“It was good of you to come in so promptly, Mr Ashton.”
“I had to be in the city today, so I thought I should fit you in, and besides, it’s not every day that I get a summons from my accountant.”
“Not exactly a summons, Mr Ashton, surely?”
“Better call me David. After all, I feel like I put your kids through private school, and summer camp, and that school trip to Austria for the skiing.”
“You’re referring to our fee structure — I’ve heard all the jokes. We are the best at what we do, and that’s why you employ us. We save you way more in tax than we charge you.”
“I know you do. I’m just feeling good today, and I thought I would take it out on you.”
Mr Ashton’s accountant seemed to relax slightly. He sat back in his chair and dropped his shoulders. He was wearing his suit jacket which David Ashton took as a sign of foreboding. Nithiyan Nathan, on the other hand, saw the wearing of the suit jacket in the presence of a client as a sign of respect.
These two men were from different worlds and only crashed into each other around tax time. Nithiyan saw things in black and white — numbers never lied to him. David saw the world as an opportunity full of risk and reward.
“So, what’s the problem? Did I allow too big a deduction for my mistress?”
Nithiyan Nathan looked perplexed, an emotion he did not enjoy.
“Relax Nithiyan. I can call you, Nithiyan?”
“Yes, of course. You were being light-hearted? I get it.”
He didn’t get. Light-hearted was for less serious people.
“I don’t have a mistress. Not that I couldn’t afford one, mind you.”
Wealth, and people knowing you are wealthy, was essential to David Ashton.
“I do your books, Mr Ashton ..”
“Yes, of course, David. I do your books, so naturally, I know you could afford a mistress.”
In his head, Nithiyan was calculating the cost of keeping a moderately priced mistress.
“So, if it isn’t my non-existent mistress, then what is it?”
“Your night watchman. You pay him approximately,” Nithiyan hated being approximate, “$183.47 per hour — based on an eight-hour shift, five days a week.”
“He works seven nights a week, and I fly him and his family to Sicily once a year for a three-week vacation. He has family there. It costs me a fortune for those three weeks because I have to employ a team of security guards to cover for him.”
“I was going to ask you about the security guards,” said a confused and intrigued Mr Nathan.
“So, now you know. Is there anything else?”
Nithiyan Nathan sat forward in his seat, putting his hands palms down on the glass-topped surface. He wanted to raise his voice, but that would be as bad as unbuttoning his coat.
“$183.47 per hour. A night watchman would be lucky to earn $18 an hour even if you factored in superannuation and a meal allowance. Is this man blackmailing you? Is he a member of the Mafia? Is he a ghost employee? These are all questions the Australian Tax Office are likely to ask, so I’m asking you before they do.”
“Do you watch a lot of TV cop shows, Mr Nathan?”
It was true that Nithiyan Nathan watched a lot of TV cop shows. It was his release from the world of numbers and clients who were determined to hide their real income.
“That isn’t the point,” said Mr Nathan.
“Okay, you’ve been a good sport, I’ll tell you why I pay him so much, but I warn you, you are going to find my reason difficult to believe at first. But I know you are a man of logic and once I explain the numbers, you will believe me even though you won’t want to.”
“Is this explanation going to take very long, I have another appointment at three o’clock, and I am charging you $500 per hour.”
“It will be worth the cost just to see your reaction. Do you remember the war, it was in all the papers?”
“Yes, I remember,” said Mr Nathan.
“Well, I spent some time playing poker with a bunch of American soldiers during the occupation. There wasn’t much else to do. They were well paid and inferior card players. My wife started to worry about where all the money I was sending home was coming from.”
“I never play cards, but I can see it would be a good way to stave off boredom.”
“We were all prone to telling ‘tall stories’, but there was one story that kept cropping up whenever Americans spoke about their time in Sicily.”
“Where your night watchman’s family comes from?”
“Exactly. The stories talked about certain houses in villages that had been destroyed by American shelling. Certain houses were untouched.”
“Probably pure luck. Just like the scenes you see after a bushfire sweeps through a country town and one house is still standing amongst all the devastation.”
“That’s exactly what I said, but they argued that it happened too often, and on each occurrence, the inhabitants were from an ethnic group known as Daemons. Sicily isn’t far from Greece where the stories about Daemons originate — I looked it up.”
“You are telling me that your night watchman is a demon?” said Mr Nathan, who’s eyes were wider than usual.
“I didn’t say demon, I said ‘day -mon’. Having a demon for a night watchman might be counterproductive. Think of all the slime and debris.” David Ashton smiled at his own witticism.
“It seems that Daemons can protect an area of land from all harm. If they have a strong connection to an area, nothing bad can befall it. In each of the primitive houses in the bombed-out areas that survived, there was a family that could trace their heritage back to this ancient tribe. They are said to exist somewhere between humans and the gods.”
“It was my experience that American soldiers were quite naive and not to be taken seriously. ‘All mouth, no trousers’ our sergeant used to say,” said Mr Nathan.
