It was a homecoming that had been far too long in coming, as far as I was concerned. Still, I had no one but myself to blame for that.
Helen had followed my directions and it wasn’t long before we had cut across the city and were now crossing the bridge onto Kooragang Island. The main drag would take as around the back of the industrial area, across another bridge as we left the island, and then onto Nelson Bay Road, which would lead us directly into Fern Bay. The only other way to reach these suburbs was via a ferry at the southern end of the point on which Stockton sat, however that involved going right into the city centre, which was always a chore, so in this case the long way around was actually the quickest way.
As we approached the Stockton Cemetery my heart skipped a little as I thought of my best friend, my lover, now lying there at rest. As I noticed the gateway I couldn’t help but recall the last time I had passed through them, which was on the day I had left for the Academy. On that day I had sat for hours beside Martin’s headstone, explaining to him that I would love him forever and that one day, no matter what it took, I would find whoever had done this to him.
Little did I realise just how difficult a promise that would be to keep.
The tears had flowed freely that day, and had still been flowing when I finally walked towards the gates, just as the sun was dipping low on the horizon. As I looked westward to admire the blazing sunset I was immediately taken by the sight before me, where fingers of golden light were blasting their way down through the cloud streaked sky and illuminating the landscape, as if God himself was deliberately putting on a show.
Martin loved sunsets, and for a few moments I stood there in awe, admiring God’s handiwork, but also wondering if perhaps Martin himself might be having a hand in what I was seeing. Or maybe I was simply wishing that it was Martin who was pulling the strings, hoping that somehow he was there, looking down on me and smiling and giving me a message of some sort.
Eventually though, the light faded, as did the beauty before me. I walked out through the gates, uncertain of what the future might hold, but determined just the same to ensure that I gave myself every chance at having a future, and making those whom I loved proud of me.
Today, as we reached the entrance and the simple wrought iron gates, my eyes were fixed upon them and as we passed I continued to watch them, turning my head and keeping my gaze fixed upon them, remembering the day an eighteen year old boy last walked through them, until at last we went around a slight bend in the road and they disappeared from view.
Turning my head back to the front I caught Helen staring at me. She blinked a couple of times and gave me a tight smile, but didn’t say anything. She didn’t need to. She knew just what I was thinking.
* * *
It was only about one kilometre from the cemetery gateway to where the row of houses stood in which Martin’s parents lived, so it was only a matter seconds before I needed to recover my senses and bring myself back to the present.
Between these two points nestled the majority of the houses that made up this small suburb, all clustered together into about five town blocks on the eastern side of the road. They faced the river to the west, while to the east they were at least partly sheltered by sand dunes and coastal scrub. Where these rows of houses finished was where the golf course started, then, when the road veered slightly away from the river that was where the next row of about two dozen houses, and Martin’s home, all stood.
Theirs was one of the last houses in the row, an older style weatherboard home, painted white and with a charcoal coloured tile roof. It was partly hidden from the road by a number of trees, with the only part of the house that was easily visible being that which was exposed where the car-port stood out front.
As we reached the line of homes I said to Helen, ’It’s at the end of this row of houses. The third last one.’
‘Okay,’ she replied, and started to take her foot off the accelerator.
Glancing back over my shoulder I noticed that the boys were both now wide awake, sitting up and looking around them, while holding hands in the middle of the seat between them. It was hard to tell if the expressions they wore were ones of excitement or apprehension, but they seemed to be taking in everything that was around them.
‘Almost there now, boys,’ I said to them.
‘Cool,’ came the comment from the back seat.
Helen slowed the car and pulled over onto the wide lane at the side of the road, soon coming to stop directly in front of the correct house. I sat and looked at it for a moment, the place that had been my second home for so many years, and all the memories came flooding back once more.
In the driveway was parked a gold coloured Toyota Landcruiser four-wheel drive, directly behind a familiar small Ford. The Toyota was a new addition since I had last visited, but everything else appeared to be just as it always had been.
When I saw the front door open and Tom Oliver stepped out onto the landing it was like I was seeing Martin there all over again, granted a much older version than the one I had loved, still tall and lean but with his dark hair now beginning to grey. There was no mistaking that he was Martin’s dad; the resemblance was uncanny.
