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- 1st Memoir

2018 'SHORT TAKES'   PROSE COMPETITION

CATEGORY B - Memoir
First Prize

The Beauty of Queensland by Joe Harrison


    It was growing dark when I reached Tully. I was nowhere near a hostel and was unlikely to find shelter for the night.
    I walked on, despondent at the lack of passing cars. I looked into the night sky and tried to recall how I used to tell the time by the position of the Southern Cross. It was probably about nine when I spotted a house on my left with a tractor shed near the road. The shed gave sufficient shelter but I was aware I would be trespassing. I traipsed up the long drive to the house. The front door was set back in a semi-enclosed verandah hidden behind a damaged fly screen door in need of paint. My knock was answered by a powerfully built woman who looked to be in her early fifties. She was tall with large sinewed limbs that said she had seen more labour than most. Her dark hair was tied back severely behind her head and she gave the impression she would brook no cheek from any man.
    I explained I was on my way to Sydney and asked permission to stay in her shed. Her jaw clenched and she chewed her bottom lip before answering: ‘You better stay on the verandah: there’s rats down the shed.’
    ‘I’ll be gone before dawn,’ I promised as I thanked her and settled onto the cement floor of the verandah.

    When the orb met the horizon I was past the front gate heading south. I had walked for hours in the summer heat and was approaching Cardwell when an old and battered EK Holden pulled up beside me. There was already a passenger in the front seat. He pointed to the back and said: ‘’Op in’. I threw my pack in behind the driver and got in behind him.
    Both men were around my age, tanned and as unkempt as I was. By way of introduction the driver pointed a sawn-off double-barrelled shot gun in my face and said, ‘I’d shoot my mother for twenty cents’.
    My first thought was that the gun he was pointing at me looked remarkably like one my brother owned. My first words were, ‘Then I’m glad I’m not your mother’.
    He dropped the gun on the seat beside him with a laugh. ‘I’m Joe’ he said, ‘That’s Steve’.
    ‘G’day’ came from Steve.
    ‘Hi’, I said: ‘I’m Joe too’.
    ‘Great name. You eaten yet? We’ll buy ya lunch,’ said Joe.
    ‘Thanks’ I said. ‘The gun looks like one my kid brother cut down’.
    He tossed the gun to me. ‘’Taint loaded,’ he said.
    I examined the weapon as if I knew what I was looking at. ‘Great job,’ I said. He smiled to himself and puffed out his chest.
    We pulled into Ingham and found a café. As we settled at a table I had a better view of my travelling companions. Joe had greasy, mattered shoulder length hair, sallow features, a beak for a nose and a sly half smile planted on his lips. He leaned forward in his chair, his elbows on the table as he skimmed the menu.
    Steve was stockier, his hair an unmanageable mop of grey. There was something of the gamin in his ruddy cheeks.
    A young waitress approached. She was slim with clear tanned skin and emerald green eyes; a long red plait falling to her waist. She looked to be in her late-teens. In a few years she would be a very beautiful woman. She said with a smile: ‘Can I take your orders gentlemen?’
    Joe leered. Before either Steve or I could respond he said, ‘Three steak and chips.’
    Steve stammered, ‘…an’ a coffee…I’ll have…a black coffee.’
    ‘Coffee sounds good to me,’ I chimed. ‘Make that two.’
    ‘Three,’ said Joe as I decided not to mention I was vegetarian.
    When the steaks arrived Joe and Steve attacked them ravenously. I reminded myself that my favourite meal was once a mixed grill before I cut into mine.
     I discovered over lunch that my two companions worked as itinerant farm hands or fruit pickers along the north Queensland coast. They advised that they were used to living rough and regularly shot small game for food. I kept my own counsel but wondered what impact a double-barrelled shot gun would have on small game.
     I volunteered that I had spent the last three years wandering across the country, supported by an invalid pension: Government having determined I was too ill to work.
    Joe made several comments about the waitress before we were on our way.
    The car was turning out of the main street to the highway heading south when it pulled to the kerb. ‘That’s the way home mate,’ Joe said pointing to the road ahead. ‘Me ’n Steve are goin’ back to that waitress. Reckon she was givin’ me the eye.’
    ‘Both… of us,’ stammered Steve.
    I climbed out of the back seat and the car negotiated a U turn. I looked back after them briefly with an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. As I turned back I realised I was in front of the Ingham Police Station. I entered to find a lone officer on duty. He was a large, muscular man with short red hair.
    ‘Excuse me’ I began without waiting to be acknowledged. He looked up, assessing my appearance suspiciously. I continued, ignoring his look of disdain: ‘There’s a young waitress with a long red plait in the café…’
    ‘My daughter Julie,’ he cut in.
    ‘Two men who gave me a lift have just gone back there to see her. They think she…’
    The officer was heading for the door before I’d finished the sentence. I called after him: ‘There’s a gun in their car but it’s not loaded’. I doubt he heard me. The police car screeched from the kerb as its siren began to scream.

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