There but for fortune

Dedicated to those who have lived and lost.

We each have the freedom to live
Built from the choices we make
While life is a thing we can give
It is also a thing we can take
We shall reap all that we sow
Life’s not rooted firmly in the soil
But fruits of our life slowly grow
Up from seeds we scatter thru toil
On the day when we look behind
At all the things that we’ve done
Histories judgment, cruel or kind
In a life that’s been led on the run
With things done well or not good
Will our heads give a shake or a nod
Will we stand proud like we should
Or blame a scapegoat we call God

Chapter One – Jack

Most of The Valley belonged to Jack and he’d lived here all of his life. It had been handed down to him from his father, Jack Senior, who settled the best of it before gold was discovered, then when the gold was found the rest was carved up as ‘Miner’s Blocks’; 10-20 acre blocks designed to allow room for a house, veggie garden, milking cow and a horse – all the things a miner needed in life. As soon as the gold ran out the miners pulled up stakes and Jack’s dad bought the rest of the valley block by block as they left. Some of it he’d just taken over after the miners walked off.

His parents had lived in the old house on the hill, now tumble-down, a gaunt shadow of its former glory. Still, there is evidence of the ‘old life’ in the derelict remains; the ornate stained glass windows around the foyer, the bay windows protruding from a lounge room the size of Jacks current house and the six chimneys, some with chimney pots still in place. Three of these chimneys protrude from a single base about five metres long; the old kitchen stove which was actually three wood stoves joined together. On a Saturday night, when there were guests out from town for a dinner party even this stove was barely enough to cater. The whole house was surrounded by a wide verandah which was stacked high with fire wood at the start of winter and empty by the end.

Jack could vaguely remember the old days, the gold had run out when he was seven. After that the old house had always seemed odd; like a banquet with no diners. Never again was the full length of the stove lit, it just took so much wood and there were only his parents and the three boys. The open fire in the main lounge was the same, just too big. Jack remembered that it was so big that you could sit inside it while the fire blazed; he had loved that as a kid.

Jack was the oldest by three years, then there was Dave, followed twelve years later by Bill. Bill was one of those afterthought kids. The ones who come along as a surprise, years after the thought of the patter of little feet has become a vague memory. Like all afterthought kids Bill was spoiled; what Bill wanted he got, Bill was always right, and he used it.

Bill got better toys than Jack or Dave ever had and could always get out of work just by saying he didn’t feel well. Bill never chopped wood, but always sat closest to the fire. Bill had gone to the city for school when he was sixteen and stayed on and went to University. He graduated from law and entered politics soon after as a Country Party man. He’d had little contact with Jack since then and Jack really didn’t mind, they’d never been close.

The last time Jack had seen Bill, or Battling Bill as he called himself on the campaign trail was at Dave’s funeral. Dave had stayed on the farm through it all, the droughts, the floods, the bushfires, all the disasters that harried the men and women on the land. He and Jack had never left the farm except for a stint in the Light Horse; but they never spoke of that. In the end it was a simple branch that got Bill; a simple bloody branch. Riding home at a full gallop, just for fun, this bloody fallen branch had tripped his horse. The horse died instantly from a broken neck. Dave lingered on for three days with horrific chest injuries where the horse had rolled on him. It was a mercy when he died. Jack had seen the same sort of injuries in Palestine when the horses in a charge had their legs cut out from under them by shrapnel, but Jack and Dave didn’t talk about that.

Jack knew Dave was buggered as soon as he saw him, but when it’s family, you have to try.

Bill came to the funeral, did an interview for the local paper, said a few words about Dave and a lot about some Policy he was working on before he left early; pressing Parliamentary business he said.

Jacks parents were both in their nineties, their mother said she understood and was glad someone was running the country. Their father was too far gone with dementia to know, he just sat there and dribbled, his vacant eyes drawn to any movement. Jacks parents both died two years later, within six weeks of each other. People said that after his wife died the old bloke just had no reason to go on.

Bill sent huge wreaths to both funerals along with large cheques “to make sure it’s all done right” but was too busy with the imminent election to get up on the day. His children were busy with Uni but they all sent their condolences and love said Bills telegram.

