Short Story: New Cousins

By Mavis Thorpe Clark

February 1950

New Cousins was also adapted for radio by the author.

“Well, I reckon this is about the last moment we’ll have in peace, fellahs,” Pie said, with a gloomy shake of his eleven-year-old head. His real name was James but he’d been nicknamed Pie on account of his appetite. “A couple of girls about the place are going to spoil things.

He was leaning against the hard trunk of a spreading eucalypt while his two brothers, Peter, aged 13, and Chris, aged 7, were aimlessly tossing pebbles into the broad swiftly-flowing river. On the other side of him was a wide country road, its grassy stretch broken in the middle by a dusty red track. Beyond the road was the sleepy little country station.

Every now and again each boy cast an unhappy look in the direction of the station. The express had already whistled its departure and, any minute now, their father and mother would appear with the two orphan girl cousins who were going to live with them, forever.

“Girls – one six and one eleven – sounds awful!” Pie signed.

“But what about muvver, Pie – she’s a girl, isn’t she?” Chris had a baby voice and was always called Possum because, if he was missing, you could be pretty sure he’d be up a tree somewhere, fast asleep.

“Yes-s – but she’s different,” Pie frowned; “we’ve got used to her and don’t really notice that she’s a girl.”

Peter stopped throwing the yellow pebbles into the water and slumped down on the grass. “Gee, it’s funny how you get all your troubles at once,” he growled. “As well as breaking this awful news about these girls last night, Dad said he’d made up his mind that I couldn’t come into the township for the “‘Learn to Swim Drive’, on the river here. He says it’s too far.”

“Well, it is eight miles, Pete,” Pie pointed out.

“Yes, but it’s the only hope I’ve got of ever learning to swim – there aren’t any decent water-holes within miles of our place. And I reckon everyone ought to be able to swim – even a chap who lives on a farm all his life.”

“Don’t start all that about the swimming again,” Possum said crossly. “What are we going to do about these girls – that’s what I want to know.”

“Yes,” agreed Pie, “that’s far more important. Gosh! We can’t have them living with us forever. A joke’s a joke, I say.”

Possum puckered his nose shrewdly, and his voice sank low. “What we’ve got to do is make it too hot for them – so that they won’t like us and will go and live with some other aunt and uncle.”

“Yes – but what?”

Possum’s eyes lit up with enthusiasm. “We could put a snake in their bed.”

“Yes,” grunted Peter, “and get bitten while we’re putting it in.”

“I meant a dead one, silly,” said Possum with a superior air. “Or we could let Jimmy the bull chase them. Gee! that’d make them run!”

“Even their names don’t sound promising,” Peter said.

“Mary Ann – that’s sort of stiff and prim – I bet she’ll have a fit if we put a bit of mud on her dress. And Francelle – well, that sounds much too frilly. I guess she’ll be one of these girl babies who never stop bawling.”

Possum blinked indignantly. “Gee! she’s not a baby, Pete – she’s six – only a year younger than me.”

“Well, you behave like a baby often enough,” Pete said unkindly. “Why, the other day, when you fell down the well, you bleated like a calf until Dad fished you out.”

Possum was hurt. “Well you wouldn’t have liked it either – it was all mud and frogs, an’ it was cold an’ wet, too.”

“Well, come back from the edge of the river,” Peter warned, “or you’ll find that pretty cold and wet in a moment.”

Pie suddenly swallowed hard. “Gee! I wonder if they’ll expect us to kiss them – kind of welcome them with a kiss?”

“Kiss them!” Possum was horrified. “You – you don’t really think they might!”

“Sh-sh!” Pete warned. “Here they come!”

Looking as though they’d just been asked to take a dose of castor-oil, the three boys stared at the two small girls who were crossing the road. Evidently Mr and Mrs Simpson had stayed behind to collect the luggage and no doubt the talkative old station-master had button-holed them.

“Gee!” whispered Peter, “Mary Ann wears specs – and she’s got pig-tails as stiff as pokers!”

“And look at Francelle!” moaned Possum, “she’s as round as she’s long an’ she’s hugging a doll, an’ a teddy-bear an’ a brown paper bag – I bet she’ll want me to play dolls with her.”

“Reckon we’ll use two dead snakes instead of one,” hissed Pie fiercely.

Then they had to stop whispering because the girls were right in front of them, staring at them with eyes as round as their own. With great effort, Mary Ann swallowed an apparently mountainous lump in her throat and found her voice.

