“I’m sorry Mr Bennett,” she didn’t look that sorry, “but a shared sleeper is all we have left. If you must travel on that day, you will have to share. If you can put your trip off for a day or two you can have your pick of the solo cabins — they are more expensive, of course.”
“I have to be there on Friday, so it has to be the overnight train on Thursday. I’ll take the ticket, but tell them to stock up on decent whisky. I’m going to need it, and so is my sleep buddy,” said Sam
“You will have some time to yourself because your fellow passenger won’t be boarding until Ararat.”
That’s a few hours of peace, thought Sam, who was looking forward to reading the new Michael Robotham novel he purchased just for this journey.
The Overland sat quietly at platform 2, waiting for its passengers.
Train travellers are an interesting bunch. Many of Sam’s fellow passengers shared his dislike of planes and airports.
Trains rarely involve a full body cavity search, lack of legroom, surely security and godawful food.
The Overland, beautiful named, is a throwback to a time when people travelled for adventure, and the cost was not the top priority.
The train company asks that passengers arrive thirty minutes before departure. They are met by a company employee dressed appropriately, including a wide-brimmed Akubra. Passengers wait patiently next to their assigned carriage until the porter opens the doors. Find your cabin, stow your bags and head for the bar, maybe a snack. The evening meal is delivered to your room and so is breakfast, but a man needs snacks and a stiff drink.
Sam chose the upper bunk — first in first served.
He opened his book but decided to enjoy the view. In a few short hours, darkness will descend.
The hustle and bustle of Spenser Street station at peak hour provides lots to look at. City workers heading home. Their tired countenance is even more disturbing than their morning gaze.
Suburban, country and interstate trains all share this massive station.
The train sounded its horn and slowly pulled out, right on time.
“If Mussolini were alive, he would be proud,” said Sam to himself. Right-wing arseholes are obsessed with trains running on time.
The train travelled slowly as it negotiated the rail yards with its twists and turns. The wheels and bogies complained loudly at the frequent changes of direction.
The train travels slowly for the first hour until it clears the suburbs of Melbourne. Some would say that the view is uninspiring, but Sam enjoyed the sometimes rusty and occasionally grubby nature of these old industrial suburbs. They reminded him of his childhood. His father worked skillfully with his hands, and on rare occasions, Sam was allowed to accompany him to work on weekends, when the bosses weren’t around.
Rust has its own distinctive aroma as do grease and dust and sweat, all ingredients of a working-class employment.
Once in open country, the train accelerates, and Geelong approaches rapidly.
Past Geelong and the country flattens out. The early settlers called it ‘Pleurisy Plains’. Anyone venturing out during the areas vicious gales was sure to contract the infection.
The flatness comes about because it is a larval plain. The local Aborigines have lived here for so long that their oral history talks about the distant volcano erupting some twenty thousand years ago.
Through the gloaming, Sam could just see Mount Elephant — its indigenous name is ‘Hill of Fire’.
It was getting harder to see the countryside as the train pulled into Ararat.
The massive, now empty, rail yards looked like an old car park that no one used anymore. All a bit grim.
There was a country train on the other platform as Sam’s train pulled in. The passengers gazed at his train, no doubt wondering where it was headed and what the passengers were headed to.
After the train pulls out of Ararat, a strange thing happens. The mileage signpost suddenly drops about 30 miles. After asking the porter, Sam found out that the interstate train travels a longer route to get to Ararat than the regional line. So now they are on that track. Sam wondered who thought that going the long way was a good idea, but why people do the things they do, gives Sam a headache.
Sam’s cabin mate did not appear, and the train had been travelling for long enough for him (he assumed it was a him — even these days, Sam could not imagine a woman wanting to share a cabin with a strange man) to have found the right sleeper berth.
The first part of Sam’s journey had been peaceful, so why worry about the fate of his fellow traveller.
Sam climbed onto his bunk and read his book, but soon turned out the light and snuggled under the covers. The rolling motion is a cure for most people’s insomnia.
