The Lady With The Blue Dot

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“A blue marker pen will do the trick, but you will have to renew it every day,” said the lady with the blond curls.

She would have been a stunner in her youth, but even now — those eyes, wow!

“Our dot is tattooed on, and it contains all our information, apparently. I’ve never seen anyone scan it — it’s enough that you have one. Once we leave port, they lose interest,” she said.

For my part, I’m still trying to come to terms with being on this ship — I should be dead, and instead, I’m drawing a blue dot on the top knuckle of my left thumb — life is strange.

“Did you sneak on when we were docked at Melbourne,” she said.

“Sort of,” I answered.

“It’s fun here. Much better than being stuck in a retirement home,” she said.

“I’ll bet,” I said, and I meant it. The thought of ending up in one of those places was a contributing factor in my decision to kill myself.

“We can eat whatever we like, and there’s dancing for those who still can, and there’s alcohol, but that costs extra. Even with the occasional drink it’s cheaper here, and there are sea birds and cute young seamen,” she said.

I like this lady, but I have no idea why she is helping me.

“You’ve bumped your head,” she said.

“That’s an understatement,” I said, as the blood trickled down behind my ear. I can feel it soaking into my collar — a strange sticky sensation. The dull throb in my head is getting louder.

“I’ve got something in my cabin that can fix that,” she said.

“I’m not going to end up looking like a pirate, am I?” I said.

She smiled and took me by the hand as we walked along the corridor. Cabin 234, small, recently painted, efficiently fitted out, and most importantly, a porthole.

“How did you afford a room with a porthole,” I asked.

“It’s a cabin, not a room. They like us to use the correct nautical terms,” she said.

“Fair enough, when in Rome,” I said.

“We aren’t in Rome, young man. That bump on your head has mixed you up,” she said. “I was told I could have a porthole for the same price if I took a tiny cabin. I don’t need a lot of space, but I do like a view.”

I looked through her porthole which had been painted many times — I doubted its ability to open. Her cabin is on the upper decks, and this ship is huge. Her view extended to the horizon. I left a nose-print on the glass, and I wiped it off with my sleeve. This lovely lady bandaged my head and did her best to brush the soot from my jacket. I’m dressed in my best. If I’m leaving this world, I want to be presentable when I get where I’m going.

My curly haired saviour reached into the top drawer of her dressing table and drew out a blue pen and a couple of coloured lollies wrapped in clear cellophane. She pressed the lollies into my hand and drew a blue dot on the knuckle of my left thumb. She did it tenderly — I sensed that I reminded her of someone.

“You can have the pen, it will keep you going for a while — until you find another one. She said find as though she knew this for certain. She opened her cabin door and ushered me out.

“You’ll be fine now. We’ll be through the Heads and out of the bay in a few hours. Keep your head down until then, and you’ll be okay. You’ll need somewhere to sleep, and you’ll meet two ladies who will sort that out for you,” she said, and there was that certainty again.

I didn’t answer her, but I did give her a big smile and a gentle touch on the shoulder. As I walked away I could feel blood soaking into my bandage, and I’d forgotten to ask about food, but I had the feeling that my blue dot would get me into the dining room — ‘drinks are extra.’

This ship was supposed to be the method of me leaving this world, and now I find that it is to be my world, at least for the moment. I’m wondering why I don’t jump overboard? 

I’m a weak swimmer, I’d drift away — it would be over quickly.

My curiosity has been peaked for the first time in a long time — I want to see where this is leading. After all, my salvation was miraculous, so what other miracles does the universe have in store?

“So what happened to you, young man, “ said the lady with the red handbag.

“Was it a woman?” asked her friend in the floral dress and the string of pearls.

“Nice pearls,” I said, “and a ship hit me. No woman involved. I jumped off a bridge in a futile attempt to kill myself. I was aiming to disappear into a funnel, but the damn ship was going faster than it was supposed to and I bounced off the funnel and landed in a huge basket of laundry,” I said, and as soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew they sounded crazy, but neither of the ladies looked stunned. Maybe they heard stories like this every day.

“Why jump into a funnel?” said the red handbag.

“That way, there would not be a body for anyone to find. Nice and neat — no mess. And, if you must know, it was to be my final creative act on this earth. To the best of my knowledge, and I did the research, no one has ever committed suicide by jumping into the funnel of a moving ship. I had the mathematics all worked out. I calculated the height from the bridge to the top of the funnel. The ship would be fully laden with passengers and supplies, and even though she would be sitting low in the water, her funnels would only just fit under the bridge at half tide. The ship would not be allowed to exceed four knots for risk of swamping smaller boats and damaging shore facilities with her wake. I had it all worked out except for the fact that you hit a small sailing vessel,” I said.

“Two older ladies out for a sail. They told us over the public address. No need for alarm. The two ladies were picked up by the police launch. It did hold us up a bit though,” said the string of pearls.

“That explains the turn of speed. The captain would have been worried about the rising tide. The speeding fine and resultant claims would have been heaps smaller than the repair bill if he had torn off the funnels on my bridge,” I said, with a sense of satisfaction. I’ve always liked to understand why stuff happens, and now I know why I’m still here. The damn ship was going too fast. All those calculations and they go out the window because two old ladies don’t give way to a bloody big boat. I hope they throw the book at them. Better still, I hope I meet them — but then again, that is unlikely. Wherever this ship is going, I’m going with it, and I doubt I will see these shores again.

