The farmhand held the burly sheep tightly by its head and rump. The farmer lay his two hands flat, side by side on the sheep’s back and pressing, spread the dusty coloured fleece to reveal the glowing, creamy fibres beneath. The thick, smooth fleece seemed to glow with health. You could smell the lanolin. The farmer looked up at the helper, “That’s the real McCoy!” he smiled. “Look at those fibres. It’s a real beauty!” He let go of the wool and the gap in the fleece closed up and the animal was released.
The soft woolly clouds parted on that November day and the sun beamed down on the creamy limestone road of the small Mallee town of Sedan.
“Hello,” his smile beamed out from a ruddy face, and the storekeeper lay his hands flat on the wooden counter. “I know now,” the storekeeper snapped his fingers. “You’re the new bloke in town,” he offered his handshake, “I’m Hans Bulmer.”
“I see you’ve taken up Schirmer’s old place.” The storekeeper continued “not a bad site in the town.”
“What? Oh don’t worry about fitting in here, I reckon it’s more a matter of you accepting us rather than us accepting you.” Hans Bulmer pulled over a stool and made himself comfortable and crossed his burly arms. His brow knitted thoughtfully:
“In my experience, the people who don’t meld into these small towns and end up leaving are the ones that won’t accept us for what we are. Oh, I’m not saying we’re faultless, just the opposite rather. But you have some that see us country people as a little … er … backward, you know … hayseeds behind the ears and they like to have a little giggle at our naivety. Well, like I said, those people don’t fit in … don’t want to I think, for once the giggles wear off they get bored with the place and move off to giggle at other people … you know?”
“Here, have a glass of orange … No! No! on the house, welcoming gesture … cheers!” The storekeeper belched: “Pardon!”
“Well, I’ve been here my whole life. Was born down the road there, and I can tell you we’ve had some beauts in this town. Probably no more than any neighbourhood, but still … Now take old Willy Meister, silly as a wheel, harmless, but still they put him “away” for a while you know, used to get around town in women’s dresses, and if you made a remark at him, why he’d up and double over like this … lift his dress and bare his ugly hairy old bum at you … gawd it was a sight … some of the chaps over the road there at the pub would jibe him just for the spectacle of it all, ha! still, the local copper got him certified for a while, just in case.”
The storekeeper broke off the conversation as a customer came in. He served the “local” and then resumed his seat behind the wooden counter.
“Funny thing was though, when they let him out they gave him a certificate of sanity … ha! Ha! he got the last laugh on all those blokes at the pub when he come back.
I can see it now … it was a warm evening, around dark when this side of the street is in shadow and the post office over there gets the last bit of sunlight so that it and the house next door glows a sort of pink … ’long with the road. Well the chaps are sittin’ and standin’ along the verandah havin’ a beer an’ along comes Willy, still with his dress on, mind and the chaps give him a few snickering jibes and giggles, you know. Well, Willy doesn’t show them his arse no more, he just digs into his bodice an pulls out a large piece of paper like this .. unfolds it and says to the assembly:
“So you think I’m crazy eh? Well this piece of paper from them doctors at the hospital declares me sane and I’m the only person in this whole town ‘as got a certificate that says he’s sane … so what does that make you lot?!! ha! ha! ha!” and away he runs laughin’ his head off and them all swearing at him and chuckin’ stones after him what a sight never forget that,” and Hans Bulmer gave a rumbling laugh.
“But then we’ve had sad cases too.” Here the store-keeper thought for a moment …
“Janet Green for instance, but that wasn’t any fault of hers, it’s hard enough as it is to keep yourself together out in the bush without the bad luck as some people have. Some people curse drink for ruining people, but I tell you; if it wasn’t for the country pub in these Mallee towns, a lot of those hard working farmers would’ve ended up in the funny-farm long ago.”
“Drinkers and dreamers they used to say the Mallee was made up of. Well, I reckon drink can drown a man’s sorrows better than any teapot, and dreams well, dreams are the carriages of new ideas … ”
“But I was tellin’ you about Janet Green … old Mrs Green now. But she was young then. My father ran this store then and I was twelve and helped him out here. Janet had only been married early that year, ’bout lambing season, autumn, and she had a kiddie in December .. they didn’t muck around in those days … I’m going back sixty year or so, gives my age away eh! a little boy it was and oh she was struck on that child. Happy as a lark she was, showing it off to everyone that first month or so. But then after that first flush of newness she sort of got a bit worried about something with the child. I remember she was in here one day and she says to my Dad: “Kurt?” (that was my Dad’s name) “Kurt, don’t you think his colour is a bit off?”
“Oh I don’t know Janet, what do I know about babies, I haven’t grown up myself yet!”
“Well, I feel he’s not that well … I feel it,” she spoke tensely.
