Miss Penelope Spenser

 

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

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

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

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

Death did not play a role in her second heartbreak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He chose Penelope Spenser.

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

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

William planned his campaign with military precision.

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

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

His gambit was a bold one.

Lie in the road and look half dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good dog,” said Penelope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Illustration Credit: Anita Jeram 

Somewhere Below Zero: a RUFUS adventure

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The big red bow was causing me embarrassment, but I didn’t let it stop me.

Let’s get the bow out of the way so I can concentrate on the real story.

My mistress had just won an award for her book PASSION BEHIND THE ASPIDISTRA. It hadn’t sold as well as her previous books, but her publisher entered it into the Romance Writers Who Talk A Lot About Love Without Actually Telling Their Readers What People Get Up To, which seemed like a strange title for an award, but that’s what my mistress told her friend, Maude. My mistress never lies to me, so it must be true.

So, the day comes for the award presentation, and my mistress said I could go with her, in the Lagona.

I love riding in the car — the wind in my fur, delicious smells wafting in from who knows where — bliss.

The middle of winter means that it will be a cold drive, but I don’t care. I’m wearing my winter coat, and my ancestors came from a frigid part of the world.

I got up early and had my breakfast on the terrace, despite the cold. The sun was up, and even though it didn’t have much oomph, I still enjoyed being in its warm glow.

My mistress came at me with the red bow, and I was too startled to run away.

“Everyone is going to love you in this,” said my mistress.

Not if I eat it first,  I was thinking.

“And don’t you dare chew it off, Rufus. I’ll be very cross if you do.”

So, what was I to do? She is very kind to me, and I love her so.

Just suck it up and wear the damn thing, Rufus!

I’d patrolled most of the perimeter in the morning when I went out for a wee, but there was still the pond to check on.

I knew we were going to be away overnight because I heard my mistress booking us a room in a hotel. She was very annoyed when she first rang; apparently, that hotel didn’t like dogs — have you ever heard of such a thing? She gave them a piece of her mind.

“Have you ever had a dog run out and not pay the bill? Come in drunk and vomit on the carpet? Have loud parties in their room? Steal a lampshade? No, I didn’t think so, you ignorant man!”

My mistress has a way with words.

The pond looked beautiful in the morning light. The ducks, which I have an uneasy understanding with, were looking for bugs in the reeds. The surface of the pond had frozen over during the night.

One duck, or at least I thought it was a duck, had broken through the ice and was splashing around. Except it wasn’t a duck despite the duck-like noises it was making. It was a small dog — smaller than me.

It seemed that he had walked out on the ice to sniff the DANGER  sign and had fallen through.

He sounded desperate, the way that dogs do when they are being beaten by their owner, or caught by a big dog intent on doing them great harm.

I edged out onto the ice to get a closer look. As I got closer, the ice was making strange cracking noises, and I got scared. Now I was within sniffing range, and the faint odour of a friend reached my nostrils. It was the dog known as Scruff. We had been great friends when we were pups — got into all sorts of trouble. Scruff is the reason that the butcher hates me as much as he does.

Scruff’s owner moved away — closer to the city.

“Don’t worry Scruff,” I said because I knew that it was important that he knew I was still fierce and brave.

In truth, I was terrified, but friends don’t let friends sink to an icy grave, even if you haven’t seen them for a long time.

“This is going to hurt, Scruff,” I said as I took hold of his ear. He didn’t have much fight left in him. He must have been in the water for a while before I got here.

“Don’t worry,” said Scruff, “I’m so cold I can’t feel much. Pull me out please.”

 “This would go a lot better if I had hands,” I said through a mouth full of ear.

Scruff helped as much as he could, and after several tries, I pulled him up onto the ice.

“I’m not sure I can walk,” said Scruff.

“Don’t worry, I’ll drag you. It’s only a short way.”

I was trying to sound confident, but the cracking noises were increasing.

When I got him to the shore, we both lay on the cold grass for what seemed like a long time.

“Rufus, what’s happened, and who is this bedraggled fellow?”

It was my mistress, come looking for me. I didn’t mind if she scolded me. I was so happy to see her; I wagged my tail furiously.

I gave a small bark and nosed my friend. My mistress is brilliant, and she worked it all out very quickly.

“Did you two fall in the pond, or did you save this little dog, Rufus?”

I stood up as tall as I could so that she knew I was the brave one. Scruff was too cold and tired to walk, so my mistress picked him up and carried him back to the house. I trotted along next to her, feeling very proud.

My mistress lit the fire and wrapped Scruff in a green towel, sitting him on the rug and telling him to stay.

He was in no condition to argue.

Scruff’s owner was back in the village for a visit, and Scruff came down to the pond because he remembered it being the place of many adventures. At least, that is how he told it to me as we sat warming ourselves in front of the fire.

When my mistress used her telephone to find Scruff’s owner, I knew we would not have much time together. We talked about old times and the fun we had as pups.

My mistress let Scruff’s owner keep the green towel.

“He’s nice and warm in there. Best not to disturb him,” said my mistress. She is very kind because I know she loves that towel.

My red bow was ruined, so my mistress made me a new one, and before I knew it, we were in the Lagona speeding along the country lanes heading for London and an award ceremony.

I knew we were going to have fun, but after hanging my head over the side of the car and enjoying the exhilaration of sheer speed, I felt drained.

I curled up on the leather seat and dreamed of the adventures that Scruff and I had experienced, back in the day.

