Pratt QC had decided to chair a small informal meeting of the senior figures involved in the case. So much needed clarifying still, and a certain secrecy, or perhaps intimacy, would be required, not to obscure known fact but to keep speculation and sensational reportage to a minimum. Cover up? No. But what was inexplicable should remain unexplained, in the sober mind of Pratt QC.
“Ms Collins of the DPP and gentlemen, each of you knows at least a substantial piece of the case, some are better acquainted than others. Before we take any further steps I want to read the account aloud in the presence of all. Tedious, but advisable.
“I don’t think any good purpose will be served by repeating what is said here now, nor do I think we should publish, circulate or even copy what I am about to read. However, that is all left to your own judgment.
“The text is a bit – how shall I say? – literary. The author, a prisoner, wrote it for both confessional and – how to put this? – therapeutic reasons. As to the inexplicables – particularly as they involve a gentleman here present – I suggest we leave them without explanation and keep our minds on matters of fact and law. If we want a little fantasy and bewilderment in our lives, I’d suggest that the Australian cricket selectors can provide that.”
There was some tittering, as expected. Pratt QC knew how to relax his audiences. His face wore that familiar half-grin as his eyes scoured the room to compel agreement. A few writhed their impatience, and there may have been an eye-roll or two.
“Good. Since nobody objects, I’ll read. Take notes, by all means, but avoid quoting. For all I know there could be copyright involved…Just joking!
“The sooner we start the sooner it’s over. And, as I said, please bear with any literary flights or flourishes. They’re certainly not my own.”
Some good people, concerned with my rehabilitation, have encouraged me to write. So I will.
They have suggested guidelines. In particular they have suggested I relate the simple truth, free of opinion, justification or resentment, about what brought me to this point in my life. Their advice is to stop thinking of myself as writer, and simply to write. Too often, they say, we carry notions of our potential right through life and never act on those notions, not even when action is as simple as filling a few sheets of paper. I must learn to act, learn to expose myself to assessment, to the half failures and half successes which make up most of that reality to which I am still largely a stranger.
In fact, I may well be a writer, because I am certainly nothing else. While disliking the drudgery of assembling my thoughts and giving them clear and correct expression, I find this task less repetitive and less foreign to inclination than the other tasks I have been set or have set for myself through life. I at least belong in this field of drudgery. That is the best way I can put it.
What is strange in this account will be a reflection of my own strangeness, not an attempt to mystify or intrigue. If the attitudes and behaviour portrayed are incomprehensible to many, some will comprehend, because none of us is so strange that he is unique. Some will identify, and others will at least be reading the truth, in so far as a criminal can know the truth about himself.
I am certainly a criminal. There is a lack of definition to my criminality – more than in most cases – but I am a criminal, and what follows will be a story of crime, concealment and apprehension. The concealment is the interesting bit, not because of any ingenuity on my part, but because of a fluke of inspiration which made concealment possible against the odds.
I know that there are those who are hoping that, in writing this account, I will admit to complete guilt for a deliberate crime. I will not. I cannot. No matter how things seem, I am only as guilty as shown here. There are mysteries in my case to which I do not have the solution.
I do not blame the people whose job it is to gather evidence for suspecting me of more than I have done. All the indications are against me, and I would draw the same conclusions they have drawn from that evidence.
The fact that people exist whose job it is not to judge me but to assist in my rehabilitation is proof that the “system” is not such a bad one. I write to co-operate with these helpers, not to defy those who have been involved in my trial and conviction. I am sorry that this account will not serve as the confession they feel entitled to.
I will here reveal final details which will confirm certain findings of my trial, findings which I have hitherto denied, and which will justify, to many, my conviction and long imprisonment. This is the very reason I have withheld the details and denied for as long as possible. In telling the whereabouts of a body I remove all doubt – and there has been little of that – as to my guilt. I know that this confession of mine will be seen as a manipulation, as as desperate and last lunge for sympathy. It is not.
It is the final, complete truth, and it is all I know.
In beginning to write, my first impulse was to talk about my formation, how I came to rural surveying work, how it fitted my taste for isolation and escape. I intended to relate in some detail how I married through a mix of calculation and weakness. But it is enough for the reader to know that there is a vast tribe of men like me, men whom some may describe as introverts or dreamers, but whom I would call born exiles. Do some of you recognise yourselves in me? We seem made for no occupation or station, no one activity suits us, not even engagement with that natural world into which we seek our escape most instinctively.
We ought never to marry, but we do. In my case, I was able to trade on some acceptable looks and a certain agreeability, popularity even, which come with being a non-competer. I attracted a woman of acceptable personal qualities but, for some reason, of dismal sociability. She had inherited money and also acquired a house and land, proceeds, as she told me frankly, from a previous and embittering de facto marriage; I had never shifted enough to buy real estate, or anything of substance. I married out of conformity and material need and because Janet had become a habit.
But I will not dwell on my wife’s shortcomings beyond what is necessary to explain events. She was what she was, and there was nothing bad in her. Nor will I engage in self-loathing because of a temperament I was, after all, born with.
I have been advised to avoid all forms of criticism, except of my criminal actions, and to confine myself to clear explanations and descriptions of events about which I have accurate knowledge. As I progress in this exercise, I see the sanity of the advice. Writing to get things off my chest would not be a therapy, but an unaffordable indulgence, an extension of my malaise and my criminality.
The reader now knows enough to understand how, in middle age, I, a drifting, bookish type, found myself in a surveying job which allowed me to retreat into the bush and do very little while my employers waited for a massive highway bypass to be finalised; and how I came to live with an unhappy and isolated woman in isolated bushland near Rudder’s Corner, about a mile out of Darkwater.
I will not describe Janet, my wife and my victim, beyond what is necessary to explain my likely culpable part in her death. This is neither a novel nor a short story, to be populated with characters and coloured with feelings. It is an account, pure and simple.
Being without friends and the capacity to make friends, Janet had only me, and naturally sought a degree of control which I, as an escapist, found unbearable. There you have it, our predicament, bare and without blame.
I will give examples, for clarity’s sake.
On weekends I would ache to sit and read, in the knowledge that an entire day of complete inactivity stretched before me. Not only would Janet invent tasks and obligations, but I truly think she felt she was saving me from the boredom which tormented her. There was no malice in the constant disturbances and petty noise making, just a transference of her own dreads on to me. No, she did not want to rob me of calm; rather, she felt that calm could not exist, that only terrors lay in silence and passivity. Were two people ever so mismatched?
