The sign on the farm gate read, “FREE….. NOW YOUR COMMUNITY IS FREE OF FENELLA GOODMAN”
The lettering had been applied in a hurry, and the paint had run, making the sign seem simultaneously frantic and calming.
I didn’t know who this person was or why the sign maker was so pleased to see her go, but I was intrigued.
The road I’d driven down was barely wide enough for two cars to pass without rearranging bodywork. Still, some optimistic council worker had painted a white line down the middle of the bitumen.
My sat-nav had sent me down here, and I made a personal note to beat it to death with the cricket bat I carried in the boot. This was the third wild goose chase I’d been on this month.
My job is annoying enough without constantly getting lost.
The mobile signal strength is a bit weak, which isn’t all bad. A low signal means the office can’t annoy me as much as they usually do.
I was told that this small town has one of the best regional hotels in the state.
A top hotel and a one-hat restaurant somewhere between nowhere and somewhere else. I remember my eyes lit up when the job appeared on my phone.
Usually, jobs in outback Australia mean I’ll be sleeping in my car to avoid the deadbeat motel where kangaroos bang on your door in the middle of the night. But, at least then, I get to keep the hotel allowance.
Tonight’s stay is going to cost them a fortune.
I love cashed-up ‘tree changers’ with chef skills.
It wasn’t late enough to knock off, but it was deep into the afternoon.
I spend most of my time in the city and suburbs. They have a feel about them, but being out here, not far from the middle of nowhere, reminds you that you live in a vast, open, and hostile country.
If you take it for granted, it will bite you in the arse.
I’d just finished thinking this when something long, brown, and deadly slithered through the grass. I resisted the urge to thump it with something and probably get myself bitten and die.
Live and let live.
That deadly bugger lives here, and I don’t.
A gust of wind whipped up the dust, and I was reminded that city dust and country dust don’t smell the same.
So much of knowing where you are is olfactory.
The narrow road I was on didn’t stop me from turning around, so I did. My soon-to-be deceased sat-nav said the town was a few kilometres east, so I didn’t have to drive into the setting sun.
“Any idea who Fenella Goodman is,” I said to the bloke behind the bar.
“Sorry mate, I’ve only been here a few weeks,” said the barman, and I knew he was lying. Why lie? What did he have to lose if he’d only been here a few weeks?
Bugger him. I’ll find out eventually.
The woman at the hotel reception was friendly. She was medium height, had nice tits, good smile, but her eyes said she was not sure. Not sure of what, I wondered. Not sure of me?
There was a loose thread near the pocket of her blazer, and I really wanted to reach over and pull it, but it had been a long day and a long drive, and I didn’t want to get slapped before dinner.
My room turned out to be comfortable in a 1990s kind of way, which was okay by me. Once it got light again, I’d have a view of the main street. As it was, the street was quiet and bathed in that orange glow you used to get from street lights in areas where fog was a problem. My grandma’s house was on Brunswick Street and trams rattled by saturated in orange light. I imagined that god’s waiting room had trams and orange light, but I was a kid then.
A pretty young waitress showed me to a table for two, which wasn’t at the back of the restaurant near the toilets, which it would have been if this place was on Lygon street. City eateries hate lone diners. I’m as important as anyone else in the back of beyond. Either that or the waitress had not been ‘front of house’ for too long.
“Have you worked in hospitality for long?” I said.
“No. This is my first job,” she said, and I glanced over my shoulder at the table down the back, near the toilets where I would have been sitting.
“You don’t happen to know who Fenella Goodman is, or was,” I said.
“She died, I think. But I didn’t know her, she was old,” said the very young waitress.
“How old?” I said.
“Ancient. Probably forty five or even older.”
Inside, I was rolling my eyes.
“Do you know how she died?” I said.
“Nuh. What would you like to eat?”
I looked around the half-full room. Most diners were well into their main course. I vaguely remembered that the chef was known for steaks. I didn’t bother angsting about the prices. I wasn’t paying for any of this.
“Porterhouse. Medium to well done. Onions very well done. Beans on the side, lots of butter and coarse salt if you have it,” — they did.
“Something to drink?”
“Scotch. The most expensive one you have. Make it a double with water on the side,” I said, and I thanked her as she closed her notebook.
No iPad ordering out this way.
