My name has never been on a ballot paper.
I’ve never run for office.
You’ve never seen my face on a campaign poster, but I am the one who makes the decisions that influence your everyday life.
I come from a long line of people, males mostly, who have performed this service. We are paid handsomely, but we do not live a lavish life, and we don’t do it for the money— I am of service.
The elected leaders of our country come to me for advice, and the advice I give them is always accurate — always. Sadly they do not always take the advice that is given — even though they know that it will benefit our people. Politics and greed get in the way. All sides of politics know that I exist and they know that my view of the world is evident, just and honest, and still, they do not listen.
My training started at an early age — I’m the eldest son of an eldest son, and so it has gone for generations. Occasionally the eldest daughter carries the burden, but for many years it has been the eldest son’s obligation to take on the family business.
You probably think that myself and my family are surrounded by security guards — protected around the clock. That is not how we deal with it. We hide in plain sight — a simple suburban home in an upper-middle-class suburb. Our house sits on a hill affording us an excellent view.
All great civilisations had an Oracle — someone who the leader would consult with before making momentous decisions. “Should I go to war? Or should I form an alliance?” The Oracle would have been chosen and trained from an early age. It was a dangerous occupation because the ruler would often dislike the answer given, causing the Oracle to be replaced by someone more compliant. This was usually a deadly consequence.
Political leaders come to me — usually at night in an ordinary taxicab. Business leaders sometimes arrange for me to meet them at some little cafe away from the business district.
You are probably wondering why the press hasn’t discovered my existence, or that of my ancestors — they have, but a bit of skilful obfuscation and the press is led in a predictable, but wrong direction. Over the years, when my ancestors and I have been drawn into the light, we have been passed off as meddling relatives, idiot half-brothers, gay lovers or disgruntled taxpayers. The more lurid the story, the more likely it is that the members of the fifth estate will fall for it.
Earlier I mentioned Oracles. I told you that by way of giving you an idea of what role I play, but it is essential for you to know that, unlike the Oracle, I do not foresee the future — I see things as they are right now — I know the best course to take in any given situation — I know that I know and I am never wrong. That is not arrogance speaking; it is a statement of fact.
Sometimes, when dealing with a challenging elected official, I will give the impression that I can foretell the future just to bring him into line, but this is rarely necessary. They are in awe of me, and this fact is usually enough for me to do my job with a minimum of fuss.
No-one in my line has ever spoken to an outsider.
You are the first person to hear about the real ruler of our people. I know from the look on your face that you are wondering why I am telling you this story, and I will get to that, but before I do, I need to tell you about last Friday.
My diary was empty for the day, so I went into the City by train. I planned to drink coffee, meditate in the park and generally have a quiet, introspective day.
I managed to achieve all of those things, and I was sitting in a little cafe near the station waiting for my train to arrive when an average looking man in a light coloured coat approached me. He laid what looked like a copy of the Evening News on my table and said, “You’ll find page 53 particularly interesting.” He gave me an enigmatic look and walked away.
I was curious, as you would have been, so I leafed through the paper, and it contained the usual mix of shoddy journalism and fear mongering that most major daily newspapers provide — old news, until I got to the hinted at, page 53.
It included a Late Breaking News Item about an explosion at a petrol station that is located very close to my house. We can see the roof of the building from our front verandah. The article gave the approximate time of the accident and told of the death of the out of control vehicle’s driver and the injuries to the station attendant.
This incident and everything that was written on the remaining three pages had not yet happened. I know this because time has passed and I watched these events unfold. We stood on our verandah at the appointed hour, and I waited for the bang.
“Come and watch the fireworks,” I said to my beautiful wife. I was joking because I did not expect anything to happen — it was just a bit of fun.
The flash from the exploding petroleum lit up the sky and engulfed the surrounding houses. A gentle breeze was blowing in our faces, and the smell of burning petrol assailed our nostrils. We watched in horror as the flames leapt from one house to the next, edging ever closer to our safe haven. I turned and looked at my wife, and I could see the look in her eyes — it was time to run. I grabbed the dog, and she grabbed the photo albums, and we piled into our car and backed, somewhat dangerously, out of our driveway. We made it out of the street nearly colliding with a fire truck that was turning into ours.
