Sitting in the cool comfort of an air-conditioned café in Brisbane, I recalled a different situation two days ago – a much more strenuous situation.
I was digging a trench along my driveway, the Queensland sun lashing me hotly as I swung the pick at the resistant, drought-stricken dirt. I chanced to look down at my legs, plastered with dust that stuck to the sweat. Then I noticed pristine, dust-free patches that showed up scars from long ago – some from over sixty years ago.
The phrase, Scars Don’t Sweat, arose in my empty brain as I took a breath before pounding the rock-hard dirt again. The phrase wouldn’t go away. Scars Don’t Sweat.
That afternoon we went to a nephew’s wedding and, despite the jollity of the occasion, the phrase remained stuck to my mind, as dust had stuck to my sweaty legs. Scars Don’t Sweat.
Along with the phrase came the thought that it would be a great book title and I wondered what it could be about – maybe a novel, maybe a personal development book … I queried my muses but all they’d tell me was that it’d be a good book.
No book ideas have come to mind so, knowing the universe abhors a vacuum, abhors inactivity and celebrates movement, I just started swinging my pen at the drought-stricken page, knowing the idea would come.
“Turn up at the page,” I tell my writing students and so I took my own advice.
So, Universal Mind, Oh Great Story Releaser, tell me what I have to liberate onto this tabla rusa, this blank and voracious story-taker. Narrate me a narration, tell me a tale, plant me a germ of an idea and I’ll give it breath, give it life, help it run.
Scars Don’t Sweat. And a tale did turn up, a true and vicarious one.
They snatch these things from us and then expect us to give them back … to keep giving them back.
When they go, they’re gone, from thief and victim. We rob the world when we steal from others and that’s how we steal from ourselves.
These scars, these ripped and calloused wounds, close up on a dry and juiceless limb. Their edges cower in and harden together, concealing nothing but the emptiness of a burgled house.
By extraction do we shrink the world and by theft do we rob ourselves, becoming the bitterness we leave with others.
Yes, you will say we make our own choices; that we can find our own respect, compassion and trust. You’re right. Stephen did find these better things. I have. But – yes, there’s always a but – Stephen didn’t find these better things so easily; these things once stolen in his childhood. Stolen from his childhood. Bereft of examples to emulate, he could only parrot the behaviour of the man who was nearest to him, the man who could direct and misdirect his life. Then, when that man was despatched, Stephen was left with a soul full of that man’s agony, anger and avarice. His body could act the gentleman, the friend, the carer, but his heart remained black and blue, bruised and torn.
We knew Stephen the gentleman, the friend, the carer, but, sooner or later, we’d see flashes of the tortured and lonely boy hiding inside. We can hide for only so long. Eventually, we must emerge and it’s only those closest who know the scornful looks, the jagged words, the turned back. Intimacy breeds not contempt but awareness. With awareness of the demons thrashing inside the circus tent, we can choose derision or compassion. People, then, came to love or hate Stephen, a choice that none bore with ease.
A man of success, justice and secret generosity, his history can be told a thousand ways, depending on which of the thousand who knew him you were.
My story of Stephen is my story of me … or, should I say, the way I choose to perceive the world we both inhabited. I went from admiration to sho
ck to disgust to compassion to anger to bitterness to friendship, as I did with my own sweet self. My journey with others is my journey with myself and I have long resisted telling this tale lest it reveal too much of myself.
However, having become a friend to me, I’ve now lost the need to conceal. I recently realised I can no longer be an actor for I can no longer pretend that I give a damn.
All I can give is the truth and any damn I might give is long gone.
Here, then, is the story of Stephen Daniels, an ordinary man in an ordinary world, caught up in extraordinary stupidity – the stupidity of those who choose not to befriend themselves.
The spanner smashed against the machine, a shower of sparks, the men jumped back and I realised it was my own hand holding the spanner. My hand slamming the machine. My voice invading the factory, as unwelcome as the rat droppings in the flour they’d just found.
