The Florinese Painter

I never expected to spend my latter years entrenched in litigation. Literally entrenched, I’m afraid, as each day brings ream after ream of progressively ridiculous claims. Surely, no other could produce such an outpouring of irrelevant and painstaking detail? Morgenstern has his heir – in brevity if not in wit – and my last thoughts will dwell on this parody of justice.

Helen cleaned me out, of course, during the divorce proceedings. Her own expert witness, she chronicled my daily failings in the marriage, fatherhood and bedroom departments, dictated with a clinician’s dispassionate ease. I spent the trial immersed in memories, which probably worked against me. The judge called me distant, vapid, and I was too preoccupied to disagree.

The whale went with her, which was a relief. For a time I was almost happy. It wasn’t joy, exactly, but the loss of a vast, oppressive force, leaving a kind of booze-soaked peace. That was before my lawyer, Charley, called.

“We have a problem.” He began. That was his usual opener, but this time it lacked a jovial tone. “It’s The Princess Bride.” I swear, that’s how it came out; the man could italicise his speech.

My father’s voice intruded on our conversation at this point, repeating words that had buoyed me over the years. “Most dreadful treachery,” he said in my head. “And miraculous of loves.” I muttered in automatic agreement to Charley’s legalese, but he caught on.

“Christ, Bill, are you listening?” That got my attention. Charley wasn’t a religious man – “What lawyer is?” asked my father – but a judicious convent school had beaten the blasphemy out of him, for the most part.

“I’m listening.” I offered, chasing my father’s ghost from the bedroom of my memory. “Litigation… costly… S. Morgenstern…”

“Junior. S. Morgenstern Junior. The bastard had a bastard, can you believe it?”

“No,” I answered. I’ll claim preoccupation, or too many mojitos, but I was a little slow on the uptake. “I can’t believe it.”

“Well he exists and he’s suing you, claiming you abridged his father’s work without permission and defamed his family name.”

The words hung in the air, and my father’s ghost re-entered the room and playfully rearranged the letters. They still made no sense.

“Suing me?”

“That’s the short version. He’s… His father’s son.”

What does that mean? I wondered. “What does that mean?” I asked.

“His brief isn’t.”

Truer words were never spoken. I don’t begrudge the son’s depth of feeling over a father’s legacy; I couldn’t, since that’s how I came to adapt The Princess Bride. But to recount, verbatim, the passages whose omission had most offended him, the alliances and intrigue and endless bloody hats. Only a Morgenstern could manage that.

The case came to nothing, but only because I was broke. Rights and royalties were handed to Morgenstern Junior, and the tabloids once again wanted my picture. I made my peace with it – or would have, but the correspondence continues. Summons and synopses and the paper parade that follows me no matter how I make my address.

It might be his line now, but I’ll borrow it at my last: life really isn’t fair.

This piece was written to a Write On prompt celebrating the announcement of Harper Lee’s second novel: “In 500 words, write a story featuring your favourite literary character at an earlier or later point in their life.”

Shelley’s Christmas Surprise

So Lisa and I came back from PAX Aus feeling all kinds of inspired about the creative scene in Australasia, and decided that we need to actually follow through on more of our ideas. Our first collaborative project (since the last murder mystery) is an Advent Calendar. Concept and art by Lisa, writing by me.

We’ll be updating it every day until Christmas, and asking for reader input as the story progresses – the album is public on Facebook if you want to participate.

What remained

The angel was frozen in a timeless pirouette, and we stared amazed as she shimmered in the golden torchlight. She was a fairy, a dancer, a story come to life. The batteries started to die, then, the bulb beginning to fade, and our reverent silence was replaced with childish panic as the music box and the room fell before the hungry darkness. We squeaked and squealed our way toward the attic ladder, that rectangle of comforting, steady light, chased by the metallic strains of an antique mechanism, its gears still grinding away a stilted tune, commanding the beautiful prisoner to dance on, with nobody there to see.

The sand concealed everything. There were no trenches, in my war, but no guns either. We had tents, canvas and nylon that we huddled beneath, waiting for the storms to pass, and spades. They say it was a town, once, a small one: shops and houses and parks. I can remember green, I think, can remember the lush lawns of my youth. The sand takes it all away, but we remember. Each day we wait, we remember, and by night we dig. Our shovels clink on stoops and gables alike, and we uncover the past one practised motion at a time.


This piece was written for Nika Harper’s Wordplay. The challenge was a two-paragraph story, with the prompts “when we were kids” and “what once was lost.”

My Grandfather Lies

My mother was never given to open sentiment. A strong woman, raised by a mother without a ready supply of hugs or comfort, her most poignant words were spoken after Granddad died: “I never saw my father’s legs.”

His bones have rested beneath the ground some thirteen years now, but that’s not the way he would tell it.

There was usually an elephant, when Granddad spoke: two, in fact. There was the colourful, imposing beast that his words would conjure up, lowering its trunk to proffer a ride. There was also the shape beneath the blanket: my grandfather’s legs, his untold story.

Granddad was a prisoner of war for several years in WW2. Some stories he would share, along with his usual embellishments. The guard’s dog, a German Shepherd (of course), who magically vanished the day fresh rations were discovered. Other stories, darker stories, were never told. Vague hints of circumstance would arise from time to time, from the always trousered legs to the rare shadows on his face, giving a macabre child’s imagination something to play with – but that elephant never took on discernible substance.

