“In some countries, it’s considered bad form to urinate while wearing a hat,” I said.
“Okay. So what’s your point?”
I didn’t have one — a point, that is.
The etiquette of taking a leak while wearing, or not wearing a hat, was simply a distraction.
It’s a trick I learned from my mum. My dad had no need to bamboozle a bully — he had always been able to take care of himself. I didn’t inherit his physique, so other measures were required to escape the clutches of a tormenter.
The technique was simple and in two parts.
The second part came from my grandfather. He understood dogs.
“Never take a backward step when confronted by a dog. They read body language at the speed of light. Flinch or take a backward step, and they see you as weak. Never back away from a bully either.”
The first part of the process involves confusing the bully, who usually hunts with a pack. Confuse them for long enough, and they get bored, or their friends do, which is even better.
“Come on Steve this bloke’s nuts, and we’ve got stuff to do.”
The sound of your back-up Neanderthals drifting away is a powerful persuader.
It has to be said that my big mouth got me into a heap of trouble, but I could talk my way out of most of it.
In the dog world, eye contact is reserved for other members of the pack, otherwise, it is seen as a challenge.
In the human world, eye contact is seen as a sign of strength.
If you stare at someone, there is a good chance that they will think that you can handle yourself. A small smile helps to complete the picture. Not too big a smile, that could make things worse.
As I hoped, my tormentor’s friends got bored and encouraged him to thump me or go with them in search of easier prey.
He wandered off, leaving me with a not very well veiled threat.
It wasn’t our last encounter, but eventually, his tiny brain maxed itself out, and his parents took him out of school and ensconced him in a dead-end job where I’m sure he lived out his days.
I went on to be an even bigger big-mouth, and it continued to get me into and out of trouble.
And I’m not sure I would have had it any other way.
“Lightning strikes the earth about eight million times a day, so it isn’t surprising that we get a few strikes around here.”
“I’ve lived here since before colour television, and I can hardly ever remember any lightning strikes. Now you can’t move for the bloody things,” I said, and I was aware of how strange it all sounded.
“What’s your point, old-timer?”
It took a great deal of self-control not to punch the smug bastard in the balls.
“My point, sonny (I never call anyone ‘sonny’) is that several people have been killed by lightning strikes over the past three months and no one seems to be doing anything about it. I lost my best friend and two of my neighbours.”
He narrowed his eyes after the ‘sonny’ crack, and I could see that I was not getting anywhere.
Exactly when did I slip into the old codger age group?
Was a time when I spoke, people listened. I had authority. Maybe they weren’t quite sure why, but I sounded like I should be in charge.
Now, I’m lucky if people don’t laugh when I speak.
I really didn’t mean to say it, but I was so frustrated it just slipped out.
“The fucking aliens, you numbskull. They’re killing people with lightning bolts.
They hit Henry’s house three times before they got him.”
“I heard about that one. Strangest thing,” said the desk sergeant.
“Henry thought so too, the first two times. I don’t know what he thinks now. Not much, I’m guessing. Completely fried!”
The police officer’s natural curiosity had distracted him momentarily, but now he was back.
“Aliens, you say?”
I knew that tone, and I could almost hear someone preparing a cell for me to sleep in tonight.
I was in it now so might as well get it over with.
“Do you remember the 1950’s film, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers?”
Despite himself, the sergeant nodded.
“Well, do you remember that no-one believed it was happening until it was too late?”
The sergeant could see the trap he was walking into.
“Okay, so no-one is snatching bodies, but they are doing away with anyone who would be strong enough to stand against them — when they decide to come,” I said.
Next morning, they fed me breakfast before letting me out of my cell.
The desk sergeant had gone home, but he had briefed his replacement.
“Good luck with those aliens, old-timer,” he said as he handed me my wallet and shoelaces.
I sat in the waiting area and laced up my shoes.
I knew it was only a matter of time before the lightning caught up with me. They know where I live and they have tried once — hit the shed and fucked up all my gardening stuff.
I loved that ride-on mower.
I’ve spoken to everyone I can think of who might be open-minded enough to understand, but all I get is blank stares or the bum’s rush.
Fuck ‘em if they won’t listen.
“Did you hear about the police station being hit by lightning? Killed everyone of them. Newspapers said it was unprecedented,” said my neighbour.
“That’s a big word for our local newspaper. They must have employed someone who can spell, for a change,” I said, and my neighbour looked at me like I was from another planet.
“Come to think of it, there has been a lot of lightening just lately,” said my well-informed neighbour.
“Really. I hadn’t noticed.”
“Why did you pick me? Why do you think I can help you?” I said.
I took a sip from the vodka she’d poured me when I arrived.
“Because you found those kids when no one else could.”
I’d heard this speech before, or some version of it. There is something mystical about being able to do something that no-one else can, I guess.
And then there’s the kidnapped kids element — tugging at the heartstrings.
“Do you know how I pulled that off — the high point of my career?”
She looked at me over the rim of her glass. Her blond hair was still pulled back, and I wondered what she looked like first thing in the morning.
