“Now, he’s going to ask for a volunteer from the audience,” said my grandfather.
He’d been explaining how the magic tricks were achieved all through the performance, and it was annoying me — not that I would tell him so.
I was eight years old and had travelled up from Melbourne to spend the holidays in Bendigo with my grandparents.
The magic show was a special treat.
“It helps that we are a big country town,” said my grandfather. “Most of the overseas acts don’t visit the smaller towns.”
The Magician, resplendent in his mysterious robes, moved to the edge of the stage, so much so that I thought he might fall off. He didn’t, but he did point his ‘magic wand’ in my direction.
“I vant you,” he said in an eastern European accent — my grandfather thought it was Bulgarian with just a hint of Lithuanian.
There were several pleading hands waiving, including mine.
Pick me, pick me, I was thinking.
“Not you leetle boy, the young lady sitting next to you.”
My grandmother blushed.
With much encouragement from the audience and my grandfather, my grandmother moved up onto the stage.
The Magician met her at the stairs and guided her to the middle of the stage.
The scantily clad young woman who had been acting as the Magician’s assistant, took my grandmother by the hand and as the stagehands wheeled out a person-sized box, she opened the box to show us it was empty.
“He’ll use mirrors for this trick,” said my grandfather.
The crowd was still applauding as my grandmother stepped into the box. She smiled as he closed the door.
The door divided in two. The Magician opened the top half, and we could see my smiling grandmother.
The Magician closed the door — the stagehands lifted the top half of my grandmother and put her on the stage. The door opened, and there she was, top half-smiling away, bottom half kicking her feet.
The audience applauded.
“Mirrors,” said my grandfather and I wished he would shut up. I wanted to enjoy the magic unfettered.
The stagehands wheeled away the bottom half of my grandmother and the Magician closed the door on the top half.
The top half of my grandmother was then split in two, and Magician put the top half on the floor, opened the door, and the head of my grandmother smiled at us all.
The audience applauded.
“She would have gone through a trapdoor and popped up through a different trapdoor,” said my grandfather.
Please shut up!
The Magician threw his cloak over the box containing my grandmother’s head as the stagehands removed the rest of her.
He said some magic words in an eastern European accent, taped the box with his magic wand, removed the cape and opened the tiny door.
My grandmother was gone.
The audience applauded.
The Magician thanked the audience with a flourish of his cloak, the audience applauded, and the curtain closed.
People began to gather themselves and leave the grand old concert hall.
“Your grandmother will come out soon, and she will be able to tell us how the trick was done,” said my grandfather.
Most of the people had left the hall when I decided to go and see what was keeping my grandmother.
I climbed the same steps she had and pushed past the heavy curtain. I could see the Magician and a bunch of workmen packing things into cane baskets.
I asked the Magician where my grandmother was, and he said that he didn’t speak very good English and that he had to catch the train to Sydney in half an hour. He held my head in his hands and kissed me on the forehead.
“You good boy,” he said in an Eastern European accent, probably Bulgarian with a bit of Lithuanian thrown in.
I went back to my seat, sat next to my grandfather, who was sure that his wife was ‘coming along soon’.
An old man came and told us that we would have to leave because they were closing up.
When we got home, my grandfather made me a toasted cheese sandwich, “It’s your grandmother’s favourite,” he said.
Two days passed, and my grandmother did not appear.
“No need to tell your mum and dad about all this,” said my grandfather as I packed my bag.
My holidays were over, and I had to ride the train back to Melbourne.
I settled in my seat, near the window. My grandfather stood alone on the platform. He held up one hand as the train began to move. He didn’t wave.
I held up my hand and pressed it to the glass.
The carriage lurched, and I was heading home.
My holidays were over, and I had a secret.
Illustration credit: Angela Barrett
Neighbourhood Of Widower Dogs: Chapter Two
“Not what I expected,” I said.
“What were you expecting? Table cloths, silver service?” she said.
“A table would have been nice,” I said.
“We only get forty-five minutes for lunch, and it only took us,” she looked at her watch, “ten minutes to walk here.”
During the night and on weekends, Habib’s Kitchen opened on the forecourt of the Shell service station some ten minutes walk from what used to be Coburg Teacher’s College, back in the day. These days, the predictable buildings have been repurposed to become a high school and then the privately owned, Baker Institute. Business is not thriving, hence the eagerness of Victoria Police to rent the inexpensive venue. Who gave a fuck about the comfort of the participants? Not the brass, that’s for sure.
“The chairs are comfy,” said my host, who had ordered our lunchtime feast.