“I’ll ask the kitchen hands if they know that lady,” she said as she walked back to the kitchen.
“Fenella Goodman,” I said, and I enunciated unnecessarily. Then, finally, I saw her mouth the name as she pushed the two-way door.
Interestingly, she didn’t say she would ask the chef. Maybe she was frightened of him, or perhaps she was bright enough to know that the people who get their hands dirty for a living know stuff. Either way, a scruffy twenty-something bloke approached my table when I’d finished my steak.
“You were asking about Fenella?” said the young man. His demeanour was a bit stooped, a bit apologetic.
“Yes, I was, but I don’t want to get you into trouble with chef,” I said because I understand how kitchens work.
“No. No worries,” he said as he glanced back at the kitchen door, “can’t stay long though.”
“Sit,” I said, motioning at my spare chair.
He thought about it for a moment, then sat more like an older person than a young man.
“I don’t want to speak ill of the dead,” he said, but he did.
This bloke had wanted to spill his soul to someone, and here I was, ready to listen.
Twenty minutes later, a head stuck around the kitchen door and motioned frantically to my source of information.
“Better go, John. I would not want to be responsible for you getting the sack.”
John got up, stared at my tablecloth with the evidence of a meal well eaten and moved towards the kitchen.
“Thanks for listening,” he said without turning around.
He looked like a man heading for the gallows.
After what he told me, I wasn’t surprised by his demeanour.
Every town or suburb has one, but Fenella seems to have taken the art of destroying lives into an art form.
The call I put in with the front desk came through at 5:30am, a full hour before I asked for it. So what is it with country people? Do they think that life before midday is more important?
I staggered around, had a shower, dressed and packed. I checked out, left my bag at the front counter, and waited in the dining room for breakfast to start at 7:30am.
Breakfast was excellent. Country people might wake up too early, but they make a great breakfast.
There was still a bit of yoke stuck to my chin when I threw my bag in the boot of my car. I noticed it when I checked the rearview mirror.
The morning air was still, and the sun was just licking the tops of the buildings. I put on my sunglasses as the address I’d been given was to the east.
The address I needed was only a few minutes from the mysterious farm gate.
The property owner looked like he’d been up for ages.
I introduced myself, and the reason I was there was apparent. The remnants of his burnt-out barn were at the top of the hill. A few uprights and a pile of charred timber were topped by a layer of rusty corrugated iron.
“When do I get my money?” said the farmer. He scratched at his bare arm as he spoke. His dungarees were dusty, and his shirt had seen better days.
“Once my assessment goes in you should hear within a week or two. Do you have a copy of the police report or the fire brigade assessment?” I said.
The farmer, Joseph William Brown, looked at me as though I’d asked for naked photos of his wife.
“Police came out the next day, mumbled something about local kids being a problem and left. Didn’t give me anything on paper. Local station might have something.”
“I’ll check,” I said.
“Fire brigade didn’t come until it was all over. Hosed down the embers and told me to give them the name of my insurance company, otherwise I’d have to pay.”
“That was thoughtful of them,” I said.
“Bunch of fuckin’ cowboys,” said Joseph William Brown.
“Any idea how it started?” I said.
“The local cowboys said they thought it was probably spontanious combustion in the hay stack.”
“Hay stack up that end?” I said, pointing.
One end of the barn had been reduced to a fine ash and was still warm even though it had been days since the fire.
I wandered through the wreckage and measured a few things, but I’d already decided.
Most times (but not always), if the fire is deliberately lit by the owner, they light the fire close to the main doors so they don’t get trapped. However, this fire had started at the other end of the barn.
I wrote a few notes and took a lot of photos. The farmer made me a coffee, and I headed for my car.
“It has nothing to do with your fire, but did you know Fenella Goodman?” I said as I climbed into my car.
Mr Brown started at me before answering.
“She’s dead and I know you should not speak ill of the dead, but our town is a better place with her not in it.”
“Wow. That’s heavy. What did she do to deserve that?”
“Not for me to say.”
I drove away from town and found the farm gate with the sign.
Someone had tied flowers to the gate. People usually do that to honour the person who has died, but I don’t think this is what that was about.
I worked out that the office would pay for one more night without giving me a hard time, so I told the front desk I’d stay one more night.
I showed my credentials to the officer who was manning the desk at the police station.
“Insurance assessor eh?” said the constable.