“You’ll need a place to sleep,” said the red handbag.

“That would be nice. I could use a lie down about now,” I said.

“Not a good idea for you to be alone for the next couple of days with that head wound. You undoubtedly have a concussion. You need to rest, or there could be dire consequences,” said string of pearls.

“Like dying?” I said, hopefully.

“If you still wanted to die, you would have gone over the side by now. I’m guessing that you are having second thoughts, and if that is so, you should listen to my friend. She was a combat nurse in her day. She’s seen all sorts of nasty stuff,” said the red handbag.

“You’d better stay in our cabin for a few days. That way, we can keep an eye on you and change your dressing,” said the string of pearls.

“A gentleman sleeping in the same cabin as two unattached ladies?” I said.

“I think we can resist you, at least until you regain your strength. After that, who knows,” said the string of pearls. Both ladies laughed heartily, and I managed a smile.

Their cabin was spacious, and I curled up on a bottom bunk and slept and dreamed of old ladies in beautiful dresses.

I remember string of pearls waking me and feeding me soup and changing my bandage. I had no idea why these ladies should take pity on me, and I didn’t much care. Maybe they wanted me for my body — no one had done that in a long time. Perhaps I’d be up to the task — only time would tell. Now there was sleep and soup and trips to the bathroom — and dreams, strange dreams.

“We’ve found you a cabin of your own, and it is not far from ours so you can come and visit whenever you like,” said the red handbag. “It’s cabin 212. The gentleman who owns it got off in Melbourne and never reboarded. This sort of thing happens from time to time, but the person left behind always radios the ship to let them know. Mr Winkle has not radioed. I know because the radio officer likes me,” said the red handbag.

“It’s true, he does,” said string of pearls.

“The stewards will continue to service the room, and they will not know the difference. All old people look alike to them,” said the red handbag.

“When can I see it?” I said.

“Maybe tomorrow. You are getting stronger each day. In any case, all of the smaller cabins look much the same.”

“Does it have a porthole?” I asked.

“Yes, it does. Why do you ask? Not planning to squeeze out, are you?”

“No. I just like to have a view,” I said.

“It’s not very big, but it does have a porthole and all of Mr Winkle’s clothes and things are still in the cabin. He was about your build so you should be able to wear some of his clothes.”

It occurred to me that this bloke was probably dead or shacked up with a woman or lying in a hospital and a John Doe. Sooner or later someone was going to work it all out, but in the meantime, I had a bolthole — a safe haven and a couple of slightly strange allies — things could be a lot worse.

Blond curls was correct — no one asked to see my blue dot when I walked into the dining room. I was a little bit disappointed. I’d taken great care to make the dot perfectly round.

The aroma of delicious food assailed my nostrils, and my imagination went into overdrive.

“Scallop potatoes, beans, fried tomatoes and two sausages, well-cooked please.”

The steward nodded, and I wondered if he noticed that I was not as old as everyone else, but his mind was elsewhere.

I’d let my whiskers grow a bit to give me that scruffy old bloke appearance, and it seemed to be helping.

“You’ll need a tray,” said the gentleman behind me. “Here, take mine.”

He handed me his tray and disappeared for a moment and came back with another one — still damp from being cleaned and put back on the stack.

“Just there,” he said, pointing at the hidden stack of trays. “They tuck them in there to keep them out of the way and to trick new arrivals.”

I took my tray to the nearest table, which conveniently had a view out onto the deck. My tray advisor followed me. We sat facing each other, and he was added to the list of people who did not notice my relative youth.

“So what made you join the voyage of the damned?”

“That’s a bit harsh mate,” I said.

“Gallows humour,” he said as he stared self consciously at his food.

“I like these old folks, er, us old folks. I never thought of myself as old (which was true), but I don’t mind people seeing me that way (also true). Everyone I’ve met since I came aboard has been very kind.”

My new friend grunted.

“You don’t seem to be too happy to be here?” I said.

“Long story.”

I looked at my plate, piled high and calculated how long it would take to eat.

“I’ve got fourteen point three minutes. Fire away.”

I was true to my word, and I was kind of listening, but mostly I was savouring a meal that was in many ways, a bonus.

“So, here I am, using up all my money on this endless voyage just so my ungrateful children get nothing when I cark it.”

“It’s your money, mate. Spend it how you like, but from where I’m sitting,” I looked out onto the deck in time to see two well-dressed ladies chasing and giggling after an equally well-dressed man who was running just fast enough to keep them close behind, “you don’t sound like you are enjoying the experience. You do realise that there are approximately six point four women for each man on this ship?”

My companion looked surprised.

“Really?”

“Yep. I counted them. Not much else to do this last week.”

“You’re right,” he said, rising from his seat. “Why am I sitting here with you. These women need me.”

“Are you going to finish that?”

He didn’t answer, so I pulled his half-finished chicken cacciatora in my direction.

I drained my glass of red wine, pushed my plate away just in time for a steward to collect the wreckage of my sumptuous meal.

I walked out on the deck and sat in the sun, digesting my meal. 

Sleep found me.

I dreamed of standing on the bridge before floating through the air.

The smell of the clean linen in the huge basket was fresh in my nostrils when I woke. Some kind soul had placed a blanket over me while I slept. The air was cold, and the scent of the sea helped me believe that this wasn’t a dream.

