This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
The First Status Quo
Tuesday, December 24, 2013, 1:30 PM
I hurry along the Hay Street Mall in the baking Western Australian heat, bump into a street juggler and yell “Sorry!”, then walk backwards into a group of noisy girls wearing Styrofoam antlers, who look crossly as I stumble. I duck past the plaintive guitarist and the Salvation Army man with the portable stereo, and into a lingerie store playing Michael Buble’s version of “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” where the air conditioning gives me an icy blast. Almost simultaneously a desiccated woman with collagen lips asks:
“May I help you?”
“I… need to buy something for my wife.”
“What did you have in mind?”
I look furtively at the risqué mannequins in the store and then, in panic, down at my watch. “Oh no!”
“We do have some lovely…”
“Uh thanks but my lunch break finished five minutes ago,” I say running out of the store. “Sorry!” I yell, crashing into the same reindeer girls who shout “Merry Christmas!” angrily to my retreating back.
A few minutes later I’m in the elevator of my office building, still panting, wiping furiously with my shirt sleeve at the relentless sweat oozing unfairly from every pore in my scalp. “Come on, come on,” I whisper, counting the floors on the display, cursing quietly to myself as the lift stops at the second level only to be filled with at least twelve fat people with smoker’s breath who turn the thermostat up by five degrees just by getting in, and who wrinkle their noses distastefully at me. When the elevator voice finally announces “Level Eighteen” I squeeze between the moist human rolling pins which reluctantly release me into the lobby of Dixon, Cox and Peters, Barristers and Solicitors. There I stand, shirt untucked and slightly translucent, tie uneven. Lucy, the receptionist, carefully painted with impressionist brush strokes, looks up only momentarily from her computer terminal, then continues typing as she speaks in a nasal monotone.
“Mr Blesav has been waiting for fifteen minutes.”
“Your wife called.”
“Mr Dixon is looking for you.”
“Oh no!” My voice wavers with my footsteps as I run towards the toilets. “Lucy, could you please tell Mr Blesav I’ve been delayed by another five minutes?”
“Djurdjevic! Where in Heaven’s name have you been?” I stop in my tracks.
“It’s Christmas Eve…”
“It’s not this firm’s practice to keep clients waiting. Lucy, arrange for Mr Blesav to be escorted right up. Now for Heaven’s sake Djurdjevic, tuck in your shirt. Try to make a good impression.”
“And another thing: do something about your perspiration problem. I’ve told you before, they have doctors who can treat that sort of thing. You look like a wreck.”
“Yes sir.” He closes his eyes and shakes his head slowly. When he opens them again he says:
“Now on a different note, I’ve told your charming wife that Agnes and I are happy to accept your invitation to lunch tomorrow.”
“Wanna see my new office?” says a chubby face sticking over the top of my cubicle. I’d heard his self-assured stomping from a mile off but I was earnestly hoping he’d leave me alone. I’m flicking a pencil around my finger. My shirt is still untucked, my tie is even more uneven and my hair has dried into Billy Idol tufts. “Mate, you don’t look so good. You ever ask a doctor about your sweating problem?” Brad is wearing his perpetually wide-eyed “roo in the headlights” expression.
“Look, I’m kind of busy right now.”
“Yeah? Well I’m off early. Old man Dixon won’t know. I’ve already billed till 8.30 pm. Ha, ha. You’ve got to check out my office though. I mean the river view is something else.”
“And Lucy’s my secretary now. Can’t complain about that, hey? Of course you’re married, so you’re not allowed to even look. Ha, ha.”
“Do you like Christmas Brad?” I look up from the pencil. “I mean do you get into the Christmas spirit, or is it just another public holiday to you?” Brad looks at me blankly.
“What do you mean? Of course I like Christmas. Never used to though. But right now,” he says, slapping me on the back so hard my pencil drops out of my hands and falls behind the back of the desk, “everything’s looking prrretty good. I mean, I have a great job with a new office. And hey, I’ve got you guys. The family I never had. Ha, ha. Why? Don’t you like Christmas Dan?”
I think for a moment before answering. “With me it’s the other way round. I used to like Christmas. Now…”
“Cheer up mate. You need some R and R. Anyhow,” he lowers his voice, “did you get me something to give to your missus?” I open the top drawer of my desk and pull out a package.
“A watch. They even gift wrapped it.”
“Cool. Thanks mate. I’ll have to pay you for it later. Say, have any luck yourself?”
“No. I might go out and have another look after work.”
“What a rotten shame. Anyhow, see ya tomorrow at your place. What time was it again?”
“I’ll be there and I won’t be square. Ha, ha,” says Brad, tucking the package into his jacket and galumphing off in his heavy-footed way, whistling “I’ll be home for Christmas”.
Despite the failing light the air is still as hot as a pizza oven as I pull my 1991 Corolla into my driveway, carefully averting my gaze from the towering weeds that are thriving in my garden and the Cocos palms that are not. Kylie’s BMW convertible is still parked in the garage so I take a deep breath before heading towards the door.
“I’m home,” I say hopefully. “Kylie?”
“About time.” She appears on the landing. “Why didn’t you return my call?”
“I was in a meeting, pumpkin. I’m sorry…”
“Never mind.” Kylie is putting on her pearl earrings, the ones she exchanged for the earrings I bought her last Christmas. “I was going to tell you to stop by the supermarket on the way home and pick up some things for tomorrow.”
“I can still go. The shops are open till late.”
