Ahh! … Yes … I can see that you are all a tad jaded and tuckered out with the political shenanigans. I tell you what … sit back and relax and I’ll tell you a story. It is constructed from two events: one, when a friend told me of finding a very old woomera in the cleft of a very old tree on the edge of the Simpson Desert … as told in the story below; the other was told me by a Italian brickie mate of two brothers who actually did go through the described scenario below … only difference was; they drew straws.
I hope I never have to be given such a choice … but then … there are farmers and the like who have done the same. I put this story up as a leader into some broad discussion on this touchy subject, following on from my recent article; “The Corporatizionn of Women” … I want to try and explain that much of the problem with male aggression can be sheeted home to the rise in right-wing authoritarian expectations of what a man must achieve to be considered a “winner” … rather than a “loser” … not to make excuses for terrible behavior, but to try to understand the predicament some men find themselves in.
It goes like this:
Two men stood side by side at the rear of the four wheel drive truck. The setting sun was behind them. Their shadows stretched out in front like long thin pencil lines over the salt-bush and stubble.
“Come over here Bob, I’ll show you something.”
Antonio stepped away at right angles to the track and fence. The desert air was cooling, and the distant horizon purpling with the coming of evening, the darkness was tumbling towards them from the east. After a short distance the first man stopped suddenly and stood with his hands in his pockets but the thumbs outside. Bob strode up next to him and gazed at where Antonio was looking, he saw nothing but one lone, long dead tree amid an expanse of desert shrubbery.
“What?” Bob queried.
“There at the base in that small cleft.”
At first Bob didn’t see anything unusual, but then an object took shape, a man crafted object of symmetrical design. He moved a few steps closer so he was only yards from it, in the dusk he made out clearly the shape.
“Why … it’s a woomera” he said surprised “ an … an Aboriginal woomera … but it’s old … so old”.
He spoke in awe, and indeed it was old. At least a hundred years old because the wearing of the elements on it, it had been sun- baked and sand blasted, the resin and fibres holding the spur onto the body had deteriorated and the patterns cut into the body of the woomera were now obscure. Bob leant forward as if to touch it but Tony gripped his wrist fiercely.
“No, Bob … don’t touch it, let it lie there. I haven’t touched it ever in all the years I’ve known it’s here, you’re the first I’ve ever shown it to … it must remain as it is till time takes it back to the earth … as it will take us all … as it will take Francesco.”
Antonio released Bob’s arm and straightened up still gazing at the woomera.
“Come, we will camp nearby for the night it will soon be dark.” Both men turned and walked back to the truck.
A soft fire glowed in the centre of a ring of stones, but its light seemed too frail to penetrate deep into the darkness, unable to wash into the deeper crevasses of their eye sockets and the hollows of their cheeks, so the men’s faces quivered into grotesque shadowy masks.
“Who’s Francesco?” Bob asked.
Antonio squatted, one arm on his knee with the other hand prodding a stick into the coals.
“Pass me that piece of branch, Bob … ta … Francesco was my older brother … he died a long time ago … twenty years now … or rather tomorrow.”
Bob stretched one leg out in the cool sand and made himself more comfortable.
“You never told me you had a brother” Bob remarked quietly, in a tone that suggested he was a little bit piqued that this close friend would keep such a secret from him. Antonio didn’t look away from the flames, his eyes didn’t blink as he stared into the syrupy yellow.
“It’s why I asked you along on this trip actually,” Antonio solemnly spoke.
“You’re a priest I want you to help me bury him again …”
“Francesco … my brother! …”
“…You alright, Tony? I mean; where’s the body?”
Antonio leant back and felt inside his clothes bag and swung back with a small wooden urn.
“Here …” he said quietly. “His ashes!”
Bob squinted at his friend with one eye closed.
There was a pause in the conversation and the fire crackled and hissed, the silence of the desert night crowded in all around them, listening.
“So what did they bury all those years ago?”
