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.
“G’day, sorry to interrupt, but I’m sure I know you?” I said.
“Don’t think so,” said the heavyset bloke squashed up against the wall of the train.
The three other bulky blokes looked at me as though I’d stepped in something.
These four sizeable male football supporters exceeded the technical design limits of the seats in our suburban train carriage.
They’d been annoying my friend and me ever since the doors opened at Richmond station.
The carriage had been half full, but now it was packed with people heading home after the game at the MCG.
From the scarves and beanies, it looked like Hawthorn and Melbourne had played each other. I have only a passing interest in the sport that dominates my city, but I knew that these two teams were evenly matched.
It was hard to tell from the general conversations which team had prevailed.
The general make up of our carriage was young families and friends all happily retelling their favourite highlights or wishing that “Robbo had hit that shot on the siren.”
It must have been a close finish.
Football crowds can be a mixed lot, but this crew were primarily easygoing.
And then there were the four fat blokes a few seats back from us.
Not easy going.
Probably three parts pissed.
Like a swirling ink stain, their influence was colouring the previously happy carriage.
Other conversations became quieter —more private — protective.
“Sorry, you look just like a bloke I used to know,” I said as I leaned over the nearest member of this quartet and offered my hand.
A universal male greeting.
A sign of friendship.
A sign that I mean you no harm.
Except I did mean him harm.
The red-faced fuckwit reluctantly took my hand and tried to crush my fingers for the amusement of his friends.
It didn’t work even though his hand was huge. I went to an all-boys school back in the day, and one of our teachers taught us how to avoid a vice-like grip.
The fuckwit held my hand way too long and looked into my eyes, waiting for my reaction.
“Well, sorry to have disturbed your conversation,” I said as I wrenched my hand free.
“Have a good night fellas,” I said with a smile.
The other three blokes sneered at me as I smiled and walked back to my seat, nearly tripping over a boy wearing an oversized jacket.
“That kid’s going to burst into flame if his dad doesn’t take his jacket off,” I said as I sat down next to my friend.
“Never mind the combustable kid. What the fuck were you doing talking to those Neanderthals? They’ve probably been drinking all day.”
“They were annoying me and pissing everyone off so I thought I’d sort it,” I said while looking out into the darkness.
“What station do you reckon they’ll get off at?” I said.
The question pushed my friend back into our regular routine for a moment.
“Boronia, maybe Bayswater. You know, cashed up bogan territory.”
“Could be,” I said.
“So what the fuck did you think you were doing?” said my friend.
We’d known each other forever, and our friendship had survived the inevitable ups and downs.
Life had been putting distance between us, but we met up over two weeks to attend the film festival every year.
“Have you ever noticed that I tend to fist bump people and rarely shake hands?” I said.
“Yeah, so what?”
I put my hand out, and he took it and shook it.
“I’ve often thought I might be gay and I’ve wondered what it would be like to have sex with you, but I didn’t want to complicate our relationship and I don’t know why I’m saying this. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to be able to stop myself,” said my best friend, who once saved my life when we were kids.
I knew he fancied me, but I’m okay with the knowledge.
Good friends are hard to hold on to.
“If it makes you uncomfortable, just don’t speak. The effect will wear off in a little while. It was only a short hand shake. That bloke down there, on the other hand, he’s going to be telling the stark honest truth for quite a while.”
My friend clamped his lips tightly shut and turned around to stare at the commotion occurring behind him. I’d been watching as we spoke.
The bloke I’d shaken hands with — the one who wouldn’t let go — was in violent conversation with the other three.
The people seated near them had moved further away, and I could hear snatches of dialogue as things seemed to be getting out of hand.
“Yeah, I fucked her. She was begging for it. Your old lady bangs like a dunny door.”
A punch was thrown, but it’s hard to do much damage when you are wedged it tight with a bunch of drunk fat blokes.
“What’s the matter with you Billy, I thought we were mates?” said the fat bloke sitting next to the fat bloke who had been cuckolded by Billy.
“I gave your missus one as well. If you ask her nicely, she’ll bark like a dog. You should give it a try,” said Billy just before this fat bloke tightened his grip.
Someone threw an elbow, and there was a dull thud and an exhalation of air.
The four fat blokes continued to ineffectually strike each other until the train came to a halt, and I expected to see a couple of police officers come bursting in, but they didn’t.
The four portly football supporters got up and staggered off the train. The mayhem continued on the platform as the train pulled out.
“Bayswater,” I said, and my friend looked at me.
“Did you have ‘Bayswater’, I can’t remember.”
“No. I don’t think we settled on a station.” Which was very honest of my friend. Mind you, just at the moment, he didn’t have a lot of choices. So honesty was going to follow him around for the next half an hour or so.
“You did that, didn’t you?” said my friend.
“Have you always been able to make people tell the truth?” said my friend. “Fuck, that explains a lot. That time Brother Michael told us all that stuff about what it was like to be a Marist Brother. That was you.”
“He really gave me the shits. Served him right.”
“I liked him a lot.”
“I know you did, and if you had acted on your feelings, he would have eaten you alive,” I said.
“After his outburst I changed my mind about him.”
“I’m glad. It was a huge chance to take, but I couldn’t just stand by and see him take advantage of you. You were my friend.”
“I still am.”
“I know you are.”
We talked some more about the movie and what we would like our lives to be like in the coming year, and my friend didn’t notice when the urge to tell the unvarnished truth fell away.
When we got off the train and walked to our cars, we said goodnight and my friend hugged me. Hugging wasn’t one of our things, but I got the feeling that it would be from now on, and I’m okay with that.
“My uncle had one. We used to sit in it and pretend we were driving. Anywhere really. To the moon, down to the beach and for some reason, to the shops,” I said.
“So you bought it from your uncle? He kept it in remarkable nick.”
“No, for starters, my uncle died ten years ago, and even if he was alive, he’d be old, really old. They probably would let him drive,” I said, and I was beginning to get annoyed.
“So, what’s the point?” said my soon to be ex-friend Derrick.
“The point, Derrick, is that I’ve achieved a lifelong dream. I now own a car just like the one my uncle owned.”
“Didn’t your uncle get done for offering sweets to not quite legal young women?”
“No, that was another uncle. I’ve got a whole bunch of uncles. One was an Antarctic explorer. Another one had an ice-cream shop empire, which he duly lost when the casino opened. Another one was quiet and boring and told excellent stories. I liked that one.”
“And one was a kiddie-fiddler?”
“Not technically. He never managed any sort of fiddling, but he got six months for trying. Can we get back to my car?”
“It’s true that it’s sometimes hard to start and it doesn’t like Australia’s hot weather, but apart from that …”
“It has wipers that don’t really work?”
“I’m working on that, but it does have a one-piece windscreen. It was a big deal back then.”
“When was ‘back then’?”
“Shit! That’s a long time ago.”
“Yeah, right? And here it is seventy-one years later. Chicks love old cars.”
“Do they love your old car?”
“Not as much as I’d like,” I said, and my enthusiasm was beginning to sag.
