4. Extract from THE APOSTLE BIRD
We have come here to scratch for gold. Once we had a house, a business and a Packard sedan, but they are gone now, seized by the bank. We had a workshop, tools and a showroom of painted rowboats, sold to the highest bidder on the final day. Now we are reduced to this: a hut on a lean in the far mallee scrub, a grubby claim on Noltenius Creek, and a life indebted to a man called Bartle Allen as we scratch for the gold that will overturn our rotten luck. I could make a ballad out of it, a moody lament to match our bewilderment and pain. The melody first, or the words? Perched near the edge of a mine-shaft, upon a mound of silt borne down by ancient floods, I try to find a way into the song. A simple one, two, three, four beat. Perhaps -
"Neil.Wake up, son. Get a move on."
It´s my father, flicking the windlass rope in irritation. I peer at him over the raised lip of the shaft, at his face down there in the gloom, cranked back at an awkward angle, the better to see me. He´s got his hands on his hips and there´s a full bucket at his feet.
I lean all of my weight on the windlass handle and, turn by turn, wind the bucket to the surface. It sways a little. Until the handle is locked and the bucket swung free of the shaft. I live in fear of tipping all of my father´s hard work back down upon his head.
He calls "Steady", reading my mind, his voice sounding flat and featureless beneath me.
I grab the bucket, unhook it, haul it free, and finally add dirt to the dirt pile on the eastern slope of our claim. Days, weeks of dirt. It´s my custom to up-end every bucketload in a fanning arc, almost as if I were winnowing grain, in the belief that I might one day spot gold in that sweep of dirt. But, so far, all it has been is dirt. The bucket itself is a sorry thing: heavy zinc, full of dents, a backbreaker. We got it from Bartle Allen. We´d left Adelaide with nothing and arrived here with nothing, only hope. We got the rope from Bartle Allen, the pick, the shovel - every item the property of a miner who had died in the spring, before we arrived. "Died most probably of a broken heart," is how my mother sees it. Sometimes I think that her heart will break if we stay here. I drag the bucket back to the windlass, hook it to the rope and lower it down the shaft. I can´t see my father. He´d been told that at twenty feet he´d strike gravelly, gold-bearing soil, trapped in the crevices of corrugated rock, but all he´d found was more dirt, so now he´s exploring along horizontal drives. We live in fear, my mother and I. In a hole, there´s only the air above you. In a drive, there´s smothering dirt and bonecrushing rock.
Back to my song. An opening phrase has been swimming in my head. In the summer of 1933, we came to dig for gold . . .No, the line is too clunky. In the summer of ´33, we came to dig for gold . . Search for gold? Fossick for gold? Horses. I stand to greet the riders. It´s Bartle Allen and his son, coming from the direction of the big house, clopping and pebble-rattling along the dry bed of Noltenius Creek. Finally they halt, leaning forward on their pommels, two large figures who wear the confident red faces of those who have never had much go wrong in their lives. The Allens´ blue heeler is with them. He scrabbles up the slope and winds around my legs, whupping me with his tail, begging for a scalp scratch. I don´t disappoint him. "Good boy, Lick." "Useless dog," Mr Allen says. "Your father around, sonny Jim?" "Yes." "Give him a shout, would you?" I lean into the shaft. "Dad, Mr Allen´s here." A curse, soft, for my ears only.
INFORMATIVE ITEMS1. Author and Work
Humphrey swings down from his saddle. He lands heavily. He´s big, a reproduction of his father, although he´s only fifteen; my age. He greets me with a grunt. "Young Humphrey hasn´t much use for speech," is how my mother puts it, at day´s end, when we´re snug in our hut and the world of the Allens and our pathetic gold claim can be pushed to the backs of our minds. Suddenly Humphrey gasps. Excitement transforms his heavy face. "What´s that? There, on the ground! Gold!" He points, rushes forward. His excitement is infectious. I slide down the screen to join him. "Where?" I´m on my hands and knees now, sifting through the dirt, lost to dreams, and so it is that I don´t register Humphrey´s laughter until it´s too late. It´s a laugh I know well, harsh and exultant: "Fooled ya!" And then his father laughs, and together they slap their thighs. Up there, above my head, the air is full of their bare teeth and the hot wind of their derision. I scramble to my feet, face averted, just as my father hauls himself, by the final toehold, out of his shaft.
"Bartle," he says. My father takes his time, sitting on the little pine-log wall that supports the windlass, rolling a cigarette. Every move is deliberative, as if he wants to test the patience of Bartle Allen. Finally he touches a match to his cigarette. "What can I do for you?"
"Couple of chores," Mr Allen says. My father takes a puff, removes the cigarette from his mouth, squints at the burning tip. He shrugs. He can´t bring himself to say yes, or to look at the Allens, father or son. "I want your boy to help my boy count sheep in the cemetery paddock," Bartle Allen says, "and I want you to help me hook up the wagon and steal water away from the Chinaman." My father looks at the sky as if it might rain. A few seconds go by. "When? Now?"
"That´s the general idea."
"Next time give me more notice."
"Look, can you help me or not?"
It´s often like this between them, sparks about to fly. My father sighs, stubs his cigarette out on his boot, puts it in the pocket of his shirt, and says, like a man who has lost his freedom, "You´re the boss."
from: The Apostle Bird, chapter 1 ( by kind permission of the author)
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