If It Isn’t Warm It’s Just Burnt Bread

I eat breakfast in bed — not always, but most of the time.

When I don’t, I usually sit at our small wooden table near the only window in the kitchen.

I’m the sole ‘old person’ living in this share house.

I’ve done the share-house thing before when I was young and poor and studying.

Now I’m older and poor and not studying.

Being the last of five people to arise, I get a clear run at the bathroom.

The downside is that there probably won’t be any milk for breakfast.

Plan B is toast and Vegemite and possibly jam, depending on my mood.

My housemates are all female.

Ages range from early twenties to mid-thirties.

I’m no longer the last person admitted to the house as two of the females have moved overseas to advance their careers. In addition, two new females have been installed. I had very little say.

At the time of my admission to this house, I wondered why they let me rent a room. Now I know that I’m the token male. I’m six feet tall, and despite my age, I’m strong and handy with tools (my ute is full of them — remnants of a previous life). After I’d been living here for a few months, word got around the neighbourhood that I was good at fixing things. Being an upper-class neighbourhood, people expect to pay, so it has come in handy — beer money mostly.

Ours is the only share house in a street of multi-million dollar houses built for successful business people in the early nineteen hundreds — grand old houses.

The current owner inherited the house and lives amongst us. She’s a surgeon, but you would never know it. She’s down-to-earth, can drink the young ones under the table, but never when she on-call. She likes rock and roll and white bread.

My role here, apart from paying rent, is to be tall and robust and handy. I carry heavy stuff whenever someone moves in or out. I carry grocery bags and take out the rubbish. I’ve been called upon to escort drunken ex-boyfriends from the premises — I’m a match for drunk young men, but only just.

Spiders are my speciality — they don’t bother me, and I haven’t killed one yet. So they all live quietly outside now. I’m sure they are grateful.

The spider thing has come in handy whenever I have annoyed one of my female housemates enough to want me gone.

“But he catches spiders,” is the cry that has saved me a few times.

No one has ever said anything, but two years of Psych, back in the day, tells me that I’ve been installed because there is little chance of anyone falling in love with me and upsetting the dynamics of the house.

The realisation hurts a bit, but I can see the practical side of the argument.

By nine-thirty am,the house is all mine. The women are off being a doctor, politician, theatre manager, personal secretary.

People think that you pop a couple of pieces of bread into a toaster, and out it pops — toast.

Not so.

If you don’t butter it immediately (actual salted butter), it will not taste how toast is supposed to taste. If you are interrupted (as I sometimes am) and your toast gets cold, there is no way back. I know. I’ve tried every means possible to resurrect cold toast — it cannot be done. It just sits there and turns into burnt bread. Not fit for man or beast. Although, it has to be said that the local birds will eat it reluctantly.

My male friends think I’m crazy to live in a house full of unattainable females.

I’ve learned to enjoy the experience. Females are amazing creatures, and besides, I don’t have a choice. I could not afford to live on my own.

Paydays are few and far between when you are an unrecognised writer with a ute full of tools and not much else to offer to the world.

As long as there is soft white bread cut thickly and butter and possibly jam, then there is something to look forward to, at least until my flatmates burst in at the end of the day and bring an end to my writing and a beginning to the prospect of spending time with interesting people.

Illustration: Mary Maxam

A Handful of True

“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.

Loud.

Probably three parts pissed.

Misogynistic.

Homophobic.

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 handshake.

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.

Good mates.

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.

“Yep.”

“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.

Mr Applegate

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“Good morning Mr.Williams. I noticed your advertisement, and I thought I’d come along and check out your service.”

My customer was a ‘walk-in’ which was not how I usually did business, but there were almost two hours until my next client, and I was feeling magnanimous, so I steered him into my office and gestured toward the big overstuffed leather chair that Doc had commissioned all those years ago. Doc was proud of that chair, and even though it was showing its age, the customers loved to sit in it.

“Just sit comfortably for a few moments while the chair adjusts to you. It’s very old but also quite intelligent, for a chair.” My client smiled which was a good sign. I find the stiff, awkward ones a bit much this early in the week.