“Yes. It’s about the barn fire at the Brown farm a few days ago. Do you have a report I can look at?”
The constable sighed and dived under the desk. A few moments passed, and I thought he may have escaped through a trapdoor when he popped up with a form in his hand.
“Can I get a copy of that?” I said.
The constable sighed a slightly larger sigh and disappeared through a small door. The sound of a copy machine permeated the paper-thin wall.
“While I have you, can I ask you about Fenella Goodman?”
“Why do you want to know? Nothing to do with you.”
I fished in my pockets and brought out all the candy bars I’d filched from my room’s mini bar. I put them neatly on the counter.
The constable understood my gambit.
I expected him to make a selection, but he cleared the counter and put them all in his pockets. Then, he raised his eyes and stared at me like policemen do. I think they do a particular course that teaches them not to blink.
“Bad news, that woman,” he said.
“Bad news how?” I said.
“Bad, bad. The sort of bad you expect from a bloke who doesn’t give a fuck about anyone or anything. Most people learn a thing or two after we bang them up a few times. Not this bitch. She threatened people just for sport. People would walk the long way around just to avoid her. She knifed the local grocer because she reckoned he short changed her. The pub black-listed her two days after she moved here. The pub has had several mysterious fires over the years. We know it was her, but we can’t prove it. She’s been gaoled three times for assault, but it didn’t make any difference to her behaviour. She killed a friend of hers in a drunken brawl, but her husband wouldn’t testify against her. Said she wasn’t there at the time. We knew that it was only a matter of time before he got sick of being knocked around and turned on her.”
“Well, did he?” I said, and I realised I sounded like a curious kid.
“Didn’t get a chance to. He drowned while they were swimming together during that heat wave we had a while back. A witness helped to drag him out of the water, but he couldn’t be revived. Witness said that his drowning wasn’t suspicious, just bad luck. Bad luck, my arse. She offed him for sure. She was due in court a few days after she was killed. I guess someome had had enough.”
“How did she die?” I asked, but I was sure I didn’t want to know.
“She was walking into town along the road. Shotgun blast. Bugger ran over her for good measure. She terrorised a lot of people so the list of suspects is as long as a roll of dunny paper. Probably never work out who did it unless they confess.”
I wanted to say something, but nothing came out.
“A local, a quiet bloke, killed himself the same day she was murdered. We can’t find a link between them but most people feel that he snapped and did her in. I’m not so sure.”
“What about the sign on the gate?” I said.
“You’ve seen that, have you? It’s been looked at, but there’s no way to identify the handwriting — all in capitals. And the paint is everyday common.”
I felt I’d gotten my chocolate bars’ worth, so I said thank you and left.
I see all sorts of strange behaviour in my job, or at least the aftermath of behaviour, but this takes the cake.
This woman had been terrorising her community for years, and it took a quiet bloke with a shotgun to end her reign of terror.
And what about the person who owned that farm gate? What had Fenella Goodman done to him? And why paint that sign and put it there? Why not post it in town somewhere prominent?
Was there something personal between the gunman and this property owner?
I’m unlikely to find out.
I went to the fire brigade office, did my little ‘do you have any paperwork’ dance and slept soundly that night.
I emailed my report the following day at 5:45am, not long after my wake-up call and promptly went back to bed.
The housemaid woke me again at 9:05am.
I’d missed breakfast, but there was a good cafe in town and eggs and mushrooms were consumed. The coffee was good.
I paid the bill and asked one last question.
“What did Fenella Goodman do to you?” I said to the owner. Her face turned grey.
“You don’t want to know,” she said, and she was right.
This trip was over.
I put on my Beatles CD and headed my car toward Melbourne.
I drove without taking a break, except to relieve myself by the side of the road.
It was dark when I arrived home, and my neighbour saw me and delivered my dog, who was delighted to see me.
I gave my neighbour a bottle of Scotch, our agreed payment method for regular dog sitting.
We sat on her verandah and watched the stars while putting a dent in the bottle of Scotch.
My dog curled up at my feet.
“So how did this trip go?” my dog sitter said.
“You don’t want to know,” I said, and I meant it.
1958 was a good year for us.
My work was getting noticed, and Scotty and I were living in an apartment once part of a huge old house. Ground floor with a tiny garden inhabited by weeds that neither of us could bring ourselves to pull out. There were gaps in the wrought iron fence through which a parade of local cats and dogs would come and visit.
