When the grandfather she never knew is found dead, Tessa discovers the true nature of the legacy he left her family.
The death knock came almost as a relief. That’s what they call it, isn’t it, when the police come to tell you someone has died? We were sitting across the table from each other, eating our dinner in silence, avoiding each other’s eyes, when the doorbell rang.
‘Mr Albert Cutler?’
They identified themselves then asked to come in. Dad let them in and led them into the kitchen. There were two of them, in plain clothes, one a young male still learning how to look caring but uninvolved. The older one was female, no nonsense, always ready to take charge. Dad didn’t offer them a seat or introduce them to me.
The woman hesitated, then just said what she’d come to say. ‘I’m sorry to inform you, Mr Cutler, that your father has been found dead.’
It must be a terrible job, doing the death knock, confronting strangers with the worst news they’ll ever hear. They must face everything from wild grief to violent hostility. I could see them bracing for it, but Dad gave them nothing.
‘His body was discovered a week ago by a council environmental officer. They needed him to cut his grass.’ She paused for a reaction, but, not getting one, continued. ‘We think he’d been there for several weeks.’
The young male went green just at the thought of it.
‘It’s taken us this long to track you down.’
‘I’m sorry to have put you to so much trouble.’
She paused, but went on when she realised she wasn’t getting anything more. ‘We need you to come down to the morgue and give us a formal identification.’
‘I doubt I’d be much help. I haven’t seen him in years and after a few weeks…’
‘They can take a DNA sample.’
She handed him a card. ‘First thing tomorrow morning?’
Her duty done, she turned to leave, then paused and fished another business card out of her folio. ‘By the way, we got your name from your father’s will. You’re the sole beneficiary. The house is a wreck, but the land must be worth a pretty penny.’
Was she accusing my father of murder? There was no use asking me for an alibi. I could only vouch for the last couple of days.
‘The solicitor asked me to give you this.’
She handed him the card and Dad took it with a slight nod. He walked them to the front door, came back to the table and sat down to finish his dinner.
I could see he wasn’t going to say anything, so it was up to me, as usual. ‘You’ve never mentioned you had a father… or a mother.’
‘Well, obviously I had both at some stage.’
‘Whenever we asked Mum she used to say that for all she knew you may as well’ve been hatched from the primeval egg. But I’ve seen your belly button, so I figure she must be wrong about that.’
Dad almost smiled.
‘Tell me about your mother and father.’
‘There’s nothing much to tell. One just died, the other…’ He shrugged, stood up and put his plate in the sink. I wasn’t going to get any more tonight.
At this point I really should pause and tell you something about my family, shouldn’t I?
My name’s Tessa Cutler, and as you’ve probably already guessed, I don’t see much of my father. He and my mother were only together for a few years, just long enough to produce me and my brother Spencer who’s eighteen months younger than me. Not that we live that far apart. When they split up Mum stayed in Geelong and Dad moved back to Melbourne. Apart from the fact that he was from Melbourne, had been transferred by Ford from the Broadmeadows plant to Geelong and that he was a brilliant mechanical engineer who had worked his way up from the factory floor, Mum knew nothing much about him when she fell in love with him.
When I was old enough to understand she told me how it happened. She was in the accounts office when Dad arrived. He was tall, fair and handsome and all the girls fancied him, but he was aloof and a bit too intellectual for most of them. Mum didn’t let it put her off. She just kept coming at him until he couldn’t say ‘no’ any longer. She told me she fell in love with the damaged little boy behind his lovely blue eyes, but it was that damaged little boy she couldn’t live with in the end, even though she still loved him. I think it was to try to heal a broken heart that she kept throwing herself at men after that. She just got more and more heartbroken and resorted to the bottle to dull the pain. Spence and I became experts at picking her up and putting her to bed.
Dad dutifully visited us on Christmas Day and our birthdays. During the summer holidays he would let us stay with him for a week when we would be put through a tight schedule of sightseeing and activities, though he never quite kept up with our ages and his idea of fun was always that little bit too young for us, and, as I began to notice as I got older, no fun at all for him. Apart from that we never saw him. He always claimed he was too busy at work to see more of us. As we came into our late teens, we got too busy to see him and so we were reduced to telephone calls on Christmas Day and our birthdays, and maybe a begrudged weekend during the holidays, though even that fell away once we got into our twenties.
