earthquake in the poorhouse

a dedication to the rattlesnake aesthetic

Tailwater

Work, for the employer—be they public body or private enterprise—is the sum total of those human means by which an economically, socially or, indeed, militarily desirable outcome may be attained on relatively less exacting terms—’ said Sir William Hudson, confirming the worst fears of his audience ‘—that is, fiscally, or commercially speaking.’

While it went unmarked by many of the open-collared men who were then seated at their rows of folding chairs before him, Sir William here placed deliberate, albeit subtle emphasis on the term militarily. Although the colossal Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme was then into its eighth year of construction, the constitutional soundness of the undertaking—in view of the fraught interplay of ss. 51(vi) and 100 of that hallowed framing enactment—was, even at such a juncture, somewhat less than certain. While the Premiers of both New South Wales and Victoria had all but signed on the dotted line so far as the division of power and water to be harnessed by the Scheme was concerned, more than one trade union roughneck had sought to exploit the underlying shakiness of the Scheme at the negotiating table, and the voice of Riverine skepticism had long been dogged and strong. Now, fresh rumblings were to be heard from Adelaide. The official line Sir William and staff had constantly to redraw, then, was that the key or capstone outcomes sought to be achieved by the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority in the construction of the Scheme that afforded it both budget and ambit pertained, fundamentally, to questions of Australia’s national defence. That pale Sir William’s bony features and the bruised, red-rimmed sockets of his eyes led many in the trades to speak of him in terms of an Exterminating Angel only contributed to the collective sense—most keenly felt in Canberra—that the Commissioner’s was a fitting face to put to the fiction.

‘Though work is, of course, a vitally necessary input in this equation,’ Sir William went on, affecting the airless tone of one who has made a career of concreting and tunnels, ‘it is far from sufficient in an undertaking so vast as ours.’

Of the forty or so men who had gathered in the winded hilltop hall to hear their Commissioner speak, most were representative of the legion foremen and supervising engineers then contracted to the Scheme. Also among the crowd, though—and slumped conspicuously over the bald timbers of his chair like a posed cadaver—was junior civil engineer Orson Mawson. Thick-limbed yet pigeon-chested, pale for all his frequent sunburns, and embellished about the jawline with a reddish rash of acne that belied his twenty-eight years, Orson was a flesh-and-blood study in the singular tensions of work upon the Snowy Mountains Scheme. It was Orson’s sole responsibility in the Mountains to monitor the surface thickness, passableness and general condition of countless miles of unpaved corkscrew tracks and access roads. Wending their way down hillside and gulch toward a dozen or more quarries, earth-rock dams and machine halls, Orson’s roads provided carriageway to Leyland trucks, Tournapulls, Scammell dumpers and all manner of heavy diesel, servicing worksites strung out across the Great Dividing Range like dismal lanterns suspended from a length of insulated copper cabling. Though the role was, intellectually, neither exacting nor stimulating, the roads Orson superintended were paved demonstrably in blood and broken bone. Inordinately steep, slippery in the cold and wet, and prone year-round to crumbling and degradation across their span, the Mountain roads had so far exacted a heavy toll in lost lives and equipment. Orson’s engagement, then, was inordinately, paradoxically, wearing on his nerves. He was attended in his labours by so many ghosts—each clad in a dusty rib-knit jersey and a hardhat bearing the SMA’s angular livery. And while the locations to which his responsibilities took him were both varied and scenic—from alpine meadows awash with paper daisy and sarsaparilla, to towering granite fells beneath which sheltered enclaves of fragrant, dwarfish snowgums—this small mercy was offset by the consubstantial boredom and extreme stress of Orson’s overarching responsibility. Orson could not imagine any other task in the world taking up so much of his time and nervous energy while occupying him so little. He had been directed to attend this morning’s unveiling of the Commissioner’s amended SMHEA Standing Orders on Work Practices and Safety in place of his supervising engineer, Mr. Bern ‘Calico’ Trent BSc.

‘Because, for the worker,’ Sir William expounded, ‘the notion of work inheres in a wholly different calculus.’

As the middlemen of the Snowy Scheme sat stoically to attention, the dry must of the hall approached a cold and vacant peak. Above the polished boards of the stage, a broad lancet window framed Sir William’s head and shoulders in the soiled-linen-grey of the day. Dully glowing through the streaky glass, the clouds cast their murky light over the room. Sago snowflakes like tiny eggs began to fall beyond the panes.

Work, for the worker,’ Sir William went on, ‘finds its truest expression in a two-pronged effort that is wholly negative in tenor.’

Orson pressed a thumb and forefinger into his eyelids and savoured a passing measure of relief from his headache. Up on the stage, the Commissioner made a short, anticipatory pause. Swaying lazily at the outer limits of his person like a halo, pale strands of his hair sought to escape the dome of his scalp. It was uncharacteristic of Sir William that he should miss even the smallest tranche of fringe with the Brylcreem—retardant of both water and wind—that was so emblematic of his person. Hail began to hammer the corrugated iron roof of the hall, filling the room with densest drumming. The mood of the listeners shifted as their concentration broke off with the befuddling noise. While the unwavering monotone of his delivery did not permit the modulation of timbre or volume, by the set of his jaw and a subtle narrowing of the lips the Commissioner bade his audience be still.

‘The individual worker tries, on the one hand, to evade rebuke or sanction for a task poorly or tardily performed, and, on the other, to avoid injuring himself, person, property, or any combination thereof.’

‘Negligence,’ growled a senior supervising engineer from the front row. Desert-bronzed and stunted trunk-and-branch like ancient mesquite, the speaker was the pockmarked representative of American joint enterprise Kaiser-Walsh-Perini-Raymond. The Kaiser consortium had, the May prior, won contracts for itself to undertake construction of the enormous earthen Eucumbene dam and its adjoining Tumut Tunnel.

‘Negligence,’ Sir William agreed. He paused a moment, adopting an air of studied uncertainty. It was the Commissioner’s personal crux that he was unable to leave even the slightest conceptual thread-end trailing loose, however trivial it might have been in context—even where he agreed in broad, practical terms with what had been said.

‘Although,’ the Commissioner added, ‘we ought note that the two broad species of negligence just described occupy, at their respective extremes, the unopposed poles of a broad spectrum of failure.’

By this digression, Sir William burned off the last of his audience’s patience with the lecture. Orson squirmed in his seat. He had broken off a protracted, reeling bender in the small hours of the morning, barely rousing himself in time to present—shaved and showered—for the day’s work. The beer was still backed up to a familiar level just behind his eyes. No sooner had Orson arrived in the SMA offices that morning than he had been turned out again in a storm of barrel curls and hurried explanation. Smelling soothingly of milk-soap, Lorna had performed the small kindness of winding Orson’s wool scarf a little tighter about his throat, prompting a passing chainman of not uncommon coarseness to remark:

‘Someone’ll be greasin’ ‘is nail come Fridy!’

Ignoring this, Lorna had ushered Orson wordlessly to the door and pointed him up the hill toward the hall.

Lorna Boone had served as a general secretary in the offices of the Snowy Mountains Authority since her arrival in Cooma in March 1953. Lorna’s husband, Malcolm, had been killed in the course of a drugstore robbery in Colorado while he was on secondment to the US Board of Reclamation in Denver. Lorna had been required to countersign Malcolm’s contract with the SMA upon the commencement of his employment with the Authority, compounding with their mutual employer not to follow her husband abroad, so as to ensure that his additional technical training might be completed without undue distraction or interruption. As it turned out, Malcolm had caught a bullet in the oesophagus less than a month before he was due to return to the Snowy Mountains, thereby relieving him of all contractual obligations to the Authority. Not so Lorna, who was advised by the SMA’s in-house counsel that her travelling to Colorado to oversee the repatriation of her husband’s body to Australia ran contrary to the contract she had signed.

In the church hall, the skin of Orson’s face and neck swiftly forgot the chill, smacking kiss of the bracing air outside. In a dim corner of the hall, an oil heater creaked its provocation and burned on and on intolerably.

‘To the avoidance of negligence of any kind, we must add another, arguably more pressing effort on the part of the worker,’ Sir William continued. ‘For the worker, work carries with it always the imperative of self-preservation. The worker strives to ensure that, should his negligence come to the attention of a superior, his own culpability may be concealed—whether by a sophisticated device or plot or else by simple obfuscation—or that it may otherwise be denied, displaced, or sheeted home, so to speak, to a workmate. To this end, the worker will devote the greater part of his every working day.’

High above the snowline, the tunnellers worked on heedless of the Commissioner’s speech. A half-flayed lamprey in the bedrock deep, a mighty drill jumbo slowly worked its way deep into a plug of compressed granite. Sympathetic parts rotated and counter-rotated, and in the space between them the heart of a mountain was unmade. Tailing the drill, the tunnel crew flattered its machine with a uniform of dirty green oilskins. Holes bored, the machine retreated backward along the tracks of the tunnel floor. Powder monkeys emerged from the shadows with their charges, pressing gelignite deep into the rock-face and tamping it down firmly with rods of steel. A huge blast rocked the valley, before a mucker made its appearance and scooped the shattered rock from the tunnel.

Orson’s spine thrummed with a sensation of pressure that fell somewhere short of pain. The discomfort would, he knew, be relieved only by a jolt of sharp, cracking torsion—and then only briefly. He was weighed down with a familiar, shapeless drinker’s shame. As though in arch mockery of Orson’s suffering, the Commissioner summoned a joke.

‘It is a strange paradox in the sphere of labour relations, then, that so much should be routinely accomplished by work despite the involvement of the individual worker.’

From the audience came the reedy, pattering laughter of a roomful of engineers. Sudden shadows seemed to fill the bony hollows of the Commissioner’s face, though the clouds above had stormed themselves ragged and were already beginning to disperse. Sir William wore for a moment the expression of one who has just recalled, unbidden, his life’s defining grievance.

‘As to the eventual outcome of his work, ’ Sir William continued, ‘being that which the employer seeks, and the reason for which the work is purchased in the first place: provided it is acceptable to the employer, by however slim a margin, it is as tailwater to the turbine so far as the worker is concerned. The greater part of any labour is finding the wherewithal to attempt it, the disaffected worker consoles himself; thinks, simply seeing a job through to the end is a worthy achievement in itself.’

Even to Orson Mawson, who rarely gave a wet shit about anything that was said in the course of the working day, the Commissioner’s pronouncements rang with unkindness—being delivered, as they were, in a tone of detachment that might, issuing from another speaker, have come off as baldly sneering. Because, for the worker, Orson knew, the condition of employment—an exploitative arrangement to begin with, to be sure, since the value of the work performed needs must exceed the worker’s compensation for it—necessarily demands the acceptance of a state of some precariousness. In return for the efforts Sir William sought now to characterise, insultingly, as the slimmest, the barest of endeavours, the worker is compelled to offer up his or her hope and faith to market, union, wig and gown; to look constantly to mate and master for deliverance from industrial accident and illness, and to trust week-on-week that his or her manila ghost will be remembered to a company pay clerk two Thursdays in the month.

‘What is necessary, then, for the realisation of the overarching goal of the Snowy Mountains Authority,’ Sir William said, at last, ‘and to ensure not only the success of the Scheme it administers, but its redounding triumph, is the close and careful supervision of the thousands of workers now contracted to the task of realising it. These men must be made to rise above the low standards they have set for themselves, and to triumph over their predisposition to think only in terms of self-preservation. If this Authority is to keep the workers of the Scheme to task, we must look to the foreman, and to the engineer. Only by your oversight and intercession can the individual workman be made to deliver his projects on or ahead of time, and to the highest standard of completion. His native qualities alone will not permit it.’

The Commissioner cleared his throat before continuing.

‘To that end, you will find it highlighted in the most recent Standing Orders issued by my office that lateness, loafing, idle chatter, the downing of tools before the appointed time, prolongation of convenience breaks beyond the briefest of limits, and failure to complete an assigned task by a deadline clearly communicated are, and shall remain—upon the provision of prior verbal warning—causes sufficient to ground summary dismissal.’

Orson regarded the short-cropped hair that bristled from the skin at the base of the Kaiser man’s neck. It seemed to ripple as the American’s chin rose and fell from his breast in nodded approval.

‘You will note, more particularly,’ Sir William added, ‘that, as of today, Authority workmen are no longer permitted to build campfires and to boil their billies during allotted breaks. They are not stockmen or boundary riders. To ensure that all breaks are kept to time, labourers are to adopt instead the most sensible practice introduced to us by our trans-Pacific contractors and to bring with them a Thermos flask each morning containing their day’s tea or coffee. Thank you, gentlemen.’

At this, Sir William stepped down from the stage. His audience rose to meet him. The Commissioner pressed hands with several among the senior staff in the frontmost rows—along with a bespectacled stranger who sported a long dun coat and who could, therefore, be nothing other than an agent of ASIO sent southward after the more restive and militant trades union organisers of the Mountains—and strode from the hall to meet his car. Through the window above the stage, Orson spied the white, soupy clouds of another storm front banking on the horizon. Where grey or black in the thunderhead usually heralded approaching rain or hail, densest white telegraphed heavy snowfall. For all it had kept him in food and beer and shelter these past five winters, his work on the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme had fairly spoiled the snow for Orson Mawson. Snow: the great, powdered silence. The habits it inspired in the roughhewn men of the range were abject beyond bearing.

‘The water’s bloody freezing!’ Orson had complained during his first overnight stay at the Island Bend works camp, as he returned from the cement slab topped with weatherboard partitions that served as an amenities block.

‘My oath!’ Noel—a diesel plant operator—had agreed.

‘How do you blokes bloody stand it?’

‘Trick is, you’ve gotta save up a big piss before you go for your tub—so that you’re really boilin’ for a leak.’

‘Why’d you want to do that? Distract you from the cold or somethin’?’

‘What you want to do,’ Noel had continued, ‘when you first jump under the water, is to start pissin’ all over your legs.’

‘Why in Christ’s name would I piss on myself?’

‘The warmth o’ the piss, mate—tricks your brain into thinkin’ you’re warm all over. Take my word for it. It’s the best you’re gonna do up here.’

Outside the hall, tweedy Michael Meads, senior surveyor, stood and smoked a cigarette by the vestry door.

‘I decided to take advantage of the motor-pool this morning—hop in,’ he offered as Orson emerged, squinting, into the light. ‘It’s a filthy day.’

‘Thank you, but I’ll walk back to headquarters via the Post Office,’ Orson replied.

Among the ranks of the SMA’s salaried professionals, to visit the Post Office on a weekday was convenient and universally understood shorthand for necking an illicit schooner at the Railway Tavern. While it was common enough for the Authority’s hard-drinking engineers to leave their offices at ten-to-five in the evening on the pretext of “catching the outgoing mail”, it was almost unheard of for any but Orson Mawson to darken the Post Office doors before midday on a Thursday.

‘You’ve taken the Commissioner’s words to heart, then,’ Meads said.

‘Something to knock the dust off.’ Orson conceded, and winced against the glare of the snowclouds as they marshaled overhead.

‘Indeed. If I didn’t already know you for a local drunk, I’d have to ask myself what Soviet horrors you’d fled back home so as to wind up here in such a buck-eyed state.’

Idiom tending toward economy, a shift in vernacular recommended itself to Orson Mawson.

‘Don’t go casting stones at me, you guilty Mick,’ he sniped.

‘You Proddies are outnumbered here three-to-one, Orse—we’re extending churches all over the place just to fit our congregations in the door.’

‘Thankfully they’ll be flushing out one of your little rats’ nests down at St Columkille’s in the valley soon enough.’

A casualty of the Scheme’s advances, the scenic township of Jindabyne was soon to be swallowed up by the damming of the Snowy River there. A similar fate awaited the crossroads hamlet of Adaminaby upon the damming of the Eucumbene by the relentless industry of the Kaiser enterprise.

‘We rats always seem to find ourselves a raft,’ Meads observed, serenely.

‘Someone ought to have a word with bloody Athol Townley,’ Orson redounded.

‘It was your Mr. Calwell got ’em out here in the first place.’

‘I wish you bastards’d piss off out of it, just the same. Last thing we need is a boatload more lackeys for the DLP.’

‘I fancy I just caught a whiff of last night’s whiskey on your breath.’

‘It’s probably sulphur you smell, Meads. Best say a rosary, to be sure.’

Orson’s grin showed up the faint yellow of his worn incisors through the parting of his lips. His teeth came up unusually dirty in the crisp light given out by the clouds.

‘In your case I should think the scent of molten asphalt is more likely,’ offered Meads with a smirk.

‘Piss off! Papist goon.’

‘What is it you’re actually doing these days, anyway, Orse?’

‘Patching potholes, mainly.’

‘Personally?’ Meads sniggered. ‘The bulge above your belt would suggest otherwise. In any case, I’d best be getting back,’ he said, and swung down into the driver’s seat of a company car. ‘I’ll see you back at the coalface.’

‘’Corse, occasionally I’ll order up a truckload of gravel, too,’ Orson said, in parting. ‘If I can be bothered with the paperwork.’

Orson turned and set off down the hill without a backward glance. He leaned into the heels of his boots so as to arrest the force of inertia that sought to pull him into a run. His plan—barely embryonic for the duration of the Commissioner’s speech but now fully formed—was at once simple and inelegant: he would poke his head in at the Alpine Hotel for a quick hair-of-the-dog, lingering just long enough to scorch his corduroy trousers in front of the open fire. That accomplished, he would call in at Conti’s Delicatessen to buy a pound of pork sausages wrapped in brown paper and tied with a loop of jute twine. Provided no one in the office sought a closer inspection, he could pass the parcel off as a package just collected from the Post Office.

Orson balled the chilled fingers of each hand at bottom of his trouser pockets. The hailstorm and the lazy breeze that followed in its wake had cleared away the morning’s fog. In its place, a blanket of acrid smoke now carpeted the township in its frosty valley redoubt. Orson took a cigarette and match from an inside jacket pocket and struck a light. Tobacco and match masked the awful smell of woodsmoke attendant on the season. In the smoke of the Mountains, Orson had long detected a singular unpleasantness. The fumes that hung on the rare mountain air above the region’s towns, from Cooma to Cabramurra, were redolent of an altogether different species of fuel than the Sydney blackbutt, stringybark, and turpentine to which Orson was better accustomed. The Agas and pot-bellied stoves of the Snowies glowed red with the heat of combusting candlebark, peppermint and snowgum from Easter to October. The base notes of these smokes reeked to Orson more of winter than of warmth. Chord and concert, they added up to an intolerable perfume. Smoke of any kind, though, made for a change from the engineer’s perfumery with which he was most unhappily acquainted, which emphasised diesel, hot bitumen freshly poured, and structural cement going off in the sun or kept from freezing by vats of burning oil. In the pubs, at least, the smoke was a familiar thing.

Orson carried on down the hill. As the last of the men from the hall passed him in an SMA Holden and swung away to the north, he felt a sudden, palpable drop in temperature. The air was filled for a moment with a still, serene calm. From over Orson’s shoulder came the snow. It began to fall in heavy, fat flakes. The weather argued against beer; it would have to be a whiskey—swiftly poured, and finished at a gulp at the bar.

Rarely do the mountainous tranches of Southeastern New South Wales produce a square edge—since the every bent of alpine precipitate and flow is toward the curve and sweeping bend. Even the Monaro’s famous boulders, though eked by wind and rain from a vast volcanic floe of indeterminate shape—a batholith without preference as to its ultimate weathered form or forms—bear out the native geometric prejudice of the local hydrosphere with their onionskin formations. The shape of a man being, at root, a bone-scaffolded containment of water, the high country exerted upon the architects of the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme a relentlessly rounded outlook. The engineer, confronted with the business of tunneling and damming, could dream only in terms of the annulus, the rounded bore, and the inward curving earth-rock wall. After all: above the snowline, the very trees themselves refused to stand at an angle of ninety degrees upright. Nothing could be so brutal here as a square. So it was perhaps to be expected that Orson Mawson should be drawn to nothing so much as a bottle and a tumbler.

By the time Orson had imbibed his first Scotch of the day—and this followed closely by his second, and then a nip of slivovitz stood for him at the bar by an injured Czech mechanic then recuperating in the Alpine—the snow was already beginning to settle on the bitumen of Sharpe Street. A thin carpet lay light as a wisp upon the verge. While the snowcover was, as yet, little more substantial than a light thickness of gauze, the soupy clouds above promised reinforcement enough crush every blade of grass into the frozen earth.

