Short fiction

Reprieve

I had been awake for what seemed hours, the darkness of my hotel room purged by tiny flashing LEDs and the shaft of light from the streetlights outside. It was three am. The illuminated dial of my watch visible on the side table, nestled in the folds of my jacket. I turned over, closing my eyes, willing silence on a slowly dripping shower. I gave up, sleeping seems so futile, I rubbed my eyes to full waking, and sat up in bed, rearranging the pillows for my back. I turned on the bedside light by reaching down and fumbling for the switch on its power cable. I was now lost in a tunnel of yellow light and did not know what to do next.
I had flown to this city on the other side of the world earlier today, it took funds I could not really afford to waste but I had to leave. The trip was sudden, maybe ill judged, but to stay meant losing everything. There are some things even I cannot brazen out of.  At least I had my freedom, if only for now. I’m no policeman with a knowledge of what country extradites and which does not. This current hotel is on the back roads, the edge of the city, and I have never been here before. The concierge does not ask many questions. And my name? My name is not important, it’s not what it was only a few days ago, so there is really no point you knowing. 
You will be wondering why I left, why am I hiding and why am I running as hard and as fast as I possibly can. I cannot give the details, too much information in too many places is what gave the game away. The money has been slowly accruing, a trickle of cash into my hidden account until I got unlucky. It’s been a solid five years of success until I got stupid and altered the program to nudge up the haemorrhage from my clients accounts. Stupid, so stupid, not rounded off balances tipping tiny amounts of money but a full handed leap into the till. The first nobody noticed, the second might as well have flashing lights and ” go directly to jail ” cards.
The appalling taste of opportunity wasted. Yet it was my own uncontrolled avarice compounded by my computing naivety that made this situation come about, and made it necessary to run. 

It’s four am, my phone must have found a local carrier as it is whining in my trouser pocket. I stand up, reach over, twist away the fabric and yank out the thing. In the tiny black text there is a message. It is an automated message from the hardware back in Sydney. ” Unable to complete program changes requested, incorrect passwords, please enter correct authorisation codes. ”

And so it never happened, and a few days later, I was back. A brief sudden holiday, a dead distant relative, I cannot remember what excuses I gave for my precipitate disappearance but I never tried to alter that program again. It is such a sweet little earner, and I have no right to expect another reprieve.

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Short fiction

A hint of evil

 I met him socially, at concerts as a fellow concert goer and at school functions as his children went to the same school as my two children. His were in higher grades but many school activities where parents were expected to be present were for several years of students. I later met him professionally and he was always friendly, courteous and did his best to be helpful. In short he was agreeable. I had no suspicions of any particular flaw in his character. 
The news was a shock. I was working remotely, and rarely got news of home. Home and my friends and acquaintances seemed immeasurably far away. So I received the news in snippets. A comment, an aside about local affairs in the letters that infrequently arrived. The rare meeting with a traveller from my old home. I dismissed it as lawyer talk, the cutting of a tall poppy, a local boy made good is as much a source of envy as admiration. I thought, at least at first, this could not be true. The man I had known for so many years, not withstanding the casualness of any relationship we had, seemed in complete contrast to the horrible stories of his cruelty to his own children that were being reported. 
By the time, I learnt of his imprisonment and conviction, it had all taken place months before. The evidence even at my distance seemed convincing. The conviction was a fair thing if it was true. Certain acts in our society are crimes but their commission is not a sign of irrefutable evil. The textbook villain with every aspect of his relationship with his fellow man distinguished by uniform avarice and evil, is a caricature. Many people, maybe most people who do evil things, may not be evil to their innermost natures. Like my old friend, much of their life is good, the outward signs of compassion and courtesy clearly evident in their dealings with most people but then there is their commission of evil and not once but many times. The evil act which shows part of their nature is clearly, badly fallen. Is their exemplary behaviour a sham, a put up job or is it just as sincere and true a part of their personality as the tendency to evil in a different setting?
To have good and evil exist in the same person should not be the revelation it is for most of us. No one is completely good and no one completely evil. All of us are mixtures of these polar natures. It is only a constant moral will that stops the criminality, the cruelty of which any of our species is capable of from manifesting itself. That moral will can sicken, can die or may never be born but without it, we are at the beckoning of our emotions and appetites. There must be that loud inner voice who whispers and then shouts, this must not be. Perhaps he did not listen to that inner pealing of morality, and eventually learned to ignore it, hiding the guilt from himself. He never seemed troubled to me but was always confident and relaxed. I believe, it is the great paradox of our times that is the guiltless who feel guilty, and those who should be truly ashamed are not, and walk head up, back straight with any lingering doubts smothered into silence by their internal webs of dishonesty.

