One winter night, Myrtle Dunnage searched for the light from her mother’s house through the windscreen of a Greyhound bus. Recently she had written to her mother but when she received no reply, she summoned the courage to phone. The curt voice at the telephone exchange had said, ‘Molly Dunnage hasn’t had a phone on for years, she wouldn’t know what a phone was.’
‘I wrote,’ said Tilly. ‘She didn’t reply. Perhaps she didn’t get my letter?’
‘Old Mad Molly wouldn’t know what to do with a letter either,’ came the retort.
Tilly decided she would go back to Dungatar.
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Sergeant Farrat patted his policeman’s cap, picked a thread from his lapel and saluted his neat reflection. He strode to his shiny police car to begin his evening drive around, knowing all was well. The locals were subdued and the men asleep, for there was a chance of victory the next day on the football field.
He stopped his car in the main street to peruse the buildings, silver-roofed and smoky. Fog tiptoed around them, gathering around gateposts and walls, standing like gossamer marquees between trees. Muffled conversation wandered from the Station Hotel. He studied the vehicles nosing the pub: the usual Morris Minors and Austins, a utility, Councillor Pettyman’s Wolseley and the Beaumonts’ imposing but tired Triumph Gloria.
A Greyhound bus rumbled and hissed to a standstill outside the post office, its headlights illuminating Sergeant Farrat’s pale face.
‘A passenger?’ he said aloud.
The door of the bus swung open and the glow from the interior beam struggled out. A slim young woman stepped lightly into the fog. Her hair was lush about her shoulders, and she wore a beret and an unusually cut overcoat. ‘Very smart,’ thought the sergeant.
The driver pulled a suitcase from the luggage boot and carried it to the post office porch, leaving it in the dark corner. He went back for another, then another, and then he pulled something else out – something with a domed cover with ‘Singer’ printed in gold letters across its side.
The passenger stood holding it, looking over to the creek then up and down the street.
‘Oh my pretty hat,’ said Sergeant Farrat, and shot from his car.
She heard the car door slam so turned on her heel and headed west, towards The Hill. Behind her the bus roared away, the tail-lights shrinking, but she could hear the footsteps approaching.
‘Myrtle Dunnage, my, my.’
Myrtle quickened her pace. So did Sergeant Farrat. He inspected her fine boots – Italian? he wondered – and her trousers, definitely not serge.
‘Myrtle, let me help you.’
She walked on, so the sergeant lunged, wrenching the domed box from her hand, spinning her around. They stood and stared at each other, the white air swirling around them. Tilly had grown into a woman while Sergeant Farrat had aged. He raised one pale hand to his mouth in embarrassment, then shrugged and headed for his car with the luggage. When he’d thrown the last of Myrtle’s suitcases onto the back seat, he opened the passenger door for her and waited. When she was in he swung the car about and headed east. ‘We’ll take the long way home,’ he said. The knot in the pit of Tilly’s stomach hardened.
They glided through the fog and as they rounded the football oval, Sergeant Farrat said, ‘We’re third from the top of the ladder this year.’
Tilly was silent.
‘You’ve come from Melbourne, have you?’
‘Yes,’ she answered flatly.
‘Home for long?’
They drove back through the main street. When they passed the school hall she heard the childhood cries of Friday afternoon softball games and shrieks and splashes from swimming carnivals at the creek. When Sergeant Farrat turned the library corner towards The Hill, she smelled the library’s waxed lino floor, and saw a flash of wet blood on the dry grass outside. Memories of being driven to the bus stop all those years ago by the same man rose up, and the knot in her stomach turned.
Finally the police car ground its way to the top of The Hill and stopped. She sat looking at her old home while the sergeant looked at her. Little Myrtle Dunnage had alabaster skin and her mother’s eyes and hair. She seemed strong, but damaged.
‘Does anyone know you’re coming, Myrtle?’ asked the sergeant.
‘My name is Tilly,’ she said. ‘Everyone will know soon enough.’
