It began shortly after Sadie left him, or so he thought, but it is hard to remember anything from that time. Was he so forgetful before? It is possible, but his memory problems only began to have a severe impact when he had to look out for himself, without her help. She was a strong woman, capable and straightforward and although their relationship had been turbulent from day one, he had come to rely on her for many everyday details.

After she left him he found his habit of forgetfulness had an unacceptable cost. Its effects were so trivial at first that he could not say when it started to bite and caused the havoc that later defined his life. For instance, there was the thing with the tissues for his hay fever; he was accustomed to turning to Sadie whenever he needed one. On his own, no matter how many times he bought a packet, whenever his nose started to run and his eyes began to water, there was never a skerrick of tissue in his pockets.

The same with combs. He liked to present a well-groomed appearance to the world, hair neat, tie straight. Again, he had come to rely on Sadie for her handling of the comb – whenever they were about to enter a room that mattered, he would turn to her – on occasions she would have it in her hand, ready in anticipation. Afterwards, on his own, the comb was invariably on the dressing table at home or on a ledge in toilets, or just disappeared. He could never find one when he wanted one and began to develop a phobia about meeting people with his hair unkempt.

McCarthy made his first exasperated resolution to change one morning when he could not find his train ticket at the barrier of North Sydney station. With running nose and dishevelled hair, buffeted by the throng of impatient commuters, he snarled at himself and vowed to get a grip on his life. This was reinforced when he discovered he left his wallet at home and had to go through the requisite kowtow before the ticket collector, supplying name and address and promising to send the money for his ticket within seven days. His situation was not improved by having to wipe his nose on his sleeve, fuelling the already immense contempt of the official.

From then on his disarray increased. He knew it had something to do with Sadie’s departure. All contact between them ceased from the moment she left; he suspected she might have gone overseas. He put down his tendency to lose personal possessions to some kind of breakup reaction engendered by her departure – not that he wanted her back, it was a case of good riddance – a few combs was a small price to pay for being shut of her.

But it did not stop there. In short order he lost an umbrella, two pair of sunglasses, his coin purse and a rather expensive scarf. They disappeared over a period, at intervals apparently timed to provoke maximum irritation. No sooner would he go through the increasingly familiar cycle of discovery, annoyance, resignation, replacement and determination not to let it happen again – than it did!

He developed the nervous habit of patting himself all over in near panic every morning in the hallway, trying to make sure he had everything necessary to survive the day. His muttered mantra of “wallet, glasses, keys, phone, purse, comb,” was accompanied by touching the item; an on-looker would think he was crossing himself in devout supplication before facing the day.

It didn’t work. No sooner would the door click behind him than he’d spin on his heel, galvanised by remembrance of the briefcase, the newspaper, the report or umbrella left behind. Sometimes, worst of all, it was his keys. He became a familiar customer of the local locksmith who picked the lock numerous times during the first few months. Finally the shop began stocking spares and handing them over with minimal comment whenever McCarthy shambled in the door. It was an embarrassment he had to get used to. He also became accustomed to standing outside locked doorways and buildings waiting to be let in, or in one major incident, to be let out by the police and a security firm.

As a dysfunctional behaviour it was not inexpensive. Everything lost had to be replaced and he ran through many wallets, pens and briefcases as well as keys.

His relationship with the car was a saga in itself. He frequently walked away from it in remote locations, in midnight car parks, because he mislaid the keys or locked them inside. On one occasion he could not remember where he was parked for over two weeks until a notice from the owners of a multi-storey car park in the city informed him that permanent parking was not their line of business. Finally, the car disappeared and he had no sure way of knowing whether it was stolen or if he simply could not recall where it was parked.

By this time he was a nervous, distracted, bundle of apprehension, in a state of continually panicky dread that he had lost something but had not yet realised it, or that his very next action would be to lose something absolutely essential to his wellbeing. His work began to suffer. The training schedules at Canyo, the large electronics enterprise, were quickly reduced to a shambles. His relentless mislaying of rotas, application forms, completed test papers and contact numbers overpowered his colleagues’ attempts to maintain a semblance of efficiency. Classes assembled, waited in vain and dispersed in his absence. His frantic hurrying figure became a feature of the building as he vainly dashed for forgotten appointments. Predictable jokes about losing his head if it was not attached to his shoulders masked an increasing lack of patience with his inability to carry out the work.

