Recapturing The Past

It’s a job like any other.

I get tired, and I get bored, but mostly I like coming to work.

When I was a young man, working my way through college, I worked at a shop that sold lottery tickets. I loved that job; the owner was a dick, but the job was great. People who buy lottery tickets are optimists, and they are my favourite people to be around; not always the brightest, but definitely the most fun. They believe that their time will come.

Which, by contrast, is the exact opposite of the people who come to my place of work.

When my customers come through that door, the one with the antique bell hanging off the inside, they come because they want to recapture something of their past.

I know that sounds mundane; everyone goes back into their memories looking for a happier time. All very well if you can actually remember those times, but if you can’t, that’s where I come in.

Not everyone walks around with a head full of brightly coloured memories. Some people blank their memories out and with good reason.

Some people, and I’m talking quite a lot of people, do not remember specifics about their childhood. They remember their childhood, of course, but only in a general way. Happy, sad, bored, excited, mad, elated, lonely, that sort of thing.

These days we have the technology to do all kinds of amazing things, and still, we are not happy.

People come to me because they want to reconnect with that happiness that they once knew. They want to experience it one more time, and in many cases, over and over again.

There are side effects, of course, but I can see their eyes glaze over as I read the list of things that might happen to them if they go through this procedure. The government makes me tell them, but I told them even before the small fat bloke from the Ministry paid me a call.

“I’m not sure how you slipped through the net Mr Williams [he pronounced my name as though he had just stepped in something nasty], but it seems that you don’t come under any of our regular categories. We’ll put you under ‘miscellaneous’ [that’s the catch-all category that makes sure that you have to fill in a form and pay a fee, even if they have no idea what you do].”

“What do you do with all the fees we pay Mr………?”

“Johnson, William Johnson, chief collector of fees for the eastern and southeastern region. I used to have the north-eastern region, but they said it was too much for me, and they gave it to Jenkins, the swine.”

“That’s a riveting story Mr Johnston, but where does the money go?”

“General revenue, of course.” He looked at me as though I’d just dropped in from another planet.

“Yes, but what does the money do?”

“It doesn’t do anything, it just is —— revenue.”

I could have kept this conversation going, but there was a serious danger of my head exploding so I just nodded and bit my lip — really hard.

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William Johnson was not born a revenue collector. When he was young, he dreamed of being a train driver, back when trains had drivers. He loved the sound of trains, and the drivers were his heroes. His house backed onto the tracks of the Belgrave line. During the school holidays, he would scale the back fence and sit on the embankment and wait for the trains to pass. He’d wave at the drivers, and some of them would wave back. William longed to be the driver who waved back, but his father was convinced that working for the Public Service was the only life for his disappointing son who liked trains and talked of nothing else. ‘In the absence of a war, the Public Service will toughen him up.’

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When you go into business, every bugger has got his hand in your pocket.

This bugger was only one of many.

When I wasn’t paying fees, I was dealing with customers.

They come in all shapes and sizes.

I had a bloke in here recently who had lost a lot of his long-term memory in a car accident. Naturally, he wanted to remember the accident in detail so he could work out what had happened.

Therein lay a problem.

If you are driving along and another car comes out of nowhere, all you are going to remember is that you were driving along and ‘bang’, the memory stops.

He was disappointed but not surprised. I helped him with a few other names and dates, but it didn’t seem to help his mood. He was frustrated and a bit sad.

This was an unusual day because I don’t get a lot of this kind of business.

People don’t usually come digging around in a forgotten past.

It does happen, and it usually ends in tears. The mind blocks out certain things — nasty things, and I can’t help thinking that the mind knows what it is doing — leave that stuff alone.

Of course, none of that is up to me. My job is to pinpoint the memory as accurately as possible.

They give me an approximate time and place and I ‘recollect’ it for them. Occasionally, it takes me a bit longer than I’d like, but that usually happens when people are not too sure about specifics.

You are probably wondering how I got into this business.

I just fell into it.

I was young, and my dad insisted that I work during the summer before I started college. My dad was like that. He felt that there were things that I needed to learn and more importantly, things I needed to experience.

