Anyone who has ever worked anywhere will tell you that their job would be easier if they didn’t have to wade through an ocean of excrement cleverly disguised as bureaucracy. The senior officer in a small country police station solves a mysterious crime only to have his decisions scrutinised by those above him. The writing is on the wall for him and his staff, but he still has a job to do. Fate will take care of the rest.
From the audiobook SLIGHTLY SPOOKY STORIES
Helen prepared lunch — dumplings, one of her specialities. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon. No work and the usual sounds of neighbours mowing lawns or talking to invited friends was thankfully absent. Only the sound of a gentle breeze moving through the trees penetrated Helen’s kitchen.
The sound of footsteps, large and heavy, made her turn towards the glass door that led to the back yard.
His silhouette was motionless.
Helen should have been startled. The person behind the silhouette was familiar and warm, or so it seemed to her.
“Can I have some of those?” said the man.
“I’ll get you a bowl,” said Helen.
The aromas of the outdoors rushed past the man and into the kitchen, momentarily brushing away the smell of her dumplings.
Helen returned with a Japanese bowl, part of a set — perfect for dumplings. The bowl had three dumplings, steam rising from them. Helen brought chopsticks instead of a fork because she knew he prefered them when eating Asian food.
“Thank you,” he said, “I’m really hungry. I’ve walked a long way.”
The man was dressed in long pants and a shirt — both clean but unironed, giving him a mildly unkept look. His sneakers were dusty, and his hair was tousled from the breeze — he didn’t bother to brush it.
“These are very good. I remember these. You are a very good cook,” said the man.
“Where have you been?” asked Helen, as she sat at the small kitchen table with her dumplings getting cold.
“Traveling. Coming home.”
“What happened to you?”
The man did not answer, he was finishing the last of his food. “Is there any more?”
Helen took his bowl and put three more dumplings in it. She was saving them to take to work the next day.
“Where were you travelling from?” asked Helen.
“A long way away,” said the man with a mouth full of food. “I started in Queensland, and I travelled along the coast until I reached Melbourne.”
“Have you been travelling all this time? All these years?”
“Why didn’t you call?”
The man didn’t answer. He was strangely calm, and hungry.
“Can I have water?”
Helen filled a glass and put it in front of him. His smell filled her nostrils.
“I’m very tired. Can I lie down on the couch? You do still have the couch?”
“Yes,” said Helen.
The man lay down and fell asleep. He was still asleep several hours later when Helen went to bed.
When Helen’s alarm went off, she went out to the kitchen and put the coffee on. For a moment she thought she may have dreamt the previous day’s appearance. She pocked her head around the corner of the door and peeked into the darkened loungeroom. The couch was empty. Maybe she had dreamt it.
Helen prepared for her working day and as she walked through the kitchen on her way out she saw the two dumpling bowls lying in the sink.
“He looks so much like your late husband — my heart skipped a beat when I saw him,” said Helen’s neighbour.
Glenis and her husband, Bill had lived next door to Helen and Charles for several years. They moved into their houses only two weekends apart. Not exactly fast friends, but friends all the same. Someone to have coffee with on a day off from work.
Helen had a full-time job and still does. Back then it was a way of ‘getting ahead’ — saving for ‘things’, holidays, cars, furniture, maybe a baby — maybe. Now her job was part of her survival, financial and emotional.
Glenis didn’t work, not in the traditional sense. Her life revolved around her husband and his career, the house and the children. It wasn’t enough, but she never said it out loud — out loud would make it real.
Glenis was often at a loose end, and this was one of those days.
The sudden appearance of Charles’ doppelganger was too much for Glenis; she needed answers.
“He’s Charles brother,” said Helen.
“Why haven’t we seen him before? We’ve lived next to each other for years, and I’ve never seen him before.”
Helen could feel the insistence in Glenis’s words, and it would only be a matter of time before she said something that Glenis would latch on to. Better to be rude and end this — at least for now. Helen knew that putting her neighbour off would only give her a moment’s rest; she’d be back.
“He’s been working on the oil rigs. I really do have a terrible headache Glenis. Could you excuse me, I need to lie down.”
For a moment, Glenis considered the possibility of hanging around while Helen slept. A chance to look around and see what she could see, but she quickly abandoned the idea.
