Mallawindy, p.3

Mallawindy, page 3



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  ‘I told her at lunchtime, sir, but she doesn’t want to. Mum said Annie had to sit with me, or she couldn’t come, sir,’ Ben replied, his eyes studying his shoes. But the mute’s eyes stared relentlessly into the headmaster’s until he was forced to look away.

  Odd little individual, Malcolm thought. He’d been watching her all morning. Inscrutable eyes, black as two smouldering coals, they were defying him now to move her from her brother’s side. ‘Mum says she stays, I say she goes. What do you say, Burton?’ he tormented.

  Ben’s sunburnt face flushed a darker red and his chin dropped closer to his chest. ‘She doesn’t know anyone in Mrs Macy’s room, sir. If I leave her there, she’ll just go home.’

  ‘So be it. Would you like to take over the chair today? You make all the decisions. Shall we finish the day with arithmetic or do you prefer English? Speak up, Burton, the class is waiting.’ He continued with his own brand of wit, while studying the Burton duo. The sandy-haired boy and the dark girl. They’d rot in this filthy little town. Malcolm’s mind wandered back to a better time, a kinder year. He’d tried to guide the oldest Burton boy, Johnny – named as his own son had been named. He’d offered to coach him to a full scholarship, a passport out of town. That boy had possessed one of the best minds Malcolm had come across in all his years of pounding information into thick heads.

  ‘Pearls before the swine,’ he muttered, his eyes drawn away from the dark coals to traverse the almost skeletal frame of the mute. The mark of a whipping was on her thigh, the broken skin already scabbing, but the fat man flinched away from a fact he didn’t wish to know. Knowing meant involvement. He had a permanent appointment with a bottle these days, and no more time for involvement.

  ‘Books open at page 40. Read The Team, note the author. I’ll question you on your reading later. Take that as a warning.’ He waddled back to his table and sank down to the groaning chair, his eyes turning to the eastern window.

  Every Australian schoolyard seemed to have this same look of desolation, of earth worn bare of grass by little feet that came to stay for six long years. Each day they carried home a little more soil on their stinking sandshoes, until all that was left could barely support the peppercorn trees.

  ‘Barren land. Barren life,’ he murmured and reached for the Thermos beneath his table, pouring a cup of what he hoped looked like weak black tea.

  Heads propped on hands, the children leaned, waiting, dreaming too of cool drinks, of raspberry cordial and of cream-puffs, pink jelly cakes and sausage rolls that the town ladies provided at the Shire Hall on the final day of the school year. The mute appeared to be reading. The two Burton heads were close together. The boy had commenced school late. He was behind his age group, but he didn’t look out of place amid the twelve-year-olds. Malcolm reached again for his Thermos, shaking it to test its level. It would last him until three-thirty.

  He drank fast. His cup again empty, he up-ended it to make quite certain. ‘Too soon a pleasure taken, then forgotton,’ he quoted, measuring out a small nip before tucking the Thermos out of reach. ‘Dooley!’ he bellowed.

  ‘What, sir!’ A drowsy carrot-topped teenager sprang to attention in the sixth-grade row.

  ‘The Team, Dooley. The poem we have all been reading. Who was the author?’ the headmaster asked. He stood and moved between the aisles, slapping a desk here and there with a chubby pink hand, his walk a pulsation, each hump and lump moving independently, sluggish and slow.

  ‘What page, sir?’

  ‘Dooley. Dooley. Dooley.’ He rubbed at the bridge of his nose, moved his spectacles higher, then tried once more. ‘Have your parents decided yet where you will be insulting the sensibilities of the teaching fraternity in the new year, or do they intend leaving you here to torture me for another year?’

  ‘I’m goin’ to high school in Daree, on the bus, if I pass this year, sir. If that’s whatcha mean, sir.’

  ‘Indeed, I do, Dooley, and indeed you have passed. It-may mean that I must go down on bended knee, begging forgiveness for my gross connivance, but you have indeed passed this year,’ he replied, and he pulsated on, side stepping a foot placed strategically to trip him. With a baby-fat elbow, Malcolm jabbed at a near-mature youth. ‘Tell me, Mr West. Dare I contemplate the day when I have no more big, splayed West feet attempting to fell me in my grade six aisle?’

