A Kiss Before Leaving

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“How did he get you there? What did he say to you?”

“Amazingly, it didn’t take much. I was mesmerised by his antics. I often went to strange places with him without knowing why. I enjoyed the excitement. The building was boarded up, but he got me in, and we went up in the cargo lift to the top floor. The only thing on that floor was an old metal table and one chair. I looked around trying to work out what the game was going to be when he cuffed one of my wrists and dragged me to the chair. I thought this might be a sex game — something to spice things up a bit, so I went along with it.”

“Did he tie you to the chair?”

“No. He put my hands behind me and handcuffed my other hand through the back of the chair. My legs were free, and I could easily have stood up and taken the chair with me. I was smiling in anticipation. I moved my knees apart to show him I was ready to play.”

“So, what happened?” Certain parts of me were enjoying the story, even though the rest of me knew how this all ended.

“He produced a photograph from his jacket and put it on the table. I looked at the grainy black, and white image and I could recognise myself talking to a man. The shot must have been taken with a long lens — very long.”

“A black and white photo, like the ones in the vault?”

“Yes. He didn’t say anything, he just looked at me. I was embarrassed, but also mad. I knew he was sleeping with other women, so why was he making such a big deal out of this?”

“Ego, lady. Blokes run two separate rulebooks — one for them and one for you and the one for you does not leave room for fucking anyone but him.”

“He told me the building was going to be demolished in two days and he would leave me there if I didn’t give him all the intimate details. At first, I thought he was joking, but then he began hitting me and screaming at me. I screamed back, and he laughed, ‘No one will hear your screams my darling. Not way up here.’  I knew he was right and I knew he was crazy enough to go through with it. My fate was in my hands.”

“Your husband was nuts, you know that. Don’t you? And you encouraged him. What the fuck did you think was going to happen? Sooner or later something like this was inevitable.”

“He was threatening to leave, and I got really frightened. He walked towards me and said, ‘A kiss before leaving’. He bent down to kiss me, and I brought my knee up under his chin. It didn’t happen like it does in the movies. I heard the crack as his teeth came together and he gracefully buckled at the knees and fell down. He’d made a show of throwing the handcuff key out the window, but I know how his mind works. It was complicated, but I went through his pockets by lying on the floor next to him. My knees and elbows were scraped and bleeding, but I got free, and when I left him he was breathing and out cold. He must have come to and tried to get down the stairs — I jammed the cargo elevator on the ground floor. I guess he stumbled in the dark and fell again.”

“They found his body where the stair shaft was. That makes sense.”

“I didn’t mean to kill him, I just wanted to escape.”

“And when he didn’t come home?”

“I didn’t go home. I went and stayed with friends. They saw the state of me, and I told them I’d been mugged. It took a bit of talking to stop them from going to the police.”

“Didn’t your friends piece it all together after your husband went missing?”

“No. They believed my story, and so did everyone else.”

“So, what happens now? Do I get the equivalent of the knee under the chin?

“You said it yourself, there is no proof that any of this happened and I don’t think you are going to tell anyone, and even if you did, your boss wouldn’t let you print it. I still have the photos that my husband took. I don’t think he would want anyone to see them.”

She was right — I couldn’t prove any of it, and I don’t think I wanted to. This situation was way out of hand, and I was in deeper than I wanted to be. My mind was racing, and all I wanted was an out. My old life seemed safe and secure, and I was wondering why I strayed so far. No sense bitching about it — I’m a grown up — I make my own decisions.

This wasn’t going anywhere good, and I was along for the ride — it serves me right.

A Handful Of Thank You

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I emptied the contents of my hand onto the time-worn table.

We inhabited this pub during happier times, and I guess we never broke the habit.

“What is that?” asked Harry, my former workmate. Harry and I once were warriors in the halls of finance. We slashed and burned our way to enormous profits — profits we saw very little of. That sounds like sour grapes, and I guess it is. We were paid very well and on at least one occasion, our Christmas bonus equalled the deposit on an expensive flat overlooking the river — I loved that view.