The ‘do chicks love your old car?’, was kind of the point, and I was reluctant to admit that it wasn’t working. I’d spent all the money I’d saved. Took me three years to get that money together and my sex life was just as crap as it was before I’d bought the car.
Derrick went back to wherever it is that Derrick comes from, and I was left with my thoughts.
I cast my mind back to when I was a kid and the conversations I’d had with my uncle.
It meant nothing to me then, but now I come to think about it, I do remember my uncle saying that he wasn’t getting much action at home since he’d bought that car.
He was indeed pissed at the time (I didn’t think much of that then either — most of my relatives smelled of alcohol – I thought it was probably deodorant).
“Sex is impossible once you get married boy, don’t do it!” he said, and I think he passed out.
To be honest, I didn’t know what sex was back then, and I’m beginning to forget what it is in the here and now.
Just like athletes’ foot and bad-taste Christmas jumpers, retirement comes to everyone.
Well, almost everyone.
“Raise your glasses for a good copper going out to pasture,” said Chief Inspector Spacey, who looked to be about nineteen years old.
Plastic goblets were raised, and the soon to be ex-Inspector McBride wondered how these young people came to be in charge.
Not enough arse kissing was his conclusion, and he was right.
He hadn’t ‘played the game’ in his time in the Force.
Inspector McBride was leaving the Homicide squad after two stints lasting more than twenty years.
McBride’s sixtieth birthday was not for another few months, and he could have served out his time, but now was the best time to leave.
Their beloved daughter had moved out of home to be with her university friends. Now he and his wife, Helen, could get to know each other all over again.
The nest was empty.
There was the possibility of travel, but McBride preferred the idea of sleeping in and possibly never getting out of bed except for walking the dog.
Then there was catching up on reading and spending some time in the kitchen (he loved to cook, but there never seemed enough time).
The squad room was full of people who would not give him a second thought six months after he was gone, and he knew it. It didn’t worry him — that’s the way things go. Life goes on, and most coppers are too busy to be sentimental.
This gathering would break up when the bubbly ran out. Nice of the Chief Super to lay on a spread. Most coppers didn’t get an official sendoff.
McBride had taken on legendary status.
Some of his cases were taught at the Police Training College in Melbourne.
Rumour had it that he ‘always’ got his man.
His men nicknamed him ‘the Mounty’.
Despite his reputation, it was common knowledge that ‘the winged killer’ was his Moby Dick.
Later that night, McBride and his wife would meet up with Wilson and his wife. Their friendship had spanned three decades. Wilson was now the Chief Superintendent of the entire Eastern region of Victoria. McBride was proud of his friend’s achievements and a little jealous — but not so much that it showed.
For now, there was moderately good bubbly spoilt only by the taste of plastic and the ever-present schoolboy police humour.
It was getting dark when McBride gathered up his jacket and took one last look at what was his desk. He touched the timber surface gently. He’d had to fight the logistics department to hang onto the old desk.
As he left, a chorus of, “The mounty is leaving the building,” broke out. What was left of the celebration crew looked a bit the worse for wear.
McBride smiled and gave a final wave, and what he thought a ‘Mounty’ salute might look like.
The taxi was waiting for him at the front gate.
Someone had ordered a Silver Service limo, “All paid for in advance, sir. Where would you like to go?”
“Home seems like a good idea.”
The large inflatable Canadian Mounted Policeman barely made it into the back of the limo next to ex-Inspector McBride. It made strange squeaking noises as he pushed it into position. McBride smiled in just the same way that all small boys do when someone farts.
“I’ve never seen one of those before,” said the driver who was in full uniform, including a cap with the logo of the hire company attached.
“Me either,” said McBride. “It’s a kind of joke. I was a policeman and I had a reputation for always catching the killer, which wasn’t true. But you know how the truth never gets in the way of a good nickname?”
“I’ve never had a nickname,” said the driver somewhat sadly.
“You can have mine if you want it?”
“No, sir. That wouldn’t be proper,” said the uniformed driver.
“On second thoughts, before you take me home — do you remember where Dark Angel Pizza used to be?”
“Yes sir, I do. Best pizzas in Melbourne. It was a shame when it closed down — all those years. I believe the owner died.”
“Can you drive me over there?”
“Of course sir, but I’m sure it’s just a boarded-up shop these days.”
“Let’s do it anyway. The place has a ghost that I can’t put to rest.”
The driver was intrigued, but he didn’t comment.
McBride pressed the button and rolled down the tinted window and stared at the building that, for many years, sold excellent pizzas and once employed an enigmatic pizza delivery driver who liked to be called Raphael.
The building still had its faded sign, Dark Angel Pizza.
“Do you remember the bloke who delivered pizzas from here, about twenty years ago? Rode a bicycle, had a winged helmet and wings attached to his leather jacket?”
“Before my time sir. We only migrated to Australia about ten years ago.”
“He was quite a sight and he’s the one that got away.”
“I don’t understand sir.”
“It doesn’t matter. Home now I think.”
Il Barcaro was in full swing when the two couples arrived.
The head waiter greeted them as they entered the restaurant from Little Collins Street. Construction on the tall building opposite meant that a handful of parking spaces had come back into service.
The two wives had bought new outfits for the occasion, and Chief Superintendent Wilson has blown off dinner with the Lord Mayor of Melbourne to be with his old friend.
Tony, the head waiter and part-owner, greeted them as though they were his favourite customers — that was his way.
“Treat everyone the same. Treat everyone with respect.”
He showed them to their table and asked if they would like a drink.
The ladies ordered something pink and sticky, served in a cocktail glass.
The men asked for Scotch — the good stuff.
“Anything for you Inspector,” said Mario, who had been given the responsibility of looking after the table.
The menu was heavy on seafood, which didn’t suit McBride, so he asked for a pasta starter’s larger serve.
“Ex-Inspector,” said McBride, “and how did you know?”
“You are famous Inspector. Not many honest people left in this world and you are considered to be one of the few.”
Mario put out his hand, and McBride shook hands with him.
The staff of the restaurant stopped what they were doing and applauded.
“Are you a movie star?” said the lady on the next table who was wearing a small fortune in jewellery.
“No,” said McBride, “an honest copper. Apparently, I’m a rare commodity.”
“Good for you. You go get ’em sarge.”
“Was that your doing Wilson?”
“You booked the restaurant. I thought you paid them to be nice to you,” laughed Wilson.
“You’ve been in the papers dear. Almost all of them. You’ve had a long and successful career and people are grateful.”
“I guess,” said McBride, who was a little embarrassed, but also enjoying the acknowledgement.
“Your drinks are on the house — go crazy,” said Mario.
The McBride party were among the last to leave. The City was still alive, despite the hour.
“Fancy a walk ladies?”
“Down to the river, Federation Square. Look at the water. Arrest a couple of drunks, that sort of thing.”
“Sounds good,” said Wilson and the two couples walked down the hill and turned left into Swanston Street. Along the way, a taxi got a bit close, and McBride threatened to arrest the driver.
