Two shillings a week comes out of my pay packet until it is paid for.
Twelve-hour shifts, six days a week.
I’ve been refused permission to return to the front.
“Considering you walked away and took yourself home, you are very lucky we took you back at all,” said Matron Silver.
I understood what she meant.
I had a good excuse, but I also knew that explaining it all again was a waste of time.
I signed up so that I could be close to my brother.
I achieved that goal only to nurse him back to health and see him return to his unit.
My service at the front started after many months of training at a hospital not far from home. Only then was I was dispatched to the front. A small town not far from the Belgian border.
Months of blood, mud and exhaustion.
I received word that my brother was ‘missing in action’.
Missing in action can mean one of two things — he’s at an aid station, unidentified, or he is dead.
My heart wanted to believe that he was sitting in a bar in some small Belgian village, just behind the lines — dazed and confused, trying to remember who he is.
One rainy exhausting day, a colleague told me my brother had been brought in. I found him lying among the soldiers who were pronounced dead on arrival.
Like every loving sister since the beginning of time, I didn’t want to believe it.
I dragged him out from the line of dead young men and cradled him in my arms. There was still a faint glimmer of life in him, and over the coming months, I nursed him back to something approaching good health.
When they sent him back in action, he promised to write every week, and he did, but the glacial movement of mail meant that his last letter arrived about two weeks after he disappeared in action, for the second time.
Every person has a limit to their endurance, but we don’t know what that limit looks like until we are tested.
My role as a combat nurse was voluntary. I wasn’t in the army, so I could leave if I wanted to. So I did.
I was done.
The voyage home, in a ship full of wounded young men, was mercifully short.
At home, I spent a lot of time in the garden sitting under my favourite tree waiting for news of my brother — news that never came.
My brother and I were best friends.
He stood up to my father when I wanted to go to University. He won the day, and I followed him to Edinburgh. He was in his final year when war broke out. I was at the end of my first year.
He enlisted, and I left University and took up nursing.
The head of the women’s College was furious with me for leaving my degree studies.
“You have a first-class brain and a heart to match. Young men will be marching off to war forever and a day. You have a chance to decide your own future, don’t throw that away to follow a man.”
I tried to make her understand that I owed it to him to return his loyalty, and she just sighed.
“I can’t guarantee that you will be allowed back if you survive the war. I only make room for women who understand that the future requires commitment and courage. You obviously have courage but I doubt your commitment,” she said as she turned and walked away.
I was determined to follow my brother, but I was sad that I’d let her down. She was the most inspiring woman I had ever met, and disappointing her was something I did not want to do.
It’s about three o’clock in the morning, and the ward is quiet.
Earlier, Captain Wainwright was keeping the other men awake with his constant nightmares, constant screaming.
“Gas, gas. Get your bloody masks on. Gas! Gas!”
The exertion made his lungs raw, and he coughed so much he began to bleed — again.
We settled him with a sedative, and the ward has been quiet ever since.
“Thanks, sister. I know the poor bugger has been through it, but there’s a good chance I might strangle him if I don’t get some sleep,” said the sergeant in the last bed on the ward.
As I said, the cup and saucer belong to me, or they are mine now. They were my grandmother’s, and she left them to me.
I ‘brew up’ at this time and sit quietly and sip my tea and wonder about my brother and what my life will look like now he is gone.
Being able to look after these soldiers makes me feel close to him, but one day all this madness will end and then, what do I do?
When you look at a person, you only see what you see.
You don’t see what came before.
A woman in a nightgown and slippers who has trouble remembering where she is, does not give a hint as to who she was.
The young staff members named her ‘Mrs Houdini’ because she held the record for the most number of daylight escapes.
Those who grow old and forget are often dismissed, but many of them lived through world wars, lost children to disease and despair, struggled through the Depression, worked for a wage and bought up a family — they learned a thing or two along the way.
They learned to look like they are not looking while the sister punches in the key code. Like seeing where the key to the ward is kept and knowing when the nurses’ station is unattended — things like that.
Mrs Houdini’s real name was Alice, Alice Johnson, and whenever she escaped, she headed for the little cemetery next to the old stone church.
Benjamin Johnson lay in that cemetery.
There was a bench near his grave, and she sat and told him all her news, but on this day she remembered something.
“I must go and tell Jimmy,” she said as she rose to her feet. Her drink bottle sat forgotten on the bench. It was one of those drink bottles that you give to small children, so they don’t spill their milk everywhere.
The drink bottle was still there when Jim Johnson arrived at the graveyard, about thirty minutes after he got the call. He would have come sooner, but he had a dead body to take care of first — work is work, and his commander was sick of him having to rush off and search for his wayward mother.
“I spend seventy-five percent of my free time either taking care of, or looking for my mother. You would think that the gigantic chunk of my salary I give them every month would cover the cost of them finding her whenever they loose her,” he said to his colleague, who was only half listening.
Jim Johnson didn’t tell his superior he was looking for his mother — again. Instead, he took the long way back to the office via the churchyard.
He missed her by a few minutes, and he would not see her again for two days.
Two days and nights.
When he found her again, she was in remarkably good condition. Her slippers were a bit muddy, and her nightgown was torn at the hem, but she could not remember where she had been for those two days and nights. It really didn’t matter — she was safe and back in his arms — his mother was safe.
The only part of her adventure she could remember was the last bit, the bit where she was blinded and nearly run over by the motorbike.
Hugh Carter had an intriguing skill set which included being able to change a spark plug in under a minute. It didn’t much matter how long you took to change a spark plug, but Hugh was proud that he could do the whole job in under a minute.
