NOBODY PUT A ‘for sale’ sign in front of the only good building in town. Whoever had it on the market judged, correctly, that there’d be no passing traffic and no local business interest. They advertised it discreetly on whatever real estate website traffics in sales of big empty buildings in small unlikely places. And no doubt it included a couple of photos taken from an angle that hid the fact that the building, which had been through numerous incarnations in its history, was pretty much derelict.
We all knew it was technically on the market, just like everything else down the main street; it just wasn’t something people talked about. And I could imagine what the ad had said, too: something about good bones and oozing with heritage history. And restore to former glory. They love that phrase, real estate agents. It lets buyers see themselves as heroes undertaking some kind of ethical rescue, rather than looking for somewhere to park their money.
When I heard through a neighbour that it had been sold, on some level I knew it wouldn’t be long before the new owners rang me. That would be the guys at the hardware store, thinking they were doing me a favour by passing on my mobile number, talking me up as someone who knew what he was doing. The local self-taught handyman, the cash-in-hand restoration king.
And the timing was something only the universe could provide; my phone ringing just as I was standing in line to get my car rego renewed.
‘You don’t know me,’ said the voice. ‘I’m Cherie Prentice.’ Big pause for recognition.
They have a confidence, these women. You know what you’re in for, with an opener like that – someone who’ll see you as staff. The name did ring a bell, as a matter of fact, but I swapped the phone to my other hand and just said, ‘Yes?’
Not a falter. ‘I’ve just bought the old hotel,’ she continued, ‘and I’m looking for someone to come and look it over and give me the bad news about how much it’s going to cost to restore.’
‘Restore to what?’ I said. ‘A functioning pub? Because…’
‘A B&B,’ she cut in. ‘A six-room guesthouse. Anyway, I’ve heard you’re the man to ask.’
‘That would be from the owner of the hardware store?’
‘Yes! When I went in to open an account.’
Employ the locals, someone had probably told Cherie Prentice, to stop them turning on you. Push a bit of money their way. There are lots of currencies you can trade in in a dying town, but the closer you get to death, the more solidly cash settles as the one true index of worth. I was shocked, when I went to live in the city, by how openly – eagerly, even – people talked about how broke they were, how they were just scraping by. It was a badge of honour to be seen, as an art student, to be doing the hard yards: living somewhere crappy, getting your power cut off. In a town like Leyton, nobody boasts about stuff like that. You’re flat out trying to hide it.
‘You’re a builder, I hear,’ Cherie Prentice was saying now.
‘Well, whatever Jack told you, I’m not a qualified builder. But, yes, I do jobs locally. Mainly small repairs.’
She laughed. A good, confident laugh. ‘How about a big repair?’
I was four away from the counter. Paying with credit, not cash – with a card I used to keep just for emergencies. But I didn’t want to be the one who took on the job. I truly didn’t. Something weird about a small town on the skids: you’ve got to watch your affiliations. Sometimes you put up your hand to work for the new money, and it’s like you’re a scab crossing picket lines.
‘Will you be doing up the front bar, if you open as a B&B?’ I said.
Another laugh. ‘For food, you mean? Like a restaurant?’
‘Well, like a restaurant open to the public, I mean. Like a hotel with a licence, I guess I’m saying.’
‘Why is everybody asking that? Is the town a secret AA chapter, or are you all Methodists?’
‘It’s just we’re in dire need of a pub. That building’s been closed down now for nearly seven years and it used to be the local, that’s all.’
‘Will you come and have a look, then, and see if it’s worth me applying for a liquor licence?’ she asked.
Who’d believe $340 for a sticker to drive the ute into town and back for another year? The place might have a heritage listing, which would mean negotiating endless approvals. I could just charge her for itemising the job and making up a quote, I told myself, then put her on to the DeLorenzo boys from Horsfeld.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Tomorrow.’LEYTON, ONCE-PROSPEROUS JEWEL of the north-east, positively oozes heritage. We’ve had the gold rush, followed by wool, tobacco, apples, cannery and factory closures and now, like a final king hit, a freeway bypass. It used to be people stopped here on the way to the snowfields, to stay and eat and purchase fuel and supplies, but now the freeway’s in place, an unimpeded and unclogged artery of road sailing past us without diversion. The council’s scratching its head about what we might have to offer in the way of tourism, which is basically nil. Unless you want to take photos of derelict tobacco-drying sheds or visit the historical society building to look at replica gold nuggets and faded gold licences in a dusty glass display case. Nearest hospital twenty-five kilometres up the road – only fifteen minutes on the new freeway though – and the lovely, abandoned pile on the main street some locals still call The Criterion, although it’s been boarded up and empty now for nearly a decade.
Cherie Prentice followed me round its dim, cluttered rooms, talking about rewiring and cornices. I walked through the building breathing it in: the smell of rot and weather and old men, of rusty bed mesh and calcified taps, spilt beer, mouse shit, foxed-tattered wallpaper, eons of smokers and drinkers. The damp, sharp smell of crumbling bricks and mortar, being reclaimed by the patient earth at glacier speed.
I finally clambered out of the laundry room, swiping cobwebs before me as I went, and we sat on two dusty chairs in the front bar.
‘Well?’ said Cherie. ‘Salvageable?’
I looked over at her, and took a breath, wondering where to start. Of course she thought it was salvageable. She wasn’t going to take no for an answer, I could already see. She had no doubt she could shore up those foundations and hold off the rising damp with injections of cash drilled into the subsidence.
She had her heart set on taking a deep breath and getting out her chequebook, giving a helpless smitten shrug when friends told her she was crazy, hanging a jokey sign saying: The Money Pit. She’d got the bug, probably, from those TV shows where couples from England buy a crumbling pile in Estonia and set about pluckily turning it into their dream home. Restoration, on those programs, seemed admirable, combining passion with a visionary talent.
I’d watched a couple of episodes myself, sunk into an armchair at the end of a long day and I’d noticed how they showed the work of renovation as a series of quick dissolves – here the raising of new reclaimed roof beams, there the laying of new flagstones, lastly glasses lifted to the vision in a gleaming new room.
The owners, almost as much as the viewers, get to see it as a montage. As long as they kept tearing off fresh cheques, they were listed in the credits as project manager.
That was the trade-off I think Cherie had in mind. Like walking up Mount Everest with a team of Sherpas, or pointing out to the armies of slaves where the blocks for your pyramid had to go. She looked a little pharaonic as she sat there, matter of fact, soberly nursing her notebook and iPhone.
‘Well?’ she asked again.
‘Well,’ I echoed. ‘It’s a bit of a…’
‘…Can of worms, I was going to say, but yes. A Pandora’s Box. You’ll begin one job and discover ten more under that one. Sometimes it’s better just to start something from scratch rather than try to use really old warped timbers, for instance. Might have white ants in them, too. The windowsills definitely feel a bit doughy. And you can smell that, can’t you?’
I paused to let her inhale the deep piercing smell of rot that wafted up to us; sharp and spore-laden and deeply organic.
‘That’s the damp under this floor. Wicking up through the walls into whatever mortar you have. It might seem drastic, but I’m sure most advice you’d get would be to keep the brick façade and chimneys and repair them, but demolish the rest. Push it into the gully there where the blackberries will grow over it. Then start with a clean slate.’
I don’t know why I put it like this. I’ve thought about it a lot, why I chose the words I did, ones I knew deep down she’d recoil from. Now I would be the naysayer in the restoration show, the one without the vision, the one she’d defy.
‘There’s no way I’m knocking it all over and dumping it in the creek bed,’ she retorted. ‘And anyway, I’m going to be clearing those blackberries and restoring that creek, once I get on to Landcare.’
I waited, hearing the ‘I’, loud and clear. It wouldn’t be Cherie Prentice’s hands grubbing up those blackberries, that was for sure. She’d be the one taking photos, insisting nobody use poison on them.
‘I’d want you to retain as much of the original as you possibly could,’ she said. ‘And source old reclaimed timbers for the rest. And put in damp coursing.’
‘Well,’ I said again, ‘I’m just telling you it will be expensive. And it will take a long time.’
‘I’ll give you a cap,’ she said, ‘and when you get close to that cap, you let me know and we’ll renegotiate from there.’
I opened my mouth to tell her I hadn’t said a damn thing about wanting the job in the first place. I stood there choosing my words for a second, as she sat against the old bar, piled currently with boxes and garbage and all kinds of shit, seeing in my mind’s eye my old man sitting at that same bar when I was a kid, turning a big glass of beer on the timber surface, tuned in to the races on the radio as the whole bar sat still and listening, smoke from their cigarettes hanging in a cloud blue as kerosene above their heads, the slanting afternoon light.
‘Not really salvageable,’ I said finally. ‘Not the way I think you have in mind.’
I’d come down in the afternoons, sometimes. Got taught to play cards in that corner. I wondered whether the stools were still in existence. Think ahead, I heard my old man say as I hesitated to pull out a card, tug it free of my paltry hand, our twenty-cent pieces stacked up. Don’t call trumps if you can’t follow through. Grey hats on the table, beers glowing like amber in a shaft of sun, the silhouettes of men I grew up with, our soundtrack the race call or the footy over the radio. Gone now, all of it. Turned into this.
‘You could keep it standing,’ I said, choosing my words again. ‘But that would mean gutting it, pretty much.’
Her mouth made an amused, impatient twist. ‘Well, for godsake, don’t make any reckless promises,’ she said with a short sarcastic laugh.
‘That’s just the thing,’ I said, getting up. ‘I want to let you know what you’re in for.’
Cherie Prentice regarded me. Montage time, I could see. I did know her name, like I said. About ten years ago she’d burst on to the international art scene as an installation artist, setting the Biennale afire by filling a huge white room with red and white sand blown randomly around by negative ionisers. Her fame had come and gone like a tropical storm, but she’d stayed around long enough to make her reputation and money, and marry the critic Alan Heffernan. Now the trade winds of that storm had brought her, ionically, to Leyton and she didn’t need someone like me to rain on her parade. Absolutely not. She was the vanguard of change, the mover and shaker buying early, the first brave gentrifier in the wilderness.
‘When can you start?’ she said.
‘You’re assuming I want the job.’
‘I’m assuming you want the money.’ Crisp and ruthless as a bite of an apple.
‘You’ve got the wrong guy, I’m afraid,’ I said. For the small pleasure it gave me. To watch her face fall, to see her at a loss.
‘I’m very disappointed to hear you say that, Ted.’
‘That man at the hardware store gave you a huge rap.’
‘I’ve got too much on, I’m sorry.’
I had two twenties in my wallet, and I felt for them now. Hearing my father’s voice, withering, utter the words show pony. ‘I wonder if I could take something off your hands, though.’
‘You want to buy something?’ She was off her turf now, alright.
‘A box of those beer glasses on the counter there? How about twenty bucks?’
She scanned the contents of the box with a dismissive glance. ‘They’re not even matching, Ed.’
‘I know. I just like ’em, I guess.’
She went to say something, then exhaled a gust of a sigh and flapped her hand at me. ‘Fuck it, just take them.’