“Ashes … plain wood ashes!” Antonio smiled and leant back to place the urn into his duffle bag. Bob let out a slow, low whistle.
“You better enlighten me, Tony.”
“I’ll get the billy boiled first.” Antonio dropped a palmful of tea into the boiling water. He slowly stirred the contents with a piece of stick.
“I’ll tell you Bob not as a confession, but still … maybe for Francesco’s soul!”
“How did he die?”
“He shot himself.”
“Suicide?” Bob raised his eyebrow Antonio leapt up angrily
“No! … No, … No, a thousand times no …” he strode two steps away then turned and strode back, the ball of his cupped left hand slapping onto his right fist, he shook his head emphatically as he spoke. “Not suicide, … no! his was a sacrifice … yes, a sacrifice to the filthy God security!” Antonio stopped suddenly, hands frozen apart, his heavy breathing noticeable in the still desert night.
“Security,” he whispered. His shoulders slumped and he sat back down by the fire, reached over, took the billy and filled two mugs with the brew.
“Sugar, Bob?” his voice still tense.
“Please … and milk”.
“I take mine black.” Antonio leant back on his duffle bag and stretched one leg out comfortably, his boot pushed up a little mound of the red sand..
“Dammit Bob, it still upsets me after all these years.” He guffawed, “Suicide!” and he guffawed again. He took a sip of his tea and a deep breath.
“Francesco … was ten years older than me and we were partners in a building company before the recession. We started out as brickies you see, then it just grew from there “Collossus Constructions” we called ourselves and it did get colossal! Ended up flat out and just organising the other trades. We did a lot of estate housing projects in those days for those big real-estate companies. We were in it up to our necks when the recession hit and it all went bust! Oh God did it go bust! Overnight, two of our biggest contracts went into receivership and left us holding the bag. Subcontractors to be paid, contracts to finish etcetera, etcetera and it cleaned us out … or nearly …”
“Didn’t you see any signs of the impending collapse?”
“Nah, they were still signing contracts up till the day before … so someone was pulling a shonky!”
“It’s always the way” Bob chipped in.
“Anyway we were running around like scalded cats all week, cajoling this one, pacifying the other, putting someone else off till finally on the Friday night Francesco comes ’round in his ute and says to throw in a sleeping bag and the billy and let’s go bush for the weekend. I couldn’t have agreed more. Hey, isn’t it good out here in the desert? serene, peaceful. It was at this very spot that we camped … right here, the same place I come to every year since then … but this will be my last … this will be my last.”
“You look good for a few years yet Tony.”
“But I feel tired Bob, so bloody tired.”
“You been carrying some of the weight?”
“In a way … it could’ve been me … it could have been me that died.” Antonio sighed. “He found that woomera, not me, he wandered over there to go to the toilet, after a while he called out to me: ”
‘Tony … come here, have a look at this!”
“No thanks!’ I called in disgust.
“‘Nah … not that … it’s interesting.” He had found something.
When I got there he was squatted in front of the woomera, staring at it.
“Hey!” I said, “that’d look great above my mantelpiece” and I reached out for it but he rapped my knuckles with a piece of branch.
“Don’t touch!” he barked. “Have respect for the dead.”
“What dead? It’s only a woomera.” I said.
“Oh he’s dead alright, after all these years, and its still his..it was probably left here by mistake.”
“Finders keepers …” I began, but Francesco wasn’t listening to anything I said, he just stared at that thing.
“He was a hunter … and he rested here … for a camp maybe … maybe he speared a ‘roo, he leant his woomera against the tree … it would have been a sapling then surely …” and Francesco went on in this quiet monotone, building up a picture of this lone Aboriginal hunter and the desert and the need for food that sent him on long journeys …I just stood there listening to him talk and it was enthralling in it’s depth of feeling. I’d never known Frank to think of these things before.” Antonio stopped and stared into the fire, it’s flickering glow so enticingly rich and comforting under the stars. When he finished, Francesco stood up, turned to me and said: “We’re still all hunters, you know,” then turned and walked back to the camp.”
