YOU LAUGHED AT MY FATHER
In the dusty Australian bush town Poor Tom’s ragged son was a figure of fun and mockery. But a day came when he tasted the bitter sweetness of a boy’s revenge
POOR TOM LAY asleep in the dirt of his wood cart and the street-corner larrikins pelted him with gravel from the road. Poor Tom’s son, Edgar, was hiding across the dusty street waiting for the stoning to cease so that he could come out and take his father home.
Edgar looked out over the Post Office veranda, unable to face the pelting and the mockery with his father, whose unhappy face was perfectly relaxed in its stricken sleep. Edgar watched the stones landing all over his father, and he was anxious to save him, for he knew that sooner or later a fair-sized stone would hit Poor Tom on the face and leave a scar and a memory. Edgar wanted to get him out of this before any of it punctuated his intelligence.
Edgar could see the three youths leaning against the veranda posts of the Prince Hotel. He knew they were waiting for him to come out in his bare feet so that they could have the stones biting the ground around his toes, making him dance and hop. It was a favorite game of Ozzie Old; and it was Ozzie who was out there with little Pat Murphy. They were both a little drunk. “Drop one in his mouth,” Ozzie was saying to his friend. “Three-to-one on,” said Ozzie, “that you can’t hit. Poor Tom’s Adam’s apple. Two-to-one for his belly button, and even money the rest of him.”
“Poor Tom!” they sang out, and Edgar knew that he could wait no longer. Soon Pat Murphy would start pelting the cart horse, Weary, and if that failed to stir the patient beast, Pat or Ozzie would walk over and kick her in the flanks, sending her bolting down the street. The laughter and the terror of that spectacle got the better of Edgar’s fears. He came out from under the Post Office steps, his courage screwed up to make a dash for his father’s salvation.
“Hullo Edgar,” someone said before he could run for it. “I see your father is drunk, eh?”
It was Mr. Poole the Postmaster. Edgar stopped and said, “Yes Mr. Poole.”
“Your old man’s mad, Edgar,” said Mr. Poole, “but he’s not a drinking man. What makes him come into town and get so palatic every six or seven months? Eh?”
“1 don’t know, Mr. Poole,” Edgar said his, eye on Ozzie.
“Why doesn’t he speak to anyone these days?” Mr. Poole said to the barefooted boy, who hopped on one foot and the other, his eye across the street. “Never says a word to anyone. What s the matter with him? Eh?”
“I don’t know,” said Edgar.
“Why don’t you go and drive him home?” Mr. Poole told Edgar whose courage had gone again. He was reluctant to move an inch. “Those larrikins will have his eye out. Go on!”
“I’m going,” Edgar replied, hurt now because he had been told to go, angered by Mr. Poole, who was usually a cynical bystander to the town’s mockery of his father. Yet this had to end, and as Edgar decided that great damage would someday be done to Mr. Poole (along with the remainder of the town) he stepped out across the street.
Pat and Ozzie saw him as he came around a peppercorn tree in an attempt to creep up on the cart from behind. As they saw him they shouted: “Here’s Edgar. Come and get your father,
They danced on their larrikin heels, grimacing and threatening Edgar. Ozzie was ugly enough to pull a desperate face, but Pat was a pale and yellow youth of horse sweat and billiard rooms,
a jockey figure who depended upon Ozzie’s pink face and broad beam to succour and protect him. Ozzie watched Edgar coming and, by the cock of his grin and the hidden hand, it was clear that a shower of stones would follow. As Ozzie let fly, Edgar tried to leap out of the way, but the pinging gravel caught his toes and his ankles, and each time he saw them throw the stones, he leaped with his legs up.
“Cut it out, Ozzie!” Edgar cried at him. “Aw cut it out!” Pat began to play imaginary bagpipes now as Edgar leaped again and again; but Edgar was getting nearer to the wood cart, and he didn’t mind the stoning so much as the laughter of all the men who had come out of the hotel bar. They were leaning on the veranda blinds, barracking Ozzie and Pat and laughing
at Poor Tom and his son. “Leave me alone,” Edgar
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shouted at them, half-crying, halfappealing, yet leaving a slight edge for insult. “Why don’t you pick on someone your own sizes. Go and hang Ned Kelly! Leave me alone.”
Ozzie’s big face and broad teeth were bright talismans of his good humor; indicatives of a restless and rough young man who would find no peace in the small Australian bush town.
“Hop it, Edgar!” he was shouting as he let another hailstone fly. “You’re spoiling our fun. Run for it, Edgar.”
Edgar ran, but he ran for the cart, and as he clambered up the back he heard the shout behind. He tripped over the long black figure of Poor Tom, but he had the reins off the stanchion and was slapping them on the mare. Before she could move Pat Murphy came up and leaped in the air with his hands up and his voice in a whoop. The sight of it scared Weary up on her hind legs. She pigrooted and rose for a moment, then leaped forward, with Edgar pulling hard on the reins to prevent her colliding with the back of Jack Jenkins’ old Ford car.
