By Dr. Marguerette Joyce Hill, 72. Adelaide, SA
Philip clung desperately to his expensive Panama hat with one hand and to the rusty window sill of the ute with the other as they bumped, rattled and lurched wildly along the dusty, unpaved road of the Australian outback. He clutched his overnight bag between his knees. His leather briefcase was tucked tightly under his right thigh. This small, insignificant looking briefcase contained extremely valuable information and paperwork that would completely change one man’s life forever. Red dust swirled in through the open windows of the ute. The arid heat and swarms of flies the size of dung beetles added to his discomfort.
“Are you sure he lives this far out of Karai Konung?” he asked Jimbo, the driver, hoping with every fiber of his body that this torturous ride would soon come to an end.
“Yeah Mate, somewhere out here. Ah’s pretty sure.”
Philip, a solicitor with a large law firm in London had travelled all the way from England to the middle of Australia, on a mission to find died a man called James MacArthur. He was about to give him the wonderful news that he had inherited close to fifteen million pounds from an uncle who had recently died. The uncle’s precious will was tucked safely into Philip’s briefcase.
Philip had found Jimbo in the local ‘watering hole’ in Karai Konung, a sparsely inhabited town in the middle of nowhere. Jimbo had offered him a ride in his truck or “ute” as he was politely told it was called here in the outback, out to where he thought “Jimmy Mac” lived. After some polite inquires of the red-necks whose permanent address appeared to be the watering hole, Philip gathered rather sketchy information regarding the possible location of James.
“Ain’t ‘e the bloke who lives with ‘is old lady out east of Bindaroo?” suggested one man with more gaps in his gums than teeth.
“Buggered if ah know,” growled an old chap who could barely keep himself from falling off his bar stool.
“Naw, that’s ol’ Jonno Jep,” said another. “He carked it two years ago. Never gave me back me hand saw either,” he added. “Had it off me for eight years” he grumbled. “Don’t suppose ah’ll ever see the bleeding thing again now.” The others chorused an unintelligible agreement.
“Wha’cha say his name was again?” asked a fellow called Knobby, “Mac? Macca?”
“His name is James MacArthur. I was told that he lived with his father, Henry MacArthur. James would be about sixty now. They own a small property in this area, I am told. I’ve come all the way from England to meet Mr. MacArthur. We have some business matters to discuss. My name is Philip Yates,” he continued offering a hand to the man closest to him. All eyes at the bar blinked and tried to focus as best they could on Philip. Strangers were often regarded as intruders in these parts. Philip’s hand hung uncomfortably in mid-air for a few moments. There was no attempt by anyone to shake it. Embarrassed, he reached into his pocket and withdrew a monogrammed handkerchief and gently mopped his brow.
“Has anyone here heard of James or Henry?” he asked haltingly, intimidated now by their lack of social graces to which he was unaccustomed. They all looked him up and down, quietly sipping their beers. They surveyed the scrawny, well dressed, pale man in a pricey suit and tie, wearing an expensive hat, the likes of which this community had never seen.
“Strewth! A pommy toff!” one of the men muttered into his beer.
“All done up like a pet lizard,” murmured another. Philip had a light brown moustache, perfectly trimmed which seemed to accentuate his sallow, thin face. When he took his hat off to fan himself in a vain attempt to keep cool, they saw that his light brown hair, while stylishly cut, was thinning at the crown and his hairline was receding rapidly. His eyes behind his glasses were narrow and darted about. After an awkward silence, Jimbo piped up saying,
“Ah think ah know who yer after. It’s Jimmy Mac. We don’t see much of ‘im around. Lobs up to the post office to get ‘is and ’is old man’s pension now and again. Never come in ‘ere for a cooli. Them bushies are a bit odd. Some say they’re a couple of snags short of a barbi but they’re pretty harmless old coots. Never cause a bloke any strife. Not too sure where they live. Out east someplace.”
“Yeah,” said Knobby, “some ten mile down that road past Bazza’s place.”