I laid a twenty on the bar and picked up the box. ‘Thanks. Good luck with the reno. There’s a team of guys in Horsfeld, the DeLorenzo brothers, they’d be the ones to call for a job this size. Or if you decide to detonate rather than renovate, they also have a bulldozer.’
‘I told you, I won’t be demolishing.’
I fought the urge to answer her. ‘Well, best of luck with it,’ I ventured finally.
Back at the farm, I took out the glasses one by one and laid them on the bench. Imagined my father’s big hand turning one slowly on a coaster, the cold moisture beading on it. I had nothing on. Not a thing. I was a fool.I’D MOVED BACK home when Dad started to get sick, throwing in a job I’d had for a couple of years with a pool contractor interstate. Resigning didn’t cause me too much grief; I was sick of the suburbs and the smell of chlorine and the hints from my boss that I was in line to take over one day, if I played my cards right. Nothing appealed to me less than measuring endless backyards for in-ground pools, or so I thought at the time.
Dad had been puttering along on his own since Mum died, happy as long as he was out in the farm ute by 7am, dogs, toolbox and a bale of fencing wire in the back.
Apples and pears had been his business, with a few sheep on the side. The farm had pushed me and pulled me all my life, but coming back this time had been different. Everything, everything, reminded me forcefully of my childhood and adolescence here: the oil-and-dust smell of the tractor shed; the stacks of crates ready to be chopped for kindling; even the dogged chug of the fridge in the middle of the night in the kitchen down the hall was the same, as I lay in bed looking out the same window I’d looked out of as a seventeen-year-old, restless and sleepless and itching to escape.
Except this time I knew I wasn’t here only for Christmas, heading back to uni in the city or the excuse of a good job elsewhere. I was here for the duration now, doing what Dad’s doctor had told me to do, which was get his affairs in order.
And then it would be mine, this place that had soaked up years of my life already. There was nobody else; I was their only child. Everything here – the house, the sheds, the trees, the land itself – was mine to inherit. I’d felt it as I took up the pen and signed my father’s hospital discharge papers; the waning of old power, the shifting of authority and duty. There was nothing in the bank and nothing but an old sick man waiting for me to help him into the car to make the trip home. That and my boyhood bed waiting for me, made up with the same sheets, if you can believe it, that I’d found in the linen cupboard. My parents were of the generation that needed very little and threw almost nothing away.
The cancer had started to move in pretty fast on my father once he decided he wanted to die at home. He didn’t go downhill so much as plummet, as if the time you have left is a stage set you blunder into, crashing through what looks like a wall but is really flimsy plywood and paper. He shrank. People say that happens, but you don’t believe it, not with the man who used to lift you up one handed into the back of the ute. As he’d aged he’d become as tough and scarred and deep-rooted as one of his own old trees. Now morphine soaked into his brain like groundwater.
His speech became clodded, swampy. ‘Smack in the mouth with a wet…’ he’d mutter to me, and I’d jump to interpret.
‘Better than a smack in the mouth with a dead fish, you mean? What is?’ Me smiling at him like a moron, thinking he was making a joke through that fog of painkiller.
‘No,’ he’d say, agitated. ‘For Christ’s sake…mouth wet. Need that lip smack. Thing.’
And I’d roll on the chapstick the hospice staff had left, over the cracked lips he couldn’t make his tongue moisten anymore.
‘More of that,’ he’d say, eyes wide and black as I checked his morphine drip; the pain turning its flashing belly with a glint, like some cold-eyed predatory fish, as it rolled through him.
His bed was in the living room, looking straight out at the orchard. I’d pruned everything back in the kitchen garden so he had an unimpeded view of his trees and before he’d come home to die I’d pruned the orchard back too, just as far as his view could stretch, window frame to window frame. Outside that six-metre-wide row of trees, I let it go wild. We’d all been told to tear our trees out anyway, now that the arse had fallen out of the industry and all the fruit was coming from South America. But the ones in my father’s line of vision, I trimmed. He lay there, gazing at them all day long, watching the light change on that one deceitful view.
The hospice nurses came each afternoon. We’d dose him up so we could move him to wash him and make the bed and towards the end we were all the same to him, I think. Didn’t know who I was, in and out of that lucidity like light and shadow, asking for Mum now and then, asking for his watch or his wallet then just holding it, dazed, forgetting what he’d needed it for. Then eyes back to the trees, resting on them.
‘My son’s going to have to come back and give me a hand harvesting those,’ he said softly one morning. The drugs swimming, cloudy, in his eyes.
‘Is that right?’
‘Yes. He’s a good bloke.’
‘Hard worker, is he?’
‘Oh, yes.’ Sibilant hiss, an old man’s whisper. Uncertain voice, trying to get traction on something.
If I start forgetting who you are, Ed, he’d said back at the hospital, just take whatever’s in that bottle and shoot it all into me arm, all right? Looking me straight in the eye.
‘Is he here now, your son?’ I said, after a long while.
‘Art school,’ my father said. ‘Coming home when he finishes, though, if I can talk him into it.’
What is it about parents, that they can tell strangers things they never tell their own kids? I didn’t say anything, and he went on unprompted.
‘He’s good,’ my father whispered tiredly. ‘Bloody good, but of course there’s no money in it. Don’t know where he gets it from – not his mother or me.’
‘Just likes it, maybe.’
His eyes searched the trees out the window, lost in marshy, drifting thoughts. ‘Can turn his hand to anything,’ he added and I felt a warmth easing an ache in me, as if I was the one with the morphine drip in my arm.
‘That’s good to hear,’ I said, meaning it.
‘He’ll be here, a bit later. He’ll come in for tea. You can meet him.’
‘He did all that pruning out there,’ he said, raising a hesitant, wasted arm to indicate his view. Either side of it, out of his sightline, the orchard gone to wrack and ruin.
‘Looks like he’s got everything under control, then,’ I said.
Dad slept and I went back to the crossword and the slow hands on the clock, measuring the day into doses. Waiting till five, when the palliative care nurse Lauren came to sit with me of an afternoon while I had a beer out on the verandah, storing my helplessness in a deep, dark place.
THERE ARE LOTS of times a town misses having a pub and the afternoon of my father’s funeral was one of the worst. We stood at the graveside, all of us and felt the lack of a place to gather. Everyone there wanted to buy a round, make a speech, get a bit unsteady. And nobody wanted to drive over to Horsfeld to do it.
Eventually, they all came back to the farm, an invitation I’d been reluctant to make because Dad’s hospice bed was still set up there in the middle of the living room.
Or so I thought. When I raced home, car full of slabs and frozen sausage rolls, that metal monstrosity of a bed had disappeared – dismantled and taken away by the hospice crew, a big bunch of flowers left behind on the table.
I felt a rush of exhausted relief at the sight of that empty, tidied room. I didn’t even open the card propped against the flowers until everyone had gone and I was cleaning up. It was from the nurse, Lauren, saying what a pleasure it had been to have the chance to meet my old man, how it had been a privilege to nurse him in his final weeks, and how proud he was of me. I had got through my eulogy just fine, I hadn’t shed a tear at the graveside when his mates had sung ‘The Parting Glass’ or when we lowered the coffin I’d made him myself into the ground, but hearing this from a stranger is what undid me. I put my head on the old table to wait for the tears as the dogs clicked round nervously on the verandah, unsettled by the turn of events and I breathed in the unwelcome scent of florist flowers. Apple blossom was the smell my father had loved, sun and fresh hay, rain on dust, cold beer at the end of the day, sitting at the bar in The Criterion.NOW THERE WAS just me and the dogs, and a stack of bills clipped together on the desk in the office and a rusty ute with tyres so bald the wire was almost showing through. I ate dinner, then went outside, pulled out my phone and dialled Cherie Prentice’s number.
‘If you’re not keen on the DeLorenzo team, I’ll see if I can at least make a start on your place,’ I said. ‘Not sure how much a one-man band can do, but I could get over there in a day or so and bring my tools.’ I scuffed with my boot at a weed, hearing myself and hating it.
‘I knew you’d come around,’ said Cherie, triumph in her voice. ‘What changed your mind? Something else fall through?’
‘Pretty much,’ I said.
I was there two mornings later and had the rotting walls to the old washroom out the back knocked out in less than an hour. Start as you intend to go on, I thought, as I swung the sledgehammer straight through with a crash, and made a hole too big to walk away from.
I cut out glass and saved it and made a burning pile for timber I couldn’t salvage. It was the kind of wreck it was easy to strip down to framing timbers and although plenty of those had to go too, I thought I’d start with the smaller jobs solo then get some help with the back verandah when I’d be needing some machinery bigger than my drop saw and nail gun.
‘Whatever windows and doors you want on this south side,’ I said to Cherie at the outset, ‘go and buy them. We can start putting lintels in again from scratch. Get them all dipped so we don’t have to waste time stripping them. There’s a big demolition yard in Albury if you want old ones.’
‘What would you recommend?’
‘Not my hotel. If it was, I’d be getting double-glazed windows custom-made for this side, just for insulation. But that’s up to you. The world’s full of good stuff other people have thrown away.’
‘What else is on your wish list?’
‘A few photos of the place like it used to be, so we’re all on the same page. Maybe you could head down to the historical society and hunt some out, or ask Howard and Jean there for any records you could search through. And start looking out for wide tongue-and-groove Baltic Pine floorboards.’
She was so excited we’d actually begun, she took photos of everything I was doing. ‘Please,’ I said, grimacing as she lined me up with her iPhone. ‘Anything but Facebook.’
‘Not for an uninsured cash-in-hand job,’ she said and grinned, eyes on the screen, a forefinger committing me to posterity. ‘I’ll make you an album.’WELL, ANYWAY, WE got underway. I know tedious hard slog is of limited interest, so it’s probably better just to give you a montage.
Let’s see: a montage of easing up old floorboards so brittle the tongue would crack like a rifle once I applied any pressure with the pinch bar. Of keeping that burning pile going pretty much full time with splintered old wood, and hiring a skip for everything that wouldn’t burn. Of Alan Heffernan, keen as a border collie, following me round wanting to help. Not the shovelling backbreaking loads of cement kind of helping, so much as the holding a weatherboard in place while I nailed it kind.
Cherie took photos constantly, which she referred to as ‘documenting the process’. I kept my mouth shut and my eyes on the pay packet as Alan fiddled with the spirit level and called many breaks for coffee, which he brewed in an elaborate machine they’d installed in the cleaned-out front bar. Three of Alan’s coffees and my hands would be shaking too much to hold the nail gun, so I tended to work on while he watched me like I was a one-man reality-show marathon with no ad breaks.
‘You know Cherie’s the visionary one,’ he said once. ‘I’m just the enabler.’
‘Well, good to have someone with a vision.’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘she’s very well-known. One of the foremost installation artists in the world, actually.’
The words except in this godforsaken backwater seemed to hang in the air between us.
‘Hey, Alan,’ I said. ‘Could you get a tape measure and cut a piece of sisilation to fit that section of wall there?’
