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.
“Sixty-eight point three per cent of all murder victims that have been found dead more than two days after death are found by citizens walking their dog.”
The lecturer had excellent chalkboard technique. I ought to know, I did two years of Teacher’s College before I signed up. During those two years, we did one fifteen-minute session, and I remember learning how to hold chalk so that it didn’t make that excruciating squeaking noise. “Makes you look like you know what you are doing.”
Our instructor, freshly escaped from the classroom, knew that we didn’t — know what we were doing, that is, and he was trying to minimise our ‘knownothingness’ in the only way he knew how.
A futile but kind gesture.
“How many of the dog walkers wear jumpers, Sarge?” The smartarse with a death wish was just as bored as the rest of us, and he foolishly chose to show it.
“Roughly the same percentage as you got on your last evaluation detective Wilson from Broadmeadows. Considering the suburb you are stationed at, detective, I would have thought that your arrest record would be higher. You pretty much only have to be the unfortunate bastard who opens the front doors in the morning, and five nefarious characters come tumbling in.”
The ‘smartarse’ detective indeed got a bit of a giggle out of us, but it has to be remembered that if ‘two or more of you are gathered together there will be mirth’ applies to any gathering of knuckle-dragging police officers — it’s infectious. Laughter kills the boredom and at least a bit of the terror — terror that you might get maimed for no good reason and then get pensioned off, and terror from the thought that you are wasting your life. My terror falls into the latter category.
Our instructor got a bigger laugh.
The sound of one of the many smartarses in our life being brought down to earth is satisfying and mirthful.
He kept on writing.
Never turned around.
Eyes in the back of his head.
I could easily be back at school again.
It helped that we were in an old school room in an old school building. Now called The Baker Institute, anyone who went to school during my decade knew the unmistakable architecture. I was tempted to hang my coat on the hooks outside the sliding door. The walls are painted a modern colour, and there have been other attempts to hide the room’s original purpose.
The chairs are comfortable, but my arse was not interested in testing their long term durability.
At a glance, I’d say that there are about twenty-two of us. Mostly males, a variety of ages, but I’m probably the only one over forty. A quick scan of body language clues tells me that most inhabitants of this standard-sized room are just as pissed off as I am. One or two still think that this one-day course is part of their growth as a police officer.
“What about the bodies what never get found?” The smartarse was making one final attempt to redeem his flagging status as the funniest bloke in the room.
Without missing a beat, our instructor (I’ve forgotten his name – on the job I write stuff down, or someone else does, but here and now, who gives a fuck what this bozo’s name is) writes one point zero nine per cent on the board. Somehow he has changed the chalk colour — impressive.
“Somewhere in the region of your chances of promotion,” says our instructor. He speaks the words so softly that we lean in to catch them. Those in the front row snigger before the rest of us.
“Can we have a window open sir?” says an attractive brunette sitting a few rows forward of me.
“Yes, we can and don’t call me sir. I’m a sergeant. I work for a living.” He shot a look at the bloke sitting on the end of the row who sprang out of his seat and opened a window with the skill of someone who had done it many times.
The brunette who had been one of the few people in the room taking notes said, “Thank you, Sargent.”
There were a few moments of silence.
The board was covered in colourful statistics and a wellborn piece of chalk dangled between the instructor’s fingers.
He was thinking.
I doubted that he had lost his place.
This bloke came prepared.
I made a mental note to remember his name the next time I heard it.
Why was he here in this room with us percentage losers?
Our instructor raised a chalk dusted finger and pointed at his handiwork.
“This shit is just numbers. We’ve got a few minutes before we break for lunch (I hadn’t thought much about food until now. A raging hunger rolled over me) I want to hear a human story. Without humans, you don’t have the raw ingredients for murder. The causes are simple — sex and money.”
“And religion,” said someone behind me.
“Okay,” conceded our instructor, “but mostly sex and money. Causes might tell you why, but my job is to give you an insight into why people do what they do after the fact. Fuck why they did it, where do they dump the body? And how does that affect your investigation? Can anyone share a story about a citizen finding a body.”
He was now pointing at me and inexplicably, my hand was in the air — no idea how it got there.
“Yes. You. Leather jacket.” At least he didn’t know my name.
“Got yourself into a spot of bother with a highly ranked officer’s wife, if I remember rightly. Back of a Bentley? A patrol car shined a light in your direction. Took you a few minutes to retrieve your warrant card. Firm buttocks were unnecessarily added to the report? Was that you?”
