A collection of cigarette butts caught Sam’s eye when he walked out of his front gate to catch a tram to the city.
If he had been driving, he would have missed them.
A tight grouping directly under the tree.
When they moved into their substantial residence — built by a rich bloke back in the 1970s, they decided to increase the width of their driveway. The aforementioned rich bloke had knocked down several houses and plonked his creation right in the middle of the now considerable grounds, all to impress his new bride.
It didn’t work, and he sold the house soon after.
Several owners later and Scarlett decided that this was to be their home.
Big houses were out of place in this neighbourhood, but it did have the benefit of being in the community where Sam grew up.
New electronic gates, with a pedestrian gate at the side (Sam was the only person who moved through it), were installed. The driveway brushed dangerously close to the sixty-year-old street tree. There was some discussion about whether the council would allow them to excavate so close to the tree.
These days the tree seemed happy enough, and if you stood under it — as someone obviously had, you would have a sweeping view up the paved driveway to the entrance of the house.
“What’s happening today, Sam?”
Scarlett was being considerate — showing some interest.
Since the accident, Sam’s world had become considerably smaller.
Blood, crushed metal, a rapid ride in an ambulance, followed by a frantic time in the emergency room.
“We have to relieve the pressure on his brain.”
What if we don’t, thought Scarlett.
A boring stay in a hospital room with an interesting view, followed by a stay in a rehabilitation facility. Sam made lifelong friends on that ward, but now he was home doing his best to regain lost memories.
“Your memories will come back slowly, or they may all come back at once, it’s hard to know,” said a kind face in a white lab coat.
“I have an appointment with Dr Doug at four, but not much till then,” said Sam.
“How’s it all going? The memory stuff, I mean?”
“Slowly. Dr Doug seems happy, but he would be, at five hundred dollars an hour.”
“Is that fair, Sam? Dr Doug has an excellent reputation for such a young psychiatrist. I liked him when I spoke to him. I think he has your best interests at heart. Give him a chance.”
Scarlett found Dr Doug and gently encouraged Sam to go and see him. Sam was prepared to be unimpressed, but the two of them got along. Dr Doug dealt in dreams and Sam had vivid and sometimes disturbing dreams, which he wrote down in great detail — a match made somewhere near heaven.
“I might go in early and wander around the city for a bit, or I might not and have a nap instead. I was up very early this morning. Which reminds me; you get up very early during the week. Have you noticed an older man standing outside our front gates?”
Scarlett ran her late father’s business empire, and she took it all seriously, arriving before anyone else.
“Not standing, but I have noticed an older man walking his dog. Between five-thirty and six each morning. Usually smoking a cigarette.”
“He could be the one,” said Sam.
“Why do you ask?” said Scarlett.
“I’m not sure. It just seems strange. I’ve seen him standing on the grass under the tree and staring at our house. He stands there looking like he is trying to make up his mind — ring the bell or not, then he walks off, dog in tow.”
“Do you think we need to be worried?”
It was evident from the size of their property that the Bennett’s were wealthy. Big money attracts some who might want to lighten their load.
“No. No need to worry,” said Sam.
The next morning, Sam was staring out of their first-floor bedroom window when the older man drifted into view. His dog stopped as though he knew in advance that they would be there for a while. The older man dropped his cigarette on the ground, stepped on it and lit up a new one, all the while leaning on the trunk of the tree.
Despite the distance to their front gate, Sam could see the man clearly.
This routine went on for several weeks before stopping abruptly.
Sam missed seeing the man and his dog. There was something comforting about their appearance at the appointed time. They had been coming for so many days that the little dog now walked to the tree and lay down, making itself comfortable, knowing there was going to be a long wait.
“The old man and his dog have stopped standing out the front,” said Sam over toast and coffee.
“Did you ever find out who he was?” asked Scarlett.
“No, and now I miss him.”
Sam retired from detecting when he married Scarlett, but this seemed like a good time to come out of retirement.
On his next walk to the tram, Sam knocked on a few doors. Mostly his knocking was met by silence until the retired couple who lived a few doors down opened their door.
“I think you are referring to Judge Nardella. He’s been retired for a long time now, and I sometimes talk to him on his early morning walks,” said Mr Wilson, (call me Ted).
“Neither of us sleeps very well, but Ted is worse than I am,” said Mrs Wilson, (call me Beryl).
“He was a big deal in his day. Sat in judgement on some high profile cases. Put Enselmo away for life. Lives in that big house up on Oakover Road. The red brick one with all the roses.”
“I know the woman who cleans his house, and she says that his house is full of boxes and filing cabinets. All his old court cases, apparently. Spent a fortune having them photocopied when he retired. She says he reads through his old cases looking for something,” said Mrs Wilson.
“Does she know what he’s looking for?” asked Sam.
“No. She doesn’t know, and she’s not game to ask.”
Sam finished his second cup of tea and wondered if he would make it into the city before he had to answer the call of nature — he didn’t. A stop at the Edinborough Garden was necessary.
