A Sam Bennett story
“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.
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.
“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?
It wasn’t murder, not really.
Whatever it was, I needed to keep a low profile for a while.
At least until the dust settled.
Does dust ever settle? Someone always stirs it up.
Keeping my head down was a good idea, but where? I’m a predictable young bloke. I like the places I like, and I tend to end up there sooner or later. So, if someone was looking for me, I would not be that hard to find.
I needed advice, and my grandmother was very good at hiding in plain sight, back in the day. You would never think so to look at her now.
People underestimate her now.
She spent three years in an occupied country doing her bit. She got caught once and talked her way out of trouble. Think about that. How cool do you have to be to be young, female, in trouble and talk your way out of it?
Seriously cool, my grandma.
I could probably hang out at her house, play video games, watch movies and help her with the garden, but I know I would get bored and do something stupid — I’m good at stupid.
I sat at grandma’s kitchen table, as I had done many times growing up. I used to bring my mates to her house on my way home from school. Cake was always available and soft drinks. Grandma always knew the hungry ones, the ones who didn’t get enough to eat at home.
“Have another piece. It’ll only go to waste if you don’t eat it.”
No, it wouldn’t, I’d be thinking.
The sun was coming in through the window and splashing onto the edge of the table. I held onto my mug of tea the way girls do when they are trying to get warm.
“I didn’t have any choice, Grandma. It was him or me.”
Grandma didn’t speak, she just stared at her mug of tea. Grandma never drank from cups, even though she had some fine ones. “You never get enough in a cup, and you end up refilling it over and over.” Grandma was not one for wasting energy.
After several minutes, she applied words to her thoughts.
“You can stay here with me until this is resolved.”
I took a long breath out. I knew she would look after me.
“I have an old friend who runs a nursing home and hospice. I’ll ask if you can help her. I’ll tell her you are considering becoming a nurse and need the experience. The old men will welcome having a man to talk to, and the old ladies will be dazzled by your handsome face.”
I tried not to blush.
This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for my forced isolation, but it will while away the time. Old people don’t frighten me.
Two days later, and I’m shaking hands with Ethel, my grandma’s friend. We were standing in the foyer of a modern building, the light streaming in behind me illuminating Ethel’s face. She seemed kind and determined. The sort of person you would follow just to see where she was going.
“You must be Stephen. Your grandma said you wanted to have some practical experience to add to your nursing application?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Are you planning to specialise in geriatric nursing?”
“I think so.”
“Come, and we will get you a uniform. You can do a few jobs for me. Basic stuff. You are not too proud to do a bit of cleaning, are you Stephen?”
“I’m here to help and to learn.”
“Good. Most of your work will be talking to our residents. Most of them will be happy to have someone new to tell their stories to. They will want to know a bit about you as well.”
Not too much, I hope.
“I can do that.”
The ‘uniform’ turned out to be a set of scrubs with the name of the centre embroidered on the breast. Pale green and they suited me. I never thought much about what colours suit me.
On my fifth day, I was playing chess with Mr Johnston (always call the residents by their last name — it’s a sign of respect, they come from a different generation), when I saw Ethel, Mrs Wilson, walk briskly by the door — the staff never run, it upsets the residents.
“That must be for Billy,” said Mr Johnston. “He’s near the end. I’m going to miss the old bugger.”
“It’s your move Mr Johnston,” I said.
“Don’t feel much like playing, young fella. Need to be on my own.” Mr Johnstone got up and walked back in the direction of his room. I walked out too. I wanted to see what was going on.
I stood in the doorway to Billy Madison’s room. It felt like the air was thicker in there. I hesitated to break the invisible barrier.
“Come closer, Stephen. Mr Madison is leaving us.”
I stepped forward as I was told and watched as the nurse spoke gently to Billy Madison.
“You can go now, Billy. We are here with you. You are not alone.”
Billy Madison breathed his last few laboured breaths, sighed and was still.
This was only the second time I had watched someone die, and the emotion was quite different this time.
“We were with him when he died, which is what we promised him. Now we will prepare his body for the undertaker, and you can help.”
Ethel looked at me as though she expected me to run. I didn’t. Death does not frighten me, it’s living that scares the shit out of me.
“So how was your first week?” said my grandma as she put a load of fresh scones on the table.
“It was fascinating, but I’m glad to have a day off. It’s quite hard when someone you are just getting to know dies in front of you.”
I reached for the butter and the jam as my grandma put the whipped cream on the table.
“How long have you been making scones, grandma?”
“Too long to contemplate. My grandma taught me.”
“Why do your scones taste better than anyone else’s? Don’t tell mum I said that.”
“A secret ingredient,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
“It’s been a week for secrets. I was sitting with a woman just the other day, and she told me a story that only a person who was facing the end of their life could tell.”
“I’ll make a fresh pot of tea, and you can tell me all about it.”
For the first time, I’m not very bright, it has to be said, I realised that my grandma too was at the end of her life. It never entered my mind that she would someday, not be here.
“Well, her story started the day she brought a new wheelbarrow. A red one,” I said as I stuffed the last piece of the scone I had been eating, into my mouth.
“I’ll tell it to you the way she told it to me.”
Without it, I would not have been able to move the body.
I’d always taken it for granted — the wheelbarrow, not the dead body.
It had always been there, leaning up against the shed or sitting quietly, filled with weeds or split fire-wood — just waiting for the task to be completed.
It was ‘on special’ at the hardware store on the high street.
The shop went out of business not long after, but I remember the wheelbarrows all lined up outside with a huge sign saying how much they were and how much I would be saving if I bought one.
The sign had the desired effect.
I’d needed a wheelbarrow for some time, and the first one in the stack was red.
The gentleman who served me was happy to make the sale but worried about how I was going to get it home.
“Have you got a ‘ute’ lady?”
“No, why? Is it a requirement for owning a wheelbarrow?”
He looked at me for a moment. I could tell that he was wondering if I was ‘winding him up’.
He decided that I was.
“No, but she’s a big bugger, and she probably won’t fit across the back seat of your car.”
“I don’t own a car. I walked here, and I’m planning to drive her home. I’ll park her outside the supermarket and load her up with my weekly shopping, and away I go.”
“Fair enough, but she really is a bloody big wheelbarrow. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a smaller one? You can still give the grand-kiddies a ride in a smaller one. The one you picked is big enough to fit a large dead body in.”
He must have thought that he had gone a bit too far because he looked up and gave an embarrassed smile. I wasn’t worried about the ‘dead body’ crack, but I was considering running over his foot for the grandmother comment.
“Is the smaller wheelbarrow on special as well?” I said.
“No, just these huge industrial buggers that I got stuck with when I bought the business.”
“Well then; I have the right barrow, don’t I?”
I smiled and staggered off down the footpath scattering pedestrians in my wake.
I didn’t stop to buy groceries; that was just me ‘getting carried away’ with the hardware store owner.
Every time I go past his old shop, I wonder what happened to him.
His shop became a Noodle Shop, then a $2 Shop, then a Tattoo Parlour, then a Bakery, then an empty shop with a strange collection of bits and pieces lying in the middle of the tiled floor.
It looked like someone had swept up after the last tenants, and never came back to throw out the collection of flotsam.
I’ve always wondered what the orange penis-shaped thing was.