This was the first time I’d stayed with Dad for at least ten years. I had my own reasons for getting away from Geelong, but maybe we’ll get into that later.
Dad knocked on my door early the next morning. ‘Will you be able to entertain yourself today?’ he asked through it.
I got up and opened it. ‘Why? What will you be doing?’
‘I’ve got to go to the morgue and then I’ve got an appointment to see that solicitor.’
I had come up to Melbourne to try to connect with my father and this was the perfect opportunity. I wasn’t going to let him slide out from under it. ‘Can’t I come too?’ I asked.
‘It won’t be pleasant.’
‘I’ll manage… and it’s not something you should have to do alone.’
He paused, thinking of what to do. He wouldn’t admit it, but I think he appreciated my offer. ‘All right. Can you be ready in half an hour?’
The pathologist was understanding when Dad said he didn’t want to view the body. So was I. I was curious about my newfound grandfather, but not that curious. Instead, the pathologist took a swab from Dad and we made an appointment for a week later for the results. Then we went to see the solicitor.
The woman who came for us in the waiting room seemed under stress, more interested in our file than in us.
‘Mr and Mrs Cutler. I’m Connie Santorini. Please come through.’
‘It’s Mr and Miss,’ I told her, which was the first time she actually looked at us. She blushed a little when she saw the thirty-year difference between us and how alike we looked.
‘Of course. Come in. Take a seat. My condolences for your loss.’
Dad just nodded, which made her blush again.
‘Good, right.’ She opened the file in front of her. ‘I have your father’s will here. It’s all in order. Your father appointed us executors of the will, but you don’t have to worry about our fees. They’ll all come out of the estate together with any stamp duty or land taxes due. As you’re the only beneficiary, probate shouldn’t take long. The property has been in the family for several generations, I believe, so there shouldn’t be any liens or mortgages against it. If you can just let us have your father’s death certificate, we can get the ball rolling.’
‘We don’t have one yet,’ Dad replied.
She frowned so I thought I’d better fill her in. ‘He’d been dead a while so we couldn’t identify him by sight. They have to do it by DNA and that’ll take at least a week.’
She breathed. ‘Yes, I heard.’ Her eyes darted from one of us to the other, as though wondering what sort of response we expected, then continued matter-of-factly. ‘Well, I can get started with the paperwork and we can file the application when the death certificate comes through. In the meantime, I have a copy of your father’s funeral insurance here.’ She handed it to Dad. ‘He didn’t want to be a burden on you. Technically, as executors, we’re supposed to organise the funeral, but, of course, we’ll concede to your wishes.’ Again, she waited for a response.
Dad just took the document and checked the first page.
‘And he left a letter for you.’
The grubby envelope she held out had the name ‘Bertie’ scrawled across it, but Dad had always called himself Al. He hesitated for a moment before taking it, then held it gingerly by the corners, looking at it thoughtfully. I thought he might open it, but instead he looked back up at the solicitor. ‘Thank you, Ms Santorini.’ He stood up to go. ‘I’ll get the death certificate to you as soon as I get it. Can I email it?’
The solicitor stood up, too. ‘Yes, of course.’
Was that it? ‘Wait,’ I blurted out. ‘I have a question.’
Dad frowned at me, while the solicitor looked at me expectantly.
‘Do you know how much the property is worth?’
Ms Santorini smiled as though she’d been expecting that question all along. ‘Considering where it is, developers would kill for it. It must be worth at least seven or eight million dollars. We’ll be getting an official valuation as part of the probate process, but I can get you a preliminary valuation pretty quickly if you want one.’
Dad shook his head. ‘No, don’t worry about it. There’s no need.’
When we got back to the car, he threw the envelope and funeral policy onto the back seat.
‘Aren’t you going to read the letter?’
‘Later. Shall we stop somewhere for lunch?’
‘And after lunch can we go see your property?’
‘Why? It’s just a block of land.’
‘I’d just like to see where my father grew up.’
‘I don’t have the keys.’
‘I can jump the fence.’
He looked through the windscreen for a moment then shrugged. ‘Sure.’
It took us a while to locate the block through a maze of newly minted avenues, crescents and courts. It was at the end of a dirt track that came off the side of a street tightly packed with brick houses. The gate was fastened with a loop of rusty wire. The house was a long way from the gate down a dirt track through a field strewn with newly cut grass. The council had obviously taken it on themselves to cut it and had done nothing to clean up after themselves.
