Flying Pizza

It isn’t necessary for you to read the FIRST STORY in this sequence of stories, but you might like to. Each story is designed to stand alone, but you will see the sequence as you go along. PART ONE was called THE CHRISTENING and you can read it HERE.

SCENE:

A shopping strip like any other. Fallen Angel Pizza does not have a verandah. The shop is sandwiched between a cafe and a shop selling printer ink. This shop has a notice in the window warning that it will be closed until next week — death in the family. Fallen Angel Pizza is just setting up for the evening trade when Inspector McBride and Sergeant Wilson park their car on the opposite side of the street. A young man is sweeping the footpath as the two policemen enter the shop.

“So, why did you call your business Fallen Angel Pizza?” said Sergeant Wilson.

The Inspector gave him a glance. Inspector McBride liked to be crisp and precise when questioning members of the public. He too was intrigued by the name, but knowing the answer was not likely to lead to the killer. It was too late to shut down this line of enquiry, so he let it play out.

“I didn’t. I mean I did, but only because it was less paperwork to leave the name the way I found it when I bought the business. They charge you for everything these days. Besides, the punters love the name. It does attract a few nutters but. Still, nut bags have to eat, I guess. The crazy ones tip better so the drivers like them,” said William Dundee, whose ancestors had emigrated to Australia only moments before they would likely have been transported. William Dundee had never been to Scotland, but he spoke with a strange approximation of what he thought his ancestors sounded like.

“Do you have contact details for all your delivery drivers?” said Inspector McBride.

“All my delivery drivers?”

“Yes. All of your drivers.”

Dundee held in the smile until he could no longer.

“I’m not Pizza Hut, Inspector. I only have two delivery drivers at the moment.”

“Do they both wear wings?” said the Sergeant.

This time Dundee did not bother to contain his smile.

“Only one. Christopher Dawson. But he likes to be known as Raphael. He wasn’t always into angels until he started working here — or so he says. Mad bugger, but a good worker. Customers love him. He makes about three times what I pay him in tips. Rides around on a bicycle with wings on his helmet which would make him look like Mercury if it wasn’t for the wings glued to his leather jacket. I’ve never seen him without that jacket. Blood good job of sticking those wings on. They seem to grow out of his jacket. Must have taken him forever to get them just right.”

Dundee scribbled something on a scrap of paper and handed it to the Inspector.

The Inspector glanced at it before putting it in his side pocket.

“Thank you for your time, Mr Dundee. We may need to speak to you again.”

“It all seems a bit too easy,” said the Sergeant as the two men stepped into the street.

“I’m not sure what this is, but I’ll feel better when we’ve spoken to this Dawson character.”

“Are you hungry Inspector?” said the Sergeant.

“Good thinking,” said the Inspector.

The two men sat in their blue unmarked car and consumed a pizza while they waited for Christopher Dawson to arrive at work.

The sun was going down, and the strip of shops was bathed in a golden glow that made them appear way more interesting than they actually were.

Eating pizza and the glare from the sun made the two men almost miss the arrival of the winged deliverer.

He was quite a sight. Winged chrome helmet, leather jacket despite the warm weather and best of all, two perfectly formed wings sprouting from the back of his jacket. The golden glow bounced off the pristine white feathers giving them a golden pink hue.

“How do you reckon he keeps those feathers so clean?” said the Sergeant.

“Save that question until we find out if he likes killing people, will you, Sergeant.”

SCENE:

The rear of Fallen Angel Pizza. An alleyway with a wire fence on one side bordering the railway line. Two plain-clothed policemen are questioning a pizza delivery driver.

Sergeant Wilson would like to remove his jacket because he is hot from standing in the afternoon sun. The delivery driver does not remove his leather jacket. A train goes by, and the delivery driver turns to watch it. The feathers from the delivery driver’s wings brush the face of Sergeant Wilson. The sensation is a pleasant one.

“Have you ever delivered to the flats on the Hemingway Estate?”

The Inspector knew that he had.

“Yes,” said the winged delivery man.

“Two Fridays ago?”

“I’d have to check the date, but I think so.”

“Did you happen to notice anything unusual?”

Christopher Dawson hesitated before answering.

“The front door to number twelve was open and I had a sinking feeling that I was too late.”

“Too late for what, Mr Dawson?”

“To save her. I knew she was in danger, but I thought I had more time.”

“More time for what, Mr Dawson?”

“To save her.”

SCENE:

Police interrogation room. Inspector McBride and Sergeant Wilson sit across a metal table from Christopher Dawson. Mr Dawson is still wearing his jacket. Mr Dawson has been given an official caution, and the tape machine is recording. Three paper cups containing water sit untouched on the table. No one even considers lighting up a cigarette.

“You said earlier, when we spoke to you at the pizza shop, that you needed more time to save her. Who were you referring to?”

“The woman who was murdered.”

“Did you kill her, Mr Dawson?”

Inspector McBride liked to get the question out of the way early on. Other officer preferred to wait.

“No Inspector. I haven’t killed anyone in a very long time.”

The Inspector wanted to ask what he meant by that statement, but he felt it would push the interrogation off track, so he let it slide.

“But you were there?”

“Yes. I found her and I knew my mission was at an end.”

“Mission?”

“You must know that a woman is killed every day of the year by someone she lives with. Three hundred and sixty-five women every year. It was my mission to convince this woman to leave before the inevitable happened.”

“Why was it your mission?”

“She had important things to achieve and being dead would mean that she couldn’t achieve them.”

“You’re a strange one, Mr Dawson. If you don’t mind me saying so?” said the Inspector.

“I don’t mind at all.”

“If you found her like that, why didn’t you call the police?” said the Sergeant.

“She was dead. My involvement was at an end.”

“How did you get out of there without leaving a trace?”

For the first time since they had met, Mr Dawson smiled.

SCENE:

The coffee room at the police station where Inspector McBride and Sergeant Wilson are stationed. The room is large and half empty. The floor hasn’t been swept, and empty coffee cups are spilling out of the garbage can in the corner. Sergeant Wilson would very much like to light a cigarette, but those days are gone.

“The men in white coats went over his flat with a fine-toothed vacuum cleaner and came up with nothing. We could do him for not reporting the crime scene but a good brief would get him off. We have nothing on him. He has to be one of the strangest blokes I’ve come across and I’ve arrested football players so that’s saying something. Still and all, I can’t help liking the bloke. Wouldn’t trust him to have my back, but I like him all the same,” said Sergeant Wilson while chomping on a chocolate croissant.

“There is nothing in her file about living with someone. Someone must have come across her partner. Interview her workmates again. She must have talked about her partner. Women love to brag or complain about their other half.

SCENE:

The back of the shop — Fallen Angel Pizza. Two plain-clothes police are talking to the pizza shop owner. Several men in white jumpsuits are swarming over the body of a dead young male. Trains periodically travel past, making it difficult to carry on a conversation.

“So what did Mr Dawson tell you before he left?”

“He said that there was a body at the back of the shop and that I should ring you blokes because you don’t like it when someone gets murdered and no one says anything.”

“Was that all he said?”

“No. He said that he was sick of not getting there on time, which didn’t make any sense to me because he was always punctual. The customers loved him.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes. It freaked me out a bit. He stood in front of me and it seemed to me that his wings got bigger, which is nuts.”