I wrote at all hours, but mostly at night or very early.
I’m not a big fan of mornings — it’s against my religion, or that’s how Scotty would phrase it.
On those occasions when I woke up early with words spilling out of me, I’d take a break and eat breakfast with Scotty before she would go off to be a nurse in search of a patient.
Her work kept us going while I found my feet. She did it with grace and charm and never a moment of recrimination.
She was a better writer than me, but I couldn’t get her to pursue it.
“I’m happy being a nurse and I’m happy being your wife.”
I was living in a future where I could carry the financial burden, and she could take it easy.
Scotty was living in the present, “We must live in this time now and have every moment of it.”
She didn’t say it exactly that way, but Mrs Hemingway’s words are close enough.
The couple living in the apartment next door were glamorous and mysterious. I made up stories about them, and Scotty would laugh and say that they were probably spies or jewel thieves.
I would say that spies and jewel thieves didn’t live in a converted mansion for six dollars a week.
We invited them for dinner one night, and they came immaculately dressed at least half an hour early.
It was cold that day, so I was working off our kitchen table, not sitting in the garden. I gathered my papers and put my typewriter on the kitchen cupboard as they wafted in.
Our kitchen/dining space was tiny, and it took a bit of inelegant dancing to move around the room with four adults in attendance.
We were young and didn’t worry about our less than wealthy existence.
Our guests were relaxed and unfazed by our chaotic kitchen.
Two large multi-paned doors gave us a view of our tiny garden with the wrought iron fence, giving the room the illusion of more space.
Our kitchen was warm because of the roast in the oven. Scotty can cook, and her roast lamb could tame the most unruly of souls.
We ate and drank and laughed, and the boys did the dishes. The girls whispered among themselves while occasionally looking at us in our aprons.
Our conversation was mostly about sports and work, but he didn’t give much away, and I didn’t push. Something about ‘acquisitions’.
He asked about my writing, and I was equally vague. But, of course, people always ask to be polite but rarely want to know more, which is okay with me.
After too much wine (the bottle they brought cost more than our dinner set), we said good night. They walked, arm in arm, the few steps to their apartment door. We stood and watched, and before they went inside, they turned and looked at us. She had her hands in her coat pockets, and he was smoking a cigarette I had not seen him light. We stood and stared at each other until his cigarette was finished.
They seemed to be silently summing us up, and I guess we were doing the same.
Scotty was in bed by the time I got there, and she cuddled into me as I put my arm around her.
“That was a good night,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said.
“It might be the wine,” I said, “but I’m wondering why they are living here, next to us. Everyone else in these appartments are either on their way up…”
“Like us,” said Scotty.
“… or on the way down,” I said.
“Spies or jewel thieves?” said Scotty.
“Worse than that — bankers,” I said.
Checks from major magazines arrived with continuing regularity, and my agent found a publisher for my book. I’d lost count of the number of rejections I’d received. Still, I guess my agent had more leverage since the string of magazine articles.
Someone pushed a card under our door. An invitation to a ‘going away’ party at the little Italian restaurant on the main road – red and white checked table cloths and tiny little lamps on each table.
We went there when our budget would allow — the food made you believe that life could be worth living.
Our stylish neighbours were moving across the country and wanted to say goodbye.
It was a small gathering, and apart from having a good time (the wine seemed much better than usual), we didn’t think much about it. Tenants came and went as their circumstances or relationship status changed. This was just another one of those times.
I’d been writing most of the morning, but now I was lying on what we laughingly called grass playing with a black and white Cocker Spaniel of indeterminate ownership when they came to our front door.
It wasn’t the first time police officers had disturbed our tranquillity— this isn’t an upmarket part of town.
Usually, it was something like, “Did you notice a removal van here over the last few days?”
“Yes. We thought the people in number five (quiet and heavy smokers) were moving out. It isn’t uncommon here. People come and go.”
“Wife seems to have moved out while he was at work and taken everything with her,” said the young policeman who probably would have prefered to be somewhere else.
“Shit,” I remember saying.
“Yeah,” said the policeman, clearing the wax from his ear with his pen.
This time there were two of them, and from my vantage point, lying in the grass staring through the fence, I didn’t recognise their uniforms.