We spent the night with friends and waited until the morning.
Their house was warm and inviting, and we sat in silence after the initially excited conversations had died down. Our friends were frightened, and so were we. They were in no danger, but their vivid imaginations had propelled them into a world where their haven might be threatened — no-one wants to live in that world.
“Do you want breakfast before you go, you two, or do you just want to go?”
“Breakfast would be good. The house survived, or it didn’t. Breakfast won’t hasten or delay its fate. Toast and coffee would be lovely.” For a moment there was the slightest hesitation at the mention of toast, but I just laughed, and the conversation went back to normal.
The fire crews were still mopping up when we arrived back at our street in the mid-morning.
The fire had been stopped because of our unusually broad street. Some minor damage due to flying sparks, but otherwise okay. Our dog didn’t want to get out of the car, so we left her there with the door open. She would come inside when she was ready.
My wife put the photo albums away, and we sat for the longest time and held each other. We drank coffee on the front verandah and looked out over the surreal view. The smell was terrible, but nothing was going to drive us out of our home.
The newspaper that had been thrust under my nose on that Friday afternoon was still lying on the kitchen table. Over the next couple of days I ticked off the occurrences as they occurred — the fallen tree that temporally blocked the main road, narrowly missing the car with old lady driving to visit her husband in hospital — police arresting a local politician for misappropriating funds (I’d given him a reading about six months before and suggested that he set up an account for all the critical projects whereby two signatures were required for significant withdrawals) — work began on a community playground — the government announced that it will extend the rail line to the south.
Who was the man who gave me the newspaper? Was it some sort of threat or was it a warning? Does he know what I do for a living? Why go to such lengths to get my attention, and what sort of insight does this person have that they can tell the future? Does he want my job? Does he seriously think that he would survive very long in this world if people found out that he can foretell the future?
The crowds would tear him apart.
Being right all the time causes enough complications — foretelling the future in a world where money and power are the twin gods is a formula for disaster.
I’ve been back to that cafe a few times — same day of the week, same time — no contact. Whatever he wants, he isn’t sharing that with me.
If he came to me in my official capacity I would tell him to stay hidden — his life depends on it.
He may disagree, but I’m never wrong.
Not every writing desk has a hidden compartment.
Not every grandfather has a colourful past.
Not every grandfather starts out as a beige, boring bloke who has nothing interesting to say and turns into a charismatic public speaker driving a classic Bentley.
Sadly, I don’t know what happened to the Bentley or any of my grandfather’s possessions, with the exception of his writing desk.
I come from a long line of dull, steady males. The family business, so to speak, is numbers. More specifically, we have a skill for managing money — other people’s’, and in recent times, our own. Despite there being nine children in my grandfather’s family, his wealth was such that all his children inherited a vast fortune, and because of the aforementioned propensity for money management, our family is extremely well off — except for Uncle Billy, but that is a whole other story.
The writing desk arrived on the back of an ancient Chevy truck — early 1950s was my guess.
“Must be a bugger trying to get parts for that,” I said pointing at the relic of a previous century.
“Not really, I’ve been collecting ‘em for forty years. Used to be everywhere once. I keep two working and cannibalise the others for parts. People love ‘em. Just seeing them driving around gets me heaps of work — more than I can handle.”
He had a point, but the big rear wheels meant that it was quite a drop from the tray — a steep ramp and an ageing furniture removalist made for an unsettling spectacle.
Jim — he didn’t like being called James, even though his name was in metre high letters on the side of the truck — survived the ride down the ramp with the trolley and my newly acquired writing desk.
“I’ll bet you paid a pretty penny for this beauty?” said Jim, who was in danger of becoming chatty.
“Inherited it. Do you think it’s worth a bit?” I said.
“I don’t see pieces like this much anymore. Mostly, hard to move chipboard crap. This is old and well made. Weighs a ton, but that’s okay. I need to move something interesting now and then, or I start to wonder why I’m still doing this at my age.”
“I noticed that your truck says, and sons,” I didn’t get to finish my thought.
“Boys aren’t interested in the business. Moving shit around is beneath them, I guess.”
