Thursday, November 11, 2010


About a month ago I blogged about the writing of a short story for a competition with the Dunedin Writer's Workshop. You can read about it here.

Last night at our final meeting for the year I was awarded Second Place. Yay!

Chris regained the trophy for First Place. (I'd been keeping it warm for him for the past year.) And Pen from over at The Dragon's Pen gained Third Place.

Here's my story:


Cold water dragged at my legs and pulled me down into the depths of the raging river. I grasped the bank.  Mud and pebbles slipped through my fingers. Water swallowed me and tore me away from the edge.  I kicked with my legs and surged up through the surface and gasped for air.
 The current grabbed me and flung me deeper. I thrashed out, desperate for air. The river held me in its icy grip. It took me deeper and smashed my legs against the rocky bed. Bubbles of air burst from between my lips. Terror ripped through me.   
A breath of water burnt my throat. I jerked towards the surface ...
 “Darling, please don’t go.” Jenny caught her lip between her teeth and a drop of moisture slipped from under her lashes. 
I took her chin in my fingers. “Nothing is going to happen to me. I’ll be back tomorrow with all our problems solved. I promise.” I kissed the tears from her cheek, knowing that when I returned I would taste her tears of thankfulness.
“Please.” She wrenched herself from my grasp and turned to our dresser. The top drawer screeched as she tugged it open and plucked out a velvet bag. “Take this.” The bag fitted into the palm of my hand. “And this.”  She yanked at the gold band on her finger. 
Her slender fingers wrapped around mine, her precious possessions enclosed in my fist. I would never sell her wedding ring, nor her mother’s jewellery. 
“It’ll give us enough to get by.” Her fingers trembled over mine.
I’d had enough of arguing. I was the one who had gotten us into this mess. I would be the one to save us.
I slipped her ring into the velvet bag and drew it closed, then tucked it into my waistcoat pocket. Tomorrow I would return them to her. “Its time I left.” I scooped her up into my arms, her slender bones fitting snugly against mine. I closed my eyes and pictured her on that very first day, so many miles and so many days from here. 
I left her at the door to our little shack and scrambled down hill, weaving between the outcrops of schist.  My breath turned to mist as I approached the churning Molyneux river and I shoved my hands deep into my pockets. Soon the sun would warm the land but for now it was held in the grip of a frost.
From the river’s edge, I looked back at Jenny. She forced a bright smile, but I could see the white handkerchief in her fist. I let out a deep sigh and wished there was a better way.
“I love you, darling,” she called as she stretched her arm above her head and the scrap of white cloth fluttered a farewell.
The track turned away from the river and wound its way through abandoned claims.  It dropped down into a shallow gully, littered with piles of dirt and rotten sluices, before it meandered up the side of a steep hill. 
I reached the summit and the sprawling tent town came into view. Smoke rose from the chimneys of the three stone buildings, while black smoke belched from smouldering camp fires. There were at least ten tents missing since my last visit and I wondered how long it would take for the town to disappear.
A gecko slithered over my boot and I watched it dart into the tussock.  I lifted my cap and dragged a hand through my hair. There was a job to do. With my cap back on my head, I set off down the hill. 
Outside Jonty’s store sat several miners, puffing on pipes or self made cigarettes. The clink of a whiskey bottle drew my eye to the man sitting on the end of the long bench. 
“Mac.” I stood beside him, staring out over the rutted street. “Joe about?”
He made a great show of clearing his throat, spat a wad of phlegm onto the mud at his feet then tapped his bottle against the knife strapped to his thigh. “Maybe.”
I fingered the coin in my pocket, I had better uses for it. It saw the light of day for a moment then disappeared into Mac’s shapeless coat.
“Ruby’ll tell ya.” He pointed with his chin to a row of tents.
The mud was thick and well trodden about her tent.  The hand painted sign nailed to her tent post swayed in the breeze. I stood for a moment at the entrance. It had been a long time since I’d frequented a dwelling of this nature. 
There were no sounds from inside and no place to knock. “Ruby?” I called while I worried the cap in my hands.
There was a groan and a shuffle and the flap was thrown back, exposing Ruby to day light. Striped stockings poked out below pantaloons that had once been white. A red corset kept the rest of her in check.
“What’d’ya want?” she scratched at her matted hair.
I cleared my throat. “Mac said you knew where to find Joe.” 
“Joe!” She ducked back inside the tent. “Somebody to see ya.”
A loud groan and some colourful cursing came from deep inside the dwelling.  Ruby shrieked then issued a long cackle. Joe’s head appeared, the canvas gripped tightly under his chin. He squinted at me with bleary eyes. 
My gut clenched at the sight of him and my fingers sought the shape of the knife hidden under my shirt.
“In the hotel. I’ll be there in a minute.” He disappeared behind the canvas and I let out a breath.
The bar consisted of planks of wood perched on top of barrels. There was no piano, no pictures and very few chairs. There was however an abundance of beer and whisky. I bought a beer which left a solitary penny to my name. Tomorrow, I’d be flush enough to drink whisky. 
I sat opposite the bar with my back to the wall. Even at this early hour there were six or seven men cradling bottles or glasses. The brown bottle felt warm and smooth. I crinkled the label under my thumb as I ran the plan through my head. It had to work. It was my last hope.
Next to my ribs I could feel the velvet pouch. Their sale wouldn’t bring as much as my plan. Any relief they bought, would be fleeting. I swallowed a gulp of beer. It hit my belly and rolled and I allowed myself to ask, what if? 
Jenny was waiting at home for a miracle. Last night’s memories came to me, bitter sweet. Stirring up desire, yet hammering home the need for action. 
The door swung open and Joe stepped in. His eyes scanned the room before he sidled over to my table. 
He leaned towards me as he sat on the only available chair. “You in then?”