I’ll miss Scruff, and I’m glad that I was there to save him.

Friends should always save friends and let friends save them right back.

 

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The Body In The Basement

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“Do you think he’s been lonely down here, all alone, all these years?”

It wasn’t like my partner to be this way. Typically, he’s offhand about sudden death — professional and a bit dark in his humour.

“I don’t think so,” I said, “he’s off wherever they go when they’re not here anymore.”

“Even so,” said my partner.

Ashley Bloomfield had worked his way up through the ranks to Detective Sergeant, and I’d been his partner for nearly three years — just long enough to get to know a bloke who guards himself closely.

It was a strange question for him to ask. He’s more a question and answer type of bloke, but on this day he was looking to me for an answer.

“Are you getting all spiritual on me, Ash?” I said.

“I don’t know, maybe. It’s this place. It’s genuinely spooky.”

He had a point, but I knew not to let him get one-up on me.

The call came through at a decent hour and Ash and I were next in the rotation, and about now we wished it had been someone else.

The old mansion on St Kilda Road had been empty for more than thirty years.

Some investment company in Dubai had bought it for a sizeable sum in the early 1990s, then the property market went flat. They decided to sit on it and wait, as all well-healed people can afford to do.

No one was much interested in looking after the place, so people with nowhere else to go would find a way in — out of the storm, so to speak. The property manager would eventually block up the break-in and lose interest again.

It must have been during one of those incursions, so long ago that some sort of fight broke out, and our body had lain there ever since, covered in rubble and wooden planks.

Some enterprising developer had bought the old mansion and was preparing to renovate it (within heritage guidelines, of course) into trendy offices. St Kilda Road still has clout when it comes to city addresses.

This was going to be a thankless job.

If the body turned out to be a homeless bloke, we have our work cut out for us to identify him. If he was killed by another homeless bloke, then he’s probably dead by now. Homelessness tends to shorten your lifespan. Likely no one to slap the cuffs on, just a mountain of pointless paperwork and a John Doe toe tag.

“The forensic folks will be here soon. Constable Whatshisname can keep an eye on things. You want to get a coffee? The dust down here is clogging up my soul,” I said as I moved the most prominent plank out of our way.

The body was fully clothed (bloke’s clothing — I’m not psychic, but it seemed inevitable it was a ‘he’), and it lay where it fell, all those years ago. Bugger all forensic after all this time. No one had dropped a wallet or a calling card or a cigarette case as they do in the movies.

“A coffee sounds good. Get me the fuck out of here, before I forget I’m a lady,” said Ash, and I could see his unique sense of humour returning.

Coffee was easy to find because this is Melbourne, and even my dog can make a good coffee. You have to prove that you know what good coffee tastes like before they will let you cross the border into Victoria, and in Melbourne, the cops will breath-test you for instant coffee — if detected, the penalties are draconian.

The sandwich shop lived up to expectations, and the coffee was a perfect temperature. The tiny glass-fronted store was awash with delicious aromas.

We sat on tall stools and looked out onto the road. Trams rumbled by, and pedestrians did what pedestrians do. Some bloke was making his third attempt to park a Fiat in a space that would accommodate a mid-1960s Ford.

“What do you reckon. Is he gonna make it?” I said. Ash looked up from his coffee. He’d been mesmerised by the pattern on the crema for the past few minutes.

“Nah, he’s buggered.”

“Yeah, I agree. Most blokes will give it away after the second go. It’s too embarrassing.”

Right on cue, the Fiat shot off into traffic accompanied by the copious tooting of horns and the waving of fists.

“He nearly had it that last time,” I said.

“If I disappear in mysterious circumstances, don’t stop looking for me, will ya?”

“Is that something you’re likely to do?” I said.

“Nah, but just in case. I don’t want to lie somewhere, cold and forgotten,” said Ash, who had gone back to staring at the pattern on his coffee.

“I’ll find ya mate, but not before I’ve finished off that bottle of whisky you keep in your locker.”

Ash didn’t look up. This one had gotten to him. I had never seen him like this.

“You know I got wounded — in the war?” he said.

“Not really,” I said.

Ash’s life before the police force was a mystery to me, and I felt guilty that I had never asked. Mostly, I’m not that interested in other people. But this was different. I remember the feeling of being with a dying comrade — the less I knew about their life, the easier it was to deal with their death.

“We were on patrol, and all hell broke loose. When I woke up, my leg and back hurt like buggery and all my mates were dead. I wasn’t game to call for help so I lay there for what seemed like days, hoping someone would come looking for us. After about thirty-six hours, a rescue party found me. I don’t remember it happening, but I do remember wondering if I’d bleed to death, and I remember wondering if I’d be found or would I be one of those bodies that farmers find, decades later, after the war is over. I’ve never felt so cold and alone. Do you reckon that’s how that bloke felt?”

“I don’t mind telling you that you are freaking me out, Ash. Here, drink up,” I said as I poured the contents of my hip flask into his coffee.

The bloke behind the counter gave me a look and started to say something. I moved my jacket so he could see my detective’s badge — he went back to slicing tomatoes without saying anything.

Ash drank his coffee, and I poured a wee dram into mine.

“Same goes for me mate. If the ungodly catch up with me, don’t leave me lying out there somewhere,” I said.

“Deal,” said Ash and we clinked paper cups to seal the deal.

Chick’s Diner

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I’ve always been impressed that the apostrophe is in the right place on the old neon sign. It would have added to the cost, but I guess the original ‘Chick’ wanted everything to be just right.