I keep a cap on this anger. A steel cap both riveted and welded on but, strike me blind, it won’t stay fettered in behind my benign and caring mask forever.
I stop and the spanner pulls my arm down, dangling impotently in shame. I should hang my head in shame but we have flour to mill, jobs to do. I smile a brave and stupid smile and the men smile along with me, awkwardly, none daring to move.
I have spent these last ten year gathering their willing trust and now I’ve broken it, I guess. This trust was built up by caring and sharing with them, cajoling and encouraging them every single day, and they think me such a saint – the boss who cares and all that palaver. Despite the daily stupidities, the constant and unnecessary stuff-ups, I glide round the mill with my indulgent smile sewn on. I imagine throttling this chap, firing that man, throwing that other one into the Bremer River. But he might float and his relatives might recognise him. Yes, I attempt some humour to soften the moment in my own mind. So I keep my palms open, my head up and my darned smile in full view.
But the rage is ever close to the surface, ready to burst at a moment’s inattention. Ready to burst the frayed thread holding my smile in place. It finally burst today and I have no words or actions to undo it all.
“Sorry guys, just a bit of a hard week,” I say, forcing myself to eye-ball each one of them. Their shoulders relax a little and their smiles become more genuine. “Tony and Giles, can you go through this batch, please, to make sure there’s no more rat poo in here and Mike and Matthew, we need to discuss how we can stop it happening again.”
I move away and there’s a silent murmur of relief, like a ripple across a pond that you feel when you’re not looking.
Mike, Matthew and I walked between the fence of men and Mike stopped to give some instructions, pat some shoulders, before following us across the wooden floor to my office.
Matthew stopped to let me into my office first. The new accountant, he seemed to be a bit of a wet fish but had glowing references and they account for more than a pile of degrees from a gaggle of twerps who’ve never done what they taught.
But I wished Billy was here – gritty, annoying Billy with a swear word for every problem (though he’s much better on that score, now) and a smart-arse answer for all of them. A damned good smart-arse answer, usually.
“Where’s Billy this morning, Matthew?” I asked as I pushed paper away from the centre of my desk and waved him to sit. He did so, hesitatingly, as if there might be a snake in the chair.
“I’m not sure, sir.”
“I’m Stephen, not sir,” I said, forcing a smile through my grimace.
“Oh, okay, sir … Stephen,” he said, looking sheepish.
“Hard to say, huh?”
“Not used to it, s..tephen.”
“You’ll get used to it. I might be the boss, the owner, but we’re all experts here, in different ways, so no need for titles.” He frowned at this as if I was explaining Hieroglyphics so I cut the banter, the niceties. “Perfect ruddy timing, huh?”
“Health inspectors due today and rat shit in the flour. Perfect timing, wouldn’t you say?”
“Oh, gosh, I didn’t know they were coming,” he said, pushing back his small, round glasses. “You’re not suspicious, are you?” I wished people wouldn’t say the things I’m thinking and don’t want to speak about.
“Not sure ... yeah, can’t help feeling … yeah, suspicious, as you say.” I lean forward over my desk and he sat forward. “You don’t get any vibes, do you?”
“Vibes?” he asked, looking confused.
“I know you’ve only been here a week but you haven’t heard anything … muttering in corners, discontent, suspicious looks? Anything?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t noticed …”
“Bloody inspectors’ll be here soon! Shit!” said Mike, bursting through the door, plumping himself in the chair as flour puffed off his white coat and floated in the air as if asking permission to settle. He sat there running his big hands through his thick, curly hair, muttering away as if no one else was in the room. He always seemed out of place in my leather, padded chairs, the hair of his barrel chest curling over the zipped-up overalls, but he still acted like he owned the chair. The whole mill, really, sometimes.
“So, we don’t have time to find out how or who, right now, Mike,” I said.
