She Took My Arm

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 like 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.

She smiled.

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.

“Someones 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.

Batting Practice

Chief Inspector Dance slid across the church pew and invaded my personal space.

Hip against hip, knee against knee.

“Be careful Chief Inspector, in some cultures, this constitutes a marriage proposal,” I said, and the detectives close by laughed.

The Chief Inspector shot them a glance — he was the only one who was allowed to be funny.

He’d bullied his way to the head of the Robbery Squad just before I joined the unit. He dumped the previous second in command and installed me as 2IC. Buggered if I know why, but maybe it had something to do with weakening the old alliances.

In keeping with modern police practice, several of our squad were female. They were often the butt of his jokes and sarcasm.

“Back off a bit. I don’t want to get pregnant before the wedding,” I said, and a snigger rippled through our group. It turns out I’m pretty good at sarcasm as well.

I could smell him — dust, hair oil and a cheap aftershave.

Amazingly, our DCI would tolerate such comments because he believed he was a jolly funny chap — he wasn’t, but that kind of banter was his forte, so he would take a bit of it when it came his way — only a bit mind you, and only from the male officers.

Other than that, no-one stands up to our boss. We all want to ‘get on’, get a promotion, get ahead and get out of this squad. But things were changing.

Murder Squad, Narcotics then Burglary; in that order. 

The head of Narcotics retired in a cloud of whispers and Chief Inspector Dance expected to get the nod; except, it didn’t happen. 

Chief Inspector Valerie Trend was promoted above him. 

Dance had run his race.

I’d like to think that the ‘higher-ups’ had finally figured out that he was a prick, but I doubt it. The rumour mill will eventually tell us, but frankly, I didn’t care — about that and a lot of things.

We were seated a few rows from the front on the right-hand side of this huge old church. The ceremony was being held in Richmond this year because St Paul’s in the city had been double booked. Working-class Catholics had paid for this monument to power in the late 1880s. It must have cost a fortune, and I can hear the priest piling on the guilt because the building had not been paid off, and the church needed money.

Detective Constable Helen Morgan was the last of us to arrive. 

She sat in the seat in front of us, dressed in the squad’s unofficial uniform; a grey two-piece single-breasted suit, white shirt/blouse and a tie.

She was trim, slightly above average height with bruises and a small cut on one side of her face. The left side of her face, as it happened.

I wanted to make a joke about her ability to arrest someone without getting thumped, when a feeling came over me, which it sometimes does. These bruises had been delivered by someone who should have been her protector.

I turned to our ‘leader’. “Are you going to do something about this?” I said.

“None of our business,” he said and turned away as though not seeing the damage was the same as it going away.

“If a member of the public had done that, you’d be first in line to take him downstairs and beat the living shit out of him,” I said, and I was aware of the volume of my voice.

“Man and wife stuff. Stay the fuck out of it.”

Fuck this for a game of soldiers,  I said under my breath.

I stood up and walked across to the side door just as the organ started up to begin the proceedings.

I’m not sure if it was planned when the church was built, but there was a pub just across the road. Mind you, back in those days, there was a pub across the road from everywhere in Richmond.

I blinked under the intense light and hesitated before crossing the broad street. Two of our squad’s female officers had followed me out of the church, closely followed by Helen Morgan.

“You ladies need to think carefully. Your absence will be noted. This assembly is a big deal. It’s a load of bollocks, but it’s a big deal in terms of ‘showing the flag’. Photographers, reporters, the whole nine yards. All the people who make decisions about your future are here. Do you want them to remember you walking out before it all began?”

There was silence.

“You stood up to him back there. You spoke up for Helen, not that it will do any good,” said Sharon Long, who had been in the squad for a little more than a year. Bright, blond and someone who can take care of herself without having to pull her gun.

Betty Green kissed Helen on the cheek and gave her a hug. “You know I love ya kid, don’t you? she said, “but I’ve got two kids, and I need this crazy job.” 

She gave us a smile, and we gave her a nod. She went back into the church.

The rest of us went across the road and ordered a beer, then we ordered another one. We sat in what was laughingly called the ‘beer garden’ and listened to the sound of hundreds of police officers giving thanks to God that a new financial year had begun and no one had discovered their transgressions.

“Things are going to change around here,” I said, surrounded by two strong women who could probably beat me in a fair fight.

But there’s the thing — I don’t fight fair. Actually, I do my best to avoid a fight, but as my father taught me, “if you cannot get out of it, dive in with everything you’ve got and don’t stop until your opponent cannot get up. Don’t guess — be sure he is done.” 

I sat there thinking about the career I thought I had and about the cricket bat in my car’s boot. 

Senior Constable Frank Morgan and I are going to have a little batting practice.

Three Bags Full

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Not exactly matching.

Not meant to be.

They each have a story to tell, and they all reflect my love of old things — things with history.

Take the broken catch on the bone coloured case, for example.

I was on an ‘overnighter’, up north. My boss, at the time, wanted some documents delivered by hand. Which was either a nod to the old school way of doing things or there was something dodgy going on. Considering how he ended up, I’d say it was probably the latter.

I never much liked Manchester, and having someone try and lever open my bag while it was in my room, didn’t raise my opinion of the place. I told the manager, and he checked the CCTV. I could see a bloke with a key going into my room, but he didn’t come out — not on that tape. It didn’t take a detective to work out that the bugger was still in there when I noticed the bag.

“Do you want to see if he comes out before you go back up Luv?” said the helpful manager.

“Not really.”

I went out for dinner and asked the huge doorman to come up to the room when I got back. Lovely bloke and brave for a person on minimum wage. No burglar and the case was just as I left it. He must have legged it when I stormed out. Never heard anything more about it.

I stole all the toiletries, towels, and the entire contents of the minibar put them all in a huge designer bag and gave them to the brave doorman.

“For your missus,” I said.

“Thanks, luv, but I’m not married,” said the brave doorman.

“For your boyfriend then,” I said, and he laughed. One of those laughs that makes you believe in people again.

My boss looked at me scornfully when he got the hotel bill, but he never said anything. All charged to the client, I’m thinking.

The big tin trunk belonged to a friend, and she was throwing it away when she moved out.

“I’ll have it,” I said and tried to stuff it into the hatchback I was driving at the time. It banged on the back window all the way home.

I cleaned it up a bit — not too much.

The faint lettering said Lieutenant Wilson 2/12 brigade.

I looked him up. He was my friend’s grandfather. Killed in New Guinea.

I asked her about it, and she just shrugged.

Some people!

If it doesn’t take batteries and connect to the web, it’s not seen as useful.

This tin box also has a dodgy catch which works when it feels like it. I usually wrap a belt around it, but large belts are hard to come by, and mine broke a week before this photo was taken.

The brown case was a present from an old boyfriend who left me to live and work overseas. 

I was sad, but I understood. 

Sometimes you just have to go. 

The catches work well, and it even had its original key (a bent paperclip works just as well). I keep my personal stuff in it when I travel.

Today I’m on a train, my favourite form of conveyance.

The flowers are for my aunty. I’m going to be staying with her for a week or two until things blow over, but that’s a story for another day.

My pockets are full of chocolate bars, the scenery will be beautiful, and my aunty will meet me at the station with her old Morris van. Between the two of us, we should be able to load my bags into the back.

I considered bringing a book to read, but the views are too beautiful to miss, especially the viaduct. 

No time to have my head stuck in a book.