I’ve read the odds of being struck by lightning twice are about one in nine million. I wonder, as I come to, blinking this new world into focus, if there is a calculation big enough to account for me. Last night I was hit for the 10th time.
This is the first time I’ve woken in the city though. I’m lying in bags of rubbish in a narrow alleyway. I shake the haze from my head. Thankfully it is warm and one of the bags is full of old clothes. This is the sort of bounty The Good Lord, as my mother called such providence, makes available to me when I transition.
Once I’m dressed I hit the street, ignoring the too-big shirt, too-short trousers and the fact I don’t recognise the fashion – but I’d be disturbed if I did. There’s never any shoes at the start and I don’t mind. Growing there was no money for shoes even if in winter. It meant you played Russian roulette with frost bite and grew up feeling at home in bare feet.
I was 23 when I was first hit, sobbing and coughing black bile from my lungs in the middle of a deserted patch of the Ballarat goldfields. Monday, 3rd December1855 to be exact. The one year anniversary of the Eureka uprising, and the day Jeremiah Hutchinson, eldest son of George Hutchinson coffin maker and entrepreneur, stole the emerald engagement ring I had purchased for Eliza Gauge and asked her to marry him. He’d had me clobbered from behind and left for dead as my workshop burnt around me.
That first lightning transition only moved me several years through time, to 1858 and a hundred or so kilometres north east to Bendigo. At the time I thought I’d eaten or drunk something bad because it was the only way I could make sense of what had happened. But still the memory of the smoke and Eliza… and the ring. In April 1860 I took the Cobb and Co back to Ballarat posing as my younger brother… asked after myself. I’d died when my workshop caught fire. Eliza had died of consumption two years after she married Jeremiah. She had left behind a daughter.
I spied Eliza’s daughter with Jeremiah six months later, gazing through the window of Brown’s Confectionary in the High Street of Bendigo. I stepped closer and saw Jeremiah’s face blanch when he saw my reflection in the window. He was gone, trailing the curious young girl behind her before I could say anything to him. And no matter how I searched, and oh did I search, he was gone. So I tempted fate and walked out in the next electrical storm.
Over the centuries it’s become an intricate game of cat and mouse. The Hutchinsons never know where or when I will show up, but they know I will… like the proverbial bad penny. My image is burnt into their memories from an early age.
Each hit and each jump in time extends further into the future, moving me far away from my original life. I don’t even know now how old I am. I was born in 1834, but I don’t look much older than I did the last morning I shaved in 1855, buzzing with anticipation of kneeling and asking Eliza to be my wife.
But I’m getting closer to the ring each time, even if it takes more time and effort than the early days. The Lichtenberg Trust means I’m not hung up by having to earn a living while I’m searching. And a good thing. Jeremiah’s descendents have changed professions and location… and even their name to keep that ring safe from me over the years. It took me almost fifty years to work out The Trust was the one way to have a jump on the Hutchinsons. And the interest accumulating is icing on the cake.
I shake away the pain clinging to the inside of my skull. Maybe I’m focusing on the wrong thing… the ring. Maybe I need to spill some Hutchinson blood. It’s crossed my mind more than once, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m a coffin maker by trade and I’ve seen enough death to know not to beckon it into my corner. Besides if I got caught… what would be my defense? A crime of passion from two centuries ago, against a guy whose long dead.
I need to find a phone and call Mr Jarrett to get some money. Without it I can’t begin my search for the Hutchinson family and the ring. A fifty dollar note blows against my leg as I stop to get my bearings. I pick it up and wait for someone to realise it is missing but after five minutes no one does. Mother always said the Lord provides… and yet again he does!
It takes time to discover I need a phone card because no one gives change for the phone any more, then time to find a telephone booth which is working. In all of this I discover I’ve jumped well ahead in time, 30 years in fact, but I’m still in Melbourne.
The number I have for Jarrett, Jarrett and Tyson is disconnected and when I walk by the offices in Collins street the building is gone, replaced with a office tower of sparkling glass. It takes a few more hours of fruitless searching for a phone book and finally an introduction to the internet to find their new phone number.
“I’m sorry, but Mr Jarrett died three years ago. Who did you say you were calling on behalf of again.”
“The Lichtenberg Trust.”
“Just one moment and I will put you through to Mr Wilson. He’s the partner in charge of Trusts.”
I press my back against the cold glass of the telephone booth trying to ignore the overwhelming stench of urine and the beady eyes of the homeless man sitting against the wall across from the booth. I watch the traffic lights change, once then twice. They’ve changed 21 times, a green light for each year of my old life in Scotland, before someone picks up the other end.
