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
There are people in this world who can identify dust by its aroma.
Book dust is widely considered to be the most aromatic and most likely to evoke memories.
I mention dust because the house we rented has lots of it.
If the building had been hermetically sealed before we got there I would have wondered how the dust got in, but it wasn’t, and it did. Get in that is.
The house is about as sealed as a sieve.
Don’t think I’m worried about it because I’m not. I’ve never been prissy about such things.
I like the bare floorboards (they’d polish up nicely — hardwood with an attractive grain), and I love old furniture (the house came furnished). The furniture is functional, but not at all stylish — not now nor when it was new, but that’s okay too.
It has an open fireplace and thin pointless curtains which don’t block out the light or give any kind of privacy during the evening hours.
Some bright spark said that dust is mostly made up of discarded human skin particles, but I know this is bollocks. I’ve explored buildings where no human being has ventured for many years, and the place was still full of dust — neatly settled on every available surface.
Renting the house happened on a whim.
We needed to get away for a while. Someone suggested this country town because of the river and the pine trees and the old general store which doubles as a cafe during the day and a bar at night.
The quietness is deafening.
I need quiet if I’m going to finish this book, but I worried about Rebecca. Would she be bored? She said not, so I had to believe her.
“I’ve got my sewing and my books, and it looks like a great place to go for long walks. I can cook and write and play with Billy (our small dog). That is if he can drag himself away from you. He really is the perfect writer’s dog,” said Rebecca, and I had to agree. “You finish your book, and we will look back on this time as being special.”
Billy, the dog, wandered into my life a couple of years ago when I was sitting at the garden table — I’d left the back gate open, and he took it as an invitation. He curled up next to me and went to sleep. It turned out that he belonged to the Mitchell family from Bent Street, about half a kilometre away. They had six children all under ten years old, and the little dog was exhausted from the morning’s chaos, so he came to my house to get a bit of peace.
Once I worked out where he was from, I left the gate open for him each morning.
When the Mitchells split up, Mrs Mitchell asked if I’d like to have Billy, “I’m taking the kids to my family in Queensland, and I don’t think Billy will enjoy the heat.”
I said yes, I would like to keep Billy and he’s been with me ever since.
Acquiring Rebecca was another matter entirely. Billy had a bit to do with it.
Rebecca worked for the local pet groomer, and I bought Billy’s dog food from them. Billy’s not the kind of dog who needs a lot of grooming, but he is small and white (except for the black bits), and he has a disarming smile.
Rebecca offered to trim his nails, which needed it even though he wore them down while walking with me every day.
I checked with Billy, and he seemed okay with the idea, so I handed him over. After that, he veered violently into the dog groomers every time we walked by. Rebecca would see us and come out from the back of the shop and pet Billy, who squirmed up against her loving touch. I wondered how Rebecca’s boss felt about these frequent trips, but I guess she was happy to put up with us because of all the expensive dog food that Billy consumed.
I’d been living on credit in the house my aunty bequeathed to me, and things were getting a bit grim when I sold the film rights to my first book. That gained me a bit of attention, and my publisher (I use the term loosely — about as helpful as tits on a bull) decided to reissue my first three books and actually put a bit of money into promoting them.
I paid off my debts with the proceeds of the film deal and suggested that Rebecca might want to join Billy and me in a spot of celebration.
Fortunately, she said yes, and the rest you can probably guess.
My publisher set a deadline for my latest literary effort. Rebecca is happy being my muse, Billy is happy to have Rebecca living with us and I’m just flat out happy.
This dusty little house is going to be our residence for a few months, and while we are here, we will make it our home.
It’s getting a bit chilly, so I’d better light the fire.
Billy loves it when I light the fire.
If television is to believed, people walking their dog or children chasing a ball into the undergrowth are the main ways that dead bodies are discovered.
That’s not how they found mine.
I’d been dead for a while.
It can’t have been fun to discover what was left of me.
Being dead, I don’t tend to worry much, but if I did, I would feel for the poor soul who looked through my window, and the unfortunates who had to take me away.
I’m considering haunting the real estate agent who is so gleefully trying to sell my former abode. My family needs the money, apparently.
I’ve tried giving her a fright, but she seems to be too self-absorbed to notice me — hanging around, with not much to do.
I not sure why I’m still here, but it’s not at all unpleasant.
I seem to be able to get progressively further from my home each day, so I can walk around a bit and spy on the neighbours, talk to dogs, that sort of thing.
I don’t sleep, obviously — not the human type of sleep, just the eternal type.
I always like the night time. It’s another world, and apart from the ner do wells who use the undercover nature of the dark, most people who are awake when others are asleep are friendly and sad somehow.
I don’t hurt anymore, not physically. It’s a strange sensation, something like in a dream. I’m aware of my body, but it does not seem to have any weight. I should float off the ground, but I don’t. Everything seems the same, but I don’t have any sensation of touch. It doesn’t slow me down, I just do what I always have — I put one foot in front of the other, and away I go.
