Instalment 23: pages 94 - 96 [Elliot discusses Libby Morris with his grandfather]
Pop could take care of himself, except for the cooking. His rooms included a kitchenette big enough to make tea. Tea, sipped while sitting the vinyl armchairs on Pop’s stub of a balcony, was the great ritual of my visits, even in winter. On a still clear day like today, the morning sunlight was too warm and too precious to waste. Pop placed my tea in my hands. His hands were the only really old thing about him, mottled brown and seamed with stripes of chalky white; each an arthritis-gnarled tree limb. He’d already made the transition to slip-on shoes and a cardigan with a large zipper tag. He still wore cord trousers and buttoned check shirt, though. Tee-shirts and track suits were a way off yet. Each time he served tea it was a small triumph, and I’d never yet suggested he offer me coffee or serve it any way but white and one. So that was how we sat, when I visited, holding our conversations in the sun. My tea steaming, magpies warbling nearby. Pop had been a Canberra journalist, local stuff, not the press gallery. He’d risen to the dizzying heights of sub-editor, and still often spoke in the clipped, telegrammatic phrases of a headline. His mind and eyes remaining younger than his hands.
“Poppa,” I began, “you remember Marina Carmichael?”
“Course I do. China doll face, sharp teeth. Very smart girl, shame about the parents.”
“Yeah, pretty much. She works for Milton Dawes these days.”
“The politician? The one in the papers? There’s a coincidence. His mother lives here.”
This caught me off balance, I was expecting to have to lead round to it.
“You know Libby Morris?”
“Can’t stop talking about her boy at bowls. The grating voice on that woman. Taking the edge off my game.”
I wasn’t convinced Pop offered his bowls team much more than advice these days, but my chance of a swift retort was cut off by his next question.
“So, how do you know Dawes’ mum by her maiden name, then?”
“Noticed that, did you?”
I grinned sheepishly while he shook his head in mock disappointment.
“Never give information away to journalists, cops or tax inspectors. Come on then, what’s the interest in our Libby?”
“Marina’s gone walkabout. The family’s asked me to ask round her friends, see if anyone knows where she might be holed up. I guessed it might be something work-related, so I thought I’d check out the Minister’s history. Simple really. So, know why she goes by her maiden name?”
“Double-widow,” Pop replied. “Remarried after Dawes senior, and the second husband passed away, too. Doesn’t talk much about him that I’ve heard.”
Second husband, I thought. Should have taken a side bet with Eva on that one.
“This second husband got a name?” I asked.
“I imagine he does. Why don’t I call you when I’ve got it? Tomorrow arvo soon enough? At bowls I’ll see whether I’ve still got the old form.”
I thanked Pop, made my excuses and left – promising to call sometime Sunday to see what Libby Morris had had to say. I should probably have left him my mobile number, it could have saved me a good deal of trouble. But I didn’t think of it, and if I had, I still wouldn’t have asked him to make expensive calls about something that didn’t seem that important.
I should also have paid more attention to the other visitors when I was leaving. I think I remember seeing, as I left, a man in the car park. Expensive looking slacks, grey or mid-blue turtleneck, and spiky shaved head and beard stubble – an even red-brown haze across his skin. Was he big enough in the shoulders, the man in the car park, to be the man I later met? Or have I inserted him into my memory, occluding some other passer-by with his image, as another forewarning I was too slow, too ill-equipped to see?
But if it was him, I didn’t know him then to recognise, I didn’t yet know who he was. There’s nothing noticing him would have changed. Besides, I had much bigger problems. I had to call a girl and set up dinner.