After much threatening, pleading and well-intentioned intrigue, his immediate superior admitted defeat and called in the Human Resources department. McCarthy remembered his appointment with them on his way home in the train, too late to make an apology on his mobile phone, even if he had it with him. The following day, in the face of his abject and fulsome apologies, a very humourless HR executive suggested that perhaps he was suffering from fatigue, executive burnout and that a long rest might be in the best interest of himself and the company. It was something to think about, he suggested, and in the meanwhile, in accordance with the corporation’s well-known regard for its employees, and with one eye on the provisions of the unfair dismissal laws, an appointment was made with a behavioural psychologist who might be able to help. It was, the HR executive intimated, an appointment it would be unwise to miss.

McCarthy viewed psychologists with grave suspicion. Left to himself, despite the chaos of his life, he would have preferred to muddle on, relying on an increasingly bizarre set of strategies to help him through the days. His fingers were bedecked with ribbons of various colours to remind him to perform some task. The alarm on his watch was set to go off for any number of appointments. His work desk, computer screen, fridge door and hallway were littered with yellow stickers of urgent, scribbled reminders.

Even so, he was losing it ever more decidedly. Sometimes he would stare helplessly at his fingers, unable to remember what any of the gaily-coloured ribbons represented. After he lost his second expensive alarm watch he went without for a while, and thereafter could never remember to buy a replacement. The yellow stickers proliferated to the stage where he was unable to recall what most of the messages meant. Those he could still decipher inevitably reminded him to do something last week.

But there was little he could do to avoid the psychologist, especially when the HR man stuck his head around the door on the morning of his first appointment and pointedly asked what was he doing at work? McCarthy stared at him, dumbstruck, before slapping his forehead with familiar exasperation, leaping to his feet and rushing from the room. His workmates smiled conspiratorially, the HR executive shook his head without any hint of a smile.

The psychologist, Shultz, proved to be a smooth operator with a glib line of chat and a dislike for reluctant patients who only came because their employer insisted. It was all such a waste of time he felt, invariably nothing was achieved but in the meantime he had to endure their sublimated aggression, which he resented. That McCarthy came an hour late for his first appointment did not improve this jaundiced view.

Behind closed doors, sitting opposite one another without the intervening no-go zone of a desk, over the next few weeks McCarthy and Shultz tried to engage in a tentative discourse on what might be the underlying psychological reasons for the problematic behaviour as outlined in the brief from the company. McCarthy was deeply offended by the whole procedure and constantly tried to throw Shultz off the scent whenever it seemed they were getting somewhere – which was not very often. A bottomless pit of bad jokes sustained McCarthy, who on a number of occasions thought he handled himself rather well. Shultz, on the other hand, sighed deeply as the door closed behind his patient, wrote some desultory notes on regressive behaviour and reflected yet again on the futility of enforced therapy.

Even as he settled into a routine of twice-weekly visits, McCarthy’s life continued to fall apart. In quick succession he left his briefcase on the train, his wallet on the counter of his health fund while his glasses simply disappeared from his pocket. Bills piled up unpaid because he never had a chequebook and no sooner did he replace a set of credit cards than they vanished again. One company refused to issue him new plastic without a signed statutory declaration.

In mounting despair he even tried to cooperate with Shultz but by then their relationship had disintegrated beyond salvage. His disdain was almost palpable for the psychologist’s diagnosis of attention disorder syndrome or ADS, as he referred to it, brought on as a grief reaction to Sadie’s leaving. He sat facing Shultz with a tightening angry expression, arguing that her departure, after their three years together, was the best thing that had happened since they met in a singles bar. To emphasise his point he had a litany of complaints about her temper, infidelity, personal bathroom habits and sponging economics. No doubts about it, Sadie’s leaving was a good thing and all this psychobabble about misdirected aggression was just so much tosh.

