And Just Like That He Was Gone

This story was written to stand alone, but if you are interested in how we got here, you can read, The Christening, then Flying Pizza, then Position Vacant: Pizza Delivery Driver.

SCENE:

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.”

SCENE:

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 what?”

“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.

 

SCENE:

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?”

“Fifteen dollars.”

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.

 

SCENE:

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.

“How so?”

“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.

Position Vacant: Pizza Delivery Driver

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?”

“Bike.”

“Motorbike?”

“Bike, bike.”

“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.

The Christening

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SCENE:

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.”

SCENE:

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 McBride.”

“Inspector, it’s Wilson. I’ve found a witness. Remember when you said you thought the killer must have flown out of the scene?”

“Yes”.

“My witness says the bugger had wings!”

You Knew My Son

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.

“What?”

“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.

 

Zeitgeber

The cup and saucer are mine.

The uniform’s mine as well. 

Two shillings a week comes out of my pay packet until it is paid for.

Twelve-hour shifts, six days a week.

I’ve been refused permission to return to the front.

“Considering you walked away and took yourself home, you are very lucky we took you back at all,” said Matron Silver.

I understood what she meant.

I had a good excuse, but I also knew that explaining it all again was a waste of time.

I signed up so that I could be close to my brother.

I achieved that goal only to nurse him back to health and see him return to his unit.

 

My service at the front started after many months of training at a hospital not far from home. Only then was I was dispatched to the front. A small town not far from the Belgian border.

Months of blood, mud and exhaustion.

I received word that my brother was ‘missing in action’.

Missing in action can mean one of two things — he’s at an aid station, unidentified, or he is dead.

My heart wanted to believe that he was sitting in a bar in some small Belgian village, just behind the lines — dazed and confused, trying to remember who he is.

One rainy exhausting day, a colleague told me my brother had been brought in. I found him lying among the soldiers who were pronounced dead on arrival.

Like every loving sister since the beginning of time, I didn’t want to believe it.

I dragged him out from the line of dead young men and cradled him in my arms. There was still a faint glimmer of life in him, and over the coming months, I nursed him back to something approaching good health.

When they sent him back in action, he promised to write every week, and he did, but the glacial movement of mail meant that his last letter arrived about two weeks after he disappeared in action, for the second time.

Every person has a limit to their endurance, but we don’t know what that limit looks like until we are tested.

My role as a combat nurse was voluntary. I wasn’t in the army, so I could leave if I wanted to. So I did.

I was done.

Exhausted.

Spent.

The voyage home, in a ship full of wounded young men, was mercifully short.

At home, I spent a lot of time in the garden sitting under my favourite tree waiting for news of my brother — news that never came.

My brother and I were best friends. 

He stood up to my father when I wanted to go to University. He won the day, and I followed him to Edinburgh. He was in his final year when war broke out. I was at the end of my first year.

He enlisted, and I left University and took up nursing.

The head of the women’s College was furious with me for leaving my degree studies.

“You have a first-class brain and a heart to match. Young men will be marching off to war forever and a day. You have a chance to decide your own future, don’t throw that away to follow a man.”

I tried to make her understand that I owed it to him to return his loyalty, and she just sighed.

“I can’t guarantee that you will be allowed back if you survive the war. I only make room for women who understand that the future requires commitment and courage. You obviously have courage but I doubt your commitment,” she said as she turned and walked away. 

I was determined to follow my brother, but I was sad that I’d let her down. She was the most inspiring woman I had ever met, and disappointing her was something I did not want to do.

 

It’s about three o’clock in the morning, and the ward is quiet. 

Earlier, Captain Wainwright was keeping the other men awake with his constant nightmares, constant screaming.

“Gas, gas. Get your bloody masks on. Gas! Gas!”

The exertion made his lungs raw, and he coughed so much he began to bleed — again.

We settled him with a sedative, and the ward has been quiet ever since.

“Thanks, sister. I know the poor bugger has been through it, but there’s a good chance I might strangle him if I don’t get some sleep,” said the sergeant in the last bed on the ward.

As I said, the cup and saucer belong to me, or they are mine now. They were my grandmother’s, and she left them to me.

I ‘brew up’ at this time and sit quietly and sip my tea and wonder about my brother and what my life will look like now he is gone.

Being able to look after these soldiers makes me feel close to him, but one day all this madness will end and then, what do I do? 

Mrs Houdini

When you look at a person, you only see what you see.

