Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Jacko gets his drink (short fiction, Kinchella 1998)

Jacko was feeling fine before the blokes from the front bar started up with the megaphone. Sure his feet were wet, not a good sign for the sheds beneath his home, and he was out of beer, but he’d been worse off in his time. He looked across the water to the pub in Twintown. He could hear noise and see lots of cars pulling in. A cold beer would be nice. He’d just finished his last stubby twenty minutes ago, drank it quick cause he was in a lather after the work with the cows.
Looking over at Wal’s place, he thought he was better off. What was yesterday a pretty colonial-style house on stilts perched well above the river and backed by acres of cattle was now an island. No one, not even Jacko or Wal, had banked on the water coming round from behind. So they watched the river rise and spun yarns about the floods of 63 or 49, and felt sure that the water would do what they’d do as farmers, taking paths it had cut before. No one thought it might bust its banks higher up where all the creeks webbed the land.
When Wal’s paddocks started going under the sound of distressed cows mooing got Jacko into the motorboat and over there to give a hand. Cows are stupid and stubborn animals. They thought they had high ground and didn’t want to move from it. As they ummed and moo’d and shitted in their panic, the grass beneath them went slowly but steadily under water. Finally the two men got a dozen of them herded up onto the only truly high and dry ground left. Once the best cows were on the veranda Jacko hopped back in his boat and waved bye to Wally. He wasn’t going to stay for the offered beer, not with Wal’s wife bitching about the cow-dung on her newly painted ‘patio’. Heritage colours too.
So he got home, sat on his veranda and rested. His balls were itchy with sweat so he scratched. He was thirsty so he had his last stubby. He stretched and watched as the sun went down and water started lapping at the veranda’s edge. Bugger, that meant everything underneath was wrecked. He just hoped he’d pulled up one of the kegs he’d bought the other day. He had a tap set into the kitchen bench for them and knew that when he’d gone in earlier to make cheese on toast he hadn’t seen one beneath the tap. He was glad to have something warm in his belly though, the power had been cutting all day and he’d caught it on just long enough for tea and toast. It was off again now but he had his battery lantern on. Actually he had everything he’d need right here with him. Lantern, kero stove, battery wireless, gumboots for wading, and his old outboard motor tied up to a support beam. There was enough juice still in her to get him across the river if he needed to. Didn’t those little smartasses from the SES realize that old farts like him knew how to look after themselves?
Jacko had been a grown man in the ‘49 flood and a family man running his own dairy cattle when they came again in ’63. He knew that if the water started coming in he’d just have to sweep it out, until he or the water won. His house was high on stilts above the hundred-year floodline and at least he didn’t have to worry about stock anymore. Wally had bought that and most of the land ten years back, when Jacko’s wife died and his knee gave out for good a month later. If the water won this time so be it, he was an old man and he’d won the last few rounds. Water and fire had both threatened to knock him out, but here he was still punching.
He could do with a beer though. He went into the kitchen to see what he could find.


‘Oh Jesus his boats come loose!’ came the excited cry from outside the pub across the river. People had been running out with binoculars every hour to file their ‘Jacko report’. ‘ Ha, he’ll have to come over now’, said a slumped-over-the-bar-Willow. There was a flurry of voices as the two ‘bookies’ scratched the new odds up onto the billiards blackboard.
The pub was bored. Everyone in there had been evacuated over previous days, told by the SES to leave homes and go to the community hall in town to doss down. Everone just read hall as pub, so here they were, locked in by rising floodwaters, a bubble of good cheer floating on a river of beer. Outside, across the water, they could all see that the town crier had it right. Jacko was not in his usual sentry–post, lit up by a lantern on his veranda, and they couldn’t see his boat at all, no surprise given the speed of the river. All around people were calling for schooners and placing their bets. Just when would Jacko evacuate?
The SES had insisted to Jacko and Wally, the last two people left on the banks of Twintown, that they should get out of their homes. At 3 o’clock and again at 5 o’clock they’d ridden across the river wearing beacon-bright coveralls and tried to coax the old men away. Jacko had nearly cuffed one of them around the ears when the silly kid tried the ‘you’ll be more comfortable’ routine. It ended with Jacko pushing the boy back in his boat yelling ‘when I want to be comfortable I’ll lay meself down in my own bloody coffin and Wally here’ll hammer in the nails; now get off my fookin’PROPERTY!’ The sheepish boy was now off-duty and having his first of many beers at the bar, muttering under his breath about that ‘mad old bastard across the way’.
That was when the betting, which had started between just a few blokes, became the sport for the night. Every so often someone would go out with binoculars and come back with a report on what Jacko was doing. When he and Wal took the cows up to the verandah most folks thought they’d pack it in then. Then the water got higher up the stilts that cupped their houses, nearly up to the verandah on Jacko’s, so people who’d put money on the seventh hour got confident, then were out of the running when Jacko stayed put.
But his boat being gone changed things. As long as he’d had his boat the evacuation. time was up to him. Now that he was reliant on the SES it could all be rigged. Willow unbent from the bar long enough to start explaining this to all, there were shouts of ‘Ah bullshit’, and ‘ave another beer Willow’.
‘Wadda you doing with that John?’ Hoggy called. The kitty held maybe a hundred bucks now, people hadn’t been betting with big money, just a lot of noise. John the publican took all the money and dumped it in the fire helmet bolted to the bar. The fire helmet had lettering on it, which read, ‘support your State Emergency Service and Twintown Fire Brigade’.
‘Yeah, yeah, shut your whinging, next round’s on us.’ Much muttering then cheering as John started filling jugs. Then Browny leant over and asked in an evil tone ‘can I pull down that megaphone John?’ The megaphone hung on the wall amidst an assortment of oars, trophies, and rifles. Ha. Ha. The men in the bar’s best corner started laughing.