Hugh Carter stood about one hundred and eighty centimetres tall (about five foot ten in old money). He had black curly hair and women liked him — a lot. Hugh would ultimately find that he was happy to bat for both teams, but at this moment, he enjoyed the attention of women.
Hugh worked for a performance garage and raced motorcycles whenever he could scrape together the money to tune his machine.
Hugh was reasonably successful, and with a bit of sponsorship, he could have competed at the highest level.
As with all young men, he was impatient for his life to unfold.
He saw his friends earning easy money working for nefarious characters, and he held out for as long as he could.
His first step into the world where life was even cheaper than normal was when a bloke he knew was found dead.
His friend and his bike plummeted off a cliff, and neither of them survived.
A grizzled bloke in a jacket displaying the colours of a local bike club approached him to do some courier work.
The grizzled bloke pointed at the gun stuffed in his belt and indicated that he would deploy said weapon if Hugh contemplated taking the cash and not making the pickup.
Hugh stayed within the speed limit on the way to the pickup, met his contact, watched as they counted the money, took the backpack after they showed him the contents, and proceeded to drive at high speed to the little stone church where his grizzled boss was waiting to meet him.
His high-speed antics nearly got him pulled over, but his riding skills enabled him to escape.
Hugh was feeling the adrenaline rush as he arrived at the church.
He handed over the backpack and the grizzled bloke checked the purity of its contents as two of his cohorts stood by with weapons drawn.
When the shouting and the gunfire began, Hugh dived behind a pew.
Jim Johnson was hit in the vest by a bullet, and it took the wind out of him. He was the second officer through the door.
As he lay on the floor of the church trying to decide if he was going to die, he noticed a man in black leathers crawling under the pews towards the door that Jim and his fellow officers had just come through.
Bullets continued to fly, and men continued to shout as Hugh made it through the front door. His bike was still where he had left it, and it started with the first kick of the starter.
Jim Johnson decided that he was not going to die — his vest had saved him. He scrambled to his feet and heard bullets whiz past. Jim found the main power board and threw the master switch. All the lights came on at once, including the builder’s floodlights on the outside of the building.
Several thousand-watt globes burst into life emitting that ghostly white light that bleeds all the colour out of everything it lands on.
Hugh’s rear wheel spun on the dirt road as he changed into second gear. His engine was screaming, and so was Hugh. A ghostly apparition stepped from behind the church and into the middle of the road.
The floodlights blinded Alice Johnson, but she kept on walking. She heard the young man swear and noticed what sounded like a motorbike sliding through the gravel.
The gunfire had abated, and officers were spilling out of the church, Jim Johnson among them.
He ignored the fallen bike rider and ran to his mother.
“Are you okay mum?” he said, holding her close.
“Jimmy. Where have you been? I have something to tell you,” she said and promptly forgot what it was.
Jim took off his coat and wrapped it around his mother and led her to a waiting ambulance.
After a day in the hospital, she would be back in the nursing home, planning her next escape.
In the remand centre, Hugh was telling his fellow inmates about the ghost who knocked him off his bike.
They all agreed that his was the best bad luck story.
A ghost beats tripping over your own shoelaces any day.
“So, do you remember reading about the quiet side effect of catching that virus?” I said.
“No,” he said.
‘He’ was and still is my best friend. I share all sorts of stuff with him. Only, these days I do it in my head because talking out loud to a friend who is no longer alive gets you strange looks.
Just so we are clear, he was still alive when this conversation took place.
“Well, you’ll have to take my word for it then.”
“Okay,” he said.
“No one has ever seen anything like it, but as usually happens, someone saw an opportunity to make some money.”
“I’m trying to hang in there, but you are losing me,” he said.
I do that when I get excited. I talk as though the person I’m talking to is privy to the rest of the conversation that went on silently inside my head.
My mate Keith is very tolerant. He knows I’ll get to the point — eventually.
“Sorry. I got ahead of myself.”
“How’s the view from out there?” said Keith. I smiled and took a breath.
“One big foot?” I said, and Keith smiled. He was catching up.
“Okay, so now I’m with you,” said Keith.
“Everyone was noticing the other after effects — the big ones, the damaged lungs, the higher risk of Parkinson’s. It took about six months for scientists to connect the dots. A small group of people, world wide, who had caught the virus, ended up with one foot significantly bigger than the other. Created all sorts of problems — those afflicted had to buy two different pairs of shoes just to get a matching pair that fitted.”
“I can see how that would be a problem,” said Keith.
I’d interrupted his lunch. He’d just got back from KFC, and he’d cracked open a can of Solo. He ate the same thing every day for lunch. I drove him to KFC once when he was too sick to drive. He gave terrible directions. He lived in an old inner-city suburb with strange intersections and one-way streets. He knew them all, of course, but I felt like a white mouse navigating a maze with an absent-minded navigator.
“A problem? Yes it was. But, as with all problems, someone comes up with a solution that makes them rich,” I said triumphantly. I sat there and let my wisdom sink in.
“And?” said Keith.
“Well this bloke in Tasmania came up with the idea. He was doing up his home and going through a shitload of expanding foam, when the idea hit him. It helped that he was an industrial chemist. Basically, he invented a foam that you sprayed on your ‘smaller’ foot and the stuff adhered to your foot in the shape of a shoe. A black shoe — had to be black, apparently. Couldn’t get it to work in brown. He even came up with a separate formula for a sock. Grey. Only worked in grey, apparently. Grey sock and black shoe. Really cheap too. Several shoes per can — same for the socks. Sold like chocolate to a chocoholic.”
“You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?” said Keith.
“Hand on heart,” I said. “I watched a demonstration. It bloody works!”
“How do you get an invitation to a demonstration like that?” said Keith.
