“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.
My grandfather loved books, and I think he loved me almost as much.
I know I loved him.
I can still remember the feeling of squashing down next to him in that comfortable ancient armchair.
No one sat in that chair except my grandfather. It wasn’t because we were scared of him or anything like that, it was just that it was his chair and to sit there without him in it, didn’t seem right.
I was working overseas when my grandparents died; one after the other with only days between them.
It wasn’t the kind of job that I could up and leave, so by the time I was back in the country, there wasn’t a physical sign that they had ever been here on this Earth. Their ashes had been scattered, and their house emptied and sold.
Indecent haste was how I phrased it.
“Where the fuck were you while all the work was being done?” was their reply. I guess I pissed my father off because he wouldn’t tell me what had happened to my grandparent’s furniture. It was the armchair that I was really interested in, but I guess it was landfill or in some op-shop warehouse somewhere. I hoped that it had been purchased by a house full of uni students. I could see a nineteen-year-old female English Literature student curled up with a tattered old copy of something by Somerset Maugham. Possibly, ‘The Razor’s Edge’. Yes, that would be good.
My grandfather introduced me to the delights of Enid Blyton and Robert Louis Stephenson in equal measure. He didn’t treat me like a little girl, he saw only a curious, young person who had fallen in love with the worlds that existed between the pages of a book.
He had the most beautiful husky voice, and sitting close to him was like sitting in an old dusty closet. He was warm even in winter, and I got the feeling that it was because of some kind of inner glow caused by his love of books.
He always read me books that were a bit above my understanding, and I think that was on purpose. He would smile when I asked him what a particular word meant, and he would sometimes get me to run my finger over the word as he explained its meaning.
I collect bookmarks because he did.
I give books as presents because he said it was a wise thing to do.
His heroes were authors, and mine are too.
He thought that reading was as essential as writing, and so do I.
We will meet again someday, but for now, I have to be the person he wanted me to be, and I need to find a comfortable old armchair so I can sit and read and remember.
A wisp of smoke emanated from the barrel of the gun as I placed it gently on the desk. There had been enough violence in the last few moments, so laying it softly down seemed like a dampening gesture.
I’m not a lover of guns, but like all things made by man, they have their uses.
He stood staring at me for as long as it would take to light a cigarette, then he crumpled into a man-shaped heap.
I’m sure he wasn’t expecting to be shot. Most gunshot victims are surprised. The way he lived his life, he shouldn’t have been surprised. If it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone tired of his lies and deceit.
That’s what I am, tired.
Not tired in the traditional sense, more fed up than anything.
People disappoint me — continually.
From the young man behind the counter in the only coffee shop on my block (yes, I could walk a little further and get better service, but what’s the point of that?) to the half-wit who got promoted over me just because he’s a man (no that’s not fair, it had more to do with who was sleeping with whom and who owed who because of large scale indiscretions — see what I mean, tiresome?)
I’m guessing you are wondering why I shot him? Well, you can wait a little longer, it’s my story after all.
I wasn’t the only person in the room, and I got there in a roundabout way.
It was a pleasant enough party. Well dressed women and tidy men ignoring their wives.
This was my first visit to this mansion. A man who sold used cars built it many years ago, and when he died, it went through a few hands (all owners trying vainly to impress) until it landed in Michael’s grubby hands. Michael’s wife’s hands were pristine and well-manicured — she’d stabbed a few people in the back, but her hands were unbloodied. Her crimes were metaphorical.
There was nothing metaphorical about Michael.
We, my husband and I, had been summoned to hear Michael’s terms. He believed that he owned us. My husband was close to the end of his wits, but I don’t buckle so easily.
I only know the part that concerned my husband and me — our disgrace, our downfall. Never let the devil know your secrets for he will drag you down to Hell.
I heard the shouting, and when I opened the sturdy oak door to Michael’s study, I saw that two men I vaguely recognised, were arguing with Michael as my husband stood meekly by.
Michael stepped behind his dark-stained desk and drew an automatic pistol from the top drawer. The man in the blue suit reached inside his jacket and pulled a huge pistol. The man in the brown suit reached behind him and drew a revolver.
My husband was unarmed.
I held my breath as the shouting died down. Michael realised he was outgunned and attempted to defuse the situation.
“Okay fellas. Let’s all of us calm the fuck down. I’m putting my gun down, and we can talk,” said Michael. He put his gun on the edge of the desk and put his hands out in a mock gesture of surrender. He took a few steps away from the desk as the two men lowered their weapons.
I didn’t plan what happened next, but I have to say that it could not have worked out better.