She turned to look at Sergeant Farrat’s expectant face in the foggy moonlight. ‘How is my mother?’ she asked.
He opened his car door. ‘Your mother . . . doesn’t get out these days,’ he said, and climbed from the car. The fog resting around the veranda moved like frills on a skirt as the sergeant moved through it with Tilly’s suitcases. He held the heavy dome. ‘You’ve a lovely sewing machine, Tilly,’ he said.
‘I’m a seamstress and dressmaker, Sergeant Farrat.’ She opened the back door.
He clapped his hands. ‘Excellent!’
‘Thanks for the lift.’ She closed the back door on him.
As he drove away, Sergeant Farrat tried to remember the last time he’d visited Mad Molly. He hadn’t seen her for at least a year, but knew Mae McSwiney kept an eye on her. He smiled. ‘A dressmaker!’
Molly’s house was dank and smelled like possum piss. Tilly felt along the dusty wall for the light switch and turned it on, then moved through the kitchen to the lounge room, past the crusty old lounge suite to the fireplace. She put her hand to the ash. It was stone cold. She made her way over to her mother’s bedroom door, turned the knob and pushed. A dull lamp glowed in the corner by the bed.
A body stirred under piled blankets. A skeleton head wearing a tea cosy turned on a grubby kapok pillow. The mouth gaped like a charcoal hole, and sunken eyes gazed at her.
Molly Dunnage, mad woman and crone, said to her daughter, ‘You’ve come about the dog, have you? You can’t have him. We want to keep him.’
She gestured at a crowd of invisible people around her bed. ‘Don’t we?’ She nodded at them.
‘This is what they’ve done to you,’ said Tilly.
A mitten, stiff and soiled, came from under the blankets. Molly looked at her skinny wrist. ‘Half past four,’ she said.
Tilly unpacked the bottle of brandy she’d bought for her mother and sat on the back veranda looking down at the dull forms of Dungatar at slumber. She wondered about what she had left behind her, and what she had returned to.
At dawn she sighed and raised a glass to the small grey town and went inside. She evicted snug families of mice from between the towels in the linen press and spiders from their lace homes under light shades. She swept dust, dirt, twigs and a dead sparrow from the bath and turned on the taps to scrub it. The water ran cold and brown and when it flowed clear and hot, she filled the bath, then added lavender flowers from the garden. She tugged her mother from her crusty bed and pulled her tottering towards the bath. Mad Molly cursed, scratched and punched Tilly with Daddy Long Legs limbs, but soon tired and folded easily into the water.
‘Anyway,’ she snapped, ‘everyone knows red jelly stays harder longer,’ and she cackled at Tilly with green gums and lunatic eyes.
‘Give me your teeth,’ said Tilly. Molly clamped her mouth shut. Tilly pressed Molly’s forearms across her chest, pinning her, then pinched her nostrils until Molly opened her mouth to breathe. She prised the teeth out with a spoon and dropped them into a bucket of ammonia. Molly yelled and thrashed about until she was exhausted and clean and, while she soaked, Tilly stripped the beds. When the sun was high she dragged the mattresses out onto the grass to bake.
Later she tucked Molly’s scrawny frame back into bed and spooned her sweet black tea, talking to her all the while. Molly’s answers were maniacal, angry, but answers just the same. Then she slept, so Tilly cleaned out the stove, gathered kindling from the garden and lit a fire. Smoke ballooned up the chimney and a possum in the roof thumped across the beams. She threw open all the doors and windows and started flinging things out – an ancient sewing machine and a moth-eaten dress stand, a wringer washing machine shell, old newspapers and boxes, dirty curtains and stiff carpet pieces, a couch and its ruined chairs, broken tables, empty tin cans and glass bottles. Soon the little weatherboard house stood stump deep in rubbish.
