Anyone who has ever worked anywhere will tell you that their job would be easier if they didn’t have to wade through an ocean of excrement cleverly disguised as bureaucracy. The senior officer in a small country police station solves a mysterious crime only to have his decisions scrutinised by those above him. The writing is on the wall for him and his staff, but he still has a job to do. Fate will take care of the rest.
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 had three dumplings, steam rising from them. Helen brought chopsticks instead of a fork because she knew he prefered 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 unkept 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 pocked 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.
“You don’t have much time left on your leave. Are you sure you want to spend time watching someone else get married?”
She was right. In three days I’ll be back at the controls of a bomber flying over somewhere, and a lot of ground defence installations will be doing their best to knock my crew and me out of the sky. But how could I say no to this bloke and his bride?
“He’s a long way from home, and he doesn’t know anyone here in Melbourne. He needs a best man, and I said yes before I met you. Before I found out how beautiful you are. It will only take an hour and a bit. We meet at the Town Hall at 10am and then jump on a tram for drinks at The Duke of Wellington on Flinders Street. The whole thing should be over by 11:30.”
“It could go on for hours. I’ve been to weddings,” said Molly.
“Trust me. This one will be over quickly. He has to be back in his Dakota and on his way to New Guinea the day after tomorrow. He won’t want to waste any time.”
“But what about her family? They might want to spend some time with her before she goes away.”
“She’ll be staying here with her mum — wondering how her pilot husband is doing while he ferries supplies to the jungle and tries not to get shot down.”
“How did he get leave?”
“It’s different for the yanks. They are well paid, and they get leave after a certain number of missions. It’s different for us, especially in Britain. There is a sense of fighting for our lives. Invasion is a constant threat, so leave is hard to come by.”
“So you were fortunate to get leave to come all the way back to Melbourne?”
“Very lucky, but accepting the mission to fly the young female spy into France had something to do with it. Either that or someone in a high place is looking out for me.”
I met Molly at the tram stop. There was a light wind blowing, and it caused her dress to ripple. She was wearing a light petticoat, and it caused her dress to splay out. Her dress was a light green, and her shoes were white. Discrete earrings peaked through her wavy hair. Her eyes sparkled when she saw me — always a good sign.
“Been waiting long?” she said as she ran her hand across the back of her hair, being careful not to dislodge her hat. I’m not an expert on hats, but it looked perfect for a civil wedding — it’s good to look pretty but never outshine the bride.
Molly took my hand as I explained that I had just arrived — the truth was I had been there for a while — nowhere else to be. Besides, people watching is a pleasant activity especially in a city where I don’t have to worry about where the nearest bomb shelter might be.
The streets were full of people, and the Town Hall was packed with nervous couples and their entourages — some large, some non-existent.
I went up and down the queue looking for my American friend and his bride to be. It took a while, but eventually, I found him halfway up the big staircase. I guessed that at the rate they were going through them, he and his new bride would be married in about twenty minutes.
“Stay right there,” I said to the Yank.
“Where else would I be?” he said.
I took a few steps away and remembered my manners, “Oh and you look beautiful …” I stammered.
“Mavis,” said Mavis.
“Mavis, yes of course. I’ll be back in a minute,” I said and went back to elbowing my way through the crowd.
A giant soldier with his tiny bride weighed up the possibility of being annoyed at my aggressive maneuvers, but a combination of him realising I outranked him and a punch would ruin his wedding day and the significant tug his tiny girlfriend gave his arm changed his mind. I wasn’t in the mood for annoying bully-boy sergeants, and he must have seen the look in my eyes.
The red mist cleared from my eyes, and I fought my way back to where I had left Molly standing.
She looked beautiful standing next to a giant stone pillar.
“I found them. Shall we?” I said as I put out my hand.
“They are towards the front of the queue so it shouldn’t be much longer.”
“All these people,” said Molly. “All wanting to get married.”
“Life is short my precious Melbourne girl. Stay close behind me — we’re going in.”
I felt her step behind me and grab hold of my belt. We needed to be in ‘lock-step’ to avoid her stepping on the back of my heels. I knew she could dance and now was the time for her to put her dance-floor experience into practice.
I was setting a pretty good pace and getting a few grumbles along the way. Occasionally I would have to change direction to avoid a stubborn group of sailors, and Molly matched my moves, step for step — never a word of complaint. I think she enjoyed the game.
