Reviews from the Dead
Ozwaldous Jones is a writer who fears reviews from the dead - especially his mother, the grammar NAZI. So much so, he hides all his works in a drawer in an old mansion once owned by his dead parents, who he may or may not have killed. One day he upsets that drawer and the discarded characters come to life in his house - Wattle Manor.
Knife in his chest, wedged in by an antique writing desk, Ozwaldous battles reality and death, while he sorts through his characters' thoughts - some useful, others malicious. Will he survive? Can he escape his past and the house where he has been held captive for fourteen years?
Book I of the Spottiswoode Mysteries
Behind Sandford Grove in Yarraville there is a park with no name. It lacks the traditional boundary walls of bluestone, common in the area, and is denuded of the ancient, knotted willows, drooping from years of reaching for a sky dulled by pollution and rain dust. Few inhabit the playground for fear it will inhabit them.
There once stood a house here, grand yet ancient for an Australian edifice, its windows blackened by drapes rarely opened. The seven-foot, shard-topped enclosure walls added to this mystique, not that the locals, now mostly transplanted yuppies and DINKS, remember or care to.
I spent many a moonless night wandering the halls here, directing its maladies, collecting its tales. Its story is as black as the soot the trucks now belch out daily on Francis Street, en route to the chemical plants and oil terminal down by the Yarra River. Besides yours truly, narrator extraordinaire, nobody knew the full extent of the macabre events that transpired here. Many guessed, to the detriment of the Jones family, but only I remember the truth.
* * *
Ozwaldous Jones staggered up from his antique writing desk, clutching his chest. He dealt in alternate realities, penning stories within stories, and lives wished for, but unattainable. The Writer wished this could be one of those imaginary moments, to match the name he had adopted.
The letter opener lodged in his chest, just below his right shoulder, belonged to his late father. A gift from a great aunt on his twenty-first birthday, it was a dagger, but such was the malicious intent of the family members toward any correspondence or visitors no normal device would suffice. The flag of St. George, emblazoned on the hilt, bled red into white, but Ozwaldous Jones was more concerned with the claret dripping from the blade. He had witnessed blood on this knife before. The memory disturbed him. His left eye twitched at the thought, while his head flinched towards the corresponding shoulder.
Legs failing him, he launched himself backwards, so as not to fall on the blade in his chest, landing on the open top of his writing desk. An escritoire, sans the uppermost bookshelf, the flip-top desk sat on four lower drawers. The olde world globes that formed bookends swivelled with the force of his fall, pausing on South America. A place he should have run to, somewhere he could have completed his work. The tomes between the globes were not his, as he had once imagined, the names of the other online authors he edited graced the shelf instead.
Ancient rusted hinges groaned under his weight, the felt-topped sliders designed to hold the fold-out desktop, arresting his immediate fall. Ozwaldous Jones was indeed in a pickle, the smell of stale wood dust tickling his nose. A sneeze would follow, the convulsion bound to drive the dagger deeper, while a more conventional roll off the desk would precipitate his imminent death.
If only he had a friend who might drop by, or a surviving sibling. All had succumbed to a variety quietus, his plight acknowledged only by the ringing of the Bakelite phone in the hall. Fourteen foot ceilings echoed the tones of the unanswered call; the machine attached filtering his moment of death, as it had his life.
You’ve rung the mansion of Ozwaldous Jones. He is presently indisposed, which leaves you with three options: call again, leave a message, or call triple zero and state that the person you have tried to call has been kidnapped, has leapt from the back of the kidnappers’ van, and is lying in a ditch somewhere, bleeding to death… beeeeeeeeeeeep.
“Um, hello, Mr. Jones. I’m calling from Real to Life Publishing, in England. We spoke some months back, regarding your novel, Reviews from the Dead. I realize it’s late there Down Under and you’re probably asleep, but I do prefer to respond personally. Given your recent tragic history, I was expecting something more personal. Perhaps you can adapt the idea in that direction and re-submit. Good luck.”
A dagger to the heart, literally. Another word abused by his generation, according to his mother. He pictured a camera hidden amongst the grandiose petals of the ceiling rose. How else could the publishing house have timed their rejection so perfectly?
Perhaps, if he were dead, they would have accepted his work, but that state had eluded him for the time being. He searched the ceiling again, a mirror to his soul. He often wondered why his ancestors had affixed such reflective devices between the ornamental cornice-work in this room. Did they realize so many family members would finish tits-up on the floor, staring into oblivion?
Ozwaldous did not like mirrors. The face staring back in constant bemusement reminded him of his late mother’s, and she represented his greatest fear — reviews from the dead — especially those from her. She was such a grammar Nazi. Structured by archaic rules, life in this house represented every whack of the cane students had feared for a century. Keep the doors closed to fend off drafts. A room does not begin with a conjunction if the door is closed, so do not begin a sentence with one.
Chairs and walls were made at a ninety degree angle for a reason. Always sit up straight. A slouch is not a pre-position and it is not an end. Do not attempt to complete a sentence with a preposition.
Do not sweep the dirt under the rug. Do not cut corners. Each word is a blessing. Do not skip a single syllable, unless you wish your language to trail into disbelief. Do not cut corners and do not use contractions.
Ozwaldous could picture himself prostrated on the floor of this reception room, staring into the oblivion of his own eyes, every sinew tense in preparation of the cane. The same desperate sense of foreboding quivered in every fibre as the desk beneath him shook and the fold-out desktop collapsed. He could have thanked the Lord, had he been one of those people, but he trusted his calculated decision to fall backwards, a move that avoided landing on the letter opener sticking out of his chest.
He lamented the damage to his desk, the only piece of furniture in the house he owned. His parents had scoffed at its supposed antique value and he had kept it hidden away in an attic space beneath the second tower until their unfortunate demise. His characters fermented beneath the light of a solitary bulb, which swung between drafts when storms descended upon his western suburb home of Yarraville, amidst the sprawl of greater Melbourne.
A halo of dust rent from the screw holes beneath the evacuated hinges. Ozwaldous imagined possibilities in the particles, as he always had whilst staring into space up in the attic. Faces and places grew a life of their own in the specks, which he committed to his trusty notepads, all rejected and tucked away within his antique writing desk.
It teetered now, with the weight of the notebooks and aborted self-publications, creaking where the floorboards had been eaten away by insidious borers. Of course, he did not know how these circumstances had conspired against him and did not roll away, for fear of impaling himself further.
The desk toppled over with Ozwaldous Jones underneath, saved by the letter opener in his chest, which took the brunt of the collapse. What a spot of bad luck. Impaled to the floor by the very device that had opened every rejection letter, driven home by the one thing he could call his own.
For the first time in his life, which now seemed at an end, the writer with the letter opener in his upper torso felt like the Ozwaldous Jones character he had created: a man who led a life less boring, complete with danger, mystery, and a dab of derring-do. It would be pertinent to mention at this point that Ozwaldous’ real name was Charlie Wattle. A name predetermined along his paternal line. It had been inspired by the Australian native plant upon arriving on these shores, and his father’s obsession with the aging drummer of the Rolling Stones.
He lay on the floor of his recently-inherited lounge room contemplating his twenty-seven years through washes of consciousness. His life made no sense and failed to serve a purpose, much like the voices surrounding him that echoed familiar yet surreal.
“Whose turn is it to deal with this mess, Captain?”
“I inspired him the last time he got depressed.”
“Huh, pirate tale involving a cute Cajun woman, complete with Yankie slang… how d’ya think his mother reacted to that load of rubbish?”
“I consider myself well-rounded for a colour, Mr. Bigot.”
