Thursday, July 30, 2009

Give me a challenge!

I want you to present me with your short story writing challenge! Your challenge will be my inspiration and stimulus to imagine and to write; and of course, to entertain. A bit like Mister Squiggle, really.

Your challenge can be one or a couple of words, a theme, a brief character description, a picture: anything, really.. The constraints for your challenge are:

  1. No copyrighted or offensive material.

  2. Not too much: don't write the story for me. One word can be plenty.

  3. Be creative and have fun.

  4. By challenging me, you recognise that I retain full ownership of any material that I write in response to that challenge. If this doesn't feel fair to you, don't challenge me.

I will respond to challenges as follows:

  1. I reserve the right to not take up challenges for any reason.

  2. I will try to send an email back to you letting you know whether or not I intend to take up the challenge.

  3. I can't guarantee how quickly I'll respond to the challenge. This is a surge bin after all!

  4. When I post my response to each challenge, I'll include the details of the challenge, and acknowledge the challenger. Please let me know what name, if any, you'd like me to acknowledge. Also include anything else you'd like to see with your name, including where you're from, what you do, or a link back to your own website.

Simply e-mail your challenge to me (Bernard) at

Why Call my Blog Surge Bin?

1. The good names are taken
All the good names were taken, including "shortstory", "short", "story", and the list goes on. I needed something obscure.

2. I thought it apt
In the world of materials handling, a surge bin allows for the peaks and troughs in production to be 'ironed out' for the downstream processes.

In my world of fiction, this blog is intended to be my surge bin. I have lots of peaks and troughs - it really is a batch process. The downstream processes produce short stories, very short stories and flash fiction. Maybe, poetry.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My Eyes and Isabelle

I first saw Isabelle on a rainy Wednesday night in April. I was leaving my local supermarket with fresh onions and some ice cream when she came in out from the cold. She looked drowned: her hair was drenched and wild and her clothes were soaked and sticking to her skin. This was no "dashing from the car" wet - this was "walking through the rain all the way from home" wet. I tried to keep my eyes on her face, and succeeded; mostly.

"You look wet," I said, for want of anything better to say, but wanting to say something.

Her look was adequate reply. She made a move up one of the isles.

I tried again, following her. "Look," I said, "can I offer you a lift home, when you're done in here."

She hesitated, so I pressed my advantage. "It'll save you walking in the rain," I said, "and you don't want to get your shopping wet, do you?"

I married Isabelle on a sunny Saturday morning that September. I stood beside her at the front of the church smiling proudly, happily - stupidly. She looked beautiful: her hair had taken the entire morning to attain a state of perfection, and her dressed fit her body like a glove. I tried to keep my eyes on her face, and succeeded; mostly.

I buried Isabelle on an overcast Thursday afternoon the next June. I stood by the grave, stunned. The coffin lid was closed: you couldn't look at her, in the state that her body was in. I tried to keep my eyes dry, and succeeded; mostly.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Jill's Answer

Jill was soon lulled into a semi-hypnotic stupor by his voice, which droned on like a twin engined propellor aircraft, loud and constant. The subtle variations in volume - up and down, up and down - created an underlying beat to the drone that throbbed every few seconds.

It was the long, heavy silence that broke the spell. He was looking at her, expecting an answer, waiting. She looked at him, lost, then looked at Bill - her mind racing - but Bill's look of eager expectation was even more intense, and even less helpful.

Jill could only think of one response that might be expected of her right now, so she plunged ahead and said, in the loudest voice she could manage, "I do!"

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Long Black, No Sugar

Doug asked the the girl with the black apron behind the counter for a long black to go, no sugar.

"That's three fifty," she said.

He already knew that, and handed her the correct change. She scurried off to the bean grinder. The cafe wasn't really very busy at this time of day; the breakfast crowd had gone, and morning tea was still an hour or two away. The middle aged couple in the corner looked like they were talking about mortgages, divorce, haemmoroids, or an equally painful subject.

The girl worked the espresso machine. The sounds of hissing and clunking were ominous. Doug wondered if espresso machines ever exploded, scalding and maiming barristas and customers. The girl said, loudly over the noise, "It's almost ready! How many sugars would you like?"

"No sugar, thanks."

A bit more clanging and some wiping. Suddenly aware that he was being watched, Doug turned to find two women waiting behind him, who didn't look like they wanted to wait. The serious couple was leaving. Doug turned back around in time to see the girl walk over from the work bench to the serving counter. She handed him a coffee and two packets of sugar.

