Jolley Prize 2011 (Shortlist): 'Milk Tray' by Claire Aman

This is to say I didn’t take the old lady’s things for myself, I was only looking after them. I wanted to leave the chocolate box in her garden so when she lifted the lid she’d find her ruby rings and diamonds and pearls each tucked in their own dark nest. It was nearly ready, only two more to go – Turkish Delight and Peppermint Crème. She would have understood. But it’s too late, and now I can’t decide whether to bury the box on the riverbank or flog the lot and go to Bali.

I do her garden – that’s how I met her. The last couple of years I did other things for her too: shopping, hanging out the washing, cutting her toenails. She had my number on her speed-dial. I helped her vote when she couldn’t remember who was who. She used to be a professor back when women were under the thumb, so she must have been clever. All the same, she found it hard to string her thoughts together by the end. Not that I’m much of a genius myself. I’m more of a frustrated poet.

You’re a rough diamond, Budgie, she’d say. You could tell she was from a wealthy background by the way she said it. You’re a helpful soul, she’d say. But she helped me too. I grew my secret pot down on her riverbank in a clearing, just half a dozen plants. If anyone had found it I would have owned up. But no one did, and my annual crop grew hairy-budded and fragrant down there in that soft brown soil.

Just the back lawn, Budgie, she’d say. Leave the riverbank wild. Other people whose blocks stretch down to the river ask me to mow all the way to the water, like a park. Not Esther. She had shoulder-high sedges and sandpaper figs and bottlebrushes and silky oaks – and my pot.

There were certificates in her hallway from the Royal this and the Society of that. She lent me a book she’d written. Concepts of Geomorphology, by Esther Osram. The first sentence went like this: ‘It is evident to anyone who has watched waves acting on a beach, or a river transporting sediment, that the surface of Earth is constantly changing. A ripple in the sand may form in a few minutes, but mountain chains can have a history of hundreds of millions of years.’

The book talked about how landscapes are formed. Things get compressed and uplifted, they fold and buckle and crumple; pieces tumble and slide off, and some of it gets blown around or washed down, and everything becomes part of something new. Reading it made me think of Esther as a weathered old land scored with crooked channels, erosion lines gullying down from her nose, and a seep of spit shining at the corner of her mouth. You could see how the constant inward movement of her brows had pushed in a deep fold between her eyes. She looked more like the subject of geology than a professor of it. I got the idea of writing a sort of geological poem about old people, but like most of my poetry it never got past inspiration.

At the end the book said, surprisingly, that no one really knows the truth.

When I went to return it she said, You have it, Budgie, you keep it. That was funny. If I’d written a book, even one on geology, it would be my most treasured possession. I wouldn’t just give my copy to the mower-man. But she insisted. I thought, you’re losing your mind, Esther, but I said thank you very much and went down the street and bought her a box of Milk Tray chocolates. Remember them? They were classy in their time – the purple box with its embossed silver border, white ribbon unfurling to spell Milk Tray. A fine selection of milk chocolates. I got the box of twenty-four. I know there are more sumptuous chocolates, but I thought she’d enjoy the Milk Tray.

I was right. Her fingers reminded me of old claws the way she scrabbled at the cellophane, but I didn’t interfere, and she finally had it open. You go first, Esther, I said, and she took one and held it up. Praline Passion, I read from the lid. Satiny hazelnut praline. I took a Caramello Pleasure wrapped in red tinfoil. A dash of silky flowing caramel.

It’s like a jewellery box, she said, and it was. It’s the moment when you lift the corrugated paper to find Macadamia Heaven in gold foil, bevelled Turkish Delight with its promise of a gleaming rose centre, velvety Hazelnut Supreme tucked in its own hollow. Gold and silver, rubies and emeralds. She asked me, after we’d eaten three each, if I’d take the rest home. As I left she grabbed me hard by the arm. The baubles, Budgie, she said. We don’t need to keep them here, do we? Nothing stays in the one place forever, she said. Not forever.

