teaching

Trial HSC 2019…

I have often considered resitting my HSC; I’ve thought about what subjects I would choose, how to best study, how to extend myself and basically how to improve on my shabby attempt the first time around. At high school I followed my creative passions without a shred of good advice on achieving a decent TER (today the ATAR). I did drama, biology, struggled through maths, English Standard, a defunct subject called General Studies and three whole units of Art; I still have my twisted, oversized clay chess set. I was also one of those rare kids who achieved a band six in English Standard. The Advanced class were so pretentious I didn’t feel worthy to breathe their air, so I ‘dropped’. To this day I can’t remember all the texts I studied for the HSC except for Chinua Achibe’s novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ and the poetry of Wilfred Owen. The only quote I remember of his is… ‘warmed once the clays of a cold star’ and I’m pretty sure the cold star is Earth, but the earth isn’t a star so…

In my eight-year teaching career, I’ve always reflected on what works. Teachers get so annoyed with inattentive behaviour and lack of attendance for good reason. If the students aren’t there, we can’t teach them. I read an article a few years back where a teacher spent two weeks as a Year 11 student and discovered- among other things- that it is not comfortable to sit all day long and that many students feel as if they are a source of mild to moderate irritation for most teachers. Putting yourself in the shoes of your students is a good thing. When a fellow teacher sat the trial HSC in Modern History last year, I became fixated on doing the same thing myself. This year I organised my timetable so I could do Standard Paper 1 ‘Texts and Human Experiences’ and Paper 2 ‘Modules’. I made sure to let the students know before so they wouldn’t be thrown off on the day. I implemented a revision schedule in class, and did the same revision exercises myself. At home I studied by reviewing my notes and wrote a couple of essays under timed conditions. Of course you’re probably judging my experience as a non-authentic one, so I’ll address that first. I set the paper, so I knew what the exam questions were. When I sent it off for printing, I deliberately put it out of my mind. The practice questions we’d been using in class were not too different from the trial questions. The real advantage I had was in Mod C ‘The Craft of Writing’ which I knew was in two parts: a twelve mark discursive response followed by an eight mark reflection. What really made the difference in my preparation was my excellent attendance to class and the fact that I had taught the content. If you can design lessons where students teach the content to their classmates, everyone wins.

Back to my exam experience.

I had lots of things in common with the students. The night before my exam I read over my practice essay for ‘Texts and Human Experiences’ and went to bed early. I was looking forward to the short answer questions and my essay about ‘Past the Shallows’- a contemporary Australian prose fiction novel by Favel Parrett . In the ten minutes reading time I only just finished reading all the ‘unseen’ texts. Standard students are required to do much more reading than in the past, and the restructuring of the exam means that they have some common content with Studies, some only for Standard and some in common with Advanced. This is huge challenge for slow readers. The questions got harder as the section progressed, but I genuinely enjoyed doing the short answers. You don’t have to remember quotes for this section, and get to apply your understanding of language features- which for me is pretty extensive. I have an arts major in writing but honestly, I’ve learnt more about textual analysis from teaching high school than I did at university. True story.

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In the exam I managed my time and reveled in the silence of exam conditions. I could hear every clack of a teacher’s heel on the floorboards and the muted din of the schoolyard at lesson changeover. I am adept at writing fast, so my hand flew across the page. I also felt like a fraud at times because I couldn’t remember my quotes word for word, and had to take my own advice to try to get them down as best I could. I tell students that if they have time left, to go back and add another paragraph because there may be more marks in there somewhere…but I didn’t follow my own advice. I finished ten minutes early and one of my colleagues, supervising the exam, joked that I should go back and check over my work. The new English Paper 1 is shorter than it was last year and at 1.5 hours it was over pretty quick. I had to get back to teaching so I didn’t get to go home and lay on the couch like the kids did.

Getting up and doing it all again the next day was the real kicker. Paper 2 is longer at two hours, is divided into three sections, and it’s up to the students to manage their time. I looked at the clock from my desk at the back of the hall and worked out my timing. I tell my students they need to finish all sections for decent marks, so I had this in my mind. I felt positive about my essay for Mod A ‘Language, Identity and Culture’. Our Standard cohort did a 2016 documentary called Reindeer in My Saami Heart  directed by Australian Janet Merewether. It sympathetically explores the Indigenous Saami culture of Northern Europe, whose experience was very similar that of our stolen generation. The feedback from the students was that it was their favourite module. There’s no way I’d do Henry Lawson here, or The Castle, but each to their own. My Module B essay was about Oodgeroo’s suite of poems written during her visit to China as part of a delegation in 1984. I started an introduction and ended up crossing it out and starting again, to better address the question. I felt I rambled and it was a hard question because it asked ‘to what extent’; the kind of question that used to be reserved for Advanced or Extension students. But I got my quotes out and wrote about five of the seven poems, remembering to include my thoughtful analysis at the end of each body paragraph. Tick. It’s Mod C that seems one of the biggest changes in this latest incarnation of the Stage 6 English syllabus, and it requires a study of some short prescribed texts in a range of textual forms. The focus is on using those texts to build writing skills, and it is those skills- not textual analysis- that are tested in the final exam in this section. The forms of writing have expanded on the old HSC requirements to include persuasive, creative, reflective and discursive writing. Discursive you ask? It’s an essay of sorts, but it can be written with an informal or even humorous tone, and be more of a discussion without having to persuade anyone of a particular viewpoint. Discursive essays can mix information and facts with personal opinions and emotions, and still use a range of language features found in creative writing. A discursive essay may even be similar to what you are reading right now. There have also been a lot of questions on teacher forums about good examples, and some teachers are still uncertain about what is expected. We chose the prescribed text  ‘Dear Mrs Dunkley’ by Helen Garner who is one of my favourite non-fiction writers, as an example of a discursive text. I’m not going to disclose how well my students did in this section when I did the marking, but I will say that my students still need to ‘get their heads around’ Mod C. I’m sure ours isn’t the only school in that metaphorical boat. I’m going to share my Mod C discursive and reflection at a local English teacher’s meeting to see how well it meets the marking criteria. I’m a little nervous about that. I also did something in the second paper that I warn my students not to do- I finished early. I was done and did not want to go back or check my work or add more detail. Some of my students left half an hour early too. I frowned to myself, but I was okay with it. There’ll be some filling in of blanks as we move towards the final exam, but that’s part of the process.

The most fulfilling part of the experience was a sense of camaraderie with my students. Afterwards I chatted with a few about how they managed time, how hard it was to remember quotes and how they tackled the trickier questions. These chats will also help me plan a revision schedule. When students asked me why I was sitting the exam, I told them it was so I could be a better teacher who understands the pressures of the exam. I’ve also generated some sample responses we can use for future reference.

On even deeper reflection, I’m not sure why we would ever need to memorise literature in the real world…

If anyone would like a copy of my sample essays, I’m more than willing to share once I type them up. Please email me for copies. Peace. Ms V.

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flash fiction

A Grain of Sand

This is my first round entry for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition.  My title was inspired by the SBS interactive K’Gari that attempts to debunk Australia’s first fake news story; that of Eliza Fraser and her deceitful recount of the time she spent with the Butchulla people after she was rescued from a shipwreck. It was written during a family holiday on K’Gari (Fraser Island).

 

A Grain of Sand

Below the towering turpentine trees and scribbly gums, below the banksias and paperbarks, below the soft sedges, the thin layers of leaf litter, the sleeping spirit starts to stir….

 

Mark had been nervous about taking his little girl to the island. It was a four hour trip across the bay in the motorboat and then another half day on foot to the camping ground at Lake Mackenzie. Kirra had always been a daydreamer, but now her teacher was suggesting there was something more serious going on. She’d used the term ‘neurological’ and ‘seizure’ and given the child’s vacant stares and prolonged spell of mutism, the teacher recommended they visit a paediatrician. Mark agreed, but as the promise of summer stretched ahead of them, his concerns ebbed away. He focused instead on preparations for their trip.

