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Fairy - Chapter 2 in The Clothesline series

Fairy was used to being alone.

It wasn’t something she had chosen for herself, but it seemed it was what the universe unilaterally decided for her. As the only daughter of uncomplicated,hard-working parents she silently witnessed the agony of miscarriages and stillbirths that wore down her parents with grief, until they simply gave up ever adding to their family.

The trio moved around dusty inland country, taking work where it was offered, living in a series of outhouses and workers cottages before settling in a small town on the highway. The narrow strip of bitumen shimmered in the hot dry summers and washed out when the rains came, but it provided a shaky conduit to the outside world.

As a child on the cusp of womanhood, balancing on a tightrope of conflicting hormones, the stretch of road delivered excitement to Fairy atop Greyhound buses, long road trains and family station wagons with steaming overheated radiators.

Their home was a small cottage and as her parents both headed to work in the town it was left to Fairy to amuse herself from morning to night, and she spent hours hung over the front fence, amongst the wild passionfruit vine, watching the world traipse by.

As the years passed without change to upset the family's monotony, Fairy grew into a woman. Her wispy blonde hair reached her waist and her face and slim limbs tanned in the harsh outback sun. Her father joked that although her hair grew, her legs did not and her slight stature earned her the nickname that she embraced.

Schooling came and went, also without either triumph nor failure. With much more emphasis on earning a living, Fairy left her parents, travelled along the beckoning highway to a vast homestead that sat squatly on wide green plains, many hours away. She learned quickly, mimicking the movements of the experienced station cook, watching and mirroring the way dough was pulled and stretched, and the way meat was stripped from bones before hitting an angrily spitting pan.

Cooking came naturally to Fairy and she worked from dawn till dusk, preparing meals for the hungry men that toiled across the station, not eating herself until the lunch packs for the next day were wrapped in paper and cloth, and stored in sturdy metal pails.

The station cook grew wary of Fairy’s talents and deftly shipped her off to the shearing shed to live and work among the contractors that visited twice each year to remove the prized fleeces.

It was here, in a kitchen built of timber and cast iron, bothered by the flies and heat, that Fairy fell in love. He was a roustabout, and his job was to quickly sweep up the wool behind the shearers and move it away to the classing table. The shearer’s gave him a hard time, tripping him up and smearing the handle of his broom with grease, but Fairy thought he was the most beautiful man she had ever seen.

At 19, a full two years older than herself, he was tall and strong with a head-full of wild brown curls that flopped over his eyes when he looked in her direction. They snatched moments alone together, to talk and smile shyly at each other, in an innocent way that seemed so childlike and sweet whenever Fairy travelled back in time to remember him. Without much prompting she can effortlessly recall the delicious flutter she felt in her stomach whenever their eyes met; a simple glance filled her with a warmth that made her days worthwhile.

Shearing came to a natural end, and she shared one passionate, desperate kiss with the boy as they closed down the shed and kitchen, before he was gone. Despite his feverishly whispered assurances he did not appear when the team returned six months later.

The boss simply shrugged when Fairy asked where he was, and that was that - despite the leaden weight in her heart and hidden tears in the dark, she never saw that beautiful boy again.

Kama cruelly intervened whenever happiness fluttered its joyous vibrations in Fairy’s direction. She endured lost loves, kind friends who turned vicious and betrayed her, and the gut wrenching agony of holding a tiny pale lifeless body in her hands. The burning ache between her legs that hot day was unmatched by the sorrow that wept in her hardening heart.

As the years marched forward and time cycled past Fairy withdrew more and more. She moved across two states following work and her whim, as if blown by an unseen zephyr of hot breath. Her parents passed much as they lived, quietly and without fuss, until only she was left of their family.

She was kind and gentle, showing gracious compassion to everyone who crossed her path but taking care, always, not to become known, or to know another. She cooked more meals than she had any hope of remembering, and with every steaming plate offered a friendly yet routine greeting, and her smile rarely reached her eyes, until one day she found herself retired on a small pension, in a quiet suburb on the outskirts of the city.