“Excuse me for a moment, just sit there and think about what it is that you want me to ‘recollect’ for you.”

“Oh, I already know what that is,” he said excitedly.

“That’s excellent; I’ll just be a moment. I need to lock the front door. We wouldn’t want anyone wandering in off the street and interrupting your reading.” My client smiled at me again, and I was having difficulty reading him. It crossed my mind that he might be a bit simple, but time would tell.

I shot the old brass bolt on the front door and flicked the communication module to ‘answer mode’. The module had been playing up for the last few weeks, and I made a mental note to put it into diagnostic mode. I’d been putting it off because, like everything else in my shop, it is ancient and I have to attach a USB cable to it and dig out an old laptop computer and go through a manual connection. At least I’m old enough to remember how to upload manually. Top of the list will be its hover mode. The damn thing skates all over the desk. The clients think it is hilarious, but they don’t have to clean up the mess. Why a communication module has to hover is beyond me. Back in my day, the stupid things made video links, and that was it.

The proximity light was blinking on the security panel, but I ignored it because it always acts up during the school holidays. The damn thing is too sensitive. I’ve told the tech a dozen times to tune it down. Teenagers are a pain in the neck, but not all of them are a security threat.

“Now, are you comfortable Mr……..?”

“Applegate. William P. Applegate. 27 Blossom Lane Deepdene 3056. You can have my glidephone number as well if you like.” My client was very keen indeed.

“That’s kind of you Mr Applegate, but the Iris Scanner will record all of that information for me. Can you look into the lens for me? Thank you. That’s the housekeeping out of the way. Now down to business. How can I help you?”

He told me what he wanted me to recollect for him, and it was easy enough for me to find the memory in his mind, and it was all going along well until we got to the part where he shot both of his parents and put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

“What the fuck was that?” I heard myself say.

Part of being a ‘recollectionist’ means that you are in a mild trance when you retrieve and replay the requested memory. I have to be sitting very close to my client so that the energy fields that surround us are close enough to merge.

The whole thing works a lot better if the client is sitting in my lap, but you can see that this method has some practical drawbacks. Sitting close enough is good enough.

I held the image for a few moments, fully expecting the dead murderer to get up and laugh and say that it was all a joke, but he didn’t.

The scarlet red stain around his head just kept on spreading evenly.

I remember thinking that the floors in that house must have been very level for the blood not to flow in one direction. It’s a strange thought for such a moment, but this was not my first murder.

In the early days before the invention of the Hello-Motion-Brain Scanner, the police would bring me murderers who had made a confession and my job was to ‘recollect’ the exact details of the crime for the court records. I have to say that even though they paid very handsomely, I don’t miss those days.

I brought myself out of the trance a little too quickly and vomited in the waste paper basket. We haven’t used paper for many years, but I just couldn’t bring myself to throw it out, it belonged to Doc, and it came with the business, lock stock and barrel, as they say.

Mr Applegate was still sitting where I’d put him, and now he had a silly grin on his face.

“Now you know too,” he said.

“Know what?” I was aware that I was shouting, but it seemed appropriate.

“This memory has been playing in my head for a month and a half, and I’d like it to stop, please.”

“I’m not a head doctor Mr Applegate, I don’t do ‘stop it’, that’s not what I do. Have you been to the police?”

“Yes, of course, I have, but they said that both of my parents are alive. They don’t want to speak to me, but they are definitely alive so the police will have nothing to do with me. Oh yes, they did say that they will lock me up if I keep bothering them.”

“That is your parents in that recollection, isn’t it?”

“Yes, and that’s me as well,” said Mr Applegate with that same silly grin.

“I have to say that I’ve never come across anything like this before, and I’ve been doing this for most of my life which, right now, seems like a lot of years. I don’t know how to help you, but I would say that you need help. Professional, medical help.”

Mr Appligate’s retinal scan had already deposited the fee into my account, so there was nothing else to do but see him out and wish him luck.

