|A whiskey hangover has its good
points, like peering through a steamed up window; it cuts through the
unnecessaries. Even the worst ones, where the world quivers behind
clouds of leaves and feathers, can slowly set certain trains of thought
in motion.(from My Sunshine by Robert Drewe)
Joe turned over on the thin mattress, the straw hardly an inch thick. The movement made his stomach lurch and threaten to empty its contents on the floor of the shack. Not that there was anything of substance in there anyway. Struggling to hold onto even keel, he squeezed his eyes back shut and lay still again. Through the sick blackness he attempted to recall the previous night, the arguments and shouts. Had he hit anyone? Or just wanted to? He swore under his breath- to check he could still speak as much as anything.
Across the room somewhere someone was moving about, starting a fire maybe. Whistling. Whoever it was fuckinging whistling. Tunelessly an’ all. His tongue drew dry across the roof of his mouth, scratchy and coarse. Christ. Well at least he hadn’t any engagements today eh? No where he had to be except as far away from the noose as he could manage. Just waitin’ like every other day. Hidin’ and waitin’ and drinkin’ whiskey. Though right now his body screamed at him at the very thought of more. He needed water. But that meant getting up, walking, perhaps even talking to whoever the hell was making that racket. One thing at a time Joe.
Several minutes more passed before he stretched his leg out and touched the ground with his toe. Still fully clothed his movements were constricted by cloth tied in knots over night, and that seemed like enough effort for a while.
Will yer shut the fuck up?
Finally he pulled his body upright, seconds more before he could open one eye and look up.
“So you are with us then?”
What sort of question is that? Christ. Aren’t I on the wanted list, £2,000 on me life or death, be shot down easy as yer please? Think that proves me loyalty. Or do yer want me balls too?
“No. I am not. Should ha’ stayed away from you Kelly bastards, stayed in the Woolshed”
A deep chuckle came from the other side of the room. “Will yer be wantin’ a bit of bacon though, since you are here anyways?”
What did he want? Right now, he wanted the pain in his head to stop, his stomach to stop turnin’ somersaults, the Queen of England to stop bothering him and the sun to stop shining so bright through the window. Bit of bacon? No.
“I ain’t hungry.” Joe swayed a bit and considered whether to just lie down again. Wait for hours to pass, dark to fall and then it be another day. Those perhaps were getting short. Instead he closed his eyes and listened to the words that were enthusiastically filling the space between them with talk of mould boards and bush fires. Ned, well he was like an ox, no matter what he drank, no matter how rough the moonshine, no matter how hard he fell, he would get up at the crack of dawn like it was nothin’.
Fuck it. Joe lurched to his feet and steadied himself on the wall. Water.
His eyes cringed from the light outside. It wasn’t far to the creek but he seemed to make heavy work of it, and once there he was not quite sure about what it was he needed to do. In the end, just his boots came off and Joe slid down the bank and into the sun warmed water. For a few seconds as his head submerged he considered staying down there, whether his body would allow it, cold and slow like opium dreams his eyes seeing only darkly in the disturbed murk. It was quiet at least.
His lungs though screamed their opposition, and he burst back through the thin surface with a gasp, the first sign that he was truly still alive in hours. Finding a level to float on he lay balanced, staring up at blue cobalt sky, his ears full of water and deaf to all but alien other world in the creek, Joe considered the day in front of him. What would he do with one day if it was free, if he could leave this place and just go anywhere he pleased? It started slowly at first- thoughts of things that should be- that he felt the keenest lack of. A fast ride in the hills without lookin’ over his shoulder, an afternoon spent in Ingrams leafing through words, a walk through town with a lass on his arm or callin’ on his mother in the light of day, maybe even building a swing from the trees for the kiddies. Maybe then at the end a nice big roast of lamb and some porter to wash it down with. Didn’t seem like much. And yet it was a world away.
Joe considered for a moment whether to delve in to those other thoughts and plans, whether to indulge himself in the sorts of dreams that any man would have- of fame and fortune and life being extraordinary. Perhaps this could be the day he won thousands at the races or a ticket arrived for one of those big ocean going ships set sail for America, or even that the Pope declared that sexual relations were to be encouraged outside of marriage. He may even have managed a smile. Those things were no more distant than a knotted bit of rope tied to a trunk. Twisting he grappled his way back to the bank and sat sodden, heavy and sullen, his thoughts blurring into a dullness, shutting the door.
