Here’s a little tale in memory of the great Ray Bradbury, who died yesterday. In my own modest attempts at writing fiction, I have long been influenced by Bradbury and the great imaginative stories he wrote.


The Staphylinids
An original story by Peter Miller

Grandma had a disconcerting habit of clicking at people. That’s not exactly the right word but it was a sound that’s hard to describe. Luke said it was like the noise you get when you hit a spoke on the wheel of your bike with a stick. She would turn her face directly toward you and make this tic tic tic sound that seemed to go right into your head.

“Grandma’s clicking at me again.”

“Stop it Luke,” Mum would say.

“But she is Mum.”

“I’ve told you not to keep saying that. It’s not polite.”

Mum couldn’t hear it, just me and Luke. And dogs.

Grandma didn’t like dogs. Mum said that she was afraid of them because of something that happened to her a long time back. But the truth is that dogs were afraid of Grandma.

When we were little, Luke and I saw her make a dog fall over and die. I told Dad and he smacked me with the wooden spoon and told me not to tell lies.

When Grandma clicked at people, they seemed not to notice she was there all of a sudden. At dinner time she did weird things with her food. If Mum or Dad noticed, she just clicked at them and they seemed to forget it. Sometimes she would put things in the the pocket of her dressing gown. She especially liked chicken bones and egg shells.

“Mum, Grandma’s putting chicken wings in her pocket.”

Tic tic tic tic.

“Luke, stop it.”

“But she is.”

“Luke, if you don’t…”

Tic tic tic.

“So, who’s for some ice-cream then?”

Once, Luke and I and Amie Ditty were sitting in a tree out the side of the house watching the postman bring the mail. He took out a package and looked at it with a frown. Just then Grandma came out from behind the bushes and clicked at him. He handed her the package and walked off down the street.

Grandma stood and watched him till he went around the corner. Then she opened the package. Inside was a box. She opened the box and took out a pair of glasses. They were round and big, exactly like the ones she always wore. She took off her old glasses and put on the new ones. She looked around, made a noise like a wet sponge falling on the floor and then looked around again. She didn’t know we were sitting in the tree.

Then she ate the packaging. When she had finished, she went inside.

“That’s really weird.” said Amie Ditty.

“You bet.” said Luke.

Grandma lived in a little room built onto the back of the house. The door was always locked. When she was out we would sometimes try and see in her window but it was too dark in there.

Grandma went out a lot. Dad said she was playing whist. I never knew what whist was and I imagined it was a sport with a small bat where the object was to knock down skittles. I don’t know where that idea came from. It didn’t seem overly odd given Grandma’s many other peculiarities. She was apparently quite good at whist. She would say “Beat the socks of those Van Steenwyks last night. You shoulda seen the hands I got.”

Well Grandma’s hands were always plainly in evidence, so we just put this down to another of her foibles.

We were throwing rocks into the green water at the old quarry. Eufemia Fulvio found an arm in that old quarry once. And an umbrella. They never found out whose arm it was. Or whose umbrella. Amie Ditty said “The man with the fake hair who works in the bank clicks at people too”.

“His name is Harry,” said Luke.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“I heard Grandma talking to him once. When she was getting her pension money. She said “Harry, I swear my arthuritis gets worse every year!” and Harry said “Well, you better see a doctor about it!” and then the two of them started laughing “Har har har!”.

“Well,” said Amie Ditty, “he clicked at a customer in the bank and he had an asthma attack and they had to get an ambulance”. She threw a rock into the water. Splish. “And he also clicked at my mum, and she bought me two penny’s worth of clinkers”.

When Amie Ditty grew up, she became a cane furniture importer. She married Darryl Mussman, who had a very large nose and a very small head. Darryl Mussman was one of those people who left awkward silences in conversations, which it became your responsibility to fill. If he ever rang you up on the phone it went something like this:

“Hello, is that Matt Delaney.”

“Yes, speaking.”

Long silence.

“It’s Darryl Mussman.”

“Hi Darryl.”

Big long pause. More silence. What’s he waiting for? He rang me. Has he gone off to make coffee? How long can this go on?