“You will see a doctor, won’t you Mr Applegate?”

“I’ll make an appointment as soon as I get home.” Same silly grin.

He didn’t make an appointment, at least I don’t think he did. There wasn’t anything about a doctor in the note, just a brief explanation that he did it because he needed to make the memory match the deed. That’s exactly how he phrased it, ‘match the deed’. Who says stuff like that? Who kills three people just to make a cross-wired memory into a fact?

William P. Applegate, that’s who.

The police showed me the crime scene photos.

Big hole in his head, scarlet stain unevenly spread and that silly bloody grin on his face.   

Bernard

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Looks can be deceiving.

Take Bernard for example.

He looks small and cute, and his mistress is French.

You might think that he lives in a handbag and eats paté all day, but no, he doesn’t. Okay, so he does eat the occasional croissant, and he once licked paté off the floor where some French bloke dropped it while talking to his mistress, but I don’t think that counts.

He does eat snails, but that is a whole other story.

Bernard is special.

All dogs are special, of course, but what I mean to say is that Bernard is especially talented.

You already know that dogs have amazing senses, and the sense of smell is particularly acute.

I sound like I know what I’m talking about, but to be truthful, I only discovered this because my mistress was doing research for a story.

It all started after I caught the murderer in the country house. It was one of my very first adventures. My mistress was very proud of me, and she wondered how I did it. I didn’t think much about it at the time; I just did what dogs do — I sniffed it out. I thought everyone could do it, but apparently not.

My mistress said that some dogs could detect individual ingredients in a pasta sauce. I could have told her that. It drives her crazy that her girlfriend makes a particularly good Napoli sauce, and she is not sure what the secret ingredient is. It’s Turmeric. A very tiny amount. I tried pointing at it in the spice rack using my nose, but she told me off for climbing on a chair. Humans can be very annoying.

Bernard, on the other hand, never gets told off for climbing on chairs. He is treated like a king — a small hairy king, but a king none the less.

His unique skill is finding things.

Rich people pay his mistress large amounts of money to find things that have been lost inside their huge houses, but more importantly, Bernard is asked to find things that are hidden in the houses of wealthy deceased persons — usually by greedy relatives who are sure that their dead uncle has stashed away a fortune.

Bernard comes to visit at least once a year.

His mistress and my mistress have been friends since my mistress was a student in France. She stayed with her friend’s parents for a year, and she says it was one of the best years of her life.

I was expecting Bernard to be a bit ‘up himself’, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that he was a very down-to-earth dog.

Appearances can be deceiving.

He likes watching soccer on TV, and he enjoys walks in the rain, but his mistress won’t let him. I splashed water on him one time so that he would know what it felt like. He was very appreciative.

I took him down to the local Butcher Shop, just to show him the sights and he had a splendid time. He got dusty, and some sand got stuck between his toes and he said it made him feel like one of those free range dogs. He was kidding himself of course. He wouldn’t last five minutes in the wild, but I let him have his dream. Who am I to step on anyone’s dream?

He told me about life in Paris, and it sounded pretty good.

French dogs are allowed into cafés, but I like it here. I’m too old to learn the French words for ‘walk’ and ‘treat’ and ‘get off the chair’.

I asked Bernard what was the most interesting thing he was asked to find, and he said that it was hard to choose, but it was probably a lost toy.

The toy belonged to a little old lady. She was very old and sick. She believed that she was going to die soon and she had been thinking a lot about her childhood. She had a favourite little doll.

She used to tell it her secrets.

One day, while playing hide and seek with her brothers and sisters, she put the doll down and forgot where she put it. She searched and searched, but to no avail.

She wanted to hold that little doll one last time before she died.

Bernard said that she offered a huge reward, but it would only be paid if he could find the doll.

His mistress brought him to meet the old lady, and they got on very well indeed. Bernard gave her a good sniffing and set off through the large old Chateau in search of the little doll. It helped that he is small because it stood to reason that the doll would be in a small hiding place just big enough to hide a little girl.

