Illustration credit: Franco Matticchio
“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.
Medium-sized bluestone church — probably Catholic, maybe Church of England, remote possibility of Episcopalian — do we have Episcopalians in Australia? It’s early afternoon. The sun is low and bright, The previous christening party have just left, reluctantly — a bit of glaring from the parents when the minister/priest has to shoo them away so that the next christening can begin. Four stone steps lead up to the large green wooden doors — which are wide open. Fake wrought iron hinges painted black.
“They pack ‘em in, don’t they?” said Sergeant Wilson.
Even though Sergeant Wilson wears a suit and a tie every working day, today, his shirt collar is bothering him.
“Religion is a business, like everything else,” said Inspector McBride. A very pretty young woman from the previous ceremony caught his eye. She held his gaze as he pivoted away from his Sergeant.
Helen, the Inspector’s wife, is cuddling her infant and trying to occupy it. She doesn’t want the tiny child to start crying any earlier than necessary.
Helen notices her husband’s interest in the young woman and her interest in him.
‘Women like my tall, handsome husband,’ she thinks. The thought pleases her and frightens her at the same time.
“Come inside everyone,” says the minister/priest, and the waiting group shuffle up the steps and into the place of worship. The temperature drops noticeably, and the windows cast streams of light, and as if Woody Allen had produced the scene, a shaft of coloured light strikes the baptismal font. The assembled group of friends and family head towards the light.
Gathered around the font, the minster/priest speaks the words that will bind the child and its parents to the Church forever, or at least until the child is old enough to shed these ideas.
“Do you renounce Satan?” said the celebrant.
“I do,” says Sergeant Wilson, who wonders why the answer is precisely the same as when someone marries. Did he just inadvertently marry Satan? Probably not, but who can tell with these ancient and confusing rituals.
Sergeant Wilson is now the godfather of Inspector and Helen McBride’s son and heir.
Wilson hopes that he will never have to fulfil his duties, but a policeman’s lot can be deadly.
Wilson had only met the child’s godmother once — when they went through the procedure with the celebrant about a week ago. It rained, and the church was lit dimly, but the candles gave it a golden glow. Someone had given the ancient timber pews a good going over and the aroma of furniture polish filled the air.
Wilson’s attempt at humour had fallen flat, ‘so you’re the fairy godmother’ — and now Helen’s best friend thought he was a lame policeman — no coming back from that.
What did he care? After the ceremony, he probably would not have to see her again, unless something unspeakable happened.
Wilson came to the conclusion that the whole thing was a show for Helen’s family. It didn’t make practical sense to have two people who didn’t know each other responsible for a child.
From the child’s point of view, it guaranteed at least two extra presents come birthday time.
The assembled multitude wandered outside for photos.
The smokers in the group dispersed to the downwind side — no need to draw the wrath of the grandparents.
Once the main photos had been taken, the two policemen found each other.
“Coming back to the house for a sandwich and beer?” said the Inspector.
“I’ll poke my head in, but I want to interview the neighbours one more time. Most of them were out when the plods knocked on doors,” said Sergeant Wilson.
“If we don’t get a break soon, this one is going to get away from us,” said the Inspector.
“The blood samples came back. Nothing but her’s. No smears, no footprints, no nothing. How did he get out of the room without leaving any marks?”
“Maybe the bugger had wings.”
“The photographer wants a few shots of you holding the baby,” said Helen. Neither of the men had seen her approach.
“Do I have to?” said the Inspector. His wife didn’t answer, she didn’t need to.
He took the infant from her and walked to the appointed spot.
“Just one on your own,” said the photographer trying to disguise his indifference. He did an excellent job of it, and most people thought he was genuinely in love with taking their photo. In his mind, he was on a beach with scantily clad women who all wanted an intimate portfolio.
“Now one with the grandparents.”
“Now one with the godparents.”
The Inspector and his child stood in the middle, and Wilson stood on his right. The photographer didn’t complain, so he stayed there.
The godmother, who was wondering if she looked as good as she felt, stood looking at the lens as the photographer instructed.