‘Sure. What do I cut it with? And where’s the tape measure?’
‘How about I find them while you make a coffee?’
I took to getting to the worksite earlier and earlier, so I could get a couple of good uninterrupted hours in before the two of them arrived at various times during the morning, driving over in separate cars from the house they were renting in Horsfeld. A secondary part of the renovation involved a manager’s wing for the two of them.
Cherie, when it was her turn to hang out with me, wasn’t averse to letting me know her credentials, either.
‘Where did you learn how to renovate?’ she said one day as I tried to angle in a window frame.
‘I was never taught, exactly. I learned building, I guess, here on the farm. Dad made sure I knew how to do everything. And I did some work in Melbourne for a while. It was just that era, the boom. I used to get jobs pulling kitchens out, putting kitchens back in, mostly. Painting feature walls, painting over them again, rag washing, lime washing, rendering. People with money seemed to change their minds a lot, in those days.’
The coffee was making me talkative.
‘I wasn’t here in the building boom,’ Cherie said. ‘I was in New York.’ A pause. ‘Studying modernism.’
‘Right. Hey, could you come and get on the other end of this window for a sec?’
‘I was in a group show with the Meatpacker Collective. Have you heard of them? There were these big abandoned warehouses in the meatpacking district that groups of artists used to take over and remake into these amazing installations. Art happenings. That was sort of my apprenticeship.’
‘Right. Empty, was it? The meatpacking district?’ I levered the frame onto the ledge and glanced at her to check she was still holding it up. She leaned against it, conversationally. I reached for the rubber mallet.
‘Oh, yes, that’s what I mean. Derelict. Now it’s absolutely yuppified – the old story. We made it cool and then couldn’t afford to live there any more. All the artists moved out and the ritzy boutiques moved in.’
‘Just hold it right there while I get the nails in,’ I said, tapping my corner of the window till it was snug. ‘Just don’t move.’
‘That’s when I did the proposal for the Biennale in Venice,’ Cherie went on, unperturbed. ‘Have you ever been to Italy?’
‘Nope,’ I said, digging for some nails.
In Melbourne, while I was at art school, I’d had a paid job drawing fake frescoes onto walls of Italian cafés. Just me and my overhead projector and a bunch of transparencies I’d photocopied from library books of sketches by the Italian masters. I’d find sprawling nudes and angels then project them onto the walls and trace them, rendering flesh and muscle and draperies in red chalk. You want to send yourself mad sometime, I recommend forging copies of Renaissance art onto café walls, knowing it’s destined to be framed with fake pillars and artificial hanging plants as waiters carry plates of pasta back and forth. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, all the names made famous by…the Ninja Turtles.
‘This is going to look great,’ Cherie said. ‘I just want to stand back and take a picture.’
‘Just one second more,’ I said. ‘Til I get the last nail in.’
Back in those heady days of inner-city reinvention, I occasionally even found myself faking myself: painting some retro signage or image only to paint over it then partially scrape it off, revealing the patina below. I could age something in a couple of afternoons, finishing it off with crackle medium, giving a pub makeover an instant artificial history. A line of bottles appearing under flaking paint, letters for a tea sign or bootmaker’s. Cherie had been right when she’d said I was the man for this job. My credentials for turning this building into an historic B&B oozing heritage were impeccable.
‘You’d have your work cut out for you in Venice,’ said Cherie. And for a second I thought about seeing those frescoes in the flesh, for once in my life. Maybe picking up a sketchbook again.
‘Skilled tradesman like you, you could probably make a fortune,’ she went on. ‘The whole city’s built on this kind of wooden foundation, all rotting away now, slowly sinking into layers of mud. Those canals have all the old extinct oak forests of Europe under them. You okay with this now?’
‘Yep, that’ll hold now. Thanks.’
She set off outside, pulling out her phone as she went.
‘Larch,’ I said under my breath, teeth gritted as I banged the nails home. ‘And alder. From Bulgaria and Russia.’
That’s what else I’d become, a man who said things under his breath after someone else left the room because he was making forty bucks an hour. I tightened my grip on the hammer.
Anyway, that’s enough montage. You get the picture.UP ON THE highway Neil Amos had run the servo for years. During snow season was when he used to make his money. Since the freeway bypass, you were more likely to find him poking round out the back dropping one Holden gearbox into another Holden in the Holden graveyard he’s always run; the yard where old Commodores go to die. I sat talking to Cherie Prentice on my mobile in the café across the road, stirring my mugaccino. The café had won the prize for the state’s best chocolate éclairs back in 1989 and I think they were still serving those ones from the counter display. I listened to Cherie wax lyrical about some old display boards she’d found on eBay and could I drive down to the city with the ute to pick them up?
‘They’re what, exactly?’ I said. Out in front of the servo, I could see Neil spreading a tarp below his billboard, screwing a roller into a pole.
‘They’re display boards from an old church, can you believe it? The ones they used to push the numbers into to change the hymns from the hymnal.’
‘Where are you going to put them?’
‘Behind the bar, Ed. You can screw them into place and we’ll think of something fun to slide into them.’ There was a pause. ‘Names of cocktails, or something.’
‘Okay. I’ll go down Friday. Are they just too big to go into your car, or what?’
‘Well, the thing is, I bought some pews off the same seller.’
Neil crouched down and opened a big twenty-litre tin of paint. Bog standard white paint, good for everything. He tipped some into his tray as Cherie explained the specifications of the church pews to me, and how I’d get to the church, and how she’d give me a bank cheque. I listened, my eyes on Neil as he rolled some white on and started in on the billboard. The letters OPEN 24 HOURS were huge, in faded black and red and you could tell he was going to need a good few coats to get a decent coverage over them. The wind whipped at him, suboptimal for a painting day and I considered heading over there to help him when I finished my coffee.
‘Anything else you need, to make a decent trip of it?’ I asked.
‘I’ve got a list,’ she answered, and I put my mug down and reached for a pen. I’d go over and give Neil a hand, I told myself, then sound out whether he wanted any casual work with me at the hotel. I could subcontract. He had a lot of good tools, I could explain to Cherie and Alan. He could do the replastering, maybe.
‘Ed?’ Cherie was saying. ‘Are you still there?’
‘Could you go to Bathroom King and price some corner spas for me?’
Hymnal boards, pews and corner spas. I wrote it down. ‘Okay.’
‘With mixer taps. Check how much delivery would be.’
‘Make sure you get a receipt for petrol since you’re taking your own vehicle.’
In fact, I thought, I would drive straight over to Neil’s and pay him cash to supply and fit four new tyres before I made the trip. I couldn’t stand to watch him anymore, gamely whiting out the evidence of some old, lost prosperity. Here’s another way to drive yourself mad: try finding the justice in who’s rich, and who isn’t. Try to work out the economic meritocracy.CHERIE WENT TO visit Howard and Jean at the historical society and made it known, via them, that she and Alan were pouring their money into restoring the old building as a functioning licensed hotel.
When the locals heard she was looking for old Australian collectibles to decorate the bar, they started showing up with all kinds of stuff. We could have set up Ye Olde Australian Memorabilia Shoppe. They brought in old hat stands, and sepia photos of the old bakery in three feet of water from back in 1954, when the creek burst its banks. They brought in a teaspoon collection and a stuffed fox, a bunch of old walking sticks, some copper-bottomed saucepans and a wrought-iron thingy to hang them on. Cherie thanked them all and garnished the room. She made a frieze of old postcards, and hung a billy and camp oven in the fireplace – under the chimney I’d spent many filthy hours unblocking. She had me make a shelf for the fox and bought old Akubras from the op shop to hang on the hat rack in the entrance hall.
I stood and surveyed her handiwork as Alan passed me a mid-morning coffee. She’d insisted I finish the big front room first, before tackling the back rooms of the building and so, after organising rewiring and restumping, I’d spent a week cleaning and re-oiling the floor, then sanding and finishing the exposed beams and patching and repainting walls. It had seemed illogical, but I could see her strategy now. The rest of the building might have been a chaotic mess of rubble and dirt still, but that front bar, clean and emptied and inviting, gave a tantalising promise of what was to come. I’d loved it cleaned out and painted, but I hated seeing it adorned now with bits of harness and farm memorabilia like one of those fake Irish theme pubs.
‘What an amazing community,’ she said. ‘This is why Alan and I have been drawn here, because this little town embodies exactly what Australia used to be – everyone pulling together. Just such a welcoming generosity of spirit.’
I pulled together a smile. ‘Well, we’re glad you’re here too. Everyone’s keen on having the hotel reopen.’
‘The pub’s the heart of a country town, isn’t it?’ Alan now, busy putting in a picture rail. ‘And this one’s going to be like stepping back in time, to the wonderful spirit of the 1850s and 1860s.’
‘Did you have a good chat with Howard?’ I asked.
‘Oh, Howard’s great. I’ve put him onto it, looking back through records to find out more of the place’s history. Any photos he has of the good old days, the gold rush days, I’d like to buy them and put them here on display.’
Cherie’s tone became more confidential. ‘You should see the stuff they’ve got down there, Ed. At the historical society. A back room just full of amazing objects and artefacts. I mean, actual things from the era. He doesn’t even have room to display them all properly.’
I ran a line of sealant under the windowsill and smoothed it into the cavity. ‘I’ve always thought the display’s pretty good down there, considering they run it as volunteers.’
‘They’ve got this fantastic old black bakelite phone,’ she said by way of reply. ‘I’ve seen it. It’s just sitting out the back on a pile of phone books. I could get that rewired and actually have it in here, in working order.’
‘Well, you could,’ I said, ‘but when you’ve got three mobiles and a website, it seems a bit redundant. And anyway, if the era you’re going for is the gold rush, then…’
‘We’re not so fussed about anachronisms,’ she said, with an edge of steel in her voice. ‘It’s more a bricolage look we’re aiming for. Something historical, yet playful.’
Some catchphrase to quote for a glossy lifestyle magazine, more likely. With Cherie and Alan beaming behind the bar, relaxed and well-groomed, surrounded by gleaming wineglasses hanging in a wrought-iron whatnot. It takes a certain vision, the article would say, to bring Australian gold-rush history alive again, but luckily vision is something well-known installation artist Cherie Prentice has in spades…
‘Speaking of Howard and Jean,’ Cherie said, ‘I’ve asked them if they could donate a double-page spread from an old newspaper of the era. They’ve got a roomful of newspapers over there, literally stacked to the rafters. Alan’s going to frame a big front page, all sepia and preserved and hang it in here with any photos Howard can find showing the hotel and the town. It’ll be such a conversation starter.’
‘You’ll be running out of wall space,’ I said.
‘Anything that’s already been out in the weather, like these old rabbit traps and branding irons’ – she patted a box – ‘we’ll just hang out on the verandah.’
I got up off the floor under the window. ‘Look, about that,’ I said. ‘Come out here, I want to show you something.’
‘Why do I get the feeling this is going to be expensive?’
I walked out onto the sagging old wraparound verandah and she followed me.
