When I was younger, I watched it happen from afar.
My grandmother was an expert at it, but I dismissed it as ‘my grandmother was always like that’.
After a conversation with my favourite aunt, I gained a different perspective.
“She wasn’t always like that. As a young woman, she let people walk all over her, especially your grandfather.”
My grandfather died when I was young. I remember the aromas in the church. When I got a lot older, someone put a name to it — frankincense. There was furniture polish and shoe polish and dust as well. I remember thinking they should have dusted my grandfather before burying him. Kids form thoughts based on the available evidence. Dust is a recurring memory from childhood; I guess it’s because I was so close to the ground.
I doubt that science has defined it down to the month or the week, but somewhere in there, people, women, in particular, develop a sort of superpower.
I’m only guessing, and correct me if you think I’m wrong, but it seems that people worry about what people think of them more than anything else and then one day they don’t anymore — well, not as much anyway.
I watched one of my aunties wade into a melee of grown men who were angry after a junior basketball game. The parents were berating a young referee after a close finish. The young referee was my cousin, and it looked like he’d done a good job. Mind you, I would have called that last foul a charge rather than a block.
My aunty stood a few inches short of five feet tall, and she stood between the six-foot-plus fathers giving my cousin a hard time. She told them off for being childish, and eventually, they started to back away. Not content with this, she followed them to the exit door and saw them on their way. There were quite a few smiling faces in the crowd that dispersed at the end of the game.
I expected my aunty to rub her hands together, but she didn’t. Victory was hers, and she was gracious in victory.
“Arseholes,” she said before gathering up her knitting, congratulating my cousin on ‘a job well done’ and telling him she would see him when he got home after his shift. I followed her to her car because I expected the large fathers to be waiting for her in the carpark.
“Aren’t you going to stay and watch your cousin referee his next game?” she said when she noticed me trailing along behind her.
“Yeah, but I thought I’d keep an eye on you aunty. Those blokes were pretty angry.”
My aunt laughed.
“All talk, no trousers,” she said.
Not a flicker of fear.
I wondered if I would grow up to size up people that well.
I’m not sure I have, but I can pick a ‘no trousers’ without too much trouble.
On one occasion, she got slapped by a parent when she was coaching a junior team. One of the dads sorted the bloke out, but I expected it to put my aunty off coaching. It didn’t. She saw the incident as a blip.
“Most people aren’t like that. Did you see the parents jump up and deal with the slapper?”
She only coached a few games but went undefeated in her short career. The kids loved her. Most of them were taller than she was, but they listened to her because she had gravitas — that hard to define something that makes people want to follow someone.
Chances are that she probably always had that ability, but somewhere along the way, a light went on, and she became the person she was meant to be.
Mysterious creatures, humans.
Illustration credit: Franco Matticchio
It won’t take you long to work out that I exaggerate.
It’s all true, but I tend to ‘gild the lily’ as my mum would say.
My father wasn’t invisible; at least he wasn’t the way I drew him.
That drawing caused me heaps of trouble.
My teacher called my mum into a meeting.
“I’m not saying your son is strange, but this drawing is a bit disturbing.”
I’ve always been good at illustrations. It amazed me that others weren’t so good. Like everyone else on this planet, I take my gifts for granted. Don’t you?
My father travelled a lot because of his job.
He sold stuff, and that stuff seemed to change quite regularly.
He always had a suitcase full of samples.
As he went out the door on each sales trip, he had two cases — one for his clothes and one for his samples.
The upside of his job for us was that he had a car. Most of the other families around us didn’t. Only professional families could afford one.
I hated him being away, but I knew it was his job, and that’s where the food, toys, and school fees came from — even so, I wanted him to be home like the other dads.
After each trip away, there would be three or four days where he didn’t have to go into the office, and I’d get to stay home from school on at least one of those days.
Dad would wake me up way too early, and I’d stumble out of bed and eat toast with one eye open with my pyjama top unevenly buttoned. I couldn’t think straight first thing in the morning, but I was not going to miss out. My mother didn’t sleep much, even when dad was home, so she would look like she’d been up for hours and probably had.
“Move your scrawny little behind. We’ve got places to go and people to see,” my dad would say just as I was about to fall asleep on my plate of toast.
Most times, we would head for the beach, which gave me half an hour to fall asleep in the back of our big old Ford. There were no seat belts in those days, so I’d curl up on the leather seat, and the movement would lull me to sleep. It was the same routine on the way home, only I’d have sand in my shoes this time.
Once, I ended up on the floor — a rough industrial grade carpet. Some bloke pulled out of a parking spot, and dad hit him. I must have been knocked out for a few seconds because I opened my eyes and stared at a bottle of milk and a box of biscuits that mum had bought before we headed home. We all ended up on the floor of the car without a single injury. Dad was busy telling the formally parked motorist what he thought of his driving while mum peered over the front seat to see where I’d ended up.
“Are you okay little man?” she said with her delicious voice.
“Yes mum, but the bickies and a bit bent.”
“Just so long as you are okay.”
The bump on my head was the centre of many conversations when I returned to school. I was determined to tell a different story to each person who asked, but I ran out of good ones. I’m not sure that the Pirate story gained much traction.
