Shannon Bolithoe : A Writing Life


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Running Away

Hannah stood at the stove frying Jimmy’s steak when she heard the door slam behind her. Ronni was sitting on the benchwatching her cool. The little girl’s eyes widened as she stared towards the door. Her thumb flew to her mouth.

Hannah turned around, unsurprised to see Jimmy staring back at her with unfocused glassy eyes. The smell of alcohol leeched from him; a sickly sweet, almost rotting smell. He was always like this on Friday nights.

’Hello, Jimmy. I’m just making your tea.’ She pasted a smile on her face and kept her voice calm and even, not wanting to provoke him. 

’I hope it’s not burnt this time.’  His vacant smile had twisted into a nasty sneer. 

’No, see the meat’s all red.’ She gestured towards the steak sizzling in the pan.

’It better be,’ he growled, ’or you’ll wear it again like you did last night.’ 

She felt the cold sweat of fear as he stalked towards her. He reached out and grabbing her by the hair and shook her head roughly. Like a snake his attention switched abruptly to Ronni, who was sniffling on her perch. Jimmy let go of Hannah and glared at his daughter who sat perfectly still, staring at him like a trapped rabbit. 

‘What’s the brat doing up there? Do you want her to fall and crack her head open?’ He lifted Ronni down and pushed her none too gently towards the back door. ‘Go outside and play, and stop whining.’

‘Sorry love, you’re right of course,’ Hannah said quickly. She starting shaking, tension building inside her like a spring, the familiar sickness in the pit of her stomach. The baby kicked inside her, as if aware of the gathering storm. It was going to be a bad night. 

’What a rotten mother you are! You’re such a stupid bitch’ he screamed at her, his voice rising, spittle flying from his mouth. 

Then it happened. Without conscious thought, Hannah swung back to the stove, picked up the cast-iron frying pan and hit him over the head with it. His eyes rolled back into his head and he dropped like a stone to the floor. At first she didn’t know what to do. She crept over to his body and looked for signs of life. He was slumped on the floor in an awkward position, a dark purple lump rising on his head as she watched. She couldn’t see if he was breathing but she didn’t want to touch him in case he woke up and hit her.

Is he dead? What will happen to me if he is? What have I done?What will he do to me if he isn’t dead?

Everything after that was a blur. Her teeth chattered and her hands shook as she rushed around the house gathering whatever money she could find and quickly stuffing her bag with a change of clothes for her and Ronni. Her mind was blank except for one word. Run!

She shot out of the house and grabbed the little girl by the hand. 

‘Come on sweatheart, we need to go.’

‘Where? Where’s Daddy?’ Ronni’s bottom lip came out and her face screwed up as it did when she was about to have a tantrum. 

Hannah tugged on her little hand, gritting her teeth against the scream she could feel rising in her throat.

‘Come on. We have to go. We’re going on the train to visit cousin Hatty.’

At the mention of her favourite grown-up Ronni’s face brightened. She stopped trying to pull away from her mother and started skipping down the road. As they hurried down the street Hannah’s mind flew across the miles to her family. 

I want to go home. I want Ma and Da and the boys. But it’s such a long way to Wales. How are we going to get there? 

Luckily she had enough money to get to her cousin’s house. When she got there sh explained to her what had happened. Hatty understood immediately – she’d never liked Jimmy and couldn’t hid her glee at the thought of Jimmy getting knocked on the head.

‘About time someone did it,’ was her only comment.

She was also calm and practical in her advice. Her husband had a manager’s job and she had access to enough money in the bank to pay for the trip home. She was sure he wouldn’t mind her helping her cousin. She gathered together some food for their trip and walked with them back to the station. They waited together for the next train to Sydney.

‘I’ll ring Aunty Florrie and let her know you’re coming’ Hatty said as the train pulled in to the station. She hugged them both, sad tears starting to run down her face. Ronni whined that she wanted Hatty to come too.

‘Sorry sweetheart, I can’t come this time. Maybe next time,’ she said as she kissed the little girl on the head, and helped them into the train.

The trip to Wales was long and tiring, especially with a three year old who didn’t understand what was happening and constantly asked where her favourite dolly was. Hannah’s growing belly added to her discomfort. But it was worth it for the feeling of safety she felt, and the time it gave her to consider  her choices. What a fool she had been to have married Jimmy! She had only known him for a month before they married. But he had been so charming and handsome and hard to resist. And how could she have known what the drink did to him? Her Da and the boys drank too, but they didn’t turn into monsters like Jimmy did. 

Hannah considered the choices she had made and hoped she could steer her little girl into a better way of life. Definitely not to let every silver tongued Irishman sweep her little girl off her feet.