Even with the suburbs coming right up to the boundary of the property, the house still felt isolated. In the distance, a windbreak of Norfolk pines hid the rows and rows of roofs beyond. As the detective had told us, the house was a wreck. Its bull nosed veranda was sagging in several places and the wooden decking gaped. Paint of an indeterminate colour was peeling from the weatherboards and some had broken loose. Most of the windows were broken and some hung open.
I looked at Dad, expecting the sight would be heartbreaking for him, but his gaze was inscrutable, more like he was looking at something distant rather than right in front of him.
‘Will we go in?’ I asked. ‘I’m sure we can break in if we have to.’
‘No. It wouldn’t be pleasant in there. And there’ll be nothing worth looking at.’
‘Let’s go for an explore, then.’
Dad shrugged and followed me past the house. There were the usual ramshackle outbuildings but, except for a few scraps of metal, they were empty of any farm machinery. Apart from that there was only the remnant of a vegetable garden.
‘Didn’t your father farm the place?’
‘Not really. He just grew enough for us. We were pretty much self-sufficient.’
‘Chickens and a cow and all.’
‘Yep, and a pig now and then. He even milled his own wheat. We didn’t have to go out at all. Not even to the shops.’
It must have been a solitary, isolated life. No wonder his social skills were so lacking.
An overgrown patch of shrubs was coming up ahead of us. Dad paused, then touched my arm and tried to steer me away from it.
‘What’s down there?’
‘Then let me see it.’
The shrubs marked out a squarish patch of small mounds of compacted soil topped with smooth rocks. Some of the rocks had hints of paint on them, but any lettering was now all but illegible.
‘What is it?’
‘The pet cemetery.’
‘Any of them yours?’
‘Yes,’ he said, stopping at one where you could maybe make out a K. ‘A dog.’
‘What was it called?’
‘Karli. My father never liked the name and tried to make me call it Charlie, but I wouldn’t. I don’t know why.’
‘How did it die?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘How could you not know?’
He shook his head. ‘I came home from school one day and he told me it was dead and he’d already buried it. He told me not to come down here because there were ghosts. I was scared of ghosts.’
I didn’t know what to say so I said something stupid. ‘Was the house haunted?’
‘I used to think so when I was little. I can remember hearing crying at night. Maybe it was just feral cats, or bad dreams.’
When we got back to the car, I paused for one last look at the house. Dad was leaning on the car door. ‘When was the last time you were here?’ I asked, desperate to get more out of him.
It took him a moment to answer. ‘When I was sixteen. I’d just got my apprenticeship at Ford in Broadmeadows. It was hard to get there from here, so a classmate offered me a room at his place. His big brother had just left home. It was a lot closer.’
‘You never visited?’
‘When I told Dad about moving out, he said that if I did, I should never come back, so I didn’t.’
‘What about your Mum? When was the last time you saw her?’
‘I have no memory of her.’
‘Didn’t your Dad tell you about her, show you photos?’
‘When I started school, I saw all the other kids had mummies, so I asked him about mine. He shouted at me, said she was gone and never coming back and I should never talk to him about her again. I never knew if she was dead or gone away.’
‘Did you ever think about looking for her?’
‘If she was dead, what was the point? And if she’d gone and left me with him…’ He shrugged. ‘Seen enough?’
I could see he had. ‘Sure. Let’s go home.’
A week later we duly presented ourselves at the coroner’s court to get the results of the DNA test. The assistant coroner who had been given our file looked grave and asked us into her office. She had the file on her desk and made a lot of opening and reading it. Finally she breathed and looked up at Dad.
‘First of all, I can report that the deceased died of natural causes. Heart failure due to myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle. So, if we should have to have an inquest, cause of death will not be an issue.’
‘Why would we need an inquest?’
‘Because we can’t identify the body. I’m afraid, Mr Cutler, that the DNA results are inconclusive.’
‘Inconclusive in what way?’
She breathed again before answering. ‘The deceased is not your biological father. In fact, you’re no relation at all.’
I think I was more shocked than Dad. ‘What does that mean?’