I didn’t push it because he sounded sad and I understood family disappointment.
“Can you put it in the front room, the one on the left?” I asked.
“Anywhere you like mate. It’s all the same to me,” he said with the hint of a friendly smile.
From the window of my house, I watched him pack up his truck and drive away.
My Californian bungalow was built in the 1930s in a quiet working-class suburb of Melbourne — my parents’ house, back in the day. They did the predictable thing and sold up and moved to Queensland where they promptly died. They lived long enough to get a decent tan before a tourist bus, laden with people from far away, compressed their car to the size of a pizza box.
A boring life lived for just one goal — to retire. A distracted bus driver took away their dream of unlimited shopping for ugly clothes and endless games of golf and poker.
My siblings and I were bequeathed an equal share of a considerable estate, and I took some of it and bought back our family home. The planets aligned and the property was for sale. “You were lucky to get this house — I had several buyers lined up — all original features.” I waited for his lips to stop moving before asking for the keys. His blue suit did not have a single spec of dust on it — I know this because I was inspecting it while he was giving me real estate speak, at a mile a minute.
“Luck had nothing to do with it,” I said when there was a nanosecond break in his speech.
“Luck had nothing to do with it. I paid 15% over the asking price, and I slipped your colleague $10,000 to make sure that the vendors didn’t get greedy.”
The man in the dust free blue suit didn’t speak again, and I could tell that his colleague had neglected to mention the little sweetener I had provided.
I remember my father saying that the writing desk had been in the family for a long time and that my grandfather had made some alterations to it.
It had been several months since the settling of my parent’s estate, so the arrival of the writing desk came as a surprise. It was my understanding that all their possessions were to be sold at auction. There wasn’t any paperwork — no explanation, just the desk. I was glad I was home when it came — finding it on my front doorstep would not have put a smile on my face.
I let it sit for several days until my curiosity got the better of me.
There was not a lot going on at the office, so I took a few days off to organise my newly acquired house. The inside of the house was still much the same as I remembered it as a kid. Naturally, some things were different, but all the features that made it unique were still there. The beautiful doors, the wood panelling and the polished floors. The pencil marks on the inside of the linen press doors had been lacquered over, which was a shame. I remember my mum lining me up every year on my birthday and carefully checking to see that my feet were flat on the floor.
Miraculously, the ornate brass key was still in the lock of the writing desk. It had a cardboard ticket attached to it by a thin yellowing string. There was something written on it in pencil, but it was indecipherable.
I turned the key, and the lock clicked into place easily. The timber shutter rolled back smoothly revealing the many pigeon holes and the embossed writing surface. The green leather inlay had been well used and was showing signs of wear. As far as I could see, there wasn’t anything in any of the compartments, but I was determined to search thoroughly — you never know what you may find. I’ve purchased some old pieces of furniture over the years, and some have produced the occasional gem. Old receipts taped to the bottom of drawers (did the new owners plan to return the piece for a refund?)
It was a warm afternoon. An intense light came through the windows of what was once my parents’ bedroom. To this day I’m not sure why, but I was sleeping in my old room just down the hall. The writing desk had my parent’s bedroom all to itself.
I pulled the heavy desk away from the wall, prised the thin timber planks from the back and peered inside. I saw what I expected to see — the superb workmanship of a master cabinetmaker. His maker’s mark was burned into the side of the cabinet where no-one would ever see it until the unit came apart from age and neglect. I sat and looked at his name burned gently into the rich cedar boards and tried to imagine what he was thinking before he completed his work by nailing on the wide planks at the back of the unit.
The wear on the drawer runners revealed which drawers had been the most popular.
The layout was beautiful and straightforward until I came to a feature that did not make sense. For a moment, I forgot that I was looking at the reverse side of a set of drawers because I was staring at a small drawer face which could only open in my direction — a hidden drawer! Exactly what I had hoped to find.
Usually, hidden drawers are activated by a lever mechanism. They reflected the security consciousness of their owner and the skill of their creator.
On this occasion, the owner did not want anyone to stumble upon its existence — this truly was a secret drawer.
