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south – market day

Books. For two days Tom and the boy laboured to pack into boxes the several hundred books that they were to take to Eden Market on the following Sunday. This annual event was one that Tom always looked forward to as it gave him the opportunity to trade those books he had read during the year he did not wish to keep. Book traders from as far as Canberra and Sydney rented stalls so he also had the opportunity to find out what was on offer in the metropolitan bookshops.

‘ Who’s in this granddad? ‘ Toby held up a book with an erupting volcano behind a man in a big hat pictured on the cover.

‘ Haroun Tazieff, volcanologist. ‘

‘ And in this? ‘ A mud covered man emerging from a hole in the ground.

‘ Norbert Casteret, speleologist. ‘

‘ This one? ‘ Here an arrogant profile of a man with a huge moustache.

‘ Francis Younghusband, mountaineer and explorer.’

‘ They have pretty funny names granddad, ‘ opined Tobias Leigh Tretheway, small boy. ‘ If I ever write a book it will be just by Toby. Who is this funny one with the big nose? ‘

‘ Wilfred Thesiger, traveler of the Arabian sands and friend of the nomad Bedouin. ‘

‘ What’s a nomad? ‘

‘ Monty is. ‘

The boy got to his feet and walked to the edge of the verandah.

‘ I like Monty, ‘ he said and quietly stepped down onto the beach. Alf had trotted out from under the house and they both slowly headed up toward the fish traps. Tom didn’t look up as he was considering the worth of a hardcover Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

‘ Maybe not. ‘ he murmured, and he put the book amongst those he was keeping.

Sunday.

The trouble with that woman thought Tom irritably was that she had an overdeveloped appreciation of her sense of righteousness as he watched her waddle away from himself and his grandson, neither of whom had had previously any reason to believe that the unattended cake stall was there to raise money from the sale of the rather workmanlike examples that both he and Toby had been freely sampling.

Toby in particular had been the subject of most of the woman’s wrath when she discovered that not only had he the vestiges of four of the cakes littered about his person, he also had another three secured in his pocket. Fortunately the boy had inherited his mother’s obdurate sense of humour and it was the committee woman who left burdened with her discovery.

Tom redirected their attention to an exhibition of the local Bushfire Brigade’s assets, and where several uniformed youths lounged around the vehicles in the manner of men born to heroic deeds who were now enjoying a few hours respite from that particular occupation. Here they basked unashamedly in the stares of admiration being bestowed upon them by a group of several young girls who were talking behind their hands.

The youths observed the approach of Tom and his grandson with bored disinterest, and when one of them peremptorily disallowed Tobias from entering the cab of the biggest of their collection of vehicles Tom felt strange premonition when a faint tremor shivered through his scalp.

The boy summoned as black a look as a six year old was capable of and after noting the configuration of the displayed hoses pumps and portable extinguishers, he followed his grandfather in the direction of a large covered stall selling books and magazines.

This particular stall was manned by an acquaintance of Toms and while the older men made desultory conversation, Toby idly flipped through a box of collectors’ comics.

This year the Market day was organised and run by a local committee of formidable senior women where previously the local St Vincent De Paul had had the responsibility. These women patrolled the event with a bravura that needed only the addition of flowing white garments and glittering swords to enhance their self perceived role as guardians of the collective consciences of those attending and those participating.

This perception was enforced when the same committee stalwart who had rousted them from the cake stall marched up to Tom’s companion and – after interrupting their reminiscences without apology – suggested that he make further attempt at rectifying the disorder of his tabled offerings.

She then glared unnecessarily at Toby – and waddled away again.

Tom’s companion, a man with a more seasoned past than a bookseller was usually given credit for, called softly skywards for some heavenly force to deliver to the woman an experience that would remove her to the complications of a hospital bed and him to the peace of a distant tropical island. At which point Tom suggested to Toby that he might be interested in the skills of a fire-eater who was setting up his exhibition nearby. Despite the fact that this individual appeared to be a probationary entertainer and one, Tom considered, not likely to be invited back given his and his assistant’s appearance together with the motley caliber of his small yet appreciative audience.

The Most Reverend Eddie Embers, as he had immodestly billboarded himself, was a small and consumptive man handsomely robed in a stained silk djallabah covered in scrawled sarcasms. His hair, sparse as it was, was coloured scarlet and remained stiffly undisturbed despite a brisk wind sweeping into the park from the west. His female assistant, a melancholy woman of indeterminate age and dressed in a sari, was sat listless upon a cushion on the ground painting her toenails blue.

