James O’Malley is posted a package on June 25th, his 39th birthday. The rather largish package is delivered by courier and left on his doorstep. When James comes home, he rips it open and pulls out a Ouija board. A note falls to the ground. As he picks it up, he reads: ‘Dear James, Happy Birthday old man, hope you’re having as much fun as we are here in Rio. My girlfriend, Kate, picked this up at a flea market and thought it might help introduce you to the spirit world – and I agreed. See you soon, all the best, your loving brother, Mike.’
He hates the gift. He knows a bit about it from school kids; it has been created so the user can talk to spirits; but in James’ world, spirits don’t exist and never have. There is no spirit world. Since childhood, he hasn’t believed in anything except matter, the world around him, himself and other people. On entering his house, he tosses the board on the sofa, planning to throw it out later.
A month later and a party that his wife Maryanne had organised, is in full swing with rock and roll music from the sixties and seventies. People are dancing like hippies and drinking galloons of James’ home-made booze that is over twenty percent in alcohol content. Then, at about midnight, Maryanne comes out and turns down the music forcing the dance moves to slow and stop. In her hand is James’ gift, the Ouija board, and on her face is a mischievous grin.
‘It’s time my friends to raise the roof and connect with the dearly departed!’
In her other hand is a heart shaped piece of wood that will guide her ignorant hand to create messages from beyond the grave.
All fifteen sit around and the coffee table.
‘Come on James,’ says Maryanne, spotting him hiding in the kitchen.
‘You agreed to try this so don’t make me come in there and fetch you,’ she calls out.
James finally decides to join the group and sits on his knees beside his wife.
‘Finger on the buzzer,’ she insists.
A cynical James places his right hand’s forefinger on the heart shape piece of wood, alongside his wife’s.
‘Well done,’ she utters quietly.
Maryanne glances at the intrigued faces staring on.
‘So let us begin. Ancestors past, do not be silent, for we want to hear your wisdom, come into this room now and enlighten us all through this Ouiji board,’ she calls out loudly and firmly.
‘I call Elise Brewer, my mother to come forward. Elise Brewer.’
The heart shaped disc does not move and Maryanne glances at the hopeful onlooking faces wanting to believe.
‘Elise Brewer are you here in this room!’ she says with greater vigour.
Suddenly, the heart shaped disc jerks to the ‘YES’ box on the board a guest says, ‘shit’.
‘Thank you, Elise,’ replies Maryanne.
‘H-hi Mum…th-thanks for coming,’ she utters. ‘Are you alright where you are?’
The disc scoots off the ‘YES’ and then back onto it.
‘Is Dad there with you?’ she asks.
Again the disc moves off the ‘YES’ and back to it.
A guest says, ’You’re doing that!”
‘I swear to God we aren’t!’ snaps back Maryanne.
The guest calls out, ‘Ask them who else is with them.’
‘Which other soul is with you, Elise?’
The disc flies quickly from the letters ‘F’ to ‘R’ to ‘I’ to ‘E’ to ‘N’ to ‘D’ to ‘S’.
Maryanne says, ‘Friends. She’s with friends. That’s good, very good!’
The same guest says, ‘Ask her if she is with Jesus Christ.’
‘No, I already know she’s with Jesus.’ says Maryanne.
‘I’d like to know for sure,’ says someone else.
‘So would I,’ says another who hasn’t said much to anyone all night.
‘Elise, is Jesus Christ with you where you have come from?’ asks Maryanne.
The disc moves fast through the letters: ‘Y’ ‘O’ ‘U’
Maryanne confirms, ‘You’. The disc continues its jerky journey: ‘A’ ‘L’ ‘L’
‘You all,’ she says with raised eyebrows.
Next word is: ‘W’ ‘I’ ‘L’ ‘L’
With a little doubt, she says, ‘You all will…’
Finally the disc glides to the letters: ‘D’ ‘I’ ‘E’ and then ‘T’ ‘O’ ‘N’ ‘I’ ‘G’ ‘H’ ‘T’.
Maryanne’s cannot speak so James helps her out. ‘You all will die tonight.’
‘Fuck n hell’ utters someone in the group and split second later all the guests are charging out the front door.
When everyone’s gone James and Maryanne glance at each other.
‘Well that went well,’ says James cynically.
‘Maybe it was my Grandmother’s weird sense of humour?’ suggests Maryanne.