After a week, sometimes two, my father would start talking about his next trip, and I’d get that sick feeling in the part of my stomach that bullies liked to punch. Whenever he left, it felt a lot like I’d been hit.
His two suitcases would be placed neatly on my parent’s bed. The case containing his clothes would be closed up first. Then, his sample case would receive a final check to ensure everything was there.
“Can’t afford to leave anything behind. It’s too far to have to come back,” he’d say.
When he wasn’t looking, I’d drop something of mine into his sample case — something of me to carry with him on his journey. Something to keep him safe — usually a shell or a stone we had collected on one of our adventurous days.
I know how a dog feels when you leave for work each day, “How can I protect you if I don’t know where you are?”
I felt the same way with my dad.
I don’t know how I thought I could protect him, but I know I would have tried.
As long as he had something of mine, I knew he would return safely.
I was a child, and the world seemed simple to me — stay close and stay safe.
Of course, it doesn’t work like that, but I didn’t know that back then.
My father never said anything about finding my ‘keep safe’ objects, but he must have known.
Many years later, my mother found a shoebox under their bed with a bunch of shells, stones, and small plastic soldiers. She wondered why my father had kept them and where he had found them in the first place.
I didn’t tell her.
It was our secret.
If you could see my face, you might think I looked determined.
It’s my driving face, and it can pass for determination in a pinch.
I observe actresses’ faces on the silver screen, and I marvel at how much they can say with just a look.
I can’t do that, and my friends (enemies?) delight in telling me so.
“What goes on behind that expressionless face of yours, Pickles?”
“Not a lot,” I say with a wry smile that probably doesn’t show.
My father gave me the name.
I’ve never bothered to ask him why.
It’s a term of endearment, I guess.
He always said it with warmth.
“Penelope Pickles, what have you been up to today?” he would say when the train brought him home from the city.
When I was very young, I’d be in bed before he came home, but he always came into my room and asked me about my day. So I’d save up little tidbits to have something of substance to share with him.
“A boy showed me a frog and I didn’t run away.”
“You are brave.”
“No. Not really. I like the boy who showed it to me. He wasn’t being nasty, just sharing his frog.”
Frog sharing was a pleasant pastime back then.
The boy with the frog died somewhere in Belgium.
I wonder if he remembered me?
When I left home and went off to drive an ambulance, my father had been in the army for three months. He could have gotten out of it due to his age, but he pulled a few strings, “Chaps I know will get me in.”
I’m tall, and I looked older than I was; even so, I had to do a lot of talking to get behind the wheel.
“Not a place for a woman,” they said, but as the death toll rose and ambulance drivers died as fast as anyone, they changed their tune.
The experience was exactly what you would think it was — indescribable.
Like everyone who survived that time, I decided to live my life as well as I could.
I earn my own money. I drive my own car, and I dance with whoever I like.
My ‘driving scarf’ was a present from my favourite aunty. My father’s sister is a sort of family’ black sheep’. Of course, that’s not why I like her so much, but it helps.
She got me out of the house from time to time — only a train ride away in the big smoke.
“I’ll stay with Aunt Scarlett in the city for a few days.”
“Your sister will ruin that girl,” my mother would say, but my father would talk her around, and on the ride to the station, he would warn me about my aunty’s ‘wicked ways.’
“She’s a good person, but there’s also a fair chance that she’ll lead you astray.”
“What sort of ‘astray’ are we talking about?” I’d ask. I genuinely wanted to know what ‘astray’ looked like.
“No need to be too specific. Let’s just say that boys and alcohol might be involved.”
I knew a bit about boys. What they wanted to do. What they wanted to see, but alcohol was a bit of a mystery.
When the cousins and their families came to stay at Christmas, we little ones would hide under the dining table, sneak out, and drain the almost empty glasses. The fluid within tasted terrible, and I wondered what the fuss was about.
After these raids, we would often fall asleep under the table, huddled together like puppies. It was delicious.
I lost interest in the ‘drinks raid’ the year I sculled a glass with a cigar butt in it.
Father survived the War, but he was not the same. Neither was I.
Everything was different and important people in my life were either completely gone or badly damaged.
Someone had pulled the rug out from underneath us, and I’ll bet that whoever these someones were, they survived the War unscathed. But, unfortunately, it’s the ‘no ones’ who pay the price.
The smell is the first thing that hits you.
It’s not the usual hospital smell.
This is more specific.
You feel like it is coating the inside of your nasal cavities.
The digital clock in the morgue said I was right on time.
Not my usual form.
Doctor Death didn’t glance at the time, which pissed me off. I would have copped an earful if I’d been late.
She was hunched over some poor soul while talking into a portable recorder — probably digital.
The lab assistants looked up, saw it was me, nodded, and returned to what they were doing. I guess word had gotten out that I was working with a young officer, and they were prepared with all the usual gallows humour. I noticed the wastepaper basket sitting in the corner. When the kid arrived, someone would hand it to him, and he would ask what it was for.
“You’ll find out.”
Doctor Death disapproved of such ‘goings on’, but she turned a blind eye as long as it didn’t upset the smooth flow of her department.
She is of average height for a woman. Shoulder length brown hair pulled back into a kind of ponytail, although she wouldn’t call it that. Sensible shoes that would give way to expensive ones at the end of the day. No jewellery at work. Sparkling blue eyes that stared into mine when she tried to kiss me — I told you about that.