Beth too, who quickly joined him, had changed very little. She was still the attractive woman I had always known, fair in complexion, to her son and husband’s darker features, but still with that air of gentleness that only a mother seems to have.
After unbuckling my seat belt and opening the door I stepped out into what was a warm afternoon, and I was immediately hit with the smell of the river; fresh, yet slightly murky, and with more than just a hint of salt air. At least the city didn’t smell of the overwhelming stench from the steelworks any more, which had been closed down years ago, after spewing pollution into the air for decades. The difference that clean air now made to the place was astounding.
Both Tom and Beth started down the path toward me, both grinning madly. I smiled at them and walked forward, meeting them just inside the front gate, where the three of us embraced in a fierce hug.
‘It’s so good to see you both again,’ I somehow managed to stammer, trying my best not to collapse in a blubbering mess.
‘And it’s good to see you again too, son,’ Tom replied.
‘Yes Rick, we’ve both missed you so much,’ Beth added.
When we finally separated and turned around we found Helen and the boys standing there, looking slightly uncomfortable, as if not quite knowing how to react to our emotional reunion.
‘Tom and Beth, this is my partner, Detective Helen Wheeler, and these are your two new house guests, Jimmy Taylor and Shane Leggatt. Guys, this is Tom and Beth Oliver,’ I said, ‘the best parents a guy could ever ask for.’
‘What? I thought you said they weren’t related?’ Jimmy quickly quizzed me. That smart mouth of his would really get him in trouble one day, I thought.
‘That’s right, mate. I’ll explain it all later, okay.’
Helen stepped up and shook the hands of both Tom and Beth, after which Jimmy and Shane did the same, with both of them being very polite and calling Tom and Beth by Mr and Mrs Oliver, which I felt sure must have made a good impression.
‘These two might be a bit rough around the edges,’ I said to our hosts, ‘but they’re good kids. Maybe you might even be able to teach them a few manners while they are here,’ I suggested to Beth.
‘Well see,’ Beth replied. ‘You do know that it can take a lot of spit and polish to turn a rough diamond into a gemstone, don’t you?’
‘I’m sure that if anyone can turn this pair into something it’ll be you, Beth,’ I replied with a chuckle and a kiss on her cheek.
‘Okay then, you lot, how about we all head inside and grab a drink. I bet you’re all more than just a bit dry after your trip up here,’ said Tom.
‘Now that sounds like a plan to me,’ I replied, while the other three heads all seemed to be nodding in agreement as well.
We followed Beth and Tom inside the front door of the house, then they led us through toward the kitchen.
Jimmy was carrying the bag containing his few belongings and looked nervously about, as if unsure what he should do. He looked relieved when I whispered, ‘Just set it down inside the front door and we’ll find out what room you are staying in shortly, okay.’
‘Thanks,’ he quietly replied.
For me it was like stepping back in a time-warp, as not a thing seemed to have changed in the few years since I had last visited. The kitchen was still that gaudy nineteen-seventies combination of lime green and orange, accompanied by sunflower yellow paint on the walls, while the linoleum floor with the brown and grey octagonal tile pattern was looking just a little more worn than it had been. I couldn’t help but smile to myself. It was always a home that was well lived in.
As I looked around the kitchen the only thing that I noticed that was different was a large canvas print on the wall. I walked over to it to take a better look.
It was done from a photo I knew well, that Tom had taken of Martin and me, standing on the river bank behind their house and all dressed up for our high school formal, standing back to back, each with our arms folded across our chest and our heads turned toward the camera, sun glasses pushed up onto our heads and grinning madly. We thought we were just so cool!
‘Hey, Coop. That’s you, isn’t it?’ I heard Shane ask from beside me. ‘Who’s that with you?’
Looking sharply at Beth and Tom I could see the love etched in both of their faces.
‘So, you haven’t told them?’ Tom gently asked.
‘No, not yet.’
‘Well, there’s no time like the present,’ he suggested. ‘How about while we organize some cool drinks, why don’t you show Shane and Jimmy the guest room, which is where they’ll be staying? I’m sure they won’t mind sharing.’
‘Yeah, I think that might be a good idea,’ I replied. Shane was looking at me expectantly as Jimmy also approached us to take a quick look at the picture.