I’m sure that it’s not an orange penis, but there has never been anyone at the shop for me to ask; which is just as well because I think I would be too embarrassed to make that particular enquiry.
Gardening is not my favourite pastime, but since my husband died, I have had to work up the enthusiasm.
Bill was the love of my life, and I miss him so very much.
He left me suddenly — an industrial accident. Everyone was very kind, especially his business partner Ambrose Kruis.
Bill and Ambrose built the business up from nothing, and when Bill died, Ambrose inherited the company; it was part of their partnership agreement. I understood; I wasn’t upset. They were engaged in high-risk construction, and if one of the partners died, it would put the whole business in jeopardy, so it was only fair that the surviving partner benefit.
It also explained the massive payout that Ambrose received as a result of the ‘partners insurance’.
He was not under any obligation, but he helped me anyway.
He knew that Bill put all his capital into the business and consequently, there wasn’t any life insurance.
I had some savings, but they were for a ‘rainy day’, as Bill used to say.
Ambrose was very generous when the roof needed replacing and when the plumbing packed it in.
I knew that I could not rely on him forever, but up until I made a surprise visit to his office, he had looked after me financially.
I arrived early on a Wednesday morning, and his secretary let me wait in his office. “He won’t be long. He’s at a breakfast meeting with the bankers.”
I decided to make the most of my time and write a couple of letters.
I do send emails, but I still prefer the personal touch of sending a letter.
I stepped behind what used to be Bill’s desk and opened the top drawer looking for notepaper.
Two more drawers were opened before I found some, and that’s not all that I found.
The writing paper was not lying flat in the drawer.
There seemed to be something small and bulky under the ream of paper. I removed the paper, and the sunlight coming in low through the office window reflected off the polished silver surface of an antique Victorian hip flask.
You might be wondering why I knew what it was.
I’d given this flask to my husband on our wedding night.
It belonged to my grandfather.
He was some twenty-years-old when he bought it upon arriving in England in 1915.
He was a young Lieutenant on his way to the front.
The flask saw a lot of action, and no doubt helped to dull the terror that trench warfare brought to all those involved.
I recognised the flask from the inscription and by the dent on the top corner. It was caused by a German sniper’s bullet.
After surviving at the front for all those years, one moment of lost concentration and my grandfather’s war came to an end, only months from the close of hostilities.
The notice of his death arrived on the day that the Armistice took effect.
The flask was returned to the family along with his other belongings.
Obviously, I was aware that the flask was missing from my husband’s effects, but I put it out of my mind. He had it with him on the day he died; he always had it with him.
I’m not that bright, but I didn’t need a degree in Physics to figure out that something was terribly wrong.
Ambrose had murdered my husband so that he could get control of the company and collect the insurance. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was all about the insurance and he probably expected to sell the failing business for the value of its component parts. But, to his surprise, the company survived, mainly because my husband had set it up well and the business had an excellent reputation. Its employees loved him and worked their arses off to keep the company going.
It helped that Ambrose was a bit of a womaniser and that he would often disappear for several days at a time when he was on a ‘bender’.
I invited him around to the house for a meal — something that I had done a dozen times.
During the dessert course, I excused myself, “Just need to visit the ladies room.” I came back with an old shovel that my husband used to dig the veggie patch — the irony was not lost on me.
I struck Ambrose twice on the back of the head. He went down, and apart from his lemon-meringue-pie landing on the floor, he did not make much of a mess.
Moving the body proved to be a bit of a chore, but the trusty red wheelbarrow was up to the task.
I didn’t own a car, so Ambrose was going to have to travel in the wheelbarrow for the two-kilometre ride to the construction site that Ambrose’s business owned. There was a concrete pour scheduled for the morning.
I’m not sure what I would have said if someone had stopped me, and I’m pretty sure that I looked hilarious as I struggled along with this huge red wheelbarrow filled with an Ambrose.
I was utterly exhausted when I got him there and dumped him into a pit and covered him with gravel, but I still had to get the wheelbarrow back to my house without being seen.
I was in the lap of the gods on both halves of this deadly journey, but the gods smiled on me, and I made it safely home.
I slept for fifteen hours straight.
I cleaned up the blood and the lemon-meringue-pie when I woke up and waited for the police to arrive.
They never did, and what’s more, it turned out that the partnership agreement had a clause covering the eventuality of both partners dying within ten years of each other.
The business went equally to the wives of the partners.
Ambrose wasn’t married.
I had to wait seven years before Ambrose was declared dead, but I didn’t mind — the money and the business weren’t the points.
That old red wheelbarrow is very ancient. Rust and a little red paint are about the only things holding it together now, but there is absolutely no way I am ever going to throw it away.
Every time I look at it, I’m reminded of everything I’ve lost and also of the revenge that was mine to take.
So much depends on a red wheelbarrow.
My grandma looked up from her cup of tea.
“Never underestimate an old lady,” she said. “Another scone dear?”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
The day was unexceptional except for closing a huge deal with a famous investor.
He could have stolen my invention; I didn’t have the capital to pursue him in the courts. I was acting on faith (I know, stupid, right?). J. P. Moneybags was true to his word and decided to stump up the monstrous capital needed to bring my invention to production.
He gets 95% of the profits, and I get 5%. But that’s not as bad as it sounds because the patent is in my name.
5% of a lot of money is, well, a lot of money.
My needs are small, but my curiosity is insatiable, and that’s where it all started — my insatiable curiosity.
We needed a photo to mark the occasion. I could have shot it on my phone camera, but I wanted a chance to handle the fantastic camera my benefactor had lying on his office desk.
“May I?” I said, and he smiled.
“Do you think you can handle it?” said Moneybags.
I knew enough about digital cameras to know that there are way too many dials. I come from a time where we put film in cameras and, it has to be said, you needed to know a bit about shutter speeds and iris settings, but it wasn’t that hard.
“When was the last time you used it?” I asked.
“Earlier today. My secretary is having a birthday.”
“Did the shot come out well?”
“Yes, it did. Perfect, in fact.”
“Good, then the current settings will work fine. I can always tweak it a bit when you send me the photo.”
I grabbed the camera, found the command for a timed shot, scrambled across the room, held up my invention while standing next to J. P. Moneybags and his lawyer.
Click, flash, and it was done.
I handed Moneybags my card with my email address underlined, “When you get a moment, send it here,” I pointed to the spot on my card and Moneybags ignored me.
I wondered if I would get the photo, but it was in my inbox as soon as I woke up the next morning.
No matter what I tried, the file would not open. I regretted my decision not to take a backup shot on my phone.
At the end of a hectic day, I rang a friend, Michael, who knows a lot about computer files, “Can I send it over and see what you can do with it. I wouldn’t bother you but it’s an important photo,” I said brushing a piece of confetti out of my hair from the celebrations at work.
“No, worries; send it over.”
I parked the car outside Michael’s house on his leafy street — well lit and looking like a set from a 50s sitcom.
Michael opened the door when he saw me pull up. I hoped he didn’t offer me a drink because I didn’t think I’d make it home if he did.
“Mary is off at some book group or other, so we have the place to ourselves.”
Michael ushered me in with his usual flourish.
I’m out on my feet, and he’s just getting started. I’m buggered if I know where he gets his energy from.
“The kids?” I said.
“Asleep,” said Michael and I wished I was, asleep that is and not with his kids — they drive me crazy. One of them tried to push a crayon up my nose when I fell asleep at their Christmas barbecue. He learned a few new words that day.