“Let her go, Edgar!” the larrikins shouted.
The boy didn’t hear. Weary was bolting down the pot-holed street, her iron hoofs clanking like armor, and the steel-shod wheels roaring and thundering so that the noise brought out the whole town.
“It’s Poor Tom,” they cried.
Poor Tom was bouncing on the floor of his wood cart, and the wood dust was scattering a red trail behind him. Edgar was standing on the cart, his small body bouncing and jerking with the hard shakes; his arms wide as he held the flying reins. As he caught Weary’s gallop he shouted and slapped down the reins so that she fled along the road with an equine devil behind her.
Out came the shopkeepers and the townspeople to see Poor Tom bouncing flat on his back, as his son fled the town.
“Is that a load of wood you’re selling, Edgar?” shouted Mr. Drew, the draper —the happiest man in St. Helen.
Mr. Mee, the butcher, with a blue and white apron round and round his wide stomach, called to Edgar: “Ret
you ten-to-one you lose him on the way.”
“Ride him, Edgar!” cried Cornell the barber.
They all shouted, and encouraged: the chemist, the baker, the cake lady, the dressmaker, the grocer, the ironmonger, the feed merchant. It was the latter — a horse fancier — who shouted: “Hitch your old man to the
traces, Edgar, and you’ll be in the city by morning.”
The minister was at the gate of his church, but he turned away in disgust, and Eldgar met a shower of stones from the small boys who were playing next to Moore’s garage. He managed to bend and sweep up a handful of chips to throw back fiercely, but they disintegrated in the air, and he could only shout frustrations.
“Wait till I get you at school tomorrow!”
“Poor Tom is dotto,” they chimed, “Poor Tom is blotto!”
He recognized two of them, boys who would normally not bother him nor cheek him, for they were poor boys themselves. One was Freddie Pratt, whose brother was a half-wit, but he shouted and laughed and Edgar shouted back.
“I’ll get you, Freddie Pratt. You wait, Freddie!”
“So’syourold man!”shouted Freddie Pratt.
Edgar heard the lauffiter trickling out behind him as hf left the shops, but he brought OTT the housewives: Mrs. Ball, the councillor's wife, whose fiere 1 d >g barkm at his old enemy on the wagon; hie doctor’s wife; the lawyer’s wifeand lower down a few more youths .rid laughing girls. Edgar was aim of the town when Mrs. Keith Thomps on waveu violet
garden. Edgar waved back and shouted: “Hullo, Mrs. Thompson!”
She was the wife of Thompson the Drover, and she was a woman lonely.
“Hullo, Edgar,” she called. “Do you want some of my bread?”
“No thank you, Mrs. Thompson. Haven’t time today. Good-by! Good-by!”
Edgar almost felt safe from the town as he slowed down old Weary, but he suddenly came upon the policeman, Constable Bull. Constable Bull was riding a black bike and as he saw the cart approaching he dismounted and waved Edgar to get off the middle of the road.
“You’re as bad as your old man,” Constable Bull shouted out. “Get off the road and slow down that horse. You’re cutting up the highway!”
“Yessir,” said Edgar and pulled the mare over and held her to a walk.
“And get that drumten old man out of town,” said the Constable.
EDGAR sat down and let Weary follow her own course home. He had to think this out, forgetting his father behind him, but remembering the gauntlet he had run. The whole thing was not understandable—in no way understandable. It was all a wall of circumstance that surrounded him. That was all he could see. Nevertheless he needed revenge, and revenge to Edgar was a plan to burn dawn the town, every street of it, every stick of the low wooden houses and weatherboard stores and even the town’s only three - storied building, the Prince Hotel. He could picture and sense the whole town in flames, the people running about lost and mad while Edgar himself walked about, shouting and laughing at their predicament. The only trouble with this scheme was the existence of a fire brigade, in which Ozzie Old and Pat Murphy were leading volunteers. A good fire always made heroes out of larrikins and this final injustice made Edgar abandon the idea.
His father was still asleep on the cart, but the jolting had rolled him over to one side of it, and his long body was twisted about into a tortured position, his long arms half wrapped about himself, and his thin legs stretched to sprawl and abandon. He was covered with red dust and dirt, and his face was scratched and black.
Poor Tom, like this, was an exhausted man with acres of silence about him and torments of noise inside him; a man as unknown to Edgar as Edgar was unknown to him. The boy looked away from him, hating him for that moment because it wasn’t his father he saw, but Poor Tom who was mocked by the town: Poor Tom, the man who would get roaring drunk once or twice a year and then, in shame perhaps, disappear for a month into the bush, leaving his boy to fend for himself; Poor Tom, who never spoke to the townspeople; the silent punished man with a secret in his life which no one shared; the man with a silent hostility to the town which the town would never forgive. It was too much for a boy to understand, and Edgar abandoned it to pure blind anger.