‘Feel this?’ I said, putting my foot down on a board and jouncing it. ‘Feel how there’s nothing under that? The stumps under this have all rotted away, and those that haven’t have sunk, and you’d have a guest, sooner or later, stepping out here with a glass of wine and going arse over tit down into the gully. The whole thing – see? It’s like a mouthful of rotting teeth. It’s all just got to come out, if you want it to be safe. And I’ll have to excavate under it very, very carefully, too, and put in concrete posts, and maybe even a concrete pad, because of the subsidence.’
She frowned. ‘A concrete pad? I don’t want it to lose its character. Alan likes the ambience. The age of it. It has its own integrity.’
‘No, see Cherie, it doesn’t have any integrity, that’s the problem. I need to re-do all these foundations. I’m trying to do what you want, but you have to understand this whole yard here, right the way down to the creek, is actually quite unstable. And the land up on the other side of the creek… Well, you want history: take a look and tell me what you see.’
She squinted up the hillside, frowning. Actually, pouting, more like.
‘Empty scrub,’ she said finally, ‘that for some reason the council won’t subdivide or develop, even though someone could build a fabulous house on two or three levels going up there, with great views.’
‘No, forget that. Just look hard and tell me what you see there right now.’
She looked for a long minute. ‘Blackberries and gorse,’ she said at last. ‘Dirt.’
‘Ever wondered why it’s called Welshman’s Gully? It’s because this was a gold-rush town, and that hill was dug up for gold, and that creek was where they first did the panning.’
She jounced lightly on a board, nodding. ‘That’s why I absolutely love it, Ed. Because that’s living history there, isn’t it? That’s exactly where people knelt down and panned for gold, right there in that creek. Everyone side by side trying to make their fortune. Everyone living in tents on the hillside.’ She waved an arm.
‘Well, yes, they did,’ I said. ‘At first. Then the alluvial gold ran out and they started digging for it. So they sank mines. All through this valley.
The Welsh came and they knew how to do that. All those weeds you see, they’re growing on mullock heaps. They grow on earth that’s been disturbed. Dug up, sifted for gold and then shovelled back down into the shafts. There’s all kinds of abandoned old mines up there – that’s why you can’t get a building permit.’
‘Howard told me thousands of people lived here during the gold rush.’ She was looking out over the hillside and I couldn’t tell what she was seeing in her mind’s eye – a rare framed pen-and-ink sketch of the miners, or the glossy article saying: ‘It’s my way of honouring the pioneer Australian spirit,’ muses artist and owner Cherie Prentice, ‘the unsung heroes, the original diggers…’
‘The Welsh were here with the Cornish and the Irish and all the rest of them,’ I went on. ‘There was a Chinese josshouse, somewhere along that creek. This beautiful old building you’ve bought might have been all kinds of things before it was a pub. In fact, you can tell by the way it’s been extended and built on over the years. Bakery, hotel, post office, bank, quartermaster’s store…’
‘This row of separate doors here on the verandah, going into these rooms,’ she said, ‘that suggests to me a sort of inn. Possibly a Cobb & Co stagecoach stop.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Or possibly a knock shop. I don’t know. But it’s been built over and bits demolished and built over again. And it’s not just empty scrub out there. The whole place is full of holes and mines and fallen-in excavations.’
I stopped and swallowed. My throat felt tight. It was the most I’d said to her since I started working for her.
‘Lola Montez could have performed here!’ she answered, irrepressible. ‘Bushrangers could have held up the Cobb & Co coach right where we’re standing.’ She paced around a little.
‘Sure,’ I said after a pause. It was her money, she was entitled to make up whatever she wanted. I’d spent three years helping Italian restaurateurs pretend they had Renaissance frescoes on their walls, for fuck’s sake – who was I to begrudge her a few historic fantasies?
AS IT TURNED out I didn’t have to do any pulling down because, as if to prove my point, that night it started to rain.
It rained like a Banjo Paterson poem. It rained like the tail end of a cyclone. I heard the gutters outside the bathroom start overflowing and had to go out and unblock the downpipe to keep it all running into the tanks, and I was as wet as if I’d fallen in the river. It rained all night, hard as hammers, and all the next day, until finally it quit in the mid-afternoon, petering out like an angry, exhausted argument. I’d texted Cherie in the morning and said it was too slippery and dangerous to work on the slope, and spent the day in a daze, dragging tree prunings into a pile to dry out, watching the river rising in a way it hadn’t for six years. Then, early the next morning my mobile rang.
‘I think you’d better call those people and get over to the pub,’ said Davo.
‘I’ve been out with Emergency Services chainsawing tree limbs that have fallen and there’s a big mother of a hole opened up at the back of the hotel. Bit of a landslide, too.’
‘Bit of a landslide? What’s that supposed to mean?’
I could hear him chuckling. ‘We’ve taped it off. Chunk of dirt from under the road’s slipped down into the gully. Half-a-dozen spots on the river have broken their banks.’
‘How’s that low spot at Amos’s place?’
‘Ah…he’s got himself a new wetland habitat, shall we say.’
‘And the pub?’
I could hear the tone of his voice, its muted-down glee. ‘Just go and check it out. Get your friends down there with a camera.’
‘They’re not my friends.’I FELT FOR the Prentices, though, as we parked our respective cars safely on the bitumen across the road and crunched sideways down to the back of the pub through rivulets of clay and mud. The bull-nosed verandah iron they’d been so keen to preserve sagged inwards, like a broken concertina over a gaping sinkhole that had opened up out of nowhere. The verandah had simply dropped eight foot into this cavern. The sides leaned in tiredly, broken posts hanging askew.
It looked like a badly cooked cake, fallen into black sludge, never to rise again. I was so, so glad I hadn’t started to replace any of those timbers.
‘Holy fucking God,’ said Alan, the consternation in his voice tinged with awe.
Nobody spoke for a while, we just stood listening to the creek ripping and roaring through the undergrowth below us, and the caved-in old building in front of us.
‘That’ll be your cellar,’ I said at last.
‘How deep would it be?’ breathed Alan and I felt a gust of annoyance.
‘Cellar deep, would be my guess. Not mineshaft deep. But undermined now. There’ll be more shifting and sinking up along the gully, too – look at the amount of clay in that creek. It’s the groundwater that’s the problem. They used all kinds of poison to extract the gold – cyanide, cadmium, a heap of heavy metals. Then they’d just tip all the tailings straight back in to fill up the empty shafts, so as the groundwater comes up…’ I tailed off, not needing to say more.
‘Why didn’t anyone know there was a cellar under there?’ Cherie, her iPhone firmly in front of her face, snapping off shots. Insurance, I guess.
‘I dunno. Maybe no one remembered, maybe it got in-filled and the verandah got built over it long ago and there’s no plans anywhere of the original.’
I was tired of talking, tired of feeling like an apologetic tour guide. I clamped my mouth shut on my own exasperation. Looking at it now, it probably should have been clear to me that the verandah was constructed over a cellar. People used to do that – build on when they had money, extend out over the foundations, move roads and driveways, shovel piles of rock into holes and cover them up.
I’d missed it at first, hidden by rubble and blackberries, but I could see now how it might have been: a side yard where a horse-drawn vehicle might have pulled in to deliver grog. Of course they would have dug a cellar. A pub was probably the first building they’d built in town, after a store and a police lock-up.
‘Better now than later, I guess,’ I said. ‘I’ll crawl in and have a look at it when things dry out a bit, organise some machinery to come and demolish it and put in some fill, see how we go from there.’
‘Bloody hell,’ said Alan, in a voice that made me want to get in my ute right then and drive away. ‘If there’s a cellar, Ed, we want to pump it out and rebuild it. A cellar! Imagine that! We can make some access stairs going down from the dining room or that scullery room off the kitchen and guests can go down and have a look at it. Run some electricity down there to put in track lighting, some wine barrels. In fact, it’s exactly what we want. I was planning on planting some grape varieties, did I tell you?’
My exasperation surged up a notch into disbelief. ‘You did, yes. But…’
‘Just a small pressing each year. A bit of fun, our own label.’
What planet were these people from?
‘Alan,’ I said, ‘that would literally be a money pit. No pun intended.’
‘There must be access from somewhere inside,’ said Cherie. ‘You could take up some of the kitchen floor and see if you can find where it is. Dig it out and repair it, shore it up or whatever, put in new foundations…voila!’
I looked down at the wreck of the verandah, trying to imagine getting a backhoe in there. ‘Voila,’ I echoed.
‘You sound very sceptical, Ed,’ said Cherie. I’d never heard someone so chipper staring fifty grand of repairs in the face.
‘I am sceptical, yes. I’m afraid I am. I haven’t even seen if there are decent walls or foundations we could shore up.’
‘Aren’t you just fascinated by the thought of what might be down there?’
I wondered what she was imagining. A collection of valuable nineteenth-century bottles? A trunk full of priceless heirlooms? Burke and Wills?
‘Mud,’ I said flatly. ‘Probably toxic mud full of leached heavy metals, possibly sewerage from up the road. A hundred and fifty years of dead rat carcasses.’
Alan clapped me on the shoulder. ‘Mate, talk about risk-averse! Let’s wait for things to dry out and then get in there and see. This could be great!’
I wanted to like him. I seriously did. It takes a lot for a grown man to retain that kind of innocence and enthusiasm, to think setting up a winery was a piece of cake and all that was needed for success was a miraculously rediscovered cellar. Also, I could employ Davo and Alan, because this would be way more than a one-man job now, no matter how much of a workhorse that man was. Any fool could see that. They were in over their heads.
‘Wait,’ I said, staring at the yard. ‘Hold on a second.’
I walked to my ute, got out the flat spade and went back to the driveway. Paced down a bit to the side entrance, thinking of where a horse and dray might draw up to level ground. Delivering barrels, big and heavy and needing to be rolled and stored. Imagined the yard we were standing on mud-slicked, just like this in winters a hundred-and-fifty years ago and where that horse might stand and a cart might make a circle. A stable, maybe, out where the old falling-down shedding was. Paving, even. Or right here, where the newly wet bricks on the west wall showed the tell-tale herringbone of replacement. Someone had bricked in some kind of old doorway there.
I put the spade down into a small faintly sunken flat spot, levered the compacted weeds and clay up a few inches, feeling it give easily in the wet. Couldn’t believe I’d missed it, now that it was staring me in the face. I scraped and cut with the spade, and a hand’s width down felt it glance off stone. I sank to my knees and cleared away a flat smeared square of it.
‘What is it?’ said Alan.
‘Something we would have seen straight away if we’d just had our heads screwed on,’ I said. ‘Or had some early plans of the building. It’s stone.’
‘Ed,’ whispered Cherie, thrilled. ‘Are you telling me there’s a flagstone courtyard or something under here?’
‘God, no. Just this square of stones here.’
I put the spade flat and a mat of weedy dirt came up in one big chunk. Set into the ground was a wooden cellar door, blackened and swollen with age.