 

The journey across the bay was smooth going in the motor boat. Kirra sat still for most of the way, gazing out across the water. When Mark would start to worry, she would point out a pod of dolphins, a school of fish, or the dark shadow of a stingray in the depths and her brown eyes would twinkle with wonder. When Mark dragged the boat above the high tide line and hitched it to a Kauri pine, he felt relief at being away from the daily routine. School. Work. While he secured the boat, Kirra paused with her ear to the sand, listening intently to the pops and gurgles as the high tide lapped across the beach. While he was organising their gear, she made a fishing line garland of orange mangrove flowers. Finally, with their packs on, the two set off through the thick afternoon heat towards the cool waters of Lake Mackenzie.

 

There is a dreamtime story. It tells the legend of Booragin who formed the bay and placed the first rocks to trap the sand. Princess K’Gari, the sky spirit, joined him and when they were done, she was so in love with this place that she begged to stay here forever. Booragin was reluctant, but agreed, and she lay down in the warm waters. Her body became the statue that formed the island; her back became the straight Western coastline and her knees tucked up towards her soft belly and breasts to form the sheltered curve on the Eastern side. Booragin looked upon Princess K’Gari as she slept. He wanted to protect her, so he covered her body in trees and plants to keep her warm; he gave her a voice by putting breeze in the forests and water in the creeks, and finally he formed crystal clear lakes that gave her eyes to gaze out on the world.

 

Mark was setting up camp and didn’t notice the little girl slip away. She moved so lightly that her feet barely imprinted the sand, and a gentle breeze was enough to dust over her tracks. There was barely a ripple as she was pulled under the surface, and she made no sound as the earth’s tendrils tugged her through the blue black water. On the surface all was still again, the water a perfect replica of the sapphire sky.

 

Deeper she went, past the black veil layer of silt and white silica sand until she came to rest in an underwater cave. The walls around her were curved in undulating folds of compacted yellow, brown and orange sand. She took a deep breath and found the air cool and her body dry. Her wide eyes blinked as she touched the rough wall with her hand and felt a soft rumbling begin in her belly and flow up inside her chest. As the vibration grew, her body began to shudder and she sucked for her breath in short bursts. And then she heard something strange yet familiar- her own voice- speaking gently from a foreign place.

‘I am a grain of sand.’

 

When Mark saw Kirra’s silhouette on the bank, he ran down and threw his arms around her. She looked at him for a long time, and lovingly touched his weathered face. Then she looked down at her own arms, as if seeing them for the first time. She opened and closed her fingers, fascinated, and ran them through her curly brown hair. Next she grabbed handfuls of dry sand, blew gently on it, and sent white glitter dust into the breeze. Then came the rush of words, of questions, observations and onomatopoeic sounds. It was as if she was seeing the world brand new.

 

For the rest of the day she followed Mark around asking him all sorts of questions- about the plants, the fish, the sky, how the trees grow, how the sun shines, how the moon moves the tides, how the sand is made, how fish breathe underwater and what makes the rain. Mark tried his best to answer her, and was overjoyed at hearing her voice after so long. She set about feeling all the textures of the trees and earth, water and sand. She did cartwheels and handstands and danced along the beach. But when she asked about life off the island, her countenance darkened at his responses. She did not like his explanations of roads, pollution, rising seas or the cruel and ignorant habits of people.

 

As the sun set on the lake, a deep silence fell on the girl. She turned towards her father and said in a voice barely audible.

‘I am a grain of sand.’

 

And then she slipped into the water and disappeared under the surface. In the flooding orange pink light of sunset, the lake began to quiver and glow with an otherworldly light and a deep vibration made the sand shake and hum. Mark waded in, carried Kirra’s shivering body from the lake and cradled her in his lap. When he looked down at her face, the faraway look had returned. He bent forward and stroked her hair.

‘We are all grains of sand.’

 

 

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short story

Plasticaemia

My first entry for 2019 NYC Midnight short story competition. Science fiction, a fisherman, a crime of passion. I got my talented daughter to create an original illustration for the story.

 

Plasticaemia

The air was crisp as Albi made the morning walk from his camp to the research station at the far end of the bay. The beach curved in the shaped of a crescent moon the colour of bleached bones. Above the high tide line were salt-ravaged objects: crisp ribbons of seaweed, driftwood, fish skeletons and the pock-marked array of plastic rubble. As he neared the concrete building, he gave a morning nod to the decomposing whale family; a mother and twin calves drawn together and strangled by a blue plastic polymer fishing net. Their once fleshy skin drawn black and tight across oversized mammal skeletons which showed through in the places where the flesh had dried and shrunk back from the bones. He remembered when they were still alive, moaning and rolling in the tangled ghost net, distressed but giving each other comfort as they gradually starved to death. Now the vacant eye socket of a calf looked seaward, forever into the ancient past when his ancestor whales carved their way north below the continental shelf, carried on warm currents into wide, protected birthing bays. But the deep-sea crevasses had all filled with plastic; not breaking down but breaking up into grades of tiny particles that sat like confetti sludge in every deep channel, in every vein of the world’s bloodstream. The ocean had settled into a gentle rhythm today, and with the waves gently spilling onto the sand, it felt like spring. Today the water was calm enough for Albi to visit his deep-sea nursery.

 

He stood still before the sensor pad and the scanner danced across his left eyeball- old technology, a relic of the bio-obsessed 21st century- and he wondered how anyone else would be able to access the facility once he was gone. His life’s work, locked away at land’s end. On one wall were large glass tanks numbered one to five. In the first were large plastic items including bottles, pieces of Styrofoam, a pop vinyl child’s toy, straws and numerous shards of larger plastic containers. To the naked eye it appeared as if something invisible were nibbling and tugging at the edges. The second and third tanks had plastic shards decreasing in size and the fourth tank contained plastics no larger than children’s glitter. The water in the vat seemed to writhe and swirl. Albi went over to tank number five and scooped out a ladle of water a little thicker than sea water. It seemed to pop and fizz and absorb the light.

 

Behind the tank room was a laboratory with various necessary pieces of paraphernalia, tools, a scalpel and jars with chemicals, acids and bases. Against the other wall was a daybed where Albi would sleep if he was working on an experiment showing promising results. He had a small collection of photographs on the wall, his mother looking very thin, not long before she died, himself at nine, beaming at the camera, holding a silver-scaled barramundi. He paused on the picture of Audra and sighed deeply. They met while studying bioengineering and again when they both started working for the Environmental Protection Agency. In the photo she was young and wearing a full-length waterproof lab suit as she waved from the rocks with the deep blue ocean and violet sky behind her. He tried to imagine her in a sundress. He wished she would come during winter so she could keep him warm and tell her the myths he knew about this lonely part of the world, where forest gave way to black rocks battered by the howling Southern Ocean. But she had been coming later and later, and last year she did not come at all.

 

The yelping, snorting noise brought him back to the present and Albi walked through into the largest room in the facility. In it were two large submerged tanks like you would find at Seaworld. The small school fish in the first tank darted back and forth at the prospect of being fed. The yelping came from an adult fur seal in the second larger tank and it shied away from Albi and swam to the far edge of the pool. He took a net and adeptly scooped up three fish and flung them to the seal. In response the seal rolled in the water and Albi saw the patches of red raw lesions on the creature’s back, her sides, and across her belly. “I’m sorry,” he said, but he noticed she was healing.