“Of course dear. You rest. You must be tired.” I wonder what you and the brother get up to when no one can see.
Glenis took her unspoken innuendo and went home.
Helen was dreamy and distracted at work, but no one noticed. Her workplace was dull and predictable with people on autopilot — not rude, just not fully there. Helen bought her lunch from the cafe on the corner and thought about the dumplings she planned to eat. She told none of her workmates about her encounter.
At the end of her working day, her ride home was uneventful. The train carriage was full of the usual assortment of daily commuters. A high school boy offered her his seat, which she gladly accepted. The boy quickly went back to talking to his friends, and her encounter with him was virtually wordless — all hand gestures and eye contact.
When Helen arrived home, she cautiously entered her home, happy to have avoided her neighbour who seemed to be perpetually at her front gate.
There was no one in her house. What was she expecting?
The neighbour’s cat walked in when she opened the back door and curled around her legs.
“Am I your first port of call Puss, or have you been working the neighbourhood all day?”
The cat purred, which could have meant anything.
Helen gave the cat some scraps, and it curled around her legs again before eating and gracefully walking out into the backyard on her way to visit her next benefactor.
Tuesday went a lot like Monday and Wednesday was threatening to do the same, but when she got home, Helen made a cup of tea and watched the sun go down from the comfort of her kitchen table.
When the man appeared she didn’t jump, didn’t show any signs of surprise or alarm — she was back in that dream again. She wondered if she had fallen asleep at the table — she was tired enough, but she seemed to be awake, either that or this was a very vivid dream.
“Do you have any more of those dumplings. I love your dumplings,” he said while standing in the doorway wearing the same clothes he had a few days before. His hair still needed brushing, but the beard she remembered from all those years ago was gone. That’s what it was, the beard.
“When did you shave off the beard?” she heard herself say.
“Not long after I came back — a few days after, I guess. I saw myself reflected in a shop window and I thought, ‘that’s not me anymore’, so I shaved it off.”
“How?” asked Helen.
“A friend loaned me his razor.”
“Did he help you get back home?”
“Not directly, but I stayed with him for a while. He taught me how to fish. It turns out that I’m pretty good at it. He gave me somewhere to stay for a while, but then he disappeared, so I hit the road.”
Helen got a packet mix from her pantry and began to make the shells for dumplings. The whole process took a little while, and the two people inhabiting the tidy kitchen remained silent until the steaming dumplings were ready to eat.
The man hunched over his bowl with the steam curling around his face.
Helen made more than she usually did in anticipation of her lunch and the request that she knew would come.
“May I have some more please?”
The man slept on Helen’s couch, and he was still there in the morning.
Helen anticipated his presence and wrapped herself in a floral dressing gown hiding her naked, freshly rested body.
She pulled the gown tighter as she walked into the lounge room. Despite his recent disappearance, she was sure he would still be there this time.
He sat up when she entered, stretched and rubbed his eyes.
“Do you want a shower before breakfast?” Helen asked.
“No, you can have it. I’ll shower when you go to work,” he said.
“Eggs or cereal?”
“Do you still have that cereal that pops when you put milk on it?”
“Yes, but I don’t know why. Force of habit I guess. I never eat it.”
“Can I have some?”
“It might be past its ‘use by’ date. I’ll check.”
Helen made toast and put a tiny amount of Vegemite on hers. She nibbled at the edges of her toast as the man gobbled down his cereal. “Can I have some more?”
Helen showered and dressed. She paused at the front door and said, “Will you be here when I get home? I have a student coming around at 7pm. I should be home before then.” The man smiled at her but did not answer.
Helen’s working day seemed to take forever, even more so than usual. The numbers swirled on the page — no one noticed her distress.
Widows learn how to hide their pain.
The man was still there when she arrived home, and she barely had time to grab a snack before her student came with her mother in tow.
The mother of the maths student eyed the man before expressing her concern about her daughter’s grades.
“I pay you a lot of money to tutor Annabel, and her grades don’t seem to be improving,” said the slightly overdressed lady. Her daughter rolled her eyes. “Why do I have to do maths? I’m going to marry some rich bloke who owns his own panel beating business, and I’ll never need to work. Numbers suck.”
