The Portrait

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My inheritance arrived on the back of a medium-sized truck driven by a bloke with a missing tooth. I thought about asking him how he lost the tooth, but I got distracted by the three boxes he effortlessly unloaded.

“Where do ya want ‘em, lady,” said the tooth deprived deliverer of wonders.

“On the front verandah, please.”

My plan was to unload and sort into piles – keep, donate, chuck in the bin.

In retrospect, my plan was a bit mercenary. A bit callous, even.

I expected my inheritance to be mostly junk.

The young can be unthinking.

Uncle David was my second favourite uncle, and he always called me ‘Spot’ and I don’t know why. I didn’t mind at the time. He seemed harmless enough, and I barely paid him any attention. He smelled like cigarettes, which was better smelling than most of my relatives. Altogether, I had seven uncles and three aunties all with partners (who assumed the moniker of aunt or uncle as well). I was swimming in adult relatives, and my cousins were numerous as well. I only associated with the cousins that were my age and that thinned things out a bit. All my relatives loved to talk and tease.

Uncle David was the exception.

“It’s all a bit much when we get together,” he said to me one day when I found him hiding on the front verandah of my grandmother’s house. We could hear the continuous dim of relatives conversing and children playing in the rooms behind us, all trying to outdo each other.

“Does my head in,” was my reply.

Looking back, in a maelstrom of competing personalities, Uncle David got lost in all the noise.

When he died, I went to the funeral, at least in part because it got me out of school for the day. I was sad that he was gone so suddenly and I wished we had talked more, but then it was too late.

As I surveyed the boxes now sitting on the verandah of the house my father rented for two of my friends and me, I’m wondering why my uncle left me these things and why had it taken more than a year for them to arrive.

I searched the boxes and sifted them into piles, but I searched in vain for a reason.

No note, no letter of explanation, which was reasonable considering his rapid departure — and yet he had left a will highlighting the things that went to me.

As far as I know, I’m the only cousin who received anything — the rest of his possessions went to his immediate family.

The ‘keep’ pile was tiny — an ancient Swiss Army Knife (I’ve always wanted one of those — how did he know?), a silver teapot which I will use for its intended purpose and a portrait wrapped in a dusty canvas.

When I removed its tattered covering, I found an intriguing  portrait of a woman — probably a self-portrait of the artist.

The painting was out of character with the other boxed possessions. It seemed to demand attention.

On the back of the canvas, a few words in pencil named the artist and dated its creation.

The painting was as bright as the day it was painted and the frame was in perfect condition. This painting had not seen the daylight since the time it was created.

Did my uncle know the artist in a biblical sense? Was my aunty aware of this mysterious woman? Was this a sign that Uncle David believed I would understand his secret? Were the rest of these bits and pieces a smokescreen to hide the significance of the painting?

I wonder if the artist is still alive and I will find out, but that is an adventure for another time.

For now, I need to find just the right place to hang this portrait.

When it is up, I’ll make myself a cup of tea, and sit and ponder on the mystery and the uncle who I should have paid more attention to.

Sleep well uncle David and thank you for noticing me.

Crystal Clock

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Sam opened the hotel room door to see a rather large gentleman standing in the hall.

The big bloke mumbled something, and Sam was about to ask him to repeat it when he took a swing at Sam.
A roundhouse right which was an inappropriate punch under the circumstances.
Sam moved back slightly, and the punch landed on the door frame. The large gentleman hesitated for a moment, but the pain in his hand didn’t seem to worry him.
He mumbled something again, and this time Sam recognised the words, ‘Sam Bennett’.
Sam decided to hit the large gentleman as it seemed like the right thing to do under the circumstances.
He hit the large gentleman several times, but it didn’t have much effect.
Sam hit him in the mouth a couple of more times, but this only made it harder to understand what the large gentleman was trying to say.
Before Sam hit him again, he discerned the words ‘stay away from.’ ‘Stay away from ………. Sam Bennett?’
That didn’t make any sense.

