Dr. Hurley’s Digest, Week 33: Townsville Week

And so concludes our first-ever guest-edited week here at Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure!  Our warm thanks to Michael Fitzgerald-Clarke, who pulled together a brilliant group of writers!

In case you missed this week (and you should know that you really missed out this week!), here’s what Michael and the rest of the Townsville crew shared with us.




Miss Josephine of Cherry Tree Bay

s dark earth rained upon the coffin
an air of expectancy hung over the open grave. Onlookers, in their Sunday best, sweltered in the afternoon heat. Men stood, heads bowed, hats held to their hearts; a gesture of courtesy. The women eyed me covertly from beneath veiled hats. Hopeful perhaps, that before going to meet her maker, Miss Josephine Langley had confessed her guilty secret to me.

The mystery surrounding my elderly employer hadn’t palled over the years. Those who remembered the beautiful, young, effervescent Josephine talked knowingly of ‘the tragedy’ at Cherry Tree Bay. Others whispered of betrayal and murder in that house of secrets.

I kept my back to the spectators, my jaw aching with the effort of holding in my grief. No one offered condolences. I dropped a spray of pearly-white frangipani blooms into the grave; a travesty of life and death.

Old doctor Rowlands, face beet red above the white of his stiffened collar, took my arm muttering. “Damned nosey parkers. Only here to gawk.”

I glanced over at Tom standing apart from the group, tears streaming down his rutted cheeks. Only we three mourned Miss Josephine: two elderly men and a young woman. A wave of sadness for all the injustices of life, washed over me and I wept for Miss Josephine, and for myself. I am alone again.

As I followed Tom towards the sulky where the horse waited patiently in the shade, a heavy hand descended on my shoulder. “Excuse me Miss Fairbank.” A fat man, face shiny with perspiration, raised his hat. “I’m Freddy Hoyle from Northern News. If I could have a few words.”

Tom cut him off abruptly. “Leave her alone you bloody vulture.” He elbowed the man aside, and helped me into my seat, then clicking his tongue at the horse we moved off followed by a rumble of disapproval. I didn’t care what they thought, I’d be leaving Cooktown soon, and even if I chose to, I could add little to the mouldering heap of gossip built up over the years. Josephine Langley had taken her secrets to the grave.

My life changed the day I arrived at Cherry Tree Bay. My first seventeen years, were spent in silent justification of my existence. Illegitimate; I learned that hateful word early. It branded me. With each passing year, my mother faded away as if my presence robbed her of her rightful place in the world. She died, leaving me with an uncertain future, to match my uncertain past.

After half a dozen fruitless attempts at finding a job, Miss Josephine Langley’s letter seemed the answer to my prayers. Written on expensive stationery, the words eloquent but to the point, informed me that I had been successful in my application. The envelope included a boat ticket from Brisbane to Cooktown and ten pounds advance in wages.

Though cars lumbered along the main street, I was met at the landing by a boy driving a horse and buggy. Colin had the beginnings of a downy moustache, cheeks glowing with rosy pimples, and a burning desire to fill me in on the local gossip. He loaded my one port into the buggy and we clip clopped down the main street past quaint shop fronts and hotels, and out onto the road leading to Cherry Tree Bay.

“They reckon the place’s haunted.” Colin cast me a sly glance. “‘bout every six months there’s a new housekeeper. Some I’ve brought out here and never seen ‘em again. Never been a young one like you before.”

“I’m not a housekeeper. I’m to be Miss Josephine’s companion.” I’d had years of experience, being at someone’s beck and call.

“Well, good luck to yer. She must be about a hundred years old and loony as they come. I don’t want to put the wind up yer, but everyone knows she murdered her fella. Poisoned him she did, when he found out about her.”

I wished he would just shut up. The handle of the umbrella I was holding for shade, slid in my moist grip. “Found out what?”

“What it was that she done, of course.” He started whistling, leaving me to draw my own conclusions. Colin raised his hand in a lazy salute. “That’s Mrs Harper’s place.”

“How many houses are there at Cherry Tree Bay?”

“Two. That’s number one.”

As a mode of transport the buggy was perfectly acceptable, still, it added to my sense of displacement. Dust puffed beneath the plodding hooves and I glanced nervously at the wall of bush sliding by. On the other side waves rolled listlessly onto the pallid sand. What had possessed me to go gallivanting off to this remote place to live with some old woman who could well be a lunatic?

I’d just plucked up the courage to ask him to take me back to town, when we rounded a bend in the road and he pointed up ahead. A roof showed in dark outline against the pale sky. I pictured a house as decrepit as its ancient owner, cowering behind the tropical foliage. Of course that image didn’t fit with the elegant and expensive stationery, but fear of facing an unknown future combined with Colin’s ghoulish stories had unnerved me.

Colin pulled up beside tall iron gates and leaned over to pull a bell chain almost hidden in the pink wilderness of creeping Maiden’s Blush. An elderly black man opened the gate, and raising his hat, introduced himself as Tom. He handed Colin a ten shilling note.

As he turned the buggy, the youth touched his cap. “Cheerio Miss. Rather you than me.”

I watched his retreating back, fighting down a wave of panic.

“Been filling your head with nonsense has he?” Tom picked up my port. “You’ll be right, girlie.”

I followed silently behind him, oblivious to the beauty of the purple and red bougainvillea cascading over trellises. Giant tree ferns reached lacy fronds to the pale blue sky. The scent of frangipani piquant in the afternoon heat drew my attention and with Colin’s words whispering in my ears, I stared at the layer of pearly blooms blanketing the ground.

Perspiration trickled down my cheeks, as I clutched my purse and peered into the dark shaded depths of the veranda.

“Well, Louise Fairbank, let me take a look at you.” Miss Josephine Langley’s voice was soft, but firm. Not the voice of an old lady. Beside the white wicker chair on a small table dressed as elegantly as its mistress, sat a tea tray set for two. Shrewd blue eyes surveyed me from the ruins of a once beautiful face. I had the illusion that a young girl, peered out from behind the mask of fine wrinkles.