“Yeah, suppose so. Cover the crime, shoot the bastards later,” he said, chuckling grimly as he slapped Matthew’s knee and sat back shaking his head. Matthew looked uncertainly at the white patch on his knee and dared not move.
“But if we know the source we can keep us clean,” said Matthew, after a pause, pushing his glasses back and looking flushed.
“What?” demanded Mike.
“Well, if the rats are getting in somewhere, what’s to stop them in getting while the inspectors are here?” Matthew asked plaintively.
“Look, sonny, we’re busy enough cleaning up the problem and still keeping the mill going …”
“We can’t run the mill while there’s still … aah, um, impurities in the process,” said Matthew.
Hmm, not such a wet fish after all, I thought.
“Right, so we close the mill the day the inspectors arrive? They won’t suspect a thing!” said Mike, his sarcasm ever to the fore.
“Oh dear …”
“Look, guys, we need to keep the mill running but Matthew’s right,” I said. “So, we just shut down number three, run the other two hoppers, clean out the droppings … no, clean out all the flour, dump it, say we’re having a total overhaul.”
“Jesus, Stephen, the inspectors will love that,” stammered Mike, his hands on the chair arms as if he was about to leap up … or rip them off.
“Mike, steady, huh,” I said quietly. “We’re being cautious, more cautious than we ever need to be. Sacrifice more flour and production time than is necessary and they’ll be impressed at our conservatism.”
“Confuckingservatism? Christ, Stephen, they’ll be all over us with that!”
“But we have to show sincerity,” said Matthew, quietly, like the quietness of an eagle diving on its squeaky prey.
“Sincerity? What’s that bloody mean?” demanded Mike.
“It means, Mike, that we can run but we can’t hide. Ever,” I said. I let the silence envelop us, bringing stillness to the moment. The men eased back into their chairs. “Whatever we do, they’ll know something and the more we cover up, the more they’ll chase us and the more they’ll find. So I’m making a decision. We are totally honest, we go to extreme lengths to show we’re concerned and we let the cards fall where they will.”
“That’s one hell of a risk, mate,” said Mike, looking defeated and furtive. “They could close us down.”
“They could but let’s have honesty run the day and, if we have to close down, we do.” It was then that the chills hit me. Sharp, cold and vicious. Close the mill? My god, that was unthinkable.
“Close the mill? Close the bloody mill, Stephen? Do you know what you’re saying?” demanded Mike, his fist hitting the chair arm. “Christ, it was opened in 1902 and it’s been going, what, eighty one years! That’s not going to happen. It’s not bloody happening, mate.”
“Mike, I don’t want it any more than you do …”
“Excuse me, Stephen,” said Flora, popping her head in the door, “you have a visitor.”
“Okay, love, I’ll be there soon,” I said, concerned about the black look on her usually sunny face. “Give them a cup of tea and I’ll …”
“Stephen, you need to come out now. Right now.” She could be persuasive but never demanding. Not till now.
As I stood I saw the rotten sods approaching. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have glass walls – open door policy and all that – and just solid panels between the carved timber mullions. Shut myself in from the world at times. Many times. But there it was, the transparent glass and three blustering cops, all smirking and trying to look serious and officious, adjusting their perfectly starched uniforms. Rat shit in the flour and, now, rats in the alleyway.
“Thank you, ma’am,” said the eldest and fattest, as Flora stepped back to let him in. “Stephen Daniels?”
“Yes, you know it is, Gordon,” I said, not rising.
“We need to talk to you down at the station,” he said, fiddling with his bottom button, as if he was trying to shine the shine off it.
“You can talk here, Gordon. What’s your question?”
“It’s a personal matter, sir …”
“Personal? You barge into my factory, telling everybody you’re here without waiting in the foyer, parading through the factory and say it’s a personal matter,” I said, grimly.
“We can’t help that, sir. We …”
“Oh yes you can help that. So, you’ve made a public spectacle of yourselves, jack boots and all, turned a personal matter into a circus, what’s your question? I’ve nothing to hide.”