“Sorry about that, the door sticks,” I said, and the insignia on their uniforms said ‘Federal Police’.
“And you are?” said the male officer.
“Trying my best?” I said, and the female officer smiled, despite herself.
“The couple living nextdoor,” said the male officer, ignoring my comment.
“Moved out,” I said.
“Did you know them?”
“He was good with a teatowel and she was elegant. Apart from that we just said hello. We had them in for dinner once and they invited us to their goodbye party.”
“Did they say where they were going?”
“Western Australia, I think. Maybe Fremantle, maybe Perth?”
I cooked dinner that night — lasagne. Pretty good, if I do say so myself.
After a second helping, I put my dishes in the sink — her turn to wash, mine to dry.
“So, how did your day go, dear?” I said, and she could tell from the tone in my voice that something was up.
“I managed to stop a doctor from killing someone,” she said.
“So, same as usual?” I said.
“How was your day, dear?” she said.
“I thought you would never ask,” I said.
“Let’s hear it.”
“Well, there were these two police officers, and not the usual kind either. These were Feds,” I said.
“I’ve never seen one of those. Do they smell nice?” Scotty said.
“Nice enough, but that’s not important right now. What do think they wanted?”
“To sell you tickets to the Policeman’s Ball?”
“Do policemen still have balls? I asked.
“I hope so,” she said with a smile.
“Anyway, only one of the police officers had balls, but I digress.”
“And you are doing it beautifully,” she said, putting the large plates in the cupboard.
“You know our recently relocated stylish neighbours?”
“Well, it turns out that your guess of ‘spies’ was wrong,” I said.
“JEWEL THIEVES?” said my excited wife.
“Kind of. They took pretty much whatever they could get their hands on, but mostly jewels.”
I finished putting the cutlery away, went into our bedroom, and emerged with a small box I found lying around at the secondhand store. It was the perfect size.
I handed my amazing wife the box.
She gave me that look that made my heart melt.
She opened the box. The ring lay on the blue velvet lining. The stone was huge and green in a platinum setting.
“I was saving this for your birthday, but you might as well have it now. Someone is going to work out where it came from and they’ll probably ask for it back.”
Scotty turned pale.
“Not if I don’t wear it anywhere,” she whispered.
“There is that, I guess,” I said, and I learned something new about my wife.
At heart, she’s a bandit, just like me.
Tickle Your Arse With a Feather
“There’s a couple of strange young blokes in a holding cell,” said the desk sergeant who wasn’t at his desk.
“Is it Saturday night already?” said Sergeant Wilson.
“No Sergeant. It was Tuesday last time I checked.”
Weatherby was a sergeant without a sense of humour.
“They wandered in earlier today and insisted on confessing,” said Sergeant Weatherby.
“Assassination, fraud, bad taste, showing too much bum crack?”
“Now that you mention it, the younger one did have his jeans almost around his ankles.”
Did the desk sergeant just attempt a joke?
There was a small silence while the possibility of humour was considered.
“There is a week long parade of ‘strange blokes’ in the cells Sergeant, so why are you sharing this nugget with us?” said the Inspector.
“I know you are working on that murder and the pizza delivery driver is a suspect. These two Mensa graduates say they tried to rob him last night and they’re very sorry. One of them seems to be a lot more sorry than the other one.”
“Did someone put you up to this Sergeant? If so I’m not pleased.”
“No sir. It’s all true. Speak to them yourself, they’ll tell you. Probably won’t be able to shut them up.”
Interview room Two was vacant, but now it isn’t.
“Slow down and start from the beginning,” said Sergeant Wilson.
The younger man, who went by the name of Joiner, looked dazed.
“How far back do you want me to go? I don’t remember much before my fourth birthday.”
Inspector McBride sighed.
“I’m sure you had an interesting childhood, but we are interested in your attempted robbery. When did you get the idea?”
“Johnno saw something on the news about a pizza bloke getting done over for his tips. Thought we should try something like that with that bloke on that bike. We seen him riding around.”
“You do know that most people pay with a credit card when they order?” said the Inspector.
“We never got a pizza delivered. So no.”
“You put a lot of thought into this.”
“We figured we’d grab him on his way back after a delivery.”
“His first run of the night?”
“Yeah. We should have waited for him to collect a bit more money. Lesson learned.”
“So you bailed him up not far from the Pizza shop?”
