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[Mitch accent] Chapter 11-12. Tomorrow I Remembered. PART ONE. The Hole

Dilluns 17 Abril 2017

I am an investigative journalist by nature. As I looked through the list of tasks Liz had produced I began to realize that her method was to get me to find out about my past and piece the things together myself. She was not going to do the hard work for me. I had been quietly hoping that she would have some kid of magic wand that would circumvent what would be a long and gut-wrenching process.

“Jess,” I announced the next morning, “I’m going fishing.” “Yes dear, I know. Liz told me about it. The gear is still in the shed. Just make sure you leave your phone on, eh?”

I was surprised that she didn’t ask to come along. She knew that I liked company. “I’ve got other things to do.” Jess loved fishing, so I knew this was a tactic of some sort. I think she knew that I had to be on my own. The second task on Liz’s list was to visit the home of my late grandparents. The old place was in Newport, right near the power station. Across the street was vacant land; reclaimed industrial land.

What toxic waste I had spent many hours playing in I had no idea, but even in the few years since my last visit the fields were looking more cared for, more park-like. The view across to the Shell storage tanks strangely made me feel at home. The old house looked just the same. It had been rented out for several years to a family who had lost their home in the Black Saturday fires. Jess had arranged that.

It was my house now, yet I felt uncomfortable walking through the gate and approaching the door. Another story was unfolding in this place, a story of a family patching together a broken life. They had not been back to the town that had been all but obliterated. They had lost everything, including their home and many friends.

The yapping of a small dog greeted me even before I knocked. A moment or two later the door swung open and Ros threw her arms around me. “Well, old man! Where have you been? We haven’t seen you for ages!” In one deft move she swept little Christopher up and thrust him onto my chest. I had no choice but to give him a cuddle, despite the Vegemite adorning his face. Christopher had been born in the years after the fire, and had been named after me, an honour I secretly enjoyed.

The family had made a wise decision on the sixth of February, 2009. They left the home that they had built in the bush near Taggerty. They had spent the night in Alexandra with family and left the children there, returning to their property at first light. They were well prepared: generators, fuel, pumps, hoses and water in the dam and tanks. They were confident that if a fire should approach, their home would be preserved. They, like many, had underestimated the fickle behaviour of the fire that came that day.bThe two of them kept a perimeter around the house. The sheds were lost early on, but they had sacrificed them in favour of the house. The cows just kept moving from one un-burnt patch of grass to another, un-phased. This was not the firestorm that hit other places not far away, but it was persistent, and kept coming back at them for two days as the wind changed direction. At dusk on the second day an angel appeared, an off-duty fireman from the city. They first saw him walking along the road further down the valley, an apparition emerging from the haze. He turned at the letter box and came up the drive. He explained that the road was blocked by fallen trees and he was looking for his relative’s place to see if they were OK. He stayed and helped until they realized that the battle for the time being was won. Then he just kept walking.
Ros and her husband were exhausted and fuel and water were low. They snatched some sleep during the night. Contact with the outside had been cut off. They had been using the car radio to listen to fire reports, until the battery went flat. About five in the morning, just as the sun’s first rays were battling through the smoky haze, a siren whooped out on the road. It was a police car.

“We are advising you to evacuate,” was the unexpected greeting from the policewoman. “The wind is forecast to pick up again within the hour.” They were spent. They knew deep down this was the end of their dream. The convoy took them through areas of complete and utter desolation. Kilometres of burnt forest, destroyed fence-lines, burntout farmhouses with just chimneys remaining, but not a human to be seen, except those being led to a safer place. By the time they werere-united with their children, their house was gone. “Chris,” said Ros as we sipped tea, “I’m glad you came. We found something that might have been your Grandfather’s. It was in the back shed. Mick found it a month or so ago when he was cleaning up.” She left the room for a moment. I was supposed to be fishing. I was enjoying the company, but I was itching to get going. Ros reappeared carrying a flat box. A compressed-cardboard box with reinforced corners and a hinged lid. I recognized it as Grandma’s sewing box. It had become my childhood keeping-box, a  special place to keep mementos like birthday cards and movie tickets. A red ribbon held it shut. “I took a peek inside, I’m sorry,” confessed Ros. It looks to be photos and newspaper clippings.” “No worries. I’m just so glad you guys are looking after this old place. I wanted to have another look. I was really just on my way to Williamstown to throw a line in at the pier,” I explained.