His relief break made him slightly late for his session with Dr Doug, but he had a story to tell.
“So, what do you plan to do, Sam?” said Dr Doug.
“Investigate,” said Sam.
Another day went by before Sam walked the short distance to the judge’s house. Sam liked to let ideas percolate before taking action.
The front door was at the top of a few brick steps. Next to the door was an old pull handle doorbell. It was connected to a cable that rang a bell in the kitchen. The house was built at the same time as wealthy families had electricity installed, but some old building habits died hard.
The bell still worked. Sam could feel the resistance as he pulled on it and felt it settle back into position.
Sam was about to give it another pull when he heard the bolt on the front door unlock, and an elderly man opened the door.
The judge stood at Sam’s height. Grey thinning hair roughly combed and a gentle but determined face.
There was a moment’s silence after which the judge said, “Mr Bennett. I suppose you are wondering why I stand outside your house?”
“Good afternoon, judge. You come right to the point. Do you have a few moments?”
“No, I don’t, but if you are free tomorrow afternoon, about three, I would be delighted to serve you tea and cake. My housekeeper isn’t here today. She makes excellent teacake.”
“I’ll be here,” said Sam. He was disappointed, but he was also patient. His mentor had taught him that patience was essential. “Let the world come to you. Don’t push it away in your haste.”
Sam heard Scarlett’s car come up the long drive. He heard her thank her driver — she always did that, Scarlett treated everyone with respect.
The front door opened and Scarlett put her handbag on the hall table and her briefcase, a present from Sam, on the marble floor. She came into the old servant’s kitchen (Sam loved this room — a bit worn and very cosy — he wouldn’t let Scarlett redecorate it).
Sam had lit the fire, and a snack was waiting for her.
“Your coffee will be ready in just a moment.”
The coffee machine whirred happily on the bench.
“How did your day go?” said Sam, who desperately wanted to tell Scarlett about his adventure.
“Meetings all day. The glassworks expansion is going well, or so I’m told.”
“I love glass,” said Sam, for no particular reason.
“Are you okay, Sam. You’ve never professed a love for glass before, and it’s freaking me out.”
“I’m trying to be supportive. I read an article that said a wife should show interest in her husband’s work as soon as he gets home.”
“Now I’m really starting to worry.”
“I REALLY want you to ask me how my day went.”
It had been a long time since Sam had anything interesting to say when Scarlett came home.
“Okay. I’ll bite,” said Scarlett and Sam poured her coffee. The snacks looked good — she had skipped lunch again.
“Well,” said Sam making himself comfortable on a barstool.
“Don’t eat too much cake and no making eyes at his housekeeper,” said Scarlett before kissing Sam on the cheek. “I should be home on time. I can’t wait to hear about your meeting.”
The front door closed, and her car drove off. Now Sam was stuck with the task of filling in the hours till three.
He chopped some wood, mowed the back lawns — the front ones could wait a few days, walked the dogs and read the paper. Still three hours to go.
Sam’s physical condition was steadily improving, but an early afternoon nap was needed most days. This took him up to two-thirty. He showered and dressed and walked the distance to the judge’s house. His dogs were disappointed at not being invited.
“Maybe next time,” said Sam as he closed his front door.
The judge was waiting at the open door as Sam climbed the steps.
“Can I ring your doorbell, just for the fun of it?” asked Sam.
The judge nodded without expression.
With the door open, Sam could hear the bell ring deep within the house. It was satisfying.
The judge ushered Sam into the large front room. High ceilings, thick curtains, and lush furniture covered in boxes. Boxes covered most of the parquetry floor and oozed out through the connecting door into another room.
Two comfortable looking armchairs had been released from box covering duties, and Sam chose the one with its back to the window. The two men settled into their chairs as tea and cake magically appeared.
The judge’s housekeeper was modestly dressed, barely concealing her fifty-odd years. Sam tried to smile at her, but she avoided his gaze.
The judge poured from a china teapot. The tea was hot, and the cake left crumbs on Sam’s shirtfront. He tried to flick them onto his other hand and deposit them onto his plate with only moderate success.
Other than to compliment the judge on his teacake, Sam kept silent.
“In your career, have you ever caught someone who turned out to be innocent?” said former judge Nardella.
“Not that I know of,” said Sam.
“What would you do if you had?”
A moment of silence.
“Do my best to rectify the situation,” said Sam.
Another moment of silence.
“If you don’t mind me asking, are these, in the boxes, your old cases?”
“Why do you have them here?”
“I’m reading through them — looking.”
“For what, judge?”
“My mistake. I know it’s in here — somewhere.”
“I’m sure, with your reputation, the courts would dig out any file you asked for. What is the name of the defendant?”
“I don’t know which defendant it was,” said the judge. He stared at the boxes, and for a moment, Sam thought he had lost his attention.
“You don’t have to answer judge, but are you a religious man?”
“Yes. Catholic. Devout.”