On a Sunday morning in winter I would creep down early to sit by the still hot slow combustion stove and look out on our little clearing in the scrub. If there is such a thing as prayer, I would pray for continued silence from the bedroom above, so that I could have one, even two coffees, in perfect silence.
For these diamond moments I would save my favourite books: the now surprisingly well-regarded potboilers of authors like Georges Simenon and James Hadley Chase. There was something about realistic stories of mediocrities and low lives which drew me, perhaps in an unhealthy way, perhaps not. Escape for me has never been into the exotic or fantastic. For me, sitting in a shabby bar or cafe where I am unknown and nothing is expected of me as long as I pay trivial amounts of money: that is escape. Escape is in wandering, while I half-work; in always delaying, lingering without quite defaulting on responsibility. And escape is in fiction about people who have never tried hard enough and who finally abandon their last pretensions to conformity by sliding into crime. Escape needs to be real and grounded.
Am I making sense? Perhaps some, at least, will understand my lack of both ambition and boredom, the contradiction which has made me most an exile. The active and the idle understand one another so well, because they both engage with boredom. They are opposites, taking turns in the same arena. The first struggle against boredom, beat it back, the second surrender, in hopes of taming it. We, the exiles, stand outside that struggle. We are strangers to dynamism and idleness, because we are strangers to boredom. Have we no right to be?
Once we had our social structures. We could indulge our true natures in monasticism, or the life of hermits. Now we lurk under such titles as introvert, dreamer, middle-manager…any title but exile. We pretend to have our niches. Now we marry, procreate and play at normalcy. Now we are repressed, in the very age which claims to at last understand and eliminate repression.
We can be stirred, included, brought in from exile. In fact, we need to be brought in, half way, for the good of all. But on our terms, as well as on the terms of the non-exiles, the belongers. We cannot, however, be saved from a boredom we do not experience. This Janet could not understand. And before the reader objects that there were contrary depths in Janet which I could not understand, let me state that I now agree, if too late.
Perhaps I am making no sense. Perhaps I am alone in this, a freak. And I am now becoming too discursive, departing from my purpose. Some self-pity is creeping into this text, I see. Yet without these meanderings will my actions be comprehensible? I will leave them in, these meanderings, in case they serve.
But enough of abstractions and reasons-why.
I am a kind of killer, and, being in no way above morality, neither by diagnosed infirmity nor by personal conviction, there is less excuse for me than for others. What I have written above is to explain, not to justify. The authorities, while greatly mistaking the extent of my guilt, did right in catching me and perhaps even in locking me up. My nature as exile is real, and honestly described, but does not justify my surrender to an impulse which was, at least in a certain degree, culpable.
In any case, let the rest of what I write be nothing but an account.
Shortly before the injury which freed me from work, Janet and I took a Christmas holiday together, in a caravan at the beach. She fussed, ran televisions and radios constantly. I escaped, strolled. It had been an infernal idea of mine, to put the two of us together at even closer quarters.
When the appliances were at last silent, and Janet was asleep, I lay and listened to the holiday sounds, remembered what it had been like as a child. Back then, waves and cicadas in the evening meant that the nagging rigmaroles of school and sport and homework were suspended for six whole weeks. How I loved the sounds of waves and cicadas. How I still love them. One day, when I am released, I will go down to the Haven on a summer evening, lie down on a towel, and just let those two sounds wash over me for hours. Waves flopping on a beach. Cicadas ringing.
Adjacent to our van, there was a sort of courtyard formed by the vans of three friends and their families. Being a sociable loner, I might easily have gotten to know these men, spent time with them. But I knew too well the awkwardness, politics and tensions this would entail thanks to Janet’s social difficulties and phobias. Easier to let be.
Instead, I found a little diversion and pleasure in listening to their late night conversations.
One of these men – I recognised him in the day because of his penetrating voice – was a scrawny, hairy Mediterranean type who had compelling features to go with his voice. One only saw his head, as if the rest did not matter. He had devouring black eyes and heavy, black specs on a hawk’s nose, a predator’s nose. From the first moment we exchanged looks and nods, I felt that I had been connected to this man, and that I would continue in that connection. He was not my friend or enemy. He was…what?
His occupation was in insurance investigation and he shared stories, which I overheard with some relish, about his work. What I took away from those stories was an understanding of how strong and experienced such people are, and how weak and unoriginal are the evaders and frauds who are their natural quarry. He stated at one point that those who had most chance of beating him were those who were humble in their manipulations, who did not seek to shine, who used the landscape as elderly lady golfers get good scores by hitting straight and low, straight and low…
Why did I seem to know this man? Why did his words lodge so firmly in my consciousness? Above all, why did I feel that we would see each other again, and that he, who had only glimpsed me, also knew of some future encounter in which he would be neither my friend nor my enemy, neither advocate nor judge, but something else hard to define except by the word necessity. He would be my necessity.
Are there such forces at work in our lives? I say yes.
My work accident occurred on the steep slope up to the trig on Purgatory Hill. I often went there for valid reasons, but also just to get away and read or listen to music during empty work days. From the top, after a quaint and winding ascent by 4WD, one had a view over the forest and town of Darkwater to the north and west, and the enormous flood plain to the east.
I am told that Purgatory Hill, with its famed corkscrew, namely, an encircling road tapering to the top, got its name from looking like an old conception of the Mountain of Purgatory. Others have said it was just a punishing climb and risky descent for timber-getters in the old days, and its name came from that. The hill was an ideal place for a trig or a tower or just for a view, but few ever went there, since it was only accessed through a maze of rough State Forest trails.
I had a vague but good enough reason to head up Purgatory that day. At the height of the highway by-pass negotiations, nothing was certain except politics. Would the new route go via forest or flood plain? My employers were happy if I would just seem like a busy surveyor, do little bits of work without leaving any lines or markers which only could add to the controversies and wrangling.
A jaunt up to the trig was never a bad entry to have in the logbook. On the ascent, my drive shaft or sump caught on a thick branch, the vehicle somehow slid sideways and toppled off the edge. By the time it had stopped sliding on its side it was jammed between boulders just above a lower stretch of the road. Fortunately, it was not my head but my shoulder which took most impact, though there was also some whiplash apparent later. I was able to phone immediately for help, which was not long in coming. That is all that happened: a legitimate work accident.