“We’ll go, Stephen,” said Mike and Matthew together.
“Oh, sorry guys. Yeah, can you just shut down number three like I said …”
Sir!” shouted the policeman. “We need you to come to …”
“Ah, belt up, will you! You can wait two minutes while we sort out the mill and the lives of the twenty people working here, can’t you? Unless there’s someone lying, dying in the street,” I said sarcastically.
“Actually, sir,” he said, looking more flushed than his beer-reddened face usually was.
“What, someone’s dying?” I asked as years of rage against authority obliterated my vision.
“They have, sir.”
The room went quiet. Mike and Matthew stopped in mid-flight and no one moved. The dust stopped floating. Clouds blocked the sun and the room darkened.
“Jesus!” someone said. Probably Mike. Maybe it was me. The only thought was that I wished Billy was here. He always had an answer, a way out.
“Where’s Billy?” my mouth asked as if it was the most logical thing to say, which it wasn’t.
“Billy is at the station, sir,” said Gordon the Goof, as I’d always called him.
“Is he dying?” my big mouth said as I wished not to know the answer.
“No but, look sir, you need to come to the station,” said Gordon, trying to puff out his chest as far as his belly went. But nothing would ever match that swollen organ.
“Aah, shut up for a minute, will you! Let me get my senses,” I said, not caring one hoot for his senses or his authority. “Now, Mike, can you sort out the mill and see to the inspectors. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Matthew, can you get Flora back in here and these gentlemen will tell us what’s going on.” The guys left while three cops stood there looking down as if I’d piddled on their boots.
“But sir, we need to get him to the station,” said a younger one who I recognised from Harrison’s, my son’s, tennis team.
“Yes, Brian, I’ll go to your station when you tell me what’s going on. Sit down … aah, Flora, take a seat, you other two argue over who’s got the third chair and, Gordon, do some talking.”
“Sir,” said Gordon, hovering over the chair as if it might bite him.
“Oh, Flora, have you seen Harrison this morning?” I asked.
“No, I …” she started to say when he cut her off.
“That’s … Harrison is one of the matters we need to talk to you about,”
“Billy? Harrison? And someone’s dying? What the hell’s going on?” I demanded. I needed to hear the bad news in my own home, in my mill, not in some snake pit of a cop station.
“Sir, we need …”
“You need to cut the crap right now! What’s happened?”
“Stephen, dear, perhaps you should go with them. Do as they ask,” suggested Flora. A still, quiet part of me agreed with her but my rage – the rage of ages, the rage of a broken past, the rage of a hundred bent coppers – was having none of it.
“Okay, cuff me up and carry me out, kicking and screaming if you must,” I said, my voice rising as I held my hands out over my desk to them. “Or sit here quietly and, in words of one syllable, tell Flora and I what happened. Can you manage that?”
The three cops looked at each other as if deciding which one of them had the brain that day. As another South Pole iceberg melted and a crow screeched outside, Gordon licked his lips.
“Right, so this is how you want it, Stephen and, since Flora’s here as well, you need to know something,” said Gordon, as solemnly as he could.
“But, inspector, he needs to go to the station,” protested Bryan, looking alarmed.
“I know he does, constable, but there’s several pieces to this puzzle so let’s just ride the horse in the direction it’s going, shall we.”
Both constables nodded and smiled uncertainly.
“Stephen. Flora. We have to inform you that Harrison, your son, was found at 6.30 this morning.”
“Found?” asked Flora, a squeak more than a word coming out. I looked at her as my brain fell into an abyss. My stomach churned over and I thought I’d vomit. Her eyes were fixed in the inspector’s as if her body was frozen in place. I couldn’t move and neither of us did.
“Yes, found,” said Gordon as his formality escaped beneath a rising tide of emotion. I thought he was about to cry when he wiped his eye and carried on, his voice quieter now. “He was found dead, Flora. Stephen.”
“Dead?” asked Flora. “Harrison?”
