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Retired carpenter..history buff, local and ancient..love stories of Italianate style, especially those village superstition stories..Very far left-wing.

The Three Sisters (part 2)

Continued from Part 1

Sfaccio fronts the house of Mother Fortune …

“Hey! … ” he called out sheepishly from the gate, “hey there … Lady Fortune?” But there was no answer. He was about to leave with hands in pockets when Lady Face motioned him to come over to her fence.

“My sister is away in Brommio on business what would you want with her?”

“Ah … it is a little business between us two, madam,” Sfaccio grumbled.

“And have the seeds sprouted?” Lady Face asked slyly. Sfaccio looked up suddenly.

“What would you know of any seeds?”

“One has ears master Sfaccio. and one knows one’s own kin!”

Sfaccio grasped the pickets of the fence fiercely.

“Then tell me, if you know the curse, what have I to do to undo it?”

“Why master, who spoke of a curse? … still … one shouldn’t jest with Kaileena, she has no ear for humour and she will try hard to avenge any slight she feels … ”

“But what of this mystery of the seeds … is that not a curse?”

“Ah! … maybe, but then again the seeds may have been boiled beforehand for just such an occasion … ”

“But how would she have known the question before it was asked?”

“There you may have the “magic” master Sfaccio,” Lady Face said cunningly. “Why was she in her garden just as you passed? … But there … let it lie, and take these seeds, they are ‘Love’s heart lies bleeding’ and plant them next to the others, see, they sprout everywhere here, you will soon see a bounty for yourself and your wife.”

“What! … more seeds! … ma fungool … if I have to plant a whole pasture next!?”

“Well, young master, leave it be and go away then and none shall be the sorrier,” and she turned to go.

“Wait! … I apologise for my hastiness signora, I … I will take the seeds we have nothing to lose” he mumbled as he held out his hand.

“just one thing”, she said as she gave him the seeds,” you must first water them with an idiot’s tears!”

“What! … Madonna santissima dio boio! I’m the only idiot left here I’m sure!”

“No, there is Boffo.”

“But how am I to do that, signora?”

“That is your problem, I can only give you the solution … good day to you master Sfaccio,” and she went inside the cottage.

Boffo was the village idiot, he would be mostly idle save when required to do a little light labouring in return for food or drink. At other times he was full of pranks. Sfaccio indeed had his work cut out for him, for all Boffo did was laugh! But Sfaccio struck onto a plan!

Now isn’t it a strange thing, amici, that nothing is freely given in this world without some string attached to the tail … even God wrote a “rider” into the contract of the garden of Eden!

So Sfaccio caught up to Boffo at the Bar …

“Here Boffo, have another glass … it’s a little thing for such a hard world that we live in”.

“Ha Ha … well, and thankee, master Sfaccio. Cruel, yes cruel,” and he gulped the wine greedily.

They sat at a table in the darkened corner of the bar. “Yess … (Sfaccio drawled out) cruel … I was just yesterday thinking of old Mother Zoanetti, and her three sons.”

“Ohh! … Zoanetti … si,si … sad … so sad … tell me, Sfaccio … who was she and what of her?”

“Here, drink up Boffo, drink up!” and he filled the glass again after Buffo gulped down the last dregs.

”Ah! … it’s a worthy tale from sadder times,” Sfaccio sighed “Those were loyal people, loyal to their kindred, stuck like glue they did. Well … The Zoanetti’s were peasants farming up in the hills over Campobasso when the war was at its height. There were the father, mother and three sons. The war was raging in the north and as the oldest son came of age to fight, he was called up. Away he went, oh the sadness for a mother to see her offspring going away with rifle over his shoulder where once he carried his favourite blanket and never knowing if that child ( for we are always children in our mothers eyes, eh Boffo? … drink up!) would return. And they waved him off down the road … and he never came back … never heard a word from him, probably killed straight off as he got to the front.

Then the second son came of age and he too marched off to war with nothing but a backward wave to his grieving mother … and he too was lost in the mayhem of fighting in the mountains. Try as they would, no word came back of his fate. Ahh! the grief a mother feels at such moments when her children are snatched from her bosom and thrown to the dogs of war! The weeping, the grieving … ( drink Boffo, drink! ), still, there was the youngest, when he came of age she refused to part with him, for he was the favourite, she implored him to hide. for her sake! But to no avail, he ,himself turned up to be kitted out, for how could he shirk that duty that his brothers faced so courageously. How she wept and implored the saints as he too walked down that road. The father had to support her as she collapsed to her knees with clasped hands and weeping contorted face! (You see the situation eh Boffo? You could just see them there in the middle of the road all sad and miserable … some more?) and would you believe it? … the same again, no word, silence to every enquiry the old couple made. But then they were dying like flies up there at the front and who knew who was alive or dead.”

“Oohh … master Sfaccio … si … I myself lost two uncles at that war … oh it was indeed pitiful” and Boffo sniffed sorrowfully, Sfacio was encouraged.

“So one day the father says: ‘Wife, you’ll have to manage the farm, I’m going to the front to find my sons” and sad as she was, she rejoiced that at last they would at least get some answers to their worries. So he joined that circus of fighting to see what or where his sons were. If he found them no-one ever will know for he too failed to return, till there, all alone with her grief, mother Zoanetti vowed to search the mountains and battlefields till she found her family. The courage of those mothers was something to reckon with, eh Boffo?” Boffo’s eyes were brimming with tears, Sfaccio was overjoyed, his plan was working!

“Ahh! My own mother … ah!” Boffo nodded his head sadly. Sfaccio took out a clean handkerchief ready to capture those tears and then to wrap them around the seeds given him by Lady Face.

“She was a sturdy peasant so it wasn’t hard to disguise herself as a journeyman labourer, and in this guise she shouldered her pack of essentials and with one last glance over her shoulder at the old farm that had given them so many memories, she headed down the road and do you know, Boffo? … she-never-came-back!” Sfaccio finished his story with a sad drawn out sentence and Boffo sat there drunk and maudlin with tears running down his cheeks.

“That is the saddest story master Sfaccio …” and he sniffled and snortled.

Sfaccio held out the handkerchief:

“Here, my good friend Boffo, wipe your tears with this.” He offered the cloth generously, Buffo looked wide eyed at the crisp clean handkerchief.

“Why … grazie, signore Sfaccio … grazie,” he said softly and he took it so very gently in both hands as if it would break and raised it to his face in wide-eyed wonder, ( as was also the anticipating Sfaccio) then suddenly put it to his nose and blew with such force it fluttered as it filled with his gruesome snot!

“Stronzi!” cried Sfaccio and he swung his fist to knock Buffo flying, but too late, for Buffo was to his feet like a shot and out the door baying like a donkey, for such was his laughter. Sfaccio ran to the door yelling abuse after him to no avail, for it was his own misery that he was abusing.

“Why curse the fool? Sfaccio,” one of the men standing there asked.

“Ah … nothing,” Sfacio answered and stormed off, but not without hearing as he went:

“Even a well-dressed donkey cannot hide his ears,” and then followed light laughter. He decided on another more direct way to get those tears from Boffo. A fortnight later, Sfaccio bailed up Boffo in the street.

“Hey! Boffo … give us a hand will you?” Boffo approached with caution.

“You’re not … not going to attack me are you, Sfaccio?”

“No,no … what’s done is done, no use crying over spilt milk! but I do need a labourer for a small job.”

“What job?”

“See, I have a little work up at the grotto of Saint Felice, I need you to help me take this material up there.”

“It’s late in the day to start work Sfaccio, its near dusk already … and there’s a storm coming on.” “Yes,yes … but this is for tomorrow … so I can get an early start in the morning … a meal and drink for a little help … OK?” Boffo thought for a second:

”OK, master … I’m your man.” So Boffo took up the wheelbarrow and Sfaccio the tools and they set off up the hill. It was dusk when they reached the grotto, a stiff wind was blowing off the mountains and rain-heavy clouds rose toward them from the south. Flashes of lightning and soft rumblings of thunder echoed in the distance. They placed the gear in the grotto.

“Well, Sfaccio, we’d better hasten back if we don’t want to get drenched.”

“Why hurry, Boffo? The storm is a while away and I have some wine to refresh us after that long hike,” and he pulled out a bottle of wine and a small bag of food from his sack.

“Ah well then, as you say, master, why rush?” Boffo squatted down on the earth and licked his lips in anticipation. And there they sat in congenial comfort while the weather closed in on them. They had been there a while passing the bottle and bread and indulging in small-talk when Sfaccio let out a sigh.

“Ahh! Boffo, Boffo … I’ll have to let you in on the real reason I lured you up here tonight.” Sfaccio spoke in a wistful! way. Buffo took the bottle and drank a swill.

“What’s that, master? … lure? … reason?”

“You see these seeds? … here … well, lady Face says I have to plant them tonight, and need your assistance.”

“Ahh! … the seeds, yes I have heard of them that did not grow … You have more? … How many bambini do you want, Sfaccio? … You will need a whole province if they all grow, ha, ha!”

“I have only ten, Boffo, but the lady said that ‘Boffo must plant them,’ and I dare not disobey.” Sfaccio held the seeds out in the palm of his hand.

“Such a small thing, Boffo will be glad to help you.” Boffo took the tiny seeds into his hand.” Where will we plant them?”

“Out there by that boulder is the spot.” Sfaccio pointed to guide Boffo.

They both went outside. The wind was wilder now and sudden little squalls of rain whipped up the valley, the storm was upon them.

“Here,Boffo, dig a little hole here and plant them. Boffo scraped at the earth with his fingers while behind his bent form stood Sfaccio with a long-bladed knife he had secreted in his belt! Boffo dropped the seeds into the earth,

“Now, Sfaccio, do I cover them up?”

“Not just yet, there is one small thing that must be added.”

Sfaccio suddenly grasped Boffo’s hair and pulled back, at the same time brought the knife around to his throat! Boffo yelped in surprise and anguish.

“Now Boffo!! I must have your life!” Sfaccio cried. Boffo howled with fear as he heard these words.

“Why! master, Why?” he whimpered.

“So I am instructed; ‘The blood of Boffo must fertilise them’ she said.”

He brought the knife out so Boffo could see it glimmer and flash in the lightning, like ice in the heart! Boffo howled with fear.

“Stay, master, stay, I am just a poor fool with no home,” he wailed. Sfaccio pulled Boffa’s head hack and called out. to the heavens;

“By all the saints in the heavens, I’ll have his tears or I’ll have his blood!” cried Sfaccio to the breaking storm (Bertouli stood glass in one hand, the other raised to emphasise the action) and the heavens opened up and a shaft of lightening struck the side of the hill upon which they were and the crack of thunder shook the very ground upon which they stood … such was the sudden tempest that Sfaccio loosened his grip on Buffo so that in a flash, he twisted out of his grasp and sprung to his freedom out of Sfaccio’s reach as quick as the lightening that just struck the hillside!

Sfaccio gave a desperate cry to the heavens when he saw that his last chance to have an idiot’s tears fertilise the seeds was now running, arms flaying in consternation, down the hillside track … and at that moment it was as if time suddenly stilled, the wind dropped as if out of breath and the storm ceased in its tumult while thunder drummed into the distance the very heavens held its breath … and then, Sfaccio dropped to his knees and broke into a piteous sob and his wretched face rubbered into the most horrible twist of sadness and big tears rolled down his dirty cheeks and dropped, jewel-like into the soft, damp hole that held the seeds … dropped, dazzling like diamonds onto those tiny seeds. Sfaccio gasped and trembled with lost hope wrapped around his heart and with every tear that touched the earth and those seeds, a clap of thunder shook the mountain and lightning whipped across the apron of the sky!

His face, sheened with rain and fear, quivered and shook with grotesque sculpture and it couldn’t be said who wept the most: the stormy sky from a thunderous rain, or Sfaccio from despair. Sfaccio dropped the knife and wept.

Sfacio had no fears that Boffo would make trouble for him, the story would sound too ridiculous to be believed and besides who would believe an idiot! No, Sfaccio stayed mesmerised to the little hole scraped in the earth which held the seeds. He covered them gently anyhow and patted the soil down then went back to the shelter of the grotto to pray. (Ha!, there! One moment a pagan, the next a Christian!) and so he fell asleep in the grotto to wake to a fine dawn and a clear sky.

Sfaccio rubbed his eyes when he woke, he couldn’t remember falling asleep. But he slowly got to his feet and stumbled out to the dawn. He stretched and yawned, then , remembering the events of the night before glanced quickly to the spot where the seeds were planted, imagine his surprise when he saw there, miraculously just pushing through the topsoil, tiny shoots of seedlings! Their tender tips just penetrating to the air.

”Blessed Lady!” he cried dropping to his knees and quickly crossing himself … and so the kind sister was correct in predicting that the tears of an idiot would have to fertilise the seeds … and it was when he saw the fragile, sprouts, that he realised that all along … he was the idiot …

“Fool am I!” he cried in a mix of shame and ecstacy …

He rose and walked backwards, never taking his eyes off those seedlings. Stumbling clumsily toward the path, he turned suddenly and ran whooping down to get Primula to show her the good tidings. Indeed, it became one of those minor miracles well known in the district and many people gathered that day to witness that marvellous event. However, the next day, those seeds where just yesterday there were ten, the next day there were just six, though that in itself remained a mystery, I know old Signora Rauni who had ten children herself, had pinched off four of those shoots ,

“Ten bambini are four too many Bertouli,” she told me, shaking her head.

And that is how Sfaccio and Primula came to have six beautiful children and grey hair before they were fifty! Allora signori, there is little that people will not do to be blessed with heartaches and happiness! And while The Three Sisters are with us no more, now those who wish for children will go to the grotto of San Felice, and there plant some seeds of “Loves Heart Lies Bleeding” (that they can purchase from my cousin, Sergio, for a few lira) as a gesture of desire … so that now the statue is more one of Pagan worship than Christian! … But enough, there is wine for all!

”Alfredo! Biacchio!” come here and drink , don’t be shy, the good people have been listening to my story and now we celebrate! Alfredo smiled weakly at the two tourists, took a glass and called; ”Saluti!”, then turned to Bertouli and spoke in dialect; “My god, Berto, you’re the longest winded bullshit artist between here and hell, saluti!”

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The Three Sisters (part 1)

“Buongiorno signore e signora turisti”… Bertouli called out effusively with appropriate operatic gestures with the arms.” Welcome to my humble stall … Scusi signora, but your shadow falls on my bowls and utensils and dulls their shine … grazi!” he danced around his wares manipulating the tourists with gentle hand movements, all the while keeping up a running commentary on everything and anything …

“So, just off the train from Naples eh? Have a good trip? … see here, this is an exact replica of the Emperor Caligula’s goblet … that he would use to toast the death stroke of some unfortunate wretch! … and here, a platter very useful for the salada … fruit … or just hanging on the wall for the decoration.“

“Now, this urn, madam, cast your eyes on the ancient Greek embossing, from the temple of Aphrodite … a fertility celebration … you can have it cheap! What, no fertility left! … ahh! a sad fate signora … and one that overtakes us all I’m sorry to say but then we have … (you have the bambini? … ah! good, bene) our children, but pity those who are denied that delight signora … ahh, madonna mio.” And Bertouli sat wearily down on a door step next to his stall and sighed; “Yes signori, many a tale can be told of couples desperate for the little bambini.”

Here he puckered his lips then raised a finger to the sky … for the day was wearing long and he had not sold many wares … and his thirst for a good glass or two of vino was gnawing at his mood … Bertouli had an idea!

“I remember one such couple in our village many years ago.” He paused, looked to the ground then raised his eyes stealthily … ”but you wouldn’t want to hear such a mysterious tale, “there was a stillness in the air as Bertouli felt for their sympathy … He played his card …,” especially as it concerns three witches!” and his eyes met the eyes of the woman cunningly. “What’s that, you would!? … but no, no signora, it is much too long, the day is warm and I am already thirsty! … ” he stroked his bristly chin thoughtfully. “I tell you what I’ll do, for just a little carafe of vino from the ”Bar Centuri” over there, I’ll regale you with the whole sordid story .. heh, heh … you’ll like that, eh signora? … But quickly, quickly, presto. I thirst and the two tourists rushed off to the Bar.

Bertouli sighed. The man from the next stall sidled over to Bertouli and spoke out of the corner of his mouth:

“Eh, Berto, you got a couple of live ones there … buona fortuna!” And he moved away smiling, stopped, thought a moment then turned back to Bertouli; “If you have a little of the wine left remember your friend Alfonso!” and he tapped the side of his nose and winked.

Bertouli suddenly became motivated, he poked his head into the doorway of the house next to his stall and called:

“Signora Seneca, tre bicchieri per favore?”

“Quando ritorno?” a voice inside asked.

“As soon as we have finished the bottle!”, Bertouli cried. “Pulito? Yes … clean as a whistle and I’ll dry them with my tongue!” The last comment was spoken in a whisper.

The two tourists returned with the carafe of wine. Bertouli began his story …

“Now, amici, keep in mind that these events took place in another age. An age when superstition was to some degrees; dogma! and every village had its “Witch-doctor”. But then, that was also not so long ago! I sometimes think our modern medicine hovers on the boundry of the absurd, and in the end we all have to be our own physicians, eh?”

Bertouli took the carafe from the tourists so as to facilitate more expediently the transfer of wine from bottle to glass.

”There,” he said, handing a small glass of the wine to each; “Salute!”

“Our little village of Castella di Luci, was part of the estate of a wealthy Padrone, who lacked in nothing save a son to carry on his name and the estate. For he was of that generation that looked to the male to become the next “Padrone” and so continue the family tradition. But that was not to be! Three girls and no boy. Then one cruel winter, his wife died of influenza … he was heart-broken, for he loved that woman dearly … and she was pregnant when she died … yes … a boy child that died with her (“sigonori … un ultri? ah! si! grazi!”).

“Well, the Padrone buried them both then settled down to drink and curse his fate into an early grave. The three young girls were raised by an old retainer and her husband, the gardener. The Padrone forgot about them, so bitter was he, and continued to drink his misfortune away. And so he joined his wife and unborn child ten years later to the day!”

Bertouli slapped both hands flat on his knees to emphasize fates’ whimsical twists.

“Well, those three little children were raised by the housekeeper and her husband. The property was sold by the executors to pay debts the old Padrone had run up … all was sold except three identical cottages, side by side along the high road. These the old man had built as a sort of dowry for when the girls grew up. And grew up they did, though none too handsome I might add, and they each one lived in one of those three cottages, and as time went on and they never married, they slowly took on those inevitable eccentricities that identify bachelors and spinsters. Each had an interest in gardening, so with a small income left them from the estate they lived and thrived in their little individual worlds.“

“The first one had an interest in herbs, her garden bristled with strange, wondrous weeds which would overwhelm you with mystical aromas when you walked past. She could always be seen out amongst those tenacious plants singing and crooning soft songs while dressed in tasselled cloaks and heavy woollen dresses of her own make and design, busy turning the earth with a small garden spade as she hummed … Her name was Marita ..  we nicknamed her ‘FATE’. “

“The second was a light, delicate child, and indeed, she was the same grown to womanhood. Her passion was flowers. Such sweet fulsome blooms of so many varied hues you never saw the like of before and I’ll risk the future to say; you’ll never see the like of again! She too would sing while tending her beds of poppies or mughetti, rose-hedges and lilies, showers of sweet-peas would wash over the fence like a woven waterfall of dancing confetti … and when a wild wind blew, all the front yard up and leapt a-swaying and swirling like a wild tribe in the free abandon of some pagan dance! … she of the multi-coloured skirts we called ‘FACE’ … though her name be Katrina.”

“The third sister was the more serious of them all, with her hair pulled back stern to a tight bun at the back of her head and she clothed in trousers and gum-boots, she would till the earth in her garden as though she were teaching it a lesson, so there were long beds of rich, brown soil oozing an aroma of humus and worm with a faint scent of dry straw wafting amongst the bean trellises. She grew vegetables, all types, and she grew them well or cursed them to hell, her name was Kaileena, we nicknamed her ‘FAVOUR’.”

“So there they stayed and there they cultivated their own peculiar idiosyncrasies, we referred to them as the three sisters: Fate, Face. Favour! And they had strange powers those sisters … mark my words when I say that! … strange ways, strange powers! (fill my glass signor, I thirst! … huh? .0. you’ll second that? … ha.ha … very good! saluti!). I’ll tell you amici, down south here, we are still very pagan in our beliefs, very superstitious … oh si, yes … we give the saints their candles and the pope still gets his silver, but our hearts … (he leant close to whisper) our hearts are with the pagan gods! Ecco! (Bertouli cried as he leapt to his feet and spun his torso in a lithe, quick-stepping momentary dance, finishing with a “Spanish” flourish of the wrists in the air) : we pray to Jesus but dance to Dionysus!”