I’m a smart girl, and I can recognise an opportunity when I see one.
Michael saw me enter the room, but he held his ground. The other two men momentarily raised their guns again, probably thinking that I was Michael’s secret weapon.
My dress was red and was not concealing anything. The two men realised I did not have a weapon and lowered their guns once more.
Michael went back to placating his adversaries who were none too pleased about being summoned and threatened.
My head was spinning with possibilities.
I took three quick sets across the room and picked up Michael’s gun. The safety was off. Without hesitation, I shot the man in the blue suit. He fell to the floor, and everyone in the room looked at him as though he might get up and laugh that it had all been a game.
My ears were ringing from the blast, and my wrist hurt.
My husband looked at me with confused eyes.
The brown suit came out of his stupor and looked at me just as I shot him in the chest. Now my wrist was beginning to ache.
“Julia. What have you done?” said, my horrified husband.
“Haven’t finished yet darling,” I said as I waited for Michael to turn and face me. No good shooting him in the back — too much to explain.
Michael started to say something, but he didn’t get to finish.
The blue suit’s gun had fallen at my feet. I picked it up and shot Michael who looked very surprised.
“Everybody shot everybody else John, and our problems are over. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” I said, and John nodded. I guess words were too much effort at that point.
Just before the guests burst through the study door with looks of horror on their well-dressed faces, a wisp of smoke emanated from the barrel of the gun as I placed it gently on the desk. There had been enough violence in the last few moments, so laying it down softly seemed like a dampening gesture.
I’m not a lover of guns, but like all things made by man, they have their uses.
She shares the flat with her husband, a canary named George and a small plant that doesn’t have a name – but if it did have a name I think it might be Wilfred — not sure why.
When I was younger, Rose’s general disregard for clothing was a bit disconcerting.
Large, warm breasts (I was surmising their warmth) tend to make a young man forget things, like where I was going and, “Yes Mrs Abernathy, I can get you some bread on my way home. I’ll leave it outside your door. You can pay mum when you see her.”
The prospect of encountering Mrs Abernathy’s breasts at close quarters was more than my youthful resolve could cope with.
Rose has a big heart, at least that is what everyone says. I believe them. Mr Abernathy, on the other hand, is less than kind. I guess a lifetime of knowing that every male in the district is staring at your wife’s tits is enough to turn you sour.
I stay out of his way, but some of my slower friends have not been so lucky. Billy still walks with a limp.
Rose’s favourite activity (as you can see from the photo my friend Michael took) is hanging, partially clad out of her fourth-floor window and watching the world go by. Michael, by the way, is recovering slowly. He didn’t mind the beating because he managed to distribute a considerable number of photographs before Mr Abernathy caught up with him. Michael says he has enough for a deposit on a car — or an electric wheelchair if his recovery falters.
Michael always looks on the bright side.
I’ll be glad when I’ve saved up enough for my own place. I don’t much mind where I live as long as it isn’t too far from my family. The only requirement I have is that the building does not have a friendly older woman with huge breasts and a grumpy, violent husband.
Hot water and heating would be nice, but I’m not fussy.
“Do you need to check your bags sir?” said the man behind the glass.
I didn’t answer immediately. He looked up and into my eyes. Words hadn’t worked so maybe he hoped I was hearing him telepathically.
“No bags,” I said. Some people have accused me of being a wordsmith, but no one who was within hearing distance on this day was likely to agree.
I handed over the exact amount, he counted it carefully as though he expected me to short change him. Once he was satisfied, he placed the money in its designated slot in the money draw. Even the coins came in for ‘one by one’ attention. He closed the old wooden drawer gently and looked at me before reluctantly sliding my ticket across the brass plate which extended to each side of the thick glass. It occurred to me that no one polished the brass plate — constant use did that.
“Have a pleasant trip sir. Your train leaves in seventeen minutes and fifteen seconds, track twelve.” He noticed my look. “Just head to your right, you’ll see the sign,” he said.
I picked up the paper ticket and read it. My destination was printed on it as was the final destination of the train. The words, ‘non-sleeping’ seemed to sum up my present predicament — not a lot of sleep and I guess it was showing.
“Thanks,” I said and as an afterthought, “Do you ever get lonely in there?”
The man behind the glass looked me in the eye again and said, “All the time. I watch people like you buying tickets and heading off to parts known, and I wonder.”
“What do you wonder?” I said.
“I wonder what you all are doing. Why are you leaving? What do you do when you get there?”
“Why not ask?” I said.
“Folks are usually in too much of a hurry. I don’t want to bother them, so I wonder.”