Orson arrived, by and by, at Conti’s. Modestly impaired by the spirits that were by then beginning to leech into his system, he pulled a little too vigorously at the heavy door to the delicatessen before plunging into the press of bodies inside. Though Conti’s offered all manner of smallgoods for sale—hung salamis, rich pink hams, and cured joints; bratwurst, liverwurst, paté, kranski, too—the ladies queued up before the counter clamoured only to purchase mutton chops. To the outside visitor, it must have seemed that the Snowy Scheme’s construction rode on the sheep’s back every bit as much as the rest of the country. The impression was misleading. While overseeing works in the field, Orson had often seen the Italians and Balts and Germans of the road gangs to sit down to lunch, the ravenous men tearing into packed lunches of deli-meat and gherkins and their dense, strong-smelling bread. The bracing, sometimes astringent odours of ingredients such as these better suited the conditions and tasks faced by the labourers of the Mountains than the sterile scent of mutton greying under glass. It was this baser odour, Orson realised, that now spoiled the close, savoury atmosphere of the deli. Which is not to say that Orson had ever declined a plate of chops when offered—only that the grog-sick stomach can only handle so much, and most often craves only the richest, saltiest compensation. Orson placed his order and watched as the butcher scooped his sausages from a pinkish mound of links with a suitably meaty hand. The man handed Orson a brown paper parcel and took payment without uttering a word.

Out on the street, the sheeting snow had settled into a steady falling pattern. From the coffee shop two doors down came the sour, appetising scent of espresso. Escaping the café premises from beneath a heavy glass door, the still-warm aroma leeched out onto the footpath and buttonholed the ailing engineer as he pressed the malleable parcel of sausages against his ribcage. For Orson, the smell appealed today most particularly to his drinker’s faith in the curative properties of hot coffee.

‘Good morning!’ called the aproned proprietor from behind the countertop as Orson slouched into the café. The hospitaller, a stout little man, stood sentinel behind his gleaming, bulbous espresso machine—a brassy apparatus that was topped with the figurine of a proud and leering eagle. The recent heraldic connotations of the ornament struck an ironic note.

‘You want coffee, or you just keep out the snow?’ he asked.

‘Coffee, please,’ Orson said, too quickly.

‘You can use it. And the milk? Sugar?’

‘Black, thank you.’

‘You worry about the cold!’ the café owner chuckled, handing Orson a tiny, steaming bonewhite cup. ‘I have something will help you.’

At this, he reached beneath the counter and produced a bottle of amaretto and a tiny glass with a looped wire handle. The smiling proprietor poured Orson a nip of the sweet almond liquor and rapped a knuckle on the counter in satisfaction. Orson accepted the token with gratitude, emptied the spirit into the remainder of his coffee, and hurriedly swallowed the bracing solution.

‘Thank you,’ he said.

‘Good morning!’ the café man laughed, as Orson replaced his empty glass on the well-scrubbed bench. Orson luxuriated in the warmth that flooded his body, and drew the wool scarf tightly about the point of his jaw with measured slowness before setting out for the office once again.

Outside, the snow had buried the road. A net curtain of fat, slow-falling flakes hung suspended between Orson and the world. Gentle licks of breeze set it rippling and twisting, scooping flurries up from the street and coiling them into loose spirals. Orson set off walking. He was buoyed by the spirits in his stomach just enough to walk the straightest line for work in as straight a fashion as he could manage. The void-like cold of the day having kept many at home, there were few vehicles on the road. Orson stepped down from the kerb so as to shuffle along on the snow-covered asphalt. Off to the right, where street and brickwork gave way to sheep paddocks, the bald hills of the Monaro were liberally carpeted with snow. They seemed to blend into the sky above them to form a blank, white continuity. A different shade of pale altogether, the rendered granite facade of Coffey’s Hotel emerged, inevitably, from the surrounding flurries as a custard-coloured beacon.

Stepping inside the pub, Orson spied a familiar face by the flickering wood fire. Espen, a maintenance mechanic from the Polo Flat depot, sat at a schooner with yesterday’s Canberra Times spread upon the table before him. As he approached the bar, Orson felt a small though savage thrill of annoyance at finding the indolent Norwegian languishing there, instead of skinning his knuckles in the efficient pursuit of the Authority’s goals. Orson laid his parcel of sausages on the countertop and rapped at the timber of the bar.

‘Orrite, mate?’ the barman asked, wiping a shaky hand on the dirty fabric of his dungarees.

‘A stout, please’ Orson said.

‘You want a rum to keep that company?’ the barman asked as he drew off a pint of chocolaty draught. Orson nodded his affirmation, and made a show of adjusting the loops of twine that held his parcel together, testing the knot, before swatting at the brown paper wrapping so as to dislodge the accreted snowflakes he fancied it had collected—only to find that these had all melted the moment he stepped into the pub. The paper was damp and clammy to the touch. Orson retrieved a packet of Craven As from the neck of his wool jumper and sparked a light.

‘And two rum,’ Espen said to the barman, sidling up to the bar and holding aloft a pair of splayed fingers in a drinker’s pantomime of urging peace. Orson noticed the angry, puckered ridge of a sutured gash running down the length of the mechanic’s index finger and over the corresponding first knuckle.

‘Been in the wars, mate?’ he asked. The choice of phrase was not unproblematic.

‘Machine accident—nothing,’ Espen said, and laid a small handful of coins on the countertop. The ruddy mechanic pinched the rim of a glass between the thumb and forefinger of his uninjured hand and tossed the contents down.

‘Cheers!’ Espen said with a broad grin, and swiftly downed the second measure. Orson took a deep pull at his stout and sipped from the rum accompanying it with closed eyes as Espen smiled at him expectantly.

Finishing his drinks hurriedly lest the warm goodwill they imparted draw him into accepting an offering from the injured Norwegian, Orson tucked the parcel of sausages under his arm and stepped out into the cold once more. He stumbled along the verge until he rounded a corner and left the bounds of Cooma behind him. All was white.

A building of uncommon ugliness in pale pink render, soup-brown brick and terracotta tiles held out for the inspection of all comers to Cooma upon the crest of a low rise on the outskirts of town, the boxy office block of the SMA headquarters stood with accusatory severity behind a screen of falling snow. As he approached the building, trailing up the steepish concrete driveway and swinging a hand made raw with cold, Orson shifted now and then into a stilted, balletic gait, stepping now with a flat foot, now on his toes, spelling out his name in the snow with alternate groupings of coded dot and dash. It was a cold comfort in an otherwise miserable walk. Reaching the building at last, he pulled open the chrome-handled door and stepped into the foyer, braying and stamping as he met with the enveloping warmth inside. Marching on the spot, he dislodged the snow from his boots, and nodded a sodden greeting to young Martin Bunt, who was then exiting the building.

Martin Bunt BSc. was a junior technician seconded to the Authority’s Scientific Services Lab. It was his job to construct scale topographical maps and dioramas replicating the terrain in which major Authority constructions were to be undertaken, and to test the weight of water against tiny replicas of dams, surge tanks, and spillways. Always punctual and diligent to a fault, Martin was a model employee.

As Martin sidled out into the bitter afternoon, Lorna emerged from the typing pool—a wood-panelled haven secreted in the close warmth of the building’s rearmost rooms—coughed, and said, ominously:

‘Mr. Trent would like to see you.’

Calico Trent regarded Mawson in unimpressed silence from the creaking embrace of his long-suffering plush chair. His expression suggested a man who had been asked to pose for a photograph by someone he both distrusted and disliked. Trent, whose build hovered somewhere between thickset and morbid, was seated at his paper-strewn desk with a well-sucked cigarette burning between two fingers of his left hand and a pair of thick-rimmed tortoiseshell spectacles pinched between the thumb and forefinger of his right. He wore, as ever, a well-cut grey serge suit made soft by wear, a salt-white cotton shirt, and a pale yellow silk tie. The nicks and scabs that pocked the dangling, pouchy flap of skin at his throat spoke to a slovenly shaving hand—this being Trent’s only patent untidiness.

‘We expected you back in the office two hours ago,’ he said.

‘’M sorry, Mr. Trent,’ Mawson spoke, pausing to inhale as deeply as was seemly. ‘I called inter th’Post Office on my way back ter ‘eadquarters, ter collect a parcel I bin ‘specting, on’y I got caught in th’snowstorm, so I was delayed.’

‘You took shelter in Sharp Street, then?’ queried Trent.

‘I did, sir—in th’coffee ‘ouse on Sharp Street.’

‘What was the thrust of the commissioner’s speech this morning?’

‘The boys are not ter boil their billies durin’ smoko any more, sir.’

‘And your parcel?’

‘Pardon me, sir?’

‘Your parcel was not damaged in the snowstorm, I hope?’

‘I b’lieve it’s weathered it orright, Mr. Trent, thank you.’

At this, however, the soggy paper that parceled Orson’s sausages split at last, rent open, and gave way, causing its meaty contents to spill upon the floor at the unhappy junior engineer’s feet.

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The Luddite Undecided

“I am a Luddite decided. Let me sweat—let me bleed.”

– The Gavin

 

I. Upgrades

The sedge, at last, has withered from the lake—because of global warming. What was the lake is now but saltpan paved in polymer cement. What were the teeming languages and linguas Franca of those peoples that knew soil have long since been swept away upon a tide of, firstly, Tech neologisms, and, secondly, whole new tongues sprung up from code. No one speaks in nested clauses any more; no one remembers Kraftwerk.

It has long since ceased to make any sense at all for the cramped and Tech-hungry denizens of this superheated earth to speak of real property, as such. The stratigraphy of the social order is no longer to be read from above as a map of wealth and its concentration according to such primitive notions as an exclusive suburb—divisions of class are no longer made patent in the enclosure of garden greenery or lawn-yardage or floor-space as once they were—since the landmass of those continents being yet habitable to mankind is strewn uniformly with gargantuan sprawls of high-rise stacks within which all earth’s people cluster as stromatolites crowding seafloor vents, there to gather rapt around their screens and rare-earth oculi and spectral holograph displays.
The last great novel penned—I say penned, though the archaism is disingenuous, since no one that now lives knows of what stuff a pen was made—the last great novel breathed audibly into a microphone and thence set and rendered in bit-text by software not yet so sophisticated in its predictive and suggestive powers as to deny the speaker a claim to authorship of less than 51% of the finished whole—the last great novel thusly composed was not quite shouted though was yet expectorated with commingled histrionic ardour and abject mortification into the cortex of a processor more than a century ago.
Yet into this world are born persons of caste and class and social standing, since these are—for all their augmentations and infallible kidneys—people still.

The world beneath their very feet—the vast machine halls and interminable network of tunnels that comprise the cavernous underground installations of Mainland California, the Antarctic Complex, and Vista Negra CTC—teems with automated plants whence issues Tech, the lifesblood of the world. Innumerable units of Tech—Tech staged and timed and tightly controlled in its release to the consumerist masses above. Tech that gives meaning and purpose to all human life, so that it is insufferable (perhaps even incompatible with living) for a person to be barred access to the very latest functions of which Tech is capable by the force majeure that is the brute fact of new software outstripping the processing power of those rapidly aging units they so cherish.

In slow increments measurable only by the half-century (if at all), the human population of this blazing late-terminal-Anthropocene earth has cleaved into three tiers, the descending order of which may be expressed, in sum, thusly:
1. Those privileged and exultant few who can afford the newest Tech—the Tech that is required to support the very latest software upgrades that emanate as a periodic ghosted plague from within the endless banks of QIN’s forbidden Terracotta City; and
2. Those whose means do not permit them access to this vanguard Tech, and who are therefore cast onto uncertain shores; their lives devoted to a queer spiritualism, of sorts—long days given over to vain hopes and prayers—entreaties to forbearance spake into the ether; supplications that the Deadstock Tech that is their only worldly lot will cope with and sustain the latest QIN OS—though all the while they know it that, inevitably, there will come the day their hardware is overtaken and so outmoded by that one upgrade too many: the dreaded SLVR BLLT coup de grâce that is the undetectable QIN KLL CDE (since few things are so certain in life as the inexorability of obsolescence, and [as I have already intimated] obsolescence spells the end of living, if not life); and
3. The poor (there will always be a poor)—the poor, who have failed at every stage of life to keep pace with Tech’s assiduous rate of change and who languish, therefore, in the squalor of outmoded Tech that is incapable of sustaining anything but the most hatefully deficient ARCNE programs, and who dream of one day scraping together funds or favour sufficient to own (if only the once!) a genuine unit of PrimeGen Tech loaded up with all the wonders this must surely entail.

Poor Jhn pauses in their work with a sharp intake of breath and marks the tabletop rattlings of the manifold loose objects that are arrayed around them in the humming Argon dayglo grotto of their flat. The tiny tools that mark Jhn as a TINKRR—a desperate dreamer; one that dreams in poverty; dreams only of concocting that most alchemical of distillates: the Tech jailbreak—Jhn’s tiny tools vibrate against the surface of the bench, shiver at the urgings of a fearful tremor that is transmitted from somewhere far away and many miles underground. Drawing their breath to them and tasting vapours sulphurous and sour on the air, they bows their head and prays that this latest derangement of the peace is caused only by the annihilation of one of the last remaining islands in the embattled Indnsn Archipelago by the eruption of a supervolcano and not the tectonic rippling of something altogether more apocalyptic: the subsidence and collapse of a Tech plant under Maui.

 

II. Meat

Steak, we are told, was once flesh of the cow. It has long since been insupportable to graze cattle, so that protein-rich tissue cultured in vast Petri Plantation factory farms is all the steak the people of earth now living have ever known. A joke worn thin with retelling at innumerable mealtime troikas—but that retains its popularity even now—runs thusly:

There once was a person who, as a child, had tasted steak cut from a cow. But as the child grew, the cows began to go extinct. Persons started to grow meat in labs—as those trendy, overpriced batcheries purport to do to this day (though why anyone should want to pay BTCNS100 for a srln is beyond me).

When they was grown, this steak-eater was worked as a batcher making me8. One day, they thought for a joke to grow a me8-mass in the shape not of a steak but of a human baby. They took this me8-mass baby home and roasted it in the MCROWVE for their friends. What a surprise for the friends to see a cooked baby served up on a platter! One of them was very upset and asked their host why they had cooked a baby to serve them. The steak-eater said:

“It is only me8 in the shape of a baby!”

But no one in the room laughed. Someone else said to the steak-eater:

“Because it is the shape of a baby, it looks like it is a baby – how can we eat something that is the shape of a baby without believing that we are, in some sense, eating a baby?”

“A baby is not a shape,” the steak-eater retorted. “Likewise, the mere shape of a baby does not a baby make.”

“In that case,” said the first of their friends, “I will have a forearm—sliced as thinly as you like.”

III. A Bus Stop

Freedom of movement is not assured in this brutalist tomorrow [it is not assured even today, since movement always has its price—time and space each levy their silent tolls; the passage of a body through either quantity demands this]. Whoever rode the bus for free?

In the earliest, most storied phases of the 21st Century, several among those public hospitals that housed within the bowels of their cavernous strip-lit halls a ward given over to the practice of geriatric medicine devised a novel solution to a perennial problem then prevailing in that long-defunct field: the problem of their legion patients wandering off in a demented trance at all hours of the day and night and falling to unsanctioned vagrancy beyond the confines of the facilities that would keep them. In an effort to ensure the swift, efficient regathering of these urinous wraiths, the superintendents of a great many infirmaries ordered the construction, near to the public entrances of their hospitals, of an enticement to, and rallying point for, roving decrepitude—a grease trap, of sorts, being designed to capture shuffling and shambolic knots of the insensate elderly and so regather them to their warders. One is, of course, reminded of the midnight prawn-fisher, who, in antiquity, invited school-prawns into the bait-net with a fluorescent lantern held atop the surface of the water.

There was much poignancy—of the kind that only the most prosaic of objects being considered in their most heartbreakingly of human aspects can produce—in the selection for this purpose of the mock-or-decoy bus stop. In countless such structures erected within an easy walk of innumerable hospitals across the globe (an easy walk for porters and wardsmen, if not for Nan and Pop), whole generations of implacably energetic though yet irredeemably withered souls from whom all earthly reason had long since fled might settle upon short zincalume benches and wait with fixed and boundless patience (perhaps even in a state of regressive contentment) for a bus that would never come; might wait thusly in blissful ignorance of the snare upon which they had so gladly lighted.

Since the truth of old age was this: that the inborn faculty of the human spirit once called adventurousness was the plenary province of minds and bodies being youthful in their vigour. Just as the suckling babe craves only sleep, warmth and the tit, the aged of the distant past drew succour only from mundanity, familiarity and routine.

There are no buses on this dying earth; nor Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or old age. In sum—tragedies will outlive us all, though ghosts cannot—there is nothing in creation that might alert the healthy populace of this myopic future world to the inevitable decline upon which all that is meaningful in human life is predicated. So it is perhaps to be expected—though it is nonetheless tragic, in a sense—that there is nothing extant in all the world to elicit hope that facultative decay might be evaded (if not escaped), since no lamb ever feared the wolf that mewled in fields bereft of wolves, and, therefore, every moment in a person’s life now assumes the same value—each moment is no more and no less pleasant, poignant, or meaningful than any preceding or ensuing moment. And where death holds no dominion—where the foregathering of personal doom exercises no influence upon the waking mind—life can be aught but endless, reedy twilight.

Yet there has survived unto the very human twilight of this imminent future world—against all vain odds, it must be admitted—a single hospital-commissioned bus stop, and this now stands sealed within a hermetic prspx sarcophagus positioned for display out front of a museum at Sydn3y. It will come as no surprise to the reader to learn that, while buses and the infrastructure that was so vital to their civic function vanished from the world several centuries ago, that most aggressively humourless species of outspoken fuckwit that once frequented them has more than survived the great upheavals of the receding epoch—it has thrived.

Today, one such fuckwit stands before the last remaining example of an intact 21st Century bus stop still standing on all the several surfaces of the earth. Without invitation (as readers of any generation will understand, the asshole seldom requires an invitation), they turns to a hapless bystander and says:
“/Whr/u.gon?”

At this, they suppresses a grin of delight at what they fancies is the historical accuracy of this once mundane line delivered in earnest pantomime, before shuffling off into a certain future about which they cares as little as the lamb stood bleating at the abattoir gates.

IV. The Smoker’s Lot

Though Kraftwerk and cows, buses and the elderly have long since been consigned to a mouldering terabit boneyard in some cramped and dismal corner of the big-data storehouse that is modem history, the inexorable dereliction of all things good and decent that attends every sweeping societal change (be it achieved by processes piecemeal or else wholesale) has nevertheless suffered its share of unlikely survivors. Among them stands the Marlboro Man himself—though his chaps and spurs have not met with horseflesh in some 350 years or more. Still, by the grace of the blessed Peters Jackson and Stuyvesant, there are smokers abroad yet!

Yes: a small and well-heeled tribe of smokers of tobacco, stalk and leaf, still prowls this powder-coated wasteland—alight, and venting fumes into the silent tunneled deeps of the upwardly-engineered landscape around them. Tobacco of every cut and colour: tobacco twisted into cigarettes; tobacco cured and rolled by hand so as to form trad. Cubano cigars; tobacco stuffed into arcane pipes; tobacco put, universally, to the flame (it is a strange and paradoxical adjunct to the tremulous flickering of the individual flame that the vibrant constancy of fire endures undimmed across all time).

Nicotine inhalers, nebulisers, and vapourisers: these are now but ancient relics of a happily forgotten time. Indeed, while those Tech units being engineered to deliver substances ranging from VDKA to methylamphetamine into the bloodstream have been popular adjuncts of contemporary life for almost three centuries, those systems geared toward the ready inhalation of FNE VRGNIA FLKE oil-evaporate—technologies developed in response to the far-reaching public-and-personal health-care backlash against the habit of smoking tobacco as that term is properly understood mounted in the latter half of the 20th Century and well into the 21st—have never been half so popular as one might have anticipated while lifting a finger to the winds of change some several centuries ago. A certain reckless indifference to tomorrow is a defining human trait and, as such, it prevails here still.

The smokers of today are, therefore, heirs to a wild lineage of personal irresponsibility.
Science, being productive (at times) of infinite wisdom is also necessarily capable of producing infinite folly, and has therefore tried and so inevitably failed at every stop and station in its progress to eradicate the addictive smoker. It is a fact of no small notoriety among the smoking faithful that the genetically-engineered tobacco crops of centuries past—plants bred so as to minimise the carcinogenic content and tar yield of each draw—produced a mouth-feel (as the smokers of the day rightly complained) that was akin to inhaling the fumes of rancid vegetable matter, while the smoke itself was said to taste of nothing so much as nickel.

In any case, there exists now a closed class of connoisseurs for whom the inhalation of nicotine suspended in non-toxic gaseous fixatives-exultant has ever been but a poor imitation of inhaling tobacco smoke proper—and who cling on, therefore, to the ancient practice of smoking.

It ought be noted here that the persons of this particular time and place understand something that was undreamed of in the 21st Century. No—to say that they understand this truth is to misstate the position: it is to miscast the true extent of the understanding in issue. The persons of this particular time and place know it innately, as a truth felt bodily and to which they are born more than inculcated, that the world in which they find themselves is but one incarnation of all possible and so real worlds. There are, they know, countless other instances of the world in which they happen to find themselves—some radically different, others differing only by incrementally greater or lesser degrees, some all but identical to their own—and these exist most certainly at the imminently-to-be-divided terminal ends of their own endlessly forking branches in a ceaselessly bifurcating network of capillaries and arteries and veins the substantive vascularity of which is time. Every cause, as they say, has its innumerable effects—every world its innumerable alternate worlds spinning on and on upon their unnumbered axes in parallel.

