The whole town sucked in such a big breath, a fly would of clutched its throat gasping. Would Pococurante raise a sweat to stay alive? We waved flies away with more effort. Yet at a flick of his wrist, grown men ducked. Dad said a word he shouldn't of in mixed company, but nobody cared.
Astride the town's great river red gum on that blazing day in February, Pococurante didn't defy death. He humiliated it.
When finally he landed head up, feet exploding dust, I cheered like I never did before, nor since. Dad made strange sounds like rain hitting dry ground. He was crying! And he wasn't alone.
Smooth as a cold beer, Pococurante passed through the crowd and down the street, the gold letters on his shirt-back slithering.
The next morning I asked Dad, "What's Pococurante mean?"
He must of been thinking for breakfast, because he answered right off. "The god of thunder, I reckon."
That made sense to me. Before Pococurante, a bullock whip was just a bullock whip.
As for the circus, I forget its name, but it was a mangy thing. It didn't have a tent so it wasn't any more than a man who rode a horse with his head in the saddle and his feet in the air. We could do that before we were six. And a woman with a beard and hairy arms, and a clown who was only funny when he pulled the red nose off his face to sneeze, and a lion who wanted to sleep and a lion tamer who doubled as the fancy-talk introducer, and Pococurante.
As for the town, it was mangy, too. One of those unloved border towns that straddle two states, where the people on both sides think life on the other side is better but it isn't, and before you notice, everybody's slipped away including you, feeling guilty but bloody relieved, like how you leave a funeral.
As for Pococurante, I had a theory I carried around inside me till I saw my first action in war. I did think, you see, till I really shouldn't of, that this Pococurante was some sort of god. That my dad had nailed him good, but at the same time missed. My dad, you see, thought Pococurante had named himself in imitation of. But Mrs Fletcher at school said there weren't any gods named Pococurante, and she reeled off all the ones there were. Plain God, who we knew. And to some, his son, so that took care of two. And Zeus and Mars and Pluto the dog-god and Neptune with his hayfork, and Tor the blond, and some more that I can't remember, but Pococurante? No.
Pococurante, I'd say each night. I knew he wouldn't like frilly stuff, so I talked to him straight. Be a sport, I'd say, all under my breath. Toss me some of your bravery. You've got bags of it to spare. Make my face as still as yours. You can do it, but I can't on my own. I certainly couldn't. Make me look like I don't give a cuss what people think, like you. Tell me what you want from me and I'll do it. Anything. He never answered directly, but he was the last god on earth I'd of expected to answer anyone like me.
Before Pococurante, if you'd of said that anyone in my town would ape a man with an embroidered shirt, spit your teeth goodbye. I imitated his walk, which is funny looking back on it. But every boy did and many men, so it wasn't funny with everybody and his dog doing it. And even though two boys killed themselves trying to be Pococurante, no-one wished otherwise any more than they wished that the good years didn't come because of the bad. But there was a limit. When Ridgy Bray was heard whistling Nobody Cares for Me, he was given a friendly punch-up for putting on airs. I thought it was sacrilegious.
One day when a kick in the stockyard punched my kneecap so my leg folded front to back, I bit a hunk off my lower lip rather than scream. Pococurante! He gave me the strength to be a man, but he was as mysterious as weather.
And then I went to war and saw another Pococurante, and another. I saw four by the war's end. I felt shy around them. Lots of men did.
But to Pococurante. He'd gone to that war my dad did. Dad never talked about his war. But when I saw Pococurante's face again on other men, and I saw that walk--all that I copied but knew was never me--I knew then, the original wasn't a god, but what a man could be.
When the war ended, I asked one of the Pococurantes to be my business partner--the one who saved my life. I thought I'd have to beg him, but he said okay. Just "Okay."
I was so taken aback, I couldn't answer back, but he didn't seem to need that. I was honoured that he thought me good enough.
He didn't have any plans so I made up plans for us both.
* * *
We opened a dry cleaning shop in Adelaide. I named the dry-cleaners Pococurante, after he said he didn't care what it was called. It had a classy ring to it, the young girl at the business registry said.
