The big red bow was causing me embarrassment, but I didn’t let it stop me.
Let’s get the bow out of the way so I can concentrate on the real story.
My mistress had just won an award for her book PASSION BEHIND THE ASPIDISTRA. It hadn’t sold as well as her previous books, but her publisher entered it into the Romance Writers Who Talk A Lot About Love Without Actually Telling Their Readers What People Get Up To, which seemed like a strange title for an award, but that’s what my mistress told her friend, Maude. My mistress never lies to me, so it must be true.
So, the day comes for the award presentation, and my mistress said I could go with her, in the Lagona.
I love riding in the car — the wind in my fur, delicious smells wafting in from who knows where — bliss.
The middle of winter means that it will be a cold drive, but I don’t care. I’m wearing my winter coat, and my ancestors came from a frigid part of the world.
I got up early and had my breakfast on the terrace, despite the cold. The sun was up, and even though it didn’t have much oomph, I still enjoyed being in its warm glow.
My mistress came at me with the red bow, and I was too startled to run away.
“Everyone is going to love you in this,” said my mistress.
Not if I eat it first, I was thinking.
“And don’t you dare chew it off, Rufus. I’ll be very cross if you do.”
So, what was I to do? She is very kind to me, and I love her so.
Just suck it up and wear the damn thing, Rufus!
I’d patrolled most of the perimeter in the morning when I went out for a wee, but there was still the pond to check on.
I knew we were going to be away overnight because I heard my mistress booking us a room in a hotel. She was very annoyed when she first rang; apparently, that hotel didn’t like dogs — have you ever heard of such a thing? She gave them a piece of her mind.
“Have you ever had a dog run out and not pay the bill? Come in drunk and vomit on the carpet? Have loud parties in their room? Steal a lampshade? No, I didn’t think so, you ignorant man!”
My mistress has a way with words.
The pond looked beautiful in the morning light. The ducks, which I have an uneasy understanding with, were looking for bugs in the reeds. The surface of the pond had frozen over during the night.
One duck, or at least I thought it was a duck, had broken through the ice and was splashing around. Except it wasn’t a duck despite the duck-like noises it was making. It was a small dog — smaller than me.
It seemed that he had walked out on the ice to sniff the DANGER sign and had fallen through.
He sounded desperate, the way that dogs do when they are being beaten by their owner, or caught by a big dog intent on doing them great harm.
I edged out onto the ice to get a closer look. As I got closer, the ice was making strange cracking noises, and I got scared. Now I was within sniffing range, and the faint odour of a friend reached my nostrils. It was the dog known as Scruff. We had been great friends when we were pups — got into all sorts of trouble. Scruff is the reason that the butcher hates me as much as he does.
Scruff’s owner moved away — closer to the city.
“Don’t worry Scruff,” I said because I knew that it was important that he knew I was still fierce and brave.
In truth, I was terrified, but friends don’t let friends sink to an icy grave, even if you haven’t seen them for a long time.
“This is going to hurt, Scruff,” I said as I took hold of his ear. He didn’t have much fight left in him. He must have been in the water for a while before I got here.
“Don’t worry,” said Scruff, “I’m so cold I can’t feel much. Pull me out please.”
“This would go a lot better if I had hands,” I said through a mouth full of ear.
Scruff helped as much as he could, and after several tries, I pulled him up onto the ice.
“I’m not sure I can walk,” said Scruff.
“Don’t worry, I’ll drag you. It’s only a short way.”
I was trying to sound confident, but the cracking noises were increasing.
When I got him to the shore, we both lay on the cold grass for what seemed like a long time.
“Rufus, what’s happened, and who is this bedraggled fellow?”
It was my mistress, come looking for me. I didn’t mind if she scolded me. I was so happy to see her; I wagged my tail furiously.
I gave a small bark and nosed my friend. My mistress is brilliant, and she worked it all out very quickly.
“Did you two fall in the pond, or did you save this little dog, Rufus?”
I stood up as tall as I could so that she knew I was the brave one. Scruff was too cold and tired to walk, so my mistress picked him up and carried him back to the house. I trotted along next to her, feeling very proud.
My mistress lit the fire and wrapped Scruff in a green towel, sitting him on the rug and telling him to stay.
He was in no condition to argue.
Scruff’s owner was back in the village for a visit, and Scruff came down to the pond because he remembered it being the place of many adventures. At least, that is how he told it to me as we sat warming ourselves in front of the fire.
When my mistress used her telephone to find Scruff’s owner, I knew we would not have much time together. We talked about old times and the fun we had as pups.
My mistress let Scruff’s owner keep the green towel.
“He’s nice and warm in there. Best not to disturb him,” said my mistress. She is very kind because I know she loves that towel.
My red bow was ruined, so my mistress made me a new one, and before I knew it, we were in the Lagona speeding along the country lanes heading for London and an award ceremony.
I knew we were going to have fun, but after hanging my head over the side of the car and enjoying the exhilaration of sheer speed, I felt drained.
I curled up on the leather seat and dreamed of the adventures that Scruff and I had experienced, back in the day.
I’ll miss Scruff, and I’m glad that I was there to save him.
Friends should always save friends and let friends save them right back.
The old man waited; every winter solstice.
Pawprints in the snow — two sets.
The old prince had been married to the queen for more years than he could remember. They were happy enough, but the demands of office weighed heavily on them both.
None of us knows when our father will leave this life.
When the old king died, she ascended to the throne, the new queen was very young.
She took to her role bravely, and the young prince stood by her side.
There were fewer duties to perform in the winter months. They retreated to their favourite country estate — hundreds of years old. Large rooms — a stone fireplace in each one. Small dogs scurried from place to place, looking for attention, the older dogs wisely curled up before the fire.
One clear grey day, all the dogs ran to the French doors and barked a warning, clawing at the glass. Security at the castle was tight, but occasionally there were incidents. “Didn’t want to concern you, your highness. We caught him once he scaled the fence. Just a young bloke on a dare. Won’t do that again, I promise you.” A bedraggled young man between two large soldiers staggered past the window and into a waiting unmarked van. He looked sore and sorry, his long hair a tangled mess. His pitiful expression lingered long after the van pulled away.
