Long grass over home

by Matthew Lamb

Winner of the 2012 Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize

For Jannine Graham

MRS ESDALE BOUGHT her petrol there until she got too old and had her licence taken from her. There was a car accident in the summer and although she was not at fault they still took away her licence. But it didn't matter in the end because the accident left the car beyond affordable repair and she would've had to give up driving anyway.

She had three boys all named from the Bible. Timothy and James dropped out of school before finishing and youngest Peter was well on his way to dropping out or else expelled. James had been in juvenile detention but got out in the spring and Timothy was in the jail at the far edge of town.

Mrs Esdale had the car accident one day driving herself to the courthouse to sit in on Timothy's trial but she never got there in the end although she'd worn her Sunday best and everything.

George Silva had seen her boys growing up and he knew what a handful they were for her. He owned the petrol station thirty years by then and he said it was a shame what happened to Mrs Esdale and he meant it even though she never could pay for her petrol. She always paid on credit which she didn't like doing and so she only bought a few dollars at a time as a way to offset the shame of it. Such small amounts of fuel would get her to the shops and back or to the hospital and back or down to the church on Sunday which she did every week. He suspected her boys of taking the car for joyrides at night while she slept, burning the fuel. So the tank was often so low that she would run out of it and have to walk back to the petrol station to get more fuel in a can which she didn't like doing. The older she got the longer it took her to walk back to the petrol station and the more she didn't like doing it. He would watch her coming down the road every week or so bent to it and carrying the can. She would always have to borrow a funnel and later return it but in the end he said for her to keep the funnel with the can in the boot of the car for such emergencies.

Old Jack sat in the corner of the shop where he always sat in those days and he would watch these exchanges between George Silva and Mrs Esdale. He would watch George Silva afterwards methodically inscribing each amount she got on the inside cover of the daybook where he kept his unofficial lists of monies owed him. Every few months he pulled a fresh daybook out of the stationery cupboard and these figures would migrate from one to the next. He would copy the list of names and amounts on the endpaper of the daybook's inner board and vow never to give credit to anyone anymore. Old Jack would sit in the corner there and recall these vows to himself each time he saw George Silva hold firm on them and smile to himself the few times he would see them broken as they always were for Mrs Esdale.

It's only a few dollars, George Silva would say before adding up the small amounts.

After the accident they didn't see much of Mrs Esdale anymore and it was as though the debt was forgotten. Old Jack said she seemed to do more walking when she had the car than when she didn't have the car and George Silva would stand a moment in the doorway as though to contemplate this and look down the empty road and watch the buffel grass shake in the wind at the edge of it.

 

TIMOTHY ESDALE CAME in there one day. He glanced around the workshop and waited for George Silva hunched over some ghost of a car to ask him what he wanted. He had in his hand the can his mother used to keep in the boot of her car so when George Silva glanced up he knew what was coming but he wasn't going to be the one to make it come about. He bent back to work.

How you doing? said Old Jack from his corner seat.

Okay, said Timothy Esdale, looking aside at him.

You just come out? said Old Jack.

A couple a months now, yeah.

I been inside too once. Long time ago now though.

Oh yeah, said Timothy Esdale distractedly, his finger twitching at the handle of the can dangling from his right hand. His eyes shifted back to George Silva still leaning over the car. I was wondering if I could get a few dollars of gas in the can, he said. I can't pay now, but –

George Silva's eyes narrowed in the engine cavity under the hood but he did not lift his head out. I thought your Mum's car was out of commission, he said from out of the gloom.

Timothy Esdale craned forward to hear and to be heard. It's for me Mum, you see. I thought I'd mow the yard for her, you know, do something nice for a change.

He was ignored.

How is your Mum going? said Old Jack. Haven't seen her in a while. I always say to George here that she seemed to do more walking when she had the car than when she didn't have it.

She's okay, I guess, said the son. She's up the hospital now. They put her on these machines every couple a months, you see. To check stuff out. But she's fine.

She's had a hard life, your old Mum, said George Silva, looking up again while reaching for a shifter spanner.

