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‘Is this the place where a huge whale was once spotted?’ Stephen asked. ‘About eight years ago?’ He hated speaking to strangers. He sounded shy and uncertain now that he hadn’t spoken to anyone for days. He fumbled in his purse in order to find the right coins to pay for his can of softdrink.
‘A big whale? I wouldn’t know, mate. Eight years ago, that’d be well before I came here, about a year ago.’ The man seemed genuinely interested; he stopped cleaning the counter with a wet cloth. ‘Big fish uh? I’ll tell you something…’
‘A Southern Right Whale,’ Stephen said.
‘Where’re ya from? I seem to detect a bit of a Pommie accent.’
‘I’m from England,’ Stephen said stiffly.
‘From the Old Country, eh? Permanently? You’re here to stay?’
‘No, I have to get back over there soon. I’m a student.’
Stephen smiled. ‘No, I’m from Aberystwyth, a small university town overlooking the Irish Sea.’
The man nodded. ‘Ah, y’re studying fishes and things, marine biology, and you haven’t got any big whales up there so you’ve come Down Under to look for them here, is that it?’
‘I’m studying English,’ Stephen said timidly. ‘English literature.’
The man didn’t seem to hear him for he went on: ‘Now what sort of a whale was it again?’
‘A Southern Right Whale.’
‘That’s right. Now let me see…’ He pointed outside. ‘See that old fellah over there? Over near the jetty, on the sand. Cleaning or painting his boat. That’s Old Jack Kinniburough. Now he’ll know if anyone knows. He’s lived here all his life, Old Jack has. You go and ask him.’
Stephen made a mental note of the name Kinniborough. He paid the man and thanked him. He left the small seaside café and walked towards the beach, sauntering along the shoreline towards the powerboats and the small yachts anchored off a pier. It was low tide. Patches of dried sea weed crackled and popped under his shoes. Seagulls were walking or standing on stretches of sand that had fallen dry. They flew up as he approached them. The outline of numerous tall city buildings was visible in the distance across the immense bay.
From a distance he kept observing the old man who was bent over, working on a rowing-boat that had been pulled out of the water high up onto the beach. He wanted to put off the moment that he would step up to the man and ask the questions that he had already carefully formulated in his mind. Looking at the row of weatherboard houses across the road from where the old man was busy painting the bow of his upturned boat he remembered the day when he and his father and mother travelled by car from Warrnambool, his home town, to Melbourne, shortly before they left Australia. Now he had come back here to retrace his steps, to try and find out who his real family were. His father and mother in England were his adoptive parents, they had never spoken of his real, biological parents. Except his mother one day when she was very ill, shortly before she died. But she had not mentioned any names. All she had said was that he had actually seen his real mother once, by accident, from the back of their car, when they were held up in a traffic jam. In the distance he had seen her, one of the two women walking in the street, the day they travelled to Mordialloc where they were going to stay with his father’s younger brother for a few days before flying off to England.
He looked at the houses and tried to remember which house it could have been that the women had come out of the day that groups of people had gathered near the water’s edge looking at something in the waves close to shore. He remembered the scene as if it were a half-forgotten dream. People were standing on the jetty and outcrops of rocks pointing at something, a few holding binoculars. From the back of the car, sitting next to his mother, he had seen all this. Traffic had come to a standstill. His father, who was driving, got all flustered, not knowing what the excitement was about. But Stephen had lowered the back window and overheard someone say in a loud voice there was a whale out there and that they must try to stop it from beaching itself.
‘Let’s get out and see the whale,’ he had called out.
‘No, don’t,’ his mother hissed. She sounded panic stricken. She was looking out of the other window at the houses. Two women and a small girl had left one of the houses and hurried down a garden path towards them. As they approached their car, Stephen saw how his mother pressed herself against the upholstery of the back seat as if she wanted to hide. He twisted round to get a better look at the women and the child but his mother grabbed him by the shoulder to try and stop him. ‘Drive on,’ she urged.
‘I can’t,’ his father shouted. ‘Can’t you see… I’m stuck here. Nobody is moving.’
‘Let’s get out of the car and see the whale,’ Stephen called out excitedly.
‘No, no, move on,’ said his mother, hiding her face behind her other hand.
Yes, it all came back to him now.
He looked around him. Old Jack seemed to have finished his job. He was straightening his back and putting the lid on a can of paint. Stephen mustered up his courage and walked up to him.
‘Good morning, sir… Mr. Jack. My name is Stephen Willingham… I wonder if… ‘
‘Old Jack, that’s me,’ the old man grinned. ‘Real name is Duncan Kinniburough, but everyone calls me Jack for some reason, don’t know why.’
‘I hope I’m not disturbing… May I ask you…’
‘Ask anything you like. As long as it ain’t money. On account of I ain’t got any.’ The man’s grin became wider.
‘No, nothing like that. I wonder if you happen to know anything about a whale, a Southern Right whale, being seen somewhere around here some eight years ago.’
‘Sure thing, mate. A Southern Rightie. Right over there it was they first spotted her. Big fellah, oh, ten meters, easily, maybe twelve. They don’t swim into the bay usually. Except this un.’ He pointed to a place beyond the jetty. ‘I remember rowing a newspaper cameraman right up to her, as close as close can be. Got well paid for that, too.’
