Short Story: ‘Joy’


I wrote this short story for Writer’s Write, a website for writers based in South Africa, of which I am a member. I am grateful to one of the founders, Mia Botha, for introducing the ’12 Short Stories in 12 Months’ writing challenge. 30 members, including myself, successfully submitted a short story each month, culminating in 12 short stories by the year’s end. Mia provided a word prompt and word count; the rest was up to us.

Thus I thought it fitting to share my last short story for the challenge in 2017 below on my blog. The prompt given was the word Joy and the word count 1500 words.


I swim down, down and look up at the milky light, my pulse beating in my ears. There is nothing else, only silence.

Touching the bottom with both feet, I spring off, kicking furiously. My head and shoulders break the water’s surface. Gasping, I tread water and catch my breath, surveying the expanse of ocean around me.

Smiling now, I lie on my back in a star shape, the current nudging my body. The sky is a broad brushstroke of blue; the turquoise water is gently cradling me.

I look towards the shore, realising that I am out a lot further than I remember. I can just make out Garry back on the beach, wearing his ridiculous towelling hat. I can tell he is on his cell phone even this far away: his head slightly cocked to one side, elbow sticking out. I know the curve of his shoulders. What I don’t know yet is that he is talking to his mistress. He’s looking in my direction. Our 5 year old daughter Sophie is trying out her new kickboard in the shallows, near where he is sitting.

Back on sand, I set myself up next to him on my beach towel, and dry my hair with a spare one.

Who was that on the phone?

Oh, just Peter at work. Tying up some loose ends before he goes on leave too. He’s the only one in the office today due to the Christmas break. I think he’s a bit bored!

Why don’t you turn that thing off? You are officially on leave.

You know it doesn’t work like that with my job, he says, gently squeezing my arm.

He gets up onto his feet, flinging some sand on my towel.

Hungry? I’ll get us a sandwich and a coffee.

Yes please! Salad thanks, with avocado. And something plain for Sophie – you know what she likes.

He takes his phone with him.

I beckon Sophie to come out of the water, thinking, she’s been in there for over an hour. Then laugh at the realisation that she is as obsessed with the ocean as I am.

Garry returns with food and drinks. I question him about how much time he is spending on the phone lately: Surely it’s not healthy. Is work busier than usual? And you seem more distracted these days.

There’s the new deal for the commercial build in Singapore we’re pitching for. It’s just about to close. Business goes on babe, holiday season or not.

I guess so.

Here, drink your coffee before it gets cold, and eat your sandwich before the seagulls see it.

Two nights later when Sophie is in bed, I discover that Garry’s mistress’s name is Joy, which appears on his phone’s screen. It’s vibrating where he left it on the bed. I pick up the phone. I don’t usually take his calls; it’s a reaction. Maybe I don’t want him to miss anything, with the Singapore business deal so close to being finalised (this is what I ask myself later, when I go through the motions like a forensic detective).

Hello? Emily here, Garry’s wife. He’s just taking a shower. Can he call you back?

Whoever Joy is, she hangs up.

I look around me and doubt starts to creep in. Our bedroom feels a foreign place. Not a haven for sharing our fears, secrets and dreams, talking till late at night, and making love, sometimes at one in the afternoon or one in the morning; the special place where Sophie was conceived.

I then think of the other Joy I knew 15 years ago – the franchisee at Donut King where I worked part time during my Uni days: bossy but always with a kind word to say to the itinerants who came in for a cheap coffee and some company. She would keep the day old donuts for them. Word must have got out – soon there were a dozen homeless people sitting round the shop eating and drinking, not talking, with tired out faces. They would stay for hours when the weather was inclement.

And that same period when I encountered a woman washing her underwear in the ladies toilet. Humming to herself as she squeezed the excess water out of the garment and held it delicately with both hands under the hand dryer, moving it left and right for maximum effect, oblivious of the silent queue forming behind her. What hit me then was the care with which she handled her stained clothing, as if it were something precious.

That all seems a long way from this moment when I am starting to feel the bottom of my world has been ripped open and all its contents are spilling out.