I can move through solid objects, walls and things. I know this because I accidentally walked through a chair. It freaks me out a bit so I move around like I used to, by opening doors and occasionally climbing through windows — I did that a lot, back in the day.
I’m not worried about what comes next. I’m applying the same rules I’ve always lived by, be patient and let life come to me. Though in this case, it’s afterlife.
I have encountered a few others who are in my situation, but they are confused and angry, sometimes frightened. It doesn’t seem to matter what I say to them, it doesn’t help, so I steer clear.
I like my own company and the company of dogs, so I’m okay for now, but there are a few people I would like to catch up with.
Maybe one day, assuming they end up where I end up.
The red light on Sam’s answering machine was blinking.
It did that from time to time.
This was the same answering machine that Sam took to the repair shop.
“Gees mate. This thing’s an antique. Must be late 1990s,” said Joe, the repairman behind the counter of the very hard to find electronics repair shop. (Down the alley and ask for Joe).
Joe’s name was embroidered on his shirt. It looked hand done, not by a commercial machine.
“Wife, mother or girlfriend?” said Sam pointing at Joe’s name.
“Me wife. She’s really good at stuff like that.”
“The machine was new in 1994, so technically, it’s early 1990s and as long as you can fix it, it will sail into its fourth decade happily recording political ads, people from another continent pronouncing my name badly while trying to sell me a new telephone/internet/electricity/gas plan, not to mention fake warnings from the Australian Tax Office, and the occasional message from a prospective client,” said Sam.
“You do know that you don’t need an answering machine, don’t you? Your phone company will store your messages for you,” said Joe while peering at the back of the machine.
“Yes, I do. And any bozo with a journalism degree can check my messages for me,” said Sam.
“That shit only happens to famous people. You famous mate?”
“My mother would like to think so,” said Sam.
This conversation continued just long enough for Sam to find out that Joe wasn’t sure how long the repair might take or how much it would cost, but Joe was confident that, “It’d be cheaper if you bought a new one, assuming they still make ‘em.”
Sam got a call about a week later.
“Bugger to find the parts — but I did,” said Joe with the embroidered name.
The price was mentioned, and Sam took a small breath in.
“Can I get back to you. I’ll have to ring my bank manager and arrange a second mortgage,” said Sam.
Joe didn’t flinch. He’d heard all the jokes before, “I don’t think they still have bank managers, Mr Bennett.”
The message on Sam’s expertly repaired, analogue answering machine, was from a detective sergeant who owed Sam a favour.
“Bennett. It’s Miller. You remember that naughty person you were trying to pin the Style’s murder on but couldn’t (detective sergeant Miller had been equally unsuccessful, but his tone of voice made it sound like Sam was the only one who fucked up), well he won’t be murdering anyone else. I thought you would like to know. That makes us even Bennett.” Sam’s answering machine announced the time of the recording, which was five hours off because Sam had not gotten around to adjusting its clock.
“That doesn’t get you off the hook, Miller,” said Sam to his answering machine.
A phone call the next morning gave Sam the address where Roman Vigata was shot. A bit of convincing and detective sergeant Miller agreed to meet Sam and tell him what was known about the circumstance of Vigata’s passing.
The sky had cleared, but the recent rain made it sticky underfoot.
The shack, with an excellent view across the valley, was up a steep track.
Sam slipped a few times but managed to stay upright. Miller was waiting at the top of the track. He was enjoying watching Sam dodge around rocks and mud.
“Who the fuck lives all the way out here?” said Sam.
“Roman Vigata’s father. It turns out that this is where he would head to whenever things got warm.”
This answered a lot of questions.
Sam had explored the ‘relatives’ angle, but there was no sign of a father.
Roman Vigata senior was pretty much ‘off the grid’. His phone was a ‘pay as you go’, he used gas bottles from a service station, kerosene from the hardware store, wood from the forest, paid cash for groceries. None of these activities left a footprint. Even the local council had his land listed under a company name.
Vigata senior did not want to be known.
“Who was after Vigata this time?” said Sam.
“Apparently, he’d upset his associates. Hand in the till, that sort of thing.”
“They don’t take kindly to that, but he has been a good soldier for that crew, so why come after him now?”
“Who knows and who cares. They got him, that’s all that matters, and no innocent bystanders got hurt. The press is less likely to get worked up when these half-wits kill each other without collateral damage.”
The cabin had not been dusted since before the Tasmanian Tiger went extinct, but serenity and solitude sometimes come with dust.
“Wind up radio,” said Sam as Miller showed him through the three-room shack.
“So what?” said Miller.
“No reason. I’ve always wanted one of those. Wind up torch as well.” Sam wound the handle to the accompanying whirring sound.
“Forgot to pay the electricity bill, Bennett?”
“People talk about ‘living off the grid’, but this bloke did it. Imagine not having a refrigerator, not having electric light or the internet.”
The kitchen table looked handmade, and the two chairs were old and didn’t match. There was a well worn three-seater couch against the wall with a blanket thrown over it.
