Andrew Essig is still making money in Sydney property. His nose for the “coming” area is still uncanny. Forty years ago, when the thrust to outer suburbia had slowed and a few inner city suburbs like Paddington and Balmain were having their suddenly precious terraces stripped back to suddenly authentic brick, Andrew Essig had already sold out, sold well, and moved on to suburbs nobody would deem ripe for gentrification. But ripe they were.
Decades on, when clever friends of Andrew Essig were sporting joke T-shirts with the words “Ski Mt Druitt”, Andrew alone, after caressing his chin in that vacant way of his, would turn over in his mind the potential of the drab and unskiable wasteland of blue collar migrants and angry kids – but with big blocks of land, and trains, and easy Motorway access in that new and burgeoning economic zone called Western Sydney. He might laugh automatically at the T-shirts, happy to let his friends think what they like. But he would be thinking and calculating in a way opposite to automatic. When Andrew Essig seemed most absent from a conversation, when his voice softened to a murmur and his face wore just an indeterminate smear of a smile, that was when he was most potent. And when he passed a hand softly under his chin…be assured, worlds were colliding!
Yes, worlds. Andrew Essig, like many who startle by their ability to commit massive sums to apparent uncertainty, inhabited one mental sphere of boundless opportunity and another of boundless economy. His passion for thrift matched exactly his lust for acquisition, both being enormous, and in that never-resolved tension lay his flair, his almost-genius, for property. What many took for bold decision was, in fact, a fruitful truce after a long and enervating war of his spheres.
Yet the man lacked colour, even physically. His hair may have been a dull brown, his skin may have been fair and blotchy, his eyes…were they a murky green? One never made note. People did observe that he had wide and powerful shoulders and huge hands, what he needed for the challenges of renovation, which he performed fast and well. Yet all else about the man was withdrawn, without expression. When trade and supply people chased him for money owed, he would remain vaguely friendly and otherwise inert. His voice would trail to a murmur, his gaze would be fixed on nothing, all comprehension would leave him. Berating him was like beating a mattress piled on mattresses. Creditors gave up. They would wait for their money. Of course, Andrew knew when to finally pay so that new transactions could occur, but payment was never automatic. Above all else, payment must be delayed, fragmented, eked, calculated.
The private man was like his appearance: inconspicuous, a respectable blur. He always lived in one of his homes awaiting sale, so that furnishing was correct but somewhat bare. His wife, a drawn-faced, agreeable woman, seldom seen, held down a paid book-keeping job which never demanded so much that she could not give most of her attention to Andrew Essig’s books. A son eventually studied law (diploma, part-time) while still acting as labourer on his father’s renovation projects, something he had done since childhood. And there was never a murmur from or about those two people who constituted his family.
His origins? Andrew Essig was born with a different name somewhere in Middle Europe, but came to Australia as an infant. He was likely from some borderland where nationality changed several times in the century. Andrew was not of Europe or Australia or of family.
Andrew Essig was of property.
One of Andrew Essig’s earliest coups was the purchase of the Baker’s Dozen, a particularly old terrace row of sandstone which had been used as Maritime housing in the twentieth century but was said to have a colonial history involving British naval officers and their families. Just as people were growing tired of exposed brick terraces with white lacework, the Baker’s Dozen offered some actual authenticity just before heritage classifications and Green Bans would have made its redevelopment awkward.
Of the thirteen tenants, only two had their tenancies protected under old Maritime Housing conditions. It had been easy to expel those on ordinary leases, and one of the old Maritime-affected tenants had been willing to take the offer of a lease on one of Andrew’s houses awaiting sale in Balmain. Andrew, so softly persuasive, had promised years of low-cost tenancy in the other premises. As soon as he had the elderly man into a new and unprotected lease, he sold the residence after three months of hammering and renovating under the tenant’s nose. Amazingly, he was able to inject so much pathos and reluctance into his tale of a “forced” sale that the old gentleman, upon his eviction, gave his landlord a bottle of cheap sweet sherry. Andrew kept the bottle “for wine trifle and guests”, as he explained to his wife.