‘Here’s your door, Alan,’ I said. ‘Time to get a torch. And hire a pump.’HOWARD FROM THE historical society rang me a week later. ‘Ed,’ he said, ‘what are they building up there, Pioneer Disneyworld? I’ve had whatshisname Heffernan down here all morning, wanting Jean to find out whether there’s any old photos of grape-picking in the district. Said he wants to make a label. What the hell?’
‘I think he’s reasonably harmless,’ I said. ‘Enthused, more than anything. He’s toying with the idea of putting in wine grapes – having a vineyard going down the slope towards the creek gully.’
There was a pause, and I heard Howard give a hollow laugh.
‘Does he think he’s the first to come up with that?’
‘Mate, he’s spent twenty years being an art critic, I think. He’s probably got some mental image of the whole town turning up to help him harvest the grapes and press them into award-winning shiraz with our bare peasant feet.’
‘Read too much Peter Mayle, has he?’
‘He’ll find out soon enough he’s in the wrong climate, with the wrong soil.’
‘Where did they get their money?’
‘She’s a famous artist.’
‘Anything I would have seen in the gallery?’
‘Ah. And will she be installing a septic system?’
We were both laughing now. ‘All services connected,’ I said. ‘All good to go as an historic B&B. You’re bringing some memorabilia down for them, I hear.’
‘Hmm, I don’t know how he talked me into that. Something from the local paper, mid-1850s. It’s all on microfiche anyway.’ He gave a short, sheepish laugh.
‘You don’t have to apologise to me. Bring all of it down. Make their day and tell them you’ve got Ned Kelly’s underpants, or something. They’re desperate for a local connection. If it brings in some tourism for the town, we should be getting behind it.’
‘Ed, do I detect a note of cynicism?’
Not at all, that’s just my standard default. Come down and have a look. I’m there ten hours a day, digging out the cellar with a wheelbarrow.’
I was, too. I was bringing up rubble and dirt a barrowload at a time, hauling it outside and tipping it onto where Davo was cutting in some terracing for a landscaped garden, his industrial jacks and a steel lintel at the ready for when we pulled off the back verandah.
Black, black dirt was coming out of that hole. Tiny broken chips of china and glass strewn in the mud that Cherie picked through and saved, claiming she was going to make a mosaic with them. The irony didn’t escape me that we were just like the labourers of one hundred and fifty years ago, the miners hauling dirt all day, a supervisor ultimately sifting through it for treasures that had very little to do with us. We went slowly, because Cherie wanted to save everything.
Chips of china, old marbles, squares of wallpaper she tore and steamed from the walls inside to make a collage she planned to display in the hall to honour the reclamation of the building’s intrinsic historic integrity.
Thinking of those words pouring easily and without irony from her mouth, it struck me that I wasn’t like a gold miner. I was like one of the nameless Italian workmen who must have trudged back and forth with wheelbarrows of sand at the Biennale, mystified by what she wanted it for, but doing their jobs nevertheless; dragging sacks of sand up and down in the elevator, I imagined, from some dingy tradesman’s entrance out the back, lugging it into an empty room, not thinking, just earning. For everything conceived of and curated, it occurred to me, there is somebody figuring out how to make it happen, shifting earth from one place to another. Someone you don’t notice, like the people who stack your groceries and clean the public toilets and wipe the drool from your chin when you take a long time to die. Their lives, taken up with servicing yours. Every time I bit into an apple, I couldn’t help thinking of the hand that picked it, the hand that packed it, the tired truck driver who drove it to me. Filthy and sweating, I shovelled the loose dirt out of the cellar and ran the barrow up the boards, back to the fresh air outside.SOMETIMES I THOUGHT about Lauren, the nurse who’d made the home visits out to the farm.
Dad had been two weeks in the ground when I’d heard a car in the driveway and went outside to find her getting out, looking uncertain and almost apologetic.
‘I’m sorry to waste your time,’ I’d said. ‘There must have been a crossed wire – Dad died on the seventeenth.’
‘I know,’ she said. ‘Remember? I came over the day of his funeral and dismantled that bed for you, with Alex.’
‘Of course you did. Sorry.’
‘Is there some more paperwork or something I have to sign?’
She stood there with her hands on her hips. ‘Ed,’ she said. ‘I just wondered…’
‘Everything’s fine here.’
‘I’m sure it is.’ She hesitated a long moment, then shifted the bag she was carrying to the other hand and turned around. I could hear bottles inside, gently clinking together. ‘No problem,’ she said. ‘I’ll be off then.’
She opened the car door and got back inside, giving me a bright, professional smile as she turned to secure her seatbelt. As she started up her car and released the handbrake I thought of her sitting next to me on the verandah chairs a few weeks before, drinking beers way after her shift had officially ended, Dad’s bedding washed and hung out glowing clean on the line in the warm twilight.
‘Wait, wait,’ I ran after her, put my hand on the car roof. ‘Sorry. Don’t go.’
She sat looking at her hands on the steering wheel, the car idling.
‘Just a stupid idea,’ she said. ‘Sorry. End of shift, end of a shit day. Saw a bottleshop open and thought I’d drop in.’
‘And I’m glad you did, and thanks. And please turn off the car.’
It idled for a while longer. She had one of those little pine-tree air fresheners swinging from the rear-vision mirror and we both looked at it, unable to rectify the awkwardness.
‘Come in for a drink,’ I said. ‘Especially seeing you’ve brought the drinks.’
After a long moment she turned off the car. ‘Okay.’
We sat on the verandah and I liked how we could stare out at the orchard, the way I always did and say pretty much nothing.
‘Thanks,’ I said finally, awkwardly, ‘for making the trip out from Beechworth all those times to do the home care for Dad.’
‘I didn’t mind it,’ she said. ‘I enjoyed the drive. I prefer the care-in-the-community shifts, actually, to being in the hospital.’
‘He appreciated it,’ I said, and she gave a low laugh.
‘He appreciated being able to die at home,’ she said, ‘so I was glad to help you make that happen.’
The swathe of pruned trees in front of us was sporting some stubborn new growth, brilliant green; the rest were a thicket of tangled, congested deadwood.
‘They’re all slated for removal, are they? Those trees?’
I sighed. ‘Apparently. According to the economic experts. I just don’t have the heart to do anything about them at the moment. In fact I wouldn’t mind a twenty-acre hedge of the things. And I just don’t feel like pulling them up and starting again with whatever those same experts have decided is going to bail us all out.’
‘The soil’s too good for olives. Dad would be spinning in his grave.’
She laughed and pushed the dog’s head off her knee, where he was slumped adoringly. ‘My dad’s grandfather came from round here.’
‘Is that right?’
‘Yep. Had an apple orchard too. He moved down to the Otways years ago – one of my cousins took over his place down there. They’ve got an orchard, much more overgrown than this one.’
‘Well, that’s a comfort.’
She took a deep breath, fiddled with her bracelet. Skirting around what she wanted to say, I could feel it – I did it all the time myself. I turned to glance at her, leaning forward in the old cane chair, about to speak. She’s got something on and she wants to invite me to it, I thought fleetingly and she’s as out of practice at this as I am. I waited for the hesitant words to form themselves, noticing her tanned arms and competent hands, the way her eyes tilted up over her high cheekbones, feeling surprised and flattered.
‘Fox whelp,’ she said at last in a quiet voice. ‘You ever heard of that one?’
I was taken aback. Idiot, I told myself. ‘What?’
‘It’s a bitter-sharp apple. A really old variety, brought out here by migrants from England, from Gloucester. He grew them up here then took seedlings down to the Otways and planted another orchard there. London Pippin, that’s another one he had.’
‘Those ones I’ve heard of.’
‘The orchard’s wild now, but it’s still full of the old heirloom varieties. They’re into beef cattle now.’
We’d already had a beer each, but she reached down into the bag she’d brought and lifted out two more bottles.
‘You want to try something?’ she asked.
‘Sure. One of those crafty artisanal wholemeal beers, is it?’
‘Nope. It’s cider. Boutique cider.’
She popped the tops, grinning, and handed me one. There was a long meditative silence as we drank.
‘That’s pretty great, isn’t it?’
‘It sure is.’ I took another long drink of it and licked my lips.
‘Steady on. That’s five bucks a bottle.’
‘Nope, five bucks a bottle, consumption increasing by thirty per cent a year. Outstripping beer by far.’
‘How has this escaped my notice?’
‘It’s booming. Suppliers can’t keep up with demand. And everyone’s on the hunt now for the old cider apple varieties, trying out new combinations for new flavours.’
I looked at the faux-aged label, with its folksy woodcut font. ‘My new employers would like this. It’s just their kind of thing. They’re doing up that old building in town and turning it into a guesthouse. A licensed guesthouse, the locals are hoping. With a bar. Beer. Cider. Hand-cut artisanal organic potato chips. Bespoke chips.’
‘They should get onto it.’ She clinked bottles with me, smiling. ‘It’s a trend I’m predicting. Get some apple and pear cider on tap.’ She had a nice smile.
‘And this orchard your family’s got in the Otways – are you asking me to come and prune those old trees for you, or something? Were you thinking…’
‘Oh, no, no,’ she said. ‘I think they’ve probably had it now, they’re so old. It’s just sad, when you think of the thousand of varieties there used to be just a hundred years ago…but my cousin’s like you. Let them all go wild years ago.’
‘I’ve been thinking of beef cattle myself, on and off. That or selling up. ‘
‘And what would you do?’
Really, really nice smile. I was well out of my league, I thought uneasily. Actually, I had no league, I wasn’t even in the reserves.
‘Thought I might try earning an actual income for a change.’
She offered me another cider, and I failed to thank her for the flowers she’d sent, failed to ask her why her day had been bad, failed miserably to ask her to stay for dinner and rustle something up out of the freezer. Reading these signs, she stood up and said lightly, ‘Well, see you later, Ed – take care of yourself.’
Was she married, separated, divorced, lonely, completely self-contained and content? Did she have any kids? Did she make a sixty-kilometre round trip just to drop by? Like I told you, I was a fool. Deskilled in the art of even bothering to thank people. In the lead-up and aftermath to my father’s death, it was as if all my responses had been slowly numbed, like a mouth in preparation for a painful extraction. I’d felt myself turn all the dials way down low, just so as to be able to get up and get on with exactly what needed to be done, head down and ploughing through each day. The current prospect of endless work at Cherie and Alan’s place let me just concentrate on one task and then the next. It was literally mind-numbing and that was just the way I liked it.
Show me a man who claims to be emotionally self-sufficient and I’ll show you a bloke who’s barely functioning. I didn’t want to start a relationship only to have a woman make this inevitable discovery herself and tell me like she was breaking news to me.
After she’d gone, alone again in my accustomed chair on the verandah, I berated myself, just briefly, then opened another bottle. No wonder it was all the rage. The stuff was ambrosia.NOW, SIX LONG weeks down the track and the ‘cap’ Cherie had talked about absolutely blown out of the water, I’d ended up toiling in a dank underground chamber, scraping away like the Count of Monte Christo in his cell. I’d just uncovered a mountain of old broken glass amidst the mud when I heard clunking footsteps on the verandah somewhere up over my head, and Howard’s voice.
