“So, do you remember reading about the quiet side effect of catching that virus?” I said.
“No,” he said.
‘He’ was and still is my best friend. I share all sorts of stuff with him. Only, these days I do it in my head because talking out loud to a friend who is no longer alive gets you strange looks.
Just so we are clear, he was still alive when this conversation took place.
“Well, you’ll have to take my word for it then.”
“Okay,” he said.
“No one has ever seen anything like it, but as usually happens, someone saw an opportunity to make some money.”
“I’m trying to hang in there, but you are losing me,” he said.
I do that when I get excited. I talk as though the person I’m talking to is privy to the rest of the conversation that went on silently inside my head.
My mate Keith is very tolerant. He knows I’ll get to the point — eventually.
“Sorry. I got ahead of myself.”
“How’s the view from out there?” said Keith. I smiled and took a breath.
“One big foot?” I said, and Keith smiled. He was catching up.
“Okay, so now I’m with you,” said Keith.
“Everyone was noticing the other after effects — the big ones, the damaged lungs, the higher risk of Parkinson’s. It took about six months for scientists to connect the dots. A small group of people, world wide, who had caught the virus, ended up with one foot significantly bigger than the other. Created all sorts of problems — those afflicted had to buy two different pairs of shoes just to get a matching pair that fitted.”
“I can see how that would be a problem,” said Keith.
I’d interrupted his lunch. He’d just got back from KFC, and he’d cracked open a can of Solo. He ate the same thing every day for lunch. I drove him to KFC once when he was too sick to drive. He gave terrible directions. He lived in an old inner-city suburb with strange intersections and one-way streets. He knew them all, of course, but I felt like a white mouse navigating a maze with an absent-minded navigator.
“A problem? Yes it was. But, as with all problems, someone comes up with a solution that makes them rich,” I said triumphantly. I sat there and let my wisdom sink in.
“And?” said Keith.
“Well this bloke in Tasmania came up with the idea. He was doing up his home and going through a shitload of expanding foam, when the idea hit him. It helped that he was an industrial chemist. Basically, he invented a foam that you sprayed on your ‘smaller’ foot and the stuff adhered to your foot in the shape of a shoe. A black shoe — had to be black, apparently. Couldn’t get it to work in brown. He even came up with a separate formula for a sock. Grey. Only worked in grey, apparently. Grey sock and black shoe. Really cheap too. Several shoes per can — same for the socks. Sold like chocolate to a chocoholic.”
“You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?” said Keith.
“Hand on heart,” I said. “I watched a demonstration. It bloody works!”
“How do you get an invitation to a demonstration like that?” said Keith.
“A friend of a friend.”
“You have some strange friends, my friend,” said Keith.
“I guess,” I said.
We finished off the KFC, and he shared his Solo, and we talked some more until it started getting dark. It was a long journey for me to get back home, and now I was going to get stuck in peak hour traffic which would double my journey, but I didn’t care. Spending time with Keith was a panacea for all the things that ailed me.
We’d shared many adventures. I watched him fall in love. I rejoiced when he became a father. He watched my kids grow into men — and now, he’s gone.
Every time I drive past an ad for Solo or see a KFC, or trip over a bloke with a huge foot, I think of Keith.
Miss you mate.
There are — moments.
Moments that pass by unnoticed.
Like the photo of you and your classmates at camp with the out of focus boy in the background.
Like the moments after your first child is born.
Or the day when your life began to unravel — you were happy if not contented, and the world was beautiful — except it wasn’t, and the whole unhappy mess can be traced back to that day.
I didn’t want my portrait painted, but I knew it was the done thing.
Our family is all about done things.
Dominic, the artist, was told to paint me in the style of an American President’s wife, so he chose the portrait of President Coolidge’s wife.
I didn’t mind, I have a long red dress and a white dog.
The process of posing was tedious, and the conversations about what I should wear were something beyond tedious.
I wore a simple pearl necklace, but it disappeared from the final work, as did my bracelet.
It was never explained.
Our dog wouldn’t sit still, and I don’t blame her. Instead, she sat nearby and watched and sniffed all the unfamiliar scents.
