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Olvar Wood Writers Retreat


Ninety Ten

Maria Arena

Japanese MapleClaire Hartwood has ten minutes to live.

Not that she knows this.  In fact, her demise is far from her thoughts.  Instead, as she weaves through the Wednesday afternoon traffic, her mind is on the woman she met an hour ago.  Rochelle, she thinks and changes lanes.Ahead of her are three sets of traffic lights, a left turn and a crossroad, with a stop sign on her right.  This is Melody Road.  As street names go, Claire thinks this one is pretty and she imagines that happy, creative people live on such a road. 

In one respect, she is correct.  Most days Taylor Branch is blessed with creativity but not today.  He has a deadline to meet, and his muse is on hiatus.  He needs a drink.  Or ten.  Taylor snatches his car keys from the wooden holder his son made for him three months ago.  He doesn’t see the frogs painted mid-jump, or read the inscription: Happy Birthday Dad, you’re leap years ahead of the rest.  Yesterday, Taylor would’ve paused to smile at this expression of his son’s love. 

Today, he stomps out to the tank-sized SUV parked in the driveway.


Claire Hartwood has nine minutes to live.

Death is a subject of interest to Claire.  She’s read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and believes she is prepared for the inevitable.  Right now though, she is more interested in her phone as she considers the wording of the message she wants to send, wondering if it will lead to more trouble.  She smiles.  Trouble, she thinks picturing Adam’s face, which she knows as well as her own.  Their argument that morning seems ridiculous and she can’t wait to set things right between them. 

She opens her message folder as she passes through the first set of traffic lights.


In the Japanese garden Claire has recently left, Rochelle Rawlins receives a text message.  She glances at the phone on the seat beside her, fighting the urge to answer the demand for attention that comes with the soft beep and flashing blue light.  Tension stretches her body, thinning her willpower.  She grabs the phone and buries it in her handbag.  The measure is temporary, she knows, but she feels a sense of relief anyway. 

To distract herself further, Rochelle stands and follows the meandering path through the garden.  Finches flit through the shrubs, their playful twittering a pleasant accompaniment to the trickle of water and droning of crickets.  Even the eerie clicking of the bamboo pleases her as she wanders towards a weathered statue of Buddha tucked in a corner of the garden.  A willy wag-tail stands on the sculpture’s head, flicking his tail cheekily and eyeing Rochelle as though challenging her to make something of his irreverence. 

‘It’s just a lump of stone to me, my friend,’ she says.  The bird cocks his head to the side and chirps at her before flying off.  Rochelle sits against the folded legs of Buddha, the stone warming her back. 

From inside her bag comes another faint, insistent beep.


Claire Hartwood has eight minutes to live.

If asked, Claire would say she is a law abiding citizen, even though she’s currently flouting the law by texting in her car.  She justifies this misdemeanour by acknowledging its place in the grand scale of the Universe.  As she waits at the second set of traffic lights, a police car pulls up beside her.  Claire lowers her phone and smiles at the officer in the passenger seat.  No need to test the Universe today, she thinks.  The officer nods dutifully as the patrol car accelerates, responding to the green light.

He will see Claire again in seven and a half minutes.


Gardens don’t usually play a part in Rochelle Rawlins’ life.  The only garden she frequents with any regularity is the beer garden of her local hotel.  It was there she met Dane, who, coincidentally, is the reason she’s at the Japanese garden this afternoon.  She watches a cloud drift across the sky, absently worrying the ring on her finger, and wonders at the randomness of her life. 

Dane popped the question over lunch, in between finishing his ham sandwich and returning to work.  She knew the proposal was coming; they’d talked about the possibility for months.  Still, she threw herself into his arms and smothered him with ‘yeses’.  Dane laughed as he pulled away, pinched her on the backside and left, throwing a casual, ‘I’ll be home late, going to the pub with the boys,’ over his shoulder as the door shut behind him. 