“The three sisters grew to be our “priests” of pagan superstition, to them we would go for visions of hope, of wealth, for cures of illness. Many mothers would burn a candle at the church for a sick child, then sneak off to Lady Fate for a hopeful cure with a concoction of herbs and secret chanting … even for a little fortune telling from lady Face … what do I mean; even … Madonna mio!, for wasn’t that their speciality? … and they would do it with riddles, with cryptic clues or even facial expressions … my word! they were not often wrong either.”

“For instance: There once was a black marketeer; Capodolcia, his name was, a very wealthy man. then one day he suddenly disappeared … never came back (Bertouli tapped the side of his nose) he was, as they say in those old Yankee movies; “taken for a ride.” And do you know. the day before he disappeared, he comes over to my shop holding a cucumber …

” Mother Favour, she gives this to me as I passed her place,” he said quizzically.

“Did she say anything?” I asked.

“Not a word! … curious, what can it mean?” he said puzzled.

“Well, I for one remember the old saying: The world is like a cucumber ; one day it is in the palm of your hand, the next it is up your arse!” The next day he goes and never comes back … a mystery eh? … but that is what those sisters were like, cryptic and mysterious. (I can see the future now in the bottom of my glass, signor … it looks like a drought … grazie!).

But there was one young fellow who scorned the superstitions, even openly mocked those ladies to the quiet mirth of his friends, though none of his companions would openly laugh at his jibes, being caught between the two worlds, so to speak.

And it came about that the young man, “Sfaccio”, married. and the wedding party walked past the cottages of the three sisters from the church to the parent’s house for the reception, as was the custom in the village and as was also the custom, the three sisters would give the married couple a token each from their garden to wish the newly-weds well.

At the first cottage, that of Mother Fate, parsley was given to the bride as a sign of fertility.

Mother Face gave a boquet of lily as a testament of lasting beauty … and the party then proceeded on to the third cottage.

As Sfaccio came abreast of the cottage of Favour, he, being in an extra happy frame of mind, thought for a bit of sport with the lady there in her garden. He held his hands high to stop the procession and leant over the fence of mother Favour.

“My dear Mother Favour,” he called jovially … “pray attend to the request of the bridal party and tell, if it be in your power, how many bambini will bless their household?” and he laughed uproaresly, others ducked their eyes away, some moaned sheepishly for no-one had ever openly mocked those women before.

”Tell me, oh wise mistress … how many seeds planted in our garden will germinate to fruition or will our loins be as barren as … ” and Sfaccio suddenly snatched off the hat of his father-in-law … ” Pappa’s head!?” And at this everyone laughed, even the father-in-law grinned as he grabbed his hat back, for Sfaccio was friendly if a little cheeky! as the laughter died down there was mother Favour standing there at the fence with her hand out and ten seeds in the palm.

“What are these?” Sfaccio asked, the giggles dying around him.

“Melon seeds” Favour answered,” Take them to the grotto of San Felice, plant them in the shadow of her smile and there count your bounty.” and she turned away with no more to say.

Well, Sfaccio made to cast them aside but his bride held his arm.

“Hold thy patience love, plant them for but the novelty and should they sprout, we will try to match their number.”

“And should all ten sprout?” Sfaccio laughed.

“All the more arrows for thine quiver.” His bride smiled (ah!, amici, it is true that the women have a closer tie to the gods … and the devil!) Sfaccio held his arm up with the seeds in his fist and gazed deeply into his bride’s eyes, but those same that once mesmerised him were now shrouded in mystery! (a wine, signore, a wine!) and he lowered his arm, put the seeds in his pocket, he then called an over-exagerated: “

Addio! Mother Fortune.” And the party moved on.

A week later they passed my shop walking up the hill.

“Ah!” I called out jovially “the newlyweds surface! and where are you two off to on such a crisp day?”

“We are off to plant some seeds, Signore coppersmith,” Sfaccio called back

“What! … and thou has been idle for the last week!?” I laughed.

“Ah! … but this time we plant them under the nose of the blessed Saint Felice!” Sfaccio waved his right hand in a swirling motion.

“Well at least cover her eyes with your cloak lest she get jealous, the saints can’t abide with happy humans!” And the two laughed together and trudged off up the hill.

Now, Franco, the shepherd-boy just happened to be with his flock there near the grotto, and while he saw and heard them, they were oblivious to his presence, particularly as he had hidden himself most cunningly behind some rocks. This is what he heard:

”Now, Sfaccio, we are nearly there … where did she say to plant the seeds?”

“In the shadow of Saint Felice’s smile, wherever that is … but, my love, I confess, I have forgotten to bring them!” And Sfaccio raised his hands in mock apology.

”It’s alright, I took them myself … lest thou fail to remember … Now … where can be the shadow of her smile?” and she gazed around the base of the grotto. Sfaccio’s shoulders dropped with his arms.

“Dear Primula (for that was the wife’s name) this is foolishness to pursue, such a sweet day was made for embracing, not grovelling on a fool’s errand!”

“Ah!” Primula cried ”There … Sfaccio, look!” and she pointed to the ground. Poor Franco was nearly exposed as he gaped over the rocks to see what it was …

“Oh. Of course … I see it, mio stupido … dirt!” Sfaccio mocked.

“Don’t be silly, there, the shadow of her statue on the ground, and there, her lips at the base of the boulder. Here, the seeds, plant them. Sfaccio!”

“What! … not I, dearest … why ”(and he turned to look in every direction)” what if someone were to see me?”

“There is no-one here save the saint and thee and me.”

“Those look like Franco’s flock, he could be hiding, watching us this very minute.”

“What fearest thou from his tongue?”

“You know these people, they see you doing any little strange thing why, if one was to fart in the village of Brommio. by the time you reach Castella di Luci three kilometri hence, the word is already about that you shit yourself!”

But Primula took no notice of him, such is the stubbornness of women.

“Just plant the seeds quickly and it will be done and we will not linger. The longer thou speech … ”

“Alright, alright, it is done!” he said vexed and suspecting that he had been conned, such are the remaining feelings of a woman’s persuasive logic. And I tell you amici, none of those seeds sprouted, and also … no bambini! (look signore! no more wine, presto per favore … to the Bar Centuri” … and the tourists trotted off to get another carafe).

“Bertouli! .. Bertouli!” Alfredo called from the next stall … “You talk too much and too long, remember your friends!” Bertouli looked over and there was Alfredo and Biacchio both wide eyed rubbing their hands together. Bertouli schussed them with pattering hands as the tourists returned.

“Ah! … new wine, new friends, new day!” Bertouli cried effusively … and then continued …

“At first Sfaccio dismissed the delay as bad luck then, as the cycles came and went, they both grew more alarmed … no bambini! … and what is it that possesses the Italian heart, even more than love? … ah! … the family, the bambini! … the little children that drop to earth from God’s lips … il piccilo baci di Dio! Secretly, Sfaccio was seen to visit the grotto of Saint Felice to check if those seeds had sprouted, for little by little that idea had got hold of him, so do we all grasp such thin straws in times of despair. But no seedlings, and allora … no bambini.”

“The people of the village had not failed to notice either, not for nothing is it written: “and the eyes are not satisfied with seeing, nor the ears filled with hearing … ” and I might add: “and the mouth emptied from talking!” so the chatter did the rounds of the village, one gossip to the next and worst of all, Sfaccio and Primula heard not a word of it! Which made them all the more anxious, for they suspected the substance of those rumours. Finally Sfaccio could stand no more, so he fronted the cottage of Mother Fortune.

(Continued tomorrow with Part 2)

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Art for communities sake?

In a sort of response to the post; “Ahead of Our Times: Is Political Progressivism Part of the Australia’s Creative DNA?“, I offer this post up. While I do not dispute the best intentions of Denis Bright’s piece, I would contest the best approach to bring art to the people … I would rather that “art” as we call it, be more a growth FROM the root UP rather than dropped as fruit from the branch DOWN …

Unfortunately, as with many good intentions, my meaningful attempt to gain support from the folk mentioned below in this piece was sabotaged by those ever present warring “issues” between the parties and I fear that while the notion of an idea was appreciated and will be adopted, it has been taken out of my hands completely with a govvy’ grant applied for and already would appear to be morphing into another notion completely, with only the skeletal remains of the original idea kept in place … if at all!
Anyway, here is the original sent to the Progress Assn’ …

“Just a notion of an idea.

A couple of weeks back I put up a story on my blog; “The Seven Weeping Men of Sedan.” I wrote that piece along with another local-centred story … that I also put up there, it stretches out to nearly 7000 words … It is a romance that I wanted to locate locally using local names and identifying landmarks that I feel demonstrate the Australian quirkiness of names … places like The Bulldog Run … The Sleeper Track … The Seven Sisters Junction, etc … I wanted to use these places as a background for the developing love story of the young couple … I wanted the story to show how a story grows from a point of location to a moment of … or perhaps a lifetime of … commitment to each other … sure … in this cynical age of everyone for themselves, romantic love can be seen as a fantasy … a youthful delusion best grown out of … and I can see from my own experience of grown children, the idea of romance of any kind today is looked upon with the curled lip of scepticism … But I don’t know … I think there is still a little bit of room for the desire of close affection and loyalty … and (can I say it?) … Love … right into old age.

Here is a link to the story if you want to read it.

For that story, I claim bragging rights to being the first author to place the action of a romantic tragedy in the town of Sedan!

I had a notion of an idea for such stories to be the basis … along with pieces of local history, to lay a foundation for the construction of a new direction for the town of Sedan … here in the Murray Mallee.

Sedan is just another of those slowly disappearing towns hanging on by the skin of its teeth in what was once a thriving farming area of the Germanic pioneers, but is now a fringe marginal farming district. Weather change and market needs has made the averages of cropping/stock yields turn from good to medium to now marginal … and in doing so has brought about a shift in perception for those who inherit the old farms from a career in agriculture to a more reliable income in the Barossa wine industry or other pursuits. So many old cottages have been let go for too long and much infrastructure neglected … from a once thriving centre with numerous businesses catering to a large labour force to now only three functioning operations. It is fading away.

I wanted to shift the perception from a sighted remnant of a town to one jam-packed with history, mythology and mystery … Ideally located between two major tourist drawcards of the Barossa Valley and the Murray River, Sedan has the history and the silent, brooding nature of those Germanic Pioneers to provide the mystery and the mythology for an interesting stop-over to any travellers through the town.

Sedan is different than most country towns that have the one main-street drive-through in that it is located at a crossroad north, south, east and west … traffic to and from the river district of that section of the Murray River has to pass through Sedan … and where you have crossroads, some traffic has to stop … and once stopped, people have a tendency to look about their position … and there you have them! … you just have to have the attraction to hold them.

And that is where the Sedan Hotel comes in.

Of the three remaining businesses operating in Sedan, only the hotel has the capacity to attract and hold the public … the other two being service places for passing travellers. I took that story of the “weeping men of Sedan” to the mine-hosts of that hotel and explained my ambition and the methodology for ascertaining the possible success of such a plan that I thought would be of benefit to all in the town … It was to leave several copies – anonymous – in A4 loose leaf – tied at the corners with soft cord – on the bar-top just to see if there was interest at all in the notion of a different story-line for the town … ie; would there be enough interest locally AND with the hotel managers to create an aura of mystery and mythology of the district to push the envelope further up the chain of command to the progress association and thence to the local council for further promotion.

As it turned out, there was enough interest in those pieces to encourage me to approach the Progress Association with this prospect.

As I said … the stories are there, the mystery is there as is the history … all it needs is mixing and marketing … and those stories were perhaps the blue-touch paper that could light up the imagination seeking for more!

I would propose to the progress association that we investigate the celebrating of a ceremony … perhaps a kind of “gathering” at the hotel to introduce amateur story-tellers and yarn spinners from – SPECIFICALLY – the Murray Mallee to each other in an atmosphere of convivial homeliness … tongues encouraged to be loosened with a modicum of amber fluid or vino. I would hold to the “Amateur” status for the early days so as to encourage the more reclusive or shy story tellers to yield their knowledge of tales and events of the area.

I could imagine a bit of music accompaniment at such an event would add to the atmosphere, but I would bulk at letting TOO MUCH guitar rather than say … ukulele … or banjo … or hand accordion squeeze-box … to give it that quirky feel to the stories … rather than have it fall back onto a folk-festival event.

I can see that if timed to coincide with the Barossa wine and food festival, it could lure many “over the hill” to taste a little of what we have to offer that is quirky, mysterious and different on the Murray Flats. An annual “gathering” of story-tellers and yarn spinners could re-brand the town with a completely new appreciation.

What do you think?”

(Sent on the 24/4/2019).

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The Arrogance of Power

A Play …

This is a condensed part of a full play that is centred around a well-worked story; that of “The Kelly Gang” … But the difference is displayed in the title … I hope to have delved a little at least into what I call; “An Arrogance of Power” … It is political and social power sometimes held by a charismatic individual like Kelly, or an Authority of governance … or subordinate officials who aspire to have it.

In Ned Kelly’s case, He possessed it as a natural strength, the Colonial Authorities jealously guarded it as their perceived right, and other minor officials desired it as a personal treasure. In the story of the Kelly uprising, this “arrogance” was played out by several people.

I want to try with this portrayal of Ned Kelly, to elevate the man from what may be called in some quarters; A “criminal” mythology, to where I think he more rightly deserves to be placed in our Nation’s short but colourful Colonial history:

That of Heroic Mythology

Act# 4 Scene: 2

… A jail cell. Kelly sits on wooden bench … hands clasped, head down, he is musing on his fate, a cock crows, Kelly starts!

Kelly- “Hark, the dawn, sweet Christ! dawn.(he places his head in his hands, then raises it to gaze straight toward audience). Dear Lord, give my distress reason, this last moment before sunrise … this last moment of my life on this earth. What dire fate carried me to this end? Where my brothers now … my friends? .. Must I face this darkness alone amongst my enemies? … Ah, damn, damn, damn! What humour of the gods threw me to such beasts … is it for the meanest pun that I am cast so? a murderer they call me, yet they have killed more than I. A thief they call me and still they rob the poor and ignorant. (He stands and paces the cell) Yet, there are many who see such injustices done … but why was it to me that fell the responsibility to try to correct such injustices? … I who wanted no more than a farm, and a quiet life. What trick of circumstance brought me to these gallows? … No! … Settle your mind, Ned … hark now while there is still time … go steadily over the facts, for there, is the secret of the rebellion.”

(He sits down, hands apart in front and reflects)

[Stage direction: Here the stage is divided into two, Ned in his cell on the right, (from the audience’s viewpoint) the Governor, Judge Redmond Barry, Superintendent Hare sitting in comfortable chairs, on the left. They are surrounded by all the trappings of their class, they pour themselves glasses of wine from time to time whilst they talk. Their conversation is calm, well constructed and carefully considered. Kelly’s soliloquy is questioning, his answers full of self-doubt till the end where he finally gains the upper-hand, then he becomes calm, self-assured, certain of his conclusion, whilst the others shift about in their chairs, squirming as they become evasive. doubtful …

As each question is put up by Kelly, his side of the stage darkens, the other lights up and his question is “answered” by one of the three as if they were talking to him and vice-versa.]

Judge Redmond Barry holds out his glass, superintendent Hare starts, quickly servile but clumsily reaches out and fills the glass from a carafe on the table … as he fills, they hear a cock crow … they all turn to a window on the set wall.

Governor: “Dawn … it won’t be long now!”

Sir Red. Barry: “If it were done, best it were done quickly.”

Gov; “No passing regrets, Redmond?”

Sir Redmond Barry: ‘With each mans’ death I too am diminished … ha ha! But no, not this time … for Kelly’s crimes shaped his own end eh, Hare? ”

Sup’ Hare: “Certainly, we had all the evidence … (snorts humorously) if such were needed, for he convicted himself by his intent … and that was clear enough.”

Gov’: “What then the talk of his mother?”
[stage darkens, return to Kelly.]

Kelly: ”When the troopers harassed and arrested my mother … did I act too hastily and with too much temper’?”

Sup. Hare.: ”Well, to be accurate, the evidence against his mother was a little … thin on the ground (a soft guffaw from the others) to warrant her arrest … but! … we had to create a catalyst to follow through with the suppression of the district radicals.”

Gov’.: ”Hear! hear!”( the judge snorts approval)

Kelly:” Did I act in too much haste to avenge the treatment given to my family, and friends? … Perhaps I was bold beyond reason?”

Sup’. H.: ”Likewise his father and assorted relatives and friends … we had to make an example of the clan lest their outspoken behaviour be seen as a quality of leadership and so spark rebellion amongst the larger Irish community there in the district. Amongst such clannish people we had little evidence … but we had power and arms enough to divide and accuse regardless of guilt … it is our right to rule … and the prisons, ours to fill!”

Judge Barry: “’Tis a pity Kennedy, and his patrol didn’t rid us of the problem early in the piece.”

Gov’ … ”Being their own kind … you’d have thought they would have been more cunning … set a thief to catch a thief … ”

Sup’. H.:” Ah! … they were ambushed … ’twas bad luck for them … armed to the teeth they were too … ’twas bad luck for us, that!”

(Lights up his pipe).

Kelly: ”Kennedy and his lot … that was an evil day!… For Kennedy was a brave man, the wrath of God be upon me for his death. I’m sure. But then … what were they to expect? Irishmen hunting Irishmen, they could expect nothing but trouble! Those canny bastards always set us against ourselves … divide and rule is the order of the day.“

Sup’ H.:(he draws on his pipe, expels a long breath)” ‘Twas very important to have their own countrymen hunting them, sets the train of doubt and mistrust amongst their community .. They have a long memory: the Irish. And a long memory gives rise to a shorter temper!.
(all three laugh).

Gov’.:  “He’ll be but a memory in a few short moments! … ha! ha!” (the gov’ throws his head back to laugh at his own joke … the other two look at each other and roll their eyes).

Judge Barry: (taps tips of his finders together) ”Though in the eyes of the Crown … we have achieved the desired effect of suppressing a sedition and or a potential uprising of the Irish rebellious contingent in the community … there is a mild … mild I reiterate, moral question that begs discussion. eye-eee (ie.) the deliberate setting-up of these people and incidents and subsequent loss of life to achieve the objective … vis-a-vis: the rooting out and extinguishing of seditious elements within the community”.

Gov’.: “Deliberate setting-up?” (Gov looks to Sup.Hare).

Sup’.H.: (clears throat)”Well, Sir … er, to be honest … (clears throat again).

Gov’: “Out with it man!”

Kelly; (pacing the cell, stops, turns head to side, ponders) All the circumstances, all the petty infringements of law, the paltry nit-picking and harassment of our clan … (paces floor as he reasons) the Irish agin’ Irish, relative against relative it seems as if there was a more deliberate force at work than mere chance, it seems as if everything fell too, too smoothly into place, as if all the trivial accusations were deliberately set up to “strike at” our family but … no!, no! … surely it couldn’t be so …?

Sup. H.: ”I did have a report from Superintendent Nicholson that, among other people, most strongly recommended the (gazes quickly to Judge Barry) “rooting out” of the Kelly family from the district and to (if I may quote)”send them to Pentridge even on a paltry charge” to take them away from the community and to reduce their influence in the area so, yes, Sir, in some ways it was a deliberate “set-up” as Judge Barry mentioned, though I must admit that it did not go always as planned and I think it was our good fortune that there was not a general uprising at the siege of the Glenrowan Inn! .. and if they had succeeded in the derailment of the troop train … ?(he finishes with a nervous swig of wine) … thank heaven for the schoolmaster” …

Gov’: ”Ah, yes … the spoiler … ”

Sup’ H: ”Spoiler, Sir?”

Judge B; “We have our own “spoilers”, Hare … every Jesus has his Judas …” He gulps his wine.

Gov’; “Quite so, quite so … That close, eh? … (Sup Hare nods in silence) Hmm, is this report common knowledge?”

Sup’.H.: “Only to the higher echelons of the department, Sir.”

Gov’: (stands and begins to pace the floor with hands clasped behind back) “Then keep it such … and Nicholson? … good man that, sees deeply into a problem … (pauses, reflects on his statement) … reward him with a promotion (suddenly raises finger) no, wait! … not promotion, money! give him a supplement to his pay … heh!heh! … money is the most subtle gag! … besides, we don’t want a too competent man near the “top” (stops pacing, looks to the others meaningfully) do we?” (no word from the other two, so he smiles). You know I have received a petition of plea for clemency for Kelly … thirty thousand signatures … (he looks from one to the other, reading their reactions). Yes … (he sighs and sits back down) that is an awful lot of support in the community … of course there is no chance of it happening, as if the Crown can relinquish so firm a grasp on law and order! No, he shall hang as ordained in the courts of justice.” (Gov raises his glass toward Judge Barry).