I ate the rest of the chocolates in bed, dreaming of how in the night a woman, asleep, might tuck her hand into mine, and how that could feel like a gemstone nestling in deep blue velvet.

The secret to starting any lawn mower is to turn it on its side for ten seconds. It never fails. Ever since I started my gardening business I’ve never needed to advertise. People want you if you’re cheerful and reliable, and they tell their friends. I make enough money to keep myself going. My living expenses have been what you might call basic since I’ve been on my own again.

Esther’s house faces the river with its back to the street. It’s my favourite garden. You wanted to lie down in that soft grass and stare into the dark canopies of the trees. It has frangipani and hibiscus and camellias heavy with ice pinks and ruby reds, and a ferny path winding through masses of blue hydrangeas and gardenias to a birdbath. There’s an old avocado tree at the bottom, and beyond that, the long river bank with its rushes and reeds.

I started finding the jewellery last Easter. First it was the pearls. The silvery-cream balls were arranged in a row on the mossy rim of the birdbath. They gleamed and clacked in my hand. When I told Esther she laughed. Did the garden make a pearl in the night, Budgie?

I left them in a saucer on her kitchen table. When I came back the following week there they were again, laid out on the soft green moss one by one. They were her things and I wasn’t in charge of her, so I left them. They acquired a pale green patina in that shady spot, and after a month or so you could barely notice them.

Pearls, the housework of oysters. Meanwhile, Esther’s niece Joy was also thinking about housework. Joy lives in the new part of town, fifteen minutes away by Peugeot. It took her two years to ever say hello to me, even though she knew I helped Esther. Maybe she felt guilty when Esther told her what a rough diamond I was.

You could say Joy meant well. But she had a habit of talking about Esther as if she wasn’t there. Once she told me Esther didn’t wash enough, right in front of her.

When Joy discovered an old chop in Esther’s cutlery drawer, she sent in the services. People started knocking on the door and inviting themselves in. They called me Essie, she said. That’s a little girl’s name. They called me darling. As if they were the adults, the fat things.

Joy organised a cleaner to come once a week. But Esther liked me to be the one putting the clothes through the machine or running a Wettex around the kitchen sink. I didn’t fuss over things. The cleaner complained about smells and stains and rearranged Esther’s cupboards.

I’d always been happy to take her shopping. She’d run her comb under the kitchen tap and plaster her hair back in furrows, and she’d sit up straight in my ute holding her handbag on her lap. In the supermarket she’d sing out all the sweet things she needed: Swiss Rolls and pink iced buns and the Chocolate Royals.

She told me Joy was talking about nursing homes. But I’ve lived here for fifty years, she told me, and as she said it her hands gripped the porch rail like a captain. I was a geologist, she said, and a bride. There was a northerly wind blowing hot dust over the wedding guests, and we danced with our dresses streaming southwards. I had diamond earrings, she told me.

I found one of them sparkling on a camellia petal on the garden path. It was only because a sunray caught it that I noticed. I asked her later while we were having our cup of tea. Diamonds? I wore history in my ears, she said. Nothing goes back to its original state, Budgie.

The other earring was hanging off a twig on the avocado tree.

I decided to put everything in the chocolate box, which I hadn’t got around to throwing out yet.

I’ve been reading in a magazine about a famous painter who suffers from Korsakoff’s syndrome. Conversations with him are described as groping in a maze of fragments and finding the odd tiny jewel. Korsakoff’s is an end-stage of alcoholism and also an effect of vitamin B deficiency. You can’t recognise your own memories, so you invent connections between the oddments you can still conjure. As if the thoughts have become unstrung. Esther wasn’t like that. The old painter wears nappies and makes up wild stories. Esther just brought her jewellery out, piece by piece, to the garden. I brought each shining thing home for the Milk Tray box. A place for everything, and everything in its place. I was going to leave the box under the birdbath when it was full. She must have noticed things weren’t where she left them, but she never said anything. Nor did I. They were her baubles and if she didn’t want them up in the house, that was alright with me. I was only looking after them. Like she said, nothing stays in one place forever.

