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Hammers Over the Anvil
By Alan Marshall
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 1975 Alan Marshall
All rights reserved.
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Sometimes when you went down to the store to buy lollies, there was a strip of black cloth tied from one corner of the window to the other. When you saw this, you knew that someone had died.
You hung around then and, after a while, the funeral would come along. Funerals were always interesting. There was a long row of buggies and gigs and all the horses were walking. From a distance it looked like a long black snake following the curves of the road round this bend and then round another one. Leading this long procession of horses and buggies was the hearse. Two blokes dressed in black sat on the box seat and they had black gloves on.
Joe and I always took off our caps when a funeral was passing, not because we liked the bloke in the hearse but because it was the right thing to do. You were only supposed to keep them off so long as the hearse took to pass. After the hearse had passed we could do any bloody thing we liked.
The hearse had glass sides and a glass back so you could always see the coffin. There was a design of loops and curls and that sort of thing going round the edge of the glass which made a hearse a very expensive thing to build – anyway, that's what my Dad told me and I'm sure he was right.
Through this glass you could see the coffin. Coffins are always a yellowy colour and are hellishun well polished. Joe reckoned they had four coats of varnish on them easy. He might be right; you never know.
At each corner of this glass box that made the body of the hearse were metal castings, each one clasping a bunch of black ostrich plumes that reached upwards, then curved and drooped downwards like plants that only grow in dark places.
On the days when there was a funeral everything looked different. Things went sort'v grey and you didn't feel like jumping about or yelling out to each other. Joe used to look up at the sky sometimes when a funeral was passing as if he thought he might get a glimpse of the dead bloke shooting upwards.
I tell you this though – all funerals are bad; but the day they buried Mr Edward Carter Esq was the worst of the bloody lot.
Peter McLeod had a son called 'Duke' McLeod. People called him 'Duke' because he always wanted to be what he wasn't and what he wasn't was a very smart, well-dressed bloke. Duke was always going on the grog or getting ready to go away shearing. He wore his hat on the side of his head. He was a cheeky bugger, but Joe and I liked him.
There was no undertaker at Turalla, but there was an undertaker at Balunga, four miles away, and it was called 'The Windsor Brothers'. The Windsor brothers were both as dark as holes and they both had white hands. Reg Windsor, the elder, had long big teeth spaced apart. When he yawned it was like looking into a graveyard full of tombstones. He was always bowing to people and he must have done it so often that he walked bent over so his head faced the ground. His brother had a big nose that was soft and red and he wiped it a lot on a big white handkerchief. He never blew his nose into the handkerchief. He just bunched the handkerchief and moved it rapidly to and fro against his nose, pushing it from one side to the other.
Joe reckoned that if you take a piece of wire and bend it to and fro it will break in the end and he reckoned Phil Windsor had a break in his nose due to rubbing it. They had a lot of money but, like all the blokes in the district who had a lot of money, they were terribly lousy with it. My father told me once that if he was down and out and starving he'd knock at the door of a poor looking house to get a feed. 'It's no use going to a rich man', he said. 'He might give you a loaf of bread, but he'd expect a loaf of bread plus a slice of cake back as soon as you cracked a job.'
While Duke was waiting to go away shearing, he cut a dray load of dry grey box and sold it cheap to the Windsor brothers. 'They are a cold pair of buggers', Duke explained, 'and I let them have it cheap because you never know when you might be needing them. Mum's not the best.'
The bloke that used to drive the Windsor brothers' hearse dropped dead one day and we watched him take his last ride inside the hearse. He had been one of those sort of blokes that would flick a kid with a whip if you put your hands on the hearse anywhere, so nobody missed him except Reg Windsor who reckoned this bloke was a good hand with a pair of horses.
After Duke sold him the boxwood cheap, he offered Duke the job of driving the hearse.
'You've always got to be ready to come at call', he told Duke.
Duke reckoned they could call him any time they liked and he took the job. They paid him thirty bob a week and sent out a cup of tea to the stables for him to drink at half past ten.
All Duke had to do besides being able to handle a pair was to keep the hearse and the mourning coach clean. He had to keep the harness in order. This meant rubbing it with Neatsfoot oil to keep it pliable and repairing any breaks in the stitching.
Duke was good at this. He waxed lengths of thread and kept them in a tin for repairing the harness. He could do a repair job as good as any saddler.
He worked at these jobs while waiting for someone to die. He'd grease the hearse by jacking up the wheel and unscrewing the hub nut, then he'd pull the wheel back and slap a dab of axle grease on the axle. No one liked to hear squeaking axles at their funeral, so Duke was very fussy about this.
He used to polish the glass with a piece of chamois, then crawl inside the hearse and polish it inside too. While he was kneeling down inside the hearse, he'd yell out to us, 'Good-day. Come inside and I'll take you for a drive.' Joe and I thought this was bloody funny and we used to laugh like hell. Duke had a sense of humour.