Bernard searched all day, and he was beginning to wonder if he might have to come back another day, but just as the light was failing, he wandered into a small room attached to the huge kitchen. It was full of dusty old boxes, and it looked like no one had been in there for a long time. To start with, nothing in the room seemed to smell like the little old lady had touched it, but after pushing a few boxes aside with his nose, he got a faint whiff.

The little doll had been nibbled on by moths and was very dusty, but she was in one piece, and she was exactly as the old woman had described her.

Bernard said that it was very strange, but he was sure that the little doll was calling out to him. He followed the scent and the sound directly to where the doll was lying, but when he got there, the doll stopped talking to him.

He gently carried the little doll back to the old lady. She was sleeping and woke as he jumped up on her bed. She didn’t care that the doll was dusty and moth-eaten. She hugged it and cried. Bernard knew enough about female humans to know that there was a chance that this little old lady was happy and not sad.

I asked him what happened to the doll and the little old lady, and he said that he was not sure. He heard his mistress talking about her a few times, but he did not know what her words meant. He did say that they got paid a lot of money because of his find and they went on a holiday to Trieste, and as a special treat, he got a ride on the famous funicular tramway. Bernard loves trams, and he and his mistress are going to visit Melbourne next year because they have the most extensive system of tramways anywhere in the world, not to mention the longest continuous piece of tram track.

Bernard loves trams.

You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but appearances can be deceiving.

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Recapturing The Past

It’s a job like any other.

I get tired, and I get bored, but mostly I like coming to work.

When I was a young man, working my way through college, I worked at a shop that sold lottery tickets. I loved that job; the owner was a dick, but the job was great. People who buy lottery tickets are optimists, and they are my favourite people to be around; not always the brightest, but definitely the most fun. They believe that their time will come.

Which, by contrast, is the exact opposite of the people who come to my place of work.

When my customers come through that door, the one with the antique bell hanging off the inside, they come because they want to recapture something of their past.

I know that sounds mundane; everyone goes back into their memories looking for a happier time. All very well if you can actually remember those times, but if you can’t, that’s where I come in.

Not everyone walks around with a head full of brightly coloured memories. Some people blank their memories out and with good reason.

Some people, and I’m talking quite a lot of people, do not remember specifics about their childhood. They remember their childhood, of course, but only in a general way. Happy, sad, bored, excited, mad, elated, lonely, that sort of thing.

These days we have the technology to do all kinds of amazing things, and still, we are not happy.

People come to me because they want to reconnect with that happiness that they once knew. They want to experience it one more time, and in many cases, over and over again.

There are side effects, of course, but I can see their eyes glaze over as I read the list of things that might happen to them if they go through this procedure. The government makes me tell them, but I told them even before the small fat bloke from the Ministry paid me a call.

“I’m not sure how you slipped through the net Mr Williams [he pronounced my name as though he had just stepped in something nasty], but it seems that you don’t come under any of our regular categories. We’ll put you under ‘miscellaneous’ [that’s the catch-all category that makes sure that you have to fill in a form and pay a fee, even if they have no idea what you do].”

“What do you do with all the fees we pay Mr………?”

“Johnson, William Johnson, chief collector of fees for the eastern and southeastern region. I used to have the north-eastern region, but they said it was too much for me, and they gave it to Jenkins, the swine.”

“That’s a riveting story Mr Johnston, but where does the money go?”

“General revenue, of course.” He looked at me as though I’d just dropped in from another planet.

“Yes, but what does the money do?”

“It doesn’t do anything, it just is —— revenue.”

I could have kept this conversation going, but there was a serious danger of my head exploding so I just nodded and bit my lip — really hard.

.

William Johnson was not born a revenue collector. When he was young, he dreamed of being a train driver, back when trains had drivers. He loved the sound of trains, and the drivers were his heroes. His house backed onto the tracks of the Belgrave line. During the school holidays, he would scale the back fence and sit on the embankment and wait for the trains to pass. He’d wave at the drivers, and some of them would wave back. William longed to be the driver who waved back, but his father was convinced that working for the Public Service was the only life for his disappointing son who liked trains and talked of nothing else. ‘In the absence of a war, the Public Service will toughen him up.’

