Looks can be deceiving.
Take Bernard for example.
He looks small and cute, and his mistress is French.
You might think that he lives in a handbag and eats paté all day, but no, he doesn’t. Okay, so he does eat the occasional croissant, and he once licked paté off the floor where some French bloke dropped it while talking to his mistress, but I don’t think that counts.
He does eat snails, but that is a whole other story.
Bernard is special.
All dogs are special, of course, but what I mean to say is that Bernard is especially talented.
You already know that dogs have amazing senses, and the sense of smell is particularly acute.
I sound like I know what I’m talking about, but to be truthful, I only discovered this because my mistress was doing research for a story.
It all started after I caught the murderer in the country house. It was one of my very first adventures. My mistress was very proud of me, and she wondered how I did it. I didn’t think much about it at the time; I just did what dogs do — I sniffed it out. I thought everyone could do it, but apparently not.
My mistress said that some dogs could detect individual ingredients in a pasta sauce. I could have told her that. It drives her crazy that her girlfriend makes a particularly good Napoli sauce, and she is not sure what the secret ingredient is. It’s Turmeric. A very tiny amount. I tried pointing at it in the spice rack using my nose, but she told me off for climbing on a chair. Humans can be very annoying.
Bernard, on the other hand, never gets told off for climbing on chairs. He is treated like a king — a small hairy king, but a king none the less.
His unique skill is finding things.
Rich people pay his mistress large amounts of money to find things that have been lost inside their huge houses, but more importantly, Bernard is asked to find things that are hidden in the houses of wealthy deceased persons — usually by greedy relatives who are sure that their dead uncle has stashed away a fortune.
Bernard comes to visit at least once a year.
His mistress and my mistress have been friends since my mistress was a student in France. She stayed with her friend’s parents for a year, and she says it was one of the best years of her life.
I was expecting Bernard to be a bit ‘up himself’, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that he was a very down-to-earth dog.
Appearances can be deceiving.
He likes watching soccer on TV, and he enjoys walks in the rain, but his mistress won’t let him. I splashed water on him one time so that he would know what it felt like. He was very appreciative.
I took him down to the local Butcher Shop, just to show him the sights and he had a splendid time. He got dusty, and some sand got stuck between his toes and he said it made him feel like one of those free range dogs. He was kidding himself of course. He wouldn’t last five minutes in the wild, but I let him have his dream. Who am I to step on anyone’s dream?
He told me about life in Paris, and it sounded pretty good.
French dogs are allowed into cafés, but I like it here. I’m too old to learn the French words for ‘walk’ and ‘treat’ and ‘get off the chair’.
I asked Bernard what was the most interesting thing he was asked to find, and he said that it was hard to choose, but it was probably a lost toy.
The toy belonged to a little old lady. She was very old and sick. She believed that she was going to die soon and she had been thinking a lot about her childhood. She had a favourite little doll.
She used to tell it her secrets.
One day, while playing hide and seek with her brothers and sisters, she put the doll down and forgot where she put it. She searched and searched, but to no avail.
She wanted to hold that little doll one last time before she died.
Bernard said that she offered a huge reward, but it would only be paid if he could find the doll.
His mistress brought him to meet the old lady, and they got on very well indeed. Bernard gave her a good sniffing and set off through the large old Chateau in search of the little doll. It helped that he is small because it stood to reason that the doll would be in a small hiding place just big enough to hide a little girl.
Bernard searched all day, and he was beginning to wonder if he might have to come back another day, but just as the light was failing, he wandered into a small room attached to the huge kitchen. It was full of dusty old boxes, and it looked like no one had been in there for a long time. To start with, nothing in the room seemed to smell like the little old lady had touched it, but after pushing a few boxes aside with his nose, he got a faint whiff.
The little doll had been nibbled on by moths and was very dusty, but she was in one piece, and she was exactly as the old woman had described her.
Bernard said that it was very strange, but he was sure that the little doll was calling out to him. He followed the scent and the sound directly to where the doll was lying, but when he got there, the doll stopped talking to him.
He gently carried the little doll back to the old lady. She was sleeping and woke as he jumped up on her bed. She didn’t care that the doll was dusty and moth-eaten. She hugged it and cried. Bernard knew enough about female humans to know that there was a chance that this little old lady was happy and not sad.
I asked him what happened to the doll and the little old lady, and he said that he was not sure. He heard his mistress talking about her a few times, but he did not know what her words meant. He did say that they got paid a lot of money because of his find and they went on a holiday to Trieste, and as a special treat, he got a ride on the famous funicular tramway. Bernard loves trams, and he and his mistress are going to visit Melbourne next year because they have the most extensive system of tramways anywhere in the world, not to mention the longest continuous piece of tram track.
