‘Tracking down Charlie’ is the story of one man’s quest for his roots. It takes him on a journey that quickly becomes a nightmare of mystery and intrigue.
When wealthy New Zealander, Mick Cooper, discovers a faded letter in his loft, he embarks upon a genealogical search for an Uncle Charlie he has never known. It leads him from Australia’s Gold Coast to the London archives, Italy and an art gallery in southern Spain. Hints of long-lost treasure, childhood memories of war-torn England, and a certain pearl necklace fill Mick’s troubled mind.
His Auntie Rose is furious: ‘Let the dead rest in their graves!’ she shrieks, and a sinister, over-weight American, dogs his footstep, and anticipates Mick’s every move.
Can he find love and happiness with the charming, but enigmatic lady with the , pale-gold hair? Is she all she seems?
Mick’s children are no help. ‘Aw, dad,’ laughs his beautiful daughter. ‘Get a life. Someone very naughty’s havin’ you on!’
‘Tracking down Charlie’ is a treat in store for anyone delighting in London-lore and the thrill of family research.
Tracking Down Charlie
‘IT’S NO USE, BOB,’ Mick Cooper groaned theatrically. ‘I don’t belong in this dump any more.’
His son grinned. ‘Time to move on, I reckon.’
Bob had discovered his father up in the loft, kneeling on the dusty floorboards, and sadly foraging through the accumulated memories of a lifetime. ‘I’ve been tellin’ya, dad. This old house is too big, an’ too isolated for an old guy on his own.’
Bob’s mother had died of cancer during that sweltering Brisbane summer, and he sometimes thought his father would never come to terms with his life.
He sighed. He too loved the old place; remembering happier times when all the family had been together. His parents had planned this wonderful, spacious house; every nook and cranny, every stick and stone. He smiled to himself; those had been the years when the building boom had really taken off. Now he headed up the Cooper business himself, he could appreciate only too easily what a wrench it would be for his father to just pull up sticks and leave.
‘Yeah,’ he went on. ‘I know how you feel. Especially as you built most of this sprawl with your own hands.’ He glanced around the crowded loft and whistled.
His father replaced some papers in a tattered briefcase. ‘It’s mostly junk, anyway. I suppose I’m just indulging in nostalgia. Feeding on the past.’
Bob shrugged. ‘This is one of those real nasty jobs. Why don’t I get Giles over from Queenstown? We could go through this crap like a dose of salts.’
Mick laughed ruefully. ‘Yep. You’re dead right, I’m still comparatively young. Plenty of years left to go places.’
‘Sure, dad. Don’t worry about it. I’ll sort out the house sale an’ get’ya set up real nice in that easy-peasy pad I’ve readied up for ya. Don’t be so darned independent.’
His father brightened. ‘As long as I have my books and cd’s I guess I’ll be okay. How is the new project?’
Bob looked smug. ‘You won’t believe this! The apartments are finished. All bar the finishing touches, that is. Sixty-four luxury apartments, the best built, the finest appointed pads on the coast. People are snappin’ ’em up.’
Mick made an effort: ‘I hope they’re leaving me mine!’
His son chuckled. ‘You bet, dad! Your fifth floor penthouse is all ready for ya. Exactly the way we planned. Just say the word when you’re ready for the big day.’
He flicked a spider’s web from a pile of books. ‘Thank goodness I had the sense to add an extra couple of rooms for your bits an’ pieces.’
‘Yep. An’ you’ve also got yourself a dirty great terrace overlookin’ the ocean. With real trees an’ a pretty sizable garden.’
‘Good Grief! On the fifth floor? What have I done to deserve all this? And it really is finished?’
‘It really is.’ Bob’s rugged face clouded over. ‘All except the Marina cut-in. The planning office is playing silly devils about that. As usual.’
‘I thought Ted Clarke had retired.’
Bob’s eyes creased up. ‘He had. But Clarke’s our guy now. I’ve put him on the pay-roll! He’ll be sortin’ everythin’ out so darned thoroughly in future we’ll never have hold-ups again.’
Mick smiled a fraction doubtfully. ‘Atta boy!’