“But he didn’t finish ya, did he? Moved onto me. クソ黒の権利！誰がたわごとを与えますか？ Bugger him and this translation flaw. I blame his racist mother. He couldn’t confront her, so he filtered her flaws into me. I know where that letter opener should have been poked, Captain, right up his ar—”
“That’s not gonna solve this problem. How do we get the blade out of his chest without him bleeding out onto his mother’s prize rug?”
The pseudonymous Ozwaldous Jones may have imagined a more grandiose existence for himself, but he opened his eyes as plain old Charlie Wattle. Pulsating barbs throbbed through his shoulder and upper chest. Lips parched and cracked, his tongue resembled The Rolling Stones’ record label. He kept an LP on the 1970’s laminated quadraphonic turntable in the lounge room. A reminder of who he did not want to be. He slid his tongue back in and focussed on the problem at hand. Two most apposite questions circled the frontal and parietal lobes.
How the hell will I get this writing desk off my chest and who on earth could be whispering in a house where I am the sole occupant?
Craning his neck to the right, the drool from his mouth oozed down his cheek onto his mother’s Persian rug, geometrically designed to draw visitors into a clutch of plastic-covered couches. Each spaced for the perfect conversation over afternoon tea. The coffee table at hand had always been laden with delicacies of a sweeter kind. Her only vice.
He fixed his gaze beyond the setting to the vinyl recliner rocking by the marble-framed fireplace. The vermillion veins in the stone reminded him of his plight. What struck him as curious was the elderly gentleman ensconced in the chair. Dressed only in a pair of shorts and a white singlet, which bulged with his stomach, the old man held up a sign. The only character legible: the number seven.
“What do you call that, Charles?”
Despite the bile his real name produced, Ozwaldous answered. “An accident.”
“I’d have given you an eight, except for the dismount. You’re no Nadia Communism, that’s for sure.”
Moving his head again, partially in disbelief, the younger man caused the writing desk to shift on the hilt of the letter opener. The further tear in his flesh seared through nerve endings he had neglected for several years. “Do you think this will scar?”
“Now that’s not a scar, this is a scar.”
Unable to avert his eyes, Ozwaldous was presented with a full frontal. The old man lifted his singlet, revealing a jagged cut, which wended its way from his neck to his belly button, as if sewn by a sparrow pecking for scraps.
“You can call me Grandpa, lad. Everyone else does. Ain’t no cross on this back.”
“No need. Mind you, I’ve heard worse.” He nodded to the disfigurement. “Now you can tell your mates you’ve seen a fifty-five stitch cicatrix – learnt that from a John Wayne movie, one of those he didn’t die in. Bring ‘your friends over if you want, I’d like to say I’ve shown it to more relatives than doctors. Would you like to know how I got this?”
“I’m bleeding here, mate.”
“Just plain Grandpa will do, and a bit of respect, lad. Now, where was I?”
“This desk on top of me’s not light… mahogany veneer. Couldn’t give us a hand lifting it off?”
“I’m an old man. Wouldn’t want to burst me stitches. Almost did watching you take that tumble. Back in the war, the cause of me wound, mind you, but WWII, not the Great War, I seen things. I was a good lookin’ lad like you back then. Now you young folk think I’m old enough for the First War—”
“The war, but your scar looks fresh.”
“Some things in life take time to fester.”
Accepting his fate to listen and rot along with the floorboards, Ozwaldous took a deep breath, millimetre at a time. Releasing it with the same care, he settled in for the long haul. He had nowhere else to go at present.
The old man, with the toilet-brush, silver-black hair, rested both hands on his stomach. Blue eyes intense and fixed on his audience from over reading glasses, he delivered his tale with a smoker’s gravelled voice.
“War doesn’t seem real until you’ve seen a man drop dead beside you while marching bayonets out in the dark, but I’m not going to talk about the Libyan Desert. I didn’t cop one there. This thing eatin’ away at me, beneath the scar, started in Greece. Bloody Poms, sent us in to fight a battle they’d already lost.
“Me and me mate, Arthur, froze our tits off in the hills above Thessalonica. Met in line at the induction centre setup in the Melbourne Show-grounds. Bit green, Arthur, flashing his money about. A few of the shiftier lads caught an eyeful. Thought they had a quick take. I took him home to the wife, so he spent his money on rabbits for a stew.
“I dreamt of those mangy critters while we starved up in the Greek hills, dug in without tents in ditches, waiting for the Germans. Never met a German, not sure what made them all so bloody angry. I think they had bruised ankles from all that heel clicking in their boots. And their trousers were too tight. A man’s not quite the same once he’s had something stuck up his arse.
“Didn’t stop the Gerries from strafing us. Some blokes thought it’d be less stressful if we died of the cold. Now I don’t go in for all these modern whiners, running off to their shrinks. A man works out his own problems if you ask me. No one asked me how I felt when I returned home. We all just went back to work. You’re not one of those namby-pamby couch recliners, are you?”
Ozwaldous had always wondered about this. His mother had sent him to the most expensive psychiatrists. They all possessed comfortable couches, and they all espoused interesting theories, but Charlie Wattle was not his mother and his imagination would always run away with itself. Given time to think, the psychiatrists afforded him an hour a week to create tales of which his mother would not approve.
“I think couches should be shared with close friends or a faithful puppy.”
“My couch folds out into a bed. We learnt to make the most of everything during the war. Some blokes found solace between the legs of a woman. I visited pyramids and the Holy City, not that any religion removed the stench of death or the loss of mates.”
Grandpa’s blue-grey eyes glossed from cloudy sky to Mediterranean Sea. A moment of reflection allowed in every survivor of trauma. It did not linger long, and he re-focussed.
“The Army gave us khaki shorts and short-sleeved shirts in the desert. They forgot about European winters. I saw Greece with snow-capped peaks. A bloody toga would’ve been warmer. It’s the one time I ever appreciated the warmth of another man. Huddled together in a dugout, mind you, so get your mind out of the gutter.
“Our division was pulled out when the Germans marched in. Your modern movies have nothing on their storm-troupers. We were herded into trucks, men bleating like sheep to lighten the mood, but no man near me laughed. There weren’t enough vehicles to evacuate all the men, but the sergeants worked out a system. Smaller blokes, like me mate Arthur, sat inside. The tallest, I had that privilege, stood inside or hung onto the railing outside.
“Have you ever wondered why the Army kept our hair shorn,” he paused for an answer, but not for long, “so it didn’t blow in our bloody eyes when we ran like hell. Could’ve saved our faces from the dust if we wore it like you hippies.”
Ozwaldous glimpsed his own hair in the ceiling mirror directly above. Shaved about the ears and rear, gelled to a tsunami at the top, one direction the older man would not turn, despite the compromise of styles and eras. He managed a chuckle, despite the pain in his chest.
“It’s no laughing matter, you young whippersnapper. I had mates…” his voice trailed off with a cough. “I can still feel the cramp in me fingers, reminded with every turn of a wrench after the war.”
“What’d you do, build the Sydney Harbour Bridge?”
“I’m not that bloody old. I was a plumber’s mate. Some things stay with you, even if we don’t talk about them. I don’t know how long we clung onto those bone-rattlers down rocky roads, rutted and winding down to the coast.”
The poetry in the older man’s ocker speech did not surprise Ozwaldous Jones. He had read First World War poetry and letters from Second World War veterans. Their penmanship and lyricism portrayed as much pride as did the shine on their boots and the Brylcreem glistening in their hair as they marched toward death.
“Arthur held rank on me; they promoted younger men ahead of us older blokes even back then. You should take note, my boy. The window closes mighty quick once you pass thirty.” He stared down at Ozwaldous from his recliner, willing the younger man to hold on, without betraying the fear between two mates. “We could’ve lost each other so many times before Greece. The chaos filtering down from the Brass sapped a lot of blokes, but Arthur gripped onto the plank of his seat as if he hung next to me at the back of the truck.