Timothy Esdale bowed his head and scuffed his feet across the grease of the workshop floor. As I said, thought I'd do something for her, a surprise maybe. She doesn't get out much, up the hospital every couple a months or so. Or sooner, if she has a scare. Other than that she just sits at the back of the house and looks out over the backyard. And it's getting a bit long back over home.

Old Jack was watching George Silva and he saw it first in his shoulders the way they slumped at that moment and he knew that he had given in. George Silva stood slowly from under the hood of the car and wiped the grease from his hands as best he could on an old rag that was sitting there. He took the can off of Mrs Esdale's son and led him out to the front bowser, unscrewing the cap as he went. But he only half filled the can.

That oughtta be enough, he said.

Sure, thanks, said the son.

You checked the oil in that mower?

Uh-huh.

And the plugs?

Yeah, she goes. Just needs fuel.

George Silva regarded the man from behind narrowing eyes until the man looked back at him and held his look. George took his measure.

I tell you what, George Silva said. When you done back over home, come back and tell us how you get on. Maybe you could come over my place sometime and do the yard there too.

Yeah, maybe. He looked away.

Maybe you could work off some of this debt of your mother's for her.

Timothy Esdale looked back over at him. That's what I want to do, he said. And maybe work off some of my own.

George Silva handed over the can and he took it and checked the cap was on tight before turning and walking up the road and out of sight of the petrol station.

Old Jack sat back in his corner and watched them through the front glass of the shop guessing the nature of their exchange by the way their bodies moved. He watched George Silva watching Mrs Esdale's son disappear up the road and then he watched George Silva come back into the front of shop and sit at the desk and open the front cover of the daybook. He wrote down the amount and added it to the previous amount then frowned and checked the figures again chewing the inside of his lip before finally closing the book.

I've been watching you, George. I've been watching you now for years and more and more you've come to remind me of Frank Horricks. Have I ever told you about him?

Yeah, I heard you talk about him before.

This is going back now to 1969. Frank Horricks was the name of the team leader on a cattle station out west. I forget the name of the cattle station, I didn't stay there for long. But Frank Horricks is a man I remember, because he was a fair man and I can't find fault with him. When Chamery came down from the mission looking for work, it was Frank Horricks who let him on his team. None of the other men wanted Chamery on their team because he was an Abbo. But Frank was short a pair of hands and so he said he'd give him a go. One of the men on his team, a man named Fisher MacMichael, took exception to this decision. The next day he was found in his cot in no fit state to work. No-one knows what happened, and all Frank said about it the next day was that it was lucky Chamery came when he did, or else they would have been short two pairs of hands.

Well, I came out from the city soon after, looking for work, and I was pointed in Frank Horricks' direction. I told him straight up that I'd just come out of gaol and he said it didn't matter but it showed good for my character that I was up front and honest about telling him. He said he was short a pair of hands, and he said he'd give me a go. I started work that very same day.

Now Charles Beckmen's family owned the cattle station. Charles Beckmen did not pretend to understand Frank Horricks, or the way he worked the men under him. But he was shrewd enough a business man to know that whatever Frank Horricks did it made his team the most productive one on the station. So when Frank Horricks went up to the station house at the end of my first week there, and asked permission for the team to go into town for the afternoon, Mr Beckmen reluctantly agreed.

So we go to this bar there in the town. And it goes real quiet when we go in. There is a sign on the wall that says, blacks might count on the census but they dont count in here. Now Frank sees the sign and he gives Chamery a wink and sends us all over to a table at the far end of the bar. He then orders six glasses of beer from a sour looking woman behind the counter, he pays for them, then comes over and sits at the end of the table.

She takes her time coming over with the beers and we were real thirsty by the time she did. We finish them off and I order another six beers. She collects the glasses and takes them out the back. Frank says that we can all pay for our own drinks from now as pay day is still another couple of weeks away, and seeing I only just started it would be unfair for me to pay a round. Everyone readily agrees and Frank starts collecting the money for the next round before I can even raise a protest. But then we hear from out back the sound of a single glass being smashed.

