I was honoured to be a highly commended author in the Stringybark Short Story Awards 2020 for this short story, A Favourite Star. I'd love to share this story with you below:
Clink. Another coin in the collection jar. Liz blinked, looked up at the young man who’d paused to donate and smiled at him.
“Thank you, Love. Have a nice…” The words faded as Liz watched the man rush towards the escalator. The shops were crowded today; always were on the weekend. Usually, Liz enjoyed the hustle and bustle of weekend shoppers. There was no shortage of those willing to stop for a moment and chat. But so far, today, no one had stopped to exchange more than the briefest smile. Or maybe Liz was just particularly lonely this afternoon. After all, it was exactly ten years today and there was no denying the melancholy she felt. It was emanating right from the centre of her, coursing through her bones even. Perhaps the crowd were picking up on her sadness? A young family were heading towards her, Liz took a deep breath and pasted a wide smile on her face.
His eyes are the same shade of deep brown polish my father uses to shine his shoes, was Liz’s first thought when she met Nullah. Darker, perhaps. He’d smiled at her when she passed him on the street. Liz was on her way to the post office and was in a rush, as usual. He was standing almost on the kerb, a stack of papers by his feet, one in each hand, holding them out and calling the top stories in a loud, deep voice. He kept speaking as she walked past, but his eyes followed her and a grin spread across his face.
“Oh, well now, thank you for your kind donation,” Liz said, her voice determinedly bright. She looked away from the dark eyes of the little boy who’d dropped the coins in. ‘Would you like a sticker for being so kind?’ Liz asked, concentrating on the boy’s button nose instead.
“Yes, please,” his mother scolded. Liz nodded at the boy as she placed the sticker on his shirt. As they walked away, Liz had an urge to run after the harassed-looking mother. To warn her that it all goes too fast. But she stopped herself, remembering too well the exhaustion of those early days of motherhood. Liz picked up the tin and shook it; almost full. She could pack up the table now, head on home knowing she’d collected plenty for the Salvation Army for one day. But she remained seated. There was no one to go home to.
“What’s your name, sweety?” Liz was by the post office entrance when the handsome man caught up to her, breathless. She crossed her arms over her chest and spun to face him, ready to give him a serving for calling a young woman ‘sweety’. But his grin was contagious and she smiled back.
“I haven’t seen you around here before, you local?” he asked.
“You ask a lot of questions,” Liz said.
He threw his head back, laughing and Liz wondered if she’d met him before, sure that his laugh was familiar. He took his hat off, held it to his chest and bowed to her.
“I’m sorry, Miss. My name is Nullah, what is yours?”
“Liz.” Nullah offered his hand. Liz placed her hand in his and noticed the way his dark skin made hers appear even paler. He shook it gently but didn’t let go as he spoke again.
“Nice to meet you, Liz. Are you local?”
“I am. And you?”
“Sure am, my mob have been here forever. I wonder why I’ve never seen you?”
“Maybe you have and you’ve forgotten,” Liz suggested.
Nullah let her hand go and it felt colder instantly.
“I would remember seeing you, Liz.”
The table legs squeaked as Liz pushed them down, folding the table in half and picking it up with some effort. Despite her weekly Pilates class, Liz felt every one of her seventy-five years lately. She shuffled along, aware of the dull pain in her lower back. By the time she loaded the supplies in her boot and slid into the drivers’ seat, a lump had formed in her throat and tears were already escaping, trickling down her cheeks. She sat without turning on the engine, watching the people walk by in the carpark with their trollies full of groceries, shopping bags in hands. It was the couples she focused on, noticing the way they walked in comfort, some hand in hand. Liz wiped at her wet cheeks and scolded herself. She’d had forty-five years with Nullah, she should be grateful and stop all this envying of others. She shook her body, attempting to rid the overwhelming need to be held and turned the key.
“What’s your favourite star?” Nullah whispered, his warm breath tickling Liz’s ear. She nestled in closer to him, her cheek resting in that perfect space between his shoulder and chin. She looked up into the infinite night sky and sighed.
“I can’t choose, I love them all.”
Nullah laughed. “That’s cheating.”
They were laying on the swag Nullah kept in his car; in their spot. By the creek in the local caravan park there was a small clearing just back from the water, on a low enough slope to be out of sight. Liz lifted her head, resting her chin on her hand, looking at the outline of Nullah’s face.
“I’m allowed to love all of the stars,” she whispered.
Nullah’s teeth shone as he smiled, defeated. “Yeah, alright then. But if you had to pick just one, you can only see one star for the rest of your life, which one would you pick?”
It was dark by the time Liz arrived home. She’d taken her time dropping the supplies and donated money to the local Salvo’s branch, chatting mindlessly with some of the other volunteers about this and that. None of them knew her well enough to understand what today was. Liz shivered now in the winter chill as she locked her car and trudged through her front gate. She looked up and noticed a particularly bright star in the sky. It was perfect, making all the other stars appear dull in comparison.
“You’re my favourite star,” Liz whispered.
The murky creek water was freezing as Liz tip-toed in. Nullah, already completely submerged, splashed water at her and she jumped back.
“Come on, Liz, you’re just gonna get colder if you stand there like that.”
“Stop rushing me!” Liz shrieked and shivered in her thin slip. Nullah swam back, strode over and picked her up in one swift motion. She didn’t have time to protest as he pulled them both under, holding her carefully in his arms. The cold water shocked her, but Nullah’s muscular arms around her middle made her feel safe. Their heads emerged from the water at the same time, almost nose to nose.
“It’s better once you’re in, right?”
Liz nodded. “It’s not that cold,” she said, her lips trembling and voice shaking. Nullah laughed, that musical sound Liz wasn’t sure she could live without.
“Come on, let’s get you warm.” They held hands as they waded from the water, their feet muddy. Nullah wrapped the swag around Liz and hugged her, rubbing her back through the thick material.
“Almost.” Liz opened her arms and the swag up. Nullah stepped closer and she wrapped her arms around him, enveloping them both into the damp swag. The warmth of his body and the way her leg fit perfectly between his, her head resting on his chest, made Liz wonder if they could stay like this forever.
“I love you,” Nullah whispered. “I always will, too.”
The phone vibrated in her hand and Liz hesitated before answering.
“Hi, Love,” she said, trying to sound cheerful.
“Finally! I’ve been trying to call you all day, Mum.” Her son’s deep, assured voice was a double edged-sword for Liz. She loved how similar he sounded to Nullah. Both voices, having the ability to soothe her, make her feel loved. But on days like this, her son’s voice made her ache for Nullah to speak to her.
“Sorry, Love, I was volunteering. Filled a whole tin today.”
“You have to slow down, Mum. How are you? I’ve been thinking of you all day, wish I wasn’t so far away.” Her boy lived on the other side of Australia, a professor at Sydney University. She managed to convince him that she was fine, that the anniversaries became easier as time went on. When she hung up, Liz laid back on her pillow and closed her eyes, tears escaping out the corners. Nullah was laying beside her, his warm breath tickling her ear.
“I miss you,” Liz said, her voice echoing in the empty bedroom. Nullah leaned closer, she could feel the warmth of his body, smell the damp of the swag.
“I love you,” he whispered. “And I always will, too.”