When someone starts to embezzle money from your husband’s panel beating business, it would be handy if you had enough knowledge to see it happening before you both went broke, and you have to go out to work, thought Helen, but all the mother saw was a smile.
“Annabel needs to apply herself and do the assignments I set for her, then her grades will improve,” said Helen as pleasantly as possible.
The tutoring work was necessary because her job was not enough to keep body and soul together since her husband disappeared while working as a marine biologist on assignment in Queensland.
It had been a struggle, but she had managed to hang on to the house. The insurance company would not pay out on Charles’ life policy in the absence of a body. Seven years was a long time to wait for some financial relief. His employer had tried to be helpful and had paid her all his accrued holiday pay and long service leave, but it only helped delay her penury.
When the reluctant student was gone, Helen made two cups of tea and joined the man who bore a remarkable resemblance to her dead husband, and they sat in silence until the man said, “Are all your students like her?”
“No. Some genuinely want to learn, but I can’t afford to turn anyone away.”
“Can you take some time off work? I’d like to show you where I’ve been.”
“I have some holidays due to me, but I don’t have a car anymore. I can’t just up and leave.”
“Because I have a house to pay for and responsibilities.”
“I understand,” said the man and they sat in silence until it was time to sleep.
“My bed is very big and much more comfortable than the couch. You are welcome to share it,” said Helen who was avoiding eye contact.
“I’d like that,” said the man.
He waited long enough for her to prepare for bed and when he came into the bedroom, he noted that it was as tiny as the rest of the house. He walked around the bed and turned away before disrobing. Helen peeked over her shoulder and admired his tall, firm body — straight back and round buttocks. She looked away as he turned.
The man who looked like her dead husband slipped silently into bed curled up and faced away from her.
Helen could feel his warmth, and she longed to reach out and touch him but felt that such a move would be too bold.
Where had he been? Why was he here? Why did he seem so unconcerned?
For that matter, why was she not afraid. Her heart told her that he had not just run away. He had died. They never found his body, but he had died. There were witnesses to him falling off the research vessel. The witnesses were drunk, but they knew what they had seen. In the confusion, it took too long to turn the boat around.
This was the official version that came from the inquest. They called it an open finding, which meant that there was not enough evidence to show what had happened. The indistinct nature of the finding gave the insurance company a reason not to pay out on his personal life insurance. They wouldn’t pay out on the company policy either. Taking the company to court would most likely bring a result and force them to pay up, but Helen had neither the money or the energy to fight them. Something they were probably counting on. His employer only had to wait until the seven years was up and they would collect — with interest — cheaper and easier.
When Helen awoke, she was alone in her bed.
The man who smelled a lot like her husband was in the kitchen eating cereal that popped when you put milk on it.
“Can you buy some of this today? It’s nearly all gone,” he said without looking up.
“Probably,” said Helen.
“You talk in your sleep,” said the man.
“Have I always done that,” asked Helen.
“I don’t remember,” said the man who likes the same cereal as her dead husband.
Helen drifted through her workday with the only highlight being a magpie in the park during lunch. It came up very close the way that birds do when they have chicks to feed — reckless parenthood. It warbled every time she gave it part of her sandwich.
Helen put her shopping bag down before unlocking the front door. The cereal box was bulky and threatening to burst through the thin plastic carry bag.
Revenge is best served with dessert and a red wheelbarrow.
An original story read by the author, 10:14
From the audiobook SLIGHTLY SPOOKY STORIES
“You don’t have much time left on your leave. Are you sure you want to spend time watching someone else get married?”
She was right. In three days I’ll be back at the controls of a bomber flying over somewhere, and a lot of ground defence installations will be doing their best to knock my crew and me out of the sky. But how could I say no to this bloke and his bride?
“He’s a long way from home, and he doesn’t know anyone here in Melbourne. He needs a best man, and I said yes before I met you. Before I found out how beautiful you are. It will only take an hour and a bit. We meet at the Town Hall at 10am and then jump on a tram for drinks at The Duke of Wellington on Flinders Street. The whole thing should be over by 11:30.”
“It could go on for hours. I’ve been to weddings,” said Molly.
