Hold My Hand

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Maybe it happened because I jerked off too much when I was a teenager — no, that’s crazy talk — there is no such thing as too much — except for that one occasion, but there isn’t enough time to tell you that story now — it’ll have to wait.

Fortunately for me, my wife remembers lots of little details. She’s good like that — good in other ways as well — a good person all round. Details are important. Very important. If I don’t make contact for a long time, details are all that matter.

I’m getting ahead of myself, I’m sorry. I didn’t want this to be confusing. Let’s go back to what the doctor said, “It’s a bit of a nuisance, but you’ll get used to it.”

“I’ve never fucking heard of it before now. How the fuck did this happen?” Apologies for the colourful language, but that was what I said, and in my defence, I was justifiably upset.

“Just because you haven’t heard of it Mr Jenkins doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.” He was right, but he was also an opinionated arsehole, and it occurred to me that he had worked quite hard to perfect his arseholedness — probably picked it up in high school.

“Seriously Doc, this is insane. Am I the only person in the world with this disease?” I asked.

“It’s a syndrome, Mr Jenkins, not a disease.”

“Thanks for the correction Doc, that makes me feel a whole lot better.” Doctor Numbnuts was trying to be helpful, at least he thought he was. He’d even chosen his most helpful tie that morning. “The blue one or the green one with the spots?” he said to his wife. “The blue one says helpful, dear, the green one says I can get you a good deal on a used car.” She was right of course, so he wore the helpful blue one, but just at this moment, its magic did not seem to be working on Mr Jenkins.

“Your syndrome is progressive, so you will notice that you need to recharge more often as time goes by and the duration of the recharge will get longer as well, but on the bright side, you will probably have passed away from some serious disease by the time this gets really inconvenient. You are getting on a bit Mr Jenkins. Pretty soon you will enter that age group when men of your generation start to succumb to all sorts of fatal illnesses. So, buck up, you may not live long enough for this to bother you unduly.”

“How rare is this syndrome Doc?”

“Not very. It’s just that there is such a stigma attached to it that people tend not to discuss it. For decades, the media has been under a self-imposed ban on reporting about the effects. It’s felt that reporting about it will encourage men to imitate the symptoms and take advantage of their wives.”

“What a load of bollocks!” My head was spinning from what seemed like a huge pile of horse manure masquerading as medical evidence.

“I see it all the time. Men holding their partners hand in public, unnecessarily.”

“Define unnecessarily.”

“I know you are angry Mr Jenkins, but this is getting us nowhere.”

“Humour me.”

“Okay, it’s Wednesday night, and I’m walking past McDonalds, and I see an older couple walking towards me. They are taking their cute little dogs for a walk, and they are holding hands — on a Wednesday night! I ask you, do you need any more proof than that — a Wednesday night. Now, if it had been a Saturday night, I might have bought it, but a Wednesday night? I don’t think so. Obviously, the man had read about this syndrome, probably on the dark net, and had convinced his poor innocent wife that he needed to hold her hand — disgusting. Nothing but male violence in its basest form.”

“He’s holding her hand for fuck sake. Maybe she asked him to hold her hand. Did you ever think of that?”

“Ridiculous. Decent women don’t behave like that in public. You don’t have to believe me, Mr Jenkins, simply read the research.”

“I’d love to. But as you so clearly pointed out, there isn’t any published research.”

“Not released for the likes of you Mr Jenkins, but for the medical profession there are reams of the stuff. I’ll have my secretary copy some of the simpler case studies for you, but you must return them when you are finished. We can’t have this information falling into the wrong hands.”

“Men’s hands.”

“Precisely Mr Jenkins. You’re getting the hang of this, well done.”

“So what is it that I’m supposed to do in all of this?” 

My wife had been quietly listening to us talking, but she couldn’t hold her peace any longer.

“Your role is very straight forward Mrs Jenkins. You hold his hand until his memories return.”

“That’s it. That’s all I have to do?”

“That, and not die. If you died suddenly, he would be stranded. His memories would leak away like a bath with the plug pulled out. He would have no past. Ultimately he would forget the basics, like the need to eat and drink, brush his hair and take the rubbish out. As it got more tragic, he would forget why he loved watching reality television. When that happens, the end is not far away. Eventually, he would forget to put his lottery ticket in and, probably while abusing a politician on the television, he would forget to breathe, and his life would come to an end.”

“So, hold his hand and don’t die — that’s your advice. That’s what we are paying a small fortune to hear?”

