“In some countries, it’s considered bad form to urinate while wearing a hat,” I said.
“Okay. So what’s your point?”
I didn’t have one — a point, that is.
The etiquette of taking a leak while wearing, or not wearing a hat, was simply a distraction.
It’s a trick I learned from my mum. My dad had no need to bamboozle a bully — he had always been able to take care of himself. I didn’t inherit his physique, so other measures were required to escape the clutches of a tormenter.
The technique was simple and in two parts.
The second part came from my grandfather. He understood dogs.
“Never take a backward step when confronted by a dog. They read body language at the speed of light. Flinch or take a backward step, and they see you as weak. Never back away from a bully either.”
The first part of the process involves confusing the bully, who usually hunts with a pack. Confuse them for long enough, and they get bored, or their friends do, which is even better.
“Come on Steve this bloke’s nuts, and we’ve got stuff to do.”
The sound of your back-up Neanderthals drifting away is a powerful persuader.
It has to be said that my big mouth got me into a heap of trouble, but I could talk my way out of most of it.
In the dog world, eye contact is reserved for other members of the pack, otherwise, it is seen as a challenge.
In the human world, eye contact is seen as a sign of strength.
If you stare at someone, there is a good chance that they will think that you can handle yourself. A small smile helps to complete the picture. Not too big a smile, that could make things worse.
As I hoped, my tormentor’s friends got bored and encouraged him to thump me or go with them in search of easier prey.
He wandered off, leaving me with a not very well veiled threat.
It wasn’t our last encounter, but eventually, his tiny brain maxed itself out, and his parents took him out of school and ensconced him in a dead-end job where I’m sure he lived out his days.
I went on to be an even bigger big-mouth, and it continued to get me into and out of trouble.
And I’m not sure I would have had it any other way.
I saw her reflection in the window of the Tobacconist.
She was crossing the street and heading for the restaurant at The Windsor Hotel.
You might be wondering how I knew where she was going.
Wonder no more.
Where else would a beautiful young lady be going, at that hour of the day, dressed so impeccably?
Her lipstick matched the colour of her dress.
Her handbag was suitably casual, and her figure was close to perfect. She had the kind of body that made you wish you could win a scholarship to undertake further study.
She was smoothing down a stray hair as she stepped off the kerb and as if by magic, the busy lunchtime traffic came to a halt.
If I’d tried it you would have read about the carnage in the evening paper, but this is 1957 after all, and a beautiful woman will always stop traffic in this modern age.
I’ve got a thing about white gloves.
My mum had a drawer full of gloves, and they always smelled amazing. She looked great when she wore them.
When things got to be too much, she would dress up and keep me home from school.
We’d walk down to the tram stop and jump on the first number 12 that came along. The journey to the city took about half an hour, and we would travel that distance without conversation.
I would sit next to her and feel her warmth and smell her perfume. Sometimes she would hold my hand.
When she could not be here anymore, they found her, perfectly dressed, careful makeup and white gloves.
I was outside the Windsor on a routine ‘follow and report’.
Not my usual pastime, but a friend was shorthanded, and I didn’t have much on. Melbourne is quiet now that the Olympics is over. Most of the juicy crime has moved back to Sydney.
The lady in red was still delaying traffic when I saw my mark enter the Hotel. The bookstore next to the Tobacconists would be a good place to wait; no one notices a person in a bookstore and the staff know to leave the customers alone.
Fortunately, the ‘classics’ section was close to the front window, so I picked out a Tolstoy and settled in for a long wait.
The curtains in the dining room at the Windsor were draped but not completely closed, so I could see my mark sitting one table in and to the left of the main window.
I was expecting to be waiting for at least an hour but my curiosity, professional and otherwise, wanted to know who else would be seated at his table.
A well placed ten-pound note would get me all the information I needed from the staff, but that would come later, for now, I just wanted to see for myself.
I didn’t have long to wait before a large, not very tall, bald man in a bad suit sat opposite my mark. Their demeanour suggested that they knew each other, but I doubt that they spent their holidays together.
Four minutes later, the bald bloke got up and left; there was no handshake, but he didn’t tip a glass of beer over him either.
Next to the man’s description I wrote, ‘strange, short meeting’.
To my delight, the lady in red, fresh from her traffic stopping duties, appeared in the window and stood approximately where the bald, bad suit had sat.
My mark grew about two inches in his chair and to put it mildly; he looked a little bit surprised.
There was too much traffic, too much distance and too much glass for me to be able to hear their conversation.
But, as the man said, ‘actions speak louder than words’.
The lady in red opened her casual handbag and reached into it with her perfectly gloved hand and pulled out what looked a lot like a chrome-plated .25 calibre Browning automatic.