“I was in the right place at the right time. I didn’t know they were there. I was banging on that door because someone had hemmed me in — parked so close that I couldn’t move my car. I was tired and pissed off from chasing the story all day — asking questions of people who didn’t want to answer, or couldn’t, and I guess I sounded angry. The fuckwit must have thought I was the police and he legged it out the back door. When the front door came open, and that little face looked up at me and said, ‘Have you come to save us?’ I just froze. I expected to get a shotgun pushed into my face.”
She never broke eye contact, and I thought she was going to say something, but she just gazed at me with those eyes. Now I was wondering what she would look like after a torrid afternoon in a hotel bedroom.
“The kids were all scared and tired and grubby, and except for the boy who opened the door, they were all silent. I sat on the old vinyl couch in the living room with the kids and waited for the police to arrive. I’m not sure that the switchboard operator believed me when I rang it in. I left the front door open to show that we were in there and we were okay, but it didn’t stop the Special Response Squad from bursting in with the familiar sound of ‘ARMED POLICE. GET ON THE GROUND.’ I still have that fuckers knee print on my back.”
She held her glass tightly, her lips slightly apart and I wondered all sorts of things about those lips.
“They caught Stanley James Smith a few houses away, and I got a curt apology for being roughed up. You know how it is Mr Fox. We can’t be too careful. Sorry about arresting you and all the rest.” I said with my best ‘cop in charge’ accent.
“I asked him what his name was. Commander Wilson. I was in charge of the search. He put his hand out to shake mine — for the cameras. Fuck you very much, Commander Wilson,” was my reply — or words to that effect. The Commander smiled at me and said, Fair enough. We both produced our best smiles for the camera.
About a year later I won the Walkley Award for my series of articles on the Cameron Street Primary School kidnapping. The story stretched over four Saturday editions — about twenty thousand words and not once did I mention the kidnapper’s name — didn’t give the fucker what he wanted — fame.”
“But you got yours — fame, I mean,” she said.
“Yes, I did, and every time someone mentions those kids, I feel like apologising.”
“You must have done something right in another life — the Universe likes you.”
“Maybe. The votes aren’t in yet. So exactly what is it you think I can find for you?”
“Peace of mind,” she said.
“I charge extra for peace of mind.”
“A blue marker pen will do the trick, but you will have to renew it every day,” said the lady with the blond curls.
She would have been a stunner in her youth, but even now — those eyes, wow!
“Our dot is tattooed on, and it contains all our information, apparently. I’ve never seen anyone scan it — it’s enough that you have one. Once we leave port, they lose interest,” she said.
For my part, I’m still trying to come to terms with being on this ship — I should be dead, and instead, I’m drawing a blue dot on the top knuckle of my left thumb — life is strange.
“Did you sneak on when we were docked at Melbourne,” she said.
“Sort of,” I answered.
“It’s fun here. Much better than being stuck in a retirement home,” she said.
“I’ll bet,” I said, and I meant it. The thought of ending up in one of those places was a contributing factor in my decision to kill myself.
“We can eat whatever we like, and there’s dancing for those who still can, and there’s alcohol, but that costs extra. Even with the occasional drink it’s cheaper here, and there are sea birds and cute young seamen,” she said.
I like this lady, but I have no idea why she is helping me.
“You’ve bumped your head,” she said.
“That’s an understatement,” I said, as the blood trickled down behind my ear. I can feel it soaking into my collar — a strange sticky sensation. The dull throb in my head is getting louder.
“I’ve got something in my cabin that can fix that,” she said.
“I’m not going to end up looking like a pirate, am I?” I said.
She smiled and took me by the hand as we walked along the corridor. Cabin 234, small, recently painted, efficiently fitted out, and most importantly, a porthole.
“How did you afford a room with a porthole,” I asked.
“It’s a cabin, not a room. They like us to use the correct nautical terms,” she said.
“Fair enough, when in Rome,” I said.
“We aren’t in Rome, young man. That bump on your head has mixed you up,” she said. “I was told I could have a porthole for the same price if I took a tiny cabin. I don’t need a lot of space, but I do like a view.”
I looked through her porthole which had been painted many times — I doubted its ability to open. Her cabin is on the upper decks, and this ship is huge. Her view extended to the horizon. I left a nose-print on the glass, and I wiped it off with my sleeve. This lovely lady bandaged my head and did her best to brush the soot from my jacket. I’m dressed in my best. If I’m leaving this world, I want to be presentable when I get where I’m going.
My curly haired saviour reached into the top drawer of her dressing table and drew out a blue pen and a couple of coloured lollies wrapped in clear cellophane. She pressed the lollies into my hand and drew a blue dot on the knuckle of my left thumb. She did it tenderly — I sensed that I reminded her of someone.
“You can have the pen, it will keep you going for a while — until you find another one. She said find as though she knew this for certain. She opened her cabin door and ushered me out.
“You’ll be fine now. We’ll be through the Heads and out of the bay in a few hours. Keep your head down until then, and you’ll be okay. You’ll need somewhere to sleep, and you’ll meet two ladies who will sort that out for you,” she said, and there was that certainty again.
I didn’t answer her, but I did give her a big smile and a gentle touch on the shoulder. As I walked away I could feel blood soaking into my bandage, and I’d forgotten to ask about food, but I had the feeling that my blue dot would get me into the dining room — ‘drinks are extra.’
