The Number 58 Bus

9880b0375f4bf78027036e600b316f8a

The number 58 bus is relatively quiet compared with the number 15 and don’t get me started on the 109. Even so, there he was, sitting across from me looking like an unmade bed.

I’m pretty good at picking dangerous individuals — a by-product of having lived a long time. This bloke seemed harmless to me, even with his dishevelled appearance.

I saw him lean over to the well-dressed lady sitting next to him, but I couldn’t hear what he said. She replied, and that was that. A few stops later, he got off the bus and disappeared into the wider world.

I caught the lady’s eye and asked her what had transpired between them.

“I’m sorry, I don’t usually do this, but there was something about that gentleman. What did he say to you if you don’t mind me asking?”

The well-dressed lady oozed serenity, and she took a moment to answer — as though she was deciding whether it was any of my business, which it wasn’t.

I began to feel self-conscious when she said, “He told me that he could kill everyone on the bus, including the driver and was there anything I could say that would help him.”

“And what did you say,” I said.

“I told him that it was illegal to kill people, and he seemed satisfied with my answer. He spoke like a child who was in trouble and needed advice. I guess he thought I could help,” she said.

“Wow,” I said, and the well-dressed lady settled back in her seat, lost in her own thoughts.

I got off the bus before she did and I looked back at her sitting serenely, and I wondered what she had seen in her life to be able to deal with such an urgent request without a moment’s hesitation.

About ten days later, I read a news item about a man who intervened when a woman was being attacked late one night. The news item indelicately added that the woman was elderly, in her late fifties!

The man was severely injured before he repelled the attacker.

When interviewed, the ‘elderly woman’ said that she stayed with her rescuer while they waited for an ambulance.

“He said that I saved him, so it was only fair that he return the favour. I had no idea what he was talking about. Before he lost consciousness, he mumbled something about a bus. I didn’t think too much about it because I was in shock. I owe this man my life, and I don’t even know what happened to him after they took him away,” she said. “I’m covered in his blood, and I don’t know why he defended me.”

Two days later, there was another article explaining that the unidentified ‘hero’ had died of his wounds. The police were still trying to find out who this brave man was and why he stepped in to save the woman. This time she wasn’t described as elderly because someone complained.

I rang the police and told them the story about the number fifty-eight bus, but it didn’t help much.

“If someone doesn’t come forward, he’ll be buried in an unmarked grave, which seems like a shame,” said the sergeant. I agreed.

The news media love a hero, so he was big news for a few days.

Someone started a GoFund Me campaign to cover the unknown man’s funeral expenses. They raised three times their target amount. Everyone loves a dead hero.

I went to his funeral, which was attended by about ten times the number of people who would have known him when he was alive.

The lady on the bus was not among the mourners.

In a way, it didn’t matter. She had done her job.

I said goodbye for both of us.

Three months later, there was a small article on page ten saying that a homeless man said he recognised the dead hero, but did not want to come forward because he didn’t trust the police. He said that they were in league with the aliens who were planning to take over the Transit Services.

The homeless bloke said the dead hero’s name was Frank, and I must admit that I look very carefully at every bus driver I encounter — you just never know.

.

The story above is pure fiction, but it is inspired by a true story a fellow WordPress person posted (Icelandpenny). She set me a gentle challenge to see what I could do with her story. I hope she approves.

The Queue

ce3158ba70a031681016b9730835779d

There is something about a trumpet that attracts cats.

I’ve never been able to work it out.

Back in the day I played in big bands and did very nicely thank you.

But that was then.

These days, I have a tidy but tiny room, at least two meals a day and I don’t think much about back then.

I live close to the theatre district and one of my friends from ‘back then’ manages one of the larger venues. He pays me to keep the patrons entertained while they wait for admission. He doesn’t have to, but he does. It’s only a small amount per night, but when you add it to my pension, I get by.

I first noticed the cats when I was playing a Miles Davis tune. Cats like jazz, and so do I.

I worry that they might get run over. Fortunately, they are wiser than I and rarely venture into the traffic.

The people I play for take my presence for granted, but the cats pay attention — never distracted.

They don’t follow me home, and as soon as I’m finished playing for the night, they saunter off to where they came from. I like their style.

I like my life, and I hope it continues for a while longer, but who knows?

Buster and The Dead Set Scrolls

44e4728f53dc745e80025803d36f2b7c

“So, why did you ring me. I’m no expert,” I said, with a hint of annoyance.

I’d been happily ensconced in front of my old computer which must surely turn up its toes and die, but for now, it is excellent for watching ‘big-screen movies’.

“You’re the smartest bloke I know, and besides, who else am I going to ring in the middle of the day? Everyone I know is at work,” said Thomas, my sometime friend.

“I was at work!” I said in a voice that was a bit too loud to suit the occasion, but I’m sick of people thinking that what I do isn’t work — even if I was watching a movie instead of painting.

“Yeah, I know, but you know what I mean — you are at home, and your boss isn’t going to yell at you if you stop working for an hour or two.”

He had a point. I’m my own boss — mostly because I’m too proud to work for someone who is obviously an idiot and that pretty much sums up most employers — in my extensive experience.

So, here I am, standing in Thomas’s lounge room. Thomas inherited the house from his mum, who died way too young, preceded by his dad, who died even younger. I always loved this house. Thomas and I would play for hours in this dark, carpeted room. Timber walls in need of varnish, rich tapestry curtains edging leadlight double-hung windows looking out onto the neighbour’s timber pailing fence, a few flowers poking their heads above the window sill. Thomas didn’t tend his mother’s garden, it just kept growing — a testament to his mother’s horticultural skill.