“I don’t want to sound rude judge, but I strongly suggest that you stop torturing yourself.”
“I stood outside your house because I wanted to ask you what you would do. You are known as an honest, brave and principled individual. I couldn’t get up the courage to ask you, but here you are, and you have given me your answer.”
The judge went back to staring at his boxes, piled so high that Sam feared for the judge’s safety.
The dusty smell that only librarians and archivists know filled Sam’s nostrils as he said his goodbyes. The housekeeper showed him to the door.
“Your employer is not a well man,” said Sam.
“I know, but he doesn’t listen to me. Thank you for coming Mr Bennett.”
Sam’s walk home was considerably slower than his journey to the judge’s residence.
Scarlett was home very late despite her assurance. She crept into the bedroom so as not to wake her Sam.
“There’s a plate in the fridge. I can heat it up for you,” said Sam in a muffled voice from under the covers.”
“No need. I ate at the office. Someone Ubered Italian food. So how did your afternoon tea go?”
“I’ll tell you about it in the morning, but the headline reads, sad afternoon had by formerly famous detective.”
“Oh,” said Scarlett as she slipped into bed next to her Sam. She snuggled up to him feeling his warmth and smelling his aroma. She put her hand on his bottom.
“So, that’s how it is,” said Sam.
A little over three months later, a package arrived for Sam.
“Sign here please, sir,” said the thirty-something-year-old delivery driver. “Love your house. Felt like I needed a passport to get through the gate.”
Sam’s dogs were getting curious, trying to push past him to get at the delivery driver. In their experience, delivery drivers had a plethora of interesting scents to investigate.
Sam gave the young bloke a smile and carried the package into the small kitchen. It sat on the old bench like a suspicious package in the suspense movie.
The dogs looked at Sam for direction.
“I guess I should see what’s in it.” A thought crossed his mind, should I put it in a bucket of water first?
The thought passed quickly.
The package put up a bit of a fight. Finally open, there was a thick file with a person’s name on it. The folder was tattered and worn, and the name was written in an unsteady hand. Apart from the file, there was a letter.
Dear Mr Bennett.
I found what I was looking for.
After you have read the file, I give you my permission to do with it what you will. The man died in prison after his first three years of a life sentence, so I cannot put this right. Maybe, by shedding light on my foul deed, his family can have some peace. I am in no way defending myself, but at the time, I was distracted by domestic issues. I missed the clues because I was wrapped up in my own worries. I should have directed the jury to acquit, but I was selfish and self-absorbed. I hope my God will forgive me. My life will be over by the time you read this, and I’m wondering if my God will forgive my early arrival.
Thank you for listening to me. You are a good man.
The obituaries listed the death of former Judge Nardella and you had to read very carefully, between the lines, to decern that the good judge had taken his own life. The article listed his considerable achievements.
The man deserved his rest.
When Scarlett had gone to work, Sam walked to the far corner of his backyard. The dogs followed him and sniffed as he dug a large hole.
He placed the unopened file in the hole and poured kerosene on it, lit it and added more fuel until it was reduced to ashes. The dogs watched as he pocked the ashes and added more fuel, lit it again and watched it burn.
The dogs got bored and fell asleep on the lush grass as finally satisfied that the file was destroyed, Sam filled in the hole and walked back to his house.
“Charlie Varick? I’ve been working for him for about four years, but I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
The question came out of nowhere, and it really pissed me off. It’s a job, what difference does it make? When I go home, I leave work at work.
“What difference does it make? He’s a fucking private eye, and he uses you as a decoy.”
“I’m his secretary, and the decoy stuff only happens every now and then. Mostly, it isn’t dangerous, and mostly I answer the phones and make appointments. Of course, there is coffee and dry cleaning, but mostly it’s answering phones.”
My parents were in town for a couple of days, and I was glad to see them; well ‘glad’ is probably too strong a word, but it was good to see them. Parents should be kept at a distance that is directionally proportional to the amount of shit they put you through as a kid. Mine weren’t that bad but using this formula they should be at least 427 kilometres away at all times.
I’m 26 years old, gorgeous and leggy with long black wavy hair that men hold on to when they are making love to me. Not that there are that many of them.
I like men, just in small doses.
Not small in the way you are thinking, just small in the sense of time I have to spend in close proximity. Charlie’s different, but he is old, at least 47 years old, and he is taken, but he treats me like I’m someone. Like I count in the grand scheme of things. I guess he is so relaxed because he is old, and old people don’t worry so much about stuff.
My dad was wound up, but I know it was my mum who put him up to it.
“We just want you to be safe; safe and happy. That’s all your mother, and I have ever wanted.”
“I know dad.” Things seemed to be calming down now that the shouting had stopped.
It was still early. Hotel restaurants tend to wind down around 9:30 pm, and it was now way past that, so we had the room to ourselves except for the girl at the bar and the waiter who was doing a little shuffle that was Morse code for ‘they don’t pay me past 10:00 pm even if you are still here drinking coffee, and I have a home to go to, and my dog misses me’.
