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.
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
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.
Here Be Pirates
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.
She had an ancestor who fell in love with a pirate?
It didn’t take me long to work out that this meant that I was related to someone 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.
There were more stories to read, and I wanted to know more about my pirate consorting ancestor.
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.
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.
Suicide Note: Part One – An Unexpected Death
When I started out, I had shiny buttons, and I wanted to make a difference.
This delusion afflicts a lot of young people.
You get a bit older, and you realise that making a difference is not what you thought it was.
I’m not complaining, just explaining.
My buttons are less shiny, but the uniform still fits, and I get it out for formal occasions — when someone dies, that’s about as formal as it gets, wouldn’t you say?
An unexpected death brought me here.
I’m kneeling in the mud, spoiling my suit pants. I hardly notice. Things that used to be important seem irrelevant — muddy pants included.
There was a time when I would have burst into the commander’s office and demanded to know why I was being assigned to such a lowly case — an apparent suicide.
My ‘bursting in’ days are over, at least for a while — maybe forever?
The conversation went on behind closed doors.
Behind the glass wall.
Occasionally someone would glance over their shoulder in my direction. I considered giving them the finger — thought better of it.
I’m in enough shit.
“Piss off and sort this shit out,” said our second in charge. I think he likes me. At the very least, he doesn’t hate me. Either way, at this moment, I’m beyond caring.
The folder landed on my desk as softly as a feather falling out of the arse of a large bird of prey.
I took it as a moderately good sign that I hadn’t been summoned into the commander’s office.
“Take Egg with you. He needs the experience.”
I opened my mouth to complain.
“Shut it and get it sorted!”
I shut it and shot a look in Egg’s direction. He grabbed his jacket off the back of the chair and bounded across the office knocking over two wastepaper baskets. He picked them up and deftly flipped them back into position with the heel of his shoe. Nicely done, I thought, and I hoped my face didn’t show it. You cannot afford to encourage the little shit — never get rid of him. I didn’t want him thinking that he could ride with the big boys.
Egg is on the fast track.
Someone, somewhere, thinks he will grow up to be somebody someday.
The two owners of the wastepaper baskets glared at Egg. Johnson picked up some of the litter, balled it up and threw it at the rapidly moving target.
Egg got his nickname on his first day in the squad, presumably because of his extreme youth, and it stuck.
“Don’t get in my way and don’t get used to the idea of riding with me. This is a one-off,” I said.
“Am I working with you because of what happened?”
“How the fuck should I know. No wait. Yes, that’s it. You are my punishment. A half boiled egg, right up the arse.”
A few of the lads laughed, and someone hit him with a giant ball of former wastepaper basket contents.
“Don’t get anyone killed, you little shit,” said the suit from the Fraud Squad who is on secondment — I think his name’s Wilson, but he’ll be gone soon, so why bother remembering his name?
The comment came because Egg had been riding in a Divisional van when it went into the Yarra River after misjudging a turn. The uniformed copper behind the wheel hit his head on the driver’s door and drowned as the van sunk in the murky brown water. The arseholes they were pursuing got away and abandoned their stolen car. It’s only a matter of time before we catch up with them, but rumour has it that their parents sent them both overseas to escape arrest. So now the long process of extradition begins.
We buried Constable Billy Higgins with full honours. Shiny buttons as far as the eye could see. Egg was still in hospital, which was probably just as well. He doesn’t remember much, but apparently, he has dreams about flying through the air.
After attending a false alarm, he hitched a ride back to the station on that day, and I’ll bet he wished he’d taken the tram. And I’ll bet his senior partner wished he hadn’t left him there to go off to the pub for lunch. I heard his chances of promotion went faster than his pub lunch — that kind of shit sticks for a long time.
A couple of young blokes out for a run dragged Egg out before the rig went under. They dived a heap of times but couldn’t free Higgins. I remember seeing newspaper photos of the young men sitting on the river bank when the divers retrieved Higgin’s body.
A long lens shot from the other side of the river.
Both men looking bereft.
Being half a hero is a bit like being half pregnant — it doesn’t make sense. Never heard anything more about the two runners after the funeral. I wonder what happened to them? Most of us only get one or two moments in life to make our mark. This one is going to haunt them.
When a new case comes in, it’s given to the next name on the list, no matter who that may be. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, but in reality, I get the tough cases. The murders that look like they might be challenging to solve. That was, until recently.
