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Ned's New House by Bruna Romanin
First prize - Charlotte Duncan Award 2015

There are two things Ned is absolutely sure of; the binoculars hanging around his neck stop his hands from shaking when he's anxious about something. And he positively does not want to go anywhere near their new house, that horrid empty house.


Ned hammers the heel of his blundstone into the nature strip and stares at the small, dreary house. It doesn't have the awesome appearance of the city building that housed his apartment on the twenty-fifth floor; his home for twelve years and the home his family has just evacuated.

Ned's grandfather locks his car. 'Let's go check out your new house, Ned,' George says. But Ned has seen enough empty rooms for one day and he will not go anywhere nearthat horrid empty house. Living with his grandparents is a better option.

'I'm not going in there.' Ned signs with his hands.

'Let's take a walk then.'

George leads his autistic grandson away from the front gate, down to the end of their picket fence. They turn the corner and walk along the footpath beside their long back yard. Branches from a tall eucalypt stretch out from behind the fence and over their heads, charging the air with a strong lemon scent. Clumps of leaves create dapple shadows on the pavement which become stepping stones for Ned to count.

'Well, what do you know?' George says. 'Here's a side gate into your back yard.' He unlatches the gate and leads Ned through the opening. Ned pulls away. He will not be tricked into going anywhere near that house, front gate or back gate. But, when he sees the tall eucalypt in their back yard, he races towards it for a closer inspection. It's quite different from the trees he visits every Sunday in the city's parklands. Its trunk is smooth and white. Horizontal branches form a spiral staircase perfect for climbing, and the canopy is leafy enough to hide in. He will, however, need a rope ladder to reach the lowest branch.

'Mmm!' There's that whiff of lemon again.

He inspects the rest of the yard with his grandfather. They venture towards the living room and Ned peers through the door. The furniture is arranged exactly as it was in their apartment. Without hesitation, Ned stomps across the wooden floor, counting each noisy thud.

'That you, Ned?' his father, Andrew, calls from the kitchen. 'I'm in here, emptying all these boxes. What do you think so far, matey?'

Ned approaches Andrew and scans the kitchen. Where do we eat? He signs

'On the bench, or at the table, once I get rid of these boxes.'

'Hello Andrew,' says George. 'Living room looks good. Your furniture fits perfectly.'

Andrew agrees. The men chat while Ned counts the boxes Andrew hasn't yet emptied.

'We're going to check out Ned's room,' George says. 'Lead the way, laddy.'

Ned races to the staircase. With more counting to do, he's forgotten why he hated this house in the first place. Eighteen steps to the top floor.

The landing is a confusion of more boxes that need counting. Two furniture removers wait for Ned's Mum, Olivia, to show them where to place his bed.

Ned ignores the mess and heads for his bedroom. He freezes at the doorway, not knowing how to reach his bedroom window; how to cross that huge empty space. His hands shake. His feet stomp. Ned grabs the binoculars and stares at his shoes. He takes quick steps across the floor, counting as he goes, not daring to look into the emptiness.

He makes it to the window and is horribly disappointed by the view. Hundreds of rooftops stretch out almost to the mountains in the horizon

There are no bridges to carry slow-moving traffic, no river with fishing boats, no cargo ships on the wharfs with cranes and shuttle trucks operating all day and all night. And no skyscrapers. Worst of all, the blue sea has disappeared.

Why is everything so still, so ... dead? Ned wants to scream. Instead, he kicks hard against the skirting board.

Olivia comes to his side and strokes his hair.

'It's so different, out there, isn't it, darling?' Ned continues to kick the skirting board. 'You'll have lots of new things to discover from here, Ned. You'll see.' But Olivia knows Ned will need time to adjust to this enormous change after living in his city haven all his life. Her voice and her gentle hands are not enough to reassure him now.

George reaches the window. 'Well! Look at that view,' he says. 'It's like staring at hundreds of pyramids.'

They're not pyramids! Ned kicks out at the boards again. It's maddening how adults make such bizarre comparisons.

'Those mountains look so blue from here, don't they?' George says. 'May I take a look through your binoculars?' Ned steps away from his grandfather. He needs them to inspect the eucalypts' canopy. There's a thick jagged branch that looks interesting.

Olivia calls him. 'What do think of your new room?' Ned sees his furniture set up identical to his old bedroom. He smiles, then quickly turns back to study the puzzling branch.

'The city is to the west,' George says, pointing out different landmarks. 'And the airport is directly north. If we take out that tree, you'll see planes come and go all day,' he says.

'Such a big tree has to go.'


That night, Ned's parents come into his room to say goodnight and turn off his light. He counts eighteen footsteps as they descend the stairs. Then he slides out of bed, closes his door and searches for the jagged branch.

Ned spots it immediately; a silhouette against the full moon. But the silhouette moves. Ned grabs his binoculars and sees two yellow eyes watching him. A shiver crawls down his spine.

An unusual sound comes from elsewhere.

'Oom ... Oom ... Oom!'

What's that?

Another creature hops along the branch and perches beside the silhouette.

There are two of you?

The creatures' heads swivel from side to side, from the glowing street light, to the ground and back to Ned. He hears that unusual call again. 'Oom…Oom!' One creature flies away. He watches the bird land on the light post and snap up moths that flutter around the bright light. The birds' features are quite distinct; short legs, wide beaks and mottled grey feathers.

They're in my bird book!

Ned runs to his bookshelf and locates the book of Australian birds beside the dinosaur books, where it's always been. Frantically, he flicks through the pages until he finds the full-page photo of two birds staring back at him. Under his night light, he reads the words, 'Tawny Frogmouth'. He returns to the window and sees one tawny frogmouth with wide-spread wings and gaping beak

It wants to look frightening! But why? Ned searches the branches and sees a black cat leaping from the fence onto a branch. It slinks along the limb. Each stride takes the cat closer to its prey.

'Tuk-tuk ... tuk-tuk!' The tawny frogmouth sends a warning signal. The fiend ignores the warning, and lies motionless on the limb except for its twitching tail; its eyes fixed on the bird.

Ned hears the frogmouth growl.

What can I do? There's little time to think. Ned grabs a shoe and opens the window, but the fly screen prevents him from throwing it at the creature. His feet begin to stomp, his hands shake, and he can't think.

The cat lifts its sleek body from the branch and slowly, slowly, crawls towards the frogmouth. The bird holds its stance; its wings spread wide; its beak gaping. It hisses. The cat hesitates. Ned scratches the wire screen and the cat turns and stares in his direction.

Think! He scratches with both hands. Yes! My torch!

Ned races to the bedside table, grabs his torch and zigzags the bright light at the cat's glaring eyes. The fiend swats the zigzagging light, but the light continues to joust with the cat's paw. The beast hisses and snarls before retreating. It drops onto a lower branch, slumps onto the fence and disappears into the darkness.

Ned jumps with delight and claps his hands. He shines the torch into the tree. The frogmouth is back on its roost, wings tucked away, beak pointing to the moon. It looksexactly like a broken branch.

A perfect camouflage!

Except there are two fluffy white chicks bobbing about beside it in the shabby nest. Ned is ecstatic. It's his first sighting of an active nest. He watches for a while and then turns to the light post. The mate has vanished.

It will be back.

Ned crawls into bed and plans the next drawing for his sketchbook. He looks for his sketchbook with his meticulous drawings of city views. It's where it's supposed to be, under his bed. And there's a new one beside it.


Tomorrow will be a good day in this new house.

Copyright © 2015. Bruna Romanin