Out of the comfort zone 5


Karen thinks that climbing a cliff like this is probably at the bottom of her to-do list, so the scene she describes in this sketch is definitely an unfamiliar subject!

I thought all the exertion would be in the ascent. I didn’t realise we’d have to walk to the mountain before we could climb it, or that we’d be carrying all this heavy gear. When we reach the pitch I just stand there, looking up, up, up. My neck hurts from tilting my head back so far. I shrug the rope off my shoulder.

Jill points out the traverse. “There’s a bit of a scramble. Then, see that dark line of shadow? It’s a ledge. You follow it along until you reach the line of pitons.”

She keeps on speaking and I know I should listen but I can’t get my mind off that ledge. How can you walk on a shadow? I realise that Jill’s stopped talking and I tear my gaze away from the cliff face. She puts her hand on my shoulder.

“Don’t worry. I’ll go first. Just watch me. Dave will have you on belay the whole time.”

She helps me put on the harness and Dave double checks everything. I should be reassured but I feel as if I’ve lost control, that I’m a marionette and the rope and harness are my strings.

I can say no. I can say I’ve changed my mind. I don’t.

Jill looks me up and down, one final check, then begins to climb. She moves quickly, and I try to remember the handholds, where she sets her feet. At the end of the ledge she stops, clips herself to a piton and leans back, looking down at me.

“Come on, Liz.”

The sun hasn’t reached down into the valley yet and the rock is cold under my fingers. Jill was right. Even a beginner like me can see the handholds. I stretch my leg up and to the side and toe into a crevice so I can get my knee onto the ledge. It’s awkward and my legs shake as I push myself up into a standing position.

I edge along the ledge. It’s only four centimetres wide. My head is turned to one side, my cheek brushing the rock, my arms outstretched. I can see Jill’s feet out of the corner of my eye and I aim for them.

At the end of the ledge I hook onto a peg and glare at Jill. She grins. I poke her shoulder.

“I’m buying you a dictionary for your birthday. There’s no way that was a ledge.”

Out of the comfort zone 4


Alison writes: I have a tendency to write about rural innocents, within an optimistic framework. This character is not innocent.

Father Francis finishes his homily by the graveside, and waves the censer absently about. The relatives gaze down at the coffin. The dead man’s wife dabs at her nose with a hanky. She has a slightly mad look. Father Francis feels some pity for her, but more than a little irritation as well. He has told them often enough that death is not death, that they return to the arms of the Almighty and the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. How can they not appreciate the benefits of death? The man has knocked his wife about a bit, and drank more than was good for him. She is better off without him, all said and done.

A multitude of family secrets find their way into the confessional box, which always makes funerals an interesting, rather quixotic affair, from his point of view. People think they believe things that they do not. People place trust in places that do not warrant it. He shakes his head, smiles thinly. They trust him.

He turns from the graveside as the relatives trickle away, and gives a nod to the workmen who stand at a discreet distance. No one wants to watch a grave being filled, and neither does he. It is time for afternoon tea, and a particularly fine cake, bought at the local patisserie, sits on his sideboard under a net cover. It involves hazelnut and coffee flavours, and quite a lot of cream. He has asked Mrs Hudson to change the brand of coffee she uses to make his espressos. The old brand has begun to taste like dishwater, he needs something with more bite. More elan, he told her. She’d stared at him, nodded, and walked away. Almost respectful – but not quite. She is, he ruminates, showing signs of insubordination. It is subtle, certainly –  but it is, he thinks, there. If she doesn’t want the job there will be others who do. That attractive young woman who does the flowers occasionally, what does she call herself? Tiffany, Tilly, something with a T. She is hard up, could use the wages, and she is easy on the eye. She has been to confession quite regularly, so he knows the nuts and bolts of her life. Some tragedy there, making her vulnerable. Frail. The frail ones are interesting. Ready to be manipulated, if need be.

Out of the comfort zone 3

My way of tackling this difficult prompt, says Therese, was to write about a perspective that I passionately disagree with—the idea that we as humans are meant to take control of nature, and shape the world to suit us. Genetic modification is a particularly disturbing area, with the capacity to do irreversible damage to the Earth. I must point out that not all scientists think like this. But the scary thing is that some do.



