Mulga Bill Writing Award 2019 Poetry Second Place

FROM GALLIPOLLI

By Tom McIlveen

 

I am sending this and hoping Dad, that the girls don’t get to see

what is truly going on behind the scenes.

I would rather them believing God is here protecting me  ̶

than to know that we were blown to smithereens.

 

We were confident of victory and were spoiling for a fight,

as the Ninth and Tenth Battalions paved the way…

the Eleventh copped a hiding though, in spite of all their might,

when they disembarked just north of Suvla Bay.

 

I was with the second wave of troops that had scrambled two abreast

from the rowing boats the tugs had towed ashore.

We had landed in the middle of a flamin’ hornets’ nest  ̶

in a blazing hell of blood and guts and gore!

 

There were bodies strewn like bits of wood all along the stony beach,

where the withered kelp lay stranded, rank and dried.

There were others floating shoreward through the shallows out of reach,

as they drifted in like flotsam on the tide.

 

We are one, the Aussie diggers…and we will stand as one for all,

and we’ll take whatever’s given on the chin.

We will fight as one together, with our backs against the wall,

and we’ll cop it sweet as pie through thick and thin.

 

I am signing off and hoping Dad, that the girls don’t make a fuss,

when they get to hear there’s nothing much to tell.

I would rather have them thinking God is here protecting us  ̶̶

than to know that we’ve been damned and sent to hell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mulga Bill Writing Award 2019 Poetry Winner

We are one

By Eliza Allan

 

 

I headed out one evening on the Frankland’s mellow depths,

Attempting to shrug off a weary week and intercept

My longing to go bush for once and all without a trace,

But next week’s work was beckoning and so myself I braced:

I set my chin and freed my mind of thoughts that overwhelm

And launched my kayak, held the oar and found another realm

The shadows stretching long as karris bid goodnight the sun

The fading sky and bush beyond are one, they are one.

 

Vermillion flash as cockatoos alight in lofty roosts,

Sea breeze of the afternoon to balmy wafts reduced.

A mullet breaks the silent hum and to the air aspires,

‘Midst flowering tea trees on the banks that beg to be admired.

My gaudy craft cuts through the thick of waters black and gold

As dolphins on the tidal flow surge past and I behold

A momentary vision of a separateness undone

The river and its denizens are one, they are one.

 

I course along the surface like some sea thing newly freed

Am I the master of the oar, or is it paddling me?

The hidden depths concealed below the water’s glossed veneer

Are like my own strange riddles held in nature’s secret sphere.

My paddle pulses rhythmically to match the river’s beat

As ducks and spoonbills, thirsty roos and waters gently meet.

The web that weaves us all together cannot be undone

This paddler and the world beyond are one, we are one.

Mulga Bill Writing Award 2019 Short Story Second Place

No Change

By Rachel Hyland

 

“Excuse me, miss,” a voice interrupts my confusion.

I look up from the map on my phone. I have no idea where I am.

“Yes?” I ask.

“Can you tell me the time, please?”

I hold up my phone, half-smiling in a “well, obviously” kind of way. “Its 1:35,” I report. I’m so happy he asked me. I like to help. And I can’t remember the last time anyone needed the time—it’s been ten years, at least.

“Thank you,” he says, in obvious gratitude. I don’t understand this. I’ve only given him the time.

“I went up to about ten people before you, and all they said was ‘Sorry mate, no change.’”

“What?” I take in the man before me. He is good-looking, well-dressed, well-spoken. Works in hospitality, maybe. He has that kind of vibe.

But, fuck. He’s indigenous. He’s on a busy city street. He’s approaching strangers.

And people just assume he’s a beggar.

I feel like I’ve been kicked in the stomach.

“I… I’m so sorry,” I stammer, ashamed of—what? People in general? White people? Were they even all white people? I’m guessing. “I…”

I am at a loss.

“No worries,” he says. “I’m used to it.”

By now we’re walking together, heading the same direction down the busy street. I am consulting the impenetrable map again, but at this, my head snaps back up.

“You’re used to—?” again, words fail me.

He is used to it. That is even worse.

We like to think we’re so enlightened, in the cities. We look down on people from the country, with their silly protests against new buildings and the old ideas they house. All the scaremongering about burqas, and bombings, and how it’s the end of the world as we know it now that Vegemite has been certified Halal—that all comes from backward country folks, we think.

We know better.

We are better.