I guess I should be pleased that I still have a job, but that’s not how my head works.
“This is where the bodies wash up after they throw themselves off the bridge,” said Egg, and he sounded like he knew what he was talking about, which confused me. Of course, he was right, but how the fuck did he know that?
My pant’s leg was wicking up the river water, and pretty soon, it would reach my balls, so I switched to a squatting position. My shoes were now soaked, and my dodgy knee was reminding me of the weeks of rehab after the reconstruction. That knee ruined my jump shot.
“How the hell did you know that bodies wash up here?” I said.
“That PC over there,” he pointed back up the hill at the officer guarding the blue and white tape, “he told me. Thought I might find it useful.”
“Did he happen to mention when the coroner might be arriving?”
“No, sarge. Should I ask?”
“Don’t worry about it. What do you see?”
“A dead girl.”
“Woman,” I said.
Egg grunted. He didn’t see my point.
“She’s fully clothed. At least she looks that way without checking closer.”
“Long hair, nice clothes, shoes missing, manicured nails, no rings.”
“She’s wearing glasses,” I said.
“Not really,” said Egg. He leaned in closer and saw the horned rimmed glasses that had snagged her cardigan. “Oh, yeah.”
“Probably not a suicide then,” I said.
“How do you figure that?” said Egg.
“When I was in uniform, I got a lot of floaters. Most of them were suicides. I wanted to be good at this job so I did a lot of research. Suicides will often take off their shoes. They take off their glasses too before they jump. Uniform will tell you that they find, neatly placed shoes with eye glasses tucked inside. I used to do that when I went swimming as a kid — hide my glasses in my shoes for safekeeping.”
“You don’t wear glasses, Sarge.”
“Contact lenses,” I said, pointing unnecessarily at my face.
I could hear fresh voices behind me.
“What are you doing here Catastrophe?”
“Not a word from you,” I said as I shot Egg a look. I thought I’d gotten away from that moniker.
“Doctor Death. How nice to see you again,” I said, and she shot me a look to match the one I’d shot at Egg.
“I don’t like that name, Sergeant.”
“I’ll try and remember that doctor,” and the old battle of wills came flooding back.
“Any idea of the time and cause of death?” I said. I knew the question would annoy her. I’m permanently in that frame of mind these days.
“I only just got here Sergeant. You’ll know when I know and that won’t be until tomorrow morning. Let’s say 10:15?”
And the dance resumed. I’d missed Doctor Death. I wonder where she’s been? I remember her farewell party. She tried to kiss me several times. It freaked me out just a bit.
I straightened up, and my knee made a strange noise. The river water dribbled down my leg and into my sock. I gave that foot an involuntary shake, a bit like a cat that has something stuck to its paw.
We walked up the hill towards the helpful PC. He held the tape up for us.
“Were you FOS, constable?” I said.
“Did you move the body?”
The young constable broke eye contact.
“I didn’t think I should leave her like that. It didn’t seem right. I dragged her up onto the bank and pulled her dress down. I’ve got sisters.”
I waited a few moments before answering. Then, finally, the angry words drifted away.
I leaned in close so that Egg and the others couldn’t hear.
“It probably won’t jeopardise the investigation this time, but if Doctor Death works it out, you’re for the high jump. Don’t ever do that again. I don’t care how many sisters you’ve got,” I said, and my final words were softer than you would have expected. I put my hand on his shoulder, and he nodded at me.
We were almost back at the office when a call came through. The plods doing a search had turned up a handbag that probably belonged to my floater. The handbag had an address.
She Took My Arm
I walked while the sun was trying to shine.
A thick haze defused the sunlight giving the day an otherworldly glow.
It must have been the weekend, probably a Saturday. The footpaths were thickly populated with people happier than they would be on a weekday.
Everyone was going somewhere, but it was non-combative, easy-going, almost joyful.
I was walking and had been for quite a while. So long, in fact, that I had to keep track of where I was so I could get back.
The City of Melbourne is laid out on a grid similar to many significant cities, so as long as you don’t mind walking, you will come across a street you recognise sooner or later.
I’m not a fan of crowds, but I can tolerate them on certain occasions. This was one of those times, though I reached my limit when I arrived at a crossroads. The traffic lights were against me, so I worked my way to the front of the crowd — a chance to give my unease a bit of room to breathe.
The crowd I had been travelling with thinned out. Most of them turned left and strode up the hill.
The sun was burning off the morning mist, and the warmth soaked into my jacket and warmed my face.
