Short Stories in Lockdown 3 – Walking Back

This week’s story follows last week’s, so if you want to fill in the background – which isn’t altogether necessary – read Walking Man first.

Walking Back

It’d been well over two years since Chris had been escorted from the pub. He’d been released from the hospital into the care of his parents. As a condition, he was required to remain with them for a minimum of three months after which, provided that there were no hiccups, he would be a free man. 

Kate had visited Chris every month or so. She was the first person he phoned to say that he’d been released and she immediately reminded him that he still had a place at the pub. Before the end of his three-month probation he was on the phone to Kate working out his start date back at The Willows.

He had grown very close to Amy, his eight-year-old daughter, and saw her almost every weekend. Sarah, Amy’s mother, remained distant and refused to take any responsibility for Chris’ mental state nor did she take any part in his rehabilitation. She had found a new boyfriend and was happy for the freedom when Amy spent the weekend with Chris. Kate and Amy had become friends so, knowing that Amy could visit, Chris was more relaxed about moving back to the country.

The leaves were just starting to turn in The Willows and in the courtyard Kate sipped her first coffee of the day. The earth smelt rich and full of promise even though the plants hadn’t had much more than the occasional watering through summer. 

A few minor cosmetic changes inside gave the pub an air of starting afresh and gave Kate a feeling of hope, almost for the first time since she had taken over the reins twenty years before. 

Chris’ train was arriving at ten – the Sparrowfart from the city, she called it. She was nervous about seeing Chris. When he was in hospital things were simple and structured, easily controlled. Now that he would have a will and freedom, part of her wondered how long he would be happy to stay. For the briefest moment she remembered her uncertain childhood and how it felt not being sure of much at all.

A knock at the door dragged her up. She opened it to find Chris smiling on the veranda.

“I missed the train,” he said. “But got here faster hitching a ride on a couple of trucks.”

Kate hugged him. They’d become good friends over the last couple of years.

“Dump your bag in your room and I’ll fix you some breakfast,” she said. “You must be hungry.”

“Starving!” He yelled as he ran up the stairs.

The conversation wandered around Amy, how hard it was to stay with his parents, but how grateful he was that they were there for him and Amy, how much he appreciated Kate’s visits and a dozen other things.

Kate let the words wash over her; she sat with a smile on her face for the whole time, at one point letting her mind wander to the thought that she had never had a girlfriend that she could talk to like this. Then, in the same space she realised that she had never given time to anyone the way she had given time to Chris. At that her smile changed just slightly.

By the time the first customers began to drift in at lunchtime, it was as if Chris had never left. Some of the locals remembered him and welcomed him back; Old Jacko greeted him like a long-lost brother, but everyone was Jacko’s friend.

It was a quiet day but by its end, Chris was exhausted.

“Thanks for your help today,” Kate said. “But I should’ve told you that Monday is supposed to be your day off.” Even though he knew Kate was joking, Chris got serious.

“I’m just grateful to be here, Kate. Without your help I don’t know what I’d be doing.” He trailed off.

“Oh, you’re a good worker, Chris. I’m sure you would’ve found something. Besides, working in a pub isn’t exactly the pinnacle of achievement.”

“I’m not talking about the job,” he responded quietly. “I…I know that I have Amy and I’ve been learning again how to be a Dad for her, even though I’m hundreds of k’s away now.”

“You know she can come as often as she likes, mate,” Kate interrupted.

“Yeah, yeah…I do,” Chris said quickly. “Thank you.” He looked at her and smiled before he continued. “What I mean is that…you have actually been the one who – even though you’ve been out of the family loop, maybe becauseyou’ve been out of the family loop – you’ve actually been the one who’s made me feel OK, like I’m a decent bloke. Not just a patient…or a sick son, or a messed-up dad.” 

They both stood quietly as tears appeared in Chris’ eyes. Kate didn’t move towards him. She recognised that he needed to speak. He blinked and looked up at her.

“I don’t think you could possibly know what it’s meant to me.” He stopped and smiled coyly as if wanting to say more; instead, he simply said goodnight, turned and went upstairs.

Kate made a cup of tea and sat for a while. She knew that it took guts for Chris to say those things, but she was troubled.

It made her ponder why she stood by Chris when others, even some of his closer friends, just walked away. She thought of visits, conversations and the day she told him that there would always be a job for him at The Willows. Mostly, she knew that she didn’t really think about it; she just went with her gut.

She had thought about these things over the two years that Chris was in hospital, of course, but it always came down a matter of belief, and she didn’t believe that he was sick; maybe he was confused, tired and hurt, and it had taken him three years on the run to get up the guts to finally tell Sarah what he thought of her and how she’d treated him; but he wasn’t sick.