My situation changed. I was to be off work for a very long period on full pay.
It was heaven, it was hell. The complete freedom was offset by the constant presence of Janet. Indeed, she seemed happy to have me home constantly and, while still peevish and controlling, she was a fraction better tempered.
I was like a man dying of thirst inches from a lake of fresh, sweet water. The freedom from obligation was right there, but I could not reach it. A few minutes of quiet and contemplation were all I could pilfer before a petty concern or daytime television show sucked me back into Janet’s daily combat with boredom. How I yearned for her to nap so I could have a couple of quiet hours free from appliances and electronic entertainments.
There were the garden and grounds to occupy me, but they were minimal-care and I am quite efficient at chores. I could escape by volunteering to shop, but that usually involved taking Janet with me, and Janet could start an argument with the meekest when shopping. The fretting over getting the closest park would have my nerves on edge before the ordeals of bargaining, complaining, demanding and queue-hopping got underway. There was a reason she was friendless, though she surely deserved a few friends.
The large block had a shed well away from the house, but no amount of blokey tinkering could remove that constant ache for silence and privacy. If I attempted to sit and read over in the shed, it would be only minutes before Janet would be alert to the absence of noise and come across the block to redeem me from boredom.
It was not that I hated my wife, or that I have hated anybody. It was my wife’s presence. Yes, I came to detest Janet’s presence. Not Janet herself, that good, struggling soul. I just needed her to be elsewhere. Elsewhere, I could love her; present, I could not.
Her death and my role in it, related simply:
Our rural property was powered by solar units and a large diesel generator of an older type. The generator ran much of the time because of Janet’s constant use of appliances. I did not know how such power configurations work in with safety devices and cut-out switches, but I had vaguely assumed that electrocution was less likely, not more likely, when one was off-grid. Certainly, the safety of our power never concerned me, just my hatred of the continual growl of that generator through most of the day, as a background to the noise of pumps, radios, televisions and kitchen appliances. The power supply and its noise were somehow an extension of Janet and her boredom avoidance. I dreamed of whole days without that generator, days which never dawned.
One night, Janet called me from the bathroom where she had taken a shower but had forgotten to bring a towel. I brought the towel and threw it toward her arm which was protruding from the shower. (She insisted I throw, so as not to get my feet wet. I would have handed her the towel, but she was impatient and always had a faster way of doing things.) As she caught at the towel, she bumped an old ghetto blaster type of radio which she had placed on a stool just outside the cubicle so she would not be without noise and distraction, even in the shower. The radio crashed near her wet feet and bounced just inside the cubicle, which was now open. She began to shake under the gushing water, as if it had run suddenly hot or cold. It took me a moment to realise that she was being electrocuted. It took another moment to realise that, for some reason, the current had not been cut automatically. The lights and power were still on. Before my eyes, she shook, while still standing under the running shower within the steamed-up cubicle.
Here was my moment of manful decision, of needed action.
The floor between me and the wall switch was wet. My feet were bare. There was danger in trying to reach the switch or the cord, but I might have reached them. Someone committed to the survival of another would have done so. A man wanting to save the life of his wife would have done so. Or done something.
Instead I stood, and watched in a kind of paralysis. And beyond that paralysis, there was perhaps – only perhaps! – a very faint notion in my mind that this accident was a mercy, and that it should run its course, for everyone’s sake, now that it had begun. That was my part in her death. That hesitation, which I cannot wholly put down to confusion, was my crime.
Janet fell back in to the cubicle, quivering.
Then the power went out. Darkness, as the shower’s gush dwindled to a splatter.
Still I did not advance toward Janet. Was I afraid of the power surging back? Perhaps I was, perhaps my next step was to her possible benefit as well as to mine.
I walked outside, disconnected everything that one could disconnect, then came back with a flashlight.
Janet, my wife, was dead.
I now come to that part of my story which many have found intriguing. I suppose it is.
In the moments after verifying that Janet was dead, I went outside and reconnected the solar unit. The diesel generator I left alone. On coming back inside, my first thought was to the phone. It would, of course, be working. I stared at it, as I had stared at Janet as she convulsed.
The house was quiet, deliciously so. We kept no pets, the only creatures of which I was aware were possums brawling out near a mulch pile where I had thrown a lot of fruit and vegetable scraps earlier that evening. I wished that the possums would stop, as everything else had stopped. Then the silence might be flawless.
I was not ready to phone. I would take some minutes first. Why not make coffee at the gas stove? I did so, then went to sit at my intimate morning spot by the slow combustion heater. The pale trunks of the grey-gums were just visible in the night, the possums had settled their argument and were silent now.
I absently caressed the cool surface of the old wood heater and, for some reason, it occurred to me that it would soon be time start using it for the season. It also occurred to me that May was only a few days away. May is the wine of the year. Sappy, calm days followed by cool nights.
I truly think now that, if had been the spring approaching, I would have picked up that phone and rung the police or an emergency number. The spring in our region is dry and windy, windy with those nagging westerlies. Spring flusters, provokes.
But May! Soon the house would be warm and wood-smelling, but outside all would be cool, green, sappy…and calm.
I had to wrench myself back to what had just happened and what I needed to do. But surely I should spend a few minutes thinking before picking up that phone. My wife was dead and I had a part in her death. I had looked on. I had failed to lunge at the cord or switch. My footprints were on the wet floor. And I would certainly profit from Janet’s death. How would all that be construed? And how easy it would have been for me to simply throw the live radio into the cubicle. Who would believe that the radio bounced in such a convenient way to cause electrocution? I was, in fact, guilty in some degree, and I was her husband. Husbands are always suspects.
Another coffee, more thinking time, in this new calm.
What did people know of the marriage? Only that I was a likable enough type who did not participate in much, and that Janet was a very difficult person, seldom seen, and with no friends. What if I were to say nothing to anyone? Of course, within minutes I would use the phone…but what if I did not? How long would it take till people noticed? I did all her banking, most of her shopping. I did all emailing, since computers were too silent a device for her. Until someone required her presence or signature, how long till her absence was noticed?
