To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture. This piece of fiction by A.E. Sturges was first published in 1965.
Lightning revealed the hut shuddering under the wind. Thunder cracked, filled the darkness. Inside the hut the six pickers ignored the storm. They watched the fall of the cards, smoked and drank, thought of women. The dealer screwed up his eyes against the smoke.
‘What d’you want?’
‘Give us three.’
‘He’s got a full hand.’
‘All he can get in this hole.’
‘Tomorrow night’ll be different.’
‘No more picking for me at a men-only joint.’
‘Me either. Old Carter can let the women in, or pick the bastards himself.’
The big man left of the dealer looked up from his hand.
‘Doesn’t hurt you to go without once in a while.’
‘Look who’s talking.’
‘Gone dry, Banger?’ Banger smiled.
‘They got torn off when he tripped over his tin.’
‘Why torture yourself over something you can’t get? If it’s there, have it; if it’s not, shut up.’
‘Well, how’s that from you?’
‘More bangs than a bloody drum.’
‘If you knocked off now, you’d average one a day when you kicked it.’
‘You’re mixing me up with Cas.’
‘Cas talks about it; you do it.’
The skinny one called Cas shot the speaker a dirty look.
‘You want to try me out, Rusty?’
Rusty laughed. The dealer thumped the table.
‘Come on, come on. What’s the betting?’
‘Don’t break yourself.’
‘I’ll watch it.’
‘He owes old Carter the rest.’
‘Your two bob and up another two.’
‘Up you too.’
‘Here’s mine-for free.’
‘I’ll look at you.’
‘Three butchers, aces.’
Banger spread out his cards. ‘Four ladies!’
‘The bastard even gets ’em at cards.’
Banger quietly collected the pool and the cards. ‘Another?’
‘How about a break for a beer?’
‘O.K. by me.’
‘Set ’em up, Art.’
‘Who’s drinking? … Rusty?’
‘Try and stop me.’
‘I paid my bloody share, didn’t I?’
‘Ever heard me say no? Except to a woman?’
‘Must have been over ninety.’
‘Or under nine.’
Freed from the suspense of the cards, they were conscious of the storm.
‘Jeez! Listen to that bloody wind, will you.’
‘Old hut’ll go any minute.’
‘Long as she lasts the night. Then she can blow to buggery.’
Silence as they thought of tomorrow.
‘Back to the boats, Patto?’
‘I s’pose. But not tomorrow.’
‘A decent feed, and a woman.’
‘In that order?’
‘It’ll do. I can wait. I’m going to wrap myself around a mixed grill. I’m sick of cornflakes, and watery bloody stew.’
‘And no women.’
‘Fancy. Not a woman in sight for six weeks.’
‘What about old Ma Carter?’
‘She ain’t a woman.’
‘She’s female, ain’t she?’
‘Take six years, not six weeks, to make me come at that.’
‘Listen! What was that?’
‘Sounded like a knock.’
‘Wish it was a knocking shop.’
‘It was the wind—who’d knock here?’
‘Old Carter for one. To see we don’t skip owing for tucker.’
‘Serve the old bastard right if we did. Him and his no bloody women. All right for him, he’s had his.’
‘Listen! That was a knock.’
Matey strode to the door to dispel the illusion. He lifted the latch. The wind tore the door from his grasp, the fire roared, paper and cards blew about the room. No one noticed. All stared dumbly at the door. At the girl.
Matey stepped back, slowly. The girl entered, hesitant, blinking, leaning back against the wind. Matey retrieved the door, gradually forced it shut, without taking his eyes off the girl… She stood, looking from one silent face to another.
She was young, her fresh face reddened and long hair tangled by the wind. Face fresh but plain. But not to the pickers. To them she was a miracle, delivered by the storm. They stared, wondering why she was there, guessing her age, praying she was older than she looked. Banger was the first to find his tongue. ‘You’re cold. Come by the fire.’ He pulled up a box.
Rusty blurted: ‘Where you from?’
‘But… isn’t that over—’
‘I took a short cut. Dad’s always warning me. I lost the track. There’s no moon.’
‘Where were you?’
‘I’m going to Glanford. To stay the night with a friend.’
‘A girl friend?’
She laughed. ‘Of course.’
‘But isn’t Glanford… I mean, isn’t that behind Hobb’s Hill? The other side? West, that is?’
She put hand to mouth, looked childish.
‘Then… where’s this?’
‘Know Carter’s place? Raspberries?’
‘You don’t mean… Longton?’
‘Oh gosh! I’ve been walking away… I’ll have to go back home.’ The six stopped breathing. As if in sympathy, the wind dropped. There was a moment of stillness, of indecision. Then rain fell, suddenly, as if the sky had opened. It thundered on the iron roof, made the fire hiss. The six breathed again, brightened.
