This story was written for a competition with the theme “thirty”. It did not place.
It’s a two hour drive to Steffy and Bert’s. Vron cries most of the way. The windscreen wipers commiserate. Her eyes are red and puffy when the house comes into view. It sits on stilts, the rain breeding thunder on its roof along with the river down below. They roar together, filling the void in Vron’s ears.
“Are you okay?” Steffy asks without preamble.
“Hayfever,” Vron lies. “I stupidly had the windows open once I got off the highway but I just took something for it. I’ll be fine soon. Happy Birthday, Steffy! The big three oh!!”
Bert swoops in and hugs her. She leans for a moment into the bulk of him wishing she could just sag in somebody’s strong arms. Instead, she pulls away, smiling.
* * *
Now she’s on the couch, feet tucked under. She cuddles a mug, her fingers tapping on the ceramic in time with the quiet ripple of Rachmaninov which comes from hidden speakers. She watches the rain streak diagonals across the view. In a nearby paddock she can see a horse, tail to wind, head down. A lump rises in her throat and she turns away from the window to pat Blue, Steffy’s red setter.
“Are you reading anything, Stef?”
Steffy mentions her favourite horror author.
“I can’t read horror,” Vron says. “There’s enough horror in the news.”
“You prefer real monsters,” Steffy says drily. “I don’t get that. How can it be comforting to think it could be real?”
Vron forces a laugh. “Ha. The shape is hardly relevant, is it? All human stories are of our own experience. Frame them in whatever shapes you like. A vampire is only based on the worst CEO, surely.”
Steffy smiles but shrugs. “A cloud is a shapeshifter – so rich for the imagination. Remember when we studied Hamlet at school? Polonius could be talked into seeing any shape. Watch the clouds and let your mind be free. I see realistic fiction as too tethered. Surely imagination is what sets humans apart.”
Vron tries to wipe the memory of the cloudy image on the scan in the doctor’s office. Shapeshifter. Shit, yes. She forces herself to babble on.
“But Steffy, you know me. I’m so timid. You say I prefer real monsters but the truth is, I prefer no monsters. If I ever write a book, the characters will be a fair mix of good and bad. Neither monstrous nor wonderful. Call it tethered if you like. It’s what my poor little brain can cope with.”
Steffy snorts. “Poor little brain, my arse. Of course you’ll write a book, you goose. Have you read your writing?!”
“Thanks Stef, that’s lovely. But let me go back a step…” Vron hurriedly moves on. “What makes you think the human imagination is so special?”
“All our inventions,” Steffy points out. “And our story telling and art. So many art forms. Listen to Rachmaninov!” She waves her arms magnificently around the room. “What other animals boast such creations?”
“What about the bower bird’s bower?” suggests Vron. “Or the song of the butcher bird? What about the dances of honey bees? And besides… imagination isn’t only good. It can be horrific in the wrong context.”
Just then there’s a crash in the kitchen where Bert is making dinner. Steffy leaps up to go and see if help is needed. Vron returns to the view. She has put her mug down and her hands twine nervously in her lap.
* * *
As darkness settles, the weather’s roar grows. They eat Steffy’s birthday dinner under its thickening menace. Bert has made beef and mushroom pie with mash. Steffy pours generous glasses of red. Vron offers her gift – a voucher for Steffy’s favourite bookshop. It’s a pact the two of them have stuck to for a decade.
“Thirty, eh? It’ll be my turn next. Only 3 months of my twenties left. Do you think it’ll rain that whole time?” she jokes to Bert as Steffy reads her card. She ducks her head as tears come back into her eyes without warning.
“It hasn’t rained like this for ages,” says Bert, putting a tray of lightly fried asparagus on the table. “Stef, remember that night when we first moved in? It was pouring like this and we had just gone to bed when there was that great crash. Do you remember?”
Steffy takes up the story. “Oh yes! The woman who sold us the place warned us about a ghost problem. Noisy bugger, she’d said. Bangs about at nights. There’s a story about the first owners – a woman and her daughter who built the original part of this house in the 1870s – Mimsy and Cordo.”
“Sorry, I’m sure you’ve said before, but which bit is original?” asks Vron.
“Our bedroom is really the only surviving room. In the morning I’ll show you where you can see the original timbers.”
Vron nods enthusiastically and Steffy continues: “They cut the timbers for the house themselves and snigged them through the bush with horses. Must’ve been hard yakka. Anyway, the story goes that Mimsy (the mother) got some terrible fever and died here about ten years in. Supposedly it’s her ghost which is still active. Poor Cordo struggled on alone for a while but couldn’t run the property by herself and visits from her dead mother drove her pretty near crazy. She moved in with an aunty back in Sydney. The place got sold and I don’t know what happened to Cordo after that.
