In our final series of Take a break, we have last but not least Annabet Ousback's Red Herrings for Breakfast. This great read was meant to be launched just as COVID19 really got into full swing, so we owe a big thank you to all the readers out there who have got behind it and your support means this book is gaining momentum!
Red Herrings for Breakfast by Annabet Ousback
Saturday 29 May 2004
A flash of white caught my eye as I switched on the hall lamp. I bent down and picked up a business card that had been flicked under my front door. It looked official. I fumbled in my handbag for my reading glasses.
‘Oh God.’ A sense of doom pierced me.
‘What is it darling?’ said Ken, my partner, who had moved in just four days before. We had returned from a dinner celebrating our new life together.
‘A Constable Smith from Chatswood police station wants me to contact him as soon as possible. Please, please,’ I cried, ‘don’t let it be one of the children.’ Fear was painting a serious car accident.
I called the police station and spoke briefly to a young-sounding policeman.
‘No-one knows anything about it.’ I told Ken. ‘The constable’s shift finished hours ago. I have to phone back tomorrow.’
I rang the kids’ mobiles. Please answer pounded through my head as I phoned my daughter Elin. Relief when she picked up. Elin was out clubbing with girlfriends.
My son Tony responded within minutes. He was home in bed, safe. Thank you, God. Even with both children in their late twenties, I was anxious for their safety.
I checked on Anders. My brother’s home answering machine cut in. His voice was clear, present. ‘I’m not home. Please leave a message after the beep.’
‘Hi Anders! It’s urgent,’ I said. ‘Please call me back. I need to clear something up.’
A fresh wave of fear threatened. ‘The police wouldn’t leave a card for nothing, would they?’
‘If it was important, they wouldn’t go off duty without leaving a report.’ Ken’s voice of reason almost convinced me. ‘Come on.’ He put an arm around me. ‘We’ll sort it out in the morning.’
The phone rang sharply. I went to answer it, assuming it was Anders.
‘It’s Graham, Annabet. He’s gone.’
I was confused, silent. My brain was trying to process. At first, I did not recognise the caller. Then I realised it was Anders’ business manager, Graham.
‘Are you there, Annabet? Anders is gone. He’s dead.’
My scream was guttural. I clutched at my chest and dropped the phone.
Ken rushed forward and picked it up. ‘Who is this?’ I heard him ask as I staggered to the balcony and ran out into the cold May night. I needed air. Couldn’t breathe. Needed to escape, to get as far away as I could from that phone call.
I ran around the deck, sobbing hysterically. Pain gripped my chest, caught in my throat. I howled like a tormented animal. I could see Ken on the phone, listening, nodding slowly. He put down the receiver and came to me, his arms outstretched. I pushed him away. ‘Just tell me … How?’
‘No! Now! I need to know. Please, Ken. Please.’
‘He hung himself.’
He caught me as I collapsed into his arms, gently steered me inside to the lounge. He offered words of solace but I was inconsolable.
Somewhere in the horror crashing in on me, I heard him say he’d let the kids know.
I felt disconnected. Out of body. Half of me was slowly dying with Anders. My mother’s words rang in my head. ‘Be a brave little girl. Be a brave little girl …’
The following morning, with a heavy heart, I rang Constable Smith. He asked me to call the police station in Wollongong, a seaside city close to where Anders lived.
‘A journal and letters were removed from the scene,’ the policeman at Wollongong told me. ‘You can collect the journal. The coroner can’t release the letters yet.’
‘He must have left a letter for me. Please can I read it?’ There had to be a letter for me.
‘I’ll see what I can do.’ The policeman added, ‘We also have the clothing he was wearing. Do you want that?’
His clothing? Do I want the clothing he died in? Christ!
‘No … no,’ I swallowed hard.
‘Please dispose of it.’ I gripped the phone with both hands to stop myself shaking.
His voice softened. ‘I’m sorry. It’s just a formality. Also, he was wearing a stone on nylon cord around his neck. Would you like that?’
‘Please leave it on his body,’ I answered. My eyes shut tight against his memory. ‘It was important to him. I’ll collect the rest tomorrow morning.’