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Central australia

Central Australia Road trip part 1

Jennifer and I have been on the road since the 16th of May, arriving on the north island on a cool, dark Melbourne morning as we drove along the ramp out of the Spirit and into its early traffic. Against a dark and dusky sky, we drove along the city streets towards Geelong Road, then diverted to the Western Ring Road on the way to Hilary’s place in Roxburgh Park. After breakfast, all four of us not counting the dog, did a walk at Woodlands. Isla fell asleep in her backpack, Gertie padded along and around, as Hilary and us walked along the bush tracks. Afterwards, we enjoyed immense fresh scones with dizzily piles of cream and jam at the Woodland homestead. While we were enjoying ourselves, the trailer was getting some minor repairs for a leak around a power outlet at Cub Camper in Campbellfield. 

That evening we arrived at Horsham, raining, dark and so putting up the camper for the first time seemed a little too daunting. We stayed overnight at the International which was surprisingly quiet despite being right beside the Western Highway. In the morning we got off to an early start, arriving in Adelaide after dropping through the very scenic tree filled Belair Park, to stay at the Big 4 Marion Holiday Park. It had excellent facilities. I was a bit too tired and I think I may have left the car door ajar. We discovered later we had got off lightly with only my ancient iPod stolen. Our cameras were found by someone staying at the park, so we got those back so thank goodness. 

We spent Saturday at the Convention centre at a conference / GP Update on women’s and children’s health. It was busy, packed with useful presentations and so well worth attending. 

On Sunday we took it easy with a slow start. We had had dinner on Friday night on the sea front so we thought it was worth having lunch at Glenelg. When we arrived street side, the air was punctuated by the ear splitting sounds of pile drivers and earth moving equipment. We had a light lunch then scuttled back to the quiet of the camping ground.

On Monday we started the next leg of our journey back to Alice, arriving at Port Augusta mid afternoon with plenty of time to set up the trailer. We are both finding the trailer very comfortable, it’s cooking platform excellent and bedding lovely, cosy at night. It takes about ten to fifteen minutes to set it all up unless you need to add the awning which is zipped to the main tent. 

From Port Augusta we drove to Coober Pedy. I felt myself quite tense in Adelaide, a mixture of big city noise and bustle plus having had such a close shave with a robbery. I felt myself relaxing as we headed north, the wonderful music of Bach and Handel in the car, the featureless plains and hills and above the beautiful, blue, crystalline skies of the outback. 

