The sun’s rays tangoed over a luminous sea to create a palate of aqua-greens by day and deep cobalt blue at dusk. White, bubbly froth settled on the sandy shore, tickling Rory Mullins’s toes like the head on a Guinness tickled his lips. He didn’t so much want to be in the sea, although it was often quite warm, or on the sand, the sun’s rays too strong for his fair skin. What Rory Mullins wanted was to stare out his windows and know he lived by the sea in his beloved, adopted country, a lifetime away from the bleak Manchester. The colours in the earth, weird marsupials, paper-bark trees, low-lying mountains, the wide brown land, and the laidback Aussie was his beloved potpourri. His esteem for the land had him joining the anti-logging throng when he was down the local pub, “the selfish, buggering of God’s grand earth,” he said, more than once, licking froth from his moustache. But when it came to his view, that bloody tree was another matter.
He supposed the Real Estate agents would say he glimpsed the sea, but it was enough for him. He glimpsed it when he helped with the washing-up. He saw the deep blue from his bedroom window on waking; he could see it while taking a bath and when he took a pee.
‘A bit of shade to keep things cool,’ his neighbour told him when Rory questioned the suitability of such a large specimen on a suburban block. The tree wasn’t a problem at first. It took a number of years to take root, but in the last few years, each branch produced a further cluster of branches like many generations of biblical history. Massive, it loomed in a greater expanse of sky. It was strong in the worst gusts of wind, bending but never breaking.
The previous neighbour had allowed him to prune the tree each year at his expense, but that only served to encourage the tree to grow more vigorously. It was a reasonable compromise and sat well with his values, until it blocked the view. New, younger people had bought the place and he would have to approach them about the tree.
Peering through his window at the blue-green leaves and the silvery tree trunk, Rory cursed the tree’s health and spent time severing the branches with an imaginary chain saw. It would cost a bit to remove it limb by limb, but he’d offer the new neighbour the opportunity, at his expense, to remove the tree and replace it with a more suitable one.
‘Just thought I’d put a proposition to you, Mr er…?’ Rory expected the man to introduce himself, but he didn’t. “Oh excuse the manners, I’m Rory Mullins from behind ya here,” Rory said, pointing to his property. There were many trees obscuring Rory’s house, but it was only the one large Blue Gum that bothered him.
The neighbour stood in his doorway. He was as broad as the door’s opening and almost as tall. His bald head added to his intimidating appearance. Rory cleared his throat. ‘It’s the big Blue Gum at back.’ The neighbour’s stare remained unchanged. ‘I want to take it out and give ya a nicer, wee tree to replace it,’ Rory said. The man moved forward. Rory looked directly into his shirt, fourth button down, pulled tight and gaping. He read tattooed in script: D, e, a. ‘What do you think, will I organise the tree loppers then?’ Rory spat a little and slobbered his lips together grabbing at the moisture for his parched palate. The neighbour took another step forward. Rory lost his balance and was forced to leap sideways in a theatrical way to allow his neighbour to push past. Feeling like a lame brush turkey, he followed.
‘Which one?’ his neighbour said, standing with his hands on his hips. Rory was a bit fed-up. ‘The bloody monstrous one,’ he said, wanting to add, “you big old bear,” but kept silent.
‘Absolutely not, I love that tree,’ the neighbour said. The flesh on the back of his neighbour’s naked head made one smooth transition to his neck before disappearing down his shirt just as he was now disappearing up his back steps and through his backdoor which he slammed shut. Rory had no choice but to return home.
‘Loves the bloody tree, does he, love at first sight,’ Rory scoffed that evening. Lying in the bath, looking through the long thin window, watching the stars come and go as the Blue-Gum swayed in the wind, Rory dreamed of murder. He’d got over his rage at the neighbour, having reasoned to do away with him was extreme and the outcome wouldn’t give him his precious sea view. His murderous thoughts turned to the culprit – the bloody Blue Gum. It wouldn’t be long before its roots tangled their way into the sewerage pipes and caused blockages that would have to be sucked clear. In a mighty storm the bloody thing could uproot and fall on the neighbour’s house or into Rory’s yard and ruin his wife’s rose garden. She’d be upset if that happened. It wasn’t an easy task to grow a rose in a humid climate on the coast. Much time and care went into those roses, to keep them disease free and blooming. That justified it then. He’d made up his mind, he’d kill the tree. The bathwater dripped onto the floor. Stark naked, making a spectacle at the window, he danced about, laughing. Nose against the glass, he said, ‘By jingo, I’ll get rid of you yet.’
* * *
‘I’d like a tree poison,’ he said to the man at the garden centre across town. No explanation, no excuses.
‘It has to have a kick to it. It’s a big bloody tree.’
‘This’ll do it, mate, no worries,’ the sales guy said. ‘Drill a hole in the trunk about so deep.’ Rory stared at the thumb and forefinger in front of him – about four inches. ‘Pour the poison down the hole and put a bit of cork in to stopper it.’
Very experienced man, Rory thought. If he was going to drill a hole, he couldn’t use a noisy power drill and draw attention to himself. A hand drill was needed. He walked through the aisles, picking up one or two other things, and purchased a red-handled, manual drill with a new drill bit. A sharp chisel and a hammer.
Rory went home like a child with a new longed-for toy. Each night he watched and waited for his neighbours to have a night out. He knew their routine. They’d switched on both the internal hall light and the front porch light. This was to insure the robbers thought they were home and served to indicate to the savvy that they were out.
