The Body In The Basement

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“Do you think he’s been lonely down here, all alone, all these years?”

It wasn’t like my partner to be this way. Typically, he’s offhand about sudden death — professional and a bit dark in his humour.

“I don’t think so,” I said, “he’s off wherever they go when they’re not here anymore.”

“Even so,” said my partner.

Ashley Bloomfield had worked his way up through the ranks to Detective Sergeant, and I’d been his partner for nearly three years — just long enough to get to know a bloke who guards himself closely.

It was a strange question for him to ask. He’s more a question and answer type of bloke, but on this day he was looking to me for an answer.

“Are you getting all spiritual on me, Ash?” I said.

“I don’t know, maybe. It’s this place. It’s genuinely spooky.”

He had a point, but I knew not to let him get one-up on me.

The call came through at a decent hour and Ash and I were next in the rotation, and about now we wished it had been someone else.

The old mansion on St Kilda Road had been empty for more than thirty years.

Some investment company in Dubai had bought it for a sizeable sum in the early 1990s, then the property market went flat. They decided to sit on it and wait, as all well-healed people can afford to do.

No one was much interested in looking after the place, so people with nowhere else to go would find a way in — out of the storm, so to speak. The property manager would eventually block up the break-in and lose interest again.

It must have been during one of those incursions, so long ago that some sort of fight broke out, and our body had lain there ever since, covered in rubble and wooden planks.

Some enterprising developer had bought the old mansion and was preparing to renovate it (within heritage guidelines, of course) into trendy offices. St Kilda Road still has clout when it comes to city addresses.

This was going to be a thankless job.

If the body turned out to be a homeless bloke, we have our work cut out for us to identify him. If he was killed by another homeless bloke, then he’s probably dead by now. Homelessness tends to shorten your lifespan. Likely no one to slap the cuffs on, just a mountain of pointless paperwork and a John Doe toe tag.

“The forensic folks will be here soon. Constable Whatshisname can keep an eye on things. You want to get a coffee? The dust down here is clogging up my soul,” I said as I moved the most prominent plank out of our way.

The body was fully clothed (bloke’s clothing — I’m not psychic, but it seemed inevitable it was a ‘he’), and it lay where it fell, all those years ago. Bugger all forensic after all this time. No one had dropped a wallet or a calling card or a cigarette case as they do in the movies.

“A coffee sounds good. Get me the fuck out of here, before I forget I’m a lady,” said Ash, and I could see his unique sense of humour returning.

Coffee was easy to find because this is Melbourne, and even my dog can make a good coffee. You have to prove that you know what good coffee tastes like before they will let you cross the border into Victoria, and in Melbourne, the cops will breath-test you for instant coffee — if detected, the penalties are draconian.

The sandwich shop lived up to expectations, and the coffee was a perfect temperature. The tiny glass-fronted store was awash with delicious aromas.

We sat on tall stools and looked out onto the road. Trams rumbled by, and pedestrians did what pedestrians do. Some bloke was making his third attempt to park a Fiat in a space that would accommodate a mid-1960s Ford.

“What do you reckon. Is he gonna make it?” I said. Ash looked up from his coffee. He’d been mesmerised by the pattern on the crema for the past few minutes.

“Nah, he’s buggered.”

“Yeah, I agree. Most blokes will give it away after the second go. It’s too embarrassing.”

Right on cue, the Fiat shot off into traffic accompanied by the copious tooting of horns and the waving of fists.

“He nearly had it that last time,” I said.

“If I disappear in mysterious circumstances, don’t stop looking for me, will ya?”

“Is that something you’re likely to do?” I said.

“Nah, but just in case. I don’t want to lie somewhere, cold and forgotten,” said Ash, who had gone back to staring at the pattern on his coffee.

“I’ll find ya mate, but not before I’ve finished off that bottle of whisky you keep in your locker.”

Ash didn’t look up. This one had gotten to him. I had never seen him like this.

“You know I got wounded — in the war?” he said.

“Not really,” I said.

