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Short Story: Cautious Kate

Short Story: Cautious Kate

Short Story: Cautious Kate

Her mum had brought her up to always be cautious of strangers after what had happened to Great-Aunt Bertha, but is it time for Kate and her dog, Jasper, to be a bit more trusting?

Jasper was a scaredy dog. Truth be told, he was a lot like me. Jumping at shadows, cowering with fear when there was a night-time noise. I had chosen Jasper and he had chosen to be like me, Cautious Kate.

I blamed my careful attitude to life on my great-aunt Bertha, twice removed. She’d had her bag snatched in broad daylight while walking home from the bus stop. In the tussle, she had fallen heavily and hit her head on the curb. Did the bag snatcher know he was actually a killer? Bertha’s story had become Faulkner family folklore, and my mother had dutifully drummed into me that you could never be too careful. “Better to be safe than sorry” was my mother’s cautious warning, etched deeply into my psyche and possibly my future gravestone.

So here we were, Jasper and me, on a mid-morning walk. I know this sounds crazy to admit, but at thirty-two years of age it was the first solo mid-morning walk I’d ever taken in the suburb of Larsen Lakes. My best friend Reshna dutifully walked with me at 5.15 every morning, and if she couldn’t walk, I simply didn’t go. “Always walk with someone,” my mother had sensibly warned. “Look at what happened to Great-Aunt Bertha.”

This morning Reshna’s little Samvik had a sore throat and she’d texted to say she needed to stay home. I read the text and turned back over in bed. It was my rostered day off and now I could lie in for awhile, warm under my doona, emerging later for a leisurely breakfast, catching the winter morning sun on my back deck.

Scrolling through the news feeds on my phone during breakfast, I’d read of a man who’d chased off a knife-wielding robber. BRAVE BRICKIE BEATS BURGLAR. Alliteration Andrew was reporting again. Alliteration Andrew, whom I’d known intimately, was also A-lecherous, A-typical, A-hole. When I’d moved back from the country he’d interviewed me for a lifestyle piece on working women.

“I can’t cook to save myself but I can locate the best home-style takeaways around.” My famous one line quoted in the article. My mother, who’d thought I’d slaved away every birthday celebration, was most put out. However Alliteration Andrew was taken with more than just my takeaways. Thing was, it turned out he was having ‘takeaways’ with more women than just me – and once known, I took myself far away from our unit to this “small duplex with deck”. Andrew’s legacy was our alliteration names, “Cautious Kate, Ravishing Reshna, Sad-Sack Steve, D-head Dave…” Annoying thing was that the names were apt.

I stared at the photo of the brave brickie. His slight frame gave no hint of the bravery within, though his blue eyes held a look of “Come on, I dare you!” If this wiry, little ranga was brave enough to chase off a knife-wielding burglar, surely I could muster the courage to walk on my own.

Technically I was not walking on my own. I had Jasper. Lord knows I’d not have even contemplated the walk without him. Jasper strode on ahead, yanking me along behind him. The winter sun shone against a sky of cloud-free blue, its rays of warmth feeding my resolve. It was beautiful at this time of day.

Funnily, there was no-one around. I had missed the pre-work walkers, the energetic baby boomers and the tired but resolved-to-walk new mothers. A water dragon shot out on the path ahead and Jasper leapt into my arms. “It’s okay boy, he won’t hurt us,” I soothed, my own heart beating faster. Jasper gingerly watched the dragon dart into the bushland before jumping down.

Did my fear flow down his lead? He looked eager, confident and happy to be here, much the same attitude I gave out at work. But if you looked carefully you could see him walk a little on edge, paws lightly touching the ground, ears alert to foreign sounds. Inside we were two of a kind, “Nervous Nellies”.

With Alliteration Andrew annihilated from my life but not my vocabulary, I was planning to meet my next partner with Jasper’s help. If my boyfriend before Andrew had come from a chance meeting over the frozen peas in the local country IGA, then a cute, medium-sized dog was surely a great icebreaker in the city suburbs.

The bush ahead shook violently. A lone water dragon couldn’t cause this upset. I clicked my tongue and gee-ed up Jasper’s lead, urging him to speed past the bushes. An elderly homeless man emerged from the bush, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. Jasper and I jumped away.

He laughed as he straightened his back. “’Fraid of ya own shadow. Got any money ya can give an old digger?”

I sped past not making eye contact – although his stench held firm in my nostrils. “Calm down!” I told myself. “You’re a walking mess. He just wanted a hot coffee on a cold morning and you ran past as though he were Jack the Ripper.”

My cheeks burned with embarrassment. Where was my compassion? Where was my courage? Next time, I would give him breakfast money. Next time, when I was walking with Reshna. My mother’s voice was loud and clear, “Never stop and talk to strangers.”

The path coiled past the brook. The air here was cooler. The camphor laurel stretched its branches, covering the path in shade. To the right of the brook four trunks stood, covered in a creeping vine that hung like a heavy crocheted veil from their leafless branches.

Thank goodness it was daylight. They had an unsettling presence, as though they could come alive, wrapping their limbs tightly around you, your final breath a gulp of thick, moss-like air.

A fleeting figure up ahead caught my eye. Caucasian, about 170cm, medium build, white T-shirt trimmed with red, red cap, jeans. Reshna thought I should have been a police investigator instead of an office manager and I probably would have if I hadn’t been so afraid of being mugged. She knew I was a totally insecure wreck, unlike the others in the office who marvelled at my steadfastness.

“Reliable Kate” she’d heard Sad-Sack Steve call me as he spoke to D-head Dave at the water cooler. It was true, I was reliable – but a total fruitcake when it came to personal safety. Now where had the red-capped man gone?

