doing puzzles in magazines and watching from his window, the traffic roar along the highway nearby. The best thing about the private room in this ward was the view of a park from a height, enabling him to see the Banksias in full flower and seemingly laughing at the hot sun and dry winds of summer in the west. Banksias had always been his and Kit’s favourites.

Feeling a little woozy as he walked slowly toward the pedestrian crossing leading to the park and those shady Banksias, he realized he hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since the evening before, nor his medication for his Parkinson’s’.

The crossing on the highway wasn’t controlled by a warning light for motorists, so it took several minutes for all three lanes of vehicles to clear long enough to allow his journey to continue to the park’s entrance. Swearing under his breath about the lack of care and consideration from motorists and government bodies for pedestrians, he shuffled clumsily onto the pavement leaving the roaring traffic to speed in the direction of their various destinations. He felt hot and sweaty, and so very thirsty.

Shuffling along a concreted pathway inside the park, he eventually reached a shallow valley where the Banksias bushes and gum trees provided shade and some respite from the heat a short distance from the path. Now into the third week of a heat wave with temperatures of no less than 42deg C day in day out, cooling a mere 5 degrees by night, the city was beginning to dry up. Grasses were brown and brittle, burnt to a crisp by the hot relentless sun.

He sighed in relief as he sank to the shady ground under Banksias heavily laden with blooms – and ants. There were hundreds of ants running in and out of each flower and up and down the branches and trunk of the tree. He slid his bottom away a little from the tree, brushing a few of the ants from his legs. Hearing a plane overhead, he squinted his eyes against the bright sunshine and looked up to watch it glide through the few wispy white clouds like a shark gliding through the water at sea.

Suddenly feeling exhausted, he closed his eyes, breathing in deeply the aroma of the trees, dried grass and dirt. Ah it reminded him so much of a time so long ago when he lay under a similar tree, but in his home state of Queensland, and with his new bride. He smiled at the memory. Kit was the love of his life and no prouder a man than he lived on the day they married in the little church on her father’s huge cattle property.

He sighed and folded his arms up under his head to support his neck. He was developing a headache, and his mouth was so dry his tongue stuck to his teeth. He cursed being so thirsty but too tired at this moment to get up and make his way back to the hospital room.

Closing his eyes again, he smiled at the memory of Kit in her long white gown and soft, wispy veil held in place by a pearled tiara ordered and made especially for her big day by her father. Kit loved pearls and wore at least a string of them if not several, every day of her life, no matter what she was doing or where she was going. For their first wedding anniversary he gave her pearl earrings, which he was sure she never took off her ears till the very end.

Where did all those years go? They were mostly happy years together in which they proudly produced three daughters. Each daughter was so different and yet so very like their mother in a unique way. The eldest daughter, so prim and fussy, now married to a doctor but not happy with her lot. Money and status had not brought her the dream life she had craved as a small child on his knee. The second born daughter was an easy going happy girl who inherited her mother’s pretty face and dark hair, now a doting mother of five. Money was short for her but she was contented with the joy her family brought her. Then of course the youngest daughter who was so unlike anyone in the family and always had been a puzzle to him over the years. Pert, defiant, independent, and very much like her maternal German grandfather in looks only, she was the straight talking, no nonsense type. She told him exactly what she and her sisters thought when he decided to marry again and to move to the south a year after their mother died. Loneliness and the crushing loss of the beautiful and loving Kit propelled him toward the second marriage and the promise of companionship.

Now, feeling extremely hot, thirsty and uncomfortable, he attempted to sit up but lacked the energy required to move his body to an upright position. He sighed. If he didn’t move soon, he’d never be able to. He cursed his own stupidity in leaving the coolness of the hospital in the middle of a heat wave, at the mere suggestion of a chit of a girl to take a walk to pass the time. Who walked in this heat for God’s sake? He did, that’s who, and he laughed softly to himself. This along with so many other things he had done in his life was a big mistake.

Almost as big as the mistake he had made in marrying Thelma. She arrived in town as the new Community Health nurse, and soon made friends with Kit’s youngest sister. Thelma’s friendship with Abbie made the path to being accepted in the small town somewhat easier but that acceptance soon diminished drastically when it was realized that she and he were more than friends. The township was loyal to the memory of Kit. Kit was born and bred there and did a lot of charity work. She was loved by everyone who knew her and most of the township’s folk attended her funeral just a few months before.