You know that my breathing changed as I reached for the finger sized hole that served as a handle. Skillfully crafted, this drawer moved with the same ease as its more used cousins. I pulled it all the way out and held it in my hand. The drawer was not much larger than a packet of cigarettes and contained a silk wrapped mystery. An adventurous and inventive moth had nibbled at the edge of the exquisite fabric, but it was still intact. I delicately unfolded the cloth. The tender care that someone had taken reminded me of Furoshiki, the ancient art of Japanese gift wrapping.
Once revealed, the contents proved to be Chinese not Japanese, which was equally intriguing. A single gold coin, about the size of a fifty cent piece wrapped in an ancient material, probably velum. The words written on the vellum were Chinese in origin and my Chinese language skills were, and still are, deplorable.
“A gold coin and a bit of cloth with Chinese characters drawn in ink.”
“Let me have a look,” said the only Chinese friend I had at that time. Linda was born in Australia, but her parents insisted that she learn their native tongue.
“I have never seen some of these symbols before, but I’m pretty sure that that one says danger and this one here means crayfish,” said Linda.
It didn’t say crayfish, but I didn’t hold it against her. Her Chinese language professor spent two days researching the script, and when he got back to Linda he handed her the piece of material as if it was infected with smallpox, and he was a Canadian Indian.
“Take my advice and burn this,” he said with his grim eyes wide open. “I don’t know where you got it and I don’t want to know. Just get rid of it. Nothing good can come of this.”
Linda said that he would not talk to her after that and a short while later he resigned and moved to the United States where he became a huge success as a television evangelist.
“The dude was an atheist, for fuck sake,” said Linda one Friday night over several gin and tonics.
“I didn’t think Chinese people drank gin and tonic,” I said, just to make conversation.
“Fuck you and your little dog, white boy,” was her reply.
“No need to pick on the dog, lady,” was my retort.
It went on like that for about another hour and then I had to go. I jumped on a number twelve tram because I was in no fit state to drive.
I’m a circumspect kind of bloke, but the time had come.
When I arrived home, I had sobered up a bit, which was just as well. I fed my small dog which Linda had threatened to penetrate and took the translation that the recently installed televangelist had provided and sat in the comfortable chair by the gas fire.
I’d been foolishly carrying the gold coin around with me since I found it. I retrieved it from my pocket and held it in my left hand.
I was sick of being average.
I wanted what my grandfather had.
I held on tightly to the elaborately carved coin and carefully recited the words.
I tried facing in different directions — nothing happened.
I tried speaking slowly, shouting until my voice hurt, whispering — nothing happened.
My small dog sat patiently as I ran through these routines — he’s cool, he doesn’t judge.
I went to bed that night and slept soundly; my little dog curled up next to me. I should have been upset or angry, but I wasn’t. I felt light and free. As unencumbered as I have ever felt — no fear, no anxiety.
When I woke, I showered and ate breakfast, fed the dog and took him for a walk. At the end of our morning journey, I found an average sized man in an expensive suit standing on my verandah.
“Good morning. Are you Michael Find?” said the expensive suit.
“Yes, I am. Can I help you?” My small dog sniffed him and decided that he was not a threat. I trust my dog’s instincts when it comes to all things human.
“We received your manuscript, and they flew me down from Sydney just to talk to you about it. I can’t remember the last time they did that. The taxi dropped me off and left me here, and I’ve been waiting for you for nearly an hour.” He didn’t sound annoyed — he sounded desperate. “They told me if I didn’t come back with your signature on a contract they would make me read young adult manuscripts from the slush pile for the next twelve months.”
“You are going to have to slow down, man. I have no idea what this is all about,” I said. Amazingly, I still wasn’t angry, annoyed or anxious — I’d been like this since I woke up — it was an awesome way to be. “Come inside, and I’ll make us some coffee.”
I opened the big old redwood front door and led him into my kitchen. The coffee didn’t take long to brew, and we sat around the green Laminex kitchen table that I found sitting on my neighbour’s lawn a few weeks ago. I gave the desperate suit owner my second favourite coffee mug. I had to glue the handle back onto it after the move. I could have thrown it out, but some things should be repaired and cherished. This was the first time it had held coffee since its resurrection, and I admit to wondering if the glue was dry.