"About time we had some tone here," she declared. "Adelaide's such a sleepy place."
I didn't know what she was talking about so I shut up. My partner leant over the counter and looked at her, and I thought she'd die right there.
"Poco," she said. "Little! and cur-ahhn-tay."
She clicked her fingers and cocked her head. "Greased lightnin! pronto, current, see? I might work here but . . . say!" she said to my partner (I was a flyspeck on the wall). "You haven't by chance, seen the film at the Odeon?"
"Yar," he said, giving her a ghost of a smile.
So Pococurante the window said, in swirly gold script, close but not quite the same as I remembered.
* * *
It wasn't as if my partner didn't work. He did. But the business didn't thrive. He was so attractive that the counter got mobbed, but he was hopeless with ticketing clothes. So, though we lost some love-struck women who'd been coming in bearing clean twin-sets just to see him, I took over the counter and he worked in the back. But he didn't seem to get the knack of cleaning and pressing, either. Pleats came out cock-eyed, buttons were torn off, and if I'd of wanted a wedding dress to look like the next morning after a night at the pub, I'd only have to give it to my partner, Po. Yes, I'd named him that in the war, and it stuck.
Faithful, many of our customers were. They tried so hard to stay with us. "Jiffy's open closer to my busstop," one said to me. "But you're the only ones who treat us like intelligent beings." She was the girl from the business registry, our most fervent customer. And she had one helluva big mouth. Everybody thought of us as some classy Jiffy, though a dog could of slept on our jobs and done a better job than Po, and I couldn't do everything. I used to come in during the night and redo Po's work, so's he wouldn't know. He never caught on, though thinking back, he should of.
But Po never noticed. He pitched up every morning on the dot, never took sickies, never loitered at the counter with his many admirers who came in to catch a glimpse of him. I'd say, "Just a tick, Miss Timble," and ring a bell. "Po!" I'd have to yell, to get my voice past the muffle of clothes, and through the racket of the tumble machines. "Look who's here." Po would push his head between the cello'd garments and give the customer his ghost-smile, "Yar," he'd say and disappear again. "Hard at work, poor boy," Miss Timble would say, "Just give him this," and she'd leave a little package of lamingtons she'd made, and flee. Or Miss Crumb, or old Mrs Methuine.
Even the old birds weren't immune to him, though he was immune to all.
I married during the first year, and my wife was a mystery as big as Po. I asked her early on why she wasn't stuck on him instead of me and she asked me back: "What's there to be stuck on?"
* * *
Sylvia helped in the shop the first few months, trying to teach Po how to press, but he never learned, and then she couldn't help because the Stoddard Solvent made her sick, and she was sick enough anyway. And then Po, our first, came. And then of course she couldn't help any more, except for bookkeeping, something that Po and I'd been hopeless at.
Syl liked Po, too, but "He's a sadsack, isn't he?" she asked one night after I got home at midnight from my moonlight fixup job at my own place of business, "You're nuts," she said. She was peevish, Po being such a teether and her with a bun in the oven ready to come out.
"Sadsack!?" I regret I snarled. I opened the fridge and found only a chicken and a bottle of milk. Not one damn beer.
"And where's my bloody--"
"Pull your head out, Mal!" Syl wasn't a simperer. "You don't even listen to the radio in that place."'
I didn't. It slowed me down and there was so much work.
But her voice did something to me now. I was never one for a fight, but she could knock me out with a word. "Sorry, Syl," I said.
"That's alright," she said. "Hey, let's not wake Po. But really, love, any man who doesn't know a beer strike's on is a man with a problem to solve."
"Four days now," she said.
"Turn around," she said, and when I did, she stuck her big stomach into the small of my back and massaged my shoulders. "They're stiff as coat hangers."
"The books look worse than you," she said.
"Hmm," I said, knowing she was right and wanting her hands to stay doing that, and not wanting tomorrow to come. Please don't say another word, I silently implored her.
"He's not--" she said.
"No, you can't."
* * *
We couldn't, you see. We couldn't split the partnership. I couldn't imagine Po, Big Po, being on his own, out in the cold. Sure, there was a billion women who'd of liked to spirit Po away, but even if one succeeded, then what?