“The driver counted down the miles, Hang on you lot, only three more to go. I tried to ignore the blood inching down between my fingers.” He held his hand up to the chandelier, as if the stains still existed, his focus on his host shifting momentarily. “I didn’t mind the pain. The scars would flake off in a few days. It was the scream of the aircraft, low out of the north that filled the pants of the bloke next to me. I turned, just in time to see the trail the plane’s machine guns made in the dirt road. Have you ever wondered about instinct, lad?”
“Every time I write something. Am I forcing it out to comply with some publisher’s idea of what sells, or am I going with my gut?”
“Now you’re getting it. I had seconds to take it all in; the plane, its bullets, the trajectory from the right-hand bank of the road, around the truck trailing us, into our path. You know, I never told anyone what it was like. Letting go of the truck. Hanging in thin air. Watching my mates being torn to pieces, and dying with shit in their pants. No man should buy it that way. Hitting the road, the dust of the gravel surface shrouded everything. Tumbling, stone biting where bullets ripped apart the blokes on the truck, I slammed up against that boulder, stomach first.”
Grandpa’s words trailed off again. Ozwaldous tried to imagine making such a decision, between death and possible death. Words failed him, at first. Words had never failed him. He closed his eyes, the pain in his chest commensurate with the older man’s tumble into a rock face.
“So, you hit the roadside cliff?”
“Not bloody likely! I threw myself towards a gorge, my fall, and probable descent into hell, broken by the only boulder on the entire route. Lucky I’ve got a thick skull.” He tapped his brush-like hair. “Family trait. The impact did cause this,” he waved his hand over the scar on his stomach as if presenting a giveaway on a television quiz show. “Took thirty-odd years, but the injuries finally festered. The doc opened me up, took one look, and set to work with his needle and thread, without removing anything.”
“The Big C?”
“Just call it cancer. Bloody political correctness.”
“Ha, I hate the way business people say ‘let’s connect over coffee’. Say what? They plug into each other? Isn’t it just talking, having a meeting, or discussing business?”
Both men laughed until their withered frames shook and ached. It was a true connection, between generations. As tears rolled from each man’s eyes, Ozwaldous lamented.
“Am I going to die here?”
Raised eyebrows over half-moon glasses, Grandpa responded. “There’s nothing to it, you just close your eyes, and don’t wake up.”
“Is that what happened to Arthur?”
“No, he outlived me. Thought I’d been shot off the back of that truck. I was picked up by one later in the convoy. Never saw a German, remember? We sailed to Crete before they marched in after us.”
“Didn’t the Aussies all get caught on Crete?”
“Me and Art clung to the ropes off the side of a destroyer/troop ship. Last one out before the Germans sent in their paratroopers.”
Ozwaldous wondered if the Great War and the Depression had created such resilience in older generations. He felt like he had inherited none, and the older man sensed this.
“Why don’t you try lightening the load, lad? One book at a time.”
Drawers wedged open and contents exposed, Ozwaldous did have access. His arms were not pinned. Had his generation also lost all ingenuity, besides creating games, consoles and smart apps?
He wedged his left arm between the floor and the desk and, one book at a time, Ozwaldous Jones lifted the weight that pinned the blade in his chest to the floor. The classics came first: Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the two condensed volumes by an English chap called William. Some of these books could be aged by their mustiness, including an original Bronte — Anne and Emily — together in a single volume. His ancestors had way too much money. Shame they spent it all on mildewed rubbish. He could fit all of these on a single Kindle, along with his own neglected tomes.
The proofs he printed of many aborted attempts had not impressed anyone. Not his mother, any family members, nor the publishers. Each had rejected him without reply, until he lay dying with a knife in his chest. Then they rubbed virtual salt into the wound.
He didn’t know why the printed copies of his own novels felt so good in his hands. Perhaps it was the visceral sensation of turning the pages he had created. All his other purchased books were electronic, except for those from authors he knew. They received a bigger cut for their paperbacks. If he had real friends, he would have bought multiple copies and gifted each one.
Stories dedicated to vampires, aliens, priests and murderers slid from his fingers as he removed each of these books from his writing desk. Every copy received the thumb and forefinger print of approval — in blood.
The piles to his right increased in height until they toppled of their own volition. The pressure on his hips and chest subsided. The writing desk bobbled in the rut of the borer-infested floorboards. He squeezed in a breath between his teeth, allowing his lungs to expand. With one desperate push, Ozwaldous Jones shifted the furniture’s weight off the letter opener. The pain of the desk’s teetering dissipated, enough for him to breathe freely and slide it off with his legs.
Freedom felt so close, as near as death had. The final obstacle, his father’s St. George emblazoned blade. Wedged into the hardwood floorboards, he knew it would have to be wiggled free. The nerve endings involved tingled with anticipation. He feared the uncertainty of his duff left hand, yet reached up to the hilt and moved the blade left and right, millimetres at a time. Pain shot through his chest and neck, electric shocks taunting him, willing the motion to stop, but bleeding to death, whilst staggering towards his medicine cabinet, seemed less pathetic than just lying here.
Ozwaldous grabbed onto the blade and pulled. He imagined the knick of an important artery, the pulsating spurts… squirt, crimson splash across his mother’s rug… a pleasure… squirt, one litre less than this morning… not such a great outcome… squirt, life ending…
The letter opener clattered to the floorboards.
His vision wavered.
He could not sit up.
“Plug the wound, lad, and roll.”
Grandpa’s advice seemed sound. Many a private would have followed it in the desert or up by the Cedars of Lebanon. How did Ozwaldous know this detail? He would have to survive to find out.
Semaphore hands of blood: the image anyone walking in on Ozwaldous Jones would have been presented with as he stretched out his cramped arms to test their viability. The gore on his hands did not revolt him. The more disturbing aspect of this scene was the old man of his imagination in the recliner at the far end of the room.
Grandpa raised a beer. The chill of the glass, beaded to satisfy, dripped onto his mother’s Persian rug. The idea fermented as the septuagenarian passed Ozwaldous a wink.
“Alcohol… alcohol will clean the wound.”
“Now you’re getting it, lad.”
“If you can hold a beer, why can’t you help me with the desk?”
“I’m a character, Charlie, a figment of your imagination. You wrote me holding a glass, and so I hold a glass. I don’t exist beyond the world of your books and the electrical impulses of your brain, so how could I pull a desk off you? Focus on the problem.”
“The problem — the knife and the bleeding — your advice is to clean the wound, to prevent my death. My father has a vast collection in the cellar. Even had these polystyrene things called Cellar Boxes to keep the special vintages cool if the ambient temperature fluctuated. Not that I have any idea why that detail is important at this particular and precarious moment.”
Ozwaldous wiped both hands on his mother’s rug, the blood blending with the claret-coloured fibres. She still would have spotted it. Some deaths a man could be thankful for. Tendrils of pain burrowed into his shoulder and neck as he pressed down to wipe off the dried remnants of his innards. Humans were by far the most ingenious and disgusting sack of fluids ever conceived.
Fighting back a swoon, he crawled over to the nearest couch, a 1950’s fabric classic. The plastic cover crumpled beneath his fingertips, as it had beneath his legs when a child reaching for a sweet, placed to entice, not to eat. He wondered if they had all been plastic models of the perfect slices and cakes, presented to draw salivation, as the Japanese chefs did at the entrances to their Tokyo restaurants.
Upright, he staggered from couch to couch, toward a panel behind the baby grand piano. To the naked eye it represented a bookshelf. Upon depressing the sustain pedal, the reverberation of a low C revealed its true identity: the door of his father’s wine cellar. Not the only basement space, but one rarely used. His mother considered a tipple for the sake of pleasure a sin, yet a dinner drop was the height of sophistication.