But then you meet a perfectly ordinary man whose phone battery has died because he was playing some useless puzzle game all day (probably – that’s why my phone battery is always dying) and he tells you that people in the city, in your city, assume he is looking for a handout because of the colour of his skin, and so won’t give him the literal time of day—and you realize, no, we’re all just as bad as each other.

We all make judgements. Every day. And those who are so judged just “get used to it.”

And why the hell doesn’t anyone have any change, anyway?

I flash back to a couple of nights earlier, out walking a friend’s dog in her leafy northern suburb. I hear a low-level noise that seems familiar, like an obvious hipster listening to world music too loud through headphones on the tram. (Judgement!) As I get closer to its source, I realize it’s a call to prayer, and that I have stumbled across a neighbourhood mosque gearing up for services. I’m surprised, not because there’s a mosque on a quiet suburban street – well, not just that; I’ll admit, it’s the first one I’ve seen – but because mosques in other countries blare their calls to prayer on loudspeakers that will not be ignored. I would never have had to wonder where the faint, high-pitched chant-music was coming from, had I been in Malaysia, or Dubai—or even Bali. Mosques there send their calls across the ocean at five a.m. to whole other islands on which holiday makers are trying to sleep in after a big night drinking too much too cheap booze.

I’ve heard.

But here, the call is subtle. It is just barely audible, even as I get very close. Even as I am only one house away. It is not broadcast proudly. It is so quiet, it is almost ashamed.

It is then that I notice the faces of the men – they are all men – gathered outside. They mostly wear robes and sandals and those embroidered skullcaps, and they all smile at me in various shades of friendly. The friendliest says “Good evening,” and some of the almost-as-friendlies say “Hello” with nods that are close to bows. They all make solid eye contact as I glance around, responding in kind, and pull on the dog’s leash to make sure she doesn’t lick anyone’s nearly-bare feet or decide to use their nature strip for her business, to my forever humiliation.

Wait. Don’t Muslim people have some kind of prohibition on dogs? I think in sudden panic. I decide to look it up later. (I do, and the answer is… it’s complicated. Some Muslims are fine with dogs, some think keeping them as pets is haram, or forbidden. As with many religious things, it’s all down to personal preference and interpretation.) (Also, never search the sentence “Is it okay to walk a dog past a mosque?” unless you want to hate everything and everyone for all damn time.)

I walk on by, worrying I’ve done something wrong, but cheered by the kindness of those I have just passed. Maybe they were smiling at me so I’d know they were cool with the dog? I think. That’s good of them. Then another man approaches, clearly on his way to the service (judgement!), and he not only hails me most heartily as he draws near, but he gives an even more effusive greeting to the woman who lives three doors down from the mosque, out watering her garden, regarding him with a blank stare.

And then I stop, and I think: do these men, these Muslims in Australia, feel that they have to be extra nice, extra friendly to evident non-Muslims, and also maybe to women, because they want to set us at ease? Because they think we might be afraid, otherwise? Is it possible that these men are so concerned that we will be concerned, that they compensate by being the nicest strangers ever?

I mean, perhaps this was just a particularly charming bunch of guys. Perhaps the thought of church puts them all in an excellent mood. Perhaps they were all just really loving their lives that day.

But if I’m right? If they felt they had to be extra civil, jovial even, because of my physical resemblance to the kind of idiots who blame, and jeer, and demand everyone be exactly the same if they want to live in this country, or go back where they came from—that just makes me so, so sad.

So furious.

People should be allowed to ignore other people as much as they like, not be forced into pre-emptive pleasantness as a kind of self-defence. No matter how much I might enjoy it.

I glance over at my time guy, still silently accompanying me down the street as I fail to make sense of the GPS. There are too many laneways in this city! I’m still all turned around. But I’m enjoying the companionship.

“So, where are you headed?” I ask him.

He stops short, his open face immediately closing down. “Sorry,” he says, meaning it. “I was just going—”

“Sorry?” I interrupt. “Why would you be—?”

He gives me a look.

I don’t get it.

Then.

Oh. He thinks I think he’s following me.

I don’t. I was just making conversation.

But conversation can sometimes make us feel like maybe we’ve done something wrong.

Like walking a dog past an unexpected mosque.

I stare at him helplessly, trying to find the words to explain how this makes me feel. To explain that he and I are exactly the same. That for all our vastly different experiences of the world – no one has ever denied me the time; no one has ever been scared of me; no one has ever so-many-other-things to me – we are just two people doing the best we can to be the best we can. We are fellow humans on a quest for our shared humanity, for acceptance and belonging, to understand others, and be understood in turn. I want him to know that I am mortified to have made him feel misjudged, that I do not judge him, that he has misjudged me, that I am on his side, that we both just are, and that is okay. And that maybe I would indeed have misjudged him, had he not been good looking and well-dressed and well-spoken.

