A Woman Should Have A Husband Or A Wall

Aut Virum Aut Murum Oportet Mulierem Habere

“Late sixteenth, early seventeenth century.”

“Mate, I can’t accurately remember the week before last,” I said, and my friend ignored me and kept right on going. He was like that when he had a head of steam up.

“A cluster of nuns in Northern Italy. They wrote and performed beautiful music. The Church tried to stop them, but they kept going.”

“A bit like you, Roman? And I think the collective noun is a superfluity of nuns, not cluster.” 

Ignored, yet again.

“Naturally, the music and singing were all religious. I guess that’s how they got away with it for so long,” said Roman. His voice dropped, and I thought he was done, but he was just thinking about something — he was far away, and then he was back.

“Lucretia Borger’s daughter was one of the composers.”

“No shit? THE Lucretia Borger?” I said, and I was getting used to being ignored.

“In the end, the Church caught up with them and the trail goes cold.”

“And how did you learn all this?” I said because I wasn’t listening when he first told me.

“A very old, handwritten book. Beautifully illustrated. Tells the whole story from the point of view of the women involved. I ran across it when I was studying in the Vatican library,” said Roman, and he trailed off again and stared into space. I got the feeling that he was back there, back then.

“So, how come this book was in the Vatican library if the Church was trying to stamp them out?”

“Better for them to lock it away than have it floating about causing trouble.”

Roman had a point, and it unsettled me. I had always thought of Roman as my slightly dotty friend, and here he was making sense.

“So why were these talented women locked away behind convent walls and not out in the world being married and making music?”

“Money,” said Roman.

“Pardon?”

“Only the eldest daughter would get married. Her dowery would be huge. The family would go broke if all the daughters got married. Convents would take the other daughters for a fraction of a marriage dowery. At that time, around a quarter of all gentile women were behind the wall.”

“That’s a lot of women,” I said, and I meant it. Nuns freak me out a bit. At least they did when I was a kid, and there were a lot of them about, back then.

“Sometimes there would be three generations of women locked away. When a baby was born into a family they would bring the child along and stick it in this kind of revolving door thing that the convent would receive supplies through. Technically, the baby would be excommunicated for going through the portal, but in reality, they weren’t. No one was supposed to touch a nun once she was received into the order. Cuddling newborn relatives seemed to be an exception to the rule. Sometimes, tiny nuns would squeeze through the revolving door and go AWOL.”

My head was starting to spin.

All this seemed so far from the world I lived in. Did women really live like this — separated from the world?

“So what was it like? Working in the Vatican library?” I said.

“Not as much fun as the Bodleian. The Vatican Library is bland and boring, but it does have a bar.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes. It’s there for the Vatican staff — greatly subsidised prices — but they will serve travelling scholars. I’d have my lunch there and go back to work in the afternoon — technically, the library closes at lunchtime, but those in the know can get a special pass and work until the early evening. It’s very quiet in the afternoon.”

“This book, with the singing nuns, how did you find it?”

“Not sure. You are only allowed three books per day and I think I must have made a mistake when I ordered it. In any case, it was the most important discovery of my time in Italy. You know, I don’t think the book had been opened since it was added to the collection some four hundred plus years ago.”

“Wow,” I said, and I could hear the pages being separated as he opened the book. The rich illustrations and the archaic language — not to mention the smell of the paper and the binding.

“You know, a bunch of nuns banded together and burnt down their convent.”

“No. I didn’t know that,” I said, “you should write a book.”

“I am. But I fear it will be read by very few and someday — maybe hundreds of years from now — someone will find it in a dusty old archive. I wonder what that person will think when they open it for the first time?”

“I’d like to read your book when it’s done, but for now, I need a drink. Care to join me?”

Roman smiled, and we headed for the pub.

As we walked, it dawned on me that my ‘dotty’ friend had seen more of the world than I had and his books took him time travelling as well.

I’m glad we kept in touch — even if he does ignore me, from time to time.  

The Inquisition

Part two of Batting Practice

“We’ve asked you in here today, Detective Sergeant, to ask you if you know anything about the assault on Senior Constable Frank Morgan?” said the man who had identified himself as an officer from Internal affairs. 

I don’t remember his name now, as I didn’t make a note of it then — no point. He was just the first wave — the monkey, not the organ grinder.

“Do Internal Affairs officers get a special clothing allowance — more than we mere mortals in Robbery? I only ask because that is a particularly handsome suit. Well cut, well fitted — handsome.”

This was an old trick, and it showed him up to be relatively inexperienced in the business of extracting information — the next officer I spoke to would be better at his job — assuming there was to be a ‘next officer’.

Throw your suspect (or in this case inquisitor) a question designed to distract them and yet require an answer — breaking their train of thought.

“No, not that I know of. Maybe. No, I don’t think so,” said the young Detective Sergeant.

