When I was younger, I watched it happen from afar.
My grandmother was an expert at it, but I dismissed it as ‘my grandmother was always like that’.
After a conversation with my favourite aunt, I gained a different perspective.
“She wasn’t always like that. As a young woman, she let people walk all over her, especially your grandfather.”
My grandfather died when I was young. I remember the aromas in the church. When I got a lot older, someone put a name to it — frankincense. There was furniture polish and shoe polish and dust as well. I remember thinking they should have dusted my grandfather before burying him. Kids form thoughts based on the available evidence. Dust is a recurring memory from childhood; I guess it’s because I was so close to the ground.
I doubt that science has defined it down to the month or the week, but somewhere in there, people, women, in particular, develop a sort of superpower.
I’m only guessing, and correct me if you think I’m wrong, but it seems that people worry about what people think of them more than anything else and then one day they don’t anymore — well, not as much anyway.
I watched one of my aunties wade into a melee of grown men who were angry after a junior basketball game. The parents were berating a young referee after a close finish. The young referee was my cousin, and it looked like he’d done a good job. Mind you, I would have called that last foul a charge rather than a block.
My aunty stood a few inches short of five feet tall, and she stood between the six-foot-plus fathers giving my cousin a hard time. She told them off for being childish, and eventually, they started to back away. Not content with this, she followed them to the exit door and saw them on their way. There were quite a few smiling faces in the crowd that dispersed at the end of the game.
I expected my aunty to rub her hands together, but she didn’t. Victory was hers, and she was gracious in victory.
“Arseholes,” she said before gathering up her knitting, congratulating my cousin on ‘a job well done’ and telling him she would see him when he got home after his shift. I followed her to her car because I expected the large fathers to be waiting for her in the carpark.
“Aren’t you going to stay and watch your cousin referee his next game?” she said when she noticed me trailing along behind her.
“Yeah, but I thought I’d keep an eye on you aunty. Those blokes were pretty angry.”
My aunt laughed.
“All talk, no trousers,” she said.
Not a flicker of fear.
I wondered if I would grow up to size up people that well.
I’m not sure I have, but I can pick a ‘no trousers’ without too much trouble.
On one occasion, she got slapped by a parent when she was coaching a junior team. One of the dads sorted the bloke out, but I expected it to put my aunty off coaching. It didn’t. She saw the incident as a blip.
“Most people aren’t like that. Did you see the parents jump up and deal with the slapper?”
She only coached a few games but went undefeated in her short career. The kids loved her. Most of them were taller than she was, but they listened to her because she had gravitas — that hard to define something that makes people want to follow someone.
Chances are that she probably always had that ability, but somewhere along the way, a light went on, and she became the person she was meant to be.
Mysterious creatures, humans.
If you could see my face, you might think I looked determined.
It’s my driving face, and it can pass for determination in a pinch.
I observe actresses’ faces on the silver screen, and I marvel at how much they can say with just a look.
I can’t do that, and my friends (enemies?) delight in telling me so.
“What goes on behind that expressionless face of yours, Pickles?”
“Not a lot,” I say with a wry smile that probably doesn’t show.
My father gave me the name.
I’ve never bothered to ask him why.
It’s a term of endearment, I guess.
He always said it with warmth.
“Penelope Pickles, what have you been up to today?” he would say when the train brought him home from the city.
When I was very young, I’d be in bed before he came home, but he always came into my room and asked me about my day. So I’d save up little tidbits to have something of substance to share with him.
“A boy showed me a frog and I didn’t run away.”
“You are brave.”
“No. Not really. I like the boy who showed it to me. He wasn’t being nasty, just sharing his frog.”
Frog sharing was a pleasant pastime back then.
The boy with the frog died somewhere in Belgium.
I wonder if he remembered me?
When I left home and went off to drive an ambulance, my father had been in the army for three months. He could have gotten out of it due to his age, but he pulled a few strings, “Chaps I know will get me in.”
I’m tall, and I looked older than I was; even so, I had to do a lot of talking to get behind the wheel.
“Not a place for a woman,” they said, but as the death toll rose and ambulance drivers died as fast as anyone, they changed their tune.
The experience was exactly what you would think it was — indescribable.
Like everyone who survived that time, I decided to live my life as well as I could.
I earn my own money. I drive my own car, and I dance with whoever I like.
My ‘driving scarf’ was a present from my favourite aunty. My father’s sister is a sort of family’ black sheep’. Of course, that’s not why I like her so much, but it helps.
She got me out of the house from time to time — only a train ride away in the big smoke.