‘Okay boys, let’s go down to your room,’ I quietly said to them, before adding, ‘There are a few things I need you to know . . . just so you don’t go putting your foot in it with Tom and Beth.’
* * *
From the living room there was a hallway which led through to three bedrooms and the bathroom. Walking down the hall the first two rooms we came to were the bathroom on the right, and a bedroom that had always been used as an office. The two end rooms were the largest, and when Martin was alive he occupied the room on the front corner of the house. Beside that room was the guest room, which had in fact originally been the master bedroom, however, Tom and Beth had long ago converted the garage at the opposite end of the house into their own haven, complete with a private en-suite, so that, in their words, ‘they would be as far away from their screaming kids as they possibly could be’.
Of course, they only had the one child, and having grown up with him I knew he wasn’t one of those screaming kids they had been so worried about, if anything he was the exact opposite. I can tell you though, that from the time I started staying over we did make our fair share of noise, so as it turned out, his parents were grateful they had set up their own space far from the territory occupied by the rambunctious teenagers.
When we reached the end of the hallway I found that the doors to both end rooms were closed, which was just as I had found Martin’s room to be on every visit I had made since his passing. I smiled at the sight of the small yellow and black license-plate style sign that read Martin which was still attached to it, and couldn’t resist running my hand over it just once, caressing the raised letters. It had been there since his twelfth birthday, which was more than ten years ago now.
I’m not sure what Jimmy and Shane must have been thinking, but when I heard Shane whisper, ‘What’s he doing?’ I suddenly snapped back to reality.
‘Sorry boys,’ I said to them, as I came back to the present. ‘You guys will be in here,’ I added, as I opened the door to the guest room.
Just like the rest of the house, it too was just as I remembered it, with beige carpet and pale green paint on the walls. It was occupied by a large double bed which was covered with a quilt with bright coloured geometric designs, while along the wall dividing it and Martin’s room were built in wardrobes with full height sliding mirrored doors, which give the impression that the room was much larger than it actually was. Along another wall there was a dresser, with a tall and narrow bookcase also standing in one corner.
‘Tom said we’d be sharing . . . so does that mean he knows about us?’ Jimmy asked, as he dropped his bag of belongings on the bed, which he had picked up to bring with him as we came back through the living area.
‘Yes, mate. They needed to know a few things about you before we brought you up here. Firstly that you weren’t in any trouble with the law, and also just why we needed to get you out of Sydney for a while, so I’ve told them about you working for Jarvis and about what has happened in the past week. As for anything else about your pasts, or how you came to be working for Jarvis, that’s up to you to tell them, if you feel like you need to talk to someone.’
‘So, Mrs Oliver knows what we were doing, too?’ Shane asked.
‘Yeah. I couldn’t keep any secrets from them. But you’ve got nothing to worry about, okay. They are totally cool with everything . . . including the fact that you two are . . . together. That’s why you get to room together.’
‘Ummm . . . okay, I guess,’ Shane responded.
‘You said no secrets,’ Jimmy probed. ‘So does that apply to you, too?’
‘Yeah, it does,’ I said, as I sat myself down on the bed. They both sat down as well, one on either side of me. ‘There’s some stuff I need you both to know . . . even if only so that you don’t put your foot in it around Tom and Beth, than for any other reason.’
‘Why would we . . .’ Jimmy began to ask, until I held up my hand to stop him.
‘You asked about the guy with me in the picture in the kitchen,’ I said. ‘His name was Martin.’
‘The tag on that door,’ Shane said.
‘Yeah. He was Tom and Beth’s son,’ I said flatly. ‘When we were driving up here today I said that I grew up here, well, I did. I lived in the caravan park just up the road from here. Martin was my best mate all through school, and Tom and Beth and Martin were like a second family to me. Martin was also my . . .’
‘Boyfriend?’ Jimmy asked after I had stopped short, obviously summing things up very quickly. I could only nod.
‘What do you mean by . . . was?’ asked Shane.
‘He means that he’s dead, Shane,’ Jimmy said quietly.
‘I knew there was something going on,’ Shane said. There was no note of triumph in his voice. It wasn’t said in anything other than a gentle and understanding tone. ‘The way you and Helen was talking. Then when you looked funny at the cemetery gates when we drove past them.’