“A friend of a friend.”
“You have some strange friends, my friend,” said Keith.
“I guess,” I said.
We finished off the KFC, and he shared his Solo, and we talked some more until it started getting dark. It was a long journey for me to get back home, and now I was going to get stuck in peak hour traffic which would double my journey, but I didn’t care. Spending time with Keith was a panacea for all the things that ailed me.
We’d shared many adventures. I watched him fall in love. I rejoiced when he became a father. He watched my kids grow into men — and now, he’s gone.
Every time I drive past an ad for Solo or see a KFC, or trip over a bloke with a huge foot, I think of Keith.
Like the photo of you and your classmates at camp with the out of focus boy in the background.
Like the moments after your first child is born.
Or the day when your life began to unravel — you were happy if not contented, and the world was beautiful — except it wasn’t, and the whole unhappy mess can be traced back to that day.
I didn’t want my portrait painted, but I knew it was the done thing.
Our family is all about done things.
Dominic, the artist, was told to paint me in the style of an American President’s wife, so he chose the portrait of President Coolidge’s wife.
I didn’t mind, I have a long red dress and a white dog.
The process of posing was tedious, and the conversations about what I should wear were something beyond tedious.
I wore a simple pearl necklace, but it disappeared from the final work, as did my bracelet.
It was never explained.
Our dog wouldn’t sit still, and I don’t blame her. Instead, she sat nearby and watched and sniffed all the unfamiliar scents.
The background was copied from the President’s wife’s portrait. Consequently, we didn’t need to leave Dominic’s studio.
The studio was just as you would imagine — dusty, paint-smeared with finished and unfinished works stacked against the walls.
Someone had written Genitalia is not an Italian airline, on one wall in tiny script. During a break, I asked him about it.
“Gerald, one of my friends — he thinks he’s funny. He writes something every time he comes to visit. Usually, I scrub it off when he’s gone, but I like that one. It’s hard to be explicit without using the word fuck.”
“Doesn’t he get his feelings hurt when he visits again?” I asked.
“No, he’s not my favourite aunt who expects to see the present she sent me ten Christmas’s ago on display when she visits.”
That made me smile.
I was sitting on a box, eating my sandwich.
“You have good legs,” he said.
I kicked out my right leg and looked at it.
“Thank you,” I said.
I could see he’d looked up my dress and when he looked at me, he blushed.
“See anything you like?” I said.
“Yes,” he said after a pause. I blushed.
“Your studio is very hot,” I said, and Dominic ignored me, “very hot.”
I waved my hand in front of my face, but the gesture didn’t help my case.
So, after our first session, I stopped wearing a bra and panties just to keep me cool. It worked, but I should have remembered when I raised my well-shaped leg.
It was only a moment.
He couldn’t have seen much, but I did feel a bit like Sharon Stone.
“Basic Instinct,” I said softly.
I was trying to remember Sharon Stone’s name, and I usually have to work backwards from the name of the movie to jog my brain. It amazes me that I can always remember the movie’s name and not the name of the actor.
“Pardon?” he said.
“Nothing. Just trying to remember a name.”
“Sharon Stone,” he said.
I didn’t answer.
I was embarrassed.
If I’d wanted to seduce him, this line of patter would have done the trick — it doesn’t take much to get a man aroused. In truth — I wasn’t trying to inflame him.
I had wondered if the stories about artists were true. What would it be like to lie in this creative man’s arms?
He was tall — about the same height as my husband.
Unruly hair unsuccessfully brushed back.
Good muscle definition and a bump in his jeans where there should be a bump — he dressed to the right, as far as I could tell.
Our conversation was having an effect on him — I noticed that he crossed his legs and turned slightly away from me so I couldn’t see if he was aroused — which meant he probably was.
The portrait required two weeks of sittings.
Every afternoon from two until four.
On the final day, he put his brush down, stepped back and said, “It’s done. Would you like to have a look?”
Up to that moment, he had jealously guarded the canvas, “No peeking until it’s done!”
My dog raised her head and sat up — as though she knew something special was happening.
I stepped forward and stood beside him.
He put his arm around me.
“Do I really look that good?” I said.
“Yes,” he said as he slid down the zipper on my dress.
We made love on a pile of paint-stained canvas covers. I could feel his hands on me, his lips on mine. The rough canvas sheets rubbed against my skin and the smells of his studio filled my nostrils, creating an indelible memory.
The makeshift bed wasn’t at all comfortable — not at all what I was used to, but as I lay there, exhausted, I thought about all the artist’s models who had been loved in this way, in all the studios of Paris.
Did they feel the way I felt?
I never wanted to be anywhere else but right here right now.
I put my hand on him, and he groaned softly.
“Are you trying to kill me woman?” he said, but I caressed him, and his protestation was belied by his ever-increasing interest.
“One more time,” I said as I straddled him. With a little help from me, we resumed erotic hostilities.
It was dark when I woke.
My lover was making coffee wearing only a white t-shirt, which didn’t cover his buttocks — I enjoyed the view.
“Why didn’t you undress me earlier?” I said.
“I wanted to finish the portrait first.”
“Typical man. The work always comes first,” I said.
I rolled over so he could see my naked body while he prepared two cups. The steam rising from the boiling water looked like a genie coming out of its bottle.
I felt like that genie.
I too, had been released.
“Cover yourself, woman, there are dogs present,” he said with a smile.
I opened my legs just enough.
“That’ll be enough of that,” he said, “I may never walk again.”
He put the coffees on a small stool, and we sat on the canvas covers. Our combined scent now mixed with the aroma of paint and turps.
“Cake mix,” I said.
“In what regard?” he said.
