My mother worked as a servant girl at the station on the Murray where this event took place … She heard it told by the station owner to a guest one night after dinner. Those stations in those days were almost like miniature kingdoms on their own.
It is one of those little things that one sometimes meets a hardy, rough-on-the-outside farmer, only to find a soft centre due to some event in their lives.
His story went like this:
The door of the shearing shed opened and it clattered that grating corrugated iron sound as it banged against the steel rails of the holding pens. A short, stocky farmer stood framed in the square of light that was the doorway. Another man and a young lad ceased their occupation to turn to stare at the intruder.
“Gazza!” the man in the doorway called.
“Ah … George … come in, come in,” the older man responded.
George stepped into the shearing shed eclipsed as it was in its corrugated iron cladding from the bright day outside … Nail-hole shafts of sunlight on floating gossamers of dust beaded the gloomy floor. He ambled over to the others with a swinging gait familiar with aged workmen. The man called “Gazza” (Gary) was busy cleaning the working parts of a rifle with a soft cloth; the young lad, around fifteen years, sat, legs dangling, on the skirting table, watching half-interestedly. The air in the shed was musty with residual odour of sheep, shearing, workmen and machinery oil.
All the trappings of a just finished shearing season remained scattered about the work-space; marking dyes, dousing drenches, tufts of belly wool and wool bags with sharp, bent fastening staples hooked onto them hanging from a nail in the wall. A steel-plate stencil with the station’s name “Portsea” black-edged with paint hung skew-wiff on another nail next to the bags and the floor-boards still greasy with a waxy gleam from the task just completed.
“What’s the score, Gazz?!” George asked as he approached, hands in pockets.
“This is my grandson … Jamie … ” and the man sort of winced at the boy’s name.
“Jay-mee, eh?” George pronounced slowly with an emphasis not lost on Gazza …
“Yeah, righto.” Gary silenced any further comments on what he too considered an effeminate name for a boy child, but the lad surprised them both by standing up from the skirting table and offered his hand to George.
“Call me Jim,” he said confidently.
George raised one eyebrow in respect and took the lad’s hand proffered. The other man, Gary, smiled gently but proudly at this small gesture, then he spoke.
“We’re going to get a lesson in gun-handling, so I thought it best to start off with the basic requirements of the skills.” Gary spoke as he concentrated first with a toothbrush and turpentine, then with the soft cloth as he cleaned and worked the trigger mechanism of the rifle. The small metallic clicking sounds mixed with their breathing seemed to drift smoke-like up to the rafters to mix with the lingering, tremulous feelings of the cacophony of shearing machinery and men over the past few weeks … like the residue of excitement left in a stadium after a full-house wild sporting event … the people gone but the echoes remain!
“You gonna teach him to shoot?” George asked.
“Mmm … this arvo.”
“Oh … dunno … I thought down on the flats, near Dempsey’s Landing.”
“Coupla’ bunnies?” George persisted.
Gary was reassembling the rifle as he spoke and now it was complete, he pushed in the bolt and worked it a couple of times with a click! clack!
“That,” he answered contemplatively ” … or maybe a couple of those bloody galahs.”
George winced imperceptibly, he himself did not shoot at all now, although it was once said that he was the best shot in the district.
“Gonna come along?” Gary asked, though he knew George would refuse.
“Nah … nah … give it a miss, Gary.”
Maybe it was the moment, maybe it was the fact that the younger lad was there which prompted Gary, but he carefully placed the rifle on a cloth on the skirting table and folding his arms whilst leaning against the table, looked George squarely in the eye and said:
“George … you used to be the best shot in the district when we were young, but now you don’t even pick up a gun … it’s a puzzle, George, a real puzzle … so c’mon, out with it, what’s the story of all this pacifism, eh?”
George took his hands off the table and plunged them into his pockets, they were rough hands, coarse hands with solid callouses and chipped nails, they were hands that had shaped the framework of the family farm, he himself was a nuggety man, old now but still solid with yet firm muscles from an age of hard labour on the farm, from a generation who structured their lives around the necessities rather than the leisure’s, his face wore evidence of struggle against nature … nature was winning! … His shoulders set.