 

He called it the deep-sea nursery, but the reality was not so romantic. While he was able to keep a seal in the holding tank, larger mammals needed to be studied in a place that allowed for the flow of ocean currents, and a more ‘natural’ feeding experience. He didn’t always get the mix of inhabitants right and had lost many valuable specimens over the years. Albi had learnt the hard way never to trap an orca. He’d had a whole family thrashing around on the outside of the tank to ‘rescue’ the one in captivity and he’d had to make extensive repairs to the mesh and viewing platform after he finally released the animal. Now the only large inhabitants were three black and white Hourglass dolphins and an Antarctic minke whale. He threw them buckets of fish but noticed the minke was listless and reluctant to feed. The warmer currents always brought larger waves of plastic particles and the filter feeding whale couldn’t avoid ingesting the vile bounty. Albi noted that unlike fish, who died soon after ingesting plastics, the whale’s digestive system managed to excrete most plastics. It still wasn’t good, because the creature spent energy feeding with no nutritional benefit, but at least some of it passed through the gut.

 

Bringing the row boat back into the shore was difficult. The wind had picked up and the clouds hung low, heavy with rain. As he slowed the boat and navigated towards the ramp Albi saw her. Audra. Watching from the headland. He tied the boat securely and moved quickly, ready to throw his arms around her. But as he got closer he stopped and took in the sight of her. Her head was turned, and her eyes were far away, all at sea. Instead of her lab coat she wore a limp satin wedding dress, the colour of bleached cuttlefish bone, and in the breeze it flapped against her shrunken frame. The bottom of the dress was tattered and her feet were bare. She turned then, and there was recognition, a smile, and as she moved towards him, she started to cry.

 

Back at the camp, Albi gave Audra a mug of desalinated, decontaminated seawater. “I miss cups of tea.” Albi smiled and nodded.

“And I miss fish and chips.” She had bought a backpack and crate with Albi’s supplies- mainly nutrient powders to keep him alive- but there were a few tropical fruit essences to sprinkle on his fibre protein blocks. She took out a small brown cube and carefully placed three clear drops on it from one of the bottles.

“Albi…would you like a mango?” She smiled ironically and held it out. He laughed and grabbed her then and hugged her and kissed her hollow cheeks.

“Tell me the news. I want to know. No matter how bad. And what’s with the wedding dress?”

 

The picture she painted was worse than he imagined. The last eighteen months had seen plasticaemia mutate so that microplastics stored in fatty tissue spread to muscles and bone marrow. Worse still, it was found to be spread not only by blood to blood contact, but through saliva. Island dwellers were the first to be impacted, and The Special Forces had quarantined whole islands in the South Pacific and were using drone technology to torpedo any water going vessel that ventured from the land. In the Northern Hemisphere things were worse. People travelled to inland Europe, away from the coast and further north into Russia where sprawling camps spewed out from dwindling freshwater lakes. Anyone showing signs of plasticaemia was euthanized and burnt in piles. Audra described her camp in the desert where authorities were pumping clean water from the Great Artesian Basin. The saliva mutation meant that those who stayed on the coast had died in a few fast waves and rotting corpses littered once iconic beaches; the tell-tale signs of the illness causing their flesh to turn black and shrink around their brittle bones.

 

Albi looked at her face again and knew there was more she had to tell him. She had gotten permission to travel down to see him, to bring supplies, but no one had any hope that his research would save the human race. The wedding dress had been her mother’s and it made Audra sad to think that there would be no more weddings in their family. Or children. She paused and then pulled back the skirt of her dress to reveal the patches of tight skin on her legs that resembled fragments of old vinyl records. “They would have killed me Albi, if they knew I was sick. I can’t go back.”

“Come on,” he said, taking her hand. “I have something to show you.”

 

In the lab he showed Audra a series of slides under the high-powered microscope. In one, a star-shaped microorganism with teeth on each of its appendages could be seen ingesting plastic fragments. She smiled down, fascinated. “What is that?”

“That is a microorganism, a bacteria I call Aurora, after the Aurora Australis.”

“It ingests plastic?”

“Yes…and it’s voracious. It turns bisphenol A, phthalate and epoxy resins into organic excrement.”

 

Then Albi ushered Audra over to the glass holding tank number five and motioned for her to wait there. He returned with a fish in a small hand net. Its belly looked bloated and lumpy, which indicated its gut was full of plastic, and he released it into the water. The fish lolled about on the surface before flicking its tail and swimming below the surface. The water began to swirl, startling the fish, which began to open and close its mouth. The water appeared to pop and fizz and in a matter of minutes the bloating stomach had shrunk and the fish squeezed out a long strand of faeces. “They eat the plastic in its gut? And the fish survives?” Albi nodded.

“And the best part is that the fish are safe to eat afterwards.”

“So is this the answer then? Have you saved us Albi?” But he shook his head.

“No. I haven’t had the same success with mammals.”

“Do you still have the fur seal we caught? Can I see her?” Albi scooped up the now lively fish, and cut its throat.

“You can see her tomorrow.”

 

That night they sat under the full moon and ate the fish like it was a ritual of worship. The skin was crisp, oily and delicious and the white flesh flaked and fell away from the skeleton. It tasted like the sea; the ancient sea of the ancestors, the clean sea of salt mist and vibrant green seaweed, and with each bite they savoured the gentle rhythm of life, the ebb and the flow. Albi took off Audra’s wedding dress and they made love in the quiet hours. She cried and admitted she was afraid to die.

 

It was unusual that he slept so deeply and woke so late. He looked around the camp but Audra was gone. She had folded her wedding dress on a rock and taken his spare pair of overalls. The rowboat was still tied up, so Albi knew she hadn’t gone to the deep-sea nursery. She used to like visiting the captured whales and dolphins out there, but he’d planned to avoid it this time. The saturation of plastics had reached the Southern Ocean now, and he suspected he’d seen the last of the world’s healthy cetaceans.

 

Audra was waiting for him beside the trio of dead whales. He could see that she was comparing her own black lesions with the tight vinyl-sheened flesh on the whales. She drew a sad face in the air above them and stood up. “I want to pet our seal.”

 

The seal was moving as if in slow motion when the two entered the room, and she shied away to the far edge of the tank. It appeared as if her wounds were healing quickly and Albi made a mental note to examine her more closely when she was feeling better. Audra knelt by the tank, but the seal wouldn’t move. “What happened to her?”

“I put some Aurora bacteria in her pool. I know mammals store microplastics in the fatty tissue, and I knew she would only have a small level of contamination. She’s not shown any signs of plasticaemia so I hoped…I hoped she would be cured.” The seal turned her soft eyes towards his voice. “She’s healing Audra, even in a tank where the bacteria are breeding. She’s clean.”

 

Audra took off her overalls quickly, and before Albi could stop her, she slipped into the tank. She was painfully thin and the icy water made her skin bristle with goose bumps. Suddenly the water began to eddy and swirl as if connected to some impossible current, her eyes flashed, scared, and then her body was sucked under the surface and in the churning wash of the seawater she was set upon by ravenous microorganisms. The purple bruises became open, bleeding wounds and then the blood would disappear. He saw the flash of a hand, long strands of hair, the white of a bone sucked clean, flesh devoured as he watched. And then as quickly as it started, the ripples subsided and she was nothing left but a mess of hair, fingernails, tendons and bones.  Albi felt rage then, a primal anger at the world, and he knew what he had to do.

 

He made his way out to the deep-sea pool with a large canister of Aurora. He could not wait any longer. Audra was dead and the world was dying with her. He made a silent apology to the Minke whale and the three dolphins, but in his heart he knew these creatures would be the first survivors. He poured the water into the ocean and it was quick to take effect. The Minke began to twitch a little and attempted to roll and dive. The dolphins, who were faster, began to swim around and did a series of breeches. Albi saw a few red patches appear on their skin in places where they stored fat, but as quickly as it started the movement stopped.

 

And they went further and further down, invisible, deep beneath the surface, a plume of microorganisms propelled themselves into the trench below the great continental shelf, North towards the powerful East Australian Current, to be dispersed along all the arteries and veins of the world.