The decision to marry Thelma met with a lot of coldness and disapproval. This was the home of Kit’s family for many generations, and as her husband he was thought of as part of that pioneer family and not expected to be marrying an outsider from the south. Grief was still raw in the town and it was far too soon for any of them to be capable of entertaining the idea of another woman taking Kit’s place in the home she had lovingly created for Bill and the girls.

His daughters disliked Thelma right from the start and all gave him their reasons as to why he shouldn’t marry her and then move to her home state in the south, Victoria. The most vocal of course was the youngest daughter who was adamant that Thelma was just looking for a man of means who could support her and end her working days. He had dismissed her fears as those of a young naïve girl who read too many novels and had a fine imagination. With hindsight, he grinned to himself now, she was so very right. Not that he would ever let her know of course.

Drifting in and out of consciousness now, his thoughts were becoming jumbled with dreams except for the vision of Kit, his bride, wearing her pearls and smiling, always smiling.                      The sun beat down on the sandy earth. His hands burned when they fell to his side in the sand. The humidity was almost non-existent and dried the air making it difficult to inhale. His mouth was uncomfortably parched and his tongue felt swollen, his headache throbbed painfully and he wouldn’t have been surprised if his head soon burst.

Dizzily his thoughts were darting back to various times in his life, recalling events in vivid realistic colour. He tried to open his eyes but they appeared to be glued shut. Ants crawled over his trouser legs and shoes, a Bob-tail lizard slid quietly nearby watching his form warily, as Bill lay motionless in the shade.

During the short lucid moments of consciousness, he thought of the parallels and comparisons between his two wives. Kit, the kind, loving and loyal one who was the cup half full type of girl, and Thelma the pessimistic, cynical and distrusting middle aged woman whose life was a sad and unhappy struggle as an unmarried mother for most of her adult years. She still carried so much bitterness in her heart. Baggage his girls called it.

He loved them both but in such different ways. The last time he saw Thelma was when she waved goodbye to him unsmiling, from the front door of their home in a leafy suburb, as the taxi pulled away from the kerb. He was booked in at one of the big hospitals for the removal of skin cancers from his legs. Thelma regarded the surgery as unnecessary and refused to accompany him to the hospital, promising instead to visit him the next day after his operation was done.

The last time he saw Kit in real life was many years ago now at breakfast before he left for work that day. How heartbroken and shattered he was when told she had been taken from him that day while alone in the house, struck down by a cerebral haemorrhage. Cruelly denied the chance to say goodbye to the love of his life he looked for something or someone to blame. His grief was deep and painful until he met Thelma who somehow offered peace and calmness to his broken heart. In his mind though, he saw Kit every waking moment of every day. On his wedding day to Thelma, he saw Kit in every corner of the church. She would always be his bride. No one and nothing could ever take that away from him.

Now in the mid afternoon the sun was at its hottest for the day and beat down on the earth below. His headache clouded his thoughts and clarity was lost. He felt his body swirling uncontrollably through a long cool tunnel, filled with a hazy white mist. Figures glided smoothly past him, unseeing and not looking his way or at each other, absorbed only with their task of moving forward. He was surprised and relieved to feel such ease and peace in the welcome coolness of the tunnel, and his head pain lifted slightly.

He looked upwards at a pink light shining in the distance as it moved toward him. Slowly and noiselessly it neared and he smiled contentedly. He could now see Kit’s silhouette in the pink light waiting for him. He would be with her again. He would be forever with the love of his life. Slowly, oh so slowly he glided toward her, he reached out for her outstretched hand and their fingers touched – together again at last.

The Traditional Wedding by Jo Skehan

malay_wed_hands

 

The invitation arrived by post in all its black and gold glory. Isla looked at it in bemusement turning it over for closer examination.

It was a wedding invitation for her late husband’s niece who was to marry in Penang, Malaysia in a traditional ceremony. Her mother was Malay so of course that part made sense, but the guy she was marrying was an Australian of Polish descent.

Isla smiled as she placed the ornate invitation near her key board. She would email her eldest sister for her input before making the decision of whether to go.

Later that day she wrote:

Hi Irene, Received an invitation to the wedding of Rosa’s and Jim’s daughter, Farah. Farah requests guests wear black or white in keeping with her desired colour theme. I can hear you saying ‘Why not go then?’ My reason for hesitating is because it’s to be a traditional Malay ceremony in Penang. What do you think? Isla.

That afternoon in front of TV enjoying a cup of tea, Isla heard the incoming email’s ping and hauled her seventy-five year old body out of the chair to see if it was the reply she was hoping for.

