Mrs Houdini

When you look at a person, you only see what you see.

You don’t see what came before.

A woman in a nightgown and slippers who has trouble remembering where she is, does not give a hint as to who she was.

The young staff members named her ‘Mrs Houdini’ because she held the record for the most number of daylight escapes.

Those who grow old and forget are often dismissed, but many of them lived through world wars, lost children to disease and despair, struggled through the Depression, worked for a wage and bought up a family — they learned a thing or two along the way.

They learned to look like they are not looking while the sister punches in the key code. Like seeing where the key to the ward is kept and knowing when the nurses’ station is unattended — things like that.

Mrs Houdini’s real name was Alice, Alice Johnson, and whenever she escaped, she headed for the little cemetery next to the old stone church.

Benjamin Johnson lay in that cemetery.

There was a bench near his grave, and she sat and told him all her news, but on this day she remembered something.

“I must go and tell Jimmy,” she said as she rose to her feet. Her drink bottle sat forgotten on the bench. It was one of those drink bottles that you give to small children, so they don’t spill their milk everywhere.

The drink bottle was still there when Jim Johnson arrived at the graveyard, about thirty minutes after he got the call. He would have come sooner, but he had a dead body to take care of first — work is work, and his commander was sick of him having to rush off and search for his wayward mother.

“I spend seventy-five percent of my free time either taking care of, or looking for my mother. You would think that the gigantic chunk of my salary I give them every month would cover the cost of them finding her whenever they loose her,” he said to his colleague, who was only half listening.

Jim Johnson didn’t tell his superior he was looking for his mother — again. Instead, he took the long way back to the office via the churchyard.

He missed her by a few minutes, and he would not see her again for two days. 

Two days and nights.

When he found her again, she was in remarkably good condition. Her slippers were a bit muddy, and her nightgown was torn at the hem, but she could not remember where she had been for those two days and nights. It really didn’t matter — she was safe and back in his arms — his mother was safe.

The only part of her adventure she could remember was the last bit, the bit where she was blinded and nearly run over by the motorbike.

~oOo~

Hugh Carter had an intriguing skill set which included being able to change a spark plug in under a minute. It didn’t much matter how long you took to change a spark plug, but Hugh was proud that he could do the whole job in under a minute.

Hugh Carter stood about one hundred and eighty centimetres tall (about five foot ten in old money). He had black curly hair and women liked him — a lot. Hugh would ultimately find that he was happy to bat for both teams, but at this moment, he enjoyed the attention of women.

Hugh worked for a performance garage and raced motorcycles whenever he could scrape together the money to tune his machine.

Hugh was reasonably successful, and with a bit of sponsorship, he could have competed at the highest level.

As with all young men, he was impatient for his life to unfold.

He saw his friends earning easy money working for nefarious characters, and he held out for as long as he could.

His first step into the world where life was even cheaper than normal was when a bloke he knew was found dead.

His friend and his bike plummeted off a cliff, and neither of them survived.

A grizzled bloke in a jacket displaying the colours of a local bike club approached him to do some courier work.

The grizzled bloke pointed at the gun stuffed in his belt and indicated that he would deploy said weapon if Hugh contemplated taking the cash and not making the pickup.

Hugh understood.

Hugh stayed within the speed limit on the way to the pickup, met his contact, watched as they counted the money, took the backpack after they showed him the contents, and proceeded to drive at high speed to the little stone church where his grizzled boss was waiting to meet him.

His high-speed antics nearly got him pulled over, but his riding skills enabled him to escape.

Hugh was feeling the adrenaline rush as he arrived at the church. 

He handed over the backpack and the grizzled bloke checked the purity of its contents as two of his cohorts stood by with weapons drawn.

When the shouting and the gunfire began, Hugh dived behind a pew.

Jim Johnson was hit in the vest by a bullet, and it took the wind out of him. He was the second officer through the door.

As he lay on the floor of the church trying to decide if he was going to die, he noticed a man in black leathers crawling under the pews towards the door that Jim and his fellow officers had just come through.

Bullets continued to fly, and men continued to shout as Hugh made it through the front door. His bike was still where he had left it, and it started with the first kick of the starter.

Jim Johnson decided that he was not going to die — his vest had saved him. He scrambled to his feet and heard bullets whiz past. Jim found the main power board and threw the master switch. All the lights came on at once, including the builder’s floodlights on the outside of the building. 

