The Disappearance of Anna Popov ; Chapter 2; Somewhere in the bush near Bathurst, 1 January, 2010


Somewhere in the bush near Bathurst, 1 January, 2010
The old van lurched alarmingly to one side – tortured gears crunching loudly – and began the steep descent down into the valley. Jack woke with a start. Rubbing his aching shoulder – a constant reminder of the sniper’s bullet that ended his stint as a war correspondent in Afghanistan – he turned to Will.



‘Where are we?’ he asked, reaching for his sunglasses.
‘Goldmining country. We just passed Bathurst. Good sleep? A little too much Bollinger, perhaps?’ suggested Will good-naturedly. ‘You should have stuck to the beer, mate.’
‘What did you tell her?’ Jack asked. Leaving the party at dawn with Will to go back home and pack was still a blur.


‘I suggested she let you go for a month, and after a bit of argy bargy, we settled for a week. Done and dusted. She’s taking a few days off as well. Barrier Reef. That helped. But you’re right, she’s one tough cookie. She even challenged me to a drinking contest – vodka shots – before she agreed. We must have downed a dozen, I reckon.’
‘Who won?’
‘You’re here, aren’t you? The things I do for a chum.’
‘Where are we staying?’
‘Camping, Jack. Just like we used to. I know a good spot up in the hills by the creek. This area used to be Dad’s favourite, remember? The gear’s in the back,’ Will said, ‘including the old tent.’
‘It leaked like a sieve,’ said Jack. He was beginning to have second thoughts. Maybe New Year’s Eve nostalgia and a little too much champagne had got the better of him.
As young men, he and Will had been inseparable. Will’s family had taken in the fresh-faced Queensland country boy as one of their own.
The two lads had accompanied Will’s father on many a buying trip, going from farm to farm in remote rural areas and offering to buy old stuff nobody needed. Buy cheaply, take the goods back to Sydney, do them up a bit in the workshop behind the house and then sell them for a handsome profit in the shop at the front.
‘Presentation is everything,’ Will’s dad used to say. ‘Remember boys, the wrapping can be more important than the present.’ He had made a good living out of this for over fifty years. After he passed away, Will continued the tradition once a year or so, for old times’ sake. Jack had many fond memories of those trips: delicious roast dinners with a farmer and his family in the cosy kitchen; sitting on the veranda of a remote homestead with a cold beer at the end of a long hot day; and many a romp in the hay with a farmer’s daughter. Even, sometimes, his wife. Or both.
Most of the furniture in Jack’s house came from these excursions. It was surprising what curios had found their way to Australia and were waiting in disused sheds or in the back of barns to be discovered by someone with imagination and an eye for value. Jack and Will used to joke about it often. The father’s buying trips had turned into a nostalgic treasure hunt for the son and his friend.
After putting up the old tent by the creek, Will made a fire and cooked some sausages. ‘What’s she really like?’ he asked, stoking the fire.
‘To tell you the truth, I don’t know her that well.’
‘How come?’
‘We’ve been flat out these last couple of months travelling together, on and off. All business.’
‘She’s a good looker, that’s for sure. Very sexy; great body. She must be pushing 40, surely?’
‘She’s a bit of a health buff.’
‘What? All carrot juice and push-ups?’
‘No. Yoga and karate. She’d deck us both in three seconds flat. I’ve seen her do it. Very fit.’
‘Bodyguard as well. Impressive.’
‘She’s also very smart, sophisticated and incredibly well connected.
She knows all the right people.’
‘Not as far as I know. Career type; too busy.’
‘Well, then?’
‘Come on, mate, it’s me you’re talking to. She’d be great in the sack.’
‘I don’t look at her that way. She’s a professional. She takes care of my business interests. The royalties; the financial side of things.’
‘Don’t give me that crap.’
‘No, I’m serious. Never put your dick in the cash register, as my first editor used to say.’
‘You must have at least thought about it.’
‘Hmm … There’s something about her … I can’t put my finger on it, but …’
‘She sure likes you …’ interrupted Will.
‘You can tell, can you?’
‘She and I are drinking buddies – remember?’
‘Well, that explains it …’
‘We’ll see. Here; done.’ Will took the pan off the fire and put the sausages on a plate. Accidentally touching the hot pan, he burnt his fingers and almost dropped it. ‘Shit! Throw us another tinnie, mate, and let’s get stuck into it.’
They were both asleep just after sundown.

