Short story comp: The Blow

► Read the short-listed stories
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THAT morning Russell and Mona had risen early and driven south to inspect a property in the town where Russell was to begin his new career. Now they were ploughing back up the coast, into a wall of rain that had been hammering down all week.

Mona had liked the feel of the place – curtains lapping at the timber windows, the bow of floorboards beneath her sandalled feet – but Russell had become hostile towards the agent, and she had had to drag her husband away before things got ugly. Mona had been ignoring Russell as punishment for this behaviour, but as the car veered across the centreline towards the woman with the black umbrella, she felt compelled to act.

Without speaking, Mona grabbed the steering wheel and yanked it downwards. Russell grunted as the car jerked to the left. He stabbed at the brake and the car spun squealing on the wet asphalt. After two full turns it settled at an angle perpendicular to the road, facing out to sea.

Mona’s heart clenched like a fist in her chest. Rain punched against the windscreen and the pounding of her pulse in her neck made it difficult to breathe. Mona peered through the rain at the woman with the umbrella, who continued to thrust forward, apparently unperturbed by their near-miss. Mona inhaled deeply through her nostrils and closed her eyes. She let the air escape her lungs in a deep sigh.

Russell pulled the handbrake. He turned to face Mona, one meaty hand resting on the steering wheel. His voice was calm. “Don’t ever do that.”

“Are you crazy? You were going to hit that woman.”

“There was a puddle on the road. I was trying not to splash her.”

“You’d rather knock her into the ocean.”

Russell scoffed and slumped back into his seat. Together they gazed out the windscreen. The rain smeared broad strokes down the glass, blurring everything. The distant haze out to sea made it difficult to tell where the water stopped and the sky began.

“I’m fine by the way,” said Mona.

Russell put the car into gear and reversed until they were no longer obstructing the road. The car rocked against its brakes. Mona was breathing a little easier, but the air inside the car was stuffy. Sensing her discomfort, Russell flicked the knobs on his door, lowering both their windows. A stiff wind whipped through the car, and salt air penetrated Mona’s nostrils. Despite the weather, Mona was reminded of childhood summers spent constructing sandcastles with her brothers. They would build them right on the wet sand, then applaud as the lapping water washed them all away.

Russell put a hand on her shoulder. “Look. I was in control.”

Mona studied her sandals. “I suppose you were in control back at the house, too.”

“Forget the house. We were both tired. Anyway, that agent was slimy. Did you shake his hand? His fingers felt like dolmades.”

“I hate dolmades.”

Russell laughed. “Me too!”

Mona shook her head, smiling despite herself. “I can’t believe you almost hit that woman.”

“Ah, she would have been fine. Did you see the size of that umbrella? She would have just floated away.”

Mona looked at him. “I might float away one day if you’re not careful.”

Their eyes met and something in Mona softened. Soon they were making fun of the strange woman who, for some unknown reason, was out walking in the storm. They decided she must have been Mary Poppins, marooned on the New South Wales south coast, waiting for a mighty updraft to whisk her back to London. It felt good to laugh together. Besides, Russell was right. It had been a big day for both of them. There was no use in being at each other’s throats. This was to be their next big adventure. She was proud of Russell for landing the job, and relished the prospect of a fresh start.

Mona bent and lifted the rental application forms from the floor. “So what did you think of the place?”

“It was a great house. Plenty of space. We could definitely live there.”

“Yes, it was beautiful. Didn’t you love the floorboards?”

“Sure.”

She smiled at Russell. “So we’ll apply for it then?”

Russell shrugged. “I guess so.”

“Well, I’d like to fax the forms through this afternoon. What do you think?”

Russell sucked air in through his teeth. “The house is great. I’m just unsure about this job.”

Mona stared at him. Russell was picking at a hole in his jeans.

“I mean, it’s a good opportunity. I just don’t know if it feels right.”

Mona opened her mouth to speak but her throat was dry. Instead, she unclipped her seatbelt and swung her door open. She marched into the rain, squeezing the application forms into a tight sphere between her fists. Seagulls dipped and rose in the wind like children’s kites. When Mona reached the footpath she meant to hurl the soggy ball into the void and watch it drop. But another object had caught her attention: the small black dome of Mary Poppins’ umbrella, bobbing in the swell.

Entrants were asked to write a short story inspired by one of four photos. Short-listed stories will be published every day in the Newcastle Herald until Friday, January 23.