The calm, the quiet…May coming on…mornings with a book by the wood heater…
If I said nothing, all would remain silent. If I made that phone call, there would be no silence. I was, in fact, implicated in her death. I could re-arrange the bathroom…but how? To tell what new story? The simple truth was a kind of defense, since I really had not done anything deliberately. Even my failure to lunge for the switch was possible to justify. Perhaps disconnecting all power from outside had been the correct thing. But the simple truth might also convict me. If I were to invent little things, what should I invent and what should I not? Could they prove I had entered the bathroom before her death? Was there a technical way of proving the things I might try to fudge, things to do with the generator? Could they etc…? Could I etc…?
The thoughts were churning. I only knew that if I picked up that phone the silence would be gone for a long time.
And now there was a new problem: this half hour I had just spent in complete inaction. What could I say to that? What if her time of death could be ascertained with precision by some means of which I was ignorant? How to explain a half hour spent drinking not one but two cups of coffee after my wife’s death by electrocution? Could I claim to have been asleep or elsewhere? Probably. But I only needed to be caught out in one single lie. One single lie, by which I, an amateur, was trying to fool people who did what they did for a living. They met bad improvisers and and bad liars every day, the people who investigate deaths…
Now, how did I know all that?
Of course! His face and voice came back to me. The man in the caravan park with the fierce black eyes and hawk nose. He said the perpetrators with the best chance were humble, did not try too hard, used the landscape, like old lady golfers who do nothing but hit low and straight. They used only what they had in their favour, the few things they know well. In short, they played their own local game, strictly.
The thing in my favour, the thing I knew well, was Janet’s standing with the rest of society. She was a person isolated in the extreme. The other things in my favour were the things I craved and knew how to use above all: time and silence. I would invent nothing, do nothing, alert nobody to anything. I would try to gain none of the things which the insiders, the belongers, might grasp after. As an exile, I was prepared to gain nothing material. I would have the house, but only as it constituted a part of my grand plan of inaction.
Eventually, I would have to break the rule of inaction to convince the world she had gone somewhere. But one lie was easier than a hundred. And I had time to get to it, that one pivotal lie.
The great persuader in all this was the calm which had formed around me. Nothing was going to break that crystal calm, except a few possums brawling for scraps, out by the mulch pile.
The silence, with May approaching. May with its still, sappy days and still, cool evenings. Then the cocoon of winter.
Of course, there was her body to deal with.
All that night I concentrated calmly on the one problem: efficient disposal of Janet’s body. By morning, I knew.
Burying was a bad idea. It leaves a marker, visible from on high, and the broken ground attracts dingoes, foxes and, more likely, feral dogs. That is why graves have to be very, very deep.
On the other hand, I knew from once having to dispose of a dead wallaby that a body covered in lots of very coarse grass, especially a species which forms a wind-proof mat like abrasive blady grass, can sometimes escape detection even by the keenest scented scavenger.
If I were to simply place Janet’s body on a piece of ground where no animals and few birds were likely to go, covering it with masses of the blady which I had lying about our block from a recent pre-winter slash, there was every chance that not even a goanna would find it, just the ants.
And I knew a likely place: the steep, unvisited south slope of Purgatory Hill, invisible from the air and from the trig, with nothing but dense scrub at the foot.
I had the use of an older company 4WD for the course of my convalescence, and I did not have to answer for any mileage. After spending a good hour stuffing numerous large garbage bags full of dried blady grass, I placed Janet in the back seat and stuffed the bags on top. In the unlikely event of being noticed, I was just a local heading for the tip, or for some naughty dumping in the State Forest.
I did not expect to be seen or in any way interrupted on the back way to Purgatory, and I was not.
Everything I did this first day of freedom would have to be done with great patience.
I drove up the corkscrew road I knew so well and stopped cautiously on the south side of the hill. Taking care because of my sore shoulder, I took plenty of time to drag then slide the body down the slope which was sufficiently rocky for a footing. Where there was a slight shelf and some shrubs, I was able to lay the body out in such a way that nothing could roll it. I then spent much time patiently fetching bag after bag of blady grass and patting it over Janet so that it formed a mat which, though very light, would stay in place because of the way blady grass clings and thatches once compressed a bit. As the corpse rotted, very little smell would penetrate to the air, if any. The tight grass canopy would look too white from the air as it continued to dry, but it was well concealed by the shrubs and some weighting rocks I placed on top. With winter coming on, I doubted that the soon-to-be-hibernating goannas would find it for many months, if they were to find it at all; major fire on this shady and sparse side of the hill was unlikely; the clay loam of our soils is surprisingly stable under the heaviest downpours.
The last thing I did was check that the above-ground tomb was completely invisible from all points of the road, as well as from the trig and any accessible spot near the base of the hill. It was indeed invisible. I was careful not to congratulate myself, but I felt pleased with the solution. The one or two vehicles a month which made their way up Purgatory would have no chance of stumbling across Janet’s body.
That evening, I ate out of tins, drank a little wine, and stared out the window past the pale trunks of the grey gums, out into the delicious gloom. To most people, it would be a grim way to spend an evening. For me it was a pleasure so intense I did not need to deepen it by doing anything else. I drank the silence and privacy with far more relish than I drank the wine.
I was home, in the strongest sense of being home. Yes, I experienced guilt over what may have been my role and fault in the death of my wife. And, yes, there was apprehensiveness. I am not a sociopath or any kind of “path”, nor am I cool-headed, cold-blooded or courageous. It was just that the silence and privacy were like some long-yearned-for country from which I had been hounded, and to which I had made a sudden and unexpected return. I had found a home in what had been merely my residence, and the experience was not far off one of joy. However…
A puzzle, and one which plays a large part in this account:
For me, there had never been any God or gods, angels fallen or good, saints or demons. These things did not even have a life in my imagination. Religion never crossed my mind, just as it never occurred to me to grow a beard or take up lawn bowls. I found asylum in the commonplace: the drab bar in the backwater, the cafe after lunch rush, the empty winter beach. These were the truly quiet places, the true sanctuaries, where quiet was not imposed or confected, as in a church or library. Exiles know.
However, if there were a Supreme or Absolute, would not this force impose itself in ways which were comprehensible to the individual? If so, how would this Supreme or Absolute work upon me, an exile?
I ask these bizarre questions because, from that very first day of freedom, I was haunted by a living ghost, by which I mean one which had not yet died. It was something more good than bad, more living than ghost. But it was a ghost, a haunting presence, knowing me, measuring me, setting a standard. I knew how it looked and sounded, this still-living ghost, because I had met it briefly, in a caravan park, when it was once just a living man. It had been a scrawny man of Mediterranean appearance, all head, and in that head were two big eyes like coals; and between was a hawk-like nose, the nose of a predator, scanning all, finding me.