While staring at the patterns on the surface of my coffee, I remembered sending my manuscript to a bunch of publishers — about eighteen months ago.
“Who did you say you worked for?” I asked.
“Harper Collins,” he said, and I was sure that was one of them. “You haven’t signed with anyone else, have you? My boss will kill me if you have.”
“No, it’s still up for grabs.”
Whenever I come back from walking the dog, I always check the answering machine attached to my land line — yes, I still have one of those. The only time I receive phone calls is when I go to the toilet or walk the dog — which is one of many things that I am destined never to understand.
In all the excitement, I hadn’t checked, and something told me it would be a good idea if I did that now.
The red light was blinking and by the time the man from Harper Collins had finished his coffee I’d written down fourteen numbers — all from publishers wanting me to call them back urgently — I didn’t. Harper Collins had lost sleep to catch an early flight and sit on my verandah. He would do. The contract had more zeros than I had seen in a while and I knew that when I re-signed in twelve month’s time, I could name my price. That was how it would go — I knew what this was.
The symbol that Linda thought stood for crayfish was, in fact, an ancient symbol for turning one hundred and eighty degrees. ‘A complete turn around’ in modern parlance.
That was what happened to my grandfather — he turned from being an annoying arsehole into a mega successful real estate mogul — and it all happened overnight, so to speak.
He divorced his wife and married his curvaceous secretary, bought an expensive German car and holidayed in Europe — oh, and bought an antique writing desk.
“Good morning Mr.Williams. I noticed your advertisement, and I thought I’d come along and check out your service.”
My customer was a ‘walk-in’ which was not how I usually did business, but there were almost two hours until my next client, and I was feeling magnanimous, so I steered him into my office and gestured toward the big overstuffed leather chair that Doc had commissioned all those years ago. Doc was proud of that chair, and even though it was showing its age, the customers loved to sit in it.
“Just sit comfortably for a few moments while the chair adjusts to you. It’s very old but also quite intelligent, for a chair.” My client smiled which was a good sign. I find the stiff, awkward ones a bit much this early in the week.
“Excuse me for a moment, just sit there and think about what it is that you want me to ‘recollect’ for you.”
“Oh, I already know what that is,” he said excitedly.
“That’s excellent; I’ll just be a moment. I need to lock the front door. We wouldn’t want anyone wandering in off the street and interrupting your reading.” My client smiled at me again, and I was having difficulty reading him. It crossed my mind that he might be a bit simple, but time would tell.
I shot the old brass bolt on the front door and flicked the communication module to ‘answer mode’. The module had been playing up for the last few weeks, and I made a mental note to put it into diagnostic mode. I’d been putting it off because, like everything else in my shop, it is ancient and I have to attach a USB cable to it and dig out an old laptop computer and go through a manual connection. At least I’m old enough to remember how to upload manually. Top of the list will be its hover mode. The damn thing skates all over the desk. The clients think it is hilarious, but they don’t have to clean up the mess. Why a communication module has to hover is beyond me. Back in my day, the stupid things made video links, and that was it.
The proximity light was blinking on the security panel, but I ignored it because it always acts up during the school holidays. The damn thing is too sensitive. I’ve told the tech a dozen times to tune it down. Teenagers are a pain in the neck, but not all of them are a security threat.
“Now, are you comfortable Mr……..?”
“Applegate. William P. Applegate. 27 Blossom Lane Deepdene 3056. You can have my glidephone number as well if you like.” My client was very keen indeed.
“That’s kind of you Mr Applegate, but the Iris Scanner will record all of that information for me. Can you look into the lens for me? Thank you. That’s the housekeeping out of the way. Now down to business. How can I help you?”
He told me what he wanted me to recollect for him, and it was easy enough for me to find the memory in his mind, and it was all going along well until we got to the part where he shot both of his parents and put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
“What the fuck was that?” I heard myself say.
Part of being a ‘recollectionist’ means that you are in a mild trance when you retrieve and replay the requested memory. I have to be sitting very close to my client so that the energy fields that surround us are close enough to merge.
The whole thing works a lot better if the client is sitting in my lap, but you can see that this method has some practical drawbacks. Sitting close enough is good enough.