So it is that the persons of this future earth know it that their every inexplicable or intractable mood, whim, habit or compulsion is, in its truest sense, simply the echo—felt across the horrifying thinness of time’s dividing fabric—of the most exacting experience/s of one or more among the countless other incarnations of themselves that certainly exist on the other side/s. So it is that the intractable smoker regards themselves just as the balance of society does: as a happy, fortuitous medium between the non-smoking version of one alternate lifeline and the slave to those most damaging substances of addiction that is another, more extreme incarnation of themselves.
Against such a backdrop, it makes little sense to speak of depression or of hopefulness—much less of addiction—since, properly understood, these states (and, indeed, all other humours, good and ill, of which the human heart is ever a hapless vessel) are simply the echoes of the peculiar life-experiences of a certain homologous being then existing in a certain disparate now (or nows)—and so on and so on, in an infinite outward spiral of regression and distance and degree, instantiated being imparting feeling to instantiated being ad infinitum.

Do you find this thought comforting? You ought not to be comforted. There can be no solace in the idea, any more than the unhappy alcoholic propped at the bar ought find succour in the sight of his doppelgänger slouched upon the pavement outside sniffing petrol. Any more than it ought comfort you to dream yourself dying slowly and in pain, only to realise that it is not a dream at all, but a happenstance glimpsed through slow-turning screws of a veiling fog.

Still: the smokers of today are more than tolerated here. They are all but unremarkable. Which is not to say that substance abuse—whether involving tobacco, or any other substance, however imbibed—is no longer the marker of class and status it once was. The crucial difference, however, is that society has undergone a virtual upending and inversion in this regard. Since the production of tobacco in underground hydroponic acreages is a costly business, the enjoyment of tobacco products is a vice available only to the wealthiest classes of the world. And of those persons drawn from among these wealthiest classes that would smoke, only the topmost 12% are able to afford the prohibitive annual membership fees levied by the landlords of the earth’s few remaining Smokers Lots.

Of the 20 or so licensed SLs that are now inclosed upon the fabric of the world (these rank—it will come as no surprise to the reader to learn—among the most lucrative and sought-after [and therefore valuable] classes of property still available to the would-be investor in all the continent/s extant), the smallest boasts a membership of just 17 persons, and is quartered in the last free state of Aust, in HBRT-TAS—is situated, so it happens, upon the former site of the most barbarous Victorian Age horror that was the Hobart Zoological Gardens.

Today, solitary smoker Drk paces back and forth upon the Lot and smokes and smokes, incessantly—smokes cigarettes end on end until the plstic slabs at their feet are littered with butts and ash. Oblivious to their surroundings, Drk does not mark the arrival upon the scene of another of their kind.

“Gt a <lite>?” asks the newcomer, startling the silent, restive Drk from their pensive reverie.
“<Y>” Drk answers, and proffers the HT-SPT that is implanted in their wrist. The stranger presses the wavering tip of their cigarillo to the glowing element and nods their thanks.

“U.hear.bout/QIN.tbcco.plnt/Maui ?” the cigarillo smoker enquires of the silent Drk.

“<Y>” Drk confirms, glumly.

“Price.TBCCO will > +++ now,” cigarillo observes.

“We.r/gon <Xtinct>,” Drk says, forlornly, and spits an immaculate strand of bitter spittle onto the surface of the Lot.

 

V. One-Arm and the Arctic Rarebit

Can you picture a world in which there dwells a race of people for whom it is not only an initiatory rite of passage to amputate the leftmost arms of its young people, below the elbow, upon their reaching the age of majority, but something that is made actually necessitous by their means of subsistence and survival? Such is the strange case of the Salvage Tribes of the Temperate Circle, although I cannot and will not elaborate further upon this queer custom, since to do so would be to flout a taboo of no uncertain notoriety in those latitudes being gabled by the Aurora Borealis.

Suffice it to say that certain despicable excesses of Soviet economy once concealed beneath the now-soupy Arctic and Siberian tundra (not to mention towering banks of official records, dispatches, and procurement/consignment orders suppressed, buried or else burned over unspooled decades) has caused, across unremembered generations, certain physical mutations in the peoples of the North. This, in the age instant of the tale at hand, has long produced the genetic duplication of the left upper limb in the region’s children.

Among the more patient breeds of persons now inhabiting the carbon-dioxide-parceled planet, the Salvage Tribes occupy themselves tirelessly with the gathering of the scrap mineral and metallurgical payloads of the Wild North that are their only living. The raison d’être of these peoples is most commonly formulated and expressed thusly:
Always there is gold in it—or else copper wire.

Indeed, the Salvage Tribes are a race of peoples whose covetousness of cast-off rare-earth resources is exceeded only by their love of fables, allegories and well-worn exempla of all kinds. There is a Salvagi parable held especially dear by the Tribes of what was once a small corner of Lapland, the substance of which is as follows:

A wise man stands in a sealed room in which there is a blowfly buzzing all around him. The man simply stands rooted to the spot and claps and claps, unceasing—hand meeting hand in the exact same quarter of the airspace before him in unending repetition.

The thrust of the saying is, of course, that persistence is the surest path to the attainment of one’s goals; or, as the lesson is sometimes expressed more succinctly: the spider that stands and claps inevitably catches the fly. But the saying has another meaning—a meaning of more immediate relevance to the tale here told: two hands are better than three (a third arm, tending to move sympathetically with its nearest mate, will all too often confound that other limb’s purpose/s), while one-handedness will either be the foredooming of the weakling or the making of the great and resourceful man.

One-Arm rises from their BoPET bedroll, packages it into a bindle, and sets out walking purposefully into the superheated day. They has heard tell of an unspoiled toaster lurking among the crumbling ruins sheltered by the Nazarene palm forest to the north of their homeland. As they walks, One-Arm spies the suggestion of movement among the sand dunes that undulate beneath a wavering haze of heat in the barren space before them. They pauses, and watches unmoving as a solitary rarebit hops onto the plain and saunters over to them.

“Do corpses sweat?” ponders the rarebit, inscrutably.

It is salient here to note that the Salvage Tribes have another saying—this time of a more hyperbolic ring—that is also apt in context of the tale at hand: The man that knows nothing either speaks the loudest or is mute. One-Arm cannot clap, though their reticent silence in this instance is decided by most sober reason. Ritual tradition and observance—attaining, as it necessarily does, the tenor of profoundest and unmoving religiosity is most difficult to unseat among isolated populations of persons. So it was that One-Arm, being born with only two arms and not three, was nonetheless required to undergo the initiatory ordeal of amputation of their leftmost upper limb.

“I do not know,” answers the young Salvagi, serenely.

“Precisely,” the rarebit agrees.

Hearing this, One-Arm catches the glinting of a certain unmistakably Tech redness in the rarebit’s eye, and so understands at once that the specious wisdom of the creature’s speech is in fact aught but a rhetorical device—the output of corrupted programming being contrived to allow the beast to interrogate and so to gather information from those humans the paths of whom it might contrive to cross. Contrary to its original coding, it will—and, frighteningly, it can—learn. And from that learning it can—and will—extrapolate, interpolate, and think. And from this extrapolation, interpolation and thinking, it can—and will—philosophise (which is, as even the most primitive of readers will readily appreciate, an insufferable faculty in a machine).

Considering the market price of the metals that are contained within the rogue robot-rarebit’s frame, One-Arm zaps it without hesitation, drinks of its iron-rich Tech-artery leakage, and thence slings it over their shoulder and lights out for home.

In the Can

Cast:

Thurston Miller: A Nashville-based country musician and singer-songwriter, hailing originally from Newcastle, Australia. Thurston is contracted to Barrel Aged Inc. – a leading country music publisher – to write at least 100 songs per year. He is 34 years of age, and a known alcoholic.

Charlaine: A mid-level Barrel Aged Inc. executive in her mid-to-late 30s. Charlaine was born and raised in Nashville, and speaks with a broad, drawling Tennessee accent.

Fisher: A low-level Barrel Aged Inc. executive in his late 20s. Fisher is Charlaine’s immediate subordinate. He, too, speaks in a nasal Tennessee drawl.

Set:

The action takes place in Room 23, a dedicated songwriting room within the offices of the fictional Barrel Aged Inc.

Barrel Aged Inc. is a leading Nashville-based country music publisher. Its headquarters are located on Nashville’s famed “Music Row”.

A huge, square Persian rug in dull reds and blues covers the floor. The rug is edged with a white fringe, and is badly worn.

Along the back of the stage is a rack housing an assortment of acoustic and electric guitars.

Above the guitar rack is a laminated calico banner with brass hoop-studs pressed into the corners. The banner bears the name “Barrel Aged Inc.” in bold script, along with the company’s logo – an old-fashioned oak barrel.

The scene is lit from front-centre stage, directly overhead. The guitars and banner, being situated at the back of the stage, are partially obscured in shadow.

The light picks out a single black barstool that stands about a third of the way across the rug, toward stage right.

On the other side of the rug, closer to stage left, is a battered vintage guitar amplifier.

Sitting atop the amplifier are a white A4-size writing pad with lined pages, a cheap blue biro, and a white 250ml plastic bottle of cleaning fluid with a spray nozzle.

Note: Thurston is badly hungover and suffers increasingly acute symptoms of alcohol withdrawal throughout the action. His movements and dialogue are, accordingly, generally slower and more ponderous than those of a healthy person at full force. 
Scene:

Charlaine and Fisher loiter at stage left, hovering by the door to Room 23.

Charlaine is scrawling something on a clipboard. She glances at her watch from time to time.

Fisher leans against the wall, shuffling his feet.

Fisher begins to hum tunelessly, which he does for several beats.

Charlaine casts Fisher a dark look, silencing his humming almost instantly.

The sound of footsteps is heard from the hallway outside Room 23.

Fisher turns his head to watch as Thurston Miller shuffles through the door into Room 23.

Thurston is badly hungover. He is in a state of some dishevelment, his hair long and unkempt. A short, scruffy beard clings to his chin and throat. Thurston wears a grease-stained rodeo shirt with gunfighter sleeves and pearl snaps.

Without acknowledging either Charlaine or Fisher, Thurston heads straight for the guitar rack at back of the set, selects a tan-coloured acoustic guitar, and shuffles over to the stool.

Thurston holds the guitar by the neck in his right hand as he pats his jeans pocket absentmindedly with the left, before seating himself on the stool.

Thurston settles himself on the stool, and sets the guitar down in his lap.

Almost as soon as he is seated, Thurston is struck by a sudden realisation. A pained, slightly panicked expression crosses his face. He hops down from the stool with a rapid, jolting motion, still holding the guitar by the neck.

Thurston: Hey, Fish –

Fisher: Yeah, bud?

Thurston: I forgot something. In my car.

Pause.

Fisher looks inquiringly to Charlaine for a beat, before turning his attention to Thurston once again.

Fisher: Your flask?

Fisher pauses a beat, smiles, and chuckles. He gazes knowingly at Thurston. Fisher turns this leering look briefly toward Charlaine.

Fisher: Say, Charlaine?

Charlaine: What?

Fisher: We got time for Thurston here to run on down to his car?

Thurston: Fifteen or twenty minutes. I’ll –

Charlaine: (Abrupt, interrupting, shaking her head) Nope.

Brief pause.

Fisher: Sorry Thurst’. Seems we’re runnin’ a tight ship in here this mornin’.

Pause. An awkward silence.

Thurston: (Anxious) But I just –

Charlaine: (To Thurston, interrupting, severe) If I were you, pal, I’d be more concerned ‘bout the demos you still owe us for last year.

Charlaine looks to Fisher for support. None is forthcoming.

Thurston is a little dumbstruck.

Charlaine: Let me tell you somethin’ for nothin’, Thurston: there ain’t much standin’ ‘tween you an’ a breach of contract suit at this point.

Fisher: You’d best believe this ain’t just Charlaine makin’ pillow talk, pal!

Fisher looks to Thurston expectantly, as though he anticipates Thurston will laugh.

Silence endures for several beats.

Thurston stares gormlessly at the still-open door to Room 23.

Fisher: Hell, I guess I could have one of the interns run on down there an’ – ?

Charlaine: No time. I’m lockin’ this door at eight a.m., on the button.

Brief pause.

Charlaine: (Brusque) You remember who else we got comin’ in here today, Fisher?

Fisher: (Pausing momentarily) I recollect we gotta have the room clear for Lonnie-Mae by eleven-thirty.

Charlaine: (To Thurston) That’s right. We’re expectin’ a bona fide Grammy-winner in here later this mornin’. Lonnie-Mae and The Gold Standard, comin’ in for a writin’ session.

Fisher: Least somebody’s bringin’ some kind of a standard to this here Room 23 – right, Charlaine!

Charlaine: (Sneering) Aside from “standard drinks”.

Pause.

Fisher: (To Thurston) Never mind, my friend. You’ll be out in time to make Santa’s by midday.

Thurston: (Pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger in a show of discomfort) Four hours.

Fisher: Four hours ‘til dollar Buds and ten-cent wings!

Pause. Fisher looks contemplative.

Fisher: “Dollar Buds and Ten-Cent Wings”. I don’t mean to tell you your business, Thurst’, but I damn sure reckon there’s a song in that!

Charlaine: ‘Cept he already wrote and recorded it twenty times before.

Fisher: Hell, we all love a good drinkin’ song, Charlaine!

Charlaine: Just cain’t always expect a good songwritin’ drink to help it on its way. Ain’t that right?

Fisher: Our apologies once again, Thurston.

Thurston: Could –

Charlaine: (Interrupting Thurston, severe) Y’all know the drill by now. Let’s get at least a couple decent demos in the can today.

Fisher: Sure he knows the drill! They call him “San Quentin”.

Thurston: (Pleading) Could you just leave the door unlocked? Just for –

Charlaine: (To Fisher, interrupting Thurston) Who?

Thurston: (Trailing off) – a couple minutes?

Fisher: (To Charlaine) Y’know, Thurston “San Quentin” Miller.

Charlaine: Who calls him that?

Thurston: Fisher could run the thing in here before he –

Fisher: (Interrupting Thurston, starting to feel foolish) “San Quentin”. Seems appropriate, is all –

Thurston: (Mumbling, forlorn) – before he locks me in.

Fisher: – what with all the lockdowns he’s done in here. Like a convict? Come on Charlaine, it ain’t a stretch!

Charlaine: Seems to me “Parkview Psychiatric” would be more appropriate than “San Quentin”.

Brief pause. Fisher grins.

Thurston stares into the middle distance and worries nervously at his beard with his free hand.

Charlaine: Anyways, it’s “Thirsty Miller”. That’s what they call him.

Pause.

Thurston: (Sulking) I heard CMR were calling me “The Worm” these days.

Charlaine: (Savage) Over in legal, they’re already callin’ you “The Defendant”.

Fisher: “The Worm”?

Charlaine: On account of how well he knows the bottom of a bottle.

Fisher: (Chuckling, looking to both Thurston and Charlaine for a shared laugh) Nice!

Thurston, still standing beside the stool and holding the guitar by the neck, stares at Fisher and Charlaine. An expression of bewilderment and uncertainty is frozen on his wan face. His left leg begins to twitch – a nervous tic.

Charlaine: (Dismissive) We’ll be back at eleven. (Pauses briefly) Or maybe a little later, dependin’.

Fisher: Make hay, bud!

Charlaine turns with a jerking motion and exits the stage. Fisher follows close behind her, leaving Thurston standing alone beside the stool.

Fisher closes the door to the room behind him.

A key turns in the lock to stage left. Charlaine is locking Thurston inside Room 23 for the duration of his three-hour songwriting session. The sound of the door being locked is unusually loud, exaggerated.

Still standing, Thurston cradles his forehead in the palm of his free hand and rocks back and forth on his heels.

While the door is being locked, and for a few moments afterward, we hear snatches of dialogue between Fisher and Charlaine from the corridor outside.

Fisher: (Muffled) … why he’d bother …

Brief pause, during which a few measures of muffled talking is heard from the corridor.

Fisher: (More clearly) … might as well lock some toothless meth-head in there for a couple hours …

Brief pause. More muffled talking is heard from the corridor.

Charlaine: … ‘course, he’s flat broke …

Pause, more muffled chatter.

Charlaine: … they ain’t gonna spring for another stint in Greenhills …

Inside Room 23, Thurston sighs a long, deep sigh, and settles himself on the stool. Facing out into the audience, he sets the guitar down on his thighs and begins to strum absent-mindedly, staring blankly into the middle distance.

The corridor outside falls silent.

Scene:

Thurston stoops to lay the guitar on the ground at his feet. He rises from the stool, walks hopelessly over to stage left, and tries to open the door to Room 23. His every motion suggests he knows the effort is futile. The door is locked.

Thurston, frustrated, rattles the door-handle. The impression he creates is roughly that of an animal trying to get at food or prey through a closed screen-door.

Thurston gives up, and shuffles back to his stool.

Thurston lifts the guitar from the ground, settles himself on the stool, and sets the guitar down on his thighs once again.

Thurston begins to strum distractedly, absent-mindedly, for several beats. Gradually, his strumming resolves itself into something resembling a song.

Thurston plays a couple of bars of ¬¬¬¬¬¬¬the Bob Staunton-penned song “I’m a Truck” – a hit for Red Simpson in 1971.

It is clear from Thurston’s affected enthusiasm that he is trying to muster the energy he needs to make it through the morning’s session.

Thurston: (Singing his own corrupted lyrics to the above song) “There’d be no drunk drivers if it wasn’t for us drunks…”

Thurston stops singing and strumming abruptly.

Thurston: Nice one, Charlaine. Room 23. The one with no windows.

Pause.

Thurston: Feels a lot like the tank.

Thurston lifts the guitar and tilts the body up toward his face, contemplating it as he runs his thumb over the timber veneer. He tilts the guitar back and forth so as to catch the light in the varnish.

Thurston: (Affecting the accent and tone of an over-enthusiastic DJ on country music radio) Up next we got a new one for y’all, folks. This un’s called “Drunk Tank”, and it’s the latest cut from e’rybody’s favourite Aust-ralian, Thirsty Thurston “The San Quentin Worm” Miller and his all-American, all-honky-tonkin’ show band, “The Defendants”.

Thurston lays the guitar flat on his lap, front facing upward, and stares down into the sounding hole for several beats.

Thurston: (Soft, wondering) “The Worm”.

Thurston purses his lips, and nods his approval.

Pause.

Thurston: “Pabst Blue Ribbon”, is the shade of shit-awful I’d use to describe the colour of this guitar. (Affecting a high-pitched Tennessee accent) And that ain’t right for a hangover song. We gon’ need “Jack Daniels ’n’ Coke” for this ’un.

Thurston stands and walks over to the guitar rack with the beer-coloured guitar in hand. He replaces the guitar on the rack.

Thurston walks to the far end of the rack and selects a very dark brown (almost black) acoustic guitar. This he picks up by the neck and scrutinises in similar fashion to the beer-coloured guitar.

Thurston: That’s better.

Thurston looks lovingly at the guitar.

Thurston: Mr. Daniels, you’ve sure seen me through some times.

Thurston shuffles back over to the stool, carrying the guitar by the neck, and sits down.

Thurston takes a much closer look at the guitar, scrutinising the strings and fretboard. He lets out a long, frustrated groan.

Thurston: Assholes! They couldn’t even wipe off the fuckin’ frets?

Thurston runs his thumb over the fretboard. He rubs thumb and forefinger together in an effort to identify the substance that is smeared on the neck, strings, and frets.

Thurston: What were they eating?

Pause.

Thurston: Chicken wings?

Thurston lays the guitar down flat on the ground beside the stool, and takes a step or two toward the amplifier.

Thurston: Could’ve been me, I s’pose.

Thurston comes to a stop. He finds himself standing beside the amplifier and looking distractedly at the ground.

Pause.

Thurston: (Thinking) When was I last here at lunchtime?

Pause.

Thurston: Guess it didn’t need to be lunchtime.

Thurston picks up the small white spray bottle from atop the amplifier, and retrieves a grubby rag from the back pocket of his jeans. He turns the bottle over in his hands, scrutinising it.

Thurston: (Reading in a nasal, affected Tennessee accent) “Doctor Stringfellow’s fretboard cleanin’ fluid”.

Thurston turns the bottle over in his hand, and silently scrutinises the label for several beats.

Thurston screws his eyes shut, clenches his fist tightly around the bottle, and marches quickly over to the amplifier.

Thurston replaces the bottle on top of the amplifier with a heavier motion than is necessary, and returns the rag to his back pocket.

Pause.

Thurston: (Scornful) “Jack Daniels ‘n’ Coke”. Maybe if you want the fuckin’ ants to chase you.

Thurston picks up the brown/black guitar from the floor, carries it back across the set, and replaces it on the guitar rack.

Thurston gravitates toward the middle portion of the guitar rack and selects a ruddy-brown, semi-acoustic guitar. This he picks up by the neck, holding it out at some remove from his chest.

