I’ve always been impressed that the apostrophe is in the right place on the old neon sign. It would have added to the cost, but I guess the original ‘Chick’ wanted everything to be just right.
Somehow, the old diner has continued in business with parking in rear, despite sitting on an expensive piece of real estate.
The block would have been on the edge of town when the diner opened, but these days it has been gobbled up by progress.
Steak and Chops are still on the menu, but I prefer the sausages and eggs.
Back in the day, it is said that ‘Chick’s’ stayed open twenty-four hours. These days, it’s open until two in the morning, which is okay by me. The opening and closing hours are flexible, and if the diner has customers at closing time, it stays open until they want to leave, which kind of makes you feel wanted, and I guess if you are up at that hour, you are in need of a bit of comfort.
When I can’t sleep, I wander down to ‘Chick’s’ and sit and write. As long as I buy coffee, they don’t seem to mind.
Taxi driver’s and emergency workers love the place.
The girl who works the late shift is friendly and knows how to listen in the same way that a good bartender does.
No-one messes with her because the short-order cook is a big bloke and rumour has it he strangled someone over a parking space.
Speaking of parking — I rarely drive to the diner, living as close as I do, but when I do arrive in a car, I’m allowed to park out the front. Someone said that it was like receiving a gold medal at the Olympics. Only me and the cops are allowed to park out the front. I don’t know what I did to receive such a high honour, but I have learned not to argue with good fortune. I park out front now and then to show that I can. It has raised my standing in the community.
I found a wallet on the floor of a booth once. I returned it intact even though I hadn’t sold a story in a long while. There was fifty bucks in that wallet, and I was sorely tempted, but I knew my mum would have been disappointed in me if I lifted the money. I remember the look on the bloke’s face when I banged on his door and gave him the wallet.
“Thank you,” he said, “I wasn’t supposed to be in that part of town that night,” he said, handing me the fifty. “Please don’t mention where you found it.”
“Who are you?” said an aggressive woman who reminded me of one of my aunties — the one I was still scared of.
“Just came to return a wallet,” I said, taking a step back.
She pushed her husband to one side and stared at me.
“Where did you find it?” she said.
I looked over my shoulder and noticed the flowers growing on the lawn.
“Just over there, near the footpath,” I lied.
The woman glared at me, and behind her, I saw the man give me a nod.
“Don’t think you’re getting a reward,” said the angry woman.
“No need for a reward lady. It’s enough to see your smiling face,” I said as I stepped back out of range.
I could see my mum smiling as I told her the story. She would be proud of me, and I wished she was still alive so I could see her smile one more time.
Making her smile was my greatest delight.
It wasn’t murder, not really.
Whatever it was, I needed to keep a low profile for a while.
At least until the dust settled.
Does dust ever settle? Someone always stirs it up.
Keeping my head down was a good idea, but where? I’m a predictable young bloke. I like the places I like, and I tend to end up there sooner or later. So, if someone was looking for me, I would not be that hard to find.
I needed advice, and my grandmother was very good at hiding in plain sight, back in the day. You would never think so to look at her now.
People underestimate her now.
She spent three years in an occupied country doing her bit. She got caught once and talked her way out of trouble. Think about that. How cool do you have to be to be young, female, in trouble and talk your way out of it?
Seriously cool, my grandma.
I could probably hang out at her house, play video games, watch movies and help her with the garden, but I know I would get bored and do something stupid — I’m good at stupid.
I sat at grandma’s kitchen table, as I had done many times growing up. I used to bring my mates to her house on my way home from school. Cake was always available and soft drinks. Grandma always knew the hungry ones, the ones who didn’t get enough to eat at home.
“Have another piece. It’ll only go to waste if you don’t eat it.”
No, it wouldn’t, I’d be thinking.
The sun was coming in through the window and splashing onto the edge of the table. I held onto my mug of tea the way girls do when they are trying to get warm.
“I didn’t have any choice, Grandma. It was him or me.”
Grandma didn’t speak, she just stared at her mug of tea. Grandma never drank from cups, even though she had some fine ones. “You never get enough in a cup, and you end up refilling it over and over.” Grandma was not one for wasting energy.
