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Clement's Corner: Almost Murder

“I think I killed a bloke today. A decent bloke too.”…

There’s a fascinating tale hiding behind those two sentences, as Owen Clement reveals.

The jingle of coins and the whirr of the slot machine’s tumblers reflected the tumultuous thoughts going through Lawrie’s head. The stack of dollar coins had dwindled to a mere handful when he lay his head down onto the flashing machine. No tears flowed, but his sense of guilt and shame overwhelmed him.

“You okay mate?” A stranger put a hand on Lawrie’s shoulder.

Lawrie leaned back and nodded. “Yeah, I’m okay, thanks.”

“What say I get you a drink?” The fatherly man did not believe Lawrie’s protestations.

“Thanks, but I’d better be going,” Lawrie said as he gathered up his coins.

“You my lad, “the stranger continued, “are in no shape to be one your own. I can see that you got big problems.”

Lawrie studied the old man and was briefly taken aback at his resemblance to Ernie.

They were both in their late eighties and, like Ernie; a few unruly strands of white hair covered a shiny pate. His lined weathered face and pale grey hooded eyes showed that he too was a man of the land. He and Ernie had a similar soft sandpapery voice.

“The name’s Stan Murphy.” He said holding out a powerful freckled hand.

“Lawrie Newman.” Lawrie said feeling his hand crushed warmly.

Stan led the way to a window overlooking the lush tropical garden.

‘What’ll it be?”

“A light ale, thanks.” Lawrie said as he slumped into a comfortable padded chair.

Stan soon returned with Lawrie’s light ale and a schooner of Toohey’s Old for himself.

They sat sipping in silence for a few minutes.

“Hope you don’t think I’m prying, but you looked pretty low back there.”

“I think I killed a bloke today. A decent bloke too.”

He spoke so softly that the old man barely heard him.

‘You think you killed him, you say!”

“Yes – well, not actually, if you know what I mean, but I believe I was responsible just the same.”

“Look son, how about you tell me about it. I’m not the sort to shoot my mouth off if it don’t concern me.”

Lawrie placed his glass on the coaster and sat forward.

“It’s a long story.”

“That’s okay; I’ve all the time in the world.”

Lawrie explained that it all began when he met Ernie’s brother Bill in the local pub. Bill had complained about Ernie’s property being worth a fortune and of Ernie doing nothing about it.

Being a real estate agent and member of a developer syndicate Lawrie’s ears pricked up.

Ernie’s property, Bill said, was the last remaining section of his parent’s pioneering subsistence farm. A large holding they had acquired when the area was nothing but scrub. His father had cleared it by dragging a chain between two bullock teams.

After his parents’ death, all the other children had gradually sold off the lots they inherited. Only Ernie held onto his share, which was located just north of town and covered over a hundred acres.

One hundred acres of cleared land just north of town that could be subdivided into four hundred or thereabouts quarter-acre lots. With today’s prices each lot could easily fetch twenty, thirty or even forty thousand dollars. Even a fool, Lawrie realized, could work out that millions of dollars were involved.

Lawrie ensured that Bill went home that night not remembering much of what had transpired. To keep him going, Lawrie, no slouch where alcohol was concerned, was forced to consume more than he would have wished.

The next morning he examined his acne-marked face, his coated tongue and puffy eyes in the bathroom mirror. He sometimes wondered if there was some Mongol blood in his ancestry as he saw definite signs of the beginnings of an epicanthic fold.

He had a cold shower followed by drinking two cups of strong scalding black coffee laced with “the hair of the dog”.

He set off feeling marginally better with Bill’s directions neatly jotted down onto a pad placed on the seat beside him.

He drove his brand new four-wheel off-road Toyota Land Cruiser following the directions which read, “Turn off onto Bark Hut Road. Drive exactly three kilometres. Turn into Loggers road number 419 and drive another two kilometres until you see a falling down cattle crush and holding yard. Drive over a cattle grid till you get to a timber five bar gate.”

Satisfying himself first with quick walk around to check that his vehicle had escaped being scratching, he removed his jacket, his tie and rolled up his cuffs a couple of folds to appear less citified. He chuckled to himself when he momentarily stuck a blade of grass between his teeth.

He strolled up to the gate and surveyed the open rolling cleared land. A tree-lined creek ran across the southern corner into a dam. Clumps of gum trees were scattered about, each with a few cattle sheltering beneath from the burning sun.

A raised rectangular cabin sat on a rise square in the middle of the property. There was no sign of either power lines or telephone wires in sight. Cords of timber were stacked from floor to roof along the inside wall of the north-facing veranda. Kindling was stacked against the eastern wall. The outside looked freshly painted with Mission Brown oil stain. The corrugated iron roof was rusty but otherwise in good shape. A corrugated iron water tank stood on a stand at one corner.

Then he noticed Ernie sitting at a small wooden table on the veranda watching him.

“Hello there.” Lawrie called out as he moved through the gate towards the house.
At the bottom of the steps he said, “Good morning; great day.”

“G’day.” Ernie replied.

“The name’s Lawrie Newman, mind if I come up?”

“What do you’se want?” Ernie’s expression was guarded.

Lawrie climbed the steps and as he reached the veranda he turned and gazed out at the landscape.

“Must take a lot of work looking after all this!” His rhetorical question was not lost on Ernie, who offered no comment.

“Do you live out here on your own?” Lawrie said using a different tack to get his prospective client to open up.

“Yep, since me dog “Bluey” died. You’d best come inside” he said as he rose to escort Lawrie into the cabin.

