In Our TimeJPYoung
There's a mystique about being a writer…
'Mystique'...that's the French word for delusion. Both to the others who look at you and especially the way you look at yourself.
He wasn't much of a writer, but he enjoyed saying he was one rather than saying he was retired, because he believed that writers could get away with anything...and they couldn't be sacked. It was just as well that he had other income, for he believed the first rule for any artist was ‘never give up your day job’.
His wife wasn't literary, so she didn't tell him how to write. She was practical. She was also understanding and put up with a lot from him. They both had a sense of humour and could laugh at themselves; they still found each other interesting.
His wife's financial affairs that she excelled at, and were useful, required her to spend a few days in North Sydney where the couple formerly lived until they retired to the South Coast. He was pleased to join her to share the expenses.
It was nearing the long weekend at the end of September where the first Monday of October was the holiday of Labour Day. They stayed at Glenferrie, their literal home away from home as it was across the street and a bit from where they formerly lived. Glenferrie was a quiet hotel that was built in 1908 as what would be called a mansion today; it became a guest house in 1923.
After their arrival, a late lunch and unpacking, she left him to pursue her business.
‘You can’t write if you’re never alone’, Winifred Watson the authoress of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day once said. She was right…
He remained behind in their cosy...the hotel word for miniscule, en suite room. The other definition of cosy, warm floral items that reminded one of staying with their beloved grandparents, no longer existed in the mostly black and white room. The only colours were two large photographic prints of the neighbourhood featuring glorious blossoming lavender jacaranda blossoms and red flame trees. He recalled his childhood when films and television were black and white, but the carpets and curtains were always colourful; today things were reversed...and there were no more curtains. Perhaps the prints of the area being the only colour were designed to get the guests out of their drab rooms and enjoy themselves...
There was a large open, for the rooms no longer had drawers, chipboard wardrobe with a timber veneer that had a protruding shelf attached that doubled as a desk. An unplugged digital clock radio and his holiday paperback of Hemmingway's The Sun Also Rises were on it. His American friend had posted it to him for his birthday after he commented on how much he admired the Tyrone Power/Errol Flynn film. The room's one grey chair that looked like it came from The Jetsons was beneath the desk. On the walls were an air conditioner, a plasma television screen and a narrow full-length mirror. Filling the room were a queen size and a single bed, both with white doonas and end tables.
He was laying on the single bed with his notebook. Looking out the window at the view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge over the green grassy backyard and the roofs of some of the surviving old houses, he searched for ideas for things to write about.
A square of Ritter German chocolate and a cup of black tea provided nourishment. He had his pen and notebook, the solitude, and the view. September rains were falling; they kept him inside.
All he lacked was an idea for a story and a distant memory or the inspiration from his subconscious that would let his story write itself...he had everything else...
His creative mind was on holiday as well; his mind was not only empty, but he felt like a nap...
He looked at his room, then he looked at his view, then he looked at his room again...the walls were closing in on him!!!
Plan B...find an interesting new location or try and find an interesting person.
The weather precluded him from going out on the balcony. The next best thing was the row of four comfy overstuffed chairs facing the balcony entrance that allowed him a dry view of leafy Carabella Street and down the stairs to the foyer. The rain had emptied both areas of people.
His frequent thought returned to him…the reason you can’t think of anything to write, is because you have nothing to say, and if you have nothing to say, shut up!
When you're not interested in what you're working at, or if your creativity has stopped, any distraction is a blessing and a wonder. It came in the form of a ships' horn.
The rain at last subsided; he stood out on the balcony overlooking Sydney harbour to watch a large liner come in through the twilight.
Had his ship of success come in?
The liner resembled a container ship more than the sleek ocean liners of the past that promised glamour, adventure and the chance to meet new interesting and exciting people at their best. Like those who lived in ugly high-rise towers said, they didn't care what it looked like, they wanted the views, and the new ships seemed to give every cabin a balcony. Perhaps those below the main deck were the economy class who would have to row like galley slaves and would discover too late that their cheap fare didn't guarantee them a lifeboat.
