Chapter 10 — At The Show
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‘I was talking to Fred Dobbs the other day,’ Bell said, looking up from his newspaper. ‘The — ah — the spring lambs are the only thing worth seeing at the Wagga Show, according to old Fred. I think — ah — I think I’ll wander over there when I’ve finished breakfast. Will you join me, Paul?’
‘Yes, I’d like that. What do you have, at this Show?’
‘You can see a prize bull, and a giant pumpkin that would take you six months to eat your way through it.’
‘Or a merino ram,’ said Julie, ‘or someone showing off a new breed of cattle dog. I believe old Mr Timmins is going to be there again this year with some of his famous Timmins Biters.’ She explained to Paul: ‘They’re a type of cattle dog he’s been breeding for donkey’s years. As you can perhaps tell from the name, he has some way yet to go.’
‘The Hall’s Heeler is a better dog,’ her father said, ‘and they’re more popular. God, old Timmins must be — must be a hundred by now — you think he’d give up. Talking of eccentric characters, I wonder if old Barnaby will be showing his fabled “blue kelpie” dogs this year. Fred Dobbs says they’re supposed to be a cross between the brown kelpie, the dingo, and the blue Queensland bunyip.’ He laughed, and buried his head in the Advertiser.
‘Oh, father’s joking. There’s really no such animal. The bunyip is a legendary monster of the Outback. The old-timers say they inhabit waterholes, and make a mournful cry at night.’
‘Ah, the humour of the countryside,’ Paul said.
‘On Sunday there’s a big parade,’ Julie said. ‘You should see that. The best of each breed of farm animal gets a kind of silk ribbon, like, let me see —’ she put her hand on his arm, her eyes sparkling — ‘like the Legion of Honour!’
‘I can just see a sheep with the Legion of Honour,’ Paul said. ‘Believe me, in some cases it would be very apt.’
‘Silk ribbons, eh?’ said Bell, browsing through his paper. ‘Sometimes it seems the smaller the town, the more ornate the festivities, and the — ah — the more medals, ribbons, testimonials and honorifics are bestowed. I went to a testimonial dinner for old Cottee recently, and the speeches went on past midnight. Well, shall we be going? Ah — why don’t you come too, Julie?’
‘Very well, but just for a while. I have a pupil at eleven.’
The showground was crowded with people — Paul recognised the tall white-haired figure of Mr Birtwhistle from the coach depot, and Luther Quoign from the Advertiser, and several from the dance. There were townsfolk, mostly wearing their Sunday best, and farming people, some dressed for show, others in more practical work clothes. The sun was shining, there was a light wind that caught the coloured pennants and made them snap and flutter. Paul felt his mood lifting like sail filling with a good breeze.
They wandered among the machinery laid out in the sun; horse-drawn ploughs, automatic seeders, a roller made from a log roughly hacked into a cylindrical shape, a set of harrows laid on its back like a mediaeval torture rack with a hundred spikes sticking up. They threaded their way through the crowd to the Produce Hall, and admired the stacks of giant pumpkins and the artfully arranged mountains of yellow corn cobs, and the jars and bottles of preserves.
Behind the hall was a makeshift sideshow alley: a grassy path a dozen yards wide flanked with canvas tents. Boiled sweets and lumps of home-made toffee were for sale at one stall, and glasses of fresh lemonade at another; there was a coconut shy, and games where you had to shoot an arrow through a small hoop. Paul was persuaded to try his luck at the rifle shoot.
The gun worked off compressed air and shot a brass pellet with a coloured feather trailing from the back; the targets were small pieces of wood cut out and painted to look like ducks, parrots, and white cockatoos. There were also a few clumsy human figures. The boy behind the counter explained: ‘That one in the blue, that’s Constable Sloesser, ‘Old Slosher’, as he’s known; the young fellers like to knock him down, as you can imagine. The bloke in black, that’s Dan Morgan the bushranger, ‘Mad Dog Morgan’ they called him. He murdered a lot of people, but he was caught and killed ten years ago now; anyone would have a go at him.’ Paul stared at the crude figure: the painted red grin seemed especially evil because of the clumsiness of the work, and Paul felt his skin crawl. ‘And that gentleman at the back with the top hat, that’s Mr Dobbs from the Joint Stock Bank. He’s harmless, really, but the graziers get a great laugh out of shooting at him, because of the mortgages and interest rates and things like that. They’ll stick at it for half an hour or more, banging away and having a great time. I painted them up myself; not bad, eh?’
