I learned very early on that it is a waste of time talking to the president, the top dog, the bloke who runs everything.
Why? Because these blokes are just cheerleaders.
It’s their job to tell you that everything is just fine; everything is going great. That’s why the CEO of some big company goes on television to squash all the rumours about his multi-billion dollar company. It’s to give his broker time to liquidate his holdings without driving the price down. Within a week or two there is a small item on page nine about a CEO who skipped the country on his private jet with two large suitcases stuffed with everyone else’s money.
So that’s why I don’t bother.
It’s my job to find out stuff. So, if I want to know what happened in a hospital I ask a porter.
They have nothing invested in the politics of the place and a ‘twenty’ seems like a lot of money to someone on minimum wage. They are ‘invisible,’ so people talk when they are around them, as though they aren’t there.
So, when the shit hit the fan at 206 Rae Street in Fitzroy, I asked a fireman. The lowest ranked fireman I could find.
His name was Ken and he was a big bloke and a little bit too old to be a rookie. He had done all sorts of things previously but being a fireman seemed like a steady job to Ken, so he tried out and succeeded. Which was an achievement in itself, because they don’t make it easy. The physical stuff was easy enough, but the academic side proved to be a challenge. Ken left school in year nine.
That’s probably not the best way to put it; Ken was asked to leave. Apparently there was a girl involved, but Ken said there was a whole bunch of them, but one in particular caused his sudden exit from the halls of academia. The principal’s daughter was a year older than Ken, but Ken was fully grown, and at six foot four he was almost as wide as he was tall.
The Principal gave him a choice, leave or he would call the police. Ken decided to leave. Apart from the continuous supply of girls, he wasn’t really enjoying himself anyway.
A couple of dozen jobs and a number of years later and Ken finds himself as part of a crew that is called to a house fire in Fitzroy.
The senior man knocked on the front door, but it did not open. At this stage, there were no obvious signs of fire so the urgency level is low.
A voice came from inside the house.
“I’m sorry madam, but there has been a report of a fire and we must come in and make sure that there isn’t any danger.”
“Go away.” The female voice was becoming more insistent, but so was the senior fireman.
“Look lady, we’ve got a job to do. Just open up, let us have a look around and we will be on our way.”
“Open the door lady or we are going to break it down.” The senior turned to Ken and gave him the nod. Ken got into position and began to swing the axe when the door opened just enough for the old woman to stick her head out.
“Go away, we ain’t got no fire.”
The senior pushed past her and the men moved rapidly through the dark hallway to the back of the house.
As they moved out into the back yard it became obvious where the fire was. Two large couches were well alight and as the property backed onto a creek, the neighbours on the other bank had probably called in the fire.
It was quickly extinguished and probationary Ken got the grunt job of filling out the report, which included listing that every room in the house had been assessed as free from fire. This seemed strange to me, but Ken said that, ‘unexplained’ fires often break out in multiple locations within a house; this is shorthand for arson.
Ken did as he was told and the last room to check on was the room they went past as they first entered the building.
The old lady had hold of the door knob.
“You don’t need to check in there.”
“Yes, I do,” says Ken, and brushes her aside.
When he opened the door he saw a table with about eight blokes sitting around it. They were playing cards and by Ken’s guess, the pot looked like it contained about ten thousand dollars. These were obviously dodgy and seriously dangerous people. Ken was worried that they might remember his face, but it seemed that no one in the room took their eyes off the money while the door was open.
“Everything seems to be fine in here,” says Ken and quickly shuts the door. Fortunately, the truck was packed and waiting for Ken to finish.
“Drive. Drive now,” said Ken in a voice that suggested that he would someday make an excellent senior officer.
I asked Ken if the bloke I was looking for was in that room and he said he was. He also asked me not to tell anyone who told me. As I mentioned, Ken was a big bloke but he seemed genuinely scared. This was a wise reaction. The bloke I was looking for was a bad person. He’d done a reasonable job of faking his own death, but now that I knew he was still alive, I’d pass the information along to the police. They wouldn’t drag their feet either. They wanted this bloke badly, and they were disappointed when it appeared that he had been killed. No body, but plenty of evidence to persuade the top brass to shift their resources to another case. I knew a particular Detective Inspector who was going to be very pleased to hear my news.
My clients would not pay me until this bloke was arrested, but I could wait.
Always talk to the little fish; they know what is going on, and they can always use a little extra spending money.
Five is the perfect number; any more than that and bad things happen.
I was a white fella living in a house with a bunch of blackfellas; a whole family in fact. Uncles, brothers, sisters and cousins, with a few aunties and a distant cousin thrown in for good measure. Fortunately, the house is huge. It was built for some mega rich bloke a decade or so after the gold rush. Melbourne was awash with gold money and grand houses were all the rage. Pointless being rich if you couldn’t show off, and a huge house on a big chunk of land was the best way to show that you had more money than the next bloke.
Over time, most of the land had been subdivided and sold off as various owners needed cash. The house needs a bit of work but it is in amazing condition considering it is about one hundred and forty years old. It stands four stories high with large majestic windows. Every bedroom has its own fireplace and a carved wooden fire-surround with scenes depicting Australian flora and fauna. There are many other carved pieces throughout the house and it is these features that are said to have influenced Billy’s grandmother to choose this house.
Billy was the first to make his mark; the first to make his fortune, and in the tradition of the blackfella, if one member of a Koori family makes it big, all members of the family share in that good fortune.
Lightening struck many times with this family and soon Billy’s brother’s followed in his musical success while his sister’s paintings found a market. Many of the cousins are musicians, and painters, and potters, and you name it; if it is creative, at least one member of this huge family is into it, which is just as well as it costs a small fortune to keep this house running. Koories don’t go nuts when they come into money, not like whitefellas do, but even so the house eats up a big chunk of change.