The finished photograph showed three adults and one child, all wondering what the future would bring.
“Now one with the aunties.”
Wilson didn’t go back to the house for a sandwich and a beer and the godmother was sorry that he didn’t. She was sad that her nerves made her react badly when she first met him. She’d let the child’s mother colour her thoughts, something she tried to avoid. She liked to make up her own mind about people. But, on the occasion of a christening rehearsal, she let her impatience show through, and the godfather had taken it as yet another rejection.
Sergeant Wilson was not ‘good with women’. He never knew what to say to them, so he usually said nothing or something that made him look a bit off.
Sergeant Wilson knocked on the doors surrounding the murder scene and found a woman who remembered the night in question. She saw a man leave the apartment.
“I know it sounds weird, but he looked like he had wings,” said the neighbour of the murder victim.
“Have you ever seen him before?”
“I’m pretty sure he delivers pizza.”
“Which pizza place?”
“Fallen Angel Pizza, on William’s road. Just near the bank.”
“Do you think you could pick him out if we arranged a line-up?”
“Yes. Especially if he’s wearing those wings.”
Inspector and Helen McBride’s house. A double fronted Californian bungalow. People are spilling out of the front of the house and onto the lawn. The conversation is lively. Inspector McBride is sitting on his front fence with a bunch of sandwiches in one hand and a beer in the other. When his mobile phone rings, he puts his beer on the wall and answers his phone.
“Inspector, it’s Wilson. I’ve found a witness. Remember when you said you thought the killer must have flown out of the scene?”
“My witness says the bugger had wings!”
This was the first chapter in what became a novelette, “Dark Angel Pizza”. If you would like to binge read the rest of the chapters, here they are in order: The Christening, Flying Pizza, Position Vacant: Pizza Delivery Driver, And Just Like That He Was Gone, Profiler. Blood and Despair
The old man waited; every winter solstice.
Pawprints in the snow — two sets.
The old prince had been married to the queen for more years than he could remember. They were happy enough, but the demands of office weighed heavily on them both.
None of us knows when our father will leave this life.
When the old king died, she ascended to the throne, the new queen was very young.
She took to her role bravely, and the young prince stood by her side.
There were fewer duties to perform in the winter months. They retreated to their favourite country estate — hundreds of years old. Large rooms — a stone fireplace in each one. Small dogs scurried from place to place, looking for attention, the older dogs wisely curled up before the fire.
One clear grey day, all the dogs ran to the French doors and barked a warning, clawing at the glass. Security at the castle was tight, but occasionally there were incidents. “Didn’t want to concern you, your highness. We caught him once he scaled the fence. Just a young bloke on a dare. Won’t do that again, I promise you.” A bedraggled young man between two large soldiers staggered past the window and into a waiting unmarked van. He looked sore and sorry, his long hair a tangled mess. His pitiful expression lingered long after the van pulled away.
The dogs were becoming more frantic, and the prince expected to see a soldier running through the snow, but no one came. Only the dogs could hear the sound of something desperately trying to free itself.
“Come away from the door.” The dogs obeyed, sitting a few feet back and waiting for instructions. “Wait there. I’ll call you if I need you.”
The French doors stayed open as the prince walked out onto the paved patio in his house slippers. The fabric absorbed the water from the snow, and it chilled his feet.
Determined to see what was going on across the lawn, he continued with numb toes.
As he reached the outer edge of the lawn, he heard it.
The fox looked at him with the same look he had seen on enemy soldiers as he and his comrades spilled into their trench.
The fox was trapped by its hind leg.
The prince removed his dressing gown and threw it over the fox’s head. The animal lay still.
Opening the trap was easy enough. The leg didn’t seem to be broken, but there was a lot of blood. The fox winced as the prince touched the damaged appendage.
With the dressing gown still in place, the prince picked up the fox and walked back across the lawn — his footprints the only break in the soft powder snow. He filled his own steps as he had done as a soldier. The memory made him sad.
Once back inside, the disciplined dogs could no longer contain themselves. They knew the scent of a dangerous intruder. They flocked around the prince as he walked through the house, down the corridor to the stairs leading to the servant’s quarters.