“Yes, Harrison, Flora. I’m so sorry for you both. So sorry.”
Words wouldn’t come. Thoughts wouldn’t come. Movement wouldn’t happen. I lost everything of what I was in that moment. Every bit of hurt and happiness I’d ever known just slunk away. I was empty. I then realised Flora had come round my desk and her hand was on my arm. I leapt into her arms like she was the last piece of flotsam from the Titanic and I wasn’t letting her go. Yes, I cried for the loss of Harrison. I cried deeply and bitterly for him. And, too, came the bucket-loads, the ship-loads, of tears I’d bottled up for the past fifty three years. Tears I couldn’t show my father when he lashed me. Tears I couldn’t show my mum when I was scared and she was vulnerable. Tears of shame. Tears of pain. Tears of loss. Tears of betrayal. Tears of anger. The brittle, the soft, the painful and the anguished tears.
I couldn’t stop and I didn’t care who was watching. I looked up for a moment and saw some of the men in the corridor, looking on with concern. If I’d wanted to stop the tears I couldn’t have. I didn’t need to, didn’t care to, for the first time ever. I’d shown the men the anger I’d kept so well hidden and, now, the blubbering. I couldn’t have shown them any worse and gave up worrying as Flora held me I her warm, iron grip. Yes, she had tears too but must have put many aside to succour mine.
I knew I should stop but wondered how as another wave washed over me. Perhaps movement would help. I flopped down into my chair and pulled Flora onto my lap. Nothing helped with the empty pain that was clutching at my gut but the sobbing became controllable. Well, slightly more so.
I looked up and wondered what the three cops were doing in the room and then remembered as a broken sob burst forth and I was away again – Flora and I in tearful unison – while the two boys looked away and Gordon inspected his boots.
“Inspector, we have orders,” said one of the constables, his acne-patched face the picture of confusion.
“Yes we have, constable,” said Gordon quickly, wiping his brow. “But, right now, no one’s going anywhere. No one.”
That could have been taken as a threat or command to me – and I suspected it was both – but I couldn’t care less what they wanted. I would have gone along with anything.
“You okay, lass?” I asked Flora as she wiped her eyes again and sat back a little, looking at me.
“No I’m not, love, but let’s keep moving. Get this over, shall we?”
“Okay, give us the details you need to give us, Gordon.”
“You sure?” he asked, looking at Flora and I. We both nodded. “Right, he was found at 6.30 this morning by a cyclist. In Queens Park. Near the playground.”
“How?” Was all I could say.
“Looks like a gunshot. May be a pistol. We’re still scouting the area.”
“A pistol?” asked Flora. “Who has a pistol round here?”
“You do,” said Gordon.
“Me?” she asked, shaking her head.
“Stephen. Stephen has a pistol,” Gordon said quietly.
“I do?” I asked and then my memory kicked in. “Oh, yes, I do, I suppose.”
“You suppose?” asked Flora, her eyes widening.
“Oh hell,” I said, wishing I’d never kept that secret. “Just never handed it in in the amnesty. Gave comfort, somehow, seeing it kept Mum and I safe so many times.”
“And you never told me?” she asked.
“No. Sorry.” What else can a man say?
“And Harrison knew about this pistol?” asked Gordon.
“Don’t know. Shouldn’t have but maybe he did,” I said, trying to put together a jigsaw with pieces that didn’t fit.
“Inspector,” Flora said and waited till the earth turned another two degrees while her mouth quivered. Eventually, her mouth steadied. “Are you saying he shot himself?”
“No, Flora, it doesn’t look like it at this stage. We’re treating this as a homicide, other person or persons involved.”
“Who?” she asked.
“Okay,” said Gordon, taking a big breath. “We have to start with the owner of the gun.”
“Me?” I asked as the clawing in my stomach started up again. Logic and emotion clashed and neither won the fight. My mind went empty again.
“We need to talk with you at the station, Stephen,” said Gordon. “Ascertain your whereabouts. An alibi.”