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.
“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.
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.
“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.
Neighbourhood Of Widower Dogs: Chapter Two