“Do you have somewhere I can deal with this?” asked the prince.
The cook looked at him with wide eyes.
“Are you going to kill it, your majesty?”
“No,” said the prince. He had a mellifluous voice, and she loved to hear him speak. His gentle tone told her that he meant what he said.
“I want to dress its wound before I let it go.”
“It probably won’t help, your majesty. It’ll get infected as soon as it walks through the mud,” said the cook. “I dressed a lot of wounds in the war.”
“I didn’t know that. Why didn’t I know that?”
“I nursed your brother,” she said, eyes down.
“God bless you for that,” said the prince.
In silence, they cleaned and dressed the fox’s wound.
The prince smiled at the cook — comrades in arms.
With the fox still wrapped up in his gown, the prince walked back through the house escorted by his pack of dogs.
“Wait here,” he said. “I’ll call out for you if I need help.”
The dogs sat at the open door.
Across the lawn once more to the bushes.
The prince put the fox down.
“Try not to chew off your bandage and stay out of the mud, if you can. Good luck — you’re going to need it.”
A year later, the prince’s dogs ran to the doors and gave the alarm.
At the edge of the snow-covered lawn stood an older fox and a younger male fox.
They stood in the snow until the prince appeared.
They stared at each other for the longest time.
When the foxes turned and walked back through the bushes, the prince turned to his obedient dogs.
“I think that’s our fox and possibly, that was his son.”
The prince walked across the house and down to the kitchen. The cook stopped what she was doing.
“I think I just saw the fox we saved last year and his cub. The dogs will back me up, they saw it too.”
The cook wanted to laugh, but she held it in.
“We did it cook. You and me, and now he came to visit.”
“I hope they stay away from our chickens.”
“Yes, there is that,” said the prince.
The prince smiled awkwardly and went back upstairs.
The following year, the scene repeated itself, but the year after that something had changed.
The older fox was not there. The damaged leg made him easy to recognise.
And yet, there was an older male fox and a younger male. They waited at the edge of the lawn, illuminated by the pure white snow.
Again the ritual played out.
An extended period of locking eyes followed by the departure.
Every four or five years, the older fox would be a former youngster. As each elder fox met its fate, a descendant would take its place and the ritual would continue.
A tear would form in the ageing prince’s eye as he realised the passing of a senior fox.
The queen and the prince reigned for many decades, and as extreme old age was upon them, the weather patterns had altered to such a degree that the snow season came later and later.
The foxes arrived later in the season.
This year, the snow came even later.
The prince and the queen had returned to their duties, and no one was there to see the fox and his cub arrive at the edge of the snow-covered lawn.
They waited for the longest time, longer than was safe.
The first in a long line to not be able to express their gratitude, they turned and walked back through the bushes.
“My dad says that nine out of ten religions fail in their first year.”
“Yeah, well he would, wouldn’t he?”
“My dad knows stuff.”
“I know he does. You won’t get an argument out of me.”
Roman was right, and I liked his dad. His dad never made me feel like I was just a kid. When he shook your hand, which he did every time I saw him, he looked me straight in the eye.
“So how have you been, young Henry?” (That name stuck — I’ve been ‘Young Henry’ for thirty-five years). “How’s your dad?”
Roman’s dad and my dad grew up in the same neighbourhood. Roman’s dad grew up to be a provider, a husband and a father.
My dad got lost somewhere along the way.
“He’s good. Works hard. Hardly ever see him but.”
I think he worked hard.
That’s what mum said it was — the long absences and the tired smile when he was around.
I could tell he was trying.
I knew he wanted to be like the other dads.
He just couldn’t find his way out of the fog.
I remember one sunny afternoon sitting in the driveway of our home. My friends were off somewhere, and I remember not minding their absence.
I’d found a struggling bee.
I sat on the warm concrete and tried to get the little creature to trust me and drink some of the sugary water I’d made. The spoon nearly knocked the bee over a couple of times. Eventually, it drank some of the sticky liquid, and I was waiting to see if it would recover.
