The Bush Undertaker Makes Amends
“Drat that darned bird!”
The old man kicked the rough blanket off the bunk, sat up on it, upended his boots to shake out any scorpions or spiders and pulled them on over his old, threadbare socks.
“Tink tink; tink tink tink.”
The bird’s silvery chime rang loudly through the quiet bush morning, having woken the old man again as it had done for several weeks since nesting in a nearby gum tree.
“Five Bob,” called the old man, opening the door of the slab-and-bark hut and looking out at the ever familiar scene of the barren creek, the sheep-yards and the line of low ridges whose bare brown tops were now flushed in golden light as the sun heaved itself over the horizon for another baking hot, summer’s day. The old sheep-dog rose from the hollow it had scratched in the dust beside the hut and walked over to its master.
“I’ll put the billy on while we go and check on them sheep and then we’ll get a bit o’ breakfast.”
Together the old man and Five Bob climbed the summit of the nearest rise to cast an eye over their flock. Seeing no signs of attacks by wild dogs, he whistled Five Bob and they walked back to the hut where the billy was just singing to the boil. After throwing in a handful of tea leaves and stirring the brew with a gum twig, the old man located a battered enamel bowl containing the remains of the previous day’s meal. He carved himself a slice of the cold, salted beef, pulled off an ear of stale damper and chewed them as best he could with his few remaining teeth, moistening the mixture with sips of hot tea. Five Bob sat patiently by and was periodically rewarded with lumps of meat or bread which he ate with equal relish.
After the meal they set off for their morning round, checking the yard fencing and looking for any stray sheep that might have wandered off along the creek or into the bush. By the time they returned to the hut the morning was far advanced and the sun was blazing down, baking the already tinder dry bush. Sitting down on a rock the old man pulled some strands of tobacco and a small square of old newspaper out of a sweat stained pouch. Rolling himself a thin cigarette, which he lit with a twig from the fire, he sat back in the shade to enjoy the smoke. In the distance a moving black speck caught his eye.
“There’s someone comin’ over the ridge, could be a man on a ‘orse. Comin’ from the direction o’ town.” The old man sat and watched as horse and rider approached over the low ridges.
“Funny looking cove,” he soliloquized. “Don’t look like no one I’ve seen afore. Looks more like some dandy new chum from the old days.
“Strewth!” said the old man suddenly unable to believe his eyes, “It’s a woman, a woman out ‘ere on a ‘orse, ‘aint seen that fer many’s a year.”
The old man continued to stare in disbelief as a woman, neither young nor old, in well fitting, clean moleskins and chequered shirt reined in the horse, dismounted and walked over towards him shaking her short brown hair from underneath her hat, pulling off her leather riding gloves and holding out her hand.
“They told me in town that I’d find you still here, and I’m very pleased to meet you at last. My name’s Katharine Throssell, what’s yours? Lawson didn’t give you a name.”
Gingerly, the old man took the dainty, well-manicured hand into his gnarled and dirty one. Reassured by the firm warm grip he raised his hat to scratch his head. “No one’s asked me name for years and years. The folks at the big ‘ouse calls me ‘atter’. Guess I must a’ ‘ad one but I just forget.”
“Lawson calls you the ‘old man’, but I think he also calls you ‘the hatter’ so if you don’t mind I’ll call you Mr Hatter?”
“S’good a name as any I’spose, Miss.”
“Actually, it’s Mrs.”
The old dog came over and sniffed Mrs Throssell’s clean, new boots. “Is this really Five Bob, he must be very old now?”
“No Missus, the old Five Bob were bitten by a blacksnake an’ I ‘ad to shoot ‘im. One o’ the cockies gave me this’n as a puppy and ‘e looked like Five Bob so I called ‘im that too.”
“Well Mr Hatter, you must be wondering what brings me here. Do you remember digging up the bones of an Aboriginal? It was Christmas, some years ago.”
The old man scratched his grizzled head and stared off into the distance, screwing his eyes up as he searched his fading memories. “I reckon that were the Christmas I found old Brummy in the bush, all dried up and chewed by that gohanna.” A smile creased his face and his eyes twinkled. “Yer right, I did dig up a black fella’s grave. I’ve prob’ly still got that sack o’ bones somewhere about the place. Guess I felt like a bit a’ comp’ny after puttin’ Brummy away. Would yer like t’ see ‘im?” The old man pulled himself to his feet and went rooting about at the rear of the hut returning with an old gunny sack which he held aloft like a trophy.
“I am sorry to say this Mr Hatter, but what you did, digging the Aboriginal up, was not right and I’ve come to help you bury him again.”
“It were just a bit o’ fun Missus and ‘e don’t mind, ‘e’s long gorn.”
“You’ve separated him from his country Mr Hatter and there are those who say that his soul can’t rest until he’s back there. Also, you don’t want to be remembered forever as the old man who desecrated a grave. This way you can be part of a new story.”