It was a complicated dance.
My father, mother and I talked about nothing for another fifteen minutes before my dad signed the bill, and they went up to their room. I stood and watched as they walked up the staircase. My mother clung to the handrail as though it was saving her from a sinking ship. My dad negotiated the stairs easily enough because he never used elevators unless he absolutely had to.
I asked him about it once, and he said that it was his small concession to keeping fit, but I think it had more to do with the stories that his father brought home.
His dad was a fireman, and he would be called out to rescue cats and people, and sometimes he was expected to free individuals who had been trapped — sometimes these people had been stuck in elevators, and he delighted in terrifying his children with stories of people who had gone insane after being stuck in an elevator for six hours.
“One bloke tried to chew his arm off, which seemed pointless to me. It wasn’t as though they had him in handcuffs — he was trapped in a lift for fuck sake. Now if he had tried to eat through the door, that I could understand, but his arm — that’s just nuts.”
I sat on the overstuffed couch in the hotel’s foyer and tried to collect my thoughts.
I still had half an hour before I was to meet Charlie at Bar Alfredo on Little Collins Street. I walked the short distance up Collins and turned left onto Exhibition. Little Collins was the first on the left, and the bar was about two hundred metres down.
This end of the street had been disrupted by building activities for nearly two years, which made it difficult to negotiate on foot, or by car. The street was already very narrow, and its name gave a hint. ‘Little’ Collins Street was originally an access road for the rear of the more significant and grander edifices on Collins Street. Deliveries would be made, and tradesmen would be admitted.
It was best to keep the grubby people out of sight.
These days the ‘Little’ streets were home to trendy bars and eateries as well as exclusive apartments and the occasional clothing shop.
The footpath on both sides is extremely narrow, and I was forced to step out onto the road to let a large, rude man pass by. He looked vaguely familiar until I remembered I had not seen him before — he was exactly how Charlie had described the man I was supposed to ‘distract’.
“He’s big, about 40 years old, always wears a dark suit with a red handkerchief in his top pocket, and he smells like lemons. He will be sitting at the bar because he always sits at the bar. Third stool from the far end as you come in the front door.”
I had the feeling that these instructions and this description were going to go to waste.
To get to Bar Alfredo, I first had to walk past a narrow laneway and at this time of night, the laneway was in complete darkness. Being a female living in a big city, I avoided dark laneways because I wanted to go on ‘living in the big city’.
As I looked into the darkness, I saw Charlie lying in a pool of his own blood.
I say ‘saw’, but that’s not what I mean. I didn’t see him with my eyes; I saw him in a vision. The dark laneway was like a giant projector screen, and on it, I saw Charlie’s exact location, as though it were daylight.
I used my phone to light the way to the spot that I knew Charlie would be lying. He was behind some boxes with a single knife wound in the middle of his chest.
I would love to say that he lived long enough to look into my eyes and tell me who had killed him. I would like to tell you what his last words were and that he had smiled before he died, but I can’t.
He was gone by the time I got to him — warm but gone.
I sat next to him for what seemed like forever and thought about my life and wondered what Charlie thought when the large man in the dark suit took his life. I wondered what my life was going to be like from now on. I wondered if my mum and dad had gone to sleep yet.
I don’t remember ringing anyone, but I must have because an ambulance arrived closely followed by the police.
The weather was warm, so why there was so much fog? And why did my voice sound funny, and why was the police officer mumbling?
When I came to, I was sitting on the back step of an ambulance with an oxygen mask on my face. A young policeman was trying to get my attention, and the ambo wanted him to give me a break.
“Give her a minute mate; she’s had a rough night.”
The policeman ignored the world-weary ambulance driver. The brash young policeman considered civilians to be annoying. They kept passing out or screaming or generally being uncooperative. He just wanted to get a statement so he could get back on patrol. The homicide detectives would be along very soon, and they would shoo him away like an unwanted blow-fly.
“Miss? Miss? How did you know he was in that alley? Did you hear something? Did you see anyone come out of the alley?”
I was trying to decide which question to answer first when it occurred to me that this was all very strange.
“I had a vision, which was weird. I don’t normally get visions at night-time. I always get my visions in the morning.”
The police officer stopped asking me questions after that, and he and the ambo were looking at each other with the strangest expression on their faces. I don’t think that they believed me, and I wanted them too. This was a first for me.
A pair of plain-clothed detectives arrived and scooped me up heading me towards their car, but before I got in, I gave it one last try to convince my interrogator.
“I really did see him lying there, in the dark, which was weird. I always get my visions in the morning.”
The police officer knocked gently on Madame Olga’s front door.
“What can I do for you, young man?”
“I’m sorry to disturb you Madame Olga, but there’s been a complaint about the elixir you sell at the local market. I’ve been sent to ask you if we could have a sample for analysis?”
This wasn’t the first time Madame Olga had received such a request.
“Come in. Sit. Rest your feet. I get bottle and give to you.”