I didn’t need to answer.
“I’ve been involved in a few cases where a body was found by a punter — before my buttocks became famous.”
The laughter was generous. The kind of laughter that says ‘glad it isn’t me that’s in the sergeant’s spotlight, you’ll be just as generous when it’s my turn, won’t you?’
“I was stationed at Preston. Most dog walkers wandered up and down the footpaths or headed to Bell State School after hours to exercise their dogs. Still, a group calling themselves The Widower Dogs Society walked their dogs up behind the old cinema off Oakover road. Merri Creek runs through there and in those days it was rough and ready. No shortage of old fridges and car tyres. These days it’s all gentrified.”
“So, what happened?”
“The Widower Dogs Society were three members strong. All of the dogs had lost a female partner. The owners banded together to brighten up their lonely dogs. Grief hits dogs as hard as it does us.”
I could see the brunette looking at me, listening intently.
I finished my story, and the instructor looked at his watch.
“Close enough,” he said, and we filed out of the room in search of food and a beer. We’d earned it.
“These things are usually a bit more salubrious. This one isn’t even catered,” said a mellifluous female voice.
“Mel Carter,” said the brunette.
“Catastrophy Jones,” I said with a straight face. “This is punishment. Catering might have spoilt the effect.”
She looked a bit surprised at my words, which could have been taken one of two ways.
“Everyone in that room, with the possible exception of you and the bloke next to you, were there because they had pissed someone off — a way of wasting our very precious Saturday.”
She thought about my words, dismissed them. They didn’t apply to her. She was young (younger than me) and on her way up.
“Your story — the Widower Dogs Club. How did you know that was what they called themselves?”
“Back then. I listened to people. When you listen, people tell a uniform all sorts of things. They were shocked. Trying to understand why someone would do such a thing. They understood stealing cars, ‘we used to nick cars when we were kids, but this!’ No-one was yelling at me to get on with it, so I listened — let them talk. They felt better because someone appeared to care about them.”
“You interest me. leather jacket.”
“You interest me, open window.”
Open Window looked at my left hand — no ring.
“Can I buy you lunch?” she said.
“Lunch with a liberated woman. Very Jane Tennison.”
“Don’t tell me you have never watched Prime Suspect? I can see that I’ll have to take your education in hand. By the way, there isn’t a ‘Mr Tennison’ floating around, is there? I don’t want to get thumped by some hulking constable who believes he has branded you.”
“There are no brands on me sunshine.”
“I look forward to proving that statement,” I said, and she didn’t slap my face.
I took that as an encouraging sign.
There are people in this world who can identify dust by its aroma.
Book dust is widely considered to be the most aromatic and most likely to evoke memories.
I mention dust because the house we rented has lots of it.
If the building had been hermetically sealed before we got there I would have wondered how the dust got in, but it wasn’t, and it did. Get in that is.
The house is about as sealed as a sieve.
Don’t think I’m worried about it because I’m not. I’ve never been prissy about such things.
I like the bare floorboards (they’d polish up nicely — hardwood with an attractive grain), and I love old furniture (the house came furnished). The furniture is functional, but not at all stylish — not now nor when it was new, but that’s okay too.
It has an open fireplace and thin pointless curtains which don’t block out the light or give any kind of privacy during the evening hours.
Some bright spark said that dust is mostly made up of discarded human skin particles, but I know this is bollocks. I’ve explored buildings where no human being has ventured for many years, and the place was still full of dust — neatly settled on every available surface.
Renting the house happened on a whim.
We needed to get away for a while. Someone suggested this country town because of the river and the pine trees and the old general store which doubles as a cafe during the day and a bar at night.
The quietness is deafening.
I need quiet if I’m going to finish this book, but I worried about Rebecca. Would she be bored? She said not, so I had to believe her.
“I’ve got my sewing and my books, and it looks like a great place to go for long walks. I can cook and write and play with Billy (our small dog). That is if he can drag himself away from you. He really is the perfect writer’s dog,” said Rebecca, and I had to agree. “You finish your book, and we will look back on this time as being special.”
Billy, the dog, wandered into my life a couple of years ago when I was sitting at the garden table — I’d left the back gate open, and he took it as an invitation. He curled up next to me and went to sleep. It turned out that he belonged to the Mitchell family from Bent Street, about half a kilometre away. They had six children all under ten years old, and the little dog was exhausted from the morning’s chaos, so he came to my house to get a bit of peace.
