In a tiny corner at the back of my mind, I knew that someday, someone would get the wrong idea. The prospect of this misunderstanding seemed so far into the future that I dismissed it even though I knew it would come.
I need time to myself — away.
Away from everyone and everything.
Living in a crowded city makes that almost laughable, but I found a way.
Our building is old — mid-1930s. Which means that the windows open (the ones that aren’t painted shut) and they are huge — almost door-sized huge.
Some paranoid soul, probably a previous owner frightened of being sued, nailed all the windows shut — but he missed one, perhaps because it is in a cupboard on our floor. I doubt that it has always been a cupboard. When the building was new, it would have been a half-width version of all the other double-hung windows, an elegant full stop to the symmetry that ran along the west wall.
For many decades it has cast daylight on brooms and cardboard boxes, coats and hats and probably bicycles.
I discovered the window’s ability one summers night after putting the children to bed.
I knew how it was supposed to work because my father worked on the restoration of old buildings. Invisible cords run through squeaky pullies pulled by heavy counterweights enabling the window to stay open at any height along its full travel.
There is a satisfying rumble as the window glides upward and the counterweights bang around inside the casement.
Cold air rushes in and hits you in the face forcing you to breathe in momentarily.
Hitching my dress up, I step uncertainly onto the wide stone ledge.
In this moment, I am the first human to step onto the stonework since the original builders packed up and went home, almost a hundred years ago. Even the window cleaners don’t step on the ledge. They glide past riding shiny metal saddles, flashing their rubber blades and soapy sponges.
This ledge is mine, shared only by the occasional bird.
Being untroubled by heights is a plus in a situation like this.
On windy days I have been worried, but I have steady hands, and I fix my gaze on a point way off in the distance. I can feel the stress draining out of me as I listen to the sounds wafting up from the street far below.
I cannot make out conversations, they are blown away before they reach me, but sirens and horns sometimes get through.
I hear the unmistakable sound of one of those ancient counterweights falling to the bottom of the wall cavity as the equally ancient cord gives way. With only one counterweight doing the work of two, the sash slowly slides down until it hits the sill and a similarly unmistakable sound of the window lock clicking into place greets my ears.
In rapid succession, my mind plays out what is likely to happen next.
I could stand here until someone assumes I’m going to jump and calls the authorities or I could break the window with my less than appropriate shoes. The second option has its dangers — loss of balance, nasty cut from flying glass, dead pedestrian far below.
I step out here so I can clear my mind and reengage with my world.
However this plays out, I believe that I have lost my only means of escape.
I don’t want to explain it all to them.
It’s so peaceful out here.
Illustration: Kenton Nelson
This story will disappear from my site in two days time, so I thought I would give it a fond farewell by letting you read it one last time. In the near future (two days time) it will be the lead-off story for my fourth anthology of short stories. This story also gives the collection its name.
So Much Depends on a Red Wheelbarrow.
“So much depends on a red wheelbarrow glazed by rainwater beside the white chickens.”
William Carlos Williams.
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 business; 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 note paper.
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.
It was some twenty-years old when he bought it upon arriving in England in 1915 — 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.
Ambros 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 business 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 desert 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 completely 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 point.
That old red wheelbarrow is very ancient and 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.
I don’t come here for the entertainment.
I come here to sit quietly, think and drink.
Sometimes the thinking comes first, but mostly the drinking is right out in front.
Wednesday night gets a bit raucous, but as long as you like dramatic South American dancing performed by dramatic South Americans, then you are in the right place.
It might sound like a contradiction to you but it is possible to be quiet in your mind in the midst of much confusion. This is the reason that I survive Wednesday nights.
The bar is quite spacious, but from the outside you would never know it.
You have to know where you are going; there isn’t any sign out front and as far as I know there never has been.
It’s a Melbourne thing; all sorts of bars and clubs situated down dark lane-ways, only this place predates the modern preoccupation with unnamed premises by about thirty years.
In the late 1970s there was an influx of South American refugees fleeing the results of American interference and some of them settled in Melbourne.
This city was built by people who came from somewhere else.
This war-torn world has given us our heart. For many years, this bar was where the lonely and the displaced came to hear a familiar tongue.
I write during the day, usually in my favourite cafe and I come here at night. They know me well.
There is a private room out the back where games of chance go on well into the small hours of the morning. Max Shams met his end there early on a Sunday morning. He’d been loosing steadily for weeks and the word had gotten out that there was a pigeon ripe for plucking.
Max eventually ran out of money and patience. He blamed the dealer and pulled a knife. A skinny little guy took it away from him, then gave it right back. The blade hit something vital and Max lay in a huge pool of his own blood.