You don’t see what came before.

A woman in a nightgown and slippers who has trouble remembering where she is, does not give a hint as to who she was.

The young staff members named her ‘Mrs Houdini’ because she held the record for the most number of daylight escapes.

Those who grow old and forget are often dismissed, but many of them lived through world wars, lost children to disease and despair, struggled through the Depression, worked for a wage and bought up a family — they learned a thing or two along the way.

They learned to look like they are not looking while the sister punches in the key code. Like seeing where the key to the ward is kept and knowing when the nurses’ station is unattended — things like that.

Mrs Houdini’s real name was Alice, Alice Johnson, and whenever she escaped, she headed for the little cemetery next to the old stone church.

Benjamin Johnson lay in that cemetery.

There was a bench near his grave, and she sat and told him all her news, but on this day she remembered something.

“I must go and tell Jimmy,” she said as she rose to her feet. Her drink bottle sat forgotten on the bench. It was one of those drink bottles that you give to small children, so they don’t spill their milk everywhere.

The drink bottle was still there when Jim Johnson arrived at the graveyard, about thirty minutes after he got the call. He would have come sooner, but he had a dead body to take care of first — work is work, and his commander was sick of him having to rush off and search for his wayward mother.

“I spend seventy-five percent of my free time either taking care of, or looking for my mother. You would think that the gigantic chunk of my salary I give them every month would cover the cost of them finding her whenever they loose her,” he said to his colleague, who was only half listening.

Jim Johnson didn’t tell his superior he was looking for his mother — again. Instead, he took the long way back to the office via the churchyard.

He missed her by a few minutes, and he would not see her again for two days. 

Two days and nights.

When he found her again, she was in remarkably good condition. Her slippers were a bit muddy, and her nightgown was torn at the hem, but she could not remember where she had been for those two days and nights. It really didn’t matter — she was safe and back in his arms — his mother was safe.

The only part of her adventure she could remember was the last bit, the bit where she was blinded and nearly run over by the motorbike.

~oOo~

Hugh Carter had an intriguing skill set which included being able to change a spark plug in under a minute. It didn’t much matter how long you took to change a spark plug, but Hugh was proud that he could do the whole job in under a minute.

Hugh Carter stood about one hundred and eighty centimetres tall (about five foot ten in old money). He had black curly hair and women liked him — a lot. Hugh would ultimately find that he was happy to bat for both teams, but at this moment, he enjoyed the attention of women.

Hugh worked for a performance garage and raced motorcycles whenever he could scrape together the money to tune his machine.

Hugh was reasonably successful, and with a bit of sponsorship, he could have competed at the highest level.

As with all young men, he was impatient for his life to unfold.

He saw his friends earning easy money working for nefarious characters, and he held out for as long as he could.

His first step into the world where life was even cheaper than normal was when a bloke he knew was found dead.

His friend and his bike plummeted off a cliff, and neither of them survived.

A grizzled bloke in a jacket displaying the colours of a local bike club approached him to do some courier work.

The grizzled bloke pointed at the gun stuffed in his belt and indicated that he would deploy said weapon if Hugh contemplated taking the cash and not making the pickup.

Hugh understood.

Hugh stayed within the speed limit on the way to the pickup, met his contact, watched as they counted the money, took the backpack after they showed him the contents, and proceeded to drive at high speed to the little stone church where his grizzled boss was waiting to meet him.

His high-speed antics nearly got him pulled over, but his riding skills enabled him to escape.

Hugh was feeling the adrenaline rush as he arrived at the church. 

He handed over the backpack and the grizzled bloke checked the purity of its contents as two of his cohorts stood by with weapons drawn.

When the shouting and the gunfire began, Hugh dived behind a pew.

Jim Johnson was hit in the vest by a bullet, and it took the wind out of him. He was the second officer through the door.

As he lay on the floor of the church trying to decide if he was going to die, he noticed a man in black leathers crawling under the pews towards the door that Jim and his fellow officers had just come through.

Bullets continued to fly, and men continued to shout as Hugh made it through the front door. His bike was still where he had left it, and it started with the first kick of the starter.

Jim Johnson decided that he was not going to die — his vest had saved him. He scrambled to his feet and heard bullets whiz past. Jim found the main power board and threw the master switch. All the lights came on at once, including the builder’s floodlights on the outside of the building. 

Several thousand-watt globes burst into life emitting that ghostly white light that bleeds all the colour out of everything it lands on.

