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Clement's Corner: The Ashes

Owen Clement tells a tale of how a woman's ashes were stolen while being taken on a trip round Australia.

Although I was pleased to hear that my old school chum Jim had returned home, I could not possibly realize where our reunion would lead.

After his wife Mary had died last year he closed up his old Queensland house in the Brisbane suburb of Annerley and set off in his old utility with the urn containing her ashes. He told me at the funeral that when he died he wanted their ashes to be jointly scattered in the high country of New South Wales. He had asked his only child, Harvey to do the task. Harvey however refused point blank to undertake such a macabre - his word - business. Jim then asked me if I would do the honours. I said that I would be very happy to do so. I had not seen nor heard from him since that day.

For the next couple of weeks I was busy travelling overseas on business. On my return I called on him.

“When did you get back?” I asked.

“About three weeks ago.'' He spoke so quietly I could barely hear him.

“How’s Harvey these days? I believe he’s married?”

“He’s okay I think. I don’t see him much though.”

Sensing that he did not want to pursue the conversation, I invited him over for a meal. I was due to head off on yet another overseas business jaunt in a few weeks time. It would have to be for lunch he said. He did not drive at night these days because of his cataracts.

As I was about to leave he broke down. I stayed for a while to comfort my old friend. When he regained control he told me that after Mary’s funeral, to fulfil a vow he made to her, he had set off to travel around Australia. He had headed north from Brisbane to Darwin, from there he had travelled across to Broom, and then down to Perth before heading back via the Nullarbor Plains to Adelaide. Taking her ashes along had made it seem that he was fulfilling their earlier dream of doing the trip together. He had camped and had done odd jobs along the way to supplement his pension. The long unbroken drive from Perth to South Australia had been the most arduous. Due to his late arrival at an Adelaide caravan park for once he had forgotten to bring the urn containing the ashes inside the tent. The next morning, to his horror, he had discovered that his utility had been stolen along with the urn.

The South Australian police were sympathetic but held little hope that the vehicle would be found. Being an older model it had probably been broken up into its component parts in some scrap yard.

I suggested that we return to Adelaide together to see if we could locate the ashes. At least if I made the effort it might help him cope better with his dreadful loss.

Delegating my next overseas business trip to one of my staff we boarded plane where. I had devised a plan of action. On our arrival I booked us into a hotel and handed him the local telephone book with the task of jotting down the addresses and phone numbers of wreckers' yards. In the meantime I organized a post office box and placed an advertisement in the Adelaide Advertiser’s Personal column offering a $3,000.00 reward for the return of the ashes giving the post box number.

The day after the advertisement appeared, a note arrived in the post box with the description of the utility, and of the copper bottle-shaped urn and its engraving, which Jim confirmed. Detailed instructions were also given on where the exchange would take place. Any evidence of police involvement, and the deal would be off.

In the meantime, pretending to look for spare parts, Jim and I had located the vehicle. I promised the junkyard’s proprietor that he, and not the thief, would receive the reward on the recovery of the ashes. The man’s name who brought in the vehicle he said was Walter Loman. I contacted the police and with their assistance we set a trap.

Before sunrise the next day, as instructed, I openly carried a parcel of money to the specified location behind a recycling bin in the receiving area of a regional shopping centre. There I left the parcel and drove off.

The police allowed the thief to collect the money then, as he was about to climb into his vehicle, they arrested him. Infuriatingly he did not have the urn, and no amount of interrogating made him disclose its whereabouts.

We returned immediately to the wrecker's yard to confront the owner. He swore that he knew nothing about the urn.

“I’m a rich man, Friend,” I said my face inches away from his. “If that urn is not in my hands by tomorrow, you are in serious trouble, believe me.”

“But...“

“No buts. No urn, no reward, and BIG trouble for you, Got it!” I jabbed my forefinger into his chest to emphasize my point. “Just remember, you have twenty-four hours.”

I gave him my mobile number and left.

I rejoined Jim and we drove back to the motel. The look on my face silenced him.

A police sergeant I rang that evening said that the prisoner was still refusing to divulge the location of the ashes.

My mobile rang a little later. It was the scrap yard proprietor who said that he had found out that Loman lived alone in an onsite van in The Windsor Gardens Caravan Park.

I made Jim stay behind as I could see that the strain was really taking its toll on him. The park manager, annoyed at being disturbed, only agreed to lead me to the van when I pulled out a couple of hundred dollars. He opened Loman’s rented van and with his help we soon discovered the urn tucked under the bed.

“Mission accomplished” I called on arriving back at the room. But Jim to my dismay was slumped over in the chair. It had all proved too much for his weak heart.

I found Harvey’s phone number in Jim’s wallet and rang him with the sad news and to explain why his father was in Adelaide. He agreed for me to have his father’s body flown back to Brisbane.

Although I could see that he was remorseful at the way he had treated his father, I decided that I had won the right to carry out his father’s wishes. Harvey however did not agree. He said that it was his prerogative to make the funeral arrangements. I reminded him of his father’s wish that his parents’ ashes be spread among the snow gums. Harvey declared that his father wasn’t thinking straight as he was still grieving when he made that rather foolish decision. After all, how could the grandchildren pay their respects to a bunch of trees?

“Okay” I said,” if that’s the way you want it, it’s only right that you reimburse me for the expenses incurred in retrieving your mother’s ashes. The whole lot will come to about $4,000. You can pay me after your father’s estate had been settled.''

I did not hear from Harvey for over a year. It seemed to me that he had no intention of ever repaying me. So I wrote a scathing letter, saying how his father would have been bitterly disappointed at his selfishness and total lack of honour. I was glad, I said, that he had not lived long enough to find this out for himself. I posted the letter thinking that was that.

A few days later I received a cheque with a typewritten note attached saying nothing more than, “Please find a cheque for $4,000.'' I tore up the cheque plus the note and set fire to the pieces. I then put the ashes into an envelope and posted it back.

I never heard from him again.

© Clement 2006

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