I rolled onto my back and stared up at the rapidly darkening sky. The moon and the brightest star were visible, and as I lay there, other stars slowly emerged. 

It reminded me of being a kid, lying on the back lawn in mid-summer, watching the sky and dreaming of adventure.

My life turned out to be significantly less adventurous than I had hoped. Miserable at times. Moments of happiness.

I know that at the time, I was serious about ending my miserable life, but as I lay in the deck chair with the roll of the ship to comfort me, I was struggling to remember why I felt that all was lost.

There must be more than a thousand people on this ship. So many stories. So many potential adventures.

For now, I have a cabin, all I can eat, plenty of company and a blue dot on my thumb.

What could possibly go wrong?

 

 

Three Bags Full

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Not exactly matching.

Not meant to be.

They each have a story to tell, and they all reflect my love of old things — things with history.

Take the broken catch on the bone coloured case, for example.

I was on an ‘overnighter’, up north. My boss, at the time, wanted some documents delivered by hand. Which was either a nod to the old school way of doing things or there was something dodgy going on. Considering how he ended up, I’d say it was probably the latter.

I never much liked Manchester, and having someone try and lever open my bag while it was in my room, didn’t raise my opinion of the place. I told the manager, and he checked the CCTV. I could see a bloke with a key going into my room, but he didn’t come out — not on that tape. It didn’t take a detective to work out that the bugger was still in there when I noticed the bag.

“Do you want to see if he comes out before you go back up Luv?” said the helpful manager.

“Not really.”

I went out for dinner and asked the huge doorman to come up to the room when I got back. Lovely bloke and brave for a person on minimum wage. No burglar and the case was just as I left it. He must have legged it when I stormed out. Never heard anything more about it.

I stole all the toiletries, towels, and the entire contents of the minibar put them all in a huge designer bag and gave them to the brave doorman.

“For your missus,” I said.

“Thanks, luv, but I’m not married,” said the brave doorman.

“For your boyfriend then,” I said, and he laughed. One of those laughs that makes you believe in people again.

My boss looked at me scornfully when he got the hotel bill, but he never said anything. All charged to the client, I’m thinking.

The big tin trunk belonged to a friend, and she was throwing it away when she moved out.

“I’ll have it,” I said and tried to stuff it into the hatchback I was driving at the time. It banged on the back window all the way home.

I cleaned it up a bit — not too much.

The faint lettering said Lieutenant Wilson 2/12 brigade.

I looked him up. He was my friend’s grandfather. Killed in New Guinea.

I asked her about it, and she just shrugged.

Some people!

If it doesn’t take batteries and connect to the web, it’s not seen as useful.

This tin box also has a dodgy catch which works when it feels like it. I usually wrap a belt around it, but large belts are hard to come by, and mine broke a week before this photo was taken.

The brown case was a present from an old boyfriend who left me to live and work overseas. 

I was sad, but I understood. 

Sometimes you just have to go. 

The catches work well, and it even had its original key (a bent paperclip works just as well). I keep my personal stuff in it when I travel.

Today I’m on a train, my favourite form of conveyance.

The flowers are for my aunty. I’m going to be staying with her for a week or two until things blow over, but that’s a story for another day.

My pockets are full of chocolate bars, the scenery will be beautiful, and my aunty will meet me at the station with her old Morris van. Between the two of us, we should be able to load my bags into the back.

I considered bringing a book to read, but the views are too beautiful to miss, especially the viaduct. 

No time to have my head stuck in a book. 

SIREN

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My first mate reminded me that we were half a day ahead of schedule, so I gave the order.
“Alter course. We’re heading for the island where the Sirens hang out.”
“But captain, they are incredibly dangerous,” said Claude, who had been with me since I bought this trading schooner.
“That’s sort of the point, Claude. Break out those industrial-strength earplugs and make sure that idiot Phillip puts his in. I’ve had it with that bloke. I don’t care how good a cook he is, we’re dumping him when we hit port,” I said.
The crew lashed me to the mast well before I heard the song.
It’s impossible to describe to you how beautiful it was, and as far as I was concerned, that was more than enough ecstasy.
I could see her swimming out to our boat, but I thought we would sail by before she got to us. My head was swimming, and for a while, I thought she was the girl from the cafe back in our home port — the one who does the deliveries. It wasn’t her of course, and the fact that she was utterly naked cleared that up — the delivery woman is always fully clothed when she does her deliveries. Mind you, if she did decide to change that, she would get better tips — just saying.
Anyway, the naked siren (I did mention her lack of clothing, didn’t I?) climbs over the railing and walks straight up to me, stares directly into my eyes and plants the biggest, saltiest kiss right on my all too willing lips.
I was pretty wound up by then, but after she kissed me, I lost it, which was embarrassing.
After giving me a wink, she dove over the side and swam in the direction of her island, giving me an excellent, if a fleeting view of her bottom.
Once we were clear of the island, the crew untied me, tidied me up and after a respectful period, asked me what it was like.
“Put it this way fellas, the song almost drove me crazy, and then this naked woman gave me the best kiss I’ve ever had and flashed her bum as she dove over the side. How do you think I’m feeling?”
The crew were quiet for a long time until Phillip broke the silence.
“Did she say anything?”
“Are you kidding me? What could she possibly say that would have enhanced the events I just laid out? Bugger off and work on your CV. You’re going to need it.”