Kelly: ”But if it was such, if there was a deliberate conspiracy to victimise our family and friends … let me think … (counts out on fingers) Me. Mother, Dan, Jim, Joe Byrne, Aaron Sherrit, Jack Lloyd, Bill Skillion, James Quinn. Pat Quinn (stops counting and looks toward audience in a state of shock) all sentenced, all served time … there can be little doubt but that we were hounded into the courts for some covert reason. Damn their eyes that they have played us into an insidious trap! That the authorised government would sink to such depths to isolate and oppress a group of people as an example to the general mass. What twisted frame of mind would seek such notorious security? That it would selectively sacrifice individuals for its own greater comfort. No, it was not I who was the criminal in this escapade. Let the filth of their cunning permeate into the furtherest reaches of their administration, for they will reap just reward for the evil they sow this day (clenches fist in anger).

Judge B.:(swills wine in glass whilst gazing down reflectively) ”I fear we have set a precedent with this action that can lead us down a treacherous path,”

Gov.: ”How so. Redmond?”

Judge B: “‘Tis a fateful pity we picked on such courageous an individual as Edward Kelly, on the surface he would appear “easy-meat”; poor, uneducated country-bumkin! But there is a natural leader under that impoverished hide that may yet become a beacon to others.”

Gov.: “Come, come,Redmond. You colour us as tyrants and that … that(waves fingers) dirt as a new Brian Boru !”

Judge B.: ”You heard him in my courtroom? … You read his “Jerilderie Letter”?

Gov.: ”Ravings! my dear man, ravings!”

Judge B.: ”To us, yes, for we deem them as such … We dismiss the crude rhetoric as a maniacs rave … but I tell you there was a power in both those “ravings”, a power that came from a deep belief in the injustice of his jailing … of his family’s convictions … of the oppression of his peoples … MY peoples still! … Such a power has its own silent brooding strength within! … we are indeed fortunate if there is not an uprising after dawn today!”

(A silence prevails)

Gov.: (stands and thinks) “Then we must ‘colour’ the man’s last moments.”

Sup’ Hare; ”How so Your Excellency?”

Gov.: ”Why, we shall apply that time-honoured system when dealing with the ‘honest’ opposition we shall LIE! … lie and dishonour their memory! (pounds fist into palm of other hand)Let the sentence follow its rubric script, only we, (pauses, wags finger) shall darken the language to the pitch of blood! What is left untarnished … let them adore! But I beg you, fellow corpsmen, let it be little or best still … nothing of respectable substance! We hang Kelly as a murderer; let us paint him as more than such! You; Hare, make sure you report his “cowardice” at the hanging, use any language at your command to make an unfavourable impression with our friends of the Press of his last moments … we must start now to nip any sympathy in the bud and we shall use all means available to do it! … ”

Kelly: “And still it was I who took up the challenge to right their criminal intent but why? … why was it left to me? … many a time gladly would I have given over the reins to another … (softly). Christ too begged release, yet there was none to take it. Likewise my own position … Joe Byrne? … too cavalier … Dan? too young, likewise Steve Hart but of the rest? … like the disciples of Christ: no vision, it would have all frittered away till there was only the cruel oppression left and us rotting in Pentridge goal … No, there was no other to take the initiative … only I (slumps down on bunk, arms limp on lap…slowly looks up to audience, stands, points to audience accusingly) … and you! You stand by and let me and the likes of us carry the burden of responsibility and pay the price! … what is your part in this history? … (stands transfixed, mouth slightly open, pointing finger lowers slowly softly speaks) … But what am I saying … they are invisible: the silent majority, they do not figure in history, till the suffering attains a greater magnitude, then and only then does the collective whinge become a moan of anguish! … aaaahhh! (flings arm wide).bugger the lot of them! … it is too late to lament my lot now, I am condemned to die dishonourably to give cold honour to a cowardly population … well, I’ll give them one thing to think about: at least I’ll die game! … (shouts) I AM NED KELLY … SON OF RED KELLY! … ”

Gov.: ”It is nearly time now, superintendant, go and witness Kelly’s “cowardice” and give it favourable report in the daily press.” (Sup’ Hare stands to attn, salutes and departs.) ”Good man that (nods after Hare), I must recommend a suitable reward for his services.”

Judge B: “More money, Your Excellency? (Gov is about to sit, stops mid action and gazes questioningly at the judge) … since I’m sure we don’t want too competent a man near the top” (sips wine innocently)

Gov.: (sits down slowly but comfortably) ”I’m sure I can manage my … subordinates … Redmond … yes, more money, never fails (sips wine, sighs) I’ll have to order in another crate of this most enjoyable red, it sits most delightfully on my digestion!”

Judge B.: “It disturbs mine.”

Gov.: “That is because you gulp it down too fast my dear Redmond … I’ve watched you. No! … don’t deny it, but listen, good wine is money to the blood … as the coins feel reassuring when they jingle in your pocket and you “embrace” them with your fingers before you spend them … So it is with wine, you let it lay a little on the tongue then press it gently against the palate to feel the richness of it’s fruit before you consume … BEFORE you consume, my dear Redmond … then it will not sour your gut! … (looks to the judge and laughs) ha! ha! ha!”

Kelly: (returns to bench and sits, hands on knees) “Ah well, they destroy me … but I will take some of them with me … for I will be the nemesis of their hatred! … they have “roped ” themselves to me. Now, as I die … so must they … mine is not the only neck that will be gracing the rope !” (places head in hands and sobs gently he then stops, looks up) Mother … please give me strength to die like a Kelly.”

Judge B.: (taps fingertips together as he speaks) “Of course all this damn drama has risen out of the selectors’ poverty. There is such a thing as too much poverty, Gov’, I see it before my bench continually … ”

Gov.: ”… and where there is poverty there is crime … ”

Judge B.: “And where there is wealth, I contritely add: Is there not greater crime?”

Gov.: “Ahh! but that ‘crime’ is affiliated, my dear Redmond, affiliated.”

Judge B.: “And we, I take it, are all shareholders?”

Gov.: (stands up abruptly, looks to the judge) “Yes, by God!, that or poverty! … I leave you choose the more favourable … (lowers voice) but come , Redmond, I didn’t make the rules, I am only a caretaker and I too must answer to a greater power … well aware am I that the substance of the poor always goes to enrich the wealthy (hunches shoulders appealingly) but what would you? … Those of us who pull the levers of Authority know only too well the tenuous hold we have on that power … and we know only too well that we rule not on our own strength … for what really are you Redmond, or I, if challenged to arms … but through the obedient strength of those we command … those we own … and if they but knew what we know … So, dear Redmond … Let us be thankful we are only hanging one man, not a whole class!”

Judge B.: ”(drains glass with a wince) Pray we are not , in the long run, hanging ourselves!”

(Stands to leave). Stage darkens.

Exit scene.

N.B.: The full play “An Arrogance of Power” can be read on my blog site here.

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The story of Hannibal / Hannibal’s Tale

I always find that when things in the political / work world get just TOO complicated and solutions seem to get further and further away, it is best to return to the simpler things in one’s life to think about …

This children’s story has it’s origin in two events. The first was in my wanderings as a much younger man trying my hand at opal mining … not so much mining, really as scratching around.

In amongst those months of loneliness up in the desert, I had as a “pet” companion, a mouse that I caught one day eating at a packet of biscuits … I named him “Hannibal” and I kept him / her in my top pocket fed on bits and pieces of crumbs .

The other part is filled by an old miner who lived in a “dugout” hole in the side of a hill a couple of miles away, like the header pic above.

He was quite old then and his “dugout” in the hill contained only a big iron-frame bed and one small picture hanging precariously on the cave wall … It was a painting of a sailing clipper-ship that he assured me was the very ship he sailed in to Australia so many years ago.

The “dugout” he lived in had a big hole in the roof that with the bright moonlight shining in, would give the super-white alunite walls a kind of blueish-phosphorous glow … quite a sight with he there on the edge of the bed talking of ships and seas while we were both in the middle of a vast desert!

Spinifex hopping mouse.

The spinifex hopping mouse, also known as the tarkawara or tarrkawarra, occurs throughout the central and western Australian arid zones, occupying both spinifex-covered sand flats and stabilised sand dunes, and loamy mulga and melaleuca flats.

The Story of Hannibal / Hannibal’s Tale

When old Charlie took me in as a live-in companion, I was living out in the sticks … Most of my experience had been a close encounter with the seedy side of life … a pretty hairy existence. So I was quite happy to be nothing more than a “conversation piece” to a lonely old man while I got my room and board, along with regular meals free of charge.

It took me a little while to get used to his house and habits … some of those older folk have habits of doing things that have taken them dozens of years to perfect. But I didn’t mind, he was always quiet in the mornings as he come to the breakfast table … just saying; “Hello, Hannibal” … that’s the nickname he gave me … He reckoned that anyone as tough and resilient as myself deserved a heroic name! He didn’t really expect too much conversation, and sometimes he would even ask me something and then answer for me as well.

Sometimes he’d take a piece of rock out of his pocket and ask;

“What do you think of that colour, Hannibal?” and he’d answer himself before I even had time to think; “… well I think it’s nice … a bit on the pale side, but it will scrub up well.”

I think it was just the fact of having some company there that cheered him up, and sometimes we would do things together … ”I want you to stick close to me today, Hannibal … I want you as close as my shirt pocket.”

On some days, he’d take me with him to work …

“Today, Hannibal, we are going to drive a little way along the east ridge … I think we might find some colour there” … and if it wasn’t too much of a tight squeeze on the drive, he’d take me with him for a bit of company, keeping up a running commentary of what he was thinking while he worked. It was often quite entertaining and I didn’t have to contribute to the work or the conversation at all as he told story after story … he didn’t even expect me to laugh … though they could be sort of funny at times, I think he would have been shocked if I did laugh!

At night, he would cook up a nice little dinner and I would get my meal from the best bits … with all the trimmings of a yeast bun dessert, or a biscuit .

At bed-time he would see me to my room with his “Tilley lantern”, and make sure I was safe and comfortable for the night before going to his own bedroom … all in all, it was a very nice billet for the several months I was with him.

Eventually though, he had to let me go … I am afraid some of my nocturnal adventures had got the better of me and I came home with my three tiny babies … and he had to rename me “Hannibelle”. Old Charlie said he was too old now for the pitter-patter of little feet, and I had to find a place of my own.

He read out a letter his sister wrote to him to say she too had; “ … found another nice “home” that HE could go into when he was ready … after all, he wasn’t getting any younger … ,” and he sighed and shook his head.

“Hannibelle,” he said; “I’d rather live in a hole of my own choosing … if they don’t mind.”

Old Charlie has since left the district to go to another mining town, because that was his life; he was an opal miner you see? … and he had to let me go my own way … after all, he couldn’t be expected to take a Spinifex hopping mouse and all her offspring with him in the inside pocket of his old jacket, could he?

This was originally published on my own site; freefall852.wordpress.com.

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Ted and Edie dance the Rumba

“I saw it happen an’ that’s how I knows it … and I know why it happened … an’ I’m sorry it didn’t happen a long time ago, back when they could’ve made something with it.” Swertzy took a drag on his cigarette again and settled into the chair outside the Sedan Post Office and reflected on times past … his portly frame shifted to ease the rheumatic pain in his hip.

Heinie Schwertzferger explained:

“Ted and I first learned proper dancing with old Mrs Harris, who used to give dance classes in her home back in the fifties … over there in Towitta … when Ted and I were young blades … She would move the lounge table to one side and crank up the old gramophone player and she and her hubby would teach a group of us locals how to dance real proper like … you know … the Fox-trot, Military Two Step … those old ballroom dances of the day … ”

“A few of us young blokes went there because there was a lot of old-style dances in those days or when the rock and roll came along, there were those 60/40 type dances and we wanted to meet and dance with girls … none of us being that suave with the ladies … save Johnny Hocking … he was a goer .. but “Rosie” … Ted Rosenswietz and I … well, we just weren’t in the game … so we learned how to dance with Mrs. Harris .. and learned darn good too! … oh, she was a good teacher … so that when we went to those dances held in the Sedan Hall by Gladys and Johan Herbig, she … Gladys, said that there wasn’t anything she could teach us and that we were just swell at dancing … ”

“But she could show us a new dance … The Rumba … ”

Heinie took a draw on his ciggy and stared into the distance as he deliberated on his thoughts ..

“I wasn’t that good at the rumba, the movements were a tad too quick for me .. ’specially the turn and stepping back … I was a bit clumsy in that movement … but Ted and his dance partner, Edith Bentley were a perfect match … they moved as one, joined by a kind of tied cord through their arms and hands … they were very good … but they were at their best when they danced the rumba to that then new Roy Orbison song: “In Dreams” … they’d look into each other’s eyes and sweep around that floor like they were floating on a cloud … they were so good.”

“Every month, the Herbigs would have a dance at the Sedan Hall, and every month, Ted and Edie would do a centre of the floor demonstration of the perfect rumba … and you couldn’t help but give them the applause they deserved at the end … they were good … they were so good.”

“Well, after dancing together so long, it was no surprise that Ted took a shine to Edie in a serious way … and he confided to me and Edie’s brother one afternoon in the hotel, that he had honourable intentions to ask for Edie to become engaged to him at the next dance … and he smiled the smile of a happy man … ”

“He didn’t say any more on the subject, but you can bet that Edie’s brother told his mother that same week of Teds intentions … now, while the war had ended a long time ago, there still lingered that undertone of distrust between the Anglo community and the German community … things had not yet got back to any sort of normalicy … after all , it was only just a recent memory as far as memories go … ”

“Well, that next dance, Ted shows up in his best clothes … his only suit, he has his high polish Roaul Martin dance shoes on and a bright red rose in his lapel that he had plucked from Mrs. Auright’s front garden on his way to the dance … He’s standing there over the one side of the hall, and Edie is sitting with her mother over the other side of the hall … they only have eyes for each other … Ted smiles his biggest smile and walks across the dance floor to stand in front of Edie, who now has a pinched lips look on her face … a worried look … Ted reaches out his hand and requests her hand for the next dance …

Ted had arranged that the music for that dance would be their favourite rumba number … yes … Roy Orbison … ”In Dreams” … they would face each other in those first opening lines where he says; “That candy coloured clown they call the sand man … ” … they would get set ‘in the square’ as they say and then move on from there when the song starts … ” I close my eyes and I drift away … ” Well, there Ted is in all his glory … and Edie hesitates, looks to her mother, who does not say a word … not – a – word … does not even look at Ted or Edie, but just stares straight ahead into the hall and then firmly places her hand on Edie’s forearm and holds it in her grip … stopping Edie from reaching to Ted’s outstretched hand … and there it stood for a greater time than can be measured in a moment … it was to be an eternity … for with that one mute gesture, Mrs. Mavis Bentley had asserted her parental authority upon the desires of the younger couple and in effect cancelled any wish of Ted to “pop the question” to Edie … the dance partnership was over … and as they remained there in silence, that song played mockingly out over the hall:

“In dreams I walk with you …

in dreams you’re mine …

in beautiful dreams … ”

Ted stepped back, stood tall gave a measured bow of his head and without a word, walked out of the hall … ”

“The Bentleys moved from the district to the city not many months after that incident, Ted never went back to the dances, eventually he married a lass from Angaston and settled down to a farming life … But it was a doomed marriage in the long run and he ended up growing old alone … ”

“And now there they were, fifty years later … Ted dressed to his best, his resurrected Raoul Martin dance shoes polished to a dazzling shine … though he was no longer the strapping young man that he was … indeed, you could say that time had worked its measure on his body, for he walked with a limp now … and there was Edie again, after so many years there at this one-off celebratory “Olde time dance” for the anniversary of the Sedan Hall, there with her grand-children … and she herself was also what we would call time-worn through the usual burdens of life and children … no longer the lithe maiden that Ted swept around the dance floor in his arms … herself now a widow … and there they were, again with only eyes for each other … not in a romantic way, but now rather more in a “I dare you” way. A cheeky smile played on both their lips as they held each other’s stare.

Ted had once again plucked a rose from the front yard of … the now deceased … Mrs. Auright’s place and he had arranged that the disc-jockey put on that now very old song of Roy Orbison: “In Dreams” … he stepped out onto the dance floor just as the first chords of the song were played … and with his eyes as a querying gesture and his hand outstretched toward Edie, he raised his eyebrows questioningly … Edie accepted his request … ”

They squared up to each other as those first words were spoken by the Big ‘O’:

“That candied coloured clown they call the sand-man,

Tiptoes to my room every night,

Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper …

Go to sleep, everything’s alright … ”

“I close my eyes …” The Big ‘O’ sang …

“And off they went into that rumba … like they had just left off yesterday some fifty years ago … not a movement out of step, not a turn fumbled for lack of practice or usual companionship … not even a sign of that limp that so bedevilled Ted for all these years and Edie’s hip showed not the least sign of slip or hindrance as they moved from hand to hand, half or double turn … in step with old Roy ‘O’s beautiful lyrics:

“In Dreams I walk with you … – four-one two three …

In dreams I talk to you … – turn, fan … alemana …

In dreams you’re mine … all of the time … -forward walk … hockey-stick, touch …

We’re together … in dreams … in dreams … -spot turn … again single … then double …”

Oh they were good … just so good … and that rumba was made for Roy Orbison’s song … a perfect match … and every one else on that dance floor had stopped dancing and stepped away to gaze stupefied at this lovely old couple sweeping up and down the dance floor, movement upon movement in exact and beautiful synchrony … no! … they were not old, they were alive with their own youthful vigour!

Turn and step forward and backward … hand high to hand alemana and fan then cucaracha …

like a young couple fresh from a dance class of the sixties … as indeed they were in their heads and hearts … their eyes glued to each other, their hands and bodies not just touching, but finger-tip caressing with the touch of young lovers all over again …

shoulder to shoulder … the song continued …

“But just before the dawn, I awake to find you gone … ”

side to side … alemana, in and out four, one two three four …

“I remember-when you said-goodbye …

It’s too bad that all these things … ”

And on they danced to the end … till those last notes and words from the Big ‘O’ finished the dance:

“And I’ll be happy in my dreams …

only in dreams …

in beautiful dreams … ”

They finished with a beautifully executed hand to hand turn to end up facing each other “in the square” as they started … there was complete silence in the hall … their dance was beyond compliment of mere applause, for this was the completion of their relationship that started so long ago, only to be interrupted by the tyrannical hand of social expectation … but with this dance they had completed their obligation of their love affair to themselves and each other … there was no more needed to be said … indeed, they were deaf and blind to all around them …

Ted dropped his hands to his side, bowed his head in a measured way and said.:

“Thank you, Edie.”

To which Edith Bentley smiled coquettishly, blushed and replied …

“Thank YOU, Ted.”

“Edie turned and walked back to where her grandchildren sat open mouthed and Ted walked proud and without limp to the door-way and out of the hall.”

Swertzy stubbed out his cigarette in the aluminium ash tray on the table and finished with:

“I saw it happen and that’s how I knows it … an’ I’ll say again .. it’s a pity it didn’t happen that way a long time ago when they could’a made something with it … but that’s life … ”

 

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The Tancredi Dilemma

Tancredi is a character in the Lampedusa novel (The Leopard) about the unification of Italy and the ending of aristocratic governance in Southern Italy … and it was this character who uttered that most famous of lines; “For things to remain the same, everything must change.” Of course, he was referring to the aristocratic rulers inserting covert agents like himself into democratic government so as to keep a hold on any revolutionary changes that would lessen the power (as much as possible) of the ruling class … of which he was one.

The end of the nineteenth century saw the diminishing of aristocratic power in favour of the rising middle-class political base … just like now, in the twenty-first century, we are seeing that now old/aged middle-class of high industry/banking losing ground to a rising aspirant/younger middle-class of brash technocrats and entrepreneurs, not necessarily savvy in the complex ‘rules’ of patriarchal network, military engagements and old-money finance, but more keen on flash finance, fast turnover and short, swift credit transfers based more on the theory of gambler’s luck than a book-keepers reliable ledger account.

Chance of a quick ‘killing’ being the modus operandi of the next generation of players!

