Naked, Brave and Dusty

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Through a dense fog, I hear the splintering of timber. Voices. Male voices.

Something about ‘drifting away’.

I’m being wrapped in a blanket, it’s woollen, I can feel it against my skin. It’s warm.

Strong arms guide me toward my bed. More voices. ‘Cover the mirror’.

Why are these people in my room? What do they want?

I feel very light, and I see myself from a distance. A very comfortable distance.

I’m trying to decide. Do I come back or do I drift away? Drift away seems like an excellent idea.

I’m not asleep, but I’m not awake, either. I’m in that in-between place. It’s beautiful here.

~oOo~

When I awake, a day and a half have passed.

I’m feeling rested, and it’s quiet because almost everyone is off at work.

I take my time and bathe.

I look at myself in the bathroom mirror; I don’t look any different, but I definitely feel different.

I spend the afternoon quietly sitting in the garden listening to the birds and trying to collect my thoughts.

Eventually, my extended family begin returning to our large home.

The house is surprisingly quiet as the women prepare the evening meal.

The men bring in wood for the fire and go about the small tasks that men perform to keep a large house like ours running smoothly. There is very little of the usual chatter, and what conversation there is, is carried out in hushed tones.

It is not spoken, but everyone is thinking the same thing.

What happened, and how will it affect the fortunes of our family?

Even if they did work up the courage to ask, I would not know how to answer.

Quite simply, I don’t remember what happened.

I know that the experience almost cost me my life, and I know that I feel at peace.

Something passed between me and the mirror and even though I don’t know what that ‘something’ is I know that it was good. I know that our family will prosper and I know that I will come to be its leader, in the fullness of time.

Everyone is looking at me in a different way than they did before, and that is as it should be.

How the mirror came into our family and where it came from are two facts that are shrouded in mystery.

My favourite story? That it was enchanted by a gypsy princess.

The princess was captured by angry townsfolk who were upset about a poor crop yield, or something like that, and blamed it on the gypsies.

I guess people have always needed someone to blame.

One of my ancestors, who was a poor but chivalrous young man, rescued the gypsy princess.

She was a bit bruised, battered and dusty, but otherwise unhurt.

She took my young ancestor back to her caravan and gave him a good seeing to, which they both rather enjoyed.

She also gave him the mirror. Her enchantment meant that the mirror would respond favourably to any female member of his family who was beautiful, naked and brave.

I guess I was all of those things.

I know I’m not the same.

I dared to face the mirror, and that sets me apart.

My self-confidence goes all the way down to the tips of my toes.

I’m the same height, but I feel taller.

My thoughts are now full of answers, as well as questions. The future feels bright and full of possibilities.

Sometimes courage is its own reward, and outward beauty has very little to do with it.

I know that my daughters will be vigorous and wise. The experience with the mirror taught me that bravery overcomes all obstacles, but in the end, it is the love that comes from within that holds a family together, no matter how large or small that family might be.

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Painting by Alex Alemeny

It Never Rains On Olga

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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.

Click, Flash and it was Done

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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