Author Archives: Jamie Derkenne

Leichardt’s Trilobite, Jamie Derkenne

Derkenne

The road north east of Singleton in the Hunter Valley passes through gently rolling country, alongside huge open cut mines and cattle pasture until it reaches the Glennies Creek Dam and skirts around the east side of Lake St Clair, a body of water two kilometres across and about eight kilometres long dotted with grassy islands, built specifically to supply water to the coal mines.

Past the dam the road starts steeply climbing towards the Mount Royal National Park through hilly grasslands. Soon after, the landscape loses its cultivated aspect and takes on a wilder appearance. The road narrows, becoming rutted dirt. A huge boulder tumbled from a ridge above lies in the middle of the road in such a way that the car can barely inch pass.  Massive stinging trees 40 metres high with large light green heart-shaped leaves sweep their branches low over the road dappling the shafts of sunlight. I once stood barefoot on a stinging tree leaf that had been rotting in a pool of water long enough for it to appear black. The touch caused excruciating pain lasting days. Interspersed among the stinging trees are native tamarind with leaves two thirds of a metre long, and mossy stands of Antarctic beech, a tree that grew in South America and Australia before they cleaved off the Antarctic continent. Creepers, thicker than a human arm stretch from trunks to the canopy, and thick carpets of lichens and mosses cover fallen branches. Apart from the National Parks trails, the forest is all but impenetrable. The air becomes cooler, less dusty and more humid. Lyre birds, mimicking chainsaws, reversing graders and people chatting call from the forest depths. The walking trails are so deeply littered with leaves that I nearly step on a coiled yellow and black tiger snake, all but invisible in the litter, slumbering in the middle of the path in a patch of sunlight. It watches me warily as I walk around.

The next day I park at a small picnic area that has a lush green lawn manicured by grazing potoroo, wallaby-like creatures no more than 50 centimetres tall. The lawn leads to a path that scrambles steeply up through strewn boulders and rocks to Piri’s Peak. The vegetation quickly changes from rainforest to open woodland, with large eucalypts, some so ancient they have been hollowed with age, so that it is possible to stand inside the tree. The path narrows, and follows a ridge line and then a narrow rocky ledge until it reaches the peak, from which Mount Royal and the never ending ranges and valleys stretching to the horizon can be seen. On the way down mists roll in, making it difficult to discern the path.

Along a road, stopping for thermos coffee and to admire the view back across the descending hills to the lake I pick up a gritty piece of limestone. A cold rain spits. I finish my coffee and head back to the car and just before I chuck the stone, I stop still, staring at what is in my hand. It takes me a while to realise that what I am holding is a rock that has the clear impression on one of its faces of a trilobite. Leichhardt’s trilobite. Ludwig Leichhardt, the explorer who disappeared without trace in the immense deserts of Northern Australia.

Trilobites are creatures that lived between 520 and 250 million years ago. The earth was very different then. The dinosaurs had yet to evolve. Huge insects, some with wingspans measured in metres, hovered among the horsetail and fern trees that would eventually fall, decay and pressed by the weight of eons become the coal that is mined throughout the Hunter Valley today. Trilobites were early creatures but they were not simple. Some evolved eyes so complex that they had depth of field and a lack of distortion that humbles the human sense of sight.[1] Others had sensory pits capable of detecting tiny vibrations and faint molecular traces. The number and variety of these organisms indicate that they were not only abundant, but survived for more than 270 million years. A cataclysmic event 250 million years ago, possibly a huge asteroid impact, wiped out 96 per cent of all marine life, including the trilobites and 70 per cent of land animals.

The forest I stand in is not pristine: it was once logged and has supported humans for eons. Some of the blackened trunks tell of past bushfires, and despite the present dampness one can easily imagine the litter of dead tree fern fronds making excellent incendiary fuel. The forest is old, older than knowing, older than the memories of the Wanaruah, whose home this was for eons until 1826 when they were nearly wiped out by invading pastoralists.[2] What I see, looking around me is very much what Ludwig Leichhardt saw when he stood here in 1843. He wrote: ‘Here I believe I saw a trilobite. Although I could not find this small fossil again, so I would like to make later observers aware of this location.’[3]

The trilobite I hold in my hand is only two centimetres long. It has a three lobed body (hence the name), no visible suggestion of legs, and large compound eyes only faintly visible. It is not a fossil that is in the same league as the huge trilobites patiently extracted from the Moroccan slates. It is an indistinct fossil, but there is no doubt that Leichhardt would have spent some time examining just such a specimen. Such fossils were at the time on the cutting edge of science. Their mere existence tested the faith of men such as Leichhardt. How do you reconcile religious belief with a fossil that clearly shows a creature that lived, prospered and evolved into all sorts of shapes and sizes so long ago that it is outside of human imagination to envisage the passing eons?

Born into a Lutheran family, Leichhardt remembered with affection the church of his childhood. He maintained his religious beliefs, but grew independent of church teaching. He told his friend Eduard Hallmann, an atheist who asked him about life after death, ‘I only know the following to be sure: as organisms, we will decompose, and new life will come into being from the individual elements’. It was not a theistic view in the modern sense but Leichhardt wanted to believe there was some divine spark in humanity. Hallmann retorted ‘Fair, unfair, good, evil, it is all null and void. Nothing is intrinsically good, nor evil … everything is as good as everything else’.[4]

Such troubling views were not limited to Leipzig friends. Riding through similar country to Mount Royal in northern NSW, Leichhardt had gone to Neale’s station, where he met a prophet of sorts, a tall white-haired man with a flowing beard who told him he preferred the company of his Newfoundland bitch and Galway pony over humans. They chatted for hours. The hermit explained he had less time for religion than he had for people. The Bible was abominable: ‘God is an irrational assumption, the soul is nothing but the puff with which the servant girl stirs up the fire’.[5] This strange land he was traversing was questioning the very limits of Leichhardt’s being.

Leichhardt has been in the area for two months. He had ridden up from Newcastle to Glendon Station in December, marvelling at the searing effect an intense drought was having on the landscape. ‘The vegetation begins to wear a sickly appearance for want of rain,’ the Maitland Mercury reported.[6] It was through a hot, harsh and barren landscape that Leichhardt made his journey to the lush rainforest at Mount Royal. As he travelled north he would occasionally glimpse through the trees the high mountains of the Barrington Range to the north. Had it been July or August he might have seen snow covering the higher peaks. Apart from the dam, the roads and tracks he took were the ones that still exist, and indeed the ones that had existed for millennia. The early explorers did not attempt to barge through the sometimes dense upland forest and lowland rainforests of the region, but followed the paths of the traditional owners, the Wanaruah people. From St Clair station he was guided by an old sawyer who had been tree felling in the area for nine years along the Mount Royal path. It was 26 January, 1843. As he rode up, Leichhardt busied himself with his geological observation, including his notes on the trilobite. The track to Mount Royal would have been quite obvious skirting east of Carrow Brook at the base of high tree covered ridges to the east and south. Leichhardt wrote of how the valley grasslands gave way to rainforests along the creek as the valley narrowed.  Higher up, he saw stands of tree fern among the dense scrub formed by various trees. Here, Leichhardt wrote carefully with his only writing implement, a pencil, the thing to be avoided was the ‘nettle tree’ with its broad heart-shaped leaves.[7]  Today this landscape is cleared pasture with much of the lower-lying land under the water of Lake St Clair. Leichhardt appears to have been captivated by the rainforest along upper Carrow Brook and its tributary gullies and by the new plant species and their growth habits he was observing.