I knew she was drunk, but those eyes said, ‘I’m fully aware of what I’m doing and you can take me right now, in that cupboard, if you want to. Don’t worry about you being younger than me, I don’t mind if you don’t.’
I had to move my hips as you do when you hug a female, and you don’t want her to think that you are coming on to her.
I held that erection for quite some time.
I’d asked around about her — her sudden reappearance.
The information was sketchy, but apparently, her marriage hit a bad patch while living in London.
“I’m going to be a lady of leisure,” she’d said, waving an expensive half-empty bottle of bubbly. “I’m going to be kept in the manner to which I’m soon to be accustomed,” she said, promptly dropping the bottle.
“You deserve it DD. Give those Poms some hell for me,” I said.
“Won’t have time. Too busy being pampered by my amazing husband.” She pointed her now empty hand in the direction of a tallish handsome man who I instantly disliked. Looked like a wanker to my trained eye, but what did it matter what I thought? She was happy, and that was all that mattered.
A lovely female PC who worked in the records office told me that someone had said to her that Mr Doctor Death turned out to be a ‘bit of a bounder’ as the Poms like to say. He needed a high profile wife, a reverse ‘handbag’ if you will, to keep up appearances. He preferred men in bed, something to do with a boarding school upbringing. She found out after a couple of years.
A couple of years!
This is a brilliant woman, and it takes her a couple of years to work out that this bloke prefers men?
What the actual fuck!
And you are sitting there wondering why people kill each other?
Someone famous (at least I think he was famous) said that love doth make fools of us all. It’s the ‘doth’ that makes it real.
Being a practical bloke, I consoled myself with the thought that she would have made a bundle out of the divorce.
Sex and money. Love and money.
Money doesn’t quite cut it when compared to love.
Egg arrived on time, and the wastepaper ritual played out. He put it by his feet, and I rubbed a smidgeon of Vicks Vapor rub under my nose. I didn’t offer him any, and I noticed him noticing my ritual.
Dr Death began her autopsy by listing everyone present, which would come in handy if one of us decided to kill or maim someone else while the autopsy was being performed. Or if there was a sudden outbreak of a deadly virus. My head goes to strange places at times of tension.
Egg lasted until a few minutes after Dr Death made her first incision. It wasn’t a record, but it put him in the top ten and cost the younger lab assistant ten dollars.
I won’t bore you with all the details, but suffice to say that a lack of a significant amount of river water in the lungs meant that we probably had an actual murder on our well-worn hands.
“I’ll have the tox-screen by late tomorrow. No obvious signs of violence other than the minor contusions, probably post mortem, that she might have received from bobbing around in the river.”
“Bobbing around? Is that different to floating about and lazing around?” I said, and Dr Death did not rise to the occasion.
The autopsy was over, and that was that. It felt like all the air had gone out of the room.
I found Egg in the corridor.
“Don’t worry about it, you lasted longer than most and you made an old lab assistant ten dollars. So, all in all, a good morning’s work. Breakfast?”
“Yes,” said Egg, still clutching the basket. I expected him to add to the contents, but he is tougher than I thought.
“Just leave that there. The loser will be out to collect it later — all part of the bet.”
We walked past two cafes, and Egg looked at me inquiringly.
“Nothing but Kale on wholemeal with a side something that used to be attached to a tree in the Amazon.”
We found a decent cafe and had a hearty meal of stuff that would eventually stop both of our hearts long after we had retired.
The cafe still had the peeled remnants of a gold leaf sign on the window. It must have been there for decades — no one does gold leaf anymore. I was impressed by the apostrophe. Also notable is that the window hadn’t been broken over those many years. The window in question could have used a good clean by someone who knew what they were doing.
The smoky window probably hadn’t been cleaned since you were allowed to smoke in cafes. Watching the world go by was an experience not unlike an old movie where Vaseline had been smeared on the lens to make an ageing star look younger.
The bloke who served us wasn’t named Cassell, and neither was the cook. I asked, but no one seemed to know who the original Cassell was.
“Too expensive to change the sign,” said the current owner. I liked his practical sense. I doubt that the health department had visited recently, but I didn’t care at that moment.
“She’d recently had sex, but Dr Death said she couldn’t definitely say if it was forced or not. She hadn’t been having intercourse for very long according to the Doc and I wasn’t going to ask how she knew that — took her word for it,” I said.
“Blood stream?” said Egg.
“Find out tomorrow. My back teeth are telling me that she will have something predictable in her blood.”
It’s common sense for a homicide policeman to not get emotionally involved in a case he is working on. Common sense, yes, practical — not always possible.
Office workers taking an early lunch walked purposefully past the window of the tiny cafe. I watched the young women and thought that any one of them could be our dead Debra. They weren’t, of course, and that’s how life goes — it goes on. These girls are oblivious to the death of our young woman. Maybe they will read about it or hear about it on radio or television, and then their life will go on. Debra is forever frozen in time. Her clock stopped when someone decided that she was expendable.
I didn’t have long to wait for a tram.
It wasn’t raining, and the wind was gentle.