“I’ll stay with Aunt Scarlett in the city for a few days.”
“Your sister will ruin that girl,” my mother would say, but my father would talk her around, and on the ride to the station, he would warn me about my aunty’s ‘wicked ways.’
“She’s a good person, but there’s also a fair chance that she’ll lead you astray.”
“What sort of ‘astray’ are we talking about?” I’d ask. I genuinely wanted to know what ‘astray’ looked like.
“No need to be too specific. Let’s just say that boys and alcohol might be involved.”
I knew a bit about boys. What they wanted to do. What they wanted to see, but alcohol was a bit of a mystery.
When the cousins and their families came to stay at Christmas, we little ones would hide under the dining table, sneak out, and drain the almost empty glasses. The fluid within tasted terrible, and I wondered what the fuss was about.
After these raids, we would often fall asleep under the table, huddled together like puppies. It was delicious.
I lost interest in the ‘drinks raid’ the year I sculled a glass with a cigar butt in it.
Father survived the War, but he was not the same. Neither was I.
Everything was different and important people in my life were either completely gone or badly damaged.
Someone had pulled the rug out from underneath us, and I’ll bet that whoever these someones were, they survived the War unscathed. But, unfortunately, it’s the ‘no ones’ who pay the price.
My great-aunt Agnes was a pain in the arse; possibly even a grumpy old hag.
At least that’s what I thought when I was nine years old.
As a family, we visited her house a number of times before she died, aged 103.
I was too young to go to the funeral.
I stayed home and played with my Matchbox car collection, and kicked a football in the backyard with my older cousin who was designated to keep and eye on me.
Great Aunt Agnes smelt sweet, which was unusual.
When you are a kid old people smell strange.
My world was full of old people at the time, and thinking about them now evokes memories of antique dust, woollen jumpers, eucalyptus lollies, disapproval, annoyance, mothballs, walking sticks, furniture polish and old dogs.
Great Aunt Agnes had a walking stick, and I’m pretty sure that she poked me with it at least once. Not violently, but ‘poked’ nonetheless.
She apparently liked expensive perfume, and she had a great name— Agnes. In all my many years I’ve only known two people named Agnes, and only one of them existed. The non-existent one was Rachael. Her brother was my friend, and he nicknamed her Agnes just to annoy her — it worked, so he kept it going. I was never sure why she was insulted by being called Agnes; I liked the name.
I didn’t realise how cool my great-aunt Agnes was — I was young.
All little boys love pirates — Captain Blood, Bluebeard, Captain Hook. They all spell adventure, but they all lived so long ago; so far from the world of a twentieth-century little boy.
At least, that’s what I thought.
Great Aunt Agnes had a huge, carved wooden box at the end of her enormous bed. The lid was almost too heavy for a young boy to lift, but not quite.
All small children are born with an inbuilt sense of the right time to go exploring. My great-aunt would produce the ‘good china tea service’ and brew a pot of fragrant tea. Plates of biscuits and cakes would magically appear, and I knew better than to reach for one of these sweet delights before the adults had placed a selection of matching plates and had begun to sip from their elegant cups.
There was always the temptation to hang around for ‘seconds’, but if I did that I would miss ‘the moment’.
The time when all parents feel that their children are displaying the appropriate behaviour for visiting relatives.
The window of opportunity was small and the possibility of adventure beckoned.
Great Aunt Agnes’s bedroom was at the other end of the hall, and the box at the end of the bed was full of wondrous things, but most of them were incomprehensible to a nine-year-old boy.
One item caught my eye.
It was a tattered old journal.
The leather-bound hardcover looked like it had been dragged behind a horse and cart, the way that cowboys often were on TV.
It was thick and cumbersome, and the page edges were marbled so that when the book was closed there was a swirly, colourful pattern visible.
I’d never seen such a book.
I opened the cover and inhaled that beautiful dusty book smell that all lovers of old books will recognise.
Inside the front cover, there was an ornate ‘ex libris’ plate. The script was probably in Latin, but I knew the name, Agnes Annabel Leigh. My great aunt’s name was Armstrong, just like mine, but I was old enough to know that women changed their surname when they married.
This journal was from a time before she married my great-uncle, who had died many years before I was born.
The first page was blank, but the next page contained the beginning of a story about a girl who falls in love with an impoverished young man — not exactly interesting for a nine-year-old boy, but it did occur to me that there might be other stories that would appeal.
The next story was also about another girl falling in love followed by a story about a horse, which was a bit more interesting, followed by a story about a cruel aunt and an orphaned little girl — boring!