Kooris are an accepting lot but even so, bringing me into the house caused a bit of tension; the only whitefella to be seen.
The neighbours are all white, of course, and they are patiently waiting for this huge family to sell up just so they can get their property values to rise again. I don’t think that is going to happen any time soon.
The way we got together is way too long a story but the important part is that we did, and it only seems to work if all five of us are ‘under the wing’ at the same time. I’m always on the end, which is the worst place to be if something goes wrong.
Back in the day, back when the family members discovered this ability, the younger members experimented with the idea of adding more people to the wing. Trouble is, just like the rest of life, if you pick the wrong people, shit happens.
Someone thought that the ability would get stronger the more people you added, but as I said before, five is the magic number, and the right five at that.
So, the young ones kept adding more and more people until one day they found this bloke lying in a ditch with symptoms just like someone who had been struck by lightning.
The Elders stepped in and forbade any further experimentation, but you know young people. Every now and then some teenager is found all dazed and singed, with his hair standing straight up and smouldering.
Billy always takes the centre spot with his brothers on each side, the annoying cousin gets the end spot on Billy’s right and, as the newcomer, I get the spot on his left wingtip.
The truth is that they need me and they know it, although you would never hear it from them, not out loud. My ability brings something to the group that they have never had before, and they like it.
The only part of the process that gives me the shits is the ‘whispering under the wing.’
When we wrap our arms around each others shoulders our individual abilities are multiplied by five to the power of two. Basically that means that as a group we are twenty-five times more powerful than any one of us on our own. Now, that is really something, and that magnifying factor only arrived when I joined. Add to that our combined ability to remote view at a huge distance, and you can see why they put up with the whitefella.
Part of our responsibility to the wider community is doing readings for individuals, couples and families. We do this once a week, and by appointment.
The problem, as I see it, is that as soon as we link, the whispers start. I call it ‘bitching under the wing’ and it makes me uncomfortable. Our combined ability means that we can see all the weaknesses of the people we are reading for. The whispers are all telepathic, but it still gives me the shits.
Being in this house, doing these readings, is as close as I have come to feeling like I’m part of something.
No one watches television in this house, there is always too much going on. Every night someone is playing an instrument. There is always someone preparing food in the huge old Victorian kitchen, and the cooks are artists in themselves. I’ve gained a bit of weight since I moved in here. My room is on the top floor and was probably one of the servants quarters. The irony is not lost on me. I have a magnificent view of the city in the distance, and I get to walk up and down the majestic staircase, every day. Some nights I lie on my bed and listen to the sounds coming from this ancient house. I doubt that it has ever been this alive in its long history.
My past is full of confusion and pain, but since Billy brought me into his extended family I have a home and a purpose, as well as a family.
I saw her reflection in the window of the Tobacconist.
She was crossing the street and heading for the restaurant at The Windsor Hotel.
You might be wondering how I knew where she was going.
Wonder no more.
Where else would a beautiful young lady be going, at that hour of the day, dressed so impeccably?
Her lipstick matched the colour of her dress.
Her handbag was suitably casual and her figure was close to perfect. She had the kind of body that made you wish you could win a scholarship to undertake further study.
She was smoothing down a stray hair as she stepped off the kerb and as if by magic, the busy lunchtime traffic came to a halt.
If I’d tried it you would have read about the carnage in the evening paper, but this is 1957 after all, and a beautiful woman will always stop traffic in this modern age.
I’ve got a thing about white gloves.
My mum had a draw full of gloves and they always smelled amazing. She looked great when she wore them.
When things got to be too much she would dress up and keep me home from school.
We’d walk down to the tram stop and jump on the first number 12 that came along. The journey to the city took about half an hour and we would travel that distance without conversation.
I would sit next to her and feel her warmth and smell her perfume. Sometimes she would hold my hand.
When she could not be here anymore they found her, perfectly dressed, careful makeup and white gloves.
I was outside the Windsor on a routine ‘follow and report’.
Not my usual pastime, but a friend was shorthanded and I didn’t have much on. Melbourne is quiet now that the Olympics is over. Most of the juicy crime has moved back to Sydney.
The lady in red was still delaying traffic when I saw my mark enter the Hotel. The bookstore next to the Tobacconists would be a good place to wait; no one notices a person in a bookstore and the staff know to leave the customers alone.
Fortunately the ‘classics’ section was close to the front window so I picked out a Tolstoy and settled in for a long wait.
The curtains on the dining room at the Windsor were draped but not completely closed, so I could see my mark sitting one table in and to the left of the main window.
I was expecting to be waiting for at least an hour but my curiosity, professional and otherwise, wanted to know who else would be seated at his table.
A well placed ten pound note would get me all the information I needed from the staff, but that would come later, for now I just wanted to see for myself.
I didn’t have long to wait before a large, not very tall, bald man in a bad suit sat opposite my mark. Their demeanour suggested that they knew each other but I doubt that they spent their holidays together.
Four minutes later, the bald bloke got up and left; there was no handshake, but he didn’t tip a glass of beer over him either.
Next to the man’s description I wrote, ‘strange, short meeting’.
To my delight, the lady in red, fresh from her traffic stopping duties, appeared in the window and stood approximately where the bald, bad suit had sat.
My mark grew about two inches in his chair and to put it mildly, he looked a little bit surprised.
There was too much traffic, too much distance and too much glass for me to be able to hear their conversation.
But, as the man said, ‘actions speak louder than words’.
The lady in red opened her casual handbag and reached into it with her perfectly gloved hand and pulled out what looked a lot like a chrome plated .25 calibre Browning automatic.