“My thoughts exactly, ‘all hat no cattle’, as my dad used to say, but there’s another saying about there being fire where there’s smoke. I had nothing else to do, so I did a bit of digging. The more I dug, the more interesting it got.
After the occupation, I went home and was glad of it. Australia was into its most significant immigration phase, and there were lots of men and families from Italy among them. I’d forgotten about the stories because I did my best to put my war experiences behind me.”
Nithiyan Nathan looked at his watch.
“I’m nearly there,” said Mr Ashton.
“It’s your money, go on.”
“I did quite well after I got back. Built up a large manufacturing concern, as you know. Making stuff means having somewhere to store materials and product and the best place for all that is industrial zoned land. Unfortunately, those areas are often run-down, and they attract the wrong sort of people. People with bolt cutters and old beaten up vans. They like to break in and carry off whatever they can carry.”
“You have insurance?”
“Yes I do, but it’s the inconvenience and the annoyance and the fact that I don’t like to lose,” said Mr Ashton, who realised that he was raising his voice. He took a moment to gather himself.
“As sometimes happens, I woke up one morning and remembered the stories from my time in the occupation. I know it sounds crazy, but I put an advertisement in the positions vacant column of The Age – Daemon wanted. Security work. No questions asked.”
“As you would expect, I got a bunch of crank calls. They all made the same assumption you did. Billy Demon here, just got out of Hades, and I’m looking for work, followed by inane laughter. But in amongst the nut bags, there was Antonio Santamaria. I interviewed him personally, which annoyed our Human Resources manager. Antonio had been out of work for some time. His English was rudimentary, and it was holding him back. I was worried that he was too desperate and would not answer my questions truthfully.
I asked him about his ancestry, and he was guarded in his response. I asked him if the rumours were true and he just shrugged.
It occurred to me that even if it was true, his protection may only extend to where he lives, his family home. Maybe it didn’t cover his place of work. I asked him, and he shrugged again.
I explained to him that we’d had three night watchmen hospitalised in the past year and that we were not allowed to issue him with a firearm so he would be taking his life in his hands if he took the job.”
“What did he say?”
“Did it work? Did he protect your warehouse?”
“I offered him double the hourly rate, and I could tell that he was going to take the job. We never had a break-in after that. I have video of deadbeats trying to cut the chains on the front gate and giving up. I have video of other deadbeats cutting through the wire fence at the back of the warehouses only to get tangled up in the wire until the police came and collected them. One bloke, who was found wandering around the streets with burglar tools, told the police he forgot where he was supposed to break in to. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.”
“So you think that Antonio developed an affinity for your land because he needed the money?”
“Buggered if I know, but I do know that businesses in our area rent space, at a premium rate, to store their goods with us. They think we have some space-age security system that is way ahead of theirs. I’ve even had security companies come sneaking around trying to figure out our system.
I keep up appearances with lights and cameras and all that stuff, but in the end, it’s Antonio.
I’ll admit that I get a few strange looks when I tell people that we have a night watchman. Most properties have roving armed guards with dogs and fancy uniforms.”
“You do understand that there is no way I’m going to tell this story to the Tax Office if they come calling, don’t you?”
“I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t tell them that story either. Tell them he saved my life during the war, I don’t care.”
“I’m beginning to wish that I hadn’t called this meeting Mr Ashton, thank you for coming in. You’ll receive my invoice in the usual manner.”
“I know I will, Mr Nathan, and thank you for listening. I’m not Catholic, so I don’t have anyone I can tell things to who can’t repeat them under threat of eternal damnation. You are the next best thing. I hope my story is not too disturbing. There are more things in heaven and earth.”
“Go in peace Mr Ashton and may we never speak of this again.”
Through a dense fog, I hear the splintering of timber. Voices. Male voices.
Something about ‘drifting away’.
I’m being wrapped in a blanket, it’s woollen, I can feel it against my skin. It’s warm.
Strong arms guide me toward my bed. More voices. ‘Cover the mirror’.
Why are these people in my room? What do they want?
I feel very light, and I see myself from a distance. A very comfortable distance.
I’m trying to decide. Do I come back or do I drift away? Drift away seems like an excellent idea.
I’m not asleep, but I’m not awake, either. I’m in that in-between place. It’s beautiful here.
When I awake, a day and a half have passed.
I’m feeling rested, and it’s quiet because almost everyone is off at work.
I take my time and bathe.
I look at myself in the bathroom mirror; I don’t look any different, but I definitely feel different.
I spend the afternoon quietly sitting in the garden listening to the birds and trying to collect my thoughts.
Eventually, my extended family begin returning to our large home.
The house is surprisingly quiet as the women prepare the evening meal.
The men bring in wood for the fire and go about the small tasks that men perform to keep a large house like ours running smoothly. There is very little of the usual chatter, and what conversation there is, is carried out in hushed tones.
It is not spoken, but everyone is thinking the same thing.