As the sun was gone and the rain had stopped it was time for exercise and amusement. He dressed in his dark grey travelling suit with his black regimental badge on the lapel, black leather belt and polished shoes, polo shirt, turtleneck sweater and beret all in black; and he carried a black umbrella. He rarely wore a suit since he retired; it was a grand feeling to dress well again.
His first amusement was his own cruise; sailing around Neutral Bay in a harbour ferry to view the lights on the shores.
The rain was holding off though the dark overcast skies still threatened. He wasn't hungry after his late lunch and chocolate, but he did feel like a hot drink such as a whisky punch or a toddy. He walked up to the street of shops that was called 'the village'.
His memory of last being in the local hotel pub were tables full of loud males perpetually reminding each other that they were each other's mates. They repeated the same message for the entire evening that grew louder and louder the longer they drank. He equated loudness and repetition with stupidity.
As if his reluctance was heard in another plane, he suddenly noticed one of the newer boutique 'wine bars' that had sprung up as an alcoholic alternative without noise. The menu outside had a cocktail that attracted him, made with the unbeatable combination of apples and cinnamon. It was strange, he was never one for a wine bar or a cocktail, yet things seemed to lead him inside...he had learned to go with his flow.
The inside was full, but not overcrowded, the interior was nearly pitch black in darkness. Like Hopper's Nighthawks painting, he could clearly see the people, though they didn't look lonely. To his delight there were no loud sounds that masqueraded as music...people could converse, not chatter...and they quietly did.
With his beret in his inner pocket, he sat at the bar, ordered his cocktail, then produced his notebook and jotted down ramblings of random thoughts by the light of a small candle. The drink wet his whistle but his well of creativity was still dry. He looked to his right side where he saw a tall well-dressed woman writing away. Should he rudely interrupt the silence she sought with idiotic pointless chatter?
As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, he looked at the woman and like a blurred image coming into focus, it came to him that he had known her long, long ago...
'Jayne with a "Y"?'
He didn't recognise her spectacles, as if she read his mind, she removed them...Her hair was now grey, but those determined eyes hadn't changed,
'Jayne with a why not!'
They had repeated the first thing they said after their initial introduction, then embraced for the first time since they left each other so long ago.
At the beginning of her government investigative career and the ending of his they had been paired together. She called him "sir" for the first week or so and told him being with her was going to be a big job; she had suffered a breakdown after her mentor/partner was stabbed to death in her presence during one of their assignments.
He restored her confidence through martial arts training together. She proved she returned to her strong mental and physical state when on one of their missions, the person of interest they were interviewing suddenly pulled out a revolver. She knocked it out his hands and beat him to the ground. Cringing on the floor, the cowered man was never so happy to see the police in his entire life...
'Jayne…I heard you left The Team...'
'It was no longer any fun after you left, and without any fun there's no reason to go on. I could make more money and have accomplishments I could talk about anywhere else but there. Investigation only made sense when you were there; you're so quirky that you balanced the madness and made it seem straight and normal. I've more security too. When a conservative government came in we received the funding, when a leftie government came in they thought law enforcement was an embarrassment because they wanted to "facilitate international business opportunities"...So...why are you back in "what has four eyes and can't see"?'
'We're staying in Kirribilli because my wife has some local business.'
'What's your business? I can't imagine you retired...oh, but I can! I see an old Adam West in his Batman outfit writing letters to the editor and the local council and going to the library every day.'
'You're right, as always...I also write short stories...nothing of what we did, of course. What brings you here?'
'I'm just back from a meeting about overdevelopment in the neighbourhood centre next door. We're leaving on a cruise this Saturday night.'
'I saw your ship come in this evening. Besides cruising and political meetings how do you spend your time, Jayne?'
'I went back into teaching. It's like the IRA, once in, never out, but with my children growing up I reduced my hours, now that they're older I'm doing it more...Those who can...do, those who can't do, teach, and those who can't teach, teach teachers, which is what I'm doing now.'
'And those who can't teach teachers?'
'They get government grants. If they can't do that, then they have to do...Now...speaking of doing...what are you doing tomorrow? I need you...it's our time again...'
* * *
She drove him back to his hotel.
His wife had returned from a successful business day where her partners had taken her out for dinner. She filled him in on her accomplishments and had more business the next day.
