The late afternoon sun played on the trees, casting moving shadows across the ground. The rabbit sat peacefully on top of the burrow nibbling grass and furtively gazing around as the sun caught its grey fur then seemed to encircle the animal with a halo. Jesse Markham watched the animal sniff the breeze. He thought it was as big as he'd seen all day.
The rifle stock nestled into his shoulder as he squinted down the sights and aimed for the head. He dropped the rifle to his waste and gazed at the beauty of the scene in front of him. He would like to take in the surreal scene for longer but the rabbit might run away. It was a pity to shoot the animal and introduce violence to the tranquil scene? His family needed food and killing rabbits was the way to get it. It was a pity that the only way to live was to kill.
He raised the rifle. The crack of the gunshot and the body leaping into the air was instantaneous.
The rabbit was still kicking when he reached it so Jesse picked it up, took the head in his hand and pulled, breaking its neck. He took out his knife, cut a slit in the back leg and slipped the other foot through the slit so it was easier to carry. His mother's approval was important to him and he knew he'd earned it today because he had shot the rabbit through the head. She told him not to bring them home if they were shot in the body; the meat was bruised and there wasn't much left after she cut out the damaged parts.
He shot three other rabbits, fitted the lot together and slung the lot over his shoulder. Blood dripped onto his short gabardine pants as he flicked his braces away from the dangling rabbits.
He skirted around the town of
The cottage looked out on the filth of the railway yards, which was his father's workplace. It was a sad place, black soot clinging to the galvanised iron roof, seeping down the whitewashed walls, suggesting the house had lost its dignity and was giving up the struggle. He didn't want to live with his family anymore. The house was too small, but how was the railways to know his father and mother would have six kids? He had to get away. His father told him he was too young to leave, but now he was fifteen next month and had left school, he had to convince his parents he was old enough to get a job.
He entered the yard, tripped over some timber in the rubbish strewn yard, heard his father's raised voice and thought he must have one of his union mates with him. Some of his brothers and sisters were playing among the debris; he dodged around them, made his way behind the tank-stand to gut and skin the rabbits. His brother Peter followed him, ‘You got some big ones, can I help yuh skin em?'
‘You buggered it up the last time. I'll do these. I think Mum wants them for tonight.'
‘Jesse, can you come in? We've got a visitor,' It was his father calling.
Jesse walked in to see his father, Patrick, talking to his schoolteacher in the kitchen. 'Mister Pymble 'ere reckons you should go to high school cos you're good at school,' said Patrick. He looked even older in this light, his hair as white as a sheet giving the impression he was too old to be Jesse's father.
Bugger high school, thought Jesse. He wanted to get away. Going to school meant he would have to stay home. 'I want to get a job, Dad.'
'Jesse, you are a gifted student. It will be a tragedy if you don't continue your education, I've told the high school to hold a place for you in 1931,' said Mister Pymble.
Patrick took his tobacco tin out of the top pocket of his bib and brace overalls and rolled a smoke. 'Look around yuh,' he waved at the small untidy cottage. There were young children playing inside adding to the noise from outside. Patrick's wife, Kate, was in the small bedroom breastfeeding one of the twins. 'We have six kids. I'm an old man. My wife is thirty-five years younger than me. I have to provide for her when I'm not here. Jesse will get a job to help us manage.' Jesse had to stop himself from smiling at what his father said. He wondered what made him change his mind.
'Jesse is way ahead of everyone. Surely there's a way to send him to high school.'
'I'm a workin' man Mister er er Pymble. That makes Jesse the son of a workin' man. Workers have to get on without the high school. My son will go into the politics for the Labor Party. He don't need no more schoolin'. I want him to go out to work to know what it's like to be a worker, what it's like to be walked all over by the bosses. That will be his schoolin', his, his high school. He don't need no fancy schoolin', he needs to learn in the school of hard knocks.'
Mister Pymble rose, 'I think you're wrong Mister Markham. With higher education Jesse will be able to do so much more for the workers.'
'That's the last word I'll say on it.'
Jesse wished his father wouldn't rabbit on like a broken record about unions and the Labor Party. He thought they were all a bunch of idiots and there was no way he would get involved with them. He wanted to make up his own mind about the future.
'Jesse, come up to the school tomorrow. I'll lend you some books and give you a list to borrow from the library.'