She came up on my left-hand side and put her arm through mine, precisely the way a wife or a lover might.
I turned my head to see who this person was. I didn’t recognise her — I thought I might.
She was just below my eye level in heels, and her ponytail, set high on her head, made her appear taller than she was.
She looked at me with a combination of mild recognition and anticipation. I expected her to smile. She didn’t.
“So, where are we going?” I heard myself say.
I had been facing straight ahead, but now I was turning to the right as the lights changed to green.
“Oh, so we are going this way,” I said, and she moved in step with me or did she lead me in that direction — I’m not sure.
It was then that I realised I was doing all the talking. I could have sworn that she was talking to me, but her lips weren’t moving. Either way, I could hear her.
She was dressed conservatively in a light coloured blouse, skirt and a cardigan. All of her colours were subdued, but they suited her there and then.
Come to think of it, everyone around me seemed to be dressed a bit old fashioned.
As we walked, arm in arm, we turned up a minor road, and the footpath was narrow, but we had it all to ourselves.
I could smell the dust in the air and the faint smell of animals, something like visiting the Zoo or the Showgrounds. The aromas were familiar in my childhood but now strangely out of place.
The path we were on led to a small hotel.
The foyer was tiny with wood panelling and a mosaic tiled floor.
There was a lone concierge behind a polished wooden counter. He didn’t speak.
He turned and took a key from the green felt-lined pigeon holes. The key had a brass tag — number twenty-two.
Initially, he offered the key to the lady who was still holding my arm, but a look from her made him show it to me.
I took the key, and she led me to the steep stairs — built before modern building regulations. The carpet runner was held in place by ornate brass stair rods.
The stairs were just wide enough for us to walk on them together.
Our room was at the top of the stairs. The key turned smoothly in the lock, and the room’s aroma was not unpleasant — fresh soap, clean towels and possibly coffee from the morning just passed.
Being in what amounted to a full-service bedroom seemed luxurious and slightly forbidden in the middle of the day.
I watched her silently undress.
She stood in her slip and looked at me. I expected her to demand that I match her undressed state. She didn’t.
From what I could see, her breasts were average, and her hips were neither wide nor slim. Her stomach had that distinctive bump that all females have. I love that part of a woman.
She shed her shoes and carefully lined them up next to the bed.
She didn’t let her hair down, and I didn’t mind.
Her eyes were clear and bright, and I didn’t get the feeling that she did this kind of thing often. Maybe that was naive of me, but there it was. I’ve travelled for business, and I know what it feels like when you are approached by a woman who flatters a man for money. This was not that. I have no idea what this was, but it wasn’t that, which made me a little nervous.
I ran my hands over her still partially clothed body, and she watched me with that same look. To her, I could have been a puppy or a knight; her gaze would have suited both.
For the first time, she broke her gaze, turned away from me and removed the rest of her clothes, laying them neatly on the chair at the side of the bed.
I undressed quickly and slid into bed after discarding the heavy quilt.
The sheets were cold but comforting — another memory from childhood.
We explored each other’s bodies. No rush, no sign of haste. Each movement electric.
The smell of her was driving me crazy, but I held my composure.
She rolled her body against mine, and where she touched my skin, it felt like fire.
I’m not inexperienced in making love, but I have to say that I was taking my lead from her on this occasion. I always want to please the woman I’m with, it’s a point of honour, but this was something else.
I was intoxicated by being close to her.
I could tell that time was passing because the shadows in the room were moving across the floor.
I’m in good shape, but I was feeling fatigued and hungry, but I was not going to stop what we were doing to each other, not until she had had enough of me.
I’m tempted to say that it was the best sex I’ve ever had, but it was not like that. It wasn’t an occasion for a schoolboy boast.
Being with her, inside her, made me feel like I was home. Home and safe and powerful and wise and worthy.
I never wanted the experience to end, but it did, and I watched her walk across the room and into the shower, her body silhouetted against the harsh light of the bathroom.
“Great bum,” I said, but she didn’t answer.
I watched her dress and then sit demurely as I showered and dressed.
“Food?” I said as I tied my shoelaces. I’ve been good at shoelaces since I was six years old — my mum taught me how to do it.
I offered her my arm, and she took it.
We walked down the stairs together, and my legs felt like rubber; she seemed fine. I’m going to have to hit the gym if I’m going to keep up with this woman.
I gave the night porter the key, and he thanked me.