Proper procedure would have been for Senior Constable Wilson to select a sample at random from Madame Olga’s stock and if asked, that is what he would say he did. Wilson wanted this to go as smoothly as possible. He did not want to upset this old lady any more than was necessary.
Olga returned with a small clear glass jar containing an opaque substance. The jar had a golden lid. When Wilson twisted the cap, a waft of menthol filled the air.
“You dip toothpick in and what sticks you rub on back of hand,” said Madame Olga producing a wooden toothpick from out of nowhere.
“That won’t be necessary. I just have to hand it in to forensics, and if there isn’t anything illegal in here, you won’t have anything to worry about,” said Senior Constable Wilson.
“I make you tea and bring you biscuits. I make them myself?”
Senior Constable Wilson’s partner, PC Billy Pepper looked pleadingly at his superior.
After a pause, Wilson said, “That would be lovely,” and they made themselves comfortable on Madame Olga’s old couch.
After two cups of tea and several biscuits (which were just as tasty as you would expect), the two officers made their leave and headed for their car. They noticed the gentleman next door watching them as they left.
“Do you want to give it a try, Senior,” said Pepper, “you know the boys at the lab will have a go.”
Senior Constable Wilson had heard about the effects of Madame Olga’s elixir.
“Why do you think she calls it Peripeteia?” said Pepper.
“Probably named after a gypsy king or something,” said Wilson, unscrewing the lid. He pulled the top off his pen and delicately dipped the tip in the mixture. He rubbed it on the back of his hand and sat waiting for a reaction.
Madame Olga’s next-door neighbour, Tony, noted that the police car stayed parked outside her house for almost an hour.
What he didn’t witness was the journey that Senior Constable Wilson was taking while being strapped securely into the driver’s seat of the stationary police car.
A FEW DAYS LATER.
“How did you get on with the cops?” said Tony, who was pulling out a piece of greenery from his front lawn. Tony doesn’t like things to be in the wrong place and on this morning, he took a dislike to a dandelion that had the cheek to grow in his lawn without an invitation.
Olga bent forward to see if the postman had left her any letters. She heard his noisy motorbike a bit earlier, and it sounded like he had stopped at her gate.
“They took away a sample of my elixir, apologising a lot, saying that some person thought I was selling LSD. I told them I don’t know what that is — which is not true, I do know,” said Olga holding back a chuckle.
“They haven’t taken you away in chains, so I guess they didn’t find anything?” said Tony.
“A nice cop phone me, say that it only Vicks and mint and something else they don’t know what, but definitely not illegal,” said Olga with a sense of satisfaction.
“So that’s it then. Did you find out who dobbed you in?”
“No, but nice cop said he wants a jar and could he have a few jars for the forensic staff and I said yes, I give them a special price and they are very happy.”
What if it was possible for you to see into your future? What if it was not as simple as seeing? What if you had to choose between a series of possible futures? Would you? Would you want To? How would you deal with all the possible consequences? Madame Olga could help you. That is if you can find her.
a very long short story
The number 58 bus is relatively quiet compared with the number 15 and don’t get me started on the 109. Even so, there he was, sitting across from me looking like an unmade bed.
I’m pretty good at picking dangerous individuals — a by-product of having lived a long time. This bloke seemed harmless to me, even with his dishevelled appearance.
I saw him lean over to the well-dressed lady sitting next to him, but I couldn’t hear what he said. She replied, and that was that. A few stops later, he got off the bus and disappeared into the wider world.
I caught the lady’s eye and asked her what had transpired between them.
“I’m sorry, I don’t usually do this, but there was something about that gentleman. What did he say to you if you don’t mind me asking?”
The well-dressed lady oozed serenity, and she took a moment to answer — as though she was deciding whether it was any of my business, which it wasn’t.
I began to feel self-conscious when she said, “He told me that he could kill everyone on the bus, including the driver and was there anything I could say that would help him.”
“And what did you say,” I said.
“I told him that it was illegal to kill people, and he seemed satisfied with my answer. He spoke like a child who was in trouble and needed advice. I guess he thought I could help,” she said.
“Wow,” I said, and the well-dressed lady settled back in her seat, lost in her own thoughts.
I got off the bus before she did and I looked back at her sitting serenely, and I wondered what she had seen in her life to be able to deal with such an urgent request without a moment’s hesitation.
About ten days later, I read a news item about a man who intervened when a woman was being attacked late one night. The news item indelicately added that the woman was elderly, in her late fifties!
The man was severely injured before he repelled the attacker.
When interviewed, the ‘elderly woman’ said that she stayed with her rescuer while they waited for an ambulance.
“He said that I saved him, so it was only fair that he return the favour. I had no idea what he was talking about. Before he lost consciousness, he mumbled something about a bus. I didn’t think too much about it because I was in shock. I owe this man my life, and I don’t even know what happened to him after they took him away,” she said. “I’m covered in his blood, and I don’t know why he defended me.”