Close up he smelt as ugly as he looked. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the scar that ran along his jaw. Here was a rogue of the highest order. I thought of Jenny and a jolt shook me. What was I doing in this man’s company?
“I said, are you in?” He ran his fingers through his thinning hair.
With my hand curled around my knife I nodded. Joe grunted then lumbered over to the bar. Hunched over the bar, he downed his first glass. He spoke a few words with the barman then ambled back to our table, a bottle and glass in his fist.
He poured a drink, then searched the room before he spoke. “The money’s arriving in Dunstan, around four this afternoon. We’ll take them up by the saddle just north of here. Know the place?”
“Yeah.” I swallowed. 
The whisky disappeared in two long gulps. He gasped, satisfied. “Be at Tom’s place by three.” He hauled his coat around his sparse body, ran his eyes over me and left.
I studied the door long after he had pushed through it. One job, that’s all. One job that would give us a stake to start over. Put food in our bellies, clothes on our backs and a fare to get us away from this God forsaken place. 
The promise of gold had been real. There for the picking, they’d said. And it had been for many, for those who were here in the beginning. My claim had produced no more than a few ounces of dust. Enough to live on, for a time. Now with winter approaching and a baby on the way, we needed out. 
The dregs of the beer slid down my throat. The clock on the wall showed a quarter to twelve. I left my empty bottle on the table and wandered outside.  
A wagon rumbled past, filled with household belongings. Three children straggled behind it. On the buckboard sat their parents. I watched as they drove away, and I knew I was not alone in my failure. 
The store beckoned and I debated spending my last penny on a rock cake. My stomach growled as I pulled open the door. Mr Jonty nodded a greeting before laying a bolt of fabric on the counter. 
I looked about for a familiar face, but the store was almost empty. I walked passed the  post office counter and studied the scraps of paper pinned to the notice board. Some were tattered and yellowed around the edges, some were so fresh I could almost smell the ink. 
I browsed through notices for missing stock and people, then scanned over the items for sale. There was mining gear, a butter churn, a Shacklock stove and a wagon.  And in the centre, an advertisement for workers. 
“We’re heading up there tomorrow,” came a voice from behind me. I turned to find my old mate James. “There’s room in the wagon for you and Jenny.”
I stared at him unbelieving, then read the notice again. A large station up in the Maniototo had been spilt up and sold. There was plenty of work for shepherds and general hands and positions for married men as well.
“You keen?” James stood patiently as my mind ran in circles.
 I felt my mouth spread in a grin. “Too right I am.” 
“Come on, then.” He led the way to the door. “Let’s settle it with a drink. My shout.” He clapped me on the back. I swallowed my pride as I followed him back to the bar. I’d shout for him with my first pay packet.
I found myself at the same table where I’d schemed with Joe. A shiver ran down my spine, followed by a surge of relief. I patted the velvet pouch tucked close to my chest. Jenny would keep her jewels. She would keep an honest husband too.
“How’s Jenny?” James dropped into the seat opposite and pushed up his sleeves and I recalled how serious he was about drink. I wrapped my fingers around a beer bottle and leaned back in the chair. Life felt good at that moment, blessedly good.
The sun was sliding behind the horizon as James and I parted outside the hotel. My eyes strayed to Ruby’s tent. Joe and his friends would be rich by now, or they could be on their way to gaol. I shuddered at the thought. 
I turned my back on the dwindling town and slapped on my cap. I whistled as I walked along the muddy track. I had a belly full of beer and prospects of a job. I quickened my pace, eager to deliver the good news to Jenny.
Twilight deepened and midges swarmed to my skin. The silent river heaved beside me, a mass of whirlpools and undercurrents. Light spilled from our shack’s window on the hill above me. My beautiful girl, Jenny, was waiting. 
Water gurgled at the river’s edge and I stooped to cup some into my hand. I rinsed the taste of beer from my mouth then leaned forward for more. The earth beneath my feet crumbled. I tipped forward and plunged into the river.
… The black river held me. I thrust up, desperate for air. My legs and arms were weighed down with clothing. I wrenched the jacket over my shoulders. The river tore it from my hands. I kicked furiously and broke through the surface. Cold air rushed over my face and I gulped at it. “Jenny!” I shrieked, but her name was lost in a mouthful of water.
Something caught my ankle and tugged. Water rushed over my head. My lungs burned. Rocks smashed into my elbow and bruised my ribs. I groaned with pain and water filled my lungs. I kicked the river bottom and I surged up, then the current rolled me back. The second breath of water came easy. My eyes opened to the black river, holding me, cradling me. The battle for air was over. 
My body rolled along the bottom of the river as I skimmed its surface. All through the night I followed it. We left the brown tussock of Dunstan and came to a place where the banks were lined with willows.  
Clothing was ripped from my corpse. A sleeve, a ragged trouser leg, the waistcoat with Jenny’s precious jewels. Tears poured from my eyes, but when I wiped them, invisible hands touched an invisible face.
Time passed. I tried to get to Jenny, but I was bound to the body at the bottom of the river. I watched as eels and fish sniffed and nibbled my bloated flesh. On the third day my corpse was washed up onto a bank, where we lay in the sun, lost and alone.
A man found my discarded flesh and dragged it to safer ground. I watched as he dug through the stony soil while I wished I could fly home to Jenny. I needed to tell her I didn’t go with Joe. 
I sat on the mound as my body rotted below me. Hours ran into days and then the man came back with a plank of wood. He pushed it into the earth at the head of my grave then stood back and admired it. His hat came off as he cleared his throat and I knew he was praying for me and mine.
The invisible threads that bound me, fell away. I was free. But before I fled, I stood at the foot of my grave and read the inscription …
Somebody’s Darling 
Lies Buried Here. 

