The new day’s heat soaked through the fabric of the tent like the sweat through his clammy bed sheet. The light that the heat carried with it made a dull impact on his closed eyes.
‘Morning,’ he thought, disappointed. His muscles tensed briefly with the thought of needing to rise, but relaxed again with his collapse of will. He was still tired and did not want to wait another sixteen hours before he could lie down again. He decided to lie there just a few minutes more to see if his mind would stir.
He also began to notice sounds coming in through the pores of the canvas around him. Cicadas had just started to grate, and he heard the calls of two complaining crows.
‘Whinging their way skyward,’ he joked with himself. ‘How did they get the energy? I can’t even lift myself out of bed to stand, let alone fly.’
But he decided to get up before the heat got so bad that it forced him out against his will. Better to move on your own terms, even if it wasn’t your first preference. And this was a day of moving. He had to pack all he owned and fit it into his old short-bed wagon.
At least he had done well enough to have a wagon – and a horse to pull it. At least he had done well enough to need a wagon. Some left with less than what they arrived with. They came with a swag and a shovel and left the shovel with someone who could use it. To them, then, a shovel was just a dead weight. When they had first arrived, the shovel was an indicator of their hope for greatness. Now it was an indicator of their failure. Worn blade and splintery handle, their shovel was less than it used to be, just as they were.
But he had had enough. Enough heat; enough dirt; enough of everything that was not great. Enough fruitless labour that never kept its promise of future ease.
But this morning’s labour would not be like that. It would accomplish for him what he now desired. He knew that soon he and all that was his would be in the wagon and, with a couple of clicks of his tongue and the command “Walk on,” the loyalty of his horse would take him away.
So with this new kind of hope he dressed and, from the corner of his tent, grabbed his billy with the porridge that had been soaking overnight. He stepped once through the tent flap that had provided some privacy and some protection from wind and most rain and took another one to the circle of rocks that formed his fireplace. In just a few minutes his new fire was alive and heating his meal.
Because he had waited until after sunrise to get up, hardly anyone he knew was still around. Almost everyone else, the men he had lived amongst for the past three years, had finished their breakfast and were already busy moving the dirt that hid their imagined fortunes. Today all he would dig was the porridge out of the bottom of his billy.
“Hey, Jim,” he heard a voice call. “Where have you been? What are you doing still up here?”
Jim looked up from his porridge. A man was striding up the muddy road that separated Jim’s line of tents from another.
“Aren’t you coming down to the diggings?” the man asked Jim. “You’re not crook, are you?”
“No days off in this business, mate. You can’t spend what’s still in the ground.” Bill’s busy-sounding voice became muffled as he went into the tent next to Jim’s.
“I’m leaving today,” Jim said.
Bill couldn’t hear properly over the clang and clash of a big bit of tin as he wrenched it from its stays along the lower side wall of his reinforced tent. So he stuck his head out through the hole he had just made.
“I’m leaving,” Jim repeated, a little louder. “I told you last night.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t think you meant it.”
Jim saw Bill disappear back into his tent and re-emerge at the doorway with one end of his long rectangle of tin under his arm and the other end dragging in the dirt behind him. The tent wobbled terribly as a dog-ear on the following end of the tin caught on the flap and, unbeknownst to Bill, was pulled nearly off its front pole.
“Well, I did mean it,” Jim tried to assure him.
Bill was embarrassed at this surprise from Jim.
“Look, come on,” Bill said, trying a little encouragement. “Grab your shovel and get to it.”
Bill looked for something else to say. “Give us a hand with this tin then. Part of the shaft gave way in the rain last night.”
“What’ll you do in your tent if it rains again?”
“I’ll sleep in the shaft if it’s drier. Or I’ll scavenge from yours. You won’t need it if you’re leaving, will you?”
Bill paused and slowed his body and mind for the first time that morning. “Are you sure you’re going to leave?” he asked.
Bill’s face twitched slightly to show how he was taking this day’s new developments, and when Jim heard his own “yes” it even moved him a little, too.
Bill dropped his piece of tin. “What are you leaving now for, Jim? You’ve hardly found anything yet.”
Jim only needed to glance at Bill over his latest spoonful of porridge to answer that statement.
“You’re giving up, are you?” Bill asked, feeling hurt and becoming a little aggressive with it.
“No, mate. If not finding much was the reason, I could have gone back every day since I got here.”
