The sun was at its highest this time of the year. A man carrying a swag and back-pack was seen walking the deserted streets. His cattle dog cleverly walked in the limited shade that the walker was still casting. The merciless heat was parching the dust which was as much in need of water and as thirsty as the man and his dog.
He finally arrived at a small shop which had a ‘Tip-Top bread’ sign hanging from its awning. On the shop window there were plastered a variety of signs, including one on ‘Big Ben’ pies, also a poster of Camel Cigarettes featuring a goggled fighter pilot in his cockpit with ‘nerves of steel’ and a ‘Vincent’s APC Headache’ powder advertisement. Even though the torn and battered fly screen door was slightly ajar, it had a ‘closed’ sign facing any possible customer on the outside of it. The owner of this shop had lost the will to turn the sign around to ‘open’ a long time ago, and anyhow, with the fly-screen refusing to shut properly for some years, the shopkeeper reckoned people would guess the shop was open regardless of any sign. The few locals would know. It was just about the only ’mixed goods’ shop for the next fifty miles. The settlement still had a garage and a butcher shop, a left over from a gold rush mania long time gone.
The interior of the shop had a couple of tables and matching chairs, all from the same vintage with splayed legs. The tables had an aluminium strip screwed all round the sides and over the edge of the Laminex which had bubbled up here and there. The shop’s counter was levered towards the customer and made of a glass display cabinet which had a crack at the front, where at some earlier times, efforts had been made with tape to try and prevent it from falling either out towards the floor or inwards towards the listless display of custard-tarts, dry looking Lamingtons and some lonely mince pies. The tape was still holding on even if somewhat yellowed and curled. Against the back wall was another glass case with a bowl of floating beetroot slices and a plate holding sliced onions with next yet another couple of plates holding some limp artichokes with a hard boiled mess of what looked like chopped up eggs which had been sprinkled with Keens yellow curry powder. The Keens curry powder tin was still standing next to the plate, leaving open the optimistic possibility for future use.
The ceiling was of pressed metal, bravely keeping some semblance to a floral pattern somewhat obscured by the numerous coats of paint applied through the decades. It was now painted a light hospital green and decorated with the hangings of three brown fly strip spirals that had lost its fatal attraction to anything in flight some years back. The whirring of a ceiling fan above the custard tarts glass case might have finally been installed to at least show the flies they were not all that welcome anymore. Besides, the health inspector had become somewhat grumpy and insisted the fan to be installed, as well as a written direction to clear out the dead flies from the glass display cases.
The man put down his swag and back-pack outside, told the dog ‘stay’, which he instantly obeyed, squatting next to the swag. The dog was thirsty as well as hungry. After entering through the fly screen door, the solitary walker surveyed the interior and took in the sparsely filled shop. He knew that he could rely on a hamburger and cup of tea. The rancid smell of 50/50 hamburger mince and 100% lard had permeated floor, ceiling, furniture, not even giving the hard Laminex a chance in warding it off.
The day had been hot. The back-pack of the walker contained a small hoard of books as well as clothing. Dried fruit, including apricots and sliced apple, some nuts with a couple of bottles of water completed the solitary walker’s total inventory. The heat had weighed him down more than usual. He needed sustenance as well as to replenish water for himself and his dog. A woman appeared. She was dishevelled looking, hugely breasted and all crumpled. The TV blaring out with canned laughter from somewhere at the back indicated the possibility she might have been horizontally positioned when he entered the shop. He asked for a hamburger, a pot of tea and some water.
His daily walk in search of new and unread books had taken him longer than usual and even though he passed several small settlements, none had books. His roving eyes had spotted shelving with frayed looking books just behind the tables facing the right hand wall away from the counter. His spirit lifted even before the hamburger arrived, which the shop-owner plonked on the fiery Laminex table in the well practised and desultory manner of the country shop. She came in again and served a pot with cracked spout filled with hot water and a separate dusty tea bag and sugar and milk. She also, without wasting a single word, walked through the fly screen door with a dish of water for the dog outside. The Bluey dog was still camped next to his master’s swag. His grateful slurping was heard inside with his dog- tag tinkling against the metal dish.
The man’s thirst quenched by tea, the intrepid walker started on his well layered hamburger, bits of beet-root trying to escape slipping and sliding towards the edge which the solitary book searcher prevented from falling by rotating the bread bun while expertly eating the protruding slices of guilty vegetables including the brown rings of fried onions.
The wandering book searcher had in the meantime surveyed the rag-tag of books on the shelving. He cast his eyes over the titles, holding his head askew this way and that way trying to read as much as was still visible on the torn covers. He munched approvingly on his rotating burger which was now almost eaten to its core.