“No warrant card, old son. You’re a civilian now. No more sword of justice for you,” said Wilson, and he was aware of how sad that all sounded.
The couples sat on the bank of the Yarra and looked at the lights reflected on the water. No one needed arresting, and the two couples ambled (because they didn’t want the evening to end) back to their car and drove home.
At the Wilson home, the old friends embraced, and the evening was over, and so was McBride’s career.
“What the hell am I going to do now?” he said to Mary.
She didn’t answer, but she did hug him very tightly.
Ex-Inspector McBride sat on his couch watching the Cricket on TV.
His wife, Helen, was making their lunch — an avocado salad.
McBride was enjoying a beer after working in the garden most of the morning.
When a knock came from the front door, McBride told his wife he would see to it. He put his beer on the coffee table then moved it to a nearby drink coaster — not worth risking the wrath of the lady of the house.
“Good afternoon Inspector,” said the young man in the leather jacket.
“I know you might be thinking about trying to arrest me, but I’m strong and young and you aren’t and I really don’t want to hurt you. No offence, it’s just the way things are. You could ring the police, I won’t stop you, but I’ll be gone before they get here.”
“What do you want?” said McBride.
“I thought you deserved an explanation.”
The young man with his chrome helmet stood waiting for McBride’s decision.
McBride weighed up his chances of overpowering the young man he remembered as Christopher Dawson, aka Raphael — the Winged Killer — his Moby Dick.
“You’d better come in.”
Raphael moved past McBride, and his wing brushed across his face leaving a tingling sensation. A sensation he’d had described to him by a young custody constable, so long ago.
Raphael stood in McBride’s lounge room with the second Test Match’s sounds between England and Australia playing in the background.
“Helen. Can you come out here? I have someone I want you to meet.”
Helen McBride stepped into the room, fixing her hair as women will do when visitors arrive unexpectedly.
She was holding a wooden spoon used for mixing cakes.
She stopped, opened her mouth slightly as the wooden spoon tumbled out of her hand and onto the floor. It made a unique sound, bounced a couple of times and came to rest in front of a tall young man with white wings protruding from his leather jacket.
Raphael stooped down and picked up the sticky spoon. He handed it to Helen, who took it, still with her mouth frozen half-open.
“This is Raphael. The winged pizza delivery driver I told you about all those years ago.”
McBride turned to Raphael and asked, “Are you still delivering pizzas?”
“Yes,” said Raphael, “but that’s not what I came to talk to you about.”
“Where have you been for the past twenty years?”
“You wouldn’t understand if I told you,” said Raphael.
By this time, Helen McBride had regained her composure. She sat on a footstool and listened to what was to become a surreal conversation.
“It’s a place called Standarderin. Obviously, it’s not around here. I was sent there because of what I did. I had to stay there and work and get my head straight, as you would say.”
“For twenty years!”
“Time doesn’t affect us the way it does you. It wasn’t long in the scheme of things. I’m just glad I was allowed to come back and continue my work.”
“What is your work, exactly?” said Helen, finding her voice.
“It’s not easy to explain, but to put it simply, I tidy up a bit.”
“You’re right, I don’t understand,” said Helen.
“Okay, look at it this way. When people decide to be human…”
“Yes you all do, but when you get here there are hundreds of things that conspire to confuse you and maybe bump you off course. My job is to help selected females to get back on track. They get into relationships with violent men and I try to coax them away. It’s harder than it sounds.”
“Why don’t you work with the violent men?” asked Helen who was really getting into the swing of this conversation.
“Because it isn’t why I’m here, and besides, these men are usually too far gone to listen.”
“So, what happened on the Hemingway Estate?” asked McBride.
“You know when I said I don’t work to persuade the men? Well, I made an exception. I knew where he was hiding and I knew that he’d killed her. I was angry. She wasn’t the first woman I was unable to influence. I’ve lost many good souls over the years, but this one got to me. I was so close. She was going to leave that day. I had a place for her to stay, but she wanted to go back for some personal things. You Humans have a lot of trouble leaving things behind.”
“So he caught her and killed her.”
“Yes, and it broke my heart. All that blood and despair. I broke our rules and I went looking for him. I found him. I tried to speak to him, but all he wanted to do was argue and fight. I warned him about how strong I am and he laughed. He said something dirty about her and me and I hit him very hard. He didn’t get up. I remembered how upset you were about her being dead and no one telling the police. I took the man’s body to the pizza shop and told the owner to tell you what had happened, which I guess he did.”
“I’ve been in terrible battles and killed many beings and I don’t want to be that person anymore, that’s one of the reasons I accepted this assignment. I want to help not hurt.”
“So what now?”
“The young man who killed his partner and in turn was killed by me is sorry that he wasted his time here and he has forgiven me as she has forgiven him. They have started again in the hope of getting it right this time, and I’m back at my old job.”
“Aren’t you worried about getting caught for that man’s murder?” asked Helen.
“It was a long time ago and most of the officers who investigated the case are dead or retired, and besides, I have powerful friends and remarkable abilities. I’ll be okay as long as I stick to my purpose.”
“I’m pleased you came, but I’m still not sure why you bothered. I can’t cause you any grief, I’m retired.”
Raphael stood up, and McBride and Helen stood up instinctively.
“This is a special assignment for me. A one-off you might say. You two have lived the life you came here to live and you should be proud that you stuck to your guns and didn’t waver. Even though you were only blessed with one child.”
Raphael looked at Helen.
“Even though you were passed over for promotion, you maintained your values and you never took the easy way out, or the easy money or the dishonest shortcut.”
Raphael beckoned the couple to come closer.
McBride watched as Raphael’s wings grew larger until they almost touched the ceiling.
Raphael wrapped his wings around them both, and they were enveloped in a fluffy white cloud.
“What you will experience, isn’t for you just yet, but I’ve been asked to show you something special.”
McBride held his wife’s hand, and she squeezed it very hard.
“Oh, my God it’s amazing!”
Neighbours reported seeing a blinding light coming from McBride’s house in the middle of the day halfway through Australia’s second innings versus England.
Ex-Inspector McBride assured the emergency services workers who arrived at his front door that all was fine.
“We were just cooking a pizza and things got out of hand.”
“Until this taskforce was established, Christopher Dawson had slipped under the radar,” said the moderately attractive woman.
A trained eye would have noticed that she was nervous, and the room was full of trained eyes. Fortunately for her, they just wanted the meeting to be over, so they were less than observant.
“Exhaustive research, revealed his name several times in domestic violence cases going back more than a decade. Always as a peripheral character. He has never been wanted for anything. Never been a suspect.”
“Until now,” said Inspector McBride to his Sergeant.
The speaker gave him a glance.
“Several women have stated that he helped them escape violent partners. So how is he constantly on hand in these situations? It has been hypothesised that he is receiving information from someone inside the police force.”
“First I’ve heard of it,” said the Inspector and the speaker gave up her campaign of withering looks — police officers seemed immune.
The speaker was Inspector Glenis Waters.
She had worked her way up through the ranks and had studied psychology in her own time. She specialised in criminal profiling and had spent time in the United States at the FBI’s headquarters.