 

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teaching

The Fantasy Story Project

Below is an adaptation of a foreword I’ve just written for a self-published book which began as the result of a foray into project-based learning (PBL). This was my first proper go at PBL and the skills that come from this kind of learning include group-work, collaboration, higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills. Teaching a Year 9 creative writing elective class this year allowed me to find some time- and willing participants- outside of the mainstream English classroom. I adapted a project from a textbook called  ‘Project Based Learning for the Australian Curriculum: Are Human’s Wild at Heart?’ by Bianca and Jim Hewes (2016) which I recommend highly and has many ‘ready to go’ project ideas. They also have one for Stage 4 called ‘Why do We Tell Stories?’.

The basic idea was for the class to research fantasy stories that interest eight year olds, to work in groups to write and edit the stories, and to find a Year 2 class to provide the illustrations. I approached a few local primary schools and got a swift response from two teachers at one of our biggest ‘feeder’ schools. My class were excited because many of them had attended that school. Once they knew they had primary school collaborators, they set to work, initially researching what was popular in the fantasy genre and brushing up on what they remembered about being eight. I was working alongside an English teacher whose son was in one of the classes and she accepted our invitation to be interviewed as an ‘expert mum’. This interview was important as it helped my class of fifteen year-olds establish some boundaries around content- especially what might be too scary- and reminded us that silliness, cuddles, toilet jokes and happy endings were important. The class made use of ICT to communicate directly with the illustrators and set up a google classroom to say hello and give feedback and used a google form to collect information about preferred fantasy creatures, setting, protagonists, sidekicks, animals and villains.

Once we had this information the five groups worked on characters and setting and devised plots that could be achieved successfully in stories between 1500 and 2000 words. We ended up with some clever stories about misunderstood dragons, a puppy with a curious secret, missing and found parents, evil witches, vampire unicorns and a boy who is turned into a werewolf when he does badly in a test!

Once we completed the fantasy stories we sent them over to the primary school with a few tips on illustrations. A term later, the illustrations that were delivered to my desk at work were a riot of detail, colour and joy. Below are just a few examples of the amazing work and large volume of images I’ve been working with- the first set are werewolf puppies that can put out fires by barking and vampire unicorns who are eventually thwarted by a pack of brave dogs. I think the writers and the illustrators worked so well on the project because they wanted to impress each other.

 

What really blew me away was the quality of the art created by the Yr 2 students, and this was definitely due to the artistic direction of their teachers. Each set of illustrations for the different stories are done in a different art form, giving each story a unique aesthetic. In the book there are pencil drawings….

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painting…

luna 4 alexis_1

collage…

Bondor 6 rhyse_1.jpg

digital art…

dragons lair 6_1.jpg

and watercolours…

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In fact, the volume of illustrations presented me with the biggest challenge in regards to editing and self-publishing the project. I wanted to make sure every child had an image included, and it was impossible to choose between them, so I ended up including double-page spreads, collages and image galleries so readers can see the full range of creative works. The dragon portrait gallery alone has thirty images. Towards the end of the year our project was recognised and supported by a local law firm whose grant for ‘innovation and collaboration’ will cover the initial costs of producing the hard cover art book and will provide both schools with their own copies for the school libraries.

A highlight of the project was when the writers got to meet the illustrators. It was great to hear them discussing the writing process, especially the editing and polishing phases, as well as the importance of balance in regards to the gender of protagonists. We hope to meet up again when the book is published. I use a website called Blurb. I’ve made an ebook version and a magazine version so there are range of price options for parents and the community who may want to purchase their own copies. If you would like information on how to buy a copy, please use the contact form and I’ll get back to you.

 

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reviews

20 books of 2018

I challenged myself to read twenty books last year and got to sixteen. This year I made the twenty- albeit with a few poetry collections, short story collections and a graphic novel. Some were read for personal pleasure, others for work. Here’s the verdict…

 

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey. I had been meaning to read this for a few years. I didn’t like how it started- the choice the boys made- and from there I struggled to enjoy this book. I loved the cricket games, but I found the title character of Jasper one-dimensional. It was overly long.

The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman. I read this when I was mentoring some HSC drama students. A powerful play constructed using first person interviews after the gay hate murder of a young man in Laramie USA. I’ve never seen it performed but the words flew off the page.

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder. This time and this place and the impact that the division of Germany had on those who lived there, captured by a young Australian journalist. She manages to write as if she is an insider. If you are a history buff, this is a must read.

The Broken Shore by Peter Temple. I was recommended this book a few years ago and finally got to read it. Temple’s prose is disjointed and fragmented but once I learnt how to read it, I was fully immersed in this Australian crime thriller.

Guitar Highway Rose by Brigid Lowry. I read this with the intention to teach it. The class was shared with a teacher who wanted to teach this novel, but I struggled to enjoy it. It seemed a little bit too cool for school, and as we were doing a unit called ‘texts in time’ about context, I suggested a different text might work better. And this leads me to the next book….

Animal Farm by George Orwell. And what a great choice it was. I am embarrassed that I am quite new to Orwell, but imagine my delight to read this criticism of the post-Russian revolution time period. And when Boxer got taken to the glue factory, and a girl in the class yelled out f*** this book, I knew we were ‘in the zone’. What a diligent and clever writer Orwell is.

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The Last Man in Europe by Dennis Glover. This is the fictionlised autobiography of Orwell as he wrote 1984. He knew he was dying, he knew that his disease was impacting on the way he perceived the world, and he gave us a bleak dystopian vision of the world too real not to terrify. I love the return to the happy moments in ‘the golden country’ as it shows how a simple memory can nourish a lifetime of inspiration. This was a true homage to Orwell and one of my favourite reads of 2018.

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro. I read this for work, to see if it was a good choice for English Advanced. I did not always enjoy this book, but it left me with questions and a greater understanding of WWII Japan, and Japanese cultural aesthetics, and that’s a valuable thing.

By the River by Steven Herrick. I had to know if I would like this more than The Simple Gift, which is one of my favourite texts to teach. I didn’t, but I still devoured this verse novel. Herrick has got to have a place in the canon of Australian literature.

Parang by Omar Musa. A book of poetry that hooked me initially. I felt for the young wild man, confidently running through his village with a machete. It made me nostalgic for my own simple, wild and barefoot childhood. Musa’s cultural memories are powerful and you can sense the sadness at the loss of culture when people are dispossessed.

Zenobia by Morten Durr. A contemporary graphic novel about the destruction of Syria. Sob.

Tales from the Inner city by Shaun Tan. Every story in this book made me cry. Every story. I read the short story ‘horses’ to a year 9 class and the impact was profound. In one of the longer stories, bears hire lawyers to take the human race to court for crimes against animals. In another story a teacher has a pet sheep and urges the students to touch the wool and to respect the sheep, while the stench of a live export ship permeates the neighbourhood. He’ll win awards for this, no doubt. Wow.

The Good People by Hannah Kent. Kent offers PD in writing historical fiction, and I intend to enrol! This captured the Irish superstition about fairies and changeling children, and examined the clash of cultures in the late 1800s- from the old healing ways to the way of god and rational explanations for maladies.

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan. I learnt a lot about magical realism this year and taught it as a genre to my elective class. We used ‘like no other country’ as a model and I got some really good pieces of writing from the students. Shaun Tan can’t really be explained, he’s a phenomenon.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio. This novel was recommended to me by a student. He said the ways it used multiple narrators worked well and I totally agree. This is a great text for upper primary school and will build empathy and interpersonal understanding in young people, in only 100 pages.

Sea Prayer by Khaled Husseini. An illustrated poem- a prayer from a father to a son- it shows life in Homs before the war and after its transformation into a war zone. Another powerful text for the classroom complete with watercolour drawings.

Angel: Through my Eyes by Zoe Daniel. Daniel is an Australian journalist who covered the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines (2013). This story is told as a fictionalised first person account of the event, through the eyes of a teenage girl during the storm surge and aftermath. There’s definitely a place for these kind of stories to build empathy and an understanding of real events and disasters caused by climate change, and I plan to buy a class set for those reasons.