“Trust me. This one will be over quickly. He has to be back in his Dakota and on his way to New Guinea the day after tomorrow. He won’t want to waste any time.”
“But what about her family? They might want to spend some time with her before she goes away.”
“She’ll be staying here with her mum — wondering how her pilot husband is doing while he ferries supplies to the jungle and tries not to get shot down.”
“How did he get leave?”
“It’s different for the yanks. They are well paid, and they get leave after a certain number of missions. It’s different for us, especially in Britain. There is a sense of fighting for our lives. Invasion is a constant threat, so leave is hard to come by.”
“So you were fortunate to get leave to come all the way back to Melbourne?”
“Very lucky, but accepting the mission to fly the young female spy into France had something to do with it. Either that or someone in a high place is looking out for me.”
I met Molly at the tram stop. There was a light wind blowing, and it caused her dress to ripple. She was wearing a light petticoat, and it caused her dress to splay out. Her dress was a light green, and her shoes were white. Discrete earrings peaked through her wavy hair. Her eyes sparkled when she saw me — always a good sign.
“Been waiting long?” she said as she ran her hand across the back of her hair, being careful not to dislodge her hat. I’m not an expert on hats, but it looked perfect for a civil wedding — it’s good to look pretty but never outshine the bride.
Molly took my hand as I explained that I had just arrived — the truth was I had been there for a while — nowhere else to be. Besides, people watching is a pleasant activity especially in a city where I don’t have to worry about where the nearest bomb shelter might be.
The streets were full of people, and the Town Hall was packed with nervous couples and their entourages — some large, some non-existent.
I went up and down the queue looking for my American friend and his bride to be. It took a while, but eventually, I found him halfway up the big staircase. I guessed that at the rate they were going through them, he and his new bride would be married in about twenty minutes.
“Stay right there,” I said to the Yank.
“Where else would I be?” he said.
I took a few steps away and remembered my manners, “Oh and you look beautiful …” I stammered.
“Mavis,” said Mavis.
“Mavis, yes of course. I’ll be back in a minute,” I said and went back to elbowing my way through the crowd.
A giant soldier with his tiny bride weighed up the possibility of being annoyed at my aggressive maneuvers, but a combination of him realising I outranked him and a punch would ruin his wedding day and the significant tug his tiny girlfriend gave his arm changed his mind. I wasn’t in the mood for annoying bully-boy sergeants, and he must have seen the look in my eyes.
The red mist cleared from my eyes, and I fought my way back to where I had left Molly standing.
She looked beautiful standing next to a giant stone pillar.
“I found them. Shall we?” I said as I put out my hand.
“They are towards the front of the queue so it shouldn’t be much longer.”
“All these people,” said Molly. “All wanting to get married.”
“Life is short my precious Melbourne girl. Stay close behind me — we’re going in.”
I felt her step behind me and grab hold of my belt. We needed to be in ‘lock-step’ to avoid her stepping on the back of my heels. I knew she could dance and now was the time for her to put her dance-floor experience into practice.
I was setting a pretty good pace and getting a few grumbles along the way. Occasionally I would have to change direction to avoid a stubborn group of sailors, and Molly matched my moves, step for step — never a word of complaint. I think she enjoyed the game.
I knew I would have a few bruises the next day, but it was fun and no worse than being bounced around in a bomber at twenty thousand feet.
“Chuck and Mavis, meet Molly,” I said, and everyone nodded and shook hands.
Mavis’ bridesmaid got lost in the crowd, so Molly stood in as her bridesmaid and second witness. It has to be said that both Mavis and Chuck were very nervous.
“Relax mate. It’s only for the rest of your lives,” I said, but I don’t think it helped.
The wedding service was over in a flash, and I know that the happy couple were shocked by how short the service was.
We all stopped on the Town Hall steps while the bride’s uncle took photos. A commercial photographer took a couple of shots and thrust a card into the groom’s hand.
“Photos will be ready tomorrow. The address is on the card. We can hand colour them too if you want, but that will take an extra couple of days,” said the bloke in the coat. I noticed the slight limp and the groom and I wondered where he had been wounded — we secretly wondered if we too would wind up in some makeshift job after being discharged — unfit for combat.