Maybe she related to him and it was more a brother/sister thing that she felt. In any case, by the time she went to bed she was none the wiser.

Tuesday dawned overcast and humid, as sometimes happened in the Willows in Autumn. The weather bureau had been talking about rain for over a week. 

Chris was sitting quietly with a coffee in the courtyard when Kate came down. He had a few old local newspapers and was flicking through them. 

“Just catching up on the big news,” he said with a smile. “There’s not a lot of other reading material around here.”

“Oh, where did you get them?” Kate asked, trying not to show concern. She quickly picked them up. “I’ve been meaning to put these things in the recycling for ages. I thought I had everything tidied up for you!” She smiled.

“The rest are in the kitchen store room,” he said. “I’ll go and grab them.”

“No, no,” she hurriedly responded. “Err…why don’t you take today off, seeing you worked yesterday? Set your room up and get comfy. I can always yell out if things get busy.” 

Chris went to get up. “Well, I might get some breakfast then, if I’m not allowed to do anything else.”

Kate made herself a cup of tea while Chris fried eggs.

“So, what was in the local paper that you didn’t want me to see?” He asked. Kate considered continuing the charade but thought better of it. She sighed.

“After you were arrested there was a lot of coverage and discussion, for want of a better word; some of it – most of it – wasn’t very pleasant. I didn’t want you to have to face it so soon.”

“Thanks,” he smiled. “But I’m a big boy.”

Kate smiled weakly. “There was a lot of gossip around town too. Of course, no one had the guts to talk to me directly.”

“Then they’re not worth worrying about,” said Chris. Kate was silent. She’d had a lot of fights and simmering feuds over the years, with people whose noses always seemed to be stuck in her business; she didn’t know if she was up for another long-term battle. Chris put his hand on her shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Kate. Seems like life would’ve been a lot simpler if I’d stayed away.”

Something stirred in Kate at the injustice of his words.

“Simple is nice,” she said. “But it wouldn’t be right. I know you’re a good, decent man…so they can all get fucked!”

Chris smiled. “Well, let’s see what we can do about that after breaky,” he said. Kate laughed and hugged him.

“It’s good to have you back,” she said.

The days went by and everyone seemed to be glad that Chris was back. Amy came every second weekend and, now that Chris had his licence back,  they went horse-riding or borrowed the ute to go fishing in the dam. Amy and Kate got on well and enjoyed their meals together and the occasional walk to the bakery. Amy thought the pub was fun and looked forward to her visits. So did Kate. There were a few gossipers that Meg from the bakery overheard now and then; she usually reported them to Kate over a cup of tea and a laugh. Apart from that, all seemed to be quite peaceful in The Willows.

One morning, Vaughan, the Kiwi postie, brought a large letter that needed to be signed for. In Kate’s experience, such letters never contained good news. This was no different. On a letterhead of The Willows/Burrandeena Chamber of Commerce was written: “For the attention of the proprietor of The Willows Hotel concerning attached petition.” Kate flipped the page to read,

 “We the undersigned wish to protest the presence of Christopher Douglas in The Willows. He is a convicted criminal and a potential danger to women and children. Because of these things we demand his immediate dismissal and expulsion from the vicinity of The Willows and Burrandeena.”

 At the bottom of the page were several poorly printed photographs of Chris that were clearly designed to make him look like a criminal. After that were a total of four hundred and ninety seven names and signatures. Kate read through them and noticed that the great majority rarely visited The Willows and were from the larger neighbouring town of Burrandeena. Of the dozen who gave their addresses as The Willows, three were octogenarians who only came to the pub for the wake of someone they knew, five were teetotalling members of the local Methodist church who had always looked down their noses at Kate anyway, three were from outlying farms and whom Kate didn’t really know, and the final was old Bert at the local store, an old friend of Kate’s. At that, Kate was furious.

“Right,” said Kate as she stood. “Let’s see what you’ve got to say for yourself, Bert, old lad.” She marched out the door and down the hill to McKinlay’s-Everything-Including-the-Kitchen-Sink store. 

The bell nearly jingled off its hanger above the door as Kate flew in.

“G’day Katie!” Said Bert.

“Don’t you g’day me, Bert McKinlay! What do you call this?” She threw the petition down on the counter. Bert glanced at it.

“Buggered if I know,” he answered.

“Well your name’s on it!”

Bert looked again and saw the letterhead and the signature of Garth Beazley, the head of the local Chamber of Commerce.

“Oh, that’s the one that Garth was on about. Apparently some criminal in town or over at Burrandeena – a child molester.”