Ash’s life before the police force was a mystery to me, and I felt guilty that I had never asked. Mostly, I’m not that interested in other people. But this was different. I remember the feeling of being with a dying comrade — the less I knew about their life, the easier it was to deal with their death.

“We were on patrol, and all hell broke loose. When I woke up, my leg and back hurt like buggery and all my mates were dead. I wasn’t game to call for help so I lay there for what seemed like days, hoping someone would come looking for us. After about thirty-six hours, a rescue party found me. I don’t remember it happening, but I do remember wondering if I’d bleed to death, and I remember wondering if I’d be found or would I be one of those bodies that farmers find, decades later, after the war is over. I’ve never felt so cold and alone. Do you reckon that’s how that bloke felt?”

“I don’t mind telling you that you are freaking me out, Ash. Here, drink up,” I said as I poured the contents of my hip flask into his coffee.

The bloke behind the counter gave me a look and started to say something. I moved my jacket so he could see my detective’s badge — he went back to slicing tomatoes without saying anything.

Ash drank his coffee, and I poured a wee dram into mine.

“Same goes for me mate. If the ungodly catch up with me, don’t leave me lying out there somewhere,” I said.

“Deal,” said Ash and we clinked paper cups to seal the deal.

TO26

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“That’s what it says on the side of the cartridge,” I said.

“Bloody hell, I haven’t seen one of those in a long time.”

“Well? Do you have one? Do you know where I could get one?” I said.

The shop was a tiny brick building wedged in amongst other more significant brick buildings. Maybe the builder miscalculated. Perhaps he didn’t measure up accurately. Maybe it was just easier to build one small shop than go back and start again.

Someone will rent it.

And they did.

CARTRIDGES ARE USS — yes with two’s’ s, (I’ll bet he sat up all night thinking up the name), was conveniently located at my local shopping strip. Someone had bought up all the old shops, pulled them down and built new shops with convenient parking.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of those.”

“So you said,” I said, “Maybe if you look out the back?”

“We don’t have ‘a back’,” he said.

Everyone has a back room, don’t they?

A quick scan of the shop did not show any sign of a rear door (where does he go when he needs to pee?)

There were racks on the walls and glass cases forming a counter, all crammed full of colourful packages.

“I know it’s old, but it was a very popular brand back in the day, and I thought, seeing as how you specialise, you might have one or know where I could get one. I don’t need colour. I only need black so that I can print out my stories.”

The shopkeeper was still staring at the cartridge as though it might tell him something.

“T026, well there’s a blast from the past.”

The thirty-something neatly dressed shopkeeper with CARTRIDGES ARE USS embroidered on his jumper, was beginning to annoy me.

“Well, if you don’t have one, I’ll just have to look somewhere else,” I said, holding out my hand in the hope of retrieving my cartridge — which still had a bit of ink left in it.

The shopkeeper scratched his head and gave the cartridge one final turn in his hand.

Reluctantly and gently, he handed it back to me. I felt like Lord Carnarvon must have felt as he examined the contents of King Tut’s tomb.

“You take good care of that,” he said.

“I will,” I said as I backed out of the shop.

I never did find a T026 cartridge, but a week later I found one hundred dollars in an old jacket. So I treated myself to a new printer — colour. It’s been handy, and it costs almost as much to buy replacement cartridges as it does to buy a new machine — it’s a bit of a scam someone said in an article I read.

The cartridge shop closed about a year ago and the Pizza shop next door knocked a hole in the wall to create a warm place for people to wait while their pizza is being prepared.

As I wait for my pizza order, I sometimes wonder what happened to the shopkeeper. Does he still have the embroidered jumper? Does he wear it on cold nights and think back to when he had his own shop? A tiny shop, but his nonetheless.

I kept the old printer, but finally, I had to concede that to continue looking for a cartridge was probably a fools’ errand — so I put it out with the recycling.

That’s the trouble with living, in general — as soon as you can’t get the parts anymore, all the fun goes out of it.

It’s All Done With Mirrors

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“Now, he’s going to ask for a volunteer from the audience,” said my grandfather.