"I owe him," I said, and that was that, certainly since Little Po. For though Po wasn't god, ("That's for sure," Sylvia laughed, and though it was irreverent to him, I had to laugh, thinking of how I often I'd say You bloody gorilla! while I fixed his jobs at night)--though he wasn't god in the dry cleaners, he was godly in the ways that count. Me being alive proved that. And certainly Po as a failed god would damn our newborn to something . . .
"It's not like we're superstitious," Sylvia said, "but."
Sylvia always could put words in the right place.
So we had to do something, but what? We couldn't abandon Po, but we couldn't keep the shop going like it was. "Is he good at anything?" she asked.
It was already two in the morning, so she ignored my "Lotsa things" and went for the kill.
Little Po woke for his twosies. I'd slept through them before, but this time I watched her feed him.
When she got him to sleep it was almost three a.m., and I had nothing to say except "Nothing particular," thinking of something very particular.
"I suspected that." She sighed and shifted her stomach. "You're soft as a cream bun, Mal. He still living in that working men's hotel?"
"Where else would he bunk, except with us?"
"Horrid places, those."
"No they aren't."
"You hated them."
"Yeah," I admitted, snuggling up to her. "But I like my comforts. I guess he doesn't care."
"Yar." She did him perfectly! I laughed till she hit me. "Wake Little Po at your peril!"
At that, it was impossible not to wake him, and we did, right and proper.
* * *
Syl had the idea of branching out instead of giving up. "There's a ton of new migrants we can choose from. Let's find us a nice little tailoress. We'll add dressmaking and fashion advisory to the window, and get little cards printed up."
So we did. Mrs Kamensky even spoke a bit of English, and she certainly could sew. She had a very Parisian air to her, the customers thought. Unlike lots of Adelaide men who didn't talk about it, the women and girls had never been over there, so any Pole could of fooled them. Every Tuesday night was a free-to-all fashion advice evening, and it sure was attended.
I asked Po to come to the nights and sit in as security, but Syl had her own devious reasons and they worked a treat. When fashions were modelled before tea and cake was served, the natural thing was to look to the man in the room. When Mrs Kamensky said "This is the way to do so-and-so" eyes would always turn to Po. He brought a great deal of juh nuhsay quah, as Gloria, the girl from the registry office (now Mrs Braverman) said.
Shortly after the fashion nights began, a group of brickies' labourers came in one Friday lunch hour, their beery breath making me miss my bachelor days. "Where's this Po bloke?" said the guy in front, plonking a fist the size of a pumpkin on the counter.
"What you want him for?" I asked a bit too loud.
To my relief, Po suddenly appeared at my side.
"You Po?" the head bloke asked, looking a bit shaken.
"Yar," said Po.
"You got a ball and chain o' yur own?"
Po just looked at them.
"He's single, matey," I said, "but what's it to you? He pinch your sheilas?"
"Not likely!" said someone.
"What's your gripe then?" I demanded, Po lending me bluster I didn't own. I felt good defending him against whatever they wanted to accuse him of.
"He go to these ladies' nights?"
"Would you want to?" I asked.
The room exploded in laughter. Even Po smiled at that.
"What a man's gotta do for a quid," someone muttered.
"You're alright, mate," said the lead brickie, and they walked out.
The sessions brought us so much business that I could finally hire a girl to do the cleaning and pressing. She didn't speak much English, but she could put a knife pleat in a bowl of custard, that girl. She was so good that Po didn't need to do anything. He took to doing only the ug-type work, lifting dirty loads and such, and otherwise sitting on a stool in the back, unless some customer wanted to say hello or ask his advice. His advice was always the same, it seemed to me. He gave them what they wanted, as far as confidence-building went, his smile letting them know that they knew best. But the women who liked him never noticed that. I won't say I understand women.
Then he'd go back to his stool. He wasn't a reader, so him sitting on that stool most of the time bothered me. He looked lost. I thought back to the war and remembered his spoons, so the next day I pinched two from home and gave them to him.
