Cheryl, the brash middle aged woman from the tobacconist, had a rather odd hobby. She collected other people’s discarded shopping lists. She found them in all sorts of places like under bus seats or on the pavement outside where she worked. She knew some would think it strange, but reminded herself that in a world where even Noddy was banned because he ‘felt a little queer’; her eccentric hobby seemed comparatively insignificant.
She would try and imagine the writers of these lists. Were they male or female, rich or poor? Were they written by someone who was patient and deliberate or someone who was always in a rush? The other day she came across a most intriguing list that included a personal note from the writer saying, “Time for me to jump and see where the BREEZE takes me.” In the actual list were things like explorer socks and a travel quality back pack. It was exciting to think that someone was apparently about to leap into decisive action.
Cheryl and her husband Eddie shared secrets. ‘Secrets’ was in fact the name of their cute 3 legged mini foxy. They never did find out what happened to her right hind leg. It was the way she came when they picked her up from the pound. Secrets, true to her name would, on most days disappear to an unknown destination, only to return at dinner time making no secret of how hungry she was.
Deep down Cheryl was rather a guarded person herself who kept her cards close to her chest, even though her outer appearance pretended otherwise. When checking the mail on cold winter mornings, and wrapped in her fluffy dressing gown, she would always have on her red lipstick. It symbolised the only thing between her life now and the dreams she’d had of something better.
Eddie was more of an open book and happily went about doing just as he pleased. Life was a simple affair, especially now that he had retired from his council job as a road maintenance operator. He was satisfied with his lot. All the boxes were ticked, wife, kids, house, and now retirement. He felt proud. ‘I’m home and hosed,’ he would say to himself.
Cheryl and Eddie’s closest neighbour Colin, was a different kettle of fish altogether. He didn’t quite fit in with the suburban families that lived on Karinya Close, their quiet cul-de-sac. For a start his house was a modest architecturally designed bungalow that nestled nicely within its landscaped garden. Its very modesty made it stand out amongst the currently fashionable brick and tile monstrosities that typified the rest of Karinya Close. No one spoke about it, but Secrets used Colin’s front yard as her favourite place to defecate. She kept this secret until Colin invested in a sprinkler system with a movement sensor that set it off. Secrets returned home soaking wet and looking like she had a very guilty secret indeed. Cheryl and Eddie had a good laugh then comforted her with a nice clean towel and a gentle scolding. She apparently got the message to stay away from Colin’s yard. This was tough on her because once every three months Colin used to disappear for precisely three weeks. No one knew where he went and they never thought to ask him. During these times Secrets would sit and eye the nice dry grass wistfully before finding somewhere else to do her business.
Colin had bought his house block on the advice the suburb would one day become a fashionable place to live. That advice proved to be wrong. He was happy with the number of his house though. It was 25 which added up to 7 and that was his lucky number. Uneven numbers in his eyes were more attractive than even ones. These little romantic follies were a relief from the reverse engineering of balance sheet work and they entertained his accountant’s soul. On week days he would drive his metallic grey Lexus to his accountancy firm at precisely 12 minutes past eight and every evening he would arrive home at 41 minutes passed five.
Colin also had some rather odd character traits. He made sure that he always had anti-bacterial wipes with him, no matter what he was doing. He also carried a note pad and pen. This was because he continually wrote lists, shopping lists, to do lists, lists of people he thought were his friends, lists of his enemies, but usually they were lists of obscure things that only he could understand. Writing these lists seemed to help reduce his stress levels.
On Saturday nights Eddie’s passion was cooking German snags on his BBQ. With great pride he would present his homemade caramelised onion relish and his hot pepper tomato sauce to anyone who was up for snags with a gourmet twist. A slab of beer was always on hand. Secrets was there begging for a snag and if Eddie got lucky she’d twirl around on her three legs and bark. Eddie’s pub going mates and closest neighbours all had open invitations to these beery nights.
Colin was a regular guest amongst the colourful characters that came to sample Eddie’s juicy delights. At times Colin did wonder why he was invited. He didn’t contribute much to the rowdy conversations that went on, but he did make a point of congratulating Eddie on his relishes, that went with the perfectly cooked German sausages. It was a sincere gesture and never failed to put a big smile on Eddie’s face. Sometimes Colin would consider not going at all and just staying at home and having melted cheese on toast, but when the smell of those barbecued sausages wafted over the fence, his mouth started to water and he was over there in a flash. Whenever Colin was with Eddie and his mates however, he never seemed totally at ease. He was an introvert trying hard to be socially adept in a sea of extroverts. They didn’t know what it was like to have social anxiety. If it wasn’t for those delicious sausages he’d be at home sipping on a chilled white while waiting for the cheese to melt and watching the news on SBS.