“That so-called criminal is Chris!” Said Kate. “And he isn’t! All charges were dropped and he was never a child molester.”

“Chris?!” Said Bert. “Is that his full name? Jeez. If I’d known that I wouldn’t’ve signed it. And you say it’s bullshit?”

“I’d stake the pub and my life on it. I’ve known him and his family for a couple of years now and you won’t meet a more genuine bloke.”

“That bloody Garth is a mischievous shit, isn’t he? ” Said Bert.

Garth was a mischievous shit. It was his father who tried to take the pub from Kate back when her own father died. There’d been bad blood between them up until old Beazley died a couple of years before. It seemed that Garth had put on his father’s shoes.

“I’m sorry, Katie,” said Bert. “If I’d known who it was about I’d’ve given Garth a boot up the arse then and there!”

The next stop for Kate was the police station to show Kev, the local cop.

“That’s not right,” said Kev, referring to the “convicted criminal” phrase. “And he’s not a danger to women and children. Looks like Garth got all the nastiness of his Dad minus the brains. This is libellous.”

That was all Kate needed to hear.

“Is there anything you can do about it?” Asked Kate. “I mean, Garth told old Bert that Chris was a child molester.” Kev shook his head.

“Let me talk to a couple of them,” he said. “Starting with Garth Beazley.” He shook his head again. “I just don’t understand what he thinks he’ll get out of it.”

“He wants my pub, Kev. The bloody Beazleys have had their eyes on it for twenty years. He’s trying to turn people against me. Fortunately, the good ones know better.” She stormed back to the pub.

“Where have you been?” Asked Chris as Kate walked in. She looked around, saw that there were no customers yet and thought quickly.

“Grab a couple of beers and meet me in the courtyard. We need to talk.”

Kate explained the situation to Chris as quickly as she could, that the Beazley family had been looking for ways to get her pub for twenty years and now they were using Chris as a pawn to turn people against her.

“Why do they want this pub so much?” Asked Chris. “I mean…I love the place, but…”

“Yeah…I’ve asked myself that a lot over the years. Well, it’s the only pub in town for a start; there are three over in Burrandeena, so there’s no competition here, But, I think the real reason is that they’ve felt entitled to it.

“See, when my Dad died he owed a fair bit of money to Old Man Beazley that Dad had borrowed to feed his own habits as it were. He used the pub as security. When I decided to take over the business, Beazley demanded his money immediately. I didn’t know what to do…didn’t have any money to fight it or pay him back. No banks were interested. Some of the kind locals took up a collection but it was only a fraction of what I needed.”

“So, what happened?” Chris asked. “Must’ve been some sort of miracle!” Kate laughed.

“Yeah, it was! Turned out that Dad had a sort of wealthy, feminist, philanthropist cousin who heard of my plight through the family grape vine and offered to lend me the money interest-free. Saved my life! She even came out to have a look at the place and gave me a couple of business tips. She was a sweet old bird.

“I had her paid off in five years. She was thrilled…not that I’d paid her back, but that I was making a go of it. When she died I found out that she’d intended to forgive me the debt, but I’d already paid it back.”

“So here we are,” said Chris. He looked at Kate. “This can’t be serious, can it? I mean, it’s total bullshit.”

“True,” said Kate. “But people get into government on bullshit; in fact they seem to run government on bullshit.

“I’m not worried about The Willows, but I get a fair bit of business from Burrandeena, especially weekends when people come for lunch and stay over. I can’t afford to lose it. I think we’ve got to work out a way to turn this back on him.”

The next afternoon Meg from the Bakery bustled up for a cup of tea, eager to fill Kate in on the latest news.

“I’m sure you know about the petition by now.” Meg began. “A couple of the old church ladies, Gem and Jan, seemed very proud of themselves when they were nattering about it.”

“Yeah, they were on it,” said Kate. “And it’s full of lies. We’re exploring our legal options at the moment, but it’s going to be expensive. The only nearby lawyers are in Burrandeena and Beazley will have all of them in his pocket.”

“Well,” said Meg. “I’ve decided to do something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.” 

She’d put her penchant for gossip to good use and offered to write a weekly column for the Burrandeena Times called, News from The Willows. “Here’s my first one.” She pulled a folder from her bag and passed it to Kate. It was headed, “Good old Chris is back at The Willows.” Kate read parts out loud that spoke of Chris in glowing terms as a near-tragedy survivor, loving father, hard worker who’s good with a joke and much-loved by the locals at The Willows Hotel.

“I had to interview him, of course,” Meg smiled blushingly. Kate looked up from the page.

