“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.
“Now, he’s going to ask for a volunteer from the audience,” said my grandfather.
He’d been explaining how the magic tricks were achieved all through the performance, and it was annoying me — not that I would tell him so.
I was eight years old and had travelled up from Melbourne to spend the holidays in Bendigo with my grandparents.
The magic show was a special treat.
“It helps that we are a big country town,” said my grandfather. “Most of the overseas acts don’t visit the smaller towns.”
The Magician, resplendent in his mysterious robes, moved to the edge of the stage, so much so that I thought he might fall off. He didn’t, but he did point his ‘magic wand’ in my direction.
“I vant you,” he said in an eastern European accent — my grandfather thought it was Bulgarian with just a hint of Lithuanian.
There were several pleading hands waiving, including mine.
Pick me, pick me, I was thinking.
“Not you leetle boy, the young lady sitting next to you.”
My grandmother blushed.
With much encouragement from the audience and my grandfather, my grandmother moved up onto the stage.
The Magician met her at the stairs and guided her to the middle of the stage.
The scantily clad young woman who had been acting as the Magician’s assistant, took my grandmother by the hand and as the stagehands wheeled out a person-sized box, she opened the box to show us it was empty.
“He’ll use mirrors for this trick,” said my grandfather.
The crowd was still applauding as my grandmother stepped into the box. She smiled as he closed the door.
The door divided in two. The Magician opened the top half, and we could see my smiling grandmother.
The Magician closed the door — the stagehands lifted the top half of my grandmother and put her on the stage. The door opened, and there she was, top half-smiling away, bottom half kicking her feet.
The audience applauded.
“Mirrors,” said my grandfather and I wished he would shut up. I wanted to enjoy the magic unfettered.
The stagehands wheeled away the bottom half of my grandmother and the Magician closed the door on the top half.
The top half of my grandmother was then split in two, and Magician put the top half on the floor, opened the door, and the head of my grandmother smiled at us all.
The audience applauded.
“She would have gone through a trapdoor and popped up through a different trapdoor,” said my grandfather.
Please shut up!
The Magician threw his cloak over the box containing my grandmother’s head as the stagehands removed the rest of her.
He said some magic words in an eastern European accent, taped the box with his magic wand, removed the cape and opened the tiny door.
My grandmother was gone.
The audience applauded.
The Magician thanked the audience with a flourish of his cloak, the audience applauded, and the curtain closed.
People began to gather themselves and leave the grand old concert hall.
“Your grandmother will come out soon, and she will be able to tell us how the trick was done,” said my grandfather.
Most of the people had left the hall when I decided to go and see what was keeping my grandmother.
I climbed the same steps she had and pushed past the heavy curtain. I could see the Magician and a bunch of workmen packing things into cane baskets.
I asked the Magician where my grandmother was, and he said that he didn’t speak very good English and that he had to catch the train to Sydney in half an hour. He held my head in his hands and kissed me on the forehead.
“You good boy,” he said in an Eastern European accent, probably Bulgarian with a bit of Lithuanian thrown in.
I went back to my seat, sat next to my grandfather, who was sure that his wife was ‘coming along soon’.
An old man came and told us that we would have to leave because they were closing up.
When we got home, my grandfather made me a toasted cheese sandwich, “It’s your grandmother’s favourite,” he said.
Two days passed, and my grandmother did not appear.
“No need to tell your mum and dad about all this,” said my grandfather as I packed my bag.
My holidays were over, and I had to ride the train back to Melbourne.
I settled in my seat, near the window. My grandfather stood alone on the platform. He held up one hand as the train began to move. He didn’t wave.
I held up my hand and pressed it to the glass.
The carriage lurched, and I was heading home.
My holidays were over, and I had a secret.
Illustration credit: Angela Barrett
“It was good of you to come in so promptly, Mr Ashton.”
“I had to be in the city today, so I thought I should fit you in, and besides, it’s not every day that I get a summons from my accountant.”
“Not exactly a summons, Mr Ashton, surely?”
“Better call me David. After all, I feel like I put your kids through private school, and summer camp, and that school trip to Austria for the skiing.”
