The doctor died not long after delivering the news.
“Give up coffee, or you will surely suffer a painful death. Maybe not tomorrow, but quite soon and it won’t be pleasant.”
I didn’t gloat, but I did smile when my sister told me the news.
My sister and I set up house together when it became evident that neither of us was going to attract a mate.
“We can save on utilities and keep each other company.”
“What if I get lucky and attract a short-sighted woman who will love me until she gets her eyeglasses changed?” I asked.
“We’ll cross that chasm when we get to it,” said my sister.
I’m used to her and her to me. We don’t exactly like each other, but neither of us contemplates homicide either.
“Dr Colour died yesterday,” she said while peeling potatoes.
“Did he have a cup of coffee in his hand when they found him,” I said. Unkind, I know, but he really pissed me off with his holier than thou coffee criticism.
“Not that I know of,” said my sister.
She rarely understood my witticisms.
“Charlie Varick? I’ve been working for him for about four years, but I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
The question came out of nowhere, and it really pissed me off. It’s a job, what difference does it make? When I go home, I leave work at work.
“What difference does it make? He’s a fucking private eye, and he uses you as a decoy.”
“I’m his secretary, and the decoy stuff only happens every now and then. Mostly, it isn’t dangerous, and mostly I answer the phones and make appointments. Of course, there is coffee and dry cleaning, but mostly it’s answering phones.”
My parents were in town for a couple of days, and I was glad to see them; well ‘glad’ is probably too strong a word, but it was good to see them. Parents should be kept at a distance that is directionally proportional to the amount of shit they put you through as a kid. Mine weren’t that bad but using this formula they should be at least 427 kilometres away at all times.
I’m 26 years old, gorgeous and leggy with long black wavy hair that men hold on to when they are making love to me. Not that there are that many of them.
I like men, just in small doses.
Not small in the way you are thinking, just small in the sense of time I have to spend in close proximity. Charlie’s different, but he is old, at least 47 years old, and he is taken, but he treats me like I’m someone. Like I count in the grand scheme of things. I guess he is so relaxed because he is old, and old people don’t worry so much about stuff.
My dad was wound up, but I know it was my mum who put him up to it.
“We just want you to be safe; safe and happy. That’s all your mother, and I have ever wanted.”
“I know dad.” Things seemed to be calming down now that the shouting had stopped.
It was still early. Hotel restaurants tend to wind down around 9:30 pm, and it was now way past that, so we had the room to ourselves except for the girl at the bar and the waiter who was doing a little shuffle that was Morse code for ‘they don’t pay me past 10:00 pm even if you are still here drinking coffee, and I have a home to go to, and my dog misses me’.
It was a complicated dance.
My father, mother and I talked about nothing for another fifteen minutes before my dad signed the bill, and they went up to their room. I stood and watched as they walked up the staircase. My mother clung to the handrail as though it was saving her from a sinking ship. My dad negotiated the stairs easily enough because he never used elevators unless he absolutely had to.
I asked him about it once, and he said that it was his small concession to keeping fit, but I think it had more to do with the stories that his father brought home.
His dad was a fireman, and he would be called out to rescue cats and people, and sometimes he was expected to free individuals who had been trapped — sometimes these people had been stuck in elevators, and he delighted in terrifying his children with stories of people who had gone insane after being stuck in an elevator for six hours.
“One bloke tried to chew his arm off, which seemed pointless to me. It wasn’t as though they had him in handcuffs — he was trapped in a lift for fuck sake. Now if he had tried to eat through the door, that I could understand, but his arm — that’s just nuts.”
I sat on the overstuffed couch in the hotel’s foyer and tried to collect my thoughts.
I still had half an hour before I was to meet Charlie at Bar Alfredo on Little Collins Street. I walked the short distance up Collins and turned left onto Exhibition. Little Collins was the first on the left, and the bar was about two hundred metres down.
This end of the street had been disrupted by building activities for nearly two years, which made it difficult to negotiate on foot, or by car. The street was already very narrow, and its name gave a hint. ‘Little’ Collins Street was originally an access road for the rear of the more significant and grander edifices on Collins Street. Deliveries would be made, and tradesmen would be admitted.
It was best to keep the grubby people out of sight.
These days the ‘Little’ streets were home to trendy bars and eateries as well as exclusive apartments and the occasional clothing shop.
The footpath on both sides is extremely narrow, and I was forced to step out onto the road to let a large, rude man pass by. He looked vaguely familiar until I remembered I had not seen him before — he was exactly how Charlie had described the man I was supposed to ‘distract’.
“He’s big, about 40 years old, always wears a dark suit with a red handkerchief in his top pocket, and he smells like lemons. He will be sitting at the bar because he always sits at the bar. Third stool from the far end as you come in the front door.”
I had the feeling that these instructions and this description were going to go to waste.
To get to Bar Alfredo, I first had to walk past a narrow laneway and at this time of night, the laneway was in complete darkness. Being a female living in a big city, I avoided dark laneways because I wanted to go on ‘living in the big city’.