“Why don’t you try up on Riverside Park, just up the road? Near the punt dock is a good place. It’ll be quiet at this time of day.” Without realizing it, Ros had suggested a location that was just right, yet at the same time it frightened me, and I didn’t know why. It was where I had spent countless aimless hours, just sitting and staring. It was my secret place.
The sun was shining but the cold still bit right through my coat and beanie and my fingers were numb. I hadn’t caught any fish, so I decided to cut my losses and go for a walk to try and warm up. I headed towards the bridge. As a journalism student I had studied the report of the Royal Commission into the bridge’s 1970 collapse. We had been given the task by our lecturer of ‘re-investigating’ the series of failures that had eventually led to the tragedy early in its construction. We worked in teams and each member had a specific area to investigate.

Mine was the systemic failure within government departments to ensure that building codes kept up with technological and engineering advances. There was a mountain of paperwork to wade through, but it was what had ignited my passion for investigative journalism. Though I had lived in the shadow of the Westgate for most of my youth, I felt strangely detached from the tragedy. My part of the final report was heavily criticized by the lecturer for being particularly dispassionate. ‘This won’t sell newspapers!’ was written in bold, red letters. The Memorial Park was just the same. It had been well-tended by the committee. It had been re-designed over the past decade to provide a quiet place of reflection with thirty-five pillars representing the workmen who died when the span collapsed. I remembered the wording of the media release: ‘Commemorating the workers who died while working on one of the State’s most important pieces of infrastructure, the park will provide a fitting memorial to all those killed in industrial accidents,’ the Premier had said. I had driven across the bridge many times since it’s completion. I remember the first time; the day the bridge was opened to traffic. No tolls that day, and tens of thousands of vehicles bumper-to-bumper, snail’s pace across and back. I had never been so scared, but so exhilarated at the same time. Today was different. I was directly under the enormous structure. My heart was thumping against my ribcage. I had been walking briskly and had warmed up, but I was shivering, the kind that comes with a release of adrenaline, and I was on edge. This wasn’t the onset of one of the panic attacks. It wasn’t the beginning of a black out. It was more like the building anticipation one feels when they are on the brink of a major discovery, or their first sexual experience. I stopped and stared at the commemorative plaque, about twenty metres away. I had ridden my bike past it many times, never wanting to stop and read the inscription.

My phone rang, shrill interruption to my solitude. It was Jess. “Home soon?” she asked. “On my way,” was my response. Immediately the thumping subsided and I turned and walked back along the river to the car. Within half an hour I was safe and warm at home, tasks one and two complete, no fish, just an old sewing box to explore some day. I slept well that night. The next night was a different story. I was dreaming. I was a teenager. I was on the vacant land opposite Grandma’s house in Newport, watching Curly the dog chase rabbits while Grandma was getting lunch ready. Suddenly, Curly stopped and cocked his head. In the distance there was a massive cracking sound followed by a huge crash.

Instantly I was awake and sitting bolt upright in bed, my heart thumping and hands shaking  uncontrollably. “What’s wrong,” came Jess’s voice, “did you hear that thunder?” “Thunder?” was all I could say. “Chris, you’re shaking, what is it?” she was insistent. “It was the dream again,” and I began to sob. Trying to get back to sleep was impossible. The storm lasted maybe another half hour. It was the most violent storm I had ever experienced. Brilliant flashes of lightening quickly followed by enormous cracks of thunder. The whole house shook. It was like the Finger of God. Jess had drifted back to sleep and I was still wide awake. “The list, maybe I should be looking at the next things Liz wants me to do,” I thought. Dragging Grandma’s old quilt over my shoulders, I stumbled into my study. The quilt was maybe a hundred years old. It had been mended many times and the layers of fabric and old blankets told the story of its journey from Europe and its life on the block in The Mallee, and then of the house in Newport. It was warm and a bit scratchy. It reminded me of Grandma, and right now I needed her help.

“Grandma, I whispered, Grandma, are you there? I need help.” “You can do it. You’re a clever boy. You can work it out.” It was her mantra, and it always worked, and she was always right.

I found Liz’s list on the desk. I already knew the next task, but I read it anyway. It seems so simple: Look through old photos. I had already mentally located the boxes of old slides. It was a simple thing to set up Grandpa’s old Bell projector. A whiteboard covered one whole wall. It had been a useful tool in my investigations. It was still covered with notes and diagrams and flow-charts; results of research I had conducted on the final big story I broke. It was a pleasure to erase that episode finally, and I used the board as a projector screen.