I had asked the question, but she directed her answer to Dad. ‘It means that either the deceased is not Joseph Cutler, or that you are not Mr Cutler’s son.’
‘Can we still get a death certificate?’ I asked. A stupid question, I know, but that was why we had come.
‘Not until after the inquest and even then, without a definite identification, it won’t be for a Joseph Cutler.’ She paused waiting for further questions, but neither of us had anything to say. ‘Perhaps you can ask a relative of your father’s to give a DNA sample. The closer the better, of course.’
Dad shook his head. ‘I don’t know of any.’
This wasn’t good enough. ‘Isn’t it your job, or the police’s job to identify him?’ I asked.
‘Strictly speaking, yes, it is. We’ll be putting his DNA through our database in case there’s a match, but you have to understand… ‘
‘… this case isn’t a high priority on your list.’
‘I’m afraid not. Look, if you could help us with his identification, it will expedite things.’
‘How can we do that?’ I asked.
The coroner sighed. ‘All I can suggest is that you get some legal advice. You can have representation at the inquest. We’ll inform you when it’s to be held.’ She stood. There was nothing more she could do for us.
I had rung and told my Mum and Spence all about Dad’s father the night we went to the morgue. Mum said she no longer had any interest in Dad’s private life, but Spence was fascinated by our mysterious grandfather. Now I had some real goss and Spence loved a good goss.
‘What? You mean our grandmother did the dirty on our grandfather?’
‘So how would you explain it?’
‘You’ve watched Love Child. You know what it was like in the sixties. Maybe Dad was adopted. Or maybe Grandad married Grandma because she was pregnant, you know, to give the kid a name. It’s not necessarily a scandal.’
‘That’d be a pity…Or else…’
‘Or else what?’
‘The coroner said, didn’t she, that the body might not be our Grandad at all. What if our Grandad got carted off to a nursing home or something and some vagrant moved in and then carked it? You said that the house was a long way from anything and easy to break into. The perfect squat.’
‘You mean our Grandad could still be out there somewhere?’
‘The coroner was right. We’ll have to sort this out. The police won’t follow it up. It wasn’t murder. There hasn’t been a crime…’
‘Not exactly worth pursuing if the perpetrator’s dead. No, Sis, we’re going to have to sleuth this one out ourselves.’
‘He’s my Grandad, too, and my inheritance. I can do it all on the phone. If he’s in a nursing home, he was probably taken to a hospital in an ambulance and when they decided he was too decrepit to go home, they’d’ve shipped him straight off to a nursing home. I’ll try the ambulance service and if they won’t help, I’ll try the hospitals. I’ll be the poor grieving grandson who’s lost track of his poor old grandad. If he’s out there, I’ll find him.’
‘What if he’s off on a world cruise?’
‘And squandering our inheritance? How dare he.’
My week was well and truly up and I could see Dad was expecting me to go, but I wanted to stay on. A lot of it was curiosity, of course, some of it was not wanting to break this very slight bond that was beginning to grow between us in sharing this experience, but mostly it was because I didn’t want to go home. Not that I really had a home anymore, not if she was still there, and I didn’t even have a job to go back to. She’d made sure of that, too. There are only so many scenes a boss can put up with. To be honest, Dad’s aloofness was a relief after what my life had been like for the previous few months. I was better off where I was.
‘All right,’ Dad shrugged when I told him I was staying, ‘but I can’t take any more time off.’
‘That’s okay. I was thinking I could follow up on getting Grandad identified. You know, go and see the solicitor for you, do any running around.’
‘Fine. If that’s what you want.’
‘It’s just that… if you could give the solicitor a call, tell her I’m taking the case over…’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘The case? Sure. You can go to the appointment in the morning.’
‘Great!’ I know, my enthusiasm was in poor taste, but who doesn’t love a mystery?
‘Oh,’ Connie said when I told her the results of the DNA test. ‘That will make things difficult.’
‘Which is basically why I’m here. The coroner said we should get legal advice. The thing is, we need to contact a close relative of my grandfather’s for another DNA test and Dad doesn’t know anything about his father’s family.’
‘Nothing at all?’
‘No, nothing. He’s never met any and his father never spoke of any.’
‘Well, all I can suggest is that we hire a genealogist to hunt them down. We have one we consult on occasions like this.’
‘That would be great. I wouldn’t know where to start.’
