“So, why did you ring me. I’m no expert,” I said, with a hint of annoyance.
I’d been happily ensconced in front of my old computer which must surely turn up its toes and die, but for now, it is excellent for watching ‘big-screen movies’.
“You’re the smartest bloke I know, and besides, who else am I going to ring in the middle of the day? Everyone I know is at work,” said Thomas, my sometime friend.
“I was at work!” I said in a voice that was a bit too loud to suit the occasion, but I’m sick of people thinking that what I do isn’t work — even if I was watching a movie instead of painting.
“Yeah, I know, but you know what I mean — you are at home, and your boss isn’t going to yell at you if you stop working for an hour or two.”
He had a point. I’m my own boss — mostly because I’m too proud to work for someone who is obviously an idiot and that pretty much sums up most employers — in my extensive experience.
So, here I am, standing in Thomas’s lounge room. Thomas inherited the house from his mum, who died way too young, preceded by his dad, who died even younger. I always loved this house. Thomas and I would play for hours in this dark, carpeted room. Timber walls in need of varnish, rich tapestry curtains edging leadlight double-hung windows looking out onto the neighbour’s timber pailing fence, a few flowers poking their heads above the window sill. Thomas didn’t tend his mother’s garden, it just kept growing — a testament to his mother’s horticultural skill.
The two large parchments were spread out on the walnut dining table, the same one we built a slot car track on when we were kids. The table will seat eight people without anyone bumping elbows.
The page on the left was a bit more tattered. The sentences were written in red ink, probably using a wide nibbed calligraphy pen. The page on the right was in better condition, the sentences written in black ink using a similar width nib.
Despite the condition of both pages, the writing was crisp and clear, as though freshly written.
“Where did you get them?” I asked.
“Did a job for Jimmy over in Toorak.”
“Why didn’t Jimmy ring me. He knows I need the cash.”
“Everyone who works for Jimmy needs the cash,” said Thomas.
Jimmy runs a couple of business, all on a strict cash basis. I’ve worked for him for years, on and off. Jimmy’s companies clean offices and meatworks, and when the need arises, he clears houses for a Real Estate chain.
“Big place. Belonged to some bloke who diddled the banks. Took off and left everything. Some of it was choice.”
“How would you know?” I said. Jimmy usually called me in when there was a sniff of classy stuff. My family dealt in antiques, and some of the knowledge rubbed off on me.
“Everything was heavy.”
“That’s because good furniture is usually made from quality hardwoods, walnut, oak, teak, cedar,” I said. Some of those timbers aren’t exactly hardwoods, but Thomas wouldn’t know the difference, so why tell him.
“Shut up a minute and let me look at these things,” I said.
The parchment may have been old. Only a few tests would be able to date it, but the ink was much younger.
Beautifully written, each short sentence spelled out in capital letters. The sentences reminded me of those annoying posts on Facebook. The ‘motivational’ ones printed over pretty backgrounds. ‘Don’t eat carrots on a Friday’, ‘Be good to your mother, leave home’, that sort of thing.
I read each parchment several times and was none the wiser.
“You dragged me away from my work for this,” I said.
“I know they don’t look like much,” said Thomas staring at his hands.
“So why call me in?”
“Every morning, when I get up, I walk past them on my way to the toilet and every day the writing is different.”
“Different how?” I said.
“The sentences are different. Not the same as yesterday.”
“Have you been smoking anything unusual, Thomas?”
“Kicked the stuff, cold turkey, a couple of months ago,” said Thomas, which explained a lot. He had been quieter lately and didn’t say stupid things as often.
“Wow,” I said. Thomas had been smoking weird substances for most of his adult life. He always smelled sweet and a bit sickly. That smell was absent from his house and I only just realised it.
“It changes every day?” I said.
“When does it change?” I said.
“I don’t exactly know. I fall asleep when it gets dark. I try to stay awake, but I wake up, and it’s morning.”
“Where did you find them?”
“Well, to be exact, I didn’t. Buster did.”
Buster is Thomas’s dog. His IQ beats Thomas’s by about twenty points. Buster looks a lot like Snowy, Tin Tin’s dog from the classic Belgian comics. Buster goes everywhere Thomas goes.
“Upstairs in one of the spare bedrooms. The carpet was loose in one corner. It wasn’t part of the job to take up the carpet, only the loose rugs — mostly Persian. I was buggered, and we’d packed the truck. I thought I’d better give the place the once over to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. Buster was having a great time. I don’t always let him run around when we work, as you know. Some places are pig styes — broken bottles and sharp sticky things, but this house was pristine. Only a slight layer of dust due to the owner being away. He must have left in a hurry because we found dirty plates on the kitchen table and a cupboard full of sheets that were probably furniture covers, all neatly packed away.”
“So?” I said.
“Buster stayed with me as we went from room to room. I wasn’t paying close attention. It was obvious if the rooms were empty or not. The last room at the end of the hall was the smallest. The carpet was older than the rest of the house and Buster was very interested in one corner of the room. You know how well behaved he is when we do these jobs, well he was going nuts trying to get the carpet to fold back. I told him off and went over to see what he was up to. There they were. Dusty, but pretty much the way you see them.”
“Why didn’t you hand them in with the rest of the stuff?”
“I always keep something for myself. I thought they might be a treasure map or something.”
“Make us a cup of tea, and I’ll have another look at these things,” I said.
The parchments were curling up on the top and bottom edges, almost to the point where they needed something substantial placed on them to keep them flat. This seemed strange to me considering how long they must have been under the carpet.
At times, the sentences were nonsensical.
The red scroll seemed to be obsessed with clothing and how to wear it.
‘Turn your collar up when the wind doth blow.’
‘Button thy trousers carefully in the presence of a lady.’ A bloke definitely wrote that. I can see him checking his fly buttons before exiting the bathroom.
‘Never wear a large hat on a Sunday.’ Why not? What would happen if you did?
The black scroll seemed more interested in manners.
‘Pick not your nose on a sunny day.’
‘Pass not wind on an open staircase during the gloaming.’ What if you were about to explode? And when exactly does ‘the gloaming’ start and end?
Thomas came into the room carrying a tarnished silver tray with a chipped china teapot and a couple of mugs that probably came from one of the house clearings.
“Odd collection,” I said.
“What?” said Thomas.
“Never mind,” I said. “Have you written down what the scrolls have said on other days?”
“Not at first, but once I noticed they changed every day, I wrote them down.”
“Give me a look,” I said, and Thomas rifled through a drawer on the sideboard and produced a few pages of poorly written text.
“Don’t ever write a ransom note in longhand. They will definitely trace it back to you,” I said. Thomas got the inference. He looked hurt.
I read through the pages, and they made about as much sense as the current parchments.
A long silence.
“I’m buggered if I know what it all means,” I said. “Do you want to take Buster for a walk?” Buster instantly stood up at the mention of the magic word.
“Don’t you have to get back to work?” said Thomas.
“Nah, the day’s buggered now. Let’s walk.”
Buster was at the door, waiting expectantly. We gathered up his favourite treats and his lead and headed off into the wilds of suburbia. One of the black scroll inscriptions flashed into my head.
‘Don’t leave your wireless playing when you leave the house.’
“You don’t have the radio playing, do you, Thomas?”