After several minutes, she applied words to her thoughts.
“You can stay here with me until this is resolved.”
I took a long breath out. I knew she would look after me.
“I have an old friend who runs a nursing home and hospice. I’ll ask if you can help her. I’ll tell her you are considering becoming a nurse and need the experience. The old men will welcome having a man to talk to, and the old ladies will be dazzled by your handsome face.”
I tried not to blush.
This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for my forced isolation, but it will while away the time. Old people don’t frighten me.
Two days later, and I’m shaking hands with Ethel, my grandma’s friend. We were standing in the foyer of a modern building, the light streaming in behind me illuminating Ethel’s face. She seemed kind and determined. The sort of person you would follow just to see where she was going.
“You must be Stephen. Your grandma said you wanted to have some practical experience to add to your nursing application?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Are you planning to specialise in geriatric nursing?”
“I think so.”
“Come, and we will get you a uniform. You can do a few jobs for me. Basic stuff. You are not too proud to do a bit of cleaning, are you Stephen?”
“I’m here to help and to learn.”
“Good. Most of your work will be talking to our residents. Most of them will be happy to have someone new to tell their stories to. They will want to know a bit about you as well.”
Not too much, I hope.
“I can do that.”
The ‘uniform’ turned out to be a set of scrubs with the name of the centre embroidered on the breast. Pale green and they suited me. I never thought much about what colours suit me.
On my fifth day, I was playing chess with Mr Johnston (always call the residents by their last name — it’s a sign of respect, they come from a different generation), when I saw Ethel, Mrs Wilson, walk briskly by the door — the staff never run, it upsets the residents.
“That must be for Billy,” said Mr Johnston. “He’s near the end. I’m going to miss the old bugger.”
“It’s your move Mr Johnston,” I said.
“Don’t feel much like playing, young fella. Need to be on my own.” Mr Johnstone got up and walked back in the direction of his room. I walked out too. I wanted to see what was going on.
I stood in the doorway to Billy Madison’s room. It felt like the air was thicker in there. I hesitated to break the invisible barrier.
“Come closer, Stephen. Mr Madison is leaving us.”
I stepped forward as I was told and watched as the nurse spoke gently to Billy Madison.
“You can go now, Billy. We are here with you. You are not alone.”
Billy Madison breathed his last few laboured breaths, sighed and was still.
This was only the second time I had watched someone die, and the emotion was quite different this time.
“We were with him when he died, which is what we promised him. Now we will prepare his body for the undertaker, and you can help.”
Ethel looked at me as though she expected me to run. I didn’t. Death does not frighten me, it’s living that scares the shit out of me.
“So how was your first week?” said my grandma as she put a load of fresh scones on the table.
“It was fascinating, but I’m glad to have a day off. It’s quite hard when someone you are just getting to know dies in front of you.”
I reached for the butter and the jam as my grandma put the whipped cream on the table.
“How long have you been making scones, grandma?”
“Too long to contemplate. My grandma taught me.”
“Why do your scones taste better than anyone else’s? Don’t tell mum I said that.”
“A secret ingredient,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
“It’s been a week for secrets. I was sitting with a woman just the other day, and she told me a story that only a person who was facing the end of their life could tell.”
“I’ll make a fresh pot of tea, and you can tell me all about it.”
For the first time, I’m not very bright, it has to be said, I realised that my grandma too was at the end of her life. It never entered my mind that she would someday, not be here.
“Well, her story started the day she brought a new wheelbarrow. A red one,” I said as I stuffed the last piece of the scone I had been eating, into my mouth.
“I’ll tell it to you the way she told it to me.”
Without it, I would not have been able to move the body.
I’d always taken it for granted — the wheelbarrow, not the dead body.
It had always been there, leaning up against the shed or sitting quietly, filled with weeds or split fire-wood — just waiting for the task to be completed.
It was ‘on special’ at the hardware store on the high street.
The shop went out of business not long after, but I remember the wheelbarrows all lined up outside with a huge sign saying how much they were and how much I would be saving if I bought one.
The sign had the desired effect.
