1958

1958 was a good year for us.

My work was getting noticed, and Scotty and I were living in an apartment once part of a huge old house. Ground floor with a tiny garden inhabited by weeds that neither of us could bring ourselves to pull out. There were gaps in the wrought iron fence through which a parade of local cats and dogs would come and visit.

I wrote at all hours, but mostly at night or very early.

I’m not a big fan of mornings — it’s against my religion, or that’s how Scotty would phrase it.

On those occasions when I woke up early with words spilling out of me, I’d take a break and eat breakfast with Scotty before she would go off to be a nurse in search of a patient.

Her work kept us going while I found my feet. She did it with grace and charm and never a moment of recrimination.

She was a better writer than me, but I couldn’t get her to pursue it.

“I’m happy being a nurse and I’m happy being your wife.”

I was living in a future where I could carry the financial burden, and she could take it easy.

Scotty was living in the present, “We must live in this time now and have every moment of it.”

She didn’t say it exactly that way, but Mrs Hemingway’s words are close enough.

~oOo~

The couple living in the apartment next door were glamorous and mysterious. I made up stories about them, and Scotty would laugh and say that they were probably spies or jewel thieves.

I would say that spies and jewel thieves didn’t live in a converted mansion for six dollars a week.

We invited them for dinner one night, and they came immaculately dressed at least half an hour early.

It was cold that day, so I was working off our kitchen table, not sitting in the garden. I gathered my papers and put my typewriter on the kitchen cupboard as they wafted in.

Our kitchen/dining space was tiny, and it took a bit of inelegant dancing to move around the room with four adults in attendance.

 We were young and didn’t worry about our less than wealthy existence. 

Our guests were relaxed and unfazed by our chaotic kitchen.

Two large multi-paned doors gave us a view of our tiny garden with the wrought iron fence, giving the room the illusion of more space.

Our kitchen was warm because of the roast in the oven. Scotty can cook, and her roast lamb could tame the most unruly of souls.

We ate and drank and laughed, and the boys did the dishes. The girls whispered among themselves while occasionally looking at us in our aprons.

Our conversation was mostly about sports and work, but he didn’t give much away, and I didn’t push. Something about ‘acquisitions’.

He asked about my writing, and I was equally vague. But, of course, people always ask to be polite but rarely want to know more, which is okay with me.

After too much wine (the bottle they brought cost more than our dinner set), we said good night. They walked, arm in arm, the few steps to their apartment door. We stood and watched, and before they went inside, they turned and looked at us. She had her hands in her coat pockets, and he was smoking a cigarette I had not seen him light. We stood and stared at each other until his cigarette was finished.

They seemed to be silently summing us up, and I guess we were doing the same.

~oOo~ 

Scotty was in bed by the time I got there, and she cuddled into me as I put my arm around her.

“That was a good night,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said.

“It might be the wine,” I said, “but I’m wondering why they are living here, next to us. Everyone else in these appartments are either on their way up…”

“Like us,” said Scotty.

“… or on the way down,” I said.

“Spies or jewel thieves?” said Scotty.

“Worse than that — bankers,” I said.

~oOo~

Checks from major magazines arrived with continuing regularity, and my agent found a publisher for my book. I’d lost count of the number of rejections I’d received. Still, I guess my agent had more leverage since the string of magazine articles.

Someone pushed a card under our door. An invitation to a ‘going away’ party at the little Italian restaurant on the main road – red and white checked table cloths and tiny little lamps on each table.

We went there when our budget would allow — the food made you believe that life could be worth living.

Our stylish neighbours were moving across the country and wanted to say goodbye.

It was a small gathering, and apart from having a good time (the wine seemed much better than usual), we didn’t think much about it. Tenants came and went as their circumstances or relationship status changed. This was just another one of those times.

~oOo~

I’d been writing most of the morning, but now I was lying on what we laughingly called grass playing with a black and white Cocker Spaniel of indeterminate ownership when they came to our front door.

It wasn’t the first time police officers had disturbed our tranquillity— this isn’t an upmarket part of town.

Usually, it was something like, “Did you notice a removal van here over the last few days?”

