Another early Dubious Magic story, set during the early events of Book 1: The Wizard of Waramanga – in which Wilko gets a little foretaste of the weirdness he’ll come to know around John B. Stewart. With thanks to Dana and Julie for giving me some time to work on it, and to Meredith for giving me reasons.
It had been an unexpectedly successful weekend for both of them, right up until very recently.
John B. Stewart and Robert ‘Wilko’ Wilkes were a pair of fairly ordinary Canberra public servants. Except for John B. having magical powers ever since he’d hit his head on a poker machine.
The Tasmanian Wilko didn’t believe a word of that story, no matter how earnestly John B. tried to convince him that his wishes now came true. Not always predictably, he would admit, but results happened.
What they did agree on was a fondness for a game of golf. When the chance arose to play in a social tournament in a little country club a few hours drive west of Canberra, they’d agreed it seemed a good way to spend a couple of days.
“It’s your turn to have a few drinks, mate,” John B. had said. “We’ll take Kraven and I’ll drive us home.”
Kraven was Stewart’s battered but well-loved old Hillman Hunter. Wilko had been slightly concerned – the old car had been the recipient of some of his friend’s rather dodgy ‘running repairs’, but the offer was generous and the Hunter did seem to be reliable at the moment.
The golf had gone remarkably well. John B. had won a ‘nearest to the pin’ prize on Saturday, and Wilko had gone from a decent Saturday to a terrific Sunday, becoming the upset winner of the overall competition.
It wasn’t a great financial windfall, but it was a nice trophy and a few extra dollars to put over the clubhouse bar. So it was rather later than they’d originally intended when they finally waved their farewells and headed east.
John B. had been as good as his word and had very little to drink. A couple of good single malts spread over the hours, interspersed with plenty of soda water. He was tired, though. Sharing a hotel room with Wilko was challenging. The Tasmanian was a heavy sleeper, and completely oblivious to his own snoring. John B. wasn’t so lucky.
The sun was well down as the Hillman trundled along the road. It wasn’t a well-finished surface, and the ride was a bumpy one.
It was one particularly bad pothole that had been the cause of the sudden change in their fortunes. Kraven’s front left wheel had hit hard, the car had bounced and landed heavily. When it did, all the lights went out.
John B. rummaged under the bonnet by torchlight to no avail. There was a small place a little way ahead. Less than a town, it was barely a village, but it was a destination that could be reached by driving carefully with Wilko holding the torch out the window.
That plan worked well until it started to rain. Torchlight through the wet front windscreen proved woefully inadequate to drive by.
They limped the car slowly into Bullangar and found the only hotel in the place.
“Sorry mate – we’ve only got two rooms and they’re both full tonight,” said the manager apologetically. “I’m really sorry, I wish I could help.”
“Yeah, I wish you could too,” said John B. with a sigh.
He and Wilko turned to go back out into the rain.
“Looks like we’ll have to sleep in the car,” said Stewart.
“Bit cramped, but I guess you’re right,” agreed Wilko.
‘Noisy, too,’ was John B.’s unspoken thought.
The manager looked after them, genuinely concerned, then called out, “Wait – you reckon you can make it down the road a little further?”
“Not keen, but what have you got in mind?” asked the driver.
“There’s a farmhouse about five minutes away, on the left. Belonged to my missus’ family. Auntie Grace passed away a few months back. Family’s still fightin’ about what to do with the property, and whatever money they can get for it.”
“You know what they say, where there’s a will there’s a relative,” John B. answered with a smile.
“Bloody right,” agreed the manager. “Can’t say that in front of the missus, but. Old Bert was a funny cove but Grace was a nice old stick. I can let you have that for the night. No lights or power, but a roof over your head and you can stretch out while you sleep.”
The two golfers looked at each other and shrugged.
“What’ll it cost?” asked Wilko.
The manager looked out into the rainy night and replied, “Nah, no charge – just don’t nick anything, eh? There’s a few things the family locusts haven’t cleaned out themselves yet. Here’s the key. Just leave it in the mailbox in the morning and I’ll pick it up later.”
“Mate, you’re a champion! Thanks!” said John B. warmly.
The drive to the old farmhouse was nerve-wrackingly slow but mercifully uneventful.
The house itself was small and heavily cobwebbed, but it did at least provide the promised roof over their heads.
“To the victor the spoils,” said John B., shining his torch into the only bedroom.
“Too tired to argue. Thanks mate.” Wilko threw a towel he’d brought down onto the dusty mattress, rolled up a jacket as a pillow, and was asleep in seconds.
John B. had been using the torch to illuminate the room for his friend. As the snores began he turned to leave, but a flicker of movement outside the window caught his eye.
He shone the light out into the yard. It didn’t help much thanks to the rain, but just there – by the big tree. Was that a dog?
If it was, it must have taken off at the sight of either Stewart or the light. But John B. was fairly sure he’d glimpsed an animal, or something so thin as to look almost like the skeleton of one.
He shook himself, cast a quick glance at the sleeping figure on the bed, and took himself off into the lounge room.
