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Peter Corris



Horrie Jacobs was one of the smallest adults ever to walk into my office. With his shoes on his feet and his hat on his head he still wouldn’t have topped five feet by more than an inch. He was a compactly built, neat old man in a grey suit, no tie and with the Newcastle Herald under his arm.. He made the office look big, which it isn’t.

‘My name’s Horrie Jacobs, Mr Hardy. I’m from Newcastle.’

I shook his hand and waved him into the client’s chair, thinking that Novocastrians do that. You don’t find Wollongongites saying ‘I’m from Wollongong’. I have a feeling they might do it a bit in Queensland-’I’m from Rocky’- that kind of thing. I sat behind my desk, which is from Darlinghurst Office Disposals, and asked Mr Jacobs what I could do for him.

He sat, put his newspaper on the floor by his chair, took off his hat and said, ‘You’ve heard of the Newcastle earthquake?’

I nodded. Who hadn’t? It rocked Sydney and parts south, east and west, caused a lot of damage in Newcastle and killed about a dozen people up there.

‘I lived in Newcastle all my life, never saw anything like it.’ Horrie Jacobs fiddled with his hat. ‘Bricks flying around in the air. I missed out on the war but I reckon it must’ve been something like that. One of them bricks hit you and you were a goner.’

I’d taken out a notepad and written down the date and the client’s name the way the regulations governing the private enquiry agent’s trade say to do, but I wasn’t too hopeful of getting any business here. I judged his age to be about seventy. He looked like a man who’d worked hard all his life. His skin was weatherbeaten and his hands had the enlargement that goes with manual work. You don’t see it much anymore; I couldn’t remember ever having a client with wrists and hands like Horrie’s-not a paying client. And natural disasters bring them out of the woodwork- compensation nuts, litigation freaks.

I doodled on the pad-120, 150, 175-the sliding scale of per diem dollar rate I daydreamed about charging clients according to their problems and means. The trouble was, I hadn’t had any clients since I’d come up with the idea. If the Treasurer wanted the economy to slow I could show him what snail’s pace was, right here. I decided to be kind. ‘I don’t handle insurance matters, Mr Jacobs. I don’t know if you’ve dealt with any of the big insurance companies lately, but they’re not too unreasonable and you can get legal help with…’

Jacobs leaned forward in the uncomfortable chair. ‘I don’t need legal help, mate. I’m not after insurance. I live at Dudley, fifteen miles out of Newcastle. I felt the bloody quake but I didn’t lose anything. Not so much as a bloody glass.’

‘Good,’ I said. ‘Well, what’s the problem?’ As he leaned forward I noticed that his suit was well cut and that his pale blue shirt was medium expensive. I cursed the Treasurer and circled 150 on the pad.

He looked around the room, taking in the basic furnishings and low level of maintenance. I’d never heard of Dudley. Maybe it was a place for rich, retired jockeys and horse trainers or film stunt men. With his looks and build Horrie could have been any of these. In any case he seemed to be used to a better standard of accommodation. ‘What do you charge?’ he said.

I improvised. ‘A hundred and twenty a day, plus expenses. Seven day retainer, fifty per cent returnable if nothing works out after three days. I have to tell you that private enquiry agents’ fees are seldom tax deductable.’

‘I don’t have to worry about tax,’ Horrie said. ‘You stack the odds a bit your way, eh?’

‘How’s that?’ I said.

‘You get three and a half days’ pay guaranteed out of seven. By rights, it should be three. Not that it matters a bugger to me. I can afford it.’

I was starting to appreciate Mr Jacobs. I like Newcastle and if his business took me there so much the better. Good for the expense sheet and with summer coming on it d be good to get out of Sydney. I saw myself surfing at Stockton Beach while earning 120 dollars a day for… doing what? Surely nothing risky or dirty, not for a nice old guy like Horrie? His suit wasn’t that good. ‘Better give me your full name and address, Mr Jacobs, also your occupation.’

Horrie tossed his hat on to the desk, took out a packet of Senior Service and slid it open. ‘You mind? Got to say that these days.’

‘Go ahead,’ I said, and just stopped myself commenting that at his age what would be the harm. I pushed the glass ashtray that had had nothing in it but dust for a few weeks towards him and got ready to write and fight the tobacco craving. I stopped years ago, but it never goes away.

Horrie lit up with a disposable lighter, puffed luxuriously and flicked ash expertly into the glass jigger. A smoker’s smoker.

‘Horace Reginald Jacobs, sixty-nine, 7 Bombala Street, Dudley. Retired miner. Married forty years, four kids, fourteen grandchildren.’

‘Congratulations,’ I said.

He puffed angrily. ‘That supposed to be smart?’

‘No, I meant it. Especially about being married that long. That’s getting rare these days. About the kids, I wouldn’t know. I’ve never had any’

He stubbed out the less than half-smoked cigarette and took a good look at me. His pale blue eyes were surrounded by wrinkles and his face had started to cave in but not into those disapproving lines you often see. Horrie had the look of a man more interested in life than critical of it. He was looking at a face well past forty with a broken nose and a few scars from fists and bad habits. Like him I had a full head of hair but whereas his was white with a bit of dark still in it mine was the reverse. ‘You’re no spring chicken but it wouldn’t be too late to start.’

I smiled and shook my head. In one marriage and three or four serious relationships the subject had never come up. That had to mean something. ‘Perhaps you can tell me why you’re here, Mr Jacobs.’

‘Don’t you want to know how I can afford to pay you?’

I shrugged, ‘Your suit says you can. My guess is you got a good redundancy package. Good luck to you.’

He snorted. ‘You’d be wrong. I worked till the day I turned sixty-five. I got a decent super but nothing special. No, mate, the reason I can sit here with my cheque book in the pocket of a tailored suit and listen to you talk about a hundred and twenty bucks a day is that I won the Lotto a couple of weeks after I retired. Over a million.’

‘That’s terrific,’ I said. ‘You look to be in good health, your family sounds OK. I can’t see that you should have a problem in the world.’

‘I wouldn’t, if the bloody coppers and other pen pushers’d do their jobs. But they just reckon I’m old and rich and crazy and tell me to piss off.’

We were getting to it now. Some kind of bureaucratic bungle to do with the earthquake. Horrie was a miner. Maybe he knew there was a shaft under the Workers’ Club that had collapsed and killed ten or so pensioners. That’d be interesting but a bit out of my line. Ombudsman territory.

I must have looked dubious because Horrie’s voice took on a pleading note. ‘I need your help, Mr Hardy. I was put onto you by someone from the radio in Kempsey’

I was getting ready to doodle again but what he said made me grip the pencil so hard I almost snapped it. ‘Who?’

‘Woman named Helen Broadway. See, I got desperate when no-one in Newcastle’d listen to me and I started ringing the radio stations trying to get on air. Well, I got nowhere. But this Broadway woman gave me the time of day. She said she couldn’t put me on the air but she advised me to get in touch with you. I told her that I wasn’t short of a bob, see?’

Helen Broadway. I hadn’t seen her for three years but sometimes I dreamed that we were still together and laughing at something, walking somewhere, making love in one of the many ways. I never knew whether to call these good dreams or bad. They left me feeling thinned out and desperate. The antidote was to think of our last fight, over commitment and priorities and how hopeless it had all been. It was a jolt to hear her name being spoken by a stranger. I wrote ‘referred by H. Broadway’ in block capitals on the pad and tried to switch the past off and tune in to the present. ‘Tell me what you told her, Mr Jacobs.’