'Thank you,' said Jesse as the teacher left.
Patrick said. 'Well, have you anything to say?'
'No, I'm ready to work.' Jesse would have preferred to further his education however, breaking free from the constraints of his family was more important. He would just have to educate himself as best he could. He wanted to get away now.
'I retirin' next week. I'll be seventy and I'll get a pension from the Railways. I've got just enough saved to buy a farm at Aldgate. I didn't tell that teacher, he would want me to spend it on your schoolin'. I've got your mother and the other kids to think of. I'm too crook to work no more, but I'll still do some things for the union.'
Jesse thought that bloody useless union would kill him. 'I'll start looking for a job.'
'Leave it until we get to Aldgate. You'd better skin those rabbits. Mum wants to cook 'em for tea.'
‘Come ‘ere, Jesse,' said the widow Missus Blake as she crooked her finger and walked into the fowl house. ‘You said you'd cleaned in ‘ere. Look in the corner, there's still some shit left. It's not good enough young man. My Albert would never have left it like that. If I let you get away with it, he'd turn over in ‘is grave. Now do it properly. I should dock your pay, I will if you don't improve.'
‘Yes Missus Blake,' said Jesse as he picked up a shovel and started to work.
‘And get a wriggle on. You dawdle too much.'
It had been three months since his family had left Birdwood and settled on the farm at Aldgate. At first Jesse was over the moon when Patrick arranged for him to work for Missus Blake at Mylor. Now he felt he had swapped his family for a life of drudgery.
Jesse attacked the dirt and scrubbed it out until the fowl house was clean. He was determined to stop the old bitch from complaining about his work. If she docked his pay, he was off. He only received ten shillings a week and his keep.
‘See, you're a good boy when you try. You've done a good job. Why don't you do that all the time?'
‘I don't know.'
‘You should know, boy. You should know. You're just being lazy that's all. The milking sheds are all mucky. You'd better clean ‘em out. Do a good job.'
‘Yes Missus Blake.'
‘Good. And while you're down near the
Jesse cleaned out the milking shed then as he was finishing Missus Blake told him to take the dray to the Mylor feed store and pick up some feed. He placed the horse in the dray and drove to the feed store.
‘G'day young fella,' said the man in the store, ‘that's the Blake dray. You the latest on the farm? How you getting on, she's had three young fellas there this year. A bit hard to work for is she?'
‘You aughta do what my young brother's doin'. He's rabbiting up around Brinkworth and sellin' the skins and the meat. Doin' all right too.'
‘I haven't got any traps.'
‘You know a bit about it then?'
‘Dad showed me, I've caught a few.'
‘Put it this way, it's got to be better than workin' for Missus Blake. We all reckon her old man died so he could get away from ‘er.'
‘Do you know her well?'
‘I know her. The old bitch always wheedles out of paying the full amount that's owed. I don't owe her any favours.'
On the way back to the farm, Jesse decided to talk to his father on Sunday when he went home. He was allowed to have Sunday afternoon off and stay for a meal with his family.
‘Now let me get this straight,' said Patrick. ‘You want me to lend you the money for six dozen rabbit traps, and lent you a horse and our old dray. Then you want to leave your job and go rabbit trapping'. Why?'
‘I hate the farm. Missus Blake is terrible. It's not much money and I can earn a lot more. I want to be my own boss.'
‘You want to be a boss already.'
‘That's a part of it, but mostly I want to earn more money.'
‘More money eh? Tell you what I'll do. I'll talk to a few mates and find out a bit about it. You go back to work. We can talk next week.'
Because rabbits were plentiful and the skins were needed for felt, Patrick decided Jesse could go. Patrick told Missus Blake Jesse wouldn't be back. Jesse spent the next week setting up his dray, horse and camping gear.
As he set out from the Aldgate farm in the dray, he finally felt free. It was like a burden was lifted from his shoulders. Then he felt guilty, his family loved him and he loved them so why did he want to get away. He pictured his mother's tears as she farewelled him and her telling Patrick he was too young to be away on his own. Then Patrick saying he had to grow up and Jesse slipped away as they argued. His brothers and sisters ran along side for about half a mile and then they stopped and he turned in his seat and waved. He was sad to see them disappearing.