“Yes. We thought the people in number five (quiet and heavy smokers) were moving out. It isn’t uncommon here. People come and go.”

“Wife seems to have moved out while he was at work and taken everything with her,” said the young policeman who probably would have prefered to be somewhere else.

“Shit,” I remember saying.

“Yeah,” said the policeman, clearing the wax from his ear with his pen.

This time there were two of them, and from my vantage point, lying in the grass staring through the fence, I didn’t recognise their uniforms.

“Sorry about that, the door sticks,” I said, and the insignia on their uniforms said ‘Federal Police’.

“And you are?” said the male officer.

“Trying my best?” I said, and the female officer smiled, despite herself.

“The couple living nextdoor,” said the male officer, ignoring my comment.

“Moved out,” I said.

“Did you know them?”

“He was good with a teatowel and she was elegant. Apart from that we just said hello. We had them in for dinner once and they invited us to their goodbye party.”

“Did they say where they were going?”

“Western Australia, I think. Maybe Fremantle, maybe Perth?”

~oOo~

I cooked dinner that night — lasagne. Pretty good, if I do say so myself.

After a second helping, I put my dishes in the sink — her turn to wash, mine to dry.

“So, how did your day go, dear?” I said, and she could tell from the tone in my voice that something was up.

“I managed to stop a doctor from killing someone,” she said.

“So, same as usual?” I said.

“How was your day, dear?” she said.

“I thought you would never ask,” I said.

“Let’s hear it.”

“Well, there were these two police officers, and not the usual kind either. These were Feds,” I said.

“I’ve never seen one of those. Do they smell nice?” Scotty said.

“Nice enough, but that’s not important right now. What do think they wanted?”

“To sell you tickets to the Policeman’s Ball?”

“Do policemen still have balls? I asked.

“I hope so,” she said with a smile.

“Anyway, only one of the police officers had balls, but I digress.”

“And you are doing it beautifully,” she said, putting the large plates in the cupboard.

“You know our recently relocated stylish neighbours?”

“Yes.”

“Well, it turns out that your guess of ‘spies’ was wrong,” I said.

“JEWEL THIEVES?” said my excited wife.

“Kind of. They took pretty much whatever they could get their hands on, but mostly jewels.”

I finished putting the cutlery away, went into our bedroom, and emerged with a small box I found lying around at the secondhand store. It was the perfect size.

I handed my amazing wife the box.

She gave me that look that made my heart melt.

She opened the box. The ring lay on the blue velvet lining. The stone was huge and green in a platinum setting.

“I was saving this for your birthday, but you might as well have it now. Someone is going to work out where it came from and they’ll probably ask for it back.”

Scotty turned pale.

“Not if I don’t wear it anywhere,” she whispered.

“There is that, I guess,” I said, and I learned something new about my wife.

At heart, she’s a bandit, just like me. 

Tickle Your Arse With a Feather

“There’s a couple of strange young blokes in a holding cell,” said the desk sergeant who wasn’t at his desk.

“Is it Saturday night already?” said Sergeant Wilson.

“No Sergeant. It was Tuesday last time I checked.”

Weatherby was a sergeant without a sense of humour.

“They wandered in earlier today and insisted on confessing,” said Sergeant Weatherby.

“Assassination, fraud, bad taste, showing too much bum crack?”

“Now that you mention it, the younger one did have his jeans almost around his ankles.”

Did the desk sergeant just attempt a joke?

There was a small silence while the possibility of humour was considered.

Probably not.

“There is a week long parade of ‘strange blokes’ in the cells Sergeant, so why are you sharing this nugget with us?” said the Inspector.

“I know you are working on that murder and the pizza delivery driver is a suspect. These two Mensa graduates say they tried to rob him last night and they’re very sorry. One of them seems to be a lot more sorry than the other one.”

“Did someone put you up to this Sergeant? If so I’m not pleased.”

“No sir. It’s all true. Speak to them yourself, they’ll tell you. Probably won’t be able to shut them up.”

Interview room Two was vacant, but now it isn’t.

“Slow down and start from the beginning,” said Sergeant Wilson.

The younger man, who went by the name of Joiner, looked dazed.

“How far back do you want me to go? I don’t remember much before my fourth birthday.”