I knew I would have a few bruises the next day, but it was fun and no worse than being bounced around in a bomber at twenty thousand feet.
“Chuck and Mavis, meet Molly,” I said, and everyone nodded and shook hands.
Mavis’ bridesmaid got lost in the crowd, so Molly stood in as her bridesmaid and second witness. It has to be said that both Mavis and Chuck were very nervous.
“Relax mate. It’s only for the rest of your lives,” I said, but I don’t think it helped.
The wedding service was over in a flash, and I know that the happy couple were shocked by how short the service was.
We all stopped on the Town Hall steps while the bride’s uncle took photos. A commercial photographer took a couple of shots and thrust a card into the groom’s hand.
“Photos will be ready tomorrow. The address is on the card. We can hand colour them too if you want, but that will take an extra couple of days,” said the bloke in the coat. I noticed the slight limp and the groom and I wondered where he had been wounded — we secretly wondered if we too would wind up in some makeshift job after being discharged — unfit for combat.
“Can I pick them up the day after tomorrow. I’m going to be busy for the next day or so,” said the young American pilot. All the men smiled, and the bride lowered her eyes before smiling.
“What do you think their chances are?” I said with a beer in my hand, leaning on the bar at the Duke Of Wellington.
“Chances of what?” said Molly.
“I don’t know, chances of being happy? Chances of making it through the War?”
“They’re happy now. Maybe that’s all we get — now.”
The Hotel bar was populated by a mix of men and women in uniform, the same as any pub in the western world during wartime, with a few random shift workers going to or coming from work. Chuck and Mavis’ party had grown considerably from the tiny group at the Town Hall — free drinks tend to swell the crowd.
Mavis’ bridesmaid arrived, flustered and embarrassed.
“I took the wrong tram, and a fresh bloke tried to pick me up. In the end, I headed here. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t worry. You’re here now. Have a drink and settle your nerves. Molly stepped in for you. Remember to say thank you.”
“Which one is Molly?”
“With the tall flyer.”
The two women looked in our direction.
“I’m May. Thank you for being Mavis’ bridesmaid. I got lost,” said May clutching her Gin and Tonic, the lemon slice was threatening to escape, but she caught it just in time and dropped in into her glass, for safe keeping.
“Mavis said you were very good,” said May.
“There wasn’t a lot for me to do. I took her flowers when it was time to exchange rings, and I signed the book. It was fun.”
May sailed off to join the bride and tell her about her adventure on the tram to hell.
“You did handle yourself very well,” I said.
“I did, didn’t I? I was a bridesmaid at my sister’s wedding, but I could barely breathe, I was so nervous. I’ve been nervous most of my life, but I’m not nervous when I’m with you. Why do you think that is?” said Molly.
“I have this fatal charm. It works on women, horses and flight sergeants, but not on Military Police. Sometimes on Railway ticket office personnel, but that’s it — the extent of my charm.”
Molly grabbed my arm and squeezed it. She smelled of violets, and I could feel the warmth of her body through my uniform.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here. I’m going to say our goodbyes, and we can go.”
Molly smiled, and it occurred to me that I was taking the husbandly role and I had only met her a few days ago. Time goes quickly during wartime.
I’m not Molly’s husband, and I’m not sure what she would say if I proposed. We haven’t shared a bed — not yet. For my part, I knew she was the one, but in that moment I didn’t know how she felt about me.
The pub was full of happy people, some of whom knew the happy couple — an American flyer and a Melbourne girl who sold shoes, loved gardening and cats. If he survived the War, her American flyer would probably take her back to the US, and she would be a fish out of water, but for now, she can lie in his arms and let the world take care of itself — for at least forty-eight hours. I wonder what the wedding photo will look like and I wonder who will see it in the future and wonder about this deliriously happy couple.
“Can you zip me up please Hon?”
I’m sitting on the bed wrestling with a recalcitrant sock when I hear these familiar words. It promises to be a big night. One of those rare chances to dress up and play. I’m almost dressed, and for once, my beloved is ahead of me.
I abandon the sock and walk almost barefooted to where she is standing. As I get closer to her, her aroma hits me, and my senses are sending signals to a part of me that is likely to do my thinking for me.
