The Red and Blue Ribbon

Stewart stared across the breakfast table at his small grandson eating his cereal with a spoon. Sam had been stopping with them all week as his parents were in Adelaide for work. They enjoyed having him around as it reminded them of their own little boy all those years ago. Friday, one more to go. He had promised him this weekend they would go fishing, something they both enjoyed immensely. Steward does most of the fishing of course, while little Sam plays at his feet with whatever is lying around on the wooden planks of the old Beachport jetty.

Steward gazed out the window at the inclement weather.

“Ahhh, a wet drive to work.”

The fog had still not lifted and hung low over the ground in wispy pools of white.

Sam made himself comfortable in front of the television to watch Play School.

“Aren’t you going to give grand dad a kiss before he goes to work?”

Steward received no response.

“I’m wearing that red and blue ribbon pin you gave me for my birthday, pinned to my jacket.”

Sam was transfixed to the screen. Steward smiled to himself, kissed his wife on the cheek and walked out the front door.

Mount Burr, where they lived, was a good 45-minute drive to Steward’s job in Mount Gambier, very easy with most of it on the country’s main road, National Highway No 1. The tall pine tree plantations stood like soldiers to attention with only their feet visible, their heads inside the clouds.

Steward’s new Land Rover backed out of the drive, on to the side road and slowly motored up a slight incline towards highway No 1.

“Well, this is bad, can’t see a bloody thing,” he stated aloud to himself.

The car parted the mist like a ship parted the ocean, disturbing the air only long enough for it to flow back upon itself and leave no trace of the disturbance.

Steward fiddled with the radio’s frequency knob until he found his favourite station. It was playing a song he knew well. Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets. That brought back memories. The night he met his wife, Sandy at the local town dance, they were playing that song. A little rye smile passed across his face as he thought of all good times they had spent together over the years. The raising of their boys into men they could be proud of.

The 3 kilometres to the turnoff was slow and tedious. The fog refused to lift. For a moment, Steward thought he could see the sun trying to force its way through the thickened soup but he wasn’t sure. How he hated driving in the fog.

Crawling along the narrow road, he came across no other cars. It was 7.30 am and normally you would have passed something by now. The radio gave out a fit of static then recommenced suddenly with a male announcer.

“Good morning all, what a beautiful spring morning we are having today.”

Roger Monk here wishing you a pleasant day ahead. Steward’s ears pricked up.

“Roger Monk? He’s been retired for years. What’s he doing back on air?”

Steward was perplexed. Maybe they dug him out of retirement for nostalgic reasons. Music replaced the voice and another golden oldie was played. Steward himself didn’t know this one.

It was taking forever to get to the highway. The side road was full of pot holes much more than he remembered. He cursed the council for not doing its job properly.

Finally he reached the turn off, it was still quite dark and he could hardly make out the road markings. Turning left, he observed a sign he had never noticed before. It was made of wood, white and pointed at the leading edge with words Mount Gambier 20 miles.

“What the heck!” Steward was confused. “When did the council start using wooden signage with mileage written on it?”

Steward smiled to himself and shook his head.

“I must be dreaming. They haven’t used imperial measurements since 1966.”

He felt uneasy though. The car drove slowly forward when to his total astonishment he notice another bazaar thing. The national highway was now only a single lane.

At that moment, a logging truck steamed passed at high speed in the opposite direction, surprising Steward to the extent he almost ran off the road.

Steward took a few deep breaths. “What was going on? The truck seemed to come from no where.”

The roads so narrow, it’s not like this, it’s a national highway, dual lanes. Where is it? Have I taken a wrong turn? I can’t have. I have driven this road for years.”

Questions with no answers raced through his mind.
The radio spluttered again into static. Steward played with the tuning knob and found a station on an unfamiliar frequency.

The surprises didn’t stop coming. Robert Menzies’ voice filled the airways telling all to prepare for war.

Steward was totally confused.

“I must be going mad.”

He wasn’t sure what to do. He slowed to a crawl. The roads surface was now poor, rutted and loose.

He looked down to his mobile phone and found no signal. The radio was now solid static.