He reached out to the middle shelf and pressed against the bust of Beethoven. He may have been a German, like many amongst the British Royal Family, but one dead and buried long before the Twentieth Century wars. The panel, laden with books, swung open. Ozwaldous reached inside and pulled on the light cord. It clicked, but did not illuminate his path to salvation.
“It’s not like marching through the desert at night towards an enemy.”
“Yeah, I know, with men dropping off either side of you.”
“All good men.”
Ozwaldous waved off the older man’s insinuation.
“It’s just a staircase, lad.”
It may as well be a roller coaster set in a dark, winding, dipping tunnel. He wiped the sweat from his brow, the non-preferred left hand dripping salted excretion in his eye. A wince imbedded it further.
His first two steps were lit by the chandelier, the walls inside the cavity twinkling amidst the writer’s nebulous expectation. No rail presented itself and the pain in his upper-right chest precluded him from wedging himself into the space, so he leant on the left-hand wall and stepped into the void. Success — as was the next footfall, which echoed into nothingness.
He closed his eyes, relying on the aural senses he so rarely used, but forgetting about touch as he stepped onto the third step and into a dust-laden web. Images of a spiders’ nest bursting to life with thousands of minute arachnids had him waving his arms about. Reluctant to scream, in case they crawled into his mouth, he stumbled forward, blind to the descent, a mechanical being sans articulated joints. He remembered the low beam; the drunkard’s proof his father called it, but far too late. It pummeled his forehead and thrust him back-first into the stairs, knocking him senseless.
The stairs creaked beneath him as he woke, disturbed by the itch on his cheek and in his ear. Another flurry of fingers from the Writer fanned the web and its hosts, ripping them from his face. The commotion caused him to slide down the dust-laden steps, banging the back of his head one step at a time.
The low rumble of a laugh filled the void. A familiar taunt, so often followed by a beating, he froze.
“I’m sorry, dad. I didn’t come in here to steal any. I’ve got this wound and it needs dousing.”
He wished the laughter to subside, and it did.
Eyes clamped shut, stress spots bobbled about within their lids.
Ozwaldous Jones did not face fear. He deflected it, corralled it and diverted it into words. Unfortunately, in his present situation he had no paper and lacked the pen his injured right-hand wing always craved. If that were not enough of a pickle, there were footsteps scraping about in the cellar dust.
“Picture me and I will appear.”
“Visualize your fear, mate. Face the inevitable. No man wants to die with shit in his pants.”
You’re a mouse with false teeth, lost in a wedge of cheese. The thought silenced the footsteps to a scurry, but that voice — guttural and mocking — continued.
“Shall I squeak? Is that what comforts you, the pitter-patter of tiny feet running a wheel of fortune? I could always manifest as a rat. Long, wiry tail, buck-teeth and beady, black eyes. Can you see me, Charlie?
Ozwaldous Jones preferred to imagine pleasant things, removed from the horrors of life, but the image of a dozen rats crawling up his trousers and under his arms forced him to open his eyes.
“Now you see me, now you don’t.”
The yellow-tinged orbs that stared down at him disappeared. Sweat crept into his eyes, but he shook it free. Better to stare death in the face — not.
“Need wine for wound.”
“You need a decent shot with high alcohol content, and you won’t find that down here. Demon drink breeds demonic thoughts. How much will you consume to dull the pain before you douse the wound, Charlie?”
It had been some time since someone used his real name. When was that, his parent’s funeral, six months ago? Had the guilt finally become so ingrained?
I need a decent kick in the head and a dose of reality.
“Don’t be like that, Charlie.”
Since when did an inner monologue leak out of a flesh wound?
“That’s not the only thing oozing from you, Charlie. Would you like to see?”
Ozwaldous fought the haze of pain and loss of blood that engulfed him, preferring not to see anything. However, as fortune would have it, a distant click presented him with a light, swinging amongst the dust particles he’d stirred up.
The cellar had not changed. Rows of rickety wooden racks, angled to preserve the corks of bottles destined to become vinegar. The webs appeared to hold these shelves upright. They matched those on his fingers, yet no hosts hung in expectation of him ploughing through more.
The disembodied voice acquired form, a shadow he did not expect, the confidence in its tone less certain beneath the forty watt globe.
“We all have fond memories of our youth, Charlie, but are you sure you want to remember yours?”
“You’re not my father.”
“No, he was a fucking weak prick. How could anyone sit on a gold mine like this? If a man needs a drink, then bloody-well drink.” A hand extended out of the shadow, and brushed the dust off the label of a 1951 Penfolds Grange. It picked up the bottle with a gentle reverence and held the vintage under the light.
“I recognize those hands.”
“You should, you created them.” He stepped from the gloom and took shape, just as Ozwaldous had imagined him moments before, but with a corkscrew in hand. Short of stature and hunched at the shoulders, the man’s cheeks were flushed in the awry atmosphere.
Ozwaldous cradled himself, the action tearing at his injured shoulder, his response inert through clenched teeth. “You… don’t… exist.”
“Don’t I? Don’t I!” He lifted the bottle above his head and swung it down onto the railing that extended out from the edge of the passage down to the cellar. The bottle shattered, bleeding out over the stairs. “Can an imaginary friend manage that?”
“I… I never said you were a friend.”
“You’re damn right you never.”
The fractured glass neck, dripping the classic drop, swept downwards, and came to rest on Ozwaldous’ exposed neck. Two trails of blood trickled down to the writer’s shoulder, the vampiric vintage millimetres from his carotid artery.
Despite his lips being parched to a mummy’s grimace and a tickle developing in his throat, Ozwaldous refrained from swallowing. He had walked the attic conversing with many of his characters, but none had ever materialized, let alone drawn blood.
“What do you want?”
“A proper name.”
Written as The Bigot, a deflection of his mother with smatterings of his father, no moniker had seemed appropriate. Ozwaldous had no desire to besmirch any name given by well-meaning parents. How politically correct in a house that screamed abuse.
“Your mother was right. You’re a gutless wonder. An arse-fucking, 黒人愛するカイト. ティー タオル着て レターボックス 爆弾 メーカーよりも 優れて いません, 誰が ディジュリ ドゥを吸い ます. Fuck!”
Ozwaldous laughed, drawing a chalkboard scrape of pain through his upper chest and a quicker stream of blood from his throat. The Bigot arrested the flow by plucking a handkerchief from his pocket and applying it to the wounds he had made.
The foul-mouthed character leant in close. “Why do you do that to my words?”
“Fuck your irony.” He threw the jagged bottleneck across the room.
“Why didn’t you kill me, you pathetic bigot, unworthy of a name?”
“More fucking irony, Charlie.” Strained laughter echoed about the cellar. “If I kill you, you Punjab-loving, call-centre hog — the memory of me goes with you.”
The light bulb above the Bigot’s head flickered with revelation. My character, my thought. No! Ozwaldous is no Bigot. He watched steam lift from his character’s head in the chill of the cellar. Stalking the lanes of wine racks, brushing through webs aged and matured, the Bigot returned with an unlabelled bottle. He pulled out the cork with his teeth and poured its contents over the writer’s wound.
“Another fucking Bible-shortening hook-nose. It’s schnapps… plum, I believe.” His reversion from Japanese to English wrought a wry smile.
Ozwaldous mirrored the look. “My mother obviously didn’t know this bottle lay buried down here.”
“No, but you did, Charlie.”
“She never ate a schnitzel or sushi, you know.”
“And yet you condemned me to this.”
“At least you understand what you are, as written by me. I don’t think she had any idea.”
“Ah, the ways in which we make excuses for our loved ones, Charlie. Can you forgive yourself for that?”
Ozwaldous Jones lifted himself off the stairs and contemplated his creation. Smouldering, hypocritical and belligerent, education and life-experience did not a solace provide for some. Passed down from
generation to generation, hate seethed and manifested itself in many forms. He examined his own hands: identical to the Bigot’s, and a mirror of his father’s.