Bernard loves trams.
You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but appearances can be deceiving.
It’s a job like any other.
I get tired, and I get bored, but mostly I like coming to work.
When I was a young man, working my way through college, I worked at a shop that sold lottery tickets. I loved that job; the owner was a dick, but the job was great. People who buy lottery tickets are optimists, and they are my favourite people to be around; not always the brightest, but definitely the most fun. They believe that their time will come.
Which, by contrast, is the exact opposite of the people who come to my place of work.
When my customers come through that door, the one with the antique bell hanging off the inside, they come because they want to recapture something of their past.
I know that sounds mundane; everyone goes back into their memories looking for a happier time. All very well if you can actually remember those times, but if you can’t, that’s where I come in.
Not everyone walks around with a head full of brightly coloured memories. Some people blank their memories out and with good reason.
Some people, and I’m talking quite a lot of people, do not remember specifics about their childhood. They remember their childhood, of course, but only in a general way. Happy, sad, bored, excited, mad, elated, lonely, that sort of thing.
These days we have the technology to do all kinds of amazing things, and still, we are not happy.
People come to me because they want to reconnect with that happiness that they once knew. They want to experience it one more time, and in many cases, over and over again.
There are side effects, of course, but I can see their eyes glaze over as I read the list of things that might happen to them if they go through this procedure. The government makes me tell them, but I told them even before the small fat bloke from the Ministry paid me a call.
“I’m not sure how you slipped through the net Mr Williams [he pronounced my name as though he had just stepped in something nasty], but it seems that you don’t come under any of our regular categories. We’ll put you under ‘miscellaneous’ [that’s the catch-all category that makes sure that you have to fill in a form and pay a fee, even if they have no idea what you do].”
“What do you do with all the fees we pay Mr………?”
“Johnson, William Johnson, chief collector of fees for the eastern and southeastern region. I used to have the north-eastern region, but they said it was too much for me, and they gave it to Jenkins, the swine.”
“That’s a riveting story Mr Johnston, but where does the money go?”
“General revenue, of course.” He looked at me as though I’d just dropped in from another planet.
“Yes, but what does the money do?”
“It doesn’t do anything, it just is —— revenue.”
I could have kept this conversation going, but there was a serious danger of my head exploding so I just nodded and bit my lip — really hard.
William Johnson was not born a revenue collector. When he was young, he dreamed of being a train driver, back when trains had drivers. He loved the sound of trains, and the drivers were his heroes. His house backed onto the tracks of the Belgrave line. During the school holidays, he would scale the back fence and sit on the embankment and wait for the trains to pass. He’d wave at the drivers, and some of them would wave back. William longed to be the driver who waved back, but his father was convinced that working for the Public Service was the only life for his disappointing son who liked trains and talked of nothing else. ‘In the absence of a war, the Public Service will toughen him up.’
When you go into business, every bugger has got his hand in your pocket.
This bugger was only one of many.
When I wasn’t paying fees, I was dealing with customers.
They come in all shapes and sizes.
I had a bloke in here recently who had lost a lot of his long-term memory in a car accident. Naturally, he wanted to remember the accident in detail so he could work out what had happened.
Therein lay a problem.
If you are driving along and another car comes out of nowhere, all you are going to remember is that you were driving along and ‘bang’, the memory stops.
He was disappointed but not surprised. I helped him with a few other names and dates, but it didn’t seem to help his mood. He was frustrated and a bit sad.
This was an unusual day because I don’t get a lot of this kind of business.
People don’t usually come digging around in a forgotten past.
It does happen, and it usually ends in tears. The mind blocks out certain things — nasty things, and I can’t help thinking that the mind knows what it is doing — leave that stuff alone.
Of course, none of that is up to me. My job is to pinpoint the memory as accurately as possible.
They give me an approximate time and place and I ‘recollect’ it for them. Occasionally, it takes me a bit longer than I’d like, but that usually happens when people are not too sure about specifics.
You are probably wondering how I got into this business.
I just fell into it.
I was young, and my dad insisted that I work during the summer before I started college. My dad was like that. He felt that there were things that I needed to learn and more importantly, things I needed to experience.
We had money, as the saying goes, and my dad did not want me to grow up thinking that the world owed me anything.
I’d known I had this ability since childhood, and my grandfather made sure that I worked at it and got it better. This was back in the day when you had to be careful of who you spoke to about such things. It could cause you some problems, and I lost a few friends because of it, mostly because my friends’ parents were frightened to let their child play with someone who could access their memories. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I took it personally — I was hurt.
I understand now that, most likely, these adults were worried that their child would reveal some secret memory. As we have learned in recent times, some strange things went on behind closed doors in those days.
