If It Isn’t Warm It’s Just Burnt Bread

I eat breakfast in bed — not always, but most of the time.

When I don’t, I usually sit at our small wooden table near the only window in the kitchen.

I’m the sole ‘old person’ living in this share house.

I’ve done the share-house thing before when I was young and poor and studying.

Now I’m older and poor and not studying.

Being the last of five people to arise, I get a clear run at the bathroom.

The downside is that there probably won’t be any milk for breakfast.

Plan B is toast and Vegemite and possibly jam, depending on my mood.

My housemates are all female.

Ages range from early twenties to mid-thirties.

I’m no longer the last person admitted to the house as two of the females have moved overseas to advance their careers. In addition, two new females have been installed. I had very little say.

At the time of my admission to this house, I wondered why they let me rent a room. Now I know that I’m the token male. I’m six feet tall, and despite my age, I’m strong and handy with tools (my ute is full of them — remnants of a previous life). After I’d been living here for a few months, word got around the neighbourhood that I was good at fixing things. Being an upper-class neighbourhood, people expect to pay, so it has come in handy — beer money mostly.

Ours is the only share house in a street of multi-million dollar houses built for successful business people in the early nineteen hundreds — grand old houses.

The current owner inherited the house and lives amongst us. She’s a surgeon, but you would never know it. She’s down-to-earth, can drink the young ones under the table, but never when she on-call. She likes rock and roll and white bread.

My role here, apart from paying rent, is to be tall and robust and handy. I carry heavy stuff whenever someone moves in or out. I carry grocery bags and take out the rubbish. I’ve been called upon to escort drunken ex-boyfriends from the premises — I’m a match for drunk young men, but only just.

Spiders are my speciality — they don’t bother me, and I haven’t killed one yet. So they all live quietly outside now. I’m sure they are grateful.

The spider thing has come in handy whenever I have annoyed one of my female housemates enough to want me gone.

“But he catches spiders,” is the cry that has saved me a few times.

No one has ever said anything, but two years of Psych, back in the day, tells me that I’ve been installed because there is little chance of anyone falling in love with me and upsetting the dynamics of the house.

The realisation hurts a bit, but I can see the practical side of the argument.

By nine-thirty am,the house is all mine. The women are off being a doctor, politician, theatre manager, personal secretary.

People think that you pop a couple of pieces of bread into a toaster, and out it pops — toast.

Not so.

If you don’t butter it immediately (actual salted butter), it will not taste how toast is supposed to taste. If you are interrupted (as I sometimes am) and your toast gets cold, there is no way back. I know. I’ve tried every means possible to resurrect cold toast — it cannot be done. It just sits there and turns into burnt bread. Not fit for man or beast. Although, it has to be said that the local birds will eat it reluctantly.

My male friends think I’m crazy to live in a house full of unattainable females.

I’ve learned to enjoy the experience. Females are amazing creatures, and besides, I don’t have a choice. I could not afford to live on my own.

Paydays are few and far between when you are an unrecognised writer with a ute full of tools and not much else to offer to the world.

As long as there is soft white bread cut thickly and butter and possibly jam, then there is something to look forward to, at least until my flatmates burst in at the end of the day and bring an end to my writing and a beginning to the prospect of spending time with interesting people.

Illustration: Mary Maxam

Where Should I Go?

I would love to say that I’m sick of the downside of fame and fortune, but that would be a lie, and you know how I’m not too fond of lies.

I’m not famous, and I’m not fortunate, but I do need to get away.

The decision has been made, but the finer details need to be ironed out.

Like, where do I go?

With everyone locked down and international travel difficult (but not impossible), you would think that my options were limited.

Not so.

I’m an inventive and resourceful person.

I can get around anything and talk my way out of, or into most situations, so many destinations are open to me.

The problem?

Too many choices, so maybe I should take the advice given by a ghost to Odysseus when he asked where to go on his journey.

“Take an oar from your boat and walk inland until you meet someone who doesn’t know what an oar is and asks what you are carrying. That is the place you should be.”

I’m not a seaman, but I am a writer, so I’m going to carry my typewriter until someone asks me what it is.

There shall I settle.

Artist: https://www.fernandovicente.es/en/illustration/fashion/

Paper Cup

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It doesn’t work if you use a paper cup, and at the time, I kind of knew it, but needs must, etc.

It has something to do with the rigidity or the lack thereof. Also, the paper fibres soak up the sound.

I’d been invited to a formal dinner party, which happens to me from time to time. Every good dinner party needs a successful writer, and when there is a shortage of them, I get a call. Second tier successful is better than no writer at all.