‘The creepers became very numerous, the native vine stretched from trunk to trunk and made the scrub almost impenetrable. Mosses hung down in long garlands from the branches, lichens covered rocks and living and dead plants.’[8] He noted other fossils along the creek: spirifers, brachiopods, bivalves, ancient corals and sponges. At the foot of Piri’s Peak he roasted a potoroo and then followed a path which left the rainforested valley and its meandering creek, up a sledge track used by bullock teams to haul timber. The three kilometre path he found ‘extremely steep’.  He wrote: ‘We gained one terrace after the other, always sandstone covered by forest.’ He stopped at the base of a steep grassy ridge to camp.[9]

As he was preparing camp his horse broke its bridle and ran off down the track it had come. He walked some 45 kilometres down the valley and back up again looking for it. His companion decided to ride back to Glendon, Leichhardt decided to stay put. He made himself a home in the butt of a huge hollowed tree, lining the floor with tree fern fronds. During the following days he climbed Piri to watch the sun set. In his tree hollow house, using a saddle as pillow, he watched a wallaby graze in the thick grass. He watched the Orion constellation and the brightest star cluster in the night sky, Sirius, wheel overhead while the forest chattered with the echoing voices of flying squirrels. The next day he found his horse and rode back to his camp, rebuilt his fire and hung some pressing papers out to dry by draping them over a nearby branch. An ember caught the papers, burning them and a shirt he had hung out to dry. Later that night the same fire ignited the tree fern fronds he was using as his bedding, burning his blanket and more clothes. A day later he lost the one and only pencil he had been using to keep his diary. When it started to rain, he decided he’d had enough, and returned to Glendon, where he stayed until 4 March. The night he left a large comet illuminated the sky with its long bifurcated tail.

I stay at Callicoma Hill, in a small, comfortably appointed hut heated by a Rayburn. There is enough solar electricity to run a radio and a reading lamp. The owner, Martin Fallding, a keen conservationist, has left his own written account of Leichhardt’s journey through the Mount Royal area, including the fact he believed he found a trilobite. Even though it is October the night is cold. I walk outside to investigate the snarling of mountain possums and startle a mob of kangaroo grazing just outside the door. There is no moon, but the silhouettes of the nearby trees can be clearly seen. As the kangaroos thump off I look up and see an immensity of stars and the faint glowing pin-pricked clouds of the milky way, stretching as a red, green and purple band across the entire sky. In cities and towns such sights are impossible. A cluster of meteors silently curves over the earth, glowing white for a few seconds before being extinguished.

I live in a world where we are cocooned from the immensity of existence by comforts and knowledges of modern life, but holding that trilobite in my hands for a brief few seconds I understand how a young German natural philosopher would have felt, gazing out on the vast and unknown landscape from his tree hollow, watching the immensity of the stars above, having cradled the immensity of the ages, a fossil imprint tens of  thousands of times older than all of human existence, in awe of the inability of even human religions to explain the never ending wonder.

[1] Zigmond, Richard E. “Trilobite eyes: calcified lenses in vivo.” Gen. Comp. Endocrinol 18 (1972): 450.

[2] Connor, Linda H. Climate Change and Anthropos: Planet, People and Places, Routledge, 5 Feb. 2016: 53

[3]Fallding, Martin, and Doug Benson. “Adventures, hardship and a scientific legacy: Ludwig Leichhardt’s 1843 journey to Mt Royal in the Hunter Valley, NSW.” Cunninghamia 2013:322

[4] Finger, Hans Wilhelm. Ludwig Leichhardt: Lost in the outback. Rosenberg 2013:13.

[5] Rothwell, Nicholas. “Explorer Ludwig Leichhardt’s adventures into the great unknown” The Australian October 19, 2013. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/explorer-ludiwg-leichhardts-adventures-into-the-great-unknown/story-fn9n8gph-1226741751520.

[6] Fallding 308

[7] Fallding 310.

[8] Fallding 310.

[9] Finger 65.

Jamie Derkenne

Jamie Derkenne worked as a print journalist, web specialist and public relations consultant. He lived throughout the 1980s in the Nambucca and Bellinger valleys on the Mid North Coast of NSW, and has lived in Sydney since the late 1990s. His interests include photography, mycology, paleontology, books and writing. He is currently enrolled as PhD candidate at Macquarie University.

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Five Loose Screws, Jamie Derkenne

J.Derkenne_image

Note: do not try any of this at home.

 

As she was leaving my mother handed me an envelope.

‘It has the screws for the bed head in the second bedroom. I’m sure you can do it by yourself. It won’t take you more than five minutes.’

‘I’ll try my best.’

She handed me a screwdriver. ‘I even remembered to bring you the screwdriver,’ she said. ‘I knew you’d insist. Not that you really need one.’

The family holiday house I was staying in and which she was leaving was forty-five minutes by rough road to the nearest town.

This was a remote corner of the world. Police recently caught a murderer whose location they knew, but could never find. He had been on the run for seven years. The terrain was so rugged they could never quite catch up with him. There was a single cable power line that came up the valley. That was it. No phone, no TV, no post, no shops, nothing. Sometimes on a cloudy night you could pick up a radio station broadcasting from Sydney, but there was so much static that you couldn’t really make out what was being said or sung.

My mother drove down the road, her dust cloud slowly settling on the road and verge behind her. I stood on the veranda clutching the envelope of screws, and the small green family screwdriver. I looked at the screwdriver. The shaft was bent.

My mother was the tradesman about the house. ‘My tools are words,’ my father said. ‘If you want something done with a hammer, then you employ a carpenter. I do not expect a carpenter to be able to prepare a brief, and nor should a carpenter expect that I be able to use a hammer.’

But my mother had a different view. Household maintenance could only be a matter of common sense.

Years before, my Woodworking class made plywood puppets. We cut out the shapes using scroll saws. The body and legs were separate. The idea was that the legs would be pinned to the body and by pulling a string, you could make the puppet’s legs dance. Our teacher told us we had to drill the holes and secure the legs for homework.

‘Your dads will help.’

I knew, however, that this was my mother’s territory. ‘It’s just a matter of common sense,’ she said. We took my puppet bits to outside the laundry and lay them down on a saw-horse. The saw-horse had seen better days, and wobbled quite a bit. It was very old. I think it had belonged to my mother’s grandfather. I often wondered who had taught her so many practical things. Maybe it had been him. She once told me he had been an accountant. My mother went to the garage and came back with a large electric drill. It was very heavy, like the power tools from the 1940s on display in the Museum of Technology. The casing was made of metal, and the power cord was made from frayed woven fabric.

‘I’ll show you how to use a drill,’ she said. ‘First, we have to use the chuck key and put a drill bit in.’ She looked along the cord. There was a rubber thong which had perhaps once held a chuck key, but the rubber had perished so much that it couldn’t hold anything. There was no chuck key. ‘We can use the screwdriver,’ she said. Using the screwdriver — there was only the one, and it was the same one I was holding in my hand now — as a chuck key was difficult, but she eventually managed to get a drill bit in and the chuck reasonably tight around it. The drill bit looked worn. The tip was polished and rounded. I felt it with the tip of my finger. It felt cold and smooth.

‘You place the drill exactly where you want the hole to go, and then lean into the drill as much as you can, then turn it on. I’ll show you.’ She positioned the drill carefully over the ‘X’ I had marked on the plywood and leant on it with all her weight. The drill made a groaning sound, and the bit started spinning. It didn’t seem to be drilling. The wood started spinning. She stopped and I held the wood in place. We started again.

‘I need to lean in more,’ she said above the din of the drill. Smoke started to rise from the plywood. The drill was screaming. A small flame erupted. My mother stopped and examined her handiwork. There was a slight ebonized indentation where she had been drilling. The drill bit glowed a dull red.

‘Must be hardwood,’ she said. ‘Maybe we should just punch a hole through with a nail. Have you ever used a hammer before?’