Coober Pedy is fascinating and should be on anybody’s ” to go ” list. The caravan park is called the Stuart Range Resort. It’s major problem for us was the thought disordered layout of the camper and caravan parking. Eventually we located a spot and set up. We clicked open our chairs, tossed on the blankets for later and had showers. We spent two nights at Coober Pedy and here is what we did. The next morning we spent an hour setting up the tyre dog sensors on the tyre valves. This remote sensing gives the pressure and temperature of both trailer and Car tyres. It’s fascinating to watch the pressures over the drive. Changes in pressure can indicate leaks, the lower pressure means more tyre road contact and the friction sends up the temperature which causes blow outs.
In the afternoon, we joined other travellers on a bus trip around Coober Pedy. Now Coober Pedy is an Aboriginal phrase that means ” white fellas living in holes” which is what the miners and locals do to escape the heat of Summer ( 50plus degrees) and the cold ( minus five) of Winter. The underground houses are called Dugouts and have a uniform temperature of 23degrees all year round. Ventilation is provided by a narrow pipe that sits a few meters above the ground directly above the dugout. Two of these ventilation shafts are perfect. If you have too many the warm air can heat the dugout too much.
We learned about the rise of Opal mining in Australia, beginning in remote Queensland and ending In Coober Pedy, the richest opal site in the world. Our guide had been a miner for many years and knew many interesting stories about the history and characters that make up a frontier town like this. We visited the Breakaway Hills. This area has been used for films such as Mad Max Thunderdome and Pitch Black. It is now a reserve. The scenery is stunning, the ironstone caps if the hills staining the shale with red and gold down their flanks. There is no mining allowed here, its all natural. For most of Coober Pedy, conical piles of diggings fill the horizon. They are dangerous to walk around as no shafts are refilled. A 70 meter drop has killed or injured tourists and locals alike. 
We visited the museum. Here was saw a movie on Opal. It described its ancient origins in human affairs, beginning in Roman times. Then opals were dug out of secret spits in the carpathians. These opals are muted compared to the vivacity and colours of Australian opals. The sheer brilliance and quality of our opals made European buyers hesitant to purchase them. The Australian Opal market really took off in the USA, and to his day, many fine opals find their eventual owners in America. I bought Jennifer some Opal ear rings and matching pendant, milky white with fiery reds and greens. The colours come from diffraction of light by minute amounts of water trapped in the hardened silica. Opal is ancient sand, descended from the ancient seas of Australia, 120 million years ago. 
Our penultimate visit was to the Serbian Church. This is also a dugout as are most of the many churches here in Coober Pedy. It is a serene home of prayer and community, the parishioners are now to old to stand for the two hours of an orthodox service. On the walls are five sculptures by an early member of the church. They are religious. They are are of Christ, Saints and the man in saint of the Serbian church. He died soon after he completed them, still a young man and clearly a gifted sculptor.
In the evening, we had pizzas at the resort. These were the yummiest pizzas I have ever had. John who owns the resort, jokes that it took a Greek like him, to make Italian Pizzas. He would be in his mid seventies, and is still vibrant and hard at work, taking tour groups in the daytime and cooking pizzas in the evenings. 
The next day we drove to Erldunda. This is only 200km from Alice but it would have made a 700km drive for the day which is just to far to be safe. It’s a very good park but suffers from the noise of the generator even though it’s 200meters from where all the trailers and caravans are parked. But the wonderful sunrise made up for that. A few people were disturbed but I slept well, with my silicon earplugs soothing my sleep. 

We met Con and Sue Polizos from Phillip Island, they had a terrific rig with all amenities, microwave, oven, you name it. They are a lot of fun and joined us for a chat while I played my guitar, and we sat outside in the sunshine. At Adelaide we met Ted and Joe, who are travelling as well. They helped using with the cub as they have a very similar model to us.
Well right now, I’m writing this as we head to Alice Springs, north on the Stuart Highway. We are seeing our old landmarks like the Finke and turn-offs to places we have heard about or have visited before.

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Uncategorized

Flying

Outside the window, tiny irregular puff balls of cloud hover in the sky, their height above the ground is uniform, at least as uniform as anything in nature is going to be. The green and brown patterns on the ground below are muted by the haze of heated air and dust. The man beside us, is paying attention to the screen on his overlarge mobile phone, typing in text or queries or what ever people do with these adult toys. At one time adult toys meant something risqué to the middle aged but unnecessary for the young. He soon ceased his typing and laid his head back, gazing languidly out of the window. He watched the wing for a few minutes which I imagine would be a great deal more interesting if he could actually see the movement of air over and the lift sustaining flow coursing beneath the wing, he just might have stayed awake longer. 
His snoring though midway between a rumbling and wet, sloppy purr is barely audible above the engine noise, those abrasive sounding motors are grabbing in innocent bystander atmosphere into its turbines then hurling it out compressed, singed and very, very quickly. Propulsion, not just a good idea but fundamental to staying ten kilometres above the ground, and therefore making it possible to sip this fairly average Chardonnay and simultaneously feel like a sardine oriented in the vertical opposed to more typical horizontal a la John West – the absence of oil is appreciated.
Flying is the miraculous, the utterly incredible converted to the hum drum, the banal. It is a totally awesome achievement. Something weighing as much as a suburban house not only stays aloft but gets from here to London chewing up the remains of Jurassic ferns.  Doing it once is incredible, doing it twice is amazing but unfortunately doing it, a million times is plain boring. It is too easy to forget, if we ever actually knew in the first place, that crossing vast swags of real estate, like thousands of kilometres in a few hours, and a) not dying b) doing it while sitting down and c) doing it in comfort, was completely impossible for nearly all of human history and unless there is evidence to the contrary, earth’s history. Early Australian explorers took three years to go from the bottom to the top of Australia and back again,  ruining health, suffering serious sunburn and all of the benefits accrued to their wealthy backers, poor recompense indeed  for their trouble.
All this stuff, the stuff that flies, the rockets that enter space, motor cars traveling along, all them come from what is inside of the heads of scientists and engineers and businessmen and businesswomen. Now if is too often said that technologists and any monied class lack soul, lack any romantic imagination, that mystical poetic dreaming apparently exists only in music, art, and even cooking if TV cooks are any guide. These activities are creative whereas applying logic and science to a problem is dehumanising and the opposite of creative. Is it cheating to get the answers by using logic? However Imagination uses logic, as it uses memory, perception, education, and so on. Imagination is the overarching goal which all these attributes of human thinking ultimately serve. Imagination is paramount in any and all human endeavours that really change how we live and what we know. This applies as much to developing, applying and distributing revolutionary new technology as it does to artistic endeavour. Flight is technology, is business, is hyper organisation – at least not for booking agents who keep mucking up my baggage bookings – but it’s more than all that, if you close your eyes and breath in deeply, it is completely magical. It is romance. It is poetry.