He’d been explaining how the magic tricks were achieved all through the performance, and it was annoying me — not that I would tell him so.

I was eight years old and had travelled up from Melbourne to spend the holidays in Bendigo with my grandparents.

The magic show was a special treat.

“It helps that we are a big country town,” said my grandfather. “Most of the overseas acts don’t visit the smaller towns.”

The Magician, resplendent in his mysterious robes, moved to the edge of the stage, so much so that I thought he might fall off. He didn’t, but he did point his ‘magic wand’ in my direction.

“I vant you,” he said in an eastern European accent — my grandfather thought it was Bulgarian with just a hint of Lithuanian.

There were several pleading hands waiving, including mine.

Pick me, pick me, I was thinking.

“Not you leetle boy, the young lady sitting next to you.”

My grandmother blushed.

With much encouragement from the audience and my grandfather, my grandmother moved up onto the stage.

The Magician met her at the stairs and guided her to the middle of the stage.

The scantily clad young woman who had been acting as the Magician’s assistant, took my grandmother by the hand and as the stagehands wheeled out a person-sized box, she opened the box to show us it was empty.

“He’ll use mirrors for this trick,” said my grandfather.

The crowd was still applauding as my grandmother stepped into the box. She smiled as he closed the door.

The door divided in two. The Magician opened the top half, and we could see my smiling grandmother.

The Magician closed the door — the stagehands lifted the top half of my grandmother and put her on the stage. The door opened, and there she was, top half-smiling away, bottom half kicking her feet.

The audience applauded.

“Mirrors,” said my grandfather and I wished he would shut up. I wanted to enjoy the magic unfettered.

The stagehands wheeled away the bottom half of my grandmother and the Magician closed the door on the top half.

The top half of my grandmother was then split in two, and Magician put the top half on the floor, opened the door, and the head of my grandmother smiled at us all.

The audience applauded.

“She would have gone through a trapdoor and popped up through a different trapdoor,” said my grandfather.

Please shut up!

The Magician threw his cloak over the box containing my grandmother’s head as the stagehands removed the rest of her.

He said some magic words in an eastern European accent, taped the box with his magic wand, removed the cape and opened the tiny door.

My grandmother was gone.

The audience applauded.

The Magician thanked the audience with a flourish of his cloak, the audience applauded, and the curtain closed.

People began to gather themselves and leave the grand old concert hall.

“Your grandmother will come out soon, and she will be able to tell us how the trick was done,” said my grandfather.

Most of the people had left the hall when I decided to go and see what was keeping my grandmother.

I climbed the same steps she had and pushed past the heavy curtain. I could see the Magician and a bunch of workmen packing things into cane baskets.

I asked the Magician where my grandmother was, and he said that he didn’t speak very good English and that he had to catch the train to Sydney in half an hour. He held my head in his hands and kissed me on the forehead.

“You good boy,” he said in an Eastern European accent, probably Bulgarian with a bit of Lithuanian thrown in.

I went back to my seat, sat next to my grandfather, who was sure that his wife was ‘coming along soon’.

An old man came and told us that we would have to leave because they were closing up.

When we got home, my grandfather made me a toasted cheese sandwich, “It’s your grandmother’s favourite,” he said.

Two days passed, and my grandmother did not appear.

“No need to tell your mum and dad about all this,” said my grandfather as I packed my bag.

My holidays were over, and I had to ride the train back to Melbourne.

I settled in my seat, near the window. My grandfather stood alone on the platform. He held up one hand as the train began to move. He didn’t wave.

I held up my hand and pressed it to the glass.

The carriage lurched, and I was heading home.

My holidays were over, and I had a secret.

 

 

Illustration credit: Angela Barrett

Anticipation

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“Getting a birds-eye view is unusual for me. I’m usually talking to a specific person, even if I don’t know who that person is,” I said.

“Unusual, is right!” said the detective with a mustard stain on his well-worn suit.

“If you don’t have anything intelligent to add Detective Johnson, then shut it,” said the Inspector in charge of the investigation.

I hadn’t worked with her before, and I was surprised to be asked.