An insurance man!
I did nothing for a week. There was no need to shop or do chores, since the house was well enough stocked for one person and the cooling season gave less to do around the property. Of course, when I did shop I would have to shop for two, and buy things which Janet might require.
Reading was not mere pleasure. It was an ecstasy of relief and release. All I needed in that week was a cup of coffee or glass of wine, and a light to read by. When I was not reading, I stared out the window, past those familiar grey gums, my sturdy friends, and drank in the pure solitude.
There were moments of guilt, apprehension…and the face of that living ghost kept floating across my consciousness. These things prompted my to be a little practical. I made an effort to do traceable things as if Janet were still there. I used the internet to scan the usual things, including the sites which I visited for Janet. There was nothing which required any passwords or IDs which were not known to me. As I have said, it was extraordinary how unconnected Janet was with the world in general. She had no local doctor, optometrist or dentist, she had me submit an electronic tax return which did not vary, she had no licence and did not drive. Somehow, she had avoided the electoral roll, perhaps because of a life spent moving about the country.
Janet had been as isolated as it was possible to be. Some would call her a misfit. To me she had been available: someone I met at a library club who was making an effort to be sociable and at least succeeded in being available. Janet was a woman of good appearance and adequate means who cooked well and was supremely available to me. So I married her. Her past and her family were matters which I had always expected to arise in the course of our relationship…but they never did. Now all of this strangeness was working in my favour.
What did not ultimately work in my favour were the wills and life insurance policies she had insisted on having drawn up by a strange broker from Port Tench who came to our property for the transactions. With his moustache and baby-poo brown suit he looked like a shady lawyer or impresario from an old movie. He was in the company of a gum-chewing secretary who acted as witness – but who had the air and clothes of a pole dancer between acts. I remember finding it quite funny, and a little unsettling, but I went along. Janet was prudent about money, and usually managed to get me to shop with my surveyor’s wage while keeping her own money invested. There were limits to her disconnectedness.
One thing I did not do was try to restart the diesel generator. As well as detesting it for past torments, I found I could do most things with the solar unit. So long as I had light to read by, a gas stove and a gas water heater, and enough power for the computer, I did not mind washing clothes by leaving a plastic barrel in the sun and then rolling it about with the clothes and some soap inside. To have that generator growling again would be a step backwards. Also, it was quite possibly defective and dangerous. I would not be able to run certain machines and devices in the shed, but, with Janet gone, I was no longer interested in the shed and blokey tinkering. I wanted to read, think, wander and – who knows? – maybe write a little. Of course, I wrote nothing.
Weeks passed, nobody came. Eventually, of course, somebody would want to find her, contact her. How could I be sure that the broker in the baby-poo brown suit was not one of a number of old contacts of which I knew nothing? Could I be sure that Janet did not have records, an address book, a safe deposit, something which connected her with the world and of which I was ignorant? I had searched and found nothing, but it would be foolish to continue as if her isolation had been total. In the end, there would be somebody wanting to contact her. It might be tax, electoral, personal…there would be contact or a visit from somewhere.
I began to crystallise a plan for Janet’s apparent departure. If I were to report her disappearance as sudden, the pressure would come on me immediately. If she were thought to have gone off in a regular fashion, on some kind of trip, it would give me more time. Not only that, if she were to disappear into a large city, that would lessen the likelihood of any searches through local bushland.
A stroke of luck. Some weeks before I had helped her pick out a mobile phone with some pre-paid credits, good for six months. The phone was in her name, bought for reasons unknown, possibly even to her. Maybe it was one of her hopeful but floundering attempts at connecting with people. It was in a drawer, still in its wrapper. If I were to destroy the phone and then ring its number repeatedly after her apparent departure, it would be electronic evidence that I had been attempting contact. I would also, of course, try the number of some hotel at which I would make an internet booking in her name using her account. It was a debit account with Visa facility, one which only contained a couple of thousand dollars at any given time, and which I used on her behalf since she was never willing to do internet transactions herself. Perfect. There was already a long record of transactions which showed up only as her own. I could pay her hotel and transport with the card then destroy it, along with the mobile. Nothing would seem irregular.
The city? Sydney. The bigger the better. A motive for leaving? It took me a lot of thought and searching on the internet. Janet had a declared interest in things British, something she had mentioned in the old library club. A Victoria and Albert exhibition in Sydney would be as good a reason as any. I found a suitable hotel, very close to the exhibition, which took internet bookings.
Transport was trickiest. My first idea was a bad one and taught me just how well I needed to think things through. The idiotic plan was to buy a first-class ticket on the internet, print it out, go to the station, then give it to some woman travelling to Sydney. I planned to explain that it was a ticket my wife no longer wanted, that it was best to travel under her name and say nothing to the conductor…
When the stupidity of the plan came flooding over my brain, it gave me a needed dose of humility. Witnesses in a public place, manipulation which required co-operation from strangers, amateurish play acting…How could I have been so stupid and so overconfident? And as if average people on average incomes don’t just cancel tickets for partial refunds!
A simpler, humbler plan: I would pack a light bag for Janet, as well as I could, in case I was asked why she had not taken certain things. Then I would destroy all, bag and contents. The mileage on my company car was not monitored, since it was an old crate only used as back up. All I needed to do was say I had driven Janet to a station near Sydney – it is well known that country people find the city impenetrable these days – where she might have bought an unbooked platform ticket. Also, the age and condition of the car were not suited for starting and stopping through heavy Sydney traffic. A Gosford drop-off would be ideal.
Then it was a matter of making daily calls to the dead mobile, and to the hotel I had booked as Janet, using Janet’s account.
Still nobody came, nobody rang, except one or two calls for me, from my old place of work. Once I had the presence of mind to yell out to Janet to turn a radio down. I then closed a door to give the impression she had done so. But I would have to be careful with stunts, with cleverness. That ghost, that living ghost from the caravan park, had said as much…
I had a simple plan and I would stick to it. I would be less clever, if anything.
There was no rush. If the Victoria and Albert exhibition finished, there would be something else. The more time I took, the better and more considered my plan would be.