‘You know, sometimes you’re just too damned smart for you own good,’ I replied, while giving him a gentle elbow in the ribs. Lucky for him that wasn’t the side with the broken bones.
‘Well, a guy’s gotta be sharp when he’s livin’ on the streets,’ Jimmy added.
‘Yeah, boys. I guess he does,’ I chuckled.
‘So . . . what happened to him?’ Shane enquired.
‘He was murdered. Just days after that photo out there had been taken, in fact.’
Almost instinctively they both reached for me, with Shane reaching out and taking one of my hands in his, while Jimmy placed a gentle hand on my shoulder.
‘We’re so sorry,’ Jimmy said.
‘Yeah, that’s awful,’ added Shane. ‘Did they ever catch who did it?’
‘No, not yet. But it was because of what happened that I became a cop. They never caught anyone, but hopefully we’ll get a new lead soon.’
‘How did it happen?’ asked Jimmy.
‘He was . . .’ I started to say, but that was as far as I got, with emotion welling up quickly inside me and taking over.
‘It’s okay,’ Shane said soothingly. ‘You really don’t have to tell us.’
‘Maybe later, hey guys,’ we heard Helen suddenly say. We turned our heads as one and found her leaning against the doorframe, her arms folded across her chest in front of her. A few moments later both Tom and Beth appeared at her shoulder.
‘I hope you like the room, boys,’ Beth said to them. ‘I think you’ll be comfortable here.’
‘Thank you so much for having us here,’ Jimmy replied, before adding, ‘And we were both very sorry to hear about Martin.’
‘Thank you Jimmy. That’s very nice of you to say so,’ Beth answered. ‘It’s not something that we will ever really get over, but it gets a little easier to deal with as time marches on.’
‘Yeah, I kind of know what you mean. One of our friends was killed too . . . but at least the guy who did that is going to pay for it. Isn’t that right Coop?’
‘Yeah, mate. He sure is,’ I replied.
It was Jimmy who got to his feet first and held out his hand for Shane, and together they walked over to where Beth and Tom stood.
‘Coop said that you were okay with us being together. Is that right?’ Jimmy asked.
‘Yes Jimmy, it is,’ Tom answered. ‘As Rick knows all too well, we’ve never been ones to stand in the way of young love. What happens between you two is just that, between the two of you. We don’t mind you showing . . . errr . . . affection for each other around us, just provided you don’t get too carried away. If that’s going to happen, all we ask is that it doesn’t happen out in the open. Do you understand that?’
‘Absolutely,’ Jimmy replied.
‘You don’t have to be afraid to just be yourselves,’ Beth added. ‘We certainly won’t judge you for who you are or what you have done in the past. All we ask is that you are true to yourselves, that you show us some respect and that you follow a few basic ground rules.’
‘Do you think you can do that, lads?’ Tom asked.
‘Ground rules?’ Shane asked, somewhat hesitantly.
‘Number one,’ Beth said. ‘Soil the sheets and you do your own washing,’ she chirped.
At this we saw both boys blushing visibly.
‘In fact,’ Beth continued, ‘you’ll be doing your own washing and cleaning up after yourselves, okay?’
‘Yes ma’am,’ Jimmy meekly answered.
‘And you’ll be expected to help out around the house,’ Tom added.
‘We don’t mind,’ Shane said.
‘That includes helping out at meal times, you understand?’
‘We can do that. We all had to pretty much look after ourselves where we’ve been living,’ replied Jimmy.
‘Okay then. How about no smoking, no drugs, no drinking in the house?’
‘No, we’re not into any of that,’ Shane proudly declared.
‘Oh, I’m so pleased to hear that,’ Beth uttered.
‘And the number one rule that we ask you to respect,’ Tom declared. ‘Martin’s room and his belongings are off limits.’
Jimmy and Shane both nodded. ‘Of course,’ they both said, before Jimmy added, ‘We’re just so grateful that you’re taking a chance on us. I mean, you don’t know us, yet you’re willing to share your home with us. Thank you so much.’
‘I think it’s your two friends here that you need to thank,’ Tom said, while nodding toward Helen and me. ‘They’ve gone to a lot of trouble to keep you two safe . . . so whatever you do, don’t let them down.’
‘We won’t,’ Shane promised. ‘We owe them everything.’