Several thousand-watt globes burst into life emitting that ghostly white light that bleeds all the colour out of everything it lands on.

Hugh’s rear wheel spun on the dirt road as he changed into second gear. His engine was screaming, and so was Hugh. A ghostly apparition stepped from behind the church and into the middle of the road.

The floodlights blinded Alice Johnson, but she kept on walking. She heard the young man swear and noticed what sounded like a motorbike sliding through the gravel.

The gunfire had abated, and officers were spilling out of the church, Jim Johnson among them.

He ignored the fallen bike rider and ran to his mother.

“Are you okay mum?” he said, holding her close.

“Jimmy. Where have you been? I have something to tell you,” she said and promptly forgot what it was.

Jim took off his coat and wrapped it around his mother and led her to a waiting ambulance.

After a day in the hospital, she would be back in the nursing home, planning her next escape.

In the remand centre, Hugh was telling his fellow inmates about the ghost who knocked him off his bike.

They all agreed that his was the best bad luck story.

A ghost beats tripping over your own shoelaces any day.

Give Him a Foot and He Will Take a Mile

Carlos Delgado

“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. 

Love you.

Sleep well.

Long Red Dress and a Gleeful White Dog

 

 

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 Quiet Hours

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.

Coffin Confessor

 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. 

A Woman Should Have A Husband Or A Wall

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.

“Pardon?”

“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.”

“Seriously?”

“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.  

The Inquisition

Part two of Batting Practice

“We’ve asked you in here today, Detective Sergeant, to ask you if you know anything about the assault on Senior Constable Frank Morgan?” said the man who had identified himself as an officer from Internal affairs. 

I don’t remember his name now, as I didn’t make a note of it then — no point. He was just the first wave — the monkey, not the organ grinder.

“Do Internal Affairs officers get a special clothing allowance — more than we mere mortals in Robbery? I only ask because that is a particularly handsome suit. Well cut, well fitted — handsome.”

This was an old trick, and it showed him up to be relatively inexperienced in the business of extracting information — the next officer I spoke to would be better at his job — assuming there was to be a ‘next officer’.

Throw your suspect (or in this case inquisitor) a question designed to distract them and yet require an answer — breaking their train of thought.

“No, not that I know of. Maybe. No, I don’t think so,” said the young Detective Sergeant.

“Not to worry. By the way, I reserve the right to be questioned by an officer of equal or higher rank. You just won’t do young man.”

Always be on the front foot. Never retreat.

“I’m a Detective Sergeant. I said so at the beginning of our interview. I’m like you,” he said.

Back foot, and nothing like me.

“So, you did. And why am I here again?”

He repeated his question after straightening his tie and shuffling his papers (always have documents in an interview — your subject will be wondering what you have on them — on paper).

I paused for a longish time, shifted in my chair, scratched at my ear and finally said, “I don’t know SC Morgan all that well. I’ve only spent quality time with him once.” When I beat the living shit out of him with a cricket bat.

My inquisitor seemed a bit flustered — not sure where to go next.

“You do know that Senior Constable Frank Morgan is married to Detective Constable Helen Morgan, from your squad?”

“Yes, I do. She was recently assaulted, wasn’t she? Did they ever catch the evil bastard who did it?” I said through gritted teeth.

“Investigations are ongoing,” said my inquisitor and it was the first time I had heard him mumble. He knew what I was getting at, and he was embarrassed that her recently pummelled husband had not been charged. This was a good sign.

“How is SC Morgan going?”

“He’s recovering. Won’t be back at work until after the operation on his knee.” More shuffling of papers.

I was determined to not directly say that I had nothing to do with SC Morgan’s beating. It’s a small point, but I don’t like to lie — not directly.

“I don’t think I can be of much help to you. Did SC Morgan give a description of his assailant?” I was reasonably sure he hadn’t, but a bit of fishing wouldn’t hurt.

“No. His memory of the incident is a bit hazy.”

I thought so, and it probably had something to do with my parting comment to him as he lay holding his damaged knee.

“Here is a list of all the people you have taken kickbacks from over the past twelve months.”

I pushed the list into his top pocket before I put the bat in the boot of my car and drove away.

“No help with CCTV footage?” I said.

“No. His home system wasn’t switched on — for some reason.”

“Neighbours?”