Why did he want to leave so badly? There were too many bloody kids and they drove him mad. Yes, that was part of it, but he knew it was because of his father. He loved him but it was because Patrick was so old. He was a man of another century. All Patrick's ideas on rearing children were outdated. He was constantly arguing with his wife about how he was raised with the strap and it didn't do him any harm. Jesse felt around his bottom and his legs as he remembered some of the beatings. Jesse could understand he deserved to be disciplined but he could never reconcile the beatings being given with such relish.
He would never forget one beating.
He was about eleven and he was playing with his brother, Peter, in the railway yard, a train was coming and they were throwing a ball when Peter cried out, ‘Margaret's gonna get killed by that train.'
Jesse looked and noticed his five year old sister running in front of the train yelling, ‘Daddy, Daddy.' She was yelling so much she couldn't hear the train. Patrick was standing on the other side of the tracks and couldn't see his daughter. Jesse ran onto the tracks just as Margaret fell over in front of the train. Margaret was crying from her fall and didn't realise the danger.
Jesse reached Margaret, grabbed her by her collar and dragged her away as the train moved down the track missing them by inches. Margaret cried loudly and Jesse was just about to pick her up when Patrick burst around the train and started hitting Jesse as he dragged the child into his house where he produced a long black rubber hose he used to discipline his children.
Patrick hit Jesse on the head, body, buttocks, legs and face. Jesse put his hands up to protect himself. Peter tried to tell Patrick that Jesse had saved Margaret from the train but a possessed Patrick was screaming, ‘I'll teach you to hurt your sister.'
Jesse tried to run, but Patrick kept coming even as they entered Jesse's bedroom. The hose rained down on the boy, stinging rather than bruising, as he cowered on the bed. It seemed to go on forever then suddenly, an exhausted Patrick stopped. Jesse was crying and whimpering. Peter told Jesse later that he had counted sixty hits with the hose and he didn't count them all.
Kate came to comfort Jesse and it was several minutes before he could tell her he had pulled Margaret from under a train. She stayed with him until he calmed down then went outside.
Kate and Patrick entered Jesse's room. ‘We're sorry, Jesse. Peter said you were trying to help Margaret. You didn't deserve to be punished,' she put her arms around him as he quietly sobbed.
‘I don't know about any of this other story, but from what I saw, you deserved a hiding and you got one. That's all I'll say about it.' Patrick said.
Jesse shouted,' You should have listened. Why didn't you listen?'
‘Anymore of that and I'll give you another hiding,' said Patrick as he left the room.
‘Mum, it's not fair. It's not fair.'
‘I know dear,' said Kate as she wiped away his tears.
Jesse clicked his tongue against his teeth and flicked the reins as thoughts of the beating left him. It wasn't that he thought Patrick would beat him again; he couldn't understand how his father could beat him so badly then carry on as if nothing had happened.
He lingered on the long drive as he delighted in the scenery of the Adelaide Hills before he camped for the night then lay in his swag and watched the night sky overhead. His mother had made food for the journey and he felt like an explorer setting out to find new land. The journey to Brinkworth took four days and it felt like a holiday.
The Brinkworth feed store was an agent for skin buyers and the butcher bought rabbits if they were large enough. The butcher and the man in the feed store directed him to areas where other trappers weren't working. The next day he went to work.
He had to rise at three am, extract all the trapped rabbits and reset his traps. Back at his camp, he skinned and butchered the rabbits, prepared the skins for drying and laid the carcasses in the dray ready for sale to the butcher. He finished about four o'clock in the afternoon. It was a dirty mucky job that he hated just marginally less than working for Missus Blake. No he hated it more, he was killing again. He tried to wash the stench and muck off his clothes and body without much success. Killing rabbits was his job now; it didn't matter if it disgusted him. It was no use complaining, you took what you could get and made the best of it.
His noisy siblings would be welcome now instead of something to escape from. Some days he only had his horse to talk to and he was lonely. He talked to his horse often and sometimes pretended the animal was his friend from school or his brothers and sisters. Sometimes, the horse was a girl that allowed him to talk and didn't giggle then get all shy like most of the girls he knew. Jesse liked to daydream about his mother's cooking. He smacked his lips as he remembered the taste of beautiful golden dumplings in golden syrup lashed with thick cream.