He laid a towel of his own on the couch, intending to sleep there. First though, perhaps rattled by the glimpse of the gaunt canine, he decided to take a quick tour of the farmhouse by torchlight.
It didn’t take long. There wasn’t much to see. The relatives described by the motel manager as ‘locusts’ had indeed stripped the place of anything that looked like it might fetch a price. John B. had already seen that the bedroom contained only a simple bed frame and mattress, and a rickety wardrobe that was past repair. Its cracked mirror door hung crookedly by one hinge.
A couple of tin plates, enamel mugs, and battered old saucepans were all that remained on a bench in the small kitchen. Table and chairs were gone, together with any utensils or cookware of note. The bathroom had a basin and toilet, both of them stained, dry and dusty. Marks on the wall and floor told where an old bath had once stood.
“I bet it was one of those nice old ones with the fancy feet. Somebody’ll make a quid out of it once it’s been cleaned up,’ mused Stewart to himself.
The only other room was the lounge. The only furniture left there was the old couch, a wobbly occasional table, and the mantlepiece around the small fireplace.
It was the only room to retain any decoration. Simple plain curtains hung over the window. A single framed photograph hung on a wall.
John B. wiped cobwebs from the glass. It wasn’t anything as obviously romantic as a wedding photo, or as ‘historical’ as a dashing young soldier and his pensive wife/girlfriend. It was just a faded photo of an ordinary looking couple, probably middle aged, sitting under a tree playing with a puppy.
Smiling at the picture, John B. thought, ‘I bet it wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else, but I bet this was a favourite of… what were their names… Grace and Bert.’
He looked towards the window. ‘It couldn’t be the same dog surely? This photo’s decades old. The pup’s a cattle dog, and whatever I saw, or thought I saw, didn’t look like any blue heeler I’ve ever seen.’
There were a couple of dusty books on the mantlepiece – Westerns, he discovered. They lay at one end, a respectful distance from the only new-looking item in the house. It was a white plastic box, about the size of a house brick. Even this was starting to get a grey patina of cobwebs and dust.
“They haven’t even agreed about what to do with your ashes, have they Grace?” he said softly to the box. “Poor old bugger. Families, eh?”
John B. took the topmost book and read the title. “Elegy for the Marshall – sounds a bit grim. What’s the other choice? Graveyard Full of Guns – bloody hell, that’s worse! The Marshall it is, then.”
He settled onto the couch and started to read, book in one hand and torch in the other. It only took a few pages to realise that there was a reason he didn’t usually read cheap Western novels. He loved the genre as movies, but so many of the books completely failed to hold his interest. This was proving to be one of those.
Suddenly there was a mournful howl, clear even over the rain still rattling on the roof. John B. nearly levitated up off the couch. He ran to the window and peered out into the dark. The torch beam reflected off the falling rain, but there was nothing else to be seen.
Cautiously he checked both the front and back doors, opening them fractionally. Only rain came in. There was no sign of a dog, or anything else.
‘Almost sounded like it was inside,’ he thought, and then shook off the notion. He checked in on the bedroom. Wilko showed no sign of having been disturbed.
‘Wouldn’t hear it over his own snoring anyway’.
Uneasily Stewart sat back down and tried to distract himself with Elegy for the Marshall. The ploy was surprisingly successful for a while, until he looked up startled again by another strange noise.
It was a peculiar metallic sound, a squeak and a rattle mixed in together. This time the place of origin was obvious – it was coming from the bedroom.
“Wilko, are you okay?” John B. called.
The only reply was the snoring that had continued unabated. That, and the odd metallic noise. Puzzled, John B. quietly moved towards the bedroom.
He could see the bedframe shaking – the sound was the old iron joints squeaking in protest at the movement.
“What are you up to, Wilko?” he called again, but the Tasmanian was clearly still deeply asleep.
As he got to the doorway of the room, for a split second John B. fancied he saw a pale figure at the end of the bed. But the shape vanished as soon as he stepped into the room. At the same moment the shaking of the bed stopped.
Wilko grunted in his sleep and rolled over. There was no other movement.
Troubled, John B. returned to the couch. ‘I know he’s a loud sleeper, but that’s ridiculous!’ he thought, trying to jolly himself up. It didn’t work.
Perhaps half an hour had passed. John B. was starting to drowse, his wakefulness diminishing with the intensity of the rain outside. The sound of it clattering on the roof had softened. It wasn’t quite gentle, but it was less intrusive. The less than gripping storyline of the book wasn’t helping keep his eyes open either.
Somewhere just short of falling properly asleep there was a sense of movement. A light flitting past the other side of those drooping eyelids, then the sound of the bed rattling started again.
John B. was awake in an instant. He dashed to the bedroom. The bed was shaking like it was in the honeymoon cabin of a cruise ship caught in a typhoon. An almost transparent white shape, like a thin cloud, stood by Wilko’s feet.
“Leave him alone!” Stewart shouted.
Several things happened at once. The shape disappeared, the bed stopped shaking. Wilko half opened one eye and said, “Uh?” before promptly falling back to sleep.
John B. leaned on the doorframe.