He was anxious to get on the road of course. He had to work with another bloke called Mr Forbes. Mr Forbes did the laying out and all that sort of thing and had to sit beside Duke on the box seat. He had the look of a bloke that would soon be riding inside. Why Mr Forbes couldn't drive was because he was shit-scared of horses and believed in bikes ('it takes all sorts of people to make a world', Dad reckoned). I suppose it was only natural that Duke was anxious for someone to die.
'If I don't get a funeral this week, I'm going to knock someone off', he told Joe and me.
'Do you think he means that?' I asked Joe.
'Blokes that drive hearses are always funny blokes', Joe pronounced. 'No matter what that bloke did I wouldn't be surprised about it.'
Mr Reg Windsor had lent Duke a black coat with two long tails at the back like a grasshopper. It was black, but there was green in it somewhere. When the sun hit him from the side, you could see the green in it. He showed us a pocket in one of the tails. You put your hand behind you, just over your behind, then flicked the tail up and you could put your hand into a pocket. Duke kept his pipe and tobacco in this pocked. 'You never know', he explained, 'there's always a chance to have a puff when you least expect it.'
Mr Edward Carter Esq died behind a privet hedge growing in front of his house out along the Glenormiston road. 'He suffered a lot from guts-ache', Duke informed us, while giving a final rub to the outside of the hearse before taking off. 'Yes, he certainly suffered a lot from his guts in his day. They get ulcers in them you know. It's a hell of a place to get an ulcer they tell me. They are bad enough when you get them in the leg or the arm but, by hell, they are crook when you get them inside.' And then he stood back with a chamois in his hand to have a look at the hearse. 'I've never seen her looking better', he pronounced. 'We are certainly doing the old bloke proud today. Now I'll hop in and put on my clothes', he finished. 'Hang around.'
Duke was going to put on a pair of striped pants which Reg Windsor had lent him and he was going to wear a bell-topper. This doesn't sound as if it's possible. But it's the truth. Reg Windsor told him that on no account was he to wear the bell-topper skew-whiff.
When the 'Duke' came out of his room built on the end of the hearse shed, you wouldn't know him. He looked like a bloke from a picture in the Girl's Own paper. You'd think he would be worth a thousand quid just to look at him.
He changed his walk to suit his clothes. As he walked he kept looking down at himself, squaring his shoulders and brushing imaginary pieces of fluff from the lapels. Ordinarily he used to walk like a lair with a bit of a sway. You'd pick him for the bell horse in any team. It was funny how clothes had changed him. With a suit on he tucked his head down as if he felt the pull of the reins and he had a solemn look on his face that made Joe and I want to laugh. He sat very stiff on the seat, looking straight ahead while they were carrying out the coffin.
They picked six blokes to carry out Mr Carter – they'd all been mates of his when he was alive. Joe and I stood near the fence to watch. By looking through a gap in the hedge we could see them walking down the verandah, then turning and coming down the three cement steps to the garden path. The coffin rested on the shoulders of these six blokes, each of them encircling it with an arm. They all seemed to be bald. Their heads were lowered and they watched their feet as if they were picking their way through a cowyard. Their bald heads shone in the sun. When they came to the top of the steps they stopped and turned like a badly driven horse team. They wanted to straighten out before they started the descent, but their heights were all different and the coffin wasn't level. One of the leaders was a little bloke, rather fat, and he'd never learned to back. He should have sat back in the breechin' when he took the first step down, but those behind him were not moving well and they came forward a bit too fast. When they hit the garden path, Reg Windsor should have come forward with a whip and pulled them together a bit before they started down the garden path. They went well round the bends in the path, all stepping high like show ponies, but they were all carrying too much weight for the distance. They got through the garden gate, then started the short home-stretch to the hearse. The little bloke was the first home. He got rid of his load with a heave that gave the coffin the necessary push to get it sliding down the runners. They all stepped back then. They'd had it. None of them were worth a cracker when they began making their way back to their own particular buggy.
Mr Forbes came forward carrying his hat and led Duke out on to the road. Duke had been holding his pair well in so that they would prance a bit when they started. He touched them up with the whip just before they took off. This put them right into the traces and they were right on Mr Forbes's tail when they reached the road. He stepped to one side, then, as the hearse drew level with him, he swung up into the seat beside Duke without Duke having to stop.
'That's a bloody good bit of driving', I said to Joe. 'But I tell you this, one of these days, when it's wet, Forbes is going to slip on that bloody step and Duke will go over him with the wheel.'
'Well', Joe remarked, 'it'd be handy just as they started. They'd just have to slip him inside on top of the other bloke. It could be done in five minutes.'