The background was copied from the President’s wife’s portrait. Consequently, we didn’t need to leave Dominic’s studio.
The studio was just as you would imagine — dusty, paint-smeared with finished and unfinished works stacked against the walls.
Someone had written Genitalia is not an Italian airline, on one wall in tiny script. During a break, I asked him about it.
“Gerald, one of my friends — he thinks he’s funny. He writes something every time he comes to visit. Usually, I scrub it off when he’s gone, but I like that one. It’s hard to be explicit without using the word fuck.”
“Doesn’t he get his feelings hurt when he visits again?” I asked.
“No, he’s not my favourite aunt who expects to see the present she sent me ten Christmas’s ago on display when she visits.”
That made me smile.
I was sitting on a box, eating my sandwich.
“You have good legs,” he said.
I kicked out my right leg and looked at it.
“Thank you,” I said.
I could see he’d looked up my dress and when he looked at me, he blushed.
“See anything you like?” I said.
“Yes,” he said after a pause. I blushed.
“Your studio is very hot,” I said, and Dominic ignored me, “very hot.”
I waved my hand in front of my face, but the gesture didn’t help my case.
So, after our first session, I stopped wearing a bra and panties just to keep me cool. It worked, but I should have remembered when I raised my well-shaped leg.
It was only a moment.
He couldn’t have seen much, but I did feel a bit like Sharon Stone.
“Basic Instinct,” I said softly.
I was trying to remember Sharon Stone’s name, and I usually have to work backwards from the name of the movie to jog my brain. It amazes me that I can always remember the movie’s name and not the name of the actor.
“Pardon?” he said.
“Nothing. Just trying to remember a name.”
“Sharon Stone,” he said.
I didn’t answer.
I was embarrassed.
If I’d wanted to seduce him, this line of patter would have done the trick — it doesn’t take much to get a man aroused. In truth — I wasn’t trying to inflame him.
I had wondered if the stories about artists were true. What would it be like to lie in this creative man’s arms?
He was tall — about the same height as my husband.
Unruly hair unsuccessfully brushed back.
Good muscle definition and a bump in his jeans where there should be a bump — he dressed to the right, as far as I could tell.
Our conversation was having an effect on him — I noticed that he crossed his legs and turned slightly away from me so I couldn’t see if he was aroused — which meant he probably was.
The portrait required two weeks of sittings.
Every afternoon from two until four.
On the final day, he put his brush down, stepped back and said, “It’s done. Would you like to have a look?”
Up to that moment, he had jealously guarded the canvas, “No peeking until it’s done!”
My dog raised her head and sat up — as though she knew something special was happening.
I stepped forward and stood beside him.
He put his arm around me.
“Do I really look that good?” I said.
“Yes,” he said as he slid down the zipper on my dress.
We made love on a pile of paint-stained canvas covers. I could feel his hands on me, his lips on mine. The rough canvas sheets rubbed against my skin and the smells of his studio filled my nostrils, creating an indelible memory.
The makeshift bed wasn’t at all comfortable — not at all what I was used to, but as I lay there, exhausted, I thought about all the artist’s models who had been loved in this way, in all the studios of Paris.
Did they feel the way I felt?
I never wanted to be anywhere else but right here right now.
I put my hand on him, and he groaned softly.
“Are you trying to kill me woman?” he said, but I caressed him, and his protestation was belied by his ever-increasing interest.
“One more time,” I said as I straddled him. With a little help from me, we resumed erotic hostilities.
It was dark when I woke.
My lover was making coffee wearing only a white t-shirt, which didn’t cover his buttocks — I enjoyed the view.
“Why didn’t you undress me earlier?” I said.
“I wanted to finish the portrait first.”
“Typical man. The work always comes first,” I said.
I rolled over so he could see my naked body while he prepared two cups. The steam rising from the boiling water looked like a genie coming out of its bottle.
I felt like that genie.
I too, had been released.
“Cover yourself, woman, there are dogs present,” he said with a smile.
I opened my legs just enough.
“That’ll be enough of that,” he said, “I may never walk again.”
He put the coffees on a small stool, and we sat on the canvas covers. Our combined scent now mixed with the aroma of paint and turps.