“Well….” said Philip nervously, “I wonder if any of you gentleman would be so kind as to drive me there? I would certainly make it worth your while.” Some of the men fell about chortling and hooting at being referred to as “gentlemen” and when they had suitably recovered, Jimbo said, “Aw, come along mate, Ah’ll take ya up there in me ute. Don’t need yer dosh either. Least ah can do for Jimmy Mac. Now mindjuh, Ah ain’t too sure ’zactly where they live but ah think ah could getcha close ’nuff.”
“Oh, I say, I appreciate this very much, my good man,” replied Philip holding his hand out to shake Jimbo’s hand but Jimbo was already walking out the pub door, cramming his rather battered bushman’s hat on his head with the dangling corks swinging wildly in all directions.
They had travelled a good fifteen miles before Jimbo’s old ute slowed to a halt and for a few moments they were in a swirl of ocher-coloured dust that made Philip’s eyes water. He’d had risked life and limb by releasing his grip on the ute’s window sill to clean his glasses several times during the wild ride and he had to do it again as the two men stepped out of the vehicle.
“This is as far as ah can take ya, mate. Ole Betsy here,” said Jimbo patting the blazing hot bonnet of his vehicle, “can’t take too much more battering, especially off-road. Take a gander over yonder there by those two big Gums,” he continued, shading his eyes from the sun and pointing to two large trees about half a mile away across the barren landscape away from the road. “Ah reckon somewhere over there is where Jimmy Mac and ‘is old man live.” The heat was blistering and Philip did not relish the walk but he had no other options.
“Well,” he said hesitantly, “thank you again old chap.” This time Jimbo took the proffered hand and pumped it up and down heartily, almost breaking Philip’s wrist before climbing back behind the wheel of “Betsy”, doing a U-turn and taking off leaving Philip yet again covered in a cloud of ocher dust.
Sighing, Philip dusted himself off as best he could. He cleaned his glasses once more, took off his tie and folded it carefully before putting it into his jacket pocket. He took off his jacket, placed it neatly over one arm and set off over the rough terrain with his over-night bag in one hand and his briefcase in the other. It was strenuous for Philip. He was not a healthy man. The terrain was littered with dried wood and pitted with holes. The heat was quite unbearable and more than once he had had to stop to catch his breath. He almost gave up when he felt his chest pains coming on but he quickly reached into his jacket pocket for a small bottle of tablets and slipped a small white tablet under his tongue. He sat under a tree breathing slowly and waited till it took effect. At fifty-two he had been told that he needed heart surgery for several of his blocked heart vessels but he had been terribly busy at work and had put it off till after this trip to Australia.
When he eventually reached the two large gum trees that Jimbo had directed him to, he looked around and not too far to his left, about a mile away, he saw a wooden structure that could have possibly passed as a dwelling of some sort. He trudged on undeterred by the heat and the flies. As he approached, he saw that it was desperately in need of a major restoration. There were other smaller wooden buildings close by as much in a state of disrepair as the others but he headed towards the one that looked most like the main dwelling on the property. He went up to the door, raised his knuckles to knock but fearing that even an action as simple as that could possibly cause the entire structure to crumble in a heap around him, decided to call out instead.
“Mr. MacArthur? James? Henry? Anyone home?” A Kookaburra laughed high up in the branches of a gum tree. Philip took this personally and for a brief moment of absurdity, felt quite offended. He tried again.
“Jimmy Mac? Hello?” No one came to the door but from around the side of the dwelling, appeared a large, unkempt, grey-haired man holding what looked like a dead possum in one hand and a shot-gun in the other, pointed in his direction. The man glared at him.
“Waddya want?” he asked, eyeing Philip with frank suspicion.
“Ah! Good evening, Sir. My name is Philip Yates, and I’m looking for James MacArthur,” explained Philip.
“Wha’ for?” Philip could see that this was not a man with whom there was even a remote possibility that he could ever hold a basic, intellectual conversation with but he persisted.
“Well,” he said, taking a deep breath and hoping that the man would point the shot-gun elsewhere. “I have some business to discuss with him. Are you Henry MacArthur?”
“Naw, Ah’m Jimmy Mac. Me old man’s gone.” Philip had heard the Australian expression “gone walkabout”. People in these parts just took off whenever they felt like it and turned up unannounced a few days, weeks, or months later. Quite unheard of in England. He was relieved to see Jimmy Mac lower the shotgun.
“Oh, I see. Will he be back sometime soon?”