I was oblivious — in my own little world. I missed hearing his footsteps as he walked up the driveway and sat next to me.
I expected him to ask me what I was doing — he didn’t.
We sat and watched the bee recover its strength, test its wings and fly unsteadily away.
“Do you think he will find his way home?”
“I don’t know dad. I don’t know where he lives. It might be far away.”
“Wherever it is, you gave him a chance to get back home, and that makes this a special day.”
Looking back, it seemed like this encounter took up most of the afternoon. In reality, it probably took up twenty minutes or so.
I hadn’t heard my father say more than a dozen words in weeks.
Maybe something extraordinary happened to him that day.
He was home before dark, and that rarely happened.
Some nights he didn’t come home at all.
I’d like to say that things changed for us after that day.
I’d like to say that my dad found his feet and strode forward for the rest of his life and for a while it was just like that, but whatever it was that had wounded him so profoundly would not allow him to be happy.
He held himself together as best he could until I was grown, but it was never again the way it was that sunny afternoon sitting on the driveway with my dad, watching a bee regain its willingness to live.
It wasn’t murder, not really.
Whatever it was, I needed to keep a low profile for a while.
At least until the dust settled.
Does dust ever settle? Someone always stirs it up.
Keeping my head down was a good idea, but where? I’m a predictable young bloke. I like the places I like, and I tend to end up there sooner or later. So, if someone was looking for me, I would not be that hard to find.
I needed advice, and my grandmother was very good at hiding in plain sight, back in the day. You would never think so to look at her now.
People underestimate her now.
She spent three years in an occupied country doing her bit. She got caught once and talked her way out of trouble. Think about that. How cool do you have to be to be young, female, in trouble and talk your way out of it?
Seriously cool, my grandma.
I could probably hang out at her house, play video games, watch movies and help her with the garden, but I know I would get bored and do something stupid — I’m good at stupid.
I sat at grandma’s kitchen table, as I had done many times growing up. I used to bring my mates to her house on my way home from school. Cake was always available and soft drinks. Grandma always knew the hungry ones, the ones who didn’t get enough to eat at home.
“Have another piece. It’ll only go to waste if you don’t eat it.”
No, it wouldn’t, I’d be thinking.
The sun was coming in through the window and splashing onto the edge of the table. I held onto my mug of tea the way girls do when they are trying to get warm.
“I didn’t have any choice, Grandma. It was him or me.”
Grandma didn’t speak, she just stared at her mug of tea. Grandma never drank from cups, even though she had some fine ones. “You never get enough in a cup, and you end up refilling it over and over.” Grandma was not one for wasting energy.
After several minutes, she applied words to her thoughts.
“You can stay here with me until this is resolved.”
I took a long breath out. I knew she would look after me.
“I have an old friend who runs a nursing home and hospice. I’ll ask if you can help her. I’ll tell her you are considering becoming a nurse and need the experience. The old men will welcome having a man to talk to, and the old ladies will be dazzled by your handsome face.”
I tried not to blush.
This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for my forced isolation, but it will while away the time. Old people don’t frighten me.
Two days later, and I’m shaking hands with Ethel, my grandma’s friend. We were standing in the foyer of a modern building, the light streaming in behind me illuminating Ethel’s face. She seemed kind and determined. The sort of person you would follow just to see where she was going.
“You must be Stephen. Your grandma said you wanted to have some practical experience to add to your nursing application?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Are you planning to specialise in geriatric nursing?”
“I think so.”
“Come, and we will get you a uniform. You can do a few jobs for me. Basic stuff. You are not too proud to do a bit of cleaning, are you Stephen?”
“I’m here to help and to learn.”
“Good. Most of your work will be talking to our residents. Most of them will be happy to have someone new to tell their stories to. They will want to know a bit about you as well.”
Not too much, I hope.
“I can do that.”
The ‘uniform’ turned out to be a set of scrubs with the name of the centre embroidered on the breast. Pale green and they suited me. I never thought much about what colours suit me.
