It was at my grandfather’s wake, staring at the plate of sticky brown cake, when I realised nothing was as it seemed.
We were a small family. Both my parents had passed on and when Grandad died I expected a small service. But dozens of mourners poured through the doors of the church, cramming themselves into every corner and filling the small space to bursting. Most of them were strangers to me. I sat in the second row craning my neck towards the side door, while through it came furtive looking men in long grey coats, glamorously dressed women of indeterminate age, and what looked like a congregation of museum curators wearing black turtlenecks and chelsea boots.
Grandad’s two ex-wives jostled one another for the front pew at the start of the service, and wrestled for possession of the oversized wreath at the end of it. Afterwards, at the wake, they disappeared with a bottle of Drambuie, got hopelessly sozzled, and hooted and wailed like kookaburras at sundown.
My Great Uncle Patrick, a thin, thoughtful man with little to say and no humour to speak of, played darts with several other slender, serious types. I was sure I heard them chatting casually in Latin or ancient Greek but when I approached, they switched seamlessly to English and went on with their game.
The bikers who showed up at the wake were a mystery too but Uncle Arthur, my godfather, seemed to recognise them. He made a hurried exit on their arrival, dropping his glass of Southern Comfort into a pot plant and dashing into the ladies toilets. Alarmed screeches were followed by giggles – my uncle was always a ladies’ man – and I pictured him giving the grieving grannies a bit of comfort of his own.
During the eulogy, Uncle Arthur had said that Grandad was originally from Queensland. I thought he must be mistaken, Grandad had told us he was from Tasmania and, really, why would anyone lie about that? I asked Uncle Arthur about it when he reappeared from the ladies’ room.
“I met your Grandpa when we were both surf lifesavers on the Gold Coast. He was a good swimmer, well known on the beaches when we were young men. Especially after he saved that businessman. He swam out and pulled the drunk bugger out of the sea in the middle of the night. He got a medal of bravery for that. Australia Day, nineteen sixty six it was.”
Grandma Audrey reappeared with an empty bottle and mascara-bruised eyes, listing heavily to one side as she curved her way through the crowd. She slung an arm around my shoulder.
“Your grandfather was the love of my life, you know. Dunno what I would have done without him. Even after he left me and went back to that miserable old cow Teresa, I still loved him. Oh, he had all his secrets and his strange friends. And the late night phone calls and disappearing all the time. But he was such a wonderful man. He was a hero, you know. He saved us. Him and his big pineapple….”
At that point I deposited her into a tub chair so that she could tell her story to the potted palm tree, and I went in search of a drink.
I was at the bar ordering a scotch when a burly middle grey haired man in motorcycle leathers squeezed in next to me, ordered an orange juice, and introduced himself as Franco. He told me he had been a calculus professor before joining the bikers club, which was called the Stark Ravens. As he leaned away from me to wave to a friend, I noticed a bird with a chalice in it’s beak etched into the back of his leather jacket. Franco said that my grandfather had been an honorary member of their club for fifty years. Apparently Grandad had helped out the leader of the Stark Ravens many years ago.
“We looked after him, and he looked after us,” said Franco. He started to say something else, about knowing my Grandad at university, but he changed his mind and headed for the door, muttering about needing a breath of fresh air.
I took my drink over to the dartboard, insinuating myself casually into Great Uncle Patrick’s group. Their talk dried up as soon as I arrived but, bolstered by a few glasses of scotch, I struck up conversation.
“So Grandad was a member of your group. It figures”, I said, keeping my eyes on the dartboard.
“No idea what you’re talking about.” Uncle Patrick answered.
“Franco told me all about it. Pretty cool, really,” I answered nonchalantly. I sipped my drink and waited.
Four rounds of darts later, one of the slender men moved silently to my elbow as I was lining up to throw.
“You’ve got a good hand. Quick, and steady.”
I nodded, placed my glass on the table and took aim.
“Your grandfather was a champion.”
