The Better Land: Ekphrastic Challenge #3 2024

In drawing room setting, in 1900, middle-aged woman in long back skirt and jacket, with long white veil, points to the ceiling, watched by young boy, with long hair in ringlets, and dressed in dark green velvet knickerbocker suit; right hand over his heart, left hand in his trouser pocket.
The Better Land [ca.1900] Source – State Library Victoria. Transparency: glass lantern slide with hand colouring.
Gifted to SLV as part of a collection. Creator unknown.


We have published the works of the following 14 writers, and thank them for their enthusiasm and fabulous contributions, in writing their responses to this image (using up to 300 words).

David Bridge | Geoffrey Gaskill | John Margetts | Polly Musgrove | Claudia Collins | David Jones | Adam Stone | John Heritage | Gail Griffin | Ian Stewart | Saakhi B | Constance Skeffington | Melissa King | Allan Barden

Promised Land


Robert took satisfaction from his conviction that, if God did know the whereabouts of the missing cakes, he wasn’t saying.  The Governess might point to divine retribution for sinners but in Robert’s experience it was seldom forthcoming, at least where it counted. Although outwardly he paid observance to the requirements necessary for admittance to the promised land, his concentration centred on the crumbs enclosed in the handkerchief clasped in his trouser pocket.

Around him, the mouldings in the dark panelling like the floral patterning of the well upholstered chairs, spoke of a bright natural world, but the closest Robert was permitted to explore it alone was to watch the gardener’s assistant water the indoor plants all selected for their ability to survive in low light. Eventually, the Governess, seemingly recognising the limitations of her exhortations, banished him to the attic schoolroom, laying before him a worthy text to study.  Tom Sawyer was outlawed in favour of The Odyssey, which Robert found odd given the behaviour of the classical deities, but inspiring in terms of learning military tactics.

Through the elevated window he gazed longingly at the gate to the neighbour’s wilderness garden. Climbing the bookcase steps, he carefully took down a dusty box after first nudging open the hatch into the roof space. Having satisfied himself that the retrieved clockwork automaton still flapped its wings convincingly, he called out to the Governess that a bird had fallen from the ceiling. With predictable horror, the stalwart lady declined the proffered box with its rustling captive and directed him to release the ‘creature’ outdoors.

Arms theatrically extended, Robert duly obeyed until he laid down his burden beyond the re-closed garden door.  Eventually, the fully wound mechanism would relapse to stillness but for now he was free to explore. The promised land awaited.


– David Bridge


The Removalist


Miss Camryn pointed to the ceiling.

Nanny or no, Miss Camryn, Eurwyn thought, had her ways.

If Miss Camryn was thinking of anything other than the roof at that moment, she gave no clue. Pointing first, then talking were Miss Camryn’s way. Today was no different.

When she did speak, it was to inform the boy, about his father’s decision.

Eurwyn looked ceilingward.

‘He,’ said Miss Camryn in the hushed tones she used when referring to Euwyn’s father, ‘has decided to paint the sky.’ There was more than a warm glow of awe in her voice.

‘All of it?’

‘No, silly,’ Miss Camryn chuckled. ‘It’ll be a picture of the sky as it appeared on the day of your birth.’

Eurwyn frowned.

Miss Camryn looked at her charge. ‘Redecorating your room is your birthday present.’

He’d asked for a pony, but he supposed a painted ceiling was …

He frowned some more.

… but why paint the sky on his ceiling when there was a real sky outside his window?

‘Aren’t you impressed?’ Miss Camryn looked down her long nose.

Eurwyn nodded. What else could he do?

It wasn’t as if the ceiling needed painting. It was a serviceable eggshell blue with gold crown mouldings and cornices that Euwyn’s mother called dust traps. But the ways of parents were strange.

‘Our job, today’ Miss Camryn declared, ‘is to move your things out of the room …’

Euwyn knew what that meant.

Miss Camryn clapped her hands.

Euwyn looked around. What to move first? Those chairs? They were heavy. The chaise longue was heavier. Of course, there were vases with flowers and potted plants. He could manage those but the carpet and his bed …

He wondered if Miss Camryn was going to help him this time.


– Geoff Gaskill


Mamma loved to declaim


Mamma loved to declaim. She would dress in old fashioned clothes, make me put on a little costume, and project an image of olden-days scenes onto a wall. Then she would clutch her bosom and recite in a dramatic voice the incredible tales she knew of ills that befall hapless maidens.

It was enthralling.

Father never knew of our performances. It was our secret. That was until mamma overplayed her hand and arranged a photograph of herself in full flight with me watching on. Somehow he found out.