We had money, as the saying goes, and my dad did not want me to grow up thinking that the world owed me anything.

I’d known I had this ability since childhood, and my grandfather made sure that I worked at it and got it better. This was back in the day when you had to be careful of who you spoke to about such things. It could cause you some problems, and I lost a few friends because of it, mostly because my friends’ parents were frightened to let their child play with someone who could access their memories. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I took it personally — I was hurt.

I understand now that, most likely, these adults were worried that their child would reveal some secret memory. As we have learned in recent times, some strange things went on behind closed doors in those days.

I went to work for old Doc Preston. My dad knew him [dad knew a lot of people], and he got me the job.

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Doc Preston wasn’t a medical doctor; he was a doctor of psychology, and his credential came in handy in this work. All Doc Preston ever wanted to do was help people. It was amazing being around this man, even for an oblivious young eighteen-year-old like me. He lost the love of his life when they were both quite young, and he never married again. He had ‘friends’, but never anything heavy. ‘I’m married boy, [he always called me boy, even when I was in my forties], and I always will be. She may not be here with me in person, but I know we will be together again, and I’m going to remain faithful to her. It’s the only thing I can give her now, my loyalty.’ As I got to know him, I gave him the ‘she would want you to be happy’ speech, but he alway smiled and shook his head, ‘you will understand one day, boy.’

.

Doc Preston taught me heaps about the recollectionist business.

I jumped out of bed every morning.

When my mates urged me to take a day off and hang out, I told them that I had better things to do with my time. They thought I was nuts, and maybe I was, but it was in a good way.

I went to college, but I worked for Doc Preston on Saturdays and during the holidays.

I ended up with an honours degree, but I never put it to use because I had found my calling.

When Doc got too old to carry on, he sold the business to me.

I didn’t want him to retire. I loved being around him.

“How much do you want for the business Doc? I’m pretty sure I can raise the money.”

“Ten dollars and packet of Juicy Fruits.”

“Be serious Doc.”

He was, and he wasn’t kidding about the Juicy Fruits; Doc never joked about sweets.

You’ve probably guessed that Doc was not well. He knew, but as usual, I was totally oblivious.

A week before he died, he came into the shop, when he knew it would be quiet, and asked me for a favour.

“Can you take me back to the summer of ’88? That was our last summer together, and I’d like to remember it one last time.”

“Sure thing Doc, but none of this ‘one last time’ stuff.” Doc just smiled and gave me that look.

By the time the session was over the tears were rolling down my cheeks.

That was not like me.

I experience some very emotional stuff when I facilitate the ‘recollections’, but I usually keep a professional distance [Doc taught me that — ‘you’ll go batty if you don’t learn how to stand back and watch’].

The trouble was, this was personal. I’d heard him talk about her hundreds of times, but now, there she was and they were so much in love. I could smell her perfume, and I could see the look in their eyes and it broke my heart.

I don’t know what Doc would think of the industry these days.

He would probably say something like, ‘everything changes boy, get used to it and make the most of what you have in the here and now’.

I’m one of the last ‘old school’ recollectionists.

These days there are automated ‘remembering’ stores in most shopping centres, run by poorly paid young people who would rather be sitting on a beach.

If you appreciate the old fashioned service of having your memories recollected by an actual human, then you come on down to Melbourne’s last old time Recollectionist emporium.

Shop 22 in The Block Arcade.

We offer a discreet service and an experience that you will never forget.

The Search Begins

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I loved her the first time I saw her, and that’s all you need to know.

She had hair the colour of rich Belgian chocolate, and recently cut it shorter but would grow it longer again, just for me. A short stay in hospital had left her looking a little pale, and her lack of makeup was not disguising her beautiful complexion. She smiled at me and spoke enthusiastically about different coloured foods. She didn’t see me, not really, and I was determined to change that. Nothing was more important in my life. She was wearing an exquisite gown that showed the curves of her petite body to perfection. She left early with her friends, and I sat in a daze, wondering what had just happened.