She was considered a ‘rising star’, particularly after writing a profile of the Sandpit Murderer. She described him in remarkable detail, down to the unmatched socks.
“We have discounted this theory because of the widespread nature of the domestic violence cases. There is no central registry for domestic incidents.”
Inspector Waters paused. If it were blokes who were getting the shit kicked out of them, there’d be a central registry, she thought.
“So there is no-one who had access to all the incidents.”
“What we have here is a classic hero type. A guardian angel delusion. A tiny brain that needs significance. I’m not sure yet why he broke his carefully constructed mould and branched out into murder, but I do know that he now has a taste for it and we need to stop him,” said Inspector Waters.
“What’s with his costume?” said a voice from the back.
There were a variety of police officers wedged into the muster room. Some were directly involved in the task force, and a couple had invited themselves out of curiosity — curiosity about the case, and curiosity about the star profiler.
Inspector McBride and Sergeant Wilson were sitting on a desk at the back of the room.
“His winged helmet and leather jacket are a sign of his flamboyance. The wings are obvious.”
“Not to me,” said Sergeant Wilson.
Another attempt at a withering glance.
Withering glances aside, McBride and Wilson felt that they had been judged and found wanting.
The chief commissioner summoned them to his office some three weeks prior.
“I want this bozo caught! We do the police work in this state, not this nutbag. I’m getting calls from the Minister and I’m sick of reading about this bloke in the papers. Sort this out. Get a task force together.”
Inspector McBride wanted to ask where the money would come from, but his Sergeant stopped him just in time. These meeting types were traditionally one-way conversations, finished off with a “Yes Sir,” at the end.
“Christopher Dawson does not appear to exist prior to about ten years ago, which means that he probably came here from interstate. We’ve sent out a general alert and are waiting to hear back, but in the meantime, here’s what we have found out.” Inspector Waters consulted her notes.
“He’s probably from bloody Queensland,” said a voice from the back. A light smattering of laughter broke out.
Inspector Waters waited for it to die down.
“He doesn’t have a driver’s licence, which fits with why he delivers pizza on a bicycle.”
“We have people working on the idea that he might have been involved in a road accident back in the day. Maybe he was driving or was hurt by another driver,” said Sergeant Wilson. The eyes in the room were on him, but he didn’t have anything else to add.
“There aren’t many photographs of this man, with the single exception of the newspaper shot. It’s a profile shot and a bit shaky, but it shows enough to tell us that this man has not changed his appearance, in the slightest, in more than ten years.”
“Maybe he’s Dorian Grey,” said a young female, who was sitting on the window sill. She’d rather noisily opened a window before she sat down.
A young constable asked his mate who Dorian Grey was, and his friend said he was a local pimp. The young constable seemed even more confused.
The general absence of laughter made the young female feel on the outer. Either the occupants of the room were not well-read, or they just didn’t like her. She decided on a mix of the two.
“What about CCTV?”
“I was coming to that and it’s weird. The local station went looking for footage around the time of the newspaper photo. Nothing. Some of the businesses in the area delete their footage after forty eight hours, but some keep their footage on a cloud server. Every one of them reported the same situation. Whenever they should have recorded the pizza delivery driver ride by, the footage was blank. Only for a few seconds, but blank. All the stores use different storage companies so that rules out hacking. Even if this bloke was skilled enough to hack all these accounts, he should have missed one — it’s the law of averages.”
Inspector Waters banged her hand on the lectern, which was her first sign of emotion.
“Why not delete the whole file?” she added. No one had an answer.
Someone’s tummy rumbled, and the people around them laughed.
“I know it’s lunch time so I’ll sum up what I know so far. Other than what I’ve mentioned, we know that he lives a simple existence. He doesn’t have a lot of possessions. He always wears the same clothes — no one reports seeing him anywhere near a laundromat. He doesn’t eat at local cafes and doesn’t appear to eat at home. No groceries in his cupboards, either that or he stopped to gather them up when he left in a hurry after the murder — unlikely, if you ask me.”
Inspector McBride dug cellophane lollies out of his pocket and offered one to his Sergeant.
“Might stop us from starving,” said the Inspector. His Sergeant took one with a smile.
“He always rides a white bicycle. No one reports him walking any distance — possible due to an accident?” The Inspector looked in the direction of McBride and Wilson, as an acknowledgement.
“His chrome helmet seems to be homemade and the wings stuck to his leather jacket are remarkably well maintained. How does he manage this? Does he have spare sets somewhere. He has to renew them sometime. Is someone supplying them?”
“Going back to something you said earlier,” said the female sitting on the windowsill, and the room gave a groan, which increased her belief that it was her they didn’t like.
“How do we know that he hasn’t changed much in ten years.”
“Sorry, I forgot to mention, we have a photo that someone took when he was working at Bazza’s Pizza in Benalla. They had a camera and asked for what passed as a selfie, back in those days.”
A slightly out of focus photograph flashed up on the screen that had previously been showing the newspaper shot. Three smiling females and one serious man looked at the camera. The man was dressed in the same jeans and leather jacket, and he was holding his chrome winged helmet under his arm as a soldier would when standing at attention. His hair was dark and wavy and was unkempt in a way that suggested that he didn’t worry much about his appearance.
His eyes were the first thing you noticed — piercing, but kind and gentle. They made you want to hug him or buy him a beer — probably both.
“The woman on his right, is one of the women he ‘saved’. She still had the photo when we contacted her. She was reluctant to part with it. I had to take a photo of it on the spot, which explains why it’s a bit out of focus.”
“As you can see,” the photos were placed side by side by constable Perkins, who prided himself on his I.T. abilities, “he looks exactly the same. Hasn’t aged a day.”
“Blokes get it easy in the ageing department,” said the window sill.
“Piss off, you sheilas have all those wonder drugs — anti ageing shit. All we have is beer and a comfy couch,” said someone who was too hungry to care anymore.
Generous laughter, including the window sill.
The mood toward her had softened, even if she was at the end of the joke.
“Okay. I know you creatures are hungry, so I’ll ask if there are any questions?”
Sergeant Wilson hesitated before asking, “Why do you think this bloke went from saviour to killer?”
Inspector Waters stretched her arms above her head and gave a customary sigh that comes with a stretch. She put her arms by her side and looked at Sergeant Wilson.
“Maybe he just got fed up. Do you ever feel that way Sergeant?”
Sergeant Wilson didn’t answer.
The room emptied at the pace you would expect. Inspector Waters was invited to lunch by the station commander.
“There is a good Chinese restaurant close by?” he said.
“I don’t mind where we go as long as it isn’t a pizza place,” said Inspector Waters and the Commander smiled.
The holding cells at Ocean Grove Police Station. The custody sergeant is trying to explain the disappearance of a prisoner. The cells are colder than the rest of the station, and high windows are admitting light. The walls are painted in the public service green that seems reluctant to be an actual colour. The floor is old fashioned linoleum, and the custody sergeant keeps glancing down at it in the vain hope it will open and swallow him.