When we got back to port, word of my adventure spread quickly.
These days, my crew and I run tours to the island for rich buggers with more money than sense, we go through a lot of eye plugs, but never has that naked beauty swum out to our boat.
I guess she was just for me.

 

 

Painting:
Gustav Wertheimer – The Kiss of the Siren, 1882

Train Sleeper

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“I’m sorry Mr Bennett,” she didn’t look that sorry, “but a shared sleeper is all we have left. If you must travel on that day, you will have to share. If you can put your trip off for a day or two you can have your pick of the solo cabins — they are more expensive, of course.”

“I have to be there on Friday, so it has to be the overnight train on Thursday. I’ll take the ticket, but tell them to stock up on decent whisky. I’m going to need it, and so is my sleep buddy,” said Sam

“You will have some time to yourself because your fellow passenger won’t be boarding until Ararat.”

That’s a few hours of peace, thought Sam, who was looking forward to reading the new Michael Robotham novel he purchased just for this journey.

The Overland sat quietly at platform 2, waiting for its passengers.

Train travellers are an interesting bunch. Many of Sam’s fellow passengers shared his dislike of planes and airports.

Trains rarely involve a full body cavity search, lack of legroom, surely security and godawful food.

The Overland, beautiful named, is a throwback to a time when people travelled for adventure, and the cost was not the top priority.

The train company asks that passengers arrive thirty minutes before departure. They are met by a company employee dressed appropriately, including a wide-brimmed Akubra. Passengers wait patiently next to their assigned carriage until the porter opens the doors. Find your cabin, stow your bags and head for the bar, maybe a snack. The evening meal is delivered to your room and so is breakfast, but a man needs snacks and a stiff drink.

Sam chose the upper bunk — first in first served.

He opened his book but decided to enjoy the view. In a few short hours, darkness will descend. 

The hustle and bustle of Spenser Street station at peak hour provides lots to look at. City workers heading home. Their tired countenance is even more disturbing than their morning gaze.

 

Suburban, country and interstate trains all share this massive station.


The train sounded its horn and slowly pulled out, right on time.

“If Mussolini were alive, he would be proud,” said Sam to himself. Right-wing arseholes are obsessed with trains running on time.

The train travelled slowly as it negotiated the rail yards with its twists and turns. The wheels and bogies complained loudly at the frequent changes of direction.

The train travels slowly for the first hour until it clears the suburbs of Melbourne. Some would say that the view is uninspiring, but Sam enjoyed the sometimes rusty and occasionally grubby nature of these old industrial suburbs. They reminded him of his childhood. His father worked skillfully with his hands, and on rare occasions, Sam was allowed to accompany him to work on weekends, when the bosses weren’t around.

Rust has its own distinctive aroma as do grease and dust and sweat, all ingredients of a working-class employment.

Once in open country, the train accelerates, and Geelong approaches rapidly.

Past Geelong and the country flattens out. The early settlers called it ‘Pleurisy Plains’. Anyone venturing out during the areas vicious gales was sure to contract the infection. 

The flatness comes about because it is a larval plain. The local Aborigines have lived here for so long that their oral history talks about the distant volcano erupting some twenty thousand years ago.

Through the gloaming, Sam could just see Mount Elephant — its indigenous name is ‘Hill of Fire’.

It was getting harder to see the countryside as the train pulled into Ararat.

The massive, now empty, rail yards looked like an old car park that no one used anymore. All a bit grim.

There was a country train on the other platform as Sam’s train pulled in. The passengers gazed at his train, no doubt wondering where it was headed and what the passengers were headed to.

After the train pulls out of Ararat, a strange thing happens. The mileage signpost suddenly drops about 30 miles. After asking the porter, Sam found out that the interstate train travels a longer route to get to Ararat than the regional line. So now they are on that track. Sam wondered who thought that going the long way was a good idea, but why people do the things they do, gives Sam a headache.

Sam’s cabin mate did not appear, and the train had been travelling for long enough for him (he assumed it was a him — even these days, Sam could not imagine a woman wanting to share a cabin with a strange man) to have found the right sleeper berth.

The first part of Sam’s journey had been peaceful, so why worry about the fate of his fellow traveller.

Sam climbed onto his bunk and read his book, but soon turned out the light and snuggled under the covers. The rolling motion is a cure for most people’s insomnia.

He was facing the door when it opened, and a medium height man wearing an overcoat padded into the cabin. He left the door slightly open, which allowed a subdued amount of light to penetrate the darkness. Sam had not pulled the blinds, but on a moonless night, there is only pitch black in the Australian outback.

The new passenger took off his coat, revealing a crumpled suit with no tie. The man was travelling with only a small bag. He reached into the side pocket of the bag and produced a bundle wrapped in an old cloth. The bundle went out the window, and the sound of rushing air diminished when the man closed it and climbed onto his bunk. He didn’t snore, but before long Sam could hear the sound of heaving breathing.

That same rhythmic breathing was still to be heard when Sam woke instinctively as the porter knocked on his door, breakfast trays in hand.

“Thanks, mate, I’ll take those,” said Sam and the porter did not glance nor comment on Sams lack of suitable attire. Porters see it all on sleeper trains.

Sam put the tray for the mystery traveller on the small table and his tray on the bunk. He managed to climb up without putting his foot in his breakfast. He was pleased with this achievement and proceeded to consume his eggs and toast while unfolding the newspaper. Somewhere, the train had picked up the early edition of the Adelaide Advertiser, which seemed fair as they were closer to Adelaide than Melbourne, but Sam would have prefered the Melbourne Age, even if it was a bit hard to unfold at this hour of the day.