When Molly woke, Tilly walked her all the way down to the outhouse where she sat her on the toilet with her bloomers around her ankles and her nightie tucked up into her jumper. She tied her hands to the toilet door with her dressing gown cord so that she would not wander off. Molly bellowed at the top of her old lungs until she was hoarse. Later, Tilly heated tinned tomato soup and sat her mother in the sun – emptied, cleaned and wrapped in jumpers, gloves, cap, socks, slippers and blankets – and fed her. All the while Mad Molly prattled. Tilly wiped her mother’s sauce-red mouth. ‘Did you enjoy that?’
Her mother replied formally, ‘Yes thank you, we always do,’ and smiled graciously to the others attending the banquet, before vomiting over the strange woman she thought was feeding her poison.
Again Tilly stood on the veranda, the breeze pressing her trousers against her slim legs. Below her, smoke circled from beneath a copper in the McSwineys’ yard at the base of The Hill beside the tip. Strangers assumed the bent railway carriages and dented caravans were part of it, but it was where the McSwiney family lived. Edward McSwiney was Dungatar’s night cart man. He could negotiate every outhouse, every full dunny can in Dungatar – even on the blackest, windiest nights – without spilling a drop. During the day he also delivered things, riding around on his cart with his middle son Barney and a bunch of kids hanging off the back.
Little Myrtle used to watch the McSwiney kids playing: the oldest boy, a few years younger than herself, then three girls and Barney, who was ‘not quite finished’. He was crooked, with an upside-down head and a club foot.
The town itself rested in the full glare of the morning sun. The railway station and the square, grey silo sat along the railway line, whose arc held the buildings against the bend of the Dungatar creek, like freckles on a nose. The creek had always been low, choked with willows and cumbungi weed, the flow sluggish and the water singing with mosquitos. The pioneer founders of Dungatar had allowed a flood plain along its inner curve, which was now a park of sorts with a community hall in the middle, Mr and Mrs Almanac’s low damp cottage at the eastern end opposite their chemist shop, and the school at the western edge, where Prudence Dimm had taught the children of Dungatar for as long as anyone could remember. The main road followed the curve of the park, separating it from the commercial strip. The police station was situated out along the road to the east, halfway between the cemetery and the town’s edge. It was not a busy road and there were few shops at its kerb, the chemist shop, then the Station Hotel, and then A and M Pratt, Merchant Supplies – a general store which sold everything anyone needed. The post office, bank and telephone exchange were housed together in the next building, and the last, most western building was the shire office and library combined. The houses of Dungatar, dotted behind the commercial strip, were dissected by a thin gravel road that ran to the football oval.
The green eye of the oval looked back up at Tilly, the cars around its edge like lashes. Inside, her mother stirred and called, and the possum thumped across the ceiling again.
Tilly went to the dress stand lying on the grass. She stood it up and then hosed it down, leaving it to dry in the sun.
On Saturday mornings the main street of Dungatar sang to the chug of farm trucks and solid British automobiles bearing smart pastoralist families. Younger children were passed into the care of older siblings, and sent to the park so mothers could shop and gossip. Men stood in clumps talking about the weather and looking to the sky, and thin-skinned, thick-boned women in floral sunfrocks and felt hats sat behind trestle tables selling raffle tickets.
Sergeant Farrat made his way past a young man slouched behind the wheel of a dusty Triumph Gloria and across the road towards Pratts. He encountered Mona Beaumont on the footpath outside.
‘Good morning, Mona,’ he called. ‘I see you have your brother safely at home.’
‘Mother sa-ays we can let the dreadful hired help go. That Mr Mac-Swiney . . .’ Mona had a way of making words flat and long so Sergeant Farrat always used his most melodious vowels when he spoke to her. ‘Not too hasty, Mona. There’s a fair chance William will be snapped up by one of our eligible spinsters before long.’ He smiled mischievously. ‘You might find he’s busy elsewhere.’
Mona shrank a little sideways and picked at the pilling on her cardigan cuff. ‘Mother sa-ays the girls around here are un-refined.’
Sergeant Farrat looked at Mona’s tweed beret sitting on top of her head like a dead cat, her posture laden and graceless. ‘On the contrary, Mona, history has made us all independent, these are progressive times – it’s an advantage to be adept, especially in the fairer sex . . .’