Colin had difficulty working out what was socially acceptable. Could he just go home after eating sausages or was it polite to stay longer? How much longer? He imagined for an instant being on rewind back to the security of his own space. One minute Colin would be there, and the next minute, poof he would vanish into thin air! Colin liked going backwards, it is what accountants do. Working backwards, solving the forward actions of the mathematical world.
After the initial small talk and now with a plate of sausages on his lap, Colin would pull out his pad and start writing lists as he occasionally took a nervous slurp from his stubby then mopped his mouth with an anti-bacterial wipe. Now and then he would look up and grin to make the others think he was still with it. As the liquid conversation got rowdy, and Colin was onto his second beer, he started to relax, except for his left eyelid. It twitched! Gradually Colin’s furtive scribblings started to become looser and more flamboyant until he had pages and pages that floated around him, like he was shedding large flakes of dried skin.
One Saturday morning after another of these gatherings, Cheryl came across some of Colin’s discarded lists and used wipes. Some were covered in beer and tomato sauce, and one was under the table half submerged in Secret’s water bowl. She was gripped with a peculiar fascination at what she read and got to work at once to see if she could make sense of them. After awhile a pattern started to emerge. There was a list of names, possibly Indian and definitely female. All were feverishly written then crossed out, except for the first letter. Were they names he liked or possibly past lovers?
The list did not fit the image of the Colin that she knew, the one that thrived on solitude and routine. This list writing Colin was an enigma. Come to think of it, on more than one occasion Cheryl had seen him wearing a sarong while he hung out his washing and at times she had smelt a waft of incense coming from his place.
Indira/ Hiera, Aisha, Vimala, Eashwari/Alisha/ Sona Esha, Charusheela, Reshma, Eesha, Tara
I pushed my boat offshore, and came back with a pot of gold
Cheryl was intrigued. What a mystery. This was better than her favourite shopping list that had blown into her shop the other day. The one about the explorer socks. She was impatient to work out what it all meant. What’s a respectable accountant doing with an interest in India? Was he a closet hippy? And what’s a respectable accountant doing drowning his sorrows until he passes out like a teenager? Last time the boys had to carry him back to his own place and leave him safely on his back veranda. No mean feat in the state they were in either. Eddie said he had the feeling there was someone in the house. He had knocked on the door, but to no avail. He tried to peer through the lounge room windows, but all he could make out was a pair of Indian elephants carved in jade.
The following morning was Sunday, the traditional day for sleeping late. Unfortunately for Cheryl there would be no luxuriating under the duvet that Sunday. Well before dawn she was awoken by the sound of a car engine. She just had time to slip out into her kitchen and catch a glimpse of a taxi pulling quietly away from Colin’s place. In the gloom she thought she saw a veiled figure walking down his front path. It was a fleeting impression before the ghostly image was lost in the shadow of the house. She went back to the bedroom where Eddie was still fast asleep. She rejected the idea of going back to bed and went to take a shower instead.
Later, over coffee she sat staring at Colin’s note. What did the bold letters mean? She wrote them down: IHAVEASECRET. Cheryl loved a good riddle and couldn’t suppress a little shiver of excitement. Enigmatic cryptography and shadowy figures in the dark were an intoxicating mix for any busybody.
She pondered unproductively until Eddie emerged from the bedroom scratching his backside and blundered around making eggs and bacon.
Monday was a public holiday and Eddie went fishing. Cheryl decided to take advantage of his absence to clean up the house and busied herself with the vacuum cleaner. When she had finished the housework she sat down on her veranda with a cuppa. In the background, almost blending in with the cicadas, the radio droned on with the latest news.
“Australian consumers are used to the offshore call centre when dealing with Telcos, but would you expect your accountant to outsource your tax return to a cheap outfit overseas?
Many accountants in Australia are shifting large proportions of their operations offshore to countries like India and the Philippines where workers can be paid as little as $5 an hour to complete time-consuming compliance work.
While legal, many consumers are unaware of this practice as they are not told who is personally processing their tax returns or handling the back end of their financial affairs. The only disclosure comes in the fine print buried within an engagement letter. This means many consumers are paying a premium for accounting services, without knowing that the person providing the service is based somewhere such as Bangalore, earning way below the Australian minimum wage.”
Cheryl had sat listening to this report with growing interest. It seemed to fit in with all the other clues that made up the mystery of Colin and his Indian note. She was vaguely aware of Secrets as the little terrier ventured next door into forbidden territory. Cheryl knew she should call her to come home, but just sat watching her as if in a trance. She didn’t even scold when Secrets gingerly placed a neat little poo on Colin’s manicured lawn. Suddenly the full impact of what she had just heard on the radio hit her. Cheryl understood the riddle. “Something smelly is going on over there!” she breathed.