Inspector McBride sighed.

“I’m sure you had an interesting childhood, but we are interested in your attempted robbery. When did you get the idea?”

“Johnno saw something on the news about a pizza bloke getting done over for his tips. Thought we should try something like that with that bloke on that bike. We seen him riding around.”

“You do know that most people pay with a credit card when they order?” said the Inspector.

“We never got a pizza delivered. So no.”

“You put a lot of thought into this.”

“We figured we’d grab him on his way back after a delivery.”

“His first run of the night?”

“Yeah. We should have waited for him to collect a bit more money. Lesson learned.”

“So you bailed him up not far from the Pizza shop?”

“Yep.”

“You sure you don’t need a solicitor. I feel like I’m stealing soft toys from an infant.”

“Nah. We’re good. Just wanna get this over with.”

“Okay. So you bailed him up. Two strong young blokes. It would not have been too much trouble to take his money.”

“That’s what we thought,” said Joiner.

“The bugger poked me with a feather,” said Johnno.

Up to this point, there was a real chance that Johnno was mute. Considering what came next, it would have been better for him if he had been.

“Are you taking the piss, young man?” said the Inspector, who had better things to do.

“Nah, straight up. He poked me with a feather.”

‘Straight up’, Inspector McBride hadn’t heard that expression since the 70s.

“I’ll bite. What sort of feather was it?” said the Sergeant.

Joiner looked like he might burst. He hadn’t been able to speak for several seconds.

“One of his. He plucked it out of his wing and waved it about a bit. We both sort of followed it and it seemed to slow down as he waved it,” said Joiner.

“Slowed down,” said Johnno.

“Then he looked Johnno in the eyes and pocked him in the chest with the feather.”

“Particularly nasty weather,” said the Sergeant.

“Pardon?” said Joiner.

“You know. Tickle your arse with a feather/ particularly nasty weather. We used to say it when we were kids. My dad taught it to me. Drove my mum crazy.”

“Your dad sounds like a bit of cunt, teaching little kids how to swear. No wonder you became a cop,” said Joiner, who shuffled in his seat.

“Not sure what that was about, but can we please get back to this riveting story before my head explodes,” said the Inspector.

“Alright! Keep your hair on grandad,” said Joiner.

The Inspector ran his fingers through his hair.

“So we bail this geezer up and tell him what is going to happen to him if he doesn’t give us the money and he doesn’t seem scared or anything. A bit simple in the head I was thinking, when he leans his bike (which I considered nicking but couldn’t be bothered wheeling it all the way home) up against a shop window. I expect him to dig in his pocket for the money, But instead, he smiles and plucks out a feather. I’m about to say, ‘What the fuck are you going to do with that’, when he starts waving it about. It was the strangest thing. Like some special effect in a movie, it looked blurry and fuzzy and shit. Then he stops waving it about and jabs Johnno with it. Johnno looks all dazed and shit and sinks to his knees. I thought I’d missed something. I’ve seen blokes get stabbed and maybe that’s what just happened, but no blood, no nothin’, just Johnno apologising from a kneeling position. I was going to thump the bloke but Johnno says, ‘Don’t. He’s not like us. Leave him.’ So I left him. Then the bugger grabbed his bike and wandered off. I had a hell of a job getting Johnno off his knees. He’s been bugging me ever since for us to turn ourselves in so here we are.”

Inspector McBride ran his fingers through his hair again.

“Stick them back in the cells and get me any CCTV footage you can find.”

 

~oOo~

“Is this the biggest monitor we have,” said Inspector McBride, “I feel like I’m watching I Love Lucy and my mum is going to insist that I go to bed when it’s over.”

“The big screen doesn’t work since that stag do Wazza put on,” said the Sergeant, “and the footage is in black and white, for some strange reason.”

The footage came from the old hardware store a couple of shops up from the incident. It was grainy and black and white but well lit. The angle was from behind the pizza delivery rider, and you could see the two punks approach him, but you could not see his initial reaction. Then the rider reaches around, plucks a feather, and begins to wave it around. It could have been the lousy resolution, but it did look like the feather was moving in slow motion. Both punks were mesmerised by its movement. Then came the jab, followed by the yobo sinking to his knees, followed by the rider collecting his bike and walking away.