Granddad had an eye for the light, the humorous, in any situation, and that inheritance was freely plundered during our childhood. The ageing Scottish voice, expressing any exclamation in his distinctive way, can still be summoned at will. His laugh, with a slight rasp from the incessant smoking, was always full, never feigned or moderated. I remember, distinctly, bouncing on his knee as a child, to his enthusiastic rendition of “Gee up Neddy,” which now makes me cry.  Being Granddad, it was a distinctive take on the lyrics, which Google doesn’t recognise:

Gee up Neddy, to the fair,
We’ll have ham and eggs when we get there;
A penny whip and a farthing crop,
Gee up Neddy to the butcher’s shop!

As emphysema and age advanced, Granddad continued to write his story. He maintained a driver’s license by judiciously cheating on the eye test: on walking into the examination, he would memorise the lower lines of the chart, ready to recite from a distance for the overly trusting Doctor.

Dangerous, perhaps; even with Huntly traffic. He needed the license, though, to maintain his second greatest love.

Gran and Granddad’s house was strategically placed to support this passion: a hundred metres from the Huntly Fire Station, and its piercing alarm. As the klaxon shrieked, Granddad would be at the wheel, ready to shadow the appliances to their target. Fire was his fascination, from the weekly incinerator smoking away in his garden, to the drooping cigarette smouldering in his mouth. He had a boy’s unfettered love of flame, which never seemed to age. I never got to see him witness a “real” fire, on his famous rubbernecking forays, but I can hear his phe-phew whistle coming out of those smiling, cracked lips, and see his gleeful squint as the flames creep skywards.

Granddad, in all his laughter and warmth, was an unlikely candidate to introduce me to Death.

He never seemed frail. Thin, yes. Aged, yes. But he held a presence far beyond the man seated in the red recliner in the corner. When he spoke, when he wove his stories, he was far larger than life.

In Waikato hospital, he could hardly speak. I remember the grey corridors, no fire to sap the chill. I remember him lying in the bed, a mask over his face as he struggled to breathe. Family members milled around in groups, with that helplessness only hospitals can bring. Capable women and men, lifetimes of experience. But nothing to do in the face of mortality.

I don’t remember him managing a sentence in the hospital, let alone a story. In his grey eyes was something unfamiliar, a trace of fear. I remember the Priest arriving, inviting my brother and me to stay, to assist with the Anointing of the Sick. I don’t remember if it was still called The Last Rites. I remember praying along with the Priest, using the archaic form of the Hail Mary. I’ve always prayed that version since, although I only just remembered why.

I remember the last words I spoke to Granddad in the hospital, as we left for the evening. “See you later, Granddad.”

But I didn’t.

I don’t remember my shock the next day, when the news came. I do remember seeing my mother in disbelief and denial. She rocked back and forth, reaching out to us kids, to our father, “He’s dead. My Dad’s dead.”

When they brought his body home, I remember the visit. His face looked different. Still Granddad, but the wrinkles less pronounced, the animation gone. His nose, I remember most of all, thrust out more sharply than I recalled, without his face shifting with laughter and life around it.

Into his cold hands, my uncles placed his Holy Book: the latest Best Bets racing guide, with some sure winners picked out. The visiting Priest didn’t find the comparison terribly amusing, but I’m sure Granddad did.

I remember the funeral. I stood beside my Great Aunty, wearing a lapel pin crucifix I’d received for my Confirmation. A dozen priests and a couple of Bishops stood among the mourners, alongside family, friends, clients and comrades. The celebrant, a younger priest, also knew Granddad: he lost it a couple of times during the ceremony. There was a Granddad-shaped hole in the room, and everybody’s grief flowed endlessly into it.

At the graveside, buglers played The Last Post, and everyone lost it all over again. Choosing a flower to drop into the grave, I remember the sadness oscillating into numbness and back, as the reality hit home. No more jaunty whistles to express surprise. No more elaborate tales, spun on the backs of elephants. No more Gee Up Neddy. No more Granddad. No more.

I remember. Being wrong.

As I think of him now, thirteen years on, I’ve gained other perspectives on his life. Like anyone else, Granddad had other dimensions, not all so rosy. He quietly ran with and tacitly supported the prejudices of his time and place, the racism and other ugly faces of society, the need to overlook and prevent scandal and never challenge taboos.

But the Granddad I knew lives on too. Remembering his funeral, a grown man bawls his eyes out. Remembering the hospital, the house, the sobs become wrenching, physically moving. Remembering further back, to a man who gave his grandchildren the gift of magic, the gifts of imagination and speech, the tears become smiles, become laughter.

I hold the memories, and they teach me about death.

I open myself to the memories and bring my ideal Granddad, my Granddad, back to life.

Just like he taught me.

I’ll never solve the mystery of my grandfather’s legs. And that’s okay now, because the mystery is enough.

There is no try

A man once sat down to write a masterpiece. Except that he wasn’t yet a man, not on the inside, and the masterpiece just wasn’t that masterful.

He wrestled with his words, afflicted quill and pen and pixels on a dozen pages, but what emerged was ever more tortuous, and less masterful still. His most precious convictions staggered across the sentences, crumbling into prancing, patronising parodies of themselves. The harder he tried, the more distorted they became.

And yet he tried. He wrote, he wept, he raged, but the words would not behave. Eventually, they stopped coming at all, and the man was left staring at a blank page.

It was some time before the words returned, tentatively whispering into his head.

The man asked, “Why did you abandon me, at my time of greatest need?”

The words replied: “It was you who refused to let us play.”

The man writes now, and the words come swiftly. He keeps two rules, keeps them on his desk and in his heart:

  1. Don’t be so bloody precious.
  2. Have fun.

This piece was written for Nika Harper’s Wordplay #13. The challenge was a parable on writer’s block, with the prompts “escalation,” “frustration” and “down but not out.”