'What are you going to do tomorrow, darling?'
'I'm going to a bookshop, dearest.'
'Of course you are.'
They kissed; he resumed reading The Sun Also Rises with his reading lamp as his wife slept.
After breakfast and his wife's departure, he ironed his white shirt and put on his maroon tie. He travelled to Circular Quay on the same First Fleet Class ferry he had taken every day to work.
Macquarie Place was their favourite rendezvous. There were cafés surrounding the triangular park that featured an old ship's anchor and cannon from HMS Sirius, a circular public men's toilet/bomb shelter, some greenery and the 1818 Obelisk of Distances that was the beginning of Sydney from where all journeys started...The old concrete fountain where he would sail his grey baking powder submarine that he once kept in a plastic bag in his suit pocket was mysteriously missing.
He watched those going to work and the Kyle House clock as he waited for her. As always, she was bang on time.
Jayne radiantly smiled as she walked towards him. A smile was rare for him, but his was just as radiant. She was also dressed in a dark grey business suit, but with a skirt and colourful scarf. She pointed at the black beret she wore and at his,
'If you can't beat them, join them.'
'Jayne's back and she's on the attack!'
She straightened his tie,
'My man's never a slob when he's on the job.'
They passionately embraced,
'Double Oh 47 11! You are back on the job!'
He had the habit of wearing it when they worked together, it was the only scent he liked; she liked it too.
'Do you still have your submarine, Captain?'
'It's somewhere packed away at home. It doesn't work well in salt water.'
The sun appeared and everything brightened. As they walked arm in arm, she explained their first mission together in a long, long time, though this mission was unpaid and unauthorised by the Australian government.
They walked by their ocean liner as she talked of her husband and children who were spending the day at Taronga Park Zoo.
'We're doing the cruise so we can reconnect with each other; all of us have been going our separate ways.
'You're way, way out with me, Jayne.'
'I always was...but it's so bloody wonderful to be with you again! It's our time!'
They simultaneously said,
'One more adventure for the road...'
They both laughed; he picked up her hand and looked at it.
'You've your Departmental Magic Ring!'
'They let me keep it or looked the other way when I left.'
'Does it still have its magic?'
'Of course! I wouldn't be wearing it otherwise!'
Amidst laughs and memories she led him from the Rocks to Millers Point up Argyle Street to Argyle Place past the 19th Century terraced houses, the Garrison Church, the village green and Lower Fort Street leading to her former Army Reserve Psychology Corps Drill Hall where she first met him when she was placed in their 'highly unusual and interesting career'.
Two from the past walking through the past to the Antiquarian Bookshop.
Nearing the other side of the harbour was The Book Ship. Over the centuries the neighbourhood it was in went from a wealthy enclave to a slum, to a neighbourhood of harbourside labourers until the government evicted the residents from their homes to turn it into a wealthy enclave again, now for overseas executives. There were problems as the old buildings were heritage protected, there was only on street parking for the wealthy tenant's motorcars, and the stairs and upper floors were made for small people born in the 18th and 19th centuries.
A warm friendly voice invited Jayne and her 'gentleman caller' to come in for tea as they were buzzed in.
A grandfather clock's Westminster chimes welcomed them to the stockroom of the past.
When he saw the view and smelled the aroma he was in heaven on Earth. Nothing pleased him more than an antiquarian bookshop. Jayne felt the same way; she said the next best thing was a stationery shop with its fountain pens and wooden desk items.
It was as if he was in a repository of history, surrounded by great men and women who had something memorable to say and to impart in the form of old hardcover books stacked on wooden shelves. The books were broken up here and there with historical busts or sympathetic objets d'art. The room was wood paneled; the carpet, tablecloths and curtains tied up with gold ropes were of a floral design. The colourful China crockery and silver tea set perfectly matched the books, cosy curtains and carpet. There were vases of fresh flowers on end tables. He thought a room in Heaven with Jayne would have to go pretty far to beat where he was now. He smiled and slowly circled around taking it all in. Jayne and the Marshalls recognised one of their own...
'All this is yours!', he said in awe.
'The duty of an antiquarian dealer is to safeguard and preserve items from previous generations for posterity.'