The tram was built in the 1940s (I know these things), and the driver had never been a passenger in his life. He was obsessed with the tram’s ability to out-accelerate the cars trying to pass it. I’m well built, but it took all of my strength to stop from being thrown out of my seat. I looked around me, and the faces of the other passengers said that if I had could organise a rope, they would gladly join in and strangle their driver.
His ability to accelerate was matched only by his skill with the brake.
I stood up and someone gasped at my foolhardiness.
I struggled my way to the front of the tram as it approached my stop.
I felt like a pole dancer as my feet left the ground.
When we came to a halt, I let go of the pole and leaned into the driver’s cabin.
“You seem to be in a bit of a hurry, pal?” I said.
“Have to make up time. Anyway, what do you care. You getting off or what?”
“Not much fun back there, Jack Brabham. Slow the fuck down a bit. Some of us are fragile.”
An old lady seated towards the front of the tram said, “and brittle, young man.”
Most passengers looked in our direction, wondering why we weren’t hurtling towards the next stop.
“Public safety officer,” I said as I moved my suit jacket to one side, revealing my detectives’ badge and my shoulder holster.
The driver’s eyes widened.
“Have a nice day, officer,” said the driver.
I stood and watched as the tram pulled slowly away.
“That bloke won’t need a laxative today,” I said to myself.
Most people think that murders happen in the morning, which isn’t true, but don’t let the truth get in the way of a story intended to make people laugh.
I don’t remember how it goes, but it has something to do with not getting a morning coffee or making the coffee poorly, causing a homicidal situation.
It usually gets a laugh — in a homicide squad.
Crap humour makes me homicidal, but I get the joke. Coffee or the lack of it equals anger.
The reality is somewhat darker.
People tend to kill each other in the darkness of the late of day.
I guess that all the hope has gone out of the day. Maybe all sane resolutions are exhausted, so you belt whoever it is that is getting in your way over the head with a lump of pipe that is conveniently lying around.
Sex and money, or a combination of both.
He/she will/won’t fuck me.
He/she took all my money.
You might think that domestic violence is different, but it isn’t. It looks different, I’ll grant you that, but when you scratch away at it, it comes down to sex and money.
But there’s the rub.
It isn’t the sex, and it isn’t the money — it’s the lack of love that kills people and induces people to kill. The sex and the money are just external symbols.
“My wife leaves me and takes the kids so I don’t get my conjugals, Your Honour, so naturally I teach them a lesson and kill them.”
“My wife and kids don’t love me anymore because of the arsehole I’ve become, so I have to strike out at them. Me mates will think I’m a wimp if I don’t do something.”
Who did Debra piss off?
Did she threaten someones financial security?
“Nothing to do today Sarge?” said the only member of the squad who was allowed to be a smart arse in my presence and live through it — we had ‘history’, we’d been through a bit together.
“I am doing something Kellerman. I’m planning your demise. I’m up to the part where I dispose of your body in a unique and imaginative way.”
“Wouldn’t help. Everyone knows that if I went missing you’d be the one who did it,” said Kellerman on his way to the stationery cupboard.
“Count on it,” I said.
If we had a couch in the squad room, I’d lie on it, but we don’t, so I sit in my chair and think. It looks like I’m ‘out to lunch’, and I sort of am, but not the way they mean.
Some detectives get their inspiration over a glass of beer, others from wading through paperwork. I knew one bloke who used to bang his head up against the tiles in the Gents. He always had a Band Aide on his forehead, but he had an enviable clear-up rate. I tried it once — you get desperate sometimes. All I got was a headache and a lump on my head.
I looked like a de-horned unicorn.
I watched the second hand on the office clock.
I’ve always loved second hands.
You don’t see many of them these days, what with digital this and digital that.
The clock in our squad room had been there since they hung Ronald Ryan, and come to think of it, I’ve never seen anyone adjust it. The bloody thing is ancient, so there is no way it has crystals or whatever it is that keeps good time.
I checked the time on my phone, and it was only a few seconds faster than the mains electric dinosaur clock hanging on the wall. Flies had pooped on it, and dust weighed it down, but round and round it went, refusing to tell bad time.
I’m going to shoot anyone who tries to remove that clock.
The thought reminded me.
I took my gun out of the top draw and put it in its holster.
I’m old enough to remember when we carried revolvers, but someone worked out that automatics were better in a sustained gunfight.
I preferred the revolver.
I’ve never been in a ‘sustained’ anything.
I usually find that the first two bullets tend to resolve the issue.
Anyway, it made the Chief commissioner look good, waving around an automatic.
A sign of the times, I guess.
The lovely thin sweep hand glided past the twelve, and the big black hand said it was two minutes past ten.
I rose from my’ thinking chair’, and within a few minutes, I’d successfully negotiated the traffic outside our building (no mean feat) and was taking the stairs, two at a time, down to the morgue.
Doctor Death was waiting.
When I started out, I had shiny buttons, and I wanted to make a difference.
This delusion afflicts a lot of young people.
You get a bit older, and you realise that making a difference is not what you thought it was.
I’m not complaining, just explaining.
My buttons are less shiny, but the uniform still fits, and I get it out for formal occasions — when someone dies, that’s about as formal as it gets, wouldn’t you say?
An unexpected death brought me here.
I’m kneeling in the mud, spoiling my suit pants. I hardly notice. Things that used to be important seem irrelevant — muddy pants included.