Doug said, "Thanks," took the coffee - left the sugar - and walked straight out of the cafe. He shook his head and wondered what was going on in his world. Logically, the problem lay either with others, or within himself. Were others consistently becoming increasing incompetetent and less able to understand him? Alternatively: had Doug himself developed a speech problem of some kind? He considered whether it was plausable that he had developed an involuntary Freudian slip that he was himself deaf to; in that he now only thought he asked for no sugar, but was requesting sugar nonetheless.

Despite the fact that he was almost seventy - and must by now be leaning a little toward senility - he still tended to believe he was a victim of the incompetence of others, rahter than his own deficiencies. This was based on his own assessment of the balance of probabilities to be sure; but he had little else to work with.Why is it so hard to get a long black with no sugar, anyway?

Doug stopped on the footpath to admire an old but well maintained Honda motorcyle. He gingerly sipped the coffee, careful not to burn his tongue. Revolted, he spat the milky liquid into the gutter, barely missing the nice old bike. White coffee! White coffee?

Friday, July 24, 2009


Most of the checkouts have a line of overloaded trolleys behind them, guarded by the zoned-out, the frazzled, and the weary. Aisles one and two are labelled, "Express - 8 items or less". I have one item: a box of Panadol; and I'm keen to use it. I stand at the end of the queue for aisle one.

I glance over at aisle two, looking for confirmation that I made the right selection. The queues do seem roughly the same length, so I'm happy.

I decide that there must be a lot of variables that affect how long I'm going to have to wait here; it can't just be about queue length. I start checking out the baskets and bags of those ahead of me, and compare them those in aisle two. I'm soon convinced that the aisle one customers ahead of me have taken more liberties with the eight item restriction. Clearly, the eight item rule is not enforced; and without enforcement, there is no law.

I hold my box of Panadol as conspicuously as I can manage - without appearing to be a psychopath - in the hope that someone ahead of me will be filled with guilt, or compassion, or both, and let me in ahead of them. It has happened to me before; I'm sure. It doesn't happen now, though.

It seems that the other queue is shorter now. I'm about to step across when a woman with a wide rear end arrives. I decide to stay with aisle one; though I'm satisfied that her decision confirms my judgement: the other queue was shorter.

I stand waiting, beneath the glaring, slightly flickering, fluorescent lights, listening to inane elevator-style music interspersed by the occasional unintelligible garble of some announcement. For all I know, those messages could be pleas to evacuate the building because of bomb, a fire, or imminent structural collapse; there just isn't any way to know. I suppose that the tone of the voice - which is all I can make out - points more toward boredom than panic. None of the staff abandon their posts, so I stick it out.

I keep standing, and waiting. I think that my brain may be dying, and that my headache is just one of the symptoms. I've been drifting - not watching the checkouts properly - and as I look across at aisle two I almost swear aloud. The woman with the wide load is now the next to be served, yet there are still three people ahead of me in aisle one. Clearly another variable affecting waiting time exists that I failed to properly consider: operator speed. How did I miss that?

I need to re-evaluate my position. There are now another three people behind the large woman. I decide that it's still worth my while to change aisles. I complete the manoeuvre deftly, just making it into the other line ahead of an elderly man with some Polydent and generic brand aspirin. I look up to see the operator of my abandoned checkout glaring at me. It's only now that I notice she only has one arm. I suddenly feel very small; guilty, and dirty, even.

I want to go back to aisle one now, to make amends with the amputee lady, and show that I meant nothing personal by deserting her. It was observation, logic and reason that led me away; it wasn't about her, directly. Going back is the only solution.

I realise that I can't go back to aisle one. The greybeard with the dentures that I almost bowled over is on the end of the queue; and when I look sideways at him, I can see that he is looking sideways at me. Crazy old man. He'd think I was insane if I now went into the line behind him. I don't like people thinking I'm insane. He may think I'm stalking him; which would be worse. At least in aisle two I'll be out of the shop quicker now, no matter how bad I feel.

I stick with aisle two, and wait. Suddenly, out of the background music, the murmuring, and the beeping of the registers, I hear raised voices. I look up to see the woman with the large backside arguing with the checkout operator, who's no spring chicken. She's short and thin, and her hair has been rinsed purple. She's also certain that she was given a twenty-dollar note, but Mrs Largebottom insists it was a fifty. This could get ugly. I turn to check out the progress in aisle one as Miss Purplehead rings her bell for the supervisor.

The one-armed lady now has four more people in her queue. I turn to the other, non express aisles, and see a mass of trolleys, mothers and children. I'm about to cut my losses and go for aisle one when the music is again interrupted by an announcement which this time, I can understand. "Price check aisle one." No! Not aisle one!