He wore well-scrubbed dungarees and a checked brushed-cotton shirt. Like his clothes, Ernie also looked well scrubbed and emitted a faint odour of Lifebuoy soap.

The cabin was a very simple affair. In one corner just inside the front door at right angles to each other sat two old padded armchairs. In the opposite corner was Ernie’s neatly made up cot covered by a plaid mohair blanket and a two-door upright wardrobe. Between the bed and a kitchen sink was a lit freshly blackened cast-iron stove making the room a great deal warmer than the steamy conditions outside.

Lawrie sat slumped with his elbows on the arms of the chair his fingers locked together. Looking around he could not help comparing this place with his own apartment of designer furniture and walls lined with expensive modern works of art. The only picture, and from what he could see, and the only new item on the wall, was this year’s calender from a stock agent bearing a reproduction of a rural scene.

On the table beside the bed stood a kerosene lamp and in the centre of the kitchen table was a pressure lamp. Lawrie had previously only ever seen pictures of this last item.

Ernie pulled over a chair from under the kitchen table and sat down facing Lawrie indicating that he was in no rush to hear what Lawrie had to say.

“Sorry to barge in uninvited like this, but I couldn’t telephone you. The thing is, I heard that you might be thinking of selling your property.” He continued without interruption, “As I was saying, this place must take a lot of work to look after. Don’t you find it a bit much sometimes?”

Ernie nodded and said, “Yeh, but, you know – I manage okay.”

“If you sold, you could buy virtually anything you want you know, a place by the sea, where it’s cooler, more pleasant. You could get household help. You would be a rich man.”

“Like you, you mean?”

“Oh, I’m not rich – just comfortable. Nothing like you could be, my friend.” As soon as he said, “my friend” he wondered if it was a mistake.

Ernie apparently unaware of Lawrie’s discomfort said, “Come back with some details and I’ll think about it.”

“I’ll get back to you shortly.” Lawrie said as he pulled himself up with difficulty realizing that Ernie had either consciously or unconsciously put him at a disadvantage by having him lower down and mentally ticked himself off for allowing it to happen.

They shook hands and Lawrie left. He gave a wave from the gate, which Ernie half-heartedly acknowledged.

This was one sale he would have to clinch and soon, Lawrie decided.

Intrigued by Ernie, he began to investigate his prospective client with the local shopkeepers where Ernie acquired his weekly requirements.

Ernie’s purchases remarkably were almost incredibly consistent. At the grocers his order rarely varied each week of a pound of carrots, two pounds of potatoes, half a Queensland Blue pumpkin, a pound of brown rice, a pound of sugar, a half a pound of loose Bushell’s tea leaves and a bag of boiled lollies. Sometimes he included a tin of golden syrup, a bar of washing soap, a cake of Lifebuoy soap or a tube of toothpaste.

He always arrived early, about the time the shop opened, dressed in his spotless well-worn dungarees and checked shirt and a pair of pull-on boots with a knotted sugarbag over his shoulder.

At the butchers he purchased a pound of sausages a couple of pounds of stewing lamb chops and on occasion, some lard.

Unlike his brother Bill, he was a non-drinker.

Once a month he visited the barber for a close crop of his sparse thatch.

He was not one to spend time conversing. However, his very perceptive homespun comments were sought after. He foretold whether it was going to be a wet, cold or an early winter merely by observing the movement of caterpillars or the arrival of the rainy period by the migration of certain birds. Although he lacked formal education he often criticised local politicians for not checking with old timers like himself before their planning. The water catchment area was a prime example. A better location he argued would have been to locate it on the other side of the coastal range. He proved this by pointing out the uselessness of the dam adjoining his property.

Lawrie grew to admire Ernie’s rustic wisdom attained from his parents and by watching, listening and reading the signs of nature through osmosis, as it were.

Lawrie worked hard to finally persuade Ernie to put his place on the market at the price he recommended.

A month later the land was sold and both Lawrie and Ernie’s bank balance grew substantially.

Ernie also let Lawrie organize a beautifully appointed unit at a luxurious retirement complex on his behalf. To help Ernie adjust more easily, he arranged for the appliances to be both basic and easy to manage. He personally guided Ernie in how to operate the appliances in the unit and should he ever be in difficulty, he was to contact Lawrie who would either come himself or organize help post haste.

Ernie still dressed in his dungarees and checked shirts, but this time he arranged for them to be laundered. Lawrie also organized Meals on Wheels for Ernie.

Lawrie, whose affection for Ernie had become almost filial, became very concerned when he began to notice that Ernie, who was not overweight, was growing thinner by the day. He seemed fade before Lawrie’s eyes. Ernie at no time complained or even seemed to notice. He maintained his good humour, although at times he was so unwell that he looked like death was about to claim him.

After just a couple of months of their first meeting Ernie slipped into a coma and died.

A distraught Lawrie had come straight from Ernie’s funeral to the club.

Stan’s expression softened when Lawrie finished his tale.

“You wouldn’t be talking of Ernie Oldham by any chance, would you?”

“Did you know him?”

“I’ve known Ernie all my life, son. He could be wise at times. I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, but he was a miserable bugger. I bet he still had the first dollar, or in his case first pound he ever earned. No, my boy, you were not responsible for Ernie’s death. He’s had cancer for some time. It’s a wonder he never told you, seeing you had become so close.”

Lawrie looked at Stan in fury. How dare he speak of Ernie in that way? And then, he began to think back and understood that perception and fact could quite often be at odds.

“Ernie had very few friends, if any, until you came along,” Sam said, “I suppose he didn’t want to lose your friendship by confiding in you. I’m glad though. Everyone needs a friend, don’t you agree?”

© 2005

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