When the big drum beats [short story by Jack Moses]

[Editor: This is a short story from Beyond the City Gates: Australian Story & Verse (1923) by Jack Moses.]

When the big drum beats

“Hi! Hi! Hi!”
“Come over here — Come over, here.”
The big drum beats, the crowd gathers and the show begins.

A feature prominent in the making of success in respect to the Annual Exhibition of The Flat is undoubtedly the sideshow, and very jaundiced indeed must be he or she who fails to appreciate the spirit of bohemianism which hovers around the canvas of the “sideshowman.”

The marking of space by the Ground Committee of The Flat Society to satisfy the demands of the bevy of itinerant amusement purveyors was a task of magnitude, necessitating a full measure of tact; in fact, at The Flat the main qualifications for a seat on the Ground Committee was tact.

“Yes,” said Jasper Collins in accepting nomination to the Ground Committee, “there’s two things that requires tact to handle — women and sideshows” — and this assertion proved a strong factor in the subsequent election of Jasper, for a man who could express himself in such language was considered by The Flat as highly tactful. Needless to say that Jasper will contribute to the revenue under the proposed Bachelors’ Tax, to be imposed to raise the necessary to build a better class of station in respect to the suburban railways.

“Hi! Hi! Hi!”

“Come over here! Come over here!”

Ah me, what pleasant memories these big-hearted bohemians — these “sundowners” along the road of life, who travel from show to show and never possess a “bean,” create for one, and what an abundance of joy the beat of their big drum brought to the younger generation of The Flat, to say nothing of the older people of the same locality.

“Hi! Hi! Hi!”

The big damn beats.

The gun fires.

The snakes wriggle round the neck of the Gipsy Girl in pink tights with a green tunic.

The boxers spar and give example of straight lefts, upper cuts and half-arm jolts.

The Fat Girl’s banner is battling the breeze of Wattle Flat. Her hut is patronised by young and old; the old to satisfy the desire of gazing upon a mass of humanity, the latter out of morbid curiosity to know that Clara is real flesh, bone and sinew.

To the inquisitive kid “all flesh is not always fleshy,” hence it was that while Clara was exhibiting her elephantine proportions upon a raised pedestal, clothed in flesh tights with a fringe skirt of the Columbine cut, Master Tommy Tompkin, younger son of the capable President of the Society, giggled and wriggled as he gazed upon the mountain of fat before him. Unfortunately Tommy was a sceptic by environment, and so it was that he sidled up — and sidled up still further towards Clara, and as he came within arm’s length of the goddess of flesh he exclaimed to a pal, “Cripes, what a whopper! I don’t believe she’s real! She’s been blown up with a bike pump,” and in order to ascertain whether Clara was living a life of deceit he borrowed the pin holding together the braces and pants of his pal, and jabbed it deeply into the right bared calf of the exhibiting beauty of adipose nature.

With a howl of pain — mingled with a big touch of indignation — the majestic lady laid hold of Master Tommy Tompkins, and in a few minutes the son of the President, possessed of an enquiring mind, realised to the full that on this occasion “woman’s hand was one with woman’s heart,” and, furthermore, that if the flesh in Clara’s calf was easy of penetration the flesh in Clara’s hand was like unto a ton of bricks.

Down farther the ever-gurgling music of the merry-go-round’s steam organ belching out the inspiring notes of “A Life on the Ocean Wave,” lures the crowd to the make-believe that they are on a trip to Manly, while the wooden gee-gees of red, green, and brown, possessing silver and ginger manes and tails, blood-red nostrils and fiery eyes, prance in the sunlight to the strains of the hurdy-gurdy. What a time the kids of Wattle Flat have! The time of their lives, insensible to the fact that between the notes of “A Life on the Ocean Wave” the local member is officially declaring the show open — through the medium of a speech which contains all the ingredients of a Prime Minister’s Budget. This is the one great opportunity of allowing the member to demonstrate beyond all shadow of doubt that the leader whom he follows is the one chap to save the country from all the horrors of “isms” — he generally dubs the political saviour as “the Honourable the Premier, my respected Chief,” and imparts the information that, despite the cowardly calumny of degraded opposition, he (his Chief) will yet “bring this country through the dark, dreary, dismal, desolate dales of desolation and despair.” How proud the Wattle Flattists are of their local member, who lives eleven months and three weeks in the city.

“Hi! Hi! Hi!” shouts the boxer.

