Karin Schmedtje is a finalist in the Newcastle Herald's annual short story competition with this entry, Autopilot.
Finalists will be revealed daily until the winner is announced on Saturday, January 25 2020.
Read last year's finalists here.
It is late as she turns off the main road into the side street past the small houses on their well-kept blocks. It is hard to see as the rain washes across the windscreen. She parks and breathes a sigh of relief. She should have come weeks ago but had always found an excuse to put off the four-hour drive. Anything to avoid returning home.
She grabs her bag tightly as the rain pelts and the wind whips around her. She fumbles with the keys trying to find the lock. It has seized and then she remembers to lightly lift the door handle. It finally gives way. As the door opens, a waft of stale dank air with sweet floral overtones greets her. She turns on the hall light, the yellowed walls extend before her. Dropping her bag in the hallway she moves left, through the main room past the floral-patterned sofa and stuffed chair, the fancy dining table that they hardly ever sat at to the kitchen. In the half-light she fumbles for a glass, filling it from the tap. She takes a sip, looking over the black backyard.
It has stopped raining. The clouds part briefly, the moon casting a silvery light over the yard, the branches of the old tree still moving wildly. She can just make out a figure, stretching out an arm as if saying goodbye to a lover. What the, she thinks, but before she can see more all falls dark again.
She knows she is alone here. Jane had promised to stay on and clear out their mother's things, but a week later changed her mind. "I just can't take it." She had mumbled something on the phone about putting the lawn on autopilot. "You know, it's how us Smith women get it done. You'll see." Amelia knew better than to ask too many questions. For all her rebellious nature Jane had never managed to truly break free. Engaging with her was sure to land you in the midst of a thorny nest of accusations and longwinded explanations how the current crisis in her life was entirely not of her own making. Best to tread softly.
Amelia sets the glass in the sink moving to the hall. She opens the door to her mother's bedroom. Not knocking first feels odd. The bed is made. The dressing table neat. The wedding band and golden cross necklace lay on the crystal tray. She must have left them there before going to the hospital for surgery. What Amelia notices most is the outdated furniture, the wallpaper old and peeling. A lifetime of making do, after her brief years of happiness. Jane and Amelia's father had died when they were just babies. A work accident. Poor mum never got over him. With no real skills she was lucky the vicary employed her as a receptionist, leaving her feeling obligated to the church. Amelia loved her mother but was disappointed that she never made something of her independence.
Amelia had to fight for hers. She had married Dave all loved up straight out of high school. Only after, had he shown his true colours. Luckily, she had not fallen pregnant before realizing her mistake. She had had to bide her time, finish her teaching degree, scrimp and save, and hide money so that she could make a break from him and the town. Mum never could understand.
She turns off the light, closes the door, and comes to the bedroom she shared with her sister growing up. The two beds still on opposite sides of the wall, one covered with an entire wardrobe of clothes, the other a mess of sheets. There is a Violent Femmes poster on the wall with her sisters handwritten scrawl "Kiss Off". Jane was never afraid to speak her mind or play her music loudly. She loved things intensely and in the case of boyfriends freely. Where Amelia had been trying to live up to her mother's expectations, Jane acted like nothing mattered. She wagged school, sang with a band, smoked dope. Needless to say, relations with mum were strained. Jane soon left home starting her vagabond years of couch surfing and working odd jobs. Eventually she settled on hairdressing. Amelia wonders where Jane is now, whether she is safe. She should have been kinder.
A picture of Amy Johnson is tucked into the mirror frame. The aviatrix is looking her evenly in the eye as if taking her measure. She remembers how they had both admired her. Jane liked Amy's style. The sleek leather pilot jacket with the wool fur collar that stood high around her neck, the sultry almond eyes seeking adventure, her defiance; while Amelia loved this woman for her achievements. Age 26 she had flown from London to Darwin over 8,000 ft mountain ranges and low over oceans of hungry sharks, through desert sandstorms and tropical rainstorms, a revolver at hand to greet Arab raiders. The first female ground engineer she repaired her own plane. And when the pilot she married turned out to be a philandering drunk she dispatched him.
When the pilot she married turned out to be a philandering drunk she dispatched him.
Amelia takes the picture down and wanders back to the living room. Stretching out on the sofa, closing her eyes just for a moment, she falls asleep. She wakes to bright sunshine. Turning off the hall light she goes to make coffee. And then she sees it. The mannequin. Naked but for a pair of pilot goggles, missing an arm, it is pushing a lawnmower with the other through the knee-high grass.
She quietly laughs to herself. Jane's quirky humour. Autopilot. The Smith women. It all made sense now. She intuitively knows Jane is alright. She will need to get petrol for the mower. It will be loud sweaty work, but first she will play the Violent Femmes full blast.