I fall. I’m crying but I don’t have time to stop. I can hear the older boys closing in. So I get
up and I run. My knee hurts.
‘There he is,’ a voice shouts. ‘Don’t let him cut between the houses.’
I spy a small gap between the grey panelled box-like structures. It is barely enough for
my small frame but I manage to squeeze through. I tear away down the alley.
‘Dang it. Go around, get to the beach.’
I break through the thin row of houses, but I know I won’t have long before the older
boys find their way around the barricade and close in once again. A blast of warm sea breeze
wipes the tears from my face. The wet and salty streaks now replaced by the radiant fingers
of the sun. The heat slices into my dark skin; like a rake across dry grass.
I need to find a shell. Daddy and I love picking up shells on the beach.
My eyes scan the emptiness before me. My brown leather shoes kick up swirls of sand
which begin to form small uncomfortable mounds beneath my socks. The heavy shoes and
the soft sand slow my escape, but I don’t stop. I wipe my nose and the breeze keeps my
vision clear of tears.
In the near distance I see a cluster of white shapes. Beautiful shells, devoid of life.
Before I reach them a strong hand is upon me.
‘Got you,’ Jeremy says. I know it’s Jeremy, it’s always Jeremy.
I try to tell him to go away. I want to tell him to leave me alone; but I can’t. I can
never find the words. All I can do is scream. Scream, groan and cry.
Jeremy pulls me toward him. There are three other boys with him. One of them is
even a white kid. They are Jeremy’s friends. They just stand and watch.
Jeremy’s strong arms seem to engulf me from everywhere all at once.
I pound my tiny fists against his broad chest. He’s only thirteen, six years older than
me, but much, much bigger. He kneels down. He holds me tight. I cannot break free. I wail, I
cry, I try to tell him to let go, but the words don’t come. The words never come.
Jeremy holds me.
‘Hush now, little brother,’ he says. ‘It’s alright, it’s just me.’
It’s not alright, I want to tell him. It’s not alright, and you have to let me go. But he
‘Hush now,’ he says again.
Jeremy starts humming. It’s my favourite lullaby. It calms me. My crying slows and I
bury my head in his neck.
One of Jeremy’s friends puts a hand on my brother’s shoulder. ‘He okay, man?’ he
‘Yeah, yeah,’ Jeremy says. ‘It’s just a lot, you know. A lot to take in. But he’ll calm
down. He’ll be okay.’
Jeremy hums a little longer. Slowly, I give up. Instead of fighting against him, I raise
my arms and hug him back.
Another kid asks, ‘Why did he come this way, you think?’ It’s the white kid.
‘I dunno,’ Jeremy says.
He lets me go. He puts some distance between us but keeps both hands on my
‘Hey champ,’ he says, ‘Why’d you come this way?’ He smooths down my button up
dress shirt. ‘Shoot, you’ve got sand and dirt all over your Sunday bests.’
I spin and point a finger at the pile of mollusc skeletons nearby.
Jeremy says, ‘You want the shells.’
I nod and wipe my nose.
‘Oh yeah. You loved collecting shells with Dad. I forgot.’ Jeremy sniffs. He is trying
to hold back a flood of tears. He thinks he’s not supposed to cry in front of me. I heard
Mamma tell him he had to ‘be strong’ in front of me.
Jeremy stands and brushes his hands together, golden flecks of sand waft in the
breeze. He says, ‘Come on.’ He holds out his hand and I take it in mine.
There are hundreds of people at the funeral. Hundreds more are gathered outside the
cemetery. The people outside are protestors. They yell at the cops. They yell at the
government. They even yell at the soldiers.
‘Dirty hippies,’ my uncle calls them. He always says, ‘They never been to ‘Nam so
they don’t know shit.’
We have to press our way past the hippies before we can get back in the cemetery.
They make way for us. Parting like the Red Sea did for Moses.
‘Another kid without a father …’ someone shouts.
I am cradling an armful of beautiful, perfect shells. People think I’m dumb and that I
can’t hear them. Or even if they know I can hear, they don’t think I can understand. But I can.
I understand most things and know more than they think I do, it’s just that I can never find
‘That’s that mute boy, isn’t it?’
‘Hush now, he ain’t deaf.’
‘Poor boy, probably doesn’t know what to make of all this.’
‘At least he’s still got his mamma.’
‘Jeremy’s the man of the house now.’
Mamma is by the coffin. She cries when she sees me but doesn’t scold me for dirtying
my Sunday bests. She embraces me in the folds of her dress.
‘Oh dear boy,’ she says. ‘You know better than to run off like that, look at you, you’re
a right mess …’
But I’m not here for mamma. I push past her and kneel in the soft dirt before the
Carefully I lay out the shells one by one.
I stand up.
For the first time in my entire life, I’ve figured out how to find the words.