While Garry is still in the shower, I move outside onto the balcony. Sitting in the dark, I think back again to my time at Donut King. Joy had to let me go after four months. Turned out that putting homeless people before profits wasn’t her best business decision. Regular customers stopped coming. I couldn’t stand the smell of fried donuts in my hair by then anyway.

I’d met Garry there. He was one of the regulars who didn’t even notice the homeless people, picking up some breakfast before hurrying for the train to Uni. We’d chat. He was so handsome, and funny. Turned out we had friends in common on campus.

We moved into a rental six months later, but could only afford a studio apartment. We didn’t care, as long as we were together. I remember not being able to concentrate in lectures, I was so tired from all the sex and late night talking.


Garry now sidles up to me in the dark. His hair is slick and wet, like a seal’s fur. He smells of cedar and has a towel hitched around his waist.

So who is Joy?


I just picked up your phone. Someone named Joy rang. At least, that’s what I read on the screen.

Garry doesn’t answer. He looks down.

I ask again: Who is she?

Someone at work.

Why is she ringing you at this time of the day?

He shrugs his shoulders.

Is she working on the deal with you?

Yes. His voice is quiet. She came with me to Singapore.

Something invisible starts to grow in the space between us.

There is a long pause.

Have you slept with her?


How many times?

Only twice.


Look, it’s nothing. It gets a bit lonely, you know? All this travelling. We had a few too many drinks on the trip before the last one. Started talking about our kids. She has two boys, older than Sophie, younger than her cousins. Then next thing, we are in her hotel room.

I make a stop sign with my hand.

I’ve heard enough. I’m going for a walk.

Where to?

I haven’t decided yet.

I head for the beach. It’s a fair distance from our place. I don’t think much about it, just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

After some time, I realise I am completely lost. I’m three suburbs away from home.

Hey princess where are you off to?

A car slows up beside me.

I don’t look or answer and keep walking.

Come on now, cat got your tongue?

I can smell alcohol on him.

An inner voice says: at least he is on his own, not that I am looking inside the car, not that I am counting heads. It’s just a feeling. But maybe there is a dead body in the back that I can’t see?

I break into a run, grateful for my fitness, the pumping adrenalin carrying me now.

I try not to think of the park I am running past, how he could just stop the car and get out, corral me into its’ shadowy vastness and rape me, stab me, suffocate me.

He plays cat-and-mouse, speeding up, slowing down. Can he smell my fear?

Thankfully a pedestrian way opens up between the next two houses. I run down it.

I knock on a door. I don’t know why I pick this one. Maybe it’s the beautiful planter boxes on the front porch.

A blonde haired woman answers my knock. She sits me down on her front step, beckons one of her pyjama clad children behind her to get me a glass of water. Then she puts her arm around me, croons in my ear. Slow down your breathing, take deeper breaths. It’s ok now. You’re safe.

I blurt: Please ring my husband Garry. His number is 0422 699 740.

She asks the other boy to grab her phone.

Garry, I have Emily with me. You’d better come and get her.

Lying on her front lawn under the soft glow of Christmas lights, I realise that I hadn’t told her my name.






The Same-Sex Marriage Campaign – Liz and Sam’s Story


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At the time of writing this post, voting for the same-sex marriage campaign in Australia has just closed and we are awaiting the outcome. My friend Liz Dore, a counsellor, shared with me the distress many of her clients experienced in the lead up to, and during the campaign.

The period has also been a personal journey for Liz’s son, 26-year-old writer, director and visual artist Sam Leighton-Dore. He is gay and hopes to marry his partner of 4 years, Brad, sometime soon. Sam looked after my own son when he was still at primary school, during the holidays while my husband and I were at work.

Hence this is a personal story for me too.

Liz is the only person I know who has been married, widowed, married and divorced. She claims that both of her marriages were special. Both Liz and Sam share common interests: mental health issues, sexuality and relationships. In addition, they’ve been working side-by-side garnering support for the YES vote in the same-sex marriage campaign, promoting it through their social media networks, and attending rallies and events around Sydney.

Sam had to deal with issues of anxiety and depression while growing up and was bullied at high school, which led him to write a children’s book titled I Think I’m A Poof.