“What did he say?”

The pizza shop owner didn’t want his best delivery driver to get into trouble, but he told them anyway.

“He said he hadn’t killed anyone in a long time, and he thought that this time he might be in trouble. I didn’t ask him what he meant and I don’t want to know.”

The pizza shop owner would have to go to the station and make a formal statement, but that could wait until tomorrow. There were pizzas to make.

A search of Dawson’s flat revealed that he had packed up and left, which came as no surprise to Inspector McBride.

“We need to be very careful about the way we write this one up,” said the Inspector and the Sergeant agreed.

Before going home, they bought half a dozen beers and sat in the park near the Fallen Angel Pizza and ate a delicious pizza, with the lot — on the house.

When the beer and pizza had been consumed, the two men travelled home to their loved ones.

They slept soundly and never mentioned a word of the case to the ones closest to them.

The boyfriend was never charged because he was dead and it’s hard to cross-examine a dead bloke.

The file was closed with a brief explanation that said, the main suspect is deceased. No further action required.

The dead boyfriend’s file mentioned the bloke with the helmet and wings as being the likely murderer.

It also said that after an exhaustive search, no trace of Christopher Dawson aka Raphael has been found.

The Christening

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SCENE:

Medium-sized bluestone church — probably Catholic, maybe Church of England, remote possibility of Episcopalian — do we have Episcopalians in Australia? It’s early afternoon. The sun is low and bright, The previous christening party have just left, reluctantly — a bit of glaring from the parents when the minister/priest has to shoo them away so that the next christening can begin. Four stone steps lead up to the large green wooden doors — which are wide open. Fake wrought iron hinges painted black.

“They pack ‘em in, don’t they?” said Sergeant Wilson.

Even though Sergeant Wilson wears a suit and a tie every working day, today, his shirt collar is bothering him.

“Religion is a business, like everything else,” said Inspector McBride. A very pretty young woman from the previous ceremony caught his eye. She held his gaze as he pivoted away from his Sergeant.

Helen, the Inspector’s wife, is cuddling her infant and trying to occupy it. She doesn’t want the tiny child to start crying any earlier than necessary.

Helen notices her husband’s interest in the young woman and her interest in him.

Women like my tall, handsome husband,’ she thinks. The thought pleases her and frightens her at the same time.

“Come inside everyone,” says the minister/priest, and the waiting group shuffle up the steps and into the place of worship. The temperature drops noticeably, and the windows cast streams of light, and as if Woody Allen had produced the scene, a shaft of coloured light strikes the baptismal font. The assembled group of friends and family head towards the light.

Gathered around the font, the minster/priest speaks the words that will bind the child and its parents to the Church forever, or at least until the child is old enough to shed these ideas.

“Do you renounce Satan?” said the celebrant.

“I do,” says Sergeant Wilson, who wonders why the answer is precisely the same as when someone marries. Did he just inadvertently marry Satan? Probably not, but who can tell with these ancient and confusing rituals.

Sergeant Wilson is now the godfather of Inspector and Helen McBride’s son and heir.

Wilson hopes that he will never have to fulfil his duties, but a policeman’s lot can be deadly.

Wilson had only met the child’s godmother once — when they went through the procedure with the celebrant about a week ago. It rained, and the church was lit dimly, but the candles gave it a golden glow. Someone had given the ancient timber pews a good going over and the aroma of furniture polish filled the air.

Wilson’s attempt at humour had fallen flat, ‘so you’re the fairy godmother’ — and now Helen’s best friend thought he was a lame policeman — no coming back from that.

What did he care? After the ceremony, he probably would not have to see her again, unless something unspeakable happened.

Wilson came to the conclusion that the whole thing was a show for Helen’s family. It didn’t make practical sense to have two people who didn’t know each other responsible for a child.

From the child’s point of view, it guaranteed at least two extra presents come birthday time.

The assembled multitude wandered outside for photos.

The smokers in the group dispersed to the downwind side — no need to draw the wrath of the grandparents.

Once the main photos had been taken, the two policemen found each other.

“Coming back to the house for a sandwich and beer?” said the Inspector.

“I’ll poke my head in, but I want to interview the neighbours one more time. Most of them were out when the plods knocked on doors,” said Sergeant Wilson.

“If we don’t get a break soon, this one is going to get away from us,” said the Inspector.

“The blood samples came back. Nothing but her’s. No smears, no footprints, no nothing. How did he get out of the room without leaving any marks?”

“Maybe the bugger had wings.”

“The photographer wants a few shots of you holding the baby,” said Helen. Neither of the men had seen her approach.

“Do I have to?” said the Inspector. His wife didn’t answer, she didn’t need to.

He took the infant from her and walked to the appointed spot.

“Just one on your own,” said the photographer trying to disguise his indifference. He did an excellent job of it, and most people thought he was genuinely in love with taking their photo. In his mind, he was on a beach with scantily clad women who all wanted an intimate portfolio.

“Now one with the grandparents.”

“Now one with the godparents.”

The Inspector and his child stood in the middle, and Wilson stood on his right. The photographer didn’t complain, so he stayed there.

The godmother, who was wondering if she looked as good as she felt, stood looking at the lens as the photographer instructed.

The finished photograph showed three adults and one child, all wondering what the future would bring.

“Now one with the aunties.”

Wilson didn’t go back to the house for a sandwich and a beer and the godmother was sorry that he didn’t. She was sad that her nerves made her react badly when she first met him. She’d let the child’s mother colour her thoughts, something she tried to avoid. She liked to make up her own mind about people. But, on the occasion of a christening rehearsal, she let her impatience show through, and the godfather had taken it as yet another rejection.

Sergeant Wilson was not ‘good with women’. He never knew what to say to them, so he usually said nothing or something that made him look a bit off.

Sergeant Wilson knocked on the doors surrounding the murder scene and found a woman who remembered the night in question. She saw a man leave the apartment.

“I know it sounds weird, but he looked like he had wings,” said the neighbour of the murder victim.

“Have you ever seen him before?”

“I’m pretty sure he delivers pizza.”

“Which pizza place?”

“Fallen Angel Pizza, on William’s road. Just near the bank.”

“Do you think you could pick him out if we arranged a line-up?”

“Yes. Especially if he’s wearing those wings.”

SCENE:

Inspector and Helen McBride’s house. A double fronted Californian bungalow. People are spilling out of the front of the house and onto the lawn. The conversation is lively. Inspector McBride is sitting on his front fence with a bunch of sandwiches in one hand and a beer in the other. When his mobile phone rings, he puts his beer on the wall and answers his phone.

Inspector McBride.”

“Inspector, it’s Wilson. I’ve found a witness. Remember when you said you thought the killer must have flown out of the scene?”

“Yes”.

“My witness says the bugger had wings!”

You Knew My Son

Flinders Lane — the heart of the garment district in Melbourne.

My mum loved to walk me down this intriguing strip of shops and tiny factories.

We’d get off the tram at the top of Collins Street and walk down the hill which felt like a mountain when it was time to head for home.

Everything about being in The City meant unbounded excitement and fatigued legs — when I was a boy.