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Worst Nightmare

Maria hummed to herself softly as she sorted the newly cleaned clothes and put them into the plastic covers. This was the best part of the job as far as she was concerned. She didn’t have to talk to anyone, and she loved tidying things up, making them neat, the nuns had called it.

She heard the bell ring, and with a sigh of resignation, fixed a smile to her face and stepped through the door to the front counter.

The sun was in her eyes, and she didn’t recognise his face at first. Then she saw the bushy eyebrows, the prominent nose, the yellow tobacco-stained teeth above the not-quite clean collar around his neck. Her stomach plunged over a cliff. The sunny day disappeared and was replaced with the dark, dank cold of his office. 

Not him, not now! I haven’t dreamt of him for ages.

‘Good morning young lady, Do you have an order for Cunningham?’ 

‘Yes, sir, I’ll have a look.’ Her voice was a monotone. 

What’s he doing here? Does he recognise me? What will I do if he does? I don’t want him to know I’m here.  Thoughts tumbled randomly through her mind as she searched for the order. Her hands shook, palms sweating. She tried to control them, but they seemed to have developed a mind of their own. It was a relief when she found the order.

Father Paulus Cunningham. Why didn’t I notice his name before? Oh, God!

Then she remembered what to do. She stopped and took a deep breath, forcing calm into her face and voice. This was how she’d endured the endless “meetings” with him, his stinking breath in her face, his disgusting fingers under her dress, pawing her, mauling her … 

‘Stop!’ Maria screamed the word in her head, thrusting the visions away.   

She stepped back to the counter, stiffly holding out the plastic covered clothes to “the pig” as she had always called him in her head. The faster she completed the transaction, the faster he would be out of her shop, and out of her life again. 


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The Dining Room

’Knife, fork, spoon. Knife, fork, spoon,’ Bessy chanted the words as she laid the cutlery on the long table. She straightened up and stretched her aching back. She’d been up since five this morning and wanted nothing more than some bread and tea and a lie-down.

The table does look beautiful, though.

The crystal glasses shone in the candlelight, and the fresh cut flowers in the table centrepiece gave the room a faint perfume. The best linen tablecloth was a snowy canvas on which the silver and gold table settings glowed faintly.

She returned to her task until the sound of heavy footsteps made her spin around. She knew that sound too well.

‘Hello, Bessy, my love, how are you this fine evening?’

Damn, what’s he doing here. I wish he’d leave me alone!

‘Fine thank you, sir.’

She tried to bob into a curtsy, but his arm suddenly clamped around her waist and stopped her from moving.

‘Bessy, you’re so sweet,’ he murmured, as his lips traced around the base of her throat. ‘I can’t help myself, you know.’

Slowly but firmly, he led her towards the curtains around the French windows.

Bessy groaned inwardly.

Not again. Why couldn’t the master keep his hands to himself! She needed this job too much to push him away.

So far he hadn’t gone further than kisses and touches, but she knew it would soon be time to look for another job, before she found herself kicked out, probably with a bun in the oven. She was safe for now, though, with the guests nearly due to arrive, so she stood still as his lips and hands wandered over her body. His touch made her skin crawl with disgust.

Bessy stared out the glass doors at the terrace. It was lit up by the full moon, the low marble balustrade glowing in the dark. She gazed at some half-naked marble statues. They returned her stare blankly.

They probably know how I feel. What is it with men? Why do they have to maul us all the time?

Abruptly she was knocked out of her reverie as he shoved her further into the curtains.

‘Hello my dear, I was checking on the dining room. I don’t know where that lazy Bessy has got to.’

‘Don’t fuss, dear, she’s probably in the kitchen,’ replied a low female voice. ‘Your parents are here now. You had best come and welcome them.’

‘Yes, dear,’ he replied meekly, and their voices faded as they left the room.

What a bastard he is! And his wife is such a sweet little thing. I better be out of here sooner rather than later, I think.

Bessy straightened her clothes and hair. Flushed and angrily muttering to herself, she went back to her task.

Bessie was on her way upstairs with some bowls on a tray when she heard a commotion in the dining room. She hurried towards the sound of coughing and babble of voices. The beautiful table setting of a few hours ago was a mess, with half-empty glasses and dirty plates. The people in the room were gathered around the Master who lay on the floor in his wife’s arms, his face a sickly shade of blue. Coughs still racked his body, but they were becoming increasingly weak as the life drained out of him.

Bessy stood very still in the doorway, trying hard to keep the smile off her face.

It looks like I won’t have to go job hunting just yet.


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The Train

‘Where did she find that Irish git?’ Gus nodded his head back at the house as the three men walked along the street. Da nodded in agreement.