Hugh’s rear wheel spun on the dirt road as he changed into second gear. His engine was screaming, and so was Hugh. A ghostly apparition stepped from behind the church and into the middle of the road.

The floodlights blinded Alice Johnson, but she kept on walking. She heard the young man swear and noticed what sounded like a motorbike sliding through the gravel.

The gunfire had abated, and officers were spilling out of the church, Jim Johnson among them.

He ignored the fallen bike rider and ran to his mother.

“Are you okay mum?” he said, holding her close.

“Jimmy. Where have you been? I have something to tell you,” she said and promptly forgot what it was.

Jim took off his coat and wrapped it around his mother and led her to a waiting ambulance.

After a day in the hospital, she would be back in the nursing home, planning her next escape.

In the remand centre, Hugh was telling his fellow inmates about the ghost who knocked him off his bike.

They all agreed that his was the best bad luck story.

A ghost beats tripping over your own shoelaces any day.

Give Him a Foot and He Will Take a Mile

Carlos Delgado

“So, do you remember reading about the quiet side effect of catching that virus?” I said.

“No,” he said.

‘He’ was and still is my best friend. I share all sorts of stuff with him. Only, these days I do it in my head because talking out loud to a friend who is no longer alive gets you strange looks.

Just so we are clear, he was still alive when this conversation took place.

“Well, you’ll have to take my word for it then.” 

“Okay,” he said.

“No one has ever seen anything like it, but as usually happens, someone saw an opportunity to make some money.”

“I’m trying to hang in there, but you are losing me,” he said.

I do that when I get excited. I talk as though the person I’m talking to is privy to the rest of the conversation that went on silently inside my head.

My mate Keith is very tolerant. He knows I’ll get to the point — eventually.

“Sorry. I got ahead of myself.”

“How’s the view from out there?” said Keith. I smiled and took a breath.

“One big foot?” I said, and Keith smiled. He was catching up.

“Okay, so now I’m with you,” said Keith.

“Everyone was noticing the other after effects — the big ones, the damaged lungs, the higher risk of Parkinson’s. It took about six months for scientists to connect the dots. A small group of people, world wide, who had caught the virus, ended up with one foot significantly bigger than the other. Created all sorts of problems — those afflicted had to buy two different pairs of shoes just to get a matching pair that fitted.”

“I can see how that would be a problem,” said Keith.

I’d interrupted his lunch. He’d just got back from KFC, and he’d cracked open a can of Solo. He ate the same thing every day for lunch. I drove him to KFC once when he was too sick to drive. He gave terrible directions. He lived in an old inner-city suburb with strange intersections and one-way streets. He knew them all, of course, but I felt like a white mouse navigating a maze with an absent-minded navigator.

“A problem? Yes it was. But, as with all problems, someone comes up with a solution that makes them rich,” I said triumphantly. I sat there and let my wisdom sink in.

“And?” said Keith.

“Well this bloke in Tasmania came up with the idea. He was doing up his home and going through a shitload of expanding foam, when the idea hit him. It helped that he was an industrial chemist. Basically, he invented a foam that you sprayed on your ‘smaller’ foot and the stuff adhered to your foot in the shape of a shoe. A black shoe — had to be black, apparently. Couldn’t get it to work in brown. He even came up with a separate formula for a sock. Grey. Only worked in grey, apparently. Grey sock and black shoe. Really cheap too. Several shoes per can — same for the socks. Sold like chocolate to a chocoholic.”

“You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?” said Keith.

“Hand on heart,” I said. “I watched a demonstration. It bloody works!”

“How do you get an invitation to a demonstration like that?” said Keith.

“A friend of a friend.”

“You have some strange friends, my friend,” said Keith.

“I guess,” I said.

We finished off the KFC, and he shared his Solo, and we talked some more until it started getting dark. It was a long journey for me to get back home, and now I was going to get stuck in peak hour traffic which would double my journey, but I didn’t care. Spending time with Keith was a panacea for all the things that ailed me.

We’d shared many adventures. I watched him fall in love. I rejoiced when he became a father. He watched my kids grow into men — and now, he’s gone.

Every time I drive past an ad for Solo or see a KFC, or trip over a bloke with a huge foot, I think of Keith.

Miss you mate. 

Love you.

Sleep well.

Long Red Dress and a Gleeful White Dog

 

 

There are — moments.

Moments that pass by unnoticed.