“Well, what do you think miss, will I do? Or has young Colin Edwards convinced you I’m a murderess posing as a harmless old lady?” At her deep throaty chuckle, my tension eased and I shook my head.

“You must be parched. The bathroom is down the hall. Don’t be long now, you’ll have to play mother.” She indicated her gnarled fingers.

And so my life at Cherry Tree Bay began. Most evenings we sat on the veranda talking, sipping sherry from crystal glasses, drinking in the fragrance of the night. When the bugs chased us, we retreated inside to listen to the radio or read. Not long before she died, Mr Churchill’s disembodied voice had informed us of the fall of Singapore.

‘… this is the worst disaster and the largest capitulation in British history.’ But the war seemed so far away, part of another world.

Cherry Tree Bay was our world. From catalogues, Miss Josephine ordered books, magazines, and records to add to her extensive collection. We enjoyed a mixture of classical and modern music and her library of books filled a whole room, in ten years I couldn’t have read them all.

Though her blue eyes missed little, Miss Josephine’s sight was failing. It was my pleasure to read to her. Jane Austen was a favourite with both of us, along with Dickens and the travels of Marco Polo and slim books of Henry Kendall’s poetry. The lively discussions afterwards were almost better than the journeys between the pages. Miss Josephine insisted that literature and language were doorways to understanding. Doors opened for me, that I never knew existed.

Tuesdays, I waited at the gate for the weekly delivery of papers, and even though he never tired of trying to frighten me, I looked forward to seeing Colin’s cheery face. I had been at Cherry Tree Bay a few months when he peered at me closely. “Yer lookin’ a bit peaky Miss Louise. It’s probably that Chinee fellas cookin’. Old Wong gave me a try once. It tasted okay but I tipped it in the bushes.”

At my quizzical look, he went on. “Well if someone was tryin’ to poison yer, they’d make it taste good. Only makes sense.”

I didn’t ask why anyone might want to poison Colin, but a few days later when Mr Wong served up a meal that tasted strange, I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. I pushed the food around my plate until Miss Josephine, casting me a look partway between amusement and exasperation rang her little silver bell.

“Mr Wong, would you kindly bring Louise something a little more bland.” He slid silently from the room on his black-slippered feet.

Mr Wong had been with Miss Josephine more than twenty years, but housekeepers came and went. I recall one in particular named Edna Jones. I had been at Cherry Tree Bay for about a year when Mrs Jones’s employment was abruptly terminated. Although she maintained the household in an impeccable condition she had taken to wearing slippers similar to Mr Wong’s, for comfort she said, but Miss Josephine was convinced it was so she could eavesdrop, hopeful of taking back gossip to the local busybodies.

One morning, as we sat on the veranda we saw her shadow just beyond the French doors, ostensibly dusting. Miss Josephine leaned towards me her voice slightly raised. “The worst part was all the blood. So tiresome, I really liked that rug but the stains wouldn’t come out.” She gave a theatrical sigh. “I had to get rid of it, evidence you know. So we buried it under the frangipani tree.”

A china ornament shattered on the floor. Miss Josephine summoned Mrs Jones. “You can finish up right away. Tom will drive you back to town. I’ll put whatever wages are owing to you in the post.”

Miss Josephine was chuckling as she turned to me and while I could see the humour of the situation there was something spiteful in her amusement. She was not someone to be crossed and if as the gossips suggested the man she loved treated her abominably—well who knows what she might have done?

Yet to me she showed only kindness, even if at times she spoke plainly. Eyeing me over the top of her half-moon spectacles she told me once. “You’re not such a plain Jane you know. It’s your self-deprecating manner that detracts from your looks.” I had to ask later what that meant. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen eyes quite that colour, they’re almost navy blue. With that dark red hair of yours, if you were a horse I’d call it roan, my dear you could be stunning.” She eyed me reflectively. “But then I don’t really think that’s your style, Louise, is it?”

Despite her candour I came to love Miss Josephine dearly. On her death-bed she spoke slowly, between little gasps. “Don’t weep for me dear girl. I’ve made my peace with God. I imposed my own penance for my wickedness. A lifetime spent alone stands as testament to my repentance.” She closed her eyes and I took her hand, the thin papery skin felt cool. “We’re even now, God and I.” Her breath was ragged.

I couldn’t hold back my tears. “Hush Miss Josephine, don’t tire yourself.”

“I’ll be resting soon enough my dear. I never cared what the busy bodies thought of me, always prattling on. They’ll never know what happened. They can go on about it for another sixty-odd years for all I care.” Her little snort of amusement ended in a cough. I held a glass to her lips and she lay back waxen as the white frangipani blooms.

She clasped my hand drawing me closer. “Louise, I want you to know the truth.” One last breath escaped in a long rattling sigh and she was gone.

No doubt I’d been postponing the inevitable by not packing up my belongings. I had made no plans for a future away from Cherry Tree Bay. And, following Gerald Forbes’ visit that morning, it was no longer necessary. We faced each other across Miss Josephine’s dining room table. My own face had gone bright red. “That can’t be right sir.”

Miss Josephine’s solicitor removed his glasses and mopped his face with a snowy handkerchief. Though not too many years my senior, we were worlds apart. He represented authority, an educated man, someone to be held in awe.

“There’s no mistake. In her last will and testament, dated 10th October 1941, apart from a settlement on Tom Parkins and another on Mr Wong, Miss Josephine Langley has left everything to you. The house is yours and you can now count yourself a very wealthy young woman.”

My lips moved, but no sound came out. Gerald Forbes turned his snort of amusement into a cough. It made him seem more approachable, not so distant and frightening. Although he’d visited the house many times on business I’d been too shy to talk to him. I’d never noticed his eyes before; nice eyes, brown, and warm.

I wondered what he thought of me, so young and unworldly. As if reading my thoughts he said. “Don’t worry about anything Louise. I’ve looked after Miss J’s affairs since my father died. Everything is in order.”