“You’re referring to our fee structure — I’ve heard all the jokes. We are the best at what we do, and that’s why you employ us. We save you way more in tax than we charge you.”
“I know you do. I’m just feeling good today, and I thought I would take it out on you.”
Mr Ashton’s accountant seemed to relax slightly. He sat back in his chair and dropped his shoulders. He was wearing his suit jacket which David Ashton took as a sign of foreboding. Nithiyan Nathan, on the other hand, saw the wearing of the suit jacket in the presence of a client as a sign of respect.
These two men were from different worlds and only crashed into each other around tax time. Nithiyan saw things in black and white — numbers never lied to him. David saw the world as an opportunity full of risk and reward.
“So, what’s the problem? Did I allow too big a deduction for my mistress?”
Nithiyan Nathan looked perplexed, an emotion he did not enjoy.
“Relax Nithiyan. I can call you, Nithiyan?”
“Yes, of course. You were being light-hearted? I get it.”
He didn’t get. Light-hearted was for less serious people.
“I don’t have a mistress. Not that I couldn’t afford one, mind you.”
Wealth, and people knowing you are wealthy, was essential to David Ashton.
“I do your books, Mr Ashton ..”
“Yes, of course, David. I do your books, so naturally, I know you could afford a mistress.”
In his head, Nithiyan was calculating the cost of keeping a moderately priced mistress.
“So, if it isn’t my non-existent mistress, then what is it?”
“Your night watchman. You pay him approximately,” Nithiyan hated being approximate, “$183.47 per hour — based on an eight-hour shift, five days a week.”
“He works seven nights a week, and I fly him and his family to Sicily once a year for a three-week vacation. He has family there. It costs me a fortune for those three weeks because I have to employ a team of security guards to cover for him.”
“I was going to ask you about the security guards,” said a confused and intrigued Mr Nathan.
“So, now you know. Is there anything else?”
Nithiyan Nathan sat forward in his seat, putting his hands palms down on the glass-topped surface. He wanted to raise his voice, but that would be as bad as unbuttoning his coat.
“$183.47 per hour. A night watchman would be lucky to earn $18 an hour even if you factored in superannuation and a meal allowance. Is this man blackmailing you? Is he a member of the Mafia? Is he a ghost employee? These are all questions the Australian Tax Office are likely to ask, so I’m asking you before they do.”
“Do you watch a lot of TV cop shows, Mr Nathan?”
It was true that Nithiyan Nathan watched a lot of TV cop shows. It was his release from the world of numbers and clients who were determined to hide their real income.
“That isn’t the point,” said Mr Nathan.
“Okay, you’ve been a good sport, I’ll tell you why I pay him so much, but I warn you, you are going to find my reason difficult to believe at first. But I know you are a man of logic and once I explain the numbers, you will believe me even though you won’t want to.”
“Is this explanation going to take very long, I have another appointment at three o’clock, and I am charging you $500 per hour.”
“It will be worth the cost just to see your reaction. Do you remember the war, it was in all the papers?”
“Yes, I remember,” said Mr Nathan.
“Well, I spent some time playing poker with a bunch of American soldiers during the occupation. There wasn’t much else to do. They were well paid and inferior card players. My wife started to worry about where all the money I was sending home was coming from.”
“I never play cards, but I can see it would be a good way to stave off boredom.”
“We were all prone to telling ‘tall stories’, but there was one story that kept cropping up whenever Americans spoke about their time in Sicily.”
“Where your night watchman’s family comes from?”
“Exactly. The stories talked about certain houses in villages that had been destroyed by American shelling. Certain houses were untouched.”
“Probably pure luck. Just like the scenes you see after a bushfire sweeps through a country town and one house is still standing amongst all the devastation.”
“That’s exactly what I said, but they argued that it happened too often, and on each occurrence, the inhabitants were from an ethnic group known as Daemons. Sicily isn’t far from Greece where the stories about Daemons originate — I looked it up.”
“You are telling me that your night watchman is a demon?” said Mr Nathan, who’s eyes were wider than usual.
“I didn’t say demon, I said ‘day -mon’. Having a demon for a night watchman might be counterproductive. Think of all the slime and debris.” David Ashton smiled at his own witticism.