The mild headache I came into the store with is becoming a living, exploding, thing. I toss the Panadol onto a counter-top display of bubble-gum and walk out the store, between aisles one and two, squeezing roughly between Mrs Largebottom and the man with The Price is Wrong. I only hope I have escaped in time, with my sanity still intact. I doubt it.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

I'm a Farmer

"I was raised on a farm," I said, "as was my father, and his father before him. I never thought of doing nothing, but farming." I pulled my akubra hat down a little further over my eyes, emphasising my point. As I did so, I notice again how old and wrinkled my hand looks; it's an old man's hand.

"Fair enough," replied Tom, my visitor. Being from the church, I guess it was his job to be nice to me; no doubt he would try to convert me, sooner or later. If he was looking for money he was right out of luck, though. I didn't have fifty bucks to be swindled out of. Still, I didn't mind having a chat when I could spare the time.

I gave Tom another long, hard look. I wasn't sure how old he was - couldn't have been much over thirty. He was a bit on the heavy side, and his face was quite white and pasty. He was already getting sun burnt on his face and neck. He was a city boy who ate too much and didn't get out enough.

He asked, "So, is this the farm you grew up on?"

I laughed. "No," I said, "I grew up in the Darling Downs. When dad died, we sold up, and the money, for what it was, got carved up between me and my three brothers. Esme and I came out here in the eighties, to get our own place, nice and big."

"You must have done pretty well for yourself?" Tom said. He was making conversation I guess, and fishing a bit, but he clearly didn't have a clue.

I said, "Not so well, mate, not so well. The bank has finally foreclosed on us. They're selling this property in two weeks."

Tom wasn't sure what to make of it, and was quiet for a minute. I could here his brain ticking over. In the end, he asked, "Where are you off to?" Good an answer as any, I suppose.

"The sale price on this land should cover our mortgage and leave us with just enough to buy a small house in a small town. Haven't decided where."

"Really? You've been farming this property since the eighties, and that's all the money you'll make?"

"Uh-huh," I grunted at him. What the hell, I thought; may as well tell the lad a story. "I came here in 1982 and bought this place with a nice loan from the bank. Place was lush and green - there was a lot of money to be made running cattle through this country.

"Then, Esme gets pregnant with our first daughter. That was nice. Then we have drought. For those next four years, we had five inches of rain; in total. No grass for the cows, no money for hay. We lost a lot of stock."

"Wow," said Tom, scratching his foot in the dirt.

"Yeah, wow," I said. I didn't mean to be sarcastic; it just came out like that. "The first decent downpour we had, and our little four year old girl is terrified, because she's never seen rain. That was a good season. The grass came back, and the cows started to do well. Esme may have even smiled." I hadn't meant for it to get personal, I just haven't told anyone else before. I leaving soon, and probably wouldn't meet this man again. That made me want to talk more. Who wants to dump all there baggage on a friend?

Tom smiled at my story. He wasn't laughing at me, or anything. He smiled in a good way, like what happened to me meant something to him. "I guess it wasn't enough, that good season?" he asked.

I spat into the dirt. "No, it wasn't enough," I said. "Not even close. Another five years of drought, right after that. All our savings went into buying feed, or cattle, or food for the table. We got overdrafts on the mortgage. Nobody likes to beg, most of all me. And if you've got to beg, our bank manager's not the one you want to beg from."

Tom was looking away now; maybe he couldn't face me. Maybe he thought I was going to cry. I wasn't even sure that I wasn't. He put his finger right on it when he asked, "Those times must have been hard on Esme; you and her together."

Just thinking about it made me swear. I apologised to the reverend, but he said it was okay. I went on, "We fought like cats and dogs, usually over money. She'd buy something for Maria - our daughter - or for the house. God knows they both deserved it, but I was always just hoping, and hoping, that we could just last, you know, if we just tightened our belts. Pull through the hard times, and just keep going until the seasons came back, and the rain was good, and the grass was green, and the cattle got fat, and had lots of calves...

"But it didn't get better. In all those years Esme would have only gotten one, maybe two new dresses. Now, the house is run down. The carpet's worn out, the curtains are faded and the paint is peeling off the walls. She did real well, you know; but the fighting was like cancer between us. Bickering just became a part of life. We get on all right now, mostly, but I think she only stuck with me because she was stubborn. I'm sure she still loves me, in a kind of way, but you, know, something died between us in that last drought."

I felt like a smoke, but wasn't sure if Tom would be offended. Then I thought, stuff it; my hands were shaking. I took my smoke packet from my top pocket and lit one up. Then Tom asked me for one too, and I nearly fall over. We stood quietly for a while, smoking, until we'd both finished.

Eventually, Tom broke the silence. "I'm really sorry that I didn't get to meet you, and get to know you, sooner," he said, "before you had to leave. You know, I've only just arrived in the area..."