At the door, he turned to face me. “Josephine Langley was a good friend to you, but she was a very strong-minded woman and just a might overbearing. It’s time for you to stand on your own feet. I hope her money brings you more happiness than it did her.”

Reaching up, I kissed his cheek. “Thank you Mr Forbes.”

He touched his face. “The name’s Gerald. Good day to you Louise.”

As I watched him walk down the steps, excitement bubbled up inside of me. Like a child I twirled around and around, until dizzy and exhausted I dropped to the veranda floor. A car engine sounded close by and I sat up to see Gerald backing his green Austin out of the gateway. I returned his wave, strangely unembarrassed that he’d witnessed my odd behaviour.

*  *  *

t is two weeks since I said goodbye
, yet Miss Josephine’s vibrant presence lingers. I listen for the light tap of her cane and look up from my reading expecting to see her eyeing me quizzically, an enigmatic smile curving her lips. Tea for one is a lonely thing.

Each day, my claim to the house becomes more real. I’m emerging from a cocoon. Butterfly, or moth? I await my metamorphosis. At night in the house of secrets, I’m not so brave. The letter Miss Josephine left for me lies unopened beside my bed. What if it’s a Pandora’s box and I release not the evils of the world, but truths that will change my feelings towards her?

Mystery permeates this house. It has seeped into the weatherboards, the polished timbered floors and into the richly panelled walls. Unanswered questions hide in dark corners. When the sun has gone, even the gardens decked in riotous colour, seem to conceal truths best left undisturbed.

“It was her fee-on-say she done away with.” Colin’s voice echoes in my mind. “Her and the old man buried him under the frangipani tree. Ma says that’s why it’s got the best flowers in the district. All that compost. Course she wasn’t old then. Grandpa reckons she was a corker in her day.”

I touch the envelope, breathe in the scent of Jickey. Finally, unable to postpone the inevitable, but with a feeling of dread, I open Miss Josephine’s last letter. Her hand writing, though a bit shaky, is still elegant.

My dearest Louise, on several occasions I almost had the courage to share my secrets with you, but then I’d notice a flicker of doubt on your sweet face and coward that I am I couldn’t risk your censure. Now that I am gone it should make no difference to me what you think, but I believe that wherever I am, it will. You’ve filled my last years with joy and laughter.

I’ve loved only one man in my life; Daniel Barton. Sixty years have passed, and still the ache of loss remains. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of my wedding day and perhaps a grain of truth may have endured. But most of the gossip is conjecture. Until recently I had no desire to set the records straight, but you my dear are the daughter I was denied. I see so much of myself in you.’

Oh how I wish that were true. I lack her strength of purpose, and certainly her beauty, captured for all eternity in the sepia photograph hanging in the hallway. I feel as though I know the young Josephine, gazing lovingly into her young man’s eyes. He’s handsome enough, but there’s a weakness in his chin. Perhaps that weakness destroyed their love.

Like you Louise, I never had a loving relationship with my mother. At fourteen she placed me in service with a well- to- do family. I didn’t intend to spend my life waiting on others, so I watched and learned to act like a lady. When the youngest son returned from university, I encouraged him to declare himself in love with me. His horrified family packed him off back to England and I was given a substantial sum to remove myself from Melbourne. Gold had been discovered at the Palmer River and after outfitting myself as a lady, I boarded a steamer for Cooktown determined to find a rich and handsome husband. 

I could hardly believe my luck when, on the very first day I met Quentin Harley. Not only was he darkly handsome, charming and obviously rich, his manner was that of a gentleman. I concocted a story about going to meet an uncle and he spun me a fine yarn about his business dealings in the boomtown. The night before we disembarked, he suggested a glass of port. A toast to new beginnings, he said. Louise, that small act changed my whole life. 

I am absolutely stunned. Miss Josephine appeared every inch an educated, genteel lady and yet it was all just an act. I feel as though she has slammed a door in my face. Oh, why didn’t you trust me, as I trusted you?

Louise, can you imagine my horror when I awoke in a strange bed with Quentin Harley sitting in a chair by my side. He looked different somehow. His face had a lean and hungry quality that frightened me. What was I doing alone with him in a bedroom? Beneath the covers, I was naked. Panic seared my stomach. I clutched the sheets to my bosom and tried to sit up, but fell back nauseated and dizzy. He leaned over and touched my hair. Such an intimate gesture. My throat was dry and my voice came out in a croak. “What has happened to me? Have I been ill?”

He leaned back in the chair, crossing his long legs. Smoke from his cheroot drifted lazily towards the ceiling. When at last he spoke, I recoiled as though slapped. “You my dear are in a brothel.”

I rolled onto my side and wept, clenched my fists against my eyes, but they were no shield against reality. Quentin traced his finger along my cheek. “You’re so beautiful Josie.” His voice was thick. “Marry me and you’ll want for nothing. Refuse and I swear I’ll put the roughest miners who frequent this establishment into your bed. You can be a whore, or you can be my wife.”

Oh, poor Miss Josephine, she had no escape.

Well I got what I wished for Louise. I married a rich and handsome man and true to his word, I wanted for nothing. Jewellery, expensive perfume, the latest in fashions, I had only to ask. I had everything except my freedom. Pride kept me a prisoner. I refused to walk the streets on my husband’s arm. I was a bird in a gilded cage. Quentin told me often enough that he would see me dead rather than let me go. He had absolute power over me and though I loathed his attentions, I lived in fear that he’d tire of me and carry out his earlier threats. My wedding band was the only difference between me, and the prostitutes downstairs.

In seeking escape from the confines of my narrow world, I discovered the power of the written word. I placed my life on hold, living vicariously through my books and the moving picture outside my window. Sailing ships and steamers disgorged a steady stream of hopefuls, all with one common goal: to strike it rich on the Palmer river gold fields. Without having to lift a finger, the gold walked through the door and into Quentin’s coffers. 

The days and weeks blurred together in a stream of broken images: Charlotte Street, baking in the heat, a quagmire in the wet: ladies sheltering beneath colourful parasols, fastidiously avoiding drunken miners and turning their children’s eyes away from the black men and women weaving silently through the throng. 