We thought we were invincible.

“That, my dear Harry is a pile of thank you,” I said with an air of mystery — I do a good mystery.

“Come again, young Charles?” Everyone at the firm called me young Charles. It made it easier, and even when older Charles left the company, I continued to be young Charles.

“It’s a moderately long story, do you want another pint before I begin?”

“Nah, I’ll make this one last.”

“You know that big old RAF greatcoat I used to wear?”

“The one that is hanging on the coat stand over there?”

“That’s the one.”

“I think I will get that drink. I get the feeling that this is going to be epic — you want one?”

“No, save your money. I’m pleasantly toasted, and it should last till lunchtime.”

In the old days, we didn’t have to worry about such things — money was always there, and just like everything else in life, we expected it to stay that way.

I watched Harry make his way to the bar. The girl behind the counter was new, and Harry fancied his chances — their conversation continued for some minutes. As Harry turned to come back to our table, I watched the young lady flash her eyes and run her fingers through her hair.

“I think I’m in there,” said Harry as he sat down. From what I saw, I’d say he probably was.

“It must be your Scotish charm.”

“They all want to know what is under the kilt.”

“You’re not wearing a kilt, Harry.”

“You know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t, but one day I’m sure you will enlighten me.”

We had both travelled a long way to come to London and make our fortune, and now we could not imagine going home with our tails between our legs. My hometown is Melbourne — on the other side of the world.

“So, if you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin.”

“Extremely comfy, thank you.”

“You know the park across from my flat?”

“Your old flat or the new one?”

“There is only a railway line across from my current abode.” I glared at him for reminding me of how far I had come down.

“On my days off —“

“Which you have a large number of nowadays,” interrupted Harry.

“Yes, thank you for reminding me. On my days off I would take my stale bread to the park and feed the birds. I wasn’t particular, anything with feathers got a fair share.”

“That was very egalitarian of you,” said Harry.

“Thank you — one must maintain standards. So, this went on for many weeks when I discovered the substance you see before you, in the pocket of my greatcoat.”

Harry ran a cautious finger through the pile of what looked like very fine gravel lying on the well-worn table.

“I didn’t pay it any attention at first. I assumed that it had fallen out of a tree, or I had brushed up against something as I walked through the park.”

“A reasonable assumption.”

“Agreed — then the amount of gravel got progressively larger until it reached the proportion you see before you.”

“So, what is it? I know you are dying to tell me.”

“I took a sample to a girl I was penetrating at that time, and between bouts of passion, I asked her if she knew what it was. This girl loves a mystery, so she leapt out of bed, stark naked, and put a couple of grains under her microscope.”

“You have to love a naked woman who has a microscope.”

“My thoughts exactly. It turns out that she was not only good at all forms of coitus, but she was an excellent botanist as well.”

“Coitus beats Botanist though.”

“I agree, but on this occasion, she was both — result!”

“So?”

“Well, it turns out that they are the tops of tiny acorn like seeds — just the tops, and they are very sought after by the little birds that live in that park.”

Little birds, is that their botanical name?”

“She did tell me, but in my defence, she was naked, and I was imagining all the things I could do to her before I had to go to work. Smoothest thighs you have ever seen and spectacular breasts.”

“Fair enough. Any man could forget a Latin name under such circumstances — you’re forgiven.”

“Anyway, these little birds spend hours looking for the caps off the seeds. They use them to make a sort of paste. They mix it with mud and sticks and make a very sturdy nest — a bit like adding gravel to cement. These tiny nut caps are their most treasured possession — they will fight other birds who try to move in on their supply.”

“And, they give them to you?”

“Yes. I’m just as amazed as you are.”

“How do they manage to get them into your pocket without you noticing?”