We all have our prejudices. What matters is knowing them, and what we do about them.

But none of this comes out. Instead, I resort to the one universal Australian constant, our only shared national identity, the thing that unites us as a people above any other.

In the face of all this emotion, this long-held pain and anger and regret: a joke.

“Got any change?” I ask with a grin.

A pause.

“Sorry mate, no change,” he grins back, midnight eyes alight, and walks off without another word.

Leaving me even more lost than I was before.

Mulga Bill Writing Award 2019 Winner Short Story

Best of the Bunch

By Alex Grantham

My name is Kim and I show human toddlers in the Milky Way Toddler Association Competition.

People understand earth dog shows, but they can’t wrap their heads around a toddler show. Well, what’s the difference? It’s not like we put the toddlers on a leash. Really.

I’m also an English Human breeder. Most of us who compete will also breed one of the five breeds worth showing. We do it because we love the breed. There’s no money in breeding humans unless you’re an abusive kiddy farm. We can tell those types straightway. We have standards.

Twelve years ago, I picked up a little English from his breeder and I made up my mind that every human should have the chance to be a champion. My current toddlers, Maxi and Marmalade are champions. Maxi has 3 trophies because he’s been going to the shows since he was a baby. He’s about to retire soon. While Marmalade has 2 trophies and more to come. They call Marmalade a very good example of his breed. Every show a judge will say, ‘Beautiful profile’ or “nice hair set’. He has a presence about him. A very regal example of the English Royal Toddler. He thinks he’s king and he is.

I show Marmalade in the Altered class where the pedigreed toddlers have been spayed or neutered. That is the most competitive class in the Universe. The judges are looking to compare your toddler against perfection. They look at their head type, their physical integrity and their colour condition. The toddlers come in all shapes and sizes, but it’s their development at 12-15 earth months that typically have notable winning qualities. The judges are looking for superior nose-picking, scribbling, repeating babble, impatience, full-body tantrums (wonderful), finicky eating and, of course, overreaction to everyday situations. They get points for all of these qualities. We meet in rounds across the galaxy during the season for the chance to win the elusive Best of the Bunch (BoB) Medal. The BoB can mean a lot of coin and privileges across the universe. It’s very competitive.

 

Look at Marmalade’s body. It’s large but not flabby. He has a nice head and well-muscled. Always on show. He widens those beautiful eye holes and he gets what he wants. I fall for it every time. Magnificent. We get very attached to these little ones. You don’t move across the universe with a toddler that you don’t care for. They’re your ward in human format. I bath my humans once a week. Being a Guardian has serious responsibilities.   

Beginning of the year, Marmalade was earning Best in Show every time. He had all the points. He was ahead of them all. Then Carol showed up. Everyone was like, ‘Have you seen Carol and Sasha?’

Carol says she picked up her Cream Point Australasian toddler at a recent galactic rally as an impulse buy. But, we all know that Carol just wasn’t ready to stay home and let others shine. 

It’s so like her to bring an incredible toddler and take Best in Show away from me. The grooming is impeccable. There’s no hair out of place. This kind of toddler changes the competition for everyone. I’m sure we do want to throttle each other. Everyone wants to win. It hurts to say congratulations to the winner for a particular round but we hide it well.

 

Carol has been showing and breeding toddlers since I said to her at book club, ‘You should get a hobby, maybe get a toddler or two.’ She’s been dropping coin on toddlers ever since. She’s always telling others about her points, the gaps, the race to beat Marmalade’s lead. Look, I’d never break a toddler’s knee to win the margin. I’m not like that. But, I would never own a pet like Sasha. My champions can dress themselves. I mean, Sasha can’t even brush her own hair. 

Me and Carol, we don’t dislike each other. But I’ve never liked her toddlers. I heard that she lets them eat at the table with her. Enough said. Sasha might be Best in Show in the next round and she might not. You never know. I’m not worried. I believe in Marmalade. To win, Sasha needs to miss a round before the end of the season and look that could happen. I mean, we’re working with humans here. They get sick, break their limbs, or blow their trueskin and get bald patches. I had nothing to do with Carol’s delayed registration to the last round, by the way.