The two large parchments were spread out on the walnut dining table, the same one we built a slot car track on when we were kids. The table will seat eight people without anyone bumping elbows.

The page on the left was a bit more tattered. The sentences were written in red ink, probably using a wide nibbed calligraphy pen. The page on the right was in better condition, the sentences written in black ink using a similar width nib.

Despite the condition of both pages, the writing was crisp and clear, as though freshly written.

“Where did you get them?” I asked.

“Did a job for Jimmy over in Toorak.”

“Why didn’t Jimmy ring me. He knows I need the cash.”

 “Everyone who works for Jimmy needs the cash,” said Thomas.

Jimmy runs a couple of business, all on a strict cash basis. I’ve worked for him for years, on and off. Jimmy’s companies clean offices and meatworks, and when the need arises, he clears houses for a Real Estate chain.

“Big place. Belonged to some bloke who diddled the banks. Took off and left everything. Some of it was choice.”

“How would you know?” I said. Jimmy usually called me in when there was a sniff of classy stuff. My family dealt in antiques, and some of the knowledge rubbed off on me.

“Everything was heavy.”

“That’s because good furniture is usually made from quality hardwoods, walnut, oak, teak, cedar,” I said. Some of those timbers aren’t exactly hardwoods, but Thomas wouldn’t know the difference, so why tell him.

“Shut up a minute and let me look at these things,” I said.

The parchment may have been old. Only a few tests would be able to date it, but the ink was much younger.

Beautifully written, each short sentence spelled out in capital letters. The sentences reminded me of those annoying posts on Facebook. The ‘motivational’ ones printed over pretty backgrounds. ‘Don’t eat carrots on a Friday’‘Be good to your mother, leave home’, that sort of thing.

I read each parchment several times and was none the wiser.

“You dragged me away from my work for this,” I said.

“I know they don’t look like much,” said Thomas staring at his hands.

“So why call me in?”

“Every morning, when I get up, I walk past them on my way to the toilet and every day the writing is different.”

 “Different how?” I said.

“The sentences are different. Not the same as yesterday.”

Long silence.

“Have you been smoking anything unusual, Thomas?”

“Kicked the stuff, cold turkey, a couple of months ago,” said Thomas, which explained a lot. He had been quieter lately and didn’t say stupid things as often.

“Wow,” I said. Thomas had been smoking weird substances for most of his adult life. He always smelled sweet and a bit sickly. That smell was absent from his house and I only just realised it.

“It changes every day?” I said.

“Every day.”

“When does it change?” I said.

“I don’t exactly know. I fall asleep when it gets dark. I try to stay awake, but I wake up, and it’s morning.”

“Where did you find them?”

“Well, to be exact, I didn’t. Buster did.”

Buster is Thomas’s dog. His IQ beats Thomas’s by about twenty points. Buster looks a lot like Snowy, Tin Tin’s dog from the classic Belgian comics. Buster goes everywhere Thomas goes.

“Upstairs in one of the spare bedrooms. The carpet was loose in one corner. It wasn’t part of the job to take up the carpet, only the loose rugs — mostly Persian. I was buggered, and we’d packed the truck. I thought I’d better give the place the once over to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. Buster was having a great time. I don’t always let him run around when we work, as you know. Some places are pig styes — broken bottles and sharp sticky things, but this house was pristine. Only a slight layer of dust due to the owner being away. He must have left in a hurry because we found dirty plates on the kitchen table and a cupboard full of sheets that were probably furniture covers, all neatly packed away.”

“So?” I said.

“Buster stayed with me as we went from room to room. I wasn’t paying close attention. It was obvious if the rooms were empty or not. The last room at the end of the hall was the smallest. The carpet was older than the rest of the house and Buster was very interested in one corner of the room. You know how well behaved he is when we do these jobs, well he was going nuts trying to get the carpet to fold back. I told him off and went over to see what he was up to. There they were. Dusty, but pretty much the way you see them.”

“Why didn’t you hand them in with the rest of the stuff?”

“I always keep something for myself. I thought they might be a treasure map or something.”

“Make us a cup of tea, and I’ll have another look at these things,” I said.

The parchments were curling up on the top and bottom edges, almost to the point where they needed something substantial placed on them to keep them flat. This seemed strange to me considering how long they must have been under the carpet.

At times, the sentences were nonsensical.

The red scroll seemed to be obsessed with clothing and how to wear it.

‘Turn your collar up when the wind doth blow.’

‘Button thy trousers carefully in the presence of a lady.’ A bloke definitely wrote that. I can see him checking his fly buttons before exiting the bathroom.

‘Never wear a large hat on a Sunday.’ Why not? What would happen if you did?

The black scroll seemed more interested in manners.

‘Pick not your nose on a sunny day.’

‘Pass not wind on an open staircase during the gloaming.’ What if you were about to explode? And when exactly does ‘the gloaming’ start and end?

Thomas came into the room carrying a tarnished silver tray with a chipped china teapot and a couple of mugs that probably came from one of the house clearings.

“Odd collection,” I said.

“What?” said Thomas.

“Never mind,” I said. “Have you written down what the scrolls have said on other days?”

“Not at first, but once I noticed they changed every day, I wrote them down.”

“Give me a look,” I said, and Thomas rifled through a drawer on the sideboard and produced a few pages of poorly written text.

“Don’t ever write a ransom note in longhand. They will definitely trace it back to you,” I said. Thomas got the inference. He looked hurt.

I read through the pages, and they made about as much sense as the current parchments.

A long silence.

“I’m buggered if I know what it all means,” I said. “Do you want to take Buster for a walk?” Buster instantly stood up at the mention of the magic word.

“Don’t you have to get back to work?” said Thomas.