From what I could ‘see’, she was driven, recently separated and was hopeful of having children. All of that was true for now, but over time, some would turn out to be accurate, and some would not, only time would tell.

My eyes told me that she was about five foot five, stylishly dressed, heals, no earrings (but her ears were pierced), trim with wide hips and a commanding personality. She didn’t have to raise her voice to achieve authority.

“This is a first for her,” said the female detective who’d led me to the squad room, “don’t fuck it up.”


Requests for my services had been constant but sporadic. I gave my time when I could, and the cynical attitude of some of the force was tiring.

My favourite contact is a lowly sergeant in homicide. He’s worked his way up through the Tactical Response Group. His abilities are as good as mine, but he sometimes likes to have a second opinion.

I asked him once about the dangers he faces, especially in the Tactical Group.

“I listen when I get the feeling that it might be terminal if I go down that alley alone. They look after me.”

I was getting nervous, but I ploughed on.
“From what I can see, it’s night time. There is some sort of orange light coming from my right as I look at the scene. The body is lying on the ground, and a man is standing next to it. The ground is free of vegetation, but I can see small trees a few metres away. There is evidence of a stream off to the right. I don’t think the standing person is the assailant. He can’t take his eyes off the body, but he doesn’t touch it. He’s lightly dressed. Too lightly dressed — it’s cold out there. The victim doesn’t look like someone who has fallen or been pushed. She looks like she’s sleeping. The young man is unsure whether to wake her. Does any of this make sense?” I said.

Silence.

I look at the Inspector, and I can tell she is trying to figure out how I know these things. This happens every time. Inevitably, I’ll be asked where I was on the night of the fourteenth — it never fails. 

There are only two ways I could know these things — either I really can ‘see things’, or I did it. 

It’s why I almost stopped being involved in homicide.

“Yes, it does. Very helpful,” said the Inspector.

Several of the detectives had been taking notes as I spoke.

“This is all complete bollocks,” said Detective Johnson.

The Inspector turned in his direction, and I put my hand out and stepped slightly in front of her.

“Detective Johnson. Is that your name?” I said without waiting for a reply.

“You are still married, but only just. Your wife used to iron your shirts for you, but not any more. You don’t believe in any ‘mumbo-jumbo’ as you put it (two detectives laughed) because you grew up Catholic and your faith let you down. Father Patric? Tall bloke, young and very friendly. You wince inside anytime someone uses the word faith.”

“You’re just making that stuff up. Could apply to anyone.”

As a rule, I try not to hurt anyone with the information that comes my way. This bloke was making me rethink that rule.

“Your girlfriend, —?” I noticed the young uniformed female at the back of the room stiffen in her seat, “do you want me to go on?”

Detective Johnson remained silent.

All eyes were on me as I took a step back. They were probably hoping I would complete the sentence.

“You all have your assignments. I’d like to thank Mr Page for coming in to help us,” said the Inspector. 

She turned to me, “The officer will show you out.”

I’d been dismissed.

I may find out if my information helped, but maybe not. Once you are no longer useful, you don’t have their attention — until the next time the trail goes cold.

“How did I go?” I said as we walked back to the front desk.

The young police officer put her hand out to take my security pass.

“It’s an ongoing investigation so I can’t comment,” she said without emotion.

“You don’t think he did it, do you?” I said.

The young woman looked me in the eye but did not answer.

“Your family are very proud of you. They want you to know that. They don’t want you to worry about them.”

The young woman was still looking at me, but now there was a different expression on her face.

“Thank you,” she said, and her hand touched my arm.

I knew that touch.

It’s almost involuntary in those who have caught sight, ever so briefly, of the ones they love.

I didn’t go straight home. I needed a moment.

I don’t know any of these people, alive or dead and it isn’t my job to worry about them, but they leave their mark on me. A stiff whisky and a bite to eat helps me to come back to earth.


The police officers I deal with see it as their duty to find those who kill. They don’t understand when I tell them that those who have gone won’t tell me who took their life, sometimes because they didn’t know that person when they were alive, and sometimes because it doesn’t matter to them.