Paul knocked down a duck and a parrot, but his attempts to dislodge Old Slosher came to nothing. He shook his head. ‘The gun’s no good,’ he explained to Julie. ‘I think they’ve set the sight crooked, so you don’t hit too many. Here, you fire it.’ She smiled, and when the boy had pumped up the gun with air and loaded it, she knocked down a wooden cockatoo. She was allowed six shots: she missed the second, but when her six had been used up she had knocked down a duck, two more cockatoos and Mad Dog Morgan. ‘Well done, my dear,’ Bell said. The boy gave her an admiring look. ‘You’re wonderful, Miss Julie,’ he said, and gave her a box of chocolates as a prize. Julie exchanged it for a table lamp that took kerosene.
They decided not to look at the two-headed calf that was on show for sixpence, nor the Wild Man from Borneo shackled and growling in a shallow pit; but they paid threepence each to see some circus acts in a small, dusty tent. There was a table off to one side, set for dinner with white linen and good silverware, and a pair of golden candlesticks. A chimpanzee named Consul sat at the table, dressed in a formal jacket with a paper carnation in his buttonhole. He lit a cigar with what looked like a banknote, and blew a smoke ring at the audience. Then he bobbed up and down a few times and set to work on the food. He handled his knife and fork cleverly, and alternated taking puffs of the cigar, gulping from a goblet of coloured water, and pushing food into his mouth with the fork. When the circus owner came and cleared the table, the chimp whipped out a wad of notes from his jacket pocket and waved them about, with his free arm draped over the back of the chair. The audience loved it. Consul chattered with pleasure and bared his pink gums in a wide grin, and loped off hand in hand with the owner, making extravagant bows.
A sign outside another tent boasted the tallest negro woman in the world and the smallest Chinaman, but they left that aside. Nearby a bewhiskered old man sat on a stool in the shade of a canvas awning snipping at a piece of black paper with a tiny pair of scissors. ‘Oh, there’s Abe Latchett, ’ Julie said. ‘Let’s get a silhouette made! Mr Latchett, do you remember me?’
‘It’s Miss Bell, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘And the good doctor; how d’you do, sir?’ He shook Bell’s hand, and nodded politely at Paul. ‘I never forget a pretty profile, Miss Julie. Let’s see you tilt your chin up, now. Good. My, that’s pretty. Now, d’you want the quick one or the slow one?’
‘Well, I’m not sure, Mr Latchett. Why, what’s the difference?’
‘The slow one’s twenty seconds; the quick one’s ten. Don’t you remember?’ He was snipping at the black paper. ‘You’ll look just as pretty, either way. Now, which do you think you would prefer?’ The little scissors flashed and twisted.
‘Too late, miss. You got the fast one!’ he said, and handed Julie the finished silhouette, a tiny outline of her head and shoulders cut from black paper about two inches across. The likeness was almost perfect, though he’d given her a tilted snub nose and a slightly firmer jaw than in real life.
Paul’s took a little longer. ‘The young gentleman has an intellectual forehead, with a very thoughtful frown upon it, and a thoughtful forehead is hard to get just right! There we are! Now, what about the two of you together like a pair of lovebirds on a branch. You make a lovely couple.’
‘Oh no,’ Paul said. He felt himself redden. ‘We don’t know each other so well as that. Doctor Bell, you have one made.’
‘I used to get one done every year, didn’t I, Abe?’ asked the doctor. Abe nodded. ‘But — ah — I’m growing too old and ugly now; I don’t know if it’s worth it. Oh, all right. But give me a dignified profile.’ The work was soon done.
‘How’s the business going, Abe?’ Bell asked.
‘Ah, there’s no money in silhouettes,’ said Latchett. ‘Small change, that’s all you get; enough for a cup of tea and a scone. All the old skills are dying. Look at this new fad for images. The only way I can make a crust is because I’m cheap. Mr Elliott and Mr Erwitt around the corner, with their ten-penny albumen prints, they’re raking in the customers. I can do a portrait, nice and pretty, in half a minute, and the customer can sit there as relaxed as a lizard in the sunshine and share a joke or two. With Mr Erwitt’s apparatus, you have to sit up still like a dead man for minutes on end and not sneeze or whisper, and that makes people scowl something terrible. Mortuary pictures, that’s what I call them. Well, have you ever seen a smile in a photograph? And then you have to wait for an hour for the image to be brewed up in the chemicals. And then if the daylight isn’t strong enough, Mr Elliott drags out his tray of flash powder that blows your hair off, and puts the hens off their laying.’
Paul laughed. ‘Perhaps you should get in step with the future,’ he said, ‘and invent an automatic silhouette machine. Perhaps you could make some money.’