Somehow, the old diner has continued in business with parking in rear, despite sitting on an expensive piece of real estate.

The block would have been on the edge of town when the diner opened, but these days it has been gobbled up by progress.

Steak and Chops are still on the menu, but I prefer the sausages and eggs.

Back in the day, it is said that ‘Chick’s’ stayed open twenty-four hours. These days, it’s open until two in the morning, which is okay by me. The opening and closing hours are flexible, and if the diner has customers at closing time, it stays open until they want to leave, which kind of makes you feel wanted, and I guess if you are up at that hour, you are in need of a bit of comfort.

When I can’t sleep, I wander down to ‘Chick’s’ and sit and write. As long as I buy coffee, they don’t seem to mind.

Taxi driver’s and emergency workers love the place.

The girl who works the late shift is friendly and knows how to listen in the same way that a good bartender does.

No-one messes with her because the short-order cook is a big bloke and rumour has it he strangled someone over a parking space.

Speaking of parking — I rarely drive to the diner, living as close as I do, but when I do arrive in a car, I’m allowed to park out the front. Someone said that it was like receiving a gold medal at the Olympics. Only me and the cops are allowed to park out the front. I don’t know what I did to receive such a high honour, but I have learned not to argue with good fortune. I park out front now and then to show that I can. It has raised my standing in the community.

I found a wallet on the floor of a booth once. I returned it intact even though I hadn’t sold a story in a long while. There was fifty bucks in that wallet, and I was sorely tempted, but I knew my mum would have been disappointed in me if I lifted the money. I remember the look on the bloke’s face when I banged on his door and gave him the wallet.

“Thank you,” he said, “I wasn’t supposed to be in that part of town that night,” he said, handing me the fifty. “Please don’t mention where you found it.”

“Who are you?” said an aggressive woman who reminded me of one of my aunties — the one I was still scared of.

“Just came to return a wallet,” I said, taking a step back.

She pushed her husband to one side and stared at me.

“Where did you find it?” she said.

I looked over my shoulder and noticed the flowers growing on the lawn.

“Just over there, near the footpath,” I lied.

The woman glared at me, and behind her, I saw the man give me a nod.

“Don’t think you’re getting a reward,” said the angry woman.

“No need for a reward lady. It’s enough to see your smiling face,” I said as I stepped back out of range.

I could see my mum smiling as I told her the story. She would be proud of me, and I wished she was still alive so I could see her smile one more time.

Making her smile was my greatest delight.

TO26

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“That’s what it says on the side of the cartridge,” I said.

“Bloody hell, I haven’t seen one of those in a long time.”

“Well? Do you have one? Do you know where I could get one?” I said.

The shop was a tiny brick building wedged in amongst other more significant brick buildings. Maybe the builder miscalculated. Perhaps he didn’t measure up accurately. Maybe it was just easier to build one small shop than go back and start again.

Someone will rent it.

And they did.

CARTRIDGES ARE USS — yes with two’s’ s, (I’ll bet he sat up all night thinking up the name), was conveniently located at my local shopping strip. Someone had bought up all the old shops, pulled them down and built new shops with convenient parking.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of those.”

“So you said,” I said, “Maybe if you look out the back?”

“We don’t have ‘a back’,” he said.

Everyone has a back room, don’t they?

A quick scan of the shop did not show any sign of a rear door (where does he go when he needs to pee?)

There were racks on the walls and glass cases forming a counter, all crammed full of colourful packages.

“I know it’s old, but it was a very popular brand back in the day, and I thought, seeing as how you specialise, you might have one or know where I could get one. I don’t need colour. I only need black so that I can print out my stories.”

The shopkeeper was still staring at the cartridge as though it might tell him something.

“T026, well there’s a blast from the past.”

The thirty-something neatly dressed shopkeeper with CARTRIDGES ARE USS embroidered on his jumper, was beginning to annoy me.

“Well, if you don’t have one, I’ll just have to look somewhere else,” I said, holding out my hand in the hope of retrieving my cartridge — which still had a bit of ink left in it.

The shopkeeper scratched his head and gave the cartridge one final turn in his hand.

Reluctantly and gently, he handed it back to me. I felt like Lord Carnarvon must have felt as he examined the contents of King Tut’s tomb.

“You take good care of that,” he said.

“I will,” I said as I backed out of the shop.

I never did find a T026 cartridge, but a week later I found one hundred dollars in an old jacket. So I treated myself to a new printer — colour. It’s been handy, and it costs almost as much to buy replacement cartridges as it does to buy a new machine — it’s a bit of a scam someone said in an article I read.

The cartridge shop closed about a year ago and the Pizza shop next door knocked a hole in the wall to create a warm place for people to wait while their pizza is being prepared.

As I wait for my pizza order, I sometimes wonder what happened to the shopkeeper. Does he still have the embroidered jumper? Does he wear it on cold nights and think back to when he had his own shop? A tiny shop, but his nonetheless.

I kept the old printer, but finally, I had to concede that to continue looking for a cartridge was probably a fools’ errand — so I put it out with the recycling.

That’s the trouble with living, in general — as soon as you can’t get the parts anymore, all the fun goes out of it.

White Plastic Chairs

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Chapter One:

Neighbourhood Of Widower Dogs: Chapter Two

“Not what I expected,” I said.

“What were you expecting? Table cloths, silver service?” she said.

“A table would have been nice,” I said.