“Not to worry. By the way, I reserve the right to be questioned by an officer of equal or higher rank. You just won’t do young man.”

Always be on the front foot. Never retreat.

“I’m a Detective Sergeant. I said so at the beginning of our interview. I’m like you,” he said.

Back foot, and nothing like me.

“So, you did. And why am I here again?”

He repeated his question after straightening his tie and shuffling his papers (always have documents in an interview — your subject will be wondering what you have on them — on paper).

I paused for a longish time, shifted in my chair, scratched at my ear and finally said, “I don’t know SC Morgan all that well. I’ve only spent quality time with him once.” When I beat the living shit out of him with a cricket bat.

My inquisitor seemed a bit flustered — not sure where to go next.

“You do know that Senior Constable Frank Morgan is married to Detective Constable Helen Morgan, from your squad?”

“Yes, I do. She was recently assaulted, wasn’t she? Did they ever catch the evil bastard who did it?” I said through gritted teeth.

“Investigations are ongoing,” said my inquisitor and it was the first time I had heard him mumble. He knew what I was getting at, and he was embarrassed that her recently pummelled husband had not been charged. This was a good sign.

“How is SC Morgan going?”

“He’s recovering. Won’t be back at work until after the operation on his knee.” More shuffling of papers.

I was determined to not directly say that I had nothing to do with SC Morgan’s beating. It’s a small point, but I don’t like to lie — not directly.

“I don’t think I can be of much help to you. Did SC Morgan give a description of his assailant?” I was reasonably sure he hadn’t, but a bit of fishing wouldn’t hurt.

“No. His memory of the incident is a bit hazy.”

I thought so, and it probably had something to do with my parting comment to him as he lay holding his damaged knee.

“Here is a list of all the people you have taken kickbacks from over the past twelve months.”

I pushed the list into his top pocket before I put the bat in the boot of my car and drove away.

“No help with CCTV footage?” I said.

“No. His home system wasn’t switched on — for some reason.”

“Neighbours?”

“Too far away and the resolution’s crap. Just a man and a dark coloured car.”

“Pity. Are we done? I have the ungodly to apprehend. It’s my job.”

“Yes. That’s all — for now. We may want to speak to you again.”

I’d heard what I needed, but I will put my cricket bat in the shed when I get home. I had considered burning the evidence, but Dean Jones signed that bat. Buggered if that arsehole Morgan is going to make me incinerate my favourite bat.

The young Internal Affairs officer gathered up his papers and left the room without making eye contact.

I stayed seated and stuck my little finger in my ear and gave it a bit of a twirl. I pulled the finger out and inspected it — shiny but no wax.

I checked my phone for messages and stretched my arms up in the air in an exaggerated stretch, all for the benefit of the people behind the mirrored panel.

Calm and relaxed.

Unhurried and with nothing to hide.

SC Morgan would probably walk with a limp for quite some time, and he will think carefully before laying a hand on his wife.

I felt satisfied that I had dealt out a bit of justice, but I could not help feeling that I had crossed a line.

A line I had so far been on the right side of.

The ungodly were waiting, so I gathered myself and left the room — striding down the corridor towards the sunlight.

“Just one more thing, Detective Sergeant. Do you play cricket?” said my inquisitor, who had stepped out of the second last office before the doors to the street.

“Not since I represented the Police Force, back in the nineties,” I said without thinking.

My young inquisitor was better than I thought he was.

I’d underestimated him.

I won’t do that again.

Batting Practice

Chief Inspector Dance slid across the church pew and invaded my personal space.

Hip against hip, knee against knee.

“Be careful Chief Inspector, in some cultures, this constitutes a marriage proposal,” I said, and the detectives close by laughed.

The Chief Inspector shot them a glance — he was the only one who was allowed to be funny.

He’d bullied his way to the head of the Robbery Squad just before I joined the unit. He dumped the previous second in command and installed me as 2IC. Buggered if I know why, but maybe it had something to do with weakening the old alliances.

In keeping with modern police practice, several of our squad were female. They were often the butt of his jokes and sarcasm.

“Back off a bit. I don’t want to get pregnant before the wedding,” I said, and a snigger rippled through our group. It turns out I’m pretty good at sarcasm as well.

I could smell him — dust, hair oil and a cheap aftershave.

Amazingly, our DCI would tolerate such comments because he believed he was a jolly funny chap — he wasn’t, but that kind of banter was his forte, so he would take a bit of it when it came his way — only a bit mind you, and only from the male officers.

Other than that, no-one stands up to our boss. We all want to ‘get on’, get a promotion, get ahead and get out of this squad. But things were changing.

Murder Squad, Narcotics then Burglary; in that order. 

The head of Narcotics retired in a cloud of whispers and Chief Inspector Dance expected to get the nod; except, it didn’t happen. 

