As a youngster growing up in the cobbled streets of Stockport, UK, Clayton Graham read a lot of Science Fiction. He loved the ‘old school’ masters such as HG Wells, Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov and John Wyndham. As he left those formative years behind, he penned short stories when he could find a rare quiet moment amidst life’s usual distractions.
He settled in Victoria, Australia, in 1982. A retired aerospace engineer who worked in structural design and research, Clayton has always had an interest in Science Fiction and where it places humankind within a universe we are only just starting to understand.
Clayton loves animals, including well behaved pets, and all the natural world, and is a member of Australian Geographic.
Combining future science with the paranormal is his passion. ‘Milijun’, his first novel, was published in 2016. Second novel, ‘Saving Paludis’, was published in 2018. They are light years from each other, but share the future adventures of mankind in an expansive universe as a common theme.
In between the two novels Clayton has published ‘Silently in the Night’, a collection of short stories where, among many other adventures, you can sympathize with a doomed husband, connect with an altruistic robot, explore an isolated Scottish isle and touch down on a far-flung asteroid.
He hopes you can share the journeys.
Web Site and blog: https://claytongraham.com.au/
You can follow Clayton on Twitter @CGrahamSciFi
His Facebook author page is at: https://www.facebook.com/claytongrahamauthor/
Google Plus: https://plus.google.com/+ClaytonGraham
March 2019: The Comedian, Issue #4, Theme: Carnival
September 2019: The Emu and the Orange, Issue #7, Theme: Celebration One-Year
Anniversary (First Place in RAC’s 2019 Short Story Contest)
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
The Sound of Applause. The silly creatures.
Applause. I hate it, but I can’t do without it. Like most entertainers I need it. It’s like a drug. It’s the only way I can exist. I tell jokes. I know nothing else. There is nothing else I can do. I cannot do mechanical things, nor can I understand how this world’s system works. It is too complicated for me, too haphazard, much too severe.
I was introduced to this world by accident, a big accident. It took all my guile and energy to survive. I used to mingle in pubs and clubs, trying to be inconspicuous, picking up the odd joke, some good apparently, some not so good. I got quite a collection and I needed them, believe me. I was on my last legs, so to speak.
So I became a comedian.
Applause feeds me and gives me enough energy to survive. Just.
I live in a shed. I call it my shed, but it isn’t really. It belongs to one of the creatures I followed from the pub. Heaven sent, it stood there in the moonlight, a home from home.
Can a kangaroo jump higher than a house? Of course, a house doesn’t jump at all.
There’s not much in the shed. A few old things. Not as old as me, though. And spiders. Quite a few spiders. Webs in the corners. That kind of thing. I don’t sleep much but I don’t really need to. I just rest – recover from my comedic exertions. Telling jokes takes a lot out of me, but it’s good to be appreciated.
What is the difference between a snowman and a snowwoman? Snowballs.
I don’t really understand that one. It doesn’t make sense at all. But the audience like it, that’s the main thing. So I keep telling it.
I look down at my suit. I made it myself from stuff in the shed and what I found on one of my midnight walks. Stuff they hang on horizontal lines, fluttering in the breeze. They’d call it stealing, I guess that’s what they’d call it. The jacket is yellow with black spots I put on myself. It makes them laugh. When I walk on the stage they laugh. I think that is good.
I have to keep in shape, though. It takes so much energy, this keeping in shape. More energy than I thought I possessed. But I manage. I have to. There’s no alternative. Jokes, and lots of them. Telling them once a week. Keep in shape to tell the jokes, to survive in this crazy world.
But it gets to me, not knowing what else to do. It breaks my heart, or would do if I had one.
I dreamt I was forced to eat a giant marshmallow. When I woke up, my pillow was gone.
Oh no! They didn’t laugh at that one. This is serious. I’ll try another.
A man asks a farmer near a field, “Sorry sir, would you mind if I crossed your field instead of going around it? You see, I have to catch the 4:23 train.” The farmer says, “Sure, go right ahead. And if my bull sees you, you’ll even catch the 4:11 one.”
Titters. Not laughs. No applause.
I tried to re-marry my ex-wife. But she figured out I was only after my money.
A few laughs. Scattered applause.
This is no good. I feel unwell. I look to the stage door, wanting to make an escape, but the boss is there, the man who hired me. I’m losing strength. My shape is going. I look down at my body. The suit jacket looks like it’s going to burst.
Huge applause. Lots of claps.
They think it’s part of the act. My jacket and pants are lying on the floor. The clapping is starting to stop. I hear a scream. Someone actually screamed. I look at my body. It’s yellow with brown spots – and it’s growing, growing and growing. Rounder and rounder.
I hear lots of screams now and people are falling over each other to get out of the building. And all the time I’m still growing. Two old people on the front row aren’t moving. They’re mesmerised, eyes agape. My body absorbs them.
I hear a siren. Now I feel better. I have more energy. I am getting into shape again. But I have no clothes. The boss is gone. I make for the stage door.
Out into the night. I’ll just have to try another town. They won’t come here again. It’ll be in their heads, what happened tonight. Another town is needed. Another place.
Another interview. I’m in full shape now. Absorbing people is better than absorbing applause.
Next town. I’ll have them rolling in the aisles. I’ll slay them.
Sue was about a hundred clicks from Ceduna and running late. Ahead, a fierce golden sun challenged the dark, brooding clouds which tenuously held hands above the horizon. Rain tomorrow? Probably not, she thought.
At thirty-five, with short blonde hair, steel grey eyes and a body honed by early morning jogs, she had been totally determined at the start of the journey. She had actually smiled as the old 4WD moved off, and even waved a middle finger at the imaginary figure of Tony which stood in front of the bonnet.