I didn’t hear the bangs; a .25 doesn’t make a lot of noise and the slugs it projects are not likely to do a lot of damage unless they land in the right spot, and at that range ‘white gloves’ was not going to miss.
My mark made a face that made it look like a large dog had attached itself to his family jewels, then he slid gracefully off his chair.
Miss ‘white gloves’ must have hit the spot.
I expected to see a flurry of red and white but to my surprise she slowly put the gun back into her casual purse and moved toward the door. I didn’t expect to see her emerge because there was a good chance someone would grab her now that her gun was back in her bag, but I was wrong again.
She stepped through the polished brass front doors, said something to the doorman, who smiled at her, then she stopped traffic again and walk toward my hiding place.
I expected to see a posse of concerned citizens come bursting through those shiny doors, but again I was off the mark.
“This is as good a place as any in the short term, but before too much more time goes by you might want to put a bit of distance between that dead bloke and yourself.”
“Yes, I guess that would be wise,” she said, looking slightly dazed.
“Would you like me to hail you a taxi?”
“Not just yet, I need to catch my breath.”
“Yeah, me too.” I wasn’t talking about catching my breath because of the shooting, I’d seen a lot of that, in and out of uniform. Waiting out a sniper was easy compared to dealing with a beautiful woman. A gunman only had one way of killing you, a beautiful woman could choose from dozens, and do it with a smile.
I hadn’t yet decided if ‘white gloves’ was one of these or not.
“If you don’t mind me asking, why did you do it?” My Tolstoy was light weight compared to what was unfolding in front of me so I put it down.
“It’s a long, boring story involving letters, photographs, husbands and broken vows. But, I want you to know that I came here to pay him.”
“Creeps like that never leave you be. He’d have bled you dry and then told your husband just so his next victim knew he meant business.”
“We had him in our home. He drank our whisky and ate my food. He seemed like a nice man. I thought I could reason with him, but as soon as I saw him, I knew. Even then I was reaching for the envelope, not the gun. He smiled at me and called me ‘sweety’. I put the envelope back and shot him. There was nothing else for it. He was never going to leave us alone. If he was just a lousy blackmailer, a creep out for a quick quid, I probably could have lived with it, but he smiled at me. He was enjoying my pain. No one treats me like that.”
“Remind me never to get you mad lady.”
“Do you have a car? Could you get me out of here?”
“I do, but it will take me a few minutes to retrieve it. Stay away from the window, the police will be here any minute. Russell Street is very close by. Wait five minutes and make your way to the back of the shop. Tell the girl you need to use the ladies room. I’ll be in the alley. I drive a grey Ford ’39 coupe. She’s old but she will get you out of here in one piece.”
I pulled my hat down over my eyes and resisted the urge to run to the car, but even at walking pace I had the old Ford at the back of what I thought was the book shop in time to see the lady in the red dress step into the laneway. Within moments she was in the car, beside me.
I’d been running on instinct up till then but now, in the relative silence, I was wondering why I was doing this.
There was a slight drizzle falling so I turned on the wipers.
If this went ‘pear shaped’ I was likely to be staring into a very bright light in the basement of Russell Street Police Headquarters before too long. I’d been rousted by the police a few times before, even been roughed up, but compared to my sergeant and the Japs, police were a bunch of light weights. Even so, I didn’t need the trouble.
After a few minutes it occurred to me that I was driving, but I didn’t know where.
“Where would you like to go?”
“Firstly, I need a drink, then I’d like to go home.”
“I can fix the first bit. There’s a bar I know where they don’t ask questions.”
Despite its name, Cafe What? was actually a bar.
It had been named that way for so long ago that no one could say with any accuracy how long it had been there, or who had come up with the name.
Everyone needs somewhere to go and the particular band of ‘everyone’ who went to Cafe What? were generally not welcome anywhere else. Being an outcast brings with it a fierce brand of loyalty towards other outcasts. No matter what happened at Cafe What?, when asked, everyone was deaf, mute and blind.
“If you need to go to the ladies room when we get there, just cross your legs and hold it.”
“Let’s just say that this isn’t the Windsor, and the last three people who went to the toilet here never came back. You usually need at least five tattoos to get into this place, but considering how good you look I think they will give you a pass. This place might come in handy if you need an alibi. Time is a fluid concept here, and for a large bunch of ‘tenners’ you could have arrived here any time you say.”
We drank something that had all the punch of a newborn kitten and then drank a couple more. She paid an exorbitant amount for the drinks and the rest of what was in that envelope for the certainty that she had been there all afternoon.
I drove her to the address she gave me, parked around the corner and took her inside.
“You’ve done all this for me and I don’t even know your name.”
“Names just get in the way. You might want to think about what you are going to say if the police come banging on your door.”
“I can think about that later, but for now I would like you to kiss me.”
I wasn’t taken completely by surprise. I am over twenty-one and this is 1957. The world spins a lot faster since the war ended.
I took off my hat and pushed her gently up against the wall. My lips were in working order and so were hers. I waited a polite amount of time before I pulled her dress up to her hips and put my hand between her thighs. She didn’t try and stop me and it is enough for you to know that I did what any good soldier would do in the circumstance. We moved around the house violently bumping each other for several hours. My legs felt like jelly by the time I walked out of her front door. I knew it was wise to park around the corner but now I was regretting it. My hat was the only part of me that didn’t hurt, but it took a week to get the smile off my face.
I don’t know why, and I don’t care, but the police never worked it out and the lady in red paid up for an alibi that she never needed.
The friend I was working for on that day asked me if I had seen what had happened and I gave him a smile. He got paid and so did I, and we went about our business.
I think about the lady in red from time to time and among the myriad of things I wonder about, one of them is why, throughout our torrid encounter, she never removed her white gloves.