As I looked into the darkness, I saw Charlie lying in a pool of his own blood.
I say ‘saw’, but that’s not what I mean. I didn’t see him with my eyes; I saw him in a vision. The dark laneway was like a giant projector screen, and on it, I saw Charlie’s exact location, as though it were daylight.
I used my phone to light the way to the spot that I knew Charlie would be lying. He was behind some boxes with a single knife wound in the middle of his chest.
I would love to say that he lived long enough to look into my eyes and tell me who had killed him. I would like to tell you what his last words were and that he had smiled before he died, but I can’t.
He was gone by the time I got to him — warm but gone.
I sat next to him for what seemed like forever and thought about my life and wondered what Charlie thought when the large man in the dark suit took his life. I wondered what my life was going to be like from now on. I wondered if my mum and dad had gone to sleep yet.
I don’t remember ringing anyone, but I must have because an ambulance arrived closely followed by the police.
The weather was warm, so why there was so much fog? And why did my voice sound funny, and why was the police officer mumbling?
When I came to, I was sitting on the back step of an ambulance with an oxygen mask on my face. A young policeman was trying to get my attention, and the ambo wanted him to give me a break.
“Give her a minute mate; she’s had a rough night.”
The policeman ignored the world-weary ambulance driver. The brash young policeman considered civilians to be annoying. They kept passing out or screaming or generally being uncooperative. He just wanted to get a statement so he could get back on patrol. The homicide detectives would be along very soon, and they would shoo him away like an unwanted blow-fly.
“Miss? Miss? How did you know he was in that alley? Did you hear something? Did you see anyone come out of the alley?”
I was trying to decide which question to answer first when it occurred to me that this was all very strange.
“I had a vision, which was weird. I don’t normally get visions at night-time. I always get my visions in the morning.”
The police officer stopped asking me questions after that, and he and the ambo were looking at each other with the strangest expression on their faces. I don’t think that they believed me, and I wanted them too. This was a first for me.
A pair of plain-clothed detectives arrived and scooped me up heading me towards their car, but before I got in, I gave it one last try to convince my interrogator.
“I really did see him lying there, in the dark, which was weird. I always get my visions in the morning.”
The police officer knocked gently on Madame Olga’s front door.
“What can I do for you, young man?”
“I’m sorry to disturb you Madame Olga, but there’s been a complaint about the elixir you sell at the local market. I’ve been sent to ask you if we could have a sample for analysis?”
This wasn’t the first time Madame Olga had received such a request.
“Come in. Sit. Rest your feet. I get bottle and give to you.”
Proper procedure would have been for Senior Constable Wilson to select a sample at random from Madame Olga’s stock and if asked, that is what he would say he did. Wilson wanted this to go as smoothly as possible. He did not want to upset this old lady any more than was necessary.
Olga returned with a small clear glass jar containing an opaque substance. The jar had a golden lid. When Wilson twisted the cap, a waft of menthol filled the air.
“You dip toothpick in and what sticks you rub on back of hand,” said Madame Olga producing a wooden toothpick from out of nowhere.
“That won’t be necessary. I just have to hand it in to forensics, and if there isn’t anything illegal in here, you won’t have anything to worry about,” said Senior Constable Wilson.
“I make you tea and bring you biscuits. I make them myself?”
Senior Constable Wilson’s partner, PC Billy Pepper looked pleadingly at his superior.
After a pause, Wilson said, “That would be lovely,” and they made themselves comfortable on Madame Olga’s old couch.
After two cups of tea and several biscuits (which were just as tasty as you would expect), the two officers made their leave and headed for their car. They noticed the gentleman next door watching them as they left.
“Do you want to give it a try, Senior,” said Pepper, “you know the boys at the lab will have a go.”
Senior Constable Wilson had heard about the effects of Madame Olga’s elixir.
“Why do you think she calls it Peripeteia?” said Pepper.
“Probably named after a gypsy king or something,” said Wilson, unscrewing the lid. He pulled the top off his pen and delicately dipped the tip in the mixture. He rubbed it on the back of his hand and sat waiting for a reaction.
Madame Olga’s next-door neighbour, Tony, noted that the police car stayed parked outside her house for almost an hour.
What he didn’t witness was the journey that Senior Constable Wilson was taking while being strapped securely into the driver’s seat of the stationary police car.
A FEW DAYS LATER.
“How did you get on with the cops?” said Tony, who was pulling out a piece of greenery from his front lawn. Tony doesn’t like things to be in the wrong place and on this morning, he took a dislike to a dandelion that had the cheek to grow in his lawn without an invitation.
Olga bent forward to see if the postman had left her any letters. She heard his noisy motorbike a bit earlier, and it sounded like he had stopped at her gate.
“They took away a sample of my elixir, apologising a lot, saying that some person thought I was selling LSD. I told them I don’t know what that is — which is not true, I do know,” said Olga holding back a chuckle.
“They haven’t taken you away in chains, so I guess they didn’t find anything?” said Tony.