Thurston considers the colour and lustre of the new guitar briefly. A look of triumph spreads across his face.

Thurston: Third time lucky. “Ol’ Spiced Rum” it is.

Thurston lowers the guitar, carries it back to his stool by the neck, and sits down, resting the instrument on his lap.

Pause.

Thurston: Fuck!

Brief pause.

Thurston: I had an idea a second ago.

Thurston closes his eyes and bows his head, trying to recall the idea he had for a song. The effort pains him.

Thurston’s leg twitches uncontrollably, bouncing up and down on the ball of the heel as he sits.

Thurston pinches the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger in a show of discomfort.

Thurston: Something tank.

Pause.

Thurston: “Fish Tank”?

Brief pause.

Thurston: (Manic) Ha!

Thurston bows his head, lost in thought.

Thurston: (Now stony-faced) Shit, shit, shit.

Guitar still in hand, Thurston stands, walks back over to the amplifier, and picks up the bottle of fretboard cleaning fluid.

Thurston stands stock-still for a moment and regards the bottle with a vacant expression.

Thurston considers the bottle’s label for several beats.

Thurston: (Reading) “Beeswax-scented”.

Still holding the ruddy brown guitar by the neck, Thurston squirts a single spray of the cleaning fluid into the air. He lunges forward so as to position his face in the middle of the misty cloud, and inhales deeply. He turns his face this way and that, a little wildly, so as to breathe in as much of the vapour as he can.

Thurston walks back across the rug, and gently places the bottle of cleaning fluid under the stool.

Guitar still in hand, Thurston turns, walks back to the amplifier, and picks up the pen and writing pad with his free hand.

Thurston returns to the stool, and sits down.

Thurston fumbles for several beats, trying to fit guitar, pen, and pad on his lap in a workable arrangement. He quickly realises (with some frustration) that the effort is futile, and stoops to lay the guitar flat on the ground at his feet.

As he bends down to lay the guitar on the ground, Thurston stares at the bottle of cleaning fluid under the stool for several beats. He holds this position and stare for so long that we begin to wonder if he hasn’t been paralysed.

Thurston: (Jolting upright and yelling, remembering his song idea with considerable satisfaction) “Drunk Tank”!

Thurston takes the pen in hand and makes as though to write something on the pad. He stares vacantly at the ceiling for a moment, tapping his foot (rhythmically now) as he tries to formulate lyrics.

Thurston: (An irreverent smile creeping across his face) Plenty of raw material to draw on for this one, Thurst’.

Pause. Thurston recalls his experiences in the holding cells of Nashville.

Thurston: (Sniggering) That time in the lockup over in Rutherford County. Trying to read the Garfield comic in that shitty, 10-day-old paper, dizzy as all fuck. Threw up all over it. What’d the warden say?

Pause. Thurston thinks.

Thurston: (Quoting the warden and affecting a broad Tennessee accent for lines in inverted commas) “Big night, sir?” And then he says: “Hell, I seen you perform down at the Bluebird Café when you was twice as drunk as this! At one of them ‘Aussie Artist Showcases’, y’know?” [Note: in mockery of the warden’s accent, Thurston pronounces “Aussie” “Ah-see”].

Pause.

Thurston: (Still recollecting) Then he notices the vomit all over the newspaper, and asks: “What’s that you been eatin’, anyway?” So I say – on account of the Garfield comic – “that, warden, is lasagna.”

Pause. Thurston’s expression is now morose as he dwells on the remembrance.

Thurston: Can’t anyone say I discriminate, anyway. I’ve been sick on William Blake just the same as Garfield.

Pause.

Thurston: (Sighing deeply and gently shaking his head) Fuck me dead I wish I had a Gatorade. Gatorade and Vodka.

Thurston rubs his weary eyes with the heels of his palms.

Thurston: The “College Football Martini”.

Pause.

Thurston: Charlaine, you’re a spiteful woman.

Thurston smiles to himself.

Thurston: I’d piss your bed again in a heartbeat.

Brief pause.

Thurston: Given half a chance.

Thurston runs a hand down the length of his face, shakes his head as though to cast off his hangover, and tries to concentrate on penning a song once again.

Thurston thinks for several beats.

Thurston: (Half talking, half singing as he pens rough lyrics on the writing pad) Had – a – night – out – with – my – buddies / just – the – usual – twenty – Bundies –

Pause.

Thurston: (Still half talking, half singing as he scrawls) – an’ – a – taste – of – some – police-issue – mace / Now – I’m – readin’ – Sunday – funnies / doin’ – crosswords – in – my – undies –

Brief pause. Thurston is gathering momentum.

Thurston: (Still half talking, half singing, and writing, his enthusiasm mounting) – Friday’s – paper – down – in – cell-block – “D” –

Thurston pauses in his writing and hums a melody to himself with some relish, tapping along with his pen on the writing pad.

Thurston: (His face registering sudden annoyance) Sunday funnies in Friday’s paper?

Pause. Thurston sighs deeply and sets to thinking again.

Thurston: And does anyone over here even know what the fuck a “Bundy” is?

Pause.

Thurston: Fuck it.

Thurston makes a show of scratching out a couple of words on the writing pad.

Thurston: (Resuming writing) Last – week’s – paper – down – in – cell-block – “D”.

Pause.

Thurston resumes his writing and stilted singing.

Thurston: So – the – warden – comes – to – see – me / makes – to – tell – me – what – the – “D” – means / by – now – I – know – this – speech – to – a – “T” –

Brief pause. Thurston thinks.

Thurston: He – says – “the – ‘D’ – is – for – ‘drunk’ / this – here – tank – is – for ‘U’ / I – aint – a – banker – so – there – aint – any – ‘Q’ / Y’all – just – mind – where – you – ‘P’ / won’t – have – no – trouble – with – me – “

Pause.

Thurston: (Uncertain, screwing up his face) Something – something / I – got – sick – on – his – shoes –

Pause.

Thurston: (Bitter, affecting a broad Tennessee accent): This here “Drunk Tank” cut might could be a turd.

Thurston stoops and lays the pen and pad on the floor at his feet. He picks up the guitar from the carpet, grasping it around the neck. As he does so, Thurston absent-mindedly picks up the bottle of cleaning fluid from beneath the stool with his free hand.

Thurston sits up and lays the guitar in his lap, the front facing up toward the ceiling.

Moving very slowly, Thurston sprays some cleaning fluid onto the fretboard of the guitar, restores the bottle to the floor at his feet, and retrieves the rag from his back pocket. He wipes the frets with the rag for several beats.

Thurston: (Groaning as he polishes the fretboard) Urgh.

Thurston stops what he is doing, brings the rag up to his face, presses it against his nose and mouth, and inhales.

Pause for several beats.

Laying the guitar at his feet and the rag on top of the guitar, Thurston stoops and retrieves the bottle of cleaning fluid from beneath the stool once again.

Thurston sprays a small squirt of cleaning fluid onto the inside of his wrist, lifts the wrist to his nose, and inhales the scent of the cleaning fluid.

Thurston touches the tip of his tongue to the fluid he has sprayed onto his wrist. He wrinkles his nose.

Brief pause. Thurston hesitates for a second.

Thurston licks all of the cleaning fluid from the inside of his wrist with a single broad sweep of his tongue.

Thurston roughly tosses the bottle of cleaning fluid onto the ground at his feet, picks up the rag from atop the guitar, and returns it to his back pocket. He lifts the guitar onto his lap as he seats himself on the stool once again, and begins to strum a few simple chords.

Thurston: (Singing tunelessly) Doctor Stringfellow, you dirty ol’ bastard –

Pause. Thurston continues to strum distractedly.

Thurston: (Still singing tunelessly) – you’re breakin’ my heart.

Thurston continues strumming for a couple of bars, and stops abruptly.

Pause.

Thurston: (Thinking out loud) Beeswax.

Pause.

Thurston: Kinda tastes like that shitty, honey-flavoured bourbon.

Thurston lays the guitar flat on his lap. He sits and stares blankly out into the middle distance for several beats.

The lights fall, throwing the stage into darkness.

Scene:

Charlaine and Fisher stand to stage left, illuminated by a single spotlight. Thurston’s side of the stage (stage right) remains in darkness.

On the floor between Charlaine and Fisher is a small, white plastic rubbish bin.

Fisher and Charlaine each clasp a takeaway coffee cup. They sip their coffees from time to time as they talk.

Fisher: Goddamn, he looks like death hisself this mornin’. I’ll be surprised he’s still breathin’ when we open the door.

Charlaine: (Severe) What’re you thinkin’, anyways? Bendin’ over backwards tryin’ to fetch him his flask? He don’t need no encouragement from you to drink hisself to death. Asshole’s still got yesterday’s load on as it is.

Fisher: I don’t know. He sure ain’t gon’ be writin’ much of nothin’ today, anyways.

Charlaine sips her coffee.

Charlaine: (Disinterested) Hell, he ain’t wrote much of nothin’ in near to four years.

Fisher: That’s the truth!

Pause.

Fisher: Shit – maybe dyin’ while he’s still sorta young’d revive his career some. If it ain’t already too late for that.

Long pause. Charlaine is very still and silent.

Fisher: Say, you know that kid with the beard over in P.R., Charlaine?

Charlaine: Nope.

Fisher: The one with them horn-rimmed readin’ glasses?

Charlaine, her face severe, shrugs and shakes her head.

Fisher: (Persisting) Well. Anyways, one time I overheard this kid talkin’ to someone ‘bout our friend Thurston’s first record. The guy seemed to reckon it was somethin’ pretty special. Near-to-perfect, even. So he said.

Charlaine sniggers without relish.

Fisher: Said it was far ‘n’ away the best thing Thurston ever did, anyways.

Charlaine: It was a near-to-perfect goddamn flop, maybe. Sure as shit didn’t move any units.

Fisher: Yeah. Still, the way the kid was talking, you’d think it was some kind of a masterpiece. He was all like “it was Pitchfork’s Number One Country Album of the Year” and so on.

Charlaine: Hell. It didn’t sell.

Fisher shrugs.

Pause. Charlaine swigs from her coffee cup.

Charlaine: I guess busted-ass winos from the far side of the fuckin’ world were hot property back in ’07 [Note: “o-seven”].

Fisher: I guess so.

Pause. An awkward silence endures for several beats.

Fisher: Cain’t say I really dig any of his material, be honest.

Charlaine: Nor me, either. Shithead’s been slummin’ it ever since he put out that “Beer Gardens of Babe-ylon” record back in 2011 [Note: “two-thousand eleven”]. That was the last halfway decent thing he did.

Fisher: I bought my niece his Christmas record a few years back. “Leave the Bottle Out for Santa”, I think it was called. She seemed to like it well enough.

Charlaine: Yeah, well. Apples. Trees.

Fisher: (Ignoring Charlaine’s barb) How come he don’t ever seem to have a girlfriend or nothin’?

Charlaine, her expression forbidding, throws her empty coffee cup into the bin.

Charlaine: He’s the kinda sorry asshole you’d have to burn the sheets.

Brief pause.

Charlaine: Hell, you’d burn the whole goddamn mattress while you were at it, you had any self-respect. And be ashamed to show your face at the liquor store buyin’ the matches.

Pause. A smirk forms on Fisher’s face.

Fisher: I don’t know – plenty women I seen hangin’ ‘round downtown look like they’d chance it.

Charlaine ignores Fisher. She retrieves her phone from a jacket pocket and makes a show of checking it for emails and messages.

Fisher: (Pressing his advantage) I seen that flask of his close up, one time. It –

Charlaine: (Abrupt, interrupting) Can it, Fisher. Coffee time’s over. Finish your shit.

Fisher: (Pointed) It’s got an inscription on it. Says: “Dear Thurston, with love, C.B.”

Charlaine: Hurry up. We gotta get this hamper put together for Lonnie-Mae.

Charlaine turns on her heel and exits the scene to stage left.

Fisher watches Charlaine leave, staring after her for several beats.

Fisher: Hell if you don’t have the stink of scorched cotton about you, Charlaine.

Fisher exits the scene.

The spotlight falls on stage left.

Scene:

Lights come up on Thurston, who is still seated on his stool.

Thurston sighs deeply.

Thurston: I don’t know why the cheap pricks can’t spring for a fuckin’ coffee machine or something in here.

Pause.

Thurston: (Derisive) I’ll bet those spent old wine-bladders Lonnie-Mae and the Old Standards get a bottomless bucket of Patrón laid on.

Brief pause.

Thurston: Repetition’s thirsty work, I guess.

Pause.

Thurston: Then again, it gives the elderly and infirm something to do.

Thurston lifts the guitar from his lap and begins to play.

Thurston: (Strumming along on the guitar, very slowly, as he sings through the lyrics he has composed for “Drunk Tank” thus far) Just a night out with my buddies / sank the usual twenty Bundies / chased ‘em down with some police-issue mace / Now I’m readin’ Sunday funnies / doin’ crosswords in my undies –

Brief pause. Thurston finds a chord he likes and continues to strum along.

Thurston: (Still singing) – Last week’s paper down in cellblock “D” / So the warden comes to see me –

Pause.

Thurston stands and retrieves the cleaning rag from his back pocket. He presses the rag to his mouth and nose once again and inhales deeply.

Long pause.

Thurston drops the rag on the ground behind him.

Pause.

Thurston bends forward again and picks up the bottle of cleaning fluid from the rug. He grasps it tightly in his hand, contemplating it with a deep frown for several beats. As he stares at the bottle, Thurston hums the loose melody he has been composing for “Drunk Tank”.

Thurston rises, guitar still in hand, strides over to the amplifier, and replaces the bottle of cleaning fluid atop it.

Thurston returns to his stool and resumes playing “Drunk Tank”.

Thurston: (Strumming and singing along) So the warden comes to see me / makes to tell me what the “D” means / by now I know this speech to a “T” –

Suddenly, Thurston stops playing and singing. He clears his throat.

Thurston: It’s a turd.

Pause.

Thurston lays the guitar on the carpet at his feet.

Thurston stands, bends, and retrieves the pad and pen from the floor, sits down on the stool once again, and jots something at top of the first page of lyrics. He narrates as he writes.

Thurston: Working title – “Song for Charlaine”.

Pause.

With deliberate, almost mechanical movements, Thurston bends down again, lays the pen and pad on the floor, stands, and walks over to retrieve the bottle of cleaning fluid from the amplifier.

Thurston stoops, picks up the bottle, and unscrews the nozzle in one smooth motion. He sniffs the contents of the bottle, inhaling deeply, before replacing the lid.

Thurston sets the bottle back atop the amplifier and returns to the stool, sitting down empty-handed.

Pause.

Thurston: What else we got today, Thurst’? I reckon a couple solid song ideas, plus the half-finished turd I already wrote, and Charlaine’ll think it’s fuckin’ Christmas.

Pause.

Thurston: She oughta be happy with “Drunk Tank”, anyway. Half-finished and putrescent though it is. It’s a drunk song and a prison song.

Pause.

Thurston: I just need to work a train or a pickup truck in there somehow and I’ll have a mega-hit on my hands.

Pause. Thurston thinks for a couple of beats.

Thurston: Something like … (singing haltingly to the tune of “Drunk Tank”) The warden’s got my keys / he says my pickup hit a tree / I got charges now from “A” through to “Z” [Note: “zee”] –

Pause. Thurston continues to hum the tune to “Drunk Tank” as he thinks.

Thurston: (Still singing tentatively to the tune of “Drunk Tank”) I’m on the fast track to the pen’ / and the “G” train leaves at ten –

Pause.

Thurston: (Losing his thread) Something – something / I – got – sick – on – his – shoes –

Pause.

Thurston: I’ll sleep on it, anyway. (Optimistic) But for a bit of low-hanging fruit, it might just be salvageable.

Pause.

Thurston: What else?

Thurston thinks, his expression vacant.

Thurston: How about … (mulling over potential songs) Let’s say … a summertime party anthem called “Honey-Flavoured Bourbon”.

Pause.

Thurston: That one’s a bit too “poetic” for Nashville, I expect.

Thurston sighs deeply.

Pause.

Thurston: What about “Bourbon-Flavoured Honey”?

Pause, during which Thurston summons a few quick lyrics.

Thurston: (Strumming simple chords and singing off the top of his head in a stilted, almost tuneless fashion) She’s there dancin’ in the firelight / them blue cut-off jeans are real tight / she’s been hittin’ the bottle all night / she’s a bourbon-flavoured honey al-right –

Pause. Thurston ceases strumming, but taps his foot rhythmically for a couple of measures as he thinks.

Thurston: (Singing stiltedly) Her boyfriend’s got her in sight / I can see that he’s all fight / me, I’m just barely upright –

Brief pause.

Thurston: (Still singing, ending with a self-mocking flourish) – but he’s probably full of fuckin’ piss himself.

Pause.

Thurston: That one’s just a bit too predatory, I reckon. For me, anyway. Maybe not for Nashville.

Pause.

Thurston: I’ll put it in the slush pile.

Pause. Thurston thinks.

Thurston: Something Celtic, maybe?

Thurston coughs a small cough.

Thurston: (Singing a loose melody with an affected Irish accent) It’s Christmas Eve I’m barred from every bar on Music Row –

Long pause. Thurston stares at the ground in front of the stool, cradling the guitar.

Thurston: Whatever. (Shrugging, his mood darkening) That’ll do.

Thurston bends and places the guitar on the floor in front of him once again.

Thurston turns his head and stares in the direction of the amplifier (upon which the bottle of cleaning fluid still rests) for several beats.

Thurston appears agitated. With the palm of each hand he rubs compulsively at the tops of his thighs. His right foot twitches.

Thurston: (Under his breath) Yuck.

Thurston stands abruptly, walks over to the amplifier, and picks up the bottle of cleaning fluid. He begins to unscrew the cap, thinks better of it, and stops. He tightens the lid once again.

Pause.

Suddenly, without warning, Thurston hurls the bottle of cleaning fluid against the wall on the far side of the room. It rebounds and comes to settle near the edge of the Persian rug.

Thurston seats himself on the stool once again and buries his face in his hands.

Long pause.

Slowly, Thurston relaxes his shoulders, drops his hands from his face, and visibly sinks in his seat.

Thurston lifts his head very slowly.

Thurston rises from the stool, dawdles over to the edge of the rug, and picks up the bottle of cleaning fluid. He turns it over in his hand, before bringing it up to his face.

Thurston scrutinises the label at back of the bottle very carefully for several beats.

Thurston strides over to the amplifier and places the bottle of cleaning fluid atop it.

Thurston turns his back on the bottle and walks a couple of paces back toward his stool.

Thurston turns to face the audience.

Thurston: (In a dark humour) When did these assholes start with the fuckin’ name-calling? Nobody ever called Hank Williams a fucking worm. (Pause) You wouldn’t open your mouth now but to praise poor heartsick Hank – who’s been dissolving bone-by-bone in a silver casket the past sixty fucking years. He was a howling ghoul, pickled in whiskey. (Brief pause) But fuck me dead if MGM won’t have missed him when he died. (Brief pause) That last long pull at the bottle, the light comin’ up at him out of the cold and dark, livid as a hangover. Christ only knows whether he could even hold a table-tennis paddle by that stage, for all the morphine and chloral hydrate and top-shelf Tennessee sourmash in his timbers. (Brief pause) Twenty-nine was a good year for me, too. Only I didn’t have the wherewithal to peg out with a gutful of steak dinner and pills and piss onboard while I was still generally well liked. Sure smacks of hillbilly romance, going out like that. (Affecting a Tennessee accent) Luke the Drifter bin’ done driftin’ for good. It’s a real gone as-pi-ration to end one’s days on such a high note. (Resuming his normal speaking voice) Slumped on the backseat of a Cadillac while some kid ferries you through the night – and is glad to do it. The road slick with ice. All them grey, naked branches crowding out the pines. (Brief pause) And no one so much as trying to keep you from hittin’ the flask. (Brief pause; Thurston turns his head slightly as though to direct the following to an unseen companion onstage) But I never heard anyone mention that cold, bony corpse of yours, stiff as a board against the upholstery. The shit-scared kid trying to get his story straight. Both of you shrouded in petrol fumes on the concourse of some strip-lit gas station at the edge of town, wrong side of midnight. (Brief pause) I’ll bet you pissed yourself on the way out.

Pause.

Thurston kicks lazily, sullenly at the pen and pad where they rest on the ground at his feet, sending them skidding across the floor.

Long pause. Thurston plants his hands in his jeans pockets and stares vacantly into the middle distance.

With laboured movements, Thurston resumes his seat on the stool. He stares at his feet for several beats.

Thurston: (Affecting a Tennessee accent) Yessir. We all love a good drinkin’ song.

Long pause.

Thurston: (Bitterly reciting a portion of William Blake’s “Jerusalem” from memory, his face turned confidently upward, one arm held aloft and outstretched, palm facing up – all in a show of sneering, mock theatricality)

“ … That Human Form
You call Divine –

(pause, during which Thurston lowers both arm and face; his eyes glaze and his expression dulls; Thurston’s tone slips into a sad, weary register)

– is but a Worm seventy inches long
That creeps forth in a night and is dried in the morning sun”

Long pause.