I can see her bare back — no bra under this dress on this night — the downy hairs reflect the mellow light from her dressing mirror. I grasp the leaf of the zipper and my fingers touch her skin, ever so gently. I noticed goose bumps forming on her spine, so she is thinking the same thing I am. The zip glides up effortlessly making that familiar sound — something like the sound of delicate material giving way.
I lean in and fill my lungs — her shampoo mixed with perfume and that indefinable personal aroma that lingers on her clothing. I notice it when I’m asked to retrieve a cardigan from the car on unexpectedly cool Autumn days.
Having a woman ask you to zip up her dress is an intimate request. Zipping that dress for her is the most intimate moment between us which does not involve penetration.
We need to be leaving, but all I want to do is reverse the direction of that zipper. She knows it.
“Don’t even think about it, we’ll be late.”
“Too late. I started thinking the moment you asked, and it got more intense the closer I got to you. I’m pretty sure that we could be a little bit late,” I said.
She turned and looked at me.
“As long as we make it for dessert. I’ve been starving myself all day.”
I stared into her eyes, and we both listened to the sound of her zipper descending.
“So, let me get this straight. You didn’t see anything. Two blokes with guns blazing, patrons scattering in all directions, enough blood on the floor to drown a small horse and no bodies.”
“Boris no see nothing.”
“Presumably, the bloke or blokes who were bleeding all over the place just walked out into the carpark and drove themselves home?”
“Maybe Uber pick them up. Boris doesn’t know.”
“Have you ever seen these two gunmen before?”
“Plenty times. They in here a lot.”
“But you don’t know their names?”
“Noone tells Boris anything. Boris serves drinks, goes home watches boring TV and sleeps.”
Detective Sergeant Dorsey Eweles did not believe Boris, but he wasn’t going to let it spoil his day. One or both of the disputing parties would turn up at the local Emergency Department or in a vacant block. Either way, the forensics team would come up with something and then the fun part would begin.
Taking statements at the Rising Sun Hotel was not part of the fun.
Every local police officer knew this hotel and what went on here. Amazingly, considering the nefarious deeds that were performed here, there were fewer turnouts for drunk and disorderly than most hotels. Generally speaking, this establishment kept a low profile. Small time misdeeds disrupted the smooth flowing of ‘business as usual’. A shooting was particularly rare. None of the oldtimers could remember being called to the Rising Sun for any type of firearms incident.
“Did you have your eyes closed or did you have a lampshade on your head while all this was going on?”
“Boris dived under bar and stayed there until shooting stopped.”
“How did you know when to come out?”
“No more bangs.”
Detective Sergeant Dorsey Eweles was correct in thinking that Boris was not telling the truth.
Boris Vladim Godunov could trace his ancestry back to the Czar who ruled Russia in the late 1500s. Boris had seen a lot in his forty-odd years of life and two drunk Australians shooting it out over an affair of the heart was a minor occurrence. Boris had dodged many bullets and seen men die. He wasn’t afraid of death, but living made him nervous.
Boris came to Australia as a young man, jumping ship in Melbourne on an Autumn afternoon. He walked into the Seaman’s Mission with the clothes on his back and about two dozen English words he had learned from an older shipmate.
“Melbourne is a long way from Russia. No one will look for you here. You can make a new life for yourself,” said Dimitri in his native tongue. “Go to the Seaman’s Mission and the Universe might be kind to you.”
Dimitri gave Boris directions, and his words were to be accurate because Boris met a group of seamen who told him how to find work and secure a place to sleep.
Boris knew that he had found a home. He worked on his English at nights and looked for work during the day. His search took him to Richmond and the Rising Sun Hotel. It was the first, and the last job he would hold. Boris stopped going to English classes at night not long after he got the job. He knew the English words for beer, whiskey and he knew what ‘bullshit’ meant. The rest he would pick up as he went along. His job did not require a lot of conversation, and he liked that. He was strong enough to evict a drunk and intelligent enough to participate in other activities that came his way — cash in hand, of course — courtesy of the regular patrons who valued a reliable, silent accomplice. Backdoor Barry was a regular source of income for Boris. Backdoor Barry used the Rising Sun as his office and Boris made sure that he was well looked after. Boris made an excellent roast beef sandwich with extra mustard (mild English was Barry’s prefered condiment).
“Boris sorry he no help much.”