“Don’t know ‘bout no story Missus. There were no one ‘ere but me, Brummy and the dead black fella and they couldn’t tell no one.”
“Yes, but did you tell anyone, Mr Hatter?”
“I mighta done Missus. It were a long time ago mind. I were at the pub in town with a few bob left from a cheque. There was this bloke from the city, said ‘e were a writer, kept on about ‘ow ‘e were looking for a place where there were southern poets. ‘E was talkin’ to everyone and buyin’ drinks. ‘E could’nt hold ‘is drink. First ‘e were laughin’, then cryin’, then ‘e took a swing at me. Said it were me shout and tried to thump me when I said I’d run through the money I ‘ad. The landlord took ‘im away, told me not to worry, that ‘e were always like that and it meant nothin’.”
“That sounds like Lawson. Well Mr Hatter he made you famous. Here I’ll show you.” She walked over to the horse, reached into a saddle bag and brought out a book. Turning to a well-thumbed page she pointed to it. “There, do you see?”
“Sorry missus, never learnt to read.”
“Well it’s called ‘The Bush Undertaker”, would you like me to read it to you?” Without waiting for an answer she began – “Five Bob...”
The old man sat in silence and listened as the words of the story brought back the memory of that blazing hot Christmas when he had dug up the old grave, had found the dead Brummy in the bush with the remains of a bottle of rum and had shot the big goanna that had been chewing on him.
“Yair, I reckon ‘e got it mostly right. Lawson did yer say ‘is name was Missus?”
“Yes Mr Hatter. He was a famous writer, although he was a mite too fond of a drink and he’s dead now. Anyway you’ll be forever remembered as the man who dug up an Aboriginal, unless we go and put him back in his country. It should only take a couple of hours and then we can have something to eat. What do you say?”
“Well I don’t sees no ‘arm in it. I buried old Brummy and mebbee its time the old black went back underground too. I’ll grab me shovel.” Returning with the shovel and the sack of bones over his shoulder the old man prepared to set off.
“Just a minute Mr Hatter, It might be better if you ride and I’ll walk.”
“Never bin much struck with ‘orses missus. Fell orf one when I were a kid, down in the Snowy, chasin’ brumbies.”
“Well you sit on him and I’ll lead, just tell me where to go.”
Before he had time to protest two surprisingly strong hands had helped push him up onto the horse’s back. Mrs Throssell set off with a lithe, easy stride which soon covered the three miles to the spur running out from the main ridge where there was a stand of gum trees. As they approached the trees a bird song rang loudly.
“Tink tink; tink tink tink.”
“Oh! A bellbird, how lovely.”
“Bell bird!! – that’s a blasted good name for it as it wakes me like a darned alarm clock.”
There was a strong peal of feminine laughter. “The bellbird alarm clock, I love it. I must write that down later.”
In amongst the trees they stopped and Mrs Throssell helped the old man dismount. He kicked the litter and leaves about looking for traces of digging that the seasons had long obliterated. Then reached for the shovel and dug it into the ground.
“It’s ‘ere Missus, this is where I dug ‘im up.” He started to dig. It was hot and the sweat soon stood out on his brow and ran down inside his already stained shirt.
“Take a breather Mr Hatter, I’ll take a turn. I’ve turned over enough vegetable patches to know how to use a shovel.” She took the shovel in her gloved hands, placed her foot on the blade and began to dig.
“I think its deep enough,” announced Mrs Throssell stepping out from the new grave. The old man retrieved the sack and untied the cord around the neck. He placed it on the ground, opened it and gently they removed the bones and arranged them in the grave, placing the skull last. From her saddle bag Mrs Throssell produced two small boomerangs. She sat cross legged on the ground beside the grave and began clicking the boomerangs together as she chanted an Aboriginal song. The old man removed his hat and stood beside her, moved by the ancient, unfamiliar sounds.
“That song wasn’t from his tribe and those kylies are not from his country, but I hope he’ll understand.”
“Where d’ye learn the black fella talk Missus?”
“I spent some time on an outback station and one of the Aboriginal girls there sang it to my son.”
“Jeez, Missus yer got a kid and yer let a gin sing to ‘im?”
“My kerlonial oath I do,” said Mrs Throssell laughing. “Her name is Coonardoo and her family have lived on that land for generations.”
The sun was well down in the western sky as they finished filling the grave and re-arranging the leaf litter on top to blend in with bush. Then the old man remounted the horse and they set off back for the hut. He turned in the saddle to take a last look at the grave. A lone, black cockatoo lifted from its perch in one of the trees and flew off towards the setting sun. By the time they reached the hut the shadows had started to lengthen.