Chief Inspector Valerie Trend was promoted above him. 

Dance had run his race.

I’d like to think that the ‘higher-ups’ had finally figured out that he was a prick, but I doubt it. The rumour mill will eventually tell us, but frankly, I didn’t care — about that and a lot of things.

We were seated a few rows from the front on the right-hand side of this huge old church. The ceremony was being held in Richmond this year because St Paul’s in the city had been double booked. Working-class Catholics had paid for this monument to power in the late 1880s. It must have cost a fortune, and I can hear the priest piling on the guilt because the building had not been paid off, and the church needed money.

Detective Constable Helen Morgan was the last of us to arrive. 

She sat in the seat in front of us, dressed in the squad’s unofficial uniform; a grey two-piece single-breasted suit, white shirt/blouse and a tie.

She was trim, slightly above average height with bruises and a small cut on one side of her face. The left side of her face, as it happened.

I wanted to make a joke about her ability to arrest someone without getting thumped, when a feeling came over me, which it sometimes does. These bruises had been delivered by someone who should have been her protector.

I turned to our ‘leader’. “Are you going to do something about this?” I said.

“None of our business,” he said and turned away as though not seeing the damage was the same as it going away.

“If a member of the public had done that, you’d be first in line to take him downstairs and beat the living shit out of him,” I said, and I was aware of the volume of my voice.

“Man and wife stuff. Stay the fuck out of it.”

Fuck this for a game of soldiers,  I said under my breath.

I stood up and walked across to the side door just as the organ started up to begin the proceedings.

I’m not sure if it was planned when the church was built, but there was a pub just across the road. Mind you, back in those days, there was a pub across the road from everywhere in Richmond.

I blinked under the intense light and hesitated before crossing the broad street. Two of our squad’s female officers had followed me out of the church, closely followed by Helen Morgan.

“You ladies need to think carefully. Your absence will be noted. This assembly is a big deal. It’s a load of bollocks, but it’s a big deal in terms of ‘showing the flag’. Photographers, reporters, the whole nine yards. All the people who make decisions about your future are here. Do you want them to remember you walking out before it all began?”

There was silence.

“You stood up to him back there. You spoke up for Helen, not that it will do any good,” said Sharon Long, who had been in the squad for a little more than a year. Bright, blond and someone who can take care of herself without having to pull her gun.

Betty Green kissed Helen on the cheek and gave her a hug. “You know I love ya kid, don’t you? she said, “but I’ve got two kids, and I need this crazy job.” 

She gave us a smile, and we gave her a nod. She went back into the church.

The rest of us went across the road and ordered a beer, then we ordered another one. We sat in what was laughingly called the ‘beer garden’ and listened to the sound of hundreds of police officers giving thanks to God that a new financial year had begun and no one had discovered their transgressions.

“Things are going to change around here,” I said, surrounded by two strong women who could probably beat me in a fair fight.

But there’s the thing — I don’t fight fair. Actually, I do my best to avoid a fight, but as my father taught me, “if you cannot get out of it, dive in with everything you’ve got and don’t stop until your opponent cannot get up. Don’t guess — be sure he is done.” 

I sat there thinking about the career I thought I had and about the cricket bat in my car’s boot. 

Senior Constable Frank Morgan and I are going to have a little batting practice.

Precipitation

I should have worn a bigger hat.

More brim, less style.

Add it to the list of things I should have done.

It’s a long list.

I took her hand in mine and kissed it gently. Her fingers smelled of rain and talcum powder. I love the way females waft through life smelling of flowers.

Kissing a lady’s hand was a move I’ve used many times, but with her, it wasn’t a move — it was heartfelt. I wanted to kiss her all over, but it would not have been appropriate, standing on this corner, in the rain.

I should have worn a bigger hat.

To be honest, I didn’t think she would come. There was silence on her end of the line when I asked her, and I closed the call before she could say no.

Her life seems comfortable and ordered. Money does not seem to be a problem.

As I saw her approaching through the rainstorm, I admit to wondering — what was it about me that made her make such a dangerous decision? 

Physical attraction doesn’t leave room for consequences.

Was her attraction to me physical? If it was, it would be a first. No, that’s not true. There was that one girl who liked my legs in shorts, but that was a long time ago, and this woman hasn’t seen me in shorts.

It must be something else.

I’ve always felt that people dismiss me as ordinary until I speak. I do have a way with words, and maybe that’s what it is. Perhaps she thinks something is going on inside this ordinary exterior.

Are the men in her life so boring that she would risk disaster by meeting me, on a Wednesday night, outside a bar on the other side of town — to do, who knows what?

“Were you in the neighbourhood — thought you would drop by and see what I was up to on this damp Wednesday night?” I said with my heart in my mouth.

“No. I came because you asked me to come,” she said.

