The Tale of Herman Lockwood
By Paul Clarke
Dawn the Mystic was busy since word got around that Nan Bradley from the Rocks had won third prize in the Opera House Lottery. Dawn had advised Nan to buy a ticket from Parkinson’s newsagency in George Street.
“What a bit of luck,” her husband Roger enthused on hearing the news.
“Why do you assume it was luck?” Dawn protested.
Roger studied her with surprise. “Now Dawnie,” he said soberly. “Let’s not get carried away.”
Dawn straightened regally in her chair, clearly affronted. “After all these years of readings, I might have developed something.”
“Thick skin, maybe,” Roger answered. “Having to listen to all those old biddies tryin’ to contact their dead husbands.”
Dawn sighed wistfully. “Don’t know how lucky they are,” she said. “Anyway, show me some respect. How long since you’ve had to work?”
The half-past two finally turned up. A slight, middle-aged woman with wiry grey hair. A first-timer, which was always harder. With the regulars, you got to know their backgrounds after a while. They got comfortable and forgot things they’d told you in the past. Dawn made copious notes, and with a keen ear tuned to local gossip from the shops in Darling Street, along with intelligence Roger gathered from various local hotels, her knowledge of the lives and secrets of Balmain residents had become nothing short of prodigious. It was astonishing what could be picked up while lingering with intent behind two whispering acquaintances at the butcher’s while they waited for their chops to be wrapped.
“I’m seeing a sad, older man,” Dawn ventured after her unsuspecting customer had comfortably settled into the spongy-soft lounge chair opposite. “His name begins with ‘J’.”
“J?” the woman pondered, stroking her chin.
“A relative,” Dawn pronounced. It was a safe play. Every Anglo family had a John, Jack, James or Joseph somewhere amongst fathers, grandfathers, uncles and cousins.
“Uncle Jack?” responded the woman tentatively.
“Has he suffered recently?”
The woman pondered again. “Well, his health isn’t good. He’s nearly eighty. His wife died a couple of years ago.”
“Yes, that’s it,” said Dawn knowingly. “He hasn’t gotten over it.”
“He’s got a new girlfriend.”
Dawn blinked just once. “Trying to take his mind off his wife,” she said, shaking her head despairingly. “I do hope it works.”
The woman nodded in solemn agreement.
Thirty minutes later Dawn bade farewell to her new customer and went back to the reading room to make her notes. She was on to her second page when Roger entered breathlessly.
“We got trouble, Dawnie,” he gasped, all the colour drained from his face. “Real big trouble.”
“What in the Lord’s name…?”
“Loco heard about the lottery, and he’s comin’ to see you.”
“Herman Lockwood. They call him Loco ‘cause he goes crazy when he’s angry. Works for Billy Merthyr as a standover down the docks.”
Dawn’s face lit up with recognition. “Oh, yes. Herman Lockwood. Never met him but I know he was a boxer before he had an accident with his leg, and now he has a limp. He got caught up with the wrong crowd. So they say.”
“The wrong crowd? There’s a triumph of understatement if ever I heard one.”
Dawn frowned in thought. “He thinks I can tell him where to buy a winning ticket.”
“I figured that one out and I’m no psychic. What are we gonna do? Just when everything was goin’ along so nice with all this new business. And now Loco’s comin’ to wreck it all.”
“Calm down,” Dawn scolded. “How would he do that?”
“If you don’t give him what he’s after he’ll get angry. Last time that happened he threw two blokes out of the Cricketer’s Arms.”
“That’s not so awful…”
“From an upstairs window.”
“Let’s not get into a panic. I’ll simply need to gain his confidence. Some research will be necessary. I don’t suppose you’re acquainted with anyone who knows his mother?”
* * *
As expected, Herman telephoned the next morning, requesting an urgent reading. Dawn explained her appointments were booked out for a week, but Herman was insistent. An out-of-hours early evening session for the coming Friday was arranged. Dawn had just two days for preparation. By Friday afternoon, all Roger had discovered was that Herman’s mother was named Maureen and resided somewhere in Rozelle. It was better than nothing, but Dawn would need to be at the top of her game to avoid perilous speculation on the lottery result.
It was two minutes to six on Friday night when Herman Lockwood’s huge knuckles pounded the front door of Dawn and Roger’s rented red-brick terrace. Roger peered ominously through a thin gap between the curtains.
“He’s here,” Roger announced with trepidation. “My god, look at the size of him.”
“Stop acting like Nervous Nellie and make yourself scarce,” Dawn advised.
Roger retreated to the kitchen as Dawn calmly opened the door. “Mister Lockwood I presume? Please come in.”
Herman eased his massive frame through the doorway and followed Dawn obediently into the reading room, dragging his injured leg to the lounge chair. He sat down carefully and surveyed the room. “Nice place,” he said, nodding his head appreciatively.
“It’s comfortable enough,” Dawn replied. “We have simple tastes.”
“Who else lives here?”
Herman didn’t waste any further time on pleasantries. “I need to win the lottery,” he said, like he was ordering a steak at the Royal Oak. “Tell me where to buy the ticket.”
Dawn was only slightly rattled. “You must appreciate, Mister Lockwood…”
“Of course. You must appreciate Herman, that in my business there are no guarantees.”
“I know you dunnit before. For old Missus Bradley. They was gunna chuck her out of her house.”
“I was very glad to help. But it’s not like turning on a tap, if you understand what I mean.”