‘There’s enough grog in here to get an entire football team pissed several times over, but no food at all,’ complained Jack next morning, searching in vain for some eggs and bacon for breakfast.
‘I’m the alcohol technician, you’re the cook, remember?’ replied Will, tinkering with his fishing gear. ‘I fixed dinner last night, mate. Breakfast is your job.’
‘Sausages. Big deal.’
‘If you don’t like the tucker, get some fresh stuff. The village is just down the road.’
The only thing open in the tiny hamlet was the corner store which also served as the post office and petrol station. The man behind the counter turned out to be the local real estate agent minding the store for a mate who’d gone to visit family. Inquisitive by nature, the agent was intrigued by the old van with ‘Arthur Hamilton & Son – second-hand furniture bought and sold’ prominently painted on its sides. The business logo – a laughing kookaburra perched on the arm of a rocking chair – reminded him of a biscuit tin popular in the 1950s. After half an hour of small talk, Jack had managed to buy some meagre provisions. He had also managed to arrange their first assignment.
By the time he manoeuvred the van back into camp, it was already lunchtime and very hot. Holding a fishing rod with one hand, Will was dozing under a tree by the creek.
‘Enjoying your holiday, mate?’ asked Jack, unpacking the groceries. ‘Here, look at this.’ He handed Will a crumpled piece of paper.
‘What’s that?’
‘A map.’
‘Our first assignment. You didn’t think I drove this contraption all the way into the village just to buy some eggs?’
‘And you didn’t think I invited you along just because you’re a famous author, eh?’ retorted Will. ‘Be a good sport and throw us a tinnie.’
They waited until late afternoon had taken the sting out of the sun before setting out to find the farm. Following a rutted track for several kilometres, they turned a sharp corner and stopped in front of a wooden gate which had all but rotted off its hinges.
‘What a dump,’ said Jack, pushing the gate open with his shoulder. ‘The agent did warn me the place is about to be demolished. No one’s lived here in years. A stockbroker from Sydney just bought it and wants to get rid of all the furniture and stuff. The agent said we should grab what we want and meet him in the village tomorrow to make an offer. This could be our lucky day.’
Will looked around the ramshackle yard. ‘I doubt it,’ he said and shook his head.


The abandoned homestead had definitely seen better days. Part of the wooden structure had been destroyed by fire and was open to the elements. The front door was missing and the corrugated iron roof of the veranda had collapsed. Most of the windows were broken. Coming closer,


Jack noticed something shiny and tightly coiled like a sailor’s rope on the deck of a yacht, glistening in the sunlight. Shit! A red bellied black, thought Jack, watching the deadly snake sunning itself on the warped floorboards of the porch; an ominous sentinel, guarding the entrance to a forbidden place.
‘You got a bum steer, mate. The place is empty. We’re wasting our time,’ said Will. He turned around and began to walk back to the van. ‘Let’s go.’
‘The agent said all the stuff’s in a barn behind the house – see?’ Jack kept an eye on the snake, and picked his way carefully through the tall grass. ‘Here, give me a hand.’ Together they pushed open the old wooden door and peered inside.
The small barn was filled with all kinds of furniture, kitchen utensils, farming implements and carpentry tools. Broken crockery, pages torn from books and magazines, crumpled old newspapers and an assortment of cutlery and pottery shards littered the floor. Everything was covered in dust.


‘Well, well, what have we here then, eh?’ asked Jack, squinting into the gloom.
Will picked up a candle from the floor and lit it. ‘Look at this,’ he said.
‘What’s that?’
‘A harmonium.’ Will pulled over a rickety stool, sat down in front of the keyboard and began to operate the bellows with the broken foot pedals.


He handed the candle to Jack and started to play. At first, the air in the protesting bellows responded with a tortured, wheezing sound, but it soon turned into a melody, faint and church organ-like. The hymn sounded eerie and out of place in the barn filled with abandoned possessions of generations past.
‘I didn’t know you could play.’
‘Sunday school. You never forget.’
They pushed the harmonium aside and began to explore the barn.
Their curiosity aroused, they opened tea chests, emptied drawers and peered into hatboxes and armoires crammed with vintage clothing. They pored over photo albums filled with sepia portraits of dapper gentlemen wearing their Sunday best and Victorian matrons staring blankly into space. Pulling funny faces, they tried on waistcoats, bonnets and bowler hats and took turns parading in front of the cracked dressing table mirror.
Outside, the afternoon had turned to night, the shrill, monotonous hum of cicadas the only intrusion on the stillness. Exhausted, they lay down on an old double bed next to the window.
‘It’s a strange feeling, isn’t it?’ said Will.
‘What is?’
‘Being surrounded by all this stuff that once belonged to real people. Now long gone.’
‘It is a bit,’ said Jack.
‘It makes you feel … vulnerable.’
‘In what way?’
‘Here we are, both in our prime, yet …’
‘What are you getting at?’
‘The Ferryman is never that far away …’
‘That’s a bit morbid,’ said Jack.
‘It’s true, though. We don’t know how much time we’ve got …’
‘No, we don’t. And yes, one day we’ll have to pay the Ferryman. But …’
‘What?’ asked Will.
‘Not yet. Go to sleep.’


Unable to fall asleep, Will looked through the broken window panes at the stars blazing above and listened to the regular breathing of his friend lying fast asleep next to him. Feeling suddenly quite cold, he got up and began to search for something to cover himself with.
This’ll do, he thought, reaching for the old moth-eaten Army overcoat he had tried on before. I wonder what horrors this has seen?


When Will pulled the coat up to his chin to keep warm, a dank smell assaulted his nose, conjuring up images of trench warfare, whistling shells, mateship and blood. Smells of death, he thought, pushing the coat aside. Would Jack lay down his life to save a mate? Will asked himself, like many of the Diggers have done? I think he would. Will closed his eyes. Could I do the same? I guess only the real thing can answer that, he thought and drifted to sleep.
By the time they woke up and began to load up the van, the first rays of morning sun had kissed the tiny beads of dew glistening like tears on the broken window panes.

PS Don’t forget to visit us again next Friday for your next instalment of The Disappearance Of Anna Popov. Or better still, may I invite you to sign up for our blogs, Letters from the Attic, and you will be notified when a new one is due. That way, you will never miss out!


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