The woman brings us another six beers, as though nothing had happened, and Frank pays her. We finish them off and John Wenzell, this short stocky German, waves her over to order another round. We're all starting to feel good by then and the dust in the air doesn't seem as dry anymore. Finally the sour woman comes over and collects the six glasses and Patrick Collins says something funny in his funny accent and we all laugh and keep laughing until we hear once more the sound of a single glass being smashed out the back.

Now we all have a think about what's going on here, and when she brings us our beer we all take a sip from the glass in front of us, and then we pass it on to the man sitting next to us. We each of us take a sip from the glass handed to us, and then after we pass it on again. We do this until everyone in the team has taken a drink from every glass. At one point Patrick Collins laughed at what we were doing and spat his mouthful back into the glass. And Chamery said he didn't want to drink out a glass that an Irishman's drunk out of, and we all started laughing again.

So we finish, then this old Russian-Pole, August Millewski, calls out for another round. The sour woman comes over to collect the glasses and she takes them out the back and then we hear this God Almighty crash. She must have just tipped the tray up and smashed all of them at once. Then she comes back out to behind the bar and gets straight on the phone and starts talking down it to someone, and we all start to think that maybe we weren't thirsty anymore. Frank Horricks was still smiling as he put some money down on the table, before we all got up and left. He was almost smiling into himself and I remember the look of it to this very day although I do not understand it anymore now than I did then.

 

GEORGE SILVA SAT at his desk and mulled over the story. A fire engine screamed along the street briefly cutting through the thickening gloam with sound and light.

I don't think I've heard you tell that particular story before, he said.

I worked under Frank Horricks on that cattle station for another few months before I moved back to the city, said Old Jack. I don't know to this day who that sour woman was talking to on the phone that day. But I'm glad we didn't hang around to find out.

An ambulance careened by outside following fast after the fire engine. George Silva stood to start locking down the shop for the day.

I guess she was worried she would run out of glasses, said Old Jack abstractly.

Go home, Jack. It's getting dark out.

George Silva went home that night and drank a bottle of beer from the fridge in quick gulps and then set about making himself dinner. He opened a can of beans and poured them into a saucepan and set it on the stovetop. He opened another bottle of beer and took a sip of it then splashed some on the beans and stirred it in with a spoon. He ate the beans out of the saucepan with the spoon and finished off the rest of the bottle of beer. He wiped up the remnant sauce with a slice of unbuttered bread and got himself another bottle of beer from the fridge then went and sat in an old wooden armchair looking out over the backyard. He got up and switched off the light then sat back down the better to see out the back window without the light reflecting in it. He sat and looked over the long grass and tried to penetrate the darkness in which he could make out the tips of it swaying in the night breeze. He thought of Old Jack and he thought of Old Jack's story and he wondered about the fate of Frank Horricks, a man he never knew, and that started him on thinking about all the others. He switched on the radio tuned softly to a country music station and he sat and listened to it. He wondered why Old Jack compared him to Frank Horricks but ended up just looking out over the yard peering into the dark and finally dismissing the notion altogether from his thoughts. Men are incomparable. An hour later the batteries went dead in the radio and he sat there in silence waiting for the dawn to come.

 

HE WAS TAKING out Mrs Pickford's radiator the next day when he first heard what had happened. Old Jack heard it earlier while down at the shops and thought it a rumour until it was later confirmed by Mr Thompson when he stopped in to get twenty dollars of fuel and have his tyres checked for air. He said he'd seen the lights of the ambulance first in the distance and then the sound of it followed by the police car. He said that Mrs Esdale's eldest son had been around home the previous afternoon and at some point stood in the backyard and took his shirt off and poured a can of petrol all over and set himself alight. The following day George Silva overheard Old Jack talking to Alexander Ross who heard it first from Mrs Barry that a few spent matches had been found nearby but that the box was wet with petrol and it must have taken him a few goes to finally get one lit. A circle of scorched earth is what James Wort saw with his own eyes and he held wide his arms to try to show the size of it. A voice on the radio said that the man aged twenty-four did not have enough fuel to do the job quickly and all George Silva would say as he shut up shop at the end of day was that he should have known that Timothy Esdale would never have mowed the yard for his mother.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 39: TASMANIA – The Tipping Point? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.