“So Darryl, how’s it hangin’?” You couldn’t outwait him, it was impossible.

I thought maybe he had some kind of conversational narcolepsy, where he started to talk and somehow speaking words and listening to them at the same time triggered his brain to go into a spasm. A brain stutter. He and Amie Ditty never had any children, which I always thought was just as well. They made a very odd couple. Talk was that two or three years after they got married she had an affair with Erik Bufford who was an Onion Grader at the Co-op. I hope so. Erik was a nice normal guy and could carry on a conversation.

“God, what’s that pong?” Dad said.

That was the afternoon that the The Big Stink started. Luke and I were turning our bedroom into a haunted house. Grandma was out playing whist with the Van Steenwyks and Reena Fulvio, Eufemia’s sister.

We were all used to the smell from the Rotolacter, which was pretty bad when the wind changed to the southeast, but this was much worse than that. And that’s saying something.

Mum made us vegemite sandwiches and lime cordial for lunch, but The Stink was so disgusting we couldn’t eat anything.

“Ring the council Ted,” said Mum.

“You know, I will,” said Dad in one of his rare decisive moments.

But the council didn’t know what it was.

Mum rang Eufemia, who knew everything that went on in town, but she didn’t know what it was either.

We stuck it out for an hour or so but finally Dad said “I’m going to get to the bottom of this!”

We all got into the car.

Dad headed for the Monument. If there was ever anything to discuss in town you could be sure that there’d be people at the Monument. I never knew what it was a monument for. It was a big brass statue of a man on a horse holding a telescope in one hand and a sword in the other. The horse’s left foreleg was held up and it was the only part of the statue that was shiny. It was supposed to be good luck if you rubbed it.

Geoff Hunkler won fifteen thousand pounds on the lottery once, not two days after he rubbed it. Me and Luke rubbed it every time we went past but I only ever won a toffee apple on the hoop-la at the St Paul’s fete.

There was a crowd of people at the Monument. No-one knew what The Stink was. There was a lot of speculation. Roxie Callanan said it was the new fertilizer they were using over in Willingee. But Jack Bentler, who worked over in Willingee, said no it wasn’t. Dollie Seel said it was pollen. Erik Otis, who knew everything, said it was probably volcanic gas. Nelson Sandidge thought it might be fumes from the brickworks. Neil Stilts was the only one who was definite about it, and said it was something to do with the government. But he always said that.

In the end, with nothing decided, and it getting dark, we headed home. The Stink hadn’t gotten any better. Dad nearly hit some guy who staggered onto the road out the front of Knowlman’s.

“Bloody drunk,” said Dad, and screeched to a halt.

The man stood in front of the car and wobbled from side to side. He was smiling and looked a bit insane. He had large yellow teeth. He took a step towards us and it seemed for a second that he might try and get in the car.

“Just go ‘round him Ted,” said Mum.

Grandma wasn’t home when we got back.

“Hmmm. That’s strange,” said Mum. “I’d better give the Van Steenwyks a call.”

But no-one answered.

The Van Steenwyk’s lived up above their dry-cleaning shop. They came from Holland. Mrs Van Steenwyk wore her hair piled up on top of her head. Mum said it was a beehive. We always kept a lookout for bees but we never saw any. Mr Van Steenwyk could get any stain out of anything. That’s what everyone said. Grandma apparently didn’t take her clothes there. A burglar got killed in the Van Steenwyk’s laundry once. He climbed in through the window and fell straight down onto the steam press, which fell shut on his head. The police didn’t know who he was.

“Just some punk,” said Dad.

“Probably a prowler,” I said. The Messenger was writing about prowlers a lot at the time. Dad would read the stories out. The way I imagined it, prowlers walked around with pillowcases on their heads, the corners tied in knots and holes cut out for their eyes. I had no idea what prowlers did, but you could tell from the tone of the news stories that they were up to no good.

Dad drove over to the Van Steenwyk’s but came back without Grandma.

“No sign of her,” he said. “But there’s a lot of drunks out there tonight. Nearly collected another one near the post office. Lights are on at the Van Steenwyk’s but I couldn’t raise anyone. My God that pong’s getting bad.”