The narrow streets like Flinders Lane and Little Collins Street and Little Bourke, were the tradesman’s entrances for the grander boulevards — Collins Street being the grandest.

I wasn’t sightseeing or reliving old memories of childhood; this was business.

During the quiet moments between battles, I daydreamed about my young life, my mother and my childhood friends — it helped to keep me going, but today I needed to fulfil a promise and outfit myself for a new life.

“How can I help you today, sir?” said the old man. I wondered if he sometimes forgot and went out in the street with his cloth tape-measure still around his neck.

“Yes. I think you can,” I said.

There was a considerable difference in our heights. He wore a waistcoat and collar and tie — precisely as I expected. The waistcoat and his pants were pinstriped. His shoes were old, expensive and perfectly polished.

His face was tired and old, but there was a light in his eyes. I once knew an old dog who looked at me the same way — worn out but bright and alive inside.

“I need a dinner suit, but before we get to that, I wanted you to know that I knew your son, Mr Ziegler. Thomas was my friend.”

The old man froze, like a clock that needed winding. I worried that he might suddenly crumple into a heap.

“You knew my son?” he said. It sounded like he was speaking to me from far away.

“Yes, sir. We were in the Second Twelfth together. I was with him when he was awarded the DCM. After Kokoda, they split us up. He was in hospital and they sent me to North Africa. I saw him the day before he died. I was back home on leave and got off the ship in Brisbane so that I could visit him.”

“Were you with him when he died?”

“No, sir. I went back the next day but he had died in the night. It was sudden and quick. He would not have suffered.” I didn’t know if this was true, but it is always the question that relatives ask — did he suffer?

I’ve had three of these conversations since I came home. It hurts in a way that is difficult to describe — a massive headache that lasts all day followed by wishing I had better words — wishing there were words that conveyed how I felt.

“You were friends?”

“Yes, sir. We were.” My voice almost failed me. I’ve cried enough tears, but always in private—no need to make this father feel worse.

Have you noticed that there isn’t a word for a parent who has lost a child? 

You are orphaned if you have lost your parents, widowed if your spouse dies, but there is no word for a father who is grieving for a son. Maybe the people who make up words thought that it was too terrible to contemplate, so they left the inexorable grief unnamed.

“We made a pact. If something happened to one of us, the other one would visit their parents and offer some comfort.” I knew the idea of comfort was ridiculous, but I said it anyway.

The old man looked at me for a moment. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

“Was he a good comrade?” I was expecting him to ask was he a good soldier — a father’s question.

“He saved my life at least twice and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have a DCM. He charged off across open ground and I had to follow him. He was that sort of bloke. You wanted to follow him — be with him. It’s not that he wasn’t scared, he was. It’s just that he never let the fear control him. In truth — I loved him and it broke my heart when he died. I became someone else after that — cold hearted, intent on revenge. I’m not proud of that time in my life. I don’t think Tom would have approved. He wasn’t like that. He was fighting for his country. He didn’t hate anyone. I’ve tried to live up to him since I got de-mobbed.”

“Wars do terrible things to the men who fight them. Don’t let your experiences define you, young man. If Thomas liked you, you must be a good person.”

We stood there for a while before Mr Ziegler offered me coffee.

We sat and sipped out of old cups, and I answered all his questions.

As our conversation continued, the old man visibly became straighter and more alive. As though I had brought some of his dead son with me into the showroom.

“So, what do you need me to make for you?” he said.

I looked around at the tailor’s dummies lining the walls and pointed to the tux which sat between the marked-up suit jackets, ready for their customers to be given another fitting.

“Something special on the horizon?” said the old man taking the tape measure from around his neck, as he must have done countless times. A clear sign that he was in work mode.

I stood up without being asked. He measured all the parts of me that were needed, and I stood as awkwardly as every man who ever had another man run his hand up his inside leg.

“Do you dress to the right or the left?” he asked.

His question took me by surprise, but I knew what he meant. The creator had given me enough down there to create a problem for a tailor.

“Right — usually.”

I imagined my wife’s reaction when I tell her I had to answer that question.

I don’t like to think of HIM being restricted to only one side.

I know that she will put her hand on me and look lovingly into my eyes and I will have no choice but to take her then and there — so I had better not mention it until we have some privacy.

“How much will the Tux cost?” I said.

“No need to worry about that just yet,” said the old man, busy writing measurements in a tattered black notebook.

“Tom always said you were the best tailor in Melbourne,” I said.

“Only Melbourne?” said the old man and I laughed.

“Maybe he said Australia and I misheard,” I said with a smile.

“Cuffs?” said the old tailor who was in full flight.

“Yes, please. Are they in fashion?” I said.

“Who cares? This is formal wear. You want to look your best. You are tall and well built and cuffs say you know where you are going.”

I wonder how many times he had told a customer that. I chose to think that it was only for me.

“I’m not looking for any special favours, Mr Ziegler,” I said, and I meant it. My budget was tight, but I was not going to abuse my friendship with Tom.

“Let’s see if you like the suit before we talk about money. Can you come back in a week and I’ll have a mock up for you to try on.”

Without a disparaging word, he inquired if I would want a new ‘everyday’ suit.

The one I was wearing was my Sunday best — my best friend’s father deserved the courtesy of the best appearance I had to offer. I bought the suit before the war, and I guess his expert eye could spot a not very expensive ‘off the rack’.

“I do, but my budget won’t stretch that far just yet.”

“You let me worry about that,” he said, and I knew it was going to be a battle to get him to take my money.

“A few shillings a month will do me fine. You can pay them off, I’m in no hurry. I’ll show you some fabrics when you come back for a second fitting,” he said.

I was standing on a small, well-worn box. I guessed that it made it easier for him to work on cuffs without having to kneel on the floor.

“I was wondering….” he said.

“What?”

“Will you be carrying?”

This was the second question that took me by surprise.

In the Army, all our weapons were on belts or carried in our hands. On civi street, the rules were different, so the question was a reasonable one.

“Not while wearing a Tux, no. But the everyday suit might need to accomodate a revolver, possibly a 38, in a holster, under my arm.”

He nodded as though this was a question and answer that he engaged in regularly. I expected him to ask if I was right or left-handed — he didn’t. I’d been holding my cup in my right hand.

I climbed down off the box, and I shook his hand — we held onto each other for longer than men usually do. He looked me in the eye, and I had to turn away. I don’t do well with direct eye contact at the best of times, and this old man’s eyes were telling me things that were hard to bear.

I dropped into Young and Jackson’s before catching the tram for home. I drank a bit too much, and I must have looked a bit unsteady because the tram conductor put out his hand to steady me when I got on the tram.

It was packed solid with commuters, so the conductor and I were stuck in the doorway. At the next stop, he would jump off and go to the next door and repeat his call for ‘fares please’.

As it turned out, he stayed for three stops.

“Rough day mate?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said and tried not to breathe on him.

“Were you in the army mate?” 

“Yeah. How did you know it was the Army? I’m handsome enough to have been a flyboy,” I said. 

Do you know that feeling you get when you’ve had just enough beer to make you feel good, but your mouth takes on a life of its own and you can hear what you are saying several seconds after you say it? Well, that’s how I was. Not drunk, but not sober either.