Then I hit the motherload; a story about a pirate — bingo, now we’re talking.
I almost skipped over it because I was expecting more of the same.
But no, it was a story about a pirate.
There was a note at the beginning saying that the story was inspired by letters my aunt had read which belonged to one of her ancestors.
She had an ancestor who fell in love with a pirate?
It didn’t take me long to work out that this meant that I was related to someone who fell in love with a pirate.
My nine-year-old brain was well advanced for its age, but it was not up to imagining little illegitimate pirate children running around on the Poop Deck — but I am.
The story was long and exciting, and I hung on every sentence.
Despite my fear of being discovered by my parents or my great aunt, I was instantly transported into the story; probably as one of the pirate ship’s crew.
I was prepared to put up with all the ‘lovey-dovey’ stuff because the story was so well written and the descriptions were dripping with salty spray. I imagined my callused hands from pulling on the wet ropes. I could hear the songs that the crew members sang. I could taste the salty food, and I could feel the roll of the ship.
I didn’t get caught, but it broke my heart having to put the book back in the box.
There were more stories to read, and I wanted to know more about my pirate consorting ancestor.
But, not long after my discovery, my great-aunt died, and I had missed my opportunity to ask her about her youthful writing pursuits. I never got to find out why she wrote such exciting stories and never showed them to anyone. I never found out why the journal was so heavily worn. Did she take it out every night and read about young love and salty adventures?
I couldn’t bring up the subject with my parents without giving myself away.
I was too young to know what happened next, but I guess my great aunt’s stuff got divided up or thrown out; that’s usually what happens. I never found out who got the big wooden box and when I bought up the subject many years later, no one seemed to know.
Some idiot relative probably sold the box to a dealer and threw out the contents. My pirate story most likely ended up as landfill. I can see the pages fluttering in the cool afternoon breeze.
So much of life is luck.
I found the stories but was too young to be able to do anything about it. My great aunt’s talent lay hidden in a trunk because she was born at a time when women were not expected to do anything other than look after their boring husbands.
Not everyone can lay claim to a pirate as an ancestor; I can, but I just can’t prove it.
Once a year, at about this time, I celebrate ‘talk like a pirate day’.
Everyone has a great time, and a lot of parrot jokes do the rounds, but for me, it means a lot more.
Once a year my timbers are shivered, and my plank gets walked.
Great Aunt Agnes might have been a grumpy old bastard, but she had an excellent reason for being that way, and somewhere there is a pirate who is wondering why no one remembers him.
My talented son and I celebrate ‘Talk Like A Pirate Day’ every year. A few years ago, he suggested that I write a Pirate story. So I did. Part of it was written on a very fast-moving train, and part was written while waiting for my wife to finish work so we could celebrate my son’s birthday, and the final bit was written while sitting in bed with my two dogs waiting for my wife to come home from the ballet. So this story has travelled a bit. I hope you enjoyed it, and I say thank you to Matt for inspiring its creation.
The worst car accident I’ve been in so far (yes, there have been others – primarily people running into the back of me at traffic lights) saw me in physical rehab.
We were spun into a concrete dividing wall at one hundred kilometres an hour on a busy freeway. We didn’t hit anyone else, but we were all banged up. Our car saved us from more severe injuries, but it paid the ultimate price and never drove again. Its ‘organs’ being donated to other vehicles.
My recovery took several months.
Part of that recovery involved a therapeutic massage therapist.
She was friendly and good at her job. The sessions were painful, but I was determined to recover.
As each session went by, I knew that she was trying to tell me something.
“Did you have an uncle who smoked and worked on cars?”
Yes, I did, but what did it have to do with my recovery?
When I pressed her, she changed the subject.
We talked about all sorts of things, and my body was healing itself.
The crash had shaken my sense of myself, and I was searching for meaning.
I kept reminding myself that we (my entire family) had survived a high-speed car accident. Many others have not been so lucky.
Thinking of how lucky I’d been didn’t help much. My world had been turned upside down.
“Did you know an Irish girl. Someone you tried to save from something?”
No, I didn’t, and where was this going?
The subject got changed.
Because of the state of my mind, I latched onto this Irish woman and where she might fit into my life.
One mainly grey afternoon, I turned up for my session determined to learn more.
“Who is this Irish lady and how does she connect to me?” I asked.
There was silence.
“Do you really want to know? Knowledge of these things can change lives and not always for the better.”
I thought about her warning, but there was no going back.
“I want to know.”
“Have you ever wondered why you stand up to bullies and step in when others are being treated badly?”
“Not really. That’s just who I am. It’s how I was brought up,” I said.