The Bigot ripped open the bloodied t-shirt the writer had worn until its black had faded to a deep purple. Its images of various Sumo positions had flaked into weird suggestions of the Karma Sutra. The tear, deemed necessary by both men, proved more mercenary in the eyes of the Bigot. Of all the exchange student trips young Charlie Wattle had been offered, why did he have to choose Japan months before his fourteenth birthday? He poured another shot or two over the wounded shoulder Ozwaldous clutched to his side with a quivering arm. The fermented plum overpowered the stench of death the writer imagined, but his breath caught a frost and his sense no longer held sensibility.
“We can’t have this, Charlie. You’re beginning to shut down. Perhaps a Penfolds ’64 might warm you up?”
“My imminent death is not the problem, you are…”
“Don’t be such a doom-sayer, Charlie. Next you’ll be wanting a barcode and a pair of striped pajamas.
The path to the circumstances of this day had clawed at Ozwaldous Jones for many a week, the actual date: his parent’s unfortunate demise. However, the family house being his oyster, as designed by his over-bearing mother, had shielded him from a hostile world. Humanity had broken in upon him, through his own curious mind. This was the character, the worst creation of all, manifested by some curiosity in this very cellar.
Many theories bounced about the mind of Ozwaldous Jones, but this much he knew for certain. A Wattle had lived in this suburb, within a kilometre of the Yarraville Village shops, for one hundred and fifty years. Each buried in secret beneath a treeless yard. There were no headstones.
The Bigot nodded, in full realization of the thoughts that haunted his creator, and tapped his temple. “Now you’re getting it, Charlie. Where else do we bury our secrets when there is no family crypt?”
Corkscrew balanced on the stairs’ railing, Ozwaldous Jones poured out a glass of ’64 Penfolds Grange Hermitage, sniffed at its dark berry, smoky aroma with its hint of mint, and shared it with a character of his own making. This was not an unusual occurrence. He had often played chess up in the attic with similar company, usually serving two drinks; no alcohol permitted by his mother, of course.
His father had never shared a Penfolds with him or his late brother. The cellar had been a closed domain, reserved for the elder member of the Wattle clan. The bottles chosen for dinner were always of poorer vintage, yet satisfactory for a mother who rarely drank.
Warmed by the wine many would pay thousands of dollars for, Ozwaldous stood and regarded his foul-mouthed creation. “Is this your dominion now?”
“I will sort and choose a bottle for tomorrow’s dinner. Of course, the selection will be predominantly white. Tonight’s tipple, born of necessity, much as sharing the bed of a black whore when one’s seeds build up, eh?”
Ozwaldous did not return the Bigot’s wink. In fact, he ignored the worst of the man and placed his glass on the step between them. If one has to be a bigot, one should do so with subtlety. These words of reproval remained entrenched in thought, only disturbed by the sound of breaking glass.
The highest, half-moon windows of the cellar, blackened by years of neglect, were cracked and shattered, but none of these appeared recent aberrations. Each split well-infested with grime, Ozwaldous realized the disturbance had come from beyond these windows, to the rear of the manor.
The writer stiffened, yet the words rolled off his tongue with no restriction. “Someone’s broken in through the conservatory.”
The bigot’s response more considered. “Mr. Green, with a pipe—”
“Quiet.” Ozwaldous’ fortitude consisted of two glasses of red and the liberal fermentation of schnapps, but no one damaged his family’s manor. Steeled by the sound of a shifting pot plant, he mounted the stairs and clambered up towards the piano. “Bloody kids. How the hell did they get in over the wall?”
Infected by an inner pride he never quite understood, Ozwaldous Jones neglected the wound in his upper chest. He marched through the lounge to the entrance hall. With a flourish he threw on his father’s white cape and plucked his cricket bat from the umbrella stand. He rested it on his left shoulder, knowing full well his right-handed swing would never come into play, and marched through the main entrance hall. He paused for breath by the banister to the grand staircase, which curved back up behind him in solid chunks of manicured oak. His body ached, from the tingle in his hair follicles to the ankle jarred down the cellar steps. Must not pause. Must not think about pain. Must protect the family manor.
Ozwaldous crept forward with caution, testing his resolve and his pain threshold with each advancing step. Passing through the servant’s passageway, beneath the staircase, which led to the conservatory, he discovered his passage lit through the glass panels in the door he sought. Blurred with humidity, the illumination from the observatory was provided by a light that should have been extinguished.
A bead of sweat broke away from the rash of perspiration on his forehead and slid into the corner of his eye. He dipped his face onto the shoulder of his t-shirt. The instinctive movement tore away at the newly formed scab and smeared blood in place of perspiration. The pain dropped him to his knees. It forced an eruption in his stomach. The evenings’ lasagna was angry.
Ozwaldous Jones had not vomited since he last accepted a ride in his father’s 1970’s Mercedes-Benz 230 sedan, with his mother driving as if in charge of a dodgem car. To be fair, she did drive quite defensively, for safety’s sake. However, every obstacle on the road transformed into something designed to be evaded at pace, including over-sized trucks, pedestrians on crossings, and red lights.
He held onto his last meal, but its bile burnt the back of his throat. The panelled walls here in the hall, tongue and groove uprights to waist height, were topped with a gunwale, which he latched on to and dragged himself up. Floorboards creaked underfoot as he staggered forward, the conservatory door glowering, the dread of the mystery within adding lead to every step.
Lorded over by his mother, everything had a place in this stately home. Her conservatory had become the very model of a totalitarian state.
“It is nature under glass, Charles. Left to its own volition, like a petulant child, it will run wild. My secateurs were designed for a reason: to curb nature. Take care I do not turn them on you.”
Ozwaldous had not stepped into this space since his mother’s unfortunate demise, and he reached for the handle with trepidation, squeezing his hand into a fist to dissipate its quakes. He opened the door, its glass sweating as his forehead did, but it pushed back at him. A tendril inched its way through the gap as he leant his shoulder into the glass, forcing an entrance his mother’s bosoms would have failed to pass. He slid through, into a nest of vines. His mother’s Eden had revolted.
The cricket bat became a blunt machete as he batted a path through the fronds, twisted upon vines and roots bursting through the shattered shards of pots. His mother’s special blend of compost, blood and bone, its origins dubious, lay scattered across diamond and square-shaped tiles in shades of cream and brown. He had seen many similar designs on the front porches of Victorian-era homes, lifting and missing pieces. The tiles here were in perfect order, any replacements matched from the era out of homes demolished for trendy apartments. Many were now covered with spilled soil, which provided humus for the stray roots. Paths, once meticulously laid out, had regressed into wild and indeterminate garden beds. The glass dome above him the only clue to the centre of the conservatory.
He often imagined his mother’s hair as rebellious tendrils, bursting from the bun where she confined it, especially following an afternoon in the hot-house, but her hair had never been out of place. He pictured her fury as he fought through the jungle her Eden had become, and smiled.
The fluorescent lamps that lit the room hummed in anticipation of a beehive never designed for this space. All breeding had been controlled in this room, down to the Amorphophallus Titanum, the carrion plant with its smell of rotting flesh, which rose up at him now, a proud erection of more than a metre. A totem to fertility, its massive phallic stalk reminded him of his father, but only as related to him by his mother. He shuddered at the thought, yet recalled her admiring its recent bloom, a once every seven year event.
“Your father used his quite manfully, yet found success only twice, if it could be classed as such. Much like the Amorphophallus Titanum he was all show, but only gained access to my sanctuary after taking a hot bath, with the requirement of another immediately after. Such a disgusting procedure. The plant sorted itself out far more sociably, attracting insects through its odour, and providing both male and female flowers for pollination. A woman with such powers would create organization out of this madhouse of a man’s world.”