The living care about death — violent and otherwise.

The dead have other concerns, but they take pity on us and share some of the details.

I stand in the middle of all that.

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are just things I have to endure.

If you are wondering why I didn’t ask the young police officer out for a drink?

She has a boyfriend and three kids.

Not now, but in her future and he is the right one for her.

I listen when I’m told.

Another whisky and I’m off home.

No, they don’t tell me what’s in store for me, and I would not want them too.

Anticipation is half the delight.

Regiis Vulpes

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The old man waited; every winter solstice.

Pawprints in the snow — two sets.

The old prince had been married to the queen for more years than he could remember. They were happy enough, but the demands of office weighed heavily on them both.

None of us knows when our father will leave this life. 

When the old king died, she ascended to the throne, the new queen was very young. 

She took to her role bravely, and the young prince stood by her side.

There were fewer duties to perform in the winter months. They retreated to their favourite country estate — hundreds of years old. Large rooms — a stone fireplace in each one. Small dogs scurried from place to place, looking for attention, the older dogs wisely curled up before the fire.

One clear grey day, all the dogs ran to the French doors and barked a warning, clawing at the glass. Security at the castle was tight, but occasionally there were incidents. “Didn’t want to concern you, your highness. We caught him once he scaled the fence. Just a young bloke on a dare. Won’t do that again, I promise you.” A bedraggled young man between two large soldiers staggered past the window and into a waiting unmarked van. He looked sore and sorry, his long hair a tangled mess. His pitiful expression lingered long after the van pulled away.

The dogs were becoming more frantic, and the prince expected to see a soldier running through the snow, but no one came. Only the dogs could hear the sound of something desperately trying to free itself.

“Come away from the door.” The dogs obeyed, sitting a few feet back and waiting for instructions. “Wait there. I’ll call you if I need you.”

The French doors stayed open as the prince walked out onto the paved patio in his house slippers. The fabric absorbed the water from the snow, and it chilled his feet.

Determined to see what was going on across the lawn, he continued with numb toes.

As he reached the outer edge of the lawn, he heard it.

The fox looked at him with the same look he had seen on enemy soldiers as he and his comrades spilled into their trench.

The fox was trapped by its hind leg.

The prince removed his dressing gown and threw it over the fox’s head. The animal lay still.

Opening the trap was easy enough. The leg didn’t seem to be broken, but there was a lot of blood. The fox winced as the prince touched the damaged appendage.

With the dressing gown still in place, the prince picked up the fox and walked back across the lawn — his footprints the only break in the soft powder snow. He filled his own steps as he had done as a soldier. The memory made him sad.

Once back inside, the disciplined dogs could no longer contain themselves. They knew the scent of a dangerous intruder. They flocked around the prince as he walked through the house, down the corridor to the stairs leading to the servant’s quarters.

“Do you have somewhere I can deal with this?” asked the prince.

The cook looked at him with wide eyes.

“Are you going to kill it, your majesty?”

“No,” said the prince. He had a mellifluous voice, and she loved to hear him speak. His gentle tone told her that he meant what he said.

“I want to dress its wound before I let it go.”

“It probably won’t help, your majesty. It’ll get infected as soon as it walks through the mud,” said the cook. “I dressed a lot of wounds in the war.”

“I didn’t know that. Why didn’t I know that?”

“I nursed your brother,” she said, eyes down.

“God bless you for that,” said the prince.

In silence, they cleaned and dressed the fox’s wound.

The prince smiled at the cook — comrades in arms.

With the fox still wrapped up in his gown, the prince walked back through the house escorted by his pack of dogs.

“Wait here,” he said. “I’ll call out for you if I need help.”

The dogs sat at the open door.

Across the lawn once more to the bushes.

The prince put the fox down.

“Try not to chew off your bandage and stay out of the mud, if you can. Good luck — you’re going to need it.”

A year later, the prince’s dogs ran to the doors and gave the alarm.

At the edge of the snow-covered lawn stood an older fox and a younger male fox.