“Too far away and the resolution’s crap. Just a man and a dark coloured car.”

“Pity. Are we done? I have the ungodly to apprehend. It’s my job.”

“Yes. That’s all — for now. We may want to speak to you again.”

I’d heard what I needed, but I will put my cricket bat in the shed when I get home. I had considered burning the evidence, but Dean Jones signed that bat. Buggered if that arsehole Morgan is going to make me incinerate my favourite bat.

The young Internal Affairs officer gathered up his papers and left the room without making eye contact.

I stayed seated and stuck my little finger in my ear and gave it a bit of a twirl. I pulled the finger out and inspected it — shiny but no wax.

I checked my phone for messages and stretched my arms up in the air in an exaggerated stretch, all for the benefit of the people behind the mirrored panel.

Calm and relaxed.

Unhurried and with nothing to hide.

SC Morgan would probably walk with a limp for quite some time, and he will think carefully before laying a hand on his wife.

I felt satisfied that I had dealt out a bit of justice, but I could not help feeling that I had crossed a line.

A line I had so far been on the right side of.

The ungodly were waiting, so I gathered myself and left the room — striding down the corridor towards the sunlight.

“Just one more thing, Detective Sergeant. Do you play cricket?” said my inquisitor, who had stepped out of the second last office before the doors to the street.

“Not since I represented the Police Force, back in the nineties,” I said without thinking.

My young inquisitor was better than I thought he was.

I’d underestimated him.

I won’t do that again.

Batting Practice

Chief Inspector Dance slid across the church pew and invaded my personal space.

Hip against hip, knee against knee.

“Be careful Chief Inspector, in some cultures, this constitutes a marriage proposal,” I said, and the detectives close by laughed.

The Chief Inspector shot them a glance — he was the only one who was allowed to be funny.

He’d bullied his way to the head of the Robbery Squad just before I joined the unit. He dumped the previous second in command and installed me as 2IC. Buggered if I know why, but maybe it had something to do with weakening the old alliances.

In keeping with modern police practice, several of our squad were female. They were often the butt of his jokes and sarcasm.

“Back off a bit. I don’t want to get pregnant before the wedding,” I said, and a snigger rippled through our group. It turns out I’m pretty good at sarcasm as well.

I could smell him — dust, hair oil and a cheap aftershave.

Amazingly, our DCI would tolerate such comments because he believed he was a jolly funny chap — he wasn’t, but that kind of banter was his forte, so he would take a bit of it when it came his way — only a bit mind you, and only from the male officers.

Other than that, no-one stands up to our boss. We all want to ‘get on’, get a promotion, get ahead and get out of this squad. But things were changing.

Murder Squad, Narcotics then Burglary; in that order. 

The head of Narcotics retired in a cloud of whispers and Chief Inspector Dance expected to get the nod; except, it didn’t happen. 

Chief Inspector Valerie Trend was promoted above him. 

Dance had run his race.

I’d like to think that the ‘higher-ups’ had finally figured out that he was a prick, but I doubt it. The rumour mill will eventually tell us, but frankly, I didn’t care — about that and a lot of things.

We were seated a few rows from the front on the right-hand side of this huge old church. The ceremony was being held in Richmond this year because St Paul’s in the city had been double booked. Working-class Catholics had paid for this monument to power in the late 1880s. It must have cost a fortune, and I can hear the priest piling on the guilt because the building had not been paid off, and the church needed money.

Detective Constable Helen Morgan was the last of us to arrive. 

She sat in the seat in front of us, dressed in the squad’s unofficial uniform; a grey two-piece single-breasted suit, white shirt/blouse and a tie.

She was trim, slightly above average height with bruises and a small cut on one side of her face. The left side of her face, as it happened.

I wanted to make a joke about her ability to arrest someone without getting thumped, when a feeling came over me, which it sometimes does. These bruises had been delivered by someone who should have been her protector.

I turned to our ‘leader’. “Are you going to do something about this?” I said.

“None of our business,” he said and turned away as though not seeing the damage was the same as it going away.

“If a member of the public had done that, you’d be first in line to take him downstairs and beat the living shit out of him,” I said, and I was aware of the volume of my voice.

“Man and wife stuff. Stay the fuck out of it.”

Fuck this for a game of soldiers,  I said under my breath.

I stood up and walked across to the side door just as the organ started up to begin the proceedings.