I shook my head. I had used a hammer in Woodworking class, but the school hammers, I knew, were not like the household one. The only time I had ever used a hammer like my mother’s was once in Metalwork class.

‘I have the hammer in the kitchen. I’ll go and get it.’ My mother returned with a large rusty hammer and a four-inch nail. The head of the hammer was ball-shaped. The wooden handle had a large split going down the middle. She had got the hammer and nail from the second kitchen drawer, the one she kept the broken carving knives in. The first kitchen drawer was for cutlery. The second was my mother’s toolbox. It was exactly the same arrangement at the holiday house. First drawer for cutlery, second for house maintenance and broken carving knives.

‘The trick with nails is that you give them a few light taps to heat them up, then you bang like fury.’ She showed me how. She tapped lightly on the nail, and then delivered an almighty blow. The nail clanged as it hit the clothesline and there was a clack as bits of hammer handle hit the concrete ground.

‘No problem. I know what to do.’ She hurried off to the kitchen and returned with a lump hammer. The lump hammer also had no handle. I had never seen the lump hammer before, but then the second kitchen drawer was three times as deep as the other drawers.

‘We just grip it like so and hit the nail with it this way.’ She banged the nail a few more times, gripping the lump hammer head in such a way that she could strike the nail with its side. The nail went through the wood. My puppet made a splitting, wood crunching sort of sound. My mother took the nail out and examined the split wood and nail hole.

‘Nothing that can’t be fixed.’

My mother kept a large roll of gaffer tape in the drawer as well. The gaffer tape was an extraordinarily useful tool. She had repaired refrigerator shelves, garden pots and even the garden hose with that gaffer tape. Once she had even done some temporary repairs on a pair of school shoes. She tore a piece of it off with her teeth — the family scissors hadn’t worked properly since the time they had been used as an awl — and smoothed it over the hole.

‘Now it’s your turn.’

I aimed my nail carefully over the mark on the remaining leg and tapped, a bit more tentatively than my mother, as I wasn’t used to using a lump hammer without a handle. My nail went through without incident, but the wood was slighty burred on the other side. After prising the nail out, my mother carefully peeled the wood splinters away from the hole. One splinter kept peeling until it reached the other side of the plywood.

‘Perfect,’ she said. ‘You see, you can do anything if you set your mind to it.’

‘Mr Robinson had said we should use brass split pins to join the legs to the body.’

‘I’ve never heard of those. We don’t need to buy expensive complicated dooverlackies. We’ll just use some two-inch nails. It’s so easy. I’ll show you.’

I couldn’t remember Mr Robinson ever saying that split pins were expensive or complicated. My mother lined up a leg hole with a body hole, and tapped a nail through, into the saw horse, so that it was about half-way into the saw-horse wood. She then bashed the top so it was bent over, extricated the nail from the saw-horse, and then did the same on the other side. It worked like a pin, but because of the thickness of the nail, the leg jutted out at a strange angle.

‘What is this?’ Mr Robinson asked holding up my puppet with his thumb and forefinger. He said it with the same tone of voice Mr Rodgers used when handing me my marked Maths papers.

‘It’s my puppet, Sir.’ Someone at the back of the class sniggered. I didn’t come last in the form, though. That position was reserved for Alan Bertwhistle, who had moved interstate half-way through the year, and as a consequence had not done any assessable projects for at least six months. Mr Robinson wrote on my report at the end of the year that ‘James tried his best.’

I watched my mother leave, then folded the envelope, put it in my pocket, and went into the bedroom. I lined up the bed head against the bed. Bed head and bed had been separated some weeks before by my mother so they could be carried up in the trailer. Maybe my mother was right. Maybe it would only be a five minute job. After all, she had managed to get the screws out. How hard could it be to get them back in?

The bed head was attached to the bed with two metal brackets. The idea was that you screwed the metal brackets to the bed head, then screwed the brackets to the bed. Only it hadn’t been done that way. Whoever had assembled the bed head and bed in the first place had screwed the brackets onto the bed first, so that the only way of screwing the bed head on was to guess where the metal holes of the bracket were from the other side of the bed head. There should have been six holes, but there were in fact thirteen, as many of the holes hadn’t quite lined up with the bracket holes. Seven of the holes were near misses.

The obvious solution was to unscrew the brackets from the bed, but they were firmly screwed in with three large slotted flat-head screws on each bracket. There were no screwdrivers except the one my mother had given me, which was small and bent. However, my mother had years before showed me a practical solution to this very problem: carving knives.

I was taught how to use carving knives as screwdrivers when she showed me how to do my own electrical repairs.

‘The trick with electrical repairs,’ my mother said, while carefully using the tip of the carving knife to unscrew a little brass screw that held two wires together, ‘is to make sure the colours are the same. If you have a red wire, you should always make sure it connects to another red wire. Same for green, same for black. It’s that easy. And to think some people pay electricians for this.’

We had to wait until my father was out of the house before we started the project. That very morning he had pleaded — begged — with her to hire an electrician. She had agreed, but now that he was out of the house, she had changed her mind. My mother had never hired an electrician, ever.

We were wiring in a new light fitting, one that terminated in two halogen lamps. She had bought it on special at Ikea for just a few dollars — there was a discount on the discount when she had complained there was a dent in the packaging. She unwrapped it and looked at the wires. There was a blue one, a brown one and a red one. She looked at those, and looked at the black, red and green wires from the old fitting.

‘Hmm. Looks like they got the colours wrong,’ she said.

‘Maybe they just changed them,’ I said.

It was all a bit complicated, because in the old fitting there were two blacks and two reds. She hadn’t been expecting that. The two black wires were together, but the two red ones were in different sockets.

‘I suppose brown means red. Maybe they ran out of the proper coloured wires,’ she said. ‘That means blue means black and green is of course green.’

‘This may look complicated to you, but it isn’t really,’ she continued. ‘All we need to do is wire up the new fitting the same as the old fitting. We’ll draw a diagram so we won’t forget. You should always draw a diagram or make notes if you have any doubts.’

She drew a diagram and on it with her unique handwriting labelled each wire so we could tell what colour it was and what slot it belonged to, guessing at its colour equivalent. Red and brown seemed reasonable. I wasn’t too sure about black and blue. The blue was a vivid blue. Almost an electric blue. She put Gr for Green, Bl for Blue, Br for brown and Bk for black.

She then got the carving knife, and using the very tip, loosened the little brass screws that held the wires in place on the old and new fittings, prising the wires out. We then looked at the diagram for guidance.

All her life my mother had writing and reading issues. If she was growing up now she would have been diagnosed as dyslexic, but she was just told she was stupid. In order to cover up the fact she had trouble writing words, she invented a spidery curly script where one letter was almost indecipherable from another. She perhaps worked on the theory that people would spend so much time working out what the writing said that they’d forget about the spelling. In my adult life I have received perhaps six or seven letters from my mother. I’ve never been entirely sure what any of them said.

I looked at the diagram with its Bk, Bl and Br annotations. I could make out the B, but wasn’t sure if the next letter squiggle represented any letter in particular.

‘Is that a Br or a Bl?’ I said, pointing to the diagram.

‘Bk. Definitely a Bk. This digital age. My own child can’t read his mother’s handwriting.’

Using the carving knife, my mother started tightening the screws. The tip snapped.

‘Get me another knife will you?’ she asked, handing me the broken carving knife. I went to the kitchen and put the carving knife with the others in the second drawer next to the gaffing tape. I took a new one out of the top drawer. My mother bought carving knives six at a time from St Vincent De Paul for 50 cents each. She preferred the long thin ones with the bone handles, because they were good for getting bits out of toasters.

After she finished the wiring, my mother asked me to screw the fixture to the ceiling.