  ‘Don’t count on it, sir. The old man and lady was hard at it again last night,’ Robby West cackled. The elbow nudged again, harder this time.

  ‘Were hard at it, Mr West. The old man and lady were hard at it. They were. We were, but he was ... I was – ’

  ‘Who with, sir?’ the class stirrer asked, and the elbow, with twenty-three stone behind it, slammed into the youth’s rib-cage. Unperturbed, Malcolm Fletcher moved to the next desk, stopping beside Ben Burton.

  ‘Give me the author’s name, Burton,’ he said. ‘On your feet, boy.’

  Ben stood. He licked his dry lips. ‘Henry Lawson, sir,’ he said, and he sank back to his seat, his chin again on his chest. But not so the mute. Her pointed chin lifted defiantly as her eyes darted from her brother to his tormentor, then back again.

  She was all points and angles, this girl-child of Jack Burton. Tense as sprung steel coiled too long in an unnatural bend, the fat man thought. The child’s eyes interested him. They were the eyes of a wild thing, round, incongruous amid so many angles. Eyes without trust, without hope. A half-starved feral thing, trapped in his classroom – but only for as long as she decided to stay.

  Determinedly, he lifted the hem of her faded frock. He looked at the scabbing welts crisscrossing her thigh. ‘How did that happen, Burton?’ he asked the boy.

  ‘She fell out of a tree, sir,’ Ben replied.

  The headmaster sighed, released the fabric. ‘You violate the truth, methinks, Burton. Do you know the meaning of that word?’

  ‘They violate the graves of the dead, sir ... break into them and rob them, sir.’

  ‘Indeed they do. Indeed they do. To break into, to disturb. You and yours violate my peace of mind,’ he admitted, then he wheeled again on the class.

  ‘Rhyme, rhythm and alliteration. A poet uses musical language to make his poem easily remembered, he uses rhyme and metre, his poem becomes a song without music. However, modern poets are leaning towards free verse. It has no metre at all. I have heard it said that the rhythm of a metrical poem can be compared to a heartbeat, but free verse is like the wind in the trees, so take up your pens and create for me a breeze, write me up a storm. Make me one worthwhile poem and you may escape this room before three-thirty.’ His request was greeted by groans and the slam of desktops. His students had hoped for an easier early release this day.

  Ben raised his hand. ‘Please sir, can I give Annie a page out of my book?’

  ‘I dare say you can, Burton. What you mean is, may I give Ann a page.’

  ‘May I, sir?’

  ‘You may, Burton. Perhaps she would prefer a slate and some chalk – to draw Christmas trees in the snow with Mrs Macy’s brood. Consider for a moment her needs. You may be denying her some small pleasure by your worthy desire to protect.’

  ‘She can use a pencil, sir,’ the boy replied.

  Malcolm Fletcher sat at his table watching the mute. Her hand was moving backwards and forwards across the paper. He massaged the bridge of his nose with his index finger. The heavy spectacles he wore irritated, the weather irritated, the level of his Thermos flask irritated, as did this dark-eyed brat. Her hand was still moving, mimicking her brother’s.

  Curiosity moved Malcolm from his chair. Approaching the girl from the rear of the classroom, he peered at the page she protected in the curve of her elbow. He frowned, leaned closer, then his hand reached out and snatched the paper from beneath her arm.

  She sprang away, cowering from him, but the headmaster had lost interest in the child. He was reading.

  ‘MY BEN Annie Burton December 1969

  Grey green eyes. Hair of wheat brown dry
by summer sun.

  Arms thin, like Ben’s bridge tree, reach for light. Face long, sad,


  When he tell me things, of bridge, and secret dreams,

  his grey green eyes, like fire-works that explode.

  And sometime he laughs. Loud. And his face gets round and full.

  Then I laugh too, because Ben is happy.’

  ‘The child is literate!’ Self-disgust at his own neglect made his voice high. ‘She can write, boy.’

  ‘Yes, sir.’

  ‘I understood she was ineducable.’

  ‘She is, sir. The deaf school sent her home.’

  ‘Rubbish!’ Malcolm roared. Again his eyes scanned the page of neat script. Then he noticed every eye in the classroom was focused on him and the two Burtons.