“Don’t bother. I’ve already done it. Someone’s got to do the planning in this house. Here. Help me with this zip. The problem with you Dan is that you never think about anyone but yourself.” I zip her dress. “Thank you. You know how busy I’ve been preparing this place for your friends and relatives. I had to miss tennis. And you never do anything in the garden. God knows it’s so embarrassing. I’m just going to have to grin and bear it. But next weekend you’re going to pull your shirtsleeves up and do some work out there. I mean it! Oh, and I invited Mr and Mrs Dixon to lunch tomorrow.”
“Yes, Mr Dixon told me.”
“Honestly Dan! By the look on your face I’d swear you never want a raise. Well if you won’t do something about it, I will. Look at Brad. He knows how to get where he wants. You should be more like him.”
“Uh, Kylie, where are you going?”
“Girls’ night out, stupid. Don’t you remember? With Yvonne and Leanne?”
“But it’s Christmas Eve…”
“Don’t start that again.”
“I just thought…”
“Look, I told you weeks ago. I don’t see what your problem is,” says Kylie, adjusting herself in the hallway mirror.
“It’s just that I miss you honey,” I say, placing my arms around her Zumba-slender waist, but she winces and pushes down on my forearms.
“Stop that. You know what that leads to. Anyway, must fly.” She sticks out her cheek for me to peck. “Mwah! You can play your guitar or something. Have last night’s leftovers for dinner. They won’t keep longer anyway.”
“I got you a present.” I pick up the package I had placed near the coat rack and Kylie pauses.
“Oh Dan. What is it? Clothes? It feels like clothes! But you know you have bad taste. I can’t bear it. Can I open it now?”
“If you like,” I say as Kylie tears at the wrapping.
“Lingerie? You got me lingerie for Christmas? Oh Dan, you’re priceless. That is the worst present. I hope you kept the docket.”
“Yes, of course…”
“Good. No harm done then,” she says, handing me the opened package. “I’ll be back late, so don’t wait up. Bye-bye now.”
I’m still standing, holding the package and looking at the closed door long after she has left. Bugsy, our cat, is on the kitchen bench top next to an empty food bowl, meowing and swishing his tail uncertainly, so I toss the present under the dying, tinsel-decked, fir tree and walk toward the feline.
“Hold on Bugsy,” I say, searching through the cupboard for the fish shaped biscuits. Finding none, I open a can of Kylie’s premium “tuna in spring water”. “Merry Christmas,” I say shaking the contents into the bowl. Bugsy sniffs delicately before burying his blunt face into the food.
Kylie had found him a year before on our verge, bleeding profusely from a head wound. The vet said it would be better to put him down but Kylie was adamant that he should be saved. After some very expensive surgery and a lengthy convalescence the cat recovered, albeit that he was left with a droopy left eyelid. Kylie had wanted to call him “Lucky”. I thought that since we were going to name him after a gangster we should call him “Bugsy”. It is one of the few times I’ve had my way.
I remove my tie. Then I remove my ring, which I carefully place in my front trouser pocket. The latter is a ritual I perform only when I am alone, since Kylie thinks a wedding ring should never be removed. “It’s bad luck,” she always says. Yet somehow I’ve never gotten used to wearing it, probably because it leaves a deep, itchy indentation on my finger. “You’ve gained weight,” says Kylie, but I know I haven’t.
We met while I was in my final year of law school and Kylie was still working at the supermarket. Back in those days my mother would insist on introducing me to the daughters of the women in her bridge club. “You’re not meeting the right ladies Daniel,” she would say. “An eligible boy like you needs a quality girl.” Kylie was such a girl.
She was a pretty, round-faced girl, short with a slim waist, the promise of stocky legs, dyed blond hair. At first, she seemed shy and quiet. Conversations between us were inevitably stilted and punctuated by crimson blushes, although she had no such difficulty speaking with Mum to whom she would listen earnestly, adding “I know, I know!” and “Can you imagine!” at appropriate junctures.
When I voiced my concerns to Mum, she replied: “She’s nervous, dear. That’s to be expected when a girl likes you. Honestly, I’ve never met a more charming, intelligent girl.”
Kylie also had no difficulty speaking with Brad whom she already knew from the Orthodox Church youth group (“we’re like brother and sister really,” she says) and who still reduces her to fits of giggles. Although we started law school together, I barely knew Brad until our final year when we were placed in the same tutorial. He was the kind of guy who knew everyone but whom no one would admit to being friends with: one of those people with no sense of personal space and a fashion sense one decade behind the rest of us.
“Lend us your notes mate?” he would always ask from the comfort of a refectory chair after missing a tutorial. “Dan has the best notes I’ve ever seen, and believe me, I’ve seen lots. Ha, ha.” Our “friendship” was forged during many a late night study session at which Brad would say: “Oh, I get it! But… could you just explain it for me one more time mate? Just hold on while I get my pen. Hold on, not so fast!” Then, after simultaneously transcribing and mouthing my words, he would inevitably utter: “Jeez, I reckon I’ll cruise through this exam, hey?”
Kylie and I married a year later, after a whirlwind courtship that I can’t seem to remember. Brad was, of course, the best man, my other friends having gradually deserted me during the course of the year…
Wednesday, December 25, 2013, 12:44 PM
I’m in the kitchen dressed in a bright floral apron, arranging pale turkey pieces on a tray and dripping sweat as I do so.
Through the window above the sink I can see into the backyard where the women are sitting in the shade of the pergola looking (for the umpteenth time) at the wedding pictures while the men tend to the hissing barbecue.