‘I’ll brief her for you, but here’s her card so you can speak to her directly if you need to.’ She must have read my face as I looked at the card. ‘Is there anything else?’ she asked gently.
‘Yes. I was wondering… My Dad has no memory of his mother. His father wouldn’t talk to him about her. All he ever said was that she was gone and Dad never knew if by gone he meant dead or gone away.’
‘I can understand now why your father seems so… sad.’
I looked at her then and saw what expressive eyes she had. ‘We’re all sad in our family… all damaged in our own way. My mother’s an alcoholic and my brother barely leaves his room.’
I shrugged. ‘My life’s a mess, but it’s a long story and you get paid by the hour.’
Connie smiled. ‘I get paid by the five minutes. Now, do you want the genealogist to find out about your grandmother, too?’
‘Could she? I know it doesn’t strictly relate to the case.’
‘The case is whatever we want to make it. I’ll include it in the brief.’
As she walked me out, Connie said, ‘I’ll contact you when we get any results from the genealogist and maybe next time you could make an appointment around lunchtime and we can talk when I’m not being paid by the hour.’
I think I blushed. ‘I’d like that.’
‘Albert Cutler, who do you think you are?’ Spence chuckled when I told him about the genealogist.
‘I’ve asked them to find out what they can about our grandmother, too. It just didn’t sit right with me that she would run off and leave her child with a man that wasn’t his actual father.’
‘Well, that might be the case. I’m getting nowhere at this end. No one has heard of a Joseph Cutler. He hasn’t been in any of the hospitals I’ve called, and I’ve called every hospital in Melbourne… Hey, talking of women running off, are you ever coming home?’
‘I need to stay here and see this through, Spence.’
‘We’re rubbing along all right. He likes that I’m doing the cooking and the cleaning.’
‘When were you ever the little housewife?’
‘When I need to stay in someone’s good books.’
‘Is he still a workaholic? Do you get to see much of him?’
‘Some. He doesn’t have much going outside of work.’
‘He hasn’t changed. And what about you? What are you doing all day apart from the cooking and the cleaning?’
‘I’ve got a part-time job at the local IGA. They needed someone to fill in for a woman on maternity leave.’
‘You? A checkout chick? You must be desperate for the money.’
‘I’m living rent free. I don’t need the money. I just need to show Dad I’m not a no-hoper.’
‘…like his son.’
‘Spence, I didn’t mean that… Spence?’
‘It’s all right, Sis…. Anyway…What about your place down here?’
‘If she wants to stay there, she can pay the fucking rent on her own.’
‘Will you at least nick down and see me someday? I could do with a hug.’
‘Sure, bro. As soon as I can make it.’
Connie had made me an appointment for 12:15 as she had promised. She had our file in front of her but didn’t open it. ‘I’ve spoken to the assistant coroner. They’ve scheduled a preliminary hearing on the 12th of next month where they should give us an adjournment.’
‘Do we have to be there?’
‘No, I can represent you on my own. It’ll only take a few minutes and there’ll just be a lot of people in suits muttering legal jargon. Not much to see.’
‘How long can they hold onto the body? They won’t give him a pauper’s burial while we wait for the genealogist, will they?’
‘No, not at all. They’ll keep him until they’ve exhausted every line of enquiry.’
‘Why, what have they been doing?’
Connie smiled. ‘They’ve been doing their best. They’ve put his DNA through the system and tried to match him with missing persons, but with no result.’
‘What about our enquiries? Has the genealogist found anything?’
Connie looked down, opened the file and shuffled through the pages. She was stalling. ‘She’s found that your grandfather had an older sister called Ruth and she’s found her marriage records, so we know her married name is Ruth Collins. We’re trying to track her down now.’
I could see from Connie’s frown that the next bit would not be good. ‘What else has she found?’
‘She’s found your father’s birth certificate, but she’s… concerned about it.’ She placed a sheet of paper in front of me. ‘See that date of registration, 16th of November 1968, and compare it to his date of birth.’
‘January 8, 1964. It’s four… almost five years later.’
‘He would have needed a birth certificate to start school. Now, she says that’s not unknown, especially in the country where they might be a long way from a registry office, but what really worries her is the identity of his mother. Do you see that?’
‘Mary Smith, born in the UK.’