.

When you go into business, every bugger has got his hand in your pocket.

This bugger was only one of many.

When I wasn’t paying fees, I was dealing with customers.

They come in all shapes and sizes.

I had a bloke in here recently who had lost a lot of his long-term memory in a car accident. Naturally, he wanted to remember the accident in detail so he could work out what had happened.

Therein lay a problem.

If you are driving along and another car comes out of nowhere, all you are going to remember is that you were driving along and ‘bang’, the memory stops.

He was disappointed but not surprised. I helped him with a few other names and dates, but it didn’t seem to help his mood. He was frustrated and a bit sad.

This was an unusual day because I don’t get a lot of this kind of business.

People don’t usually come digging around in a forgotten past.

It does happen, and it usually ends in tears. The mind blocks out certain things — nasty things, and I can’t help thinking that the mind knows what it is doing — leave that stuff alone.

Of course, none of that is up to me. My job is to pinpoint the memory as accurately as possible.

They give me an approximate time and place and I ‘recollect’ it for them. Occasionally, it takes me a bit longer than I’d like, but that usually happens when people are not too sure about specifics.

You are probably wondering how I got into this business.

I just fell into it.

I was young, and my dad insisted that I work during the summer before I started college. My dad was like that. He felt that there were things that I needed to learn and more importantly, things I needed to experience.

We had money, as the saying goes, and my dad did not want me to grow up thinking that the world owed me anything.

I’d known I had this ability since childhood, and my grandfather made sure that I worked at it and got it better. This was back in the day when you had to be careful of who you spoke to about such things. It could cause you some problems, and I lost a few friends because of it, mostly because my friends’ parents were frightened to let their child play with someone who could access their memories. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I took it personally — I was hurt.

I understand now that, most likely, these adults were worried that their child would reveal some secret memory. As we have learned in recent times, some strange things went on behind closed doors in those days.

I went to work for old Doc Preston. My dad knew him [dad knew a lot of people], and he got me the job.

.

Doc Preston wasn’t a medical doctor; he was a doctor of psychology, and his credential came in handy in this work. All Doc Preston ever wanted to do was help people. It was amazing being around this man, even for an oblivious young eighteen-year-old like me. He lost the love of his life when they were both quite young, and he never married again. He had ‘friends’, but never anything heavy. ‘I’m married boy, [he always called me boy, even when I was in my forties], and I always will be. She may not be here with me in person, but I know we will be together again, and I’m going to remain faithful to her. It’s the only thing I can give her now, my loyalty.’ As I got to know him, I gave him the ‘she would want you to be happy’ speech, but he alway smiled and shook his head, ‘you will understand one day, boy.’

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Doc Preston taught me heaps about the recollectionist business.

I jumped out of bed every morning.

When my mates urged me to take a day off and hang out, I told them that I had better things to do with my time. They thought I was nuts, and maybe I was, but it was in a good way.

I went to college, but I worked for Doc Preston on Saturdays and during the holidays.

I ended up with an honours degree, but I never put it to use because I had found my calling.

When Doc got too old to carry on, he sold the business to me.

I didn’t want him to retire. I loved being around him.

“How much do you want for the business Doc? I’m pretty sure I can raise the money.”

“Ten dollars and packet of Juicy Fruits.”

“Be serious Doc.”

He was, and he wasn’t kidding about the Juicy Fruits; Doc never joked about sweets.

You’ve probably guessed that Doc was not well. He knew, but as usual, I was totally oblivious.

A week before he died, he came into the shop, when he knew it would be quiet, and asked me for a favour.

“Can you take me back to the summer of ’88? That was our last summer together, and I’d like to remember it one last time.”

“Sure thing Doc, but none of this ‘one last time’ stuff.” Doc just smiled and gave me that look.

By the time the session was over the tears were rolling down my cheeks.

That was not like me.