“Just look at you. You’re absolutely gorgeous,” says my mother Edna, one hand on her ample chest, the other holding up the iPad. Mrs Dixon murmurs appreciatively as Auntie Beris swipes from photo to photo. “That dress, Kylie dear, was so perfect.”
“I know, I know!” says Kylie. “And look, there’s Yvonne and Leanne. Don’t they look good?”
“But not too good darling. You never want the bridesmaids to outdo the bride.”
“Everything was done just right,” says Auntie Beris nodding. The smell of burnt meat wafts over from the barbecue.
“And here we are on our honeymoon at Byron Bay.” Kylie giggles, covering her mouth and pointing. “Brad was so funny!”
“What was Brad doing at your honeymoon?” asks Mrs Dixon.
“Oh, he met up with us after we visited my relatives in Newcastle.”
Over at the smoke-shrouded barbecue my rather spindly father, Jack, is dancing with the occasional flames and spitting fat, lunging with his spatula. His floral apron, identical to mine, hangs off him like a collapsed tent. Mr Dixon is standing nearby, beer in hand, talking to my Uncle Frank.
“This Carbon Tax is absolute nonsense,” says Mr Dixon. “So glad the government is going to scrap it! I mean climate change – give me a break!” Uncle Frank takes a swig of his beer and winks at me.
The doorbell rings and Kylie shouts “I’ll get it!” and then runs through the open sliding doors into the house. Moments later I hear her squeal “Brad!” and feel a rush of nausea.
“Merry Christmas! Ho, ho! Ha, ha!”
“Mwah! Oh you didn’t! But I didn’t get you anything.”
“Go ahead, open it.” Brad’s voice becomes louder as he walks into the kitchen. “Dan, you old bastard! Merry Christmas!” He slaps me on the back and a turkey wing falls out of my hand onto the floor where Bugsy sniffs it delicately.
“I think Brad’s here. He’s such a nice boy,” says Auntie Beris.
“Daniel, bring out the rest of that meat for your father!” shouts Mum.
“Oh my… Brad!” Kylie feigns breathlessness as she examines the gold and silver watch at arm’s length. “It’s beautiful. Oh thank you, thank you! Mwah!” Brad shifts shyly from one foot to the other, raising his hands as if to say “what can I say”.
“Daniel, did you hear me?”
“He’s a bit absent-minded my Daniel. A hard worker, but sometimes he needs to be reminded a little,” I hear her assuring Mrs Dixon. “I’m afraid he takes after his father in that regard.”
Meanwhile Kylie has put the watch on and is thrusting it, limp wristed, towards me. “Look Dan! Isn’t it just fabulous?” She turns to Brad: “Come on, everyone’s out at the back,” she says, looping her arm through his and leading him to the sliding doors. I grab the tray and look up just in time to see Mr Dixon giving Brad a two-handed handshake and Kylie running on her tiptoes to the pergola where the women flock to her extended arm like seagulls to a French fry.
As I approach the barbecue I try to avoid the plume of smoke but it follows me wherever I turn.
“Thanks son,” says Dad, blinking furiously as he throws fresh drumsticks amongst the charred ruins.
“Where was I? Ah yes, the Carbon Tax,” says Mr Dixon to Uncle Frank who is munching on a piece of turkey, a blackened fragment clinging to his chin. “If the Senate won’t scrap it, you know what the government should do?” The two men step back to let the smoke pass between them. “Double dissolution,” he says to the cloud.
“For Heaven’s sake Jack, it’s burning!” shouts Mum.
“It’s the caramel basting,” he moans. “It always burns.” I pour some beer on the flames.
“Double dissolution, I tell you. Call a fresh election.” A hand gropes through the fog in answer.
“I think it’s time we called the fire department,” says Mrs Dixon.
The smoke shifts to reveal that Uncle Frank is on his knees clutching his throat, his square-framed glasses askew and his face turning a shade of purple.
“Mate, you crack me up,” laughs Brad. Then Frank falls forward on his face. I can see the top of his head where he is balding. “He’s such a joker.”
“Frank are you okay?” shouts Dad. Mrs Dixon runs up as I am turning him over.
“I think he’s stopped breathing,” she says. “Quick, somebody call an ambulance.”
Monday, December 30, 2013, 9:25 AM
“He was a man of science and a man of God.” Father Milovan pauses to wipe his brow. “As a nuclear physicist he could see the mysterious workings of our Lord in even the smallest things.”
“I thought he was an atheist,” whispers Brad over my shoulder.
We are standing in the front row under the Byzantine dome. My Dad is standing next to me, his head bowed and his slight shoulders crushed further by the weight of loss. Kylie and I have had a row about Frank’s will. She threatened to boycott the funeral, but relented at the last minute and is now standing on the other side of Dad and Mum in silent protest.
“He was also a family man… even though he didn’t have a wife and children of his own he was devoted to his brother, Jack,” he nods towards the front row, “his sister-in-law Edna,” (Mum smiles and nods back, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief) “and his uh, nephew…” He looks at me. “We will all miss him terribly.”
“Frank didn’t know this priest, did he?”
“For God’s sake Brad,” I whisper hoarsely, “shut the fuck up.”
“Okay, okay. You’re upset, I know.” Brad leans back. I look over at my Dad who is lost in his own world and has heard nothing.
“God has taken away our dear Frank. He has taken him away for reasons that are known only to Him.”
Brad whispers: “’Cause he never went to church, I reckon,” and I glare at him.
Back at my house I’m standing next to the fold-out table looking at the triangulated sandwiches, diced cheese and glutinous sushi provided by “Dour and Sons – the one stop funeral directors”. Mum and Kylie are standing on the other side, talking quietly.