A distant watery whinny took a few moments to register. Music was calling him. Poor girl tethered the whole night in thin scrub. She needed some decent grass and a run that would stretch her legs. She needed to get out of here as much as he did. A thought, a pull just at the edge of his mind began to grow strength until denial seemed unthinkable. Why couldn’t he? Just one day. He was scrambling up the bank before the decision had settled in his head, wet clothes hampering his movement, sure he’s have to get out of these, there was some others in his pack, not so much to his liking but they were dry. Yes. Alright so she had said not to, and well, who knew if it would be alright. But. Just go eh?
I need ya Eva
A few men were sitting around in the shack when he got back, head ache dimmer now in his determination. Under the low roof tobacco smoke gathered with the smell of breakfast and the low murmurs. Joe kept his eyes down and did his best to locate his pack, slightly shaky fingers undoing the buckles as he averted his glance from the one of them he knew was watching him.
“You off somewhere Joe?”
“Aye.” The reply didn’t invite further questioning, but he knew it would be coming anyhow. Best to head it off. “I’ll be back before yer know it, just somethin’ I need to do.”
“We’ve to ride down to Wangaratta, the boys there need some courage”
Joe kept his back turned to Ned as he struggled to get control of his bad temper. I’ll go where I like.
“You know we need to stick together, what with all the talk about Sherritt and...” If Ned had been planning on finishing his sentence it was cut short by the eyes that stared back at him when his mate turned around, a foot between them. Dark, defiant but full of something else too. Torn up, sick but with a light in his eyes too that had not been there these past weeks.
Perhaps Ned did know better how to cut it all out, focus on where they was headed, the things that needed doing. Joe was the dreamer, that’s for sure. He knew at once of course those strings that were pulling.
Softening a little, Ned lowered his voice “I can’t come with yer”
“I know that”
“The hills are full of traps. You’ll get yerself shot.” It seemed a ridiculous thing to say, and he looked away as he did.
“Got to better than hanging eh? Though I’d be grateful if they waited to shoot me... til after I see her anyway”
“Christ...Joe will yer give it a rest with all that!” What had started as a straightforward morning, one in which he had woken, thought about breakfast and mused with a strange sort of contentment on the pattern of the day, was to be turned into something else by this man in front of him. Joe, well he was always just at the side of your vision, like a snake on the bare rock that had moved before your eyes caught up. Just unsettling things, asking questions when you’d rather just let it be. Now here he was pulling at that other side of them as men, opening a page that hurt to read and Ned felt his heart twist with the memory of soft words and lavender cotton. With a breath he reminded himself of his purpose. “Anyway we have plans; you know they are coming together, all the supporters. This just might work mate- you know like all those dreams they had in the old country? But now here, in this bloody place.”
“Aye well you know I will give me best shot, I’ll do whatever we need and take me chances” A look passed between them, one that said he had no need to say, there was no question of loyalty to answer. “But one day, that’s all I want. This one.”
“Joe it might be too late...it might not be as you want, when you get there. The Lass...well time has passed since we went there eh?”
Joe winced and considered his words “Truth is I don’t know what I want. Not except for bein’ away from here.”
“Joe we need ya here”
Joe frowned as he looked away. His hands picked up the jacket that lay on the table, arms slowly and deliberately sliding into the sleeves. “You know I’d not leave yer to do this on yer own.”
Ned pulled out his fob watch without thinking, something about seeing time pass slowly, the seconds wobbling with the movement of it in his hands.
“Am I ter be back by tea?”
“Do I look like yer mother?”
Joe grinned. “No. If me mother was in charge we’d already have that bloody Republic! ” and with that he turned to begin a day he had only just begun to anticipate. Well at least he was washed, as best as he could be anyways, and as he grabbed the saddle bag his stomach fluttered, perhaps he wasn’t so far from the boy running home from school. It was going to be a long old ride down out the Ranges and along the flat of the valley. Him and Music though, well it was time to fly.
The landscape was drier than he’d seen it, like the rain had held off the whole winter and Joe pulled at his shirt to loosen it from around his neck as Music slowed to a walk, the dust kicking up behind her hooves. In the heat of midday the sun was almost unbearable and he sought the shade of an overhanging roof to have a look around. Truth was there were very thin threads of familiarity, those wild dry places of New South Wales perhaps- only further south- he could smell the salt in the air, it must be near the sea. At the other end of the street someone scuttled from the sun, and Joe felt his throat dry with every breath as he slid down from the saddle, he had to find her some water at least.