‘Well then, I guess this means welcome to our home,’ Tom acknowledged and before either he or Beth could even move the boys stepped up and hugged them, with Shane embracing Beth and Jimmy embracing Tom, before then swapping over.
It was with some amusement, and perhaps just a touch of pride, that Helen and I looked on at this exchange. Just how much these two boys had changed within a week was quite astounding. Actually, they weren’t boys anymore, they were young men, who were almost ready to embark on the next phase of their lives.
‘Just where the hell did that come from?’ I chuckled.
‘Awww . . . what’s wrong Coop? Worried you’re going to miss out or something?’ Jimmy said to me, as he turned and started toward me, with Shane by his side and mischief in both of their eyes.
I knew straight away that I was in trouble and before I could even move I was embraced in a three way hug and forced back onto the bed by a pair of giggling larrikins. The three of us laughed and rolled around on the bed, until I distinctly heard Beth say, ‘Bloody boys! They just never grow up!’ which only served to set us off giggling again.
‘Come on now, lads. How about we all head outside onto the deck for those drinks?’ Tom suggested.
* * *
Once we had recovered our senses, we followed Tom, Beth and Helen back through the house and outside onto the deck at the back, where we found Beth adding ice to some large glasses and filling them with her home-made, thirst-quenching lemon squash, which was always a summer favourite.
Looking out over the yard I could see that there had been a few changes made here, with the addition of an extension on the shed, an expansion of the vegetable garden and the addition of a new barbeque area.
There was one change however which both dismayed me and at the same time excited me, with a rather large sailing boat having now replaced the twelve foot boat that Martin and I had grown up with, exploring the Hunter River at every chance we could get.
‘What happened to Gypsy?’ I asked, referring to my old plywood friend.
‘I’m afraid that she was on her last legs, Rick, so we decided to upgrade,’ Tom replied. ‘Meet Gypsy 2. I’ll take you down and give you a look at her in a few minutes if you like.’
I couldn’t help but be impressed by the sleek looking boat that was parked on a trailer in the back yard, but deep down I was mourning yet another piece of my childhood that had been lost forever. Those days spent on the water with Martin, at a time when my own family life seemed to be falling apart, were amongst the happiest I had ever experienced. I could never get those feelings back, and now one of the last links to them had also disappeared.
‘My, my, you boys both look like you need a good feed,’ Beth stated as we all settled ourselves on chairs. ‘I think we should fire-up the barbeque tonight, don’t you agree, Tom?’
‘Splendid idea,’ he replied. ‘You and Helen will stay, won’t you?’
‘That’s something I wanted to talk to you about. Do you think you can put up with me for a few days?’ I asked.
‘Of course,’ Beth cooed. ‘You know you’re always welcome here, Rick. That goes without saying.’
‘Thank you Mama. It’ll give me a chance to start looking back . . .’ I started to say, then I remembered that the boys were with us and I still needed to keep quiet about my other reason for coming here.
‘That’s alright, Rick,’ Tom said, understanding fully.
‘And what about you, Helen?’ Beth asked.
‘Thank you, but I can’t stay. I’ll really need to be getting going soon,’ she replied, before adding, ‘I’ll have to cover for Rick anyhow. Do you think we’ll be able to trust these three together?’
‘We’ll keep an eye on them,’ Tom assured her.
‘I would appreciate that,’ Helen uttered.
‘What do you think, boys? Have either of you been sailing before? I was thinking that we might drop the boat in the water over the weekend and have a cruise around?’ Tom offered.
‘Really?’ Shane replied excitedly, with Jimmy nodding beside him.
‘That sounds like a great idea,’ I added.
‘Sure,’ answered Tom. ‘As Rick would be able to tell you, this is a great place to grow up and there is heaps to see and do around here, so we’d be glad to show you around the place.’
‘That’s awesome. Thank you,’ Shane replied.
‘Well, while you folks are making plans,’ Helen said, after swallowing the last of her drink and then getting to her feet, ‘I think it’s about time that I hit the road, if I don’t want to be too late getting back into the city.’
We all stood up and started to make our way back into the house and then out onto the front lawn.
‘Tom and Beth, we can’t thank you enough for what you are doing for Jimmy and Shane,’ Helen said as we gathered around the car, while I then reached inside for the carry-all that contained the few belongings I had brought with me for the weekend.