The dogs were becoming more frantic, and the prince expected to see a soldier running through the snow, but no one came. Only the dogs could hear the sound of something desperately trying to free itself.
“Come away from the door.” The dogs obeyed, sitting a few feet back and waiting for instructions. “Wait there. I’ll call you if I need you.”
The French doors stayed open as the prince walked out onto the paved patio in his house slippers. The fabric absorbed the water from the snow, and it chilled his feet.
Determined to see what was going on across the lawn, he continued with numb toes.
As he reached the outer edge of the lawn, he heard it.
The fox looked at him with the same look he had seen on enemy soldiers as he and his comrades spilled into their trench.
The fox was trapped by its hind leg.
The prince removed his dressing gown and threw it over the fox’s head. The animal lay still.
Opening the trap was easy enough. The leg didn’t seem to be broken, but there was a lot of blood. The fox winced as the prince touched the damaged appendage.
With the dressing gown still in place, the prince picked up the fox and walked back across the lawn — his footprints the only break in the soft powder snow. He filled his own steps as he had done as a soldier. The memory made him sad.
Once back inside, the disciplined dogs could no longer contain themselves. They knew the scent of a dangerous intruder. They flocked around the prince as he walked through the house, down the corridor to the stairs leading to the servant’s quarters.
“Do you have somewhere I can deal with this?” asked the prince.
The cook looked at him with wide eyes.
“Are you going to kill it, your majesty?”
“No,” said the prince. He had a mellifluous voice, and she loved to hear him speak. His gentle tone told her that he meant what he said.
“I want to dress its wound before I let it go.”
“It probably won’t help, your majesty. It’ll get infected as soon as it walks through the mud,” said the cook. “I dressed a lot of wounds in the war.”
“I didn’t know that. Why didn’t I know that?”
“I nursed your brother,” she said, eyes down.
“God bless you for that,” said the prince.
In silence, they cleaned and dressed the fox’s wound.
The prince smiled at the cook — comrades in arms.
With the fox still wrapped up in his gown, the prince walked back through the house escorted by his pack of dogs.
“Wait here,” he said. “I’ll call out for you if I need help.”
The dogs sat at the open door.
Across the lawn once more to the bushes.
The prince put the fox down.
“Try not to chew off your bandage and stay out of the mud, if you can. Good luck — you’re going to need it.”
A year later, the prince’s dogs ran to the doors and gave the alarm.
At the edge of the snow-covered lawn stood an older fox and a younger male fox.
They stood in the snow until the prince appeared.
They stared at each other for the longest time.
When the foxes turned and walked back through the bushes, the prince turned to his obedient dogs.
“I think that’s our fox and possibly, that was his son.”
The prince walked across the house and down to the kitchen. The cook stopped what she was doing.
“I think I just saw the fox we saved last year and his cub. The dogs will back me up, they saw it too.”
The cook wanted to laugh, but she held it in.
“We did it cook. You and me, and now he came to visit.”
“I hope they stay away from our chickens.”
“Yes, there is that,” said the prince.
The prince smiled awkwardly and went back upstairs.
The following year, the scene repeated itself, but the year after that something had changed.
The older fox was not there. The damaged leg made him easy to recognise.
And yet, there was an older male fox and a younger male. They waited at the edge of the lawn, illuminated by the pure white snow.
Again the ritual played out.
An extended period of locking eyes followed by the departure.
Every four or five years, the older fox would be a former youngster. As each elder fox met its fate, a descendant would take its place and the ritual would continue.
A tear would form in the ageing prince’s eye as he realised the passing of a senior fox.
The queen and the prince reigned for many decades, and as extreme old age was upon them, the weather patterns had altered to such a degree that the snow season came later and later.
The foxes arrived later in the season.
This year, the snow came even later.
The prince and the queen had returned to their duties, and no one was there to see the fox and his cub arrive at the edge of the snow-covered lawn.
They waited for the longest time, longer than was safe.
The first in a long line to not be able to express their gratitude, they turned and walked back through the bushes.
“Sixty-eight point three per cent of all murder victims that have been found dead more than two days after death are found by citizens walking their dog.”
The lecturer had excellent chalkboard technique. I ought to know, I did two years of Teacher’s College before I signed up. During those two years, we did one fifteen-minute session, and I remember learning how to hold chalk so that it didn’t make that excruciating squeaking noise. “Makes you look like you know what you are doing.”
Our instructor, freshly escaped from the classroom, knew that we didn’t — know what we were doing, that is, and he was trying to minimise our ‘knownothingness’ in the only way he knew how.
A futile but kind gesture.
“How many of the dog walkers wear jumpers, Sarge?” The smartarse with a death wish was just as bored as the rest of us, and he foolishly chose to show it.
“Roughly the same percentage as you got on your last evaluation detective Wilson from Broadmeadows. Considering the suburb you are stationed at, detective, I would have thought that your arrest record would be higher. You pretty much only have to be the unfortunate bastard who opens the front doors in the morning, and five nefarious characters come tumbling in.”
The ‘smartarse’ detective indeed got a bit of a giggle out of us, but it has to be remembered that if ‘two or more of you are gathered together there will be mirth’ applies to any gathering of knuckle-dragging police officers — it’s infectious. Laughter kills the boredom and at least a bit of the terror — terror that you might get maimed for no good reason and then get pensioned off, and terror from the thought that you are wasting your life. My terror falls into the latter category.
Our instructor got a bigger laugh.
The sound of one of the many smartarses in our life being brought down to earth is satisfying and mirthful.
He kept on writing.
Never turned around.
Eyes in the back of his head.
I could easily be back at school again.
It helped that we were in an old school room in an old school building. Now called The Baker Institute, anyone who went to school during my decade knew the unmistakable architecture. I was tempted to hang my coat on the hooks outside the sliding door. The walls are painted a modern colour, and there have been other attempts to hide the room’s original purpose.
The chairs are comfortable, but my arse was not interested in testing their long term durability.
At a glance, I’d say that there are about twenty-two of us. Mostly males, a variety of ages, but I’m probably the only one over forty. A quick scan of body language clues tells me that most inhabitants of this standard-sized room are just as pissed off as I am. One or two still think that this one-day course is part of their growth as a police officer.
