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Posted on 4 Sep 2020 in Extracts, Fiction |

EMMA ASHMERE Dreams They Forgot: extract

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This week we’re delighted to bring you the short story ‘Fallout’ from Emma Ashmere’s debut collection Dreams They Forgot.

What haunting stories these are, with their ghosts, betrayals and secrets, ranging back and forth across time and continents. A schoolteacher is dogged by the rattle of guns in the aftermath of World War I; a child sprouts potatoes beneath a Doomsday Clock in the family kitchen; a niece uncovers her uncle’s secret life in the jungles of Borneo; a destitute young woman finds herself working for an abortionist in Adelaide’s North Terrace. There is loss, madness and prejudice, but also sly wit, determination and survival.

Extract courtesy of Wakefield Press



My parents called themselves theatre people. Actually, they were radio people, but my mother thought the theatre sounded more glamorous. She’d briefly hoofed across the footlights after the war, and was told she had a good face for radio.

Her photo made the newspapers occasionally, her crooked smile crammed around an ABC microphone. People wrote in, said the mellifluous voice didn’t match the mugshot. She took it as a compliment. All her life, she’d craved notoriety. My father, however, craved anonymity.

He was a behind-the-scenes radio technician, a wizard with wires, and excelled in producing ‘noises off’ – clacking nails on a board for galloping hooves, creaking cupboard doors to imitate the opening of tombs – but he refused to do sirens. That’s how my parents met, arguing over the necessity of a siren in a script. He preferred the power of suggestion, of absence, imagination. Radio was theatre-of-the-mind. He knew the importance of timing. Pause. Affect. My mother knew the importance of finding a husband with a catchy surname who talked less than she did, but still laughed at her jokes.

In the early seventies, he was working at Telecom, treading water, as he called it, until retirement. But then he saw that story in the newspapers.

I heard my parents arguing.

She shouted, ‘Cyril, you can’t. You’ll go to prison.’

‘They’ll die if they go back,’ he said.

He still had connections with people in showbiz. That’s how he wangled a place on the TV game show Tell the Truth.


Here we are on a Saturday afternoon rushing up the steps of Channel 9. Before my father disappears through the door No Entry When Light Is Flashing, my mother hands a woman with a clipboard a note: URGENT information re contestant CYRIL CHALMERS.

We’re waved into a large windowless room full of screaming, stamping people. A man wearing headphones is showing everyone how to clap and whistle whenever the APPLAUSE sign comes on, and how to be quiet for SILENCE.

I stare at the glittering letters Tell the Truth, and glance around for prison guards ready with their handcuffs.

At first I don’t recognise my father as he limps onto the set with two other men. Half of his hair has been puffed up, like one of my mother’s failed soufflés. His arms swim in a velvet suit. His face is orange. He squints at the audience, one hand up to shield his eyes. He finds my mother. She nods.


When the professor from the so-called Safety Committee saw the first one go off, he said it was ‘wondrous’.


My mother is calling out. ‘Remember to throw your voice. A-nun-ci-ate. Move the jaw. Vee-va-vo.’

The SILENCE sign flickers on.

I pull at her dress to make her sit down.

Music swirls. A herd of cameras purrs across the lino floors. Something lurches up my throat. I choke it back. Spotlights dart across our heads. A Milky Way of lights beams down, catching the glint of the show host’s white teeth, before swinging across to the three judges.

My father and the two other contestants are all introduced as Cyril Chalmers.

The judges quiz all three men, trying to pick the real Cyril Chalmers from the two fakes.

I can’t bring myself to look as the judges grill them about their births in Eastbourne in England, their brave years in the RAF, their immigration to South Australia, their work in radio and Telecom. My father’s answers are quiet, brief. The other two contestants laugh and pile wild lie upon wild lie.

One of the judges is handed a note from the floor – my mother’s note.

‘Aha,’ he says. ‘A little birdie has just told me that after the war, Messers Cyril Chalmers, you left England and came to our sunny shores to work for the distinguished British physicist, Captain Jenkins.’

Another judge quips about not trusting anything a little birdie says, especially if that birdie is a Ruskie or a blonde.


My father’s eyes swing in our direction. His orange face powder has begun to melt. His hands shake. Beside him, the two impostor Cyril Chalmers reminisce about their imaginary wartime friend, the top-notch British boffin, Captain Jenkins.