And this is where The Tancredi Dilemma becomes interesting … for in the first instance above, the middle-classes that replaced the aristocrats were solid merchants, with investments in solid goods … products from the far east, trading ships and barges up and down the major rivers of the world … the spices and silks .. the ivory and slaves, manchester and machinery formed the base of their massive accumulated wealth … they were well-placed to challenge the decadent aristocratic class for the top job of sovereign governance … all it took was a wave of the royal sword of knighthood to ‘legitimise’ a swathe of the more wealthy or devious of the crew and they were cemented into the ‘network’.

Now, as this network gets old and decrepit in a generational sense, we see a new set of eyes peering through the glass darkly, hungry for a grab at that sovereign governance … but these new eyes are not as political savvy as the old hands … not as patient to wait for the royal dab with the Wilkinson Sword of knighthood … these new kids on the block are brash, aggressive bastards who are breaking the panelled doors down with mace and sledge-hammer … vulgar is not strong enough a word to describe them … barbarian is closer to the truth … the Visigoths at the gates of Rome …

How is this new breed of ‘Bankers on Credit’, ‘Merchants of internet selling’ going to manage the social structures needed to keep a society stable and conducive to good, predictable, long-term governance? In short … they cannot! … Their failing at even the most simple social programs that we see falling to pieces around us as we go about our work, child-care, health, transport and play demonstrates a cabal of wannaby ‘leaders’ who couldn’t lead a blind man down a wide, empty boulevard without tripping on every slight obstacle in their path … they themselves being blind and ignorant beyond comprehension.

Since the end of the generations that saw Keating pass the baton to Howard, who in his own mean-spirited way did a ‘Tiberius’ and prepared a ‘Satyr’ for the people of Australia with his paving the way for a far right infection into the LNP that even he couldn’t see the damage he was inflicting, there has been an endless stream of younger blunt, weaponised LNP members fumbling around The House and the authorities, corrupting without thought on the consequences, every authority, every bureaucracy and oversight office so that now we have no confidence ..  and rightly so! In any judgement brought down on any investigation of possible departmental fraud or high political office corruption … the individualistic operations of many members of the parliament to feather their own nests or those of their backers has totally corrupted the system … so that even our voting system, once the yardstick of safe, secure and fair elections copied around the world, is now tainted with an air of doubt … if not absolute distrust and scorn!

Even those of us on the Left of politics have had to watch unbelieving as we see our representatives go to water in the face of right-wing wedging and bluff … their fear of a MSM attack on their persons driving them to shelter and hide … Their now plump and shiny selves, from the largesse of many years in office losing that “lean and hungry look” so necessary in a political animal needed to shift the corpulent carcass of LNP dead-weights so welded to their seats.

The Tancredi Dilemma is needed again to have the middle-class burn some of its own … be that middle-class of the left or the right, they have to waste some of the dead-wood and decrepit stooges laying like rotting logs across the path … The new middle-class of IT techies and self-employed tradies have to wade into the fray and with metaphorical laser and hammer carve and smash away those who would never want change … and it has to be done soon and with extreme prejudice before we all burn in our beds from a destroyed environment!

For things to remain the same … ie; the ‘ruling bodies’ to hold position of power in the parliament with orthodox structures securing their authority … everything must now change … just as Rome had to fall so that Europe could rise, the dinosaurs in our politics must ‘die’.

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Aunty

I worked for some years with several Greek families, so I got to know them quite well .. One doesn’t get regular work with some people unless they trust you … it’s funny that way. I got to know the teller of this story quite well over a few years. It happened so many years ago now. He told it to me and now I will pass it on to you …

It went like this:

Aunty

“Kyrie eleison!” Aunty gasped wearily,”So help me God, you’ll be the death of me, Yani!”

“YANI!” mama caught hold of my ear and twisted it cruelly, “What do you mean by giving cheek to Aunty, have you no respect?”

“Ahh! leave off the child, Elene, its not his fault, you can’t expect more from a healthy boy, its just these old bones are not up to catching him no more … or I’d deal with him myself!”

“It’s not the point, Aunty, when we are working in the fields he should be helping you here, not making a nuisance of himself.”

So I got the regulation clip-behind-the-ear and smack-on-the-arse as I scooted out of reach, though I knew I was Aunty’s favourite.

“Ah I tell you Ele’, its not just Yani, it’s just that I’m getting too old for looking after the children … I’m nearly seventy five now!”

“Why that’s a fib, Aunty … you’re only seventy three!”

Aunty sat in a chair, her fore-arms on her thighs and hands between her knees.

“Seventy five, seventy three … what’s the difference? At the end of the day I feel one hundred and eight!”

“Yani! you see how you make Aunty feel,” and mama shook her fist at me.

“Leave the boy alone, Ele’, he’s alright”.

“Just you wait till Papa comes home, he’ll straighten you out heh! … yes!” she nodded and hummed threateningly “Then you’ll know how to run! … hoom, yes!” and she nodded again and pointed her flickering finger at me.

“Where is Mihali?” Aunty asked.

“He is gone to the post-office to see if our visas have come through, today is the last day. I hope we hear one way or the other, its the waiting and not knowing ”

“Ahh! … the rest I will have if you go!“ said Aunty, “And then I can get into planting out my garden … ” Aunty lifted her hands up flat and shook them like that generation do .

“Ha ha! … won’t you be the queen of the castle if that happens,” mama laughed, ” No-one to look after but yourself! … how I will envy you.”

“Oh don’t you worry, Ele’, I’ve got plans that will keep me on my toes!”

“You don’t think you will miss chasing after the children?” (a laugh).

“The little blighters! … oh, I suppose there will be times but as I said before, my bones are getting too old for scurrying after the little rabbits! (a laugh also). And as for Yani! …” she caught me trying to sneak past and grabbed and tickled me, how I squealed and squirmed!” There, that’ll show you that cunning out-foxes youth any day!” And she released me so I scampered away out the door.

“Papa’s coming!” I called … ”With Tomas!”

“Ah! … let’s see now …” said mama wiping her hands with a cloth and peering over Aunty and out the door. ”How’s he walking? I can tell his mood from his stride.” and she wiped her hands while she concentrated. “Oh dear … it doesn’t look like good news … ”

“Slower, Tomas, walk slower she can tell what mood I’m in from our walk!”

“Ah, yer can’t fool women, Mihali, they’ve spent too much time studying men!”

“Just for the moment will do, I don’t want to fool them all the time … hang your head a little … pretend you owe Spiros money and he is after you for it!”

“What is that parcel they have, Elena?”, Aunty asked.

“Some cheese from Tasso … I said to pick some up while he was there.”

Papa and Tomas trudged through the door with downcast faces, mama plonked her hands on her hips.

“No good eh?” she sighed, then flicked the towel she was holding and spoke in a contrived, brave voice; “Well, we’ll just have to wait till the next quarter and bite the bullet!” … and she went to move past the table over to the sink. Just as she was abreast of papa, he nonchalantly pulled out a bundle of papers, yawned exaggeratedly and placed them on the table in front of mama … she stopped, frowned, picked up one of the pieces of paper and read.

“OHHH! Mihali, these are … ” her eyes all wide with excitement. “Oh … you tricked me .. you tricked us both … oh didn’t he Aunty (a little cry of delight) our visa’s! they’ve come through! oh how you fooled me, I was watching you as you came up the road … and you Tomas! oh!” … and we were all jumping around the table all excited and mama read the immigration papers piece by piece, some out loud, some to herself, her lips moving as she concentrated and lifting the towel to her lips every now and then till her eyes became watery and she slumped down in a chair and wept with the release of tension and papa fell onto her neck and consoled her with joking words and wet, sloppy kisses. Tomas opened the parcel and took out a bottle of wine and a cheer went up from the adults and Aunty clinked and chinked some glasses from the shelf and papa slopped wine into each glass, talking all the while and leaning over mama at the same time and with all the celebration we didn’t get to bed till after midnight! … I wished we got visa’s every day! … anyway, at least mama forgot to tell on me to papa! …

And so we all got permission to immigrate, all our family and Papa’s two brothers and their families, even yaya and papu (gran and granpa) all except Aunty, but she didn’t want to go anyway! … besides, she wasn’t really our aunty, oh, she was some distant relation, from over the other side of the island. She came to live with us before I was even born and spent all her time looking after us kids while the adults were working in the fields or the orchards. Sometimes she’d sit on the wicker chair outside in the fine summer days and do the olives or the cobs of corn, with us kids crawling around her feet or she’d have us helping her. She’d keep up a running stream of admonitions against us if we got too rowdy and she’d get us lunch or drink and be forever picking up a baby that was crying and would cradle it on her lap between her still working arms and start crooning some ancient lullaby just to break in the middle to chastise one of us for squabbling then have to “choo! choo! choo!” the baby all over again and get up and walk around in circles quietening the little brat …

“Ahh!” she’d say, “If fate was kinder to me I’d have my own kiddies and not be here refereeing you lot! … Ahh … fate!”

So we got the feeling over the years that she was only looking after us as a duty. Oh we were fond of her, no mistake, how could you spend so much time as a child with someone and not become attached? and she likewise, but she always finished off the day with a groan about her “weary old bones” so that papa and mama spoke quietly some nights about immigrating to Australia and how wonderful it would be for Aunty to be released from looking after all the children. Then sometimes papa would sigh and say it was such bad fortune that had fell upon her and Petro with the war, and if things had of been otherwise so that I suspect that Petro was someone in Aunty’s past who was not there now.

Well. our family was the first to leave, then the brothers would follow in a months’ time and lastly; yaya and papu, who wanted to stay till the wine was vintaged to make sure a good job was done as you couldn’t trust Tomas to be thorough in the preparation etc, etc. Papa just rolled his eyes and said “whatever”, anyhow there was plenty to do once they were in the new country to prepare the way for the others and maybe it was best that the old couple were not under their feet what with the strangeness of it all (the last bit was spoken quietly and out of earshot of granpapa!).

So within three months, from working out in the fields and Aunty bustling about with armfulls of kiddies, we were all gone to Australia and Aunty had no-one to worry about but herself. And that, I suppose, is one of the worst things that can happen to a body! I remember the day we left, down on the wharf with all our luggage and the sea-breeze lifting the ladies skirts so they were pushing them back down with an impatient gesture and the scarves floating gracefully from their hair.

All the odd-size bags and cases and boxes cramped together on the deck with sheets of blue plastic thrown over to protect them from the water and the endless kisses and embracing and pinching and backslapping and shaking “to be a good boy for your mama and papa” till it was a relief when the ferry pushed off and we broke free of the island, our home. It was then the wailing started in earnest and it seemed at least one or two people would fall overboard, but they didn’t!

“Andio, andio sus andio, yassu!” cried Aunty. “Look for me when you round the bluff, I will wave my scarf!”…  and she waved her bright red scarf to demonstrate, then scurried off to make it to the bluff as the ferry rounded the island to head to Rhodes where the airport was.

The ferry generally swings out wide there, but I saw papa give something to the captain and then grasp his shoulder with one hand and shake the other gratefully. So that we came in closer there at the bluff and we could see and hear Aunty as she jumped and waved her bright red scarf, it was funny seeing her jump, cause old people don’t jump properly … their top half seems to leap up but their feet stay on the ground! and she was calling out to us but the sea-breeze which was stronger out on the water blew snatches of it away so we only got bits of what she was calling, like:

“Yassu … yassu! … remember me! .. fortune … Australia! … Yani return to see me, Yani“ … till the rest was lost …

There; I knew I was her favourite! even when she chastised me, there was a look in her eye. I suddenly wondered then about who Petro was, and I thought that I’ll have to ask mama but the journey was all too exciting so I forgot all about it.

Six months later:

The white heat! The space! and the work! That first summer was a scorcher in more ways than one, what with all the organisation to be done. But we finally settled in our new home in Australia and Christmas came and went, then the new year, and papa came in the door one day with two letters. He waved them high.

“From Sophia!” he cried. Mama brushed a lick of hair from her eyes as she looked up from the baby.

“Ahh! Read them out Mihali, I’ll look at them later.”

“There’s two … let’s see … ah, this one first, it’s the earliest … the other must have caught up in the mail ”

He tore the letter carefully down the side and turned it around a couple of times till he got it right.

“Dear Tourists!” he quoted and they laughed. “Dear tourists” he began again and read slowly but with emphasis on the news-bits or funny-bits when he came to them, sometimes repeating a word or two that tickled him and laughing with it; “ … and Tomas is very busy “guiding“ (that’s her word!) the Swedish and German girls around the ruins of the island!(and doing his best ruining their virtues I might add!) ” and papa laughed but mama just tich’d him and told him to go on with the letter, so he read it through to the end.

He held the second letter up and frowned a little as he read the date on it .

“This one’s written just a week later than the first … she must’ve forgotten some little bit of news … I wonder?” … and he read it to himself and his brow knitted as he read.

When he finished, he didn’t say anything but just sat down at the table … mama was watching him but not saying anything.

“So … go on, Mihali, … read it.” but papa just shrugged his shoulder and dropped the letter on the table.

“It’s … it’s Aunty … she’s died.” There was silence in the room.

“Read the letter, Mihali … read it to me,” mama said quietly.

Papa shrugged again, gathered up the piece of paper, sort of flicked it a couple of times like he didn’t want to touch it, then cleared his throat and began:

“Dearest Mihali and Elene … I am the bearer of sad news … yesterday at six o’clock in the evening, Aunty passed away. It was so sudden it gave us all here a shock, as I suppose it will you. It seems strange that within six months a person as seeming ageless as her could suddenly lose the zest for life.

After you all had left, she had grand plans to renovate the garden and plant sections with vegetables here, flowers there, several fruit trees over near the tank, etc, etc. She had Tomas running off his feet moving earth and rocks and so on. She seemed so full of life, of plans, like she expected to live forever … then we had a cold snap a couple of weeks ago … you know those winds that come down from Siberia? well she came down with a bit of a flu that kept her in bed a couple of days, nothing much! … then she was back on her feet, though she had lost some of her zest, or so Tomas said, cause he asked her if she wanted him to move that rose bush by the gate now and she said; “No, it looks nice there when it flowers in the springtime,” when she was all keen to clear that spot the week before … it was her voice that made him take notice. Then she stopped doing work on the garden altogether all of a sudden!

Tomas went around every evening and he found her just sitting on the wicker chair out the front of the house, even on cold days, so he would take her inside. She went a bit “funny” in the last days. Tomas went there last Sunday evening and there she was, sitting outside with a bowl of corn cobs cradled in her lap and she just staring out and rocking back and forth like old people seem to do but Tomas said it looked for all the world like she was rocking a baby She went into a fever that night and never recovered. She woke just yesterday for a moment and whispered;

“Petro will come back soon … tell Yani … ” And that was it … On her soul: Kyrie eleison.”

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A Ukulele Opera: Act #3

Enrico and Rosaline

Joe, the narrator tells of Enrico’s story:

“You see, he had only just landed at Outer Harbour in the year of 1939 when he was immediately informed that being an “enemy alien”, of Italian extraction he would be interned … but the company he gained work with as a stone-mason/bricklayer gave him a choice: He could be interned with the rest of the Italians in the Riverland, or he could go to Darwin to do work that the company had contracts for there on the hospital and the wharfs … He chose the latter … but then when he was working there, Darwin got bombed by the Japanese and he had to make his way back down the centre to here with us other Italians … as fate would have it …

“Guiseppi! How would your luck be?” Enrico exclaimed to me when he got here, “I leave Italy to get away from Mussolini, and then I come here to get bombed out by Tojo! … where does one go for a bit of peace in this world?”

Anyway … here he was and here he would stay … at least for the duration … and … like the rest of us, he wasn’t very happy with the option.”

Joe, the narrator continues … He reads from a sheet of paper:

“Now at last I am free!

Off through the scrub I run

Where sheep tracks only are seen

Nothing but bush and sun

Till all of a sudden I come

Out where an axe swings free.

Cutting, for love and money

The axe bites deep in a tree … ”

“A passing moment does not a lifetime make, but a moment’s passion can be a lifetime’s mistake … or … good fortune. A life brought into being by the strangest union in the most unusual chances and circumstances one could imagine. He from the north of Italy, in the Dolomites, she from the ‘heartbreak country’ of the Murray Mallee in South Australia.

They met on the banks of the Murray River, Enrico and Rosaline. He there to collect a truck-load of water for the camp, she on an evening ambulation from Portee Station where she worked as a servant girl.

He being able to speak barely a word of English, she not being able to understand a single word of Italian … But they met and exchanged pleasantries as only such ethnically diverse strangers could.”

He asked (in Italian) if they ate well at the big house …

“Mangiano bene nella grande casa?”

She replied (in English):

“The evening light falling on the river spreads a certain calm over the waters … don’t you think?”

He was a stone-mason by trade.

She desired to be a poet.

They got on well, and in the intervening months, while Enrico’s English improved immensely, so did their congenial meetings … by now a regular, mutually agreeable thing. As the Spring weather became more and more pleasant and the days longer, Enrico would linger at his duties of pumping water into the tanker longer than was allocated by his roster and he was questioned by Joe on his arrival back at the camp ..

“What do you get up to there by the riverside to be away for so long?” Joe asked.

“I listen to the birds sing and observe the calming light on the waters,” Enrico answered.

“And this singing birdy you listen to … what is her name?” Joe cynically responded …

“Rosaline,” Enrico smiled.

Indeed, they did eventually wed … the youthful composer of the above doggerel; Rosaline Thomas and the refugee Italian; Enrico Corradini (whom she would call “Ricky”). And as she describes her running through the scrub to meet with her lover, I can now ask, knowing the ending of her story; Was she running to embrace life, or running from a desolate lifestyle? … And Enrico, the refugee, we know was running from hunger and war, but did he realise then as he surely did later, what and where was he running to?”

Enrico arrived at the Charcoal camp a week after Artini’s attempted escape and drowning in the Murray River. So the whole camp was in the doldrums over that affair. There was little appetite for getting to know any new arrivals at the moment … the whole camp ran on “automatic pilot” and Enrico was given the easy job of just going to the river twice a week to get a tanker full of water. It was on one of these trips that he met Rosaline.

The unofficial story surrounding their meeting and courtship is recorded in the family circle … It seems the erstwhile Enrico was out trapping rabbits one day and he got lost .. only to stumble onto the dusty bush camp where, coincidentally, the young Rosaline was in attendance to her mother, Grace Thomas, who was expecting her fifth child. Rosaline’s father, having difficulty understanding the gesticulating “eyetalian”, instructed Rose to show him the track leading to the presumed wood-cutters camp from whence he came.

In truth, the information on the whereabouts of that family’s camp-site away in the bush from another charcoal-burning camp a couple of kilometres from Fox’s camp, and the fact that Rosaline would be at that camp-site on such a time of the month was passed to Enrico on one of their “accidental meetings” at the river’s edge … the trapping of rabbits was Enrico’s own innovation.

A week or so later, Enrico turned up again, rabbit traps in hand and lost again … the same procedure as last time was followed and that was that, until again … another week later Enrico shows up again, lost while trapping rabbits … this time, as Rosaline is leading the gentleman away, Richard Thomas scratched the back of his head in thought … he turned to his wife:

“You know … that eyetie must be the worst trapper in the world … he’s never got one single bunny!”

Joe continues:

“The camp that Rosaline’s parents were at was a couple of kilometres from our camp and it was run by a Slavic man named Jack … It was a rough camp of desperates and opportunists, with many accidents at the charcoal pit heads … for if those burns were not attended to or done right, they could suddenly explode into a shower of flame and sparks and set the whole camp aflame … Here, I will let Rosaline explain it from this poem she wrote of everyday life there …

“Also down in the camp,

The man are up and about,

Somebody waves a flagon,’

And another raises a shout!

Then a glass of wine is downed,

To help one through the day …”

So you can see, there was not much disciplined routine over in that camp and that is why Richard Thomas moved his family away into the scrub and pitched tent away from the men, as Mrs.Thomas and the young girls were the only women and children in the camp … So when Rosaline told Enrico she was going to stay with her mother because of the mother’s pregnancy, that sadly developed into the occurrence of her mother having a miscarriage and Rosaline had to stay longer to both help with her mother’s recuperation and the schooling of the younger ones … so Enrico got to know Rosa and her family quite well over that time, with the family sometimes coming to play cards at the Italian camp … and then when Rosaline went back to work at Portee station, he resumed his job of going to the river to get water … and there he continued his courtship of Rosaline.”

Joe continues:

“Now, the war is coming to an end … it won’t be long before the camp will be broken up and all these men will be able to go back to their dreams … but I wonder if those dreams will now become something different?”