“Nah, the day’s buggered now. Let’s walk.”

Buster was at the door, waiting expectantly. We gathered up his favourite treats and his lead and headed off into the wilds of suburbia. One of the black scroll inscriptions flashed into my head.

‘Don’t leave your wireless playing when you leave the house.’

“You don’t have the radio playing, do you, Thomas?”

“No, why?”

“Never mind.”

The Seal of Confession

1c5c6ec74fe546ef994377eb03596293

“So, before we get started, can anyone force you to reveal what is said during our sessions, Dr Dre?”

“Yes ‘they’ can. If I think you are about to hurt yourself or someone else, I’m obliged to inform the authorities. Ditto, if I think you are about to commit a crime. Also, anyone can subpoena files for a civil or criminal trial. And, my name isn’t Dr Dre, it’s Dr Dredd. Some child stole both of the ‘d’s’ off my sign, and I haven’t gotten around to replacing them.”

“Thank you for clearing that up doctor. I’ll say good afternoon then.”

 “But you haven’t finished your first free session,” said Dr Dredd.

“It’s okay, I’ll pass. You are no good to me Doc if anyone including a disgruntled plumber can access your files. I need someone who can keep their mouth shut,” said Susan.

“You mean like a priest. Are you Catholic, Ms Smith?”

“No, but I can spell ‘guilt’ “.

“Close enough”.

~oOo~

“Forgive me, father, for I have sinned. It has been a long time since my last confession (possibly I was a Catholic in a previous life?), and in recent years I discovered a doll that belonged to my grandmother,” said Susan on a sunny afternoon in an ornate church in South Melbourne.

Susan loved old churches, especially Catholic ones. She once convinced her school friend to smuggle her into a Sunday service. “Just do what I do and open and shut your mouth when the congregation is answering the priest. No one will notice.” It worked like a charm. From that day forward Susan wanted to be a Catholic until she found out what you were not allowed to do. Not drinking alcohol was bad enough, but not fooling around with boys was a bridge too far. “It’s okay,” said Susan’s Catholic friend, “you can let the boys have their wicked way with you on a Friday night and go to confession on a Saturday, and all is forgiven.”

“Confession?” said Susan.

“Yes. You see those doors over there,” she pointed to the carved wooden doors on either side of a similar sized room with a red velvet curtain drawn across, “the priest sits in the middle, and you kneel down and say the words, then tell him your sins and he gives you a penance, usually a few ‘Hail Marys’ and you are absolved.”

“What does ‘absolved’ mean?” said Susan.

“It means that you won’t go to hell if you get hit by a bus.”

“What if I go out and do stuff with boys on a Monday?”

“No worries. Just don’t get run over till Friday, tell the priest and you are right again. Best to keep the ‘boys’ stuff till later in the week. It cuts down on stress.”

“That’s fuckin’ brilliant,” said Susan.

“You’ll have to confess the swearing as well, don’t forget.”

“Fuck that,” said Susan.

“Do you want to be a fucking Catholic or what?” said Susan’s friend, “well learn the fuckin’ rules.”

“Owning your grandmother’s doll is not a sin,” said the young priest who had been at the South Melbourne parish for a bit less than a year. He just made it through ‘priest school’ having taken two leaves of absence.

“It might be a sin if I used the doll to start a secret life, stealing industrial secrets.”

There was a silence before Susan added, “You aren’t allowed to tell anyone any of this are you, father?”

“As long as I believe that you are truly repentant I absolve you of your sins, I cannot reveal anything that is told to me in confession.”

“The doll talks to me, and only me. She can talk to other people, but we try to keep that to a minimum. I have used her to record secrets, and she retells them to me. I’ve made a lot of money, and sometimes the wrong people get hurt, but mostly it’s the bad guys who get screwed, sorry father.”

“It’s okay, I’ve heard a lot worst. What do you do with the money?”

“I give some of it away. I buy diamonds with some of it and the rest I store in old shoe boxes. It’s not about the money, but having a lot of it is a lot of fun. Check the poor box when you get out of here. You might get a pleasant surprise,” said Susan.

“Why did you come here today? Are you ready to stop your sinful behaviour?”

“I came here because I had to tell someone. It is such an unbelievable secret that I cannot tell anyone. They’d either lock me up or steal what I have accumulated. I felt like I would explode if I didn’t tell someone.”

“It’s good to get things off your chest (father Michael felt strange for saying chest), but you must resolve to renounce your ways, or I cannot offer forgiveness.”

“Thank you, father. I feel a lot better knowing that someone else knows about my keeper of secrets.”

Father Micheal told Susan what her penance was and gave her his blessing, but after he said, ‘go now and sin no more’, he expected to hear the usual sounds of someone gathering themselves up and leaving the confessional, but there was only a profound silence.

“Hello?” said father, Michael.

Leaving silently and unrecognised was a skill that Susan had mastered.

Imagine

21ccfc009c4c648fd5bd7d598d98716a

I hadn’t noticed her stall at the craft market before.

She was not the kind of person who is easily forgotten.

There was a possibility of rain, but her market stall was uncovered — lacking the portable ‘gazebo’ covering that most of the stalls seem to have.

Shiny black medium length hair, and a long black skirt with an off-white blouse.

Embroidery was the theme, with her clothes and the white table cloth that covered her display bench all showing touches of colour applied by an experienced artist.

She spoke softly, which made you lean in to hear what she was saying. A slight eastern European accent completed the picture.

It sounds unkind, but she wasn’t beautiful or even pretty, but you forgot all the frivolous assessments as soon as she spoke.