‘So, the gold rush,’ he was saying, in the genial way he began his impromptu tours whenever someone ventured into the historical society. ‘Very influential time. A melting pot of cultures and classes. Doubled the country’s population in ten years.’
‘Ed tells us we’re sitting on a goldmine here…’
‘Which you pretty much are…’
‘Well, that’s what the real estate agent told us about this property before we even saw it.’
‘Ah. Yes, I see what you mean. I doubt he realised he was talking the literal truth.’
‘We still haven’t come up with a name for the B&B but we’re hoping that with your help – and Jean’s, of course – we might unearth a great character from the building’s history who we can commemorate by naming the place after them. Find out if it’s been some notable property back in the day, like Mrs Harper’s Guesthouse or Paddy McGuire’s Inn or whatever – you see what I mean?’
‘Yes, I do.’
Alan’s voice cut in. ‘Or The Old Paymaster’s Store or Prospector’s Gully or whatever. And a quirky name for the wine label,’ he added. ‘Something is sure to jump out at us, once we start digging. There’s bound to be a local character we can resurrect. How did you go hunting through the photos and stuff?’
‘Well, there’s a mass of material there,’ said Howard cautiously. ‘And any time you’d like to come in and browse through it yourself, you’re welcome to, of course.’
‘Did you come across something historic from the newspaper?’
‘I did, yeah. I brought a few pages with me.’
Five minutes later Cherie came and found me. ‘Come and have a look at these, Ed,’ she said. ‘They’re just hilarious.’
Inside, we leaned over a few big yellowed newspaper pages preserved in plastic sleeves, spread open on a table.
‘Ovens and Murray Advertiser from 1857,’ said Howard. ‘Towns like Leyton were too small for their own paper. No different from now, actually.’
I was beyond dirty and tired, caked with mud, but I could have stood there lost in those newspapers all day. Free of photos and blaring headlines, they were dense little universes, busy with self-importance.
RENDALL’S ‘ROYAL OAK’ Hotel, Spring Creek, FRESH ARRIVAL OF OLD ENGLISH ALE Sparkling and Strong, 1s per pint 6d per Glass, I read.
WESLEYAN CHURCH: A Public Tea Meeting, Held in the SCHOOL ROOM Admission 2s 6d each.
Wanted – a nurse girl. Wanted – a man.
‘Jeez, employment was a simple business in those days,’ I said.
‘I bet you wish this was still on the market, Ed,’ Howard commented, pointing at an advertisement for 20,000 feet of timber – 46 shillings 100 feet.
‘Yeah, well, that’s why the whole valley was denuded of trees, I guess.’
‘I like this one,’ he continued, ‘sarsaparilla as a certain cure for Rheumatism, Indigestion, Nervous Debility, Affections of the Chest and Liver, Bad Legs, Piles, &c., &c. But check out the kind of stuff people brought with them to the goldfields and the gear they had to sell when they ran out of money.’ His finger circled a classified ad.
John Crowther. Auctioneer and Commission Agent, Camp Street, Indigo, Sale Days every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 12 o’clock.
J Deutchman and Co. Pawnbrokers, High Street, Opposite the Springs Hotel.Money Lent and the HIGHEST PRICE given for gold. Unredeemed Pledges, as Watches, Clocks, Chains, Rings and Jewellery, Guns and Pistols, Cutlery, Musical and Mathematical Instruments and Fancy Goods of all descriptions, Pictures, Musical Boxes, Accordions, &c., &c, constantly on sale.’
Cherie could not contain her excitement. ‘Oh, Howard, this is exactly, exactly what I was hoping for. Look at this. This is the page we want.’
HOTEL High Street opposite the Weighbridge. The above Hotel still maintains its original and well-known characteristics, for BOARDERS AND VISITORS, of comfort, civility, good old English fare and at extremely moderate terms, when the superiority of the accommodation is considered compared to other houses. Board and Lodging 30s per week. The FINEST BURTON ALE in the district 6d per Glass 1s per Pint. This Ale is now so universally known to all who visit that to eulogise it further would be superfluous. Those who have not tasted it are invited to do so at their earliest opportunity. Good Stabling FREE OF CHARGE to Boarders, Visitors or Travellers.
‘We could have exactly that text on our brochures,’ she said, her eyes shining. ‘Just lift it verbatim from that page.’
‘How are you going to source the finest Burton Ale?’ asked Howard with a grin.
‘And you’re nowhere near a weighbridge,’ I added.
‘Oh, you guys are totally missing the point,’ she said. ‘Nobody expects that kind of fanatical attention to detail. It’s the tone, the atmosphere, the vibe. It’s so eccentric and quirky.’
‘An antiquated font, like crooked old handset type,’ said Alan excitedly. ‘And on the label of the wine, we could have a strapline that says: to eulogise it further…’
‘Hang on, you’d better get your vines in the ground and growing grapes before you start designing the label,’ said Howard.
‘I like this one,’ I said, pointing at the advertisement stating:
TELEGRAPH ASSEMBLY ROOMS. OPEN EVERY EVENING.
Mr. & Mrs. OSBORNE’S Popular Entertainment. The proprietor of this establishment respectfully intimates to the public that he has engaged the services of these TALENTED ARTISTES for a FEW NIGHTS ONLY, and anxious to cater for the public support, he will open his SPACIOUS SALOON FREE! FREE!! FREE!!!
Remember, To-Night Free Admission! Two New Burlettas. The Dogs’ Performance. Vocal and Instrumental Music. Operatic and Ballet Dances, &c., &c.
‘That’s what this town needs, alright,’ agreed Howard. ‘Talented artistes with performing dogs.’ He paused. ‘Actually I noticed something else, Jean pointed it out to me. Here on the back.’ He turned the page over. ‘See, this is the final report of the trial of the perpetrators of the Buckland Riots. And here – look at this fascinating little glimpse into the era: The jury immediately returned a verdict of not guilty. The announcement was received with cheers outside.’
‘What were the Buckland Riots?’ asked Alan.
‘Anti-Chinese race riot,’ said Howard. ‘About a hundred miners decided to rout thousands of Chinese in the Buckland Valley. They bashed and robbed them, burned their camp out, chased them across the river. Nobody knows how many died. A few years later in New South Wales, the poor buggers copped even worse violence and racism at Lambing Flat.’
‘Was this before or after the Eureka Stockade?’ said Alan.
‘After,’ said Howard. ‘And the Lambing Flat riot was actually bigger than the Eureka Stockade in many ways, in intensity of feeling as well as numbers involved, I mean, but nobody remembers it like that of course. There’s a memorial now, over in Buckland.’
There was a short silence.
‘What about Osborne’s Bed & Breakfast?’ Cherie said to Alan, trying to get the conversation back on track. ‘Or Burton’s?’
‘Anyway,’ said Howard, ‘one of the policemen involved in the arrests of the ringleaders of the riot was Robert O’Hara Burke.’ He paused as they blinked at him. ‘Burke and Wills,’ he prompted.
‘Oh, of course,’ said Cherie. ‘That’s the kind of lead we’re after. I had no idea he was from the area.’
‘Obviously before his ill-fated expedition,’ added Alan theatrically and I suddenly had a flash of him standing in front of the fire in this bar, saying these very words to a group of fascinated tourists.
‘Beechworth, actually,’ Howard said. ‘What’s interesting is lots of records from the court case, this trial and acquittal mentioned, went missing from the Beechworth courthouse.’
‘Was there a police station here?’ said Alan. ‘Could he have done a stint in town as a policeman?’
Howard paused. ‘Burke, you mean?’ He lifted his hand, from where it was resting gently on the transcript of the trial. ‘Probably not. Ned Kelly was tried in Beechworth courthouse, you know. We’re only thirty ks away. Maybe you could go with that, if that’s the sort of thing you’re after.’ He smoothed the page absently, then turned it back over, to the quaint advertisements for sarsaparilla, concerts and beer.
‘You’re right,’ he murmured, ‘this is the page you want, I’d say.’I WALKED HOWARD back to the historical society so he could lock up.
‘They’re not hearing you, are they?’ I said. ‘About the riots and the trial.’
‘No, well, nobody likes hearing it,’ he said with a shrug. ‘Nasty virulent racism, bunch of thugs murdering people, who wants to hear that? Up at Lambing Flat, you know, they marched under a banner painted with a Southern Cross on it, like the Eureka flag, only with the words Chinese Out painted on it. Had a bloody brass band at the head of the mob, like a parade. Three thousand of them.’
He looked down the almost-empty street and shook his head. ‘I’ll tell you something else that’s sad,’ he said sombrely. ‘Out in the shed behind the historical society, there were these old half-burned lengths of wood that had been stacked there years ago, carved with letters no one could make out. Someone had found them buried out at the dump, or something, back in the ’60s. When I started making inroads into that pile of stuff in the ’80s I found them and Jean cleaned them up a bit and realised the markings were Chinese characters. Turns out they were from a joss house that was burned down, maybe during that very riot. Yeah, so, discovered at the dump a hundred years later. Chinese guy we know translated the characters for us. They said: Welcome to all who enter and worship here.’
We were both quiet for a minute.
‘You know where that should be displayed?’ I said. ‘Over the door at the Anglican church.’
Howard laughed, looking up at the sky. ‘Except they’ll be decommissioning that soon, lack of customers. And lack of a priest. They’re run off their feet now, priests; there are so few of them.’
We walked for a little way in silence before he spoke again.
‘Do you reckon they’re onto something,’ he said, ‘doing up that place as a B&B? Is there really a tourist market for that?’
‘How would I know? The council just think they’re the best thing since sliced bread. Everything they want gets approved. They’re going to create an economic boom one antique fire iron at a time.’
‘That guy Alan’ll be mayor next.’
‘Jesus, shoot me now.’
‘Hey, come over for tea,’ Howard said suddenly, slapping me sideways on the chest. ‘Jean’s made a mean chicken curry. Watch the footy.’
‘I need to have a shower and feed the dogs and do a few things at home.’
‘Well, come back in afterwards, you antisocial dickhead.’
We both laughed.
‘I’m not antisocial. Am I?’
‘See, listen to that – you’re a recluse and don’t even know it.’
We crossed the road without even checking for traffic – it was that quiet.
‘Since the freeway went through, this place is only missing a couple of rolling tumbleweeds to look like a set in one of those Westerns,’ I said.
Howard felt for his keys outside the historical society, a building that used to be a cinema, then a gift shop, and now just had a sign on the door saying: Come in! I’ll be back soon!
‘It might be a one-horse town,’ he said firmly, ‘but it’s my one-horse town.’
‘What horse?’ I said. ‘First I’ve heard of someone having a horse.’
He looked at me and sighed. ‘Seven o’clock, smart-arse,’ he said. ‘Bring beer.’
I took him and Jean six bottles of boutique cider. I was rationing myself now, two bottles a night from the slab I’d bought at a bottleshop megamarket down in the city, as I was driving out with Cherie’s church cast-offs. I seemed to have developed something of a habit.‘ED!’ GOD HELP me, it was Alan. ‘Look what I’ve found!’