“Well this is a first for me. They weren’t lying,” said the Inspector.

“Bugger all chance of getting a conviction without a statement from the rider,” said the Sergeant.

“They don’t know that and we don’t have to let them go for another day so let them stew,” said the Inspector. 

Plumb

I guessed that he’d stolen it from an old school carpenter.

I shared his fascination.

My father always said that if it looked straight, it was.

Looks being more important than reality. My dad would have fitted right into our modern world.

“A weight on the end of a line, used especially by masons and carpenters to establish a true vertical.”

Before the plague hit, I was too busy being a busy person. Now I sit and notice things that were always there.

Crows aren’t unheard of near my home, but I usually only notice them as they fly over, noisily announcing that they are going somewhere.

At some point in the distant past, a previous owner had painted the wall between us orange. The wall separates our nearest neighbour and us. Not the shade of orange you see here, but orange nonetheless. I’m guessing it was the seventies. Orange was a thing back then. I’m not ashamed to say that I liked it, which probably explains why I never painted over it.

I don’t like painting, which is probably another reason why it survived.

I like the way it has faded selectively, making it look like a piece of modern art.

The crow doesn’t care about any of these thoughts — at least, I don’t think he does.

I imagine him as a ‘he’. There really isn’t a way of telling males and females apart — just like Indian Mynors. We have a pair of them as well.

See how well I’m noticing things now that I’m stuck at home?

I keep waiting for the bird to drop the plumb line, but he has managed to keep hold of it so far.

Sometimes he wobbles it from side to side and watches it swing until it stops. Then he starts all over again.

I looked it up, and crows are some of the most intelligent creatures on the planet. Just above football supporters and just below the bloke who works out the train timetables.

Working with tools is supposed to be a big deal, and I think of that every time I need a plumber.

I guess my crow is more of a carpenter than a plumber. Who knows?

I’ve decided not to speculate about the crow’s motives. Some things are best left alone.

I wonder if he thinks about me and my orange wall?

At a Certain Age

 

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.

Invisible Man With a Suitcase

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.

Nice Girls Don’t Explode

 

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. 

Here Be Pirates

 

“somewhere there is a pirate who is wondering why no one remembers him”

My great-aunt Agnes was a pain in the arse; possibly even a grumpy old hag.

At least that’s what I thought when I was nine years old.

As a family, we visited her house a number of times before she died, aged 103.

I was too young to go to the funeral.

I stayed home and played with my Matchbox car collection, and kicked a football in the backyard with my older cousin who was designated to keep and eye on me.

Great Aunt Agnes smelt sweet, which was unusual.

When you are a kid old people smell strange.

My world was full of old people at the time, and thinking about them now evokes memories of antique dust, woollen jumpers, eucalyptus lollies, disapproval, annoyance, mothballs, walking sticks, furniture polish and old dogs.

Great Aunt Agnes had a walking stick, and I’m pretty sure that she poked me with it at least once. Not violently, but ‘poked’ nonetheless.

She apparently liked expensive perfume, and she had a great name— Agnes. In all my many years I’ve only known two people named Agnes, and only one of them existed. The non-existent one was Rachael. Her brother was my friend, and he nicknamed her Agnes just to annoy her — it worked, so he kept it going. I was never sure why she was insulted by being called Agnes; I liked the name.

I didn’t realise how cool my great-aunt Agnes was — I was young.

All little boys love pirates — Captain Blood, Bluebeard, Captain Hook. They all spell adventure, but they all lived so long ago; so far from the world of a twentieth-century little boy.

At least, that’s what I thought.

Great Aunt Agnes had a huge, carved wooden box at the end of her enormous bed. The lid was almost too heavy for a young boy to lift, but not quite.

All small children are born with an inbuilt sense of the right time to go exploring. My great-aunt would produce the ‘good china tea service’ and brew a pot of fragrant tea. Plates of biscuits and cakes would magically appear, and I knew better than to reach for one of these sweet delights before the adults had placed a selection of matching plates and had begun to sip from their elegant cups.

There was always the temptation to hang around for ‘seconds’, but if I did that I would miss ‘the moment’.

