The Writers Bureau Short Story Competition 2019
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4th Prize

Kim Fleet with:

Make Do and Mend

Moira Blackstone wins everything. So far this year she’s scooped jam making, cake decorating, flower arranging and trimming an Easter bonnet.

She even won last year’s ‘grow the biggest zucchini’ competition. And each time she steps up to claim the clacky little cup, she simpers and blushes and stammers she never would have imagined it, and my hatred for her ratchets up another notch.

She’s not from here: she moved over from Sydney six years ago. ‘Here’ is Plackett’s Reach: a town of twelve hundred souls and three hundred dogs, moated by jarrah forest that scents the air with vapour rub. A place where the supermarket hawks farm equipment and all the cars are white Toyotas with a brindle dog skittering in the back. Where the people shout “How you going?” as a greeting and buy their clothes from K-Mart. Where the bank was boarded up years ago and you have to collect your own mail from the Post Office. Moira flicks her city-bred eyes over it all and her expression registers quaint.

So when I see the flyer for a patchwork competition on the theme of the Australian landscape, I growl, “Not this time, missus, you don’t. This one’s mine.”

I scuttle home and fling open my glory box and heft out all the fabric squirrelled in there. The top layer is Ted’s old clothes, and tears fuzzy my vision at the touch of it.

“It’s only been a year,” I scold myself as I flat out his cotton twill pants and the shirts he wore for work. The red shorts he wore on that holiday to Bali when the girls had gone to university are in there, too. Right prawn he looked in them with his pale legs sticking out. The stash is archaeology: layers of family history in fabrics: party dresses, school pinafores, my maternity smocks.

“I’m going to win, Ted,” I whisper. “This time, I’m going to win.”

I set to with the shears and Ted’s pants transform into crags and mountains, forest and bushland. I piece and pin for hours. My hands claw with arthritis and my knuckles burn, and when I squat back and examine the patchwork, it smacks me that this will be my last quilt. My hands fumble to wield a needle these days.

“Last one, and I’ll make it a good one,” I vow. Moira Blackstone step aside.

I sit on the porch and sew every day, hunched in the cane garden chair with its musty cushion, facing the black line of jarrah forest hulking at the edges of Plackett’s Reach. The sun is hot and piercing; I stitch it into the quilt along with all my memories and grief for Ted. I sew until the kookaburras cackle on the dot of seven every night, when the light blooms purple behind the trees. Then I gather up my patchwork and go inside, massaging my throbbing joints and easing the cramp from my fingers.

My widowhood is still raw, and more than a few tears melt into the quilt as my needle flicks in and out. I push on, the steady rhythm calming me. I’m doing it for Ted: the quilt is a testament to him and our marriage. His holiday shorts transform into bush fire, fastened with bright yellow thread, a private joke between us. Years ago, when bush fires threatened the town, we rattled up the fire break to see how it was holding. Ted and I stood on the naked beaten earth and watched the red rim curl towards us. Suddenly Ted unfastened his shorts and peed in an arc over the fire.

“Doing my bit,” he grinned at me.

The fire retreated at the fire break and we joked it was Ted’s pee that did it, so it’s there in the quilt: a stream of yellow stitches.

I fasten off the last strand and spread the patchwork over our bed to study it. My heart sinks. The quilt is dull and pedestrian, my grief all too visible in its stoic lines. There’s no throb of life, no hint of the mystery that crackles in the Australian landscape.

Back at my glory box, I yank out my old dresses and a rainbow tangles on the floor. Ted always teased me for my bright frocks. I was his butterfly. I hear his voice as I cut and hem red parrots, emerald geckos, sapphire butterflies and long rays of sunshine like a child’s drawing, and appliqué them onto the quilt. It pulses with vitality, and as I pin the wadding in place and join the layers together with a steady running stitch, my heart quickens.

“I’ve done it, Ted,” I mutter, my legs sweating under the fabric heaped on my lap. “I’ve done it for you.” But even as the words slip from my lips I realise it’s not for Ted any more. It’s for me.

“Stick that, Moira Blackstone,” I crow as I fold the quilt away, and I imagine with a spurt of joy the sick look on her face when she sees it.

We have to hang our quilts in the church hall the day before the judging. As I step under the lintel with its convict arrow chipped into the stone, I wonder if one of my ancestors built the hall; if his sweat curdled the mortar. Behind the hall lies the churchyard, bristling with gravestones, my forebears feeding the yew trees and the jacarandas that spurt up between the graves.

Moira Blackstone’s quilt is already on display. Lilac, grey green and pink silk evoke the sensation of kicking through leaf litter in a eucalypt forest. I can smell the sharp clean air, see the tesserated sunlight, hear the gunshot snap of white-limbed branches tumbling to the ground. She hasn’t used scraps and bits left over from years ago; she’s purchased fat quarters fastened with coloured string from swanky online shops. Her quilt is exquisite. A lump clogs my throat. It’s not fair.