Hello Isla, The wedding sounds interesting. Excellent photo opportunity to beat all others! Penang would involve air travel, but you’ve done much air travel and you have a current passport (I suppose), so go and have fun! The weather here is heating up. I don’t do summer as well as I used to. Did you realise I celebrate (?) my eighty-fifth birthday soon? Where did those years go? Irene.

Isla had decided to go to Penang, and looked up flight details and costs. Her brother-in-law Jim, with whom she had kept contact after Paul’s death several years earlier, had recommended a good airline. Rosa’s sisters had arranged reasonable rates with the hotel where the wedding was to be held.  It sounded very simple and good fun.

A week later she emailed her sister:

Hi Irene, Flights and hotel are booked. It’s apparently a 3 -4 star which begs the question which is it really? I arrive two days before the wedding extravaganza and leave two days after. The celebrations last two days, total being six days. Plenty of time to renew my acquaintance with the lovely island of Penang. I’m going alone, unless you’d like to accompany me? Isla.

The reply was soon in her inbox:

Hello Isla, No thank you I have no desire to attend said extravaganza although I am sure it will be something to write home about. A chap is coming today to repair my storm damaged patio roof. This house is almost as old as I am so it is no surprise that it cannot withstand severe winds and rain any longer. Irene.

A month flew by with Isla repacking her bag several times and shopping for a suitable outfit for the ceremony. Many emails passed between the sisters. Irene’s contained useless information about the weather, her neighbours, her shopping and the homily at mass.

Finally it was departure day. Jim was in regular contact assuring Isla of the hotel bookings and hinting what clothing was preferred for the wedding. Isla decided to pack a few choices.

The flight was pleasant and refreshing indeed to be referred to as ‘Madam’ so respectfully. Arriving at Kuala Lumpur, Isla rushed to the domestic airport for the flight to Penang. The walk across the tarmac in the searing heat and humidity did little to encourage holiday mode, and one couple was almost run over by smiley Malays driving at break-neck speed on something resembling a ride-on mower.

By the time she landed in Penang, walked across another hot and noisy tarmac dodging fast moving vehicles, Isla was ready to sink into a comfy chair with a nice cold drink.

Little respite was offered by the poor air conditioning of the hotel foyer. Isla fervently hoped the rooms would be cooler as she fanned her sweaty face with her hat. Eventually, Isla was taken to her fifteenth floor room by a cheerful Bellboy whose big smiles and enthusiastic head nods made her feel very welcome.

She wrote an email to Irene after unpacking.

Hi Irene, Have arrived. It’s hot and steamy. My love for Penang is renewed. I’m excited at seeing my favourite places again. Jim left a note at reception saying to join them downstairs for a ‘steam boat’ dinner. Not thrilled with the prospect. Isla.

Before bed she wrote: Hi Irene, I’ll pass on steam boats from hereon in.  The meat was unidentifiable, vegetables tasteless. The wine tasted like vinegar. The humidity increased with the bowl of cloudy fluid boiling incessantly atop a gas flame. Air conditioning appears to be unheard of.   Look forward to sight-seeing and shopping tomorrow. Isla.

Wedding guests arrived in dribs and drabs. It was like old home week catching up with folks Isla hadn’t seen for years and it was lovely catching up on news and laughing about their advancing years.

Susan arrived alone having recently divorced her husband of fifty years. ‘Never too late hon,’ Susan had laughed heartily when telling Isla of her singledom.

Isla and Susan enjoyed a spot of sight-seeing, and lots of shopping especially at the night markets where it was huge fun bargaining for lower prices. Susan left that to Isla as she was a self proclaimed hopeless case when it came to bargaining.

Having spent most of the first two days out and about it was with shock and surprise when another guest, Jan informed them they were to wear traditional Malay outfits in black or white.

‘What?’ Isla was open mouthed at the news.

‘When did this happen?’ demanded Susan.

Jan, who seemed to be privy to inside information due to her ‘closeness’ to Rosa and her Malaysian family, was thrilled to outline the request and inform them a bus was booked for the next day to take them all to a traditional Malay clothing store in Georgetown.

Scowling, Isla and Susan retired to their respective rooms. As the elevator doors closed, Jan was still puffing importantly about the bus’ departure time and warning them not to be late.

Hi Irene, Guests must now wear black or white traditional gear. I can’t see why my black pants and top with the pretty white flower down one side is not acceptable. Have you seen what they wear up here? I pity the women as the outfits look extremely hot. Wish me luck. Isla.