“Cake mix,” I said.
“In what regard?” he said.
“That’s what we smell like — afterwards. Cake mix.”
“I guess. It smells like sex to me.”
We sipped our coffee in the silence only lovers can conjure.
“Do you think your husband will like the portrait?” he said.
“Yes — do you think he will know I wasn’t wearing knickers?”
“Hard to tell. Does his mind work like that?”
“You know, I’m not sure how his mind works, but there is something incredibly sexy about him having to pay you to penetrate me.”
“Not sure he would see it that way, but I do get your meaning. You aren’t the kind of woman who would tell him just for the fun of seeing his reaction — are you?”
“No. That’s not me. I don’t dislike him. He’s a good man. I wouldn’t want to hurt him.”
And that was the moment.
I hadn’t planned any of it and no one was supposed to get hurt.
They did — get hurt.
But that was still to come.
When I got home, I had to make up an excuse for being late, and I was disappointed that he wasn’t very interested. Part of me wanted to tell him what I had been doing — to wake him up!
I showered and dressed for bed.
I didn’t realise that oil paint does not wash off with water.
“Your back is all red and you’ve got paint stuck to your skin. Did you rub up against something in the studio?” said my husband as I climbed into bed.
“Yes, I guess I did,” I said.
And that was another moment.
As we boarded the flight to Rome, I laughed out loud.
“What are you laughing at,” said my artist companion.
“Alitalia IS an Italian airline,” I said.
The shop started out as a second-hand bookshop, but beginnings are important only as a window to arrivals.
I didn’t own the bookshop back then.
I applied for a job.
The owner didn’t want to sit in the store all day, especially during the quiet hours.
I arrived at just the right time — don’t you just love how that works — arriving at the right time?
I didn’t mind being there during the quiet hours.
My world was teetering on the edge.
The edge of what, I did not know, but it scared the hell out of me.
The dusty old building was teetering on the edge also. I crawled under it once to retrieve a favourite pencil that had fallen through a crack in the floor.
The foundations were minutes away from not being foundations anymore.
I wasn’t worried, it gave the shop an extra edge — a sense of peppermint danger.
The cracks in the floorboards came in handy during the warm weather.
In the winter, not so much.
I became proficient at rolling up pages out of destroyed books and wedging them into the larger gaps. Old, obsolete encyclopaedias worked best.
I left my anxieties at the door each day. They just dropped away like an old discarded overcoat.
The shopowner, Derick, could not get out of the place fast enough, which was fine by me. He was an ex-teacher and a real pain in the arse who would fire me ten days before a particular Christmas because I missed a shift. I ended up in the Emergency Ward with stomach pains and couldn’t make it into work.
“Don’t bother coming back,” was all he had to say.
I’d never missed a day of work in more than a year, but he didn’t care.
I didn’t know it, but people kept asking him where I had gone.
He closed the business about two years after firing me.
Towards the end of my time working for Derick the Dick, I noticed an uptick in customers — the uptick ate into my ‘quiet hours’.
I guess it started with an old man who lived about half a mile up the road.
I saw him every Thursday afternoon.
We would talk, and he would tell me stories from his days as a Real Estate agent.
“If I had a buyer who couldn’t make up their mind, I would ‘accidentally’ book another potential buyer to turn up at the same time. Worked like a charm. They would panic that someone else wanted ‘their house’. Signed on the spot.”
Henry was at least eighty-eight years old, and even though I would have disliked him if he was my age, I cut him some slack — he told great stories.
Henry told his friends about me.
Most of Henry’s friends were dead, but the ones who were hanging in there came to see me.
“Henry said you are a good listener.”
I’d never thought of myself as such, but there you go. Other people don’t always see us the way we see ourselves.
I found that I could easily remember the stories they told me, and over time I would retell one or two in response to a problem that was posed.
“What an excellent idea,” they would say, “I would never have thought of that.”
For a while, I thought I was hot stuff.
I got all puffed up.
There is a real rush that comes with helping people.
Of course, I came crashing back down to Earth when I got fired.
Fast forward a couple of years, and here I am sitting in my own bookshop, the same building I used to work in, doing my thing.