My mother sits forward in her seat and whispers, ‘Now.’

My father tries to interrupt. ‘Captain Jenkins … tests in … South Australia …’

But the others speak over him.

‘Louder,’ my mother hisses.

People turn around and tell her to shhh.

Music booms. APPLAUSE. Everyone claps along with the pulsing beat. SILENCE. A drum roll. My father is zapped into silhouette.

A spotlight zeroes in on the host. ‘Will the real Cyril Chalmers please stand up.’

‘Go on,’ calls my mother.

‘Will the real Cyril Chalmers please …’

A second drum roll. Nothing. My mother stands up. My father raises himself half an inch.


Everybody cheers, except for us.

My father spins around, hands held up over his face, his back to the audience.


He can’t stand up or walk. It’s gone to his spine. He can’t work or sleep. There’s too much lightning in his head. He’s moved into the lounge room, lies on the couch. We shunt the TV into the kitchen.

On Saturday nights, my mother works late. I watch Bill Collins’ Movie Show on low volume, alone. Sometimes my father calls out from the couch, ‘Who got the girl?’ or ‘The butler did it.’ Later I sit by him and do all the voices, play all the parts.

Sometimes he smiles. Other times he says, ‘There were two suns in the sky that day.’



I’ve just auditioned for the lead in Antigone and have been relegated to spear carrier again. I can’t tell my mother. She’s been running through my lines with me for weeks, instructing me on how to let the emotion well up, erupt, then snuff it out.

I almost told her the acting life isn’t for me. There are my rashes, for a start, but she sent me off with a flask of brandy. A few nerves can light the actor’s fuse. Too many, it will go phut.

‘Well?’ she says, when I stagger home late.

I’ve guzzled all the brandy, smoked two joints, rehearsed what I was going to say: The lead role’s gone to someone with thick hair, no allergies, and flawless skin, but she runs at me with a glass of sherry and dances about in her Joan Collins feathered slippers and Lucille Ball dressing gown.

‘You got it. Bravo. When’s opening night?’

I mumble a date.

‘June. That’s a shame.’ She produces an aerogramme letter from the froth of her dressing gown. ‘Your father’s friend, Captain Jenkins, the physicist, has asked us to visit him in June.’ She stares at me with sherried eyes. ‘Your poor father always meant to go back home to England, to speak to Jenkins himself. He’d want us to go now instead. But if you’ve snared the lead role.’

‘Actually, I was going to tell you …’

‘I’ve always thought Antigone is so dreary. All that wailing and brotherly perfidy. Bring on the dancing girls, I say.’ She hands me a glass. ‘Whereas Eastbourne means London. London means Drury Lane.’

That night I lie in bed wondering how many lights it would take to spell my name above a West End door.


(Queuing at a theatre ticket booth in Leicester Square.)

My mother: I never told you about the time I met Hollywood royalty, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier.

Me: (Sighs.) When you were at the Drama Union.

My mother: (Takes out a pocket mirror, redoes her lipstick.) I was at university on scholarship and a founding member of the Adelaide University Drama Union. I had a bright idea. They were touring Australia. I invited them to visit. Nobody thought they’d come. I had no money and sat up every night knitting a dress and matching coat. When I shook Miss Leigh’s glove, it was as white and delicate as …

Me: (Zips the new leather jacket, spikes up the hair.) … A fluttering moth.


Emma Ashmere

London. So it does exist. It’s surreal, terrifying, beautiful, strange, the first time I’ve felt at home in my life, but we have to go to Eastbourne.

Luckily, there’s time to see two plays: Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, and Song and Dance by someone called Andrew Lloyd Webber.

As we emerge, blinking at the grey London air, I notice the ghost of my father studying a poster for Robyn Archer’s one-woman show, A Star is Torn. He turns and waves.

I tell my mother I’ve seen Robyn Archer striding through the cloisters at university.

‘You know her?’ she says.


After the play, my mother wants to pass her compliments to ‘our friend’ Robyn Archer backstage, but I tell her she’ll be too busy bumping out of character, what with Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe et al. jostling for release inside her head.


