October 24th, 2021Romsey Stranger winner
WHILE the pandemic killed off the Words in Winter writers’ festival for the second year, it couldn’t stop a vigorous short story competition under the theme of The Stranger.
The winner is Belinda Oliver of Romsey who, at 37, has been writing since she was about 11. That was when she won her first writing competition at school. She went on to study professional writing at university, winning the Flash Fiction category in the 2019 Wyndham Writing Awards Anthology. Her stories have appeared in several publications.
Ms Oliver lives with her husband, nine-year-old son and two cats and works as a gardener with her father and as a community lifestyle enhancement worker with Macedon Ranges Health.
“I write fairly sporadically but spend most days at least exploring story ideas in my head. I write most of my ideas in the notes section of my phone and then flesh them out from there on my laptop, sometimes a few days later, sometimes a few months even. I find I write best at night.”
Short stories, she says, have the power to make a great impact on readers and hopes that this includes her work.
As well as locally, entries came from across the state, including Fish Creek in Gippsland, Bendigo, Geelong and Melbourne suburbs such as Box Hill and Yarraville. Ms Oliver won $500.
The Stranger by Belinda Oliver
The stranger who’d been in this cubicle before me died in it. I know this because the patient in the next bed, an older man by the name of Ken, tells me.
‘She’d only been here two days. One minute we were talking, then she went quiet,’ he whispers, shaking his head. He sighs and looks out the window to the twinkling lights of the city, his lower lip trembling. I pretend I haven’t noticed and continue to listen as he tells me how three nurses had rushed in, yanking the thin blue curtain around her bed.
‘They couldn’t do anything for her…she was already gone. She was only thirty nine. Never married, no kids. She had a cat. She never had any visitors in here, not that I saw anyway,’ he shakes his head again. ‘We talked about all the things she wanted to do when she got out.’
‘What were they?’ I ask, imagining that she’d had plenty of time to think about all the things she hadn’t achieved in her life. I knew I’d been thinking that way during my stay so far.
He turns to face me. ‘Simple things,’ he smiles. ‘She wanted to visit a tulip farm. She wanted to pick a peach straight off the tree and eat it while it was still warm from the sun. She said the first thing she was going to do was sit on the beach at sunset and dig her toes into the sand.’
‘There’s one thing that bothers me.’ He lowers his voice. ‘I never got her name. I never even thought to check her board. When they opened the curtain, she was gone and they’d wiped it clean. You came in a few hours later.’
He looks out the window again as I sit there processing what he’s told me. Is the simple act of wiping a board clean all that it takes to erase someone’s existence, I wonder?
We say goodnight and I draw the curtain around my bed. I lay there listening to the nurse’s rubber soled shoes squeaking on the floor as they move throughout the ward, not able to sleep. No matter how I position myself, I just can’t get comfortable. My mind races as I think about her – were tulips her favourite flowers? What would happen to her cat? Why hadn’t anyone visited her? And what was her name?
I desperately want to give her a name. She can’t just be the stranger who died in the bed before I came here, the stranger who left a hair on my tray table. I’d found it on my first day. At least, I assumed it was hers. Where else would a random hair come from, but than from the stranger who’d occupied this space before me? Maybe it was from a cleaner, falling loose as they’d quickly wiped down the table before moving on to their next task? I decided against that, wanting to believe it was hers. It was long, thick and jet black. I hadn’t touched it, I didn’t dare move it. It was the only proof I had that she’d ever existed.
The cardiologist visits me a few days later, his dark eyes scanning over his notes. He tells me that my heart is showing all the right signs of making a full recovery and that I should be able to go home in a few days. I’m secretly glad that Ken isn’t there to hear this news. He’d been wheeled out to have an x-ray only a few minutes earlier, giving me the thumbs up on his way past. I lay there afterwards staring at the hair, wondering how many times the cardiologist has visited this bed and if he’d visited her.
Ken sips his morning coffee, watching as I collect all the ‘Get Well ‘cards from my bedside table and put them in my bag.
‘They’re setting you free, love?’ he grins and I nod. I feel guilty for leaving, for leaving him and for leaving when she never got the chance to. I give him a hug and add my number to his phone.
‘Call me any time. Don’t be a stranger,’ I mumble, blinking away tears.
I sit on Port Melbourne beach that afternoon holding an envelope, the sun deliciously warm on my skin. I lose myself in the comforting, rhythmic motion of the waves crashing against the shoreline, surging forwards only to be dragged straight back out to sea. A cargo ship appears far out on the horizon, slowly inching its way in towards civilization. I think of all the people on board, how amazing it really was – a vessel carrying hundreds of living strangers all over the globe, coming in to dock here. Any of them could be next, any one of them could be the next one to end up in that bed and they didn’t know it. I wanted to wave out to them, I wanted to tell them: I see you. You matter. Your thoughts, your hopes, your dreams. They all matter!
My phone buzzes in my pocket. I don’t recognise the number but I answer it anyway. ‘Hello?’
‘Laura?’ It’s Ken.’
‘Oh Ken! Are they letting you out?’
‘No, love, not yet.’ He takes a deep breath. ‘I found out her name. I asked my favourite nurse. I wanted you to know. It was Elsie,’ he whispers. My heart hammers against my chest and my face is hot with tears. Elsie.
I thank him, say goodbye and walk down to the shore. I walk into the water until my ankles are fully submerged, my bare feet sinking deep into the sand. I gently pull out one of my ‘Get Well’ cards from the envelope and slowly open it. The lone strand of hair that I’d carefully brushed that morning from the tray table into it is quickly snatched away by the breeze. I watch as it dances in the wind and whisper her name, over and over.