This ship was supposed to be the method of me leaving this world, and now I find that it is to be my world, at least for the moment. I’m wondering why I don’t jump overboard?
I’m a weak swimmer, I’d drift away — it would be over quickly.
My curiosity has been peaked for the first time in a long time — I want to see where this is leading. After all, my salvation was miraculous, so what other miracles does the universe have in store?
“So what happened to you, young man, “ said the lady with the red handbag.
“Was it a woman?” asked her friend in the floral dress and the string of pearls.
“Nice pearls,” I said, “and a ship hit me. No woman involved. I jumped off a bridge in a futile attempt to kill myself. I was aiming to disappear into a funnel, but the damn ship was going faster than it was supposed to and I bounced off the funnel and landed in a huge basket of laundry,” I said, and as soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew they sounded crazy, but neither of the ladies looked stunned. Maybe they heard stories like this every day.
“Why jump into a funnel?” said the red handbag.
“That way, there would not be a body for anyone to find. Nice and neat — no mess. And, if you must know, it was to be my final creative act on this earth. To the best of my knowledge, and I did the research, no one has ever committed suicide by jumping into the funnel of a moving ship. I had the mathematics all worked out. I calculated the height from the bridge to the top of the funnel. The ship would be fully laden with passengers and supplies, and even though she would be sitting low in the water, her funnels would only just fit under the bridge at half tide. The ship would not be allowed to exceed four knots for risk of swamping smaller boats and damaging shore facilities with her wake. I had it all worked out except for the fact that you hit a small sailing vessel,” I said.
“Two older ladies out for a sail. They told us over the public address. No need for alarm. The two ladies were picked up by the police launch. It did hold us up a bit though,” said the string of pearls.
“That explains the turn of speed. The captain would have been worried about the rising tide. The speeding fine and resultant claims would have been heaps smaller than the repair bill if he had torn off the funnels on my bridge,” I said, with a sense of satisfaction. I’ve always liked to understand why stuff happens, and now I know why I’m still here. The damn ship was going too fast. All those calculations and they go out the window because two old ladies don’t give way to a bloody big boat. I hope they throw the book at them. Better still, I hope I meet them — but then again, that is unlikely. Wherever this ship is going, I’m going with it, and I doubt I will see these shores again.
“You’ll need a place to sleep,” said the red handbag.
“That would be nice. I could use a lie down about now,” I said.
“Not a good idea for you to be alone for the next couple of days with that head wound. You undoubtedly have a concussion. You need to rest, or there could be dire consequences,” said string of pearls.
“Like dying?” I said, hopefully.
“If you still wanted to die, you would have gone over the side by now. I’m guessing that you are having second thoughts, and if that is so, you should listen to my friend. She was a combat nurse in her day. She’s seen all sorts of nasty stuff,” said the red handbag.
“You’d better stay in our cabin for a few days. That way, we can keep an eye on you and change your dressing,” said the string of pearls.
“A gentleman sleeping in the same cabin as two unattached ladies?” I said.
“I think we can resist you, at least until you regain your strength. After that, who knows,” said the string of pearls. Both ladies laughed heartily, and I managed a smile.
Their cabin was spacious, and I curled up on a bottom bunk and slept and dreamed of old ladies in beautiful dresses.
I remember string of pearls waking me and feeding me soup and changing my bandage. I had no idea why these ladies should take pity on me, and I didn’t much care. Maybe they wanted me for my body — no one had done that in a long time. Perhaps I’d be up to the task — only time would tell. Now there was sleep and soup and trips to the bathroom — and dreams, strange dreams.
“We’ve found you a cabin of your own, and it is not far from ours so you can come and visit whenever you like,” said the red handbag. “It’s cabin 212. The gentleman who owns it got off in Melbourne and never reboarded. This sort of thing happens from time to time, but the person left behind always radios the ship to let them know. Mr Winkle has not radioed. I know because the radio officer likes me,” said the red handbag.
“It’s true, he does,” said string of pearls.
“The stewards will continue to service the room, and they will not know the difference. All old people look alike to them,” said the red handbag.
“When can I see it?” I said.
“Maybe tomorrow. You are getting stronger each day. In any case, all of the smaller cabins look much the same.”
“Does it have a porthole?” I asked.
“Yes, it does. Why do you ask? Not planning to squeeze out, are you?”
“No. I just like to have a view,” I said.
“It’s not very big, but it does have a porthole and all of Mr Winkle’s clothes and things are still in the cabin. He was about your build so you should be able to wear some of his clothes.”
It occurred to me that this bloke was probably dead or shacked up with a woman or lying in a hospital and a John Doe. Sooner or later someone was going to work it all out, but in the meantime, I had a bolthole — a safe haven and a couple of slightly strange allies — things could be a lot worse.
Blond curls was correct — no one asked to see my blue dot when I walked into the dining room. I was a little bit disappointed. I’d taken great care to make the dot perfectly round.
The aroma of delicious food assailed my nostrils, and my imagination went into overdrive.
“Scallop potatoes, beans, fried tomatoes and two sausages, well-cooked please.”
The steward nodded, and I wondered if he noticed that I was not as old as everyone else, but his mind was elsewhere.
I’d let my whiskers grow a bit to give me that scruffy old bloke appearance, and it seemed to be helping.