He was well out of this rat-race, he thought. He wouldn’t want to be running Cooper’s in these cut-throat times. It was the fun of hands-on building he’d liked about the trade. Cooper’s were now the largest construction company on the Gold Coast. With Bob at the helm, it looked very much as though they would stay that way. He winced and scrambled stiffly to his feet. ‘What do I do with all this stuff, Bob? Look at that old sewing machine. Who the hell would want that?’
To Mick’s surprise his son considered the question seriously; standing straight-backed and tall, just the way he had himself in those younger, carefree days.
‘I don’t know about that, dad. It may seem old-fashioned, but some of those trendy cafés on Darlin’ Harbour use those bases for their tables.Tell ya what. We’ll put a white marble top on it an’ stick it on’ya new terrace. Be just right for a beer in the evenin’s.’
Mick cheered up. ‘Great stuff! What about these old pictures? I certainly can’t chuck those, and I can’t see ’em improving the decor of my new apartment. Some are what they call chromo-lithographs. D’ya think Linda would like ’em?’
His son laughed. His sister had married a Spanish artist and was now running a small art gallery in Southern Spain. It was a standing family joke that everything Linda touched turned to gold. ‘Probably flog ’em for a fortune.’
He stood three or four dusty pictures against the packing cases, then stopped. ‘Hey, dad. Hang on, mate. This one’s an old photograph.’
His father peered short-sightedly at the faded, sepia print. ‘Yep. Your gran brought these pictures all the way over from the old country during the war. They reminded her of home, I guess. She really treasured those old things, I can tell ya.’
‘Rather good frames. Linda would certainly like those.’
His father assumed annoyance. ‘Come on, mate. Never mind the frames. This photograph here is your very own great-grandmother. My father’s mother. It’s a family heirloom, no less!’
Bob grinned and bit his lip. He was never quite sure when his father was kidding. ‘Yeah?’
He glanced up. ‘She looks kind’a formidable to me, dad. D’ya know anythin’ about the lady?’
‘Not much. I remember her vaguely, of course. She was always very kind to me as a kid.’ He thought for a moment. ‘It would be nice to know a bit more about the family.’
‘Sure would! Find out what they were really like. See if we’re related to Henry the Eighth! One of my mates is researching his family history.’
‘Yeah. Genealogy’s becoming quite a popular hobby.’
He stretched painfully; any untoward movement made his back hurt nowadays. Let’s face it, he thought, it hadn’t been right for years. Not since he’d fallen off that blasted ladder in Blenheim.
‘I thought I might travel around for a bit before taking root again. Maybe pick up on the English thing and see if I can’t trace a few pommie Coopers.’
Bob looked at him approvingly. He hated the thought of his father growing old; had been more worried than he cared to confess at the way Mick had stagnated recently. He wanted him around, but not if he withdrew into his shell and became old before his time.
‘That’s a really great idea, dad. Sort out a few more twigs for the family tree. As long as ya don’t stay away too long. Terrific! You sound more like my old dad speakin’.’
MICK PROPPED UP the framed photograph of his grandmother on top of an old trunk, and regarded it thoughtfully, his head on one side. Perhaps Bob was right; she did look rather formidable. He rubbed his eyes tiredly.
‘Come on, son. Let’s go down and grab a few beers. I’m fed up with all this dust.’
As they turned to leave the loft, there was a slither and a soft crack. The large framed photograph had slipped, and both the thin yellow and brown frame, and the glass had broken. ‘Darn!’ Mick cried. ‘There goes grandma!’
Bob stooped and carefully picked up the pieces. ‘Mind these shards, dad. The photograph itself seems okay.’
He laid out the twisted remains of the frame on the trunk, and his father picked up a piece of the moulding. How well he remembered his mother telling him about these things. ‘These pictures have travelled around from house to house for years. My mother told me the frames were, what she called, “real bird’s-eye maple”.’
‘Yeah?’ Bob disentangled the photograph from its mount, and the packing of yellowing newspaper. A sheet of paper slipped out and fluttered to his feet. ‘Hey! What’s this, dad? Family loot?’
He picked it up; a single sheet of notepaper bearing some sloping, spidery handwriting. He blew off the dust excitedly.
‘Wow! It’s from some firm of solicitors, but I can’t read that sort‘a stuff. It’s like your own scrawl.’
Mick frowned. ‘That’s the way we were all taught to write in my day.’
‘Didn’t’ya have typewriters?’
