At the end of the Water stories project, we weren’t quite ready to say goodbye. The spark of creativity had turned into a quiet fire. The writers who had written short fiction were ready to try something longer. A full-length manuscript.
This was the genesis of The Luminous Heart project.
We came together to write and learn and create the first draft of a novel-length manuscript in 10 months.
Less than 3 per cent of all people who start a first draft actually complete it. But there is magic in community. Coming together in a small room each week to meditate and write gave us all the courage and commitment we needed to persevere.
Below are samples of some of the work generated during this incredibly lovely year together. We are deeply grateful for the support of the RADF committee for the grant that made this project possible. Thank you.
(L to R) Russell Coele, Margaret Smeaton, Natalie Sprite, Robbie Kirk, Sue Sommerlad, Cassie Mckenzie.
(missing Cathi Cash and Melissa Archer)
Welcome to the Prison
By Marg Smeaton
‘Right, you lot! Shut your mouths and do what you are told. This is our prison, and you’ll do things our way. We don’t want to hear about what you learned at your fancy college. Just shut your mouths, do what you are told, and we’ll get along just fine!’
There were nine of us, all women. We had been told we were the first of the ‘new breed’ of officers, trained in the rehabilitative model. A change from the old punishment philosophy of lock them up and throw away the key. Standing outside the main gate of the Women’s Correctional Centre, we were waiting to be let in. The entrance was diagonally opposite the men’s prison, and from the cells way up high, calls of” Show us your tits.” Or the more creative “Hey, you fat-arse bunch of rejects from Jenny Craig,” had us nervous giggling and feeling very uneasy. It was a scary place. However, despite the fear roiling around in my belly, I was excited and raring to go
Prior to starting work, we had been issued with our uniforms. Pale blue cotton dress with buttons down the front, navy pencil skirt and slim leg slacks, pale blue, short sleeved shirt and navy jumper, and a very smart looking navy blazer. The stores officer at the prison had made sure we were given everything we needed and gave us a bit of a heads-up. “If you do a court escort, you won’t be allowed into a courtroom if you are wearing slacks. Magistrate’s rules. Only uniform dress or skirt and blouse and blazer”. He then issued us with black lace up Doc Martens shoes which I thought were super cool, and a pair of low-heeled navy-blue court shoes.
Once home, I washed and carefully ironed out the creases in my new gear. I tried it all on and stood in front of the mirror. I thought I looked pretty good in my navy skirt, pale blue blouse and navy blazer, my badge pinned to the lapel. I had shoulder length curly hair and couldn’t resist the temptation to do the teenage hair flick. I laughed at myself and smiled, then really looked at my reflection. Was that really me? I looked smart and professional and ready for my new career. Smoothing down my skirt, I turned and looked over my shoulder to make sure the kick pleat at the back was sitting properly. I walked around the bedroom to test out the court shoes which were surprisingly comfortable, even with the bit of a heel. I walked back over to the mirror, and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
I was proud of myself. I had done it. Finally, no more working in hospitality cooking and washing dishes. No more picking vegetables, or stringing tobacco on farms, sweating in the hot Queensland sun, or noisy conveyor belt night shifts in factories. I had a real job! A career! Finally, something for me. Me as a person. Not me as a daughter or as a Mum, or as someone’s wife, me as a correctional officer and a university student at the age of forty-three and it felt great!
The Sacred Fathoms
By Susan Sommerlad
Chapter One South East Queensland 1950
The blood tasted metallic, salty, as it trickled down my chin. I choked as I ran, heedless of the creepers and bushes tearing me. I sucked in the dark wetness of the forest and headed instinctively towards the water. Roots tripped my feet; I turned, was she following? Had she let loose the dogs? Her hoarse screams were not so distant. I gulped air, sobbing, the final insult.
At that moment I could have plunged into the sea and opened my lungs to the water, the horror of my failure. Where were they? Where was the ocean? The dripping trees and creepers blocked the path, but I couldn’t go back.