The time when all parents feel that their children are displaying the appropriate behaviour for visiting relatives.

The window of opportunity was small and the possibility of adventure beckoned.

Great Aunt Agnes’s bedroom was at the other end of the hall, and the box at the end of the bed was full of wondrous things, but most of them were incomprehensible to a nine-year-old boy.

One item caught my eye.

It was a tattered old journal.

The leather-bound hardcover looked like it had been dragged behind a horse and cart, the way that cowboys often were on TV.

It was thick and cumbersome, and the page edges were marbled so that when the book was closed there was a swirly, colourful pattern visible.

I’d never seen such a book.

I opened the cover and inhaled that beautiful dusty book smell that all lovers of old books will recognise.

Inside the front cover, there was an ornate ‘ex libris’ plate. The script was probably in Latin, but I knew the name, Agnes Annabel Leigh. My great aunt’s name was Armstrong, just like mine, but I was old enough to know that women changed their surname when they married.

This journal was from a time before she married my great-uncle, who had died many years before I was born.

The first page was blank, but the next page contained the beginning of a story about a girl who falls in love with an impoverished young man — not exactly interesting for a nine-year-old boy, but it did occur to me that there might be other stories that would appeal.

The next story was also about another girl falling in love followed by a story about a horse, which was a bit more interesting, followed by a story about a cruel aunt and an orphaned little girl — boring!

Then I hit the motherload; a story about a pirate — bingo, now we’re talking.

I almost skipped over it because I was expecting more of the same.

But no, it was a story about a pirate.

There was a note at the beginning saying that the story was inspired by letters my aunt had read which belonged to one of her ancestors.

Say what?

She had an ancestor who fell in love with a pirate?

My nine-year-old brain was well advanced for its age, but it was not up to imagining little illegitimate pirate children running around on the Poop Deck — but I am.

The story was long and exciting, and I hung on every sentence.

Despite my fear of being discovered by my parents or my great aunt, I was instantly transported into the story; probably as one of the pirate ship’s crew.

I was prepared to put up with all the ‘lovey-dovey’ stuff because the story was so well written and the descriptions were dripping with salty spray. I imagined my callused hands from pulling on the wet ropes. I could hear the songs that the crew members sang. I could taste the salty food, and I could feel the roll of the ship.

I didn’t get caught, but it broke my heart having to put the book back in the box.

But, not long after my discovery, my great-aunt died, and I had missed my opportunity to ask her about her youthful writing pursuits. I never got to find out why she wrote such exciting stories and never showed them to anyone. I never found out why the journal was so heavily worn. Did she take it out every night and read about young love and salty adventures?

I couldn’t bring up the subject with my parents without giving myself away.

I was too young to know what happened next, but I guess my great aunt’s stuff got divided up or thrown out; that’s usually what happens. I never found out who got the big wooden box and when I bought up the subject many years later, no one seemed to know.

Some idiot relative probably sold the box to a dealer and threw out the contents. My pirate story most likely ended up as landfill. I can see the pages fluttering in the cool afternoon breeze.

So much of life is luck.

I found the stories but was too young to be able to do anything about it. My great aunt’s talent lay hidden in a trunk because she was born at a time when women were not expected to do anything other than look after their boring husbands.

Not everyone can lay claim to a pirate as an ancestor; I can, but I just can’t prove it.

Once a year, at about this time, I celebrate ‘talk like a pirate day’.

Everyone has a great time, and a lot of parrot jokes do the rounds, but for me, it means a lot more.

Once a year my timbers are shivered, and my plank gets walked.

Great Aunt Agnes might have been a grumpy old bastard, but she had an excellent reason for being that way, and somewhere there is a pirate who is wondering why no one remembers him.

.

Author’s note:

My talented son and I celebrate ‘Talk Like A Pirate Day’ every year. A few years ago, he suggested that I write a Pirate story. So I did. Part of it was written on a very fast-moving train, and part was written while waiting for my wife to finish work so we could celebrate my son’s birthday, and the final bit was written while sitting in bed with my two dogs waiting for my wife to come home from the ballet. So this story has travelled a bit. I hope you enjoyed it, and I say thank you to Matt for inspiring its creation.