What happened, and how will it affect the fortunes of our family?
Even if they did work up the courage to ask, I would not know how to answer.
Quite simply, I don’t remember what happened.
I know that the experience almost cost me my life, and I know that I feel at peace.
Something passed between me and the mirror and even though I don’t know what that ‘something’ is I know that it was good. I know that our family will prosper and I know that I will come to be its leader, in the fullness of time.
Everyone is looking at me in a different way than they did before, and that is as it should be.
How the mirror came into our family and where it came from are two facts that are shrouded in mystery.
My favourite story? That it was enchanted by a gypsy princess.
The princess was captured by angry townsfolk who were upset about a poor crop yield, or something like that, and blamed it on the gypsies.
I guess people have always needed someone to blame.
One of my ancestors, who was a poor but chivalrous young man, rescued the gypsy princess.
She was a bit bruised, battered and dusty, but otherwise unhurt.
She took my young ancestor back to her caravan and gave him a good seeing to, which they both rather enjoyed.
She also gave him the mirror. Her enchantment meant that the mirror would respond favourably to any female member of his family who was beautiful, naked and brave.
I guess I was all of those things.
I know I’m not the same.
I dared to face the mirror, and that sets me apart.
My self-confidence goes all the way down to the tips of my toes.
I’m the same height, but I feel taller.
My thoughts are now full of answers, as well as questions. The future feels bright and full of possibilities.
Sometimes courage is its own reward, and outward beauty has very little to do with it.
I know that my daughters will be vigorous and wise. The experience with the mirror taught me that bravery overcomes all obstacles, but in the end, it is the love that comes from within that holds a family together, no matter how large or small that family might be.
Painting by Alex Alemeny
“Tiny lines of cotton that hold the world together,” said my grandfather, but he would — he was a romantic.
He wanted me to see what he saw, romance, adventure, creation.
“A woman comes to me with a dream. I never ask what that dream is, but I know it lingers beneath the request. I need a dress for a formal occasion, might translate into, My husband is losing interest in me, and I want to knock his socks off.
Or maybe the lady is trying to impress the other women in her circle — that’s serious business, or so I have been told.”
I was twelve when this conversation took place, and within a year my grandfather would be found in his workroom, needle in hand, the life having ebbed out of him. No one said he had a smile on his face, but I’d like to think so.
“The customers I love are the ones who come to me because they want to please themselves. They know they are beautiful and they realise that the clothes I make for them complement their beauty and poise. From the time they step in the front door of my shop we are engaged in a dance. A creative dance. They don’t spell everything out for me, I’m expected to participate, do my part. When I have made the garment and done the final fitting, we both know that the dance is coming to an end. The exceptional customers participate in a denouement — they let me know if the garment had the desired effect. I love it when they prolong the dance.”
I was way too young to understand the undercurrents of my grandfather’s observations, but I guess he hoped that his words would stay with me, ring in my ears at a later date.
It was never my intention to go into the family business. I could think of nothing worse than being confined in a shop fussing over women with more money than sense.
I rebelled and left home as soon as I was able. I travelled and worked and soaked up life until I thought I might burst.
Every time I saw a beautiful woman I examined her clothes — off the rack or made to measure — you can always tell.
I remember the look I got from a girl in Paris when she caught me examining the stitching on her skirt. She wasn’t wearing it at the time. She wasn’t wearing anything at all, and neither was I. We were taking a break during a long session of lovemaking on an autumn afternoon. The view from her apartment was stunning, and the sight of her was equally so, but I could not resist the urge to find out how well her clothes were made.
“Have you checked the hems to see if there is anything hidden in them,” I said.
“No, why would I?” she said.
“Some old school dressmakers will hide little things like tiny pieces of paper with something inscribed, or a fragment of ancient cloth. They feel it personalises their work.”
The naked lady thought I was marginally less crazy after my explanation and we continued to tangle erotically for several more months until she left me for a trumpet player. I minded, but I got over it and continued my travels.
Whenever the money ran out, I would seek employment, and on more than one occasion I got work at bespoke dressmakers — not the usual job for a young man, but I had my family’s name, and it opened a few doors, even if I did end up sweeping more often than designing and sewing.
I didn’t care; I was free.
The Telegram caught up with me when I was staying in a provincial city in Spain. My father had died, and my mother was distraught.
It took me a few days to get back home, but they waited for me.
After the funeral, while everyone was eating little sandwich triangles and drowning their sorrows, I went to my father’s shop, the same shop that my grandfather had owned. The gold letters on the glass door spelled out my family name.
The rest you can probably work out for yourself.
Your dress is now complete. I hope you are happy with the work?
I know it is none of my business, but I was wondering why you wanted me to make it for you?
“I don’t need another dress. I just like spending time in your shop without igniting the gossips. Does my admission shock you? Have I ruined our friendship?”
Not at all, but you might want to take the dress off.
You wouldn’t want to get it all wrinkled.
Painting by Jack Vettriano