“Other people stand and watch, but you act. Am I right?”
“Yes, I guess so,” I said.
“Many, many years ago, you lived in Ireland. Your family was rich and powerful and your position in society gave the woman you loved a measure of protection. She was a healer and her outspoken ways threatened the Church and the elders. They wanted to denounce her as a witch, but your protection meant that they would be in danger if they moved against her.”
“So what happened?”
“When you were far away on business, they took her, put her on trial and sent her to be burned. Word reached you and you rode wildly, trying to get to her, to save her, but you were too late. Every life you have lived since then has seen you doing your best to save whoever you could as a way of making up for not quite getting there in time.”
I lay on the table, trying to take on what she had said. Weirdly, it all made sense.
My therapist was right. Hearing something like this changes you.
Believe it, don’t believe it — it changes you.
I think about her sometimes — my Irish lover.
I wonder who I would be in this life if I’d been in time to save her.
A few weeks later, I asked another question.
“What did I do after she died?”
“You grieved for a long time then you killed a lot of people in revenge, until they caught up with you.”
“I’m glad I didn’t just knuckle under. I’d do the same today.”
“How many more lives will it take for you to get all of that out of your system?”
“I don’t know that I want to change. I like who I am now.”
As all things do, my recovery came to an end. Not long after, the massage business closed.
The building is on my regular walking route, and I think about those sessions every time I walk by.
People come into your life and go out just as quickly, but they all leave their mark, and you are never the same after meeting them.
I’m not the person I was then.
We weren’t in a hurry, but we ran for it anyway.
My friend took off first. My hesitation meant that I didn’t get there in time to board the green and gold monster. I kept running the way that young people do — all optimism and strength. Couldn’t manage it these days.
My continued momentum paid off because the lights changed, and the tram had to stop. Of course, these days, the tram would have triggered a green light and sailed right through, but back then, such things were unheard of.
These days the driver would not let you on just because the tram was stopped at the lights. Back then, there were no doors, so you could hop on whenever you liked (the conductor might get a bit annoyed, but mostly they didn’t care).
This particular tram was packed to the door line. Tram etiquette was such that people would squash up to let you get off the step, but sometimes you had to ride there until the next stop. Then someone would get off, and you could clammer on.
On this day, I was feeling cheeky.
“Freedom!” I cried as I held my bag high above my head. A couple of the people standing in the doorway smiled.
“You still have to get on, William Wallace,” one bloke said.
The sea didn’t part, and I was left to cling to the running board. I didn’t mind. I’d made it. Now to find my friend. I know he’s on this tram, but he’s too cool to call out.
When the lights changed, the tram took off, and so did the rest of the traffic. A large Ford came perilously close to scrapping me off the side of the tram.
Drivers have a built-in desire to pass trams. Of course, they get stuck at the next set of lights, but ‘getting past’ is a badge of honour.
It was a warm afternoon and my shirt flapped in the breeze, which was nice. I was strong back then, so I never considered that I might fall off. My hands could propel me anywhere.
As I said, I don’t remember where we were going, but I do remember the feeling of joy and abandon that comes with the company of friends and the exhilaration of hanging off a tram flying down Collins Street on a warm afternoon.
“Why did you have to go and show me that?” I said, and I meant it.
“I wanted you to know. You’re my best friend. You told me where your family came from. I wanted you to know where I came from,” said Henry James Occalshaw.
We, my mates and I, had always known him as Oh. As in ‘Oh My God’. I don’t remember when it started, it just always was, and he never complained — it isn’t the worse ‘handle’ in the world.
Me? I’m ‘professor’.
That started at Primary school. I’m an only child, and my parents didn’t baby-talk me. They spoke to me as an equal, so I picked up a lot of adult language before other kids did. Dad was top of his class before his dad died, and my dad had to leave school and help feed his family. My mum never made it past sixth grade, but she read everything she could get her hands on, and the local library knew her on a first-name basis. She loved words.
“I told you my family came from Tasmania after emigrating from England and before that they were Vikings. A short history of the Holmyards. You, on the other hand, are definitely not from around here,” I said.
I was trying to take it all in — sorry for the cliche, but sometimes they’re necessary.
“Everyone comes from somewhere else in Australia, except Ernie. His mob has been here for centuries, but even his mob walked here from somewhere else, it’s just that it was so long ago that he and his mob got first dibs on the place.”