“Mr Djurdjevic seems to have taken it very badly,” says Kylie tilting her head towards Dad who is sitting alone under the pergola with his head in his hands.
“And so he should. It was his fault.”
“You didn’t say that did you?”
“Of course I did. I warned him before. I said ‘Jack, some day you’re going to kill someone with your cooking’, and now he has. His own brother.”
“Is Auntie Beris okay?”
“She’s still getting over the shock of it all. To think that she waited all that time for Frank to notice her. It may not be nice to say this, but my sister can do a whole lot better.”
“Yes, Frank was too weird. And very difficult to talk to.”
“He was boring dear. Like my Jack, only worse. All that scientific nonsense made him unable to talk about things that really matter. But what makes me really mad is how he completely ignored us in his will.”
“Don’t even get me started on that one. Dan’s like: ‘I don’t care, Frank had a right to do whatever he wanted with his money’ and I’m like: ‘But Dan, you were, like, his favourite relative – can’t we contest the will or something?’ but he’s like: ‘No, nooo, we can’t do that,’ like it’s not even possible.”
“And why not? Frank was clearly out of his mind.”
“Exactly! I got so angry with your son, Edna, I really did!”
“You had every right dear. I’ll have a chat to Daniel, don’t you worry about that. I simply cannot believe that Frank left everything to this ‘Picklejar’ fellow.”
“Pikkeljig. His name is Fenyops Pikkeljig,” I interrupt.
“Whatever.” Mum waves me away without even turning around. “He had a house up in Wanneroo and a flash new car. He must have had stacks of money. God knows he was always flying off to the East coast and overseas on some kind of fishy business. Probably kinky too. I mean if you leave all your money to a man it must say something, mustn’t it?”
“Well I think so.”
“Now to change the subject,” Edna lowers her voice, “Kylie dear, who was that girl Brad was talking to outside the church?”
“The tart with the long black hair? I don’t know. I didn’t like her though. Looked all up herself. All ‘lah-di-dah’. And her legs were too skinny.”
“Far too skinny. Maybe Dan knows who she was. Dan…?”
I hear her, but I’m walking away in disgust towards Dad who is still sitting, hunched over, under the pergola.
Thursday, January 2, 2014, 1:01 PM
I am at my office cubicle, clawing at the papers strewn like oversized confetti on my desk and glancing nervously at the fifties wall clock that counts away most of the hours in my life.
Mr Dixon opens the door to his office and bellows: “I promised your parents that you could work on your uncle’s estate during office hours, Djurdjevic. Just don’t take too long. Remember that it’s pro bono. We have bills, and that means working for clients who pay. Djurdjevic, are you listening to me?”
“Yes sir.” I stop. “I have that lunch with Mr Pikkeljig coming up at one o’clock. We’ll be discussing the transfer of Uncle Frank’s assets into his name.” Mr Dixon looks at the wall clock then down at his watch. “You’re late! No small wonder with that mess. Organisation, dear boy. Discipline. A clean desk is a sign of a clean mind. Your head is obviously full of nonsense.”
“Well, get to it then,” says Mr Dixon waving his hand and sighing. Moments after Mr Dixon slams his door, Brad’s opens slowly and he peers out from behind it.
“Dixon giving you a roasting, eh mate?”
“Yeah. Look Brad, have you seen Uncle Frank’s file? I was sure I put it on my desk just before we left for the funeral.”
“Sure, all you need to do is ask.” Brad disappears and comes back a moment later with a manila folder.
“What the hell were you doing with it?”
“Ah well…” Brad raises and lowers both eyebrows a couple of times. “You see me talking to that dark haired beauty at the funeral?”
“No… what the hell does that… never mind, just give it here. I’m late already.”
“That’s Pikkeljig’s lawyer. It seems he couldn’t make it, so she’s here instead to discuss the will. I just wanted to find out as much as I could about her. Hope you don’t mind.”
I snatch the file away. “So Pikkeljig’s not meeting me for lunch?”
“Nope. The girl’s meeting us instead. Justine Shelley. And mate, she is a stunner. Ha, ha.”
“No one invited you Brad.”
“Oh, come on! You know I’m good at meetings! Meetings are my thing!”
“Why didn’t she introduce herself to me at the funeral?”
“I told her you were too upset to talk business and that she could talk to me instead. Anyhow you’re married mate. She’s no use to you. Ha, ha. Here’s your jacket. If we catch the bus we should get there in ten minutes.”
The air outside is as hot and stuffy as the inside of a drier at a laundrobar. I can feel my shirt sticking and hold my arms up as we run, so as to let the faint easterly dry me as much as possible. A bead of perspiration trickles down and hangs ignominiously off the end of my nose.
“So fill me in. What’s the story with this guy Pikkeljig? Why did Frank leave him everything? Do you even know this guy?” Brad is stomping heavily next to me, his voice shuddering with each footstep.
“I don’t have a clue. About anything. I just did what Uncle Frank’s will said and sent an email to Pikkeljig – via his lawyers. Say, do you know this place we’re going to?”
“Sure. It’s right here. Hey wait up!”
I turn and Brad is pointing to a doorway marked “Peking Palace”. I take a deep breath and wipe my nose with my sleeve. “All I know Brad, is that Fenyops Pikkeljig lives in Melbourne somewhere. Frank never mentioned him. The first I heard of him was when I discovered that Frank wanted me to be the executor of his will.”
“Must of been good mates eh? Really good mates – if you know what I mean, ha, ha.”
