“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?”
“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’?”
“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.
“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.
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.
Her father named her Penelope because her mother was too unwell to protest.
Penelope’s dad was fond of historical heroines, and Odysseus’s wife seemed like a wise and resourceful woman — someone he hoped his daughter would grow up to become. He always thought that Odysseus was a bit of a dick, but he gave him credit for finding his way home. The whole taking a detour so he could hear the Sirens sing seemed reasonable under the circumstances.
Penelope Spenser had her heart broken on two separate occasions — the second time being the most painful.
Her first broken heart was a shared experience. Many young women saw their beautiful young men go off to war, never to return. It didn’t help that she was part of such a vast sisterhood, but it gave her cover for being unmarried.
Death did not play a role in her second heartbreak.
Philip Dunstable promised much, but in the end, he ran away with the daughter of the local cinema owner.
No cover at all, only a heart that would not mend and ongoing embarrassment.
Her grandfather died and left her a cottage and about a thousand pounds a year. Not quite enough money to survive on, but she supplemented it with a bit of sewing and mending — the benefits of a practical education.
Her parents passed away and left her some excellent china wear and a mountain of debts that were only just cleared by selling their house.
Through it all, Penelope was stoic if not actually happy.
She was a quiet person who loved to read and walk and talk to people she knew.
Her garden was full of flowers and weeds and birds and other things that liked weeds and flowers.
I wanted you to know these things because it helps to explain why Willian chose her.
William had a home — if you could call it that. He wasn’t young anymore, and the few years he had left were precious to him. He wanted to spend them with someone who would appreciate his love and devotion.
He chose Penelope Spenser.
Of course, he didn’t know that was her name. All he knew was that she was friendly and walked most days to the shops and returned with a basket full of delicious aromas. That was most important because William was hungry most of the time.
William had come into the Getts family as a pup, and the young boy had looked after him until he’d been packed off to boarding school. It was lonely without him. The Getts family were not really dog people, and William was barely tolerated. A dog cannot live without love. Love is more important than treats and sausages and water and a warm blanket.
William planned his campaign with military precision.
He knew when she would most likely walk by on her way home.
Her big shopping day was Wednesday, but William had yet to be able to tell the days of the week.
His gambit was a bold one.
Lie in the road and look half dead.
As a plan, it had its drawbacks, and he nearly got run over twice, but finally, Miss Penelope walked by and noticed what looked like a dog in distress — legs in the air, not long for this world.
The ‘lying on the back with the legs in the air’, turned out to be a good ploy because upside down he looked like a different dog to the one she would pet every week on her way home.
“Oh dear. You poor dog. What’s happened to you? Are you lost? Are you hurt?” said Penelope, who tended to ask a lot of questions when things got intense.
William opened one eye and tried to look as pathetic as possible, which was a challenge because he was well fed and a bit plump, it has to be said.
Miss Penelope put her shopping down, and a bread roll fell out. It was all William could do not to leap on it.
He held his nerve, and Miss Penelope held his paw. It was then that he knew that passing up a crusty bread roll was well worth it. Her touch was gentle, and William went all wiggly inside.
“Do you think you can walk? I hope so because I doubt that I could carry you,” said Penelope.
William rolled onto his side and gradually got to his feet. He wobbled a bit just to press the point.
“Good dog,” said Penelope.
“Come,” she said, and William wobbled along beside her and her bag full of goodies until they reached her cottage.
Penelope showed him into the house and laid a blanket on the floor near the fireplace.
“This is a good spot for a tired dog to regain his composure,” she said as she lit the fire and made herself a cup of tea and put away her supplies.
“You might as well have this. I hope you don’t mind that it’s a bit dusty,” Penelope said as she put the crusty bread roll next to him.
She took one of the lovely china bowls that her mother had left her and filled it with water.
“Every dog needs water,” she said, “and when you are feeling better, I’ll look for your owner and give him a good talking too.”
Penelope did go looking for William’s owner, but even though she put up flyers and asked around, the Getts family stayed silent, and their son was sad when he came home from school to find his dog had ‘run away’.