Two days later, there was another article explaining that the unidentified ‘hero’ had died of his wounds. The police were still trying to find out who this brave man was and why he stepped in to save the woman. This time she wasn’t described as elderly because someone complained.
I rang the police and told them the story about the number fifty-eight bus, but it didn’t help much.
“If someone doesn’t come forward, he’ll be buried in an unmarked grave, which seems like a shame,” said the sergeant. I agreed.
The news media love a hero, so he was big news for a few days.
Someone started a GoFund Me campaign to cover the unknown man’s funeral expenses. They raised three times their target amount. Everyone loves a dead hero.
I went to his funeral, which was attended by about ten times the number of people who would have known him when he was alive.
The lady on the bus was not among the mourners.
In a way, it didn’t matter. She had done her job.
I said goodbye for both of us.
Three months later, there was a small article on page ten saying that a homeless man said he recognised the dead hero, but did not want to come forward because he didn’t trust the police. He said that they were in league with the aliens who were planning to take over the Transit Services.
The homeless bloke said the dead hero’s name was Frank, and I must admit that I look very carefully at every bus driver I encounter — you just never know.
The story above is pure fiction, but it is inspired by a true story a fellow WordPress person posted (Icelandpenny). She set me a gentle challenge to see what I could do with her story. I hope she approves.
“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’m sorry Mr Bennett,” she didn’t look that sorry, “but a shared sleeper is all we have left. If you must travel on that day, you will have to share. If you can put your trip off for a day or two you can have your pick of the solo cabins — they are more expensive, of course.”
“I have to be there on Friday, so it has to be the overnight train on Thursday. I’ll take the ticket, but tell them to stock up on decent whisky. I’m going to need it, and so is my sleep buddy,” said Sam
“You will have some time to yourself because your fellow passenger won’t be boarding until Ararat.”
That’s a few hours of peace, thought Sam, who was looking forward to reading the new Michael Robotham novel he purchased just for this journey.
The Overland sat quietly at platform 2, waiting for its passengers.
Train travellers are an interesting bunch. Many of Sam’s fellow passengers shared his dislike of planes and airports.
Trains rarely involve a full body cavity search, lack of legroom, surely security and godawful food.
The Overland, beautiful named, is a throwback to a time when people travelled for adventure, and the cost was not the top priority.
The train company asks that passengers arrive thirty minutes before departure. They are met by a company employee dressed appropriately, including a wide-brimmed Akubra. Passengers wait patiently next to their assigned carriage until the porter opens the doors. Find your cabin, stow your bags and head for the bar, maybe a snack. The evening meal is delivered to your room and so is breakfast, but a man needs snacks and a stiff drink.
Sam chose the upper bunk — first in first served.
He opened his book but decided to enjoy the view. In a few short hours, darkness will descend.
The hustle and bustle of Spenser Street station at peak hour provides lots to look at. City workers heading home. Their tired countenance is even more disturbing than their morning gaze.
Suburban, country and interstate trains all share this massive station.
The train sounded its horn and slowly pulled out, right on time.
“If Mussolini were alive, he would be proud,” said Sam to himself. Right-wing arseholes are obsessed with trains running on time.
The train travelled slowly as it negotiated the rail yards with its twists and turns. The wheels and bogies complained loudly at the frequent changes of direction.
The train travels slowly for the first hour until it clears the suburbs of Melbourne. Some would say that the view is uninspiring, but Sam enjoyed the sometimes rusty and occasionally grubby nature of these old industrial suburbs. They reminded him of his childhood. His father worked skillfully with his hands, and on rare occasions, Sam was allowed to accompany him to work on weekends, when the bosses weren’t around.
Rust has its own distinctive aroma as do grease and dust and sweat, all ingredients of a working-class employment.
Once in open country, the train accelerates, and Geelong approaches rapidly.
Past Geelong and the country flattens out. The early settlers called it ‘Pleurisy Plains’. Anyone venturing out during the areas vicious gales was sure to contract the infection.
The flatness comes about because it is a larval plain. The local Aborigines have lived here for so long that their oral history talks about the distant volcano erupting some twenty thousand years ago.
Through the gloaming, Sam could just see Mount Elephant — its indigenous name is ‘Hill of Fire’.
It was getting harder to see the countryside as the train pulled into Ararat.
The massive, now empty, rail yards looked like an old car park that no one used anymore. All a bit grim.
There was a country train on the other platform as Sam’s train pulled in. The passengers gazed at his train, no doubt wondering where it was headed and what the passengers were headed to.
After the train pulls out of Ararat, a strange thing happens. The mileage signpost suddenly drops about 30 miles. After asking the porter, Sam found out that the interstate train travels a longer route to get to Ararat than the regional line. So now they are on that track. Sam wondered who thought that going the long way was a good idea, but why people do the things they do, gives Sam a headache.
Sam’s cabin mate did not appear, and the train had been travelling for long enough for him (he assumed it was a him — even these days, Sam could not imagine a woman wanting to share a cabin with a strange man) to have found the right sleeper berth.