As he came to the level crossing near the river he forgot the town as he saw the evening train from the city plunging down the track. Its sturdy thun-
dering approach had him in a moment of delight, and as he saw the engine draw close and recognized the driver as Mr. MacFee, he was up on his feet, shouting at the top of his voice:
“Go it, Mr. MacFee! Go it, Bob!”
When Mr. MacFee pulled off his denim cap and waved it and shouted from his black face: “Hullo, Edgar!”,
the boy was a jumping haV of ecstasy and he cried inoitflVrill voice: “Paper! PapfigD-t^per!” waiting for someone -&> hurl a morning city paper out of the window. He watched for known faces, and he recognized Mr. Wurzel the music teacher and Miss Britt the dancing teacher, and two or three stockmen from Malool. No one threw a paper, for he had caught them late. Other boys were farther up the line, and he could see them in the distance, gathering the flying and scattering sheets. He watched the train, waiting until it turned the bend to slow down and stop at >St. Helen’s neat station.
Then he sat down and let out a tremendous breath of pleasure, hut he turned around quickly as he saw that his father was sitting bolt upright. For a moment he thought his father had watched him in his abandon, but then he saw that Poor Tom’s red eyes were red upon the horizon, he was staring, unseeing, unconscious.
“Lie hack, Dad,” Edgar said to his father. “Lie back.”
His father did riot move, and Edgar could not approach him to ease him back, so he started up Weary. As he drove across the rails the bumping collapsed his father again. He drove on down the gravel road, right down to the fenced-in paddock near the river.
Having driven Weary into the enclosure he got off the cart and walked out, leaving her harnessed, leaving the cart just as it was, with his father on it. He did not lift the split rail behind him, hut left everything there for his father to believe that the mare had just walked home on her own. For this, he did not know if he was saving his father the shame of his son, or saving himself the embarrassment of his father. He simply left the rig and rowed himself across from the Victorian side of the river to the New South Wales side, where stood the two-and-a-half-roomed wooden house in which he lived with his father.
He washed the leather sweat from his face and hands in a tub near the river and he lit the oil lamp as the cool spring sky went fading down the reaches of the Big River. He raked the coals of the iron stove in the big kitchen and filled it with kindling wood and boxwood until it caught and blazed. Then he cooked a mutton chop and ate it with tomato sauce and white bread, drinking thick tea with condensed milk. When he had finished he went to the door to look across the river to see if his father had awakened.
The sky was too dark, but he knew that the cold evening air would soon revive his father and bring him tiredly home. Edgar had no intention, for either’s sake, of facing his father as he was, so he turned out the light and closed up the fire. He usually slept in the big warm kitchen, but he knew that his father would stumble into the first bed he could find, so he went into his father’s room to lie down on the bed to wait without sleep for his father’s return.
He forgot his father as he tried again to think up some adequate revenge upon the town for its mockery. Then he forgot the town, because the hunt for revenge set him dreaming again into images of its destruction. But this violent little odyssey wearied him and drove him into sleep without satisfying the fleeting bitterness of his cry for an equalizer to life.
IN THE faint spiing dawn Edgar did not rise as usual and light the fire and make breakfast. He pretended
As the dogs across the river barked, as the kookaburras laughed and the cockatoos shrieked, Poor Tom awakened in the kitchen ansu^it up For Jidme ¿riñe rte talked to himself as he walked about, then he kept quiet as if he had caught himself at it. He tried to keep his actions quiet, but in the long process of putting away his best suit and packing his blanket roll and his kit, he knocked and groaned and sighed. He went out without eating and, as Edgar sat up in the first light, he could hear his father rowing across the river, hitching up the cart, and driving Weary up the gravel road over the railway line.
Only then did Edgar get up. He could see his father going up the hill and he wondered when he would he back. Most likely the bush would hold Poor Tom silent and guilty for three or four weeks. When he eventually returned with a load of wood Edgar would have to go around with him selling it, talking for him to the townspeople with whom Tom himself would never talk.
In the meantime Edgar would be alone, and he began to sing his favorite song:
O Derry Vale, my exile heart is year-ear-ning.
For your green isle and fairycircled lea.
He sang in a high-pitched shriek, but when he went outside to wash his face at the bench he let his voice out and the people across the river could hear the thin clear sound distilled in the early morning. Some of them stopped to listen to him, particularly the Flannagans. Mrs. Flannagan, an Irish immigrant, came out to listen and to
say to her husband that the angels came down out of the heavens when Edgar sang. This was not Edgar’s intention at all. He liked the nice clear achievement of each note; the higher it went the longer he held it, very pleased with his sound making, caught and carried away with the freedom of it, but not sentimental. Never sentimental.
He was too hungry to keep it up for long and he lit the fire and began his breakfast. He had stale bread for toast and three eggs, which he boiled in a black iron porridge pot. He put a jam tin of dripping by the fire to soften it and, as it all came to a head, he sat down at the kauri table and tucked it away, eating and drinking at the same time. He put his bare feet out to the fire and watched through the open door for the morning train to the city to pass by, on the other side of the river. Usually he was up on the track to see it, but he was late this morning, and when it appeared he ran to the door and waved across the space.