“You’ll need a tray,” said the gentleman behind me. “Here, take mine.”
He handed me his tray and disappeared for a moment and came back with another one — still damp from being cleaned and put back on the stack.
“Just there,” he said, pointing at the hidden stack of trays. “They tuck them in there to keep them out of the way and to trick new arrivals.”
I took my tray to the nearest table, which conveniently had a view out onto the deck. My tray advisor followed me. We sat facing each other, and he was added to the list of people who did not notice my relative youth.
“So what made you join the voyage of the damned?”
“That’s a bit harsh mate,” I said.
“Gallows humour,” he said as he stared self consciously at his food.
“I like these old folks, er, us old folks. I never thought of myself as old (which was true), but I don’t mind people seeing me that way (also true). Everyone I’ve met since I came aboard has been very kind.”
My new friend grunted.
“You don’t seem to be too happy to be here?” I said.
I looked at my plate, piled high and calculated how long it would take to eat.
“I’ve got fourteen point three minutes. Fire away.”
I was true to my word, and I was kind of listening, but mostly I was savouring a meal that was in many ways, a bonus.
“So, here I am, using up all my money on this endless voyage just so my ungrateful children get nothing when I cark it.”
“It’s your money, mate. Spend it how you like, but from where I’m sitting,” I looked out onto the deck in time to see two well-dressed ladies chasing and giggling after an equally well-dressed man who was running just fast enough to keep them close behind, “you don’t sound like you are enjoying the experience. You do realise that there are approximately six point four women for each man on this ship?”
My companion looked surprised.
“Yep. I counted them. Not much else to do this last week.”
“You’re right,” he said, rising from his seat. “Why am I sitting here with you. These women need me.”
“Are you going to finish that?”
He didn’t answer, so I pulled his half-finished chicken cacciatora in my direction.
I drained my glass of red wine, pushed my plate away just in time for a steward to collect the wreckage of my sumptuous meal.
I walked out on the deck and sat in the sun, digesting my meal.
Sleep found me.
I dreamed of standing on the bridge before floating through the air.
The smell of the clean linen in the huge basket was fresh in my nostrils when I woke. Some kind soul had placed a blanket over me while I slept. The air was cold, and the scent of the sea helped me believe that this wasn’t a dream.
I rolled onto my back and stared up at the rapidly darkening sky. The moon and the brightest star were visible, and as I lay there, other stars slowly emerged.
It reminded me of being a kid, lying on the back lawn in mid-summer, watching the sky and dreaming of adventure.
My life turned out to be significantly less adventurous than I had hoped. Miserable at times. Moments of happiness.
I know that at the time, I was serious about ending my miserable life, but as I lay in the deck chair with the roll of the ship to comfort me, I was struggling to remember why I felt that all was lost.
There must be more than a thousand people on this ship. So many stories. So many potential adventures.
For now, I have a cabin, all I can eat, plenty of company and a blue dot on my thumb.
What could possibly go wrong?
“Just for a break, we’re going to play something different.”
“C’mon, Johnno. I thought we come here to play poker.”
“We do, but it’s my house, my game and I say we play something different. Just one hand, so don’t get you panties in a twist.”
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this was a smoke-filled room full of tired, semi-drunk businessmen with more money than sense — it wasn’t.
That’s not to say that I haven’t been in one — too many to mention.
What we had here was something entirely different — almost refined.
John Jackson, ‘Johnno’ to his friends, lived on the edge of town — the old part, built in the 1910s. The houses were and still are, owned by the people who make decisions. This area escaped the rampant demolition and redevelopment of the 1960s.
‘Money’ does not like to be disturbed.
John Jackson’s games room was big enough to stage a large party but intimate enough to make you feel cosseted. You lost track of time, as all gambling establishments encourage.
“So, what are we going to play?” I asked. It was evident that Johnno was going to get his way, so we might as well get on with it, then we could get back to Poker.
“Have to say that I have not had the pleasure.”
“Bugger that for a game of soldiers. I’m getting a drink. Billy, you want to join me,” said Matt Johnson.
Johnson stood about three inches under six foot but weighed about the same as someone eight inches taller. He came to these games because he was in construction and it was good for business. Billy Mitchell liked sandwiches and beer and women — which did not include his wife.
“Where did you get the tucker from Johnno?” said Billy, rising from his seat, issuing the grunt of a man who had sat in the same place for too long.
“Preston’s on Miller Street. Best Deli on the westside.”
“Better than Louie’s?”
“You tell me?”
By this time, Billy had a sandwich in each hand, and he grunted his assent. Matt Jackson poured them both a beer and they headed for the plush armchairs lining the wall.
The wallpaper was from another era. Dark and extravagant. The two men sank into their chairs, and the standard lamps that were well placed around the room shone a light on them both. They munched away and looked across at the card table.
The light behind the bar, illuminating every liquor known to mankind, was dim whereas the stained glass lightshade above us was bright enough for even the most imperfect eyesight.
I prefer green baize, but Johnno’s table was covered in a rich burgundy.
“So, how do we play this game?” I said.