He proved to be a particularly irritating patient, up there with Shultz’s top ten arseholes of all time and try as he might, there was nothing the psychologist could do to stop the growing antipathy between them. Finally he recommended another professional but McCarthy loudly scoffed at the suggestion, intimating that such a tactic only confirmed his belief in the essential charlatanism of the whole procedure. In the teeth of accelerating entropy in every area of his life, he continued to insist there was nothing wrong with him that a bit of discipline and memory exercises would not cure.

McCarthy lost his job the same week he left his new mobile phone on the bus. The HR executive gave him the news with as little emotion as an automatic teller machine. McCarthy’s performance continued to deteriorate, he had failed to live up to even the most basic benchmarks for productivity and despite the company’s willingness to fund professional assistance, there was no sign of improvement. A report from the psychologist suggested there were deep underlying problems, which were not responding to treatment, mainly due to the patient’s unwillingness to commit to or cooperate with the therapeutic process. In fact the psychologist suggested that only long, intensive, therapy could uncover the buried causes of his aggression. Such procedures, even if McCarthy were willing to undertake them, would make him even less capable of holding down the important position he occupied at Canyo.

In the light of all this and recognising that the company could not be held responsible in any way for McCarthy’s unfortunate ADS (the HR executive spoke the acronym with professional relish), it was better for all concerned if McCarthy’s employment with the company was terminated forthwith.

Half an hour later he found himself on the street, clutching his briefcase and a plastic bag containing the contents of his desk.

In the days that followed nothing improved. Cut loose from his job, McCarthy found it a battle to fill the days with anything that might be described as meaningful behaviour. More than a little nervous, he tried to take control of his life, recognising that events had moved into a serious threatening zone. He set about gathering house keys and important documents such as bank statements, driver’s licence, car registration (in case it ever turned up), ATM cards, and passport. He was acutely aware that many of these were now third, fourth or even fifth generation. He had no one to rely on now for help if he was again without the essential survival items of contemporary urban living. It was vital he find a way to stop discarding everything of significance.

He assembled his documents on the bed, made a list of their numbers and determined that a cash box with a good lock was the safest place to store them. A red biscuit tin, which he placed on a high shelf in the kitchen, provided interim security while he went out to buy the strongbox. He checked his keys as he was about to close the door before carefully placing a spare over the lintel of the front door. It was time to start taking precautions.

Some hours later, after a coffee and focaccia, he returned, vaguely disturbed by a sense that he had gone out to buy something. The door was open, the apartment had been thrashed, ransacked cupboards and drawers, dangling hi-fi cables, empty CD racks, television and computer gone, even the bathroom medicine cabinet had been emptied. He stared aghast at the upturned mattress, before scrambling frantically through the tangle of blankets and sheets on the floor. The biscuit tin of documents was nowhere to be found. Now he remembered going out to buy a security box for the documents on the bed. There had been a neat bundle of cash, all the cash. How could he have been so stupid to leave it all lying out in plain view?

When the police came he had difficulty recalling exactly what was stolen or how long he was out. The shock had scrambled his memory, which he told them was not the best at present. He did remember locking the door behind him and placing the key above the lintel. His explanation trailed off at the change in the expressions of the two officers, one of whom stepped deliberately out the door and ran his finger along the overhead ledge. There was no key. His mate, just as deliberately, closed his notebook. The door opened onto an open second storey balcony that ran the length of the building in full view of half the neighbourhood.

McCarthy was advised to make a list of all the missing items, being as specific as possible, and bring it the station where he could fill in the appropriate forms. A departing piece of advice contained the possibility that perhaps placing a key above the door, in full view of the street and assembled apartment blocks, was not such an inspired concept, securitywise.

That night, lying in the dark, McCarthy for the first time became very afraid of what was happening. The future loomed as a threatening void into which he seemed compelled to throw everything he owned in an orgy of forgetfulness. He wondered where Sadie was now and why she had left him, for despite his bravado with Shultz, her sudden flight was a devastating mystery and an aching loss to him. Just thinking about it gave him a headache.