“Take him to the doctor then,” my Dad said.
“Oh I did … he said the baby was perfectly well and I was just upsetting myself for nothing.”
“Well there you go then,” my father encouraged.
“Yes,” she looked uncertain “but something’s not right … his colour … ”
Well she bothered that doctor again and again over the next couple of weeks till he sent her off to the hospital who sent her back to the doctor who sent her home and that little boy died at six months and she was so struck on the child.”
The storekeeper wiped his hands up and down the thighs of his trousers as he sat on the stool. He seemed to be thinking.
“People thought it strange she showed so little emotion at the funeral … shock, they said, shock, she’ll get over it. I dunno how it went at home but her husband wore a lot of it for a while I reckon, he looked terrible. He’d come in here and Dad would ask; “How’s it going Ted?” an’ Ted would nod his head on and on and sigh and say “alright I guess, but Janet doesn’t even talk about it.”
And she didn’t talk about that little boy to anyone in town, wouldn’t say a word .. till one day about six months or so after the death, she’s in here an’ the old man asks her how’s it going and she looks all perky and bright and has this little smile on her face and says:
“Guess what, Kurt?”
“What?” says the old man while he’s packin’ the groceries into a box.
“I’m expecting.” She blushes and smiles that little smile.
“Well that’s grand!” Says the old man and he slaps her on the back gentle like and gives her encouragement like on the turn around in events and that’s that … Till we find out it’s all a tale she’s invented in her head … the shock people said … the shock … and she’d get around town telling everyone she was expecting a little baby boy in the summer and she’d pat her swelling tummy only it was a pillow she’d put under her dress and she’d smile and say she was expecting a baby boy in the summer.”
The storekeeper sighed and shook his head.
“I take me hat off to some people, the way they carry hurt around with them. Some can shake it off quicker than others, though it doesn’t hurt any less, but others stretch that hurt out over months, years till it becomes almost a habit … I don’t know where some people get the strength.” He sighed and rubbed his thighs again.
“Well she got about like that for months so that we all got used to her and just used to humour her along in sympathy, it’d been a real shock to her and we could sympathise …all we could do really, I ‘spose …
Anyway we were in here one day and Janet Green was shopping down the aisle there with her pillow under her dress and her green string bag on her arm. I was stacking the shelves just over there an’ my old man was at the counter serving Mrs Turner who’d not long before had a baby herself. She and the old man were laughing and chaffing each other and she had her back to the store while she rocked the pram to and fro with the baby inside and a bundle of fresh nappies folded at the end of the pram. She and the old man were giggling over something when Janet Green comes out of the aisle between the rows of shelves and spots the pram and she stops and stares an’ a puzzled look came over her face, I could see it all as I was just there, but I don’t think she even saw me. I don’t think she saw anyone in the entire store. She stopped and looked with that green string bag hangin’ from her arm and she went slowly to the pram so I thought she was going to touch the baby, instead she slowly, gently picked up one of those folded nappies, puzzled like, she gazes at it and then raised it slowly up to her face with her hand and then with both hands like this she caressed her cheek with it, just rubbed it over her cheek like this as though she was in a trance … well the old man happened to look over his shoulder sort of and stopped talking suddenly and then after a sec’ just touched Mrs Turner gently on the shoulder to get her attention and not to alarm her at the same time an’ Mrs Turner looked around slowly and the old man stared and Janet Green was there with her eyes closed an’ that fresh soft nappy pressed against her cheek and then a big tear slowly crept out of her shut eyes and then another till she seemed to go weak all over an’ started to shake in the shoulders like people do when they cry but she wasn’t crying out loud, just shaking in the shoulders so the old man comes quickly around the counter without a word and just took her in his arms and she just sort of broke down in great big breathless, heaving sobs, her mouth agape but not a sound, just a sort of gasping for breath and she held her arms around Dad with her fists clenching and unclenching behind his back and her head on his shoulder and she just kept on saying over and over … ”Kurt … oh Kurt … oh Kurt,” like she was trying to tell how much it hurt and the old man was saying “It’s alright Janet, it’s alright now.” and I was behind the old man and I watched as a big tear rolled down her cheek and dropped onto his shoulder and ran down the back of his vest and then stopped and stayed there and glowed like a little shining jewel in the middle of his back.
“Well, that was sixty year ago now and she had a couple of kids after that and lived to regret it like the rest of us I ‘spose eh! But she was crook for a while there but she came good again.”
Hans Bulmer stood up and strolled over to the window looking out at the sky.
“Looks as if the weather is going to close back in, we might be in for another wet night.”
Outside, the big woolly clouds gradually closed over and shut out the afternoon sun. The storekeeper shot a glance over his shoulder.
“Didja fix that leak they had in the kitchen roof?” he asked.
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