“Before you get started, I’m off to the ‘ladies room’. Deal me out.” Michelle was one of three women who regularly attended. She ran three ‘female’ business in our town. Her divorce made her very wealthy, and while her husband drifted away from the regular monthly games night, she stayed. She rarely lost, and her winnings were modest. I think she was lonely, but what would I know? She pressed up against me one night when we met in the hallway leading to the toilets. She didn’t say anything, just didn’t get out of the way to let me pass. She smelled sweet, and her body was soft and inviting. I still don’t know why I didn’t fuck her — one of life’s great mysteries. She didn’t hold it against me if you know what I mean.
Johnno had one of the bedrooms on this floor made into two generous sized toilets. This old house was not built with such amenities. The area wasn’t sewered until the 1920s, so, the toilet was outside — away from the house. It’s still there though not used for that purpose. I think the pool cleaner keeps his stuff in there.
With Michelle gone, it left me, Johnno and Danielle.
I have to admit to wanting to do all sorts of intimate things to and with Danielle. At the time, I hadn’t figured out if the feeling was mutual.
Life was a game to Danielle.
Winning was not only important — it was the manner of winning that was paramount.
Johnno explained the rules and produced a deck of cards. Basically, it was a kids game, and you could win in one of two ways.
If you picked up the designated card from the deck, you won, or if you got down to your last card, you won. Pretty simple, but fun none the less.
“Clockwise around the table,” said Johnno.
Michelle had returned to the room. She poured herself a drink and sat in one of the comfortable chairs.
The deck had elaborate illustrations and a single word printed across the bottom of the card in a font that matched the style of the picture.
“So, what’s the designated card?” said Danielle.
“MOTHER,” said Johnno.
We started with five cards.
If we did not guess the name of the card that the player on our left was trying to get rid of, we had to pick up a card.
“He works with a substance that makes him sound like he’s rich,” said Johnno.
“Dough. So that would be BAKER!” said Danielle triumphantly.
Johnno had to draw a card.
He was not doing well.
Danielle and I, on the other hand, were neck and neck.
“Bugger this,” said Johnno. “I give up (he had fifteen cards in his hand at that moment). “You two can fight it out.”
“It was your idea, Johnno,” said Matt. Johnno shot him a look.
Danielle and I stared at each other. Everything and everyone faded into the background — there was only us and our insatiable desire to win.
“Want to make it interesting?” said Danielle.
“Five thousand and a packet of Juicy Fruits.”
“What is it with you and chewing gum?”
She didn’t answer.
I’d put five thousand down on a hand before, but this felt different. It felt like a dream I often had — standing naked in front of a room full of people.
Frankly, I wouldn’t mind seeing Danielle naked, but that was a whole other dream.
We had both worked out that the trick to this game was the way you asked your question.
If your question was too obscure, you got jumped on by the other players and had to pick up a card.
If you could justify your question, you would win that round, and they would have to take a card.
We battled it out evenly until we each had two cards left.
No sign of the MOTHER card, so it would probably come down to who got down to their last card.
I don’t remember it happening, but somehow the four non-players were now surrounding our table. They stood silently and waited.
“This person can be two people. This person is in every country and every town. Age does not define this person. This person can lead and follow. Without this person, psychiatrists would go out of business. You know this person.”
I thought about what she had said, and my mind went straight to ‘mother’. But that could not be. If she had the MOTHER card, she had already won. It had to be a trick. She was playing with me. Then again, maybe she wasn’t. No, no-one is that crazy. But she might be. I have to say something soon or pick up a card.
“I know this sounds crazy, but MOTHER.”
I looked at Danielle, who did not have a ‘tell’, not as far as I knew. She looked down at her face down cards. She picked up the top card and held it up for me to see.
Our hardened audience gasped, ever so softly.
“What were you thinking?” said Michelle, “You had the game won. You had the MOTHER card. Are you crazy?”
“No. I’m not crazy. I wanted to rub his nose in it. I wanted to get down to my last card and wave it in his face. His smug know-all face.”
Her tirade took me by surprise.
Here I was imagining her naked, and here she was imagining dancing on my grave. Boy, did I judge her all wrong.
Danielle reluctantly took five thousand dollars out of her purse and put it on the table.
“Don’t forget the Juicy Fruits sweetheart, and I guess a fuck is out of the question?”
The secret to surveillance is patience.
Some will tell you coffee, others will tell you having a bottle to pee in because something always happens while you are off taking a leak — and it’s true, but those things can be managed.
Without patience and a keen eye, you are just sitting on your arse ticking off the hours.
Allowing yourself to get bored is fatal. So, being in the moment keeps you sharp and wide awake.
Take the magpie drinking from the leaking tap as an example.
I see him most days around lunch time — the hottest part of the day. He lets the water fall from the sky and trickle down his throat. Birds can’t swallow like we can. I read that somewhere. It’s why they tilt their heads back after they dip their beak. This bloke has it covered — straight down his throat.
I’m a low-level operative in a big agency, and it suits me just fine. They don’t give me a lot of responsibility, and that’s fine too. I get lots of jobs like this one, “Keep an eye on Joe Blow’s apartment. Don’t follow him if he goes out just record the time and the time he comes back.”
The client must be well healed. One bloke to record the comings and goings and another to follow him to and fro.
I vary my vantage point.
Sometimes in my car and other times, I sit in the cafe with the red and white table cloths.