“We only get forty-five minutes for lunch, and it only took us,” she looked at her watch, “ten minutes to walk here.”

During the night and on weekends, Habib’s Kitchen opened on the forecourt of the Shell service station some ten minutes walk from what used to be Coburg Teacher’s College, back in the day. These days, the predictable buildings have been repurposed to become a high school and then the privately owned, Baker Institute. Business is not thriving, hence the eagerness of Victoria Police to rent the inexpensive venue. Who gave a fuck about the comfort of the participants? Not the brass, that’s for sure.


“The chairs are comfy,” said my host, who had ordered our lunchtime feast.

Most customers get back into their cars and drive away, but as a concession to midnight dinners with a ‘skin full,’ the proprietor has provided six white plastic garden chairs — easy to hose down in the morning before going home to bed.


“Have you had a stint in ‘Traffic’?” I asked.

“Of course. Everyone does ‘Traffic’ when they start out.”

“Ever been to the impound yard?”

“Once or twice.”

“Ever get lost in that place?”

“Almost,” she admitted honestly. “Why do you ask?”

“It’s these chairs — triggered a memory.”

I took a bite of my ‘extra sauce’ special while she delicately tried to eat her ‘no chilly’ with poise.

“We have time. Tell me your story.”

I love talking with other cops. The general public gets bored quickly, and I think that what we do freaks them out — they’d rather not know how the sausage is made.

“Ever heard of Backdoor Barry?”

“No, and I don’t like lurid sex stories,” she said.

“Don’t let his name put you off. It’s nothing like you are imagining. One day I’ll tell you how he got his nickname.”

“One day?” she said, with the lift of an eyebrow. “Do you think this relationship has a life beyond lunch?”

I ignored the minefield that had been laid before me.

“Moving right along,” I said. She smiled and took another bite. A small bead of sauce oozed from the corner of her mouth, and her tongue retrieved it. I tried not to think about her tongue — I get distracted easily.

“It’s going back a few years,” I tried not to sound too much older than her, “there was a woman who did a bit of work for the bloke you haven’t heard of — I can’t believe you don’t know Backdoor Barry!”

“Get on with it, we don’t want to be late for HAVING A POSITIVE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE CORONER WHEN WE THINK HE MIGHT BE HIDING VITAL EVIDENCE.”

“Are you sure that’s what the lecture’s called?” I said, and she gave me a look.

“Anyway, there was this woman, we’ll call her Susan.”

“Cause that was her name?”

“Right. So she got car-jacked at the Rising Sun Hotel, which is where Backdoor Barry hangs out. The carjacker takes off in her car and gets totalled by a taxi as he exits the carpark. Mayhem ensues. Some important items are in Susan’s car, but she cannot get close enough to retrieve them.”

“People come from everywhere when there’s a car accident,” said Open Window with a touch of glee. She was starting to get into it.

“Our colleagues arrive along with an ambulance and the Towies. The whole nine yards. Being a resourceful person, Susan hatches a plan. After borrowing a car from Barry, she parks it in front of the local fire station, blocking the doors. She sat across the street at an all-night burger truck. They had white plastic chairs as well.”

“What was she waiting for and why park the car there?”

“All will be revealed. Patience, my girl.” She leaned forward, and for a moment, I thought I was going to get punched.

“So, there she is, eating a burger and waiting for the Fireies to notice her poor choice of a parking spot. A quiet night meant she had to sit on the hard plastic chairs for hours. Eventually, they noticed and called us. We arranged to have the car towed out of the way.”

“To the impound yard?”

“Yep. So Susan gets a taxi to the yard and fronts up to collect her car. I remember the clerk’s exact words — ‘I know your car is red lady, but that don’t excuse you parking in front of a fire station.’ She apologies, pays the fine, collects her car and drives it back to The Rising Sun Hotel where she lets the barman, Boris, out of the boot. While the red car was in impound, Boris had climbed out of the boot, retrieved Susan’s suitcase from the damaged vehicle and climbed back into the boot of the red car along with the suitcase.” 

“A tight fit, I would imagine? So how did you find all this out? Did it come out at the trial?”

“Never was a trial. The carjacker died in the crash. After a lot of paperwork — case closed.”

“So how do you know all this?”

“That’s the stuff they don’t teach you in these courses. Getting to know people, dodgy people. Having them owe you. That’s where the information comes from. I got Barry drunk one day, and he told me this story so that he didn’t have to answer my real questions.”

“Did I mention, you interest me Leather Jacket?”

“No, but I guessed, and it’s Catastrophe Jones to you, Ms Carter.”

“I’ll try and remember.”

The Lady With The Blue Dot

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“A blue marker pen will do the trick, but you will have to renew it every day,” said the lady with the blond curls.

She would have been a stunner in her youth, but even now — those eyes, wow!

“Our dot is tattooed on, and it contains all our information, apparently. I’ve never seen anyone scan it — it’s enough that you have one. Once we leave port, they lose interest,” she said.

For my part, I’m still trying to come to terms with being on this ship — I should be dead, and instead, I’m drawing a blue dot on the top knuckle of my left thumb — life is strange.

“Did you sneak on when we were docked at Melbourne,” she said.

“Sort of,” I answered.

“It’s fun here. Much better than being stuck in a retirement home,” she said.

“I’ll bet,” I said, and I meant it. The thought of ending up in one of those places was a contributing factor in my decision to kill myself.