I’d needed a wheelbarrow for some time, and the first one in the stack was red.
The gentleman who served me was happy to make the sale but worried about how I was going to get it home.
“Have you got a ‘ute’ lady?”
“No, why? Is it a requirement for owning a wheelbarrow?”
He looked at me for a moment. I could tell that he was wondering if I was ‘winding him up’.
He decided that I was.
“No, but she’s a big bugger, and she probably won’t fit across the back seat of your car.”
“I don’t own a car. I walked here, and I’m planning to drive her home. I’ll park her outside the supermarket and load her up with my weekly shopping, and away I go.”
“Fair enough, but she really is a bloody big wheelbarrow. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a smaller one? You can still give the grand-kiddies a ride in a smaller one. The one you picked is big enough to fit a large dead body in.”
He must have thought that he had gone a bit too far because he looked up and gave an embarrassed smile. I wasn’t worried about the ‘dead body’ crack, but I was considering running over his foot for the grandmother comment.
“Is the smaller wheelbarrow on special as well?” I said.
“No, just these huge industrial buggers that I got stuck with when I bought the business.”
“Well then; I have the right barrow, don’t I?”
I smiled and staggered off down the footpath scattering pedestrians in my wake.
I didn’t stop to buy groceries; that was just me ‘getting carried away’ with the hardware store owner.
Every time I go past his old shop, I wonder what happened to him.
His shop became a Noodle Shop, then a $2 Shop, then a Tattoo Parlour, then a Bakery, then an empty shop with a strange collection of bits and pieces lying in the middle of the tiled floor.
It looked like someone had swept up after the last tenants, and never came back to throw out the collection of flotsam.
I’ve always wondered what the orange penis-shaped thing was.
I’m sure that it’s not an orange penis, but there has never been anyone at the shop for me to ask; which is just as well because I think I would be too embarrassed to make that particular enquiry.
Gardening is not my favourite pastime, but since my husband died, I have had to work up the enthusiasm.
Bill was the love of my life, and I miss him so very much.
He left me suddenly — an industrial accident. Everyone was very kind, especially his business partner Ambrose Kruis.
Bill and Ambrose built the business up from nothing, and when Bill died, Ambrose inherited the company; it was part of their partnership agreement. I understood; I wasn’t upset. They were engaged in high-risk construction, and if one of the partners died, it would put the whole business in jeopardy, so it was only fair that the surviving partner benefit.
It also explained the massive payout that Ambrose received as a result of the ‘partners insurance’.
He was not under any obligation, but he helped me anyway.
He knew that Bill put all his capital into the business and consequently, there wasn’t any life insurance.
I had some savings, but they were for a ‘rainy day’, as Bill used to say.
Ambrose was very generous when the roof needed replacing and when the plumbing packed it in.
I knew that I could not rely on him forever, but up until I made a surprise visit to his office, he had looked after me financially.
I arrived early on a Wednesday morning, and his secretary let me wait in his office. “He won’t be long. He’s at a breakfast meeting with the bankers.”
I decided to make the most of my time and write a couple of letters.
I do send emails, but I still prefer the personal touch of sending a letter.
I stepped behind what used to be Bill’s desk and opened the top drawer looking for notepaper.
Two more drawers were opened before I found some, and that’s not all that I found.
The writing paper was not lying flat in the drawer.
There seemed to be something small and bulky under the ream of paper. I removed the paper, and the sunlight coming in low through the office window reflected off the polished silver surface of an antique Victorian hip flask.
You might be wondering why I knew what it was.
I’d given this flask to my husband on our wedding night.
It belonged to my grandfather.
He was some twenty-years-old when he bought it upon arriving in England in 1915.
He was a young Lieutenant on his way to the front.
The flask saw a lot of action, and no doubt helped to dull the terror that trench warfare brought to all those involved.
I recognised the flask from the inscription and by the dent on the top corner. It was caused by a German sniper’s bullet.
After surviving at the front for all those years, one moment of lost concentration and my grandfather’s war came to an end, only months from the close of hostilities.
The notice of his death arrived on the day that the Armistice took effect.
The flask was returned to the family along with his other belongings.