Ozwaldous shuddered again. Why had she mentioned these things? Sex education in the manor had involved such phrases as a man delivers his seed as a plant does, into the folds of the purest nature. What the hell did that mean? How did it relate to girls in short dresses and their giggles when a boy’s budgie smugglers stretched beyond capacity at the local pool? He remembered one teenager diving from the ten metre platform, his manhood an unfortunate foil to a perfect swan dive.
He slashed at another rabid frond and found himself beneath the centre of the dome. Circling the central support post, his mother’s wrought-iron table glistened white with condensation and metallic blood, creased with rust at the seams of its painted flower petals. The two accompanying chairs, similar tales of smelted nature, their high backs and rounded seats a weave of vines and blooms, rested where last left. One fallen and engulfed by a complement of greenery, the other, entangled at its legs, hosted a young woman.
She did not look up at Ozwaldous Jones, but did hold a finger to her lips. A tendril of brunette twisted about her pen, she sat frozen in a moment of thought above an A4 Spirax note book.
Ozwaldous righted the fallen chair and sat opposite the woman who did not belong here, tapping his bat on an open palm. The threat did not disturb her reverie, but as she seemed to pose no immediate danger, he relaxed in the manufactured humidity.
The woman unravelled pen from hair and continued placing her thoughts on paper. Her shoulder-length mop masked any opportunity Ozwaldous had to read the words she sweated over. He scratched at his sideburn, not willing to provoke his unwanted visitor, but curious as to why she would break in and write rather than pilfer.
“What are you writing?”
She lifted her head, turquoise orbs enquiring where he expected an apology for the interruption to the serenity of the impending death he had imagined for himself.
“I was polishing the reviews before you barged in.”
The fact this happened to be his house did not escape Ozwaldous Jones, but curiosity piqued, he decided upon an alternate line of enquiry and followed her lead. “What reviews?”
“Yours. I’m attempting to discover the man behind the words.” She placed her pen on the table above the note book, the horizontal alignment perfection. “I’m trying to make them more accessible to a modern audience, without losing their antiquated essence. Did you ever consider structuring your Reviews from the Dead around people you actually knew?”
The idea had only occurred to him whilst lying beneath his writing desk, not when hovering over it with a pen, and then only by a proxy suggestion. The pain of that memory nagged at his chest, yet he ignored it.
“The people I knew, their personas were too outrageous.”
“Could they possibly be as odd as this Evelyn Waugh chap? Do you think he presented that way because his parents gave him a girl’s name?”
“I don’t like to mock names.”
“Yet you mock your own, Charlie?”
“What do you know about me?”
“You did give yourself a most unusual pseudonym. Just for the liner notes, how did you come by such an odd invention,” she leant closer to Ozwaldous and her nosed twitched, “or is it the drink?”
“No, well, a glass or two, strictly medicinal.” Despite her crimped fringe, he spotted the vertical shift in her eyebrows. Ozwaldous had encountered skeptics before. The events of his life attracted them, like blow flies to cow pats. “Before you disturbed me, in my house, I had been dealing with this.” He stretched out his t-shirt, exposing the tear and the wound he imagined to be festering beneath.
“God! You’re bleeding.”
Blood had never perturbed Ozwaldous, but his head lightened at the sight of his own flesh, pierced and oozing.
The gaze of the young woman opposite, whose name he had neglected to discover, did not linger on his injury. Her eyes darted left and right, searching through the greenery that engulfed them.
“There.” She followed the point of her own finger, stepping beneath monstera leaves choking on nettled vines, to a pot tipped over on the tiles. Its contents had assimilated and spread into a carpet of sphagnum moss from which she tore out a clump. Sniffing the fibres as she returned to the table, she smiled. “This oughta do the trick,” and slapped the plant on his wound.
Years of peroxide baths, manic cleaning regimes, and the smell of ammonia rent through Ozwaldous Jones. His fingers, unable to touch the vegetation, twitched. His chest agitated, emulating the wash cycle he craved.
“Sit still and let the organics do their work, Charlie. Is the wound through and through?” He nodded. “Then you’ll need another swatch on your back.”
She sat on his lap and slipped her arm over his shoulder, hand and moss resting on the exit wound. “Look down, Charlie. The neck on my t-shirt is quite low.”
The distraction worked, but only for a moment, due to the Amorphophallus titanum, which reminded him of his parents.
“Tell me about your t-shirt, Charlie. Are they images from the Kama Sutra?”
“Um, no… Sumo Wrestlers.”
“Do they have so many positions?”
“They are surprisingly flexible.”
“Yet I can’t imagine more than a couple of ways to mount a Sumo.” She leant in close to his ear. “And I would refuse to go missionary.”
With few sexual encounters under his belt, mostly solo rather than bi-partisan, Ozwaldous struggled to picture the Sumo-Sutra as his visitor did. Excessive visualization being a bane of his imagination, her current position on his lap a stimulant, he asked one of the questions he should have before sitting down, but more as a distraction.
“Do you always break into the houses of those you wish to interview or edit?”
“I didn’t break in… you let me inside, Charlie.”
The cognitive processes of his brain had failed miserably since the letter opener incident, but Ozwaldous rarely forgot even the most minor incident, as each might help fill the pages of his novels. Nor did he misplace the face of a visitor, having had so few. The curative powers of the moss seeping through his wounds itched in time with her blinking eyes, each a pulse. Vibrancy was not a word oft used beneath this manor’s gables, yet she exuded it, along with every plant grown wild within the glass exteriors of the conservatory.
His head drooped, as did his eyes, but he fought his failing senses and focussed on her eyes. They reminded him of his favourite marble, watery yet dry to touch, and luminescent in blue with black specs. An ocean with mysteries undiscovered beneath the surface.
“Hold on, Charlie. Do you have a medicine cabinet in the house?”
He raised his eyes to the pole supporting the conservatory dome. Many of the plants in here were poisonous and his mother would have made an excellent boy scout. The red cross on the door of the box hung here provided enough of a hint. The young woman slid off his lap, stepped to her left, and reached up over the encircling wrought-iron table. The height precluding the need of a lock, a quick flick of the latch and the door swung open, accompanied by a squeal.
Ozwaldous could not see the cause of her scream, but he could picture it. The enablers of many a biting word, placed here in a glass to dissolve the excess fluids spat out as she fought for air — his mother’s false teeth. He wondered if the blood still swirled about the dentures. Despite being too weak to stand and look, he reached out to the young woman’s hips to prevent her falling back into the jungle foliage.
She stepped sideways, avoiding his touch. “You can’t grapple with things you’ve yet to imagine, Charlie.”
“I just… the plants… poisonous…”
“I know, as is your wound. Did you wash it with alcohol?” He nodded as she plucked a few items from the medicine cabinet and slammed its door. “Good. The disinfectant and the bandages from the cabinet will complement that abuse.”
“And the moss?”
“It stays, at least overnight.”
“How can I trust you? I don’t even know your name.”
“With the eyes of diamonds?”
“I’m not that girl, Charlie. She died a long time ago… of a broken heart.”
Ozwaldous Jones tossed in his sleep, each turn biting into his chest wound. The chaise longue he had collapsed on provided no comfort as he wrestled with his fate. In his dreams he dodged oversized wrestlers in nappies, lunging at him with medicinal plants. Weaving in and out of consciousness, and the playground of his childhood kindergarten — his mother called it a preschool, not liking the Germanic inference in the name — pushing a four-wheeled trolley. He chased Lucy Offerman in her daffodil-coloured dress with white polka dots. Hair down to her hips, braided randomly, a failed Rastafarian, and tied off with ribbons of similar material, she ran ahead and dodged the monkey bar.