“Come over here — all champions, stripped to the belt — true specimens of manhood ready to fight for a world or all-wool amateurs thankfully received. These men can give a wallop that will “drop an ox or can tap as light as a snow-drift from Kossy.”

You can punch as hard as you like, gents., but the Irish lad will take no undue advantage. Has trained to the second, and is fit to fight for his life. No, he was never in better condition; in fact, I can truthfully assert, without fear of contradiction, that the Irish lad is in better nick now than the day he stood in the ring before 150,000 spectators and fought in defence of the Heavy-weight Championship of the Universe.”

“Hi! Hi! Hi!” — and “Oh !Oh! Oh!” called some sceptic.

“There is no false alarm in this “line up board”, emphatically returned the boss of the boxers. “As I said before, we have the ‘puncher and the tapper all in one.’ Come along and see all the essentials of the noble art of self-defence. You’ll get the full worth of your money, and you pay at the door — which is now open.

“Hi! Hi! Hi! Come along! To give you a sample of the Irish lad’s magnificent skill, he will box now, right away, before the eyes of the public.

“We have here, too, Andy Jabb, the coming light-weight of the world; not the light that failed, but one whose brilliancy will light the boxing ring of the world. Pay at the door.

“You know, gentlemen, I have been before you for many years, and have never done anything snide. I have always put the goods before you.

“We have next to the light-weight a boy not yet out of his knickers, but who is looked upon by good judges and sporting writers — who are generally champions in their line — as the greatest feather-weight Australia has produced since Griffo.

“Hi! Hi! Hi! Can I get anyone in this vast crowd to take a glove with the Irish lad?”

The crowd had not yet made up its mind as to its chances against the Irish lad.

“Well, can I get anyone to take a glove with the lad? Who will stand three two-minute rounds against him for a fiver?

“Ah, there goes a hand up from a likely-looking heavy-weight. What is it you want, mate? Are you coming in for a spar, or are you after the ‘dinkum dough’?

“Come along, we are open to all comers; we like ’em all sizes and shapes, and, as I said before, we can paw as light as a pussy or as heavy as the Ground Committee is on the tent-rent.

“What is it to be, mate? Is it fame you’re lookin’ for? If it is, old son, you’ve a great chance with the Irish lad, who, I am authorised to say, has just received a wire matching him to fight the Belgian bruiser at the Stadium in twenty-four weeks.”

Jim Martin, in the crowd was a heavy-weight, and was after heavy goods — also, by the way, he might be placed in the category of a “take.” Now the “take” of the district is very often the bully of the district, whose long suit is skittling drunken men or giving flash cheek to women. The “take” usually takes the whole street to strut upon — a worthless chap possessing no appreciation of all that this country gives him — and no recognition of his duty of citizenship. It is something to be thankful for that the species is rare. Sometimes he comes to help the sideshow along, but Jim Martin — “Flash Jim” — was out to clean the whole combination up, tent and all. He accepted the invitation.

“Put your hands together for the local lad,” exhorted the boss of the boxers, and the crowd, with mixed feelings of wonder and hope — wonder in respect to how big Jim would fare, and hope that he would get the father of a leathering — “put their hands together for the local lad.”

“Now,” said the genial boss of the boxers, “understand the conditions. I don’t suppose you’re in train, so in order to encourage the art of self-defence in this go-ahead town, I’m prepared to hand you a ‘fiver’ — five golden sovereigns — if you can stand three two-minute rounds with the Irish lad, who is trained to the last hair.”

The crowd was getting worked-up, and already dipping for its “tent money.”

“I want to give you and my patrons — the public — a go for the money and a fair fight, so you understand you got to fight.”

“Oh, I know all about that,” interrupted the local lad.

“I’m thinking it’s him as’ll have to fight,” he leered with an air of braggadacio.

“Good,” returned the boss of the boxers. “Remember, there’s no clinching, and you’ve got to be on your feet when the bell rings at the end of the last round.”

“Oh, I understand all them rules,” retorted the local lad. “What I want is your dough, and I’m going after it.”

“Ah!” gleefully shouted the boss. “That’s the talk: that’s what I like! I can see we’re going to have a good go. Hi! Hi! Hi! Come along for this great scientific contest, and this dinkum go between your local champion and the Irish lad.”

Then the local lad butted in: “I want,” he said, “to make one condition. That is, that the Sergeant of Police holds the stakes.”

“Good oh, Jim!” shouted someone in the crowd, “that’s the way to put it over ’im!”

“Righto,” said the Sergeant, who was a sport, too, but also possessed a hope that the Wattle Flat bully was about to receive all that was due to him.

