Never Underestimate An Older Lady


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.”


photo credit:
Marian Moneymaker

Scarlett’s Scones and Sam’s Scar.


This story is now part of a Novella called THE LONG WEEKEND: A Sam and Scarlett Mystery.

You can find it here and there are links to where you can purchase the book. I need your support, so please consider passing up your next cup of coffee and buying my novella instead. Thank you.

Terry R Barca


Sam was constantly surprised by Scarlett.
Sometimes, when they were home alone she would disappear for what seemed like only a few minutes and reappear with a batch of scones.
“Where the hell did you learn to make scones?” he asked.
“At Finishing School”
“You have to be kidding.”
“The Finishing School I went to demanded that we knew how to cook as well as how to tell a drunk millionaire to fuck off without loosing our dignity.”
“Were there many occasions where a drunk millionaire needed chastising?”
“Once or twice, I was very attractive you know.”
“And very rich”. Sam could not help inserting that insight.
“Money had nothing to do with it. They lusted after my body, and rightly so.” Scarlett struck a pose to emphasise her point.
She had a point, actually she had several of them.
No longer a girl but a mature woman, she looked amazing with or without clothes. Incredibly, she didn’t have to work at it whereas Sam spent more than the occasional minute keeping his body in shape.
It was a habit he had learned from the days when a certain amount of strength and quick reflexes could mean the difference between reading the paper the next morning or being on it’s front page.
The scones were delicious, of course.
Sam was still curious.
“What else did they teach you at that Finishing School?”
“Lots of very cool stuff”. Scarlett thought about telling him some of the stories from her year in Rougemont in Switzerland but she wanted to maintain that air of mystery that young women were taught about back in those days, and besides, they had only been married for a little over a year and maintaining an air a mystery around a man who wrote about mystery for a living was difficult enough. If she had mentioned that Princess Diana had attended the same school it might have made Sam even more uncomfortable than he already was with the world she lived in.
Finally she wilted under his persistent stare. “I’ll tell you if you show me you your scars”.
“Oh, no you don’t, my mother left me those scares in her will, and she told me never to show them to anyone, especially nosey, rich women”.
“Oh, go on, just the small knife wound, and you have to tell me the story that goes with it.”
“You’ve heard that story and besides it’s nearly time for bed, you can see it then.”
“That’s all very well but you keep the lights on when I undress and you turn them off when you do.”
“Really, I’ve never noticed. Maybe it’s because I’m dazzled by your beauty.”
“Don’t come the malarky with me young man, show me that scar.”
Reluctantly he pulled his handmade shirt out of his waistband and exposed his left hip.
The scar was small but the making of it was near fatal.
He began the story in a low almost hushed tone.
“You know how in the movies William Powell gets shot but the bullet manages to miss all the major organs?”
“Yes, go on”. She was impatient and eager. She loved his stories, and she loved the way he told them.
“Well that’s not how it happens.” She didn’t interrupt this time so he continued.
“It started out as research for a book but the more I got into it, the more I didn’t like this bloke. He liked hurting people, especially women, and my mum always told me to stomp on people who hurt women.”
“What is it with you and your mum?” She interrupted him but he was used to it.
“Never you mind about my mum, she was a wise and insightful woman and she could bench press my father while singing the national anthem. She was quite annoyed when they changed the national anthem because it threw off her rhythm.”
“Enough about your mum, I want to hear about that scar.”
Scarlett’s world had not previously contained scars, and guns, and sheilas, and associated paraphernalia, until Sam had come along and she was secretly disappointed that he had given it all up to be with her. It was true that her family fortune was too much for one person to manage and she did need Sam’s help but his life before her was so exciting that at the very least she wanted to hear about it.
The only scar she could remember from before Sam was when the cook cut her finger and it took a long time to heal.
Not exactly a best seller in that story.
“So there was this bloke and your mum wanted you to stomp on him.” She was pretty wound up by now.
“Take it easy, my mum didn’t know this bloke and the whole ‘stomp on him’ was a bit of hyperbole, and why am I telling you this and why are you smiling at me. I fall for that every time don’t I?” He took a breath and dived back into the past.
He tried to leave out the boring bits [was it Hitchcock who said that drama was real life without the boring bits?]
“This bloke was no chump and he knew I had been following him so he led me down  a dark alley. Well, it wasn’t that dark but it sounds better if I tell it that way.”
“Was it a bluestone alley or concrete?”
“Bluestone I think. What difference does it make? Stop interrupting!” He wasn’t really mad, he adored her enthusiasm in the same way that he adored the rest of her.
“As I was saying, he led me down this dark, damp, dank, dangerous alley and stuck a knife in me.”
“Oh, come on there must have been more to it that that!” Now she was annoyed.
“He was wearing a hat” he said with a smile.
Sam did not want to draw Scarlett too deeply into his former world partly because the word ‘former’ was not quite accurate. Sam’s former life seemed not to want to remain former.
In the year they had been married there had been several incidents that threatened to undo his retirement. People kept dangling enticing cases in front of him and after all, he was only human.
Detective Inspector Matt Blank from the Homicide squad was the worst offender.
The Cops would like you to believe that they don’t call in outside help on difficult cases but that’s a load bollocks.
D.I. Blank had used Sam many times in the past and in return Sam got to see stuff that most writers never saw which gave his books a compelling richness that no ordinary imagination could match.
Sam had an instinct for crime and his instincts had brought him close to death on more than one occasion.
The tiny knife wound on his hip was one of those times.
Scarlett saw Sam’s ‘former’ life through the eyes of someone who had been protected from a lot of the harsh realities of life. 
She was no fool but she had never seen the life drain out of a person lying on the ground surrounded by litres of that sticky red fluid that movie makers never seem to get right.
The colour of blood is not like you see it in the movies and the amount that drains out of a person who has bled to death has to be seen to be believed.
All that is bad enough but then there’s the smell.
Copious amounts of blood gives off a sickly sweet metallic smell that is not replicated in everyday life. Paramedics, cops and nurses know that smell and Sam knew it as well.
That night in the alley he saw quite a lot of it and it all used to be inside him. Now it was trickling down between the century old bluestones and heading for an old cast iron drain.
The guy he was following simply turned around and plunged the knife into him.
Sam’s reflexes managed to move him sideways just enough so that the blade missed his large intestine but not quite enough to miss his skinny hips completely.
The blade hit the bone and that hurt but it also nicked an artery, he never did find out the name of the artery or the name of the bloke who kept pressure on the wound until the paramedics arrived.
By the time he was in the ambulance he didn’t much care what anyones name was and besides, he was lousy with names and he would probably have forgotten them anyway.
The anaesthetist told Sam his name, which was nice, it sounded like Nigel, which was nice, but it could have been Erving.
Not long after that Nigel/Erving gave him something and Sam saw a large black pool open up in front of him and he dived right in.
His dreams were confused and a little disturbing and at one stage Sam thought he saw a unicorn and he made a mental note never to mention that to anyone, he had a tough guy reputation to protect after all.