I experience some very emotional stuff when I facilitate the ‘recollections’, but I usually keep a professional distance [Doc taught me that — ‘you’ll go batty if you don’t learn how to stand back and watch’].

The trouble was, this was personal. I’d heard him talk about her hundreds of times, but now, there she was and they were so much in love. I could smell her perfume, and I could see the look in their eyes and it broke my heart.

I don’t know what Doc would think of the industry these days.

He would probably say something like, ‘everything changes boy, get used to it and make the most of what you have in the here and now’.

I’m one of the last ‘old school’ recollectionists.

These days there are automated ‘remembering’ stores in most shopping centres, run by poorly paid young people who would rather be sitting on a beach.

If you appreciate the old fashioned service of having your memories recollected by an actual human, then you come on down to Melbourne’s last old time Recollectionist emporium.

Shop 22 in The Block Arcade.

We offer a discreet service and an experience that you will never forget.

The Search Begins

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I loved her the first time I saw her, and that’s all you need to know.

She had hair the colour of rich Belgian chocolate, and recently cut it shorter but would grow it longer again, just for me. A short stay in hospital had left her looking a little pale, and her lack of makeup was not disguising her beautiful complexion. She smiled at me and spoke enthusiastically about different coloured foods. She didn’t see me, not really, and I was determined to change that. Nothing was more important in my life. She was wearing an exquisite gown that showed the curves of her petite body to perfection. She left early with her friends, and I sat in a daze, wondering what had just happened.

It was Scarlett Holmyard who triggered my fitful imagination. It was Scarlett Holmyard who gave my life meaning when things were at their darkest.

I still have the souvenirs. Random memories that, if you put them all together would look like the remnants of a shredded photo album. Fragments of photographs are floating on the water or stuffed down the side of a sofa. Each piece tells a story of adventure, close encounters, triumphs and pure excitement.

I cannot explain the feelings I have when recalling them — the frustration, the hope, the confusion, the anger. Scarlett is the most important person in my life, but I don’t know that yet. She’s that person that you catch sight of out of the corner of your eye. She’s the one whose name you struggle to remember, the torn photograph with not enough detail. She is my nameless champion, my never wavering hero, and I’m the one who is doggedly searching for her.

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illustration by Jack Vettriano

Charmaine

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I love the early morning.

Most of the night people are seeking refuge in a cafe — bacon and eggs over the latest wholegrain toast, black coffee, no sugar and a bleary-eyed remembrance of an evening that will not come again.

I’d been delayed, and as I walked back to my table, the rising sun sent a soft golden glow across the Piazza.

My assistant was no longer sitting at the table. His working night had ended, and he was probably propping up the bar at Il Baccaro or wrapped around one of the night owl females who frequent this part of the city.

As I approach the table I see my tally book lying where my assistant had left it. My keys lie on top of the book, undisturbed.

I like keys.

I prefer an analogue solution to security wherever I can find it. I’m not disturbed by electronics — it’s just that I like the feeling of a key turning in a lock and the sound keys make when they jangle in my pocket.

The huge black umbrella is not offering any shade to the two well dress gentlemen seated at my table — the sun is way too low. I have a sense that there was a third man seated where I usually sit. He hasn’t been absent from the table for very long, and I’m wondering if he is due to return.

The two well-dressed men give me a lazy glance.

I’m still in evening dress and although a little dusty, I’m well presented after a long night of keeping book for the rich and famous. Millions of dollars and only a few slips of paper to show for all that activity.

My two guests are dressed in expensive suits and carrying expensive guns — well concealed. The value of what they are wearing would purchase a well-kept second-hand Mercedes. Where they come from the streets are full of Mercedes and during their Civil War, a few decades ago, the news footage showed armed men, ambulances and swirling smoke. Even the taxis were Mercedes. The vehicle of choice for a Middle Eastern civil conflict.

My occupation doesn’t require me to carry a concealed weapon, but I do. A large calibre two barreled Derringer strapped to my right ankle, and I’m proud to say that I’ve only needed to draw it once.

