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The hole in the ground was ordinary enough – round, small, uninteresting. But the plump, pink finger that poked through from underneath was another matter altogether. And when it formed itself into a crook and beckoned Tara closer, she scarpered back through the bush on fine, wiry legs, almost taking flight at the old oak tree with its thousand spindly branches, a beckoning, menacing crowd calling over her head.

 

When she reached the back door of the boathouse she thought the best she could hope for right now, was that her heart might one day settle back into its regular beat. At this moment however, that was a far-off possibility.

 

Now for a little thought. Firstly, why did I volunteer to come to the boathouse before all the others? We do this trip every year, all the cousins and me, regular as the jacaranda blooms in November. It’s a break from routine – from school; from church; from dancing classes and tennis lessons – all those things adults insist we love but which, in all honesty, we endure for their sakes, not ours. If only we had the heart to tell them – that kind of routine is for old ladies and businessmen. This fortnight at the boathouse is our officially sanctioned Lord-of-the-flies vacation from restrictions. The only stipulations of course, are that we have to be at least fourteen years old and strong swimmers…but that’s just common sense. None of us want to go when we’re little. It’d scare the tripe out of us.

 

And anyway, no Lord-of-the-flies stuff ever happens here in our rustic little spot on the New England Plateau. We all get along like honey-bees and end up suntanned, healthy and disgustingly content at the end of every summer. For a whole two weeks we have no fears, no worries, no thoughts for the future; just lots of sucking on globby pink marshmallows toasted over the camp oven and pelting through the water, stretching our brown limbs with an ecstatic lack of self consciousness. It’s bliss.

 

I should be thinking about that pink finger sticking out of the mud…but I can’t…simple as that. I might go mad in the trying. Sometime tonight I’ll think about it properly; or preferably in the morning when the candied light slips through the bamboo slats and I can hear the curlews crashing about in the bush. I’ll know then that everything is right and good in the world; that fingers do not, absolutely do not, poke through holes in the ground, unless they’re dead and buried in a shallow grave, of course. Stiff and white and probably gnawed to the bone. And that’s hairy enough. But this one was moving – plump, pink and moving. Very much alive.

 

Not thinking about it! It didn’t happen. Couldn’t. It’s being here alone with only the clean sounds of the bush and the earthy smells of rotting leaves and honey-tipped acacias to stir my senses. No wonder I get to imagining; hallucinating even. Mother would say I was the right age for that kind of thing. You know – all that dwelling somewhere in the twilight zone, hovering between reality and fantasy. Sometimes, she said she thought I walked through that mystical valley where the veil between this world and the next is gossamer thin and that it’s a shame really, that we lose touch with it as we grow older, and perhaps less wise. Is it any wonder I think weird things with a mother like that?

 

Thank God for Hesper. Practical, realistic, down-to-earth Hesper.

 

A chubby, beige and cream rat stood on her back feet on the second story of a well-equipped cage, two tiny pink hands in the begging position. She never failed to get Tara’s attention that way but just in case, she had an impressive array of acrobatics and theatrics ready to try out whenever Tara entered the room. She’d already gone through half a dozen of these routines in the past four minutes and was completely baffled when she got no response from Tara. So she returned to her best begging look and waited curiously, her head on one side, for her person to notice her…and let her out of the darned cage!

 

‘Hesper! Come on out of there, you silly thing.’

 

If only rats could talk.

 

‘Poor baby. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ignore you. It’s just that something really odd just happened. Really bizarre…and I…oh, come on…’

 

And Tara flipped open the wire cage gate and waited for Hesper to scramble onto her finger, up onto her shoulder and hide in her hair, weaving the usual wily rat’s nest at the nape of her neck. She’d had to buy a curry-comb just to deal with that. But Hesper hesitated on her finger for a moment, giving it a love-nip before moving on.

 

Finger.

 

‘Hess, you know the other day when you tried to steal my chocolate? Well, I just want you to know that it’s not good for you, that’s all. That’s why I had to take it away from you. I wasn’t just being mean. I couldn’t be mean to you, Hess. You know that, don’t you?’