“Good question. I guess it’s because I’m in a kind of meditative state — sitting by the lake, watching the birds. It was then, and still is, a kind of escape. But after the encounter with the naked Botanist, I watched them out of the corner of my eye. My coat pocket bends open just a bit as I sit and they come up from behind me and drop them in, one at a time.”

“Wow. It must take a while to deposit enough to make a pile like this.”

“I’m touched that they want to thank me. I guess they appreciate the food. Pickings must be very slim in the winter, especially if you have extra mouths to feed. Often, I would be the only one in the park, particularly on wet rainy days. That old greatcoat comes in handy. I turn up the collar and tuck in a scarf, and I’m warm as toast.”

“What about your head?”

“Large woollen fisherman’s hat.”

“Sorted.”

“I feel bad taking their most treasured possession, so I sneak back and sprinkle them under a nearby tree and hope that they don’t notice.”

“Boy, are you going to feel dumb if they turn out to be a cure for cancer.”

“I’ll risk it.”

We both went quiet for a while, the way that good friends can. We sat and drank our beer and thought back to those heady days when the world was ours for the taking.

Harry is the only friend I have left from those days. I remember the morning we turned up to work only to find the front doors chained and padlocked. I wondered how they were able to do that; then I remembered that our firm owned the whole building. The security guards were no help — I just wanted to get my stuff out of my desk — never happened — probably ended up in a skip.

As I remember, Harry and I walked to this pub and made a few calls before our work phones went silent. A couple of the directors had been fiddling the books. They knew that we were surviving on reputation and bugger all else. They packed a serious amount of cash into the company jet and headed for a warmer country. We should have seen it coming, but we were young, and thought we knew our worth — we were invincible.

The naked botanist stopped fucking me as soon as I could no longer squire her to important parties. The flat went after a few months — I wandered along in denial, thinking that the world needed my skill set, but whenever they read the name of the firm I had most recently been employed by, the answer was always the same — no room at the inn.

The blokes who came to throw me out of my flat were very good about it.

“Just take whatever you can carry mate, we’ll look the other way.”

Jolly decent of them really. It was the middle of the day, and they broke for lunch after changing the locks on my former flat.

“Can we buy you lunch young fella? Don’t take it too hard. We see a lot of this, especially nowadays. You can curl up and die, or you can come back stronger — it’s your choice.”

They were right, and I worked for them part-time for a while, but that life was not for me.

I’ve got a tiny flat with a view of a railway line, a warm coat and a good friend. My bank account will see me right for a few more months.

After that, who knows.

Life and Death

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        The tram driver was vigilant — it wasn’t his fault.

        Sam was early for his appointment with Dr Doug, so a last-minute decision saw him standing in the doorway of the number twelve tram. A quick stop and a few quiet moments in the park seemed like a good idea.

         Spring had sprung and summer was approaching. The evidence of new life was everywhere.

        Before this tram reached its Bayside destination it would rumble along Collins Street past the medical district — the so-called ‘Paris End’ — trendy cafes and beautiful old office buildings built in an era when designers and craftsmen took pride in their work.

        The tram driver saw them coming — it happened often as he piloted his tram past the Edinburgh Gardens. The smaller birds were constantly chasing away the larger birds in the belief that if they didn’t, the larger birds would lay waste to their nests and take their chicks as an easy snack. The aerial battles are every bit as dramatic and deadly as anything seen during the Battle of Britain.

         Tram drivers understand the physics involved in stopping suddenly — it isn’t going to happen — not when your vehicle weights more than a Rhino and you are riding on shiny metal rails.

        As the birds approached and the crow dipped and banked frantically in an attempt to escape from the angry Wattlebird and simultaneously avoid contact with the big green monster, the driver watched the drama play out — he was a spectator and nothing he did would make any difference to the outcome.

        The wingspan of the crow meant that it could turn, bank and dip more efficiently, but the Wattlebird was faster and they both knew it. The crow knew that the Wattlebird would not give up and he was going to feel his sharp beak unless he flew away from the park. The crow had not managed to clear the perimeter of the park and the Wattlebird was close behind. The experienced dive into traffic was designed to shake off the angry bird — it worked.