“Don’t worry about it Boris, it will all work itself out. Just one thing though. You don’t strike me as the kind of bloke who would duck for cover unless the guns were pointed at you. You strike me as a fearless kind of fucker who would stand there and watch the mayhem unfold without blinking an eye.”
Boris Vladim Godunov didn’t answer, but Detective Sergeant Dorsey Eweles thought he saw him wink at him. Then again, it might have been conjunctivitis.
I emptied the contents of my hand onto the time-worn table.
We inhabited this pub during happier times, and I guess we never broke the habit.
“What is that?” asked Harry, my former workmate. Harry and I once were warriors in the halls of finance. We slashed and burned our way to enormous profits — profits we saw very little of. That sounds like sour grapes, and I guess it is. We were paid very well and on at least one occasion, our Christmas bonus equalled the deposit on an expensive flat overlooking the river — I loved that view.
We thought we were invincible.
“That, my dear Harry is a pile of thank you,” I said with an air of mystery — I do a good mystery.
“Come again, young Charles?” Everyone at the firm called me young Charles. It made it easier, and even when older Charles left the company, I continued to be young Charles.
“It’s a moderately long story, do you want another pint before I begin?”
“Nah, I’ll make this one last.”
“You know that big old RAF greatcoat I used to wear?”
“The one that is hanging on the coat stand over there?”
“That’s the one.”
“I think I will get that drink. I get the feeling that this is going to be epic — you want one?”
“No, save your money. I’m pleasantly toasted, and it should last until lunchtime.”
In the old days, we didn’t have to worry about such things — money was always there, and just like everything else in life, we expected it to stay that way.
I watched Harry make his way to the bar. The girl behind the counter was new, and Harry fancied his chances — their conversation continued for some minutes. As Harry turned to come back to our table, I watched the young lady flash her eyes and run her fingers through her hair.
“I think I’m in there,” said Harry as he sat down. From what I saw, I’d say he probably was.
“It must be your Scotish charm.”
“They all want to know what is under the kilt.”
“You’re not wearing a kilt, Harry.”
“You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t, but one day I’m sure you will enlighten me.”
We had both travelled a long way to come to London and make our fortune, and now we could not imagine going home with our tails between our legs. My hometown is Melbourne — on the other side of the world.
“So, if you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin.”
“Extremely comfy, thank you.”
“You know the park across from my flat?”
“Your old flat or the new one?”
“There is only a railway line across from my current abode.” I glared at him for reminding me of how far I had come down.
“On my days off —“
“Which you have a large number of nowadays,” interrupted Harry.
“Yes, thank you for reminding me. On my days off I would take my stale bread to the park and feed the birds. I wasn’t particular, anything with feathers got a fair share.”
“That was very egalitarian of you,” said Harry.
“Thank you — one must maintain standards. So, this went on for many weeks when I discovered the substance you see before you, in the pocket of my greatcoat.”
Harry ran a cautious finger through the pile of what looked like very fine gravel lying on the well-worn table.
“I didn’t pay it any attention at first. I assumed that it had fallen out of a tree, or I had brushed up against something as I walked through the park.”
“A reasonable assumption.”
“Agreed — then the amount of gravel got progressively larger until it reached the proportion you see before you.”
“So, what is it? I know you are dying to tell me.”
“I took a sample to a girl I was penetrating at that time, and between bouts of passion, I asked her if she knew what it was. This girl loves a mystery, so she leapt out of bed, stark naked, and put a couple of grains under her microscope.”
“You have to love a naked woman who has a microscope.”
“My thoughts exactly. It turns out that she was not only good at all forms of coitus, but she was an excellent botanist as well.”
“Coitus beats Botanist though.”
“I agree, but on this occasion, she was both — result!”
“Well, it turns out that they are the tops of tiny acorn like seeds — just the tops, and they are very sought after by the little birds that live in that park.”
“Little birds, is that their botanical name?”
“She did tell me, but in my defence, she was naked, and I imagined all the things I could do to her before I had to go to work. Smoothest thighs you have ever seen and spectacular breasts.”
“Fair enough. Any man could forget a Latin name under such circumstances — you’re forgiven.”
“Anyway, these little birds spend hours looking for the caps off the seeds. They use them to make a sort of paste. They mix it with mud and sticks and make a very sturdy nest — a bit like adding gravel to cement. These tiny nut caps are their most treasured possession — they will fight other birds who try to move in on their supply.”