The last time I saw my brother, he was wearing the stone. We were in his kitchen sharing a glass of Billecart champagne. We clinked glasses, cheered one another. I had no inkling it was my final cheer to my brilliant brother.
The public celebrated Anders as an award-winning sommelier, a food luminary and respected ceramicist. But for me he was a caring, intensely creative younger brother. When he was a child, I always tried to protect him.
He was cooking for eight that evening. Elin and I had basically invited ourselves.
Elin had rung me that morning. ‘I’m really worried about Anders. I think he’s contemplating suicide. He’s anxious about money.’
I thought she was being overly dramatic. Never in my daily conversations with Anders had I detected any negativity – rather the opposite. But she was working with Anders in the main office at Margaret Fulton’s Kitchen, and I had no idea what she was observing or of the level of his confidence she was burdened with.
Our mother had died the previous year, leaving a reasonable inheritance to each of us. Elin and I had given our share to Anders to invest in his business.
‘I think we should visit him,’ Elin said. I pandered to her fears but I wasn’t buying into them.
When we arrived, Anders appeared calm, somewhat self-absorbed, nothing out of character. I felt no sense of alarm. No premonition death was circling.
I looked into his soft brown eyes and laughed as he flicked back his long fringe. His fine hair fell forward, continually bothering him. ‘I look like I’m part of Hitler’s Youth Movement,’ he’d say, sardonically.
A cigarette dangled from his lips, a linen tea towel was slung across his shoulder as he moved spices and condiments from pantry to benchtop.
‘What’s on the menu?’ I asked.
‘Lamb,’ he replied, pulling a large cast-iron pot out of a cupboard.
The sun bathed us through wide windows as I laid the dinner table and Anders padded barefoot around the kitchen. The mood was relaxed, our conversation light. I talked about Ken, who he’d not long met. ‘A real sweetie,’ Anders said.
I pointed out cobwebs in the ceiling. Anders told me he liked them. They were home to the spiders that caught the flies.
We avoided talk of the business. I marvelled at his skill and speed chopping onions and carrots, curled fingers guiding the chef’s knife.
‘Do you remember the nicks you got when you first started working?’
He looked up from the chopping board. ‘Cutting lemons was the worst.’ As he moved, a stone swung gently against his black tee-shirt. It hung from nylon fishing tackle knotted at the nape of his neck. How incongruous. I thought of all the expensive watches he had to choose from, the elegant cufflinks, the designer clothing. It looked strangely out of place.
‘What’s that?’ I stretched out my hand to touch it.
He fingered it lightly. ‘Clear quartz.’ His tone was vaguely patronising.
‘Well, yes, I can see that! But why are you wearing it?’
‘Clear blocked energies. You know, balance the chakras.’ He turned away. I sensed he was embarrassed. ‘Chris suggested I wear it.’
Chris, his guru. He sent me to Chris once when he thought I needed his guidance. We didn’t get on.
‘Well it can’t hurt.’ I tried to sound supportive.
‘Guess not,’ he shrugged.
I sat like a stuffed dummy as Ken drove me to Wollongong police station early on Monday morning. I recall little of the two-hour trip down the coastal road. It was a highway to further grief. One of Ken’s friends called his mobile, offering commiserations.
‘How does he know?’ I asked.
‘It’s on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald.’
I wasn’t surprised. Ken had spent the previous day fending off phone calls from journalists.
Some of Anders’ friends rang me. My telephone number was unlisted, so how they knew how to contact me was baffling. I only spoke to one.
‘There’s a Margaret Whitlam on the phone,’ Ken said.
The wife of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was a good friend of my brother. His talent and personality was his entrée into privileged circles.
‘I’m here to collect some of my brother’s belongings,’ I told the policeman at the front desk of the police station.
He ran his finger down the lines of a large log book that lay open on the counter, then spun the book around towards me and pointed. ‘Sign here.’ He handed me a pen. As simple as that. No formality. No discussion. No sympathy. Just ‘sign here’. I scribbled my name.
He handed me a large sealed manila envelope which I clutched to my chest. Ken’s hand guided me into a small concrete courtyard attached to the old police station. I sat on a timber bench under a pine tree. The sun was surprisingly warm for the day before winter.
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