He strode over to where I was hanging a door, carrying a big square set of shelving. ‘Found it out in the stables,’ he said panting, depositing it at my feet with a flourish. I picked it up. It was nicely made, with twelve square wooden pigeonholes, each one stencilled very faintly with a number in white paint.
‘What would that be, do you reckon?’ said Alan, bursting with suppressed excitement.
‘Well, it’s a pigeonhole cabinet.’
‘Yes, but what’s it been used for?’
‘Well, as a cupboard in a legal office, or storage in a shop of some kind. Or for actual pigeons, of course.’
He looked at me doubtfully. ‘You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you? It’s a postal cabinet, right? With these numbers?’
‘Could well be.’
‘Well, I mean, how perfect is this? We can set it up in the entrance behind that front desk and that could be our reception for the bed and breakfast, and all the keys to the guestrooms could be in these numbered spots.’
‘That’s a great idea,’ I said, dusting off the cabinet. ‘Would you like me to put it up?’
Cherie came through the kitchen doors. ‘Put what up?’
‘I’ve found a pigeonhole cupboard for the entrance,’ said Alan. ‘It was out the back in storage. It doesn’t even need fixing up.’
They decided on a spot, and I fitted the cabinet into place, feeling for my spirit level.
‘Wait,’ said Cherie. ‘We should wait until Ed’s had a chance to scrape back the paint on this wall here.’ She chipped at a peeling layer with her fingernail, and I felt the sinking feeling of being on old, familiar ground. ‘There could be something written under here that we should preserve,’ she said. ‘Let’s leave this until you’ve taken a couple of these layers off. Because it would be so cool if there were some words painted here we could use.’
‘Like all guests please ring for service, you mean?’ said Alan.
‘Who knows what’s there?’ said Cherie, looking dreamy. ‘But you know what would be great, a sign like mail sorted daily, then the pigeonhole cabinet right next to it. I mean, this place could well have been a post office.’
‘Well, what else would this shelf have been used for?’ agreed Alan.
Cherie turned to me. ‘Can you scrape it back, Ed and clear a blank spot about so big? Then I’ll do the words in old-fashioned block letters, and thin down some limewash paint –’
‘I know the process you’re talking about,’ I said, interrupting her. ‘You’d be tipping the letters in gold then applying crackle medium, right? Then a wash or two of paint and then I’ll distress it.’
She stared at me. ‘Well, you really are a jack of all trades,’ she said at last. ‘It’s a well-known effect. Letting the pentimento subtly come through.’
She hesitated, her head on one side. She was still holding what she’d been working on in the kitchen – a wide tin she was punching with holes to make a rustic lightshade for the verandah lights. Next, I knew with a heavy heart, she would paint it with yoghurt to give it a fake aged, verdigris finish. ‘Do you know what pentimento is, Ed?’ she said kindly.
I thought of Neil Amos, out with his roller in front of the service station. Then I thought of myself, holding a roller loaded with a far costlier paint tinted a shade called Vintage Vanilla, painting the front bar with a lustrous second coat. And beneath it, walls yellowed as a smoked kipper from tobacco and beer and woodsmoke from the open fire, a patina of age threatening to bloom through that clean vanilla coating I had applied myself.
‘Oh yeah,’ I said. ‘I know what it is.’
‘A post office,’ mused Alan. ‘So maybe the postmaster lived here, too, and kept the town’s telegraph service. Or do I mean telegrams? Maybe he was the gold commissioner and did both things, ran this place as a sort of general office…’
‘Have you thought,’ I said, ‘of doing a titles search on the property and then taking those names and spending a day at the State Library, going through the microfiche there? Wouldn’t that be more accurate?’
‘More accurate, maybe’ he answered, ‘but not nearly so much fun as surmising.’
I felt my patience reach some final, fraying point. ‘The process you’re talking about is not pentimento, it’s scumbling,’ I said to Cherie, who stood staring at me. ‘An image from underneath showing through is called a bleed.’
‘Who do you think you’re talking to?’ she snapped.
‘Look, you’re not the only person ever to go to art school. And if you’re going to be patronising, at least get your facts straight.’
Her mouth, hanging open, shut itself into a thin clamped line. Face like a slapped arse, I heard my father’s voice say. She’d sack me on the spot, I thought, if only she had some alternative serf to order around.
‘So when you’re ready to fake it up, let me know,’ I went on, putting the shelf down. I shouldered my way back out to the wheelbarrow and spade before I could say something else I might regret. I put on some gloves and got rid of a pile of rusty barbed wire I’d dug up, burying it in the skip before Cherie could spot it and decide she wanted to twist it into a rustic bloody chandelier.
Back in the cellar, at the far point of where I was seriously hoping I’d soon find a wall of solid stone before I ended up undermining any more of the foundations – I’d seen enough historic local goldminers’ gravestones marked killed by earth fall – I was clearing away some dry and crumbling earth at head height when the point of my trowel hit something unyielding. I snapped on my head torch and took a closer look; it was red. I dug away with the side of the trowel until I reached a rock-hard line of mortar, with another solid red shape laid alongside. Old hawthorn bricks. Hallelujah, the interior wall. Something I could affix a stud frame to, and locate the joists overhead so that I could reinforce them with steel beams.
I was already running my trowel experimentally along, feeling hopeful, when I came to the end of the line of bricks and found a cavity there, with a large stone pushed inside. I levered it out. A big chunk of quartz granite. Behind it was a powdery scrim of dust and cobweb, and behind that, murky in the torch’s light, was something small, wrapped in disintegrating canvas. I felt around. A box. A cashbox, maybe. Something, I knew straight away, that Howard deserved to unwrap.
As I reached in and pulled it out I felt, in the place of excitement, a deep bitterness rising. Where was the justice in this?
I had no doubt that there was something intrinsically valuable in there, something that would now automatically become the property of Cherie and Alan. Papers. Gold. Old coins. Some sort of treasurehouse of stuff that would bring them all the attention they felt entitled to, something they would sell to become effortlessly wealthier still.
Resentfully, I imagined myself broke forever, going under slowly but surely and signing on as a day labourer, picking Alan Heffernan’s fucking shiraz grapes for his marvellous boutique winery pressing. Sitting on a goldmine, the headlines would say. Or, of course, I could go with the obvious option. I could just put this down my shirt without a word, take it home and hide it for a while, then say it was something that belonged to my old man. Something I’d found in his safe at home. It was only me who knew, after all, that what had actually been in his safe was not much more than his will and a bunch of old photos of Mum and her engagement ring in a small box in an envelope with my name on it. Nobody would need to know any of that.
Then I shook myself out of this lethargic simmer, pulled the canvas-wrapped shape out of the hole, and climbed out of the cellar. I sat at the outdoor table for a minute or two, just breathing in some fresh air, then rang Howard.
He listened in silence as I told him what I’d just found.
‘Give me five minutes,’ he said. ‘Gotta put new batteries in the digital camera. Jean’s just down the street, can’t come and look without her.’
‘Just walk down when you’re both ready,’ I said. ‘I’m not doing anything with it until you’re here.’
‘They own it, you realise. Whatever’s in there, they own it.’
‘Yeah, I know. But I want you to get to open it.’
I heard him laugh. ‘It could be a dead cat, of course.’
‘Yeah. But somehow I don’t think so, Howard.’
‘How big is it?’
‘About as big as an old cigar box.’
‘Old ammunition, maybe; an accounts book or a ledger; something that might tell us who lived there, in any case. Just hold on, I’m on my way.’ I heard him cackle with suppressed anticipation as he hung up, which is about as excited as Howard ever got.GOOD MANNERS MADE Howard and Jean knock rather than come round the back and their knock was answered by Alan. He and Cherie fairly ran through the back door and down the steps, out to where I sat.
‘Howard tells me you’ve found something down there, Ed,’ said Alan. ‘Why didn’t you call me straight away?’
‘Howard’s been…’ I began, and saw the coolness in Cherie’s long, narrow look. ‘Never mind.’
‘If anyone’s going to get to uncover hidden treasure on this property,’ she said smoothly, ‘it’s going to be me.’
‘Fair enough,’ said Howard. ‘But you might…I mean…’ He pulled some white cotton gloves regretfully out of his pocket and handed them to her.
I could sign off on this job, I thought, gritting my teeth. I could tell them to stick their B&B and let them try their luck with the DeLorenzo boys, who certainly wouldn’t take any shit from her or put up with Alan’s puppyish interfering, either.
I could mess with their heads, tell them that, as a local, I found their attitude offensive. Arrogant. That not everything was for sale. That people were talking about them. I thought of my dad, sitting not twenty feet from where I now stood, saying: Don’t call trumps if you can’t follow through.
‘Fair go, Cherie,’ I said, keeping my voice even. ‘This is a real local history find here and Howard’s been this town’s local historian since I was a teenager. He and Jean are the custodians of stuff like this.’
‘Stuff like what?’
‘The gold nuggets or letters or whatever’s in that bag.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘This hotel’s going to be the only landmark building and the only thing worth visiting for miles around here,’ she snapped. ‘And in case it’s not obvious, I’m going to be pouring more money into this sorry-arsed town than the rest of you put together.’
I caught Howard’s eye, his helpless shrug.
‘And that’s what it boils down to in the end, doesn’t it?’ I said finally, just as coldly and passed her the bag.
She cleared a space on the table free of coffee mugs and sugar and pencils.
‘Whatever it is,’ said Howard, ‘someone went to a lot of trouble to keep it hidden.’
Cherie Prentice pulled an old box out of the bag, its clasps green with verdigris. Actual verdigris, formed by authentic ageing. On the box’s top, drawn in faded blue ink like an ancient tattoo, was a crude square marked with stars and a cross.
‘The Eureka flag!’ gasped Alan. ‘Man, oh man, there could be Peter Lalor’s letters in there.’
Jean spoke for the first time. ‘Eureka Stockade, 1854,’ she said quietly. ‘Buckland riots, 1857. Lambing Flat riots, 1861.’ I heard the grave tremor in her voice as she raised her camera.
‘Wait,’ she said to Cherie, and took a single careful shot of the box lid. The shutter sounded like an empty gun chamber clicking in the silence. Cherie felt for her iPhone in her back pocket and handed it to Alan. ‘Put it on video,’ she ordered, then undid the clasps with a fingernail and opened the lid.
There was red material inside, very fragile-looking and brittle.
‘Silk,’ said Howard, and as Jean looked quickly at him I felt that tremor again – something apprehensive that passed between them in that brief, unsmiling glance.
Cherie began to unwind the silk gingerly, the bundle sagging a little in her outstretched hand. Not a gun, then. Not a set of gold scales.
‘It’s awfully light,’ said Cherie doubtfully and I could feel my heart, in spite of myself, beating high up in my chest. Jean pressed her camera’s shutter twice more. Then for a few mystified seconds we stared blankly at the three black stringy objects that fell into Cherie Prentice’s hands. She shook the length of red silk slightly, as if still expecting some gold sovereigns to fall out, then dropped it to the table, trying to make sense of what she held.
