The large, plate-glass window of the lounge area of the River View aged care home overlooked the willow-lined banks of the Murray River in the centre of that regional city that had been home for him and his family for these many years … known for its fruit and wine industry … Mr. Daniel Flannigan lay quiet in a parked palliative care bed placed in an advantageous position that gave him a full vista of the passing river. He lay quiet in what could be describe as a pensive mood, the latest results of his advanced condition giving little to no hope of continued life expectancy. His pensive mood was not from a state of depression, no … for at his advanced age of eighty-six, he was more in a state of reflection of past events that most satisfied and pleased him in his long life.
He was thinking of Moira.
After a long marriage of sixty years and two children, Danny’s wife, Moira, passed away three years ago, leaving him lonely and listless with little will to live longer than what life ordained, so when a diagnosis of terminal cancer was pronounced upon him, he quietly greeted the news as a kind release from an empty life. Now, as the river slipped away past the window, so too did the last breaths of Danny Flannigan.
Yet, not a week ago, did he get a long visit from his son; Sargent Tom Flannigan, resident and sole officer of the Mallee Region police patrol, that oversees an area the size of Scotland. The visit was a combination of regular “touching of home base” and an inquiry into his father’s knowledge of where he was raised as a young man back in the ‘fifties. Tom was seeking Danny’s insight into a puzzling case that had come to Sgt. Flannigan’s attention with the recent discovery of a skeleton unearthed beside a lonely stretch of road just east of the town of Sedan.
It was an interesting conversation between father and son. The father, because it touched upon his main considerations of the moment, being his reflections on his life lived with Moira Kenneally, how they met and how they married. The son, the police business of wanting to get to the bottom of this mysterious skeleton. But in reality, both father and son knew the solution to the conversation was already resolved, the only missing ingredient was the crossing of the “t’s” and the dotting of the “i’s”.
Sgt. Tom Flannigan entered the private room with Danny’s care attendant who brought in a plate of soft food for lunch. Following a minor stroke a year before, Danny had lost the dexterous use of his right hand and so it was usual for the care attendant to help him with his eating, in case of a minor “spill” with the food.
“It will be fine if I help him, nurse,” Tom quietly spoke.
The nurse looked to son then father and with a nod of approval from Danny, the nurse placed the utensil on the tray and made out of the room. Tom went behind her and softly closed the door. He then pulled up a chair next to the bed and attended to the food on the plate.
“Is the tucker good, Dad?” he asked.
“It’s alright … most days …” Danny replied cautiously “depends on the cook, which days” … he narrowed his eyes a little as he watched his son’s demeanour … there was more to this one visit than the others, he was thinking.
“Everything alright, son?” Danny asked…Tom raised one eyebrow inquisitively … he pursed his lips and blew a bit of breath.
“Phoo, yeah”, he thought a moment. “Still can’t get Gloria to come live with me permanently … she’s not fond of the place.”
“Oh … well, that’s women for yer … if they don’t like it … that’s it … best to know in advance otherwise could be trouble further down the line.” And Danny took a spoon full of the food.
“Yeah, well …,” Tom wiped a smidgen of mashed potato from his father’s chin “ We’re both not getting any younger … an’ it would be good to settle down to a married life ,” and he thought for a moment before he finished … “like you and mum.”
“Would’ve been sixty-three years this month,” Danny said with a sigh.
“Yes … I suppose so … she was a tad older than you, wasn’t she?” and Tom looked down to something on the floor as he spoke, not that there was anything there, but so as he wouldn’t appear to be gazing too hard at his father as he asked him the question. Danny wasn’t fooled by the evasiveness.
“Whatcha want, Tom? There’s a choke in the pipe and you’re not getting it out.”
Sgt. Tom Flannigan stroked his chin several times and decided to come to the point of his visit.
“Was called by Jack at the council office to go look at something the road crew found there at the “Seven Sisters Junction” around a month or so ago … They were widening the intersection there because of a accident between Heinie Shultz coming home after a few at the hotel and a grain truck of “Slammers” that tipped over trying to avoid hitting Heinie’s old Ford ute … There’s a bit of a blind spot apparently and the council road crew were there widening the intersection to make it safer to see any oncoming traffic.
“And?” Danny had stopped eating and stared at the downcast face of his son.
“And …” Tom breathed, “They unearthed a skeleton that had been buried there … sometime back in the fifties.”
“How do you know it was the fifties?” Danny asked.
“There was a wallet amongst the remains with a money order in it.” Tom now looked close to his father’s reaction … “You used to work in the post office there in Sedan back in the fifties, didn’t you, when you were a young chap?” Tom stared hard at his father’s face.
Danny did not reply, but just slowly spooned the food off the plate and silently chewed.
Tom took the moment of silence to dab again at some bit of food on his father’s cheek. Danny stared back at his son before he answered.
“Yes … I did … Friday night through to midnight Sunday for Mrs Glastonbury. She ran the Post office and there had to be someone there twenty-four seven for the telephone exchange. She took back over midnight Sunday as it was the start of the new week.”
