Charon of the Molonglo

Via Twitter, @Kayakcameraman @Elias_Hallaj and @supergran41 combined to nominate:

Capital Region Farmers Markets + Civic’s Early Morning Breakfast Service + @Kayakcameraman‘s Serene Spookiness

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Chris slowly opened his eyes and scratched his head. He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the light from a nearby window.

Remnants of his dream remained. Or was it dreams? There had been the usual stuff, but there had also been something new mixed in. Something about death to go with the water. Maybe…it was drifting away now, his mind fumbling and reaching for strands of memories, evaporating as he found them.

After a quick shower, he grabbed his custom breakfast bar, and near obligatory Nurofen from the kitchen on his way out.

As he drove to work, he tried to recall why he had been up late last night? Oh, that’s right – celebrating another spectacular piece of true brilliance. After a long drawn out negotiation, he had helped his German client crack a multi-million dollar supply deal. His boss, Malcolm Jones, had given him some good news too. Chris was to be promoted at last to senior associate.

He parked in his car space near work, and walked into Martin Place.

Occupying a new high-rise building, just off the Place, the Tate Smyth office matched the firm’s reputation. The building sparkled in the morning sunshine, as the sun reflected off the entirely glass entryway. Today, that sun seemed to be mocking Chris, and he covered his eyes with his hands as he moved quickly inside into the relative dullness of the foyer.

He entered the lift and swiped his card before pushing for the top floor. As the lift climbed up, he glanced at his watch. Eight-thirty on the dot. With any luck, his ability to cope with a hangover far better than Malcolm would ensure he had beat him to work. But when the lift doors opened, there was a tall, strongly built man in his 50s waiting for him.

‘Where the hell have you been? Get into my office, now!’ he shouted, before striding off down the corridor.

As he sheepishly entered Malcolm’s large corporate suite, Chris was temporarily blinded by the sunlight streaming in from the wall to ceiling windows at the back of the room. He was expecting this, but it was still hard to adjust to, particularly with his sore head. Malcolm had once confided to him that he deliberately kept his blinds open at all times, to disorientate people as they entered the room. This allowed him to take the dominant position in all conversations.

Chris knew others were jealous of Malcolm’s spectacular view over the Harbour, but despite being fascinated by water as a kid, something about the Harbour wasn’t the same as his memories growing up.

As Chris’s eyes adjusted, he saw Malcolm’s now familiar silhouette standing aggressively behind the large oak desk. In an attempt to bald gracefully, Malcolm had clipped his remaining hair short, revealing a tanned yet shiny bald head.

‘Why the hell haven’t you been answering your phone?’ Malcolm shouted.

Chris’s heart sank as he felt in his suit pocket for his phone – it wasn’t there. He must have left it out somewhere last night. He decided to bluff.

‘It was stolen last night Malcolm, what could I do?’

‘Stolen, huh?’ said Malcolm, still talking loudly. ‘Bullshit, you flushed it down the dunny when you were spewing up that expensive dinner I bought you.’

Chris had a sudden flashback of being in the toilet. He’d forgotten about being sick. He could only stare back at Malcolm blankly.

‘Speechless for once, Dimitriou?’ snarled Malcolm. ‘You’ve got a look on your face like the one Rex gives me when he’s shat on my carpet.’

Rex was Malcolm’s dog, and now sole life-long companion.

‘Right now your bloody mobile doesn’t matter. See Susanne after we’ve finished here and she’ll sort you out with a new one. Or better still go to the restaurant after work and clean out their plumbing,’ he concluded, still smiling. Chris smiled weakly back.

Susanne was Malcolm’s highly respected by grossly overworked EA.

‘We’ve got more important things to deal with, Dimitriou,’ Malcolm continued. ‘You remember that tender we put in for that hugely inflated price with Defence, because we didn’t have the personnel in Canberra to do the job?’

Chris nodded. He feared where this was heading.

‘Well, we’ve won it. And there is no way those wet behind the ear, numb-skulls we left behind can do it. With the German deal pretty much sewn up, I want you to head down there to run that show. You and I will get the ball rolling and then I’m coming back here.’

