Fiction: Back in them days

by Mark Cornell

Maggie Connell helped her Dad, Tully, with the back-breaking work of clearing their Murrumbeena block of land of tea tress and gums. She noticed a tiny boy with his arse hanging out of pants collecting firewood down Gardiners Creek. Maggie cried when her Dad’s axe fell, the wattle birds growled at the loss of their hidden nests, the noisy miners screamed. Some of the pluckier buggers clicked their beaks and dived bombed the giant intruder.  Tully flicked them away and laughed.  Even though she wore her Dad’s spare boots, young Maggie kept being bitten by bull ants. They say six stings from a bull ant is the equivalent to a snake bite. Back in them days, there were stacks of snakes down by the creek, though they never seemed to bother the dark, stick insect like boy, Aideen, who roamed the bush with his bare feet.

Tully Connell smiled when he saw the mad little bugger; growing up as a Koo Wee Rup boy, he too never wore boots, loved running around and skinny dipping, with his now Catholic priest mate, John McNamara. Tully trundled down the trail to Kalina’s humpy, introduced himself as their new neighbor, and said they could help themselves to his wood, there was plenty of it, gum and all. Kalina and her boy looked at the dirt when Tully said he’d like to give Aideen a few bob if he wanted to help them out now and then. As the smoke curled out of Kalina’s eternal oil drum fire, she scratched her scabby ankles and muttered a thank you.  Tully tussled Aideen’s thick dark hair and mentioned he had a son similar to him back in the family house in Oakleigh. In fact, he had a tribe of kids, three daughters and two sons.  Maggie suddenly appeared up the track. With her mop of thick red hair, broad forehead, hair, broad forehead, dirt covered dress, she looked like a savage. They all laughed

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when Tully said she named him after his favorite bird. He said his daughter was just like them feisty, plucky and sang with a beautiful voice.
“What is it love?” Tully lit up a Craven A and offered one to a smiling Kalina.
“I’m filthy and smelly Da,” Maggie’s girl blue eyes swelled with tears.
“That’s about the way of it, you have to get a bit of dirt on your hands girl, it’s good for you, builds up your immune system, so you don’t get crook,” Tully tapped his cigarette ash into the eternal flame. “Ah don’t be such a bloody milksop, stop winging, nobody likes a winger love, especially if he’s a Pom,” Tully declared; Kalina laughed then told Aiden to take the girl down to the creek and get her washed up.
“Aren’t there snakes?” Maggie asked.
“There are love but don’t worry, my boy here, he’ll keep them snakes away from you,” Kalina’s frizzy head nodded to her opened mouthed son.
“Go one on Maggie love, remember the Strzelecki’s eh? The beautiful clear Thompson’s river?  Argh excuse me,” Tully groaned and stretched his arms up to a warm blue sky. Maggie pursed her lips as she stared up to her Dad; big in his soil covered shirt, big with his muscly legs, wide stomach, sun-burnt broad head, brown hairy arms holding up the sky, like he was an unmovable mountain. Maggie warily followed the boy down to the creek. 

    She giggled at a wattle bird hanging upside from a branch. Aiden stomped on the path, churned up the dust clapped and gave out the occasional shout.
“What are you doing that for?”

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  “Keep away the Joe Blakes, perfect time for them now you see, a good time to come out and sun yourself on a nice clear spot this arvo,” Aiden mumbled.
“What’s that scream?” Maggie asked as the bush grew denser around them.
“Silly old bugger plover, I don’t know why he’s calling now, only does it at night, something must have disturbed him.” 
“What’s a plover. What would have upset him?” Maggie asked.
“Funny looking fella looks like he’s wearing a mask and has long skinny legs. Dunno… bloody cat maybe. Poor plovers lay their eggs on the ground, in a hole, makes sure the land’s clear around him, so he can keep an eye out for enemies. Hardly any left now. But they are smart buggers, my Mum reckons she saw one of them making a nest on a flat roof the other day, make it harder for the bloody cats to kill the chicks. I love plovers, always makes me feel good at night in bed when I hear him calling.” 

“There’s a good spot for you to wash if you like.”  Aideen pointed to a shadowed pool in the river. “Don’t worry about me. I’m not a perve all right.” The boy laid down on the embankment to take in the warmth of the sun. Distant bell birds chimed. Maggie peeled her dirty clothes off. Aideen opened his left eye. Her skin was the same colour of spring clouds above them. Her boyish chest was already budding, her delta of hair the same shade of the spinifex grass around them. He chuckled when Maggie screamed at a dragonfly hovering around her head.

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“Don’t worry he’s only after a drink. Let him land on you. He won’t bite,” Aideen shouted. When the little creature landed on Maggie Connell’s bare shoulders and sipped the droplets of her now crimson flesh, the girl cooed like a pigeon.   

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