Terry

http://www.talklikeapirate.com/

Suicide Note: Part Five – two kids under five

Catchup?  Part One,  Part Two,  Part Three,  Part Four.

The next thirty hours yielded nothing of any value, and I found myself walking through the city late in the day.
I try to avoid walking.
My body doesn’t like it, but sometimes my mind insists.


The need to sit down saw me turn into a tiny bar in one of the eponymous laneways of Melbourne. It wasn’t much bigger than a garden shed with narrow tables and chairs along one wall and a bar on the other. Mirrors made the place look bigger than it was.
“Long day mate?” said the barman who had been born somewhere other than Melbourne.
“Regulation number of hours, but it seemed longer,” I said.
Does the ‘Responsible Serving Of Alcohol’ certificate include a module on ‘how to chat with customers’, or does it come naturally.
“Something Scottish, single malt, lots of smoke please — neat,” I said.
I didn’t go up to the bar. I wanted to see how he was going to get out from behind it. It seemed impossible from where I was sitting.
Of course, he could have put my drink on the bar and made me come and get it, but he didn’t. The end of the bar hinged up and away from the wall as the bottom panel swung in, allowing the barman to escape his prison.
“That’s a neat setup. How does it work?”
“No idea,” said the barman, “the bloke who set the place up invented it. Said he saw it in Paris years ago. Always remembered how it worked.”
I waved my debit card at the barman, and he gestured in the time-honoured way.
“Catch me when you’re done,” he said, and I thought he was very trusting considering the prices in his bar. Doing a runner after a couple of drinks would pay your rent for a week.
My drink smelled terrific, and when I added a splash of water (generously supplied without being asked for), the space around me filled with smoky goodness.
I still had to make it home to my bed, so I drank slowly. Good whisky is meant to be drunk that way, so I wasn’t pressured.
After two drinks, I was warm and significantly poorer, but none the wiser.
Cop movies will tell you that the first three days after a murder are critical, and they are, but a lot depends on hard work and blind luck.
This case was shaping up to be a lot of the former and not a lot of the latter.

~oOo~

Egg had spent an enjoyable time (as pleasant as it gets when you tell someone’s workmates that their friend is dead in suspicious circumstances) talking to the fellow inmates at Debra’s workplace. He checked the make and model of her computer and the office printer.
They did not match the printing on the ‘suicide’ note.
Strike two for me.
We already knew that this was most likely a murder, but I do enjoy being right.

~oOo~

There has been way too much going on for me to focus on my problems.
As a child, I subscribed to the theory that if you ignored something, there was a good chance it would go away.
Statistically, the jury is still out, but in this case, ignoring the problem is my only choice. What’s done is done, and the longer it goes where I don’t hear any more about it, the better it will get.
If the ‘higher ups’ had made up their minds about me and my perceived misdeed, I’d be filling out unemployment benefit papers instead of working on a murder case.
Do you remember the meeting I told you about? The one behind the glass wall?
Well, it turns out that I had a friend in that room.
I knew who all the people were.
Every one of them could decide my fate by speaking ill of me. So it was a no-brainer that some of them did exactly that.
Naturally, the Chief Inspector had the final say.
He’s a strange bird, and we have never had a meaningful conversation, and I’m not sure if that is him or me. Influential people don’t intimidate me, but I like this job, so staying away from people who can make my life harder seems like a wise idea. For his part, I’m just another loose cannon who can make his job harder.
I can’t say for sure, but I think it was he who sent the word down for me to do that weekend refresher course. He did me a favour there. I met Ms Carter, and I got laid. Which reminds me, I must ring her. It’s been a while.


It wasn’t his wife I was giving a seeing to in the back of that Bentley, but I guess he thought that standards had to be upheld.
I found out later that the two constables never intended to make a report.
I showed them my warrant card, and they had fun with me, which was to be the end of it. Unfortunately, one of them got done for drink driving, and he traded the information for a clean record. It didn’t work. He got done and, after a long process, lost his job. As with all cover-ups, it got uncovered, and by default, I ended up in the shit.
Penelope was an excellent lover, and the things she could do in the back of that vintage Bentley were amazing. I still tingle when I think about it.
Not unsurprisingly, our back seat trysts came to a screaming halt (no pun intended) when word got out.