‘Shouldn’t we test it first?’ I asked. She agreed that it was probably a good idea. I went outside and turned the power back on. I came inside, and on her nod, turned on the light switch. There was a loud pop as one of the bulbs exploded. The rest of the lights in the hallway remained dark. Now none of the lights worked.

‘Maybe it was Bl after all,’ my mother said, frowning.

‘It’s the fuse,’ I said. I knew how to mend fuses. My mother had taught me. Our fuse box was the old fashioned type, the ones with the ceramic insulators and a little bit of fuse wire. The power company had once offered to update the fuse box to something more modern and safer for a nominal fee, but my mother had declined, saying their bills were too expensive, and they weren’t going to get yet more money out of her. I went outside with a fresh carving knife, and turned the power off. I took the fuse out and examined it. The wire had melted clean through, which was surprising because my mother never used a single strand of fuse wire.

‘It’s cheap nasty stuff. You need to twist at least four or five strands together for the wire to last,’ she had once said.

I fixed the fuse, using just a single strand, and leaving the power off I returned inside. I was deep in thought. I was trying to do a mental calculation. There were five sockets in the new light fitting, and five wires that had to meet three wires, two of completely different colours to the old wiring. How many permutations, would that be, mathematically speaking, before we had gone through every possibility? I couldn’t work it out. I wasn’t any good at maths. I suspected the answer was ‘lots’.

Which brings me back to the lots of screw holes in the bed head. Armed with a carving knife, I inserted the back of the blade into a screw slot and twisted. It wouldn’t budge. I looked at the screw. It had a fine brown layer of rust on it, almost indistinguishable from the shellac veneer on the wood. This was an old bed. On a lacquered paper plate next to the bracket were the words ‘HS Joyner and Sons, 132 Lambton Road Broadmeadow,’ and then the letters ‘TEL’ and then a four digit number. I never knew that phone numbers once only had four digits.

I wasn’t going to shift the screws in a hurry. The next best thing was to line up the bed head and guess which of the thirteen holes my five screws were supposed to go in. I lined up the bed head as best I could, and opened the envelope. Inside were five loose screws. I looked at them carefully for at least a minute or two, turning them over in my palm one by one.

The screws were amazing. In a way, they were a testament to the ingenuity of man. Each and every one of them was as different to the other four as a screw can be from another screw, and still be called a screw.

The first one had a brassy look and a wide flat slot head. It was about an inch long. Screw number two had a small rounded silver star head, and a thread that looked like it had been originally used to screw two bits of metal together. Number three was rusty, and the same sort as the screws on the bracket that I couldn’t shift with my carving knife. It perhaps had been an original part of the bed. Number four was much the same, except it had a round head and a bent shaft. Someone had tried to straighten out the shaft at some stage by hitting it with something heavy. The threads were all mashed on one side. Whoever had tried to straighten this screw hadn’t succeeded, but had, from the state of the screw, delivered some forceful blows in the attempt. The last screw was black, and had a wide thread, the sort you get for particle board screws, and had an Ikea key head. It was one of the many screws my mother had kept as left over bits and pieces from Ikea projects. My mother loved Ikea furniture, because you could assemble it yourself. She never followed directions which were always printed on a large sheet of paper using graphics and as few words as possible, probably in deference to the fact the Ikea furniture is international furniture. She always preferred to work things out for herself. Had she been asked why, she probably would have said following instructions was somehow cheating. She always managed to assemble the pieces of furniture, but often had bits and pieces left over, which she attributed to careless packing. What hardware we possessed in our house, we possessed because of St Vincent De Paul and Ikea’s careless packing.

I started with the Ikea screw first. The holiday house was practically bereft of tools, but did have a huge assortment of Ikea hexagonal keys. My mother kept them in an old coffee tin in the shed. There were maybe fifty or sixty Ikea keys in that tin. It took me a while to find the right one, and a bit of jigging around to find the right hole, but eventually I got the screw in. From the four remaining screws I took out what looked like the sturdiest, and using my crooked screwdriver, screwed it in. This was hard work. Screwing in a rusty screw with a short bent screwdriver into what may or may not be the correct hole requires patience, considerable strength and callused hands. I had none of these qualities. I blistered the palm of my hand on the screwdriver handle getting that screw in. But now I had one screw either side, and a bed head that was precariously attached to the bed. I had three screws left.

Wondering vaguely whatever had happened to the sixth screw (it definitely hadn’t been in the envelope), I tackled screw number three. It was too tough for the screwdriver, so I resorted to the carving knife. I had it almost all the way in before the carving knife snapped. Carving knives weren’t going to work on this screw. I needed a proper screwdriver, but how?

I remembered I had a little toolkit in my car, under the back seat. It had a tyre jack, and a tool for levering off the hub caps and undoing the tyre bolts. The lever bit looked like it doubled as a giant screwdriver, maybe the sort you need for tinkering with the engine. I found the tool kit, a black leather satchel and took out the tool. It was about 15 inches long, and did indeed have a screwdriver end. A massive screwdriver end. The sort you would use for maybe taking screws out of an engine block. I took it inside and tried to turn a screw with it. The screwdriver wouldn’t fit into the screw slot. It was too big. Maybe, I thought, I could use a hammer, forcing the head into the slot. I didn’t have a hammer, of course, but there was a fist-sized lump of quartz by the back door. I took that and hammered the tyre tool onto the screw head. After about three minutes of repeated blows the screw head fell off. It took with it the piece of screw sticking out of the wood. That would do for that one.

The next two were relatively easy. The fourth one went in so easily that I could push it in and out with my fingers. I thought this might be a problem, and decided to pack out the hole with sawdust and wood glue, a handyman trick my mother had taught me. For some reason there were several small piles of very fine sawdust underneath the bed head. I have no idea where they had come from, as I certainly hadn’t done any sawing. I went to the kitchen drawer where I knew lay a small bottle of wood glue. It had been in that drawer since we first bought the holiday house, about twenty-five years ago. My mother had used it to repair some plastic wall power plugs, and it had lain there since. It took me a while to get the cap off the plastic bottle. The top half was watery, like thin milk. But the glue underneath seemed good. I mixed up a sturdy putty, and using my fingers, crammed it into the hole, and pushed the screw back in. I imagined that in a few hours it would set like concrete.

Concrete, by the way, is a great way of repairing outdoor furniture. My parents once had western red cedar chairs and a small outdoor table that they didn’t look after very well. After some years, the chairs has such deep weathered grooves in them that sitting was uncomfortable. My mother smoothed over the wood with a ferro-cement mix, and they were as good as new. Or they would have been as good as new if my father hadn’t chucked them out sometime over the next few days. My father, without permission or a by-your-leave from anyone, went out and bought a whole new set, taking the old one to the dump by himself. We only found out several days later. My mother was very cross about it, and would still get cross just remembering the incident.

‘For God’s sake Elaine,’ my father would say, his voice straining with exasperation and carefully enunciating each syllable so it was a rifle shot, ‘Why can’t you just go and spend some money instead of trying to fix everything yourself?’

‘At the very least, he could have waited until I got the screws out of the chairs. We might have been able to use them. Completely wasteful,’ she had said.

By the time I got the last screw in, it was dark. It had taken me about four hours to do the job, but I had done it despite a dearth of tools, and a complete unconformity with the screws. I lay down on the bed, my back leaning on a cushion against the bed head. It felt good, sturdy. The kind of bed head you could rely on.

My father’s favourite tune was a song that has many names. He called it ‘Waly Waly’. He’d sing it when he was happy, but it was a sad song. It had a stanza that went something like:

I leaned my back against an oak

Thinking it was a mighty tree

But first it bent, and then it broke

So did my love prove false to me.