The street lights were on, but it wasn’t completely dark. There was still an amber glow low in the sky.
“We just made love for an entire afternoon and I don’t know your name,” I said.
We were walking next to a bench, and she put her handbag down, took out her purse, and produced a card. The card read ‘Alice Ayres’ and nothing else.
“I know that name,” I said, “but I’m not sure where I know it from.”
“Burger and chips or something a bit more upmarket?” I said. She didn’t answer. She retook my arm and led me along the street until we came to an old fashioned Italian restaurant.
The owner greeted us warmly, almost as though we were regulars.
We drank a lot of wine, and the food came straight from heaven.
“I remember where I know your name from,” I said, ‘it’s one of the plaques on the wall at Postman’s Park in London. Have you ever been to London?”
She shook her head.
After that, I have no idea what happened.
“We went to the hotel you described Mr Wilson,” said the uniformed officer sitting across the metal table from me.
“And?” I said.
The sign on the door says ‘closed’, and it doesn’t look like it has taken in guests for a long time.
“I was just there this afternoon. All afternoon,” I said.
“You mean yesterday afternoon,” said the officer.
“Yes. Yesterday. You know what I mean. Yesterday afternoon,” I said.
My head hurt, and my clothes smelled like I’d spent the night in an alley, which is where I was, apparently. That’s where the Chinese cook found me when he turned up to prep for the morning rush. Nice bloke. He gave me a coffee before noticing the bump on my head.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have given you coffee. It’s probably not good for concussion,” he said.
I assured him that coffee was good for everything.
The lump on my head was in a spot that made it unlikely that I’d done it to myself.
The police officer and the ambulance driver concurred.
“Someone’s walloped you on the head mate,” said the paramedic.
I felt the lump, and it felt numb and painful all at the same time.
“None of this makes any sense to me,” I said.
“Me either,” said the police officer.
“Why hit me over the head and not take anything?” I said.
“It’s a first for me too, sir.”
“I’m worried about the woman I was with. Did the restaurant say what happened to her. Was she with me when I left. I don’t remember leaving,” I said.
“The restaurant is closed for a month — big sign on the door. Thanking all their patrons. No one answers when we ring. No one with the name you gave us has turned up at any of the city hospitals and no reports from other police stations. I’d say that no news is good news. Do you have a number for her?”
“No. We’d only just met.”
The police officer gave me a look that said, ‘you’re a fast worker mate’, but I ignored it.
“We have your number and we’ll let you know if anything comes up,” he said, which was shorthand for saying, ‘we have better things to be getting on with than a bloke who got lucky and then got knocked on the head without getting robbed’. I could see his point.
I stepped out onto the street, and light rain was falling. Yesterday’s balmy weather had given way to a grey day of wet pavements and flowing gutters.
I walked for a while, not knowing where to go next.
I stopped to buy a paper. My wallet had way more money in it than I remembered. Add that to the list of things I don’t understand.
I walked to the Treasury Gardens after buying some sandwiches. I read the paper and ate the sandwiches. They tasted better than they should.
Reading the paper left me none the wiser.
I walked to the top of Bourke Street and waited for the lights to change. The rain had left the streets relatively empty.
I felt her slip her arm through mine.
I didn’t look at her. I didn’t want to jinx it.
She didn’t speak, but I knew what she wanted.
When the lights changed, we walked, arm in arm, across the street back in the direction of our hotel.
It Worked For Oscar Wilde
Michael wasn’t happy about moving to another restaurant.
“Why?” he asked.
“I hate the wallpaper,” I said.
Michael looked at me as though I had taken leave of my senses.
It was all I could come up with at short notice.
It worked for Oscar Wilde — people thought he was witty, but it wasn’t doing me any favours.
“They don’t have any wallpaper,” he said.
“In the ladies room.”
“You haven’t been to the ladies room; we just got here.”
“Trust me. I can’t dine at an establishment that has substandard wallpaper in the loo — I have standards!”
I’m pretty sure I stamped my foot.
I hadn’t known Michael long enough to pull this kind of stunt and not damage our relationship, but the alternative was letting my husband see me with a strange man. At the same time, I was supposed to be twisting myself into unusual shapes in a quest for enlightenment at a yoga class.
Michael and I walked for a few minutes and found another eatery that looked cozy.
“I love this place. Let’s eat here,” I said.
“Are you sure? Wouldn’t you like to check the restrooms?”