I went to work for old Doc Preston. My dad knew him [dad knew a lot of people], and he got me the job.
Doc Preston wasn’t a medical doctor; he was a doctor of psychology, and his credential came in handy in this work. All Doc Preston ever wanted to do was help people. It was amazing being around this man, even for an oblivious young eighteen-year-old like me. He lost the love of his life when they were both quite young, and he never married again. He had ‘friends’, but never anything heavy. ‘I’m married boy, [he always called me boy, even when I was in my forties], and I always will be. She may not be here with me in person, but I know we will be together again, and I’m going to remain faithful to her. It’s the only thing I can give her now, my loyalty.’ As I got to know him, I gave him the ‘she would want you to be happy’ speech, but he alway smiled and shook his head, ‘you will understand one day, boy.’
Doc Preston taught me heaps about the recollectionist business.
I jumped out of bed every morning.
When my mates urged me to take a day off and hang out, I told them that I had better things to do with my time. They thought I was nuts, and maybe I was, but it was in a good way.
I went to college, but I worked for Doc Preston on Saturdays and during the holidays.
I ended up with an honours degree, but I never put it to use because I had found my calling.
When Doc got too old to carry on, he sold the business to me.
I didn’t want him to retire. I loved being around him.
“How much do you want for the business Doc? I’m pretty sure I can raise the money.”
“Ten dollars and packet of Juicy Fruits.”
“Be serious Doc.”
He was, and he wasn’t kidding about the Juicy Fruits; Doc never joked about sweets.
You’ve probably guessed that Doc was not well. He knew, but as usual, I was totally oblivious.
A week before he died, he came into the shop, when he knew it would be quiet, and asked me for a favour.
“Can you take me back to the summer of ’88? That was our last summer together, and I’d like to remember it one last time.”
“Sure thing Doc, but none of this ‘one last time’ stuff.” Doc just smiled and gave me that look.
By the time the session was over the tears were rolling down my cheeks.
That was not like me.
I experience some very emotional stuff when I facilitate the ‘recollections’, but I usually keep a professional distance [Doc taught me that — ‘you’ll go batty if you don’t learn how to stand back and watch’].
The trouble was, this was personal. I’d heard him talk about her hundreds of times, but now, there she was and they were so much in love. I could smell her perfume, and I could see the look in their eyes and it broke my heart.
I don’t know what Doc would think of the industry these days.
He would probably say something like, ‘everything changes boy, get used to it and make the most of what you have in the here and now’.
I’m one of the last ‘old school’ recollectionists.
These days there are automated ‘remembering’ stores in most shopping centres, run by poorly paid young people who would rather be sitting on a beach.
If you appreciate the old fashioned service of having your memories recollected by an actual human, then you come on down to Melbourne’s last old time Recollectionist emporium.
Shop 22 in The Block Arcade.
We offer a discreet service and an experience that you will never forget.
I loved her the first time I saw her, and that’s all you need to know.
She had hair the colour of rich Belgian chocolate, and recently cut it shorter but would grow it longer again, just for me. A short stay in hospital had left her looking a little pale, and her lack of makeup was not disguising her beautiful complexion. She smiled at me and spoke enthusiastically about different coloured foods. She didn’t see me, not really, and I was determined to change that. Nothing was more important in my life. She was wearing an exquisite gown that showed the curves of her petite body to perfection. She left early with her friends, and I sat in a daze, wondering what had just happened.
It was Scarlett Holmyard who triggered my fitful imagination. It was Scarlett Holmyard who gave my life meaning when things were at their darkest.
I still have the souvenirs. Random memories that, if you put them all together would look like the remnants of a shredded photo album. Fragments of photographs are floating on the water or stuffed down the side of a sofa. Each piece tells a story of adventure, close encounters, triumphs and pure excitement.
I cannot explain the feelings I have when recalling them — the frustration, the hope, the confusion, the anger. Scarlett is the most important person in my life, but I don’t know that yet. She’s that person that you catch sight of out of the corner of your eye. She’s the one whose name you struggle to remember, the torn photograph with not enough detail. She is my nameless champion, my never wavering hero, and I’m the one who is doggedly searching for her.
illustration by Jack Vettriano
I love the early morning.
Most of the night people are seeking refuge in a cafe — bacon and eggs over the latest wholegrain toast, black coffee, no sugar and a bleary-eyed remembrance of an evening that will not come again.
I’d been delayed, and as I walked back to my table, the rising sun sent a soft golden glow across the Piazza.
My assistant was no longer sitting at the table. His working night had ended, and he was probably propping up the bar at Il Baccaro or wrapped around one of the night owl females who frequent this part of the city.