The magpie is starting to get used to me.
I give him some of my sandwich.
He doesn’t like tomato.
The cafe owner is distant but friendly, and as long as I order a coffee every hour or two, he doesn’t bother me. He thinks I’m one of those people who write in cafes and that suits me.
I had ambition once.
Then a small boy fell off a fence, and my heart sank with him. No one said it was my fault because no one knew he was helping me. All little boys can climb, right?
I went to the gravesite. There was so much grief and so many people that no one asked me why I was there.
If I sit on my arse and chronicle the comings and goings, nobody gets hurt.
For a while, I thought the magpie was keeping the leaky tap all to himself, but yesterday he turned up with a female. It was hard to tell if she was impressed with his prized secret.
Women are hard to understand — with or without feathers.
Not exactly matching.
Not meant to be.
They each have a story to tell, and they all reflect my love of old things — things with history.
Take the broken catch on the bone coloured case, for example.
I was on an ‘overnighter’, up north. My boss, at the time, wanted some documents delivered by hand. Which was either a nod to the old school way of doing things or there was something dodgy going on. Considering how he ended up, I’d say it was probably the latter.
I never much liked Manchester, and having someone try and lever open my bag while it was in my room, didn’t raise my opinion of the place. I told the manager, and he checked the CCTV. I could see a bloke with a key going into my room, but he didn’t come out — not on that tape. It didn’t take a detective to work out that the bugger was still in there when I noticed the bag.
“Do you want to see if he comes out before you go back up Luv?” said the helpful manager.
I went out for dinner and asked the huge doorman to come up to the room when I got back. Lovely bloke and brave for a person on minimum wage. No burglar and the case was just as I left it. He must have legged it when I stormed out. Never heard anything more about it.
I stole all the toiletries, towels, and the entire contents of the minibar put them all in a huge designer bag and gave them to the brave doorman.
“For your missus,” I said.
“Thanks, luv, but I’m not married,” said the brave doorman.
“For your boyfriend then,” I said, and he laughed. One of those laughs that makes you believe in people again.
My boss looked at me scornfully when he got the hotel bill, but he never said anything. All charged to the client, I’m thinking.
The big tin trunk belonged to a friend, and she was throwing it away when she moved out.
“I’ll have it,” I said and tried to stuff it into the hatchback I was driving at the time. It banged on the back window all the way home.
I cleaned it up a bit — not too much.
The faint lettering said Lieutenant Wilson 2/12 brigade.
I looked him up. He was my friend’s grandfather. Killed in New Guinea.
I asked her about it, and she just shrugged.
If it doesn’t take batteries and connect to the web, it’s not seen as useful.
This tin box also has a dodgy catch which works when it feels like it. I usually wrap a belt around it, but large belts are hard to come by, and mine broke a week before this photo was taken.
The brown case was a present from an old boyfriend who left me to live and work overseas.
I was sad, but I understood.
Sometimes you just have to go.
The catches work well, and it even had its original key (a bent paperclip works just as well). I keep my personal stuff in it when I travel.
Today I’m on a train, my favourite form of conveyance.
The flowers are for my aunty. I’m going to be staying with her for a week or two until things blow over, but that’s a story for another day.
My pockets are full of chocolate bars, the scenery will be beautiful, and my aunty will meet me at the station with her old Morris van. Between the two of us, we should be able to load my bags into the back.
I considered bringing a book to read, but the views are too beautiful to miss, especially the viaduct.
No time to have my head stuck in a book.
It wasn’t murder, not really.
Whatever it was, I needed to keep a low profile for a while.
At least until the dust settled.
Does dust ever settle? Someone always stirs it up.
Keeping my head down was a good idea, but where? I’m a predictable young bloke. I like the places I like, and I tend to end up there sooner or later. So, if someone was looking for me, I would not be that hard to find.
I needed advice, and my grandmother was very good at hiding in plain sight, back in the day. You would never think so to look at her now.
People underestimate her now.
She spent three years in an occupied country doing her bit. She got caught once and talked her way out of trouble. Think about that. How cool do you have to be to be young, female, in trouble and talk your way out of it?
Seriously cool, my grandma.
I could probably hang out at her house, play video games, watch movies and help her with the garden, but I know I would get bored and do something stupid — I’m good at stupid.
I sat at grandma’s kitchen table, as I had done many times growing up. I used to bring my mates to her house on my way home from school. Cake was always available and soft drinks. Grandma always knew the hungry ones, the ones who didn’t get enough to eat at home.
“Have another piece. It’ll only go to waste if you don’t eat it.”
No, it wouldn’t, I’d be thinking.
The sun was coming in through the window and splashing onto the edge of the table. I held onto my mug of tea the way girls do when they are trying to get warm.
“I didn’t have any choice, Grandma. It was him or me.”
Grandma didn’t speak, she just stared at her mug of tea. Grandma never drank from cups, even though she had some fine ones. “You never get enough in a cup, and you end up refilling it over and over.” Grandma was not one for wasting energy.
After several minutes, she applied words to her thoughts.
“You can stay here with me until this is resolved.”
I took a long breath out. I knew she would look after me.