He was facing the door when it opened, and a medium height man wearing an overcoat padded into the cabin. He left the door slightly open, which allowed a subdued amount of light to penetrate the darkness. Sam had not pulled the blinds, but on a moonless night, there is only pitch black in the Australian outback.
The new passenger took off his coat, revealing a crumpled suit with no tie. The man was travelling with only a small bag. He reached into the side pocket of the bag and produced a bundle wrapped in an old cloth. The bundle went out the window, and the sound of rushing air diminished when the man closed it and climbed onto his bunk. He didn’t snore, but before long Sam could hear the sound of heaving breathing.
That same rhythmic breathing was still to be heard when Sam woke instinctively as the porter knocked on his door, breakfast trays in hand.
“Thanks, mate, I’ll take those,” said Sam and the porter did not glance nor comment on Sams lack of suitable attire. Porters see it all on sleeper trains.
Sam put the tray for the mystery traveller on the small table and his tray on the bunk. He managed to climb up without putting his foot in his breakfast. He was pleased with this achievement and proceeded to consume his eggs and toast while unfolding the newspaper. Somewhere, the train had picked up the early edition of the Adelaide Advertiser, which seemed fair as they were closer to Adelaide than Melbourne, but Sam would have prefered the Melbourne Age, even if it was a bit hard to unfold at this hour of the day.
The articles rolled out the usual tales of local and international mayhem, which surprised Sam because, from his experience, people in Adelaide didn’t know there was an outside world, apart from Melbourne which they hated. Forever in its shadow, Adelaide folk take any chance to compare themselves favourably, usually around Australia’s favourite religion, sport.
One item caught Sam’s eye.
There had been a shooting in Ararat.
A young husband had come home from work and found his wife in the arms of her lover, a small-time gangster from Melbourne. There was a photograph showing the front of a house illuminated by police floodlights. A neighbour, dressed in her dressing gown said that it had been going on for months and she felt sorry for the husband, “Such a nice young man. Works all the hours that God sends. Gets home late after commuting to Melbourne. He deserved better than her, God rest her soul.”
The wife died in the arms of her lover, and the lover was in a critical condition. The writer alluded, ever so subtly, that even if he did survive, his philandering days were over.
The husband and his Great War revolver were still missing when the paper went to print. The gun came back from France with his grandfather. A Webley six-shot revolver, an officer’s weapon.
The passenger’s tray was untouched when Sam climbed down, washed, dressed and waited for the train to pull into Adelaide Parklands Terminal.
Sam will need a taxi because for some reason they built the terminal away from the city, which means that it does not go to the beautiful old Adelaide Station.
Sam wasn’t trying to be quiet as he performed his preparations for arrival, but the passenger did not wake.
When the porter came for the trays, Sam told him to come back as late as possible, “This bloke needs his sleep. He’s had a rough time. Don’t wake him till you absolutely have to.” Sam slipped the porter a ‘fifty’. The porter smiled and promised. Sam made a note to add the ‘fifty’ to his client’s bill. The rich buggers can afford it.
Sam didn’t mind having a train trip to Adelaide, but all his business could have been handled by email or on the phone, but this law firm only wanted face to face meetings. It seems that they don’t trust computers. Their bill was going to be huge, but they didn’t seem to mind.
The taxi was waiting when Sam stepped out of the station, the air as hot and dry as he remembered.
“City, please driver. Rundle Mall,” said Sam.
“Might take a bit longer at this hour mate, peak hour and everything,” said the driver.
Sam laughed, “I’ve seen your ‘peak hour’ son. It lasts about ten minutes.”
Usually, Sam would have reminded the driver of what was likely to happen to him if he did the old trick of driving ‘the long way around’, a popular ploy of taxi drivers worldwide when they sensed an ‘out of towner’, but on this trip, Sam didn’t care. It was all on his client’s account.
“Just make sure I get a receipt and don’t get greedy,” said Sam.
The passenger woke to the sound of the porter and his gentle nudge.
“Sorry, sir. I left it as long as I could as per your friend’s instructions.”
“What friend?” said the sleepy man with the ruffled suit.
“The one you shared the cabin with,” said the porter, “he left this for you.”