Jayne with a Why Not smiled like a cat who had the cream as he watched her walk to one of the vases of flowers,
She placed a red carnation in his lapel buttonhole over his regimental badge...everyone in the room ecstatically smiled…
Alan's grey hair, spectacles and tweed coat with elbow pads exuded wisdom, the twinkle in his eye displayed the wit and intelligence that always went together; even Blind Freddy could see he was a retired academic. His younger wife Lily was a slim attractive woman with an enchanting voice; the pair lived over their shop. He liked the Marshalls at first sight. The feeling was mutual...
'Everything she said about you is true...'
'He saved my life...'
'I did not, Jayne.'
'He was able to finally make me give up smoking.'
'That's a tall order, and you're the tall man for the job. Jayne told you I need a bodyguard and a book guard?'
'I've done the former, but never the latter. I've never heard of it before.'
'I've received information from two very reliable sources that once I purchase the book my client wishes, there may be an attempt on taking it from me.'
'Forgive me a silly question, but why would people go through you rather than buy the books themselves?'
'A sense of security...expertise...not every book that is old is valuable and not every book is worth what the advertised price is. Once I know my client and their desires, I can target what they would most likely want and what they could afford. It's very personal...I'm friends with my clients. They're very selective, they don't go for quantity as they used to, now it's quality. You'd be surprised at how many of my clients sell off their antique book collections because their wives want their living room back.'
'I wouldn't be surprised at all', Jayne remarked.
'Boys and their toys, now crooks and their books...money laundering in the art world is prevalent, now it's the turn of the antiquarian book world', added Madame Marshall, 'We've a new unsavoury group of "collectors", acquiring valuable books for money laundering purposes.'
'My wife takes a dim view of people.'
'My wife's a realist as well...So what makes one book more valuable than another, Mr. or is it Professor Marshall? Because it's old?'
'Alan. Not necessarily, there's many books that are old that aren't worth as much as a newer book. The two factors for determining the rarity of a book are the number of copies available, and the number of potential buyers that might exist for that volume. Other factors come into play, such as the number of copies that are in private collections or libraries that aren’t likely to come into the open market any time soon.'
'One of the key things of a rare book is its smaller size that wouldn't attract attention like an old painting', Lily added.
'But books are larger than rare stamps.'
'Stamps may attract the attention of a Customs officer because they've read the same mystery novels that we have, but most people wouldn't know the value of a certain book, providing it doesn't look like some ancient work.'
'Another silly question. Why an old-time auction instead of online bidding?'
'Some people don't want things widely known; the internet is advertising yourself to the world. It's an invitation only auction, you don't get in if you're not known and approved of. We do have some people who send a representative so they can bid by phone, mostly because they're overseas. However...'
'Secrecy. High value transactions aren't often reported, use of agents and intermediaries can make it challenging to track the identity of the actual end user buyer, their source of wealth and their activities.'
'There are end user certificates for weapons, but books wouldn’t have them. You're the respected face of a mysterious client...When will he, she or it pick up your purchase, if you get it?'
'I shall get it; my client has unlimited funds.'
Jayne took over the questions as he sipped his tea and tucked into the biscuits.
'What's the name of the book?'
'In Our Time, a collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway. Only 300 copies were printed during its initial run, but only 170 of those copies were released and sold due to a publishing error. The remaining 130 copies were given away to friends and family and for review copies. One of these books ended up in Australia. My client wants this book at all costs, and so do some mysterious others.'
* * *
Alan shouted luncheon upstairs at the Lord Nelson Hotel; the location of the auction was within walking distance. Madame Marshall minded the store.
The books were on display in a room entered by going through metal detectors and guarded by better than usual security guards who had the appearance and experience of former police officers.
His memories of 1940s comedy films where waving at a pretty girl would accidently make you liable to a large bill when someone thought you had signalled a bid was no longer possible, as only those registered could bid by raising their paddle with a number on it.
He slowly walked around the front of the room looking at the audience out of the corner of his eye, then he returned to his seat. The bidding audience were male and female and several nationalities, none would be called 'young'. What the majority did have in common was that their eyes and body language exuded 'greed'...and where there was greed there was hatred and fraud...Greed was the override to the strict standards of acceptable conduct in society and the afterburner that sent obtaining one's dream soaring at the expense of everything else.
