south – father harry and elsie. story 6
A pair of twins was sat opposite Toby. Their leather shoes were spit-polished new, his sandals were bleached and salt stained. Their socks new and drawn knee high, his bare shins brown and nicked all over from grass thorns and the endless play of an exuberant half grown puppy. Their shorts and shirts fresh ironed and sharp creased by their young mother. His were tubwashed colourless and patched in canvas by an old trawlerman.
Their faces stood a little pale, their eyes a little close-sighted and their mouths a little full.
Thus they sat.
Tobias faced them square on and penetrated their gaze with calm young eyes that had the patience to wait and watch a still lagoon surface for the sudden movement of small sharks, eyes that had learnt to scan the high forest canopy for a glimpse of a rare Black parrot. His mouth was clamped shut and level and his sun freckled face was set as firm as if he was beating up the three miles of ocean beach into the blast of a summer nor’easter.
And thus he sat.
The door to Harry’s office burst open and a couple with their young son exited closely followed by the priest. He scanned the crowded benches, returned a few nods and bestowed a couple of smiles. The twins drew back onto their benches and when Harry spotted Toby a delighted smile lit up his face.
‘ Tobias! ‘ he boomed, ‘ come in my young shark fisherman, come in and tell me what you know of Josef Conrad and the wild raging of the South Tasman oceans. ‘ He then he winked hugely at Tom and the three of them disappeared into his office, Toby handsomely trailing his clouds of glory past the twins, who goggled.
Within half an hour Tom and the boy were back out in the sunshine with a list of books that comprised Toby’s educational schedule for the next three months. There was also paper and pencils, rulers and folders to be bought together with the month’s groceries and fruit, but the sight of a practically empty beer-garden in the Marlin Hotel was enough to convince the old man that lunch should come first.
And wherein Tom re-acquainted himself with Silent Jack French from The Monaro.
Silent Jack was an old drover now settled in Eden and he spent most of his days in a northern corner seat in the garden, by the bar and near to the radio.
Jack liked a bet. Jack also didn’t like having to ask when he came into the Pub in the mornings. He wanted the double whisky and milk and his first schooner of the day on the bar and ready when he came out of the toilet, which he always visited first.
Jack was regular like that.
And his black dog Elsie would collapse her bony old bag of a body under the northern table where Jack had placed his racing guide and glasses, on his way through to the toilet.
The pair of them would usually stay until about four o’ clock in the afternoon and then the manager would have to help the old fellow home to the front door of his two room flat just up the road. By this time Jack would be having difficulty standing, but sober enough to remember to take home the half bottle of rum.
He was regular like that.
‘ She’s a little beauty you know! ‘ said Jack to no one in particular. ‘ Elsie. ‘
Tom looked over, surprised. Here’s a change! Silent Jack talking.
Uncaring as to whether he had an audience or not, Jack continued his monologue.
‘ Use to be a good little sheepdog she was. Knew every whistle I could think up.‘ He bent down and gave his ancient hound a scratch on his ear; the dog flopped her tail, once.
How’s that Jack?’ asked Tom
The old man took up the whisky in his shaking hand and poured it all down.
He squinted at Tom over his glass, as if he should know it all without asking. But he went on.
‘ She could play cricket pretty good too, taught a young bloke in the bush how to field once. ’
‘ That’d be a bloody first Jack.’
‘ My oath it was. She would’ve given Bradman** a run I can tell yez. ‘ he said, shoving his glass up to the bar.
He turned looked down at the sleeping dog. ‘ She’s a little beauty you know. ‘
‘ I could whistle her all over the landscape in our day. The old girl could box up a mob of sheep in ten minutes flat and have ‘em into the trap before your smoke was half out. She was about as quick as Flash Gordon she was. ’
The Publican’s wife walked into the bar with a bundle of bar towels and lemonade for the boy and stopped when she heard Jack talking. She had been looking after the old man for eleven years and had never heard him say anything other than ‘ Hullo Missus. ‘
‘ What about old Elsie playing cricket Jack? ‘ Tom asked, knowing that whatever tale Jack would tell today he may never do so again.
‘ I’ll have another one of these first, ‘ said Jack, shoving his shot glass over the bar. ‘ Fill ‘er up. ‘
Then he went on –
‘ When we use to go into Town at the end of a shed* we’d stay at a little place over by the Oval where I had a lady friend you see, Condobolin, and this here old dog would be over there like a shot if any of the local kids was playin’ cricket. Lovely to watch she was. Creepin’ up low behind the bowler and then shootin’ orf like a bloody rocket the minute he let loose of the ball. ‘
‘ Shooting off to where mate? ‘ Another listener had joined the group and Jack gave him a long incurious stare.
‘ Do yez mind not interruptin’ a man in the middle of a bloody story mate? ‘ He asked, a little belligerently
Another revelation thought Tom, Silent Jack getting cranky.
‘ Gimme the top half of that will yez, ‘ he asked, shoving his empty schooner glass back over the bar.
Tom, the Publican’s’ wife, Toby and the newcomer waited patiently for Jack as he accounted for half of the new schooner in one open throated swallow and continue.