“I brought him to you for safekeeping. I could have stuffed him in the boot of my car and taken him back to the city, but no. I entrusted him to you,” said Inspector McBride, without a hint of anger in his voice. This seemed strange to both of the sergeants. The custody sergeant was used to being yelled at by his chronically constipated Chief Inspector.
“When did you last see him actually in the cell?”
“I saw him when he got his dinner, but constable Willis says he was still in there at lights out — ten-thirty last night.”
“So somewhere between ten-thirty and six o’clock this morning, my suspect evaporated.”
“Well, yes. As far as we can tell. The cameras are old, and they don’t work in the dark. Never needed them to, until now. The cell door was definitely locked. No other way out.”
Sergeant Wilson peaked around the open doorway just to be sure. Definitely only one way out.
Sergeant Wilson and his Inspector had spent the night at the Seaview Motel which didn’t have a view of the sea, but you could hear it when it got quiet. The rooms were small but comfortable. Their rooms were next to each other — they both smelled the same — must have been something about the cleaning products they used.
Breakfast, which was included in the price, arrived on time. Bacon and eggs with tomato and avocado. Sergeant Wilson liked avocado, and he always pronounced it correctly.
Wilson was ready first, so he waited outside the Inspector’s room. He leaned on the car and listened to the ocean between the sound of passing traffic. Small birds were ignoring him as they rifled through the native bushes.
Sergeant Wilson didn’t like being away from home.
The two policemen knew something was up when the constable on the desk wouldn’t make eye contact.
“We’ve come to speak to our prisoner,” said the Inspector.
“If you could wait here a moment, sir, I’ll get the custody sergeant.”
“They’re a bit formal for a country station,” said Sergeant Wilson.
“Something’s up,” said the Inspector.
“So, did he say anything before he disappeared into thin air?” said the Inspector.
“I had a long chat with him last night before I clocked off. He seemed like a nice bloke. Told a good yarn, said he loved his job and I said that delivering pizzas seemed like a strange occupation. He said that it gave him time to think and he enjoyed meeting new people. Like I said — he seemed like a good bloke.”
“Did he say anything else?”
“He said he was hoping that they would forgive him. I assumed he was talking about your case, but the young constable who tucked him in said something similar, only he told it that the prisoner said he HAD been forgiven. The prisoner seemed quite excited. Said he was looking forward to getting back to work. The constable brushed it off — you hear all sorts of crazy stuff down here in the cells.”
A cafe on the foreshore which did have a view of the ocean. The two policemen from the city are having lunch, fending off ambitious seagulls, and talking about their next move.
“That big bugger has designs on your ham roll, Inspector.”
“Forget about the gulls sergeant. What are we going to do about our winged pizza deliverer?”
“Nothing we can do. We didn’t lose him. Just have to wait for him to resurface. Love to know how he got out of that cell though. Didn’t seem like the kind of bloke who could walk through walls.”
The two men drove back to Melbourne, going the long way, around the coast — The Great Ocean Road — one of Australia’s wonders and a huge tourist destination for the state of Victoria.
Inspector McBride’s wife was waiting in the driveway when he got home. She hugged him and risked crushing their baby son. McBride hugged her, and the baby played with his hair.
“Did you get your man?” said Helen McBride.
“Yes and no.”
The Inspector didn’t like to bring his work home with him, but Helen was interested, so he filtered out the heinous stuff and talked to her about the details around cases’ edges. Helen was fascinated with the hunt for the pizza delivery rider. The wings on his jacket and the chrome helmet sounded exotic.
“We caught him easily enough. He didn’t try to run. Came along peacefully. He seemed tired and worn out, and I believe he would have told us everything, except …”
“Except that he disappeared out of his cell overnight. Not a trace. I would have said it was impossible, but the more I work on this case, the less likely I am to use that word.”
Helen had the dinner ready, and the Inspector played with his son until the child fell asleep in his arms. The parents watched a movie and turned in early. The baby would be awake at the crack of dawn, so sleep was a luxury.
An unremarkable double fronted house in a nondescript street in suburban Melbourne. A man opens the front door to a pizza delivery.
“What are you dressed up for? Halloween’s months away mate,” said the young man in jeans and a singlet, “how much for the pizzas?”
The young man fishes in his jeans and brings out three five-dollar notes. He straightens them out before handing them over.
“No tip,” says the young man, “no-one tips me for doing my job.”
The pizza delivery driver stares at the young man, and the young man stares back at him.
The pizza delivery driver takes off his winged helmet and punches the young man in the face. The young man staggers back into the house and lands on the carpet — out cold.
A young woman emerges from the shadows and surveys the scene.
“Are you going to hurt me?” she says dispassionately.
“No. And neither is he, anymore.”
The young woman puts her hand to her face to cover the bruise she believes he is looking at.
“You have a choice. You can stay with this reprehensible person, and continue to be his punching bag, or you can pack a few essentials, get into your car and leave. He hides his money at the back of the bathroom cabinet.”
“How do you know that?” says the young woman.
“Your car is full of petrol, and I know that your sister will be happy to see you. It’s a long drive, so you had best get started. He could wake up soon, and he won’t be happy. Don’t come back, don’t look back. Just go. I’ve done all I can for you, now it’s up to you. Go, stay, it’s your choice.”
The woman notices the wings on the pizza bloke’s jacket as he turns to leave.
“Why are you helping me. I don’t know you at all,” says the woman, who sounds like she might begin to cry.
“It’s my job. It’s what I do. Everyone needs a job.”
The light streaming through the doorway made the feathers on his jacket glow, and the breeze made them flutter.
“If you do decide to go, which I hope you will, go back and finish the science degree you started. You have things to discover that will make a difference. People are depending on you.”
“What people? Who is depending on me? No one is interested in me. It’s too hard. How do you know all this stuff? Who are you? I can’t go back. I want to sleep for a hundred years,” said the young woman clutching at her stained dress.
“You can sleep when you get there. Now go.”
The young man put his shiny helmet on and disappeared through the doorway.
The breakfast break room at a suburban police station. One man is eating a chocolate croissant, the other is working his way through a ham roll.
“This looks promising,” said Sergeant Wilson.
“This report says that a pizza delivery driver in fancy dress beat the shit out of a bloke and stole a wad of cash. The young man who was assaulted is known to us through a series of domestic violence calls and his propensity for ‘borrowing’ other people’s cars. He’s in custody. Should get at least a year. The fourth time he’s been charged. The magistrate should have lost patience with him by now. Girlfriend has gone missing as well.”
“Yep. That’s probably him, but you know that when we get there, he’ll have vanished.”
“Yeah, I know, but we have to check it out.”
“I wonder if this young bloke knows how lucky he is to be alive? Busted nose and time inside still beats being dead.”
“Probably hasn’t got a clue. What do you say to me packing the giant butterfly net in case our suspect tries to fly away?”
The Inspector didn’t answer, but he thought it was a good idea.
This story is designed to stand alone, and there is no necessity to read the first two stories in the sequence of stories, but if you would like to, you can read THE CHRISTENING and FLYING PIZZA, here and here.
