Tuesday, 19 July 2016


I've had a kind request to repost a short story I shared in a reading at last year's Melbourne Writers' Festival.
Here it is, with an airing of the words I elected not to say, incase there were children that I hadn't spotted in the Federation Square audience...


It was the talk of the town when they split up and he took up with me. I didn’t care. He didn’t care. So everyone had something to talk about. A good six months later they were still talking.

Some of the young ones had followed me down the street – friends of hers – and I just gave them my best fawk off face and went about my business. So they’d sit in the park and watch the house. Don’t know what they thought they’d see from there. Sometimes they’d get hold of a car and they’d come stickybeaking as I pottered around. Driving real slow to conserve fuel.

Turns out I knew him before any of them. Ask an older person and they’d tell you that. ‘Oh, no, those two…that’s been going on for a long time.’ Before time. And after time. The slow rolling sticky beaking female tagalongs would have needed a hell of lot more miles under them to understand that.

It was the kind of town where there weren’t many cares. We slept with the doors unlocked. I don’t think there was a lock on the front door. Everyone could see the front door so no need to secure the entrance even if you’d left town to go six weeks cotton chipping.

My aunt said for a long time that she was going to go chippin’ around Wee Waa and save all her money and buy a new dress and go to the rugby final in Sydney. So one year she jumped in the motor car that was leaving the black soil, to work the season and that was big news.

She lasted till just after lunch, that first day out at the fields, then retired her hoe and spent the rest of the day laying on the back seat of that motor car listening to Kenny Rogers and fanning flies with one of her little lace hankies.

‘Fawk the grand final, I’ll watch the karnt on tv’.

We all loved that story. Her sisters were still in the field and she was calling out for any cold drink. Every time my Aunty Flo tells the story she’ll tell you that bit about five times. But she wont talk about her sister’s funeral. There’s a few she wont mention, just clamps her lips together, and then sings your name like a sigh.

Bit by bit a few of the mob decided to stay on in Wee Waa. It was a bigger place, and you might of met someone you were sweet on, or you liked the look of the place with it’s big river and web of streets so extensive a person could go for weeks and not see anyone they knew, if that was what you wanted.

And then people got a better education and got jobs and cars and houses and the pilgrimage to Wee Waa cotton fields stopped because people were going to city universities and Canberra and New York.

But one thing that didn’t change in our little bush town was most of us were still sleeping on mattresses on the lounge room floor.

This yarn now, there was me and him, and about four kids. One of the kids, don’t ask me why, but I’d wake up and his hands would be in my hair. Sound asleep but he’d somehow get at least one caught. Even if I tucked my hair under the pillow, he’d find it.

That’s if I’d had a pillow. This time I didn’t. We had a house full because a lot of mob had driven over for Aunty Jay's funeral. You have families the size we all did out that way, all the funerals are big. Everyone was coming back to town, but no one was expecting any trouble. It was a funeral, didn’t matter how broken up people might have been about being forced into a single life.

He’d come to town with no blankets. Some times you’ve just got to travel that way. Like if you split up and have got to leave town in a hurry. But that blackfella, that was how he lived.


I’ll call him Joey because I knew him when he was a little thing, long bony legs for a baby and real big eyes, he just shot up in his late teens and then spent ten years being told every day you’d see him, ‘gee Joey, you growing overnight?’

Happy go lucky, was Joey. And make you laugh, he didn’t have a care in the world. Both his parents died young and he was their only one, so Joey was everyone’s boy. He’d drifted to Wee Waa for work and that’s where’d he’d been for a while before we saw him again.

We were on the front verandah watching the motorcars driving into town in the rain. So many cars some of them even had to move from the central line so two could pass each other on the narrow tar. That’s how the little green car full up like a roo pouch with long arms poking out of every window, came to slide clean off and end up in the watery ditch.

It gunned the engine a few times but it wasn’t leaving that ditch, so all the men came to take a corner and Joey took the place no one wants in the mud, and got on the back bumper. We’re all watching them push until one of the strongest who’d been hanging back out of the mud, announced ‘fawk this, that back axle aint moving’, with a laugh and strode across the road straight into the ditch, got two hands under and lifted the little green car clear up and back out onto the road.