Once I worked out where he was from, I left the gate open for him each morning.
When the Mitchells split up, Mrs Mitchell asked if I’d like to have Billy, “I’m taking the kids to my family in Queensland, and I don’t think Billy will enjoy the heat.”
I said yes, I would like to keep Billy and he’s been with me ever since.
Acquiring Rebecca was another matter entirely. Billy had a bit to do with it.
Rebecca worked for the local pet groomer, and I bought Billy’s dog food from them. Billy’s not the kind of dog who needs a lot of grooming, but he is small and white (except for the black bits), and he has a disarming smile.
Rebecca offered to trim his nails, which needed it even though he wore them down while walking with me every day.
I checked with Billy, and he seemed okay with the idea, so I handed him over. After that, he veered violently into the dog groomers every time we walked by. Rebecca would see us and come out from the back of the shop and pet Billy, who squirmed up against her loving touch. I wondered how Rebecca’s boss felt about these frequent trips, but I guess she was happy to put up with us because of all the expensive dog food that Billy consumed.
I’d been living on credit in the house my aunty bequeathed to me, and things were getting a bit grim when I sold the film rights to my first book. That gained me a bit of attention, and my publisher (I use the term loosely — about as helpful as tits on a bull) decided to reissue my first three books and actually put a bit of money into promoting them.
I paid off my debts with the proceeds of the film deal and suggested that Rebecca might want to join Billy and me in a spot of celebration.
Fortunately, she said yes, and the rest you can probably guess.
My publisher set a deadline for my latest literary effort. Rebecca is happy being my muse, Billy is happy to have Rebecca living with us and I’m just flat out happy.
This dusty little house is going to be our residence for a few months, and while we are here, we will make it our home.
It’s getting a bit chilly, so I’d better light the fire.
Billy loves it when I light the fire.
It has to be said that the dog in question was way brighter than I was.
If she fancies another dog she simply ‘shakes a tail feather’ and it’s on.
Sadly, I’m not a dog.
It’s trickier if you are human.
I’d been trying to find an original way to strike up a conversation.
I couldn’t come up with anything original, so I reverted to a classic — walk a cute dog and females will at least smile at you, probably strike up a conversation. Dogs make men seem less likely to, well, I don’t know, do whatever it is that females don’t like. I’m woefully ignorant of such things.
So, the plan was hatched with only one glitch — I didn’t currently own a dog.
Used to — when I was young, but my apartment building didn’t allow dogs — must do something about that one day when I get the time.
Fortunately, my third best friend, William, had a beautiful standard poodle — black of fur with a cheeky smile and fun in its heart. Her name is Gladys, and she commands and demands attention — just what I needed.
Gladys likes me, which came in handy. I think she understands me, which is more than I do.
I remember the year, 1952, but not the exact day. You know how it is, you plan a campaign, but you have no clear idea of when success might come and when it does, you are so deliriously happy you forget to write down the date because you think this wonderfulness will go on forever — the folly of youth.
Then you are less young, and you wish you had stopped and written down every delicious moment.
I’d staked out what I thought was the perfect spot, just in front of the iron fence that had surrounded the small park for more than a century.
I tried to look casual — maybe I was preparing to light a cigarette, or I was writing a poem in my head. Perhaps I was just lost in thought. It didn’t matter unless someone asked me why I was lingering on this spot. No one asked.
“What a beautiful dog,” she said. I was so busy looking casual, I’d missed her approach.
She was immaculately dressed, perfect accessories. Her scarf was a few shades lighter than her outfit. Her curves were exquisite, and her gold earrings were bold. I wondered how she managed to keep her beret in place — another one of those secrets that females pass down through the generations. I didn’t ask, and I don’t want to know — some things should remain secret.
“Yes, she is,” I said, but you put her to shame, was what I was thinking, but I thought it better to say less at this stage.
“How old is she?” asked the vision in maroon.
“I have no idea. She doesn’t belong to me. I’m walking her for a friend, he’s not well.”
I figured that this gave me essential points — a man who is thoughtful and considerate of his friends. It had to provide me with an edge.
“Nothing serious, I hope?” she said. She wasn’t looking at me, she was patting Gladys, who was enjoying the attention while trying to look aloof.
I was handsomely dressed — she was fierce company, so I had to create the impression that I was in her league. Impression only — not actually close to her league, but my father always said that I should play against superior players and drag myself up to their level.