Obviously, I was aware that the flask was missing from my husband’s effects, but I put it out of my mind. He had it with him on the day he died; he always had it with him.
I’m not that bright, but I didn’t need a degree in Physics to figure out that something was terribly wrong.
Ambrose had murdered my husband so that he could get control of the company and collect the insurance. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was all about the insurance and he probably expected to sell the failing business for the value of its component parts. But, to his surprise, the company survived, mainly because my husband had set it up well and the business had an excellent reputation. Its employees loved him and worked their arses off to keep the company going.
It helped that Ambrose was a bit of a womaniser and that he would often disappear for several days at a time when he was on a ‘bender’.
I invited him around to the house for a meal — something that I had done a dozen times.
During the dessert course, I excused myself, “Just need to visit the ladies room.” I came back with an old shovel that my husband used to dig the veggie patch — the irony was not lost on me.
I struck Ambrose twice on the back of the head. He went down, and apart from his lemon-meringue-pie landing on the floor, he did not make much of a mess.
Moving the body proved to be a bit of a chore, but the trusty red wheelbarrow was up to the task.
I didn’t own a car, so Ambrose was going to have to travel in the wheelbarrow for the two-kilometre ride to the construction site that Ambrose’s business owned. There was a concrete pour scheduled for the morning.
I’m not sure what I would have said if someone had stopped me, and I’m pretty sure that I looked hilarious as I struggled along with this huge red wheelbarrow filled with an Ambrose.
I was utterly exhausted when I got him there and dumped him into a pit and covered him with gravel, but I still had to get the wheelbarrow back to my house without being seen.
I was in the lap of the gods on both halves of this deadly journey, but the gods smiled on me, and I made it safely home.
I slept for fifteen hours straight.
I cleaned up the blood and the lemon-meringue-pie when I woke up and waited for the police to arrive.
They never did, and what’s more, it turned out that the partnership agreement had a clause covering the eventuality of both partners dying within ten years of each other.
The business went equally to the wives of the partners.
Ambrose wasn’t married.
I had to wait seven years before Ambrose was declared dead, but I didn’t mind — the money and the business weren’t the points.
That old red wheelbarrow is very ancient. Rust and a little red paint are about the only things holding it together now, but there is absolutely no way I am ever going to throw it away.
Every time I look at it, I’m reminded of everything I’ve lost and also of the revenge that was mine to take.
So much depends on a red wheelbarrow.
My grandma looked up from her cup of tea.
“Never underestimate an old lady,” she said. “Another scone dear?”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
“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.”
Someone in a summer dress asked me if I preferred men or books.
“Books, my dear, every time. They will take you to a lot more interesting places.”
I was being facetious, of course. Men are necessary, but you can’t put them down and come back to them as easily as a book.
The pressure is mounting because the money my grandfather left me is rapidly running out.
There is nothing else for it, I’m going to have to get a job or marry a man, preferably one with an excess of funds.
I think I prefer the first option, but what to do?
I have a reasonable education, although I’ve failed to keep up the friendships from that time in the way that men do — networking, I think they call it.
I’m pretty, and I speak well enough, and I can type, but I never admit to it.
I’m well-read, although I’m not sure how that will help me. I guess I shall have to find out.
The ‘summer dress’ argued with me, passionately. Men are wonderful things, apparently.
I suppose I know a few decent men.
My grandfather adored me, hence the inheritance.
My father likes me, although you would not hear him say so.
My brother is the finest man I know, but they won’t let you marry your brother, which always seemed absurd to me. I understand the bit about two-headed babies resulting from such a union, but I’ve never felt the need for children, so no problem there.
Sadly, my brother did not return from his stint at ‘King and Country’, so that avenue is pure fantasy. He really was the most delicious person, and I miss him. Something in me died when he didn’t come home.
In a way, I’ve been living the kind of independent life I know he would have lived.
Mustn’t get too maudlin, I have decisions to make and a life to live.
Maybe the ‘summer dress’ has a point.
On second thought, no, she hasn’t.
Books trump men every time.
Now, if I find a man who loves books, I’ll be in a quandary.
Can a person have their cake and eat?