The fog was lifting. The sun shone through, burning off the remaining mist to reveal a beautiful day. Steward wound the window down and took a deep breath. What superb air, he had not smelt anything like it.

The surrounding countryside looked very different. Large gum trees dominated either side of the road, the pine plantations had disappeared. The odd small clearing opened up amongst the trees to reveal the stone farm houses.

Steward’s head was spinning. This could not be. Was he dreaming or caught in some type of time warp? No answers.

The road was now an overgrown track. He stopped and jumped out. This was very foreign. Nothing was familiar apart from the gum trees and the vast number of birds in the sky. Kangaroos could be seen everywhere. Curious and unafraid, they stood in mobs observing this strange distressed creature with the lost expression.

Without warning, a spear pieced the thick undergrowth and thudded into a large red gum just to the left of his head. He awoke from his distressed state as the adrenaline kicked in. He noticed a slight gap between two sheoaks and darted through it. Running as fast as his old legs permitted, he headed for a rocky outcrop that might offer some protection.

Panting like an overworked sheep dog, he scurried behind the first boulder he reached. Peering around the rock, he discovered he need not have worried, no one was following. Steward caught his breath, then proceeded to walk to the crest of the hill to see where he was.

Looking out over the far reaching green plain, the area was deeply wooded, interwoven with vast interlocking wetlands. Hugh flocks of birds created clouds of colour as they took to the air, circling and returning to earth in a vast shimmering wave. Dotted over the landscape, a few thin wispy grey streaks of smoke drifted upwards towards the heavens, camp fires by the aborigines. A world of tranquility, except for a flickering glow of orange and red on the horizon, standing out in stark contrast to the rest of the greens and greys, an artist inadvertently dabbing the wrong water colours on to his masterpiece.

It took a moment until he realized what he was observing. Though it was still cool, sweat poured down his brow and on to his eyes. He wiped the salty solution away. An uncontrollable tremble took over his body. He fell to his knees.

Mount Gambier, the volcano had not erupted for 4600 years and there he was watching it. Steward touched the small red and blue ribbon his grandson had given him and cried.

He eventually staggered to his feet and slowly descended the ridge walking towards the far distant glow not knowing what to do or where to go. He staggered on for what seemed hours. He looked down at his boots, now covered in water.
These were the old wet lands of the South Australia’s Southeast before the European settlers drained them. It felt a thousand pairs eyes were focused at him, but he saw no one.

He wandered through the wetlands looking for the telltale smoke of an aboriginal campfire for he needed to be with others. The anxiety of dying in the wilderness alone mounted in his ever increasing confused mind. What did he do to deserve this fate? Where did he go wrong? More questions with no answers.

Exhaustion set in, he could no longer stay on his feet. The sun was low when he slid to the ground underneath an old red gum and rested his back upon the trunk. He closed his eyes.

A bright light appeared in his dream. The light spoke to him, it was his dear beloved Sara. She whispered to his soul, she was there by his side. The light became brighter and with it, all fear left his body. Her comforting face filled the space in in his head. All was well now.

A large group of aborigines surrounded the prostrate body lying still, under the old gum tree. A large black hand removed the pin on Steward’s jacket and they all milled around to admire the beautiful soft blue and red ribbon, wondering what it was.

Sam was stilled glued to the television set when the screen flashed brilliant white before fading in on itself to a pin prick. For a moment he thought he saw his grandfather’s face.

“Grandma come here quick, the television is broken.”

No response. He jumped up and ran around the house looking for her.

“Grandma , Grandma, where are you? Talk to me I’m scared, Grandma, Grandma…”

Twenty years later.

Sunday afternoon and Sam got up from the couch, as he was shouting to his sons.

“We’re going out, get your things. Enough lying around for the day.”

Two small adorable fair haired boys fell into line as they giggled to each other. The twins loved it when dad took them for a drive. It was always an adventure and the chance of an ice cream or piece of cake was always on the cards.

“Daddy, where are we going today?” they chortled back.

“Surprise!” was the abrupt reply.