I mentioned a cafe nearby that had outside tables, and wasn’t it a beautiful day, and hadn’t Gladys taken to you — if you don’t have anywhere else to be?
She hesitated before saying she had a few minutes before having to be somewhere, she always left early for appointments.
Gladys stepped up just when she was needed by looking directly at the vision in maroon with a complimenting scarf and matching gloves.
I tipped my hat, and we walked with Gladys between us.
She was late for her meeting, and I was in a daze which lasted for the rest of my life.
Some days are better than others, and planning and preparation are never wasted.
Oh, yes, and it pays to have a dog.
“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?”
I hadn’t noticed her stall at the craft market before.
She was not the kind of person who is easily forgotten.
There was a possibility of rain, but her market stall was uncovered — lacking the portable ‘gazebo’ covering that most of the stalls seem to have.
Shiny black medium length hair, and a long black skirt with an off-white blouse.
Embroidery was the theme, with her clothes and the white table cloth that covered her display bench all showing touches of colour applied by an experienced artist.
She spoke softly, which made you lean in to hear what she was saying. A slight eastern European accent completed the picture.
It sounds unkind, but she wasn’t beautiful or even pretty, but you forgot all the frivolous assessments as soon as she spoke.
When I sailed by in my usual ‘craft market mood’, three people were standing in front of her stand, making it difficult to see what she was selling. I did a quick scan for signage or a banner only to be disappointed.
“You may want to sit down,” were the first words I heard her say, “it may come over you immediately, or it may take a minute or two. Every person feels it differently.”
‘Feels what differently?’ I thought out loud — I do that, talk to myself in crowds. It rarely gets me more than a quizzical glance.
I’d separated myself from the rest of my family. Playing the doting grandfather wears a bit thin after a while, so a modicum of solo wandering is liberating. I could see them through the throng, waiting for food. My daughter-in-law is bouncing the youngest on her hip. Mothers develop hips where no hips were before, have you noticed that? Females are amazing. They accept their roles and dive right in. I’m sure they are just as pissed off as males, but generally, they seem to get on with it. I admire that, and I wonder how they do it, or are they just better at hiding their despair from the rest of us?
An old wooden, curved back, early Australian chair sat dangerously close to encroaching on the sacred space in front of the adjoining stall and a late thirties female was gingerly making herself seated. The old chair was rock solid, and the young woman seemed to sink into it, head back eyes closed, arms draped at her side. For a moment I was worried she might topple off the chair onto the hard old school ground surface. My kids played on this old blacktop many years ago, and they came home bloodied and bruised on most days — an unforgiving surface.
I saw her friend take a step towards her as she finally settled.
“It’s amazing. I’m flying. There’s heaps of blue and clouds and birds, and I can feel the wind on my face,” she said, and I wondered if she had been a ventriloquist in a previous life.
“She loves clouds and birds,” said her friend.
“And flying?” said the older lady next to her.
“She used to flap her arms a lot when we were kids, but she never actually took off. Not that I know of.”
“It not matter,” said the lady with the black wavy hair and the gentle voice. “In her mind, she is flying. It as real as if she were bird.”
“She’s driving me home,” said her friend. “How long does this last?”
“It varies. About an hour.” She turned her gaze to the amazed customers, all looking at the flying thirty-something ventriloquist.
“You must not partake and drive, or operate heavy machinery, or sign anything, sex okay though, even encouraged,” said the stallholder with the delicate embroidery.
“Is this stuff even legal?” said a skinny male with a tightly cropped beard and hand-knitted beany.
“My family has been making IMAGINE since before time. It has nothing to do with law. It has to do with what your heart wants. Would you ask lady who makes the jams if it is legal?”
She slowly raised an arm showing old bones and tight muscles and pointed at the large lady in the red and white gingham apron who looked across and smiled at us. She held up a jar and said, “Apricot. Only a few jars left.”
“Her jams are delicious, but no one asks her if they legal. Is happiness legal?” she whispered. The wind caught her hair, and it moved back from her face revealing cheekbones and a gentle mouth. Her eyes weren’t on any of us, but off in the distance.
“Buy, don’t buy. Is your choice.”
A little boy ran into the back of my leg, and when I winced and looked down, he said, “Do you like my dog, mister?”
I looked at the kid and the dog. The dog looked at me with pleading eyes.