The articles rolled out the usual tales of local and international mayhem, which surprised Sam because, from his experience, people in Adelaide didn’t know there was an outside world, apart from Melbourne which they hated. Forever in its shadow, Adelaide folk take any chance to compare themselves favourably, usually around Australia’s favourite religion, sport.

One item caught Sam’s eye.

There had been a shooting in Ararat.

A young husband had come home from work and found his wife in the arms of her lover, a small-time gangster from Melbourne. There was a photograph showing the front of a house illuminated by police floodlights. A neighbour, dressed in her dressing gown said that it had been going on for months and she felt sorry for the husband, “Such a nice young man. Works all the hours that God sends. Gets home late after commuting to Melbourne. He deserved better than her, God rest her soul.”

The wife died in the arms of her lover, and the lover was in a critical condition. The writer alluded, ever so subtly, that even if he did survive, his philandering days were over.

The husband and his Great War revolver were still missing when the paper went to print. The gun came back from France with his grandfather. A Webley six-shot revolver, an officer’s weapon.

The passenger’s tray was untouched when Sam climbed down, washed, dressed and waited for the train to pull into Adelaide Parklands Terminal.

Sam will need a taxi because for some reason they built the terminal away from the city, which means that it does not go to the beautiful old Adelaide Station.

Sam wasn’t trying to be quiet as he performed his preparations for arrival, but the passenger did not wake.

When the porter came for the trays, Sam told him to come back as late as possible, “This bloke needs his sleep. He’s had a rough time. Don’t wake him till you absolutely have to.” Sam slipped the porter a ‘fifty’. The porter smiled and promised. Sam made a note to add the ‘fifty’ to his client’s bill. The rich buggers can afford it.

Sam didn’t mind having a train trip to Adelaide, but all his business could have been handled by email or on the phone, but this law firm only wanted face to face meetings. It seems that they don’t trust computers. Their bill was going to be huge, but they didn’t seem to mind.

The taxi was waiting when Sam stepped out of the station, the air as hot and dry as he remembered.

“City, please driver. Rundle Mall,” said Sam.

“Might take a bit longer at this hour mate, peak hour and everything,” said the driver.

Sam laughed, “I’ve seen your ‘peak hour’ son. It lasts about ten minutes.”

Usually, Sam would have reminded the driver of what was likely to happen to him if he did the old trick of driving ‘the long way around’, a popular ploy of taxi drivers worldwide when they sensed an ‘out of towner’, but on this trip, Sam didn’t care. It was all on his client’s account.

“Just make sure I get a receipt and don’t get greedy,” said Sam.

The passenger woke to the sound of the porter and his gentle nudge.

“Sorry, sir. I left it as long as I could as per your friend’s instructions.”

“What friend?” said the sleepy man with the ruffled suit.

“The one you shared the cabin with,” said the porter, “he left this for you.”

The porter handed him a postcard with a photograph of The Overlander crossing Australia’s longest rail viaduct, just outside Geelong. On the back, written in a clean hand with a newly sharpened pencil were these words:

Dear Mr Park. I’m sorry your missus cheated on you. I know your heart is broken and I know that you will come to regret what you have done, but I do understand. A bloke can only take so much, and betrayal is about as bad as it gets.

It’s not my job to turn you in, but if you hurt anyone else I will come and find you, and you will regret breaking my trust.

P.S. I hope you took the remaining bullets out of the gun before you threw it out of the window. 

Keep your head down and don’t make me regret my decision.

Threads

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“Tiny lines of cotton that hold the world together,” said my grandfather, but he would — he was a romantic.

He wanted me to see what he saw, romance, adventure, creation.

“A woman comes to me with a dream. I never ask what that dream is, but I know it lingers beneath the request. I need a dress for a formal occasion, might translate into, My husband is losing interest in me, and I want to knock his socks off.

Or maybe the lady is trying to impress the other women in her circle — that’s serious business, or so I have been told.”

I was twelve when this conversation took place, and within a year my grandfather would be found in his workroom, needle in hand, the life having ebbed out of him. No one said he had a smile on his face, but I’d like to think so.

“The customers I love are the ones who come to me because they want to please themselves. They know they are beautiful and they realise that the clothes I make for them complement their beauty and poise. From the time they step in the front door of my shop we are engaged in a dance. A creative dance. They don’t spell everything out for me, I’m expected to participate, do my part. When I have made the garment and done the final fitting, we both know that the dance is coming to an end. The exceptional customers participate in a denouement — they let me know if the garment had the desired effect. I love it when they prolong the dance.”

I was way too young to understand the undercurrents of my grandfather’s observations, but I guess he hoped that his words would stay with me, ring in my ears at a later date.

It was never my intention to go into the family business. I could think of nothing worse than being confined in a shop fussing over women with more money than sense.

I rebelled and left home as soon as I was able. I travelled and worked and soaked up life until I thought I might burst.

Every time I saw a beautiful woman I examined her clothes — off the rack or made to measure — you can always tell.

I remember the look I got from a girl in Paris when she caught me examining the stitching on her skirt. She wasn’t wearing it at the time. She wasn’t wearing anything at all, and neither was I. We were taking a break during a long session of lovemaking on an autumn afternoon. The view from her apartment was stunning, and the sight of her was equally so, but I could not resist the urge to find out how well her clothes were made.