Step back from our world weary 21st century and imagine the wonder and awe our grandparents had when mechanised flight went from the impossible to visible reality.

The laws of gases, of force and mass and acceleration, of gas and fluid motion in the Bernoulli theorem. These are all dry stuff and they aren’t magical, there just laws, their tools created by or discovered by humans. What’s magical is that the human mind discovered ( invented?) them, and they are right. They’re right because using these laws works, over and over again. They are the Swiss army knives that do a million things. But get this, a two kilogram blob of fats and carbohydrates stuffed in a calcium based skull, cobbled together over two billion years of trial and error can just click into what’s true about the world and in fact the whole universe, now that’s mind blowing. Then those same human brains have the determination and discipline to create sophisticated technologies based on that derived understanding of natural forces and processes, and then to use them ( mostly) safely, is doubly incredible. 
Come on get excited about our modern conveniences , our phones with their own inner lives, steam engines thundering through forests and over deserts, our jets which carry us all over our world, and most of all give a toast to the people who made them all. 
The plane is going to land soon, and a final miracle I hope will occur, which is getting off in one piece.

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India

India : precautions and warnings

While everything is still very fresh I want to write down some of the scams you will meet in India, some annoying, some amusing and some downright troublesome. I will list them in no particular order than what occurs to me. Also I have included some precautions and take home messages about safety and security.
A Taxi driver or tuk tuk driver picks you up from the airport, you are tired, this transport was pre-booked so you assume it will be plain sailing into a comfortable bed in your booked hotel. The driver tells you the hotel is closed/burnt down/terrible/surrounded by a demonstration or whatever. He rings ” the Hotel” to confirm this and then takes you to a hotel where he gets a commission. These hotels are uniformly rubbish, they won’t let you contact your booked hotel and it can get very heated trying to extract yourself from this scam. Taxis booked by Intrepid were fine.

2. You leave your hotel in the morning ready for adventure. An overanxious to please man approaches you about a tuk tuk. You say where you want to go. Your query price as there are no working meters, ever. He says, whatever you want. You have got to insist on a definite price and get it down, as foreigners pay vastly more than do locals. Your own hotel can give you an idea of what is reasonable. You are on your way, and the driver stops his vehicle outside an emporium. Only five minutes he says. More like an hour. You are shown expensive goods in one section, then another and another if you don’t just walk out. We bought a beautiful carpet and organised for it to be shipped back. But when we were hand passed to the jewellery section, we baulked. Got up and left. Unfortunately, you have to be rude to these people as they will waste your time extravagantly hoping to wear you down into purchasing something. And whatever you do look reluctant to purchase, and the price comes down, big time. If you driver pulls up, and pressures you to go in, just say I want to go to my hotel now. I am not getting out till I am at my hotel. Or whatever your destination is. Indians abhors people who waste their time, if you are not going to play ball, they cut their losses and drive you away from the emporium.
3. Temples. Holy men are called fakirs, giving us the term fake. There are some sincere ones but they are not in tourist traps botting off tourists. A holy men in a temple asks for a donation. There is a tray with a 100 rupee note and incense burning. Every tray in that temple has a 100 rupee note, to allay your suspicions. Most temples that would like donations have a clearly marked donation box and warnings about giving money to ” holy” men.
4. Varanasi. This place needs a section to itself. Holy men grab your hands or thrust flowers into your hands then demand money for the blessing they have given. Children too thrust flowers into your hands and then ask you to pay. 
5 . Beggars. Beggars will grab your arms, push their babies in your face, and just obstruct you. Beggars are uniformly rural villagers who were convinced by a city businessman to come into a city promising them well paid jobs. In fact they are marooned, they have to beg and a percentage of the take goes to the businessman who seduced them here. The children and babies may not actually be theirs, there is a huge problem of abduction of young children at railway stations, these children are abused, often mutilated to make them more effective beggars. This actually does happen.
6. Monuments and forts. The big expense in an India trip is paying entrance fees 50 times greater than locals. Adding to this cost, some enterprising ticket sellers, offical ones in the booth, will shortchange you. Always count your change, and if it’s not right, confront them. If you block up the works, and get confrontational, they will cough up the money. Don’t leave the counter till you have checked your change.