“I’ve been working on the file, come and have a look,” said Micheal leading the way to his basement — his inner sanctum.
“It’s a photo file alright, and it’s a good thing you mentioned it otherwise I would have been at it all night. There’s a jpeg in there, but it’s protected by a folder I’ve never seen before. Cracked it, but. I rule.”
He does rule; it’s true. I’d follow him if he decided to be a king.
“Where were you when you took this. I thought you said you were in the financial district?”
“We were,” I said.
“As you know, (I didn’t) there’s all kinds of stuff embedded into a photo assuming that it is a modern camera, and it comes up as data if you know where to look. GPS data tells you where you were when the shot was taken (I did know that), but this is precise data — military-grade information. The kind of shit that drone pilots use to put out a cigarette and the bloke who is smoking it, on the other side of the world.”
“Holy shit,” was all I could think of to say.
“Where you say you were and where the photo says you were is about twenty kilometres apart. A swish new apartment block. Second floor up, south-east corner, in the middle of the room.”
“Does it say what colour my underpants were,” I said.
Michael checked the data, which made me nervous and said, “No.”
“Can you write that address down for me?”
Michael wrote it on an envelope which had the Pentagon as a return address.
“Really?” I said as I waved the envelope at him.
Michael laughed. “Just a friend I knew from my college days, remember that exchange student thing I went on?” (I did)
“He does that because he knows I will get a kick out of getting a letter from the Pentagon. And it might impress my friends.”
“It did,” I said.
We chatted about family and friends and work because I didn’t want him to think that I only called when I wanted something. I’m not sure that I fooled him, but I did find out that his youngest (remember the crayon incident?) is good with numbers and likes to climb trees but has no idea how to climb down. That revelation made me like this kid a little more than I had.
My eyes were in danger of closing, and I still had to drive home, so I made my leave and headed for my car.
“You have a good life, Micheal; you know that, don’t you?” I said, and Micheal agreed that his life was amazing.
As I drove off, I heard my phone ding and saw the photo file appear.
Tomorrow would be time enough to look at it and maybe check out that phantom address — for that’s what I was confident it was, a phantom, a rare mistake from a system that does not make mistakes.
I slept late, rang the office while I was having a pee, “What’s that noise?” said my secretary. “Just washing some veggies before making juice,” I said. “You had better not be talking to me while urinating,” said my secretary. “As if I would,” I said. I juggled my phone with one hand and zipped up my fly with the other. “That sounded like a zipper,” said my secretary, sounding ever more hysterical. “No, just grating some lemon zest,” I said while wondering why I was tap dancing around my secretary — like she never makes calls on the toilet.
She assured me that the office would be fine without me for a day, and I felt a little letdown.
“See you tomorrow,” I said, before flushing.
The apartment building was indeed ‘swish’ as Michael and Google had predicted.
I pushed the button for what I assumed was the right apartment, and nothing happened. So, I did what I had seen on TV, I pushed all the buttons, and finally, the security door buzzed and clicked open. Thank goodness for midday pizza delivery.
I skipped the chrome and glass elevator and headed for the stairs. The foyer was clean and bright, and an original oil painting was fading in the sunlight on the wall. I touched the frame as I walked by, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it was a good luck thing. I’m sure I’ve seen Bruce Willis do it in a movie.
The white marble stairs gave a satisfying click under my heals. The dark timber polished handrails felt pleasant to the touch, and I ran my hand over them as I climbed.
A large 2B sign was on the door at the top of the stairs, and I watched the ornate 1930s style peephole to see if anyone looked out after I buzzed.
The thick timber door swung open, and there stood another me.
He wasn’t dressed the way I would dress, but if he climbed into my clothes, he would pass as me. He didn’t look at all surprised to be looking at his double, while I was lost for words.
“Can I help you,” my other said, and he sounded like me.
“This is going to sound a bit strange, but how long have you lived here?” My ‘other’ seemed confused by the question.
“Forever, I guess. Not sure exactly. Is it important?”
“Not really, I was just wondering,” I said.
“Come in, let’s be comfortable while you wonder.”
The apartment was spectacular. Like something that Buzby Berkley would have designed. It took my breath away. A building on the other side of the street obstructed the view just enough to be annoying, but even so, the outlook was pleasant.
“Do you live here alone?” I asked, and I expected him to be annoyed by my questions.
“No. There are two other fellows who I share with.”
“For how long?”
“Oh, forever,” he said in a dreamy tone.
“Where are they now?”
“Oh, Peter is in his room, but Jason went out a while ago. He’s very successful,” said my ‘other’.
“Yes, please,” I said. “Scotch, if you have it.”
“I do like a man who isn’t frightened to drink during the day.”
Drink was the least frightening thing in my world at that moment.
“Oh, Peter, this is …”
“Sebastian,” I said and there before me was an exact copy of the lawyer from Moneybags office. He put out his hand, and I shook it.
“Your other friend, Jason. Is he older, grey hair sounds like a walrus when he talks.”
“Why, yes he does.”
“How long have you blokes know each other?” I asked.
“Forever,” they said in unison.
“Can you remember last Friday?” I said.
They looked at each other and said, “Not really. Is it important?”
“No, nothing to worry about,” I said.
Neither of the men had shown any irritation at my barrage of questions, and I’ll bet that if I’d kept it up, their memories would have extended back to about the middle of yesterday.
“So, did you check out the address I gave you,” said Michael.
“I did,” I said as I dodged one of Michaels small progeny. “Is there any chance of continuing this conversation somewhere less dangerous. Your boys seem to head for my balls at every opportunity.”
“Yeah. They think it’s funny,” said Michael.
We escaped to the relative safety of Micheal’s dungeon office. The room looked exactly the way you would expect a mad professor’s office to look. The ceiling was so low that I could only stand upright between the ceiling joists. Michael is an inch or two shorter than me, so he skimmed under the threatening beams without too much damage. I sought the safety of an old office chair.
“You might want to sit down,” I said. “You aren’t going to believe what I found, and when I get to what I think is going on, you might want to call the men in white coats.”
Michael sat down without speaking.
I explained my encounter with the duplicates from my photo and their general lack of awareness.
“Could be a dozen reasons for all that,” said Michael none too convincingly.
“Really. Dozens?” I said.
“Well, maybe not dozens,” said Michael.
“I’d settle for one reason,” I said.
Michael was silent.
“You said there was even crazier stuff,” said Micheal.
“You remember the movie, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers?”
“Yes. Awesome movie.”
“Well, I think it’s something like that. I think someone is planning to replace important people and do it slowly and quietly so as to not give the game away. Think about it. A lawyer and investor and an inventor. All high profile people with access to other high profile people.”
“So what happens to the people who have been replaced?”
“I haven’t worked that bit out yet, and I’m not sure I want to know,” I said.
“If I could just get a look at that camera I’d know a lot more,” I said.
“Good luck with that. Imagine the security your investor has. You’ve got no chance.”
“I don’t know what to do. Maybe I’ll go home and wait for them to come for me. At least then I’ll know what happens next.”
“Don’t talk like that. You’re freaking me out,” said Michael.
Just then Michael’s youngest burst into the room with a crayon on each hand. I jumped up so violently the inevitable impact between my head and the ceiling joist caused me to lose consciousness.