Herman shifted restlessly in his seat, making it creak under the strain. “I gotta have an operation. On my bad leg. It’ll cost a fortune and then I’ll be off work for months. But if I don’t go through with it, the leg will have to come off in a year or two, they reckon. And in my line of work, a missing leg is a bit of a drawback.”
“I see,” Dawn said uneasily. “I can only try…”
“Better try pretty hard,” Herman instructed. “Otherwise your husband’s legs might need to come off when I’ve finished with him.”
It was clear things were not quite going to plan. “Now, please Mister… ah, Herman,” Dawn gently admonished. “There’s no need for that. I will do my best. We must hope the spirits will be kind to us tonight.”
Herman settled down once Dawn began the reading. Her accurate details about his mother only convinced Herman that, if sufficiently motivated, Dawn could direct him to the place where he could buy a winning ticket. Dawn did her best to avoid the question, but Herman quickly became exasperated and demanded to know whether the man of the house was at home. Dawn thought she heard the back door close immediately afterwards, but she wasn’t sure. It seemed the only course of action was to give Herman what he had come for.
She held a limp hand to her forehead. “I believe something is coming through,” she relayed in a dreamy monotone.
“About bloody time,” said Herman with relief.
“I am seeing a newsagent.”
“Good. Where is it?”
“Oh!” Dawn exclaimed. “It’s not in Sydney. It’s…it’s in…Wollongong.”
“Bloody hell,” Herman boomed. “Are you sure?”
“As I’ve already told you, there are no guarantees.”
“Where in Wollongong?”
Dawn hesitated. “I’m seeing a long street. Somewhere near the centre of town, but it’s hazy.”
“What about a name?”
“Hmm. Difficult to make out. I’m seeing an ‘N’ I think. That’s about as specific as I can be, I’m afraid. I’ve lost the image…”
Herman sat back in his chair, wiping sweat from his brow with a large white handkerchief. He let out a huge sigh. “At least I got somethin’ to go on,” he said. “Thanks Missus. How much do I owe you?”
“No charge,” Dawn said.
“I’ll send something on after I collect,” he replied. “Next draw is on Wednesday.”
Dawn made a brave attempt at a warm smile.
An hour after Herman left, she heard the back door open gently.
“Where did you go?” Dawn demanded.
Roger entered the reading room sheepishly. “Thought it was wise to make an exit while I could still walk,” he said.
“Weren’t you worried about me? “
“Herman may be a ruthless, vicious thug, but he wouldn’t hurt a woman.”
“Well, I didn’t care to find out,” Dawn said. “We have to move. I’ve sent him to Wollongong for the ticket so we can escape while he’s gone. Lord knows what he might do after the draw on Wednesday.”
Dawn and Roger packed in the middle of the night, called a taxi and headed out of the city, telling not a soul where they were going. Eventually they made their way to Invercargill, at the very bottom of New Zealand, which seemed to them as far from Sydney as they could reasonably go. They assumed new identities, and while ‘Denise’ did her best to establish a reputation and clientele in her new surroundings, business was very slow and ‘Roland’ was forced to take a job selling encyclopaedias. As he trudged from door-to-door with the icy winds of the lower South Island chilling his bones, he dreamed of sunny, warm days by Sydney harbour.
Homesickness was allayed a little through a mail subscription to the Saturday Sydney Morning Herald, and after fourteen years had passed they discovered a tiny article detailing the demise of the legendary Balmain figure Herman (Loco) Lockwood, who had died in a local boarding house. Dawn and Roger were at last safe to return to Sydney. They arrived home full of relief and hope, renting a modest flat not far from the terrace they had previously occupied. They invited Doris, their old neighbour, for tea and scones. She would be useful for spreading the word of Dawn’s return.
It didn’t take long before Roger brought up Loco. Doris’s eyes widened. “You mean you don’t know what happened?” she asked with astonishment. “He followed Dawn’s advice and went to Wollongong looking for a newsagent near the centre of town, one that started with an ‘N’. But all of them had the word ‘NEWSAGENT’ on the window, so he decided to take no chances and bought every ticket available from all the agencies in Wollongong. Spent every penny he had and had to borrow heavily to cover the cost.”
“Oh my goodness,” Dawn gasped as Roger genuflected.
“Anyway, you wouldn’t believe it. On the Wednesday one of his tickets won first prize. Next morning he came banging on your door. He wanted to give you half. He spent months trying to find out where you’d gone. But as hard as he tried, he got nowhere. It was almost as if you didn’t want anyone to find you.”
Dawn’s mouth had dropped open. Roger’s eyes had glazed over.
“He had an operation,” Doris continued, “on his bung leg. But he had complications. It got so bad they brought a priest in to see him. Loco promised the priest if he survived he would change his ways and work for the poor and downtrodden. Miraculously he came through. He donated all his lottery winnings to a church charity for the homeless, then spent the rest of his life working down at the shelter. He said he wanted to try and make up for all the bad things he’d done.”
There was a momentary silence, and then a tear trickled slowly down Dawn’s cheek. Roger leaned over and held her hand. “What a story,” he said, his voice trembling. “Feeling a bit teary myself.”
Dawn nodded sympathetically. “It’s heart wrenching. Just think what we could have done with half of first prize.”
This funny tale and its familiar characters hooked me straight away and charmed me with its humour.
The banter between the central characters was so enjoyable to read, and placed the story beautifully in bygone suburban Australia.
A twist of fate, the understated humour and an unexpected ending made it certain I just had to share the story with others.