Like the photo of you and your classmates at camp with the out of focus boy in the background.

Like the moments after your first child is born.

Or the day when your life began to unravel — you were happy if not contented, and the world was beautiful — except it wasn’t, and the whole unhappy mess can be traced back to that day.

I didn’t want my portrait painted, but I knew it was the done thing.

Our family is all about done things.

Dominic, the artist, was told to paint me in the style of an American President’s wife, so he chose the portrait of President Coolidge’s wife.

I didn’t mind, I have a long red dress and a white dog.

The process of posing was tedious, and the conversations about what I should wear were something beyond tedious.

I wore a simple pearl necklace, but it disappeared from the final work, as did my bracelet. 

It was never explained.

Our dog wouldn’t sit still, and I don’t blame her. Instead, she sat nearby and watched and sniffed all the unfamiliar scents.

The background was copied from the President’s wife’s portrait. Consequently, we didn’t need to leave Dominic’s studio.

 

The studio was just as you would imagine — dusty, paint-smeared with finished and unfinished works stacked against the walls.

Someone had written Genitalia is not an Italian airline, on one wall in tiny script. During a break, I asked him about it.

“Gerald, one of my friends — he thinks he’s funny. He writes something every time he comes to visit. Usually, I scrub it off when he’s gone, but I like that one. It’s hard to be explicit without using the word fuck.”

“Doesn’t he get his feelings hurt when he visits again?” I asked.

“No, he’s not my favourite aunt who expects to see the present she sent me ten Christmas’s ago on display when she visits.”

That made me smile.

 

I was sitting on a box, eating my sandwich.

“You have good legs,” he said.

 I kicked out my right leg and looked at it.

“Thank you,” I said. 

I could see he’d looked up my dress and when he looked at me, he blushed.

“See anything you like?” I said.

“Yes,” he said after a pause. I blushed.

“Your studio is very hot,” I said, and Dominic ignored me, “very hot.”

I waved my hand in front of my face, but the gesture didn’t help my case.

So, after our first session, I stopped wearing a bra and panties just to keep me cool. It worked, but I should have remembered when I raised my well-shaped leg. 

It was only a moment. 

He couldn’t have seen much, but I did feel a bit like Sharon Stone.

“Basic Instinct,” I said softly. 

I was trying to remember Sharon Stone’s name, and I usually have to work backwards from the name of the movie to jog my brain. It amazes me that I can always remember the movie’s name and not the name of the actor.

“Pardon?” he said.

“Nothing. Just trying to remember a name.”

“Sharon Stone,” he said. 

I didn’t answer. 

I was embarrassed.

If I’d wanted to seduce him, this line of patter would have done the trick — it doesn’t take much to get a man aroused. In truth — I wasn’t trying to inflame him.

I had wondered if the stories about artists were true. What would it be like to lie in this creative man’s arms?

He was tall — about the same height as my husband. 

Unruly hair unsuccessfully brushed back. 

Good muscle definition and a bump in his jeans where there should be a bump — he dressed to the right, as far as I could tell.

Our conversation was having an effect on him — I noticed that he crossed his legs and turned slightly away from me so I couldn’t see if he was aroused — which meant he probably was.

 

The portrait required two weeks of sittings. 

Every afternoon from two until four.

On the final day, he put his brush down, stepped back and said, “It’s done. Would you like to have a look?”

Up to that moment, he had jealously guarded the canvas, “No peeking until it’s done!”

My dog raised her head and sat up — as though she knew something special was happening.

I stepped forward and stood beside him. 

He put his arm around me.

“Do I really look that good?” I said.

“Yes,” he said as he slid down the zipper on my dress.

We made love on a pile of paint-stained canvas covers. I could feel his hands on me, his lips on mine. The rough canvas sheets rubbed against my skin and the smells of his studio filled my nostrils, creating an indelible memory.

The makeshift bed wasn’t at all comfortable — not at all what I was used to, but as I lay there, exhausted, I thought about all the artist’s models who had been loved in this way, in all the studios of Paris. 

Did they feel the way I felt?

I never wanted to be anywhere else but right here right now.

I put my hand on him, and he groaned softly.

“Are you trying to kill me woman?” he said, but I caressed him, and his protestation was belied by his ever-increasing interest.

“One more time,” I said as I straddled him. With a little help from me, we resumed erotic hostilities.

It was dark when I woke. 

My lover was making coffee wearing only a white t-shirt, which didn’t cover his buttocks — I enjoyed the view.