William thought that his young master had gone away never to return, and he did not know of his sadness.
William made a ‘miraculous’ recovery and assumed the duty of keeping Miss Penelope safe and loved.
They read stories together, and William would chase and bring back anything that she threw. He was very good at sitting and rolling over, and he was warm and loved.
William felt badly about deceiving Miss Penelope, but a dog needs love, and Miss Penelope had plenty to share.
The big red bow was causing me embarrassment, but I didn’t let it stop me.
Let’s get the bow out of the way so I can concentrate on the real story.
My mistress had just won an award for her book PASSION BEHIND THE ASPIDISTRA. It hadn’t sold as well as her previous books, but her publisher entered it into the Romance Writers Who Talk A Lot About Love Without Actually Telling Their Readers What People Get Up To, which seemed like a strange title for an award, but that’s what my mistress told her friend, Maude. My mistress never lies to me, so it must be true.
So, the day comes for the award presentation, and my mistress said I could go with her, in the Lagona.
I love riding in the car — the wind in my fur, delicious smells wafting in from who knows where — bliss.
The middle of winter means that it will be a cold drive, but I don’t care. I’m wearing my winter coat, and my ancestors came from a frigid part of the world.
I got up early and had my breakfast on the terrace, despite the cold. The sun was up, and even though it didn’t have much oomph, I still enjoyed being in its warm glow.
My mistress came at me with the red bow, and I was too startled to run away.
“Everyone is going to love you in this,” said my mistress.
Not if I eat it first, I was thinking.
“And don’t you dare chew it off, Rufus. I’ll be very cross if you do.”
So, what was I to do? She is very kind to me, and I love her so.
Just suck it up and wear the damn thing, Rufus!
I’d patrolled most of the perimeter in the morning when I went out for a wee, but there was still the pond to check on.
I knew we were going to be away overnight because I heard my mistress booking us a room in a hotel. She was very annoyed when she first rang; apparently, that hotel didn’t like dogs — have you ever heard of such a thing? She gave them a piece of her mind.
“Have you ever had a dog run out and not pay the bill? Come in drunk and vomit on the carpet? Have loud parties in their room? Steal a lampshade? No, I didn’t think so, you ignorant man!”
My mistress has a way with words.
The pond looked beautiful in the morning light. The ducks, which I have an uneasy understanding with, were looking for bugs in the reeds. The surface of the pond had frozen over during the night.
One duck, or at least I thought it was a duck, had broken through the ice and was splashing around. Except it wasn’t a duck despite the duck-like noises it was making. It was a small dog — smaller than me.
It seemed that he had walked out on the ice to sniff the DANGER sign and had fallen through.
He sounded desperate, the way that dogs do when they are being beaten by their owner, or caught by a big dog intent on doing them great harm.
I edged out onto the ice to get a closer look. As I got closer, the ice was making strange cracking noises, and I got scared. Now I was within sniffing range, and the faint odour of a friend reached my nostrils. It was the dog known as Scruff. We had been great friends when we were pups — got into all sorts of trouble. Scruff is the reason that the butcher hates me as much as he does.
Scruff’s owner moved away — closer to the city.
“Don’t worry Scruff,” I said because I knew that it was important that he knew I was still fierce and brave.
In truth, I was terrified, but friends don’t let friends sink to an icy grave, even if you haven’t seen them for a long time.
“This is going to hurt, Scruff,” I said as I took hold of his ear. He didn’t have much fight left in him. He must have been in the water for a while before I got here.
“Don’t worry,” said Scruff, “I’m so cold I can’t feel much. Pull me out please.”
“This would go a lot better if I had hands,” I said through a mouth full of ear.
Scruff helped as much as he could, and after several tries, I pulled him up onto the ice.
“I’m not sure I can walk,” said Scruff.
“Don’t worry, I’ll drag you. It’s only a short way.”
I was trying to sound confident, but the cracking noises were increasing.
When I got him to the shore, we both lay on the cold grass for what seemed like a long time.
“Rufus, what’s happened, and who is this bedraggled fellow?”