When I woke up, a small boy was hovering over me with a blue crayon.
“You went boom,” he said. It was a difficult observation to argue with.
When my brain cleared, I went home, and they didn’t come for me, and it never occurred to me that I wasn’t important enough for them to worry about.
A newspaper article, about a month later, talked about the disappearance and sudden reappearance of a famous financier and his lawyer while on a hunting trip.
Apparently, the two men were lucky that they were found after going missing in rugged bushland. Some arsehole dumped a dog in the bush and it found the men and led them to safety. The woman who wrote the article said that the men would take some time to recover from their ordeal and that they seemed confused and disoriented — which was only to be expected. She didn’t mention what happened to the dog. The writer also said that there had been a string of high profile disappearances and reappearances over the past two years, but police sources said that it was only a coincidence. The chief of police, who went missing on a hunting trip with friends, said that the experience had done him no harm and that there was nothing to be worried about. The article was accompanied by a series of photographs taken before the hunting trips began, but no shots showing the survivors after their ordeal.
I made a mental note to refuse any invitations to go hunting now, or at any time in the future.
Helen prepared lunch — dumplings, one of her specialities. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon. No work and the usual sounds of neighbours mowing lawns or talking to invited friends was thankfully absent. Only the sound of a gentle breeze moving through the trees penetrated Helen’s kitchen.
The sound of footsteps, large and heavy, made her turn towards the glass door that led to the back yard.
His silhouette was motionless.
Helen should have been startled. The person behind the silhouette was familiar and warm, or so it seemed to her.
“Can I have some of those?” said the man.
“I’ll get you a bowl,” said Helen.
The aromas of the outdoors rushed past the man and into the kitchen, momentarily brushing away the smell of her dumplings.
Helen returned with a Japanese bowl, part of a set — perfect for dumplings. The bowl held three dumplings, steam rising from them. Helen brought chopsticks instead of a fork because she knew he preferred them when eating Asian food.
“Thank you,” he said, “I’m really hungry. I’ve walked a long way.”
The man was dressed in long pants and a shirt — both clean but unironed, giving him a mildly unkempt look. His sneakers were dusty, and his hair was tousled from the breeze — he didn’t bother to brush it.
“These are very good. I remember these. You are a very good cook,” said the man.
“Where have you been?” asked Helen, as she sat at the small kitchen table with her dumplings getting cold.
“Traveling. Coming home.”
“What happened to you?”
The man did not answer, he was finishing the last of his food. “Is there any more?”
Helen took his bowl and put three more dumplings in it. She was saving them to take to work the next day.
“Where were you travelling from?” asked Helen.
“A long way away,” said the man with a mouth full of food. “I started in Queensland, and I travelled along the coast until I reached Melbourne.”
“Have you been travelling all this time? All these years?”
“Why didn’t you call?”
The man didn’t answer. He was strangely calm, and hungry.
“Can I have water?”
Helen filled a glass and put it in front of him. His smell filled her nostrils.
“I’m very tired. Can I lie down on the couch? You do still have the couch?”
“Yes,” said Helen.
The man lay down and fell asleep. He was still asleep several hours later when Helen went to bed.
When Helen’s alarm went off, she went out to the kitchen and put the coffee on. For a moment she thought she may have dreamt the previous day’s appearance. She poked her head around the corner of the door and peeked into the darkened loungeroom. The couch was empty. Maybe she had dreamt it.
Helen prepared for her working day and as she walked through the kitchen on her way out she saw the two dumpling bowls lying in the sink.
“He looks so much like your late husband — my heart skipped a beat when I saw him,” said Helen’s neighbour.
Glenis and her husband, Bill had lived next door to Helen and Charles for several years. They moved into their houses only two weekends apart. Not exactly fast friends, but friends all the same. Someone to have coffee with on a day off from work.
Helen had a full-time job and still does. Back then it was a way of ‘getting ahead’ — saving for ‘things’, holidays, cars, furniture, maybe a baby — maybe. Now her job was part of her survival, financial and emotional.
Glenis didn’t work, not in the traditional sense. Her life revolved around her husband and his career, the house and the children. It wasn’t enough, but she never said it out loud — out loud would make it real.
Glenis was often at a loose end, and this was one of those days.
The sudden appearance of Charles’ doppelganger was too much for Glenis; she needed answers.
“He’s Charles brother,” said Helen.
“Why haven’t we seen him before? We’ve lived next to each other for years, and I’ve never seen him before.”
Helen could feel the insistence in Glenis’s words, and it would only be a matter of time before she said something that Glenis would latch on to. Better to be rude and end this — at least for now. Helen knew that putting her neighbour off would only give her a moment’s rest; she’d be back.
“He’s been working on the oil rigs. I really do have a terrible headache Glenis. Could you excuse me, I need to lie down.”
For a moment, Glenis considered the possibility of hanging around while Helen slept. A chance to look around and see what she could see, but she quickly abandoned the idea.
“Of course dear. You rest. You must be tired.” I wonder what you and the brother get up to when no one can see.
Glenis took her unspoken innuendo and went home.
Helen was dreamy and distracted at work, but no one noticed. Her workplace was dull and predictable with people on autopilot — not rude, just not fully there. Helen bought her lunch from the cafe on the corner and thought about the dumplings she planned to eat. She told none of her workmates about her encounter.
At the end of her working day, her ride home was uneventful. The train carriage was full of the usual assortment of daily commuters. A high school boy offered her his seat, which she gladly accepted. The boy quickly went back to talking to his friends, and her encounter with him was virtually wordless — all hand gestures and eye contact.
When Helen arrived home, she cautiously entered her home, happy to have avoided her neighbour who seemed to be perpetually at her front gate.
There was no one in her house. What was she expecting?
The neighbour’s cat walked in when she opened the back door and curled around her legs.
“Am I your first port of call Puss, or have you been working the neighbourhood all day?”
The cat purred, which could have meant anything.
Helen gave the cat some scraps, and it curled around her legs again before eating and gracefully walking out into the backyard on her way to visit her next benefactor.
Tuesday went a lot like Monday and Wednesday was threatening to do the same, but when she got home, Helen made a cup of tea and watched the sun go down from the comfort of her kitchen table.
When the man appeared she didn’t jump, didn’t show any signs of surprise or alarm — she was back in that dream again. She wondered if she had fallen asleep at the table — she was tired enough, but she seemed to be awake, either that or this was a very vivid dream.
“Do you have any more of those dumplings. I love your dumplings,” he said while standing in the doorway wearing the same clothes he had a few days before. His hair still needed brushing, but the beard she remembered from all those years ago was gone. That’s what it was, the beard.
“When did you shave off the beard?” she heard herself say.
“Not long after I came back — a few days after, I guess. I saw myself reflected in a shop window and I thought, ‘that’s not me anymore’, so I shaved it off.”
“How?” asked Helen.
“A friend loaned me his razor.”
“Did he help you get back home?”
“Not directly, but I stayed with him for a while. He taught me how to fish. It turns out that I’m pretty good at it. He gave me somewhere to stay for a while, but then he disappeared, so I hit the road.”
Helen got a packet mix from her pantry and began to make the shells for dumplings. The whole process took a little while, and the two people inhabiting the tidy kitchen remained silent until the steaming dumplings were ready to eat.
The man hunched over his bowl with the steam curling around his face.