I was jolted back to the here and now. He was no longer visible. Oh my God, had he slipped around behind me? The grass was so long to the left that I had no chance of seeing him. Why didn’t the council keep the sides mown? Didn’t they know any allergy-free murderer had a perfect hiding spot within the tall feather-pink pampas grass?

I quickened my step. Maybe he was up ahead. If so, I should turn back now, foil him at his own game. My pace slowed and my heart raced as I assessed the best course of action.

I could see the headline now – ‘Woman Assaulted on Walking Track’. Worse still, it’d be Andrew covering the story: ‘Killer Caught Cautious Kate’. Oh my God. He was up ahead. A sliver of his red cap was protruding from behind the large-trunked eucalypt. “Turn Kate, turn!” my mother’s voice screamed in my head, yet Jasper sensed no danger.

Man-in-the-red-cap was, by all accounts, dad-in-the-red-cap, as he emerged from behind the tree pulling a tricycle behind him, his podgy-faced toddler holding on grimly. “You idiot!!” I chastised myself silently.

“Morning!” I offered as I walked past, trying to sound cheerful and confident. He looked up from under his cap and nodded. That was it – I was enrolling in counselling. This fear was becoming irrational. No-one was after me. Everyone was happily at work. I was perfectly safe on this track. It was broad daylight. If someone happened to be ahead I would say ‘hello’. In fact, I might even start a conversation. Yes! Conversation Kate, that’s who I’d be.

The Dorothy tree stood up ahead, not quite as far away as the bus stop. I called it that because it looked as though it had been caught up in the tornado that took Dorothy far from Kansas. Its roots had stayed firmly planted in the ground but the trunk had been tossed around and around leaving an elongated twirling pattern, ending in a point about five metres up. It seemed fitting that I should return home when I reached the Dorothy tree, especially as I was wearing my red Nikes (close enough to ruby slippers).

To the left of the tree was the road. Parked alongside was a white van – registration plate 546 GKY. It was parked facing the oncoming traffic, one of its rear doors ajar as though ready for the perfect getaway. A tall man with broad shoulders, wearing a black T-shirt stretched to its capacity, stood near the tree. He appeared restless – as though in search of someone.

Things were looking up. Cautious Kate would have him pegged as a felon, chloroform on the hanky that protruded from his pocket, ready to stuff her in the awaiting van. Conversation Kate, however, saw an opportunity to be brave.

“Morning!” I beamed.

“Morning,” he replied, flashing a smile that made my legs feel a little weak. Great teeth AND gorgeous blue eyes.

“Nice dog,” he said, leaning down to pat Jasper. “Pedigree?”

“Yes!” I replied. I couldn’t wait to tell Reshna. Pedigree Jasper was a man-magnet. Jasper jumped up, his paws landing on Hulk’s T-shirt. I leaned over to push Jasper down. And that was when it happened. He whipped out the hanky, shoved it into my mouth and smothered another over my nose. I remember falling to the ground.

“Kate, Kate are you okay?” A firm hand was shaking my shoulder as the hanky was taken from my mouth. I coughed, opening my eyes to see Sad-Sack Steve, his brow a knot of concern.

“I’m okay,” I stammered trying to prop my elbow beneath me. “Where’s Jasper?”

“Your dog?” he asked.

I nodded. Steve’s eyes darted around the area.

“Can’t see him,” Steve replied. I could feel the tears welling.

“It’s okay, Kate,” he offered in a voice that was kind and gentle. “We’ll find him. Now, do you think you can move?” I propped my back up against Dorothy, my head still a little dizzy.

“What are you doing here, Steve?” I asked, my head between my knees.

“On my way to work. Remember I flexitimed this morning? Had to take Dave’s mum to her hospital appointment seeing as Dave’s in New Zealand. Anyway, I was walking to the bus stop and saw a man hunched over up near the Candy-Cane tree. He got up, ran over to his van, put his dog in the back and sped off. Then I saw someone still on the ground. Oh no … the dog – was it yours? ”

I leaned over to grab my phone and show him Jasper’s photo. “My phone,” I groaned. “It’s gone too!”

And there it was. The police officer was gobsmacked with the information I had noted. The identikit picture was perfect, down to his white gleaming smile. The police were positive I’d be reunited with Jasper in no time.

This mid-morning walk episode, however, had done nothing to shake off the ‘Cautious Kate’ label. Truth be told, I’d probably never walk alone again.

However, the whole episode had done wonders to rid Steve of the ‘Sad-Sack’ title. I couldn’t wait to tell Reshna how concerned and caring he’d been. He even had his own name for the Dorothy tree!

Sweet Steve. Sensitive Steve. I gave Steve a smile and he squeezed my hand.

Smiling Steve. Maybe Steve would help me throw caution to the wind. ‘Fearless Faulkner’ and ‘Superhero Steve’. Might toss those two to Alliteration Andrew when he reports on the capture of the dog thief of Larsen Lakes.

After all, I thought, smiling, embarking on a new relationship was possibly the bravest thing anyone could do.

About our MiNDFOOD Short Story author: Leanne Youitt

“Working in education, my passion is teaching young students to read and write, and most importantly to love doing both,” says Leanne. “Starting a new book or the new magazine on my bedside table is always an awaited treat. Inspired by the latest MiNDFOOD reader’s story, I thought I’d pen an everyday story. Using my own scaredy dog, Montey, and the features of my local walking track, the fictional characters emerged. My daughter, son and husband laughed at the right spots so I sent it in!”

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