7. Indians expect a tip, but if service is really shoddy they can do without it. 10 rupees for carrying a bag in a hotel, a porter at a railway station, about 5% is a good tip at a restaurant but check the bill if there is a service charge, this means a tip is already included – no need to tip twice.
8. Photography. Don’t pay for photos, ask politely for permission but your are an amateur who will never make money from your photos. Another common scam at monuments like the Taj Mahal, is a scammer will say here is a good place for a photo, and here, and here and then they demand a tip. I have had security guards do this scam. 
9. Don’t forget personal security. Keep your passport in a RFID WALLET / SLEEVE. Keep one debit or travel card with the passport. This is back up cash if you lose your other cards. Your wallet should be secure, preferably a zip up wallet and a chain to attach it to your belt. Your camera strap should be sturdy. I was told that motor bike riders can use a sharp knife to cut off your camera strap, but as most motorbikes travelled at little more than walking pace and a fast getaway is impossible due to the traffic. 
Have a debit card as well as a traveller cashcard, it’s worth having a variety as ATMs may not take all cards and having no local currency is not an option. 
A small LED TORCH attached to a chain with your keys to your luggage or pack can prove very handy in temples, crypts, power failure or poorly lit streets. 
Keep bag numbers low, you will often be tired, distracted, and it’s just too easy to forget that fourth bag on a seat or taxi. Do a bag count often and especially when alighting from trains or taxis or tuk tuks.
10, Hawkers. These are rarely a big nuisance, if you say no politely and move on, they won’t hang around. Occasionally, a hawker can be really persistent, repeatedly say no. But if it’s getting a problem, say no like you really mean it. Sometimes some judicious aggression is needed. Also Indian sellers, snake charmers, hawkers, believe that touching and looking are the same thing. Don’t look at their products.
11. Guides. Every time you walk around, people will ask where do you come from? Where are you going? About two thirds of the time, it’s part of a scam. Touting for a business. Expecting a tip for pointing out that a shop you want is two doors away. The trouble is you start to view most possible interactions as opportunities for trying to rip you off. Now they are all small amounts, but let’s face it, white tourists and even more so Japanese tourists, are viewed as walking cash machines. These local people earn just about nothing, they don’t get any social security if old, sick or unemployed, they just starve. If I have sounded critical of Indians in the above text, I must temper that now by saying, their daily struggles to get enough to eat are not those even the poorest person has to face in Australia. They need to make money any way they can and they cannot afford to be squeamish about how they do it. There is a true desperation to many of them in their lives which we cannot understand. That fifty rupees can be a meal for a family. So don’t get too upset, don’t be too defensive, sometimes it works out for the best. 
12 Trains. It’s well worth having a chain and reliable lock to secure your bags ( also locked) to the attachment points beneath the seats. Also pack your bags to make them flat not fat – this enables the bags to fit easily under the benches. Always have your own role of toilet paper in a snap lock bag as train loos don’t have paper. A good time for a bag snatch is just when your train has arrived. Your carry pack is resting on a bunk, you are tired and inattentive.