“No need — black tiles, lots of mirrors, no problem.” I gave him my biggest smile, and it worked.
Dinner went well, and we made another date.
Barry wouldn’t have been happy if I had stuffed it up; he puts in a lot of preparation before sending me out on an assignment.
“Seduce this bloke and get close to him. No ‘one night stand’, you need to be around him a lot. I’ll give you more details once you’ve hooked him,” said Barry with a mouth full of a tuna sandwich.
You may disagree with my chosen lifestyle, and I’m sure that many people would agree with you, but one thing you could not say was that I was in this life for anything other than the excitement and the money.
There’s plenty of sex. Sex with my husband has moved to another level since my new life began.
He loves the new me. “I don’t know what happened to you, but I don’t want to jinx it by asking too many questions.”
The sex in this job is merely a means to an end.
I feel foolish saying this, but I thought we were fine, my husband and I — dull, ordinary and fine. Sex is constant and delicious. No signs that anything was wrong. Two wonderful boys and a domestic set-up that most people would kill for.
What went wrong?
Who is this woman, and why was he with her in that restaurant?
The brief view I had of them both said that he isn’t bedding her — not yet.
He’s trying his luck.
She hasn’t given him the green light.
Why is she out with a married man — my married man?
I will find out — nothing is more important.
Michael, my assignment, can wait. He likes me, so I have some time.
I need Barry, and I never thought I would hear myself say that.
Barry knows everyone worth knowing.
“So what can I do for you, sweet cheeks?” said Barry.
“You have no idea how sweet my cheeks are Barry,” I said.
“True, but I live in hope.”
“Assume that my bottom is spectacular and shift your attention to my problem.”
“My husband has a girlfriend.”
“Okay. I didn’t see that coming. Do you want them both killed? I know a bloke who does a discount for doubles.”
“Let’s start with information before we progress to bloodshed.”
“We could do that. What do you want to know?” Barry was showing concern, and I found it unsettling.
“Who is she. How did he meet her and what does she want?” I said.
“Got it. I’ll get in touch when I’ve got something. How much do you want to spend? The bloke I have in mind is the best. He’s expensive, and he’s available right now.”
“How many shoeboxes full of money does he charge? I’ve got a wardrobe full of them.”
“I’ll take that as a yes,” said Barry.
Barry got up from the table and disappeared into a back room, and I did something I have not done in all the time I have been meeting Barry at the Rising Sun Hotel — I went to the bar. Usually, I can’t wait to get out of the place, but I wanted a drink today.
“Do you have something that will make me feel better, Boris?” I asked.
Boris gave me the only facial expression he owned.
“Do you need remember or forget?” asked Boris, and I was impressed by his question — that pretty much covered it; remember or forget.
“Forget, I think Boris. Tomorrow is soon enough for remembering.”
Boris gave me a tall glass of sticky liquid approaching the colour of honey mixed with diesel fuel. I drained it and asked for another.
I don’t remember much after that.
When I awoke, it was morning, but I wasn’t sure of which day. I was in a small room that smelled of dust, beer and leather. The furniture was sparse, the door was open and considering Barry’s reputation, I checked my panties to see if I’d been interfered with. As far as I could tell, I was unmolested.
Boris appeared with a cup of tea and a couple of painkillers.
“You drink, take these, you feel better soon. I put you to bed. No look at your bum. Boris gentleman.”
“Thank you, Boris. I’ve never done that before,” I said. Boris nodded and left me to my misery.
Apart from my headache, my biggest concern was what I was going to tell my husband.
When I stumbled back to my car, it had a parking ticket — no surprise there.
My panic went for nothing because my husband had not made it home that night either. Mother and father were absent from the family home, and neither of our boys noticed — teenagers!
“I’m sorry about last night. I had a few and crashed at a mates’ place. I hope you weren’t too worried?” said my husband as he appeared, somewhat sheepishly, at dinner that night.
I was relieved and surprised that I was off the hook, and it took me a moment to adjust.
“You could have rung,” I said with a touch of annoyance.
“Phone went flat, and I was too pissed to think straight — I am sorry.”
“You are forgiven, and your dinner is in the oven,” I said, and my mind began to wonder whose bed he slept in while I was asleep in a dusty little room at the Rising Sun Hotel.
If It Isn’t Warm It’s Just Burnt Bread
I eat breakfast in bed — not always, but most of the time.
When I don’t, I usually sit at our small wooden table near the only window in the kitchen.