‘Jesus,’ blurted Howard. ‘You know what they are? Just look at them and work it out.’ He sprang away from the table, walking off a few paces, grimacing. ‘Je-sus,’ he said again with shuddering vehemence.
Jean took three more slow, deliberate photos. ‘Separate them, if you wouldn’t mind,’ she said tersely. ‘Lay them out on the table.’
‘But what are they?’ cried Cherie. ‘Are they like Victorian keepsakes or something?’
‘They’re pigtails of human hair,’ said Jean, ‘hacked off the heads of Chinese gold diggers. People used them as switches for horsewhips, or just kept them. Like scalps. Something to boast about.’
She lowered her camera and shook her head. ‘I should have known when I saw the red sash,’ she said, more to Howard than anyone else. ‘Don’t you reckon, love? That’s what the Chinese used to wear, didn’t they?’
Alan Heffernan made a sound like someone who’s just had a rat run over their feet. ‘Put them down!’ he hissed to Cherie. ‘How can you even hold them? Put the horrible things back in the box!’
Cherie seemed, for the first time since I’d met her, at a complete loss. She opened her mouth to speak then closed it again, inhaled a sharp breath. ‘They’re just a curiosity,’ she said mechanically, ‘it doesn’t mean…’
‘Whoever lived here saved them and tucked them away,’ Howard said. ‘Like a private memento.’
‘Cherie,’ said Alan urgently, ‘will you just put those fucking things away? Please.’
‘You can’t just destroy them,’ said Jean. ‘They’re historical artefacts, same as a flag or a document.’
‘They’re absolutely repulsive,’ said Alan.
‘If somebody killed these men,’ said Jean, ‘they would have buried them fast, before the police showed up. But then this whole valley’s probably full of unmarked graves, because of the typhoid epidemic.’
‘Threw them down a mineshaft, maybe,’ said Howard, half to himself. ‘Poor bastards.’
It’s what you wanted, isn’t it? I felt like saying, looking at the sad little twists of hacked-off hair in Cherie Prentice’s white, artistic hands. A real artefact, somebody’s souvenir of battle. A chill ran across my shoulders, a cold ripple that shivered down through my arms. History’s not a blank white room, I thought, waiting for you to install something cryptic. It’s a black hole, full of stowed secrets.
‘If you have a resident ghost in this place,’ I said, ‘I sure wouldn’t like to meet him on a dark night.’
Cherie glanced coldly at me. ‘It’s only a theory,’ she said, making an attempt at airiness. ‘We don’t even know if these are even human hair.’
I felt Jean and Howard go still.
‘Okay, then,’ I said, my anger rising, ‘so put them over the bar in a glass case, why don’t you? Make them memorabilia, Cherie. Bricolage! A living museum of the larrikin pioneer spirit that made our country great. I say go for it.’
She stared at me, and I saw the mustered airiness drop out of her.
‘Steady on, Ed,’ said Howard. ‘Not the time for gallows humour. These belong on display at the historical society, along with the sash.’
‘Oh, you can have them,’ said Alan hastily. ‘Take them right now. It’s absolutely macabre.’
Cherie dropped the pigtails into the box and closed the lid. I watched her as she wiped her trembling hands hard down the front of her jeans, her face chalky white.
‘Just shut up,’ she said tightly to Alan. ‘And delete that footage off the phone.’
Jean picked up the red sash and rolled it back along its folds, sad and methodical as a nurse with a bandage.I FOLLOWED CHERIE inside, to where she stood in front of the section of wall she’d scraped back in the front hall. I could see ruled letters lightly penciled in place in an old Victorian-style font, spelling out please ring bell.
She turned back to me tiredly. ‘I wonder if there’s any point,’ she said, ‘asking you to keep quiet about finding those things.’
‘A cousin of mine,’ I said, ‘had a house in the Jura, in the French Alps, just near the Swiss border. He was digging out his cellar, doing a renovation, and he found the bodies of two German soldiers buried there. And he just quickly reburied them, poured in some concrete and said he’d gone off the idea of renovating.’
She shook her head. ‘I have no idea what your point is,’ she said.
‘Well, just that he told me and you’re the first person I’ve told since.’
‘What a model of discretion you are, is that what you mean?’
‘No – I mean something’s lost in doing that, don’t you think? Pretending they’re not there?’
She brushed her hand distractedly over the pencilled letters. ‘This is nothing like that,’ she said tightly. ‘For crying out loud. What a ridiculous analogy.’ She gave a single dismissive laugh. ‘Listen to me. Now I sound exactly like the stuck-up wanker you all think I am.’
‘Who thinks that?’
‘Oh, please.’ She folded her arms and looked at me levelly. ‘You think I don’t know how this town is having a good laugh at me and Alan? We’re the free entertainment round here, it’s pretty obvious. Nobody stupider than a cashed-up city slicker, right?’
She saw my hesitation and laughed again – a sound with not a shred of humour in it. ‘Say what you were going to say,’ she said drily.
‘You’ve made a lot of money making art that most people round here find completely incomprehensible,’ I said. ‘You’ll have to get used to being seen as a bit of an oddity if you’re going to stick around.’
She struggled to keep control of her voice. ‘It’s Alan’s money,’ she said. ‘I haven’t had a commission for years. Or a grant, even.’ She swept up some pencils and the ruler from the desk and strode into the bar, where she busied herself with a stack of clipped-together invoices on the counter. I followed her. Even with the hat stands and the hanging arrangements of antique branding irons, I realised that the room still gave me a bolt of pleasure.
‘My dad and his mates used to drink here when it was a pub,’ I said. ‘I used to come down here when I was a kid. The locals might seem a bit reserved, but – how can I put this? – they’re kind of waiting. To see how it all pans out, to see if you’ll stick it out and follow through. They’re farmers, they’re risk-averse with everything. That’s just the way small towns work.’
‘We’ve sunk everything into this,’ she said bitterly. ‘Everything.’
‘Well, I’m not going to say too much more, but if they’re laughing at you it’s because you’ve set yourself up. This whole…cliché here. It’s all just arranged. Like people are going to file in soon and admire it all as an installation.’
She bristled, and I ploughed on hastily. ‘And why shouldn’t they, I guess? Alan’s right in a way: what does it really matter if a bunch of tourists are led to believe the Kelly brothers drank here? Except that everything, everything in here, Cherie – that stuffed fox, that photo, every bit of memorabilia – you want to know the real history, well…careful what you wish for. What if you peel back the layers and don’t like what you find?’
‘What did your cousin do?’ she said after a while, her eyes on the bills.
‘Moved to Zurich,’ I said. ‘But believe me, the dead Germans always hang unspoken between us.’
She laughed again with a bit more warmth, shaking her head as she looked up at me. ‘What’s someone like you doing living in a place like this?’ she said.
‘I couldn’t tell you, and that’s the honest truth. Just living at my old man’s farm.’
We both heard Alan outside start up his car and back out of the drive.
‘There he goes,’ she said. ‘Back to the crappy rental house in Horsfeld for some time out with a few stiff whiskeys.’
‘Actually, that sounds like a good idea, under the circumstances. Have a few days off and a break from the site.’
She wiped her eyes quickly with the back of her hand. ‘Alright then. Back on Tuesday. What about you, Ed? You in or out?’
I bit the inside of my lip. I’d paid off my credit card, got the bills squared, done probate on Dad’s will…I couldn’t think of a thing that was even keeping me in town. Nearly five months had passed and I hadn’t even made the move to put my place on the market. I was treading water, I realised. Wanting something finished.
‘I think I’m in,’ I said. ‘Just want to see this room serving beer and that door there propped open onto the street. Not that keen on sticking round to put your spa in, Cherie, to be honest. Or tackling that back verandah without some machinery.’
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Then we know where we stand.’
I left her there, surrounded by half-finished plastering and the boxes of curios she’d collected waiting in the storeroom, full of their strange and silent histories.
We were all building on subsidence, I wanted to tell her. Trying to construct stuff over big holes and abandoned shafts, unstable ground grown over with brambles, all that worked-over dirt shovelled back out of sight. We were lucky the things we made even stayed standing.I’M ON THE back verandah now, on the couch the dogs have made their own. They’re looking at me out of the corners of their eyes. I’m alpha dog, covered in hair, lord of all I survey. They’re wondering why we’re not heading out in the ute to check a few fences before the sun goes down, but they’re equally happy deferring to my judgement to remain sprawled in the late yellowish light, half dozing. I’m reading Dad’s old horticulture book, the tome that was like an almanac in our household, or a bible. Listed on the back are rows of figures in his hand, scratched in pencil; dated columns of fertilisers and soil amendments, recorded here with a careful diligence. 1951. 1957. 1962. 1971. I have no notation in my father’s handwriting transcribing my date of birth. Instead I have ¼ bucket potash in slurry of ½ bucket manure per tree, Feb 19th.
In the margins of the chapter on pruning and grafting, more writing.
Whip and tongue, it says. Bench grafting vs cleft grafting. Late summer when the bark slips. Shallow cut on fruiting bud branch, don’t cut into the heartwood. Perpendicular cut on tree branch, one inch long between other buds. Tape. After signs of taking, trim branch above graft. One year.
I can practically see him doing it – his fingers peeling back the bark with a careful fingernail, motioning for the grafting tape. Don’t cut into the heartwood. Good advice, Dad, for a simpler time.
I turn the page. Bramley’s Seedling – triploid variety. Good pollinators: Golden Delicious, Jonathan, Idared.
London Pippin (5 crown) – Red Delic., Baxter’s Pearmain and Golden Delic. all suitable pollinators. Dad’s ‘farmer’s apple’ – orig. England 1830s.
I could cut them all back. Trim out the deadwood and overgrowth, trim enough to give shade to the new scion wood but still let the light in. Root stock is what I have. Grafting stock.
I stand up and go out into the yard with my mobile to the spot where I can get decent reception. It takes me a while to sort out where I have her number stored and what I will say when she answers. I wonder if my name will come up on her phone, so she’ll know it’s me. If she’ll let it go through to voicemail. I can’t work out either of those things on my phone. A late adopter, is what I am. Late in adopting a lot of things.
So late, in fact, that I’m already gearing myself up for a bruising fall, expecting she’ll say ‘who?’ when I tell her who it is.
I press the right buttons and listen to it ringing, my eyes on the trees; the tender green growth on the ones I pruned, the froth of stubborn blossom. Fencing first, then cutting back, doing the slashing, get all the debris into piles so it can dry out, and I’ll have some bonfires before fire season starts, invite…
‘Well,’ says Lauren’s voice, ‘you took your time.’
Edited by Aviva Tuffield
Cate Kennedy is the author of the novel The World Beneath, which won the People’s Choice Award in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2010. She is also the author of two award-winning story collections, Dark Roots and Like a House on Fire; a travel memoir, Sing, and Don’t Cry; and the poetry collections Joyflight, Signs of Other Fires and The Taste of River Water, which won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry in 2011. Her story, ‘A glimpse of paradise’, was published in Griffith REVIEW 42: Once Upon a Time in Oz.