One afternoon, on the banks of the Murray River, Enrico and Rosaline sit talking of the future … The war is near an end and the Camp is due to be broken up … The Italians will be able to go back to their former plans and dreams … Enrico says to Rosaline:

“Rosa … what are we to do? … I will soon be sent back to the city … what will you do?”

Rosaline sat quietly looking over the river waters … then she spoke … not exactly to Enrico, but to the quiet atmosphere around them both:

“There’s an old German hand there at Portee who, whenever he has to cross the river on the punt to go to work on the other side, would pick up a small stone, a pebble, carry it across and place it on the other side … I once asked him why he did it … he was at first reluctant to tell me … but I persisted …

“Well, girlie” ( that’s what they all call young women out here) … ”it is my own little thing … I think of the small stone as my soul … you see, I cannot swim … and so I take the stone, carry it, and if or when I reach safely the solid ground on the other side, I leave it dzair … when I come back, I do the same.”

“What happens if the punt starts to sink?” I asked.

“Dzen I will try to throw it with all my might, to the other side … and I think if it reaches there, then I feel I too will reach there … ”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“Dzen, I think I vill be lost in the waters of the river … ” Rosaline stopped abruptly and looked to Enrico with a sadness in her eyes … “Will I too be lost in the waters of the river, Enrico?” she asked. “Will my life’s hope be as desperate as that little pebble .. nothing but a hope of something better?”

Enrico took her hands and looked deep into her eyes … he then asked the question he had been wanting to ask for a long time …

“Will you come to the city to be with me, Rosa? … Come to the city and we can soon be married … if you will have me.”

“O’, Ricky … how can we marry? … you see where my family lives .. how my family lives … in a bag tent in the Mallee … I have nothing, you have little as you have said yourself … How can we start a life together?”

Enrico clasps her hands tight …

“But, my love … soon I will be back in the city … I have a job promised to me by Joe … he is a builder there … I will make my money … if you can find work there, we can both start a new life together … ”

Rosaline brightens up at the new prospect, this new hope …

“Dr.Hackendorf and his wife are good friends of the owners of Portee Station and the Doctor has said many times that I could work and board with them if I ever decide to come to the city to live … I’ll see if that offer still stands” …

Enrico moves to kneel in front of the sitting Rosaline takes hold of her hands and sings this song to her …

“El canto della sposa”:

“The house of my darling,

Is all made of bags,

But for me who wishes to go there,

It is a palace of silk … ”

 

Afterwards, they both go back to the camp, where they find the men there in an uproar at the news that Gemano’s fiancé has survived the war and has written a letter to Gemano … He rushes toward Enrico when he sees he and Rosaline arrive back from the river in the water truck … The opening music of Verdi’s “Requiem Dies Irae“ strikes up in the background:

 

Gemano is waving a letter and crying out to the sky ..

“She lives! … she lives!! … my love is alive! … ahh, ha ha! … she lives … ” he drops to his knees and sobs … “We have won, Enrico … we have both beaten death … for now … my love lives … she lives”

And he holds the letter up to Enrico who takes it gently and reads it:

“Oh Gemano … truly you are fortunate … yes … she lives … ” Enrico pauses, his brow furrows as he reads on … ” She says here she now has a child … born during the war … ”

“Yes, yes … I saw that … and she says she will only come to me if I accept the child as well … what say you, Enrico … what do you think … ”

“Do you still love her, Gemano?”

“Truly … more than I could say … so much more than I could say … ”

“Then you must accept them both, Gemano … for they are both needing you as well … and who can say what has happened to those we left behind in that war … both you and I remember the last great war … so much killing of the young and old and raping of the women … the armies went up and down those valleys taking and using everything in their path so that none were spared .. or none would survive … ” … and he hands the letter back to Gemano … who takes it tenderly, folds it away into the envelope and places it into a top pocket … he then stands and takes out the old photograph he has of her .. the stage darkens with a spotlight only on Gemano … he sings his song to the tune once again of “O’ mio babbino caro” … (I would also like to hear the soft strains of the ukulele mixed in tune with the symphonic music):

“Now I will see my Sophia, (he holds her picture in front)

I still hold her picture so dear …

We will kiss at the station once more,

And I’ll put a white rose in her hair.

Just like this one I see here, (touches photo)

Now she is back I will kiss her,

Now she is back I shan’t miss her,

Once I see my Sophia,

I can’t believe she will be here,

I so want her to call my name,

Now I will see my Sophia,

Now I will hold my Fidanza,

We will kiss once more at the station,

I will put a rose in her hair, (Gemano strokes the picture lovingly)

I can hardly believe she will be here,

I so want her near me,

I will soon see my Sophia,

My love, My darling, my dear.

I will soon see my Sophia,

My love, my darling, my dear.”

The music continues as the light slowly dims on Gemano, standing with his head bowed …

Joe the Narrator takes up the story:

“Ah … Gemano and Sophia … they did get married … by proxy … he here, she there in the old country and they finally joined together later when the ship brought her and her child to a new life here in Australia … and they had more children.

The camp was broken up not long after, and the men went back to their trades and work in the city and elsewhere … and look (Joe points to a heap of sacks left in a jumble at the back of the stage set ) there … in amongst the left over rubbish and sacks on their old life here … (He bends to pick up Gemano’s ukulele … it is battered and damaged and a couple of strings are broken) and see here … Gemano’s ukulele … what brought so much song and joy to so many nights in the camp … left to decay away with their memories … (he tosses it onto the heap of sacks) … oh well … perhaps best it be like that … so many dark days to walk away from … best it be so … ”

Joe walks briskly off stage, whistling as he does so to the background music of “O’ mio babbino caro” …

See also Act #1 and Act #2.

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A Ukulele Opera: Act #2

Artini the woodcutter and Tess, the Aboriginal girl

The tragedy that happened with Artini was in disobeying the request of the young Tess, distressed at the wanton cutting down of so many trees, to leave his mighty axe on the other side and cross the river by himself … but he decided he would need the axe to cut and build a humpy for himself after he crossed … so he secretly strapped it to his back under his coat so as not to offend her and he would reveal it once across when it would be too late for Tess to protest …

I first heard his name when my sister, who visited one summer, translated some letters between my father and his relatives back in the Dolomites village where both he and the young man came from. He told of the tragedy of how Artini drowned in the Murray River whilst crossing the ford on instruction of Tess, his accomplice in his escape attempt, who whilst on curfew and not permitted to be across that side of the river after dusk, was to help him cross via a secret ford there.

The plan was for Tess to “sing” a song of a cockatoo to direct Artini to a secret ford in the river, unfortunately, on that very night of his crossing, the sluice-gates of Lock 1 just up-river at Blanchetown were opened and a surge of water came down the river to catch him whilst in the middle of the ford … He was swept away as he cried that it was his axe, his mighty axe dragging him down and he could not swim … Tess cried for him to throw the axe away, but it was tied too tight and he could not get it off … and he consequently drowned that night in the river .. His body was later found and it was recorded as “death by drowning … an unfortunate accident“ … But my father’s letters tell a different story.

But here is the song line that has grown around the story … It goes like this:

Joe, the narrator tells the yarn …

“Artini was the biggest, best, strongest Italian woodcutter in the Swan Reach district during the war years … The ‘ring’ of his mighty axe could be heard miles away through the mallee! His axe was of the hardest steel special made from his own instructions by the blacksmith in the camp … the handle he cut and shaped himself from the hardest mallee wood … and it was so heavy, it could not be used by any of the other woodcutters in the camp. Artini was an “enemy alien” internee from the Italian Alps; The Dolomites, who used to cut wood for the charcoal burning camps in the mallee.

Artini could often be heard singing an alpine song “Ill tuo fazzolettino” (“Give me your bandana, my darling”) in his dialect as he swung his mighty axe at the mallee trees … His voice was so strong it would carry for a great distance through the tops of the mallee trees and it was heard by Tess one day as she fetched water from the river.

Tess was a young Aboriginal woman who lived at the mission over the other side of the river near Swan Reach. She would also get some work at Portee Station just up the Murray a bit from the mission. The trees were a part of her life and of important significance to her people.and every tree that Artini cut down was as a wound to her heart.

Artini was cutting wood a little way from the river, Gemano was his offsider, but Artini worked so fast and was so good that all Gemano had to do was to keep out of his way and play his ukulele as Artini swung his axe to the tunes … unfortunately, Gemano is still lamenting for his fiancé back home of whom he has yet to hear from because of the war.”

“Gemano!” Artini called, “haven’t you a cheerful song with a faster beat … something I can really get stuck into?”

Gemano thought for a minute … then;

“What about Funiculi Funicula?”

“Anything rather than your sad laments … I have work to do”

Gemano plays a lively version of the song on the ukulele and Artini makes words up as he works along with the rhythm …

 

“Working, working all the live-long day!

Working, working, for as long as they make me stay!

In the spring, in the Summer, every blasted day …

Cutting wood, burning wood so Foxxy gets his pay!“

And:

“Rabbit, rabbit … it’s all they got for chow!

Rabbit, rabbit and potatoes stewed so slow …

No garlic, no onions, or polenta, and no pasto …

Underground mutton is the only food they know.”

Tess creeps up from the river to hide behind a tree and watches and listens to the two Italians at their work. Gemano spots her from his laying against a log. He stops playing …

“Oh … hello … we have an audience.”

Artini stops cutting and looks up … He sees Tess and calls to her …

“Hey there … are you one of the river people?”

Tess hesitates to reply, then she gingerly speaks …

“Why do you sing as you cut the trees?”

“I like to sing and it helps me to keep a rhythm as I work,” Artini replies.

“But you are killing the tree,” Tess says, “It can’t be nice for the tree.”

Artini makes a pout and a surprised twist of his face as he considers this different perspective … then he says:

“Well … I’m afraid out here, I am a prisoner and I am also dying … but slowly, and there is no escaping my situation … so it is either the tree or me … and there is no-one to sing for me.” He thinks for a moment … ”Unless you want to sing a song for me?” and he smiles to Tess.

“I cannot sing your type of song … and anyway, you sing beautifully … can you sing another?”

Artini smiles again and his vanity is flattered … after all, he is a good singer with a strong voice .. He calls to Gemano ..

“Gemano … play us the tune of O’ Sole Mio and I will show this lass how we Italians sing.” Artini leans his axe against the tree and takes off his neckerchief … Gemano sits up and concentrates as he plays the tune of “O Sole Mio”.

 

“O’ solo mio,

I am here alone,

In another country,

So far from my home.

Working for the bastardi,

And the rotten food they feed me,

Without love, without hope and without fazooli!

O’ solo mio,

Will I ever be free,

Will there be a lover,

Come and rescue me?

But these bastardi Englandi,

Say I must cut the mallee,

Without love, without hope and I say; ma fungooli!”

Gemano finishes with a laugh and a flourish on his ukulele.

“Bravo! Artini … never have sweeter words been sung for that song!”

Artini bows to Gemano and then bows to Tess who curtsies in reply.

After this song, Artini says that he must go back to work, and Tess also has to cart water from the river … But before they part, Tess asks Artini:

“Why are you one of those prisoners?”

“Ah, signorina … because of the war between yours and my countries … and I am considered an enemy.”

“We are not at war with anybody,” Tess exclaims … Artini has to think on this for a moment then he laughs as he realises Tess was referring to her Aboriginal people.

“Not your people … but the government of your country.”

“This is our country,” Tess says as she sweeps her arm out; “But those white fellas are not our government,” … she finishes in anger.

“Then you and your people are their prisoners also,” Artini finishes, “And they demand I work for my supper … as bad as it is … C’mon, Gemano play another tune .. I have an hour’s work yet to do … Addio signorina!”

Joe the narrator continues:

“Tess sets about to lure Artini with friendship to help him to stop cutting the trees, throw away his mighty axe and escape the internment camp to cross the river and be free. Several times when she hears his songs through the trees, she goes to where he works and brings him small parcels of tasty food from the station kitchen … they become friends.

It is indeed a strange irony … that there, across the river near Swan Reach, the Aborigines are held in an internment camp also … of course, it is not called “internment”, it is called a mission, although their movements are strictly monitored and there is an after dark curfew in place … so those people, like us Italians are seen as some sort of enemy of the government … and this same government sends soldiers over to Europe to fight what they call “the fascist enemy” and so we Italians, having been branded by our nationality as potential enemies must be held as an example that the government will keep the citizens safe … yet what is the reason for imprisoning the Aborigine people but to prove that the government is as much a fascist regime as those they fight in Europe? … To the fascisti, all who are not fascist are the enemy … but also to the English colonists, it would seem that all who are not English are the enemy … an irony, surely? … because this province … this “South Australia” was started as a corporate state … and is that not the fascist ideal?”

The light fades from Joe to light up Tess and Artini sitting on a log …

“Would you like to escape the camp?” Tess asks.

“Is the Pope Catholic?” Artini replies. Tess looks at him questioningly … “Ah ha! … of course … not your faith … to your question … yes … if there was such a possibility” … and he continues to eat his food.

“I could help you,” Tess says.

“You? … what … you can overpower the guards? You can drive a car to take me out of this … ” Artini makes a sweeping gesture with his arm … “God knows where we are!”

“I could help you cross the river and then hide you till you can get away.”

“Why? … Why would you help me?”

Tess is silent for a minute … she looks intently at Artini … she then answers:

“Because as you say … I too am a prisoner here … myself, my family and people are held captive by these white people … I cannot leave … I cannot escape … but if I can help you escape, then just for that little bit, a little piece of me too can escape with you .. and wish you luck as you go … ”

“Then why don’t you come with me?” Artini asked.

“Can you not see what is so insultingly obvious to so many in this country? My skin colour … it is black! … You, with your fair skin and blue eyes can slip amongst the white fellah unnoticed … but how would you hide me? … No … I am a prisoner in more ways than just a locked gate.” … Tess then sings a soft lament to Artini:

“Would that my spirit take,

A long trod path from thy gate,

Would that my dreaming roam,

Far from the white man’s cruel domain.

Far from the gaze of his wanton eyes,

Into the heavens bright sunrise.

O’ could that my dreaming would let me roam,

Into the vast wilds of my traditional home …

No … we are held in ransom here, but to see you escape their domination would comfort me … ”

Tess tells him of a possible escape from the internment camp … he could be hidden in a secret cave known only to the Aborigines of the river, and from there he could make his way when safe to the city. Artini likes the idea, but he cannot swim to cross the river and the ferry is guarded, so Tess says she will “sing” him a song one night to guide him across a secret ford in the river known only to the Aboriginal people there, but on one condition; he must leave his mighty axe behind and cross without it … She told him of the spot on the river bank where he should await for her song to call him to cross safely.

His friends tried to dissuade Artini from following through with his reckless plan and pointed out the difficulty he would meet being in the companionship of a native woman … But the more they tried, the angrier he got and finally he said angrily to them:

“So what if Tess is of another people … am not I, are not we despised only for our blood, our nationality? … And if she is “native” of this land, am I not also “native”of my land? … And I am a son of the Dolomites … I am a man of the mountains of Italy and I … Artini, while I am yet a man, will decide who I will join in with, where I will live … not the guards of this camp nor anyone else.” And that was the last he would hear of it … he was decided … The young have passionate hearts.

Her “song “ she would disguise as a lyrical call of a cockatoo that live in the trees along the river … and he must wait until she makes that specific call, as there is sometimes a surge of water comes down the river from Lock-1 at Blanchetown and it is dangerous to cross when that is happening … But Artini, coming from another land is not that familiar with the song of the cockatoo and mistakes another real bird calling in the night … the call of the Bush Stone Curlew … a native bird of the area .. a call that the Indigenous peoples regard as a harbinger of death!

 

The conspiracy was going to plan … Artini had crept away from the makeshift woodcutters camp in the mallee … These camps were temporal things and so isolated that the guards saw no great need to be severe in their habits .. indeed, the Italians, using the grapes from the Loveday area near Loxton made their own wine which they smuggled along with them whenever they were sent to the wood-cutting camps … On the night of Artini’s escape, some other Italian men conspired to distract the guards with wine and song … they sang their songs to the accompaniment of home-made instruments … in this case the ukulele.

Artini had agreed to Tess’s demand, but at the last moment secretly straps his mighty axe to his back under his coat as he thought he would need it to cut wood for shelter once he crossed the river … but when he sets out to cross the river … the River Spirit, seeing his duplicity and intent sends a torrent of water down and he is threatened to be swept off the ford. Tess, on hearing his cry, realises he is weighed down by his mighty axe and tells him to throw it into the waters … but he cannot untie it from under his coat and so he is swept away.

[In reality, the plan was for Tess to sing a song of a river bird to direct Artini to a secret ford in the river, unfortunately, on that very night of his crossing, the sluice-gates of Lock 1 just up-river at Blanchetown were opened and a surge of water came down the river to catch him whilst in the middle of the ford … He was swept away as he cried that it was his axe, his mighty axe dragging him down and he could not swim … and he consequently drowned that night in the river … His body was later found and it was recorded as “death by drowning .. an unfortunate accident“ … But my father’s letters tell a different story].

Artini cries out in despair a last cry! …

”Tess … sweet Tess … sing a song in memory of me!”

Tess cries out his name in anguish …

“Artini!! … Artini!!” … much like the sad wail of the bush-stone curlew …

(The ukulele is heard to play a soft lament for Artini) Il fiore di Teresina:

Joe the Narrator continues:

“We never did know if Artini and Tess had intention to join together as a couple of whether they were just partners in Artini’s mad dash to freedom … for we never saw Tess again and she never went back to work on the station where Rosaline also worked … Whatever their design , one thing is certain … Artini did escape beyond the cares of this life’s burdens … ”

And to this day, his cry of despair and her intermingled lament can still sometimes be heard as the call of the Bush Stone-Curlew blown in the wind through the mallee trees … ”

(Song to be accompanied by a Ukulele )

Tess and the Woodsman.

I wake in the morning under spreading gum trees,

I wake to the murmur of the mighty Murray.

To the call of the cockeys in the leaves of the trees …

But the sweetest sound is my Tess of the Mallee.

Chorus:

Oh Tess .. sweet Tess .. sing a song for me,

Oh Tess of the mallee, now I hear thee.

At the dawn of the day, on the evening breeze.

Far ‘cross the river, yet so close to me.

xxx

I am a woodcutter, an axe man by trade.

My song that I sing is sung with the blade

And did draw sweet Tess to my accolade,

Sweet Tess of the mallee is my saving grace.

Across the river I hear her sweet voice,

She sings as the curlew to come and be close

But the river is wide and swim I cannot

With my mighty axe hidden under my coat.

Chorus; (Oh Tess, sweet Tess … etc)

To swim I am not able but I must try

To reach my dear Tess on the far side

(Pause to change “person” and “talk” these last two lines )

But the stones they slip away from his feet

And the river takes him from her close embrace.

“My axe it drags me down” he cries,

“Cast it away!” Tess did advise.

But tight under his coat it was tied,

So too late to undo and there he did die.

Chorus: (Oh Tess … etc)

The river it takes him and there he will lie,

So come to the river Tess to sing by its side

To sing him awake and sing him at night

Sing me dear Tess oh my mallee delight.

(only the next stanza; slowly, softly)

Now in the dusk you can hear her sweet lullaby

As she sings to her woodsman the bush-curlew’s cry.

But in the early dawn she’ll sing him this song

And the ring of his axe follow in harmony along ..

Chorus …

Oh Tess … sweet Tess … sing a song for me,

Oh Tess of the mallee, can I love thee.

At the dawn of the day, on the evening breeze.

Far ‘cross the river, yet so close to me.

Stage falls back into darkness …

To be continued into Act #3

See Act #1 here

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A Ukulele Opera: Act #1

Introduction to a “Reading opera” …

I have written this “opera” as a reading experience … I would have liked to do a “real” opera, with music and libretto etc, but was not able to find someone with both music composing capability or instrument playing skills to assist myself to that end … hence; Plan C  … a setting with some songs both localised Italian folk and a touch of known Neapolitan arias and symphonic music with re-written words.

I know that time is of the essence these days and skimming of text is the usual habit of reading, but if you could take the time to play the pieces linked for the words and those songs that accompany a moment, it would be a better read for it and much appreciated by the author.

Thanking you in advance …

An opera in three acts: One; Introduction and setting … Two: The friendship and tragedy of Artini and Tess … Three; The finale with Enrico and Rosaline …

You may desire, but you may not “want”.