It was my mistress, come looking for me. I didn’t mind if she scolded me. I was so happy to see her; I wagged my tail furiously.
I gave a small bark and nosed my friend. My mistress is brilliant, and she worked it all out very quickly.
“Did you two fall in the pond, or did you save this little dog, Rufus?”
I stood up as tall as I could so that she knew I was the brave one. Scruff was too cold and tired to walk, so my mistress picked him up and carried him back to the house. I trotted along next to her, feeling very proud.
My mistress lit the fire and wrapped Scruff in a green towel, sitting him on the rug and telling him to stay.
He was in no condition to argue.
Scruff’s owner was back in the village for a visit, and Scruff came down to the pond because he remembered it being the place of many adventures. At least, that is how he told it to me as we sat warming ourselves in front of the fire.
When my mistress used her telephone to find Scruff’s owner, I knew we would not have much time together. We talked about old times and the fun we had as pups.
My mistress let Scruff’s owner keep the green towel.
“He’s nice and warm in there. Best not to disturb him,” said my mistress. She is very kind because I know she loves that towel.
My red bow was ruined, so my mistress made me a new one, and before I knew it, we were in the Lagona speeding along the country lanes heading for London and an award ceremony.
I knew we were going to have fun, but after hanging my head over the side of the car and enjoying the exhilaration of sheer speed, I felt drained.
I curled up on the leather seat and dreamed of the adventures that Scruff and I had experienced, back in the day.
I’ll miss Scruff, and I’m glad that I was there to save him.
Friends should always save friends and let friends save them right back.
“Do you think he’s been lonely down here, all alone, all these years?”
It wasn’t like my partner to be this way. Typically, he’s offhand about sudden death — professional and a bit dark in his humour.
“I don’t think so,” I said, “he’s off wherever they go when they’re not here anymore.”
“Even so,” said my partner.
Ashley Bloomfield had worked his way up through the ranks to Detective Sergeant, and I’d been his partner for nearly three years — just long enough to get to know a bloke who guards himself closely.
It was a strange question for him to ask. He’s more a question and answer type of bloke, but on this day he was looking to me for an answer.
“Are you getting all spiritual on me, Ash?” I said.
“I don’t know, maybe. It’s this place. It’s genuinely spooky.”
He had a point, but I knew not to let him get one-up on me.
The call came through at a decent hour and Ash and I were next in the rotation, and about now we wished it had been someone else.
The old mansion on St Kilda Road had been empty for more than thirty years.
Some investment company in Dubai had bought it for a sizeable sum in the early 1990s, then the property market went flat. They decided to sit on it and wait, as all well-healed people can afford to do.
No one was much interested in looking after the place, so people with nowhere else to go would find a way in — out of the storm, so to speak. The property manager would eventually block up the break-in and lose interest again.
It must have been during one of those incursions, so long ago that some sort of fight broke out, and our body had lain there ever since, covered in rubble and wooden planks.
Some enterprising developer had bought the old mansion and was preparing to renovate it (within heritage guidelines, of course) into trendy offices. St Kilda Road still has clout when it comes to city addresses.
This was going to be a thankless job.
If the body turned out to be a homeless bloke, we have our work cut out for us to identify him. If he was killed by another homeless bloke, then he’s probably dead by now. Homelessness tends to shorten your lifespan. Likely no one to slap the cuffs on, just a mountain of pointless paperwork and a John Doe toe tag.
“The forensic folks will be here soon. Constable Whatshisname can keep an eye on things. You want to get a coffee? The dust down here is clogging up my soul,” I said as I moved the most prominent plank out of our way.
The body was fully clothed (bloke’s clothing — I’m not psychic, but it seemed inevitable it was a ‘he’), and it lay where it fell, all those years ago. Bugger all forensic after all this time. No one had dropped a wallet or a calling card or a cigarette case as they do in the movies.
“A coffee sounds good. Get me the fuck out of here, before I forget I’m a lady,” said Ash, and I could see his unique sense of humour returning.