“A nice cop phone me, say that it only Vicks and mint and something else they don’t know what, but definitely not illegal,” said Olga with a sense of satisfaction.
“So that’s it then. Did you find out who dobbed you in?”
“No, but nice cop said he wants a jar and could he have a few jars for the forensic staff and I said yes, I give them a special price and they are very happy.”
What if it was possible for you to see into your future? What if it was not as simple as seeing? What if you had to choose between a series of possible futures? Would you? Would you want To? How would you deal with all the possible consequences? Madame Olga could help you. That is if you can find her.
a very long short story
“So, why did you ring me. I’m no expert,” I said, with a hint of annoyance.
I’d been happily ensconced in front of my old computer which must surely turn up its toes and die, but for now, it is excellent for watching ‘big-screen movies’.
“You’re the smartest bloke I know, and besides, who else am I going to ring in the middle of the day? Everyone I know is at work,” said Thomas, my sometime friend.
“I was at work!” I said in a voice that was a bit too loud to suit the occasion, but I’m sick of people thinking that what I do isn’t work — even if I was watching a movie instead of painting.
“Yeah, I know, but you know what I mean — you are at home, and your boss isn’t going to yell at you if you stop working for an hour or two.”
He had a point. I’m my own boss — mostly because I’m too proud to work for someone who is obviously an idiot and that pretty much sums up most employers — in my extensive experience.
So, here I am, standing in Thomas’s lounge room. Thomas inherited the house from his mum, who died way too young, preceded by his dad, who died even younger. I always loved this house. Thomas and I would play for hours in this dark, carpeted room. Timber walls in need of varnish, rich tapestry curtains edging leadlight double-hung windows looking out onto the neighbour’s timber pailing fence, a few flowers poking their heads above the window sill. Thomas didn’t tend his mother’s garden, it just kept growing — a testament to his mother’s horticultural skill.
The two large parchments were spread out on the walnut dining table, the same one we built a slot car track on when we were kids. The table will seat eight people without anyone bumping elbows.
The page on the left was a bit more tattered. The sentences were written in red ink, probably using a wide nibbed calligraphy pen. The page on the right was in better condition, the sentences written in black ink using a similar width nib.
Despite the condition of both pages, the writing was crisp and clear, as though freshly written.
“Where did you get them?” I asked.
“Did a job for Jimmy over in Toorak.”
“Why didn’t Jimmy ring me. He knows I need the cash.”
“Everyone who works for Jimmy needs the cash,” said Thomas.
Jimmy runs a couple of business, all on a strict cash basis. I’ve worked for him for years, on and off. Jimmy’s companies clean offices and meatworks, and when the need arises, he clears houses for a Real Estate chain.
“Big place. Belonged to some bloke who diddled the banks. Took off and left everything. Some of it was choice.”
“How would you know?” I said. Jimmy usually called me in when there was a sniff of classy stuff. My family dealt in antiques, and some of the knowledge rubbed off on me.
“Everything was heavy.”
“That’s because good furniture is usually made from quality hardwoods, walnut, oak, teak, cedar,” I said. Some of those timbers aren’t exactly hardwoods, but Thomas wouldn’t know the difference, so why tell him.
“Shut up a minute and let me look at these things,” I said.
The parchment may have been old. Only a few tests would be able to date it, but the ink was much younger.
Beautifully written, each short sentence spelled out in capital letters. The sentences reminded me of those annoying posts on Facebook. The ‘motivational’ ones printed over pretty backgrounds. ‘Don’t eat carrots on a Friday’, ‘Be good to your mother, leave home’, that sort of thing.
I read each parchment several times and was none the wiser.
“You dragged me away from my work for this,” I said.
“I know they don’t look like much,” said Thomas staring at his hands.
“So why call me in?”
“Every morning, when I get up, I walk past them on my way to the toilet and every day the writing is different.”
“Different how?” I said.
“The sentences are different. Not the same as yesterday.”
“Have you been smoking anything unusual, Thomas?”
“Kicked the stuff, cold turkey, a couple of months ago,” said Thomas, which explained a lot. He had been quieter lately and didn’t say stupid things as often.
“Wow,” I said. Thomas had been smoking weird substances for most of his adult life. He always smelled sweet and a bit sickly. That smell was absent from his house and I only just realised it.
“It changes every day?” I said.
“When does it change?” I said.
“I don’t exactly know. I fall asleep when it gets dark. I try to stay awake, but I wake up, and it’s morning.”
“Where did you find them?”
“Well, to be exact, I didn’t. Buster did.”
Buster is Thomas’s dog. His IQ beats Thomas’s by about twenty points. Buster looks a lot like Snowy, Tin Tin’s dog from the classic Belgian comics. Buster goes everywhere Thomas goes.
