Highly Commended in the Stringybark Short Story contest 2018, and published in Timber!
The trouble with Western Australia, mused Harry Mason, is the distance that lies between towns.
He held the reins loosely and stared ahead, not really seeing the horse in front of him, as the gelding stepped along the two ruts which passed for a road here, 15 miles west of Katanning, and about 10 miles east of Kojonup on this route. His sulky was reasonably comfortable, and his horse knew its job, so Harry relaxed, drowsy in the afternoon sun.
50 delicious guineas, made up of the Queen’s pennies and shillings and seven nuggets of Kalgoorlie gold with two silver dollars from the wreck of the Rapid were locked in the safe-box snug beneath his seat, safe, he hoped, from any opportunistic thief on the road. This far south of Perth he was unlikely to meet any bushrangers. In fact, he was unlikely to meet anyone, and he desperately needed an accomplice for his next show. Despite the indignity of being driven out of Katanning to the shouts of “Fraud!” he calculated that he could stay ahead of any trouble in Kojonup.
He pushed back his black bowler hat and wiped his forehead with an outsized white handkerchief. His shabby three-piece suit was hot and discommodious. He longed for the cool breezes of evening and a camp near a creek. His stiff stand-up collar and striped frock coat for show-time were neatly folded in a trunk tied behind the seat, but thankfully he wouldn’t be needing those for some days.
The trunk had the words “Harry Mason, World Famous Mesmerist” stencilled in large yellow letters and announcing his profession to anyone coming up behind the sulky. In the heat, he continued his reverie, fantasizing nights playing the big stages in Perth, perhaps even taking the boat to the metropolises of Melbourne and Sydney, nights where people would believe the healings he could perform while audience-members were in a somnambulist state. The ignorant country people of Western Australia had caused him pain: they did not know what was real when they saw the genuine act before them.
The ruts in the road were reducing in size, and the sulky bounced gently on a sandy stretch of track. The rocking motion made the great mesmerist close his eyes and sway with the cart.
“Howdy, Harry Mason, world famous mesmerist!” Harry jerked awake and turned in his seat in the direction of the voice. The sand must have muffled the horse’s footsteps, so the rider had been able to creep up behind him, Harold thought. On a spotted Appaloosa mare sat a man with tan-coloured trousers with leathers sewn on the inside, the side where human flesh gripped horse-flank. He wore a cream shirt without a collar. Over this unconventional outfit sat a black ten-gallon hat with wide brims, and a sun-browned face with a broad open smile.
“G’day,” Harry replied. He slid down from the sulky and allowed the horse to stop at his own pace. “I’ll boil the billy.” The stranger dismounted, and Harry shook his hand.
“Pleased to meet you, Harry Mason, world famous mesmerist. Cassidy Rider at your service,” said the American, “returned from the goldfields.”
The two men were silent as they gathered kindling and boughs for a fire. They didn’t speak until the water had boiled, and each man held one of Harry’s battered enamel pannikins, steam curling up into the leafy branches of a large she-oak.
Harry Mason prided himself on his ability to read a person. In the silence, he inspected his guest. The clothes which seemed to make the American even more of a Yankee had seen many years of hard wear. The leathers had been re-sewn several times onto the trousers, leaving tell-tale marks on the khaki. The shirt was worn, soft and tending to brown. Harry’s eyes looked to the horse: he noted the thickness of new burnished horse-shoes and the Appaloosa’s shining coat, signs of a cherished and tended horse. But the harness was just slightly loose, indicating sagging – old – leather.
“Do well in the goldfields, Mr Rider?” he asked conversationally.
“Middling well, Mr Harry Mason,” the man replied.
“What did you do?”
“A little of this, and then a little of that.”
Harry raised his eyebrows and stayed quiet.
“Some dredgin’ for gold, though them’s not the place for much water, is there? A little riding in the ro-dee-os. A little totin’ for the big miners, carrying bags of gold and bags of legal papers to and fro.”
Harry imagined he would not have come away with much profit from these activities, but did not say so.
“Do you think you might be of use to me, Mr Rider?”
“How so?” Cassidy replied.
“I need someone to help me in my show in Kojonup. It’s vital that no-one there knows who you are.”
“Would this be difficult?”
“Not at all,” said Harry. He leaned across the coals of the small billy fire. “You just volunteer for a bit of dental work on the stage.”
Cassidy jumped. “But sir, I … I don’t need no dental work.”
Harry smiled. He could smell Cassidy’s fear – and his fascination.
“No? Well, everyone in my experience needs a bit of work on their teeth.” Harry continued. “You would still need the dental work after the show, if you see what I mean. But then you’d be able to afford a real dentist with three guineas.”
“Three guineas?” Harry saw the eagerness in Cassidy’s earnest face.
“A guinea each show, Mr Rider; and we might do three shows in Kojonup.”
“Do we have a deal, Mr Rider?”
Cassidy replied by reaching out his hand to Harry and shaking it firmly.
“Tie your horse to my sulky,” Harry commanded, “and sit up front with me.”
Harry Mason, World Famous Mesmerist, languidly flipped the reins and smiled to himself as his gelding plodded across the sand.
The good thing about Western Australia, he thought to himself, is the distance between towns, and the opportunities it brings.
The heat in the wind stung as it lifted Laura’s long brown hair. Like the devastated landscape she was catching her breath, kneeling in the ashes. The old willow tree, which had sheltered the tennis pavilion, was all that remained of her house.
The clouds were a reddish-brown and swirled behind her. Night would come soon, but for Laura it was already here. It appeared that her beloved Ma and Pa, her Nanna, her two sisters, were all gone in the inferno. The wind picked up a scrap of roof-iron, still red-hot, and swung it dangerously through the air. Laura didn’t duck. It didn’t seem to matter.
She looked down at herself. Her long dress was clean except where her knees pressed it to the whitened soil. Her hands were holding tightly to the neck of her viola, one hand over the top of the other, her chin nearly resting on them. She held the viola primly vertical, its chinrest on the earth in front of her knees. If there had been anyone in the blighted landscape to see her, they might think that this girl, a still brown statue in a burnt orange stage, was at prayer.
There were no tears. They might come later. For now, there was just an emptiness.
If only the 4 o’clock bus had not been delayed by the smoke. Laura had taken the 2 o’clock bus into the town for her weekly viola lesson at the Conservatorium. Her teacher had been pleased with the progress she was making on the Hummel Romanze¸ and had dismissed her 10 minutes early giving Laura lots of time to make the 4 o’clock. When she came out the carved doors of the Con, she saw the smoke off in the east in the direction of their isolated house, and had hurried down to the bus terminal, and settled in impatiently to wait.
At 4:10 the bus was still not there. Laura put the viola and bow down on the seat and began to pace back and forth. The bus pulled in with a squeal of pneumatic brakes. Laura grabbed her viola and sprang up the steps into the bus. The driver apologised, ‘Sorry. I couldn’t get through the smoke.’
The trip home was agonisingly slow. Laura ached to see her Pa in his study and to be held safe in his strong arms. She longed to have her family around her, to skip rope on the grass tennis court with her little sisters, to help Ma and Nanna bake in the large country kitchen.
The driver let Laura out at the nearest point to her house. Laura hurried along the drive peering through thick smoke, looking, looking for her house and family. It was the willow tree that finally convinced the girl that the house was burnt down, and with it, presumably, her dear parents and family.