When I sailed by in my usual ‘craft market mood’, three people were standing in front of her stand, making it difficult to see what she was selling. I did a quick scan for signage or a banner only to be disappointed.

“You may want to sit down,” were the first words I heard her say, “it may come over you immediately, or it may take a minute or two. Every person feels it differently.”

‘Feels what differently?’ I thought out loud — I do that, talk to myself in crowds. It rarely gets me more than a quizzical glance.

I’d separated myself from the rest of my family. Playing the doting grandfather wears a bit thin after a while, so a modicum of solo wandering is liberating. I could see them through the throng, waiting for food. My daughter-in-law is bouncing the youngest on her hip. Mothers develop hips where no hips were before, have you noticed that? Females are amazing. They accept their roles and dive right in. I’m sure they are just as pissed off as males, but generally, they seem to get on with it. I admire that, and I wonder how they do it, or are they just better at hiding their despair from the rest of us?

An old wooden, curved back, early Australian chair sat dangerously close to encroaching on the sacred space in front of the adjoining stall and a late thirties female was gingerly making herself seated. The old chair was rock solid, and the young woman seemed to sink into it, head back eyes closed, arms draped at her side. For a moment I was worried she might topple off the chair onto the hard old school ground surface. My kids played on this old blacktop many years ago, and they came home bloodied and bruised on most days — an unforgiving surface.

I saw her friend take a step towards her as she finally settled.

“It’s amazing. I’m flying. There’s heaps of blue and clouds and birds, and I can feel the wind on my face,” she said, and I wondered if she had been a ventriloquist in a previous life.

“She loves clouds and birds,” said her friend.

“And flying?” said the older lady next to her.

“She used to flap her arms a lot when we were kids, but she never actually took off. Not that I know of.”

“It not matter,” said the lady with the black wavy hair and the gentle voice. “In her mind, she is flying. It as real as if she were bird.”

“She’s driving me home,” said her friend. “How long does this last?”

“It varies. About an hour.” She turned her gaze to the amazed customers, all looking at the flying thirty-something ventriloquist.

“You must not partake and drive, or operate heavy machinery, or sign anything, sex okay though, even encouraged,” said the stallholder with the delicate embroidery.

“Is this stuff even legal?” said a skinny male with a tightly cropped beard and hand-knitted beany.

“My family has been making IMAGINE since before time. It has nothing to do with law. It has to do with what your heart wants. Would you ask lady who makes the jams if it is legal?”

She slowly raised an arm showing old bones and tight muscles and pointed at the large lady in the red and white gingham apron who looked across and smiled at us. She held up a jar and said, “Apricot. Only a few jars left.”

“Her jams are delicious, but no one asks her if they legal. Is happiness legal?” she whispered. The wind caught her hair, and it moved back from her face revealing cheekbones and a gentle mouth. Her eyes weren’t on any of us, but off in the distance.

“Buy, don’t buy. Is your choice.”

A little boy ran into the back of my leg, and when I winced and looked down, he said, “Do you like my dog, mister?”

I looked at the kid and the dog. The dog looked at me with pleading eyes.

“Yeah, cool dog,” I said.

“You want to buy him?”

“How much?” I heard the words spill out of my mouth before my mind engaged.

“Ten bucks and packet of Juicy Fruits,” said the small boy.

The dog seemed to think it was a good deal. The dog had been on this planet for several years so he would know a good deal when he heard it, I guess.

“Wouldn’t your parents object if you sold your dog.”

“Nah. They wouldn’t care,” said the small boy who sensed that I was not an easy mark.

“See ya,” he said and turned to leave. The dog held my gaze as the boy dragged him away.

I turned back to the quiet drama that was still unfolding at the market stall run by the gently spoken lady.

Some of the crowd were now surrounding the young woman in the kangaroo backed chair. They were listening as she narrated her adventures — something about perching on a mountain range with snow all around.

I took the opportunity to peruse the merchandise.

The table was partially covered in tiny clear glass jars about the circumference of a fifty-cent piece. She had arranged them into one small pyramid. The tops of the jars were golden and unbranded. There wasn’t any branding anywhere on the stand, just gold-topped glass jars.

One jar was open and sitting on the table in front of the stallholder. Next to it was an empty jar full of toothpicks.

“How long have I been gone?” asked the lady in the chair. She was attempting to sit upright, straightening her skirt.

“About ten minutes,” said her friend who put her hand on the young woman’s shoulder for reassurance.

“It felt like hours,” said the young woman. “I know what I have to do now.”

She reached in her handbag, pulled out her purse and produced a handful of cash.

“How much for a jar?” she said, looking at the dark-haired stallholder.

“Fifty dollars.”

“I’ll take two jars please,” said the woman snatching two jars and putting them in her bag. “Can I have your card, please?”

“Olga doesn’t have card. But be back again soon.”

The young woman seemed dazed for a moment.

“Don’t bother smear it on; doesn’t make it last longer. Do just as I showed you.”

The woman and her friend disappeared into the crowd, and the young lady who had been flying only minutes ago seemed determined to get somewhere.

“Don’t let her drive,” the old woman said as they rushed away, “give her vodka and potato soup, then she can drive.”

The others in our group pushed money at the lady, and she gave them each a gold-topped jar.

“You want wrapped?”

“No. Thank you, I’ll just pop it into my bag,” said a slender woman with grey-blond hair.

“Good luck, and don’t worry. He’ll be okay.”

The slender woman stared at her before melding into the crowd of craft market shoppers.

The young bearded man who was concerned with legality held out a fifty-dollar note, and the stallholder placed a jar in his upturned palm. She looked him square in the eye. “You know what happiness looks like, and it knows you.”

The young man closed his fingers around the jar, bumped into a lady with a pram before heading off in the direction of the windchime stall.

