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That morning she walked into the shop all smiles and colour, but behind her she brought darkness and dust. Of course she didn’t know that, instead she just handed me a photograph. She even grinned as she did it, as if pleased with her find. Yet the black and white image transported me back. My shop, my granddaughter, the traffic, the floor, even myself disappeared in a haze of remembrance. I didn’t just see the wooden shack at the cross-roads, I saw myself in front of it. I knew that the car was parked just out of shot and that the barren landscape carried on for as long as you could see. I stared at the home, for despite its rundown appearance it truly was a home, and it stared back. The windows were blank eyes, all except one. In the ill-fitted hole a curtain hung, and then fluttered. I drew in a breath, trying to get my stiff lungs to work. For a moment I thought the photograph had echoed my imagination, but as I blinked, I realised it was only the headlights of a car driving past the shop.


"Do you remember?" my earnest granddaughter asked and I looked at her with most of my mind back at that shop, so far removed from where I stood but still the reason that I lived the way I do.


"Of course I remember," I said, disturbed that my voice sounded cracked and unused.


"What was it like? You know, before." She looked at me with an expectant face and my heart fell. I had been waiting for this question and I suppose it had to come now. I was old and getting older. If I didn't tell her soon the story might not be told. True, at fifty I wasn't that old, but I had seen so many of my friends go because of what happened, it was a possibility that it would happen to me. I hoped not and I looked after my chest but every cough and sniffle scared me. Instead of answering Melissa I just nodded and walked to the door.


I love my shop. Used and new books.

Perhaps not as salubrious as others but, as a collector, it allows me to pursue my love as well as make enough money to live decently. Grasping the wooden hand carved sign I turn it showing the "closed' sign to the outside world. No one is in the shop so there is no reason not to start the story. It is Melissa’s right. Yet as I walk back I find my hands becoming sweaty and my breathing speeding up. I need time to compose myself. Inside, that amuses me; surely I've had enough time. How long do I need? I argue with myself and, in the end, I talk myself into five minutes more. I motion for Melissa to follow me. She does with a grin. How is she to know that inside I am a mess just because of a photo?


Walking into the back we come into my living quarters. It is homely, but fairly basic. There are just two rooms and a bathroom. This living area with its overstuffed chair and sofa sports both a small table and the kitchen area. I walk over and reach for the kettle."Would you like a drink?"


"No thanks, Pops."

I nod and reach for a glass from the cupboard above my head. I know I am moving slowly and carefully, as if the air has become thick. Clutching the glass I fill it with clear, cold water, then nod to the sofa and Melissa obediently goes over and sits. I take the chair and place the glass on the small table beside me. I tap the surface.

The photo is still clutched in my hand and I look at it again


"Back then, even a glass of water was precious." I lapse into silence.

"Was it sudden?" she asks, eager for the story.  I need more time.


"Where did you get the photo?"


"Mum had it in a box. I asked her and she said that it was from before and that you knew the story."

I nod.


"To understand what happened I have to tell you why we were there."


I pause and take a deep breath.


"I'd only been born a couple of years before so I don't remember what it was like, but Mam and Dad said life was hard. We moved to the Great Plains in order to escape the poverty. Dad said he had wanted to give us a better life. And to begin with it was. We arrived and there were no trees, not one. It was so strange. I was used to the forests and yet here was nothing but grass. I suppose before they opened the land to the settlers the buffalo had been killed. I don't remember ever seeing one, only the endless green. And it was green. The plains had so much rain that it was amazing; a sea of greens. All different colours from yellow to rich emerald green. When we first arrived, my dad, your great grandpa, knelt and ran his hands through the soil. It was rich and black. Mam had said that he grinned and she'd known then that they would be fine.


We were for a while. The first thing we did was rip up the grass, it had no purpose after all. Just like that, it was stripped. Not all the land. We didn't need to plant it all. The next year though, we took more up. All our neighbours were doing the same and prices were so buoyant. World War One had left the world in dire need of food, and we, on the Great Plains, were in the right place at the right time. Dad nibbled away at our land until we were ploughing and planting all of it. That sea of grass that I would lie in and allow to wash over me was gone. A few spots were left but it wasn't the same. That grass would flow like water as the wind blew it in a gentle warm breeze. It would whip into surf and tumble in chaotic shapes as the breeze became strong. It was beautiful. And the smell! Just like spring; earthy and moist. Then it was gone and all you could see was corn and cotton.


The first year the rains didn't come we were not that worried. Instead Dad dug up the last of our fallow land, lifting the plains grass and exposing the fertile soil. It was a good time. We had no worries that the rains would return. The rains always returned. The government had said that the climate had changed on the Great Plains. Hell, they even suggested that by using the plough we had brought the rain, that we had collectively created the change.


They were wrong. We went from farmers with land and money to owners of dirt. The first storms started in 1934 and they took us by surprise. Now, not only was it so dry that we could hardly grow enough to eat, but we had to watch as that fertile soil took flight. The wind blew and it moved. Just like the grass, only now the dirt flew and disappeared."