Jack had never married, saying simply that “someone has to look after the folks”. He was now in his fifties and almost alone in The Valley. There was Cec, the caretaker at the old mine and his wife and sometimes road workers stayed at the CRB camp down by the bridge but everyone else had moved on years ago. The Valley, which had once been a thriving community of several thousand was now home to a handful of aging residents.

After his parents were gone Jack decided that he didn’t want to stay in the old place, it was too big and too full of memories, so he picked one of the old miners houses dotted across the farm and moved in. This was as much a move of his mind as his body. It was Jack finally asserting his independence.

About a year later, on one of his monthly trips to town for supplies he met Mary, or “Maisy” as her family called her. It was a chance meeting at the Hardware store when Maisy was loading a roll of barb wire into her Ute; Jack, always a gentleman lent a hand.

Next month, because he knew her, he said “hello” instead of just tipping his hat when he passed her on the street. Then again at the CFA Auction and Fundraising Picnic when Maisy noticed that he was eating alone and invited him to lunch with her brother and herself. It all blossomed from there. It wasn’t so much a romance as a mutually beneficial arrangement between two lonely people.

Bill and his family got an invitation to the wedding and while Bill sent a very large and expensive present; no one came. Of course they all had busy and important lives but they all sent their love.

Jack decided that the old miners house he lived in wasn’t big enough for two and so, at great expense, he had another one brought down from the back paddock and placed beside his house. Then he and Maisy’s brother, Frank, pulled down a third to provide material to marry the two together. The join looked pretty rough but it kept the weather out.

So Maisy and Bill settled down to life in The Valley. It wasn’t so much a married life as a comfortable shared living arrangement. Living was simple, any water they used was carried in from the tank. There was no electricity unless Jack laboured over the crank handle of the old diesel generator out in the shed, there wasn’t a radio or TV in the house, and neither of them enjoyed books. Mostly they just went to bed with the chooks and got up with the roosters. There was never any thought of kids; Jack and Maisy found sex awkward and rather embarrassing, and in reality both were a bit old to have kids anyway.

The next fifteen years passed quietly until Maisy started getting stomach pains and her “womens issues” changed. The doctors diagnosed cancer, and it was like as soon as it was named it had her. The next two years she was mostly in hospital, sometimes home, but always in pain. When Maisy passed away, everyone in The Valley and most everybody from town turned up to farewell her. There was a card and a small wreath from Bill who had never actually met Maisy but his card said she had been “a wonderful woman who would be sadly missed” and he was “proud to have had her as a Sister In Law”.

That first night home from the funeral it hit Jack; he was alone. Never before had he noticed how quiet the house was; it was like The Valley was holding its breath. He couldn’t even hear the owls. In the next few months Jack did what he had to, “Oh you know, keeping busy, got to keep the farm going” he would respond when asked how he was.

For the first time Jack started to think about his own mortality. He’d seen a lot of death, Palestine, Dave, his parents, but it wasn’t until now, in his late sixtys that he started to think about his own end. What would happen to his beloved farm? He’d held the place together, first for his parents, then because “it’s what a man does” and later for Maisy. But now why was he doing it. Suddenly his lack of children hit him.

For the first time in his life he felt really alone. He decided to reach out to his only living relatives, Bill and his family. So he sat down to write one of the few letters of his life. It started as he had been taught a letter should:

RMB 4,

The Valley

Victoria

Dear William,

I hope this letter finds you well. How are the wife and kids? The children must all be grown up by now. How are you going in Parliament? Do you think the Country Party will get back in? I hope so, you blokes are the only ones who care about the man on the land.

I am writing to invite you and your family up to The Valley. I’m sure I can fix up mum and dads place if you would like to come. You and your family are always welcome.

Yours faithfully,

 

John Duffy.

In reply he got the following letter typed on Parliamentary letterhead:

Parliament House

Canberra

ACT

“Dear Mr Duffy,

Thank you for your correspondence. If you would like the opportunity to meet with me and discuss your proposal I am having a campaign meeting at Davies Creek on February 12th at 2:30PM. Please find enclosed a flyer for this meeting.