“Meg Martin, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you blush!” Kate handed the page back. “It’s perfect, Meg. Every little bit will help sway public opinion.” 

Jacko was sitting at the bar talking to Chris about the death of cricket and other sports that had gone “over-the-top” professional.

“It’s one of the reasons I drink so much,” he explained. “Once upon a time there was integrity and sportsmanship. ‘It’s just not cricket’ was a saying that meant something; now with all the carry-on in the game it could actually mean the opposite!”

Chris nodded and chuckled in assent as all good bartenders should; but his mind was elsewhere. He’d been formulating a bit of a plan; a simple plan that he knew couldn’t fail.

After closing, Chris and Kate sat and talked. She liked his plan but thought that it might require more than she had the ability for. Chris assured her that he’d be right behind her lending support.

Kev dropped in to the pub the following evening after he knocked off. He sat at the quiet end of the bar and Chris set him up with a beer.

“So, did you catch up with Bugalugs Beazley,” Kate said as she sat beside Kev.

“I did…and he wasn’t backing down from his position; mind you, his position is completely untenable. I explained the legal ramifications. Of course you would need to bring an action against him – actually against everyone on the petition – but the law would be on your side.”

“I don’t know if I can afford it, Kev,” she responded. “Either the money or the grey hair.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry, Kate. Wish there was more I could do. Just between us, the guy is a huge fuckwit, if you didn’t know already. But he’s got everyone in his pocket over there, including the local paper. They’ll be a bit more careful than him about what they put in print though.”

Kate’s eyes focussed a little more keenly on Kev’s last words. She looked across at Chris who was wiping the bar but listening to the conversation. He caught her eye and smiled.

“Yeah,” she said. “Well, let’s see what they will print. We’ve got a couple of ideas. Thanks Kev; you’re a champ.”

The next morning at nine there was a knock on the office door. Kate opened it to see Garth Beazley and his offsider standing on the porch. 

“Just you, Garth,” she said. “That was the arrangement. I won’t be bullied; your little mate can wait in the car.”

Garth nodded to the offsider, who retired as Garth stepped inside.

“Sit down, please,” said Kate as she sat behind her desk. “I’ll cut to the chase, Garth. I need you to do something for me, and before you give me an answer, I want you to go away and think on it.” She paused for effect. “Now, I know that thinking isn’t your strong suit, as the last few days have shown…” Beazley went to protest but Kate continued over him. “But I think we might have something to get that old, withered, walnut sparking again.”

“Listen Kate, I came in good faith because you asked me. I didn’t come to be insulted.”

“Fair enough,” said Kate. “What I want you to do is print a small retraction – nothing big, a quarter-page would be fine – on the front page of the Burrandeena Times, apologising for the petition.” Beazley laughed but Kate continued. “You don’t have to say that you lied if you don’t want to; you can say that you were misinformed by your sources or something like that. I can write something up for you if you’d like.”

Beazley was about to respond when there was a noisy clatter from the kitchen. Kate yelled through the half-open internal door.

“That you Chris?!”

“Yep!” Responded Chris, his ear glued to the conversation through the kitchen intercom.

“What’s going on?!

“Just…ah…just sharpening the chef’s knives!”

She thought that Chris’s theatre was a little melodramatic but observed that Garth was wriggling a little uncomfortably in his seat. She watched him and began on a different tangent as if the thought had just occurred to her.

 “You know, Garth, there’s no telling what Chris might do under pressure. I know that you have security cameras everywhere but they won’t be much good if you’re…well, if you’re dead.” She shrugged on the last words and felt it was a nice touch. “Sorry to be blunt…but remember, Chris has already been temporarily insane. He said that the hospital was quite nice; anyway, he’d get out after a few years.”

Garth began to stand.

“Is that a threat?” He blustered. “I’ll report it!”

“I’ll just deny it, Garth. Remember that you’re the one who lied in print. But that would save me a lot of expense in bringing it to court, and when it comes out that you lied to get people to sign that petition, I don’t reckon there’ll be too many on your side…especially not the judge.

“Plus I believe you used the term ‘child molester’ as well – and I have a witness who is very keen to put you in your place. Defamation is a very serious matter. It could end up costing you a lot more than this little pub is worth…”

Beazley started sputtering and fuming but Kate was on a roll now. She got up into his face and spoke quietly but intensely.

“You picked the wrong people to cross, Beazley. Now you set it straight or we will.” She opened the door and he bustled out. “I look forward to hearing from you by lunchtime. Email is fine.” She called after him.

As she closed the door, Chris came in. “You were amazing!” He said. She collapsed into the chair.

“I might be tough,” she said. “But that nearly killed me.

“Now it’s my turn,” said Chris. “Phase two!”