Chris opened his mouth to speak, but Malcolm interrupted. He had a habit of doing that.

‘Keep your pants on you greedy little prick. You’re promotion is still on. But it’s Canberra for you, or bog-standard ‘solicitor’ remains on your business cards.’

Chris felt anger welling up inside him. He had been waiting years for that promotion, and only last night they had all been celebrating his great work. Yet now he had to go back to the shit hole of a place to keep a promotion that was rightfully his.

Chris tried to channel his anger into words.

‘I have been waiting years for you to honour your promise, to get the promotion I deserve, and stay the hell out of that backwater.’

Malcolm was unmoved.

‘Listen mate, you’ve just lost your third mobile in six months, you’re late to work and this is your second hangover just this week. You’re lucky I don’t fire you. The Canberra thing is temporary. A couple of months at most.’

‘Months!’ shouted Chris back. He couldn’t stomach a few days back home, let alone a few months. It felt like he had finally escaped. But here it was again, pulling him back.

‘Dickhead, you’ve got thirty seconds to decide.’

It was clear that if Chris didn’t want his career, not to mention his inner-city flat, large screen TV or surround sound audio system, to end right now, he needed to agree.

‘Fine, but only a few months.’

‘Good. Now get the fuck out of my office.’

So, still fuming, his dreams apparently in tatters yet again, Chris left the office. But as he trudged out, Malcolm called him back.

‘Oh, and dickhead, I just found this in my drawer.’

Malcolm tossed a phone to him from across the room. The old prick had it all along. He looked down and saw three missed calls from Malcolm, but five also from his Aunt in Canberra. It seemed there was no way he could escape Canberra. Oh well, he would call her tomorrow when he was back ‘home’.

As he glanced at the view of the harbour, forlornly walking back to his desk, he wondered if he should call his father too.

******

The next day, he was contemplating the same thing, but staring at a very different body of water. He had just left Defence headquarters in Russell, on the opposite side of the man-made Lake Burley Griffin from Parliament House, following his first meeting with the Defence ‘big wigs’, who were the primary clients for the project. Malcolm had remained behind so as to hitch a lift to the restaurant at which he and the ‘big wigs’ were dining.

Chris had escaped the work dinner, and had instead chosen to walk across Kings Avenue bridge towards the studio apartment that would be his home for the next few weeks. He pulled up the short collar on his Armani suit to try for some meagre protection from the cold wind blowing across the lake. A cab would have been a better idea. He had forgotten that September in Canberra was a tease. The increasing sunny days gave a false sense of winter’s end. However, the proximity of the snow covered Brindabella Mountains meant an icy wind would rip through an ill-prepared Sydney-sider easily.

As he turned his head away from the wind, he was distracted from the cold by a spectacular view. As twilight settled over Canberra, the coloured illumination of the National Institutions that surrounded the lake had come to the fore. All around the lake buildings in Canberra’s austere design were lit. Behind him, and to his right, on the city side of the lake, Anzac Parade – a boulevard of major military memorials – still glimmered red from its Gallipoli-inspired red-dirt gardens. At its top, and farthest away from Chris, stood the serene War Memorial, the grandest memorial of all and a museum and permanent remembrance to those Australians who had given the ultimate sacrifice in war. To its right and directly behind him stood the sprawling Defence district of Russell, dominated by a large sky-scraper-tall pole, upon which sat a bald-headed eagle.

His attention again turned to the lake. His childhood was full of memories of it. Running around it, kayaking on it, and one occasion, before he could swim, nearly drowning in it. He thought again about whether he should call his father. Perhaps he would surprise him instead at the Early Morning Centre in the city tomorrow. He would surely be there; he volunteered every day. Would a surprise visit help smooth over the tension?

He was so deep in his thoughts, it took him a moment to realise his phone was ringing. It was his Aunt Laura again. Her voice was so choked up, it took him a moment to realise what she was saying.

And then another moment to process the words.

His father was dead.