“Ah doubt it,” said Jimmy Mac.
“Well, in that case the discussions will have to be between just the two of us, James… ..um.. Jimmy Mac. I’ve come long way and it’s awfully hot. Do you think we could go inside to get out of the heat and perhaps a drink?”
“Sure. Ah don’t get many visitors so the place is a bit of a mess,” he said as he pulled the fly-screen open, shoved the door open with the barrel of his gun and strode in. Philip followed a few paces behind and was immediately overwhelmed by the stench that emanated from within.
The inside of what Philip assumed to be the living room was filled almost to the ceiling with rubbish. Cardboard boxes, old clothes, papers, plastic bags, bits of wood, old books and items so degraded that they were completely unidentifiable. Mold and dust covered everything. “A bit of a mess” was a gross understatement. Philip was appalled that any sane person would live in such a state of disgusting disarray. Parts of furniture were just about visible under mounds of rubbish. Jimmy Mac kicked aside some rubbish and stood in the middle of the room, scratching his head.
“Now lemme see….. Ah think there’s a chair under ‘ere somewhere,” he muttered. Using the barrel of his gun he pushed away a large, sleeping cat perched on a pile of empty boxes.
“Shove off, Moggie,” he growled and the cat leapt off squalling and scattering empty boxes and papers in its path. He began to toss aside all manner of rubbish till part of an arm chair emerged. He put his gun and the dead possum down on a stack of old papers and with both hands he began to heave mounds of rubbish, clearing away enough to find a tattered old brown armchair. His efforts stirred up dust and mould that rose as a great cloud into the air and nearly choked Philip. He had to cover his nose and mouth with his handkerchief. Jimmy Mac seemed quite unaffected.
“There ya go, mate. Take a seat.”
Philip gingerly set his overnight bag and briefcase on the floor by the chair, placed his jacket, neatly folded, over them and balanced his now grimy Panama hat on top of his jacket. He was a meticulous man. He carefully picked a few empty beer tins off the chair with his index finger and thumb then slowly lowered himself into it, such that his bottom just perched on the edge of the chair. Jimmy Mac on the other hand didn’t bother digging through the debris for another chair and just sat on a mound of rubbish that seemed to hold his weight.
“I was wondering if perhaps we could have a few windows opened. I think it would help circulate the air a little and perhaps a little cool breeze might…”
Jimmy Mac chuckled as he kicked his way through the rubbish that covered almost every inch of the floor and opened several windows but kept the fly screens closed.
“Helps a bit with the pong, eh?” said Jimmy Mac smiling but the breeze that blew in did little to cool the room or dispel the odor
“This … is where you and your father live?” asked Philip trying hard to keep the disgust out of his voice.
“Just the two of you?
“Do you have any siblings? A wife? Children perhaps?”
“Well, I am a solicitor from London. It has not been easy to track you down.”
Jimmy Mac stared at Philip.
“We have a few things to discuss,” continued Philip.
“Zat so?” said Jimmy Mac flatly. He gazed out of the window at the setting sun and rose from his seat grabbing hold of the now very stiff possum, as he headed towards the front door.
“Plenty of time for that, ah reckon. Ah’s just ‘bout to get me some tucker,” he said. “Should be ‘nuf for both of us.” He added, waving the dead possum at Philip. The screen door banged shut behind him. Philip sighed. He was hot and tired. Perhaps tomorrow would be a better day to discuss business. He followed Jimmy Mac into the yard by the side of the house where he watched him expertly skin and prepare the possum. He built a small fire in a spot that seemed to be the place when Jimmy Mac cooked all his meals and brewed his tea. Philip assumed that the kitchen, if indeed the house had one, was in an equal state of disarray as the living room. Jimmy Mac sat on a rock, smoking as he watched the possum roast. Philip sat on a log close by.
“Yer’ll need to stay the night,” said Jimmy Mac looking upwards at the rapidly darkening sky. “Ah’ll find you a spot in a minute. Dunny’s out the back.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder pointing to a small outhouse about twenty yards back from where they sat.