Wouldn’t it be fun to find out?
“I’m sorry Mr Bennett,” she didn’t look that sorry, “but a shared sleeper is all we have left. If you must travel on that day, you will have to share. If you can put your trip off for a day or two you can have your pick of the solo cabins — they are more expensive, of course.”
“I have to be there on Friday, so it has to be the overnight train on Thursday. I’ll take the ticket, but tell them to stock up on decent whisky. I’m going to need it, and so is my sleep buddy,” said Sam
“You will have some time to yourself because your fellow passenger won’t be boarding until Ararat.”
That’s a few hours of peace, thought Sam, who was looking forward to reading the new Michael Robotham novel he purchased just for this journey.
The Overland sat quietly at platform 2, waiting for its passengers.
Train travellers are an interesting bunch. Many of Sam’s fellow passengers shared his dislike of planes and airports.
Trains rarely involve a full body cavity search, lack of legroom, surely security and godawful food.
The Overland, beautiful named, is a throwback to a time when people travelled for adventure, and the cost was not the top priority.
The train company asks that passengers arrive thirty minutes before departure. They are met by a company employee dressed appropriately, including a wide-brimmed Akubra. Passengers wait patiently next to their assigned carriage until the porter opens the doors. Find your cabin, stow your bags and head for the bar, maybe a snack. The evening meal is delivered to your room and so is breakfast, but a man needs snacks and a stiff drink.
Sam chose the upper bunk — first in first served.
He opened his book but decided to enjoy the view. In a few short hours, darkness will descend.
The hustle and bustle of Spenser Street station at peak hour provides lots to look at. City workers heading home. Their tired countenance is even more disturbing than their morning gaze.
Suburban, country and interstate trains all share this massive station.
The train sounded its horn and slowly pulled out, right on time.
“If Mussolini were alive, he would be proud,” said Sam to himself. Right-wing arseholes are obsessed with trains running on time.
The train travelled slowly as it negotiated the rail yards with its twists and turns. The wheels and bogies complained loudly at the frequent changes of direction.
The train travels slowly for the first hour until it clears the suburbs of Melbourne. Some would say that the view is uninspiring, but Sam enjoyed the sometimes rusty and occasionally grubby nature of these old industrial suburbs. They reminded him of his childhood. His father worked skillfully with his hands, and on rare occasions, Sam was allowed to accompany him to work on weekends, when the bosses weren’t around.
Rust has its own distinctive aroma as do grease and dust and sweat, all ingredients of a working-class employment.
Once in open country, the train accelerates, and Geelong approaches rapidly.
Past Geelong and the country flattens out. The early settlers called it ‘Pleurisy Plains’. Anyone venturing out during the areas vicious gales was sure to contract the infection.
The flatness comes about because it is a larval plain. The local Aborigines have lived here for so long that their oral history talks about the distant volcano erupting some twenty thousand years ago.
Through the gloaming, Sam could just see Mount Elephant — its indigenous name is ‘Hill of Fire’.
It was getting harder to see the countryside as the train pulled into Ararat.
The massive, now empty, rail yards looked like an old car park that no one used anymore. All a bit grim.
There was a country train on the other platform as Sam’s train pulled in. The passengers gazed at his train, no doubt wondering where it was headed and what the passengers were headed to.
After the train pulls out of Ararat, a strange thing happens. The mileage signpost suddenly drops about 30 miles. After asking the porter, Sam found out that the interstate train travels a longer route to get to Ararat than the regional line. So now they are on that track. Sam wondered who thought that going the long way was a good idea, but why people do the things they do, gives Sam a headache.
Sam’s cabin mate did not appear, and the train had been travelling for long enough for him (he assumed it was a him — even these days, Sam could not imagine a woman wanting to share a cabin with a strange man) to have found the right sleeper berth.
The first part of Sam’s journey had been peaceful, so why worry about the fate of his fellow traveller.
Sam climbed onto his bunk and read his book, but soon turned out the light and snuggled under the covers. The rolling motion is a cure for most people’s insomnia.