13. Toilets and hygiene. It’s impossible to avoid exposure to E. coli. You can minimise it, and it’s worth doing as the lower the exposure then the milder the upset will be. Use anti bacterial gel often and always before meals and after the bathroom. Wash your teeth and rinse toothbrush in bottled water. Bottled water should have a definite click when you open it otherwise suspect it’s been refilled. Any cold foods such as sliced pineapple, apple and so on may have been washed in contaminated water. 
If you do get diarrhoea promptly take 800mg statim ( that means take it straight away ) norfloxacin and two loperamide. This is very effective. Icthammol and zinc cream in a tube protects sore skin. Extra fluids especially with hydralyte for electrolytes. And if no vomiting then eat, even if you don’t feel like it.

14. Basic medical kit. Saline for SMOKE and insect debris in eyes. Bactrim DS for skin, chest and urine infections. Panadol for headache. Sunblock applied each morning before walking out. A 12 cm wide heavy minimal stretch bandage for sprains. Some betadine liquid/ wash for any animal bites.  

15. Buses. If you cannot get your bags on a rack or under the bus, then quickly buy a seat for it. It’s a long long trip with luggage on your knees. 
16. Offical guides at heritage areas. More often than not they cannot be understood. They will rush you through and out the exit before you realise you are back at the parking area. They want to push you through quickly to get another job. Avoid them. If you can get an audio guide they are usually quite good. If you cannot, many travel books like Lonely Planet have adequate descriptions of the site. 
17. Air travel. The main problem is the often small amounts of foreign currency which require a time wasting declaration at the exit. Check before you leave home. India has major limits on American dollars for example.
E visas do not save time. You will wait two hours in a queue of less than a dozen people. Indian bureaucracy is hamstrung by antiquated technology and a lackadaisical attitude to customer service. In short, never have a short connection time , less than three hours, between an international arrival and a domestic departure.

18. Alcohol. Never, never, never get drunk. Never take a drink from a stranger. Always see your drink mixed. It’s too common to have drinks spiked and lose PIN numbers, credit cards or worse. This does happen, in fact to one of our group when in Bali. Have fun but be wary and careful.

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Uncategorized

Conclusion of  ” The Mouse Adventure”

After a week away at Yuendemu and all the time, I was straining my brain to think like a mouse. Jennifer wondered why this would be a challenge for me. Aren’t women mystifying sometimes. Thinking like a mouse, this inspiration comes from my favourite consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, only he used this to get into the mind of Moriarty while I had to make an even greater leap of intellectual downsizing. From my vaunted human brain to that of a tiny mouse. 
I thought, when I was doing my mousy thinking, if I was a mouse where would I put a hearing aid. It was probably not going to be a key part of a murine sound system. But it is big, at least relative to a mouse, well he would not want to carry it far. So where was the nearest dark place near my bed. Ah ha. The games afoot. I ran up the staircase on our return, heaved over the bookcase and there tastefully decorated with mouse droppings was my hearing aid. I had outsmarted a creature with 1.5 grams of brain. I had done it! Jennifer was suitably impressed!

Next step revenge! Jennifer had carefully positioned ratsac secured in these two little boxes, they have an entrance and exit which is mousy sized. Next day Jennifer checked for any tiny nibbles on the ratsac. No luck. Again I applied my vast intellect to the problem, and stuffed the tiny doorways with cheese. I had to do without but such is the personal cost of revenge. 

Next morning, the cheese was gone. And there was the tiniest sign of a nibble on the ratsac inside the boxes. We saw him that evening, moonwalking on the kitchen floor. It takes ratsac a few days to work but I was sure, we were sure that this was his last hurrah. This was his last display of mousy bravado. The next evening he was relaxing on one of the ratsac boxes then toured the lounge room, putting on a very healthy turn of speed from sofa to television. He looked amazingly well. 

My suspicion was he was so bloated on my expensive cheese he had no more room in his stomach to actually eat the ratsac. I had been outsmarted and outguessed by an animal with a brain the size of my fingertip.
At this stage, Easter break was over, chocolate eggs consumed, and on Tuesday morning we left for our flight to Lake Nash. Over our time in Lake Nash, Jennifer and I have talked long into the nights and are now painfully reconciled with the thought that the mouse is actually in charge of the house and we are merely strolling players. The next tenant in Bloomfield can have him as company.
 I will leave a note, ” the house mouse does like watching the TV but only SBS.”

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