“Yeah, cool dog,” I said.
“You want to buy him?”
“How much?” I heard the words spill out of my mouth before my mind engaged.
“Ten bucks and packet of Juicy Fruits,” said the small boy.
The dog seemed to think it was a good deal. The dog had been on this planet for several years so he would know a good deal when he heard it, I guess.
“Wouldn’t your parents object if you sold your dog.”
“Nah. They wouldn’t care,” said the small boy who sensed that I was not an easy mark.
“See ya,” he said and turned to leave. The dog held my gaze as the boy dragged him away.
I turned back to the quiet drama that was still unfolding at the market stall run by the gently spoken lady.
Some of the crowd were now surrounding the young woman in the kangaroo backed chair. They were listening as she narrated her adventures — something about perching on a mountain range with snow all around.
I took the opportunity to peruse the merchandise.
The table was partially covered in tiny clear glass jars about the circumference of a fifty-cent piece. She had arranged them into one small pyramid. The tops of the jars were golden and unbranded. There wasn’t any branding anywhere on the stand, just gold-topped glass jars.
One jar was open and sitting on the table in front of the stallholder. Next to it was an empty jar full of toothpicks.
“How long have I been gone?” asked the lady in the chair. She was attempting to sit upright, straightening her skirt.
“About ten minutes,” said her friend who put her hand on the young woman’s shoulder for reassurance.
“It felt like hours,” said the young woman. “I know what I have to do now.”
She reached in her handbag, pulled out her purse and produced a handful of cash.
“How much for a jar?” she said, looking at the dark-haired stallholder.
“I’ll take two jars please,” said the woman snatching two jars and putting them in her bag. “Can I have your card, please?”
“Olga doesn’t have card. But be back again soon.”
The young woman seemed dazed for a moment.
“Don’t bother smear it on; doesn’t make it last longer. Do just as I showed you.”
The woman and her friend disappeared into the crowd, and the young lady who had been flying only minutes ago seemed determined to get somewhere.
“Don’t let her drive,” the old woman said as they rushed away, “give her vodka and potato soup, then she can drive.”
The others in our group pushed money at the lady, and she gave them each a gold-topped jar.
“You want wrapped?”
“No. Thank you, I’ll just pop it into my bag,” said a slender woman with grey-blond hair.
“Good luck, and don’t worry. He’ll be okay.”
The slender woman stared at her before melding into the crowd of craft market shoppers.
The young bearded man who was concerned with legality held out a fifty-dollar note, and the stallholder placed a jar in his upturned palm. She looked him square in the eye. “You know what happiness looks like, and it knows you.”
The young man closed his fingers around the jar, bumped into a lady with a pram before heading off in the direction of the windchime stall.
“Would you like to try IMAGINE?”
I stared at the chair before looking to see if my extended family were still in sight. The little bloke on the hip was stuffing a hot dog in his mouth — little kids always get fed first.
“Yes,” I said, “what do I have to do?”
The woman delicately chose the right toothpick from amongst a jar of identical toothpicks and dipped it into the pale green mixture. The breeze wafted a scent of menthol.
“What adheres to tip of toothpick is enough. Any more and it a waste.”
She awkwardly handed me the toothpick. My large old fingers were reacting to the cold afternoon air, and I was momentarily afraid I would drop the pick.
Thumb and forefinger did their job as they have for more than seventy years, and I rolled the toothpick applying the sticky substance to the back of my hand and rubbed it in with my little finger.
After putting the pick down, I sat on the chair, but not before rubbing my fingers across the pressed pattern on the back. In my youth, I had restored chairs just like this one. Sitting on it felt like coming home.
I fully expected the school ground to be empty of stalls and people with only the occasional paper wrapper blowing in the wind. But, instead, it was as it had been when I sat down.
I didn’t go flying, there weren’t any clouds or birds and no snow-covered mountains, but I knew I had to find that kid and the dog. Nothing else was more important.
I handed her money, and she gave me a jar from the pyramid.
“Your destiny is not yet written. It has soft edges,” she said.
I wondered what the ‘soft edges’ meant, but I let it go.
The smell of menthol was in my nostrils as I picked my way through the crowd.
It took a while, but I found my sprawling family near a pottery stall. The little one had smeared tomato sauce across my daughter in law’s shoulder, but she didn’t seem to mind. Mothers blow me away.
“Where did you get the dog grandad?”