I often sing that song inside my head when I’m feeling good about something, when I feel I have accomplished something. Today I had accomplished something. I had, despite the various difficulties, put the bed head back on the bed, without even losing my temper, much.

I knew my mother’s handyman hints were wrong, and that things would have been a lot easier had I bought myself a tool set. But I hadn’t. I should have expected my mother would have some project planned for me. And now, in an isolated cottage I had had to resort to my own ingenuity, meaning the things my mother had taught me. It’s funny how we fall back on doing things because we are used to doing them, not because it makes any sense.

Of course the bed head snapped. Deep down I sort of guessed it would. I didn’t know it would snap exactly, but I knew something would go wrong. I thought maybe my mother would change her mind, and buy a new bed head, or a complete bed ensemble. That was unlikely. Maybe it would catch fire, like the transistor radio she fixed when I was thirteen. But I knew a bed head could not have an electrical fault, and my father had long ago put a complete ban on electric blankets. It was stupid to imagine the bed head could catch fire. Maybe someone would steal the bed head. I tried to imagine someone stealing the bed head. Why would they do that? But then, why did my mother keep all those broken carving knives?

‘Snapped’ is perhaps too strong a word for what the bed head did. ‘Disintegrated’ might be a better way of putting it. I was leaning against it, thinking my thoughts, when it fell into several bits. I got off the bed and examined one of the bits. Where it had broken, the bare blonde timber showed. It was riddled with little holes, and covered with a fine dry powder. In one of the holes I could just make out something moving, like a beetle.

The pieces of wood came away easily from the screws. There was only four of them sticking out, as the one I had wood-glued had fallen out completely. I decided to let them be. I gathered up the bits of wood and took them to the stove to start a fire. Now that the sun had set, it was getting cold. All I had to do was put a match to the bits, as between the dry wood, the little holes, and the ancient shellac, it roared into flame. It was a bed head that was meant for burning. At least I was doing something useful with the wood. My mother would approve.

 

Download a pdf of Five Loose Screws

Jamie Derkenne

Jamie Derkenne worked as a print journalist, web specialist and public relations consultant. He lived throughout the 1980s in the Nambucca and Bellinger valleys on the Mid North Coast of NSW, and has lived in Sydney since the late 1990s. His interests include photography, mycology, paleontology, books and writing. He is currently enrolled as PhD candidate at Macquarie University.

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Angel, Jamie Derkenne

 

Lots of people had theories on how to catch those silver perch swimming in the water holes where the Nambucca snaked round Bowraville, but not many people ever seen any theory work.

Ray Glossip freely gave advice to any passing tourist or local, whether asked to or not. He’d swear a small hook with a tiny pinch of mullet was the only way. The time of day was crucial, had to be just before dawn, or just after sunset, and cool but not frosty. Neglected to mention been fishing for years, no luck. Percy Callinan, who caught one about thirty years previous, but had to throw it back because it was too small, reckoned silver perch were slippery bastards related to eels. His head cocked to one side, he’d show you a small, faded photo showing nothing, and opine you had to use a swivelled hook, and you needed a net. Andy Murray from the South Arm reckoned he caught them all the time, no big deal. ‘Just need the right ‘quipment,’’ he’d say, but never said what he had in mind. Also reckoned they weren’t good eating unless made into fish cakes.

Kev Shillingsworth, who was as close as most in town ever got to talking to someone traditional, often got asked questions like, ‘What you fellas do to catch perch in them olden days?’ To which he would reply, mysteriously tapping his nose with his forefinger, ‘We had our ways.’ But if Kev had ever known of the ways, he’d long had most of them whipped out of him, and suspected the ones he did know weren’t so traditional anyway. Once lifting up some lino with Percy, he’d come across some old yellow pages from the Bowraville Guardian, including a small story concerning the court appearance of two long-gone great uncles from the 1930s. The paper said they’d been caught fishing for silver perch near Lane’s Bridge, which wasn’t so much a crime even for them, although there would’ve been people who would have liked to make it one. The crime – fined five pounds each – was they were fishing with dynamite. Which explained why Andy Murray, who was into blowing things up, thought they were an easy catch.

Kev could understand this, because with dynamite, you could catch a lot of fish, and fish was good. ‘He was a fisher of men,’ old Father Finbarr Ewels would say from the pulpit of St Mary’s, pointing his bony finger to those up the back. He would growl about the heathens, because that’s what they were, their faces dark with sin. Women were the worst, sometimes wearing those white Jesus dresses like old mish girls, so poor, Finbarr would get confused bout what decade he was in. Some of them probably started thinking that if they ate a lot of fish then maybe they wouldn’t have to stand in the stalls any more at that Bowraville Theatre. Kev had been a Kinchela boy, so would eat anything so long as it wasn’t hay. He’d have fish on Fridays, and many other days besides.

Kev had taken his son Saucepan, river fishing a couple of times, but on each occasion they had soon given up, preferring to eat the cobra worms hiding in the sunken logs. Tastier, and a lot less hassle than if they had caught a fish, which would have meant building a fire, and scaling and gutting the catch.

Not that Saucepan ever gave up on the idea on catching some of the perch. You could see them glide just below the surface. Mostly small fish, but occasionally one of the big ones would rise up from the depths of the water hole. You could make a proper meal out of one of those, if only you knew how.

Which is how Saucepan stumbled on a secret. It’s not like he invented anything or the like, being Saucepan, it’s just that once, by the river, with his Marley music and earplugs, he built himself a small fire out of some wattle twigs, in the hope of making just the right amount of smoke to keep mozzies away. The wood burnt keenly, so to make a bit more smoke, he grabbed some smartweed and making a small tight bundle, put that on the fire as well. Sat watching the river, nodding his head to the music, not hearing or seeing the pale pink Martins on the other side of the bridge yelling at him. After a while, he put the fire out by throwing the burning sticks and bundle of weed, one by one, into the water. Watched them fizzle as the water soaked up the small yellow flames, got up and started walking back home. Was almost halfway back over the paddock to the road before realising he’d left a Burnin’ cover on the bank. So he walked all the way back, and as he was picking up the cassette cover, looked over the water and saw about twelve small fish on the surface, gulping air, which was doing them no good at all.

Saucepan stood staring for a minute or two, trying to work out what was going on. The fish hadn’t been dying when he’d left the first time. Had someone come along and poisoned them? He waded in and without any difficulty picked up the biggest. It rested limply in his hands. He smelt it; but he couldn’t smell any chemical. He tossed it back into the water. He scooped up some water in his palm and tasted it. River water has its own particular taste, and this didn’t taste any different, just faintly of the ashes from his fire. Shrugging, he picked up his belongings and went home.

It took Saucepan, being Saucepan, nearly a month to work it out. One day Kev was showing him old photos, including one of his Grandma, called Aunty Rose by everyone, the one who was Grandpa Jacko’s wife. The photo was a bit bigger than the small four-by-two jobs, so you could see some of the details of her face. An old woman when the photo was taken, but shy of the camera. Was giggling, and had her left hand over her face to hide a smile. Most of her little finger was missing.

‘How come she got no finger?’

‘In them olden days if you were a girl who wanted some lucky fishing you’d get most of your little finger chopped off. Women’s business. Tradition. Dunno why.’

‘Any good at fishing?’

Kev laughed. ‘Was she any good at fishing? My mum said she was the best. She knew some lingo she’d call out to the fish. She’d call them softly so they would come to the surface just hoping she’d pick them up, and when they floated up within reach, she’d just wade out there and pick up them grateful fish.’ Kev made it sound like his history, but being Kinchela, most of it was history he scraped together long afterwards.

Saucepan got to thinking. Maybe it was the wattle, maybe the smartweed. Maybe he’d accidentally poisoned the fish. One way of finding out.

