short story

The Monument

Mary DevineThe monument blazing at sunset
Image credit: www.brolgahealingjourneys.com

“There’s a few of you today,” the publican said when I told her I want to see the monument. 
I try not to make my looking around obvious: it’s a one-horse town with neither horse nor rider in residence.

“My husband usually takes people out to look,” she continued. “But he’s away. I’ll get someone though,” —she wandered to the phone— “because it’s very hard to find. You know, it only flashes for a few seconds and you’ve only got a metre-wide spot to stand in.”

She picked up the phone and flipped through a rolodex old enough to be made from bakerlite. “Maybe Cathy,” she thought out loud before explaining to me, “I haven’t been here for a while and I don’t know enough about it, or I’d take you myself.”

I occupy myself by staring at the charming photos of wool heading downriver on paddleboats a century and a half ago, of bullock teams and shearers that Tom Roberts probably painted.

“Hmm, Cathy’s not answering. And Jack’s out mustering. I’ll just try blah blah.”

I don’t really care who she’s calling now, but I do appreciate her help. I move on to the hilarious bar signs, like ‘real women don’t have hot flushes, they have power surges’ and ‘everybody should believe in something – I believe I’ll have another drink’.

“No answer there, either. Look. I tell you what. How about all of you,” —I resist that urge again— “meet up here later and we’ll make sure someone takes you down to see it.”

“Thanks,” I say, meaning it, but feeling creeped out at the same time. Is it just me who can’t see these other people? “What time do you want us… me to come back?”

“Ooohh. Hmmmmm. I don’t know what time the sun sets now, you know, after daylight savings yesterday.”

Do not, I tell myself, point out we just need to subtract an hour if she knows what time it set yesterday.

“The sun must set at 6:30,” she decided. “How about you all meet here at six?”

“Sure. Can you tell me where it is?”

“Oh to see it in daylight?”

“To see it at all after having driven 900km,” I don’t say, nodding my head instead.

She gives me simple, spot-on directions, and I’m not even halfway finished the short walk to the cemetery when I can see the monument is worth the trip regardless of whether I see it blaze.

A 24-foot-high column with an orthodox cross on top, it marks the grave of Mary Devine, inspirer of beautiful songs and for whom the Jane Eliza paddleboat set two unbroken Darling River records in one journey: the longest trip upriver (three years) and the shortest trip downriver (three weeks). Seriously, check out the music: Tonchi McIntosh and Andrew Hull and the (long) story: Brolga Healing Journeys.

Back o' Bourke.jpg

The Darling River at Louth, Back of Bourke, NSW

The geologist in me studies the rock and wonders it’s Tingha grey granite (it’s not). The human in me wonders if Mary will ever get any rest with tourists like me tramping on her grave all the time. I wander, take photos, touch its surface, and wonder if it’s always this dry out here. Life must have been tough for poor Mary.

But the sun is close to setting. I head back the way the publican suggested, past a truck trailer on bricks, and a house too close to the road for all the space of the outback. On the way, Google tells me the sun sets at 6:11.

Grey Granite

For all you rock nerds out there like me – the granite, complete with gold flecks

“Sorry,” she says when I walk in the door again. “But I can’t get anyone to help you at sunset. But you know what? You’ll have no trouble finding it.”

I decide not to ask her why that should suddenly be the case; I’ve seen Wake in Fright: this is her turf and I’m going to respect her knowledge and help.

“Let’s see,” she puts a finger to her chin to think. “In August, you’d see it from there,” and she points out the door. This time I’m too late to stop myself from turning.

“So I reckon you need to be…. about there.” She points somewhere north of her first there. “So here’s what you do. You go over [another] there to Bob’s old place, til you find a fence, and then you head along to where Dulcie saw that snake in 1978.”

Ok, so she didn’t really say that, but what she did say about a shearing shed and a random fenceline to follow halfway along was much the same thing to me.

“This shearing shed,” I ask. “Is that something I’m going to recognise?”

“Oh,” she says. (It’s an Aussie thing. Listen to any of us tell a story and it’s full of oh’s. We pronounce it like the o in ‘drop’. We may or may not actually say it.) “You can’t miss it.” (At this point, I knew I was going to miss it, as the laws of probability have now made it impossible.)

“Is it anywhere near that truck trailer, and that house on the corner?” I venture.

“Yes.”

I’m sure I stand out, walking along this road, my back to the publican and four drinkers who’ve just arrived. Are they laughing? Because there’s zero shearing sheds and a thousand fences.

I choose a fence, and a surveyor’s peg catches my eye – apparently the nice locals have marked where to stand. Is this one of those markers? I give it the standard Aussie test-kick, but there’s nothing to suggest it’s any different to the ones I saw earlier, marking out a graded construction area.

I keep walking up and down as the sun crawls to the horizon, until a point of gold appears on the column. I search for the right place to stand as it races up the column, flaring like a trail of lit gunpowder in an old western movie.

I take a photo. Hold my breath for the finale, the pièce de résistance. I check the sun, check the cross. Check the sun again. And— damn. The gold is dimming. The sun is gone. No flash.

That's it in the distance

The monument – where not to stand at sunset

I walk back to the pub, conscious of expectant eyes. What if they ask? What do I say? I don’t feel let down, but nor do I want them to feel they’ve let me down. They tried so hard.

Fortunately, nobody cares. The four customers nod and say hello, and a new bartender is serving now. She raises her eyebrows at me, shorthand for “what’ll it be?”. I drink a strong whiskey and soda as a trio of jackaroos in high vis quench their thirst at the other end of the bar. Nobody speaks.

One of the men points to a .22 shell sitting on the iced-up taps. Every now and then, it spins in a lazy circle. We have to watch closely as it’s easy to miss. We all stare at it, spellbound, and still not a word is spoken.

I don’t know how much time has passed when I realise my drink has been empty for aeons. The bartender doesn’t offer me a refill. My head is spinning with the shell and I know it’s time to go. Only another 900km and I’ll be home again.

Red Dirt.jpg
94km of corrugations and silty drifts on the road back to Bourke

 

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