“Aww … you wouldn’t want to know Gary … Why … you’d just laugh,” he grimaced a sort of smile.
“Oh give it a rest George … how long have I known you … ?”
“Yeah … well … but some things that happen to a man might be terribly upsetting to him but still seem funny to others … like, like slipping on a banana skin, or walking into a street sign while looking the other way, for instance.”
“Ha, ha.” Jim and Gary laughed together.
“No, George,” Gary shifted his body, “you’re not going to get out of it that easy … Now, if I’m going to teach young … ” and he paused “young Jim … here the correct use of firearms, he’d do well to hear why another man (who used to drop a rabbit at a hundred yards running) … suddenly gives the game away … you owe it to the young lad’s education, so c’mon,” he made little flicking “c’mon” gestures with his fingers and hand “ … out with it … ” and he crossed his arms again.
They both looked at George impatiently.
“Well,” George decided, “alright, I’ll tell you, but it mightn’t mean much to you and I feel a bit of a fool for the telling of it, so I’ll trust you not to spread it far and wide.”
Gary agreed with this request with an of course … of course: George took his hands out of his pockets and leaned at arms length against the skirting table and gazed at the floor.
“You know, it’s strange, the things that change a man’s life … and it’s almost always little things that do it too, not the big but the little.” He took a breath, pursed his lips and began.
“You remember that Sulphur crested cocky we had for a pet years ago?”
“No … no, can’t recollect it … but everyone had a pet magpie or cocky ’round here at some time.” Gary scratched his head as he answered.
“Well, we did and you know we got him from old Tedmonson out there on the ‘Bulldog Run.’ He was a cranky old bastard, that Tedmonson, he used to treat that cocky mean, was there myself one day and the old man swearing and hammering away at a plough-arm, trying to straighten it and that cocky up and mimics him. “‘Bloody bastard of a thing,’ says Tedmonson. “‘Bloody thing! Bloody thing!’ cackled cocky. “‘Shuddup stupid!’ yells Tedmonson. “‘Stupid bastard, stupid bastard!’ mimics the bird, and old man Tedmonson up and chucks a hammer at the cage, swearing and cursing, picks up a length of water pipe and smacks the side of the cage with it something shocking, so the bird in there has its crest shooting up and is flapping its wings and screeching something awful! “‘Steady on Sandy,” I said to Tedmonson. “‘Bloody bird … I’d wring its neck if I could get close to it.” “‘Wring your neck! Wring you neck!’ cocky mimicked again, so the old man picks up the water hose and sprays the parrot while all the time laughing sort of cruel like ’till I calmed him down.
Then one day they’re moving interstate and I happened to be over there looking at a generator I was thinking to buy and I asked him what he was going to do with the cocky.
“‘Wait till the wife’s gone and then shoot the bloody thing … then I’ll tell her it got away.’
He grinned menacingly at the parrot who just raised its crest and ducked its head away sideways, always keeping its beady eye on the old man though.
“‘I’ll take him,” I offered. “Be a shame to kill it, I don’t mind birds and the kids’ll be thrilled!’
Tedmonson looked disappointed, but I pressed him on the subject and said I’d ask his wife that night, so he shrugged and said: “Oh well … so be it, but it’ll cost you a dozen bottles of beer.”’ and that’s how we came by the cocky … and we called it “Wudgie” or “Wudge” because when I first brought him home, Louise, who was just three years old then, looked at it and asked: “‘Is that a wudgie?” meaning budgie of course and we all laughed, so we called it “Wudge” … and the kids taught that bird to say all sorts of things and some words it picked up on it’s own, like those birds do.”
“We had that parrot for around eight or so years, ’til one day it escaped, an’ it tells you how clever those birds are: every day we came to feed it, it’d climb up the wire, beak over claw to hold by the door lock with its head cocked and one eye watching us lift that catch. We had one of those gate catches that click up themselves as you shut the gate, and that bird spent eight years every day watching us lift that catch ’til one day I come out to feed it and he was gone and a twig was left pushed through the wire where he’d flicked that latch …
“Oh bullshit!” groaned Gary, turning away.