It sounds like the perfect formula for a Saturday night in a big city, anywhere in the world.
It took him a few weeks but eventually he worked up the courage to ask me.
I’d been dropping hints all over the place but, as my brother tells me, blokes go a bit dim around a woman they fancy. They might be tigers in the boardroom but a pretty face seems to turn off most of their synapses, which is cute but a little frustrating.
A couple of Fridays had gone by and I was beginning to think that he was not going to ask.
We all headed for the elevators after a glass of ‘bubbly’, generously supplied by our employer.
It happened every Friday night.
The boss would supply a half decent bottle of Yarra Valley Pinot Noir and we would break out the plastic cups and toast the end of a productive week, or otherwise.
Our manager was the only one on any floor of the building who did this and we all wondered why. He was a competent manager, which was more than you could say for most of them, but he hardly ever spoke a word.
He left us alone to get on with our job but it would have been nice if we could have checked in with him from time to time, just to get a bit of reassurance that we were doing our job well; but I guess you cannot have everything.
As I said, we were standing by the elevators feeling happy, which was a mix of a small amount of alcohol and the promise of two whole days and three nights without having to think about work.
“Ruby’s has a pretty good dance floor.”
For a moment I wasn’t sure that this comment was directed at me, but it was. Ross was standing on my right shoulder looking every inch of his six foot one. His suit needed a press but that was to be expected as the jacket had probably spent the day thrown over the back of a chair.
All the females had coat hangers; the males had the back of a chair.
He smelled good and I wondered what he was going to say next, but first he needed to hear from me.
“I like Ruby’s, but I haven’t been there for a while. Is the bartender still cute?”
“I wouldn’t know, but we could find out together, if you like?”
“That sounds a lot like an invitation. Let me check my diary.”
I made a pretence of looking through the diary on my phone, knowing full well that I had nothing planned for the weekend. Ross looked a little worried so I didn’t string it out.
“I’m free tomorrow night, but Sunday I’m flying down to Rio so I will need my beauty sleep.”
“Tomorrow night would be great. Can I pick you up at 7?”
“Yes you can. Would you like me to tell you where I live.”
Ross blushed at his oversight and I gave him the address.
“So we are on then? Dinner, Dance and Show?”
“Let’s see how the dinner and the dancing goes before we commit to sitting in the dark together.” I was kidding but Ross blushed again, and he had only just regained his normal colour. I remember thinking that I was going to like this bloke.
I spent a lot of time picking out the right outfit.
I didn’t want to appear too eager, but I didn’t want to remind him of his favourite aunt either.
The blue dress made me look fat and the red one said ‘take me down the nearest alley and have your way with me’, and the yellow one was too attractive to bees.
In the end, I took a chance and chose a dress that said, ‘It Saturday night, we are on the town, let’s see where this thing goes.’
I don’t normally engage in ‘horizontal folk-dancing’ on a first date, but I wore matching black lace undies, just in case.
As it turned out, the dinner was perfect, the conversation was better than I could have expected, the dancing was unexpectedly good, and the show didn’t put me to sleep.
He kissed me goodnight and didn’t suggest that he come up for coffee.
I would have said yes if he had suggested it but it was okay that he didn’t push himself forward. He proposed a late lunch the next day and I was delighted to say yes.
I waited at Emilios for more than an hour, but he didn’t turn up.
The police are waiting out in the foyer and I have no idea what to tell them other than he didn’t call me and he hasn’t been into work for three days. When they ask me about him I’ll tell them what I told you, everything, with the single exception of the small package he asked me to hold for him.
No, I haven’t opened it, and no, I’m not going to.
I see a lot of small packages in my work, and I don’t have to open this one to know what is in it.
I’m trying to work out if I’m part of this, or if his interest in me was more than a way to hide the diamonds.
No one in the office connected him and me, and the police didn’t ask any questions that gave the impression that they knew about us.
Love, lust, attraction, call it what you will, it’s strange and it makes people do funny things.
If I was being used as part of his escape, I’m going to be mad, and disappointed, but I’ll get over it.
He trusted me with his ill-gotten gains and I’m hoping that when he reappears, it will be for me as much as for the boodle.
I guess I’m a bit of a romantic, or a bit of a fool; you can decide.
I’m 37 and I no longer have stars in my eyes.
I still have my figure and by my estimation, I have 1.9 million dollars in cut diamonds in my freezer.
Life is no longer boring.
I wonder what would have happened if I had said no to his ‘night out’?
There is something about the feeling of a real book, in your hands. The anticipation of what is to come. What will I use for a bookmark?
My first collection of short stories [it’s actually book 2 in the series, but let’s not get confused at this early stage] has been out in the world since late last year and it has been received by a thunderous silence, but that’s okay. It’s all part of my cunning plan to write a stunning body of work and be acclaimed posthumously and have my ancestors spend the proceeds when I’m gone……… no wait……. that was the nightmare I had last night……… forget that I said any of that.
It’s important to remember not to put your hand over the title of the book when taking promotional shots.
Some of my more dedicated readers will remember that I attempted to ‘crowd fund’ the expenses associated with the publishing of this anthology. So what did I learn from this experience? That’s a good question, and I’m glad that you asked. Firstly, I learned that people can be very generous even when they have very little, and asking for help, even when there are rewards involved, is very difficult indeed. I didn’t come close to reaching my target but a few hardy souls used my Pay Pal button and sent me donations anyway.
As any writer will tell you, the hardest part of publishing is the editing phase. In this case I had to find photos to go with some of the stories because I didn’t own the rights to the original illustrations.