“Why didn’t you undress me earlier?” I said.

“I wanted to finish the portrait first.”

“Typical man. The work always comes first,” I said.

I rolled over so he could see my naked body while he prepared two cups. The steam rising from the boiling water looked like a genie coming out of its bottle.

I felt like that genie. 

I too, had been released.

“Cover yourself, woman, there are dogs present,” he said with a smile.

I opened my legs just enough.

“That’ll be enough of that,” he said, “I may never walk again.”

He put the coffees on a small stool, and we sat on the canvas covers. Our combined scent now mixed with the aroma of paint and turps.

“Cake mix,” I said.

“In what regard?” he said.

“That’s what we smell like — afterwards. Cake mix.”

 “I guess. It smells like sex to me.”

We sipped our coffee in the silence only lovers can conjure.

“Do you think your husband will like the portrait?” he said.

“Yes — do you think he will know I wasn’t wearing knickers?”

“Hard to tell. Does his mind work like that?”

“You know, I’m not sure how his mind works, but there is something incredibly sexy about him having to pay you to penetrate me.”

“Not sure he would see it that way, but I do get your meaning. You aren’t the kind of woman who would tell him just for the fun of seeing his reaction — are you?”

“No. That’s not me. I don’t dislike him. He’s a good man. I wouldn’t want to hurt him.”

And that was the moment.

I hadn’t planned any of it and no one was supposed to get hurt.

They did — get hurt.

But that was still to come.

When I got home, I had to make up an excuse for being late, and I was disappointed that he wasn’t very interested. Part of me wanted to tell him what I had been doing — to wake him up!

I showered and dressed for bed.

I didn’t realise that oil paint does not wash off with water.

“Your back is all red and you’ve got paint stuck to your skin. Did you rub up against something in the studio?” said my husband as I climbed into bed.

“Yes, I guess I did,” I said.

And that was another moment.

 

As we boarded the flight to Rome, I laughed out loud.

“What are you laughing at,” said my artist companion.

“Alitalia IS an Italian airline,” I said.

The Quiet Hours

The shop started out as a second-hand bookshop, but beginnings are important only as a window to arrivals.

I didn’t own the bookshop back then.

I applied for a job.

The owner didn’t want to sit in the store all day, especially during the quiet hours.

I arrived at just the right time — don’t you just love how that works — arriving at the right time?

I didn’t mind being there during the quiet hours.

My world was teetering on the edge.

The edge of what, I did not know, but it scared the hell out of me.

The dusty old building was teetering on the edge also. I crawled under it once to retrieve a favourite pencil that had fallen through a crack in the floor.

The foundations were minutes away from not being foundations anymore.

I wasn’t worried, it gave the shop an extra edge — a sense of peppermint danger.

The cracks in the floorboards came in handy during the warm weather. 

In the winter, not so much. 

I became proficient at rolling up pages out of destroyed books and wedging them into the larger gaps. Old, obsolete encyclopaedias worked best.


I left my anxieties at the door each day. They just dropped away like an old discarded overcoat.

The shopowner, Derick, could not get out of the place fast enough, which was fine by me. He was an ex-teacher and a real pain in the arse who would fire me ten days before a particular Christmas because I missed a shift. I ended up in the Emergency Ward with stomach pains and couldn’t make it into work.

“Don’t bother coming back,” was all he had to say.

I’d never missed a day of work in more than a year, but he didn’t care.

I didn’t know it, but people kept asking him where I had gone.

He closed the business about two years after firing me.


Towards the end of my time working for Derick the Dick, I noticed an uptick in customers — the uptick ate into my ‘quiet hours’.


I guess it started with an old man who lived about half a mile up the road. 

I saw him every Thursday afternoon. 

We would talk, and he would tell me stories from his days as a Real Estate agent.

“If I had a buyer who couldn’t make up their mind, I would ‘accidentally’ book another potential buyer to turn up at the same time. Worked like a charm. They would panic that someone else wanted ‘their house’. Signed on the spot.”

Henry was at least eighty-eight years old, and even though I would have disliked him if he was my age, I cut him some slack — he told great stories.


Henry told his friends about me. 

Most of Henry’s friends were dead, but the ones who were hanging in there came to see me.

“Henry said you are a good listener.”

I’d never thought of myself as such, but there you go. Other people don’t always see us the way we see ourselves.

I found that I could easily remember the stories they told me, and over time I would retell one or two in response to a problem that was posed.