Many people remarked that they did not realise there was that much blood inside a person.
I’ve thought that once or twice myself.
It turned out that Max had been lifting his gambling money from a variety of customer accounts. As it usually happens, the bank he worked for had no idea he was liberating the funds until he met his untimely demise.
His body was not found where it fell but a few streets away in a quiet patch of garden belonging to a widow who didn’t like cats.
The police made a nuisance of themselves for the required amount of time and the inquest returned a verdict of death by person or persons unknown.
The skinny guy left town and lived happily until he was knocked off his motorbike in Queensland. It was a warm night [that’s the only kind of night they have up there], and the skinny guy was struck by a late night seagull. The skinny guy might have survived except for his lack of helmet. He left the helmet at his girlfriend’s. She liked him to wear it during sex and it had gotten a bit sticky. He meant to collect it the next time he visited, but for him, there would not be a next time.
His girlfriend cried a lot and mumbled something about how good he was in bed and how he liked to bang his head on the wall just before he would come, so I guess the helmet had a practical application as well as a decorative one.
Apart from gamblers, of which there are a few regulars, there are also musicians and artists who frequent my favourite club.
Musicians are not like everyone else and some would say that they are not ‘all there’ which would explain why they turn up to this club to jam after having played all night somewhere else.
When I’m done writing, I’m done for the day. No, that’s not true either; I carry a notebook and I write in it when an idea comes to me, no matter where I am, so maybe I’m just as nuts as they are.
If nothing else, the jam sessions add a lot of colour, and you never know who will turn up.
If you are wondering why I spend so much time here, I’ll tell you. There is nothing for me at home; just four walls and a bunch of bills that come whether I’m there or not.
I’ve had women; I’ve even lived with a few but in the end they work out that I’m a pain in the arse and they leave. Some move in because I’m a pain in the arse and they believe they can reform me.
If I lined them all up, end to end, they would reach a consensus; this bloke is beyond redemption.
It’s true that I get lonely, who doesn’t, but I live my life my way and that’s the way I like it.
There was one woman; Margie, but I let her slip away.
She was ‘the one’, but my ego and ambition were so large in those days that it blocked out the sun. If I had my time over again I would fix that mistake, but no one is going to give me that chance, so I do the best with what I have.
Margie married a bloke who listened to her and gave her the life she wanted. He was, and is, as boring as fuck but he has one thing I don’t have; Margie.
These are the things I think about as I sit here drinking and thinking and listening to the music and watching the dancers.
It’s amazing how often Wednesday comes around, and there are those dancers again.
The decor here isn’t bad and the lighting is just right. The service could be a little better, but I do alright, they know me and they keep me sweet.
The bartender is a quiet bloke but no one messes with him.
I once saw him catch a table in mid-air.
Some bozo from Sydney had been flashing his money around and a slightly dodgy bloke from Frankston took offence. The ensuing tussle included the throwing of various objects.
I watched the bartender slowly emerge from behind the bar just in time to catch the table as it went sailing by.
I swear to God he caught it with one hand and just kept advancing.
Everyone stopped what they were doing, including the two combatants, and a deathly silence fell over the room. Even the musicians looked up.
The bartender stopped in front of the frozen miscreants and said something like, ‘I’m adding the costs to your bill and a healthy tip for myself in return for not beating the two of you to a pulp’.
He walked quietly back behind the bar after replacing the flying table back in its customary spot. Everything went back to normal and the two miscreants bought each other a drink.
Whatever they pay that bartender, it isn’t enough.
Painting by Fabian Perez.
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This story is part of this series………
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“You’re not like other cops Mr Loggains.”
“That’s because I don’t give a fuck Billy. I’m tired, my feet hurt and I haven’t had a decent shit in three days. So can you just help me out here? The lady who shot the bloke in the nice suit and the dark overcoat? What did she look like?”
“How tall was she?”
“You’re just going to keep saying ‘ordinary’ no matter what I ask you, aren’t you Billy?”
“I’m not trying to make trouble for you Mr Loggains. You been real nice to me.”
“You’re a citizen Billy, just like everyone else. You get the same level of respect or the same shit treatment that everyone gets. I don’t play favourites.”
“You’re a good bloke Mr Loggains, and that’s the truth.”
“No I’m not. I’m just as big an arsehole as everyone else, and if I don’t solve this case my arse is going to get kicked by my boss and I like arse, we’ve been together for a long time.”
“I’d help you if I could Mr Loggains.”