Her voice was soft, but firm — no hint of hesitation.

“Can I buy you a drink?” I said, turning my body towards the neon sign a few doors down.

“Yes. Eventually,” she said.

My body and my words made me appear calm and at ease. I’ve practised this pose several times in front of the full-length mirror. I ‘liberated’ the mirror from out the front of our local charity shop — the local idiots would have broken it before morning — this was my rationale.

The mirror showed how cool I would look if the world was mirror image — the right way around was anybody’s guess.

My advance planning had stretched as far as standing on this corner at the appointed time. The most likely outcome was that this delicious female would choose the wise action and stay a long way away from me and this corner and the rain and whatever else I might have in store.

The second option was that she would turn up and I would have to behave in a way that would get her to like me enough to want to sleep with me — can you see why I had not planned this far ahead? Even a mathematician would have trouble calculating the odds of that happening.

So, now I was in uncharted territory.

What do I do to get this stylish woman to like me, let alone sleep with me?

“You look amazing. Exactly how do you manage to look that way with rain dripping off your hat?”

“Most of me is waterproof, I guess,” she said, and if I wasn’t aroused before, I was now, and I hoped it didn’t show.

“Come,” I said, “let us away to yon bar.”

I kept a hold on her hand, and she followed me to the glass door under the glowing sign.

Glad to be out of the rain, we performed the same in out of the rain dance that all the customers performed on this night.

I tried to brush some of the rain off myself — a fruitless exercise.

My companion removed her hat and gave it a gentle shake. We chose a booth and sat facing each other. Our shoes touched, and she moved hers so my feet would have room and I have absolutely no idea what that meant.

“What would you like to drink?” I said.

“Scotch — the good stuff, with water on the side.”

A sophisticated choice.

I tried to look smooth as I wiggled out of the booth and went to the bar.

The place was quiet, so the bartender didn’t try to ignore me as most bartenders do — or maybe being with her had elevated my status.

I scanned the range on the top shelf.

“Lagavulin 16, times two and a jug of water, please,” I said, and the sleepy bartender dispensed the drinks into surprisingly clean glasses, the heavy-based glasses that I like holding in two hands.

I paid — way too much — and took the drinks back to the table.

My companion added a splash of water to hers, and the aroma enveloped us both.

“So why did you come?” I said.

I knew it was a dumb thing to say as soon as I said it, but dumb is something I do a lot of.

“I’ve got a better question. Why did you ask me? You know I’m married (she didn’t say ‘happily’), you know I have children and a life. Why would I want to jeopardise that by having an affair with a man who wears hats and writes stories and likes dogs?”

“I’m an optimist, I guess,” I said — and I’m not.

She stared at her drink and gave it a gentle swirl.

She took a sip and hid behind the glass, holding it with two hands. I mirrored her, and we sat there for a moment — silence.

“If I were to let you, you know, make love to me, how would you do it?”

Now, there was a question I wasn’t expecting.

“Is this some kind of entrance exam?” I said, and I was aware of the double-entendre.

“Maybe,” she said.

The soft light and the sparsely populated bar gave an otherworldly glow to this surreal moment. The music playing only added to the illusion.

“I’d run the back of my hand across your cheek, caressing you. You’d close your eyes as my hand touched you, a sensation running down your spine. You’d kiss my hand as it crossed your lips,” I said.

Her eyes were closed, and her lips moved as though she were kissing my hand. I was glad I was sitting down because there was no way I could disguise how I was feeling.

“That would be a good place to start,” she said as she opened her eyes.

I did my best to turn the conversation to other things just so I could catch my breath.

She was enjoying my discomfit. Her smile told me so.

After a few minutes, she uttered those dreaded words.

“I have to be getting back — I’ll be missed. Walk me to my car?”

I did my best to walk calmly to the door and along the pavement until we reached her car — latest model, all the extras. Her husband was a good provider, but I knew that already.

It was still raining. I grabbed her and pushed her gently up against a shop window. It was dark, and I pressed up against her and kissed her on the mouth. She kissed me back, and her hand ran down my back.

“Did I pass muster?” I said. “Will you ring me?”

She wiggled out from under my body, and I felt the warmth of her dissipate.

She opened the door of her car and turned towards me before getting in. She allowed her dress to ride up as she slid behind the wheel. Stockings, thighs and a hint of white lace panties.

The car window rolled down with a squelch and a hum.

She hadn’t answered my question.

“Thank you for the drink, and the conversation, and the kiss. You have very soft lips,” she said.

The window rolled up, and I tilted my head the way a dog would do when it hears an interesting sound.

Her car pulled out from the curb, and I stood wondering what had happened.

Was this the beginning or the end of an adventure?

Was I lucky that it ended so sweetly or sad that it never really got going?

Only time would tell.

If she rang, I would gladly jump into her ocean and swim like there was no tomorrow.

