Keeping her safe: Chapters 1-3
Keeping her safe: Chapters 1-3
Freelance journalist Danni Knight, is befriended by an elderly Chinese woman, Cynthia Shan. The wealthy Ms Shan has lived in a penthouse apartment in the notorious Kings Cross since the 1940s and is known and loved by many. Ms Shan enlists the reluctant Danni in a search for a runaway teenager, known as Britney. Intertwined with the story of the search is that of Britney as she lives homeless in Sydey.3
Crime / Suspense / Mystery / Thriller
Maggie Aldhamland (Australia)
The church is cool despite the sunlight streaming through stained glass. Ahead of me Opera Australia’s prima donna parades slowly down the aisle on her husband’s arm. They are searching, as am I, for a vacant seat. On my left, four threadbare old-timers shuffle closer together and the ragged man nearest the aisle gestures for me to squeeze in beside them. Cas is squashed onto the other end of the same wooden pew and I smile at her. She’s holding the hand of a girl wearing a maroon pillbox hat that matches her high-necked blouse. She has tucked a light scarf into one side of the hat and swept the other end around the lower half of her face. Despite the covering, I recognise her and am grateful she is here to farewell Ms Cynthia Shan.
So many are gathered in St John’s Church to say goodbye that even the choir stalls under the huge organ are occupied. Gathered together are old and young, law keepers and lawbreakers, straights and gays, streetwalkers, street dwellers and residents of posh apartments. Occupying two pews near the front of the church are a group of Chinese mourners. Douglas Shan and Theo Kouros sit side-by-side in front of the altar rail and I wonder if one or both dye their hair the rich black tone they both sport.
In the ninety-odd years of her life, Ms Shan has, in one way or another, touched each of those gathered to honour this much loved and admired lady. I knew her for a shorter time than most, but still long enough to fall under her spell. Like most of those gathered here, I regret that she has been taken sooner than we expected. Despite her age, Ms Shan had seemed indestructible.
Only a handful know how Ms Shan spent her last weeks on earth. I know, because I was close to her for the brief time we spent searching for a runaway teenager known on the streets as Britney. Theo Kouros and Douglas Shan know, as does Senior Sergeant Carmelo Russo, sitting two rows behind me. Perhaps like me they feel a twinge of guilt. Could we not have kept her safe? Would she have lived a little longer if we’d taken better care of her? But then, Ms Cynthia Shan was her own woman. She always did precisely what she wanted and would not have tolerated our getting in her way.
Britney’s story intertwines with Ms Shan’s but is harder to tell as it came to me second-hand from what Cynthia and I discovered for ourselves and what others told us. Some of Britney’s story is imagined, but it is not fiction. It is a true account of life on the streets for at least some of the 20,000 young people living homeless in Australia on any given night.
Before I ever spoke to Cynthia Shan, I knew her by reputation and by sight. Locals told me various stories about this well-known identity who had lived in Potts Point since the nineteen thirties. Some reported that she had once been a wardrobe mistress for Opera Australia, others were sure she’d worked in Hollywood after the war, while others swore she’d been a dress designer in Sydney in the nineteen fifties and sixties. There were even rumours about a connection to a well-known Sydney crime figure.
Whenever I walked past Lizzie’s café in Macleay Street between eight-thirty and eleven, I’d see Ms Shan sitting at her usual table on the footpath outside the café. She was easy to spot. She always wore one of several loose-fitting, silk jackets that were richly patterned in swirling colours and a turban-style head-wrap that matched one of the colours in her jacket. If she was alone at her table, which was rarely, she’d be reading a newspaper, usually The Financial Review. If she had a guest, the newspaper would be folded neatly to one side of her coffee cup.
Occasionally, in the afternoon I would see her tiny figure striding along Darlinghurst Road, her back straight, her head held high as though balancing a book on top of her hat. The classic, tailored suits she wore could have been fashioned for any time between the nineteen twenties and fifties. She favoured black, muted green or burgundy suits the severity of which she lightened with details such as brightly coloured scarves, a trim of a lighter colour on the lapels or large jaunty buttons. One outfit I particularly liked featured large yellow buttons all the way down the front of a bottle green jacket and a knee-length skirt. A navy suit I saw her wearing once was slashed all the way up the sides to the knee revealing a red silk lining beneath.
Ms Shan’s face was usually partly hidden behind her signature sunglasses and her lips were always perfectly outlined in coral. On her afternoon expeditions she invariably wore gloves, stockings and court shoes with small heels. Her headgear on these outings ranged from cloches that fitted tightly around her head to wide-brimmed, Audrey-Hepburn-style hats.
The first few times I noticed Ms Shan sitting at her breakfast table at Lizzie’s, I simply smiled and nodded a greeting. As time went on and the days warmed, I often started my own day with coffee at Lizzie’s and Ms Shan and I progressed to the good-morning-lovely-day-again stage. One morning as I entered the café, I stopped to sniff the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and newly baked bread.
‘Ah, I love the smell of coffee in the morning. Nothing else in the world smells like that,’ said Ms Shan from her table under the awning.
‘Yeah. It smells like breakfast,’ I said, continuing the reference to Apocalypse Now.
Ms Shan laughed. ‘Would you care to join me?’
Thus, I became one of the privileged few who took morning coffee with Ms Shan. There was only ever one other chair at her small iron table, so I was often gazumped by another of Ms Shan’s favourites. One who beat me to Cynthia’s table on some mornings was a young girl dressed in a style as striking as Ms Shan’s, though more suited to the teenager she was. I often wondered what such an old woman and so young a girl had to talk about.
Footsteps pound toward the bedroom and the girl wakes from a deep sleep. Before going to bed she’d thought about barricading her door with the heavy dresser in which she keeps her clothes, but that would have led to worse trouble.
The bedroom door flies open, slamming against the wall and hitting the dent that is made deeper each time it bangs with such force. Alcohol fumes swell from the man swaying in the doorway.
‘What you doing in bed? Where’s my dinner?’
‘It’s in the microwave. You need to heat it for a couple of minutes.’
‘I’m not eating that dried up crap. I expect a proper meal when I come home. Lord knows, you’re useless for anything else.’
‘OK, Dad. I’ll get up and make you something.’
His heavy footsteps retreat. The girl shivers into her dressing gown and pulls the cord tightly around her waist.
She knows there is food in the fridge that she can cook quickly because she always makes sure it’s there when her father returns late and hungry. Soon bacon is sizzling in the pan and peas are boiling in a pot. She cracks two eggs into the fat beside the bacon and turns down the heat. Using the oven mitt she made two years ago for Mother’s Day, she takes chips from the oven and arranges them on the warmed plate. He doesn’t like his meals served on cold surfaces. She places the rest of the food beside the fries.
‘It’s ready, Dad.’
‘About time.’ He takes a can of beer from the fridge and sits at the kitchen table. She sets the food in front of him and starts towards the door.
‘Keep your old man company while he eats, girl.’ His voice is soft and he smiles at her, tears forming in his eyes.
She sits down at the furthest end of the table.
‘Closer, love. We haven’t had a good chat in a while.’ He loads his fork with egg and bacon and takes a bite. ‘Sauce, love.’
She jumps up and fetches the ketchup She sets it in front of him.
‘Sit.’ He points to the chair nearest him.
The girl doesn’t move. ‘Dad I need to go to bed. I’ve got an exam in the morning.’
It’s her last chance to stay in the accelerated learning program, the only worthwhile thing in her life.
‘Sit down. I wanna talk to you.’
She does as she’s told.
Chapter 3 continues in my second submission
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