My mother entertains the other train passengers with tales of our ‘brush with fame’. I turn up my Walkman and stare out at the blackened ends of houses slumped along the tracks, trying to remember a line of Orwell’s about glimpsing the desperate state of Britain in the eyes of a sallow-faced woman unblocking a drainpipe. My father hovers in the reflection of the glass. He’s facing backwards, riding the same route he must have taken out of Eastbourne after the war.


A golden evening light tints the clusters of white-washed cottages as our taxi labours up a hill. Captain Jenkins’s house rises up like something out of Hammer Horror, its ivy-clad turret sitting skewiff on a brambly outcrop.

My dead father is lounging by the vast front door in his uniform. He thinks I look like what’s-her-name in Rebecca, and makes a bell sound, gesturing for me to pull a rusted chain. If my mother can see or hear him too, she’s not letting on.

A girl unbolts the door, only to slam it shut. Another girl appears, Marnie Jenkins. Apparently her sister Deborah likes to debate facts with Bible-quoters and encyclopaedia salesmen. Marnie Jenkins is about my age and build, but paler, taller, with jet-black eyes. Her cheeks are a nebula of rashes. She’s wearing a red checked shirt, jeans, and fancy black cowboy boots.

‘Father is chuffed you’ve come,’ Marnie says. ‘We’ll have tea in the garden.’ She gestures towards a steep square of weeds.

We perch on the edge of rotting deckchairs. Marnie smiles at my mother.

When Marnie smiles at me, it’s like a molten bullet fired at my heart. I assume my most bored face, stare down at the leaden sea through a part of the crumbling garden wall, at the spines of terrace houses clustered at the beach where my father is hovering with the gulls.

The other Jenkins girl, Deborah, appears with a tea tray. My mother asks if Captain Jenkins will join us.

Deborah points her cigarette at the ancient side door of the house. ‘Fact. The oak panels are crossed twice to keep the arrows out, and the salesmen.’

‘Is he well?’ says my mother. ‘Your father?’

‘Fact. Foxgloves are …’ says Deborah.

‘If the Captain isn’t well you should’ve said.’ My mother’s voice has a tremor in it. She looks at me. ‘We must get to our hotel.’

I begin to say, ‘But we haven’t booked one.’

Marnie leaps up and grabs my smitten hand. ‘We thought you’d stay here with us.’


Everything inside the house is brown. Marnie leads us along dark corridors and up dim stairs. We come to a low door. The fusty smell of the sick rushes out of Captain Jenkins’ bedroom. My mother stands by his bed. We wait for a hint of recognition. Of fear. Apology. Explanation.

I look at the ancient windows, the leadlight glittering, the roses clawing at the sills, the wax-spattered candlesticks, the peach-coloured English evening light. We could be in any period drama in any century, except for the bottles of medicine and the photographs. There’s one of Marnie and Deborah on a pebbled beach, another of a line of men in uniform.

Captain Jenkins clutches at me. ‘Chalmers. Good lad. You’ve come back.’


Night ushers in blustery winds. Marnie, Deborah, and I are in a small nicotine-coloured sitting room lined with encyclopedias. Deborah stabs an iron at the fire. So many questions are crammed in my throat but every time I try to speak, the Jenkins girls speak over me. Marnie tops up our cocoa mugs with shots of Kentucky bourbon.

Deborah rolls a meagre tobacco-laced joint and launches into a treatise about Thatcher and the miners strike. ‘Fact. Thatcher will starve every last one out.’

I try to lurch to my feet, but the sagging horsehair couch has me in its grip.

‘You can’t turn in yet,’ Deborah says. ‘Marnie’s got in a film.’

I’m slurring now. ‘Marnie’s got a part in a film?’

‘If only.’ Marnie pulls a cloth off the TV and waves a videotape. ‘The Misfits.’

‘The one with Marilyn?’

‘And Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.’

The entire Jenkins family are in Marilyn Monroe’s thrall. They know all her lines and own every film on video.

‘Go on, Marnie,’ says Deborah. ‘Give us one of your Marilyns.’

Apparently Marnie tried to get into RADA twice, and failed.