“You’ve got that look in your eyes. Not quite here but not back there either.”

“You too, if it comes to that,” I said.

“Have a rough time?”

“About as bad as most, but I made it back. A lot of poor buggers didn’t. That’s where I was today. Buying a suit from the dad of my best mate. He asked me lots of questions and I had answers for some of them, but I made up a lot shit as well. Needed a few pints afterwards. Don’t usually get drunk during the day. Doesn’t end well if you let it take over.”

I realised I was doing all the talking, so I shut up.

“What about you Connie? Where did you end up?” I said.

The conductor looked at me.

“All over, but Tobruk was the worst.”

“A fellow ‘Rat’. Good on ya Digger.”

“You too mate. Go gently now,” he said as he jumped off before the tram stopped and climbed back on the through the back door.

I could hear his voice,  fares, please. 

Without our soldier’s uniform, we both look like ordinary blokes — but we aren’t — not ordinary anymore, but there’s always hope.

By the time the tram reached my stop, the crowd had thinned out, and I got a seat for the last ten minutes or so. I’d sobered up enough to get off the tram unassisted.

I looked back as the tram pulled away, and the conductor gave me a wave. 

I burst into quiet tears. 

An old lady with a shopping basket looked at me then looked away.

I walked quickly with my eyes down, the tears cold on my cheeks.

There was a chance that someday the tears would stop, but for now the well-rehearsed, “Just a bit of hay fever,” would get me by. The old lady and her shopping smiled at me, “It gets me that way too son, sometimes” she said and I’m not entirely sure she was talking about sinus trouble.

I hurried past the school grounds without seeing any children. The caretaker was enjoying the late afternoon silence while emptying rubbish bins.

I heard the whistle blow to end the afternoon shift for the workers at the carpet factory.

You didn’t need a watch if you lived anywhere near a church or a factory.

I knew that my wife would be waiting for me, and I looked forward to the familiar aromas of her cooking as I opened our front door.

She’d ask me about my day, and I would tell everything except about the tears.

We’d sit by the fire, and I’d tell her about the old man and his son.

I’d save the story about, ‘which way do you dress’ until it was time for bed.

We’d hold each other tightly as we shut out the horrors and the anxiety of the past.

The promise of tomorrow could wait until the morning.

Our time would be now, and we would have every minute of it.

 

Zeitgeber

The cup and saucer are mine.

The uniform’s mine as well. 

Two shillings a week comes out of my pay packet until it is paid for.

Twelve-hour shifts, six days a week.

I’ve been refused permission to return to the front.

“Considering you walked away and took yourself home, you are very lucky we took you back at all,” said Matron Silver.

I understood what she meant.

I had a good excuse, but I also knew that explaining it all again was a waste of time.

I signed up so that I could be close to my brother.

I achieved that goal only to nurse him back to health and see him return to his unit.

 

My service at the front started after many months of training at a hospital not far from home. Only then was I was dispatched to the front. A small town not far from the Belgian border.

Months of blood, mud and exhaustion.

I received word that my brother was ‘missing in action’.

Missing in action can mean one of two things — he’s at an aid station, unidentified, or he is dead.

My heart wanted to believe that he was sitting in a bar in some small Belgian village, just behind the lines — dazed and confused, trying to remember who he is.

One rainy exhausting day, a colleague told me my brother had been brought in. I found him lying among the soldiers who were pronounced dead on arrival.

Like every loving sister since the beginning of time, I didn’t want to believe it.

I dragged him out from the line of dead young men and cradled him in my arms. There was still a faint glimmer of life in him, and over the coming months, I nursed him back to something approaching good health.

When they sent him back in action, he promised to write every week, and he did, but the glacial movement of mail meant that his last letter arrived about two weeks after he disappeared in action, for the second time.

Every person has a limit to their endurance, but we don’t know what that limit looks like until we are tested.

My role as a combat nurse was voluntary. I wasn’t in the army, so I could leave if I wanted to. So I did.

I was done.

Exhausted.

Spent.

The voyage home, in a ship full of wounded young men, was mercifully short.

At home, I spent a lot of time in the garden sitting under my favourite tree waiting for news of my brother — news that never came.

My brother and I were best friends. 

He stood up to my father when I wanted to go to University. He won the day, and I followed him to Edinburgh. He was in his final year when war broke out. I was at the end of my first year.

He enlisted, and I left University and took up nursing.

The head of the women’s College was furious with me for leaving my degree studies.

“You have a first-class brain and a heart to match. Young men will be marching off to war forever and a day. You have a chance to decide your own future, don’t throw that away to follow a man.”

I tried to make her understand that I owed it to him to return his loyalty, and she just sighed.

“I can’t guarantee that you will be allowed back if you survive the war. I only make room for women who understand that the future requires commitment and courage. You obviously have courage but I doubt your commitment,” she said as she turned and walked away. 

I was determined to follow my brother, but I was sad that I’d let her down. She was the most inspiring woman I had ever met, and disappointing her was something I did not want to do.

 

It’s about three o’clock in the morning, and the ward is quiet. 

Earlier, Captain Wainwright was keeping the other men awake with his constant nightmares, constant screaming.

“Gas, gas. Get your bloody masks on. Gas! Gas!”

The exertion made his lungs raw, and he coughed so much he began to bleed — again.

We settled him with a sedative, and the ward has been quiet ever since.

“Thanks, sister. I know the poor bugger has been through it, but there’s a good chance I might strangle him if I don’t get some sleep,” said the sergeant in the last bed on the ward.

As I said, the cup and saucer belong to me, or they are mine now. They were my grandmother’s, and she left them to me.

I ‘brew up’ at this time and sit quietly and sip my tea and wonder about my brother and what my life will look like now he is gone.

Being able to look after these soldiers makes me feel close to him, but one day all this madness will end and then, what do I do? 

Mrs Houdini

When you look at a person, you only see what you see.

You don’t see what came before.

A woman in a nightgown and slippers who has trouble remembering where she is, does not give a hint as to who she was.

The young staff members named her ‘Mrs Houdini’ because she held the record for the most number of daylight escapes.

Those who grow old and forget are often dismissed, but many of them lived through world wars, lost children to disease and despair, struggled through the Depression, worked for a wage and bought up a family — they learned a thing or two along the way.

They learned to look like they are not looking while the sister punches in the key code. Like seeing where the key to the ward is kept and knowing when the nurses’ station is unattended — things like that.

Mrs Houdini’s real name was Alice, Alice Johnson, and whenever she escaped, she headed for the little cemetery next to the old stone church.

Benjamin Johnson lay in that cemetery.

There was a bench near his grave, and she sat and told him all her news, but on this day she remembered something.

“I must go and tell Jimmy,” she said as she rose to her feet. Her drink bottle sat forgotten on the bench. It was one of those drink bottles that you give to small children, so they don’t spill their milk everywhere.

The drink bottle was still there when Jim Johnson arrived at the graveyard, about thirty minutes after he got the call. He would have come sooner, but he had a dead body to take care of first — work is work, and his commander was sick of him having to rush off and search for his wayward mother.

“I spend seventy-five percent of my free time either taking care of, or looking for my mother. You would think that the gigantic chunk of my salary I give them every month would cover the cost of them finding her whenever they loose her,” he said to his colleague, who was only half listening.