Catching sight of Moira in the corner of my eye, I murmur, “What’s this, then? Kalgoorlie Brothel?”

“It’s called ‘Gum Leaves’,” Moira corrects me. Her hair is a perfect shiny helmet and tiny pearls nestle in her earlobes. Her fingernails are pearlescent shells.

I paw at her quilt. “Nylon, is it?”

“Silk.”

I suck in air through my teeth. “Tricky fabric, silk. It frays.”

Moira nods at my effort. “I really love your quilt,” she says, sounding sincere. “I like the shapes and fabrics. Really imaginative.”

I huff and turn away. She won’t patronise me. Her face clouds and she claps off on her kitten heels.

The light is muzzy and the kookaburras are gossiping as I finish tweaking my entry, my heart as heavy as the fabric shanks. My last quilt and it’s going to be another also-ran. Curse Moira Blackstone.

I’m the only one left in the hall: the caretaker’s sneaking a cigarette outside. Normally I tut at visitors being greeted by a heap of stubs on the step, but today it’s Providence barging in to lend a hand.

I scuttle over to Moira’s quilt and stare at the tiny stitches biting the furrows where the pieces join. Silk frays. My fingers hook into the layers, tugging them apart. The silk groans as it rips and a tuft of wadding bulges out. Just a bit of a flaw. Hardly anything, but enough.

Moira’s face reddens and squidges up when she sees her quilt the next day. The judges are kind and applaud her courage in tackling such a tricky fabric, but point out that a quilt is a functional object and must stand up to the rigours of use. She doesn’t look at me. I nod at the judges’ words, and blush and stammer and say, “I never imagined,” when I win first place. The prize is a china ballerina in a pink tutu, frozen in a pirouette. It’s hideous.

I put it on the mantelpiece to remind me of my triumph. I won; I won at last. But it’s a sour victory and as the days pass, the expression on the ballerina’s face grows mocking. Cheating, to win this horrible statue. A proper top shelf job, Ted would’ve called it. And thinking of Ted makes me curl with shame. He’d be mortified if he knew what I’d done.

After a week I can’t take any more. I burn my certificate and crush the cinders down the sink. No more quilts, no chance of winning now: my hands won’t hold a needle any more. My knuckles are melted blobs of treacle. I crack open the glory box and give the scraps of material and half-used cotton reels to the local sewing circle. I wrap the quilt in tissue paper and put it away.

I take down the china ballerina from the mantelpiece and stuff it in a carrier bag. I set off along the river bank where the cows come down to drink, puddling the mud with their hooves. Passing the church hall, I gaze at the convict mark hacked in the stone above the door, wondering again if my ancestor’s knobby hands chiselled it there.

Moira Blackstone is surprised to see me. I thrust the figurine into her hands, gabbling, “This is yours. I cheated. I just wanted to win, just once, and I shan’t make another quilt again.”

Moira’s eyes narrow. “You’d better come in,” she says.

Her house smells of lavender polish: not the sort you squirt from a can, the sort you rub on with a cloth.

“This is horrible,” she says unwrapping the ballerina. “Do you mind if I smash it for drainage in my plant pots?”

“Best thing for it,” I say, and before I know it we’re in her back garden with a hammer and the ballerina is reduced to chunks.

“That’s better,” Moira says, wiping her hands down her slacks. “Drink?”

She shows me into her sitting room and pours us both Dubonnet and lemonade. A computer hums on a desk, and there are papers spread out all over the floor.

“Don’t mind the mess, it’s my research.”

“Going for the Nobel prize?” I ask.

She laughs. “Family history. Since I was widowed, well, it’s been a lifeline.”

She turns her head away for a moment and her shoulders jerk up and down. I recognise the heft of loneliness and grief that is the reward for a long, happy marriage.

Moira collects herself and continues, “I’ve traced my family back six generations. My mother’s people worked in the jute mills in Dundee.” She looks pleased with this discovery.

“My family have always been here,” I say. “I don’t know much about them.”

“Want to see what we can find?”

She pulls a chair up beside hers, and despite myself, I sit and watch her clicking away at the computer. A few moments later, she points at the screen and announces, “There’s your great-grandfather.”

She beams at me and I squint at the screen. There’s his name, when he was born, and when he died, and I have to blink very hard not to cry. He’s filed away in the churchyard. I’ve walked past him countless times, not knowing a thing about his life. A flame of interest kindles in my chest.

“That’s amazing,” I say, “I wouldn’t know where to start.”

Moira runs her finger round the rim of her glass. “I could show you, if you like.” She pauses.

“Truce?”

She holds out her hand. It’s pale and cool and softened by layers of rose-scented hand cream.

Mine isn’t. Our palms touch.

“Truce.”



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