She withdrew into herself. I tried to coax her into performing again but to no avail. I was talking to a different person.

Father angrily tossed our photo into the bin and walked out. I found it and hid it in my room. Creased and a bit tattered I still treasure that image.

It is the only fragment I have of her.


– John Margetts

Auntie Hilda


At the age of four, still young enough to be dressed in breeches and stockings, my hair in long ropey curls, my father’s oldest sister, Auntie Hilda, moved into our home, taking the large furnished room next to my nursery which had always been full of my grandmother but only just within my memory. My parents did not speak about this sudden arrival, but Aunty Hilda was permanently attired in widowers black and came alone, a huge retinue of portmanteau in her wake, filling up the space around her. It became the routine for my mother to instruct Cook to bring me to Auntie Hilda after breakfast, to be instructed in writing and reading, for which auntie Hilda seemed well prepared, surrounded by her books and paintings as inspiration for these classes.

I was fascinated by my aunt, with her cloud of curly red hair, pale skin, and flashing green eyes. My visits seemed to be her favourite time when she could act out the lesson for the day, her voice swelling with theatrical emphasis on key phrases, and I was enthralled. She would pull out props and clothes to act as costume in her animated lessons, including a bridal veil that was her favourite. My mother made a surprise appearance at one of these performances, where my Auntie was declaring a trip to the ‘Better Land’ with the white lace veil streaming down her back, her voice full of sorrow and one white hand pointing to the sky, and that was the end of my education with my auntie Hilda. My parents decided it was time to send me to boarding school according to family tradition not long after this, where I was lonely and miserable, and thought frequently of my auntie Hilda and the better land.


– Polly Musgrove

Full Of Beans


My life as the daughter of an impecunious parson was safe, but dull. I longed for adventure.

I had always known I would need to earn a living. In due course, I obtained a position in the London home of lawyer Josiah Bean as governess to his son. I was interviewed by his wife, a tall dark-haired woman dressed in black. I soon learned that a sense of humour lurked beneath her sombre appearance.

‘You’ll want to meet your charge,’ she said, her eyes twinkling.

She conducted me to the nursery herself, taking the staircase with boundless energy. I was quite out of breath by the time we reached the top floor! Six-year-old Harold was a merry child with golden curls. He giggled at my dishevelled appearance and pink, perspiring face.

Mr and Mrs Bean usually dined out in the evenings and I ate my supper on a tray in my room. Breakfast was the meal the family shared daily. I was expected to join them and Mr Bean, a fussy little man with fluffy fair hair, would quiz me on how Harold was faring with his lessons.

Life with the Beans soon settled into a routine until one morning when Mr Bean abruptly announced, ‘I have decided to join my brother-in-law’s firm in the colonies. I shall be their new legal beagle.’

‘I believe the term is ‘legal eagle’, dear,’ Mrs Bean suggested gently, her lips twitching as she rolled her eyes toward the heavens.

Later, she confided in me. ‘I would never openly laugh at my husband. A man’s dignity must be protected at all costs.’

Given the choice, I opted to continue in my role as governess for the delightful but eccentric Bean family. Who knows, perhaps in the colonies I might find the adventure I craved.


– Claudia Collins





a steady stare
upon my world
the one enclosed

hemmed by constraint
words, structures, myself
a safe place to be

but what of that not contained
below the horizon seen
within the sphere unknown

I must close my eyes
to see
the without
from the within

to where sails disappear
from view
to break orbit
from gravity of known

pervasive thought
resonance of song-lines

break the crystal
within which
I reside

to explore
the universe
my mind

– David Jones


White Horse


Maggie, Jack, Neen, Nell, Maise, Floss, Jess and Arch.

I was the sixth born of eight. Born Florence, known as ‘Floss’ my entire life.

‘Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross’. My favourite nursery rhyme as a child. I find myself humming the tune absent-mindedly, reminded of my gran who was a lively, warm-hearted woman. I have vivid memories of us dressing up, she in a long white veil to mimic the horse’s mane in the rhyme. I looked at her in awe as she pranced around the parlour!

I was devastated when gran passed.

These things were sent to try us.

We lost our big sister, Maggie at age 12. Peritonitis we were later told. We just knew she was unwell, in terrible pain. She must have cried a million tears. Screams of agony tore strips off the walls, but added a layer of stoicism to us all.

These things were sent to try us.

Big brother Jack was involved in breaking and holding the Hindenburg Line during WWI. He died of gunshot wounds and is buried in France.

These things were sent to try us.

I had to leave school early to help care for my father. We lost him when I was 14.

These things were sent to try us.