A stick and wire fence, low and neighbourly, divided the properties. It was tangled with creepers that had become weeds in spite of the purple flowers being quite pretty and the plant known in Britain as a garden specimen. He cleared a section, the creeper cooperating by coming away in his hand. He was too short to leg it over where a taller person would find it easy, so he lifted the top wire and stepped over the middle one. It was a jungle of Cocas and Golden palms interspersed with the dreaded Bougainvillea that he discovered to his detriment when the thorns tore at his shirt and drew blood from his arm. The evening frangipani scent was cold comfort. The imposing trunk of the Blue-Gum was closer to the neighbour’s house than he realised, its girth at least eighteen inches. He felt in his back pocket for a flask of whiskey he’d brought for Dutch courage, but passed on having a sip before the job was done. Placing his tool bag at the base of the tree, he went to work drilling the hole, pushing and winding with his chisel until he was about four inches deep. Taking the funnel and poison from the bag, he poured the liquid into the hole while nibbling a wine-bottle cork stopper to make it fit.
He was pushing the cork into the hole when the entire yard lit up as if the good Lord himself had put a spotlight on Rory’s crime. Rory ducked behind the tree when he heard voices. From his crouched position he could see his neighbour’s deck flooded in light and the neighbours and their guests seated at the outdoor table. A slab of beer was on ice in a baby bath. Mrs Neighbour was serving potato crisps and nuts and opening supermarket dips. Next to this, a two-litre bottle of Coke and a bottle of Bundaberg rum, for the women’s beverage, he supposed. Rory couldn’t move. The thought of being caught by the thug and his mates was immobilising. Even if they didn’t physically tear him apart, the humiliation would kill him. The ache in his legs meant he’d have to straighten and get more comfortable to wait them out.
Squishsh, the familiar sound as the small ring on top of the tinnie snapped open, then squishsh-squishsh, another and another. Rory used a twig to mark the Blue-Gum every time he heard the sound of a beer can opening. There were twelve in a slab. The wet from the damp ground was causing an itch in his pants. The mosquitoes were making a feasting on his flesh with his permission, as the slapping against skin might alert the party on the deck. He looked about for ant hills, glad it was night or he might be found dead and drained of his blood. The humid night air, the smell of rotting plant debris, and the scent of the trumpet plant were soothing. He tipped the last drop of whiskey from his flask into his mouth, licking the opening and the lid. He used his marking stick to wipe around the inside of the flask and sucked at its end. His lips smacked together and his cheeks felt warm and tingly. The talk was deteriorating into lewd, sexual innuendo and the laughter raucous when he made his tenth notch in the tree trunk, fainter than the earlier marks. Rory yawned and closed his eyes.
Waking to the sound of voices fading, he realised the party was over and the neighbours were seeing their guests off at the front of the house. He could make his move. Stretching the ache from his legs, he tried to stand, but his right leg was disabled with pins and needles. A light-headedness and queasy tummy made him sorry he’d drunk a full flask of whiskey on an empty stomach. If he hobbled, he’d make too much noise. The clinking of glasses frightened him back into a crouch. Mrs Neighbour was clearing the mess. Her husband joined her.
‘Bonza night, love,’ he said, coming up behind her and grabbing both her breasts.
‘Steady on, Darl,’ she said, feigning an effort to release his grip, ‘you know how I hate to get up to a mess.’ But that wasn’t going to stop the young neighbour. Rory peered around the tree to see Mrs Neighbour bare breasted and the big guy behind her. Dearie me, he thought and looked away but then peeked again. ‘The light love,’ she said.
Dark at last, but he wasn’t sure whether to risk moving and be noticed. In the moonlight he could see them, their white skin luminescent, slapped back and forth. With each moan and groan, he felt the giggles rise in his throat. All that grog, Rory had to hand it to the big brute that he could perform at all. An almighty crescendo and Rory too felt relieved. He popped his head around the tree to see them totter in doors, alarmed when Mr Neighbour, he supposed, let a bodily, gas explosion escape and resound about the yard, followed by giggles and a bottom slap. Rory shook his head, stretched, and returned to his property, jaywalking to his back door. He’d have to take a bath.
Months later, Rory’s wife watched the leaves fall from the evergreen Blue-Gum, its branches reaching skyward and discoloured. A few had broken off. Her heart ached when she thought Rory would be pleased, but then she liked to think his view was very grand from where he was now. Why he had chosen to take a bath in the middle of the night she’d never understood, but there he was, propped up in half a bath of water, his damp clothes and tool bag dropped beside the tub. In his tool bag, there was a red hand drill, chisel, hammer, one empty bottle of poison, but not enough to kill a man if he was foolish enough to drink it, and an empty whiskey flask with a twig of the deadly Oleander tree hanging from it. When she found him, she swore he had a smile on his face.
Elizabeth Robyn Stanton is an Australian Psychologist and writer who has won and placed in completions around the world. She has published short stories on line and in print in several counties. She lives with her Texan husband in Houston when not living on Australia.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “A Twist of Fate”
Sometimes it’s difficult to decide exactly why we chose a particular story other than we simply liked it. This one has several elements that, individually, don’t make a big impression, but collectively they pull together to create a solid piece of writing: the marvelous opening description that paints both an interesting setting and shows the character’s initial frame of mind and conflict; the imposing neighbor himself; the consistent voice of the character; the little bits of charm and humor (we especially loved “Mrs. Neighbour”).
These result in a piece of writing that pays attention to all these little bits of writing craft to give an enjoyable story that portrays several aspects of basic human nature.