The party was mildly amusing, and I got a free meal which might not sound like much, but I like to eat, and writers don’t make very much money, so every free dinner counts.

My apartment block is tranquil most of the time but on this evening, after arriving home early — I’m so sorry to leave early, but I have an early appointment with my editor – no I don’t, but if I told you I was so bored I was in danger of chewing my arm off in order to escape you might not invite me back for a free meal.

The muffled sounds were oozing through our connecting wall, begging me to listen in. I gently placed my ear against the cold surface, but all I could hear was muffled sounds mixed with my heartbeat.

I’d seen it done in the movies, so I grabbed the paper cup from my bedside and placed it silently against the wall. The rim of the cup hurt my ear and gave no magnification or clarity to what was happening next door.

A wiser man would have continued to undress and proceed with the preparations for a sound night’s sleep, but I’m not a wiser man.

I remembered the stethoscope that belonged to my great uncle. For some reason, he willed it to me. My great uncle was a doctor in Edinborough and knew the famous Dr Bell, who Sherlock Holmes was based on.

In those days, I was a careless young man who had scant regard for family history, so I had put the stethoscope somewhere, but the exact spot was a bit of a mystery.

I found it, in its tattered leather case bearing my great uncle’s name, in the back of my sock drawer, and no, I have no idea why I put it there.

The rubber tubing was showing signs of deterioration, but the whole thing held together long enough for me to hear what was happening next door.

I cannot tell you how many times I have wished that I had just gone to bed instead of snooping.

The case caused a sensation, and the resultant publicity led to a first tier writing career. I never understood why so few people read my work before all this blew up and so many after.

I have regrets, it has to be said, but the universe pays scant regard to regrets and life goes on, but I do mourn for that dress shirt.

No matter how hard I tried, nothing would get the blood out.

 

Illustration: Kenton Nelson

A Kiss Before Leaving

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“How did he get you there? What did he say to you?”

“Amazingly, it didn’t take much. I was mesmerised by his antics. I often went to strange places with him without knowing why. I enjoyed the excitement. The building was boarded up, but he got me in, and we went up in the cargo lift to the top floor. The only thing on that floor was an old metal table and one chair. I looked around trying to work out what the game was going to be when he cuffed one of my wrists and dragged me to the chair. I thought this might be a sex game — something to spice things up a bit, so I went along with it.”

“Did he tie you to the chair?”

“No. He put my hands behind me and handcuffed my other hand through the back of the chair. My legs were free, and I could easily have stood up and taken the chair with me. I was smiling in anticipation. I moved my knees apart to show him I was ready to play.”

“So, what happened?” Certain parts of me were enjoying the story, even though the rest of me knew how this all ended.

“He produced a photograph from his jacket and put it on the table. I looked at the grainy black, and white image and I could recognise myself talking to a man. The shot must have been taken with a long lens — very long.”

“A black and white photo, like the ones in the vault?”

“Yes. He didn’t say anything, he just looked at me. I was embarrassed, but also mad. I knew he was sleeping with other women, so why was he making such a big deal out of this?”

“Ego, lady. Blokes run two separate rulebooks — one for them and one for you and the one for you does not leave room for fucking anyone but him.”

“He told me the building was going to be demolished in two days and he would leave me there if I didn’t give him all the intimate details. At first, I thought he was joking, but then he began hitting me and screaming at me. I screamed back, and he laughed, ‘No one will hear your screams my darling. Not way up here.’  I knew he was right and I knew he was crazy enough to go through with it. My fate was in my hands.”

“Your husband was nuts, you know that. Don’t you? And you encouraged him. What the fuck did you think was going to happen? Sooner or later something like this was inevitable.”

“He was threatening to leave, and I got really frightened. He walked towards me and said, ‘A kiss before leaving’. He bent down to kiss me, and I brought my knee up under his chin. It didn’t happen like it does in the movies. I heard the crack as his teeth came together and he gracefully buckled at the knees and fell down. He’d made a show of throwing the handcuff key out the window, but I know how his mind works. It was complicated, but I went through his pockets by lying on the floor next to him. My knees and elbows were scraped and bleeding, but I got free, and when I left him he was breathing and out cold. He must have come to and tried to get down the stairs — I jammed the cargo elevator on the ground floor. I guess he stumbled in the dark and fell again.”

“They found his body where the stair shaft was. That makes sense.”

“I didn’t mean to kill him, I just wanted to escape.”

“And when he didn’t come home?”

“I didn’t go home. I went and stayed with friends. They saw the state of me, and I told them I’d been mugged. It took a bit of talking to stop them from going to the police.”