Pictures of my parent’s wedding were first. I recognised the Presbyterian Church in Williamstown. There were pictures of my mother holding a newborn baby. It was me. I remembered Dad showing me that picture. There were pictures of Dad when he was a younger man, working as a boilermaker at the Williamstown Naval Dockyard, the HMAS Derwent was in the background. Then the pictures of Grandma’s back yard, her roses and prizewinning dahlias, Grandpa’s rhubarb and the stunning Bougainvillea that covered the side fence. This was all very pleasant, and served to settle me down, but it wasn’t getting me anywhere. In the darkness after the last slide, I focused on an unfamiliar shape on the desk. I stared at it for a while trying to work out what it was. One stray lightning flash illuminated the room, just enough for me to see the sewing box Ros had given me. Old photos, I think she had said. Coincidence? Had to be, but I pounced on it never-the-less and untied the ribbon. The first thing was an envelope addressed to me. It was Grandpa’s handwriting on the front. The letter enclosed was to change my life. ‘Dear Christopher, You have been with us, but not with us, for years. The doctors say the phase will pass one day. In our way, we tried every day to talk about it with you. It was as though you had just blocked things out. Our prayer is that you will accept the manner of your father’s death and come to terms with it. Then you can move on and make your mark in the world. In this box are newspaper clippings and photos that we collected. We love you Chris. Grandma and Grandpa. Grandma’s quilt slipped to the floor. I wept a little, for my grandparents. What a hell I must have led them through and they patiently bore it, even though they were grieving themselves.
The half-light exposed neatly tied bundles, each labelled and dated. I recognised that as Grandma’s contribution, she was a very ordered person.
Just as I was about to reach for the first bundle, I felt a hand on mine. It was Jess. I had felt her in the room with me, though I hadn’t turned around. Now she was next to me helping me put on my robe. The cold had gone un-noticed by me. I was too enthralled by the contents of the box to acknowledge her presence but she stood by me without comment. She read Grandpa’s letter. “Let’s do this together,” she suggested, and I agreed.
By dawn, every bundle had been opened and inspected briefly, then arranged on the floor in chronological order. My natural inclination as an investigator is to get the big picture first, then study the smaller components. Jess helped me plot a timeline on the whiteboard. To be honest, I was not surprised by the revelation that faced me, but I was numb. It was noon. We were still in our robes. We embraced and cried together. A loud bang on the front door shocked us both back into the present.
“I see,” Liz chuckled, “a pyjama day, eh? Does us all good once in a while.” He had both forgotten that a road trip was arranged for today.
Jess and I were driving Liz up to Marysville to have a look at the rebuilding of the town. Jess had only been back once. Despite her strong will, she avoided going back to the place where her life was changed forever. This road trip also happened to be the next thing on Liz’s list, though why both Jess and I had to be involved was a mystery.
The bakery in Murchison Street was one of the few Marysville buildings that wasn’t razed on Black Saturday. It was quiet, just some tourists wandering through, and a few locals. An elderly couple stopped at our table and greeted Jess with hugs and tears. No words were exchanged before they moved on and were gone. I recognised them. The fire caused the loss of their son, too, but indirectly. He had been falsely accused of being a firebug. Police stopped him as he was standing staring at the ruins of the guest house. It had been a refuge for him. Kind people there had been his second family. Without warning, his face was in the dirt, he was cuffed, and a gun held at his head. The police were not to know about his Asperger’s. He was an odd young man, eccentric you might say, but no firebug. He struggled. The discharge of the gun shattered the fragile peace and heralded a public outcry against maverick police. Liz allowed time for Jess to compose herself, but I noticed a tear in Liz’s own eye.

“I have a proposal to make,” she had a knack of raising her left eyebrow ever so slightly, engaging the listener instantly and drawing them into the conversation.

“William has suggested that I convene a group of people like yourselves.” She paused, not loosening her gaze. “Trauma victims, people who have experienced a life-changing tragedy of some sort. People who still carry a burden. People who need to share their story. People who can help each other.” “Sounds a bit like group therapy if you ask me,” Jess’s tone was challenging. “And I’m not ready yet, I haven’t got a story to tell,” I added, but my tone was one of pleading, and I felt embarrassed about that. “Not yet,” Liz responded, “give it a week and you’ll have a story to tell.” And with that the deal was signed. No-one defied Liz once her mind was set. The return trip down The Black Spur was spent listening to Liz explain her project. She was taking a sabbatical from her work managing the hospital in England to further her PHD studies. Her intent was to trial a theory she had developed to assist patients in recovering faster from severe psychological trauma. William had suggested some names, and she had added our names to the list.