If she didn’t ring, I had the memory of this night — the rain and the kiss and the erection that showed no signs of abating.

Either my luck had changed, or regular service had been resumed.

I drove home feeling warm and loved, even though I knew those things were probably an illusion.

I’m a big fan of illusion, it beats the hell out of reality.

I made a mental note to pay the phone bill. 

This was no time to miss an important call.

Miss Penelope Spenser

 

Her father named her Penelope because her mother was too unwell to protest.

Penelope’s dad was fond of historical heroines, and Odysseus’s wife seemed like a wise and resourceful woman — someone he hoped his daughter would grow up to become. He always thought that Odysseus was a bit of a dick, but he gave him credit for finding his way home. The whole taking a detour so he could hear the Sirens sing seemed reasonable under the circumstances.

Penelope Spenser had her heart broken on two separate occasions — the second time being the most painful.

Her first broken heart was a shared experience. Many young women saw their beautiful young men go off to war, never to return. It didn’t help that she was part of such a vast sisterhood, but it gave her cover for being unmarried.

Death did not play a role in her second heartbreak.

Philip Dunstable promised much, but in the end, he ran away with the daughter of the local cinema owner.

No cover at all, only a heart that would not mend and ongoing embarrassment.

Her grandfather died and left her a cottage and about a thousand pounds a year. Not quite enough money to survive on, but she supplemented it with a bit of sewing and mending — the benefits of a practical education.

Her parents passed away and left her some excellent china wear and a mountain of debts that were only just cleared by selling their house.

Through it all, Penelope was stoic if not actually happy.

She was a quiet person who loved to read and walk and talk to people she knew.

Her garden was full of flowers and weeds and birds and other things that liked weeds and flowers.

I wanted you to know these things because it helps to explain why Willian chose her.

William had a home — if you could call it that. He wasn’t young anymore, and the few years he had left were precious to him. He wanted to spend them with someone who would appreciate his love and devotion. 

He chose Penelope Spenser.

Of course, he didn’t know that was her name. All he knew was that she was friendly and walked most days to the shops and returned with a basket full of delicious aromas. That was most important because William was hungry most of the time.

William had come into the Getts family as a pup, and the young boy had looked after him until he’d been packed off to boarding school. It was lonely without him. The Getts family were not really dog people, and William was barely tolerated. A dog cannot live without love. Love is more important than treats and sausages and water and a warm blanket.

William planned his campaign with military precision.

He knew when she would most likely walk by on her way home.

Her big shopping day was Wednesday, but William had yet to be able to tell the days of the week.

His gambit was a bold one.

Lie in the road and look half dead.

As a plan, it had its drawbacks, and he nearly got run over twice, but finally, Miss Penelope walked by and noticed what looked like a dog in distress — legs in the air, not long for this world.

The ‘lying on the back with the legs in the air’, turned out to be a good ploy because upside down he looked like a different dog to the one she would pet every week on her way home.

“Oh dear. You poor dog. What’s happened to you? Are you lost? Are you hurt?” said Penelope, who tended to ask a lot of questions when things got intense.

William opened one eye and tried to look as pathetic as possible, which was a challenge because he was well fed and a bit plump, it has to be said.

Miss Penelope put her shopping down, and a bread roll fell out. It was all William could do not to leap on it.

He held his nerve, and Miss Penelope held his paw. It was then that he knew that passing up a crusty bread roll was well worth it. Her touch was gentle, and William went all wiggly inside.

“Do you think you can walk? I hope so because I doubt that I could carry you,” said Penelope.

William rolled onto his side and gradually got to his feet. He wobbled a bit just to press the point.

“Good dog,” said Penelope.

“Come,” she said, and William wobbled along beside her and her bag full of goodies until they reached her cottage.

Penelope showed him into the house and laid a blanket on the floor near the fireplace.

“This is a good spot for a tired dog to regain his composure,” she said as she lit the fire and made herself a cup of tea and put away her supplies.

“You might as well have this. I hope you don’t mind that it’s a bit dusty,” Penelope said as she put the crusty bread roll next to him.

She took one of the lovely china bowls that her mother had left her and filled it with water.

“Every dog needs water,” she said, “and when you are feeling better, I’ll look for your owner and give him a good talking too.”

Penelope did go looking for William’s owner, but even though she put up flyers and asked around, the Getts family stayed silent, and their son was sad when he came home from school to find his dog had ‘run away’.

William thought that his young master had gone away never to return, and he did not know of his sadness.

William made a ‘miraculous’ recovery and assumed the duty of keeping Miss Penelope safe and loved.

They read stories together, and William would chase and bring back anything that she threw. He was very good at sitting and rolling over, and he was warm and loved.

William felt badly about deceiving Miss Penelope, but a dog needs love, and Miss Penelope had plenty to share. 

.