“Good afternoon, Mr Wilson. Ryan Anderson. Your firm administrates my trust fund.”
“Yes, err, Mr Anderson.” I can hear him flipping through the file.
“I need urgent access to some money, Mr Wilson. I’ve just arrived back in town.”
The voice on the other end sighs.
“I’m afraid there have been problems with your Trust Fund, Mr Anderson. You were contacted in 1997 about changes and you made no reply at that time.”
“Mr Wilson. You’ve read my file. I was unaware there were changes. Mr Jarrett always took care of things for me, as did his father before him and grandfather before that.”
“Mr Jarrett retired in 1996.” More flicking of paper. “Clearly there were correspondences sent to you at the time, which you failed to follow up on as requested.”
“I can’t see how so, I’m looking at copies of the letters sent to you, sir.”
“I don’t think you understand… you have read the file. All the file”
“Mr Anderson – I’m a busy man. I had to get my personal assistant to pull this from the archives.”
“I need access to my money. It is imperative I have access to funds in the next 24 hours. Mr Jarrett assured me my money would always be safe there. Indeed it has been safe with his firm for almost a hundred years. This is a very old trust Mr Wilson. You do understand?”
“In short Mr Anderson, old trust fund or not, your money was lost during the banking collapse last year. It seems Mr Jarrett Junior decided to park it in a bank in Iceland which collapsed in 2008… indeed – it was a year ago today.”
“What the hell was my money doing in Iceland? I want to speak to Mr Jarrett Junior.”
“I’m afraid Mr Jarrett no longer works for us.”
“Then tell me who does? Miss Juniper, or Mr Low. Surely someone must still be there from-”
Mr Wilson laughed on the other end.
“From when? 1978 perhaps which is your last billed visit to our offices? There’s none of that gold watch fifty year service any more, Mr Anderson. Times have changed.”
I wanted to tell Mr Wilson all about times changing.
“So you’re telling me I have no money.”
There was more flipping of papers.
“It would seem so, Mr Anderson.”
I slammed the phone down. After a hundred years of a safety net I was no better off than I was alone and naked in 1858 in the Bendigo diggings after my first transition. Was this the dead end which warranted a walk in a wheat field, summonsing a thunder storm? Or for me to just give up? Or forget the ring. Just get on living my life. Would Eliza have wanted this for me? All over a bloody ring? Did it really matter if the Hutchinson’s had it? I was alive wasn’t I… hit by lightning ten times. It should have been me in the Guiness Book of records for the most lightning strikes survived. Not some Roy Sullivan whose only been hit seven times and never time travelled from what I was reading on Wikipedia.
I kick the book door open with my bare foot and the homeless man watching me jumps. I have a twenty dollar note and some loose change in my pocket. That’s it.
I’ll eat and get a different set of clothes. Then I’ll consider what happens next.
There’s a tiny alley called DeGraves across from Flinders Street station, which is gratefully unchanged for more than a hundred years, and I wandered there looking for something to eat. The drop-down cinema chairs in one catches my attention and I sink into the worn burgundy vinyl and pick up the menu. Looking down the list of prices I realise what would have been a veritable fortune in 1978 is going to be quickly gone in 2009.
“You look like you’ve had a rough day.”.
“I just got in from 1978 and discovered some lawyer arsehole lost my trust fund in Iceland.”
“Sounds like as much fun as being struck by lightning.” She placed her hand on the table and the afternoon light hit one of the facets and for a moment, like the night in 1855 when the lightning pierced the sky, I am blinded.
“Eliza?” I ask, the word escaping as I drink in the emerald set in rose gold, just as I’d commissioned.
The waitress laughs. “I don’t think I’ve ever been mistaken for my Gramma. Eliza Gauge Hutchinson.”
“Eliza Gauge Hutchinson,” I can barely say the words. Hutchinson comes out as a hiss.
“Named after her Gramma so I’m told. She was a vaudeville star or something like that before she got married.”
I can’t look up into her face. I can’t bare it if it were not her.
“She was very beautiful. A star in her own right.” I put the menu down and point to the ring. “Where did you get her ring?”
“I got it during my parent’s divorce settlement. My father said my mother stole it, my mother said that was rich given they all knew it was stolen in the first place. So I took it. It’s a bit garish, but I like it. And it fits. Don’t think it’s a real emerald though.”
“Oh its real,” I say.
She lifts her hand to stare at the ring in the shafts of the afternoon sun and I look up into Eliza’s face for the first time in more than 170 years.