*****

A week later, Chris stood in the kitchen of his childhood home, once again staring out at the lake, but this time from a different angle. He had come into the kitchen to the escape the endless small talk from distant relations and his father’s friends, making excuses about washing up to do, or more food to fetch. He also now realised how alone he had felt in that room, and what that might mean about the rest of his life. The funeral had been well attended, and many of the broader Greek community had come back to the house for the wake. So it felt surreal to feel so alone amongst so many. But Chris knew none of them, not really; the community was close, but Chris thought of himself as a ‘half-caste’, and they had never quite accepted him.

He appreciated that some very busy and important people had made time for his father’s funeral. The Greek community had played a large part in Canberra’s development, whether it was in the establishment of the city’s first fresh food markets, or the investment in much of the city’s office and residential accommodation. He assumed that some of this exposure to his father’s world had driven Chris towards corporate law. But after many years away, so many of his father’s friends felt like strangers.

Apart from his Aunt Laura, he was on his own now.

His mother had passed away three years earlier. Until then, the ‘unholy trinity’ as they called themselves – his father, mother and her sister Laura – had been inseparable. Laura’s husband had passed away years earlier, and she had no children. The three had travelled, socialised and essentially lived in each other’s pockets ever since. His father had always been a quiet man, and if the arrangement bothered him, he didn’t show it. He was so focussed on work, sometimes Chris wondered if he even stopped to realise how unusual the situation was.
‘Those dishes aren’t going to wash themselves,’ came a voice from behind him.

He turned to find his Aunt standing behind him, smiling.

‘Sorry,’ he mumbled, tearing his eyes away from the lake.

‘It’s alright honey, I’ll give you a hand. Truth be told, I was expecting to find you here, staring at that damn lake again.’

Chris returned her smile and briefly put his arm around her.

‘Dad would have hated me for doing that on the day of his funeral.’

Laura looked up at her nephew.

‘Why would you say that, Christos?’

‘He just hated all the time I spent by the lake.’

Laura shook her head, smiling.

‘You’re so wrong. I don’t know who loved that bloody lake more, you or your father. But you were both drawn to it, in some strange way.’

Chris turned to face his aunt.

‘But…he was always so nervous when I was around it. He freaked out after I fell in.’

Laura shook her head.

‘He was worried at first, he is…was…a Greek father after all.’

Chris realised Laura was fighting back tears. She took a deep breath, wiped a single drop away from her eyes, and continued.

‘That accident was enough to scare any parent, Chris. Your father saw you, a tiny little toddler, teetering on the edge of the lake, from that very window. And just as he rushed out to get you, in you went.’

‘I don’t remember much,’ replied Chris. ‘Just the chill of the water, and Dad being so upset as he pulled me out. But not before…’ his voice trailed off, as he again tried to grasp at fragments of his memories.

‘Well, you didn’t fight it. One minute you were staring into that water, and then you were in it. I think what scared him most was that he wasn’t sure you fell. He thinks you might have jumped. And then you didn’t try to swim. You just sort of floated on the top. So yeah, he was really scared about you being along around the lake as a child. But as you grew older, he started to relax.’

Chris struggled to recall his father’s reactions to his many activities around the lake. He had always presumed his father remained paranoid about Chris being near the lake, but it seemed many of those memories were from the time he fell in. He struggled to recall specific times when his father had raised concerns about Chris venturing out for a bike ride or a kayak as a teenager.

‘He was just so worried whenever I went near it, at least when I was younger,’ Chris speculated, more to himself than to Laura. ‘But I suppose that was mainly when I fell in.’

‘You were so young then, Chris. As you grew, he loved that you enjoyed doing things around the lake. That’s why he moved here. God knows they couldn’t afford a house in Yarralumla, even with only one child. He scrimped and saved and worked so hard for this place.’

‘After he retired, his life really revolved around food and that lake. Either he was fishing in it, or riding around it, except Saturdays so he could go to the Farmers Markets at EPIC. I used to joke with him that either he was catching food, cooking food, handing it out to someone else or working hard to burn it off. He’d always go for a long bike ride on a Sunday morning, to work off the extravagant dinner he had cooked me the night before with whatever he’d caught or found in season at the markets.’