They stood in the snow until the prince appeared. 

They stared at each other for the longest time. 

When the foxes turned and walked back through the bushes, the prince turned to his obedient dogs.

“I think that’s our fox and possibly, that was his son.”

The prince walked across the house and down to the kitchen. The cook stopped what she was doing.

“Your majesty?”

“I think I just saw the fox we saved last year and his cub. The dogs will back me up, they saw it too.”

The cook wanted to laugh, but she held it in.

“We did it cook. You and me, and now he came to visit.”

 “I hope they stay away from our chickens.”

“Yes, there is that,” said the prince.

The prince smiled awkwardly and went back upstairs.

The following year, the scene repeated itself, but the year after that something had changed.

The older fox was not there. The damaged leg made him easy to recognise.

And yet, there was an older male fox and a younger male. They waited at the edge of the lawn, illuminated by the pure white snow.

Again the ritual played out. 

An extended period of locking eyes followed by the departure.

Every four or five years, the older fox would be a former youngster. As each elder fox met its fate, a descendant would take its place and the ritual would continue.

A tear would form in the ageing prince’s eye as he realised the passing of a senior fox.

The queen and the prince reigned for many decades, and as extreme old age was upon them, the weather patterns had altered to such a degree that the snow season came later and later.

The foxes arrived later in the season.

This year, the snow came even later.

The prince and the queen had returned to their duties, and no one was there to see the fox and his cub arrive at the edge of the snow-covered lawn.

They waited for the longest time, longer than was safe.

The first in a long line to not be able to express their gratitude, they turned and walked back through the bushes.

 

 

  

The artist: https://www.deviantart.com/sven-werren/art/Red-Fox-or-Firefox-394725272

May You Find What You Are Looking For

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At first glance, it looks like a friendly statement, but those who have discovered the horror of reaching their goal, finding what they are looking for, will tell you otherwise.

Humans were never meant to be happy, not in that way. We are programmed to be constantly searching for something.

Give us contentment, and we fade away — and not always gently.

And so it was with Jeff.

I never liked him much, but I doubt that it kept him awake at night.

He was the kind of bloke who was worried about fuel economy — he’d drive over you rather than around you to get where he was going.

I’d planned his demise, but I was only surmising.

Someone was a little more serious than I.

You would need a toilet roll to list all the probable suspects, and I guess I’d be on that list, somewhere.

He was found under the hood of a stolen car, parked on the verge of the main highway leading to Sydney.

It didn’t stretch anyone’s imagination to guess that it was a woman who flagged him down.

Someone had brought the hood down several times on the lecherous Jeff and left him there to be found.

As people drove by, it looked like he was working on the engine, but in reality, he had died when the force of the first blow drove the dipstick up his nose, which was a coincidence because one of the things that people called him when he was alive, was dipstick.

In his prime, Jeff might have seen it coming, but he had achieved all he set out to achieve, so his guard was down.

The crime remains unsolved — the killer wore gloves, just as a woman might do, and not attract attention.

The Friends Of Jeff, meet at the Pale Horse pub on Williams Street, once a month. Anyone who was screwed over by Jeff when he was alive is instantly admitted.

Over a beer, or two, we discuss how we were wounded by the ambition of Jeff and then later, after the amber fluid has done its work, we discuss which one of us might have done it.

Some of the more fanciful theories include the Queen who was in Melbourne at the time, but the evidence is thin on the ground — something about Jeff being responsible for the untimely death of a bunch of corgis. Possibly the SAS was involved, but I don’t think they have female SAS. Maybe one of their girlfriends helped out. 

I’m not convinced.

Of the three ancient Chinese curses,  May You Live In Interesting Times, May You Come To The Attention Of Someone In Authority, and May You Find What You Are Looking For, the last one strikes me as the most potent.

I believe that Jeff would agree with me. 

Incomplete Unrest

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“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.

And me?

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. 

… never strikes twice …

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“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.”

Peace Of Mind

 

“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.”

The Lady With The Blue Dot

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“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.

“Long story.”

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.

“Really?”

“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?