What a great 60-year marriage I had to Arthur, ‘Father’ as I affectionately called him. He lived to 90 years. Some of my most treasured memories are driving to church together in the FJ Holden, dressed to the nines. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren help to ease the loneliness and I sing to them…

*Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady upon a white horse
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
And so she makes music wherever she goes

*Traditional English nursery rhyme


– Adam Stone






      the connasewage theatre


                                  G    A

                            E                 C

                       L             a             Y









                   performed on  Djilang country

– John Heritage




The Better Landing


‘Even in death you try to control me!’ she railed, as she struggled to pull the top drawer of his desk open. ‘Why? Why have your desk locked? What cursed Victorian tenet have you once again landed upon me? What secrets have you been keeping from me?’ Try as she might, the drawer remained secured. ‘Betrothed at 16, widowed at 23…’

‘What are you doing, Mother?’

Startled at first, she calmed herself, breathed out aloud and turned to face her son. Forcing a smile, she said, ’Your dear Father has accidentally locked this drawer and I’m trying to open it my darling boy.’

‘Why don’t you just use the key, Mother?’

‘I seem to have misplaced it,’ she lied.

‘I have one. I’ll go and get it,’ he said, before running out the door, returning within seconds, brandishing a key.  He handed it over to his Mother.

Confused, she asked, ‘How did you come by this key?’

‘Father said, when he was dying, that I was now the man of the house. That I should have this key. Look after it. Keep it safe.’

‘Mmm. I see. And, did Father tell you what was so valuable that necessitated the locking of the desk drawer?’

‘No, Mother. He just said that I should only share the drawer’s contents with you.’

‘He did. Did he?’

‘Yes, Mother.’

‘Then, let’s see what’s in store…’

Both mother and son’s eyes were focused on the drawer as the key was inserted and turned in the lock. Pulling the drawer open, an envelope labelled ‘My Bequest to You’ was revealed, along with thousands of pounds, intended to support the young widow’s longed-for dream of independence. Contrite and chastened, she clutched the legacy to her chest.

Her arm raised heavenward, she whispered, ‘God bless your Father.’



– Gail Griffin



The Face-Off


The scene: a Victorian drawing room. The lad, a little scoundrel perhaps, is receiving a dressing-down by his exasperated governess. Have a close look at his face: he leans back but not in fear. His hands – behind his back and not up, protecting. The expression – one of acceptance of the lecture but willing it to finish so he can return to his escapades. Has he been a naughty boy? Of course he has.

Imagine this is taking place in Oxfordshire’s Blenheim Palace. It’s 1879. The culprit? In my imagination it is none other than Winston Spencer Churchill!

This is a naughty boy of great wile and persistence. How much of this could be traced back to the influence of his American grandfather? It’s tempting to speculate.

Churchill was certainly up for it as a young man. Captured and held prisoner during the Second South African War, he made his escape by stowing on freight trains. His writing about his adventures and the publicity he received paved the way for his future.

Back to the picture: his secondary schooling, and particularly his time in the military, would have necessitated the loss of those golden locks. Later he cuts a fine figure in the uniform of the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars. Think about the look he is giving that woman. He’s staring her down, as he must have done so often in later years – in Parliament, and, figuratively, defying Hitler during the Battle of Britain.

A formidable individual always.


– Ian Stewart



The Roof

It was the only thing that kept me from crumbling to my knees after being scolded from time to time.
Once my mother had sent me, a young and frail boy, to the roof as a punishment, the thing was that I was scared of heights.


Terrified of the idea to sit on the roof’s edge, waiting to die from falling off.
She forced me to climb the cold metal ladder, which she cruelly snatched away later.
My bottom lip quivered.
Shivers ran up and down my spine like kids on sugar rushes.
She watched me tremble from head to toe.
Soon, decided to leave me alone.
‘How horrible of her!’
If that’s what you think, you wouldn’t be wrong, however, three words can explain everything.
The olden days.

As the afternoon changed into evening, the sun slowly took a dip into the horizon.
The moon wishes the horizon farewell.
The stars form constellations in the boundless blue, as they pour light onto my shuddering body.
I slowly calm myself down.
The moon provides me with companionship as I ponder how long until my mother finds my happiness to be up on the roof in solitude.

She crept up on me one day, startling me.

She describes her plan to help me destroy my fear of the roof just as she did when she was younger.
‘Come, let’s explore this world,” she says, taking my hand.
She leads me to the peak, which I had never dared to embark on.
We watch the moon sink into the mysterious line, while the sun rises going about its normal routine until it sees me.
Its face breaks into a big smile.
The roof has already become my friend.
Time to make some new friends.