“I’m leaving because there is no reason for me to stay. I’m determined to enjoy the train ride, and I have no idea what I’ll do when I get there, but I’ve got money and a comb and an address of a bloke my father served with in the war, so there is a chance of somewhere to stay when I get there. I’ll find a job, I’m good at lots of stuff, and maybe there’ll be a girl who likes me. Maybe I’ll settle there, but most probably not. My mum said I’ve got itchy feet and I’m beginning to think she might be right,” I said.
The man behind the glass was in the process of smiling when a large lady with a small child suggested that I was going to make her late for her train, so I stepped away from the window and headed for platform twelve. The man in the ticket booth stayed where he was, but at least he knew where I had come from and where I was going, and he had a small glimpse of my hopes for the future.
Unencumbered by baggage or regrets, I sauntered towards my impending journey, and track twelve.
Being a parent was not anywhere near the top of my list. Hell, I’m not sure I had a list. Becky said, “It’s time,” and after a full-term gestation there was Jo (not her real name, because I never liked Minerva). I’m not a huge fan of babies — I know they exist and I’m pretty sure I know what causes them, but not a huge fan. Then there was Jo, and I was hooked. Everyone said, “What a cute baby,” but she wasn’t — just average, but boy, did she grow into her looks. I took this photo just before I had to leave. It’s how I remember her. Her bedroom is very girly, thanks to her interior decorating wizard mum, and I always felt slightly nervous being in there.
She was usually asleep by the time I got home from work — and then there wasn’t any work. I can’t tell you what I do, but I can tell you that my work has to do with keeping an eye on people.
A sudden change in policy and my station was closed. No ceremony and little fanfare. These days, I think they use the building for a bank of servers that feeds everyone’s desire for cloud storage. So, my skill set just sat there like a cat that no one needed anymore. I was getting paid, but if I wanted that fiscal situation to continue I would have to move to nowherefuckingnearanywhere, and no, we won’t pay for your family to relocate. Besides, Jo has started school, and it is essential that she be adequately indoctrinated into the ways of the average person — couldn’t disrupt that process. We talk on the phone — at least three times a week and every time she asks when I’m coming back, but lately, not so much. Her mum asks how I’m getting on, and I say I’m not allowed to talk about it and then there is a long silence followed by, “I’ll put Minerva on and you two can talk.” Occasionally, my wife complains that my salary needs to increase so she can buy a gold plated can opener, or whatever it is that she wants — she never asks when I’m coming home. I’ve missed two of Jo’s birthdays, and I haven’t the slightest idea how I’m going to avoid missing more of them. I’m stuck here and she is there — not exactly stuck, but she might as well be.
The doll in the photo came from a toy shop in the seaside town I was in at the time. It was a boring assignment, and there were three of us watching what I considered to be a low-value target, so there was plenty of time off. The lady who ran the toy shop was a few years past her prime, but still pretty in a dishevelled sort of way. She constantly chased a loose strand of hair which refused to stay behind her ear. I think her name was Mrs Wilson but I got the feeling that Mr Wilson had legged it a long time ago — with the girl who worked in the local fish and chip shop. Not sure if I heard that somewhere or I made it up, but it seemed to fit.
I remember that Mrs Wilson was reluctant to sell me the doll — something about having put it aside for a special customer. To clinch the deal, I offered way above the value of the doll. “Alright then. What do I care? It’s been sitting there for months, and she never came for it. Serves her right,” said Mrs Wilson who never once looked directly at me during our conversation. I handed her the money and looked around the shop while she wrapped the doll. It was well maintained, and the toys all seemed very new. The shop faced the shoreline, and the light streamed in late in the afternoon. I wondered how Mrs Wilson survived during the offseason. She didn’t seem prosperous. Didn’t seem like someone who had inherited from her great Aunt Ethel. Didn’t seem like she had ever known much money.
Jo loved the doll when I gave it to her. Her mother said I was spoiling her, which I was. I’m a father with a daughter — what was I supposed to do?
There was a small item in the national daily newspaper about a raid on a shop on the coast — MYSTERIOUS WOMAN ARRESTED UNDER VEIL OF SECRECY. I asked around. “Dead drop,” said the kid in the mailroom (I wonder where he ended up when they pulled up stumps on our operation?) “For whom?” I said. “Well-financed right-wing nut bags,” was his reply. I considered asking him how he found out about all this and then I could see myself in front of a Senate inquiry — “And how did you use this information, Mr X?” I’m a crap equivocator, so I let it go. You’ve already worked out that there is something of value inside my Jo’s doll, I know you have. The penny dropped for me a few moments after the loose-lipped mailroom boy finished talking. Whatever it is it can stay where it is. “Hi daddy, I haven’t seen you for two years. Why are you dismembering my doll?” I don’t think so. Not having that conversation, and no, my very young daughter doesn’t usually use words like dismembering — but you knew that too, didn’t you?