The first part of Sam’s journey had been peaceful, so why worry about the fate of his fellow traveller.
Sam climbed onto his bunk and read his book, but soon turned out the light and snuggled under the covers. The rolling motion is a cure for most people’s insomnia.
He was facing the door when it opened, and a medium height man wearing an overcoat padded into the cabin. He left the door slightly open, which allowed a subdued amount of light to penetrate the darkness. Sam had not pulled the blinds, but on a moonless night, there is only pitch black in the Australian outback.
The new passenger took off his coat, revealing a crumpled suit with no tie. The man was travelling with only a small bag. He reached into the side pocket of the bag and produced a bundle wrapped in an old cloth. The bundle went out the window, and the sound of rushing air diminished when the man closed it and climbed onto his bunk. He didn’t snore, but before long Sam could hear the sound of heaving breathing.
That same rhythmic breathing was still to be heard when Sam woke instinctively as the porter knocked on his door, breakfast trays in hand.
“Thanks, mate, I’ll take those,” said Sam and the porter did not glance nor comment on Sams lack of suitable attire. Porters see it all on sleeper trains.
Sam put the tray for the mystery traveller on the small table and his tray on the bunk. He managed to climb up without putting his foot in his breakfast. He was pleased with this achievement and proceeded to consume his eggs and toast while unfolding the newspaper. Somewhere, the train had picked up the early edition of the Adelaide Advertiser, which seemed fair as they were closer to Adelaide than Melbourne, but Sam would have prefered the Melbourne Age, even if it was a bit hard to unfold at this hour of the day.
The articles rolled out the usual tales of local and international mayhem, which surprised Sam because, from his experience, people in Adelaide didn’t know there was an outside world, apart from Melbourne which they hated. Forever in its shadow, Adelaide folk take any chance to compare themselves favourably, usually around Australia’s favourite religion, sport.
One item caught Sam’s eye.
There had been a shooting in Ararat.
A young husband had come home from work and found his wife in the arms of her lover, a small-time gangster from Melbourne. There was a photograph showing the front of a house illuminated by police floodlights. A neighbour, dressed in her dressing gown said that it had been going on for months and she felt sorry for the husband, “Such a nice young man. Works all the hours that God sends. Gets home late after commuting to Melbourne. He deserved better than her, God rest her soul.”
The wife died in the arms of her lover, and the lover was in a critical condition. The writer alluded, ever so subtly, that even if he did survive, his philandering days were over.
The husband and his Great War revolver were still missing when the paper went to print. The gun came back from France with his grandfather. A Webley six-shot revolver, an officer’s weapon.
The passenger’s tray was untouched when Sam climbed down, washed, dressed and waited for the train to pull into Adelaide Parklands Terminal.
Sam will need a taxi because for some reason they built the terminal away from the city, which means that it does not go to the beautiful old Adelaide Station.
Sam wasn’t trying to be quiet as he performed his preparations for arrival, but the passenger did not wake.
When the porter came for the trays, Sam told him to come back as late as possible, “This bloke needs his sleep. He’s had a rough time. Don’t wake him till you absolutely have to.” Sam slipped the porter a ‘fifty’. The porter smiled and promised. Sam made a note to add the ‘fifty’ to his client’s bill. The rich buggers can afford it.
Sam didn’t mind having a train trip to Adelaide, but all his business could have been handled by email or on the phone, but this law firm only wanted face to face meetings. It seems that they don’t trust computers. Their bill was going to be huge, but they didn’t seem to mind.
The taxi was waiting when Sam stepped out of the station, the air as hot and dry as he remembered.
“City, please driver. Rundle Mall,” said Sam.
“Might take a bit longer at this hour mate, peak hour and everything,” said the driver.
Sam laughed, “I’ve seen your ‘peak hour’ son. It lasts about ten minutes.”
Usually, Sam would have reminded the driver of what was likely to happen to him if he did the old trick of driving ‘the long way around’, a popular ploy of taxi drivers worldwide when they sensed an ‘out of towner’, but on this trip, Sam didn’t care. It was all on his client’s account.
“Just make sure I get a receipt and don’t get greedy,” said Sam.
The passenger woke to the sound of the porter and his gentle nudge.
“Sorry, sir. I left it as long as I could as per your friend’s instructions.”
“What friend?” said the sleepy man with the ruffled suit.
“The one you shared the cabin with,” said the porter, “he left this for you.”
The porter handed him a postcard with a photograph of The Overlander crossing Australia’s longest rail viaduct, just outside Geelong. On the back, written in a clean hand with a newly sharpened pencil were these words:
Dear Mr Park. I’m sorry your missus cheated on you. I know your heart is broken and I know that you will come to regret what you have done, but I do understand. A bloke can only take so much, and betrayal is about as bad as it gets.
It’s not my job to turn you in, but if you hurt anyone else I will come and find you, and you will regret breaking my trust.