The shop had sat vacant for a while. It’s off the beaten track, and only dedicated book buyers will find it.
I named the store Twice Sold Tales.
People come to my store because I’m a good listener.
Occasionally, I tell them a story I’ve been told, and it changes their perspective. They are grateful for the direction I head them in, and in return, they buy a second-hand book — sometimes more than one.
I’m never going to get rich, but I do get to enjoy the stories I hear, and there is always the quiet hours.
A Sam Bennett story
Some bloke in Queensland makes ten thousand a time for doing this.
I did it because a client asked me too.
My client was also a friend, but it would take too long to explain that friendship and I’m not sure my heart could go there at the moment.
I’d worked for William Armstrong on several occasions since the first time I met him.
We were both at a wedding with women we would not stay with for long — the story of my life until I met Scarlett.
My ‘plus one’ was prettier than his.
We got talking when we worked out that we both preferred whisky — Scotch, single malt. The open bar at this wedding didn’t stretch that far, but basic Scotch was better than the lolly water the girls were ordering.
William was about to take over his father’s business after having worked in the company since he left his expensive private school in year twelve. He skipped university and jumped right in.
“I disliked school with a passion. I wanted to be out in the world, doing stuff,” he said between sips of whisky. The whisky didn’t deserve to be sipped, but good habits die hard.
“I felt the same way you did, but I didn’t want to disappoint my mentor, so I finished uni,” I said, and my heart hesitated at the thought of ‘Nelly’ Touraville. I miss him so much.
“What are you going to do when you are running the show?” I said.
“Pretty much what my father has done, but I’ll put my own spin on it when the time is right.”
If you are wondering what tasks I performed for William over the years, there was a bit of industrial espionage — finding out what his competitors knew. A bit of tidying up when things went wrong. Dealing with an employee who believed that he could get rich quickly by selling back proprietary secrets that he had ‘light fingered’.
As with all business owners, William was surrounded by people who were out for what they could get — nothing surprising about that.
When he got his terminal diagnosis, he rang me and asked for a meeting.
I sat in Young and Jackson’s on a dreamy Thursday afternoon after getting off the train at Flinders Street Station — I hate parking the Jag in the city.
A few early finishing workers had wandered in and were chatting away, waiting for the beer to wash away the day’s worries. I watched them with interest.
William approached my table, looking drawn.
I waved at the barman and pointed at my beer and made the ‘two beers’ sign recognised by barmen all over the civilised world.
The beers arrived, and I asked William how he was and what he wanted to talk about.
“I’m buggered and I want you to do something important for me.”
“You know I will,” I said.
“The cancer is back and there’s no hope.”
“Bloody hell. What do you mean no hope. There’s always hope. You’ve got enough money to start your own country. Someone, somewhere…..?”
“No,” he said, and he meant it.
We sat quietly for a few moments, and I let it sink in. Now I understood why he looked so haggard.
“When they bury me, I want you to speak for me,” he said.
“What? Like a eulogy?”
“No. Someone else will do that. I want you to speak for me. I want you to say all the things I couldn’t say when I was alive.”
“You aren’t dead yet, mate. Plenty of time to tell people what you want them to hear.”
“Even if there was time, and there isn’t, I don’t have the strength. I’ve never been good at confrontation. You aren’t frightened of anyone. You speak with a clear heart and I need that.”
“Beer isn’t going to do it. Can I get you a whisky. They do a Lagavulin 16 here?”
When the whisky arrived, I gave a toast, “To life, what there is left of it.”
William laughed, “To life.”
The beer had given us a good head start, and the whisky was moving us along.
“So, what do you want me to do?” I said.
William reached into his inside pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. Handwritten, in tiny script, were his wishes for his funeral service.
After I read through the document, I said, “Bloody hell!”
I made him sign it and date it, and we got the barman to witness our signatures, then we had several more whiskies, and I caught the train home.
Fortunately, the walk from the station is a long one, and I’d sobered up a bit before I took to my bed.
Sleep wasn’t on the agenda. Too much to think about.
I stared at the ceiling and thought, once again, that I should give it a coat of paint.