Most customers get back into their cars and drive away, but as a concession to midnight dinners with a ‘skin full,’ the proprietor has provided six white plastic garden chairs — easy to hose down in the morning before going home to bed.
“Have you had a stint in ‘Traffic’?” I asked.
“Of course. Everyone does ‘Traffic’ when they start out.”
“Ever been to the impound yard?”
“Once or twice.”
“Ever get lost in that place?”
“Almost,” she admitted honestly. “Why do you ask?”
“It’s these chairs — triggered a memory.”
I took a bite of my ‘extra sauce’ special while she delicately tried to eat her ‘no chilly’ with poise.
“We have time. Tell me your story.”
I love talking with other cops. The general public gets bored quickly, and I think that what we do freaks them out — they’d rather not know how the sausage is made.
“Ever heard of Backdoor Barry?”
“No, and I don’t like lurid sex stories,” she said.
“Don’t let his name put you off. It’s nothing like you are imagining. One day I’ll tell you how he got his nickname.”
“One day?” she said, with the lift of an eyebrow. “Do you think this relationship has a life beyond lunch?”
I ignored the minefield that had been laid before me.
“Moving right along,” I said. She smiled and took another bite. A small bead of sauce oozed from the corner of her mouth, and her tongue retrieved it. I tried not to think about her tongue — I get distracted easily.
“It’s going back a few years,” I tried not to sound too much older than her, “there was a woman who did a bit of work for the bloke you haven’t heard of — I can’t believe you don’t know Backdoor Barry!”
“Get on with it, we don’t want to be late for HAVING A POSITIVE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE CORONER WHEN WE THINK HE MIGHT BE HIDING VITAL EVIDENCE.”
“Are you sure that’s what the lecture’s called?” I said, and she gave me a look.
“Anyway, there was this woman, we’ll call her Susan.”
“Cause that was her name?”
“Right. So she got car-jacked at the Rising Sun Hotel, which is where Backdoor Barry hangs out. The carjacker takes off in her car and gets totalled by a taxi as he exits the carpark. Mayhem ensues. Some important items are in Susan’s car, but she cannot get close enough to retrieve them.”
“People come from everywhere when there’s a car accident,” said Open Window with a touch of glee. She was starting to get into it.
“Our colleagues arrive along with an ambulance and the Towies. The whole nine yards. Being a resourceful person, Susan hatches a plan. After borrowing a car from Barry, she parks it in front of the local fire station, blocking the doors. She sat across the street at an all-night burger truck. They had white plastic chairs as well.”
“What was she waiting for and why park the car there?”
“All will be revealed. Patience, my girl.” She leaned forward, and for a moment, I thought I was going to get punched.
“So, there she is, eating a burger and waiting for the Fireies to notice her poor choice of a parking spot. A quiet night meant she had to sit on the hard plastic chairs for hours. Eventually, they noticed and called us. We arranged to have the car towed out of the way.”
“To the impound yard?”
“Yep. So Susan gets a taxi to the yard and fronts up to collect her car. I remember the clerk’s exact words — ‘I know your car is red lady, but that don’t excuse you parking in front of a fire station.’ She apologies, pays the fine, collects her car and drives it back to The Rising Sun Hotel where she lets the barman, Boris, out of the boot. While the red car was in impound, Boris had climbed out of the boot, retrieved Susan’s suitcase from the damaged vehicle and climbed back into the boot of the red car along with the suitcase.”
“A tight fit, I would imagine? So how did you find all this out? Did it come out at the trial?”
“Never was a trial. The carjacker died in the crash. After a lot of paperwork — case closed.”
“So how do you know all this?”
“That’s the stuff they don’t teach you in these courses. Getting to know people, dodgy people. Having them owe you. That’s where the information comes from. I got Barry drunk one day, and he told me this story so that he didn’t have to answer my real questions.”
“Did I mention, you interest me Leather Jacket?”
“No, but I guessed, and it’s Catastrophe Jones to you, Ms Carter.”
“I’ll try and remember.”
The old man waited; every winter solstice.
Pawprints in the snow — two sets.
The old prince had been married to the queen for more years than he could remember. They were happy enough, but the demands of office weighed heavily on them both.
None of us knows when our father will leave this life.
When the old king died, she ascended to the throne, the new queen was very young.
She took to her role bravely, and the young prince stood by her side.
There were fewer duties to perform in the winter months. They retreated to their favourite country estate — hundreds of years old. Large rooms — a stone fireplace in each one. Small dogs scurried from place to place, looking for attention, the older dogs wisely curled up before the fire.
