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

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

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

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

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

Now I’m older and poor and not studying.

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

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

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

My housemates are all female.

Ages range from early twenties to mid-thirties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so.

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration: Mary Maxam

A Handful of True

“G’day, sorry to interrupt, but I’m sure I know you?” I said.

“Don’t think so,” said the heavyset bloke squashed up against the wall of the train.

The three other bulky blokes looked at me as though I’d stepped in something.

These four sizeable male football supporters exceeded the technical design limits of the seats in our suburban train carriage.

They’d been annoying my friend and me ever since the doors opened at Richmond station.

The carriage had been half full, but now it was packed with people heading home after the game at the MCG.

From the scarves and beanies, it looked like Hawthorn and Melbourne had played each other. I have only a passing interest in the sport that dominates my city, but I knew that these two teams were evenly matched.

It was hard to tell from the general conversations which team had prevailed.

The general make up of our carriage was young families and friends all happily retelling their favourite highlights or wishing that “Robbo had hit that shot on the siren.”

It must have been a close finish.

Football crowds can be a mixed lot, but this crew were primarily easygoing.

And then there were the four fat blokes a few seats back from us.

Not easy going.

Loud.

Probably three parts pissed.

Misogynistic.

Homophobic.

Like a swirling ink stain, their influence was colouring the previously happy carriage.

Other conversations became quieter —more private — protective.

“Sorry, you look just like a bloke I used to know,” I said as I leaned over the nearest member of this quartet and offered my hand.

A handshake.

A universal male greeting.

A sign of friendship.

A sign that I mean you no harm.

Except I did mean him harm.

The red-faced fuckwit reluctantly took my hand and tried to crush my fingers for the amusement of his friends.

It didn’t work even though his hand was huge. I went to an all-boys school back in the day, and one of our teachers taught us how to avoid a vice-like grip.

The fuckwit held my hand way too long and looked into my eyes, waiting for my reaction.

“Well, sorry to have disturbed your conversation,” I said as I wrenched my hand free.

“Have a good night fellas,” I said with a smile.

The other three blokes sneered at me as I smiled and walked back to my seat, nearly tripping over a boy wearing an oversized jacket.

“That kid’s going to burst into flame if his dad doesn’t take his jacket off,” I said as I sat down next to my friend.

“Never mind the combustable kid. What the fuck were you doing talking to those Neanderthals? They’ve probably been drinking all day.”

“They were annoying me and pissing everyone off so I thought I’d sort it,” I said while looking out into the darkness.

“What station do you reckon they’ll get off at?” I said.

The question pushed my friend back into our regular routine for a moment.

“Boronia, maybe Bayswater. You know, cashed up bogan territory.”

“Could be,” I said.

“So what the fuck did you think you were doing?” said my friend.

We’d known each other forever, and our friendship had survived the inevitable ups and downs.

Good mates.

Life had been putting distance between us, but we met up over two weeks to attend the film festival every year.

“Have you ever noticed that I tend to fist bump people and rarely shake hands?” I said.

“Yeah, so what?”

I put my hand out, and he took it and shook it.

“I’ve often thought I might be gay and I’ve wondered what it would be like to have sex with you, but I didn’t want to complicate our relationship and I don’t know why I’m saying this. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to be able to stop myself,” said my best friend, who once saved my life when we were kids.

I knew he fancied me, but I’m okay with the knowledge.

Good friends are hard to hold on to.

“If it makes you uncomfortable, just don’t speak. The effect will wear off in a little while. It was only a short hand shake. That bloke down there, on the other hand, he’s going to be telling the stark honest truth for quite a while.”

My friend clamped his lips tightly shut and turned around to stare at the commotion occurring behind him. I’d been watching as we spoke.

The bloke I’d shaken hands with — the one who wouldn’t let go — was in violent conversation with the other three.

The people seated near them had moved further away, and I could hear snatches of dialogue as things seemed to be getting out of hand.

“Yeah, I fucked her. She was begging for it. Your old lady bangs like a dunny door.”

A punch was thrown, but it’s hard to do much damage when you are wedged it tight with a bunch of drunk fat blokes.

“What’s the matter with you Billy, I thought we were mates?” said the fat bloke sitting next to the fat bloke who had been cuckolded by Billy.

“I gave your missus one as well. If you ask her nicely, she’ll bark like a dog. You should give it a try,” said Billy just before this fat bloke tightened his grip.

Someone threw an elbow, and there was a dull thud and an exhalation of air.

The four fat blokes continued to ineffectually strike each other until the train came to a halt, and I expected to see a couple of police officers come bursting in, but they didn’t.