He shivered, wondering what it was he had forgotten that could be so important – something must have started off this chronic mindlessness. Assembling a catalogue of recent events leading to the present, everything seemed to be there, nothing stood out as exceptional, other than the strife that was slowly engulfing his life. Perhaps it was something from further back, as Shultz had intimated. Both his parents lived widely separate lives on different sides of the continent; his mother in a haze of anti-depressants in Queensland, his father somewhere in Western Australia, not exactly missing, but still, hard enough to locate. Neither drew him with the promise of uncovering lost memories. Rather his thoughts turned to Berongle, the town where he had spent a lot of time while growing up. His father’s family came from there and in the midst of his current misery, its memory stood out like a beacon of security, a remembrance of times when everything could be recalled and the present was not a treacherous swamp of forgetfulness. Shivering in a suddenly fearful world of abandonment, McCarthy determined to see if a return to familiar ground could improve his increasingly tenuous hold on reality.

He had forgotten how hot it could get in Berongle in summer. The neat, spacious town on a plateau, 200 kilometres west of the city, surrounded by wheat fields, shone whitely beneath a brazen sky as he stepped down from the bus, shading his eyes from the glare. The wide road in front of the hotel was empty, the main street devoid of any life. Pavements stretched away on either side, hemming a gown of nondescript shops, dark beneath their awnings, silent and seemingly vacant. It was exactly as he remembered; even the smell of diesel as the bus drove away resonated with him, releasing a flood of unexpected emotion. This was a feeling he had not experienced for many years. The silence rose like heat from the roadway as the sound of the bus died in the distance.

Trevor McCarthy, his uncle, had moved out of the family home more than five years before and was now living on the outskirts of town, down by the creek. The woman on the top step of the large brick house in which he had almost grown up gave him the unexpected information and directions. He hoisted his satchel and walked up the street lined with flowering gardens and neatly trimmed edges.

The small fibro house just beyond the tarmac showed no such care, weeds and a ruined motor car taking up most of the garden, the venetian blinds in the front window hanging askew and broken. When he emerged from the interior, blinking from sleep, it took Trevor a little while to recognise his nephew. A thin, red-faced, individual with badly mottled skin, he bore the signs of a life spent out of doors, much of it apparently while drinking. He greeted McCarthy cheerfully when he realised who he was.

“Kev’s boy, come in,” he said, wrenching open the tattered flyscreen door. “Jeez, you haven’t changed a bit. You must be hot. Fancy a lemonade or a cup of tea?”

Trevor had never married, had lived in Berongle almost his entire life except for a few years as a musician with a touring circus. Over tea in the kitchen he recounted how he lost the house from, “a bit of bad luck with real estate investments. I over extended meself, you see? Got into trouble when the interest rates went through the roof in the early nineties and lost the lot. Bankrupt. Too bloody late now to make it back, so I had to move here,” he said. The pension and helping out at the local club kept him alive with little over. “Good thing too, I’d only drink too bloody much if I had more money, kill meself quicker,” he wheezed through his cigarette. “So how’s your dad?”

There was little enough McCarthy could help out with there, other than to give last known sightings, rumoured activities and possible destinations. Trevor nodded sadly, “Always was a shifter, Kev, never could settle down.”

They got around to McCarthy. He spared Trevor the fine details of his fall from relative prosperity, only sketching the outlines of Sadie’s departure, losing his job and the trouble he was having keeping his life together. Trevor was impressed, “Wife, job, money, everything?” he queried. “Jeez mate, what are you doing?”

McCarthy could only shrug helplessly and try to explain that this was why he had come back to Berongle – to see if he could pick up the threads that might explain what was happening. This was where he grew up much of the time, during the holidays, until he left after high school. If there was any repressed memory, something terrible he did not want to recall, something at the bottom of his inability to remember, this was as good a place as any to try to get it out in the open. Besides, he needed some time; he needed to get out of the city.

Trevor nodded slowly, as if he understood, although it was fairly plain he had shut down at the first mention of repressed memories and psychological trauma. He offered McCarthy a fold-down bed in the little shed at the back of the one bedroom house. “It’s not much, but I don’t get many visitors. And from what you tell me, you’re not going to be staying at the Royal.”