 

Sasha was second in show in today’s round. She spontaneously vomited over the evaluation table and the splash back hit the guest judge from the Jupiter Toddler Fancier’s Association. To be honest, I was surprised such a small thing could hold so much. In ways, they’re much the same as us but with skin. They didn’t stay for the final point tally and missed the judge’s remarks about Marmalade, ‘Wow. Just wow. What a scream. What a tantrum. Marmalade is today’s Best in Show.’

If you’re not number one, you’re the first loser. No one remembers number two, three, four. Sasha is still first by 20 points. That’s what the race means. And I’ve dealt with it. If you asked me at the start of the season what the plan was, Marmalade was going to be number one. But, a winning streak must end.

 

This always happens at the last show of the season. This year, I’m saying goodbye to an awful lot of youngsters who no longer qualify to compete. I mean, you do the final round and you’re thinking, ‘Okay, this is the last time I’m ever going to see this little one before they’re put down.’ Saying goodbye to your favourites is tough. I left Marmalade and Maxi in the benching area and when I got to the end of season celebration I find out Marmalade did great. He’s the BoB winner! Best of the Bunch! No, we’re not retiring yet. We love this craziness too much. During the off-season we’ll travel around the galaxy petting zoos so I can show off my champions.

It was very, very, hard for me to hear of Sasha’s sudden disqualification for being too old. I hope they publicly thank

My name is Kim and I show human toddlers in the Milky Way Toddler Association Competition.

People understand earth dog shows, but they can’t wrap their heads around a toddler show. Well, what’s the difference? It’s not like we put the toddlers on a leash. Really.

I’m also an English Human breeder. Most of us who compete will also breed one of the five breeds worth showing. We do it because we love the breed. There’s no money in breeding humans unless you’re an abusive kiddy farm. We can tell those types straightway. We have standards.

Twelve years ago, I picked up a little English from his breeder and I made up my mind that every human should have the chance to be a champion. My current toddlers, Maxi and Marmalade are champions. Maxi has 3 trophies because he’s been going to the shows since he was a baby. He’s about to retire soon. While Marmalade has 2 trophies and more to come. They call Marmalade a very good example of his breed. Every show a judge will say, ‘Beautiful profile’ or “nice hair set’. He has a presence about him. A very regal example of the English Royal Toddler. He thinks he’s king and he is.

I show Marmalade in the Altered class where the pedigreed toddlers have been spayed or neutered. That is the most competitive class in the Universe. The judges are looking to compare your toddler against perfection. They look at their head type, their physical integrity and their colour condition. The toddlers come in all shapes and sizes, but it’s their development at 12-15 earth months that typically have notable winning qualities. The judges are looking for superior nose-picking, scribbling, repeating babble, impatience, full-body tantrums (wonderful), finicky eating and, of course, overreaction to everyday situations. They get points for all of these qualities. We meet in rounds across the galaxy during the season for the chance to win the elusive Best of the Bunch (BoB) Medal. The BoB can mean a lot of coin and privileges across the universe. It’s very competitive.

 

Look at Marmalade’s body. It’s large but not flabby. He has a nice head and well-muscled. Always on show. He widens those beautiful eye holes and he gets what he wants. I fall for it every time. Magnificent. We get very attached to these little ones. You don’t move across the universe with a toddler that you don’t care for. They’re your ward in human format. I bath my humans once a week. Being a Guardian has serious responsibilities.   

Beginning of the year, Marmalade was earning Best in Show every time. He had all the points. He was ahead of them all. Then Carol showed up. Everyone was like, ‘Have you seen Carol and Sasha?’

Carol says she picked up her Cream Point Australasian toddler at a recent galactic rally as an impulse buy. But, we all know that Carol just wasn’t ready to stay home and let others shine. 

It’s so like her to bring an incredible toddler and take Best in Show away from me. The grooming is impeccable. There’s no hair out of place. This kind of toddler changes the competition for everyone. I’m sure we do want to throttle each other. Everyone wants to win. It hurts to say congratulations to the winner for a particular round but we hide it well.

 

Carol has been showing and breeding toddlers since I said to her at book club, ‘You should get a hobby, maybe get a toddler or two.’ She’s been dropping coin on toddlers ever since. She’s always telling others about her points, the gaps, the race to beat Marmalade’s lead. Look, I’d never break a toddler’s knee to win the margin. I’m not like that. But, I would never own a pet like Sasha. My champions can dress themselves. I mean, Sasha can’t even brush her own hair. 

