Some followers may recognise parts of this story from another context but I decided recently to take it in a different direction.
The inevitable intrusion came. Bruce opened the door swiftly, startling the middle-aged man in the high-viz jacket planted on the verandah, bearing a six-pack.
He closed the door again, just as swiftly. Mission accomplished. By this evening, the word would be around to not bother with that rude, ungrateful sod at old Mrs. Carmody’s place.
Bruce had moved to the sparsely populated country town in retirement to get away from the city and the myriad forms of daily violence and indifference that assaulted his senses. He’d inexorably been alienated by everything from cacophonous music in shopping centres, rage-filled drivers, screen-obsessed automatons, steroid-level entitlement and discourse that always seemed to end in abuse.
All he craved was silence and isolation since his wife Grace’s death ended the only worthwhile conversation left in his universe. His modest savings stretched to a small, solidly built weatherboard cottage and he’d calculated that he had enough to last him into decrepitude without needing to entrap himself in the increasingly totalitarian welfare system. He had his castle and his solitude was his keep.
He would write, grow vegetables, chop wood and read until his silence became permanent. He would keep his social interactions to the minimum required to meet the necessities of existence but not meet the social contract to exchange meaningless drivel while he was doing so. No TV and no radio and no newspapers meant that he would be aware of Armageddon when it reached his doorstep.
He withdrew cash for his needs, using his passbook, at the post office. He had no computer and no email address, so most of the world had no idea he existed, let alone how to invade and steal his time and space.
He hoped the postal service would tarry through his remaining years, providing the conduit for his writing to reach the ever-diminishing audience for such anachronistic pursuits. Yes, he would continue to ‘speak’ but on his own terms. All mail except utility bills and rate notices would be marked ‘Return to Sender, No Longer At This Address’.
Bruce’s only form of human entertainment these days was Julie, the postie. Well, not so much Julie herself but her reports of the never-ending cavalcade of rumours about him that circulated throughout the country town where he’d chosen to end his days.
Each weekday he’d wait for the putt-putt of her scooter and meet her at the letterbox. Most days there was no actual mail but she would pretend to rummage through her pannier bags for show. You never knew who might be watching.
Their ‘relationship’ began shortly after he moved in to the never-renovated cottage, with its rambling over-grown garden and mature, if neglected, fruit trees. He was in the process of hacking away mercilessly at a jasmine vine that threatened to engulf two of the only four windows in the cottage and create darkness at noon.
‘That was Mrs. Carmody’s pride and joy once. Loved the smell.’ He looked up to see a helmeted, fleuro-vested figure astride a low-powered motorbike stuffing junk mail into his letterbox. ‘What else are you going to do to the place?’ She waited briefly and then filled Bruce’s silence with ‘Mrs. Delaney reckons you’re gunna gut the place and tizzy it all up.’ Bruce turned back to his hatchet job on the jasmine and she rode off. Thus began a comfortable, if eccentric, exchange between Bruce’s silence and the speculations that Julie carried in her bags.
The girls on the checkout at the IGA, after briefly entertaining the idea that he was just a rude old bastard like everybody said, thought he must be a mute because he never spoke, even when they asked him what he had planned for the day. He would simply pay and nod and leave. By the end of the month it had become established fact that he’d had throat cancer and had his voice box removed. Reactions ranged from pity to castigation for having persisted with smoking when he knew the risks.
The publican, based on the irrefutable evidence that Bruce never visited the pub (not even the bottle shop), concluded that Bruce was clearly a dry alcoholic hiding from his past. The drinking and the smoking was obviously what had brought on the throat cancer. By the end of the month, it was an established fact that Bruce’s wife had left him because of his drinking. And probably gambling as well, but that was only a rumour mind.
One morning, Bruce woke from a coma-like sleep, brought on by unfamiliar exercise, to the sound of insistent knocking. Threading his arms into his dressing gown, he girded his loins to see off his intrusive neighbour. Flinging the door open, he found the space filled by blue serge with sergeant stripes.
‘Morning. Thought I’d drop by and introduce myself.’ The face had a professional smile but the eyes said otherwise. ‘Sergeant Adrian Stynes.’
Stynes said ‘And you would be?’
Bruce held up his hand to indicate to wait for a moment and returned with a notepad with his name written on it.
‘Some people in the district have expressed concerns’ he shouted, until Bruce pointed to his ears and gave a thumbs up sign and then in a normal voice ‘.. about your welfare and asked me to look in on you.’
Bruce wrote ‘As you can see, I’m vertical, recently clean shaven and obviously not suffering from malnutrition.’
‘Thirsty work, policing. Any chance of a cup of tea?’
Bruce shook his head.
Stynes heel-and-toed his sturdy leather shoes and the smallest of creases appeared in the corner of his mouth.
‘See you around, Bruce, if it’s OK to call you that.’
A non-committal Bruce closed the door.