But good things come to those who wait. Quentin suffered from attacks of gulf fever. They call it Malaria now and after four years of bondage, and just before this house was completed, my husband died, leaving me a rich woman. There was nothing to connect me to him. I took a coach south to Cairns, returning to Cooktown a few months later as the bereaved widow of a city business man. 

I feel as though I’m caught up in a novel. Only Miss Josephine and Daniel Barton didn’t live happily ever after.

Louise, at last, I had the life I’d dreamed of. In keeping with my new image, I attended service at St James’, never putting less than ten shillings in the plate. There was little chance of being recognized in church by any of the ladies from the house. Welcomed by the elite of Cooktown, invitations to social functions flowed in. I received several offers of marriage, but none took my fancy. 

Then Daniel swept into my life, sweetening the air I breathed. Hours were lost in the darkness of his eyes. Nights, robbed of sleep, I lay revelling in the wonder of him. My longing for him, physical in its intensity, filled me with a sweet ache. I begged him to make love to me. After all, in a few short weeks, we would be wed, but he refused my offer, saying he wouldn’t risk sullying my reputation. Were there ever two men more different than Quentin and Daniel? And yet in the end, both betrayed me. 

Daniel knew only that I was a widow. I thrust the voice of my conscience aside, time enough to tell him about Quentin after we were married. Newly arrived from England, he was looking to buy a cattle property. We’d build a house and raise a brood of children. 

I told myself we had each other, nothing else was important. He was marrying me not my past. I reasoned that Daniel couldn’t blame me for what had happened, surely our love set us apart from the cares of the mundane world. Still I couldn’t overcome the sense of dread that threatened me. 

I’ve asked myself a thousand times Louise, why on the night before our wedding I suddenly blurted out the truth. I think it was to be a test of faith. In hindsight I realized that our love was too new, like a delicate seedling, it needed nurturing. In easing my conscience, I destroyed his love and my life. 

We’d dined at Cherry Tree Bay. I’d arranged with the housekeeper to return to town once the dessert was served. Daniel and I would drink a toast and then go to my bed. Tomorrow we’d make our lifelong commitment to each other, why wait any longer to consummate our love? If only I’d stuck to that plan. If only, if only. I’ve lived a lifetime of regret. That night, like a floodgate opening, the pain of those four years with Quentin came pouring out. 

My memory of that night is as clear as if it happened only yesterday. I waited in an agony of suspense for Daniel to speak, my fingers tracing the heart-shaped splash of red wine on the tablecloth. The ticking of the clock, filled the room. When I could no longer bear the silence, I forced myself to meet his eye. His face was ashen. I reached out, pleading. “Daniel.” He pulled away from me, as if he couldn’t bear my touch. 

He stood before me, a stranger wearing my beloved’s face. “I cannot believe that this house, all your money, everything has come from that place.” He pressed his lips together as if to keep something foul from his mouth. “A brothel. Josephine how could you?”

“Daniel please. We’ll move somewhere else. Leave it all behind. No one need ever know.” I was weeping.

His voice was flat. “I’ll know.” At the door, he stopped. “I can’t talk about this now. I need time to think.” I looked around half expecting to see my dreams, crushed and broken, lying amongst the detritus of the evening. 

Still, I clung to hope, surely once he had time to think things through, he’d realize it wasn’t my fault. The next day, my swollen eyes hidden behind a lacy veil, I waited for Daniel at St James’. He never came. Voices rose and fell, dropped to hushed whispers, then faded into silence. I felt a light touch on my shoulder. “Time to go home now missus.” My good and loyal friend Tom was a young lad then, and it was on his arm that I left the church. 

Daniel was waiting for me here on the veranda. I ran the few steps to his side. His face was tight with misery and hope that had flared so briefly died. “I love you Josephine, I’ll always love you. But everything is spoiled now. If only you’d walked away when he died, I could forgive you. But, I can’t marry a woman who has lived off the proceeds from a whorehouse.”

In less than a day, I had plummeted from cherished sweetheart to the lowest of the low. With a cry of anguish, I ran inside and snatched up the scissors from my sewing basket. He was right behind me. I turned to face him and in that instant read the fear in his eyes. Like a woman demented, I lashed out, slashing, cutting and stabbing. For what seemed an eternity Daniel stood there as if frozen to the spot. Then he cried out my name and I watched in fascinated horror as the bright blood trickled onto the carpet.

Daniel caught my wrist and tore the scissors from my grasp. I beat my hands against his chest. “You’ve ruined my life. You’ve destroyed me. Get out, get out of my house.” My legs gave way and I sank to the floor. My precious wedding dress, stained red with my own blood, hung from me in ribbons. Rage gave way to agony so intense; I thought I’d surely die. As I wept, I made a vow, that I would never again leave Cherry Tree Bay. 

A few years later, I read Daniel’s wedding notice in the Sydney social pages. Of course if I read it so did others. Yet still the tales persist that I murdered him and buried his body in the garden. If someone died that day Louise, it was me. Daniel dealt me a mortal wound. I planted the white frangipani tree as a reminder of what might have been.

Yet in hindsight I know that I, not he, destroyed my chance of happiness. I chose to punish myself. Louise, I had committed a far greater sin. 

On the night he died, I sat dozing by Quentin’s bed. He was feverish, twisting and turning, crying out my name. I felt no compassion. He revolted me, this man who ruled my life, defined my existence. I stared down at him lying in his own puke, vulnerable and weak, so completely at my mercy. My hand was steady as I poured laudanum into the quinine the doctor had prescribed. I administered a lethal dose to my husband. Some might call it murder; I chose to think of it as poetic justice. If the elderly doctor had his suspicions, he kept them to himself. 

It’s all so long ago. What does it matter anymore? I’ve paid my dues. All connection with the brothel was severed long before you were born. Take what I offer and embrace life, make of it a feast. You’re a beautiful young woman and you deserve the best. For now, goodbye Louise.

