“That’s what it says on the side of the cartridge,” I said.
“Bloody hell, I haven’t seen one of those in a long time.”
“Well? Do you have one? Do you know where I could get one?” I said.
The shop was a tiny brick building wedged in amongst other more significant brick buildings. Maybe the builder miscalculated. Perhaps he didn’t measure up accurately. Maybe it was just easier to build one small shop than go back and start again.
Someone will rent it.
And they did.
CARTRIDGES ARE USS — yes with two’s’ s, (I’ll bet he sat up all night thinking up the name), was conveniently located at my local shopping strip. Someone had bought up all the old shops, pulled them down and built new shops with convenient parking.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of those.”
“So you said,” I said, “Maybe if you look out the back?”
“We don’t have ‘a back’,” he said.
Everyone has a back room, don’t they?
A quick scan of the shop did not show any sign of a rear door (where does he go when he needs to pee?)
There were racks on the walls and glass cases forming a counter, all crammed full of colourful packages.
“I know it’s old, but it was a very popular brand back in the day, and I thought, seeing as how you specialise, you might have one or know where I could get one. I don’t need colour. I only need black so that I can print out my stories.”
The shopkeeper was still staring at the cartridge as though it might tell him something.
“T026, well there’s a blast from the past.”
The thirty-something neatly dressed shopkeeper with CARTRIDGES ARE USS embroidered on his jumper, was beginning to annoy me.
“Well, if you don’t have one, I’ll just have to look somewhere else,” I said, holding out my hand in the hope of retrieving my cartridge — which still had a bit of ink left in it.
The shopkeeper scratched his head and gave the cartridge one final turn in his hand.
Reluctantly and gently, he handed it back to me. I felt like Lord Carnarvon must have felt as he examined the contents of King Tut’s tomb.
“You take good care of that,” he said.
“I will,” I said as I backed out of the shop.
I never did find a T026 cartridge, but a week later I found one hundred dollars in an old jacket. So I treated myself to a new printer — colour. It’s been handy, and it costs almost as much to buy replacement cartridges as it does to buy a new machine — it’s a bit of a scam someone said in an article I read.
The cartridge shop closed about a year ago and the Pizza shop next door knocked a hole in the wall to create a warm place for people to wait while their pizza is being prepared.
As I wait for my pizza order, I sometimes wonder what happened to the shopkeeper. Does he still have the embroidered jumper? Does he wear it on cold nights and think back to when he had his own shop? A tiny shop, but his nonetheless.
I kept the old printer, but finally, I had to concede that to continue looking for a cartridge was probably a fools’ errand — so I put it out with the recycling.
That’s the trouble with living, in general — as soon as you can’t get the parts anymore, all the fun goes out of it.
“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
“Getting a birds-eye view is unusual for me. I’m usually talking to a specific person, even if I don’t know who that person is,” I said.
“Unusual, is right!” said the detective with a mustard stain on his well-worn suit.
“If you don’t have anything intelligent to add Detective Johnson, then shut it,” said the Inspector in charge of the investigation.
I hadn’t worked with her before, and I was surprised to be asked.
From what I could ‘see’, she was driven, recently separated and was hopeful of having children. All of that was true for now, but over time, some would turn out to be accurate, and some would not, only time would tell.
My eyes told me that she was about five foot five, stylishly dressed, heals, no earrings (but her ears were pierced), trim with wide hips and a commanding personality. She didn’t have to raise her voice to achieve authority.
“This is a first for her,” said the female detective who’d led me to the squad room, “don’t fuck it up.”
Requests for my services had been constant but sporadic. I gave my time when I could, and the cynical attitude of some of the force was tiring.
My favourite contact is a lowly sergeant in homicide. He’s worked his way up through the Tactical Response Group. His abilities are as good as mine, but he sometimes likes to have a second opinion.
I asked him once about the dangers he faces, especially in the Tactical Group.
“I listen when I get the feeling that it might be terminal if I go down that alley alone. They look after me.”
I was getting nervous, but I ploughed on.
“From what I can see, it’s night time. There is some sort of orange light coming from my right as I look at the scene. The body is lying on the ground, and a man is standing next to it. The ground is free of vegetation, but I can see small trees a few metres away. There is evidence of a stream off to the right. I don’t think the standing person is the assailant. He can’t take his eyes off the body, but he doesn’t touch it. He’s lightly dressed. Too lightly dressed — it’s cold out there. The victim doesn’t look like someone who has fallen or been pushed. She looks like she’s sleeping. The young man is unsure whether to wake her. Does any of this make sense?” I said.
I look at the Inspector, and I can tell she is trying to figure out how I know these things. This happens every time. Inevitably, I’ll be asked where I was on the night of the fourteenth — it never fails.
There are only two ways I could know these things — either I really can ‘see things’, or I did it.
It’s why I almost stopped being involved in homicide.
“Yes, it does. Very helpful,” said the Inspector.
Several of the detectives had been taking notes as I spoke.
“This is all complete bollocks,” said Detective Johnson.
The Inspector turned in his direction, and I put my hand out and stepped slightly in front of her.
“Detective Johnson. Is that your name?” I said without waiting for a reply.
“You are still married, but only just. Your wife used to iron your shirts for you, but not any more. You don’t believe in any ‘mumbo-jumbo’ as you put it (two detectives laughed) because you grew up Catholic and your faith let you down. Father Patric? Tall bloke, young and very friendly. You wince inside anytime someone uses the word faith.”
“You’re just making that stuff up. Could apply to anyone.”
As a rule, I try not to hurt anyone with the information that comes my way. This bloke was making me rethink that rule.
“Your girlfriend, —?” I noticed the young uniformed female at the back of the room stiffen in her seat, “do you want me to go on?”
Detective Johnson remained silent.
All eyes were on me as I took a step back. They were probably hoping I would complete the sentence.
“You all have your assignments. I’d like to thank Mr Page for coming in to help us,” said the Inspector.
She turned to me, “The officer will show you out.”
I’d been dismissed.
I may find out if my information helped, but maybe not. Once you are no longer useful, you don’t have their attention — until the next time the trail goes cold.
“How did I go?” I said as we walked back to the front desk.
The young police officer put her hand out to take my security pass.
“It’s an ongoing investigation so I can’t comment,” she said without emotion.
“You don’t think he did it, do you?” I said.
The young woman looked me in the eye but did not answer.
“Your family are very proud of you. They want you to know that. They don’t want you to worry about them.”
The young woman was still looking at me, but now there was a different expression on her face.
“Thank you,” she said, and her hand touched my arm.
I knew that touch.
It’s almost involuntary in those who have caught sight, ever so briefly, of the ones they love.
I didn’t go straight home. I needed a moment.
I don’t know any of these people, alive or dead and it isn’t my job to worry about them, but they leave their mark on me. A stiff whisky and a bite to eat helps me to come back to earth.
The police officers I deal with see it as their duty to find those who kill. They don’t understand when I tell them that those who have gone won’t tell me who took their life, sometimes because they didn’t know that person when they were alive, and sometimes because it doesn’t matter to them.
The living care about death — violent and otherwise.
The dead have other concerns, but they take pity on us and share some of the details.
I stand in the middle of all that.
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are just things I have to endure.
If you are wondering why I didn’t ask the young police officer out for a drink?
She has a boyfriend and three kids.
Not now, but in her future and he is the right one for her.
I listen when I’m told.
Another whisky and I’m off home.
No, they don’t tell me what’s in store for me, and I would not want them too.
Anticipation is half the delight.
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.