The four portly football supporters got up and staggered off the train. The mayhem continued on the platform as the train pulled out.

“Bayswater,” I said, and my friend looked at me.

“Did you have ‘Bayswater’, I can’t remember.”

“No. I don’t think we settled on a station.” Which was very honest of my friend. Mind you, just at the moment, he didn’t have a lot of choices. So honesty was going to follow him around for the next half an hour or so.

“You did that, didn’t you?” said my friend.

“Yep.”

“Have you always been able to make people tell the truth?” said my friend. “Fuck, that explains a lot. That time Brother Michael told us all that stuff about what it was like to be a Marist Brother. That was you.”

“He really gave me the shits. Served him right.”

“I liked him a lot.”

“I know you did, and if you had acted on your feelings, he would have eaten you alive,” I said.

“After his outburst I changed my mind about him.”

“I’m glad. It was a huge chance to take, but I couldn’t just stand by and see him take advantage of you. You were my friend.”

“I still am.”

“I know you are.”

We talked some more about the movie and what we would like our lives to be like in the coming year, and my friend didn’t notice when the urge to tell the unvarnished truth fell away.

When we got off the train and walked to our cars, we said goodnight and my friend hugged me. Hugging wasn’t one of our things, but I got the feeling that it would be from now on, and I’m okay with that.

Where Should I Go?

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

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

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

Like, where do I go?

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

Not so.

I’m an inventive and resourceful person.

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

The problem?

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

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

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

There shall I settle.

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

Austin A40

“My uncle had one. We used to sit in it and pretend we were driving. Anywhere really. To the moon, down to the beach and for some reason, to the shops,” I said.

“So you bought it from your uncle? He kept it in remarkable nick.”

“No, for starters, my uncle died ten years ago, and even if he was alive, he’d be old, really old. They probably would let him drive,” I said, and I was beginning to get annoyed.

“So, what’s the point?” said my soon to be ex-friend Derrick.

“The point, Derrick, is that I’ve achieved a lifelong dream. I now own a car just like the one my uncle owned.”

“Didn’t your uncle get done for offering sweets to not quite legal young women?”

“No, that was another uncle. I’ve got a whole bunch of uncles. One was an Antarctic explorer. Another one had an ice-cream shop empire, which he duly lost when the casino opened. Another one was quiet and boring and told excellent stories. I liked that one.”

“And one was a kiddie-fiddler?”

“Not technically. He never managed any sort of fiddling, but he got six months for trying. Can we get back to my car?”

“Sure.”

“It’s true that it’s sometimes hard to start and it doesn’t like Australia’s hot weather, but apart from that …”

“It has wipers that don’t really work?”

“I’m working on that, but it does have a one-piece windscreen. It was a big deal back then.”

“When was ‘back then’?”

“1950.”

“Shit! That’s a long time ago.”

“Yeah, right? And here it is seventy-one years later. Chicks love old cars.”

“Do they love your old car?”

“Not as much as I’d like,” I said, and my enthusiasm was beginning to sag.

The ‘do chicks love your old car?’, was kind of the point, and I was reluctant to admit that it wasn’t working. I’d spent all the money I’d saved. Took me three years to get that money together and my sex life was just as crap as it was before I’d bought the car.

Derrick went back to wherever it is that Derrick comes from, and I was left with my thoughts.

I cast my mind back to when I was a kid and the conversations I’d had with my uncle.

It meant nothing to me then, but now I come to think about it, I do remember my uncle saying that he wasn’t getting much action at home since he’d bought that car.

He was indeed pissed at the time (I didn’t think much of that then either — most of my relatives smelled of alcohol – I thought it was probably deodorant).

“Sex is impossible once you get married boy, don’t do it!” he said, and I think he passed out.

To be honest, I didn’t know what sex was back then, and I’m beginning to forget what it is in the here and now.

Gotta get rid of that car.

Zeitgeber

The cup and saucer are mine.

The uniform’s mine as well. 

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.

Exhausted.

Spent.

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? 

Mrs Houdini

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.

~oOo~

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 understood.

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.

Give Him a Foot and He Will Take a Mile

Carlos Delgado

“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.

Miss you mate. 

Love you.

Sleep well.

Long Red Dress and a Gleeful White Dog

 

 

There are — moments.

Moments that pass by unnoticed.

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.

“Alitalia IS an Italian airline,” I said.

The Quiet Hours

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.

Coffin Confessor

 A Sam Bennett story

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 known 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.

“Meeting my boyfriend later,” she said.

Just as well, I guess.

I’d probably say something unwise.