Coffee was easy to find because this is Melbourne, and even my dog can make a good coffee. You have to prove that you know what good coffee tastes like before they will let you cross the border into Victoria, and in Melbourne, the cops will breath-test you for instant coffee — if detected, the penalties are draconian.
The sandwich shop lived up to expectations, and the coffee was a perfect temperature. The tiny glass-fronted store was awash with delicious aromas.
We sat on tall stools and looked out onto the road. Trams rumbled by, and pedestrians did what pedestrians do. Some bloke was making his third attempt to park a Fiat in a space that would accommodate a mid-1960s Ford.
“What do you reckon. Is he gonna make it?” I said. Ash looked up from his coffee. He’d been mesmerised by the pattern on the crema for the past few minutes.
“Nah, he’s buggered.”
“Yeah, I agree. Most blokes will give it away after the second go. It’s too embarrassing.”
Right on cue, the Fiat shot off into traffic accompanied by the copious tooting of horns and the waving of fists.
“He nearly had it that last time,” I said.
“If I disappear in mysterious circumstances, don’t stop looking for me, will ya?”
“Is that something you’re likely to do?” I said.
“Nah, but just in case. I don’t want to lie somewhere, cold and forgotten,” said Ash, who had gone back to staring at the pattern on his coffee.
“I’ll find ya mate, but not before I’ve finished off that bottle of whisky you keep in your locker.”
Ash didn’t look up. This one had gotten to him. I had never seen him like this.
“You know I got wounded — in the war?” he said.
“Not really,” I said.
Ash’s life before the police force was a mystery to me, and I felt guilty that I had never asked. Mostly, I’m not that interested in other people. But this was different. I remember the feeling of being with a dying comrade — the less I knew about their life, the easier it was to deal with their death.
“We were on patrol, and all hell broke loose. When I woke up, my leg and back hurt like buggery and all my mates were dead. I wasn’t game to call for help so I lay there for what seemed like days, hoping someone would come looking for us. After about thirty-six hours, a rescue party found me. I don’t remember it happening, but I do remember wondering if I’d bleed to death, and I remember wondering if I’d be found or would I be one of those bodies that farmers find, decades later, after the war is over. I’ve never felt so cold and alone. Do you reckon that’s how that bloke felt?”
“I don’t mind telling you that you are freaking me out, Ash. Here, drink up,” I said as I poured the contents of my hip flask into his coffee.
The bloke behind the counter gave me a look and started to say something. I moved my jacket so he could see my detective’s badge — he went back to slicing tomatoes without saying anything.
Ash drank his coffee, and I poured a wee dram into mine.
“Same goes for me mate. If the ungodly catch up with me, don’t leave me lying out there somewhere,” I said.
“Deal,” said Ash and we clinked paper cups to seal the deal.
I’ve always been impressed that the apostrophe is in the right place on the old neon sign. It would have added to the cost, but I guess the original ‘Chick’ wanted everything to be just right.
Somehow, the old diner has continued in business with parking in rear, despite sitting on an expensive piece of real estate.
The block would have been on the edge of town when the diner opened, but these days it has been gobbled up by progress.
Steak and Chops are still on the menu, but I prefer the sausages and eggs.
Back in the day, it is said that ‘Chick’s’ stayed open twenty-four hours. These days, it’s open until two in the morning, which is okay by me. The opening and closing hours are flexible, and if the diner has customers at closing time, it stays open until they want to leave, which kind of makes you feel wanted, and I guess if you are up at that hour, you are in need of a bit of comfort.
When I can’t sleep, I wander down to ‘Chick’s’ and sit and write. As long as I buy coffee, they don’t seem to mind.
Taxi driver’s and emergency workers love the place.
The girl who works the late shift is friendly and knows how to listen in the same way that a good bartender does.
No-one messes with her because the short-order cook is a big bloke and rumour has it he strangled someone over a parking space.
Speaking of parking — I rarely drive to the diner, living as close as I do, but when I do arrive in a car, I’m allowed to park out the front. Someone said that it was like receiving a gold medal at the Olympics. Only me and the cops are allowed to park out the front. I don’t know what I did to receive such a high honour, but I have learned not to argue with good fortune. I park out front now and then to show that I can. It has raised my standing in the community.
