Congratulations Elsie! Stringybark Award.

Dec 29 2011
Congratulations Elsie! Stringybark Award.

This is the short story that won 2nd Prize in the 2011 Stringybark History Short Story Competition.

 

Foot Steps in the Dark

 

The green and yellow tramcar rattled its way down Victoria Avenue to the beach on its last journey for the day.  It spewed out its three remaining passengers, all of them men, who disappeared into the gloomy obscurity of wartime blackouts.  

Windows of the houses that breasted the elegant avenue were covered on the inside in black cloth, ensuring that no shingled ray shone onto the street.  Men were especially employed to enforce this deep darkness because light would tell the enemy that Melbourne city lay beneath and they may drop their bombs.  

It was eleven thirty and the tram only needed to return to the South Melbourne Depot before the crew of two stamped their cards, collected their personal items and signed off for the night.  

No self-respecting female would be on the streets by herself at this dark and dangerous hour.  There was a killer lurking in the shadows. There had been a spate of murders lately, all of them women.  No apparent motive or reason, simply the wrong place, the wrong time.  

A woman named Ivy Violet McLeod was found beaten, strangled, and left for dead in the doorway of a shop, on this very avenue in Albert Park.  Her purse was still in her bag, so it was evident that robbery was not the motive.  Six days later, a thirty one year old woman named Pauline Thompson was found strangled.  When last seen she was in the company of a young American. Less than a week passed before Gladys Hosking was murdered on her way home from work at the Melbourne University Chemistry Library.  Again, robbery was not the motive.  Several women who been lucky enough to survive similar attacks reported that the man assailant was one of the many American soldiers who had swarmed into the city at this time.  There was a killer on the loose and the population was petrified.  

Claire was aware and alarmed by these murders, as was everyone in this city.  With many of the men at war, the women were left to do the work, to care for the children and the elderly.  There was nobody to protect them.  

As the tramcar rumbled along, Claire took time to pause and reflect about these worrying matters as she hung to the safety strap above her head.  Her balance was good.  She had learnt to be in tune with her host and anticipate its jerky starts, proppy stops, its rocks and rolls. 

Tonight, she was weary and her feet were tired because she had done an eight hour shift.  Exhausted, she sat down heavily on one of the long wooden bench seats that ran the whole length of the internal department.  She could do this now as there was just she and the driver on the tram, and they were not taking more passengers. 

Her sensible, polished brown leather shoes sat together on the floor in a lady like manner with her brown straight skirt pulled down demurely over her knees, ensuring modesty. She did not wear stockings, just a brown line, looking like a seam, and drawn on with an eyebrow pencil at the back of her shapely legs.  This was a trick used by many young women on account of the fact that it was wartime and stockings were hard to buy.  Her dark hair was swept away from her face in a neat, low bun.  Enough curls escaped around her pretty face to soften the severe, brown captain’s hat.  It was trimmed in a green and gold ribbon with the emblem of the Melbourne Metropolitan Tramways Board in the middle of the front.  Her brown tailored jacket was a little shabby around the edges from the constant rubbing of the huge leather conductor’s bag that sat on her lap like a child.  

She began to reconcile the money paid in fares with the numbers of the tickets sold.  It should all balance.  Coins were easy enough to count as they were organized in cylindrical carriers of appropriate size and shape.  The notes that had been held deep within the bag’s pouch were withdrawn, straightened, counted and returned.  She inspected the metal ticket holder, flicking through the tickets with the aid of a brown rubber on her right thumb, and wrote the top numbers of each in her notebook.  Perhaps she might be quick away from the depot tonight.  

The tram jolted to a halt and almost instinctively she placed the bag on the seat, took her pole from where it was stored above the tram windows, and stepped out into the cold air to hook the overhead conductor onto the power line that would alter the direction of this beast and take them to their journey’s end.  Minutes later, the tram shuddered to a halt, the driver called his farewells and she alighted and entered the warmth of the Company office where the bursar would collect and collate her money. 

“Would you like me to phone you a taxi, Claire?” asked Stan, the cashier as he tallied the takings. 

“I’ll put in a call now, and by the time we finish here, it will come.”

A cab would cost money Claire could ill afford, so she replied that it wouldn’t be necessary, it wasn’t far to walk and she could do with the exercise.  

“I don’t like a young lady like you out in the dark with all that is going on around here lately.  There’s a murderer on the loose.”

“No, no, I’ll be fine.  It isn’t far to go,” lied Claire as she collected her handbag from her locker, signed off and headed out the door. It was a lonely, twenty-minute walk to where she lived in Ashworth Street with her mother and her disabled brother.  Money was tight as she was their sole support.  Taxis were a luxury they could ill afford.

“Dear God, Stan put the wind up me!” thought Claire.  “He needn’t have mentioned the murderer.”  

Stoically, putting that thought aside she started out, head down, into the still, misty night.  

In Montague Street she became aware of a single set of footfalls behind.  Not the click clack of a woman’s heel but a small click of a metal heel protector followed the steady dull sound of leather on the pavement.  

“Click, thud, click thud, click thud.”  A man’s sturdy boot.  A man’s long stride.

She noticed, but she did not panic.  It was not yet mid night.  All sorts of people were out and about.  She herself had just finished her shift.  There was nothing sinister about footsteps on the street. 

Just to make sure, Claire changed her course, stepping into O’Grady Street.  

“He won’t follow,” she hoped, nervously. He did!  

“Click, thud, click thud.”  Fearful now.  Was she imagining it or were they getting closer?  

Her heart palpitated, her throat tightened.  It may just be co-incidence.  

“Perhaps this is the way he always comes.  Perhaps this is where he lives.’  

She stepped into Merton Street.  Still the footsteps followed.  Anxiety.

Down Finlay Street.  

Her steps quickened.  She was beginning to panic.  She was out of her comfort zone for she had never taken this route before.  Normally she would have continued down Montague Street to Kerford Road and then home.  The steps seemed to be running her down.  

Not a star in the sky, the sea mist chilling the air, dark and still, the houses stood silent sentinel.  Just these two people!  Footsteps in the dark!

 “Stay calm!”

Quickly, over Richardson and into Phillipson Street.  It was even darker here.  

Change routes again.  

 

Fear, fright, frenzy!  

 

Danks Street, lined with its small terraces standing shoulder to shoulder was more populated.  “I will be safer here,’ she thought anxiously.  Someone will hear me.”  

The steps seemed to be getting closer.  

Strident strides.  Terror!

She could feel the denseness of him.  He was almost upon her.  In desperation, she turned into one of the terraces, hoping he might think she was at her home, that he might give up and leave her alone.

The gate squeaked, her heart pounded, thumping in her ears.  Stay dead still.  Let him pass.

But no!  He opened the gate and he followed her in.

“Get away!  Get away!’ she breathed, too petrified to shout.  ‘This is my house; this is where I live.  Go away!”  She tried to swing her handbag at him.  He brushed it off, taking her hand mid air.

Her knees almost buckled beneath her.  She should run but he stood between her and the gate.

He felt her fear.  

“Madam, I am sorry, but this is not your house.  It is my house.  This is where I live.”

She burst into uncontrollable and deep sobs as the front door opened a fraction, the pencil of light revealing a smallish, grey haired lady in a pink dressing gown, who called into the darkness, “Malcolm, is that you?  Are you all right?”

“Yes Mother, we have a frightened young lady here, claiming that this is her house.  Can I bring her inside while we sort it out.”

And sort it out they did.  In front of the coal fire, over a cup of hot, sweet tea!  He walked her home that night and the rest is history.

That is how my parents met.