Elizabeth Egan’s short story ‘Frozen Stiff’ was highly commended in the 2015 Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award.
by Elizabeth Egan
It was a dark and stormy night . . . When my brother was young he began every story with these words. A teacher once told him it was an attention-grabbing opening—very atmospheric. He took her compliment as permission to use it, regardless of the subject matter, whenever he was required to write what was then called Composition: memories of a beach holiday, a museum visit, or even a trip to buy new school shoes, could all be introduced with the words It was a dark and stormy night. Despite a similar opening to this story, my brother displayed real creativity in drawing the reader from those hackneyed words to tales of benign picnics and childhood escapades when the sun shone brightly and there was not a storm cloud in sight.
I suspect a genetic predisposition to such opening lines. However, the first words of this anecdote differ slightly from my brother’s predictable introduction, and in this case, weather is integral to the story.
It was, in fact, a dark and snowy night when I came across a naked man lying on a country road. Mishap and misfortune had peppered my day, and driving in the snow was a strain, so another impediment, a body on the road, was no surprise. It fit the pattern. Did I dare think finding a man in the buff on my way home to a cold, dark house was a stroke of luck? Not for a second! Nothing good had come my way that day and I was not expecting a change of fortune.
I’m a nurse at Canberra Hospital and was scheduled to finish my shift mid-afternoon but an overturned busload of school kids returning from a skiing jaunt put paid to that. Fortunately, there were no fatalities but it was all hands on deck in Cas. Things had been going wrong: earlier in the ward I had to clean the microwave after my thrice reheated coffee boiled over; Mrs Whatsey in Bed Five can walk, but wouldn’t walk to the bathroom, nor would she ring for a pan, even though I taped the buzzer to her arm. I had to change her bed four times. The sour note in the day was a reprimand from the EC Director, Sister Rancid. I swear she drinks lemon juice and vinegar for breakfast. After four hours’ extra work I asked her to call in a casual because I was dead on my feet: (I know, it’s a bad choice of words in EC). I told her when I came on, how far I travel home along rotten roads to an empty farmhouse, and the weather forecast—heavy snow above seven hundred metres. She abused me: called me selfish, uncaring, not a good nurse. That stung! I got away about nine o’clock, after she did her job by pulling someone off a ward and calling in an agency nurse.
There are hazards specific to night driving in the high country; kangaroos, wombats, black ice, and tonight, yes, snow, falling heavily as I reach the Tablelands. Flakes float down like dollops of whipped egg white. Even as I concentrate on driving, one thought nags: was I less than a perfect nurse today? Through tiredness or irritability, did I not give every patient the absolute optimum care, as required by professional standards and my personal ethics?
As snow thickens on the ground I drive through dazzling veils that reflect headlights back into my eyes: high beam, low beam or fog lights. An unending white curtain falls soft and loose. The wipers struggle to allow glimpses through the windscreen. The car is a four wheel drive but I should have chains. I crawl along the last long straight using roadside markers to stay on track. Breathing easier, almost home. If the car can’t get up the hill to the house I have a torch and will walk the eighty metres beside the fence line. Easy-peasy. And as long as the power is still on there will be a steaming shower using every drop of hot water. It’s almost worth freezing my feet off. Anticipation truly is a big part of enjoyment.
Through the glare of light on snow, flickers of red appear ahead. What on earth? The redness becomes a fire—a fire in the snow. A car is ablaze on an embankment, and just in time for me to stop, light thrown up shows a sprawled figure on the road: it’s naked, writhing lethargically and half-covered in snow.
Whatever this is about, experience warns me there will be no simple solution. Involuntary anger claws back longed-for relief. I’ve dealt with the ill and injured all day! It’s my turn to rest. But this is an emergency. I leave the engine running and the lights on. Training and a modicum of compassion kick in as I climb from the car with first aid kit, rug and torch. Human being in need. I have the skills. Secure the accident scene. Will the burning car explode? Remove the patient from danger. Do not endanger myself.
The figure half sits up and I fling the blanket around him before he subsides. I recognise him straight away. It’s Davey, a neighbour. He’s paunchy, late fifties, average farmer, not a bad bloke, but I’ve never liked him. He’s the greasy ogler type. I’ve seen him in action in town: he’ll catch a woman’s eye, give her a quirky smile, then lick his lips—he’s that blatant. He seems to think one leer at a woman will suck her down the street after him. He gave me the look once. It was when he came over to help put his sheep back through a common fence. Sidling up close with no pretext, a nudge and wink, corny lines about bulls jumping fences, a surprised look on denial, a hurt look when derided—that’s his style. He left, crestfallen.