“What about the bodies what never get found?” The smartarse was making one final attempt to redeem his flagging status as the funniest bloke in the room.
Without missing a beat, our instructor (I’ve forgotten his name – on the job I write stuff down, or someone else does, but here and now, who gives a fuck what this bozo’s name is) writes one point zero nine per cent on the board. Somehow he has changed the chalk colour — impressive.
“Somewhere in the region of your chances of promotion,” says our instructor. He speaks the words so softly that we lean in to catch them. Those in the front row snigger before the rest of us.
“Can we have a window open sir?” says an attractive brunette sitting a few rows forward of me.
“Yes, we can and don’t call me sir. I’m a sergeant. I work for a living.” He shot a look at the bloke sitting on the end of the row who sprang out of his seat and opened a window with the skill of someone who had done it many times.
The brunette who had been one of the few people in the room taking notes said, “Thank you, Sargent.”
There were a few moments of silence.
The board was covered in colourful statistics and a wellborn piece of chalk dangled between the instructor’s fingers.
He was thinking.
I doubted that he had lost his place.
This bloke came prepared.
I made a mental note to remember his name the next time I heard it.
Why was he here in this room with us percentage losers?
Our instructor raised a chalk dusted finger and pointed at his handiwork.
“This shit is just numbers. We’ve got a few minutes before we break for lunch (I hadn’t thought much about food until now. A raging hunger rolled over me) I want to hear a human story. Without humans, you don’t have the raw ingredients for murder. The causes are simple — sex and money.”
“And religion,” said someone behind me.
“Okay,” conceded our instructor, “but mostly sex and money. Causes might tell you why, but my job is to give you an insight into why people do what they do after the fact. Fuck why they did it, where do they dump the body? And how does that affect your investigation? Can anyone share a story about a citizen finding a body.”
He was now pointing at me and inexplicably, my hand was in the air — no idea how it got there.
“Yes. You. Leather jacket.” At least he didn’t know my name.
“Got yourself into a spot of bother with a highly ranked officer’s wife, if I remember rightly. Back of a Bentley? A patrol car shined a light in your direction. Took you a few minutes to retrieve your warrant card. Firm buttocks were unnecessarily added to the report? Was that you?”
I didn’t need to answer.
“I’ve been involved in a few cases where a body was found by a punter — before my buttocks became famous.”
The laughter was generous. The kind of laughter that says ‘glad it isn’t me that’s in the sergeant’s spotlight, you’ll be just as generous when it’s my turn, won’t you?’
“I was stationed at Preston. Most dog walkers wandered up and down the footpaths or headed to Bell State School after hours to exercise their dogs. Still, a group calling themselves The Widower Dogs Society walked their dogs up behind the old cinema off Oakover road. Merri Creek runs through there and in those days it was rough and ready. No shortage of old fridges and car tyres. These days it’s all gentrified.”
“So, what happened?”
“The Widower Dogs Society were three members strong. All of the dogs had lost a female partner. The owners banded together to brighten up their lonely dogs. Grief hits dogs as hard as it does us.”
I could see the brunette looking at me, listening intently.
I finished my story, and the instructor looked at his watch.
“Close enough,” he said, and we filed out of the room in search of food and a beer. We’d earned it.
“These things are usually a bit more salubrious. This one isn’t even catered,” said a mellifluous female voice.
“Mel Carter,” said the brunette.
“Catastrophy Jones,” I said with a straight face. “This is punishment. Catering might have spoilt the effect.”
She looked a bit surprised at my words, which could have been taken one of two ways.
“Everyone in that room, with the possible exception of you and the bloke next to you, were there because they had pissed someone off — a way of wasting our very precious Saturday.”
She thought about my words, dismissed them. They didn’t apply to her. She was young (younger than me) and on her way up.
“Your story — the Widower Dogs Club. How did you know that was what they called themselves?”
“Back then. I listened to people. When you listen, people tell a uniform all sorts of things. They were shocked. Trying to understand why someone would do such a thing. They understood stealing cars, ‘we used to nick cars when we were kids, but this!’ No-one was yelling at me to get on with it, so I listened — let them talk. They felt better because someone appeared to care about them.”
“You interest me. leather jacket.”
“You interest me, open window.”
Open Window looked at my left hand — no ring.
“Can I buy you lunch?” she said.
“Lunch with a liberated woman. Very Jane Tennison.”
“Don’t tell me you have never watched Prime Suspect? I can see that I’ll have to take your education in hand. By the way, there isn’t a ‘Mr Tennison’ floating around, is there? I don’t want to get thumped by some hulking constable who believes he has branded you.”
“There are no brands on me sunshine.”
“I look forward to proving that statement,” I said, and she didn’t slap my face.
I took that as an encouraging sign.
There are people in this world who can identify dust by its aroma.
Book dust is widely considered to be the most aromatic and most likely to evoke memories.
I mention dust because the house we rented has lots of it.
If the building had been hermetically sealed before we got there I would have wondered how the dust got in, but it wasn’t, and it did. Get in that is.
The house is about as sealed as a sieve.
Don’t think I’m worried about it because I’m not. I’ve never been prissy about such things.
I like the bare floorboards (they’d polish up nicely — hardwood with an attractive grain), and I love old furniture (the house came furnished). The furniture is functional, but not at all stylish — not now nor when it was new, but that’s okay too.
It has an open fireplace and thin pointless curtains which don’t block out the light or give any kind of privacy during the evening hours.
Some bright spark said that dust is mostly made up of discarded human skin particles, but I know this is bollocks. I’ve explored buildings where no human being has ventured for many years, and the place was still full of dust — neatly settled on every available surface.
Renting the house happened on a whim.
We needed to get away for a while. Someone suggested this country town because of the river and the pine trees and the old general store which doubles as a cafe during the day and a bar at night.
The quietness is deafening.
I need quiet if I’m going to finish this book, but I worried about Rebecca. Would she be bored? She said not, so I had to believe her.
“I’ve got my sewing and my books, and it looks like a great place to go for long walks. I can cook and write and play with Billy (our small dog). That is if he can drag himself away from you. He really is the perfect writer’s dog,” said Rebecca, and I had to agree. “You finish your book, and we will look back on this time as being special.”