This morning he felt like company and he left for school immediately. First, however, he checked the height of the river by the stick he kept at its lip level. The river had fallen an inch in two days, a sure sign of an early summer. He moved the stick down to the new level and rowed across against the quick tow. He tied up the boat and began the slowest and longest route to school.
He walked along the railway line and then on the sleepers supporting it, hopping on each one, turning up blue stones from time to time on a hunt for drop-tailed lizards. When he saw one of the small reptiles he held its tail. Its cold tip came off in his hand, still wriggling as the rest of the lizard ran away free. It was a phenomenon which always gave him wonder.
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Continued from page 58 He wearied his arm with stone throwing—at the poles, at the fence posts, at the line (which set off a spark when the stone glanced off it), and most particularly at any sparrow, starling, finch, or tit that came within range. The one target he did resist—since it was broad daylight— was the insulator cups on the telephone and eljgçjyrrt; YlTie posts. *
Once hejjhtfttíLecf: “Hullo Dummy!” ^J-Tiimmy couldn’t hear him, for Dummy was deaf and dumb; but Edgar waved to the little hunched boy riding his bike along a sandy path, and Dummy returned the greeting by touching his mouth and throwing his fingers forward* as if throwing a silent word to Edgar. Dummy was a temperamental young man, and Edgar was pleased with the greeting, particularly since Dummy was a great friend of his principal enemy, Ozzie Old.
He did not greet the few people whom he saw in the back yards facing the railway line, for they were the townspeople to whom Poor Tom was mad and his son a freak. However, when the railway gangers came along the line on a four-wheeled trolley, he waited until the last moment (when it seemed that they would run him over) and as they shouted at him and actually stopped working the lever locomotion, he leaped off the line to the gravel path, safe in his defiance as the trolley kept going.
“You young tike!” Tim Banner, the head ganger, shouted back at him. “You keep off this bloody line or I’ll lather your backsidewhen I catch you.” Tim Banner could never catch Edgar, they both knew, but Edgar did not cheek him. He stood on the line balancing with his hands out, watching the trolley disappear. He admired Tim. He was the fattest man in the town, and the strongest: he had once lifted a baby Austin car clean off the ground by its front wheels.
“Tim Banner,” he shouted into the distance, “ain’t worth a tanner!”
For a while he walked behind Pit Potter, the blacksmith’s man and the river thief. Pit was a tiny man, and fifty yards behind him Edgar kept equal stride, imitating the sway of his body and the swinging hands, with the billycan lunch. When Pit turned around and caught him at it, Edgar was off like a shot, diving between the fence wires and taking the short cut up through the houses. He knew that Pit was as likely as not to chase him and give him a solid kick on the backside, for Pit recognized in Edgar the one person in St. Helen who knew most about his river stealing; and at every opportunity he would scare the daylights out of the boy to keep his silence and respect.
“Pit Potter, the crayfish hogger,” Edgar said in safety.
NOW THAT he was among the low houses and the high fences of the town Edgar did not dawdle and journey so much, but walked in and out the tall gum trees which lined the road, sometimes looking for gum moths; but generally uncomfortable in the town.
When he came omx on the main road, when his bare feet t^und the smooth warm asphalt path, he »became a small boy sulking to school. \
Each house here had V green front lawn, rose bushes, hedges, ^md a decorative wire fence. Sometirr.ies a house had an asphalt path leading t\0 the front door,„anioßfi^AwxAthenew houses had cement paths. Edgar inspected these prosperous houses as a Cockney might inspect Buckingham Palace, wondering what it was that went on inside them and how the people lived. He saw Mr. Penn, the dentist, kissing his wife good-by; a most embarrassing thing to Edgar, for Edgar couldn’t remember ever being kissed in his life. A little farther along he stopped to stare at the house of Doctor Meadows. It was the only brick house in the street, one of the few in the town. It was the only house with a tiled roof. They were green tiles, with crowing cocks at each peaked gable. As he stared at the brick veranda and the leadlight windows and the polished electric bell he was suddenly aware that the Doctor’s wife was in a corner of the garden, digging with gloved hands.
“Do you throw stones on my roof?” she said to Edgar, pulling off her gloves and showing her rings as if they were handsful of dew.
“No, Mrs. Meadows,” said Edgar. Though he would have boasted “yes” to all the others he was telling the truth to Mrs. Doctor Meadows, for he admired the green tiles too much to stone them.
“Well I know you do,” Mrs. Doctor Meadows said. “So don’t let Constable Bull catch you or you’ll be in jail in a jiffy. And if I catch you I’ll tell your headmaster, and then look out.”
Edgar’s unreal guilt was written all over him, and he said: “Yes, Mrs.
Meadows,” and ran off down the street, turning off the main road at the first dirt crossroad, staring no more at the houses. He walked the road, leaping 1 out of the way at the last minute as Smith’s Dodge truck came by. He choked in the dust of Roy Tilley’s Indian motor bike, which followed it.