Now that their kids are gone, he and Doris, his shrewish wife, lead a quiet life. She has friends at the Country Women’s Association. He potters on the farm and goes out at night spotlight shooting. It beats me, though, what he thinks he has to offer women. Running the torch over his naked body to check for trauma I get a clue. Standing perfectly vertical to an alarming height and decorated like a cupcake with snow, is his erect personal companion. Ah hah! Viagra could be his social lubricant of choice.
Ignoring the flagpole, I kneel down to ask if he’s all right. Does he hurt anywhere? Yes, he’s fine, and no, he does not hurt. He struggles upward again and recognises me. ‘Oh, Pammy. Luv. Thisawkward. Not my fault.’ The alcohol in his breath is enough to put me over the limit.
One organ is obviously working to perfection. I check a few other signs and all is well, as is often the case with drunks in accidents. ‘What happened, Davey? Did you crash? Why is the car on fire?’
Slurred phrases fight their way past uncooperative lips. His breath is warm enough to pillow the words in condensation, like a balloon speech-bubble. ‘Got this far but forgot ta turn wipers on,’ (Dave hiccoughs) ‘and ran right off the road.’ He waves his arm at the burning car and seems surprised to see the fire. ‘Shiiit! What ’appened?’
‘Come on. Get in the car and I’ll take you home.’ We get to the passenger door in slips and stumbles and I settle him in the seat. I’m not happy about the amount of snow that goes in with him and how wet the seat will be. Luckily, I’m still facing Davey’s house and won’t have to turn around, with the risk of sliding over a snow-concealed edge into a drainage gully.
Davey tries to explain the fire. ‘I ’member now. Ran in the ditch . . . gettin’ cold just sittin’ there . . . thought might as well ’ave a liddle drink . . . always got some brandy under tha seat for ’mergencies, you know, like a crash or somethin’, but dropped the bottle and it all ran out. What a waste! Lit me lighter to find the bottle and dropped that too. Kawoosh! Off she went! Out I gets and here I am. Could be your lucky day, Pammy.’ He looks down proudly and offers a salutation, ‘Greetings, Old Cock!’ and an endearment, ‘Tommy T’rrific, my main man’.
They, he and Thomas, appear to be having a meaningful conversation. I can’t imagine what TT is saying back to him.
‘But why haven’t you got any clothes on?’ I ask. Scenarios occur to me, none of which I want to ponder.
‘Me and Doris . . . ’Davey starts. I interrupt with, ‘That’s enough. I need to watch the road.’ This whole business is a hassle but I’m close to home after a bad day and a difficult drive. I’ve been able to help someone, a neighbour, who would die if left in the snow. That makes me a good neighbour and a good nurse. I’ll take him home to his wife who will be eternally grateful and bring me jars of pickles every year and a leg of lamb whenever they slaughter a sheep. Just for saving her husband. There’s good vibes coming out of this.
I pull up in Davey’s front yard. The snow is inches deep. ‘Wait here,’ I tell him, ‘till the door is open and we can help you in.’ I crunch to the house. My feet are wet with snow that has melted against my ankles and run inside my shoes. The warm shower has turned into a soaking bath. It will be heaven. I knock with the proud expectation of a hero’s welcome. Exhausted, cold, and wet in parts, I’m about to be acclaimed for a harrowing rescue. Is this how redemption feels?
Inside, a bevy of tiny feet scratch toward the door. An outside light comes on. ‘Who is it?’ Doris demands.
‘It’s Pam from down the road. I’ve got Davey in the car. He crashed but he’s all right.’ This is said with the expectation of a euphoric response. I hear only the petulant whining of small animals. The door opens enough for two long-haired lap-dogs to dash out. They circle my legs in a frenzy of growling snaps and yips. The door opens wider and Doris shows herself. We’ve met before but right now she looks unlike any human face I’ve ever seen. Her pinched features are honed to mean sharpness and the thin line of her mouth is over-ridden by eyes like spearguns. She steps outside and, small as she is, the force of her presence drives me back.