“Whew,” he said. “I feel like I’m Sylvester the cat in one of those old cartoons.”
Satisfied that his friend was still sleeping peacefully, he went back to sit on the couch and picked up the book.
“No point in even trying to sleep, is there?” he asked himself and settled as comfortably as possible to read more of rustlers and hustlers, saddles and six-guns. Overhead, the sound of the rain on the roof gradually faded to stillness.
A half hour or so later he was actually quite engrossed in the narrative of the climactic gunfight when a new sound came from the bedroom, audible even over Wilko’s snoring.
It was a heavy, rhythmic thudding. Dashing to the doorway, John B. could see the old wardrobe rocking back and forth. The thudding sound was its wooden legs hitting the floor as it moved. The indistinct white shape was just visible on the far side of the wardrobe.
John B. suddenly realised that the heavy piece of furniture was in real danger of falling forward onto the bed. It would at the very least seriously injure Wilko who slept on, oblivious.
Stewart bounded into the room and grabbed the wardrobe to steady it. He glared into the white shape, which shrank back a little but this time did not vanish.
Quietly but audibly through gritted teeth he said, “I wish you’d…” but then stopped.
He thought to himself, ‘I was going to say clear off, but who knows where you’d end up, or what you’d get up to…’
John B. looked squarely at the floating cloud and after a thoughtful pause said, “I wish I could help you find peace.”
There was a mumble behind him as Wilko seemed to approach consciousness, but the moment quickly passed and the usual nose-and-throat noises resumed.
John B. and the white thing faced each other for a few moments more, insofar as the shape could be said to have a face. Suddenly it floated past – almost but not quite through him, out into the lounge room. Stewart followed.
The white shape, now almost recognizable as human-sized and shaped, had stopped and was hovering near the box on the mantlepiece.
John B. nodded. “You’re Grace, aren’t you? And Wilko’s sleeping in your bed, where you and Bert should be.”
From outside came the howl of the unseen dog.
“Dead or alive, he knows you’re here, doesn’t he? And he knows that you’re not happy.”
Abruptly clear in his purpose, John B. seized the white plastic container. He paced through the kitchen and out into the back yard. He stopped and shone the torch about. There was no sign of the dog, although it had howled again only moments before.
He also realised that Grace’s ghost (he was sure now that’s who and what it was) hadn’t followed him. He looked back at the farmhouse. The white shape was visible at the bedroom window.
“You don’t need to hold him hostage. You can trust me,” Stewart said aloud.
He heard a scratching sound behind him and quickly turned, bringing the torch beam around. All that could be seen was the big tree.
No. Wait. Low down. The light caught a little mound of damp earth. He stepped towards it. The dirt was at the edge of a good-sized hole. It was the sort of hole that a determined dog might dig in hard soil that had been softened by heavy rain.
“Good dog!” he said as he knelt and carefully laid the white box in the hole.
Carefully John B. pushed the earth back into Grace’s new resting place.
“Never mind the heirs and relatives, eh? You’re where you belong. Rest in peace, Grace,” he said as he patted down the earth and stood, smiling.
He couldn’t know that Bert had been buried under the same tree, in almost the same spot, a few years earlier. But he did see that the figure had gone from the bedroom window.
As Stewart went to go back into the house the torchlight briefly picked out a couple of yellowing magazines that had been dropped on the verandah. John B. stooped to examine them.
“Greyhound Breeders Monthly,” he read. He shone the torch back out across the yard. There was no sign of the dog, and now no sound of it either.
“Greyhound/cattle dog cross?” he mused. “That’d explain the shape I saw. I bet you’re descended from the pup in the photo. Well, living or dead, your job’s done now, mate.”
With a palpable sense of relief Stewart lay back down on the couch. He no longer felt especially tired, but after quickly finishing the last few pages of Elegy for the Marshall he promptly dropped into a deep peaceful sleep.
The sun had not long risen when John B. and Wilko were busy packing their towels back into Kraven’s boot.
“Glad that rain’s stopped. It’ll make getting home quicker,” said the Tasmanian.
“Yep. We can be home, showered, changed and just about be in time to be late for work,” John B. replied with a grin.
Wilko looked balefully at his mobile phone and said, “Bloody thing – I knew I should have charged it up on Saturday night. We could at least call the office.”
He slammed the passenger side door shut, irked that he hadn’t even brought a car charger on the trip.
Stewart laughed as he got into the driver’s seat. “See, that’s another reason why I don’t own a mobile. I’d never remember to charge it either.”
As they headed back along the road east to Canberra John B. glanced over to his friend and said, “It was a good weekend anyway, eh? And you seemed to sleep okay last nigh, mate. It certainly sounded like it.”
Wilko either missed or ignored the reference to his snoring.
“Yeah, the old bed was more comfortable than it looked. I did have a weird dream, but. You were in it. I dreamt I woke up and you were in the room talking to someone I couldn’t make out properly. A woman in a white dress.”
“Uh-huh…” John B. looked straight out at the road.
“But I know it was a dream, ‘cos you were both standing in front of the big mirror on the wardrobe door, and neither of you had a reflection.”