“Would you like to try IMAGINE?”

I stared at the chair before looking to see if my extended family were still in sight. The little bloke on the hip was stuffing a hot dog in his mouth — little kids always get fed first.

“Yes,” I said, “what do I have to do?”

The woman delicately chose the right toothpick from amongst a jar of identical toothpicks and dipped it into the pale green mixture. The breeze wafted a scent of menthol.

“What adheres to tip of toothpick is enough. Any more and it a waste.”

She awkwardly handed me the toothpick. My large old fingers were reacting to the cold afternoon air, and I was momentarily afraid I would drop the pick.

Thumb and forefinger did their job as they have for more than seventy years, and I rolled the toothpick applying the sticky substance to the back of my hand and rubbed it in with my little finger.

After putting the pick down, I sat on the chair, but not before rubbing my fingers across the pressed pattern on the back. In my youth, I had restored chairs just like this one. Sitting on it felt like coming home.

 

I fully expected the school ground to be empty of stalls and people with only the occasional paper wrapper blowing in the wind. But, instead, it was as it had been when I sat down.

I didn’t go flying, there weren’t any clouds or birds and no snow-covered mountains, but I knew I had to find that kid and the dog. Nothing else was more important.

I handed her money, and she gave me a jar from the pyramid.

“Your destiny is not yet written. It has soft edges,” she said.

I wondered what the ‘soft edges’ meant, but I let it go.

The smell of menthol was in my nostrils as I picked my way through the crowd.

It took a while, but I found my sprawling family near a pottery stall. The little one had smeared tomato sauce across my daughter in law’s shoulder, but she didn’t seem to mind. Mothers blow me away.

“Where did you get the dog grandad?”

I’ve always hated being called grandad, but this was not the time for an argument.

I looked down at the straggly dog with the golden eyes, and he looked up at me.

His lead was a length of stout string that was biting into my hand.

The dog stood patiently by my side, sniffing the air for any interesting smells.

“It’s a long story,” I said. “Do we have any toothpicks at home luv?” I said to my wife. She looked at me in that way she does and said, “I think so.”

The dog licked my hand, and we all disappeared into the crowd.

Misunderstanding

1ced0044a643bf87cd0ff47f00f69a75

In a tiny corner at the back of my mind, I knew that someday, someone would get the wrong idea. The prospect of this misunderstanding seemed so far into the future that I dismissed it even though I knew it would come.

I need time to myself — away.

Away from everyone and everything.

Living in a crowded city makes that almost laughable, but I found a way.

Our building is old — mid-1930s. Which means that the windows open (the ones that aren’t painted shut) and they are huge — almost door-sized huge.

Some paranoid soul, probably a previous owner frightened of being sued, nailed all the windows shut — but he missed one, perhaps because it is in a cupboard on our floor. I doubt that it has always been a cupboard. When the building was new, it would have been a half-width version of all the other double-hung windows, an elegant full stop to the symmetry that ran along the west wall.

For many decades it has cast daylight on brooms and cardboard boxes, coats and hats and probably bicycles.

I discovered the window’s ability one summers night after putting the children to bed.

I knew how it was supposed to work because my father worked on the restoration of old buildings. Invisible cords run through squeaky pullies pulled by heavy counterweights enabling the window to stay open at any height along its full travel.

There is a satisfying rumble as the window glides upward and the counterweights bang around inside the casement.

Cold air rushes in and hits you in the face forcing you to breathe in momentarily.

Hitching my dress up, I step uncertainly onto the wide stone ledge.

In this moment, I am the first human to step onto the stonework since the original builders packed up and went home, almost a hundred years ago. Even the window cleaners don’t step on the ledge. They glide past riding shiny metal saddles, flashing their rubber blades and soapy sponges.

This ledge is mine, shared only by the occasional bird.

Being untroubled by heights is a plus in a situation like this.

On windy days I have been worried, but I have steady hands, and I fix my gaze on a point way off in the distance. I can feel the stress draining out of me as I listen to the sounds wafting up from the street far below.

I cannot make out conversations, they are blown away before they reach me, but sirens and horns sometimes get through.

I hear the unmistakable sound of one of those ancient counterweights falling to the bottom of the wall cavity as the equally ancient cord gives way. With only one counterweight doing the work of two, the sash slowly slides down until it hits the sill and a similarly unmistakable sound of the window lock clicking into place greets my ears.

In rapid succession, my mind plays out what is likely to happen next.

I could stand here until someone assumes I’m going to jump and calls the authorities or I could break the window with my less than appropriate shoes. The second option has its dangers — loss of balance, nasty cut from flying glass, dead pedestrian far below.

I step out here so I can clear my mind and reengage with my world.

However this plays out, I believe that I have lost my only means of escape.

I don’t want to explain it all to them.

It’s so peaceful out here.

 

Illustration: Kenton Nelson

Paper Cup

3f52bc6c1f4842bc9e82fa86e449f6cf

It doesn’t work if you use a paper cup, and at the time, I kind of knew it, but needs must, etc.

It has something to do with the rigidity or the lack thereof. Also, the paper fibres soak up the sound.

I’d been invited to a formal dinner party, which happens to me from time to time. Every good dinner party needs a successful writer, and when there is a shortage of them, I get a call. Second tier successful is better than no writer at all.

The party was mildly amusing, and I got a free meal which might not sound like much, but I like to eat, and writers don’t make very much money, so every free dinner counts.

My apartment block is tranquil most of the time but on this evening, after arriving home early — I’m so sorry to leave early, but I have an early appointment with my editor – no I don’t, but if I told you I was so bored I was in danger of chewing my arm off in order to escape you might not invite me back for a free meal.