If you Google these coordinates … it will take you to a place in the Murray Mallee where you will see several long rows of what look like little squares … these squares are in fact charcoal burning pits dug and lined with stone in the years of the second world war … The pits were to produce charcoal in lieu of the lack of petrol for trucks and cars in the war years … the charcoal was used in “gas-converter engines” in those trucks etc … Many Italians were held here and other camps in the Mallee for the duration of the war, some as “enemy aliens” others as lesser risk aliens … some as young as seventeen.

This is their story

It is 1942, the Japanese have bombed Darwin and petroleum products have been rationed so that charcoal is in demand for the gas-converters used on cars and trucks instead of petrol. Many Italians, Germans and other nationals considered as “enemy aliens” have been rounded up and sent to camps in the Riverland for the duration of the war.

Act #1

Introduction and setting

The stage is in darkness, only the faint but increasing depth of music of Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” wafts out … and then a spotlight illuminates a youngish man sitting on and amongst a heap of sacks bundled and tied and some loose around him … He is fiddling with the tuning of a musical instrument … a ukulele … as he does so, he absently-minded sings bits and pieces of the above words to the music played …

We watch him for some time as he sings and fiddles with the tuning of the instrument .. then another spotlight falls onto a man standing to the side of the stage … he is Giuseppe (Joe), the narrator of the story … He looks at the man with the ukulele and then turns to the audience …

“He’s a sight, isn’t he? … there fiddling with his project while the world around him burns” … He calls to the man … “Hey, Gemano! … when are you going to make a finish to that thing?”

“When it plays a tune for me” … the man calls back without looking up.

Joe laughs softly … then addresses the audience ..

“He’s been making that dammed ukulele for more than three months .. He used to play in a band back in the old country … up in the Dolamites … there, we would be house-bound by snow for the deep winter so that there was little anyone could do outside … every source of water was frozen over including the communal clothes-washing troughs, so that even the washing had to be piled in a corner as the clothes would freeze solid on the line if placed outside … the houses had three levels: The larger animals stabled under the house so their warmth rose to the middle level where the people lived and the top floor was the store for the food for the animals which acted as a insulator above and the feed would be tossed down from an open door to the animals below.

So all they did besides the house chores and feeding of the animals, was to create and sing songs and tell stories … rest and recreation .. and it was good … But now, in this new country, with the war, we are trapped and alone … and out here the Sun seems always to be shining! … so no rest for the wicked …

They’re all like that here … lost souls sent to this lonely place as enemy aliens in another country … They’re out here in the Murray Mallee cutting wood to “cook” in the charcoal pits to make fuel for the gas-converter units for the trucks and cars during this war … Petrol being unavailable to the average citizen, charcoal is used and we are here making the charcoal out of cut mallee wood and us Italian internees are held here to do the cutting and burning … I am in charge of keeping them in line … well … just keeping them in some sort of loose contentment … as much as I am able that is … while we get the job done … I work for Mr Fox … he is contracted by the government to produce so much charcoal per month for the war effort … Mr Fox lives in the city and comes here on occasion to inspect the operation. We all know when Mr Fox is coming, as those cutting near the main road can see his car coming from a distance and they then call out in a relay one to another to all in the camp: “Foxee! … Foxee!” … so we hurry and get things in order before he turns up.

We sing this little ditty as we hurry:

“The Fox, the fox, he’s out on the track!
The fox, the fox, he’ll soon be on our backs!
Hurry! Hurry! … the camp it must be clean.
All the chickens scurry, scurry,
For the Fox he can be mean!
Some men take the bagging,
Some men stack the racks,
Hurry, hurry, for the fox is on our backs!”

Not all the men are content to be here … some are just thankful to have escaped Mussolini’s wrath, but some came to this country for a better life and are not interested in the politics of the thing … I myself came here in 1927 on the invitation of an old friend who was here … Come over, he said … you’ll like it … Is there food there I asked … yes, he replied … plenty … so I came and I am fed rabbit! … they call it underground mutton … I just ate and ate … we were starving to death back home … Buono!”

[Just at this point, Gemano strums his ukulele for the first time … it sounds pleasant to him].

The Narrator jerks his head toward Gemano and continues:

“Take Gemano there … he left the mountains of the Dolomites to start a new life here in a new country … He left his fiancé back there while he intended to set himself up in this new land, then he intended to go back and marry her and bring her here to Australia .. but the war broke out … and now he hasn’t heard of his beloved Sofia for many a month and he is stuck here in this camp broken hearted … he has a picture of her and he accosts every new man that comes here from the Dolomites and begs them if they have heard anything of his love … it’s painfully sad to hear him lament …

Look! … see there, a couple of new chaps now … see how keen he is to ask them … ”

[ Gemano stops the two men and produces a photograph from his inside pocket and shows it to them … we do not hear their words, but we can see them shake their heads in regret … Gemano lets them go and stands alone on the stage … his head bowed .. the music of “O’ mio babbino caro” begins … he sings his lament to the audience as he holds out the photograph]:

“Has anyone seen my Sophia …

Here is her picture … I hold it so dear …

We kissed on the steps at the station,

And I put a white rose in her hair,

There behind her right ear …

look, you can see it there! (he points to the picture)

And now she is gone I miss her …

And at night’s end I can’t kiss her.

Has anyone at all seen my Sophia? (Gemano pleads)

I can’t believe she’s not here …

I so want her near me …

Has anyone seen Sophia …

Has anyone seen my fidanza …

We kissed at the station and

I put a rose in her hair …

Now I can’t believe she’s not here ..

I so want her near me …

Have you seen my Sophia?

My darling … my love … my dear.

Has anyone seen my Sophia?

My darling … my love … my dear …

Gemano then silently turns and returns to the heap of bags and once again attends to the ukulele … Guiseppe, the narrator nods his head in sympathy … he continues:

“Ah! … Still he makes the best of his situation … Everyone here has lost someone or something in this blasted war … You wonder why these men have to be tortured some more by being isolated out here in the Mallee … ”

Gemano Filosi turned the tuning peg to adjust the last string on his hand-made ukulele. Satisfied on the tension, he tapped the conical, wedge-shaped peg tight into its allotted hole and placed the small hammer on the ground next to himself … this was the moment … now was the testing time to see if all his skills as a joiner that he pulled together to make this musical instrument out of old tea-chest plywood, mallee-wood neck and fretboard with some old piano wire begged from the Blanchetown Hotel owner for strings would pay off …

Gemano settled himself gingerly amongst the bags with the ukulele cradled in his arm and strummed the first notes …

“Whallyo!” he cried in joy when the notes played out clear as a bell into the evening air … and he then strummed some more …

The spotlight on Joe fades and the stage lights up to reveal a group of men nearby sitting around a table playing cards … they stop their game and look to Gemano … some men there turned their heads to the sound of the music … and they smiled .. and some call out felicitations and congratulations to Gemano, whom many though a little more than silly in trying to make a musical instrument out of such inglorious materials …

“Can you play a tune, Gemano?” they cry … several men gathered around him …

“Of course I can!“ Gemano responded “Was I not in a band before I was sent here? … what shall I play?” he asked the now small gathering of internees and outcasts …

“Play us some Verdi” … a wit suggested with a laugh … ”Rossini!” another followed … Gemano thought for a moment then responded …

“I know … I will play a bit of Opera .. a song I picked up just before I came here … are you ready?” … and he smiled his big, bright, broad smile for which he was nicknamed “The Bay of Naples” … or just “Naples” for short …

The men all clamour; “Yes … play, play!”

So Gemano struck up the ukulele to the tune of George Formby’s; “When I’m cleaning windows” … He sings in a broken Italo/English manner …

“Now I go a cleanin’ windows to earn an honesta bob
Fora the nosy parker it’s an intrestin’ job

Now it’s a job that just suits me
A window cleaner you woulda be
If you can see what I canna see
When I’m cleanin’ windows” … Gemano stands and walks around the group of men singing some more of the silly song as he does so …

The men let out a raucous laugh at the cheek of Gemano and the ludicrous song … the first song they had shared to played music for such a long time … and just through that simple sound of music and singing a sense of joy and happiness spread over the camp for the first time in ages.

There follows several favourite folk songs … like ”La Paganella”:

One of the young men; Artini, was angry at his situation … he berates the men for their lack of anger at their situation.

“Why do we all just sit and accept our situation? … Why are we stuck in this lonely scrub working for nothing but food and thankfulness to our captors? … And all we do is sing silly songs … I didn’t come all this way to waste my young years as a mule to these Englandi delinquents! … Look at us … they call US enemy aliens and lock us away … and there also are those aborigine people, the first natives of the land … they call them “enemy aliens“ too and lock THEM away in reserves across the river! … so now both of us peoples are captives to those bloody Englandi colonists who think they own the bloody place even over the first peoples!! They lock everyone away who is not English … what are these people … bastardi? … and us, do you not remember the vow we made to our loved ones back home? .. that we will make a life for ourselves and send help back to them?”

Artini then goes to each man in turn as he encourages them to join in and sing a song about it … ”

To be continued into Act #2

 

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Days of wine and lost horizons …

Days of beer and weed …

Growing up in the 70’s … The following are a series of vignettes and cameos of where and with whom I grew up with in the 1970’s as a young man … some of them you may see as pure delinquency, others as that clumsy, clunky half-innocence of the fumbling youth trying to get a grip on the disorder of those times … Times that were revolutionary in both freedom of movement from state to state and job to job. Gone were the ties that bound one socially and economically to home and hearth … there was adventure “out there” and being young and free with more than a hint of delinquency about us, by Christ, we were going to taste a bit of it before we all grew too old to remember what the thrill of life was about …

To the Lighthouse

Ah! … Friday nights, didn’t we look forward to them. But we were young and carefree in those days. A group of us young bucks would meet after work at the Seacliff Hotel on Fridays and imbibe of the amber fluid and see what came of the evening. We were mostly working lads, so our thirsts were dry and encouraging.

I happened to be the first there that night, so I’d only taken my first draught of beer and settled back one-arm-on-the-bar surveying the scene, when in walks Mark. Mark was a big stocky fellow then, before the years and a beer-gut increased accordingly. I did the decent thing and shouted him his first beer on myself.

“Another schooner please, Noela.” I said to the barmaid before Mark reached me.

“G’day mark … How’s the land lie?” I greeted him.

‘Hrmph! … not much better than yesterday … ta, Noela.”

“Why the long face? … Say! … I heard you bought yourself a car!”

“HAD, you mean … past tense … an’ I only had it three days!”

“Righto then,” I turned and put both my forearms on the bartop … “out with it … what’s the dirt?”

“Bloody Mick!” Mark spat the words out.

“More!” I demanded.

“Last night we were in here having a drink,” he started … ( I motioned to Noela for a beer for myself and nudged the coins on the bar and gave her the wink and a sign to keep refilling them). “You know then that car I got from one of Mick’s mates who was going back to Sydney or somewhere and it had a “yellow canary” on it for bald back tyres? … Well, Mick suggested I buy the car ’cause I could get it for a song.” Mark paused for a drink and a sigh, then continued …

“But I haven’t even got a licence .. I said to him .. ‘You’ll get one one day,’ said Mick ‘and until then I can drive you around, since I don’t have a car.” … Mark rolled his eyes … “Say! … have you heard about Mick’s car?”

“I have not,” I replied.

“Ah! … it’s another story … I’ll tell you later .. he smashed it anyhow … again!” Mark waved his hand as if to erase the thought from his mind.

“Well,” he continued, “I’d had enough beer by then to be a little bit foolish, so between one thing and another, I bought the car … ‘ 64 Falcon … green … I think!”

Mark sighed and plonked his hand down on a packet of smokes which he flung the lid off in an angry gesture and lit one up ecstatically.

“A man’s a fool!” he philosophised.

“Well, we were in here last night, me, Mick and Jim … You know Jim … the bullshit-artist? … yeah, that’s him! … me and Jim and Mick, just where we’re sitting now … and the car’s there outside the window in the street and I was feeling a little proud, I admit it, I’d never owned a car before, you see? … ”

“Anyway … (yes thanks, Noela) … we’re sitting here an’ Mick leans over to Jim and me and whispers like it was a national secret: ‘I know where I can get a good “deal” tonight’ … ”

“Oh yeah!” I said “Where; The Brighton?”

“Yeah … good heads … good price too!” … Mick was keen. Suddenly, there was “Brain’s” face hanging over my shoulder … “How much?” Brain asks.

I tell you, if there’s even a sniff of dope within half a mile of Brain, he’s on to it. And God! … doesn’t it look like he’s full of it ! If it can be smoked, drank chewed or injected … but then I ‘spose that’s why he’s called “Brain” …. oh God! … his eyes!!”

“How much?” Brain repeats himself .. he’s standing there trembling like a distempered dog … anyway, between the long and short of it, we scrape our money together … I lent Brain his share … and we send Mick to buy a bag.”

“He gets back about an hour later lookin’ like he’s smoked half of it away. He gave us the nod from the door and we all finished our beers and went out to the car. He showed us the “deal”.

“And the rest, Mick!”, Jim said … He knew mick like he knows himself, eh? … After a good deal of threatening from us he handed over some more he’d kept ‘ for commission’ he said.”

“Well, we decided to got up to the lighthouse and have a couple of joints. Mick’s driving like he usually does, so he does a few ‘ring-a-rounds’ on the grass and we park and smoke away … When we decided to go, Mick does another bunch of 360s just to make an idiot of himself and then goes and slides the car into a ditch on the slope and gets stuck … of course, you know Mick; plants his foot till smoke’s pouring off the tyres!”

” ‘Hold on dickhead!’ … I shouted,’ we’re not going anywhere like this … we’ll have to get out and push’ … we were standing at the boot, all off our faces as it was … ‘ No, Mick … YOU .. stay in the car and steer …. OK? … yeah, right ‘ … Well, there we were, an the stars were shinin’ … shinin’ an’ the lighthouse light is goin’ … blink .. blink … FLASH!! … jeez, y’know … it was a beautiful night …. so it took us a little while to notice the grass had caught on fire under the car .. probably off the muffler .. up it went! … WHOOSH! … ‘ Mick, Mick’, we yelled (shoulda’ kept our mouths shut!) an he got out just in time. Man … we were panicking. Brain was freaking out, he just stood there moaning, ‘ Oh man, oh man’ … and staring.”

“I’ll go to a house’, I shouted, ‘and call the fire brigade’. I tell you I went to four houses over the other side of that gully before someone would listen to me. I don’t blame them on reflection, I dunno what I was sayin’ … and the people in the fourth house could see the problem without me babbling a word.. He just looked over my shoulder and the grass on the whole side of the hill was on fire. I heard the sirens then and it was all over bar the shouting … When I got back to the fenceline, Jim, Mick and Brain were standing there silhouetted against the flames. Jim went into bullshit mode and started to detail about how it reminded him of “when he used to burn the sugar-cane crops up in Bundaberg … ” … I told him to ‘shuddup, Jim … just shuddup!’.

“Well, that was last night. This morning, I wasn’t feeling too good, but around comes Mick to pick me up me an’ Jim an’ we drive up to the lighthouse to see the damage. The car’s a writeoff, gutted except the rear-end and the boot … you know those new tyres I put on to get the coppers to wipe off the “yellow canary”? … well, someone stole both wheels … must’av been the only thing on the whole car worth saving … and to add insult to injury, I’m standing there, really depressed an’ thinkin’; ‘well .. at least I owned a car for three days! ‘ … suddenly Mick makes this gasping sound, like a sharp intake of breath, leaps to the passenger-side door, throws it open and flips open what remained of the glovebox.”

“Oh SHIT!” … Mick cried painfully … “There was a whole “deal” in that glove-box!!”

“Man … I coulda’ wept.” … Mark shook his head disbelievingly. His hand plopped down again on his smokes.

“Two pints this time thanks, Noela”. He sighed.

“Sos.”

You had to feel for Sos … He was one of those people raised in an institution from a very young child … ” Minda Home” … that what it was called once, but the name was changed to ‘Minda Incorporated” … there was a personal slur in this state by using that original name … ie; to call someone a ”minda” was to imply that they were simple-minded … Minda Home being an institution for the intellectually disabled.

The first time I “met” Sos, was when he was coming out of the double doors at the front-bar of the Seacliff Hotel one night … I was crossing the esplanade with a couple of friends, headed to the pub for a beer or two. Sos had just pushed the door open rather roughly … he was a bloody big bloke, so he filled the entire door-space up … and his shadow stretched in a jagged elongation out onto the expanse of Wheatland Street. He suddenly turned and yelled back into the bar:

“ I can dream! … ” he stabbed his finger into that space and repeated: “I can dream!” … he let the door slam shut and turned down the verandah when he spotted us and he repeated the fact that he yelled into the bar; “I can dream” … though this time not as forcefully … he then took a push-bike from where it leant against the wall and awkwardly mounting it, pushed off clumsily onto The Esplanade heading toward Brighton jetty … we could hear him repeat the “I can dream” mantra a couple more times as he rode away.

I remember I said the obvious to Mark (I think it was him); ”I wonder what that was about?” …

”Dunno” he shrugged. “But I’d hate to know of Sos’s dreams … be a nightmare more likely.” …

It turned out Sos was standing near some group of blokes and one had told another in the course of the conversation that; “You’re dreemin’ mate … you’re dreemin’ !” … but that was Sos … he could get the wrong end of the stick anytime … it was his mental state … you had to feel for him … but he never got into any trouble that I can remember, though he could have a “dark scowl” look after a few too many.

But boy! … Could he eat! … Talk about a trencherman! … I remember once seeing him sitting at the front bar, drinking pints of Coopers Ale … now, I’m talking about that old Coopers Ale … back in the days when it was real ale … with twigs ‘n stuff in it, as they would say … but cloudy … then the cook brought out this huge roast-platter … you know those big oval platters they’d serve up the Christmas turkey on … one of those big platters with three complete “T-bone” steak meals on it, replete w/ roast pratties, carrots, onions and sweet-potatoes … the salad was in a side dish, it wouldn’t fit on the main dish … and about half a loaf of bread to mop up the gravy! … AND all the while he was eating, he was tossing back those pints of Coopers Ale … THEN! … after he had finished that platter, he got stuck into his own packed lunch he had there with him! … Mark once told me that Sos had challenged him to an eating contest … Mark declined the offer.

There was a reckless side to Sos … Once, when I came down the road that led from Minda Home, toward Brighton Road (Brighton Road is a main road carrying most of the traffic from the southern sea-side suburbs), a very busy road. I was on my motor-bike and had stopped at the intersection waiting for a break in the traffic … when suddenly, this “crazy” on a push-bike swept right past me straight out into Brighton Road … his bike bell tinkling like Christmas chimes and he laughing his head off … cars were going every which way! … braking and sliding all over the place … Sos (yes … it was he) … just roared with laughter and crossed lanes and peddled away like mad! … bloody crazy!

Oh yeah … that push-bike he rode off on that night I first saw him? … it wasn’t his, he stole it as it was just there … the owner … a bit of a misery-guts who had won some money in a minor prize in the lottery came wandering wide-eyed into the bar later that same night calling out in surprise: “ Me bike … me bike! … someone’s stole me bike! … ” of course, no-one ever told him it was Sos … it looked like a heap of shit anyway!

The last time I saw Sos was about ten years ago, in Goodwood … he was still riding a pushbike … I called out to him, but he was heading in a different direction to me and he didn’t hear … gosh! … He was old then … I suppose he’d be “gone” by now.

I like the Australian cultural habit of telling yarns … and general bullshitting … There is a certain skill in attitude, demeanour and voice-timing to get a good story across … Of course, the oral tradition is the best way for such a personality to tell a yarn … but with the loss of the front-bar culture, where working people would gather and the bullshit would fly, those days of the casual yarn are over. But I would like to share a couple of those characters with you if I may … just for the fun of it.

Glen and Mrs Wright

Did I ever tell you about Mrs Wright and Glen? … No? … Well, they were two “locals” down at the Seacliff Hotel … back in the old days of the seventies, some of the last of that “war generation” that were retired or on the point of when we younger folk came along and taught them how to drink!