The moon was almost full, and the light seeped around the edges of the blind.
I’d been in a few tight spots where I might have lost my life, but until now, I had not seriously thought about my own, inevitable death.
William and I were about the same age — still very much, young men.
I wondered what it would look like — my day of death. Would I be merrily rolling along, oblivious to my impending doom? Or would I be alone in a hospital bed, waiting for the room to go dim?
A ‘blaze of glory’ seemed like a good choice, and as sleep finally caught up with me, I imagined leading the charge up some heroic hill.
I didn’t get an invitation to the funeral, but then again, it wasn’t a private affair.
Open-air. Beautiful day. All the trimmings. Silver spade to sprinkle some dirt on the coffin. Flowers by the carload. Mourners dressed in their finery.
Despite William’s instructions, a minister was running the proceedings.
“We all know why we are gathered here today,” said the minister dressed in full regalia. “William was a wonderful man.”
“Did you know him personally,” I said.
I was seated in the second row, and no-one had asked me how I’d know the deceased.
I unbuttoned my coat as I got to my feet.
The gesture meant that I was at work.
Ready to work.
“Not personally,” said the minister adjusting his cassock.
“Then sit down and shut it. William didn’t want this,” I said as I edged along the row and stepped in front of the assembled gathering. I half expected someone to tackle me.
“That’s right. He didn’t want this,” said the attractive woman in the third row.
A couple of other people agreed.
William’s wife was seated, head down, next to her brother, who looked like he was waking from a dream. He started to stand up — staring at me.
“Don’t even think about it, Michael. Oh, and by the way, William said to tell you to pay back the loan he gave you. I’m sure your sister would be happy to have the money.
“What loan?” said William’s wife.
Michael sank back into his seat.
“Well it wasn’t actually a loan, was it Michael. More like a payoff. Hush money, I think they call it.”
Michael sat quietly as William’s wife bored a hole in his head with her eyes.
“William was concerned that this might happen so he asked me to speak for him.”
I scanned the gathering and found the three people I was looking for.
“You, you and you. Out!” I pointed at the road leading out of the cemetery.
“William did not want you here. And if you don’t leave, now, I’ll tell everyone why.”
The three people I pointed to stood up and shuffled off down the road.
All eyes and ears were on me.
“William wanted you to know that he knew you weren’t faithful but he didn’t know how to deal with you when he was alive. He didn’t blame you, he was less than the husband you deserved.”
There were tears in her eyes, and I hated this part of my job, but a promise was a promise.
“As for you,” I said, staring at the bloke sitting behind her, “William thought you were a snake but he lacked the courage to punch you on the nose. He hopes that you make his wife happy, but don’t expect her to inherit everything, far from it.”
There was an audible gasp from the assembled multitude.
Where William’s money would end up was the prime concern for most of them.
I rattled off a heap of names and just as many final messages, and most of them were not well received.
“One last thing to finish up,” I said, “which one of you is Phillis?”
A young woman at the back raised a gloved hand.
“William said to say thank you. You brightened his day and always gave more of yourself than was asked for. There is a glowing reference in his desk with your name on it if you decide to look elsewhere for a job. There’s a bonus in that envelope as well. Enough for you to take an all expenses holiday, if you so wish.”
The young woman who had looked after William as his secretary for the previous three years smiled and put her hand to her face.
“Well that’s about it from me, and from William. I begged him to say all these things before he left us, but I guess he wasn’t able to, so that’s where I came in.”
I did up my coat and walked down the same road that the ejected mourners had walked.
Bloody big cemetery, so it took a long time to get back to where I’d parked the Jag.
I needed a drink, and the Big Cat took me to my favourite bar.
I lifted a glass to my old friend and pondered my own mortality before heading for home.
I slept very well that night and went into the office just before noon.
My secretary asked me why I was so late.
“You are dead a long time Janice. Sometimes you just have to treat yourself to a sleep in.”
“Okay,” said Janice.
“By the way. Have I ever told you how much I appreciate you?”
“Yes. Once or twice,” she said.
“Good. I wouldn’t want to pass away suddenly and not have told you.”