Me and Carol, we don’t dislike each other. But I’ve never liked her toddlers. I heard that she lets them eat at the table with her. Enough said. Sasha might be Best in Show in the next round and she might not. You never know. I’m not worried. I believe in Marmalade. To win, Sasha needs to miss a round before the end of the season and look that could happen. I mean, we’re working with humans here. They get sick, break their limbs, or blow their trueskin and get bald patches. I had nothing to do with Carol’s delayed registration to the last round, by the way.

 

Sasha was second in show in today’s round. She spontaneously vomited over the evaluation table and the splash back hit the guest judge from the Jupiter Toddler Fancier’s Association. To be honest, I was surprised such a small thing could hold so much. In ways, they’re much the same as us but with skin. They didn’t stay for the final point tally and missed the judge’s remarks about Marmalade, ‘Wow. Just wow. What a scream. What a tantrum. Marmalade is today’s Best in Show.’

If you’re not number one, you’re the first loser. No one remembers number two, three, four. Sasha is still first by 20 points. That’s what the race means. And I’ve dealt with it. If you asked me at the start of the season what the plan was, Marmalade was going to be number one. But, a winning streak must end.

 

This always happens at the last show of the season. This year, I’m saying goodbye to an awful lot of youngsters who no longer qualify to compete. I mean, you do the final round and you’re thinking, ‘Okay, this is the last time I’m ever going to see this little one before they’re put down.’ Saying goodbye to your favourites is tough. I left Marmalade and Maxi in the benching area and when I got to the end of season celebration I find out Marmalade did great. He’s the BoB winner! Best of the Bunch! No, we’re not retiring yet. We love this craziness too much. During the off-season we’ll travel around the galaxy petting zoos so I can show off my champions.

It was very, very, hard for me to hear of Sasha’s sudden disqualification for being too old. I hope they publicly thank the anonymous caller. The truth always wins, Carol.

I did it for love. I do it all for love. Me and my champions spend entire light years travelling together for shows during the season. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We are one. Each human toddler has its own hairy little personality. They just sort of weave themselves into your heart and your head. I don’t blame Carol for what she did. Most of the little tackers are balls of love so if you can get that from something, I say, grab it. Just leave the winning to me.

 

the anonymous caller. The truth always wins, Carol.

 

I did it for love. I do it all for love. Me and my champions spend entire light years travelling together for shows during the season. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We are one. Each human toddler has its own hairy little personality. They just sort of weave themselves into your heart and your head. I don’t blame Carol for what she did. Most of the little tackers are balls of love so if you can get that from something, I say, grab it. Just leave the winning to me.

 

Mulga Bill Writing Award second place poetry 2018

There is a science

By Andrea Wilk

 

there is a science

there is a mind

set

upon a mountain

there is a find

 

there is a fossil

there is a bone

of contention

such things are prone

 

there are questions

how old…from where

on earth

they carefully tread

to locate those things long dead

 

there is a drawing

there is a beast

of burden

of proof it matters not the least

 

good intentions

good art, good text

good grief, good God what next

 

there is a belief

about a creature

publish it

in every feature

 

Judge’s comments:

The clever, yet delicate play on words within each stanza impressed without detracting from the poem’s content. A subtle comment on society’s want to jump on board the next big thing and an interesting interpretation of the ‘myths and legends’ theme.

Mulga Bill Writing Award second place short story 2018

DRESSES OF LIGHT

By Jacqueline Trott

She gently flicked at her hair, pulling it from her face. Trails and curls of desert birds rose to the skies in the breeze. She surveyed the early morning hours silently, the red plains in front of her, flat lines all the way to the horizon. In the corner of her eye she could see the bent back of her sister, inspecting the flowers in the blue pre-dawn. She loved the quietness. Last night, when all the tourists had gone, she undressed to her inky black camisole and hugged her body against the chill of night. Even in summer, the night time sands were icy to the touch.

 

Dawn brought a new clamour and swarms of tiny humans climbing over each other to click-capture their memories. This was the time of day when she would parade her first dress. It reflected the early rays and was the subject of compliments by all who saw her. Her face remained in shadow, but the radiant pink of her morning dress opened mouths and imprinted hearts. She smiled to herself. People were so strange.

 

For the rest of the day, she wore a golden red dress, with tumbles of pleats and folds that fell at the feet of eucalypts. Fresh arrivals of visitors would walk around her in the heat of day, sweating in admiration. She never felt the desert heat. She had lived here a long time, longer than anyone could remember.