On my fifth day, I was playing chess with Mr Johnston (always call the residents by their last name — it’s a sign of respect, they come from a different generation), when I saw Ethel, Mrs Wilson, walk briskly by the door — the staff never run, it upsets the residents.
“That must be for Billy,” said Mr Johnston. “He’s near the end. I’m going to miss the old bugger.”
“It’s your move Mr Johnston,” I said.
“Don’t feel much like playing, young fella. Need to be on my own.” Mr Johnstone got up and walked back in the direction of his room. I walked out too. I wanted to see what was going on.
I stood in the doorway to Billy Madison’s room. It felt like the air was thicker in there. I hesitated to break the invisible barrier.
“Come closer, Stephen. Mr Madison is leaving us.”
I stepped forward as I was told and watched as the nurse spoke gently to Billy Madison.
“You can go now, Billy. We are here with you. You are not alone.”
Billy Madison breathed his last few laboured breaths, sighed and was still.
This was only the second time I had watched someone die, and the emotion was quite different this time.
“We were with him when he died, which is what we promised him. Now we will prepare his body for the undertaker, and you can help.”
Ethel looked at me as though she expected me to run. I didn’t. Death does not frighten me, it’s living that scares the shit out of me.
“So how was your first week?” said my grandma as she put a load of fresh scones on the table.
“It was fascinating, but I’m glad to have a day off. It’s quite hard when someone you are just getting to know dies in front of you.”
I reached for the butter and the jam as my grandma put the whipped cream on the table.
“How long have you been making scones, grandma?”
“Too long to contemplate. My grandma taught me.”
“Why do your scones taste better than anyone else’s? Don’t tell mum I said that.”
“A secret ingredient,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
“It’s been a week for secrets. I was sitting with a woman just the other day, and she told me a story that only a person who was facing the end of their life could tell.”
“I’ll make a fresh pot of tea, and you can tell me all about it.”
For the first time, I’m not very bright, it has to be said, I realised that my grandma too was at the end of her life. It never entered my mind that she would someday, not be here.
“Well, her story started the day she brought a new wheelbarrow. A red one,” I said as I stuffed the last piece of the scone I had been eating, into my mouth.
“I’ll tell it to you the way she told it to me.”
Without it, I would not have been able to move the body.
I’d always taken it for granted — the wheelbarrow, not the dead body.
It had always been there, leaning up against the shed or sitting quietly, filled with weeds or split fire-wood — just waiting for the task to be completed.
It was ‘on special’ at the hardware store on the high street.
The shop went out of business not long after, but I remember the wheelbarrows all lined up outside with a huge sign saying how much they were and how much I would be saving if I bought one.
The sign had the desired effect.
I’d needed a wheelbarrow for some time, and the first one in the stack was red.
The gentleman who served me was happy to make the sale but worried about how I was going to get it home.
“Have you got a ‘ute’ lady?”
“No, why? Is it a requirement for owning a wheelbarrow?”
He looked at me for a moment. I could tell that he was wondering if I was ‘winding him up’.
He decided that I was.
“No, but she’s a big bugger, and she probably won’t fit across the back seat of your car.”
“I don’t own a car. I walked here, and I’m planning to drive her home. I’ll park her outside the supermarket and load her up with my weekly shopping, and away I go.”
“Fair enough, but she really is a bloody big wheelbarrow. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a smaller one? You can still give the grand-kiddies a ride in a smaller one. The one you picked is big enough to fit a large dead body in.”
He must have thought that he had gone a bit too far because he looked up and gave an embarrassed smile. I wasn’t worried about the ‘dead body’ crack, but I was considering running over his foot for the grandmother comment.
“Is the smaller wheelbarrow on special as well?” I said.
“No, just these huge industrial buggers that I got stuck with when I bought the business.”
“Well then; I have the right barrow, don’t I?”
I smiled and staggered off down the footpath scattering pedestrians in my wake.
I didn’t stop to buy groceries; that was just me ‘getting carried away’ with the hardware store owner.
Every time I go past his old shop, I wonder what happened to him.