Jim Johnson didn’t tell his superior he was looking for his mother — again. Instead, he took the long way back to the office via the churchyard.

He missed her by a few minutes, and he would not see her again for two days. 

Two days and nights.

When he found her again, she was in remarkably good condition. Her slippers were a bit muddy, and her nightgown was torn at the hem, but she could not remember where she had been for those two days and nights. It really didn’t matter — she was safe and back in his arms — his mother was safe.

The only part of her adventure she could remember was the last bit, the bit where she was blinded and nearly run over by the motorbike.

~oOo~

Hugh Carter had an intriguing skill set which included being able to change a spark plug in under a minute. It didn’t much matter how long you took to change a spark plug, but Hugh was proud that he could do the whole job in under a minute.

Hugh Carter stood about one hundred and eighty centimetres tall (about five foot ten in old money). He had black curly hair and women liked him — a lot. Hugh would ultimately find that he was happy to bat for both teams, but at this moment, he enjoyed the attention of women.

Hugh worked for a performance garage and raced motorcycles whenever he could scrape together the money to tune his machine.

Hugh was reasonably successful, and with a bit of sponsorship, he could have competed at the highest level.

As with all young men, he was impatient for his life to unfold.

He saw his friends earning easy money working for nefarious characters, and he held out for as long as he could.

His first step into the world where life was even cheaper than normal was when a bloke he knew was found dead.

His friend and his bike plummeted off a cliff, and neither of them survived.

A grizzled bloke in a jacket displaying the colours of a local bike club approached him to do some courier work.

The grizzled bloke pointed at the gun stuffed in his belt and indicated that he would deploy said weapon if Hugh contemplated taking the cash and not making the pickup.

Hugh understood.

Hugh stayed within the speed limit on the way to the pickup, met his contact, watched as they counted the money, took the backpack after they showed him the contents, and proceeded to drive at high speed to the little stone church where his grizzled boss was waiting to meet him.

His high-speed antics nearly got him pulled over, but his riding skills enabled him to escape.

Hugh was feeling the adrenaline rush as he arrived at the church. 

He handed over the backpack and the grizzled bloke checked the purity of its contents as two of his cohorts stood by with weapons drawn.

When the shouting and the gunfire began, Hugh dived behind a pew.

Jim Johnson was hit in the vest by a bullet, and it took the wind out of him. He was the second officer through the door.

As he lay on the floor of the church trying to decide if he was going to die, he noticed a man in black leathers crawling under the pews towards the door that Jim and his fellow officers had just come through.

Bullets continued to fly, and men continued to shout as Hugh made it through the front door. His bike was still where he had left it, and it started with the first kick of the starter.

Jim Johnson decided that he was not going to die — his vest had saved him. He scrambled to his feet and heard bullets whiz past. Jim found the main power board and threw the master switch. All the lights came on at once, including the builder’s floodlights on the outside of the building. 

Several thousand-watt globes burst into life emitting that ghostly white light that bleeds all the colour out of everything it lands on.

Hugh’s rear wheel spun on the dirt road as he changed into second gear. His engine was screaming, and so was Hugh. A ghostly apparition stepped from behind the church and into the middle of the road.

The floodlights blinded Alice Johnson, but she kept on walking. She heard the young man swear and noticed what sounded like a motorbike sliding through the gravel.

The gunfire had abated, and officers were spilling out of the church, Jim Johnson among them.

He ignored the fallen bike rider and ran to his mother.

“Are you okay mum?” he said, holding her close.

“Jimmy. Where have you been? I have something to tell you,” she said and promptly forgot what it was.

Jim took off his coat and wrapped it around his mother and led her to a waiting ambulance.

After a day in the hospital, she would be back in the nursing home, planning her next escape.

In the remand centre, Hugh was telling his fellow inmates about the ghost who knocked him off his bike.

They all agreed that his was the best bad luck story.

A ghost beats tripping over your own shoelaces any day.

Give Him a Foot and He Will Take a Mile

Carlos Delgado

“So, do you remember reading about the quiet side effect of catching that virus?” I said.

“No,” he said.

‘He’ was and still is my best friend. I share all sorts of stuff with him. Only, these days I do it in my head because talking out loud to a friend who is no longer alive gets you strange looks.

Just so we are clear, he was still alive when this conversation took place.

“Well, you’ll have to take my word for it then.” 

“Okay,” he said.

“No one has ever seen anything like it, but as usually happens, someone saw an opportunity to make some money.”

“I’m trying to hang in there, but you are losing me,” he said.

I do that when I get excited. I talk as though the person I’m talking to is privy to the rest of the conversation that went on silently inside my head.

My mate Keith is very tolerant. He knows I’ll get to the point — eventually.

“Sorry. I got ahead of myself.”

“How’s the view from out there?” said Keith. I smiled and took a breath.

“One big foot?” I said, and Keith smiled. He was catching up.

“Okay, so now I’m with you,” said Keith.

“Everyone was noticing the other after effects — the big ones, the damaged lungs, the higher risk of Parkinson’s. It took about six months for scientists to connect the dots. A small group of people, world wide, who had caught the virus, ended up with one foot significantly bigger than the other. Created all sorts of problems — those afflicted had to buy two different pairs of shoes just to get a matching pair that fitted.”

“I can see how that would be a problem,” said Keith.

I’d interrupted his lunch. He’d just got back from KFC, and he’d cracked open a can of Solo. He ate the same thing every day for lunch. I drove him to KFC once when he was too sick to drive. He gave terrible directions. He lived in an old inner-city suburb with strange intersections and one-way streets. He knew them all, of course, but I felt like a white mouse navigating a maze with an absent-minded navigator.

“A problem? Yes it was. But, as with all problems, someone comes up with a solution that makes them rich,” I said triumphantly. I sat there and let my wisdom sink in.

“And?” said Keith.

“Well this bloke in Tasmania came up with the idea. He was doing up his home and going through a shitload of expanding foam, when the idea hit him. It helped that he was an industrial chemist. Basically, he invented a foam that you sprayed on your ‘smaller’ foot and the stuff adhered to your foot in the shape of a shoe. A black shoe — had to be black, apparently. Couldn’t get it to work in brown. He even came up with a separate formula for a sock. Grey. Only worked in grey, apparently. Grey sock and black shoe. Really cheap too. Several shoes per can — same for the socks. Sold like chocolate to a chocoholic.”

“You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?” said Keith.

“Hand on heart,” I said. “I watched a demonstration. It bloody works!”

“How do you get an invitation to a demonstration like that?” said Keith.

“A friend of a friend.”

“You have some strange friends, my friend,” said Keith.

“I guess,” I said.

We finished off the KFC, and he shared his Solo, and we talked some more until it started getting dark. It was a long journey for me to get back home, and now I was going to get stuck in peak hour traffic which would double my journey, but I didn’t care. Spending time with Keith was a panacea for all the things that ailed me.

We’d shared many adventures. I watched him fall in love. I rejoiced when he became a father. He watched my kids grow into men — and now, he’s gone.

Every time I drive past an ad for Solo or see a KFC, or trip over a bloke with a huge foot, I think of Keith.