Billy, the dog, wandered into my life a couple of years ago when I was sitting at the garden table — I’d left the back gate open, and he took it as an invitation. He curled up next to me and went to sleep. It turned out that he belonged to the Mitchell family from Bent Street, about half a kilometre away. They had six children all under ten years old, and the little dog was exhausted from the morning’s chaos, so he came to my house to get a bit of peace.
Once I worked out where he was from, I left the gate open for him each morning.
When the Mitchells split up, Mrs Mitchell asked if I’d like to have Billy, “I’m taking the kids to my family in Queensland, and I don’t think Billy will enjoy the heat.”
I said yes, I would like to keep Billy and he’s been with me ever since.
Acquiring Rebecca was another matter entirely. Billy had a bit to do with it.
Rebecca worked for the local pet groomer, and I bought Billy’s dog food from them. Billy’s not the kind of dog who needs a lot of grooming, but he is small and white (except for the black bits), and he has a disarming smile.
Rebecca offered to trim his nails, which needed it even though he wore them down while walking with me every day.
I checked with Billy, and he seemed okay with the idea, so I handed him over. After that, he veered violently into the dog groomers every time we walked by. Rebecca would see us and come out from the back of the shop and pet Billy, who squirmed up against her loving touch. I wondered how Rebecca’s boss felt about these frequent trips, but I guess she was happy to put up with us because of all the expensive dog food that Billy consumed.
I’d been living on credit in the house my aunty bequeathed to me, and things were getting a bit grim when I sold the film rights to my first book. That gained me a bit of attention, and my publisher (I use the term loosely — about as helpful as tits on a bull) decided to reissue my first three books and actually put a bit of money into promoting them.
I paid off my debts with the proceeds of the film deal and suggested that Rebecca might want to join Billy and me in a spot of celebration.
Fortunately, she said yes, and the rest you can probably guess.
My publisher set a deadline for my latest literary effort. Rebecca is happy being my muse, Billy is happy to have Rebecca living with us and I’m just flat out happy.
This dusty little house is going to be our residence for a few months, and while we are here, we will make it our home.
It’s getting a bit chilly, so I’d better light the fire.
Billy loves it when I light the fire.
It has to be said that the dog in question was way brighter than I was.
If she fancies another dog she simply ‘shakes a tail feather’ and it’s on.
Sadly, I’m not a dog.
It’s trickier if you are human.
I’d been trying to find an original way to strike up a conversation.
I couldn’t come up with anything original, so I reverted to a classic — walk a cute dog and females will at least smile at you, probably strike up a conversation. Dogs make men seem less likely to, well, I don’t know, do whatever it is that females don’t like. I’m woefully ignorant of such things.
So, the plan was hatched with only one glitch — I didn’t currently own a dog.
Used to — when I was young, but my apartment building didn’t allow dogs — must do something about that one day when I get the time.
Fortunately, my third best friend, William, had a beautiful standard poodle — black of fur with a cheeky smile and fun in its heart. Her name is Gladys, and she commands and demands attention — just what I needed.
Gladys likes me, which came in handy. I think she understands me, which is more than I do.
I remember the year, 1952, but not the exact day. You know how it is, you plan a campaign, but you have no clear idea of when success might come and when it does, you are so deliriously happy you forget to write down the date because you think this wonderfulness will go on forever — the folly of youth.
Then you are less young, and you wish you had stopped and written down every delicious moment.
I’d staked out what I thought was the perfect spot, just in front of the iron fence that had surrounded the small park for more than a century.
I tried to look casual — maybe I was preparing to light a cigarette, or I was writing a poem in my head. Perhaps I was just lost in thought. It didn’t matter unless someone asked me why I was lingering on this spot. No one asked.
“What a beautiful dog,” she said. I was so busy looking casual, I’d missed her approach.
She was immaculately dressed, perfect accessories. Her scarf was a few shades lighter than her outfit. Her curves were exquisite, and her gold earrings were bold. I wondered how she managed to keep her beret in place — another one of those secrets that females pass down through the generations. I didn’t ask, and I don’t want to know — some things should remain secret.
“Yes, she is,” I said, but you put her to shame, was what I was thinking, but I thought it better to say less at this stage.
“How old is she?” asked the vision in maroon.
“I have no idea. She doesn’t belong to me. I’m walking her for a friend, he’s not well.”
I figured that this gave me essential points — a man who is thoughtful and considerate of his friends. It had to provide me with an edge.
“Nothing serious, I hope?” she said. She wasn’t looking at me, she was patting Gladys, who was enjoying the attention while trying to look aloof.
I was handsomely dressed — she was fierce company, so I had to create the impression that I was in her league. Impression only — not actually close to her league, but my father always said that I should play against superior players and drag myself up to their level.
I mentioned a cafe nearby that had outside tables, and wasn’t it a beautiful day, and hadn’t Gladys taken to you — if you don’t have anywhere else to be?
She hesitated before saying she had a few minutes before having to be somewhere, she always left early for appointments.
Gladys stepped up just when she was needed by looking directly at the vision in maroon with a complimenting scarf and matching gloves.
I tipped my hat, and we walked with Gladys between us.
She was late for her meeting, and I was in a daze which lasted for the rest of my life.
Some days are better than others, and planning and preparation are never wasted.
Oh, yes, and it pays to have a dog.
If television is to believed, people walking their dog or children chasing a ball into the undergrowth are the main ways that dead bodies are discovered.
That’s not how they found mine.
I’d been dead for a while.
It can’t have been fun to discover what was left of me.
Being dead, I don’t tend to worry much, but if I did, I would feel for the poor soul who looked through my window, and the unfortunates who had to take me away.
I’m considering haunting the real estate agent who is so gleefully trying to sell my former abode. My family needs the money, apparently.
I’ve tried giving her a fright, but she seems to be too self-absorbed to notice me — hanging around, with not much to do.
I not sure why I’m still here, but it’s not at all unpleasant.
I seem to be able to get progressively further from my home each day, so I can walk around a bit and spy on the neighbours, talk to dogs, that sort of thing.
I don’t sleep, obviously — not the human type of sleep, just the eternal type.
I always like the night time. It’s another world, and apart from the ner do wells who use the undercover nature of the dark, most people who are awake when others are asleep are friendly and sad somehow.