The growing audience comprised a majority of the idle youth of the town, all of whom were restively waiting for the show to commence whilst loudly commenting upon what they hoped to see.

Tom suggested to Toby that he find himself a suitable viewing position and then he left to resume his conversation with the bookseller adjacent whilst at the same time maintaining a weather eye on the fire eater’s proceedings.

Eddie Embers’ vocal chords had no doubt suffered much from his occupation – if not from a punishing social life – as his raspy request for the onlookers to form a circle about him and his assistant went largely unheard. Nevertheless he took a position roughly central to the small gathering and after turning on a small tape recorder he gestured grandly for his melancholy assistant to come forward and commence the opening choreographic sequence.

Tom was as startled as was one of the patrolling committee wardwomen when Eddie’s assistant commenced her dance routine by slowly disengaging herself of most of her upper clothing, which encouraged her audience markedly though the discarded bodices may well have been restricting her flowing interpretations of the Gypsy composition that issued unevenly from the tape recorder.

And Eddie wandered about the inner circle of his audience flourishing a small gold flask in one hand and a burning taper in the other, slyly insinuating that evil and dangerous pleasures awaited them.

The patrolling committeewoman, now thoroughly agitated was vainly trying to insert herself and her authority through the broad backs of the tightly packed circle of onlookers, a barrier which was also restricting Tom’s view of his grandson who was sat ringside.

As the music began its crescendo the disappointingly bare breasted assistant crumpled to the ground and from that position coyly surrendered the centre stage and the climax of the piece to Eddie who solemnly emptied the contents of the goblet into his mouth, losing a little of the drama when he exposed two incomplete rows of fire-blackened teeth.

The committee woman, not to be withstood any longer at last produced a silver whistle from her pocket and produced a shriek of such frequency that Eddie instinctively turned towards the sound at the very moment he expunged the flammable contents of his mouth onto the lighted taper.

Later that afternoon Tom and Harry debated at some length as to whether it was the frightening appearance of a tongue of flame in their faces that had parted the crowd or perhaps the piercing shriek of the whistle at their backs. Nevertheless part they did and both the flame and the whistle slowly died in conjunction with each other as Eddie faced his nemesis and all her demons in their very flesh.

There was a moment’s silence.

However and unfortunately Eddie’s discarded taper had ignited the clothing that his assistant had earlier shed  – and unseen by all but Tobias – began to gently smolder.

At this stage of the debacle Tom was about to retrieve his lad when he saw Toby dart out of the crowd and head towards the now deserted Bushfire Brigade’s Exhibition. The youths who were previously in attendance had long abandoned it and were now part of the group ogling the bewildered Eddie his fleshy assistant and the righteous and enraged committeewoman.

Tom could only watch as the boy struggled back to the small conflagration under the heavy weight of a red fire extinguisher he had liberated from the Brigade’s exhibition. The boy shows deep initiative Tom said to himself.

So heavy was the implement the boy dropped it onto the ground and his grandfather saw bursting from the loosened nozzle a waving and powerful stream of carbonized flame expellant.

The committeewoman unfortunately received the brunt of the initial salvo central to where her buttocks met the backs of her thighs and Eddie and his assistant were all but packed and into their van before she met the ground hard upon her soaked haunches.

Tobias then showed an even more exacting initiative when he managed to direct the last of the foaming stream into the laughing faces of the Bushfire Brigadiers.

Later.

‘ You don’t think the woman knew you do you? ‘ asked Harry as they walked down the drive.

‘ No, ‘ replied Tom, ‘ but I’m sure she has put an alert out for Eddie and his offsider, the poor little bloke didn’t even have time to go round with his hat. ‘

‘ And Toby here, ‘ Harry gave the boy a pat on his head, ‘ not possible she knew him? ‘

The three of them stopped as they reached Tom’s ute.

‘ She’s got you worried Harry, what is she? The Parish Treasurer? ‘

‘ Worse,’ Harry looked up and down the street a little furtively, ‘ she’s the headmistress of the girl’s school, and the blessed woman is on five committees. ‘

Tom put his arm around the priests’ shoulders and opened the car door.

‘Maybe you should jump in. A couple of weeks down the coast, bag of whiting, suntan, out there on the verandah with a good book and a cold beer every afternoon. Whaddya say? ‘

Harry smiled, ‘ Behind me Satan I say. At least for now. ‘

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