Illustration credit: Franco Matticchio
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.
Elizabeth was up before the sun.
Our apartment was bathed in the golden glow from the lamps that she had strategically placed around the room when we were setting up house together. It was only a few months ago, but it could have been years.
I have to get up in the dark — sparrows fart, my dad used to call it. The building industry starts early and is packed up by four, which works out well because the pubs shut at six — on the dot. The ‘wowzers’ rule this town.
A stray hair had fallen across her face as she cooked me eggs. She’d given up on brushing the hair away — too much effort.
“You don’t mind if I go back to bed when you go do you, Michael?”
“Of course not. I would if I could. Oh, and I’ll be a bit late tonight. I’m meeting Philip at the pub. I’m going to tell him what we’re planning. He could come in handy.”
Elizabeth didn’t answer. I don’t think she’s sure of Philip. I understand why she’s wary. If I didn’t know him he’d worry me too. He’s been through a lot and every bit of it shows on his face. He came apart at the stitching after Tobruk. They stuck him in this godawful hospital full of blokes who had lost touch with the real world.
They discharged him from the army once the Japs packed it in and told him he was cured.
He has trouble holding down a job.
He gets flashes.
He remembers stuff and his reaction scares the shit out of people.
I want to look out for him, but there is only so much I can do.
“Don’t drink too much. Remember we are going out dancing tonight — our new life,” says Elizabeth.
“Can you collect my dinner suit for me?”
“I’ll do it before I clock on at work,” said a very sleepy Elizabeth as she placed perfect scrambled eggs in front of me. I pulled my chair in closer, grabbed my knife and fork and dove right in.
In the army, you eat when you can and you develop the habit of gulping it down with one eye on your rifle. There are no guns in our apartment, but my habits are still echoing where I’ve been.
“Top tucker kid. Shakespeare would be proud of your eggs,” I said.
Elizabeth looked at me through dreamy eyes.
“What’s Shakespeare got to do with my eggs?”
“Apparently, he loved scrambled eggs. Wrote some of his best work on a stomach of Mrs Shakespeare’s eggs.”
“My head hurts. Put your dishes in the sink when you go. I’ll do them later.”
I finished my breakfast, picked up my jacket — it’s supposed to rain later in the day, and went into the bedroom. Elizabeth was fast asleep, rolled onto her right side facing away from my approach. I slipped my hand under the covers and leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Her hair fell across her face.
“If you keep your hand there you are going to be late for work,” she said.
I wiggled my fingers and she jiggled her whole body.
“Until tonight then,” I said and I removed the intruding fingers. She turned her head and smiled at me. I love that smile. I could fall into that smile and never be seen again.
I walked, rather uncomfortably, out of our apartment and down the stairs, making sure that the front door was locked leaving my sleeping bride safely inside.
I didn’t notice how hard the work was that day. My mind was firmly in the future.
I arrived at the pub a long time before Phillip which was very unusual for me, I’m always late.
Running on ‘Arab Time’ someone once called it, and it’s true, I like to take my time, I don’t like to be rushed, so I sat and had a ‘small beer’. When the bartender asked me what I wanted I asked for a Melbourne Bitter.
I saw him go for the big glass, but I knew it was going to be a long night, and I also knew that Phillip could drink, so I said, “Just a little one thanks, mate.”
He hesitated, and I thought that was because no one ever asks for a small beer. He found a small glass and filled it, looked up at me and said, “You did mean the beer didn’t you mate, you weren’t referring to me?”
I honestly had not noticed that this bloke was barely five foot three.
Without hesitation, I said, “No, mate. I assumed I was standing on a box.”
I think he was just winding me up, but for a second I noticed that he had an Irish accent, and I knew that this encounter could have gone an entirely different way.
My quick and casual response probably defused what might have become ugly, and I was amazed at how relaxed and loquacious I was considering the roaring headache that was developing into a migraine.