She deserved to be bitten, the taste of the old nun made me gag, her stale breath, and bloodshot eyes full of fury, and in her wrinkled arms lay Alice, soft as milk, Alice tiny, mewling, sweetness. My body ached for her.
Above, moonlight shafted through the canopy, and now, I could smell the sea. I snatched a backward look, two pin-points of light searching in the distance, Then, yelping, and baying barks, my bladder spasmed, they had released the dogs. They could find me through all this, even if the nuns couldn’t.
The scent of the ocean, salty, raw, the place must be close. One more clump of forest, then I staggered onto the sand, and ran, along the tree line. I stopped and listened, but all I could hear was my heartbeat. The dogs would find me. Forward again, here, the dark outline of a familiar rock the sea swirling around its base. The moonlight shone bright, and I glimpsed the dark gape of the cave mouth to the left. I tripped and fell hitting my forehead on the rock. It was all over.
Shadows slipped towards me from the cave. “ Sarah, where’s Alice?” He stood over me, tall and familiar, lifting me to my feet. The reassuring scent of Will. I sobbed, “I had her in my arms, but they took her! They’re coming, the dogs too!” Blood trickled from my head.
The boat was gently rolling in the shallows at the cave entrance. Emma grasped both my arms, “ We can do this, be strong!”
At that moment a crippling pain, as teeth sank deep into my left calf. The two dogs had broken cover and run straight for me, panting and salivating. The younger one, a brown mongrel was biting and shaking the muscle of my leg like a piece of meat. Crash, an oar came down on the dog’s head and with a high-pitched yelp, he let go, snapping at the weapon, then cowered away to the bush, when Will raised the oar once more. The other dog stopped in its tracks as Will swung again.
I clutched the wound, and with the last of my strength, strained to push the boat into the water, then fell into it, while Will waded waist-deep to push us further out before he threw himself into the bows, and took the oars. The two dogs, made bolder by our departure, stood barking and pacing along the tide mark. There was no sign of human pursuit, the bush was too thick for nuns’ habits.
By Cathi Cash
I have a secret friend these days,
came to me in a dream,
intangible and ethereal,
whom no one else has seen.
He speaks to me in whispers
that only I can hear,
seducing me with phrases
and words I cannot share.
We talk, my secret friend and I
in deep and open ways,
it fills a void inside of me,
an aching, blue malaise.
I tell him things I’ve never shared
with those that I hold dear.
With caution tossed into the wind,
I cannot feel the fear.
My melancholy secret friend,
it seems he’s lost his way,
with tales of loss and loneliness,
he whiles the hours away.
He comes to me in wistful hush
from deep within my slumber,
lamenting in his dark despair
at all he must encumber.
Be still now, secret friend of mine
for I have news for you.
You know that empty space inside?
I’ll share that place with you.
And though our paths will never cross
albeit in a dream,
my memory will not forget
those secrets that we’ve seen.
By Natalie Sprite
The piano lives in the boatshed where everybody says it shouldn’t be. “It’s not good for the tuning. They say. “The salt, the heat will ruin it.”
But isn’t the salt or the heat that will ruin the piano. It’s Dad.
Mum is sitting on the front step of the verandah with her body folding over her knees. Her hands in her hair in fists. Blond hair spiking through spaces between her fingers. She’s rocking and making this sound. Something low and deep inside of her, like a rattle of stones moving underwater.
She jerks up suddenly and her face is swollen and red. She pulls me into her and cries against me. I can feel the wet of her tears and her snot against my skin.
Then from the lake, there’s a crash. Mum’s head flicks up at the noise and then goes still with listening. Then the same sound again. She stands and says Dad’s name and then she starts to run.
When she runs, her knees bend in towards each other. The soles of her shoes flash white at me. She reaches the steps and grabs at the handrail and leaps two and then three steps at a time, down the hill towards the boat shed.
There are pale clouds moving in across the lake and the water has gone silver. I move slowly down the stairs. My feet are bare and I’ve got my favorite shorts on. They’re boys’ shorts and they’re too big for me. I like the loose, blue, cottony feel of them and the way the air is all around my body.