Ever your friend, Josephine Langley

PS. My dear, you could do worse than to encourage Gerald Forbes, he’s a fine young man. I’d like to think that you will fill the house with love, and the laughter of children.

The house at Cherry Tree Bay is silent now, the ghosts banished. Rest in peace Miss Josephine.

* * * * *

Lori Hurst has proved her dedication as an aspiring best-selling author by managing to complete a lengthy MS while her home, set in tropical north Queensland, is literally being constructed around her. The mammoth house-building project taken on by her husband Peter and herself is enough to daunt all but the most intrepid writer. Of course she has the compensation of a huge deck complete with an inspiring view where family & friends gather to catch up, admire or help. Not necessarily on a voluntary basis. She claims that whilst painting – the house that is – her mind is free to create & most times when she has a brush in one hand there’s a voice recorder in the other. Like a myth of phoenix rising from the chaos of a house in progress, rather than from the ashes, her short stories & articles continue to emerge.

Her publications at Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

A Peace, for Georgie

for Georgie Juszczyk

Wandering from a spruce to a loose yet clingy
faithfulness curtains much desire. I speak in patterns,
an eighteenth century floccinaucinihilipilification
alive, alert in 2011. What truth preens itself, axes
trees? A dry, fiery truth, that you know needs water,
but the trip to the well brings out your
rambunctious side, your wild, already near-infinite
echoes, fuelling pet pinings, yet your night stars
already orbit your inexpressible sense, your keys
to thanking nostalgia and letting it fade. Nowhere,

above or floccinaucinihilipilificating below, is freer
than the pulsing, morphing insides of your imagination,
giving poetry to the many lights in your moment.
The illusive desert is far from Townsville, I’ll


crumble into the raw ground while you eschew every
mechanical dream for something verisimilar to a
romance in a Venusian rainforest, with a creamy,
driven hero way away from the abattoir of his
mind. Let your hands be gentle. If someone be
callous, be soft, offer the calumet, take them
to an invitation-only preview of your soul, where
you have enticed the proletariat to plant flowers, their
placid cadence moth-like, so tentatively nice their hot
blindness resolves into spoken sight. Beguile night,

Georgie, I’ll fall, while an unfolding legend shelters in
your pistils; engrave feather-lightly, coolly, dress
effortlessly; the mantle claiming you is as delicate
and elaborate as snow; travel to it, and alight.

* * * * *

Michael Fitzgerald-Clarke is an English-born Australian poet who lives in Townsville, Queensland. At present he is working on a manuscript titled “Five Faves, Five Least Faves”. When it is finished, it will comprise one hundred dedicated poems, for one hundred people, who will have given Michael their five favourite, and five least favourite, words. He weaves all ten of them into that person’s poem. Feel invited to take part. E-mail Michael your words to michael(dot)fitzgeraldclarke(at)gmail(dot)com. He blogs here. If Michael could have just one wish, he would give the wish away.

His publications at Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.


FALLUJAH – November 11 2004

check the sights of M4 for the fourth time that evening. I know that the weapon is zeroed, I did it in the days before the invasion started. Still after last night and the knocks my rifle took as we climbed over rubbish and debris, I need to be certain.

The sun is setting off to my left. We’ve taken five minutes of break. Not enough, not by half, but the enemy isn’t going to let us rest. The Bradleys have rearmed in the dying light and now they’re ready to go. I grab a quick bite from an MRE and then we’re off.

We’re checking buildings, going from house to house and clearing rooms. We spend the morning destroying caches of weapons, documents and equipment. Anything the insurgents can use we don’t want in working order behind us. Now we’re moving again. The going is slow but it has to be. Earlier we found a house with wires strung everywhere all connected to an aircraft’s drop tank loaded with fuel. The whole house was just a big fuckin’ IED, enough to take out the platoon.

We approach the next house, the windows are boarded up. Jacks blows the hinges with his shotgun and sound echoes around the quiet streets. The dying sun is at our backs and light fills the room. I’m first through. I see shadows bounce around the walls and a shape that could be something in the corner but my Surefire torch reveals nothing, just the dark.

We clear the house: no enemy.

We clear the street: no contacts. The whole place seems to be deserted. The sun is gone now and we all lower our NODs into place turning the street into a green highlighted landscape. In the distance M1s can be heard rolling up the street, blasting away at Texas barriers and IEDs. The Sarge gets a call over the radio that the tanks need some infantry support. He gives his acknowledgement and we take off.

The street is ablaze and we raise the NODs. There’s plenty of light to see by. Nearby an Abrams rocks as she sends a 120mm shell into a building. It blows away a support pylon and the whole thing collapses, filling the street with dust. I see shadows in the dust and hear wild screaming from within. I call out contact and fire three rounds into the swirling grit. Others take up the firing and we fire and manoeuvre into the maelstrom. The wind picks up and the dust clears. I see shadowy figures racing down an alley but when I pursue all I see is a burning car halfway down and no enemy.

We enter the first building on our right and take up position on the roof once it’s cleared. The Sarge sets up an all-round perimeter defence, each of us with our own sectors to cover. I’ve got top-cover looking out over the street and down the main road. I got that because I got the ACOG sight on my rifle. After the tank blast the street is quiet again. I can see the shadows of dogs as they move around the street picking at the corpses of the dead. There’s a pack at the top of the street chewing on a body. I watch one as it moves under the remains of a building. It’s sticking to the shadows all the way. I can just make it out. A black spot in the middle of more black. I can see other dogs avoiding the shadow, tails lowered and heads bowed low. One dog rolls over onto his back and I can hear it whine. I lower my NOD again to get a better look. There’s a fire burning not ten feet from the dog and I can see the beast clearly.

And it’s not a dog. It ignores the whining dog and walks past it. The creature is black, so dark in colour that it actually stands out against the darkness behind it. I try to see the thing through my ACOG sight with the NOD. But it doesn’t really work. I bump the arm of the soldier beside me. Nieves.