I’ve always hated being called grandad, but this was not the time for an argument.
I looked down at the straggly dog with the golden eyes, and he looked up at me.
His lead was a length of stout string that was biting into my hand.
The dog stood patiently by my side, sniffing the air for any interesting smells.
“It’s a long story,” I said. “Do we have any toothpicks at home luv?” I said to my wife. She looked at me in that way she does and said, “I think so.”
The dog licked my hand, and we all disappeared into the crowd.
It was my mother’s idea.
Mum was never short on ideas, bless her soul.
Somehow, she had found out that no one in our family had ever had their portrait painted, which didn’t surprise me. In our world, only rich people had the spare change to pay for a portrait painter. We had more significant problems, like food and electricity and dog biscuits if it came to that.
Which brings me to Eric. Eric the dog.
He doesn’t like to miss out on stuff.
Mum suggested that my new business venture, supplying rich people with household staff who could also play a musical instrument (more of this a bit later), could use a boost. “Imagine the impact on your prospective client when they come into your office and see a portrait of you, done in oils.”
The idea appealed to me. Despite my left wing leanings on most subjects, I’ve always liked the trappings of wealth and privilege.
Eric, on the other hand, just likes being where I am, doing what I’m doing.
So, when it came time to travel to the city for my first sitting, Eric wanted to go as well. He had no idea where we were going or that it involved a trip on the number 12 tram and even if I had explained to him that he would probably have to sit quietly in some outer office for more than an hour, he would still have liked to come — that’s Eric. He does not want to miss out.
“I like your dog,” said a delightful creature in a chiffon dress.
“And I’m pretty sure he likes you too,” I said facetiously.
“How can you tell?” said the delightful creature, who was in danger of catching cold, as my mother would have said.
For a moment, I thought she was kidding, but it turned out that she had left what remained of her intelligence in her other purse.
I have to say that I took advantage of the situation and we were going to be getting off the tram presently.
“I know, he speaks quite softly. I’ll get him to say it again, only a bit louder,” I said.
“I saw his lips move, but I didn’t hear anything. What did he say?” said the scantily clad creature.
“He phrased it differently, but the sentiment was the same. Oh, and he added a bit.”
“Yes. He reiterated his liking for you and suggested that if you were a dog, he would suggest a mating session — doggy style, of course.”
The beautiful creature blushed and stroked Eric on the head.
I love being out with Eric.
The artist studio was in an apartment on Little Collins Street, a costly part of town. Based on his fee, I could see how he was able to afford this address.
I expected his secretary — (yes he had a secretary, and I wondered what she did all day), to ask me to leave Eric with her.
I wondered what they would talk about.
As it turned out, the artist squealed like a little girl when he saw Eric.
“The dog is, how shall I put it, perfect!”
So that was that. Eric is now part of the company, and it has to be said that he gets more attention than I do, especially since we started using the portrait in our advertising campaign.
Eric has his own section on our website, and we share a secretary so that he has his fan mail answered.
You are probably still wondering about the ‘could also play a musical instrument’ bit.
Well, the idea has been around for a while, and it all started with an old interview with a famous Scandinavian film director who has his own production company. In a throwaway line, he said that he would not employ a lawyer who did not play a musical instrument. Considering how many lawyers a film production company would need, the interviewer tried to pursue the point. No one has ever been able to find out if the director was just outrageous for the sake of it or if he was serious. For our purpose, it does not matter, because the press picked up on it again many years later, and so did the people who like to design personality tests. The best selling book, “And Can You Play A Musical Instrument?”, established the idea in people’s heads and you know what happens when people get an idea into their heads — it stays there, and no amount of logic will shift it.
So, God help any domestic servant who is looking for employment without the ability to at least pound out ‘Chopsticks’ on a piano.
Sitting for a portrait is not as much fun as you might think. My neck got a crick in it, and my arm ached from hanging on to Eric. Eric wasn’t any too pleased either. He wasn’t having it, so I had to hang on to a cushion for most of the session.
I was happy when it was done, and I loved how the painting came out, and as with childbirth, I forgot about the pain.
There is talk of doing another one every five years so that we will end up with a bunch of them showing the permanency of the business, but I’m sure I can think up an excuse to not be available for the next one, and Eric agrees.
Image: Aaron Westerberg
A chance encounter on a country road and Rufus’ skills are put to the test. Rufus is wiser than his diminutive stature might suggest. Wisdom and size do not always correlate.