 

In the afternoon, her dress pulsed vermillion. A neon sign radiating against a backdrop of muted red-browns and sagging sage greens. She was beautiful. She knew it. She reclined on her elbows towards the end of the day to allow the admirers to fully appreciate her form. Her favourite dress would be next.

 

She had an unusual way of changing costumes without anyone noticing.  As she slipped out of one dress and into another, untrained eyes blinked at the illusion. She knew it wasn’t a myth. There was no magic in the way she could smell rain a week before it arrived (oh, how she loved the wet season and wearing her lightning dress) and knowing every black buzzard and wedge- tailed eagle that soared above her head. No, there was no magic- the colours were just one of the many unspoken languages of the desert.

 

The Anangū people told her the story of how she was born, in this very place. It was the legend of the great earthquake, and it was sung to her in Pitjantjatjara tongue that she was an ancient spirit asleep in the sands, until the desert decided to birth her. She had heard stories of the great creatures that roamed in the sulphur of volcanoes, and the towering mountains ranges that folded up into the sky near Alice Springs. But they were all gone now. The desert took them back. It would reclaim her too, one day.

 

She sighed and slipped on her velvety evening gown of indigo. It matched the cloak of the sky where the first stars murmured. She would parade all day for the cameras, but the night was her own. The Anangū knew her well- they said that they could see her moving and changing at night. She was sung as their sacred place and she took them as her family. Watching their ceremonies, their firelight shadows danced on her skin. She sheltered them from the desert sun and wet season storms and, in return, they wove her into their song lines and ochre paintings. Only a few of the elders remained now, living nearby. She hoped the ancestors would call their children would back to the desert one day.

 

As the day folded, she embraced the mulga and the she-oaks, tucked in the bearded dragons and shooed mala wallabies back to their caves. She bowed her head to the great spirits and sang to the skies to protect her desert country. Uluru nestled into her night blanket, calling out goodnight to her sister Kata Tjuta. Tomorrow was the start of the dry season, Autumn, when she would start wearing a new collection of colours. Her dresses of light.

 

Judges comments:

This is a unique piece that gently summons the magic and beauty of Central Australia in all its colours.

Full of lyrical descriptions, and lines that have imprinted on me ‘…the bent back of her sister, inspecting the flowers in the blue pre-dawn’, the author’s seemingly intimate knowledge and adoration of their subject gave it a quiet strength.

The slow reveal of this story and the surprising central character means it gives more with every read.

 

Mulga Bill Writing Award winner short story 2018

The Tale of Herman Lockwood

By Paul Clarke

Dawn the Mystic was busy since word got around that Nan Bradley from the Rocks had won third prize in the Opera House Lottery. Dawn had advised Nan to buy a ticket from Parkinson’s newsagency in George Street.

“What a bit of luck,” her husband Roger enthused on hearing the news.

“Why do you assume it was luck?” Dawn protested.

Roger studied her with surprise. “Now Dawnie,” he said soberly. “Let’s not get carried away.”

Dawn straightened regally in her chair, clearly affronted. “After all these years of readings, I might have developed something.”

“Thick skin, maybe,” Roger answered. “Having to listen to all those old biddies tryin’ to contact their dead husbands.”

Dawn sighed wistfully. “Don’t know how lucky they are,” she said. “Anyway, show me some respect. How long since you’ve had to work?”

The half-past two finally turned up. A slight, middle-aged woman with wiry grey hair. A first-timer, which was always harder. With the regulars, you got to know their backgrounds after a while. They got comfortable and forgot things they’d told you in the past. Dawn made copious notes, and with a keen ear tuned to local gossip from the shops in Darling Street, along with intelligence Roger gathered from various local hotels, her knowledge of the lives and secrets of Balmain residents had become nothing short of prodigious. It was astonishing what could be picked up while lingering with intent behind two whispering acquaintances at the butcher’s while they waited for their chops to be wrapped.

“I’m seeing a sad, older man,” Dawn ventured after her unsuspecting customer had comfortably settled into the spongy-soft lounge chair opposite. “His name begins with ‘J’.”

“J?” the woman pondered, stroking her chin.

“A relative,” Dawn pronounced. It was a safe play. Every Anglo family had a John, Jack, James or Joseph somewhere amongst fathers, grandfathers, uncles and cousins.

“Uncle Jack?” responded the woman tentatively.

“Has he suffered recently?”

The woman pondered again. “Well, his health isn’t good. He’s nearly eighty. His wife died a couple of years ago.”

“Yes, that’s it,” said Dawn knowingly. “He hasn’t gotten over it.”