My guardian angel must have been paying attention.
“When were you demobbed?” he said.
“How do you know I was in the army?” I said.
“In this job you get to read people. The eyes mostly.”
Now that he mentioned it, I knew what he meant. My mate Philip has it written in large letters across his face, but most blokes try to hide what they have seen — it inevitably shows in their eyes.
“Did you see much action?” said the barman.
“Kokoda, Tobruk, Palestine and a couple of other buggered up places.”
“I was at Tobruk. I thought I recognised a fellow ‘Rat’.”
“I wasn’t sure I’d get out of that one,” I said. I’d never said that to anyone, but a bloke who was there would understand.
The barman nodded and continued to polish glasses.
“Don’t take this the wrong way digger, but how did you get into the army? I had fuzz between my toes and they almost didn’t take me.”
“I lied about my height,” he said and we both laughed.
“Good luck digger,” I said and I meant it.
“You too mate, cheers.”
I sat quietly in a corner looking out the window and enjoying the passing parade. It was late in the afternoon and those workers who chose to start very early in the morning were now starting their journey towards home or beer or whatever they had been looking forward to all day.
The migraine I had been gestating showed itself in what has become known as ‘the light show’. Wiggly lights that trace a path across my line of vision.
The build-up is unpleasant but once it gets going things settle down quickly as long as I avoid intense light — working in the sun doesn’t help. If I get my hydration up I’m fine—- hence the small beer. Don’t laugh, beer is one of those unusual substances that can cause or cure almost anything.
For a small beer, it lasted quite a long time and when it was almost gone Phillip appeared behind me and off to my left. My peripheral vision is pretty good even on a bad day, so I could see him standing there looking at me for several minutes. When I eventually turned and looked at him he laughed.
“Never could sneak up on you, you wary bugger,” he said.
I stood up and we hugged each other the way that blokes who have been through something together will do.
“Did you come from work?” I said.
“No. Got the sack. The mad buggers kept looking at me.”
“Mate, you need a job and blokes are always going to look at you if you explode at the slightest thing. Did you hit anyone?”
“Just a little bit.”
“How do you hit someone ‘a little bit’? One of these days someone is going to call the cops and being a returned soldier will only get you so far. Every second fucker is a returned soldier these days.”
“I know, but they shouldn’t look at me.”
“Wear a funny hat. That way they really will have something to look at,” I said and he laughed and for a moment I saw the Phil that I used to know, before the battles, before the hospitals. The bloke who rescued the kitten during ‘basic’. Kept it hidden from the Sergeant. Gave it to a little girl who lived in the Milk Bar near the camp when we got our marching order. I remember that bloke and I wonder if he is still in there.
“I’ve got a crazy idea of how we can get ahead — make something worthwhile after all the destruction. Are you interested?”
“You, me and Elizabeth?”
“Yes. All three of us.”
“I’m in,” he said and I hadn’t told him the plan yet. That was typical of Phil. He had followed me into far worse than nightclubs and movers and shakers.
“Just tell me what you need me to do,” he said.
“First up, you need a shave and a haircut and you need to get your nails done,” I said and Phil looked at me like I had asked him to stand up and sing the national anthem naked with a rose between his teeth.
“Can you get your hands on a dinner suit, a good one?” I said.
“Me dad still has his. I think it’ll fit me.”
“Good. Can you get your hands on a couple of service revolvers and some ammo?”
“Now you’re talking my language. Who we gonna shoot?”
“Take it easy. I’m just thinking ahead. They might come in handy one day. Never know what trouble we might find ourselves in. Best to be prepared,” I said and Philip nodded in agreement. I knew that he would wear a gun more easily than a good suit. But he would have to learn, otherwise, he would stick out like a sore thumb.
Phil bought another round and I told him to shout the tiny barman, “Tobruk,” I said and he knew what I meant.
With the frost forming on our beer glasses I told Phil of my plan. It sounded a bit thin in the telling, but it was richer and more fleshed out in my head.