“We can eat whatever we like, and there’s dancing for those who still can, and there’s alcohol, but that costs extra. Even with the occasional drink it’s cheaper here, and there are sea birds and cute young seamen,” she said.

I like this lady, but I have no idea why she is helping me.

“You’ve bumped your head,” she said.

“That’s an understatement,” I said, as the blood trickled down behind my ear. I can feel it soaking into my collar — a strange sticky sensation. The dull throb in my head is getting louder.

“I’ve got something in my cabin that can fix that,” she said.

“I’m not going to end up looking like a pirate, am I?” I said.

She smiled and took me by the hand as we walked along the corridor. Cabin 234, small, recently painted, efficiently fitted out, and most importantly, a porthole.

“How did you afford a room with a porthole,” I asked.

“It’s a cabin, not a room. They like us to use the correct nautical terms,” she said.

“Fair enough, when in Rome,” I said.

“We aren’t in Rome, young man. That bump on your head has mixed you up,” she said. “I was told I could have a porthole for the same price if I took a tiny cabin. I don’t need a lot of space, but I do like a view.”

I looked through her porthole which had been painted many times — I doubted its ability to open. Her cabin is on the upper decks, and this ship is huge. Her view extended to the horizon. I left a nose-print on the glass, and I wiped it off with my sleeve. This lovely lady bandaged my head and did her best to brush the soot from my jacket. I’m dressed in my best. If I’m leaving this world, I want to be presentable when I get where I’m going.

My curly haired saviour reached into the top drawer of her dressing table and drew out a blue pen and a couple of coloured lollies wrapped in clear cellophane. She pressed the lollies into my hand and drew a blue dot on the knuckle of my left thumb. She did it tenderly — I sensed that I reminded her of someone.

“You can have the pen, it will keep you going for a while — until you find another one. She said find as though she knew this for certain. She opened her cabin door and ushered me out.

“You’ll be fine now. We’ll be through the Heads and out of the bay in a few hours. Keep your head down until then, and you’ll be okay. You’ll need somewhere to sleep, and you’ll meet two ladies who will sort that out for you,” she said, and there was that certainty again.

I didn’t answer her, but I did give her a big smile and a gentle touch on the shoulder. As I walked away I could feel blood soaking into my bandage, and I’d forgotten to ask about food, but I had the feeling that my blue dot would get me into the dining room — ‘drinks are extra.’

This ship was supposed to be the method of me leaving this world, and now I find that it is to be my world, at least for the moment. I’m wondering why I don’t jump overboard? 

I’m a weak swimmer, I’d drift away — it would be over quickly.

My curiosity has been peaked for the first time in a long time — I want to see where this is leading. After all, my salvation was miraculous, so what other miracles does the universe have in store?

“So what happened to you, young man, “ said the lady with the red handbag.

“Was it a woman?” asked her friend in the floral dress and the string of pearls.

“Nice pearls,” I said, “and a ship hit me. No woman involved. I jumped off a bridge in a futile attempt to kill myself. I was aiming to disappear into a funnel, but the damn ship was going faster than it was supposed to and I bounced off the funnel and landed in a huge basket of laundry,” I said, and as soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew they sounded crazy, but neither of the ladies looked stunned. Maybe they heard stories like this every day.

“Why jump into a funnel?” said the red handbag.

“That way, there would not be a body for anyone to find. Nice and neat — no mess. And, if you must know, it was to be my final creative act on this earth. To the best of my knowledge, and I did the research, no one has ever committed suicide by jumping into the funnel of a moving ship. I had the mathematics all worked out. I calculated the height from the bridge to the top of the funnel. The ship would be fully laden with passengers and supplies, and even though she would be sitting low in the water, her funnels would only just fit under the bridge at half tide. The ship would not be allowed to exceed four knots for risk of swamping smaller boats and damaging shore facilities with her wake. I had it all worked out except for the fact that you hit a small sailing vessel,” I said.

“Two older ladies out for a sail. They told us over the public address. No need for alarm. The two ladies were picked up by the police launch. It did hold us up a bit though,” said the string of pearls.

“That explains the turn of speed. The captain would have been worried about the rising tide. The speeding fine and resultant claims would have been heaps smaller than the repair bill if he had torn off the funnels on my bridge,” I said, with a sense of satisfaction. I’ve always liked to understand why stuff happens, and now I know why I’m still here. The damn ship was going too fast. All those calculations and they go out the window because two old ladies don’t give way to a bloody big boat. I hope they throw the book at them. Better still, I hope I meet them — but then again, that is unlikely. Wherever this ship is going, I’m going with it, and I doubt I will see these shores again.

“You’ll need a place to sleep,” said the red handbag.

“That would be nice. I could use a lie down about now,” I said.

“Not a good idea for you to be alone for the next couple of days with that head wound. You undoubtedly have a concussion. You need to rest, or there could be dire consequences,” said string of pearls.

“Like dying?” I said, hopefully.

“If you still wanted to die, you would have gone over the side by now. I’m guessing that you are having second thoughts, and if that is so, you should listen to my friend. She was a combat nurse in her day. She’s seen all sorts of nasty stuff,” said the red handbag.

“You’d better stay in our cabin for a few days. That way, we can keep an eye on you and change your dressing,” said the string of pearls.

“A gentleman sleeping in the same cabin as two unattached ladies?” I said.

“I think we can resist you, at least until you regain your strength. After that, who knows,” said the string of pearls. Both ladies laughed heartily, and I managed a smile.