I don’t hurt anymore, not physically. It’s a strange sensation, something like in a dream. I’m aware of my body, but it does not seem to have any weight. I should float off the ground, but I don’t. Everything seems the same, but I don’t have any sensation of touch. It doesn’t slow me down, I just do what I always have — I put one foot in front of the other, and away I go.
I can move through solid objects, walls and things. I know this because I accidentally walked through a chair. It freaks me out a bit so I move around like I used to, by opening doors and occasionally climbing through windows — I did that a lot, back in the day.
I’m not worried about what comes next. I’m applying the same rules I’ve always lived by, be patient and let life come to me. Though in this case, it’s afterlife.
I have encountered a few others who are in my situation, but they are confused and angry, sometimes frightened. It doesn’t seem to matter what I say to them, it doesn’t help, so I steer clear.
I like my own company and the company of dogs, so I’m okay for now, but there are a few people I would like to catch up with.
Maybe one day, assuming they end up where I end up.
A collection of cigarette butts caught Sam’s eye when he walked out of his front gate to catch a tram to the city.
If he had been driving, he would have missed them.
A tight grouping directly under the tree.
When they moved into their substantial residence — built by a rich bloke back in the 1970s, they decided to increase the width of their driveway. The aforementioned rich bloke had knocked down several houses and plonked his creation right in the middle of the now considerable grounds, all to impress his new bride.
It didn’t work, and he sold the house soon after.
Several owners later and Scarlett decided that this was to be their home.
Big houses were out of place in this neighbourhood, but it did have the benefit of being in the community where Sam grew up.
New electronic gates, with a pedestrian gate at the side (Sam was the only person who moved through it), were installed. The driveway brushed dangerously close to the sixty-year-old street tree. There was some discussion about whether the council would allow them to excavate so close to the tree.
These days the tree seemed happy enough, and if you stood under it — as someone obviously had, you would have a sweeping view up the paved driveway to the entrance of the house.
“What’s happening today, Sam?”
Scarlett was being considerate — showing some interest.
Since the accident, Sam’s world had become considerably smaller.
Blood, crushed metal, a rapid ride in an ambulance, followed by a frantic time in the emergency room.
“We have to relieve the pressure on his brain.”
What if we don’t, thought Scarlett.
A boring stay in a hospital room with an interesting view, followed by a stay in a rehabilitation facility. Sam made lifelong friends on that ward, but now he was home doing his best to regain lost memories.
“Your memories will come back slowly, or they may all come back at once, it’s hard to know,” said a kind face in a white lab coat.
“I have an appointment with Dr Doug at four, but not much till then,” said Sam.
“How’s it all going? The memory stuff, I mean?”
“Slowly. Dr Doug seems happy, but he would be, at five hundred dollars an hour.”
“Is that fair, Sam? Dr Doug has an excellent reputation for such a young psychiatrist. I liked him when I spoke to him. I think he has your best interests at heart. Give him a chance.”
Scarlett found Dr Doug and gently encouraged Sam to go and see him. Sam was prepared to be unimpressed, but the two of them got along. Dr Doug dealt in dreams and Sam had vivid and sometimes disturbing dreams, which he wrote down in great detail — a match made somewhere near heaven.
“I might go in early and wander around the city for a bit, or I might not and have a nap instead. I was up very early this morning. Which reminds me; you get up very early during the week. Have you noticed an older man standing outside our front gates?”
Scarlett ran her late father’s business empire, and she took it all seriously, arriving before anyone else.
“Not standing, but I have noticed an older man walking his dog. Between five-thirty and six each morning. Usually smoking a cigarette.”
“He could be the one,” said Sam.
“Why do you ask?” said Scarlett.
“I’m not sure. It just seems strange. I’ve seen him standing on the grass under the tree and staring at our house. He stands there looking like he is trying to make up his mind — ring the bell or not, then he walks off, dog in tow.”
“Do you think we need to be worried?”
It was evident from the size of their property that the Bennett’s were wealthy. Big money attracts some who might want to lighten their load.
“No. No need to worry,” said Sam.
The next morning, Sam was staring out of their first-floor bedroom window when the older man drifted into view. His dog stopped as though he knew in advance that they would be there for a while. The older man dropped his cigarette on the ground, stepped on it and lit up a new one, all the while leaning on the trunk of the tree.
Despite the distance to their front gate, Sam could see the man clearly.
This routine went on for several weeks before stopping abruptly.
Sam missed seeing the man and his dog. There was something comforting about their appearance at the appointed time. They had been coming for so many days that the little dog now walked to the tree and lay down, making itself comfortable, knowing there was going to be a long wait.
“The old man and his dog have stopped standing out the front,” said Sam over toast and coffee.
“Did you ever find out who he was?” asked Scarlett.
“No, and now I miss him.”
Sam retired from detecting when he married Scarlett, but this seemed like a good time to come out of retirement.
On his next walk to the tram, Sam knocked on a few doors. Mostly his knocking was met by silence until the retired couple who lived a few doors down opened their door.
“I think you are referring to Judge Nardella. He’s been retired for a long time now, and I sometimes talk to him on his early morning walks,” said Mr Wilson, (call me Ted).
“Neither of us sleeps very well, but Ted is worse than I am,” said Mrs Wilson, (call me Beryl).
“He was a big deal in his day. Sat in judgement on some high profile cases. Put Enselmo away for life. Lives in that big house up on Oakover Road. The red brick one with all the roses.”
“I know the woman who cleans his house, and she says that his house is full of boxes and filing cabinets. All his old court cases, apparently. Spent a fortune having them photocopied when he retired. She says he reads through his old cases looking for something,” said Mrs Wilson.
“Does she know what he’s looking for?” asked Sam.
“No. She doesn’t know, and she’s not game to ask.”
Sam finished his second cup of tea and wondered if he would make it into the city before he had to answer the call of nature — he didn’t. A stop at the Edinborough Garden was necessary.
His relief break made him slightly late for his session with Dr Doug, but he had a story to tell.
“So, what do you plan to do, Sam?” said Dr Doug.
“Investigate,” said Sam.
Another day went by before Sam walked the short distance to the judge’s house. Sam liked to let ideas percolate before taking action.