It was Scarlett Holmyard who triggered my fitful imagination. It was Scarlett Holmyard who gave my life meaning when things were at their darkest.

I still have the souvenirs. Random memories that, if you put them all together would look like the remnants of a shredded photo album. Fragments of photographs are floating on the water or stuffed down the side of a sofa. Each piece tells a story of adventure, close encounters, triumphs and pure excitement.

I cannot explain the feelings I have when recalling them — the frustration, the hope, the confusion, the anger. Scarlett is the most important person in my life, but I don’t know that yet. She’s that person that you catch sight of out of the corner of your eye. She’s the one whose name you struggle to remember, the torn photograph with not enough detail. She is my nameless champion, my never wavering hero, and I’m the one who is doggedly searching for her.

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illustration by Jack Vettriano

Charmaine

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I love the early morning.

Most of the night people are seeking refuge in a cafe — bacon and eggs over the latest wholegrain toast, black coffee, no sugar and a bleary-eyed remembrance of an evening that will not come again.

I’d been delayed, and as I walked back to my table, the rising sun sent a soft golden glow across the Piazza.

My assistant was no longer sitting at the table. His working night had ended, and he was probably propping up the bar at Il Baccaro or wrapped around one of the night owl females who frequent this part of the city.

As I approach the table I see my tally book lying where my assistant had left it. My keys lie on top of the book, undisturbed.

I like keys.

I prefer an analogue solution to security wherever I can find it. I’m not disturbed by electronics — it’s just that I like the feeling of a key turning in a lock and the sound keys make when they jangle in my pocket.

The huge black umbrella is not offering any shade to the two well dress gentlemen seated at my table — the sun is way too low. I have a sense that there was a third man seated where I usually sit. He hasn’t been absent from the table for very long, and I’m wondering if he is due to return.

The two well-dressed men give me a lazy glance.

I’m still in evening dress and although a little dusty, I’m well presented after a long night of keeping book for the rich and famous. Millions of dollars and only a few slips of paper to show for all that activity.

My two guests are dressed in expensive suits and carrying expensive guns — well concealed. The value of what they are wearing would purchase a well-kept second-hand Mercedes. Where they come from the streets are full of Mercedes and during their Civil War, a few decades ago, the news footage showed armed men, ambulances and swirling smoke. Even the taxis were Mercedes. The vehicle of choice for a Middle Eastern civil conflict.

My occupation doesn’t require me to carry a concealed weapon, but I do. A large calibre two barreled Derringer strapped to my right ankle, and I’m proud to say that I’ve only needed to draw it once.

Part of my job is calculating the odds — seeing the trouble coming before it arrives. I have had to dodge the occasional closed fist and the well-aimed polished boot, but mostly I can calm a situation down before it comes to that. Sore losers are an occupational hazard.

I brushed the dust and a few flower petals off my seat before I sat down and the larger of the two well-dressed gentlemen said, “You may not want to sit there Mr Barker. In fifty seconds, it is going to be unhealthy for anyone who is sitting in that chair.”

Fifty-seconds isn’t very long to decide if he was just a smart arse and I’d used up a few of them calculating the odds.

It seemed safer to assume that he was telling the truth when he and his silent companion, who was directly in the follow-through line of fire, got slowly up from the table and walked away. The taller one had to duck to avoid hitting his head on the umbrella.

I picked up my book and my keys and left the table with as much composure as I could muster.

After I had taken a few steps, I heard the zip of the bullet and the crack of the splintering chair and table top. The bullet would have struck the quiet gentleman somewhere between the groin and the kneecap.

There was no audible bang. The shot must have come from a considerable distance. The police would work all that out at their leisure, but now I had some celebrating to do. I had dodged a bullet and made a lot of money, all over the course of an eventful evening.

Now, if I were lucky, Charmaine will be at home waiting for me.

I must say that’s misleading. Charmaine never waits for me. She does her own thing. It’s just that we share a very expensive apartment, and we sometimes arrive there at the same time, usually early in the morning. On those occasions, we sometimes do the sorts of things that men and women like to do.