He says: ‘the process of writing the book wound up being an incredibly empowering endeavour — men who once bullied me for being gay were all of a sudden reaching out to me over social media to apologise. It felt like I was finally turning the page on that chapter of my life.’

‘Growing up, my being gay was — and still is — a big part of what makes up my perspective of the world; something that I can’t change, however comfortable I’ve come to be with myself over the years. My creativity has always been influenced by my own experiences with mental health and sexuality.’

‘My ongoing struggles meant that my little sister Bronte occasionally didn’t get her fair share of attention. She has since blossomed into a wonderful artist and jewellery designer, and I feel fortunate that we’ve grown a lot closer in adulthood. We’re both lucky to have parents who always encouraged us to chase our dreams, however financially poor those dreams would make us’.

Liz says: ‘I knew Sam was going to do some great things.  When he was little, he was an avid fan of The Little Mermaid film and ran through the house wearing his mermaid’s tail.  In his teenage years, he joined the Australian Idol fan club and supported contestant Casey Donovan, taking his home-made signs with him to the shows.’

‘He was bullied at high school, both physically and verbally. It was a dark time for our family; we moved out of the area and changed schools. I’m in awe of his achievements as an artist, a writer and film producer. After he graduated from the Australian Film Television and Radio School, his film Showboy (starring Lucas Pittaway of Snowtown) screened at the Sydney Film Festival and won Best Short Film at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival.’

‘Sam has worked for production company Goalpost Pictures. He walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival with actors Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy and Chris O’Dowd from the film The Sapphires. He has also produced video clips for Jessica Mauboy and Baz Luhrmann’.

‘A few years ago, he made a short film of my Dateables Ball for people with disability.  This led to an ABC 730 Report segment about the singles event and a donation by the actor Ben Mendelsohn’.

‘Sam’s partner Brad is a wonderful addition to our family, loving and supportive of him, Bronte and myself.  I would be proud to have him as my son-in-law. I love Sam and hope that he and his partner are given the respect and acknowledgement they deserve when they commit to each other, or if they separate from each other, or when one of them passes away’.


I am grateful to Liz for her friendship, and for sharing the experience of motherhood over the years. I stand by her belief that it is every person’s right to marry the partner of their choosing, irrespective of gender.

On that note, if you are reading this and you are an Australian citizen, I hope you got your vote in on time.

Coffee with Stan at West Juliett


My writing group have come together to farewell one of our ‘tribe’ at the popular haunt, West Juliett, in Sydney’s inner west.

Owner Stan Loupos is as calm as a sentry amidst his fully packed cafe this Saturday morning. Even though he doesn’t look it, he is busy – vigilantly watching over his 130 customers and 16 staff.

Stan is also grinning, in his element, despite his 2am start to shop at the markets. This is his 20th café. He’s been in the food business for over 30 years.

He imparts these facts while escorting me to my table. This is how I meet Stan for the first time, amid the chatter ricocheting off the concrete floor and walls. I’m intrigued by this person who appears very relaxed, despite his small army of staff and 2 rooms full of people waiting to be fed.

I have also owned a café, for 4 years, and am way-too-familiar with the 12 hour days, staff problems, council issues, unreliable suppliers, demanding customers (one even tried to sue my business – another story). And on top of that, keeping my head above water and hoping that people keep walking through the door.

So why does Stan do it, again and again?

I return for a chat when he is not so busy, over one of his excellent coffees:

What drew you to hospitality?

I need to be around people. Work has to be fun. The scenery changes with my customers. Someone said to me once: If you enjoy what you do, you will never work a day in your life.

Where did it all start? – What did you do after you left school?

My parents were in the café business. We had one in West Wyalong (467 km west of Sydney) for 9 years, when I was growing up. I worked there every day before and after school, and on weekends.

I bought my first café in West Wyalong too. My parents were partners.

What is the most important choice for starting a café – location?

Look out for something that’s been neglected if possible. Do your homework and get the right professional advice. Before I bought this business, I went through all the reviews, including the bad ones. If you can fix the bad ones, you are laughing.

You also need to be honest about your own strengths. For example, social media is not my thing. So I have engaged a company that specialises in this. They update my website and regularly post on Instagram and Facebook (people eat off their screens these days; you need to keep up with them).