Now, some two thousand kilometres and a well-worn map later, she was fuming. Nine months they had been an item. Made for each other, Tony had said. He was enthusiastic about the trip when she first mentioned it: a drive across the Nullarbor, the great Australian motoring challenge. What could be better for knitting a relationship together? But two weeks later the jerk had backed out.
Well, eff you, she had thought. I’ll go solo. So here she was, and hating every minute of it.
Something ran out in front of the car, a blur on two legs.
Sue braked hard. Except she didn’t. The pedal didn’t go down!
There was a thump as the 4WD hit whatever it was. Sue pumped the brake. Nothing! She yanked on the handbrake and the rear wheels locked. The vehicle, creaking and shuddering, slid to a halt. She smelled burning from the rear brakes.
Sue gripped the wheel and swore.
Opening the door, she got out and looked inside. Bloody hell! There was an orange underneath the brake pedal – well, what was left of one. It was split now, sporting a nasty skin wound.
How the hell had it got there? Dropped from her bag, she guessed.
She retrieved the offending item, caught the tang as she threw it as far into the outback as she could. Damned thing! Take that.
I’ve hit something! There was a shape on the blacktop. Kangaroo? Wombat? She approached it slowly. Neither. An emu.
As Sue approached, the bird tried to rise. A broken leg, somewhat akimbo, the amateur vet in Sue diagnosed. Other than that, it seemed okay. Another attempt to rise. Another collapse. A grunt.
Sue knelt next to it. The avian head swivelled, beady eyes full of accusation.
“I’m so sorry,” Sue said.
The head and its neck sank to the ground. Sue’s eyes ranged over the bird. The only damage seemed to be the leg. Even so, the bird was doomed in the wild.
“I have to get you off the road,” Sue said. “Don’t want you to become roadkill.” Then she added: “No. I need to get you into the car.”
The head turned; the beak pecked at her hand.
She rose and ran back to the 4WD, moved it to protect the bird from oncoming traffic. Just in time, as a car came throttling down the highway.
Sue ran at it, waving it over to the other side of the road. It passed, horn blaring. Bastard, Sue thought. I could be stranded out here.
She went back, looked at the bird. The bird looked at her. Such piercing eyes! She wondered whether it was in shock. How can I lift it into the car? It’s at least fifty kilograms.
She needed somebody else. Why hadn’t the other car stopped? People didn’t care these days.
Another motor sounded in the distance. Sue ran to wave the vehicle down on the other lane. This time she would stand her ground.
It was a truck, a big one. It would take forever to stop. If it ever did. Teeth gritted, she held her position.
It stopped, air brakes screeching. A voice rang through the air. “You in trouble?”
“An injured bird,” Sue called back.
“You stopped for roadkill?” Disbelief in the voice.
“I hit the bird,” Sue responded.
The driver dropped from his cabin, walked over, looked at the emu. About sixty, Sue thought. Grey hair, skinny, small to be driving such a big rig.
“Do you want me to wring its neck?” the man asked.
“No, I bloody don’t,” Sue replied testily. She gestured to her vehicle. “I want you to help me lift it in the back.”
“It’ll have your eyes out,” was the only response she got.
The bird struggled to rise, gave up, flopped.
“Wait,” the man said. “I have an idea.”
He started to walk to his rig. Last I see of him, Sue thought.
He returned, waving a large glove. “For over its eyes.”
She smiled. Old trick. Good trick.
And it worked. Together they manhandled the wounded bird into her car. Sue closed the tailgate.
“The glove’s on me.”
“Sam,” he said as they shook hands. “Sue,” Sue replied.
The driver turned and walked away. “Good luck,” he said. “Probably be dead in the morning.”
The truck roared and went on its way.
“No it bloody well won’t,” Sue told herself. “Not if I can help it.”
“No response from the vet, just an emergency number out of town.” The motel manager looked at Sue, bristling with helpfulness. “There’s a fauna rescue place nearby. Should I call them for you?”
Sue nodded. She was seeing Tony’s blue eyes full of betrayal.
The manager was scribbling something down. She thrust the paper at Sue. “Here’s the address. Further down the road. I’ve drawn a rough map.”
And she was on her way, map in hand, wondering why the hell she was doing this.
Dusk had fallen and she approached the old weatherboard with trepidation. There was a light in the porch, somehow welcoming. She rang the bell.
And Tony answered the door! Or someone who, backlit by the hallway, resembled Tony.
“Susan, is it?” the man asked. “I’m Sam Bannister.”
His grip was warm and firm as they shook hands. Together they brought the bird inside, placed it on a table.
This man had grey eyes, identical to her own. As he inspected the still-gloved emu, she felt in awe of his gentleness. He was built like Tony: tall, wiry, probably early forties.
“How did it happen?” Sam asked.
She told him about the orange, the blaring horn, her aged knight in shining armour.
“I’ll sedate and set,” Sam said. “Can you help, Susan?” He looked at her, eyes searching hers. It was like looking into a mirror.
“Of course,” Sue replied. “I want to see it walk again.”
Then she noticed the photograph on the wall. A man and his truck. No doubt on the Nullarbor. And no doubt it was the old man who had helped her.
“Who’s that?” she asked, pointing at the photo.
“My father,” Sam said. “He passed away last year.”
Sue felt her knees go weak. She grasped the table for support. Coincidence? It had to be. There was no such thing as ghosts, let alone ghost trucks.
“You’ll be staying in Ceduna a while then?”
Sue took a deep breath, looked at Sam. From now on she was Susan, she decided. And there was no way she was leaving Ceduna.
And there was no way she was leaving this gentle soul of a man.