“It seemed to have touched a spot in him,” Bob remarked.
“I’ll say,” Tony agreed. “He went back to look at that woomera again and again over the weekend. But he said no more about it. Then on the Sunday afternoon as we were packing up he said to me:
“‘Tony … we’re done for, you know that don’t you?”
“How do you mean … financially?”
“Yes financially stuffed..but I’ve thought out a way to beat the bastards!”
“Like how?” I asked.
“You remember those insurance policies we took out on each other two years ago?”
“Yeah, in case one of us kicked off, but they’re not worth a quid yet … unless one of us dies … say! you’re not thinking of faking a death, then disappearing or something?”
“Not faking … but a death, yes.”
“What are you talking about, – you lost your marbles or something … what are you talking about …” I was shocked I can tell you. Francesco got angry.
“Grow up Tony” He yelled “Grow up, we’re finished. In less than a month they’ll have our business, our houses, our cars … our balls … everything .”
“Don’t Frank me … you know what it’s like to live in poverty? Do you? and your wife and your kids … what’re you gonna tell them … “sorry kids, sorry honey but we gotta go live in a shack and eat porridge and potatoes!” hey? you tell them that … listen, you’re too young to remember back home, but I can tell you; I remember and I don’t intend to have my family go through those times,” and he slammed his hand against the side of the ute.
“What … what do you intend to do”
“Better you don’t know.” But I knew.
“Frank … no … be reasonable … Stefania … the kids …”
“It’s them I’m thinking of “ he said softly, then; “Listen Tony, I’m fifty eight, been working in building since I was a kid in shorts … what’ve I got; ten, fifteen years left, what of it? Fifteen years of nothing for me and my family, or else … I’ll never have more than I got now, never, I’ve reached my peak and I don’t want to go down into the depths, it’d kill me anyway.”
“We argued back and forth and I followed him around the ute talking to his back, but he was stubborn.
“Listen,’ he said “You wanna go live in a ditch you go live in a ditch. What do you think the old people suffered in their lives for? So you could have it easy and to hell with your kids? Every comfort has its price, Antonio, what do you want your kids to be? tramps? bums? No, … I don’t want my kids to battle out of a poverty trap like the old people had to. If there’s a price in it I’m prepared to pay everyone pays sometime … it seems my time is now.”
“But me, Frank, what would you have me do, sit by and see you knock yourself off and then reap the reward .. what sort of man do you consider me?! No, we’re both of us in this together, I won’t let you take it on your own …”
“It’s the only way Tony, you’re ten years younger, you’re family’s younger.”
“Give me a risk on it … toss a coin Frank, you always like to toss a coin for a decision, toss a coin now and we’ll take equal risk!” …
“Alright” He relented. “We’ll toss … and the winner loses!” He grimaced at his own joke.
He pulled a few coins from his pocket and picked out a twenty cent piece.
“I’ll call, since it was my idea” he said and he flipped the coin.
“Heads!” he cried.
Bob..Bob, have you ever been so scared that your stomach was just one big knot wrenching your innards together so they just ached? Well, that’s how mine were. Don’t ask me why I agreed to that madness but I knew the loser wouldn’t back out. The more I think of it, the more I refute it, but strangely, strangely the quick fix of the idea attracted me then and I loved my family enough to kill anyone that would hurt them, so why not kill myself to save them from hurt?! … all those kind of thoughts went through my mind in the split seconds of that toss as that coin flickered in the light. Of course it came down heads and Frank bent down and picked up the coin. He slapped his hand on my shoulder and said.
“Now, it’s decided. let’s not talk about it on the way home. Who knows, maybe I won’t have to go through with it after all,” and we packed up and left.
“On the Monday afternoon I was in the office when I got a call from the insurance agent.”
“Mr Gustoni?’ the agent asked.
“Yes” I replied, thinking it was me he was after.