Mona giggled at the sex word.
‘. . . take for example the Pratt women: they know nuts and bolts and powders that are lethal to maggots in flystruck merinos, also stock feed and the treatment for chicken lice, haberdashery, fruit preservatives and female intimate apparel. Most employable.’
‘But Mother says it’s un-refined –’
‘Yes, I’m aware your mother considers herself very refined.’
He smiled, tipped his cap and entered the shop. Mona dragged a crumpled handkerchief from her cuff, held it to her open mouth and looked about, perplexed.
Alvin Pratt, his wife Muriel, daughter Gertrude, and Reginald Blood the butcher worked cheerfully, industrious behind their counters. Gertrude tended to groceries and dry goods. She tied every package with string, which she snapped with her bare fingers: a telling skill the sergeant thought. Mrs Muriel Pratt was the expert in haberdashery and hardware. People whispered that she was more suited to hardware. The smallgoods and butchery were in the far back corner of the shop, where Reginald carved and sawed carcasses and forced mince into sheep intestine, then arranged his sausages neatly against circles of trimmed loin chops. Mr Alvin Pratt had a courteous manner, but he was mean. He collected the account dockets from the counter three times a day and filed the debts alphabetically in his glass office. Customers usually turned their backs to him while Gertrude weighed up rolled oats or fetched Aspros, because he would pull files from big wooden drawers and slowly turn the blue-lined pages while they waited.
Sergeant Farrat approached Gertrude, large and sensible in navy floral, ramrod straight behind her dry goods counter. Her mother, dull and blank, leaned on the counter beside her.
‘Well, Gertrude? Muriel?’
‘Very well thank you, Sergeant.’
‘Off to see our footballers win their final this afternoon I hope?’
‘There’s a lot of work to finish up here before we can relax, Sergeant Farrat,’ said Gertrude.
The sergeant held Gertrude’s gaze a moment. ‘Ah Gertrude,’ he said, ‘a good mule’s load is always large.’ He turned to Muriel and smiled. ‘If you’d oblige me with some blue-checked gingham and matching bias binding? I’m going to run up some bathroom curtains.’ They were used to the sergeant’s bachelor ways; he’d often purchased materials for tablecloths and curtains. Muriel said he must have the fanciest linen in town.
At the haberdashery counter Sergeant Farrat gazed at the button display while Muriel measured and ripped off five yards of gingham, which he took from her to fold, stretching it against his uniform, sniffing its starchy newness while Muriel spread wrapping paper on the counter.
Gertrude looked down at her copy of Women’s Illustrated beneath the counter. ‘DRAFT YOUR OWN COW GIRL SKIRT’ cried the cover and a pretty girl twirled, unfurling a gay, blue and white checked gingham skirt, cut on the cross with bias binding bows to garnish. She smiled a sly, secret smile and watched Sergeant Farrat – a stout figure carrying a brown bundle under his arm – walk out the front door and across the street towards the Triumph. The Beaumonts’ car was parked beside the park. Someone sat in the driver’s seat. She stepped towards the door but Alvin Pratt called from the rear of the shop, ‘GerTRUDE, a customer at chaff!’ So she walked between the shelves beneath slow ceiling fans to the rear, where Miss Mona and Mrs Elsbeth Beaumont of Windswept Crest stood against the glare of back lane gravel. Mrs Beaumont ‘had airs’. She was a farmer’s daughter who had married a well-to-do grazier’s son, although he wasn’t as well-to-do as Elsbeth imagined on her engagement. She was a small, sharp, razor-thin woman with a long nose and an imperious expression. She wore, as ever, a navy linen day dress and her fox fur. Circling her sun-splotched wedding finger was a tiny diamond cluster next to a thin, gold band. Her daughter stood quietly beside her, wringing her handkerchief.
Muriel, laconic and unkempt in her grubby apron, was speaking to Elsbeth. ‘Our Gert’s a handsome, capable girl. When did you say William got back?’