James gives her a look saying, don’t be ridiculous.
‘Throw that piece of shit out,’ instructs James.
Pushing himself off the floor, he heads for the downstairs toilet while Maryanne stares around the room. She catches her daughter, Beth, peering round the corner of the hall. Their eyes meet ever so briefly and before her mother can scold her, she’s scuttling down the hallway to her bed.
The peaceful town of Lilydale is home to a close-knit community of just over five hundred thousand and is nestled in a valley about five hours drive from Melbourne, the bustling capital city of the State of Victoria, Australia. Lilydale Lake, one kilometre out of town, is a large mass of water about ten kilometres in length and six wide. At the water’s edge is a ring of yellow indicating the very low level of the lake. Beyond the ugly ring lie large river red gums stoically enduring the long dry. Thousands of kangaroos are often seen at the lake’s edge, quenching their thirst in this unrelenting heat. Lilydale’s buildings, many of which were built in the eighteen hundreds, are stained with red dust. An El Nino weather pattern has this part of the country ruthlessly between its teeth.
James O’Malley, average build with short brown hair has enjoyed a day of recreational sailing in perfect ten knot winds on the lake with his family. Maryanne his wife, with brunette hair woven into a bun and a face so lovely that it could easily grace the cover of Vogue Magazine, crewed one dinghy, with James at the tiller. Sailing the other craft is James’ large eyed, bubbly sixteen year old daughter, Beth, and his older brother, Mike, who is taller than James, has blonde hair and sports a tattoo of a scorpion the length of his inner forearm. All afternoon, they race and splash each other, dive overboard and swim and laugh; they even do a spot of fishing.
As James hoses down their boat, a lyrebird appears with its amazing fan of colours. Everyone stops what they are doing and watch it peck one of the lifejackets.
‘Okay, we’re heading off, bro,’ Mike says, patting his brother on the shoulder, a sports bag slung over his own.
‘We’ll do something before you leave,’ suggests James, heading over to the tap.
He turns off the hose and shakes hands with Mike.
‘Sweet,’ Mike replies warmly.
Under his rough exterior, is a heart of gold and a deep love for his younger sibling.
‘Catch you later, folks!’ calls out Mike as he heads for his Ute, a black beast of a thing with tinted windows and fat wheels. He climbs in and winds his window down.
‘Look after that pretty wife of yours,’ he says as he starts the V8 engine and begins to reverse.
James glances at Maryanne and winks at her.
‘Always,’ he replies.
‘Oh, Dad, Dad?! Can I get a lift with Uncle Mike? The Jericho Fashion Awards are on TV in ten minutes?’ asks Beth running over to them.
‘If it’s okay with Uncle Mike,’ offers James.
Beth quickly removes her lifejacket, drops it alongside the others and runs to the Ute. She chats with Mike briefly through the window, then jumps inside and pulls across the seatbelt. Mike beeps the horn playfully as they drive off.
James and his wife store their boat under the yacht club next to Mike’s. They look at each other and smile lovingly.
‘Fun day, huh?’ she asks.
‘Yeah, wasn’t it. I was thinking...maybe we could cap it off with...’ hints James.
‘You really are a mind reader,’ his wife responds, knowing exactly what he’s thinking.
After they store the remaining sailing gear, James pulls down the roller door and locks it. He takes his wife’s hand and leads her down the car-park and onto a track that disappears into dense bush. The two walk along the path for about ten minutes before spotting their initials carved on a tree trunk. They veer off the path and step over the bush floor littered with pine needles and cones.
James reaches a stream that meanders through the trees and eventually spills into the lake. He turns and sees his wife standing still, staring at him expressionless. She lets her dress drop to the ground revealing a perfect hourglass figure.
‘Our secret spot...’ she says quietly.
James strips to reveal a well-toned body that’s been sculpted from working the land. He slowly approaches her gazing into her big ocean blue eyes. Their hearts jump a notch knowing what is about to happen. It has happened many times before in this spot and each time has proven to be pure magic, that has lingered on in their minds for weeks afterwards.
James places his hand on his wife’s breast. Through his fingertips, he feels the vibration of her heart...boom, boom, boom. Maryanne reciprocates, placing her palm on his hair covered chest. A primal urge brings them together and they kiss, their lips creating waves of tingling joy throughout their entire body.