        The Wattlebird had the crow in his sights — he could see nothing else. He saw the crow’s desperate manoeuvre, but he did not see the green monster.

        Sam caught sight of this deadly battle as the crow narrowly missed the driver’s cabin of the rapidly slowing tram. Everyone on the front part of the tram heard the bang as the distracted Wattlebird hit the window at full pelt.

        Sam saw the dishevelled bird cartwheel past his door and land on the side of the road.

        When the tram stopped, and the door opened, the bird was laying on the road some fifty metres behind the stationary tram. The cars following the tram were narrowly avoiding the stricken bird.

         “I can’t just leave the little bugger lying there,” Sam said. He was the only person alighting the tram at the Gardens so his words were only for him.

        Sam admired the underdog, and he had spent a large part of his former career doing something to support the underdog. He admired the little bloke for taking on a much larger opponent, and all done to protect his family.

        By the time he got to the bird it had stopped moving. Each car that passed by threatened to put a sudden end to the story.

        Sam stood over the bird and glared at the cars that were forced to change direction to avoid running him over. A medium sized truck blew its horn and the driver made it obvious that he was displeased with Sam getting in his way.

        “Get off the road, dickhead,” said the articulate driver.

        Sam noticed the sticker on the back of the truck as it swerved and drove by.

        “The day I take advice from a Collingwood supporter ……” said Sam, failing to come up with a suitable insult in the few seconds available to him.

        The two men gave each other the middle finger salute as the truck disappeared into the stream of traffic, and Sam returned his attention to the prostrate bird.

         The bird’s eyes were open, and it was breathing. Sam had seen a lot of dead and dying souls, and most of them involved blood. The little bird did not appear to be bleeding. Sam picked him up and held him in his hand as he stepped off the roadside to the relative safety of the gardens. The bird tried to lift its head, and Sam took this as a good sign, but it couldn’t maintain it, and its head slumped back into Sam’s large hand. He had never held a Wattlebird before. The bird was bigger than a blackbird but seemed to weigh very little. He could feel its heart racing and see its lungs moving in its chest. The thought crossed his mind that he should take the bird to a Vet, but where to take it? He didn’t know this area well enough. There were other Wattlebirds nearby, and it seemed to Sam that they were calling to this stricken creature. It was probably only his imagination, but maybe if he lay the bird under a tree it might come to and regain its senses — then he remembered the sound of the bird hitting the tram — this was wishful thinking on his part. He lay the bird down and took a step away. The bird closed its eyes, and its breathing became more laboured.

         “Jesus, I can’t just leave you here to die on your own,” said Sam as he picked the bird up and cradled it in his hands. He sat on the grass and waited for what was to come.

        Sam had seen men die — friends and enemies and it was something that he never wanted to get used to.

         The little bird’s breathing became deeper and slower until finally it took one last breath and lay still.

        Sam felt the life go out of this little creature and it seemed as though the birds that had been so loud a few moments before fell silent.

        Sam sat quietly with the dead bird in his hands, not wanting to put it down — putting it down would mean that it was over and he would have to go back to his life. Besides, the little bird’s spirit might still be close by.

        Somewhere in this park, there is a family of birds waiting for him to return.

        “It’s a tough world little fella. They will have to learn to get along without you now,” said Sam as he laid the bird gently under a tree. He wiped away the tear, in case anyone noticed. There were no tears when his friends died, but this little bird had extracted Sam’s most private expression — tears. He sat there for what seemed like a long time before walking back to the tram stop and resuming his journey.

        As he rode the tram for the short journey to the city, Sam thought about what had happened and how it closely paralleled his own situation.

        “I was luckier that you. I got to go home, eventually, except that it doesn’t feel like home. My family were waiting for me, but I didn’t recognise them.” Sam’s recent habit of talking to himself was disturbing the man in the suit seated opposite him. He smiled at the man in the impeccable suit, but this seemed to make the situation worse. The neatly dressed man muttered something about ‘not letting loonies wander around among ordinary decent people’, and Sam asked him who he barracked for.