Elizabeth, Philip and I had one thing in common, we were all good at seeing opportunities and rolling with the punches. Not that anyone had ever punched Elizabeth, but you know what I mean.
My dinner plate was on the stove resting on top of a pot of hot water.
“I got hungry,” said Elizabeth, “so I’ve eaten. Your’s should be okay. Nice and hot.”
I wrapped a tea towel around my hand and moved the hot plate to the table — chops, potatoes and peas, yum.
Elizabeth was at the table cradling a cup of coffee. I could smell it over the aroma of my meal.
“Philip is in, even though I don’t think he has the slightest idea what he is getting himself into. It will be interesting to see how he scrubs up in his dad’s dinner suit.”
“He scares me a little bit, Michael. He’s changed so much.”
“I know he does, but he adores you — would do anything for you.”
“That’s one of the things that scares me,” said Elizabeth.
When I finished my meal we did the dishes together.
“Now that suggestion you made this morning, the morse code you tapped out with your fingers? Do you think we have time before we go out? Before we launch our new career?” said Elizabeth.
“The night doesn’t really get going until eleven,” I said as I grabbed her. She kissed me and I kissed her back and afterwards we fell asleep until the alarm went off and our night’s work began.
Elizabeth looked like a woman born to wealth and I felt like we could take on the world as we stepped through the door.
The old lady from 315 stepped into the hall and let her cat out.
“Good evening Mr and Mrs Styles. Off out for the night, are we?”
“No. We’re off to conquer the world, Mrs Nunn.”
Mrs Nunn and her bemused smile stayed with us all the way to the Hotel Menzies ballroom.
Is it every girl’s dream to be an artist’s model?
Do girls secretly dream about being approached. Standing quietly, looking gorgeous, at some avant-guard party inhabited by musicians, writers and painters, and a tall vaguely handsome man walks up to you and asks you to ‘sit’ for him.
This was never my fantasy, but it happened to me just the same.
I’m well read, I like art in all its forms, and I have existed, thus far, outside the artistic world. That was until that night and that party. I was wearing my favourite gown and, as you would expect, I felt great. I guess my enjoyment of life was showing because there he was, talking to me. The room was full of stunning females, and I pointed this fact out to him. He dismissed my point and asked me to turn my head slightly.
“My tits are much more interesting than my face.”
“I don’t agree. You have just the face I’ve been looking for. Your tits are excellent, but I can get excellent tits any time of the day or night. A truly beautiful face is hard to find.”
I was a little taken aback. I know that I’m attractive. I’ve always known it but the word ‘beautiful’ was one that I had avoided. But that’s the thing about artists when they say beautiful they are talking about something that the rest of us struggle to see. They see the difference between pretty and beautiful and beautiful and stunning. I defy you to define the difference, but if I put those questions to an artist they would instantly have an answer, and they would be able to back it up with examples.
In the end, I said yes. I’m no longer a child, and I’m not worried about ‘being taken advantage of’. Not in the literal sense or the metaphorical one.
His studio is three floors up in the old industrial part of the city. The view is impressive without being stunning, and the light is lovely. Whenever we’d take a break, I liked to wander around and look at the finished and unfinished canvases which littered the room. I got the impression that he often slept there when the work demanded a late night. The single bed in the corner of the room was just barely comfortable enough to sleep on but more than adequate for making love. I asked him where it came from and he said it belonged to an uncle and that he had rescued it when his uncle died and the family were throwing out all his stuff. The small table on the East wall was his as well. He told me that he found a bundle of old letters in a space behind the single drawer. Mostly they were mundane correspondence letters but a small group, tied up with a silk ribbon, suggested the possibility of romance which had not blossomed. He spoke wistfully about his uncle and the lost opportunity for love.