“Hey, check this out,” I say. I point out the creature still lurking in the shadows.

“Just a dog. Fucking mutts are everywhere,” he replies.

“Big dog.” I know it’s not a dog, but what can I say. It does look like a dog. Four legs, tail, neck, muzzle. But it looks wrong, not like a dog should.

Then it’s gone. I see it again in the street, by a body. It has its head down; sniffing at the corpse, still just a black shape in the dark. Then it seems to open its mouth and at first I think it’s licking up the blood but it has its head buried in the body’s mid-section, and the corpse, well, I thought it was a corpse, arches its back and screams a high pitched wail. I don’t think; I fire into the body and Nieves, who saw the movement, does as well. We shred the body and I pump several rounds into the dog. But it’s still standing, still tearing at what has to be a
corpse now. I fire again, the sergeant orders me to cease fire.

“What are you shooting at?” he yells.

Nieves answers, which is good because I can’t seem to move. The dog is staring at me and I can’t tear my eyes away from it.

“That dude out there, Sarge. The fucker wasn’t dead. Started squealing when the dog bit his guts.”

I can hear what they’re saying but I can’t look away from the damn dog. I’m looking at it front on now and I can see its face. It’s still dark on dark but I can see things that shouldn’t be there. And then it’s gone. In the distance machine guns rattle. For the rest of the night, we’re caught in a fight that lasts until after sun-up and I’ve forgotten about the dog.

The 13th is more fighting, at last light the fighting dies down; we lost three men and are all feeling pretty low but the enemy dead are far more numerous. We’re on another roof, overlooking a T-junction. From my vantage point I can see a two insurgents; one is leaning against a wall slowly rocking back and forth and keening softly to himself as he tries to hold in his guts. The other is in the middle of the street. A Bradley 25mm took his legs off and now he’s trying to get to cover leaving a dark smear on the road. To his credit he’s not crying out or anything just trying to get to cover. Both guys are less than two hundred metres away from me and I could put a couple of shots into each one if I wanted to but three of my friends are dead and I don’t feel like being merciful to the enemy right now. I take my eyes off the street for a second and glance behind me. My three fallen platoon mates are lying in the centre of the roof, arms by their sides and helmets covering their faces. I have two magazines full of ammo set on the ledge beside me and they came from one of those men’s pouches.

Soldiers shouldn’t think of their own mortality. But my friends are dead. I turn to the street and see the dog from last night sniffing at the blood of the legless man. There’s heaps of light from fires and I can see the beast clearly through my ACOG sight. It’s black against the orange street. And it’s no dog. I know that but I keep calling it a dog because what else could it be. Legless man has seen it now and suddenly he screams and starts to crawl faster. Gutless is screaming now too and I turn to him to see three of the dogs pulling at his guts. A shadow crosses his face and his scream raises an octave. His high pitched keening has got the whole platoon’s attention. They can all see the dogs, the things, the monsters of shadow that are out there. Legless has been pounced on and he adds his screams to the noise. The beasts are silent as they feed; but the men scream and scream. An M240 opens up next to me ripping up concrete and spraying blood and meat into the air as the rounds tear into Gutless and the pack that’s chewing him. The whole platoon opens up. Rounds shred the men and the dogs, concrete dust flies up as the road is pockmarked with bullet strikes. Sarge calls a cease fire.

Silence returns to the night.

“Fuck me.”

I don’t know who said that. All I can focus on is the street and five dogs looking at us. I can feel the malevolence pouring out of their eyes. Whatever they are. We shouldn’t have disturbed their meal. Then they’re gone.

Behind us someone screams, as one the platoon spins. It’s our dead. The things are eating our dead and our dead are screaming like the men in the street. We can’t think. Don’t think. We start shooting up the dead; blasting the dogs and our own. One dog turns to us and howls. The closest men drop their weapons and cover their ears as the beasts’ moan fills the night over the din of our weapons.

I change mags as a dog leaps. It’s just a shadow. Just black. And it passes through the Sarge who stiffens up like a board and topples off the edge of the roof. The platoon scatters, men are panicking; wild shots fill the air. I can hear the meaty thud of rounds striking flesh. Christ, we’re shooting our own. Another dog howls and leaps; Nieves is the target and like the Sarge he stiffens as the beast dives right through him but there isn’t a mark on his body. I rush to his side. He’s whole and complete no wounds at all. Just pale as a ghost and dead. The men are screaming as the dogs tear through them.

The stairs are on the other side of the pack and I can’t get to them. A dog howls and I cover my ears as the noise cuts through my head. I feel a tooth pop from the pitch and I scream with the pain. I dive to the edge of the roof and roll over the ledge into the street below. I fall ten feet to the road and hit flat on my back knocking the wind out me. As I struggle to breathe a dog appears above me; staring at me with his dark face. I look into its eyes and all I can see is dark. All I can feel is dread and death coming for me. My limbs are like lead and I can’t move them. I can’t hear my platoon anymore. The street is silent. The dogs are all around me.

* * * * *

Shaun has had an interest in writing throughout his youth and has written a large number of short stories or flash fiction just for the enjoyment of it. It was not until he was twenty-seven years of age that he decided to take his hobby of writing a little more seriously, and he has since completed a lengthy novel, “Zicastor”, which is currently being split into a series of three. Originally from Canberra, Australia’s national capital, and now living in Townsville, Queensland, Shaun has been involved (and is still involved) in writers groups such as the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild, and Writers in Townsville Society. He blogs here.

Grumps and the Thunderbox God

riving for the first time to Grumps farm, little Amber was excited. She had been hearing how wonderful God’s country is way up here in north Queensland.

“You know dear, I’ve a feeling it might be time for a cup of tea, and better make it the big pot, you know what the family’s like,” said Grumps.

“What makes you think the family will be here soon?”

“The cockatoos have taken off down by the main road.”

“That could be anybody,” replied Mrs Grumps.

“They headed west.”

“Well why didn’t you say so. I’ll get the teapot on while you get the bikkies out.”