Sarah was used to criticism. Whether from greenies or religious types, she’d learnt to ignore it and get on with the job. She pulled the latex gloves over her hands and snapped the rubber tight at the wrists. Then she looked down into the microscope and adjusted the knobs, seeing her specimen blur and then come into crisp focus. Looking up again she removed another glass slide from the box and dropped a circle of cloudy liquid onto it with a pipette.

Lab work could be tedious sometimes, but when there were results, real advancements, then all the hard work became worth it. What was true was this: Genes were building blocks, which could be altered or manipulated, in order to build new things. Sarah was a genetic engineer, an explorer of new and exciting scientific territory. She considered it her duty to do this research, to test things, to come to understand genes and their uses. Whether it was a new pest-resistant strain of wheat, or a breed of cattle that would produce better meat, faster, well, it was all part of her service to humanity.

In fact, it was ironic that the people who objected to what she did on religious grounds accused her of playing God, because didn’t they understand the upshots? She was working for their benefit, making God’s plans manifest, in a better, more controlled, faster way. Giving evolution a bit of a kick up the backside.

She looked down into the microscope again, moved one slide out and slotted another in. What she did was all for the greater good. No exasperating protestors were going to keep her from her work, her duty, her motivation in life.

‘The purpose of science is to understand nature, so that we can increase our dominance over it, and control it.’ That’s what one of her university professors had said, back when she was a student. One of his scientific idols, Francis Bacon, had said something to that effect. It was so inspiring!

So Sarah had dedicated her life to that aim. To understanding genetics, so that genes could eventually be controlled, made to perform certain functions. Surely a strain of wheat that resists all known pests is the ultimate strain of wheat. A logical progression from the imperfect, chaotic creations of nature, to the prefect, controlled creations of humanity.

Someone had broken in to the lab the previous month. Six month’s worth of samples had been destroyed, and the modified seedlings in the plant nursery, the whole place trashed. It had been such an expense replacing the equipment, improving the security, but now the lab was shiny and new, a pleasing sterile smell wafting up from the brand new lino.

Sarah looked up from her work and got to her feet, stretching out her cramped spine. She walked over to the window and looked out across the car park. Weeds sprouted out from the gaps between the concrete, and along the edges, and she frowned.

‘I’ll find a way to control you,’ she said. ‘Just you wait and see.’

Out of the comfort zone 2


Richard’s take on writing about an unfamiliar subject is called

In Another Man’s Shoes

Edward hurried along the uneven paving stones towards the arched wooden door. He could see Mrs Tompkins and Miss Bray waiting where the morning sum warmed the angle between the stone wall and its flying buttress.

Edward fossicked in his trouser pocket for his key ring, and had to snatch to stop his robes from sliding off his other arm. He didn’t need the ostentatiously neutral looks the two women hurled at him to know that he was late.

“Morning ladies; lovely morning, isn’t it? Too nice to be inside”

He regretted saying it before the last syllable had passed his lips. Mrs Tompkins’s eyes narrowed.  The corners of Miss Bray’s mouth turned downwards.

“Good Morning Father” was all the reply he got as he fumbled at the lock. The key went home and he turned it.  The old wooden door seemed stiffer on its hinges than ever.

A bump from his shoulder set it moving. He stood, feeling his ears burn, as two bundles of flowers were carried past him.  Both women had their noses ever so slightly in the air and Miss Bray’s eyes had swept across him, lingering briefly on the shirt he knew was not tucked in properly, and the too loosely knotted tie.

He slipped into the vestry as the two old ladies began placing the flowers. They were silent at the altar, but by the time they reached the middle pews, low murmurings were drifting back to him.

Father Jenkins had owned this church for almost four decades, and was now buried in the adjacent graveyard. Edward felt certain that more than a few of his dour, aging congregation would happily sign up if the Devil offered to swap the old priest for the new.

By rights, he should have had a few years as an assistant curate to an experienced minister at some larger church. He was finding out the hard way that Honours in Divinities and Theology did little to prepare a young priest for pastoral work.

“Hallooo?” The round tones of Eric the organist echoed through a space meant for hundreds.  Edward wondered if there would even be dozens to hear Eric’s heavy handed renditions of the ancient hymns and psalms.