“The rest of the family thought he was a bit of a duffer, but I liked him. He always remembered my name, and there was a heap of us youngins. He seemed a bit sad, but he always smiled at me and told me stories. Somehow he found out that I liked to draw and paint and he always asked about my current project. When they were throwing out his stuff, they came upon a heap of drawings that I had given him. He kept them. I felt bad that I had not realised at the time that we had a connection. Maybe he saw something of himself in me. Something unrealised.”
“Kids are too busy being kids to notice the subtle stuff. He liked you, that’s the thing to remember. And I’m sure that he would be impressed by the number of women you have had in his bed.”
“Yes, I think he would be.”
On the other side of the studio, there was a workbench covered in paints and painting paraphernalia, including many paint-splattered art books and sketches. The tiny bathroom looked like it has hosted a major battle and I only rarely used the toilet. Just in an emergency.
One of the walls was solid brick which still had remnants of ancient plaster. There was also an old fireplace which looked functional. The fire surround would have been more at home in an old kitchen, so I’m guessing that this was not part of any past living quarters. Most likely this used to be an office, and not a high class one. Now it was serving a creative purpose.
I did a little modelling when I was young, and I know that it is incredibly tedious. You get used to the treatment, or you don’t do it. If you are looking for glamour, you are looking in the wrong place.
I’m still not sure why artists insist on having live models. It would be heaps easier, not to mention cheaper, to take a bunch of high-resolution photographs.
My artist, insisted on me being in the room. I think he enjoys the company. It’s true that artists experience a spectacular sex life and my artist did ask me if it would be possible for him to make love to me as well as being his model. I was impressed with how comfortable he was with the idea. Not exactly ‘matter of fact’ but certainly relaxed. I told him I would give it due consideration and we would see if we both felt like it at the end of the assignment. He seemed to be okay with that, and I thought that the painting would have a more exciting edge if he were thinking about the possibility.
I was right. The painting is beautiful, and he is an attentive lover with some serious stamina. Not what I expected, but then again if we got what we expected all the time, life would be very dull indeed.
There wasn’t any long-term future for this talented man and me; I could see that. We enjoyed each others company, and he was a superior lover, but he would always be an artist, and his work would come first — all-night sessions while he laboured to finish a commission, not to mention the casual seduction of any female who walked through that door.
I like him very much but that is not the life I have mapped out for myself. Artists are fun to play with but they are way too much work long term.
The painting is finished and so is my time in this room. I sit in this chair and remember how much fun I’ve had, and I feel a little bit sad.
I’m pleased that my likeness will live on and that my beauty is immortalised, but it’s almost time for me to seek out the next adventure.
There’s no hurry though — I’m going to sit here for a while and bask in the glow.
I love the early morning.
Most of the night people are seeking refuge in a cafe — bacon and eggs over the latest wholegrain toast, black coffee, no sugar and a bleary-eyed remembrance of an evening that will not come again.
I’d been delayed, and as I walked back to my table, the rising sun sent a soft golden glow across the Piazza.
My assistant was no longer sitting at the table. His working night had ended, and he was probably propping up the bar at Il Baccaro or wrapped around one of the night owl females who frequent this part of the city.
As I approach the table I see my tally book lying where my assistant had left it. My keys lie on top of the book, undisturbed.
I like keys.
I prefer an analogue solution to security wherever I can find it. I’m not disturbed by electronics — it’s just that I like the feeling of a key turning in a lock and the sound keys make when they jangle in my pocket.
The huge black umbrella is not offering any shade to the two well dress gentlemen seated at my table — the sun is way too low. I have a sense that there was a third man seated where I usually sit. He hasn’t been absent from the table for very long, and I’m wondering if he is due to return.
The two well-dressed men give me a lazy glance.
I’m still in evening dress and although a little dusty, I’m well presented after a long night of keeping book for the rich and famous. Millions of dollars and only a few slips of paper to show for all that activity.