I held the image for a few moments, fully expecting the dead murderer to get up and laugh and say that it was all a joke, but he didn’t.
The scarlet red stain around his head just kept on spreading evenly.
I remember thinking that the floors in that house must have been very level for the blood not to flow in one direction. It’s a strange thought for such a moment, but this was not my first murder.
In the early days before the invention of the Hello-Motion-Brain Scanner, the police would bring me murderers who had made a confession and my job was to ‘recollect’ the exact details of the crime for the court records. I have to say that even though they paid very handsomely, I don’t miss those days.
I brought myself out of the trance a little too quickly and vomited in the waste paper basket. We haven’t used paper for many years, but I just couldn’t bring myself to throw it out, it belonged to Doc, and it came with the business, lock stock and barrel, as they say.
Mr Applegate was still sitting where I’d put him, and now he had a silly grin on his face.
“Now you know too,” he said.
“Know what?” I was aware that I was shouting, but it seemed appropriate.
“This memory has been playing in my head for a month and a half, and I’d like it to stop, please.”
“I’m not a head doctor Mr Applegate, I don’t do ‘stop it’, that’s not what I do. Have you been to the police?”
“Yes, of course, I have, but they said that both of my parents are alive. They don’t want to speak to me, but they are definitely alive so the police will have nothing to do with me. Oh yes, they did say that they will lock me up if I keep bothering them.”
“That is your parents in that recollection, isn’t it?”
“Yes, and that’s me as well,” said Mr Applegate with that same silly grin.
“I have to say that I’ve never come across anything like this before, and I’ve been doing this for most of my life which, right now, seems like a lot of years. I don’t know how to help you, but I would say that you need help. Professional, medical help.”
Mr Appligate’s retinal scan had already deposited the fee into my account, so there was nothing else to do but see him out and wish him luck.
“You will see a doctor, won’t you Mr Applegate?”
“I’ll make an appointment as soon as I get home.” Same silly grin.
He didn’t make an appointment, at least I don’t think he did. There wasn’t anything about a doctor in the note, just a brief explanation that he did it because he needed to make the memory match the deed. That’s exactly how he phrased it, ‘match the deed’. Who says stuff like that? Who kills three people just to make a cross-wired memory into a fact?
William P. Applegate, that’s who.
The police showed me the crime scene photos.
Big hole in his head, scarlet stain unevenly spread and that silly bloody grin on his face.
Looks can be deceiving.
Take Bernard for example.
He looks small and cute, and his mistress is French.
You might think that he lives in a handbag and eats paté all day, but no, he doesn’t. Okay, so he does eat the occasional croissant, and he once licked paté off the floor where some French bloke dropped it while talking to his mistress, but I don’t think that counts.
He does eat snails, but that is a whole other story.
Bernard is special.
All dogs are special, of course, but what I mean to say is that Bernard is especially talented.
You already know that dogs have amazing senses, and the sense of smell is particularly acute.
I sound like I know what I’m talking about, but to be truthful, I only discovered this because my mistress was doing research for a story.
It all started after I caught the murderer in the country house. It was one of my very first adventures. My mistress was very proud of me, and she wondered how I did it. I didn’t think much about it at the time; I just did what dogs do — I sniffed it out. I thought everyone could do it, but apparently not.
My mistress said that some dogs could detect individual ingredients in a pasta sauce. I could have told her that. It drives her crazy that her girlfriend makes a particularly good Napoli sauce, and she is not sure what the secret ingredient is. It’s Turmeric. A very tiny amount. I tried pointing at it in the spice rack using my nose, but she told me off for climbing on a chair. Humans can be very annoying.
Bernard, on the other hand, never gets told off for climbing on chairs. He is treated like a king — a small hairy king, but a king none the less.
His unique skill is finding things.
Rich people pay his mistress large amounts of money to find things that have been lost inside their huge houses, but more importantly, Bernard is asked to find things that are hidden in the houses of wealthy deceased persons — usually by greedy relatives who are sure that their dead uncle has stashed away a fortune.
Bernard comes to visit at least once a year.
His mistress and my mistress have been friends since my mistress was a student in France. She stayed with her friend’s parents for a year, and she says it was one of the best years of her life.