Mrs Wright was a widow, a retired teacher who drove what I reckon was one of the last registered Humber Super Snipes … A big black beast she parked in her “reserved ” spot just out the front of “the “Cliff” when she went for a quiet drink at night … almost every night … Looking back on it, and her being a local, I wonder if she bought that Humber off the deceased estate of Mrs Herreen … now THERE was a tartar … a wealthy widow who lived opposite the Primary school I went to … I know she was a widow because she always wore black and wealthy because she was chauffeured around in a big black Humber Snipe … She donated large sums to the convent school I attended and in return, she was sometimes given “control” of a class for an afternoon … she would stalk up and down the aisles of us fifty-odd kids (that’s “odd” in number, not personality!) swishing a cane into her cupped hand and looking threatening … she had the physique of Hatty Jaques and the eyes of Myra Hindley … but I’m getting off the subject …

Glenn was a council employee, whose job for the last years of his working life was seated on the council’s ride-on lawnmower … all day every day … out in the sun, which is why he got such a ruddy complexion .. and more melanomas cut off his face so he looked like a pottery paste-up sculpture … though there was a rumour that the colour was all to do with his affection for “poor-man’s port” … he was a very tall bloke who developed a kind of stoop which some tall people get from leaning down to people and perhaps a self-conscious compensation to not look too obvious …

Now, you wouldn’t think two such diverse characters would meet and become a “unit”, but they did … it happened like this:

There came to pass that Don Dunstan put a tax on beer which raised the price of a ‘pony’ glass beyond what Mrs Wright (we’ll call her Betty) could budget in her retirement … BUT! … there was salvation .. Ron, the barman, informed her that there was no extra tax on wine, therefore the price of a “hock, lime and lemon” was now cheaper than the “pony” of beer she was used to having …

“Righto”, she decided “I’ll give it a try” … the first drink was “on the house” said Ron … a kindly chap … and she liked it and would have another thank you very muchly!

Of course, wine is a very different alcoholic beast than beer, and so by the twitching hour of ten o’clock, Betty was seen sitting, glazed eyed on the bar-stool, a cheroot-cigar stub hanging loose in her fingers … eye-witness accounts state that the cheroot first slipped from her fingers, did several somersaults to the bar-step in a spray of sparks … a close acquaintance stooped to pick it up, but was immediately stopped in his action by a “teacher’s command” to “LEAVE-IT!” … which were the last words she spoke that evening as she then slid ever so gracefully off the stool, gathering her heavy skirts modestly around herself and sunk to the floor …

Ron (the barman witnessing this), to him so familiar; “float to oblivion”, leapt across the bar in what must be termed “the Barman’s Flop” for it was equal to an Olympian effort and calling for assistance carried her “wheelbarrow style” out to place her on the back seat of her Humber to sleep it off … it must be mentioned that Ron took her arms while the only other sober-able bodied man in the front bar; Glen took her legs … “In a kindly and gentlemanly way” as Betty later assured all who would doubt otherwise.

When Glenn retired, they sold up their respective houses and moved to Kangaroo Island … Betty drove with the Humber and a huge trailer of their possessions to take the ferry across … Glen, waving goodbye to all his mates, set sail in his restored clinker-built fishing boat to “chug-along” to the island … it was a long afternoon in the front-bar while he said his farewells … it was a long “goodbye” drinking toasts to all the good times … and it was noticed that one particular old mate … Little Johnny, the SP bookie, in a teary moment, slipped a ruddy flagon of Rovalley Rich (poor-man’s) Port into the prow of the boat before he set off … “in case it gets a tad chilly in ‘the passage’ (Backstair’s Passage)” he comforted … then Glenn set off for Kangaroo Island … a delightful island just off the coast of Flerieu Peninsula, approx 90 miles long facing the mainland.  You can’t miss it …

It DID get chilly out on the water … Glenn DID consume the entire flagon of port and fell asleep on the bottom of the boat in a drunken stupor and was swept through Backstairs Passage, where the tide goes out like a river … and missed Kangaroo Island, to end up on The Pages … a couple of rocks outcropped on the vast ocean, last stop between Sth Aust’ and Antarctica … I believe he was rescued by the Sea Patrol sent out by Betty’s distress at Glen not turning up … it appears he gained the patrol’s attention by using the now empty “Poor-man’s Port” flagon to flash heliograph signals to the passing patrol boat … but that’s another story.

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Jim: A Character Study

Days of beer and weed: Stories from a wasted decade

Henry Lawson once said the if you were drunk more than twice a week, you were never sober … using that as a premise, I can confidentially state that many of us boomers in the seventies were rarely sober!

The story goes that Jim, on visiting the dentist to have his mouth-full of rotten teeth attended to, promptly told the dentist they would all have to come out …

“I’ll be the judge of that!” the dentist hastily replied. Then asked him to open up … ”Good lord! … They’ll have to come out!” … and Jim smiled … not for the fact that he was going to lose all his teeth, but, you see, Jim was right again! … he regaled us with this knowledge that same night at “The Cliff” (The Seacliff Hotel) … Jim was a specialist at “regaling” people with his stories, for that’s what they were, fictions of a very fertile imagination. But getting back to his teeth for a moment. It was a good job he attended to them when he did, he was fast losing friends from the mere sight of that “cavern of broken and blackened stalactites” as someone (I forget who) once said … ”It’s enough to put yer off yer finking” someone else (I forget whom) remarked … (maybe it was Jeff Otto … it sounds like him!).

Jim was of dark-haired medium height, but he looked taller than he was through being rather lanky … he was one of those blokes who could hold their pint of beer and cigarette in the one hand while gesticulating a point with the other … he was always there on the fringe of a discussion, willing to make his contribution whenever he could … not by butting in, but by picking the right moment … for good yarn-spinning demands a damn good sense of timing … it is in using the accoutrements around one as props .. like long-drawing on a fag, or pausing to lick the paper when rolling a cigarette, or polishing off the dregs of a beer and calling to Noela for a refill … it gives the listener pause enough to “get ahead” in their minds , of the story-teller … but the story-teller is really always in control … Jim was a natural.

However, as much as I can make out, Jim’s career as the local bullshit artist began when he was employed with the district council on an unemployment relief scheme. Jim and his mate Mark, with whom Jim used to board, were both working up near the old golf course, widening the road. A lot of the local riff-raff of the community were employed on these schemes and this project was no exception. There were a few members of the notorious “Barbarians” motorcycle gang working the same stretch of road as Jim and Mark. These “youths” were known to possess a rather cruel streak within their ugly facades of greasy, unwashed grottyness … otherwise they were rather nice chaps!

One day at smoko, Jim decided to endear himself to the nearest “Barb” with an example of his fiction … we’ll take up the thread at the ending …

“ … well, there I was … broken down truck, no food, no water, no road out … the middle of the desert … the middle of summer … I knew I was in a fix, so I started walking south … (a drag on his cigarette … slow expel of smoke) … I walked for three days, no food, no water … on the third day I was standing under a gum tree resting … when suddenly an Aborigine appeared before me … I thought I was hallucinating, I don’t know where he came from as there was nothing but desert all around … but there he was … a full-blood … dark as a pint of stout and armed with spears and things … (pause for meaningful reflection and another drag) … I couldn’t speak his dialect and he couldn’t speak mine … he gave me a drink and some chewy-meat stuff … then we sat down cross-legged in the red sand and he drew some wriggly lines with his fingers which I took to mean water … and he turned his head to the sunset and pointed … he then made three strokes in the sand … and sure enough, I walked three days in that direction and came across water.”

All through this extraordinary tale, the gruesome bikie was suitably impressed with Jim’s courage in the face of such odds and his calm demeanor in the retelling of the adventure, so that with every pause, he would punctuate the story with “yeah!” or ”really!?” and even a proud “bloody hell!” so that Jim returned to work a hero in one man’s eyes … that is until the bikie repeated the yarn (replete with amazed interjections) to Mark.

“Oh, he was just bullshitting to you … he’s never been further north than Wheatland Street!” (the street leading to the Seacliff Hotel).

“Yeah!! …,” the bikie raged … ”I’ll kill the bastard!!” … it took Mark another half hour to calm the man down. Mark frequently had to follow behind to undo the damage that Jim innocently wrought. For however outlandish were his stories, he never meant any harm by them, They were as I said … figment of a very fertile imagination.

But there was method to Jim’s madness. He would mostly relate these Munchausenish adventures to someone of influence … and as Jim spent a good deal of time in the clutches of poverty … and the front-bar of the Seacliff Hotel, that “influence” usually centered around the financial capacity to purchase more beer, or as in the case just mentioned, a toke on a joint or two of “Barbarian” weed!

To keep up his supply of stories, Jim would clip out obscure articles from newspapers to file away in this little notepad he kept he kept in a top pocket. Occasionally, he would be seen to write something in this pad, but never was he known to show anybody it’s contents. I suspect there was little to show, but was “played upon” to increase the “mystery“ surrounding his person … there was a rumour (no doubt started by himself), that he was in Sth Aust’ as a kind of modern-day “remittance man” from a wealthy family back in Sydney. Jim would draw upon those clippings and notes with suitable embellishments to concoct another outlandish tale with himself as hero to impress whoever had the generosity to maintain supply …

An Example …

You may have read in the papers many years ago about the discovery in the sea north of Darwin, a sunken Japanese submarine from the second world war that contained a fortune in mercury. However, the Japanese government pressed for the wreck to be left alone as a “war grave” … which, eventually it was. Well … a couple of evenings after that story broke in the papers, Jim had buttonholed some unfortunate and was relating to him the details (between draughts of the old amber), of how he; Jim … and some others had dived for and retrieved canisters of mercury from a Japanese sub sunken out in St Vincent’s Gulf … ” … if you follow that sunbeam on the water there straight out ‘bout five mile … ” and sold it for a fortune which was used to buy arms for gun-running to Timor … oh!, pardon my slip, I forgot to tell you that Timor was at that time in conflict with Indonesia, which also made the dailys … and Jim’s notepad.

Most of these tales were good entertainment and people didn’t mind paying the price of a beer or two for such. However, Bruce (The Pinball Wizard), made the mistake of believing one of Jim’s creations and he never lived it down! …

It went like this …

Bruce was known as The Pinball Wizard because that was his occupation; hiring and maintaining pinball machines. He ran a very successful business at it too … until the electronic video games made their appearance on the scene. Bruce failed to take these first crude machines seriously, thinking they were a passing fad. They weren’t, and failing to “take the tide at the flood”, missed the boat. Nobody wanted his machines in their shop anymore and he couldn’t get rid of them nor borrow against them to upgrade … he had left his run too late! Anyhow, he walked into the front bar one evening, looking for company and maybe a sympathetic ear to chew ( a problem shared is a problem halved) not to mention a cool beaded glass of beer to smack one’s lips over and who was there on the next stool? … Jim !

“Hello Bruce, why the long face?”

“O … g’day, Jim.” A pause to sip his beer and weigh his reply “Oh … a few problems with the business … y’know.” … And Bruce told Jim the whole sorry saga of his missing the gravy train and light-heartedly berating himself for not seeing the obvious. Jim sat through this narrative in unusual silence, just swilling the dregs of his nearly (and ruefully) empty pint glass. Jim’s contemplative silence, Bruce later confessed, may have been more to do with this fact rather than his: Bruce’s enlightening story. Then, however, Jim had an inspiration that many consider his finest moment. For when Bruce had finished talking, Jim stared at him open mouthed as if to say something … he then swiveled his whole body around on the bar-stool to gape into the bar severy … he nodded his head several times as if amazed and then slapped his hand down smartly and sharply on the bar-top turning back to Bruce as he did so …

“Now that’s fate!” he announced with nodding head to Bruce. Bruce finished sipping his beer and looked sideways to Jim.

“Huh! … What is?” Bruce asked.

“Why, meeting you just at this moment!” Jim didn’t give Bruce a chance to question him, but took up the conversation. “Just today I received a letter from my uncle’s trustees … (my uncle died recently, you know) telling me that he had left me some property in his will … (he had a tidy packet tucked away I can tell you … but no kids!) a two-storey building in Bankstown!” Jim’s eyes were fairly popping out of his head.

“What’s that got to do with me?” Bruce asked, but now interested in this suddenly wealthier Jim.

“Well! … it’s an amusement parlour … TWO HUNDRED MACHINES! … and I was just sitting here lamenting how in the blue blazes I was going to manage the place … I was thinking to best sell the whole lot!” … Now you or I would’ve squinted one eye at Jim and perhaps left it at that .. but as I just told you, Bruce was a desperate man staring bankruptcy in its’ ugly face … also ( if I might add ), the gods had at that moment chosen to punish Bruce for being too successful at wooing women! … so had endowed Jim’s story with a cloak of irresistible attraction .. Bruce looked smilingly at Jim’s credulous expression and spoke the very words Jim wanted to hear ..

“Care for another beer, Jim?”

Let me just go off on a bit of a tangent an tell you about Bruce. How many times have we said; “If only I knew then what I know now” … Bruce was what would be called these days “A chic magnet” … attractive young ladies adhered to him like rouge to a mummer … He didn’t work at it, he wasn’t a mongrel nor presumptuous bloke … he didn’t put on airs or con anybody … he was what he was … and that is; calm … Bruce exuded what the Italians call ‘tranquillamente’ … and in a climate of frenzy and hurry, that was all that was needed … and he had it naturally … I remember a conversation amongst a group of us about rising early for work and how lousy it was some times … Bruce listened, sipped his beer (he always sipped … he was in no hurry) and commented to the attentative gathering that he like to wake “naturally”.

“Oh … and what time is that?” someone asked … Bruce casually lit up a cigarette before replying …

“About one pm.” He replied … a low whistle came from somewhere … but back to the story.

So the remainder of the night was spent examining; a;- the layout of the premises (Jim), b;- Machine maintenance and upgrading (Bruce) c;- staff requirements / management policy (combined effort), d ;- wages … here, Jim’s benevolence came to the fore.

“Well .. that’s very generous of you Jim, but fifty – fifty seems a little too good … ” Bruce stared glassy-eyed into his beer … ” BUT … if it’s alright with the boss … who am I to argue?” and they shook hands on the deal and I might say that Bruce was so overwhelmed with this stroke of good fortune when all looked blackest that tears of happiness nearly, I say; nearly, welled up in his eyes. And Jim WAS generous, because that is what he would have liked to have given … had he got it!

Closing time came and the two partners separated with more handshaking and effusive congratulations on the promise of a glowing future etc, etc … and Jim reminding Bruce to meet him here at the pub at ten o’clock in the morning and they would go to the airport to get a standby flight to Sydney to look the joint over.

“Righto, Jim”. Bruce slurred.

“Righto, Bruce”. Jim slurred.

And they wobbled away to their respective vehicles.

Scene:

Bruce standing at the front bar sipping a Angostura bitters and soda. There is a discarded “Bex Powder” wrapper at his feet. Next to it stands a light, traveling suitcase containing the necessities for a short stay in Sydney. The time is ten-thirty am … no Jim. Bruce makes a phone call from the booth.

“Hello Mark … It’s Bruce … er … where’s Jim?” (Jim boards with Mark).

“In bed … why?”

“What’s he doing in bed? … He’s supposed to meet me here at the pub at ten!”

“He’s in bed because some fool was buying him drinks all night and now he’s hungover to buggery! … anyway, what’s he got to meet you for?” … Bruce suddenly got a shakey feeling and hesitated to answer.

“Well … ” he drawled uneasily … ” We’re supposed to go to Sydney to look at this pinball parlour that he had inherited from his uncle … ”Bruce didn’t get the chance to say any more as the guffawing laughter at the other end of the line drowned all further communication. It also made it useless to proceed as Bruce had suddenly become enlightened … he just quietly hung up.

To his credit, Bruce never held any animosity against Jim for the con-job. He saw the ludicrousness of the proposition and laughed at his own folly. Jim, of course never even considered it a “con”, to him it was just another good yarn … ”that was yesterday … this is today” was his philosophy.

Though I will let you in on a little secret I discovered with Jim … I buttonholed him one day and asked him (carefully choosing my words ), if there was ever a risk of over-egging the details in his “explanations” … his answer surprised me for it’s unspoken depth of understanding of that basic human weakness … he looked intently at me for a longer than comfortable time and he said ;

“My father had a small dagger in scabbard … middle-eastern, very ornate handle with emeralds and rubies … the scabbard with gold inlay, looked good … all fake of course … he used to bring it out when people came to dinner .. said he won it from a sheik in a marksmanship competition when he was serving in the army during the war … really, he bought it from a stall in the Prahran Markets when we were on a holiday in Melbourne when I was very young … and he was only a supply clerk in the war and never went overseas … but everyone marveled at it … rarely did anyone take the dagger from the sheath .. they just loved the jewels and the gold … I thought that strange .. considering that the blade is really the most important part, since it must do the real “work” … so I learned at a very young age that people will always admire the bling rather than respect the blade ” …

… and the cheeky bastard then gave me a wink!!

The last time I saw Jim, was when I was working with my brickie mate ; Frank, on a job at Brighton, just off the esplanade. I’d heard Jim was threatening to return for a visit from Sydney where he had gone a year or two before to live. I was riding my treadly home one afternoon and had just reached the Seacliff Hotel when I chanced to glance over to the car-park and there was Jim’s car with the NSW. number plate on it and Jim sitting in it. I quickly glided over the road on my bike, alighting to one pedal as I cruised up behind the car. I was just going to call out when I noticed he was sitting in a trance-like state staring out to sea. He was wearing a “combat” style jacket, “C.I.A. sunglasses” and a camouflage baseball cap. There was a book open on the steering-wheel, I crept up and peered over his shoulder at the title … ”Submarine Command” Hello! I thought … here’s tonight’s story … I stepped back a couple of paces out of respect to his daydreams , then banged on the side of the car … ”Jim!” I called … ”hey, Jim!”

But I have a soft spot for ol’ Jim … you see, he’s a loner … a dreamer … one must respect dreamers, they’re our only salvation. At the risk of sounding sentimental, I have jotted down a few lines of verse to celebrate his audacity …

“It is only in the harbours of our mind

That we reach our full potential,

Where images of reality and fantasy mingle,

Where drunkards and kings are equal … ”

 

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Darwin dayze

Days of beer and weed

Growing up in the 70s … The following are a series of vignettes and cameos of where and with whom I grew up with in the 1970’s as a young man … some of them you may see as pure delinquency, others as that clumsy, clunky half-innocence of the fumbling youth trying to get a grip on the disorder of those times … Times that were revolutionary in both freedom of movement from state to state and job to job. Gone were the ties that bound one socially and economically to home and hearth … there was adventure “out there” and being young and free with more than a hint of delinquency about us, by Christ, we were going to taste a bit of it before we all grew too old to remember what the thrill of life was about … Perhaps some of us never really grew old, but rather stayed in a state of suspended youth … a type of “forever young” … but then there are those I meet in these older times who seem to have been old from their earliest childhood!

Potts

I shared a flat with Potts and a piss-wreck named “Hopkirk” in Darwin back in the seventies.

Pott’s girfriend; “Chic”, had a horse aggisted out at East Arm, Darwin which, as one has to do with horses, she attended and groomed and rode in competitions, much to the chagrin of Potter, who demanded a lot of attention … ”High-maintenance” I believe they called it.

As I said, I shared that flat with Potter and Hopkirk. Hopkirk was a squirrellish little bloke who could and did drink extraordinary amounts of beer and never put on weight … indeed, in the months preceding the 1975 cyclone, “Tracey”, that wiped out most of Darwin, Hopkirk had accumulated a remarkable supply of slabs of beer in anticipation of the Christmas season celebrations … and did indeed live up to his promise of getting blotto on Christmas eve … so much so that he slept through the worst moments of the cyclone and only became aware of some special event had happened that night when he went out the back door to relieve himself in the back yard the following morning … He shrugged and then went back to his drinking.

I would spend my weekends playing baseball or relaxing on the bed with a good book and mostly enjoying the peace and quiet when Hopkirk was down the “Koala Hotel” getting pissed and Potter was out marauding about somewhere … I must comment here that my incessant reading of books infuriated Potter, whose only perusal of literature was to read, for his own reassurance, the alcohol content listing on the label of a Vic-bitter can … Though one day in a moment of weakness, he did purchase from a persistent door-to-door salesman a whole set of Encyclopedia Britannica … for the sole purpose of it being just the right height when stacked one on top of the other to set near the 8-ball table so he could put his beloved “green-cans” (Vic-bitter’) on them … sometimes he’d stop at my room door and shout in frustration:

“People die in bed, you know!”

I confess that I used to order my books through an Adelaide bookshop to ship to Darwin … Those days, Darwin was not known as a capital of education and the perusal of anything in literature was seen as suspect and perhaps even worthy of reporting to ASIO for possible communist activity! … Potter caught me one day reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Ecce Homo” (trans; “Here is the man”), his autobiography … He went into a sullen sulk toward me for about a week until at last at the 8-ball table I demanded to know what was his gripe. He paused, stood loose limbed clutching his cue and with the most downcast look quietly asked of me:

“That book you are reading … something Homo … is that about homosexuals and are you a homosexual?”

I rest my case just there about Potter’s political and literature depth of knowledge.

