Ghostwriter

An ink-stained manuscript materialises before her.

Through the mist, she sees him.

Crouched, pen-poised a man is waiting, frozen in time.

His pen rises, falls, sweeps down but doesn’t touch the paper.

He sighs. She sees two hands rise towards her.

“Nothing. Still nothing.” He throws his pen down on the desk.

She leans towards him and whispers : still unseen.

“Write,” she says.

He leaps from his desk, his chair falls back. She glides to safety.

“My muse!” he exclaims. ”You have arrived at last.”

She almost groans in his face.

She holds back a sigh.

“They always, always, call me that, “ she thinks.

“Still you have to go with it. He’ll find out in time.”

Desk reoccupied, she watches silently.

As if guided by a hidden hand, the pen dips and writes.

“Shiny, silver,” appears on the page.

“Shiny, silver what?” Her voice in his head. 

“A saucepan,” he whispers.

“Old or new?” She asks.

“Old,” he smiles, “Scratched and weatherworn actually.”

She sighs. “Perhaps if I turn down the temperature, the blood might start flowing headwards”, she thinks.

“Write that,” she says.

The pen dips and words appear.

“Clean or dirty?” she asks again.

“Cold and greasy,” he replies.  

She reaches her hands down to box his ears…invisibly.

“This makes no sense,” she says.

He nods his head. “Yes it does.”

“Write,” she says.

“She reached into the cupboard and retrieved a shiny, silver saucepan. She held it up and looked affectionately at its scratched and weatherworn lid. She reached inside and withdrew her hand. ‘Cold and greasy,’ she said to herself. A sweet and pungent aroma filled the air.”

He looks up expectantly.

She scowls but he paid no attention. “I could absolutely scream,” she thinks. She draws a silent breath…

“What’s the problem? Where’s the tension?” She asks insistently.

“It’s obvious, isn’t it?”
“No, no, no, NO,” she says.

He half-rises from the chair. He looks around, eyes alight.

“Let me,” she whispers.

She reaches for the pen.

“I’m the writer, you’re the muse, I’m in the flow, leave me alone.”

His hand curls round the pen. Her hand covers his.

The pen twirls, twists and finally falls with a clatter on the desk.

She throws her hands up in despair. 

“Enough!”

The pen twitches again, stands tall and leans nib touching the paper.

“I’ll leave you now,” she writes. “But don’t expect me back. Ever.”

A flash of light fills the room. He wraps his arms around himself and shivers. Slowly his face contorts.

“She’s gone, My muse is gone.”
He lets out a shrill and piercing scream.

“Ghost writing was so much easier on the other side,” she says as she wafts away unseen.

Scissors Paper Nuke

“Scissors Paper Rock.”

“Scissors Paper Rock.”

“Scissors Paper Rock.”

Three boys playing the game of ancient ages rouse me from my rail induced reverie.

Obviously brothers. The youngest is short, brown hair and eyes that observe more than he sees. The middle is blonde, curly-haired. His blue eyes dance with laughter at any excuse. The oldest straight-haired, blue-eyed seems more reserved. 

A recipe for rivalry perhaps. Not at all. For right now they’re all laughing. 

I return to semi-sleep secretly counting the stations, till journey’s end.

“Scissors, Paper , Rock.”

Three arms rise once, twice and fall together ending again in fits of laughter.

Which should mean that no one cares about winning or losing. 

But as I half-open my sleep-lidded eyes, and look more closely, I realise I’m wrong. For there’s a pattern emerging. 

“Scissors Paper Rock.”

Both youngest boys are winning. The eldest isn’t.  And when he wins,  he loses the next round.

That’s it. I know this.  I’m sitting upright up in my seat trying to remember why. 

The answer reappears like a lost muse. 

The younger boys have worked out how to win.

To win at scissors paper rock, pick the option that would have won last time. Most likely you’ll win next time. Why? Because most likely your opponent will repeat his winning strategy. If paper would have won last time, choose paper this time. A statistics degree has some uses after all. 

“Scissors, Paper, Rock.”

As each round continues, the eldest boy’s voice grows louder and louder. His fist reaches higher only to fall further. 

He knows he’s being beaten. 

What he doesn’t know is worse. I squint and see. 

He can’t see that his opponents are cheating. 


As each round starts, each is watching the other. And just before the third fist-fall, the youngest peeks at his elder. And the result is that both their fists fall as one.

“Scissors, Paper, Rock.”

I look down. Yes his fists are clenching before during and afterwards.

He suspects.

I’m wrong. 

He’s standing frozen in the middle of the train aisle thinking.

He knows. 

The others wait for him to begin.

“Scissors Paper Rock.”

Arms rise and fall as one. 

“Scissors Paper Rock.”

On the third fist-fall the eldest one raises his arm higher. At the top of his swing, he’s made a fist. Maybe the bystander should intervene before…

“Scissors.”

“Paper.

He brings his arm down, a clenched fist now, only to extend his thumb out. 

“Rock.” The younger two say.
“Nuke.” His voice drowns out their last word.

The two youngest losers stop and stare. The middle boy’s eyes are shining. His mouth starts to twitch. The youngest looks at him and starts giggling. The eldest joins in.

Now three boys are almost rolling on the floor laughing their heads off. 