Somehow, Laura thought as she knelt in the earth, I can feel them here. She closed her eyes. Her breath was shallow. Ashes brushed her cheek.
Far off in the distance, Laura heard trucks and men, probably mopping up after the fire. They seemed to be at the gate far away down the drive. Laura continued to grip the tuning keys of the instrument, tightening the strings. Next time she played the viola would be sharp.
A hand on her shoulder, ‘Laura darling. We’ve been in the trucks.’ It was her Pa’s voice.
She burst into tears. ‘I’ve lost my bow.’
First published in Studio: A Journal of Christians Writing, Issue 142,  Exhibition Award Winning Prose
* * * *
I called him God. I didn’t imagine he was an old man in the sky with a white beard, but he was the one teacher who instilled in me a sense of awe. When we had finished our work on Henry IV or Wordsworth’s poetry, God would tell us little anecdotes of his life and we would piece together some of his life. God was a man of consistency. Every day he wore, as convention and the school demanded, a white shirt and tie. According to God, his tie was ochre-coloured. We thought it had been dipped in a can of tomato soup.
He had competed at least once in the Olympics, because we had heard from the Headmaster how God had won Gold in the hurdles. It was fitting that we learned that not from God, but from the Headmaster, who wanted to hold God up to us boys as an inspiring example. No, what we heard from God was not the crass business of winning but the heavy feel of competing: the determination in the heart, the wind in the hair, the solidity of the wooden hurdles when your running shoe clipped one, and the leaden feel in the shins when you have exhausted the lactose in your muscles, and lie panting for life on the track-side turf.
This is what God talked about, and sharing a room in the Olympic Village with John Landy, and the great miler’s bleak depression after winning the famous race in Melbourne during which Landy had gone back to check on the fallen Ron Clarke. And about Maria, his first wife, whom God met in a Rome night-club during the 1960 Olympics, and brought back to marry in Australia over her father’s strong opposition. God told us, in moments of candour, how happy he and Maria had been together, and even about the grief they felt at not being able to have children. Such intimacies to be shared with teenage boys!
God knew, I think, about our family, my Mum and me living in a cramped caravan on the edge of town. God knew, or suspected, the extent of Mum’s drinking, her total lack of house-work and the days when there was nothing for me to eat. He found me in the library one lunch-time where I had gone to hide rather than open an empty lunch box in front of other boys.
‘It’s alright,’ he said gently, ‘I’ll get you something,’ and five minutes later he returned with a chicken sandwich. I’m sure it was half his lunch. ‘You can’t eat in here,’ he said, ‘Take it outside to the lunch area.’ I turned to ask, or say thanks, or something, but he shooed me out with a wave of his hand.
In Grade 12, I was 17 and living in the squalid caravan mainly on my own. My mother had met a bloke from the eastern wheat-belt, and her interest lay more there than with her son at home. I convinced myself I cared nothing for my mother. She did make sure I had money most weeks (I suspect now it was Brian’s money, not hers), so I budgeted for food, carefully saving any money left over for the weeks when Mum didn’t show up.
I began to take school more seriously. I knew that I would have to pass English, God’s subject: the other subjects not so important, because University entrance that year required English and any four subjects.
Sadly, I didn’t have God for English that year. Miss Peters was a new teacher, and I couldn’t tune into her approach which she called Higher Criticism.
One morning I went to the teachers’ room and asked for God.
‘Mr Cross left some weeks ago, Thackrah.’ The Deputy Headmaster, like most teachers, called me by my last name. He went to close the door. I pushed back on the door.
‘When will he be back?’ I asked.
‘He’s not coming back,’ replied the Deputy.
‘At all?’ I stuttered.
The door closed as I stood there, the chill July wind at my back. I tried to think. How would I get through the year without God?
I knocked again.
‘You again,’ said the same Deputy, irritated.
‘Where – where can I find him?’ I asked, ‘Where did he go?’
The Deputy shrugged, then decided to take me into his confidence.
‘Nobody knows, Thackrah. He failed to come into school three weeks ago. We tried to contact him at his home, but he was missing, gone.’
The Deputy saw the expression on my face.
‘Sorry,’ he said, and shut the door again.
Through the wooden panels, I could hear him laughing merrily at some joke.
I went away stunned. I had counted on God being there. He made the shit world I lived in okay. God gave me a reason to hope, to look forward to making something of my life. Now I felt like I had when Dad died; a sadness, and an emptiness scraping my insides.
I couldn’t face school any more that day. I went back to the cramped caravan. I dug out from my biscuit tin the $50 I had been saving. At the train station, I bought a one-way ticket to Perth.
In Perth, I wandered aimlessly. The first night I slept near the train station on the steps of the G.P.O. They were cold and hard. I think I slept for only half an hour. A guy sleeping nearby offered me a tablet ‘to get through the night’. It helped. The next night I bought another. My $50 was gone. I walked over the Causeway to Victoria Park. I scavenged food from rubbish bins behind the supermarkets. I could just exist on the bread, fruit and vegetables I foraged. I was bashed several times, breaking my upper jaw bone and having my lacerated lips sewn up at Royal Perth Hospital. I lost track of days. I was living day to day like a wild animal. It was frightening, depressing and lonely. I had no reason to go on; and insufficient reason to end it. The tablets, when I could get one, made life almost bearable, but I needed two, then three, to get the same effect.
Then one day – it must have been six months after I arrived in Perth, because it was so hot and dry the bitumen paving crackled – one day when little kids played in the water-feature at Elizabeth Quay and their delighted peals of laughter were the only sign of life in the city, I had my few possessions wrapped in an Anglicare blanket and slung swag-like over my shoulder. My shorts were dirty. My torn T-shirt smelled. My thongs were cracked, but I needed them to protect my feet from the heat of the pavement. I dragged one foot after the other, so weary that my thongs sometimes caught against the cracks in the footpath. I was using all my energy just to walk down Barrack Street towards the river. One foot after the other. No lactose in my muscles. I felt drained and exhausted – every muscle ached. There was no juice in my legs. I wanted to lie down on the grass in the Supreme Court gardens, sleep and never wake. God, I wanted to die.
‘It will be alright, Brett.’
At first, I thought God’s voice was coming from high in a tree, then I saw him. He was standing on ground higher than where I was. He must have recognised me, and his face showed deep concern. He was dressed as for school with white shirt and his orange striped tie. I reached out to touch him, to check he wasn’t a heat mirage. I fell to the ground at his feet. It will be alright, Brett, a voice said in my head. God, missing; but I had re-connected.
Roy found it hard after his wife of 52 years had passed. He had nursed her through years of lung cancer, a slow and difficult death, but with one great blessing: it gave him many months before June died to begin grieving.
But even so, life seemed to be purposeless after the funeral, after the wake, after the kids and their families has gone back to Perth and Sydney.
He got up every morning and walked along the path by the beach. He walked to the beach and turned left and walked by the crashing waves. He didn’t really notice the tides encroaching more and more and the bigger deposits of sea-weeds. Hunched in a coat and hat, he let the wind and the rain wash around him day by day.
He went back each morning to the empty house. The bed was already made. He had already made it before his walk. June wasn’t there, to talk to, to nurse.
He slept a lot. He zoned out in front of cricket, tennis.