Really, I had fallen in love with the solitude and did not want to crease its perfection with any action of a major sort. Certainly, I would have to send a fictitious Janet on that fictitious trip eventually. But still nobody rang or came to see her, and I wondered if anybody ever would.
I shopped in town a little, did the usual things. Nobody inquired after Janet. Nobody ever did, except at the library, and I did not go there.
Finally, I took a trip to the local tip, where I deposited Janet’s travel pack, with the likely things she would take with her, all incinerated in a wind-row fire then mixed in with other garbage in such a way that nobody would pay any attention to it after it finally tumbled into the vast pit of our council tip. Her smashed up phone, which I had been careful to activate first, was included in the burnt garbage. It occurred to me that this was a mistake, that I should have activated the phone just before the made-up trip, a more logical thing for Janet to do. But no. People often activated phones then left them turned off for months, drained of battery power. The main thing was, I had the number to ring. Even better, I could add more credits and keep the phone active via internet using Janet’s account, which I was free to use, as Janet, right up to the time of her pretended departure for Sydney. It then occurred to me that I could use her apparent heedlessness with the phone as an excuse for a longer delay in reporting her missing.
There was one job done.
I did little else, except wallow in the new-found solitude and silence. I could not get enough of solitude and silence. What was I becoming? The freedom from work, from Janet, from noise, from haste…I could not let it intoxicate me.
There was the guilt and apprehension. That above-ground tomb of blady grass got bigger and whiter in imagination.
And there was that face, with its measuring sneer, furious eyes behind massive black specs, predator nose…It kept coming across my mind, instructing me, scorning me, waiting. The nearest thing to religion. How was that possible? What was its role?
I let months pass. Nobody came or rang for Janet. She had somehow arranged her life as a permanent anonymity, without the need for disguise or evasion. She had indeed been a strange person.
There were moments when I felt it could go on forever. Of course, it could not. The plan stood.
The wake-up came when, as often happens in country areas, I was visited by Jehovah’s Witnesses who could not simply be sent away because they were also neighbours. Neighbours who, in a very remote way, knew Janet. They inquired after her and I explained that I had driven her into town and would be picking her up later. While this was a satisfactory explanation, I found that engaging the JWs in discussion was a special strain, since it was the first visit by anyone since Janet’s death. I kept asking myself if I had said something revealing or inconsistent, and whether the strain of avoiding any revealing comment was showing. The encounter was that much harder because, as an exile, the fantastic and spiritual mean nothing to me. If there is a psychic gene for all that, I am without it. How would I ever tell these people that sanctuary for me was an emptying cafe on a weekday or a dingy, unpatronised bar. Even madder, my pantheon or theology consisted of just one common, living man…
An insurance man!
Was it the spring that finally stirred me? Those nagging dry westerlies and negative ions? By September, I was ready to act. Soon there would be no more fire at night, cicadas would ring, things would grow fast after October thunderstorms. Or that was what I projected. I think I have always dreaded the stirring of spring, just as I have loved the gradual cocooning of the opposite season. I am an exile, after all.
The Victoria and Albert exhibition was long gone, but there was a well publicised display of traditional English furniture at the Sydney Furniture show. Perfect. One could book a package on the internet for the show and for a hotel nearby. Perfect. I made the booking with Janet’s Visa account, as planned.
This was in some ways the easiest time of all. I no longer had to pretend that Janet was at home. It was not that anyone had asked, but it was good to do away with the possibility of having to explain her absence. Perhaps I would contrive to mention her absence to someone, in town or on an internet forum for noir fiction I sometimes visited. But no. I would force nothing.
With a stab, I realised I had made my first small error. What if I were asked about where I filled up my car or stopped to eat on the lengthy trip to and from Gosford Station? It was too late to drive the highway and get my presence recorded somewhere on the return, but it was not too late to change the story. I would say I had driven Janet to Broadmeadow, a much shorter trip, where she would have been able to buy a platform ticket. A full tank of diesel would have got me there and back, and I could always plead the discomfort of the rickety 4WD as a reason for Janet preferring to go only as far as Broadmeadow. The key was in not having to book: platform tickets were available and common at Broadmeadow, and often bought with cash. By sheer luck, I had filled the car and spare container with fuel the day of Janet’s supposed departure, and had paid by card. It would be easy to argue that I had made a long trip on that day. Some luck, to cover an admittedly small error. But this was no time even for small errors.
I rang the dead number a couple of times on the first night. Over the next two days, I rang it more often. A message had come to Janet’s email account from the booking agency. I left it alone of course. No doubt they, too, had been ringing the dead number I had given as a contact. On the third day, I rang the hotel and asked for Janet. When they told me she had not arrived and that they had been trying to reach her, I grew anxious and gave them all my contact details.
Next I had to play act for the local police, whom I rang that same day. I had decided to keep my emotions down and not to strive for dramatic effect at any point. It was no use banking on a skill I did not possess. I told them what had happened, assured them that there was nothing in Janet’s mental state or the state of our marriage which might motivate her to deliberately disappear. Of course, police never fully believe such a declaration, but I had to say it, and they had to hear it from me.
I was given the usual assurances and information about missing family members, then went to bed. I recall feeling regret that the time for fuss and form-filling had come.
Eventually I had my first formal interview at our local police station. I detailed times, destinations, bookings. There was a small reserve of suspicion behind their concern and efficiency. I had expected as much, but my aim was to relate facts with a worried air but without dramatics. This I did, and no more.
The next step was a home visit from a pair of Newcastle detectives. The most alarming moment was when they asked me about the drive to Broadmeadow, and the exact time at which I dropped Janet off there. It suddenly occurred to me that a station might be closed, or that closed circuit might monitor all passengers. I fossicked around quickly in my brain and explained that I had not gone on to the station with Janet because parking was tight; also, the aging vehicle’s wipers were not working well and rain had been predicted for the evening. (I was happy with these two improvisations: the first meant that I did not have to vouch for her getting a ticket at a particular time, the second was based on truth about both the car and weather that day.)
Still, the fact that I was being questioned about my role in her departure showed that an inevitable measure of suspicion had fallen on me. I was not asked about stopping to eat or refuel, but that might come later.
I felt I had been just clever enough to date, observing the guidelines set down by my living ghost. I had tried just hard enough.
In fact, it was only chance which beat me.
They don’t tell you it’s coming.