“Hi! Hi! Hi! Come along! The local police will see fair play. Come along! Get your tickets at the door!”

And the big drum beats, the crowd pushes through the door of the canvas Stadium.

Then the preliminaries having been got out of the way, the big fight was announced.

The “take” said he wanted a referee, and a local one at that. Also a timekeeper.

“Righto!” said the boss of the boxers. “I think you’ll get all you’re after, all but the fiver.”

Jim Martin sat down in the centre of the ring, took off his boots, tucked his trousers into his socks, and went with a leery swagger round the ring, clearing away small chips and pebbles, and periodically squirting through his teeth.

He next proceeded to divest himself of his shirt, and stood in his singlet, which bore the emblem of the shamrock and harp worked in silk.

And now the eyes of the Irish lad sparkled fire as he waited to get to business. All this flash preliminary stuff of the local lad’s was warming his wrath, and to his seconds he confided. “I’ll play a tune on that coloured harp in a shake.”

“Now, then!” called the boss, “stand back, make a ring. Get ready! This isn’t to be the only fight in this tent to-day!”

Just as the gladiators were about to face each other an attractive girl stepped out of the crowd, tied a green handkerchief round the waist of the local trier, and kissed him.

Now you could see the mischief flash in the eyes of the Irish lad.

“Put your hands together for the local lad again!” exhorted the boss of the boxers, and as the tent resounded with cheers the notes of the pee-weet fluttering in the tree at the back of the tent seemed to be in tune with the applause raised on behalf of the local lad.

“Shake hands! Box on!” came the referee’s command. The crowd stood breathless as the fighters got together. A few short jabs on the nose, which caused the claret to flow from the pancake dial of the “local,” riled that champion to slatherem-whack at the Irish lad.

“Jab! Jab! Jab!” came the repeated punches on the one spot.

Now a feint, which drew the “take” just open for the knock out. A jolt on the chin, and down he went like a ton of bricks, quivering and gasping as bricks can’t.

“He’s out! He’s done!” cried the crowd.

“One! Two! Three! Four!” came the count from the referee, up to “nine” — then “out!”

Mouthsful of water were sprayed upon the fallen gladiator till he was brought round, when, in a half-dazed condition, still very ricketty on his pins, he was taken over to his girl by the Irish lad. Presenting the bruised one to his lady love, the Irish lad said, “Kiss your baby now!”

The blood of a real Aussie girl was up. Turning in fury on the victor she threw herself at him and grabbed at his “cauliflower” ear, but the Irish lad gallantly side-stepped, and the avenging damsel fell headlong on to the referee and inflicted a mauling upon that much surprised official. Letting him go, she gathered handfuls of sand and showered them indiscriminately on all and sundry.

“Shove her out!”

“Put her out!” commanded the boss of the boxers, and out she went, accompanied by the crowd.

But at this moment Bill’s donah became hysterical and fainted. A strange benevolent old dame, with an old-fashioned bonnet and specs., rushed to the girl and, taking full possession of the situation, pushed the crowd back and in decisive tones demanded, “Give ’er hair! Give ’er hair!”

Just at that moment the cry went up, “the lion is out,” and the people rushed in confusion in all directions around the Show Ground. It was truly a moment of terror, but all the time the shout came —

“Hi! Hi! Hi!” — and the big chum beats.

Jack Moses, Beyond the City Gates: Australian Story & Verse, Sydney: Austral Publishing Co., 1923, pages 129-136

Editor’s notes:
adipose = animal fat, or containing, resembling, or relating to animal fat; may also refer to fat in general

claret = (slang) blood

dial = (slang) face (from the dial, or face, of a clock)

dinkum = genuine, authentic, on the level

dipping = to dip into one’s pocket so as to retrieve money

donah = a woman, especially a girlfriend or sweetheart

dough = (slang) money

father = any phrase beginning with “the father of a” or “the father of all” refers to a large amount (e.g. “the father of all hidings” refers to a large beating or a large amount of corporal punishment)

fiver = five pounds (Imperial currency)

gee-gee = (slang) horse

Griffo = Albert Griffiths (1871-1927), a Sydney-born world featherweight boxing champion, commonly known as “Young Griffo”

Kossy = Mount Kosciuszko

leathering = beating; corporal punishment

paw = (slang) punch

pins = (slang) legs

specs. = spectacles (glasses)

Vernacular spelling in the original text:
’em (them)
’er (her)
hair (air) [English]
’im (him)

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