Do you want me to keep you in till tomorrow?
They serve a reasonable breakfast here.
The cafe down the road cooks it for us when we have ‘visitors’.
It’s safer in here Billy.
What do you say?
I can clear it with the custody sergeant?”
“Thanks anyway Mr Loggains, but I like being under the stars.”
“I’ll have one of the boys drive you back to the park.”
I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by pulling up in a police car but Detective Senior Sergeant Loggains was trying to be nice and I didn’t have the heart to say no.
I promised the lady I wouldn’t give her away and I’m true to my word. The money didn’t hurt but that’s not why I did it.
She had a beautiful smile.
I haven’t seen a smile like that for such a long time.
My mum had a smile like that.
It seemed to me that this lady had been backed into a corner.
Mothers can be dangerous if you back them into a corner.
Besides, she could have shot me too. I’m nobody and no one would have missed me.
But instead, she sat down next to me and told me her story.
She treated me like a real person.
She asked for my help.
What was I going to do, say no? No one asks my opinion, and no one asks for my help and very few people treat me with respect.
I said I would help her long before she gave me the money.
She didn’t even make a crack about me drinking it all away.
I have to admit though, I am going on a bender.
Nothing but expensive wine and Scotch whisky.
I’m going to have a few extra friends for a while, at least until the money runs out, but that’s okay with me.
We share what we have when we have it.
For a while everyone wanted to hear the story of the crazy lady in the park.
The film crew from the ABC were the best. They stole a blanket out of the Channel Nine van and gave it to me. It’s a bloody good blanket. Mind you it’s got ‘Property of the Channel Nine News Department’ printed on one side, but as long as I don’t turn it over no one notices. They slipped me a couple of dollars as well but it’s the blanket I remember.
Every time I told the story I changed something.
No one seemed to notice except for Mr Loggains.
I think he suspects that I know, but I also thinks he believes he can catch her some other way. “Murderers always make a mistake”, he tells me, but we both know that isn’t so. Even an honest police force only solves about two thirds of all murders. The rest just sit there waiting till a piece of evidence comes along or science comes up with something that will reopen the case.
Usually, they just run out of ideas and their bosses tell them to move on. I’m hoping this case will go that way.
The lady in the park seemed like someone who had not done this kind of thing before and I hope that doesn’t get her caught.
It’s a terrible thing to take a life, and I ought to know, but you would have to admit that she was very brave.
Very ordinary and very brave.
It took a total of four cups of coffee to create this story.
Enjoy my work? Then buy me a coffee?
‘I love the smell of your hair.
It makes me think of long nights without sleep, listening to the waves break on the sand.
You loved that little cottage, the squeaky bed and the open fire.
The old bloke who owned it wondered why I wanted to rent it in the middle of winter, then he looked at my old Austin, with you sitting in the passenger seat and he just smiled at me. The kind of smile that ‘men of the world’ exchange. Nothing sleazy, just a look that said he understood. I thought that he could see how embarrassed I was, but his gentle smile made me relax. He was three times my age and I felt like I had joined an exclusive club.
I felt like a grown up for the first time.
I’d fumbled around with girls, the way that young people do. I’d even caused a bit of pleasure. I could be gentle and patient and it got results, but this was different.
This was going to be five days with one woman.
Not just sex but genuine love-making, and nowhere to hide if it all went wrong.
We barely stepped outside that little cottage except to walk on the beach.’
‘I must have changed shampoos a dozen times since that week at the beach house.’
‘I don’t care, I still love the smell of your hair.’
‘You can’t do this now ———- Too many years have gone by. You had your chance to cherish me. I spent a long time getting over you; no, they’re the wrong words —- I never got over you and it is grossly unfair of you to stir up those old memories. We both have families now.’
‘I know we do, but I also know that I made a mistake. I should have stayed with you. You were, and are, the best thing that ever happened to me. I think of you when I make love to my wife, hell, I think of you when i make love to myself. You are all I ever think about.’
‘You’re too late Frank. You can smell my hair all you want but you missed the boat. I’m too good for you.’
‘I’ll bet I make you moist’.
‘Yes you do but that’s not the point.
You don’t get to enjoy any of this.
I’m with him now.
I’m not some old favourite toy that you can leave lying around and expect me to be in the same place when you get around to looking for me again.
I moved on.
There isn’t anyone on the planet who I would rather make love to than you but I’m just going to have to control the urge because you are not good for me Frank.
The heart wants what the heart wants but my head knows what’s good for me, and it isn’t you.
So get your nose out of my hair before someone notices.’
Poster from a painting by Jack Vettriano.