Helen made more than she usually did in anticipation of her lunch and the request that she knew would come.
“May I have some more please?”
The man slept on Helen’s couch, and he was still there in the morning.
Helen anticipated his presence and wrapped herself in a floral dressing gown hiding her naked, freshly rested body.
She pulled the gown tighter as she walked into the lounge room. Despite his recent disappearance, she was sure he would still be there this time.
He sat up when she entered, stretched and rubbed his eyes.
“Do you want a shower before breakfast?” Helen asked.
“No, you can have it. I’ll shower when you go to work,” he said.
“Eggs or cereal?”
“Do you still have that cereal that pops when you put milk on it?”
“Yes, but I don’t know why. Force of habit I guess. I never eat it.”
“Can I have some?”
“It might be past its ‘use by’ date. I’ll check.”
Helen made toast and put a tiny amount of Vegemite on hers. She nibbled at the edges of her toast as the man gobbled down his cereal. “Can I have some more?”
Helen showered and dressed. She paused at the front door and said, “Will you be here when I get home? I have a student coming around at 7pm. I should be home before then.” The man smiled at her but did not answer.
Helen’s working day seemed to take forever, even more so than usual. The numbers swirled on the page — no one noticed her distress.
Widows learn how to hide their pain.
The man was still there when she arrived home, and she barely had time to grab a snack before her student came with her mother in tow.
The mother of the maths student eyed the man before expressing her concern about her daughter’s grades.
“I pay you a lot of money to tutor Annabel, and her grades don’t seem to be improving,” said the slightly overdressed lady. Her daughter rolled her eyes. “Why do I have to do maths? I’m going to marry some rich bloke who owns his own panel beating business, and I’ll never need to work. Numbers suck.”
When someone starts to embezzle money from your husband’s panel beating business, it would be handy if you had enough knowledge to see it happening before you both went broke, and you have to go out to work, thought Helen, but all the mother saw was a smile.
“Annabel needs to apply herself and do the assignments I set for her, then her grades will improve,” said Helen as pleasantly as possible.
The tutoring work was necessary because her job was not enough to keep body and soul together since her husband disappeared while working as a marine biologist on assignment in Queensland.
It had been a struggle, but she had managed to hang on to the house. The insurance company would not pay out on Charles’ life policy in the absence of a body. Seven years was a long time to wait for some financial relief. His employer had tried to be helpful and had paid her all his accrued holiday pay and long service leave, but it only helped delay her penury.
When the reluctant student was gone, Helen made two cups of tea and joined the man who bore a remarkable resemblance to her dead husband, and they sat in silence until the man said, “Are all your students like her?”
“No. Some genuinely want to learn, but I can’t afford to turn anyone away.”
“Can you take some time off work? I’d like to show you where I’ve been.”
“I have some holidays due to me, but I don’t have a car anymore. I can’t just up and leave.”
“Because I have a house to pay for and responsibilities.”
“I understand,” said the man and they sat in silence until it was time to sleep.
“My bed is very big and much more comfortable than the couch. You are welcome to share it,” said Helen who was avoiding eye contact.
“I’d like that,” said the man.
He waited long enough for her to prepare for bed and when he came into the bedroom, he noted that it was as tiny as the rest of the house. He walked around the bed and turned away before disrobing. Helen peeked over her shoulder and admired his tall, firm body — straight back and round buttocks. She looked away as he turned.
The man who looked like her dead husband slipped silently into bed curled up and faced away from her.
Helen could feel his warmth, and she longed to reach out and touch him but felt that such a move would be too bold.
Where had he been? Why was he here? Why did he seem so unconcerned?
For that matter, why was she not afraid. Her heart told her that he had not just run away. He had died. They never found his body, but he had died. There were witnesses to him falling off the research vessel. The witnesses were drunk, but they knew what they had seen. In the confusion, it took too long to turn the boat around.
This was the official version that came from the inquest. They called it an open finding, which meant that there was not enough evidence to show what had happened. The indistinct nature of the finding gave the insurance company a reason not to pay out on his personal life insurance. They wouldn’t pay out on the company policy either. Taking the company to court would most likely bring a result and force them to pay up, but Helen had neither the money or the energy to fight them. Something they were probably counting on. His employer only had to wait until the seven years was up and they would collect — with interest — cheaper and easier.
When Helen awoke, she was alone in her bed.
The man who smelled a lot like her husband was in the kitchen eating cereal that popped when you put milk on it.
“Can you buy some of this today? It’s nearly all gone,” he said without looking up.
“Probably,” said Helen.
“You talk in your sleep,” said the man.
“Have I always done that,” asked Helen.
“I don’t remember,” said the man who likes the same cereal as her dead husband.
Helen drifted through her workday with the only highlight being a magpie in the park during lunch. It came up very close the way that birds do when they have chicks to feed — reckless parenthood. It warbled every time she gave it part of her sandwich.
Helen put her shopping bag down before unlocking the front door. The cereal box was bulky and threatening to burst through the thin plastic carry bag.
Not every writing desk has a hidden compartment.
Not every grandfather has a colourful past.
Not every grandfather starts out as a beige, boring bloke who has nothing interesting to say and turns into a charismatic public speaker driving a classic Bentley.
Sadly, I don’t know what happened to the Bentley or any of my grandfather’s possessions, with the exception of his writing desk.
I come from a long line of dull, steady males. The family business, so to speak, is numbers. More specifically, we have a skill for managing money — other people’s’, and in recent times, our own. Despite there being nine children in my grandfather’s family, his wealth was such that all his children inherited a vast fortune, and because of the aforementioned propensity for money management, our family is extremely well off — except for Uncle Billy, but that is a whole other story.
The writing desk arrived on the back of an ancient Chevy truck — early 1950s was my guess.
“Must be a bugger trying to get parts for that,” I said pointing at the relic of a previous century.
“Not really, I’ve been collecting ‘em for forty years. Used to be everywhere once. I keep two working and cannibalise the others for parts. People love ‘em. Just seeing them driving around gets me heaps of work — more than I can handle.”
He had a point, but the big rear wheels meant that it was quite a drop from the tray — a steep ramp and an ageing furniture removalist made for an unsettling spectacle.
Jim — he didn’t like being called James, even though his name was in metre high letters on the side of the truck — survived the ride down the ramp with the trolley and my newly acquired writing desk.
“I’ll bet you paid a pretty penny for this beauty?” said Jim, who was in danger of becoming chatty.
“Inherited it. Do you think it’s worth a bit?” I said.
“I don’t see pieces like this much anymore. Mostly, hard to move chipboard crap. This is old and well made. Weighs a ton, but that’s okay. I need to move something interesting now and then, or I start to wonder why I’m still doing this at my age.”
“I noticed that your truck says, and sons,” I didn’t get to finish my thought.
“Boys aren’t interested in the business. Moving shit around is beneath them, I guess.”
I didn’t push it because he sounded sad and I understood family disappointment.
“Can you put it in the front room, the one on the left?” I asked.
“Anywhere you like mate. It’s all the same to me,” he said with the hint of a friendly smile.
From the window of my house, I watched him pack up his truck and drive away.
My Californian bungalow was built in the 1930s in a quiet working-class suburb of Melbourne — my parents’ house, back in the day. They did the predictable thing and sold up and moved to Queensland where they promptly died. They lived long enough to get a decent tan before a tourist bus, laden with people from far away, compressed their car to the size of a pizza box.