Chapter 12. William

It had been a hellish day. From the outset nothing had gone the way I wanted. It was mainly little things that annoyed me, such as the cat not using its tray and leaving a nasty mess for me to clean up. I had had a restless night and I was in no mood to face the day. The tram was crowded and some idiot asked me if I needed a fag. I could have flattened him, literally, I was at my peak of fitness and a karate champion. The thought didn’t last long. As he was alighting another passenger gave him a gentle shove, just the slightest, but enough to put him off balance. He planted his face on the road and a resounding cheer arose from the rest of the passengers. I hadn’t been the only one he had been insulting. The lift was crowded and someone farted! Could it get worse? Yes! Sam my secretary and practice manager was already there and had made coffee just how I like it. That worried me; it usually meant that he was going to ask for time off. “William,” he started, “I’m crook, gastro.” I looked at the coffee and made a mental note to leave it where it was. “Go home, Sam, I don’t want your germs!” With that he disappeared into the toilet, reemerging ten minutes later to remind be of a meeting at midday and the report that was due tomorrow.

The upside, I suppose, was that I had the rest of the day to myself. I liked that. I had time to think through cases I was working on. It was frightening that often the whole future of men and women was in my hands. The decisions I made about their mental state would influence the courts. It was a burden I didn’t take lightly, and in a strange way I was glad that my own history gave me an insight into twisted minds. Liz phoned mid-morning to fill me in on progress with Chris and his wife. I had taken on Chris as a special project, and I realized that he and his wife Jess would make a valuable contribution to the research group she was about to start. The group members were all former or current private patients of mine. There was just one more to convince to join the group: Andrew, my midday appointment. “Damn! That must be him!” I was jolted back to reality from daydreaming when the security buzzer sounded. Sure enough, the CCTV showed Andrew in the outer waiting area, but there was another man with him, someone I didn’t recognize.

I let both men in. “Hi William,” Andrew was chirpy today, “this is my brother Mitch.” Andrew was in his late fifties, obese and just a little remaining hair. Mitch, on the other hand, was about my age, mid to late thirties, slim, a pale complexion, and a mop of dark hair. There was a vague similarity around the eyes, but that was all. As the small-talk progressed I found that the most glaring difference was their accents: Andrew’s Queensland drawl contrasted dramatically with the Yorkshire I was hearing from Mitch. Mitch took his leave to go for a walk while I spent time with Andrew. I was curious as to Mitch’s appearance here today; Andrew had never mentioned a brother. “I’m knackered,” volunteered Andrew. I flew down from home yesterday. I usually don’t fly right through, you know, since the heart scare, but I wanted to meet Mitch when he arrived. He flew into Melbourne for some reason.” 
“Where did he pop up from?” my curiosity was getting the better of me. “He’s my half brother actually. Didn’t even know he existed until a month ago. My birth-mother had him years after me. Different father of course.” Andrew paused for a moment. “It’s been good you know. Even since yesterday, he’s been able to fill in a lot of the missing pieces.”
“Are you sure he’s your brother? Not a gold digger?” I asked this just as much for my own curiosity as for Andrew’s well-being. He had been quite unstable for several years, and as a result his shares had tumbled, but were just recovering, as he was. “Don’t you worry about me,” he laughed, “I made sure of things before I let the relationship develop. He’s my bro alright, I had DNA tests done to prove it.” I hadn’t seen Andrew for a few months. He had flown down on my request so I could convince him to take part in Liz’s group. I was buoyed by his frame of mind, so it was timely to put the proposition to him. He started the conversation. For an hour he prattled on about his new-found faith, drinking from the water-cooler as he went. Thirty minutes in, he suddenly paused and studied my face. “You don’t believe this mate, do you?” I was overjoyed by his elevated mood, but what he was saying though was dead against my own philosophy of life. “Whatever flops your mop,” I said smiling, not sure of his reaction, but he kept on talking until the security buzzer rang again. I let Mitch back in. He was looking somewhat flustered and beads of sweat had formed on his brow. Clearly rattled, he told us his story. I sat mesmerized while he told us of near misses with trams, being ejected from the visitors’ gallery at Parliament House, and two nice young men who had tried to pick him up. “All that in sixty minutes?” I asked, trying to make light of his adventure. “I can understand the trams and the pick-ups, but Parliament House?” “Something was said during question time. I had only been in there a few minutes. I’m afraid I got upset and shouted out something. I really don’t want to talk about it. Please.” Mitch had settled down, so I thought it best to leave it alone. No doubt, Andrew would fill me in some other time if it were important. Before they left, I broached the subject of Liz’s group with Andrew. I felt confident that in his current mood he would give it a go, and I was right. He wanted to show Mitch some of our vast country, so he would fly back in the chopper in short hops for refuelling and sightseeing. We arranged that he would be back in Melbourne a few days before the group’s first meeting.

“Could Mitch join in please? He has a story to tell, too,” was Andrew’s only request. “Unlikely, but I will have a chat with Liz about it. I’ll let you know pal.” I didn’t want to disappoint Andrew or Mitch, but I had an obligation to honour Liz’s guidelines for her project, as well as the privacy and comfort of the other group members. It was not going to be an easy time for any of them.

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