“This is a very detailed CV. You do realise that you are applying for the job of a pizza delivery driver?”
“Yes, I do. I just thought that you deserved the ‘full picture’. I thought you might like to know who I am. Obviously, I haven’t put everything in there, it would take years to read everything,” said the tall young man with the chrome helmet under his arm. He hoped that the pizza shop owner would not ask about the nine-month employment time gap.
“Do you have a car?”
“Can you handle multiple deliveries on a pushbike?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve been doing this for a long time.”
Mike, the pizza shop owner, looked at the young man and marvelled at how long a long time seemed to the young.
Mike used to work ‘nine to five’ in an office in the city. Five days a week, home by seven, dinner and a few drinks, fall asleep in front of the telly. Rinse, repeat, with a bit of alcohol oblivion on the weekends. Rinse, repeat.
It didn’t feel like it at the time, but when the racks in the storage room collapsed and crushed Mike, it was the making of him.
Mike’s union (he was the only paid-up member in the office) went to bat for him and got him a huge settlement — including pain and suffering.
Part of the deal was that Mike would not come back to the office, which was okay with Mike.
It was never his dream, but when the local pizza shop went under (the third time a pizza shop had folded at that location), he took out a lease, which included all the fixtures and fitting.
Why Mike thought he could succeed where so many others had failed, was never explained.
Mike decided that the personal touch was required, so he obtained a list of all the property owners in the area — it was a long list. He personally invited each homeowner to sample his wares — handwritten invitations.
Mike remembered names and faces, and so his business grew — quite a bit faster than he initially thought.
Home deliveries were a must for a pizza shop to thrive. Mike’s delivery drivers were loyal and hard workers.
“The job doesn’t pay much, but our customers are generous tippers if you deliver promptly. I’ll give you a week’s trial — okay with you?”
“Yes, sir. Okay with me.”
For some reason (Mike had not been sleeping well lately) Mike didn’t notice the wings stuck to the young man’s leather jacket until he turned to walk away.
Nice gimmick, he thought. The customers will love it.
Christopher Dawson (he liked to be called Raphael) had taken the last nine months off work. His previous job working for Fallen Angel Pizza had ended badly.
He was, in effect, hiding out. Two potent forces were looking for him. One force was the state police, which wasn’t as big a problem as you might think. If needs be, Raphael could deal with that problem.
The other force was the one that worried him.
Like all good, well-structured stories, Raphael’s life had always had a subplot — sometimes more than one.
In reality, the subplots were the central narrative of his life. His role as a pizza delivery driver was a cover, as the spy world would have it.
Raphael wasn’t a James Bond, he was more of a Simon Templar. Damsels in distress were his forte.
In the old days, the name and address of a woman in danger would be delivered to him, and he would do his best to save her.
Free will was his biggest enemy. He could not force anyone to leave a dangerous environment. In fact, he wasn’t allowed to.
Raphael didn’t mind these restrictions — they added an impressive ‘degree of difficulty’ to what could have become a tedious job.
All this changed when a customer of Fallen Angel Pizza was murdered by her live-in lover.
This was one death too many for Raphael. He thought he had more time to convince her to leave. He was wrong.
What Raphael did next meant that he was now on his own — no support, no new names and addresses.
He was a little surprised that they hadn’t come for him. It would have been better if they had. Being cast adrift was infinitely worse.
Raphael had spent the last nine months living in an abandoned cottage by the ocean, waiting for a knock on the door.
When the knock didn’t come, he left his comfortable hideaway and decided to reenter his old life, albeit without his usual supports.
How hard can it be to find a woman who needs help? He thought.
His chrome helmet, with the wings riveted to the side, was gathering dust on a shelf near the front door. It glinted in the light every time he walked it. His bike was in the shed at the side of the house. The old wooden doors were no match for a determined thief, but when he went out to look at his reliable steed, it was just where he’d left it. A tiny spider had built repeated webs on the frame. There were new rust spots and a lot of dust, all of which was quickly repaired.
Raphael wheeled his bike out into the light and got to work.
Raphael’s trial week went by uneventfully. His new boss never officially told him he was employed, but Raphael knew he had a new home.
By week three, he noticed that many of the delivery dockets had his name scribbled on them. He overheard the girl who took the orders, “Raphael is very busy, if you want him to deliver your pizza, it will take a bit longer — okay then as long as you understand.”
By week five, Raphael was beginning to doubt his initial confidence about finding a ‘damsel’.
One delivery address kept popping up, but the door was always answered by a male. He was gruff but always tipped. Not generously, but tipped nonetheless.
These deliveries always left Raphael feeling uneasy.
The man who took delivery always had a beer in his hand, but so what? Lots of people drink beer after work and pizza seems to demand either red wine or beer.
The uncertainty of not knowing where to look was playing on Raphael’s confidence.
On dark days he considered going back to hiding out at the oceanside cottage. It was full of books, and there was enough wood in the shed to last several winters. He never needed to go out. Maybe he could write his memoirs?
The dark days passed, as they always do, and Raphael settled into a routine. He liked his boss and enjoyed his regular customers.
He was becoming quite a celebrity in his community. People would toot their horn when they saw him zooming along on his bike — chrome winged helmet, leather jacket (in all weathers) and pristine white wings fluttering in the breeze.
Raphael’s instinct about the ‘beer in hand’ customer, was spot on.
When a human interest article appeared in the local paper, it got picked up by the national daily.
Page five had an article about a seaside town with an unusual pizza delivery rider. The report had an action shot of Raphael riding his bike — gleaming helmet, wings and all.
“I think our murder suspect has surfaced Inspector,” said Sergeant Wilson holding a copy of the newspaper that someone had left in the lunchroom.
“Get your coat, Sergeant. It gets cold down by the ocean at this time of the year,” said Inspector McBride.
Medium-sized bluestone church — probably Catholic, maybe Church of England, remote possibility of Episcopalian — do we have Episcopalians in Australia? It’s early afternoon. The sun is low and bright, The previous christening party have just left, reluctantly — a bit of glaring from the parents when the minister/priest has to shoo them away so that the next christening can begin. Four stone steps lead up to the large green wooden doors — which are wide open. Fake wrought iron hinges painted black.
“They pack ‘em in, don’t they?” said Sergeant Wilson.
Even though Sergeant Wilson wears a suit and a tie every working day, today, his shirt collar is bothering him.
“Religion is a business, like everything else,” said Inspector McBride. A very pretty young woman from the previous ceremony caught his eye. She held his gaze as he pivoted away from his Sergeant.
Helen, the Inspector’s wife, is cuddling her infant and trying to occupy it. She doesn’t want the tiny child to start crying any earlier than necessary.
Helen notices her husband’s interest in the young woman and her interest in him.
‘Women like my tall, handsome husband,’ she thinks. The thought pleases her and frightens her at the same time.