 

Tara couldn’t be mean to anything living, and possibly even dead. She even had passing moments where she wondered if the grass hunched its shoulder blades away from her as she trod on it. Someone had said once that plants cringe from people who hurt them and it worried her for weeks, putting her in danger of becoming blatantly obsessive about it. But what if it was true? How could anyone eat? She was already a vegetarian and would have been a vegan if her father would let her; but he insisted, perhaps wisely, perhaps not, that she get through her growing years before she made that kind of decision.

 

‘I don’t think dogs and cats can survive a bout of chocolate, Hesper. I mean…it makes them really sick – sometimes they even die – and I couldn’t stand it if anything like that happened to you.’

 

There. Now she felt better. She’d lost sleep last night thinking she’d hurt her little ratty’s feelings and when she bit her finger, it reminded her…

 

Finger. Is there no getting away from that apparition? If that’s what it is?

 

Martha Pudding was only a two-way radio chat away, ‘Pudding’ not really being her name of course, but it suited her right down to her black currant eyes and doughy derriere. She was a gem of a woman though and all the kids loved her; relied on her in fact, and if she hadn’t been there, ‘a five minute holler through the bush’ as she called it, none of them would have been allowed to stay at the boathouse at all. She was their safety valve and Tara felt very much like calling her up and blowing off a bit of steam right now.

 

‘What can I say, Hesper? Hey, Mrs Pudding, have you ever seen a finger poking out of the ground and waving about in this part of the woods? No? Well…what about a suspicious looking hole in the ground that a finger might poke out of?

 

No. It’d never do. Martha Pudding would explain it away as a snake or spider hole and warn her, unnecessarily, to tread carefully, keep her eyes open and give holes in the ground a wide berth. The rules of the Aussie bush. Still, a cozy fireside chat couldn’t do any harm, could it? Without the fire maybe, given the stifling heat.

 

Tara pulled a stiff-backed hardwood chair up to the side table – slab really – that the two-way rested on and blew away the dust. It hadn’t been used in a year but the old beast never let them down. It was here when the ark was built and would probably survive some futuristic alien attack, when some sucker-fingered extra-terrestrial poked it with curiosity and…

 

Fingers again.

 

Tara felt a new obsession descending on her, trickling down through the cobwebby stuff of her mind like dust-motes in the sunlight; and doing her best to distract herself, she hurriedly picked up the radio and conjured up the familiar and comforting Mrs Pudding.

 

‘Mrs P…I’m so glad I got hold of you.’

 

‘Which kid is that? Rick?’

 

Mortifying.

 

‘I’m a girl, Mrs P. It’s Tara.’

 

‘Ahhhh…so it is. You two always did sound like two peas in a pod.’

 

Not any more, thought Tara, thinking of the gruff squawk that now came out of her fifteen year old cousin’s mouth, a sound that reminded her of gagging on hot potatoes.

 

‘Anyway, I’m not Mrs P, either, am I?’

 

Testy old thing.

 

‘Sorry, Mrs Thackery. I meant to say Mrs T.’

 

‘Oh, you did not. I’m well aware all you teenagers call me Mrs Pudding and I’m also intimately acquainted with the reasons why. At least you don’t call me Mrs Buns.’ And a raucous, vibrating laugh echoed through the airwaves, spinning around inside Tara’s ear, bumping off her cochlea and making her momentarily dizzy.

 

Mrs Pudding was irresistibly lovable, even in her madness…and even if she sent you mad in the process.

 

‘Aren’t you a bit early this year?’ she pressed on, like one of those curtain-flipping old ducks with too much time on their hands and not enough to do with it. As bad as that fiendish cat of hers in fact – old Curiosity himself.

 

‘I am, yes. I think I might have made a mistake coming here early but my new school finished a week before the rest and I thought I’d come down and make the place a bit respectable before the others arrive. It’s always so musty-smelling and covered in muck when we get here. We spend the first three days cleaning up.’

 

‘That’s true. Gets a bit damp in there through the winter, doesn’t it? Sometimes downright wet. I do check it over from time to time, you know…not as much as I should. Me old bones, y’understand? But you’d swear the place had been visited sometimes – and by real mischief-makers too. Sand everywhere. Pebbles. Bits of moss. Weird really.’

