HE HAD SEEN A GROWN MAN CRY ONLY ONCE BE­FORE, WHEN HIS BROTHER TOM RE­TURNED FROM THE GREAT WAR

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

watch the clans of green and red musk lori­keets chortling far above. He would drink in the bird­song of the wrens and the hon­eyeaters, the whipcrack call of the jowit­tys, punc­tu­ated by Gra­cie’s steady clop and the creak and clink of the cart’s leather traces and wood shafts and iron chains, a uni­verse of sen­sa­tion that re­turned in dreams.

They would make their way along the old coach road, past the coach­ing ho­tel the rail­way had put out of busi­ness, now a di­lap­i­dated near ruin in which lived sev­eral im­pov­er­ished fam­i­lies, in­clud­ing the Jackie Maguires. Once ev­ery few days a cloud of dust would an­nounce the com­ing of a mo­tor­car, and the kids would ap­pear out of the bush and the coach-house and chase the noisy cloud till their lungs were afire and their legs lead.

At the Fin­gal Val­ley turnoff Dor­rigo Evans would slide off, wave Joe and Gra­cie good­bye, and be­gin the walk to Llewellyn, a town dis­tin­guished chiefly by be­ing even smaller than Cleve­land. Once at Llewellyn, he would strike north-east through the pad­docks and, tak­ing his bear­ings from the great snow­cov­ered mas­sif of Ben Lomond, head through the bush to­wards the snow coun­try back of the Ben, where Tom worked two weeks on, one week off as a pos­sum snarer. Mid-af­ter­noon he would ar­rive at Tom’s home, a cave that nes­tled in a shel­tered dog­leg be­low a ridge­line. The cave was slightly smaller than the size of their skil­lion kitchen, and at its high­est Tom could stand with his head bowed. It nar­rowed like an egg at each end, and its open­ing was shel­tered by an over­hang which meant that a fire could burn there all night, warm­ing the cave.

Some­times Tom, now in his early twen­ties, would have Jackie Maguire work­ing with him. Tom, who had a good voice, would of­ten sing a song or two of a night. And af­ter, by fire­light, Dor­rigo would read aloud from some old Bul­letins and Smith’s Weeklys that formed the li­brary of the two pos­sum snar­ers, to Jackie Maguire, who could not read, and to Tom, who said he could. They liked it when Dor­rigo read from Aunty Rose’s ad­vice col­umn, or the bush bal­lads that they re­garded as clever or some­times even very clever. Af­ter a time, Dor­rigo be­gan to mem­o­rise other po­ems for them from a book at his school called The English Par­nas­sus. Their favourite was Ten­nyson’s ‘‘ Ulysses’’.

Pock­marked face smil­ing in the fire­light, gleam­ing bright as a freshly turned out plum pud­ding, Jackie Maguire would say, Oh, them old timers! They can string them words to­gether tighter than a brass snare stran­gling a rab­bit!

And Dor­rigo didn’t say to Tom what he had seen a week be­fore Mrs Jackie Maguire van­ished: his brother with his hand reach­ing up in­side her skirt, as she — a small, in­tense woman of ex­otic dark­ness — leaned up against the chicken shed be­hind the coach­ing house. Tom’s face was turned in on her neck. He knew his brother was kissing her.

For many years, Dor­rigo of­ten thought about Mrs Jackie Maguire, whose real name he never knew, whose real name was like the food he dreamt of ev­ery day in the POW camps — there and not there, press­ing up into his skull, a thing that al­ways van­ished at the point he reached out to­wards it. And af­ter a time he thought about her less of­ten; and af­ter a fur­ther time, he no longer thought about her at all.

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