 

Yours sincerely

Mr William Duffy MHR”

 

Jack read and re-read this letter and the enclosed “Flyer”. He told everyone he met on his next trip to town how his brother, who could be Prime Minister one day, had invited him down to discuss ways to improve the lot of the man on the land. Everyone had suggestions and Jack tried to remember them all, but in the excitement he forgot most of them.

On the appointed day Jack was up at dawn and got all the necessary farm jobs done with unusual vigor. By 8:30 he had everything done and was dressed in the suit he hadn’t worn since Masiy’s funeral. The drive to Davies Creek was a pleasure, the first time he had been this far from home for years.

Jack was in Davies Creek by 12 O’clock so he decided to have some lunch before his meeting with Bill at 2:30. he walked into the only Café in town and was immediately struck by the noise. It seemed to him that everyone there was having a competition to see who could be loudest and they were all competing against the blaring of the Jukebox.

He looked with wonder at the Menu painted in garish paint on the wall above the counter. What the hell were scallops, seafood sticks, and fishermans baskets? Finally he found something he knew; Fish and Chips please! “Flake, Perch or Bream?” asked the disinterested face behind the counter. ”Oh, I don’t care. Whatever’s easiest, and a cup of tea please.” “OK, that’ll be $9.80.” Jack passed over $10 but couldn’t help think that the last time he’d bought chips it had cost two bob and he couldn’t eat it all. “Take a seat, I’ll bring it over”.

After a longish wait a plate was dropped on the table in front of Jack with a set of cutlery wrapped in a serviette. He looked at the plate; the small heap of chips looked like it came from one spud and the fish looked like it was too young to be away from it mother, but he ate with gusto then savoured his tea.

He looked up at the clock; two O’clock, time to get going. At the meeting he announced at the door that he was here to see his brother, Bill Duffy. He was told that Mr Duffy was busy preparing for the meeting but if he would like to leave his card they would make sure he got it; by the way did he want a bumper sticker? Jack found an empty seat about half way down the hall and waited. Finally, ten minutes late, Bill and a group of men who looked as important as Bill filed in and sat at the long table on the stage. They started tapping their microphones, shuffling their chairs and pouring themselves glasses of water from the glass jugs on the table.

Finally, one of the men pulled his microphone noisily towards himself and cleared his throat. The sound reverberated around the room from the old trumpet speakers hanging from the rafters. The man introduced himself as the Mayor of Davies Creek and he said he was proud to introduce, his colleague and long time friend Battling Bill Duffy; all the time he spoke he was moving the microphone around trying to find a spot where it would not cause the speakers to squeal.

After a speech about the benefits of voting for Battling Bill and the Country Party over “the Commie opposition” Battling Bill allowed a short period for questions, three questions in all, read haltingly by local party members. Battling Bill then quickly thanked everyone for coming and called the meeting to a close. As the audience was leaving the man who had introduced himself as the Mayor approached Jack and asked him to come back into the Council Chambers to see Bill.

Bill started their meeting with a formal handshake and invited Jack to sit down on the opposite side of a big wooden desk. Looking down from behind the desk he explained that he couldn’t talk for long because he had a plane waiting. After exchanging pleasantries Jack didn’t know what to say so Bill took the lead.

“Look Jack” he said quietly, “You’re looking well, but lets face it you’re getting on.”, With no response from Jack he went on “ How long do you expect to be able to keep going up there?”

“The sensible thing to do is sell up and move down here for your retirement.”

“If you do that I’ll be quite happy to help you manage the money, you won’t want for anything, you’re sitting on a goldmine up there. Tourism is the thing these days and you’ve got the makings of your own alpine village with all those titles.”

”What else can you do? You’ve got no kids, no heirs and neither me or any of my kids are interested in living up in that god-forsaken place, that’s for sure. The bloody kids won’t even go up there for a holiday.”

Bill just sat there, what was happening? This wasn’t what he wanted.

“Look, if you want I can have my solicitor start drawing up papers as soon as I get back home.”

Silence!

“Well, think about it Jack, before things bugger up completely for you up there.”

“Look I’ve got to catch my plane, call me when you decide. It’s been good to see you again Jack.” Jack took the proffered hand and it shook his.