Mamma gasps, everyone gasps. Jeremy cries.
The shells say, ‘DaDDy.’
The Three Minute Heirloom
The softwood frame was flimsy, but strong. It weighed barely anything. A mundane,
oversized bit of clutter – and yet my mother had adored it. Treasured it. Guarded it with all
the fervour and love anyone else would spend on a favourite piece of jewellery. But it was
very plain. Not really useful.
It had to go.
I examined the hourglass, turned it around and tipped it upside down. It stood about
twenty centimetres high, with its fine glass double bulbs tapering in the middle to an almost
impossibly fragile narrow pipe where the grains escaped to the haven of the lower bulb. How
many minutes would flow away, through that clear glass waist with the falling sand grains?
Maybe three? Perhaps I could use it as an egg timer, to boil the perfect egg!
The sand grains were so very tiny – almost silt – and in just two colours. Dark evil black
and angel white. They did not blend together to make grey.
But before I consigned it to the growing pile of discarded junk – because Mum had so
loved it – I inverted it, setting it down again on the bench and continued sorting Mum’s
The top chamber seemed to empty so fast, with the minute grains tumbling, rolling and
cascading down in a mini avalanche of white and black. By the time I had flicked through
Mum’s old faithful recipe book, the grains had settled into a little hill, almost completely
black, with a few white grains scattered randomly across the nearer surface. Not, not
Like … letters.
White on black.
I stared at the word spelled out. Word? It couldn’t be. No random cascading of tiny silica
grains could actually form so perfectly into letters. Impossible!
Talk? I stood the hourglass back on the bench and stared at it while I tried to settle my
pounding pulse and the light-headed flutter in my brain. I glanced around. It took way longer
than it should have for me to work out what to do next.
The obvious, right?
I lifted the hourglass and carefully turned it over again and watched the tiny grains once
more begin their downward cycle to nowhere. No words. Nothing, until the last grains slid
down in small cascade, wiping aside a slope of black grains to show – again white on black –
another word. I thought it was repeating ‘talk’, but the letters came out this time as ‘t’ and
Another word! Another impossible word. I wasted no time trying to work out what was
happening or why. I flipped the hourglass over once more.
And waited. Not for long. The next word was short. Simple.
Talk. To. Me.
Talk to me?
This was crazy.
I sat back and stared at the timepiece trying to still my thoughts and reassure my doubting
brain that I was not losing touch with reality.
‘Uh, okay,’ I said, feeling like a complete fool addressing the hourglass. ‘What do you
want me to say to you?’
I looked around. No-one there.
I tipped the hourglass upside down again. And waited. The miniscule avalanche again
began to pour down – far too slowly.
Gradually, over the half dozen or so turnings and up-endings, the sands finally spelled out
a series of words.
‘not’ ‘the’ ‘hour’ ‘glass’ ‘talk’ ‘to’ ‘me’
I simply asked it, ‘Who is me?’
Then, holding my breath, I stood the hourglass – so very carefully – heavy side up, onto
the table in front of me and waited. And watched as the sand grains, once more, tumbled
down to their destiny.
I stared at the timepiece for longer than necessary and again cast a glance around the
My whole body chilled, and I felt a small shiver soft-rumble through my extremities.
I spoke and flipped the hourglass again and again, looking for any alternate, more
I sat and stared at Mum’s hourglass.
My recently deceased Mum could not possibly be on the other end of this conversation –
I tried a sneaky question.
‘So, is this why you always kept the egg timer hidden away from us kids?’
A three-minute wait for the falling grains of sand.
‘And you inherited it from your Dad? Grandad?’
Pause. Think. Wait.
I flipped the timekeeper as the words flowed from my lips.
‘And you used to talk to Grandad, after … he died?’
A familiar three-minute wait while she replied.
I could almost feel Mum’s familiar exasperation at my obtuseness.
I hesitated then, because it was the obvious question.
‘Where you are, is Grandad there as well?’
A pause as the tiny white grains did their work.
‘we’ ‘all’ ‘are’
I flushed with a deep secret excitement that I had never before felt. A million questions
swirled in my brain, but I could not think of one to single out and ask.
Almost of their own volition, my fingers absent-mindedly flipped over the hour glass once
Slowly, the words – Mum’s words – tumbled down the shallow slope of the black sand,
word after word after word.
‘we’ ‘are’ ‘all’ ‘with’ ‘you’
The rush of love that soared through me flushed tears to my eyes and flooded down my
I flipped the hourglass once more.
All ways. Poor old Mum had never really been a good speller.
We are with you.
Correction, I am with you.
Held with two hands at his back, the boy drags a stick along the beach. Engraved sand
trails him, as if drawn by a long obsolete appendage. I follow not knowing where we’re
headed, what uncharted territory we’ll enter. He determines the direction and the outcome.
In his wake, I nimbly avoid stepping on the snake-trench he carves.