Jacko returned from the kitchen, righteously pissed off about the keg he figured to be downstairs in the water, just maybe. It was probably floating down-river by now and would land on some lucky bastard’s front lawn. He’d seen enough stuff on his own patch yesterday, when it was still visible. Green plastic from the new hay, a wheelie bin, fence posts.
He sat back in his old chair. The river hadn’t risen fully onto the veranda, just little dribbles lapping up between some cracks to wet his boots. If anything it looked steady. It was dark and the mozzies were going wild, thankfully drawn to the lamp instead of him. The rain had stopped for a while. If it didn’t rain tonight he might escape of this with a dry home.
He was really quite content on his chair in the dark listening to the river move, apart from the lack of a cold one. He sat back and sighed.
Jacko nearly shat himself, the voice was so loud. He jumped up from the chair and stood at the edge. Couldn’t see a thing apart from the pub lights and a streetlamp, but he knew that voice. Browny, the little prick. Browny and the old police megaphone from the wall above the bar across the river.
‘YA UP FOR A SWIM, EH ,JACKO?’ Boomed the voice.
What was this swimming crap, he had a boat and a dry deck up here.
That’s when Jacko saw he no longer had a boat. ‘Shit’, he swore. He couldn’t see it anywhere. Those boys over at the pub had probably watched as it went adrift. He checked the rope that had moored it to a verandah support. Soggy, frayed, and going nowhere.
Jesus, he wished he had his own megaphone. He’d give that little shit what for. But there might be something he could do just as well. The phones were still working.
Jacko went back inside and called Browns’ farm. When Trina answered he started talking quickly.
‘Eh Trina love, its Jacko here…
--Di’ Browny make it home ok?
--Nah, don’t worry. I’ve heard the road’s still well above…
--Nah; that went out a few hours ago, I’ve got radio national on the old battery-wireless.
--Yeah sure; I saw him over at Hoggy’s place- aw, an hour, two hours ago; said they were heading off to the Pub for a few…
--Allright darl- you too. Bye.’


‘Is Browny about?’, asked John across the bar. He had his hand over the mouthpiece and said in a low voice “She sounds pretty pissed at ya mate, have you left yet?”
Browny shook his head frantically as he gulped beer. He held out all ten fingers and shook them twice at John.
“Nah Trina? He apparently left for home about twenty minutes ago. Here? Just the one …heard he got roped into helping Hoggy move his Mums’ things upstairs.”
“Alright… yup, nah your road’s still fine, another bloke’s just come through.
Yeah; gotta go… you too mate. Bye.”
John put down the phone and smirked. Farmer Brown quickly drained his glass, put his hat on and left the pub. His mates in the best corner giggled at him from behind their beards and beers.

‘There you go you little shit’, thought Jacko happily as he watched Browny’s old Ford peel away from the pub.
None of the other blokes in the best corner of the bar picked up the megaphone, perhaps sensing the righteous hand of a wrathful Jacko in the call from Browny’s wife.
‘He’s not gonna get a shag in months’, said Hoggy. The men just looked into their glasses, sadly. None of them had wives, or even shags…
The SES guys came in, calling across the bar for soft drinks. Everyone rushed at them, asking about roads out and properties under. Some old blokes in the corner raised their voices as they discussed ‘what planks those SES blokes are, never heard more bullshit, too many men trying to be boss’, blah blah.
Closer to the bar a young couple who’d been ridden in on the SES boat earlier offered the men in orange a round of beers.
‘Nah thanks guys, still on duty’.
Johnno grabbed a bucket full of soft-drink cans and started heading out.
‘Might take you up on it later though’, he called back. ‘Change of shift… right lads, you can all piss off home’.
He turned to the only other middle-age bloke in the group. ‘You up for this last one Steve?’
‘Eh’, said Steve. The group dispersed, and soon was heard the rumble of the outboard motor chugging away. As quickly as it started it seemed to stop. ‘Shit!’ said a few of the men. They ran outside fearing the worst: that the boat had tangled into one of the trees under the water. They stood on the road and looked across the river.