The drive back to The Valley seemed to take forever. For the next week Jack didn’t do much. There weren’t many dishes, he didn’t eat much, the cattle bellowed down by the hayshed but Jack just didn’t have the energy to feed them.

On the morning of the seventh day Jack was up at dawn again. All the regular chores were done by ten thirty and Jack moved the cattle into the river paddock where there was still good feed. he noticed that the top barb was broken on the road fence just near the gate. Jack shook his head, “Bloody roos” he thought out loud.

Straight after lunch he put the fencing pliers, strainer and some loose fencing wire in the back of the Ute and went up and fixed the fence.

It would be dusk soon and the roos would be coming down; Jack went back to the house and picked up the old Lea Enfield 303 he used to keep the roos down and went up to the old house where he’d grown up. On the verandah Jack looked out over the farm, you could see nearly the whole place from here; he remembered his dad saying that to visitors all the time.

Jack tucked the barrel of the rifle under his chin and shot himself through the head.

A few birds took off from nearby trees and the emerging roos started at the sudden rapport. A few of the closer roos hopped away a short distance, then settled and went back to their slow, nightly migration out from the tree line, grazing as they went.

Chapter Two – Bill

Dad had flown home suddenly, Uncle Jack was dead, some sort of an accident up on the farm. Dad was being evasive when you asked him what happened. Gave one of his ‘Politician’ answers. They might work with the media, but you were family, you could always tell.

Dad reckoned this couldn’t have come at a worse time. But then you weren’t sure when it was a good time for someone to die. For Dad what mattered was his career, it was always his fucking career. If it wasn’t Parliament it was Committees, if it wasn’t Committees it was dinner parties but it was always ‘a career move’ carefully planned to help him claw his way up the Party ladder. Even Mum had been a career move. You used to joke with your mates that your Dad would give them their first blow-job if they promised to vote for him.

Somehow you were glad Uncle Jack was dead, at least it meant Dad was home for a while; even if he was on the phone all the time talking about ways to “limit the fallout”. You didn’t really understand how there could be fallout from a farm accident but that was politics so Dad must ne right. Anyway that was their problem.

Tonight, you were going out with your mates. You’d spent the last hour playing with your hair to make it look like you hadn’t touched it. You’d put on your Nike shoes, your Addidas jacket and your Christopher Ari jeans. Everything you own these days has a name. That’s one of the advantages of being fifteen years younger than your siblings, what Mum called “Gods Special Gift”. Your mates joked that you were probably the first time your parents had had sex in fifteen years. Whatever the reason it meant that you were the only child still at home and you could get anything just by asking. Often you didn’t even have to ask.

Tonight was Friday night and Dad or no Dad you were going out with your mates, that’s what happens Friday night. You’d pick up your mates in the neat little 4X4 you’d got last year for your eighteenth, then stop off at your friendly neighbourhood dealers and score a taste.

You knew drugs were dangerous, one of your school friends had ended up loosing it because of drugs, he’d gone really weird and the cops had taken him away. You saw him once about a year later; his eyes were really scary and he looked like he hadn’t washed for a week. You were always careful now days; one of the benefits of being a Politicians son was that your drugs came straight from Diplomatic Bags.

After your ‘taste’ you’ll head for the clubs, have a snort of Coke to counter the snooziness of the smack. On the way you tell your mates about your Uncles accident. Four hours later, you park in your driveway and spend a minute getting yourself together, check your eyes, they’re not too bad. OK, now all you have to do is hold it together until you get upstairs to your room.

“Hi Mum, Hi Dad, I’m bushed. Goodnight.”

“John, I need to talk to you for a minute.”

“Shit”, you think, now I’m really fucked.

“Can it wait till morning Dad, I’m really tired?”

“It’ll only take a minute. It’s important son.”

What the hell… He hasn’t called you ‘son’ since that disastrous talk about sex when you were twelve. Fuck!

You are still too out of it for this, but you know you’ve got no choice. You drop into the big leather sofa keeping your eyes low.

“Well son” he starts in his best ‘I care’ voice, you’d heard him use this voice in interviews on TV and you always found it funny because you knew ‘care’ was something your dad didn’t do. “Son, you know about your poor Uncle Jack, God rest his soul. Well there’s no easy way to say this John, it appears that Uncle Jack may have taken his own life”. “Now son, people from the media might try to talk to you, if they do I want you to just say “no comment, Ok”

“Yeah, sure Dad, no worries. Goodnight.”