“And, they give them to you?”
“Yes. I’m just as amazed as you are.”
“How do they manage to get them into your pocket without you noticing?”
“Good question. I guess it’s because I’m in a kind of meditative state — sitting by the lake, watching the birds. It was then, and still is, a kind of escape. But after the encounter with the naked Botanist, I watched them out of the corner of my eye. My coat pocket bends open just a bit as I sit and they come up from behind me and drop them in, one at a time.”
“Wow. It must take a while to deposit enough to make a pile like this.”
“I’m touched that they want to thank me. I guess they appreciate the food. Pickings must be very slim in the winter, especially if you have extra mouths to feed. Often, I would be the only one in the park, particularly on wet rainy days. That old greatcoat comes in handy. I turn up the collar and tuck in a scarf, and I’m warm as toast.”
“What about your head?”
“Large woollen fisherman’s hat.”
“I feel bad taking their most treasured possession, so I sneak back and sprinkle them under a nearby tree and hope that they don’t notice.”
“Boy, are you going to feel dumb if they turn out to be a cure for cancer.”
“I’ll risk it.”
We both went quiet for a while, the way that good friends can. We sat and drank our beer and thought back to those heady days when the world was ours for the taking.
Harry is the only friend I have left from those days. I remember the morning we turned up to work only to find the front doors chained and padlocked. I wondered how they were able to do that; then I remembered that our firm owned the whole building. The security guards were no help — I just wanted to get my stuff out of my desk — never happened — probably ended up in a skip.
As I remember, Harry and I walked to this pub and made a few calls before our work phones went silent. A couple of the directors had been fiddling the books. They knew that we were surviving on reputation and bugger all else. They packed a serious amount of cash into the company jet and headed for a warmer country. We should have seen it coming, but we were young, and thought we knew our worth — we were invincible.
The naked botanist stopped fucking me as soon as I could no longer squire her to important parties. The flat went after a few months — I wandered along in denial, thinking that the world needed my skill set, but whenever they read the name of the firm I had most recently been employed by, the answer was always the same — no room at the inn.
The blokes who came to throw me out of my flat were very good about it.
“Just take whatever you can carry mate, we’ll look the other way.”
Jolly decent of them really. It was the middle of the day, and they broke for lunch after changing the locks on my former flat.
“Can we buy you lunch young fella? Don’t take it too hard. We see a lot of this, especially nowadays. You can curl up and die, or you can come back stronger — it’s your choice.”
They were right, and I worked for them part-time for a while, but that life was not for me.
I’ve got a tiny flat with a view of a railway line, a warm coat and a good friend. My bank account will see me right for a few more months.
He was different when he was dead, but while alive he was an idiot.
He needed money and of all the ways you can get some, legal and illegal, he chose to kidnap and hold to ransom a rural one teacher school — teacher and all. What a moron.
The minister for education volunteered to deliver the ransom — which took guts — no one considered him to be ‘just another politician’ after that. Before his phone went flat, THE KIDNAPPER didn’t turn up — couldn’t get the bus started — Miss Stephenson knew how to start the cantankerous machine, but she wasn’t about to help him. He got it going eventually, but by then the Minister and about a hundred well hidden, heavily armed police officers gave up on him and went home. THE KIDNAPPER didn’t have a plan B — didn’t have a phone charger either, so his phone died. He’d cut the school phone line — he probably saw that done on TV. With no way to contact the police, he panicked, not noticing the still functioning phone box outside the school.
He drove the bus towards the City until it ran out of fuel — parked it in a laneway and within an hour the area was awash with police. In the confusion, Miss Stephenson slipped away with five of the children. She would have gotten away with all of them but THE KIDNAPPER heard them, and she wisely left with the children she could save. He waived his rifle at her and the children, shouted at them, but didn’t fire. Miss Stephenson held her breath and didn’t look back.
The four kids I ‘saved’ were left behind. THE KIDNAPPER paced around the empty house and terrified the children before leaving by the back door when I banged on the front door — the rest has been well documented. That’s not strictly correct. You are one of the few people who know that I stumbled across the children.