“You’ll be late for school, Edgar,” Roy called to him.
Edgar said: “No I won’t!” He
couldn’t see it as a joke, and he knew he was several hours early for school. He was nearly there now and, though he delayed his arrival into the school grounds for as long as he could by walking through the town dump, there came the moment when he had nothing else to do but crawl through the wire fence, avoiding the gate entrance as something completely unnecessary in a school.
The school was a large building divided into two parts: the upper
school and the lower school. It was close to the earth, with a corrugated iron roof that sloped down to a surj rounding veranda, making it an oddly shaped bungalow, shaded by one or two gum trees, and a drooping peppercorn tree. Surrounding it, on its slope, was a large area of dry ground which ended in tall grass and a few trees at the foot of the slope. Beyond that
was the first farmland of the town, a bog pasture for the Wilberforce Dairy cows.
There was no one in sight in the school grounds and the school itself was shut up tight. Edgar kept away from the buildings. He sat by the greenbanked gutter for awhile, breaking the thin film of thin ice and looking for frogs which he knew were not there. He ran with his bare legs through the thick front lawn, then he galloped off down the dry hard slope, kicking at himself like a horse. At the foot of the slope by an old stump he brought out two marbles he had in his pocket and, though it was not the marble season, he played black-track up to the main gate. He hung on the gate, waiting for someone else to turn up, and catching the increasing activity of the town as horses and carts went by, trucks bounced on the gravel, and the first dray of rubbish went into the tip. He hop-skipped-and-jumped across the girls’ playground, stood on his hands with his feet against the sunny wall, and finally sat on the ground with his hands behind his head, his back against the wall, thinking about the coming summer.
“What there, Edgar!”
Scotty Campbell had arrived.
“Up there, Scotty!” Edgar said and got up. “Have you got any marbles?”
“I’ve got a couple of thousand at home, but I haven’t any on me.”
A thousand marbles was an impossibility, particularly for Scotty, who was a bad marble player and a poor boy. But Edgar knew better than to say “Get off it” to Scotty for his boasting, for Scotty was always looking for a fight, and as a fighter he was as hard as a nail.
Six months ago Scotty had been the most tortured boy in the school, for he was an immigrant speaking a Scottish dialect completely ununderstandable to anyone in the school. He had been a fair target for all, including Edgar. Everything about Scotty had been laughable: his strange mother
who wore bonnets and drove into town with a horse and dray; his Biblereading father with red hair; the mud bog near the river which an immigration movement had fobbed off onto him as a farm. Finally, there was Scotty’s horse, Bitser —a draught horse, an enormous brute with shaggy legs. Scotty rode it five miles to school and the sight of that square figure with a British face, mounted on a mountain of a draught horse, was enough to set the whole town laughing. Until one day Scotty had leaped off his horse, a wild and unintelligible Highland cry on his lips, and there in the street beaten Jack Murphy into the dust. Having tasted blood he had fought his way clean through the school to boys who were older and bigger than himself, compensating his pride at the same time with larger and bigger boasts, as a challenge to any boy to deny and defy him.
He had Edgar’s respect, but not his regard nor yet all his fear; and Edgar sensed every time he met Scotty that some day they would have to fight it out. Scotty was always looking for it, and Edgar was always trying to avoid it, yet the day had to come.
Actually Scotty was not so bad alone. He boasted, as always, but he did not make contact impossible.
“What about the new teacher?” Scotty was saying to Edgar. “Have you seen her? She comes from the city, and what a tart!”
“I haven’t seen her,” Edgar said, “but I’m putting a frilled-neck lizard in her desk this morning.”
“Ah,” said Scotty, “you’re not game. Where’s the lizard?”
“I haven’t found one yet,” Edgar
replied. ‘ came ongoing down the slope to get one; are feet ill to come.”
“Too truêt path, he 'Otty and they were off dowm school, to the tall grass and the rocks, there had a frilled neck lizard, a pre-h^s, hedgeaptile with a thorny hide and,. Sornette face.
Edgar knew *ath leading looking for these things thfeenriS&nstotty, but Scotty' was not a boy to be told anything, and he made his own search, mostly in the wrong places. At first Edgar’s searches were half - hearted, since his boast had only been a halftruth. He had thought of putting a lizard in the new teacher’s desk, but now that he was being forced into actually doing it, he did not apply himself with any energy. Unfortunately, as more boys arrived at the school, the word got about, and Edgar was joined by twenty other boys, hunting for a lizard. The excitement and the boasting of it got into Edgar, and he began to hunt in earnest.
Lost in his boast Edgar was afraid that someone else might do it instead. He was the acknowledged expert on lizards and all other bush life, so he felt it to be his right.
“I bet you get the wind up,” said Tom Appleyard.
“That’s all you know,” replied Edgar. “Jf we find two I’ll put them both in her desk.”
This was inviting real trouble from the headmaster, but Edgar urged on his helpers, saying, “Look there . . . under that rock . . . dig around that post . . . lift up that old tin can . . . down near the canal ...”
