Short Reads

If you enjoy short stories, you are invited to sample some of mine.

In The Moment

This story was one of ten winning entries in a competition run by the Queensland Writers’ Centre. It was published in an online anthology called ‘The Lockdown Diaries’.

I’m in the moment. The Covid moment. At first, we called it Coronavirus and made jokes about ay-corona and beer.

In lockdown now. TV blaring. Stories of horror across the world. Body bags, mass graves, doctors helpless and weeping. Sick people dragged screaming from their homes. Here I’m safe, snug in my house in the suburbs. Birdsong, cicadas, a garden.

Five months ago, I was sick. Very sick. Fever, a throat that refused to swallow, a cough that would wake the dead. We’d travelled around Spain, flown to Germany then to northern Italy. My birthday in October was celebrated in the packed waiting-room of an ENT specialist in Berlin. Everyone in that room had a cough. Mine was the loudest. Covid was not invented then. Good medicine patched me up and we continued the Grand Tour.

I’m in the moment. Coronavirus TV. Experts, statistics, speculation. The virus spreads like wildfire. New York City, where my son lives, is a war zone. Vision of overwhelmed hospitals. Bodies in refrigerator trucks. My heart grips and bleeds. My son is okay … so far. He wears a mask, barely leaves his apartment. ‘I’m fine Mum. Don’t worry.’

Covid cases in Venice and Bologna. My impossible cough was there not five months earlier. Numbers across Italy explode. Was it me, the unwitting carrier?

I consult my doctor. ‘Why does my throat still hurt? What if …?’

Reassurance. ‘The Virus wasn’t in Europe in 2019. Don’t worry.’

I’m in the moment. Out of food. At Coles, a woman in a mask sidles past. Sideways glances, eyes full of fear. I hold my breath until she’s gone. Only a handful of cases in Brisbane. Was she one? What about all the other people? The assassin is invisible.

Snatch and grab in the aisles. Meat: nothing but mince and chuck. Pasta: none. Milk: going fast. Flour: 12.5 kilo bag or nothing. Toilet paper: don’t get me started. Pack my own bags at the checkout. Credit card only. At the chemist, no facemasks. At Bunnings, no seeds. Race to the car. Wait at the lights alongside three empty buses that should have been crammed with uni students.

At home. I cut up old bedsheets, sew them into masks. In the garden, we plant seeds of vegetables we’ve eaten. Capsicums, melons, tomatoes, pumpkins. Sprout butt-ends of shallots, garlic, potatoes. Sow vintage seeds from the eighties, long-forgotten at the bottom of a drawer. With the flour, I make bread and biscuits. One kilo down, 11.5 to go.

I’m in the moment. My morning ritual. Check case numbers, turn on TV news. Over breakfast, watch panic and loss. Morbid fascination. Can’t tear myself away. Spain has the virus now. Beautiful, friendly Spain. Images of Madrid’s Plaza Major. Deserted. In September, it was vibrant with colour, music, cafés. Cross to Berlin, home of my daughter. Cases escalate, deaths mount. Not as bad as Britain though.

Outside there is sunshine, birdsong, cicadas. But I’m here, living the Covid moment.

© Copyright Debbie Terranova

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The Next Twenty Years

This story was the winning entry in a monthly short fiction competition run by the Queensland Writers’ Centre. It was published in the May 2021 edition of ‘Pen and Pixel’.

My fingers hover over the lighted screen of my laptop. The online form is complete. Only a few questions really: name and employee number, tick the right box.

From my vantage point on the headland, early sunlight illuminates the bay. Facets of gold, pink, cerulean glisten like shards of a broken mirror. Out on the water, a dark object floats unattended. A tinnie perhaps. No sign of anyone on board. Adrift from its moorings, it bobs with the swell. Directionless and buffeted by the wind. Like me.

Until now, life has been ordered into neat twenty-year blocks. Twenty was the age I left home. First career: twenty years, ended after a change of government. Motherhood: twenty years, abandoned when the kids flew the nest. Marriage: two blocks of twenty years, blissfully intact. Current career: twenty years, endangered but not quite extinct.