Until at an unspoken word, the game begins again. 

“Scissors, Paper, Rock.”

“Scissors, Paper, Rock.”

“Scissors, Paper, Nuke.”  

Laughter, more laughter, until our station arrives. 

Extenuating Circumstances

“I need you to divorce me,” she said.


As soon as I saw her I knew she was right. I needed me to divorce her.


Although in truth I there could be no thought of remarriage. Not even a Reno remarriage. Even if Nevada was well over a day’s flying away.

The crushing humidity set all thoughts aside. The future harbinger of another tropical storm: all future hope forgotten.


It was her purple kaftan that assuaged my doubts, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, wafting like a spell: gossamer, light, wispy, translucent.


Yes indeed, your Honour, I am but a humble witness.


Lady Godiva length straight black hair. Beads encircling her neck. Flowers in her hair.


Objection sustained. Yes your Honour, I’m expressing a personal view: such evidence wouldn’t be admissible.


But every time thereafter I dreamed of her, and I awoke fully ready, she had flowers. In short, your Honour, she was the full free-range dress rehearsal hippie chick.


Now obviously I’m not Perry Mason. I’m no oil painting. A bespoke forgery more like it, hatched out with a paint-knife in the dark.
Putty-nose, red-wine veined cheeks, beer gut on the overhang, that’s me.


But I can dream. And I did. I’m a divorce lawyer, right. It comes with the job.


And respectfully I submit to your Honour, that these form the extenuating circumstances of my submission.


If I may be permitted to address the jury, I will set out the background for my testimony.


Members of the Jury, divorce ‘74 Australian-style would be the reality TV show that would never be made. Before the Family Law Act of 1975, divorce was difficult, in all practicality impossible.


While there were grounds for divorce, your Honour, members of the jury, you needed lashings of cash and eternal patience.

And if you had neither those nor the inclination, much like what would be required for a renovation of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, well, my advice was simple and straight. Look the other way.


Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not the glamorous Hollywood divorce lawyer.

You see my clients often wanted to divorce on the quiet. Considering their other occupations. They didn’t want the publicity.

Although a bit of notoriety would’ve helped my business. But this is Australia. And while Zsa Zsa Gabor nor Elizabeth Taylor, could have graced my books, the law would have ensured almost complete secrecy.

Truth is, your Honour, men and women of the jury, us divorce lawyers way back then were a real mongrel breed, if you’ll forgive the salty language. Part clerk, part private investigator, more than half rogue. Like our canine counterparts we had diversified into other areas: criminal defence, civil suits and conveyancing.


Nowadays, it would be fill out the forms, witness the affidavit, file the paperwork and all things being equal, see you in twelve to eighteen months. Then the lovers walk away into the sunset, their current co-habiting abode or the registry office.


And now having provided the necessary background, let me resume, my description of my client.


Her long spindly spatula fingers stretched and caressed the humidity of my poky office. She turned slowly as if she still hadn’t found the right dress at the bridal boutique.


I followed her every movement waiting for her to continue. She could take as much time as she needed. Or as much as I did. Yes I put to you that I am sometimes far too easily led by a pretty other.


That spell was broken when Lyn burst in. She broke the moment, shattered what could have been. Damnable Lyn, legal secretary to the stars, now breathless and sweating, her cotton dress clinging closely to her.


Yes, your Honour, in response to your objection, I will rephrase my testimony: my legal secretary was glistening.

Meanwhile my client-to-be had translated herself elsewhere. A place cool and serene. For she had no sweat on her. As a good witness, I looked, twice in fact, in truth thrice, just to make sure.

“I’m sorry,” Lyn began. “I couldn’t stop her.”


Then her lips silently mouthed, “I didn’t see her come in.”
“Sure,” I thought. “I’ll handle this,” I said.

I waved her away.

“But what about…” Lyn began.

“Reschedule them,” I replied.

Lyn gave me that special look. The one combining contempt and ridicule. Which stayed until my then-sainted but yet-to-be martyred secretary took a closer look at my client.


Now my secretary, so she tells me, is a God-fearing woman. She tells me so often that I stay at arm’s length from here and well beyond.

I looked. I stared. For Lyn had turned into Lot’s wife. Salt white, then charcoal grey. Her hand rose high out of the corner of my eye.

Lyn’s eyes had rolled back in her head. She opened her mouth to scream. But nothing came out. Then Lyn snapped in two and ran.

Last I heard was the glass in the frosted glass office door rattling fit to fall out. Then the slam of the door.

So much for Lyn.

During all of this, my new client had stayed serene. And in that time I had managed to take, well may I say a more professional look at her.


Now that I recall the circumstances, your Honour, there was a kind of sheen around her. She outshone the shadows that should be cast from my venetian blinds. She outshone my spluttering fluoro lights. I reckon she would have outshone the sun had I opened the window. But Brisbane ’74 had the standard sweat-swapping humidity melded with a temperature just below the century that day,.

Now that I recall it, it was like she was back-lit all the time. Now, yes I remember, now that I’m under oath, I would in fact put to you, that when she turned, she cast no shadow at all.


I motioned her to sit on my gun metal grey office chair. And again, she didn’t sit on that chair. She floated above it. But oh so demurely, your Honour.