I found a wallet on the floor of a booth once. I returned it intact even though I hadn’t sold a story in a long while. There was fifty bucks in that wallet, and I was sorely tempted, but I knew my mum would have been disappointed in me if I lifted the money. I remember the look on the bloke’s face when I banged on his door and gave him the wallet.
“Thank you,” he said, “I wasn’t supposed to be in that part of town that night,” he said, handing me the fifty. “Please don’t mention where you found it.”
“Who are you?” said an aggressive woman who reminded me of one of my aunties — the one I was still scared of.
“Just came to return a wallet,” I said, taking a step back.
She pushed her husband to one side and stared at me.
“Where did you find it?” she said.
I looked over my shoulder and noticed the flowers growing on the lawn.
“Just over there, near the footpath,” I lied.
The woman glared at me, and behind her, I saw the man give me a nod.
“Don’t think you’re getting a reward,” said the angry woman.
“No need for a reward lady. It’s enough to see your smiling face,” I said as I stepped back out of range.
I could see my mum smiling as I told her the story. She would be proud of me, and I wished she was still alive so I could see her smile one more time.
Making her smile was my greatest delight.
“That’s what it says on the side of the cartridge,” I said.
“Bloody hell, I haven’t seen one of those in a long time.”
“Well? Do you have one? Do you know where I could get one?” I said.
The shop was a tiny brick building wedged in amongst other more significant brick buildings. Maybe the builder miscalculated. Perhaps he didn’t measure up accurately. Maybe it was just easier to build one small shop than go back and start again.
Someone will rent it.
And they did.
CARTRIDGES ARE USS — yes with two’s’ s, (I’ll bet he sat up all night thinking up the name), was conveniently located at my local shopping strip. Someone had bought up all the old shops, pulled them down and built new shops with convenient parking.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of those.”
“So you said,” I said, “Maybe if you look out the back?”
“We don’t have ‘a back’,” he said.
Everyone has a back room, don’t they?
A quick scan of the shop did not show any sign of a rear door (where does he go when he needs to pee?)
There were racks on the walls and glass cases forming a counter, all crammed full of colourful packages.
“I know it’s old, but it was a very popular brand back in the day, and I thought, seeing as how you specialise, you might have one or know where I could get one. I don’t need colour. I only need black so that I can print out my stories.”
The shopkeeper was still staring at the cartridge as though it might tell him something.
“T026, well there’s a blast from the past.”
The thirty-something neatly dressed shopkeeper with CARTRIDGES ARE USS embroidered on his jumper, was beginning to annoy me.
“Well, if you don’t have one, I’ll just have to look somewhere else,” I said, holding out my hand in the hope of retrieving my cartridge — which still had a bit of ink left in it.
The shopkeeper scratched his head and gave the cartridge one final turn in his hand.
Reluctantly and gently, he handed it back to me. I felt like Lord Carnarvon must have felt as he examined the contents of King Tut’s tomb.
“You take good care of that,” he said.
“I will,” I said as I backed out of the shop.
I never did find a T026 cartridge, but a week later I found one hundred dollars in an old jacket. So I treated myself to a new printer — colour. It’s been handy, and it costs almost as much to buy replacement cartridges as it does to buy a new machine — it’s a bit of a scam someone said in an article I read.
The cartridge shop closed about a year ago and the Pizza shop next door knocked a hole in the wall to create a warm place for people to wait while their pizza is being prepared.
As I wait for my pizza order, I sometimes wonder what happened to the shopkeeper. Does he still have the embroidered jumper? Does he wear it on cold nights and think back to when he had his own shop? A tiny shop, but his nonetheless.
I kept the old printer, but finally, I had to concede that to continue looking for a cartridge was probably a fools’ errand — so I put it out with the recycling.
That’s the trouble with living, in general — as soon as you can’t get the parts anymore, all the fun goes out of it.
Neighbourhood Of Widower Dogs: Chapter Two