“Upstairs in one of the spare bedrooms. The carpet was loose in one corner. It wasn’t part of the job to take up the carpet, only the loose rugs — mostly Persian. I was buggered, and we’d packed the truck. I thought I’d better give the place the once over to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. Buster was having a great time. I don’t always let him run around when we work, as you know. Some places are pig styes — broken bottles and sharp sticky things, but this house was pristine. Only a slight layer of dust due to the owner being away. He must have left in a hurry because we found dirty plates on the kitchen table and a cupboard full of sheets that were probably furniture covers, all neatly packed away.”
“So?” I said.
“Buster stayed with me as we went from room to room. I wasn’t paying close attention. It was obvious if the rooms were empty or not. The last room at the end of the hall was the smallest. The carpet was older than the rest of the house and Buster was very interested in one corner of the room. You know how well behaved he is when we do these jobs, well he was going nuts trying to get the carpet to fold back. I told him off and went over to see what he was up to. There they were. Dusty, but pretty much the way you see them.”
“Why didn’t you hand them in with the rest of the stuff?”
“I always keep something for myself. I thought they might be a treasure map or something.”
“Make us a cup of tea, and I’ll have another look at these things,” I said.
The parchments were curling up on the top and bottom edges, almost to the point where they needed something substantial placed on them to keep them flat. This seemed strange to me considering how long they must have been under the carpet.
At times, the sentences were nonsensical.
The red scroll seemed to be obsessed with clothing and how to wear it.
‘Turn your collar up when the wind doth blow.’
‘Button thy trousers carefully in the presence of a lady.’ A bloke definitely wrote that. I can see him checking his fly buttons before exiting the bathroom.
‘Never wear a large hat on a Sunday.’ Why not? What would happen if you did?
The black scroll seemed more interested in manners.
‘Pick not your nose on a sunny day.’
‘Pass not wind on an open staircase during the gloaming.’ What if you were about to explode? And when exactly does ‘the gloaming’ start and end?
Thomas came into the room carrying a tarnished silver tray with a chipped china teapot and a couple of mugs that probably came from one of the house clearings.
“Odd collection,” I said.
“What?” said Thomas.
“Never mind,” I said. “Have you written down what the scrolls have said on other days?”
“Not at first, but once I noticed they changed every day, I wrote them down.”
“Give me a look,” I said, and Thomas rifled through a drawer on the sideboard and produced a few pages of poorly written text.
“Don’t ever write a ransom note in longhand. They will definitely trace it back to you,” I said. Thomas got the inference. He looked hurt.
I read through the pages, and they made about as much sense as the current parchments.
A long silence.
“I’m buggered if I know what it all means,” I said. “Do you want to take Buster for a walk?” Buster instantly stood up at the mention of the magic word.
“Don’t you have to get back to work?” said Thomas.
“Nah, the day’s buggered now. Let’s walk.”
Buster was at the door, waiting expectantly. We gathered up his favourite treats and his lead and headed off into the wilds of suburbia. One of the black scroll inscriptions flashed into my head.
‘Don’t leave your wireless playing when you leave the house.’
“You don’t have the radio playing, do you, Thomas?”
“So, before we get started, can anyone force you to reveal what is said during our sessions, Dr Dre?”
“Yes ‘they’ can. If I think you are about to hurt yourself or someone else, I’m obliged to inform the authorities. Ditto, if I think you are about to commit a crime. Also, anyone can subpoena files for a civil or criminal trial. And, my name isn’t Dr Dre, it’s Dr Dredd. Some child stole both of the ‘d’s’ off my sign, and I haven’t gotten around to replacing them.”
“Thank you for clearing that up doctor. I’ll say good afternoon then.”
“But you haven’t finished your first free session,” said Dr Dredd.
“It’s okay, I’ll pass. You are no good to me Doc if anyone including a disgruntled plumber can access your files. I need someone who can keep their mouth shut,” said Susan.
“You mean like a priest. Are you Catholic, Ms Smith?”
“No, but I can spell ‘guilt’ “.
“Forgive me, father, for I have sinned. It has been a long time since my last confession (possibly I was a Catholic in a previous life?), and in recent years I discovered a doll that belonged to my grandmother,” said Susan on a sunny afternoon in an ornate church in South Melbourne.
Susan loved old churches, especially Catholic ones. She once convinced her school friend to smuggle her into a Sunday service. “Just do what I do and open and shut your mouth when the congregation is answering the priest. No one will notice.” It worked like a charm. From that day forward Susan wanted to be a Catholic until she found out what you were not allowed to do. Not drinking alcohol was bad enough, but not fooling around with boys was a bridge too far. “It’s okay,” said Susan’s Catholic friend, “you can let the boys have their wicked way with you on a Friday night and go to confession on a Saturday, and all is forgiven.”
“Confession?” said Susan.
“Yes. You see those doors over there,” she pointed to the carved wooden doors on either side of a similar sized room with a red velvet curtain drawn across, “the priest sits in the middle, and you kneel down and say the words, then tell him your sins and he gives you a penance, usually a few ‘Hail Marys’ and you are absolved.”
“What does ‘absolved’ mean?” said Susan.
“It means that you won’t go to hell if you get hit by a bus.”