For fifteen years she lived undisturbed, the community large enough to suit her craving for anonymity, yet the traffic was slow and the streets lined with towering trees.

When the young couple moved in next door Fairy offered a neighbourly nod and occasional hello if their paths crossed but if she was being frank, as was her nature, she was relieved when they seemed uninterested in anything more. He struck her as brash; stocky with an abrupt cold-hearted way of speaking, while she was always very quiet and nervous, but they took up little of Fairy’s interest.

Unlike Danny Davis at number 43. Newly widowed, his arrival at the cottage on the other side of Fairy’s modest home was heralded by a noisy gang of his adult children and a mob of scampering laughing grandchildren. She had heard the truck as it pulled up on the street on moving day, some six or seven years ago now, because the brakes released a screech that set off the Great Dane across the road. Several cars also parked and a chattering human chain proceeded to disgorge what seemed like a lifetime of treasures out of the truck and into the house.

Danny disrupted everything Fairy had carefully crafted for herself. He persisted, determined to form a friendship - nothing more, mind you - plying her with baked treats, vegetables from his garden and taking her bin to the kerb when it rained on garbage day. She politely maintained her distance, physically and emotionally, for a long time, but his cheerful insistence that they be mates eventually wore her down. Against her better judgement Danny worked his way into her small ordered life. For many years now they have shared sunny front porch beers, exchanged small Christmas gifts and generally enjoyed each other’s company. It was a beautifully platonic friendship that defied Fairy’s bad luck.

Until now.

Fairy sighed as she stripped off the plastic shoe covers and stepped onto the strip of lawn in her back garden, before stooping to untie her shoes. It wasn’t easy, given she was still wearing the rubber washing up gloves. Once her feet were released from the leather trainers, she dropped them, the gloves and shoe covers into a bucket of bleach, before removing her apron and face mask. These too she dropped into the bucket, followed by the plastic shower cap that released waves of grey hair as she listlessly pulled it from her head. She submerged the lot under the water and covered the bucket with a lid, which she removed from a second plastic tub. From that she withdrew yesterday’s shoes, cap, mask, apron and gloves and quickly hung them on the small clothes horse, erected on the concrete path.

Her remaining clothes she wore into the shower, where she lathered up with precious store bought soap, now so eagerly sought after, before finally stripping off and scrubbing her bare skin. Eventually she emerged, hung the dripping outfit in the spare room to dry, before reaching for the bottle of whiskey that sat in the centre of her kitchen table. These days she needed a strong drink after visiting Danny. She needed the burning liquid to remind her she was still alive, and to help chase the tears away.

She knew he would be gone soon and her tired mind shied away from thinking about that day. She was in full self-protection mode; had been since the virus hit. She no longer watched much news, preferring re-runs of sitcoms and inane reality shows, but sometimes the ticker tape of pandemic updates intruded even the lightest entertainment. She listened to playlists of show tunes and songs from the 70s, singing along to lyrics full of love and hope, even as she kept an eye on the top of the clothesline over the fence.

Unless she ventured out for food Fairy’s world had shrunk two these two neighbours. Danny, with his ever present sheen of sweat and ghostly grey eyes, and Tasmin, the bruised and forlorn child bride, who she grew more and more concerned for, with each passing day. From her seat in the front window Fairy noted how many times the young drug mule visited, and noted with a heavy heart the thuds and crashes that followed soon after. She heard him rage and thunder, but it had been a long time since she had heard Tasmin’s voice at a regular pitch - their conversations were now held in furtive whispers between the palings.

It took another two shots of whiskey before the sleeping pill began to work and Fairy gratefully fell into a deep sleep, filled with anxious, dark dreams she refused to remember the next day.

“It’s getting worse, Dan.” She paced across the deep pile carpet that spread across her neighbours bedroom, her plastic shoe covers creating crackling static electricity with every stride.

“She’s black and blue today. Can hardly move. He’s so far from reality he’s dangerous. I have to do something.” It wasn’t really a question, and Daniels' short chuckle bought on another painful bout of coughing. Fairy quickly stopped pacing and handed him the child’s sippy cup of juice, trying to help him raise it, all the while hampered by the damn rubber gloves.

