short fiction

The Coolgaardie Gallahs

I saw a Magpie Lark doing this strange thing. It was walking around in small circles at the base of a tree with its beak in the soil. I was sitting in my car and this was in a car park with a row of those municipal trees that look like they’re dying, tied with thick rubber bands to a pole on either side of the tree. They make the tree look like its been stuck there as a punishment. The Lark stopped a few times and looked me straight in the eyes and carried on. They’re gutsy little fellas, fraida nothing. Then I saw it peck at something and swallow. Ants maybe. Once I saw a flock of pink Gallahs circling overhead and it looked at first like they were chasing a long necked bird, maybe an Egret or perhaps a duck. Not sure, had a long neck. Then they turned and the long necked bird followed so they weren’t chasing it. It was a clear day and the sun was still high in the sky cos as I followed them I looked into the sun and nearly blinded myself. I watched for several minutes and they were flying together, not at each other. Maybe the long necked bird thought it was a Gallah? Maybe they thought they were Egrets or ducks or whatever. Maybe they don’t think. It was strange cos usually animals don’t seem to mix like that, or play like that. Or maybe I just don’t get out much. It felt good to watch, made me feel hopeful. Next day we were in Kalgoorlie, in the town centre near that absurd little statue of the kid, Saint Barbara the patron saint of miners, with the story written on plaques on stones in a circle around it and there were these two women shouting and swearing at each other and I was eating a pie for lunch but straight away I lost my appetite. I felt bad for them, for everyone and wondered if it was cos I was raised Catholic or me just being crazy or if everyone felt the same. Truth is I watched some of the people watching and some of them were smiling and that disturbed me more than the shouting and swearing. One night after supper we were walking down the main street and there were all of these homeless blokes setting up for the night in the doorways of shops probably to get out of the draught that comes through town and is probably cold. They all asked us for money and the first time I gave a bloke the coins I had in my pocket then he asked for a cigarette so I gave him a couple and then next time I just ignored the bloke and carried on walking and felt bad for doing that. All the way back to the hotel I was involved in this internal dialogue and justifying why I never stopped each time and again wondered if all people passing someone homeless feel this way. Guilty for not helping every time and is giving cigarettes helping? Engagement with people is exhausting. Whatever you do and wherever you go there’s always this post-mortem of events and thoughts and shoulda, coulda, woulda and makes me just want to never come into contact with people ever again and reminds me why I enjoyed watching the Gallahs and the egret or duck and the Magpie Lark.

Before this, before we even got to Kalgoorlie we passed through Coolgardie and maybe that was where we saw the Gallahs, I can’t remember and does it really matter where they were cos they were in the sky as we watched. But, as you enter the town there’s this little house on your left that you can’t miss cos it looks like someone’s spent forever turning a refuse tip into a work of art. It’s all rubbish composed and arranged in such a way that you have to stop and if you don’t you wish you did and spend the next five kilometres thinking maybe if you turn back it won’t be too late, then don’t, then it is. But all around this house there is the strangest collection of everyday objects: hub caps, safety helmets, pots, cups, plates, baths, lengths of pipe … It’s like an alien landed and began gathering anything related to human daily life and left before he could do whatever he was going to do with them. Strange how everyday objects just piled up feels strange when that’s what we do anyway, collect and stockpile stuff. The mystery of the place lingers cos there’s no indication of what it is or why and I guess locals could tell a few stories and it was probably just some eccentric person who after losing their job or partner started this project to keep busy and maybe before the person died it looked better than it does now. There’s a visible history of someone’s life here and I would’ve liked to talk to that person cos they woulda been interesting and I reckon they would’ve been grumpy as hell or friendly and all smiles. It was after that we saw the Gallahs and the Egret or duck. After leaving the house I felt sad that we were just walking through someone’s life work. What was he thinking? I got the sense of a him from all the car stuff but girls can like cars too I guess but whoever it was I felt how full their hearts must have been as their hands placed each object here. Now it’s only stuff, or is it? I see stuff all the time but with this stuff my first thoughts were of the person behind it. So, no, it’s never ‘just’ stuff. Things are crutches for life in a world where everything’s always falling down or apart or both. We prop up our hearts with stuff, the sorta crap that helps bring meaning to the absurdity of existence and if the stuff looks crazy, why shouldn’t it? and in our ordinary ways we are all a bit crazy like Gallahs and Magpie Lark’s. He was a brave fella the bloke who lived in this house. I reckon he was brave cos he was honest and generally, we don’t like honest, we like to think we’re better than we are.

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Photos by William Venters

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