Twists and turns, lumps and gullies, unpredictable obstacles, he marks the sand as fate
has marked his life. Too many scrapes and scars for his nine years. Never does he change
his onward motion, never does he slow the pilgrimage.
‘I’m not going to school today,’ he’d said this morning, his Vegemite moustache
drooping as he spoke. ‘I need a day.’
We brought our already-packed lunches in a backpack and walked to the beach in silent
side-by-side harmony. In the two years since he’d come to me, I’d learned from him that
the thundering surf is more soothing than quiet solitude and sand between my toes is more
inspiring than any church sermon.
Relentlessly, he marches onward, etching his childhood in the sand. The detritus of the sea
tries to deter him: he skirts around sea jellies just as he’d dodged his father’s anger; he
ploughs through small rocks and shells just as he’d lived every day of his life. Seaweed
catches on his stick. He tows it, out of sight, just as his history clings to him.
Sun-bleached hair swirls around his bronzed face and knots in the offshore breeze.
Onlookers would assume this beautiful surfer boy has a wonderful life in front of him.
Truth is, what comes from behind too often determines what lies ahead.
The past follows him, all of us, inescapably into the future.
How can I help him when I can’t help myself? Who did I think I was to take on this
fractured, broken child when I too am broken?
My childhood shadows my days but I’ve buried my pain in an unreachable chasm – too
deep and overwhelming to resolve all these years later.
I can’t change what he’s experienced but can I change what happens next?
A dog bounds up and tries to wrestle the rod from the boy. Determined to maintain his
momentum, he holds firm and keeps walking, feeling, thinking, his composition guiding
The surf is our peaceful place. Out there, where water is sucked backwards to form a
wave that builds then races forward to crash and shatter near the shore. Day after day, all
day long, it moves; back, build, forward, crash, shatter, repeat. A rhythm all too familiar.
When I taught him to surf, I knew the sea would sting his eyes, salt his mouth, thunder
in his ears. I’d hoped it would also cleanse his soul.
Once on his feet, he’d balance against competing forces and react instinctively when
forced sideways to move forward. Sometimes, when a wave was too fast or too powerful
and smashed him, I feared the undertow would hold him down but he’d surface, hop up on
his board and paddle back into the melee. He said the ocean speaks to him.
Hours pass, kilometres pass. The boy stops, faces the surf and sits down cross-legged. He
holds his shaft like a tribal leader; one end in the sand, the other pointing to the sky.
‘Okay, let’s eat.’ I hand him a peanut butter and slightly browned banana sandwich. We
drink from our water bottles and crunch a couple of apples.
I look out to the ever-changing ocean, beyond the lacy foam to the swell. Sunlight
twinkles like fine cut diamonds emerging from the sea. Down the beach, the spray dims
and blurs what is beyond. The same blurry unknown as the future.
His breathing slows and deepens to the resonance of the breaking waves.
‘Ya know, it doesn’t matter that James calls me names and tells the kids lies about me.
It doesn’t matter that the principal puts me on detention because someone said I did
something I didn’t do. They all think I’m a fuck up.’ His left hand holds his sandwich, the
right twists his staff, drilling it deeper into the sand. ‘What matters is that I know the truth.
I’m not my parents. I don’t want their life. I’m a good person.’ He turns towards me,
smiling, blinking rapidly. ‘You love me and teach me what I need to know.’
Unable to speak, I fuss with gathering up the lunch wrappings. This child who’d spent
his first seven years in drug-induced poverty and neglect is mistaken. He’s teaching me
about love and forgiveness. His innocent wisdom floors me, inspires me.
Waves of resolve crash against my chest – a gift from the boy who guides me through
the sand with his wooden wand. The boy whose love and lessons wash my heart just as the
waves cleanse the beach.
We head home, back the way we’d come. The tide has turned. Gentle foam and the
rising sea have smoothed over parts of his prose. Other sections have been obliterated.
With every step, his sceptre pierces and punctuates full stops in the sand. A small rewrite
of his backstory. A small healing.
Congratulations to all that entered. Listed below are the authors that made it to our long list in alphabetical order by surname.
Justin Andrews – Finding Words.
Beverley Bird – The Circle.
Cherie Bombell – Back Story.
Chris Chard – Floatlines.
Johnny Graham – Searching for Sandy Times.
Russel Merrin – The Three Minute Heirloom.
Wendy Tarrant – Dyslexia. Pfft.
Bob Topping – All it May have Been.
Steve Treffery – Ten Years.
Lauren Wapling – Story Wire.
Gina Watkins – Mirage.
Connor Zahra – Green Beach.
Thank you to Lori-Jay Ellis and her team, and committee members, Christine Betts, Kerri Yarsley, Kellie Cox, Kate Kelsen, Jane O’Connell and Selena Budgen for their time and dedication in bringing the competition to life.