It was at this point that Scarlett intervened.
Her first blow struck Sam on the shoulder, and it hurt quite a lot.
Sam wondered if Scarlett had found a hammer somewhere in the suite and he hoped that her aim would improve quickly because he was not sure how many of these mistimed hammer blows he could take.
Scarlett’s hammer was, in fact, a lovely little crystal travelling clock that her grandmother had given her when she started her nursing training, it even had an inscription, ‘To Scarlett on the commencement of your nursing journey.’ There was a date and a ‘love grandma.’
Scarlett’s mistimed blow momentarily distracted Sam and gave the large gentleman a chance to catch his breath. He was definitely mumbling through broken teeth, but Sam clearly heard, “Stay away from the Leveson case, or it’ll be too bad for you, Sam Bennett.”
Sam was just about to be pleased with finally deciphering the message when Scarlett regained her aim.
The reliable little crystal travelling clock came into violent contact with the large gentleman’s skull and after a moment of silence, the fight came to an end.
The large gentleman lay motionless on the rug, but there was a disturbing groan.
This soon stopped.
He wasn’t dead as it turned out, but he wasn’t going to be conscious for a long while either.
Scarlett stood looking at the crumpled man lying on her rug.
She wondered if her little crystal clock would need repairing.
She also wondered if this was a taste of the life that Sam had lived before he married her.
The blood that dripped off the clock and onto her shoes only added to her wondering.
Sam stared at Scarlett.
She was standing there, holding her weapon of choice, blood slowly dripping.
She looked beautiful and a little stunned.
Nurses tend to repair wounds rather than create them.
His Scarlett was a woman to be reckoned with.
He was very proud of her for coming to his rescue.
He had been doing quite well in the tussle, but he was not too proud to accept help when it was needed, but he did hope that her aim would improve should another occasion arise.
His shoulder, face and knuckles hurt a lot, but the rush that arrives at the end of a successful bout would keep him going for a while.
The apartment had sustained a deal of damage as the two men fought and there were bits and pieces of some expensive furniture strewn about the floor.
Housekeeping was not going to be happy.
Scarlett came out of her temporary trance and Sam smiled at her.
“Good job, slugger, you saved my bacon.”
“My pleasure, but I think I broke my clock. Did I kill him?”
Sam checked. “No, but he is going to need an aspirin.”
“Do we know him?”
“No, I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure that he was sent to deliver a message.”
“I didn’t see any papers.”
“It wasn’t that kind of delivery. It was the kind where you definitely remember the words because they are pounded into your skull. It seems that someone doesn’t want me on the Leveson case. I do wish I could convince everyone that I don’t want to be on the Leveson case.”
“You know about these things, Sam, what are we going to do now?”
“First, we call the cops and get them to take this character away. Then we spend a lot of time answering annoying questions. Then we talk to Inspector Blank because I think I know where he should be looking.

A long hot bath would be nice, then I think we need to get out of this bomb site, and maybe a move to another room would be a good idea.”

~oOo~

The hotel was efficient and discreet.
They had Sam and Scarlett in a new suite within a matter of minutes. Sam soaked in the bath and took note of where the bruises would be by tomorrow morning.
Spending time with the detective who had been dispatched to take their statement had given Sam a headache.
It was painful watching him laboriously writing in his notebook.
Sam closed his eyes and slowly slipped under the water.
It felt good, and he could hold his breath for a long time, but eventually, he would have to surface.
His mind was racing.
He didn’t want to be involved in this case, but it seemed that it didn’t make any difference what he wanted, he was in it.
Some of his best ideas had come to him while soaking in a hot bath.
It was true that his injuries were a distraction, but nevertheless, the ideas started to flow.
By the time he was dry and dressed, he had a pretty good idea who the murderer was. Maybe not the name just yet, but he knew where he came from and what he wanted.
You didn’t need to be a member of Mensa to work out that Leveson had stumbled onto something that someone didn’t want to be discovered. Something important; something worth killing for.

No Turning Back

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I could not look into his eyes because I knew I was caught.

He didn’t have it all, but it was only a matter of time.

This detective may not look like much, but he has a quality that makes him dangerous — he doesn’t know how to let go.

Once he gets the scent, he keeps going no matter what the consequences.

He’s been suspended twice that I know of and his advancement through the ranks has been strangled because he won’t see the world the way his superiors see it.

He is threatening my existence and everything I have achieved, but I can’t help but like the bloke.

I have almost everything I need, and he has a suit that probably has a shiny bum and an overcoat that perhaps came from a deceased person — that was a bit harsh, and I apologise, but you get my drift.

I underestimated him, and now he is standing in my study on a rainy Tuesday evening when most folks are tucked up with a loved one, a glass of something nice and a fire to warm their bones — but not us. We are locked in a life or death struggle. Not the usual kind where two men are rolling around on the ground, each in a desperate attempt to gain control of a deadly weapon — no, this is different but just as deadly.

As I said, I underestimated him. I thought I had covered my tracks — I usually do and without too much fuss.

I kept on underestimating him. I think back and wonder why.

I’ve brushed up against the law before, but on those occasions, I have prevailed. Not always because I’m smarter, sometimes the universe intervened. On one occasion, a detective sergeant got very close to undoing my hard work only to receive a promotion. His successor lost interest in my case — I guess he wanted to make his own reputation.