McCarthy gratefully shifted his satchel into the dusty shed and set out to rediscover his past. Berongle was the most coherent place from his early life but that was not saying much. He came here from the city every summer to stay with his grandparents during those long years when his parents were breaking up, battling their way out of marriage and then through splintering relationships that left little space for a youngster out of school. From late November through to February, sometimes at Easter too, he almost became a local on the sun-blasted streets and back lots of Berongle. The friendships he made in the country town proved more sustainable than those made as he ricocheted through the schools and redbrick suburbs of the city. Later in life the houses and apartments he inhabited singly or in doomed fractured relationships were a patchwork of empty spaces and discarded emotional landscapes, but Berongle remained a beacon of stability.

The town turned out to be practically the same as he remembered it. He sat in a booth at the Parthenon milk bar and savoured almost total recall of the tastes, smells and sensations of his boyhood. The jukebox was gone but everything else, including the aluminium milkshake containers, remained the same. It encouraged him to imagine that here he could come to grips with his memories. His comfortable reverie was broken when the milkbar owner called sharply after him as he left, forgetting to pay.

From the shade of the big gum by the bridge he watched a squealing frolic of youngsters splash and leap bombing into the turgid brown water of the swimming hole, as he had done years ago. The endless hours of summer days long ago rolled effortlessly through his recall.

At the tennis courts, his fingers latched through the mesh fence, he watched the older boys and girls play and lounge around with the casual elegance and self-consciousness of the young, just as he remembered from his own time. The faces of his own group of friends came back to him with startling vividness. He could almost breathe the very air from that summer when he was thirteen and rising to puberty like a fish to a fly.

Jaqui Thorpe was the first girl he ever kissed. She picked him, the city kid, from the ranks of her admirers and elevated him to the status of boy friend. It cost him the friendship of some mates but what did that matter? For two summers he was as hopelessly in love as any fervent boy could be. His soul sang with hers during days of shimmering light and evenings of long walks through landscapes transformed to magical spaces by handholding and eager kisses. They sat in the milkbar for hours at a time, running through their favourite jukebox picks, leaning heavily towards the romantic. He waited for her at the corner of the street at lunchtime and spent every day in a dream of bright romance, his heart lifted by her favour, responding like a dusty paddock to drought-breaking rain.

Two intense years later, her parents began to send her away during the holidays, timing it with almost deliberate cruelty to the week when he would arrive. Suddenly, devastatingly, it was as though he ceased to exist for her. The whole atmosphere of Berongle changed, its streets turning to bare, empty spaces, its walks tragic reminders of her absence. Where she lived became a place of longing, a rendezvous without a meeting, a street corner where he would loiter for hours plunged in misery. When he plucked up enough courage to ring the bell, her mother was as kind and helpful as could be. Yes, Jaqui was staying with family in Melbourne for the holidays. Of course, he could have the address to write to her, but no, she had left no letters or word for him. He did make an attempt at a couple of letters but writing was not something he found easy and heartache failed to improve his ability. Besides, he never got an answer, was never sure she even received his laboriously crafted missives filled with declarations of undying love. On the third summer, at 15, as soon as he learned she was not in town again, he caught a bus back to the city, never to return.

He wondered where she was now, quietly astonished that she could have been so thoroughly absent from his heart for all these years. From Trevor he learned that instead of disappearing into the life of romantic travel and exotic satisfactions he had wretchedly imagined, Jaqui Thorpe was still in town, married of course, now running the Railway Hotel.

“You remember Tim Roche, that’s him, the publican’s son. Now he owns it himself. Two kids they’ve got,” volunteered Trevor.

There was no way of knowing whether the hotel had changed much in the intervening years. McCarthy stopped coming to Berongle before he started spending time in bars, lots of time in bars. The front bar was an open, wooden-floored space, air conditioned through engraved glass doors from the broad veranda outside, cool, shaded, filled with the quiet blinking of unattended poker machines along one wall – two drinkers in quiet conversation glanced at him briefly when he came in from the hot glare.