A boring life lived for just one goal — to retire. A distracted bus driver took away their dream of unlimited shopping for ugly clothes and endless games of golf and poker.
My siblings and I were bequeathed an equal share of a considerable estate, and I took some of it and bought back our family home. The planets aligned and the property was for sale. “You were lucky to get this house — I had several buyers lined up — all original features.” I waited for his lips to stop moving before asking for the keys. His blue suit did not have a single spec of dust on it — I know this because I was inspecting it while he was giving me real estate speak, at a mile a minute.
“Luck had nothing to do with it,” I said when there was a nanosecond break in his speech.
“Luck had nothing to do with it. I paid 15% over the asking price, and I slipped your colleague $10,000 to make sure that the vendors didn’t get greedy.”
The man in the dust free blue suit didn’t speak again, and I could tell that his colleague had neglected to mention the little sweetener I had provided.
I remember my father saying that the writing desk had been in the family for a long time and that my grandfather had made some alterations to it.
It had been several months since the settling of my parent’s estate, so the arrival of the writing desk came as a surprise. It was my understanding that all their possessions were to be sold at auction. There wasn’t any paperwork — no explanation, just the desk. I was glad I was home when it came — finding it on my front doorstep would not have put a smile on my face.
I let it sit for several days until my curiosity got the better of me.
There was not a lot going on at the office, so I took a few days off to organise my newly acquired house. The inside of the house was still much the same as I remembered it as a kid. Naturally, some things were different, but all the features that made it unique were still there. The beautiful doors, the wood panelling and the polished floors. The pencil marks on the inside of the linen press doors had been lacquered over, which was a shame. I remember my mum lining me up every year on my birthday and carefully checking to see that my feet were flat on the floor.
Miraculously, the ornate brass key was still in the lock of the writing desk. It had a cardboard ticket attached to it by a thin yellowing string. There was something written on it in pencil, but it was indecipherable.
I turned the key, and the lock clicked into place easily. The timber shutter rolled back smoothly revealing the many pigeon holes and the embossed writing surface. The green leather inlay had been well used and was showing signs of wear. As far as I could see, there wasn’t anything in any of the compartments, but I was determined to search thoroughly — you never know what you may find. I’ve purchased some old pieces of furniture over the years, and some have produced the occasional gem. Old receipts taped to the bottom of drawers (did the new owners plan to return the piece for a refund?)
It was a warm afternoon. An intense light came through the windows of what was once my parents’ bedroom. To this day I’m not sure why, but I was sleeping in my old room just down the hall. The writing desk had my parent’s bedroom all to itself.
I pulled the heavy desk away from the wall, prised the thin timber planks from the back and peered inside. I saw what I expected to see — the superb workmanship of a master cabinetmaker. His maker’s mark was burned into the side of the cabinet where no-one would ever see it until the unit came apart from age and neglect. I sat and looked at his name burned gently into the rich cedar boards and tried to imagine what he was thinking before he completed his work by nailing on the wide planks at the back of the unit.
The wear on the drawer runners revealed which drawers had been the most popular.
The layout was beautiful and straightforward until I came to a feature that did not make sense. For a moment, I forgot that I was looking at the reverse side of a set of drawers because I was staring at a small drawer face which could only open in my direction — a hidden drawer! Exactly what I had hoped to find.
Usually, hidden drawers are activated by a lever mechanism. They reflected the security consciousness of their owner and the skill of their creator.
On this occasion, the owner did not want anyone to stumble upon its existence — this truly was a secret drawer.
You know that my breathing changed as I reached for the finger sized hole that served as a handle. Skillfully crafted, this drawer moved with the same ease as its more used cousins. I pulled it all the way out and held it in my hand. The drawer was not much larger than a packet of cigarettes and contained a silk wrapped mystery. An adventurous and inventive moth had nibbled at the edge of the exquisite fabric, but it was still intact. I delicately unfolded the cloth. The tender care that someone had taken reminded me of Furoshiki, the ancient art of Japanese gift wrapping.
Once revealed, the contents proved to be Chinese not Japanese, which was equally intriguing. A single gold coin, about the size of a fifty cent piece wrapped in an ancient material, probably velum. The words written on the vellum were Chinese in origin and my Chinese language skills were, and still are, deplorable.
“A gold coin and a bit of cloth with Chinese characters drawn in ink.”
“Let me have a look,” said the only Chinese friend I had at that time. Linda was born in Australia, but her parents insisted that she learn their native tongue.
“I have never seen some of these symbols before, but I’m pretty sure that that one says danger and this one here means crayfish,” said Linda.
It didn’t say crayfish, but I didn’t hold it against her. Her Chinese language professor spent two days researching the script, and when he got back to Linda he handed her the piece of material as if it was infected with smallpox, and he was a Canadian Indian.
“Take my advice and burn this,” he said with his grim eyes wide open. “I don’t know where you got it and I don’t want to know. Just get rid of it. Nothing good can come of this.”
Linda said that he would not talk to her after that and a short while later he resigned and moved to the United States where he became a huge success as a television evangelist.
“The dude was an atheist, for fuck sake,” said Linda one Friday night over several gin and tonics.
“I didn’t think Chinese people drank gin and tonic,” I said, just to make conversation.
“Fuck you and your little dog, white boy,” was her reply.
“No need to pick on the dog, lady,” was my retort.
It went on like that for about another hour and then I had to go. I jumped on a number twelve tram because I was in no fit state to drive.
I’m a circumspect kind of bloke, but the time had come.
When I arrived home, I had sobered up a bit, which was just as well. I fed my small dog which Linda had threatened to penetrate and took the translation that the recently installed televangelist had provided and sat in the comfortable chair by the gas fire.
I’d been foolishly carrying the gold coin around with me since I found it. I retrieved it from my pocket and held it in my left hand.
I was sick of being average.
I wanted what my grandfather had.
I held on tightly to the elaborately carved coin and carefully recited the words.
I tried facing in different directions — nothing happened.
I tried speaking slowly, shouting until my voice hurt, whispering — nothing happened.
My small dog sat patiently as I ran through these routines — he’s cool, he doesn’t judge.
I went to bed that night and slept soundly; my little dog curled up next to me. I should have been upset or angry, but I wasn’t. I felt light and free. As unencumbered as I have ever felt — no fear, no anxiety.
When I woke, I showered and ate breakfast, fed the dog and took him for a walk. At the end of our morning journey, I found an average sized man in an expensive suit standing on my verandah.
“Good morning. Are you Michael Find?” said the expensive suit.
“Yes, I am. Can I help you?” My small dog sniffed him and decided that he was not a threat. I trust my dog’s instincts when it comes to all things human.
“We received your manuscript, and they flew me down from Sydney just to talk to you about it. I can’t remember the last time they did that. The taxi dropped me off and left me here, and I’ve been waiting for you for nearly an hour.” He didn’t sound annoyed — he sounded desperate. “They told me if I didn’t come back with your signature on a contract they would make me read young adult manuscripts from the slush pile for the next twelve months.”
“You are going to have to slow down, man. I have no idea what this is all about,” I said. Amazingly, I still wasn’t angry, annoyed or anxious — I’d been like this since I woke up — it was an awesome way to be. “Come inside, and I’ll make us some coffee.”