‘It’s our pleasure entirely,’ Beth said. ‘If it’s important to Rick, then it’s important to us as well.’
‘Rick has told you the significance of this being kept quiet . . . and also the possible dangers, hasn’t he?’
‘Yes, and we understand them fully. But you don’t need to worry. If anything happens and it looks like we need to get out, we have somewhere else where we can go to. And Rick knows where that is,’ added Tom, to which Helen nodded.
‘But I’m sure it won’t come to that,’ I hastily added.
‘No, I’m sure it won’t,’ said Beth. ‘You people know what you are doing. I have faith in you . . . and these boys obviously have faith in you as well, so everything is going to be fine.’
Helen and I exchanged nervous glances. We both knew just how easy it was for things to go wrong, even in situations you think you may have under control. All we could hope for is that the precautions we have taken were sufficient to keep the boys, and everyone else involved, as safe as possible.
‘The other thing I need to sort out for you,’ Helen continued, ‘is some kind of payment for you, or allowance for the boys.’
‘We’re not doing this for money,’ Tom said sternly.
‘No, I realise that. But you’re also not doing it for free. Have you forgotten how much two teenage boys can eat?’ Helen said. ‘Plus they will need some more clothes and some money to get by with, so just let us work it out with our Inspector and we’ll get something organised, all right?’
‘Alright then,’ Tom replied, sounding slightly exasperated. ‘Anything for some peace and quiet.’
‘That’s more like it,’ Helen chuckled, which brought smiles all round. ‘Now, you pair,’ she said, addressing Jimmy and Shane, ‘you know what’s happening and you’ve heard the ground rules, so do us a favour and stay in line, will you?’
‘Yeah, no worries,’ Jimmy grinned. ‘You can trust us, miss.’
‘Mate, that’s exactly what does worry me!’ Helen sighed.
‘We’ll behave, and we’ll all be fine,’ Jimmy promised, while putting his arm around Shane’s shoulders and pulling him close for a few moments, before letting him go again, obviously aware that we were standing on the street and should be avoiding trying to attract unwanted attention. ‘This is our chance to start over and we’re not going to fu . . . bugger that up,’ he stammered.
Tom and I both smiled at his near slip-up, while both Helen and Beth frowned slightly. It had been a while since Beth had had two teenage boys around, but I guessed she would get used to it again soon enough.
‘Well, if I’m going to get home in time I guess I had best hit the road,’ Helen declared.
Jimmy and Shane both stepped forward and hugged her, before eventually letting go and stepping back, looking somewhat sheepish.
‘Call me if you need to,’ she then said to me. ‘Or if anything happens back in the big smoke that you need to know about I’ll call you. I’ll also clear it with the Inspector for tomorrow, but just make sure you’re back on deck by Monday.’
‘That’ll be good. Thanks,’ I replied. After giving me a nod she then turned to Beth and Tom and thanked them once more. After climbing back into the car she started it up, then with one last wave she pulled out onto the road, doing a u-turn and heading back in the direction from which we had arrived.
‘So, just how are you going to get yourself back to Sydney?’ Tom casually asked me as we watched Helen disappear.
Straight away I was on edge and nervous, unsure just how this was going to go down.
‘I’ve . . . errr . . . arranged for a friend to come and pick me up,’ I quietly answered.
‘Tom!’ Beth scolded.
‘It’s all right,’ I said to them both, knowing that sooner or later I would have to face the fact I would need to tell them that there was finally someone else in my life, even if I was still finding it difficult letting go of Martin. ‘That’s one of those things I wanted to talk to you about face to face,’ I added.
‘Are you saying that you’ve met someone?’ Beth asked, sounding slightly sad, but with no note of anger or accusation in her voice.
I tried to answer, but no words would come, so all I could do was nod and look away, at least until I felt the gentle touch of her hand on my shoulder.
‘Well, it’s about bloody time,’ she said softly.
Turning around to face her, and Tom standing directly behind her, all I could see was the loving expressions of the two people who were better parents to me than the ones who raised me.
‘Then why do I feel so bloody guilty about telling you?’ I sobbed.
Found this pic of Jimmy and Shane on the net! must have been taken just after they settled into their new home… 😉