Oh God, now he wants a hug. What’s the big deal, you never even met Uncle Jack. It was a long night, you just couldn’t sleep. You blamed the Coke but you couldn’t stop thinking about Uncle Jack. Why the Fuck would someone do that?

In the morning the house is bedlam. Several of the ‘Big People’ from the Party turned up at eight O’clock for a meeting with Dad. The words “fallout”, “repercussions” and “voter backlash” and “milk it” bounced around the room.

Video footage of Uncle Jack at a recent Public Campaign Meeting your dad had held at Davies Creek had already been on morning TV, and photos of Jack coming out of the Council Chambers after his brief meeting with Battling Bill were sure to surface. It was when a phone call came through that some nosey bloody reporter had been up The Valley and in town asking people how long it had been since they had seen their Local Member that it really hit the fan.

Shit! How were they going to spin this? The Local bloody Member hadn’t lived in town since he was sixteen. He had run out early from his brothers funeral and his brother was a fucking war hero; in fact both his brothers had been.

Someone, probably from the Labor Party, had dug up the list of Medals and Commendations and Dispatch Mentions and bloody old photographs of Dave and Jack getting Medals pinned on them by Billy bloody Hughes; the commie bastard.

Turns out that Dave and Jack had done a two man cavalry charge on a German machinegun post using their bayonets like sabers. After the initial charge, they dismounted and finished it hand to hand. By the time the rest of the Troop got there seven dead Germans lay in and around the emplacement. Then later they’d both tried to give each other the credit. Two bloody war hero’s in the family, and the bloke who wanted to be Prime Minister ran out of the first ones funeral and a few days after he saw the second for the first bloody time in decades the silly old bugga blows his brains out. It didn’t take long for the talk to swing from how to protect Bill to how to protect the Party. Bill watched as his mates, the blokes who had stood behind him in his bid to be Party Leader, psychologically distanced themselves. He was out in the cold. The words “yesterdays man” were used.

Fuck, how was he supposed to know what happened in the war; Jack and Dave never talked about that and he wasn’t bloody well asking. Now, half a century later, because two blokes did something brave on the other side of the world, the whole thing jumps up and bites him on the bum and his career was collapsing. Later that night he got a call from The Executive; they wanted him to step down from his Defence Portfolio and all the Committee’s he was on until this all blew over. They were sure it was a storm in a teacup. But, just in case… for the Party, the Government… and the country; they were sure he understood.

Bill needed whiskey; two quick shots later and the warm glow was spreading out from his belly. He’d seen it all before, shit he’d orchestrated it. The ‘temporary stand-down’ that no one ever got up from. He could go back to Legal Practice, but he was never any good at that anyway. Bill took out the small Berretta pistol he kept for ‘protection’, put its barrel in his mouth and shot himself in the head. His body just sagged like a damp towel hung over the chair.

Chapter Three – John

John lay awake for a second night, the second since dad had told him about Uncle Jacks suicide. Dad had never said much about Uncle Jack, usually referred to him as “the silly old bugga up the farm”. Now it turned out that he was a hero. Christ, now John wished he’d met him.

A sharp noise like someone dropping or throwing something startled John from his chain of thought. He wondered if he should go down and check it out but decided it was probably his dad and his pollie mates getting pissed. His mind now distracted from his dead uncle, sleep came quickly. Johns mum woke him in the morning. Shit, he thought, did she always look this bad in the morning? No wonder dad had that affair last year.

She looked upset, dad must have got drunk last night and slapped her round again. But why wake John up? If she wanted to leave why didn’t she just go? Dad was a prick, but did that mean she should disturb his sleep? Besides he felt hungover from lack of sleep.

“John I need to talk to you”

“Can we do this after breakfast mum?”

“No, I’m sorry but it’s urgent.”

“Ok mum, what’s he done this time?”

“Son, things haven’t been going too well for your father recently, and well there’s no easy way to say this, last night your father took his own life.”

Oh fuck, he needed drugs, this was heavy shit.

