It has been about twenty years since you last stood outside this old weatherboard house. Back then you were a child of eight. Nothing much about the place has changed in that time. That sameness is more jarring than if you had found the place replaced with modern townhouses. So much has changed in your life that you would have expected something to be different here. Surely, you think, in that time a tree would have been cut down or a fence replaced. And could those two old Hillman Hunter cars covered in matted pine needles be the same ones that fascinated you as a child? It seems that you are stepping into a photo from your childhood.
You walk along the narrow path to the wooden porch. You knock on the door. You hear barking from inside and then some shuffling. A moment later the door opens. The enquiring face of an old man looks out at you via the fly screen door. You hastily introduce yourself to Mr Mallee as the child of your parents, and say that you decided on a whim to visit, since you just happened to be in the area. You hope he can spare some time. Of course he can. You are warmly welcomed in while the excited dog, similar to one you remember, is shooed away from you. Mr Mallee tells you to call him Logan.
Inside things are pretty much as you remember. You have entered a kitchen and dining area that is wider than it is deep. The wall to the left has one doorway into the small living room. The wall to the right has two, one each into the study and bathroom. The back wall has one door which you know exits onto the back porch. But what draws your attention most is the blackened iron stove, which dominates much of the back wall. There are photos and cards arrayed above it and you recognise one photo of you playing with that dog from two decades ago.
Logan asks if you want some lunch that he has just now prepared. You accept, despite the fact that you have never been a fan of baked beans on toast. You also accept the offer of a glass of homemade elderberry wine, made from the bush in the backyard. Logan asks you how your parents are. You tell him of the many moves the family made and of the eventual divorce. This saddens Logan. He then tells you the story of how he befriended your parents, despite the fact that they were much younger than he. You ask him to elaborate on a few aspects of the story, which he does happily. You wonder how you can possibly broach the topic of why you truly came here. You figure the opportunity will present itself soon, so you let the conversation wander for now.
You compliment the wine. Logan ushers you into the backyard to see the elderberry bush. Once more the scene is a familiar one. The left and right ends of the back porch were long ago enclosed to form two separate rooms. To the left is the bedroom and to the right is the laundry. The toilet is still the freestanding structure along a pebbly path that so disgusted you back then, and still gives you the creeps now. The berry bush is a topic of much interest to Logan, but is just another plant to you. Then you see something that you think can help swing the conversation your way. You ask whether that rusty tricycle is the same one you rode as a child. Logan says it is. You then comment on how you have lost many possessions from your youth. Logan says that it is important to keep things from your past and then beckons you back into the house.
In the study Logan shows you his sketches. He sketches to this very day, and shows you the collection he has drawn over five decades. There are recent sketches of his neighbourhood, older ones of the workplace he shared with your parents, and even older ones of his youth in Dublin. You comment on how images can bring back memory so well. Logan responds that he knows something that works better, and with that he takes you over into his overly warm living room.
Logan asks you to sit in a dusty armchair while he puts the kettle on. He suggests that you can peruse his record collection and find something to put on the player. You take a look. One half of his collection seems to be jazz, like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. The other half is folk music with names like The Chieftains and The Dubliners. You remark on this idiosyncratic mix as Logan returns with your tea. Logan smiles and says that his musical interests are determined by his 'Black Irish' ancestry. You look blankly at him so Logan sighs and explains his joke to you. He then puts the album you have chosen on his record player, drops the needle, sits back and closes his eyes.
You look across at your host sitting there, and wonder whether he looks any older than you remember from last time. Of course, as a child you had some issues with judging age, and anyone older than your parents was simply old. Logan looks ancient now, and yet, looks exactly as you remember him. However some minute change has come over him as he sits there and the crackling music washes over you. He then speaks with a slow and surprisingly sonorous voice:
“They say that smell evokes memory more powerfully than any other sense. But it’s hardly convenient to keep a library of smells and stinks. For me the thing that works better than any other is music. This song was playing on the wireless during my passage by ship from Ireland. I can remember the smell of the sea and the movement of the waves like it was yesterday. I recall the excitement of meeting my wife on that boat. I especially remember the thrill I got from the way she pursued me. It took a lot of gumption for a woman to be so bold back then. But she had all sorts of virtues, and gumption was just one of them.”