Thurston: (Distant) We all love a good drinking song.

Thurston glances over at the bottle of cleaning fluid where it stands atop the amplifier. He stares at the bottle for several beats.

Thurston stands, walks over to the amplifier, and picks up the bottle of cleaning fluid.

Pause.

Thurston unscrews the lid from the bottle and tosses it (the lid) across the room. It comes to settle somewhere between the amplifier and the door.

Pause. Thurston hesitates for a beat.

Thurston begins to drink the contents of the bottle of cleaning fluid, swigging greedily.

Moments later, we hear the sound of footsteps in the corridor outside Room 23, to stage left. Charlaine and Fisher are returning to unlock the door.

Thurston drains the last few sips from the bottle of cleaning fluid.

Hearing Fisher and Charlaine approaching, Thurston quickly swallows the last of the fluid and stealthily pockets the empty bottle.

Thurston draws his sleeve across his mouth, wiping off any trace of the fluid.

Thurston walks back across the room, picks up the guitar from the floor, and seats himself on the stool.

The sound of footsteps ceases and we hear a key turning in the lock.

Thurston strums a few gentle chords and hums a strange melody. He affects the air of someone who was, until this very moment, deep in concentration.

Scene:

The door to Room 23 opens, and Fisher and Charlaine enter the scene.

Charlaine: (Striding toward Thurston) How’d we do this mornin’?

Thurston begins to play and sing his corrupted version of “I’m a Truck” once again.

Thurston: (Singing, a leering smirk on his face) “There’d be no drunk drivers if it wasn’t for us drunks…”

Thurston breaks off playing and singing with a flamboyant sweep of his strumming arm. He lays the guitar flat on his lap.

Charlaine: Better have more’n that.

Fisher: I don’t know. It ain’t a bad chorus. Sure sounds like a Thurston Miller cut!

Charlaine: (Annoyed) It’s a half-assed spin on a shitty novelty song from the ‘seventies.

Fisher: Yeah? Man, if you’re gonna do a cover, at least pick an evergreen hit!

Brief pause.

Fisher: Oh, yeah – here – catch. Compliments of the Barrel Aged P.R. department.

As he speaks, Fisher reaches inside his suit jacket and retrieves a small, minibar-size bottle of Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey.

Fisher tosses the whiskey bottle to Thurston, who moves in a jerking fashion to catch it with both hands. As Thurston lifts his hands to catch the whiskey, he upsets the guitar on his lap, knocking it noisily to the floor.

Thurston catches the whiskey bottle all the same, and clasps it to his chest for a beat or two.

Thurston sits and stares down at the bottle in his hands, his face expressionless.

Charlaine: (Annoyed) Jesus.

Brief pause.

Charlaine: So, you gon’ answer my question? What’s in the can for us today?

Thurston nurses the miniature whiskey bottle. A frown creases his face.

Thurston leans forward and lays the whiskey bottle on the carpet at his feet with one hand.

As he sits up again, Thurston clutches at his stomach with his right hand, a pained expression on his face.

Fisher: C’mon, bud. The sooner we lock this write down, the sooner you can hit the bars!

Thurston stands and walks briskly though unsteadily from the room, staring fixedly ahead and ignoring Fisher and Charlaine.

Fisher and Charlaine, perplexed, watch Thurston as he exits Room 23.

Charlaine: (Calling after Thurston, annoyed) Hey, Thurston!

Charlaine swiftly exits the stage, chasing after Thurston.

Fisher, meanwhile, spots the lid from the bottle of cleaning fluid lying on the carpet by the amplifier. He walks over, bends down, and picks up the lid.

Fisher frowns deeply as he considers the lid, turning it over in his hand for a couple of beats.

Fisher pockets the lid, shaking his head as he does so, turns, and exits the stage.

END

Reticence

‘Which of you is the better pilot?’ the reporter asks wryly. His question is directed at Flight Lieutenants Roden Dank and Billy Garrett. The interrogatory permanganate flare of a flashbulb draws the sense and shape of the question into sharp relief for the astronauts who sit empanelled before the assembled press pack.

‘That would be me,’ Lt. Dank replies, definitively. A powerfully built man right down to the Rodinesque gauge of his lips, Dank flatters the cameras with a broad plank-and-rail grin. ‘It’s like comparing night and day.’

Lt. Garrett clears his throat after the fashion of a hooked trout regurgitating the barb that would foredoom him.

‘Were the sun to mock the moon for its impermanence in the heavens, which of you would not sense the folly in that?’ he asks the pressmen with the commingled self-assurance and steely resolve of a career test pilot.

‘If Lieutenants Dank and Garrett are the sun and moon, what does that make you, Major Tuttle?’ asks an ambitious young news cadet, turning the room’s attention toward the mission’s recondite Flight Commander, Major Erwin Tuttle.

Maj. Tuttle’s interlocutor presses his pen to the page of feint-ruled notepad and so steadies the trembling of an inexperienced hand. Tuttle holds a fixed and silent stare, unpicking with his studied eye the tangled, veiny grain of the hi-gloss walnut panels that line the theatre’s rearmost wall.

‘I am the Flight Commander,’ he says. The finality of the observation is all the more impressive for the monotone in which it is delivered.

‘A-are you excited, Major Tuttle?’

‘Sure.’

‘What about your wife and kids?’

‘They tell me I’m excited, too.’

A SEA MONSTER CALLED ‘HAPPINESS’

There is a sea monster called Happiness
Lurking in the bay.
Flippered, snorkelled & suspended in the
Tugging, towing, pushing, pulling,
Surging, swelling, heaving, eddying
Vastness of saltwater beneath the waves
I have glimpsed it through many filmy veils
Of plankton motes
& algal rafts
& diaphanous blooms of cloudy silt sediment
Stirred up by my foraging in & on the seabed.
It is a flighty creature
& scarce ever comes within range
Of so much as the most tremulous caress
A gloved hand might contrive to manage.
Even when it feels bold enough to show me
The pearl-whites of its many vociferous teeth –
While I am occupied at combing through the sandy bottom flats
Out near the shelf in search of scallops for my tea –
Finding me thusly engaged
& showing its teeth in a sardonic grin,
It lingers but a moment
Before darting out into the sheltering shoals beyond the break
There to watch me from a distance.
The sight of a bag of string or mesh
Near full to bursting with fat bivalves
& molluscs
& other such edibles plucked from the ocean floor
Causes Happiness to sing a dim, sweet song,
Though the song it sings
Is never the same song twice.
I have heard it times enough to know it that
The beast does not draw upon anything akin to
A suite of songs, as such
(Each being,
For instance,
A variation upon the broad theme of seafood,
Or else singular hymnals
To a particular totemic catch).
For the songs it sings
Are each sung in a different key,
Each occupying an undefined span of notes
& the scales of which are
Likewise to be held inconstant,
Save that they are ever changeable
& always changing.
At other times,
I will catch sight of the creature’s broadside
& the ill-defined curves of its flanks
Teeming in stippled shafts of sunlight
Cut through with swathes of shadow
Out there in the deep water
As it swerves away from me
& bolts into the umbrous forest of great kelp
Still yet farther out to sea.
When, in season, I light upon stray crayfish
Prowling the undersea crags,
Happiness approaches, drawn toward me
As though upon a fine, braid line.
Whether it shares my own enthusiasm for lobster tails
Or else is merely intrigued by the weirdness
Of the cray’s innumerable spines
& searching appendages
(Which draw unending,
Languid figures eight
Against the weight
Of water pressing down),
I do not know.
At times like these
I am wont to mouth streams of words
Diffused in trailing strands of bubbles
To the sentinel sea monster, saying:
‘I might spare a small one, if you would like it.’
Though Happiness’ expression in answer to this is invariably to say:
‘I should prefer to fetch up an octopus from out yonder deep,
Or else a fattish brittlestar or crab.’
Yet when my modest hopes are dashed
& my groping fingers meet with aught of shellfish
Or cucumbers on the bottom,
Happiness keeps a fearful distance from me
So that nothing of it shows
But for the stumpy fin
That crowns the sweeping curve
Of its spinous processes –
For this alone is sleek
Or else glossy sufficient to catch what little sunlight
Might filter down to illuminate it.
I fear that one day Happiness will press its fins to its flanks,
& forming thusly the shape of a constant flame,
Will jet off through the open ocean
To the silent deeps
Of a new & distant bay.
What dire toll this will take
Upon the sweetness of my scallops
& the readiness of the crays
To submit to the pot,
I cannot say,
Though I shudder to think
Of the weedy rockeries
& darkening ridges
Out there beyond the sanded seafloor
Being altogether void of Happiness
& consumed by raking ocean waste.

Butchery & Birthing

The legion boulders of the Monaro are famous both for their proliferation upon the flaxen speargrass meadows of the plains and for the peculiarity of their perfect roundedness of form. The latter property is – so the geologists tell – imparted by the confluence of the region’s cool, clear climate and certain connate qualities inhering in the granite that comprises the famous stones. For each among the boulders is wont to absorb water only slowly – and to a remarkably shallow maximal depth – during even the most inclement of those passing spells in which the rain descends from Kosciuszko to wash clear the treeless waste from whence the great round rocks sprout mounded as massed Basidiomycetes sprung up from coarse pasture. So that, when the savage frosts of wintry nights from April through almost to November settle on the downs, the impregnating water is frozen and expands, thereby prying loose thin sheets of the stones’ outermost skins. It is said that, in this way, the famous boulders of the Monaro resemble nothing so much as onions – the cores of which are, it cannot be denied, likewise exposed by the peeling away of outer layers of papery cellulose and astringent leaves of flesh.

Yet it is almost never observed – in the writer’s experience, at least (and this a poor thing, having little flesh of any kind to clothe it) – that the individual boulder more closely resembles the corpse of a feral fox fell prone and rotting back into the soil where it lies. Of course, the carcass of a fox in an advanced state of putrefaction bears little or no outward resemblance to something speaking so eloquently to the weight of ages as a colossal granitous sphere a-glint with flecks of mica and bathed in the alpine sun. Yet to watch the process of the animal’s decay – from its earliest, cooling phase through to the terminal stage at which the spine and hollow sockets of the skull are stripped clean of all corpus and lie bleaching in the light of that selfsame sun – is instructive in understanding the comparison just drawn. For the body of the fox gone stiff and begun to rot sheds first the fur from out its ratty pelt, which falls as a dropped shroud about the whole, dead concern. Next flee the teeming maggots from the corpse (but only when all of the once-canny creature’s meat is gone), leaving but a thin film of brown-black fascia and connective tissue – along with the tendons, sinews, and gristle of the joints. Finally, this barest covering of certain portions of the skeleton is dried and desiccated by the elements until it, too, peels and lifts from off the bones and is blown away upon the first squalling gale to sweep down from the ranges so to claim it. In sum – and in contrast to the mouldering fox – an onion must be peeled by hand in order that the core might be exposed intact – for, being left to rot or else subjected alternately to frost and thawing sun and rain, it will simply liquefy from inside out.

Yet, though pleasing as the comparison of a dead fox to a boulder may be, it must be owned that the two objects are not wholly alike. Since, while the skull and bones of the fox cannot but recall the living creature’s every pounce and theft and enormity of wile – and, where the beast’s death was come to by violence, the bones themselves are apt to recall this in, for example, the shattering of a rib by the slug of a shotgun pellet or deep grooving of some other bone by action of a knife – the boulder becomes with every shedding of its outermost layer a new and minutely smaller version of its former self. So it is that the remembering of the famous boulders of the Monaro is but the remembrance of a season, whereas those bones as litter the treeless plain forget the traffic of that place at an altogether more gradual pace.

Arriving at Berridale one bleak September, as many – though not yet so many – had done before me, I was certainly moved to comment upon the uncommon landscape of that place – the hills and gulches carved from out the very earth by the alternate encroachment and recession of fearsome glaciers in times immemorial, and these littered all about with colonies of mounded and ice-rounded stones – and upon the vague though nonetheless robust impression it was wont to make upon me. Thus I remarked, in passing – if only for the gratification of he that drove me through those weird frost hollows – saying:

‘It is like the surface of the moon.’

My companion was no stranger to that place, so that I could not but take his silence in response to my assessment for the quiet contemplation of a truth being so innately understood by him to that point that the telling of it by an unfamiliar party caused him to regard the timeless scene with fresh eyes. In any case, the balance of the journey was managed in silence – save for the howling of the wind that buffeted the truck in which I rode – until I arrived at the farm that was my destination none the wiser to my driver’s thoughts on the scattered spherical tors that marked his native soil with its chiefmost outward distinction.

My destination, I was to learn, was not so pale an instance of what passed for farms in those parts as first it appeared, though my foremost impression of it was of a level of impoverishment and dilapidation come to not by the work of generations in and on the soil but by action of the elements coupled with neglect. When all is weighed and told, the place was not of a tenor speaking to thriving enterprise, but rather one being eloquently demonstrative of the hardscrabble contest for life against the every urging of the weather. The sheds – I say sheds, for there were three, although the constituent parts of each combined might not yet amount to a sturdy whole – the sheds seemed as things held together by little more than the collective hope of the shearers, roustabouts and ringers that would wrest their living from the flaking timber boards therein, and the clattering sheets of corrugate iron cladding at their windward faces rattled in the gale with such an infernal clamouring that I could think only of the night ahead and the sleeplessness this would certainly entail. There was, in this, I observed, a little of that singularly dogged occult justice that plagues us all sometimes – the kind that is rough, if not poetic – for I recalled then with a passing pang all of those long, dim-lighted nights through which I had disturbed the sleep of a long-suffering companion with my interminable pattering at the keys of my concomitantly long-suffering typewriter. So that, installing that faithless machine – well worn of its every action and so well suited to the situation into which it was transplanted – installing the typewriter in my Spartan quarters, I drew succour from the sure knowledge that I should bother no one with my writing here. Yet, even as I meditated upon such things – upon quietude and, most particularly, upon its disturbance by my restlessness and bad habits – I fancied that those gusting winds as then encircled the farm delivered to my ears the distant rapping of gunfire from a nearby hillside.

Despite my foremost impressions of the farm, the night following on from my arrival on the Monaro was not so bad. Indeed, what visitor ever arrived in the country that was not promptly whisked off to the pub and stood there with a drink in hand at one end of the bar in order that he might be regarded with, first, curious regard, and, ultimately, embarrassed silence, by those assembled? So it was that I found myself with an elbow planted on a rude timber countertop and flanked on one side by my inimitable, gnomish host and on the other by a young man who was not yet twenty-one years of age and who had likewise arrived in town that day – though in contrast to my own purpose in coming, he had made the journey so as to take up the position of jackaroo on the farm that was to be, thenceforth, our shared adoptive home.

And there upon the bar my elbow stayed until near half-a-dozen schooners had been drained by each of those men party to our impromptu reverie. Despite myself, I cannot but own it that this was a night of welcome if not pleasure or comfort, save for a single incident not yet unpleasant though nonetheless unnerving. For I had not been gone from the snug three minutes – so as to relieve myself at the chill and draughty trough that had been plumbed into the rear wall of the hotel – before I returned to the warmth of the public bar and in so doing interrupted the farmer to whom I owed my bed and board at the outset of a conversation with the youthful jackaroo and two strange gnarled and weathered figures who stood ranged before the sputtering fire that lay dying on the hearth. As I strode back forth across the singed and piebald carpets of the inn, I heard my host to say:

‘I were stood alongside me tractor, an’ – I remember it now fresh as a nun’s drawers – it’d bin a filthy winter, an’ the snowmelt’d made a real bastard bog out o’ my place – me tractor were stuck all over wi’ that blasted cake-batter mud up past the wheel-arches, an’…’

Yet, though the old man’s recollection seemed then poised to take flight – such was the intensity of the farmer’s expression and the palpable weight of the listeners’ every natural expectation of hearing a story having at least crisis in the telling, if not resolution – despite these most pressing factors, the speaker chose this importunate and implacable juncture to cut short his tale and to bury his whiskers in the froth of a fresh-pulled dinner ale. Without ceremony, the old man drained his glass and, planting it back down upon the mantelpiece, turned toward me and said, vacantly, to our young companion:

‘Righto – best be off, then. We’re up at sparrow’s in the mornin’, orright? Night, all.’

‘Night, Rolls,’ muttered the hardbitten men of the public bar as we took our leave and sloped off into the waiting dark and that singular brand of tableland cold that seems so often to be fortified – perhaps even intensified – by moonlight.

Arriving home (home for the farmer, in any case, for the place was still charged with a certain Martian weirdness to my eye), my host retired to the farmhouse and the overseer his cottage, leaving me to stumble on through the dark alone toward the close and breathless cold of the shearers’ quarters that stood sentinel upon the hillside overlooking the stockyards. As I neared my rude accommodations, I caught upon the frosty night air the unmistakable sound of the farmer cracking the top off a bottle of beer in the farmhouse kitchen. Having no other marker by which to steer my course, I strode on away from the sound and was rewarded with a much-abused paillasse and ample draughts harassing me abed from all quarters.

Came the dawn next morning – the weight of it falling more than settling upon the icebound earth, so that vast seas of frostbitten tussock shrank from the hideously elongated fingers of new daylight searching, warming, thawing, and the grasses giving up the countless ghosts of perishing night in fine veils of mist that rose from the earth as breath expelled from a ribcage by crushing force while shadows clung hopeless to their customary redoubts in the gulches and chill hillside depressions and the magpies fell to shrilling unseen from their boulder-top roosts – and a remarkably short while thereafter (I recalled upon waking near six or seven schooners swilled at standing as many hours prior and so marveled at my clear head and thrilling arousal) – a little after dawn I rose from my cot abundantly well rested, having been little troubled by the rattling of the tin sheds in the night (it is, I would subsequently learn, the peculiar habit of the wind to fall with the sun at certain times of year on the Monaro). Yet, while I was at stretching like a wildcat upon the timbers of the bullnose verandah that extended along the full length of my quarters’ valley frontage, I saw it for the first time – it is a wonder I had not marked it upon arriving at that place the afternoon prior – shaking off the night’s sleep thusly, I saw it that those gumtrees as surrounded the homestead and its satellite structures were either dead or else stripped entirely of foliage and so dying.

So nearly comprehensive was the mortality – I say nearly only that a few isolated specimens of whitegum were untouched by the pestilence, and these stood conspicuous among tranches of dead manna, yellowbox and snowgum – that I felt myself as one caught up in some fevered, apocalyptic vision writ upon the dales, and I puzzled at the weirdness of these totems of death that were ranged across the dun pasturage all about me. It occurred to me then that I might question the property’s owner as to the cause of the near-total die-off over breakfast, yet in the very next moment I saw it that the conversation was to be avoided at all costs, since country etiquette dictates that the comprehensive death of anything is scarce ever to be raised with those that work the land afflicted. In any case: blight or fungus; borer, grub – whatever the cause, the trees stood dead and dying all about me and these were fanned skeletal grey against the ashen sky. Aside from this, though, the day held for me no special terrors.

I have already intimated, I believe, that I had arranged my stay on the farm only that I might find a few quiet weeks in which to write, undisturbed, in bucolic serenity – a state of grace that had for so long seemed to me a distant fever dream ungrasped and half-remembered when regarded from the cramped confines of my damp little Darlinghurst bedsit (perched, as that ramshackle corner of some lonely and forgotten circle of Hell was, atop a busy delicatessen – such unsavoury smells welling upward to pervade my working life and space by some hideous inner-city osmosis, penetrating floorboards spiced with decay and musty carpets alike – and flanked on one side by a busy high street and on the other by a lane frequented by men of a kind tending toward intoxication, belligerence and loudness). Such agreeable surroundings as I had long craved, I observed, I had undoubtedly found in the Monaro – even if this was now revealed to be a setting less picturesque than first I had imagined.

So it was that at close of my first day about the farm I had scrawled some several pages of text by hand and, more, had even begun to annotate these in the margins. Yet upon re-reading all that I had written, I found my every paragraph to be near incomprehensible even to myself, such that the thread of whatever I had meant to convey upon composing each such entry was lost some few short hours after first I had committed it to the page. It is with some bitter regret that I must now offer an admission: this was not a problem new to me, for I had been straining against such inexplicable vagaries in my prose for many months already at that time. Thus, in consternation, I rose from my desk in a fug of frustration and made the short walk across the home paddock to the farmhouse for my tea – and what little of social intercourse awaited me at the dinner table.

In the kitchen I met with the farmer and his new employee, who were seated at either side of a scoured melamine tabletop and discussing, in those uniquely dolorous tones that only farming men are wont to render, the most pressing business of the holding. Said the cocky to the lad:

‘Ye’ll need ter plough Butchery ’fore knock-off tomorra – that’s the west paddock – but steer clear o’ the bottom-right corner over near the creek: there’s a flukey old swamp down there that’ll bog the tractor right up to the axles an’ we’ll never get ’er out.’

‘Righto,’ said the young fella, with a jackaroo’s economy.