‘What! Davey! That low-life mongrel! Let him die in a ditch. Take him back where you found him. He’s not getting in this door. Ever! I know he’s been playing up for years but I caught him out big time tonight, didn’t I? I planned to stay in town after the sewing bee and do some quilting with the ladies for a bit of decent company but changed me mind on account of the snow in case I couldn’t get home in the morning to help HIM. Guess what I found? Him and that slut-floozy from over the back going hard at it on my bed! She’s fifty if she’s a day and ugly as a cow’s bum. She lit off on ’er quad bike yahooing like she was at a rodeo. There’s plenty ways I can get her back. Just you wait ’n see. As for himself, that Davey, he don’t live ’ere no more.’
It’s hard to differentiate between Doris’s shrill bay and the dogs’ yapping. The four-legged malcontents dash to the car. Doris and I watch Davey struggle out the door to his feet. He stands naked and fully erect, in every sense of the word, with arms spread and snow mounding on his head and limbs and—anywhere it can. He could have emerged from a Sexy Santa pantomime.
‘Darlin’,’ he hollers across the yard. ‘I’ve come back to ya. And see,’ he says, dropping his eyes, ‘see how much I wanna be with ya.’ There’s more sweet talk but it’s directed to the Little Prince.
‘You bastard’, she hollers back. ‘You . . .’
I’ve heard a lot in Cas but never such expletives from a woman of her age.
‘Get outa here!’ Doris picks up whatever ammunition comes to hand—small pot plants, dog bowls, and hurls them at Davey. Her aim isn’t good, and even though Davey can’t duck, she’s close enough to hit my car. Retreat seems prudent. I plan to drive off and leave Davey there to sort things out with Doris—that seems reasonable—but he manages to fall back inside the car. Snow buckets down as I negotiate the yard, reach the road and crawl in my front gate.
The slope sends the car sliding backwards and sideways off the track. Great! There’s no way I can drive to the house. If I leave Davey in the car he’ll freeze to death and I’m not staying there to cuddle and keep him warm. Nor do I want to be charged with manslaughter by abandonment. I tell him to stay put and I’ll be back.
The walk up to the house is therapy. It’s just me and the snow, and I’m fuming so much the cold is a bonus because it stops me spontaneously combusting. After the insults levelled at me and the ratbaggery I’ve heard today this silence is magical: snowflakes make no sound, my feet push through to firmness, and my breath is the speech of life. I could stop and rest in the snow—be found there in a couple of days—with Davey still in the car—it would be so peaceful.
At the house I change into suitable clothes, gather warm coverings and set off on the quad bike. He’s past feeling the cold but I slip socks and boots onto his feet, cocoon him in blankets, help him straddle the bike, then climb on and tie around my chest a broad swathe of cloth (a Balinese sarong from years ago) that runs around Davey’s back and under his arms. It should stop him falling off. We’re creeping up the hill when I feel something drilling into my lower back. Goddam! How much time does that stuff take to wear off?
When we reach the house I verbally lash Davey into action. Flicks and prods help. I steer him and his pet to the couch, cover him, get the fire going and leave a potty on the floor. He’d better aim straight. It’s all I can do and it’s almost two in the morning. I hope when he wakes that he’s slept off the booze and his friend has shrivelled up and gone to sleep.
The power is off: probably snow has brought a tree down on the lines so there’ll be no steaming shower or soaking bath tonight. Never mind, I’ll put a saucepan on top of the burner for a hot water bottle to warm the feet—my feet, not Davey’s.
I have plans for tomorrow. Firstly, to ring Madam La Bitch Supervisor and tell her I’m sick. If I say I can’t get to work because of snow, I don’t get paid. I have plenty of sick leave so that’s what I’m taking. Secondly, to send Davey on his way by whatever transport he can arrange. Two legs or three is fine with me, as long as they are heading out the gate. Thirdly, to send an email to my brother sharing the first lines of my story and see what he comes up with. No way could he top this!
Elizabeth Egan lives in the Southern Tablelands of NSW on a small cattle property. She wrote poetry when young, and worked in tertiary education administration, teaching and local government. She resumed writing in middle age and twenty years on still finds it a most energising activity. Elizabeth has self-published a novel (Sun on Distant Hills) and a children’s story (Darcy, The Farm Foxie), has had short stories included in American anthologies, and has received awards for short stories and bush poetry. A traditional poem was included in the Newcastle Writers’ Centre 2016 Grieve anthology. Gardening, farming, family and grandchildren leave too little time for her other favourite occupations – writing and gazing out the window at the rural landscape.