  ‘Scat! Depart! You have been saved by a mute. Get out of my sight! Clear your desks and with any sort of luck at all, I won’t set eyes on you until 1970. Go ring on that bell, Mr West. Dismissed!’ he bawled, in case there may still be room for doubt, but one hand rested lightly on Ben’s shoulder. ‘Remain. I wish to speak to you,’ he said.

  Sixty seconds heard the last desktop slam shut and the last clatter of boots on the long verandah. Then silence, broken only by the tick-ticking of the wall clock.

  Malcolm propped against a vacated desk. ‘It is obvious that the child has had some schooling, Burton.’

  ‘No, sir.’

  ‘She has been taught to read and write. These things don’t just happen. I, of all people, know that the human race is not born literate. Who taught her to read?’

  ‘She was six when it happened, sir ... she could read a bit, and Johnny ... Johnny kept it going when she came home. I sort of help her with spelling.’

  ‘You sort of help her?’ His voice was disdainful, and quickly Ben corrected.

  ‘I help her, sir. She learns stuff quickly.’

  Malcolm sat watching the child. Her eyes, shielded by black lashes, were looking anywhere but at his own. Annoyed by the interest stirring in his breast, he turned back to the youth. ‘This child is screaming out for education. Why hasn’t she been at school before? Has she retained any speech?’

  Ben shook his head. ‘Mum thinks she was struck deaf and dumb, sir.’

  ‘And by some stroke of heavenly vengeance, no doubt,’ the fat man snarled.

  ‘No, sir. It happened at Narrawee, about three years ago, when Uncle Sam and Aunty May took Annie and Liza down there. When Liza disappeared . . .’

  ‘Enough,’ Malcolm interrupted, having no desire to rehash the bewildering disarray of the Burtons’ private lives. ‘That could explain her grasp of language. Her language skills should have been well developed by that age. How long was she at the school for the deaf?’

  ‘Only three weeks, sir. She used to run away and the nuns said she shut down and screamed like crazy if they touched her, or tried to lock her in. They said she’d have to go into a home for retarded children.’

  ‘Hogwash!’ Malcolm pushed the thick grey thatch of hair back from his glasses, and again studied the girl. ‘What age is she?’

  ‘Nine on Christmas Eve, sir.’

  ‘And you call her Ann.’

  ‘Annie, usually, sir.’

  ‘Ann!’ His voice was loud in the empty room, then louder. ‘Ann!’ But the girl’s only response was a pink tongue darting out to moisten her lips.

  ‘Dad used to test her. He says she’s not deaf. That it’s just . . . like shock caused it, but Mum thinks he’s refusing to believe she’s not ever going to be quite right.’

  ‘I had some little experience with the deaf in England, Burton; however . . . however, I refuse to believe I am capable of agreeing with your illustrious father on any given topic, so perhaps for the moment we will assume she does have a hearing loss. Is your father home at the moment?’

  ‘Yes, sir. He got back from Narrawee last Friday night.’

  ‘I’ll give you a note, boy. I want her in this classroom when school resumes next year.’ He walked to his table, and began scribbling while the children waited.

  The note safe in his pocket, Ben said, ‘I don’t think wild horses will drag her to school if I’m not here, sir.’

  ‘She will come, and she will learn – even if, we must rely on the written word. How do you communicate with her?’

  ‘I just talk, sir. If she wants to, she reads my lips perfectly. And we’ve got the signs that Johnny taught us, and she can do the deaf alphabet. Johnny sent away to the priests in Sydney when she first came home from Narrawee. They sent him a book.’

  ‘Johnny, the paragon. Where is he, boy?’

  ‘Mum says he’s probably gone to Sydney.’

  ‘You don’t know?’

  ‘No, sir. He never wrote. I think he – .’ Ben licked his lips, silenced.

  The teacher turned away, afraid of his interest. He was once a teacher, born to teach. This was a child who needed his teaching.

  ‘Scram,’ he said. ‘Off with you, or you’ll miss out on the gourmandising. Good afternoon, Ann,’ he added as an afterthought, and for an instant he felt certain the girl was going to respond. There was a reflex lifting of her chin, a flutter of lashes exposing questioning eyes as she turned to him. Then, the chin lowered, she followed her brother from the room.

  ‘Perhaps,’ Malcolm murmured, his heart pounding, attempting to raise long-buried enthusiasm from its grave of fat. He walked to the window, watching the girl. She and the youth had stopped before the road. He saw the girl turn her head to the west, then she tugged at her brother’s sleeve.