Illustration Credit: Anita Jeram 

Somewhere Below Zero: a RUFUS adventure

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The big red bow was causing me embarrassment, but I didn’t let it stop me.

Let’s get the bow out of the way so I can concentrate on the real story.

My mistress had just won an award for her book PASSION BEHIND THE ASPIDISTRA. It hadn’t sold as well as her previous books, but her publisher entered it into the Romance Writers Who Talk A Lot About Love Without Actually Telling Their Readers What People Get Up To, which seemed like a strange title for an award, but that’s what my mistress told her friend, Maude. My mistress never lies to me, so it must be true.

So, the day comes for the award presentation, and my mistress said I could go with her, in the Lagona.

I love riding in the car — the wind in my fur, delicious smells wafting in from who knows where — bliss.

The middle of winter means that it will be a cold drive, but I don’t care. I’m wearing my winter coat, and my ancestors came from a frigid part of the world.

I got up early and had my breakfast on the terrace, despite the cold. The sun was up, and even though it didn’t have much oomph, I still enjoyed being in its warm glow.

My mistress came at me with the red bow, and I was too startled to run away.

“Everyone is going to love you in this,” said my mistress.

Not if I eat it first,  I was thinking.

“And don’t you dare chew it off, Rufus. I’ll be very cross if you do.”

So, what was I to do? She is very kind to me, and I love her so.

Just suck it up and wear the damn thing, Rufus!

I’d patrolled most of the perimeter in the morning when I went out for a wee, but there was still the pond to check on.

I knew we were going to be away overnight because I heard my mistress booking us a room in a hotel. She was very annoyed when she first rang; apparently, that hotel didn’t like dogs — have you ever heard of such a thing? She gave them a piece of her mind.

“Have you ever had a dog run out and not pay the bill? Come in drunk and vomit on the carpet? Have loud parties in their room? Steal a lampshade? No, I didn’t think so, you ignorant man!”

My mistress has a way with words.

The pond looked beautiful in the morning light. The ducks, which I have an uneasy understanding with, were looking for bugs in the reeds. The surface of the pond had frozen over during the night.

One duck, or at least I thought it was a duck, had broken through the ice and was splashing around. Except it wasn’t a duck despite the duck-like noises it was making. It was a small dog — smaller than me.

It seemed that he had walked out on the ice to sniff the DANGER  sign and had fallen through.

He sounded desperate, the way that dogs do when they are being beaten by their owner, or caught by a big dog intent on doing them great harm.

I edged out onto the ice to get a closer look. As I got closer, the ice was making strange cracking noises, and I got scared. Now I was within sniffing range, and the faint odour of a friend reached my nostrils. It was the dog known as Scruff. We had been great friends when we were pups — got into all sorts of trouble. Scruff is the reason that the butcher hates me as much as he does.

Scruff’s owner moved away — closer to the city.

“Don’t worry Scruff,” I said because I knew that it was important that he knew I was still fierce and brave.

In truth, I was terrified, but friends don’t let friends sink to an icy grave, even if you haven’t seen them for a long time.

“This is going to hurt, Scruff,” I said as I took hold of his ear. He didn’t have much fight left in him. He must have been in the water for a while before I got here.

“Don’t worry,” said Scruff, “I’m so cold I can’t feel much. Pull me out please.”

 “This would go a lot better if I had hands,” I said through a mouth full of ear.

Scruff helped as much as he could, and after several tries, I pulled him up onto the ice.

“I’m not sure I can walk,” said Scruff.

“Don’t worry, I’ll drag you. It’s only a short way.”

I was trying to sound confident, but the cracking noises were increasing.

When I got him to the shore, we both lay on the cold grass for what seemed like a long time.

“Rufus, what’s happened, and who is this bedraggled fellow?”

It was my mistress, come looking for me. I didn’t mind if she scolded me. I was so happy to see her; I wagged my tail furiously.

I gave a small bark and nosed my friend. My mistress is brilliant, and she worked it all out very quickly.

“Did you two fall in the pond, or did you save this little dog, Rufus?”

I stood up as tall as I could so that she knew I was the brave one. Scruff was too cold and tired to walk, so my mistress picked him up and carried him back to the house. I trotted along next to her, feeling very proud.

My mistress lit the fire and wrapped Scruff in a green towel, sitting him on the rug and telling him to stay.

He was in no condition to argue.

Scruff’s owner was back in the village for a visit, and Scruff came down to the pond because he remembered it being the place of many adventures. At least, that is how he told it to me as we sat warming ourselves in front of the fire.

When my mistress used her telephone to find Scruff’s owner, I knew we would not have much time together. We talked about old times and the fun we had as pups.

My mistress let Scruff’s owner keep the green towel.

“He’s nice and warm in there. Best not to disturb him,” said my mistress. She is very kind because I know she loves that towel.