“I’m not sure that Ernie’s mum and dad would see it like that,” I said, and I remembered some of the names the kids used to call that gentle brown skin boy who could play footy better than all of us combined. He got us to the State School Victorian Premiership Game. Kicked the winning goal. Played a dozen games for Essendon when he was only eighteen. Sadly, the ‘names’ got to him. He stopped playing, but I still see him around sometimes.
“Don’t look at me like that. I’m still me. I didn’t tease you for being from Tasmania,” he said.
“I’m not teasing you either, but you must admit that you come from a lot further away than Tassie.”
“So what? Is this a distance thing. Like the time you found out that your cock wasn’t as big as mine?”
I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t want to laugh, but I’m not sure what I wanted to do in its place.
“Nothin’ wrong with my cock, horse boy,” I said, and he smiled.
It’s true that at a certain age, boys tend to compare sizes. Not overtly, but the occasional sideways glance after swimming sports. I admit to being a bit concerned until, a few years later, Joany Mac told me mine was ‘perfectly adequate’ and ‘up to scratch’. She ought to know, so I relaxed a bit. ‘It’s not the size that matters, but what you do with it that counts’ became my mantra.
“So, are you planning to go back and visit?” I said, “like Spiro did?”
“Spiro went back to Greece with his parents. This is a bit different,” he said.
“Are there Travel Agents who specialise in where you come from?”
I was thinking of the people who live up the street from us, in the blue house. They organise trips to Egypt. Pyramids, desert, Pharos, that sort of thing. It’s not their actual job, but it gives them a chance to visit and not have to live there, or at least that’s what my father said. Dad doesn’t say much, so it was strange to hear him offer an opinion.
“I think you have the wrong idea. We’re here to stay. There’s no going back. My parents made that decision and I was too young to understand what it meant. This is the life I have and I’m happy with it.”
“That’s because your best friend came from Tasmania and no one thinks twice about it?” I said.
“My parents still write to the people they knew and they send a report once a year. Just like the report that your probation officer wrote after your year.”
“You had to bring that up. You were with me when we ‘borrowed’ that car. You were just a faster runner than I was. You didn’t get caught.”
“And you didn’t dob. If you’d dropped me in it, they would have gone easier on you. As it was, it made it impossible for you to be a cop. I know you always wanted to. You know I never forgot that.”
“You had too many strikes against you. If they got you, you’d have gone to Youth Prison. I wasn’t going to let that happen. I didn’t think it would stop me from being a cop. You don’t think much at that age, do you? Even so, I would never have given you up,” I said.
“So do you see why I wanted to tell you? You are the only person outside of my family who knows. My parents trusted my judgement when I told them what I was going to do.”
“Always liked your folks. They treated me like one of theirs. And your mum still makes the best cheese sandwiches on the planet. No pun intended,” I said.
“So, what do you think?”
“I don’t know what to think,” I said.
But, it was true what he said. Pretty much everyone in Australia came from somewhere else. If they didn’t, their parents or grandparents did.
“Is that why your folks chose this country? Because it’s full of ‘everywhere else’ people?”
“No. It was just the first place on the map,” he said, and I could see his smile before he’d finished the sentence.
“Smart arse,” I said.
“I don’t know how they worked it out, but I know they are happy that they did. It seems it was a lot harder at first. They never told me much about the early years. I was just a kid, being a kid. I didn’t notice. I remember the operation on my ears. Mum said that the other kids made fun of them so they thought it best to have them done.”
“I meant to ask about that. Everyone in that video you showed me had long hair, but I did notice that some people had unusual ears. Is that a thing?”
“Yeah. Dad had his done when he began to loose his hair. Mum still has hers.”
“I have to ask. What was with the beautiful blue light at the beginning of the video?”
“Apparently, it’s a special frequency of light that calms people to the point where they can accept ideas that might disturb them. The film comes from ‘home’. It’s been passed around for centuries. Someone made a digital copy and dad got hold of it so I could show you.”
“I wouldn’t mind having a copy, but I guess that would be asking a lot?”
“Yeah. Not going to happen,” he said.
“Any chance of just having that blue bit at the start?”
“I’ll ask,” he said, and I knew he meant it. It’s that kind of friendship.
“So what the fuck am I supposed to do now? Now that I know.”
“Nothing in particular. I just wanted you to know.”
“Will you tell me if your people decide to take over the world or something?”
“What makes you think we haven’t?” He winked at me. I hate it when he does that.
“I’m serious,” I said.
“I know you are,” he said, and he put his arm around me.
“We want what every person wants when they come to this country. We want a job and a family and a chance at some kind of happiness — and the chance to feast on your soul,” he said in his best Vincent Price voice.
I punched him on the arm. He hates that, and we went out to his driveway and played some one on one basketball.