As I approach the table I see my tally book lying where my assistant had left it. My keys lie on top of the book, undisturbed.
I like keys.
I prefer an analogue solution to security wherever I can find it. I’m not disturbed by electronics — it’s just that I like the feeling of a key turning in a lock and the sound keys make when they jangle in my pocket.
The huge black umbrella is not offering any shade to the two well dress gentlemen seated at my table — the sun is way too low. I have a sense that there was a third man seated where I usually sit. He hasn’t been absent from the table for very long, and I’m wondering if he is due to return.
The two well-dressed men give me a lazy glance.
I’m still in evening dress and although a little dusty, I’m well presented after a long night of keeping book for the rich and famous. Millions of dollars and only a few slips of paper to show for all that activity.
My two guests are dressed in expensive suits and carrying expensive guns — well concealed. The value of what they are wearing would purchase a well-kept second-hand Mercedes. Where they come from the streets are full of Mercedes and during their Civil War, a few decades ago, the news footage showed armed men, ambulances and swirling smoke. Even the taxis were Mercedes. The vehicle of choice for a Middle Eastern civil conflict.
My occupation doesn’t require me to carry a concealed weapon, but I do. A large calibre two barreled Derringer strapped to my right ankle, and I’m proud to say that I’ve only needed to draw it once.
Part of my job is calculating the odds — seeing the trouble coming before it arrives. I have had to dodge the occasional closed fist and the well-aimed polished boot, but mostly I can calm a situation down before it comes to that. Sore losers are an occupational hazard.
I brushed the dust and a few flower petals off my seat before I sat down and the larger of the two well-dressed gentlemen said, “You may not want to sit there Mr Barker. In fifty seconds, it is going to be unhealthy for anyone who is sitting in that chair.”
Fifty-seconds isn’t very long to decide if he was just a smart arse and I’d used up a few of them calculating the odds.
It seemed safer to assume that he was telling the truth when he and his silent companion, who was directly in the follow-through line of fire, got slowly up from the table and walked away. The taller one had to duck to avoid hitting his head on the umbrella.
I picked up my book and my keys and left the table with as much composure as I could muster.
After I had taken a few steps, I heard the zip of the bullet and the crack of the splintering chair and table top. The bullet would have struck the quiet gentleman somewhere between the groin and the kneecap.
There was no audible bang. The shot must have come from a considerable distance. The police would work all that out at their leisure, but now I had some celebrating to do. I had dodged a bullet and made a lot of money, all over the course of an eventful evening.
Now, if I were lucky, Charmaine will be at home waiting for me.
I must say that’s misleading. Charmaine never waits for me. She does her own thing. It’s just that we share a very expensive apartment, and we sometimes arrive there at the same time, usually early in the morning. On those occasions, we sometimes do the sorts of things that men and women like to do.
The apartment has glass walls on two sides, and I never draw the blinds. I love the view that it affords. The ancient part of the city is, by now, bathed in the golden light that this section of the world is famous for.
This morning, Charmaine arrived home before I did. She is making eggs in her underwear. Her body isn’t perfect. Her torso is slightly too long when compared to her beautiful legs. Her breasts are sumptuous, but some would say that they could be a little larger. She has long black hair, dimples on her bottom and delightful pink toes.
Last night she had been wearing a black bra and panties — lots of lace. I see the dress she was wearing hanging on the outside of her huge wardrobe.
Not including the bathroom, our apartment is one large room with a king-sized bed in the middle. I hope to be lying on that bed a little later and I’m hopeful that I will be knee-deep in Charmaine, but it will depend on the type of night she has had.
My carnal ace will be the story about nearly being shot. That kind of near miss adventure story has given me the green light before.
Charmaine gathers information and what she collects makes her a lot of money. It’s exciting and dangerous, and she loves every minute of it. She has an incredible memory and in her line of work it needs to be.
She knows I’m in the apartment, but she does not look up from her breakfast preparations. I remove my jacket, tie and Derringer and stand behind her. She smells amazing. Her scent produced over a long night’s work mixed with the remnants of her French perfume, and my equipment is on full alert.
I place my hand on her bottom and my expectations for the morning are in my hand. If she brushes me away, it means the night went badly and so will my morning.
She does not react, but neither does she dispense with my wandering hand. So far so good. My luck is holding.
“If you keep doing that you won’t get any breakfast,” she says in a voice that gives me further hope.
“That’s a tough choice for a man, food or carnal delights.”
“I didn’t say you had to choose.”
I couldn’t tell if she was smiling, because I was looking in another direction and imagining my good fortune.
A good breakfast and the delicious Charmaine to follow.
I didn’t get shot, and I’m going to get laid.
It’s been an awesome day.