The car parked at the front of the house. Racing out of the car, little Amber’s eyes lit up when she saw her Grumps opening the front door. She skipped up the steps of the old Queenslander to give him a big hug.

“Whoa. There little willy-willy. Now go in and give Grand Ma a hug.” Amber tore
into the house.

“G’day Mike, Gale, tea should be about ready,” said Grumps. After hugs all round, they headed out to the back veranda. They made themselves comfortable and Amber climbed up onto Grumps’ knee and asked, “Grumps where’s God?”

“Why do you ask?”

“You keep telling everyone it’s God’s country. So shouldn’t he be here?”

Everyone burst out laughing.

“Now dear try to explain your way out of this one,” said Mrs Grumps, taking a good sip of tea.

“You will get to see him soon, you just have to be patient,” replied Grumps.

Amber sipped on her warm milk, looking out over the back paddock. She saw two rows of trees, and at the end of the grove was a small house with a water tank on top of a knoll.

“Grumps can I play in the cubby house over there?” asked Amber. They all started laughing.

“That is not a cubby house. That is my toilet,” said Grumps. Amber looked at Grumps with a puzzled expression.

“You see your Grand Ma won’t let me do number twos in the house. So I have to use that one.”

“Why not?” asked Amber.

“Because. The first time I did, the cat came in then ran out and headed for the hills, and we haven’t seen her since, even your Grand Ma had to stay at a friend’s place for a couple of days.”

“Wow. Mum, maybe we could get one for dad in the backyard.” Everyone was nearly on the floor with laughter.

“How about I take you for a walk up there,” said Grumps.

They walked up along the grove of tall gum trees, while Rocket scampered up ahead and checked for snakes.

“Grumps why have you put those little signs in front of the trees?” asked Amber.

“Well, you see Amber they are the times I didn’t make it. So what I did was bury my number two’s and plant a tree on that spot. So I wouldn’t put my foot in it.”

“What does this sign say?” asked Amber.

“October 5 1965. Best home-made chilli chutney. However bowels were not

At the thunderbox, Amber smelt the strong scent of flowers growing around it. She opened the thunderbox door to find a large wooden box with a lid on top.

“Grumps how do you flush it?” she asked.

“You don’t. It all goes down a deep hole, and if I were you I wouldn’t open that lid,” warned Grumps.

“So how deep is it now?” asked Amber.

“That Amber I think will always remain a mystery.” They retreated outside into the fresh air.

“Sure does pong in there Grumps.”

“Here, Come wash your hands at the water tank otherwise your Grand Ma will find out.”

“But Grand Ma can’t see us from here,” said Amber.

“Trust me, she has eyes everywhere,” replied Grumps. As they walked back to the house a flock of cockatoos flew past.

“Looks like we have visitors,” said Grumps.

“How do you know Grumps?”

“The cockatoos always fly over the house when strangers arrive,” answered Grumps. Sure enough as they arrived back at the house, a car pulled up.

Rocket began barking around the car.

“So what can we do for you?” asked Grumps.

“Hi Pops. I need to use your toilet. I got a touch of food poisoning from the last

“My toilet is way over there. Just be careful, it’s a thirty yard drop, so it will be a long climb out. And whatever you do, don’t light up in there. There is nearly forty years of methane build up in that place, it will go up like a Roman candle,” warned Grumps. The young man grabbed his smokes and shoved them up his t-shirt sleeve as he began the long walk.

“Thanks for the warning Pops.”

Amber looked at the young woman.

“What’s your name?”

“I’m Sue.” She said then turned to Grumps and added, “Thanks for letting Jason use your toilet.”

“Why does that man have drawings and all that metal on his face?” asked Amber.

“They are called tattoos, and all that metal is piercings,” replied Sue.

“Can those pictures wash off?”

“No they stay on.”

“Come Sue. Let’s join the rest of my family on the back veranda,” said Grumps.

They all watched as Jason lit up before he walked in the thunderbox.

“Take a seat, this is going to be a one-off event,” said Grumps.

“Grumps didn’t you tell him not to smoke in there?” asked Amber.

“Don’t worry Amber. The thunderbox God will remind him very shortly, just watch and be patient,” said Grumps.

Then they all heard a faint rumble. The door flung open, and Jason screamed in terror his pants around his ankles and toilet paper trailing behind. The thunderbox shot straight up like a rocket. They all watched as a jet of blue fire shot skywards thirty yards high. Then Jason started running, pants down, as a trail of toilet paper, which was stuck to his bottom, caught fire. Everyone burst out with laughter. Even Rocket thought it was funny. Amber had never seen a dog laugh before.

“I’ll get some old clothes. Just make sure you don’t miss a spot when you hose him down,” said Mrs Grumps to Sue.

As the couple drove off, Sue was still in fits of laughter.

“You know she will never let this go,” said Grumps to the family.

“Mike can you get the Ute, and Amber can you come to the shed?” asked Grumps.

As Grumps opened the old shed, Amber saw another thunderbox.

“You see Amber, when your first thunderbox is so far away, it always pays to plan ahead.”

* * * * *

Stephen Ryan writes short stories and poetry. A humorist, he draws on his rich and varied life experience – including a stint in Papua New Guinea during his time in the Australian Army. Often he writes about the Australian outback, basing his writing on the memorably offbeat larger than life characters that inhabit that remote part of the planet. Stephen has lived in Townsville, Australia for the past thirteen years.

His publications at Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

The Last Scene

he morning was grey and cold
even though autumn had just begun. A thin light breeze was playing silly games with the leaves on the dry ground. The small disengaged group around the grave, mainly business acquaintances, kept their eyes averted. The priest’s voice droned monotonously and was as uninspiring as the body in the coffin now seemed. The silent tears streaming down Donna’s face weren’t for the man lying there, but for herself and her lost youth.

Her black knitted frock sensuously embraced her slender body, but Donna was unaware of Luke’s hand on her arm while she stared at the casket as if watching a movie playing behind it. Luke had become her rock over the last three years and in him she had found a depth of understanding and support she had never experienced before.