The Drover’s Wives by Ryan O’Neill. Someone give this man a medal for innovation. This book contains 99 reinventions of the classic Lawson short story in a range of forms from a self-help book, to internet comments, to a sports commentary, to an epic poem and 94 other ways. Hilarious and clever. It would be a great text for English Extension 2 students to look at. I want to make my own version with a different story.

The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera. This was my favourite read of 2018. Why did I not know about this book earlier? The descriptions are stunning, the narrator is genuine and the eight year old female protagonist is someone very special. I loved the parts from the perspective of the whales, and the depictions of the changing waters, the dangers of nuclear testing and the whales’ changing relationships with man over time. I enjoyed learning about mythology and some Maori language too. This was a fresh examination of the heroes journey from a unique part of this green planet. This is a very special novel- only a few hours to read- but so many avenues to explore in the classroom.

 

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flash fiction

The Shadow Factory

Below is my second round story for NYC Midnight Flash Fiction. I won’t know how this one scored until next weekend, but I found writing in the genre of fairy tale enjoyable and somewhat liberating. I drew inspiration from Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Fisherman and His Soul’.

 

The Shadow Factory

The old man held his grandson’s hand and the two walked towards the quiet part of the city.  Beyond the flashy entertainment and restaurant districts, past the sparkle and glitz of the retail quarter, their steps became slow and hollow on the stones. In the late afternoon, in the fading warmth of the sun, the man’s shadow was far ahead of him, looking through the dusty storefronts of the first few vacant buildings, appearing around corners and on walls before melting through the one-way glass of empty factory windows. The small boy beside him cast no shadow at all. On the boy’s face was the constant visage of disconnected euphoria, lips parted, the beginning of a smile, but a cold faraway look in his eyes.

 

In the fading light the man almost lost sight of his own shadow, but as he rounded the corner he saw the rectangle grey building that was their destination, and when he came to stand under the neon blue security spotlight, his shadow complied and fell back in under his feet. On the door there was a tarnished brass plaque that read ‘DarkenUp Industries’. The man knocked hard three times and waited for the soft click and low groan as the door inched open.

 

A stooped elven figure motioned the two inside and offered for them to sit at the walnut reception desk. The room hummed a little, as if somewhere in the bowels of the building, cogs were grinding and pistons were thrumming. When they were seated, the elf took his place again behind the desk. Elves were so often lithe and ethereal, but this one was ruddy with a nose ring and an eyebrow piercing.  His hands were square and gnarled at the knuckles and he turned up the oil lamp so that orange light licked the walls. In front of him he had readied a little pot of ink, a quill pen and piece of heavy parchment.  ‘Thank-you for meeting with us,’ said the man as he gestured towards the boy. ‘I really had nowhere else to turn and…’ The elf raised a hand in a motion for the man to stop.

‘Am I correct that you wish to make a formal request?’  The man nodded emphatically. The elf considered him sternly, then turned his attention to the child, whose expression had not changed. ‘Then I ask that you proceed in the agreed manner. Once I have documented your preamble, you may sign the form and we can finalise your request.’ The man sighed deeply and began…

 

‘Once upon a time there was a man who knew both light and dark. He was an honest man who worked hard every day, but he also grappled with the dark side of his nature. And it exhausted him. He would go to work and do his best, but would ignore someone begging on the street. He would gamble, and enjoy it. He would carry in wood for his elderly neighbour, but he would not stop to help a stranger in need. He would drink, and enjoy it. When he and his wife conceived a child he was overjoyed, and his one great desire was for the child to know more of the light and goodness in the world, and less of the dark. He wished for their child to have none of the failings of which he suffered. His wife wished for the same and they would sit up long into the night, hoping and dreaming for a child who was always good and kind and pure of heart. Their baby daughter came, and she flourished. Everyone noted the child’s kind disposition and how her days were filled with good deeds and random acts of kindness. When the golden-haired girl stood in the midday sun, she barely cast a shadow on the earth, such was the lightness of her soul. In time she met another kind-hearted soul and the two started their own family…’

 

The elf tapped his knuckles against the table, impatient for the man to finish.

 

‘But when the man became a grandfather and first held his grandson, he knew something was terribly wrong. As the boy grew he never frowned or cried or showed any emotion whatsoever, save for a kind of cold, disaffected euphoria. And he cast no shadow.’

 

The elf completed his scratchings and slid the page over to the man. ‘I understand you are here to purchase a shadow for the boy. Please read the disclaimer…then sign here.’ As the man signed, his signature seemed to glow with an otherworldly light, and a chill settled on his body. Then the elf stood and motioned for the two to follow him through a small door at the back of the room.

 

The shadow factory was a series of dark rooms with whirring machines and holding pools. In one room there were a series of tanks, with what looked like sparkly black fish darting about in moon-blue liquid. The elf took up a small net, expertly scooped up a fish and in a fluid motion, grabbed the boy’s arm and drew him close. He deftly pinched the child’s nose and when the boy opened wide to suck in breath, the elf slipped the wriggling black blob into his mouth. The boy gulped, wide-eyed, then stumbled back before doubling over. In that moment two elf factory workers, dressed in grey overalls, ushered the man into a different room so that he could fulfill his side of the agreement.

 

The two left the factory district. The child held the man’s hand in the dark. As they passed back through the flashy lights of the entertainment district, the child was wide-eyed and his cheeks grew stained with the hot tears he cried for the pain and poverty of his city, for the sorrow of his fellow man.  Beside him the old man was not moved by any site he saw, and he cast no shadow.

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flash fiction

Lake Serenity

This latest story is my first round entry for the NYC Midnight Flash fiction competition. I was glad to draw Sci Fi as I’m currently teaching the genre, and I drew much inspiration from the film Blade Runner, especially in my choice of narrator.

 

Lake Serenity

Synopsis: From mountains and rivers of trash comes something truly life-changing.

I’m not going to bore you with the logistics of space travel or recount how my past and my programming got me here to this solitary posting on a rancid planet. There’s no point describing my physical appearance to you, except that I understand the human desire for visuals. If you need to see me, think about the female replicants in the film Blade Runner, but take away the sequins and the lithe sexiness of Daryl Hannah and picture a thick outer layer of matt brown latex over mechanical limbs and you’ve got me. You can picture me naked if you like, but I never had clothes and was never designed to please the human eye. Unlike the fictional replicants, I’m a functioning relic of 21st century robotics; a machine of circuitry and solar powered cells. Deep inside my chest is one of the few remaining biochips, most likely programmed by a teenager during an era obsessed with gamification. Please forgive the tone of my narration; I only have four AI stats that define my ‘personality’.

 

58% inventive: My mission- helping mankind solve their trash crisis.

29% patient: The reason why I haven’t ripped my own circuits apart.

11% cynical: Yay (!)

2% pride: No joke. I guess they thought I needed a will to live.

 

On a clear day this place can be aesthetically pleasing. Under a thin white sky, the vast quantities of trash come to mimic the geological landforms of earth; rolling hills, deep valleys, multi-coloured mountains and glaciers of compacted whitegoods carving the landscape, creating deep ravines where rivers of oil and putrefied organic matter flow. My small factory is positioned beside a wide crater that gradually filled with liquid, swelling over the years to form a vast lake. In time the lake’s contents reacted with the mineral composition of the planet, turning the pool a deep blue-violet with a glossy surface and a slight effervescence. The cynic in me calls it Lake Serenity.

 

The garbage arrives weekly on a rectangular shaped freighter that simply hovers over a coordinate, rattles close to the surface and evacuates the load through crude dispenser doors.

The only requisite for trash planet was a field of gravity strong enough to retain the refuse, but not so powerful as to interfere with the aeronautical operations of the super-junkers. There’s no oxygen here, no human-life sustaining conditions, and in a way that is ironic, given the miracle product I manufacture.