I was expecting Bernard to be a bit ‘up himself’, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that he was a very down-to-earth dog.
Appearances can be deceiving.
He likes watching soccer on TV, and he enjoys walks in the rain, but his mistress won’t let him. I splashed water on him one time so that he would know what it felt like. He was very appreciative.
I took him down to the local Butcher Shop, just to show him the sights and he had a splendid time. He got dusty, and some sand got stuck between his toes and he said it made him feel like one of those free range dogs. He was kidding himself of course. He wouldn’t last five minutes in the wild, but I let him have his dream. Who am I to step on anyone’s dream?
He told me about life in Paris, and it sounded pretty good.
French dogs are allowed into cafés, but I like it here. I’m too old to learn the French words for ‘walk’ and ‘treat’ and ‘get off the chair’.
I asked Bernard what was the most interesting thing he was asked to find, and he said that it was hard to choose, but it was probably a lost toy.
The toy belonged to a little old lady. She was very old and sick. She believed that she was going to die soon and she had been thinking a lot about her childhood. She had a favourite little doll.
She used to tell it her secrets.
One day, while playing hide and seek with her brothers and sisters, she put the doll down and forgot where she put it. She searched and searched, but to no avail.
She wanted to hold that little doll one last time before she died.
Bernard said that she offered a huge reward, but it would only be paid if he could find the doll.
His mistress brought him to meet the old lady, and they got on very well indeed. Bernard gave her a good sniffing and set off through the large old Chateau in search of the little doll. It helped that he is small because it stood to reason that the doll would be in a small hiding place just big enough to hide a little girl.
Bernard searched all day, and he was beginning to wonder if he might have to come back another day, but just as the light was failing, he wandered into a small room attached to the huge kitchen. It was full of dusty old boxes, and it looked like no one had been in there for a long time. To start with, nothing in the room seemed to smell like the little old lady had touched it, but after pushing a few boxes aside with his nose, he got a faint whiff.
The little doll had been nibbled on by moths and was very dusty, but she was in one piece, and she was exactly as the old woman had described her.
Bernard said that it was very strange, but he was sure that the little doll was calling out to him. He followed the scent and the sound directly to where the doll was lying, but when he got there, the doll stopped talking to him.
He gently carried the little doll back to the old lady. She was sleeping and woke as he jumped up on her bed. She didn’t care that the doll was dusty and moth-eaten. She hugged it and cried. Bernard knew enough about female humans to know that there was a chance that this little old lady was happy and not sad.
I asked him what happened to the doll and the little old lady, and he said that he was not sure. He heard his mistress talking about her a few times, but he did not know what her words meant. He did say that they got paid a lot of money because of his find and they went on a holiday to Trieste, and as a special treat, he got a ride on the famous funicular tramway. Bernard loves trams, and he and his mistress are going to visit Melbourne next year because they have the most extensive system of tramways anywhere in the world, not to mention the longest continuous piece of tram track.
Bernard loves trams.
You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but appearances can be deceiving.
It’s a job like any other.
I get tired, and I get bored, but mostly I like coming to work.
When I was a young man, working my way through college, I worked at a shop that sold lottery tickets. I loved that job; the owner was a dick, but the job was great. People who buy lottery tickets are optimists, and they are my favourite people to be around; not always the brightest, but definitely the most fun. They believe that their time will come.
Which, by contrast, is the exact opposite of the people who come to my place of work.
When my customers come through that door, the one with the antique bell hanging off the inside, they come because they want to recapture something of their past.
I know that sounds mundane; everyone goes back into their memories looking for a happier time. All very well if you can actually remember those times, but if you can’t, that’s where I come in.
Not everyone walks around with a head full of brightly coloured memories. Some people blank their memories out and with good reason.
Some people, and I’m talking quite a lot of people, do not remember specifics about their childhood. They remember their childhood, of course, but only in a general way. Happy, sad, bored, excited, mad, elated, lonely, that sort of thing.
These days we have the technology to do all kinds of amazing things, and still, we are not happy.
People come to me because they want to reconnect with that happiness that they once knew. They want to experience it one more time, and in many cases, over and over again.