As the school hour of nine o’clock drew close, it seemed that they would not find a lizard; it was too early; it wasn’t warm enough yet for the reptiles to be lying in the sun. In desperation Edgar shook on the fence posts to see if he could scare one out, and when he saw a grey streak shoot out of the gr^ ;s near him, he shouted, “Here’s one,” ind started the chase.
The lizard had no chance. The boys held it at bay and Edgar reached down among his admiring schoolfellows and grasped the lizard. It was a horrible monster, a foot long and horny with spines. In a defensive position it spread out a great umbrella neck, a vicious attempt to frighten its enemies. All boys knew, by its oval patter of teeth, that it was not deadly, but a bite could be poisonous and damaging, and the teeth had to be avoided.
Edgar grasped it behind the neck, then swung it around to scare the others. Then he began to put it to sleep by rubbing its white stomach up and down, from its tail to its chin. The bell rang, and he had to keep rubbing it as he walked to the school, surrounded by the boys.
“Nix,” one of them said. “Old Chalk-and-talker will see us.” Chalkand-talker was Mr. Walker, the schoolmaster.
They split up and, as each class formed a line to march into the classrooms, Edgar slipped in beforehand, raised the lid of the special desk near the blackboard, gave the lizard a few more strokes, and placed it gently on a box of chalk, its frilled neck out, its sleepy eyes staring ferociously ahead. Edgar was in his seat by the time the class entered.
Mr. Walker brought in the new teacher to introduce her and for a black moment Edgar thought that old Chalkand-talker might open the desk himself. This was something he hadn't counted on. Mr. Walker stood at the desk and drummed on it with his fingers as he addressed the class.
“Sixth form boys and girls,” he said in the ready irritation of a man talking to country bumpkins. “This is Miss
Harmsworth, who will teach you for the rest of the year.”
For a quick moment Edgar took his eyes off the teacher’s desk to look at Miss Harmsworth. He saw a nervous young woman with very black hair and pink cheeks, a city woman, neat and progressive in her grey woolen dress. She was already overwhelmed by the sight of twenty twelve-year-old anarchists. They were inspecting her with deliberate appraisal to see if she would be easy or strict: and all of them knew at a glance what Patchy White said to Edgar:
“White! You can write twenty lines on keeping a still tongue,” said Mr. Walker, his tight English suit a measure of his dignity, his irritated lips a weapon of revenge. “Now I warn you,” Mr. Walker went on. “Any unruliness, any lack of control and discipline, any slacking simply because Miss Harms-
worth is new, and there’ll be trouble, and I know the troublemakers. Do you hear what I am saying? Any nonsense and there will be punishment: strap, detention, or a letter home.”
Miss Harmsworth stood silently by, her face getting pinker, her eyes more startled, her whole expression an admission of being bushed. Mr. Walker had scared the lot of them, and when he had tasted the best of it, he turned the class over to the frightened young lady and marched out with a tail wind of hatred.
Miss Harmsworth looked at the boys and girls as if they were sea waves; they might break upon her at any moment. She was scarlet by now and when Scotty Campbell cried: “Up
there, Miss Harmsworth!” the laugh burst around her and she stepped up on the dais and knocked on the desk for silence. Every child in the room expected the lizard to awaken and leap out, and the sudden hush of expectancy rather surprised and confused Miss Harmsworth. For a moment she regained the confidence which Mr. Walker had taken away.
“Now children,” she began.
“Boys and girls!” corrected Fish Sharkey. “They always call us boys and girls in the country, Miss.”
“All right, boys and girls.”
“Miss.” One of the girls, a tight little head from the Derry Downs, was asking to leave the room.
“No, you must wait,” said Miss Harmsworth.
The class had its hands up, demanding permission to clean the blackboard, sharpen the pencils, open the windows, light the fire, break the chalk.
“No!” cried Miss Harmsworth, and rapped the desk again.
The silence was amazing.
"We will begin with history. Have you all got your books?”
“Now where were you?” She held up her own copy of Bean’s Empire History, and Edgar could see that she had all her books and might never have to open her desk, even for chalk. That meant fhat the next teacher might get the lizard, and the next teacher was Miss Galway, a grey-haired Irish dictatress, older than the town of St. Helen.
boaru, « „
a desk was bang«^
worth looked up it all cu»___^
rapped the desk again.
The silence was something she had never experienced in her life before.
Miss Harmsworth looked for the quietest and humblest boy in the class, the safest, and she saw Edgar, who alone seemed to have a terrible stillness about him as he stared before him, in fact he was nearly goggle-eyed.
“The boy with the red hair,” she said. “What is your name?”
“Edgar,” they all shouted.
Edgar lifted his eyes, startled. He stood up by his desk.
“Edgar!” Miss Harmsworth said as gently and persuasively as she could to this ragged little boy for whom she felt a little sorry. “What was the Black Hole of Calcutta?”
Edgar paused, blushed and fidgeted. “I suppose a coal mine, Miss,” he said.