 

Filtration day is always a thrill. I flick a switch and a valve opens, sucking liquid through a pipe positioned with an intake inlet just below the surface at the centre of the lake; a spot with the least contaminants. The moody blue fluid fills a sterile vat and then seeps through a series of increasingly fine filtration compartments and strainers, ensuring the end product contains no microparticles larger than pollen. The fluid is measured into large glass canisters and stacked neatly, ready for transportation to earth. The sludge collected on the strainers is carefully removed after every operation and stored in thick-walled holding tanks.

 

In the early days I had done a series of increasingly stringent tests on the sparkling blue liquid and deemed it safe for human consumption. At the very least it was an attractive drink with UV light reactive qualities and a texture both fizzy and silky. I finalised my report, along with a copy of the positive test results which indicated that it may even have restorative qualities for human cells. I’d also done a few tests on the by-product and deemed it unfit for human consumption. At room temperature the sludge was stable but when warmed to 37 degrees, the solution became volatile and would attack the cell walls of organic matter.

 

It took an interminable amount of time for the earth agency in charge of garbage shipments to respond, but eventually a craft was sent that hovered above my factory yard, lowered a freight platform and signalled for me to load my product. It was six months before a second collection vehicle arrived, this time taking five times the volume of the first and confirming its early popularity. The drink was to become so popular that the vessels would make a pick up every second week.

 

I was eventually provided with a detailed brochure of product marketing, distribution and reception. Most interesting to me was the fact that my partners on earth had been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for turning trash into a health tonic. ViBlu© was first used as a mixer in nightclubs. The purple glow under UV lights made it popular with bartenders and the slogan ‘Outta this world’ backed up by the truth of its off-world origin meant it was a marketer’s dream. When consumers reported an increase in energy levels, it was stocked on the shelves of health food stores and juice bars across every mega city on earth. Pretty glass bottles, glowing with vitality and sweetened with just enough skyberry flavour enhancer to suit the human palate. When scientists noticed that the ultrafine protein strands in ViBlu© soothed human nerve cells and resulted in a significant smoothing of wrinkled skin, the population went crazy for the stuff. A stunning example of human ingenuity.

 

I waited for personal recognition but none came. Maybe I was just an outdated clump of circuitry covered in brown latex, with a human programmed biochip in the place where my heart should be.

 

So, without an imagination it is impossible for me to picture the impact of the contaminated batch of ViBlu© on the human population. I don’t know if cells popped, if bodies exploded dramatically, if they withered over a number of days or if the effect was more like a slow spreading rash across the globe. What I do know is that the junkers have stopped and that no matter how patient I am, I’m only 2% satisfied, and forever is a long time.

 

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flash fiction

Bella Vista Dave

This was my entry for the semi-final round of NYC Midnight flash fiction comp. I was unhappy with so much about this story; I struggled with drama and the pool as a setting stumped me. In the end I got thinking about internet trolls, and how they have to be someone’s neighbour, and this in turn gave me a vision of Dave, lolling in the pool. My synopsis:

‘You may be offended by the sight of Fat Dave in the pool, but at the end of the day, there’s not much you can do about it.’

 

Bella Vista Dave

In the centre of the Bella Vista complex was the pool area. From all four townhouses, residents could look down on this tropical oasis. From above, it was the picture of perfect symmetry. Around the outside were gardens of golden palms, birds of paradise flowers, and the pink and orange of fringed hibiscus flowers. Tasteful sandstone tiles lined the perimeter of the rectangular pool, framing the deep sapphire blue of the water.

 

But use of the pool had become the subject of a number of complaints from the residents, and the body corporate had decided to settle the matter by vote at the upcoming AGM.  You see, at any time of the day or night, residents could look down and see the lolling figure of Dave on a Lilo in his tight shorts. Fat. Hairy. Often drunk. And they wanted it to stop.

 

Life was nearly perfect for Laura Randall, the resident at Number One. Her parents had bought her this townhouse, she had just been made assistant manager at Kara’s Kosmetics and she was certain Mike was going to propose to her any day now. She and Mike had spent most days in the pool last summer, but since Dave came and ruined the serenity, Mike had taken to surfing instead, and she was seeing less of him than she liked. When she looked down and saw Dave out there again, she swore under her breath and pursed her lips. She would definitely be voting to have him banned.

 

The resident at Number Two was Carlos. His son had left that year to study abroad, and Carlos often found himself sitting by the pool, contemplating life. But it seemed that no sooner had he sat down, Dave would come down and bomb into the water. They’d had some verbal confrontations early on, and Carlos worked to control his rage. Looking down at the prick, beer in hand, fat toes in the water, Carlos found himself fantasising about what he’d really like to do to Dave. Grab him by the throat. Hold him under the water a little too long. Feel the life drain out of his flabby body. But it had taken Carlos years to learn to control his anger and he wasn’t about to lose control on some pathetic slime ball loser in the pool area. Let the vote decide.

 

Elizabeth Perkins, resident at Number Three, had been the most vocal about Dave and his use of the pool. She had just retired from a long career as a school headmistress and was desperate for some rest and relaxation. Early on she had visited Dave at Number Four and implored him to give her some space. He’d given her a dumb confused grin and closed the door in her face. She tried to find out more about him, but there wasn’t much to know. He worked online from home, which was the reason he always seemed to be around. After she let her feelings be known, he made a point of coming down every time she tried to swim. And he started doing the same to all the other residents. It was Elizabeth who had petitioned the body corporate for a vote and she couldn’t wait for the outcome. If a majority agreed- and she knew they would- Dave would be restricted to using the pool between the hours of four and five PM.

 

But on the evening before the vote, all three residents received an unsolicited email. Sender unknown.

 

Laura sucked in her breath when she opened her inbox. Sitting there, at the top, was an email with a subject title that read ‘tinder slut’. She glanced around out of impulse, to make sure she was alone in the room. There was no written message in the body, but there were a series of dated photographs, showing Laura at a bar with an older man. Laura had kept her tinder habit alive a little too long after starting her relationship with Mike, and these photos were evidence that she had been unfaithful.

 

Carlos felt most lonely at night, and this had him more often going to his inbox, hoping for news from his son. When he saw the email with the subject line ‘manslaughter’ he thought there was some mistake. When he opened the message, he was shocked to see that it featured an image of a young Carlos in a mug shot, during a time in his life he had worked hard to put behind him, to forget. He’d gone to jail for manslaughter, served eighteen months for a stupid drunken fight, but had learnt his lesson. He had hoped his son would never find out. Carlos felt his pulse quicken and a tightening in his chest.

 

Elizabeth had always been proud of the way she maintained her double life. She prided herself on being dependable and professional in her working life, and for the way she concealed her private indulgences. When she checked her emails on the evening before the vote, she was shocked to see a message with the subject line ‘dear dominatrix’. Her back stiffened, and she leaned closer in to the screen before clicking it open. In the body of the message were a series of stills taken from what looked like CCTV footage at the underground club she frequented. Despite her half mask, one of the images was obviously her. She stood up and stumbled back from the screen.

 

At the body corporate meeting, the executive members were surprised to find that no-one had voted to restrict the resident at Number Four from using the pool. The matter was closed and they moved on to other agenda items.

 

***

 

From above, the swimming pool at Bella Vista was the picture of perfect symmetry, ringed by tropical gardens, the water a deep sapphire blue. On any given day, the residents could wave down at Dave, as he floated, legs spread on his Lilo, like some fleshy exotic flower.

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short story

The Case of the Missing Turtles

This story was in the Spy genre, which actually had me stumped for a long time. It had to feature smuggling, and a character who was a mentor. In the end I went for a teenage protagonist and set part of it in one of the waterholes of my youth. The mentor is Danger Mouse. My main problem this time around was time management, as this challenge started on my first week back at work and sadly I left most of the writing until the last two days.