“I studied for seven years at university Mrs Jenkins; I know what I’m talking about.”

My wife gave the doctor one of those stares. She didn’t spend seven years at university, but she certainly had perfected that stare. He knew exactly what she meant  — his wife had perfected a similar look.

My wife reached over and took me by the hand, and I remembered where I’d put my spare keys. As she held tightly and squeezed my fingers, I remembered why my son no longer talks to me, and it made me sad.

“Come my darling; we’re going home,” she said.

I didn’t argue. I let her lead me out of the room, past the pretty secretary with the red hair and the green eyes and out to where the elevators stood silently waiting. As we rode down to the ground floor, still clutching each others hand, I remembered the time I sat in the hospital waiting room praying that my wife would not bleed to death. I remembered the young doctor smiling at me as he strode towards my seat. The look on his face said ‘I’m the brightest young doctor in this hospital, and I saved your wife from dying. Sure, a bunch of other people helped out a bit, but in the end, I saved her.’

We caught the number twelve tram and my wife did not let go of my hand. We sat quietly and looked at the world go by. A small boy was sitting next to his mother absentmindedly playing with a battered toy car. It was a lovely autumn afternoon, and the leaves were swirly across the footpaths and into the path of oncoming traffic — the leaves did not seem to care about their fate, and neither did I — not anymore.

It’s only a short walk from the tram stop to our house, and my wife held my hand the whole way.

“Let’s get into bed and snuggle up and try and forget this awful day,” said my wife.

“It’s only half past four. Are you sure? You know you will be wide awake in the middle of the night?”

“Get into bed Michael. Hold me tight.”

“I did as I was told. It was not a difficult chore. We had been holding each other in this way for many a long year. When my father died, she held me until there were no more tears left to shed.

“I’m not going to die, Michael. I’ll always be here, and you can hold my hand every night when you get home from work, and the memories will all come flooding back. We will be okay. I’ll keep you whole. I love you very much. You are everything to me.”

She meant it, and I knew she did.

“I love you too Mary, and as long as I can hold your hand, everything will be fine. I always loved holding your hand. I remember the first time you let me. We were just kids, and I was nervous as hell. I remember thinking how tiny your hand was, and how warm. You have always had warm hands. There are other parts of you I like better, but your hands are definitely on my best bits list.”

“You are a devil Michael, but I love you.”

“Mary, if you do die before me, I promise that I will forget almost everything else before I forget you. You will be the second last thing I forget — I promise.”

“Let’s not think about that now. Hold me tight.”

I fell asleep in her arms, and I remember thinking, just before I drifted off, this must be what it feels like to let go of Mary’s hand. 

Cryptic Message

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Bluestone

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Out Of Nowhere

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“Have you ever been to Egypt Mrs Bennett?”

“Yes, I have. Our father took us on a tour of all the major sites in Egypt when we were children.”

“All five-star hotels and hot and cold running servants, I’ll bet.”

Scarlett was already on guard, and under normal circumstances, she would not have made this arrangement, but these were not ‘usual circumstances’, so here she was.

“You can waste time denigrating my family if you wish, but need I remind you that you called me, and it was you who asked to meet.”

Appearing to be only vaguely interested in the proceedings was a ploy that Sam had taught her. ‘If you seem too eager, the seller will know they have the upper hand.’ Sam knew about this kind of thing. It was a big part of his life until he had met her. Getting information from someone who does not want to give it up without a fight, is a skill learned after many a bruise.

“I don’t know what ‘denigrate’ means, but if it means hanging shit on rich people then that’s me. But, you are right, I did ask you here. I want to help you, Mrs Bennett. Word is out that you are looking for the reason behind the attack on your husband.”

“What is this ‘help’ going to cost me? Or are you going to pass it on for free because you would not like to become one of those rich people that you despise?”

“I don’t have a problem being a little bit rich.”

“I can make you a little bit rich but only if your information leads me to the people I’m looking for, and answers to all of my questions. Right now I don’t know what is going on so if I walk out that door I am no worse off than when I got here. So why don’t we stop dancing around each other, and you tell me what you know, and I’ll tell you what it is worth.”

Their conversation lasted exactly thirty-four minutes and at the end of it Scarlett wrote an amount on a piece of paper and pushed it towards the slightly dishevelled woman sitting across from her. Scarlett had seen this done in a movie, and she had always wanted to do it and now she could. The slightly dishevelled woman had apparently seen the same movie because she read the amount and nodded meaningfully.

