South – Chapter 1 – Fire at Night
an accident at night. a loss. the orphan. the police call. a departure.
Arthur Morrisey, long awake and mightily tired of the waves of shimmer and electric snap of tinnitus that deprived him of sleep three nights a week, arose stiffly from his bed in the dark room thinking of water.
He sat a while there on the mattress and listened to the familiar soft gurgle of life that his wife of thirty-five years breathed in and out as she slept, and he wondered what this particular day would bring him.
He got up.
– and softly bounced a knee off the side of the bed as he rounded it and his wife Jesse, midst her other life in dreams, withheld just one damp breath as she felt the bump, then he turned through the door and padded barefoot down the hallway to the kitchen.
How quickly a house cools at night.
He halted at the kitchen doorway when he saw a veil of wavering redlight on the walls and on the cupboards; as if a distant searchlight filtered red, on low batteries and held by a weakening hand, had found a window in search of a witness.
‘ Jessie wake up. Good God! ‘
His wife awoke in fright as the sharp call from the kitchen rang through the house and ruptured her sleep. She jacked herself up in the big bed reflexively, all slackjawed and thick thinking, immediately conscious of the panicked and reasonless hammer of her heart, and she fidgeted over the other side of the bed searching for the warm flesh of her husband and found only rumpled sheets.
Something had just happened.
Arthur was standing by the window of the darkened kitchen; his face faintly blushed red in the otherwise darkness.
‘ Who do you think that might be? ‘ He spoke this at the glass before him.
Jesse slowly crossed the kitchen floor and stood with him. A low warmth still issued from the old woodburning stove by the wall, but over there, out there, two hundred yards away in the quiet night, stood a looming and far hotter pyre of silent gold and scarlet flame. A shocking and sudden thriving industry of fire and heat that looked to be venting from some inferno under the earth’s crust.
Coils of black smoke writhed through the flames. A frenzied ending of life.
‘ That’s the road, Somebody’s come to grief on the road, ‘ Arthur Morrisey said with dull a comprehension and he turned to his wife who was already on her way to the telephone.
‘ There wont be nobody left alive in that blaze by God. Heaven help them. ‘
The News Brief.
(start) At 2 a.m. on July 15th fifteen miles west of Glen Innes a white Econovan was driven into the wooden tray of a semi-trailer long abandoned by the side of the road. The driver, Mark Price and his young wife Kate, both of Beaudesert, died instantly as the heavy steel-edged tray sliced through the front windscreen of the van and decapitated them both. Some short time later some leaking fuel ignited on hot metal and the resultant explosion awakened a nearby property owner who called the Police. (end)
Beaudesert. A commune.
The cattle grid had entrapped within it one high-sided boot and six empty mud encrusted beer bottles, on either side of its rusted iron grates stood weathered timber stanchions stripped of their gates.
The path that passed through these impoverished portals was wasted at its edges and it meandered a vagrant path to a hilltop half a mile distant. Beyond that lay sunstruck pastures aquake in the heat, patched at random by the meagre shadows of hardburnt eucalyptus. Up there were white walled buildings, tin roofs, deep darkened verandahs and home to a small boy whose wait for his parent’s homecoming was now eternal.
‘ What do you say matey? Come for a walk out back? ‘
The little boy, Toby, was sat on his bedroom floor surrounded by his collection of quartz stones and whitened bones, all of them retrieved from the fields that surrounded the station. He was by nature a solitary young wanderer about the property, and from time to time he could be found crouched over the skeleton of a bird, or a rabbit where he would long ponder the position of the dead remains. The floor of his bedroom resembled the lay of the land, and there he sat similarly fascinated today, surrounded by his solitary combings.
Ned stood by the door. Big red-bearded Ned. His guardian, his sponsor, his uncle and his father’s best friend. Ned with his burden, the bearer of the news.
Toby didn’t look up. He knew Ned stood there waiting and he wanted to look up into that hard face and see the smile that always softened it for him.
He wanted to run over and be lifted high onto Ned’s leather clad shoulders and be freighted shouting through the house and out into the sunshine. Laughing. Like always. But something had happened last night and if he looked up Ned would see his face and he would know it too, and Toby couldn’t explain what the something was.
He had awoken during the night when a darkshadowed woman in his dreams cried out, her’s a doleful and soft howl of mother’s grief that had issued sharp from his sleep and was now buried in his heart.
‘ Come on little feller, I want to have a talk with you. ‘
When Toby finally looked up from the litter around him Ned could see the wetness in his eyes and the darkness that circled them, and without any further word the big man lifted the little boy into his arms and took him out of the house.
The women of the commune watched from the shadowed depths of the verandah as Ned and Toby slowly walked away through the yellowed stubble towards a granite outcrop at the top of a small rise. A favourite place.
They watched as Ned stopped up there and squatted down to talk to Toby, as he reached out his hand to lightly brush the little boy’s fair hair off his face, as he brushed away at his own eyes with the same hand.
They saw Toby scramble over to his uncle and crawl into his lap where he disappeared into the man’s enveloping arms.