‘Can you imagine how many Mary Smiths would have been born in the UK? Before she tried to follow that up, she looked for their marriage certificate, hoping that might give her more information, but…’
‘She couldn’t find one. According to the birth certificate, the Cutlers were married on 16th June, 1962. She couldn’t find it on that date. She thought that Mr Cutler may have put a false date on the birth certificate, you know, to cover up that Albert might have been born a bit early, so to speak, so she looked from that date right up to the date the birth was registered and she couldn’t find anything. And then being very thorough, she looked right back to the day Mr Cutler turned sixteen. Still nothing.’
‘You mean he was never married?’
‘Possibly. It’s also possible that Mr Cutler and this Mary Smith were married in the UK, but before we waste the genealogist’s time and your money, I suggested we wait until we locate Mr Cutler’s sister and see what further information she could give us.’
‘That sounds like a good idea,’ I told her, not that I felt at all reassured.
Connie took back the birth certificate, put it in the folder and shut the file with a definite thump. ‘Now, how about lunch?’
It was so good to talk to someone who actually listened, who asked pertinent questions and then focussed on the answer. I had had enough of every conversation turning into an argument, of her pleas to ‘talk to me’, but then not hearing a word I said, of her constant demands but no acknowledgement of what I wanted. She said she was never like this with anyone else, that I had turned her into this virago. Maybe she was right. All my relationships ended like this. Either I knew how to pick them, or I created them. So, when we finished lunch and Connie touched my hand, I pulled it away. She was a good person and she deserved better than me.
‘How’s your father taking the news?’ Connie asked at our next meeting.
‘Not well. His father’s not his father and his mother may never be found. He’s withdrawing even deeper into himself. My mother and father were never really there for me, but at least I knew who they were. I knew where I got the colour of my eyes and the shape of my nose. But for Dad… he never really had much in the way of family and with every piece of information we get, he’s losing another bit of it.’
‘He’s still got you.’
‘For what it’s worth.’
‘It’s probably worth more than you’ll ever know… and I think he may need you even more now.’
‘Is it going to get worse?’
Connie nodded. ‘I got in contact with Mr Cutler’s sister, Mrs Collins. She lives in Queensland, near Toowoomba.’
I could tell this was going to be bad. Connie was rifling through the file.
‘At first she was very friendly and helpful. When I told her we couldn’t give her brother a proper burial without a DNA match, she said she was happy to give a sample. And then… and then I asked if she would be able to give us any information about Mr Cutler’s wife… and she said Mr Cutler had never been married… so I said it was on his son Albert’s birth certificate and she got really angry. She said she knew for a fact that Mr Cutler had never been married and had never had children and if this Albert was claiming to be his son, he must be an imposter. So then she asked about the will and I had to tell her what it said, so now she’s saying this is outright fraud and she’s going to put the police onto us and if we give a cent of her brother’s money to Albert she’ll sue us to high heaven.’
‘What do we do?’
‘We just sit tight and co-operate with the police when or if they contact us. I don’t think you need to worry about the fraud accusation. We have enough evidence to disprove it, on your father’s part at least.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Definitely. For one thing, he didn’t get that birth certificate, and there’s no way there was undue influence. In my experience, when there’s undue influence, it’s the would-be beneficiary who brings the testator to the solicitor. Albert was nowhere near Mr Cutler when that will was drawn up.’
‘Can you prove that?’
‘After the police first contacted me about Mr Cutler, I talked to Mr Morton. He’s retired now, but he was the solicitor who drafted the will in the first place. I thought maybe there was some paperwork missing from the file. I mean you saw all we had in it. A one page will, an invoice, the funeral policy and that letter to your Dad. So I called him and he told me what he could remember. He only saw Mr Cutler the once. He only remembered because Mr Cutler refused to come into the office and Mr Morton had to go out there to his place to get the will signed and even bring his own witnesses from the office. He said he didn’t think he’d ever seen a lonelier old man. He hadn’t seen his son in twenty-odd years and when Mr Morton questioned whether he really wanted to leave everything to him in the circumstances he said he owed it to him and insisted everything had to go to Bertie. If there’s been any fraud here, it hasn’t been your father who’s perpetrated it.’
‘You think Grandad was up to something?’
‘Tessa, I don’t think Mary Smith ever existed. Mr Cutler had a child he couldn’t account for except with a dodgy birth certificate, a child even his own sister knew nothing about.’