The world and all its troubles dissolve providing the perfect escape. Both are fully present, encapsulated in a dome of tenderness and love. Moments like these, thinks James, make the struggle of daily life worthwhile. They are so precious and so perfect that Maryanne often feels as if she’s in heaven. James lets go even more, surrendering to her touch as she devotedly strokes his back a few times.
They slowly lower themselves onto the soft moss that thrives on the banks of the stream, eyes fixed on each other. Maryanne lies down on her back and lets her man take her into rapture. It’s the perfect end to a perfect day.
That night, James and Maryanne lay in bed. It is just after midnight that Maryanne wakes with a start and glares at the red numbered clock radio beside her. Something doesn’t feel right. She senses that James’ gaze was boring into the back of her head. Should she ignore it and go back to sleep? It was creeping her out and she was about to roll over and check to see but stops. Confrontations in bed are never good for keeping a marriage together.
But James was staring into the back of his wife’s cranium with dilated pupils and his breath barely existent.
‘James?’ she asks
He doesn’t move or blink. Satisfied, Maryanne closes her eyes and lets sleep reclaim her but it is disturbed, littered with dark, gnarly faces and dreadful frustrations.
Two weeks later, the local church minister, Reverend Velmont, sits on the sofa opposite Maryanne and James, a plate of biscuits on the coffee table between them. The Reverend and Maryanne sip tea while James stares at the floor, cold and distant. Maryanne and the minister have been chatting about the weather and sports and Ol’ Barney who squats in a ruined shack by the lake and always catches a lot of fish while others struggle to haul in just one.
‘Oh, it’s so nice of you to drop by,’ says Maryanne then sips her tea, trying to hide her nervousness from the Reverend. She realizes the social niceties are out of the way and now it is time to face the real reason why he has come to see them.
‘Well, it’s nice to see you, I haven’t seen you at church for quite a while and was wondering if things were alright?’ he replies, studying Maryanne’s face like a hawk. He wonders about the root cause of her discomfort. Her tea cup rattles a little against the saucer and she firms her grip on the handle, silencing it.
‘We’re fine, just fine. I’m sorry I haven’t made it on Sundays, I’ve just been so busy at work lately...’
James keeps his icy demeanour, ruminating over something that yearns to be voiced. The Reverend takes a quick glance at him and a list of possible marital and family problems course through his mind. He stares back at Maryanne knowing that her protective wall is not nearly as high as her husband’s.
‘Pity, we’ve got some really great activities happening these days. And the kids miss your Sunday school classes...’ presses the Reverend.
‘Well...’ begins Maryanne; she’s cut off by Reverend Velmont whose now on his recruiting roll and glances again briefly at the emotionally removed James.
‘Everyone would love to see you, you too, James, and your daughter. Some of the kids have set up a band, they’re even putting on a concert this Saturday night. Beth might like to come along?’
‘I’m not sure if that’s Beth’s thing...’ replies Maryanne in her daughter’s defence.
‘Right, and James, how about you come along to church this Sunday, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it?’
There’s a long pause, one that breaks the flow and zeal of the man of the cloth. James pierces him with his stare. He swallows hard feeling uneasy.
‘You want to know why I don’t come to your church? It’s because you keep asking me to come to your fucking church,’ retorts James sharply.
‘James?!...’ snaps Maryanne, frowning in disbelief at her rude husband.
‘No, I’ve had enough of this bloody salesman, he’s badgered us ever since he came to Lilydale.’
He looks the Reverend directly in the eye, determined to stop his marketing campaign dead in its tracks once and for all.
‘Listen, God doesn’t exist. You’ve just dreamed God up because it makes you feel safe and secure.’
Reverend Velmont knows that this sinner meant every word he just said. After a long pause, just long enough to agitate James even more, Reverend Velmont speaks.
‘Well thank you for your opinion, James.’
‘My opinion? It’s not an opinion, it’s fact. Religion is just one giant security blanket for weak minded people,’ he fires back with even more venom.
There’s a deafening silence for a few moments as the two men stare at each other, each equally outraged by the other. James finally gets up and leaves the room.
‘James!...’ the Reverend calls out to him as he disappears down the hallway.
‘No, I’m sorry, he’s under a lot of pressure on the farm. Sorry...More tea?’ interjects Maryanne, clearly embarrassed at what just took place.