“What if I go out and do stuff with boys on a Monday?”
“No worries. Just don’t get run over till Friday, tell the priest and you are right again. Best to keep the ‘boys’ stuff till later in the week. It cuts down on stress.”
“That’s fuckin’ brilliant,” said Susan.
“You’ll have to confess the swearing as well, don’t forget.”
“Fuck that,” said Susan.
“Do you want to be a fucking Catholic or what?” said Susan’s friend, “well learn the fuckin’ rules.”
“Owning your grandmother’s doll is not a sin,” said the young priest who had been at the South Melbourne parish for a bit less than a year. He just made it through ‘priest school’ having taken two leaves of absence.
“It might be a sin if I used the doll to start a secret life, stealing industrial secrets.”
There was a silence before Susan added, “You aren’t allowed to tell anyone any of this are you, father?”
“As long as I believe that you are truly repentant I absolve you of your sins, I cannot reveal anything that is told to me in confession.”
“The doll talks to me, and only me. She can talk to other people, but we try to keep that to a minimum. I have used her to record secrets, and she retells them to me. I’ve made a lot of money, and sometimes the wrong people get hurt, but mostly it’s the bad guys who get screwed, sorry father.”
“It’s okay, I’ve heard a lot worst. What do you do with the money?”
“I give some of it away. I buy diamonds with some of it and the rest I store in old shoe boxes. It’s not about the money, but having a lot of it is a lot of fun. Check the poor box when you get out of here. You might get a pleasant surprise,” said Susan.
“Why did you come here today? Are you ready to stop your sinful behaviour?”
“I came here because I had to tell someone. It is such an unbelievable secret that I cannot tell anyone. They’d either lock me up or steal what I have accumulated. I felt like I would explode if I didn’t tell someone.”
“It’s good to get things off your chest (father Michael felt strange for saying chest), but you must resolve to renounce your ways, or I cannot offer forgiveness.”
“Thank you, father. I feel a lot better knowing that someone else knows about my keeper of secrets.”
Father Micheal told Susan what her penance was and gave her his blessing, but after he said, ‘go now and sin no more’, he expected to hear the usual sounds of someone gathering themselves up and leaving the confessional, but there was only a profound silence.
“Hello?” said father, Michael.
Leaving silently and unrecognised was a skill that Susan had mastered.
“I’m sorry Mr Bennett,” she didn’t look that sorry, “but a shared sleeper is all we have left. If you must travel on that day, you will have to share. If you can put your trip off for a day or two you can have your pick of the solo cabins — they are more expensive, of course.”
“I have to be there on Friday, so it has to be the overnight train on Thursday. I’ll take the ticket, but tell them to stock up on decent whisky. I’m going to need it, and so is my sleep buddy,” said Sam
“You will have some time to yourself because your fellow passenger won’t be boarding until Ararat.”
That’s a few hours of peace, thought Sam, who was looking forward to reading the new Michael Robotham novel he purchased just for this journey.
The Overland sat quietly at platform 2, waiting for its passengers.
Train travellers are an interesting bunch. Many of Sam’s fellow passengers shared his dislike of planes and airports.
Trains rarely involve a full body cavity search, lack of legroom, surely security and godawful food.
The Overland, beautiful named, is a throwback to a time when people travelled for adventure, and the cost was not the top priority.
The train company asks that passengers arrive thirty minutes before departure. They are met by a company employee dressed appropriately, including a wide-brimmed Akubra. Passengers wait patiently next to their assigned carriage until the porter opens the doors. Find your cabin, stow your bags and head for the bar, maybe a snack. The evening meal is delivered to your room and so is breakfast, but a man needs snacks and a stiff drink.
Sam chose the upper bunk — first in first served.
He opened his book but decided to enjoy the view. In a few short hours, darkness will descend.
The hustle and bustle of Spenser Street station at peak hour provides lots to look at. City workers heading home. Their tired countenance is even more disturbing than their morning gaze.
Suburban, country and interstate trains all share this massive station.
The train sounded its horn and slowly pulled out, right on time.
“If Mussolini were alive, he would be proud,” said Sam to himself. Right-wing arseholes are obsessed with trains running on time.
The train travelled slowly as it negotiated the rail yards with its twists and turns. The wheels and bogies complained loudly at the frequent changes of direction.
The train travels slowly for the first hour until it clears the suburbs of Melbourne. Some would say that the view is uninspiring, but Sam enjoyed the sometimes rusty and occasionally grubby nature of these old industrial suburbs. They reminded him of his childhood. His father worked skillfully with his hands, and on rare occasions, Sam was allowed to accompany him to work on weekends, when the bosses weren’t around.
Rust has its own distinctive aroma as do grease and dust and sweat, all ingredients of a working-class employment.
Once in open country, the train accelerates, and Geelong approaches rapidly.
Past Geelong and the country flattens out. The early settlers called it ‘Pleurisy Plains’. Anyone venturing out during the areas vicious gales was sure to contract the infection.