I had more than 130 stories to choose from and this created a problem. I wanted the collection to have some sort of loose theme, and in the end I chose stories that demanded a sequel, and in some cases a third part. A few ‘one off’ stories made their way in there as well and in the end I was very happy with the stories that I had chosen.
I tried the collection out on a few friends and the response was favourable. Of course I knew that each individual story had received a good reception on WP, but the question was whether they would work together.
I sound like a proud dad, but I am pleased with every story in this book and I know that the people who choose to purchase it will get their money’s worth.
The book is available on all major platforms and from all major eBook retailers [all my books seem to do well on iBooks for some reason], but now it is available as a ‘proper book’. All you have to do is hit the link and it will take you to the printer’s site, and you can purchase a copy.
Above is a shot of me reading ‘Passerby’. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and I can recommend it as a sure cure for whatever ails you.
This is a photo of me when I travelled back in time. They didn’t have colour photographs back then so a black and white one will have to suffice. I’m not saying that you will be able to time travel if you buy this book but it is worth buying the book just on the off-chance. Good luck and good reading.
He knew exactly how they did it, he just couldn’t be bothered answering.
People talk to bartenders, all the time.
If you want to be good at this job you need to be well organised, thick skinned, reasonable at arithmetic and, like a psychologist, be a good listener.
Bartending isn’t a job, it’s a vocation — you are born to it. Joe is a fourth generation practitioner.
His great grandfather started it all, and by an interesting coincidence, it was at this very hotel.
He fell into the job after serving in the Australian army during the first Boer War in South Africa. Australia was not yet a country in its own right; not yet a federation.
When he arrived back in Australia he needed a job. A mate of his was working at the Lord Newry as a cook. By the time that Joe’s great grandfather arrived at the hotel his mate had quit over the question of mutton. The owner liked the mutton to be severely cooked, whereas the customers liked the mutton to be less abused. The chef thought that the owner was an idiot and in the manner of all chefs since time immemorial, he let him know in no uncertain terms. There were expletives and the occasional flying object, and as a result, dinner wasn’t served.
By the time that Joe arrived on the doorstep the owner was still angry and still without a chef.
“Can you cook?”
“For myself I can, but not for a room full of hungry drunks.”
“Then you’re no good to me.”
“Before you make up your mind, you need to know that I’m good at killing people and I’m good at pulling a beer. Being good at killing people might come in handy if things get rough around here, and a pub always needs a bloke who can pull a good beer.”
The owner gave it a bit of thought before answering.
“Fair enough. When can you start?”
“Now seems like a good time.”
“Away you go then.”
The owner could easily have changed his mind, so jumping straight in was a way to show that he was keen.
The job was never meant to be permanent; just something to tide him over until something better came along. ‘Tide him over’ turned into a family tradition.
Being a soldier helped. Crazy drunks were no problem, and customers who needed someone to talk to were just like soldiers filling in hours between moments of sheer terror.
Good listeners are a rare commodity in any walk of life.
Joe’s grandfather and the owner formed a type of friendship; a kind of respect.
Joe’s favourite story from ‘back then’ concerned a horse, a drunk and a pumpkin. All three ended up in the public bar during the busiest part of the day. The drunk was well known but no one recognised the horse or the pumpkin. The horse was very well behaved considering the close quarters, and the pumpkin disappeared without a trace. Joe’s great grandfather was remarkably calm throughout. A lesser man might have panicked and the consequences might have been deadly. He led the horse out through the front doors and tied it to a post close to the horse trough. There was a strong possibility that the horse had been stolen or ‘borrowed’ from somewhere nearby. Calling the police was always a last resort.
The pumpkin ended up on the tables of the poorest families in the area.
The rightful owner, while walking home, recognised the horse and led him home. The drunk bloke slept in the shed at the back of the pub. When he woke up he didn’t remember any of the previous night. Someone worked out that the drunk bloke carried the pumpkin for more than two miles. He found the horse in a yard, about two streets away.
The drunk-pumpkin-carrying-horse-thief- story had been told many times at Joe’s family gatherings. No doubt, the story has been embellished somewhat, but no one seems to care.
The next logical step for any bartender is to own his own pub. It didn’t happen for Joe’s great grandfather but his grandfather took his inheritance and built on it until he had enough to buy a Brewery lease, which was the next best thing to owning a pub in an era when Breweries owned most of the pubs in Melbourne.
Before he died he had accumulated enough to buy a pub outright.
Joe’s dad was a gambler and everything that the family owned went into the pockets of the local bookie.
‘Shirt sleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations’, as the saying goes.
Joe was aware of all the stories, and some made him sad and some made him glad but mostly they made him wonder; what might have been?
Life had gone full circle and here he was back at the Lord Newry Hotel. The area and the clientele had changed, Fitzroy Football club had moved away and into oblivion many years ago, so the Saturday game-day crowds no longer came into the pub.
Joe’s ‘listening ear’ was now employed on inner-city professionals, but people don’t change, no matter what their economic status. Love and money; the eternal source of happiness and pain.
I don’t necessarily want to be alone, but I do like being left alone.
I find it difficult to understand people who constantly need company.
Every now and then, there appears in the papers a story about some soul who passed away in their own home not to be discovered for several weeks. The community is concerned that such a thing could happen. ‘Who are we becoming?’ shouts the headline. ‘Quiet suburban disgrace,’ bleats another. Full page articles examine the social significance of lonely people. For a week or so countless people discuss the breakdown of society and bemoan our lack of contact with our neighbours.
I, on the other hand, make a mental note of the suburb and add it to a list of likely places to live. I don’t wish anything distasteful should happen to my neighbours but I don’t particularly want to get to know them either. I’m sure that they have enough friends, and I know that I have.
