Elsie’s Dream

A winning story.

This year, the Queenstown Writers Festival team held a mini festival featuring author talks workshops, as well as, for the first time, a writing contest.

The Anna-Marie Chin Writing Competition saw writers from Otago and Southland given a range of prompts and 48 hours to write an original response, either fiction or non-fiction, to one of them. As festival trustee Jen Smart explained, the most interesting ideas are often formed under pressure. “We’ve all seen the impressive work produced in the 48-Hour Film Festival – the spirit of this competition is the same. We’re inviting writers to put aside all those things that get in the way of starting, and just begin writing.”

The Open section was judged by Steve Braunias, who said he would look for characters who say and do things like real people. “I want stories where things actually happen, and one or two beautiful sentences.” 

He chose Jane Coombs’ short story Elsie’s Dream as the top entry, which was based on the following prompt:

A very old, very run-down home in a wealthy suburb. Every home costs way over $1m and is new. But this house is an eyesore, and not worth anything – all the money is in the land, not the rotting timbers. Who might live there? How is it that they refuse to sell, and have their house bowled? What kind of life might they be living?

She received $500 for her work, and publication here, in this issue of 1964: mountain culture / aotearoa. Kick off your summer reading with Elsie’s Dream, the winner of the inaugural Anna-Marie Chin Writing Competition.

Elsie’s Dream

Elsie woke slowly, pinned down by her heavy quilt, made heavier by the morning dew. She didn’t sleep in the house anymore and had relocated her mattress onto the veranda, safe from rain but otherwise open to the elements. From here the new subdivision which had encroached like a weed was out of sight and she had a clear view of her orchard. Elsie could fall asleep to the whisper of the Clutha and could wake to the chatter of her cherry trees.  And besides, in darkness, walls choked her.

At 85 Elsie was still fit. A lifetime of manual labour saw to that. She had a firm morning ritual, hang the quilt up to dry, make a pot of tea, eat toast dripping with thyme honey and be out at work by nine.

Today her ritual was interrupted by the unexpected arrival of her eldest son. Bruce was a banker and hardly ever came home. He hugged hard. Elsie sensed the foreign aroma of sandalwood on his beard.

“Well, this is a surprise. Is Lilly with you – the kids?”

“No, just me. Ren asked me down. We need to have a chat.”

Elsie knew what this was about. The boys meant well but there would be no moving. She was etched into these last two acres of Otago gold.

Bruce surveyed the veranda.

“Are you seriously sleeping out here? I thought Ren stopped all that. You’ll catch your death Mum.”

Elsie smiled. At 85 perhaps catching death wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

“I like fresh air,” was her only reply.

Renton arrived ten minutes later – so like his father it hurt.

Elsie had given birth to him exactly one year after the war ended. He came during a cold snap that coincided with petal fall. The crop had survived but only just. Husband Jim, back from war and half the man he had been before, wasn’t much help that year, or any year after that. Ren had stayed close, he worked at the dam: the dam that drowned their livelihood back in 1992. Elsie often thought there was a cruel irony in that.

“I’m away to cut lavender,” Elsie announced, “if you need to talk grab some pruning shears. Make yourselves useful.”

The river was running emerald green today and the lavender was icy blue. Elsie still made an oil to be proud of and sold it at the end of the lane. She loved this field. Here, in the harvest of 1944 she had found solace with him. A stolen summer hung like a painting in her gallery of memories.

Elsie began to pick flower heads but the boys cast a dark wall over her, blocking the sun. There would be no talk of moving today, she needed to speak her piece.

 “I’ve decided I want to be buried here in this field, not in the family plot. This is where I want to see my eternity out.”

Both men stepped back in unison and the sun reappeared, making Elsie squint.

Bruce was first to speak, “But you should be laid next to Dad.”

“I want to stay here. An open-air service and one of those disposable – no sustainable – coffins. Nothing fancy.”

“This is nuts. She’s lost the bloody plot.” Renton looked to his older brother for support.

Elsie laughed, “That’s funny Ren.”

 “This isn’t funny, it’s ridiculous.”

Bruce, ever the practical one, put on his corporate face.

“There will be rules about this sort of thing. Regulations. Health and safety stuff. You just can’t be buried in your own back yard.”

Ren picked up the argument, “What will the neighbours think of a grave in the garden? I think you are being really disloyal to Dad.”

Elsie hit the ground hard with the shears, “I was loyal to your father for sixty years. This is about what I want.”

How she wished she could explain it all. Perhaps if they had been daughters not sons…. Elsie knew her boys could not comprehend the complex tapestry of her soul. Children see you in the simplest terms, even when they are full grown.

Elsie started to walk back through the orchard. The boys were talking to her, but she wasn’t listening. Instead, she was looking to the countless frosts fought, to the daughter conceived at home but never born, to the broken husband she cherished, to a lifeline of love suspended in a field of blue, to the caring land where she would end it all.

Elsie stopped in the orchard and picked a ripe cherry. The blood red juice stained her lips and she savoured each of the flavours it offered, one by one.

Jane Coombs