‘I’ll hook ’er up to the tynes ’fore I go inter town in the mornin’,’ continued the farmer – his Christian name escapes me even now, as is the intractable way of names newly learned in circumstances tending to obscure their every significance for all present purposes (men among men, after all, have little need of pronouns, much less given names) – ‘I’ve an errand or two ter run in town. You’ll be right?’

‘Easy done,’ said the lad, and nodded.

And at that the master and his servant fell to their steaming plates of white bread toast all heaped over with tinned beans and pork sausage.

The governing rhythms of farmstead life being, as they are, at once inexorable as the seasons and unremarkable as sunset on a cloudy day, the ensuing weeks passed with satisfying slowness – though such headway as I was able to make in my compositions belied the steadiness of this. Of fresh air I had more almost than my urban constitution was quite able to bear, for I soon took to taking a short nap each afternoon, and more often than not felt myself unable or else unwilling to break off my rest until after darkness had long fallen on the hills. In truth, it must be admitted, the cause of this slovenly development and my newfound indolence might equally be located in the long and rambling walks I became habituated to take each day, and that were the occasion of my most comprehensive exposure to the bracing – if exhausting – alpine atmosphere. Within a week I had circumnavigated the largish hill upon one side of which the farm lay sprawling and askew (the hand that draws the map and boundary line has not the benefit of walking the oft-variable topography he would enclose), and this both clockwise and in reverse. In so doing, I had passed several disparate clusters of farmhouses and outbuildings that were attached to neighbouring holdings, each walled up in windbreaks grown of mighty Scotch pines and all bearing the stamp of unprofitable follies raked by wind and rain and sleet.

Though scenes of such a kind appealed to by own roughhewn sense of romance – being drawn, as I have ever been, toward severity and wild places – the most remarkable discovery I came to in the course of my survey of that hardbitten landscape awaited me in the bole of an ancient, long dead eucalypt. For, while out walking one day, I caught sight of a tiny fairy wren at flitting play upon a lightly wooded slope; and, being unaccustomed to such displays of vibrant colour in those austere parts, I followed the bird to its temporary perch upon the splintered edge of a greying tree stump. Yet, being leery of my approach – as are birds of all kinds, even when confronted with others of their kind – the wren took flight so to watch me from a distance. Following it a spell, I found myself peering out from behind the broad trunk of a grand old gum that spread its withered, leafless branches against the solemn sky above. Finding then that the bird I stalked had fled, I regarded the hollow formed by action of termites and soil-borne decay within the once-proud tree before me. And here was a queer sight: for I discovered that the recess within the trunk at my feet housed several skillfully-worked cutting edges formed of bottle glass and flinty stone, along with a steel axehead and what I could only take for the rusted doghead of an ancient flintlock pistol. Of these peculiar items, I souvenired but a small, knapped knife bereft of haft, secreting this within a pocket of my coat. Beyond this, though, I found it that the hills surrounding my lodgings held no secrets of any note.

Until one night – one night late when all those in the valley slept or else lay wakeful though in darkness abed – one night I found myself hunched over my typewriter at the rude desk that was then my only empire in all the world – and this measuring, insufferably, a mean twenty-one inches long by-twenty-one inches deep (I say insufferably, for a square desk has always offended my every sensibility) – seated thusly at my desk in the quietest passage of the interminable early-springtime dark one night, I heard the countless frogs of the reedy creek at bottom of the hill to rouse and stir and break into an eerie song.

It is a fact all too infrequently appreciated that the irregular chatter of frogs at nighttime recalls nothing more than the chittering babble of children not yet learned to speak. Yet the frog-song on the air that night was of a higher, keener, altogether more precipitously urgent tenor – though the source of the creatures’ distemper I could not attribute to any earthly cause, for the thawing season was not yet so advanced as to permit me believe that a hungry, roving tigersnake might be the cause of any amphibian disarray (it occurred to me in hindsight that the climate of the icebound creekbed was then of such perishing inhospitality as to beggar belief that the frogs themselves were not at that very moment entombed insensible in swaddling mucosal sarcophagi and encased safely in the soil of the banks); and, being naïve, neither did I appreciate the boldness of a starving fox and so found myself unable to credit it that any example of that pest species might have chanced to venture into the low paddock heedless of the frost-scoured corpses of others of its kind that the farmer had slung by their hocks, with specious care, from the barbed wire fencing at the ford.

Still, what man of mettle was ever moved by the sputtering calls of frogs in the night? Thus I returned to my thankless work and pattered at the keys before me almost until daylight broke sudden so to bathe the ice outside in ghosted fire. Regrettably, upon reviewing all that I had composed in the course of that mysterious fröschenacht – when at last I roused myself from my cot some time after midday the day following – I was not surprised (though yet markedly discouraged) to find it that scarce one word in twenty was, upon revision, worth retaining.

This was a day of note – what remained of it, at least – for between the rising and inevitable setting of a single sun, I found myself to be successively surprised and of myself surprising.

As to the first condition, the cause was, in truth, perhaps less surprising than it was abject. For, as the day was nearing late afternoon, I chanced to spy the farmer of the farmhouse tearful – no – tearful does not begin to touch it – he was unmanned in his weeping, and the proof of this streamed from his nostrils and mouth alike so that the whiskers at his chin trailed dribbling strands of mucous – while he was at leaning on a spade beside the machinery shed. This was a moment of unheralded grossness from the old man, who had scarce uttered five words together in my presence since first I had arrived at Berridale, and none of these speaking to anything but a constitution of indefatigable robustness and a farmer’s bloody-minded vigour. What worse thing is there in this world than to witness a hardy mountain farmer bawling as a disconsolate babe? So that I felt myself as one obliged to render some assistance to him. Yet, being unwilling and, more, fearful of offering him words (or, worse, bodily reassurance) of comfort, I surprised myself and dedicated the last long passage of fading daylight to the task of splitting firewood for the big house’s long-suffering stove upon the heavy woodblock behind the big shed.

It was most surprising to me that, despite the strangeness of such jarring, jolting and abrasive manual labour to my scholar’s hands, I found myself beholden almost immediately to an ancient and compelling urgency in the endeavour – and, more, settled with remarkable swiftness and sureness into a natural rhythm in my work – such that I had soon stacked against the shed’s nearside wall a long, head-high row of firewood ready for burning in the stove (the timbers being stacked steadier, I fancied, than are many walls of brick and mortar laid at Sydney, such was the near-perfect tessellation of the individual pieces).

In truth, I must confess, my motivation in splitting firewood – though the effort was undeniably charitable in and of itself – was in some measure inspired by the mounting frustration I felt then with the limpness and cloudy obfuscation of my prose and my stilting inability to move on from even the most crudely drawn sentence so as to make good on what little progress I was able to wrest from countless hours spent seated at my typewriter. In that moment I found myself all but incapable of recalling even what it was that I had set out to write some three or more weeks prior.

That evening – my pinkish hands were blistered and so frightening to me – I felt myself for the first time alone while sitting with the farmer and his jackaroo at teatime, for the pair conspired – conspired, in fairness, is overly suggestive of collusion and intent formed aforethought – the pair nonetheless fell to talking between themselves almost in ignorance of my presence at the table.

‘Me lad – ’e – we never seen eye-to-eye, me an’ ’im,’ said the farmer to his young hand (whose terms of employment patently omitted to stipulate that he take a shave with any regularity). ‘Me wife’d ’ad ’er schoolin’ at Canberra,’ the old man continued, ‘so she weren’t real bothered that ’e rathered sittin’ on the rafters in the shearin’ shed with a book than ’elpin’ me out wi’ pullin’ calves an’ what’aveyou.’

I was moved then to question the farmer as to the fate of the wife he meant, in so saying, to denigrate, yet country etiquette is a binding force, so that I held my tongue.

‘Mm,’ groaned the jackaroo in answer.

‘Still, ’e liked the pub alright – more’n any shearer I ever met.’

‘Me dad reckoned I oughta take a trade, back when,’ offered the youth. ‘Said there’s no thanks in farmin’. Don’t reckon I’d know ’ow to do much else, but.’

Too tired even to eat (the mechanical swinging of an axe overhead is apt to erode one’s every store and reserve), I excused myself from the table even before the farmer and his boy had started on their tinned mandarins and cream, and thereafter sank into the shapeless mattress of my cot without so much as lifting my half-read book from off the dusty floorboards beside me.

Yet exercise of any kind is implacably productive of restless energy at all hours of the day and night, so that I found myself quite unable to sleep, such was the twitching of my limbs and involuntary arching of my perennially stiff spine beneath the boiled wool blankets that served as my coverlet. So that – whatever one might hold as theft by daylight seems as little more than roguish mischief when it is managed under cover of dark – I resolved to draw a beer or two from out the old farmer’s grime-streaked icebox, so as to ease me into sleep.

Thus I crept with deliberate silence – some conscientious and unsleeping part
nests deep within us all and gives pause to the actions of the larcenous imp that is enlivened at midnight – heightened of my every sense I crept across my own unvisited expanse of timber floor and thereafter trod barefoot across the low and frosty grass toward the house, and thence up three cold, worn concrete steps and on through the unlatched door toward the icebound chest inside.
The thief thwarted is the most pitiable of all earth’s creatures. So it was that, bereft, I found the box to be empty – save for two congealed rashers of bacon and a sweating jar of cream. Yet entrance gained is entrance assured, so that I crept from the kitchen into the frontmost room of the house, wherein the farmer kept an ancient television set and two faded, threadbare lounges – though what I hoped to find there I knew not in that moment, save to say that there has scarce ever been a drawing room in which there was not secreted a bottle of Christmas spirits.

Padding into this carpeted haven, I felt myself drawn helplessly toward the low cabinet that extended along the far wall of the room and atop which were ranged a laughably outmoded radio set and an assortment of bone-china fancies and other such tokens of a feminine presence now departed the home. Sliding open the laminate door of that cheapish sideboard, I marked at first nothing more than the diffusion of a decade’s worth of accumulated dust and a silent cascade formed of the papery corpses of moths. Yet, when the dust settled – as the aphorism says it must – I was surprised to see a shelf well stocked with, among several bottles of cheap blended whiskey, a sizeable quantity of halfway decent port wine. And the age of these was 10 years if it was a day. So help me, I relieved the farmer of one of these, stole outside once again and crept back across the home paddock with my pilfered tipple stowed in the crook of my arm. Scarcely had I unlatched the door to my quarters before I had unstoppered the bottle and drawn a long, sweet, spicy draught from within.

All work, as they say (I consoled myself), all work and no play – all toil and no vivant – makes of Jack a Protestant.So that I drank, and read, and thereafter drank deeper still and read on with slow-waning interest until the words upon the page before me refused to resolve themselves into anything of comprehensible shape, much less rounded sense. Thereafter I saw that I had finished the bottle altogether and so felt myself drawn – helpless – to pull on my boots and to draw my coat about me and to wander, swaying and inconstant, into the icy dark outside. The notion took me at first instance that I might steal back into the farmhouse once again and there exchange the empty bottle for a full one, yet the unsteadiness I felt upon rising to my feet promptly disabused me of this drunkard’s scheme, for I could not be sure of managing a second theft from the loungeroom undetected, being fearful I might rouse the farmer from his rest with so many accusatory bodily thuds against the crowding interior walls of the house.

The drunk – as all who drink must surely know – is a vessel tending to list forwards or else sideways and to veer helpless in the negotiation of a downward slope, so that it is the natural instinct of the intoxicant to march uphill, that he might steady his progress against the countervailing weight of gravity exerted by the incline. Thus I directed my ramble to the high paddock – a paddock known to the farmer and his jackaroo, implacably, as Birthing – and there feeling myself both breathless and unsteady seated myself upon the grass in the windward side of a great heaped mound of rounded boulders and surveyed the frostbound land below me shivering in the moonlight.

I fancied then that I could hear upon the perishing night air the seamless thrumming hum of frog-song lifting from the distant creekbed to the north – though the port wine that then enriched my veins and filled my temples with noisy warmth might equally have been the source of this derangement of the peace. In any case, even as I strained to hear it with anything approaching clarity, the din was suddenly cut sharp short and I was left feeling profoundly dizzy and unseated where I sat at centre of a monochrome whirl of grey half-light spinning, and when this stopped – my vision coming into a soft and woozy focus – I felt it certain I was not alone upon the vale.

As though in proof of my intuition, in the next instant my eye was drawn to the suggestion of movement – albeit movement of near-vanishing slightness – among the boulders that lay strewn about the hillsides below and before me, and sensing this I shivered as one chilled against the cold. Moments later – racked with waves of fevered shuddering down to my very frame and propped upright where I sat upon an arm outstretched behind me (my numbed hand pressed by the weight of my upper body into the frostbound pasture) – I felt the diffuse warmth of the liquor in my belly to condense into a cold bolus of misgiving and, tasting a trace of vomitous bile at the back of my palate, I made to stand and stagger homeward. Yet, even as I struggled to recover my balance sufficient to find my feet, my wavering gaze lit once again upon the sense of something moving in the shadows of the stones. So that, grunting with an admixture of exertion (to stand, for the drunk, demands the utmost concentration of effort) and naked startlement, I could do aught but collapse back into the grass.

Then, sprawling on the earth, winded, I watched awestruck as a troupe of opaline figures crawled out from amidst the several colonies of lichenous boulders upon the slope, and each of these bent-backed and slinking forward on all primal fours before drawing themselves upright until they were enshrouded by the framing veil of stars about their shoulders. In the next instant, these weird denizens of the frozen night arranged themselves in a wide circle and began to dance a waltz of incomprehensible slowness, lagging behind a beat so sparse as to be all but stagnant. Gasping, I drew my breath to me – fearful that the vapour of it hanging upon the chilled and voided montane air might draw the ire of the dancers, or at the very least call their attention to me – and watched in horror as the rite unfolded a few yards from my trembling feet.

Yet fear is apt to smother each of the unlearned human faculties in turn, save, lastly, for curiosity. So that I could not help but watch intently as the figures reeled and spun upon the pasture, and in so doing I saw it that together they made up a great and spectral extended family – ranged in height and age, as they were, from those of very small children to the hunched and stooping forms of old maids and ancient, bearded men. Yet more striking even than the impression cast by the assembled figures were the clothes in which the clan was outfitted, for these consisted in long cloaks of animal skin and fur or else rough smocks of nankeen cloth.

On and on the dancers circled, tamping down the earth with their bare feet and groaning out a cycle of low chanting. Until a cracking report broke off the singing of the dancers and was followed by a short exchange of whooping cheers or cries gave out by parties unseen in the timbered distance. This signaled, so it seemed, something of dire circumstance to the dancers, so that I saw the adults to bundle up the youngest of their brood in panic, pressing them tightly to their breasts in desperate embraces, and to set off running downhill toward the creek until they were quite lost to my sight.

Thereafter, I felt myself suddenly as one disconsolate and most truly alone. So immediate was this lonely sensation that I felt myself scarce able to arrange my limbs in order to pull myself to standing from my seat upon the ground, and even when this Herculean task was managed I did not pause to consider why it was that I did not likewise make to flee before the unseen threat atop the hills.
Here, mercifully, ends my recollection of that night, for I have no true memory of the long march homeward from the dancing place. Yet this solitary journey back to the farmstead I surely made, for I awoke half-dead of thirst some hours after lunchtime the day following and saw – such a pounding in my head! – the cloth sacking that had been tacked as insulation to the ceiling above my cot made to resolve before my eyes.

The days and weeks following on from this most disconcerting evening were, however, almost unnervingly without event. Save for one afternoon not yet eventful though still in some measure confounding. For, while I sat at gazing out the window above my desk at nigh on dusk one evening, I saw the farmer of the big house to stare some several moments too long at the row of split and neatly-stacked firewood I had arranged in reserve against the wall of the shed (perhaps this was a mite too neatly stacked for his liking, or else the logs split too wide apiece to fit the stove). Apparently baulking a moment, the old man raked a furtive glance toward my window, so that I lifted a hand lazily from its rest atop the typewriter in assent to the question posed by his expression. Still, the only answer he gave was not, so it seemed, directed toward me. For the wizened old gnome just stood there staring off into the middle distance and mouthing a string of phrases to himself where he stood, over and again, in a state of unaccountable agitation. To judge by the movements of his lips and the shape formed by his soundless yaw (to the extent that I was able to discern either aspect of the demonstration, given the tangle of wiry grey whiskers that encircled the farmer’s face), he recited something in the order of geddup, mate; come on, geddup – though none among the old man’s sinewy working dogs (such hunted expressions these had, poor, miserable creatures) was then anywhere in sight.

To say that I was a man left wanting for companionship in the ensuing month scarce begins to touch the isolation I felt in that time, for my interest in the several books I had carted with me over four-hundred miles of open road between Sydney and the farm waned steadily until it was all but eclipsed by languor and fatigue, and my writings devolved still further so that I felt I should need to outfit myself with a brace of new red-ink pens so as to manage the corrections they demanded. Still, the spring’s thaw pressed on west and upward into the high country and the days grew long and warmer. Mercifully, we had soon seen the last of the season’s nightly frosts (though the occasional freezing fog contrived still to settle, on occasion).

Until one morning I was roused from what had, by then, become my habitual trance before the typewriter by such frantic bellowing and gesticulation on the part of the old farmer that I could not help but jump up from my seat and rush out of the shearer’s quarters to meet him in my socks.

Racing out into the tamped earth square at centre of the stockyards that stood between the big house and the creek, I met with the farmer, who was in the thrall of a singularly animated state of consternation. He meant, it seemed – by his frantic cries and the doubly frantic waving of his arms – to signal to the young jackaroo – who was then occupied at mowing hay from the low west paddock with the holding’s ancient and rust-cankered Massey Ferguson – that the youth had best avoid a certain portion of that paddock. Yet for all the farmer’s indignation, it seemed his message was not heeded by the youth, for I saw the old man to slump bodily where he stood and thence to saunter off toward the tractor – which had, unnaccountably, come to a standstill by the creek – sweeping and batting at the air before him with the hat he gripped, white-knuckled, in an outstretched hand.

As would a faithful sheepdog, I sloped along in the old man’s wake, treading in the very imprints of his gumboots as I strode (I marveled then that our respective gaits should be to a footfall so alike), until he drew up to the lad who was still seated on the tractor.

‘What’d I tell you ’bout the soddin’ swampy corner by the creek?’ spat the farmer.

‘Sorry, Rolls – ’ pled the jackaroo, paling, ‘ – I couldn’ see the spring fer the lucerne.’

‘Jesus, Mary and pissing Joseph, ye’ve sunk the bastard up to the chassis!’

‘Christ, Rolls, it was an accident! What’ll we do now?’

At this the farmer showed his stamp. For to work the land – be it fertile rich or else marginal – is to encounter troubles unending and preponderantly dire. So it was that the old cocky inhaled a breath deeply, steeled himself where he stood, and without altering his stance or the direction of his gaze, said (and this in a tone of specious serenity):

‘Run on down ter Cooper’s an’ beg a lend of ’is tractor. An’ if Matt’s there, see if ’e wouldn’ min’ comin’ over ter give us a hand, orright?’

‘Easy done,’ the jackaroo said, cowed, and swung down from the machine.

The farmer and I watched him trot off across the flat paddocks of the floodplain until he was lost to sight below a low-slung hill, before the old man turned on his heel and set out marching toward the house, never once acknowledging my presence on the scene.

When both men had quit that creek-side quarter of the paddock, I took it upon myself to survey the damage the young jackaroo had wrought upon the property’s only working tractor – I say it was the only working tractor on the place, for (as is the case with most every station on the Monaro), there were the rusting carcasses of two or three old agricultural engines (all overgrown with horehound, dock and thistles) standing decrepit in the immediate surroundings of the farmhouse. Knowing nothing of tractors, I formed the view that it would be the work of several hours to extricate the machine from the bog.

Turning then myself – being minded to return to my own thankless work in quarters – I was seized sudden of a queer notion, and spun about on the spot so as to inspect the long, deep runnels that the wheels of the tractor had carved into the marshy soil behind it. In so doing, I was robbed by fright of my very breath for the second time in as many months. For, peering at the scars wrought by the tractor upon the earth, I saw that these had laid bare several pearlescent curves of bonewhite. Kneeling down so as to free each of these each in turn from the encasing clay and loam, I was sickened to find that the comparative sizes of those bones being like to other bones unearthed from elsewhere in the mire were so varied as to suggest that I had stumbled upon the resting place of not one soul but of many, and the respective ages of these at the time of death ranging from infancy up to adulthood: skulls all different sizes, shinbones one, two, three too many, ribs a dozen and a baby’s toothless jaw too small to fill my hand.

Struggling to my feet again – my shoeless feet slipping and sliding in the mud – and clambering up the slope toward the house in a cold lather, I was bereft to find that the farmer was there nowhere to be seen. Peering into each of the clustered outbuildings in turn, I found neither hide nor hair of him, and it was more than an hour before the young jackaroo returned – alone – from the neighbouring property. The world-weary cadence of his gait spoke to failure in the errand on which he had been so urgently despatched before he even struck the home paddock.