The front door was at the top of a few brick steps. Next to the door was an old pull handle doorbell. It was connected to a cable that rang a bell in the kitchen. The house was built at the same time as wealthy families had electricity installed, but some old building habits died hard.
The bell still worked. Sam could feel the resistance as he pulled on it and felt it settle back into position.
Sam was about to give it another pull when he heard the bolt on the front door unlock, and an elderly man opened the door.
The judge stood at Sam’s height. Grey thinning hair roughly combed and a gentle but determined face.
There was a moment’s silence after which the judge said, “Mr Bennett. I suppose you are wondering why I stand outside your house?”
“Good afternoon, judge. You come right to the point. Do you have a few moments?”
“No, I don’t, but if you are free tomorrow afternoon, about three, I would be delighted to serve you tea and cake. My housekeeper isn’t here today. She makes excellent teacake.”
“I’ll be here,” said Sam. He was disappointed, but he was also patient. His mentor had taught him that patience was essential. “Let the world come to you. Don’t push it away in your haste.”
Sam heard Scarlett’s car come up the long drive. He heard her thank her driver — she always did that, Scarlett treated everyone with respect.
The front door opened and Scarlett put her handbag on the hall table and her briefcase, a present from Sam, on the marble floor. She came into the old servant’s kitchen (Sam loved this room — a bit worn and very cosy — he wouldn’t let Scarlett redecorate it).
Sam had lit the fire, and a snack was waiting for her.
“Your coffee will be ready in just a moment.”
The coffee machine whirred happily on the bench.
“How did your day go?” said Sam, who desperately wanted to tell Scarlett about his adventure.
“Meetings all day. The glassworks expansion is going well, or so I’m told.”
“I love glass,” said Sam, for no particular reason.
“Are you okay, Sam. You’ve never professed a love for glass before, and it’s freaking me out.”
“I’m trying to be supportive. I read an article that said a wife should show interest in her husband’s work as soon as he gets home.”
“Now I’m really starting to worry.”
“I REALLY want you to ask me how my day went.”
It had been a long time since Sam had anything interesting to say when Scarlett came home.
“Okay. I’ll bite,” said Scarlett and Sam poured her coffee. The snacks looked good — she had skipped lunch again.
“Well,” said Sam making himself comfortable on a barstool.
“Don’t eat too much cake and no making eyes at his housekeeper,” said Scarlett before kissing Sam on the cheek. “I should be home on time. I can’t wait to hear about your meeting.”
The front door closed, and her car drove off. Now Sam was stuck with the task of filling in the hours till three.
He chopped some wood, mowed the back lawns — the front ones could wait a few days, walked the dogs and read the paper. Still three hours to go.
Sam’s physical condition was steadily improving, but an early afternoon nap was needed most days. This took him up to two-thirty. He showered and dressed and walked the distance to the judge’s house. His dogs were disappointed at not being invited.
“Maybe next time,” said Sam as he closed his front door.
The judge was waiting at the open door as Sam climbed the steps.
“Can I ring your doorbell, just for the fun of it?” asked Sam.
The judge nodded without expression.
With the door open, Sam could hear the bell ring deep within the house. It was satisfying.
The judge ushered Sam into the large front room. High ceilings, thick curtains, and lush furniture covered in boxes. Boxes covered most of the parquetry floor and oozed out through the connecting door into another room.
Two comfortable looking armchairs had been released from box covering duties, and Sam chose the one with its back to the window. The two men settled into their chairs as tea and cake magically appeared.
The judge’s housekeeper was modestly dressed, barely concealing her fifty-odd years. Sam tried to smile at her, but she avoided his gaze.
The judge poured from a china teapot. The tea was hot, and the cake left crumbs on Sam’s shirtfront. He tried to flick them onto his other hand and deposit them onto his plate with only moderate success.
Other than to compliment the judge on his teacake, Sam kept silent.
“In your career, have you ever caught someone who turned out to be innocent?” said former judge Nardella.
“Not that I know of,” said Sam.
“What would you do if you had?”
A moment of silence.
“Do my best to rectify the situation,” said Sam.
Another moment of silence.
“If you don’t mind me asking, are these, in the boxes, your old cases?”
“Why do you have them here?”
“I’m reading through them — looking.”
“For what, judge?”
“My mistake. I know it’s in here — somewhere.”
“I’m sure, with your reputation, the courts would dig out any file you asked for. What is the name of the defendant?”
“I don’t know which defendant it was,” said the judge. He stared at the boxes, and for a moment, Sam thought he had lost his attention.
“You don’t have to answer judge, but are you a religious man?”
“Yes. Catholic. Devout.”
“I don’t want to sound rude judge, but I strongly suggest that you stop torturing yourself.”
“I stood outside your house because I wanted to ask you what you would do. You are known as an honest, brave and principled individual. I couldn’t get up the courage to ask you, but here you are, and you have given me your answer.”
The judge went back to staring at his boxes, piled so high that Sam feared for the judge’s safety.
The dusty smell that only librarians and archivists know filled Sam’s nostrils as he said his goodbyes. The housekeeper showed him to the door.
“Your employer is not a well man,” said Sam.
“I know, but he doesn’t listen to me. Thank you for coming Mr Bennett.”
Sam’s walk home was considerably slower than his journey to the judge’s residence.
Scarlett was home very late despite her assurance. She crept into the bedroom so as not to wake her Sam.
“There’s a plate in the fridge. I can heat it up for you,” said Sam in a muffled voice from under the covers.”
“No need. I ate at the office. Someone Ubered Italian food. So how did your afternoon tea go?”
“I’ll tell you about it in the morning, but the headline reads, sad afternoon had by formerly famous detective.”
“Oh,” said Scarlett as she slipped into bed next to her Sam. She snuggled up to him feeling his warmth and smelling his aroma. She put her hand on his bottom.
“So, that’s how it is,” said Sam.
A little over three months later, a package arrived for Sam.
“Sign here please, sir,” said the thirty-something-year-old delivery driver. “Love your house. Felt like I needed a passport to get through the gate.”
Sam’s dogs were getting curious, trying to push past him to get at the delivery driver. In their experience, delivery drivers had a plethora of interesting scents to investigate.
Sam gave the young bloke a smile and carried the package into the small kitchen. It sat on the old bench like a suspicious package in the suspense movie.