“Hello Peter,” she said, “I suppose you’re Peter ’cos you’re the biggest. It’s – it’s going to be fun knowing you. We – we didn’t have any boy cousins in town.”

Peter was a very honest soul and because he couldn’t agree, truthfully, that he thought it was going to be fun, he remained silent. Possum and Pie, who always took their cue from him, remained silent, too. But Possum wasn’t silent for long.

As soon as he saw Francelle move forward with that determined expression on her face he gave one panic-stricken yelp and jumped hastily backwards.

“I knew it was going to happen – I knew!” he muttered. “That – that Francelle – she wants – to kiss me!”

Francelle came on steadily. “Don’t move away like that,” she coaxed. “Francelle wouldn’t hurt you.”

Possum had no intention of letting her try. As she advanced he retreated – swiftly – so swiftly that Pete’s warning came too late.

“Possum – the river!”

But Possum, small face suddenly white and terrified, was already bobbing about in the swiftly-moving current.

“He can’t swim!” Peter cried, horror-stricken. “None of us can.” But he was already pulling at his boots. “I’ve got to get him!” he said. “Can’t stand by and watch him drown.”

“Keep out of it!” said a small brusque voice and he turned, in amazement, to see Mary Ann with spectacles, shoes, socks and coat already off. “I’ll get him!”

Without another look at Peter she poised herself on the bank, then cut the water in a clean sharp dive. Strong, beautifully-timed strokes sent her after Possum.

“She – she can swim!” said Peter stupidly.

“Well – that’s what she said, didn’t she?” Pie snapped anxiously. In the fear of the moment they hadn’t seen their parents cross the road but now they were aware that their mother and father, white-faced, were standing beside them.

“Oh – Possum – Possum – Mary Ann –,” Mrs Simpson choked.

“To think that I’ve got to stand here – helpless –,” Mr Simpson fretted.

“She’s got him!” Pie cried. “She’s got him! Oh-h-h –!”

The first glad cry changed to one of consternation as they saw Possum suddenly fling his arms around the little girl’s neck and drag her under. For a dreadful moment they both disappeared beneath the swirling grey water.

Then again their heads bobbed up and the watchers saw the frantic efforts Mary Ann made to release the small boy’s grip. Somehow, she forced those clutching fingers apart and turning him over, managed to get a hold under his arm-pits. Then she started to propel him shorewards. It was slow work, with the current urging her downstream, but she fought on, valiantly.

“If only her strength will hold out,” Mrs Simpson murmured; “she’s really only a little thing.”

But Mary Ann’s strength did hold out and, at last, willing hands were taking her burden from her and assisting her up the bank.

“Mary Ann – Possum – are you all right?” Mrs Simpson was weeping her relief.

“Yes-s –,” sniffled Possum, “but I’m awfully wet – wetter’n when I fell in the well.”

“Me, too – I’m all right.” Mary Ann was breathless.

“Run and get all the rugs out of the buggy, Pie; we must get these wet clothes off,” Mr Simpson ordered.

“Gee-e!” Peter gazed at his new cousin admiringly; “you were wonderful.”

“Nothing wonderful about that, Peter,” said Mary Ann. “I used to live at the sea-side and I’ve been able to swim almost since I could walk. I did the life-saving course last summer.”

“Golly! I wish I could swim – but Dad won’t –.”

“Don’t say it, my boy,” Mr Simpson interrupted hastily, “because I will. After this event – which could so nearly have been a tragedy – I can’t say ‘no’. In fact, I’ll learn, too – we’ll all learn.”

“Oh, Dad – that’s swell. Mary Ann, I’ve got you to thank for this!” Peter’s eyes were shining. “I – we – we felt a bit doubtful about having girl cousins come to live with us – but I guess we’ll be doing everything we can now to make you stay.”

“We certainly will!” cried Pie, returning with the rugs. “You’ll make a great sister, Mary Ann.”

“You – you can even kiss me, Francelle – if – if you still want to,” said Possum manfully.

Francelle turned up a snub nose. “I don’t want to kiss you,” said she loftily. “l was only wanting to give you one of my snowballs, out of this brown paper bag."

“Gee!” Possum sighed happily; “fancy me ever thinking I’d like to put dead snakes in her bed.”

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Typed manuscript that was submitted for publishing.

New Cousins - cover page of typed story.
"Length: 1500 words. A stamped and addressed envelope is enclosed for return of MS. if unsuitable."

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