Part of my job is calculating the odds — seeing the trouble coming before it arrives. I have had to dodge the occasional closed fist and the well-aimed polished boot, but mostly I can calm a situation down before it comes to that. Sore losers are an occupational hazard.

I brushed the dust and a few flower petals off my seat before I sat down and the larger of the two well-dressed gentlemen said, “You may not want to sit there Mr Barker. In fifty seconds, it is going to be unhealthy for anyone who is sitting in that chair.”

Fifty-seconds isn’t very long to decide if he was just a smart arse and I’d used up a few of them calculating the odds.

It seemed safer to assume that he was telling the truth when he and his silent companion, who was directly in the follow-through line of fire, got slowly up from the table and walked away. The taller one had to duck to avoid hitting his head on the umbrella.

I picked up my book and my keys and left the table with as much composure as I could muster.

After I had taken a few steps, I heard the zip of the bullet and the crack of the splintering chair and table top. The bullet would have struck the quiet gentleman somewhere between the groin and the kneecap.

There was no audible bang. The shot must have come from a considerable distance. The police would work all that out at their leisure, but now I had some celebrating to do. I had dodged a bullet and made a lot of money, all over the course of an eventful evening.

Now, if I were lucky, Charmaine will be at home waiting for me.

I must say that’s misleading. Charmaine never waits for me. She does her own thing. It’s just that we share a very expensive apartment, and we sometimes arrive there at the same time, usually early in the morning. On those occasions, we sometimes do the sorts of things that men and women like to do.

The apartment has glass walls on two sides, and I never draw the blinds. I love the view that it affords. The ancient part of the city is, by now, bathed in the golden light that this section of the world is famous for.

This morning, Charmaine arrived home before I did. She is making eggs in her underwear. Her body isn’t perfect. Her torso is slightly too long when compared to her beautiful legs. Her breasts are sumptuous, but some would say that they could be a little larger. She has long black hair, dimples on her bottom and delightful pink toes.

Last night she had been wearing a black bra and panties — lots of lace. I see the dress she was wearing hanging on the outside of her huge wardrobe.

Not including the bathroom, our apartment is one large room with a king-sized bed in the middle. I hope to be lying on that bed a little later and I’m hopeful that I will be knee-deep in Charmaine, but it will depend on the type of night she has had.

My carnal ace will be the story about nearly being shot. That kind of near miss adventure story has given me the green light before.

Charmaine gathers information and what she collects makes her a lot of money. It’s exciting and dangerous, and she loves every minute of it. She has an incredible memory and in her line of work it needs to be.

She knows I’m in the apartment, but she does not look up from her breakfast preparations. I remove my jacket, tie and Derringer and stand behind her. She smells amazing. Her scent produced over a long night’s work mixed with the remnants of her French perfume, and my equipment is on full alert.

I place my hand on her bottom and my expectations for the morning are in my hand. If she brushes me away, it means the night went badly and so will my morning.

She does not react, but neither does she dispense with my wandering hand. So far so good. My luck is holding.

“If you keep doing that you won’t get any breakfast,” she says in a voice that gives me further hope.

“That’s a tough choice for a man, food or carnal delights.”

“I didn’t say you had to choose.”

I couldn’t tell if she was smiling, because I was looking in another direction and imagining my good fortune.

A good breakfast and the delicious Charmaine to follow.

I didn’t get shot, and I’m going to get laid.

It’s been an awesome day.

Georgina Comes Home

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This story follows on from this story — https://araneus1.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/georgina-finds-herself/

Coming back is not the same as coming home.

Too much has happened for home to feel the same as it did. Which is probably just as well.

My time at Oxford had taught me several things, not the least of which was true friendship. Who else would sail halfway around the world just to save me? Harriet would not phrase it that way, but that is exactly what she did — she saved me.

I also learned that there are going to be times when I don’t have all the answers — this realisation did not sit well with me at first. I like to think that I have the strength and drive to solve any problem — meet any challenge.

Harriet was never as lucky, never as smart and certainly never as strong as me, and yet there she was, scooping up what was left of me and bringing me home. So calm, so sure of what to do.