He was facing the door when it opened, and a medium height man wearing an overcoat padded into the cabin. He left the door slightly open, which allowed a subdued amount of light to penetrate the darkness. Sam had not pulled the blinds, but on a moonless night, there is only pitch black in the Australian outback.
The new passenger took off his coat, revealing a crumpled suit with no tie. The man was travelling with only a small bag. He reached into the side pocket of the bag and produced a bundle wrapped in an old cloth. The bundle went out the window, and the sound of rushing air diminished when the man closed it and climbed onto his bunk. He didn’t snore, but before long Sam could hear the sound of heaving breathing.
That same rhythmic breathing was still to be heard when Sam woke instinctively as the porter knocked on his door, breakfast trays in hand.
“Thanks, mate, I’ll take those,” said Sam and the porter did not glance nor comment on Sams lack of suitable attire. Porters see it all on sleeper trains.
Sam put the tray for the mystery traveller on the small table and his tray on the bunk. He managed to climb up without putting his foot in his breakfast. He was pleased with this achievement and proceeded to consume his eggs and toast while unfolding the newspaper. Somewhere, the train had picked up the early edition of the Adelaide Advertiser, which seemed fair as they were closer to Adelaide than Melbourne, but Sam would have prefered the Melbourne Age, even if it was a bit hard to unfold at this hour of the day.
The articles rolled out the usual tales of local and international mayhem, which surprised Sam because, from his experience, people in Adelaide didn’t know there was an outside world, apart from Melbourne which they hated. Forever in its shadow, Adelaide folk take any chance to compare themselves favourably, usually around Australia’s favourite religion, sport.
One item caught Sam’s eye.
There had been a shooting in Ararat.
A young husband had come home from work and found his wife in the arms of her lover, a small-time gangster from Melbourne. There was a photograph showing the front of a house illuminated by police floodlights. A neighbour, dressed in her dressing gown said that it had been going on for months and she felt sorry for the husband, “Such a nice young man. Works all the hours that God sends. Gets home late after commuting to Melbourne. He deserved better than her, God rest her soul.”
The wife died in the arms of her lover, and the lover was in a critical condition. The writer alluded, ever so subtly, that even if he did survive, his philandering days were over.
The husband and his Great War revolver were still missing when the paper went to print. The gun came back from France with his grandfather. A Webley six-shot revolver, an officer’s weapon.
The passenger’s tray was untouched when Sam climbed down, washed, dressed and waited for the train to pull into Adelaide Parklands Terminal.
Sam will need a taxi because for some reason they built the terminal away from the city, which means that it does not go to the beautiful old Adelaide Station.
Sam wasn’t trying to be quiet as he performed his preparations for arrival, but the passenger did not wake.
When the porter came for the trays, Sam told him to come back as late as possible, “This bloke needs his sleep. He’s had a rough time. Don’t wake him till you absolutely have to.” Sam slipped the porter a ‘fifty’. The porter smiled and promised. Sam made a note to add the ‘fifty’ to his client’s bill. The rich buggers can afford it.
Sam didn’t mind having a train trip to Adelaide, but all his business could have been handled by email or on the phone, but this law firm only wanted face to face meetings. It seems that they don’t trust computers. Their bill was going to be huge, but they didn’t seem to mind.
The taxi was waiting when Sam stepped out of the station, the air as hot and dry as he remembered.
“City, please driver. Rundle Mall,” said Sam.
“Might take a bit longer at this hour mate, peak hour and everything,” said the driver.
Sam laughed, “I’ve seen your ‘peak hour’ son. It lasts about ten minutes.”
Usually, Sam would have reminded the driver of what was likely to happen to him if he did the old trick of driving ‘the long way around’, a popular ploy of taxi drivers worldwide when they sensed an ‘out of towner’, but on this trip, Sam didn’t care. It was all on his client’s account.
“Just make sure I get a receipt and don’t get greedy,” said Sam.
The passenger woke to the sound of the porter and his gentle nudge.
“Sorry, sir. I left it as long as I could as per your friend’s instructions.”
“What friend?” said the sleepy man with the ruffled suit.
“The one you shared the cabin with,” said the porter, “he left this for you.”