As far as I can tell my nemesis has not confided in anyone at the station, he’s here on his own time. If I could be sure that he has left nothing lying around that could trip me up, I could decide.

That uncertainty is the only thing that is keeping him alive.

Tobruk

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Elizabeth was up before the sun.

Our apartment was bathed in the golden glow from the lamps that she had strategically placed around the room when we were setting up house together. It was only a few months ago, but it could have been years.

I have to get up in the dark — sparrows fart, my dad used to call it. The building industry starts early and is packed up by four, which works out well because the pubs shut at six — on the dot. The ‘wowzers’ rule this town.

A stray hair had fallen across her face as she cooked me eggs. She’d given up on brushing the hair away — too much effort.

“You don’t mind if I go back to bed when you go do you, Michael?”

“Of course not. I would if I could. Oh, and I’ll be a bit late tonight. I’m meeting Philip at the pub. I’m going to tell him what we’re planning. He could come in handy.”

Elizabeth didn’t answer. I don’t think she’s sure of Philip. I understand why she’s wary. If I didn’t know him he’d worry me too. He’s been through a lot and every bit of it shows on his face. He came apart at the stitching after Tobruk. They stuck him in this godawful hospital full of blokes who had lost touch with the real world.

They discharged him from the army once the Japs packed it in and told him he was cured.

He has trouble holding down a job.

He gets flashes.

He remembers stuff and his reaction scares the shit out of people.

I want to look out for him, but there is only so much I can do.

“Don’t drink too much. Remember we are going out dancing tonight — our new life,” says Elizabeth.

“Can you collect my dinner suit for me?”

“I’ll do it before I clock on at work,” said a very sleepy Elizabeth as she placed perfect scrambled eggs in front of me. I pulled my chair in closer, grabbed my knife and fork and dove right in.

In the army, you eat when you can and you develop the habit of gulping it down with one eye on your rifle. There are no guns in our apartment, but my habits are still echoing where I’ve been.

“Top tucker kid. Shakespeare would be proud of your eggs,” I said.

Elizabeth looked at me through dreamy eyes.

“What’s Shakespeare got to do with my eggs?”

“Apparently, he loved scrambled eggs. Wrote some of his best work on a stomach of Mrs Shakespeare’s eggs.”

“My head hurts. Put your dishes in the sink when you go. I’ll do them later.”

I finished my breakfast, picked up my jacket — it’s supposed to rain later in the day, and went into the bedroom. Elizabeth was fast asleep, rolled onto her right side facing away from my approach. I slipped my hand under the covers and leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Her hair fell across her face.

“If you keep your hand there you are going to be late for work,” she said.

I wiggled my fingers and she jiggled her whole body.

“Until tonight then,” I said and I removed the intruding fingers. She turned her head and smiled at me. I love that smile. I could fall into that smile and never be seen again.

I walked, rather uncomfortably, out of our apartment and down the stairs, making sure that the front door was locked leaving my sleeping bride safely inside.

I didn’t notice how hard the work was that day. My mind was firmly in the future.

I arrived at the pub a long time before Phillip which was very unusual for me, I’m always late.

Running on ‘Arab Time’ someone once called it, and it’s true, I like to take my time, I don’t like to be rushed, so I sat and had a ‘small beer’. When the bartender asked me what I wanted I asked for a Melbourne Bitter.

I saw him go for the big glass, but I knew it was going to be a long night, and I also knew that Phillip could drink, so I said, “Just a little one thanks, mate.”

He hesitated, and I thought that was because no one ever asks for a small beer. He found a small glass and filled it, looked up at me and said, “You did mean the beer didn’t you mate, you weren’t referring to me?”

I honestly had not noticed that this bloke was barely five foot three.

Without hesitation, I said, “No, mate. I assumed I was standing on a box.”

He smiled.

I think he was just winding me up, but for a second I noticed that he had an Irish accent, and I knew that this encounter could have gone an entirely different way.

My quick and casual response probably defused what might have become ugly, and I was amazed at how relaxed and loquacious I was considering the roaring headache that was developing into a migraine.

My guardian angel must have been paying attention.

“When were you demobbed?” he said.

“How do you know I was in the army?” I said.

“In this job you get to read people. The eyes mostly.”

Now that he mentioned it, I knew what he meant. My mate Philip has it written in large letters across his face, but most blokes try to hide what they have seen — it inevitably shows in their eyes.

“Did you see much action?” said the barman.

“Kokoda, Tobruk, Palestine and a couple of other buggered up places.”

“I was at Tobruk. I thought I recognised a fellow ‘Rat’.”