“Didn’t your friends piece it all together after your husband went missing?”

“No. They believed my story, and so did everyone else.”

“So, what happens now? Do I get the equivalent of the knee under the chin?

“You said it yourself, there is no proof that any of this happened and I don’t think you are going to tell anyone, and even if you did, your boss wouldn’t let you print it. I still have the photos that my husband took. I don’t think he would want anyone to see them.”

She was right — I couldn’t prove any of it, and I don’t think I wanted to. This situation was way out of hand, and I was in deeper than I wanted to be. My mind was racing, and all I wanted was an out. My old life seemed safe and secure, and I was wondering why I strayed so far. No sense bitching about it — I’m a grown up — I make my own decisions.

This wasn’t going anywhere good, and I was along for the ride — it serves me right.

A Handful Of Thank You

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I emptied the contents of my hand onto the time-worn table.

We inhabited this pub during happier times, and I guess we never broke the habit.

“What is that?” asked Harry, my former workmate. Harry and I once were warriors in the halls of finance. We slashed and burned our way to enormous profits — profits we saw very little of. That sounds like sour grapes, and I guess it is. We were paid very well and on at least one occasion, our Christmas bonus equalled the deposit on an expensive flat overlooking the river — I loved that view.

We thought we were invincible.

“That, my dear Harry is a pile of thank you,” I said with an air of mystery — I do a good mystery.

“Come again, young Charles?” Everyone at the firm called me young Charles. It made it easier, and even when older Charles left the company, I continued to be young Charles.

“It’s a moderately long story, do you want another pint before I begin?”

“Nah, I’ll make this one last.”

“You know that big old RAF greatcoat I used to wear?”

“The one that is hanging on the coat stand over there?”

“That’s the one.”

“I think I will get that drink. I get the feeling that this is going to be epic — you want one?”

“No, save your money. I’m pleasantly toasted, and it should last till lunchtime.”

In the old days, we didn’t have to worry about such things — money was always there, and just like everything else in life, we expected it to stay that way.

I watched Harry make his way to the bar. The girl behind the counter was new, and Harry fancied his chances — their conversation continued for some minutes. As Harry turned to come back to our table, I watched the young lady flash her eyes and run her fingers through her hair.

“I think I’m in there,” said Harry as he sat down. From what I saw, I’d say he probably was.

“It must be your Scotish charm.”

“They all want to know what is under the kilt.”

“You’re not wearing a kilt, Harry.”

“You know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t, but one day I’m sure you will enlighten me.”

We had both travelled a long way to come to London and make our fortune, and now we could not imagine going home with our tails between our legs. My hometown is Melbourne — on the other side of the world.

“So, if you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin.”

“Extremely comfy, thank you.”

“You know the park across from my flat?”

“Your old flat or the new one?”

“There is only a railway line across from my current abode.” I glared at him for reminding me of how far I had come down.

“On my days off —“

“Which you have a large number of nowadays,” interrupted Harry.

“Yes, thank you for reminding me. On my days off I would take my stale bread to the park and feed the birds. I wasn’t particular, anything with feathers got a fair share.”

“That was very egalitarian of you,” said Harry.

“Thank you — one must maintain standards. So, this went on for many weeks when I discovered the substance you see before you, in the pocket of my greatcoat.”

Harry ran a cautious finger through the pile of what looked like very fine gravel lying on the well-worn table.

“I didn’t pay it any attention at first. I assumed that it had fallen out of a tree, or I had brushed up against something as I walked through the park.”

“A reasonable assumption.”

“Agreed — then the amount of gravel got progressively larger until it reached the proportion you see before you.”

“So, what is it? I know you are dying to tell me.”

“I took a sample to a girl I was penetrating at that time, and between bouts of passion, I asked her if she knew what it was. This girl loves a mystery, so she leapt out of bed, stark naked, and put a couple of grains under her microscope.”

“You have to love a naked woman who has a microscope.”

“My thoughts exactly. It turns out that she was not only good at all forms of coitus, but she was an excellent botanist as well.”

“Coitus beats Botanist though.”

“I agree, but on this occasion, she was both — result!”

“So?”

“Well, it turns out that they are the tops of tiny acorn like seeds — just the tops, and they are very sought after by the little birds that live in that park.”

Little birds, is that their botanical name?”

“She did tell me, but in my defence, she was naked, and I was imagining all the things I could do to her before I had to go to work. Smoothest thighs you have ever seen and spectacular breasts.”

“Fair enough. Any man could forget a Latin name under such circumstances — you’re forgiven.”