When I walk into the boat shed, the double doors at the front are open and that whole wall is a bright square of light. Mum is against the back wall, her hands on her face. I go to her, but it’s like she doesn’t see me, so I just stand next to her and I look at the doors and the light and then I see Dad.
His body is bent at the hip and knee. His shoulder is right up against the piano. He makes these small grunting noises and pushes as hard as he can.
At first the piano doesn’t move. It just stays where it’s always been, black against the pale wall. The piano stool lies on its side halfway across the room with a broken leg. There are other things too. Fishing rods in a mess. Upturned milkcrates. All over the floor, sheet music flutters like wings and then Mum is on her hands and knees gathering it into her arms and crying. Mascara down her face in two messy lines.
The piano moves. Mum goes still, her arms full of paper. Dad doesn’t look at her. He’s worked it out now. You’ve got to get your weight low down to move a piano. He’s pushing from the base now and it’s moving. The boards of the boat shed make a crying sound.
It happens in fits and starts. The piano moves a bit then stops and Dad has to reposition himself, get right up close and low, and give it another heave. But there must be some slope about halfway across the floor of the boat shed because after the third push, the piano starts to move on its own. He has to run to catch up. An awkward scramble up onto his feet. The piano still rolling creakily away. He puts his hands, fingers spread, on the black wood and gives it one last heave and then it’s really off, rushing towards the light and the water.
There’s a twang of strings and the crackling smack of wood breaking, a sullen, discordant groan as it topples over the edge and crashes into the lake.
Then quiet. A fluttering of paper and a seagull flying past squawking. The water underneath, lapping. Dad up the front of the boat shed, his silhouette against the white square of light. He turns and walks back through the dark of the boat shed and goes outside so then it’s just me and Mum.
She stands up and paper falls from her body. I follow her to the edge of the boatshed and look down.
It’s low tide, so the water only covers half of it. One corner poking up, dots of candle wax with the imprint of my thumbnail in them. The rest of it submerged, part of it buried in the sand. A school of bait fish moving through the clear green water.
by Cassie Mckenzie
It’s a faded weary feeling
Washed out like an old boat, broken down and damaged
It has found its way to shore, the paint stripping
As it struggles on its side, wounded
The tide, its cold silver hands, fumble in and out
It threatens to bring me back
Into those smothering waters
Groping its way towards me
Lovingly wanting to take me down
And still, I seek a sanctuary
I reach out for rescue
As the barnacles appear, as the sea life makes its home in my crevices
I wait for the salt to strip me bare, I lay there, anticipating
And suddenly I wish to stay here, move into the sand
Ground myself in roots
So I am alive but immovable
Is this a salve to my suffering?
Perhaps the ocean life comes to live inside of me
Happening upon me in order to to show me
Relief… they are telling me where all of my wounds are
In order for me to save myself
By Robbie Kirk
Barbara strides before me, calling over her shoulder, “Don’t sit under the fans. We’ll sit here.” Wendy sucks in her stomach to slide into the bench seat.
“We’re all getting old,” I say to my sisters.
Wendy scoffs, “Getting? We’re nearly as old as our mother when she died.”
I watch Barbara, the eldest, scrutinize the menu. Her mustard silk blouse is perfect with the floral skirt that floats to below her knees. The matching shoes have ankle straps. Our ankles are the same as Mum’s. Thin. But mine are tan, not white like Barbara’s. She squints at the menu, mumbling to herself until I ask,
“Don’t you wear glasses?” I remember those blue eyes fixed on me when I questioned her about Mum’s will.
She doesn’t look at me, “No need.”
Wendy, the youngest, leans against the back of the booth, her hands never stop moving. Their fingers intertwine and untwine as if to a musical beat. She wears dangling earrings to match her navy and pink long shirt and jeans.
I smile at her and roll my eyes towards Barbara. Wendy doesn’t grin in conspiracy. She looks down at her working hands. Her double chin doubles again and she loses her neck in her collar.