Scarlett reached into her bag and pulled out a post office box key. She slid this across the worn Laminex table.

“This is the key to box 237 at the Belgrave post office. Half the money will be in that box tomorrow. You take the money and leave me the rest of the information that you promised. When this problem has been resolved, I will put the rest of the money in the box. But you had better hope that this information leads me to the people I am looking for because I have powerful friends, and they would not like to see me being taken for a ride. It’s your choice; be rich because you held up your part of the bargain, or be hounded by the authorities for being a crook and a con-woman.”

Scarlett’s threats were idle. She just wanted to find the people who hurt Sam; revenge on a scruffy woman who was probably taking her life in her hands by passing on information was not on her agenda. If it all worked out, she planned to add a little extra money to the pile. It was only money after all. If her information led to Sam’s tormentors, then it would be worth every penny.

“Belgrave! That’s the middle of bloody nowhere. Why did you have to make it bloody Belgrave?”

“You live ten minutes from Richmond Railway Station, and Belgrave is the last stop on the line. Even if you fall asleep, you cannot miss your station. And besides, you can take a trip on Puffing Billy while you are there, or get an excellent cup of coffee at Reel Cafe, or pizza at La Colina. It’s a beautiful part of the world, and you look like someone who could use a bit of beauty in her life.”

The last time Karen Clark’s house had been cleaned Queen Elizabeth the second was being crowned. Sitting in her kitchen was necessary, but leaving it was a relief.

~oOo~

Finally, a break in the gloom.

Karen Clark had popped up out of nowhere, and the information she gave was enough to start with. In a couple of days Scarlett would have it all, and if it were as good as the scruffy Ms Clark said it was, it would lead to the reason and the people behind Sam’s near death experience.

Scarlett travelled directly from her meeting and deposited the first half of the money in the Belgrave post office box. She could have waited until the next day, but her excitement carried her forward. The hardest part would be to wait for two more days to receive the balance of the information.

Scarlett walked the few steps to the Laughing Owl Cafe, ‘the cafe with a conscience’, and sat outside with her ‘long black’ and tried to work out her next move. “I wonder how all the cafes without a conscience live with themselves?” asked Scarlett with a smile. Belgrave was alive with the late lunch crowd and a few mums grabbing a coffee before the onslaught of collecting their children from school. She could hear Puffing Billy arrive at the station, and soon a surge of tourists would flood the main street.

~oOo~

Erstwhile Antiquities was situated at the top end of Collins Street; the so-called Paris End.

Any two items in its sparsely stocked interior would account for the price of a modern two bedroomed apartment.

Scarlett was no stranger to such exclusive establishments, and she knew that her presence would not arouse suspicion. She didn’t have all of the information but she did know that this shop was at the heart of the mystery.

Many of the pieces being offered for sale were of disputed origin. A hundred or more years ago thousands of objects were looted from countries that were colonised by the major European powers.

Egypt was a favourite target, and the West’s fascination with all things Egyptian fuelled the frenzy.

In modern times, governments have strict laws governing the removal and sale of such items, but the rich have their rules, and they always have.

From the price tags, none of which were on display, (if you have to ask, you can’t afford it) you would think that the owners could live comfortably for several months every time the cash register rang, but selling these items wasn’t the problem; obtaining sufficient stock was the big problem.

The shop itself had been there since the mid-1880s, and along the way, it’s highly polished copper framed windows had seen Melbourne grow to be one of the most sophisticated cities in the world. Its brash older sister was slightly larger, but she would never have the class that Melbourne had, and it drove her crazy. Sydney had the Opera House, but Melbourne would remind them that not a single original work had been written to be performed there; most of the artists and most of the money was in Melbourne.

Scarlett needed to see for herself but in reality there was not much to be seen. The shop was well presented, but the lone staff member seemed to be remarkably ill-informed.

“Do you have any Egyptian artefacts other than the ones on display?” asked Scarlett

“Not at the moment madam, Egyptian pieces are hard to source.”

“Can I ask where the Ankh came from?”

“I’m sorry madam, which piece were you referring to?”

A salesperson in an antiquities shop should be able to recognise an Ankh.

“The gold cross-shaped piece in the showcase. Do you know where it was found?”

“Oh, that. I’m not sure. I’ll have to look it up.”

“Don’t worry about that for the moment. May I have a look at it please?” said Scarlett.

“Certainly madam.”

As the young woman walked over to the antique glass display case, Scarlett noticed the storeroom door open. An ugly looking man with a three-day growth looked out briefly before closing the door. He looked out of place in such a high-class establishment as did his friend who was stacking something into a box.