‘Ahh, I’m too old to learn new tricks.’
‘Mr Latchett’s being doing silhouettes as long as I can remember,’ Julie said. ‘I have one at home of me as a girl, and that’s quite a few years ago now. He turns up with the show every year as regular as clockwork.’
‘That’s true, Miss Julie. Why, I can remember you sittin’ on your dad’s knee, with your blonde curls falling over your shoulders. And your dear mother, at the Goulburn Show — 1850, that would have been, and you just a tiny thing. Ah, the days that are gone. But it’s a good life. A good life. They say fresh air’s the ticket; purifies the lungs.’
‘You’ve been with the sideshow a good while, Abe,’ Bell said.
‘Since Methuselah was a boy.’ He turned to Paul. ‘I travel with the sideshow fellers, around the different country shows. There’s always something to do on a showground. We got all the way across to Adelaide last year. It’s nice around the campfire in the evening. Someone will brew up a big pot of tea, and everyone enjoys a yarn.’ He pushed his hat back and scratched his head, and looked around the showground. ‘It’s like a family, in a way,’ he said. ‘A kind of family, for them that don’t have a family of their own.’
The sheep dog trials were taking place in the main oval, and they decided to watch them for a while before luncheon. A man with a pink face and a white stubble of whiskers struck up a friendly conversation with the doctor. Paul was sure he’d met him before. Bell introduced them: it was Barnaby, the dog breeder, and Paul remembered seeing him drinking cider in the bar in Goulburn. ‘I haven’t found any Belgian Keeshonds for you yet,’ Paul said, and Barnaby stared at him.
‘You’re the Frenchman, from Goulburn hotel,’ he said. ‘I’ll be blowed. Well, them Keeshonds, you won’t find many around hereabouts. They’re no good for sheep.’
Bell gave Paul a look, and said to Barnaby ‘What’s this I hear about your breeding a new kind of kelpie, Barnaby? A blue kelpie, was that it?’
‘Rubbish. Never heard of it.’
‘Someone said you were thinking of crossing it with the blue Queensland bunyip?’
‘Now, Joseph, you’re ribbing me something terrible,’ Barnaby said. He allowed himself a grin, but made no further comment.
‘Do you live here in Wagga?’ Paul asked.
‘Me? No, son, I’m from out past the Black Stump, on the track to Timbuctoo. But I get about, I do. I came down for the Albury Show last week, then up to Sydney to see a man about a dog, and I nipped down to Wagga for the Show here today. Nothing escapes my notice, you might say.’
‘I thought Timbuctoo was in Africa.’
‘That must be the other Timbuctoo. You’re a serious feller, ain’t you?’ Barnaby gave him a close stare. ‘You’re the feller they’re talking about in the local paper, ain’t you? The feller who shot them bushrangers.’ Paul looked away angrily. ‘Well, if you’ll let me offer you some advice, son, you’ll keep low for a while.’
‘Why should I keep low? It’s not me who goes about committing crimes.’
‘Why? Because them bushrangers you shot so promptly have families, that’s why. Heeney’s mother has sworn to avenge his death, and his sister has sworn to do the same. His young brother Shawn is the one who will do it, by crikey. He’s a madman, he shot a feller over in Jerilderie last summer arguing over whose horse was the fastest, blew the poor bugger’s head off with a shotgun out the back of Buckley’s grog shop in the middle of the night, and he got away with it. The police couldn’t prove nothing against him at the time. They’ve got more evidence now, and there’s a warrant out for him, for what that’s worth. I’ll give you a warrant: I warrant he’ll never be caught. He might be a no-hoper, but he’s as cunning as a monkey, that one. They say he’s been seen about the district, carrying guns, saying he’ll take revenge for his dead brother, and there’s no one can stop him going where he likes. By the time old Slosher catches him it’ll be too late. So you watch yourself, young feller.’
Paul didn’t know what to say; he hadn’t thought of the outlaw he’d killed as having a mother, or brothers and sisters. He’d tried to put the whole thing out of his head. ‘Damn it,’ he said. ‘They were going to rob us and murder us, like they did with the others, like they did to the driver. Am I supposed to let them kill people, for the sake of not upsetting their family?’
‘I don’t know why I’m bothering you,’ Barnaby said. ‘It’s none of my bloody business. I just follow the shows around. Sometimes I bring a dog or two. The cattle dog trials are on tomorrow. That’s what I’m interested in. Real dogs.’
It was time for Julie to see her pupil, and she went home; the three men wandered over to the makeshift bar set up in the shade behind the grandstand to get a drink. Kegs of beer had been laid in the back of a buckboard and packed around with ice, and the drink was cold and refreshing. There was something about Barnaby that Paul found interesting. He asked him if he was Australian-born.
