The back country of Australia carries men who are known from station to station for some outstanding mental kink. The solitude of the Never-Never breeds them, and when they foregather with their fellows they become an institution, humorous or aggravating, according to the form the kink has happened to take.
There is a son of Anak, otherwise sane, who wanders through the country, and who has become a joy to every camp and shed beyond the Murray, where his search for work has led him. He has a story to tell, and sore experience has taught even the toughest of his auditors to accept that story without question, at least in the presence of the narrator thereof. The story never varies in so much as one amazing detail, and woe betide the luckless one who ventures to cast a doubt upon it.
“I was workin’ down from the shearin’ through Glen Cairn way for the hop pickin’. Keepin’ off the main road, too. There was crowds of blokes goin’ that way, and the cockies was shy in passin’ out the tucker. A few miles out of Glen Cairn one afternoon I noticed a house a bit off the road, and thought I’d word ’em for a bit of scran. It was a fair-sized place, and when I got to the back there was no one in sight, so I goes round the front and drops Matilder when I seen the front door was open. I walks to the verandah, and ’ad ’ardly put one foot on it when I got the start of me life. Struth! I thought I was seein’ things when that tart showed up. She walks out of the ’ouse, and stands lookin’ me over, and I stands lookin’ her over, like I was a stuck pig. Ye never even began to think of anything like her. Take all the bonzer tarts yer ever ’eard of and roll ’em into one, and yer ain’t even beginnin’ to get near what she looked like. She was pretty near as big as me, and she was dressed rummy-lookin’. And ’er hair — struth! It was fallin’ down in front of her, damn near to ’er feet. Most amazin’. But it wasn’t that. It was ’er face that gave me the knockout. Wat’s the use in tryin’ to tell youse blokes? You’d never understand in yer natural — never — Struth! I could a just stood and looked at ’er for a year.
Well, there was me standin’ starin’, and she lookin’ me over quiet, like as though I was a surprise to ’er, and after a minute she says, “What are you?” Just as though she thought I might be a bandicoot or a gohanna for all she knew. So I pipes up and asks if the boss is at ’ome. So ’elp me cat! She says: “What is the boss?” like as though she ’ad never ’eard the word. O’ course I spotted that she was a bit ratty — ratty! My Gawd! If I’d only ’ad enough sense to get away then. Ratty! Anyhow I says to her that I just come to see if she could give a bloke a bit o’ tucker, hadn’t had a feed since the mornin’.
“She thinks a minute, lookin’ at me queer, and says, ‘You want food?’ ‘That’s it, missus,’ I said, brightenin’ up; ‘a bit of mutton and some flour, anything ’andy.’
“She thinks a bit more, and says, ‘I’m alone here; the owner of the house is away. I cannot give you food.’ Well, that made me a bit wild, ’cause what’s a bit of tucker to these cockies? So I thought I might as well ’elp myself; there’s no harm in that. So I says to ’er: ‘You look ’ere, missus, I want tucker, and I’m goin’ to have it, so just you pass it out, or I’ll bloomin’ well take what I want — so git a move on.’ O’ course, I wasn’t meanin’ ’er any harm; it was just bluff. Cripes! But it was rummy. She just stood quiet, lookin’ at me, not a bit put out or scared, and that made me feel all the more certain she was ratty. But what took the bun was what she says next. Says she, ‘Tell me, do you vote in the elections for your country’s legislators?’ It fair took me breath away. Vote — me vote? Me with me name on four rolls between Ballarat and Bourke. I just laughed until I couldn’t laugh any longer. Then I says: ‘Well, you are a peach, missus. You pass out the tucker, and then we’ll talk politics, and I think I’ll take one little kiss into the bargain. Course I never meant any ’arm to ’er; but she was a bonzer peach. I just took one step up to ’er, when she puts out ’er ’and straight in front of me, and says, ‘Stop!’ And the rummy part of it was, though I didn’t mean to stop, I did, and she just stood starin’ at me with ’er eyes lookin’ big and shiny, till I felt cold all over, and then, strike me pink! all of a sudden I began to feel scared. Cripes, it was like ’avin’ the horrors. But she never says another word, but goes into the house, and comes out again in a minute with a damn great greenhide whip. I wanted to make a bolt for it. I’d a given fifty quid to get away. Course, I thought she was goin’ to lay into me with the greenhide, but she just chucked it down at my feet most contemptuous. Then she goes and sits in a chair in the verandah and looks me over for a bit. You’d never ’ave thought such a bonzer tart could look the way she did at me. Struth! before I knew where I was I was sweatin’ all over. Then she says, quiet like — and that was the worst of it, she was so quiet, never raises ’er voice a bit — she says, ‘It is in my thoughts to kill you, but I will leave a mark so that you will remember. Pick up that whip’, she says, pointin’ to the whip. I’d a given a quid not to. I wanted to talk back, but all I did was to pick up the whip. Then she says, ‘Now you will beat yourself till I tell you to stop.’ Cripes! you blokes needn’t laugh like that. Gawd! but I wish any of yer had been there but me. I know what you think — that I was shikkered. So ’elp me cat! I’d not ’ad a drink for days, and any’ow, a bloke might go and stoush ’is mate when he was boozed, but ’e don’t go ’ammerin’ hell out of hisself with a damn greenhide like I did. Struth! but I did; look ’ere, if yer don’t believe me.” And here the indignant narrator would show a hairy leg scarred and scarified with pink weals against dirty white, or to convince a doubter would roll up his shirt to show his flanks and hips scored deep with bluish corrugations. Then he would continue.