“First I need to take down some personal details.” I buzzed Lyn.
“Excuse me, I need to get my secretary.”


I strolled past my Lady Godiva and opened the office door. No Lyn. Run off with the fairies? I couldn’t say. It wasn’t until later that I remembered. It was as if someone didn’t want me to recall…


“It’s just you and me then.”
I opened my office filing cabinet, pulled out a form and a yellow legal pad.
“What’s your name?”
“Moon Starlight,” she said.

Well that’s easy then. A name like that would be easily enough found in the registry. Except there would be the inevitable snickering from the clerks.

But a bottle or two of Johnny Walker’s Red Label would fix that. Anything in a brown paper bag, even money, would pave the way in those days.

I continued.
“Address?”
She wouldn’t say.
“Up from Nimbin? Byron Bay maybe? Mullumbimby?”
She shook her head. I caught her eye, stumbled and nearly fell into them.
Her real address, I heard her say, somewhere far away, perhaps not of this earth at all.
My unwilling unsharpened pencial scratched out the details. Separated: of no fixed address.

“What’s the name of your…” I began.
Her hand had already placed the photograph on my desk.
Black and white: passport size. One look at that photograph was enough for me. I had been played.

Your Honour, I these were extenuating circumstances indeed.

The passport photograph of the missing Lord L. Famous fugitive, nanny killer and failed murderer of his estranged wife. Darling of the tabloids. As you would well know, Your honour.

Even here in Brisbane, every time I opened the Tele or it’s then nemesis : the Courier-Mail, I saw his face.

Leering out at me.

The world’s most wanted man. More sightings than the Scarlet Pimpernel: England, South Africa and Australia. Made Ronnie Biggs look like an overseas recluse.


He’s dead, I thought.
Moon Starlight turned and looked. Straight through me.

I let out a deep breath. Next question.


“Marriage certificate?” I said.

“It’s with him.”

England then? On the body? With the nanny?


“When were you married?”

She intoned the date.

I snapped my pencil at that. Lead everywhere. One day after the actual crime.

Now of course, if he was there and she was here…it could be possible…But…


I submit your Worship, I’m no clairvoyant, spirit healer or fortune teller. I’m a lawyer: I devil with reality. I am recounting what I encountered without prejudice.

I found another pencil.

“What are your reasons for a divorce?”

She wasn’t looking at me. She had turned around. I could hear whispers: from far away.


I ponder the possible answers. Desertion is out: they need two to five years. Insanity, maybe, but I could only vouch for her mental state : unless he was convicted and got off mentally ill. Again far too long.

Attempted murder? Maybe. But he hadn’t been apprehended, let alone brought to trial, let alone convicted. Same as option 2.

Adultery? Even harder to prove: who was the adulterer or adulteress?
She had returned.
“Who are you talking to?” I asked.
“My spirit guides,” she breathed.
Beautiful girl, but rather deluded.
“And the grounds for divorce?”

“Spiritual incompatibility,” she breathed.

Perfect. Which would be grounds for divorce for everyone on the planet.

Except maybe Romeo and Juliet. But that wasn’t the longest love affair was it? Perhaps in time it would happen to them.


The sooner Australia got no fault divorce the better. Time for a different tack.

“Why divorce?” I ask. “Why not wait until he’s found and brought to trial?”
But her spirit guides want a word. She turned around. I wait. And there’s that slow swish before she answers.


“We were married in life. And are therefore married in death,” she replied. “Before we can be divorced in death, we must be first divorced in life.”

Until death us do part. And she had found extenuating circumstances even for that.

Beautiful, fascinating, gorgeous gal but not even a shred of commonsense.

Yet the good Lord L had only left his wife a matter of what.. a few months….

What am I meant to do? Bring him back from the dead? Get him to sign divorce papers?

She’s listening, I know it.

Then the answer came to me. Why didn’t I think of it before?


I took a deep breath and pronounced final sentence. Judge Maximum John Sirica had nothing on me in that moment.


“Bigamy…If you can find him. Or the original wedding certificate…for the first marriage…and yours of course.”

Her fingers flexed and spidered together. Her eyes narrowed and burned me.


Then the office went Arctic on me. The fluoro lights started buzzing. Then flickering like a horde of mozzies. Mosquitoes, your Honour, my apologies, English jurisdiction I realise.

Then then air-conditioning unit breathed a drawn-out death rattle and packed it in. The walls of my poky office began to move closer to me.

She wasn’t back-lit anymore.

I’ve faced down worse than her. Criminals, crooked cops, conveyancers and worst of all, Court Registrars.


I said, “You could, you..you..could…send your ‘spirit guides’”.

Ice city. I was a freezing man waving my hands for a lifesaver on an Arctic beach.


“Find him., get him to sign.”

She had turned away. I sipped a small breath and hoped.


Swish-swish again and silence. I chose then to make my escape and palmed her my business card.


“I’m not your man,” I said. “Wedding certificates and/or ex-husband. Then we can talk.”

She looked through me and disappeared. I recall clearly. For the door didn’t even shush on her way out.

And after that, all hell broke.


First to go was the telex. Off-line then on-line every half-hour without fail. Each time I pulled out the telephone line and plugged it back in but to no avail.