“That’s what we smell like — afterwards. Cake mix.”
“I guess. It smells like sex to me.”
We sipped our coffee in the silence only lovers can conjure.
“Do you think your husband will like the portrait?” he said.
“Yes — do you think he will know I wasn’t wearing knickers?”
“Hard to tell. Does his mind work like that?”
“You know, I’m not sure how his mind works, but there is something incredibly sexy about him having to pay you to penetrate me.”
“Not sure he would see it that way, but I do get your meaning. You aren’t the kind of woman who would tell him just for the fun of seeing his reaction — are you?”
“No. That’s not me. I don’t dislike him. He’s a good man. I wouldn’t want to hurt him.”
And that was the moment.
I hadn’t planned any of it and no one was supposed to get hurt.
They did — get hurt.
But that was still to come.
When I got home, I had to make up an excuse for being late, and I was disappointed that he wasn’t very interested. Part of me wanted to tell him what I had been doing — to wake him up!
I showered and dressed for bed.
I didn’t realise that oil paint does not wash off with water.
“Your back is all red and you’ve got paint stuck to your skin. Did you rub up against something in the studio?” said my husband as I climbed into bed.
“Yes, I guess I did,” I said.
And that was another moment.
As we boarded the flight to Rome, I laughed out loud.
“What are you laughing at,” said my artist companion.
The shop started out as a second-hand bookshop, but beginnings are important only as a window to arrivals.
I didn’t own the bookshop back then.
I applied for a job.
The owner didn’t want to sit in the store all day, especially during the quiet hours.
I arrived at just the right time — don’t you just love how that works — arriving at the right time?
I didn’t mind being there during the quiet hours.
My world was teetering on the edge.
The edge of what, I did not know, but it scared the hell out of me.
The dusty old building was teetering on the edge also. I crawled under it once to retrieve a favourite pencil that had fallen through a crack in the floor.
The foundations were minutes away from not being foundations anymore.
I wasn’t worried, it gave the shop an extra edge — a sense of peppermint danger.
The cracks in the floorboards came in handy during the warm weather.
In the winter, not so much.
I became proficient at rolling up pages out of destroyed books and wedging them into the larger gaps. Old, obsolete encyclopaedias worked best.
I left my anxieties at the door each day. They just dropped away like an old discarded overcoat.
The shopowner, Derick, could not get out of the place fast enough, which was fine by me. He was an ex-teacher and a real pain in the arse who would fire me ten days before a particular Christmas because I missed a shift. I ended up in the Emergency Ward with stomach pains and couldn’t make it into work.
“Don’t bother coming back,” was all he had to say.
I’d never missed a day of work in more than a year, but he didn’t care.
I didn’t know it, but people kept asking him where I had gone.
He closed the business about two years after firing me.
Towards the end of my time working for Derick the Dick, I noticed an uptick in customers — the uptick ate into my ‘quiet hours’.
I guess it started with an old man who lived about half a mile up the road.
I saw him every Thursday afternoon.
We would talk, and he would tell me stories from his days as a Real Estate agent.
“If I had a buyer who couldn’t make up their mind, I would ‘accidentally’ book another potential buyer to turn up at the same time. Worked like a charm. They would panic that someone else wanted ‘their house’. Signed on the spot.”
Henry was at least eighty-eight years old, and even though I would have disliked him if he was my age, I cut him some slack — he told great stories.
Henry told his friends about me.
Most of Henry’s friends were dead, but the ones who were hanging in there came to see me.
“Henry said you are a good listener.”
I’d never thought of myself as such, but there you go. Other people don’t always see us the way we see ourselves.
I found that I could easily remember the stories they told me, and over time I would retell one or two in response to a problem that was posed.
“What an excellent idea,” they would say, “I would never have thought of that.”
For a while, I thought I was hot stuff.
I got all puffed up.
There is a real rush that comes with helping people.
Of course, I came crashing back down to Earth when I got fired.
Fast forward a couple of years, and here I am sitting in my own bookshop, the same building I used to work in, doing my thing.
The shop had sat vacant for a while. It’s off the beaten track, and only dedicated book buyers will find it.
I named the store Twice Sold Tales.
People come to my store because I’m a good listener.
Occasionally, I tell them a story I’ve been told, and it changes their perspective. They are grateful for the direction I head them in, and in return, they buy a second-hand book — sometimes more than one.
I’m never going to get rich, but I do get to enjoy the stories I hear, and there is always the quiet hours.
Some bloke in Queensland makes ten thousand a time for doing this.
I did it because a client asked me too.
My client was also a friend, but it would take too long to explain that friendship and I’m not sure my heart could go there at the moment.
I’d worked for William Armstrong on several occasions since the first time I met him.
We were both at a wedding with women we would not stay with for long — the story of my life until I met Scarlett.
My ‘plus one’ was prettier than his.
We got talking when we worked out that we both preferred whisky — Scotch, single malt. The open bar at this wedding didn’t stretch that far, but basic Scotch was better than the lolly water the girls were ordering.
William was about to take over his father’s business after having worked in the company since he left his expensive private school in year twelve. He skipped university and jumped right in.
“I disliked school with a passion. I wanted to be out in the world, doing stuff,” he said between sips of whisky. The whisky didn’t deserve to be sipped, but good habits die hard.
“I felt the same way you did, but I didn’t want to disappoint my mentor, so I finished uni,” I said, and my heart hesitated at the thought of ‘Nelly’ Touraville. I miss him so much.
“What are you going to do when you are running the show?” I said.
“Pretty much what my father has done, but I’ll put my own spin on it when the time is right.”