I pause, suddenly thirsty. It can get you like that. Remembering the past and the dry can make you feel as if you are right back in that time. Melissa looks at me with a curious expression.


"What do you mean it flew?"


"Have you seen any movies on the desert?"


"It was about a horse and this race."


"Okay, was there a dust storm in it?"

She nods.


"Well, it was just like that but black. It was dried out mud. And it was fine. It got everywhere. In the first years Mam would just use a broom and sweep it out but by the time that Black Sunday came around she would tack cloth inside the windows and any crack would have newspaper stuffed into it."


"Black Sunday?" Melissa asks.

"The fourteenth of April 1935." I pause. Remembering is hard. I shift in my seat. "Do you know I had a twin?"


Melissa looks shocked. She shakes her head.


"No I didn't. You had a brother?"I give a sad smile.


"No, I had a sister." She looks surprised.


"We were non-identical. In fact you were named after her. Little Melissa we used to call her. She was really cute but so small. We all used to look after her and I remember that day, that horrible Sunday, she was walking from the car. We had just been to church and we were going back home. Dad pulled the car into the yard and we only had about a hundred yards to walk. We never saw it. We had our backs to it. I turned just as it hit and it looked like a wall of black. I remember yelling and Little Mel turned and screamed. Then I could see nothing. It got everywhere. I mean, we were used to dust but this was thick and more like breathing in dirt. You could feel it clogging your lungs and making your breathing bad. I turned to where I thought the house was and pulled my shirt up to cover my mouth. I couldn't see. If you opened your eyes all that happened was that they filled with grit. It hurt. It felt like your eyes were being cut every time you blinked. So I kept them closed and then I felt a hand and I was dragged inside. The inside of the house though was almost as dark and dusty as outside.


As Dad had opened the door the dust had rushed in. He pushed me through and then left again. Mam came over with a bowl of water and bathed my face, except, as fast as she got the dirt off, more clung to me. She was coughing and I remember that she gave me a damp cloth. 'Breathe through it,' she said. The door slammed open and Dad walked in carrying little Mel. She hung in his arms like a rag doll. I thought she was gone and then she coughed. And coughed."


I fall silent, remembering.


Melissa looks so sad. She may not know the story but she can guess the outcome. I suppose if this were a fairytale or fiction I could tell her of Little Mel's recovery. But it is neither of these things.


"We all survived that day, but Mel got a cough. If we had been able to grow some food or someone had helped, then maybe she would have pulled through. But no one did. We were on our own. She got so thin and then they diagnosed dust pneumonia. After that it was just a matter of time. The dust was everywhere and once it was in your lungs it stayed, festering. I held her hand as she died..." I trail off, not wanting to carry on.


"So we owned land?" Melissa said and I could see that my heartfelt story had not affected her as much as I thought it would. But then how do you describe a dust storm so thick that you can't see your hand in front of your face and the dirt that hits your bare skin feeling like a thousand needles? Instead I just nod.


"Yes, but we lost it. Not long after Mel died. We ended up just another Okie family trying to live on nothing. We joined the trail out, picking fruit and working at whatever we could. People treated us like dirt. We couldn't escape the bad feeling toward our kind.

Eventually Dad was able to find work and I went to school. Ended up running this place. A book lover's paradise."


Melissa looks at me and I smile.

"I have more photos around here. Would you like to see them?"

She nods and says yes.


I turn and go into the storeroom off the shop. On the top shelf I take down a hand-bound book. As I do a handful of dust floats down and settles on my upturned face. I cough. I try to be quiet but I can feel the ache start to build in my lower back. Placing the book on a lower shelf I reach into my pocket and pull out a handkerchief. Then the fit starts. It lasts a little while and I can hear Melissa calling for me. I will go to her in a moment. There is no point trying to yell, it will be a while before I get my breath. I look at the handkerchief. It is stained red and brown.

"Us Okies ran as hard and as fast as we could to escape the great plain, but in reality we took it with us. I am still coughing up parts of Black Sunday."


 From the doorway I hear Melissa.


"You okay, Pops?"


"Yes," I call out, stuffing the cloth into a pocket and reaching for the album.

"I'll be there in a minute."

I suck my breath in past lungs scoured by silica and sand. I pick up the album and walk out to my curious granddaughter.

Kate Murray has only been writing since 2010 when her Aunt brought her a leather bound journal for Christmas. Nothing unusual about that, but she didn’t write, in fact she’d only tried to keep a diary for one year. She had done it but it had been a chore. So she started 2011 by enrolling on to a local writing course. It was free and she thought why not, after all she was always telling people stories. That’s where she differs, you see she is dyslexic and has been actively steered away from writing. Don’t get me wrong, her parents are really supportive and now she’s at university studying an MA in creative writing she has a mass of support. But that first step into the writing group was terrifying. She’s now studying at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David and thoroughly enjoying it.







New book of short stories available:

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