"Are these right?" I asked. "We could use some music."
He started out rusty, but it only took about a day for him to loosen up, and then those spoons clacked out all kinds of songs, and he played better than I remembered. It was okay, seeing him slouched over the stool, banging those spoons against his knee. The girl, Majka, liked his playing, though it was hard for me to hear with all the moaning and hissing and tumbling of the machines.
Those were good days. I slept so well that even the twosies of little Beatrice didn't get me up.
The Pococurante fashion evenings became so popular that we got a half page write-up in the Adelaide Telegraph as the place to be if you want to be in mode, with a big photo of the window:
Dressmaking & Fashion Advisory Service
The article was feisty: "A poke in the eye to all those who think of Adelaide as not able to hold its head up with the major cities, as far as style is concerned."
I framed the page and hung it in the window.
* * *
The next week Jiffy Cleaners closed., and within days, I told Majka to bring in an offsider, we had so much business, so she brought in her younger sister. Now there were two girls working in the back of the shop, and Po mainly playing his spoons. It would of been odd if it were anyone but Po. And his songs were so full of life.
About a month later, I heard two screams and fought my way through a crush of cello'd suits to find Po holding up a red-bellied black snake with one hand and picking up a wedding veil with the other.
"It want kill me," Majka said, her hands on her heart. Her sister half hid behind her--their eyes big as oil stains.
Po dropped the snake into the middle of the wedding veil, pulled up the edges and knotted them. The snake squiggled but it couldn't get out. Po had bagged that snake so smooth, you'd of thought he bagged a snake a day before breakfast. I'd wondered before where Po came from. He never said.
He looked to me.
"Take it away!" begged Majka.
Her sister pointed. "No that."
I agreed. I pulled a set of Alfred Hotel drapes from their laundry bag and handed Po the bag.
He dropped his improvised sack into the laundry bag, gave the girls one of his ghost-smiles, and left out the back door.
The front door bell had tinkled several times and the counter bell was berserk, so I left the girls with a "You okay?" and their uncertain nods. As soon as I could, I joined them in the back and they told me the story. The redbelly had come out from a pile of musty woollens that looked like they hadn't been worn for years. "It want kill me!" Majka kept saying, and her sister acted like one of those jerk dolls where you pull the elastic to make its head nod. I didn't laugh. They wouldn't know that the snake just wanted to get away. I did say I'd never seen another snake in Adelaide, and then showed them from the style of clothes in that pile and their sheepy smell, that the customer was a cockie, and since they didn't know that word either, I had to say farmer, but they didn't understand till I said Baaah! And then they smiled.
Then I said so that they understood, regardless of whether they believed the rest of what I'd said: "You tell. No work." They both understood that. We couldn't have our lady customers thinking snakes were lurking in the Pococurante, eyeing their high heels.
Po didn't come back that day, but was security at the fashion night that night, reliable as ever.
The next morning when Majka and her sister arrived, they carried between them a huge old case made of something that looked like leather. They ducked to get it in the front door, and took it to the back. Po was already there, playing his spoons. The shop wasn't OPEN yet, thank goodness, or I would of had to close, I was so curious.
Po stopped playing. We watched as Majka undid the buckles while her sister held the case upright. They opened the hinged lid together and Majka brought out what looked like a taxidermied snake from some Land of Giants, but instead of fangs, it had a little brass cup for a mouth. Majka's sister laid the case down and stood beside her in front of Po.
"You take," Majka said.
"From us Papa," said her sister.
"Wahzsh" or something like that, Majka said, "Snake." She pointed to the thing.
Po nodded to them, no smile at all. He got off the stool and took it from their hands like it was a baby. He inspected it as thoroughly as I've seen him check a gun. It proved to be some weird musical instrument. Black, thick as an anaconda, and in the shape of an S that then snaked down into another S. He found finger holes in the horizontal places of the snake, and put his mouth to the mouthpiece. He moved his lips around experimenting like you do with a new girl . . . and blew.
At first nothing happened, so he wet his lips again and stood up straighter.