“Have you checked the hems to see if there is anything hidden in them,” I said.

“No, why would I?” she said.

“Some old school dressmakers will hide little things like tiny pieces of paper with something inscribed, or a fragment of ancient cloth. They feel it personalises their work.”

The naked lady thought I was marginally less crazy after my explanation and we continued to tangle erotically for several more months until she left me for a trumpet player. I minded, but I got over it and continued my travels.

Whenever the money ran out, I would seek employment, and on more than one occasion I got work at bespoke dressmakers — not the usual job for a young man, but I had my family’s name, and it opened a few doors, even if I did end up sweeping more often than designing and sewing.

I didn’t care; I was free.

The Telegram caught up with me when I was staying in a provincial city in Spain. My father had died, and my mother was distraught.

It took me a few days to get back home, but they waited for me.

After the funeral, while everyone was eating little sandwich triangles and drowning their sorrows, I went to my father’s shop, the same shop that my grandfather had owned. The gold letters on the glass door spelled out my family name.

The rest you can probably work out for yourself.

Your dress is now complete. I hope you are happy with the work?

I know it is none of my business, but I was wondering why you wanted me to make it for you?

“I don’t need another dress. I just like spending time in your shop without igniting the gossips. Does my admission shock you? Have I ruined our friendship?”

Not at all, but you might want to take the dress off.

You wouldn’t want to get it all wrinkled.

.

Painting by Jack Vettriano

 

 

Independent Woman?

15965736_10209412426081227_7493774806835182712_nI remember thinking that it was unfair (I can hear my dad saying, ‘who told you life was fair?’) that talented female writers had to resort to submitting their work under a male name to get attention from publishers. It has happened even in the modern era — JK Rowling admitted that she used initials to give the impression that she might be a male.

Now, the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way (or is it my imagination?).

As you have probably worked out (if you are a reader of my work) some of my major characters are female. I love writing through the eyes of a female protagonist.

My mind started wondering (it does that a lot) what name would I use were I to publish as a woman and more importantly, what would I look like?

I can’t be too butch, or it would defeat the purpose, so what would I look like?

Of course, the whole experiment could stop at the name, but you know me when my mind gets involved.

I imagine myself as an independent woman (no shortage of those at the moment so I should blend right in). I’m probably at the peak of (or slightly past) my prime, beauty wise. I have a lot of ‘admirers’, but no ‘significant other’.

I pay my own way, but I will let a man lavish me if it gives him pleasure.

I only go out with men who drive interesting cars, and a mud-splashed four-wheel drive will see me come down with a sudden headache.

I have reasonable taste in clothes, and I’m not afraid to pay for advice about personal presentation.

I sleep in the middle of a large bed, and I only drink the finest wines, but I prefer spirits (never to excess).

I can talk sports and cars with the men, and I know how to change a tyre, but for obvious reasons, I’ve never had to.

I eat well, but I don’t obsess about my figure.

I need time to myself, especially when I’m in the middle of a good book.

I enjoy all musical styles except for whatever my neighbours are playing.

I avoid travel unless there are interesting people at the end of the journey — trains come first followed by open-top sports cars, buses at a pinch, but never budget airlines.

The people in my life (male and female) must be able to bring something to the conversation (small talk is reserved for the chance encounters and that annoying bloke who wants to intrude when I’m walking the dogs).

Of course, there must be dogs. It does not matter what size, but there must be dogs, and they don’t stay at home, they go where I go (with a couple of obvious exceptions). 

So there you have it — my flight of fancy.

And here’s to the amazing females in my life — the ones who inspire my characters and enrich my life.

Cheers.

They Leave Their Mark

opening-the-dusty-book

Old dust has a magical smell.

Old books collect old dust.

I never wipe away old book dust, I just let it sit there, on my fingertips.

Obviously, books hold the memories of the person who wrote them, but there are other kinds of memories there as well — those that are deposited by the people who have owned, handled and loved these books.

They leave their mark.

Sometimes as notes in a margin, or the creasing of a page corner, a coffee stain or a small tear. Some books have handwritten dedications, and some have names inscribed.

‘To William, on the occasion of his ninth birthday.’

‘To Penelope, Christmas 1958. Love Uncle John and Aunt Mary.’

I was fourteen when I discovered that books held secrets. I thought that everyone knew how to unlock those secrets, but I soon found out that I was wrong.

Billy MacDonald was my best friend — still is in fact, but the reason I refer to him is he was the first person I mentioned it to.

When I had finished my description, he looked at me as though I had beaten his cat to death with a large, fat South American banjo player.

He asked me if that really happened or was I just making it up, as usual. I quickly opted for just making it up as usual. This decision had a lot to do with the look in his eyes.

I never told anyone about it again — until now.

I did well at school and at university, but studying in the library made things difficult, as you can imagine. I often had to set an alarm because I was unable to detect the passage of time. If the alarm didn’t work, I could always rely on the librarian to jolt me back. She rarely asked me what I was doing or why I drifted off. I guess librarians see a lot of weird stuff and one more crazy guy didn’t make that much of a difference.

In the end, I had to resort to wearing gloves.

The plastic disposable kind was useless and made me look like I was permanently in an episode of a police procedural.