If you are wondering what tasks I performed for William over the years, there was a bit of industrial espionage — finding out what his competitors knew. A bit of tidying up when things went wrong. Dealing with an employee who believed that he could get rich quickly by selling back proprietary secrets that he had ‘light fingered’.
As with all business owners, William was surrounded by people who were out for what they could get — nothing surprising about that.
When he got his terminal diagnosis, he rang me and asked for a meeting.
I sat in Young and Jackson’s on a dreamy Thursday afternoon after getting off the train at Flinders Street Station — I hate parking the Jag in the city.
A few early finishing workers had wandered in and were chatting away, waiting for the beer to wash away the day’s worries. I watched them with interest.
William approached my table, looking drawn.
I waved at the barman and pointed at my beer and made the ‘two beers’ sign recognised by barmen all over the civilised world.
The beers arrived, and I asked William how he was and what he wanted to talk about.
“I’m buggered and I want you to do something important for me.”
“You know I will,” I said.
“The cancer is back and there’s no hope.”
“Bloody hell. What do you mean no hope. There’s always hope. You’ve got enough money to start your own country. Someone, somewhere…..?”
“No,” he said, and he meant it.
We sat quietly for a few moments, and I let it sink in. Now I understood why he looked so haggard.
“When they bury me, I want you to speak for me,” he said.
“What? Like a eulogy?”
“No. Someone else will do that. I want you to speak for me. I want you to say all the things I couldn’t say when I was alive.”
“You aren’t dead yet, mate. Plenty of time to tell people what you want them to hear.”
“Even if there was time, and there isn’t, I don’t have the strength. I’ve never been good at confrontation. You aren’t frightened of anyone. You speak with a clear heart and I need that.”
“Beer isn’t going to do it. Can I get you a whisky. They do a Lagavulin 16 here?”
When the whisky arrived, I gave a toast, “To life, what there is left of it.”
William laughed, “To life.”
The beer had given us a good head start, and the whisky was moving us along.
“So, what do you want me to do?” I said.
William reached into his inside pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. Handwritten, in tiny script, were his wishes for his funeral service.
After I read through the document, I said, “Bloody hell!”
I made him sign it and date it, and we got the barman to witness our signatures, then we had several more whiskies, and I caught the train home.
Fortunately, the walk from the station is a long one, and I’d sobered up a bit before I took to my bed.
Sleep wasn’t on the agenda. Too much to think about.
I stared at the ceiling and thought, once again, that I should give it a coat of paint.
The moon was almost full, and the light seeped around the edges of the blind.
I’d been in a few tight spots where I might have lost my life, but until now, I had not seriously thought about my own, inevitable death.
William and I were about the same age — still very much, young men.
I wondered what it would look like — my day of death. Would I be merrily rolling along, oblivious to my impending doom? Or would I be alone in a hospital bed, waiting for the room to go dim?
A ‘blaze of glory’ seemed like a good choice, and as sleep finally caught up with me, I imagined leading the charge up some heroic hill.
I didn’t get an invitation to the funeral, but then again, it wasn’t a private affair.
Open-air. Beautiful day. All the trimmings. Silver spade to sprinkle some dirt on the coffin. Flowers by the carload. Mourners dressed in their finery.
Despite William’s instructions, a minister was running the proceedings.
“We all know why we are gathered here today,” said the minister dressed in full regalia. “William was a wonderful man.”
“Did you know him personally,” I said.
I was seated in the second row, and no-one had asked me how I’d know the deceased.
I unbuttoned my coat as I got to my feet.
The gesture meant that I was at work.
Ready to work.
“Not personally,” said the minister adjusting his cassock.
“Then sit down and shut it. William didn’t want this,” I said as I edged along the row and stepped in front of the assembled gathering. I half expected someone to tackle me.
“That’s right. He didn’t want this,” said the attractive woman in the third row.
A couple of other people agreed.
William’s wife was seated, head down, next to her brother, who looked like he was waking from a dream. He started to stand up — staring at me.
“Don’t even think about it, Michael. Oh, and by the way, William said to tell you to pay back the loan he gave you. I’m sure your sister would be happy to have the money.
“What loan?” said William’s wife.
Michael sank back into his seat.
“Well it wasn’t actually a loan, was it Michael. More like a payoff. Hush money, I think they call it.”
Michael sat quietly as William’s wife bored a hole in his head with her eyes.
“William was concerned that this might happen so he asked me to speak for him.”
I scanned the gathering and found the three people I was looking for.
“You, you and you. Out!” I pointed at the road leading out of the cemetery.
“William did not want you here. And if you don’t leave, now, I’ll tell everyone why.”
The three people I pointed to stood up and shuffled off down the road.
All eyes and ears were on me.
“William wanted you to know that he knew you weren’t faithful but he didn’t know how to deal with you when he was alive. He didn’t blame you, he was less than the husband you deserved.”
There were tears in her eyes, and I hated this part of my job, but a promise was a promise.
“As for you,” I said, staring at the bloke sitting behind her, “William thought you were a snake but he lacked the courage to punch you on the nose. He hopes that you make his wife happy, but don’t expect her to inherit everything, far from it.”
There was an audible gasp from the assembled multitude.
Where William’s money would end up was the prime concern for most of them.
I rattled off a heap of names and just as many final messages, and most of them were not well received.
“One last thing to finish up,” I said, “which one of you is Phillis?”
A young woman at the back raised a gloved hand.
“William said to say thank you. You brightened his day and always gave more of yourself than was asked for. There is a glowing reference in his desk with your name on it if you decide to look elsewhere for a job. There’s a bonus in that envelope as well. Enough for you to take an all expenses holiday, if you so wish.”
