I originally wrote this piece of fiction for an online short story challenge. The brief: 2500 words and prompt ‘a white lie’…

It’s a perfect autumn day. Marcus blindfolds me, says ‘I have a surprise for you’. This is not a regular thing he would do. I am excited and intrigued. We have just finished a leisurely breakfast. He’s taking the day off for my birthday.

He gently leads me down the steps from the kitchen at the back of the house, round to the front and down the driveway. I know he is smiling from the timbre in his voice. I smell the sunshine before I feel it – the nutty, damp aroma of the sun beating down on dew soaked grass. I hear a New Holland Honey Eater darting across our heads. Its chirruping wakes me on the dot of six every morning. A very persistent sound for such a small bird.

I now hear our boots crunching on the gravel driveway as he leads me, still very gently. I feel the smoothness of his hand in mine, despite the years of outdoor work. We are both quiet now. We seem to be walking a long way, but I know it’s because I can’t see where I am going.

I think we are a fair way down our sweeping drive now, almost to the road.

We stop.

There is an exchange between Marcus and a voice I don’t recognise.

‘Gidday. Did you find us ok?’

‘Yep, no problems. You were just a bit further from the turn-off than I expected. I paid your neighbour a visit thinking it was your place. Their dog isn’t too friendly.’

Then the distinct odour of horse manure hits my nostrils, a stamping of hooves.

Marcus removes my blindfold.

I can’t see anything at first, blinded am I by the morning sun. I am disoriented, resting my hand on his shoulder to steady myself. I see a horse float attached to a very muddy four-wheel drive vehicle.

The owner of both extends his hand to me.

‘Hi, I’m Tim. Happy Birthday.’

So, looks like I am going horse riding. I check. Fortunately, there are two beasts in the float. Is Tim my instructor? Or is he going to let Marcus ride the other one? Both horses are of a tan colour, with blonde manes. One is smaller than the other. Maybe they are related.

I haven’t been on a horse since I was a teenager, on our farm. When I was diagnosed with cancer 12 months ago I started a list of all the things that I still wanted to do. Marcus must have seen it. I kept it in the top drawer of the pink dresser in our bedroom, along with our passports, photos and spare car keys.

I start to cry. Marcus shuffles his feet on the gravel, looking down. Despite his kindness and the perfect autumn morning, I feel exhausted to my bones.

Horse riding was number three on the list, after going to Vietnam and getting a piano.

The piano had been the first thing to be sorted. I had told Marcus that it would take my mind off things while I stayed at home recuperating. Everything else had to wait until I stopped the chemo and was given the all clear, as they all required some kind of physical exertion. Horse riding involved being able to get up on the animal first. That can be an effort. They never come at a comfortable height that you can climb onto gracefully, especially when you are short like me. Then there is the unpredictability of whether it is going to break into a trot or a canter when it feels like it. You have to be able to hang on and go with it or be forceful up there in the saddle, applying pressure to the horse’s ribs with your knees to slow it down. Pulling on their bridle helps. But doesn’t this jerking movement hurt their heads?

The horse riding is a success. We even get up to a trot. Tim leaves the animals with us for the rest of the morning. We ride for well over an hour, along the fence line of our 10-acre property, then up the road to the dead end and back. We take breaks in-between, just sitting, looking around from our new found height, marvelling at the perfect weather, the perfect view. The horses were placid. I could tell they were used to people. I loved talking to them, patting them. Tim informed us that their names were Gomez and Lucia, brother and sister, as I suspected. Their smell – a meaty, sweaty tang – took me back to being a teenager on the farm, when we owned three of them. I would muck out the stable and brush them down every weekend, grateful to be away from school, homework and lessons, and getting my hands dirty.

After Tim packs up the horses and we wave him off, we eat a salad that Marcus had prepared earlier, on the front veranda.  I sleep for the rest of the afternoon. Then we drive to my sister Sarah’s place for dinner. Her children, Harriet and Will, have made me a cake. I cry when they presented it, for the second time that day. I loved its imperfection; I could see fingerprints in the icing. Harriet admitted that it should have had more of the edible flower decorations on the top but they ate them.

I didn’t think I would see another birthday. I didn’t want to think that far ahead when I was ill. It was too overwhelming.

At the hospital they didn’t tell me how sick the chemo would make me feel. They only mentioned that it might be uncomfortable. I had been sick as a dog from it, retching, shaking. I dreaded the hospital visits and the nausea and lethargy afterwards, even the smell of the outpatients’ ward where I would sit and look across the lawn at the line of poplar trees swaying in the breeze while being pumped with drugs. I was kept in there for a week early in the treatment process. They couldn’t get my temperature back to normal. I remember being so cold that my teeth were chattering. I thought it had only been a three day spell, that’s how out of it I was.

I’m glad that is all behind me now. I am grateful for each day that I can walk outside, look at the sky and smell the rosemary and basil growing just outside the kitchen door. These reminders of home I missed during visits to the hospital.

The phone calls and visitors slowed after the first three months of my illness. That was the loneliest time. I wished then that we lived in town, not 15 km from it, so at least I could walk to a café, see people. But then I didn’t want them to witness me looking so frail either, and asking too much about how I felt. I felt bloody awful most of the time.  Not much of a conversation starter is it?

I find being back at work three days a week helps a lot. I get into my pyjamas as soon as I am in the door. I’m too tired to do anything else. Marcus has to cook and wash up, feed Mathilde the cat, pretty much do everything. He says he doesn’t mind. I keep pushing him to do more for himself, now that I am better. He is a bit of a loner. He likes his rugby, going to a game in the city with a few friends. And visiting my sister’s place to watch sport with her husband on a Saturday night. I usually drive so he can have a few drinks. But my tiredness at night has cancelled that option out for now. I worry about driving on the country roads in the inky black with no markers, no streetlights to guide my way.