Rochelle stood in the quiet of their unit.  Happy visions poured through her mind: a wedding dress, golden rings, flowers arranged in bouquets, and a bride and groom atop a tiered cake.  She hugged herself and imagined further: a house in a new estate, a baby, a new car, a bigger-screen TV, more babies (her family is predisposed to twins), holidays to Phuket.  And of course, Dane, who – as her mother says – could be hard work but who would be worth the trouble in the end. 

She grabbed her phone; she had to tell her friends the good news.  The clock on the microwave caught her eye: 13.10pm.  Everyone she knew would be at work.  Great timing, Dane, she thought, looking around the empty room.  Determined not to let her good mood disappear, Rochelle headed out to her car.  She took random turns, her mind filled with confetti thoughts of marital bliss, until she found herself outside the Botanic Gardens.  

It seemed like fate; she had always dreamed of a garden wedding.


Taylor Branch doesn’t believe in fate.  He doesn’t believe in destiny either.  Or coincidence.  He believes his life just is: no rhyme, no reason, no purpose, no meaning, giving him ultimate control.  At family gatherings, he is fond of pronouncing that he is Master of his Universe, and he’s not above shutting down anyone who suggests otherwise. 
Perhaps he is correct, for as he starts his SUV, he notices the petrol gauge hovering above empty and thumps the steering wheel.  This is why I don’t lend Susie my car, he thinks, reversing down the driveway.  Now he will have to turn left along Melody Road, towards the service station at the far end of the street, instead of right towards his favourite jazz bar. 

He slams the gear stick into drive and accelerates, leaving a smear of rubber on the road.


Claire Hartwood has five minutes to live.

Fate and coincidence are notions Claire has investigated; she doesn’t believe in either.  Destiny, on the other hand, she holds as a universal truth.  To her, destiny is a mighty river she shapes with careful self-engineering; as such, when her choices wash her into the occasional rocky inlet, she doesn’t complain.  Claire knows, despite the scrapes and bruises she suffers, that these detours are opportunities to experience the full range of her emotions.

Anxiety tenderly squeezes her heart as she gliding through the amber signal at the third set of traffic lights.


An hour earlier, lost in the full range of her emotions, Claire dashed under the dedication sign above the entrance to the Japanese garden – yu-tsui-en – its invitation to enjoy the ‘blue-green’ going unheeded. Rushing along the path, hoping no-one would see her tears, Claire approached the Japanese Maple beside the lily pond.  She sighed, tension easing, as she slipped into the cool shadows only to find her favourite mediation spot occupied.

And this is where we’ll exchange our —

‘Oh, I’m sorry.’

Rochelle turned towards the woman who’d intruded on her daydream, noting the redness around her eyes.  On any other day, she would’ve excused herself and taken off, but today was different.  She was engaged to be married, and it didn’t seem fair for her to be so happy when the woman standing in front of her was clearly distressed.  In her head, she heard Dane’s warning: Don’t get mixed up in other people’s shit, Rochelle.

‘Are you okay?’


Claire Hartwood has three minutes to live.

Compassion is an ideal Claire embraces; she’s read Chopra, Tolle and Ruiz, and has a limited edition copy of The Prophet and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist.  Her daughter, Abigail, tells her she’s ‘a tree-hugging hippy.’ They laugh at the cliché and promise to get stoned together for Abbey’s twenty-first birthday. 

Abbey will keep the promise, surrounded by her friends, and watched over by a photograph of her mother — who is slowing to take the last left turn of her life.


Rochelle couldn’t think of how to answer the woman’s question.  She touched her face, patting the concealer under her eye.  The lie came easily.  ‘I’m fine, thank you.’

The woman stepped closer.   ‘Forgive me but you don’t look fine.’

‘I’m getting married.’

‘Really?  That’s wonderful.  Not to the person who did that to you, I hope.’

Rochelle stared at the woman, feeling strangely adolescent.  ‘What would you know about anything?’ she said, pouting, then with a small thrill of triumph, ‘Anyway, I’m not the one bawling my eyes out.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Claire said, opening her bag to search for a tissue.  ‘I didn’t mean to offend.  And you’re right; I am the one blubbering away this beautiful afternoon.  Talk about hypocrisy.’

Rochelle watched her for a few moments before offering Claire a tissue from her pocket.  ‘So, what happened to you?’ she asked.