I close the menu with a snap, place it at the edge of the table and say, “I’ll have a Devonshire Tea.”
Wendy grins back, “So will I. Extra jam.”
Wendy’s rhythmic movement of the hands makes sense now. Mum was allowed out of the home for her last birthday. The whole family gathered at Wendy and Peter’s unit. I went to the toilet and looked into the nursery. In the dimmed light Wendy was rolling her sleeping baby back and forth in the stroller.
She muttered on each forward thrust, “We’re the only nice people here.” Pulling the stroller backwards, she growled, “We’re the only nice people here. We’re the only nice people here.” I watched her hunched figure gripping the handlebars and the force she used to rock that stroller. The wind blew the curtain and in that shaft of sunshine on the mirror above the change table, her eyes were staring and wet, her lips drawn back over her teeth. Instinctively I put my hand over my mouth as dread rooted me on the spot. Through blurry eyes, I stared down at my bare feet on the newly polished wooden floor. When my breath returned, I silently edged back the way I had come.
Sitting across from her now, I take off my glasses. My fingers swirl my white tee-shirt over the lenses as I steady my breathing. Barbara eyes off the waitress’s apron, worn and stained and the rumpled white headband. The woman leans her tummy on the edge of our table as she takes our orders. Her accent is thick, Scottish and we nod and smile and wonder what the hell she just said.
“No cream on the lemon tart and is it truly gluten free?” Barbara looks up at the waitress. “My body is sensitive. No gluten. You understand?” The woman sniffs and nods. She takes the menus.
“And a camomile tea.” Barbara calls after her, “With a little cold water. From the filter, please.”
Wendy shifts in her seat, “Where have we gone, the carefree girls who never gave a thought about what was good for our colons?”
Barbara says dryly, “We got married.”
The waitress delivers a stainless-steel jug of water and three foggy glasses. Barbara raises her eyebrows and sniffs inside a glass. Wendy’s knee cracks as she half stands and pours the water. Her hands really are beautiful. The lights above our table shine on the five rings on her left hand. Her painted nails are the same pink as her blouse.
Barbara’s eyes follow the waitress, “she could do with a course in the art of domestic laundry,” she snaps. Her dimples show how delighted she is.
Wendy says, “and customer relations” as she wipes the moist ring off the surface of the table.
She was the one I thought would not come today. I gulp and feel the wet under my armpits and clear my throat, “I came today to say how sorry I am that we fell out.” I look into their faces.
Wendy wriggles on her seat and looks under the table for her lost serviette. Barbara straightens her necklace. Her top lip thins. A silence descends on our table.
I sit upright. “It’s so safe to talk about what slips easily off the tongue.” I sip my tea and they put down their cups. “What is unsaid is why I’m here after nineteen years.”
Barbara spreads jam to the corners of her scone. She speaks to the table, “a lot has happened since then. Grief does strange things to people.” She wipes at the corner of her mouth with a white hanky. “Those who have hurt you never forgive you.”
“Well, I’m here to forgive you and you,” I look at them in turn.
Wendy flicks invisible crumbs from her chest.
I poke about in my leather bag and draw out a green photo album. Barbara and Wendy look down at their plates. I move the empty cups and open the album.
In the Box-Brownie black and white snap we’re the kids on the front steps of our family home. Barbara on the top step, me next down and then Wendy, smiling at Dad with the camera. I trace our innocent faces with my finger.
Barbara shuffles along the bench to look at the album and as I hover over her, I notice the pink scalp showing through the grey masculine hairstyle. Is that a tremor in Wendy’s hand as her fingers hold the corner of the page? They point and laugh.
Barbara asks, “where was this photo taken?”
I peer closer, “at the holiday unit at Redcliffe.”
Wendy corrects me. “I remember clearly Margate. It was the day I got my Scholarship results. We bought the Courier Mail. Margate.” She looks at me with triumph.
“Doesn’t Mum look so happy and beautiful.” I say as I resist the urge to tell her she’s wrong.