‘You can’t go out in this.’
‘You must wait till it’s over.’
‘Have a drink.’
She nodded. ‘I am thirsty.’
She made a face. ‘No thank you.’
‘Would it be much trouble?’
Willing hands swung the billy, set cups, searched for biscuits and plates. The girl held her hands to the fire, lowered her head, riffled her hair in the warmth. She sat up, tossed her hair back.
‘You’re very good,’ she said as she took the tea.
Cas grinned. ‘Only ’cause we’ve had to be.’ Art shuffled closer. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Mona. Mona Kerslake.’
Cas winked. ‘I like a moaner. Makes you feel appreciated.’ They glared at him. Unnecessarily: the girl did not comprehend.
‘You’re Mr Carter’s pickers?’
‘Yeah. Home tomorrow.’
‘Was it a good crop?’
‘Plenty of raspberries. But a shortage of women.’
‘Mr Carter doesn’t employ women.’
‘So we found out.’
‘And we know six men he won’t be employing again.’
‘Didn’t he treat you well? He’s got a good name.’
‘He’s all right. But we like company.’
She looked at their avid faces. She rose, uncertain.
‘I must be going.’
They protested, a chorus.
‘Listen to the rain.’
She smiled. ‘I’m a country girl. I’m not worried by a drop of rain.’
‘You did get lost.’
‘Only because I took no notice of Dad. I’ll find my way home all right.’
‘You’d be soaked before you’d gone a hundred yards.’
‘Now listen. Stay the night, and we’ll see you on your way soon as it’s light.’
She looked startled, uncertain whether it was a joke. ‘Oh I couldn’t. Really. Thanks all the same. Mum and Dad would be worried.’
‘They wouldn’t know. They’d think you were at your friend’s place.’ She put hand to mouth again, a child. ‘Oh! What if they ring. If they’ve already rung.’
‘They’d think you were a bit slow getting there, that’s all.’
‘You don’t know Dad. He’d have a search party out. I must go, at once.’
Art was the quickest thinker. He jumped up, took his coat from a nail.
‘Here; if you must go, take my coat. It’s got an extra big collar, you can pull it right over your head.’
‘But I wouldn’t be able to return it.’
Art smiled. ‘I’ll come with you.’
‘Hey! Just a minute. Why you?’
‘My coat’d be better, it’s waterproof.’
‘Mine’s got a hood.’
‘Let’s all go.’
‘Spoil it for everyone.’
‘Draw. Ace highest.’
The girl looked at their excited faces, bewildered.
Cas, who had drunk most beer, and was least able to carry it, lurched across to the girl, fumbled to take hold of her.
‘I’ll take her. You all just leave it to me. I’ll take good care of her, don’t worry.’
The girl backed away. Cas stumbled after her. She began to feel frightened. Suddenly she saw Cas crash against the wall, and the one they called Banger standing over him.
‘Keep your hands to yourself, Cas.’ He spoke quietly, but even the girl realized it was a dangerous quiet. The others stood silent, watching. Cas got slowly to his feet.
‘I’ll take her home,’ Banger said.
There were mutterings of protest. Banger looked at the others. ‘Any objections?’
There was a moment’s silence. Then Rusty said: ‘I thought you said it didn’t hurt to go without.’
‘Sure I said it. So what?’
Art laughed harshly. ‘Banger meant it wouldn’t hurt us. He didn’t think of himself. He’s not selfish.’
Banger smiled. ‘Listen. You couldn’t agree on a draw. Cas tried the cave-man stuff. O.K., I’m playing cave-man. Any takers?’
No one spoke. ‘All right. That’s settled.’ He turned to the girl. She looked at him, distressed.
‘Really… there’s no need. I can find my way… I don’t want-‘
‘I’m taking you. You ready?’
She bit her lip, nodded. Banger reached down his coat.
‘Better put this on.’
‘Hang on a sec, Banger.’
He swung round, ready. ‘Yeah?’
‘Keep your shirt on. Just think she ought to take my coat. It’s got a hood.’
‘Oh. O.K. You’re a good loser.’
‘Case of have to… I’ll be thinking of you.’
The girl put on the coat, pulled up the hood. ‘Thank you.’
‘Come on, then.’ Banger moved to the door. The girl followed, then turned.
‘Thank you all very much,’ she said. Matey waved a hand.
‘Good luck,’ Rusty said.
‘She’ll need it.’
Banger wrenched the door open. Rain drove in. The door crashed behind them. There was a silence in the hut. Cas walked slowly to the fire; sat down heavily. ‘The bastard,’ he said.
‘Don’t take it so hard, man,’ Patto said. ‘Soon be tomorrow.’
‘We all missed out, didn’t we?’ Art growled.
‘If the big swine hadn’t taken me unawares, I’d-‘
‘Ah, cut it, Cas. You’re scared of him; why not admit it.’