His usual modus operandi was to exchange his quarry inside the back-pack for any unread ones. He mainly succeeded in that, especially if he traded two books for just one. Depending on his limited finance he would just sometimes buy a book, a reckless splurge of the moment which so far he had never regretted. His need for books was till now still unrequited dating back to childhood, deprived of letters and words printed on pages by an uncaring culture and not made better by a bookless neighbourhood. He would never fill the void but made up the deficit as good and as diligently that he was still capable off. He was lucky to have been taught reading in the first place. He knew that if he was to catch up with books and the reading of them he could never waste time working for a living and money. He wanted to understand more of the world that he lived in. Time was of the essence, and because of that he could not afford wasting time in working for anything, let alone just money whose value could never be read.
His reading skill had been installed when very young and in a far away country of which he still had some vague memories. He also remembered fondly that a distant uncle, rumoured to have emerged from a Tsarist Russian background and nobility, had taught him to play the mouth organ. He now had a small ‘Hohner’ organ with a button on the side for half-notes. His early childhood training had stood him in good stead despite the deprivations later when circumstance had transferred him to the relenlessly hot and dusty world he now resided in. When he arrived at a place that, through no intent of him, featured a market he would put down his belongings, told Bluey to ‘sit’ and start to play his mouth organ. He would only play long enough for people to provide him with enough coins for some future food and a frayed but un-read book. He knew that by following a certain repertoire the coins would be dropped in his hat, especially during his playing of the very popular ‘When the Saints come marching in’. The combination of the music with Bluey’s mournful looking eyes, cast upwards towards the audience; many would not walk past without chucking a couple of pennies.
When the hamburger had finally been eaten and the last of the tea been squeezed and scored from the tea bag our searcher stood up and paid for the food including a couple of Spam-ham cans, making sure the cans still had the keys attached at the top. He already knew that there was yet an unread book on the shelves that he badly wanted. He took a book from his back-pack. It was a well thumped ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. He asked the large breasted shop-owner if he could swap this for the maroon coloured hard cover book on the top shelf. He also offered to top his offer up with a tuppence coin. She agreed and offered him the use of the outhouse for a shower; that’s if you want to shower, she asked? He, for a split second thought there was something in the furtive way she looked sideways as she made the offer, away from his open gaze.
She knew the rule for wanderers with swags and cattle dogs. Itinerants ,ringbarkers, fencers and shearers, they were the ones that she still managed to eke a living from. Some she befriended and even loved for a night or so, snatched away from the uncompromising hard fist of an otherwise solitary life, a life not unlike those that she sold her wares to. She hardly remembered her husband who had vanished without a grunt of a good-bye years ago. A hopeless drunk of piss-pot, he was. That’s the most she recalled. Her solemn but generous giving of relief to the itinerant wanderers and flotsam of those on endless dirt roads cut both ways and she preferred that to her previous marital mishap. Besides, it did give her business a chance to limp on.
After the swap to the maroon coloured book ‘Riders of the Chariot’ he took up her offer of the shower at the back but first went to the butchers for some bones for Bluey. This time it was a dishevelled male that served him. He was dressed in shorts and grimy singlet. Just some bones and lamb chops, he asked. There were no books or shelving. Carcases were dangling from hooks at the back wall and a compressor was busily trying to keep the room cool. The book searcher asked where the nearest town was, somewhere with a market, he said. Oodnadatta, fifty miles from here, the butcher answered. Take plenty of water, but you might take a ride on the cattle train, he advised. I have got some water and food from the shop up the road, the book searcher said. Taking a shower first? The butcher smiled back, with just a hint of something more, but left untold.
He got back, gave the bones to Bluey who had patiently waited confidently that his boss would not forget. Our wanderer, now satisfied with yet another book but still unwashed went to the back of the shop for his shower. He got undressed, started to soap himself when the large breasted shop owner got through the door, offering him a towel as well as her-self. She was naked but held her hands modestly before her large pendulous breasts. I’ll soap your back, she said. She pushed him against the wall. There was limited space and the softness of her generous body pressed against his lean hardness was as good as any hot afternoon would ever get fifty miles from Oodnadatta, for him as well as her.
Afterwards, with the sun at four in the afternoon our happy book searcher bade his goodbye and wandered to just outside the settlement. He spotted a large and lonely ghost gum. He spread his swag and told the dog “sit’. He took out his P.White’s “Rider of the Chariot,” and started his first page of his unread book:
RIDERS OF THE CHARIOT.
“Who was that woman?” asked Mrs Colquhoun, a rich lady who had come recently to live at Sarsaparilla.“Ah,” Mrs Sugden said, and laughed, “That was Miss Hare.” “She appears an unusual sort of person.” Mrs Colquhoun ventured to hope.
The Restless Book Searcher had found his book, yet again.