This is Part 1/3 of ‘Death and the Gum Tree’, a short story I wrote last year. The story is set in a small Australian country town in the 1970s. Any constructive feedback is welcome. Hope you enjoy!
It was a sunny Monday afternoon when the trouble began.
Beryl Campbell was peeling carrots, letting the skin fall idly into the kitchen sink when she heard her neighbours screaming at each other, yet again.
“Bloody Clarkes at it again!” Her husband Pat exclaimed from his armchair in front of the television.
Pat and Beryl had lived a comfortable life over the years, raising two children on a sleepy street where everyone knew each other. During that time they had watched warily as the city and its ‘modern values’ crept towards them. According to Pat the Clarke family were the embodiment of those immoral ‘values’.
Loud, rude and didn’t bother to get married until they had two children, Pat often exclaimed after a few beers. Beryl had always agreed with him, although she did feel sorry for Joy Clarke from time to time, rustling all those kids while her husband was out drinking with whatever woman he pleased. Daniel Clarke’s adultery was the worst kept secret in town. Most nights he would come home stinking of beer and raise a hand to his wife.
“That’s it!” Joy exclaimed. “I’ve had enough of you!”
“Put that down, you don’t even know where the ammo is.” Daniel snarled bitterly.
Beryl froze, straining to hear more of the conversation.
“It was in the box on top of the wardrobe.” Joy said maliciously.
Beryl watched astonished from her kitchen window as Daniel sprinted out the back door, tripped and fell face first into the dirt.
“You’re crazy!” Daniel shouted, scrambling up off the ground, his plaid shirt dusty. Joy was looking down at him from the back veranda, an old shotgun in hand, surprisingly calm.
Daniel bolted to the cover of an old gum tree at the back of the yard. Beryl watched as Joy advanced, gun trained on Daniel’s shield, which seemed woefully inadequate.
At that moment Beryl finally found her voice.
“Don’t do it Joy!” she shouted, dropping her carrot and racing out into her backyard.
Joy paused, staring at Beryl for a moment before turning back to Daniel, who peeked out from behind the tree.
Then Joy did the thing that everyone least expected, and laughed. Beryl watched in amazement as Joy doubled over with mirth, clutching her gun to her chest as tears rolled down her cheeks. Still laughing she headed back inside the house, slamming the door behind her.
Beryl breathed a sigh of relief.
Her neighbour Ruby had been watching the exchange from her yard, her wide brown eyes peeking over the fence. Catching sight of Beryl she waved enthusiastically before turning to Daniel who had emerged from behind the tree.
“Well I guess you’ve been told, haven’t you? Ain’t never seen a man run from a woman like that!” Ruby yelled.
“Shut up bitch.” Daniel spat, before heading down the side of the house and out of sight.
Beryl wasted no time telling Pat what she had witnessed. To her disappointment, he didn’t seem very interested and asked her if she was sure it was a gun Joy was holding.
“Yes Pat, I know what a gun looks like.” She replied, put out.
“Alright dear, I just wasn’t sure you had ever seen one before. Anyway, can I get back to the game?” He said, gesturing to the football match that he had muted.
Beryl sighed and headed back into the kitchen.
“Can I get a beer as well?!” Pat called after her.
Dinner that night was roast lamb with gravy and steamed vegetables.
“Looks great honey.” He said, giving Beryl a peck on the cheek before sitting down at the head of the table. Beryl winced as she heard the tell-tale screech of his chair against the hardwood floor. She was always reminding her husband not to scratch the floorboards, but Pat said he wanted a house that looked lived in – Beryl suspected he was just being lazy.
Now wasn’t the time to bring up that old argument though; she needed to pick her battles. She had cleverly made Pat’s favourite dinner, going as far as opening up the Bordeaux their son had brought back from France. It was only after Pat had finished his first glass that she brought up what had been on her mind.
“I think we should move.” she said, bracing herself.
Pat took a moment to savour the lamb in his mouth before speaking.
“I’m not leaving a comfortable home because the neighbours make you uneasy.” He replied, not bothering to look up from his meal.
Beryl knew he would react this way, they had discussed moving for various reasons over the years and Pat had always been dead set against the idea. Unfortunately, it was not like her husband to change his mind. He had always been confident in his own opinion and while this had appealed to Beryl when they first dated, over the years she had begun to find it stifling.
“You didn’t see what happened today, she had a gun and she could have killed him.”
Pat looked bemused at that.
“Probably just wanted to scare the fella straight. Joy Clarke is harmless, white trash, but harmless. I think you have been reading too many of those Christie books.”
“I just don’t feel safe living next door to them Pat. There are new houses going up west of the river and-”
“We’ve been on this street for four decades Beryl, and we know everyone. You don’t want to move now and have to make new friends do you?”
“No ‘buts’ Beryl, I’m putting my foot down on this one. Now can I finish my dinner while it’s still hot?”
Beryl sank back into her chair and said nothing.
Beryl didn’t see much of Daniel in the days following his argument with Joy. The late night arguments stopped and Pat was happy that those “bloody Clarkes” had finally quietened down. Pat didn’t think for a minute that something had happened to Daniel, but Beryl’s imagination began to concoct elaborate stories involving poison and midnight burials.
For Pat life just went on as normal. As far as he was concerned Daniel was an errant husband taught a lesson by his wronged wife. Beryl sometimes wondered if Pat held a soft spot for Joy; this, of course, made her dislike the woman even more.
One morning, not long after the fight, Beryl was frying up some bacon when she saw Joy from the kitchen window.
Beryl stopped and stared as Joy took an axe to the gumtree in the backyard. With what looked like intense concentration she began hacking away. Beryl watched transfixed as Joy quickened her pace, her swings becoming more frantic as she sent the axe crashing repeatedly into the tree that had sheltered Daniel from her gun. There was a loud cracking sound and for a moment Beryl was worried that tree would collapse onto the fence between the two properties, but it fell the other way, thumping gracefully in the centre of the Clarkes’ backyard.
The smell of burnt bacon jolted Beryl back to her kitchen and she looked down to see that she had overdone their breakfast.
“Language!” Pat exclaimed from his seat in front of the television with a faux fatherly tone, chuckling to himself.
Beryl swept the frying pan off the heat but it was too late; four thoroughly miserable rashers of charred bacon seemed to stare accusingly at her.
“Off with the fairies are you darling?” Pat said, spying the burnt bacon as he entered the room.
“I’m sorry Pat, let me make you some more.”
“No time love, I need to get into town, I promised Jacob I’d help him with his books this morning. The poor fella would lose his head if it wasn’t screwed on.” He said laughing to himself again.
“Alright dear, but let me at least get you some cereal,” Beryl replied, already rummaging around the cupboard for the cornflakes.
Pat left for the town not long after shovelling down his breakfast, giving his wife a peck on the cheek before rushing out the door.
By the time Beryl got back to the window Joy Clarke was gone, probably getting the kids ready for school. Beryl stared at the dead tree, a prone figure in the middle of the Clarke’s backyard. The wind had picked up and was tossing the branches about.