Reverend Velmont is ruffled; he adjusts his seat on the sofa, nervously licking his lips and nodding his head, trying to accept the incident. He’s been so well embraced by the residents of Lilydale up until this visit.
‘No, I’m fine thank you...’ he says, mulling over every word that left James’ lips.
‘I’m sure I’ll find time soon to come. It’s just so hard these days, work takes a priority with everything going up in price. Guess how much avocados are at the moment?’
‘You’ve got me there,’ replies the Reverend flatly, a bead of sweat rolling down his forehead.
‘Four dollars twenty each, can you believe that?!’
‘Gee,’ replies the Reverend still not fully present.
There’s an awkward silence in the room at yet it allows the tension in the room to dissipate.
‘He’s a good man your husband...a very good man,’ utters the minister. ‘It’s just that...’ He lowers his gaze wondering if he’s about to venture too far.
‘Go on, say it, its OK.’
‘Well, his heart is closed, and that’s a terrible shame.’
Maryanne peers back at the man, not agreeing or disagreeing with him. He again shifts his seat, his lips pursed this time, his chin resuming its nodding.
‘God knows I’ve tried, Reverend. We had a party here the other night and we contacted my mother and grandmother with a Ouiija board. But James thinks it was me that was moving that little piece of wood across the board, but I wasn’t.’
‘Maryanne, please give that board to me this instant,’ insists the Reverend holding out his trembling hand.
‘Don’t you know, Ouiija boards are dangerous, very dangerous.’
‘Well what can happen?’
‘You don’t want to know what can happen. Please, I insist, hand the board over.’
Maryanne peers into the aging man’s eyes and sees a sternness like never before.
Standing up, she heads to the cupboard beneath the TV and fetches the Ouiija board. Returning to the Reverend, she shoves it into his open hand He grips it but she doesn’t let go.
‘Why are they dangerous?’
‘Hand it over, Maryanne.’
‘Not until you tell me.’
‘Let it go.’
’Suddenly Beth runs out of the gloomy hall and wretches her mother’s hand off the board. The Reverend looks gratefully up at her.
‘Thank you, Beth.’
’Why did you do that? demands her mother.
’It is dangerous. We used it at a friend’s place last year. Jillian has never been the same.’
Beth exits through the front door leaving Maryanne bewildered.
‘What did she mean by that?’ she asks the Reverend.
‘Well, I best be off,’ the minister says abruptly. ‘Captivating sermons to write,’ he says flashing a quick smile at his host.
He stands up leaving his half-empty cup of tea on the coffee table next to the untouched biscuits. With an air of urgency, he heads for the door, Maryanne trotting anxiously after him.
‘I’ll try to come soon, Reverend, I really will try,’ she says trying to cheer him up and have him leave on a good note.
‘OK, wonderful...,’ he quietly replies, reaching for the silver door handle on the flywire screen. ‘Thank you for the hospitality.’
With one foot outside in the afternoon sun and one foot still on Maryanne’s cream carpet, he pauses and faces her. In a low voice, he speaks straight from his heart.
‘I can see great potential in your husband - if he would just let Christ in. Can you at least pray that he’ll come to our congregation one day soon?’
Maryanne thinks for a few moments, unsure if she can speak for her husband.
‘Yes, yes,, I’ll do that.’
The minister nods her goodbye.
‘To you too,’ says Maryanne relieved that the visit is over.
She closes the door quickly as the Reverend descends the concrete steps of the modest family close to the shops of Lilydale. He hurries down the garden path that weaves through long grass, eager to return to the safety of his church and sip a soothing, solitary alcoholic beverage.
As Maryanne slumps her back against the door she peers at the dirty carpet, wondering about the board.
James exits the wire back door full of holes and a frame of flaky paint, his posture hunched and face drawn. It’s been another night of drinking at the pub, stumbling home and trying to stay awake in front of the television. Maryanne is working nightshift and has done so for two years. His daughter is often round at her boyfriend’s place, Kip. So that leaves James with his own company most nights, feeling lonely and melancholy.
Before turning into bed, he lays on the same flattened area of grass in the middle of the backyard. He makes sure that he doesn’t look at the garden beds full of weeds that his wife keeps nagging him about. It’s another hot cloudless night and he lets his eyes wander from star to star. As he stares into the face of eternity, he feels himself becoming less and less significant. His human mind cannot fathom such a concept and it gives rise to great wonder. Big questions without answers help relieve his depression a little. He contemplates how children often wonder at the night sky. But as they grow, their attention is soon diverted to the opposite sex. All too quickly, responsibilities, offspring, and making ends meet consume people and the mysterious star-filled sky is forgotten.