Miss you mate. 

Love you.

Sleep well.

Long Red Dress and a Gleeful White Dog

 

 

There are — moments.

Moments that pass by unnoticed.

Like the photo of you and your classmates at camp with the out of focus boy in the background.

Like the moments after your first child is born.

Or the day when your life began to unravel — you were happy if not contented, and the world was beautiful — except it wasn’t, and the whole unhappy mess can be traced back to that day.

I didn’t want my portrait painted, but I knew it was the done thing.

Our family is all about done things.

Dominic, the artist, was told to paint me in the style of an American President’s wife, so he chose the portrait of President Coolidge’s wife.

I didn’t mind, I have a long red dress and a white dog.

The process of posing was tedious, and the conversations about what I should wear were something beyond tedious.

I wore a simple pearl necklace, but it disappeared from the final work, as did my bracelet. 

It was never explained.

Our dog wouldn’t sit still, and I don’t blame her. Instead, she sat nearby and watched and sniffed all the unfamiliar scents.

The background was copied from the President’s wife’s portrait. Consequently, we didn’t need to leave Dominic’s studio.

 

The studio was just as you would imagine — dusty, paint-smeared with finished and unfinished works stacked against the walls.

Someone had written Genitalia is not an Italian airline, on one wall in tiny script. During a break, I asked him about it.

“Gerald, one of my friends — he thinks he’s funny. He writes something every time he comes to visit. Usually, I scrub it off when he’s gone, but I like that one. It’s hard to be explicit without using the word fuck.”

“Doesn’t he get his feelings hurt when he visits again?” I asked.

“No, he’s not my favourite aunt who expects to see the present she sent me ten Christmas’s ago on display when she visits.”

That made me smile.

 

I was sitting on a box, eating my sandwich.

“You have good legs,” he said.

 I kicked out my right leg and looked at it.

“Thank you,” I said. 

I could see he’d looked up my dress and when he looked at me, he blushed.

“See anything you like?” I said.

“Yes,” he said after a pause. I blushed.

“Your studio is very hot,” I said, and Dominic ignored me, “very hot.”

I waved my hand in front of my face, but the gesture didn’t help my case.

So, after our first session, I stopped wearing a bra and panties just to keep me cool. It worked, but I should have remembered when I raised my well-shaped leg. 

It was only a moment. 

He couldn’t have seen much, but I did feel a bit like Sharon Stone.

“Basic Instinct,” I said softly. 

I was trying to remember Sharon Stone’s name, and I usually have to work backwards from the name of the movie to jog my brain. It amazes me that I can always remember the movie’s name and not the name of the actor.

“Pardon?” he said.

“Nothing. Just trying to remember a name.”

“Sharon Stone,” he said. 

I didn’t answer. 

I was embarrassed.

If I’d wanted to seduce him, this line of patter would have done the trick — it doesn’t take much to get a man aroused. In truth — I wasn’t trying to inflame him.

I had wondered if the stories about artists were true. What would it be like to lie in this creative man’s arms?

He was tall — about the same height as my husband. 

Unruly hair unsuccessfully brushed back. 

Good muscle definition and a bump in his jeans where there should be a bump — he dressed to the right, as far as I could tell.

Our conversation was having an effect on him — I noticed that he crossed his legs and turned slightly away from me so I couldn’t see if he was aroused — which meant he probably was.

 

The portrait required two weeks of sittings. 

Every afternoon from two until four.

On the final day, he put his brush down, stepped back and said, “It’s done. Would you like to have a look?”

Up to that moment, he had jealously guarded the canvas, “No peeking until it’s done!”

My dog raised her head and sat up — as though she knew something special was happening.

I stepped forward and stood beside him. 

He put his arm around me.

“Do I really look that good?” I said.

“Yes,” he said as he slid down the zipper on my dress.

We made love on a pile of paint-stained canvas covers. I could feel his hands on me, his lips on mine. The rough canvas sheets rubbed against my skin and the smells of his studio filled my nostrils, creating an indelible memory.

The makeshift bed wasn’t at all comfortable — not at all what I was used to, but as I lay there, exhausted, I thought about all the artist’s models who had been loved in this way, in all the studios of Paris. 

Did they feel the way I felt?

I never wanted to be anywhere else but right here right now.

I put my hand on him, and he groaned softly.

“Are you trying to kill me woman?” he said, but I caressed him, and his protestation was belied by his ever-increasing interest.

“One more time,” I said as I straddled him. With a little help from me, we resumed erotic hostilities.

It was dark when I woke. 

My lover was making coffee wearing only a white t-shirt, which didn’t cover his buttocks — I enjoyed the view.

“Why didn’t you undress me earlier?” I said.

“I wanted to finish the portrait first.”

“Typical man. The work always comes first,” I said.

I rolled over so he could see my naked body while he prepared two cups. The steam rising from the boiling water looked like a genie coming out of its bottle.

I felt like that genie. 

I too, had been released.

“Cover yourself, woman, there are dogs present,” he said with a smile.

I opened my legs just enough.

“That’ll be enough of that,” he said, “I may never walk again.”

He put the coffees on a small stool, and we sat on the canvas covers. Our combined scent now mixed with the aroma of paint and turps.

“Cake mix,” I said.

“In what regard?” he said.

“That’s what we smell like — afterwards. Cake mix.”

 “I guess. It smells like sex to me.”

We sipped our coffee in the silence only lovers can conjure.

“Do you think your husband will like the portrait?” he said.

“Yes — do you think he will know I wasn’t wearing knickers?”

“Hard to tell. Does his mind work like that?”

“You know, I’m not sure how his mind works, but there is something incredibly sexy about him having to pay you to penetrate me.”

“Not sure he would see it that way, but I do get your meaning. You aren’t the kind of woman who would tell him just for the fun of seeing his reaction — are you?”

“No. That’s not me. I don’t dislike him. He’s a good man. I wouldn’t want to hurt him.”

And that was the moment.

I hadn’t planned any of it and no one was supposed to get hurt.

They did — get hurt.

But that was still to come.

When I got home, I had to make up an excuse for being late, and I was disappointed that he wasn’t very interested. Part of me wanted to tell him what I had been doing — to wake him up!

I showered and dressed for bed.

I didn’t realise that oil paint does not wash off with water.

“Your back is all red and you’ve got paint stuck to your skin. Did you rub up against something in the studio?” said my husband as I climbed into bed.

“Yes, I guess I did,” I said.

And that was another moment.

 

As we boarded the flight to Rome, I laughed out loud.

“What are you laughing at,” said my artist companion.

“Alitalia IS an Italian airline,” I said.

The Quiet Hours

The shop started out as a second-hand bookshop, but beginnings are important only as a window to arrivals.

I didn’t own the bookshop back then.

I applied for a job.

The owner didn’t want to sit in the store all day, especially during the quiet hours.

I arrived at just the right time — don’t you just love how that works — arriving at the right time?

I didn’t mind being there during the quiet hours.

My world was teetering on the edge.

The edge of what, I did not know, but it scared the hell out of me.

The dusty old building was teetering on the edge also. I crawled under it once to retrieve a favourite pencil that had fallen through a crack in the floor.

The foundations were minutes away from not being foundations anymore.

