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Stephen Collicoat

Last Tuesday, I came home early.

Tuesday is practice night. I play for the high school basketball team. We train hard and have some good players. Last year, we reached the championships, but were narrowly defeated. This year, we were determined to win.

Normally, on a Tuesday, I'd be letting myself through the front door at 11a.m. That night however, it was barely 8 o'clock when my lift dropped me off at the front gate and I keyed in the security code.

As I came into the hall, I smelt firstly the aroma of cooking and then two scents - a woman's scent - the unmistakable violet base of Chanel No.5 and a man's aftershave cologne - Gianni Versace, I think, though I'm no expert in such matters.

Then I recalled my parents had mentioned they were inviting two friends, Dr.Frank Rafferty and his wife, Justine over for dinner.

Brett Oliver's injury was the reason I was home early. Brett is our star player. I'm pretty good, but Brett is our top goal scorer. And that night, in a practice session, he had jumped high, dunking the ball through the hoop. When his feet reached the floor, he slipped. He gave a startled cry as his legs crumpled and he fell awkwardly.

Brett was writhing in pain as we rushed over. It was a greenstick fracture and you could see the sharp press of broken bone just under his skin. Charlie Downes, our coach, made a makeshift splint and two of us carried Brett in a fireman's lift to Charlie's car to take him to hospital. That was the end of the practice session and probably our chance at the championship.

Brett will be okay of course, but it would have been great if, in my final year at school, I could have been part of a winning team.

Anyway, when I came into the hallway, I heard Justine Rafferty ask a question, though I couldn't make out the words. My father answered and I had no difficulty understanding him. His voice isn't loud, but it carries, which is vital in his work.

That voice! How did Craig Westmore develop that powerful and persuasive instrument? My theory is that it was partly through his genes. Dad's grandmother was Irish and a natural storyteller, while his granddad was a Welsh journeyman and poet, winner of various eisteddfods in Britain and later in Australia. Five years after immigrating to Australia, Bart Westmore left his wife and four children for the goldfields of Central Victoria and was never heard of again.

Never mind, my great grandmother who died when I was a baby - there's a picture of her somewhere nursing Dad - was of strong pioneering stock. She was probably relieved when her feckless husband took off. At least, he was no longer cadging loans or stealing money from her purse. It's curious to think that Great Granddad may have been of some value, other than simply continuing the line.

Of course, Dad's gift wasn't simply the result of genetics. He became experienced at casting his voice out among firstly small groups and then, larger and larger crowds. He may have inherited an attractive speaking voice and rich turn of phrase from previous generations, but this only partly explains his brilliance as an auctioneer.

Dad is something of a legend in his field. I've heard him referred to, rather grudgingly as 'The Milkman'. It's a nickname Dad hates and refers to the way he wrings every last bid out of a crowd. The description I prefer is 'Spellbinder'.

When you hear Craig Westmore's voice - rich, deep, manly - it undoubtedly casts a spell. It makes you sense, at some visceral level, that financial success isn't some unattainable, shimmering mirage, but something that you can reach out and grasp, providing you remain bold and determined.

And it was my father's voice I heard that evening, responding to Justine Rafferty's question.

'My most embarrassing moment?' Dad laughed. ' Oh, that's hard to say. there's been so many.'

In another man, the admission of numerous failures may have suggested a diffident or candid nature. Dad however was comfortable with his past and supremely confident of the future.

'I'll never forget an auction I once took in Thornbury,' he reminisced.

'In those days, Thornbury was a working man's suburb. It was full of small, Victorian-era weatherboard cottages, jammed up to each other.'

I paused in the corridor, listening. Understandably, Dad hates being interrupted when he is telling a story.

It was odd. For as long as I recall, I've loved listening to Dad's voice. Recently however, I've found it too polished, too calculating - somehow irritating.

'It was perhaps my second or third auction. I know that I was very green.

'I had agreed the reserve price with the owner, who was a single man living alone. He was in his house on the day of the auction, doubtless listening to the bidding from behind the blinds.