Come on girl
From along the edge of the line of houses Joe peered into windows to search for signs of people, news, a clock, a date. Shutters however seemed darkly shut. At the corner his ears pricked at the sound of music, just quiet, behind doors somewhere but a rope all the same. As he followed it, his smile began to form; perhaps it wasn’t so bad after all. They were playin’ music, even if he didn’t recognise the tune. Approaching the door he shrugged and knocked hard, hoping for some hospitality and if he had to pay well he had a few of those Australian dollars jingling in his pocket...
It wasn’t long before a face peered out, more like a triple take at the man outside
“Could I trouble you for some water for my horse here- I can’t seem to find a trough out here”
“Fuck I think I must have taken too much” the woman shook her head and smiled over her shoulder “or maybe not enough, can’t quite figure it out. But you darl’ are quite some vision!”
Joe frowned slightly and asked again.
The woman in front of him seemed to simply be enjoying the asking. “Water is not just something to be left in troughs, or indeed handed out to every Tom, D ick or Harry, however fit they are.”
Christ, I had trouble enough understanding what Eva was on about half the time, I can’t make head nor tail of this one.
“I do have money, if that’s what yer want, only she needs a drink, and to tell the truth so do I, though something stronger if yer have it.” Hair of the dog, even if a rather scabby, flea bitten one was most definitely what he needed.
Having settled Music around the back Joe found himself in what was, for all the fact it was in the future, somewhere that felt like home. Dark corners and rough beer, company of sorts and a warm buzz in his belly. A scan of the place had revealed nothing, no handy calendar on the wall or paper left on the table. However small talk he could manage and he passed a few minutes discussing the heat, though in truth it seemed he wasn’t required to say much anyhow, no one seemed interested in what he was doing there. Perhaps they were all wondering the same about themselves. A small gathering quietly drinking in an afternoon. Aye, afternoon already. Time, he was reminded, moved on here too. “I was wonderin’...”
Her eyes squinted at him “Whatcha looking for sugar?” The woman next to him smiled invitingly, shifting a little closer, the dull of her eyes perhaps telling of one too many afternoons exactly here. “I might be able to help!”
Joe grinned back, she was older than him by a decade or more he supposed. It was hard to tell, but he watched her all the same as she stood and walked to the bar, carrying on the conversation as he waited for her to return with another glass. “Maybe I will take yer up on that- but I need to find a bar called O’Flanaghans, it was on Lonsdale Street. Just up the road from that big old church on the corner there.” He was going to have to chance to luck he was at least in the right city.
“Hell how long have you been gone?! That was just down the street, but it’s been gone years, got knocked down an age ago...not much down there now. But surely that was before you were born...” Clearly she wasn’t completely pickled after all. With a shrug though she sat down even closer, some things perhaps deserved to be over looked.
Joe could feel a rising anxiety, best perhaps to just ask. What the hell did he care what they thought of him? “I’ve been travelling a while, lost track of the time for sure, what is the date if you don’t mind?”
“You are the funniest bloke...it’s the seventeeth.”
This was no use. All the time he could see the light growing longer outside. “That’d be the seventeenth of.....?”
She chuckled and shook her head “You have been out in the Bush eh? Seventeenth of October, two thousand and eighty, there you go...and four thirty in the afternoon for extra measure! Cheers!”
He’d been top of the class at maths. Of course. But however hard he calculated the sum ended up in an answer he didn’t want to know and Joe felt his blood drain. Too late, I’ve left it too late. Waves of it gathered force in his head and his body, despair that he wouldn’t see her again, that she had gone without seeing him too, her sadness and her want of him, how she must have felt, disappointed, left behind, lonely even maybe. And how that this day was so far from whatever it was that he had wanted it to be. That it was now about grief.
“You alright mate?”
Holding tight to the table he tried to steady himself. “No. No I am not. I’ve made a mistake, I’ve got to go.” He was up on his feet before she took another breath. “Sorry” he had no idea why he was apologising except that of course he knew what she wanted, and Joe, he didn’t like to leave someone wanting.
A resigned look in her eyes she shrugged “well you gonna pay for that water at least? I’d leave it go but these days it’s more precious than the gold they used to dig up here!”
Blushing a bit Joe dug his hand in his pocket and pulled out the money he’d brought, thrusting it in to her hand. “Thank you...I don’t suppose it’s enough...”
Her frown though had him stop still. “Crikey! Where d’ya get this?? Your grand father’s piggy bank? We haven’t had Her Royal Majesty on the coins for a fair few decades and good riddance too!” His distracted but perplexed look had her frown all the more “We’ve been a Republic most of my lifetime...where the hell have you been?”