In the middle of the Baker’s Dozen stood that one dwelling, Number Seven, occupied by a protected tenant who would not leave. Her name was Jean Taplin, she was the elderly widow of a notorious time-keeper on the wharves who had drunk himself to death in the 1950s after a major whisky heist…and she would not leave.
Her sons and one daughter had long departed – a rarity with Maritime housing, where even well paid and professional offspring of “wharfies” will continue to live cheaply where they were raised: an invocation of docksider birthright, and a way to live near city and harbour at little or no cost. Jean Taplin was alone, and her house was barely maintained since it had passed from Maritime ownership into the hands of private speculators who had sold on to Andrew Essig. (Andrew knew with precision that those private speculators would take a heavy loss so they could rush funds into the peculiar nickel boom of the late 1960s. They ended up with wallpaper called Poseidon shares, Andrew ended up with the Baker’s Dozen.) Wiring, plumbing and even flooring were failing in Number Seven even as Andrew busied himself with renovations on the other dwellings. And still Jean Taplin would not leave.
Not that Andrew Essig had insisted! He had a nose, a flair when it came to that familiar enemy and quarry: the tenant. He knew after his first encounter with Jean Taplin that she would not be going easily. He did not press her in the slightest. When she began to complain of the state her premises, she encountered an Everest of putty: the famous Essig inertia. As his voice faded to a hiss and his eyes found empty space and the vaguest of smiles and shrugs indicated both his good intentions and poverty of funds, Andrew Essig was thinking of ways to extract this last thorn from his tender investment.
Andrew had known a few Jean Taplins through his work, and knew that they could be like the oysters and limpets along the shores of nearby Sydney Harbour. A flimsy-bodied woman with a hard, suspicious stare and a mouth set in irony, Jean was what the locals called a “pea-sheller”: one of those women who daily meet other women in Ladies Lounges of inner-city pubs to drink beer and shell peas for an evening dinner of rolled shoulder, spuds, green beans…and peas! Such women vote Labor, do not communicate with policemen, dream of plump time-keeper jobs for their sons and also serve as intermediaries when goods missing from the wharves – ah, the pre-container days! – need a discreet new home. For refugee Andrew Essig, socialist thievery was the only thievery – the rest was mere business – and the dying breed of Jean Taplins, of wharfie wives, could not die soon enough. Not that he would ever say it aloud, or say anything at all aloud.
Andrew did not show his hand by putting the least pressure on the lady. He thought of contracting the services of Paul Kleinlich, specialist in imaginative tenant extractions, but then thought of the cost and of Paul Kleinlich’s insistence on prompt payment. Prompt payment was something so foreign to every moral and instinct of Andrew Essig; alas, it was something insisted upon by Paul Kleinlich’s famous “cricket bat man”.
But if Paul Kleinlich showed imagination in removing protected tenants, why should Andrew Essig not do the like?
As Andrew was checking wiring in the cellar of a dwelling adjacent to Number Seven, he noted that other wiring passed through the wall and into the cellar of Number Seven. Out of curiosity, he tugged on it. It seemed to come a bit loose, so he carefully pushed it forward again. He knew that rats can cause electrical cable to lose contact by fractional separation, and a little jiggling can cause power to be intermittent.
As he was leaving that evening, he was stopped at his car by Mrs. Taplin, who had evidently been waiting for him.
“Oy, what happened to my power, Mr. Landlord?”
“Eh?…Oh, hi, Mrs. Taplin. Nice to see…Didn’t notice…Getting colder at nights now…Sorry, missed what you said. Years of renovation dust in these old ears…Should have picked an easier line of work, something cleaner that pays a bit better…”
“I asked you what happened to my power! My power went on and off when I was making lunch.”
“Eh? Power? On and off? Oh, gee, anything can cause that…anything at all…Satellites…They say satellites can…Even sunspots, they say…”
She moved closer to save raising her voice, as if her next words needed to be confidential:
“You haven’t disturbed the Weeper, have you?”