Indeed, it was not until well into the evening that the farmer returned from his business abroad, and even then the air attending him was nothing if not censorious, so that I was scarce able to utter five words together as he sat at the table and unlaced his boots.

‘There are bones in Butchery,’ said I, haltingly.

Yet, inscrutable as ever, the old man looked right through me and addressed the nervous lad who stood at leaning on the jamb and anxiously awaiting both judgment and sentence.

‘Ye’re orright, mate,’ said the farmer, and sighed. ‘Ye’re not the first ter bog a bastard down there by the creek, an’ you won’t be the last.’

‘I’m real sorry, Rolls,’ said the youth, wringing his hands.

‘Don’t worry ’bout it too much, orright? We’ll get ’er out tomorra, you an’ me. You ’ungry?’

‘You know me.’

‘Righto, I’ll get some snags on. An’ I didn’ mean ter spit the dummy on ya like that.’

‘Ye’re right – I prolly deserved it.’

‘Yer bloody well did, too!’ quipped the farmer, breaking into a short-lived grin that slid rapidly from his face and features as he set about retrieving the frying pan from its cupboard. The jackaroo – as do all young men being newly freed from the entanglement of their mothers’ apron strings – simply sat soundless and watched the old man fry his supper.

‘It’s only that the exact same thing happened on the day me young fella – you know,’ offered the farmer shortly.

At this the lad paled again, and I marked a measure of panicked trepidation to wipe his face clear of all blushing colour.

‘Oh, gawd – I’m sorry, Rolls. Real sorry.’

‘Not your fault…’ the farmer started, vacant. ‘It was…’e were visitin’ from Sydney at the time – come ’ome fer a coupla weeks’ sabbatical, ’e called it – an’ I’d put ’im to work on ploughin’ Butchery. ’E were bleedin’ ’opeless at drivin’ the tractor – ’ated it, too. An’ that day it’d bin rainin’ on all the dirty slush left by the meltin’ snow, so ’e bogged ’er a damn sight worse’n you done today. So help me, I tore a bloody fearful strip off of ’im an’ sent ’im packin’. Couldn’ stand ter look at the dozy mongrel. Corse, ’e made a beeline fer the pub, an’ stayed there ’til near on dark.

‘When ’e finally made to come ’ome – tail ’tween ’is legs, I fancied – I were stood out there by the tractor – takin’ a spell, I was, bein’ half-buggered wi’ tryin’ ter dig ’er out – an’ I watched ’im comin’ across the far paddock all arms ’an legs an’ staggers, stumblin’, an’ the rib jumper knit ’im by ’is nan balloonin’ at ’is chest. So ’e come t’ward the creek a ways ter the sou’west o’ me, over the far side paddock there, ’til ’e stumbled up ter the reeds. An’ then, lurchin’ forward, ’e overbalanced an’ tumbled down the far bank ’til ’e glanced a boulder with the side of ’is ’ead an’ a little spray o’ pink mist went up in the air an’ just sorta hung there a moment. An’ so ’e fell limp inter the reeds an’ jus’ lay there prone. Too far off, ’e was, for me ter mark the bubbles give out from ’is mouth, ’though I ’spect there were bubbles – at first, at least. I thought nothin’ of it at the time – save me! I figured ’e’d come ter rest a ways above the waterline, but ’corse the snowmelt’d swelled the river right up high, an’ it weren’t ’til I’d made me way back up ter the ’ouse – intendin’ ter leave ’im to wake up cold out there in the sodden muck, so’s ter teach ’im a bloody lesson – an’ mouthed off ter the missus ’bout what’d happened, that she ’ounded me back down there ter the creek ter bring ’im a wool blanket an’ retrieve ’im. But by the time I’d run over there, ’corse, it were all still as a millpond, an’ ’e were facedown in it.’

Hearing this, I was at once repulsed and dumbstruck with shock. Yet in the same moment, I was seized and overtaken by a sudden, rending headache. Touching a finger gingerly to my temple, I marked an inexplicable stickiness and stinging pain. Not recalling having hit my head (though remembering all too well my panic on the charnel ground beside the creek a few short hours prior), I brought my fingers thence before my eyes and saw that they were pasted with an ichor of swift-drying blood. Yet before I had quite had time to ponder this most incontrovertible evidence of a head injury, I was taken by a vomiting sickness, the urgency of which I had not time enough to arrest before a great, bitter mass had surfaced from the pit of my stomach. And catching this in my open hands, I felt myself to faint away and all but dissolve as I regarded the writhing mass of tiny frogs and pondweed I had caught.

Patrick White at Adaminaby

Patrick White is gone to work on Bolaro. His feet are smelly from his labours. White’s mother had the maid pack young Paddy off with several new pairs of socks upon his leaving home, but he cannot see his way clear to changing the pair he happens to be wearing from time to time nearly so as often as would be decent, so his feet are always smelly in his store-bought boots. That is to say, Patrick White’s socks are smelly. His feet are, ordinarily, no smellier than might be expected of a well-bred young man that has had his schooling abroad and has long since discovered life’s crowning pleasures cloistered in the theatre and a verse. But the bloated, frostbitten carcass of the ewe that is stranded in the topmost boughs of the snowgum at the foot of which young Patrick White now stands is decidedly, unapologetically smelly.

Paddy White is not the worst jackaroo Old George has had in his charge. For one thing, the young White is a capable horseman–though he regards quarterhorse and pony alike with the detachment of a youth that has been too long with racehorses and so is able to weigh an animal’s value in flesh-poundage while disdaining yet the heart beneath. Besides which, Paddy is just one of the dozen young society men the expansive Master Osborne has put to work on Bolaro in recent years, intending–out of the goodness of his heart–to afford them a parentally-endorsed opportunity to tot up a good long column of entries in the servant side of the ledger.

– The snow’ll bank up snug gainst the trunk’n keep on pilin up there til the ole tree’s buried, Old George says.

– So, the ewe… Patrick White begins–purposeful in his search for a purposeless question; taking his time about the phrasing so as to impart in its delivery all the preparatory observations he can lay his mind to; anxious to make good on this rare chance of an exchange with the sun-scarred overseer and to draw the discussion out and on for as long as possible and to avoid, thereby, taking up the yoke, so to speak, until after he has had a mug of tea from his flask and expelled the trapped wind of the night’s sleep and contemplated the bitch-tussock of the station’s montane meadow being lately exposed from beneath the fast-melting snow by gay sun-showers and the nascent season’s more modestly bitter winds –

– …the ewe–being drawn to what little greenery it remains for her to see when the whole world is blanketed in perishing whiteness–the ewe, so impoverished of her senses, is drawn inexorably toward those leaf-tips that poke through the drift at the terminal tips of the tree-branches buried beneath, finds herself on an uncertain footing–the branches beneath her being apt to interrupt and disperse the dense bed of snow that might otherwise be produced of the fall bearing down as a single, solid mass–and is lured to her death: pulled down into an icy sinkhole within the bowels of which she freezes rapidly to death–before the fatal snowdrift melts out from underneath her?

Old George grasps the sense and shape of the question, but will not be drawn in by its thrust. He has known plenty of other city-raised sons set out on a rural Bildungsroman dreamed up by their well-meaning parents (and plenty worse than Paddy White)–and so feigns ignorance.

– The ol girl’ll freeze ter death on the snow, an there we are, he offers with affected finality, though adds –

– Springtime means dead ewes in the treetops.

Patrick White likes this last. He turns the phrase over on his tongue – just barely parting his teeth–and stoops to retrieve a calico rucksack from the muddy earth at his feet. There are implacable burrs in his filthy socks–the first he has seen in months. Patrick White will take a draught of tea. To begin the day’s work now would only make certain his arrival at dinnertime a red-faced, stiff-limbed wraith clad in an oily slick of sweat. One could stand to cut such a figure at tea on most days of the working week, but not today–today the youngest of the Aitchison men is expected to call. Patrick White has reserved his best-preserved pair of clean woolen socks for just such a day.

– And so they are as dead Indian braves laid out atop a platform in sky burial–food for the hawks, he says.

– An the bleedin crows, an all, George replies, savagely.

Patrick White draws his battered tin flask from out the rucksack and unscrews the lid with a staccato cough and as much clattering as he can manage, hoping to dull the sound of a voluminous fart. His griping guts find the lessons of Sally’s kitchen hard in the learning, and he farts hot, swede-scented farts at all hours of the day and night. In the jackaroos’ quarters, to let slip a greasy fart is hardly a hanging offence–in any event, Patrick White is able there to cast the blame upon poor brindle Soames, with his lop-sided face all wet with spittle. But there is no dog here at which to point the finger, and while Old George is coarse enough–being a man who has carved his very life from out the frost-hollows of the Monaro–he is not so coarse as the wage labourer with a cleft palate for whom a fart muffled by bunk or blanket is a most welcome diversion.

– There is snow enough on the ground yet, Patrick White says–speaking rapidly now, and too loudly–as he realises with inner horror that nothing so slight as his own voice might mask the high-pitched pree-ee-ee-pffffft of a morning fart surrendered under duress.

– Not so much as ter keep us from fixin a few fences, George replies.

Patrick White does not hear him because he has soiled himself a little.

Beans

Fee Tail the bunny squats in a nest of oaten hay and eats his beans. From behind his terracotta water bowl a gauche cockroach sashays forth – all satiny sheen and gauzy wing-casings and his legs each fringed in rodeo tassels of shoe-leather brown.

‘Bravo, beans!’ squeals the cheeky little insect pest, and falls to nibbling at the tip of a fattish pod.

‘I say!’ the bunny exclaims. ‘These are not your beans, sir!’

‘Oh dear – and they slot into my portfolio so neatly, too,’ the verminous roach laments in a reedy voice that is abundantly – if disingenuously – suggestive of resignation.

‘Indeed, just so,’ Fee Tail agrees. ‘Yet, while a thing of beauty is indeed a joy forever, a thing from the enjoyment of which one might exclude all among one’s fellows is the greatest joy one ever hopes to taste in life.’

‘Couldn’t agree more!’ the roach whoops heartily (insofar as one being possessed of such minuscule apparatus of speech as he might be said to muster a tone either hearty or whooping) – recovering rapidly his usual constitutional ebullience.

‘Well, then?’ Fee Tail prompts.

‘You mean to give them to me after all?’ grins the cockroach, drawing an immaculate antenna through his mandibles after the fashion of a cat licking cream from off its whiskers.

‘Give them to you? Heavens, no!’ the bunny exclaims. ‘I shall transfer them to you in fee simple – free of all and any encumbrance, of course – in return for consideration equating to a sum being double that which any among the smaller, flightier breed of your kind – those that are obsessed with the electric hum of gadgetry and that congregate in greatest numbers under cover of darkness so as to feast upon, for example, spilled crumbs of avocado – might ever hope to save or raise or finance.’

‘Sold!’ the roach exclaims, gleeful. ‘My wife will be delighted – although I must warn you: she will not brook a single scintilla of that which is the substance of our transaction to be lost to wastage or delay. We have many beans between us already, my wife and I – beans of every shade of green (even a handful of those dreadful snake beans that are doing a remarkably steady trade despite the most unappetising coarseness of their shells) – and we will not be taken in. One must never concede even the tiniest of things in life, you know.’

‘You have my word,’ Fee Tail agrees.

At this most importunate juncture, however, there enters a man onto the scene who is still tarred with the day’s grime-streaked slick of workman’s grease and clad in a sweat-stained fluorescent shirt. Says he:

‘Get outta it, ya dirty fucken roach bastard!’

And saying this the man grinds the cockroach into the pavement with the heel of a scuffed and mud-encrusted boot before turning his attention to the bunny.

‘What about you, Fifi – time for ya to go into the pot yet, ya reckon?’ he teases – and this with a wink and wicked chuckle. Fee Tail, cocksure and unruffled, regards the man with a pitying gaze and returns to gnawing at his beans.

‘After all – ’ the man continues, ridiculous, ‘ – a bloke can’t make soup with bricks’n’mortar.’

 

Gareth Hipwell

The Turtle [Language Warning]

 

The Mother of Tortoises

Twenty-two centuries before the Christian era, the good emperor Yü the Great travelled and measured with his steps the Nine Mountains, the Nine Rivers, and the Nine Marshes and divided the land into Nine Provinces fit for virtue and agriculture. … Historians tell that the manner in which he divided his territory was revealed to him by a supernatural or sacred tortoise that arose from the bed of a river.

– Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings

Come a day Jack left me & so I up & went off fishin’. Just took meself off fishin’ & a packed lunch too & a coupla beers – not near enough to do the old chippy justice but too many still to go in swimmin’ after drinkin ’em all. So with me smoko & me beers & me rod & me reel & me eyes abrim & recollecting as I couldn’t but the granite fresh-carved of an inscription misquotin’ perfect W.H. Auden (always were a funny bastard, Jack):

           Empty the ocean,

            Sweep up the wood;

           Dad always told me

            I’d come to no good.

& the chiseled grooves of this not yet gilded – the cost of gilding is ever the limit of grief (dollar terms, at least) – with all this in mind I set to fishin’ in the ponded pools & greenish deeps of the river by the bridge – downstream of the fuckin’ noisy kids that were all there swimmin’ & startlin’ even the yabbies (the yabbies that fear nothin’ & who’ll gladly tear one another limb-from-fuckin’-algae-cankered-limb just to get at a putrid fuckin’ chicken neck) – away from the fuckin’ kids but still near enough to the bridge – beyond which the surfacewater was shaded & so invitin’ for the rainbows, brooks & browns (trout are fussy bastards & fuckin’ hate the sun & warm) – there in the river by the bridge & away from the fuckin’ kids I set a line & set meself down on the bank & watched the line & drank me cans & thought of things to say some years back ’til I caught sight of a dirty shifty-winding swathe of olive-green glo-mesh bastardry slitherin’ down the bank out the corner of me eye & seein’ this I jumped up & stamped a jig & bellowed:

‘Fuck off, you – ya shitty fat tiger snake c—!’

& sensin’ this (me stampin’ & me shoutin’ or me shoutin’ or me stampin’ or else just simple fact of me bein’ stood there cuttin’ up the hot-dry air with me gut & me grief) says he:

‘Fuck off yerself, ya sad, drunk, mis’rable c—. Less yer fishin’ fer frogs we’ll ’ave no trouble ’ere, you & me.’

‘Cheeky c—!’ said I. ‘Havn’t ya got a fuckin’ bramble ter prowl or a bluetongue ter gob?’

‘You can talk about gobbin’, dickhead,’ says the snake.

Never were a fighter, me, but I weren’t havin’ that. Fuckin’ snakes all over the shop & they’re all the fuckin’ same & there’s only so much an ordinary brokedown battler like me can stand to take offa the c—s. So I come at the prick barefisted & corse he ducks me & then rears up on his c—y belly & whippin’ a tongue the colour of dogshit at me says:

‘I’ll fuckin’ bite ya, c—. Ye’ll know ye’ve bin bit, too. Sick as a dog, ye’ll be. Sick as the fuckin’ dog you are.’

& hearin’ this I went dead-set fuckin’ troppo & bent & groped about me on the ground ’til I found a dirty great big fuckin’ rock & this I hefted & threw it at him & sure enough it landed square on his slimy back & pressed a good foot or more of his length into the spongy riverbank soil so that he hissed winded, gasped & started bawlin’.

‘Oh, fuck – sorry mate,’ said I. & I really was. Had a crook back meself, time to time, so I knew it then that old mate tiger snake’d be off work a good long spell.

‘Fuck off, c—!’ spits he in partin’.

& fair enough, too, I spose. C— threw a rock at me I’d be spewin’ meself. He deserved it, though. C— snake. Ha! Mad as a c— snake!

With the snake gone off into the long grass to sulk I cracked another tinnie & reeled in me bait & reset me hook & cast back out into the river & then sat & watched the shadow-fingers of the trees gropin’ out into the water ’til I spied a raft of rank green shit floatin’ on down the river toward me at a fair clip. & this was somethin’ new – somethin’ a bit fuckin’ different – ’cause the river never flowed at such a rate that time of year & almost never on that stretch in any season (if the current were a racehorse, you’d shoot the lazy bastard). So I sat & drank & watched the shitty green thing bobbin’ on down the way ’til somethin’ else – somethin’ slick with algae & black moss – somethin’ broke the surface of the water a coupla foot out in front of that great green mass & in the reedy light of late afternoon I caught the glintin’ of a fuckin’ eye the size of a bread’n’butter plate at one side of it, before this disappeared once again into the sluggish current & brown water.

& seein’ this I looked again at the bulk of the thing that floated on atop the water & lookin’ at it closer it seemed to me it were somethin’ near as old as the fuckin’ hills & so I looked a third time & looked closer still & I had the queerest sense then that it were a fair mite fuckin’ older even than the ageless hills (like fuckin’ Methuselah’s beard all planted up with fuckin’ pumpkins & alfalfa) & I’d sure as shit never laid eyes on anythin’ like it before & so – I’d nothin’ to call me away back home; no one that needed me to cook his fuckin’ tea for him any more & the chooks were free to roam & forage in the yard – so I beat me reel & retrieved me line & stowed me hook & retrieved me esky from the earth & set out followin’ the big green bug-eyed freak of riverine faunal fuckery on along down the river.

& soon enough the river give out & come too narrow & too choked with willows, weeds & other shit for bodies of the creature’s mighty size to navigate, so that I saw him to clamber up the bank & waddle off into a paddock & it was then I saw it was a fuckin’ turtle – the long-necked, splay-footed kind that’re always crossin’ the fuckin’ road like punchlines in the same shitty fuckin’ joke. But fuck me sideways, this was a fuckin’ turtle if ever I seen one! Bigger’n any fuckin’ bull I ever seen & the claws on him as long as fuckin’ butcher’s knives. But the queerest thing about the c— was the fuckin’ shell on his back.

Shell be fucked! There was nothin’ of the lacquered finish & native ornamentation & refinement of form & substance that the word implies in this monstrosity. In truth, it was more like a fuckin’ veggie patch that’s been left to rot & putrefy over an uncommonly wet winter ’til the plants still living are all withered, stunted & paling & all about them hang webs of sticky mould & pustules of a violent orange hue & bracket fungus & putrid toadstools & mycelium of all kinds & the gaps between these all filled in with couches of moss – these being the most verdant constituent part of the whole affair – & in the moss there wriggled & writhed a vast tribe of frogs all different colours (though some of ’em were lurid yellow or else neon green & painted in swatches of black all over as if partway tarred in pitch). In sum, the assemblage was of a kind defying description in terms other than a garden of ages, experience & decay.

& after crawlin’ out the river, the turtle waddled on across the paddocks at a fair fuckin’ clip – rememberin’, corse, that this was a fuckin’ colossal river turtle bein’ covered all over in a forest of rottin’ greenery – so that I could hardly keep up with the weird old waddlin’ c—. Pretty soon I’d drank all me beers & so discarded the esky in a creekbed & went on followin’ the turtle northward into the night.

As to me reason for settin’ out followin’ the bastard, I couldn’t’ve explained it to ya even then – recallin’ it now, corse, it has the stamp of a proper fuckin’ batshit scheme about it (drinkin’ tinnies in the sun’ll send anyone round the fuckin’ bend, I spose) – ’cept to say that I couldn’t stomach bein’ alone another night in Jack’s vacant & dim-lighted cottage. The fuckin’ recycle bin was still near full up to the top with his yeasty old empties & I dreaded puttin’ it out on the kerb for collection & hearin’ ’em all clinkin’ & rattlin’ around inside of it. So off I went with me rod & me reel & followin’ an elephantine relic of the turtles’ Pliocene ascendency into the quiet dark of midnight on the plain.

Some days later, the rollin’ hills give way to pockets of flyblown scrub havin’ plenty of that unmistakably Canberran sparseness, stunting and retardation about ’em & I shuddered to find that I’d followed old mate turtle into the fuckin’ festerin’ shit-heap of a frostbitten sheep paddock that is the A.C.T. ’til he struck the Molongolo and plunged on in without a backward glance. The c— give out a fuckin’ mighty stream of bubbles as he went under, too – like he were sighin’ with fuckin’ relief at findin’ himself back beneath the water.

So on down the Molongolo I followed him & across Burley Griffin, too, ’til he emerged from the water on the farthest side & all the frogs at his back come out to play. Saw plenty of people along the foreshore there, but none of ’em even stopped to say g’day. They’re a fuckin’ hardbitten lot, Canberrans. I was dead-set fuckin’ relieved when the turtle figured he was done with the National Crapital & set out eastward tward the coast.

’Cept that he hit the Pacific at fuckin’ Jervis Bay, of all the fuckin’ sorry & forgotten places in creation. & I met with no one there (corse, it’s a place to which no one ever fuckin’ goes – I’m still not fuckin’ convinced you’re even sposed to be pokin’ about down in the Territory there). Come pretty close to leavin’ the fuckin’ slimy bastard to his travels & headin’ on home at that point, ’til I recalled the cold grate & chalky ashes of old Jack’s long-sufferin’ & rust-ulcerated stove just stood there at the fuckin’ dead centre of the house & creakin’ with the downdrafts in the chimneypipe & so thought better of it. Luckily, but, the big green prick wasn’t real keen on stickin’ round in Jervis, so off we went & up north tward QLD (via the Northern Rivers, corse, where the turtle & his accompanyin’ band of frogs had a fuckin’ field day if ever I seen one).