P.S. I hope you took the remaining bullets out of the gun before you threw it out of the window.
Keep your head down and don’t make me regret my decision.
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.
In a tiny corner at the back of my mind, I knew that someday, someone would get the wrong idea. The prospect of this misunderstanding seemed so far into the future that I dismissed it even though I knew it would come.
I need time to myself — away.
Away from everyone and everything.
Living in a crowded city makes that almost laughable, but I found a way.
Our building is old — mid-1930s. Which means that the windows open (the ones that aren’t painted shut) and they are huge — almost door-sized huge.
Some paranoid soul, probably a previous owner frightened of being sued, nailed all the windows shut — but he missed one, perhaps because it is in a cupboard on our floor. I doubt that it has always been a cupboard. When the building was new, it would have been a half-width version of all the other double-hung windows, an elegant full stop to the symmetry that ran along the west wall.
For many decades it has cast daylight on brooms and cardboard boxes, coats and hats and probably bicycles.
I discovered the window’s ability one summers night after putting the children to bed.
I knew how it was supposed to work because my father worked on the restoration of old buildings. Invisible cords run through squeaky pullies pulled by heavy counterweights enabling the window to stay open at any height along its full travel.
There is a satisfying rumble as the window glides upward and the counterweights bang around inside the casement.
Cold air rushes in and hits you in the face forcing you to breathe in momentarily.
Hitching my dress up, I step uncertainly onto the wide stone ledge.
In this moment, I am the first human to step onto the stonework since the original builders packed up and went home, almost a hundred years ago. Even the window cleaners don’t step on the ledge. They glide past riding shiny metal saddles, flashing their rubber blades and soapy sponges.
This ledge is mine, shared only by the occasional bird.
Being untroubled by heights is a plus in a situation like this.
On windy days I have been worried, but I have steady hands, and I fix my gaze on a point way off in the distance. I can feel the stress draining out of me as I listen to the sounds wafting up from the street far below.
I cannot make out conversations, they are blown away before they reach me, but sirens and horns sometimes get through.
I hear the unmistakable sound of one of those ancient counterweights falling to the bottom of the wall cavity as the equally ancient cord gives way. With only one counterweight doing the work of two, the sash slowly slides down until it hits the sill and a similarly unmistakable sound of the window lock clicking into place greets my ears.
In rapid succession, my mind plays out what is likely to happen next.
I could stand here until someone assumes I’m going to jump and calls the authorities or I could break the window with my less than appropriate shoes. The second option has its dangers — loss of balance, nasty cut from flying glass, dead pedestrian far below.
I step out here so I can clear my mind and reengage with my world.
However this plays out, I believe that I have lost my only means of escape.
I don’t want to explain it all to them.
It’s so peaceful out here.
Illustration: Kenton Nelson
It doesn’t work if you use a paper cup, and at the time, I kind of knew it, but needs must, etc.
It has something to do with the rigidity or the lack thereof. Also, the paper fibres soak up the sound.
I’d been invited to a formal dinner party, which happens to me from time to time. Every good dinner party needs a successful writer, and when there is a shortage of them, I get a call. Second tier successful is better than no writer at all.
The party was mildly amusing, and I got a free meal which might not sound like much, but I like to eat, and writers don’t make very much money, so every free dinner counts.
My apartment block is tranquil most of the time but on this evening, after arriving home early — I’m so sorry to leave early, but I have an early appointment with my editor – no I don’t, but if I told you I was so bored I was in danger of chewing my arm off in order to escape you might not invite me back for a free meal.
The muffled sounds were oozing through our connecting wall, begging me to listen in. I gently placed my ear against the cold surface, but all I could hear was muffled sounds mixed with my heartbeat.
I’d seen it done in the movies, so I grabbed the paper cup from my bedside and placed it silently against the wall. The rim of the cup hurt my ear and gave no magnification or clarity to what was happening next door.
A wiser man would have continued to undress and proceed with the preparations for a sound night’s sleep, but I’m not a wiser man.
I remembered the stethoscope that belonged to my great uncle. For some reason, he willed it to me. My great uncle was a doctor in Edinborough and knew the famous Dr Bell, who Sherlock Holmes was based on.
In those days, I was a careless young man who had scant regard for family history, so I had put the stethoscope somewhere, but the exact spot was a bit of a mystery.
I found it, in its tattered leather case bearing my great uncle’s name, in the back of my sock drawer, and no, I have no idea why I put it there.
The rubber tubing was showing signs of deterioration, but the whole thing held together long enough for me to hear what was happening next door.
I cannot tell you how many times I have wished that I had just gone to bed instead of snooping.
The case caused a sensation, and the resultant publicity led to a first tier writing career. I never understood why so few people read my work before all this blew up and so many after.
I have regrets, it has to be said, but the universe pays scant regard to regrets and life goes on, but I do mourn for that dress shirt.
No matter how hard I tried, nothing would get the blood out.
Illustration: Kenton Nelson