Tonight James’ mind delves into the possibility of other forms of life up there. He’d read many alien abduction stories on the Internet but never could quite believe any of them. He thinks how people basically want attention, some recognition from the world, so they write a bizarre testimony of being taken during the night by little grey beings to their space ship and experimented on before having their memory erased and sneaked back to bed. Everyone wants attention. Everyone wants love. No, everyone needs love. But what if you don’t get your quota of love? What then? A shooting star burns across the western sky.
The farmhouse is a rambling two-story building of redwood timber built some eighty years ago with old style glass windows, the type with a wooden cross dividing the panes. The house has over half a dozen rooms all with high ceilings, several bathrooms and a veranda in need of repair that winds its way round the ground floor. The roof was thatched from the reeds that grew on the property at the time of building.
The house overlooks many fields of dry pastures. Most farmers are struggling financially and emotionally. Cherished properties that have been in the family for generations are now being deserted by their heartbroken owners; it’s simply too hard to keep going. Occasionally, James would sometimes read in the local paper about a farmer who could not bear the strain anymore and was found, often by the his horrified wife, hanging from a noose in some remote location on the property.
In a barren field littered with the parched bones of cow, a considerable distance from the farmhouse, James and his father, Jack, erect a fence. James digs a hole for the post. As he digs deeper, he fills up buckets of water from a large tank on the back of the farm Ute and pours them into the hole, loosening the soil. Jack nearby, attaches wire to the fence post, a grim seriousness written across his face that seems permanent.
James hears a motorbike’s engine in the distance and looks up. Mike approaches them. He stops the bike near the Ute and the two brothers stride towards one another, grinning.
‘You’re home!?’ James exclaims excitedly and a tad surprised.
Mike had given no definite date of his return from travelling overseas, just a quick mention that he’d be home in the summer sometime. This is typical free-spirited Mike, not bound by rigid travel plans and dates.
‘Don’t tell me you actually missed me!’ replies Mike.
‘I wouldn’t go that far.’
The brother’s embrace each other and Jack glances at them briefly with distaste before continuing his work. Hugging is something foreign to this rough man of the land. Even when James and Mike were young, he wouldn’t hug them. Women hug everyone while men shake hands with men and kiss women on the cheek, that’s the proper way according to Jack.
‘It’s good to see you,’ says James.
‘You too, mate,’ replies Mike more gusto than his younger brother.
Mike glances at his father and thinks he’ll be upset if he holds up James for too long. This is his old man’s precious time. He can guess what he’s thinking: that he should have spent the last few years helping him out on the farm instead of swanning around the globe.
‘Hi Dad,’ says Mike not expecting too much in return.
Jack again briefly glances up at his first born child, his fingers bending and cutting wire with great speed. He’s erected hundreds of fences over the years, so many that it’s become an automatic process, it just happens.
‘G’day,’ he mutters gruffly without any feeling or eye contact whatsoever.
Mike smiles reassuring himself that such a brief, brash welcome was all his dad was capable of producing. On the surface, it is acceptable, he has grown used to it. But at the same time, the child within him is screaming out for some affection, either verbal or physical, from his cold father. But it also knows it will take a miracle for that to happen. In contrast, James’ inner child is curled up in the foetal position and has been that way for a long time after given up all hope of a loving relationship with his Dad.
‘I want to hear everything,’ exclaims James with a rare enthusiasm. For months now, his mind has been engulfed in a heavy fog of depression. He has carried on living but often feels like a corpse, dead to any feeling, numb to the world. It’s more existing than living.
‘This fence won’t build itself, James!’ growls Jack.
James continues digging the hole. After a few scoops of wet sand, Mike steps forward and grabs the shovel out of his brother’s hand. He digs the hole for him while James watches on.
‘There’s another shovel in the Ute,’ Jack barks.
He glares at his father, walks towards the Ute, grabs another shovel then fills a bucket of water from the tank. He strides over to a mark on the ground, indicating where the next post should be, and pours water onto it. After the water has seeped into the ground, he thrusts his shovel angrily into the earth.