The porter handed him a postcard with a photograph of The Overlander crossing Australia’s longest rail viaduct, just outside Geelong. On the back, written in a clean hand with a newly sharpened pencil were these words:
Dear Mr Park. I’m sorry your missus cheated on you. I know your heart is broken and I know that you will come to regret what you have done, but I do understand. A bloke can only take so much, and betrayal is about as bad as it gets.
It’s not my job to turn you in, but if you hurt anyone else I will come and find you, and you will regret breaking my trust.
P.S. I hope you took the remaining bullets out of the gun before you threw it out of the window.
Keep your head down and don’t make me regret my decision.
It was my mother’s idea.
Mum was never short on ideas, bless her soul.
Somehow, she had found out that no one in our family had ever had their portrait painted, which didn’t surprise me. In our world, only rich people had the spare change to pay for a portrait painter. We had more significant problems, like food and electricity and dog biscuits if it came to that.
Which brings me to Eric. Eric the dog.
He doesn’t like to miss out on stuff.
Mum suggested that my new business venture, supplying rich people with household staff who could also play a musical instrument (more of this a bit later), could use a boost. “Imagine the impact on your prospective client when they come into your office and see a portrait of you, done in oils.”
The idea appealed to me. Despite my left wing leanings on most subjects, I’ve always liked the trappings of wealth and privilege.
Eric, on the other hand, just likes being where I am, doing what I’m doing.
So, when it came time to travel to the city for my first sitting, Eric wanted to go as well. He had no idea where we were going or that it involved a trip on the number 12 tram and even if I had explained to him that he would probably have to sit quietly in some outer office for more than an hour, he would still have liked to come — that’s Eric. He does not want to miss out.
“I like your dog,” said a delightful creature in a chiffon dress.
“And I’m pretty sure he likes you too,” I said facetiously.
“How can you tell?” said the delightful creature, who was in danger of catching cold, as my mother would have said.
For a moment, I thought she was kidding, but it turned out that she had left what remained of her intelligence in her other purse.
I have to say that I took advantage of the situation and we were going to be getting off the tram presently.
“I know, he speaks quite softly. I’ll get him to say it again, only a bit louder,” I said.
“I saw his lips move, but I didn’t hear anything. What did he say?” said the scantily clad creature.
“He phrased it differently, but the sentiment was the same. Oh, and he added a bit.”
“Yes. He reiterated his liking for you and suggested that if you were a dog, he would suggest a mating session — doggy style, of course.”
The beautiful creature blushed and stroked Eric on the head.
I love being out with Eric.
The artist studio was in an apartment on Little Collins Street, a costly part of town. Based on his fee, I could see how he was able to afford this address.
I expected his secretary — (yes he had a secretary, and I wondered what she did all day), to ask me to leave Eric with her.
I wondered what they would talk about.
As it turned out, the artist squealed like a little girl when he saw Eric.
“The dog is, how shall I put it, perfect!”
So that was that. Eric is now part of the company, and it has to be said that he gets more attention than I do, especially since we started using the portrait in our advertising campaign.
Eric has his own section on our website, and we share a secretary so that he has his fan mail answered.
You are probably still wondering about the ‘could also play a musical instrument’ bit.
Well, the idea has been around for a while, and it all started with an old interview with a famous Scandinavian film director who has his own production company. In a throwaway line, he said that he would not employ a lawyer who did not play a musical instrument. Considering how many lawyers a film production company would need, the interviewer tried to pursue the point. No one has ever been able to find out if the director was just outrageous for the sake of it or if he was serious. For our purpose, it does not matter, because the press picked up on it again many years later, and so did the people who like to design personality tests. The best selling book, “And Can You Play A Musical Instrument?”, established the idea in people’s heads and you know what happens when people get an idea into their heads — it stays there, and no amount of logic will shift it.
So, God help any domestic servant who is looking for employment without the ability to at least pound out ‘Chopsticks’ on a piano.
Sitting for a portrait is not as much fun as you might think. My neck got a crick in it, and my arm ached from hanging on to Eric. Eric wasn’t any too pleased either. He wasn’t having it, so I had to hang on to a cushion for most of the session.