Winter was easier because no one took any notice of gloves, but the rest of the time I spent a lot of time saying, “Sensitive skin. The paper sets off my Psoriasis.” In the end, I had a sign made, and I would hold it up or simply point to it in a disinterested way.

Pretty much everyone thought I was weird, and the gloves were the least of it, but no matter how weird you may be there is always someone who will love you.

Catherine Margaret Lanier, or ‘Cat’ for short, thought that I was mildly handsome and strangely interesting.

For my part, I thought she was way too beautiful to be interested in anyone like me. At least four points separated us on the attractiveness scale.

She had cool friends and my friends all felt that she was too good for me and should instead, be with them. I had a sneaking suspicion that they were right and I resolved to make the most of my good fortune while it lasted. She was incredibly good at lovemaking, and I hoped that she would not notice that I was always running to keep up. Amazingly, she didn’t get sick of me or find out how inept at life I am, and she hung around — for a very long time.

We both graduated from university, and she went on to carve out a successful career in medicine.

Despite my qualifications, all I ever wanted to do was work around old books. Cat understood, which was just as well because working in secondhand bookstores never paid the rent. It barely paid for the petrol to drive to the job. It got a bit better when I got jobs with a succession of Antiquarian booksellers, and my current job, which is at the top of Collins Street in Melbourne, means that I can leave the car at home and catch the number 112 tram to work. It takes less than an hour, and I always get a seat. I carry a book with me and rarely am I asked why I am wearing gloves.

The boss thinks that I approach my work very professionally because I supply my own white cotton gloves. Most of the books that we sell are not that expensive, and only a few are museum quality, but the gloves do add an exotic air to the establishment.

Back in our university days, we did what most students did at that time — we experimented with all sorts of substances, but Cat and I agreed that nothing compared to the experience of touching an ancient book.

Cat does not have my ability, and to be honest, I haven’t come across anyone else who has. That’s not to say that there isn’t someone out there, it’s just that I haven’t come across them as yet.

I can take Cat with me by simply holding her hand — without gloves, of course.

When I was a child, my parents considered me to be very easy to look after. I was self-entertaining. I played in my room for hours at a time, or in my father’s well-stocked library.

My father had inherited his father’s book collection, and some of the books went back even further than my great grandfather. I doubt that my father had read many of the books, but I have. The books in that library are no more magical than books in any library, but I didn’t know that.

The truth was that I’m the magical one, but I guess that word magical gets worked to death so let’s say, insightful.

If I touch a book with my bare hands, I am transported to the world and time of the author.

Sometimes I am whisked off to the world that a previous owner of the book inhabited.

I’ve found myself in Dickens’ study and the Bronte’s drawing room. Wells wrote most of his books while sitting in his garden and I’ve sat right next to him. These days no one remembers much about Anthony Trollope and he is best remembered as the bloke who invented the post box. He wrote most of his vast collection of novels while travelling to work by train in Victorian England. I sat next to him on those trains on many an occasion.

Sometimes I simply see a story unfold in much the way that you do at the cinema, but often I am right in the middle of the action. It does not seem to matter that I am not dressed appropriately, no one appears to notice. The authors and the previous owner always greet me as though they have known me all their lives. I feel loved and accepted — what more could any man ask for?

There are times when it is tough to break the bonds and return to the here and now, and if it were not for Cat, I think I would be tempted to stay far longer than would be good for me. But, I always return to her, and she seemed to understand my need to travel in this unique manner.

I took her to spend some time with Napoleon Hill when she was feeling a bit down. He’s an awesome bloke, and after talking with him for a few hours, Cat was feeling much better, and we returned home happily.

I could continue on for ages and ages describing the adventures I have had and the people I have met, but now it is time for you to get some sleep. It’s your birthday tomorrow, and I’m pretty sure that you will find some beautiful, dusty old books among your presents. I remembered that you said you liked stories about Egypt.

Turning eighteen is still a big deal, even in this ultra modern world. I have tried to treat all my grandchildren equally, but you know that you have always been my favourite. Your parents would never let me tell you about my ability and I had to respect their wishes until now. You are all grown up, and you deserve to know that your ability is a gift and not a curse. What you do with it is up to you, but it is your right to choose. If I had the right, I would say, go out and find someone you can share your life and your abilities with. Someone who will love you and travel with you through life.

That’s my story, and now I have to go back and sit with your grandma. She doesn’t always know who I am these days but when we travel she is always her old self and I’ve got a particularly good book set in Scotland, and we have always wanted to see Scotland.

Good night my darling granddaughter.

Be well, be happy and don’t forget to be awesome.

The distressed Travellers’ Club

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I turned up at my local train station on my birthday to find that they had removed the ticket machine.

In it’s place there was one of those confusing new Myki (Mouse?) machines.

Unlike most travelers I only travel occasionally so I don’t carry tickets with me.I only had a few minutes until my train arrived so my ancient brain had to work this out in a hurry.

The machine had slots for coins, paper money, credit cards and eftpos.

That’s a lot of pressure!

I decided on eftpos. I put the card in and it said EFTPOS, which seemed like a good start. I stood there and I waited, but EFTPOS was all it said. I went back to the main screen and selected “Buy a MYKI card”. The machine said “Do you want to top up your MYKI card?” Well no, actually, I want to buy one.

At this point the computer generated voice came over the PA telling us that my train would be along anytime now.

More pressure.

