Creative writing

I entered two stories in the Scarlet Stiletto Awards this year and unfortunately neither made the shortlist.

The other story is a re-worked chapter of my work-in-progress, Mimi gets away with Murder, and that will make its way back into the larger manuscript.

This story below was written in Bali this year. I was inspired by a haunting portrait of my great grandmother. My story below is pure fiction but my great grandmother did live in the bush and sadly the beautiful young mother died in tragic circumstances.

I could rework this story or use it for another competition but I wanted to post it here. Perhaps it will become something more down the track but for now, I hope you enjoy it.



‘I’m sorry, Gloria. I have to get back.’ Jenny looked at her phone and ran her hand through her hair.

Gloria nodded. She understood, or at the very least, she was used to her sister being pulled away at a moment’s notice. Jenny turned to their grandmother’s lawyer.

‘Duty calls, I’m afraid, Mr Joyce.’ She reached out at took Gloria’s hand. ‘I hate that you have to deal with all this.’

Gloria smiled and rolled her eyes. It was obvious the minute they arrived that Jenny’s mind was elsewhere. ‘I can see it’s killing you to leave,’ Gloria said.

Jenny gave her sister a thin-lipped smile, stood and gathered her coat and bag.

‘Those babies aren’t going to deliver themselves,’ Mr Joyce said.

 ‘Oh, you’d be surprised. The mamas that are able do a great job given the opportunity.’

The poor man looked stricken, as though Jen was about to explain the minutiae of childbirth. Gloria covered a laugh with a small cough. Jenny put her hand on Gloria’s shoulder.

‘Whatever we get, we’ll split it sixty forty because you’ll probably have to do all the work. No, make it seventy thirty.’ She grinned at Gloria for a moment before leaning forward and giving her a reassuring hug. ‘I am sorry I have to go. See you soon?’

Gloria nodded then watched Jenny go.

‘Okay, Mr. Joyce, what now?’

‘We read your grandmother, Judith Wilson’s, last Will and Testament.’ He smiled at her over his bifocals.

Grandma. The mad, old, lovable bat that she was. Their last living relative, as far as they knew, had finally succumbed to cancer. The woman they’d clung to after their unknowable, flighty, father died, was gone.

‘It’s so weird,’ Gloria said. ‘It’s only us now. Me and Jenny. It hasn’t sunk in.’

The old man smiled again. ‘At least you have each other. Do either of you have children? You’re still young, yet.’

Gloria shivered theatrically and shook her head.

‘Jenny just got married but no, neither of us are having kids. Too many nuts in our family tree. Grandma always says… said… it skips a generation. It was her way of reassuring us we were nothing like our parents.’

The old man nodded slowly and waited but Gloria didn’t elaborate.

‘Right then,’ he said after a few quiet moments. ‘The reading of the will is just a formality.’ He gestured at the two cartons of their grandmother’s crochet blankets, knickknacks, and photo albums stacked by the office door. Grannie had told them the few thousand dollars in her bank account would be donated to her beloved CWA, unless they really needed it. They’d assured her they didn’t.

Mr. Joyce pulled a single sheet of paper from a file and looked up at Gloria.


Gloria nodded.

‘I’ll read your grandmother’s words here. “I am so very proud of you, my granddaughters. To think a doctor and an art expert could come from a long line of people who didn’t do much good in the world. I love you both so much. To Gloria, I leave my father’s paintings and to Jennifer, Rosedale.” There you have it.’

Gloria sat, stunned for a moment. Jenny was a midwife and Gloria, a restorer, that wasn’t the issue. She opened her mouth to speak but the lawyer put his hand up.

‘Rest assured, there are channels for protest.’

Gloria shook her head. She couldn’t form the right words.

The old man cleared his throat. ‘She was very proud of both you girls, but she wanted you to have the paintings because you’re an… art conservator.’ He glanced at his computer monitor to confirm the word.

Gloria coughed and reached for the glass of water the secretary had left on the desk.

‘No. Yes…I am, but… It’s just… what paintings? And what’s Rosedale?’

She sipped the water.