‘Argument with my husband,’ Claire said and gave her nose a gentle blow. 

‘Must’ve been pretty bad for you to be so messed up about it.’

Beyond the maple tree, a young couple walked past, hands linked, lost in conversation.  The two women followed them with their eyes until they were out of sight.  Claire shook her head.  ‘It’s such a rare thing.’

‘What?  People in love?’  Rochelle smiled then winced at the sting from the cut in her lip.  ‘I’ve got heaps of friends who are crazy in love with their boyfriends.’

‘Are you crazy in love with —’ Claire paused, her eyebrows raised.

‘Dane,’ Rochelle replied, her fingers playing with her engagement ring.  ‘Of course I’m in love with him.  He’s my whole life.’

‘Is he in love with you?’ Claire asked.

‘Obviously.  I wouldn’t be marrying him otherwise,’ Rochelle said.  She looked at Claire, lifting her chin to a defiant angle.  ‘I know what you’re thinking but you’re wrong.  He’s a good bloke.  He just forgets sometimes and acts like a jerk.  That’ll change once we’re married.  Everyone says so.’

She gave the ring on her finger a sharp twist before folding her arms under her breasts.


Six months from that moment, Taylor Branch adjusts the brace around his knee and curses the girl on the billboard twenty metres past the Melody Road intersection.  She’s the reason my life has gone to hell, he thinks. 

The girl is a dark-haired beauty, wearing a short skirt and a partially unbuttoned shirt, leaning over a photocopier.  She stole my attention for those ten seconds, he tells himself as he struggles with his crutches. Maybe I could sue her for sexual harassment causing serious bodily harm.

He almost makes it to the bathroom before he vomits.


Claire Hartwood has one minute to live.

All of the books, films, gurus and charlatans Claire has invested in agree that the attainment of wisdom is a life-long pursuit.  A reasonable hypothesis, Claire thinks, except for the implicit assumption in the phrase ‘life-long’.  Approaching the crossroad, she muses aloud: ‘What if we don’t have ‘life-long’?  What if we have a day?  Or ten years?  Or thirty-six years?   What if we miss, or mis-place, the wisdom?’

Claire doesn’t know the answer to these questions; she hopes she will before her long life is over.


‘Come with me.’ 

Rochelle looked at the woman waiting patiently on the path beside the Japanese maple.  She wasn’t sure she wanted to go anywhere with her; what if she asked more of those uncomfortable questions?  Yet, she couldn’t just walk away; that would be rude.

‘Where are we going?’ she asked.

‘Over there,’ Claire said, pointing to a stone bowl on the other side of the pond.  They followed the path, not hurrying or speaking.  The quiet made Rochelle nervous and she searched her mind for something to fill the silence.  Claire saved her the trouble.  ‘Do you know much about the tsukabai?’

Rochelle shrugged.  ‘We studied Japanese at school once.’

Claire stopped before the stone bowl.  She bent down, letting the water flow across her hands.  ‘The tsukabai is a ceremonial water basin used in the purification ritual before a tea ceremony.’  She stood and moved aside.  ‘This one is over a hundred years old.’

The water was cool and velvety against Rochelle’s skin.  ‘Have you been to a tea ceremony?’

‘Many years ago, with my father.  He brought me to one in this garden the week before I married Adam.’  Claire sat beside the tsukabai and Rochelle took a seat on a rock.  ‘At the heart of the Japanese tea ceremony are four principles: purity, respect, harmony and tranquillity.  My father wanted me to take these ideals into my marriage.’

‘That’s so sweet.’

‘Yes, it was,’ Claire said, looking at the treetops.  ‘He brought me here again a few days before he died to share one last piece of his wisdom.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry for your loss.’

‘No need to be.  My father had an amazing life, mostly because of his philosophy towards living.  Besides, he’s still around, watching over me, making sure I’m in the ninety/ten.’

‘The ninety/ten?’

‘His philosophy,’ Claire said, her voice catching.