“Anyway, these little birds spend hours looking for the caps off the seeds. They use them to make a sort of paste. They mix it with mud and sticks and make a very sturdy nest — a bit like adding gravel to cement. These tiny nut caps are their most treasured possession — they will fight other birds who try to move in on their supply.”

“And, they give them to you?”

“Yes. I’m just as amazed as you are.”

“How do they manage to get them into your pocket without you noticing?”

“Good question. I guess it’s because I’m in a kind of meditative state — sitting by the lake, watching the birds. It was then, and still is, a kind of escape. But after the encounter with the naked Botanist, I watched them out of the corner of my eye. My coat pocket bends open just a bit as I sit and they come up from behind me and drop them in, one at a time.”

“Wow. It must take a while to deposit enough to make a pile like this.”

“I’m touched that they want to thank me. I guess they appreciate the food. Pickings must be very slim in the winter, especially if you have extra mouths to feed. Often, I would be the only one in the park, particularly on wet rainy days. That old greatcoat comes in handy. I turn up the collar and tuck in a scarf, and I’m warm as toast.”

“What about your head?”

“Large woollen fisherman’s hat.”

“Sorted.”

“I feel bad taking their most treasured possession, so I sneak back and sprinkle them under a nearby tree and hope that they don’t notice.”

“Boy, are you going to feel dumb if they turn out to be a cure for cancer.”

“I’ll risk it.”

We both went quiet for a while, the way that good friends can. We sat and drank our beer and thought back to those heady days when the world was ours for the taking.

Harry is the only friend I have left from those days. I remember the morning we turned up to work only to find the front doors chained and padlocked. I wondered how they were able to do that; then I remembered that our firm owned the whole building. The security guards were no help — I just wanted to get my stuff out of my desk — never happened — probably ended up in a skip.

As I remember, Harry and I walked to this pub and made a few calls before our work phones went silent. A couple of the directors had been fiddling the books. They knew that we were surviving on reputation and bugger all else. They packed a serious amount of cash into the company jet and headed for a warmer country. We should have seen it coming, but we were young, and thought we knew our worth — we were invincible.

The naked botanist stopped fucking me as soon as I could no longer squire her to important parties. The flat went after a few months — I wandered along in denial, thinking that the world needed my skill set, but whenever they read the name of the firm I had most recently been employed by, the answer was always the same — no room at the inn.

The blokes who came to throw me out of my flat were very good about it.

“Just take whatever you can carry mate, we’ll look the other way.”

Jolly decent of them really. It was the middle of the day, and they broke for lunch after changing the locks on my former flat.

“Can we buy you lunch young fella? Don’t take it too hard. We see a lot of this, especially nowadays. You can curl up and die, or you can come back stronger — it’s your choice.”

They were right, and I worked for them part-time for a while, but that life was not for me.

I’ve got a tiny flat with a view of a railway line, a warm coat and a good friend. My bank account will see me right for a few more months.

After that, who knows.

Life and Death

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        The tram driver was vigilant — it wasn’t his fault.

        Sam was early for his appointment with Dr Doug, so a last-minute decision saw him standing in the doorway of the number twelve tram. A quick stop and a few quiet moments in the park seemed like a good idea.

         Spring had sprung and summer was approaching. The evidence of new life was everywhere.

        Before this tram reached its Bayside destination it would rumble along Collins Street past the medical district — the so-called ‘Paris End’ — trendy cafes and beautiful old office buildings built in an era when designers and craftsmen took pride in their work.

        The tram driver saw them coming — it happened often as he piloted his tram past the Edinburgh Gardens. The smaller birds were constantly chasing away the larger birds in the belief that if they didn’t, the larger birds would lay waste to their nests and take their chicks as an easy snack. The aerial battles are every bit as dramatic and deadly as anything seen during the Battle of Britain.

         Tram drivers understand the physics involved in stopping suddenly — it isn’t going to happen — not when your vehicle weights more than a Rhino and you are riding on shiny metal rails.

        As the birds approached and the crow dipped and banked frantically in an attempt to escape from the angry Wattlebird and simultaneously avoid contact with the big green monster, the driver watched the drama play out — he was a spectator and nothing he did would make any difference to the outcome.

        The wingspan of the crow meant that it could turn, bank and dip more efficiently, but the Wattlebird was faster and they both knew it. The crow knew that the Wattlebird would not give up and he was going to feel his sharp beak unless he flew away from the park. The crow had not managed to clear the perimeter of the park and the Wattlebird was close behind. The experienced dive into traffic was designed to shake off the angry bird — it worked.