I’m the sole ‘old person’ living in this share house.
I’ve done the share-house thing before when I was young and poor and studying.
Now I’m older and poor and not studying.
Being the last of five people to arise, I get a clear run at the bathroom.
The downside is that there probably won’t be any milk for breakfast.
Plan B is toast and Vegemite and possibly jam, depending on my mood.
My housemates are all female.
Ages range from early twenties to mid-thirties.
I’m no longer the last person admitted to the house as two of the females have moved overseas to advance their careers. In addition, two new females have been installed. I had very little say.
At the time of my admission to this house, I wondered why they let me rent a room. Now I know that I’m the token male. I’m six feet tall, and despite my age, I’m strong and handy with tools (my ute is full of them — remnants of a previous life). After I’d been living here for a few months, word got around the neighbourhood that I was good at fixing things. Being an upper-class neighbourhood, people expect to pay, so it has come in handy — beer money mostly.
Ours is the only share house in a street of multi-million dollar houses built for successful business people in the early nineteen hundreds — grand old houses.
The current owner inherited the house and lives amongst us. She’s a surgeon, but you would never know it. She’s down-to-earth, can drink the young ones under the table, but never when she on-call. She likes rock and roll and white bread.
My role here, apart from paying rent, is to be tall and robust and handy. I carry heavy stuff whenever someone moves in or out. I carry grocery bags and take out the rubbish. I’ve been called upon to escort drunken ex-boyfriends from the premises — I’m a match for drunk young men, but only just.
Spiders are my speciality — they don’t bother me, and I haven’t killed one yet. So they all live quietly outside now. I’m sure they are grateful.
The spider thing has come in handy whenever I have annoyed one of my female housemates enough to want me gone.
“But he catches spiders,” is the cry that has saved me a few times.
No one has ever said anything, but two years of Psych, back in the day, tells me that I’ve been installed because there is little chance of anyone falling in love with me and upsetting the dynamics of the house.
The realisation hurts a bit, but I can see the practical side of the argument.
By nine-thirty am,the house is all mine. The women are off being a doctor, politician, theatre manager, personal secretary.
People think that you pop a couple of pieces of bread into a toaster, and out it pops — toast.
If you don’t butter it immediately (actual salted butter), it will not taste how toast is supposed to taste. If you are interrupted (as I sometimes am) and your toast gets cold, there is no way back. I know. I’ve tried every means possible to resurrect cold toast — it cannot be done. It just sits there and turns into burnt bread. Not fit for man or beast. Although, it has to be said that the local birds will eat it reluctantly.
My male friends think I’m crazy to live in a house full of unattainable females.
I’ve learned to enjoy the experience. Females are amazing creatures, and besides, I don’t have a choice. I could not afford to live on my own.
Paydays are few and far between when you are an unrecognised writer with a ute full of tools and not much else to offer to the world.
As long as there is soft white bread cut thickly and butter and possibly jam, then there is something to look forward to, at least until my flatmates burst in at the end of the day and bring an end to my writing and a beginning to the prospect of spending time with interesting people.
Illustration: Mary Maxam
When the Words Went Away
I’ve been writing and publishing books and short stories for more than ten years, and in all that time, I’ve never experienced ‘writer’s block’, that is, until now.
A little over a year ago, I started experiencing unpleasant symptoms and my usual method of ignoring them, and they will go away deserted me.
So, a trip to the doctor because of constant (and I MEAN constant) migraines found me taking meds for high blood pressure and supplements of vitamin deficiencies.
Progress was slow, and the cure was as bad as the disease for several months.
I’m doing much better now, thanks for asking, but not writing has taken its toll.
Inspiration has been thin and elusive.
An audiobook sits half-finished.
Two books wait for final editing.
Short story production stopped.
Short stories have been my salvation when things get complicated, so when the ideas dried up, I sank into depression (a place I hoped never to go back to).
The signs are positive. I reread the novella I wrote a year ago, and I enjoyed it very much. I’ll publish it very soon.
I’m not seeking any sympathy; there are others worse off than I. At the moment, there is storm damage all around us and some of my neighbours are without homes and many others have been without power in the middle of winter.
My purpose in writing this is just because I can. We have power and warmth (at least for the moment – another storm is approaching), and my mental and physical state is improving by the day.
I’m eager to dive back into the worlds I have created and see what will happen next.