Then one morning on his walk, the light shone gold across the waves of the sea, as the clouds scudded chased by a high wind.
‘Is this yours?’ A woman’s voice behind him above the whoosh of the wind. Roy realised that she had spoken two or three times before he had reacted.
‘I am sorry?’ He turned and saw a dark-haired woman proffering his hat which had blown off without him noticing. He stared at her hands holding the tan linen trilby. For a moment, he heard the noise of the market street in Kuta all those years ago, and felt the sticky warmth of the Bali afternoon, and heard the laughing sing-song of the stall-holder, ‘I sell it for twenty-thousand rupiah,’ and his wife’s laughing response, ‘I’ll buy for fifteen,’ and they closed the deal.
Roy now snatched the hat from the stranger’s hand, turned on his heel and walked briskly back to his empty house.
Next morning the rain had gone. Roy noticed that the waves were lapping the beach more gently and he fell into step unthinkingly with their rhythm.
‘Good morning again,’ the woman’s voice took him back with a start to yesterday.
Caught between natural politeness and wanting to be alone, Roy mumbled, ‘Good morning.’
‘The sea’s gorgeous this morning,’ the woman said.
Roy lifted his eyes. The bay stretched out in steps of blue and green, and where the sun touched it, great shards of gold lit the water from far out in the bay into where the waves crashed near where Roy and the woman walked.
Roy grunted in assent. They walked silently listening to the rhythmic crash of the surf. The woman suddenly pointed to fleeting black shapes out under the water, about 100 metres out, and a triangular fin here, and then one there
‘Dolphins,’ she marvelled.
Roy turned on his heel and walked away quickly in the opposite direction. Memories flooded in of June exclaiming joyfully over dolphins in Koombana Bay on that joyous long day in Bunbury when she had agreed to marry him.
Next morning, he walked to the beach, and turned right to begin his walk. A dog – a black collie-labrador – capered towards him and pressed a moist nose to his hand. It looked up to him pleading to be friends. The woman he had seen the past two mornings came running and apologised. ‘He’s friendly,’ she proclaimed, a little redundantly. The dog now licked his hand, rightly sensing possible rapport. Roy fondled the dog’s ears and rubbed the dog’s shoulders. The dog whickered for joy.
‘He loves attention.’ The woman seemed to echo the dog’s joy. ‘It’s his first walk since his big operation.’
Roy smiled and started to walk on. The dog followed as close as possible to Roy’s right heel, giving an occasional low bark and looking up to Roy. He was overjoyed when Roy returned the glance. The woman almost scampered to keep up with her dog and the man. She eventually caught up and installed herself on Roy’s left side.
‘She would have loved a dog, but we never could,’ Roy told her. ‘My wife. We always had to live in small apartments before we came to Busselton, and we never thought it would be fair on a dog.’ He paused, and took a breath. ‘And she died six weeks ago.’
The woman touched his arm. ‘I am sorry.’
‘No, she had cancer. Better she’s not here. Terrible pain.’ Roy found it both hard to talk to this stranger about June and also good to tell someone about her.
‘What was her name?’ the woman asked gently.
‘June,’ she echoed the name. ‘A romantic name.’
Roy chuckled, surprising himself. ‘Yes, the moon in June, and sweet June and all that. What’s yours?’
‘By coincidence, April.’
‘Another month.’ Roy chuckled again, and felt the dog’s paw gently stroking his fore-arm. ‘What do you want?’ he smiled down at the dog.
‘It’s time for his run. Put your arm up horizontally and point forward. See if he’ll obey your signal.’
Roy pointed. Sure enough, the dog sprinted off a hundred metres up the path, came to a skidding halt before turning around and bounding back to Roy.
‘He’s taken a shine to you,’ said April.
‘I’m Roy,’ he told the dog.
‘Roy, meet Dickens,’ laughed April.
As Roy bent down to rub the retriever’s soft ears a gust of wind blew the trilby hat off Roy’s head and straight into the waves. Roy looked up in alarm and ran after it across the beach. He noticed that the seaweed had disappeared, apparently swept away by the tide.
April saw his distress. His run was stopped by a cold foaming wave which soaked his shoes and trousers up to his knees. He looked agonisingly after the linen trilby hat which was now far out beyond the surf. ‘Fetch!’ shouted April. Dickens looked up at both humans and sprinted to the shore. But the dog stopped at the water’s edge, his tail high, his feet braced. He was going no farther.
April burst out laughing as she watched the balking dog, and the little hat bob out to sea. A slow smiled replaced the fear on Roy’s face. He caught April’s eye. ‘Let’s walk every morning,’ His voice was full of wonder.
The eucalyptus was growing darker in colour. Leaves and limbs stood nearly black, giving the tree sharp definition even against the darkening storm-cloud behind. The swirling nimbo-cumulus filled the sky almost down to the horizon where a small sliver of grey light brightened the line of charcoal sea. Smaller trees bent to the will of the winds and the foliage of the big tree was ruffled, as if the tree tried to stay aloof from the coming storm.
The sandy path seemed to lead directly into the surf. Tousle-headed low scrub filled both sides of the path. A few brittle twigs cracked and fell to the ground. The gathering darkness brought with it the heaviness of moisture in the air.
The watching warrior felt within for any signs of life nearby. There were no magpies singing or seagulls squawking. The animal kingdom was silent as if there were not enough breath for voice. They were invisible, too: Bunyitch sensed snakes huddled in holes, possums and birds sheltered under the umbrellas of the eucalypt foliage, wading birds and wallabies pressed into thickets of mallee. The path was evidence of people, but they, along with their fellow creatures, were for now invisible, and silent. Bunyitch could not feel any of his mob with his mind.
The trees, though, knew that such compressed energy would some time be released, and they too waited.
Far off, where the great roiling cloud met the black line of the sea, and where the small sliver of light brightened the world, there was movement; movement contrary to the movement of wind and cloud. It appeared first as a little white dot bobbing westwards along the horizon. It appeared to be skating the line, neither part of the sky nor part of the sea.
As Bunyitch focussed and waited for the seeing to come, as he had been taught, he could make out a shape – a thick black horizontal line surmounted by squares of white. At this distance the shape was smaller than his fingernail.
‘A wadullah canoe,’ he thought, and worried. This was the first one that Bunyitch had seen, and despite his stillness he could feel the worry of the elders almost as clearly as if sitting around the fire and listening to them discuss the coming of the ghosts. The ghosts on board just one of their ships like the one now labouring in the bay numbered more than the total of the handful of family groups that comprised his mob. And they had seen half a dozen of these big canoes in the bay and off the wild sea coast since the last moon.
If these ghosts were allowed to come ashore to stay, none of the elders could tell the impact their arrival would make on the Wardan people; but there would be an impact, and a heavy one. The elders had pointed out to Bunyitch that their canoes were made so large not by magic, but by human skill. His people could use that skill and share their own. The ghosts seemed to have little sight or hearing and could not sense each other across the country. The elders believed these were skills they could fruitfully trade. On the other hand, the Wardan had heard from beyond the far boundaries of Noongar country that where the ghosts had come ashore in other places they had taken women and caused wars.
Bunyitch was indistinguishable from the trunk of the tree next to him, lightly leaning on two spears, his khaki heel pressed against the black skin of the side of his knee. He could stand guard here for ever.