The dogs looked at Sam for direction.
“I guess I should see what’s in it.” A thought crossed his mind, should I put it in a bucket of water first?
The thought passed quickly.
The package put up a bit of a fight. Finally open, there was a thick file with a person’s name on it. The folder was tattered and worn, and the name was written in an unsteady hand. Apart from the file, there was a letter.
Dear Mr Bennett.
I found what I was looking for.
After you have read the file, I give you my permission to do with it what you will. The man died in prison after his first three years of a life sentence, so I cannot put this right. Maybe, by shedding light on my foul deed, his family can have some peace. I am in no way defending myself, but at the time, I was distracted by domestic issues. I missed the clues because I was wrapped up in my own worries. I should have directed the jury to acquit, but I was selfish and self-absorbed. I hope my God will forgive me. My life will be over by the time you read this, and I’m wondering if my God will forgive my early arrival.
Thank you for listening to me. You are a good man.
The obituaries listed the death of former Judge Nardella and you had to read very carefully, between the lines, to decern that the good judge had taken his own life. The article listed his considerable achievements.
The man deserved his rest.
When Scarlett had gone to work, Sam walked to the far corner of his backyard. The dogs followed him and sniffed as he dug a large hole.
He placed the unopened file in the hole and poured kerosene on it, lit it and added more fuel until it was reduced to ashes. The dogs watched as he pocked the ashes and added more fuel, lit it again and watched it burn.
The dogs got bored and fell asleep on the lush grass as finally satisfied that the file was destroyed, Sam filled in the hole and walked back to his house.
I wrote this essay on one of my other blog sites (not in use now) in 2013. As it happens, it’s Melbourne Cup Day today as well. I’ve posted the text as it was and I’ve added notations, so you know how things have changed over those six years.
The first thing to note is that the dog in the foreground, Honey, died earlier this year and she is sorely missed.
MELBOURNE CUP: A Day Off.
It’s a public holiday here today, which tells you a lot about the city I live in.
As far as I know, this is the only place in the world that has a holiday for a horse race [it’s Melbourne Cup Tuesday here].
This also tells you a lot about my city of Melbourne, and it’s love affair [obsession] with sport.
It’s a beautiful day, which is not a given for this time of the year and we are taking it quietly in our house. My wife just ventured out into the garden for only the second time this year! (Not this year. We went to an excellent birthday party last night, and she is sitting up in bed ‘recovering’.) Weeds are now in bags, and a very nice cup of coffee was consumed on our recently rebuilt back deck. (The deck is now six years old and in need of another coat of oil — it’s on the list, but not at the top. I sit on this deck every morning drinking juice and listening to the birds. It’s an awesome way to greet the day.)
My lawnmower died a few weeks ago (I got it fixed, and recently it threw a blade but did not hit me — some days you are just plain lucky!) and it is difficult to get such things fixed at this time of the year, so the lawns are getting a bit jungle-like. It has been raining quite a bit (It has this year as well) but now it is warm, and the grass is rapidly getting to be taller than the dogs. The lawn looks great when it’s long, but it is impractical when you have small dogs. (Only one small dog in our house now — we have up to four at one stage — and he is feeling sorry for himself because he hurt his hind leg chasing a cockatoo)
Speaking of small dogs, Zed is having ‘one of those days’. His tummy hurts. He eats possum poo, and his tummy gets very sore. This usually manifests itself in the middle of the night, and no one gets any sleep, but today it surfaced at breakfast time, and he is working through it as I type. Nothing we can do for him until he feels like eating [just got told that he is in the kitchen eating his breakfast….. 6 hours later]. Hopefully, he will be feeling well enough to go for a walk on this beautiful day. (No walk for Zed today. He needs to rest his sore leg. Since I wrote this, we have changed the dog’s diet to raw food, and it has made a world of difference to Zed and his tummy. His bum does not hurt as often either.)
Work has well and truly begun on the McDonalds store up on the highway and as one of the security guards loves one of my dogs, he gives us the inside tips on how it is going. January is the expected finish date. With all the silliness that has been going on around this project, it will be good to see it finished. It will be the Maccas with the best view in Australia. (It did open but not until March, and it has been going strong ever since. I have partly written many of my books while drinking coffee. The young people who work there have become friends. One of the original protestors still chalks signs on the pavement outside the shop every Friday morning!)
Not feeling all that well today, but my spirits are high after a week where I got a lot of positive feedback on stories I have written. One story obviously struck a chord with a lady who had recently lost her father. This is a story that I’m very proud of, and it has gotten a lot of attention. (It is still one of my favourite stories.)
I also received some positive feedback from writers I follow, on a recent story. My ego needs constant feeding, and it got a lot this week. (My ego still needs continuous feedback. Since I wrote this, I have written a lot of stories and published more than a dozen books. I have taught myself how to make audiobooks and have published most of my back catalogue in this form. Audiobooks take a long time to produce, and I’m very proud of this achievement. My audiobooks have sold reasonably well, but my ebooks have not done so well — no, I don’t understand that either.)
If you are in Melbourne, I hope you enjoy your day off, and if you are anywhere else in the world, I hope your day is a good day.
“So, why did you ring me. I’m no expert,” I said, with a hint of annoyance.
I’d been happily ensconced in front of my old computer which must surely turn up its toes and die, but for now, it is excellent for watching ‘big-screen movies’.
“You’re the smartest bloke I know, and besides, who else am I going to ring in the middle of the day? Everyone I know is at work,” said Thomas, my sometime friend.
“I was at work!” I said in a voice that was a bit too loud to suit the occasion, but I’m sick of people thinking that what I do isn’t work — even if I was watching a movie instead of painting.
“Yeah, I know, but you know what I mean — you are at home, and your boss isn’t going to yell at you if you stop working for an hour or two.”
He had a point. I’m my own boss — mostly because I’m too proud to work for someone who is obviously an idiot and that pretty much sums up most employers — in my extensive experience.
So, here I am, standing in Thomas’s lounge room. Thomas inherited the house from his mum, who died way too young, preceded by his dad, who died even younger. I always loved this house. Thomas and I would play for hours in this dark, carpeted room. Timber walls in need of varnish, rich tapestry curtains edging leadlight double-hung windows looking out onto the neighbour’s timber pailing fence, a few flowers poking their heads above the window sill. Thomas didn’t tend his mother’s garden, it just kept growing — a testament to his mother’s horticultural skill.