There are side effects, of course, but I can see their eyes glaze over as I read the list of things that might happen to them if they go through this procedure. The government makes me tell them, but I told them even before the small fat bloke from the Ministry paid me a call.
“I’m not sure how you slipped through the net Mr Williams [he pronounced my name as though he had just stepped in something nasty], but it seems that you don’t come under any of our regular categories. We’ll put you under ‘miscellaneous’ [that’s the catch-all category that makes sure that you have to fill in a form and pay a fee, even if they have no idea what you do].”
“What do you do with all the fees we pay Mr………?”
“Johnson, William Johnson, chief collector of fees for the eastern and southeastern region. I used to have the north-eastern region, but they said it was too much for me, and they gave it to Jenkins, the swine.”
“That’s a riveting story Mr Johnston, but where does the money go?”
“General revenue, of course.” He looked at me as though I’d just dropped in from another planet.
“Yes, but what does the money do?”
“It doesn’t do anything, it just is —— revenue.”
I could have kept this conversation going, but there was a serious danger of my head exploding so I just nodded and bit my lip — really hard.
William Johnson was not born a revenue collector. When he was young, he dreamed of being a train driver, back when trains had drivers. He loved the sound of trains, and the drivers were his heroes. His house backed onto the tracks of the Belgrave line. During the school holidays, he would scale the back fence and sit on the embankment and wait for the trains to pass. He’d wave at the drivers, and some of them would wave back. William longed to be the driver who waved back, but his father was convinced that working for the Public Service was the only life for his disappointing son who liked trains and talked of nothing else. ‘In the absence of a war, the Public Service will toughen him up.’
When you go into business, every bugger has got his hand in your pocket.
This bugger was only one of many.
When I wasn’t paying fees, I was dealing with customers.
They come in all shapes and sizes.
I had a bloke in here recently who had lost a lot of his long-term memory in a car accident. Naturally, he wanted to remember the accident in detail so he could work out what had happened.
Therein lay a problem.
If you are driving along and another car comes out of nowhere, all you are going to remember is that you were driving along and ‘bang’, the memory stops.
He was disappointed but not surprised. I helped him with a few other names and dates, but it didn’t seem to help his mood. He was frustrated and a bit sad.
This was an unusual day because I don’t get a lot of this kind of business.
People don’t usually come digging around in a forgotten past.
It does happen, and it usually ends in tears. The mind blocks out certain things — nasty things, and I can’t help thinking that the mind knows what it is doing — leave that stuff alone.
Of course, none of that is up to me. My job is to pinpoint the memory as accurately as possible.
They give me an approximate time and place and I ‘recollect’ it for them. Occasionally, it takes me a bit longer than I’d like, but that usually happens when people are not too sure about specifics.
You are probably wondering how I got into this business.
I just fell into it.
I was young, and my dad insisted that I work during the summer before I started college. My dad was like that. He felt that there were things that I needed to learn and more importantly, things I needed to experience.
We had money, as the saying goes, and my dad did not want me to grow up thinking that the world owed me anything.
I’d known I had this ability since childhood, and my grandfather made sure that I worked at it and got it better. This was back in the day when you had to be careful of who you spoke to about such things. It could cause you some problems, and I lost a few friends because of it, mostly because my friends’ parents were frightened to let their child play with someone who could access their memories. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I took it personally — I was hurt.
I understand now that, most likely, these adults were worried that their child would reveal some secret memory. As we have learned in recent times, some strange things went on behind closed doors in those days.
I went to work for old Doc Preston. My dad knew him [dad knew a lot of people], and he got me the job.
Doc Preston wasn’t a medical doctor; he was a doctor of psychology, and his credential came in handy in this work. All Doc Preston ever wanted to do was help people. It was amazing being around this man, even for an oblivious young eighteen-year-old like me. He lost the love of his life when they were both quite young, and he never married again. He had ‘friends’, but never anything heavy. ‘I’m married boy, [he always called me boy, even when I was in my forties], and I always will be. She may not be here with me in person, but I know we will be together again, and I’m going to remain faithful to her. It’s the only thing I can give her now, my loyalty.’ As I got to know him, I gave him the ‘she would want you to be happy’ speech, but he alway smiled and shook his head, ‘you will understand one day, boy.’