The meeting behind the glass wall had nothing to do with me being caught with my pants down. Of course, that all happened ages ago, but somehow I had acquired a defender, and I’m yet to understand why.
I wouldn’t call him a friend — we barely know each other, but word got back that he stood up for me, mentioned my meagre achievements, and suggested that they see how I handle this case before any decisions are made.
The reason for this glass-encased meeting was indeed way more severe than my fucking a senior officer’s missus, but there we are, and the knowledge only increases the pressure on me to solve this murder.
It does occur to me that someone, more senior to me, knew this was not a suicide way before I did.
The thought makes me very uneasy, but I don’t have time for paranoia — that can come later when this case is done and my tenuous grip on this job is reestablished.
I have to admit to feeling expendable, but that’s nothing new.

“Go back over the details of your visit to Debra’s workplace. Don’t leave anything out. I want to know what colour nail polish they were wearing,” I said as the waitress delivered two BLTs with avocado on the side (say ‘avo’ anywhere near me, and you’ll need dental work).
Egg and I were having what passed for a breakfast meeting at the cafe near the wholesale vegetable market. My family has a long history with ‘the Markets’, but that’s a story for another time.
“There were two long blacks to go with these, Luv,” I said as the waitress turned to walk back to the counter.
“They’re on their way. I didn’t forget and please don’t call me ‘Luv’. We’re two decades into the twenty-first century,” said our waitress, who had had a hard morning. She wasn’t really having a go, just tired.
“I apologise sweetheart (she winced). Are you okay? You look all tuckered out,” I said, and my brain reminded me that you NEVER tell a woman that she looks tired. But, on the whole, she took it well.
The waitress put her hand on the back of my chair, and for a split second, I thought she might give me a clip over the ear.
“I’ve got two kids under five and neither of them sleep through the night. I’ve been on since four this morning and I’m buggered.”
I wondered about the four o’clock start when I remembered that the fruit and veggie market opens about then. Lots of sleepy blokes needing a cuppa.
“Would you like to sit down?” I said, moving out one of our spare chairs.
“Can’t,” she said, “got another hour to go before I sit down.”
No longer a girl and with two kids to think about, she was doing her best. One minor disaster and she would fall over the edge.
So much of life is a tightrope walk.
We watched her walk back to the counter.
I glanced at the bill sitting under my plate.


We each put a twenty-dollar note down, not wanting any change.
When the coffees arrived, I slid the bill and the notes in her direction.
“Keep the change kid,” I said. She looked at us, and somewhere inside, I think she was smiling, but it didn’t show on the outside. Tip or no tip, there were still two kids at home who wouldn’t sleep. A bloody big tip glosses over the problem.
You cannot save everyone.

Through a mouthful of BLT, Egg recounted his visit.
“About what you would expect really. As soon as I told the woman in charge, she got the staff together and told them Debra was dead. It was hard to get any of them to make sense. I was patient, I promise. Eventually I got the picture of a happy young woman who kept up with the office conversation but rarely added to the gossip. She was well liked and no hint of jealousy – from them or her. Her desk was tidy with only a few personal items. I asked and the boss said they didn’t restrict personal items. No photos on her desk or in her drawers. No personal photos on her computer. The security there is terrible. Everyone seemed to know everyone else’s computer password. I copied her hard drive and gave it to Tech. They’re a bit snowed under but they said they would have something by the end of the week. Her best friend in the office was basically incoherent. I’ll talk to her again tomorrow. Maybe she can shed some light on who Debra was seeing.”
“That’s good work,” I said, and I meant it. The kid has good instincts.

Usually, by now, I’d have a bit of an idea who might have killed who. But, unfortunately, this case was starting to drag.

Suicide Note: Part Four – a bit of a bounder

It’s been a while, so if you want to catch up, part one is here, part two is here and part three is here.

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.

~oOo~

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.

Suicide Note: Part Three –In the darkness of the late of day

If you are so inclined, Part One is here, and Part Two is here.

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.

~oOo~

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?

~oOo~

“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.