I wasn’t worried, it gave the shop an extra edge — a sense of peppermint danger.

The cracks in the floorboards came in handy during the warm weather. 

In the winter, not so much. 

I became proficient at rolling up pages out of destroyed books and wedging them into the larger gaps. Old, obsolete encyclopaedias worked best.


I left my anxieties at the door each day. They just dropped away like an old discarded overcoat.

The shopowner, Derick, could not get out of the place fast enough, which was fine by me. He was an ex-teacher and a real pain in the arse who would fire me ten days before a particular Christmas because I missed a shift. I ended up in the Emergency Ward with stomach pains and couldn’t make it into work.

“Don’t bother coming back,” was all he had to say.

I’d never missed a day of work in more than a year, but he didn’t care.

I didn’t know it, but people kept asking him where I had gone.

He closed the business about two years after firing me.


Towards the end of my time working for Derick the Dick, I noticed an uptick in customers — the uptick ate into my ‘quiet hours’.


I guess it started with an old man who lived about half a mile up the road. 

I saw him every Thursday afternoon. 

We would talk, and he would tell me stories from his days as a Real Estate agent.

“If I had a buyer who couldn’t make up their mind, I would ‘accidentally’ book another potential buyer to turn up at the same time. Worked like a charm. They would panic that someone else wanted ‘their house’. Signed on the spot.”

Henry was at least eighty-eight years old, and even though I would have disliked him if he was my age, I cut him some slack — he told great stories.


Henry told his friends about me. 

Most of Henry’s friends were dead, but the ones who were hanging in there came to see me.

“Henry said you are a good listener.”

I’d never thought of myself as such, but there you go. Other people don’t always see us the way we see ourselves.

I found that I could easily remember the stories they told me, and over time I would retell one or two in response to a problem that was posed.

“What an excellent idea,” they would say, “I would never have thought of that.”

For a while, I thought I was hot stuff. 

I got all puffed up. 

There is a real rush that comes with helping people.

Of course, I came crashing back down to Earth when I got fired.

Fast forward a couple of years, and here I am sitting in my own bookshop, the same building I used to work in, doing my thing.

The shop had sat vacant for a while. It’s off the beaten track, and only dedicated book buyers will find it.


I named the store Twice Sold Tales.


People come to my store because I’m a good listener.

Occasionally, I tell them a story I’ve been told, and it changes their perspective. They are grateful for the direction I head them in, and in return, they buy a second-hand book — sometimes more than one.


I’m never going to get rich, but I do get to enjoy the stories I hear, and there is always the quiet hours.

Coffin Confessor

 A Sam Bennett story

Some bloke in Queensland makes ten thousand a time for doing this.

I did it because a client asked me too. 

My client was also a friend, but it would take too long to explain that friendship and I’m not sure my heart could go there at the moment.


I’d worked for William Armstrong on several occasions since the first time I met him. 

We were both at a wedding with women we would not stay with for long — the story of my life until I met Scarlett.

My ‘plus one’ was prettier than his.

We got talking when we worked out that we both preferred whisky — Scotch, single malt. The open bar at this wedding didn’t stretch that far, but basic Scotch was better than the lolly water the girls were ordering.


William was about to take over his father’s business after having worked in the company since he left his expensive private school in year twelve. He skipped university and jumped right in.

“I disliked school with a passion. I wanted to be out in the world, doing stuff,” he said between sips of whisky. The whisky didn’t deserve to be sipped, but good habits die hard.

“I felt the same way you did, but I didn’t want to disappoint my mentor, so I finished uni,” I said, and my heart hesitated at the thought of ‘Nelly’ Touraville. I miss him so much.

“What are you going to do when you are running the show?” I said.

“Pretty much what my father has done, but I’ll put my own spin on it when the time is right.”


If you are wondering what tasks I performed for William over the years, there was a bit of industrial espionage — finding out what his competitors knew. A bit of tidying up when things went wrong. Dealing with an employee who believed that he could get rich quickly by selling back proprietary secrets that he had ‘light fingered’.


As with all business owners, William was surrounded by people who were out for what they could get — nothing surprising about that.

When he got his terminal diagnosis, he rang me and asked for a meeting.

I sat in Young and Jackson’s on a dreamy Thursday afternoon after getting off the train at Flinders Street Station — I hate parking the Jag in the city.

A few early finishing workers had wandered in and were chatting away, waiting for the beer to wash away the day’s worries. I watched them with interest.

William approached my table, looking drawn.

I waved at the barman and pointed at my beer and made the ‘two beers’ sign recognised by barmen all over the civilised world.

The beers arrived, and I asked William how he was and what he wanted to talk about.

“I’m buggered and I want you to do something important for me.”

 “You know I will,” I said.

“The cancer is back and there’s no hope.”

“Bloody hell. What do you mean no hope. There’s always hope. You’ve got enough money to start your own country. Someone, somewhere…..?”

“No,” he said, and he meant it.

We sat quietly for a few moments, and I let it sink in. Now I understood why he looked so haggard.


“When they bury me, I want you to speak for me,” he said.

“What? Like a eulogy?”

“No. Someone else will do that. I want you to speak for me. I want you to say all the things I couldn’t say when I was alive.”

“You aren’t dead yet, mate. Plenty of time to tell people what you want them to hear.”

“Even if there was time, and there isn’t, I don’t have the strength. I’ve never been good at confrontation. You aren’t frightened of anyone. You speak with a clear heart and I need that.”

“Beer isn’t going to do it. Can I get you a whisky. They do a Lagavulin 16 here?”


When the whisky arrived, I gave a toast, “To life, what there is left of it.”

William laughed, “To life.”

The beer had given us a good head start, and the whisky was moving us along.

“So, what do you want me to do?” I said.

William reached into his inside pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. Handwritten, in tiny script, were his wishes for his funeral service.

After I read through the document, I said, “Bloody hell!”


I made him sign it and date it, and we got the barman to witness our signatures, then we had several more whiskies, and I caught the train home.

Fortunately, the walk from the station is a long one, and I’d sobered up a bit before I took to my bed.

Sleep wasn’t on the agenda. Too much to think about.

I stared at the ceiling and thought, once again, that I should give it a coat of paint.

The moon was almost full, and the light seeped around the edges of the blind.


I’d been in a few tight spots where I might have lost my life, but until now, I had not seriously thought about my own, inevitable death.

William and I were about the same age — still very much, young men.

I wondered what it would look like — my day of death. Would I be merrily rolling along, oblivious to my impending doom? Or would I be alone in a hospital bed, waiting for the room to go dim?

A ‘blaze of glory’ seemed like a good choice, and as sleep finally caught up with me, I imagined leading the charge up some heroic hill.


I didn’t get an invitation to the funeral, but then again, it wasn’t a private affair.

Open-air. Beautiful day. All the trimmings. Silver spade to sprinkle some dirt on the coffin. Flowers by the carload. Mourners dressed in their finery.

Despite William’s instructions, a minister was running the proceedings.

“We all know why we are gathered here today,” said the minister dressed in full regalia. “William was a wonderful man.”

“Did you know him personally,” I said.

I was seated in the second row, and no-one had asked me how I’d known the deceased.