Their cabin was spacious, and I curled up on a bottom bunk and slept and dreamed of old ladies in beautiful dresses.

I remember string of pearls waking me and feeding me soup and changing my bandage. I had no idea why these ladies should take pity on me, and I didn’t much care. Maybe they wanted me for my body — no one had done that in a long time. Perhaps I’d be up to the task — only time would tell. Now there was sleep and soup and trips to the bathroom — and dreams, strange dreams.

“We’ve found you a cabin of your own, and it is not far from ours so you can come and visit whenever you like,” said the red handbag. “It’s cabin 212. The gentleman who owns it got off in Melbourne and never reboarded. This sort of thing happens from time to time, but the person left behind always radios the ship to let them know. Mr Winkle has not radioed. I know because the radio officer likes me,” said the red handbag.

“It’s true, he does,” said string of pearls.

“The stewards will continue to service the room, and they will not know the difference. All old people look alike to them,” said the red handbag.

“When can I see it?” I said.

“Maybe tomorrow. You are getting stronger each day. In any case, all of the smaller cabins look much the same.”

“Does it have a porthole?” I asked.

“Yes, it does. Why do you ask? Not planning to squeeze out, are you?”

“No. I just like to have a view,” I said.

“It’s not very big, but it does have a porthole and all of Mr Winkle’s clothes and things are still in the cabin. He was about your build so you should be able to wear some of his clothes.”

It occurred to me that this bloke was probably dead or shacked up with a woman or lying in a hospital and a John Doe. Sooner or later someone was going to work it all out, but in the meantime, I had a bolthole — a safe haven and a couple of slightly strange allies — things could be a lot worse.

Blond curls was correct — no one asked to see my blue dot when I walked into the dining room. I was a little bit disappointed. I’d taken great care to make the dot perfectly round.

The aroma of delicious food assailed my nostrils, and my imagination went into overdrive.

“Scallop potatoes, beans, fried tomatoes and two sausages, well-cooked please.”

The steward nodded, and I wondered if he noticed that I was not as old as everyone else, but his mind was elsewhere.

I’d let my whiskers grow a bit to give me that scruffy old bloke appearance, and it seemed to be helping.

“You’ll need a tray,” said the gentleman behind me. “Here, take mine.”

He handed me his tray and disappeared for a moment and came back with another one — still damp from being cleaned and put back on the stack.

“Just there,” he said, pointing at the hidden stack of trays. “They tuck them in there to keep them out of the way and to trick new arrivals.”

I took my tray to the nearest table, which conveniently had a view out onto the deck. My tray advisor followed me. We sat facing each other, and he was added to the list of people who did not notice my relative youth.

“So what made you join the voyage of the damned?”

“That’s a bit harsh mate,” I said.

“Gallows humour,” he said as he stared self consciously at his food.

“I like these old folks, er, us old folks. I never thought of myself as old (which was true), but I don’t mind people seeing me that way (also true). Everyone I’ve met since I came aboard has been very kind.”

My new friend grunted.

“You don’t seem to be too happy to be here?” I said.

“Long story.”

I looked at my plate, piled high and calculated how long it would take to eat.

“I’ve got fourteen point three minutes. Fire away.”

I was true to my word, and I was kind of listening, but mostly I was savouring a meal that was in many ways, a bonus.

“So, here I am, using up all my money on this endless voyage just so my ungrateful children get nothing when I cark it.”

“It’s your money, mate. Spend it how you like, but from where I’m sitting,” I looked out onto the deck in time to see two well-dressed ladies chasing and giggling after an equally well-dressed man who was running just fast enough to keep them close behind, “you don’t sound like you are enjoying the experience. You do realise that there are approximately six point four women for each man on this ship?”

My companion looked surprised.

“Really?”

“Yep. I counted them. Not much else to do this last week.”

“You’re right,” he said, rising from his seat. “Why am I sitting here with you. These women need me.”

“Are you going to finish that?”

He didn’t answer, so I pulled his half-finished chicken cacciatora in my direction.

I drained my glass of red wine, pushed my plate away just in time for a steward to collect the wreckage of my sumptuous meal.

I walked out on the deck and sat in the sun, digesting my meal. 

Sleep found me.

I dreamed of standing on the bridge before floating through the air.

The smell of the clean linen in the huge basket was fresh in my nostrils when I woke. Some kind soul had placed a blanket over me while I slept. The air was cold, and the scent of the sea helped me believe that this wasn’t a dream.

I rolled onto my back and stared up at the rapidly darkening sky. The moon and the brightest star were visible, and as I lay there, other stars slowly emerged. 

It reminded me of being a kid, lying on the back lawn in mid-summer, watching the sky and dreaming of adventure.

My life turned out to be significantly less adventurous than I had hoped. Miserable at times. Moments of happiness.

I know that at the time, I was serious about ending my miserable life, but as I lay in the deck chair with the roll of the ship to comfort me, I was struggling to remember why I felt that all was lost.

There must be more than a thousand people on this ship. So many stories. So many potential adventures.

For now, I have a cabin, all I can eat, plenty of company and a blue dot on my thumb.

What could possibly go wrong?

 

 

And So It Goes

“Just for a break, we’re going to play something different.”

“C’mon, Johnno. I thought we come here to play poker.”

“We do, but it’s my house, my game and I say we play something different. Just one hand, so don’t get you panties in a twist.”

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this was a smoke-filled room full of tired, semi-drunk businessmen with more money than sense — it wasn’t.