The apartment has glass walls on two sides, and I never draw the blinds. I love the view that it affords. The ancient part of the city is, by now, bathed in the golden light that this section of the world is famous for.

This morning, Charmaine arrived home before I did. She is making eggs in her underwear. Her body isn’t perfect. Her torso is slightly too long when compared to her beautiful legs. Her breasts are sumptuous, but some would say that they could be a little larger. She has long black hair, dimples on her bottom and delightful pink toes.

Last night she had been wearing a black bra and panties — lots of lace. I see the dress she was wearing hanging on the outside of her huge wardrobe.

Not including the bathroom, our apartment is one large room with a king-sized bed in the middle. I hope to be lying on that bed a little later and I’m hopeful that I will be knee-deep in Charmaine, but it will depend on the type of night she has had.

My carnal ace will be the story about nearly being shot. That kind of near miss adventure story has given me the green light before.

Charmaine gathers information and what she collects makes her a lot of money. It’s exciting and dangerous, and she loves every minute of it. She has an incredible memory and in her line of work it needs to be.

She knows I’m in the apartment, but she does not look up from her breakfast preparations. I remove my jacket, tie and Derringer and stand behind her. She smells amazing. Her scent produced over a long night’s work mixed with the remnants of her French perfume, and my equipment is on full alert.

I place my hand on her bottom and my expectations for the morning are in my hand. If she brushes me away, it means the night went badly and so will my morning.

She does not react, but neither does she dispense with my wandering hand. So far so good. My luck is holding.

“If you keep doing that you won’t get any breakfast,” she says in a voice that gives me further hope.

“That’s a tough choice for a man, food or carnal delights.”

“I didn’t say you had to choose.”

I couldn’t tell if she was smiling, because I was looking in another direction and imagining my good fortune.

A good breakfast and the delicious Charmaine to follow.

I didn’t get shot, and I’m going to get laid.

It’s been an awesome day.

Georgina Comes Home

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This story follows on from this story — https://araneus1.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/georgina-finds-herself/

Coming back is not the same as coming home.

Too much has happened for home to feel the same as it did. Which is probably just as well.

My time at Oxford had taught me several things, not the least of which was true friendship. Who else would sail halfway around the world just to save me? Harriet would not phrase it that way, but that is exactly what she did — she saved me.

I also learned that there are going to be times when I don’t have all the answers — this realisation did not sit well with me at first. I like to think that I have the strength and drive to solve any problem — meet any challenge.

Harriet was never as lucky, never as smart and certainly never as strong as me, and yet there she was, scooping up what was left of me and bringing me home. So calm, so sure of what to do.

Picking up my studies again here at home was relatively easy. Having spent a year and a half at Oxford tends to open doors. Melbourne University has always considered itself to be the most prestigious Australian hall of learning, so from snobbery alone, I was assured of a place.

Harriet found us a little flat near the Flagstaff Gardens. She obtained employment at a cafe on Flinders Lane, and I meet her every night after work. Lectures during the day and study in the library until it was time to jump on a tram and travel into the City.

Harriet is always tired after her long day, but apart from her first sentence after I ask her how her day went, “My feet are killing me” there is no further mention of how difficult her working life is. Instead, I am regaled with stories of strange and unusual characters who visit her cafe.

There are the regulars like Mr Johnston who always orders half a fried chicken and a coke. Harriett believes that he thinks he is a character in The Blues Brothers. Mrs Wilkins, who orders porridge no matter what time she comes in, “the cook never complains.” Harriett gets along with them all — you could almost say that she loves them — she has that ability. She can make herself larger. She seems to be able to find more love and deliver it wherever it is needed.

The cafe staff feed her during the day, but at night we usually eat at home. Our budget is tight. Her wages pays the rent on our flat, but there is only a little bit left over after we pay for the utilities. My parents give me what they can afford, but it barely covers my studies and expenses. Despite all this, there are days when customers at Harriett’s cafe are particularly generous, and her share of the tips sends us off on a wild night of dancing and boys. The boys always gallantly offer to buy us drinks which is just as well because fancy, dizzy, fizzy drinks are not within our budget. It’s true that when we are out and about, we are difficult to separate, but we see this as a necessary degree of difficulty for our enthusiastic suitors. “It makes them work a little harder and that way we separate the lions from the cubs.” Harriett’s comments reflect her practical streak.