The lawyer smiled, perhaps relieved he wasn’t going to have to deal with a screaming match over who got what. He opened the file again and placed three documents and a set of keys on the table in front of her.

‘The contents of storage shed 422 at Kennards Northside and…’ he shuffled through and found the right piece of paper. ‘Rosedale. A seventy-acre block north of Emerald. You didn’t know about the property?’

Gloria shook her head.

‘Or the paintings. Our grandmother wasn’t the most forthcoming of communicators.’

The old man chuckled. ‘Judith was lovely, but she was a closed book in many ways.’

Gloria smiled. ‘Did you know her? Personally?’

He nodded. ‘Bridge club. I knew your grandfather. From the Lodge.’

Gloria stared into the man’s eyes as though she could read something there. She’d never met someone who knew any of her relatives. Their grandfather had died when she was a baby and Jenny was just three. Their mother took off not long after with her small inheritance and the car. Gloria wanted to ask about her family, but the lawyer had more pressing matters for her.

‘The storage shed must be cleared out before Friday unless you want to continue paying the rent. Any questions?’

‘So many questions,’ Gloria said, laughing.

‘Apparently there’s nothing much up at Rosedale. A few old buildings.’ He flipped the file open to reveal a photograph of a scrubby block. The only structures were a rusty windmill, a tumbledown shed and the remains of a veranda, the rest of the house gone, as if by magic.

‘Rosedale,’ Gloria said, tasting the word.

The old man smiled. ‘And once again, I am sorry for your loss.’ He slid the paperwork into a large envelope.

Gloria nodded again. For all her faults, Grandma had always been there. Graduations, birthdays, Christmases.

‘The old bird was a riot after a couple of cans,’ Gloria said. A pair of tears slid down her cheek.

‘She will be missed,’ the old man said.

‘Thanks, Mr. Joyce,’ Gloria said, her voice thick with emotion. She picked up the envelope and slipped the set of keys into her pocket.

A storage facility after dark should be foreboding but Gloria hummed as she led Jenny along the brightly lit corridor. Other storage shed owners opened doors or were in the process of locking up. It was a hive of activity.

‘Four two two,’ Gloria said. She pulled the keys out of her pocket and dangled them in the air.

‘You can do the honours, Jen.’

Jenny unlocked the padlock and pushed up the narrow roller door. Gloria reached around for the light switch as the caretaker had instructed. Fluorescent light flooded the long narrow unit.

‘Wow…’ the sisters said in unison and silently bumped fists to acknowledge the jinx.

The space, about the size of a single garage, was filled with brown paper-wrapped rectangles, dozens of them.

‘We’ll need a trolley,’ Gloria said.

‘All I know of my great grandmother, Elizabeth Edwards-Banbury, I gleaned from the x-rays of the portrait. Beautiful, certainly, but the slightly cocked eyebrow tells the viewer a little about her personality, surely. Perhaps the artist said something amusing or ignorant to elicit that raised brow, but then stopped and thought, Oh yes, this is the woman I want to capture. Beautiful, brilliant, and not afraid to speak her mind.’

Gloria stopped recording and sat back in her chair. Jenny picked up the x-rays and held them beside the canvas propped on a large easel.

‘How did you know to x-ray this one?’ she said.

‘The rest of the paintings were of no interest, so I wasn’t going to waste the time and money. Amateurish landscapes, mostly. One particularly bad still-life of flowers and fruit,’ Gloria said. She nodded towards the panel on the easel. ‘But the back of this one told a story the clumsy work on the front couldn’t. The provenance was all just sitting there. The receipt for framing was still stuck on, testament to the value of acid-free tape.’

Jenny rolled her eyes. Gloria got up and tilted the canvas forward showing her sister the elegant label, foxed, and faded.

‘Jonah G Clarke, Sydney. He was a well-known portraitist who worked all along the eastern seaboard after coming to Australia in 1892. According to the receipt…’ Gloria flipped the beige envelope open to show where the information was found. ‘Clarke painted Elizabeth after her father apparently paid for and commissioned the work. I wonder if it was supposed to be sent back to England. It seems odd. Great, great Whoever paid for a painting of his beloved daughter but never received it.’