Some of you will be unaware that this grave is in fact real. It is located close to Miller's Flat in Central Otago, New Zealand. The river Molyneaux mentioned in the story is now called the Clutha.
Another headstone stand's beside Somebody's Darling. The inscription on it reads:
Here leith the body of William Rigney,
The man who buried Somebody's Darling.

 the original wooden headboard inset into the marble

The wooden headboard for Somebody's Darling was replaced with a marble headstone some thirty years after he was buried. William Rigney was buried beside him in 1912.




  1. Hi Sue,
    I popped in earlier and thought I'd wait until I've cooked dinner, then I'll sit down and enjoy your story, and enjoy I did.

    Well, what a pleasure to read your neat little story. It kept me engaged and I became more intrigued as it rolled towards the end. Quite a few emotions welled up inside me, too. I loved your use of description and first person voice, especially a male voice which you pulled off really well. I take it you drew inspiration from the grave - a great idea.

    So, congratulations for coming in 2nd place. That's a big achievement! You must be very proud of yourself. :D

  2. Thanks Joanne. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Love the photos. I think we missed visiting this when we did our big trip around Central. We'll have to stop by and pay our respects next time. :D

  4. Nicely done Sue.
    - Chris Green

  5. That's a wonderfully written story Sue. I loved reading it - it transported me seamlessly right to the time and place.