One clear grey day, all the dogs ran to the French doors and barked a warning, clawing at the glass. Security at the castle was tight, but occasionally there were incidents. “Didn’t want to concern you, your highness. We caught him once he scaled the fence. Just a young bloke on a dare. Won’t do that again, I promise you.” A bedraggled young man between two large soldiers staggered past the window and into a waiting unmarked van. He looked sore and sorry, his long hair a tangled mess. His pitiful expression lingered long after the van pulled away.
The dogs were becoming more frantic, and the prince expected to see a soldier running through the snow, but no one came. Only the dogs could hear the sound of something desperately trying to free itself.
“Come away from the door.” The dogs obeyed, sitting a few feet back and waiting for instructions. “Wait there. I’ll call you if I need you.”
The French doors stayed open as the prince walked out onto the paved patio in his house slippers. The fabric absorbed the water from the snow, and it chilled his feet.
Determined to see what was going on across the lawn, he continued with numb toes.
As he reached the outer edge of the lawn, he heard it.
The fox looked at him with the same look he had seen on enemy soldiers as he and his comrades spilled into their trench.
The fox was trapped by its hind leg.
The prince removed his dressing gown and threw it over the fox’s head. The animal lay still.
Opening the trap was easy enough. The leg didn’t seem to be broken, but there was a lot of blood. The fox winced as the prince touched the damaged appendage.
With the dressing gown still in place, the prince picked up the fox and walked back across the lawn — his footprints the only break in the soft powder snow. He filled his own steps as he had done as a soldier. The memory made him sad.
Once back inside, the disciplined dogs could no longer contain themselves. They knew the scent of a dangerous intruder. They flocked around the prince as he walked through the house, down the corridor to the stairs leading to the servant’s quarters.
“Do you have somewhere I can deal with this?” asked the prince.
The cook looked at him with wide eyes.
“Are you going to kill it, your majesty?”
“No,” said the prince. He had a mellifluous voice, and she loved to hear him speak. His gentle tone told her that he meant what he said.
“I want to dress its wound before I let it go.”
“It probably won’t help, your majesty. It’ll get infected as soon as it walks through the mud,” said the cook. “I dressed a lot of wounds in the war.”
“I didn’t know that. Why didn’t I know that?”
“I nursed your brother,” she said, eyes down.
“God bless you for that,” said the prince.
In silence, they cleaned and dressed the fox’s wound.
The prince smiled at the cook — comrades in arms.
With the fox still wrapped up in his gown, the prince walked back through the house escorted by his pack of dogs.
“Wait here,” he said. “I’ll call out for you if I need help.”
The dogs sat at the open door.
Across the lawn once more to the bushes.
The prince put the fox down.
“Try not to chew off your bandage and stay out of the mud, if you can. Good luck — you’re going to need it.”
A year later, the prince’s dogs ran to the doors and gave the alarm.
At the edge of the snow-covered lawn stood an older fox and a younger male fox.
They stood in the snow until the prince appeared.
They stared at each other for the longest time.
When the foxes turned and walked back through the bushes, the prince turned to his obedient dogs.
“I think that’s our fox and possibly, that was his son.”
The prince walked across the house and down to the kitchen. The cook stopped what she was doing.
“I think I just saw the fox we saved last year and his cub. The dogs will back me up, they saw it too.”
The cook wanted to laugh, but she held it in.
“We did it cook. You and me, and now he came to visit.”
“I hope they stay away from our chickens.”
“Yes, there is that,” said the prince.
The prince smiled awkwardly and went back upstairs.
The following year, the scene repeated itself, but the year after that something had changed.
The older fox was not there. The damaged leg made him easy to recognise.
And yet, there was an older male fox and a younger male. They waited at the edge of the lawn, illuminated by the pure white snow.
Again the ritual played out.
An extended period of locking eyes followed by the departure.
Every four or five years, the older fox would be a former youngster. As each elder fox met its fate, a descendant would take its place and the ritual would continue.
A tear would form in the ageing prince’s eye as he realised the passing of a senior fox.
The queen and the prince reigned for many decades, and as extreme old age was upon them, the weather patterns had altered to such a degree that the snow season came later and later.
The foxes arrived later in the season.
This year, the snow came even later.
The prince and the queen had returned to their duties, and no one was there to see the fox and his cub arrive at the edge of the snow-covered lawn.
They waited for the longest time, longer than was safe.
The first in a long line to not be able to express their gratitude, they turned and walked back through the bushes.
The artist: https://www.deviantart.com/sven-werren/art/Red-Fox-or-Firefox-394725272