He’s better at it than I am.
His family nearly ran us over when they got back from netball.
His wife invited me to stay for dinner, but I said I needed to get back.
My family was waiting when I walked home.
My wife looked at me inquisitively when I hugged her for longer than usual. I had a kid attacked to each leg, and I dragged them into the house.
“What have you boys been up to today?” said my wife. I think I loved that woman more at that moment than I ever have.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I said.
She just smiled and hugged me.
She’s like that, and I’m a lucky man.
“When the pencil hits the paper, you’ll know.”
My Occupation Therapist was losing patience with me.
In retrospect, I’m amazed that it took him so long to suggest the simple act of drawing.
I’d tried basketweaving until I accidentally poked Alister in the eye with a bit of bamboo. Didn’t mean to, not really, but he does give everyone the shits.
Gardening didn’t work out too well either. Gardeners are very possessive, and old Mr Jones was sure I was using his tools. The wound on the back of my head gave me a couple of days off from ‘activities’, and Mr Jones got the padded room. My head hurt like fuck, but I still managed to give him the finger as they dragged him off.
“Stay away from my peas,” the old bastard said.
Why would I want to interfere with his peas?
“The residents don’t like blood on their produce,” was the parting comment from Derek, our OT.
No more gardening for me.
Woodworking was out of the question, “until you can show that you won’t hurt yourself or anyone else.”
I’m a good woodworker, but I wasn’t going to tell them that. I spent a couple of summer holidays working for an old-time cabinetmaker. Grumpy old bloke, but I liked him. I made a perfect dovetailed miniature drawer and put it in his grave. I got a few strange looks from the other mourners, but I know he would have liked it.
Derek was right; when the pencil hit the paper, I knew.
I started doing lightening portraits of the staff, then my fellow inmates. Not everyone liked them, which was fair enough. Caricatures are not for everyone.
I quickly found that I had a gift for drawing, not that I cared.
The important thing was that it calmed me down and took away the anxiety.
I’ll make it out of here soon. I have to believe that; otherwise, why bother?
When I make it out, I doubt that I’ll go back to teaching. They have to take me back if I want to, but I just make them uncomfortable. No one likes to be reminded of weakness.
They wouldn’t say anything, but I’d know. I wouldn’t be the brash young teacher who thought anything was possible as long as he threw enough energy at it. Instead, I’d be the loser who burst into tears and cried for four hours on the last day of school. Not sure my ego could take it.
I’ll miss the kids. But, hopefully, they don’t know what happened to me.
I’ve got a bit of money saved up. I can look for another job. Maybe I’ll make furniture or fix old bits. There’s a lot of satisfaction in bringing a piece of furniture back to life.
I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. Firstly, I have to get out of here.
My shrink won’t say what it is, but there’s something wrong with me.
I’ll do a portrait of him.
Maybe that’ll soften him up.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” is a statement that is usually followed by me thinking, ‘yes, I do mind’.
“What happened to you and why do they seem to be out to get you?”
I should have told the little shit to mind his own business, but I answered anyway.
“I’ve pissed off a few people along the way,” I said.
“Are you the only good cop in a sea of losers?”
I looked at Egg to see if he was taking the piss.
“Bloody hell no. I’m just as useless as they are. Well, maybe a bit less useless. I’m not a cliche, and neither are they. Most of the brass are bastards, but they do it with a bit of style. I seem to have lost mine — style, that is. I had no way of knowing that bloke’s gun wasn’t loaded. You point a shooter at me, and I’m assuming you mean me harm, and if I get the chance, I’ll do you before you get the chance to punch my ticket. If it had been anyone else but me, we wouldn’t be talking about it. Sure he was an ex-cop, but I didn’t know that. It was a routine call out. I was close by, I took the call even though I wasn’t next up. By rights, uniform should have taken it. The call sounded like a domestic — loud music and a bit of screaming. I knock on the door, and there he is. Blood trickling down his face. A tiny stream, nothing much, but it distracted me. I should have seen the gun, but the drop of blood was mesmerising. When I did see it, I tried to distract him with a question. ‘Any chance you could turn down the music, pal? Your neighbours are none too pleased.’ The thing was, he was an ex-cop, so he knew that I knew, and he knew what I was doing. The music had blanked out the gunshots. Holes in the walls. The bugger probably couldn’t count, so we’ll never know if he believed that he still had ammo. I remember the click, and I assumed that the round was a dud. He looked at me, then looked at the gun. I drew mine and shot the bastard. It was him or me.”