Chris wondered if Laura and his father had come to some sort of ‘arrangement’ after his mother’s death. She certainly seemed fond of him. She always had been he supposed, but had that familial affection turned to something more? He decided not to ask. Not only not to pry, but also because he discovered he didn’t really care. Whatever those two lonely souls had found in their company, so be it. Certainly it would likely have been with his mother’s blessing.

‘His routine was a simple, but virtuous one,’ Laura continued. ‘Rise early, help those less fortunate at the Early Morning Centre, then head to the lake or the markets. He was a good man Chris, a really good man. Not many would make that sort of sacrifice. Yet every morning, there he was, chatting away to some poor guy and his dog. I used to try and help out too, but a few of those guys were a bit rough round the edges for me. But your father saw the good in all of them. They all had a story to tell, and often your father played a part in them getting the help they needed to find a place to live, or sort out their lives. I think he identified with them on some level.’

‘They’ll miss him there, most of all. A couple of the guys from the service are here if you want to meet them. I think they’re shocked, like the rest of us, about how he left us…’

Chris smiled and nodded, and for the first time found himself fighting back tears. He had been worried about his lack of emotion. The numbness he had felt throughout the service and wake didn’t seem right. He’d been wondering if there was something wrong with him, to feel so cold at his father’s funeral. Now it seemed that his grief was hitting him in a rush. He wiped at his eyes, afraid the tears were showing.

Was he mourning for the father he had lost, or the man he had never really known?

Sensing his feelings, Laura squeezed his arm.

‘Here, I want to show you something. I was going to give it to you later, to cheer you up after today.’

Laura disappeared for a moment and returned with a frame in her hands.

‘There is a guy who heads out there every morning on his kayak, and he gets some amazing shots. Reminds me so much of you, and the photos you used to take. Calls himself the kayak cameraman. Anyway, when I saw this shot, I thought of you. Just like the photos you used to like – all serene and spooky.

Chris stared at the photo. It did seem to sum up many of his feelings to the lake. The black and white print depicted Lake Burley Griffin on a grey, foggy day. A mist drifted over the water partly obscuring the barren trees and bushes on the nearby shore. The gnarled tree was perfectly reflected in the water. As he stared at the photo, Chris thought he could make out the outline of a figure….

‘C’mon, we better go and entertain our guests,’ Laura said, rousing him from the photo. ‘You have a few drinks, and I’ll give you a lift home to your flat.’

It took Chris a moment to comprehend what she was saying, part of his thoughts still inside the photo.

‘Thanks, I’ll give you a hand. But I don’t need a lift,’ Chris replied. ‘I’m going to stay here for a little while, till we work out what to do with the place. Work has given me some time off, and then I need to stay in town for a bit anyway.’

Laura nodded.

‘It’s your house now Chris, you do what you think is best.’

Later, when everyone had left, including Laura, Chris finished off the last glass of wine and contemplated where to sleep. He wasn’t sure how long he had sat there, on the couch, drinking. He hadn’t even bothered to turn the television on, although that was the original purpose of him sitting down.

The numb, empty feeling of earlier had returned. He wondered if he would feel differently sitting in his Surry Hills flat. It felt a world away now. Thinking about all the material possessions he had there didn’t seem to arise any feeling at all.

He feared perhaps it never had. All those possessions, all that work, what had it elicited in him? Was this feeling of numbness a reaction to his father’s death, or had it always been there?

He sighed and decided it was time to at least attempt sleep.

He supposed it would make sense to sleep in the largest bedroom, the one his parents and then his father alone had used. But something about that just didn’t seem right, and so he found himself lying in his childhood room and bed. He tossed and turned, struggling to get comfortable on the old mattress, his childhood trophies and posters still surrounding, and in some ways mocking him.

In the end, unable to sleep, he grabbed a torch and decided to go for a walk. Perhaps the cool night air would relax him.