Not so ancient, Edward supposed, to someone as grey and antique as Eric. He gave himself a mental rap over the knuckles.  How could he entertain such thoughts when he was about to present a sermon charity?  And Eric at least brought a few extra bums on pews, a couple of them quite shapely – how did that man produce such pretty daughters?  Edward ordered himself to take a longer penance after the service was over, and waited for the organist to shuffle through his papers.

Which raised another question, would Eric have managed to pick the right music for this week’s readings and lessons, or would he be a month out, again? And, would asking to preview the music selection result in another dose of last night’s whisky fumes?  Edward wondered how he would tell the difference between the whisky fumes of last night, and this morning, if such were to be the case.

Out of the comfort zone 1

Recently my writing group, in one of our impromptu writing sessions, was asked to ‘write about an unfamiliar subject’. We all, I think, have a tendency to write about things that interest us and that we respond readily to, can empathise with. The brief was, walk away from what’s familiar. Swim in strange waters!

We’ll post some of the results of that challenge over the next few weeks. Today’s post is written by Jane. She says,

The main character of this piece, Sara, is unfamiliar in my writing. I tend to write short stories about people from working backgrounds, often from small towns, and rarely do I write of someone with wealth and the time to enjoy it. On reading it over, it seems like a swipe at superficiality with a bit of envy aimed at a character who has what would appear to be an ideal kind of life but a life in which depth is not evident.


The phone was wriggling on the marble kitchen bench top. Sara glanced over at it and grinned. She’d sent out an invitation for an impromptu lunch at one of those new pop-up restaurants in the inner city to a handful of friends, and within minutes they were all buzzing her back, keen to come along. She picked up the phone and sent out the first of several clues about its secret location. It was only by chance that she’d bumped into one of the restaurant’s owners at a party the night before, and she’d sweet-talked him into opening today for a private lunch party. He was new to Sydney and keen to impress, and when she’d introduced herself she could see him do a double-take. Her name usually had that impact on people.

Sara sent out a second clue and went to shower, dressing carefully from the new range of chic clothing that a friend of a friend had sent her. It had cost her nothing, and the only request was that she acknowledge the designer in any posts or photos online. This was the norm for Sara. Outfit provided, a credit card that had no limit, money in her account without any tangible effort required on her part.

She sent out the third and final clue before leaving the penthouse. The driver, Lloyd, was waiting as instructed. Sara usually drove herself but when she wasn’t in the mood, or had fun planned, she had the services of a driver on call. Her father insisted on it after that incident with the car and the power pole. No serious damage done to Sara. She really hadn’t drunk that much.

Sara relaxed back into the leather seats as Lloyd guided the car through the lunchtime traffic. She smiled at the thought of her friends making their way out to Annandale. Would they be able to decipher her clues? There had been a couple of texts, almost pleading in their tone, asking for extra hints.

Her phone wriggled again. A message from her mother. Sara flicked the screen with a disdainful finger. No doubt she’d want to catch up somewhere tedious to talk about what Sara wanted to do with her life. Sara knew what she wanted to do. And she was doing it. It wasn’t as if the money was ever going to run out, that the fun would ever have to stop. Sure, she might find someone that she cared enough about someday. But that wouldn’t stop the good times. Sara knew what she didn’t want and that was to be like her mother, a perpetual fundraiser for charitable causes, unaware of the irony that the most of the money that she raised was from people just like them who made a very comfortable life off the miserable existence of the masses that they were raising money to help. Sara had decided long ago that it wasn’t fair but that it wasn’t her doing and that she might as well enjoy her life rather than dwell on it with angst like her mother.

Sara wasn’t above charitable causes; she gave her unwanted clothes and homewares and gifts away to those more needy. Sure, they were mainly given to her friends but not everyone had as much as she did. Her Dad’s motto about helping those who helped themselves was firmly branded as one of her core values, and Sara was determined to help herself to whatever it was that she wanted in life.

The car had pulled over outside a renovated terrace just off Parramatta Road. Lloyd had turned the car off and was waiting for her next instructions. Sara looked about, taking in the late winter sunshine, dappled through the trees. The front door to the restaurant was open and Sara turned, looking up and down the street, ready for the next pleasurable thing in her life to begin.