“It’s too late for me to ride back to town now, Mr Hatter. So if it’s all right with you we’ll have a bite to eat and I’ll bed down here for the night.” She saw the startled look on his face and chuckled. “Don’t worry Mr Hatter I’ve come prepared and I won’t be any trouble to you or your stores.”
The old man watched her open the saddle bags and pull out a parcel containing several pounds of freshly salted meat, a bag of flour and a tin of butter. Reaching in again she pulled out a bottle of rum. “I think we deserve a drink after today’s work,” she said, “and to toast the soul of the departed.”
After they had eaten and Five Bob had dealt with the leftovers they sat outside in the still warmth of the summer evening. The old man rolled a thin cigarette and offered it to Mrs Throssell.
“I gave up smoking when I was pregnant, but I don’t suppose one will hurt out here.” She took the cigarette, lit it with an ember from the fire and drew in a lungful of the acrid smoke which caught her throat.
“That’s a pretty rough mixture Mr Hatter,” she spluttered. “What with the smoke and the rum I’m going to sound like a parched drover in the morning.” She laughed and the sound floated musically on the evening air. She took a last drag of the cigarette, flicked the butt into the fire and took the taste away with a final swig of rum.
“Time to turn in.”
Mrs Throssell laid her saddle on the ground and unrolled a blanket. The old man watched in amazement. He had never seen a women prepare to camp out as if she was a drover.
“Don’t look so surprised Mr Hatter, I’ve slept in the open with a saddle for a pillow many times when mustering sheep and cattle. One night here won’t do me any harm.”
“You can sleep in the ‘ut,” said the old man. “You can ‘ave me bunk, I can rig up a blanket for privacy, or I can sleep out ‘ere.”
“I’ll be fine here Mr Hatter. I’ll bank up the fire, the smoke will keep the bugs away and two-day old sweaty, smoky clothes won’t completely destroy my femininity.”
The old man watched Mrs Throssell roll herself into her blanket, then wished her good night and went into the hut. Sitting on the edge of the bunk he pulled off his boots and lay back staring at the roof bark. He thought of Mrs Throssell sleeping beside the fire.
“Danged if I ever saw a woman other than a gin do that. It’s not natcheral for a woman to be ridin’ all alone through the bush like a drover, talkin’ ‘bout musterin’ cattle an’ livin’ on a station surrounded by blacks. Queer sort of bloke she must ‘ave to let ‘er do that.” His thoughts trailed off and he fell asleep listening to the familiar sounds of the night time bush.
Some hours later he woke with a start to the sound of a loud rustling outside the hut like a large animal scurrying about. Heaving himself off the bunk he snatched up his shotgun, hoping he had remembered to re-load it. The rustling outside continued and then stopped. There was a momentary silence, then a startled scream followed by an oath in a female but very unladylike, voice.
The old man kicked open the door. Outside in the moonlight Mrs Throssell was sitting bolt upright only feet away from the biggest goanna he had ever seen, its neck raised and staring at her. He raised the gun.
“Don’t shoot him,” she said, remaining as still as she could. For what seemed like an age, but was in reality only a few seconds, the goanna continued to stare at her and then, with a bobbing movement of its head, stalked slowly off into the bush and was swallowed up by the darkness. Five Bob, who had been hiding around the back of the hut, slunk up to the old man and licked his hand as if to apologise for his cowardice.
Mrs Throssell pulled the blanket up around her shoulders, reached for a stick and stirred up the embers until they crackled and flared reassuringly. “Do you know I felt as if it was trying to say something,” she said as the old man sat down on the door step of the hut and cradled the shotgun on his knees. “I didn’t feel that it wanted to do me any harm but there was something in its eyes that was very old … and very far away … wanting to move on. I think it’s gone for good.” She paused. “Just listen to me, chattering away like an excited schoolgirl. It’ll be dawn soon. I’m going to put the billy on. I don’t feel like sleeping after that.”
The old man nodded, put the shot gun away and they sat beside the fire drinking tea and watching the sunrise.
As soon as the sun was clear of the horizon Mrs Throssell saddled the horse and prepared to mount. “Well Mr Hatter, thank you for your hospitality and for helping me to put the old Aborigine’s bones back where they came from. That’s a much better end to the story.”
“So long Missus, ‘ave a safe ride back t’ town.” They shook hands.
One foot in the stirrup, a lithe push upwards and Mrs Throssell was astride the horse’s back and kicking it into a trot.
“Tink tink; tink tink tink,” rang the bellbird.
“He’s late this morning, your bellbird alarm clock,” she called back over her shoulder and then continued,
“The silver-voiced bell-birds, the darlings of daytime!
They sing in September their songs of the May-time.”
The voice faded away into the bush, the horse and rider were swallowed up into the distance and silence settled back over the ancient land which has witnessed many weird and mysterious things. The old man sat down with his dog and wondered what else the new day would bring.