Irene offered no sympathy in her reply:

Hello Isla, Bad luck about the outfit. Is this the bride’s request or her mother’s? More storms here. My kitchen ceiling caved in with roof leaks, hence no power all day. Irene.

The group shopping trip was hot and hurried. Jasmine, Rosa’s sister acted as translator.  She knew just enough English to get by, making the entire exercise wearing on everyone, including shop assistants who stood quietly in corners watching, as the guests searched the racks frantically.

Five hours later everyone had an outfit. The men laughed and joked about their silk pyjamas and waist sarongs, topped off with a songkok – an oval hat. The women chose from long sleeved heavy dresses, adorned with sparkling beads. The more ‘bling’ the better advised Jasmine. Isla being tall had difficulty in finding a dress long enough. The larger sizes were too big across her slim shoulders making the sleeves hang lower on the shoulder than they should.

In frustration, Isla threw a large tent like dress on the counter and paid for it in disgust. Jasmine then led them to the jewellery section instructing them to buy many bracelets, earrings and necklaces with shiny stones. The more ‘bling’ the better as she had already said.

‘My dress has a bit of red on it, so I hope it’s ok,’ Susan said worriedly.

‘Mine is a black potato sack covered in ‘bling’, and I detest it already!’ Isla grumbled. ‘But it’s what the bridal family want. I’ll make sure I’m not in any photos!’

The first day of celebrations involved the guests being dined and fruit juiced to within an inch of their lives while the bridal couple had their rehearsal and last instructions of procedures from the wedding planner. Dancers and performers rehearsed also and no guest was allowed anywhere near the function room.

Crawling into bed feeling stuffed like a fois gras duck in France, Isla pulled her laptop slowly toward her hoping to see a newsy email from her sister.

Hiya Mum thought I’d check in and make sure you’re having fun but not running off with any foreign guys!! The kids are fine and busy, I’ve been flat out at work. Has the wedding happened yet? Look forward to photos. Love you mum, Susannah.

Isla was delighted her daughter had emailed. Her sister had emailed also.

Hello Isla, I suppose the wedding is in full swing. Enjoy. Have quotes for ceiling repairs and am rather sick of tarpaulins flapping about above my head as I cook. The sooner it’s fixed the better. Irene.

The next afternoon the guests lined up outside the function room, splendid in their traditional outfits. The men fiddled with their sarongs and the women turned the ‘bling’ bracelets round their wrists or twiddled long sparkling earrings. Isla noticed she was not alone in feeling hot and bothered. Most of their makeup was sliding off their faces.

After what felt like hours, the guests were given table numbers and permitted to enter the room and served icy fruit juices.

Loud Asian music filled the room and some guests frowned at the ceiling trying to locate the speakers. It was harsh on the ears and Susan remarked that in spite of serving no alcohol, headaches would be suffered tomorrow due to the loud ear bashing music.

Dancers preceded the beautiful bridal couple as they walked to the stage where two huge white thrones stood surrounded with lace, flowers, gold ornaments and trimmings. Two magnificent ice sculptures were at either side of the stage. Isla marvelled they were not melting.

Many hours later, Isla collapsed in bed and turned her laptop on.

Hi Irene, The wedding was so over the top it stunned us all! The ornate decoration was amazing and unmatched at any event I’ve attended. The ceremony was strange and I suspect made up as they went along. I couldn’t resist asking Rosa about etiquette of a traditional ceremony when people were ‘presented’ to the bridal couple on stage –spices and water were sprinkled on the bride’s and groom’s hands– something to do with fertility I think but nobody including the Malays seemed to know. The four parents were presented first as you would expect, but the next couple was Jim’s boss and his wife! I was flabbergasted. Then Rosa’s sisters and husbands, fair enough of course, then Japanese guests who don’t even know the bridal couple! I had to ask, and next thing Rosa ran like crazy over to the wedding planner. I should have kept my mouth shut as shortly after, I was called up to be presented along with other family members of Jim’s. I doubt we would have got a look in otherwise though. It was an experience and so extraordinarily overdone and extravagant. Rosa’s love of materialism came to the fore at this event! I pray your kitchen ceiling is fixed. Isla.

Isla sank back onto the big pillows and sighed. This, she decided would be the last event or holiday for her with any of Paul’s family. It was time to let his family go just as she did when he had died. That hadn’t been too hard as Paul was a serial cheater during their long marriage, which survived only because Isla chose to ignore his unfaithfulness.