‘What bloody right’s he got-‘
‘The right that counts. If you could lick him, you’d have taken her. So would I.’
‘He couldn’t have licked the lot of us.’
‘Count me out on that. I wouldn’t gang up on a man, not even for a woman.’
‘The bastard could’ve shared her.’
‘Be your age, man. She’s a kid. One’s enough.’ Art groaned. ‘Don’t I wish I was the one.’
‘You can say that again.’
‘Just think of it.’
‘What d’you reckon I’m thinking of—raspberries?’
The rain eased. The girl stopped, pushed back the hood, opened the heavy coat. She glanced sideways, seeking Banger’s face.
‘That name they called you. Banger. Why do they call you that?’
Banger was glad of the darkness. ‘Dunno,’ he growled. ‘All got nicknames—Rusty, Cas, Patto… Don’t ask me why.’
‘But yours is such a strange one… What’s your real name?’
Banger hesitated. ‘Angus.’
‘Angus… I like that. Why don’t they call you by it?’
‘Dunno.’ Banger grinned wryly. They didn’t know it. Nor would. They came to a fork in the track. Banger stopped, peered left and right, took tentative steps on the downhill track.
‘Not there,’ she said.
Through the sighing of the trees he heard the low rush of a creek.
‘Nothing wrong with your ears.’
She laughed, her teeth shone. ‘I’m a country girl. Lived all my life in the bush.’
‘How long is that?’
‘I’m eighteen and a half.’
His heart jumped. She wasn’t a kid. He turned, looked up at her. In the opening of the dark coat her slender body shone. His own body ached for contact with it. As if in answer to his wish she moved, slipped, and slid towards him. He put out his hands and stopped her. He intended to take her in his arms, but instead he let her go.
He took out his tobacco. ‘Smoke?’
‘Don’t drink, don’t smoke. A good girl.’ His voice was harsher than he meant.
She turned away. All he could see was the dark coat. He was afraid he had offended her. He wanted her to tum back.
‘Look.’ She pointed. ‘That’s the way. Up over the hill.’
‘I’ll walk in front, will I? It’s narrow for two.’
‘O.K.’ Like that he could watch her, wait his opportunity, reach out for her at the right moment. Soon they must come to a shed, a barn; he could suggest a spell.
A few minutes later, again as if in answer to his wish, he saw a shed. He must act, a shed meant houses, people. He hoped there would be some straw, or dry bags. They came abreast of the shed; he stopped.
The girl turned around and looked at him. He felt himself shaking slightly. Six weeks was a long time. The heavy coat was still open, the light dress glowing within its darkness. He stepped closer. She looked up at him, in question. Once again, something—her youth, her slenderness, her simpleness—disarmed him.
‘Roll a smoke,’ he muttered. He spilled tobacco, crushed the cigarette.
‘You’re cold,’ she said, and the concern in her voice touched something in him.
They walked on. She recognised a tree, a fence, a barn. Then pointed excitedly to their house. Lights were on. Mingled with the ache of his desire, Banger felt a certain relief.
‘They must know I didn’t get there. They’ll be terribly worried.’
‘You’re safe now,’ Banger said, and held out his hands for the coat.
‘Safe?’ She laughed, and took his hands in her own. Banger felt a surge of desire.
‘Come in,’ she said, ‘and meet Mum and Dad. They’ll want to thank you.’
‘No.’ His refusal sounded so churlish that he added: ‘I’m a bit shy.’ He shuddered at the thought of the others hearing him.
‘Oh. I’m sorry. Well, goodbye, then.’ She held out her hand, and Banger felt again the softness and warmth that had disarmed him.
‘And thank you, Angus, for bringing me home safely.’
He heard the door shut. But stood, in a trance. Angus. It was a long time since he’d been called that. She made it sound good, not affected. A thought struck him. He heard her last word: ‘safely’. Had she said that queerly? She had laughed when he had said that she was safe. Was she teasing him? His slowness?
He cursed himself, then turned swiftly, hurried away. If only he could have the last hour over again. What a laugh, him falling for the innocence touch.
But deep down inside him, something gave this the lie. He thought of the girl. Safely home, untouched. Speaking to her parents. Perhaps of him. Saying his name. Angus. He heard her voice, felt the soft warmth of her hands. He took a deep breath. The air was fresh and soft after the rain.
At the hut they were all in bed. Awake, waiting. As the door shut, the questions began.
‘How’d it go, Bang?’
‘You give her one for me?’
‘Where’d you have it?’
He had to say something. ‘She was O.K.’
Cas laughed, jeered. ‘I can guess!’
‘What’s it like with a virgin, Banger?’
He held himself in. He was shaking, but he kept his voice steady. ‘Makes a change,’ he said.
Meanjin Volume 24 Issue 3 1965
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