Sam had read in the local newspaper about an interesting local discovery a few years ago. A cave with Aboriginal paintings had been discovered in a range of hills close to Mount Gambier. Remarkable to think that after all these years of European settlement, they were still finding artefacts. It was being open to the public for the first time and he was keen to take a look. Besides that, the boys loved drawing and were always interested in the bedtime stories he told them about the aboriginal dreamtime. Getting them away from the television had become a priority. He remembered watching way too much tv himself as a child.

It was a glorious day, the sun shone fiercely through the few clouds that were in the sky. They bumped along the old dirty track that led to the caves. A number of other cars followed behind looking for the new signs that were put up to direct them to the location.

This part of the area’s vegetation was till mostly intact and had survived the farming revolution as it was designated a national park early on in the country’s history.

A make shift car park had been organised on a piece of flat land below a rocky outcrop. The path to the cave was steep and difficult to transverse.

The boys plodded on gamely. Not complaining at all. Sam was proud. He thought how much better behaved they were than him at a similar age.

Eventually the path ended and after rounding a large boulder a small opening could be seen under a ledge. It wasn’t very obvious, so he now understood why this had not been discovered earlier.

After crawling on all fours for some metres, the cavern opened up. A temporary lighting arrangement was in place. It did a good job of exposing the magnificent array of cave drawings. A guide was on hand to explain to the public the significance of what they were witnessing.

The boys looked on in awe, mouths opened. The scene was one with nature. Kangaroos, wallabies, emus and birds of all kinds. Beautifully depicted in the aboriginal way, vivid natural colours with simple, but inspiring symbols.

At the back of the chamber in all its prominence was the erupting volcano. The aborigines were there to witness the event.

Sam took a step back to take everything in. His eye glanced upon a curious symbol – two blue and red lines.

Memories flooded his mind from that long ago day. He had been frantic, he could not find his grandmother. He ran screaming to the next door neighbour for help.

“Where’s my Grandma? I want my Grandma.”

Police cars, sirens, people everywhere.

His dream was broken, upon hearing the guide make a comment about the two-coloured lines.

“The archeologists don’t quite understand this symbol yet. It doesn’t relate to any animal or plant we know of. At the moment the meaning seems to be lost in time.”

Sam with a tear in his eye, looked down at his two small boys.
But he knew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Never Too Late

The week had been a long difficult one. Pressure was building at work to finish my current project before the end of month cut off. My wife was also looking forward to a more relaxed weekend having to put up with me, grumpy and irritated most evenings through the week. Both of us looked forward to retirement in the not to distant future. Do some travelling; a spot of fishing maybe; fix up my extremely untidy overgrown garden and do the odd job or two around the house. Work, work existing to work. We had been talking about have more balance in our lives for years, but it never seemed to get any easier. Anyway it was Friday, time to wind down in front of the tele which we did after a quick but tasty toasted sandwich dinner.

I had dozed off when the door bell startled me back to reality. I looked at my wife puzzled.

“Who could this possible be at this time of night?”

I glanced at my watch, 11.30. Way too late for anyone to be calling. I staggered to my feet, body stiff from inactivity and lumbered towards the front of the house. I felt uneasy as I tentatively opened the door a fraction and peered out. It took a moment or two for my eyes to focus on the blue uniform.

“Good evening Sir, am I speaking to Mr Peter Larkin?” the burlier of the two policeman asked.

“Yes that’s me. What can I do for you?”

The two policeman glanced at each other and the smaller one spoke.

“Do you mind if we come inside for a moment?”

“Certainly.”

Peter led the men down the narrow corridor to the family room where they sat down on the settee. Stella, Peter’s wife had a concerned look on her face.

“This isn’t going to be good, ” she thought to herself.

The burly policeman took a deep breath in before he spoke.

“Do you have a son Robert Anthony Larkin?”

” Yes, what’s happened to him?”

“I’m sorry to inform you, Mr and Mrs Larkin, your son has died in a motor accident on the freeway 6 pm this evening.”

The words didn’t mean anything to Peter at first. I t was like they had no meaning, not real, just words. Stella’s scream didn’t even seem really. He looked around the room in this daze and felt the tears rolling down his cheeks. The pain of reality seeped into his consciousness. His hand felt for Stella. She was inconsolable and collapsed onto the back of the settee sobbing.