Next was the fax. Same-same. No fixes. The telephone company didn’t know. Or didn’t want to know.


Finally, Lyn started getting strange phone calls. Every telex, every letter, every file was lost or misdirected.

And do you think the flouros and air conditioner returned to normal. Nope.

The next day, Lyn bearded me.

“That witch client of yours,” she began.

I spread out my hands and shrugged.

“Not my problem, darling,” I replied. “I sent her on her way.”

“Look around you,” Lyn whirled. “SHE…NEVER…LEFT.”

“Calm down, you getting overwrought,” I said to her.

Lyn ignored my token sexism.


“Either she goes or.. I’ll..I’ll…I’ll call down fire from heaven if she even shows her face…”


“MARRIAGE CERTIFICATE!,” I said. “Then we’re done.”

But Lyn was. She took a long holiday down to the Gold Coast.

Everything returned to normal. Everything, that is, except for the filing cabinets.

Three days later, I came in early. When I unlocked the outer office, I could see the mess. Even through the frosted glass door: papers and files strewn everywhere on the floor.


Burglary, obviously. But not the cops though. They always come in the front door. With their empty brown bags always in need of filling.

I checked the outer office door. Then the inner one. No signs of forced entry, Sherlock. I mean your Honour.


And the filing cabinets were locked.

Neatest burglars I’d ever come across.


That night, I locked myself in the office, put my feet up on Lyn’s desk and spent my efforts keeping a coffee flask awake.


Three in the morning, your Honour, I’m at the scene of the crimep
I kept dozing off. I’m in the middle of a dream. Moon Starlight is keeping me awake and she is doing a fine job.

Until I kick my foot against the desk and wake myself up.

I can see through my half-lidded eyes, the lights start to flicker and hum. I wake, jump out of my chair and stand on my desk. Just as I’m reaching up to push the fluorescent lights back in their slot, I hear her.

Or rather that swishing sound. I turn. There’s a purple shimmering near the filing cabinet.


Its lock turns left, then right, then left again.

The middle drawer slides out silently.

One manila folder lifts itself slowly up and out. Then another. And another. All are thrown onto the floor.


I’m alive now. I feel all my skin. The hairs on my neck are as stiff as steel wool.


A folder is opened. I see a sheet of paper. The folder is closed. It’s returned to the filing cabinet. Along with all the other folders. The filing cabinet closes and is locked. Right, left then right to finish.

The shimmering glows strong, shines and then disappears. A flicker of translucent purple is all I see through the frosted glass in the outer office.


I’m across in a flash. My fingers fumble and unlock the cabinet.
I pull out the file. I flip through the folder and there it is.

Both wedding certificates.

And a postcard from Lyn. With a palm tree. “I’m never coming back.”

And the next day, I’m waiting at the church. Waiting for Starry-eyed Moonlight to turn up, fill out the paperwork and file the orders.

Bigamy, divorce, bingo, ghost-free.

Meanwhile the summer of ’74 rolls on. Phone, fax and telex return to duty. Air-conditioning and office lights resume normal transmission.

I close the case. Moon Starlight has returned to her coven I suppose.

All quite, case closed. That is, until HE turns up.


Dark trilby hat, funeral black suit dark moustache now greyed against a charcoal face. He’s certainly not as dapper as his photographs. He’s more subdued. As if his life has been leached from him.

But I can attest to his identity, your Honour.

“Lord,” I begin. His gesture silenced me. “Where’s…” I ask.

He takes a seat.

“Not a word, my good man,” he murmured. “Discretion is vital. I must complete this rather awkward business forthwith.”

“I’ll bring in the file,” I say. His hand reached out to restrain me.

“Annulment,” he says. Why didn’t I think of that before?

I’m stupefied. I’m in a trance. I open the desk drawer, find the right form, fill it out and hand it to him.

Unbidden, he suppllies the explanation.


“It’s quite simple really. As you pointed out, if Romeo had never met Juliet…then they would not be married in this life…”

“Or in the next,” I answer.

He drew a fountain pen from his pocket, signs. I sign as witness. I hand back the pen and he’s gone. The door didn’t shut on his way out either.

They never found his body, your Honour. But I submit to you that I met him when he was not alive.
I perfectly understand, your Honour. After all these are extenuating circumstances.

The Curious Case of the Endless Linen

We would arrive at the same time. Opening time. 7:30am.


I’d see him standing at the door, five or six laundry bags at his feet. A small wizened man, the classic caretaker from central casting.


Behind the double glass doors, I saw the proprietor waiting. A grey man worn down by time and with little time left.


With no eye contact between them,  the doors would be unlocked. Working as one, the two men would drag the bags to the back of the laundromat. Next to the washing machines.


I would glance briefly and continue walking. After all I had a train to catch.

But my curiosity once aroused could not be sated.
Perhaps a large family? Perhaps a washing machine broken down for weeks?


I set my queries aside until the following day.  I’m a minute or so early for the train. There he is again.

Parking his car, opening the boot and dragging the bags to the front of the laundromat.


And yesterday is the same as today. The doors opened, they drag the bags inside. Clearly two men united in an unspoken understanding.


And I have questions. Perhaps there were still clothes remaining? None of my business but I though it odd.