Joe reckoned this was a hell of a funny joke. He just couldn't stop laughing although he was trying hard enough, standing, as we were, in the middle of a funeral.
Joe used to swell and go red when he was trying to stop laughing. He'd hold his lips tight together and look as if he'd shit himself. You could always stop him by hitting him on the shin with a crutch. I did this now and he stopped.
It was a hell of a long funeral. It stretched two miles and Duke had to keep it moving. Amongst the buggies were always a lot of slow walkers. A gap would form ahead of such a buggy and then the bloke with a slow horse would have to whip him into a trot to close it.
If a bloke just behind had a fast walker, you'd find yourself with a horse's head between you and your wife. I've known a bloke punch a horse for doing this, but it depends who's driving it whether you get away with it or not.
Joe and I cut across a paddock and stood in front of the pub with a lot of Duke's mates who had all carried their pots outside to see Duke lead the funeral past.
The long string of buggies moved round the last bend behind the hearse, then straightened out for the drive through Turalla. Everyone was out in front of their houses to see the funeral pass. There were well over a hundred buggies and gigs behind the hearse. They stretched out of sight behind Thompson's Hill.
It was Duke's big day. He touched up the horses with the whip and pranced past the pub. This was the moment. He had both horses well contained, both under control. He raised his hand and gave a lordly wave to his mates.
'How ya goin', boys?' he called. 'Keep a pot for me when I get back at four.'
His wave was in the nature of a salute.
This was the last bloody thing on earth he should have done. No one yells out at a funeral like that. You're supposed to be too cut-up to go yelling out at your mates. As for leaning forward and waving to them – no bloke with any sense would ever think of it.
In the group were Jimmy Virtue, Duke's father, Peter 'Snarly' Burns, Mr Goodman, East Driscoll, Old Lumsden, Charlie Robbins and half a dozen others, most of them boozed. They raised their pots and let out a wild cheer as a tribute to Duke's driving and to show that they were all with him to a man up there on the box seat.
At the sound of the cheer, the two horses shied sideways, plunging into the traces as if a gun had gone off. Duke was flung back at the bound but he quickly took up the slack on the reins and put all his weight into the pull. There was no dashboard at the front for him to put his foot against as a prop. Before he got them reined in they had carried the hearse across the grass and ruts up to the road fence. He missed a telephone post by half an inch. The hearse was rocking like a ship in a heavy sea and Mr Edward Carter Esq was getting the roughest ride he'd ever had. A tuck had been put in the funeral. Every buggy veered away from the pub at this spot and went out on to the grass, then turned on to the road again. Duke, with his prancing pair, soon pulled the crimp out of it and got them straightened out along the road. He led the way along the metal towards the cemetery between the nodding fronds of four clumps of black ostrich plumes and drawn by two black horses held in check by his black-gloved hands.
'Well, I've buggered up this job', he said to Mr Forbes when he had got over his fright. 'It's the bullet for me tonight.'
'I'm afraid so', said Mr Forbes, 'I'm very much afraid so.'
'Anyway', Duke told Joe and me next day, 'I saved Mr Edward Carter Esq from a very nasty accident. We missed the telegraph pole by an inch when they shied off the road. If there hadn't been a good man at the reins it would have been the end of the old bastard.'CHAPTER 2
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When Mick Hanrahan talked to you, you listened. He punched his words out. You could have dodged them and turned away but I faced them and took them on the chin. I didn't mind his swears. They were good and smelt of horses and the earth.
'Who the bloody hell took my trace chain off this bloody hook? Here – look at it, that bloody hook there', and he pointed to a hook in the wall of the stable.
'I didn't take it, Mr Hanrahan.'
'Well, somebody did.' He pulled at his beard and looked around him. 'I think I must have shifted the bloody thing myself.' He sat down on a chopping block near the door of the slab stable and started to shave tobacco from a plug of Dark Havelock.
He was a tall man, over six feet high, with a loose body that sat on his long legs with a forward lean. When he rose from sitting down he straightened out in sections. He took big strides, his eyes looking straight ahead like a thirsty man making for a beer.
Father reckoned he was not properly contained, whatever that meant, and that he'd been badly handled when he was a kid. He was an old man – he must have been easily forty – but he talked to me like as if I knew what he was talking about. I always believed what he told me but father said he was the greatest liar this side of the Black Stump.
I didn't like father saying that, but then he said, 'There are liars and liars. You see, when a man tells a yarn and aims to get a laugh, he's pulling your leg; he's not a liar. If a bloke tells the same yarn to build himself up – well, he's a liar.'
Excerpted from Hammers Over the Anvil by Alan Marshall. Copyright © 1975 Alan Marshall. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
OLD MRS BILSON,
THE OSTRICH MAN,
THE CATHOLIC BALL,