‘Of course there were typewriters! One of the first machines was invented in eighteen twenty-nine by William Austin But—’
‘But they weren’t in general use until much later. Solicitors are notoriously old-fashioned anyway.’
‘Dad! What does the wretched letter say?’
Mick shook his head crossly. ‘How should I know? Bring it downstairs, lad. I’m as blind as a bat without my blessed specs.’
MICK FETCHED SOME FOSTERS from the fridge, flung himself into his favourite armchair, and picked up the piece of notepaper. He held it close to his eyes. Why did he get so tired nowadays? He wasn’t exactly working hard. He adjusted his spectacles carefully on his nose. Bob was becoming impatient.
‘Aw, come on, dad. Get a move on—’
His father gave him a glare. ‘The thing’s been there for donkeys’ years, Bob. A few minutes more won’t matter.’
He smoothed the paper out on his knee. ‘Anyway, here goes. Gosh! It’s addressed to my grandfather. Old John Henry Cooper himself. At an address in Cheltenham.’
Mick frowned. ‘Yeah. It’s some place in England.’
He hunched forward in his chair. ‘The letter’s headed Lincoln’s Inn, London, and dated the twenty-ninth of March nineteen twenty-six.’
‘Golly! The dark ages!’
Mick squinted sideways at the paper. ‘It says “Dear Sir,
‘“As instructed, we sent to Islington, and learned that the police are continuing their inquires concerning your missing son, Charles William Cooper. So far, we are given to understand, Scotland Yard have had no success, nor has any trace been found of the jewellry belonging to Lady Travers and other persons.
‘“May we suggest you place a discreet advertisement in The Times newspaper, asking your son to contact you? We should, of course, be pleased to handle this matter on your behalf should you intend to remain in Cheltenham.
‘“We are Dear Sir,
‘“James Winter, Merideth, Black & Co.” ’
There was a long silence, then Bob put his head back and laughed. ‘Wow! Have you ever heard of this Charles guy?’
Mick made a face. ‘Nope, but it sounds as though he was my uncle.’
‘Gosh! Missing uncles! Stolen jewellry! What d’ya think, dad? A skeleton in the Cooper cupboard or some guy playing silly jokes?’
His father looked sternly at him over his spectacles. He was slightly annoyed. He often was when he considered young people didn’t take things seriously enough.
‘I really don’t see how it can be regarded as a joke, Bob. It’ll certainly repay looking into.’
Bob raised his eyebrows. ‘But why the heck put the letter behind that picture?’
His father shrugged. ‘I’ve no idea. And why should my grandfather be interested in jewellery? The letter’s made up my mind for me, anyway. I’m going to England to see what I can find out!’
Bob stared at his father impassively. ‘Yeah? Okay. But I don’t think you’ll like it. Doesn’t it rain all year long?’
‘Tell me what you remember about the old place.’
Mick folded the letter carefully and sat back. ‘I don’t recall much. I was only a kid. All I really remember are the bombs dropping all around us. It’s old history anyway.’
He poured them more beer and pondered for a moment. ‘My dad was a watch and clock repairer. And he died just before the end of the war. Then mother and I moved up to London and stayed with my grandparents in Islington.’
‘Islington? That’s where—’
‘Yep. It’s in north London some place. We were only there a few months before your grandmother remarried. Les was a New Zealander, as you well know. A fighter pilot in the RAF.’
He swigged back his beer. ‘He was due to be repatriated. I think he’d spent a lot of time in hospital. And as my mother was an ambulance driver, perhaps that’s how they met.’
He stopped. The beer didn’t seem to taste as good as usual. He’d been drinking more wine than beer lately. Perhaps too much wine. He rose and walked to the large window overlooking the garden. How could he bear to leave all this? He and Maria had created this garden from scratch. It was all looking a shade run-down, though. Billy was getting too old to keep it up the way it was in the old days. He smiled. The geraniums in the stone trough were running wild. Maria had planted those to remind her of a Spain she’d never known. He pressed his nose to the cool glass. The aloe vera was getting enormous. He remembered Maria standing exactly on that spot, cutting into a leaf, and smearing the thick, creamy fluid onto the children’s cuts and grazes. The plant had been half that size then.
‘Come on, dad!’
Mick sighed and sat down reluctantly. ‘Where was I?’
Bob looked away. ‘You were tellin’ me about your mother.’