Alan's friendship with the auction house led for the well-dressed Jayne to sit up front where she could view the audience. He sat next to Alan.
It was possible that the threats were from bidders for the book in question, it was equally possible that they may not be.
In Our Time was one of the items that had limited, but frenzied bidding. As Alan promised, he won the bidding with an incredible amount. As the auctioneers well knew Alan, there would be no question that he was a man of his word.
He remained at a distance watching the crowd as Jayne stayed close to Alan as the financial transactions were completed; Alan placed the wrapped book in his attaché case.
He gave the pair a lead on the pavement and held one of Alan's fountain pens in his suit coat pocket with the end protruding like it was a pistol barrel as he followed from behind constantly looking around him. There were few pedestrians and none of the passing vehicles slowed down.
At last, they reached The Book Ship.
The shop was empty.
They heard a falling book from the back room and ran towards the sound.
Madame Marshall sat straight in one of the high wooden chairs, her wrists and ankles secured to it with gold curtain ropes. A floral end tablecloth was used as a blindfold, another large cloth was stuffed in her mouth.
The tall heavyset man in the dark suit holding an automatic pistol resembled a former rugby star who became a mortician. A similar man with a similar weapon was on the side of the door as they entered. The former showed bite marks on his hand and shook it.
'She wouldn't agree to invite you in. I hope she's had her shots.'
Lily displayed she was still conscious by stamping her foot in frustration.
'I hope she doesn't get sick', Alan replied.
'You two in the grey suits and berets...get your hands up.'
He did his Frank Sinatra impression and shut his eyes,
Those who hadn't shut their eyes were blinded when the giant flash of magnesium on Jayne's ring went off.
They crashed into the blinded thugs; the one Jayne knocked down went to sleep with an injection from her multi-purpose ring. He accomplished the same to his own opponent with a series of blows. As insurance, Jayne put another injection from her Departmental Magic Ring into his prostate opponent.
They remained unconscious on their sides in what first aid training called the coma position where there was no danger of them choking. Lily menacingly stood over the unconscious men with a very large heavy frying pan, no doubt hoping they would wake up.
Alan's client arrived with two identical bodyguards. He settled his business and took his new book from Alan.
'Could they please take out the trash for us?'
The two new bodyguards smiled at the unconscious figures; they were in the same game and had a professional respect for each other.
'With pleasure. We know where to take them, I guarantee you that you won't see them again, they're professionals and they have no need to bother you.'
They carried the two off in fireman's carries. One came up to him and whispered,
'Are you finished with their pistols?'
He handed him a large bookshop paper carry bag holding the unloaded weapons and their magazines.
'Thanks. You two are professionals yourselves, but I've never seen you around.'
'We're fly in, fly out', Jayne replied.
'From different worlds.', he added.
* * *
They held hands like school sweethearts as they walked to where they had met that morning.
'Alan insists I...', he imitated Alan's voice, '"buy the lady a drink"...Have we time?'
They ordered a pair of Frangelico liqueurs in the foyer of the Sydney Harbour Marriott Hotel that adjoined Macquarie Place.
'Alan didn't pay us anything, especially compared to what everyone else paid their bodyguards.'
'Still, having one day back on the job with you was worth twice as much to me as what the others were paid...It's been so long it seems like a dream I once had...'
His expression showed he agreed, and they toasted each other. They enigmatically smiled at each other without speaking for an indefinite amount of time...
Both said the same thing simultaneously,
'Thanks for always being there when I needed you.'
They both laughed as they did when they said the same thing.
'We're just like a married couple.'
'Or one that should be...'
'To each other...'
'I still recall the receptions we attended after our missions; you looked pretty smart in your dinner jacket.'
'Your BCD and string of pearls beat all the colourful dresses the other women had on.'
'You always looked so lost and alone at social gatherings...'
'As well as being bullshit intolerant, I'm party intolerant. Thanks again for always being at my side, I couldn't take the chatter without you.'
'You're like my family; my husband would feel out of place and my children would be bored and constantly asking when we could go home...once upon a time you were my family...'