Jenny studied the reverse of the painting dutifully for a moment before she turned to the rest of the artworks propped around the walls of Gloria’s studio.

‘You sure there’s not a missing Van Gogh in this lot? A lost Picasso?’

Gloria smiled and shook her head. ‘I wish.’

‘So, who painted these misshapen beasts?’ Jenny flipped through a stack of the unwrapped paintings leaning against the wall.

‘Apparently our great-grandfather, Thomas A.R. Banbury, Elizabeth’s hubby. He took up painting late in life after she wandered off into the bush, never to be seen again,’ Gloria said, invoking the tragic family legend they had been told over the years.

She held up a photo she had found in the archives in Brisbane.

‘They were both from wealthy families and came out to Australia with a fat bank account but Thomas’ obituary in a British newspaper said he’d lost both wife and fortune to the Australian bush.’

‘That is so mean,’ Jenny said. She looked around the room. ‘This is all so amazing, Glor.’

Gloria basked in her sister’s praise. ‘All I want to know is why our great grandaddy smothered his beautiful wife with two layers of gesso and this awful country scene.’

Jenny picked up the x-ray again.

‘He was probably heart-broken after she died. What’s that on her throat?’ Jenny’s phone buzzed in her bag. She ignored it for a moment but eventually handed the film back to Gloria and read a message on her phone.

‘I’d say it’s a brooch. You gotta go?’ Gloria said.

Jenny nodded and shouldered her bag. Gloria turned to her.

‘Can we have dinner? I want to talk about going out to Rosedale. Maybe I should talk to an agent up there to see if it’s sellable.’

Jenny shrugged. ‘I’ve got a couple days off next week.’

‘So, I’m not going to have to do all the work?’

‘I can’t let you have all the fun,’ Jenny said.

The sisters hugged goodbye.

Alone again, Gloria sat in front of the painting and picked up her voice recorder.

‘The artist, if I can call my great grandfather an artist, at least seemed to know the rudiments of picture construction. He used the golden mean to create a focal point, a garden beside a sketched-in outbuilding. Every line draws the eye towards this quite lovely focal point, the only patch of color in the whole drab mess. It sits over the brooch at her throat that can be seen in the x-ray. Perhaps it was her garden; Elizabeth’s little patch of England in her strange new home.’

Gloria turned off the recorder and switched on the overhead video camera. After the x-rays, detailed photography, and cataloguing of the rest of the paintings, it was finally time to start the process of freeing Elizabeth from her prison of poor craftsmanship, if not willful damage. Gloria moved the large canvas to a table and selected a pair of tack removers. She pulled on a mask and protective glasses and began removing the small nails holding the canvas to the stretcher. Her heart pounded in her chest. What was she worried about? She had done her apprenticeship in the National Portrait Gallery in London. This painting was worth nothing, financially, but it was a connection to her family, something she and Jenny had very little of.

The tacks safely tucked away in a plastic tray, Gloria sliced the picture panel free of the dirty stretcher. A century’s worth of dust coated the timber struts and flakes of paint fluttered to the table like snow as she moved the painting. She grabbed the small Dyson vacuum and removed the dust, an extremely satisfying process. She wiped the wooden frame down, carefully avoiding the framers’ sticker still in place and the artist’s receipt. It took another hour to glue linen strips to the painting and attach it once again to its now-clean stretcher.

Gloria checked her phone. It was after three and there was a text from Jenny. Her shift would finish at six. If things went to plan, Gloria knew she could have the old paint off the canvas very quickly, but it would require a knife.

She picked up a sharp scalpel and flicked a piece of the crazed varnish away. Obviously, Thomas hadn’t known to clean the picture surface before he slopped on his masterpiece. The varnish came away. It took with it the overpainting along with the gesso layers.

‘Ohhhh,’ Gloria said and took another deep breath.

If the project was for a client, she would have to stop and make a phone call to explain the risks of this approach to the restoration. Gloria leaned back as far as she dared on her stool and stretched her arms over her head. She grabbed her phone and found a suitable playlist. The first, driving notes of The Honeymoon is Over burst from the speakers. She rubbed her hands together and picked up the scalpel.