The flatness comes about because it is a larval plain. The local Aborigines have lived here for so long that their oral history talks about the distant volcano erupting some twenty thousand years ago.
Through the gloaming, Sam could just see Mount Elephant — its indigenous name is ‘Hill of Fire’.
It was getting harder to see the countryside as the train pulled into Ararat.
The massive, now empty, rail yards looked like an old car park that no one used anymore. All a bit grim.
There was a country train on the other platform as Sam’s train pulled in. The passengers gazed at his train, no doubt wondering where it was headed and what the passengers were headed to.
After the train pulls out of Ararat, a strange thing happens. The mileage signpost suddenly drops about 30 miles. After asking the porter, Sam found out that the interstate train travels a longer route to get to Ararat than the regional line. So now they are on that track. Sam wondered who thought that going the long way was a good idea, but why people do the things they do, gives Sam a headache.
Sam’s cabin mate did not appear, and the train had been travelling for long enough for him (he assumed it was a him — even these days, Sam could not imagine a woman wanting to share a cabin with a strange man) to have found the right sleeper berth.
The first part of Sam’s journey had been peaceful, so why worry about the fate of his fellow traveller.
Sam climbed onto his bunk and read his book, but soon turned out the light and snuggled under the covers. The rolling motion is a cure for most people’s insomnia.
He was facing the door when it opened, and a medium height man wearing an overcoat padded into the cabin. He left the door slightly open, which allowed a subdued amount of light to penetrate the darkness. Sam had not pulled the blinds, but on a moonless night, there is only pitch black in the Australian outback.
The new passenger took off his coat, revealing a crumpled suit with no tie. The man was travelling with only a small bag. He reached into the side pocket of the bag and produced a bundle wrapped in an old cloth. The bundle went out the window, and the sound of rushing air diminished when the man closed it and climbed onto his bunk. He didn’t snore, but before long Sam could hear the sound of heaving breathing.
That same rhythmic breathing was still to be heard when Sam woke instinctively as the porter knocked on his door, breakfast trays in hand.
“Thanks, mate, I’ll take those,” said Sam and the porter did not glance nor comment on Sams lack of suitable attire. Porters see it all on sleeper trains.
Sam put the tray for the mystery traveller on the small table and his tray on the bunk. He managed to climb up without putting his foot in his breakfast. He was pleased with this achievement and proceeded to consume his eggs and toast while unfolding the newspaper. Somewhere, the train had picked up the early edition of the Adelaide Advertiser, which seemed fair as they were closer to Adelaide than Melbourne, but Sam would have prefered the Melbourne Age, even if it was a bit hard to unfold at this hour of the day.
The articles rolled out the usual tales of local and international mayhem, which surprised Sam because, from his experience, people in Adelaide didn’t know there was an outside world, apart from Melbourne which they hated. Forever in its shadow, Adelaide folk take any chance to compare themselves favourably, usually around Australia’s favourite religion, sport.
One item caught Sam’s eye.
There had been a shooting in Ararat.
A young husband had come home from work and found his wife in the arms of her lover, a small-time gangster from Melbourne. There was a photograph showing the front of a house illuminated by police floodlights. A neighbour, dressed in her dressing gown said that it had been going on for months and she felt sorry for the husband, “Such a nice young man. Works all the hours that God sends. Gets home late after commuting to Melbourne. He deserved better than her, God rest her soul.”
The wife died in the arms of her lover, and the lover was in a critical condition. The writer alluded, ever so subtly, that even if he did survive, his philandering days were over.
The husband and his Great War revolver were still missing when the paper went to print. The gun came back from France with his grandfather. A Webley six-shot revolver, an officer’s weapon.
The passenger’s tray was untouched when Sam climbed down, washed, dressed and waited for the train to pull into Adelaide Parklands Terminal.
Sam will need a taxi because for some reason they built the terminal away from the city, which means that it does not go to the beautiful old Adelaide Station.
Sam wasn’t trying to be quiet as he performed his preparations for arrival, but the passenger did not wake.
When the porter came for the trays, Sam told him to come back as late as possible, “This bloke needs his sleep. He’s had a rough time. Don’t wake him till you absolutely have to.” Sam slipped the porter a ‘fifty’. The porter smiled and promised. Sam made a note to add the ‘fifty’ to his client’s bill. The rich buggers can afford it.
Sam didn’t mind having a train trip to Adelaide, but all his business could have been handled by email or on the phone, but this law firm only wanted face to face meetings. It seems that they don’t trust computers. Their bill was going to be huge, but they didn’t seem to mind.
The taxi was waiting when Sam stepped out of the station, the air as hot and dry as he remembered.
“City, please driver. Rundle Mall,” said Sam.
“Might take a bit longer at this hour mate, peak hour and everything,” said the driver.
Sam laughed, “I’ve seen your ‘peak hour’ son. It lasts about ten minutes.”
Usually, Sam would have reminded the driver of what was likely to happen to him if he did the old trick of driving ‘the long way around’, a popular ploy of taxi drivers worldwide when they sensed an ‘out of towner’, but on this trip, Sam didn’t care. It was all on his client’s account.