I guess I feel more vulnerable now.

The next day, Tuesday, Marcus is back at work at the nursery. I am planting a new garden bed of annuals next to the herbs outside the kitchen door. I promised him I wouldn’t do anything physical after yesterday’s trotting around the paddocks. But I can’t help myself. It is another glorious day and I wanted to get these annuals out of their pots and into the ground before they started to wilt.

I have my favourite Mozart piano concertos for company, which I am listening to from the wireless speaker Sarah bought me for my birthday.

The dog on the neighbouring property starts to bark, signaling a visitor. Then I hear the crunch of tyre on gravel.

“Helloooo, anyone home?”

It’s Sally from work. She is rounding the back of the house, bearing a huge bunch of lilies. For a split second, I am reminded of the white ones that covered my mother’s coffin. But these ones are a pretty pink, such a positive colour.

Sally is dwarfed by her cargo, peeking over the top of the foliage like a Peeping Tom behind a bush. This makes me laugh out loud. I am delighted by her unexpected company. We embrace and I make some tea, which we partake of in a sunny spot where I have been digging, the sun spotlighting us between the laundry and house as if on cue. Mathilde has tucked herself under the outdoor table, partly resting on my feet. She just wants the sun, not affection. Why is it that cats always seek out the best places?

Sally is ready for a long chat, I can tell. I make a mental note to lie down later when she has gone.

‘Guess what’s been happening while you have been away from work?’

‘Not much I expect. It’s only been four days. And I’m back tomorrow.’

‘Well….you know the semi-retired guy who picks up the pathology samples every day? He’s having an affair with Marie on the front desk.’

She looks happy with herself at the sharing of this saucy information, mischievous, like the cat that got the cream.

‘How do you know?’

‘Poppy and her husband were at Banjos Night Club on Saturday night. She recognised them. They were all over each other!’

I almost spill my tea, I am laughing so much. The incongruity of their union. For starters, there’s possibly 20 years between them. He has a penchant for the outdoors, and she likes expensive hotels. He is a bachelor, she is divorced with three children.

‘Love comes in all shapes and sizes doesn’t it?!’

‘And when he came in to pick up the samples yesterday, she was all coy with him. Hilarious.’

‘Maybe he has a lot of money. Or is good in bed.’

We both laugh in unison.

‘Good on them both. We don’t know what is around the corner for us; enjoy life today not tomorrow.’

We go quiet. I can hear Mathilde purring, then a tractor starting up in the distance.

Sally continues: ‘And about your Marcus. My Matt says he’s been seeing him at the betting agent’s quite a bit lately. As recently as Saturday. Wasn’t sure you knew about it? Matt was surprised as he didn’t think Marcus was into gambling, especially with you having just come back to work. Matt always says ‘you’ve got to be able to afford the risk’ every time I ask him to stop. Admittedly he’s had a few lucky runs the last few races.’

My mind rewinds back to four days ago. Marcus had said that he was going to get petrol.

I don’t know whether to be grateful or annoyed that Sally has imparted this news. But know I must speak to him about it. Talking about finance is always hard for us. He took over the bill paying when I got sick as he didn’t want me to get stressed about it.

I must start to look tired because all of a sudden Sally is up, on her way, professing that she has lots to do before she picks the kids up from school.

‘Don’t get up. See you back at the coalmine tomorrow.’

I fall asleep in my chair in the sun, Mathilde’s body still covering my feet. The deliciousness of it. I wake up I don’t know how much later, chilly now that the sun has moved across the house and we are in shadow. I shake Mathilde gently off and go inside for a proper sleep before I have to face Marcus later and the prospect of work tomorrow.

He is shaking me.

‘Claire you’d better get up or you won’t sleep tonight’.

‘Why don’t you have a bath while I start the dinner?’

Any animosity I may have towards him dissipates as he moves off to run the water for me.

I decide to have THE CHAT while immersed in bubbles…

‘How was your day?’

‘Fine. We got a big delivery of grevillea in. Some beautiful specimens. I have earmarked one for you, it’s called Coconut Ice. And who brought you the big bunch of flowers? Your gentleman caller?’

This makes me giggle.

‘Come here and I’ll tell you’.

As he draws closer, I pull him into the bath; work clothes still on. Fortunately, he’s left his dirty boots at the back door. He is quickly drenched from head to toe, half the bath water sloshing onto the floor. We both shriek with laughter.

We lie there until the water goes tepid. Marcus peels his clothes off him and takes a shower.

‘You haven’t told me who brought the flowers yet’.

‘Sally from work’.

There is silence. He’s not that fond of Sally. I choose the moment.

‘Says that her Matt saw you at the betting agent’s on Saturday’.

More silence. The shower taps go off.

‘That’s right. I was there’.

‘But you told me you were going to get petrol’.

‘I have placed a few bets over the past month to see if I can raise enough money to get us to Vietnam’.

‘Oh. That’s very thoughtful of you. Isn’t there a less risky way?’

‘Not that I can think of.’

‘And why didn’t you tell me?’

‘I didn’t want you to worry about the possibility of me losing money in the process. Truth is, I seem to have a bit of a lucky streak. So far I have earned us a cool $2000’.

‘So you have been doing this for a while then?’

‘Every week for the past month’.

‘You haven’t booked the tickets yet though have you?’

‘No, but I was about to, this Friday. I’ve already talked to your boss about leave. I wanted to surprise you’.

‘Another surprise! Though not with eight legs this time. We may want to do a rain check as I think I may be pregnant’.

He’s back in the bath now. We lie there for what seems like forever, embracing in the gathering dark.