The muffled sounds were oozing through our connecting wall, begging me to listen in. I gently placed my ear against the cold surface, but all I could hear was muffled sounds mixed with my heartbeat.

I’d seen it done in the movies, so I grabbed the paper cup from my bedside and placed it silently against the wall. The rim of the cup hurt my ear and gave no magnification or clarity to what was happening next door.

A wiser man would have continued to undress and proceed with the preparations for a sound night’s sleep, but I’m not a wiser man.

I remembered the stethoscope that belonged to my great uncle. For some reason, he willed it to me. My great uncle was a doctor in Edinborough and knew the famous Dr Bell, who Sherlock Holmes was based on.

In those days, I was a careless young man who had scant regard for family history, so I had put the stethoscope somewhere, but the exact spot was a bit of a mystery.

I found it, in its tattered leather case bearing my great uncle’s name, in the back of my sock drawer, and no, I have no idea why I put it there.

The rubber tubing was showing signs of deterioration, but the whole thing held together long enough for me to hear what was happening next door.

I cannot tell you how many times I have wished that I had just gone to bed instead of snooping.

The case caused a sensation, and the resultant publicity led to a first tier writing career. I never understood why so few people read my work before all this blew up and so many after.

I have regrets, it has to be said, but the universe pays scant regard to regrets and life goes on, but I do mourn for that dress shirt.

No matter how hard I tried, nothing would get the blood out.

 

Illustration: Kenton Nelson

Click, Flash and it was Done

25b715cf98b11beccf19f4b604e4b82c

The day was unexceptional except for closing a huge deal with a famous investor.
He could have stolen my invention; I didn’t have the capital to pursue him in the courts. I was acting on faith (I know, stupid, right?). J. P. Moneybags was true to his word and decided to stump up the monstrous capital needed to bring my invention to production.

He gets 95% of the profits, and I get 5%. But that’s not as bad as it sounds because the patent is in my name.

5% of a lot of money is, well, a lot of money.

My needs are small, but my curiosity is insatiable, and that’s where it all started — my insatiable curiosity.
We needed a photo to mark the occasion. I could have shot it on my phone camera, but I wanted a chance to handle the fantastic camera my benefactor had lying on his office desk.
“May I?” I said, and he smiled.
“Do you think you can handle it?” said Moneybags.
I knew enough about digital cameras to know that there are way too many dials. I come from a time where we put film in cameras and, it has to be said, you needed to know a bit about shutter speeds and iris settings, but it wasn’t that hard.
“When was the last time you used it?” I asked.
“Earlier today. My secretary is having a birthday.”
“Did the shot come out well?”
“Yes, it did. Perfect, in fact.”
“Good, then the current settings will work fine. I can always tweak it a bit when you send me the photo.”
I grabbed the camera, found the command for a timed shot, scrambled across the room, held up my invention while standing next to J. P. Moneybags and his lawyer.
Click, flash, and it was done.
I handed Moneybags my card with my email address underlined, “When you get a moment, send it here,” I pointed to the spot on my card and Moneybags ignored me.
I wondered if I would get the photo, but it was in my inbox as soon as I woke up the next morning.
No matter what I tried, the file would not open. I regretted my decision not to take a backup shot on my phone.

At the end of a hectic day, I rang a friend, Michael, who knows a lot about computer files, “Can I send it over and see what you can do with it. I wouldn’t bother you but it’s an important photo,” I said brushing a piece of confetti out of my hair from the celebrations at work.
“No, worries; send it over.”
I parked the car outside Michael’s house on his leafy street — well lit and looking like a set from a 50s sitcom.
Michael opened the door when he saw me pull up. I hoped he didn’t offer me a drink because I didn’t think I’d make it home if he did.
“Mary is off at some book group or other, so we have the place to ourselves.”
Michael ushered me in with his usual flourish.

I’m out on my feet, and he’s just getting started. I’m buggered if I know where he gets his energy from.
“The kids?” I said.
“Asleep,” said Michael and I wished I was, asleep that is and not with his kids — they drive me crazy. One of them tried to push a crayon up my nose when I fell asleep at their Christmas barbecue. He learned a few new words that day.
“I’ve been working on the file, come and have a look,” said Micheal leading the way to his basement — his inner sanctum.
“It’s a photo file alright, and it’s a good thing you mentioned it otherwise I would have been at it all night. There’s a jpeg in there, but it’s protected by a folder I’ve never seen before. Cracked it, but. I rule.”
He does rule; it’s true. I’d follow him if he decided to be a king.
“Where were you when you took this. I thought you said you were in the financial district?”
“We were,” I said.
“As you know, (I didn’t) there’s all kinds of stuff embedded into a photo assuming that it is a modern camera, and it comes up as data if you know where to look. GPS data tells you where you were when the shot was taken (I did know that), but this is precise data — military-grade information. The kind of shit that drone pilots use to put out a cigarette and the bloke who is smoking it, on the other side of the world.”
“Holy shit,” was all I could think of to say.
“Where you say you were and where the photo says you were is about twenty kilometres apart. A swish new apartment block. Second floor up, south-east corner, in the middle of the room.”
“Does it say what colour my underpants were,” I said.
Michael checked the data, which made me nervous and said, “No.”
“Can you write that address down for me?”
Michael wrote it on an envelope which had the Pentagon as a return address.
“Really?” I said as I waved the envelope at him.
Michael laughed. “Just a friend I knew from my college days, remember that exchange student thing I went on?” (I did)
“He does that because he knows I will get a kick out of getting a letter from the Pentagon. And it might impress my friends.”
“It did,” I said.