The two large parchments were spread out on the walnut dining table, the same one we built a slot car track on when we were kids. The table will seat eight people without anyone bumping elbows.
The page on the left was a bit more tattered. The sentences were written in red ink, probably using a wide nibbed calligraphy pen. The page on the right was in better condition, the sentences written in black ink using a similar width nib.
Despite the condition of both pages, the writing was crisp and clear, as though freshly written.
“Where did you get them?” I asked.
“Did a job for Jimmy over in Toorak.”
“Why didn’t Jimmy ring me. He knows I need the cash.”
“Everyone who works for Jimmy needs the cash,” said Thomas.
Jimmy runs a couple of business, all on a strict cash basis. I’ve worked for him for years, on and off. Jimmy’s companies clean offices and meatworks, and when the need arises, he clears houses for a Real Estate chain.
“Big place. Belonged to some bloke who diddled the banks. Took off and left everything. Some of it was choice.”
“How would you know?” I said. Jimmy usually called me in when there was a sniff of classy stuff. My family dealt in antiques, and some of the knowledge rubbed off on me.
“Everything was heavy.”
“That’s because good furniture is usually made from quality hardwoods, walnut, oak, teak, cedar,” I said. Some of those timbers aren’t exactly hardwoods, but Thomas wouldn’t know the difference, so why tell him.
“Shut up a minute and let me look at these things,” I said.
The parchment may have been old. Only a few tests would be able to date it, but the ink was much younger.
Beautifully written, each short sentence spelled out in capital letters. The sentences reminded me of those annoying posts on Facebook. The ‘motivational’ ones printed over pretty backgrounds. ‘Don’t eat carrots on a Friday’, ‘Be good to your mother, leave home’, that sort of thing.
I read each parchment several times and was none the wiser.
“You dragged me away from my work for this,” I said.
“I know they don’t look like much,” said Thomas staring at his hands.
“So why call me in?”
“Every morning, when I get up, I walk past them on my way to the toilet and every day the writing is different.”
“Different how?” I said.
“The sentences are different. Not the same as yesterday.”
“Have you been smoking anything unusual, Thomas?”
“Kicked the stuff, cold turkey, a couple of months ago,” said Thomas, which explained a lot. He had been quieter lately and didn’t say stupid things as often.
“Wow,” I said. Thomas had been smoking weird substances for most of his adult life. He always smelled sweet and a bit sickly. That smell was absent from his house and I only just realised it.
“It changes every day?” I said.
“When does it change?” I said.
“I don’t exactly know. I fall asleep when it gets dark. I try to stay awake, but I wake up, and it’s morning.”
“Where did you find them?”
“Well, to be exact, I didn’t. Buster did.”
Buster is Thomas’s dog. His IQ beats Thomas’s by about twenty points. Buster looks a lot like Snowy, Tin Tin’s dog from the classic Belgian comics. Buster goes everywhere Thomas goes.
“Upstairs in one of the spare bedrooms. The carpet was loose in one corner. It wasn’t part of the job to take up the carpet, only the loose rugs — mostly Persian. I was buggered, and we’d packed the truck. I thought I’d better give the place the once over to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. Buster was having a great time. I don’t always let him run around when we work, as you know. Some places are pig styes — broken bottles and sharp sticky things, but this house was pristine. Only a slight layer of dust due to the owner being away. He must have left in a hurry because we found dirty plates on the kitchen table and a cupboard full of sheets that were probably furniture covers, all neatly packed away.”
“So?” I said.
“Buster stayed with me as we went from room to room. I wasn’t paying close attention. It was obvious if the rooms were empty or not. The last room at the end of the hall was the smallest. The carpet was older than the rest of the house and Buster was very interested in one corner of the room. You know how well behaved he is when we do these jobs, well he was going nuts trying to get the carpet to fold back. I told him off and went over to see what he was up to. There they were. Dusty, but pretty much the way you see them.”
“Why didn’t you hand them in with the rest of the stuff?”
“I always keep something for myself. I thought they might be a treasure map or something.”
“Make us a cup of tea, and I’ll have another look at these things,” I said.
The parchments were curling up on the top and bottom edges, almost to the point where they needed something substantial placed on them to keep them flat. This seemed strange to me considering how long they must have been under the carpet.
At times, the sentences were nonsensical.
The red scroll seemed to be obsessed with clothing and how to wear it.
‘Turn your collar up when the wind doth blow.’
‘Button thy trousers carefully in the presence of a lady.’ A bloke definitely wrote that. I can see him checking his fly buttons before exiting the bathroom.
‘Never wear a large hat on a Sunday.’ Why not? What would happen if you did?
The black scroll seemed more interested in manners.
‘Pick not your nose on a sunny day.’
‘Pass not wind on an open staircase during the gloaming.’ What if you were about to explode? And when exactly does ‘the gloaming’ start and end?
Thomas came into the room carrying a tarnished silver tray with a chipped china teapot and a couple of mugs that probably came from one of the house clearings.
“Odd collection,” I said.
“What?” said Thomas.
“Never mind,” I said. “Have you written down what the scrolls have said on other days?”
“Not at first, but once I noticed they changed every day, I wrote them down.”
“Give me a look,” I said, and Thomas rifled through a drawer on the sideboard and produced a few pages of poorly written text.
“Don’t ever write a ransom note in longhand. They will definitely trace it back to you,” I said. Thomas got the inference. He looked hurt.
I read through the pages, and they made about as much sense as the current parchments.
A long silence.
“I’m buggered if I know what it all means,” I said. “Do you want to take Buster for a walk?” Buster instantly stood up at the mention of the magic word.
“Don’t you have to get back to work?” said Thomas.
“Nah, the day’s buggered now. Let’s walk.”
Buster was at the door, waiting expectantly. We gathered up his favourite treats and his lead and headed off into the wilds of suburbia. One of the black scroll inscriptions flashed into my head.
‘Don’t leave your wireless playing when you leave the house.’
“You don’t have the radio playing, do you, Thomas?”