“Have you been drinking, Sam?” said Janice.
“Not today, but I plan on having a few a bit later in the day. You are welcome to join me?” I said, and Janice shook her head.
“Meeting my boyfriend later,” she said.
Just as well, I guess.
I’d probably say something unwise.
Aut Virum Aut Murum Oportet Mulierem Habere
“Late sixteenth, early seventeenth century.”
“Mate, I can’t accurately remember the week before last,” I said, and my friend ignored me and kept right on going. He was like that when he had a head of steam up.
“A cluster of nuns in Northern Italy. They wrote and performed beautiful music. The Church tried to stop them, but they kept going.”
“A bit like you, Roman? And I think the collective noun is a superfluity of nuns, not cluster.”
Ignored, yet again.
“Naturally, the music and singing were all religious. I guess that’s how they got away with it for so long,” said Roman. His voice dropped, and I thought he was done, but he was just thinking about something — he was far away, and then he was back.
“Lucretia Borger’s daughter was one of the composers.”
“No shit? THE Lucretia Borger?” I said, and I was getting used to being ignored.
“In the end, the Church caught up with them and the trail goes cold.”
“And how did you learn all this?” I said because I wasn’t listening when he first told me.
“A very old, handwritten book. Beautifully illustrated. Tells the whole story from the point of view of the women involved. I ran across it when I was studying in the Vatican library,” said Roman, and he trailed off again and stared into space. I got the feeling that he was back there, back then.
“So, how come this book was in the Vatican library if the Church was trying to stamp them out?”
“Better for them to lock it away than have it floating about causing trouble.”
Roman had a point, and it unsettled me. I had always thought of Roman as my slightly dotty friend, and here he was making sense.
“So why were these talented women locked away behind convent walls and not out in the world being married and making music?”
“Money,” said Roman.
“Only the eldest daughter would get married. Her dowery would be huge. The family would go broke if all the daughters got married. Convents would take the other daughters for a fraction of a marriage dowery. At that time, around a quarter of all gentile women were behind the wall.”
“That’s a lot of women,” I said, and I meant it. Nuns freak me out a bit. At least they did when I was a kid, and there were a lot of them about, back then.
“Sometimes there would be three generations of women locked away. When a baby was born into a family they would bring the child along and stick it in this kind of revolving door thing that the convent would receive supplies through. Technically, the baby would be excommunicated for going through the portal, but in reality, they weren’t. No one was supposed to touch a nun once she was received into the order. Cuddling newborn relatives seemed to be an exception to the rule. Sometimes, tiny nuns would squeeze through the revolving door and go AWOL.”
My head was starting to spin.
All this seemed so far from the world I lived in. Did women really live like this — separated from the world?
“So what was it like? Working in the Vatican library?” I said.
“Not as much fun as the Bodleian. The Vatican Library is bland and boring, but it does have a bar.”
“Yes. It’s there for the Vatican staff — greatly subsidised prices — but they will serve travelling scholars. I’d have my lunch there and go back to work in the afternoon — technically, the library closes at lunchtime, but those in the know can get a special pass and work until the early evening. It’s very quiet in the afternoon.”
“This book, with the singing nuns, how did you find it?”
“Not sure. You are only allowed three books per day and I think I must have made a mistake when I ordered it. In any case, it was the most important discovery of my time in Italy. You know, I don’t think the book had been opened since it was added to the collection some four hundred plus years ago.”
“Wow,” I said, and I could hear the pages being separated as he opened the book. The rich illustrations and the archaic language — not to mention the smell of the paper and the binding.
“You know, a bunch of nuns banded together and burnt down their convent.”
“No. I didn’t know that,” I said, “you should write a book.”
“I am. But I fear it will be read by very few and someday — maybe hundreds of years from now — someone will find it in a dusty old archive. I wonder what that person will think when they open it for the first time?”
“I’d like to read your book when it’s done, but for now, I need a drink. Care to join me?”
Roman smiled, and we headed for the pub.
As we walked, it dawned on me that my ‘dotty’ friend had seen more of the world than I had and his books took him time travelling as well.
I’m glad we kept in touch — even if he does ignore me, from time to time.