His shop became a Noodle Shop, then a $2 Shop, then a Tattoo Parlour, then a Bakery, then an empty shop with a strange collection of bits and pieces lying in the middle of the tiled floor.
It looked like someone had swept up after the last tenants, and never came back to throw out the collection of flotsam.
I’ve always wondered what the orange penis-shaped thing was.
I’m sure that it’s not an orange penis, but there has never been anyone at the shop for me to ask; which is just as well because I think I would be too embarrassed to make that particular enquiry.
Gardening is not my favourite pastime, but since my husband died, I have had to work up the enthusiasm.
Bill was the love of my life, and I miss him so very much.
He left me suddenly — an industrial accident. Everyone was very kind, especially his business partner Ambrose Kruis.
Bill and Ambrose built the business up from nothing, and when Bill died, Ambrose inherited the company; it was part of their partnership agreement. I understood; I wasn’t upset. They were engaged in high-risk construction, and if one of the partners died, it would put the whole business in jeopardy, so it was only fair that the surviving partner benefit.
It also explained the massive payout that Ambrose received as a result of the ‘partners insurance’.
He was not under any obligation, but he helped me anyway.
He knew that Bill put all his capital into the business and consequently, there wasn’t any life insurance.
I had some savings, but they were for a ‘rainy day’, as Bill used to say.
Ambrose was very generous when the roof needed replacing and when the plumbing packed it in.
I knew that I could not rely on him forever, but up until I made a surprise visit to his office, he had looked after me financially.
I arrived early on a Wednesday morning, and his secretary let me wait in his office. “He won’t be long. He’s at a breakfast meeting with the bankers.”
I decided to make the most of my time and write a couple of letters.
I do send emails, but I still prefer the personal touch of sending a letter.
I stepped behind what used to be Bill’s desk and opened the top drawer looking for notepaper.
Two more drawers were opened before I found some, and that’s not all that I found.
The writing paper was not lying flat in the drawer.
There seemed to be something small and bulky under the ream of paper. I removed the paper, and the sunlight coming in low through the office window reflected off the polished silver surface of an antique Victorian hip flask.
You might be wondering why I knew what it was.
I’d given this flask to my husband on our wedding night.
It belonged to my grandfather.
He was some twenty-years-old when he bought it upon arriving in England in 1915.
He was a young Lieutenant on his way to the front.
The flask saw a lot of action, and no doubt helped to dull the terror that trench warfare brought to all those involved.
I recognised the flask from the inscription and by the dent on the top corner. It was caused by a German sniper’s bullet.
After surviving at the front for all those years, one moment of lost concentration and my grandfather’s war came to an end, only months from the close of hostilities.
The notice of his death arrived on the day that the Armistice took effect.
The flask was returned to the family along with his other belongings.
Obviously, I was aware that the flask was missing from my husband’s effects, but I put it out of my mind. He had it with him on the day he died; he always had it with him.
I’m not that bright, but I didn’t need a degree in Physics to figure out that something was terribly wrong.
Ambrose had murdered my husband so that he could get control of the company and collect the insurance. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was all about the insurance and he probably expected to sell the failing business for the value of its component parts. But, to his surprise, the company survived, mainly because my husband had set it up well and the business had an excellent reputation. Its employees loved him and worked their arses off to keep the company going.
It helped that Ambrose was a bit of a womaniser and that he would often disappear for several days at a time when he was on a ‘bender’.
I invited him around to the house for a meal — something that I had done a dozen times.
During the dessert course, I excused myself, “Just need to visit the ladies room.” I came back with an old shovel that my husband used to dig the veggie patch — the irony was not lost on me.
I struck Ambrose twice on the back of the head. He went down, and apart from his lemon-meringue-pie landing on the floor, he did not make much of a mess.
Moving the body proved to be a bit of a chore, but the trusty red wheelbarrow was up to the task.
I didn’t own a car, so Ambrose was going to have to travel in the wheelbarrow for the two-kilometre ride to the construction site that Ambrose’s business owned. There was a concrete pour scheduled for the morning.