“I’m sorry to tell you like this but the Police are downstairs and I had to tell you before you go down.”

“But how? When? Where”

“Last night in the Study after we’d all gone to bed. I found him…”

His mum kept talking but John couldn’t hear her; that sharp noise just before he went to sleep. Fuck was that dad?

John heard his mum say “Please get dressed and come downstairs I need you down there”

Dressing just happened, then he was downstairs. He went through the motions. His father would have been proud of his demeanor. Like a professional statesman he heard all the words, gave all the right answers and shook all the right hands.

Finally that evening the Police, politicians and friends and family had finally left, all saying “you need to get some rest”. He walked up stairs to his room and retrieved the bag of Coke he kept in the back of the wardrobe; set up three big lines and blew his brains out. The next three weeks of Johns life were a blur of drugs and violent outbursts. It all came to a head in some shitty little bar when he jammed a broken beer glass in some bouncers face. It took six cops and two cans of Capsicum Spray to finally bring him down. The Police took him to hospital because they were worried about his lungs with all that spray. He was shackled to a trolley in ED for three days. Two people talked to him, said they were from the CAT Team. They asked him some questions about what had been happening to him in the last week.

Shortly after he was wheeled down to another section of the hospital, still shackled. He was taken to a small, bare room. As well as the Police there were now two Security Guards and four men in casual dress who said that they were nurses. A face appeared in front of John and tried to look friendly “John, my name is Peter and I’m in charge here” said the face. But where was here? John wondered. His head nodded.

“I’d like to take these straps off John; if I do can you promise me that you won’t attempt to hurt anyone?”

Again Johns head nods.

The straps are undone, John lies there in confused disbelief. He’s been in hospital before but what the fuck is this place? Peters face again “Now I want you to hop off the trolley and lie on the bed on your stomach”

You look over the edge of the trolley, there’s a bed made up on a mattress on the floor with the blankets folded back.

You swing your legs over the side. Sitting up you’re face to face with a sea of tense male faces. You notice that one of the nurses is rocking nervously on the balls of his feet. Hopping off the trolley fear bites the pit of your stomach “Look…” you start to say, but you’re cut off sharp. “Lie on the bed on your stomach!” Peters voice sounds like he means it, the jaws of the sea of faces harden. Without hesitation you lay down.

Immediately hands are all over you. Your arms are pulled straight out from your body and pinioned. One large man grips each ankle and another holds your shoulders down. You see a Kidney Dish out of the corner of your eye. “What the fuck is that?” You try to get up; the hands clamp down. “It’s just something to help you relax”. “But I am fucking well relaxed, I don’t need your shit!” The hands clamp down.

A hand slips under your stomach and undoes the top of your jeans “What the fuck are you doing you cunts.” The hands clamp down. You try to wiggle your bum away but your jeans are yanked down low on your hips. You feel helpless, violated. A rage of self righteous indignation wells up inside you. Fuck them! You fight, this is pure primal defense instinct and it gives you strength. You pull one hand free but a body leans on your shoulder rendering the arm ineffectual. “Hold still” that voice says. This reminds you of speech and you let it out “You cunts, you’re all fucking dead, you fucking…NOOO!” You feel the needle slide into your flesh; a feeling of loss, of defeat invades your whole being. You sag physically and mentally but the strength of the hands gripping doesn’t change.

That hated voice says “Now, you’ll start to feel relaxed in a minute or two.” I was fucking relaxed you think, but you just lay there. The hands are still on you. Slowly, the familiar feeling of drug induced forgetfulness sweeps over you. Vaguely, through the fog, you hear that voice again “Ok, he’ll be all right now, back out.” Somewhere in the back of your mind you know that the hands have gone.

Slowly, you drift back into awareness, but even propping yourself on your elbow is a huge effort. You feel like you’ve got the hangover from Hell. Over the next few days you’ll try to rebel against their control but it doesn’t take long for you to realize the futility of resistance. So begins a life of regular psych hospital admissions.

Nobody would ever know that behind those dull, furtive eyes hid a man who but for fortune should have lived out his days in The Valley, keeping the farm going for his children, and they for theirs…

“There but for fortune go you or I” 

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About a foolhardy florilegium

Nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri
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