'It was Saturday morning: one always aims to get auctions over well before the footy games begin. A small crowd had gathered. These days, Victorian cottages close to the city are snapped up, but we're talking about the 1960's when interest was only mild.

'I was very conscious that I was on trial as an auctioneer. I had barely reached my twenties, which was seen as almost a kid by employers in those days. I had begged for this chance and was keen, even desperate to make my mark.

'I had just started accepting bids when the police arrived.

'They parked discreetly up the street - no sirens or flashing lights - and crept up the house, keeping clear of the windows. Within minutes, there were uniformed cops and detectives in tight suits on the verandah, with several others creeping down the sideway and into the backyard. A number were carrying pistols, which was unusual in the 1960's. Men took up position on either side of the front door.

'As you can imagine, all this activity killed the auction. The bids faltered, then stopped. A police sergeant, realizing the silence would tip off the vendor, frantically signaled me to keep accepting bids. So there I was, gabbling away, accepting higher and higher bids, ignored by the goggle-eyed crowd.

'Then, the sergeant bellowed, ''Let's get him, boys!'' and they kicked in the front and back door. Men dived into the house and there was shouting and scuffling inside. Several minutes later, my vendor handcuffed and with a blanket over his head was led out and taken away. It turned out he was a bank robber.'

I was about to move, when Dad, who was clearly in a relaxed mood, began another story.

'But even that wasn't as cringe-making as the time I worked on a multiple listing in East Melbourne.'

'What's a multiple listing?' Rafferty asked.

'Oh sorry. That's when a listing is given to two or more agents. The vendor hopes in that way, they'll gain access to a wider market. The agents will come to an arrangement to split the commission - the larger percentage going to the agent who sells the property.

'So we had a vendor who decided to sell her property by private treaty, rather than auction. She was a fairly attractive single woman, a blonde in her forties. I could tell she was a flirt, though that didn't interest me.'

'Oh, yeah,' Justine Rafferty snorted. I've always suspected that she fancied Dad. I could see why she might. He has an attractive personality and, although he's now in his fifties, he is still tall, trim and retains a hawkish, handsome intensity, rather like early photographs of Billy Graham.

I heard Mum join in the laughter. It was the relaxed amusement of a woman who long ago has learned to trust her partner.

'Where was I?' Dad resumed. 'Oh yes, one afternoon a young couple came to my office. I could tell they were religious types. Conservatively dressed, right down to their matching expressions of disapproval. Still, it takes all types and they were clearly well heeled, seeking accommodation in the area.

'The vendor's flat was 15 minutes from the office. As I drove, I learned the couple were from interstate, attached to some missionary group. I explained some of the advantages of purchasing in East Melbourne: low crime rate, proximity to the city - you could walk to Collins Street through the Treasury Gardens, seven minutes to the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground, a stone's throw to hospitals, schools and churches. It was, I summarized, both a desirable and respectable neighborhood.

'After parking in the quiet, tree shaded street, I unlocked the front door using one of the spare keys the vendor had given me. I called out before letting the couple in. I didn't expect the vendor to be home, as she told me she worked each day, but it's always wise to check. The flat was silent, so I began the inspection. I pointed out the way the property caught the warmth of the morning sun, but was cooled by shade trees in the afternoon. The kitchen impressed the young woman. That's generally where you win or lose a sale. It had the latest Italian gas stove and a German dishwashing machine. We finished our inspection of the ground floor.

'The flat was on two levels, with bedrooms and bathrooms on the second floor. When we reached the main bedroom, I threw open the door with a flourish, confident they'd be impressed with what they saw.

'What they saw was a naked couple - the vendor and an estate agent - in bed. There was pandemonium. The vendor shrieked and, wrapping the sheet around her, began to hurriedly scoop up her scattered clothes. The agent was cursing horribly as he struggled to pull on his trousers. He lost his balance and fell over with a crash. I stood there stunned while my clients fled down the stairs. It wasn't my finest moment. I had never simultaneously lost a vendor and potential client before.'