My two guests are dressed in expensive suits and carrying expensive guns — well concealed. The value of what they are wearing would purchase a well-kept second-hand Mercedes. Where they come from the streets are full of Mercedes and during their Civil War, a few decades ago, the news footage showed armed men, ambulances and swirling smoke. Even the taxis were Mercedes. The vehicle of choice for a Middle Eastern civil conflict.
My occupation doesn’t require me to carry a concealed weapon, but I do. A large calibre two barreled Derringer strapped to my right ankle, and I’m proud to say that I’ve only needed to draw it once.
Part of my job is calculating the odds — seeing the trouble coming before it arrives. I have had to dodge the occasional closed fist and the well-aimed polished boot, but mostly I can calm a situation down before it comes to that. Sore losers are an occupational hazard.
I brushed the dust and a few flower petals off my seat before I sat down and the larger of the two well-dressed gentlemen said, “You may not want to sit there Mr Barker. In fifty seconds, it is going to be unhealthy for anyone who is sitting in that chair.”
Fifty-seconds isn’t very long to decide if he was just a smart arse and I’d used up a few of them calculating the odds.
It seemed safer to assume that he was telling the truth when he and his silent companion, who was directly in the follow-through line of fire, got slowly up from the table and walked away. The taller one had to duck to avoid hitting his head on the umbrella.
I picked up my book and my keys and left the table with as much composure as I could muster.
After I had taken a few steps, I heard the zip of the bullet and the crack of the splintering chair and table top. The bullet would have struck the quiet gentleman somewhere between the groin and the kneecap.
There was no audible bang. The shot must have come from a considerable distance. The police would work all that out at their leisure, but now I had some celebrating to do. I had dodged a bullet and made a lot of money, all over the course of an eventful evening.
Now, if I were lucky, Charmaine will be at home waiting for me.
I must say that’s misleading. Charmaine never waits for me. She does her own thing. It’s just that we share a very expensive apartment, and we sometimes arrive there at the same time, usually early in the morning. On those occasions, we sometimes do the sorts of things that men and women like to do.
The apartment has glass walls on two sides, and I never draw the blinds. I love the view that it affords. The ancient part of the city is, by now, bathed in the golden light that this section of the world is famous for.
This morning, Charmaine arrived home before I did. She is making eggs in her underwear. Her body isn’t perfect. Her torso is slightly too long when compared to her beautiful legs. Her breasts are sumptuous, but some would say that they could be a little larger. She has long black hair, dimples on her bottom and delightful pink toes.
Last night she had been wearing a black bra and panties — lots of lace. I see the dress she was wearing hanging on the outside of her huge wardrobe.
Not including the bathroom, our apartment is one large room with a king-sized bed in the middle. I hope to be lying on that bed a little later and I’m hopeful that I will be knee-deep in Charmaine, but it will depend on the type of night she has had.
My carnal ace will be the story about nearly being shot. That kind of near miss adventure story has given me the green light before.
Charmaine gathers information and what she collects makes her a lot of money. It’s exciting and dangerous, and she loves every minute of it. She has an incredible memory and in her line of work it needs to be.
She knows I’m in the apartment, but she does not look up from her breakfast preparations. I remove my jacket, tie and Derringer and stand behind her. She smells amazing. Her scent produced over a long night’s work mixed with the remnants of her French perfume, and my equipment is on full alert.
I place my hand on her bottom and my expectations for the morning are in my hand. If she brushes me away, it means the night went badly and so will my morning.
She does not react, but neither does she dispense with my wandering hand. So far so good. My luck is holding.
“If you keep doing that you won’t get any breakfast,” she says in a voice that gives me further hope.
“That’s a tough choice for a man, food or carnal delights.”
“I didn’t say you had to choose.”
I couldn’t tell if she was smiling, because I was looking in another direction and imagining my good fortune.
A good breakfast and the delicious Charmaine to follow.
I didn’t get shot, and I’m going to get laid.
It’s been an awesome day.