“Just make sure I get a receipt and don’t get greedy,” said Sam.
The passenger woke to the sound of the porter and his gentle nudge.
“Sorry, sir. I left it as long as I could as per your friend’s instructions.”
“What friend?” said the sleepy man with the ruffled suit.
“The one you shared the cabin with,” said the porter, “he left this for you.”
The porter handed him a postcard with a photograph of The Overlander crossing Australia’s longest rail viaduct, just outside Geelong. On the back, written in a clean hand with a newly sharpened pencil were these words:
Dear Mr Park. I’m sorry your missus cheated on you. I know your heart is broken and I know that you will come to regret what you have done, but I do understand. A bloke can only take so much, and betrayal is about as bad as it gets.
It’s not my job to turn you in, but if you hurt anyone else I will come and find you, and you will regret breaking my trust.
P.S. I hope you took the remaining bullets out of the gun before you threw it out of the window.
Keep your head down and don’t make me regret my decision.
It was my mother’s idea.
Mum was never short on ideas, bless her soul.
Somehow, she had found out that no one in our family had ever had their portrait painted, which didn’t surprise me. In our world, only rich people had the spare change to pay for a portrait painter. We had more significant problems, like food and electricity and dog biscuits if it came to that.
Which brings me to Eric. Eric the dog.
He doesn’t like to miss out on stuff.
Mum suggested that my new business venture, supplying rich people with household staff who could also play a musical instrument (more of this a bit later), could use a boost. “Imagine the impact on your prospective client when they come into your office and see a portrait of you, done in oils.”
The idea appealed to me. Despite my left wing leanings on most subjects, I’ve always liked the trappings of wealth and privilege.
Eric, on the other hand, just likes being where I am, doing what I’m doing.
So, when it came time to travel to the city for my first sitting, Eric wanted to go as well. He had no idea where we were going or that it involved a trip on the number 12 tram and even if I had explained to him that he would probably have to sit quietly in some outer office for more than an hour, he would still have liked to come — that’s Eric. He does not want to miss out.
“I like your dog,” said a delightful creature in a chiffon dress.
“And I’m pretty sure he likes you too,” I said facetiously.
“How can you tell?” said the delightful creature, who was in danger of catching cold, as my mother would have said.
For a moment, I thought she was kidding, but it turned out that she had left what remained of her intelligence in her other purse.
I have to say that I took advantage of the situation and we were going to be getting off the tram presently.
“I know, he speaks quite softly. I’ll get him to say it again, only a bit louder,” I said.
“I saw his lips move, but I didn’t hear anything. What did he say?” said the scantily clad creature.
“He phrased it differently, but the sentiment was the same. Oh, and he added a bit.”
“Yes. He reiterated his liking for you and suggested that if you were a dog, he would suggest a mating session — doggy style, of course.”
The beautiful creature blushed and stroked Eric on the head.
I love being out with Eric.
The artist studio was in an apartment on Little Collins Street, a costly part of town. Based on his fee, I could see how he was able to afford this address.
I expected his secretary — (yes he had a secretary, and I wondered what she did all day), to ask me to leave Eric with her.
I wondered what they would talk about.
As it turned out, the artist squealed like a little girl when he saw Eric.
“The dog is, how shall I put it, perfect!”
So that was that. Eric is now part of the company, and it has to be said that he gets more attention than I do, especially since we started using the portrait in our advertising campaign.
Eric has his own section on our website, and we share a secretary so that he has his fan mail answered.
You are probably still wondering about the ‘could also play a musical instrument’ bit.
Well, the idea has been around for a while, and it all started with an old interview with a famous Scandinavian film director who has his own production company. In a throwaway line, he said that he would not employ a lawyer who did not play a musical instrument. Considering how many lawyers a film production company would need, the interviewer tried to pursue the point. No one has ever been able to find out if the director was just outrageous for the sake of it or if he was serious. For our purpose, it does not matter, because the press picked up on it again many years later, and so did the people who like to design personality tests. The best selling book, “And Can You Play A Musical Instrument?”, established the idea in people’s heads and you know what happens when people get an idea into their heads — it stays there, and no amount of logic will shift it.
So, God help any domestic servant who is looking for employment without the ability to at least pound out ‘Chopsticks’ on a piano.
Sitting for a portrait is not as much fun as you might think. My neck got a crick in it, and my arm ached from hanging on to Eric. Eric wasn’t any too pleased either. He wasn’t having it, so I had to hang on to a cushion for most of the session.
I was happy when it was done, and I loved how the painting came out, and as with childbirth, I forgot about the pain.
There is talk of doing another one every five years so that we will end up with a bunch of them showing the permanency of the business, but I’m sure I can think up an excuse to not be available for the next one, and Eric agrees.
Image: Aaron Westerberg
Claudine thought it was an unusual name for a cafe, but my mind was on other things.