Her two children had reluctantly flown back from their gap year in Canada to attend their father’s funeral. However, this was more to support Donna than to pay their last respects to a father who had been glaringly absent from their lives.

The end started seven years ago. Donna had suspected for quite some time that Harold was having an affair. Longer hours at the office, seemingly urgent and important projects on weekends, shifting from long hours in his study at home to projects that had to be discussed with his clients at the office.

“Come on Donna, don’t be childish,” was Harold’s response whenever she had confronted him. “I’ve got more work than I can cope with. Where do you think I would get the time for an affair?” Being ten years older, Harold had been brilliant at blaming all Donna’s concerns on her youth. It hadn’t taken long for Donna to feel like a single parent of the twins, attending school functions, sport practice and matches, dancing classes, swimming classes, maths tutorials, and much else besides.

Their eighteen years together was not at all what Donna had dreamt of as a seventeen year old. The knight in shining armour who was going to rescue her from her rigid, stoic Catholic father had turned out everything but. The loss of her mother when Donna was fourteen was one of the saddest moments of her otherwise uneventful life. Donna had instinctively taken over the role of caring for her two younger brothers, cooking meals for the family at night and helping her father with the washing on weekends.

Without the moderating influence from his loving wife, Donna’s father reverted to the only way of coping he knew – to take firm control of his three children. Not knowing how to grieve, his wife’s death was never discussed, leaving a gaping hole in Donna’s heart, ready to be filled when she met Harold just before she graduated from high school.

Her rowing teacher, Harold was a blossoming young architect who met with her father’s approval. Maybe because she didn’t know any better, Donna found their relationship satisfying, even though it was never passionate.

For a moment Donna looked right into Alistair’s avoiding eyes on the other side of the grave. His frail and shrunken body conveyed a message so sad that Donna almost felt sorry for him. To pull herself back she focused on the priest’s plump hands resting on his large stomach to support the book he was reading from.

“For you were from dust, and you will return to dust,” she heard him say as the casket was lowered down into the grave. And with that, Donna allowed that last scene to roll down with the coffin.

* * *


arold’s office was housed on the seventeenth floor of the Novotel Building in the centre of the city. “There’s no one in the building, Mrs Palmer,” the night guard had said when Donna rang the bell.

“I know Malcolm. Mr Palmer asked me to come and pick up some documents for him. He’s over at Harrington’s and they need it tonight for a deadline tomorrow.” She was thankful that Malcolm, looking unconvinced, said nothing when he pressed the button to open the thick glass door.

Donna viewed herself in the mirror as the elevator started the ride upwards. She combed her hands through her windblown curly blond hair. Although a little nervous, the reflection staring back at her looked curiously victorious. At least the suspense, the unknown, the waiting would soon be over.

The seventeenth floor was half lit and her flat shoes made no noise on the thick carpet of Palmer and Palmer’s prosperous chambers. Seeing the light under Harold’s door, the apprehension in her stomach was knitting a web so tight she could hardly breathe.

Donna, sure of what she would find, was unsure of how to act. Should she yell and throw a scene? Should she stare at them both with cold eyes and tell them “I have known all along?” Donna had practised a million different scenarios in her mind over the last two weeks since she had made her decision.

She opened the door. For two very long seconds the world came to a halt. Even Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that was playing in the background paused to hold its breath.

The lamp light threw an apologetic golden glow revealing the clothes strewn on the floor. Donna noticed that the desk was neat and tidy; the way Harold always left it at the end of the day.

Harold and Alistair’s squirming naked bodies slowly untangled on the couch. Above them hung a print of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper that she had bought for Harold when he became a partner in his cousin’s firm. The painting was slightly tilted. That must have happened during their passionate love-making as Harold couldn’t stand anything that wasn’t perfectly straight.

When the clock at last started to tick again, Donna sharply drew her breath. If she hadn’t felt so sick she would have laughed at the astonished, bewildered look on their faces. As she turned around to leave, the bile in the pit of her stomach doubled her over and she threw up violently on the expensive carpet.

“Donna, wait,” Harold said flatly as she ran towards the cloakroom to wash her face. Donna could hardly believe that the face now staring back at her was the same face she saw in the mirror only moments earlier…

* * *

et us all depart in peace,” the priest said, and Donna felt an unfamiliar sense of lightness as Luke led her away.

* * * * *

Martha Landman was born in South Africa and moved to Australia in 2000 where she now runs a private practice as a psychologist in Townsville. Martha has always loved the art of writing and is an avid reader. Among her favourite authors are Ayn Rand, Richard Flanagan and the Afrikaans-language writer P.G. du Plessis, these being illustrative of Martha’s catholic tastes. She has taken up writing as a hobby and is a member of Writers in Townsville Society.

Her publications at Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

A Postcard from Townsville, Australia

’day! Welcome, cobbers, to Townsville week! Townsville, for those not knowing, is a small, Australian coastal city of some 150,000 people, in the tropics, just on 1,300 miles north of Sydney as the galah flies, adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. We do more here, though, than lounge about watching the coral. Townsville is far from the Woop Woop; we have a vibrant, thriving arts community, including some masterly writers of multifarious ilks.

For the next six days, Dr. Hurley’s brew for tedium will be concocted in, yes, paradise Down Under. Hettie Ashwin tells it like it is living on a boat in Townsville harbour; South African-born Martha Landman brings a cosmopolitan sensibility; Stephen Ryan spins a dinkum Aussie bush yarn; Shaun Allen takes us to a strange, dark, violent place; yours truly, ever immodest, proffers another poem; and, lastly, Lori Hurst, the President of Writers in Townsville Society, (or WITS), presents the first part of a two part tale that is richly redolent of bygone north Queensland.

Forget your cares; forget those stupefacients. While I’m brewing the billy, ready yourself to go a-Waltzing Matilda—or, if you’re a sheila, to go a-Pashing a sheepshagger who’s got kangaroos loose in the top paddock—with a ridgy-didge, six ingredient Aussie elixir for your every malady…