He got himself back down to Lane’s Bridge early one morning, cool but not frosty, plucked up some smart weed, chucked it in the water, sat down, lit a bong, and waited. Waited a long time, staring at the water, sometimes thinking he could see ripples, though on the kind of Ganja Saucepan was toking, you could end up seeing anything. Saucepan had bought it at the mish, but like almost everyone else, believed it had been grown by those Thumb Creek boys, who, legend had it, would rather shoot than let you stumble across one of the crops. Sat and toked for twenty minutes, waiting, then gave up.

Saucepan was halfway up the bank thinking nothing ever worked, when he heard a loud smack on the water. He paused, thinking should he check it out or not? Finally figured he had nothing to lose, and carefully, being toked up, went back to the river bank.

In the middle of the pond weren’t any silver perch. They had probably figured someone was messing big time with their pond and had gone away. Nope, no silver perch, but the biggest freshwater bass he’d ever seen. A granddaddy of a beast, more than two foot long, lying on its side, and sucking air the same way Angus Noble sucked schooners at the Royal.

Saucepan waded out and picked it up. As soon as it was out of the water, the silvery rainbows of its scales became dull grey. The fish looked at him, its mouth opening and shutting like someone trying to get you to understand what they are saying in a mosh pit.

‘Bless you, bless you,’ the fish seemed to say, over and over, carefully, yet silently articulating each word.

‘Fuck that,’ Saucepan thought, and taking it to the bank, gutted it on the spot.

Now you might think that Saucepan’s dad, Kev, being the closest most in town got to talking to someone traditional, lived down the mish, but he and Saucepan lived on the Macksville Road, several miles past the races. Kev owned a hundred long there, and even had a job working as a lollipop for the Shire road crew. How he scored that caused a lot of scalp scratching. Someone reckoned it was because he had a degree in sociology which some people, Andy Murray included, said just proved learning wasn’t worth a rat’s arse these days if they were learning the likes of Kev Shillingsworth.

So this Saucepan, with a bong hidden in his red, yellow, and green beanie in one hand, and a great big dead bass in the other, found himself walking the long walk back to his house. Was daydreaming as he walked along, a dopey sort of dream, that his dad might be mazed with him catching a whopper with  bare hands and all. Saucepan had an uneasy time with his dad. Saucepan thought Kev was maybe coconut like most of the mish said. Hundred acres, job and all, maybe he was in with the Thumb Creek boys. It did Saucepan’s head in trying to work out his dad. Kev thought Saucepan was growing up to be a waste of space.

So lost was he in his little dream about him and his dad sharing a fish meal, that he jerked in fright when he heard Billy Wells’ voice softly in his ear. Billy Wells was in the habit of unintentionally sneaking up on people along the roadside, so much so that come dusk, or dawn, most drivers kept a sharp look out for roos, stray cattle, and that Billy Wells.

‘You shouldna oughta done that,’ Billy song sang, walking  beside him, his hessian bag slung casually over one shoulder. Saucepan exhaled slowly, relaxing himself, and muttering something bout the weeping Christ.

‘Shouldna oughta done what?’

Billy nodded towards the fish tucked under Saucepan’s arm. Saucepan swapped the fish and the beanie. The fish was getting to be a bit of a burden. It had stiffened up quite a bit in the sun, but seemed like it was made of lead. Was a big fish, after all.

‘That there is an old man fish. Probably thirty years to grow like that. And you come long and caught it. Shouldna oughta.’ As he walked, Billy shifted the sack from shoulder to shoulder. There was something solid in it, like a rock.

Saucepan opened his mouth to say something, that if Mrs Ringland heard, would have had him expelled from school, again, but instead said, ‘Me and my dad we’re gonna eat this fish. This is good eating, this fish, so don’t you go telling me what I can and can’t eat. Free country innit.’

Billy held up his palm in apology, and the two walked some distance in silence. A few bush flies also joined the procession.

‘Jesus this fish. I swear he’s getting heavier,’ Saucepan said. ‘I gotta stop a minute, give the arms a rest.’ Saucepan sat down, and placed the fish carefully on a tussock of grass. Saucepan sat down, rubbing his arms. Billy sat beside him.

Billy looked at the fish thoughtfully. It had quite a few flies on it now, and its river water smell was getting just a little bit stronger.

‘Fish like that, you should eat it right away. You live next door to Jesus and Mary right? That’s a long long way to walk a dead fish.’

Saucepan knew, rightly, Billy wasn’t talking about Father Finbarr’s Jesus, but Mexican Jesus, who was a neighbour to his dad and him, who would never eat fish if there was some muck called frijoles in the offing.

Saucepan looked at the fish and thought. Few banana leaves, a small fire, he could have nice steamed fish in next to no time. And he was hungry. Tokin all the morning does that. But what about having a nice meal with his dad? He could tell his dad all about how he sussed out how Aunty Rose had done it. Would make his dad proud, that.

‘Yeah, okay. Let’s cook the fish. You go get some leaves,’ Saucepan said, standing up, and looking around for some sticks.

Billy grinned so his whole face crinkled, and pushed a lank strand of hair  out of his eyes. ‘You’re boss.’

Saucepan built a small fire, scaled the fish, and carefully wrapped it in several layers of leaves. He put the parcel to one side, waiting for the fire to go down to hot embers.

Saucepan watched Billy as he squatted on the ground, observing the fish on the embers. The old man was still agile, and had no trouble sitting on his haunches. Billy brushed a strand of hair from his face again, and using a stick, poked the embers. Saucepan reasoned maybe the hair was long that way to hide a patch of thinness in the middle of the scalp. As Saucepan watched, he couldn’t help but feel he’d seen a younger, more curly-haired version of Billy, something from an old painting. Not that he’d ever seen an old painting, only the small black and white prints of heavenly consorts, saints and philosophers in Miss Ringland’s well-thumbed History of Art. Well-thumbed not because of any artistic appreciation amongst the class, but because Jesse Owen, who had an eye for such things, found several pictures by some bro called Corbet that were real interesting.

Billy kept staring at the fire and as he was staring idly, reached under his coat and gave his back a good scratch. He half-closed his eyes as he was scratching, like a dog does when scratched behind the ears. Although his hand was hidden under the threadbare coat, it seemed he was concentrating on scratching the space between the shoulder blades. He scratched delicately in the one spot, the sort of scratch that is needed to remove a pimple or small wart. Eventually, his black-nailed hand came out again, holding a small white feather that was decidedly worse for wear, its vanes tangled with grit, and the shaft bent at an odd angle. Billy adjusted his haunches and stared intently at the feather in his hand for a few seconds, before holding it over the embers and dropping it. But instead of falling, the feather soared upward from the heat, see-sawing ever higher. Both Saucepan and Billy watched it disappear gently into the sky, becoming one with the blue.

‘I’ll be damned,’ Billy said.

Soon Saucepan had the fish steaming in the embers. It takes just two or three minutes for a fish to cook that way, and using banana leaves as plates, the two of them made a good meal out of the bass. Saucepan ate in silence, listening to Billy prattle on. Billy was good at prattling on, especially when he had scored a free meal or a free drink. He called it philosophising.

‘Have always liked fish. A noble meal. The kind of meal even Jesus would approve of,’ Billy said, while delicately sucking on the bones. He licked his fingers and wiped then carefully on his jeans. He burped, and lay down on his back, looking at the scuttling clouds.

‘A blessed meal, a blessed meal,’ he said, letting out a fart and started softly humming to himself. After only half a minute, he started snoring.