Her friend sipped gratefully but with little energy. He’s so weak, Fairy thought. How could it only be a week ago that they spoke casually from one porch to the next, only days since the virus had forced him to his bed?

“It’s the drugs,” Daniel’s voice was rasping, his throat horse from the hacking cough that plagued him and the fever that seemed to be dehydrating him where he lay.

“Bullshit,” Fairy snapped, uncharacteristically harsh. She hadn’t spoken to Dan like that since the first time he tried to say hello across the back fence, all those years ago. If memory served her correctly she’d told him to bugger off and mind his own business. The recollection brought a sad smile to her heart and when she met his eye now she saw a brief glimmer of the old Daniel in his tepid grin, that told her he was remembering too.

With a sigh she sat on the plastic stool at the end of the bed.

“Sorry.” She rubbed both hands - gloves - up and down her cheeks as if to wipe away everything that was happening around her.

“This thing has made everything mad, but I think he,” she jerked her head in the direction of Tasmin’s house, “was mad beforehand. He was bad before all this.” Daniel did not disagree; he was already asleep again, his chest heaving up and down as his infection laden breath rattled in and out.

The next day when she visited Daniel was waiting for her and seemed brighter somehow, more alert. She eyed him cautiously but listened when he spoke. She remained patient as he struggled to reveal his plan in it’s simplistic entirety. It was risky; if Tasmin was caught Fairy doubted she would survive, but as instructed she found a small glass jar and held it close as Daniel coughed and coughed. For an hour she sat with him, neither speaking, as they harvested the vile liquid from deep in his deceased lungs.

As she readied to leave she prepared another tray for Daniel, and on it placed some juice and water in toddler cups covered in garish designs, a bowl of honey and a spoon to soothe his raw throat and a new stock of tissues. As she turned to leave Daniel quietly spoke,

“Thank you. And goodbye. Please don’t come back tomorrow Fairy.”

Her eyes burned with hot salt-filled tears as she tore off the protective layer and fled into her home. As the water ran over her body Fairy sat in the bottom of her shower and sobbed and screamed and raged until she was exhausted.

It took some time before she was composed enough to re-dress and when she wandered dully back to the quiet kitchen she was almost surprised to find the small jar sitting innocently on the table. In her grief and rage she didn’t remember even carrying back through the fence, but here it sat, Danny’s gift.

Pacing up and down alongside her fence holding her broom above her head struck Fairy as utterly ridiculous but in these times what even was normal? She began to giggle at the spectacle she must present, but her chuckles were somewhat manic and she struggled for composure as Tasmin appeared at the clothesline. In rapid fevered whispers Fairy explained to her Dan’s plan, and with one swift movement she lobbed the jar over the fence where it landed on the struggling lawn. For a brief and agonising moment Fairy feared she would not take it, but through the gap in the fence saw it disappear into the basket of washing.

There was nothing more to do but wait. Fairy kept an eye on the clothesline but it did not move, and she hoped it was a good sign, but was fearful of that hope. Without Daniel to look in on and needing to keep busy, she tidied her home, restlessly moving through the rooms dusting, organising and rearranging. She pulled everything from the spare room and returned it to a guest suite, complete with fresh flowers she changed each day.

On Wednesday - or was it Thursday? - there was a tap at her back door and there stood Tasmin, looking calm but tired, with faded yellow bruises still visible on her chin and one cheekbone. As she welcomed her up the back step and into the kitchen Fairy was distracted by the rush of uncomplicated joy of realisation and optimism that flooded her body and made her limbs feel light.

With Tasmin to fuss over she did not glance out the front window so she did not see the van pull up at number 43. She did not see two figures in frightening white hazmat suits guide a steel trolley on unco-operative wheels up the uneven path. She did not have to witness the stretcher, covered in yellow plastic, enter Danny’s home.

Fairy is the second chapter in The Clothesline series.

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