‘That I am, and it’s not every old man you meet who’s a native New South Welshman,’ he said, wiping the froth from his mouth. ‘My parents came out from Durham to take up some land and raise cattle, and I was born not long after we landed, in 1806. God Bless King George the Third!’
‘God Bless!’ said, Bell, and drank.
‘But they’re all dead now. I had no family except for my parents, and they’re long gone.’
‘Did they do well at cattle raising?’
‘No, they never did well, and they got sick with the plague, and they died poor, and poor Barnaby had to live by his wits in Sydney Town as best he could, all alone, so he did, may God damn them that didn’t help him.’ Barnaby swallowed the rest of his beer in a long draft, and stared into the empty glass. His mouth worked back and forth as though he were chewing. ‘And then as a young man I got into the world of the theatre, and travelled the country doing shows. Ah, the cameraderie, the late night parties. I was good looking then, never afraid of a mirror. Not like you see me now — illnesses and dreary old age and pain creep up on us. Virgil. Ah well, water under the bridge. All gone. All gone. Thank you, Joseph.’ He gave the doctor a bright smile, tipped his battered bowler, and wandered off.
‘He’s a character, that one,’ Bell said. ‘Especially when he gets on the drink.’
Passing the photography tent, Bell bowed briefly to a middle-aged couple sitting in the shade of the awning. He introduced Paul to Mr Brownlee and Miss Dunn, who had just had their portrait taken by Mr Erwitt, and were waiting for the ‘proofs’ to appear. The assistant had brought them cups of tea. Mr Brownlee’s handshake was limp, though he smiled and bobbed his head effusively. He was dressed in a soft flowing jacket that had seen better days; his thinning hair, once blond and now faded to a nicotine tint, hung over his shoulders. Miss Dunn wore a stiff, old-fashioned dress of black bombazine with a high collar. A small white dog was sitting on her lap, trembling and scowling at Paul, its tiny face cramped into a look of hatred. Miss Dunn regarded Paul through a lorgnette. ‘Don’t mind Marcel,’ she said with a sugary smile; ‘he is a sensitive animal. He is quite ravished by the beauty and the terror of the world, and his nerves have become rather frayed.’
Bell excused himself: ‘I have to see Erwitt about a new developer formula I’m working on. Won’t be a moment.’ He disappeared inside the tent.
‘Such a charming man, Mister Erwitt,’ Mr Brownlee said. He smoothed his hair, smiled, and adjusted his cravat.
Miss Dunn agreed. ‘Quite unlike that Monsieur Gaspard, d’you remember, the foreigner who first brought popular photographic portraits to Wagga Wagga? I think the fumes had affected him. He was quite forward, and full of the most inappropriate noises. The French, they’re always enthusing. I remember when I was on the Continent —’
‘So long ago, Miss Dunn,’ interrupted Brownlee. ‘One can hardly remember the time of Monsieur Gaspard; though the fumes, yes.’
‘Quite unhealthy,’ said Miss Dunn. ‘Tell me, Mr Nouveau, do you practise photography?’
‘No, I am sorry, I do not.’
She leaned forward and spoke in a conspiratorial tone. ‘Are you a flower-fancier, by any chance?’
Her manners were so unusual that for a moment Paul thought she meant some sexual innuendo; he felt both his English and his sense of reality slipping. These people belonged in an old-fashioned salon in Brussels or Bath, not sipping tea under a canvas awning, with the lowing of cattle and the barking of dogs in the distance. ‘No, I do not fancy the flowers either, I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t be sorry. I do hope we can persuade you to think of joining the Wagga Wagga Floral Art Society. The native plants are so unsatisfactory, and the local people have no real understanding of what should be done with a garden. Mr Brownlee and I have been somewhat of a driving force in the Society.’ Her perfume was heavy and old-fashioned, and seemed to be giving Paul a headache.
‘Not that we want the glory,’ laughed Mr Brownlee, smoothing his collar. ‘Goodness no. It’s a thankless task. No, it’s simply a matter of experience. The right people for the job; the people who know.’ It was his turn to lean forward, and to lower his voice. ‘Miss Dunn was noted for her gardening skills in Hobart Town, in the days when Tasmania was known as Van Diemen’s Land.’
She struck him playfully with her fan; the little dog gave a snarl. ‘Not that long ago, Grant. Really, you make me sound positively antediluvian. No, no; I came up to Wagga in sixty-one, when I felt I couldn’t continue. There were omens.’