He got a gurgle out of it like a toilet in an apartment house. His eyes crossed, looking at the mouthpiece. He shut his eyes and took a big breath and settled his lips again.
I hadn't heard that since I left the place where I grew up. Take a six-month-old calf away from its mum, and if it doesn't make that bellow right off, give it time and it'll blast you to the next shire with that sound, and if it doesn't, you're deaf, guaranteed.
The Pococurante is a small place. I stumbled back, holding my ears and would of fallen but for the press of hanging clothes.
The girls were prepared. They giggled but didn't take their hands from their ears.
He took a breath and tried again, producing a more civilised sound. I looked at my watch. I had to open the shop. The girls tore their eyes from Po and the great snake, and turned their equipment on.
* * *
The day was punctuated with the call of the hungry calf. And it was funny, the reaction.
"You got a bull back there?" asked most.
I had a great time instructing city people on the particulars of bull calls compared to calf calls. "That's one hundred percent calf," I said. "You think a bull's got a great deep voice like that, don't you Mrs O'Brien? Mrs James? Mrs Braverman? No, a bull's got a soprano, beautiful and thin and high as a lady's. Like yours!"
"Get away with you," said Mrs Braverman, waving her hand with its flashy wedding ring. "You're pulling my leg."
"Po," I yelled, but he couldn't hear so I had to step back and beckon him through. His eyes were closed so I had to get Majka to put her hand on his shoulder.
He didn't come immediately but when he did, "I was telling Mrs Braverman here," I said, "that a bull's got a high voice, nothing like that calf-call you're making, isn't that true?" Ever since that redbelly, I reckoned he must of come from a place like me.
"Yar," Po said. His lips were curiously red and swollen and he had a faraway look in his eyes.
A little pleat formed between Mrs Braverman's eyes as she regarded Po.
"Let's see you play," she said.
I bowed to her and turned to Po.
He went back and returned, struggling through the clothes racks with the instrument in his arms. At the look of it, Gloria Braverman's pleat deepened but Po's eyes were closed by then, his lips pressed to the mouthpiece.
"Bwaaaah!" yelled the giant snake with the voice of a hungry calf.
Mrs Braverman fled.
It was so funny, I laughed till I cried. But I didn't tell Syl.
* * *
From that day on, Po played only the snake instrument. All day. After a while, he could play like the wind in the grass, so soft that the equipment overpowered him, but the girls didn't like that. They liked him to make the calf sound. "Bwaah! Bwaah!" they'd urge, and "Bookat!" or something like that.
So he made up songs that sounded like they were yelled by a hungry calf. They loved them and they accomplished so much work that they were oftentimes standing around with their hands on their hips, waiting. By the end of a month, I think he could of made that snake whisper, but he didn't. It only yelled.
The first intimation that I had of anything wrong was when I noticed that women had stopped asking for Po.
Then one day when I opened the door, I found an envelope that someone had shoved under the door. It was an article clipped from the Melbourne Daily Courier.
Adelaide Culture Taken to the Cleaners In a Word
"In the mushroom culture that is Adelaide, your correspondent has come upon a delicious morsel of farce in the centre of town: The Pococurante, where those with fashion at heart come every week, and the crème of Adelaide have their clothes created and cleaned to a T. This centre of culture is run by two strange blokes, who must be laughing up their sleeves at the cognoscenti who don't know their pococurante from their frankly-Scarlett,-I-don't-give-a-damn. They serenade the beauties that flock to this denizen, with Mozart. Not quite. Follow the sound of the angry bull, and you'll hit the bullseye."
All day I drove myself insane. What was the article on about? Some nasty anti-Adelaide bit of snideness? That's something that Melbourne and Sydney do, but I was trying all day to figure out what to do about Po, who really had to stop playing that snake thing, at least like that.
I'd never read the Melbourne Daily Courier before, and don't imagine that any of our customers did. But that article could of been slipped with the ink still damp under the pillow of every Adelaidian, such was the response we got. We hadn't been this slow since the old days, and the people who did come in, came in with silly questions, not things to clean. I could feel the city's anger.