Only now does Logan open his eyes and gives you a small smile. “Are you sure you just came here for the heck of it?” You are taken aback by this question and stammer that – well – there was something you wanted to ask him. You go onto tell a story of your own in a somewhat tentative and almost embarrassed tone:
“To tell the truth, I found some of the conversations you had with my parents to be a bit boring. So, you remember, I went playing with my toys in the backyard. Well, I lost one of them in the ivy. At the time I forgot about it pretty quickly, and since then I got interested in other things. In my teens I sold my entire toy collection to help pay for my first computer, and that was several computers ago. Anyway, I’ve since been looking at old papers and documents of mine, and came across an old toy catalogue. I realised how much fun I had in those days and think it’s a pity I sold them all. And then I remembered the one I lost here and wondered if there was some chance that you’d found and kept it.”
Logan grins now and walks over to a set of drawers in a corner. Opening one, he retrives a brown paper bag and hands it to you. “That what you looking for?” he asks. You open the bag and think ‘Eureka!’ to yourself. There it is. You had imagined it would be caked in dirt, but it looks pretty much as you remember it. The stickers are still on it. The parts are all still together and still move fine. It still converts from robot to appliance mode. It even has its gun still attached. You cannot manage to suppress a smile. You thank Logan for keeping it better than you could have as a child. Logan tells you that he understands the importance of keepsakes and is happy that it has such sentimental value for you. You nod agreement, while succeeding now in establishing a neutral expression.
After finishing your cuppa, you tell Logan that you have to get back home, as you have a long drive and the day was growing old. Logan seems to understand that you have to go. He keeps you talking as you slowly go from one room to another, from the front door to the front gate, and finally to your car. Logan thanks you for coming, as he so rarely gets visitors these days. You thank him for lunch and conversation but say nothing more about your fortunate acquisition.
As you are driving along the freeway you reflect on what a long and tiresome afternoon it had been. But you consider it worthwhile. As a child you never cared much for the 'Specteron' toy, despite the fact that you had got it by saving ‘robo-credits’ clipped from other toy boxes and sent away for via post. The character corresponding to the toy had barely any role in the cartoon intended to advertise the toys. The toy itself was smaller than others and what it changed into – binoculars – was pretty boring compared with a sports car or jet plane or robotic dolphin. But how time had changed all that!
Specteron had been made in small numbers compared with those sold in toy shops. It had been flimsy in construction and so many had been broken and thrown in the rubbish. Then, in the process of one toy company taking over another one, the original moulds for Specteron had been disposed of, preventing the issuing of any ‘classic’ collectors edition, once the children of one decade had become the affluent collectors of another. All this you discovered surfing the Net during slack moments at work, and so you knew that very few mint condition Specterons existed, and suddenly any that did exist could be auctioned on-line for an exorbitant fee. Your carelessness as a child, combined with the care and consideration of a lonely old man, had delivered you this surprise windfall, and all for the price of a few hours of tedious conversation and the tolerating of baked beans.
Specteron had even less sentimental value for you now than it had in your childhood, but it did have a monetary value, one that you would very soon put to use in paying off your gambling debts. Let Logan think that the silly thing was more than that. Your toy is just a novel solution to a life problem, you think, glancing at it on the front passenger seat as you take the turn-off towards home.
I submitted this story to the City Of Monash Short Story Contest 2010. It got nothing. I was hoping for some kind of acknowlegement but was expecting too much in a contest of over a hundred entrants. I did enjoy attending some of the associated workshops and got some worthwhile feedback. I suppose I will just keep writing as the inspiration takes me and may well have another shot next time...
Also note the named character is now the focus of another story.