‘Yes. Did you know your grandmother was one of the first war-brides? Young as I was I shall never forget the voyage out. Zig-zagging about to avoid the German U-boats.’
He leaned back and thought for a moment. It all seemed so long ago somehow.
‘When we finally arrived at the docks near Christchurch, my new stepfather dumped us straight onto a train and told my mother to go to his parents’ place near Invercargill. Way out in the bush it was in those days. Then he went off on some business of his own.’
He laughed. ‘This was the way of most New Zealanders in the nineteen-forties.’
‘What was he like, this step-father of yours?’
‘Oh, he was great. A real devil-may-care sort of guy. Hard as nails, but with a heart of gold.’
There was silence for some time, then Bob looked at his father. ‘And then they died.’
‘Yeah. Both of them were killed. Gone. Finished. But that was much later, of course. I was eighteen by the time of the accident.’
‘What did’ya do? It must have been pretty difficult.’
His father grunted and drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. ‘What did I do? Nothing much, I guess. Not at first anyway. The only work around was in the meat-packing sheds, and I certainly didn’t fancy that. So I sold a few trinkets of my mother’s for funds, and did damn all as far as I can remember.’
He nodded. ‘The bits and pieces were much more valuable than I expected. So I got by.’
Bob stared at him. ‘There sure was a remarkable lot of jewellery around in this family—’
Mick laughed. ‘I just struck lucky, that’s all. Then I met an extremely attractive Australian girl that you may kind’a remember. Fell in love, and sold up everything. Maria and I married and we went to live in Brisbane, where her family were. It didn’t bother me. I had no one left to care about, and no ambition whatever to visit the land where I was born.’
Bob nodded. ‘Australia was pretty kind to you, wasn’t it?’
‘Yep. Your grandad had a small building business. They were immigrants. They’d fled Spain to get away from the Civil War, and then found England on the brink of another.’
Bob put his beer down with a bang. ‘They sure had it tough.’
‘Yeah, your grandad’s father was with the Republican army, and was killed somewhere near Barcelona. Your grandparents only just managed to escape to England on the last boat out of Bilbao.’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘But grandpa must have told you all this dozens of times.’
His son looked sheepish. ‘Yeah, but I guess I didn’t take it in much as a kid.’
His father grunted. ‘Like father, like son. We’re both better with our hands than our brains.’
He smiled. ’After the war I guess they missed the Spanish sunshine, so travelled down under.’
Bob rose to his feet. ‘And I for one am darned pleased they did.’
Mick shook his head. ‘They were still pretty broke when I first met ‘em.’
Bob frowned. ‘Really? I thought you said they had a building business.’
‘Yes, but it was losing money hand over fist.’
‘Yeah, I know.’ Mick heaved himself up from his chair and went for more beer. He sat down again heavily and stared into his glass.
‘Okay, I’ll tell you. I bailed ‘em out. It was the time when well-heeled, retired Australians were settling all along the Gold Coast.’
‘Still are, dad, thank the Lord!’
‘“These guys want big, brash houses with a boat at the bottom of their yards,” old man Lopez told me. “Okay, chico, let’s give it to ’em.” So we did.’
Bob sighed. ‘You sure worked hard. But where did you find the money?’
His father looked away. ‘I can’t claim much credit, Bob. I’d managed to put a little by. It was no great deal.’
Bob whistled, but as he didn’t comment Mick continued. ‘It was a good time for builders. Maria was an only child and I soon found myself taking over the business. Running the joint.’
He shrugged. ‘So we prospered, and ended up rearing a typical aussie family. I guess we all enjoyed Surfer’s Paradise in those early days. Now, with all the high-rise—’
‘Yeah.’ Bob stretched himself. ‘Goin’ over to Fraser Island. Eatin’ seafood at Lapps. Those great weekends down at Noosa River.’
Mick nodded. ‘Look Bob, you’re the only one I can really talk to. I’ve been desperately lonely without your mother, and, as you’ve been telling me for ages, see no reason for staying here all the time. I shall enjoy the apartment for most of the year, but as I get older the heat and humidity are getting too much. I’m a rich man, damn it. Free to go wherever I chose.’
Bob nodded. ‘Yeah. I understand itchy feet, dad. Just don’t sod-off into the sunset an’ forget all about little ole us, that’s all. We need’ya, mate. We have our own problems, y’know.’