The porter handed him a postcard with a photograph of The Overlander crossing Australia’s longest rail viaduct, just outside Geelong. On the back, written in a clean hand with a newly sharpened pencil were these words:
Dear Mr Park. I’m sorry your missus cheated on you. I know your heart is broken and I know that you will come to regret what you have done, but I do understand. A bloke can only take so much, and betrayal is about as bad as it gets.
It’s not my job to turn you in, but if you hurt anyone else I will come and find you, and you will regret breaking my trust.
P.S. I hope you took the remaining bullets out of the gun before you threw it out of the window.
Keep your head down and don’t make me regret my decision.
I have a fondness for house sparrows (we don’t have them in the Dandenong Ranges). When my father retired, he taught a male sparrow to eat from his hand. It took months of patience. I was very impressed.
My father died suddenly.
The little bird kept turning up at the back door at the appointed time, and it broke my heart.
After a long time, the little bird stopped coming.
It has always been my wish to have the patience to repeat my father’s achievement. During MIFF this year, I went to Fed Square to eat a bread roll between movies. All the usual characters were there — lots of noise and bustle.
I found a ledge to sit on and was eyed by a seagull. I shared a bit with him and was ‘joined’ by a bunch more. Two young Chinese children and two young men speaking a language I did not recognise (I’m not good at speaking them, but I can usually recognise a wide range of languages) kept trying to frighten the birds away. While all this was going on, right next to me on the ledge were two male sparrows so close that they could easily have hopped into my pocket. I looked at them, but they didn’t seem frightened. I distracted the seagull with a bit of bread and optimistically put a crumb on the palm of my hand and slowly moved it towards them. After a few seconds, (the bird kept looking at me trying to decide the level of my character) the nearest bird jumped onto my hand and took the crumb.
I could not believe what had happened!
The two sparrows had flown off to eat the crumb, but they soon returned only this time on the other side of me where the seagulls could see them.
I performed the routine again with the same result!
There was no one to see what was happening — it was just me. I hope my dad was watching.
At this stage, I had nothing to lose, so I slowly took out my phone and tried to get a video. I was successful, so I did it again only in slo-mo, and at the exact moment the bird takes the crumb, my phone maxed out its memory!
Belgrave is a long way from where Madame Olga lives, but it is on a train line — the end of the line in fact, so she can attend the aptly named, ‘Big Dreams Market’.
Madam Olga has her favourite markets, and she always travels by train, sometimes having to change trains.
She carries all she needs on a trolley designed by Tony, her neighbour (more about him a bit later). The fold-up table is her largest burden, but Tony designed and built her a surface that folds up into a more manageable shape. Even so, she struggles with it if there are stairs or a steep incline.
The ‘Big Dreams Market’ is about half a kilometre from the train station in Belgrave, and all of it is uphill — one of the steepest hills in Melbourne. In the 1950s, Vauxhall cars tested their vehicles on Terry’s Avenue. Handbrakes and clutches were put to the test.
No one knows how old Madame Olga is and to be accurate, which is always important, she isn’t sure herself. Many moons and many men have passed since she was born, somewhere in eastern Europe. She came to Australia after the war, when we welcomed migrants (or New Australians, as we were taught to call them). These days our leaders are teaching us to distrust people from other lands — sadly, this is something that we take to readily.
Getting her belongings up the hill took Olga almost half an hour — folded up table and box of jars and an old wooden chair. She stopped many times. The tiny park that marks the spot where an original homestead once stood is a welcome rest stop. The big old house is gone and in its place is a large blacktop carpark, complete with white lines and the occasional tree. A supermarket chain bought the land from the homesteader’s descendants and the Anglican church back in the day when non-Catholic religions were dying.
Churches traditionally gained the high ground — closer to God, or were they just showing the people where the power is?
‘Big Dreams Market’ is held in the expansive grounds of the local Catholic church — they occupy the highest point on one side of the valley, and on the other side, the Catholics occupy the other peak with an all-girls high school.