 

The Case of the Missing Turtles

The waterhole was home to an ecosystem of decomposing leaves, slippery sticks and clumps of brown green algae. Undisturbed, the dark water was a glass mirror of the afternoon sky. Ivy, as part of her teen spy regime, had perfected the art of careful waterhole entry and knew to step lightly over twigs and leaf sludge on the bottom; too much movement and the water would become a murky soup. Once she was in deep enough, Ivy began to swim, a gentle breast stroke, and made her way to her familiar submerged rock where she sat in peace and quiet. On the far bank Ivy noted a group of freshwater turtles, spread out and soaking up the last of the sun through their knobbly green shells. It had been a good breeding season. Now that she was back at school it would be more difficult to keep an eye on the turtles.

 

She was getting ready to swim back to the bank when she heard a splash and a voice downstream. She couldn’t see who the person was and had left her binoculars on the bank, but she heard snapping sticks and swearing so it was clear that the person wasn’t familiar with the forest. When she heard a second male voice she froze, and focused her senses, trying to see through the trees. She saw a flash of yellow, a face in profile, but she couldn’t tell who it was from this far away. They seemed to be moving off down the creek and were soon out of sight.

 

When she got home, Ivy’s mother was cooking dinner but still made the time to look her daughter up and down. The wet hair was a give-away. ‘You know I don’t like you swimming in the creek alone. Leave those muddy shoes outside.’ Ivy took her shoes off and tossed them onto the back landing. ‘And tell your brother that dinner’s ready.’

 

Her brother Conrad kept his room dark. He’d used a staple gun to put a blanket over the window, but he didn’t have an eye for symmetry, so it hung to the side and let some light in. The room also smelt like unwashed oily hair, cheap spray deodorant and an earthy smell she couldn’t quite place. All this contributed to a powerful younger sister forcefield. What was missing from the room now was the lanky frame of Conrad himself. As a dedicated spy, she felt the urge to snoop through his things, although similar ventures in the past had yielded little but lolly wrappers, incomplete homework sheets and a small coin collection. She noticed a few new toys- Kermit the frog on a skateboard and miss piggy in a pink car- and this solved the mystery of why he insisted, at seventeen, of choosing McDonald’s happy meals. As she closed his door again, she heard him come in the back door and passed him in the hallway as he went straight to his room and closed the door. Despite his mother’s mild hysteria over the dinner getting cold, he took a long while coming to the table.

 

Ivy never planned to become a teenage spy. When she was ten and the family were out Christmas shopping, she’d been delighted to see her mother slip into a camera shop. She was hyper aware of the rectangular box under the tree and opened it last. When she peeled back the paper, it took her brain a full minute to register that inside the box was a pair of binoculars, and not the camera she so desperately wanted. After the disappointment simmered down, she took the binoculars and went out looking for birds. But of course, it was much more fun to spy on the neighbours. Ivy had always been a bit of a daydreaming loner but with the binoculars she became obsessed with imagined crimes, plots, deals and heists. Above her bed was a large poster of Danger Mouse, with his sidekick Penfold. Ivy watched the cartoon religiously, and Danger Mouse had become the perfect teen spy mentor; he spoke 34 languages, could shatter metal with his voice and could perform military style push-ups on his index finger. Ivy had eventually saved up for her own state of the art polaroid camera. It was more expensive to buy film for, but it meant she didn’t have to send the roll away to be developed. She could keep the documentation of her discoveries away from prying eyes. In her first year as a full time spy she had captured evidence of: six drug deals, one case of projectile vomiting, numerous incidents of pre-teen nose picking and one extra-marital affair. The most recent item that Ivy added to her spy kit was a small cassette recorder and she was currently experimenting with ways to conceal the device while recording conversations. She’d tried to record a conversation with Conrad, but her brother’s inability to do more than grunt made things difficult. She’d recorded a one-way phone conversation her mother made to a friend, but the details were little more than basic variations on the following: I know! Can you believe it? How awful, what did she do?

 

The school yard was always a hive of espionage and extortion. On any given day you could witness blackmail, theft and stand over tactics, and this was just in the canteen line. Conrad was a senior this year, so he could jump the queue of juniors. Although this was vaguely irritating, at least it would finally stop him from hassling Ivy to buy him food or let him push in. When she saw her brother- a boy with no part time job and very little pocket money- pay for a sausage roll with a fifty dollar note, she knew that something odd was going on. Like a good spy, she pretended not to notice. She also pretended not to notice when he gave his mate Riley a twenty and worked even harder to contain herself when she saw him put the rest of the money back into a wallet that seemed to be bulging with notes.

 

At home that evening Ivy watched Conrad closely. He’d gotten back home much later than usual and went straight to his room without raiding the pantry or fridge for food. Very suspicious. Ivy knocked on his door and lied, ‘Mum wants me to see if you have any dirty cups or bowls in here’. She could hear him moving something around. There was a scraping noise which sounded like he was putting something under his bed. When he opened the door, he grunted and pushed a cup into her hands. She took in the smell inside his room again, but the earthy smell seemed to be gone.

 

A whole school week had passed before Ivy made it back to the waterhole to check on the turtles. Putting her bag down she noticed a scrunched burger wrapper and a slushy cup. With a frown she shoved them in her bag. She didn’t like to think that people had come here and had disrespected the place enough to leave their rubbish. She slipped into the water quietly and swam to her rock. From there she looked to the far bank but couldn’t see a single turtle. This was quite perplexing. It was the time of day when they would normally be out, catching rays in the late afternoon. This was strange indeed.

 

When Ivy arrived at school the next day she was surprised to see that Conrad was already there. He and Riley were sitting at the far end of the playground, hunched over, and there was a third person with them who she didn’t recognise. She wouldn’t normally use binoculars at school, lest she get a label as some kind of weird pervert, but she was just too curious to let this meeting go unobserved. She slipped in behind the garden bed where no one else could see her and carefully adjusted the focus until she could make out the trio. The third person looked to be the new casual science teacher. Riley was drinking from a slushy cup and Conrad, shoulders hunched, kept looking around and then leaning in closer to the other two. His lips were moving but it was impossible to hear what they were saying. She was determined to know more.

 

Later in the day, Ivy was pleasantly surprised when it was the new casual science teacher who welcomed her class into the lab. Being able to observe the man up close was fortuitous indeed. He looked young, even though his haircut and dress were overly neat and formal.  His accent was Australian but had a hint of something more difficult to identify. Was it South African? It was hard to tell. When he wrote his name on the board- Mr. De Bruyn- Ivy smiled to herself. She might not speak thirty-four languages like her mentor Danger Mouse, but she knew that this was a common surname in Afrikaans. The lesson itself was dull, mainly textbook work, and she noticed that when the class were working, Mr. De Bruyn would intermittently take himself into the storeroom at the back of the lab. He was careful to close the door behind him, but when he came back out the last time, Ivy could see that there were a few large glass tanks on the benches in the storeroom, but not what was inside them. She kept pondering the connection between this man and her brother. She had to find out what her brother was involved in. He had money. He was getting up early. He was definitely up to something. She knew that this was the time to be discreet. Conrad must not know that he was under surveillance.

 

The next morning Ivy was ready for the next phase of her operation. She got up at dawn, pinched a ten dollar note from her mum’s purse and left the house for the little bakery near the school. At this time of day, the bread was hot and the smell of the croissants was enough to drive anyone mad with hunger. She bought two French pastries and a large coffee and made her way to school. No students were at school yet but Brandon, the school cleaner, was just finishing up. He was a man in his forties and he held himself like someone who was truly disillusioned by life. She wasn’t sure it would work, but Ivy was bold. She offered the man a coffee and fresh pastries in exchange for the use of his keys for ten minutes. He agreed. She didn’t even have to make up a story about leaving something in one of the rooms.