A little after eleven that same morning, Burrandeena’s Senior Constable Rick Harris was on duty. He had just gotten off the phone to his friend, Sergeant Kev Holman from The Willows, who had just filled Rick in on the petition and Garth’s inappropriate actions. The phone rang again.

“Burrandeena Police. Senior Constable Harris speaking.”

“It’s Garth Beazley. That crazy fella from The Willows has showed up outside my office. I know he’s going to try and kill me!” Garth was in panic mode and Rick smiled at the timing.

“Good morning, Mr Beazley,” Rick responded calmly. “What makes you think that he wants to kill you?”

“They threatened me!” He blurted.

“Who are they, sir?” 

“Him and that Kate Cooper woman who owns the pub over there! Look! I can see him standing across the road looking at me! What are you going to do?”

“I’ll pop down and have a look, Mr Beazley,” said Rick. “And I’d also like to ask you a couple of questions to clarify things when I get there.”

Two minutes later Rick rolled up and Beazley came running out.

“He’s over there, in the hardware store! He’s going to kill me!”

“Ok, Mr Beazley. I’ll keep an eye on things. If he’s in the hardware, then he’s not a problem right now. I wouldn’t mind asking you a couple of questions, though.”

“But what about Douglas?!” Beazley protested.

“We’ll worry about Mr Douglas when he comes out. In the meantime you said that they threatened you. Could you tell me the situation please?”

“I…ahhh…well…” Beazley paused long enough to realise that what he’d said to this policeman in fear, could actually be his own undoing. “Ahhh…I was talking to Ms Cooper.”

“About what?” Inquired Senior Constable Harris. Beazley paused.

“About the petition regarding Chris Douglas.”

“And what was the petition actually saying?” Rick was squeezing Beazley.

“Well, a number of people have been unhappy about Mr Douglas being there, especially with regard to his criminal record…” Rick interrupted.

“Mr Douglas doesn’t have a criminal record to my knowledge. The police are normally informed in such instances. Is there some information you have that we should know, Mr Beazley?”

Beazley stared at the policeman, unsure of what to say next. He opened his mouth to speak when Chris came out of the hardware. Senior Constable Harris signalled to Chris.

“Good morning, sir,” said the policeman. “I wonder if I could have a few minutes of your time.”

“Sure,” said Chris. “What’s the problem?”

“Might I ask what brings you to Burrandeena?”

“I often come here to shop and today I just needed something from the hardware,” said Chris. “A whetstone, actually, for sharpening knives.”

 “I see,” said Rick. “Well, Mr Beazley here was under the impression that you had threatened him.”

“Mr Beazley?” Said Chris. “Oh, is this Mr Beazley? I’ve never even met him, but it would seem that he has actually been more aggressive towards me lately. How do you do, Mr Beazley…” Chris reached out his hand towards Garth, but Garth shuffled in behind the policeman.

“You two have never met?” Asked Rick; he turned to Beazley. “Then how did you know it was Mr Douglas?.”

“I….err…,” Garth fumbled for words. “I saw some photos.”

“Whose photos?” Asked Chris.

Garth was finally speechless

“Hmmm…” said Rick, deliberating. “Well, I don’t see any evidence of threat, Mr Beazley. There is some suspicious behaviour but it isn’t on Mr Douglas’s part.” Garth looked horrified. 

“Are you going to let him go?” Garth seemed incredulous.

“Nothing you have said has persuaded me that I should do otherwise, sir.” He turned to Chris. “Thanks for your time, Mr Douglas.” Chris nodded.

“I’d better get back; it’s nearly lunchtime.” He looked straight at Garth with a smile. 

“Nice to meet you, Mr Beazley.”

Lunchtime came and went at the pub without event. Kate checked her emails every few minutes but nothing had come from Beazley. 

At three o’clock Kate sidled up beside Chris at the bar. “What do we do now?”

“Give it time,” said Chris. “He was absolutely shitting himself this morning. The cop was brilliant and we didn’t even set that up. Fortune is smiling on us.”

“All the same…” her words trailed off.

At three seventeen an email arrived from Garth’s secretary in somewhat cryptic language:

I agree to your terms. It will be on page three. That is the end of the matter.

Kate laughed out loud and couldn’t help but respond with:

We’ll decide if it is the end of the matter.

Chris laughed too as Kate hugged him. “One up for the good guys!” She said. As it turned out, Fortune was smiling on them because although Garth’s retraction wasn’t on the front page, it was right next to the first edition of News from the Willows, full of praise for Chris, which made it sting that much more for Garth. It was also a great advertisement for the pub and the bloke who worked behind the bar.