One day, very early, a whole squad of police in dark blue overalls arrives on your rural property. There is a young woman in charge, very polite. She apologises for the unannounced intrusion – one never knows when the squad will be available, she says – and engages you in conversation intended to make you contradict previous statements, while the rest of the squad combs your property. Fine. I was up for all that.
The team spent a good hour fossicking and overturning. Meanwhile I had invited Officer Delvene Shannon to have a coffee, and she had accepted. In those informal moments, as we sipped away and talked of trivialities, like boxers jabbing and ducking without malice, she asked my permission to recharge her mobile.
Where she plugged it in, the point was dead. I knew that some of the circuitry in the house had been burnt out by the surge which killed Janet, however I was unaware of this particular point being out. I plugged the phone into a working point on a different circuit from the solar. This might have been all, if Officer Delvene Shannon had not then asked about the power generally. I explained that there had been a surge some time ago and we had not yet been able to book an electrician, things being as they are with tradespeople nowadays.
Too breezy! Too discursive!
Instantly, I remembered that I had not made any contact with a local electrician. I had been caught out. I might have said something better, something about deciding to live without the noise, pollution and cost of the generator; everybody is green these days. Instead, I gave them a tiny hook.
Perhaps Officer Delvene Shannon was of the opinion that a woman present in a home would be more concerned than a bookish male like myself about power points not working. Perhaps it just flitted across the back of her mind that this was some proof that a woman had not been present for some time. Why not? She had the instincts of a woman and of a police officer who hears lies and obfuscation every day.
She went briefly outside and spoke with one of her squad, then returned to the kitchen and continued to ask me about the power supply. The power supply! Did my voice tremble? Were my answers a little too forced in tone, over-construed in substance?
The conversation had drifted to what appliances Janet used, how she felt about doing the washing, in particular, without necessary power. Just then the squad member she had spoken with came back and called her to the door. They had a murmured conversation. She asked me to accompany them outside, to the generator and power box. Did I jerk a little when rising from the table? Was the sudden weakness in my legs visible?
As we stood observing the open switch box, I realised I had never looked inside it before. That was true – but who would believe it? All I could do was shake my head in bewilderment when Officer Delvene Shannon asked:
“Who has a power supply designed with so much resistance that it won’t cut out without the most tremendous load?”
I mumbled about not understanding how diesel power systems differ, mumbled about never having even looked inside the power box…
They fixed me as I flushed and tripped over my words. Then the officer made a call from her colleague’s phone, glaring at me as she did so. The other glared at me too.
More police arrived, one of them some kind of electrical expert who examined all connections and wiring to the house. Another who got very busy behind one closed door…that of the bathroom!
When they took the computer away, Officer Delvene Shannon was so polite as to ask if she may do so. In that moment, something occurred to me: Janet had never touched that computer, except to wipe its screen during cleaning. The dirty, heavily used keyboard was full of traces of me, nobody else. Same with the mouse. I scrambled, so stupidly:
“Oh…take the computer…and the peripherals. I can buy another tower on ebay while you work on that one. I’ve got Janet’s keyboard and mouse lying around here somewhere. Janet liked…likes me to use my own old stuff when she’s away…”
“Really? She goes away?”
“Oh…not much…but sometimes…over the years…”
“And where are this other keyboard and mouse? The ones which will carry prints and other traces of your wife, so you can prove she has been emailing, paying and booking from this computer?”
In that moment, I knew it was over. And in one moment of clarity, I knew that simple denial and silence would be my only friends. I was guilty, but only a fraction as guilty as I now looked. I would let all run its course…but I would not let them find the electrocuted body of my wife. I deserved something, but not the something now looming.
I learned that a couple of hairs on a bathroom floor can carry evidence of electrocution. Something to do with the nuclei. I learned how much evidence police can extract from an old computer, especially a well used keyboard. I learned a bit about electricity, how one could rig a power board so an electric shock would be long and lethal…
Well, the people most likely to read this account will be far more expert than me about all that. For all I know, they have read to the part where I have described the location of Janet’s body and read no further. The body is what they wanted from me. It will be where I left it, and I know it will speak more loudly against me than anything I write here in my own defense. My story is unbelievable. I cannot explain how the power board was deliberately, almost professionally, set up to kill in the event of a typical household accident such as a bathroom shock.
I have made one unenforceable condition to revealing the location of Janet’s body. The authorities have agreed to show this text to the man who haunts me, that living ghost, who is no doubt scornful of what I have written about him: namely, that he is some kind of necessity in my life, what the ancients called dira necessitas, and that I have sensed his presence in all that has occurred and may still occur. I do not look to him for help, since I am clearly beyond help. But since that man, largely unknown to me, is the reason I have at last confessed all…
The reader will just have forgive the strange nature of what I say here to conclude…
I had a dream the other night. I was attempting to flee from Purgatory Hill under cover of darkness. It was certainly Purgatory, but the terrain below was different. All was black, I was on foot, and moving with the guilt, it seemed, of centuries. Stealth mattered, nothing else. I could barely progress on the marshy ground choked with waist-high reeds….
There was a sudden flare of light in front of me. I was approached by a man; he was moving forward in that flare. He was scrawny, hairy, with a large head, a fierce beak like a predator’s, heavy black specs around huge, gleaming coals for eyes.
He said nothing, just pointed in the direction from which I had come.
He was pointing me back – to Purgatory Hill!
That is all.
Please keep our bargain. Show him what I have written. He will find it absurd, as he will find me weak and absurd, and possibly worse. But he deserves to know that this final confession, fatal to all my hopes, is done in the name of some sort of truth or higher impulse which he represents to me.
Find him and show him this. He is a ghost, all I will ever know of religion or what they call the Numinous. But he is also a simple, living man, a family man with a caravan who takes holidays with friends.
An insurance man!
Pratt QC dropped the text on to the table before him and leaned well back, as if to separate himself from what he had read.
“Comments? Explanations that are not frankly silly?”
It was young Pritchard, representing the Justice Minister, who could not refrain:
“But how could he know? How? Mr. Pratt, surely something needs explaining here.”
Chief Inspection Druitt:
“Whether we explain or not, the facts are the facts. The woman has been identified. It’s her. And we are in no doubt that she was electrocuted. And a further inspection of the premises has revealed exactly what was meant to happen. In the shed where the man often tinkered there was some perfectly rigged wiring and two tools ready to fry the first person who used them. The altered power board at the house would have ensured that the current kept doing its job. When the victim was fried, it would have been a simple matter to rewire a few things so that all appeared accidental. Simple if you were an expert who had done similar things in the past.”