And the women watched, silently, their arms folded. A tableau of feminine grief illuminate in the dark shadows of the quiet house.
Ned held the lad firm and when he raised his head he slowly turned it towards them.
Senior Constable Todd Henderson
The thump of the constables’ boots on the wooden steps matched the sound and rhythm of his fist on the screen door, and he stood squarely impassive as he listened to the footsteps and rustlings from inside the house.
One of the women approached the door but stood in the gloom of the hall that was made darker by shadow of the policeman. She watched him, and he watched her.
‘ This where the Prices used to live? ‘
A dismissive bark. An abrupt enquiry.
Todd Henderson was no friend of the commune.
A big nosed man was Todd, with long hard sunburnt arms and a low brow creased with hard-won learning. When Ned was absent he would drive up to the commune late at night in his Patrol car from time to time, drunk, radio on at full volume, and he would park with his headlights trained onto the house, full beam.
The women feared him.
‘ You goin’ to let me in or not? ‘
‘ What do you want Todd? ‘
Ned stood a little way off on the ground at the bottom of the steps, Toby by his side. They, now in their turn, also waited.
Henderson turned from the door. ‘ That the boy? ’
‘ What do you want Todd? ‘
‘ I gotta paper on him; kid’s an orphan now. ‘
‘ What’s that mean?’
‘ You his guardian?’
‘ Who is then? ‘
‘ His grandfather. ‘
Henderson tugged an envelope out of his shirt pocket and looked at it.
‘ Then this is for him. ‘
Ned and Toby watched the police car exit the yard, spitting gravel.
A call to Eden
Whenever Toby was left alone that afternoon he would lapse into a melancholy silence, unblinking and wide-eyed, his fingers stilled, arrested in their play. His early dinner untouched. The women’s footfall quiet as they passed by his open doorway, looking in. Toby now the single offspring of them all.
The house had grown silent.
That evening Ned called Eden and asked the police if they could contact Mr. Tom Manton who lived on a remote part of the coast near Munganno point. He explained the reason for the call and asked if they could get Tom to a phone and ring him back as soon as they could.
Tom was Toby’s maternal grandfather and he returned the call to Beaudesert at nine-thirty that evening and asked to speak to his grandson.
His voice was uncertain, husky. ‘ Tobes? You there matey? It’s your granddad. Remember me? ‘
Silence here. Toby stood holding the phone to his ear with his eyes fixed on the floor.
‘ They say that you’re comin’ down to see me now matey, that right? Looks like it’s just us now.’
Toby’s eyes filled with a rush of tears and he buried his chin into his chest, the phone still firm to his ear. One of the younger women left the room as her own grief overcame her. Ned sat gloomily at the dining table champing on an apple.
‘ I’ll be waitin’ for you my little lad when you get down here, I’m waitin’ on you now. So can ye go and grab Ned and ask him to come over to the phone now will ya? Just for a minute.”
The church service and funeral took place a couple of days later and the only people who attended apart from the Beaudesert community were Jesse and Arthur Morrisey. Todd Henderson drove by twice.
Later that day Toby was driven into town and put on the morning train for Sydney with a forward ticket to Eden on the far South Coast where his grandfather was to meet him. He wore a small cloth sign pinned on his jacket that said ‘ Rail Assist ‘ which meant that he was in the care of the railway staff for the duration of the long journey south.
Toby had only met his grandfather once, yet every month there would come a letter or two for him from Twofold Bay with stories of the rough seas and mighty storms of the far south coast, all of which was unimaginable to him who had never seen the open sea.
His father used read these letters to him every night before he slept, sometimes only the most recent and at other times he would read four or five from the drawer beside the bed, and Tobias would later dream strangely of waterfilled horizons and streaming white clouds, and seabirds. Seabirds.
His Grandfather also wrote of a place called Snug Cove and that sheltered bay quickly became an established place in the boy’s daydreams. One day in great confidence he told one of the commune women of this favourite place and she had soon painted the name onto a large woodchip and hung it on his bedroom door.
Toby kept a small picture of his grandfather by his bed that showed him as a wiry little man in old baggy shorts and a wide brimmed brown hat standing with his hands in his pockets, ankle deep in sand in front of a wooden house with a wide verandah. He had his hat pushed back and his sunburnt face was hardlined and unsmiling. A couple of big golden dogs were sprawled asleep by his feet.
In his younger days he had been a trawlerman and had owned an Eden based boat called Mia Fontana.
Now Toby was to go to him for there was no other. His mother’s older sister lived in America and her irregular postcards were never from the same place.
The nine dusty and scraggle haired men and women stood sadly on the platform and watched as the train to Sydney gathered distance and took him away. They watched the train take up the shimmer of distance until it disappeared into the rippling air.
Ned was at the back of the group and he had a look of such great loss about him that one of the younger women took to his side and placed her small hand in his. He was wearing his old leather jacket with its faded Hell’s Angel badge on the back and the boy’s small puppy was rummaging about in one of the large pockets.
The little fellow had been the only child living on the station and his radiated innocence had bathed them all, he had been a joy to know. He was six.
Now he was gone.