He wasn’t about to start answering questions, he could hardly see her now but all the same he couldn’t help it, a half smile burst on his face “Is that right? Jesus, finally got rid of them bastards eh? Wait til I tell them! Sure that’s grand!”
The woman was standing now, catching hold of his arm “Hold up now...” and the moment draining its pleasure.
“I am sorry, I will get yer some more, but I have to go.” Truth was though whilst he had to go, he had less than a tripping koalas idea where to go to. “Look, I don’t know yer, but you seem like a person who might understand. I hope. If someone was dead say 20 years ago- 10 maybe...where would they be buried?”
The woman looked at him a while, watching beautiful features crumple and reform in waves. “You really are interesting you know that?”
Joe shut his eyes “please...”
“Well it’s not something I’m an expert on mind...but if I was to suggest somewhere it would be the old cemetery up the hill, ran out of room a while back and they’ve been pushing cremation ever since, though frankly all that smoke got to add to our problems eh? Personally I always like the thought of a big whoppin’ statue, in marble. Some of those coloured glass chips and a place for flowers....” she didn’t seem to notice he was on his feet already “Oh hey, you want me to show you?”
“No. Thank you. Up the hill?”
“That’s where I’d start. That’s if she lived round here. Who was she then darl? Your mother? How come you...?” But the door was already shut.
Joe pushed to the back of his mind that this was a longer shot than most of the nags he’d ever put a bet on, no reason to suppose that she’d have stayed round here, Christ, she might even have gone back to the other side of the world. Could have gone any where in fact. This place was like a wasteland, and no one in their right mind would chose to stay surely? Except, he thought with a flood of renewed painful apology, that she was in love with him and whatever she said about him not coming back, she would be waiting to see if he did. Joe shook his head and with slightly blurry eyes searched random head stones looking for dates, a name, a sign. Anything.
Eva I am sorry.
For minutes at a time he walked fast up and down rows, squinting at names, stopping to study the occasional one. Deciding to pass by ones with no visible mark, only to worry that that was the one he was seeking. But pleased to have something to do, even if it was almost senseless.
“You looking for something son?” A voice behind him made him start and reach instinctively for his belt, but there was no cause for alarm as an old man stood up from behind a stone, in his hands a bunch of withered carnations. Looking down himself he sighed “there’s nothing to withstand this sun for long eh?”
“No I don’t suppose” Joe took off his hat and nodded a hello. “To tell yer the truth I am searching for a grave I don’t even know is here...”
“You are a long way from home by the sounds of it! But...a grave you don’t even know is here...that some kind of existential challenge? Or are you just a foolish bugger?”
Joe laughed a little and looked at the man in front of him, withered by decades of sun, but bright eyed all the same “Probably the latter I should say”
“So this is a puzzle for me to guess?” crouching down to a squat he kept his eyes on Joe, watching as he dug a new little hole for some condemned flowers.
“Ah no...well is a woman I knew once”
“I could’ve guessed there’d be a woman son...but all these graves here go way back. Take Martha here, my late wife and darlin’, she’s been up there 25 years gone” his voice lowered conspiratorially to say “ Can’t wait to join her to tell the truth, then I could stop bothering with this waste of bloody time.” Somewhat roughly he pushed a plug of anenomes into the hard dirt. “Not your mother was it?” A frown crossed the man’s face; surely a man worth his salt should know where his mother was buried.
Joe glanced at the sky, it’s darkening giving him a pang of panic “No, she wasn’t me mother, but I need to find her. Eva was her name, she used to live round here- I’ve been a way is all.”
The old man shrugged “Can’t say as I‘ve noticed that one, but down by the entrance way there’s a electronic device- you key in a name and it gives you the plot number...usually anyway, that’s if the sun hasn’t been too hot, or the rain too wet, or the frost too cold. One of the last things the old keeper did before he got the chop. Hey your young lady, she was church wasn’t she?”
Joe swallowed, and closed his eyes. Fuck this was just hopeless. Ned had been right not to come.
A thin hand grabbed his arm “not to worry son, if it was up to me...I’d have given all that a miss too. Lot of good all that praying has done us eh? But look, it might be the other place you are wanting then.”
Trying to pull back from wherever he was hurtling, Joe looked again at the man there in front of him, concerned eyes meeting his. Truly there were good people in this world. “Where?” Following the line of fingers that pointed along a line of a ridge he nodded to the instructions before sticking out his hand. “Much obliged to yer.” He’d give it a try at least.