“It fair took the cake. There was the tart sittin’ in the chair, ’ardly takin’ the trouble to look at me, and there was me standin’ there layin’ into myself with the whip like all possessed. I fair cut the togs off myself, and the blood was runnin’ down me legs, and I couldn’t ’elp ’owlin’ a bit, for that damn whip curled round me every time it ’it. Struth! but it must a looked comical. I’d got a new pair of moles on. I’d paid a bloke up the road three ’alf-crowns for ’em, and I cut ’em pretty near to rags. Oh, yes! you laugh, yer cows. It wasn’t nothin’ to laugh at. An’ all the time that bloomin’ tart was leanin’ back in ’er chair not takin’ any more notice than if I’d been ten miles away. At last she looks round and says, ‘Stop, now.’ Cripes, it was about time, too; I was all out. Then she asked where I was makin’ for, and I says to Glen Cairn. Damn civil I was, too; she ’ad me scared stiff. With that she get up, and, lookin’ at me with ’er big shiny eyes, says, ‘You will go now, and you will run, and you will not stop running until you get to Glen Cairn, and you will come here no more.’ She might ’ave left out the last part, any’ow.
“The minute she speaks off I starts, but she stopped me and says, ‘Take that,’ pointin’ to Matilder. So I picks up the bluey and off down the track without lookin’ back. Mind yer, I tell yer I was all out from the ’ammerin’ I’d give meself. But for all that I ran, and, by Gawd, I went on runnin’. Don’t know ’ow far it was, but I was staggerin’ along, and fallin’ down, an’ pickin’ meself up, and runnin’ again, and before I got to Glen Cairn I found the runnin’ was worse than the hidin’ I’d got. It was after dark when I got there, and I was staggerin’ all over the road, when a police sergeant cops me. Course he thought I was shikkered, too; but when ’e seen me face and the blood on it under a lamplight he takes me up to the hospital.
Well, when I gets there they wants to know ’ow I got meself into such a ’ell of a state, and I was too sick and too silly to tell ’em anything but the truth, and, of course, the bloomin’ doctor reckons I’d got the fantods. That made me blasted wild, I tell yer, but what made me worse was another doctor comes in — a big, red-headed, freckled bloke — and ’e made me tell the yarn over again. An’ what do yer think? Why that bloke just sits down and laughs till the tears is runnin’ down his cheeks. I told ’im straight I’d like to stoush ’im, but ’e doesn’t take any notice, and calls the other doctor aside, and they ’as a yarn on the quiet, and after that they puts me to bed.”
“I was in that bloomin’ horspital for over two weeks. But it was bloomin’ rummy. The mornin’ I left the other doctor (the red-headed one) comes in and makes me tell the yarn again, and when I’d finished ’e says, pretty serious, ‘Now, you, look here. I know that yarn’s true; and let me tell you you’re damn lucky to get off so light. You take my advice and don’t go tellin’ it any more round these parts, though, because they’ll only think you’re ratty, same as they do now in the horspital’; and then ’e gave me a couple of sovereigns, and told me I’d better keep away from the house where the tart lived or it might be worse next time. So I asked ’im what sort of a bleedin’ idiot ’e took me for. Why, I wouldn’t go within a mile of that place if yer gave me a thousand quid. But, cripes! she was a bonzer tart.”
Erle Cox, Out of the Silence, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1947 (first published 1925), pages 330-335
[Editor: Changed “I was working’ down” to “I was workin’ down” and “I was seeing’ things” to “I was seein’ things” (both instances were changed in line with the vernacular style of the paragraph; it appears that the apostrophes were added to indicate the absence of the letter “g”, but the “g”s had inadvertently been left in place). Changed “youse blokes.” to “youse blokes?”; “damn green hide” to “damn greenhide” (in line with other instances of “greenhide” in the same chapter). Changed the double quotation mark after “git a move on.” to a single quotation mark, in line with the style of the paragraph.]