Egg nodded. The kid had probably never fired a gun in anger, but I’ll bet he’s thought about it.
“I called it in, the ambos arrived but he was dead and I knew it. Dead blokes don’t get up and shoot you in the arse and that’s the way I like it. Professional Standards turned up and took my gun and told me I was on leave until they finished their investigation. That took about a week. They gave me back my gun, sent me for counselling, and I thought that the whole dirty business was over with. Turned out that the halfwit I shot was connected to a long line of coppers and someone decided to kick up a stink. I’m sure that if I’d had a partner and he’s heard the gun click, this really would be over with.”
“Why were you there alone?”
“I was coming back from an interview. It seemed like a straightforward call.”
I took a sip of my coffee and tried not to remember looking down that barrel.
“You shoot a civilian and everyone is supportive. You shoot an ex-cop and everyone stays away from you like they might catch something. I’m pretty sure they’ll move me sideways if they think they can get away with it. I stink up the place — at least as far as the bosses are concerned. This could be the last murder I work on.”
Egg didn’t say anything. I think he was a bit shocked that I had laid it all out for him instead of telling him to get stuffed.
I’m not sure why I told him.
Nothing good could come from it.
I guess I wanted the kid to know that I’d done the right thing and that I wasn’t trigger happy.
“We’d better solve this case then. Don’t want you to go out on an asterix,” said Egg.
“Okay. If you say so,” I said with a smile.
“I’ve got an appointment to talk to Debra’s boss tomorrow,” said Egg.
“Where was he when you went the first time?”
“Had to rush out, apparently.”
“I think we might talk to this bloke together,” I said.
Debra’s boss was a walking cliche.
Slightly crumpled white shirt (for some reason, his wife had stopped ironing them), a tie someone had given him for his birthday and ink stains on his inside finger, right hand. He couldn’t get his wedding ring off if he tried, and he was sweating profusely even though the AC was blowing icy cold air.
We asked all the usual questions, and he was ‘only too happy to help’.
“Do you think he knows?” I said when we got back to the car.
“I think so. What do you think he will do?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t think he’ll run. He hasn’t got anywhere to go. Once we’ve spoken to his wife he’ll know for sure and so will his wife. She won’t run with him. Why would she? He’s stuffed. It’s only a matter of time before he cracks. We’ll give it a day or two and pull him in for more questions.”
Egg went back and talked to Debra’s friend, and she had calmed down and wanted to speak. Yes, she believed that her boss and Debra had been having an affair and that Debra was trying to end it. No, she didn’t think that Debra would tell her boss’s wife — she wasn’t that kind of person.
We sent a couple of uniforms around to Debra’s boss’s house on Saturday.
The sight of uniforms in a domestic setting tends to stir things up.
He wasn’t there.
His wife hadn’t seen him since early that morning when he went out to walk the dog.
The dog came home later that afternoon.
It didn’t take long to find the body, hanging from a tree not far from the river where we found Debra’s body.
What we had would not have convinced the CPS to prosecute, but our bosses agreed that we had the right bloke.
The case stays open, but a note at the head of the file outlines our findings and the suicide of Debra’s boss before we could interview him a second time.
Sometimes that’s all you get — a note at the beginning of a still open file.
Not a lot of closure for those who loved her.
I didn’t have to. There was no official reason to, but I did it anyway.
I knocked on the door of flat number six, and her cat talked to me through the crack when she opened the door.
“I didn’t expect to see you again,” she said.
She looked like she had been sleeping, and I imagined waking up next to her and seeing her like that — pleasantly tousled.
“I wanted you to know that we got him. sort of. Debra’s killer. He killed himself before we could charge him. But it was him. Fucking coward. Sorry, shouldn’t swear in front of a lady.”
“I’ve heard a lot worse, and thank you for the ‘lady’. It’s been a while since anyone accused me of that.”
“Anyway, just wanted you to know. No need for you to worry. It was someone she knew. Not some random arsehole.”
“Would you like to come in?” she said.
“Not a good idea. It’s not that I don’t want too, it’s just that I might get lost in there — with you. You are quite something kid. Have a happy life,” I said.
“I will. Don’t get yourself killed or anything. I like to think of you out there keeping us all safe,” she said as she gently shut the door.
I leaned on the warm bricks when I got outside, and their warmth reminded me of when I was a kid.
The next thirty hours yielded nothing of any value, and I found myself walking through the city late in the day.
I try to avoid walking.
My body doesn’t like it, but sometimes my mind insists.