  Only then did Malcolm hear the sound of a dying motor. He knew the car, knew the driver, as did the children. They ran across the road to disappear into the Shire Hall.

  Malcolm remained at his window watching the battered Ford, driven by the children’s father, come into view. ‘Obnoxious mongrel of a man,’ he said.

  jack burton

  Jack Burton’s handsome mouth was turned down in a snarl as he cursed fate and his father’s car while coaxing it towards the only cool place in town. The motor died twelve metres short of the school. He stepped out to the road, kicked the door shut, and the corn on his smallest toe screamed. The car left where it had stopped, Jack limped down to the garage at the edge of town.

  ‘The bastard’s died again. It’s up near the school. Can you get it going?’ he called to the shadowy figure beneath the bonnet of a truck.

  ‘I’m a mechanic, not God, Jack,’ the shadow replied.

  Jack limped away, surveying his world through eyes half closed against the sun. His was a harsh, abrasive little world. A Post Office cum Commonwealth Bank. A butcher. A grocer. A milk bar, and Bert Norris’s business, cum newsagency, cum barber, cum hardware, and timber yard. But dead in the centre of town, right where it claimed to be, stood Mallawindy’s sanctuary, the Central Hotel.

  ‘Canst thou minister to a mind diseased? Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow? Raze out the written troubles of the brain and with some sweet oblivious antidote, cleanse the stuffed bosom of mat perilous stuff, which weighs upon the heart?’ he quoted as he swung the heavy door wide.

  ‘G’day, Jack.’ Mick Bourke, hotel owner was already pulling a beer. ‘Not working today, Jack?’

  ‘Bloody motor is buggered,’ Jack replied, tossing his coins down.

  He worked, when he felt like it, as an insurance collector for the area, going door to door, collecting a dollar here, two dollars there. He dressed well, his shoes of the softest leather, his slacks tailored to fit; he had the dark good looks that caught the eye of women from fifteen to fifty, which helped in selling policies to housewives. A policy assured them he’d return each month. Occasionally he tested an interesting bed.

  In July, he played tax consultant for the town. He got a kick out of fiddling tax claims too, but these occupations brought in a pittance for one raised to expect the good life. A trust fund set up by his maternal grandfather would pay its dues each June and December until his de
ath, and his father’s five hundred pounds a year translated into twenty dollars a week. Ellie fed him when he was around, and Narrawee fed him when he wasn’t. He did all right.

  The first beer barely touched the sides of his throat. He halted the slide of a second glass, carried it to his mouth as his gaze moved over the other drinkers. They were a mixed lot. Malcolm Fletcher wandered in and stood alone, tossing down a fast brandy, his bottle for later swung at his side in a string bag; he made no attempt to hide his addiction.

  As the afternoon wore on, others wandered in, drank in groups. The noise in the bar increased. Jack eyed the rowdies, envying them their easy friendship, their frequent laughter. He stood alone, his brain, an untamed thing, depressing him, his mood growing darker with each glass of beer.

  He thought of his mother, a rotting cabbage in a back bedroom, hearing all, seeing all, saying nothing. He remembered her eyes dribbling tears as he scooped porridge into her mouth. Neglected by his father and Sam, she spent four years dying in a room few tolerated for longer than one breath of air could be held. Jack had been her favourite, and Sam, his father’s boy. Bloody rotten-to-the-core bastard, Jack thought, tossing his beer down and passing his glass back for a refill. That’s what loyalty got you. Nothing. Sibling loyalty. I should have dobbed the bastard in when I was sixteen. Saved myself a weight of pain.

  His father was no better. Jack had flattened him the day his mother died, caught him with a lucky punch under the jaw, knocked the old bastard cold. Pure power, raw power. That was the day Jack learned that fury possessed a beauty of its own. His muscles were tingling with new power when Saint Sam came running like the cavalry to his father’s defence. Jack hit him too. Then he put the boots in, broke Sam’s aristocratic nose.

  Jack was eighteen. His father called in the local lawman to evict him, and Jack left the white stone mansion, after ransacking it for money. He found it too. He found plenty. He stayed drunk for the three days it took to get his mother in the ground, and when the earth was heaped high on her grave, and his father was home celebrating his release, Jack went to the cemetery and held his own service.


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