I have a wife who loves me and two teenage children who are bemused by me. They ask for money but rarely listen when I speak, but I don’t blame them, because generally speaking, I don’t have much to say that would interest anyone but me.
My wife and children fuss and fret and bang about the house and when it all gets to be too much to bare I announce that I’m going for a walk in the woods to do some painting. No one hears me because no one is listening, so off I go. The painting implements are a ruse; an excuse to do what I need to do; be by myself. The umbrella is heavy to carry but it does come in handy when I feel like dozing off. I also carry a sandwich that I made myself; cheese and pickles, as well as a half bottle of red wine. A ‘door stop’ sandwich and a glass of wine makes for a deliciously sleepy state of mind. It doesn’t last; nothing ever does, but that’s okay. I can come back. Either to this spot or to one just like it.
The forest will wait for me, as will the creatures who live here.
In the wider world I have to play a role, but here, I can be me, and I like my company, and I like being left alone.
“I’ve been working for Charlie Varick for about four years, but I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
The question came out of nowhere and it really pissed me off. It’s a job, what difference does it make? When I go home I leave work at work.
“What difference does it make? He’s a fucking private eye and he uses you as a decoy.”
“I’m his secretary and the decoy stuff only happens every now and then. Mostly, it isn’t dangerous, and mostly I answer the phones and make appointments. Of course, there is coffee and dry cleaning but mostly it’s answering phones.”
My parents were in town for a couple of days and I was glad to see them; well ‘glad’ is probably too strong a word, but it was good to see them. Parents should be kept at a distance that is directionally proportional to the amount of shit they put you through as a kid. Mine weren’t that bad but using this formulathey should be at least 427 kilometres away at all times.
I’m 26 years old, gorgeous and leggy with long black wavy hair that men hold on to when they are making love to me. Not that there are that many of them.
I like men, just in small doses.
Not small in the way you are thinking, just small in the sense of time I have to spend in close proximity. Charlie’s different, but he is old, at least 47 years old, and he is taken, but he treats me like I’m someone. Like I count in the grand scheme of things. I guess he is so relaxed because he is old, and old people don’t worry so much about stuff.
My dad was pretty wound up but I know it was my mum who put him up to it.
“We just want you to be safe; safe and happy. That’s all your mother and I have ever wanted.”
“I know dad.” Things seemed to be calming down now that the shouting had stopped.
It was still early, but hotel restaurants tend to wind down around 9:30pm, and it was now way past that, so we had the room to ourselves except for the girl at the bar and the waiter who was doing a little shuffle that was morse code for ‘they don’t pay me past 10:00pm even if you are still here drinking coffee, and I have a home to go to, and my dog misses me’.
It was a complicated dance.
My father, mother and I talked about nothing for another fifteen minutes before my dad signed the bill and they went up to their room. I stood and watched as they walked up the staircase. My mother clung to the handrail as though it was saving her from a sinking ship. My dad negotiated the stairs easily enough because he never used elevators unless he absolutely had to.
I asked him about it once and he said that it was his small concession to keeping fit but I think it had more to do with the stories that his father brought home.
His dad was a fireman and he would be called out to rescue cats and people, and sometimes he was expected to free people who had been trapped; sometimes these people had been trapped in elevators and he delighted in terrifying his children with stories of people who had gone insane after being trapped in an elevator for six hours.
“One bloke tried to chew his arm off, which seemed pointless to me. It wasn’t as though they had him in handcuffs; he was trapped in a lift for fuck sake. Now if he had tried to eat through the door, that I could understand, but his arm; that’s just nuts.”
I sat on the overstuffed couch in the hotel’s foyer and tried to collect my thoughts.
I still had half an hour before I was to meet Charlie at Bar Alfredo on Little Collins street. I walked the short distance up Collins and turned left onto Exhibition. Little Collins was the first on the left and the bar was about two hundred metres down.
This end of the street had been disrupted by building activities for nearly two years, which made it difficult to negotiate on foot, or by car. The street was already very narrow and its name gave the hint. ‘Little’ Collins street was originally an access road for the rear of the larger and more grand edifices on Collins street. Deliveries would be made and tradesmen would be admitted.
It was best to keep the grubby people out of sight.
These days the ‘Little’ streets were home to trendy bars and eateries as well as exclusive apartments and the occasional clothing shop.
The footpath on both sides is extremely narrow and I was forced to step out onto the road to let a large rude man pass by. He looked vaguely familiar but I was not sure why until I remembered that I had not seen him before but he was exactly how Charlie had described the man I was supposed to ‘distract’.
“He’s big, about 40 years old, always wears a dark suit with a red handkerchief in his top pocket, and he smells like lemons. He will be sitting at the bar because he always sits at the bar. Third stool from the far end as you come in the front door.”
I had the feeling that these instructions and this description were going to go to waste.
In order to get to Bar Alfredo I first had to walk past a narrow laneway and at this time of night the laneway was in complete darkness. Being a female living in the big city, I avoided dark laneways because I wanted to go on ‘living in the big city’.
As I looked into the darkness I saw Charlie lying in a pool of his own blood.
I say ‘saw’, but that’s not what I mean. I didn’t see him with my eyes, I saw him in a vision. The dark laneway was like a large projector screen and on it I saw Charlie’s exact location, as though it were bright daylight.
I used my phone to light the way to the spot that I knew Charlie would be lying. He was behind some boxes with a single knife wound in the middle of his chest.
I would love to say that he lived long enough to look into my eyes and tell me who had killed him. I would love to tell you what his last words were and that he smiled before he died, but I can’t.
He was gone by the time I got to him; warm but gone.
I sat next to him for what seemed like forever and thought about my life and wondered what Charlie was thinking when the large man in the dark suit took his life. I wondered what my life was going to be like from now on. I wondered if my mum and dad had gone to sleep yet.