“Yes..I was right, I inquired into the policy agreement and yes, your accident indemnity does cover accidental death outside the working site and hours.”
I went weak at the knees … and almost speechless. I could just mutter into the receiver
“Oh … right … thanks … thanks” and I hung up and raced out of the office and drove to Frank’s place.
“Oh mother of God! mother of God!” I prayed as I drove through that endless traffic. I didn’t think it would be now not straight away! Give it a bit more time please! Please!
Stefania, his wife, was there.
“He’s gone out Tony he said to give you this contract to look at …’”she handed me a fat manila envelope, then I knew it was too late.
“Is there anything wrong?” Women, they’re so sharp.
“No more than usual,” I remarked and quickly left in case I betrayed my feelings.
“He didn’t give me a chance to say goodbye, Bob, not a chance, not a chance. “Why?” I asked myself … He made it look like an accident..like the gun went off as he was climbing through the fence …”
“In the envelope there was a goodbye note and a few items he wanted buried with him and – also this!” Tony tossed a coin to Bob’s feet. Bob picked it up examined it and turned it over.
“Why … it’s a double headed twenty cent piece, it’s been cut and another face glued on to make one coin! …”
“The cunning bastard … I always wondered how he won all those tosses, and you see that nick on the edge, that’s how he picked it out amongst others with his fingers.” Bob snorted and tossed it back.
“Well he did go through with it and in the note he asked that I somehow get his ashes and bury them with the few other personal items next to that woomera up here.”
“And did you tell Stefania of it all?” Bob asked.
“What do you tell the women? Frank knocked himself off so we can pay our bills? What did that hunter tell his people if he came home without any tucker ‘I lost my woomera’? … ‘left it somewhere’? No Bob, Frank was right, we’re all hunters and each must guard his secrets. No, I didn’t tell them, but she’d guess, women have their damned intuition.”
“Why didn’t you bury him, then?”
“I couldn’t bring myself to put an end to it all, I didn’t understand the connection between that hunter’s primitive woomera and our own highly complicated lives, that is till now. Now I know what Frank realised that weekend twenty years ago. That woomera over there is a totem of men’s responsibilities, the women bear the children, the men provide, that is the base line of our cultural life. Some women die in chldbirth some men die in the seeking of provisions. I’ve been on building sites myself where workmen have been either killed or badly injured. They’re taken away and another fills his place. No-one can shirk his responsibilities, we all take our risks. So the hunter’s woomera left here by accident must have wrought danger to that whole family’s existence so was that recession the calamity that befell our family’s existence … The insurance policy was just another means to provide … at a price, everything changes, but nothing is changed. The immortality of all things mortal … ashes to ashes, dust to dust. He lost his fear of death.”
”And this is where you come in, Bob … would you mind … a simple ceremony?”
The dawn laid silver sheets across the sky as the two men stood before the tree that held the woomera in its cleft. Tony gave the wooden urn to Bob who lay it in a shallow hole near the woomera. Then he gave Bob a flick-knife with a carved ivory handle.
“He bought that in Italy years before, and you see that carving … here, give it to me for a sec … this carving of a woman, he’d sometimes take the knife out amongst a group of us men and he’d rub the ball of his thumb over the tiny breast there and he’d sigh and say, ‘Ah, my Stefania, she once had breasts like this,’ and then he’d press this button here, like so: “
Swish! the silvered blade of the flick-knife shot out of the handle so it made Bob jump.
“And Francesco would sigh sadly again and nodding his head say: ‘And me, my cock once sprung up like that!’ … he’d always get a laugh.” Tony smiled and folded the blade away and gave the knife to Bob.
“And last of all this” sneered Antonio as he flung the double headed coin into the hole.
Bob pushed the sand over the urn and knife and coin. He stood up and spoke in a clear concise voice:
“Let this site remain sacred to the memory of Francesco Gustoni …”
“Could you say the prayer in Latin Bob, he preferred Latin.” Bob nodded and began:
“In nome il Padre e Filio e Spirito Santo …”