It’s another round of teas before we finish the album. Barbara’s voice is hoarse from laughing. “Well, we’d better go.”
Wendy collects her handbag over her arm, “We don’t want to outstay our welcome,” and glances at our waitress who is clearing the table around us. We struggle to our feet.
At the cash register I hold my Visa card out for the cashier, Barbara hits my hand down, “My shout, today,” she insists.
I sit outside with Wendy. She’s rummaging in her bag. I feel the warmth of her thigh against mine as I lean in towards her and say,
“Before Mum died you borrowed money from us. Peter said you would lose your house without it. It was lent in good faith. I wanted to talk to you, but you and Peter wouldn’t take my calls,” my breath shudders. “we’d given you every dollar we had and couldn’t finish building our house.” I lower my voice. “I think you are embarrassed that you didn’t pay it back in the time agreed and I’m not proud of the cruel messages I left on your answer phone.”
I touch her shoulder, “But I was also ringing to see whether you were OK.” She clutches my hand and we look at each other through misty eyes. We wait on the seat that allows only two people to sit at the same time.
I see Barbara from a different perspective as she stands at the counter. She looks frail, her skirt balloons around her thin legs and her posture is slightly stooped. She looks at us, raises her eyebrows and smiles. As she walks towards us, I watch her look down at her feet, there’s a hairline crack in her confidence.
“Has Barbara lost vision?” I look at Wendy in dismay.
“Yes, she’s can’t see out of her left eye. Glaucoma. Same as Mum.”
Wendy lets Barbara sit wearily beside me, I say,
“Wendy tells me you have Glaucoma?”
Barbara waves my question away, “it’s under control. Nothing to worry about.”
I shrug, my voice is thick, “Do you have drops?”
She pulls at her skirt. “Twice a day. We’re all lucky to have good genes.”
Wendy says dryly, “from Dad’s side.” Her voice is muffled in the Covid 19 protective mask.
I face Barbara. My knuckles are white against my black bag. “I regret that you wouldn’t let me see Dad in the hospital before he died.”
Barbara frowns, “He was hooked up to tubes and machines. You would have hated it.”
I shake my head, “No, I would have a memory of saying goodbye.” I hold her arm so she can’t stand up.
“I found out you and Wendy and your families moved into Mum’s house while the three units were being built. Then you sold her house for a great price which only part financed her unit with a swimming pool that she could never use. She owned her home of forty-seven years and now she had a debt over her head.”
Barbara pulls her arm free and adjusts her glasses over her mask. I stand in front of her.
Mum told me from her bed, ‘I let Bob down. I have nothing’ and she was admitted to a psychiatric ward. She never recovered.”
A red flush creeps up Barbara’s chest.
My breath is ragged, I make fists, stare into her watery eyes. “I don’t believe it was intentional to keep secrets from me. You always take charge. You know what’s best for everyone. It’s the consequences you don’t consider.”
She sniffs and sits taller, then calls to Wendy, “we’d better be going.”
Wendy wanders back from looking in Sportsgirl’s window. She pulls her mask out from her face,
“Do you want to meet again next month, depending on what the husbands have got on? The laundry might be done by then,” she nods towards the café.
I nod and we bump elbows.
Barbara struggles to her feet. She checks her purse for her Go Card and avoids looking at me.
I clasp her cold hands and pat her bony back.
“Safe journey.” I say.
My two sisters stand arm in arm on the escalator. One tall and thin the other shorter and comfy. Both leaning on each other, clutching their bags to their chests so they can see their feet before their shoes get scuffed from the bottom floor plate. They slide off and look up, wave like the Queen and I jump up and wave and give a crooked smile behind my mask. My glasses fog up as I gasp back tears. The album falls from under my arm. As I pick it up and rush to catch my bus, the photo of the three of us flutters to the floor.
We are deeply grateful for the support and kindness of the Redland City Council and Queensland Government for helping make this project possible with a grant from the Regional Arts Fund.
The Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF) is a partnership between the Queensland Government and Redland City Council to support local Arts and Culture in Regional Queensland