The next day it happened again. And continued all the rest of that week. And the following weeks. Every day (except Tuesday) for some reason.


My imagination by then wanted to break all restraint.

Perhaps I was witness to some ongoing illegality. Perhaps there is a logical explanation.


Each day I would slow down as I drew near. I didn’t want to arouse suspicion. Perhaps today I would find out. But each day (except Tuesday) was the same.


Maybe they were body bags. Don’t be so stupid, I admonished myself. Said laundry bags are too lumpy and flaccid for that. Besides there were far too many for an ongoing mass murder.


Perhaps its something more obvious. Maybe I’m watching a drug swap.  


My rational mind bit back. Seriously Andrew? A drug deal at 7:30every morning on a busy suburban street with regular police patrols? And never on Tuesdays?


Perhaps it must be a boarding house. Maybe a private school.

Again the lash back. They have their own laundries Andrew. And never on a Tuesday?


A week later, I’d missed my regular train. Which meant that when I walked past, the laundromat was open.


I heard the far away purr of the washing machines. That familiar smell : part crisp white clean and part wet-dog.


I walked ever more slowly. I quickly glanced inside.


There he was. Opening a washing machine, reaching inside and pulling out its contents. Flaccid sheets, lumpy towels all piled into a basket.


He turned. I averted his eye. But I saw enough.

One opened laundry bag. And another. And another. Sheets and towels spread out on the wooden floor.


All the same colour. A lurid, garish yet seductive red.


My curiosity satisfied I never noticed him again.

Breathe For Me

Breathe for me.
Watching you sip each breath, I want to breathe for you. 
I want to inhale oxygen, pass it from my lungs to yours. And from there into that heart I love so much.


You hold my hand. I hold yours. You must hear my words for you. Wait and hope. 


You were to grow to a ripeness greater than mine could ever be. You were to take my place and exceed it. After all, what else are parents for?


Though you must sense it, please don’t catch any of my doubt. Doubt enough that you could quietly slip away with maybe a nod as your leave.

Hold instead if you can my hope and love for you. Love and hope which will always exceed doubt. 


Your illness is your present companion. And ours too. You may be able to fight it. You may need more strength, strength you don’t yet have. In either case, don’t worry.

Even though I don’t know how it will end, I do know that it will end. You can draw comfort from me even if it takes all my strength. That’s a small passing sacrifice. 


If you could open your eyes, you’d probably laugh at me. Turning round and round like your Kitty trying to find a soft spot : a hard cushion on a metal chair. Don’t worry when you see me. Even in this small discomfort, I’d be happy to accept yours. 


If you looked closer, you’d see I’m trying not to look. Trying not to look at the green numbers, the zig-zags and the flashing lights. Trying not to match them to your pulse, blood pressure, heartbeat and brain waves. 


Trying not to look is all I have for you. I hope you understand if that isn’t enough. But you have all I have. 
You should wake soon. You’ll look at me and your eyes will light up. Your hand will squeeze mine. You’ll look at the tubes running into you and out of you and laugh. You’ll wave at them and say, “Just a joke Dad, slept in again, gotta get up and outrun you today.” 


You would send them away right now,wouldn’t you?


The door opens. A whitecoated crowd enter. Your eyes flick open. You’re an observer now. You long to catch my eye, I feel it. I stumble as they shove me outside. 


You mustn’t listen to what I’m thinking. Especially now. You know you don’t have to make me wait anymore. 
Still I’d rather hear from you first. Asleep, awake or unconscious, let me know. Until now you always kept in touch silently with me.


The door opens. They let me return. 


You look so serene now. Any minute now you should be opening your sleepy eyes and shaking your tousled hair, and asking me, “Am I serene Daddy?”


Your eyes shouldn’t flutter like that. 
You’re lighting the first candle aren’t you? So when I arrive I know its you. 

Circus Trainer

I needed the whip and chair today. It was that bad.

It started quietly enough. Customer Service 101 : benign and boring.

A course with the best beginning ever: no trainees when I arrived.

Which was perfect. I hadn’t had my coffee anyway. I needed that thirty minutes.

I unlocked the classroom, turned on the light and aircon and most importantly fired up the coffee maker.

While the coffee brewed, I dumped my papers on the desk. And setup.

Carefully clean the whiteboard : the alco-wipes are no use to me today.

Three columns of tables, two tables per column with two chairs to a table.

I doled out the name cards, notepads, pens, Sharpies, branded cups, and multi-coloured sticky dots.

And the course guide. No-one ever reads it anyway. They just flick through the pages when my back is turned.

Twenty-five minutes later, I poured myself my fourth coffee.

Which meant I didn’t look closely at the trainees as they came in. Usually, they arrive in ones or twos. Sometimes three or occasionally four. But today was odd : two posses of six.

Despite that I knew they were the right trainees. Crop-tops, shorts, and, skirts for the ladies. Torn t-shirt and faded jeans for the men. Call centre staff: impeccably dressed as always.

So off came my jacket and tie. Maybe one day I’ll dress down to their level and do this barefoot. Then they’ll know I’ve given up the beach for the day too.

While each group was finding a place to sit, I managed a quick peek at them. They were staring at each other : like lost speed-daters. That’s okay. No-one knows anyone on their first day.