Esther’s book said the faces of tableland escarpments are notched and etched by ravines and promontories. The joints weather from behind, and portions of the rock mass are detached. Piles of talus, the rocks dislodged from above, lie against the base of the escarpment, all fallen.

I didn’t tell anyone about the jewellery because no one would have understood. That’s the way people are: they don’t understand. It’s why I keep my poetry to myself.

One morning Esther rang me early to say she’d hurt herself. I arrived to find her in the kitchen, red footprints on the lino, a red pool shining at her feet. Hoy Budgie, she said. She pulled up her hem to show her shin. Her skin was like layers of tissue paper, and the blooms kept welling up. She told me where to find a bandage. Then I cleaned up the mess. There was a red trail spattering down the steps. It led to a ruby necklace that dangled from a branch, glittering with pink light.

The point seems to be that everything shifts, Budgie, she told me when I came back inside. There was a dry leaf stuck to the lapel of her dressing gown.

When I left the house, Joy was outside with a fellow wearing sunglasses and a tie. Real estate agent, I thought. After he’d driven away, Joy insulted me. She said she wasn’t sure how to put it, but she hoped that, well, I wouldn’t feel obliged any more. Lonely old people. You know. Inappropriate. She said the services would look after Esther until a bed came up. In a nursing home. I felt like saying, yeah Joy, a nursing home’s really going to do the right thing by Esther.

I’ve been thinking about the sound of Esther’s voice, thin and deep like the wind in the leaves. She needed someone to trust. It could be your mother hiding food in her drawer or leaving the stove on. I was never after her things.

What happened next was the cut on her leg became a shining ulcer. A nurse came each morning to change the dressing. I kept on visiting. Esther found it hard to walk, and I brought her the pink iced buns from the supermarket. The jewellery kept appearing in the garden, but it wasn’t artfully placed any more. A heart-shaped gold locket gleamed at the foot of the steps, smooth and rich like a real heart. I didn’t open it; they were her interiors, not mine. On the little path was a watch with a broken face and a swirl of emeralds on the band. I pricked my finger on a brooch the colour of Turkish Delight when I pulled fishbone ferns away from the path. The Milk Tray box was nearly complete.

Last Friday morning I rang her as usual. She said she didn’t need anything but she’d slept badly and the morning had taken a long time to arrive. She told me Hindus understood the slow pace of time and how long everything takes. Hindus and geologists, Budgie, she said. Then she told me I was a rough diamond.

I drove past just as the sun was going down, on my way back from mowing a lawn downriver. There was no answer when I rang the doorbell so I went around to the door on the river side. Unusually, it was closed. Esther’s lawn was due for a cut, and there was a wind rippling through the grass like an invisible hand stroking a cat. I followed the ferny path past the blue-headed hydrangeas, past the birdbath, down past the avocado tree to the whisper of a track through the rushes and reeds on the river bank. I was very quiet. There was something further down. Through the trees I saw Esther lying on a green bed of reeds in her ruby red dressing gown, her head on a blue cushion.

If it had been anyone else lying there, I would have called the ambulance. I did what I did because she trusted me. I knew what she wanted. You might think it was wrong. You might think I was pinching her jewellery, too. I hope not.

What I did was, I walked back up to the garden and lay down in the grass, and I looked up into the flowered canopy and listened to the wind.

I made the phone call next morning after I’d gone down to harvest my pot. When they carried her up on the stretcher, her face was like a rough gem against the white sheet, all bright edges in the sunlight.


'Milk Tray' by Claire Aman was shortlisted in the 2011 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.


Published in October 2011 no. 335
Claire Aman

Claire Aman

Claire Aman lives in Grafton. She works as a town planner and writes in her spare time. Her fiction has appeared in Best Australian Stories 2008 (Black Inc), New Australian Stories 1 and New Australian Stories 2 (Scribe), Island, Southerly and Heat magazines, and has been read on ABC Radio National's Short Story.

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