There was a time when I would have burst into the commander’s office and demanded to know why I was being assigned to such a lowly case — an apparent suicide.
My ‘bursting in’ days are over, at least for a while — maybe forever?
The conversation went on behind closed doors.
Behind the glass wall.
Occasionally someone would glance over their shoulder in my direction. I considered giving them the finger — thought better of it.
I’m in enough shit.
“Piss off and sort this shit out,” said our second in charge. I think he likes me. At the very least, he doesn’t hate me. Either way, at this moment, I’m beyond caring.
The folder landed on my desk as softly as a feather falling out of the arse of a large bird of prey.
I took it as a moderately good sign that I hadn’t been summoned into the commander’s office.
“Take Egg with you. He needs the experience.”
I opened my mouth to complain.
“Shut it and get it sorted!”
I shut it and shot a look in Egg’s direction. He grabbed his jacket off the back of the chair and bounded across the office knocking over two wastepaper baskets. He picked them up and deftly flipped them back into position with the heel of his shoe. Nicely done, I thought, and I hoped my face didn’t show it. You cannot afford to encourage the little shit — never get rid of him. I didn’t want him thinking that he could ride with the big boys.
Egg is on the fast track.
Someone, somewhere, thinks he will grow up to be somebody someday.
The two owners of the wastepaper baskets glared at Egg. Johnson picked up some of the litter, balled it up and threw it at the rapidly moving target.
Egg got his nickname on his first day in the squad, presumably because of his extreme youth, and it stuck.
“Don’t get in my way and don’t get used to the idea of riding with me. This is a one-off,” I said.
“Am I working with you because of what happened?”
“How the fuck should I know. No wait. Yes, that’s it. You are my punishment. A half boiled egg, right up the arse.”
A few of the lads laughed, and someone hit him with a giant ball of former wastepaper basket contents.
“Don’t get anyone killed, you little shit,” said the suit from the Fraud Squad who is on secondment — I think his name’s Wilson, but he’ll be gone soon, so why bother remembering his name?
The comment came because Egg had been riding in a Divisional van when it went into the Yarra River after misjudging a turn. The uniformed copper behind the wheel hit his head on the driver’s door and drowned as the van sunk in the murky brown water. The arseholes they were pursuing got away and abandoned their stolen car. It’s only a matter of time before we catch up with them, but rumour has it that their parents sent them both overseas to escape arrest. So now the long process of extradition begins.
We buried Constable Billy Higgins with full honours. Shiny buttons as far as the eye could see. Egg was still in hospital, which was probably just as well. He doesn’t remember much, but apparently, he has dreams about flying through the air.
After attending a false alarm, he hitched a ride back to the station on that day, and I’ll bet he wished he’d taken the tram. And I’ll bet his senior partner wished he hadn’t left him there to go off to the pub for lunch. I heard his chances of promotion went faster than his pub lunch — that kind of shit sticks for a long time.
A couple of young blokes out for a run dragged Egg out before the rig went under. They dived a heap of times but couldn’t free Higgins. I remember seeing newspaper photos of the young men sitting on the river bank when the divers retrieved Higgin’s body.
A long lens shot from the other side of the river.
Both men looking bereft.
Being half a hero is a bit like being half pregnant — it doesn’t make sense. Never heard anything more about the two runners after the funeral. I wonder what happened to them? Most of us only get one or two moments in life to make our mark. This one is going to haunt them.
When a new case comes in, it’s given to the next name on the list, no matter who that may be. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, but in reality, I get the tough cases. The murders that look like they might be challenging to solve. That was, until recently.
I guess I should be pleased that I still have a job, but that’s not how my head works.
“This is where the bodies wash up after they throw themselves off the bridge,” said Egg, and he sounded like he knew what he was talking about, which confused me. Of course, he was right, but how the fuck did he know that?
My pant’s leg was wicking up the river water, and pretty soon, it would reach my balls, so I switched to a squatting position. My shoes were now soaked, and my dodgy knee was reminding me of the weeks of rehab after the reconstruction. That knee ruined my jump shot.
“How the hell did you know that bodies wash up here?” I said.
“That PC over there,” he pointed back up the hill at the officer guarding the blue and white tape, “he told me. Thought I might find it useful.”
“Did he happen to mention when the coroner might be arriving?”
“No, sarge. Should I ask?”
“Don’t worry about it. What do you see?”
“A dead girl.”
“Woman,” I said.
Egg grunted. He didn’t see my point.
“She’s fully clothed. At least she looks that way without checking closer.”
“Long hair, nice clothes, shoes missing, manicured nails, no rings.”
“She’s wearing glasses,” I said.
“Not really,” said Egg. He leaned in closer and saw the horned rimmed glasses that had snagged her cardigan. “Oh, yeah.”
“Probably not a suicide then,” I said.
“How do you figure that?” said Egg.
“When I was in uniform, I got a lot of floaters. Most of them were suicides. I wanted to be good at this job so I did a lot of research. Suicides will often take off their shoes. They take off their glasses too before they jump. Uniform will tell you that they find, neatly placed shoes with eye glasses tucked inside. I used to do that when I went swimming as a kid — hide my glasses in my shoes for safekeeping.”
“You don’t wear glasses, Sarge.”