“I wasn’t sure I’d get out of that one,” I said. I’d never said that to anyone, but a bloke who was there would understand.

The barman nodded and continued to polish glasses.

“Don’t take this the wrong way digger, but how did you get into the army? I had fuzz between my toes and they almost didn’t take me.”

“I lied about my height,” he said and we both laughed.

“Good luck digger,” I said and I meant it.

“You too mate, cheers.”

I sat quietly in a corner looking out the window and enjoying the passing parade. It was late in the afternoon and those workers who chose to start very early in the morning were now starting their journey towards home or beer or whatever they had been looking forward to all day.

The migraine I had been gestating showed itself in what has become known as ‘the light show’. Wiggly lights that trace a path across my line of vision.

The build-up is unpleasant but once it gets going things settle down quickly as long as I avoid intense light  — working in the sun doesn’t help. If I get my hydration up I’m fine—- hence the small beer. Don’t laugh, beer is one of those unusual substances that can cause or cure almost anything.

For a small beer, it lasted quite a long time and when it was almost gone Phillip appeared behind me and off to my left. My peripheral vision is pretty good even on a bad day, so I could see him standing there looking at me for several minutes. When I eventually turned and looked at him he laughed.

“Never could sneak up on you, you wary bugger,” he said.

I stood up and we hugged each other the way that blokes who have been through something together will do.

“Did you come from work?” I said.

“No. Got the sack. The mad buggers kept looking at me.”

“Mate, you need a job and blokes are always going to look at you if you explode at the slightest thing. Did you hit anyone?”

“Just a little bit.”
“How do you hit someone ‘a little bit’? One of these days someone is going to call the cops and being a returned soldier will only get you so far. Every second fucker is a returned soldier these days.”

“I know, but they shouldn’t look at me.”

“Wear a funny hat. That way they really will have something to look at,” I said and he laughed and for a moment I saw the Phil that I used to know, before the battles, before the hospitals. The bloke who rescued the kitten during ‘basic’. Kept it hidden from the Sergeant. Gave it to a little girl who lived in the Milk Bar near the camp when we got our marching order. I remember that bloke and I wonder if he is still in there.

“I’ve got a crazy idea of how we can get ahead — make something worthwhile after all the destruction. Are you interested?”

“You, me and Elizabeth?”

“Yes. All three of us.”

“I’m in,” he said and I hadn’t told him the plan yet. That was typical of Phil. He had followed me into far worse than nightclubs and movers and shakers.

“Just tell me what you need me to do,” he said.

“First up, you need a shave and a haircut and you need to get your nails done,” I said and Phil looked at me like I had asked him to stand up and sing the national anthem naked with a rose between his teeth.

“Can you get your hands on a dinner suit, a good one?” I said.

“Me dad still has his. I think it’ll fit me.”

“Good. Can you get your hands on a couple of service revolvers and some ammo?”

“Now you’re talking my language. Who we gonna shoot?”

“Take it easy. I’m just thinking ahead. They might come in handy one day. Never know what trouble we might find ourselves in. Best to be prepared,” I said and Philip nodded in agreement. I knew that he would wear a gun more easily than a good suit. But he would have to learn, otherwise, he would stick out like a sore thumb.

Phil bought another round and I told him to shout the tiny barman, “Tobruk,” I said and he knew what I meant.

With the frost forming on our beer glasses I told Phil of my plan. It sounded a bit thin in the telling, but it was richer and more fleshed out in my head.

Elizabeth, Philip and I had one thing in common, we were all good at seeing opportunities and rolling with the punches. Not that anyone had ever punched Elizabeth, but you know what I mean.

My dinner plate was on the stove resting on top of a pot of hot water.

“I got hungry,” said Elizabeth, “so I’ve eaten. Your’s should be okay. Nice and hot.”

I wrapped a tea towel around my hand and moved the hot plate to the table — chops, potatoes and peas, yum.

Elizabeth was at the table cradling a cup of coffee. I could smell it over the aroma of my meal.

“Philip is in, even though I don’t think he has the slightest idea what he is getting himself into. It will be interesting to see how he scrubs up in his dad’s dinner suit.”

“He scares me a little bit, Michael. He’s changed so much.”

“I know he does, but he adores you — would do anything for you.”

“That’s one of the things that scares me,” said Elizabeth.

I laughed.

When I finished my meal we did the dishes together.

“Now that suggestion you made this morning, the morse code you tapped out with your fingers? Do you think we have time before we go out? Before we launch our new career?” said Elizabeth.

“The night doesn’t really get going until eleven,” I said as I grabbed her. She kissed me and I kissed her back and afterwards we fell asleep until the alarm went off and our night’s work began.