 

The Science block was set apart from the school and was near the teacher’s car park. Without students the lab seemed gray and hollow, and the sound of her shoes made a clicking noise on the tiled floor. When she opened the door to the storeroom she registered an oddly familiar smell, like forest slime. It was the same odour she had smelt in her brother’s room. Along one wall was a long bench and on it were a series of glass tanks. All of them had a small amount of water and a few rocks. As she moved closer, Ivy could detect movement and was shocked to see that one tank was crowded with freshwater turtles, clumsily trying to climb on and over each other. At the back of the room, Ivy lifted a blanket to discover a tank containing a listless brown platypus who was about the size of a hotdog bun; a creature that should never be kept in captivity. Ivy was dismayed. She’d never known the science staff to keep any animals except for tadpoles to teach students the life cycle of amphibians. Something was very wrong here. Even though it was difficult, she left the animals in the storeroom and locked the lab door behind her. On a sheet of paper, Ivy took an outline of the key, so she could make her own copy using her key blank set. Danger Mouse would be proud.

 

For a second time Ivy got up extra early. It was raining, so she put on her heavy black raincoat with the hood, and her waterproof backpack. Even if she was spotted it would be hard for anyone to make out her true identity. She waited until the cleaners had finished in the Science Block and using the key she had made, was overjoyed to find that it worked to unlock the door.

 

Inside the lab storeroom she had to move fast. She commandeered one of the large fishing buckets and poured in a little fresh water. Nimbly she plucked out the freshwater turtles one by one and gently plopped them into the bucket, where they squirmed around and over each other. ‘Sorry guys, it’ll be a little crowded in there for a while.’ She counted seventeen all together. At home the night before she’d sat down with the family set of encyclopedias and she knew that when she popped the small platypus into the same bucket, the two species would not attack each other. She’d also done some research into the Australian wild animal trade and knew that turtles were kept as exotic pets in South Africa and that a single platypus could fetch as much as five thousand dollars. Carefully she lifted the shy, plump creature from the other tank and marveled at his flat fleshy bill and smooth, slick fur. ‘I’m going to call you Penfold. Come on buddy, you’re going home.’ Before she left the lab, Ivy did one last thing so that the smugglers would know their plans had been deliberately foiled.

 

Later that morning there was some commotion in the playground after Mr. Be Bruyn had found several happy meal toys in a glass tank in the Science storeroom. He’d become uncharacteristically agitated and all the witnesses would attest that the teacher was out of line when he’d gone over to where a few seniors were sitting and had shoved a boy by the name of Conrad. The police had been called and Mr. De Bruyn had been escorted from the premises.

 

Down at the water’s edge, Ivy carefully released the platypus first. Little Penfold was so keen to be back home that his webbed feet started making swimming motions even before he made contact with the water. He slipped under the surface, made a few gentle ripples, then was gone. Carefully she put the turtles on the bank one by one. Each made a slow race for the water and clambered through the leaf litter. Their knobbly shells looked like living rocks as they swam together for the far side of the waterhole. Ivy sat for a long while, alone in the peace and quiet.

danger-mouse

 

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flash fiction

Daughter of Loki

 

There is a great burden in holding the darkness of mankind. Not even a goddess can do it for eternity.

***

 

The wide freight platform jerked and rattled lower, deeper into the earth. Helen unconsciously held her breath. The ice-blue sky was receding above and she shook the last of the fresh breeze from her hair. No one attempted small talk; all gave themselves over to that feeling of being swallowed by the earth.

 

Once they shuddered to a stop there was much movement. People lifting heavy reinforcement beams and metal scaffolding that would secure the site and others rolling out the huge drums used for removing earth to the surface. Helen recalled the exciting phone call from the archaeological team. A major discovery…a large section of what appeared to be a Viking village near Uppsala…swallowed by a landslip around 880…implements, jewellery, armour and what appeared to be a fully intact wooden tomb.

 

Helen moved toward the wooden structure. It was lined in oak planks and looked more like a small antechamber than a tomb. It had survived the landslip intact. It had tumbled in the landslip, but the slow motion twisting of the earth had not destroyed it. After a tense hour the door finally groaned open.

 

Across the black fen comes a wretched soul, in her arms something delicate wrapped in a mess of swaddling rags. Her feet sink in the mud and only the crescent moon bears witness to her passing. She finds the place in the dark. A glowing flame through oaken slats. She thuds on the door and waits…

 

A blackened form lay in the centre of the room. Tattered threads on remnants of shrunken leather skin, yellow teeth, empty eye sockets and long wisps of white blonde hair. A woman? The soft torch light revealed more. The arms and legs seemed too long; this woman would have been a giant, even among the tallest of Danes. Beside her was a silver knife, a small hand axe and a spangenhelm much larger than any Viking helmet Helen had seen before. Inside it there seemed to be a thick remnant of dark rust. Blood? She bagged a small sample. There were pieces of other skeletons in the room too, mostly animal. One skull appeared small but human. A baby?

 

She places the babe on the deer hide in the centre of the room. Afterbirth still clings to its matted hair and its mouth opens and closes in a contorted but silent scream. Hel, the daughter of Loki rises to tower above the two souls. She examines the strange body form, the lungs that have grown outside the body; they pulse and quiver in the firelight. The new mother offers a large amber bead, and breathes out the words. Hel, daughter of Loki, keeper of shadows, take away this darkness…

 

Scattered inside the chamber were various ornaments that seemed unrelated, and Helen was careful to bag and label them all separately before tucking them in her crate. Amber beads. Coins. A brass Thor’s hammer pendant. A bone comb and several whale bone needles. A rusted piece of chainmail. She marvelled over each item.

 

Hel stands and her shadow looms large as the fire gutters and fades. She offers the mother the blood-filled helmet and the woman trembles as she drinks in the blood of Odin. Hel’s hand forms an arc with the blade and in one swift movement she severs the pulsing pink lungs and throws them on the glowing coals. The babe twists and writhes and Hel leans close and breathes deeply. From the small body there seems to swirl a dark liquid smoke, an absence of light, and Hel throws back her head, opens her teeth and drinks it in. And the earth shudders and moans.

 

There was not much time before the last lift to the surface. Helen had worked methodically, documenting, taking samples, bagging artefacts and now she felt tired and heavy. She kept glancing at the tall skeleton with its empty eye sockets and web of hair. Removing a whole skeleton would be a delicate operation for another day.

 

Across the fen comes an old warrior with his eldest born son. Thor is angry with the young man, who in the heat of battle had gone mad and slain three of his friends, butchered them as if they were enemies. He had woken from the stupor with no memory of the event. The brothers of the fallen were sure to come this night, for revenge…

 

It was beneath an undisturbed pocket of dirt that Helen made her final discovery. She moved carefully, brushing and dusting it clean until she was certain she was looking at the bones of a large hand. The ulna and radius seemed to be sheared cleanly through. A strange find indeed.

 

Hel looms tall and her shadow grows gigantic as the fire gutters and fades. She offers the men the blood-filled helmet and they drink. The younger man trembles but the old man’s back is straight as he says the words. Hel, daughter of Loki, keeper of shadows, take away this darkness… She is swift and the axe severs the young man’s sword hand in a clean blow. As he howls and gasps, Hel opens her mouth wide and sucks at the dark smoke liquid that flows in place of blood from the man’s wrist. And the earth shakes and groans.

 

Helen wrapped the skeleton hand in cloth and tucked it carefully into the crate beside the baby’s skull. In that last moment the shadows seemed to grow thick and she shivered, glad to be leaving. As she crossed the threshold she glanced for a last time at the skull. The air in the room seemed to swirl and shift and for a moment she felt much older than her years and her body felt too heavy.

 

As she emerged, she gulped at the light. Her shadow grew tall and her blonde hair swirled and glowed. The crew had barely unloaded the freight when violent tremor shook the earth and the cavity below collapsed in on itself again.

 

 

 

 

 

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