“You sure you don’t need a solicitor. I feel like I’m stealing soft toys from an infant.”
“Nah. We’re good. Just wanna get this over with.”
“Okay. So you bailed him up. Two strong young blokes. It would not have been too much trouble to take his money.”
“That’s what we thought,” said Joiner.
“The bugger poked me with a feather,” said Johnno.
Up to this point, there was a real chance that Johnno was mute. Considering what came next, it would have been better for him if he had been.
“Are you taking the piss, young man?” said the Inspector, who had better things to do.
“Nah, straight up. He poked me with a feather.”
‘Straight up’, Inspector McBride hadn’t heard that expression since the 70s.
“I’ll bite. What sort of feather was it?” said the Sergeant.
Joiner looked like he might burst. He hadn’t been able to speak for several seconds.
“One of his. He plucked it out of his wing and waved it about a bit. We both sort of followed it and it seemed to slow down as he waved it,” said Joiner.
“Slowed down,” said Johnno.
“Then he looked Johnno in the eyes and pocked him in the chest with the feather.”
“Particularly nasty weather,” said the Sergeant.
“Pardon?” said Joiner.
“You know. Tickle your arse with a feather/ particularly nasty weather. We used to say it when we were kids. My dad taught it to me. Drove my mum crazy.”
“Your dad sounds like a bit of cunt, teaching little kids how to swear. No wonder you became a cop,” said Joiner, who shuffled in his seat.
“Not sure what that was about, but can we please get back to this riveting story before my head explodes,” said the Inspector.
“Alright! Keep your hair on grandad,” said Joiner.
The Inspector ran his fingers through his hair.
“So we bail this geezer up and tell him what is going to happen to him if he doesn’t give us the money and he doesn’t seem scared or anything. A bit simple in the head I was thinking, when he leans his bike (which I considered nicking but couldn’t be bothered wheeling it all the way home) up against a shop window. I expect him to dig in his pocket for the money, But instead, he smiles and plucks out a feather. I’m about to say, ‘What the fuck are you going to do with that’, when he starts waving it about. It was the strangest thing. Like some special effect in a movie, it looked blurry and fuzzy and shit. Then he stops waving it about and jabs Johnno with it. Johnno looks all dazed and shit and sinks to his knees. I thought I’d missed something. I’ve seen blokes get stabbed and maybe that’s what just happened, but no blood, no nothin’, just Johnno apologising from a kneeling position. I was going to thump the bloke but Johnno says, ‘Don’t. He’s not like us. Leave him.’ So I left him. Then the bugger grabbed his bike and wandered off. I had a hell of a job getting Johnno off his knees. He’s been bugging me ever since for us to turn ourselves in so here we are.”
Inspector McBride ran his fingers through his hair again.
“Stick them back in the cells and get me any CCTV footage you can find.”
“Is this the biggest monitor we have,” said Inspector McBride, “I feel like I’m watching I Love Lucy and my mum is going to insist that I go to bed when it’s over.”
“The big screen doesn’t work since that stag do Wazza put on,” said the Sergeant, “and the footage is in black and white, for some strange reason.”
The footage came from the old hardware store a couple of shops up from the incident. It was grainy and black and white but well lit. The angle was from behind the pizza delivery rider, and you could see the two punks approach him, but you could not see his initial reaction. Then the rider reaches around, plucks a feather, and begins to wave it around. It could have been the lousy resolution, but it did look like the feather was moving in slow motion. Both punks were mesmerised by its movement. Then came the jab, followed by the yobo sinking to his knees, followed by the rider collecting his bike and walking away.
“Well this is a first for me. They weren’t lying,” said the Inspector.
“Bugger all chance of getting a conviction without a statement from the rider,” said the Sergeant.
“They don’t know that and we don’t have to let them go for another day so let them stew,” said the Inspector.
“I feel better as it gets dark”, said the bloke sitting next to me at the bar.
To be accurate, I sat next to him.
It had been a long day, and I needed a drink, but you don’t have to worry about me. I only drink now and again, and today was a big ‘again’.
There are rules about sitting next to someone at a bar. Something like the rules about standing next to someone when you need to pee — you don’t do it unless there is nowhere else to stand. You just don’t — end of story.