My red bow was ruined, so my mistress made me a new one, and before I knew it, we were in the Lagona speeding along the country lanes heading for London and an award ceremony.

I knew we were going to have fun, but after hanging my head over the side of the car and enjoying the exhilaration of sheer speed, I felt drained.

I curled up on the leather seat and dreamed of the adventures that Scruff and I had experienced, back in the day.

I’ll miss Scruff, and I’m glad that I was there to save him.

Friends should always save friends and let friends save them right back.

 

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The Body In The Basement

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“Do you think he’s been lonely down here, all alone, all these years?”

It wasn’t like my partner to be this way. Typically, he’s offhand about sudden death — professional and a bit dark in his humour.

“I don’t think so,” I said, “he’s off wherever they go when they’re not here anymore.”

“Even so,” said my partner.

Ashley Bloomfield had worked his way up through the ranks to Detective Sergeant, and I’d been his partner for nearly three years — just long enough to get to know a bloke who guards himself closely.

It was a strange question for him to ask. He’s more a question and answer type of bloke, but on this day he was looking to me for an answer.

“Are you getting all spiritual on me, Ash?” I said.

“I don’t know, maybe. It’s this place. It’s genuinely spooky.”

He had a point, but I knew not to let him get one-up on me.

The call came through at a decent hour and Ash and I were next in the rotation, and about now we wished it had been someone else.

The old mansion on St Kilda Road had been empty for more than thirty years.

Some investment company in Dubai had bought it for a sizeable sum in the early 1990s, then the property market went flat. They decided to sit on it and wait, as all well-healed people can afford to do.

No one was much interested in looking after the place, so people with nowhere else to go would find a way in — out of the storm, so to speak. The property manager would eventually block up the break-in and lose interest again.

It must have been during one of those incursions, so long ago that some sort of fight broke out, and our body had lain there ever since, covered in rubble and wooden planks.

Some enterprising developer had bought the old mansion and was preparing to renovate it (within heritage guidelines, of course) into trendy offices. St Kilda Road still has clout when it comes to city addresses.

This was going to be a thankless job.

If the body turned out to be a homeless bloke, we have our work cut out for us to identify him. If he was killed by another homeless bloke, then he’s probably dead by now. Homelessness tends to shorten your lifespan. Likely no one to slap the cuffs on, just a mountain of pointless paperwork and a John Doe toe tag.

“The forensic folks will be here soon. Constable Whatshisname can keep an eye on things. You want to get a coffee? The dust down here is clogging up my soul,” I said as I moved the most prominent plank out of our way.

The body was fully clothed (bloke’s clothing — I’m not psychic, but it seemed inevitable it was a ‘he’), and it lay where it fell, all those years ago. Bugger all forensic after all this time. No one had dropped a wallet or a calling card or a cigarette case as they do in the movies.

“A coffee sounds good. Get me the fuck out of here, before I forget I’m a lady,” said Ash, and I could see his unique sense of humour returning.

Coffee was easy to find because this is Melbourne, and even my dog can make a good coffee. You have to prove that you know what good coffee tastes like before they will let you cross the border into Victoria, and in Melbourne, the cops will breath-test you for instant coffee — if detected, the penalties are draconian.

The sandwich shop lived up to expectations, and the coffee was a perfect temperature. The tiny glass-fronted store was awash with delicious aromas.

We sat on tall stools and looked out onto the road. Trams rumbled by, and pedestrians did what pedestrians do. Some bloke was making his third attempt to park a Fiat in a space that would accommodate a mid-1960s Ford.

“What do you reckon. Is he gonna make it?” I said. Ash looked up from his coffee. He’d been mesmerised by the pattern on the crema for the past few minutes.

“Nah, he’s buggered.”

“Yeah, I agree. Most blokes will give it away after the second go. It’s too embarrassing.”

Right on cue, the Fiat shot off into traffic accompanied by the copious tooting of horns and the waving of fists.

“He nearly had it that last time,” I said.

“If I disappear in mysterious circumstances, don’t stop looking for me, will ya?”

“Is that something you’re likely to do?” I said.

“Nah, but just in case. I don’t want to lie somewhere, cold and forgotten,” said Ash, who had gone back to staring at the pattern on his coffee.

“I’ll find ya mate, but not before I’ve finished off that bottle of whisky you keep in your locker.”

Ash didn’t look up. This one had gotten to him. I had never seen him like this.

“You know I got wounded — in the war?” he said.

“Not really,” I said.

Ash’s life before the police force was a mystery to me, and I felt guilty that I had never asked. Mostly, I’m not that interested in other people. But this was different. I remember the feeling of being with a dying comrade — the less I knew about their life, the easier it was to deal with their death.