There is a market very near to where Olga lives, but she cannot go there anymore — someone complained. She does not know who complained; she only knows that Mr Character, the secretary, told her that they didn’t have space for her anymore.
“You have lots of space. Your market is never full,” said Olga in reply.
Mr Character hesitated before answering. He wanted her to understand his predicament. He liked her very much, but the decisions of his organising committee bound him.
“You’re right; I should have been honest with you. You are too successful, too different and there are people in this world who are afraid of ‘different’, and more to the point, they are afraid of those who do not seem to care what others think of them. That’s you Madame Olga, and I’m sorry. I love your elixir, your ‘Imagine’. I hope you will sell me more when I run out?”
“I have lived a long time, and I understand small minds. I will go,” said Olga. She wasn’t exactly sad, but this market was so convenient, so close to home.
The first monthly market after Olga had been excluded, it rained.
People remarked that it had been a very long time since it had rained on market day, and that was all that was said.
There were other markets, of course, but when you do not drive, there are other considerations. Olga could drive, and she had driven, but not since her Vance had died. She didn’t feel confident without him by her side.
The tiny market at Laburnam was her favourite. It is right next to the station, tucked into a small carpark near a group of shops. Very quiet except for the occasional passing train, way up high.
Box Hill market is her most lucrative. It’s enormous, and the largely immigrant population come from parts of the world where strange things are commonplace, so she does not seem out of place.
“You make good stuff,” said the old lady of Chinese descent, “my grandma used to make potions — make you fall in love, whether you like it or not.” The old lady laughed, and Olga smiled as well.
“Love is good, but potions wear off,” said Olga.
“Not the way my grandmother made them. How do you think I got to be born? My father not have a chance.” The old lady laughed again and moved off unsteadily with her small glass jar with the gold top.
A bored teenage girl was working her way up and down the aisles giving out leaflets when someone told her to stop. An argument broke out.
“I’m just doing what my dad told me to do,” she said.
“If you want to hand out leaflets rent a stall like everyone else,” said the tall man with the strange haircut. The upset, previously bored, teenager disappeared only to reappear with a short man with very little hair. A new conversation broke out with lots of arm-waving, but the man with the bad haircut stood his ground and told them to leave. They did, but not before throwing the remaining leaflets up in the air.
They rained down like A5 pieces of snow, fluttering on the gentle breeze. Small children cheered, and adults brushed the leaflets from their clothes and bags and prams. A particularly chubby baby sucked furiously on a leaflet that her distracted mother had missed.
After this moment of distraction, shoppers and stallholders returned to their duties.
Big Dreams Market, every last Sunday of the month, St Somebodyorother’s church grounds, Belgrave. 10 am till 4 pm. Come, and make your dreams come true.
Olga folded the flyer and put it in her pocket. Something told her that this knowledge might come in handy.
Olga’s first ‘Big Dreams Market’ was held in May and the established stallholders remarked on her lack of an awning.
“This is The Hills luv. If it’s gonna rain anywhere, it will rain here first. You are gonna need a cover,” said the man who was setting up his wife’s pottery stall. He seemed like an organised bloke. He knew where everything was, and he laid it out, ‘just so’.
Olga looked at the sky. The clouds were leaden, threatening, full of moisture.
“It not rain while market is running,” she said.
The pottery husband laughed.
“You a bit of a soothsayer luv?” Olga didn’t answer. She unfolded her table, laid out her embroidered table cloth and stacked up the tiny jars. She placed the old wooden chair very close to the edge of the pottery stall. The man looked at her with a look that said, “Don’t let that chair venture on to my wife’s area.”
Despite the threatening weather, there was a continuous flow of market shoppers. Small children and young couples with and without prams. Older couples in colourful scarves and giggling teenagers trying not to look as though they were checking each other out.
Customers react to Olga’s Elixer in many different ways, but on this day, there was a lot of ‘flying’.
Late in the day, Olga was distracted by a loud bang, and as she turned, she knocked over the jar of toothpicks. It was almost empty, but the remaining toothpicks spilled onto the ground. Olga groaned. Getting down that far was very difficult for her and picking up the tiny shards of wood was a lot to expect of her ancient fingers.