‘I don’t know, bach, but as soon as your mother gets here, we’re out of that house. I feel sorry for Hannah, but she’s made her own bed. We don’t have to lie in it!’

‘I hope Mam comes soon. It’s a pity we didn’t have enough money to all come together’. Steve swung his fist in a mock punch. ‘I swear I’m going to punch his dirty mouth if he doesn’t stop yelling at Hannah and the little ones.’

With a warning look at his son, Da called out to the group of men waiting beside the train line that bisected the street.

‘Hey boyos, say hello to my other son, Steve. He’s just arrived from Wales.’ Da clapped Steve on the back. ‘He’s starting at the pit today.’

A chorus of grunts and ‘Hellos’ issued from the group of shabbily dressed men. Steam spewed from their mouths and hung in the cold air. Coal dust engraved the lines on their faces, evidence of how they made their living.

A few of the flat-capped men stuck out their hands in greeting but they were soon interrupted by the sound of the small open-carriage train clanking noisily towards them. It pulled up beside them with a squeal of brakes and a cloud of steam.

They piled onto the bare wooden seats, pushing and shoving to make room for their thick-jacketed bodies. As the train pulled away, they had to yell at each other to make their voices heard above the train’s racket.

‘What do you think of Australia so far?’ a ruddy-faced man asked Steve. He spoke in the local accent, so flat and dull compared to the people at home, Steve thought.

‘It’s alright so far, but it’s not very green, is it? The trees and bushes are so straggly, they look half dead.’ Steve gestured at the bush flashing past on either side of them. ‘At least it’s not hot yet. Da told me it can get like a furnace around Christmas.’

The train sped up as it reached a straight section of the line and the wind in their faces silenced their conversation. They pulled their heads into their jackets and scarves to avoid the cold air whipping around their faces.

After about ten minutes of rattling and shaking, the train began to slow down. Black slag piles heaped around a group of buildings came into view.

‘Richmond Main is coming up,’ Da yelled into Steve’s ear. ‘This is where we get off. It keeps going to take the rest of the men to Pelaw Main. Now that’s a mine I wouldn’t like to work in – too close to where they had the explosion in ’05. That was a nasty one!’

Da pulled himself up stiffly from the seat and, hanging onto the cold railings, swung himself down the metal steps with a grunt of pain.

‘Your knees giving you gip again, Da?’ Gus frowned at the old man in concern as he jumped down after his father.

‘Yes, this damn arthritis doesn’t get any better,’ Da grunted.

He led the way towards a square building in the centre of a cleared area beside the train station. The two-storey red brick building was strangely ornate for its location, with windows on all sides of the square. Da pointed towards it.

‘That’s where we collect our pay. Everyone lines up at the windows, and they pay us according to the coal we’ve moved that week.’

‘And aren’t the pay clerks slow sometimes?’ Gus spat in disgust. ‘You’d think it was their own money the way they dole it out. A penny here, threepence there. Those bastards in there don’t know what real work is, sitting on their backsides all day counting money.’

‘Just like at home,’ Steve laughed in agreement. ‘Bloody pencil pushers need to get their hand dirty.’ He held up his own hands, still black with ingrained Welsh coal dust no matter how hard he washed them.

‘Well, we better head towards the pit. The coal isn’t going to get itself out,’ Da reminded them, as he led the way to the pit head.


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Running Away

‘I hate the heat. Why did I ever come back to this awful place?’

Hannah coughed weakly and leaned back into the pillows, wiping the blood off her lips. The oppressive heat reminded her of that day; the day she could have saved herself. Closing her eyes, she was back in the hot kitchen.

She stood at the stove frying Jimmy’s steak when she heard the door slam behind her. Ronni was sitting on the bench watching her cool. The little girl’s eyes widened as she stared towards the door. Her thumb flew to her mouth.

She turned around, unsurprised to see Jimmy staring back at her with unfocused glassy eyes. The smell of alcohol leeched from him; a sickly sweet, almost rotting smell. He was always like this on Friday nights.

’Hello, Jimmy. I’m just making your tea.’ She pasted a smile on her face and kept her voice calm and even, not wanting to provoke him.

’I hope it’s not burnt this time.’ His vacant smile had twisted into a nasty sneer. ’No, see the meat’s all red.’ She gestured towards the steak sizzling in the pan. ’It better be,’ he growled, ’or you’ll wear it again like you did last night.’

She felt the cold sweat of fear as he stalked towards her. He reached out and grabbing her by the hair and shook her head roughly. Like a snake his attention switched abruptly to Ronni, who was sniffling on her perch. Jimmy let go of Hannah and glared at his daughter who sat perfectly still, staring at him like a trapped rabbit.