My first mate reminded me that we were half a day ahead of schedule, so I gave the order. “Alter course. We’re heading for the island where the Sirens hang out.” “But captain, they are incredibly dangerous,” said Claude, who had been with me since I bought this trading schooner. “That’s sort of the point, Claude. Break out those industrial-strength earplugs and make sure that idiot Phillip puts his in. I’ve had it with that bloke. I don’t care how good a cook he is, we’re dumping him when we hit port,” I said. The crew lashed me to the mast well before I heard the song. It’s impossible to describe to you how beautiful it was, and as far as I was concerned, that was more than enough ecstasy. I could see her swimming out to our boat, but I thought we would sail by before she got to us. My head was swimming, and for a while, I thought she was the girl from the cafe back in our home port — the one who does the deliveries. It wasn’t her of course, and the fact that she was utterly naked cleared that up — the delivery woman is always fully clothed when she does her deliveries. Mind you, if she did decide to change that, she would get better tips — just saying. Anyway, the naked siren (I did mention her lack of clothing, didn’t I?) climbs over the railing and walks straight up to me, stares directly into my eyes and plants the biggest, saltiest kiss right on my all too willing lips. I was pretty wound up by then, but after she kissed me, I lost it, which was embarrassing. After giving me a wink, she dove over the side and swam in the direction of her island, giving me an excellent, if fleeting view of her bottom. Once we were clear of the island, the crew untied me, tidied me up and after a respectful period, asked me what it was like. “Put it this way fellas, the song almost drove me crazy, and then this naked woman gave me the best kiss I’ve ever had and flashed her bum as she dove over the side. How do you think I’m feeling?” The crew were quiet for a long time until Phillip broke the silence. “Did she say anything?” “Are you kidding me? What could she possibly say that would have enhanced the events I just laid out? Bugger off and work on your CV. You’re going to need it.”
When we got back to port, word of my adventure spread quickly. These days, my crew and I run tours to the island for rich buggers with more money than sense, we go through a lot of earplugs, but never has that naked beauty swum out to our boat. I guess she was just for me.
Painting: Gustav Wertheimer – The Kiss of the Siren, 1882
“No, no,” cried Audrey. “I don’t want to hear any more.”
I get the feeling that Harry has decided to sell the cafe and move back East. Audrey’s family live here and the bonds are tight. But that’s Harry. Ever since he got out of the army he’s had itchy feet. Audrey believed that buying the cafe with his army pay would settle him down. He took to the routine of life for a while, but then he got to staring out of the window instead of serving customers. Harry is famous for his scrambled eggs. He guards the recipe and will not reveal his secret. Lately, his scrambled eggs are not up to standard — people who have travelled a distance have complained. “We came all the way from Fuckyou Idaho, just to taste your eggs and they taste like anyone else’s’ eggs. We are typical annoying Americans and we want our money back.” Harry always gave them their money back — I wouldn’t. Fuck ’em and the Buick they rode in on, but then again, I’m not Harry — he’s a nice bloke and I’ll miss him and his scrambled eggs.
1958 illustration by Harry Hants.
Helen is aware of his imperfections. He tends to snore, but a good poke in the ribs remedies the situation. He fumbles for his wallet and can never remember which pocket it is in — even though it is carried in the same pocket every time. He falls asleep at importune moments, and he loves hot dogs. All these things are overlooked because he loves her and there is no other. He notices the pretty little things, of course, but in the same way that any lover of beauty consumes the wonders of the world. There is no one else for him but her, and she knows it — deep in her heart, and wrapped around her soul.
I didn’t expect to find her. I wasn’t looking, but isn’t that always the way?
She can run fast and I can fly, which makes for an interesting combination.
There will be a surprise wedding (not mine) and some time on a train. A visit to the house I grew up in and a quandary about sleeping arrangements. A ride in a horse and cart, and tea in a coffee shop.
And of course, there will be dancing.
Drinking after hours and a mad, barefoot dash for freedom.
All these things and a full heart, then I have to go, but she will wait for me. Wait patiently for me to fly away home.
To celebrate the arrival of YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS, I’m including a chapter from the audiobook. The completed audiobook is a week or two away. It is a long, slow process which comes to a sudden halt if my voice is affected.
The book will be available later today as an eBook.