Murder in Mt Martha
You can read an extract below.
You can also listen to this podcast.
Nick Szabo is about to bite off more than he can chew when he interviews elderly retiree Arthur Boyle, to flesh out his thesis about defectors from the Hungarian water polo team during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. His investigations take a radically different path however when Boyle mentions the 1953 murder of work colleague, Beverly Middleton. She was only 14.
What is so powerful about the account that compels Szabo to join forces with Boyle, in a quest to uncover the truth? Is it more than just a distraction from his increasingly chaotic life that threatens to destroy all that he is? In this story of betrayer and betrayed, Boyle, too, discovers damaging truths that have his ordered world spinning out of control.
Australia in 1953 and 2013, though separated by sixty years, eerie similarities exist between public and private morality; limited education and marginal employment; poverty consoled by drugs, sex, and football.
THE SKY overhead is lined-paper blue. The rain has not come despite the forecast that promised an end to the heatwave. Szabo strides up Swanston Street towards the library, threading his way through ambling young Asians who have colonised this part of the city. He means to download his interviews to date, see if he can make some sense out of what Boyle has told him.
‘Can’t bring that in here, mate. Gotta use a locker,’ says the security guard, pointing to Szabo’s oversized backpack.
Szabo smiles hopefully, ‘Not just this once?’
Lowering his voice and straightening his tie, the security guard shakes his head. ’Place is full of smart arses today. Might turn a blind eye on a quiet day, but don’t want your stuff to get pinched, do you?’
Szabo walks into the narrow locker room squeezed in between the guard’s station and the stairs, and selects one with its door open on the second row. He removes the key and shoves it into his jeans’ pocket. Walking into the main study room, he scans for a seat, but they all seem to be occupied. He is thinking about the smart-arse comment when he notices a particularly smart arse, belonging to a woman leaning over the information desk. He tries to think of an excuse to line up behind her, then gives up and finds a spare corner in the genealogy room, where he relaxes into the rhythm of Boyle’s words as they come through on the headphones. The old man starts slowly, as if he has to think about each word before he mounts it in a sentence. But when he is warmed up, he spits the words out as if they are burning a hole in his mouth.
‘I remember the 1953 Grand Final as if it was yesterday,’ is how he began the last session. ‘Collingwood walloped Geelong. There was about ninety thousand at the MCG, and I reckon seventy thousand of us were barracking for the Maggies. Bobby Rose, you shoulda seen him. He was a magician.’ Boyle had smiled off into the middle distance at that point. ‘Bloody magician, no doubt about it. They chaired Lou Richards off at the end, you know, something I’ll never forget. Mum and I went. She bought me a saveloy and sauce at half time, although I don’t think she could afford it.’
Szabo pauses the recording, saves the words he has transcribed and hits play again.
‘And coming home, some boy got murdered. They reckon he was thrown off the train somewhere between North Richmond and Victoria Park. Funny that was, because the train woulda been packed, yet no one saw a thing. Was a bad time that was for murders and the like, though.’
He hears his own muffled voice ask, ‘Do you think there was more violence then than there is now, Mr Boyle?’
‘Oh, I dunno about that. What’ve we had? Thirty something murders, isn’t it, with all those gangland goings-on. Drugs. That’s the trouble today. No drugs around when I was a young ’un. Now they’re everywhere. All up and down Smith Street. Shocking. Young blokes, and girls too, they’re just as bad, falling over and swearing at each other, faces pimply and scratched. Most of them wouldn’t weigh a hundred pound sopping wet.’
‘But there were drugs in the fifties too, weren’t there?’
‘Not that we ever knew about. Might have been some in the arty farty set, but not in Collingwood. We had booze, cigarettes and SP bookies for the blokes, and Bex and cigarettes for the sheilas. Sex of course. There was a lot of sex. Although no one liked to talk about it like they do today.’
Szabo looks up and sees the woman with the great arse sitting along from him, examining a copy of a Sands and McDougall’s directory. She is absently twirling a lock of blonde-streaked hair between her thumb and index finger. What might be her interest in an old Melbourne street directory?
He picks up a grey-lead and presses it into the cover of his notebook. ‘Excuse me, you wouldn’t have a spare pencil, would you? I seem to have broken mine,’ he says.