“So, anyway, every time we met her, the previous owner couldn’t stop talking about Mimsy’s ghost. It almost felt like she was trying to scare us off but Bert was having none of it. Said it was more likely rats and one of the first things he did was set a trap with some peanut butter and cheese and popped it up through the manhole. Not to kill the thing. Just catch it.”
Vron laughs. “Trust you, Bert. Only you would set out to catch a ghost with peanut butter.”
“And cheese!” Bert corrects. “Ghosts prefer holy cheese. Go on Stef!”
“Well, as Bert said, it was pissing down that night and we were dead tired. Must be nearly 3 years ago, hey Bert? We’d been unpacking all day. Up and down ladders. In and out of boxes. Making beds. Moving furniture. Bert had been on the roof fixing a piece of tin that was flapping loose – a risky business in the rain. We had toast and baked beans for dinner and fell into bed about 9pm. About half an hour later, when we’d both dropped off, there was this great crash. No rat could make that noise. You can imagine how we jumped!”
Bert nudges Vron’s arm and murmurs with a grin “I was rock steady, of course. I remember Steffy’s white little face. I knew I had to be there for her.”
Steffy continues unperturbed. “We both sat up pretty quick and were scuffling around in the dark for pants and shoes. We ran out into the hall and saw that the manhole cover had been pushed out and had crashed to the floor along with the rat trap which had sprung on impact. Bert grabbed his phone and turned the torch on. There, peering down from the manhole, was a fat possum, eyes like moons staring down at us. No way that fat little fella was fitting in a rat trap.”
“Well!” says Vron. “Some ghost!”
“Yes, it must’ve got in under the loose piece of tin and then couldn’t get out thanks to Bert’s efforts on the roof. So I had to wave around at the manhole to stop it coming into the house while Bert tried to figure out how to let it out of the roof without letting too much rain in. I don’t know how long that possum and I eyed each other off for. It felt like hours. Eventually Bert rigged up a kind of tarpaulin tunnel and put a lure of fresh fruit there for it to smell. We didn’t get to bed until after one. Bert nailed a piece of timber across the manhole to stop the possum pushing it out again.”
“Have you heard the ghost since? I can’t help hoping she’s real.” says Vron eagerly.
Bert’s mobile rings and he excuses himself, disappearing into their bedroom. Steffy looks at Vron closely for a minute but only says “The house makes a few noises. But none I could definitely assign to a ghost.”
* * *
In the spare room that night, Vron lies amid mind-looms in the woven dark, conscious of the relentless drumming. Through the big, curtainless window, she perceives clouds and ghosts and shapeless pools of fear.
“Where are you, Mimsy?” whispers Vron. “What’s it like?”
There’s a low tumble of desultory thunder.
She hears Blue scratching his bedding into place and someone gets up to use the toilet. Thuds echo between the creaks of doors. The toilet’s flush is the last sound Vron remembers before she sinks into sleep.
* * *
Morning wisps over the horizon, grey and humble, and the river’s course supports a snake of cloud. The rain has stopped but the verandah rail’s lower edge is still serrated with drops. Vron looks out and straightens her shoulders. Her gut aches.
In the bathroom, she finds reading material. Relief Reading, Steffy calls it. Vron sits on the toilet and picks up a book of short stories. Typical of Stef, they’re vampire stories. She settles into a story about a dead woman haunting a city office building. In Vron’s imagination, the blood looks more like raspberry jam and she finds herself smiling as a businessman suffers his fate. Good old Stef.
She finishes her business, puts the book back on the little wooden table provided and washes her hands. Looking in the mirror, she notices her pale, tired reflection. She takes some deep breaths and runs the water hot.
“I’m sick,” she tries to the mirror. “I have pan… I’ll have pancakes,” she smiles at herself wanly. The hot water smudges the mirror and tears blur her eyes.
Vron washes her face, trying to heat some colour into it.
* * *
Over breakfast, Bert and Steffy keep up a constant banter about who makes the coffee more often. Vron finds herself unable to join in. She nibbles unenthusiastically at her marmalade toast. Her coffee goes cold.
When Bert has left to begin work in the home office, Steffy turns to Vron.
“Spill the beans, kiddo,” she says. “Something’s not right and no birthday in the world is gonna keep a secret from me.”
Vron opens her mouth to answer but a cloud obscures her vision. Last night’s roaring hums in her ears and the cheery kitchen seeps away. Steffy leaps to catch her as she sags from her chair.