Having said that, we always leave the dance hall together, never with a man. There is often a deal of pleading and cajoling, but on this point, we stand firm. That is not to say that a man is forbidden from calling one of us and arranging to meet at a later date. We don’t have a phone of our own. “Not going to happen Georgina. Forget it. I like eating, and it is a choice between a phone and food.” I quickly weighed up the options. “We could get boys to bring us food?” I knew it was a long shot.

The little old lady who lives in the flat closest to the stairs used to be young once. “You can give the boys my phone number, and I’ll vet them for you. Failing that, you give me a list of the ones I’m supposed to say yes to, and I’ll take down the details.”

Mrs Cuthbert has been a widow for a long time, and she always smiled at us when we ran into her on the stairs or when she popped around to deliver the good news about a man who had rung. “I liked this one. Said his name was Matthew. Had a sweet voice. I gave him the third degree, and he stood up well under questioning.” Then we got her patented smile, which meant that she was kidding. She loved this game. She loved being needed. “I don’t work anymore, and apart from my dog and you girls, no one needs me. It’s nice to be needed.” I nodded in agreement. Harriett needs me, and I need her.

Sunday is our favourite day.

If we are particularly low on funds, we take a blanket and picnic basket, and we picnic in the park, which is about a dozen steps from our front door. It isn’t one of the more popular parks in Melbourne, so there is always lots of space. We live in an upmarket part of Melbourne where the parks are well maintained. We lie on the blanket and stare up at the huge old trees, and we dream as all young girls have dreamed since the beginning of time. These are patient dreams, not the frantic send a Prince charming to save me sort of dream, but gentle hoping dreams. We love our life together. We love the gentle rhythm and the unexpected twists and turns, and throughout it all, there is a bond that ties us together. Georgina and Harriett — many mistake us for sisters, and in a real way we are.

The men who will inevitably catch our eye will have to live with the fact that we will want to live close to each other bringing up our families together and sharing our lives until the lights grow dim. They will understand that it has to be this way — we will not be separated.

The Chinese believe that if you save a person’s life, you are responsible for that person for the remainder of their existence. Harriett saved me and in a real sense, I saved her right back.

Neither of us has any Chinese blood in our veins, but we know that we are responsible for each other, and it will always be so.

Fading Light

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We stopped because we could.

The night was still young, and this open expanse of freshly mown grass seemed irresistible.

Our end of year exams were over and within twelve short months, we would all be fully fledged teachers. The thought terrified all of us but no-one said it out loud.

My car was jammed full of young, slightly inebriated student teachers. In our year the girls outnumbered the boys two to one. I was the only sober person in my vehicle, which was okay with me. I like a drink, but my meagre allowance only stretched as far as owning a car and taking girls to the movies. So booze was a luxury I could ill afford.

The girls preferred clothes and public transport so we were struggling for enough vehicles to get us around in a large group. Fortunately, Laurie’s father decided not to be a dick on that night and loaned him his car. Even so, we were all wedged in pretty tightly.

“Pull over Spider!” the girls in the back seat shouted. I’d had that nickname since I was a kid, but never told anyone how I got it.

“Okay. No need to split my eardrum,” I said.

There was an absolute absence of moon, and we were far enough away from the city lights for the sky to be full of bright stars.

The other four cars pulled in behind me, and when the headlights went out, we were in total darkness. Tipsy girls tumbled out of cars squealing with delight. I heard someone trip and fall — then laughter. Not my girlfriend, not my worry.

Then the phones came out, and shafts of light crisscrossed the vast open space. I could sense that the open field, possible a football field of some sort, was bordered by tall trees. There was moisture in the air and if the squealing mass of humanity had not been a bit drunk they would have been complaining about the cold.

The light from torches on our phones was riding on the mist and created a light show without music.