That’s how he got his name. Little kids now will ask you, ‘how did Uncle Back get his name’, and be told it’s short for Back Axle.

Joey was covered in mud so he wasn’t getting back in the little green car so that’s how he came to be camping with us. He was distantly related and close to everyone’s heart. Just walked in through the little gate and started hosing himself down in the rain.

Like you’d expect she would to a motherless child, Aunty Midge called out in her sorry business voice as she pulled up across the road and walked the planks with a chicken curry across the muddy ditch.

‘You not wet enough, Joey?’

Joey just grinned that grin he had, to tell you he had a reason and maybe he looked foolish, but what did it matter? Funeral or not, his place was gentle in this world.

And after a long day of watching the street and yarning and cooking up all the meat in the house, my cousin and his young wife and babies were already gone to bed in the big bedroom and the rest of the kids were half asleep from jumping all over Joey, and it was time to turn the lights out.

Joey was a three seater man laying on a busted two seater lounge with my pillow and I told him ‘hey take that blanket there and you can have the bed down the hall there’.

‘You sure Aunt’ said the child in a man.

‘You’re right, Joey’, watching as he disappeared down the dark way with my pillow under his arm and a thin blanket over his shoulder. We all knew Joey did not like the dark so I kept talking to him while he sorted himself out…

‘You right now…’

‘Yeah..’, and I just knew without seeing him he was checking there was nothing in the wardrobe or under the bed. There was a tiny dresser in the room, an attempt at a bedroom setting, and I bet he opened both drawers too.

‘You warm there Joey…’ softly over the sleeping children.

‘Yes Aunty, snug as a bug’, a man's voice in the dark.

We were all fast asleep when the front door smashed open. It was so loud I would have been on my feet before I was even fully awake if I hadn’t had two child sized hands entangled in my hair.

Seven o’clock in the morning of a funeral and she’d decided this was the time she wanted to come round for a bit of a yarn about the break up. It had been some months since she lived there, but she still knew the way.

I’m trying to gently uncoil my hair that was wrapped around the wrist of someone’s sleeping child, and there’s two blokes at full alert towering above me, and one of them was Joey. He could see in an instant, like he saw everything, he was the third wheel and backed down the hallway as my mane pulled free and I decided to shift paddock, and leave the kids sleeping inside.

Outside the scene filled in, in front of my eyes. Standing in the driveway was the slow rolling sticky beaking tag alongs pulled up with the front door standing open, and they were full on staring this time.

Anyone in ear shot was full on staring, from next door, across the road and even a couple of houses down, having heard the front door nearly bounce of it’s industrial strength community housing hinges as it slammed and echoed, off the fibro wall in our barely furnished over crowded love nest.

The tagalongs sunk down in their lambswool seat covers, eyes on stalks barely hovering above the car doors as collectively they tried to scrape up some of their business. It had scattered with their sense that would have reminded them it was the day of a funeral.

The exit scene was the car leaving in shame with contents restored, with the backseat urging fawkmedead Vanessa to go a little fawking faster.

When Uncle Gee came in off the station for the service some hours later, the air was still crackling. He’d always start any conversation with ‘what’s going on’ but that time he meant why is everyone distracted by something that obviously isn’t about the funeral, and I can’t help but notice that there is a big fawking hole in the wall behind the front door.

Joey had the final no fuss word….’Aunty Claudie came home’.

When he died a few years later, remembering that was the only thing that could bring a smile. For a young man he has a big grave. They needed to put that much dirt on him to have somewhere to put all the flowers. Not many went to the trial to see the group of men who caught him alone in the dark, walk free on a technicality, but it was a massive funeral, the proper way.

Alone…he would have had that big smile…he would have tried to talk his way out of it….he would have known…he would have seen….why was he on his own?….we left him alone. He always had our back. Shame.

Thanks for reading.