Two days later, Isla and Susan left Malaysia returning to their everyday lives in Australia. Hundreds of photos passed via email amongst the guests, and old friendships were renewed.

Isla sighed in her comfy chair and fired up the computer. Smiling she began an email to her sister. Hi Irene, I’m back.

She stopped, hit delete, picked up the phone and dialled.

‘Hello Irene, it’s me,’ Isla laughed into the phone.

Sometimes actual voice to voice conversations cannot be beaten.

The Best Christmas by Jo Skehan

Jenny usually dreaded Christmas. She smiled wanly as everyone else excitedly prepared for the festive season such as trimming the tree and hanging holly and of course the wreath on the door. She felt anything but goodwill toward her fellow man because as far as she was concerned it just created enormous fuss and bother, not to mention the unhappiness that went hand in hand with her husband Will’s heavy drinking binges.

As a child Jenny had loved Christmas, especially the tree. The baubles and lights held promises of magical powers that would bring comfort and cuddles while her mother read her stories about the baby Jesus sleeping safely surrounded by love in the manger.

The heart warming aromas from the huge bowl in which her mother mixed the fruits, eggs and flour for the Christmas cake filled the house, spreading its love while baking in the big cream enamelled oven in their cosy kitchen. A slice of the freshly baked and iced cake was traditionally their first Christmas treat on returning from midnight mass where the uplifting hymns and good wishes from friends and neighbours added to Jenny’s happy feelings of being safe and surrounded by love, just like the baby Jesus.

Now Jenny sat at her kitchen table eyeing the shop bought cake sadly. She didn’t know why she had bothered to buy it in the first place, because Will didn’t like fruit cake of any kind, and certainly detested Christmas cake. In fact he detested everything to do with Christmas and determinedly drowned his dislike in alcohol each festive season until almost New Year. He would complain again tonight when he got home from work about the fuss and nonsense his work colleagues had gone to with giving gifts and wishing each other a Merry Christmas. They wore silly hats and the women wore earrings that lit up or were little bells that jingled as they walked.

Today Jenny had pulled the Christmas tree down from the attic, along with the decorations and lights. That was as far as she had got though, and the lights lay in a tangled mess at her feet where she had attempted to straighten them out to put on the tree. A prettily decorated tree reminded her of past Christmases with her parents and the happiness and safe feelings which she needed to draw upon now in her adult years in order to get through all the sadness and uneasiness that dogged her in married life.

Slowly she uncoiled the strings of lights, checked the bulbs, and plugged the sets in to test before arranging them over the tree. Satisfied with the result, she then reached into the large box she had lugged down from the attic and pulled out some sparkly red balls, then the green balls, and lastly the gold balls. Concentrating on the decorations, Jenny soon became engrossed in the task and even felt a flutter of excitement as she looked at the tree. It needed the other decorations stored in the box to make it complete and so she set about pulling them out of their individual boxes and padding.

Standing back she looked appraisingly at the tree and smiled slightly. Yes, it was very similar to the trees of her childhood. If only she could snap her fingers and have her mother and father suddenly appear in the room. Her parents lived on the other side of the country and over the past six years they had spent their Christmases on the islands in the luxury of beautiful resorts. Deep down Jenny knew they had chosen to go to the islands rather than fly across the country to spend Christmas with her and Will because of Will’s drinking bouts and bad behaviour. She sighed as she recalled their last Christmas together. Will had been especially vile that year and had shouted abuse at her parents for no reason, and then turned on her before storming out of the house. All three of them worried about his safety over the twelve hours he was missing, but then he returned contrite and ashamed, apologising for being such an idiot. Jenny knew though, that it had been too much for her parents to forgive and forget and the following year her mother wrote to say they would not be coming again. They had decided it was a good time for them to give Jenny and Will their own space, and were going to the islands with a group of friends their own ages who had been asking them along for quite a few years now.

Having their own space didn’t change things for Jenny and Will the following Christmas though. It was just as bad as the previous year, and seemed to extend to over the New Year as well. No sooner had Will dried out back to normal, Easter was upon them sending him off on another bender.

The last two years were horrendous and Jenny was almost at the end of her tether with his drinking bouts. The verbal abuse was getting worse and she was a little afraid that it would turn violent in the not too distant future if something wasn’t done.

Jenny asked their local priest for help. Father Seamus happily agreed to have a chat with Will, but it did no good and in a way Jenny thought it had actually made the next drinking bout worse, although the abuse was a tad tamer. Her friends advised her to threaten him with leaving, but she loved him too much to consider that option yet.