Elizabeth looked like a woman born to wealth and I felt like we could take on the world as we stepped through the door.

The old lady from 315 stepped into the hall and let her cat out.

“Good evening Mr and Mrs Styles. Off out for the night, are we?”

“No. We’re off to conquer the world, Mrs Nunn.”

Mrs Nunn and her bemused smile stayed with us all the way to the Hotel Menzies ballroom.

Antonio Santamaria

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“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 ..”

“David.”

“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.”

“What happened?”

“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?”

“He shrugged.”

“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.”

  

Most Of The Time

 

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I used to be angry. 

A lot. 

Most of the time.

Then I wasn’t. 

The time gap between these two extremes is vast — most of my life, in fact.

For most of that time, I was unaware of the reasons for my anger.

I was aware of not having all the things I wanted, I frightened people, success seemed to come close only to run away — these things I knew and I assumed that my anger grew out of them. The more I strove to rectify these deficiencies, the worse things got.


The day I worked it out, I got angry. Not the old kind of angry, this was new — righteous, biblical, galactic.

For all these many years, I’d been living someone else’s life. Living their dogma. When I find that person, I’m going to reign down some righteous vengeance and lay waste to their existence — just saying.

I feel a lot better now I know.

Not knowing is the worst.

Anora

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Before Scarlett, there was Anora.

Not in the ‘girlfriend, boyfriend’ sense.

Anora looked after Sam’s wellbeing. She cleaned his house and cooked amazing meals.

Standing at about five foot three, she was slightly round with short wavy hair.

Sam had tried to help her son, Antonio. Tried, but not succeeded. He went to gaol but not for as long as he should have.

Anora showed her gratitude by becoming Sam’s housekeeper.

In those days three young men were living in Sam’s house in Preston. Anora cleaned for them, but she only cooked for Sam.

Three times a week, delicious smells assaulted Sam when he got home.

On this night it was penne with a Sicilian meat sauce, thick with Roma tomatoes, garlic, basil and oregano. Anora cooked as though there was likely to be another war. Her meals were meant to feed a small platoon.

Sam dished a portion into a bowl, heated it, before carefully moving it to the table that Anora had set before she left for the day.

Sam grated Romano cheese onto the dish, but not too much – mustn’t overwhelm the other flavours.

Moving the fork to his right hand — a habit he learned from his mentor, he lifted the first piece of pasta to his mouth. The aromas assailed his nostrils, giving his taste buds a preview of what was to come. Sam sighed and swallowed and repeated the process slowly until the plate was empty. A piece of crusty bread wiped the remainder of the sauce, and Sam sat in contemplative silence.

Red wine with a tomato-based pasta. The glass felt pleasant to the touch and the bite of the wine compliment the taste of the meal.

“Is it okay to speak to you now?” said Damien. Sam’s housemates knew that you never interrupt or speak to him when he is eating.

“If you must,” said Sam.

“Your crazy housekeeper lady left this for you. Said I was to give it to you, ‘personally in person’. I have to tell you she scares me, Sam. She caught me sniffing your meal, and she threatened to stick me with a fork.”

“She’d do it too. Don’t mess with Anora. Her name means ‘woman of honour’ in Latin. She believes that I helped her son, so her honour tells her to look after me. She won’t take any money for her work, so we play this little game where I put it directly into her bank account, and she pretends that she doesn’t notice. Be kind to her, she has some dangerous relatives.”

“Like I said, she scares me, and I work in finance with some of the most vicious motherfuckers on the planet,” said Damien. “Any chance I could have some of that. I’m starving, and I’ve been smelling the aroma all afternoon?”

“What if Anora found out?” I said with a smile.

“On second thoughts, I’ll have a toasted cheese sandwich. Forget I mentioned it.”

The Protest of Romance Against the Commonplace of Life

 

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As far back as anyone can remember, there was the three of us.

Of course, there were others — friends, relatives, enemies, confederates, liars and parasites. But through it all, we remained untouched, unsullied and unconcerned.

My main job was to not favour one over the other — a clear course to disaster.

They both wanted me, and the feeling was mutual, but to fall in love with one more than the other would pull our world apart.

I’d loved them both — not at the same time, we were too young to be that creative or that unselfish. Our carnal adventures were played out over the raging fire of adolescence. We could not; would not see any further than our triumvirate.

I’m younger in years but older and wiser. I put a gentle stop to our naked activities, and it has been that way ever since — not an easy feat.

We are closer than family, fiercely loyal and dangerous to cross, as certain people have found out.