“I’m not going to say this again Brad: Uncle Frank wasn’t gay.” As we enter the dimly lit restaurant I notice a few ancient air coolers on rusty stands blasting stale, moist air ineffectually about the room. A neatly dressed and eager waiter approaches us and I can feel the fresh beads of sweat welling in my scalp. “We have a booking. In the name of Pikkeljig perhaps.”
“Oh yes sir. A young lady is already here. Come this way.”
We follow him on a winding path between wooden chairs occupied by corpulent businessmen spinning their Lazy Susans and slurping noodles under the chintzy papier mâché dragons.
“I guess you must be pissed off about it all,” says Brad. “I mean, why didn’t Frank leave you anything? What kind of name is ‘Fenyops Pikkeljig’ anyway? Sounds like a joke.”
“No worse than Bradley Shitarateputis.”
“Oi, watch it mate. Shitarateputis is a fine name with a proud tradition.”
The waiter points to one of the tables where a woman in a navy blue business suit is engrossed in a file. She looks up and smiles as we approach, getting up slightly and extending her hand.
“Hello, I’m Justine Shelley.” I notice that her hair is long, dark and impossibly straight, like a single sheet of silk that hangs down to the middle of her back. She has smooth, tanned skin, high cheekbones and Eurasian eyes reminiscent of polished ebony.
“Dan Djurdjevic. Pleased to meet you Justine. I believe you’ve met my associate Brad.”
“Yes. Hello Bradley.” She shakes his eager hand and Bradley flops himself down next to her, grinning like a cartoon.
“Would you like some Chinese tea?” asks the waiter, and I, feeling a fresh onslaught of perspiration, hear myself saying “yes”.
“Perhaps some cold water as well. It’s so hot, don’t you think?” Justine dabs at her slender neck with a napkin as she speaks but she looks perfectly cool to me. The waiter nods and retreats quickly to the kitchen. “I believe there’s been a bit of a heat wave in Perth. It’s been a bit like this in Melbourne too, although we don’t tend to get it for as long.”
“No one feels the heat more than Dan here. Looks like you just put your head under a tap mate. He’s got this sweating problem you see. Ha, ha.” I ease myself into the seat opposite Justine and look at her through a film of steam, feeling my cheeks go red. If Justine notices my discomfort she doesn’t show it.
“You know, I find it helps to run a glass of cold water over your forehead,” she says matter-of-factly. Almost on cue, the waiter reappears with glasses of iced water and places the one with the most ice in front of me. Justine picks up hers and holds it against her olive brow.
“So, er… you act for Mr Pikkeljig?” I ask, running my own glass over my forehead and feeling the cool moisture.
“My firm does, yes. In most things. Usually property transfers. Dan… may I call you Dan?” I nod. “Let me first tell you how sorry I am about your uncle. It must have been a great shock to you and your family.”
“Thanks… It was all very sudden.”
“I can only imagine. And I hate having to talk business at a time like this.” I shake my head and motion that it is okay.
“We’d never heard of Pikkeljig before – had we Dan?” Bradley is leaning forward in his chair, turning his head from Justine to me and back like a tennis umpire, but Justine doesn’t seem to notice him.
“The truth is, our firm had never heard of your uncle either…” She pauses while the waiter hands out menus. “So I guess we’ve both had surprises.”
“Tell us a little bit about Mr Pikkeljig. Who is he? What does he do?” I am still holding the glass to my forehead and I notice that I’m starting to feel cooler. In fact, the trickling of sweat down my back and under my armpits appears to have stopped.
“Well… I’ve never met him. In person that is. But I’ve spoken to him on the phone many times. Mr Pikkeljig is a property investor. Somewhat eccentric, but likeable. He has this commanding way of speaking, almost as if he is physically grabbing you. At the same time he makes you feel like you’re the only person in the world.”
“Sounds like Uncle Frank,” I say with a wry smile. “Have you spoken to Mr Pikkeljig recently?”
“As a matter of fact, no. Not for a few months. We have standing instructions to act for him in any matter. For example, he has asked me to represent him at any funerals, which is why I’m here. But he’s been out of contact for some time now.”
“Isn’t that a bit strange?” I ask.
“No. Not really. Mr Pikkeljig travels a great deal.”
“He seems to have had a lot in common with Uncle Frank.”
“A man of mystery was our Frank. And we all thought he was a right boring old bastard. Didn’t we Dan?” Brad is preparing to slap me on the back but I face him with a glare and the slap wavers, then evaporates.
“It must be difficult. For your whole family. The fact that he didn’t… the financial side, I mean.” Justine looks down and I notice her unusually long and slender fingers and thumbs.
“I think the people who most want Frank’s money are the least entitled to it. I’m honoured that he even mentioned me in his will. I’d swap a fortune just to have him back…” The awkwardness of the following silence is saved by the waiter who asks if they are ready to order.
The truth is that I am a little peeved at Frank about the will. Well, perhaps peeved is too strong a word. Disappointed. The will has left me feeling that I was less important to him than I thought. But then again, we had drifted apart over the last few years, so I suppose I had no real claim to his primary affections.
Frank had always taken an active interest in me. He wasn’t the sort of uncle who would take me on fishing trips when I was a kid. “I hate fishing,” Frank would say. “An enormous waste of time. No creativity being generated at all. Remember Dan, use each moment creatively and you won’t waste your life.”
He was the sort of uncle who would spend hours with my teenage self, teaching me the rudiments of guitar playing, and recording music on an old four track reel-to-reel. “You have talent Dan,” he would say, and give me “How to” cassettes to which I never listened.