I didn’t hear the bangs; a .25 doesn’t make a lot of noise and the slugs it projects is not likely to do a lot of damage unless they land in the right spot, and at that range ‘white gloves’ was not going to miss.
My mark made a face that made it look like a large dog had attached itself to his family jewels, then he slid gracefully off his chair.
Miss ‘white gloves’ must have hit the spot.
I expected to see a flurry of red and white but to my surprise, she slowly put the gun back into her casual purse and moved toward the door. I didn’t expect to see her emerge because there was a good chance someone would grab her now that her gun was back in her bag, but I was wrong again.
She stepped through the polished brass front doors, said something to the doorman, who smiled at her, then she stopped traffic again and walk toward my hiding place.
I expected to see a posse of concerned citizens come bursting through those shiny doors, but again I was off the mark.
“This is as good a place as any in the short term, but before too much more time goes by you might want to put a bit of distance between that dead bloke and yourself.”
“Yes, I guess that would be wise,” she said, looking slightly dazed.
“Would you like me to hail you a taxi?”
“Not just yet, I need to catch my breath.”
“Yeah, me too.” I wasn’t talking about catching my breath because of the shooting, I’d seen a lot of that, in and out of uniform. Waiting out a sniper was easy compared to dealing with a beautiful woman. A gunman only had one way of killing you; a beautiful woman could choose from dozens, and do it with a smile.
I hadn’t yet decided if ‘white gloves’ was one of these or not.
“If you don’t mind me asking, why did you do it?” My Tolstoy was light weight compared to what was unfolding in front of me so I put it down.
“It’s a long, boring story involving letters, photographs, husbands and broken vows. But, I want you to know that I came here to pay him.”
“Creeps like that never leave you be. He’d have bled you dry and then told your husband just so his next victim knew he meant business.”
“We had him in our home. He drank our whisky and ate my food. He seemed like a nice man. I thought I could reason with him, but as soon as I saw him, I knew. Even then I was reaching for the envelope, not the gun. He smiled at me and called me ‘sweety’. I put the envelope back and shot him. There was nothing else for it. He was never going to leave us alone. If he was just a lousy blackmailer, a creep out for a quick quid, I probably could have lived with it, but he smiled at me. He was enjoying my pain. No one treats me like that.”
“Remind me never to get you, mad lady.”
“Do you have a car? Could you get me out of here?”
“I do, but it will take me a few minutes to retrieve it. Stay away from the window; the police will be here any minute. Russell Street is very close by. Wait five minutes and make your way to the back of the shop. Tell the girl you need to use the ladies room. I’ll be in the alley. I drive a grey Ford ’39 Coupe. She’s old, but she will get you out of here in one piece.”
I pulled my hat down over my eyes and resisted the urge to run to the car, but even at walking pace, I had the old Ford at the back of what I thought was the book shop in time to see the lady in the red dress step into the laneway. Within moments, she was in the car, beside me.
I’d been running on instinct up till then but now, in the relative silence, I was wondering why I was doing this.
There was a slight drizzle falling so I turned on the wipers.
If this went ‘pear shaped’ I was likely to be staring into a very bright light in the basement of Russell Street Police Headquarters before too long. I’d been rousted by the police a few times before, even been roughed up, but compared to my sergeant and the Japs, police were a bunch of lightweights. Even so, I didn’t need the trouble.
After a few minutes, it occurred to me that I was driving, but I didn’t know where.
“Where would you like to go?”
“Firstly, I need a drink; then I’d like to go home.”
“I can fix the first bit. There’s a bar I know where they don’t ask questions.”
Despite its name, Cafe What? was actually a bar.
It had been named that way for so long ago that no one could say with any accuracy how long it had been there, or who had come up with the name.
Everyone needs somewhere to go and the particular band of ‘everyone’ who went to Cafe What? were generally not welcome anywhere else. Being an outcast brings with it a fierce brand of loyalty towards other outcasts. No matter what happened at Cafe What? when asked, everyone was deaf, mute and blind.
“If you need to go to the ladies room when we get there, just cross your legs and hold it.”
“Let’s just say that this isn’t the Windsor, and the last three people who went to the toilet here never came back. You usually need at least five tattoos to get into this place, but considering how good you look I think they will give you a pass. This place might come in handy if you need an alibi. Time is a fluid concept here, and for a large bunch of ‘tenners’, you could have arrived here anytime you say.”
We drank something that had all the punch of a newborn kitten and then drank a couple more. She paid an exorbitant amount for the drinks and the rest of what was in that envelope for the certainty that she had been there all afternoon.