“And you used to sleep there under the front desk … right?” Tom casually spoke.
“That’s right … I had a pull out mattress … but I’d hardly call it ‘sleep’ … I had to answer the telephone if a call came through.”
Tom changed the subject.
“A lot of blokes there in the harvest season in those days, I’d say.”
“Yeah … heaps … it was all labour-intensive those days … and you had to get the harvest in quick-smart in case of bad weather … or locusts.”
“Hmm,” Tom again touched up a morsel on Danny’s face, “I suppose there was a lot of drinking and celebrating going on at the hotel too in those days”
“Too right there was,” Danny cautiously answered.
“And I shouldn’t wonder if a woman was brought in to do some singing some nights as a bit of entertainment,” Tom quietly added.
Danny paused in the lifting of a spoon full of the dinner … he replaced it on the side of the plate. A tenseness had risen between them. He then confronted his son with his own query.
“What’s this getting to, Tom? This is about that skeleton I suppose?”
Tom shifted in his chair, the creaking of the frame and the sound of the rustling of his uniform in his movement dominating the stillness of the room. He reached into his pocket and took something small out … something the size of a bulbous button. He did not display it to his father just then.
“Yes … I’m afraid it is.” He then lent in closer to Danny.
“You see, I was the first one there to examine the thing. The backhoe had exposed the bones and the men just downed tools and left it as it was for me to have a look at. I got there and poked about with a small rod just to see if it was an Aborigine or what … and I found a bottle of cheap sweet-sherry there, along with the shoes and clothing mostly rotted away from the length of time … after all, what would it be … 50 … 60 years or so … so not much left,” and then Tom gently placed the item he had taken from his pocket right in front of Danny on the dinner tray, “ … and then there was this …”
The item was a locket of soft gold … it was tarnished and marked, but whole. Danny was speechless, his mouth a little bit agape as he stared and stared at the golden locket. He reached for it, but Tom placed his own hand over the locket. Danny looked to Tom and saw his meaning. He leant back onto his pillow.
“Where did you find that?” he asked. Tom moved the locket away a little closer to himself on the tray before he answered.
“In his hand.” And Tom tilted his head as in curiosity. Danny sighed and then softly laughed …
“I always wondered if it had just been lost on the road in the scuffle and some lucky person had come across it and took it away … God! How long and how many times I looked for that treasure.”
“So, I was right in my assumption then. The locket did belong to you?”
“Well, in truth … not really mine … I gave it to her.”
Tom lifted the locket and with his fingernail edged a tiny clip at the top … it opened and Tom read from an inscription there:
“To Moira from your Danny Boy” He stared closely at his father; “That’d be you, I suppose?” he asked.
“I reckon,” Danny replied.
“Yes …” Tom left the open locket on the tray, “And I reckon if we looked closely at that lock of hair remnant there, it could be yours as well?” Danny nodded, keeping his eyes glued to the locket. Tom shifted in his chair and brought his hands together on his legs. “You see, dad … when that locket fell out of those bones of his hand … sans chain … my experience in this game straight away told me that here was a moment of anger … an act of grabbing and ripping away of a necklace and an attack on someone. I’ve been to enough fights and fracas in front-bar and footy-club to know what this means…” Tom then lifted one hand and pointed a finger onto the inscription…” and It didn’t take me many days, what with the money order scrap and the location to run down the people around in those days. “Tom then sat back in the chair, “It’s amazing the memory of those old people for those old times … clear as a bell some of them. Old Kevin Rozenswietz, f’rinstance … he remembers a young woman sang there in the hotel in those days … says he was sweet on her, as was many a young man in the town. Why even … he says … yourself.” Danny remained silent throughout Tom’s soliloquy; his eyes still fixed on the locket. Tom continued; “Took him a while to remember her name … rang me just yesterday, in fact … to tell me …,” and Tom then leaned in close to whisper the name to Danny:
Danny sank back into his pillows on the bed and looked like he was going to pass away there and then Tom sprang to his feet and called for the nurse … there followed much fussing and Tom had no further opportunity that day to follow through with his inquiry. He recovered the locket and waited for his father to recover his strength … a few more days wouldn’t matter.
It was when Tom came at his father’s request a week later that he saw the difference in him. Danny had a more relaxed look and attitude … he looked … ‘serene’ is the word Tom would later use to describe that meeting.
The first thing Danny requested from Tom was that he let him hold the locket taken from the dead man’s hand. Tom hesitated at first then realised the absurdity of his reticence, so he held out his hand and Danny took the locket and taking from a small box at his elbow, a fine gold chain, he passed the links of the chain through the ring at the top of the locket … he then held the completed set up in front of them both.
“I had the chain all the while … I found that on the road where we struggled, and I’ve had it repaired … I was always hoping against hope that I would get that locket back, and now here it is … so I can tell you the whole story of that time.”
Danny held onto the locket and chain as a kind of talisman while he regaled his son with his and Moira’s story.
Continued tomorrow …
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