If you have read this far, I thank you for your patience and attention, and I promise to return to what this blog has been about for all these years — shorts stories.
“I’m sorry Mr Bennett,” she didn’t look that sorry, “but a shared sleeper is all we have left. If you must travel on that day, you will have to share. If you can put your trip off for a day or two you can have your pick of the solo cabins — they are more expensive, of course.”
“I have to be there on Friday, so it has to be the overnight train on Thursday. I’ll take the ticket, but tell them to stock up on decent whisky. I’m going to need it, and so is my sleep buddy,” said Sam
“You will have some time to yourself because your fellow passenger won’t be boarding until Ararat.”
That’s a few hours of peace, thought Sam, who was looking forward to reading the new Michael Robotham novel he purchased just for this journey.
The Overland sat quietly at platform 2, waiting for its passengers.
Train travellers are an interesting bunch. Many of Sam’s fellow passengers shared his dislike of planes and airports.
Trains rarely involve a full body cavity search, lack of legroom, surely security and godawful food.
The Overland, beautiful named, is a throwback to a time when people travelled for adventure, and the cost was not the top priority.
The train company asks that passengers arrive thirty minutes before departure. They are met by a company employee dressed appropriately, including a wide-brimmed Akubra. Passengers wait patiently next to their assigned carriage until the porter opens the doors. Find your cabin, stow your bags and head for the bar, maybe a snack. The evening meal is delivered to your room and so is breakfast, but a man needs snacks and a stiff drink.
Sam chose the upper bunk — first in first served.
He opened his book but decided to enjoy the view. In a few short hours, darkness will descend.
The hustle and bustle of Spenser Street station at peak hour provides lots to look at. City workers heading home. Their tired countenance is even more disturbing than their morning gaze.
Suburban, country and interstate trains all share this massive station.
The train sounded its horn and slowly pulled out, right on time.
“If Mussolini were alive, he would be proud,” said Sam to himself. Right-wing arseholes are obsessed with trains running on time.
The train travelled slowly as it negotiated the rail yards with its twists and turns. The wheels and bogies complained loudly at the frequent changes of direction.
The train travels slowly for the first hour until it clears the suburbs of Melbourne. Some would say that the view is uninspiring, but Sam enjoyed the sometimes rusty and occasionally grubby nature of these old industrial suburbs. They reminded him of his childhood. His father worked skillfully with his hands, and on rare occasions, Sam was allowed to accompany him to work on weekends, when the bosses weren’t around.
Rust has its own distinctive aroma as do grease and dust and sweat, all ingredients of a working-class employment.
Once in open country, the train accelerates, and Geelong approaches rapidly.
Past Geelong and the country flattens out. The early settlers called it ‘Pleurisy Plains’. Anyone venturing out during the areas vicious gales was sure to contract the infection.
The flatness comes about because it is a larval plain. The local Aborigines have lived here for so long that their oral history talks about the distant volcano erupting some twenty thousand years ago.
Through the gloaming, Sam could just see Mount Elephant — its indigenous name is ‘Hill of Fire’.
It was getting harder to see the countryside as the train pulled into Ararat.
The massive, now empty, rail yards looked like an old car park that no one used anymore. All a bit grim.
There was a country train on the other platform as Sam’s train pulled in. The passengers gazed at his train, no doubt wondering where it was headed and what the passengers were headed to.
After the train pulls out of Ararat, a strange thing happens. The mileage signpost suddenly drops about 30 miles. After asking the porter, Sam found out that the interstate train travels a longer route to get to Ararat than the regional line. So now they are on that track. Sam wondered who thought that going the long way was a good idea, but why people do the things they do, gives Sam a headache.
Sam’s cabin mate did not appear, and the train had been travelling for long enough for him (he assumed it was a him — even these days, Sam could not imagine a woman wanting to share a cabin with a strange man) to have found the right sleeper berth.
The first part of Sam’s journey had been peaceful, so why worry about the fate of his fellow traveller.
Sam climbed onto his bunk and read his book, but soon turned out the light and snuggled under the covers. The rolling motion is a cure for most people’s insomnia.
He was facing the door when it opened, and a medium height man wearing an overcoat padded into the cabin. He left the door slightly open, which allowed a subdued amount of light to penetrate the darkness. Sam had not pulled the blinds, but on a moonless night, there is only pitch black in the Australian outback.