She looks up, coal-black eyes ringed by coal-black lashes, tiny drops of moisture glistening above her full lips. ‘There’s sharpeners over there,’ she says, gesturing with a slender arm towards the information desk where he already knows a fleet of pencils and two sharpeners are available to anyone who might need them.
‘Oh yeah,’ he says, swivelling round to look in the direction she has pointed. ‘Hey, do you need a break or something? I’m thinking of getting a coffee.’
She raises one eyebrow.
‘We could get a take-away and sit on the lawn.’
‘Are you mad? It’s forty-something degrees out there,’ she says. ‘But a break sounds good. Let’s sit in the café, though.’
They select a small table under the blast of one of the industrial-sized fans the staff have dragged into position to deal with the Melbourne heat wave.
‘What’ll you have?’
‘Iced coffee,’ she says. ‘By the way, I’m Kathleen.’
He quickly wipes a sweaty hand on his jeans and holds it out. I’m Nick. Nick Szabo. Pleased to meet you.’
She takes it firmly in hers. ‘Why’re you here?’
‘Transcribing interviews. What about you?’
‘I’m looking for my great-great-grandfather. He had one of the first Aboriginal-run vegetable stalls at the Queen Vic Market, after he came back from the war.’
‘Yeah? Is that right?’ Szabo glances at her hand wrapped around the iced-coffee glass, condensation dribbling down its sides and onto her long coffee-coloured fingers. He wants to lick the drops, one by one, from each finger in turn.
‘He fought on the Somme, I think,’ she says, and sucks the icy drink through the straw.
He gulps his frappuccino, spilling some down his t-shirt. ‘Mmm, my great-grandfather fought in the war, too. In Hungary somewhere.’
‘Not the same as your great-grandfather’s.’
‘Are you a wog, then?’ Her eyes are fixed on his.
He laughs. ‘Sure am. And you’re Aboriginal, right?’
‘No such thing as a true-blue Aussie these days, is there?’
They sit in silence for an awkward moment. He is stunned by his choice of words.
‘Do you mind?’ she asks.
‘That I’m Aboriginal, as you put it. Or Jarra, as I put it.’
‘My people are from around the Bendigo area, Jarra people.’
‘That’s a nice name,’ he says, aware he is sounding like a seventeen-year-old undergraduate rather than a senior tutor in the throes of a doctorate. This thought, at least, loosens the tightness of his jeans. ‘Anyway, I better get back to the research before the afternoon gets away from me. Thanks for the drink.’
They walk back into the genealogy room together and re-take their seats. Szabo puts on his headphones and continues with the transcription. Boyle is still raving on about sex. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Kathleen pack up and leave without even glancing in his direction. She could have at least left her number on a scrap of paper. He watches her arse disappear from sight and wonders what he would do with a woman like that. His girlfriend Emma, who is meeting him at six after she finishes work is totally unlike Kathleen. Solid middle class stock, private school education, well-rounded vowels and a bank account to match. Attractive, most certainly, well-cut hair the colour of mahogany, polished skin, and a body like a ballet dancer’s. He checks his watch. It is only three-thirty. Time to tune in again to Boyle.
‘I was never a one for the sex, mind. Not like my uncle. Went at it like a rabbit, if you believed even half of what he told me. He shouldn’t a told me all that stuff. I was only a young bloke, hardly outa short pants. Didn’t even know about sex, except for what we kids sniggered about at school. Some of the lads had seen more than a penny’s worth, but then, as I was saying, times were tough in Collingwood, and women had to make money, too. Some of their husbands didn’t make it back from the war so it was up to them and Legacy to keep food on the table. Shocking things happened, too, like the young girl I used to work with at Coles who got murdered. Terrible business that was.’
Szabo hears his voice say, ‘What happened?’
‘Well, she went out one night and never came home. Was all over the papers for weeks. They never caught the beggar who did it. And then there was the girl in the river mystery. And the boy who was pushed out of the train that I told you about. Never got any of them that was responsible. A nurse got shot by her boyfriend, reckoned he was never right after the war. A kid got kidnapped after his father won the lottery and they found his poor little body shoved up a drainpipe. Terrible it was. Only good thing about the fifties is that Collingwood won two premierships, that one I told you about, and another in ’58. Don’t think we’ll ever see those days again.’