“We were on patrol, and all hell broke loose. When I woke up, my leg and back hurt like buggery and all my mates were dead. I wasn’t game to call for help so I lay there for what seemed like days, hoping someone would come looking for us. After about thirty-six hours, a rescue party found me. I don’t remember it happening, but I do remember wondering if I’d bleed to death, and I remember wondering if I’d be found or would I be one of those bodies that farmers find, decades later, after the war is over. I’ve never felt so cold and alone. Do you reckon that’s how that bloke felt?”

“I don’t mind telling you that you are freaking me out, Ash. Here, drink up,” I said as I poured the contents of my hip flask into his coffee.

The bloke behind the counter gave me a look and started to say something. I moved my jacket so he could see my detective’s badge — he went back to slicing tomatoes without saying anything.

Ash drank his coffee, and I poured a wee dram into mine.

“Same goes for me mate. If the ungodly catch up with me, don’t leave me lying out there somewhere,” I said.

“Deal,” said Ash and we clinked paper cups to seal the deal.

The Girl On The End

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All the girls on this end are left-handed.

It isn’t a requirement, it just worked out that way.

I’m the girl on the end. My name’s Elizabeth, but everyone calls me Lal.

Someone asked me about it once, and I had to admit that I don’t know why. It goes so far back that no-one remembers how it happened.

Unusual nick-names run in my family. My sister Molly is called Mont because our young brother couldn’t pronounce Molly.

Maybe that’s how many nick-names get started.

My dad’s nick-name from the army was Niggerly (meaning easily upset, arising in the Middle Ages and nothing to do with the dreaded N-word), and if you knew him, you would know why — he is a bear in the morning, and sometimes it goes on all day.

I was happy to get this job, and it isn’t dull, but I’m ready to move on — it’s getting a bit political.

Different executives ply us with chocolates and nylons so that we will tell them what their rivals are up to. It’s harmless enough, I guess, but I have that sinking feeling I get just before it all hits the fan.

I don’t like when things hit fans.

I like fans in general, and they come in handy in this tiny room. Someone said that the phone lines heat up the room — could be, I’m not that up on such things.

My next job will be at a hotel switchboard.

What could possibly go wrong?

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Chick’s Diner

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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.

TO26

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“That’s what it says on the side of the cartridge,” I said.

“Bloody hell, I haven’t seen one of those in a long time.”

“Well? Do you have one? Do you know where I could get one?” I said.

The shop was a tiny brick building wedged in amongst other more significant brick buildings. Maybe the builder miscalculated. Perhaps he didn’t measure up accurately. Maybe it was just easier to build one small shop than go back and start again.

Someone will rent it.

And they did.

CARTRIDGES ARE USS — yes with two’s’ s, (I’ll bet he sat up all night thinking up the name), was conveniently located at my local shopping strip. Someone had bought up all the old shops, pulled them down and built new shops with convenient parking.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of those.”

“So you said,” I said, “Maybe if you look out the back?”

“We don’t have ‘a back’,” he said.

Everyone has a back room, don’t they?

A quick scan of the shop did not show any sign of a rear door (where does he go when he needs to pee?)

There were racks on the walls and glass cases forming a counter, all crammed full of colourful packages.

“I know it’s old, but it was a very popular brand back in the day, and I thought, seeing as how you specialise, you might have one or know where I could get one. I don’t need colour. I only need black so that I can print out my stories.”

The shopkeeper was still staring at the cartridge as though it might tell him something.

“T026, well there’s a blast from the past.”

The thirty-something neatly dressed shopkeeper with CARTRIDGES ARE USS embroidered on his jumper, was beginning to annoy me.

“Well, if you don’t have one, I’ll just have to look somewhere else,” I said, holding out my hand in the hope of retrieving my cartridge — which still had a bit of ink left in it.

The shopkeeper scratched his head and gave the cartridge one final turn in his hand.

Reluctantly and gently, he handed it back to me. I felt like Lord Carnarvon must have felt as he examined the contents of King Tut’s tomb.

“You take good care of that,” he said.

“I will,” I said as I backed out of the shop.

I never did find a T026 cartridge, but a week later I found one hundred dollars in an old jacket. So I treated myself to a new printer — colour. It’s been handy, and it costs almost as much to buy replacement cartridges as it does to buy a new machine — it’s a bit of a scam someone said in an article I read.

The cartridge shop closed about a year ago and the Pizza shop next door knocked a hole in the wall to create a warm place for people to wait while their pizza is being prepared.

As I wait for my pizza order, I sometimes wonder what happened to the shopkeeper. Does he still have the embroidered jumper? Does he wear it on cold nights and think back to when he had his own shop? A tiny shop, but his nonetheless.

I kept the old printer, but finally, I had to concede that to continue looking for a cartridge was probably a fools’ errand — so I put it out with the recycling.

That’s the trouble with living, in general — as soon as you can’t get the parts anymore, all the fun goes out of it.