That’s not to say that I haven’t been in one — too many to mention.

What we had here was something entirely different — almost refined.

John Jackson, ‘Johnno’ to his friends, lived on the edge of town — the old part, built in the 1910s. The houses were and still are, owned by the people who make decisions. This area escaped the rampant demolition and redevelopment of the 1960s.

‘Money’ does not like to be disturbed.

John Jackson’s games room was big enough to stage a large party but intimate enough to make you feel cosseted. You lost track of time, as all gambling establishments encourage.

“So, what are we going to play?” I asked. It was evident that Johnno was going to get his way, so we might as well get on with it, then we could get back to Poker.

“MOTHER.”

“Have to say that I have not had the pleasure.”

“Bugger that for a game of soldiers. I’m getting a drink. Billy, you want to join me,” said Matt Johnson.

Johnson stood about three inches under six foot but weighed about the same as someone eight inches taller. He came to these games because he was in construction and it was good for business. Billy Mitchell liked sandwiches and beer and women — which did not include his wife.

“Where did you get the tucker from Johnno?” said Billy, rising from his seat, issuing the grunt of a man who had sat in the same place for too long.

“Preston’s on Miller Street. Best Deli on the westside.”

“Better than Louie’s?”

“You tell me?”

By this time, Billy had a sandwich in each hand, and he grunted his assent. Matt Jackson poured them both a beer and they headed for the plush armchairs lining the wall. 

The wallpaper was from another era. Dark and extravagant. The two men sank into their chairs, and the standard lamps that were well placed around the room shone a light on them both. They munched away and looked across at the card table.

The light behind the bar, illuminating every liquor known to mankind, was dim whereas the stained glass lightshade above us was bright enough for even the most imperfect eyesight.

I prefer green baize, but Johnno’s table was covered in a rich burgundy.

“So, how do we play this game?” I said.

“Before you get started, I’m off to the ‘ladies room’. Deal me out.” Michelle was one of three women who regularly attended. She ran three ‘female’ business in our town. Her divorce made her very wealthy, and while her husband drifted away from the regular monthly games night, she stayed. She rarely lost, and her winnings were modest. I think she was lonely, but what would I know? She pressed up against me one night when we met in the hallway leading to the toilets. She didn’t say anything, just didn’t get out of the way to let me pass. She smelled sweet, and her body was soft and inviting. I still don’t know why I didn’t fuck her — one of life’s great mysteries. She didn’t hold it against me if you know what I mean.

Johnno had one of the bedrooms on this floor made into two generous sized toilets. This old house was not built with such amenities. The area wasn’t sewered until the 1920s, so, the toilet was outside — away from the house. It’s still there though not used for that purpose. I think the pool cleaner keeps his stuff in there.

With Michelle gone, it left me, Johnno and Danielle.

I have to admit to wanting to do all sorts of intimate things to and with Danielle. At the time, I hadn’t figured out if the feeling was mutual.

Life was a game to Danielle.

Winning was not only important — it was the manner of winning that was paramount.

Johnno explained the rules and produced a deck of cards. Basically, it was a kids game, and you could win in one of two ways.

If you picked up the designated card from the deck, you won, or if you got down to your last card, you won. Pretty simple, but fun none the less.

“Clockwise around the table,” said Johnno.

Michelle had returned to the room. She poured herself a drink and sat in one of the comfortable chairs.

The deck had elaborate illustrations and a single word printed across the bottom of the card in a font that matched the style of the picture.

“So, what’s the designated card?” said Danielle.

“MOTHER,” said Johnno.

We started with five cards.

If we did not guess the name of the card that the player on our left was trying to get rid of, we had to pick up a card.

“He works with a substance that makes him sound like he’s rich,” said Johnno.

“Dough. So that would be BAKER!” said Danielle triumphantly.

Johnno had to draw a card.

He was not doing well.

Danielle and I, on the other hand, were neck and neck.

“Bugger this,” said Johnno. “I give up (he had fifteen cards in his hand at that moment). “You two can fight it out.”

“It was your idea, Johnno,” said Matt. Johnno shot him a look.

Danielle and I stared at each other. Everything and everyone faded into the background — there was only us and our insatiable desire to win.

“Want to make it interesting?” said Danielle.

“How much?”

“Five thousand and a packet of Juicy Fruits.”

“What is it with you and chewing gum?”

She didn’t answer.

I’d put five thousand down on a hand before, but this felt different. It felt like a dream I often had — standing naked in front of a room full of people.

Frankly, I wouldn’t mind seeing Danielle naked, but that was a whole other dream.

“Okay.”

We had both worked out that the trick to this game was the way you asked your question.

If your question was too obscure, you got jumped on by the other players and had to pick up a card.

If you could justify your question, you would win that round, and they would have to take a card.

We battled it out evenly until we each had two cards left.

No sign of the MOTHER card, so it would probably come down to who got down to their last card.

I don’t remember it happening, but somehow the four non-players were now surrounding our table. They stood silently and waited.

“This person can be two people. This person is in every country and every town. Age does not define this person. This person can lead and follow. Without this person, psychiatrists would go out of business. You know this person.”

I thought about what she had said, and my mind went straight to ‘mother’. But that could not be. If she had the MOTHER card, she had already won. It had to be a trick. She was playing with me. Then again, maybe she wasn’t. No, no-one is that crazy. But she might be. I have to say something soon or pick up a card.

“I know this sounds crazy, but MOTHER.”