A feeling of alien distress crowded out any sense of friends. Looking out into the bay, Bunyitch watched as the lines of the brigantine resolved themselves. Huge waves were throwing themselves at the ship, some tearing at the great sails. The warrior could see the tiny ghosts running back and forth on the deck, and he felt their cries. Any sound from this distance was drowned out by a large crack, followed by a sheet of white lightning and the deep boom which made the warrior’s thighs tremble.
All seemed to explode as the trees wildly bent and swayed, rain dropped like hard stones, and the cloud turned itself inside and out again. The warrior knew the power of these storms across the bay, but he himself was unmoved. He looked to where the horizon had been a moment before and waited – calmly amongst the agitation of the storm – for his seeing to return.
The boat was now closer and heaving horribly in the huge waves. Bunyitch closed his eyes and felt for the power of the storm. The wind, which had started in the west, now turned savagely south and waves like huge rolls of darkness carried the boat haplessly towards the warrior.
The wadullah canoe seemed to be racing towards him. The ghosts now were screaming, running, kneeling, and grabbing one another and the rigging and stays, their terror hitting against Bunyitch’s calm mind like a white wall. The canoe seemed one moment to be travelling faster than the monster wave following behind it. Next moment, the whole ship had turned at right angles and was barrelling under the curl of the wave like a surfer bent on earning a ten for technique.
The warrior closed his eyes again and felt inward. He made a great effort. When he opened his eyes again, no wadullah canoe was to be seen. It had not broken up in the surf or on the hard beach. It was not among the waves subsiding after the peak of the storm. He had sent it back to where it came from.
Her small hand looked pale as the sun shone warmly on it into the lounge room. A large diamond glinted in the light. The band looked too big for her finger. Her hand moved along the big glass-fronted cabinet. She watched it closely as if it were someone else’s hand, and once more hated herself for her inability to stop it. The white fingers turned the key and plunged inside. The hand half-grabbed, half-caressed, the neck of the decanter. She realised her right hand, the other hand, had been carrying a large tumbler, a Vegemite glass. She placed the glass on the cabinet shelf and quickly filled it and brought it to her lips.
The rasping self-hatred surfaced again, and she hesitated. But the insistent, astringent aroma of the sherry overcame all her hesitation and she drank deeply. Within seconds, the glass was empty, but the woman was not satisfied.
‘I shouldn’t,’ she thought briefly, but still re-filled the glass and drained it. The wine felt sour in her gullet like reflux, and the emotional pain in her head felt like it was beginning to cloud and soften.
The third glassful went down more slowly, and she thought of the decreased pace as a more civilised way of drinking.
‘It’s OK,’ she said aloud, ‘I’m on top of it.’ There was nobody in the big house to hear her.
With the decanter in one hand and the tumbler in the other, she walked over to the new lounge chair, swaying slightly on her way, and sat heavily in the chair taking exaggerated care not to spill a drop. The wall clock chimed three times, and she began to congratulate herself on waiting so long this day to answer the imperative call of the glass-fronted cabinet.
‘To me!’ she slurred and lifted the glass to her lips.
The decanter was empty when the clock struck four, and Brenda drifted in a fitful sleep.
This was the part of the day she hated – the memory would wake her and prevent her from complete oblivion. Every day it jerked her back to reality.
She was back on the podium in the State Convention Centre, behind the lectern draped with the Fabian Party banner. She could feel the warmth of the hand-picked crowd applauding her speech. A good performance tonight, and chances were she would be the next Premier. She caught her Dad’s eye in the fourth row, and saw there a gleam of pride.
At the back of the crowd, she saw two delegates talking. The first one had the West Australian folded open. ‘What is 4 Across?’ he asked his neighbour, ‘the clue is ‘bizarrely re-prime for first in State’.’
Back at the podium she remember how sharp she was in questions and answers, so the Party minders had agreed to a short session after the speech.
The man was dressed in an open-necked green knit shirt and taupe trousers, contrasting with the uniform suits and power dresses. In her memory now, the man was holding a knife as he slowly approached the floor microphone. She smiled encouragingly, wanting to be in charge.
‘Is it true, Ms Berndale,’ he asked, and she could hear the self-assurance in the familiar Geordie burr, ‘that you and your father were members of the English New Nazi Party?’ A gasp from the Party faithful. The camera closed on the woman’s face and caught that moment of horrified hesitation. In a moment she stuttered, pointed at her father, and said, ‘My father was. Not me. I was never ideologically aligned. He was. But not me.’
But the questioner was well-prepared –he must have had friends in the Party office – and with quiet scorn spoke again in to the microphone. ‘Then you had better watch this. You had all better watch this.’
As they looked to the big screens, the woman’s face dissolved to be replaced by the scene of a noisy crowd, the dark towers of York Minster the backdrop. Another stage, another microphone with a younger Brenda Berndale, hair tightly cropped and shouting, ‘This cowardly Government has failed to keep out these dirty Ottomans!’ This English crowd cheered, but the Party audience watching in the auditorium in Australia was stunned. Then an angry buzz arose from the front seats where her front bench colleagues were seated. They walked as a group to the podium and pushed the woman outside into the darkness. The audience jeered.
Back in her lounge chair the woman was crying. Again. She swore at the empty decanter.
The door-bell sounded; at first far away, but then pressed again, it sounded more insistent. Brenda Berndale was not inclined to stand and respond. But it rang again, and Brenda got to her feet feeling full of confusion and anger and walked slowly to the front door. She peered through the spy-hole. There were two aboriginal kids calling, ‘Mizz Berndale, are you alright?’ Brenda knew she had seen these kids before. They lived in the next street. The other neighbours chased them away, but Brenda had once passed glasses of Coke out to them. It was early in her campaign when she was seeking out every favourable voice she could muster.
Brenda was about to turn away, but on impulse reached out to the snib and opened the door. ‘Are you alright, Mizz?’ the younger child, a boy, asked again. Brenda was aware of their appraising eyes, and looked down at herself, and saw the tumbler still in her hand. ‘Not good drink,’ the boy said flatly, as if from experience of others.
‘No,’ Brenda replied softly, ‘No.’ Tears spilled down her face. The familiar wound in her head throbbed less doggedly. She held out her hand across the threshold. ‘Come in, kids. Can I get you a glass of Coke? Please stay and talk to me.’
Brenda stood aside and watched two little strangers obtrude upon her territory, and she had to admit to herself that it felt good.
First published in Narrator International in June 2012 [http://www.narratorinternational.com/power-drunk-ted-witham/]
My eyes were like black beads. I lay where Paul had discarded me a few moments after his room had turned to darkness last night. My arm was broken at the elbow and puffs of cotton wool had bled from it onto the floor beside me. The usual pleasant odour of baby-powder filled the room. During the night, I must have rolled because there was a soft pile of cotton wool behind my head. My smile was fixed on, giving me the impression I was happy.
I looked up to see Paul on his big-boy bed. I could see his face and his eyes, too, were part-open, just waking up to greet the morning. Another couple of seconds, now, I knew, and the world would spring into frenetic activity.
Sure enough, as I watched from my safe spot near the far wall, Paul suddenly pushed the doona aside, sprang up on to his mattress, jumped half-a-dozen times, really too fast for me to count, jumped down, scooped me up in one hand and ran through the open door into the kitchen.