As it happened he had forgotten whether this was a geography or a history lesson. The class roared with laughter, and even Miss Harmsworth licked her lips. Edgar looked around half laughing with the rest.
“No Edgar,” Miss Harmsworth said, her confidence gradually coming back. “The Black Hole of Calcutta was a prison where the Indians put one hundred and eighty British people, one hundred and thirty-two of whom died of suffocation and starvation. This caused the British to fight the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and punish the Indians and set up a good government for the Indians in Calcutta. Is that clear?”
It was so clear that Edgar would never forget it, for at that moment Miss Harmsworth opened her desk to look for a piece of chalk, and the class stood to its feet as her latent eyes followed her groping hand.
Miss Harmsworth froze, her April face became dead white, her eyes and mouth opened to their limits. Then she shrieked and dropped the lid of the desk, thus disturbing the frightened lizard which leaped or fell out of the desk at her feet, and then skimmed across the wooden floor. Miss Harmsworth held her hand over her mouth as she sobbed, and almost fainted.
The class shouted and leaped up on the desks, including Edgar himself, caught in the panic. In a moment he came to his senses; he chased the lizard around the desks and captured it by the tail as it came back toward Miss Harmsworth. He swung it around like a club to avoid its snapping jaws, its ferocious spiny neck. He accidentally hit it on a desk, and the lizard left his hand and flew across the room. Edgar captured the lizard again near a high window and, with a doublehanded throw, he hurled it clean outside.
In an instant he was innocently back at his desk.
At the moment exact Mr. Walker entered the classroom.
All decent acts of life seem to mean some kind of noise, and silence is an interruption of them. This silence was a suspension, an echo of all other silences.
“Stand up!” Mr. Walker ordered the class with potent brevity. He ignored Miss Harmsworth who was only just recovering. “Now! What is this? What’s been going on? What was all the shrieking? Well?”
''''Lthe consequences,” \ angry. “What ""tion? If no one given six of the
said Mary rl with a large ,4a prematurely gm woo was always terrified of roughness.
“A lizard. Who brought it in?”
“Mary Tuekery,” said Mr. Walker. “Who brought it in?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Own up, whoever did it, or there’ll be no sport this week.”
Edgar knew his real position now. The strict rules of the game required that he speak and admit his sin; but there wasn’t a hope of him doing so in the face of Mr. Walker.
“Speak up, you bush-boys. Which of you brought it in?” Silence. “You, Campbell?”
“No sir,” said Scotty, defiantly, boldly.
Mr. Walker pierced them all with his finger and angry question. When he came to Edgar the boy said nothing.
“Ah! You! Come to my office. The rest of you sit down, and let me warn you. Next time i’ll strap the lot of you.” He said this so grimly that they knew he meant it, and he left them, Edgar in his frightful wake.
As Edgar’s bare feet padded the corridor he could not distinguish the hard contact of his feet from the thump of his heart in his chest. His hands were shaking as he tried to tuck them into his pockets, but such behindbravado failed; though he wasn’t bitter, any thought that he had done anything wrong had gone. He was completely lost in the injustice of what was about to happen. He was an innocent boy being beaten for nothing. Unfortunately this indignant innocence was no consolation to him now, nor did he enjoy the philosophy that it would soon be over and would not hurt anyway. The thing itself was nothing to the anticipation and his mouth was getting dry and his body tense as he watched the neat creased legs of Mr. Walker. Mr. Walker was a brute and an unfair man, as far as Edgar could see. He could have struck Mr. Walker at this moment in sheer self-justification if he had not been so terrified. The trouble was he was too terrified to even think of running away.
He stood at Mr. Walker’s desk, held out his hand unbidden, and screwed up his face as the first blow of the thick leather strap came halfway up his arm.
“Again!” said Mr. Walker as Edgar dropped his hand.
Mr. Walker gave him six on the one hand.
“Now the other one.”
Mr. Walker held the black strap in his mastered hand and, as Edgar put out his left, he brought it down from over his shoulder: not vicious but
justified; not cruel, but right: the
Ten was his usual maximum, but an instinct for it added another two, and he looked down at the boy and saw a few crystal tears on his dirty face. It was the dirt that upset him; but he could forgive the dirt at this moment, so nothing was said, nothing exchanged, and Edgar turned his back and walked out. He heard Mr. Walker sigh as he closed the door behind him Edgar sniffed and swallowed and spat, and he entered the classroom to the awe and silence of the others who had escaped. He stood to be told he i might be seated and Miss Harmsworth looked as if she were near to tears
herself. However, no boy could detect her moment of concern, and Edgar could certainly see nothing in Miss Harmsworth but the cause of all this, and for that she was marked for him.
“Sit down, Edgar,” she said, and swallowed the words as he went to his place. “I . . .” she began. “I don’t like to see, boys being strapped.”
“It doesn’t hurt, Miss.” said Scotty Campbell. Scotty was strapped more than any other boy in the school, but it only added to his defiance and taste for it.