There are ‘sticks and stones’ to deal with from time to time, but we’ve heard all the jealous jibes, and they roll off us before they even make contact.

The concept of ‘friends forever’ seems to be a belief of the young. Life pulls friendships apart, but our goal is to be the exception.

Small cracks are beginning to show as our careers begin to accelerate and war looms, but for now, we are here together, and the sun is shining, and the breeze is cool.

If yesterday is a foreign land then tomorrow is a promise never fulfilled — give me today every time. 

He Mistook His Existence For Life

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It was a mistake that was easily made.

I’d walked a short distance from the bus carrying two suitcases (I’d long since learned that two small suitcases were less of a burden than one large one).

A friend, who wasn’t expecting me, lived around here — I just wasn’t sure exactly where. My confusion was of no matter, I have the ability to find my destination, and there is nothing mysterious about the process. I simply walk around, smiling at people and looking for familiar landmarks. On a larger scale, it worked for me when I drove a car. These days, there are insufficient funds for a wheeled vehicle, so I wear out shoe leather.

When the war ended, I stayed in Europe.

There was nothing for me back home.

My parents were passed, and my girl ran off with a Real Estate agent. My aunty misses me, but she has a family of her own to keep her company.

I teach English to businessmen and children of wealthy parents, and I get by.

Things don’t interest me much.

As long as there are books and wine and occasionally, women, I’m happy. My way of living, for that is what it is — living, confuses my friends back home. When the guns fell silent, they could not wait to go back to their old lives. Old lives! How could anyone go back after what we have seen?

It has to be said that I didn’t notice her at first, I was scanning at ground level, looking at faces to see if I recognised anyone.

I was here about a year ago, and my reason was the same as it is today — the library.

The staff here managed to move all of the ancient texts to safety during the conflict. The frontlines were hard to define, and at times it was only a few miles away, before being pushed back. Those were tense times for the people who had lived here all their lives. We, on the other hand, had come from far away. Even the local troops were from other regions. The townspeople treated us like heroes — we weren’t, but it felt good. We were just trying to stay alive in a country that was not at all like our own.

The lady in the white gown, in the high window, was a woman who had lived her life in luxury. One by one, she lost most of the people she loved. Every year, she stands in the window of her apartment wearing the dress she was to wear on her wedding day.

Her man did not come home. If he had, she may not have recognised him, loved him, wanted him, but we will never know.

A love lost in such a melancholy way is a love that endures.

When I wasn’t tutoring, I was reading in the ancient library. The staff knew me by sight, and I was allowed access to books that were usually only available to scholars sent out from the Vatican. “Don’t tell anyone,” said the head librarian who had lost his only son in the war.

When the library was closing, he would gently place his hand on my shoulder and say, “Antonio, we are closing up now.”

My name isn’t Antonio — I never corrected him. It isn’t polite to correct and old man. I never asked, but I had a good idea who Antonio might have been.

If there wasn’t a student to teach, I’d head for the cafe on the corner, the one with the parrot in the window.

I have several favourite spots, but the table by the window is my preferred dining place.

The owner makes incredible meals, and as long as the ingredients don’t involve seafood, I leave it to her to feed me. “What you got against seafood Michael?” she would say, at least once a week. “The same thing I had against it the last time you asked Etienne, I don’t eat anything that can look at me,” I’d say, and she’d laugh every time.

The cafe has an excellent cellar which mysteriously survived the larcenous behaviour of the soldiers stationed here during the war.

I rarely drink white wine, but the whites that Etienne has squirrelled away are to die for, so occasionally, during warm weather, I break my ‘only red wine’ rule.

Etienne will not say which bakery supplies her bread, and I don’t understand her reticence. The bread, with well-salted butter, could be a meal in itself and often is.

“Why you only eat bread today, Michael?”

“Because it is so good and it reminds me of you; warm and crusty,” and again she laughs at my words.

“If I were thirty years younger,” she would say.

“I wouldn’t have been born yet, so I wouldn’t make much of a lover.” This time there is only a smile.

Once in awhile the lady in the white dress, would come into the cafe and we’d dine together. She’d tell me about her fiancé, and I would talk to her about my books and my life on the other side of the world.

The first time I saw her standing in her window, resplendent in her wedding dress, I thought her behaviour was unusual, to say the least. The villagers seemed to understand where I only wondered.

In a world torn apart by war, there was understanding and compassion for a neighbour who had lost all the things that mattered.

All that matters to me is on my back and in my two suitcases — and in my head, of course.

Every day, the things I have learned are slowly pushing out the memories I’d like to forget.

Maybe one day there will be room in there for romance and love, but not just yet.

So Nice To Come Home 

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Three flights of stairs later and my key slips easily into the lock.