In the back of the Pococurante, Po played his snake for the girls, who were getting through the work faster than it was coming in today. Po hadn't mentioned that I didn't call him to the front any more, but then Po never mentioned anything.
My one comfort that day was that Po didn't know about the newspaper article.
* * *
I didn't want Sylvia to find out about it either, but when I got home, she met me with "What's the bull? And what's this all about?" And she shoved an open book at me and pointed.
The dictionary. I didn't need her to point. On the left hand page, something was circled in angry red crayon.
I read it.
"Why didn't you just punch me in the eye?" I asked.
"Why didn't you look it up?"
"It was a name, not a word," I said. "He was Pococurante! I told you. Would you of looked up a name embroidered in gold on a bloke like that's shirt?"
"Huh!" she said and without taking her eyes off me, yelled "Beatrice! Get your teaset off the hallway floor this second or--"
I heard a scuttle and a whimper, while I looked at the thing in my arms and wondered what to do with it.
"I don't know," she said to me. "But honestly . . . perhaps not."
Sylvia and I were just inside the front door. I walked past her and dropped into my chair. I couldn't decently strangle the dictionary, so it sat in my lap.
Syl walked over to me, picked it up and flung it against the wall. "There," she said, "You can put it in the bookcase later." She rested her hands on her hips.
"Now," she said, "I asked you about that bull."
"It's a calf," I said. Syl was born and bred in Adelaide.
"Get on with it."
"It's only an instrument that Po practices in slack times," I said. "Sometimes it sounds like a calf . . . only a calf."
After a while she said "Mmm," and then, "Must feed the kids."
She put them to bed as soon as they'd eaten. Then she fixed two tall, stiff drinks: brandy and water without the ice and without the water. She put the glasses on the table by my easy chair, shoved me into it, and sat on my lap.
"You can't change the name now," she said, "or everyone'll think they've got you. You must tough it out." Then she kissed me.
"I don't deserve that," I said.
"Too right you don't," she said, and kissed me again.
She talked, and we drank on empty stomachs, and I felt after another of her drinks, that I could tough it out. But then there was Po.
"You must face Po," she said. "Buy him out."
"Yar," I said, but we didn't laugh.
I knew I couldn't do it.
* * *
The next day we might as well of been closed as far as customers giving us jobs went. The ones who picked up jobs were cold as a witch's tit, excuse my French. But in the late afternoon, a reporter came in from the Adelaide Telegraph, just as Syl had told me to expect.
"They've picked a fight," she'd said. "And they'll get it."
So I was ready, I hoped.
I laughed at the Melburnians' snideness as Syl told me to call it, and shrugged my shoulders at Pococurante, saying that if Melbourne people didn't think that Adelaide people don't know what it means, that just shows Melbourne's unworldliness.
"We can snap our fingers to what they're obsessed with," I said (something else memorised from Syl). "We've got juh nuhsay quah." I added. That, I'd remembered from Gloria Braverman, who had said it alot once, and Syl said that I should repeat that, too.
"I bet the reporter will ask you to say that twice," she said. And she was right.
"And about those sounds of an angry bull?" the reporter asked.
"You ever been to an opera?" I asked the reporter, and he laughed out loud as he wrote that down.
I laughed with him, but didn't feel any too good inside. Po hadn't come in, and didn't pitch up all day.
* * *
The article in the Adelaide Telegraph came out the next morning, and it was a triumph. Melburnians were "jealous sourpusses, as anyone would be with their weather . . . According to Oxford professor W. K. Lister from the Royal Academy of Music, who is visiting his sister here in Adelaide, from descriptions of the instrument being played by Mr Pococurante" (I distinctly told the reporter: Clarence Braithwaite, so I don't know how this mistake occurred) "the instrument is a Schlangenrohr, otherwise known as a Serpent, invented hundreds of years ago to be played in churches as a choir enhancement. It is a credit to our city, and possibly of quite venerable age. It is extremely difficult to play. The professor said he would be honoured to meet . . ."
Customers came in all day waving the Telegraph like a flag. "Hooray for us!" they crowed. "Where's Po?"