“Contact lenses,” I said, pointing unnecessarily at my face.
I could hear fresh voices behind me.
“What are you doing here Catastrophe?”
“Not a word from you,” I said as I shot Egg a look. I thought I’d gotten away from that moniker.
“Doctor Death. How nice to see you again,” I said, and she shot me a look to match the one I’d shot at Egg.
“I don’t like that name, Sergeant.”
“I’ll try and remember that doctor,” and the old battle of wills came flooding back.
“Any idea of the time and cause of death?” I said. I knew the question would annoy her. I’m permanently in that frame of mind these days.
“I only just got here Sergeant. You’ll know when I know and that won’t be until tomorrow morning. Let’s say 10:15?”
And the dance resumed. I’d missed Doctor Death. I wonder where she’s been? I remember her farewell party. She tried to kiss me several times. It freaked me out just a bit.
I straightened up, and my knee made a strange noise. The river water dribbled down my leg and into my sock. I gave that foot an involuntary shake, a bit like a cat that has something stuck to its paw.
We walked up the hill towards the helpful PC. He held the tape up for us.
“Were you FOS, constable?” I said.
“Did you move the body?”
The young constable broke eye contact.
“I didn’t think I should leave her like that. It didn’t seem right. I dragged her up onto the bank and pulled her dress down. I’ve got sisters.”
I waited a few moments before answering. Then, finally, the angry words drifted away.
I leaned in close so that Egg and the others couldn’t hear.
“It probably won’t jeopardise the investigation this time, but if Doctor Death works it out, you’re for the high jump. Don’t ever do that again. I don’t care how many sisters you’ve got,” I said, and my final words were softer than you would have expected. I put my hand on his shoulder, and he nodded at me.
We were almost back at the office when a call came through. The plods doing a search had turned up a handbag that probably belonged to my floater. The handbag had an address.
I walked while the sun was trying to shine.
A thick haze defused the sunlight giving the day an otherworldly glow.
It must have been the weekend, probably a Saturday. The footpaths were thickly populated with people happier than they would be on a weekday.
Everyone was going somewhere, but it was non-combative, easy-going, almost joyful.
I was walking and had been for quite a while. So long, in fact, that I had to keep track of where I was so I could get back.
The City of Melbourne is laid out on a grid similar to many significant cities, so as long as you don’t mind walking, you will come across a street you recognise sooner or later.
I’m not a fan of crowds, but I can tolerate them on certain occasions. This was one of those times, though I reached my limit when I arrived at a crossroads. The traffic lights were against me, so I worked my way to the front of the crowd — a chance to give my unease a bit of room to breathe.
The crowd I had been travelling with thinned out. Most of them turned left and strode up the hill.
The sun was burning off the morning mist, and the warmth soaked into my jacket and warmed my face.
She came up on my left-hand side and put her arm through mine, precisely the way a wife or a lover might.
I turned my head to see who this person was. I didn’t recognise her — I thought I might.
She was just below my eye level in heels, and her ponytail, set high on her head, made her appear taller than she was.
She looked at me with a combination of mild recognition and anticipation. I expected her to smile. She didn’t.
“So, where are we going?” I heard myself say.
I had been facing straight ahead, but now I was turning to the right as the lights changed to green.
“Oh, so we are going this way,” I said, and she moved in step with me or did she lead me in that direction — I’m not sure.
It was then that I realised I was doing all the talking. I could have sworn that she was talking to me, but her lips weren’t moving. Either way, I could hear her.
She was dressed conservatively in a light coloured blouse, skirt and a cardigan. All of her colours were subdued, but they suited her there and then.
Come to think of it, everyone around me seemed to be dressed a bit old fashioned.
As we walked, arm in arm, we turned up a minor road, and the footpath was narrow, but we had it all to ourselves.
I could smell the dust in the air and the faint smell of animals, something like visiting the Zoo or the Showgrounds. The aromas were familiar in my childhood but now strangely out of place.
The path we were on led to a small hotel.
The foyer was tiny with wood panelling and a mosaic tiled floor.
There was a lone concierge behind a polished wooden counter. He didn’t speak.
He turned and took a key from the green felt-lined pigeon holes. The key had a brass tag — number twenty-two.
Initially, he offered the key to the lady who was still holding my arm, but a look from her made him show it to me.
I took the key, and she led me to the steep stairs — built before modern building regulations. The carpet runner was held in place by ornate brass stair rods.
The stairs were just wide enough for us to walk on them together.
Our room was at the top of the stairs. The key turned smoothly in the lock, and the room’s aroma was not unpleasant — fresh soap, clean towels and possibly coffee from the morning just passed.
Being in what amounted to a full-service bedroom seemed luxurious and slightly forbidden in the middle of the day.
I watched her silently undress.
She stood in her slip and looked at me. I expected her to demand that I match her undressed state. She didn’t.
From what I could see, her breasts were average, and her hips were neither wide nor slim. Her stomach had that distinctive bump that all females have. I love that part of a woman.
She shed her shoes and carefully lined them up next to the bed.
She didn’t let her hair down, and I didn’t mind.
Her eyes were clear and bright, and I didn’t get the feeling that she did this kind of thing often. Maybe that was naive of me, but there it was. I’ve travelled for business, and I know what it feels like when you are approached by a woman who flatters a man for money. This was not that. I have no idea what this was, but it wasn’t that, which made me a little nervous.