Between the bouts Will tried his best to make amends to both her and his own body. He became the ideal husband, thoughtful and caring, bringing home little gifts, serving her breakfast in bed on weekends, helping her in the house and the garden and going with her to the markets she loved to explore and which he regarded as a boring waste of time and money.

Getting fit was a priority for him during these times of rehabilitation, and he pounded the pavements each day, working his trim body into a muscle packed physique – ‘tanned, trim, taut and terrific’ as Jenny proudly said to her girlfriends.

Sadly, every six months or so, Will fell off the wagon and succumbed to another one of his benders – each latest bender was far worse than the previous – and crushed Jenny’s pride, hopes and feelings of being safe into a broken pile of rubble. He was never hurtful to her when he wasn’t drinking, but like Jekyll and Hyde, his personality became the total opposite while on a binge.

Kneeling on the floor making finishing touches to the Christmas tree, she sat back on her haunches to survey the result. It looked good. How she wished she could feel good about this Christmas but she was sure her hopes of that would be crushed again as soon as he walked in the door reeking of booze, cigarette smoke and full of nastiness.

She heard his key in the door and stiffened, her cold and trembling fingers holding tight to a piece of tinsel she was wrapping round the bottom of the tree trunk. She closed her eyes and held her breath in dreaded anticipation of his stumbling down the hallway, the subsequent string of swear words as he made his way to the kitchen.

She waited for the bang as he stumbled through the door and the loud and hateful demands to know what she had been doing all day while he had been slaving at the office. His sarcastic tones could cut her to the wick and she shivered at the thought.

So far he was walking quietly and dare she think it, normally. Realising she was sitting on the floor with her eyes clenched tightly she opened them and waited a few seconds for them to focus. He stood at the fridge door and drank thirstily from an opened carton of milk. He licked his lips and hesitating for a moment he placed the milk carton on the kitchen table and closed the fridge door.

Jenny still could not see his face from where she sat on the floor but she imagined him with the blank and glassed over look from too much alcohol drunk in too short a time and which she despised, dreaded and feared.

Any moment now, he would turn and see her staring at the back of his head. Undoubtedly he would snarl at her asking what she was looking at, taunting her to comment on his drunkenness so he would be justified in shouting abuse about his intolerant and unloving wife.

She closed her eyes again, wanting to scream. When would it end? She was tired of the disappointment, the despair, the feeling of emptiness and of being unsafe and unloved.

Just then he sensed her presence and turned around. He looked at her for what seemed a long time, and then he smiled beckoning her to come to him. Inwardly she groaned. She hated hugging him or having to pretend she was happy to see him at home under these circumstances. They were never true hugs. There were never real feelings of love in those hugs and it may as well be some stranger off the street she was hugging.

Slowly she stood up and walked over to where he was standing. He picked up the carton of milk from the table and took another long swig of it, leaving a milky white moustache on his top lip. In spite of her feelings of dread, Jenny couldn’t resist smiling at him. He seemed different somehow when she took a good look at him.

Smiling, he said ‘Open my coat pocket and look inside.’

Jenny was puzzled and curious too. Had he bought her a special gift before he had gone drinking? Usually he forgot all gifts when on his binges. He looked and sounded different tonight though. His voice was gentle and more quiet than usual.

Tentatively she reached into his coat pocket. She felt a bulge resembling a book. A book? He was not an avid reader and would be the last thing he’d think of to surprise her with even though he knew she loved to read books of all genres.

Looking him in the eye, she pulled the book out of his pocket. He smiled shyly at her. Eventually she tore her gaze away from him and looked at the book in her hand. It was tattered and torn from much use, the pages threatening to fall out from the covers if not held together. Turning the book over in her hands, a card fell out. On the card she read the Serenity Prayer.

‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’

It was the answer to all her prayers. The best Christmas gift he could ever give her!

His eyes filled with tears as he looked at her with love.

‘I guess I’ve realised that serenity isn’t just for the months I am on my “health kick” between binges, and that it’s only fair to us both to apply it all year round. I’ve also come to the conclusion that if I was a wise and courageous man, I’d hang on to the one and only thing that has ever meant anything to me in my life, and that is you Jenny. Happy Christmas darling, and may there be many more of them for us together.’

As Jenny sank into his tanned, trim, taut and terrific physique, she sighed. Together they stood wrapped in each other’s arms as they watched the lights on the Christmas tree twinkle on and offchristmas-tree

A Most Unlikely Match by Jo Skehan

The year was 1970 and Matthew returned to Butterworth, Malaysia where he was stationed with the RAAF, after having six weeks holiday in his home town in Victoria.