Po didn't come in all day. And what's more, the snake-serpent-whateveryoucallit had disappeared. I'd been too preoccupied to pay any attention to Majka when she'd asked about both the day before. Po had always packed it in its case and left it in the shop before.
* * *
When I got home Sylvia was there to meet me at the door, a frothy glass in her hand and a smile as big as a house on her face.
I pasted a smile on my face, but couldn't face the drink.
The next day the girls were frantic. Still no Po. I served the crowd of customers at the counter and then told the girls I'd go find him, and to take the day off.
I closed the shop and walked the three blocks to the rooming house where we'd both lived till I got married. The manager went to Po's room at my request, but Po didn't answer the door. He was paid up to the end of the week so it was like pulling nails from ironwood to get the manager to open up his room, but finally he did when I said I'd leave and come back with the coppers.
Inside, a neat room greeted us, with nothing personal in it except what he left in the wastebasket: a magazine of physical culture--something of a surprise. A powder-blue envelope with no writing on it, but it had once been sealed. A balled-up clipping from, you guessed it before I did: The Melbourne Courier. And a dried-up applecore.
I felt sick.
While I scouted round the room, I remembered what it was like living in the one next door. Alone in your room, you'd hear other men breathing, turning the pages of magazines, and the rest. The back of each door had a sign on it that said, "NO women" topping a lot of other NO's. The view from the window was a brick wall with a painted ad: Bonds.
I went home to Sylvia, not knowing what to do. We put the kids in the old Morris and drove all over Adelaide, even out to Snake Gully, looking, like lost farts in a haunted shithouse.
"He's gone," I said after two hours of this.
"Where would he go?"
"How should I know?"
We took the kids back. They were crying. I left her and them in the house, and went out again. I didn't know where, but I had to go out.
I walked till my feet were blistered. I hadn't walked this much for years. He could walk, I remembered. He never groused like the rest of us at the length of those tramps in mud.
When I felt so lost that my eyes were getting misty, I made my way back to my own house, and Sylvia.
Our stereo ran hot that evening so that music took the place of talk. We didn't have too many records, so she had to play her Benny Goodman twice. That was fine by me. Any noise would do, because nothing would do.
We went to bed early and I looked at the ceiling for hours. I wanted to strangle whoever those people were--the nasty ones. He had protected me, and what had I done for him?
"You need your sleep, Mal," came Syl's voice through the darkness. She'd been pretending to sleep, too.
"I'll be right," I said to Syl.
"Shh!" she said.
"I was," I said, miffed. It was Syl who had spoken, not me.
"Shut up, Mal. Listen!"
I heard it. A voice--high and thin as the night. One long note. It swelled . . . and then died away.
"How beautiful!" whispered Sylvia. "Shh!"
She didn't need to shush me. I felt my ears stretch, I was straining so hard to hear.
Again and again--that voice, and each time, further away.
"There's no words," she whispered, "but then there aren't really in opera, are there?"
She wasn't wanting an answer, so I didn't give her one. She shut up again.
"If only I could sing like that," Sylvia finally sighed when the voice was too faint to catch any more.
When dawn came, I heard her ladylike snores.
* * *
When I opened the door of the Pococurante only a few hours later, Majka and her sister came in as usual, but we each had our jobs to do, so we nodded to each other and got on with it.
A crowd of customers was already waiting, sounding like a flock of galahs: "Did you hear her too? My word! I wonder who . . ."
And they must of breakfasted on radio waves to come up with Call of the Soprano, Phantom Lady of the Night, Dame Melba's Ghost, Heavenly Disturber of our Peace and such rot.
Well, Sylvia had been taken in completely, but I couldn't let it stand. All the customers got an earful of my correction, as I explained that the lady was a bull. After about an hour of this, an old guy who was quietly waiting, holding a hoary jacket, backed me up. "A bull's call is unmistakable," he said.
Finally, at that slack time just before noon, I was alone in the front, so I went to the back and told the girls that I was sorry they'd been too far away to hear that bull, living in their migrant camp, but they said that just around dawn the whole camp heard it, too.
"Papa say no bull," Maj said. And just then, a ghost tweaked three sets of lips.