“Eh? Disturbed? Someone disturbed?”
She fixed him with her hardest glare, then seemed to decide that, just this once, Andrew was not feigning incomprehension. As she moved away:
“Well, some things are best not talked about. But you mind what you are doing, Mr. Landlord. This is my home. We know how to look after ourselves around these docks. My husband once threw a rotten lamb chop at Joe Lyons…Would’ve got old Joe in the eye if a copper hadn’t jumped in front…You mind…”
Two days later, as Andrew was moving new timber into one of the gutted dwellings, a local invalid pensioner, Perc Grundy, who had been too drunk even for the wharves, followed Andrew inside, looked about, then whistled.
“Holy Jeez…you’ve made some changes to old Wal’s place. You must have a good quid…All this new timber…”
Andrew, though quietly furious at the intrusion, went straight into role:
“Ah…g’day there. Ah…wish it was my money, not some bank’s. Ah…Look, I might have to ask you to clear the decks…You know, liability, insurance…All these crazy new laws…And I can only afford the minimum cover…Don’t want to be rude…”
“Oy, you’re not disturbing the Weeper, are you?”
Again, the Weeper! Andrew felt it was time to know more, especially since the information was free.
“Weeper…I’ve heard that mentioned…Don’t know what it is…”
“Well, you should! You telling me you really don’t know? You bought in here without knowing?”
“The Weeper, old mate, was the wife of some Pommie officer who lived here when it was naval property, way, way back. She was an older woman he’d married back in Pommie land. They say he married her because her father was some sort of admiral or lord or something.
“After a bit, he took up with some flash convict sheila who’d served out her term and he wanted to marry her before some other officer did. Weren’t many flash numbers around in those days. You didn’t wait and swap posies and all that. The girlfriend must have given him an ultimatum.
“Word is, he strangled the wife and buried her in one of these cellars.”
“Cellars? Which one?”
“Nobody knows. He was the superintendent of all the properties in the row, or whatever they called a superintendent in those days. Being a marine, he got to stay long term, while the other houses were short term for sea-going officers.
“Anyway, another officer – the one who was chasing his girlfriend the hardest – put in some sort of accusation to the governor. They dug up all the cellars that didn’t have tenants at the time, then even the ones which did, including the Pommie officer’s own place of course. No luck! In the end they blamed the blacks. Later, after he moved his girlfriend in, she stabbed the officer to death, and no bugger knows why!…They hung her, of course.”
“Oh, for years there were stories about how you could hear the dead wife weeping in the walls. Theory is, that’s what sent the second wife mad and drove her to murder…
“Anyroads, we reckon that’s why they made the place cheap and rent-controlled. Otherwise people wouldn’t live here. Jeez…You didn’t know? Look, old mate, I wouldn’t mind a beer later and pension’s late again. Dunno what those government blokes do with our money…You wouldn’t have a dollar or two?”
“Ah…no…sorry…nothing. Spent my last few cents on some bread for tonight. Only wish I could afford something to put on the bread…Cost of living’s gone crazy, don’t you think?…Look, I’ve got a little green cordial with me…It’s not very strong…”
Like all good actors, Andrew Essig could play a character in whom he half-believed: he could be vague and unresponsive even toward himself. It was not in his role to go to the cellar of the house attached to Number Seven and begin deliberately to tamper; rather, he played at tampering, tampered by accident, by improv. He began to scrape away some ancient mortar through which the wiring ran. If he should cause the odd power cut by pulling on the cable, that was not his intention. If this was some sort of incentive for Jan Taplin to finally leave, well…
Once he had cleared a hole through to the other side, Andrew shone a torch, though only quickly, since he was not one to waste batteries. What he saw was of great interest. The wiring ran upward into a brick cavity, result of the extra care and quality put into the construction of the terrace row more than a century before. This lucky observation helped to crystallise a little plan he had only half-entertained till that moment. The cavity would be just large enough to fit a small speaker, one which did not need bass, and which Andrew could easily adapt after stripping it from a discarded radio.