When it came to music Frank was caught in the late seventies and early eighties. He loved Australian artists that most of the world hadn’t heard of, like Paul Kelly and Cold Chisel. More than anything, he loved the Hunters and Collectors – a band that I had also come to love. “Man, their music was pure and unadulterated. They never bought into electronic garbage.”
And Frank had the “retro image” to match, albeit he was more a throwback to the seventies with his taste for cardigans (I can still recall his favourite, moth-eaten, blue one, complete with patched elbows) and all things corduroy.
As I got older our friendship seemed to falter. I got busier at university and Frank was frequently away. Kylie’s and my wedding constituted the backbreaking straw on our friendship’s camel. Frank was perfectly polite to Kylie – too polite. Only I could tell that this was a sign of Frank’s utter contempt for her. To his credit, Frank never said a bad word to me about Kylie, but the openness we had previously shared suffered as a consequence.
For her own part, Kylie treated my dear old Uncle Frank as an imbecile. “He’s so boring,” she would lament. When he came around for dinner a few times Frank would listen attentively to Kylie and ask all the right questions like: “So why did you choose lavender drapes?” Somehow Kylie was never satisfied. “He’s just too nice, don’t you think? He doesn’t have anything interesting to say. What did you two ever talk about?”
“Maaate,” Brad says, far too loudly, as we walk toward the bus stop, “she wants you. I could see it.”
“Shut up Brad.”
“Plain as day. She’s got the hots for you and she’s got ’em bad.”
“Anyone ever tell you what an arsehole you can be?”
“What? I’m just telling it like it is. Do you realise just how cranky you’ve been lately? Sheesh. I’m starting to get a little bit hurt, you know. All you ever do is bite my head off.”
“Just lay off the innuendo. I’m not in the mood.” The sea breeze has come in and I savour its cooling blast.
“’Cause you’ve been through a lot I’ll forgive you.” I say nothing. “So when are you seeing her again?”
“Brad, she goes back to Melbourne this afternoon. I won’t be seeing her again. Period.”
“I suppose it’s just as well. No point leading her on.”
“I wasn’t leading anyone on.”
“I notice you didn’t wear your ring. You’re quite a crafty fellow aren’t you?”
“You know I often don’t wear my ring.”
“Sure, sure. Isn’t it like, bad luck, to take your wedding ring off?”
“That’s what Kylie thinks. Don’t tell her, okay?”
“Hey mate, my lips are sealed.” Brad makes a zipper signal across his mouth. “You get her number?”
“For crying out loud! You were there. What do you think? Look, from here on she doesn’t need to get involved, except in some paperwork.”
In retrospect it was clear that there hadn’t been any need for a meeting. Over lunch we talked briefly about Uncle Frank’s assets and I promised to send Justine a complete list by the end of the following week. But in reality there wasn’t any hurry; the transfers could only be done after probate, which would take months at least. The rest of the “meeting” comprised a chat I found myself thoroughly enjoying. Even now I can’t stop thinking of Justine’s surprisingly raucous laugh, the way she rested her chin on her palms, elbows casually on the table, dark eyes focussed intently. And the reassuring hand she ever so briefly placed on mine…
“You sure Frank wasn’t hiding something?”
“Eh?” I turn to Brad who has dropped a step behind.
“Everyone thought he was loaded.”
“No, no. Like I said – he had his house and car. Bugger all in his bank accounts. Some personal effects. I have to make a visit to his place and check it all out.”
“How are you going to get in?”
“Frank was pretty organized. He left a key with his will and some specific instructions on what I should do with his security system. Everything.” A central area transit bus whines its way to a stop in front of us and some sour looking patrons shoulder their way out of its air-conditioned interior.
I steer my car onto the grass-raised paving of our driveway.
Over the road I see Leanne’s parked Hyundai Excel and groan inwardly. I ritually avert my gaze from the frayed Cocos palms that bend steeply in the sea breeze but unfortunately look straight into the eyes of my neighbour, Jim from New Zealand, who waves an enthusiastic hello. His garden is, by contrast to ours, a picture of health, albeit some part is always in a state of major works.
“Hi there Jim,” I say as I get out of the car.
“Choice, bro. How’s thungs?”
“Okay. Looks like you’re getting ready to do something big out here,” I say pointing to the huge mounds of yellow sand that have been dumped on the verge.
“Yeah, been hivving a real trial with this front lawn. You know how we lowered it all by twenty centimetres? Hid to take off the grass, dig up the soil and get rid of uht, then put bick the grass? Well, we decided to raise the lawn up again. Gonna hifta take up the grass, put down some soil and put bick the grass. Reckon it’ll take a few weekends, hey?”
“Also gonna hifta break up that concrete slab I put down. That’s why I got the pneumetuc drull. Put some pavers down instead. Should be choice.”
“I reckon. Well, I’ll be seeing you Jim.”
“Yeah mate. Cheers.”
I open the front door and hear Leanne saying “Look!” before she squeals with laughter.
“And look at Brad!” shouts Yvonne. Another squeal.
“Hi there girls.”
“Oh hi Dan,” says Kylie without looking up. Yvonne and Leanne who are squeezed in on either side of her say nothing as they stare at her iPhone.
“What are you looking at?”
“Pictures from New Year’s Eve.” Yvonne wipes a tear from her right eye. “They’re so funny.”