“Come inside everyone,” says the minister/priest, and the waiting group shuffle up the steps and into the place of worship. The temperature drops noticeably, and the windows cast streams of light, and as if Woody Allen had produced the scene, a shaft of coloured light strikes the baptismal font. The assembled group of friends and family head towards the light.
Gathered around the font, the minster/priest speaks the words that will bind the child and its parents to the Church forever, or at least until the child is old enough to shed these ideas.
“Do you renounce Satan?” said the celebrant.
“I do,” says Sergeant Wilson, who wonders why the answer is precisely the same as when someone marries. Did he just inadvertently marry Satan? Probably not, but who can tell with these ancient and confusing rituals.
Sergeant Wilson is now the godfather of Inspector and Helen McBride’s son and heir.
Wilson hopes that he will never have to fulfil his duties, but a policeman’s lot can be deadly.
Wilson had only met the child’s godmother once — when they went through the procedure with the celebrant about a week ago. It rained, and the church was lit dimly, but the candles gave it a golden glow. Someone had given the ancient timber pews a good going over and the aroma of furniture polish filled the air.
Wilson’s attempt at humour had fallen flat, ‘so you’re the fairy godmother’ — and now Helen’s best friend thought he was a lame policeman — no coming back from that.
What did he care? After the ceremony, he probably would not have to see her again, unless something unspeakable happened.
Wilson came to the conclusion that the whole thing was a show for Helen’s family. It didn’t make practical sense to have two people who didn’t know each other responsible for a child.
From the child’s point of view, it guaranteed at least two extra presents come birthday time.
The assembled multitude wandered outside for photos.
The smokers in the group dispersed to the downwind side — no need to draw the wrath of the grandparents.
Once the main photos had been taken, the two policemen found each other.
“Coming back to the house for a sandwich and beer?” said the Inspector.
“I’ll poke my head in, but I want to interview the neighbours one more time. Most of them were out when the plods knocked on doors,” said Sergeant Wilson.
“If we don’t get a break soon, this one is going to get away from us,” said the Inspector.
“The blood samples came back. Nothing but her’s. No smears, no footprints, no nothing. How did he get out of the room without leaving any marks?”
“Maybe the bugger had wings.”
“The photographer wants a few shots of you holding the baby,” said Helen. Neither of the men had seen her approach.
“Do I have to?” said the Inspector. His wife didn’t answer, she didn’t need to.
He took the infant from her and walked to the appointed spot.
“Just one on your own,” said the photographer trying to disguise his indifference. He did an excellent job of it, and most people thought he was genuinely in love with taking their photo. In his mind, he was on a beach with scantily clad women who all wanted an intimate portfolio.
“Now one with the grandparents.”
“Now one with the godparents.”
The Inspector and his child stood in the middle, and Wilson stood on his right. The photographer didn’t complain, so he stayed there.
The godmother, who was wondering if she looked as good as she felt, stood looking at the lens as the photographer instructed.
The finished photograph showed three adults and one child, all wondering what the future would bring.
“Now one with the aunties.”
Wilson didn’t go back to the house for a sandwich and a beer and the godmother was sorry that he didn’t. She was sad that her nerves made her react badly when she first met him. She’d let the child’s mother colour her thoughts, something she tried to avoid. She liked to make up her own mind about people. But, on the occasion of a christening rehearsal, she let her impatience show through, and the godfather had taken it as yet another rejection.
Sergeant Wilson was not ‘good with women’. He never knew what to say to them, so he usually said nothing or something that made him look a bit off.
Sergeant Wilson knocked on the doors surrounding the murder scene and found a woman who remembered the night in question. She saw a man leave the apartment.
“I know it sounds weird, but he looked like he had wings,” said the neighbour of the murder victim.
“Have you ever seen him before?”
“I’m pretty sure he delivers pizza.”
“Which pizza place?”
“Fallen Angel Pizza, on William’s road. Just near the bank.”
“Do you think you could pick him out if we arranged a line-up?”
“Yes. Especially if he’s wearing those wings.”
Inspector and Helen McBride’s house. A double fronted Californian bungalow. People are spilling out of the front of the house and onto the lawn. The conversation is lively. Inspector McBride is sitting on his front fence with a bunch of sandwiches in one hand and a beer in the other. When his mobile phone rings, he puts his beer on the wall and answers his phone.
“Inspector, it’s Wilson. I’ve found a witness. Remember when you said you thought the killer must have flown out of the scene?”
Flinders Lane — the heart of the garment district in Melbourne.
My mum loved to walk me down this intriguing strip of shops and tiny factories.
We’d get off the tram at the top of Collins Street and walk down the hill which felt like a mountain when it was time to head for home.
Everything about being in The City meant unbounded excitement and fatigued legs — when I was a boy.
The narrow streets like Flinders Lane and Little Collins Street and Little Bourke, were the tradesman’s entrances for the grander boulevards — Collins Street being the grandest.
I wasn’t sightseeing or reliving old memories of childhood; this was business.
During the quiet moments between battles, I daydreamed about my young life, my mother and my childhood friends — it helped to keep me going, but today I needed to fulfil a promise and outfit myself for a new life.
“How can I help you today, sir?” said the old man. I wondered if he sometimes forgot and went out in the street with his cloth tape-measure still around his neck.
“Yes. I think you can,” I said.
There was a considerable difference in our heights. He wore a waistcoat and collar and tie — precisely as I expected. The waistcoat and his pants were pinstriped. His shoes were old, expensive and perfectly polished.
His face was tired and old, but there was a light in his eyes. I once knew an old dog who looked at me the same way — worn out but bright and alive inside.
“I need a dinner suit, but before we get to that, I wanted you to know that I knew your son, Mr Ziegler. Thomas was my friend.”
The old man froze, like a clock that needed winding. I worried that he might suddenly crumple into a heap.
“You knew my son?” he said. It sounded like he was speaking to me from far away.
“Yes, sir. We were in the Second Twelfth together. I was with him when he was awarded the DCM. After Kokoda, they split us up. He was in hospital and they sent me to North Africa. I saw him the day before he died. I was back home on leave and got off the ship in Brisbane so that I could visit him.”
“Were you with him when he died?”
“No, sir. I went back the next day but he had died in the night. It was sudden and quick. He would not have suffered.” I didn’t know if this was true, but it is always the question that relatives ask — did he suffer?
I’ve had three of these conversations since I came home. It hurts in a way that is difficult to describe — a massive headache that lasts all day followed by wishing I had better words — wishing there were words that conveyed how I felt.
“You were friends?”
“Yes, sir. We were.” My voice almost failed me. I’ve cried enough tears, but always in private—no need to make this father feel worse.
Have you noticed that there isn’t a word for a parent who has lost a child?
You are orphaned if you have lost your parents, widowed if your spouse dies, but there is no word for a father who is grieving for a son. Maybe the people who make up words thought that it was too terrible to contemplate, so they left the inexorable grief unnamed.
“We made a pact. If something happened to one of us, the other one would visit their parents and offer some comfort.” I knew the idea of comfort was ridiculous, but I said it anyway.
The old man looked at me for a moment. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
“Was he a good comrade?” I was expecting him to ask was he a good soldier — a father’s question.