‘Oh,’ said Gertrude, and smiled. ‘William’s back, is he?’
Mona spoke, ‘Yes, and he’s –’
‘I’m waiting,’ snapped Mrs Beaumont.
‘Mrs Beaumont needs chaff, love,’ said Muriel.
Gertrude pictured her with a chaff bag hanging from her nose. ‘Do you like oats mixed with your chaff, Mrs Beaumont?’
Elsbeth inhaled, the dead fox about her shoulders rising. ‘William’s horse,’ she said, ‘prefers plain chaff.’
‘I bet you’re not the only woman glad to see your son back,’ said Muriel, and nudged her.
Elsbeth glanced sideways at the girl leaning over a bin shovelling chaff into a hessian sack and said loudly, ‘William has a lot of hard work ahead of him at the property. Catching up will settle him and then he can truly work towards our future. But the property won’t be everything to William. He’s travelled, mixed with society, very worldly these days. He’ll need to look much further than here to find suitable . . . companionship.’
Muriel nodded agreement. Gertrude stood next to the women, the chaff against her knees. She leaned close to Elsbeth and brushed at something on her shoulder. Fox fur floated. ‘I thought something had caught on your poor old fox, Mrs Beaumont.’
‘Chaff most likely,’ said Elsbeth, and sniffed at the general store.
‘No.’ Gertrude smiled innocently. ‘I can see what it is. Looks like you need a box of napthalene. Shall I fetch you one?’ And she reached again, pinched some moth-eaten fox fur and let it float in front of them. The sharp eyes of the women circling Elsbeth Beaumont focused on the bald patches on the mottled, thinning pelt. Mrs Beaumont opened her mouth to speak, but Muriel said dully, ‘We’ll charge the chaff, as usual.’
William Beaumont Junior had arrived back to Dungatar the night before, only hours before Tilly Dunnage. He’d been attending Agricultural College in Armidale, a small inland town. When William stepped from the train his mother flung herself at him, squashed his cheeks between her palms and said, ‘My son, you’ve come home to your future – and your mother!’
He now sat waiting for her and his sister in the family car, the Amalgamated Winyerp Dungatar Gazette Argus crumpled in his lap. He stared down the main street at the hut on The Hill, watching smoke curl from the chimney. The hut had been built long ago by a man who supposedly wanted to spot advancing bushrangers. He dropped dead soon after its completion, so the council acquired it and the surrounding land, then dug the tip at the base. When they sold The Hill and dwelling, they sold it cheap. William fancied for a moment that it would be nice to live up there on top of The Hill, detached but seeing everything. He sighed and turned east to the flat plains, to the cemetery and the farming country beyond the police station at the edge of the town, past the crumbling brick-rendered shop façades and warped weatherboards covered in peeling paint.
‘My future,’ muttered William determinedly. ‘I will make a life worth living here.’ Then self-doubt engulfed him and he looked at his lap, his chin quivering.
The car door opened and William jumped. Mona climbed neatly into the back seat. ‘Mother says to come,’ she said.
He drove to the back of Pratts, and, while he was loading the chaff into the boot, a big girl standing in the huge open doorway smiled at him: a grinning expectant girl standing beside her plain mother against a backdrop of fishing rods and lines, lawn mowers, rope, car and tractor tyres, garden hoses and horse bridles, enamelled buckets and pitching forks in a haze of grain dust.
As they drove away Mona blew her nose and said, ‘Every time we come to town I get hay fever.’
‘It doesn’t agree with me either,’ said Elsbeth, looking out at the townfolk. The women from the street stall, the shoppers and proprietors were gathered in clumps on the footpath to look up at The Hill.
‘Who lives at Mad Molly’s now?’ said William.
‘Mad Molly,’ said Elsbeth, ‘unless she’s dead.’
‘Someone’s alive – they lit her fire,’ he said.
Elsbeth swung around and glared out the rear window. ‘Stop!’ she cried.