Amid the laughter, Dad added ruefully, 'The only good thing the experience taught me was to always phone ahead.'

As the laughter subsided to a busy hum of conversation, I realised it was time for me to make an appearance. But still I delayed, sinking back onto the stairs outside the dining room, thinking about Dad and myself.

It isn't cool at any time and particularly in the 21st. Century for a teenager to admit that he admires, even hero-worships his father, yet this is what I've done for most of my life.

It seemed strange to think just how much of my existence to that point has swirled around my father. Not only myself, but my entire family has circled and broken like gentle waves around the imposing, impertuable island that is Dad. It isn't that he overtly demands attention, but such is the force of the man's personality, that when he isn't with us, it's as though myself, my mother and my two sisters are all waiting for our lives to restart. We seem to need Dad to restore warmth and color. His opinion validates our lives.

When the family is at dinner - myself, Mum, my two sisters - identical twins who I think of as 'Pip' and 'Pop' (both of whom were away last Tuesday, visiting friends) - I have the odd feeling that we're at an auction. There's Dad, occasionally prompting us, but generally just accepting our bids at conversation. Each of us competes for the auctioneer's attention and his acceptance of our offer.

I've always felt special because I was the other male in the household - albeit a rather colorless facsimile of the original. Dad reserved for me a special brand of bantering affection. When it became clear that I was good at sport and unthreateningly ordinary at study - except for English Expression - Dad's affection increased. When I expressed interest in his work, suggesting that one day I would like to become an auctioneer, his pride and love knew no bounds. It was agreed I should try to get into uni to complete a commerce degree. In that way, I could later specialise in commercial property auctions - a lucrative field in which Dad had only dabbled.

For the last two years, I gained an informal education, following my father from auction to auction on the weekends.

Dad's performance was impressive. Most of us faced with a challenge can generally find a solution in time. Much rarer is the ability to snap back with a zinger.

Take, as an example of his skill, an auction he conducted six months ago.

It was an auction in East Melbourne - a double-storey Victorian terrace home. Prices had been rising sharply in the suburb and a large crowd had gathered.

'It's the beauty of the auction method.' Dad enthused, 'You determine a market value which forms the reserve, but the true market value is what is bid on the day. The real price is always in the hands of the public.'

And so that Saturday, Dad stood on the front verandah, where he could see and be seen by the crowd and commenced.

He described the property and, before inviting bids, asked if there were any questions. There were several questions: the usual stuff. Someone asked about the availability of resident parking, another person asked if it was possible to gain reclassification of the home as a restaurant, while a third person was interested in its possibilities as bed and breakfast accommodation. Then an unexpected question came arrowing out, like lightning on a cloudless day.

'Mr.Auctioneer,' a middle aged woman with a nasal voice began, 'You've described the property in detail, but I didn't hear you mention the underground stream.'

'Underground stream?' Dad blanched.

'Why, yes.,' the woman continued with a triumphant sneer. 'There's an underground stream that runs right under the property. Surely the vendor told you that? The stream's dry in the summer, but come winter and the cellar in this house floods. Don't you think buyers should be told that?'

I glanced around the crowd. People looked stunned or angry. A number of prospective buyers who Dad's employees had speaking to, now whispered uneasily among themselves, while the lady interested in converting the house to a restaurant began shaking her head. Two men in business suits standing close to the questioner began to smirk.

I'm new to auctions, but even I could recognise the men as rival estate agents, which meant the woman was their stooge. If they scuttled the auction, they would introduce themselves to the disappointed vendor, probably gaining the business.

I was never prouder, watching how Dad met the crisis.

He politely told the woman he had never heard of a stream flowing under the property. 'Then you should have heard of It.' the woman jeered. 'Call yourself an auctioneer?'

'You raise a very important question. I'll resolve the matter right now.'

He asked the crowd to excuse him for a minute and retreated into the house. The crowd began to whisper excitedly among themselves. 'He better have a good explanation for this,' I heard one of the rival agents mutter.

A moment later, Dad was back with a woman whom he introduced as Mrs. Luscombe, the vendor.