After a few minutes, the burly policeman spoke.

“I know this is a very difficult time for you, but unfortunately I must ask you to come to the hospital to identify the body.”

Peter didn’t answer at first. His mind was struggling to comprehend. He had not seen Robert for almost 2 years, even though they lived in the same city.

“Yes of course,” he eventually murmured.

We haven’t seen each other in years and now I’m going to see his corpse. He thought, how ironic.

Peter and Stella sat in the back of the police car, numb. Life would never be the same again. Robert was their only child.

Peter thought long and hard. He knew it was he who had driven him away. He was to blame, no one else. Poor Stella was torn between the two loves of her life and in the end, sided with her husband. He had no right to have let this happen. But he did. His pig headedness created this mess.

Peter and Stella married later in life. Robert wasn’t born until they were both close to 40.

Robert was not like his dad. As a youngster he was shy, timid and insecure. The polar opposite to Peter the self-assured high flyer. The corporate animal who lived and breathed work. He was never home and when he was had little time for his wife and child. His job was to provide for them and that was what he excelled at.

The passing street lights filtered and flickered an array of motley ghostlike shadows through the glass window on to the occupants’ faces as they sped along the almost deserted highway to the hospital.

It wasn’t all bad; there were times they tried to get along. Robert longing for his Dad’s love and attention, but Peter’s short fuse and intolerance would more often than not, surface to destroy whatever little bond that was developing.

Never close, as time went on, they drew even further apart. Adolescent was particularly difficult. Robert was not good at school and struggled with low self-esteem. He got into some trouble with the police, petty larceny, nothing too serious. Peter could not accept a son of his would do such a thing. They never spoke to each other much after that.

The last straw came just over two years ago. His son had just got his first real job. It was going to work for a department store as a sales assistant. Stella was so happy for him and knew that deep down he finally felt good about himself. It was a start and that is what he needed.

The car was nearing the hospital. Peter stared out the window and remembered what a fool he had been. Instead of being happy for the lad, he had started an argument.

“A son of mine should not be working in any department store as a common salesman,” he shouted at his son.

Robert shook with rage. Even in his finest hour, he still wasn’t good enough for his father. Without thinking, he lashed out.

Peter just remembers sitting on the floor with blood streaming down his face.

“Get out! Get out! And never set foot inside this house again. Do you hear me? Go!”

And with that he went, never to return. Stella was beside herself, torn between love for her son and her husband.

Stella was the last to get out of the car. She didn’t want to go in. She had forgone her only son two years previously and knew now it had been the biggest mistake of her life. She would never receive the forgiveness she longed for. Never hear the words from his lips,” I love you mum.” Two years ago she had taken sides. At this moment she hated herself and despised her husband.

Peter walked in front of the policeman as the approached the morgue. He just wanted to get it over with. Stella sat down on a bench outside. She just couldn’t do it. The memories of him being alive was all she desired.

The refrigerator door was open and the body shrouded in a white sheet was pulled out. Peter took a deep breath and braced himself. This was to be the last time he would ever see his son in circumstances no parent should ever endure.

The burly policeman readied to pull the sheet back off the face.

“Are you ready, sir?”

“Yes, just do it.”

Peter’s eyes misted over. The face was exposed.

Peter was transfixed and started to stagger backwards. The policeman caught hold of his arm.

“You ok, sir?”

“This is not my son.”

“Excuse me, sir but the shock can confuse. He’s been in a terrible accident.”

“This is not Robert.”

He quickly turned and bolted out the door to find his wife.

“Stella, it’s not him, it’s not him.”

She looked up from her handkerchief with eyes as wide as saucers and embraced as they cried together.

The police came out of the morgue looking concerned in deep conversation. The burly one stepped forward and explained that the only identification discovered at the scene of the accident was a driver’s licence with their son’s name on it. Maybe it was stolen? He asked whether they knew where their son lived

Peter had no idea, but Stella, gazed up at Peter and uttered,
“I think I know where to find out.”

Robert Larkin was still in bed when the door bell rang. The sun was barely up and for the life of him, he couldn’t imagine who could possibly be calling this time of the morning.

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