Bernie pic

Bernie pic

Friday, 24 May 2013


Australian crime-solver Steele Hill takes a break from murder and perfidy to investigate the sighting of Martians by his friend Felicity. This story is from the upcoming Bent Banana Books anthology Serendipity. Please pass on the link to your friends if you enjoy it.

Bernie Dowling

Petrie, north of Brisbane, winter, 1995
FOUR-year-old Ryan was teasing his sister, 6, patting her back quickly and repeatedly, as he had seen a mother do forcefully in the supermarket when her child was choking on a lolly.
Chloe accepted her brother’s game for a while before calling for intervention from Mummy. Flick Sailor brushed aside locks of her long blonde hair from her pretty oval face, revealing creases in her forehead, marking her 29 years of life in Queensland. ‘Ryan, stop teasing your sister.’ Felicity, better known as Flick, looked across at her son before continuing to rearrange a pile of bills, jotting down figures on a notepad and shaking her head at the impossible financial obligations.
‘I wasn’t giving her tea,’ an offended Ryan said.

I could see that Flick was on the verge of losing it and offered half-hearted mediation. ‘Maybe Ryan does not know what teasing means.’
‘You’re no help, Steele. Ryan knows what to tease means. I am always telling him not to tease his sister and I have explained what it means.’
This was Chloe’s cue. ‘Mum, Ryan’s teasing me.’ The girl sobbed softly and slowly upped the ante to full-blown tears.
‘See what you’ve done.’ Flick was accusing me, not Ryan.
I was about to defend myself when 9-year-old Justin called from his room, ‘Mum, where’s my Marilyn Manson T-shirt. I have sports tomorrow and I need it.’
Despite Justin’s continual insistence to the contrary, it was not really his room; he shared it with his brother. Mother and daughter had the other bedroom of the small rented house – small by Australian standards, perhaps not so much by European.
Justin and I were mates. When he told me his physical education teacher refused to allow him to wear his Manson T-shirt in sports, I pretended to be appalled. The predominately white-on-black logo had splotches of red. Justin was in the Red team for sports.
I suggested he tell his teachers he would take them to the international court of justice in the Hague if he was not allowed to wear his somewhat red T-shirt. I did not think he would do it. To be fair to me, he did not actually.
The note Flick showed me from PE teacher Mr Pendleby said Justin had threatened his teacher with the tennis court of justice in the Hog. Felicity was hopping mad at me. I always seem to be in trouble with women. It takes me a great deal of reflection to understand why. Usually I do not bother with such tedious self-criticism.
On that winter evening, I did ponder whether my visit to Flick’s to see the Martians was wise. Flick’s car registration had run out earlier in the week. I suggested Flick and Ryan could ride with me in the front of my one-seater Holden EH ute. The older kids could travel in the tray.
Flick said I was the most irresponsible man in the world. That hardly seemed likely but the prospect made me laugh. Felicity pulled the punch just as I retracted my head from the blow’s obvious destination.
‘We’ll go in my car,’ she said.
‘I’ll pay your registration tomorrow,’ I offered.
‘I know you haven’t got any money Steele. Whenever you win at the horses, you have that silly smirk on your face. It’s not there.’
Wow, I should teach Flick how to play poker. She has a powerful read and her financial troubles could soon be over. But Flick does not like gambling. Her dead-beat ex-husband, Howdy, was a jockey as well as being thousands behind in his maintenance payments. The jockey still rode his share of winners though nowhere near as many as when he was Brisbane’s top hoop a decade earlier. That was when Flick and I bonded over a race fix demanded by her father who had kidnapped his own daughter. It’s a long story and there is no time for that now. We had Martians to see.
‘I brought a cassette tape. Does the cassette player still work in the Falcon?’ I asked. Flick owned a 1988 Ford Falcon, 24 years younger than my Holden EH, though not as reliable.
‘Of course it works. If it didn’t I’d buy a CD player. I’ve got plenty of tapes so I don’t need yours.’
‘Yes, but I have one with Lady Madonna on it, in your honour.’
Lady Madonna? Is that a Madonna song, Steele?’
I thought she was taking the piss. ‘Lady Madonna,’ I said. ‘Children at your feet…’
She shook her pretty head to signal zero recognition.
‘The Beatles,’ I said.
‘Oh Steele, what are you listening to that old shit for? You’re younger than me. It’s embarrassing.’
Ever since Flick caught me watching a 1940s Hollywood film noir on video, she has treated me like a cultural deviant. I cannot remember what movie it was, possibly The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon. I have seen each a dozen times. I should add it was in the privacy of my own flat where Flick sprung me. And I had made no effort to turn off the video player before I let her in.