At Gladstone I come upon a salty old c— tyin’ up his charter boat at the dock.

‘How’s business on the reef?’ asked I – out of fuckin’ politeness, mind.

‘What fuckin’ reef?’ says he, deadpan.

Feelin’ meself a bit peckish thereafter I took meself off down the beach to throw a line into the chop. Caught a good-size crab, too, which I boiled up for me tea – ’gainst his protests, corse.

One mornin’ – a long time ago  – one grey mornin’ back in the day, me & Jack got onto a coupla indecent sandcrabs down Eden way, fishin’ from the sand with bacon or somethin’ stupid like that. They were a fuckin’ bastard pair, too, them c—s.

‘You dirty pricks!’ squeals one of ’em from danglin’ in mid-air above the frothy shallows & all tangled in the line. ‘Weren’t doin’ no fuckin’ harm, me, just scuttlin’ round in the surf.’

& hearin’ this, Jack grins at me & says:

‘Charmin’ little c—, this one. He’ll make a salty breakfast!’

So into the bucket went the foul-mouthed crab & soon enough I pulled another, bigger bastard outta the foam & that one were a proper coldblooded c— – said nothin’, didn’t fight – just scurried about in the bottom of the bucket ’til it come time for us to head back home, at which point Jack calls out to me & says:

‘This c—’s gone & got a hold of me bait knife! Watch yerself when you go to ice him down!’

Fuck we laughed.

Recallin’ this & stiflin’ a chuckle, I munched the crab fresh outta the pot up there in the caravan park at Gladstone & then slung me hook & kept on fuckin’ walkin’ ’til me & the turtle come to the wild rivers of North QLD.

& from there on westward ’long the Flinders & into the Territory, skirtin’ drought along the course & plenty of the fuckin’ abject misery – both human and hooved – that comes of it – all writ in bones & dusty rotten fleece & dead trees & fuckin’ deepish riverbanks holdin’ nothin’ more’n a few rank ponds standin’ green & salty in the sun. I’d’ve thrown in the fuckin’ towel then & there & gone home, ’cept that I’d always heard the fishin’ was good in Arnhem & upon reflection I realised it that followin’ the turtle – wherever the fuck he were headed – was the only fuckin’ pot I had on the boil in all the world.

In the N.T. I saw only a handful of people at first & these just watched me pass by at some distance from the rivers & creeks through which the turtle pressed his way at a fuckin’ robust turtle’s pace (by then I’d settled in me walkin’ into a rough pattern of sorts & this urged me break one footfall in five into a skipping half-trot so’s to keep up with the c—). & as I marched I trawled the waterways with me lures & jagged the odd barra for me tea – just often enough to eat ’em raw on the hoof & to keep goin’. ’Til we come one day to Daly River & I sat down there with a bunch of blokes that were sat ringed & yarnin’ under a tree. None of ’em had anythin’ to say ’bout old mate turtle – just turned their heads away when I mentioned the mossy green c—. & the river bein’ in flood, the picnic party was obliged to shift every now & then to higher, drier ground, ’til eventually the locals were forced to up stumps & clear out.

Me fuckin’ boots were wet & muddy as a fuckin’ month of bastard Sundays by the time I left Daly behind me, which made walkin’ in ’em a proper fuckin’ misery.

‘A man’s only as good as his boots,’ Jack always used to say – ’specially when the young fella that worked for us left his good Blundstones out in the rain. Judgin’ by the sorry pair of scored & waterlogged steelcaps at me feet as we crossed into W.A, I were a fuck-buggered wreck if ever there was one & to complete the squalid picture me fuckin’ face was all sequined up with the scales of fish. I’ll own it I was about fuckin’ fed up with the whole enterprise as we passed through the wasteland of busted breezeblock rubble that once was Oombulgurri. There’s a certain kind of desolation only Cats & ’dozers can produce & it give me the fuckin’ chills to walk among the spooks & ruination of the razed community.

Still, havin’ come that far, there was fuck all else for me to do but to carry on followin’ the turtle tward wherever he was headed – & tward whatever it was I reckoned I might find there.

By the time we made Broome me boots’d give out on me altogether & I’d took ’em off & slung ’em into the scrub & picked up a dustin’ of red sand extendin’ halfway up both me legs.

‘Got yerself a pair of fuckin’ Pilbara dress-boots have ya, fuckhead?’ hooted a c—y-banded sea snake from the deep-sea jetty there.

‘Don’t fuckin’ start on me, c—!’ said I.

& hearin’ this he slithered off across the surface of the water ’til he was out of range of any rocks I might contrive to lob at him.

Roundin’ the southwestern corner of W.A, I seen the turtle at sea to get into a mighty blue with a cruisin’ great white shark the size of a fuckin’ caravan. & fuck me sideways there were a fair cloud of blood & gore there bloomin’ in the water after that & only the turtle managed to swim out of it in one piece & then on he goes back east tward South Australia, a-heavin’ & a-haulin’ away like a proper bastard blackbirder.

Some places havin’ water have the feel of fuckin’ cesspools about ’em despite the reeds & songbirds, while some others bein’ more bleak & desolate at first glance fairly knock the fuckin’ wind out of ya for natural beauty – like they’ve been waitin’ there for ya to pay ’em a visit since first they were scooped outta the bare, dry sand surroundin’. Saw plenty of lakes in S.A. – some of ’em dyin’ on their arses, mind – that felt like that, felt like welcome landings – or at least offered some respite from the miseries of the road. Lousy with fuckin’ pelicans, they were, too.

What a greedy fuckin’ big-mouthed bastard of a bird is the pelican…’ Jack woulda said, misquotin’ perfect D.L. Merritt every fuckin’ time he seen one on the wing – whether it had a fuckin’ fish in its bill or not. Always said that about pelicans, Jack.

At Southend I come across a lobster-fisher patchin’ up his traps on the beach.

‘How’s the crays these days?’ asked I.

‘The big ’uns’re gettin’ harder ter persuade inter the fuckin’ pot ev’ry season,’ says he, dour, through a mouthful of rollie stained with yellow tar.

& from there on eastward into Melbourne where I stopped for a coffee while the turtle fucked about in the Yarra before I boarded the good ship Spirit of Tasmania for the trip to Hobart. & fuck me dead if the turtle didn’t coast along just off the bow, half surfin’ on the surge of water this dug outta the choppy Strait & this were the first sign I’d had the c—’d even marked that I was followin’ him.

Plenty of fuckin’ rivers in Tasmania, there are – more’n you’d ever want to fuckin’ see – & the turtle (contrary bastard, the turtle) seemed intent on savourin’ the unique charms of each in turn, so that we were in & on the Apple Isle a spell of several months. I come across a loggin’ crew more’n once in that time, but I couldn’t make meself heard over the sound of saws tearin’ up the stillness & damp of the surroundin’ air, so that I felt meself properly alone once again & I recollected then the big Husqvarna tree-saw Jack had stowed away in the garage back home & I figured then the chain was prolly in bad need of sharpenin’ & oil. I’ll admit it I was fuckin’ glad at last to board the mainland ferry & to plough back through a night of sheeting rain bound for the far shore.

Victoria was a fuckin’ picture to walk through it – a sight for eyes not sore though yet ample sick of seein’ nothin’ but unending sand & swampland – & even the turtle seemed impressed by the scenery all about him, ’cause he swam the Murray with his head above the water more’n not ’til we made the climb into the highlands & then up into the range & this was a fuckin’ misery unending for a sorry barefoot busted-arse c— such as I & I shivered through a string of nights in the slab huts above the snowline.

Until he lead me out into that montane meadow of impossible green at centre of the Pilot Wilderness & in which the Murray rises from a spring – & beside it the twisted shell of fuselage that was once the Southern Cloud – & only then & only there did that giant fuckin’ shufflin’ mass of turtle & corruption turn to look at me.

‘Well, fuck me – ye’ve led me on a merry way!’ said I.

‘Bin nowhere I havn’t bin meself already – & a hundred times before,’ said he & angled the point of his chin up at me as he spoke.

‘Took yer fuckin’ time about it’s all I’m sayin’.’

‘Time’s as nothin’ to a fuckin’ turtle, ya silly prick,’ said he.

‘Are you the bunyip?’ asked I.

‘As you see.’

‘Ye’ve got the fuckin’ claws alright, but no fuckin’ teeth – which is not as I’d expect.’

‘You describin’ me, c—? Or a fuckin’ Royal Commission?’ the turtle barked & sayin’ this he brayed like a heifer that’s just took the cold, rough hand of a country vet up to the elbow (& this without a preparatory greasin’ of Vaseline) & laughed & laughed. Wasn’t even fuckin’ funny.

‘I mean, a beak’ll do the job jus’ the same, I spose…’ offered I in time. But the turtle only grumbled so that the mossy pile atop his shell shook like a bowl of trifle thick with custard.

‘You ever been robbed, dickhead?’ asked he.

‘Once, yeah.’

‘Was the c— armed?’

‘He had a box-cutter, yeah.’

‘Did ya say to him, oi, mate, ye’ve got the fuckin’ box-cutter alright, but no fuckin’ sawn-off – which is not as I’d expect?”

‘Nah. I give him me wallet,’ said I.

‘Ya give him yer fuckin’ wallet,’ the turtle redounded. ‘Fuckwit.’

‘Are ya gonna rob me?’ asked I. That tickled the c—. Fuck me dead he laughed.

‘Yer a big c—, I’ll admit,’ said I.

‘I oughta be,’ said he. ‘I was swimmin’ these rivers ’fore the Corsican dwarf was even a glint of gunmetal in his old man’s eye.’

‘Whaddaya know about it?’ asked I.

‘Fuckin’ sit long enough by a river in Aust. & you’ll learn all there is to know of history & philosophy – human, natural & metaphysical,’ said he, sharpish.

‘Orrite,’ said I.

‘That all ye’ve got ter say?’ asks he & glares at me with his big baby-shitbrown eyes. ‘From what I seen along the way, ye’ve had fuck all conversation these past years.’

But before I’d had time to regather me wits, I saw a fattish frog emerge from the garden at the turtle’s back & begin to scramble down his neck & then to huddle behind a crease of flesh & skin above a mighty turtle eye. & turnin’ the eye up tward the squirmin’ little c— the turtle jerked his head so’s to dislodge the frog & the frog went flailin’ up into the air & from the air the turtle snatched it in his beak & swallowed it at a gulp.

‘Cave or no, man alone has no need of language to contain his dreams,’ said the turtle as a lick of blood dribbled down what passed for his chin.

‘I thought you c— were vegetarians,’ said I.

‘You ever had that fuckin’ Brazilian barbeque – whaddaya call it? Fuckin’ chiaroscuro or somethin’?’ asked he.

‘What? Churrasco. You mean churrasco.’

‘Right, fuckin’ churrasco. Point is: while it might seem like fuckin’ Christmas when someone offers ya a fuckin’ bottomless plateful o’ meat all diff’rent kinds, ye’ll never get more’n halfway through the meal before ya need to order some rice & beans & salad or somethin’ to go with it.’

‘The frogs’re a side dish?’ asked I.

‘Variety. The frogs’re variety,’ said he.

‘You gonna take a snap at me?’

‘I might. Whaddaya want, anyway?’

‘Dunno,’ said I, in truth.

‘C— don’t just go off fuckin’ bush-bashin’ ’round the entire fuckin’ continent in pursuit of a giant talkin’ turtle without havin’ some idea why they fuckin’ set out walkin’,’ says he.

‘I didn’t know ya could talk.’

‘So knowin’ now that I can fuckin’ talk, whaddaya wanna know, Bush Tucker Dickhead?’

‘Jack…’

‘I’ve no intrest in recallin’ a ghost,’ interrupted the turtle. ‘Two-hundred-sixty years I bin swimmin’ these rivers hereabouts & I never seen so many restive spirits as I have in these past fifty.’

‘Ghosts?’ asked I, frownin’.

‘You mean to tell me – me, a giant fuckin’ talkin’ turtle – that you don’t believe in ghosts?’ asked he.

‘Always wanted to believe,’ said I. ‘But never havin’ met one, I spose I just feared the worst.’

‘Understand,’ began the turtle, regal, ‘that He had to dream the heavens & the earth before either firmament or face of bare waters could ever come to be…’

‘Yeah, I know, stranger things & all that,’ said I, interruptin’.

‘Talk over me like that again & I’ll snap yer fuckin’ cock off, c—,’ says the turtle. & fair enough, too, I spose.

‘Sorry, mate,’ said I.

‘He had to dream creation,’ the turtle continued. ‘So that, for a time – whether it were fuckin’ aeons or but a moment infinitesimally small – for a time there was nothin’ of creation but the dream of it. The realisation of this is not a threat to Him – to the father-creator perfect in his every aspect – since dreaming is itself creation, of a kind. It is perhaps creation of a kind more perfect even than the clothing of the earth in mantles green & enrichment of the seas with fish. & He being perfect, there weren’t nothin’ man might dream – man bein’, ye’ll recall, a thing fashioned of the clay into the very spit & image of Him – weren’t nothin’ man might dream that He himself did not dream in the time of His dreaming.’

‘God dreamed a fuckin’ giant talkin’ turtle?’ asked I & winced.

‘Fuckin’ oath, c—! Fuckin’ oath. Just like he dreamed fuckin’ ghosts & wattles & Stone’s Green Ginger fuckin’ Wine.’

‘Penguins?’ asked I. Ya shoulda seen the look on the c—’s face (it was fuckin’ funny at the time).

‘Yer a fuckin’ queer c—, aren’t ya?’ sneered the turtle. ‘Fuckin’ awkward as the day you were born.’

& then feelin’ for the first time ridiculous in me talkin’ to the turtle, I saw it that there weren’t nothin’ for it but to press me point – & this with a lick of spittle & a bit of aggro corrective of the balance in the dialogue. Said I, therefore:

‘I mean, you reckon He just up & said one day: & lo, now you are a penguin – waddle on outta here, ya pigeon-toed little c—?’

‘They’re fuckin’ cute, them fairy penguins,’ beamed the turtle, softening. ‘I’ve been down to Phillip Island & seen the gammy little fuckers shufflin’ on down to the sea. Point is, though, that He didn’t just fuckin’ dream an adorable little fish-eatin’ flightless bird with its dinky flippers & irresistible face. He dreamed a penguin in essence & thereafter He saw to it that the earth & the sky & the waters & plants & the lesser creatures & the grace of all the spirits & angels custodian of these moulded & shaped that essence over time – being time immemorial to any but He – so that the penguin remained a penguin throughout every stop & station in its history & progress until the first people fortunate enough to sight it in the charming aspect it now enjoys said, look at that fuckin’ funny little fella hoppin’ about on the rocks!’

‘& us?’

‘Same time He dreamed the penguin, He dreamed you & me, sure,’ said the turtle sagely. ‘& in that moment He also dreamed a garden for us both, you & me, & in the garden he sunk plentya wells & rivers, lakes & streams.’

At this the turtle paused & pondered a moment ’fore continuing.

‘Difference ’tween me & you, though,’ says he, ‘is that, in the turtle, He dreamed a creature being a stranger to all sin & suffering.’

‘In the same moment he dreamed Adam, He dreamed a fuckin’ colossal, immaculate talkin’ turtle?’ pressed I.

‘He breathed the residue of His dreaming into man – man being a creature decided always against deference & submission. Which was, corse, man’s undoing. Man was expelled from Eden – man fuckin’ lost the Garden because he dreamed too fuckin’ big, too fuckin’ grandiose by far. So, from then on it’s fuckin’ Cain the cropper & Abel the stockman & Jesus’ own troupe of fearful fishermen come home to shore & on & on until we arrive at distilliers peddlin’ their fuckin’ green ginger fuckin’ wine. But some found their way back.’

‘Jack always said…’ started I again, but the turtle interjected ’fore I’d had a chance to speak – & this with ample venom ’gainst his want of fangs.

‘Fuck Jack. I’ll not be party to summoning a ghost. Ye’ll profit fuck all from dwellin’ on the c— – there’s nothin’ new to be learned from talkin’ ’bout him. Why don’t you c—s ever look to fuckin’ sensible examples to steer your way forward? Fuckin’ go home, go to bed, & when ya wake up tomorrow, try to be just a little bit more like Bradman.’

‘That’s yer philosophy?’ asked I, incredulous. ‘Be more like Bradman?’

‘The thing about The Don,’ the turtle said, ‘is that he always played a straight bat.’

‘I don’t think that’s right, mate.’

‘I can see it to fuckin’ look at ya, c—: everythin’ you fuckin’ believe in amounts to nothin’ more’n a bottletop full of spit.’

‘So what’s yer advice, then, ya fuckin’ useless mealy-mouthed turtle c—?’ spat I.

‘There’s a lesson for ya here: if yer lookin’ for a plenary philosophy to comfort ya, don’t go lookin’ to a turtle for the precepts.’

‘Ye’ve age & wisdom, alright,’ said I, ‘but nothin’ of compassion – which is not as I’d expect.’

‘What is life if not constant, needless aggravation?’ asked the turtle.

‘And grief?’ pressed I.

‘And grief – ’ says he. ‘– for you, if not for me.’

& at that I took me fishin’ line & looped it round the turtle’s hateful neck & pullin’ the line taught & tight garroted that fuckin’ smartarse reptilian c— so that the blood fairly oozed out of him (& this more brown than crimson) & so shut him up forever.

Catfish

Down to the dam to test the mud. There’s hardly any left. Instead, I find 12 bronzed catfish beached and gasping in the sun.

‘Don’t you have lungs?’ I ask them.

One of them coughs up a lung, and dies. I’m reminded of something my dad once told me:

‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘when you ask something whether or not it has any lungs, it will cough one up just to show you.’

‘So I shouldn’t ask things about their lungs?’ I asked.

‘I didn’t say that,’ he said.

The last time I saw my dad, we had a fight. It was about my rabbit. My dad would often throw it into the washing machine along with the laundry.

‘Don’t you have a heart?’ I yelled at him, and he staggered off into the paddock and exploded.

One of the dying fish spits up a fob watch and chain. Fob sounds to me like a racist slur you just can’t say anymore, especially on a football field. Better to sling shit you know is offensive on the pitch, or they’ll say your sledging game is poor and you’re a frothy turd to boot.

‘Here’s your racist watch back,’ says the fish, and dies.

I consider the watch carefully. It tells me my granddad has been dead for almost a year. It was his watch. He fell in here when last the dam was full and drowned. My mother was killed by a rutting brolga during a protest at Pine Gap.

Where do catfish even come from, I wonder? They’re not meant to be here, are they? Catfish are from the Mississippi, I reckon, and that’s not in Boggabri.

‘I wish I could see my home just one last time before I suffocate,’ says one of the fish from amidst the sheltering bars of shade cast by an old, arthritic ribcage.

‘Where’s home?’ I ask.

‘Boggabri,’ it says, and dies.

How many’s that?

Before my dad exploded he was a big fan of The Thin Red Line. I think the films of Terrence Malick are about as interesting as a gyprock sandwich and half as palatable besides. One of the catfish has a strong and persuasive argument to the contrary, but I never get to hear the end of it because a currawong swoops down and bites its face off. Not its head, its face. That one dies, too. So does the currawong. No one gets out of this alive. It’s Reservoir Dogs.

I think that’s four.

My rabbit has been getting increasingly dirty since we lost my dad.

‘Why don’t you soak it in a saucepan of hot water?’ suggests a fish, and dies.

‘Be sure to put it in the freezer first,’ counsels another fish.

‘Why?’ I ask.

‘It’s more humane,’ it says, and dies.

Turns out one of the surviving fish knew my granddad. The old man used to sell it marine insurance.

‘Life sure is at a premium around here,’ it says, and dies.

Did I introduce this as a story about catfish? I think I meant to say lungfish. What are the ones with whiskers? It’s not them.

I watch awestruck as one of the fish swallows another fish whole. Guess what it says? Nothing – its mouth is full of fish. Needless to say, both of those fish die.

Three remain.

I had wanted to give Dr. Seuss an outing, but my blue fish has predeceased my one fish, two fish, and my red fish. My red fish just died, too.

One of the remaining fish now dies in its turn. I won’t say how. Let at least one of the poor bastards go out with some dignity. I will say this, though: it shits itself on the way out.

The last fish left gasping for air on the cockeyed mosaic of dry clay at bottom of my dam now starts humming the prelude to Tristan und Isolde. It’s just like a Wagnerian to outlive all the rest.

‘You haven’t got the guts,’ it tells me, and dies.

At that, my peritoneum dissolves and my entrails liquefy, and I die. Distraught, my rabbit hops into the washing machine, lapses into a coma, and dies.

Here comes the rain.