I ran my hands over her still partially clothed body, and she watched me with that same look. To her, I could have been a puppy or a knight; her gaze would have suited both.
For the first time, she broke her gaze, turned away from me and removed the rest of her clothes, laying them neatly on the chair at the side of the bed.
I undressed quickly and slid into bed after discarding the heavy quilt.
The sheets were cold but comforting — another memory from childhood.
We explored each other’s bodies. No rush, no sign of haste. Each movement electric.
The smell of her was driving me crazy, but I held my composure.
She rolled her body against mine, and where she touched my skin, it felt like fire.
I’m not inexperienced in making love, but I have to say that I was taking my lead from her on this occasion. I always want to please the woman I’m with, it’s a point of honour, but this was something else.
I was intoxicated by being close to her.
I could tell that time was passing because the shadows in the room were moving across the floor.
I’m in good shape, but I was feeling fatigued and hungry, but I was not going to stop what we were doing to each other, not until she had had enough of me.
I’m tempted to say that it was the best sex I’ve ever had, but it was not like that. It wasn’t an occasion for a schoolboy boast.
Being with her, inside her, made me feel like I was home. Home and safe and powerful and wise and worthy.
I never wanted the experience to end, but it did, and I watched her walk across the room and into the shower, her body silhouetted against the harsh light of the bathroom.
“Great bum,” I said, but she didn’t answer.
I watched her dress and then sit demurely as I showered and dressed.
“Food?” I said as I tied my shoelaces. I’ve been good at shoelaces since I was six years old — my mum taught me how to do it.
I offered her my arm, and she took it.
We walked down the stairs together, and my legs felt like rubber; she seemed fine. I’m going to have to hit the gym if I’m going to keep up with this woman.
I gave the night porter the key, and he thanked me.
The street lights were on, but it wasn’t completely dark. There was still an amber glow low in the sky.
“We just made love for an entire afternoon and I don’t know your name,” I said.
We were walking next to a bench, and she put her handbag down, took out her purse, and produced a card. The card read ‘Alice Ayres’ and nothing else.
“I know that name,” I said, “but I’m not sure where I know it from.”
“Burger and chips or something a bit more upmarket?” I said. She didn’t answer. She retook my arm and led me along the street until we came to an old fashioned Italian restaurant.
The owner greeted us warmly, almost as though we were regulars.
We drank a lot of wine, and the food came straight from heaven.
“I remember where I know your name from,” I said, ‘it’s one of the plaques on the wall at Postman’s Park in London. Have you ever been to London?”
She shook her head.
After that, I have no idea what happened.
“We went to the hotel you described Mr Wilson,” said the uniformed officer sitting across the metal table from me.
“And?” I said.
The sign on the door says ‘closed’, and it doesn’t look like it has taken in guests for a long time.
“I was just there this afternoon. All afternoon,” I said.
“You mean yesterday afternoon,” said the officer.
“Yes. Yesterday. You know what I mean. Yesterday afternoon,” I said.
My head hurt, and my clothes smelled like I’d spent the night in an alley, which is where I was, apparently. That’s where the Chinese cook found me when he turned up to prep for the morning rush. Nice bloke. He gave me a coffee before noticing the bump on my head.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have given you coffee. It’s probably not good for concussion,” he said.
I assured him that coffee was good for everything.
The lump on my head was in a spot that made it unlikely that I’d done it to myself.
The police officer and the ambulance driver concurred.
“Someone’s walloped you on the head mate,” said the paramedic.
I felt the lump, and it felt numb and painful all at the same time.
“None of this makes any sense to me,” I said.
“Me either,” said the police officer.
“Why hit me over the head and not take anything?” I said.
“It’s a first for me too, sir.”
“I’m worried about the woman I was with. Did the restaurant say what happened to her. Was she with me when I left. I don’t remember leaving,” I said.
“The restaurant is closed for a month — big sign on the door. Thanking all their patrons. No one answers when we ring. No one with the name you gave us has turned up at any of the city hospitals and no reports from other police stations. I’d say that no news is good news. Do you have a number for her?”
“No. We’d only just met.”
The police officer gave me a look that said, ‘you’re a fast worker mate’, but I ignored it.
“We have your number and we’ll let you know if anything comes up,” he said, which was shorthand for saying, ‘we have better things to be getting on with than a bloke who got lucky and then got knocked on the head without getting robbed’. I could see his point.
I stepped out onto the street, and light rain was falling. Yesterday’s balmy weather had given way to a grey day of wet pavements and flowing gutters.
I walked for a while, not knowing where to go next.
I stopped to buy a paper. My wallet had way more money in it than I remembered. Add that to the list of things I don’t understand.
I walked to the Treasury Gardens after buying some sandwiches. I read the paper and ate the sandwiches. They tasted better than they should.
Reading the paper left me none the wiser.
I walked to the top of Bourke Street and waited for the lights to change. The rain had left the streets relatively empty.
I felt her slip her arm through mine.
I didn’t look at her. I didn’t want to jinx it.
She didn’t speak, but I knew what she wanted.
When the lights changed, we walked, arm in arm, across the street back in the direction of our hotel.