I’m on the wrong side of sixty now. Finding a new job will be tricky. At work my colleagues are younger than my offspring. Deals are done over Friday night drinks. I’d rather sip a glass of red and watch the seven o’clock news. Promotions are given to the up-and- coming, not the over-the-hill. Technology has made my skills—once in demand—curiosities. After all, who calculates percentages in their head when computer modelling can do everything? Millennial offsiders gawk at me as if I’m Methuselah when I speak of a childhood devoid of social media, streaming, and drones. I’m a relic, a human museum-piece.

The decision I’m about to make is irreversible, as irreversible as falling pregnant. As soon as I touch that screen button, my career will be finished. Am I ready? Reasons for and against fill a pad of notepaper. The routine and discipline of work gives structure to my days and weeks. Duty and deadlines are reasons to get out of bed. For the first time ever, my future is a chasm. Exciting and waiting for me to explore, but somehow dangerous. To enter is a leap of faith. Like a fledgling eagle, I stand at the brink, my wings outstretched. Will I glide or will I drop like a stone to the bottom? My life-pattern suggests that the next twenty-year time-slot could be my last. A shame to waste it working, my elderly mother would say.

Out on the bay, a motorboat streaks across the water. Throws a line to the tinnie, tethers her and tows her in. Hope warms my heart. I am adrift now, but a life-rope will be thrown. And when it is, I will catch it and pull myself in.I hold my breath, touch the button on the screen. My phone makes a whooshing sound. An automatic response: Your resignation has been received. A giant leap for one woman. If I expected fireworks or the ground to move under my feet, I was mistaken. The moment passes easily, softly. Nothing explodes or shakes the earth. It is over; I have survived. Bring on the next twenty years.

© Copyright Debbie Terranova

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The Quiet Voice

At one minute before eleven o’clock closing time, the bartender called for last drinks. The band was packing up; the patrons were drifting out. But it was Friday night and the four of us were reluctant to part.

‘Come to my place for coffee.’ A statement, not a question. Spoken by Keith, our new-found drinking buddy.

Louise lit a smoke, tossed the pack onto the table. Janet made a grab but Keith beat her to it. He flipped open a golden pack of Benson & Hedges, offered it around, flashed an expensive-looking lighter.

His smug James-Bond confidence set off a ripple of annoyance. ‘How old do you reckon he is?’ I rasped in Louise’s ear.

‘Gotta be forty,’ she said. ‘But he’s fun.’

At almost twenty-one, we were in our final year at uni. Although every day we sat together in a packed lecture hall, we barely knew each other.

‘The car’s not far.’ Keith took a pre-emptive step toward the pub door.

‘Not the Kingswood!’ the girls chorused and dissolved into giggles.

We stood to leave, a little unsteadily I might add.

Outside, the night air hit us like ice-water. The cosy warmth of camaraderie washed down the gutter. Keith strode ahead. We three ambled behind like servants or concubines.

‘I’m not so sure about this,’ I hissed.

‘Safety in numbers,’ said Louise. She and Janet began singing Stand by Me like fools at a country wedding.

We reached the car, a baby-shit yellow miniature sedan that belonged in a toy museum. Louise claimed the front seat; Janet and I took the back. Keith coaxed a spark from an almost-flat battery and the tiny vehicle rolled along the deserted main street.

‘Think I’ll call it a night,’ I murmured to Janet.

Party pooper, sang a duet of girly voices.

The traffic lights went red; Keith tramped on the brakes. I flung the door open and leapt out. Half-walked, half-ran in the opposite direction. Hailed a taxi, made my cowardly escape. Our friendship was over; I would never live it down with that pair.

Monday morning, the girls were already in the lecture hall. At first, relief. Then my heart sank. What should I say? Guilty of desertion, as charged? I ambled over to apologise.

Louise piped up first. ‘That Keith was a real prick.’

‘What happened?’

She began to laugh. ‘His place was right out in the sticks. He did make us coffee, but.’

‘And we had liqueurs,’ added Janet. ‘By candlelight.’

‘Then, out of nowhere, this woman came in and all hell broke loose. Turns out she was his WIFE!’

‘We started walking. Didn’t get home until four.’ Janet again.

‘What a disaster! We should’ve listened to you,’ said Louise.

I smiled and silently thanked my quiet voice of reason.

© Copyright Debbie Terranova

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