In that year of 1995, I had sat through a double feature of videos in Flick’s house. The first was Pocahontas and the second was Waterworld. Flick said the Disney ‘toon Pocahontas was for the kids. Who knew whom the Kevin Costner second feature was for – possibly Martians. Felicity’s fave song of ’95 was Seal’s Kiss from a Rose, even though the R&B singer forgot to button his shirt for the video. Obviously R&B does not stand for ‘robe and  button’. And I am copping flack for film noir and the Beatles.
Lady Madonna packed up the unregistered Falcon with the kids, dressed against the winter chill, and me. The engine spluttered into life. Flick received a single-parent’s benefit from the government but had to work two part-time jobs to make end meets. Her father, retired Russian trainer Bill Smith – don’t ask about the English name – could help little financially but he did baby-sit when Felicity went to work. She did not tell her father about the Martians. He had kidnapped her in the past and he might concoct some crazy plan to make money from the aliens’ visit.
I should say at this point I don’t believe in aliens. Flick does not believe in aliens. We were going to look for them and I guess you can blame me for that.
Flick told me she was probably tired from five hours of paid baby-sitting the night she saw the spaceship land in the bush off Narangba Rd. She did pull over at the side of the road and watch the pulsating silver light around the ship. She did not actually see the Martians.
‘How did you know they were Martians,’ I asked.
‘I never said they were Martians. You did, Steele.’
‘They could have been Venusians,’ I said.
‘I never said they were Martians. You did. And what the hell are Venusians.’
‘From Venus. I think that’s what they are called. But they were most probably Martians. They are more common, I believe.’
I am not sure why I said that. Neither of us believes in Martians.
We drove to where Felicity thought she had pulled over. In the car’s headlights we saw recent car tracks on the clay beside the road. They could have come from the Falcon.
Flick pointed towards an area about 100 metres into the bush. There was a small circular clearing among the gum trees. A spaceship might land there but it would have to be tiny. Martians are small, aren’t they?
I asked Flick how old was the car battery if we wanted to shine the high beam on the spot in the bush.
‘The battery is two-years-old, but we have come all this way, so we have to take a chance.’
She swung the car to fully face the spot, put the lights on high beam and turned off the motor.
‘Maybe you should have kept the motor running, I said. ‘Might be less strain on the battery.’
‘You think?’
‘Dunno. I know nothing about cars. Leave it for the moment.’
Justin was the first to complain from the back seat. ‘What are we doing here?’
Ryan wanted to go home to watch television and Chloe said the dark was scary.
‘Steele’s lost something,’ Felicity told the children.
I said to Flick I heard her say ‘his marbles’ under her breath.
She denied it and laughed. ‘But I was sure thinking it. The Martians must have given you the power to read minds.’
I opened the passenger-side door.
‘You’re not going in there alone, Steele. Are you mad?’
I put on my best attempt at the earnest voice of a star of a low-budget sci-fi film. ‘We must end this thing.’
Ryan pleaded from his corner of the back seat. ‘I want to go too.’
That was not happening as Felicity had activated the child-proof locks on both back doors. As Ryan whimpered, Flick told me to hurry.
The grass was higher than it had looked from the car. I was glad I had worn boots but I trod carefully. The clearing too was larger than it seemed from the road.
The grass was flattened, though not in a circle. It was more like the vegetation had been trampled along a series of parallel paths. I leaned over to see if I could discern a crater. I though there should be a crater and some burnt areas around it, as in 1950s sci-fi movies. I heard Flick yelling at me to hurry up. I turned and my boot kicked a note on the ground. It was rectangular, about six inches long and a couple of inches wide. It looked like it bore someone’s portrait inside an oval. I pocketed it.
Back at the car, I inspected the note in the headlights. It took a while to figure it out as I had never seen the like of it in my life before. Flick asked what it was.
I hopped back in the car and said, ‘The Martians left their calling card.’ I placed the note in front of Flick’s face. ‘Lady Madonna, meet Benjamin Franklin.’
‘Is that monopoly money?’
‘I think not. If you take this US hundred-dollar bill to the bank, tomorrow, I believe the kind banker will give you enough Aussie moolah to pay your registration.’
‘You don’t think the Martians kidnapped someone and the victim dropped their money.’
‘Possibly,’ I said. ‘But I would put my money on your good fortune coming courtesy of an American tourist venturing from the beaten track.’
We went back to Petrie and Flick put the kids to bed. Over coffee, we amused each other with fantastic tales of how the money landed in the bush at Narangba.
Neither of us had another Martian adventure, ever.

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