He had forgotten how good-looking she was, not only to his own infatuated eyes but recognised as one of the town beauties. She was busy behind the bar and he recognised her straight away; dark-haired, clear-browed, with wide-set blue eyes and a mouth always ready to smile; she was in maturity, even better looking than he remembered.

“Hello, Jaqui, remember me?”

She stared at him quizzically, half smiling, trying to place him among the hundreds of men she responded to across the bar. Her expression cleared into a warm smile. “Brian McCarthy, it is you, my goodness. I’d’ve known you anywhere. How are you?”

Her recognition pleased him more than he could have anticipated. His face broke into a broad smile, the first for weeks.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” he lied. Because she had, she had grown more beautiful than the sometimes awkward girl he had loved long ago. “How long has it been, twenty years?” he asked, shifting on to a barstool.

“Oh, it must be, that long, can you imagine? And where have you been, you never came back again, did you? No, I’m sure I’d’ve heard of it. Come on, tell me everything, what have you been doing with yourself all these years.”

Their talk was easy and familiar, as if the intervening years did not exist. He heard how she had gone to the city to finish high school, then college. After that travel to Europe, “which was wonderful, I wish I’d done more,” before returning to meet and marry Tim Roche. “You wouldn’t know him, he was a few years older than us. But nothing very exciting in my life, I’m afraid. It seems to have gone by in a flash. One minute I’m coming back to visit my parents, the next I’m married with kids and running the hotel. Who’d have thought, eh? When we were young? And you?”

To McCarthy’s mind his story was more mundane, a brief tale of work and drifting, little in the way of concrete achievements or romance, with many lost years in the middle. “Really, I wonder how I’ve wasted my time,” he said.

“Are you staying for long?”

“No plans really, just calling in to see Trev, visit some old stamping grounds. Trouble is there’s no room where he is now, I’m sleeping in the shed.”

“You could stay here, you know. This is a hotel,” she laughed.

Soon after the bar began to fill up with the lunchtime crowd. He sat watching her busily serving drinks, bantering across the bar, moving quickly, obviously a favourite with the customers. She introduced him to one or two she thought might remember. “Do you know who this is?” A few recalled him as the city bloke, old McCarthy’s grandson, or “Trev’s nephew.” A large red-haired man with powerful arms and chest, who proved to be Tim Roche, joined her behind the bar. “Call him Bluey.” There was nothing familiar about him to McCarthy. They shook hands.

“I remember you, you two were always hanging around together as kids. What’s this Jac, an old sweetheart come back to visit? Here, have a beer on the house.”

The next day he moved out of Trevor’s cramped space into a room at the hotel. With time at his disposal he slipped easily into the quiet rhythm of the summer days. He spent hours roaming the town and the surrounding countryside, rediscovering scenes, meeting up with people he once knew well and uncovering memories of long ago. As he dug deeper into the loam, unearthing forgotten emotions and sensations, he became more at ease, enjoying a newfound sense of being in touch with his past.

But this calming effect did little to improve his ability to maintain a grip on everyday life. Within a week he lost his wallet again, and this time the new location made it difficult to access his bank account, or get replacement cards, especially in light of a scarcity of credible identification.

Jaqui offered him a small room across the yard at the back of the hotel in exchange for helping out with odd jobs and cleaning up around the bar. It was clear she did not believe his protests that money was not the problem, obvious that she was happy to have him about the place. There was an immediate resumption of the bond between them and during quiet periods in the afternoons, when nothing stirred on the sunstruck streets and the bar was all but empty, they talked of the past. He told her how his life had de-constructed itself, how his aberrant memory loss and absent-mindedness had cost him everything. She was easy to talk to, seemingly happy to receive his confidences without offering advice. Tim appeared unfazed by the close bond between them, regarding it with an almost avuncular acceptance, as if the two of them had never quite grown up.