The sun was sinking near to the hill top by the time he got there, wherever indeed it was, not much of a sign to say that he was there or otherwise, whether this was the ‘ecological’ site he was looking for. Joe wondered what on earth that could mean as he tied Music’s reign to a tree and vaulted the gate. Trust her to be bloody awkward. Perhaps she was paying him back for that bike ride through the hills in Deniliquin. He’d led her a merry dance and no mistake- there she was exhausted, sweating and make up all smudged, but perhaps the only woman he knew who would have done it all the same. That push bike...he wondered what had ever happened to that. Ah Eva...Joe felt his eyes begin to water at the thought of it all, their goodbyes and that bloody stone that stuck in his groin when he rode.
He was going to have to find the grave and fast or it’d be pitch black. Under a tree sure enough a sign lurked in the gloom. Wiping the notice board with his hand, he struck a match to see the words. ‘Earth based blessings arranged, contact Raven Wing on 5648393’, ‘Woven Rush coffins made to order’. Joe shook his head and wondered for a moment what on earth people were doing being buried under trees and no proper send off, but as the match fizzled he struck another and peered intently at the map. No Catholic section here it seemed he mused lightly, just random dots and in no order at all and Joe frowned as he struggled to see names long since blanched. Running his finger over to read he got caught in the movement until he stopped quite still and stared. There it was. He swallowed hard and looked up for confirmation, though from whom he wasn’t quite sure.
Following the track in his mind he made his way slowly through undergrowth, here and there, wild bursts of flowers that had seeded and rooted showed their colour and determinations in the dying sun. Passing a marker he knew it was close, he slowed down to take a more measured controlled approach, not even sure there would be anything to find...she was a long way from home. He let his mind search for pictures of how it might have been, Cat...of course, but not him, he hadn’t been there to say goodbye, plant flowers or say a prayer for her soul.
In front of a bank a stone poked through the grasses, simple, plain and just there. Christ. Face wet now he walked almost on the tips of his toes to crouch in front of it, just moving the fronds to words that almost had him fall. Eva Rambled On. If you hurry you might catch up... Half laughing, half crying Joe sat heavily down on the ground, his hands in the dirt as he decided whether to just lay down with her there and then. Forget the world, Beech worth, forget Ned, forget all that f ucking torment and the fighting and just stay here.
I need ya Eva, I need ya to be here, like we were, I need all that you let me be and forget. I am sorry I wasn’t here, fuck sorry I left ya, sorry I didn’t come back to say good bye again, sorry you was on your own. I didn’t want to leave yer not really. Eva I didn’t...Christ. Now I am on me own too. It shouldn’t have been like this...see what am I gonna do now?
Wiping salt tears across his face Joe searched around for something, anything, that was supposed to be done on these occasions, but he had nothing. Not even a dried up anemone and the lack of it choked his throat. It was dark now. Not many matches left to strike, so he sat, his back against her stone and let the sadness for all that he wanted to flow out, alone in the blackening trees.
Memories that for him were still fresh and new spiralled in his head- of her inviting brush against him in the stock room, her gasps at his fingers brazen outside the bank, the feel of her against his body as they rode to Jerilderie. And then, the last time he had come, her reluctance and worry that had given up to that same old desire, even as she blushed at her older body. He wanted to be back in that tent they had built for themselves in that long night at the Royal Mail, talking, fucking and hiding from everything else. It was perhaps the last that stirred yet more pain in his heart, because of course it was too late now. She wanted him to stay and yet watched him walk away every time still, and now he had no choice, there could be no staying.
Eva I didn't want to leave yer
His eyes closed and his mind far away he didn’t even here her approach, soft hooves on softer ground. The first he knew was a cold nose against his cheek, reminding him of here now. Music. Stretching up he rubbed her neck “It’s time to go eh? I don’t know if I can.” Her warmth though pulled him back.
Standing up he pushed his hands in his pockets, the air was cold now that the sun went down. Around him the Bush moved to a different tune of the night, rustles and scrapes and small timid animals. He was in a place he still knew after all and he breathed the eucalyptus and gum in deep. Across the way some wattle made a show of piercing the dark- that would have to do.
With a small sprig nestled at the base of the stone, he spoke soft “I’ve nothing to leave with yer lass except this, don’t suppose bein’ English you’d be so much impressed, none of those sweet roses or lilies” Joe touched the stone one last time. His vision still blurred he grabbed the reins and pulled himself up on to Music’s back. A last look back over his shoulder. “Maybe I will see yer sooner than yer think eh?” And he was gone.
Time to be back home.