Do you know how I pulled that off? The high point of my career? I was in the right place at the right time. I didn’t think they were there. I was banging on that door because someone had hemmed me in — parked so close that I couldn’t move my car. I was tired and pissed off, and I guess I sounded angry. The fuckwit must have thought I was the police and he legged it out the back door. When the front door came open, and that little face looked up at me and said, “Have you come to save us?” I just froze. I expected to get a shotgun pushed into my chest, but the kidnapper was gone. The kids were all scared and tired and grubby, and except for the boy who opened the door, they were very quiet.
I sat on the old vinyl couch with the kids and waited for the police to arrive. I’m not sure that the switchboard operator believed me when I rang it in. I left the front door open to show that we were in there and we were okay, but it didn’t stop the Special Response Squad from bursting in with the familiar sound of ‘Armed Police, get on the ground.’ I still have that fuckers knee print on my back.
They caught Stanley James Smith a few houses away, and I got a curt apology for being roughed up. ‘You know how it is Mr Fox. We can’t be too careful. Sorry about arresting you and all the rest.’
‘What’s your name again?’ I said.
‘Commander Wilson. I was in charge of the search.’ He put his hand out to shake mine — for the cameras.
‘Fuck you very much, Commander Wilson,’ was my reply — or words to that effect.
The Commander smiled at me and said, ‘Fair enough.’
We both produced our best smiles for the camera.
About a year later I won a Walkley Award for my series of articles on the Cameron Street Primary School kidnapping. The story stretched over four Saturday editions — about twenty thousand words and not once did I mention the kidnapper’s name — didn’t give the fucker what he wanted — fame.
The rest of the world needed a hero that week, and cynically, I cashed in on their need. I thought it would be good for my career. The truth of it weighed me down over time. It certainly did help my career, but it did nothing for my heart.
I interviewed Miss Stephenson for the series of articles I was writing. In a sane world, she would be the hero, but she made one mistake — she chose wisely and left with as many of the children as she was able — but not all.
THE KIDNAPPER walked into the well kept little one teacher country school on a bright Spring morning. Strangers are noticed quickly in rural communities, but although he was new to the area, THE KIDNAPPER didn’t raise suspicion. His appearance and demeanour made him look like any rural worker. His battered utility, just like a thousand others. Even the rifle he was carrying was not out of place in this environment.
People worry about their kids, but never in their wildest dreams would they expect them to be involved in a ransom attempt.
It didn’t take long for the press, of which I am one, to work out that Miss Stephenson was not going to sell newspapers beyond the usual five-day window — she wasn’t interested in being famous. “I was just doing my job. The parents entrust their children to my care, so I was doing my best to keep them safe and get them home to their parents.”
When I asked her how she kept the gunman from hurting any of the children she said, “I treated him like one of the children. I spoke to him firmly but gently and reminded him that people would not be happy if anything happened to the children.”
“Weren’t you frightened?” I asked.
“Yes, but I had a job to do, and if I showed fear, it was only going to escalate the situation.”
What a woman.
THE KIDNAPPER had a predictable background which was laid out in minute detail by his defence counsel at trial. His father beat him regularly, which caused some brain damage and he didn’t do well at school — which had nothing to do with his decision to hold an entire school to ransom, apparently. His defence team worked hard, but in the end, he was found guilty of kidnapping and a bunch of other stuff — all window dressing, the main charge was the big one. The sentence didn’t surprise anyone — life in prison, which meant that he would be out in about thirty years as long as the government of the day didn’t see the need to make some ‘hard on crime’ mileage and keep him inside.
In the end, it was all academic, as they say. THE KIDNAPPER got into a discussion with a big bloke who had kids — lots of them. The big bloke wasn’t allowed anywhere near his kids, for obvious reasons, but that did not stop him from striking a blow for parents everywhere. The resultant blow ended THE KIDNAPPER’s life after a few days in a coma.
His death was front page for a day, and my paper reran the series of articles I had written more than a year before and I became ‘the bloke who saved those kids’ all over again.
I never visited THE KIDNAPPER’s grave, and I never mentioned his name in print.
I don’t know where Miss Stephenson is these days although I believe that she got married and moved to a warmer climate. I’ll bet the children in her classroom will remember her and so will the parents.
Me too, if it comes to that.
She got her quiet life back, I got to be famous, and THE KIDNAPPER got to be dead — he was different when he was dead.