“I have an old friend who runs a nursing home and hospice. I’ll ask if you can help her. I’ll tell her you are considering becoming a nurse and need the experience. The old men will welcome having a man to talk to, and the old ladies will be dazzled by your handsome face.”
I tried not to blush.
This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for my forced isolation, but it will while away the time. Old people don’t frighten me.
Two days later, and I’m shaking hands with Ethel, my grandma’s friend. We were standing in the foyer of a modern building, the light streaming in behind me illuminating Ethel’s face. She seemed kind and determined. The sort of person you would follow just to see where she was going.
“You must be Stephen. Your grandma said you wanted to have some practical experience to add to your nursing application?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Are you planning to specialise in geriatric nursing?”
“I think so.”
“Come, and we will get you a uniform. You can do a few jobs for me. Basic stuff. You are not too proud to do a bit of cleaning, are you Stephen?”
“I’m here to help and to learn.”
“Good. Most of your work will be talking to our residents. Most of them will be happy to have someone new to tell their stories to. They will want to know a bit about you as well.”
Not too much, I hope.
“I can do that.”
The ‘uniform’ turned out to be a set of scrubs with the name of the centre embroidered on the breast. Pale green and they suited me. I never thought much about what colours suit me.
On my fifth day, I was playing chess with Mr Johnston (always call the residents by their last name — it’s a sign of respect, they come from a different generation), when I saw Ethel, Mrs Wilson, walk briskly by the door — the staff never run, it upsets the residents.
“That must be for Billy,” said Mr Johnston. “He’s near the end. I’m going to miss the old bugger.”
“It’s your move Mr Johnston,” I said.
“Don’t feel much like playing, young fella. Need to be on my own.” Mr Johnstone got up and walked back in the direction of his room. I walked out too. I wanted to see what was going on.
I stood in the doorway to Billy Madison’s room. It felt like the air was thicker in there. I hesitated to break the invisible barrier.
“Come closer, Stephen. Mr Madison is leaving us.”
I stepped forward as I was told and watched as the nurse spoke gently to Billy Madison.
“You can go now, Billy. We are here with you. You are not alone.”
Billy Madison breathed his last few laboured breaths, sighed and was still.
This was only the second time I had watched someone die, and the emotion was quite different this time.
“We were with him when he died, which is what we promised him. Now we will prepare his body for the undertaker, and you can help.”
Ethel looked at me as though she expected me to run. I didn’t. Death does not frighten me, it’s living that scares the shit out of me.
“So how was your first week?” said my grandma as she put a load of fresh scones on the table.
“It was fascinating, but I’m glad to have a day off. It’s quite hard when someone you are just getting to know dies in front of you.”
I reached for the butter and the jam as my grandma put the whipped cream on the table.
“How long have you been making scones, grandma?”
“Too long to contemplate. My grandma taught me.”
“Why do your scones taste better than anyone else’s? Don’t tell mum I said that.”
“A secret ingredient,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
“It’s been a week for secrets. I was sitting with a woman just the other day, and she told me a story that only a person who was facing the end of their life could tell.”
“I’ll make a fresh pot of tea, and you can tell me all about it.”
For the first time, I’m not very bright, it has to be said, I realised that my grandma too was at the end of her life. It never entered my mind that she would someday, not be here.
“Well, her story started the day she brought a new wheelbarrow. A red one,” I said as I stuffed the last piece of the scone I had been eating, into my mouth.
“I’ll tell it to you the way she told it to me.”
Without it, I would not have been able to move the body.
I’d always taken it for granted — the wheelbarrow, not the dead body.
It had always been there, leaning up against the shed or sitting quietly, filled with weeds or split fire-wood — just waiting for the task to be completed.
It was ‘on special’ at the hardware store on the high street.
The shop went out of business not long after, but I remember the wheelbarrows all lined up outside with a huge sign saying how much they were and how much I would be saving if I bought one.
The sign had the desired effect.
I’d needed a wheelbarrow for some time, and the first one in the stack was red.
The gentleman who served me was happy to make the sale but worried about how I was going to get it home.
“Have you got a ‘ute’ lady?”
“No, why? Is it a requirement for owning a wheelbarrow?”
He looked at me for a moment. I could tell that he was wondering if I was ‘winding him up’.
He decided that I was.
“No, but she’s a big bugger, and she probably won’t fit across the back seat of your car.”
“I don’t own a car. I walked here, and I’m planning to drive her home. I’ll park her outside the supermarket and load her up with my weekly shopping, and away I go.”
“Fair enough, but she really is a bloody big wheelbarrow. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a smaller one? You can still give the grand-kiddies a ride in a smaller one. The one you picked is big enough to fit a large dead body in.”
He must have thought that he had gone a bit too far because he looked up and gave an embarrassed smile. I wasn’t worried about the ‘dead body’ crack, but I was considering running over his foot for the grandmother comment.
“Is the smaller wheelbarrow on special as well?” I said.
“No, just these huge industrial buggers that I got stuck with when I bought the business.”
“Well then; I have the right barrow, don’t I?”
I smiled and staggered off down the footpath scattering pedestrians in my wake.
I didn’t stop to buy groceries; that was just me ‘getting carried away’ with the hardware store owner.
Every time I go past his old shop, I wonder what happened to him.