I looked at Danielle, who did not have a ‘tell’, not as far as I knew. She looked down at her face down cards. She picked up the top card and held it up for me to see.

MOTHER.

Our hardened audience gasped, ever so softly.

“What were you thinking?” said Michelle, “You had the game won. You had the MOTHER card. Are you crazy?”

“No. I’m not crazy. I wanted to rub his nose in it. I wanted to get down to my last card and wave it in his face. His smug know-all face.”

Her tirade took me by surprise.

Here I was imagining her naked, and here she was imagining dancing on my grave. Boy, did I judge her all wrong.

Danielle reluctantly took five thousand dollars out of her purse and put it on the table.

“Don’t forget the Juicy Fruits sweetheart, and I guess a fuck is out of the question?”

Magpies Don’t Like Tomato

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The secret to surveillance is patience.

Some will tell you coffee, others will tell you having a bottle to pee in because something always happens while you are off taking a leak — and it’s true, but those things can be managed.

Without patience and a keen eye, you are just sitting on your arse ticking off the hours.

Allowing yourself to get bored is fatal. So, being in the moment keeps you sharp and wide awake.

Take the magpie drinking from the leaking tap as an example.

I see him most days around lunch time — the hottest part of the day. He lets the water fall from the sky and trickle down his throat. Birds can’t swallow like we can. I read that somewhere. It’s why they tilt their heads back after they dip their beak. This bloke has it covered — straight down his throat.

I’m a low-level operative in a big agency, and it suits me just fine. They don’t give me a lot of responsibility, and that’s fine too. I get lots of jobs like this one, “Keep an eye on Joe Blow’s apartment. Don’t follow him if he goes out just record the time and the time he comes back.”

Easy as.

The client must be well healed. One bloke to record the comings and goings and another to follow him to and fro.

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I vary my vantage point. 

Sometimes in my car and other times, I sit in the cafe with the red and white table cloths.

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The magpie is starting to get used to me. 

I give him some of my sandwich. 

He doesn’t like tomato.

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The cafe owner is distant but friendly, and as long as I order a coffee every hour or two, he doesn’t bother me. He thinks I’m one of those people who write in cafes and that suits me.

I had ambition once. 

Then a small boy fell off a fence, and my heart sank with him. No one said it was my fault because no one knew he was helping me. All little boys can climb, right?

I went to the gravesite. There was so much grief and so many people that no one asked me why I was there.

If I sit on my arse and chronicle the comings and goings, nobody gets hurt.

For a while, I thought the magpie was keeping the leaky tap all to himself, but yesterday he turned up with a female. It was hard to tell if she was impressed with his prized secret. 

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Women are hard to understand — with or without feathers. 

Three Bags Full

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Not exactly matching.

Not meant to be.

They each have a story to tell, and they all reflect my love of old things — things with history.

Take the broken catch on the bone coloured case, for example.

I was on an ‘overnighter’, up north. My boss, at the time, wanted some documents delivered by hand. Which was either a nod to the old school way of doing things or there was something dodgy going on. Considering how he ended up, I’d say it was probably the latter.

I never much liked Manchester, and having someone try and lever open my bag while it was in my room, didn’t raise my opinion of the place. I told the manager, and he checked the CCTV. I could see a bloke with a key going into my room, but he didn’t come out — not on that tape. It didn’t take a detective to work out that the bugger was still in there when I noticed the bag.

“Do you want to see if he comes out before you go back up Luv?” said the helpful manager.

“Not really.”

I went out for dinner and asked the huge doorman to come up to the room when I got back. Lovely bloke and brave for a person on minimum wage. No burglar and the case was just as I left it. He must have legged it when I stormed out. Never heard anything more about it.

I stole all the toiletries, towels, and the entire contents of the minibar put them all in a huge designer bag and gave them to the brave doorman.

“For your missus,” I said.

“Thanks, luv, but I’m not married,” said the brave doorman.

“For your boyfriend then,” I said, and he laughed. One of those laughs that makes you believe in people again.

My boss looked at me scornfully when he got the hotel bill, but he never said anything. All charged to the client, I’m thinking.

The big tin trunk belonged to a friend, and she was throwing it away when she moved out.

“I’ll have it,” I said and tried to stuff it into the hatchback I was driving at the time. It banged on the back window all the way home.

I cleaned it up a bit — not too much.

The faint lettering said Lieutenant Wilson 2/12 brigade.

I looked him up. He was my friend’s grandfather. Killed in New Guinea.

I asked her about it, and she just shrugged.

Some people!

If it doesn’t take batteries and connect to the web, it’s not seen as useful.

This tin box also has a dodgy catch which works when it feels like it. I usually wrap a belt around it, but large belts are hard to come by, and mine broke a week before this photo was taken.

The brown case was a present from an old boyfriend who left me to live and work overseas. 

I was sad, but I understood. 

Sometimes you just have to go. 

The catches work well, and it even had its original key (a bent paperclip works just as well). I keep my personal stuff in it when I travel.

Today I’m on a train, my favourite form of conveyance.

The flowers are for my aunty. I’m going to be staying with her for a week or two until things blow over, but that’s a story for another day.

My pockets are full of chocolate bars, the scenery will be beautiful, and my aunty will meet me at the station with her old Morris van. Between the two of us, we should be able to load my bags into the back.

I considered bringing a book to read, but the views are too beautiful to miss, especially the viaduct. 

No time to have my head stuck in a book.