Anyway, this one day I was at the flat by myself peacefully reading, when the door burst open and in came Potter and Chic accompanied by a cacophony of mutual accusation and abuse …

“You and that bloody horse!” Potter was shouting … to which Chic put up a courageous and equally solid defence about Potter and his car … and they stood there just outside but on opposite sides of the door-way to my room, arguing back and forth … I put my book on my chest and watched as first one head protruded into the door frame space, shouted their point and then withdrew and the other would immediately intrude … back and forth, like some bizarre Punch and Judy show until … with a lengthy tirade from Potter on his demands from Chic for a successful relationship, his chiseled jaw jutting out and that Dennis Lillie moustache bristling aggressively … time froze that “frame” in that doorway for me forever … because just as Potter had reached the zenith of his vocal eloquence, I saw Chic’s big brown leather (hand made w/embossing and brass clasp) handbag, containing a multitude of heavy, wooden horse-brushes, perform a perfect parabolic curve to connect with the crown of Potter’s head in an act of physical and physic intensity (There must be an mathematical equation for this connection of ; a) Descending Force meets; b) Immovable Force … a sort of; DF–IF = X ) equal to a king-hit from Muhammad Ali at his peak.

Potter went down like a screaming bag of shit! … Chic immediately rushed to their bedroom, Potter rose with an unsteady poise and regaining his intellect, immediately gave chase … I lay abed in weary but curious observation … moments similar to this had happened before … I could make out the movements of the protagonists by the screaming of Chic: “He’s gonna kill me, he’s gonna kill me!” and the sound of mattress inner-spring as they leapt from one side of the room to the other … Chic got the better of the moment and fled through their door, right past mine with screaming fright and Potter not two steps behind … she lunged into the bathroom and just had time to slam the door on Potter’s face … literally … he became a tad more upset at this and proceeded to punch three holes through the bathroom door; ”wham, wham, wham!” ..

It was this activity which inspired me to take some action. I wearily arose from the bed, slipped on my thongs, excused myself past Potter still furiously “negotiating” through the door with his girlfriend to make my way, as I had so many times before, to the poster shop on Cavanaugh Street to purchase some more cute pictures of doggies or cats to place over yet more holes in doors or walls … I returned to the sound of the two lovers doing what they both did best after the release of these regular moments of “sexual tension” and vacated the flat for a few hours to seek the amusing company of this crazy public servant at a known pub near by who would insist he was either (depending on the day) a secret agent (he’d have a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist) or John Wayne in disguise (he was about five foot five in height).

But we were young and carefree then and life was one big long-weekend.

Tiger Brennan

Tiger Brennan was the mayor of Darwin back in the seventies. He was a strange character who got around dressed in colonial “Pukka sahib” kahki shorts and shirt, replete with pith helmet and long socks and was always smoking a Winston Churchill style fat cigar … a punctilious buffoon and as bent as a drawer full of used Uri Geller spoons.

Tiger lived in a flat on the next floor above us … I don’t know when he was sober, because I can only recall him drunk … He drove this big Ford Fairlane in such a reckless fashion that he’d scatter the rubbish bins in wild collision every time he drove into the car-park of the flats, so he made a deal with Potter that he would leave the car out the front and potter would park it for him … this was a kind of trade-off for the noise of the raucous parties we held in our flat almost every opportunity … it was the seventies and this was Darwin!

I remember one night, another party … it was going great guns! … the walls were vibrating with Neil Diamond pouring out of the new quadraphonic system Potter had signed another rubber cheque for and the beer running freely … then there was this banging on the door … took a little while to hear it, but I threw the door open and there was Tiger with his pith helmet … wearing only a pair of boxer-short undies and a pair of slippers and smoking that fat cigar … He didn’t say a word, just took the cigar out of his mouth with his left hand and with index finger and thumb of his right made “turn-it-down” motions he then shoved the cigar back into his mouth, puffed smokily a couple of times to make the point, turned on his heels and trudged back up the stairs.

One night, around midnight Tiger Brennan came crashing into the carpark as usual sending bins and shit flying … he gets out staggering about as drunk as a skunk … someone in one of the flats called out:

“You drunken bastard … you couldn’t drive a greasy stick …” To which Tiger regains his unsteady balance takes his cigar from his lips and slurs out:

“You … watch your tongue or … or I’ll have the bloody coppers ‘round here … and book ev’ry last one of you … perverts … yeah … ” And he staggered off under the flats .

But he was never one to miss a political opportunity … was Tiger …

One balmy Darwin afternoon, just before the wet rains came in … I was sitting on the back balcony having a coupla quiet beers, watching the world slip by … I have to admit there is a lot to see from a balcony … Hal Porter was well paced on his cast-iron balcony.

It was after Cyclone Tracy and many of the flats were abandoned and ruined, but had been taken over by squatting hippies … who would congregate in a clearing, out in the back yards of the flats and would for want of a better description: Pow-wow around a camp-fire and pass the joints around … this infuriated Tiger because he had just that season driven the hippies out of their tree-houses on Darwin beach and they then retreated to squat right under his nose in these flats.

I was sitting there listening to the hippie conversation and then I could hear Potter talking to Tiger just under the balcony … I looked down and I could see Potter showing Tiger his newest acquisition, a short-barrel shotgun he had purchased to take with him every time he went further South down the Stuart Highway past Berri Springs … The movie Deliverence had just done the rounds of the Darwin Cinema and it put the wind up many of the alpha males in Darwin, who believed the worst thing could happen to a red-blooded Aussie male was to get rheemed up the arse no matter what the disadvantage or situation … hence the shotgun.

“How many shots can you get off in a minute?” Tiger asked as he held his cigar.

“I can empty the magazine,” Potter reassured him.

“Go on!” Tiger looked impressed.

“I’ll show you,” Potter replied.and in doing so quickly filled the magazine with solid slug 12-gauge shells … pumped the magazine once and fired off five shots in quick succession into an idle 44-gallon drum full of water nearby. “Boom, boom, boom … As the drum jumped and thumped and water sprayed everywhere, the hippies scattered like chaff in the wind in every direction, Tiger sprang to the offered opportunity and yelled after them.

“And there’s plenty more of that for you bastards if you come back too!”

I don’t know what happened to Tiger eventually … I do know he retired under some kind of cloud … but that’s all I remember … there are limits and it was the seventies!

More Potter

I remember one balmy afternoon, sitting back in a recliner at the flat, sans Hopkirk, sans Potter, listening to my latest LP acquisition: “Santana; Caravanserai” … when suddenly there was a howl of spinning tyres and then a screeching of brakes in the car-park underneath the flats …. Potter was back from the “Adelaide River Show Society” (ARSS) horse event his fiance competed in.

He crashed through the door in a foul but kind of satisfied mood … went to the fridge, swished the door open, plucked out a “green-can” and threw himself on the other recliner (I had swapped Santana, which he did not like for Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night which he did like) … He took a long draught out of the can smacked his lips a couple of times then began:

“Bloody hippies! … You wouldn’t believe what just happened to me down by Adelaide River on the way back here … You know how windey and narrow that stretch of road is there, not many places to safely overtake and all … well I came flying around a bend in the road and there, right in front of me was this Kombi van … fuckin’ all painted over with peace symbols and rainbows and fuckin’ flowers and shit and chock-a-block full of pot-smoking hippies!”

He took another draught to lubricate and continued …

“Fuckin’ hippies … hate ’em! So the next straight stretch I planted the foot to overtake (Potter, it must be mentioned at this point, always drove these souped-up Ford V8s … these fuel-guzzling monsters had things he waxed lyrical about … like extra-lift cams, Edelbrock manifolds, four barrell-carbis and dizzys – that did something wonderful to the motor – and this one had a bull bar on front) … but the bastards swerved right out in front of me to block my way … like it was some sort of joke … and they’re leaning out of the Kombi waving their “peace, man” fingers and laughing and offering me a joint while they’re at it … fuckin’ hippies! And every time I tried to over-take … the same thing … Drrrrrrrrrrr … the Kombi would swerve over to block me … with them all laughing. I got jack of this so I waited until we straightened upon the road and then I crept up to the rear-end of that Kombi, nudged it on contact with the bull-bar and then planted my foot!

“The fuckin’ 400 horses in that Ford howled and the wheels spun like fuck and I pushed that Kombi up till we were going over ninety miles per hour and they’re all screaming now!”

” … scream you fuckers, scream … it’s not funny now is it?” And I started singing that John Lennon song Give Peace a Chance out the window at them and they’re screaming and I waited until we got to a clear part of the road-side and I shoved them off into the paddock … you shoulda’ seen it … geez it was fuckin’ funny!”

… And he got up, went to the fridge and got himself another beer.

Ahh … Darwin in the seventies … just one long, endless party.

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More days of beer and weed …

Growing up in the 70s … The following are a series of vignettes and cameos of where and with whom I grew up with in the 1970s as a young man … some of them you may see as pure delinquency, others as that clumsy, clunky half-innocence of the fumbling youth trying to get a grip on the disorder of those times … Times that were revolutionary in both freedom of movement from state to state and job to job. Gone were the ties that bound one socially and economically to home and hearth … there was adventure “out there” and being young and free with more than a hint of delinquency about us, by Christ, we were going to taste a bit of it before we all grew too old to remember what the thrill of life was about …

Steve

He was a study in tragedy … because of what he had become from what he once was. In the early days, you’d see Steve sitting in a tatty, stuffed lounge chair in one of the many dives and squats he frequented down ‘The Bay’ (Glenelg), his acoustic guitar cradled in his lap, a wide smile on his fragile delicate featured face, and he would be engaged in an enthusiastic esoteric analysis of the meaning of life with any young lass nearby … these young women were usually itinerants passing through the squat and were themselves in search of that elusive “me” … most of them were in reality middle-class hippies escaping from stultifying pre-war generation parents who wanted to see them betrothed and off their hands and into a ‘good marriage’ w/kids before they were 25 yrs old … So they were out for a bit of adventure armed with bright eyes, an experimental nature and a regular supply of the pill.

Steve was keen to assist in all facets of their education.

And so he cultivated this air of the ‘wandering minstrel I’ with a repertoire of light, airy conversation, a mix of rote-learned poetry, a permanent smile and keenly agreeable nodding head with a rising crest of wavy hair brushed so it resembled the southerly break of surf at Boomer Beach … and a regular supply of nefarious substances he was willing to share to these ‘soul mates’.

Steve always had that guitar handy and now and then he would pluck … not a complete tune … but bits and pieces of chords … he’d place that rolly-ciggy in between his lips, squint his eye from the trickle of smoke and concentrate on striking up a bar or two from a known song … but that’s all he’d do … a bit of a recognisable chord or a bar or two … and then he’d interrupt his “playing” to extract the cigarette and place one palm over the strings and extrapolate on the musicology of the unplayed piece.

He really was impressive in his knowledge of the deeper meanings of those songs.

He drove from squat to pub to dive to party in an old Austin A40 convertible … and it suited him … the paint was faded, the bumptious shape contrasted against his willowy youthful form, and the fact that it was a convertible meant that he could place that guitar in a conveniently visible place in the back seat … just in case it was needed.

This lifestyle continued for some years, right up until the mid-seventies, when both grotty squats and free-wheeling hippy girls started to be hard to come by, and Steve now a tad older and showing his age, never being the most employable type of person, was reduced to couch surfing on friends benevolence and trying to chat up the girls who frequented the bars in the Seacliff Hotel … His fortune in both categories was soon exhausted and he started to take more drugs and in consequence look more seedy.

His once-brushed wavy hair grew more lank and he substituted brush for Welsh-combing … His once boyish laughter now became more a hardened shrill and that wide smile a cruel grimace … the end game was approaching.

One of the last times I ever saw him, was at the front bar of the Seacliff Hotel … he’d been living in a distant suburb so had not frequented this side of town for a while … Now here he was sitting on a bar-stool in that girly cross-legged manner he always had, the rolly in hand and the other arm pressing down on a slim leather satchel on the bar top … I said my greetings and passed the usual idle chatter with him, but the leather folder drew my attention ..

“What’s in the satchel … sheet music?” I pointed.

“This … ” he said in a secretive whisper, “is my evidence.” He smiled his ‘new smile’.

“For what?” I persisted.

“For a claim I intend to bring against my ex-landlord … ” and he gently tapped the folder. “It’s all recorded in here … every leaking tap or faulty door lock … I’ve got them all listed down … oh yes … he won’t get me that easy … ”

And he proceeded to relate to me the ongoing conflict he had with his last landlord and why he was thrown out of the old shack he was renting … It was a sad tale of the obvious … and Steve ticked off on his grubby hand, every perceived insult, every incriminating action, every bit of “evidence” that he was sure would secure him a hefty compensated win in any court of law … of which it was only a matter of time before he would “consult his lawyer” and …

Steve had almost lost his mind … and that guitar he would always have by his side was nowhere to be seen … I remarked upon this anomaly later to Mark …

“Nah … he pawned it to buy some ‘gear’ … ”

“That’s bad luck, he must miss the playing,” I whimsically observed.

“What playing? … ” Mark snorted. “He was lucky he could put those chords together that he did! … I was there when he first bought it from the pawn shop … he never could play a full song, it was just an image he projected for the girls … ”

I nodded a disappointed face and went back to my beer … it’s never good to see anyone fall from grace.

Jasper

Jasper was a ‘Balt’ … ie; he was of those states centred around the Baltic Sea … perhaps he could have been Estonian … he was a tall ponderous sort of chap … with a long serious gaze, with one of those what are called “lantern jawed” faces. He always spoke in a slow, carefully chosen word way … I don’t wonder many philosophers came from the Baltic States … Jasper appeared to put a lot of thought into what he said before he said it … but then he didn’t ever say much of great import.

“You gotta watch those ‘Balts’“ Jack Mitchell warned … ’Ooo … they’re trouble … those bloody Balts.”

He always wore shorts in the Summer … not short shorts like a footballer, but loose baggy ones to the knee. He would sit at the bar pint in hand with legs crossed in a peculiar effeminate way … that is; with his legs entwined like women do … and he would stare incessantly at one person or spot before delivering some profound statement.

“Michael” … he announced out of the blue one day “Michael … would you tell your girlfriend to stop staring at my legs … I know I haff good, manly legs … but could she please not to stare at them so ?”

Of course, Mick was astonished and choked on his beer … Tracey, Mick’s girlfriend, was outraged and put on one hell of a show … Jasper was nonplussed by the whole affair and just commenced to roll a cigarette with his slow ponderous methodology.

Jasper had huge hands … big fingers more suited to blacksmithing or a farrier for draught horses than what he did do … but no-one knew quite what that was as he was an awful liar. Jasper’s toil at rolling a cigarette was something to watch … he was so clumsy with those big hands that it was quite a chore that exasperated him at times.

One day a ‘airy’ young lady sitting next to him at the bar took out of her dilly-bag one of those automatic cigarette rollers where you place the paper then the tobacco, then lift or flip the lid and a perfectly formed ’rolly’ appears to greet you. Jasper, ciggy-paper stuck to his bottom lip watched this magic with deep concentration, his big paw all the while shoved deep into the pouch of tobacco … as he watched, the ciggy-paper fluttered with his breath on his lip … he detached it and addressed the young lady.

“That is a cleffer machine … a vonderful machine … where did you obtain it?” he asked in his slow deep voice.

“Well I didn’t steal it if that’s what you mean?’ The young woman replied.

“ Ivas not accusing you, madam … you look like a honest young lady … an honest AND attractive young lady … perhaps later I would like to get to know you in a more familiar way … I like you … and I like your machine … I am asking where you haff purchased it” …

The following week, Jasper was seen to have one of those machines … it would sit at his elbow on the bar next to his pouch of Drum tobacco … Jasper now had a contented look on his face, and he would gladly demonstrate the marvels of that machine to anyone who asked … and many would take advantage of his hospitality of the proffered resulting cigarette until he woke up to the fact that he was being taken for a ride … philosophers are like that, they learn fast!

Jasper disappeared out of our lives as quickly as he appeared … Late one night he asked Mick for a lift home on the back of his 1000cc Suzuki motor-cycle … Mick delighted in putting the fear of god in anyone silly enough to ride pillion with him … Jasper had no sooner settled himself on the trembling machine and informed Mick to drive carefully as he, Jasper, was … and that was the last we heard of Jasper as Mick took off full-throttle and it was impossible to tell if it was the roar of the motor, the squeal of the tyre, or the Joe. E. Brown howl of despair from Jasper as they disappeared down Yakka Road toward Sth. Brighton.

But he never came back.

Erroll’s Prawn Night

The pub gathering was interesting, if for all the other things, the Hotel where it was held. I have “history” with that establishment … lesser so than my old ‘alma puttana’; The Seacliff Hotel … it was there that I forged an alliance (however accidental) with Beelzebub! … ahh! … the demon drink did for all us youth in THAT den of iniquity!

But beside that, the three hotels that formed a triangle in the suburbs there (nick-named; “The Pollywaffle Triangle” (as a foil to “The Iron Triangle” of Spencer Gulf); The Esplanade, The Brighton and The Seacliff, had thriving membership to their respective “Sports and Social Clubs” … mind you, speaking for the members of the Seacliff Club (of which I was not a member ref; Groucho Marx and ‘clubs HE would not join!’) … but I was quite familiar with those said members), while I would not for a moment doubt their capacity to “socialise” with hard liquour, their capacity for sport of any kind was limited to “elbow bending” and channel surfing with the remote …. and I am reminded of a Nelson Algren story (“The Captain is a Card”) where the Captain of police asks a suspect why he was running a house of ill repute:

“It wasn’t a brothel, it was a sports and social club” the reprobate defended …

“So who were the scantily dressed women?” the Capt’ asks …

“They were the social part,” the man replies …

“Oh that’s good,” the Capt’ says. “For a moment I thought you were going to tell me they were lady wrestlers!”

But besides that, the three hotels thought it good fellowship to join in a joint-hosting program where they would take turns, once a month, to host the other’s social club for dining at their premises. This went on for a while till a small mishap involving Errol “the drunk” and member of the Seacliff club. I heard it from Mark, a fellow imbiber at that hallowed trough ….

“So how come the event was cancelled?” I asked.

“It wasn’t cancelled, it’s just the Seacliff has been banned for the near future from participating.”

“Why … what’s the dirt?”

“Errol!” … Mark’s eyes lowered and his top lip curled.

Errol was one of those homosexuals of the seventies who seemed to slip under the “Aussie Poofter Radar”; acceptable because they were amusing even though high camp! … as a matter of fact, I remember the owner of the pub in those days, a retired footballer (of course!) addressing the crowded front bar thus:

“Listen youse blokes … I don’t want anybody picking on Errol or Steve (Errol’s occasional partner) …. They’re good blokes … not like you an’ me … p’rhaps … but they’re alright … ALRIGHT!?”

Truth be known, Errol and Steve drank enough to lift the pub’s profit margin above “respectable” on a good night! … Errol was in his mid-fifties, corpulent, red-faced w/comb-over and was a quite disreputable person regardless of ANY sexual proclivities!

I recall a moment when I was next to them along the bar and I distinctly heard Erroll addressing a petulant, Stevie:

”Jeesus … Steve, you’re really up-tight tonight … you should try farting … it’ll loosen you up a little.”

I took the accompanying moment of silence to slip away from that location at the bar.

Anyway … this night it was the turn of the Brighton Hotel to be Mine Host … Errol had been tossing a few down at “the cliff” before he went to the dinner … At The Brighton, in the dining room, quite full of family diners, it being Fri’ night, Errol took a shine to the bay-marie bowl full of big, fat prawns … he gouged himself … GOUGED himself! … and drank another couple of pints … then he decided he’d go for seconds … (you just know where this is heading, don’t you?) … eyewitness accounts state that Errol unsteadily approached the bay-marie side-table … a miniature, mock wagonette in the Oklahoma Musical style, replete with the “fringe on top” … plate out-stretched … he stood in front of the prawn container momentarily … he swayed a tad, his eyes widened somewhat and he then delivered what has been described as a Guinness Book of Records quality “technicolour yawn” … all over the prawns, all over the chopped carrots and the three-bean mix and the sweet corn (off the cob) … finishing in a dead faint flop onto the lot, then sliding, slipping, unconscious to the ceramic floor dragging the entire bay-marie potpourri and waggonette down with him … one witness remarked that his inert body slipped over the tiles like a dead fish would on a fluid baised tray.

Of course, such action did not go un-noticed and the consequences were felt right up to the highest echelon of The Seacliff Hotel Sports and Social Club management, ie; Col Penny and Joe Phistus!

The “night to remember” has gone down in the annals of Seacliff front-bar mythology … along with other memorable moments … of which, if you like, more later!

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