“Can I pick them up the day after tomorrow. I’m going to be busy for the next day or so,” said the young American pilot. All the men smiled, and the bride lowered her eyes before smiling.
“What do you think their chances are?” I said with a beer in my hand, leaning on the bar at the Duke Of Wellington.
“Chances of what?” said Molly.
“I don’t know, chances of being happy? Chances of making it through the War?”
“They’re happy now. Maybe that’s all we get — now.”
The Hotel bar was populated by a mix of men and women in uniform, the same as any pub in the western world during wartime, with a few random shift workers going to or coming from work. Chuck and Mavis’ party had grown considerably from the tiny group at the Town Hall — free drinks tend to swell the crowd.
Mavis’ bridesmaid arrived, flustered and embarrassed.
“I took the wrong tram, and a fresh bloke tried to pick me up. In the end, I headed here. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t worry. You’re here now. Have a drink and settle your nerves. Molly stepped in for you. Remember to say thank you.”
“Which one is Molly?”
“With the tall flyer.”
The two women looked in our direction.
“I’m May. Thank you for being Mavis’ bridesmaid. I got lost,” said May clutching her Gin and Tonic, the lemon slice was threatening to escape, but she caught it just in time and dropped in into her glass, for safe keeping.
“Mavis said you were very good,” said May.
“There wasn’t a lot for me to do. I took her flowers when it was time to exchange rings, and I signed the book. It was fun.”
May sailed off to join the bride and tell her about her adventure on the tram to hell.
“You did handle yourself very well,” I said.
“I did, didn’t I? I was a bridesmaid at my sister’s wedding, but I could barely breathe, I was so nervous. I’ve been nervous most of my life, but I’m not nervous when I’m with you. Why do you think that is?” said Molly.
“I have this fatal charm. It works on women, horses and flight sergeants, but not on Military Police. Sometimes on Railway ticket office personnel, but that’s it — the extent of my charm.”
Molly grabbed my arm and squeezed it. She smelled of violets, and I could feel the warmth of her body through my uniform.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here. I’m going to say our goodbyes, and we can go.”
Molly smiled, and it occurred to me that I was taking the husbandly role and I had only met her a few days ago. Time goes quickly during wartime.
I’m not Molly’s husband, and I’m not sure what she would say if I proposed. We haven’t shared a bed — not yet. For my part, I knew she was the one, but in that moment I didn’t know how she felt about me.
The pub was full of happy people, some of whom knew the happy couple — an American flyer and a Melbourne girl who sold shoes, loved gardening and cats. If he survived the War, her American flyer would probably take her back to the US, and she would be a fish out of water, but for now, she can lie in his arms and let the world take care of itself — for at least forty-eight hours. I wonder what the wedding photo will look like and I wonder who will see it in the future and wonder about this deliriously happy couple.
It’s a mistake to underestimate the quiet old bloke who lives next door, and an even bigger mistake to annoy him.
An AUDIOBOOK story from SLIGHTLY SPOOKY STORIES TOO.
Illustration: Haddon Sunblom
Back in the day, my hair was longer, and my sheets were whiter.
These days, my hair is cut to a manageable length, and my sheets are clean with the brightness consigned to the ‘whatever’ basket.
My son took the photo, which ended up — many years later, as a painting — two stages my son went through and never came out of.
I don’t know what I was thinking when his finger hit the shutter, but it certainly looks like I’m deep in thought. Maybe I was distracted by a far-off clammer. Maybe I was wondering where all the pegs had gone — I still do that today, wonder, and not just about runaway pegs.
There is no date on the photo, but I remember when the painting was done.
From the look of me, the shot must have been taken not long after my son got his camera — the camera was a huge ‘guilt present’, a ‘sure I left you and your mother but this incredible present will distract you for a while before you work out what a crap dad I was’. There was never any ‘spare money’ when my husband was here, but out of the blue, he finds the funds for an SLR, top of the range, too big and too expensive for a boy of eleven. To my son’s credit, he still has that camera, and he never dropped it or otherwise buggered it up. I taught him how to use it, and I didn’t need to repeat an instruction once.