Next thing I’m telling them how I’m studying drama at university, that we’ve just seen my friend Robyn Archer on the West End starring in her own one-woman play. I manage an abbreviated version of her poking her head out from behind a red velvet curtain as Marilyn with her powder-puff face, vulnerable eyebrows and quivery lips. A moment later, she was bowling about the stage in battered crinolines and a wonky hat singing ‘I’m one of the ruins Cromwell knocked abart abit … abart abit’, followed by a lily-clad Billie Holliday, rounded off by the top-hat-cane-bowtie-and-fishnets Judy Garland routine.

‘Although I knew it was her all the time,’ I say, ‘I believed she really was Marilyn. Or Judy. Or Billie.’

Marnie’s onyx eyes shine. ‘Who’s your favourite?’

I produce an urgent version of Running Wild, without the ukulele.

Deborah whistles. ‘Marnie won’t dare do hers now.’

‘I don’t give a damn what you say.’ Marnie flounces across the room. Mouth trembling, eyes searing, rashes evaporating, she sashays into a finger-pointing rendition of I Only Want to Be Loved by You.

Deborah shrieks ‘Cut!’ and stalks out.

Marnie’s shoulders slump. ‘It wasn’t any good, was it?’

Perhaps it’s jetlag, or the bourbon, or the terror in Captains Jenkins eyes when I played along that I was the prodigal ‘Chalmers lad’ returned from the dead to absolve or condemn him – but I can’t bring myself to answer her.

Marnie curls up on the carpet in front of the television and begins to cry.

Perhaps I lie down next to her. Perhaps I only dream I do. In the morning, I wake on the floor alone, Marnie’s checked shirt folded as a pillow beneath my head.

Deborah is down in the garden, swiping a branch at the nettles. Marnie is nowhere.

My mother has packed her suitcase. ‘Your father is pleased we came,’ she says. Maybe she has been communing with him on God’s telephone.

We look in on Captain Jenkins. He’s asleep. While my mother whispers her farewells, I pick up the photograph of Captain Jenkins standing in a desert with group of men. My father is next to him.



I still have the photograph. I’ve tried to post it back to Marnie and Deborah Jenkins, but it’s always returned with Unknown at this Address – until last week when a letter came, postmarked London.

Deborah is a lawyer now. She’s asking about health defects in our family. Marnie’s second child has died. Cancer. Deborah is gathering more evidence for another legal push for compensation.

I send her copies of my father’s letters, the shakily penned pleas to the government and the newspapers begging them to clean up the contaminated lands before people move back onto them, his descriptions of the sand turning to glass, of men being blown over by the force, of wearing no protection while wading through shallow graves of plutonium.

I tell her I live with my girlfriend in Canberra and work at the Film and Sound Archive with a bunch of other failed actors, part-time poets, and overlooked opera singers. My biggest achievement – nobody recognises me anymore from the washing-up liquid advertisement, even when my mother shouts, ‘My daughter, the soap sud star.’ These days, success is the blankness of faces whenever I wheel her through the airport.

My father’s success continues to spark headlines and headaches in law courts across the globe.


‘I suppose ASIO are tailing us,’ my mother says.

We’re in the Canberra chill outside the Archive. I rearrange her hot-water bottle and knee rug, and wheel her three hip replacements up the ramp.

‘Your father says this place used to be a morgue. Tell ’em I’m not quite ready yet.’

I’ve lined up three requests: audio of my mother’s old radio shows; footage of a TV game show; and something else.

I manage to corral her into the booth. She clasps my hand. We sit in our very own miniature world of dark, listening to her old radio shows, laughing at the sound effects courtesy of my father, and her girlish quasi-BBC accent.

The second request. The screen flickers. Music. Credits. The camera scans the audience. Somewhere among the afros and lioness cuts, there we are, my mother and my younger self.

The music builds. The drums roll. The host cries out once, twice, ‘Will the real Cyril Chalmers please …’

My father huddles in his seat. He looks so young. He looks so old. He’s trying to speak. British atomic tests … South Australian desert … toxic mist … radiation sickness …

A cry from the audience. ‘Louder.’

The third request. No music, no sound. There he is again, in uniform, standing in a line squinting in the Maralinga dust.

I replay it in slow motion so we can read Captain Jenkins’ lips: Turn around, chaps. Shut your eyes. Cover your face.

A drum roll. The rush of wind. A flash of white.

From Emma Ashmere Dreams They Forgot Wakefield Press 2020 PB 252pp $24.95

Like to read more? You can buy Dreams They Forgot from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.