“It seems that Daemons can protect an area of land from all harm. If they have a strong connection to an area, nothing bad can befall it. In each of the primitive houses in the bombed-out areas that survived, there was a family that could trace their heritage back to this ancient tribe. They are said to exist somewhere between humans and the gods.”
“It was my experience that American soldiers were quite naive and not to be taken seriously. ‘All mouth, no trousers’ our sergeant used to say,” said Mr Nathan.
“My thoughts exactly, ‘all hat no cattle’, as my dad used to say, but there’s another saying about there being fire where there’s smoke. I had nothing else to do, so I did a bit of digging. The more I dug, the more interesting it got.
After the occupation, I went home and was glad of it. Australia was into its most significant immigration phase, and there were lots of men and families from Italy among them. I’d forgotten about the stories because I did my best to put my war experiences behind me.”
Nithiyan Nathan looked at his watch.
“I’m nearly there,” said Mr Ashton.
“It’s your money, go on.”
“I did quite well after I got back. Built up a large manufacturing concern, as you know. Making stuff means having somewhere to store materials and product and the best place for all that is industrial zoned land. Unfortunately, those areas are often run-down, and they attract the wrong sort of people. People with bolt cutters and old beaten up vans. They like to break in and carry off whatever they can carry.”
“You have insurance?”
“Yes I do, but it’s the inconvenience and the annoyance and the fact that I don’t like to lose,” said Mr Ashton, who realised that he was raising his voice. He took a moment to gather himself.
“As sometimes happens, I woke up one morning and remembered the stories from my time in the occupation. I know it sounds crazy, but I put an advertisement in the positions vacant column of The Age – Daemon wanted. Security work. No questions asked.”
“As you would expect, I got a bunch of crank calls. They all made the same assumption you did. Billy Demon here, just got out of Hades, and I’m looking for work, followed by inane laughter. But in amongst the nut bags, there was Antonio Santamaria. I interviewed him personally, which annoyed our Human Resources manager. Antonio had been out of work for some time. His English was rudimentary, and it was holding him back. I was worried that he was too desperate and would not answer my questions truthfully.
I asked him about his ancestry, and he was guarded in his response. I asked him if the rumours were true and he just shrugged.
It occurred to me that even if it was true, his protection may only extend to where he lives, his family home. Maybe it didn’t cover his place of work. I asked him, and he shrugged again.
I explained to him that we’d had three night watchmen hospitalised in the past year and that we were not allowed to issue him with a firearm so he would be taking his life in his hands if he took the job.”
“What did he say?”
“Did it work? Did he protect your warehouse?”
“I offered him double the hourly rate, and I could tell that he was going to take the job. We never had a break-in after that. I have video of deadbeats trying to cut the chains on the front gate and giving up. I have video of other deadbeats cutting through the wire fence at the back of the warehouses only to get tangled up in the wire until the police came and collected them. One bloke, who was found wandering around the streets with burglar tools, told the police he forgot where he was supposed to break in to. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.”
“So you think that Antonio developed an affinity for your land because he needed the money?”
“Buggered if I know, but I do know that businesses in our area rent space, at a premium rate, to store their goods with us. They think we have some space-age security system that is way ahead of theirs. I’ve even had security companies come sneaking around trying to figure out our system.
I keep up appearances with lights and cameras and all that stuff, but in the end, it’s Antonio.
I’ll admit that I get a few strange looks when I tell people that we have a night watchman. Most properties have roving armed guards with dogs and fancy uniforms.”
“You do understand that there is no way I’m going to tell this story to the Tax Office if they come calling, don’t you?”
“I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t tell them that story either. Tell them he saved my life during the war, I don’t care.”
“I’m beginning to wish that I hadn’t called this meeting Mr Ashton, thank you for coming in. You’ll receive my invoice in the usual manner.”
“I know I will, Mr Nathan, and thank you for listening. I’m not Catholic, so I don’t have anyone I can tell things to who can’t repeat them under threat of eternal damnation. You are the next best thing. I hope my story is not too disturbing. There are more things in heaven and earth.”
“Go in peace Mr Ashton and may we never speak of this again.”