“What an excellent idea,” they would say, “I would never have thought of that.”

For a while, I thought I was hot stuff. 

I got all puffed up. 

There is a real rush that comes with helping people.

Of course, I came crashing back down to Earth when I got fired.

Fast forward a couple of years, and here I am sitting in my own bookshop, the same building I used to work in, doing my thing.

The shop had sat vacant for a while. It’s off the beaten track, and only dedicated book buyers will find it.


I named the store Twice Sold Tales.


People come to my store because I’m a good listener.

Occasionally, I tell them a story I’ve been told, and it changes their perspective. They are grateful for the direction I head them in, and in return, they buy a second-hand book — sometimes more than one.


I’m never going to get rich, but I do get to enjoy the stories I hear, and there is always the quiet hours.

Coffin Confessor

 A Sam Bennett story

Some bloke in Queensland makes ten thousand a time for doing this.

I did it because a client asked me too. 

My client was also a friend, but it would take too long to explain that friendship and I’m not sure my heart could go there at the moment.


I’d worked for William Armstrong on several occasions since the first time I met him. 

We were both at a wedding with women we would not stay with for long — the story of my life until I met Scarlett.

My ‘plus one’ was prettier than his.

We got talking when we worked out that we both preferred whisky — Scotch, single malt. The open bar at this wedding didn’t stretch that far, but basic Scotch was better than the lolly water the girls were ordering.


William was about to take over his father’s business after having worked in the company since he left his expensive private school in year twelve. He skipped university and jumped right in.

“I disliked school with a passion. I wanted to be out in the world, doing stuff,” he said between sips of whisky. The whisky didn’t deserve to be sipped, but good habits die hard.

“I felt the same way you did, but I didn’t want to disappoint my mentor, so I finished uni,” I said, and my heart hesitated at the thought of ‘Nelly’ Touraville. I miss him so much.

“What are you going to do when you are running the show?” I said.

“Pretty much what my father has done, but I’ll put my own spin on it when the time is right.”


If you are wondering what tasks I performed for William over the years, there was a bit of industrial espionage — finding out what his competitors knew. A bit of tidying up when things went wrong. Dealing with an employee who believed that he could get rich quickly by selling back proprietary secrets that he had ‘light fingered’.


As with all business owners, William was surrounded by people who were out for what they could get — nothing surprising about that.

When he got his terminal diagnosis, he rang me and asked for a meeting.

I sat in Young and Jackson’s on a dreamy Thursday afternoon after getting off the train at Flinders Street Station — I hate parking the Jag in the city.

A few early finishing workers had wandered in and were chatting away, waiting for the beer to wash away the day’s worries. I watched them with interest.

William approached my table, looking drawn.

I waved at the barman and pointed at my beer and made the ‘two beers’ sign recognised by barmen all over the civilised world.

The beers arrived, and I asked William how he was and what he wanted to talk about.

“I’m buggered and I want you to do something important for me.”

 “You know I will,” I said.

“The cancer is back and there’s no hope.”

“Bloody hell. What do you mean no hope. There’s always hope. You’ve got enough money to start your own country. Someone, somewhere…..?”

“No,” he said, and he meant it.

We sat quietly for a few moments, and I let it sink in. Now I understood why he looked so haggard.


“When they bury me, I want you to speak for me,” he said.

“What? Like a eulogy?”

“No. Someone else will do that. I want you to speak for me. I want you to say all the things I couldn’t say when I was alive.”

“You aren’t dead yet, mate. Plenty of time to tell people what you want them to hear.”

“Even if there was time, and there isn’t, I don’t have the strength. I’ve never been good at confrontation. You aren’t frightened of anyone. You speak with a clear heart and I need that.”

“Beer isn’t going to do it. Can I get you a whisky. They do a Lagavulin 16 here?”


When the whisky arrived, I gave a toast, “To life, what there is left of it.”

William laughed, “To life.”

The beer had given us a good head start, and the whisky was moving us along.

“So, what do you want me to do?” I said.

William reached into his inside pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. Handwritten, in tiny script, were his wishes for his funeral service.

After I read through the document, I said, “Bloody hell!”


I made him sign it and date it, and we got the barman to witness our signatures, then we had several more whiskies, and I caught the train home.

Fortunately, the walk from the station is a long one, and I’d sobered up a bit before I took to my bed.

Sleep wasn’t on the agenda. Too much to think about.