Chris thought of the photo Laura had given him – perhaps if he walked around the lake he could figure out where it was taken.

There was a small amount of light emitted from the neighbouring street lights, just enough for him to find the path around the lake. He wasn’t sure how long he walked, but as he turned a bend, he found the large Commonwealth Avenue bridge emerge in front of him. Perhaps the photo had been taken near the bridge. Certainly, there would be more light there.

He climbed up the stairs and found himself on the edge of the bridge, staring down into the murky water. There wasn’t much traffic at this time of night, and he found the silence comforting.

In fact, so close to the water again, he felt a sense of comfort he hadn’t recalled in years. Perhaps even happiness; certainly emotions he had not experience since he was a child.

Not since he had last been in that water.

As he stared down, he realised a figure was emerging from the fog. He, or she, was standing astride a board or kayak, and was padding towards him from Lotus Bay.

It wasn’t until the figure was nearly at the bridge, just below him, that Chris realised what he was looking out. The figure was an elderly man, a paddle in his hand. He was wearing a black suit.

And just as the figure reached him, he realised what he was riding.

It was a coffin.

The figure held out his arm, reaching a bony finger towards him.

Chris leant over the railing, to look closer at the man. To understand why this figure was motioning to him.

Calling him.

He leaned over further, staring into the man’s eyes. Chris felt himself drifting towards him, his legs moving involuntarily.

And then a ringing sound began in his pocket. The elderly man became agitated and withdrew his arm before starting to paddle away.

Chris found that his legs had stopped moving, but also he didn’t want the man to leave.

‘Wait!’ He called. But either the man couldn’t hear him or didn’t care, and he soon disappeared into the fog.

Chris sighed and reached into his pocket for his phone. The beeping had been a new text message, from Malcolm, asking him to call urgently. It was the fourth one today. For him to text so late suggested Malcolm was drunk, something had fallen through on the German deal, or both.

He would call him tomorrow.

As he trudged home he realised it was Friday night. Perhaps tomorrow he should try and learn more about his father.

And more about how he had died.

And so the next morning, he found himself at the Early Morning Centre, handing out breakfast to the homeless. He was convinced he would be of little help apart from providing manual labour, but after chatting to a number of men and women (and a couple of dogs), he discovered one, Jim, had become homeless after falling into bankruptcy. Jim was convinced that his family would somehow become destitute if he stayed around, so had disappeared to help them. Chris explained that there was nothing to be ashamed of, and that his family would probably benefit from him returning home. He made a few calls and even walked Jim to the firm of an old uni friend who offered to sort things out.

He found a strange sensation afterwards, one he had not felt at any point in his time in Sydney.

It was pride.

Next, he visited the markets, and tried to choose some of his father’s favourite ingredients.

As he cooked dinner that night, in the spookily quiet house, he realised how little he had thought about work. Malcolm had sent him further messages, but Chris still hadn’t replied.

It felt like work just wasn’t enough to shake the all too familiar feeling of numbness. Even the sense of warmth the Early Morning Centre had elicited was gone.

He knew now his material goods back in Sydney wouldn’t bring it back.

He suspected nothing would.

Except perhaps the lake.

Hours later, again unable to sleep after hours of drinking quietly on the couch, Chris walked towards Commonwealth Avenue Bridge.

He was determined to find the coffin rider again.

As he climbed the stairs, and leant over the railing, so many metres in the air, and stared into the icy water, the figure again emerged from the fog.

And with him, the feeling of serenity returned.

He was realised there was something spookily familiar about the rider’s face.

Again, the figure beckoned towards him.

Involuntarily, he found himself moving closer and closer, learning over further and further.

Suddenly, he was hurtling towards the water, the wind rushing past his ears.

A moment later, he was filled with an incredible jolt of happiness, as the icy water surrounded him.

At last, he knew why the coffin rider’s face had looked so familiar.

It was the face of his father.

 

Big thanks to the Kayak Camerman’s amazing image of serene spookiness which inpsired this story. You can find more on his website

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