It’s a dead heat as what hits me first, the aroma of Elizabeth’s cooking or the song playing on the radio.

You’d be so nice to come home to

You’d be so nice by the fire

While the breeze on high, sang a lullaby

You’d be all my heart could desire

Under stars chilled by the winter

Under an August moon shining above

You’d be so nice, you’d be paradise

To come home to and love

It’s not exactly our song, but it probably should be. Cole Porter weaves his way through our young lives. He was a soldier in the Great War. He made it home, and so did I.

I am coming home, and there is a fire in the grate. She is my heart’s desire, but it’s not quite August. This time last year, I was trying not to get killed in a war that was all but over.

I haven’t had time to close the door properly when Elizabeth wraps herself around my neck. “You’re home,” she says in my ear rather too loudly. I lift her off the ground, and my tired muscles complain. I spin her around, and they complain a little more.

“I sure am. Who else were you expecting?”

“Only you. Always you,” she says, and not for the first time I wonder how she remained faithful all those years I was away. In many ways, she’s a better man than I am.

“What’s cooking. Smells great?”

“It’s a stew, and you have to guess the secret ingredient,” she says, and out of nowhere, she produces a wooden spoon. Steam rising, delicious aroma. The taste matches my expectations. The girl can cook. I can’t pick the secret ingredient and she won’t tell me what it is. “You have to guess.”

“How do you manage these meals in such a tiny kitchen?”

“The secret is to clean up as you go then you don’t trip up on your mess,” she said, earnestly.

Our apartment isn’t exactly tiny, but you wouldn’t want more than two people rattling around in it. The kitchen, such as it is, merges with the sitting room. There’s room for a good-sized table and four chairs (which we inherited from the Simpsons when they moved back to the country — the City was too much for these gentle souls). The walls could use a lick of paint, but the windows all open on command and stay open without the aid of a prop (I fixed the sash cords on the ones in the sitting room — Elizabeth had been propping them open when we first moved in). The bedroom is just big enough for an armoire, a double bed and a little table on my side. Elizabeth makes do with a tiny dressing table. The bevel edged mirror reflects the low afternoon sun in the winter and produces rainbows on the walls. Our bedroom smells of her perfume and powder — it makes me feel married, and I’ve had my fill of male smells.

“I’m going to wash the grime off,” I say as Elizabeth puts the finishing touches to our evening meal.

It’s no longer early in the evening, so it’s dark outside. The street light on the corner and the neon signs are overwhelming the fading daylight. Our windows are open. I can hear the street sounds as they intrude between songs on the radio.

I strip down to my waist and scrub the dirt off my body, the perspiration off my arms and riggers of the day fall away — I’m home, where it is warm and safe. Where Elizabeth waits for me.

I put on a clean shirt and pants. Despite my fatigue, I have to fight the desire to walk into the kitchen, scoop up Elizabeth and carry her into our bedroom. She would put up a pretend fight — a token resistance and I would make love to her until she called out my name — and that’s how I know. She only calls out my name when she has reached that place. At those times, I know better than to call her Liz — it has to be Elizabeth, it’s the only name she will answer to. “It’s the name I was given, and I don’t like to lose any of it.”

Which is fair enough. We have pet names for each other, but saying our names in full seems grown-up somehow.

Most of our early adulthood was sacrificed to the war effort, so now we have some catching up to do.

I don’t scoop her up and have my wicked way. I return to her and stand in front of the fire, freshly scrubbed, warming my bum in front of the fire.

Elizabeth ferries the steaming plates the few steps from the kitchen to the table, where a table cloth and napkins await the plates, nestled between silver-plated knives and forks. There is a vase with flowers, and sometimes, on special occasions, a candle is burning in a green glass candle holder.

“Do you mind if I light the candle?” I say.

“No. Go ahead. Is it a special occasion that I’ve forgotten?”

“Maybe. Let’s see how the evening pans out,” I say.

“You are not going to tell me you’re having a baby?” she says, and I laugh. Her humour constantly surprises me.

“Not that I know of, but it’s too early to tell,” I say through the remains of a smile.

“Would you like me to put a baby in you?” I ask. We have had this conversation, but I’m wondering if her joke was a hint that she had changed her mind.

“Not just yet. We need to get on our feet first, don’t you think?” she said.

“I agree, and that has a lot to do with the lit candle. I’ve been thinking.” I said.

“Thinking is one of the things you do best, among other things,” she said, and she lowered her eyes like a little girl and smiled.

“I would think you would be sick of me doing that by now,” I said, “It’s been months of nothing but sex, sex, sex. Frankly, I’m getting bored,” I said, expecting a silver-plated fork to go whizzing past my ear.