Mum was wringing her hands. Luke was dry retching in the laundry. The pong was getting pretty bad.

“You better call the police Ted,” she said.

Dad couldn’t get through to the police. The number kept ringing out.

We stayed up all night waiting for Grandma to come home. Well, Luke and I had to go to bed, but we could hear Mum and Dad talking downstairs. We didn’t go to sleep though. The Stink was so bad you couldn’t escape from it. We tried burrowing right down under the bedclothes, but that smell just seeped in any little crack.

“It’s coming from the river,” Mum put her hand over the receiver. She was talking to Eufemia Fulvio. “Eufemia says that the smell is coming from the river. She says that Reena didn’t come home last night either.”

“Put your parkas on boys, we’re going to the river,” said Dad.

We almost didn’t make it. It was 7 am and there were people everywhere. Some of them, like us, had come out to investigate The Stink, which by now was so strong it was like you’d been whacked between the eyes with a cricket bat. Mostly though, there were people just wandering around aimlessly, some of them bumping into one another, all of them with big toothy grins on their faces. They would stagger out right in front of the car, and when we jolted to a halt, peer in through the window like happy idiots.

It was like Night of the Living Dead, only in the daytime and with smiles.

Dad swerved to avoid a man in a plaid waistcoat.

“I think that was Mr Van Steenwyk,” Mum squeaked.

“Crikey,” said Dad.

There were a bunch of people on the bridge. Amie Ditty was there with her parents. They were holding handkerchiefs to their noses and looking at something down in the water. Neil Stilts was waving his hands about and shouting something but we couldn’t hear it.

“There’s Grandma,” I said, pointing. She was meandering down the centre of the road beaming like a lunatic. Dad tooted the horn. Grandma didn’t notice. She just lurched off through the crowd.

“Round her up!” said Dad. We all jumped out of the car. Luke and I only got three or four steps before The Stink overpowered us. It was bad enough in the car, but here on the bridge it was overwhelmingly repulsive. We both started throwing up against the bridge wall. I think Harry from the bank careened past at one stage, I couldn’t be sure. There’s nothing quite like vomiting to distract you from anything else that’s going on.

The Stink started to go away just before lunch. Mum tried to get Grandma to drink a cup of tea but she just sat there in the old armchair looking into space. She wasn’t smiling anymore, just dribbling a bit. She bobbed her head around every now and then and sucked at her teeth.

“Maybe she’s had a stroke,” said Dad waving his hand up and down in front of her.

“Maybe we’ll have to put her in a home” said Luke, hopefully.

No-one ever found out what caused The Big Stink. It lasted for a few days and faded away. It was all anyone could talk about for a week or so, but then people seemed to forget about it. The Messenger ran a story about it – I know because I looked in the archive once to make sure I hadn’t imagined it. Of course, that was a very busy week news-wise, so maybe it was just that there were other things on people’s minds. A meteorite went through the roof of the primary school and smashed the sports trophy cabinet. Stan Ogden lost control of his back hoe and drove it right through the middle of the cemetery. And Neil Stilts got attacked and killed by a rabid dog in Peavey Park while he was weeding the floral clock. The Messenger had to go to a second print run.

Grandma recovered her faculties. Well at least to the extent that she ever had them before. She did a lot of ticking at Mum and Dad and they stopped asking her about what happened.

Luke kept pestering her about it until he came down with the measles.

Once, while I was studying in Durban in South Africa, I smelled that awful smell again. Not anywhere near as bad, fortunately, but the same smell quite unmistakeably. It’s not something I think I could ever forget. It was in the middle of the summer and there was a plague of some kind of beetle. Millions of them, in great black clouds. They flew in from the grasslands, apparently. So many of them got crushed under the wheels of cars that there was beetle sludge on the roads for days afterwards. And the smell of those mashed beetles was exactly like the Big Stink.

I rang Mum and Dad and told them all about it.

“Is that so? Goodness the line is clear. How’s university? I hope you’re eating properly. Have you met a nice girl yet?”

It was a clear line, for sure. Except for the clicking.