The events surrounding Cheryl’s suspicions had left her feeling drained. On Tuesday morning, she didn’t even put on her red lippy to check the post. She just threw on any old thing and went back to puzzling about the mystery man next door. Cheryl had decided not to go to work. She didn’t feel her usual self. She had noticed that there was still no sign of Colin or his usual routines. Perhaps there was something wrong. Cheryl thought she should pay him a visit and do the chicken soup thing although she’d never been over there before. Cheryl walked down his driveway, through the beautifully landscaped gardens towards the bungalow. A feeling of doubt suddenly washed over her. Should she mask rude curiosity with a show of compassion? She thought she saw someone peering out through the closed white slats. Just then the sprinkler system came on,
Secrets barked in alarm and Cheryl squealed and made a dash for the dry front porch. Composing herself, and while clutching the Tupperware, she rang the bell. Inside there was a minor commotion and then the front door opened.
Colin emerged looking rather nervous and apologetic at a very bedraggled Cheryl. He snorted and rushed past her and around the side of the house to turn off the sprinkler. At the same time he called over his shoulder, “The sprinkler system is there to keep burglars away.”
Everything went strangely still as they both stood in awkward silence. Then Cheryl noticed two suitcases just inside the front door. After that point things seemed to happen in slow motion. A horn tooted from a taxi that had appeared at the end of the driveway. Secrets barked. A child laughed, then a beautiful Indian woman dressed in a magenta sari with a scarlet tilac on her forehead and moving serenely in a cloud of sandalwood oil emerged from the house with a young boy in tow.
Looking a bit pale Colin introduced them politely to Cheryl. “This is my wife Alisha and my son Raj.” Then the taxi driver yelled out, “Righto!” and Colin ushered his little family into the taxi. As it started to move off, he handed Cheryl a letter through the window. ‘I’ll miss Eddie’s sausages.’ he smiled as the taxi zoomed away.
“Dear Cheryl and Eddie,
I am going away for awhile. I feel compelled to explain to you, my closest neighbours about my sudden departure. I do so out of necessity, for myself mainly and also to quash any rumours that might occur.
You see nothing is as it seems. While I have lived in Karinya Close, I have harboured a secret. This secret is like a growth that has corrupted my heart. I feel that I am guilty of a wrong doing and it has everything to do with India. I started visiting Bangalore seven years ago when I was training and supervising the young chartered accountants who I employ to do work for my own business. This is where I met my wife Alisha.
I have kept this part of my life a secret mainly due to my own guilty conscience. I have benefited financially from this venture in India and my affluent lifestyle compared to the impoverished way of life for many Indians, has been almost too much to bear.
I have now decided to redeem myself by moving to India so I can set up a charity to educate Indians from the lower castes. I have a website called balanced.org which already has a substantial mailing list of accountants who give a percentage of their profits to this charity.
I have spent many hours cogitating over my feelings of guilt and I have realised that it has distorted my own clarity. I do realise that it’s not all bad. Just by employing the accountants in Bangalore, I have helped them enrich their lives, but my own life has been enriched a thousandfold. I am an accountant and, in my eyes, the numbers do not add up.
I hope this clarifies any misgivings you have towards me. I would also like to thank you both for being such welcoming neighbours and allowing me to be part of the close knit community of Karinya Close. Dear Cheryl, I know you will keep an eye on my little house for me while I am away.”
Yours Sincerely Colin
Come summer time Eddie’s culinary skills had grown exponentially. Instead of German sausages he now cooked Paneer Tikka. It was a favourite with his closest neighbours. The neat bungalow at number 25 was presently occupied by Colin’s brother in law and wife and their three young children. Some days the music of Indian Bhajans could be heard from that happy little house along with children laughing and playing about. Secret’s was ecstatic.
In time Cheryl became very close to her new neighbour Rada Kumar and quite often would babysit the youngest child for her. The older two would come regularly to visit her after school. They brought along their cute Corgi cross named Alok and together they would play with the 5 puppies that Secrets gave birth to only a few weeks ago.
Amongst the normal washing flapping in the breeze, there were also colourful sarongs that Cheryl now liked to wear too, especially in the hot Melbourne summers. No doubt Colin would be pleased.
The regular BBQs no longer just had blokes there drinking and boasting. There was now a mixture of partners and their kids. While Cheryl sat jiggling Rada’s youngest daughter Sumathi on her lap, she felt an overwhelming sense of well being. She realised that she no longer dreamt of flying off overseas to somewhere new, nor did she feel restless. Just like Secret’s puppies Cheryl too was beginning to see light and movement in her own little world around her. All thanks to an unusual accountant called Colin.
Footnote: Article from SMH online. By Jo Stewart on June 8, 2016. ‘Australian accountants are using offshore outsourcing’. http://www.smh.com.au/money/tax/australian-accountants-are-using- offshore-outsourcing-20160601-gp9g5j.html
By Jane Buchanan from Australia