I’m not sure if it was planned when the church was built, but there was a pub just across the road. Mind you, back in those days, there was a pub across the road from everywhere in Richmond.

I blinked under the intense light and hesitated before crossing the broad street. Two of our squad’s female officers had followed me out of the church, closely followed by Helen Morgan.

“You ladies need to think carefully. Your absence will be noted. This assembly is a big deal. It’s a load of bollocks, but it’s a big deal in terms of ‘showing the flag’. Photographers, reporters, the whole nine yards. All the people who make decisions about your future are here. Do you want them to remember you walking out before it all began?”

There was silence.

“You stood up to him back there. You spoke up for Helen, not that it will do any good,” said Sharon Long, who had been in the squad for a little more than a year. Bright, blond and someone who can take care of herself without having to pull her gun.

Betty Green kissed Helen on the cheek and gave her a hug. “You know I love ya kid, don’t you? she said, “but I’ve got two kids, and I need this crazy job.” 

She gave us a smile, and we gave her a nod. She went back into the church.

The rest of us went across the road and ordered a beer, then we ordered another one. We sat in what was laughingly called the ‘beer garden’ and listened to the sound of hundreds of police officers giving thanks to God that a new financial year had begun and no one had discovered their transgressions.

“Things are going to change around here,” I said, surrounded by two strong women who could probably beat me in a fair fight.

But there’s the thing — I don’t fight fair. Actually, I do my best to avoid a fight, but as my father taught me, “if you cannot get out of it, dive in with everything you’ve got and don’t stop until your opponent cannot get up. Don’t guess — be sure he is done.” 

I sat there thinking about the career I thought I had and about the cricket bat in my car’s boot. 

Senior Constable Frank Morgan and I are going to have a little batting practice.

Precipitation

I should have worn a bigger hat.

More brim, less style.

Add it to the list of things I should have done.

It’s a long list.

I took her hand in mine and kissed it gently. Her fingers smelled of rain and talcum powder. I love the way females waft through life smelling of flowers.

Kissing a lady’s hand was a move I’ve used many times, but with her, it wasn’t a move — it was heartfelt. I wanted to kiss her all over, but it would not have been appropriate, standing on this corner, in the rain.

I should have worn a bigger hat.

To be honest, I didn’t think she would come. There was silence on her end of the line when I asked her, and I closed the call before she could say no.

Her life seems comfortable and ordered. Money does not seem to be a problem.

As I saw her approaching through the rainstorm, I admit to wondering — what was it about me that made her make such a dangerous decision? 

Physical attraction doesn’t leave room for consequences.

Was her attraction to me physical? If it was, it would be a first. No, that’s not true. There was that one girl who liked my legs in shorts, but that was a long time ago, and this woman hasn’t seen me in shorts.

It must be something else.

I’ve always felt that people dismiss me as ordinary until I speak. I do have a way with words, and maybe that’s what it is. Perhaps she thinks something is going on inside this ordinary exterior.

Are the men in her life so boring that she would risk disaster by meeting me, on a Wednesday night, outside a bar on the other side of town — to do, who knows what?

“Were you in the neighbourhood — thought you would drop by and see what I was up to on this damp Wednesday night?” I said with my heart in my mouth.

“No. I came because you asked me to come,” she said.

Her voice was soft, but firm — no hint of hesitation.

“Can I buy you a drink?” I said, turning my body towards the neon sign a few doors down.

“Yes. Eventually,” she said.

My body and my words made me appear calm and at ease. I’ve practised this pose several times in front of the full-length mirror. I ‘liberated’ the mirror from out the front of our local charity shop — the local idiots would have broken it before morning — this was my rationale.

The mirror showed how cool I would look if the world was mirror image — the right way around was anybody’s guess.

My advance planning had stretched as far as standing on this corner at the appointed time. The most likely outcome was that this delicious female would choose the wise action and stay a long way away from me and this corner and the rain and whatever else I might have in store.

The second option was that she would turn up and I would have to behave in a way that would get her to like me enough to want to sleep with me — can you see why I had not planned this far ahead? Even a mathematician would have trouble calculating the odds of that happening.

So, now I was in uncharted territory.

What do I do to get this stylish woman to like me, let alone sleep with me?

“You look amazing. Exactly how do you manage to look that way with rain dripping off your hat?”