I opened the big old redwood front door and led him into my kitchen. The coffee didn’t take long to brew, and we sat around the green Laminex kitchen table that I found sitting on my neighbour’s lawn a few weeks ago. I gave the desperate suit owner my second favourite coffee mug. I had to glue the handle back onto it after the move. I could have thrown it out, but some things should be repaired and cherished. This was the first time it had held coffee since its resurrection, and I admit to wondering if the glue was dry.
While staring at the patterns on the surface of my coffee, I remembered sending my manuscript to a bunch of publishers — about eighteen months ago.
“Who did you say you worked for?” I asked.
“Harper Collins,” he said, and I was sure that was one of them. “You haven’t signed with anyone else, have you? My boss will kill me if you have.”
“No, it’s still up for grabs.”
Whenever I come back from walking the dog, I always check the answering machine attached to my land line — yes, I still have one of those. The only time I receive phone calls is when I go to the toilet or walk the dog — which is one of many things that I am destined never to understand.
In all the excitement, I hadn’t checked, and something told me it would be a good idea if I did that now.
The red light was blinking and by the time the man from Harper Collins had finished his coffee I’d written down fourteen numbers — all from publishers wanting me to call them back urgently — I didn’t. Harper Collins had lost sleep to catch an early flight and sit on my verandah. He would do. The contract had more zeros than I had seen in a while and I knew that when I re-signed in twelve month’s time, I could name my price. That was how it would go — I knew what this was.
The symbol that Linda thought stood for crayfish was, in fact, an ancient symbol for turning one hundred and eighty degrees. ‘A complete turn around’ in modern parlance.
That was what happened to my grandfather — he turned from being an annoying arsehole into a mega successful real estate mogul — and it all happened overnight, so to speak.
He divorced his wife and married his curvaceous secretary, bought an expensive German car and holidayed in Europe — oh, and bought an antique writing desk.
I was lucky to get this job.
Not because these kinds of jobs are hard to get but because this is exactly the kind of job that suits my mood.
It’s not that I don’t like people, there are one or two that I wouldn’t set fire to if I had the tools.
It’s just that people get me down.
They seem to be comfortable in this world; I’m not.
They rush around, and they seem to know stuff; stuff I don’t know.
I’m not dumb, on the contrary, I have a good education bought and paid for by loving parents.
Much and all as I’d like to, I can’t blame them for my predicament; not that I’m looking for anyone to blame; just saying.
I was married, and she stuck it out way past the point where any ordinary person would have thrown in the towel; she isn’t any ordinary person, she’s amazing. I love her with all my heart, and I will someday win her back. I just have to get back to being the person I used to be; I vaguely remember him, and I know I will know him when I meet him again.
The interview process for this job went a bit like this.
“Can you work any night of the week, and on short notice?”
“Yes, I can, but a bit of notice would be nice.”
“What size are you?”
“I’m somewhere between a large and an extra-large, heading for largish, as long as this latest diet works.”
“You’re hired. When can you start?”
“How about tonight?
“I guess if I move a few things around I could start tonight.”
The few things that I needed to move around were mostly stuff that was on the dashboard of my car and my underwear needed adjusting; that shouldn’t take long.
Turns out that this five-star hotel belongs to a chain of five-star hotels and they have an HR department and stringent rules for the employment of new staff. A six-month trial is absolutely adhered to as is a police check and a rigorous background check including past employers and all education qualifications; none of which seemed to apply in my case.
It turns out that the front desk uniform was quite expensive and they had to supply it. I was the right size for the outfit recently vacated by a bloke named Eric who had been caught with his arm stuck in one of the vending machines.
Apparently, it took a small fortune in small change before the machine would release him.
When he was told that he was dismissed he asked if he could keep the Mars Bar; they said that considering how hard he worked to get it, they would make an exception and let him keep it; which was kind and understanding on their part.
It also explained why my uniform smelled vaguely of milk chocolate and caramel.
It’s the first job I ever got simply because I was the right size.
Not that I’ve had a lot of jobs, and certainly not recently.
Six weeks working in a lottery shop just near the Casino came to an abrupt end when the psycho owner had one too many snipes at me. I’d tell you what I said when I left, but there are ladies present.
This was followed by a stint in another lottery business in one of those interesting old suburbs just a few kilometres out of Melbourne. All, ‘hipster food’ and ‘dodgy second-hand shops’ mixed with homeless people and indigenous families, and that was just on our corner.
I lost that job when I needed to be in hospital for a few days.
It was just before Christmas and my Christmas present was being told that I should not bother coming back; and could we please have our uniform back.
That job lasted nearly a year, and I quite enjoyed it, even though it played on my nerves being around so many people, and all in blazing daylight as well.
The owner was a prick, and I made the mistake of getting comfortable. My mistake.
Things got a wee bit worse after that even though I didn’t think that was possible at the time; isn’t it great to know that when you have gone as low as you feel it is possible to go there is still another level of hell that you didn’t know about.
That bloke Dante knew a thing or two.
I’d been working here for a few weeks, just getting a handle on how things worked when I first met Joe.
His name was Mr Hoskins, but he insisted that I call him Joe.
It was 4 o’clock in the morning, and that seemed like a good time for first names.
He knew what mine was because of my name badge.
When I collected my uniform they told me they would have a name badge for me very quickly which is what happened, but for a few days I was Eric, that was the name that was pinned on the jacket when I first put it on.
I could imagine an ‘Eric’ getting his arm caught in a vending machine; possibly even a Nigel or a Nick as well, but definitely an Eric.
My locker had all sorts of stuff leftover from previous employees.
My favourite was a name badge with ‘Habib’ written on it.
I wondered if Habib had left to work in his uncle’s Seven Eleven store.
I seriously considered wearing that badge for a few days, but I thought that I might like this job, so better to stick with the ‘Eric’.
I love hotels, especially good hotels.
I love carpet.
I especially love the carpet in good hotels; and old-time cinemas.
We didn’t have a carpet when we were kids, and I remember going to the cinema and sitting on the carpet and digging my fingers into the deep pile. I think that my dad thought I was a bit strange, but I could kick a football further than anyone my age, so he probably preferred to dwell on that.
Joe and his young wife had checked in earlier in the day.
I didn’t know it when we first met, but it was very close to an important anniversary for them, and they had come into the city to spend a few days in ‘the big smoke’.
Joe was a friendly bloke, and he didn’t treat me like an inferior, which was likely to happen in a big hotel.
I didn’t care how people treated me; I knew then as I know now, who I am. I might be down and dusty, but I know who I am.
Joe just wanted to talk.
His young wife was asleep, which he said was unusual, so he did not want to disturb her.
“She needs her sleep. It’s been a tough year.”
A part of me wanted to ask why it had been a tough year, but a little voice told me to just listen.
“Our daughter, Emily, died almost exactly a year ago. I’ve read that losing a child often destroys a marriage. In our case, it has brought us closer together.”
Joe wasn’t worried by the silence, and I certainly didn’t know how to fill it.
He just stood there, leaning on the front desk, staring into space.
He was an average looking bloke, about my height, clean-shaven, short hair and a little scar above one eye.
It was the kind of scar that probably had a good story to go with it.
I’ve got a couple of them, but you have to look hard to find them. At least one of them is in a place that only a mother or a lover is likely to notice.