– Saakhi B.



The Un-Snappy Comeback


Fifty-five years later, far from my mid-teens, I regret not having been more light-hearted, thicker-skinned and cleverer. Back then, jibes cut deeply. Now I wish I had just made fun of them.

‘Moody’ and ‘teenager’ are almost conjoined words today, but in the late 1960s teens weren’t allowed to be moody. At least, my mother didn’t allow it. Some parents might have treated teenage rebellion with acceptance, indifference or concern, but Mum enjoyed ridiculing my disquiet. If something irked me – for example, being told to do some chore I found distasteful – and I frowned or let my shoulders slump, she would scorn me. ‘Tragedy queen!’ or ‘Calamity Jane!’ she would declare. (I had no knowledge of those references.) Alternatively, ‘Sarah Bernhardt!’ (An actress way before my time – and hers.) These names were exclusionary and bewildering; except for their scathing tone, they lacked context, offering me no apparent rejoinder. In announcing these labels, she would appeal to an absent audience, talking-to-camera style, adopting a histrionic tone. (When exasperated, her favourite response was ’Oh Lord! Give me strength!’)

This mockery triggered my guilt. I kept my secrets to myself and shrank from her.

Increasingly, I withdrew to my room to read or listen to the radio, as my mother attended to the good-natured, brawling clamour of my three brothers. We became entrenched in our behaviours: my furtive separation and her practical familial activity.

If only I had possessed the wit and emotional control to deflect those barbs with a quick smile, launching into melodrama myself. I could have struck a pose, offering ‘Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?’ sighing deeply with a back-of-hand-to-forehead flourish. Sending myself up might have made both our lives a little more joyful. We might have created some space to begin to befriend one another.


– Constance Skeffington



The Better Land


Look at that great big spider son! I hope he stays up there!
I’d hate to find him hiding in your lovely golden hair.

We don’t want that spider traipsing down our freshly painted walls
The taupe paint is still drying and the painter’s not on call.

If he crawls onto that day-bed and hides in the deerskin rug
Then when you have your nap he might give you a secret hug.

And what about our potted plants- a perfect place to hide
When you lean close to smell the flowers he might jump into your eye.

Imagine if that spider moved into our lovely seats-
The busy rose-bush pattern would conceal his many feets

He might crawl down your black velvet top and you’d not suspect at all
And down your velvet trouser leg and out into the hall

Then he might crawl into your bedroom and lie waiting in your bed
For you to go to sleep so he can perch upon your head.

I hope he doesn’t come near me, or touch my long black skirt
Or bite me in my bustle because that could really hurt.

If he gets tangled in my long dark hair I’ll probably start to wail
And that, my son, is why I’ll wear this long white lacey veil

But you have no protection, he could bite your little nose
You’d better watch him closely and track everywhere he goes.

Make sure you don’t get tired and decide to rest your eyes
He might be feeling hungry and be sick of catching flies

I’m trusting you to watch him son, I’m going to have a nap
Keep your brown eyes open wide and be a watchful chap

I’ll pray our octopedal houseguest isn’t up there making plans
To come down here and oust us because he seeks a better land.


– Melissa King


God Knows!


Is God a man or a woman? Due to my upbringing, I have always presumed God is a man. My partner once commented that she had seen God (Gary Ablett Jr.) running around Kardinia Park. I responded, ‘No, not God, but son of God, his father Gary Ablett Sr is God’ –  my ingrained presumption that God is a man prevailing.

I posed the question to my aging aunt, a lay Presbyterian preacher. She confirmed that God is not an old bearded man sitting on a cloud in the sky, nor a woman.  Rather, the God of the Bible is a He because the good book, a sacred text, tells us so.  Hard to argue with true believers.

For me, the depiction of God as a He in Christian and other religious texts is directly attributed to historical societal structures where men held all power and authority. This has led to God being seen as a paternal figure (‘the Father’) and where the masculine image of strength and superior wisdom has prevailed.

Given his penchant for murder and genocide in the world, women perhaps should be thankful that God is perceived to be a He and not a She. As history shows, murder and genocide is the testosterone fuelled power thing that men do well.

Modern society still struggles against the assigned gender issue. Recently I received several emails with the sender’s name followed by either ‘he/him’ or ‘she/her’ in parenthesis. Is this new signature trend similar to some religious leaders arguing for a more inclusive and expansive view of God to overcome gender categorisation? Indeed, is it also similar to the feminist theology movements that advocate for more feminine representations of belief and a more inclusive and balanced view to religious imagery?

God only knows.


– Allan Barden

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