“But I heard you mention Brad. I thought it was another girl’s only night…”
“He just happened to be at the pub,” says Kylie, waving in my general direction. “Here he is, at it again!” Yet another joint squeal and Leanne shakes both hands furiously with her eyes tightly shut.
“Well I’ll be in the spare room if you need me,” I say, but none of the girls respond.
The spare room is where I keep my personal effects. “You can make as much mess as you like in there with your toys,” Kylie said at the beginning. In fact, I desperately want to clean it up – make it “my” space where I can feel comfortable and indulge in my hobbies. But the truth is, I barely have time to dump things in the room and run; working at Dixon, Cox and Peters takes up almost every one of my waking hours. And so I experience the same rising sense of despair every time I open the door, noting the ever-increasing depth of the layer of dust covering practically everything.
I keep my clothes in the cupboard since the walk-in wardrobe of our bedroom is assigned entirely to my wife’s extensive clothing collection. My “toys” consist of my collection of Hunters and Collectors CDs, my computer, a cheap electric guitar and the bank of seventies effects pedals Frank salvaged from a junk pile when he was visiting Japan. “You know,” Frank used to say, “you either pay a fortune to create the sound these babies make, or you pay nothing at all.” As a birthday gift he arranged them all neatly on a particleboard base. In ten years I have used them only a handful of times. Has it really been ten years?
Looking at the dust-covered pedal board I remember a question I meant to ask Frank: if light is reflected in a mirror to produce a back-to-front image, what happens to sound? Is its mirror image also back-to-front? And, if so, how does it differ from the original sound? A scientist like Frank, with an interest in music, must have known the answer, but somehow I never got to ask him. Now it’s too late.
I hear and feel the teeth grinding, foundation shaking, start-up of the pneumatic drill just outside my window. At least Frank could have left me the four track recorder and his guitars, I think, wondering whether they would be appreciated by Fenyops Pikkeljig. Maybe Pikkeljig would consider selling them to me?
A quick glance at the in-tray tells me that this is unlikely, for the simple reason that I wouldn’t be able to offer any money. The bills sit high in the tray where I’ve asked Kylie to put all official correspondence. The fact that Kylie frequently forgets to put things in there makes me even more nervous. Flicking through the top few papers I can see numerous department store and boutique accounts. The credit card balance sheet is clearly at its limit. Even the telephone bill is double what it was last month, not to mention Kylie’s mobile account, immediately beneath that.
The door is slightly ajar and Bugsy slinks through, meowing a greeting against the thumping backdrop. I drop the papers and pick him up, holding him so that we touch noses, an affection that Bugsy only extends to me. He’s a strange cat. In fact we sleep kind of “cheek to cheek”, something that Kylie, who wears earplugs and an eye mask to bed, is scarcely aware of.
Saturday, January 4, 2014, 6:29 AM
It’s Saturday. I wake, peel Bugsy off my face and look over to my wife, who is sleeping on her back with her mouth open, emitting a rasping breath. The bedside clock tells me it is 6.30 am. Kylie won’t get up before 11:00 am. Normally I would go in to work, my only consolation being not having to shave, wear a suit or listen to Brad or Mr Dixon.
Today however I have decided to make that trip to Uncle Frank’s house. I slide carefully out of bed and tiptoe to the chair where I have left some clothes when Kylie’s voice croaks from behind with all the loudness of someone wearing earplugs.
“Don’t forget, you have to do some gardening today mister.” She groans and sits up, one hand lifting her eye mask while the other scoops out an earplug. “What time is it? Geez Dan. You’ve got a nerve.”
“Go back to sleep pumpkin. I’m just heading over to Frank’s to finish things off,” I say pulling on a sock.
“Your bloody uncle.” Her voice still sounds like a rasp and her puffy face looks rounder than usual. “When is he going to be out of our lives for good?” I frown at her and she flops back onto the pillow. “Well it’s not as if he did us any favours. Just make sure you leave enough time for some serious gardening. I’ve told you before, I’m not putting up with it any longer.” She rolls over, pulls her eye mask back down and gropes around for the earplug she dropped onto the sheets. I pull on my t-shirt, say nothing and head for the door. Somewhere outside Jim’s pneumatic drill starts up.
My uncle used to live in a federation cottage in Northbridge on the edge of the CBD. I have fond childhood memories of playing there on creaky jarrah floorboards under high, pressed tin ceilings. But a few years after Kylie’s and my wedding Frank moved to the northern suburbs. I’ve only visited his new place a couple times. I guess I never felt comfortable there; it seemed so bland, so… not Uncle Frank. It was as if he had moved on to a different life: one in which I had no role.
I turn into the driveway and wonder if I have the right house – they all look the same: faux Tuscan monoliths.
After checking the number I pull up the handbrake and turn off the engine. I notice a small treeless garden, yellow sand everywhere and weeds sprouting between the paving stones. It is clear that, like his nephew, Uncle Frank was no gardener. I pause at the front door and pull the folded letter from my front pocket.
When you get in the front door you’ll see a keypad immediately to your left on the wall. You have 40 seconds to key in 6514. If you forget the number, just think FEN – my beneficiary’s nickname, ie. F = 6, E = 5 and N = 14. Not exactly what you would call a sophisticated code, is it? Anyway, be a good lawyer and do whatever it is you have to do.
Don’t forget the Filipino shirt in the wardrobe is for your Dad. AND the COWBOY BOOTS are for you. I know you always liked them. Check them for redbacks will you? The blasted things are always making a nest inside. Cheerio then.