Joe had good shoulders for an average-sized bloke, and I guessed that he had probably been a swimmer in his youth, maybe even a rower but it was hard to tell from his accent if he went to a private school and a dressing gown and slippers don’t tell you much about a person’s background.
After what seemed like forever, Joe said, “It’s hardest on Mary. Mothers feel these things very deeply.”
Joe was putting his hurt second.
I didn’t want to even imagine what that hurt must feel like.
I’m not sure I would survive, but I guess no one knows until it’s their turn.
Another silence; and this time, I felt the need to fill it.
“It must be tough, Joe, I feel for you.”
It was a funny thing to say, one man to another, but I had to say something.
Joe managed a smile and said, “Yes, it’s very hard. I try to get on with things, and there is always work. Work helps, but Mary has the other kids to look after, and I guess she is constantly reminded. Mothers never stop being mothers. My mum still thinks I’m twelve.”
“A couple of days away will help, though, don’t you think? Who is looking after the little ones while you’re away?”
“My parents. They love having the kids come and stay. So we know they are in good hands.”
“Are you going to see the sights while you are in Melbourne?”
I was intentionally changing the subject, the way people around this bloke had done ever since his daughter had died. Modern man does not cope well with death, and you can multiply that by a hundred when it comes to a dead child. It’s almost as if we feel like we might attract Death’s attention if we talk about it for too long. It gives me the shits, but I’m just as bad as the rest of them.
“We will, but mostly we are here to see Ian Holmyard.”
“Is he a friend?”
“No, he’s a Medium. A friend of ours recommended him. He’s said to be very good. Mary needs to know that Emily is okay. Neither of us has much time for all that religious mumbo jumbo, but we do believe in God. Mary needs to know that Emily is safe and happy, you know, ‘over there’.”
“Do you believe in an ‘over there’?”
I bit my lip as soon as I said it.
Of course, he believes in an ‘over there’, or at least his wife does. They need to believe….. you idiot…. keep your fucking mouth shut!
Joe didn’t notice my discomfort.
“I’m not sure. I guess I want to believe that Emily didn’t just disappear. I want to believe for Mary’s sake. I don’t mind if this bloke convinces me, but I’m going to need to be convinced. I’m going to need to be alert and remember what’s said because I’ve got the feeling that Mary is going to be in tears, and it’s hard to hear through tears. I know, I’ve tried.”
I’ll bet he has.
“Probably best if you record the meeting then.”
“That’s what Mr Holmyard said. Apparently, you tend to forget what comes through. I don’t think I’m going to forget, but I’ll record it for Mary, and if it goes well, she can play it back whenever she wants to.”
“Where do you have to go to see this Mr Holmyard?”
“He’s coming here, tomorrow night. He’s coming after he has had dinner with his family.”
“Producing a spirit is probably easier on a full stomach.”
I don’t know why I said that, but Joe laughed and agreed.
It was nearly half-past five, and Joe decided that it was time to get a bit of sleep before Mary woke up. He thanked me for listening, and all I wanted to do was burst into tears. I get like that over nothing, and this certainly wasn’t nothing.
I told Joe I would keep an eye out for Mr Holmyard because I was on duty at ten, which was when he was expected.
Joe walked back toward the elevator, and his gait was one of a man twice his age. I still had a couple of hours of my shift left and most of that time was taken up with hoping that Ian Holmyard was the real deal.
When the phone rang, my wife took the call.
She likes answering phones, and no matter how many times I tell her not to answer the phone around dinner time, she ignores me. She ends up in endless conversations with people who have strange accents and want me to change my phone/water/electricity/gas/mobile phone/gym membership/ plan. And occasionally, like every day, donate to saving beached whales that don’t have enough warm clothes and have contracted some incurable disease; even though we have been funnelling billions of dollars into research over the past forty years. Where does all that money go? Why haven’t we solved all the problems? We jumped on Aids/HIV by throwing obscene amounts of money at the problem, so why am I worried about losing my memory/identity and becoming a vegetable. How about we let the whales have second-hand jumpers and do something about the distinct possibility that I may resemble a carrot in the not too distant future. And while we are at it, how about we do something about depression instead of throwing money at glitzy little ad’ agencies who spent their time making ads and brochures about how to get help. “Call this number if you feel like shit”.
I could hear the conversation, and it didn’t sound like someone trying to sell us a book of tickets for restaurants that we will never eat at, it sounded like someone needed help.
“Okay, so that’s 10 pm on Wednesday, Grand Hotel, room 527. Ian will be there then.”
“Don’t look at me like that. This one is important. A young couple who lost their daughter about a year ago. She contracted a chest infection and died in hospital after having a severe Asthma attack. They did everything they could, but they couldn’t bring her back.”
“I’ll be there.”
“I made the appointment later in the night so you could get a hot meal into you after work. They were okay with the time. They are in town for a couple of days.”
She looked right at me, the way that she sometimes does. “They came to town, especially to see you.” I could sense the gravity in her voice, and also the pride.
She loves what I do even though she doesn’t understand how I do it.
Hell, I don’t understand how I do it.
My life was rolling along, as lives tend to do, and I knew I wasn’t as happy as I wanted to be.
Nothing fancy, just happy every now and then.
Something was missing, and I could not put my finger on it.
My wife Loraine is a ‘giver’, I’m not.
She thinks and worries about other people; I’ve got enough to worry about.
So, by all rights, it should be her with this ability, not me.
When my unhappiness got to be a bit of a problem, I tried all the usual things.
I got myself twisted into strange shapes in Yoga classes.
My male friends thought it was hilarious when they found out.
They subscribe to the Aussie theory that more beer solves everything.
I tried that too.
It didn’t work, and it was eating into our budget.
I tried ‘shrinks’ and antidepressants, and let me tell you those things are murder.
I’ve never felt that bad, and when my eyesight started to give out, I threw them out and went ‘cold turkey’, which was a huge mistake.
I rang the poisons hotline and said that I thought I was going to die. “You aren’t mate, but you are going to wish you were dead before this is over.”
Thanks a lot!
It took ten days to get that shit out of my system.
I didn’t die, but I definitely wished I had, and when it was all over, I didn’t feel any better.
Just as a bit of fun, I had a few ‘readings’ done.
They turned out to be surprisingly accurate, and no one got hurt.
One lady, who read from playing-cards, told me lots of stuff that would happen and mostly she has been spot on.
I was leaving as she threw in, “Oh, and by the way, you will become a psychic medium.”
I think I said something like, “That should be fun,” and promptly forgot all about it.
That was about ten years ago.
A friend told me about a medium who lived close by so I thought I would check out the experience.
He brought through my mum and an uncle and an old girlfriend and a former high school teacher.
By the time it was over, I was dizzy.
It was a fantastic experience, and there was no doubt that I was in touch with my relatives.
Fast forward a few years, and I see an ad for a mediumship development class.
I went along and to cut a long story short, over a year I found that I could make connections between spirit and people in the ‘here and now’.
I like having this ability, but I’m cautious who I read for.
Honestly, most people want to know when they are going to get a boyfriend or if their lotto numbers are going to come up.
This is different; there is a child involved.
For some reason, I have developed a reputation for making a connection between parents and children who have died.
It can be very stressful, and I usually need a bit of time to recover from these sessions, but it seems important, so I typically don’t say no.
My wife knows that I take these readings very seriously.