'Once upon a time before I met my wife, I wanted to bring you home...'
'Oh, I thought of it, and sometimes I came close to going home with you, closer that you'll ever know...you were always my man, but sometimes I wanted to be your woman...in every sense of the word.'
She would never forget the look in his eyes...
'It was always "Duty first", at my eternal cost...
'You were always insensitive...about the important things...that's probably why you went in for violence and I didn't.'
'Number One didn't either; they pressured him to kick me upstairs after I extracted information out of a child trafficker.'
'God knows where those children would be now if…'
'Gratitude's a privilege, never a right.'
'See? You do love children...the other reason I left was Robert...he gave me the life that I wanted to go home to, and he gave me our children...they're my "why factor"...you never wanted children...'
'I can't take competition. I want to play with the toys myself.'
'Working with you prepared me for living with children...I'll never forget the time we went to the opera together when Number One gave us complimentary tickets. You looked so brave trying to pay attention.'
'I like opera...except for the singing.'
'What's opera without singing?'
'Cirque du Soleil.'
She wildly laughed and bent her head backwards. When she looked back at him her laughter faded into the atmosphere and her eyes showed him that it was time to go...their togetherness was fleeting...
They walked into the late Friday afternoon of Macquarie Place against the tide of returning besuited workers and uniformed school children with ecstatic looks on their faces heading to the ferries, trains and buses of Circular Quay, for their delayed dreams of alcoholic drinks or a fun weekend respectively were about to be granted.
'The old Obelisk of Distances, where all journeys begin.'
'And all journeys end...walk me to my bus?'
Her bus awaited at the urban canyon of Gresham Street.
'Goodbye, Jayne with a Y, and Bon Voyage for tomorrow's family Hajj.'
'"Let's always be grateful for what we've got", said Jayne with a Why Not.'
'I'm so glad for what we had...then...we had it again...'
'In Our Time, was a place sublime...'
They longingly embraced and kissed each other...she raised her leg behind her...
The smiling driver tooted the horn, she scampered aboard to the passenger's laughter. A gentleman gave her his window seat; they blew kisses at each other as the bus took her all the way home...
His wife had triumphantly completed her business the previous day. The two celebrated with a ferry trip to Balmain, then a bus to the Italian flavoured suburb of Leichhardt. They shopped where she bought a similar dress to one that she once purchased in Santa Margherita. Afterwards they had a splendid lunch at the Bar Italia, then watched a new print of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow where she sharply elbowed him when he leered and cracked 'Vah vah vah voom!' as the cinema audience howled and whistled when Sophia Loren did her striptease for Marcello Mastroianni.
After cappuccino and fresh tiramisu they returned by bus and ferry to Luna Park. They walked back and forth; not going on any of the crowded rides themselves, but each remembering their own memories of the bright musical amusement park.
They were walking the dark harbourside track towards their hotel near Admiralty House when they saw the liner departing. They watched it with its tugboats and pilot boat escort pull out of Circular Quay for its journey to the South Seas Beyond. It lit up the darkness as if it was its own separate city on the harbour, which it was. It was the same liner that he had seen pull in at the start of his stay, now it was leaving as his stay was ending...they would return to their home Sunday morning.
Far from the noise of the amusement park, a young dark-haired woman softly serenaded the liner with her guitar…
He thought of all the chance things that happened on the unexpected North Sydney visit that led him to meet Jayne with a Why Not. Once again, his mind drifted back to when he was a young soldier and he pondered on all the twists and turns of fate that led to quick death for some and a grand time for others after they had quickly happened…he came to the conclusion that things that were meant to be happened, and they happened for a reason…never mind why…
He put his arm around his wife.
'We set the clocks tonight, I always forget which way, darling.'
'Spring ahead, fall back, dearest.'
'Like your writing.'
When she would politely inquire about the progress of his writing he mostly replied, 'Two steps forward, four steps backward.'
He held her in one arm as she leant backwards against him and pensively looked at the bright liner slowly sailing away. She didn't see him wave and blow a kiss.
'You could write about someone on that ocean liner going from our world to another one.'
'It's when two different worlds meet...that's when you've got a story...'
Author Notes: Happy Year of the Rabbit!!!
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