This was all too much for Philip. Perhaps he should have passed this particular assignment on to a younger member of the firm but it was a huge account. Having met James MacArthur now, he felt it was tragic that fifteen million pounds would eventually go to this… this… Neanderthal. He shuddered as he accepted a slightly rusty tin mug of tea while Jimmy Mac gnawed away at the roasted possum. The thought of eating possum did not appeal to Philip so he politely declined the offer of sharing it with him. Once the meal was over, Philip patiently waited till Jimmy Mac paid a quick visit to the “dunny” and followed him back into the house slapping at the mosquitoes buzzing around his ears. Jimmy Mac lit a couple of kerosene lamps and handed one to Philip.
“That there’s where ah kip down,” said Jimmy Mac waving his lamp in the direction of a room off the living room. By the yellow light of the lamp Philip could see that it was a bedroom equally packed to the brim with as much rubbish as there was in the living room.
“Ya could use Dad’s room,” he said waving the lamp in the direction of another door, “or ya could use the chair,” he continued, indicating the chair that he had cleared for Philip earlier. Philip weighed his options. He assumed that there would at least be a bed he could use in Henry’s room during his absence.
“I’ll use the bedroom if that’s alright with you,” he decided.
“Shore thing,” replied Jimmy Mac leading the way.
Henry’s room was no different from the rest of the house, Boxes were stacked to the ceiling and in one of the corners there seemed to be a double bed pushed against the wall under a window. Most of the bed was piled up with old clothes that were beginning to rot.
“Ah could clear ya a spot on this side,” offered Jimmy Mac helpfully. He began to thrust junk towards and on top of the pile on the bed closest to the window, clearing an area about a foot wide along the length of the bed. Philip was not at all sure that he could bear to spend a night here but he had few other choices.
“Thank you, James. I think I can manage” he said as cheerfully as he could and began to help to clear the area. He got up on the bed on one knee and began to tidy things a little on the pile on the far side to try to give himself a slightly wider area on the bed to sleep on.
“Ah’d be careful if ah was ya…” began Jimmy Mac but before he could finish, Philip let out a loud, strangled scream as he inadvertently unveiled a mummified body from under the rubbish on the bed. It was clearly a human body. The brown, dry, leathery skin was stretched over the bones of the head and face. Tufts of grey hair still remained on the top of the skull. The mouth gaped, showing decayed teeth in a ghastly grin. He leapt off the bed and fell in a heap, wedged between the lower edge of the bed and the wall. He clutched wildly at his chest.
“My pills,” he gasped. “Quickly, please…. In my jacket pocket…” He pointed to the door through to the living room. Jimmy Mac stood scratching his head and said,
“Alright, alright keep yer knickers on.” He sauntered out and stood in the living room looking for the jacket. He located it eventually, where it had been carefully folded over Philip’s briefcase and overnight bag and rummaged slowly through the pockets one by one til he found the small bottle of tablets. He sauntered back to the bedroom to find Philip lying inert and squashed against the wall, his glasses broken and twisted but still partially perched on the bridge of his nose.
“Gotcha yer pills, mate” he said.
“C’mon mate, ‘ere ya go.” He gave Philip a light shove on the thigh with the toe of his boot. Still no response. Philip was well and truly dead.
“Aww mate, fair go! ‘ow ‘m ah going to get to the window? Gotta open it now. The pong was pretty awful when Dad carked it. Told ya not to mess with Dad, but ya wouldn’t listen would ya.”
Jimmy Mac sighed as he hauled Philip’s body up onto the bed and tried his best to stretch him out neatly beside Henry’s mummified remains. He even straightened out Philip’s glasses to the best of his ability and balanced it over Philip’s eyes which were wide open in death. He then squeezed himself around the bed to open the window. He ambled back to the living room and picked up Philip’s belongings. He shoved the jacket, the overnight bag as well as the briefcase containing the documents that would have made him a millionaire, under the bed as far as they would go, to rot there and mingle with the rest of the decay and decomposition. For a brief moment he stood there holding Philip’s Panama hat in his hands, wondering what to do with it. Finally, he decided to place it gently over Philip’s face. He tweaked its position once or twice. Pleased with his efforts, he stepped back, surveyed his handiwork, picked up both kerosene lamps, left the room and shut the door behind him.
“Ya can’t say ah don’t try to be tidy,” he muttered, pleased with his efforts.