I wrote my name on the whiteboard. Over the squeal of the Sharpie, I heard squeaks and scrapes as chairs and tables are moved.

I turned around and the room has been divided. No middle column of tables. Three tables on one side, three on the other. Six trainees each. No eye contact. Time for the never-fail icebreaker.

“For a second, I thought you’d turned all the tables to face the back wall. Like in school. Did anyone do that in school? Anybody? Anybody?…”

Silence. Okay better keep going.

“Let’s introduce ourselves: your name, area, role and course expectations.”

I pointed to my left.

“I’m David. I work in the XSuper call centre Meerkat team. Mainly involves fixing up her team’s mistakes.”

Her?

“And Danielle is the worst.”

I pointed to the other side.

“I’m Danielle. XSuper call centre Rockstar team. Our time is mainly spent fixing Meerkat problems. And David, he’s…”

I pointed to another. The rest of the introductions are much the same.

Instant enemies all. Which means we’re straight into the collaboration exercise. The role play that’s cannot speak its name. I silently shake my head and wonder why trainees who tout fake email addresses, expose themselves on social media absolutely hate role plays. Didn’t they play dress-ups as children?

Pick a letter A or B, I begin. A goes first and talks about their day. B listens and repeats it back. One minute each then swap. Your time starts now.

Simples. Except there is no eye contact. Everyone is looking down when they speak. This speed-date is tanking badly. Okay, time to mix up the groups.

I pointed out one person from each table. I asked them to move to the next table. Clattering and shuffling ensue. Everyone moves as requested. But no-one crosses the room.

On to the next part. Pick A or B, I said. A talks about their drive to work. B repeats it back. Two minutes. Your time starts now.

They talk quietly at first. Then David and Danielle started interrupting each other across the room. Then the others joined in.

“Quiet.” Nothing. I raised my voice. “QUIET.” As one they raised theirs higher.

I decided to send up an SOS : the internationally recognised signal for classroom silence. I lifted both arms, stretched them in front of me and reached for the ceiling.

The distraction is enough. Everyone looked at me like I’m an idiot. But they stopped.

Onto the next exercise. Maybe, just maybe…

Thud-thud. I turned from the whiteboard and see Danielle. She’s lying on the floor clutching her legs to her chest. The back of her head rests against her chair. Behind the chair grinning down at her is David.

“Fooled you,” he says.

It’s all I can do to stop myself using the chair and brandishing a whip, if I had that.

I walked over, helped her to her feet and asked if she is fine. She nodded.

I sent them off to a ten-minute break. I kept David and Danielle back like schoolkids. Maybe I should’ve set them lines as punishment. But these are adults!

I decided to get some extra help. I made the phone call.

Fifteen minutes later, sullenly, silently the rest filed in, heads down like prisoners. The tables squeaked and chairs scraped as they slowly resumed their places.

“Let’s begin,” I said. I looked at my watch. Any second now.

Rurr-Rurr, Rurr-Rurr, Whirr, Rurr-Rurr, Whirr. I sighed.

“The gardener,” I said. Outside our ground-level window with his leaf-blower.

Wee-Waw, Wee-Waw.

“You’re all waiting for him to finish, aren’t you? Anybody? Anybody?” I said.

I opened the window. The room is filled with leaf-blower sound and aromatic diesel fumes. I leant out of the window.

“Hey,” I said. A High-Vis jacket topped by surfie blonde hair ignored me. Yep he too gave up the beach for today too. The hair hides under an orange helmet which framed safety-glasses and ear-muffs. He nods to me. It’s on.

“Just a second,” I said.

I ran across the classroom. I pulled open the door. Two left turns later, I’ve opened the outside door.

I’m answered by a mini-tornado of leaves, twigs, and grass.

I waved at him. He doesn’t respond. I stepped in front of him, waved my hands over his face and pointed to his ear muffs. He still doesn’t respond. I grabbed at his ear muffs. He bent down, thumbed the leaf-blower button and aimed it at me. Another cloud of chaff billowed around me.

“Can you switch it off?” I mouth.

He raised the leaf-blower for the third time.

“If you don’t. I will,” I yell. I make sure that my voice carried back into the classroom.

I stepped aside, reached around him and unslung the leaf-blower. I looked upwards. They’re still watching. Good.

I lifted the leaf blowerhigh and smashed it on the ground. Only he and I knew that it is a softlanding.

And it worked. When I returned, my favourite trainees were gone. The course went well after that. But I owed the gardener a beer. Sometimes I wonder whether I should have run away to the circus.

The Prayer Book

“Is this yours?” 

Five fingers first appeared. Next a hand.

Holding what? A notebook? A leather-bound notebook? Perhaps it’s a small purse? Or perhaps a pocketbook? 

A prayer book. I leaned across my luggage trolley for a closer look. The Way of the Pilgrim: A Devotional Journey. I read. Oh no. 

“Is that yours?” the finder repeated.

A waif. With the classic pixie face. And eyes, kind eyes that knew everything about you. 

“No, I’m not interest…” I began. 

“Thank you for finding this.  It must have fallen out when I was going through my bag. I thought I had lost it forever.”  

A voice off to my right. I looked. Another trolley. Unlike mine however it was empty.

