This is Part 2/3 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!
The next morning Beryl was out on the front lawn, yanking weeds out of her flowerbed when she spied Joy herding her three older daughters onto the school bus. Wearing a bright yellow sundress with a plunging neckline, Joy looked more like a lady at the races instead of a battered country housewife.
The dress did wonders for her figure, Beryl acknowledged enviously, hugging her slim waist and spiralling out down to her ankles to float above a pair of red high heels. Beryl imagined the heels were probably very uncomfortable on the uneven ground, but Joy didn’t seem to mind, holding herself with more grace and confidence than Beryl had ever seen her display before.
Pat wouldn’t approve of a dress like that, he would say it was immodest. The bus driver didn’t seem to have the same qualms about modesty, leaning as far as possible out his seat to catch a glimpse down her dress as they talked. Beryl couldn’t hear what they were saying, but Joy was gesturing emphatically, a half-smoked cigarette poised precariously between her fingertips.
Joy was forced to end her conversation when her youngest child came out of the house in her pyjamas calling for mummy. She waved goodbye to the driver, turning to scoop up her daughter up with the hand not holding the cigarette.
The driver reluctantly shut the doors and proceeded down the street while Joy tried to console her daughter, who seemed to be working herself up to a tantrum. Beryl looked down towards her flowers, hoping to continue with her work unobserved.
She had been trying to avoid Joy these past few days, but Pat had wanted the garden tidied before their daughter and her husband came to visit so she had been forced to don her old overalls and head outside. Pat would mow the lawn later, but the flowers were Beryl’s domain, she wouldn’t have him messing up her gardenias.
She had no desire to speak to Joy after all that she had seen these past few days. She knew the Bible said ‘love thy neighbour’ but she doubted Moses ever had neighbours like the Clarkes. Best to keep her head down and continue with the task at hand.
The child seemed to have quietened down and Beryl thought both of them had gone inside when she heard footsteps approaching.
“Need a hand?” Joy exclaimed, approaching the verge between their front yards, both arms carrying her daughter (the cigarette seemed to have vanished).
Beryl took in her neighbour’s sleek hairstyle, abundant cleavage and rouged cheeks, lost for words.
“I’m a bit of a green thumb, as you may have guessed.” Joy said, a glint of amusement in her eyes.
Joy’s heels were planted firmly amongst a sea of dead flowers, the rest of her lawn composed predominantly of uneven brown grass, with a scattering of children’s toys.
“You look like you have your hands full already.” Beryl said, gesturing to Joy’s daughter, who was busy pulling at her mother’s top, hoping to find some food.
“That’s certainly true.” She replied, grabbing her daughter’s hands a little too forcefully. “Don’t do that Jenny, it’s not nice.” Joy snapped, glaring at the child whose bottom lip began to tremble.
“I’ll be making some beef stew today, it’s my own secret recipe.” She said with a wink. “Would you like me to bring you and Pat some later on?”
Was this a bribe? Did Joy know that Beryl was onto her? Or was she simply trying to smooth over the awkwardness of the other day when Beryl saw her almost murder her husband?
“No thank you.” Beryl said a little too quickly, immediately regretting her rudeness. For a second Beryl thought Joy looked angry, but then her charming smile was back on show.
“Well then, happy gardening and don’t break a hip dear.” she sneered, turning abruptly on her heel and stalking back towards the house.
For a whole week, Beryl was convinced something had happened to Daniel, until one evening on their way home from the pictures the Campbells saw him stumble out of the pub, blind drunk, and collapse on a park bench across the road.
“See Beryl, your imagination got the better of you didn’t it? Clarke is just fine.” Pat said, shaking his head at his wife’s ridiculous notions of intrigue and murder in the suburbs.
Fine is a stretch, Beryl thought glancing over at Daniel, who lay face down on the bench with one arm hanging limp off the side. The weather was unseasonably cold and he certainly wasn’t dressed for it, wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt.
They could smell the alcohol on him from the other side of the road, it made Beryl feel sick. The stink of alcohol always disgusted her, ever since her Dad got into the grog when he returned home from service. She couldn’t go anywhere in the house without that horrible reek creeping up on her, sinking into the furniture and the linen. It was a smell that filled her with anger and pity at the same time.
“Do you think he’s alright?” She said, slowing her pace as they passed. As if in answer to her question, Daniel shifted his position, let out a loud fart and started to snore.
“He’s fine, a waste of space, but fine.” Pat replied steering his wife away from the embarrassing sight of their neighbour passed out on a park bench. Beryl let herself be led and the two of them continued down the street past a number of new buildings marked for lease.
“It’s those kids I’m worried about.” Pat continued, surprising Beryl with his concern for the Clarke children.
“And his poor wife. That’s no way for the head of the household to behave.” He said adamantly, straightening his back a little, as if to emphasise how the man of the house should conduct himself. Beryl gave him an affectionate pat on the arm as they turned the corner, leaving Daniel behind.
Later that night Beryl and Pat were awoken by the sound of a cacophony of voices outside their window.
“Stay inside, let me see what’s going on.” Pat said, fumbling for his trousers in the dark before heading out the door. After their last argument, Beryl felt stubborn and followed regardless.
The scene that greeted her was one she had never witnessed in their street before. There was a crowd of police officers in front of the Clarkes’ house and a number of emergency vehicles parked on the street. Joy was sitting on her veranda, speaking with one of the policemen and looking very upset.
Beryl could see a few locals milling about on the street, including Ruby, who waved over the crowd and began to head towards her.
“Oh Beryl, you won’t believe what’s happened!” Ruby exclaimed, hurrying down Beryl’s garden path clad in a fluffy pink dressing gown, hair in rollers.
“He’s dead Beryl! Would you believe that Daniel is dead?!” Ruby’s words conveyed a tragedy, but her tone and expression were animated; this was the most exciting news she’d heard in a long time!
Beryl suddenly felt quite cold, despite the warm night.
“I don’t suppose we’ll find out the details tonight, will we?” She said, looking over at Pat who was been shooed away by an irritated police officer.
“Oh, I already know, that’s my nephew over there.” Ruby replied, gesturing enthusiastically to a young officer by one of the police cars, who waved back at them.
“He says that they received a call from Joy about half an hour ago and she told them her husband had drowned in the bathtub. Apparently, she said that Daniel was out drinking when she went to bed and must have come home and fallen in while she was asleep.”
Beryl could hardly believe something this tragic had happened on her street. It was like she was in one of her favourite crime novels!
“I bet she killed him. I bet she drowned him herself!” Ruby exclaimed, her eyes bulging.
Beryl looked over to the Clarkes’ veranda where Joy was sitting with one of the officers. Hunched over with an ashen face, she was playing the part of a grieving wife very well. The officer seemed enraptured by whatever she was saying, offering her a hanky and patting her arm.
You don’t fool me you little minx, Beryl thought to herself. It won’t be long before you’re in prison where you belong.