The need to sit down saw me turn into a tiny bar in one of the eponymous laneways of Melbourne. It wasn’t much bigger than a garden shed with narrow tables and chairs along one wall and a bar on the other. Mirrors made the place look bigger than it was.
“Long day mate?” said the barman who had been born somewhere other than Melbourne.
“Regulation number of hours, but it seemed longer,” I said.
Does the ‘Responsible Serving Of Alcohol’ certificate include a module on ‘how to chat with customers’, or does it come naturally.
“Something Scottish, single malt, lots of smoke please — neat,” I said.
I didn’t go up to the bar. I wanted to see how he was going to get out from behind it. It seemed impossible from where I was sitting.
Of course, he could have put my drink on the bar and made me come and get it, but he didn’t. The end of the bar hinged up and away from the wall as the bottom panel swung in, allowing the barman to escape his prison.
“That’s a neat setup. How does it work?”
“No idea,” said the barman, “the bloke who set the place up invented it. Said he saw it in Paris years ago. Always remembered how it worked.”
I waved my debit card at the barman, and he gestured in the time-honoured way.
“Catch me when you’re done,” he said, and I thought he was very trusting considering the prices in his bar. Doing a runner after a couple of drinks would pay your rent for a week.
My drink smelled terrific, and when I added a splash of water (generously supplied without being asked for), the space around me filled with smoky goodness.
I still had to make it home to my bed, so I drank slowly. Good whisky is meant to be drunk that way, so I wasn’t pressured.
After two drinks, I was warm and significantly poorer, but none the wiser.
Cop movies will tell you that the first three days after a murder are critical, and they are, but a lot depends on hard work and blind luck.
This case was shaping up to be a lot of the former and not a lot of the latter.
Egg had spent an enjoyable time (as pleasant as it gets when you tell someone’s workmates that their friend is dead in suspicious circumstances) talking to the fellow inmates at Debra’s workplace. He checked the make and model of her computer and the office printer.
They did not match the printing on the ‘suicide’ note.
Strike two for me.
We already knew that this was most likely a murder, but I do enjoy being right.
There has been way too much going on for me to focus on my problems.
As a child, I subscribed to the theory that if you ignored something, there was a good chance it would go away.
Statistically, the jury is still out, but in this case, ignoring the problem is my only choice. What’s done is done, and the longer it goes where I don’t hear any more about it, the better it will get.
If the ‘higher ups’ had made up their minds about me and my perceived misdeed, I’d be filling out unemployment benefit papers instead of working on a murder case.
Do you remember the meeting I told you about? The one behind the glass wall?
Well, it turns out that I had a friend in that room.
I knew who all the people were.
Every one of them could decide my fate by speaking ill of me. So it was a no-brainer that some of them did exactly that.
Naturally, the Chief Inspector had the final say.
He’s a strange bird, and we have never had a meaningful conversation, and I’m not sure if that is him or me. Influential people don’t intimidate me, but I like this job, so staying away from people who can make my life harder seems like a wise idea. For his part, I’m just another loose cannon who can make his job harder.
I can’t say for sure, but I think it was he who sent the word down for me to do that weekend refresher course. He did me a favour there. I met Ms Carter, and I got laid. Which reminds me, I must ring her. It’s been a while.
It wasn’t his wife I was giving a seeing to in the back of that Bentley, but I guess he thought that standards had to be upheld.
I found out later that the two constables never intended to make a report.
I showed them my warrant card, and they had fun with me, which was to be the end of it. Unfortunately, one of them got done for drink driving, and he traded the information for a clean record. It didn’t work. He got done and, after a long process, lost his job. As with all cover-ups, it got uncovered, and by default, I ended up in the shit.
Penelope was an excellent lover, and the things she could do in the back of that vintage Bentley were amazing. I still tingle when I think about it.
Not unsurprisingly, our back seat trysts came to a screaming halt (no pun intended) when word got out.
The meeting behind the glass wall had nothing to do with me being caught with my pants down. Of course, that all happened ages ago, but somehow I had acquired a defender, and I’m yet to understand why.
I wouldn’t call him a friend — we barely know each other, but word got back that he stood up for me, mentioned my meagre achievements, and suggested that they see how I handle this case before any decisions are made.
The reason for this glass-encased meeting was indeed way more severe than my fucking a senior officer’s missus, but there we are, and the knowledge only increases the pressure on me to solve this murder.
It does occur to me that someone, more senior to me, knew this was not a suicide way before I did.
The thought makes me very uneasy, but I don’t have time for paranoia — that can come later when this case is done and my tenuous grip on this job is reestablished.
I have to admit to feeling expendable, but that’s nothing new.