Sergeant Farrat paused outside the shire office to peer up at The Hill, then turned to look down the street. Nancy Pickett leaned on her worn broom outside the chemist shop, while Fred and Purl Bundle wandered down from the pub to join sisters Ruth and Prudence Dimm outside the post office building. In his office above, Councillor Evan Pettyman picked up his coffee cup and swung his leather shire president’s chair to gaze out the window. He jumped up, spilling his coffee, and swore.
In the back streets Beula Harridene ran between the housewives standing on their nature strips in brunch coats and curlers. ‘She’s back,’ she hissed. ‘Myrtle Dunnage has come back.’
At the tip, Mae McSwiney watched her son Teddy standing in the backyard looking up at the slim girl in trousers on the veranda, her hair lifting in the breeze. Mae crossed her arms and frowned.
That afternoon, Sergeant Farrat stood at the table concentrating, his tongue earnestly searching for the tip of his nose. He ran a discerning thumb across the sharp peaks of his pinking shears, then crunched them through the gingham. As a child, little Horatio Farrat had lived with his mother in Melbourne above a milliner’s shop. When he’d grown up he joined the police force. Just after the graduation ceremony, Horatio approached his superiors with drawings and patterns. He’d designed new Police uniforms.
Constable Farrat was immediately posted to Dungatar, where he found extremes in the weather and peace and quiet. The locals were pleased to find their new officer was also a Justice of the Peace and, unlike their former sergeant, didn’t join the football club or insist on free beer. The sergeant was able to design and make his own clothes and hats to match the weather. The outfits didn’t necessarily compliment his physique, but they were unique. He was able to enjoy their effect fully during his annual leave, but in Dungatar he wore them only inside the house. The sergeant liked to take his holidays in spring, spending two weeks in Melbourne shopping, enjoying the fashion shows at Myers and David Jones and attending the theatre, but it was always lovely to get home. His garden suffered without him, and he loved his town, his home, his office. He settled at his Singer, pumping the treadle with stockinged feet, and guided the skirt seams beneath the pounding needle.
Tooting car horns and a rousing cheer floated from the football oval where young men stood in the grandstand drinking beer. Men in hats and grey overcoats gathered near the dressing sheds, barracking, and today their wives had abandoned their knitting to watch every move the teams made. In the deserted refreshment shed, the pies burned to a cinder in the warming oven and kids squatted behind the hot-dog boiler picking the icing from the tops of the patty cakes. The crowd barked and horns blasted again. Dungatar was winning.
Down at the Station Hotel, Fred Bundle also caught the sounds floating through the grey afternoon and fetched more stools from the beer garden. Once Fred’s body had been alcohol-pickled and his skin the texture of a sodden bar cloth. Then one day he’d been serving behind the bar and had opened the trap door intending to tap another keg. He reached for the torch, stepped back and vanished. He’d fallen into the cellar – a ten-foot plummet onto brick. He tapped the keg, finished his shift and closed up as usual. When he didn’t come down for bacon and eggs the next morning, Purl went up. She pulled back the blankets and saw her ex-rover’s legs were purple and swollen to the size of gum tree trunks. The doctor said he had broken both femurs in two places. Fred Bundle was a teetotaller these days.
Out in the kitchen, Purl hummed and rinsed lettuce, sliced tomatoes and buttered pieces of white high top for sandwiches. As a hostess and publican’s wife, Purl believed it was essential to be attractive. She set her bottle-blonde hair every night and painted her fingernails and lips red and wore matching hair ribbons. She favoured pedal-pushers and stiletto scuffs with plastic flowers. Drunks removed their hats in her presence and farmers brought her fresh-skinned rabbits or homegrown marrows. The ordinary women of Dungatar curled their top lips and sneered. ‘You do your own hair, don’t you, Purl – I don’t mind paying for a decent set myself.’
‘They’re just jealous,’ Fred would say, pinching his wife’s bottom, so Purl stood in front of her dressing table mirror every morning, smiled at her blonde and crimson reflection and said, ‘Jealousy’s a curse and ugliness is worse.’