I unbuttoned my coat as I got to my feet. 

The gesture meant that I was at work. 

Ready to work.

“Not personally,” said the minister adjusting his cassock. 

“Then sit down and shut it. William didn’t want this,” I said as I edged along the row and stepped in front of the assembled gathering. I half expected someone to tackle me.

“That’s right. He didn’t want this,” said the attractive woman in the third row.

A couple of other people agreed.

William’s wife was seated, head down, next to her brother, who looked like he was waking from a dream. He started to stand up — staring at me.

“Don’t even think about it, Michael. Oh, and by the way, William said to tell you to pay back the loan he gave you. I’m sure your sister would be happy to have the money.

“What loan?” said William’s wife.

Michael sank back into his seat.

“Well it wasn’t actually a loan, was it Michael. More like a payoff. Hush money, I think they call it.”

Michael sat quietly as William’s wife bored a hole in his head with her eyes.


“William was concerned that this might happen so he asked me to speak for him.”

I scanned the gathering and found the three people I was looking for.

“You, you and you. Out!” I pointed at the road leading out of the cemetery.

“William did not want you here. And if you don’t leave, now, I’ll tell everyone why.”

The three people I pointed to stood up and shuffled off down the road.

All eyes and ears were on me. 


“William wanted you to know that he knew you weren’t faithful but he didn’t know how to deal with you when he was alive. He didn’t blame you, he was less than the husband you deserved.”

There were tears in her eyes, and I hated this part of my job, but a promise was a promise.

“As for you,” I said, staring at the bloke sitting behind her, “William thought you were a snake but he lacked the courage to punch you on the nose. He hopes that you make his wife happy, but don’t expect her to inherit everything, far from it.”

There was an audible gasp from the assembled multitude.

Where William’s money would end up was the prime concern for most of them.


I rattled off a heap of names and just as many final messages, and most of them were not well received.

“One last thing to finish up,” I said, “which one of you is Phillis?”

A young woman at the back raised a gloved hand.

“William said to say thank you. You brightened his day and always gave more of yourself than was asked for. There is a glowing reference in his desk with your name on it if you decide to look elsewhere for a job. There’s a bonus in that envelope as well. Enough for you to take an all expenses holiday, if you so wish.”

The young woman who had looked after William as his secretary for the previous three years smiled and put her hand to her face.


“Well that’s about it from me, and from William. I begged him to say all these things before he left us, but I guess he wasn’t able to, so that’s where I came in.”


I did up my coat and walked down the same road that the ejected mourners had walked.

Bloody big cemetery, so it took a long time to get back to where I’d parked the Jag.

I needed a drink, and the Big Cat took me to my favourite bar.

I lifted a glass to my old friend and pondered my own mortality before heading for home.


I slept very well that night and went into the office just before noon.

My secretary asked me why I was so late.

“You are dead a long time Janice. Sometimes you just have to treat yourself to a sleep in.”

“Okay,” said Janice.

“By the way. Have I ever told you how much I appreciate you?”

“Yes. Once or twice,” she said.

“Good. I wouldn’t want to pass away suddenly and not have told you.”

“Have you been drinking, Sam?” said Janice.

“Not today, but I plan on having a few a bit later in the day. You are welcome to join me?” I said, and Janice shook her head.

“Meeting my boyfriend later,” she said.

Just as well, I guess.

I’d probably say something unwise. 

A Woman Should Have A Husband Or A Wall

Aut Virum Aut Murum Oportet Mulierem Habere

“Late sixteenth, early seventeenth century.”

“Mate, I can’t accurately remember the week before last,” I said, and my friend ignored me and kept right on going. He was like that when he had a head of steam up.

“A cluster of nuns in Northern Italy. They wrote and performed beautiful music. The Church tried to stop them, but they kept going.”

“A bit like you, Roman? And I think the collective noun is a superfluity of nuns, not cluster.” 

Ignored, yet again.

“Naturally, the music and singing were all religious. I guess that’s how they got away with it for so long,” said Roman. His voice dropped, and I thought he was done, but he was just thinking about something — he was far away, and then he was back.

“Lucretia Borger’s daughter was one of the composers.”

“No shit? THE Lucretia Borger?” I said, and I was getting used to being ignored.

“In the end, the Church caught up with them and the trail goes cold.”

“And how did you learn all this?” I said because I wasn’t listening when he first told me.

“A very old, handwritten book. Beautifully illustrated. Tells the whole story from the point of view of the women involved. I ran across it when I was studying in the Vatican library,” said Roman, and he trailed off again and stared into space. I got the feeling that he was back there, back then.

“So, how come this book was in the Vatican library if the Church was trying to stamp them out?”

“Better for them to lock it away than have it floating about causing trouble.”

Roman had a point, and it unsettled me. I had always thought of Roman as my slightly dotty friend, and here he was making sense.

“So why were these talented women locked away behind convent walls and not out in the world being married and making music?”

“Money,” said Roman.

“Pardon?”

“Only the eldest daughter would get married. Her dowery would be huge. The family would go broke if all the daughters got married. Convents would take the other daughters for a fraction of a marriage dowery. At that time, around a quarter of all gentile women were behind the wall.”

“That’s a lot of women,” I said, and I meant it. Nuns freak me out a bit. At least they did when I was a kid, and there were a lot of them about, back then.

“Sometimes there would be three generations of women locked away. When a baby was born into a family they would bring the child along and stick it in this kind of revolving door thing that the convent would receive supplies through. Technically, the baby would be excommunicated for going through the portal, but in reality, they weren’t. No one was supposed to touch a nun once she was received into the order. Cuddling newborn relatives seemed to be an exception to the rule. Sometimes, tiny nuns would squeeze through the revolving door and go AWOL.”

My head was starting to spin.

All this seemed so far from the world I lived in. Did women really live like this — separated from the world?

“So what was it like? Working in the Vatican library?” I said.

“Not as much fun as the Bodleian. The Vatican Library is bland and boring, but it does have a bar.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes. It’s there for the Vatican staff — greatly subsidised prices — but they will serve travelling scholars. I’d have my lunch there and go back to work in the afternoon — technically, the library closes at lunchtime, but those in the know can get a special pass and work until the early evening. It’s very quiet in the afternoon.”

“This book, with the singing nuns, how did you find it?”

“Not sure. You are only allowed three books per day and I think I must have made a mistake when I ordered it. In any case, it was the most important discovery of my time in Italy. You know, I don’t think the book had been opened since it was added to the collection some four hundred plus years ago.”

“Wow,” I said, and I could hear the pages being separated as he opened the book. The rich illustrations and the archaic language — not to mention the smell of the paper and the binding.

“You know, a bunch of nuns banded together and burnt down their convent.”

“No. I didn’t know that,” I said, “you should write a book.”

“I am. But I fear it will be read by very few and someday — maybe hundreds of years from now — someone will find it in a dusty old archive. I wonder what that person will think when they open it for the first time?”

“I’d like to read your book when it’s done, but for now, I need a drink. Care to join me?”

Roman smiled, and we headed for the pub.

As we walked, it dawned on me that my ‘dotty’ friend had seen more of the world than I had and his books took him time travelling as well.

I’m glad we kept in touch — even if he does ignore me, from time to time.