“He’s got a new girlfriend.”

Dawn blinked just once. “Trying to take his mind off his wife,” she said, shaking her head despairingly. “I do hope it works.”

The woman nodded in solemn agreement.

Thirty minutes later Dawn bade farewell to her new customer and went back to the reading room to make her notes. She was on to her second page when Roger entered breathlessly.

“We got trouble, Dawnie,” he gasped, all the colour drained from his face. “Real big trouble.”

“What in the Lord’s name…?”

“Loco heard about the lottery, and he’s comin’ to see you.”

“Who?”

“Herman Lockwood. They call him Loco ‘cause he goes crazy when he’s angry. Works for Billy Merthyr as a standover down the docks.”

Dawn’s face lit up with recognition. “Oh, yes. Herman Lockwood. Never met him but I know he was a boxer before he had an accident with his leg, and now he has a limp. He got caught up with the wrong crowd. So they say.”

“The wrong crowd? There’s a triumph of understatement if ever I heard one.”

Dawn frowned in thought. “He thinks I can tell him where to buy a winning ticket.”

“I figured that one out and I’m no psychic. What are we gonna do? Just when everything was goin’ along so nice with all this new business. And now Loco’s comin’ to wreck it all.”

“Calm down,” Dawn scolded. “How would he do that?”

“If you don’t give him what he’s after he’ll get angry. Last time that happened he threw two blokes out of the Cricketer’s Arms.”

“That’s not so awful…”

“From an upstairs window.”

“Let’s not get into a panic. I’ll simply need to gain his confidence. Some research will be necessary. I don’t suppose you’re acquainted with anyone who knows his mother?”

*    *      *

As expected, Herman telephoned the next morning, requesting an urgent reading. Dawn explained her appointments were booked out for a week, but Herman was insistent. An out-of-hours early evening session for the coming Friday was arranged. Dawn had just two days for preparation. By Friday afternoon, all Roger had discovered was that Herman’s mother was named Maureen and resided somewhere in Rozelle. It was better than nothing, but Dawn would need to be at the top of her game to avoid perilous speculation on the lottery result.

It was two minutes to six on Friday night when Herman Lockwood’s huge knuckles pounded the front door of Dawn and Roger’s rented red-brick terrace. Roger peered ominously through a thin gap between the curtains.

“He’s here,” Roger announced with trepidation. “My god, look at the size of him.”

“Stop acting like Nervous Nellie and make yourself scarce,” Dawn advised.

Roger retreated to the kitchen as Dawn calmly opened the door. “Mister Lockwood I presume? Please come in.”

Herman eased his massive frame through the doorway and followed Dawn obediently into the reading room, dragging his injured leg to the lounge chair. He sat down carefully and surveyed the room. “Nice place,” he said, nodding his head appreciatively.

“It’s comfortable enough,” Dawn replied. “We have simple tastes.”

“Who else lives here?”

“My husband.”

Herman didn’t waste any further time on pleasantries. “I need to win the lottery,” he said, like he was ordering a steak at the Royal Oak. “Tell me where to buy the ticket.”

Dawn was only slightly rattled. “You must appreciate, Mister Lockwood…”

“Herman.”

“Of course. You must appreciate Herman, that in my business there are no guarantees.”

“I know you dunnit before. For old Missus Bradley. They was gunna chuck her out of her house.”

“I was very glad to help. But it’s not like turning on a tap, if you understand what I mean.”

Herman shifted restlessly in his seat, making it creak under the strain. “I gotta have an operation. On my bad leg. It’ll cost a fortune and then I’ll be off work for months. But if I don’t go through with it, the leg will have to come off in a year or two, they reckon. And in my line of work, a missing leg is a bit of a drawback.”

“I see,” Dawn said uneasily. “I can only try…”

“Better try pretty hard,” Herman instructed. “Otherwise your husband’s legs might need to come off when I’ve finished with him.”

It was clear things were not quite going to plan. “Now, please Mister… ah, Herman,” Dawn gently admonished. “There’s no need for that. I will do my best. We must hope the spirits will be kind to us tonight.”

Herman settled down once Dawn began the reading. Her accurate details about his mother only convinced Herman that, if sufficiently motivated, Dawn could direct him to the place where he could buy a winning ticket. Dawn did her best to avoid the question, but Herman quickly became exasperated and demanded to know whether the man of the house was at home. Dawn thought she heard the back door close immediately afterwards, but she wasn’t sure. It seemed the only course of action was to give Herman what he had come for.