The young Charlie Wattle was not as fortunate. His focus firmly on the girl, he slammed into the metal cross-bar, face first.
His two front teeth hung delicately from their gums, dripping blood. The nurse shook her head. The phrases he might lose them along with the adult teeth beneath and feed him baby food and they might hang on swirled about his head. Floating stars accompanied these, as had Lucy Offerman, her fingers entwined in Charlie’s as he lay on the playground path. She wept. He imagined her eyes in the sky as diamonds as her head hovered over his… until his mother arrived.
“Who is this girl?”
“Luthy Offerman.” These were his first words and his teeth did not handle the breath expelled well.
His mother tore his hand from Lucy’s. “We do not fraternize with Germans, Charles.”
Ozwaldous Jones tossed in his sleep again and rolled off the library’s chaise lounge. There were rare moments when he appreciated his mother’s choices. The lounge did not fit this criterion, but the plush rug over the room’s floorboards did. Winded, he stretched out. A surge of pain reminded him of the night before. He lifted the bandage on his shoulder and discovered the scab there had burst.
“Most people sit up before they attempt a dismount, or did y’all think the couch a pillow, the floor a bed?”
Ozwaldous thought this once busy manor was now his private bachelor pad, its library a personal reading room. He inched his way up on his left elbow, the smell of moss in his nostrils verging on putrid, despite the volume of dusty tomes crammed into every millimetre of wall space.
The question of bedding lingered in the ebony eyes of the woman who sat at his mother’s reading desk, its lamp positioned to illuminate a book, not her face. He hauled himself up and leant against the chaise longue. Long and low, its curved legs extending into lion paws, the question mark-shaped back worn along its rosewood frame and pin-cushion leather. The elevation did not afford him a better view of his mysterious companion, until she reached up and pulled on the cord to the library’s central light. Illuminated with a click, Ozwaldous spoke before thinking.
“Well, that’s a first.”
“You having company or being alone with a woman?”
“Neither. I just never saw a darkie in this place before.”
Ozwaldous slapped a hand to his mouth, the pain in his right shoulder deserving of the faux pas. His mother’s conditioning more deeply ingrained than he could have imagined.
“I bin called worse, Whitey. I always thought you was more pink, but you a whitey, boy. You seen a doctor for that shoulder?”
“No doctor will venture into this house. Nobody wants to see me. So who the fuck are you and what do you know about the others creeping about the place?”
His latest companion pulled back her hair and peered about the room. “I don’t see nobody else. Y’all got blurred vision or something? I ain’t doin’ nothing but reading. This is a library and I likes to read.” She looked around the room again, the wonderment in her eyes filling her face with a radiance he had not seen in here. “You got one helluva collection. Bet you done read all these books.”
Ozwaldous shook his head. He hadn’t touched a single volume. Each book had been strictly monitored and only leant out by approval. The rarities in the collection were worth more than his inheritance, yet he dared not touch a single volume for fear his mother’s ghost would appear at the door, one hand out for the return slip, the other with a date stamp poised to thud.
He scanned the walls for the space left after the woman had taken down this tome. No vacancy caught his attention, yet she turned the next page with a crisp flick.
“What are you reading?” She tilted the cover in his direction. No name appeared. He’d heard of a horse with no name, but a book without a title was somewhat inglorious. He tapped his forehead trying to elicit references locked in time. Unable to ignite a spark of memory, he chose a more obvious path of questioning. “What’s your name… and … and where the fuck do you come from?”
“Do you talk like that to everyone or just us black folk?”
“I never met…”
“You a bigot, boy.” The accusation accompanied by a smile, she continued. “You lucky I was born with a soft spot for dithering whiteys with holes in their chests. I left you an ice tea on the table there and some cold cuts.”
Ozwaldous dragged himself back onto the chaise longue, the circular wooden table, inlaid with chessboard parquetry, crowned by the food and drink mentioned. His hand shook as he sipped on the iced tea, his companion’s regard for his actions as fierce as Lucy’s.
“Sit back, Charlie, or would you prefer I call you Ozwaldous? Sounds like a magician if you ask me, but I suspect you won’t. I think you should ask more questions of the mysterious people invading your house. Not all of them be nice like me.”
“I did ask questions.”
“You did? Of course you did, boy. You can call me Ariel, as it seems you did.”
Ariel’s smile broadened. The first African-American he had ever met, she was not as he might have imagined. Her jaw narrowing to a pointed chin, matched the shard of her nose. The eyes above and cheek bones either side were her most striking features, both dark and glistening. All these were dressed up in a frizz of black curls, held back against her neck by the hand she leant on. Ozwaldous had seen an African immigrant in the Yarraville Village shopping strip once, his skin the very ebony of his family’s bigotry. Ariel’s tones reminded him of coffee plied heavily with milk.
“You done gawking or are you gonna eat, white boy?”
“I’m sorry; I’m a bit stuck on the cliché. You don’t really talk like that—”
“I speaks like a like!”
Admonished, he felt more like Charlie Wattle again, and dropped his stare. The plate beckoned, if that metaphor was possible, more as a distraction from the hole he had dug himself into. Ozwaldous reached across and picked out a slice of Swiss cheese. Holier than though or good for the waistline? Perhaps it would prove to be food for the soul. Healthy body, healthy mind, and the objects of his imagination would return there, where they belonged.
“Don’t think if you eat my food I’ll go away, Charlie.”
Oznonymous Jones pondered Ariel’s statement as he selected a cut of prosciutto. For every tale there seemed a purpose. What could hers be? To watch him eat? To ensure he managed a proper meal? The idea was too simple. He chewed through the cured meat, picked up a slice of salami and pointed it at her.
“What’s your specialty?”
“I’m a librarian.” Her eyes wandered across the wall of books. “I can spot a decent story a mile out, even without the aid of the eye of a hurricane, and devour it in similar fashion.”
“I bet you’ve got a tale to tell.”
“You damn right, Charlie, but then you should know.”
She closed her book with no name, licked her lips in a slow arc, and opened it to the first page.
“Maelstrom, chapter one — there is a prologue, but I don’t do prologues. You OK with that?”
Ozwaldous nodded, having just sipped another mouthful of her iced tea. She continued.
Shutters flapped their warning. The incoming storm, a beast named Katrina, something many could only equate to the band — and the Waves. Many ignored the warning, while some were preoccupied.
Ariel hugged her mother’s pillow. The strains of Just a Closer Walk with Thee and When the Saints go Marching In echoed in her ears. The Jazz send off for her mother was an upbeat tradition, totally out of tempo with her loss. A limp rhythm beat in her chest, more akin to the window shutters keeping her from drifting off as she so desired. Sleep proved as elusive as her mother’s comfort, the scent of the bedding a final reminder.
“Miss Ariel, Miss Ariel, the sheriff done come around with the loud speaker. We gots to go. There’s a storm coming, Miss Ariel.”
The title her Auntie May used had always bemused Ariel; she did not seem worthy. May managed to weather her own sister’s premature death a week before and hosted a wake worthy of a southern governor, yet her chitlins had been fried by a little wind. Ariel smiled for the first time in weeks. Auntie May once dragged her children off a hanging porch swing in a fresh spring breeze, and had never been caught out in a dress if there was a hint of a wicked zephyr likely to take a peek. Ariel wondered how her Auntie coped with her uncle’s wind following a wake of a meal.
“Aint no wind gonna blow down this place. It’s been here for two hundred years.”
“You sounds just like yo’ mo—” The word choked off in her Aunt’s throat, highlighting the handkerchief May dabbed to the corner of her eye.
Ariel sat up and swung her legs over the edge of her mother’s bed. They still dangled in mid air, despite her twenty-seven years.
“I’ll be alright, Auntie. You go on now and see to your own.”