Jacko was really thirsting by the time the SES made their last attempt to get him out. They tied up to his veranda post then stood in their boat swaying as the fast water rocked them.
‘Come on Jacko, time to pack it in’, coaxed the voice from the boat.
‘We’ll get you over to the pub, there’re rooms free upstairs; bit drier than this, eh?’
Jacko stood up from his chair, opposite and a little above them. For a man in his eighties he was still big, when he unfolded from the chair he stood fully six-foot tall. The lantern glowed behind him like a halo and he stood squarely in the gleaming dark water, arms crossed over his big chest. Steve hadn’t been to church since he was a kid, but he thought the old man looked like the God of the Old Testament, big and angry and cussing from behind his beard.
‘That you Steve?’ asked Jacko.
‘ Allright, allright here’s what we’ll do. I’ll hop in your boat-
‘Good on ya mate’, Steve interrupted quickly. ‘Otherwise we’ve just gotta worry about you all night, less blokes working later too’.
‘-And you can take me over There for a few’, finished Jacko, nodding across the water.
‘ Few what?’
‘ Beers you idiot! I bin sitting here without one for ages’.
‘Oh for Christ’s sake Jacko! Why don’t you just come over, have your beers and go to bed in the pub for the night?’
‘ Cause my bed here’s fine’, growled the old man.
‘Fine, I’m not carting you over there and back though, waste of bloody of time’, muttered Steve.
There was a lengthy silence cut only by the buzz of mosquitoes.
‘That’s a allright boy’. Jacko suddenly smiled at the younger man.
‘How’re your crops doing Steve?’
Steve grew lucerne.
‘Not gonna know for a while yet mate. Back paddocks are under near Turner’s Point Creek… the wife and house’s high and dry though so that’s a relief’.
‘And your other crop?’ asked the old man.
‘The other crop, that lovely fragrant green crop in the lower east paddock?’
Steve knew then that Jacko was God and knew everything about everyone.
‘All right Jacko, hop in’, said Steve.
‘And you’ll bring an old man back home to his bed?’ asked Jacko in a querulous little voice.
‘Hop in’, growled half of the two-man rescue team.


The men on the road ran back into the pub. ‘Boats ok!’ they yelled to all. ‘Think they’ve finally got Jacko into it, can see a tall bloke at the back.’ People checked their watches and started arguing about who’d won the bet, even though the kitty was now in the charity hat. Jacko blustered in, pushing the double doors hard and shaking spray from his shock of white hair. He strode up to the bar and the younger ones scrambled to make way.
‘Finally decide to give it up, eh Jacko?’ yelled a brave soul from the best corner.
‘Let a man have a beer in peace, wouldya Baby’. Jacko downed his schooner in a minute then ordered another. Steve and Johnno rolled fags and puffed on them contentedly. Jacko ordered his second schooner. Steve caught his eye. ‘Ten more minutes’, he said. Jacko nodded into his glass.
Baby couldn’t help asking. ‘Ten minutes what?’ Jacko ignored him, pulled out an old leather pouch and started to roll. Steve and Johnno finished their smokes and went outside before more people offered them a beer they couldn’t have. Steve yelled over his shoulder towards Jacko, ‘Near the monkey bars’.
Jacko quietly enjoyed his smoke with the dregs of his drink.
He handed John a fifty and asked for a slab.
‘Wadda ya need a slab for?’ asked Baby. ‘You gonna go upstairs and drink all by yourself?’
Jacko heaved his slab under one arm, strolled out, and made for the monkey bars that barely rose above the new waterline. A few people followed him out, including Baby and Hoggy and the boys from the best corner.
They watched him get into the boat, and then just a few moments later they could see his silhouette up on his veranda. Backlit by the lantern his shadow-self looked like Moses holding the tablet of the Ten Commandments; he put the slab down and they could all see his silhouette settle into the chair.
Baby looked at Hoggy. ‘Mad old bastard’, he said. The men went back to the best corner they inherited from men like Jacko and Wally. They all felt a bit sheepish and called for another round of beers.