        The Wattlebird had the crow in his sights — he could see nothing else. He saw the crow’s desperate manoeuvre, but he did not see the green monster.

        Sam caught sight of this deadly battle as the crow narrowly missed the driver’s cabin of the rapidly slowing tram. Everyone on the front part of the tram heard the bang as the distracted Wattlebird hit the window at full pelt.

        Sam saw the dishevelled bird cartwheel past his door and land on the side of the road.

        When the tram stopped, and the door opened, the bird was laying on the road some fifty metres behind the stationary tram. The cars following the tram were narrowly avoiding the stricken bird.

         “I can’t just leave the little bugger lying there,” Sam said. He was the only person alighting the tram at the Gardens so his words were only for him.

        Sam admired the underdog, and he had spent a large part of his former career doing something to support the underdog. He admired the little bloke for taking on a much larger opponent, and all done to protect his family.

        By the time he got to the bird it had stopped moving. Each car that passed by threatened to put a sudden end to the story.

        Sam stood over the bird and glared at the cars that were forced to change direction to avoid running him over. A medium sized truck blew its horn and the driver made it obvious that he was displeased with Sam getting in his way.

        “Get off the road, dickhead,” said the articulate driver.

        Sam noticed the sticker on the back of the truck as it swerved and drove by.

        “The day I take advice from a Collingwood supporter ……” said Sam, failing to come up with a suitable insult in the few seconds available to him.

        The two men gave each other the middle finger salute as the truck disappeared into the stream of traffic, and Sam returned his attention to the prostrate bird.

         The bird’s eyes were open, and it was breathing. Sam had seen a lot of dead and dying souls, and most of them involved blood. The little bird did not appear to be bleeding. Sam picked him up and held him in his hand as he stepped off the roadside to the relative safety of the gardens. The bird tried to lift its head, and Sam took this as a good sign, but it couldn’t maintain it, and its head slumped back into Sam’s large hand. He had never held a Wattlebird before. The bird was bigger than a blackbird but seemed to weigh very little. He could feel its heart racing and see its lungs moving in its chest. The thought crossed his mind that he should take the bird to a Vet, but where to take it? He didn’t know this area well enough. There were other Wattlebirds nearby, and it seemed to Sam that they were calling to this stricken creature. It was probably only his imagination, but maybe if he lay the bird under a tree it might come to and regain its senses — then he remembered the sound of the bird hitting the tram — this was wishful thinking on his part. He lay the bird down and took a step away. The bird closed its eyes, and its breathing became more laboured.

         “Jesus, I can’t just leave you here to die on your own,” said Sam as he picked the bird up and cradled it in his hands. He sat on the grass and waited for what was to come.

        Sam had seen men die — friends and enemies and it was something that he never wanted to get used to.

         The little bird’s breathing became deeper and slower until finally it took one last breath and lay still.

        Sam felt the life go out of this little creature and it seemed as though the birds that had been so loud a few moments before fell silent.

        Sam sat quietly with the dead bird in his hands, not wanting to put it down — putting it down would mean that it was over and he would have to go back to his life. Besides, the little bird’s spirit might still be close by.

        Somewhere in this park, there is a family of birds waiting for him to return.

        “It’s a tough world little fella. They will have to learn to get along without you now,” said Sam as he laid the bird gently under a tree. He wiped away the tear, in case anyone noticed. There were no tears when his friends died, but this little bird had extracted Sam’s most private expression — tears. He sat there for what seemed like a long time before walking back to the tram stop and resuming his journey.

        As he rode the tram for the short journey to the city, Sam thought about what had happened and how it closely paralleled his own situation.

        “I was luckier that you. I got to go home, eventually, except that it doesn’t feel like home. My family were waiting for me, but I didn’t recognise them.” Sam’s recent habit of talking to himself was disturbing the man in the suit seated opposite him. He smiled at the man in the impeccable suit, but this seemed to make the situation worse. The neatly dressed man muttered something about ‘not letting loonies wander around among ordinary decent people’, and Sam asked him who he barracked for.

         “Collingwood,” was the man’s involuntary answer — most people who live in Melbourne will answer that question even if they think you might be about to strangle them.

         “I thought so,” said Sam and the two men avoided eye contact for the remainder of the journey.

         When Dr Doug called him into his office, Sam did not tell him about the life and death struggle between the two feathered creatures. He didn’t tell him about the tram or sitting under a tree with a dying bird or the thoughts that went through his head. He didn’t tell him about any of these things and there was no mention of tears.

Not telling, seemed strange to Sam — after all, this was exactly the kind of stuff that a person like Dr Doug would like to hear.

        Maybe next time — then again, maybe not.