I drove her to the address she gave me, parked around the corner and took her inside.
“You’ve done all this for me, and I don’t even know your name.”
“Names just get in the way. You might want to think about what you are going to say if the police come banging on your door.”
“I can think about that later, but for now, I would like you to kiss me.”
I wasn’t taken completely by surprise. I am over twenty-one, and this is 1957. The world spins a lot faster since the war ended.
I took off my hat and pushed her gently up against the wall. My lips were in working order and so were hers. I waited for a polite amount of time before I pulled her dress up to her hips and put my hand between her thighs. She didn’t try and stop me, and it is enough for you to know that I did what any good soldier would do in the circumstance. We moved around the house violently bumping each other for several hours. My legs felt like jelly by the time I walked out of her front door. I knew it was wise to park around the corner, but now I was regretting it. My hat was the only part of me that didn’t hurt, but it took a week to get the smile off my face.
I don’t know why, and I don’t care, but the police never worked it out, and the lady in red paid up for an alibi that she never needed.
The friend I was working for on that day asked me if I had seen what had happened and I gave him a smile. He got paid and so did I, and we went about our business.
I think about the lady in red from time to time and among the myriad of things I wonder about, one of them is why, throughout our torrid encounter, she never removed her white gloves.
It’s the middle of Winter and there’s a gun in my handbag.
Actually there is a lot of stuff in there, but mostly it’s the usual things that a woman carries, until you get to the envelope stuffed with money and the small calibre hand gun.
The envelope is a pretty shade of light blue and it came from a stationary set that I bought in a little shop in an arcade in Toorak.
I’d been visiting a friend who had made herself invisible in the previous few months.
It wasn’t a big deal, I was just trying to do better in the ‘friends’ department.
I’m a bit slack when it comes to friends so I was trying to make an effort.
After several tries she eventually decided to meet me for lunch.
She was very bad company; obviously depressed and just barely able to put on a glad-face. It was painful, but we got through it and we bought each other a writing set. I knew she liked to write letters so I thought it would be a fun way for us to keep in touch.
I never received a letter from her and a few weeks after our lunch she arranged for her son to come to her apartment. When he arrived he found a note, written on the writing paper I had bought for her, a copy of her life insurance policy and her body, all neatly laid out.
She’d had enough.
Her affairs were in order and she simply, left us; almost as quietly as she had lived.
Her son was evasive about the contents of the note. “Just a goodbye note. Saying how much she loved us, that sort of thing.”
But, there was more to it than that, and while I was still grieving the loss of my friend I received a visit from a certain acquaintance who had come into possession of some information and if i wanted to make sure that the information remained a secret I was to bring along a certain sum of money to a certain park at a certain time on a certain afternoon.
I’m on my way now.
It’s cold, but I have my gloves to keep my hands warm with the added benefit of not leaving fingerprints and protecting my hands from gunshot residue.
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t actually decided to kill the blackmailing bastard. I may give him the money instead.
I haven’t decided.
I may flip a coin.
I may kill him if it rains, spare him if it’s fine.
I wonder if he knows that his life hangs on the outcome of a weather report?
He deserves to die for what he did to my friend but that’s not how the world works; people rarely get what they deserve.
My friend made her choice and she cannot be hurt anymore.
I have to look out for me.
Putting it simply, I’ll kill him if I think I can get away with it. If the circumstances are such that I can walk away undetected, then I shoot him and I won’t lose any sleep.
With a bit of luck the park will be emptied by the inclement weather and no one will take much notice of a single gunshot. “I heard it but I thought it was a car backfiring, so I did think much about it, officer”.
The police will go through his papers and see that he was blackmailing a whole host of people, and not just women. They’ll spend months checking all the names and checking to see where everyone was on the day.
“If I had known I needed an alibi officer I would have made sure I had one, but I was just out shopping and I doubt that anyone would remember me. No I don’t own a gun. No I’ve never fired a gun in my life.”
The first bit is true and I’ll look very convincing when I say it.
The gun belonged to a lover from many years ago. He gave it to me ‘for protection’.
It was mostly him I needed protection from, and some of his hoodlum friends, but once he was gone the threat went away and it cured me of ‘bad boys’ for life.
A fully loaded .32 automatic seemed like something that might come in handy one day. I kept it cleaned and well oiled. No use having a gun if you don’t look after it.
There is always a chance the gun will misfire, the ammunition is old, but it will give him the fright of his life even if it does.
I hope I don’t have to burn this coat.
I really like this coat.
Only one more stop and this tram will be outside the park.
The money or the gun?
As I step off the tram it starts to rain.
Painting by Kenton Nelson