         “Collingwood,” was the man’s involuntary answer — most people who live in Melbourne will answer that question even if they think you might be about to strangle them.

         “I thought so,” said Sam and the two men avoided eye contact for the remainder of the journey.

         When Dr Doug called him into his office, Sam did not tell him about the life and death struggle between the two feathered creatures. He didn’t tell him about the tram or sitting under a tree with a dying bird or the thoughts that went through his head. He didn’t tell him about any of these things and there was no mention of tears.

Not telling, seemed strange to Sam — after all, this was exactly the kind of stuff that a person like Dr Doug would like to hear.

        Maybe next time — then again, maybe not.

A Hat On A Windy Day

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The tram ride into Collins Street was marked by people trying not to be blown into traffic and girls doing their best to maintain a bit of modesty as the wind was determined to show the world what colour underwear they had chosen for that day.

Sam often wore a hat, but not today.

He remembered the Dickens’ quote, There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat.

Sam had enough problems — he wasn’t about to add embarrassment to the list.

When he arrived at Collins Street, there was a noticeable absence of pretty girls sitting at tables drinking coffee.

The wind had swept them away.

They sheltered behind glass and Sam didn’t like his women under glass, he liked them out in the open.

The elevator played its familiar rattly tune, and Dr Doug’s secretary gave her usual smile.

Sam had gotten used to her over the months, but this day he rediscovered her beauty. It’s funny how we get used to things we see every day. Sam’s detective senses were out of practice. There was a time when he observed through eyes that saw everything. It was one of the things that gave his writing such a sharp edge.

“We haven’t talked much about your writing Sam. Do you remember a time when it became clear to you that you would become a writer?” Dr Doug was having a good day. His first patient of the day showed a good deal of improvement from the previous week. Dr Doug’s ego was in full flight.

“No, I don’t. And I don’t mean that it is one of my lost memories, I mean that it was just one of the things that interested me, so I thought I would give it a try. It would make a much better story if there had been a Road to Damascus moment but that’s not how I do things. I just sort of find myself in it, and when I look back, it is difficult to see where it started. Obviously, that doesn’t apply to Scarlett; that was definitely a blinding flash.”

“I should think so. She’s amazing, and I really would have been disappointed if there was not a little lightening and thunder.

“Were you a stand out in English studies at school?” asked Dr Doug.

“Not at all. I guess I did okay. Mostly my marks were around the mid-seventies, which I guess were good but everyone around me was in the mid to high eighties, and beyond, so I didn’t stand out. I remember enjoying the subject, and I’ve always had ‘the gift of the gab’ as my mother would call it.

I had excellent English teachers all the way through high school, which helped. I liked them all, and I wanted to please them, so I guess that drove me on.

I remember one year in particular.

We were in a scholarship year, which meant that at the end of that year we would sit an exam and hopefully qualify for a government scholarship which would pay for some of our expenses for the next few years of schooling.

This was a really big deal as most of us came from working class homes where our tradesmen fathers were working overtime to put us through this private school. It wasn’t a private school in the sense that you see these days. It was definitely at the bottom rung, but we had uniforms, and there were school fees and books and sports equipment and stuff like that and most households were single income back then, so a scholarship was a big deal and our families were counting on the money. If we didn’t get it, there was a chance we would be out of school and placed in a trade. Most of the parents in that era wanted more for their kids. They wanted them to better themselves. These days ‘tradies’ make more money than bank managers but back then it was about moving up in society.

Middle class trumped working class, any day.

The school I went to might have been a private school, but it was full of boys from a very rough part of Melbourne. I’m amazed that the teachers were able to control us considering all that, but the reason it worked was that we were all terrified of our fathers. Dads didn’t take any shit in those days, and we knew that they were working all hours just to keep us at school, so we didn’t dare let them down.