How do you keep your staff in a notoriously high staff turnover industry?

I have a Head Chef but my staff are treated equally. I brainstorm new menus with everyone. The entire team are part of the decision making process.

A team leader looks after front of house. My wife Christina does the rostering from home, but staff members are allowed to swap shifts amongst themselves. We never roster them for the whole weekend – they get alternate Saturdays and Sundays off.

All my staff share the tips. I stay away from that, let them sort it out themselves.

We employ people via word of mouth mostly. The ‘gap fillers’ come and go, but the core staff stay.

After a frantic Saturday or Sunday – when we may have fed 500 customers – we go to one of the nearby hotels. I buy them a few drinks and something to eat. Then I leave them to it.

I trust my staff to the point where the kitchen hand took the takings home with him one night and brought them back the next day for me.

I’m not into hierarchy. It took 3 days for a new staff member to find out that I was the owner, after she advised me that I had better look busy in case the boss saw me! (Another staff member eventually blew my cover).

I keep a tight rein, but also try to keep it fun.

What is the secret to café success – a great chef and accountant?

My wife and my sister Cindy are my secret weapons. The males in my family are not good at the details.  Cindy runs the till and looks after the takings.

We also change the menu regularly, promote what’s in season, such as mangoes at the moment.

I think it’s important to offer something different to your customers. At West Juliett, it is our homemade baked goods. We are also about to start selling our own Kombucha. Plus we do events in our adjoining room, ‘Little Juliett’ – christenings, corporate presentations, book launches.

You need to know how to read your customers and have systems in place.

There is a cultural difference between kitchen and floor staff; you have to know how to treat both, and be across their roles so that you can jump in if there is a problem.

Remember to have a laugh with your staff, make sure your customers are ok, then the rest flows on.

And if you try to please everyone, you end up failing.

High notes?

Every day has its high notes!

Low notes?

A staff member hurt her shoulder once, resulting in a workers’ compensation claim. We had the matter investigated. The insurer produced photos of her swimming, playing tennis, at a night club. They went ahead and paid her, citing that this was the less complicated option. My insurance premium went up the next year as a result.

What about lifestyle. When do you get to see your family, take holidays, have down time?

We are open 6am – 4pm most days, so it’s an early start, but it means that I can be home at a reasonable hour every night. I only take holidays when I sell a business. I unwind by watching TV – with headphones on so I can’t hear my kids fighting (Peter 13, and Georgia, 11).

Coming to work 7 days a week is easier than dealing with teenagers at home!

It is a very demanding industry but I’m lucky – when I’m out of here I’m out of here.

At 5 minutes to 4 I have already shut down mentally. It’s ‘beer o’clock’.

Biggest selling item?

The coffee sells itself. I have one dedicated barista, though 3 of us can make coffee. Here, we do not have the same turnover of product as I have experienced in my other cafes in the city. We were doing 220kg of coffee beans a week at one location alone.

It depends on the day with the food menu. We can’t make enough waffles on the weekends. Weekdays it’s the ‘green bowls’ that sell the most. This is a concoction of Kale, snow peas, avocado, wakame seaweed, edamame beans and poached salmon.

What’s next – another café?

It’s what I do.

It’s what I know.


When I get up to leave at the end of our chat, Stan’s wife calls to check if he has put the signs up for tomorrow. They are shutting the doors so that a major bank can occupy the entire venue for the day to shoot an advertisement.

It will be Stan’s first official day off since the day he took over West Juliett on the 23rd March. I wonder on the drive home what he will do with his time off….


View From the Sidelines


Spring has officially arrived in Sydney, where we are also at the tail end of a flu epidemic, despite a very mild winter. Local media have declared this city the ‘fully sick’ capital of Australia. Supplies in pharmacies have been depleted, particularly of Tamiflu; classrooms and workplaces emptied of staff and students. There are four influenza strains floating around.

I too was a victim and as a result, everything stopped for me in August, days and weeks disappearing off the radar. The world narrowed down: moving from couch to bed and outdoor lounge. I lost all sense of routine, focusing only on getting better and trying not to worry that it was taking so long.