Now he reached an uncomfortable point where he could no longer pretend to himself that he was not planning a prank which was less than legal.
Within a day, he had that small speaker secured in the cavity. It was then a simple matter to run the speaker wire back through the hole between the two cellars and to replace the mortar.
At the other end of the wire was a tape recorder, under Andrew’s control. It was also a simple matter to run power from upstairs to the tape machine and to have the power on a wall plug timer which Andrew had borrowed from an electrician acquaintance. (Why buy for a one-off?)
He did not explain to his wife and son why he had wanted them to make sobbing noises into a tape machine. Neither would ever have asked, knowing their curiosity would run up against Andrew’s legendary wall of inertia and vagueness.
After some experiment, it was his son’s voice which gave the most realistic female sob.
Andrew did not exaggerate. He would occasionally try to make the power go on and off in Number Seven by jiggling the cable, then he would run the sobbing tape. At night, when he was absent, he would time the tape to come on around ten o’clock, when the occupant was likely to be still awake. But not every night. No need to exaggerate, and maybe wear out a good tape.
Was it working? He did not know, did not try to find out. Mrs. Taplin did not approach him. One night, as he was leaving the renovations around 8pm, he noticed that there were no lights on in Number Seven.
On subsequent nights, no lights in Number Seven.
At the end of the rental fortnight, no rent was paid into his bank account for Number Seven.
Andrew wasted no time. He rang Jean Taplin’s number at various hours. No reply.
He went twice to the premises in the company of a Justice of the Peace, a local upholster who hoped to get some business from or through Andrew, reacting to some typically vague Essig promises.
Mrs. Taplin did not come to the door. In the presence of the Justice, he placed a note under her door, requesting payment.
Over the next fortnight, same thing. No rent, no replies to phone calls or knocks. No lights on at night. Though Andrew had his own set of keys to enter the premises, he chose more discretion. He entered the Ladies Saloon of Jean Taplin’s usual pub at three in the afternoon and approached the group of older wharfie wives who sat shelling peas, as always.
“Ah…hi there…Sorry to disturb. I…ah…Sorry about dust…Been renovating up at the Baker’s Dozen…Dust gets into everything, doesn’t it?…Should have picked a cleaner job where the pay’s better. I…ah…was wondering if any of you have seen Mrs. Jean Taplin…Just hoping she’s okay…Haven’t seen her about…”
“You her landlord?”
The woman who shot the question was broad and imposing, evidently the queen of the circle.
“Ah…yeh…Andrew’s the name. I’m the owner now…Or the bank that owns me owns the place…You know how it is…Banks these days…”
“It’s a dry argument, Mr. Andrew.”
The plump woman gestured around the table.
“All these ladies will take a middy of New. Except Dot there. She’s drinking that Millers dishwater. I’ll have a double Scotch. Barman knows how I like it.”
It was a moment of terror for Andrew: the unforeseen expense pounding down on him like a truck that leaves the curb and crashes into a carefully arranged display window. None of these women knew the terror they had inspired, but Andrew knew when he could resist his ancient enemy, Outlay, and when a quick, dignified surrender was the only choice.
“Middies…Millers…ah…in a bottle…whisky…double whisky…”
“Scotch! Tell the barman it’s for Daphne. He’ll know.”
When Andrew had brought all the drinks back from the bar – including a small “pony” of beer for himself – the old women had cleared a space for him to sit with them. He squeezed down in front of a sheet of the Sydney Morning Herald, piled with pea shells.
“Look…ah, as I was saying…I have a key to enter Mrs. Taplin’s premises…but I…ah…don’t like that sort of…ah…intrusion…ah…”
“Won’t matter. She’s not there. Hasn’t been there. Won’t be going back.” It was Dot, the frail lady who had taken the bottle of Millers.
“She’s gone. Her health’s broke. Gone to live with her sister up Port Tench way. What’s that town called? Hat Point. She’s gone to live at Hat Point.”