The new passenger took off his coat, revealing a crumpled suit with no tie. The man was travelling with only a small bag. He reached into the side pocket of the bag and produced a bundle wrapped in an old cloth. The bundle went out the window, and the sound of rushing air diminished when the man closed it and climbed onto his bunk. He didn’t snore, but before long Sam could hear the sound of heaving breathing.
That same rhythmic breathing was still to be heard when Sam woke instinctively as the porter knocked on his door, breakfast trays in hand.
“Thanks, mate, I’ll take those,” said Sam and the porter did not glance nor comment on Sams lack of suitable attire. Porters see it all on sleeper trains.
Sam put the tray for the mystery traveller on the small table and his tray on the bunk. He managed to climb up without putting his foot in his breakfast. He was pleased with this achievement and proceeded to consume his eggs and toast while unfolding the newspaper. Somewhere, the train had picked up the early edition of the Adelaide Advertiser, which seemed fair as they were closer to Adelaide than Melbourne, but Sam would have prefered the Melbourne Age, even if it was a bit hard to unfold at this hour of the day.
The articles rolled out the usual tales of local and international mayhem, which surprised Sam because, from his experience, people in Adelaide didn’t know there was an outside world, apart from Melbourne which they hated. Forever in its shadow, Adelaide folk take any chance to compare themselves favourably, usually around Australia’s favourite religion, sport.
One item caught Sam’s eye.
There had been a shooting in Ararat.
A young husband had come home from work and found his wife in the arms of her lover, a small-time gangster from Melbourne. There was a photograph showing the front of a house illuminated by police floodlights. A neighbour, dressed in her dressing gown said that it had been going on for months and she felt sorry for the husband, “Such a nice young man. Works all the hours that God sends. Gets home late after commuting to Melbourne. He deserved better than her, God rest her soul.”
The wife died in the arms of her lover, and the lover was in a critical condition. The writer alluded, ever so subtly, that even if he did survive, his philandering days were over.
The husband and his Great War revolver were still missing when the paper went to print. The gun came back from France with his grandfather. A Webley six-shot revolver, an officer’s weapon.
The passenger’s tray was untouched when Sam climbed down, washed, dressed and waited for the train to pull into Adelaide Parklands Terminal.
Sam will need a taxi because for some reason they built the terminal away from the city, which means that it does not go to the beautiful old Adelaide Station.
Sam wasn’t trying to be quiet as he performed his preparations for arrival, but the passenger did not wake.
When the porter came for the trays, Sam told him to come back as late as possible, “This bloke needs his sleep. He’s had a rough time. Don’t wake him till you absolutely have to.” Sam slipped the porter a ‘fifty’. The porter smiled and promised. Sam made a note to add the ‘fifty’ to his client’s bill. The rich buggers can afford it.
Sam didn’t mind having a train trip to Adelaide, but all his business could have been handled by email or on the phone, but this law firm only wanted face to face meetings. It seems that they don’t trust computers. Their bill was going to be huge, but they didn’t seem to mind.
The taxi was waiting when Sam stepped out of the station, the air as hot and dry as he remembered.
“City, please driver. Rundle Mall,” said Sam.
“Might take a bit longer at this hour mate, peak hour and everything,” said the driver.
Sam laughed, “I’ve seen your ‘peak hour’ son. It lasts about ten minutes.”
Usually, Sam would have reminded the driver of what was likely to happen to him if he did the old trick of driving ‘the long way around’, a popular ploy of taxi drivers worldwide when they sensed an ‘out of towner’, but on this trip, Sam didn’t care. It was all on his client’s account.
“Just make sure I get a receipt and don’t get greedy,” said Sam.
The passenger woke to the sound of the porter and his gentle nudge.
“Sorry, sir. I left it as long as I could as per your friend’s instructions.”
“What friend?” said the sleepy man with the ruffled suit.
“The one you shared the cabin with,” said the porter, “he left this for you.”
The porter handed him a postcard with a photograph of The Overlander crossing Australia’s longest rail viaduct, just outside Geelong. On the back, written in a clean hand with a newly sharpened pencil were these words:
Dear Mr Park. I’m sorry your missus cheated on you. I know your heart is broken and I know that you will come to regret what you have done, but I do understand. A bloke can only take so much, and betrayal is about as bad as it gets.
It’s not my job to turn you in, but if you hurt anyone else I will come and find you, and you will regret breaking my trust.
P.S. I hope you took the remaining bullets out of the gun before you threw it out of the window.
Keep your head down and don’t make me regret my decision.
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