I looked across at its pilot. Sensible shoes, street clothes, a veil. A nun. Her smile was radiance itself. It sparkled off her glasses as she looked at me. 

“I’m in a hurr…”, I began.

The nymph handed over the prayerbook. As she did so, its pages fluttered. Spidery looped old-fashioned writing on each page, I noticed. More like a diary. 

“Paging passenger Mr som-e-thing winter,” the loudspeakers above us boomed. “Please make yourself known to the check-in counter. Paging Mr sim-ee-on winter, please make yourself known to the check-in counter……Oh, it’s you.”

We laughed. “Mr Winter has found his spring, it seems,” intoned the nun.

She looked at her wrist. “I have a great-niece to catch,” she said. She rolled off towards the arrivals lounge travellator.

“Where are you flying to?” I asked the tree-fairy.

“Singapore,” A small smile. “I’m Leila. And you are?” 

“Elisabeth.” We had reached the last labyrinth: a block maze of passengers and luggage fenced in by ribbons on poles. I docked myself into the first row. My phone buzzed. I opened my handbag and pulled it out. 

“Where are you?” the text announced. Always organised, always on time, always in touch. Jemima and I were a perfect match : opposites in every way. 

I texted her back, “Check in queue.” 

“At departure lounge. You’ll be late.”

Panicker. I started to type, “P..a..n.” 

“No need,“ Leila said, “Your flight’s been delayed.”

I spun twice, saw the departure board. No change. 

“Flight 941 has been delayed.” Less embarrassed this time. 

The little dryad was right.

I stared. “Are we on the same flight? Did they get in touch with you?” 

One, two, then three shakes of the head. A nod. She knew. 

I stayed silent after that. I watched the people in front of me.

When will they be called? How long does each person take? How long will it take to get to me? And why would I own a prayer book? 

Leila looked at me. Another nod. She knew.

She spoke. “You’ll find the words he wrote to her that lead you back to him.”

“How did you…?” I began.

By then she had disappeared.

But in her prayer book I found his words. She knew.

A Little More Gaslight #2

“Come in.”


A swirl of a red dress. Capped off by a pair of red shoes.


The owner has her face hidden in her hair. She won’t even make eye contact. 


An ominous portent indeed.


A thud as she falls into the armchair opposite.


“I wish…” Deep breath. “I wish…to report a case of sexual harassment.”


Perhaps you could take that to the sexual harassment officer instead of me. That’s where I’d go. By name and by nature.


“By whom.” Notepad flipped open, pencil ready and raised to take down the details. Hope she doesn’t see the eraser on the other end, he thinks.


She proffers a name.


He’s a good bloke. Everyone likes him even the ladies, he thinks to himself.


“We have a clear and transparent process for dealing with sexual harassment.” 
“I know,” she almost sobs. “


She pours out the details. The pen scratches its way across one page of the notebook, then another and another.  A box of tissues is pushed across. She reluctantly grabs one.


Looks like a misunderstanding here, he thinks. And if you were wearing anything like this…


“We’ll start the process immediately. I’ve got all the details I need. We’ll be in touch. Thanks for your time.”


He stands. She isn’t going anywhere.


“You’re not going to delay this? Leak my name? Leave me on my own to defend myself? Organise a commentator-led social media pile-on? “


“We have zero tolerance of sexual harassment,” he replies. You should’ve come to us beforehand, he thinks. Instead of waiting to play the victim.


A swirl of red and she’s gone.

A Little More Gaslight #1

“Come in.”


The last one, he thinks. But at least we’re getting the numbers down. And the iron laws of arithmetic don’t apply.


A pair of red shoes enter.


The owner strides in, pulls out a leather armchair, scrapes it along the carpet. 


She sits down and crosses her legs. Without any preamble, she begins.”I’m being bullied by my colleagues.”


Another day, another whinger. But the standard spiel has worked for decades. How can it fail now?


“You know we have a zero-tolerance policy on bullying in the Liberal Party.”

“I know that. If I don’t speak out no-one will.”


At least we’re not keeping a list. That’s for the number crunchers: proud men one and all.


“You can always take action.” His voice is a comfortable purr.


“I wish to make a complaint. I have names, several actually. I’ve diarised dates and times. I even have texts. This behaviour would not be tolerated in the private sector. You’d get your arse sued.”


This isn’t the private sector. Toughen up, princess.


“I’ll take down all the details.” Comfort, consult and stay complicit.


“What happens next?” Her voice is insistent.


“We’ll let you know in due course.”


Her legs uncross, cross again and the shoe taps the desk.


“You don’t really have a complaints process do you?”


“Bullying only happens in the state branches. Once you get to the Federal level it disappears.”


“That’s how you have a zero-tolerance policy on bullying in the Liberal Party. We’re done here.”


The red shoes skip and disappear into the distance.

Remorse

Locked up for the night. Fort Knox tight. I closed the double doors. At last. A quiet night for a change.


Except for the guy outside. That loiterer can wait till morning.
We’re closed for the night buddy. See you tomorrow.


The doors open and close. Without the usual whoosh.
I turn and there he is…waiting at the counter. I jump and reach for my weapon.


But he’s unarmed.