“If you all behave there won’t be any strapping,” Miss Harmsworth said desperately, but it conveyed nothing of her deep dislike for violence,' and it sounded, even to her own ears, like just another repetition of the everlasting school teacher’s morality. “Now let us continue.”
The lesson went on, and though Patchy White opened Edgar’s book and whispered: “Did it hurt?”'and though Edgar shook his head and said, “No!” he was left alone by total consent for the rest of the lesson, his eyes on his book, but his heart unfocused. His life and its loneliness were upon him, and though he could not identify the lack and the emptiness of it, he somehow felt the unique position which fate had given: a father mocked by the
town, a bare house, a lonely river at his door, no plump hand to give him bread and butter when he went home. It was self-pity and self-revelation, and he was glad when the bell rang and Miss Harmsworth’s class was over.
“Yes.” she said in another attempt. “I hope this doesn’t happen again.”
It was lost in the restlessness and the mischief of the young explorers. The wave lapped right up to her feet,
and she hurried out and closed the door in safety behind her.
EDGAR survived the day and walked boldly through town to challenge the people to mock him again. Most of them ignored him, for there was no fun in a small boy walking through the town, even though his shirt was out again. For that matter Edgar was disappointed that they ignored him and it only made their laughter of yesterday more terrible, and —for some strange reason—his punishment at school today more unjust.
Even so, he forgot it all again when he reached the river and he spent the evening looking for signs of Pit Potter’s early nets; but Pit was a master poacher and it would take Edgar the whole of spring and summer to find them all. He went home, disappointed in this too.
In the darkness, when he had eaten his tea and was sitting in the small house listening to the distant town sounds, the weight of that town across the river came back upon him, and he could not bear it. He got up, put on a jumper, and rowed himself across the river.
“Is that you, Edgar?” someone called to him.
It was old Bob, the river-boat captain who now lived in a boiler on the river bank. Edgar would have liked to talk with old Bob for the company of it. But he could not trust old Bob. He was a temperamental old man, who was sometimes violently unfriendly, though at other times he was greathearted and patient.
“Yes! It’s me!” Edgar called, but he ran off swiftly and silently into the darkness.
There was a moment^» the other, was lost, unable to go K* powered and to face anyone in thf Deagle’s power day required some g or other accisatisfactory end. Je busy trying to
As he crossed tfeain, but his cornline the moon busy going around its pale cold Rents a pitch about pockets with geagle’s dam went out, large bluestone chips from the èauhsi. '
He knew now that there was one fitting end to this day and he was gathering ammunition for it, for, as soon as he came up to the first house near the railway line, he started stoning the roofs.
They were all low galvanized roofs, practically designed for stoning.
He started on the roof of Mr. Mee the butcher, and picked the others indiscriminately as he ran. He pelted the church, this being the highest and hollowest roof, and ran for his life as the roar went up and lights went on. Down behind the shops, the garage, the hotel, he pelted them all, setting up a racket that stirred and rose the j quiet bush town. He dodged and hid j behind trees and inside fences; he stopped and hid when doors opened j and dogs barked; and then he ran for his life when detection seemed possible. He stopped at nothing and he knew his route among these houses too well to be caught, particularly at night. He went clean through the town until he came to the Post Office. Sometimes he spared the Post Office, but for Mr. Poole’s mistake yesterday he gave it a rocketing with the others.
He was almost through, and he contemplated dropping one or two on the Police Station, but that was foolhardiness, and he went up the hill and across the cattleyards to the school. There, upon the dark and deserted school, he poured out the rest of his stones, sending one after the other over the hills and valleys of iron. One he kept, and as he came by the house of Mr. Walker, the schoolmaster, he let the biggest bluestone chip fly through the moonlight, over a gum tree, over the electric wires, up until it hit the high top of the metal roof. The rock made such a clatter that it startled Edgar out of his dull loneliness and sent him hopping down the road behind the showgrounds fence.
Then he made the longest and hardest route home, and it somehow brought him out near the green-tiled house of Dr. Meadows. He admired the roof in the moonlight and for a moment his admiration was still too strong for his taste in revenge. Yet he could not escape himself now and he fumbled around the road’s edge for a stone. He sent it up on the tiles. It crashed and cracked in such a different key to the iron roofs that Edgar was disappointed, and he was almost caught as he dawdled off, forgetting that Mrs. Doctor Meadows had threatened him so direly that morning.
He rowed back across the river, knowing that the day was over.
“Did you have your supper, Edgar?”
It was old Bob shouting across the river.
“Yes, I had it!” Edgar called back and went inside.
He undressed and lay down on his own bed in the warm kitchen, looking for some sweetness in the revenge he had taken upon the town. It meant nothing now, for all the pleasure had been in the moment and the moment had gone. In fact he thought most happily of how he had stoned the dark school. He recalled the sound of the bluestone chips rocketing down the iron roof of that empty and inanimate building: hurting no one, paying
nobody back, and yet satisfying him so that he laughed and went to sleep the victor. if