I cut him off. "There's nothing to be sorry about," I said. "You just arrived; I'm just leaving. That's what people do. Whatever happens, will happen." How many times have I told myself that?, I wondered.

Tom sighed, but nodded his head. "I appreciate you being so frank with me," he said. "I've certainly learnt a lot about the hardships of farming in just a few minutes; but, I've got one question."

"Shoot!" I said, turning to face him. I was surprised to see the redness in his eyes. The man sure was quick to feel pain that wasn't his.

"You've suffered so much from farming. Drought, losing money, losing stock, humiliation... the impact on your marriage; and I'm sure it all took some kind of toll on your children. Tell me, why did you do it? Why did you stick with farming through all those years, and through all the hardship?"

I smiled and laughed out loud. "That easy," I said. "It's all about the lifestyle. I wouldn't have given it up for anything in the world."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Little Girl on a Swing

Ben sat on the bench overlooking the swing. A young girl - maybe four years old - ran up to the swing, clumsily through the sand. Her hair was blonde, and long. Ben imagined that hair so clearly, that for a moment he could actually smell it - in his mind, like a memory - and the smell made his heart race.

The girl mounted the swing, eventually, with her back towards Ben. She began to shake the suspension chains back and forward, willing the swing to work.

Ben smiled. He resisted the impulse to run down and give her a push; to share the joy of an innocent child, squealing in delight.

"Daddy," the girl called out, in the petulant voice that young girls have, "give me a push!"

The girl's father was on the bench on the other side of the park, engrossed in his newspaper. He didn't seem to hear his precious girl, calling out for his attention.

Ben looked at the girl, and felt a pang in his chest. If I were your daddy, I'd give you a push. I would love you.

Ben knew he should stop coming to the park, to look at the children. The warmth it brought to his heart for a moment always seemed to be overpowered by the long cold ache of loneliness, and the loathing. He loathed the mums and dads that didn't love and nurture and protect their children, but left them to roam the park like those who let their dog off the leash to scamper around for a while.

How easy it would be, to just take a child from here... if you were so inclined. Ben got up from the bench, and walked away. He knew he couldn't come back now. He knew he couldn't keep thinking like this, about other peoples children. He knew he needed to abandon all hope of finding comfort in the joy of other people's children, and confine himself to his memories, and to his photo album of Sarah. Poor little, innocent Sarah. She had done nothing wrong to be in the car with her mother that night. She didn't deserve to have a drunk driver smash into the side of the car, killing them both instantly.

Ben's loathing turned back onto himself as he walked home, realising what he had become; that he now felt more pity for himself, than for the wife and daughter he had lost in an instant. He spat into the gutter and tucked his head down as he continued on, willing himself to change, for their sakes.

The Island

Ken sits at the table, crying. The hut is brightly lit by a hissing kerosene lantern, the centre of a whirling mass of bugs. The only sound to be heard from outside the hut is the chirping of a few cicadas. You don't hear and see other people on The Island. Not in 1964.

It is Ken's sixth night alone. A week ago, he felt like a man, sixteen years old and ready for anything. Ready even to work the family farm during the week, so Dad could get a paying job, things are so tight. So tight they can't even spare the price of a wireless radio to keep Ken company.

It isn't a real island, but that makes no difference. You can only get there by boat. The Island is surrounded by the mouth of the Calliope River to the east and south, the sea to the north, and impassable mud flats in between. The salty sea breeze is always mingled with the stink of mud and mangroves.

The days are a blur. The hard work, the clear sky and the sun help Ken forget his isolation. He talks to himself and sings Sunday School songs as he prunes fruit trees and tends the small crops.

The nights are long and dark and lonely. Ken had thought it would get better, but it didn't. Each night is worse than the last. The burden on his soul does not ease, it is only added to. Ken wonders how long he can continue like this, before he yields to the weight of his own pity.

“No!” Ken suddenly shouts at the table, thumping it with his fist. “No! No! No!” He wipes his eyes and cheeks with his sleeves. He stands up, pushing his chair back onto the ground. As he strides to the door, he sucks his nose clear of the teary snot, rasps it from his throat to his mouth, and then spits it out through the door, into the darkness. He stands a long time in the doorway, the breeze on his face, and resolves to be the fool of his emotions no longer.

Crying doesn't help. It won't change anything. It didn't bring my mother back, and it's killing me now. I'm not going to get through this life, dragging this load. It's over. It stops now.

And so Ken survives those nine months, working on The Island, in a kind of solitary confinement. Dad comes to help him each Saturday morning and takes him home to Gladstone in the afternoon. After the Sunday nap, he drops Ken back onto The Island for another week.

Ken never cries again, no matter the pain. He tells you today, "It did me a lot of good, my time on The Island: it taught me a lot about life."