The final siren blared and the rising club song carried from the oval. Fred and Purl embraced behind the bar and Sergeant Farrat paused to say, ‘Hooray.’
The siren did not reach Mr Almanac in his chemist shop. He was absorbed, shuffling through photo packages newly arrived from the developing lab in Winyerp. He studied the black-and-white images under the light from his open refrigerator, which held many secrets: Crooks Halibut Oil, pastes, coloured pills inside cotton-mouthed jars, creams, nostrums and purgatives, emetics, glomerulus inhibitors, potions for nooks and creases, galley pots, insecticidal oils for vermin-infested hair, stained glass jars and carboys containing fungi for female cycles or essence of animal for masculine irritations, tin oxide for boils, carbuncles, acne, styes, poultices and tubes for weeping sinuses, chloroforms and salts, ointments and salines, minerals and dyes, stones, waxes and abrasives, anti-venom and deadly oxidants, milk of magnesias and acids to eat cancers, blades and needles and soluble thread, herbs and abortifacients, anti-emetics and anti-pyretics, resins and ear plugs, lubricants and devices to remove accidental objects from orifices. Mr Almanac tended the townsfolk with the contents of his refrigerator, and only Mr Almanac knew what you needed and why. (The nearest doctor was thirty miles away.) He was examining the square grey-and-white snapshots belonging to Faith O’Brien . . . Faith standing, smiling with her husband, Hamish, at the railway station; Faith O’Brien reclining on a blanket next to Reginald Blood’s black Ford Prefect, her blouse unbuttoned, her skirt kicked up and her slip showing.
Mr Almanac growled. ‘Sinners,’ he said, sliding the photographs back into the blue-and-white envelope. He reached a stiff crooked arm to the back of the refrigerator to a jar of white paste. Faith had been in, whispering to Mr Almanac that she ‘had an itch . . . down there,’ and now he knew her lusty husband wasn’t the cause of her discomfort. Mr Almanac unscrewed the lid and sniffed, then reached for the open tin of White Lily abrasive cleaner on the sink at his elbow. He scooped some onto his fingers then plunged them into the potion and stirred, screwed the lid back on and put the jar at the front of the top shelf.
He closed the door, reached with both arms to the edge of the fridge and grabbed it. With a small grunt the stiff old man pulled his stooped torso faintly to the left, then the right, and gathering momentum rocked his rigid body until one foot rose, the other followed and Mr Almanac turned and tripped across his dispensary, halting only when he bumped against the shop counter. All the counters and shelves in Mr Almanac’s chemist shop were bare. Everything on view was either in wire-strengthened glass cases or on high-sided benches like billiard tables so that nothing could fall and break when Mr Almanac bumped to a halt against them. Advancing Parkinson’s disease had left him curved, a mumbling question mark, forever face-down, tumbling short-stepped through his shop and across the road to his low damp home. Collision was his friend and saviour when his assistant Nancy was absent from the shop, and his customers were used to greeting only the top of his balding head, standing behind his ornate and musical copper-plated cash register. As his disease advanced, so had his anger over the state of Dungatar’s footpaths, and he had written to Mr Evan Pettyman, the shire president.
Mr Almanac waited, stuck and coiled against the shop counter until Nancy came. ‘Yoohoo . . . I’m here, boss.’ She gently guided him by the elbow to the front door, pushed his hat tightly onto his bent head and wound his scarf around his neck, tying a knot at the nape to sit where his head used to belong. She curled over in front of him and looked up into his face. ‘Close game today, boss, only beat ’em by eight-goals-two! There’d be a few minor injuries, I’d say, but I told ’em you got gallons of liniment and crepe bandage.’
She patted the arched cervical vertebra pushing on his white coat and shuffled with him to the curb. Mrs Almanac sat in her wheelchair in the front gate opposite. A quick glance up and down the street and Nancy gave her boss a shove, and he chugged straight over the rise in the middle of the bitumen and down to Mrs Almanac, who held a cushion out at arm’s length. Mr Almanac’s, hat came to a soft halt deep in the cushion and he was safely home.