“Hard rubbish collection,” said Sam scanning the furniture.
Miller couldn’t be bothered asking what he was on about. He wanted this walk-through to be over. He had things to do, but not being beholden to Sam Bennett was worth the discomfort.
There was a dried bloodstain on the table — soaked into the grain.
“Whoever did him in stood behind him and pulled the trigger. Execution.”
“Did you find the gun?” said Sam. “Nuh,” said Miller.
“What about his gun? This bloke was on the run from some nasty people. He definitely had a gun.”
“Not that we found.”
Sam looked at the bathroom, which didn’t have a bath and the bedroom, which had not been slept in.
In the main room, the kitchen area was reasonably tidy, and the open fireplace had ashes but no heat.
“Have you tracked down the father?”
“Not yet, but he’ll turn up. Probably ran away after his son got shot. No body in the area and no blood traces, so he got away clean,” said Miller.
“Have you seen enough, Bennett? I have to go.”
“I think I’ll hang around for a while,” said Sam.
“You’ll be here on your own. I’m pulling the constable out.”
Sam stood at the door of the cabin and watched the police walk away. He walked down the track and retrieved a large flashlight and a chocolate bar from his glovebox. His Jag held all sorts of things that ‘might come in handy’. Sam’s car was far enough away from the house that anyone who was interested would not necessarily associate it with the cabin, even if they knew it was there.
With about an hour till darkness, Sam resisted the urge to light the fire or the kerosene lamp.
Before the light was gone, Sam searched the tiny residence again. He put his hand up the chimney and felt the years of accumulated soot. To the right, the residue had been scraped away, and a revolver had been taped to the brickwork. Sam remembered the roll of industrial-strength tape that was in the drawer of the kitchen cupboard.
Sam removed it and checked the chambers. One bullet had been fired. He taped the gun back into its hiding place and waited.
Sam had been asleep in the comfort and warmth of the large single bed when he became aware of a man standing in the doorway.
Sam shone the powerful torchlight onto the stranger, who held up his hand to shade his eyes.
“Mister Vigata?” said Sam.
“You’re hurting my eyes,” said the man.
The man’s hands seemed to be empty and Sam, who was good at reading people, decreed that he wasn’t a threat.
“Go back into the kitchen, and we can talk,” said Sam.
After lighting the lamp, the two men sat at the table and stared at each other.
“You’re Roman’s father. You’ve been hiding him.”
The old man shrugged.
“People said bad things about my son, but I never believed them. I had to protect him. I know he was not an honest man, but I believed he never hurt innocent people,” said the old man who’s head was almost resting on the table.
“I was hunting for your son a few years ago. I guess you were hiding him then?” said Sam and the old man shrugged. “I tried to protect him. I believed he was a good man at heart, but after all this time he boasted of the men he had killed, ‘I’ve even killed women and a ten-year-old boy’. He was sneering at me. Waving his gun around. Drunk, but not sorry. Boasting. Jeering. He said I had wasted my life, and he had taken anything he wanted. He killed a child. My son killed a child!”
“So you put him down?”
“When a dog goes crazy, you put it down. For its sake and for everyone else’s. He fell asleep on the couch where he slept when he came here. I knew he kept his gun under the pillow. I was hoping that he would be sad and sorry when he woke up. In the morning, I walked to the general store — he was still sleeping. When I came back, he was sitting at the table, eating cereal. He wasn’t sorry. He wasn’t sad, and he wasn’t the boy I remembered. He was a violent man I didn’t recognise. I took out his gun and did what I did,” said the old man.
“The police think that his associates caught up with him, but I couldn’t see him sitting still while one of them walked around behind him and pulled the trigger. You wouldn’t, I wouldn’t. If we knew we were going to die anyway, we would lunge at the guns, run for the door, anything — anything other than sit there and take it,” said Sam.
Sam thought the old man may have passed out from the grief and realisation of it all when the man jumped up from his chair and dived into the fireplace and produced the revolver.
“I don’t know your name, and I don’t have anything left to lose.”
Sam could feel the weight of his gun in its shoulder holster. He weighed up his options.
“I don’t want to shoot you, but I will if I have to. If you’re the bloke I think you are, you’ll get out of my cabin and close the door behind you,” said the old man and Sam looked at the hole at the end of the barrel.
Sam moved his hands away from his sides and stood up very slowly. After all his adventures and near misses, she didn’t want to explain to St Peter that he died at the hands of a grief-stricken old man.
Sam closed the door behind him and walked down the steps.
The gunshot momentarily lit up the inside of the cabin.
Sam’s walk back to his car was slippery, dark and dangerous.
When he reached the Jag, he climbed behind the wheel and dialled his phone.
“Miller. Bennett. I found Vigata’s father. He’s at the cabin. He isn’t going anywhere.”
Sam didn’t wait for Miller to unleash his avalanche of questions.
It was late, he was cold, and it was a long drive.