Michael wasn’t happy about moving to another restaurant.
“Why?” he asked.
“I hate the wallpaper,” I said.
Michael looked at me as though I had taken leave of my senses.
It was all I could come up with at short notice.
It worked for Oscar Wilde — people thought he was witty, but it wasn’t doing me any favours.
“They don’t have any wallpaper,” he said.
“In the ladies room.”
“You haven’t been to the ladies room; we just got here.”
“Trust me. I can’t dine at an establishment that has substandard wallpaper in the loo — I have standards!”
I’m pretty sure I stamped my foot.
I hadn’t known Michael long enough to pull this kind of stunt and not damage our relationship, but the alternative was letting my husband see me with a strange man. At the same time, I was supposed to be twisting myself into unusual shapes in a quest for enlightenment at a yoga class.
Michael and I walked for a few minutes and found another eatery that looked cozy.
“I love this place. Let’s eat here,” I said.
“Are you sure? Wouldn’t you like to check the restrooms?”
“No need — black tiles, lots of mirrors, no problem.” I gave him my biggest smile, and it worked.
Dinner went well, and we made another date.
Barry wouldn’t have been happy if I had stuffed it up; he puts in a lot of preparation before sending me out on an assignment.
“Seduce this bloke and get close to him. No ‘one night stand’, you need to be around him a lot. I’ll give you more details once you’ve hooked him,” said Barry with a mouth full of a tuna sandwich.
You may disagree with my chosen lifestyle, and I’m sure that many people would agree with you, but one thing you could not say was that I was in this life for anything other than the excitement and the money.
There’s plenty of sex. Sex with my husband has moved to another level since my new life began.
He loves the new me. “I don’t know what happened to you, but I don’t want to jinx it by asking too many questions.”
The sex in this job is merely a means to an end.
I feel foolish saying this, but I thought we were fine, my husband and I — dull, ordinary and fine. Sex is constant and delicious. No signs that anything was wrong. Two wonderful boys and a domestic set-up that most people would kill for.
What went wrong?
Who is this woman, and why was he with her in that restaurant?
The brief view I had of them both said that he isn’t bedding her — not yet.
He’s trying his luck.
She hasn’t given him the green light.
Why is she out with a married man — my married man?
I will find out — nothing is more important.
Michael, my assignment, can wait. He likes me, so I have some time.
I need Barry, and I never thought I would hear myself say that.
Barry knows everyone worth knowing.
“So what can I do for you, sweet cheeks?” said Barry.
“You have no idea how sweet my cheeks are Barry,” I said.
“True, but I live in hope.”
“Assume that my bottom is spectacular and shift your attention to my problem.”
“My husband has a girlfriend.”
“Okay. I didn’t see that coming. Do you want them both killed? I know a bloke who does a discount for doubles.”
“Let’s start with information before we progress to bloodshed.”
“We could do that. What do you want to know?” Barry was showing concern, and I found it unsettling.
“Who is she. How did he meet her and what does she want?” I said.
“Got it. I’ll get in touch when I’ve got something. How much do you want to spend? The bloke I have in mind is the best. He’s expensive, and he’s available right now.”
“How many shoeboxes full of money does he charge? I’ve got a wardrobe full of them.”
“I’ll take that as a yes,” said Barry.
Barry got up from the table and disappeared into a back room, and I did something I have not done in all the time I have been meeting Barry at the Rising Sun Hotel — I went to the bar. Usually, I can’t wait to get out of the place, but I wanted a drink today.
“Do you have something that will make me feel better, Boris?” I asked.
Boris gave me the only facial expression he owned.
“Do you need remember or forget?” asked Boris, and I was impressed by his question — that pretty much covered it; remember or forget.
“Forget, I think Boris. Tomorrow is soon enough for remembering.”
Boris gave me a tall glass of sticky liquid approaching the colour of honey mixed with diesel fuel. I drained it and asked for another.
I don’t remember much after that.
When I awoke, it was morning, but I wasn’t sure of which day. I was in a small room that smelled of dust, beer and leather. The furniture was sparse, the door was open and considering Barry’s reputation, I checked my panties to see if I’d been interfered with. As far as I could tell, I was unmolested.
Boris appeared with a cup of tea and a couple of painkillers.
“You drink, take these, you feel better soon. I put you to bed. No look at your bum. Boris gentleman.”
“Thank you, Boris. I’ve never done that before,” I said. Boris nodded and left me to my misery.
Apart from my headache, my biggest concern was what I was going to tell my husband.
When I stumbled back to my car, it had a parking ticket — no surprise there.
My panic went for nothing because my husband had not made it home that night either. Mother and father were absent from the family home, and neither of our boys noticed — teenagers!
“I’m sorry about last night. I had a few and crashed at a mates’ place. I hope you weren’t too worried?” said my husband as he appeared, somewhat sheepishly, at dinner that night.
I was relieved and surprised that I was off the hook, and it took me a moment to adjust.
“You could have rung,” I said with a touch of annoyance.
“Phone went flat, and I was too pissed to think straight — I am sorry.”
“You are forgiven, and your dinner is in the oven,” I said, and my mind began to wonder whose bed he slept in while I was asleep in a dusty little room at the Rising Sun Hotel.
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.
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