I was happy when it was done, and I loved how the painting came out, and as with childbirth, I forgot about the pain.
There is talk of doing another one every five years so that we will end up with a bunch of them showing the permanency of the business, but I’m sure I can think up an excuse to not be available for the next one, and Eric agrees.
Image: Aaron Westerberg
I’d been working on the idea for a long time.
When I finally took it to him, with all the excitement of a small puppy, he laughed at me.
It wasn’t so much what he said as the way he said it.
As though it wasn’t worth a moment of his precious time to even consider it.
I bundled up my shock and disappointment and confided in my best friend.
My friend’s advice was succinct and to the point, “Oh forget him, he’s an idiot.”
He handed me a large whisky and gave me the look of someone who wanted to know what my idea was all about.
He totally believed in me, and he was more than slightly surprised that I let this person rattle my confidence.
“Tiny lines of cotton that hold the world together,” said my grandfather, but he would — he was a romantic.
He wanted me to see what he saw, romance, adventure, creation.
“A woman comes to me with a dream. I never ask what that dream is, but I know it lingers beneath the request. I need a dress for a formal occasion, might translate into, My husband is losing interest in me, and I want to knock his socks off.
Or maybe the lady is trying to impress the other women in her circle — that’s serious business, or so I have been told.”
I was twelve when this conversation took place, and within a year my grandfather would be found in his workroom, needle in hand, the life having ebbed out of him. No one said he had a smile on his face, but I’d like to think so.
“The customers I love are the ones who come to me because they want to please themselves. They know they are beautiful and they realise that the clothes I make for them complement their beauty and poise. From the time they step in the front door of my shop we are engaged in a dance. A creative dance. They don’t spell everything out for me, I’m expected to participate, do my part. When I have made the garment and done the final fitting, we both know that the dance is coming to an end. The exceptional customers participate in a denouement — they let me know if the garment had the desired effect. I love it when they prolong the dance.”
I was way too young to understand the undercurrents of my grandfather’s observations, but I guess he hoped that his words would stay with me, ring in my ears at a later date.
It was never my intention to go into the family business. I could think of nothing worse than being confined in a shop fussing over women with more money than sense.
I rebelled and left home as soon as I was able. I travelled and worked and soaked up life until I thought I might burst.
Every time I saw a beautiful woman I examined her clothes — off the rack or made to measure — you can always tell.
I remember the look I got from a girl in Paris when she caught me examining the stitching on her skirt. She wasn’t wearing it at the time. She wasn’t wearing anything at all, and neither was I. We were taking a break during a long session of lovemaking on an autumn afternoon. The view from her apartment was stunning, and the sight of her was equally so, but I could not resist the urge to find out how well her clothes were made.
“Have you checked the hems to see if there is anything hidden in them,” I said.
“No, why would I?” she said.
“Some old school dressmakers will hide little things like tiny pieces of paper with something inscribed, or a fragment of ancient cloth. They feel it personalises their work.”
The naked lady thought I was marginally less crazy after my explanation and we continued to tangle erotically for several more months until she left me for a trumpet player. I minded, but I got over it and continued my travels.
Whenever the money ran out, I would seek employment, and on more than one occasion I got work at bespoke dressmakers — not the usual job for a young man, but I had my family’s name, and it opened a few doors, even if I did end up sweeping more often than designing and sewing.
I didn’t care; I was free.
The Telegram caught up with me when I was staying in a provincial city in Spain. My father had died, and my mother was distraught.
It took me a few days to get back home, but they waited for me.
After the funeral, while everyone was eating little sandwich triangles and drowning their sorrows, I went to my father’s shop, the same shop that my grandfather had owned. The gold letters on the glass door spelled out my family name.
The rest you can probably work out for yourself.
Your dress is now complete. I hope you are happy with the work?
I know it is none of my business, but I was wondering why you wanted me to make it for you?
“I don’t need another dress. I just like spending time in your shop without igniting the gossips. Does my admission shock you? Have I ruined our friendship?”
Not at all, but you might want to take the dress off.
You wouldn’t want to get it all wrinkled.
Painting by Jack Vettriano