Saucepan thought for a while that this might be a good time to see what was in Billy’s hessian bag. A lot of people had theories, but no-one had ever gotten to the truth. The sack was in a heap in front of Billy, and definitely had something small in it. He started to stretch his arm over to grab it, but he checked Billy first and stopped, because Billy was sleeping, there was no doubt bout that, but sleeping with one eye open, looking at Saucepan. Saucepan raised a hand and waved it in front of the half closed eye. The pupil sluggishly followed the hand.

Saucepan sighed, grabbed a stick, and sat on his haunches, flicking dirt onto what was left of the fire to put it out. He felt cheated. Having just caught the biggest fish he’d ever seen from the upriver Nambucca, he had nought to show but old Billy Wells’ farting and snoring on the side of the road. Saucepan always thought his luck turned bad in the end. It was like everyone else was living under the Grace of God, but all he had for a guardian angel was the likes of Billy Wells. What was he going to say to the old man about the fish now? ‘I caught a big fish, but Billy ate it.’ He had been so close to making an impression, and now all he had was a story. Two stories, because he had also accidentally discovered Auntie Rose’s secret method of fishing. Maybe he could tell that to Kev, being traditional stuff and all.

 

Glossary

Frijoles                                    a traditional Mexican dish of cooked and mashed beans

 

Download a pdf of Angel

 

Jamie Derkenne

Jamie Derkenne worked as a print journalist, web specialist and public relations consultant. He lived throughout the 1980s in the Nambucca and Bellinger valleys on the Mid North Coast of NSW, and has lived in Sydney since the late 1990s. His interests include photography, mycology, paleontology, books and writing. He is currently enrolled as PhD candidate at Macquarie University.

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Time Lost, Jamie Derkenne

‘Same old same old,’ said Julie, packing her day neatly into four words and using her sleeve to delicately pat the Madeleine cake crumbs from her mouth.

Stefan nodded to say he knew the stuck-in-a-hole feeling. Berlin had been like that. Balmain was becoming like that. He wanted to go back to North Arm, but he wanted company as well. Watching the crumbs part from her lips, he thought the company could be Julie.

Stefan had spent the last six months helping Helmut renovate a terrace. The job was done. Stefan had stopped paying him. Sydney was expensive. He had to get back. Perhaps she would.

‘Move up with me,’ he said, reaching for her hand. Julie said nothing, just stared at the crumbs, her hand limp in his.

‘Money is not a problem. I make good dough. And the valley is beautiful. The nature is quiet and green. People are so free there, not imprisoned by all this city Scheisse.’

Until recently, Julie worked for a Broadway chew n spew. To get the job she didn’t even mention the philosophy major. Derrida was slick, but so was constant grease. It was a job, that’s all you could say. She didn’t mind, apart from the money, when she got laid off. Stefan met her a few times when he bought munchies for him and Helmut. Stefan and Julie would talk so much that by the time Stefan got back the take-out would be cold, or eaten. After a few times, Helmut, his voice hungry and stomach sore, suggested he should get the take-out and Stefan get the date. Julie went out with him a few times. He adored her. When he said she could share his bedroom at Helmut’s house, she did.

Stefan was focussed, sensitive and a good listener. Nothing like Helmut. Helmut was a bit off the air, spending hours straightening bent nails and collecting old planks from construction sites. His terrace, a two bedder on the point road, was beautiful or would have been if not for the piles of stuff stacked everywhere.

Julie had never been up north. But the way Stefan spoke made it seem like a magical place, a place where you could unwind and breathe again. She wanted to go to Melbourne first, put a few things in order, then fly up. Stefan would meet her in Coffs in a few weeks time. Julie thought that Stefan was one of the few men she had ever met who understood what she was saying. The way he tilted and nodded his head when she spoke was proof enough, she thought, of the import he gave her every word.

Stefan lived in a small shed made from ripple iron stitched together with six gauge next to the river on Christina’s land. When he got back he realised there were going to be a few problems with Julie moving in. The shed was not an ideal home, though he knew of couples who lived in far worse. Anna and Ivan lived in an upturned water tank on the adjoining property and seemed OK. And then there were the Silk People and their teepees. Still, he could do better than a shed. He had saved up some money. Perhaps he could afford a shipping container.

‘I can deliver a 40 footer to you cheapo mate. In pretty good condition. There’s only one hitch.’

Stefan had gone into town to make some phone calls. This one sounded promising, Maybe he could afford it.

‘So what is this hitch?’

‘Full of ruined books. You find a way of dumping them, and the container’s yours with ten per cent off.’

Stefan had the 40 footer delivered from Coffs, and positioned exactly where he wanted it, on a rocky outcrop overlooking a small field bounded on one side by the Nambucca and another by a grove of camphor laurel trees. On its side in big white letters was written the words ‘Hamburg Süd’ which made him smile. It took him a while to work the door bolts loose. When he finally coaxed the doors open he found the container packed with boxes of water-damaged second-hand books. Thousands of them. He managed to stack about 20 boxes of books in the paddock before giving up for the day. He literally had a truck load of books to shift.

The next morning Christina knocked on his shed door. Stefan’s shed and container were parked on Christina’s land. She lived in the old homestead on the other side of a small hill. In return for living on her land, Stefan kept an eye on the fences, many of which had disappeared into the river now that it had changed course.

‘Stefan! You need to help me. One of the Charolais is sick.’ Christina was a thin bony woman with eyes like a Jersey. Her reason for living was to enter Charolais cattle into the Bowraville and District Annual Agricultural Show. Among the webs in her mahogany lined living room were festooned the red and blue ribbons of previous victories. She spent most of her days hoeing thistles and talking back to talk-back radio, which lived in one of her ears via a miniature transistor. Her talking back was always in the fields. People said she talked to her cows.

Stefan knew nothing about cattle, but Christina thought he did. Stefan’s father had been a doctor, and some of the common sense had rubbed off. He followed her towards the dam where a creamy white cow sat. Charolais were normally skittish, but this one let both go right up to her.

Stefan scratched behind her neck, the way cows like. The heifer looked dolefully up at him, and then vomited copiously, not bothering to move its body. The vomit was sludgy grey. Some of it seemed to have straight edges. Stefan sat on his haunches and peered at it. There was type amongst the goo. He thought he could make out a word. Recherche?

‘Seems to me she’s eaten something she shouldn’t have.” he said. “Probably she will get over it in a day or two. You should just make sure she has some water with a bit of molasses.’

Christina nodded.

‘I see your new container has turned up. Should be an improvement for you. By the way, you haven’t seen my radio? I’ve dropped it somewhere.’

Stefan made a corral out of star stakes and pig wire so the cattle couldn’t get in, and moved the boxes there. He spent the rest of the day stacking more boxes from inside the container. It was hard work. Spring was still some way off. The nights were cold and the mornings frosty, but there was bite to the daytime heat. By noon the air was damp and hot. Every now and then he’d break open a box to see what sort of books were inside. They were mostly novels, and a lot of self-help books. Sometimes he would come across a philosophy book, and if it wasn’t too damaged he’d take it inside, thinking it might be something for Julie to read. He also kept a few German authors, even though they were in translation.

He stacked about 100 boxes into the corral. Christina would probably evict him if she knew he had been poisoning her cattle with literature. Maybe he should just chuck the lot in the river. He shook his head at the thought. If the Bowraville Argus was to be believed, the river was already polluted enough downstream. He thought about burning them. Burning them made a lot more sense, as he was in constant need of firewood for his Aga.

He had shifted the Aga from the shed just the day before. The Aga was small and positioned right next to the door of the container. Any further in and the whole container would become an oven. Stefan used it to bake German sourdough, which he sold at the Community Markets. The Aga needed fuel that burned slowly, and evenly. Not too hot. He’d give the books a try.