“I’ll remember that when dinner is over, and you suggest a bit of ‘cuddling’,” she said.

“I take it all back. I want my most recent comments to be stricken from the record, your honour.”

She smiled, and we ate, and we both knew that we would end up in each other’s arms.

“So why did you light the candle?” she said between mouthfuls.

I soaked up some of the gravy with a thick slice of bread and wondered how to start.

“You know how good we look in evening clothes? Well, I was thinking of putting our good looks to work for us. I love our life as it is, I really do, but we have to think of the future. I have a good job, but being a labourer is not going to bring in enough money to get us into our own home.”

“I bring in a bit with my part-time job. I learned a lot when you were away. I can earn,” she said, and it occurred to me that she phrased it, ‘when you were away’ so that the terror of it all seemed less real — only ‘away for a while’, not being shot at or being blown to pieces.

“I know you do kid, but at this rate, we’ll be in our own place by the time we’re sixty.”

“We’re together, and we’re safe — you’re safe, and we have a good life. Can’t we just enjoy it for a while longer?” she said.

I could hear the anxiety in her voice, and the longing — she wanted to keep me close so that the bad memories would fade away.

“I understand what you are saying, but I think we need to be brave. We survived when a lot of people didn’t. We owe it to ourselves to live our lives.”

We ate our meal without speaking, and I hoped that I had not upset her. She trusts me, I know that and I believe that she will go forward with me, but it might take a bit of convincing.

“So, what did you have in mind?” she said, and I breathed out.

“Well, as I said, we cut a dashing figure when we are dressed up and out and about.”

“That’s true,” she said.

“There are lots of opportunities out there if you know where to look. As you said, you’ve learned a lot of new skills while I was away and I’ve had a heap of experiences as well. I know how to survive, and I know how to move through the world, and I notice things that others don’t. It’s part of the reason I made it to the rank of sergeant. I think that we have the skills and all we need are the contacts. We can decide together what opportunities to take and which ones to leave alone.”

I drank the glass of water in front of me and let my words sink in.

“I’m listening,” she said.

“Skills on their own are not enough. We need to get to know people who are successful and see if some of it rubs off on us. I’m sure that I can get interesting jobs working with motivated people, I just need us to meet them. On my own, I’m just a bloke on the make. Together, we are a couple out for an adventure. Who could resist us?”

“Going out to nightclubs, wearing beautiful clothes sounds like fun, but we barely have anything left over at the end of the month as it is. How do we finance this new lifestyle?”

“I have my army pay. I know you wondered why I didn’t spend it all when I got home. Most of my mates were broke within a few months.”

“I admired your restraint, and it was your money, you earned it, so I wasn’t going to tell you how to spend it. I’m not that kind of girl.”

“You would have been within your rights. You waited for me all that time without even a ring. What would you have done if I didn’t come home?”

She didn’t answer, she just stared at her plate.

“I’ve worked out that if we are careful, we can keep it up for about six months before the money runs out. Longer if I can work during the day and not fall asleep on the dance floor at night.”

“Or get yourself killed at work because you are too tired to concentrate,” she said still staring at the pattern on the tablecloth.

“If we get lucky and work comes my way, I’ll leave the construction job, and that should take care of the fatigue factor.”

“No. if we are going to do it, we go all in. I’m not losing you to an industrial accident after everything we went through,” she said, and I wasn’t expecting this development, but I could see sense in it. Being a zombie in a dinner jacket is not going to impress anyone. So like Caesar and George Washington, we are going to burn our boats.

“I’ll be bringing in a bit from my job. It’s only a couple of hours for a few days a week. They want me to work longer hours, but I’ll put them off. I can grab a few hours of sleep. Just enough so I don’t lose my beauty.”

What a warrior this girl is. I knew I could count on her.

I couldn’t suppress my smile.

“Remember that cuddle you mentioned. It would be a good way to celebrate our new life?” I said, hopefully.

“What about the dishes?” she said.

“Tomorrow’s a day off. I’ll get up a do them in the morning. I may even make you breakfast in bed.”

“I’ll ring mum in the morning and see if she will lend me her sewing machine. If I make some of my gowns it will make our money last longer,” she said as we got up from the table.

I moved towards her and held her in my arms.

My hand slid down her spine and settled on her bottom.

She kissed me, and I lifted her off her feet and carried her into our room.

I held onto her longer than I needed to show her how much strength I had.

I don’t know if she was impressed, but I do know that she called out my name several times before we fell asleep.

How could we not succeed? She loves me, and I love her. 

The world doesn’t have a chance.