There was silence, then Pratt QC:
“I think we can leave the last word to the man at the centre of all this. Mr. Gavin Di Gianvincenzo?”
Eyes moved to the smallest person at the table, who seemed out of place. He was scrawny, with a huge head, hawk nose and black, compelling eyes. The man pushed his monstrous specs up the bridge of his nose, shrugged a few times, then spoke in a jabbing voice:
“Right, I’m the ghost, if you like. I don’t much care about all that. I care about saving the insurance industry money. If I have to be a ghost to achieve that, I’ll be a ghost.
“Yes, I take holidays with some other families, and, yes, after a few ales I tell them the odd yarn or two. Of course, he could have been in a nearby van and overhearing. But I don’t remember the bloke, and there’s no connection between us that I know of.
“But when they showed me what he wrote…
“Well, you’ll all have to excuse me, especially you, Miss Collins, but when somebody is trying to cost the insurance industry money, I get this ache in my testicles. Plain and simple. I hate being dudded and I hate duds. I often say, that ache is like a message from an Old Testament God, saying: Someone is trying to beat the insurance industry. And the insurance industry is the glue of civilisation. If people want to laugh at that, laugh away. I’m used to it. But then think about it.
“Anyway, when I feel that ache, I don’t stop till the ache stops. You might think I’m exaggerating. But ask around the industry, the industry anywhere in the world, if you like. You’ll find I’ve got a reputation. They say I’m pitiless, relentless. I am.
“Somehow, that story or account or whatever you call it made its way to the one person who could guess right. Me. And I did guess right. We now know from the autopsy, especially the dentition, that I guessed right. The woman was Joan Frawley-Toombs, or whatever name of many you want to call her by. She’d done the electrical thing on a hubby in New Zealand, very similar procedure. Got away with it. Here in NSW, as Patricia Gow, she used a car accident, successfully. Converted yet another husband into legal tender. We think she got her start in England by suffocating her mother to inherit. Nothing proven.
“Her prints were all over the wiring in the shed. No doubt she planned to clean up later, when she had rewired so the electricals were merely dangerous, not instantly lethal. Nobody suspects women of tinkering with electricity. Sorry, Miss Collins, but they don’t, do they?
“By keeping out of circulation and converting all her wealth to portables like 1930 pennies she could be overlooked and forgotten for years. She was just a woman with a bodgie name, a box in a bank vault and one or two dodgy contacts. That’s why nobody came looking for her after she died.
“She kept blokes around out of some emotional need, but knew when they were tiring, knew when to chop them. This husband had lasted a few years – his time was up. She’d beefed up an insurance policy on the sly, there was his superannuation too. He was going to be dead the first time he used a tool over in that shed.
“Instead, she fried herself by sheer chance. Because she wanted a towel in a hurry. If she hadn’t rewired for her husband’s planned murder – possibly the next day – the power would have cut out when the radio got soaked.
“I agree it’s a baffling business, involving a near-impossible coincidence. What set me off? The description of his wife’s character? The trick with the power supply? Something put me vaguely in mind of her. If I hadn’t read what he wrote, nobody else in the world, as far as I know, would have made the connection with Frawley-Toombs, then confirmed it by checking the teeth against New Zealand and English records. You would have identified her from dental work done in Sydney under her most recent name, and, quite reasonably, taken it no further. By writing this text, this confession, he gifted you the thing you still lacked: his wife’s electrocuted body. He’d be in jail for the maximum once you had that. You would all have concluded, sensibly, that his confession to hiding her body was meant to soften you up and make you believe her death just might have been accidental. It was his stupidest move, innocent or guilty. You wouldn’t have fallen for it. You shouldn’t have fallen for it.
“Instead, through some sort of miracle, or this ache in my testicles – you’ll have to excuse me, miss…”
Ms Collins from the DPP interrupted:
“Mr. DiGianvincenzo, if, as you indicate and many people who admire your work agree, you can have a special sense – something seemingly from above or outside you – is it not possible that others can have a special sense of another sort? The man who wrote this account has wanted it read, as a condition of making full confession, by the one person in the world who could save him, a person he scarcely knew and who did not know him at all. Yet he could not have had the slightest idea that you were in a position to save him. That would be too incredible. Is it so silly to believe in the Numinous, whether it be your testicular ache – you’ll have to excuse me! – or this man’s belief in his quasi-spiritual connection with you, or at least with some force in you?”
“Miss, I’m from the Riverina. We’re an odd bunch. We’re farmers, but we don’t look to the heavens. We turn on taps. We have the observant minds of country types and the impatient, open minds of industrial types. Above all, we’re hard, especially the Abruzz’ like me. I reject nothing of what he writes or of what you say now. But I take just one thing seriously, and that is my job. I never see the end of my job. You people have such honest faces, even you, Mr. Pratt – but don’t ever try to cost the insurance industry money on my watch. I would have caught Frawley-Toombs eventually, if she hadn’t cooked herself. Even if you get away with it legally, I’ll still catch you at your game and let you know I know.
“Insurance fraud magnetises me, and maybe that magnetism, which I have to believe is real, affects others, like the bloke who wrote what we’ve just heard read. I dunno, I dunno…
“Anyway, he’ll be a free man soon. I’m told there’ll be no prosecution for his moment of hesitation or for his subsequent illegal actions. Seems about right. Time served, and so on. He’s likely to inherit all sorts of valuables and property – though I’m hoping I can use parts of this written account to stop him collecting on his wife’s death. Any objections? That’s my job, in case anybody forgets: I save the insurance industry money.
“As for his idea that I’m some kind of guardian spirit, coming to him in dreams, guiding him to or through or up some personal Purgatory…make of that what you like. You think a bloke like me can afford to daydream? Or listen to daydreamers? He talks of belongers and exiles. I’m a belonger, Grade One. I may not even have a navel – I’ve never looked! Get me? I’m not rejecting anything, I just refuse to be distracted. Wouldn’t the shrewdies and cheap mugs love it if I took a break from meditating on their doom!
“I suppose I am a guardian of sorts. I guard the thing that contains more of law and justice than the professions of law and justice themselves. Laugh all you like, I’m used to that – but then think about it!
“I watch over the thing that watches over the world.
“I guard the insurance industry!”