“You didn’t tell me I had to wear a hat,” said Claudine. Her mouth worked faster than her brain, and at times it was endearing and at other times not so much.
“It’s not like an entry requirement or anything. It’s just a gimmick, and you know how cashed up city types are — anything for a giggle,” I said while scanning the room for potential trouble. The only potential problem was the bloke wearing braces and a belt. Probably got ‘dacked’ when he was at school, and never got over it. A six-figure salary with bonuses and he’s afraid his pants will fall down. Then again, I’m wearing a red waistcoat with stripes, so who am I to give fashion advice?
“Even so, I’ve got a cute hat I bought at a Thrift Shop. I’ve been dying to try it out.”
“I’ll tell you what, if you stop talking about hats I’ll bring you back here next Friday night and you can show off your millinery to your heart’s content — deal?”
“Deal,” said Claudine, but I could see that she still had more to contribute to the subject, but the thought of a night out ‘all expenses paid’ was too good to pass up, so she gently closed her beautiful mouth and began thinking of another subject — at least that’s what I think she was doing. I was watching the woman with the pyramid earrings.
The cafe was packed with bright young things all semi-drunk after a tough week of playing with other people’s money. The decibel level was beyond the point where a Heavy Metal Band would tell us to keep it down — no chance of hearing what Ms Earrings was saying even though I was close enough to reach out and touch her.
“Step back and bump into her. Let’s see what she does and let’s see who notices,” I said.
“Bump into who?” said Claudine.
“The woman behind you. Purple hat, big earrings.”
Claudine looked over her shoulder and took a step back. Her bump never eventuated because she stepped on the woman’s foot and in her haste to ‘unstep’ she emptied the remains of her Gin and Tonic on Purple Hat and Big Earrings dress.
Claudine was mortified, and even though I couldn’t hear over the din, it seemed that she was apologising and encouraging the woman to head for the Ladies.
I wasn’t game to follow, but I imagined them removing the dress, washing it under the tap and running it under the electric hand dryer. The whole process would take about eight to ten minutes based on my own experience of spilling soy sauce on my pants at the Chinese on the High Street last Easter. I took it as a punishment from God for eating out at a Chinese Restuarant on Good Friday.
I scanned the room, but no one except the woman she was talking to took any interest so I could relax just a bit.
Eight minutes means I have time for another drink.
Right on cue, the two women emerged from the toilets with Big Earrings giving her dress a final straighten.
When Claudine got back to where I was standing, I leaned in close and said, “That was a bit more than I expected.”
“She wears very expensive underwear, she’s not a bit shy, and the colour in her dress didn’t run, even though it should have. Purple is notoriously hard to make fast. Oh, yes, and she slipped away from her minders, ‘I can’t breathe with those goons watching me all the time. Has your fella got a friend? I’ve been living like a nun for the past few weeks, and I could really use a bloody good…”
“Okay, I get the point. Lean over and tell her, yes. I’ll make a call. My boss is going to wet himself when I tell him she fell into my arms without her close support.”
I stepped outside to make the call, and I’m sure I heard my boss squeal like a little girl.
He said he could be there in ten minutes and gave a brief rundown of what he would do to me if I were winding him up. I assured him I wasn’t.
I walked back into the cafe, and the two women were gone and so was the bloke in the braces and belt.
I know Claudine will have an excellent story to tell when I catch up with her, but for now, I needed to exit the building.
I’ll explain it all to my boss once I find out where they went and when he has had time to calm down and dry off his pants.
Claudine may call me later tonight or in the morning, and she may still have Big Earrings without her escort, but I doubt it. Life is never that easy. The Universe is never that kind.
I’ll catch up to Big Earrings eventually, and I’ll find out what she knows — I’m good at my job.
In the meantime, I’m going to buy a hat.
I loved her the first time I saw her, and that’s all you need to know.
She had hair the colour of rich Belgian chocolate, and recently cut it shorter only to grow it longer again, just for me. A short stay in hospital had left her looking a little pale, and her lack of makeup was not disguising her beautiful complexion. She smiled at me and spoke enthusiastically about different coloured foods. She didn’t see me, not really, and I was determined to change that. Nothing was more important in my life. She was wearing an exquisite gown that showed the curves of her petite body to perfection. She left early with her friends, and I sat in a daze, wondering what had just happened.
It was Scarlett Holmyard who triggered my fitful imagination. It was Scarlett Holmyard who gave my life meaning when things were at their darkest.
I still have the souvenirs. Random memories that, if you put them all together would look like the remnants of a shredded photo album. Fragments of photographs are floating on the water or stuffed down the side of a sofa. Each piece tells a story of adventure, close encounters, triumphs and pure excitement.
I cannot explain the feelings I have when recalling them — the frustration, the hope, the confusion, the anger. Scarlett is the most important person in my life, but I don’t know that yet. She’s that person that you catch sight of out of the corner of your eye. She’s the one whose name you struggle to remember, the torn photograph with not enough detail. She is my nameless champion, my never wavering hero, and I’m the one who is doggedly searching for her.