She didn’t look up until Elizabeth was smiling at her, that raised eyebrow challenging her to plough on. She snapped off a few photos. Great Grandma really was a stunner. Gloria picked up a clean cotton tip and stuck it in her mouth. There was nothing quite like saliva to quickly clean an oil painting. She wiped it across Elizabeth’s cheek revealing her creamy complexion.

Jenny was late as usual but for once Gloria resented it. She had dragged herself away from the artwork with Elizabeth only half freed from her painted prison. The server approached, carrying a garlic bread Gloria always ordered.

‘Is she late again?’

Gloria shrugged. ‘Yeah, stupid babies. You can’t trust them to come out on time.’

The server laughed. ‘Garlic bread’s on the house.’

‘Thank you, that’s really kind. Um, I might as well order. Jenny has the Carbonara every week, so I’ll order that for her… and the vege burger please, for me.’

‘You have that every week, too,’ the server said with a wink and walked away blushing.

Jenny bustled in five minutes later and sat heavily on the chair opposite. She stared at the empty plate that had previously held the garlic bread.

‘You missed out on free bread,’ Gloria said, crossing her arms.

Jenny shot a murderous glance at the counter. ‘I’m starving.’

‘Calm down, I’ve ordered your usual.’

Jenny locked eyes with her sister. ‘The carbonara?’

Gloria nodded. Jenny picked up her phone and started scrolling.

‘You good?’

‘Uh huh,’ Jenny said. She dropped the phone onto the table and gave Gloria a smile that said okay I’m here.

‘We’re going out to Rosedale then?’

Jenny smiled, thin lipped. ‘Yep, might as well get it over and done with.’

‘Tough day at work?’

Jenny shrugged.

Gloria took a deep breath and reached into her bag and pulled out her iPad. She opened it to the images of the painting in its half-exposed state and handed it to her sister. She flicked through the images.

‘Our great-grandmother was a beauty,’ Gloria said, trying to break whatever ice it was that had settled over them.

 Jenny handed back the device. Gloria looked into the face she had been slowly exhuming over the past hours and held the iPad beside her own face.

‘Any family resemblance?’

‘Yep,’ Jenny said. ‘She looks just like our mother. Have you ever seen the wedding photos that Grandma had hidden in the spare room? Same shape face.’

Gloria peered at the iPad.

‘Grandma always said everything skips a generation,’ she said, wistfully.

Jenny shrugged. ‘We both take after dad but at least we know where you get your artistic bent from now.’

‘Are you saying I get my talent from the guy that slopped paint over his wife?’ Gloria laughed. ‘Probably why I gave up trying to be an artist to restore other people’s treasures. Look at the brooch. The brushstrokes are loose but show real mastery. Clarke knew what he was doing.’

Gloria zoomed in on the gem at Elizabeth’s throat and handed the iPad back to Jenny.

‘Cool,’ Jenny said.

The day’s elation seemed to leach out of Gloria with every word from her sister’s mouth. Hangry.

‘Probably a citrine or maybe an amethyst. Silver. They were quite common,’ Gloria said.

The server approached with their meals. Jenny put the iPad down and made room for the plate. The young woman looked down at the iPad.

‘Who is this gorgeous creature?’

‘Our great grandmother,’ Gloria said. ‘She went missing years ago, in the teens apparently. Last century.’

Jenny already had a mouthful of pasta.

The server hovered over the iPad. ‘I can see the family resemblance.’ She smiled.

‘God, I wish,’ Gloria said.

May I,’ she said. Gloria picked up the device and handed it to the server. ‘What happened to the painting?’

‘Our great-grandfather, her husband, painted over it. Or so we believe.’

‘Makes you wonder what he was trying to cover up.’ She handed the iPad back to Gloria. ‘Enjoy your meal.’ She winked and walked away.

Gloria picked up her burger and bit into it. Her face flushed from the heat of the meal or from the attention.

‘I can’t believe you’re flirting over a picture of our dead great grandmother,’ Jenny said.

Gloria chewed the mouthful slowly and swallowed and Jenny returned to her own meal.

Hangry should subside after you’ve shoved pasta into your mouth for ten minutes, she wanted to say, but she let it go.