“Most of me is waterproof, I guess,” she said, and if I wasn’t aroused before, I was now, and I hoped it didn’t show.

“Come,” I said, “let us away to yon bar.”

I kept a hold on her hand, and she followed me to the glass door under the glowing sign.

Glad to be out of the rain, we performed the same in out of the rain dance that all the customers performed on this night.

I tried to brush some of the rain off myself — a fruitless exercise.

My companion removed her hat and gave it a gentle shake. We chose a booth and sat facing each other. Our shoes touched, and she moved hers so my feet would have room and I have absolutely no idea what that meant.

“What would you like to drink?” I said.

“Scotch — the good stuff, with water on the side.”

A sophisticated choice.

I tried to look smooth as I wiggled out of the booth and went to the bar.

The place was quiet, so the bartender didn’t try to ignore me as most bartenders do — or maybe being with her had elevated my status.

I scanned the range on the top shelf.

“Lagavulin 16, times two and a jug of water, please,” I said, and the sleepy bartender dispensed the drinks into surprisingly clean glasses, the heavy-based glasses that I like holding in two hands.

I paid — way too much — and took the drinks back to the table.

My companion added a splash of water to hers, and the aroma enveloped us both.

“So why did you come?” I said.

I knew it was a dumb thing to say as soon as I said it, but dumb is something I do a lot of.

“I’ve got a better question. Why did you ask me? You know I’m married (she didn’t say ‘happily’), you know I have children and a life. Why would I want to jeopardise that by having an affair with a man who wears hats and writes stories and likes dogs?”

“I’m an optimist, I guess,” I said — and I’m not.

She stared at her drink and gave it a gentle swirl.

She took a sip and hid behind the glass, holding it with two hands. I mirrored her, and we sat there for a moment — silence.

“If I were to let you, you know, make love to me, how would you do it?”

Now, there was a question I wasn’t expecting.

“Is this some kind of entrance exam?” I said, and I was aware of the double-entendre.

“Maybe,” she said.

The soft light and the sparsely populated bar gave an otherworldly glow to this surreal moment. The music playing only added to the illusion.

“I’d run the back of my hand across your cheek, caressing you. You’d close your eyes as my hand touched you, a sensation running down your spine. You’d kiss my hand as it crossed your lips,” I said.

Her eyes were closed, and her lips moved as though she were kissing my hand. I was glad I was sitting down because there was no way I could disguise how I was feeling.

“That would be a good place to start,” she said as she opened her eyes.

I did my best to turn the conversation to other things just so I could catch my breath.

She was enjoying my discomfit. Her smile told me so.

After a few minutes, she uttered those dreaded words.

“I have to be getting back — I’ll be missed. Walk me to my car?”

I did my best to walk calmly to the door and along the pavement until we reached her car — latest model, all the extras. Her husband was a good provider, but I knew that already.

It was still raining. I grabbed her and pushed her gently up against a shop window. It was dark, and I pressed up against her and kissed her on the mouth. She kissed me back, and her hand ran down my back.

“Did I pass muster?” I said. “Will you ring me?”

She wiggled out from under my body, and I felt the warmth of her dissipate.

She opened the door of her car and turned towards me before getting in. She allowed her dress to ride up as she slid behind the wheel. Stockings, thighs and a hint of white lace panties.

The car window rolled down with a squelch and a hum.

She hadn’t answered my question.

“Thank you for the drink, and the conversation, and the kiss. You have very soft lips,” she said.

The window rolled up, and I tilted my head the way a dog would do when it hears an interesting sound.

Her car pulled out from the curb, and I stood wondering what had happened.

Was this the beginning or the end of an adventure?

Was I lucky that it ended so sweetly or sad that it never really got going?

Only time would tell.

If she rang, I would gladly jump into her ocean and swim like there was no tomorrow.

If she didn’t ring, I had the memory of this night — the rain and the kiss and the erection that showed no signs of abating.

Either my luck had changed, or regular service had been resumed.

I drove home feeling warm and loved, even though I knew those things were probably an illusion.

I’m a big fan of illusion, it beats the hell out of reality.

I made a mental note to pay the phone bill. 

This was no time to miss an important call.

Miss Penelope Spenser

 

Her father named her Penelope because her mother was too unwell to protest.