It was obvious there was only one conclusion to come to. ‘Maybe we should go to the police first.’
Connie took my hand. ‘You need to speak to your father. It has to be his decision.’ As I got up to leave Connie asked, ‘What was in that letter Mr Cutler left?’
‘I don’t think Dad ever opened it.’
‘It might tell us something.’
I always thought it might, and I’d even asked Dad about it, but he kept saying he couldn’t find it. Now I dreaded opening it.
‘You’re quiet tonight,’ Dad said, as he sat down across the table from me, ‘even for a Cutler.’
I tried to smile. Dad rarely made jokes.
‘You went to see the solicitor today, didn’t you? Bad news?’
I shrugged. ‘Yes and no.’
‘Go on, then.’
I tried not to look at him as I told him about Connie’s conversation with Mrs Collins. I could see his long-fingered hands flexing.
‘Fraud? She’s accusing me of fraud? I don’t want a cent of the old man’s money. She can have it all if she wants it. It was just… I only wanted it for you and Spencer. I’ve been such a shit of a father I thought I could at least do this for you.’
‘Connie said not to worry about the fraud charges. We’ve got a good defence.’
‘Yes, like I didn’t do it.’
That was the least of it. Dad’s an intelligent man. He knew that. He was just trying to avoid thinking of the worst for a few more minutes. I reached out to touch his hand, then grabbed it as he tried to pull it away.
‘Dad, you know where this is going.’
The hand in mine unclenched. ‘Where? That he stole me from somewhere? What would he want me for?’
This isn’t the sort of thing you want to talk to your father about. ‘Did he ever… touch you?’
‘Touch me?’ He took his hand back. ‘He never touched me. Even if we touched by accident he would flinch.’
‘Maybe you just can’t remember. Maybe you were too young.’
‘I think I would remember because if that’s what he wanted me for, he wouldn’t have stopped. There was nothing to stop him, no one who would know, no one I could turn to.’
I could hear the pain in his voice. I wanted to reach out and hug him, but knew that would be more than he could take. ‘That letter. The letter he left you. Maybe it’s a confession, or an explanation. Where is it?’
He was still reluctant, but finally he said. ‘In my desk. Top drawer.’ It was still sealed.
‘You open it,’ he said when I took it to him.
There was a folded sheet of paper, lined paper torn out of an old exercise book, with just a few words scrawled on it. I read them aloud. ‘I’m so sorry, Bertie.’
There was something folded into the paper, a faded newspaper cutting, a photograph tightly cut out, without even a caption left. It was a black and white family snap of two fair children in pyjamas sitting on a carpeted floor. The little girl was about three and she had her arms protectively around a baby who was around twelve months old.
‘They look like you and Spencer at that age.’
I went down to Geelong to see Mum and Spence the next day. Mum was still in bed when I got there. We retreated into Spence’s room and the first thing I did when I went in was what I always had to do, open a window. Spence’s computer array had expanded to a third screen.
‘There’s no need to look at me like that, Sis. You know, you can make money gaming online these days.’
‘And have you made any?’
He shrugged. ‘Getting there.’
I showed him the cutting that I’d put into a clear plastic sleeve.
‘They do look like you and me. Do you think the baby’s Dad? You can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl.’
‘It might be. I’m taking it to the solicitor tomorrow. She can hand it over to the police.’
‘And what are they going to do with it? It’ll sit in someone’s in-box forever.’ He turned the cutting over. ‘There’s print and a sub-heading on the back. I could try finding which newspaper it came from. Get the rest of the article. See what it says.’
‘How can you do that?’
Spence grinned. ‘You can do a lot online these days. Ever heard of Trove? They’re putting all the old newspapers online. You can find lots of stuff there.’
‘And if it’s not there.’
‘Worse comes to worst, I can come up to Melbourne to the State Library and look at the newspapers on microfilm.’
I must have given him another look.
‘I’m not agoraphobic, you know. I can leave this room if I need to.’ But he didn’t sound too sure about that.
A week later Spence was on our doorstep. ‘There’s no need to look so surprised, Sis. I do know how to catch a train. Is Dad in?’