His shop became a Noodle Shop, then a $2 Shop, then a Tattoo Parlour, then a Bakery, then an empty shop with a strange collection of bits and pieces lying in the middle of the tiled floor.
It looked like someone had swept up after the last tenants, and never came back to throw out the collection of flotsam.
I’ve always wondered what the orange penis-shaped thing was.
I’m sure that it’s not an orange penis, but there has never been anyone at the shop for me to ask; which is just as well because I think I would be too embarrassed to make that particular enquiry.
Gardening is not my favourite pastime, but since my husband died, I have had to work up the enthusiasm.
Bill was the love of my life, and I miss him so very much.
He left me suddenly — an industrial accident. Everyone was very kind, especially his business partner Ambrose Kruis.
Bill and Ambrose built the business up from nothing, and when Bill died, Ambrose inherited the company; it was part of their partnership agreement. I understood; I wasn’t upset. They were engaged in high-risk construction, and if one of the partners died, it would put the whole business in jeopardy, so it was only fair that the surviving partner benefit.
It also explained the massive payout that Ambrose received as a result of the ‘partners insurance’.
He was not under any obligation, but he helped me anyway.
He knew that Bill put all his capital into the business and consequently, there wasn’t any life insurance.
I had some savings, but they were for a ‘rainy day’, as Bill used to say.
Ambrose was very generous when the roof needed replacing and when the plumbing packed it in.
I knew that I could not rely on him forever, but up until I made a surprise visit to his office, he had looked after me financially.
I arrived early on a Wednesday morning, and his secretary let me wait in his office. “He won’t be long. He’s at a breakfast meeting with the bankers.”
I decided to make the most of my time and write a couple of letters.
I do send emails, but I still prefer the personal touch of sending a letter.
I stepped behind what used to be Bill’s desk and opened the top drawer looking for notepaper.
Two more drawers were opened before I found some, and that’s not all that I found.
The writing paper was not lying flat in the drawer.
There seemed to be something small and bulky under the ream of paper. I removed the paper, and the sunlight coming in low through the office window reflected off the polished silver surface of an antique Victorian hip flask.
You might be wondering why I knew what it was.
I’d given this flask to my husband on our wedding night.
It belonged to my grandfather.
He was some twenty-years-old when he bought it upon arriving in England in 1915.
He was a young Lieutenant on his way to the front.
The flask saw a lot of action, and no doubt helped to dull the terror that trench warfare brought to all those involved.
I recognised the flask from the inscription and by the dent on the top corner. It was caused by a German sniper’s bullet.
After surviving at the front for all those years, one moment of lost concentration and my grandfather’s war came to an end, only months from the close of hostilities.
The notice of his death arrived on the day that the Armistice took effect.
The flask was returned to the family along with his other belongings.
Obviously, I was aware that the flask was missing from my husband’s effects, but I put it out of my mind. He had it with him on the day he died; he always had it with him.
I’m not that bright, but I didn’t need a degree in Physics to figure out that something was terribly wrong.
Ambrose had murdered my husband so that he could get control of the company and collect the insurance. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was all about the insurance and he probably expected to sell the failing business for the value of its component parts. But, to his surprise, the company survived, mainly because my husband had set it up well and the business had an excellent reputation. Its employees loved him and worked their arses off to keep the company going.
It helped that Ambrose was a bit of a womaniser and that he would often disappear for several days at a time when he was on a ‘bender’.
I invited him around to the house for a meal — something that I had done a dozen times.
During the dessert course, I excused myself, “Just need to visit the ladies room.” I came back with an old shovel that my husband used to dig the veggie patch — the irony was not lost on me.
I struck Ambrose twice on the back of the head. He went down, and apart from his lemon-meringue-pie landing on the floor, he did not make much of a mess.
Moving the body proved to be a bit of a chore, but the trusty red wheelbarrow was up to the task.
I didn’t own a car, so Ambrose was going to have to travel in the wheelbarrow for the two-kilometre ride to the construction site that Ambrose’s business owned. There was a concrete pour scheduled for the morning.
I’m not sure what I would have said if someone had stopped me, and I’m pretty sure that I looked hilarious as I struggled along with this huge red wheelbarrow filled with an Ambrose.
I was utterly exhausted when I got him there and dumped him into a pit and covered him with gravel, but I still had to get the wheelbarrow back to my house without being seen.
I was in the lap of the gods on both halves of this deadly journey, but the gods smiled on me, and I made it safely home.
I slept for fifteen hours straight.
I cleaned up the blood and the lemon-meringue-pie when I woke up and waited for the police to arrive.
They never did, and what’s more, it turned out that the partnership agreement had a clause covering the eventuality of both partners dying within ten years of each other.
The business went equally to the wives of the partners.
Ambrose wasn’t married.
I had to wait seven years before Ambrose was declared dead, but I didn’t mind — the money and the business weren’t the points.
That old red wheelbarrow is very ancient. Rust and a little red paint are about the only things holding it together now, but there is absolutely no way I am ever going to throw it away.
Every time I look at it, I’m reminded of everything I’ve lost and also of the revenge that was mine to take.
So much depends on a red wheelbarrow.
My grandma looked up from her cup of tea.
“Never underestimate an old lady,” she said. “Another scone dear?”
“Don’t mind if I do.”