“He saved my life at least twice and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have a DCM. He charged off across open ground and I had to follow him. He was that sort of bloke. You wanted to follow him — be with him. It’s not that he wasn’t scared, he was. It’s just that he never let the fear control him. In truth — I loved him and it broke my heart when he died. I became someone else after that — cold hearted, intent on revenge. I’m not proud of that time in my life. I don’t think Tom would have approved. He wasn’t like that. He was fighting for his country. He didn’t hate anyone. I’ve tried to live up to him since I got de-mobbed.”
“Wars do terrible things to the men who fight them. Don’t let your experiences define you, young man. If Thomas liked you, you must be a good person.”
We stood there for a while before Mr Ziegler offered me coffee.
We sat and sipped out of old cups, and I answered all his questions.
As our conversation continued, the old man visibly became straighter and more alive. As though I had brought some of his dead son with me into the showroom.
“So, what do you need me to make for you?” he said.
I looked around at the tailor’s dummies lining the walls and pointed to the tux which sat between the marked-up suit jackets, ready for their customers to be given another fitting.
“Something special on the horizon?” said the old man taking the tape measure from around his neck, as he must have done countless times. A clear sign that he was in work mode.
I stood up without being asked. He measured all the parts of me that were needed, and I stood as awkwardly as every man who ever had another man run his hand up his inside leg.
“Do you dress to the right or the left?” he asked.
His question took me by surprise, but I knew what he meant. The creator had given me enough down there to create a problem for a tailor.
“Right — usually.”
I imagined my wife’s reaction when I tell her I had to answer that question.
I don’t like to think of HIM being restricted to only one side.
I know that she will put her hand on me and look lovingly into my eyes and I will have no choice but to take her then and there — so I had better not mention it until we have some privacy.
“How much will the Tux cost?” I said.
“No need to worry about that just yet,” said the old man, busy writing measurements in a tattered black notebook.
“Tom always said you were the best tailor in Melbourne,” I said.
“Only Melbourne?” said the old man and I laughed.
“Maybe he said Australia and I misheard,” I said with a smile.
“Cuffs?” said the old tailor who was in full flight.
“Yes, please. Are they in fashion?” I said.
“Who cares? This is formal wear. You want to look your best. You are tall and well built and cuffs say you know where you are going.”
I wonder how many times he had told a customer that. I chose to think that it was only for me.
“I’m not looking for any special favours, Mr Ziegler,” I said, and I meant it. My budget was tight, but I was not going to abuse my friendship with Tom.
“Let’s see if you like the suit before we talk about money. Can you come back in a week and I’ll have a mock up for you to try on.”
Without a disparaging word, he inquired if I would want a new ‘everyday’ suit.
The one I was wearing was my Sunday best — my best friend’s father deserved the courtesy of the best appearance I had to offer. I bought the suit before the war, and I guess his expert eye could spot a not very expensive ‘off the rack’.
“I do, but my budget won’t stretch that far just yet.”
“You let me worry about that,” he said, and I knew it was going to be a battle to get him to take my money.
“A few shillings a month will do me fine. You can pay them off, I’m in no hurry. I’ll show you some fabrics when you come back for a second fitting,” he said.
I was standing on a small, well-worn box. I guessed that it made it easier for him to work on cuffs without having to kneel on the floor.
“I was wondering….” he said.
“Will you be carrying?”
This was the second question that took me by surprise.
In the Army, all our weapons were on belts or carried in our hands. On civi street, the rules were different, so the question was a reasonable one.
“Not while wearing a Tux, no. But the everyday suit might need to accomodate a revolver, possibly a 38, in a holster, under my arm.”
He nodded as though this was a question and answer that he engaged in regularly. I expected him to ask if I was right or left-handed — he didn’t. I’d been holding my cup in my right hand.
I climbed down off the box, and I shook his hand — we held onto each other for longer than men usually do. He looked me in the eye, and I had to turn away. I don’t do well with direct eye contact at the best of times, and this old man’s eyes were telling me things that were hard to bear.
I dropped into Young and Jackson’s before catching the tram for home. I drank a bit too much, and I must have looked a bit unsteady because the tram conductor put out his hand to steady me when I got on the tram.
It was packed solid with commuters, so the conductor and I were stuck in the doorway. At the next stop, he would jump off and go to the next door and repeat his call for ‘fares please’.
As it turned out, he stayed for three stops.
“Rough day mate?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said and tried not to breathe on him.
“Were you in the army mate?”
“Yeah. How did you know it was the Army? I’m handsome enough to have been a flyboy,” I said.
Do you know that feeling you get when you’ve had just enough beer to make you feel good, but your mouth takes on a life of its own and you can hear what you are saying several seconds after you say it? Well, that’s how I was. Not drunk, but not sober either.
“You’ve got that look in your eyes. Not quite here but not back there either.”
“You too, if it comes to that,” I said.
“Have a rough time?”
“About as bad as most, but I made it back. A lot of poor buggers didn’t. That’s where I was today. Buying a suit from the dad of my best mate. He asked me lots of questions and I had answers for some of them, but I made up a lot shit as well. Needed a few pints afterwards. Don’t usually get drunk during the day. Doesn’t end well if you let it take over.”
I realised I was doing all the talking, so I shut up.
“What about you Connie? Where did you end up?” I said.
The conductor looked at me.
“All over, but Tobruk was the worst.”
“A fellow ‘Rat’. Good on ya Digger.”
“You too mate. Go gently now,” he said as he jumped off before the tram stopped and climbed back on the through the back door.
I could hear his voice, fares, please.
Without our soldier’s uniform, we both look like ordinary blokes — but we aren’t — not ordinary anymore, but there’s always hope.
By the time the tram reached my stop, the crowd had thinned out, and I got a seat for the last ten minutes or so. I’d sobered up enough to get off the tram unassisted.
I looked back as the tram pulled away, and the conductor gave me a wave.
I burst into quiet tears.
An old lady with a shopping basket looked at me then looked away.
I walked quickly with my eyes down, the tears cold on my cheeks.
There was a chance that someday the tears would stop, but for now the well-rehearsed, “Just a bit of hay fever,” would get me by. The old lady and her shopping smiled at me, “It gets me that way too son, sometimes” she said and I’m not entirely sure she was talking about sinus trouble.
I hurried past the school grounds without seeing any children. The caretaker was enjoying the late afternoon silence while emptying rubbish bins.
I heard the whistle blow to end the afternoon shift for the workers at the carpet factory.
You didn’t need a watch if you lived anywhere near a church or a factory.
I knew that my wife would be waiting for me, and I looked forward to the familiar aromas of her cooking as I opened our front door.
She’d ask me about my day, and I would tell everything except about the tears.
We’d sit by the fire, and I’d tell her about the old man and his son.
I’d save the story about, ‘which way do you dress’ until it was time for bed.
We’d hold each other tightly as we shut out the horrors and the anxiety of the past.
The promise of tomorrow could wait until the morning.
Our time would be now, and we would have every minute of it.