“No … no … listen, “Bandy” Phillips had a cocky that used to undo the valve-caps on his bike with its beak and press the tiny tip in there to let the tires down … and Harry Hocking’ll tell you … ”
“Alright, alright … I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, but go on with your story.”
“They’re clever birds, those sulphur-crested cockys,” George persisted
“Yeah?” Gary broke in sarcastically, “then they oughta put ’em through university and make politicians out of them … or perhaps they already have” and he raised his eyebrows and an indicative finger as he nodded his head sagely.
“Anyway,” continued George with a sigh, “it was gone … but I thought I might see it again if’n it came back or someone caught it, and I’d recognise it by the one missing claw on its left foot where, presumably, Tedmanson had hit it with something one day. By and by over the next few years I forgot all about the bloody thing … presumed it was dead … Then one morning the missus says that Uncle Charlie is coming up for the weekend and would I go shoot a couple of wild ducks down by the river so as to have a nice roast come Sunday. They always said that: “George, go shoot a couple of ducks … George, go shoot some bunnies for Christmas … ’cause I was a good shot, you see.”
“I’ll say,” interrupted Gary, then turning to his grandson eagerly, “I seen George here trim the corners off a playing card at twenty-five yards with his .22, then plug the centre with his .410 shotgun.” Gary finished with his arms gesturing.
“Wow,” the boy remarked, suitable impressed.
“Well, I was a reasonable shot then,” George admitted shyly.
“Any-road,” he continued, “I’m down near ‘Westies Billabong’ there at seven in the morning and my breath’s steaming … I’d spotted a couple of ducks by the reeds there so I got into a crouch … (and here George went into a pantomime of his actions) … and was working my way bent-backed ’round the billabong real quiet when suddenly all hell breaks loose … (he threw up his arms in a gesture of surprise) … and these two cockys come twisting and screeching in the air above me … must’ve had their nest in a hole in a tree there and saw me as a threat. Any-road, they were making a hell of a racket so it scared the ducks who flew off , and I was that angry with those bloody birds that when one came swooping and diving then twisted side-on to me … (George used his hand flat to show the action) … just above, I quickly just swung the shotgun in its’ general direction and let fly … boom! ”
“Well, I hit it and it fell like a folded object to ground over near a red gum and it lay twisting on the grass so I started walking casually over to it all the while pushing another cartridge into the breech of the shotgun. (He went through the action of loading the gun) … ”But as I came nearer, suddenly! (he paused) … I hear a voice … call out:
“What’s that!” I called … again I hear it …
“Who’s there!” I called … turning 360 degrees to see who it was … I thought someone was having me on .. but there was no-one, nothing but the screeching of that cocky’s mate weaving and diving madly in the air above, around the branches of the gums … Then again, that same voice calling weakly and I turned to the direction of the sound (George turned staring to the empty pens) and there it was, on the ground in front of me, the cocky I had shot, calling weakly … ’poor cocky’ it was saying, ‘poor cocky, poor cocky’ over and over till its voice faded, I looked down at the bird … and suddenly I saw that missing claw … Nah! I thought … it couldn’t be … Wudge … Wudgie? I said unbelievingly as I stood over it, but sure enough, there was the crook foot with the one claw missing … sure, it could have been another pet bird that had escaped and gone back to the wild … after all ,it had been years since I last saw it … I bent down and lay the gun on the grass, then raised the body of the bird close to look at its’ eyes to see if there was still some life left in it … but it was dead, and I stared and stared, but all I could see in that dark pool of it’s eye was the reflections of passing clouds overhead … and there was something about that … that killing of the bird, it threw me … maybe something to do with it gaining it’s freedom and losing it perhaps, and I couldn’t even let a poor bloody cocky have a bit of life but I go and kill it! So really, in the end I was no better than old man Tedmonson, perhaps worse .. ’cause even he didn’t kill the bird … Killing, killing … George kill this, George kill that and I was so sick of it, sick of the killing … ” he let his arms fall to his sides wearily. “ … I dunno … just … sick of the killing … so I went home, threw the gun in a locker in the corner of the shed and I haven’t shot it since …
“It was the killing, I think … I just got sick of the killing … ”
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