I don’t remember ringing anyone but I must have, because an ambulance arrived closely followed by the police.
The weather was warm so I was wondering why there was so much fog around and why did my voice sound funny, and why was the police officer mumbling.
When I came to I was sitting on the back step of the ambulance with an oxygen mask on my face. A young policeman was trying to get my attention and the ambo was trying to get him to give me a break.
“Give her a minute mate, she’s had a rough night.”
The policeman ignored him. To him, civilians were annoying. They kept passing out or screaming or generally being uncooperative. He just wanted to get a statement so he could get back on patrol. The homicide detectives would be along very soon and they would shoo him away like an unwanted blow-fly.
“Miss? Miss? How did you know he was in that alley? Did you hear something? Did you see anyone come out of the alley?”
I was trying to decide which question to answer first when it occurred to me that this was all very strange.
“I had a vision, which was weird. I don’t normally get visions at night-time. I always get my visions in the morning.”
The police officer stopped asking me questions after that and he and the ambo were looking at each other with the strangest expression on their faces. I don’t think that they believed me, and I wanted them too. This was a first for me.
A pair of plain-clothed detectives arrived and scooped me up and headed me towards their car but before I got in I gave it one last try to convince my interrogator.
“I really did see him lying there, in the dark, which was weird. I always get my visions in the morning.”
I never wipe away old book dust, I just let it sit there, on my fingertips.
Obviously, books hold the memories of the person who wrote them but there are other kinds of memories there as well; those that are deposited by the people who have owned, handled and loved these books.
They leave their mark.
Sometimes as notes in a margin, or the creasing of a page corner, a coffee stain or a small tear. Some books have hand written dedications and some have names inscribed.
‘To William, on the occasion of his ninth birthday.’
‘To Penelope, Christmas 1958. Love uncle John and aunt Mary.’
I was fourteen when I discovered that books held secrets. I thought that everyone knew how to unlock those secrets but I soon found out that I was wrong.
Billy MacDonald was my best friend; still is in fact, but the reason that I mention him is because he was the first person I mentioned it to.
When I had finished my description he looked at me as though I had beaten his cat to death with a large, fat south American banjo player.
He asked me if that really happened or was I just making it up, ‘as usual’. I quickly opted for ‘just making it up as usual’. This decision had a lot to do with the look in his eyes.
I never told anyone about it again; until now.
I did well at school and at university but studying in the library made things difficult, as you can imagine. I often had to set an alarm because I was unable to detect the passage of time. If the alarm didn’t work I could always rely on the librarian to jolt me back. She rarely asked me what I was doing or why I drifted off. I guess librarians see a lot of weird stuff and one more crazy guy didn’t make that much of a difference.
In the end I had to resort to wearing gloves.
The plastic disposable kind were useless and made me look like I was permanently in an episode of CSI.
Winter was easier because no one took any notice of gloves but the rest of the time I spent a lot of time saying, “Sensitive skin. Paper sets off my Psoriasis.” In the end I had a sign made and I would hold it up or simply point to it in a disinterested way.
Pretty much everyone thought I was weird and the gloves were the least of it but no matter how weird you may be there is always someone who will love you.
Catherine Margaret Lanier, or ‘Cat’ for short, thought that I was mildly handsome, and strangely interesting.
For my part I thought she was way too beautiful to be interested in anyone like me. There was probably at least four points separating us on the ‘attractiveness scale’.
She had cool friends and my friends all felt that she was too good for me and should instead, be with them. I had a sneaking suspicion that they were right, and I resolved to make the most of my good fortune while it lasted. She was incredibly good at lovemaking and I hoped that she would not notice that I was constantly running to keep up. Amazingly, she didn’t get sick of me or find out how inept at life I am, and she hung around; for a very long time.
We both graduated from university and she went on to carve out a successful career in medicine.
Despite my qualifications, all I ever wanted to do was work around old books. Cat understood, which was just as well because working in secondhand book stores never paid the rent. It barely paid for the petrol to drive to the job. It gota bit better when I got jobs with a succession of Antiquarian book sellers, and my current job, which is at the top of Collins street in Melbourne, means that I can leave the car at home and catch the number 112 tram to work. It takes less than an hour and I always get a seat. I carry a book with me and rarely am I asked why I am wearing gloves.
No one ever says anything to me at work about the gloves. The boss thinks that I approach my work very professionally because I supply my own white cotton gloves. Most of the books that we sell are not that expensive and only a few are museum quality but the gloves do add an air of rarity to the establishment.
Back in our university days we did what all students did at that time; we experimented with all sorts of substances but Cat and I agreed that nothing compared to the experience of touching a very old book.
Cat does not have my ability, and to be honest, I haven’t come across anyone else who has. That’s not to say that there isn’t someone out there, it’s just that I haven’t come across them as yet.
I can take Cat with me by simply holding her hand; without gloves, of course.
When I was a child my parents considered me to be very easy to look after. I was ‘self entertaining’. I played in my room for hours at a time, or in my father’s well stocked library.
My father had inherited his father’s book collection and some of the books went back even further than my great grandfather. I doubt that my father had read many of the books, but I have. The books in that library are no more magical than books in any library, but I didn’t know that.
The truth was that I’m the magical one, but I guess that word ‘magical’ gets worked to death so let’s say, ‘insightful’.
If I touch a book with my bare hands I am transported to the world and the time of the author.
Sometimes I am whisked off to the world that a previous owner of the book inhabited.
I’ve found myself in Dickens’ study and the Bronte’s drawing room. Wells wrote most of his books while sitting in his garden and I’ve sat right next to him. These days no one remembers much about Anthony Trollope and he is best remembered as the bloke who invented the post box. He wrote most of his huge collection of novels while travelling to work by train in Victorian England. I sat next to him on those trains on many an occasion.