I decided to do what all ancient people do, I asked the nearest young person how this thing was supposed to work. He looked at it and said he didn’t think it was going to give me a card.

Wise words.

I pointed out that there was a “Buy a Myki card” option. I pressed it again just to show him, and again it asked me if I wanted to top up my MYKI card.

“You’re stuffed mate”.

Yes, I was.

Visions of a $120 train ride spun through my head but I needed to be on that train, and it was my birthday, no one would give me a fine on my birthday………… would they??

When I got to my destination I knocked on the ticket box door because I could not get off the platform without a ticket. Naturally it was “change of shift time” but surprisingly a young man opened the gates for me and a young girl blocked them with her body and a trapped gentleman (of Indian extraction) used the opportunity to escape (he had been standing in front of the gates for several minutes waving his MYKI card in the air but amazingly the gates would not open for him!)

I was momentarily distracted by the flash of the escaping Indian but I did notice that the girl who blocked the gates from closing did not even look up from her iPhone, she simple moved her body slightly so as to stop the gates from closing.

It seems that there is no age discrimination when it comes to the fraternity that is ‘the distressed travellers’ club’.

I thanked the thoughtful member of the younger generation but I don’t think she heard me. Her job was done and she was back to waiting for…… the next train, her boyfriend? I guess I’ll never know.

I wandered over to the ticket window as I figured that I was probably going to need one of these mythical MYKI cards. It was indeed a ‘change of shift’ so the young fella who let me out was now heading for the door and a brand new person was going to serve me in “just a minute”. I didn’t mind waiting it had been entertaining so far and I was looking forward to what happened next.

The lady behind the counter eventually spoke in that voice that quickly tells you that she has said this several times before……….. the card was going to cost me $6 (this seemed a bit rich as I was not going to be allowed on a train without one so now I’m paying for the privilege of paying to get on a train! But, this was no time to rock the boat.)

The lady cautioned me against putting too much money on the card in case I lost it. I guess she thought that I looked like the kind of bloke who lost stuff which is not true. It is true that I forget stuff which I guess is the same as I sometimes forget where I put stuff. Anyway, the lecture on the wonders of the MYKI card continued until we got to the part where I felt I should ask a few questions. As I opened my mouth she pointed to the gentleman standing behind me and said, “George will answer all your questions”.

This was the first time I had noticed George.

Wow, this whole process has a ‘division on labour’. That’s so cool!

George did indeed ‘answer all my questions’ but nearly had a heart attack when I tried to take my card out of the machine before the green arrow appeared. “DON”T!!!!! If you take your card out too soon the next person will get all the money on their card!”

Very good advice, thank you George.

I got the distinct feeling that the staff thought that the whole system was insane and was designed to take money away from poor gullible people like me. “Remember to touch off otherwise the next time you touch on it will charge you for a whole day” I wonder how often that is going to happen, sounds like a real money spinner.

So what did I learn?

I learned that people will still go out of their way to help you and some of those people get paid and some just do it even though they have no idea who you are; they just know that you need help.

I wasn’t feeling all that well when the journey started but by the end of it I was reminded that every day is an adventure, whether we like it or not.

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She can smile……….. she knows how to use the damn thing.

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When all else fails, ask a young person……….. “You’re stuffed mate”.

TRAVEL

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Travel

For the last two weeks, I have had unlimited access to a vehicle that was ‘expenses free’.

I knew this opportunity was coming up and I made tentative plans to ‘go lots of places’.

Moreover, I intended to drive somewhere every day.

But in the end I just stayed home.

Why, I hear you ask?

Because I like it here.

Given the opportunity, my better half would travel to almost anywhere, almost any time.

I’m not exaggerating, despite my occasional trip to hyperbole-land, on this occasion I’m telling it straight.

Some people just need to be on the move, but I’m not one of them.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to drive. I own a beautiful classic car and I am supremely happy when I am ensconced behind its shiny wooden steering wheel. But even with this massive temptation sitting in my driveway I sometimes go for a couple of weeks without going anywhere.

I like it here.

I understand why people need to see the world, but I don’t understand why they put up with so much discomfort in order to see things that I can see simply by turning on my computer. Having said that, it is true that I cannot fully experience Venice or a distillery in Scotland without being there but neither can most of the people who travel.

The stories that most of our friends tell are of a constant blur of cities and churches and buses. They seem to be constantly exhausted and sometimes tell of ‘sleeping through’ their visit to some random famous site.

Just getting there seems to be a special torture.

The idea of sitting in a thin metal tube for the better part of a day and a half only to lose the next couple of days to jet lag is not my idea of fun. This is the kind of torture that only the CIA could think up.

Apparently several suspects have cracked under the threat of a flight to Australia! They are not worried about what will happen to them when they get here, as sunburn seems to be the worst we can inflict, but they cannot stand the idea of a 36-hour flight.

If Apple come up with a version of the Star Trek transporter I might not be first in line, but I will be there for iTransporter 2.01. Even the risk of a famous ‘transporter accident’ where I’m transported to an alternative universe where animals are treated with respect and politicians work for the betterment of their communities, would not dampen my enthusiasm for a weekend in Paris or a few days on the island of Islay.

But until that day arrives, I’m happy here.

My ancestors were Vikings, so maybe all the wanderlust has been bred out of me.

If you are a traveler, then don’t let me put you off, you enjoy yourself and if you need me you know where I’ll be.

I’ll be right here.