I send my darts to the board, throwing a Shanghai, and casually stepped up to retrieve them before returning to my drink.
“Patrick says you studied Fine Arts at Melbourne?” Said the slender man.
“What was your major?” he asked
“Art history. But I did my masters in appraisal at the Sotheby’s Institute”
He stared at me, eyes narrowed, for a few seconds and then glanced at my great uncle Patrick, nodded almost imperceptibly, and turned to the dartboard.
Uncle Patrick put his drink down next to mine. “You’ve got no idea what you’re getting yourself into.” His pale blue eyes were watery with age but still intense.
“So tell me then” I answered.
Over the course of that afternoon I found out things about my grandfather, and my family, that I had never imagined.
In 1966, grandad had gone for a walk on the beach and spotted a body in the waves. He’d swum out and dragged the unconscious man from the water, revived him, and called an ambulance.
The next few years were unremarkable. Grandad had married his first wife Teresa, had a daughter, Marie, and continued his career as a professor of antiquities at the University of Queensland.
Except that he hadn’t. He’d been an active member of a secret group with links to both the Knights Templars and the Oddfellows. They rescued, or possibly stole, depending on your point of view, priceless historical artefacts that were at risk of destruction. They entered warzones, natural disaster zones, sometimes even private homes to retrieve artworks, treasures, mementos, and sacred objects.
The Stark Ravens were their support crew. They were the muscle, techies, go betweens and fencers. The relationship had begun when my grandfather pulled that man out of the surf. His name was Henry Milton and he was the leader of the Stark Ravens. At the time the when Grandad met them, the club was exclusively middle aged professionals and academics, playing at being free spirits with their motorcycles and their leathers. Henry had been beaten and dumped by a real biker gang. Grandad had saved his life. It changed the way the Stark Ravens saw themselves. Before long they were recruiting new members and putting their professional skills to use.
Grandad had networks of couriers, informants and dealers he dealt with. He’d sail out into the Coral Sea to meet anonymous men in dark shapeless boats and exchange wads of cash for suspicious canvas-wrapped bundles.
He’d dock at Noosa or Bundaberg or Byron Bay, back in the days when they were sleepy seaside hamlets, and hand over the treasures to other members of the Society who stored them securely in a secret location.
The details were fuzzy but at some point the Society was compromised. Their local facility was raided and many of the artefacts were stolen or damaged. They needed a new base and after several weeks of furtive meetings, security assessments and consultations with engineers, the construction of a giant pineapple was started on a farm just a few miles inland from the Sunshine coast.
Henry Milton – the leader of the Ravens – was also the owner of the Milton Pineapple Farm in Queensland. His farm was struggling financially and he had nothing to lose. The Society needed a place where its members could come and go unnoticed, and a quirky tourist attraction seemed a likely excuse. The giant pineapple was constructed with a multi floor climate-controlled basement and it became the new headquarters of the Society in the region.
Unexpectedly, the giant pineapple was a huge success with tourists, and a financial boon for the Milton family. Things ran smoothly for about a decade but the society was in danger once again when Henry Milton died suddenly of a heart attack. His only child, Audrey Milton was heir to the pineapple empire. Nobody could tell me what happened next but in a short space of time my grandfather had divorced Teresa and married Audrey. I knew about that of course, it had happened in 1991, the same year my mother Marie married my father, Martin Sloane. A year later I was born. My father was killed in a motorcycle accident when I was a small child and my memories of him were vague, but I clearly remembered his leather jacket with the bird on the back.
I stood alone at the window, picking at my cake and wondering about my life. All of this had happened under my nose and I had had no idea. Great Uncle Patrick touched my arm gently.
“Your grandfather loved you, that’s why he kept all of this from you. He wanted you to have a normal life. You’re a fine young woman and the Society could really do with someone like you but it’s your decision. Think about it carefully.” My whole world was turned on it’s head, a bit like the pineapple upside down cake I was toying with. Nothing was as it seemed.