‘ Well, ‘ he said, ‘ she’d spent so long in the paddick lookin’ at which way them sheep was goin’ to bolt she had a feelin’ about where the bloke with the bat was goin’ to hit the ball. ‘
Then the ancient looked kindly at the Publican’s wife.
‘ Elsie could tell by lookin’ at their feet you see Missus.’ He said softy, as if she was the only one who needed the explanation. ‘ The sheep that is, and she was doin’ the same with the young fella hittin’ the ball. She was watchin’ his feet. It was like the bloody ball was followin’ the dog around if you know what I mean. Excuse me French.‘
He looked around at his audience, now grown by three more, and took another mighty pull of his beer.
‘ Are yez with me? ‘ He asked.
They were. We were.
‘ So, ‘ he went on, ‘ there was this little tyke one day who wanted to play with the big blokes but they wouldn’t give him the time of day. He was about as big as your little bloke Tom, this little feller here. ‘ Jack looked down at Toby. ‘ What’s your name sonny? ‘
Toby ducked his head and smiled into his glass of lemonade.
‘ That there is Toby, ‘ Tom offered.
‘ Pleased to meet yer. Anyways, ‘ Jack went on, ‘ the poor little bugger never got a touch of the ball but he was out there with ‘em anyway. Me old dog shined upter him straight away but, and pretty soon the kid figured out how the dog was right onto where the ball was goin’ to go to. Smart little feller he was. Like young Toby here. ‘
Jack took a break and moved a bit of air in and out of his lungs, wheezing a little and coughing up a lifetime of smoking. He shoved his glass over the bar. ‘ Gimme another one of them will yez, ‘ he asked.
‘ Anyhow, the pair of ‘em got so good at chasing the ball after a while the other kids let him join up. Only fielding mind, but the little bloke was happy enough with that. He had a pretty fair arm for a youngster and it wasn’t as if he was gettin’ short of plenty of practice. ’
Jack rolled up a smoke out of a crushed pack that he kept in his shirt pocket. He was steady handed now, his raspy old voice a little clearer and his eyes were alight with the reminiscing. A slow smile crept across his old face.
‘ Then one day I’ll be blowed if the old dog didn’t do something different for once. She started barkin’. Barkin just before she took off after the ball like. ‘
‘ All dogs bark Jack, ‘ reminded one of his listeners.
‘ Yeah yeah I know, ‘ growled the old man. ‘ but what was different was that she was doin’ as many different kinds of barks as I use to do whistlin’. Yippin’ and yappin’ and suchlike. ‘
‘ It was the little bloke who put me onto it. He would sit with me and the dog when we was waitin’ for the other kids to show up in the morning, you know how a bloke needs a break from the little woman from time to time, and he told me how the old girl had different barks for all the different parts of the field. Seems she was getting’ a little tired of all the chasin’ the ball around all by herself and was given’ instructions.
Like I used to whistle her up when she was a workin’ dog. By God she was sure smart about them sheep. ’
The smoke from the narrow little cigarette drifted into his eyes and he took it out of his mouth to examine the end. Then he ground it out between his fingers and dropped it onto the floor.
‘ Are yez still with me? ‘
‘ Yeah mate, go on. ‘
‘ Well one day she gets into a fight with some town mongrel and by the time I’ve got shot of him she’s a bit crook with a nice rip in her leg. I get her stitched up ok but she’s out of the cricket for a while and sittin’ up with me in the back of the ute watchin’ the game instead.
The youngster was a bit upset because him and me dog was a bit of a team you see. But I’m blowed if they didn’t work it all out between themselves. ‘
Silent Jack French fell silent here and we all saw his eyes water up a little.
‘ She’s been me mate for a while I can tell yez, best mate a man could have. Old Else.‘
‘ What happened Jack? ‘
‘ Well, the kids got all set up and picked who was goin’ to bat and who was goin’ to bowl. The little bloke gets picked for fieldin’ as usual and he goes out and stands a little ways behind the bowler. Waitin for the dog to bark you see. Meanwhile, me and the old girl are sittin’ up in the back of the ute just behind him at back of the fence, and she’s all a’shaken and a’tremblin’ just like she did when we was set for musterin’ sheep. ‘
He paused and looked around at the circle of eight of us.
‘ Anyone got a smoke? ‘
He took the one that was offered him, looked it over end from end, tore off the filter tip, fired it up – and continued.
‘ Well, that little feller was first to the ball all day. Didn’t matter what the bloke with the bat had in mind, the dog was onto him straight away and the kid knew which bark meant which way to run. I came away near deaf from the flamin’ racket’. Later on they let him have a whack with the bat – but he was no bloody good at that. S’cuse me Missus. The bat was too big for him but I bet he’ll be ok at it by now. ‘
Jack stopped there and looked up at the publican’s wife, then at Tom, his eyes a little dimmed and the words finally all dried up.
‘ I’ll get out of yer way now. ‘ He said and then lapsed back into his customary silence.
The dog had slept through.
Later on as Tom was going through the aisles of the grocery store Toby asked if perhaps they could buy a cricket ball to take back home.
‘ I think Alf would be a pretty good at cricket granddad, and I could whistle on my harmonica to show him where to run. ‘
Tom however remained silent, his thoughts with Silent Jack – a man of his own age, alone with his dog.
* shearing shed.
** the greatest cricketer to play the game