As he worked he noticed the sick cow had come over to see what he was doing. She seemed better already, but wasn’t grazing, just looking at him and chewing her cud as he piled the books alongside the container. It was unnerving having the cow watch intently. It was like she knew what he was doing. Stefan put down another box of books, and using it as a stool, sat down and stared at the cow, catching his breath.

The cow made a noise like someone clearing their throat.
‘She’ll be no good for you,’ said the cow as it chewed its cud. Stefan stared back.

‘Was that you? Did you speak?’

The cow said nothing, but went on quietly chewing, its jaw moving silently sideways as if it was working up to say something.

‘I must be going mad. I would have sworn the cow said something,’ Stefan muttered to himself. The world was spinning.

‘My point is that you yourself don’t see what is obvious. I am talking to you. That is obvious. She will leave you. That is obvious. But on both counts you refuse to believe the truth of your own senses.’

Stefan stared slack jawed. Not only did the cow speak to him, but the voice was ethereal and beautifully modulated. A wonderful speaking voice, but one that sounded tiny and far away. It was like a man’s voice. It had a slight lisp perhaps, but one that was hard to detect, and probably a result of chewing while at the same time speaking.

‘You can speak!’

The cow languidly slid a thick blue tongue into one of its nostrils, flicked it around, and then continued chewing silently.

‘I heard you. You can speak!’ Stefan repeated.

‘But did you understand anything of what I was saying?’ the cow said.

This time it was Stefan’s turn to be silent.

‘You say she’s leaving, but how would you know? You know nothing of my relationship with Julie, nothing at all. You know nothing about me. And you have never even met her! How do you say you know these things?’

‘I know how these things work. I’ve digested quite a bit of human thought. And besides, why shouldn’t you trust me? I am a cow. Why would I lie?’

Stefan tried to ask more questions, but the cow remained silent. Eventually she sat down in the shade of the container quite close to where he was working. He watched her intently, but after a while she stopped looking at him, and closed her eyes for minutes at a time. Some time later, with some heaving and snorting, the cow got up, and walked slowly over to where the rest of the herd was grazing.

Naturally, Stefan said nothing about the talking cow to Christina. And he decided that it was against his best interests to say anything when he picked Julie up from Coffs Airport.

‘Are you sure you want to be here?’

Julie laughed. She wasn’t the least bit sure, but she wasn’t going to tell Stefan that. Stefan had worked hard to make a little home out of his new shipping container. He’d even managed to build a small deck overlooking a gully and the Nambucca where they could sit at night once the weather warmed up.

‘Such a beautiful place.’ She kissed him. It wasn’t the answer he was looking for.

For the next few weeks, things seemed to go smoothly. Stefan burned books in the Aga, using it to bake bread. He had come across a case of Thomas Mann, in English translation, which burned particularly well. It was strange how different books burned in different ways. Burning Nietzsche was next to impossible, even though all the books were completely dry. An entire case of DH Lawrence remained damp no matter what he did. Stefan had even taken to placing the books on the steel roof of the container during the daytime to help dry them, but after weeks Sons and Lovers not only remained damp but mold had begun to grow across the pages. He would have to dig a pit and compost them. For the most part the Aga was well fuelled and Stefan’s bread baking business boomed. He left the container doors propped open because of the heat. They lay in bed listening to the sounds of frogs and night birds, feeling the night breeze on their faces.

Life settled into a quiet routine. Julie seemed happy, forever saying how different the Nambucca was to either Sydney or Melbourne, but Stefan couldn’t get the cow’s words out of his head.

One morning he got up early, and put his gumboots and Drizabone on. The air was cold enough for breath clouds, and there was a thick frost on the grass. He walked over to the camphor laurel grove and looked around. It was still too dark to see properly, but he soon spotted the herd, their thick white coats giving them the appearance of ghosts in the gloaming. The entire herd, about twenty breeders, a few calves and heifers were sitting under a thicket of trees where it was a few degrees warmer than the open paddock. He trod carefully, his boots not even crunching the frost. They still sensed him. They all turned their heads his way to watch him come.

Even though they were Charolais, not one of them stirred or showed the least sign of agitation. Stefan got up so close he could almost reach out and touch them. He smelt their sugary breath. He realised he had no idea which of the cows was the one who spoke to him.

‘Which one are you?’

The cows said nothing. A few were chewing cud, but several more weren’t even doing that.

‘One of you spoke to me. I heard you!’

Some of the cows didn’t even seem to be looking at him any more, but through him, like he was invisible. It was an unnerving feeling.

‘You need to explain yourself. Why will she leave? What have I done? Why won’t you speak to me? It won’t happen, you know. I will leave her first.’

‘Stefan?’ There was a catch of concern in the voice. Stefan looked from cow to cow, trying to work out which one had uttered his name, realising too late that the voice had come from behind him. He turned around.

Silhouetted by a dawning sun pinking her ears, Julie stood at the edge of the grove, holding out a hand as you would if helping someone over a stream.

‘Julie?’

‘Stefan, what are you doing? Who are you talking to? Is Christina there? Are you talking about me?’

Stefan was silent for a few seconds trying to work out what to say.
‘No no. No-one is here. I was just checking on the cows. I was clearing my throat.’

Julie came closer, looking around. It was clear she didn’t believe him. Stefan knew he had to act. Far better for him to leave her then she to leave him.

That night, while they were sitting around the Aga burning some Günter Grass, Stefan told Julie she should leave. She burst into tears.

‘Look, we aren’t meant for each other. This is clear to me. It’s better we split now and remain friends than later on become enemies.’ The words sounded hollow.

Julie sniffed and patted her eyes with her sleeve.

‘It’s Christina isn’t it? I heard you talking to her this morning.’
Stefan opened his mouth to say he had been talking to a cow, but thought better of it. He nodded sagely. ‘Yes, you are correct. It was Christina.’

Julie’s face contorted in agony and she started sobbing once more. That night Stefan slept on the roof. The next morning he took her into Macksville so she could catch the Sydney Express. He offered to wait on the platform with her, but she said no. Her grief had turned to anger.

Later that night, alone in his container, Stefan started to feel bad about the whole situation. He would drive into town and try ringing her in the morning, but it all seemed so hopeless. Why had he done it?

After a few hours the moon rose. The container doors were open as usual, as he was baking for the Saturday markets. Unable to sleep, Stefan put on his gumboots and walked towards the camphor laurel grove. The moon was full and heavy. The light cast strong shadows across the fields. A flicker of shadow made him look up. A cloud, but perhaps not. Something that for all the world looked like Anna, skirts, boots and all, flying across its face as if on the zenith of a giant leap.

Stefan felt sick. Something was happening to his brain he was sure. Was he hallucinating? He wondered what he would look like from such a height.

This time he recognised the Charolais who had spoken to him. It was the way she was chewing her cud. She’d move her jaws from side to side for a few seconds then stop, then start again.

‘Why did you tell me to leave her?’

The cow looked up at him exactly the same way Julie did when she was asking him to explain why she should leave.

‘I know it was you. You told me when I was taking books out of the container. I know it was real. You told me.’

The cow swallowed and lifted its head as if to say something. Stefan waited. The Charolais, its head held high, bellowed so loudly that the sound echoed through the night. It was a cry of sorts, the sound a cow makes when it has lost its calf, or is calling for a bull. An elemental sound so loud and forlorn that for a second or two Stefan wasn’t sure if it was him or the cow making all the noise.

 

Download a pdf of  ‘Time Lost’

Jamie Derkenne

Jamie Derkenne worked as a print journalist, web specialist and public relations consultant. He lived throughout the 1980s in the Nambucca and Bellinger valleys on the Mid North Coast of NSW, and has lived in Sydney since the late 1990s. His interests include photography, mycology, paleontology, books and writing. He is currently enrolled as PhD candidate at Macquarie University.

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