He settled into the routine around the hotel, relieved from having to remember anything other than the simplest tasks. He began to relax for the first time in months, not focused on the idea that his next mistake might sending his life crashing out of control. His memory did not improve, if anything it got worse, descending quickly towards almost complete short-term amnesia. A brief experiment in serving drinks was called off when he proved unable to remember an order for the time it took to fill the glasses. He would stand helplessly in the middle of the bar, staring blankly at the row of faces, two beers in his hand, unable to remember who had ordered them. The regulars, quickly catching a scent of sport, gave not a flicker of recognition, watching him blank-faced, until he was reduced to pleading. They would then erupt into a gleeful melee of finger pointing at one another, until there was no chance of him ever knowing the right answer.

He was able to cope with simple tasks; it took no memory to sweep the floor, wipe the windows or wash the glasses. Tim found him an invaluable and energetic worker around the hotel buildings. Painting, cutting lawns, rudimentary woodwork he could handle, provided it was a task that could be simply described with no memory required. As his memory deteriorated he was soon unable to summon the details of how he had come to be where he was. In talking with Jaqui he could no longer recall details such as the name of the company he had worked for in the city, even Sadie’s last name. When Trevor came to the hotel to see how he was doing, although McCarthy knew him, he could not recall staying with him on first coming to town.

At night he lay and wondered how the past had become so impenetrable. Sometimes he became aware that his mind was blank, absolutely empty as though in a dreamless sleep, yet awake. He contended with a sense of vertigo, floating above some chasm of non-existence. More frequently images of everyday scenes came unbidden, unclear as though still forming, like fragments of a dream but when he tried to grasp them they were gone.

It would be wrong to say that people in the town regarded him as a simpleton. He had an immediate sense of intelligence that defied such a description. His speech and demeanour were removed from the confusion normally associated with mental problems. He seemed emotionally balanced, moderate in his responses and relaxed. And yet there was something odd about him that people recognised, even on a first meeting. It did not take an encounter with his short-term memory problems, his inability to remember anything from one minute to the next, to be struck by his strangeness. It was mainly in the way he looked at you, with a mild curiosity, as if he knew exactly what you were going to say and was waiting politely to hear it spoken. People felt he knew more about them than he should, as if he was involved in their lives in a way that, while occasionally disturbing, was not a threat. He seemed to know what you were going to do and where you were going, even before you knew yourself.

Gradually his position in the town began to change. He became known as a useful, obliging bloke, always there when needed. He would hang around the bus stop, ready to lend a helping hand to some senior citizen burdened with heavy luggage. Likely as not, he would happen to have a trolley with him and be ready and willing to walk them home with their baggage, especially if the one they were expecting had failed to meet them.

Shoppers who forget parcels and handbags found him reminding them of their oversight before they left the shop. At road accidents he was on the spot within minutes, ready to help and usually with some first aid equipment, after he had already called the ambulance. The local fire brigade joked that he should be an honorary member because of his uncanny ability to “smell a fire” and be first to raise the alarm.

Even in the bar it was noticed how smoothly things ran when he was around; kegs never ran dry but were always changed just in time; if Jaqui forget to order more towels or glasses, he reminded her. He alerted her that the butcher was late with the delivery, suggesting that perhaps he had forgotten, which was usually the case. Even the number of broken glasses went down. It seemed whenever a drinker was about to knock over a glass, McCarthy was there to whisk it away from the sweeping arm or careless elbow.

The arrival of unexpected guests, the breakdown of the water heater, an unexpected change in the weather; nothing caught him by surprise. He had already acted, as if in anticipation.

One Sunday, about six months after he arrived back in Berongle, he sat on the veranda outside the hotel listening to the radio. Jaqui sat further along reading the newspapers; Tim and the children were gone to the sports ground. The day was quiet, overcast with the promise of thunderstorms in the afternoon. Suddenly he raised his head and stared intently straight ahead, his body trembling. She looked at him curiously. He jumped to his feet and went to the edge of the veranda, turning to look searchingly across the intersection. The road was vacant, nothing stirred, except for three children, two girls and their younger brother, straggling along the sidewalk towards the opposite corner, dragging their reluctant way towards church or school. For an instant he stood, poised like a greyhound on a leash, before leaping from the stairs and running as hard as he could across the street, yelling at the startled children, waving his arms frantically.