“I’ll pick them up for you lady,” said a boy of some twelve years. His jeans were clean but well worn, and his jumper was a hand knit. His dark hair was long and brushed back.
“Thank you, young man,” said Olga.
The boy quickly retrieved the picks and the unbroken jar. He placed them on the table and smiled at Olga.
“Your mother loves you very much, but she is also sad. This will pass, but you need to be patient and hug her a lot. Don’t worry if she is quiet. She is not upset with you. Grief shows itself in different ways. I know you feel it too, but you are able to smile,” said Olga and tears appeared in the boy’s eyes.
“I try to make her happy, but nothing works,” said the boy, brushing something away from his eye.
“It not your job to make her happy. It your job to love her, no matter what. Do not be afraid. Let her lean on you when she needs to. And you lean on her as well, when you need to. She won’t break, “said Olga.
The boy gave half a wave, brushed something else from his eye took a few steps back and moved away.
“You were right,” said the pottery husband as they packed up, “it didn’t rain.”
“It is good to listen to Olga when she speak of weather,” said Olga.
The pottery husband laughed. “How did you go today?”
“Well,” said Olga, not wanting to give too much away, “and your wife, she sell much?”
“Never as much as she would like but enough to buy more clay and stuff.”
With everything securely strapped into place (Tony taught her how to tie especially strong knots), Olga faced the daunting task of getting down the hill to the station.
She put the trolley behind her after having it nearly drag her down the hill.
Her legs and her back ached by the time she reached the ramp that led to the station. She must have looked a sight as she staggered down the hill. Passengers in passing cars staring at her as though she might suddenly break into a gallop and topple down the steep incline.
Finally, she got to step onto the waiting train, where she made herself comfortable, catching her breath.
The journey home was uneventful with the occasional passenger having to step around her trolley.
Olga was satisfied with her first day at ‘Big Dreams’.
As the train pulled out of the station, she noticed the man who had been one of her customers. He was with his large family, only now he was with an old dog — the dog she had seen with a small boy. The dog’s lead was a piece of string. The dog looked happy, and so did the older man, but it’s hard to judge happiness from a rapidly accelerating train.
All the unpleasant memories melted away as I held his arm.
In sad tones, the cab driver told us about his recently failed marriage, and he wished us luck saying that we looked like we had what it takes.
For the first time, I wondered what that meant — for us.
He came back to me, and I should be glad, but within a few weeks, we had settled into a semi-civilian life, and it was almost as though the whole nightmare never happened.
His greatcoat smells of cleaning fluid, and I huddle in close beside him as he works out how to get to our apartment. There are stairs on both sides of the exterior of the building, and he wants to pick the right one. That’s the William I remember.
The rain has stopped, it’s cold, and everything we own is crammed into these few bags.
William has his Army pay, and there is a good job waiting for him when he’s demobbed. There is a good chance I will get to hold onto my job because the man who held my position before the war was killed. I feel bad for him and his family but happy for me. They still might decide to give my job to a returned soldier; I’ll just have to wait and see. I’ve enjoyed the freedom that employment brings. All the years William was away, I was responsible for myself. Living with his sister was hard and as soon as her husband returned I was given my marching orders — good enough to keep her company while he was away, but not good enough to have somewhere to stay while we readjust to civilian life. I try not to make too much of it around William.
The apartment is in the upmarket part of town; very old buildings, well established and you can almost smell money in the air.
I’m looking forward to spending time in the park at the end of the street when the weather improves.
Truth be told, I would have lived anywhere with William, I’m not proud, but he wanted the best. Someone he served with put him on to it, and I know we are going to be happy.
Not surprisingly, William is not the same man I married, but we’ll be fine.
He put his life on the line, ‘for king and country’ and I’m going to bring all the courage I discovered in myself to make a life for us both.
As the cab driver moves off down our quiet little street with the park at the end, my William decides which staircase to use. We pick up our bags and our life together is somewhere inside that building — what could possibly go wrong.
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.
“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.
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
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
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’.
“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.
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.”
“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