The wind whipping over the plain had kept them in the car for long enough. Jenny had been terrible company on the long drive, preferring her headphones to conversation. Gloria’s jacket flapped as she held up the printout of the original landscape painting. The gust grabbed at it and tried to reef it from her hands. She re-rolled the paper and ran back to the car to get the iPad.

‘There’s nothing left,’ she said when she joined Jenny at the place where the steps had once stood. Only a pile of bricks marked the spot.

The front gate had fallen over and all that remained of their inheritance was a tumbled down shed and the windmill stand. The fallen blades rusted nearby.

‘The estate agent said both the neighbouring farms would be happy to take the block off our hands, but no one mentioned money,’ Gloria said.

She wandered across what had once been the house yard and stood staring at the ground. Jenny turned. ‘Gloria,’ she said. The wind died suddenly.

‘That was weird.’ Jenny hugged her arms around her chest.

Gloria shivered dramatically. ‘Maybe Grandma is happy we’re finally here.’

‘Glor… I’m pregnant.’

Jenny didn’t take her eyes off the ground. Gloria stalked across the grass and stood quietly beside her sister. That explains the past week, she thought.

‘Are you happy?’

Jenny shrugged and smiled weakly.

‘What did Pete say?’

‘Haven’t told him yet,’ she whispered. ‘I’m just not…’

Gloria took her sister’s hand. ‘I will be here for you. Hell or high water, Jen. Whatever happens, but all that stuff about skipping a generation? It’s bullshit. Grandma was awesome to us, but she was probably a terrible mother. Can you imagine?’

Jenny laughed through the tears streaming down her face. ‘She was such a hot head.’

‘The gambling? The drinking? Remember that boyfriend she had. The ex-copper?’ Gloria said. ‘Are you going to be a mother like that?’

Jenny put her hands on her still-flat belly. She shook her head. ‘Pete will be the best dad,’ she whispered.

Gloria pulled her sister into a hug and they both cried happy tears and some sad tears for the women in their family who hadn’t known any better. After a few minutes Jenny pulled away and wiped her wet face on her t-shirt.

‘Okay?’ Gloria said.

‘I need to call Pete. I’m going to be a mum.’ Jenny laughed and pulled out her phone. ‘No reception. I’ll call when we get back to town.’

She snapped some photos and Gloria unrolled the print of their great-grandfather’s unimpressive landscape again.

‘Can you take a photo from this angle? That’s where the rose garden was. Look at this.’ She held the print up so Jenny could see.

‘He wasn’t much of an artist, but he actually painted those flowers quite well,’ Gloria said.

They both glanced from the print to the patch of sunken earth that had once held their great grandmother’s roses. Gloria took a few steps back and peered at the ground.

‘This doesn’t look like a garden anymore, does it?’ Jenny said.

Gloria let go of the print. It fluttered across the dead grass in the rising breeze.

 ‘No, it doesn’t.’ Gloria said. ‘It looks like a grave.’

On the anniversary of their grandmother’s death, Gloria, again, waited patiently for her sister to arrive. The restored portrait of Elizabeth Edwards-Banbury hung in pride of place on the east-facing wall of the flat, visible to everyone who entered and even the neighbours who happened to glance in. The front door opened, and Jenny bustled in, her hair a bird’s nest and her sweet baby boy asleep in her arms. Gloria took the baby and Jenny made a beeline for the bathroom.

The old lawyer popped his head through the open doorway. ‘Knock, knock,’ he said.

He carried a document box. Gloria nodded towards the dining room, but they stopped in front of the stunning portrait. They stood beneath it, faces upturned until Jenny joined them with a washed face and hair scraped into a bun.

‘She was a real beauty,’ Mr. Joyce said. ‘And so is this little bundle.’ He peered at the sleeping child.

‘Coffee or tea,’ Gloria said when she found her voice.

‘Coffee,’ he said softly. ‘White with one.’

‘Coffee it is.’ Jenny sounded more chipper than she looked. ‘I’ll make it.’ She disappeared into the kitchen.

‘Retirement suits you,’ Gloria said.