I grimace as I refold the letter. I don’t remember any cowboy boots and I have never had any particular liking for things country or western. Oh well, there is a Good Sammy’s bin on the way home…
I turn the key in the lock, open the door and the alarm begins its countdown beeping. There is a faint smell of paint mixed with cement dust as I enter the foyer. The heavy blinds and drapes that cover every window mean that the interior of the house is dark. Luckily the keypad is backlit and, after punching in the code, there is silence, save for the hum of the refrigerator. I grope for a light switch, find one and flick on the uncovered globe that hangs in hallway.
I can tell almost immediately that the assets list will be very easy to finalise. If anything the house is emptier than when I last saw it. The sunken lounge has the same eighties television set Frank had when I was growing up, and a bare canvas, fold-out, futon sofa. The kitchen looks as if it has never been used – a stainless steel sink and washboard that is still streaked with the tiler’s rough sponging and a round IKEA breakfast table with four pine chairs. The fridge has some mouldy cheese, half a jar of pesto, a few shrunken cherry tomatoes and liquefied cucumber, all of which I scoop into a plastic bag and take out to the wheelie bin on the verge.
My footsteps resonate on the concrete floor as I walk into the laundry where I see a washing machine and dryer, and some crumpled shirts in a faded plastic basket. A cupboard opens to a space under the staircase which stores a box of cockroach baits, various detergents, a frayed broom, a dustpan without a handle and a bucket full of brittle pegs.
Upstairs the bedrooms are all empty, save for the master bedroom which has a queen size futon and a small side table filled with neatly folded socks and underwear. I turn on the light in the walk-in robe to see Uncle Frank’s familiar blue cardigan, a couple of business suits, some ties, jeans and, of course, the Filipino shirt.
On the floor, among the neatly arranged sneakers, joggers and polished black work shoes, are the cowboy boots. They are snakeskin, tattered and scuffed, with pointed tips and tarnished brass spurs – boots that call to mind permed mullets and “Achy Breaky Heart”. I pick one up by the loop with my fingertips and frown as the odour reaches me. I tip it upside down and bang it against the wall to dislodge any redback spiders, then jump back reflexively when something lands near my feet. I crouch down to have a better look. It is a piece of paper, a till receipt perhaps, folded to the point of being curved. I prod it with my finger then pick it up, open it out and hold it to the light.
I bet you were going to throw these into the Good Sammy’s bin. Shame on you. I placed the same message in both boots just in case. Go into the cupboard under the staircase (mind your head). You’ll see a trapdoor in the ground which leads to the basement. Remember Mark? You’re smart, so I know you’ll figure it out.
I drop the boot and hurry down the steps, unseen companions following with every echo. I open the cupboard door and crouch low to get in. A flashlight sits on an empty wine rack and I turn it on, nudge the bucket of pegs to one side and aim the weak beam at the floor. Through the floating dust particles I can see a doorframe in the floor and a recessed handle. I pull it but nothing happens. I stand up, banging my head on the underside of the stairs.
I squeeze back out into the laundry where I unfold the paper and read it while massaging my skull.
Remember Mark? You’re smart, so I know you’ll figure it out.
I look back inside and aim the torch beam. It abruptly cuts out. A quick smack with the heel of my palm brings it back to life. I crawl in again and squat low, rubbing the lump rising on my scalp. I flash the dying beam onto the wine rack. There, fixed below the bottom shelf is another keypad.
I fumble for my pen and notebook and write down:
Mark Seymour was, of course, the lead singer of Hunters and Collectors. I key in the numbers and try the handle. Nothing. I go back to the keypad and try just SEYMOUR. By this time my legs are beginning to cramp. Still nothing. Then I try MSEYMOUR and hear a dull click from behind the door. Lifting the handle I see a narrow staircase descending into the darkness. After a moment a fluorescent light flickers, then blinks on in the basement. I ease my way onto the stairs where I am greeted by a hot musky scent of synthetic carpet, computers and human skin.
It is a sound studio. A large mixing desk and a flat panel computer screen sit up against the window to the recording room, which is empty except for a few haphazard microphone stands, some cables and a small booth in the far corner, presumably for recording vocals. The walls are uniformly covered in a dark-grey, corrugated foam.
I wonder why the studio is hidden. To avoid problems with the local council perhaps? And why didn’t Frank ever tell me that he had a professional recording studio?
I walk over to the computer screen which displays a flying clock screensaver. A yellow post-it sticker stuck to the edge says:
Read me Nephew.
I prod the mouse and the screen lights up to reveal a black and white desktop picture of an angular Mark Seymour taken at some concert in the early eighties. In the centre of the screen I see a file named “README.txt” and I open it.
Well, you’ve made it this far Dan. Now go into the folder My Documents/My Music/Profiles. You know how to do that don’t you? There you’ll find a long list of “profiles” which have an “exe” extension. Find the latest one and double-click on it. Remember – click on the LATEST profile. You’ll see the date and time on the right. PLEASE DON’T FUCK IT UP! I’m counting on you.
After I have opened the folder, I scroll to the last file which is dated 04/12/13 11:55. I click on it and an hourglass appears. The screen becomes black and a line of text reads:
Printing profile 115504122013 to local port. Please wait...
After a few minutes another line of text appears:
Printing finished. Press any key to continue.
I press the space bar and I am returned to the folder where I started. As far as I can tell, nothing has happened.
I am about to click on the profile again when I hear a faint rustling noise.
What was that?
I glance up at the speakers. (“They’re monitors Dan,” Frank used to say. “In sound engineering they are called monitors”.)
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see movement in the recording room. The door to the vocals booth opens. Uncle Frank steps out.
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