Penelope’s dad was fond of historical heroines, and Odysseus’s wife seemed like a wise and resourceful woman — someone he hoped his daughter would grow up to become. He always thought that Odysseus was a bit of a dick, but he gave him credit for finding his way home. The whole taking a detour so he could hear the Sirens sing seemed reasonable under the circumstances.

Penelope Spenser had her heart broken on two separate occasions — the second time being the most painful.

Her first broken heart was a shared experience. Many young women saw their beautiful young men go off to war, never to return. It didn’t help that she was part of such a vast sisterhood, but it gave her cover for being unmarried.

Death did not play a role in her second heartbreak.

Philip Dunstable promised much, but in the end, he ran away with the daughter of the local cinema owner.

No cover at all, only a heart that would not mend and ongoing embarrassment.

Her grandfather died and left her a cottage and about a thousand pounds a year. Not quite enough money to survive on, but she supplemented it with a bit of sewing and mending — the benefits of a practical education.

Her parents passed away and left her some excellent china wear and a mountain of debts that were only just cleared by selling their house.

Through it all, Penelope was stoic if not actually happy.

She was a quiet person who loved to read and walk and talk to people she knew.

Her garden was full of flowers and weeds and birds and other things that liked weeds and flowers.

I wanted you to know these things because it helps to explain why Willian chose her.

William had a home — if you could call it that. He wasn’t young anymore, and the few years he had left were precious to him. He wanted to spend them with someone who would appreciate his love and devotion. 

He chose Penelope Spenser.

Of course, he didn’t know that was her name. All he knew was that she was friendly and walked most days to the shops and returned with a basket full of delicious aromas. That was most important because William was hungry most of the time.

William had come into the Getts family as a pup, and the young boy had looked after him until he’d been packed off to boarding school. It was lonely without him. The Getts family were not really dog people, and William was barely tolerated. A dog cannot live without love. Love is more important than treats and sausages and water and a warm blanket.

William planned his campaign with military precision.

He knew when she would most likely walk by on her way home.

Her big shopping day was Wednesday, but William had yet to be able to tell the days of the week.

His gambit was a bold one.

Lie in the road and look half dead.

As a plan, it had its drawbacks, and he nearly got run over twice, but finally, Miss Penelope walked by and noticed what looked like a dog in distress — legs in the air, not long for this world.

The ‘lying on the back with the legs in the air’, turned out to be a good ploy because upside down he looked like a different dog to the one she would pet every week on her way home.

“Oh dear. You poor dog. What’s happened to you? Are you lost? Are you hurt?” said Penelope, who tended to ask a lot of questions when things got intense.

William opened one eye and tried to look as pathetic as possible, which was a challenge because he was well fed and a bit plump, it has to be said.

Miss Penelope put her shopping down, and a bread roll fell out. It was all William could do not to leap on it.

He held his nerve, and Miss Penelope held his paw. It was then that he knew that passing up a crusty bread roll was well worth it. Her touch was gentle, and William went all wiggly inside.

“Do you think you can walk? I hope so because I doubt that I could carry you,” said Penelope.

William rolled onto his side and gradually got to his feet. He wobbled a bit just to press the point.

“Good dog,” said Penelope.

“Come,” she said, and William wobbled along beside her and her bag full of goodies until they reached her cottage.

Penelope showed him into the house and laid a blanket on the floor near the fireplace.

“This is a good spot for a tired dog to regain his composure,” she said as she lit the fire and made herself a cup of tea and put away her supplies.

“You might as well have this. I hope you don’t mind that it’s a bit dusty,” Penelope said as she put the crusty bread roll next to him.

She took one of the lovely china bowls that her mother had left her and filled it with water.

“Every dog needs water,” she said, “and when you are feeling better, I’ll look for your owner and give him a good talking too.”

Penelope did go looking for William’s owner, but even though she put up flyers and asked around, the Getts family stayed silent, and their son was sad when he came home from school to find his dog had ‘run away’.

William thought that his young master had gone away never to return, and he did not know of his sadness.

William made a ‘miraculous’ recovery and assumed the duty of keeping Miss Penelope safe and loved.

They read stories together, and William would chase and bring back anything that she threw. He was very good at sitting and rolling over, and he was warm and loved.

William felt badly about deceiving Miss Penelope, but a dog needs love, and Miss Penelope had plenty to share. 

.

Illustration Credit: Anita Jeram