Paul stopped near the marble-topped kitchen bench. ‘Mummy,’ he called, then I could see he realised something was wrong, and ‘Mummy,’ he called again with a rising note of panic. For a moment, I couldn’t see what was upsetting him, but as he swung me around the corner of the bench, I saw Mummy lying in complete stillness on the beige floor-tiles. She smelled of blood and other human bodily fluids.
Filled with horror Paul squeezed my body tight. I was appalled. I tried to think of anything that would help him in this moment. ‘Your Daddy,’ I thought and tried to communicate that thought back through Paul’s hand into his mind.
Mingled with the blood on the floor by Mummy’s side were shards of glass from a wine-glass. I noticed too the blood from a deep cut in her head.
As Paul’s forever favourite toy I can follow his feelings as they come and go across the day: the joy when he is bouncing on his trampoline; his sense of accomplishment when he runs flat out down the paved footpath near his house; his concentration when he marshals into an army his Paw Patrol Pup, his Lego people and me; his happiness when his Mummy picks him up, usually squeezing me in the process, and hugs him, and his sadness when he waits for his Daddy to come home in the hours after dinner. Lately there have been more of those sad times, but his Daddy is still his Daddy, and I thought that’s who he needed now.
I heard a crash from the master-bedroom followed by ‘Oh, shit!’ Then another boom as the bedroom door crashed shut behind him. I could hear soft bumps as Daddy lurched into the wall. He appeared at the far door of the kitchen in a haze of stale wine. Paul gripped me harder and hugged me to his chest.
Like a lion, Daddy bellowed, ‘Get out of here!’ Like a lamb before the lion’s roar, I could feel Paul’s body shrink into itself and slowly, uncertainly, Paul headed back towards his bedroom. The tears that dropped onto the wool of my head were weeping fear and incomprehension.
‘No, you orta see this, come back here,’ Daddy snarled at us. I felt we were pulled in two directions, back to Daddy or the safety of Paul’s bed. Paul reluctantly turned, looked at his Mummy lying on the vinyl tiles, and gazed up towards his Daddy.
Through his miasma of alcohol, I noted Daddy’s unshaven chin, the crumpled shirt buttoned up wrongly, the pyjama pants and thongs. His eyes averted Paul’s, but he stumbled towards Mummy.
‘Get up, stupid woman!’ he yelled, but Mummy’s eyes didn’t even flicker. I saw her chest move up and down steadily. She was breathing. Paul’s wide tear-filled eyes moved from her to his Daddy and back again.
Daddy fished in his pocket for his phone and dialled.
‘Ambulance,’ he grunted to the operator’s question. ‘4 Paperbark Rise, Lawson.’ To the next words of the operator, Daddy growled, ‘Of course W.A. Whaddya think? England? Chile?’
‘She’s on the ground. She’s out to it. She’s alive.’ Three rounds like machine-gun fire described Mummy’s condition.
The operator spoke again.
‘Cos I’m sick too.’
Paul looked up at his Daddy in greater alarm.
‘Can’t be buggered trying to wake her.’
Another beseeching glance to Daddy.
‘Now, put the baby toy down and clean up that blood,’ Daddy boomed. Paul cringed. I bristled in his hand. Paul needs me.
Paul stood still. I could feel his mind freezing.
‘Do. Your. Job.’ Daddy demanded again.
Trembling, Paul stared up. I could see redness rising in Daddy’s face and his hand rising to strike his son.
‘Pick up a cloth,’ I thought fiercely, trying to push the thought through Paul’s little hand into his mind.
Paul clutched me tighter and with the other hand reached into the cupboard for a cloth.
‘And a bowl,’ Daddy said, ‘Do the job properly.’ His hand subsided.
Paul knelt in front of Daddy, next door to Mummy. I could feel his whole body shaking. He put me down on a clean part of the floor and began dabbing at the blood near Mummy’s elbow. Daddy sloshed a little warm water into a bowl and plonked it down next to us. Paul shook as he squeezed blood into the bowl. He dabbed and wiped again. Squeezed again. Wiped again. As he worked away, I watched the little shards of glass scratch and lacerate his soft skin.
Daddy stood at Mummy’s head, watching, making sure Paul blotted up every drop of sticky blood.
When he had returned the floor near Mummy’s elbow to its original beige, Paul picked me up. A couple of sharp shards pierced my woollen skin and blotches of red appeared on me too.
Daddy snatched up the bowl and drained the reddish water and the cloth into the sink. Paul looked up at his Daddy and held open his palms.
‘Oh, little Paul,’ Daddy said, ‘Come to Daddy. That looks so hurtie.’ He gathered up Paul with me in his hand and hugged tight. I caught odours of stale wine on one side and the sweet smell of the toddler on the other. He carried us over to the sink, put us down carefully on the drainer and took another dishcloth to wash off Paul’s blood, taking care to remove all the shards from his tiny hand.
‘From Clowno, too,’ Paul insisted, and Daddy instantly tweaked out all the pointed pieces of glass from my woollen skin. Paul picked me up again.
‘Love you, my Daddy,’ said Paul.
‘Love you too, matie,’ said Daddy. I thought, Yes, he’s your Daddy, and he means it now, but in another five minutes he’ll growl again and force this little three-year-old toddler into danger again.
When the doorbell rang, Paul jumped off the bench with me in hand. The paramedics came through the front door, down the corridor and into the kitchen. Paul flattened his body against the wall of his room, watching but hiding. He did not want to be seen.
A stocky lady, the first of two paramedics, knelt on the floor. ‘What is your wife’s name?’
‘Sue,’ Daddy said. It was strange to hear Mummy’s grown-up name.
The paramedic called ‘Sue! Sue!’ and gently slapped her jaw.
She then took Mummy’s hand in hers and called ‘Sue! Sue, can you hear me? My name is Rosa. Squeeze my hand if you can hear me.’ Nothing happened. I could feel Paul’s tight muscles as he watched from his hiding place. ‘You try,’ she said to her partner.
They swapped and the big man tried.
‘Sue! Can you hear me?’ Suddenly Mummy moved and opened her eyes.
She tried to sit up, but groaned and let her head lie on the floor again.
‘So sore,’ she said, ‘What’s happened? Why are you here, Jamie?’
‘We’ll get you something for the pain soon, Sue. But you’ve been hit by something hard. That’s what’s happened.’
Daddy’s face reddened again and his eyes looked round for a weapon.
‘Jamie, behind you,’ Rosa warned. Jamie stood. He was taller and bigger than Daddy and he looked fitter.
‘You hit this woman again,’ the vehemence of Jamie’s voice hung in the air, ‘and I’ll knock you from here into a police cell. We’ll press charges today. You’ll be put away for some time.’
He turned away from Daddy. I could see Daddy’s fists curl tight, but he stood where he was.
Paul chose that moment to rush to Daddy, dropping me on the way, and wrap his arms around his legs. ‘I don’t want Daddy to go away,’ he said.
Both Rosa and Jamie looked taken aback by Paul’s appearance.
Rosa said to Jamie, ‘This boy can’t stay here if we take Sue to hospital.’
Sue tugged at Jamie’s trouser leg. ‘This boy,’ she crackled, ‘is yours, not his.’