Ariel kicked her feet as if she were still a girl, producing an uneasy smile from Auntie May. Another shutter-flap warning and she scooted off downstairs, leaving her niece to fantasize about youth. A few more kicks, connecting with the wooden bed base for effect, and Ariel’s solitude would be returned.
She squealed upon the final swing of her feet, but without joy. Lifting the offending foot to her lap, she discovered a trail of blood. A splinter thumbed its nose at her. Plucking it out accentuated the flow.
“Where’d you come from, eh? My momma’s bed’s an antique. As solid as the day it was delivered before the Civil War, or so I’ve always been told.”
Ariel hopped off the bed and poked about beneath it, careful not to stab herself again. The wooden surface she felt was not smooth, yet not splintered. She slid the object out. Half the size of her brief case, the box had the carving of a sailing ship on top, its edges decorated with skulls and bones. Inside, she discovered a jumble of trinkets and paperwork, crowned by a note in her mother’s shaky final script.
May all your dreams be adventures and all those adventures have life.
The mysteries in her mother’s words had not ceased with her death, and the greed with which Ariel emptied the contents matched the storm outside. The librarian in her flicked through her mother’s final treasures like framing a catalogue: sepia photographs to one side, letters in another pile, and trinkets gathered together, leaving the heaviest item in the centre — a leather covered book, tied with a matching strap. She studied the criss-cross binding, hand bound top and bottom, before flipping over the bundle created. The leather strap had not been tied, merely wrapped about and pulled tight. She loosened it and folded back the cover.
Water-marked about the edges, the hand-pressed paper contained coloured flecks of impurities, dotted with mould. Elegant and sweeping, The Diary of Ariel Lemarquis were the only words on the first page. This was not her mother’s, as expected, and not hers, despite the name. Intrigued, she picked up the antique letter opener. Always kept on the bedside table, its handle of inlaid gemstones had been a fascination since childhood. She slid the blade between the pages and read.
I know not the land from whence I came. The continent, Africa, is as dark to me as it is to most. My name is also forgot. Born as a girl, I was sold as a boy. A name I care not, nor dare not remember. The vessel of my extraction from the place of my birth was a squalid set of ribs, laid top to toe with flesh for sale.
We did not reach the New World, as threatened. Our ship, floundering in a storm, was stripped of its cargo by a band of privateers. They took the men aboard and took the women on deck in other ways. Our choice, to join their crew or die, proved an easy one. The ship, and its captain, became the origin of my first recorded name, Arthur Lemarquis.
The nature of this hermaphrodite ancestor drew Ariel in. She leafed through the following pages, noticing the hand writing immediately deteriorated beyond this prologue, before slowly improving. Someone had been teaching this Lemarquis person to write using the diary for structure.
An African slave turned privateer. Her mother’s tales spoke only of free men in her family. The flesh on Ariel’s hands was also a mismatch. Her tones did not signify the descendant of an African slave, more milk coffee than black. Was the ‘midnight’ ideal white propaganda? They were more pink, after all. She shuffled through the photos, each marked with the names of those pictured. Every name a Lemarquis, each face a colour of lighter hue, all the way back to the eighteen-fifties.
Ariel held the oldest photo up to the chandelier to read the printing on the back. The faint outline of a makers’ mark formed a silhouette, a clue to the photographer and the year. She lived for such nuances while researching old books and newspapers at the Main Library in downtown New Orleans. This would have been her mother’s intent: a project on her passing.
The lights flickered twice before being extinguished. Damn. The nearest window rattled in its frame and she remembered the storm that had frightened her Auntie May. Her emergency training kicked in: be sure to prepare blankets, collect fresh water, tinned food, arrange shelter, and… close the shutters. The cantankerous window coverings had become a persistent timpani in the gale and she had blocked them out, but something had to be done to protect the glass.
Ariel unlatched the window and slid it up. Blown off her feet by the first gust, she landed on her back amidst a confetti of family photos. Double damn. She crawled back to the window and reached outside. Battered by shredded leaves and twigs, the shutters clattered against the frame, the left side catching in her fingers. Drenched by the near horizontal rain, she latched the slatted covering top and bottom, and felt for its right-hand companion. It rapped her knuckles as a teacher often had with a ruler, her fingernails scratching at the splintered paint until it blew shut, held there by the weight of a branch. The size of the stray foliage forced her to draw upon the desperation last used as her mother lay dying, gasping for air. Dial 9… 1…1… answer, for God’s sake!
Second shutter latched, and the window slid into place, Ariel cowered behind the drapes counting the lightning flashes and the rolling thunder. She was the last of the New Orleans Lemarquis, with the Christian name of the first. One that appeared to be born of a storm... she refused to perish in one.
Ariel tied her hair back, blew a stray curl out of her eye, and crawled across the room. Each lightning strike highlighted a piece of her family history, which she snatched up. The clinking of the chandelier, swinging from the initial gust, was matched by a shudder through the floorboards.
The crystals continued to tinkle directly above.
She crawled on, grabbed the box with its pirate bones, stuffed the family heirlooms she had collected inside, and wedged the diary inside to hold them all in place.
The house shuddered again. The chandelier, still swinging from the wind, dislodged. Ariel threw herself from beneath the falling light fixture, towards the safety of the exit. Set into walls two feet wide, a door graced each side of the frame. She rolled into the cavity and slammed the doors on either side. Box hugged to her bosom, she prayed.
“Oh Lord, I love my mom, but I can wait until I’ve lived a worthy life to see her again.”
The howls rising to shrieks, she wedged the box between her elbows and slapped both palms to her ears. Lost in a din she could no longer describe, but safe within the door frame, she sat out the storm as its intensity grew. Ariel wept for her loss and her life I jeopardy. Perhaps if she had been more concerned about her future while she mourned she would have been considered a worthier survivor of the Lord’s wrath. She prayed, and the house settled. The doors either side of her no longer rattled in their frames. She lifted her hands from her ears. Silence.
“Thank you, Lord,” she cried, tears tumbling over quivering eyelids.
Ariel had craved a similar silence in the days since her mother’s death. She wished for isolation and a people-less world. A wish now granted. She banged her head against the woodwork of the door frame, a zombie following an apocalypse. The desire to be alone had vanished, yet here she sat, in utter silence, longing for a noise, any sound, any sign of humanity.
A crack of splintered wood forced her palms back to her ears and rent a scream of bile from her throat. The door to her left folded in on her as the walls about crumbled. Ariel slid along floorboards, which were no longer nailed parallel to the grand portico above the exterior colonnade… and into oblivion.
Ozwaldous Jones shifted uneasily on his chaise couch as Ariel’s narrative came to a close. The ending had not disturbed him, he already knew it. They were his words after all, forgotten along with all the others as soon as he had committed them to paper.
The nature of his visitor changed, her colour as pale as he imagined himself, lying beneath his writing desk with a dagger in his shoulder. Her eyes vacant slots dying for him to imagine them back into existence.
The shutters on the Wattle Manor came to life and, to complete the mirror image, the lights of the grand edifice were extinguished. He sat in the dark for a moment, willing them back on, unwilling to resort to prayer.
“Did you do that, Ariel?”
“Do I look like a witch, white boy? Do I exude signs of voodoo? Is there a chalk mark beneath your couch?”
Despite the lack of light, Ozwaldous bent down over the edge of the sofa, half expecting to see a luminescent sign.
“Made you look, didn’t I?”
He also imagined her Cheshire grin, effulgent in the dark, accompanied by the whites of her eyes. Another myth drummed into him about blacks in dark alleys.
Ozwaldous staggered up from his chaise longue. “I have to see to the light.”
“Good luck with that… and Charlie, you be careful out there. If you fail to finish things they will assume a life of their own. You never know what monsters lurk in a storm, or what demons accompany them.”