Suddenly the blast of an air horn and the roar of a racing diesel engine shattered the air as a gigantic semi-trailer came hurtling into view, careening towards the intersection, out of control, angling across the road towards the children. McCarthy dashed across its path as it bore down, flinging himself desperately towards the children, lifting them up and carrying them backwards with him, away from the roadway in a jumble of flailing arms and legs. A massive explosion blasted the morning as the truck failed to make the turn, mounted the footpath and smashed through the awning on the corner where the children had stood an instant before. It slid sideways, over-turned, crashing on to its side, sliding across the roadway in a maelstrom of sparks and screaming metal before crashing into parked cars. Falling masonry, collapsing galvanised iron roofing, broken wooden uprights and swirling dust obscured the scene as bystanders came running.

They found McCarthy and the three children buried by debris, shaken but unhurt. The truck driver was discovered dead of a heart attack in his cabin.

The word spread quickly of McCarthy’s role in the miraculous escape of the children, the account growing in drama and urgency with every telling. A photographer from the local paper captured the three dazed and dust-covered children with a grim-faced McCarthy. When the photo appeared next day on the front page under a banner, Local Hero, there was unanimous approval. The story was picked up by metro newspapers and television around the country. In Berongle, the front bar of the Railway Hotel became a thoroughfare of well wishers who came to shake his hand, while the grateful parents of the children wept openly.

The sudden fame had a puzzling impact on McCarthy. Normally gregarious and affable, he became nervous at the attention. When shown the newspaper he took one look and ran from the room to lose himself for days in the scrub outside town. Although Jaqui watched for him to return she missed him when he slipped in the side entrance three nights later.

Next morning, when she opened the door onto the veranda, he was sitting on the bench where he sat the morning of the accident. He had his suitcase with him and was dressed for travelling in jacket and jeans. As she approached he turned his head and smiled at her. She was amazed at the change in him. In his smile there was a level of recognition she had not seen before, a look not framed by a forgotten past or a prescient future but of a lived-in present. He seemed so alive she almost caught her breath.

 He would not move from the veranda, nor give any explanation as to why he was dressed to leave. He appeared to be waiting for someone but who or what he would not say. She left him there to go about the daily chores, occasionally emerging to check he was still there, playfully warning him against trying to slip away without saying goodbye.

Somewhere around midday two cars drew up outside the hotel, one a marked police car, the other a maroon sedan with three heavy-set men. McCarthy stood as the detectives came up the stairs. They came straight towards him and stood close, surrounding him. Without speaking one of them unfolded the newspaper under his arm and compared him to the front-page photograph. He glanced at his two companions for confirmation, before asking McCarthy if he was the man in question, if he had once lived at 52 Roslyn Street, Kings Cross, and was the common-law husband of Sadie Marten. McCarthy nodded in agreement and on being prompted, responded, that yes, he was the man. The detective then went ahead and arrested him for the murder of Sadie Marten, informing him that he was not obliged to say anything but if he did not it may be held against him later.

Jaqui came to the door, drawn by the activity, just as they were leading him away, two detectives on either side, the third following carrying his bag. McCarthy baulked and tried to stop to say something to her but the policemen kept him moving. He shouted goodbye as they bundled him, handcuffed, into the back of the patrol car.

It was clear to him now, vividly clear, as though a veil had been lifted from his memory. He knew what it was he had forgotten, was aghast at the memory of his bloody, violent outburst. How could anyone forget such a horrific, murderous, episode? Every scarifying detail of his temper outburst burned itself into his memory, illuminating the horrific results of the momentary rage.

He also knew in prescient detail what was going to happen to him now – his ability to foresee the shape of things to come had grown ever more comprehensive. It made clear the endless, wasted, length of a life in prison.

The only aspect he was unsure of was what was happening now as the car moved forward through the quickly gathering crowd. He could see Jaqui standing on the steps, distressed, bewildered, almost in tears, and he wondered why?

Apart from that, the memory of his past and the recognition of his future stretched away in absolute clarity towards time’s expanding horizon.

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