Rochelle reached out and touched Claire’s arm.  ‘Hey, it’s okay.   You don’t have to talk about it.  We could talk about something else, like —’ She searched for a topic they’d have in common. ‘Like, what you’re doing for Easter?  I heard they have a gigantic Easter egg hunt right here in the gardens.’

Claire smiled. ‘It’s such a rare thing.’

Rochelle sat back, a frown on her face.  ‘You said that before.  Are you making fun of me?’

‘Not at all.  It’s something my father used to say: “It’s such a rare thing for people to live in the ninety/ten.”’

‘Are you going to explain what that means, or should I start guessing?’

Claire laughed and climbed to her feet.  ‘I have to go home.  Will you walk with me to the gate?’

Rochelle blew out an exasperated breath.  ‘Sure, why not.  I should be going too.’

As they strolled toward the entrance, Claire said, ‘I don’t know your name.’

‘Rochelle.  You?’


‘That’s pretty.’

A playful shrug lifted Claire’s shoulder.  ‘So, do you still want to hear my father’s philosophy?’

‘I’ve only asked like three times.’

Claire smiled again.  ‘My father said we have a choice: to live ninety percent happy and ten percent unhappy, or we can live in the opposite percentages, ninety percent unhappy and ten percent happy.’  She paused, watching Rochelle’s face.

‘Makes sense.’

‘Yes, it does.  My father also said it’s a rare thing for people to choose to be ninety percent happy.  He said most people love the misery and drama they create in their lives, and that they believe the fleeting moments of happiness they experience are random blessings that make all the negative stuff worthwhile.’

She fell silent as they approached a low wooden bridge.  Beyond the gardens, she could hear the rumble of traffic on the motorway and she pictured Adam looking at his watch, counting down the hours until he could come home. 
‘I guess you think you live in that ninety/ten?’

Claire touched Rochelle’s arm, bringing her to a stop in the middle of a low bridge.  ‘I don’t think anything; I know.’
Rochelle nodded, then said, ‘So, today you’re in the ten percent?  That sucks.’

‘No, it doesn’t, because I know it won’t last.  Soon I’ll be with Adam and our love will carry us back into the ninety.  That’s our choice.’  She placed the palm of her hand lightly against Rochelle’s battered face. ‘The real question is what your choice has been, and if you’re willing to make a different one?’

A frown squeezed Rochelle’s brow.  ‘I can’t.  It’s impossible.’

Claire took Rochelle’s hands in her own.  ‘You don’t have to change everything all at once, but the minute you decide to live ninety/ten, I promise you everything will change for the better.  Will you do something for me, Rochelle?’


‘Think about your choices?’

Rochelle sucked at the cut in her lip.  ‘I’ll try.’

‘Good.’ Claire released Rochelle’s hands. ‘I have to go,’ she said, crossing the bridge.  ‘I think I’ll pick up a French vanilla cheesecake on the way home.  It’s Adam’s favourite.’  

‘Hey,’ Rochelle called as Claire reached the entrance to the garden.  ‘Make sure he knows how much you love him, okay?’

‘I will.  Take care, Rochelle.’


As Taylor Branch’s SUV smashes in the side of her car, tearing out her seat and shoving it into the passenger’s door, snapping her legs, caving in her chest and fracturing her skull, Claire Hartwood smells vanilla and nutmeg, and remembers the first time she kissed her husband. 

She dies with a faint smile on her lips.


Rochelle Rawlins stands; she’s tired of the pointed knee of Buddha jabbing in her ribs. At the front entrance to the Japanese gardens, she remembers the messages on her phone.  Sliding open the screen, she reads the first:
Where r u, chelle?


Her heart flutters.  She opens the next message:

Get ur fat arse home NOW.


Adam Hartwood is sitting in traffic, two suburbs from home, when he notices the message on his phone. He reaches across the lilies on the front seat; eleven pure white blossoms.  Pushing the ‘show’ button, he smiles as the traffic moves ahead.
Thank you for the 90/10.


About the Author

Maria Arena is the author of Mira Falling.  She lectures in creative writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast, where she completed her Doctorate of Creative Arts. Maria recently launched her business, La Vie Creativity (, which assists writers through a tutoring, mentoring and editing service.


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