‘Sixty-one. Ah, so it was.’
‘Sadly, Mr Nouveau, the Hobart Horticultural Society attracted the worst type. Jealous people, with no sensitivity to the concept of a harmonious garden. You understand harmony, don’t you, Mr Nouveau? I can tell by your expression, and your forehead. You have a sensitive forehead.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Harmony was what was lacking in Hobart. I struggled, and I failed. The meetings were rowdy affairs, run by a clique. I could see that the future lay on the mainland. My sleep was upset by dreams of a disturbing nature, nightmares of earthquakes, of my garden being broken up by giant upheavals from below, the flowers scattered, and thousands of poisonous serpents spilling out of the broken earth.’
‘Now, now,’ said Mr Brownlee, patting her arm. The dog uttered a high thin growl.
‘So I stuck a pin in a map, and Wagga Wagga it was.’
‘We’re lucky to have Miss Dunn,’ confided Mr Brownlee, in what was almost a whisper. He smiled at Paul anxiously. ‘There are jealous people here too, full of extreme ideas. There’s a brash woman of middle years, I won’t call her a lady, who puts common vegetables like pumpkins and squash right in amongst the flowers, the display flowers in a front garden would you believe, and claims that it’s the done thing in England. Well, in Brighton, perhaps, or in Blackpool, no doubt; in the common Bank Holiday spots. But not in the better homes. “Popping the young gentlemen in among the lasses,” she calls it, thrusting a cucumber seedling into a bed of petunias. I think there’s something indelicate about the woman. You know the person to whom I refer, don’t you, Miss Dunn?’
‘Please don’t speak about it,’ said Miss Dunn, raising a handkerchief to her mouth.
‘Miss Dunn and I run a little shop,’ divulged Mr Brownlee, resting his hand gently upon Paul’s sleeve. ‘You must call by.’
‘Thank you, but I —’
‘And there’s a meeting of the Society tonight,’ Miss Dunn said brightly, ‘in the School of Arts. If you’re a friend of Doctor Bell, you may be sure you shall be made welcome. Some of the local people here, why, they’ve never been out of the colony. Mr Dobbs has some experience of the Americas, the Sierra regions of the West, I believe, but what good are Succulents and Cacti here, I ask you. And the rest are hopeless. But you of course bring an understanding of European civilisation with you. When I was on the Continent —’
‘A new face is always welcome,’ interrupted Mr Brownlee, ‘Especially someone with a Continental perspective.’
‘I believe I am busy this evening,’ Paul said.
‘It’s not just harmony,’ Miss Dunn went on, caught up in a train of thought of her own. The dog whined. ‘There’s a sadness in a garden too, and most people don’t see that.’ She turned her gaze on Paul. Her eyes, magnified behind the lenses of the lorgnette, seemed brimming with unshed tears, though perhaps this was an optical illusion. ‘They look at the flowers, and the colours are all they see. But leaves fall, Mr Nouveau. Leaves turn yellow and wither when their time has come; they fall and die.’
‘There’s the question of compost,’ said Mr Brownlee.
‘That’s not what I meant, Grant, dear. I was adverting to the more spiritual dimensions. No, I believe a garden has something to teach us, don’t you think, Mr Nouveau? Something about the larger questions. A flower can speak to the human heart.’
‘You mean foxglove?’ said Bell, reappearing from the tent.
‘Why, doctor, I’m not sure what you mean. The foxglove is attractive enough, but rather drooping in its address, and not a plant that speaks to the human heart, I should have thought.’
‘Digitalis,’ Bell said. ‘Oh, never mind. Ah — come on Paul, we have things to do.’
They made their farewells. ‘I thought you looked bored,’ Bell explained as they walked back to the house. ‘Those two are a bit of a pain if you aren’t used to them. I had to get home, I left some electrical equipment out in the yard, and I believe it’s going to rain. But you could stay and chat if you like.’
‘Oh no,’ Paul said. ‘Please, no.’
‘The Floral Art Society, huh! They asked Julie to join, and she told them where to get off the train. I suppose every town has a few spinsters who get together over a cup of camomile tea and chat about the vicar’s sermon, and argue politely about whether or not the Christian God is a forgiving God. I don’t suppose they do any harm, but it irritates me something frightful. And Brownlee, he used to work for the newspapers down in Sydney, writing advertisements for hair cream, until he got the sack. He’s the artistic type, light-headed with enthusiasm, and just dim enough not to realise how thick he really is.’
‘They are peculiar enough to be interesting, for ten minutes or so. But I didn’t like the dog.’
‘Nobody likes the dog,’ Bell said.
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