Scarlett handled the Ankh, made the appropriate noises and left the store. Collins Street shops are serviced by a labyrinth of laneways which dated back to a time when tradespeople were kept away from the front door.

Scarlett did not have to walk very far to find a narrow laneway which led to an even smaller laneway which ran across the back of the Antiquities shop. A small van was parked, and one of the ugly gentlemen was putting a box into the back of it. The van didn’t appear to have any markings, but Scarlett photographed it for future reference.

~oOo~

The taxi driver was beginning to wonder who he was waiting for when the unmarked white van emerged from the lane way.

“The white van, can you follow it please?” Scarlett was excited, but it was no time to abandon her manners.

The taxi driver didn’t bat an eyelid. Maybe it happens all the time, in any case, he knew what he was doing, and the van driver didn’t spot that he was being followed. Their journey took them to Doncaster and just as the driver was about to point out the total on the meter, the white van pulled into the driveway of an enormous house on Elizabeth Street, only a few doors up from the Water Lily Farm. Scarlett took note of the address, but she felt she had pushed her luck enough for one day, so she asked the driver to take her home. All through the pursuit and on the journey home, the driver said nothing. In the annals of taxi driver history, this was a first.

“You are very quiet for a taxi driver?”  said Scarlett.

“Yes, missus.”

“Any particular reason?”

“Yes, missus. My wife says I’m boring when I talk, so I tend to keep my mouth shut most of the time.”

When he got home that night, the taxi driver had a story to tell and a bundle of money to show for what should have been a quiet day. He took his wife out for dinner at their local Indian restaurant. He ordered chicken tandoori, and she had butter chicken. They drank wine, and his wife didn’t think he was boring that night.

~oOo~

Scarlett waited two days before she checked the post office box. There was an envelope stuffed with papers and a note wishing her good luck.

She sat at Cafe Reel and carefully read through the information. The cafe was quiet, and no one seemed interested in her.

She didn’t know who Bill Deaks was, but it would not take her long to find out, she was not the only person who wanted to catch Sam’s tormentor.

As it turned out, Bill Deaks was into all sorts of nefarious goings on. His favourite pastime was collecting rare items. He built his collection while brokering deals for people with more money than they could possibly spend.

Word had it that he had gotten his hands on the Archibald Ankh. It was so named because Reginald Archibald looted it from the Great Pyramid of Giza in 1932. The Ankh disappeared when Archibald was killed. He was waiting in a cafe in Cairo when someone silently slipped a dagger between his ribs. Everyone thought he was drunk, so it took more than an hour before he was discovered. According to the staff, and particularly the bartender, his customer never arrived, and no one remembers anyone else sitting at that table. Bartenders are notoriously unreliable.

There were alleged sightings every few decades, but the Archibald Ankh never surfaced in public, let alone come up for sale. It was widely believed that it was in one of two private collections — the Tilbury or the Westfield collections. Both collectors were now old or near death and both had a reputation for taking rather than paying for items with a checkered history. Archibald was reputed to be asking a vast fortune for his Ankh, and it got him killed.

Her scruffy informant had done well, and Scarlett momentarily wondered how she came by such detailed information. She put the fat envelope into the P.O. box and gave it a pat for good luck. The dishevelled Ms Clark had earned her money. Scarlett doubted she would spend it wisely. Most probably she would splash it around and draw attention to herself. Assuming that Bill Deaks was not a complete idiot, he would probably work out that something was up, and a beating was coming her way. She’d eventually confess her deal with Scarlett, which would end her life. Scarlett could see it unfolding like a cheap movie, and she was powerless to stop it. Her concern was how long this scenario would take to play out. If she got lucky it might take weeks; unlucky and it could be days. Either way, she needed to move quickly.

Instinct told her that Deaks did not yet have the Ankh, and it also told her that Sam probably knew where it was. Deaks was probably waiting for Sam’s memory to return.

Assuming her theories were correct, it did not make any sense for Deaks to try and kill Sam. She was hoping that he wanted Sam alive, and the accident was just that — an accident.

Finding the missing Ankh seemed like a good idea, “But where does one start.”

Scarlett realised that her last thought was said out loud, and the girl mopping floors looked at her as though an answer was required.

“Sorry, just thinking out loud,” said Scarlett.

“That’s okay; I do that all the time. Drives my husband crazy, but he’s a bastard, so I don’t care. Oops! There I go again.”