We chatted about family and friends and work because I didn’t want him to think that I only called when I wanted something. I’m not sure that I fooled him, but I did find out that his youngest (remember the crayon incident?) is good with numbers and likes to climb trees but has no idea how to climb down. That revelation made me like this kid a little more than I had.

My eyes were in danger of closing, and I still had to drive home, so I made my leave and headed for my car.
“You have a good life, Micheal; you know that, don’t you?” I said, and Micheal agreed that his life was amazing.
As I drove off, I heard my phone ding and saw the photo file appear.
Tomorrow would be time enough to look at it and maybe check out that phantom address — for that’s what I was confident it was, a phantom, a rare mistake from a system that does not make mistakes.

I slept late, rang the office while I was having a pee, “What’s that noise?” said my secretary. “Just washing some veggies before making juice,” I said. “You had better not be talking to me while urinating,” said my secretary. “As if I would,” I said. I juggled my phone with one hand and zipped up my fly with the other. “That sounded like a zipper,” said my secretary, sounding ever more hysterical. “No, just grating some lemon zest,” I said while wondering why I was tap dancing around my secretary — like she never makes calls on the toilet.

She assured me that the office would be fine without me for a day, and I felt a little letdown.
“See you tomorrow,” I said, before flushing.

The apartment building was indeed ‘swish’ as Michael and Google had predicted.
I pushed the button for what I assumed was the right apartment, and nothing happened. So, I did what I had seen on TV, I pushed all the buttons, and finally, the security door buzzed and clicked open. Thank goodness for midday pizza delivery.

I skipped the chrome and glass elevator and headed for the stairs. The foyer was clean and bright, and an original oil painting was fading in the sunlight on the wall. I touched the frame as I walked by, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it was a good luck thing. I’m sure I’ve seen Bruce Willis do it in a movie.
The white marble stairs gave a satisfying click under my heals. The dark timber polished handrails felt pleasant to the touch, and I ran my hand over them as I climbed.
A large 2B sign was on the door at the top of the stairs, and I watched the ornate 1930s style peephole to see if anyone looked out after I buzzed.

The thick timber door swung open, and there stood another me.
He wasn’t dressed the way I would dress, but if he climbed into my clothes, he would pass as me. He didn’t look at all surprised to be looking at his double, while I was lost for words.
“Can I help you,” my other said, and he sounded like me.
“This is going to sound a bit strange, but how long have you lived here?” My ‘other’ seemed confused by the question.
“Forever, I guess. Not sure exactly. Is it important?”
“Not really, I was just wondering,” I said.
“Come in, let’s be comfortable while you wonder.”
The apartment was spectacular. Like something that Buzby Berkley would have designed. It took my breath away. A building on the other side of the street obstructed the view just enough to be annoying, but even so, the outlook was pleasant.
“Do you live here alone?” I asked, and I expected him to be annoyed by my questions.
“No. There are two other fellows who I share with.”
“For how long?”
“Oh, forever,” he said in a dreamy tone.
“Where are they now?”
“Oh, Peter is in his room, but Jason went out a while ago. He’s very successful,” said my ‘other’.
“Drink?”
“Yes, please,” I said. “Scotch, if you have it.”

“I do like a man who isn’t frightened to drink during the day.”
Drink was the least frightening thing in my world at that moment.
“Oh, Peter, this is …”
“Sebastian,” I said and there before me was an exact copy of the lawyer from Moneybags office. He put out his hand, and I shook it.
“Your other friend, Jason. Is he older, grey hair sounds like a walrus when he talks.”
“Why, yes he does.”
“How long have you blokes know each other?” I asked.
“Forever,” they said in unison.
“Can you remember last Friday?” I said.
They looked at each other and said, “Not really. Is it important?”
“No, nothing to worry about,” I said.
Neither of the men had shown any irritation at my barrage of questions, and I’ll bet that if I’d kept it up, their memories would have extended back to about the middle of yesterday.

“So, did you check out the address I gave you,” said Michael.
“I did,” I said as I dodged one of Michaels small progeny. “Is there any chance of continuing this conversation somewhere less dangerous. Your boys seem to head for my balls at every opportunity.”
“Yeah. They think it’s funny,” said Michael.
We escaped to the relative safety of Micheal’s dungeon office. The room looked exactly the way you would expect a mad professor’s office to look. The ceiling was so low that I could only stand upright between the ceiling joists. Michael is an inch or two shorter than me, so he skimmed under the threatening beams without too much damage. I sought the safety of an old office chair.
“You might want to sit down,” I said. “You aren’t going to believe what I found, and when I get to what I think is going on, you might want to call the men in white coats.”
Michael sat down without speaking.
I explained my encounter with the duplicates from my photo and their general lack of awareness.
“Could be a dozen reasons for all that,” said Michael none too convincingly.
“Really. Dozens?” I said.
“Well, maybe not dozens,” said Michael.
“I’d settle for one reason,” I said.
Michael was silent.
“You said there was even crazier stuff,” said Micheal.
“You remember the movie, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers?”
“Yes. Awesome movie.”
“Well, I think it’s something like that. I think someone is planning to replace important people and do it slowly and quietly so as to not give the game away. Think about it. A lawyer and investor and an inventor. All high profile people with access to other high profile people.”
“So what happens to the people who have been replaced?”
“I haven’t worked that bit out yet, and I’m not sure I want to know,” I said.
“If I could just get a look at that camera I’d know a lot more,” I said.
“Good luck with that. Imagine the security your investor has. You’ve got no chance.”
“I don’t know what to do. Maybe I’ll go home and wait for them to come for me. At least then I’ll know what happens next.”
“Don’t talk like that. You’re freaking me out,” said Michael.
Just then Michael’s youngest burst into the room with a crayon on each hand. I jumped up so violently the inevitable impact between my head and the ceiling joist caused me to lose consciousness.
When I woke up, a small boy was hovering over me with a blue crayon.
“You went boom,” he said. It was a difficult observation to argue with.
When my brain cleared, I went home, and they didn’t come for me, and it never occurred to me that I wasn’t important enough for them to worry about.