The young woman who had looked after William as his secretary for the previous three years smiled and put her hand to her face.
“Well that’s about it from me, and from William. I begged him to say all these things before he left us, but I guess he wasn’t able to, so that’s where I came in.”
I did up my coat and walked down the same road that the ejected mourners had walked.
Bloody big cemetery, so it took a long time to get back to where I’d parked the Jag.
I needed a drink, and the Big Cat took me to my favourite bar.
I lifted a glass to my old friend and pondered my own mortality before heading for home.
I slept very well that night and went into the office just before noon.
My secretary asked me why I was so late.
“You are dead a long time Janice. Sometimes you just have to treat yourself to a sleep in.”
“Okay,” said Janice.
“By the way. Have I ever told you how much I appreciate you?”
“Yes. Once or twice,” she said.
“Good. I wouldn’t want to pass away suddenly and not have told you.”
“Have you been drinking, Sam?” said Janice.
“Not today, but I plan on having a few a bit later in the day. You are welcome to join me?” I said, and Janice shook her head.
Chief Inspector Dance slid across the church pew and invaded my personal space.
Hip against hip, knee against knee.
“Be careful Chief Inspector, in some cultures, this constitutes a marriage proposal,” I said, and the detectives close by laughed.
The Chief Inspector shot them a glance — he was the only one who was allowed to be funny.
He’d bullied his way to the head of the Robbery Squad just before I joined the unit. He dumped the previous second in command and installed me as 2IC. Buggered if I know why, but maybe it had something to do with weakening the old alliances.
In keeping with modern police practice, several of our squad were female. They were often the butt of his jokes and sarcasm.
“Back off a bit. I don’t want to get pregnant before the wedding,” I said, and a snigger rippled through our group. It turns out I’m pretty good at sarcasm as well.
I could smell him — dust, hair oil and a cheap aftershave.
Amazingly, our DCI would tolerate such comments because he believed he was a jolly funny chap — he wasn’t, but that kind of banter was his forte, so he would take a bit of it when it came his way — only a bit mind you, and only from the male officers.
Other than that, no-one stands up to our boss. We all want to ‘get on’, get a promotion, get ahead and get out of this squad. But things were changing.
Murder Squad, Narcotics then Burglary; in that order.
The head of Narcotics retired in a cloud of whispers and Chief Inspector Dance expected to get the nod; except, it didn’t happen.
Chief Inspector Valerie Trend was promoted above him.
Dance had run his race.
I’d like to think that the ‘higher-ups’ had finally figured out that he was a prick, but I doubt it. The rumour mill will eventually tell us, but frankly, I didn’t care — about that and a lot of things.
We were seated a few rows from the front on the right-hand side of this huge old church. The ceremony was being held in Richmond this year because St Paul’s in the city had been double booked. Working-class Catholics had paid for this monument to power in the late 1880s. It must have cost a fortune, and I can hear the priest piling on the guilt because the building had not been paid off, and the church needed money.
Detective Constable Helen Morgan was the last of us to arrive.
She sat in the seat in front of us, dressed in the squad’s unofficial uniform; a grey two-piece single-breasted suit, white shirt/blouse and a tie.
She was trim, slightly above average height with bruises and a small cut on one side of her face. The left side of her face, as it happened.
I wanted to make a joke about her ability to arrest someone without getting thumped, when a feeling came over me, which it sometimes does. These bruises had been delivered by someone who should have been her protector.
I turned to our ‘leader’. “Are you going to do something about this?” I said.
“None of our business,” he said and turned away as though not seeing the damage was the same as it going away.
“If a member of the public had done that, you’d be first in line to take him downstairs and beat the living shit out of him,” I said, and I was aware of the volume of my voice.
“Man and wife stuff. Stay the fuck out of it.”
Fuck this for a game of soldiers, I said under my breath.
I stood up and walked across to the side door just as the organ started up to begin the proceedings.
I’m not sure if it was planned when the church was built, but there was a pub just across the road. Mind you, back in those days, there was a pub across the road from everywhere in Richmond.
I blinked under the intense light and hesitated before crossing the broad street. Two of our squad’s female officers had followed me out of the church, closely followed by Helen Morgan.
“You ladies need to think carefully. Your absence will be noted. This assembly is a big deal. It’s a load of bollocks, but it’s a big deal in terms of ‘showing the flag’. Photographers, reporters, the whole nine yards. All the people who make decisions about your future are here. Do you want them to remember you walking out before it all began?”
There was silence.
“You stood up to him back there. You spoke up for Helen, not that it will do any good,” said Sharon Long, who had been in the squad for a little more than a year. Bright, blond and someone who can take care of herself without having to pull her gun.
Betty Green kissed Helen on the cheek and gave her a hug. “You know I love ya kid, don’t you? she said, “but I’ve got two kids, and I need this crazy job.”
She gave us a smile, and we gave her a nod. She went back into the church.
The rest of us went across the road and ordered a beer, then we ordered another one. We sat in what was laughingly called the ‘beer garden’ and listened to the sound of hundreds of police officers giving thanks to God that a new financial year had begun and no one had discovered their transgressions.
“Things are going to change around here,” I said, surrounded by two strong women who could probably beat me in a fair fight.
But there’s the thing — I don’t fight fair. Actually, I do my best to avoid a fight, but as my father taught me, “if you cannot get out of it, dive in with everything you’ve got and don’t stop until your opponent cannot get up. Don’t guess — be sure he is done.”
I sat there thinking about the career I thought I had and about the cricket bat in my car’s boot.
Senior Constable Frank Morgan and I are going to have a little batting practice.
The big red bow was causing me embarrassment, but I didn’t let it stop me.