Picking up my studies again here at home was relatively easy. Having spent a year and a half at Oxford tends to open doors. Melbourne University has always considered itself to be the most prestigious Australian hall of learning, so from snobbery alone, I was assured of a place.

Harriet found us a little flat near the Flagstaff Gardens. She obtained employment at a cafe on Flinders Lane, and I meet her every night after work. Lectures during the day and study in the library until it was time to jump on a tram and travel into the City.

Harriet is always tired after her long day, but apart from her first sentence after I ask her how her day went, “My feet are killing me” there is no further mention of how difficult her working life is. Instead, I am regaled with stories of strange and unusual characters who visit her cafe.

There are the regulars like Mr Johnston who always orders half a fried chicken and a coke. Harriett believes that he thinks he is a character in The Blues Brothers. Mrs Wilkins, who orders porridge no matter what time she comes in, “the cook never complains.” Harriett gets along with them all — you could almost say that she loves them — she has that ability. She can make herself larger. She seems to be able to find more love and deliver it wherever it is needed.

The cafe staff feed her during the day, but at night we usually eat at home. Our budget is tight. Her wages pays the rent on our flat, but there is only a little bit left over after we pay for the utilities. My parents give me what they can afford, but it barely covers my studies and expenses. Despite all this, there are days when customers at Harriett’s cafe are particularly generous, and her share of the tips sends us off on a wild night of dancing and boys. The boys always gallantly offer to buy us drinks which is just as well because fancy, dizzy, fizzy drinks are not within our budget. It’s true that when we are out and about, we are difficult to separate, but we see this as a necessary degree of difficulty for our enthusiastic suitors. “It makes them work a little harder and that way we separate the lions from the cubs.” Harriett’s comments reflect her practical streak.

Having said that, we always leave the dance hall together, never with a man. There is often a deal of pleading and cajoling, but on this point, we stand firm. That is not to say that a man is forbidden from calling one of us and arranging to meet at a later date. We don’t have a phone of our own. “Not going to happen Georgina. Forget it. I like eating, and it is a choice between a phone and food.” I quickly weighed up the options. “We could get boys to bring us food?” I knew it was a long shot.

The little old lady who lives in the flat closest to the stairs used to be young once. “You can give the boys my phone number, and I’ll vet them for you. Failing that, you give me a list of the ones I’m supposed to say yes to, and I’ll take down the details.”

Mrs Cuthbert has been a widow for a long time, and she always smiled at us when we ran into her on the stairs or when she popped around to deliver the good news about a man who had rung. “I liked this one. Said his name was Matthew. Had a sweet voice. I gave him the third degree, and he stood up well under questioning.” Then we got her patented smile, which meant that she was kidding. She loved this game. She loved being needed. “I don’t work anymore, and apart from my dog and you girls, no one needs me. It’s nice to be needed.” I nodded in agreement. Harriett needs me, and I need her.

Sunday is our favourite day.

If we are particularly low on funds, we take a blanket and picnic basket, and we picnic in the park, which is about a dozen steps from our front door. It isn’t one of the more popular parks in Melbourne, so there is always lots of space. We live in an upmarket part of Melbourne where the parks are well maintained. We lie on the blanket and stare up at the huge old trees, and we dream as all young girls have dreamed since the beginning of time. These are patient dreams, not the frantic send a Prince charming to save me sort of dream, but gentle hoping dreams. We love our life together. We love the gentle rhythm and the unexpected twists and turns, and throughout it all, there is a bond that ties us together. Georgina and Harriett — many mistake us for sisters, and in a real way we are.

The men who will inevitably catch our eye will have to live with the fact that we will want to live close to each other bringing up our families together and sharing our lives until the lights grow dim. They will understand that it has to be this way — we will not be separated.

The Chinese believe that if you save a person’s life, you are responsible for that person for the remainder of their existence. Harriett saved me and in a real sense, I saved her right back.

Neither of us has any Chinese blood in our veins, but we know that we are responsible for each other, and it will always be so.