‘What’s the brat doing up there? Do you want her to fall and crack her head open?’ He lifted Ronni down and pushed her none too gently towards the back door. ‘Go outside and play, and stop whining.’

‘Sorry love, you’re right of course, she said quickly. She started shaking, tension building inside her like a spring; familiar sickness in her stomach. The baby kicked inside her, as if aware of the gathering storm. It was going to be a bad night.

‘What a rotten mother you are! You’re such a stupid bitch’ he screamed at her, his voice rising, spittle flying from his mouth.

Then it happened. Without conscious thought, Hannah swung back to the stove, picked up the cast-iron frying pan and hit him over the head with it. He dropped like a stone.

Everything after that was a blur. Convinced she must have killed him, Hannah had panicked and ran and didn’t stop running until she landed in Wales. She never told her family the truth; it was too shameful. What a fool she was to have married Jimmy! She had only known him for a month, but he had been so charming and handsome. And how could she have known what the drink did to him? Her Da and the boys drank too, but they didn’t turn into monsters like Jimmy did.

Hannah opened her eyes and returned to the present. Listlessly she watched the familiar scene, the nurses scurrying around the ward cleaning up the blood and sputum. It was too late to be angry at herself now. It was a waste of the little time she had left. Seeing Ronni and little Jimmy again was the only thing that mattered now. Hannah smiled, thinking about her beautiful blond boy. She wished he didn’t insist on being called that awful name though. Gerald, the name she’d given him, was a perfectly good name. But no, he insisted on being called “Jimmy”. He didn’t even remember his father, unlike poor Ronni. She remembered their father too well, especially the time when he kidnapped her and dumped her in an orphanage. Was it any wonder she was such a nervy little thing?

‘Best not to think about that,’ Hannah chided herself. ‘I’ll think about something more cheerful.’ The next time she saw the kids would be Jimmy’s birthday. Despite the long trip from Cessnock to Waterfall, Mam always brought them to see her once a month.

‘I’ll ask the nurses to bring me in a bar of chocolate for him, for a present. Or maybe not, I don’t want him to catch anything from me. Maybe I could knit him something, and then Mam can wash it.’ With renewed determination, she sat up and reached for her work box.

‘A nice pair of gloves. I think he’ll like that,’ she muttered, carefully creating new stitches on her knitting needles.


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Fear

As she reached the steps and she straightened her hair and dress. The door was partly open, welcome light streaming out onto the landing.

That’s odd. I wonder why they’ve left the door open? They’re usually so careful, especially in this neighbourhood.

With a sigh, she picked up her things and planted a happy smile on her face.

‘Margie, Frank. Here I am! Where’s my G&T?’

She climbed up the stairs and nudged the door open with her hip. The house was lit up, but there was no sign of any people in the rooms that she could see. She’d expected the room to be full of people, especially since she was running late thanks to her Monster Boss.

‘Margie? Frank? Anyone?’

She advanced tentatively into the room and the hairs on the back of her neck rose. Something wasn’t right. The main table was set for dinner and bottles of booze were laid out on a sideboard ready for drinking.

But where were the usual loud voices and music?

‘Where is everybody?’

She laid down her bag and bowl and crept towards the kitchen.

Maybe they’re all in there? Maybe I’m not the only late one?

She jumped as a loud crash sounded in the kitchen, then sighed in relief as her friends’ ginger cat shot through her legs. Her relief was short-lived however, as stuck her head through the door and she stared in shock at the mess in the kitchen.

‘Oh no! What the hell happened?’


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Standing in the rain

I could see the light in their front window.

They must be home. 

Reluctantly I crept through the gate and pushed aside the bush at the front of the house

Why am I here? Why am I torturing myself? I must be a masochist.

Despite my thoughts, I was like an automaton; pushed to act by a power beyond my conscious control. I peered in through the window, careful not to be seen by the people inside the room. The sight momentarily transfixed me until a crack of thunder and flash of lightning lit up the yard. I pulled back, worried that I would be seen. The rain started to fall, first with big, fat drops and then with a more steady beat. I peered back through the window, standing in the pouring rain. It merged with the tears running down my face and trickled inside my shirt front.  

He was on the lounge with her. His arm draped around her shoulder, his head thrown back with laughter in the way I loved so much. They were drinking wine, and the light sparkled off the deep red liquid.

How could he? He told me they were just housemates, the bastard!

Pain twisted inside me. I could feel my heart breaking piece by piece. I might be the other women, but it felt like he was cheating on me.

As agony turned to white-hot rage inside me, I flicked my soaking hair out of my eyes and planned my revenge.