The visit home was pleasant enough, catching up with old school mates and enjoying adult type conversations for the first time ever with his grown and married brothers. He was the youngest by fifteen years – a change of life baby some said – and finding anything he held in common with his much older brothers was always difficult.

On arrival he walked through the canteen to join a group from his squadron.

‘Hey there, Matt. Welcome back!’ John Rowe his best mate was delighted to see him and shook his hand enthusiastically.

‘We’re all going to Georgetown tonight, are you coming too?’ One of the others in the squadron asked. Alan Benson adjusted his glasses as if to get a better look at Matt when he answered.

‘You bet! I want to catch up with the girl I met before I went on leave,’ Matt grinned.

The girl Matthew referred to was a young seventeen year old Malay girl working in the bistro bar that was a favourite haunt of the Air Force guys. She was shy and rather pretty with paler skin than most Malay girls, and being able to speak English well was a bonus.

At the bistro bar, the group made its way to their preferred table, one of a few big enough to seat them all comfortably.

The young Malay girl walked shyly over to the table to take their orders, especially smiling at Matt. Words were unnecessary as their eyes said what they both felt. Matt felt warm and happy for the first time since he left for his home country on leave.

Later that night while the men were laughing loudly at each other’s jokes, Matt slipped away for a quick word with the pretty girl. He asked her name and she whispered it was Mari.

‘Mari and Matt,’ he mused. ‘Has a nice ring to it don’t you think?’

Mari smiled and looked at the floor in embarrassment and then giggled with delight.

They spent an hour together at the end of Mari’s shift drinking iced tea and chatting about their lives, jobs and dreams for the future. Mari was very forthcoming with details of her desire to marry and have children and to possibly move away from Georgetown and Penang where her large family of brothers and sisters all lived. She wanted a better life.

Her father, a police officer was a very strict Muslim who insisted his daughters abide by his and the religion’s rules so they could marry a good Muslim man on reaching the age of twenty. He regarded that age as perfect for marriage.

Mari’s mother was a hardworking cleaner and excellent cook. She worked as a domestic at the hospital by day and at night she cooked Malaysian curries and pastries for an upmarket restaurant in Georgetown. The restaurant was a favourite of tourists who paid complements and large tips for the excellent dishes they enjoyed. At the end of every long night, Jalim returned to her home and family of nine, exhausted but filled with pride.

Over the following months Matt and Mari managed a few stolen hours together after her shift at the bistro. She was not allowed out with any man by her parents and risked severe punishment if found out in her liaison with Matt. Being with a foreigner was regarded by Yousef and Jalim as the worst sin for any Malay girl to commit and ten times worse should their daughters dare to sink so low.

Matt regarded the rules as being quite unreasonable and intolerable.

He would object when she refused to spend a whole day with him at the beach. The squadron was keen on water skiing and often planned a day out together. The married men and their families lived in houses in Penang provided by the Air Force and they enjoyed spending time as one huge family.

Time passed with Mari sneaking out to spend more and more forbidden time with the young man she now loved. Matt too was becoming enamoured and longed for the freedom to be seen in public with Mari, to meet her family and to arrange to meet his family in Australia.

One evening Matt took Mari to a classy restaurant after her usual shift. She had a change of clothes with her and he was impressed by how stunning she looked in her pale blue strapless dress. She twirled round in front of him giggling happily. He caught her in his arms and kissed her. They both knew in that moment they wanted to take their relationship a step further and were prepared to risk the consequences.

Murphy’s Law was on duty that night, as Mari’s father drove past the restaurant just as Mari and Matt stepped onto the pavement. He screeched the police car to a halt and jumped out effortlessly. Snarling in Malay to Matt, he gripped Mari’s arm tightly causing her to cry out in pain, and pushed her into the patrol car. Matt tried to grab Mari but her father hit him across the face with the back of his very strong arm, knocking Matt off balance. He fell hard to the ground where Yousef then kicked him in the ribs angrily and shouted, ‘My daughter, you stay away, I will kill!’

Mari was not at work the following night. Matt asked the bar owner where she was but he just shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.

‘Don’t worry mate, we’ll find her,’ John promised solemnly.

In spite of asking around and riding his motor bike during the following weeks through the streets of the island of Penang, Matt saw no sign of his lovely Mari and his heart ached.

