Her small hand looked pale as the sun shone warmly on it into the lounge room. A large diamond glinted in the light. The band looked too big for her finger. Her hand moved along the big glass-fronted cabinet. She watched it closely as if it were someone else’s hand, and once more hated herself for her inability to stop it. The white fingers turned the key and plunged inside. The hand half-grabbed, half-caressed, the neck of the decanter. She realised her right hand, the other hand, had been carrying a large tumbler, a Vegemite glass. She placed the glass on the cabinet shelf and quickly filled it and brought it to her lips.
The rasping self-hatred surfaced again, and she hesitated. But the insistent, astringent aroma of the sherry overcame all her hesitation and she drank deeply. Within seconds, the glass was empty, but the woman was not satisfied.
“I shouldn’t,” she thought briefly, but still re-filled the glass and drained it. The wine felt sour in her gullet like reflux, and the emotional pain in her head felt like it was beginning to cloud and soften.
The third glassful went down more slowly, and she thought of the decreased pace as a more civilised way of drinking.
“It’s OK,” she said aloud, “I’m on top of it.” There was nobody in the big house to hear her.
With the decanter in one hand and the tumbler in the other, she walked over to the new lounge chair, swaying slightly on her way, and sat heavily in the chair taking exaggerated care not to spill a drop. The wall clock chimed three times, and she began to congratulate herself on waiting so long this day to answer the imperative call of the glass-fronted cabinet.
“To me!” she slurred and lifted the glass to her lips.
The decanter was empty when the clock struck four, and Brenda drifted in a fitful sleep.
This was the part of the day she hated – the memory would wake her and prevent her from complete oblivion. Every day it jerked her back to reality.
She was back on the podium in the State Convention Centre, behind the lectern draped with the Fabian Party banner. She could feel the warmth of the hand-picked crowd applauding her speech. A good performance tonight, and chances were she would be the next Premier. She caught her Dad’s eye in the fourth row, and saw there a gleam of pride.
At the back of the crowd, she saw two delegates talking. The first one had the West Australian folded open. “What is 4 Across?” he asked his neighbour, “the clue is ‘bizarrely re-prime for first in State’.”
Back at the podium she remember how sharp she was in questions and answers, so the Party minders had agreed to a short session after the speech.
The man was dressed in an open-necked green knit shirt and taupe trousers, contrasting with the uniform suits and power dresses. In her memory now, the man was holding a knife as he slowly approached the floor microphone. She smiled encouragingly, wanting to be in charge.
“Is it true, Ms Berndale,” he asked, and she could hear the self-assurance in the familiar Geordie burr, “that you and your father were members of the English New Nazi Party?” A gasp from the Party faithful. The camera closed on the woman’s face and caught that moment of horrified hesitation. In a moment she stuttered, pointed at her father, and said, “My father was. Not me. I was never ideologically aligned. He was. But not me.”
But the questioner was well-prepared –he must have had friends in the Party office – and with quiet scorn spoke again in to the microphone. “Then you had better watch this. You had all better watch this.”
As they looked to the big screens, the woman’s face dissolved to be replaced by the scene of a noisy crowd, the dark towers of York Minster the backdrop. Another stage, another microphone with a younger Brenda Berndale, hair tightly cropped and shouting, “This cowardly Government has failed to keep out these dirty Ottomans!” This English crowd cheered, but the Party audience watching in the auditorium in Australia was stunned. Then an angry buzz arose from the front seats where her front bench colleagues were seated. They walked as a group to the podium and pushed the woman outside into the darkness. The audience jeered.
Back in her lounge chair the woman was crying. Again. She swore at the empty decanter.
The door-bell sounded; at first far away, but then pressed again, it sounded more insistent. Brenda Berndale was not inclined to stand and respond. But it rang again, and Brenda got to her feet feeling full of confusion and anger and walked slowly to the front door. She peered through the spy-hole. There were two aboriginal kids calling, “Mizz Berndale, are you alright?” Brenda knew she had seen these kids before. They lived in the next street. The other neighbours chased them away, but Brenda had once passed glasses of Coke out to them. It was early in her campaign when she was seeking out every favourable voice she could muster.
Brenda was about to turn away, but on impulse reached out to the snib and opened the door. “Are you alright, Mizz?” the younger child, a boy, asked again. Brenda was aware of their appraising eyes, and looked down at herself, and saw the tumbler still in her hand. “Not good drink,” the boy said flatly, as if from experience of others.
“No,” Brenda replied softly, “No.” Tears spilled down her face. The familiar wound in her head throbbed less doggedly. She held out her hand across the threshold. “Come in, kids. Can I get you a glass of Coke? Please stay and talk to me.”
Brenda stood aside and watched two little strangers obtrude upon her territory, and she had to admit to herself that it felt good.
First published in http://www.narratoraustralia.com.au/, June 19, 2012
Hearing the crack of a rifle shot, the messenger came to a sudden standstill. There were small noises in the wandoo trees near him, maybe birds on the alert in their nests or possums holding still like him. The eucalyptus forest was dark now that the moon had set, and the stars glittered hard and cold like diamonds. The random density of trees gave good cover for a hidden marksman, but the uneven glimmer of light made his flesh crawl.
He could feel the moisture of leaf-litter and fungus soft beneath his cold boot. He dared not move or change his weight. His breath in his ears sounded like a wind soughing through the trees giving away his position.
A twig cracked behind. He turned slowly towards the sound, his hand raising his pistol. The darkness was so deep it seemed to move, shadow on shadow. ‘Hold it together!’ he commanded himself silently. He could smell his own fear, sour sweat on his back and chest.
The original gun shot, he estimated, had come from about 200 metres away over near the open paddock. The messenger remembered that the wheat has been harvested and the stubble was tinder dry. As he stared into the darkness, he could make out the space between the trees. He reached over his left shoulder and pulled the weapon from its long cylindrical mount. ‘Range 150. Elevation about 40 degrees.’
He squeezed gently on the trigger, hoping that the pop of release would not give away his position. Two seconds later, the flame-thrower had ignited the stubble, orange flames lacerating the darkness. In the ghastly glow, he saw two figures running in the flames and then fall. Their screams were easily audible over the roar of the flames. He pressed the microphone open. ‘Two enemy down. Unknown numbers in area.’ He waited for an acknowledgement in his ear, and wondered for the tenth time if the mission was worth it.
The data stick was taped under his triceps. He knew the value of this information for the minority government. He knew altogether too much about the mission. He had become not a dumb messenger but a player. He was pressured all the more not to be caught.
The flames had now died away, and the advantage of the distraction nearly gone. The pretext for civil war had been so slight: the Gillard camp really believed that forces loyal to Abbott had attempted to assassinate the PM on New Year’s Day. If he could get to Abbott in Sydney without being caught, the data stick would prove that Clive Palmer was planning to drill under Lake Burley Griffin and Parliament House and extract coal by fracking. Palmer’s first aim was to move government to Brisbane. If coal-mining failed to undermine the Parliament, Bob Katter’s Australia Party was determined to nuke Canberra.
They had promised him a helicopter on the edge of this bush, so he pushed forward stealthily. He smelled the avgas first, then saw the bug-like silhouette of the helicopter. He pressed his comms mike again. ‘Approaching from north. Arrival in 20 seconds.’ He began to run, his lungs bursting from fear and exertion. The heavy pack pulled him down. He fell.
An arc light sliced on lighting up the bush and the Blackhawk. ‘Cut!’ called an amplified voice thick with frustration. ‘Charlie, why do you have to act? You’d think all this was real. Do it again from the middle of the bush, and this time, chill!’
Ted Witham 15 March 2012