‘Your grandmother’s passing inspired me to do something else with my life before it was too late. Thanks for letting me do this for you and for her,’ he said. ‘It still feels strange not having an office.”

He put the box on the floor in the dining room and unpacked its contents onto the table. He arranged the papers into neat piles on the table. Jenny brought mugs of coffee on a tray with a plate of biscuits.

‘Grandma’s recipe,’ she said as she placed the tray on the table.

‘The sale of Rosedale went unconditional yesterday.’ He slid a bundle of papers towards the girls as they settled into the chairs opposite. He smiled at them. ‘And the coroner’s report is there but they’ve been in touch, yes?’

Jenny nodded slowly. She glanced at Gloria before leaning forward to pick up the files.

‘They found that our great-grandmother’s skull was cracked almost in half. She was rolled in a rug and buried. She would have died quickly at least,’ she said. ‘We’ll never know why. We don’t even know for sure who killed her.’

They all sat in silence while the clock on the wall ticked.

Gloria looked down at her sleeping nephew. ‘I’m just glad Grandma never knew.’

Jenny hummed her agreement.

‘Girls, your mother has been in touch with my colleague back at the firm.’

Jenny and Gloria looked at each other. ‘Oh, wow,’ they said at the same time. Jenny reached across and bumped a gentle fist against her sister’s.

‘What did she want?’ Jenny said. ‘We thought she was dead to be honest.’

‘Put very simply, your mother wanted money. I telephoned her and said there wasn’t any. She didn’t seem surprised. She, ah, hung up before I could say anything further.’

Jenny shrugged.

‘They say it skips a generation,’ she said. ‘Being an arsehole, that is. Don’t you be an arsehole.’ She jokingly shook her finger at her sleeping son.

Gloria laughed a little too loudly and the baby squirmed. Jenny patted his back.

‘What about the flowers? And the fence?’ Gloria said.

Mr. Joyce’s eyebrows shot up.

‘It’s lovely, girls. I have photographs.’ He searched the files on the table and pulled a stack of prints from an envelope. ‘Your neighbour was only too happy to build a fence around the little house yard for you in exchange for all that land. His sheep will be happy.’

Jenny flipped through the prints and showed them to Gloria one by one. The neighbour had gone above and beyond. The new fence was sturdy, and the old shed and windmill stand were gone. The field where their great grandmother had lain unseen and forgotten for a hundred years was planted with a kind of Waratah that thrives in central Queensland. The plants were still small, but the pink flowers looked like roses if you really wanted them to.

‘I like the idea of happy sheep,’ Jenny said. Tears streamed down her face.

Mr. Joyce gestured to the document box on the floor. ‘You didn’t choose an urn for your great grandmother’s ashes?’

He took care to place his coffee mug down on a coaster and bent to retrieve a plastic container the size of a shoe box and placed it on the table. The baby squirmed in Gloria’s arms and Jenny put her finger in his mouth.

‘We still have Grandma in a box. We’re taking both their ashes out to Rosedale this weekend. Grandma lost her mother at the age of eight. At least they can be together forever now,’ Gloria said.

‘There is this, too,’ the lawyer said. He leaned down again and came up with a black velvet jewellery box and slid it across the table.

The baby snuffled at his blanket and both his mother and aunty looked down into the deep, dark pools of his eyes. A slight frown crossed his face before he focussed on his mother and smiled. The women laughed softly. Jenny wiped her tears on her sleeve and picked up the box. She opened the lid and tilted it towards her sister. Their great grandmother’s brooch gleamed on a bed of black velvet.

‘I took the liberty of having it cleaned up by a jeweler,’ Mr. Joyce said.

Jenny put the box on the table and reached out to take the baby. ‘Gloria, the brooch is yours. If you want it.’

‘We’ll sell it and split the money.’ Gloria said. ‘Seventy thirty.’

Both women laughed.

‘No, Glor, you keep it,’ Jenny said.

The baby whimpered. Jenny took him and got ready to feed him.

Gloria picked up the jewellery box and held it to her heart. ‘It’s nice to finally have a family heirloom.’ She grinned at her sister as she fed the baby. ‘And I’d say in this instance, we’ve both ended up with a hundred percent.’