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Barry Oakley (1931-)

Southerly, Vol 20, No 3, pp.147-156.


O'Hara, his eyes heavy, lifted his massive head from its rags to gaze back into his sleep as it receded from him, like a stately, unattainable four- master. A curse on my empty belly and throbbing legs, he thought, his breath rancid through his itching beard; a curse on this whole bloody business of groan and struggle for Iife, on this stinking shelter and fatal lagoon; no way for a white man to live or to die. The sunlight outside told him it was midday, but the inner man was his real chronometer; its chafing and blistered spirit said that rescue or death was not very far away. Even at this late hour his two companions in suffering were still sleeping the limp sleep of exhaustion; they huddled together as corpses do, bony and dishevelled, as though someone had just disinterred them. Wills, in fact, seemed to be trying to bite at the earth, and a brown translucent discharge linked him to it.

So O'Hara for a time was alone, and had to bear on his own shoulders their triune misery; he envied the others their oblivion but let them sleep on, while he indulged in the rare pleasure of privacy. Here we are, he thought, by a lagoon of Cooper's Creek, hundreds of miles from what's mapped and known; an oasis in the gibber plain that tossed all round them in petrified rollers.

The precious water glittered over to him through the coolabahs' foliage, and spiked his eye and belly with its promise of fish they couldn't catch, and of birds they could rarely bring down. The wurley's opening made a crude eternal triangle of it all, the sight, the hope, the weariness; and roughly at its apex part of a camel's haunch was suspended—poor Rajah was drying in the sun, and with him their last hopes of progress. A strange end for a vaudeville camel, thought O'Hara: to be pushed on to the stage to the oohs and aahs of a colonial audience; to be sold to an expedition into the interior, trained, petted, then ridden till his ribs stuck out like a whaleboat's frame; and finally eaten.

But just so with us as well, O'Hara thought. We leave to a thousand hurrahs, cheered every foot of the way out of Melbourne—speeches, toasts, hats and shouts hanging in the air—a holiday tour through the colony, hands wrung, backs patted —then over the Murray and out of the theatre, civilization's behind us with its gasbag and bugles, and you soon discover what a man's made of.

O'Hara's thoughts in these last few days of final fatigue and sudden stop, after the frantic weeks of rushing to and from the Gulf, usually fell away to this sub­ject; little else seemed to interest him. Why couldn't he get men to follow his directions? The need to know the answer was like a hunger that weakened his peace of mind. He was an irascible, impulsive man, he knew; if a man wouldn't go his way he would row with him. They'd hardly left Victorian soil when he fell out with Landells the camel-master because the fellow insisted they carry rum; but O'Hara knew what he wanted the rum for—mutiny and desertion, number one.

Lying back on his rags, staring at the rustling canopy that was so ineffective against the needle breezes of a winter's night, O'Hara agreed that after all he was.......

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