The teachers would merely have to suggest that they might call in our parents and we fell into line.

This was a particularly tough era, and we had a long standing dislike of Preston Technical School, and the dislike was returned. The rivalry continues to this day and every decade, or so it boils up into a pitched battle. It happened when I was a junior. A couple of our students were walking to school [no one got driven to school in those days] and got jumped by a bunch of Preston Tech boys. The word went out, and a group of seniors and a couple of teachers went in the direction of Preston Tech and beat the shit out of anyone they could find. By the time the cops arrived, there were bruised and battered teenagers as far as the eye could see. We received our seniors back at the school as the Romans would have back in the day. Those boys achieved legendary status, as did the teachers who went with them. It was an amazing time to be alive.”

“So how did the scholarship year work out?” asked Dr Doug.

“Most of us made it through and those that didn’t left the school. That was how the school maintained its academic record, and I’m sure that it happens even today. If a boy were not achieving the required marks, there would be a meeting arranged with his parents and the next thing you know he leaves school and starts work at the Railways.

I lost a lot of mates that way.

It put us all on notice that we could be next.

I worked out that in year eight, the scholarship year, I had a wide circle of friends numbering around forty boys. By the time I fronted up for the first day of year twelve, they were all gone — every single one. I was the only one left.

We had a good teacher, but I forget his name. He was a big bloke, and I mean ‘big’. Teachers were allowed to cane you in those days, and many of them did. We liked this bloke, but he would get tough if he had to and the teachers we had in the scholarship year were under pressure as well, particularly the English teacher.

I’m sure that the only reason I passed that year was because the scholarship exam was in the form of multiple choice questions. We had never seen this type of exam before, and I loved them. I guess it was the future detective in me but if I didn’t know the answer I could still work out which was the highest probability by eliminating the answers that were obviously wrong.

Worked like a charm.

I romped it in.

Our English teacher would give us a passage from a book, and we would have to know the meaning of every word in that passage. Naturally, most of us didn’t study the passage, and if you were asked to define a word and couldn’t do it, you got the cane; and it hurt.

At that time there was a student in our class who had transferred in from another school (probably a posh private school which he had most likely been kicked out of). I liked him a lot. He was incredibly bright but didn’t seem to care much. He wore shorts when the rest of us would not be seen dead in them, and he loved to play marbles, again not something that our age group did anymore. He did what he wanted to and didn’t care what we thought.

I really liked that.

I sat next to him in some of the classes, and I was fascinated that he could name every sail on a fully rigged sailing ship.

We alway sat next to each other during these define the word sessions, and we had a Kamikaze pact going whereby we would not study for this exam but would instead ‘wing it’ and try and work out what the word might mean from the context of the sentence.

We also worked out that if we appeared eager to answer, we would not be called on straight away. So we put our hand up right from the start, even if we didn’t know what the word meant.

It worked like a charm.

Some poor kid, who didn’t have his hand up would get called on, would get it wrong and would get belted. We would put our hand up and admit that we didn’t know either but we thought it sounded like it should mean ‘this’ based on the context of the sentence. Even though we may not have gotten it right, we never got walloped. I guess he didn’t want to dampen our enthusiasm or he admired our courage.

This boy and I had our own competition going on. The first to get caned would lose that round. This never happened so we would then count how many correct ‘guesses’ we got and I remember keeping pace with this kid and beating him regularly even though he was heaps brighter that I was.

His dad was a doctor, which was rare at our school. No high flying dads to be seen, strictly working and lower middle class. Although one of my mates had a dad, who drove a Jag and worked in the city. But he didn’t have a mum so in our eyes that made him someone to feel sorry for.

A couple of my mates and I tried to tutor the doctor’s son because he was so far behind due to not caring, and he did make an effort, but he didn’t pass, and his doctor dad took him away from the school, and we never saw him again.

I still think about him, and I remember those word sessions with great fondness. I hope life treated him well.”