Let’s get the bow out of the way so I can concentrate on the real story.
My mistress had just won an award for her book PASSION BEHIND THE ASPIDISTRA. It hadn’t sold as well as her previous books, but her publisher entered it into the Romance Writers Who Talk A Lot About Love Without Actually Telling Their Readers What People Get Up To, which seemed like a strange title for an award, but that’s what my mistress told her friend, Maude. My mistress never lies to me, so it must be true.
So, the day comes for the award presentation, and my mistress said I could go with her, in the Lagona.
I love riding in the car — the wind in my fur, delicious smells wafting in from who knows where — bliss.
The middle of winter means that it will be a cold drive, but I don’t care. I’m wearing my winter coat, and my ancestors came from a frigid part of the world.
I got up early and had my breakfast on the terrace, despite the cold. The sun was up, and even though it didn’t have much oomph, I still enjoyed being in its warm glow.
My mistress came at me with the red bow, and I was too startled to run away.
“Everyone is going to love you in this,” said my mistress.
Not if I eat it first, I was thinking.
“And don’t you dare chew it off, Rufus. I’ll be very cross if you do.”
So, what was I to do? She is very kind to me, and I love her so.
Just suck it up and wear the damn thing, Rufus!
I’d patrolled most of the perimeter in the morning when I went out for a wee, but there was still the pond to check on.
I knew we were going to be away overnight because I heard my mistress booking us a room in a hotel. She was very annoyed when she first rang; apparently, that hotel didn’t like dogs — have you ever heard of such a thing? She gave them a piece of her mind.
“Have you ever had a dog run out and not pay the bill? Come in drunk and vomit on the carpet? Have loud parties in their room? Steal a lampshade? No, I didn’t think so, you ignorant man!”
My mistress has a way with words.
The pond looked beautiful in the morning light. The ducks, which I have an uneasy understanding with, were looking for bugs in the reeds. The surface of the pond had frozen over during the night.
One duck, or at least I thought it was a duck, had broken through the ice and was splashing around. Except it wasn’t a duck despite the duck-like noises it was making. It was a small dog — smaller than me.
It seemed that he had walked out on the ice to sniff the DANGER sign and had fallen through.
He sounded desperate, the way that dogs do when they are being beaten by their owner, or caught by a big dog intent on doing them great harm.
I edged out onto the ice to get a closer look. As I got closer, the ice was making strange cracking noises, and I got scared. Now I was within sniffing range, and the faint odour of a friend reached my nostrils. It was the dog known as Scruff. We had been great friends when we were pups — got into all sorts of trouble. Scruff is the reason that the butcher hates me as much as he does.
Scruff’s owner moved away — closer to the city.
“Don’t worry Scruff,” I said because I knew that it was important that he knew I was still fierce and brave.
In truth, I was terrified, but friends don’t let friends sink to an icy grave, even if you haven’t seen them for a long time.
“This is going to hurt, Scruff,” I said as I took hold of his ear. He didn’t have much fight left in him. He must have been in the water for a while before I got here.
“Don’t worry,” said Scruff, “I’m so cold I can’t feel much. Pull me out please.”
“This would go a lot better if I had hands,” I said through a mouth full of ear.
Scruff helped as much as he could, and after several tries, I pulled him up onto the ice.
“I’m not sure I can walk,” said Scruff.
“Don’t worry, I’ll drag you. It’s only a short way.”
I was trying to sound confident, but the cracking noises were increasing.
When I got him to the shore, we both lay on the cold grass for what seemed like a long time.
“Rufus, what’s happened, and who is this bedraggled fellow?”
It was my mistress, come looking for me. I didn’t mind if she scolded me. I was so happy to see her; I wagged my tail furiously.
I gave a small bark and nosed my friend. My mistress is brilliant, and she worked it all out very quickly.
“Did you two fall in the pond, or did you save this little dog, Rufus?”
I stood up as tall as I could so that she knew I was the brave one. Scruff was too cold and tired to walk, so my mistress picked him up and carried him back to the house. I trotted along next to her, feeling very proud.
My mistress lit the fire and wrapped Scruff in a green towel, sitting him on the rug and telling him to stay.
He was in no condition to argue.
Scruff’s owner was back in the village for a visit, and Scruff came down to the pond because he remembered it being the place of many adventures. At least, that is how he told it to me as we sat warming ourselves in front of the fire.
When my mistress used her telephone to find Scruff’s owner, I knew we would not have much time together. We talked about old times and the fun we had as pups.
My mistress let Scruff’s owner keep the green towel.
“He’s nice and warm in there. Best not to disturb him,” said my mistress. She is very kind because I know she loves that towel.
My red bow was ruined, so my mistress made me a new one, and before I knew it, we were in the Lagona speeding along the country lanes heading for London and an award ceremony.
I knew we were going to have fun, but after hanging my head over the side of the car and enjoying the exhilaration of sheer speed, I felt drained.
I curled up on the leather seat and dreamed of the adventures that Scruff and I had experienced, back in the day.
I’ll miss Scruff, and I’m glad that I was there to save him.
Friends should always save friends and let friends save them right back.
“Do you think he’s been lonely down here, all alone, all these years?”
It wasn’t like my partner to be this way. Typically, he’s offhand about sudden death — professional and a bit dark in his humour.
“I don’t think so,” I said, “he’s off wherever they go when they’re not here anymore.”
“Even so,” said my partner.
Ashley Bloomfield had worked his way up through the ranks to Detective Sergeant, and I’d been his partner for nearly three years — just long enough to get to know a bloke who guards himself closely.
It was a strange question for him to ask. He’s more a question and answer type of bloke, but on this day he was looking to me for an answer.