When I lurched into the bar (I’d never noticed it before, but I took a wrong turn on the way to the station and there it was), I was focused on the aroma and sting that goes with an excellent single malt scotch. I wasn’t thinking about the logistics of obtaining one (except that I expected to get stung on price, happy hour or no happy hour, and I wasn’t disappointed).
I could have tried to attract the barman’s attention, and I did try, but it seemed like a good idea to sit down — this was going to take a while.
As soon as I did, my bum said thank you, and I sank into the soft leather (soft leather barstool equals a twenty-per cent premium on drinks — you learn these things as you get older).
The bloke on my left stuck his elbow out just a little and turned slightly away — a clear ‘don’t even think about starting a conversation, and why the hell do you need to sit there?’
I got the message and the eye of the bartender. I ordered something smoky and rich, and it arrived in a flash. It was a waste of time saying, ‘no ice’ because the bartender was intent on getting through the next two hours without having to use his brain unduly. I flicked the ice onto the polished wooden bar without spilling too much golden liquid. The cubes clustered together, then slowly slid down the bar.
“Floors not level,” I said to no one in particular.
“You don’t worry about stuff like that once it gets dark,” said the bloke on my right.
“I used to be a shopfitter,” I said, knowing that any chance of having a quiet drink was well in my rearview mirror.
“In that suit?”
“No mate. A long time ago before suits were invented. I was an apprentice. We got called in when shops changed hands or when some bloke wanted to expand into the shop next door. New windows, display cases, counters, walls, stuff like that. They made me do skirting boards for six months. I got to be pretty good at it.”
The bloke on my left looked at me for a few seconds longer than was necessary.
“There’s this magic switch that goes off when it gets dark. It’s a different world,” he said.
“Do you work at night?” I said.
“Used to. Not any more. Too old.”
He didn’t look too old, but maybe night work rules differed.
I gave him a scan. His jacket was old but well kept. His trousers were even older and a bit shinny. His shoes were black leather and of indeterminate age. I couldn’t see his shirt from where I was sitting, but he had an old grey felt hat sitting on the bar in front of him. He expertly lifted the hat to let the ice cubes float by.
“Stupid bugger never listens when you say ‘no ice’,” he said, flicking his head toward the harried barman.
The manœuvre with the hat was handled with his left hand. His right hand never let go of his glass.
‘An experienced drinker’, I thought.
“I still sleep during the day and stay up at night. Some habits are hard to break,” he said.
Our conversation was carried out while staring at our drinks.
I’ve had conversations like this before. No eye contact means something. Usually, it denotes a tired soul.
“So, what is it about the dark?” I said.
While he gathered his thoughts, I glanced at the bar’s mirror. It was now completely dark outside, and I hadn’t noticed. A bit like going into a movie in the afternoon and coming out in the dark.
The bloke with the hat straightened up and looked over his shoulder. He tilted his head back and drained his glass. Finally, he turned and looked me in the eyes.
“You seem like a good bloke but I don’t have time to talk now, it’s dark outside. It’s my time and I don’t like to waste any of it. You look after yourself young fella. Nice suit, by the way. Shame to waste it on that job of yours.”
He grabbed his hat, adjusted it at a rakish angle and slid off his stool like a teenager.
While I was thinking of something to say, he was gone. Swallowed up by the night he purported to love.
The bar was beginning to thin out as the inaccurately named ‘happy hour’ came to a close.
The bartender looked an inch taller.
“Get you anything else mate?” he said.
“More ice would be good,” I said, and he didn’t get it, but I ended up with a glass full of ice.
“Do you know the bloke who was sitting next to me? Grey felt hat, dusty jacket?” I said.
“Seen him a few times. Someone said he used to be famous.”
“Famous for what?” I said.
“Buggered if I know. Just famous.”
And there it was, ‘just famous’.
But that’s the thing about fame. One day you’re Kate Bush, and the next day you’re Kate who?
I nursed my drink for a few more moments, then ventured out into the night. But, of course, by now, the trains will be half full, and I’ll get a seat all the way home.
The walk to the station was fresh and uneventful. I didn’t bump into anyone, and no one asked me for anything.
The bloke with the hat was right; it feels better when it gets dark.
I guessed that he’d stolen it from an old school carpenter.
I shared his fascination.
My father always said that if it looked straight, it was.
Looks being more important than reality. My dad would have fitted right into our modern world.