“I…ah…see. It’s just that the phone is still connected though the…ah…power may be disconnected and…”
“Won’t matter. I’m her oldest mate and I can tell you she’s gone. Health broke. I’d go further and say: last legs!” The woman leaned forward a little, as if to tell a secret. “I’m not blaming you, but someone or something disturbed…well, something. You can make up your mind about who or what did the disturbing, and who or what got disturbed. And that’s what broke Jeanie’s health. I’m not saying any more. I don’t want to end up in Callan Park. But I know what I know. And others around these wharves know what I know.”
The other women nodded a little, as if understanding all too well.
Perhaps Andrew felt a twinge of guilt. Perhaps he had simply heard enough. He did not press. It was time to know nothing again.
“Ah…look…I’d better get on with it. So sorry to…ah…hear about Mrs. Taplin’s health. Maybe…ah…some sea air? You never know…Port Tench area…Nice pub, this, but…ah…Got plaster being delivered…One thing after another when you renovate…Thanks for all your help…ah…”
“Finish your beer, love? You haven’t touched it. If you don’t want it, I could use it as a chaser for my scotch. But you’re probably thirsty after eating dust all day…”
“Ah…yeh…ah…no…please…do. You take it…ah…Daphne.”
Andrew had in fact intended to drink his beer down quickly, but the Profit which had just dawned meekly on his financial horizon – along with a vague need to make amends to someone, somehow? – pushed him to this sudden lavishness.
Andrew Essig would be able to sell the Bakers Dozen, fully renovated and with vacant possession, in a single line. With the spring market approaching!
The law was simple. No communication, no rent paid and complete absence from the premises for more than twenty eight days constituted termination of the protected lease. It was essential that the last two conditions be met. With two fortnights of rent unpaid and numerous witnesses to his tenant’s absence, it was simply a matter of waiting a few more days, then submitting relevant paperwork to authorities. After that Andrew could enter the premises and strike. He intended to divert all resources into Number Seven and have it fixed up within a week so that it was on a par with all the other dwellings in the row. With luck, an eager October buyer would save him the trouble of finishing the entire project then having to sell in individual units after converting to strata title.
It just meant toiling around the clock.
The twenty eight days were soon up. Andrew entered the premises with his spare key. While he was irritated that the power had indeed been disconnected, and that he would therefore have to lead in cords from an adjacent dwelling, he was relieved to have further confirmation that the premises had been deserted by the tenant. Whether or not the phone had been cancelled, there was no telephone to be found in the house. He felt he could delay changing locks and risking damage to the handsome old front door, fashioned long ago from local hardwood, back when Sydney had its forests.
In the space of a morning, the place was jammed with new timber, whitegoods, fittings, plaster sheeting…all waiting to be installed in one furious week of work. What possessions of Jean Taplin could not be pushed out of the way were consigned to the cellar. Some could be sold off later in lieu of rent, and some, of course, might find some use in the Essig household.
Andrew worked long hours alone through the first two days. For certain jobs he would call in trade specialists, but he knew how to do most things without help, and, in those less regulated times, he usually did so. The face he turned to the world was vague and inert, when not that of a bumbling misfit; the Andrew who applied hand and mind to a practical task was a model of thrift, speed and precision. Work compelled Andrew Essig not just to honesty but to what can only be called a harmony with the laws of motion, force and resistance. In working and crafting, he became.
Yet this gliding efficiency left his mind with some room for thought, and a few of those thoughts were guilty. Had he, by his little prank with the tape and speaker, affected Jean Taplin’s health? More than affected? How healthy had the woman seemed before? But surely her place was with family now – and where better than near Port Tench? And yet…
In little rests he allowed himself, Andrew began to sense…what? Was there a whiff of something old and female? A residue? Something more than a residue?
He gave himself fewer rests.
One night he returned late to the premises to unload a powerful new electrical saw. (He had borrowed it from a tradesman still so young as to believe that Andrew was about to involve him in some grand plans.)
Upon entering with the heavy piece, he was struck by that odour. What was it? It put him in mind of lavender soap, baked goods, sherry, patchouli…things old and female.