It didn’t take long before the selfie photos started to light up the field.

More squealing.

Each time a flash went off I saw an after image off to my left, but when a torch beam hit that spot, there was no-one there.

I dismissed the image as part of the dance that goes on with one’s vision in such low light situations. I remember thinking that I had damaged my vision when I was a boy because I could not see if I looked directly at something in very low light. In year eight we discovered the wonders of the human optic system, and I worked out why my vision was so much better in low light if I looked to the side. Rods and cones — cool.

This wasn’t that.

Every time a flash went off I caught sight of someone for just a second then the image would fade. This someone was moving around, and it was starting to freak me out. The hair on the back of my neck was standing up.

“Did anyone else see that?” I said.

“See what,” said Colin, who was the only other student in our group who owned a car, but he left it at home and borrowed his father’s sedan so that we could all make it to the celebrations.

“Over there, not far from the trees, wait for a flash to go off.”

“Holy shit! What was that?”

“Keep watching and tell me if you think it’s moving.”

Another flash.

“Yes, it is, and it’s big,” said Colin.

By this time I’m scared, but I cannot take my eyes off the spot where we last saw the person.

“It’s hard to tell in this light, but this bloke must be close to seven foot tall,” I said.

“What should we do?”

We rounded up our rowdy crew and got them to turn off their phone torches.

“Girls, you point your phones in that direction and take a flash photo,” They all turned and fired off all at once before I had a chance to finish, “one after the other.”

It seemed to me that the after image from the flashes was visible for only a second or two, then they faded away.

“It’s almost as if this bloke absorbs the light for a second before it fades away.” Now I wasn’t the only one who was scared. Our crew were now huddled together in the middle of this vast field. We could smell the cut grass under our feet, and the girls were beginning to shiver.

I rallied the boys together. “We are not going to just stand here and let this bozo intimidate us. When we get the girls organised with the flashes, we are going to tackle this bloke and get him to tell us what he’s up to.”

I didn’t wait for confirmation of my plan because I knew that there was a chance that someone would start to argue about the efficacy of my idea.

“Keep the flashes coming girls. Paul, you stay here with the girls in case there are more of them. Ready? Then let’s get him.”

We ran at the figure who kept glowing momentarily after each flash, and as we got closer, it became apparent that he was huge — over seven foot tall. I’m not the fastest runner in the group so my tackle was late. This bloke was icy to the touch, and he was wearing some sort of leathery coat.

He didn’t struggle when we hit him at full pelt, and he didn’t say a word.

We all lay on the grass holding on to this huge person, but as the flashes continued I had time to gather myself and got a look at him.

This bloke didn’t look like any man I had ever seen before. His eyes were big and sad, and his skin was shiny and wrinkled.

“I think this bloke is really old,” I said.

“This ain’t no bloke,” I heard Colin say.

“There’s another one over there,” I heard one of the girls say. “It’s a lot smaller.”

The little one made a strange noise, and the big one that we had tackled looked at me. It didn’t say anything, and I know it sounds weird, but I knew what it wanted.

“Let her go,” I heard myself say. “Just let her go.”

Amazingly, the boys did as I asked. The creature stood up gracefully and moved towards the little one. When they met they embraced, all in the glare of flashing light.

Together, they walked back towards the tree line and disappeared from view.

I was hoping that they would look back in our direction, but they didn’t.

I could still feel the cold sensation of having my arms wrapped around this enigmatic creature.

She was enormous and powerful, but she did not fight back.

“So, what do we tell everyone about this?” said Patricia, who was always the first girl to ask a question in lectures.

“Check your phones,” I said. “See if you captured any images of one or both of them.”

The girls didn’t have to answer; I could see it on their faces.

“Tell, don’t tell. I don’t think it makes any difference. Some will believe us, and others will say we’re nuts. Either way, we helped a mother and her child reunite. That’s enough of a story for me. So, are we going to this party or not?”

It took a few minutes for us to squeeze back into the cars and the journey through the darkness, on the way to our destination, was undertaken in contemplative silence.

Minds were racing, but mouths were silent.