Daddy’s face went red again. I could see his mind turning over, calculating. ‘Four years ago, you were sniffing around my wife. I knew I couldn’t trust you.’ He lunged for Jamie, but the bigger man was ready and rebuffed the attack, pushing Daddy back against the kitchen wall. Paul scuttled to pick me up.
Daddy’s anger boiled over. His forearm pushed a pile of dishes off the kitchen bench. His hands wrenched the sink tap and pulled it out causing a spray of water over the floor and over Mummy.
‘Sue,’ cried Jamie, and pulled her away from the wet. There was an easy chair on the far kitchen wall, and he helped Sue up and into the chair.
‘But Jamie,’ objected Rosa, ‘we shouldn’t move her!’
‘Done now,’ said Jamie. ‘I’ll tie this one up while you attend to Sue.’ Before Daddy could damage anything further, Jamie pulled out string from his case, making to tie Daddy’s hands. Daddy kicked out at Jamie, his thong flying off his foot towards us. Jamie was quicker. He grabbed Daddy’s right hand, turned him round, placed him in a half-Nelson hold and wrapped the cord around Daddy’s wrist. s
Paul then put a strangle-hold round my wool-and-stuffing neck, and wailed. My eyes were wide open. Maybe I would be happier if Jamie was Paul’s Dad?
The family story is that when my mother became a teacher at South Newdegate School, the young men of the district would race to the school to claim the privilege of driving her back to her lodgings. I’ve taken liberties with the story, knowing, of course, the identity of the winner of the Great Filly Race.
The Great Filly Race of Lake Grace
There was not always a literal filly in the Great Filly Race of Lake Grace in 1938. Once Roy’s Dad realized why his son was disappearing from the farm every Friday after lunch and returning around dark, Dad positively encouraged Roy, ‘Take Man O’ War, he’s only had a day with the plough this week,’ or ‘Take Arrabella, she’s frisky today.’
Roy harnessed the horse of the day, whether filly or gelding, to the sulky and sped off. The road journey from Lake Biddy to South Newdegate School was (and is) a roundabout S-shaped route. In the first few weeks of the Race, Roy quickly refined a more direct route across farms and alongside uncleared bush near Breakaway Ridge. Once he had established the route, Roy could make the journey in under 90 minutes.
Each week, however, he tried to shave minutes off his travel-time, especially when one Friday Walter Lloyd had turned up at the school fence five minutes before him.
Roy estimated that riding Arrabella he could cover the same ground 30 minutes faster than with the sulky, but arriving with a horse only would negate the whole purpose of the Race. So he bounced along tracks and over rough white clay as fast as he dared. Dad would not be happy if he rode back to report that the sulky had a broken axle and one wheel stuck in a clay pan.
This was clearly an important Race for Roy. He was 29 years of age, and few romantic opportunities had come along for Roy and other young farmers of Lake Biddy. He dressed in clean shirt, grey trousers and polished shoes. He wore his Sunday jacket over the shirt, buttoned on a collar, combed his hair and wore his best grey fedora, ready to lift it to salute Miss Thackrah. At his feet was a jar of mulberries or a box of figs, summer fruit he had personally picked, as tribute for the lady.
For his vehicle Walter Lloyd drove a buggy, no doubt imagining that Miss Thackrah would prefer its upholstered seat to the wooden board of the sulky. Roy drove his family’s buggy in the Race one week, only to find it too big and cumbersome to travel fast through the bush. Arrabella could scarcely raise a canter with the buggy behind. That was the Friday Walter arrived before he did. The next week Man O’ War was again pulling the more streamlined sulky.
On four occasions (Roy counted them) both Roy and Walter were waiting at the school fence when Miss Thackrah emerged from the one-roomed school. Both young men stood next to their vehicle with a hand extended to invite the lady to climb up and sit in their carriage.
For this was the prize of the 15-Mile Great Race: the privilege of driving Miss Thackrah the mile to the finishing line: Jackson’s farm where she was staying. Then, with another hat flourish and the handing over of the gift, the winner would turn the horse and head home.
A summer storm boomed over South Newdegate one Race Friday. Miss Thackrah laughed when Roy, his coat and shirt dripping from driving through the rain, produced a dry but greasy mackintosh from under the sulky seat and draped it over her head and shoulders.
‘It smells of sheep!’ Miss Thackrah exclaimed. Roy wasn’t sure from that whether lanolin aroma pleased the lady or repelled her. ‘But it’s better than getting wet,’ she added. Roy didn’t know what to say. He produced little conversation, but his manners spoke volumes. He worried that when she became his wife she might not like the smells of farming.
Fridays went by. The dry hot season turned to autumn. The bright golden flowers of the native Christmas tree, Nuytsia floribunda, had faded and fallen, and its three-pronged fruit was now maturing. The first rains brought cooler days and the brown grass flushed green. Miss Thackrah went away for the two weeks of the May holidays.
Roy made sure he met the train at the Newdegate siding on the Sunday before the next term started. He raised his hat as Miss Thackrah opened the door of the compartment and leant forward to take her suitcase in his left hand, and with his immense right hand he gingerly took her dainty hand as she stepped down from the train onto the packed earth platform. As he straightened his back, their eyes met, and Miss Thackrah smiled.
‘August holidays,’ Roy said quietly, ‘Come and stay with us.’
After that, Walter did not bother to participate in the Great Filly Race, but Roy still dashed to collect Miss Thackrah on the last day of every school week.
They married the next Easter Monday, on a shining autumn day.
It was hot when I arrived in the main (the only) street of Burdup in the south-west of Western Australia. ‘Bloody hot,’ said the barman. I had stopped at the pub to ask for directions and, somewhat nervously, for a lemon squash. In the cool darkness of the bar I felt the eyes of the four or five customers and their suspicious curiosity when my question about the way to the rectory gave me away as the ‘new Rev’rend’ – and as rather naïve. In a country town of perhaps a hundred houses, only the most complete stranger needs directions.
Heat seemed to pour out of the old weatherboard walls of the rectory that Friday. The fridge had been turned off, so there wasn’t even any ice or cold water. And it took an hour for the tap water to freeze even in the freezer. I determined to brave the pub later again in the afternoon, to buy a few cans of beer for the evening. I was too hot to care what the locals thought of a priest in the pub. Meanwhile a little unpacking. I trudged in and out from the car, which was broiling in the back yard. The lawn was brown and crisp with dryness.
Fortunately, the phone in the study was working. I rang the furniture company to confirm that the mattresses I had ordered were on the way. At least I would be able to sleep as comfortable as the heat allowed. And I would have organised one or two essentials for my wife and children due next week.
I realised that was only the heat, but I felt all enthusiasm dwindle for the task the Archbishop had given me. There seemed to be very little attraction in being temporary priest of Burdup parish during Advent and Christmas. There would be visits to the five out-centres as well. The day before, at our interview in Perth, the Archbishop had said: ‘Check that list with the diocesan property officer, and tell the vestry at Burdup they won’t get a new rector unless they put in a new oven and fly-screens.’
Out here in the near outback, the mind has to strain to see the connection between such earthly politics and the everlasting Gospel I was to preach to the people of Burdup.
The heat wore on. After finishing the essential unpacking, I filled a mug with water, now refreshingly cool, and retired to the coolest room of all, the bathroom. There the darkness and cement lowered the temperature a little.
The phone rang.