A newspaper article, about a month later, talked about the disappearance and sudden reappearance of a famous financier and his lawyer while on a hunting trip.
Apparently, the two men were lucky that they were found after going missing in rugged bushland. Some arsehole dumped a dog in the bush and it found the men and led them to safety.  The woman who wrote the article said that the men would take some time to recover from their ordeal and that they seemed confused and disoriented — which was only to be expected. She didn’t mention what happened to the dog. The writer also said that there had been a string of high profile disappearances and reappearances over the past two years, but police sources said that it was only a coincidence. The chief of police, who went missing on a hunting trip with friends, said that the experience had done him no harm and that there was nothing to be worried about. The article was accompanied by a series of photographs taken before the hunting trips began, but no shots showing the survivors after their ordeal.

I made a mental note to refuse any invitations to go hunting now, or at any time in the future.

Portrait

12b6373beb72ca56b860ab396989b544

It was my mother’s idea.
Mum was never short on ideas, bless her soul.
Somehow, she had found out that no one in our family had ever had their portrait painted, which didn’t surprise me. In our world, only rich people had the spare change to pay for a portrait painter. We had more significant problems, like food and electricity and dog biscuits if it came to that.
Which brings me to Eric. Eric the dog.
He doesn’t like to miss out on stuff.
Mum suggested that my new business venture, supplying rich people with household staff who could also play a musical instrument (more of this a bit later), could use a boost. “Imagine the impact on your prospective client when they come into your office and see a portrait of you, done in oils.”
The idea appealed to me. Despite my left wing leanings on most subjects, I’ve always liked the trappings of wealth and privilege.
Eric, on the other hand, just likes being where I am, doing what I’m doing.
So, when it came time to travel to the city for my first sitting, Eric wanted to go as well. He had no idea where we were going or that it involved a trip on the number 12 tram and even if I had explained to him that he would probably have to sit quietly in some outer office for more than an hour, he would still have liked to come — that’s Eric. He does not want to miss out.
“I like your dog,” said a delightful creature in a chiffon dress.
“And I’m pretty sure he likes you too,” I said facetiously.
“How can you tell?” said the delightful creature, who was in danger of catching cold, as my mother would have said.
For a moment, I thought she was kidding, but it turned out that she had left what remained of her intelligence in her other purse.
I have to say that I took advantage of the situation and we were going to be getting off the tram presently.
“I know, he speaks quite softly. I’ll get him to say it again, only a bit louder,” I said.
“I saw his lips move, but I didn’t hear anything. What did he say?” said the scantily clad creature.
“He phrased it differently, but the sentiment was the same. Oh, and he added a bit.”
“Really?”
“Yes. He reiterated his liking for you and suggested that if you were a dog, he would suggest a mating session — doggy style, of course.”
The beautiful creature blushed and stroked Eric on the head.
I love being out with Eric.
The artist studio was in an apartment on Little Collins Street, a costly part of town. Based on his fee, I could see how he was able to afford this address.
I expected his secretary — (yes he had a secretary, and I wondered what she did all day), to ask me to leave Eric with her.
I wondered what they would talk about.
As it turned out, the artist squealed like a little girl when he saw Eric.
“The dog is, how shall I put it, perfect!”
So that was that. Eric is now part of the company, and it has to be said that he gets more attention than I do, especially since we started using the portrait in our advertising campaign.
Eric has his own section on our website, and we share a secretary so that he has his fan mail answered.
You are probably still wondering about the ‘could also play a musical instrument’ bit.
Well, the idea has been around for a while, and it all started with an old interview with a famous Scandinavian film director who has his own production company. In a throwaway line, he said that he would not employ a lawyer who did not play a musical instrument. Considering how many lawyers a film production company would need, the interviewer tried to pursue the point. No one has ever been able to find out if the director was just outrageous for the sake of it or if he was serious. For our purpose, it does not matter, because the press picked up on it again many years later, and so did the people who like to design personality tests. The best selling book, “And Can You Play A Musical Instrument?”, established the idea in people’s heads and you know what happens when people get an idea into their heads — it stays there, and no amount of logic will shift it.
So, God help any domestic servant who is looking for employment without the ability to at least pound out ‘Chopsticks’ on a piano.
Sitting for a portrait is not as much fun as you might think. My neck got a crick in it, and my arm ached from hanging on to Eric. Eric wasn’t any too pleased either. He wasn’t having it, so I had to hang on to a cushion for most of the session.
I was happy when it was done, and I loved how the painting came out, and as with childbirth, I forgot about the pain.
There is talk of doing another one every five years so that we will end up with a bunch of them showing the permanency of the business, but I’m sure I can think up an excuse to not be available for the next one, and Eric agrees.

 

 

Image: Aaron Westerberg

Barry Asks a Favour — an audio story

cbac670a5f39a5c51bee1b7c6a15de35

There are favours, and then there are FAVOURS.
A cup of sugar is fine, but I’ve always thought that the loan of a lawn mower was a bit too much. It’s all a matter of degrees. You might be happy to do any favour asked of you, or you might have limits based on who was doing the asking.
Boris lives by a strict code, so when Barry asked a favour, he did not hesitate, even when Barry pointed out the danger.

 

 

IMG_7275 (3)