‘What I really wanted to know,’ said Stephen, pointing in the opposite direction, ‘is whether you know anything about two women living in one of those houses, or perhaps just staying there, with a little girl…’
Jack scratched the top of his ear. ‘Two women… ah, those good-time women…. mother and daughter, though they looked more like sisters, to me. And the little kid. Mrs. What’s-her-name, Mary something, and her daughter Titty-Titty-Bang-Bang. Used to live over there.’ He pointed to a modest grey weatherboard house. ‘Surely you don’t mean them, do ya? On account of, well, it was a house of ill repute, at least that’s what some of the locals said. But why do you want to know anyway?’
‘I’m a sort of distant relative. Can you remember their names? The older woman was called Mary?’
‘If you’re a relation, surely you must know their names.’
‘That’s the trouble. I don’t. That’s what I’m hoping to find out. My mother knew their names but she wouldn’t tell me. And now she’s dead, she died last year, I can’t ask her anymore .’
‘Sorry to hear that, son. Distant relatives, eh? And no one ever spoke of them on account of them being in everyone’s bad books. That happens in a lot of families. How distant a relative to Mrs. What’s-her-name are you, anyway? All the way from England, from what I can hear. Ever been to Scotland? That’s where my own forefathers came from. Kinlochleven. If I ever have enough money I’ll take a trip, climb the Ben Nevis, pluck a sprig of heather…’
He looked out over the bay and it seemed to Stephen that the old man was looking at Scottish mountains that had suddenly risen up out of the glittering water.
‘Now about that whale,’ Jack said, turning his attention to Stephen.
‘The two women,’ Stephen pleaded. ‘Mother and daughter – and a little girl, can you help me in any way? I’d like to know their present whereabouts. Would the people in that house know, do you think?’
‘I doubt if anybody here knows. And that house is empty, anyway.’
‘Could you tell me some more about those two women then? Two good-time women, I think you called them.’
‘That’s right. They were a bit free-and-easy. No disrespect intended, of course, but they had a bit of a reputation around here. The daughter, now she was known as the neighbourhood bike, especially among the young lads. But the mother, Mary What’s-her-name, now she wasn’t a bad sort really. She had so much life in her, you wouldn’t believe… I once did a painting job for her in her new home, I remember now. Paid me well for it, gave me dinner, and then drove me all the way back to my place over here.’
‘Do you know her new address, then?’
‘No mate, I’m sorry. I never knew the exact address. On account of her picking me up with all my paints and paintbrushes, taking me to her place by car, and then taking me home again at the end of the day. So I ain’t got an address. But it’s a city house… let me see… a white terrace house in the middle of a whole row of double-story terrace houses with cast-iron balconies, overlooking a huge park that sort of sloped down towards the railway line not far from the City centre.’
‘Can you remember the name of the park? I’ve got a map, could you perhaps show me?’ Stephen got his map out of his rucksack and folded it open.
Jack took the map from him and flattened it against the top of the boat where the paint was dry. Stephen gave him his pen and Jack, after peering at the map for a while and running his knobbly finger this way and that way, said: ‘That’s right, here it is, near this football stadium. I remember the roar of the crowd, like hundreds of hungry lions it was. Nearly made me drop me paintbrush while I hung over the balcony every time there was a goal.’ He marked the middle of a row of houses at the top end of the park with a cross. ‘That’s where Mary What’s-her-name lives, at least she did then, some three or four years ago it must have been.’
‘Can you say anything about the younger woman, her daughter?’ Stephen asked.
‘The daughter, now, she became quite a respectable lady, someone told me recently. She has something to do with some church where they do healing and laying on of hands and that sort of thing.’
‘Do you know which parish?’
‘I can probably show you the suburb.’ Jack’s finger slid down the map. ‘Somewhere along this tramline. The bloke who told me about it said you could see from the tram a large wooden board standing next to the building advertising healing services every Thursday night. He went there for his crook leg one of them evenings, and there he saw Helen… that’s her name!… now I remember. She was helping run the service, where a whole bunch of people, mainly women, come to pray for you. She and that little kid of hers, can’t remember her name. Sweet little kid of about five or six when they lived here. Called me Mr. Kookaburra, on account of that she couldn’t say my name Kinniborough. I used to make a laughing sound like a kookaburra to make her laugh.’ Jack put some crosses along the thin black line on the map that indicated a tram line. ‘This fellah with the crook leg wanted me to go with him to one of them services, but I said nah, I don’t believe in that stuff, so he went by himself quite a few times. I don’t know if it did him any good, though; he still walks with a limp. But the pain might have gone.’
‘That little girl of six you mentioned, she would be about fourteen by now?’
‘Yeah, I reckon she would be.’
Jack folded up the map and handed it back to Stephen. Putting his hand on the young man’s shoulder, he said, ‘Well, with the few clues I’ve given you it should be possible to track down either of them relatives of yours. Should be plain sailing from here on, I reckon. Good luck son.’
© september 2018, Rudolf Paul, BasicPublishing.nl