Illness brings its own kind of routine – medications to buy (and tissues!), doctors’ appointments to attend. And lots of sleeping in between. Sitting on the sidelines watching the world pass by, wishing I could walk barefoot on my favourite beach.

I dreamt that I was hunched inside a big cardboard box with a little gap in the top corner where the sides and top meet. A drinking straw poked through the gap and I was struggling to breathe through it.

Interesting things happen when you stop. I listed all the birds that visit my tiny back garden (10 in total) and noticed new shoots sprouting. The whirring of wings woke me one morning – a pair of Spotted Doves nesting in the climbing jasmine on the front porch. They fussed and fidgeted, plucking long strands from the foliage for their project. I imagined being a drone and following them, to see where they spend the rest of their day. A Wattlebird rustled in the paperbark tree outside my bedroom window, its weight drooping the branch into a bow.

There were joyous moments: one tiny bird launched itself from a palm tree, zooming past me so close that I could feel its feathers brush against my cheek. I didn’t get to see it. Or the unexpected sweet sound of the girl next door singing a Vietnamese lullaby.

A Superb Fairy-wren with its magnificent blue head hopped right into the kitchen one morning. It got caught in a trap that was meant for a very cheeky mouse, who had been eating the succulent shoots of the newly planted sweet peas in the garden. The splendour of the birds’ feathers struck a stark contrast against the wood and steel of the cheaply made trap. Fortunately, its demise was quick.

More sounds dropped themselves in my lap for further inspection: a goods train rumbling in the early dawn, its carriages clicking and clacking as it drew closer; a school marking time with its automated bell; the hum of local traffic punctuated by sirens and trucks; an announcement on a PA system; someone vacuuming to Michael Jackson’s Greatest Hits.

I heard my neighbour talking on the phone – his laugh could fill a room – and took soup to another who struck with illness too. Smoke from a burn-off heralded the start of a bush fire prone season as the hours melted away.

A friend sent me a book during this time, Light and Shadow by the recently deceased journalist Mark Colvin. I was humbled by his optimism, especially as he suffered ill health since reporting on the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. There he contracted a rare auto immune disease, a precursor for ongoing health issues that involved a kidney transplant and dialysis. More recently he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, which took his life in May this year.

The following is from an interview with Julia Baird on the ABC’s (Australia) The Drum shortly after his transplant in 2014:

The best thing is the three days I get back. You have no idea…you might think, well, that’s only six hours in the chair, but it actually stretches out, the travel time, putting the needle in, and then there’s the awful stuff of when things go wrong and you bleed for an hour afterwards and things go even wronger (sic), and you get septicaemia and you have to be in hospital for a number of weeks.

I’m rid of all that, touch wood. And that’s really good. I have a lot of arthritic pain but other than that I’m absolutely fine.

A colleague from my writing group emailed to check if I’d succumbed to daytime television while recovering. No! Though one night I did watch a program about the founder of RUOK? , a suicide prevention charity based in Sydney. Founder Gavin Larkin set the organisation up as a response to his father’s suicide and concerns about his own depression. Gavin passed away in 2011 from cancer at the age of 42, after a total of 19 months battling the disease, and a bone marrow transplant. His 15-year-old son, Gus, died of a brain tumour two years later.

That certainly put my predicament in perspective.

Footnote: National RUOK? Day is on 14 September

At the Pool 2


It is a cold winter’s morning in Sydney.

Three elderly women are talking and laughing in the change room. I recognise their language as Mandarin Chinese. They are the only occupants at this hour. Have I walked into some kind of private club? Their familiarity and ease with each other reminds me of siblings: each jostling for centre stage, their noisy banter taking up all the space.

One woman is vigorously soaping herself up in the open shower, still engaged in the conversation. Another is drying herself. The third is fully clothed and at the hand basin, applying cream to her face. There are three small plastic containers lined up neatly beside her, each in its own clear bag. I smell mothballs as I sidle up to her to adjust my swimming cap in the mirror.

Their liveliness warms the tiled room with the concrete floor that is showing years of neglect – chipped doors and peeling paint, faded posters and broken toilet seats.