There is another photo floating around of me wrapped up in an identical sheet with two eye holes cut out. The sheet was past its best with tears where my sharp toenails had gone through it. Before the eye holes had appeared the sheet saw valiant service as a fort, strung over two lounge chairs.
I couldn’t swear to it, but it may have been the same sheet that held the telltale stains produced by my husband and his lover — she was shorter than me with a push-up bra (when she was wearing it) and legs that went all the way up to her bum. No one ever said so, but I’m pretty sure she sucked penis like a princess. Come to think of it, I’m sure that’s why that sheet wore out so fast — I must have washed it a hundred times — in a row — with bleach.
The part that really hurt was that he could not be bothered to clean up after himself — thought I was too dumb to notice, or worse still, thought I would assume that the evidence belonged to us — together, us.
I look at the painting, and I can feel the sun on my face and see the reflected glare.
I wonder what happened to those pegs?
Where do pegs go to die?
Is there a place where broken hearts and old pegs are reunited?
I guess not, but I know where old sheets go when they die, they become ghost costumes, which is appropriate I guess — at least in my case.
ARTIST: J T Larson
He had something I wanted — no, scratch that, he had something I needed — desperately.
He’s a bit part player in a much larger story, but he’s getting in my way.
The slow passage of time is a luxury I can ill-afford.
I’ve tried being patient, I’ve tried being obtuse, I’ve tried everything I can think of, and if I had more time, it would be easy, but there’s that word ‘time’ again. To be accurate, I resent spending time on this obstructionist person.
It’s true that he is under no obligation to give me the name, so technically he isn’t annoying, but my patience is spent. I’m stuck until he tells me her name.
I’m not big enough to beat it out of him, and besides, that’s not my style.
Usually, I let my mark relax and sooner or later the truth falls out of them. It’s quite magical at times. I have a theory that everyone wants to give up their secrets — a kind of confession if you will. Those Catholics know their stuff — get it all off your chest, and all will be forgiven.
It’s God that does the forgiving, not me. Me, I listen, and what I hear I pass on and money comes flowing my way.
I’ve always been a good listener. Even when I was a child people told me things.
I remember my mother telling me that she no longer loved my father and that she was going to live with Eric. I was nine. Who tells a nine-year-old such things?
I remember my father telling me that his heart was broken and that I was going to live with my aunt Sally. Who tells a nine-year-old such things?
My aunt Sally was lovely, but I kept waiting for my mum to come and get me. I remember Aunt Sally telling me that she was having sex with the bloke who lives next door.
“Won’t Uncle Bill mind you having sex with the bloke next door?” (I think his name was Eddie, but it could have been Cyril).
“No, he won’t know and what you don’t know can’t hurt you,” said my Aunt Sally adjusting her left breast which seemed to have a life of its own.
“Why are you telling me this Aunt Sally. I’m only eleven after all?”
“I’m not sure. I guess it’s because you seem like someone who one can tell things to.”
I wanted to ask if she expected me to keep her secret, but that didn’t come into it — it was the telling that was the point. She, like everyone else, needs to tell someone. People cannot carry the weight on their own — ‘here, take my pain, help me carry it.’
Who tells things like that to an eleven-year-old girl?
This bloke will tell me the woman’s name eventually. He won’t be able to hold out indefinitely. They always tell me in the end, only this time I have the feeling that it will be too late.
I’m still going to get paid, even if it is too late. There was nothing in my brief about ‘getting the name before the shit hits the fan’, but I was aware of the urgency.
If it goes badly, I take my money and shake it off. The outcome is none of my concern. My job is to get people to tell me things they won’t tell other people, and I do my job very well indeed.
I try not to think about what people do with the information I gather — I’m not sure I want to know.
I have a sense that the woman’s name is on a piece of paper stuffed into the lining of his hat. All I have to do is get him to put the hat down and distract him long enough to have a look, but I would much rather he told me her name. I have my pride and my reputation to think of.
People tell me things, things they don’t want to say.
It’s a skill, a talent and sometimes a curse, but it’s what I do, it’s what makes me unique.
I’m not sure what I’d do if people stopped telling me things — I’m not good for anything else.
So BORIS has an official launch date, December 22nd 2018. This will be the cover for the audiobook and the middle bit is the book cover. It is available now for pre-order.