 

Tara shuddered. ‘I really shouldn’t have come. It seemed like such a good idea in the cold hard light of day.’

 

‘There’s nothing to worry about, love. Not in these parts. Lived here on me own for years now, haven’t I? Mr P’s been gone seven years now. Now there were a pudding if ever you saw one.’

 

‘But I remember him being so skinny! Like a long drink of water, you used to say.’

 

‘Yes…but what was inside his head was a bit of a cake mix, wasn’t it? Don’t you remember?’

 

She did…but she’d loved Mr P…or T…and she always thought the tales he told were pure make-believe, sprung from a fertile imagination he never bothered to keep in check. Not at his advanced age – why should he?

 

‘Mermaids indeed. He’d o’liked that, I’m sure…pretty little sylphs flittin’ about in the river. Silly old dodger.’

 

It was said, Tara knew, with the kind of soft-headed, life-long affection that turned insults into terms of endearment and ear-clippings into warm hugs. Old Martha had mourned for her old dodger, making them all tongue-tongued and bashful with her loud and unpredictable outbursts of tears, and though still round and merry, she had visibly shrunk since his passing. If only they knew she still cried sometimes, usually at first light when she missed him most. It was cruel to wake from a warm fuzzy dream, smiling softly and flinging her arm out across the bed, only to find it unrumpled and empty. Bereft. The young know so much and yet understand so little.

 

‘Always rattling on, he was. And the night before he died, he was still talking about mermaids and underworld things. Said I should go looking…when I asked him what I should be looking for, he said he wasn’t sure…couldn’t quite put his finger on it.’

 

Finger.

 

For a calm few moments Tara hadn’t thought once about the finger and now here it was again, peering up from inside her mind as surely as it had gawked up from the ground like a terrestrial periscope. A blight. A pestilence. Like lots of other things that grew up through the ground – lantana, mother-of-millions, pokeweed - the finger was a recalcitrant pest. Should she mention her fears to Martha Pudding? Probably she’d think Tara was batty, just like her late husband, but maybe she’d offer to come round, keep her company for the night or more likely still, ask Tara to come to her own warm, fuzzy little cottage? That’d be lovely. It was only a short walk across fairly open country and all the kids could hike their way across with their eyes gummed shut – except for the possibility of snakes.

 

It wasn’t dark yet. In fact there was at least an hour of light left in the sultry day; long enough to do a quick tidy up, pack a small swag and impose of Mrs P for the night.

 

‘Would you like some company, Mrs T?’

 

Martha’s sister and niece had just left her in merciful and overdue peace the day before, having descended on her for a month of harassment and constant harping. ‘When are you coming back to the city to live with us, Marty? We worry about you alone out here, don’t you know?’ Well, she did know and she didn’t much care either. She dusted her hands of them enthusiastically after they left and was looking forward to an evening in front of the radio - but she wasn’t a total ninny - she knew the sound of a scared kid when she heard it.

 

‘Would I ever, Tara-Diddle! I’ll help you put that boathouse to rights in the morning. Roast lamb alright for dinner?’

 

Tara’s stomach lurched left and right, heaved vertically a few times and settled somewhere in the middle in a calcified lump.

 

‘Um…sorry…I’m a vego, remember?’

 

‘Course! No worries. I’ve got enough potato, pumpkin and peas here to feed the proverbial…all home grown, don’t you know?’

 

‘Sounds great. I’ll bring chocolate! I remember how much you love it. Almost as much as me. Too-roo. See you in a few.’

 

‘Over and out, ya big lump.’

 

And Tara catapulted off the chair, determined to beat the fading light and feeling Hesper  dig her claws in desperately, somewhere in the center of her cervical spine.

 

‘Lord, Hess. I wish I could give you a manicure. But I forgot you were there. Sorry.’

 

She sincerely hoped Martha Pudding liked rats. As for that sinister cat of hers – well, there are ways and means of hiding innocent creatures like Hesper and Tara knew all of them. The two simply never went anywhere without each other.

 

Besides, how could she leave Hess here alone when there was a great, plump finger surging up out of the ground, threatening murder and mayhem a mere half kilometer from the front door?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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