‘Darn,’ I thought out loud, and made my way to the study. There a few boxes of books lay disorganised near the old desk and the filing cabinet with the parish records, I didn’t know who knew I’d arrived. But my curiosity was low as I rather abstractedly lifted the receiver.
‘Ah, is that the new Rev’rend? Jest heard that you’d arrived in town. You’ll know me pretty soon. My name’s Fred Moynihan. I’m the undertaker. Most people call me Bushie.’
My heart sank a little. I expected undertakers to be same in Burdup as in Perth, and there was something depressing about beginning my ministry, even a short one, with a funeral.
‘I’m Frank Newman. Nice to meet you.’
‘Yeah. Got a job for you. Noongar lady, one of the best. Died at the reserve yesterday. She was Granny of the local natives, you understand. I wouldn’t bother ya with it, only the Baptist Rev’rend won’t do it, and the nearest Uniting minister’s two hundred miles west.’
I sipped my water. The ice-blocks were getting thin.
‘I see, Fred, D’you know if she was a regular attender anywhere?’ A funeral and a conflict with fellow clergy was not a good starting combination.
‘Don’t think she went to church, Reverend. She had some papers, and one of them I’ve got here is a Church of England christenin’ paper. Guess she’s more yours than anyone else’s.’
‘Oh. Well, is there are time worked for the funeral, or any arrangements been made at all?’
‘Sunday morning, eleven o’clock. Straight after your Communion.’
‘Sunday? That’s unusual, isn’t it?’
‘Pretty normal around here. Then we don’t get many funerals.’
‘Look, Fred, er … Bushie, I’ve written all that down. Can I get back to you later this afternoon? I can see you need an answer pretty soon. So I’ll phone you back before five.’
There was a chuckle on the line.
‘Gunna ring the other guys? Okay, you do that, but I’ll expect you to ring. Number’s 365. Ya dial 9 then 479 365. Will meet you Sunday.’
His confidence bothered me. The phone book showed the number of the Baptist manse. I would have to ring enquiries at Wagin to get the Uniting Church number.
I was following the usual procedure of checking there were no lines crossed. Too many quarrels have started between clergy of different denominations over funerals, particularly when the dear departed is presented to the minister as a non-church-going person. It wasn’t the way I had hoped to introduce myself to the other clergy of the area, but after a friendly chat with the Baptist man (and an invitation to join him for afternoon tea the next day) I began to see that this funeral was normal. Granny Wilson had been nominally Anglican. The town was well aware of her death, and for traditional reasons to do with distance, funerals were often held on Sunday after the main service in the particular church.
I thought I would still ring the Uniting minister. So I went back into the kitchen to get another glass of water and replace the slippery ice. Just as I shut the fridge door, the phone rang again.
‘Now, that is odd,’ I said to myself, and carried the plastic tumbler back to the table in the hot study. I was more aware than every of my sweaty hands and the shirt clinging to my back.
The Australian accent knifed at my brain.
‘Listen, new Rev’rend, and listen good. You do that funeral for that nigger woman and yer gunna learn what violence tastes like. Y’ever hear of using ten-gauge fencin’ wire as a whip? Works well on niggers, jest like on nigger lovers.’
The phone clicked dead. A small, rational voice in the back of my mind told me there was nothing I could do about the threat. Threats like that are almost never carried out. The purpose of making them in a cowardly way is their immediate effect on the recipient. It succeeded. I stood with the receiver uselessly pressed against my ear, almost paralysed for some minutes.
I vaguely knew the priest in the next parish, which was technically in the Bunbury diocese. I dialled his number and told him about the conversation I’d just had. He heard me out, then commented enigmatically:
‘Can’t say I’d do the same as you. Not worth my while. I leave native burials to the Baptists or Fundo missionaries. But I admire your courage, old chap. We’ll see you round, I guess.’
The click of the phone deepened my feeling of being cut off from all that made sense.
A blowfly buzzed loudly, caught between the louvres and fly-wire. I had met the wife of the rector’s warden at Church Office in Perth, and decided to ring him. This was back to front. Normal courtesy required waiting for the lay leaders to welcome you before you consulted them.
‘Number 403,’ it said in the battered Teledex near the phone, so I dialled 9–479–403. The warden himself answered. It was an awkward conversation. His most helpful compromise was to ‘have the box at church door and not take it inside. Keep the torkin’ all for the cemetery.’
I bridled. To my ears that compromise was a sell-out. But I wasn’t sure enough of myself to tell him so.
‘I’ll think about it,’ I lied.
My next call was to the undertaker, begging for more time.
‘Sure, ring before ten tomorrow.’
To my surprise, it was after 5 o’clock. I was thirsty. (God, did I thirst!) but I decided not to buy beer. I sensed I had more important things to do. I rang my wife. The conversation was short and strained. I felt too isolated to share with her the agony and uncertainty I was going through.
At 7:30 the darkness fell, as it does in the bush, suddenly and deeply. The stars were a glorious blaze of light. Except for the occasional dog barking, and the endless crunch of crickets, there was a profound silence. After the last few hectic weeks in the city, it was deathly quiet.
I discovered a spy novel on top of one of the boxes of books and read on the back veranda until 10:30. I locked up all the outside doors. I spread a sheet over the queen-sized mattress and tried to sleep. In the heat I rolled from side to side, sweated, read some more and tried to sleep. At one stage I sat up straight in bed and said out loud, ‘I must do it. I have no choice. It is finished.’ I flicked on the bedside light. My watch said 3 o’clock. I turned out the light and slept deeply.
Most of the Saturday I spent at a humpy at the reserve, talking about Granny Wilson and planning the service. But it was like a dream.
Saturday night was ominous. The temperature actually climbed at 7 o’clock into thehigh 30s, making the evening nearly as hot as the day. Dry, impotent thunder rolled around the dark sky. I tried to look over my sermon for the 9:30 Mass. I slept better than last night.
No-one came to church at 9:30 that Sunday morning. I wasn’t sure that the parish was so run-down that this might be a regular occurrence. I waited at the altar for 20 minutes, hot in the purple vestments that ran with red dust, then made my spiritual communion. My prayers seemed empty words echoing back at me round the sanctuary.
I returned to the vestry and disrobed, noticing the heat even of my light alb, and looked again at the service register. I was making history. This was the first Sunday on which there had been fewer than four communicants.
I sighed. A purple stole over my alb would be vestments enough for the funeral.
By 10:30 they began to arrive. First, the ancient hearse, a 1930s Chevrolet, backed up to the door. Bushie Moynihan single-handedly rolled the casket onto its trolley and up to the chancel steps. Unable to find any candles on stands, I took the altar candles and placed them either side of Granny Wilson.
By 10:45, the church was overflowing with black faces. Dreamlike, I began the service, aware only of the keening. Such crying I had never heard. Subdued anguish, but almost conventional, as if the deep hope of the Christian good news was only just beginning to penetrate the hearts of Granny Wilson’s ‘children’.
I chose to ride in the hearse, with its round pedals and anachronistic strip speedometer (broken, of course) to the cemetery). The sky, normally intensely blue, was black with clouds.
As I read the words of the committal, I felt nothing. The dull thud as I threw earth onto the coffin brought forth a muffled response from the skies. Lightning flashed around in desultory fashion. I felt alone, alienated, useless. I gave the blessing and walked back to hearse.