“A weight on the end of a line, used especially by masons and carpenters to establish a true vertical.”
Before the plague hit, I was too busy being a busy person. Now I sit and notice things that were always there.
Crows aren’t unheard of near my home, but I usually only notice them as they fly over, noisily announcing that they are going somewhere.
At some point in the distant past, a previous owner had painted the wall between us orange. The wall separates our nearest neighbour and us. Not the shade of orange you see here, but orange nonetheless. I’m guessing it was the seventies. Orange was a thing back then. I’m not ashamed to say that I liked it, which probably explains why I never painted over it.
I don’t like painting, which is probably another reason why it survived.
I like the way it has faded selectively, making it look like a piece of modern art.
The crow doesn’t care about any of these thoughts — at least, I don’t think he does.
I imagine him as a ‘he’. There really isn’t a way of telling males and females apart — just like Indian Mynors. We have a pair of them as well.
See how well I’m noticing things now that I’m stuck at home?
I keep waiting for the bird to drop the plumb line, but he has managed to keep hold of it so far.
Sometimes he wobbles it from side to side and watches it swing until it stops. Then he starts all over again.
I looked it up, and crows are some of the most intelligent creatures on the planet. Just above football supporters and just below the bloke who works out the train timetables.
Working with tools is supposed to be a big deal, and I think of that every time I need a plumber.
I guess my crow is more of a carpenter than a plumber. Who knows?
I’ve decided not to speculate about the crow’s motives. Some things are best left alone.
I wonder if he thinks about me and my orange wall?
At a Certain Age
When I was younger, I watched it happen from afar.
My grandmother was an expert at it, but I dismissed it as ‘my grandmother was always like that’.
After a conversation with my favourite aunt, I gained a different perspective.
“She wasn’t always like that. As a young woman, she let people walk all over her, especially your grandfather.”
My grandfather died when I was young. I remember the aromas in the church. When I got a lot older, someone put a name to it — frankincense. There was furniture polish and shoe polish and dust as well. I remember thinking they should have dusted my grandfather before burying him. Kids form thoughts based on the available evidence. Dust is a recurring memory from childhood; I guess it’s because I was so close to the ground.
I doubt that science has defined it down to the month or the week, but somewhere in there, people, women, in particular, develop a sort of superpower.
I’m only guessing, and correct me if you think I’m wrong, but it seems that people worry about what people think of them more than anything else and then one day they don’t anymore — well, not as much anyway.
I watched one of my aunties wade into a melee of grown men who were angry after a junior basketball game. The parents were berating a young referee after a close finish. The young referee was my cousin, and it looked like he’d done a good job. Mind you, I would have called that last foul a charge rather than a block.
My aunty stood a few inches short of five feet tall, and she stood between the six-foot-plus fathers giving my cousin a hard time. She told them off for being childish, and eventually, they started to back away. Not content with this, she followed them to the exit door and saw them on their way. There were quite a few smiling faces in the crowd that dispersed at the end of the game.
I expected my aunty to rub her hands together, but she didn’t. Victory was hers, and she was gracious in victory.
“Arseholes,” she said before gathering up her knitting, congratulating my cousin on ‘a job well done’ and telling him she would see him when he got home after his shift. I followed her to her car because I expected the large fathers to be waiting for her in the carpark.
“Aren’t you going to stay and watch your cousin referee his next game?” she said when she noticed me trailing along behind her.
“Yeah, but I thought I’d keep an eye on you aunty. Those blokes were pretty angry.”
My aunt laughed.
“All talk, no trousers,” she said.
Not a flicker of fear.
I wondered if I would grow up to size up people that well.
I’m not sure I have, but I can pick a ‘no trousers’ without too much trouble.
On one occasion, she got slapped by a parent when she was coaching a junior team. One of the dads sorted the bloke out, but I expected it to put my aunty off coaching. It didn’t. She saw the incident as a blip.
“Most people aren’t like that. Did you see the parents jump up and deal with the slapper?”
She only coached a few games but went undefeated in her short career. The kids loved her. Most of them were taller than she was, but they listened to her because she had gravitas — that hard to define something that makes people want to follow someone.
Chances are that she probably always had that ability, but somewhere along the way, a light went on, and she became the person she was meant to be.
Mysterious creatures, humans.
Invisible Man With a Suitcase
Illustration credit: Franco Matticchio
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