“Are you getting all spiritual on me, Ash?” I said.
“I don’t know, maybe. It’s this place. It’s genuinely spooky.”
He had a point, but I knew not to let him get one-up on me.
The call came through at a decent hour and Ash and I were next in the rotation, and about now we wished it had been someone else.
The old mansion on St Kilda Road had been empty for more than thirty years.
Some investment company in Dubai had bought it for a sizeable sum in the early 1990s, then the property market went flat. They decided to sit on it and wait, as all well-healed people can afford to do.
No one was much interested in looking after the place, so people with nowhere else to go would find a way in — out of the storm, so to speak. The property manager would eventually block up the break-in and lose interest again.
It must have been during one of those incursions, so long ago that some sort of fight broke out, and our body had lain there ever since, covered in rubble and wooden planks.
Some enterprising developer had bought the old mansion and was preparing to renovate it (within heritage guidelines, of course) into trendy offices. St Kilda Road still has clout when it comes to city addresses.
This was going to be a thankless job.
If the body turned out to be a homeless bloke, we have our work cut out for us to identify him. If he was killed by another homeless bloke, then he’s probably dead by now. Homelessness tends to shorten your lifespan. Likely no one to slap the cuffs on, just a mountain of pointless paperwork and a John Doe toe tag.
“The forensic folks will be here soon. Constable Whatshisname can keep an eye on things. You want to get a coffee? The dust down here is clogging up my soul,” I said as I moved the most prominent plank out of our way.
The body was fully clothed (bloke’s clothing — I’m not psychic, but it seemed inevitable it was a ‘he’), and it lay where it fell, all those years ago. Bugger all forensic after all this time. No one had dropped a wallet or a calling card or a cigarette case as they do in the movies.
“A coffee sounds good. Get me the fuck out of here, before I forget I’m a lady,” said Ash, and I could see his unique sense of humour returning.
Coffee was easy to find because this is Melbourne, and even my dog can make a good coffee. You have to prove that you know what good coffee tastes like before they will let you cross the border into Victoria, and in Melbourne, the cops will breath-test you for instant coffee — if detected, the penalties are draconian.
The sandwich shop lived up to expectations, and the coffee was a perfect temperature. The tiny glass-fronted store was awash with delicious aromas.
We sat on tall stools and looked out onto the road. Trams rumbled by, and pedestrians did what pedestrians do. Some bloke was making his third attempt to park a Fiat in a space that would accommodate a mid-1960s Ford.
“What do you reckon. Is he gonna make it?” I said. Ash looked up from his coffee. He’d been mesmerised by the pattern on the crema for the past few minutes.
“Nah, he’s buggered.”
“Yeah, I agree. Most blokes will give it away after the second go. It’s too embarrassing.”
Right on cue, the Fiat shot off into traffic accompanied by the copious tooting of horns and the waving of fists.
“He nearly had it that last time,” I said.
“If I disappear in mysterious circumstances, don’t stop looking for me, will ya?”
“Is that something you’re likely to do?” I said.
“Nah, but just in case. I don’t want to lie somewhere, cold and forgotten,” said Ash, who had gone back to staring at the pattern on his coffee.
“I’ll find ya mate, but not before I’ve finished off that bottle of whisky you keep in your locker.”
Ash didn’t look up. This one had gotten to him. I had never seen him like this.
“You know I got wounded — in the war?” he said.
“Not really,” I said.
Ash’s life before the police force was a mystery to me, and I felt guilty that I had never asked. Mostly, I’m not that interested in other people. But this was different. I remember the feeling of being with a dying comrade — the less I knew about their life, the easier it was to deal with their death.
“We were on patrol, and all hell broke loose. When I woke up, my leg and back hurt like buggery and all my mates were dead. I wasn’t game to call for help so I lay there for what seemed like days, hoping someone would come looking for us. After about thirty-six hours, a rescue party found me. I don’t remember it happening, but I do remember wondering if I’d bleed to death, and I remember wondering if I’d be found or would I be one of those bodies that farmers find, decades later, after the war is over. I’ve never felt so cold and alone. Do you reckon that’s how that bloke felt?”
“I don’t mind telling you that you are freaking me out, Ash. Here, drink up,” I said as I poured the contents of my hip flask into his coffee.
The bloke behind the counter gave me a look and started to say something. I moved my jacket so he could see my detective’s badge — he went back to slicing tomatoes without saying anything.
Ash drank his coffee, and I poured a wee dram into mine.
“Same goes for me mate. If the ungodly catch up with me, don’t leave me lying out there somewhere,” I said.
“Deal,” said Ash and we clinked paper cups to seal the deal.
It isn’t a requirement, it just worked out that way.
I’m the girl on the end. My name’s Elizabeth, but everyone calls me Lal.
Someone asked me about it once, and I had to admit that I don’t know why. It goes so far back that no-one remembers how it happened.
Unusual nick-names run in my family. My sister Molly is called Mont because our young brother couldn’t pronounce Molly.
Maybe that’s how many nick-names get started.
My dad’s nick-name from the army was Niggerly (meaning easily upset, arising in the Middle Ages and nothing to do with the dreaded N-word), and if you knew him, you would know why — he is a bear in the morning, and sometimes it goes on all day.
I was happy to get this job, and it isn’t dull, but I’m ready to move on — it’s getting a bit political.
Different executives ply us with chocolates and nylons so that we will tell them what their rivals are up to. It’s harmless enough, I guess, but I have that sinking feeling I get just before it all hits the fan.
I don’t like when things hit fans.
I like fans in general, and they come in handy in this tiny room. Someone said that the phone lines heat up the room — could be, I’m not that up on such things.