Months passed in which Matt spent most of that time with a fuddled love sick brain. His officers in charge had occasion to discipline him a few times warning he had better shape up or be shipped out to the Amberley Base in Queensland. He needed to stay where Mari was, so Matt wisely heeded the advice.

At last Mari returned to the bistro, but only to collect money owing to her. Her father waited outside in the patrol car. Matt rushed to her taking her in his arms. Momentarily she melted into his embrace but stiffened as she remembered her father outside. She told Matt she had been beaten and was now locked in her bedroom most of the time and kept virtually a prisoner watched by her sisters constantly while her mother worked. She was forbidden to see him again. Matt was horrified. He urged her to run away with him promising she would always be safe. He tried to explain that keeping her prisoner was unacceptable and in his country would be considered an offence punishable by law. Their time together was very limited and while feeling panic at not seeing her ever again, Matt searched his brain for a solution.

He whispered to her and she nodded her head and spoke excitedly in Malay.

‘Hang on, hang on,’ he laughed, ‘speak English.’

Mari stopped, took a deep breath and said ‘I will meet you tomorrow morning at the markets. I will be at the far end of the street waiting for you. My sisters will be busy buying the food for our meals.’

Matt’s heart quickened next day when he saw her standing bare-footed at the end of the market street. Mari stepped back into the shadows of the stall pulling Matt with her. He told of his plan to get her away so they could be together forever. He promised to take her to Australia with him when his Malaysian posting was done. Excited and full of hope for their future, Mari agreed to do as he asked.

Matt’s friend John rode his motorbike quietly up the street and stopped nearby Mari’s house. It was night but the street lighting made it very difficult not to be seen. Mari ran out into the street clutching a small cloth bag holding a few clothes.  John rode off quietly and headed for the house of one of the married guys where Matt waited.

The young couple was thrilled at how cleverly they had outwitted Mari’s father. They would work out the next step in time, but for now the wife of his RAAF mate was happy to take care of Mari and keep her hidden.

They had underestimated Yousef’s chain of contacts and were taken completely by surprise when police officers detained Matt on his way to the house a few nights later. Arrested on suspicion of illegally dealing with a minor, Matt was soon locked in a cell. Yousef smiled, sure Matt would crack and leave the country.

Matt was allowed to phone his superior officer at the base, who in turn rang Matt’s family in Australia. Two days later, Matt’s brothers appeared at police headquarters with a lawyer. Much discussion took place in both Malay and English and his brothers paid the set bail.

Kenyon, Matt’s eldest brother returned to the Police Headquarters to talk to Yousef, in the attempt of coming to a mutually agreeable solution for the star crossed lovers. Matt assured Kenyon his love for Mari was sincere and he wished to marry her and take her back to his home country at the end of his posting at Butterworth.

Kenyon and Yousef respected each other and after a long chat it was decided Matt and Mari would be permitted to marry as long as he converted to the Muslim faith. They would be married in the honourable Muslim tradition.

When informed of the agreement, Mari looked worried and cried. Matt hugged her and told her, his brothers and friends that he would walk over hot coals if he had to, as he loved her more than anything.

The arrangements were finalised by Yousef, his wife and Kenyon for the wedding plans and preparations were carried out by the family. Matt studied the Muslim religion at the nearest Mosque before declaring the Shahadah and to pray to Allah. For a born and bred Roman Catholic, it all seemed daunting and final, but Matt was happy to do this for his Mari.

They married in a traditional Malay ceremony attended by his friends at the Butterworth RAAF base, his brothers and hundreds of relatives and friends of Mari’s family.

Once married, Matt had the right to apply for a serviceman’s house on the island of Penang, and soon after their marriage ceremony they moved into a little two bedroom house in the hills. It was too far for Mari’s sisters to visit often which suited her fine. She was now happily learning English and the Australian ways from the other wives who lived nearby. The excitement of moving to Matt’s home country was overwhelming at times and she would stop and take a deep breath when panic threatened to darken her day.

Thirty five years later, Matt and Mari celebrated their wedding anniversary with joy, surrounded by their four children. Some of her family had travelled to Australia especially, and the many friends and family she had gained over the years since arriving as an innocent, wide-eyed foreign wife were also happy to attend. Neither Matt nor Mari regretted the risks they had taken in defying Mari’s father, now deceased, all those years ago. Their life in Australia had been a happy one and the marriage which had been pronounced as doomed all those years ago, was a joyfully successful union.

Matt looked around at all the guests and smiled. He put his arm around his wife’s waist and drew her close, and raising his glass he made a toast for the next thirty-five years.