I’m not sure what I would have said if someone had stopped me, and I’m pretty sure that I looked hilarious as I struggled along with this huge red wheelbarrow filled with an Ambrose.
I was utterly exhausted when I got him there and dumped him into a pit and covered him with gravel, but I still had to get the wheelbarrow back to my house without being seen.
I was in the lap of the gods on both halves of this deadly journey, but the gods smiled on me, and I made it safely home.
I slept for fifteen hours straight.
I cleaned up the blood and the lemon-meringue-pie when I woke up and waited for the police to arrive.
They never did, and what’s more, it turned out that the partnership agreement had a clause covering the eventuality of both partners dying within ten years of each other.
The business went equally to the wives of the partners.
Ambrose wasn’t married.
I had to wait seven years before Ambrose was declared dead, but I didn’t mind — the money and the business weren’t the points.
That old red wheelbarrow is very ancient. Rust and a little red paint are about the only things holding it together now, but there is absolutely no way I am ever going to throw it away.
Every time I look at it, I’m reminded of everything I’ve lost and also of the revenge that was mine to take.
So much depends on a red wheelbarrow.
My grandma looked up from her cup of tea.
“Never underestimate an old lady,” she said. “Another scone dear?”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
Through a dense fog, I hear the splintering of timber. Voices. Male voices.
Something about ‘drifting away’.
I’m being wrapped in a blanket, it’s woollen, I can feel it against my skin. It’s warm.
Strong arms guide me toward my bed. More voices. ‘Cover the mirror’.
Why are these people in my room? What do they want?
I feel very light, and I see myself from a distance. A very comfortable distance.
I’m trying to decide. Do I come back or do I drift away? Drift away seems like an excellent idea.
I’m not asleep, but I’m not awake, either. I’m in that in-between place. It’s beautiful here.
When I awake, a day and a half have passed.
I’m feeling rested, and it’s quiet because almost everyone is off at work.
I take my time and bathe.
I look at myself in the bathroom mirror; I don’t look any different, but I definitely feel different.
I spend the afternoon quietly sitting in the garden listening to the birds and trying to collect my thoughts.
Eventually, my extended family begin returning to our large home.
The house is surprisingly quiet as the women prepare the evening meal.
The men bring in wood for the fire and go about the small tasks that men perform to keep a large house like ours running smoothly. There is very little of the usual chatter, and what conversation there is, is carried out in hushed tones.
It is not spoken, but everyone is thinking the same thing.
What happened, and how will it affect the fortunes of our family?
Even if they did work up the courage to ask, I would not know how to answer.
Quite simply, I don’t remember what happened.
I know that the experience almost cost me my life, and I know that I feel at peace.
Something passed between me and the mirror and even though I don’t know what that ‘something’ is I know that it was good. I know that our family will prosper and I know that I will come to be its leader, in the fullness of time.
Everyone is looking at me in a different way than they did before, and that is as it should be.
How the mirror came into our family and where it came from are two facts that are shrouded in mystery.
My favourite story? That it was enchanted by a gypsy princess.
The princess was captured by angry townsfolk who were upset about a poor crop yield, or something like that, and blamed it on the gypsies.
I guess people have always needed someone to blame.
One of my ancestors, who was a poor but chivalrous young man, rescued the gypsy princess.
She was a bit bruised, battered and dusty, but otherwise unhurt.
She took my young ancestor back to her caravan and gave him a good seeing to, which they both rather enjoyed.
She also gave him the mirror. Her enchantment meant that the mirror would respond favourably to any female member of his family who was beautiful, naked and brave.
I guess I was all of those things.
I know I’m not the same.
I dared to face the mirror, and that sets me apart.
My self-confidence goes all the way down to the tips of my toes.
I’m the same height, but I feel taller.
My thoughts are now full of answers, as well as questions. The future feels bright and full of possibilities.
Sometimes courage is its own reward, and outward beauty has very little to do with it.
I know that my daughters will be vigorous and wise. The experience with the mirror taught me that bravery overcomes all obstacles, but in the end, it is the love that comes from within that holds a family together, no matter how large or small that family might be.
Painting by Alex Alemeny