'Now, Mrs.Luscombe,' he said, 'Have I told you why I wanted you to come out here?'

'Only to answer some questions,' the woman answered promptly.'I don't know what you want to ask.'

'Firstly, how long have you lived in this property?'

'Twenty years.'

'I understand you're interested in local history.'

The woman looked puzzled. 'Yes, I'm currently the President of the historical society.'

'And you have a detailed knowledge of the topography of the area - rivers, streams, underground springs and so on.'

'Nothing like that here,' Mrs.Luscombe responded.

'How dry is your cellar?'

'Bone dry. Most of these houses suffer from rising damp. It's partly the clay soil, and lack of dampcourses and underground ventilation in many older homes. My late husband was a builder however and he always marveled at how dry our cellar was. The air there is sweet all year round.'

'Then you're not aware of an underground stream flowing beneath your cellar?'

'Of course not!' Mrs.Luscombe flared. 'Who said there was?'

'Why, that lady over there,' Dad said, then added in feigned surprise, 'Oh, that's strange, the lady isn't there.'

He thanked Mrs.Luscombe who went inside her house. Later, he went in to tell her that her property had just sold for $150,000 beyond the reserve.

Having hero-worshipped my father most of my life, I felt disappointed in him for the first time a month ago.

It was a Saturday morning and Dad was selling a shop in the upmarket suburb of Brighton. The selling agent hadn't an auctioneer on staff, so they hired him. The agency owner had been to our home on various social occasions. I thought of him as upright and avuncular.

Dad began the bidding and it soon became clear to me that there was only one bidder at this auction. At that stage, the textbooks dictate Dad should have pointed out to the bidder he was bidding against himself. He could have then privately told the bidder how much the vendor wanted for the property. If the bidder still wanted to buy, Dad could pass his offer to the vendor who might accept it. To my surprise and growing disquiet, Dad kept accepting bids from the young man, driving him higher.

'I wondered if the Brighton agent who was placidly watching the scene saw what was happening. 'This man's bidding against himself,' I whispered.

'Yes,' the agent smiled, 'Funny, isn't it?'

'No,' I said hotly, 'It's shabby and mean.'

The agent's face darkened.

'Shut up,' he warned me savagely, ' If you can't keep stupid opinions to yourself, leave the auction. Your father knows what he's doing.'

And that's when it all changed for me.

After several minutes, I stood up and sauntered into the dining room. My parents looked up in surprise.

'Hello dear,' my mother said, 'I didn't hear you come in. We weren't expecting you for hours.'

'Hello Tom,' Justine Rafferty cooed. 'Isn't he growing tall? And so handsome too! I'll bet girls are wild for him. Why Craig, he's looking more like you every day.'

'Do you think so?' Dad asked coldly. Although he didn't know why I had begun avoiding him, he clearly resented it.

I briefly told the group about Brett Oliver's injury. There were the expected sounds of sympathy.

'Would you care to join us?' Mum asked. 'I can easily lay another setting.'

'No, thanks. I grabbed a pie before practice. Please excuse me. I have some study to complete.'

As I left, I heard Dr.Rafferty comment, 'That's a fine young man, Craig. You must feel proud of him. Is he still thinking of going into the business?'

'I don't know,' I heard Dad reply. 'He was as keen as mustard about the idea for years, but recently he's changed. Doesn't want to talk about it. Who knows what goes on in a boy's mind? The latest fad is that he wants to become a teacher.'

'Being a teacher is a good profession,' Rafferty judged.

'Yes,' Dad admitted hesitantly. ' Yes, of course it is. I had just sort of hoped.. Well, who knows? Now, how about some more wine? It looks as though the tide's gone out in your glass, Frank and I'm sure Justine would like some more.'

'Just a drop,' Justine Rafferty giggled, 'Oh, that's too much, you dreadful man. Are you trying to get me drunk?'

'Don't worry about Tom,' I heard my mother assure Dad. ' He has his head screwed on the right way. When the time comes, I'm sure he'll make the right decision.

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