As the sun is just coming up I escape their noisy interchange for the quiet of the indoor pool in the next building. I mark my territory in Lane 4 by placing my flippers and kickboard on the concrete at its head. Show Pony (see the previous post At the Pool) in Lane 3 recognises me. I was hoping to slip into the water unnoticed, meditating on the swim ahead.

Show Pony wants a chat. After a brief interchange, I gently end the conversation and push off. I can almost hear my joints clicking and creaking under the water as I pull each arm back, up and over my head.

The water is slightly cooler compared to the humidity of the air inside the building. The windows have fogged up. I get into the rhythm of the stroke and lose count of the laps, intuitively changing the routine when my body tells me to, freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke.

Between strokes, I see the regular group of retirees performing their aquaerobics routine, a slow dance up and down the shallows. None of them is moving in time. Not many here today, perhaps the cold morning has kept them in bed. There are also new faces: a man with a perfect handlebar moustache, his spectacles dangling around his neck. He is marching on the spot. And another, leaning against the tiles with a faraway look in his eyes, gazing at nothing in particular.

One of the regular life guards on duty looks bored. He has a sizeable novel for company. I am tempted to pull myself up out of the water to ask him what he is reading, and if is it in his native language, Russian. Would he be too preoccupied with a gripping passage of the book to look up and notice someone struggling in the water?

Soon I am riding on a crest of endorphins, completely immersed in the moment. I have forgotten everything, just a vessel, just swimming.

Passing the other way as Show Pony finishes his laps, I kick energetically, hanging on to my board, on the downhill run myself. A boiling wake trails behind me. I nod my farewell.

Young families start to trickle in for vacation swimming lessons with their awkward cargo of oversized beach towels and floating devices. The children’s excited laughter and cries ricochet off the concrete, glass and steel.

Floating, spread-eagled like a star fish, I think of my mother who came from a country where swimming wasn’t such a popular pastime. I visualise her doing an elegant version of breaststroke in our backyard pool, wearing her black halter neck swimsuit, trying not to get her hair wet.

The foggy windows have cleared as I pull myself up out of the water.  The children’s play area outside is shining in the morning sun. The brightly coloured fountains and sprinklers look bereft and forgotten next to a backdrop of bare, spindly trees. I can almost hear the stillness out there as the noise inside crescendos. A little girl decked out in pink definitely doesn’t want to do her swimming lesson this morning. Her mother, with an anxious look and a baby on her hip, is coaxing her into the water to the smiling instructor. Maybe she wanted to sleep in.

On the drive home the sun creates stripes through the trees over the road, like bar codes. I turn the radio on, half listening to the news. A woman has been accidentally shot dead by police in the US, a man in India has been tied to a stake and burnt alive. I turn it off again.

Trying to erase the bad news that has made its way into my car, I focus on the big blue sky for the rest of the short trip home. And think of a hot shower and breakfast.

The Visitor


They gathered in his small flat the day after the funeral.

Giants in a dolls’ house.

Quiet. Bereft.

A magpie warbled in the tree outside the kitchen window.

As if it were any other day of the week.

Noisy trucks came and went from the shopping mall opposite.

As did patients from the surgery beneath his flat, pushing prams, pulling along reluctant toddlers.

Or suited up, briskly walking.

His children began the task of removing the remains of his personal life.

Sorting and packing, his personality drifting up from everything they touched.

Their private activity a contrast to the public formalities the day before.

A fitting end to a hectic week of burying the dead.

The meagre remains of his fridge were expired; containers of soup stacked like toy blocks in the freezer.

Each meticulously labelled in spidery doctor’s writing.

One daughter thought of taking them home. Then cursed herself for the absurdity of it.

Eating a dead man’s food!

A kookaburra visited when they stopped for lunch, searching out its benefactor among the unfamiliar faces.

He had fed it every day. Until recently.

The bird watched from its’ leafy outpost – a stand of blue gums that bordered the property.

The offspring were still sorting at dusk. Then a son found a card in the kitchen drawer amongst neatly ironed tea towels.

It was inscribed to my sweetheart, a room away from the other letters on his writing desk.

He thought of the years his father had spent on his own since cancer took their mother. And smiled.

Not so alone after all.




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.