After watching Stynes depart, Bruce treated himself to an extended breakfast before heading outside to attend to his nascent veg patch. He knew enough to know that the spring soil, having not long come off winter, was still too cold for planting. Besides, he wanted to dig in some manure and compost to the depleted ground. And there was still the fence to repair to keep out the roos and the rabbits and the odd livestock escapee
He was breaking up some hardened topsoil with a mattock when he heard Julie’s bike and he went to the letterbox. ‘Hear that the Sarge dropped in. What’d he want?’ Silence. ‘Kev down at the servo thought it was probably just an outstanding speeding fine. Or a warrant.’ Silence. ‘Be good to see the garden tidied up. Mrs. Carmody would like that.’ And she rode off.
Of course, Julie was now the go-to person for all matters of local curiosity about Bruce, which she enjoyed immensely. ‘What does he say to you?’ ‘Nothin’.’ ‘Well, what sort of mail does he get?’ ‘You know I can’t tell you that!’ ‘D’ya reckon he’s still got cancer?’ ‘How the hell would I know?’ ‘Well, from the letters and that?’ Julie was too experienced to fall for that one.
Besides, although ‘fond’ would be too strong a word, she’d come to feel a little protective of Bruce. When she heard that a couple of local druggies had been overheard talking about a plan to roll him for his cash, she started her own rumour that he often did his gardening wearing a sandy-coloured beret and when he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt you could just make out a Who Dares Wins SAS tattoo on his upper right arm. Bruce would have been highly amused at that if he’d ever known but, given that Julie was his sole source of intelligence, he never would.
Over time, the town exhausted all the possibilities that interested them and bored indifference settled around the position of Bruce in their community. He’d been relegated to a ‘character’ and that suited him just fine.
But then they came. He opened the door to a sharp, urgent rap. Two rumpled suits with unknotted ties showed him badges. ‘Bruce Arthur Goodman, I am Detective Inspector Gorman and this is Detective Sergeant Willis. I am arresting you on suspicion of the murder of Grace Anne Goodman on or about February 17 last year. You do not have to say anything …’
Bruce knew the rest and he didn’t plan on saying anything at all.
In the interview room, handcuffs removed, Gorman pressed Record on the tape. ‘Mr. Goodman, for the purposes of the tape, do you agree that you have waived the right to have a solicitor present at this interview?’ Bruce nodded. ‘For the purposes of this tape, Mr. Goodman has nodded his assent.’ Willis chimed in ‘ For the purposes of this tape, do you agree that you have waived your right to a sign language interpreter?’ Bruce smiled and nodded. ‘For the purposes of this tape, Mr. Goodman has nodded his assent.’
Gorman leaned back in his chair and said wearily. “Why’d you do it, Bruce? Was she rootin’ someone else? That would set me off. Wouldn’t it set you off, Detective Sergeant Willis?’ ‘It would indeed.’ Willis responded.
‘There’s a pen and paper in front of you, Bruce, if there’s anything you’d like to say’ Gorman offered.
‘I suppose you want to know how we twigged it was murder, not suicide. Don’t you, Bruce?’
‘Ya see, we were never convinced. So we got a second autopsy done. The puncture marks between her toes and the drug traces in the liver they missed first time round. Conclusive the coroner says.’
‘We know you can’t talk’ Gorman said all faux friendly and pushing the pen and paper closer to Bruce. ‘The locals told us about your throat cancer. But, in my experience, it’s better in the long run to just get it off your chest. Because of your age and your service to your country, you’ll do time in a cushy open prison and you’ll be out in five years. Waddya say?’
‘Now listen here, Bruce. I’ve been patient so far but now you’re givin’ me the fuckin’ shits. Tell me what happened or I’m throwin’ you in the cells with the drunks and the queers.’
‘Alright, we’ll do this the hard way. Where were you on the night of February 17 last year.’
Bruce wrote ‘I was out at a business meeting until 7pm and when I returned home I found my wife on the floor in the kitchen. I called an ambulance but she was dead by the time they arrived.’
‘Did you attempt to revive her?’
Bruce wrote ‘I didn’t know how.’ Gorman and Willis both laughed. ‘You didn’t know how? You must have seen it on the TV and given it a crack!’
Bruce wrote nothing else. He knew this was a fishing expedition. He knew that there was no second autopsy. Grace’s illness was terminal and she’d found a way to get the drugs she needed and he’d found a plausible way not to be around. Gorman and Willis were on a mission to make someone pay for having the temerity to end their days as they chose. With Grace dead, Bruce was the logical scapegoat but they needed a confession.
Later that night, Bruce was released without charge. As he was leaving the Police station, Gorman snarled ‘I know you done it, Bruce, and I’m not lettin’ this go. So stick that up your silence.’
After that, Bruce no longer appeared at the letterbox. The next rumour started when the smell from old Mrs. Carmody’s cottage became unmistakable.