She held a limp hand to her forehead. “I believe something is coming through,” she relayed in a dreamy monotone.

“About bloody time,” said Herman with relief.

“I am seeing a newsagent.”

“Good. Where is it?”

“Oh!” Dawn exclaimed. “It’s not in Sydney. It’s…it’s in…Wollongong.”

“Bloody hell,” Herman boomed. “Are you sure?”

“As I’ve already told you, there are no guarantees.”

“Where in Wollongong?”

Dawn hesitated. “I’m seeing a long street. Somewhere near the centre of town, but it’s hazy.”

“What about a name?”

“Hmm. Difficult to make out. I’m seeing an ‘N’ I think. That’s about as specific as I can be, I’m afraid. I’ve lost the image…”

Herman sat back in his chair, wiping sweat from his brow with a large white handkerchief. He let out a huge sigh. “At least I got somethin’ to go on,” he said. “Thanks Missus. How much do I owe you?”

“No charge,” Dawn said.

“I’ll send something on after I collect,” he replied. “Next draw is on Wednesday.”

Dawn made a brave attempt at a warm smile.

An hour after Herman left, she heard the back door open gently.

“Where did you go?” Dawn demanded.

Roger entered the reading room sheepishly. “Thought it was wise to make an exit while I could still walk,” he said.

“Weren’t you worried about me? “

“Herman may be a ruthless, vicious thug, but he wouldn’t hurt a woman.”

“Well, I didn’t care to find out,” Dawn said. “We have to move. I’ve sent him to Wollongong for the ticket so we can escape while he’s gone. Lord knows what he might do after the draw on Wednesday.”

Dawn and Roger packed in the middle of the night, called a taxi and headed out of the city, telling not a soul where they were going.  Eventually they made their way to Invercargill, at the very bottom of New Zealand, which seemed to them as far from Sydney as they could reasonably go. They assumed new identities, and while ‘Denise’ did her best to establish a reputation and clientele in her new surroundings, business was very slow and ‘Roland’ was forced to take a job selling encyclopaedias. As he trudged from door-to-door with the icy winds of the lower South Island chilling his bones, he dreamed of sunny, warm days by Sydney harbour.

Homesickness was allayed a little through a mail subscription to the Saturday Sydney Morning Herald, and after fourteen years had passed they discovered a tiny article detailing the demise of the legendary Balmain figure Herman (Loco) Lockwood, who had died in a local boarding house. Dawn and Roger were at last safe to return to Sydney. They arrived home full of relief and hope, renting a modest flat not far from the terrace they had previously occupied. They invited Doris, their old neighbour, for tea and scones. She would be useful for spreading the word of Dawn’s return.

It didn’t take long before Roger brought up Loco. Doris’s eyes widened. “You mean you don’t know what happened?” she asked with astonishment. “He followed Dawn’s advice and went to Wollongong looking for a newsagent near the centre of town, one that started with an ‘N’.  But all of them had the word ‘NEWSAGENT’ on the window, so he decided to take no chances and bought every ticket available from all the agencies in Wollongong. Spent every penny he had and had to borrow heavily to cover the cost.”

“Oh my goodness,” Dawn gasped as Roger genuflected.

“Anyway, you wouldn’t believe it. On the Wednesday one of his tickets won first prize. Next morning he came banging on your door. He wanted to give you half. He spent months trying to find out where you’d gone. But as hard as he tried, he got nowhere. It was almost as if you didn’t want anyone to find you.”

Dawn’s mouth had dropped open. Roger’s eyes had glazed over.

“He had an operation,” Doris continued, “on his bung leg. But he had complications. It got so bad they brought a priest in to see him. Loco promised the priest if he survived he would change his ways and work for the poor and downtrodden. Miraculously he came through. He donated all his lottery winnings to a church charity for the homeless, then spent the rest of his life working down at the shelter. He said he wanted to try and make up for all the bad things he’d done.”

There was a momentary silence, and then a tear trickled slowly down Dawn’s cheek. Roger leaned over and held her hand. “What a story,” he said, his voice trembling. “Feeling a bit teary myself.”

Dawn nodded sympathetically. “It’s heart wrenching. Just think what we could have done with half of first prize.”

 

Judge’s comments:

This funny tale and its familiar characters hooked me straight away and charmed me with its humour. 

The banter between the central characters was so enjoyable to read, and placed the story beautifully in bygone suburban Australia.

A twist of fate, the understated humour and an unexpected ending made it certain I just had to share the story with others.