‘Jest wait an’ watch, Rev’rend. This ain’t yer city funeral.’ At least Bushie was an expert in this business. The shire workers in thongs, black shorts and grey singlets, came with their shovels to throw back the red earth onto the casket. The crowd keened more loudly. Many joined in pushing soil into the grave.
Within 15 minutes the grave was covered with a mound of earth. Some of the women – and Granny’s son, Johnnie Wilson – threw themselves onto the mound, moaning loudly. It all seemed distant, documentary-like: ‘modern Australian Aborigines demonstrating indigenous mourning customs.’
I leaned against the front mudguard of the hearse. A figure detached itself from the gradually dispersing crowd. It was Jeanie, Mrs Wilson’s daughter, a full-breasted, middle-aged woman with straggly grey hair, wearing a vaguely coloured print cotton dress.
‘Thanks, Rev.’ She took my hand in the formal Aboriginal way. ‘Yer let us mourn like we need ter.’
She walked on proudly on her bare feet. The new Granny.
I noticed the only white face in the crowd. It was the wife of the church-warden, the lady I had met in Perth. She walked stiffly, like porcelain I thought, and seemed in danger of breaking into a smile.
‘Welcome, Father,’ she said. ‘Yer’ll do f’r us. We might yet see Christ here.’ And I couldn’t tell whether her eye was wet from a tear or from the first drop of the thunder-storm.
‘Christ is risen,’ I mumbled – well outside the Easter season.
- * * *
First published in Celebrate (Melbourne: Dove Communications), Vol.7 No.3, July 1988
Often when he travelled through Austria and Germany, Papa brought the boy a present. The boy took care to look after each present; the plush bear, the wooden truck, and the tin spinning top. He kept them in a neat row in a wooden toy box in his bedroom on the first floor of their comfortable house in Innsbruck.
When the boy was ten, Papa brought the boy a Tyrolean yarmulka. The boy cherished this gift more than all the others. He thanked Papa with a little smile.
The yarmulka made the boy proud to be from Tyrol: the tailor had decorated it with white Edelweissen and the red Tyrolean roses. Papa brought it home just in time for the Succoth, Tabernacles, and the boy wore it proudly as they celebrated the feast camping in the backyard of their home. Papa also covered the Tabernacles wooden frame with bright new fabric bought from the old department store in Müllerstraße.
It was a pretty yarmulka, and the boy loved it. From then on he wore it every Friday night when Mama lit the candles on the eve of Shabbat. He showed it to Reb Joachim. The old rabbi smiled every Shabbat morning when he looked out over the first row of the Innsbruck synagogue and saw the boy sitting proudly next to his father like a little tower of the Second Temple: a tower that was festooned with a colourful yarmulke!
The years passed quickly. The boy’s thirteenth year was 1938. Hitler had cast a long shadow over Europe, and Jews everywhere feared for their lives and their loved ones.
This was the year of his Bar Mitzvah. He studied hard: he worked at his Hebrew lessons and he learned about the responsibilities of Jewish manhood. Reb Joachim asked all the boys to learn especially carefully the Shema: the ancient prayer which is sometimes called the Jewish creed:
Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
“This is a time of martyrs,” the Rabbi said mysteriously, “and you may need to know this, for this is the heart of our faith.”
The boy couldn’t understand this – not really. He said to the other boys, “Why is he treating us as through we don’t know the Shema?”
The Bar Mitzvah approached. The boy and his friends planned their parties. Older relatives kept asking the boy what he would like and the boy’s present list grew and grew. Aunt Hanna even teased him, “You’d think being a Jew was about the number of things you are given!”
A few weeks before the ceremony, Mama called him to her room. “Here are your tefillin. Don’t tell Papa I’m showing you how to put them on!” She quickly covered the boy’s head with a yarmulka – to the boy, it just seemed to be one that was sitting there on the dressing table – and then unfolded the prayer shawls and tefillin and put them on, helping him place the box with the scriptural text centrally on his forehead.
“Remember,” she said, “after the Bar Mitzvah, this is your first mitzvoth, your first duty. To put these on and to say the blessing, ‘Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to put on Tefillin’.”
“Yes, Mama,” said the boy.
“And what do you think of your new yarmulka?”she asked.
“Is that to wear on my Bar Mitzvah?” he asked, afraid. She nodded.
He raced from the room, so she wouldn’t see his tears.
Mama knew her son well, but couldn’t understand his resistance to the new yarmulka. When he finally said that it was because he wanted to wear the bright Tyrolean yarmulka she was horrified. It wasn’t dignified enough for a man to wear at his Bar Mitzvah. And it was hurtful to display too much sentimental patriotism when the Nazis had turned that to their own propaganda ends.
The boy’s grandfather arrived from Poland in time for his first grandson’s Bar Mitzvah. He understood. “If that’s what the boy wants,” he said, “that will please Adonai, the Lord of the Universe.”
And it was what the boy wanted. Grandfather was pleased too, as Mama eventually gave in. Grandfather knew that this might be his last visit to Austria. He was old, and the cancer was creeping through his body. He needed to be back in Katowice in the familiar surroundings of home with the right nursing.
The morning of the Bar Mitzvah came. The boy dressed and wore proudly his prayer shawls and tefillin and on top – to show there is someone above – his bright childish Tyrolean yarmulka.
As the boys came one by one to the lectern to recite his passage, the old rabbi winked at each. “Don’t forget to take the Shema with you,” he whispered mysteriously. But the boy had no time to puzzle out this rabbinic puzzle, because the rest of the day was a family day – the Bar Mitzvah party. There was food, there were presents, there was more food and more presents, and the boy was the centre of attention in all of it.
That night, the boy was exhausted, and was about to go to his room to prepare for bed. He looked at his new jacket hanging outside the wardrobe. He looked at the tefillin neatly laid out in the drawer. Suddenly, he thought of his grandfather and ran to his room to thank him for being at the Bar Mitzvah, and for persuading Mama to let him wear the yarmulka.
He ran into the room and embraced his grandfather. Tall and gaunt, Grandfather’s arms gently knocked the boy’s head and the little cap went flying, unnoticed. “Thank you, Grandfather, for, for … for everything!” “May Adonai be with you,” the old man replied. The boy didn’t see the tears in his eyes. He turned again and ran back to his room, and was soon in his bed asleep surrounded by all the symbols and gifts that come to Jewish boys when they become a man.
It must have been midnight. There was a crunch of boots on the gravel of the front drive. There were shouts and yells of “Juden”. The boots were in the house. The boy woke terrified. He heard his parents reply to the yells and walk past his room. His father’s voice, “There’s no one in there!” But strangely the key was turned. The boy stayed where he was. Then a feebler voice. Grandfather being led away, crying “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad.”
The voices and the boots receded. The boy lay there for a very long time, and then crept over to the door. He unlocked it from the inside, and walked quietly to his parents’ room. Empty. Then to his grandfather’s room. Also empty. But the yarmulka was gone. Not on the floor where the boy had last seen it. Not on the bedside table.
Next morning, the boy crept from his home and fled across the fields to Switzerland. He carried nothing. He grieved the Tyrolean yarmulka as he ran. But he discovered he had on him something to be carried with him always. Reb Joachim was right: we Jews carry the Shema in our hearts.