He put the saw down and decided to leave immediately. As he turned to go, he heard a high squealing sound. Or did he hear it? He listened again. There it came, but fainter. A sound, like the squeal of a rodent. No, something lower than a squeal. Something like hiccups. Or like the settling of new laid timber. Or like…something else.
Andrew knew how to make his mind blank. He did so now. Then he left.
The following day Andrew worked fast and noisily. He hummed, he kept windows open, he avoided quiet moments.
The next day he brought in an old transistor and listened to talk back radio. The temperamental star host of the era, John Pearce, appealed to the hard-nosed migrant boy, but Andrew seldom allowed himself such distraction – or the expenditure on batteries – in work hours.
When he was not careful, he would inhale that odour. Especially at night, he found himself too alert to noises of any kind.
Back at home, in the family’s Rozelle bungalow which was awaiting sale, Andrew continued to feel uneasy, slept poorly. He needed to get the work done, and the Bakers Dozen sold!
One morning he noticed something in the renovation dust from the night before: marks which looked like footprints but which were not his. They were slender prints…if, of course, they were prints. He thought of all the various things which he had moved about the day before and decided that the marks were made by the two little timber ends he had been using as chocks under a trestle. Of course. That was it.
He swept the marks away, reprimanding himself for being so distracted that he had not swept up on the previous night, something which he always did as ritual and which was an important aid in starting a new day’s work well. Lowering standards? Ah, to have done with the Bakers Dozen and Number Seven!
Later that day he had the urge, so strange for him, to go to the Ladies Saloon of that corner pub and enquire after Jean Taplin. But surely, if there had been contact or some message concerning the lady’s health, one of her friends would have come to him. Because it was certainly that lady who was on his mind too much. Yes, Andrew regretted his prank. Jean Taplin was on his mind too much, and he was too aware of her lingering presence.
It was not some other female presence, surely…
Oh, to have done!
As so often happened with his deft cadgings, Andrew’s loan of the expensive new electrical saw ran its term, then greatly exceeded its term. He had made a week of the two days agreed upon, and was sure that the young tradie would not accept further delay. A very sharp phone call had made it clear.
With work all but completed on Number Seven, Andrew was now obliged to go back there at eleven at night to pick up the saw. It was an obligation he could have done without. For a moment he thought of asking his wife to accompany him, ostensibly just to show her the premises. But the hour was too late. She would have guessed that his motive was not simple, and since he could barely explain his fear to himself…
He would open the door, walk in, pick up the saw, and walk out. Ten seconds. (Pity about the extra fuel to get to and from!)
He got out of his truck with almost too much speed and determination, as if something was urgent. Clearly, provided the aggressive young tradie got his equipment back in his Balmain shed some time that night, nothing was actually urgent.
Approaching the door of Number Seven, Andrew found his eyes attracted to the one front window of the dwelling. There was reflection on it. A reflection, or…
The faintest of lights seemed to glow from within. It was so faint that he needed to stare hard, his face almost pressed to the glass. Then he was unwilling to stare any longer.
Andrew Essig came as close to losing composure as it was possible – for Andrew Essig, that is. He turned about and stared inconsequentially into the night sky, taking deep breaths. Now he turned again.
The faint light was still glowing. But was he sure it was not a reflection, an odd effect caused by street lighting, not noticed previously? After all, he had never looked this hard before. And the glow was so faint, seeming to come and go.
Yes, it moved. Or it flickered. No, it moved.
Again he turned and looked skyward. More deep breaths.
He needed to get that saw back tonight, especially now he had come all this way – and had used the fuel to get here.
A light was a just a light, after all. He would walk up to the door, open it, and do what he came to do.
He turned about and, without casting another glance at the window, stepped up to the door. Just in the quiet moment before he inserted the key he heard a sound from within. Like the light, it was faint. He had heard it before. It was like that sound of a rodent squealing, or of some tight timber settling, or hiccups, or…
He turned and leaned his back against the door, wincing. stiffening, ears cocked. The sound was no longer audible. Andrew slowed his breathing and looked up. He then turned and pressed one ear right to the door. No sound.