I stared at the ceiling and thought, once again, that I should give it a coat of paint.

The moon was almost full, and the light seeped around the edges of the blind.


I’d been in a few tight spots where I might have lost my life, but until now, I had not seriously thought about my own, inevitable death.

William and I were about the same age — still very much, young men.

I wondered what it would look like — my day of death. Would I be merrily rolling along, oblivious to my impending doom? Or would I be alone in a hospital bed, waiting for the room to go dim?

A ‘blaze of glory’ seemed like a good choice, and as sleep finally caught up with me, I imagined leading the charge up some heroic hill.


I didn’t get an invitation to the funeral, but then again, it wasn’t a private affair.

Open-air. Beautiful day. All the trimmings. Silver spade to sprinkle some dirt on the coffin. Flowers by the carload. Mourners dressed in their finery.

Despite William’s instructions, a minister was running the proceedings.

“We all know why we are gathered here today,” said the minister dressed in full regalia. “William was a wonderful man.”

“Did you know him personally,” I said.

I was seated in the second row, and no-one had asked me how I’d known the deceased.

I unbuttoned my coat as I got to my feet. 

The gesture meant that I was at work. 

Ready to work.

“Not personally,” said the minister adjusting his cassock. 

“Then sit down and shut it. William didn’t want this,” I said as I edged along the row and stepped in front of the assembled gathering. I half expected someone to tackle me.

“That’s right. He didn’t want this,” said the attractive woman in the third row.

A couple of other people agreed.

William’s wife was seated, head down, next to her brother, who looked like he was waking from a dream. He started to stand up — staring at me.

“Don’t even think about it, Michael. Oh, and by the way, William said to tell you to pay back the loan he gave you. I’m sure your sister would be happy to have the money.

“What loan?” said William’s wife.

Michael sank back into his seat.

“Well it wasn’t actually a loan, was it Michael. More like a payoff. Hush money, I think they call it.”

Michael sat quietly as William’s wife bored a hole in his head with her eyes.


“William was concerned that this might happen so he asked me to speak for him.”

I scanned the gathering and found the three people I was looking for.

“You, you and you. Out!” I pointed at the road leading out of the cemetery.

“William did not want you here. And if you don’t leave, now, I’ll tell everyone why.”

The three people I pointed to stood up and shuffled off down the road.

All eyes and ears were on me. 


“William wanted you to know that he knew you weren’t faithful but he didn’t know how to deal with you when he was alive. He didn’t blame you, he was less than the husband you deserved.”

There were tears in her eyes, and I hated this part of my job, but a promise was a promise.

“As for you,” I said, staring at the bloke sitting behind her, “William thought you were a snake but he lacked the courage to punch you on the nose. He hopes that you make his wife happy, but don’t expect her to inherit everything, far from it.”

There was an audible gasp from the assembled multitude.

Where William’s money would end up was the prime concern for most of them.


I rattled off a heap of names and just as many final messages, and most of them were not well received.

“One last thing to finish up,” I said, “which one of you is Phillis?”

A young woman at the back raised a gloved hand.

“William said to say thank you. You brightened his day and always gave more of yourself than was asked for. There is a glowing reference in his desk with your name on it if you decide to look elsewhere for a job. There’s a bonus in that envelope as well. Enough for you to take an all expenses holiday, if you so wish.”

The young woman who had looked after William as his secretary for the previous three years smiled and put her hand to her face.


“Well that’s about it from me, and from William. I begged him to say all these things before he left us, but I guess he wasn’t able to, so that’s where I came in.”


I did up my coat and walked down the same road that the ejected mourners had walked.

Bloody big cemetery, so it took a long time to get back to where I’d parked the Jag.

I needed a drink, and the Big Cat took me to my favourite bar.

I lifted a glass to my old friend and pondered my own mortality before heading for home.


I slept very well that night and went into the office just before noon.

My secretary asked me why I was so late.

“You are dead a long time Janice. Sometimes you just have to treat yourself to a sleep in.”

“Okay,” said Janice.

“By the way. Have I ever told you how much I appreciate you?”

“Yes. Once or twice,” she said.

“Good. I wouldn’t want to pass away suddenly and not have told you.”

“Have you been drinking, Sam?” said Janice.

“Not today, but I plan on having a few a bit later in the day. You are welcome to join me?” I said, and Janice shook her head.

“Meeting my boyfriend later,” she said.

Just as well, I guess.

I’d probably say something unwise.