Jacko pulled his lantern up onto the slab; the water was still seeping up through the veranda boards and he didn’t want to lose his light whilst he still had some drinking to do. He put his feet up on the railing and enjoyed the happy little pop and hiss of a cold can opening beneath his hands.
Looking out across the water he could see the string of coloured lights at the pub and could hear the faint hum and clatter from within. He could imagine Willow, now fully curved over the streaming bar, and Baby and the boys sitting tight in the best spot, where you could see the Wives driving up either road and duck beneath the windowsills.

He took a long swig from the can.
‘Mad bastards’, he said fondly.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The House that Jack built (excerpt from chapter three)

Contemplating love with duster in hand:

Lisa looked after her grandpa when he was sick. He was terrified of being put in a home.
Why did she do it? She thinks it helped her make a ritual of becoming an adult. Drinking in pubs with girlfriends wasn’t doing it. Finishing school hadn’t done it. A few fumbled goes at sex hadn’t.
The dusty flat. Eating semi-thawed dim sims at the too-big table. His hideous, startling night cough. His drinking scotches then donning the kilt. The pub over the back fence and the arguments she heard in her single bed with a faded blue chenille spread. A small framed picture of a ballet scene from Swan Lake.
Her feeling that she was she was paving her way to love. That she was steeped in love, that in these small domestic acts of love she was making memories of the closure of a life. She had a presentiment of her own future nostalgia in contemplating her pa’s death.
And grandpa talked.

He talked about his sister -in- law Eunice, known to Lisa all her life as ‘Mad great aunty Eunice’.
Eunice had disappeared suddenly one night, rumoured to have gone up north by a female colleague who received a single postcard from Kempsey. She left her husband and was never heard from again- the stuff of childhood myth and fantasy, a symbol of adventure and freedom and travel. Lisa always secretly admired mad aunty Eunice, and had been told she looked like her, having the same ‘beer-coloured’ hair.
Lisa pictures her, as she always has, in her forties, though now she’d have to be in her seventies.
But there she is, a radiant and unlined forty three, sitting on a verandah overlooking the scrubby beauty of Hat Head Bay, wearing a Jenny Kee Waratah print dress and contemplating, over a gin and tonic, her delicious, sinful life. Her mad life.

Lisa is somnambulant around the house; listless and locked, she can’t be bothered doing all the little fix jobs she’s listed and considered over and again. She’s thinking about how much Pa talked about Eunice at the end.
People say that when you’re close to dying it’s the old memories, the ones that really count, that keep surfacing. Eunice the young and lovely, vibrant woman; the factory worker with a taste for gin-tonics. The funny, dancing life of the party Eunice who despite her red hair had a soft temperament, was known to be lovely with children and animals. How people gossiped about her going out with girlfriends when her husband pulled long hours at the furniture warehouse.
“What they didn’t know Lisa, was that it wasn’t work that kept him there. I knew he was drinking, he’d always drunk and was pretty good at hiding it in public. I didn’t know how bad it had gotten at home though until Eunice pulled up outside one night and stumbled out of the car to my door. She couldn’t drive, not really, had just bunny hopped her way round the few backstreets between us. She was in her nightie with an overcoat and boots on, and her right eye was red raw and starting to bruise. I knew the pain of Tom’s swift right hook; I’d suffered it myself as his brother. She pushed past me -she was angry more than scared, muttering “I can’t, I can’t. You have to – you’re his brother, get him off it even if you have to punch him out and lock him up. That bastard”.
She finally cried then.
“He hit me, that stupid bastard”

“She stayed that night and at about 3am my brother came to my door looking for a fight. Someone must have seen his car parked outside my place and let him know, bloody gossips. I’m ashamed to say he got his fight. I laid him out cold with a punch to the nose then put him on the couch. Eunice stayed in the back bedroom the whole time; I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d wedged the chair under the door-handle. The next few days my two older brothers banded together and told Tom’s boys at the warehouse we’d kill anyone who opened a bottle with him after work. We talked to him about his responsibilities as a man and as a husband. I think over time he slowed down, or maybe got even better at hiding it, but it didn’t matter to Eunice. He’d hit her and she was gone a week later.”
That Pa had loved Eunice was clear to Lisa. In that week, before she did the infamous ‘runner’ did something happen with that love? Where did she stay, who gave her money? Was it the factory girlfriends as everyone had thought?

Alone in each day in this old house she is caught in this story as if in a web, dazed by it and hopeless to it as she imagines their possible ‘middles’, for she knows the end. Pa married Dora and they had a son, her Dad Nicholas. Dora died of a stroke at only 49 and Pa, many years later, died alone in hospital. No one ever heard again from Eunice- did they? For all anyone knows Eunice’s ashes lay in a pot under a rosebush in some cemetery that borders a dirt-country road.