Sometimes I simply see a story unfold in much the way that you do at the cinema, but often I am right in the middle of the action. It does not seem to matter that I am not dressed appropriately, no on seems to notice. The authors and the previous owner always greet me as though they have known me all their lives. I feel loved and accepted; what more could any man ask for?
There are times when it is very difficult to break the bonds and return to the here and now, and if it were not for Cat I think I would be tempted to stay far longer than would be good for me. But, I always return to her and she seemed to understand my need to travel in this unique manner.
I took her to spend some time with Napoleon Hill when she was feeling a bit down. He’s an awesome bloke and after talking with him for a few hours, Cat was feeling much better and we returned home happily.
I could continue on for ages and ages just describing the adventures I have had and the people I have met but now it is time for you to get some sleep. It’s your birthday tomorrow and I’m pretty sure that you will find some beautiful, dusty old books among your presents. I remembered that you said you liked stories about Egypt.
Turning eighteen is still a big deal, even in this ultra modern world. I have tried to treat all my grandchildren equally but you know that you have always been my favourite. Your parents would never let me tell you about my ability and I had to respect their wishes until now. You are all grown up and you deserve to know that your ability is a gift and not a curse. What you do with it is up to you, but it is your right to choose. If I had the right I would say, go out and find someone you can share your life and your abilities with. Someone who will love you and travel with you through life.
That’s my story and now I have to go back and sit with your grandma. She doesn’t always know who I am these days but when we ‘travel’ she is always her old self and I’ve got a particularly good book set in Scotland, and we have always wanted to see Scotland.
It was an honest question delivered by an honest friend, but I was tempted to give a cheeky answer.
When I was a little girl I preferred playing with the boys. Girls were okay but the boys did stuff, went places, got dirty; dogs followed them around because they knew that wherever boys were there would be adventure.
It wasn’t long before I noticed the anatomical difference between my male playmates and myself. In the summer we took off our clothes when we went swimming in the creek. This minimised the amount of disapproving looks we got from our mother’s regarding damp muddy clothing.
In our ‘birthday suits’ I noticed that everyone around me had ‘a little extra’, and in some cases, a lot extra. Boldly, I asked the boys what that ‘little extra’ was called. I got all the answers that you would expect but one of the older boys, who went to a posh school, told me not to listen to the crude boys, the correct name was ‘a penis’. I thought he said ‘happiness’, and come to think of it, under the right circumstances, I was right.
That night, after a bath and my favourite dinner, my mum put me to bed and read me a story, ‘Rufus and the mysterious case of the missing dog biscuits’. I was exhausted after playing all day, but as usual, I didn’t want the day to end. I engaged my mother in conversation, even though I was having difficulty keeping my eyes open. She indulged me because she knew that the sandman would win this battle sooner rather than later.
Before I drifted off I asked one last question. “Mum, why don’t I have a penis?” There was a long moment of silence during which I thought I may have fallen asleep, but eventually my mother said, “Don’t you worry darling, when you grow up you can have as many as you want.”
I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant but her answer was strangely reassuring, and I can picture her now delivering that line with a tiny smile on her face.
Mostly the boys accepted me for my daring and courage but sometimes, mostly during those swimming sessions, one of the boys would kid me about my lack of appendage. I simple delivered my mother’s famous line and a look of bemusement would spread across their face and things would return to normal.
It was probably then I learned that the world would leave you alone as long as you had a comeback line that sounded vaguely plausible, with a twist of confusion.
“Seriously Elena, how are you going to cope without a man?” My friend’s question was more urgent because I seemed to be in my own world. I was; I was remember my wonderful mother and my exciting playmates, but now I had to come up with an answer, or she would not leave me alone.
“I do most of the things that a man does around the house. I fix the lights when the bulbs blow out. I sort out the tradesmen when we need them. I do the shopping, cleaning, ironing, and cooking. What do I need a man for?”
My friend smiled and blushed, and before she could speak I said, “And for that, I have a large supply of batteries.”
“That’s not exactly what I meant, Elena, but it does bring up a good point. What about friendship, companionship. Someone to be with in your old age?”
When I replied, there was fire in my eyes.
“I’ll attract someone who doesn’t give me a backhander just because I looked at him when he was angry with work. I’ll choose someone who doesn’t frighten me and likes to share their day without a hint of condescension. A partner who will share the load, not dump it on me. I’m awake for the first time in more than thirty years and I’m not going to waste the experience. I’ve got places to go and people to see. I’m going to listen and learn and I’m not going to say no when life says, ‘come this way’. I’m going to learn how to heal others because that is what I was sent to this earth to do. I know this now, and while I have breath in my body I’m going to follow my dream. The universe can have me and I will ride the waves with a smile on my face, and a glass of red in one hand and chocolate in the other.”
It occurred to me that this was the first time I had said these words out loud; the first time I had shared my excitement and frustration at my past. How could I have let it go on for so long? Children, of course. We do whatever is needed to give our kids a stable home, but sometimes, just sometimes it would be better if we didn’t hang around and watch the life-force drain out of us.
I was lucky. I discovered Nick. Well I didn’t exactly discover him, he was always there, but I found him. A friend suggested that I go and speak to him. “Great,” I thought, “just what this bloke needs, another middle aged housewife bleating about her boring life.” And, at first, that was what it was; me bleating away. Amazingly, he didn’t fall asleep during our sessions, and slowly he began to show me that there was something very special inside me.
That was all it took.
I was ready, and the teacher appeared.
I unfurled my wings and dried them in the sun; then I flew away.