Male, Caucasian, medium build, 5 4, hooded black jacket, ski pants, muddy ski galoshes. Black straight hair, grey thin face. A plain Jane face. Same as me.


“Buddy…” I began.
His eyes look straight through me.
“Ma’am,” he stammers, “you gotta help me.”


I unlock the annexe door and slip behind the counter.
“Ok, let’s get your details first.”


He starts shivering. I squint at him. He shimmers a little before my eyes. I blink a couple of times. The fluoro lights must be too bright. Besides…if he disappears…the paperwork would take all night.


“I want to report a crime,” he began. His lips don’t move. His breathy voice echoes off the walls.
Sure, what the hell, I thought, it’s end of shift. I can pick up some overtime, fill out the forms, file them in the unsolved pile and pick up a TV dinner on the way home.


Until he told me where. All my hairs stood up on end. My hairdresser wouldn’t be able to help me now.
Waste of time. We’d searched there before, turned it over and found nothing.


“I haven’t got time. I can’t leave it forever.”
He’s going to be an all-night sit-in. I sigh.
A field trip instead. Drop the fella home and make sure he’s safe and sedated. I’ll throw in a six-pack on the way back as payment!


I call for backup.
“Jay”, I said, “No night shift for you tonight.” Jay, the probationer strode in from the back. Tall, gangling: a stripling.
We pile into the cop SUV. Me and the aspiring PI up front, Jay the probationer folded up like a blanket in the back.


He knew the route better than a local. Pointed out the landmarks before we saw them.


As I drove, he kept shaking and muttering to himself about no time left. I heard that. But his fingers kept drumming on the dashboard. I couldn’t hear that at all. Weird. I signalled to Jay to keep a close eye on him.
We pile out of the SUV. I could hear the roar. The waterfall. The mist advanced towards us in the dark night.


He’s already ahead of us, the silent movie. Head steady striding out. Feet rising and falling silently into and out of the mist. I switch on my torch and shine it ahead. The light fizzles and dies in the mist. I had to look twice. He still had that glow around him even in the dark.


He slices through the bushes without so much as disturbing a leaf. Jay and I are dodging branches and bushes as if we’re under fire. Even over the waterfall’s roar, I heard our tramping…loud enough to alert the dead.


Jay’s voice in my ear.
“Another crazy?”
I shake my head.


When we reach the rocks beside the falls, our quarry becomes a polecat. I pick my way, leaning forward and backward, losing and regaining my balance, single step by single step. I look behind me. Jay is on his hands and knees…crawling for the first time.


My pulse races but I have no heartbeat: the roar is so loud. The mist is wet, steamy and sticky now on my anorak. I squint and see him: shadow black against the misty white falls.


Then he disappears.
“We’ve lost him,” Jay again.
I whirl and look for the splash in the pool below.
I shake my head.
Ahead there’s one rock jutting out covering another. And in between, in the grey gloom, a man-sized gap. And beyond: a cavern.


I squeeze through.
Left hand at arm’s length holding the torch. Right hand on my weapon.
I nearly die with relief. A hurricane lamp is my welcome. I turn to Jay.
“Wait outside. Any trouble you know what to do.”


At the front is a card table, then chairs, placed with dinner plates and cutlery. And him: bent over the table setting first a salt and then a pepper shaker. He looks up: shivering and muttering to himself.


I shake the water off. And in the flickering light, I look at him. He’s bone dry.
And there’s a familiar smell. Steam, wet dog and mould. The roar is overpowering.


“There’s no time left. I have to tell you before it’s too late,” he says. His breathy voice loud in my ears.
I shout, “You’ve brought us here for a stupid picnic. You’ve wasted our time. I should take you in for falsely reporting a crime.”
I turn to go.


“Nooo!” His scream cut me in two.
“Look…at…what…I…have…done.” He turns and points to the back of the cave.
I tap on my body cam. I follow his arm with my torch.


Lumpy rocks? Sleeping bags? That sheen was familiar. Where have I seen that before?
The morgue! Body bags! Piled like sacks at the back of the cave.


“They was campers, hitchhikers. Took ’em off the track. Gave ’em a nice meal first, see. Tagged and bagged so their relatives could find them. But no one came for them. I had to go back you see.”


“Why?” I blurt out stupidly.
“I’m free now. They’ll let me return now.”
Tell that to the judge.


“Jay,” I shout. “I’m taking him in.”
Jay enters the cave, weapon drawn and covering me. I slip behind the killer.


“No need for that,” he says, “I’ll go quietly.”
He thrust out both hands.
“Cold all of a sudden,” he said. “But I’ll be warm tonight at last.”


I shiver, unclip the handcuffs and reach out for his left hand.


There’s a clatter. I look down. Two handcuffs lie shiny on the cave floor.
“Jay,” I shout, “Don’t let him get away.”


Jay is a frozen statue. I flash the torch over him. His eyes have rolled back. His face is ash grey.


“Didn’t you see it?” Jay’s lips barely move.
“What?”
“There was white. He disappeared.”


They fished him out of the pool. Same clothes. Forensics said he’d been dead for years. Hitchhikers too.


I ran back the tapes later: mine and the station’s. Nothing.


Forensics still couldn’t explain how they got the fingerprint off the salt shaker.