Out at Windswept Crest, Elsbeth Beaumont stood at her Aga in her homestead kitchen lovingly basting a roasting pork joint – her son loved the crackle. William Beaumont Junior was at the oval, laughing with the men in the change rooms, standing in the steamy air with naked blokes and the smell of sweat and stale socks, Palmolive soap and liniment. He felt easy, bold and confident among the soft ugly intimacy of the grass-stuck grazed knees, the songs, the profanity. Scotty Pullit was smiling next to William, sipping from a tin flask, springing on the balls of his feet. Scotty was fragile and crimson with a bulbous, blue-tipped nose and a wet, boiling cough from smoking a packet of Capstans a day. He’d failed both as a husband and a jockey but had stumbled on success and popularity when he stilled some excellent watermelon firewater. His still was set up at a secret location on the creek bank. He drank most of it but sold some or gave it to Purl for food, rent and cigarettes.
‘And how about the first goal of the third quarter! Had it in the bag for certain then, mate, just a question of waitin’ for the siren, all over bar the shouting . . .’ He laughed then coughed until he turned purple.
Fred Bundle snapped the top off the bottle with a barman’s finesse and tilted its mouth to the glass, black fluid pouring thickly. He placed the glass on the bar in front of Hamish O’Brien and picked through the coins sitting wetly on the bar cloth. Hamish stared at his Guinness, waiting for the froth to settle.
The first wave of football revellers neared, singing down the street then tumbling into the bar, trailing chilled air and victory, the room now full and roaring. ‘My boys!’ cried Purl, and spread her arms to them, her face alive with smiles. A young man’s profile caught her eye – most did – but this was a face from her past, and Fred had helped her bury her past. She stood, arms spread, watching the young man drink from his beer glass, the footballers singing and jostling about her. He turned to look at her, a smudge of foam sitting on his nose. Purl felt her pelvic floor contract and she steadied herself against the bar, her eyebrows crumpled together and her mouth creased down. ‘Bill?’ she said. Fred was beside her then. ‘William resembles his father rather than his mother – wouldn’t you say, Purl?’ He cupped her elbow.
‘It’s William,’ said the young man, and wiped the foam from his nose, ‘not a ghost.’ He smiled his father’s smile. Teddy McSwiney arrived at the bar beside him. ‘Is there a ghost of a chance we’ll get a beer, Purl?’
Purl drew in a long, unsteady breath. ‘Teddy, our priceless full forward – did you win for us today?’ Teddy launched into the club song. William joined him, and the crowd sang again. Purl kept a close eye on young William, who laughed readily and shouted drinks when it wasn’t his turn, trying to fit in. Fred kept a close eye on his Purly.
From the end of the bar Sergeant Farrat caught Fred’s eye and pointed to his watch. It was well after six pm. Fred gave the sergeant the thumbs-up. Purl caught the sergeant at the door as he paused and put his cap on. ‘That young Myrtle Dunnage is back, I see.’
The sergeant nodded and turned to go.
‘Surely she’s not staying?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said. Then he was gone and the footballers were fastening Masonite covers to the glass doors and windows – night air raid covers left over from the war. Purl went back to the bar and poured a fat foamy pot of beer, placed it neatly in front of William and smiled lovingly at him.
At his car Sergeant Farrat looked back at the pub, standing like an electric wireless in the mist, light peeping around the edges of the black-outs and the sound of sportsmen, winners and drinkers singing inside. The District Inspector was unlikely to pass through. Sergeant Farrat cruised, his wipers smearing dew across the windscreen, first down to the creek to check Scotty’s still for thieves then over the railway line towards the cemetery. Reginald Blood’s Ford Prefect was there, steamy windowed and rocking softly behind the headstones. Inside the car Reginald looked up over Faith O’Brien’s large breasts and said, ‘You’re a fine-grained and tender creature, Faith,’ and he kissed the soft beige areola around her hard nipple while her husband, Hamish, sat at the bar of the Station Hotel sucking on the beige foam of his pint of Guinness.