Here was a turning point and he knew it. To retreat now would bring more fear than to advance.
Speed! Make a racket!
He thrust the key into the lock, opened the antique door more lustily than he might have done at another time, and strode inside.
Immediately he regretted not having the power available at the door, and not having a flash. He would have to advance into the lounge room to connect the cords so he could see…
Yet there was a faint light within – and it seemed to be glowing outward from the lounge room. It was the light he had seen from outside!
All Andrew could do was blunder quickly forward, to resolve…to have done. Just as he reached the end of the corridor he tripped on a plaster bucket and went hurtling forward, just keeping his feet.
As soon as he regained balance he turned to face whatever was in the lounge room.
In the middle of a small table a kerosene safety lamp was burning low. By the side of the table, two placidly seated figures. He squinted. Two women, one slight, the other broad.
Jean Taplin and Daphne, the queen of the pea-shellers’ circle.
Andrew could not compose himself enough to mumble. His speech actually flowed and was clear:
“What’s going on? This is trespass!”
Jean Taplin exchanged an amused, if sour, glance with Queen Daphne, who merely shrugged with her great bulk.
“Can’t trespass in my own home, Mr. Landlord. You want a sherry? Maybe a cup of tea? We have little sherry parties here every few nights.”
“Whatever you used to do here is finished!”
“You…you left the place! This lady here told me so! You vacated! Your friend here said…”
“Daph, did you say I’d left the place?”
“Me? Nah. Dot said you’d gone away. Wharfies’ wives, eh? Tell you anything.”
“Anyway, Mr. Landlord, hope we didn’t scare you with our giggling the other night when you came in late with that big saw. We went down to the cellar to keep out of the way. Never know when a healthy, burly bloke like you is going to come round with a girlfriend on the sly…
“Sorry to disconnect the power and hold back the rent…but when a bloke’s tearing up your floors and ripping out your bathroom without notice…Still, it’ll be worth it to have a few mod cons, eh, Daph? In fact, the rent’s pretty cheap. Being protected and all. I’ll drop the arrears into your account once you clear out all the mess.”
“What do you mean without notice? You weren’t here! A month’s vacancy means…”
Jean Taplin pointed to an object on the table. It was a small camera with flash. She turned up the wick of the lamp till the light was at maximum. Now she spread a pile of photographs across the table. Andrew approached and peered down. Each photo showed Jean Taplin seated exactly where she was now, holding up a headline from the Daily Mirror.
“That’s no proof of anything! You could have taken these photos tonight!”
“I dunno. This room changed a lot over five weeks. Photos seem to show it. “
Jean Taplin now held up a printed docket.
“Chemist down the corner thought we were mad getting film developed every few days. But we wanted to put a date on precious memories, didn’t we, Daph?
“And before you say anything else, Mr. Landlord, I’ll add that I took a photo of a funny little radio speaker somebody stuck in my cavity wall, down in the cellar…
“Made a noise just like….well, just like a crackly little radio does!”
Those who delight in the undoing of the acquisitive and industrious may be disappointed by a little postlude. (But the industrious are never beaten for long or by much, whatever the writers and readers of stories may wish!)
After a half minute of consideration, Andrew Essig had accepted his situation. Seconds after that, he was himself. Regaining that legendary vagueness and inertia, he pointed to a just opened bottle of milk which had been used for making tea.
“Ah…look…We’ll…ah…work things out…I’m sure…The banks have got one of my legs…may as well give ’em the other…Got a mountain of things to do before bed…ah…Just remembered there’s no milk at home…Son’s got this calcium thing…Needs milk…I wouldn’t know…I just pay the doctor…If you could spare a bit of milk…ah…”
That night, Andrew drove home – after delivering the electrical saw to its peeved owner in Balmain – with almost an entire bottle of milk, which, just half an hour before, had been the exclusive property of Mrs Jean Taplin,