Spence sat us around the table. Dad at its head and Spence and I on either side of him. Spence took a bright red manilla wallet out of his backpack and put it down in front of Dad. Dad looked from him to me. I could see he was bracing himself for what might be inside. He opened the folder and took out a pile of printed A4 paper. As he read each page, he handed it to me.
The first one had the picture of the two children. A caption named them Carleen and Bertram Petersen. The date 9/3/1965 was hand-written in the margin. The headline said: CHILDREN SNATCHED FROM FRONT GARDEN. The article began:
Carleen, 3, and Bertram, 14 months, disappeared from their front garden in Germaine Street, Reservoir, yesterday morning, while their mother, Mrs Eileen Petersen, ran indoors to answer the telephone. The police search for them continues today. Police are asking anyone who saw any suspicious activity in the vicinity at the time to please come forward.
The following pages had more newspaper articles from the following fortnight but all they had to report was that there was nothing more to report. Then nothing until ten years later when the Petersens went on television to make an appeal for any information about their missing children. Then a magazine article mentioning them alongside the Beaumont children and other kids who had disappeared mysteriously and never been seen again.
The last page was a magazine article from March 2005, an interview with a Denise Petersen. The photograph was of a woman in her late 30s who looked strikingly like Dad. She was quoted as saying:
The person who took my brother and sister didn’t just separate a family, he shattered it. My parents never recovered. My mother always blamed herself and I think my father did, too. They had me in the hope of healing and staying together but it didn’t work. They separated when I was five and both died well before their time… As for me, I’ve lived my whole life under a dark shadow. Even though I wasn’t even born when they were taken, I’ve always felt terrible survivor guilt and that I wasn’t adequate, that I could never replace them… Year after year I heard ‘Carleen would be twelve today,’ ‘Bertie would be ten today,’ while my birthday barely got a mention. And sometimes when my mother got angry with me, she would say, ‘Carleen would never have done a thing like that.’ How can you forgive yourself for resenting the memory of a three-year-old?
As he handed me the last page, Dad got up, walked out into the backyard and stood with his back to us. His head bowed and his back heaved. Spence went out and stood next to him.
The next day I took the articles to Connie and watched as she read them. There was a tear in her eye as she turned over the last page.
‘Do you think we should look Denise up? Do you think she would be happy to see Dad?’
‘I think it’d be best to let the police handle this. It might be too much of a shock if she heard from Albert… Bertram… out of the blue, and she might…’
‘…think it’s a hoax?’
‘Maybe. Leave it with me.’ She stretched out and took my hand. ‘How are you?’
I shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I feel for Dad. He’s a wreck.’ I squeezed her hand and she squeezed back. ‘Spence is staying for a few days, but still… I can’t leave him for now, but maybe later…?’
She nodded. ‘I’d like that.’
The police came a week later. Two women. They must have thought Dad’s case needed a delicate touch. They took another DNA swab, then sat down with him. They let me and Spence sit in.
‘We’ve contacted Denise Petersen and taken a DNA sample from her.’
‘Then she knows about me?’
‘Yes, but she would prefer to wait for the DNA analysis before meeting you. Just in case…’
‘In the meantime, we need to follow up on what happened to your sister, Carleen. What do you remember about her? When did you last see her?’
‘I don’t remember anything about her.’
‘Nothing at all?’
I thought otherwise. ‘I hope you don’t mind my butting in, but I think you do remember, Dad. The crying in the night.’
‘They were just bad dreams.’
‘But maybe they were a memory that came back to you in those dreams. And there’s the dog.’
‘It had nothing to do with Carleen.’
‘You called it Karli.’ And then it came to me. ‘I think I know where you’ll find Carleen.’
Dad looked at me, then he saw it, too. ‘The pet cemetery.’
It was months before we could bury her. We put her in the grave with her mother. There weren’t many of us there. Just Dad and Denise, Mum and Spence, me and Connie. Connie held my hand tightly right through. Spence had an arm around Mum’s waist, but that was more for support than comfort. Dad and Denise had their arms around each other, more like lovers than siblings, but if, after all they’d been through, they’d found some comfort in each other, I wasn’t going to object.
Ruth Collins had tried to contest the will, but when it became clear what her brother had done, she gave up, in pure shame, I should think. Dad sold the land for well over the official valuation and put most of the money in trust for me and Spence. Not that we care about the money. We just like having a father… and a new name.
© Pauline Montagna 2021
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