Twisting A Tale: The Winning Entry
Written by David Levell
Outback Australia, 1833.
‘Who’s there?’ A sharp rasp from within.
Maggie patted her daughter’s arm reassuringly. ‘We’re travellers, sir,’ she sang out. ‘We have lost our way in the storm.’
The door opened slowly, revealing a dark-haired man of middle height and age. His face – scarred and piratical – creased into a smile.
‘What ‘ave we here? Mother Duck and her half-drowned duckling. In you hop. Dry them feathers by me fire.’
Maggie and Lizzie entered the hut: earthen floor, rough-hewn wooden table, canvas screening off another room. Cobwebby rafters were festooned with pots and pans, hanging from hooks and nails. A draught wafted in through gaps in the wall slabs, but the hearth lent a homely, cheerful glow, accentuating the humbleness, offsetting the poverty. Here was the warmth of human sympathy, a welcome contrast to the drenching wilderness outside. Grateful, Maggie and Lizzie bustled towards the fire and held out their hands.
‘That’s the spirit!’ their host said genially. ‘Toast yerselves up nice and hot. That’ll do for your outsides. I’ll fix up meanwhile a small something to do likewise for your innards.’
As he set about preparing a nip of grog, Maggie said, ‘You’re very kind. We’re grateful to have found you.’
‘’You might’ve done better to have found me before that storm broke. But Lord, what a soaking you’ve had. Here, have a tot of this.’
He passed a tin cup to Maggie, who sipped, then passed it to Lizzie.
‘Name’s Frank. Frank by name, and frank by nature.’
‘I’m Anne Melville…’ she shot a warning glance at Lizzie, whose eyes slightly widened at the deception. ‘Nancy, if it pleases you.’
‘Certain it does. By name and nature?’ he joked. ‘And the young lady? What’s your handle, Duchess?’
‘Ellen,’ Lizzie said confidently. ‘Eleanor Melville, sir. You may call me Ellen if it pleases you. How do you do?’
‘I do all right for meself. Indeed I do, young lady. Perhaps you’re hungry?’
‘Not perhaps, Mr Frank. I’m positively starving.’
‘Capital! Course you are! Nothing like getting lost in a storm to whet your appetite.’
‘Everything about me’s wet,’ Lizzie said.
He roared his delight. ‘Oh you’re a wit! A jewel! A chestnut! Did I say that deliberate? Wet your appetite! I was born for the stage, I was! Regular Garrick is what I am. Except I can’t tell a lie, ladies; I confess the jest came to me accidental-like.’
‘The best things sometimes do come to us by accident,’ Maggie said.
‘No argument there, Missus,’ Frank replied. ‘I always says, Lady Luck can come a-rapping at your door when you least expects it.’
As he scooped stew from the pot, Maggie asked, ‘Are we by any chance near Mr Hobart’s property?’
‘I knows a bloke does splitting for Obart. A good march off here, he is, Ma’am, fifteen mile westwards.’
‘I suppose the storm confounded me.’
‘They expecting you tonight? I hope not. You ain’t got a prayer of arriving timely.’
‘Oh no, no-one’s expecting us. No-one knows we’ve come at all. But I’ve heard Mr Hobart is in need of a housekeeper and governess and…’
‘So which of yer’s which?’ Frank grinned at Lizzie. ‘You the one for scrubbin’ or learnin’?’
Maggie smiled. ‘I shall perform both duties myself. However, Ellen will make a fine parlourmaid as a bonus.’
‘Why, if I had a purse of coin I’d offer you employment on the spot, I would,’ Frank addressed Lizzie indulgently. ‘If only I had a parlour.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘Such manners!’ Frank cried. ‘Manners fit to bowl you over. A regular debutante. What a lass!’
Silence descended as Maggie and Lizzie tucked into their food. Crackling firewood and a light rain outside were the only sounds apart from the scrapings of spoons on tin dishes. Frank retreated to a chair and regarded his guests with guarded intensity, wondering and weighing.
Supper finished, Maggie felt a call of nature and stood, nodding a prim ‘excuse me’. Frank tipped his brow in a jesting salute, smiling. Lizzie, suddenly nervous, darted for her mother’s side. As soon as he judged them clear of the hut, his smile dropped. He leapt to his feet, checked the window, then fell upon their bags with practised swiftness.
After relieving themselves, Maggie took Lizzie by the wrist. ‘I commend your quick thinking, Lizzie dear. We are now Anne and Ellen Melville, a widow and her only child.’
‘Good girl.’ Maggie kissed her brow.
‘Yes, Mama, but why did you tell him where we were going?’
‘Because we are lost, and need to ask the way. It was a chance I had to take.’
‘Yes, Mrs Melville.’
Maggie smiled and brushed Lizzie’s cheek, feeling a surge of love. Wherever would she be without her? ‘Shall we return indoors to Mr Frank-by-name-and-nature?’
‘Yes, Mrs Melville.’ Lizzie was beginning to enjoy the charade.
‘We shall stop the night, and leave in the early morning – before he has awoken, if we are in luck. I must try to glean all I can about the path to Mr Hobart’s tonight.’
‘Yes, Mrs Melville,’ Lizzie smiled. ‘Nancy.’
‘You can still call me Mama, Ellen.’
Back in the hut, the predator feels certain he has prey. Closing their bags, he calculates the value of trinkets, treasures, and banknotes within, while making a mental summary of the salient points.
Firstly, they are unaccompanied, unprotected and unarmed.
Secondly, not a soul knows they came here.
Thirdly, no-one expects their arrival anywhere else.
Fourthly, alone and isolated, I have the opportunity, motive and means.
Unlike the eight-legged kind, this spider did not always immediately know whether those caught in his web were flies or not. But this pair, woman and girl, were flies beyond all doubt: a plump juicy blowfly and a tasty little gnat or housefly, already twitching and wriggling in the outermost silken strands, though they were yet to see it.
His mind was made up.
And he was going to enjoy it.