Bill grunted a scoff. He could have said the same about himself.
“I know what I’m leaving, and it isn’t failure,” Jim said. “I’m not really leaving at all. At least it doesn’t feel like that. What I’m doing is not leaving something – I’m going to something. Something better than this.”
Jim thought and spoke at the same time because he was still getting used to the idea himself. He rinsed his empty billy in a bucket of water near his tent flap, then ducked inside and took the drawers out of the chest he kept across the end of his cramped tent. Once they were all out, stacked neatly on his bed, he called to Bill, “Here, give me a lift with this.”
Both inside, they bent down low on either side of the empty shell of the chest, took hold, carried it out and placed it onto the wagon, pushing it to the very front.
“Now pass out those drawers, Bill, and we’ll put them back where they belong.”
Next they dismantled Jim’s camp and packed it all into his wagon with the chest of drawers. Thankfully, it just fitted: His foot locker, a tiny table and stool, a couple of mining books, his now flattened tent, and his Bible and food.
They worked together well, not saying anything except for the odd instruction or request from Jim. Words had given up their natural place to a quiet sadness. Both men were aware of it growing between them, but were incapable of directly referring to it.
“Get the horse from the yard will you, Bill. Thanks.”
Jim had been trying to catch his faint and fluttering feelings in a net of words. By the time Bill came back and started to hitch the aged animal to the wagon, Jim had found some of the speech he was hoping for.
“It seems like I’ve had two lives, Bill. One here and one back home. When I was back there, I thought this place might lead to something. I listened to all the hoo-hah of people’s talk and read stories in the newspapers about the lucky ones. I left what I knew was good for something that didn’t turn out to be better.”
“But I still like it,” Bill rebutted. “I get excited every day. Sometimes I can’t sleep at night thinking that next morning my first blow with the pick might hit the vein.” His whole body gestured and moved with the mood of his words.
“You sound like those newspapers I used to read,” Jim said honestly.
Bill just shrugged. Then he said, “So living and working here with us all this time doesn’t seem to rate much with you.”
Jim understood Bill’s point but ignored the gibe, saying, “I just feel like I belong somewhere other than here. This place and what it all stands for…it just isn’t me, that’s all.”
Then Jim, with Bill still helping, passed a long rope around and around the load to secure all he owned. The rope laid neatly into grooves in the upper edges of the chest of drawers that the rope had gnawed in the polished wood on the trip from Sydney.
Jim rubbed his finger in one of the marks and chuckled. “The marks the rope left in the wood on the way out’ll help hold her fast on the way back.”
“You can’t go without saying goodbye to your mates,” Bill complained tactically once again.
“I said goodbye last night when I said I was leaving.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did,” Jim said forcefully to his friend. “You just didn’t believe me.”
“No, I suppose I didn’t. Otherwise we wouldn’t be talking all this nonsense about leaving and not leaving, you big galloot.”
Jim felt sorry for his friend’s loss.
“So you won’t be here for tea, then,” Bill said with hopeless humour.
Jim could see how Bill felt because he felt a bit like that himself. He jumped down off the wagon and said, “You can have my shovel, if you like, Bill.”
“Thanks. Every splinter will remind me of you.”
Jim was disappointed with how they were both feeling. “I’ve just had enough, Bill. I’ve had enough… but I’ve got enough.”
Bill showed on his face a look of not quite understanding because, unlike Jim, he didn’t have enough.
“What I mean is, I don’t need more – and I’m not leaving for the lack of it.” Jim tried to clarify his feelings, which was often difficult because, after all, who always understood their own feelings, let alone being able to explain them accurately to others?
“Good luck with your ‘not-leaving’ then,” Bill finalised.
Jim held out his hand to Bill, who instantly took it in his. They held their grip firmly for quite a few moments until it seemed right to let go. Too long would have overstated their expression to each other and would have spoiled their parting. Such mutual decisions about all sorts of things had come easily to the two men. However unspoken they may have been, they were decisions based on agreement of value and purpose.
Jim climbed up onto the wagon seat and took up the reins. He gave his two clicks and told his horse to walk on. She obeyed, and drew the wagon and Jim away towards what was better.
Down the road, and even later down the years, Jim’s memory allowed him to feel again the warmth of Bill’s handshake. It told him that everything that was good was not necessarily found up ahead of him, but that there were some good things back where he had been. Somehow that made him all the happier. He was leaving after all.
The Australian Literature Review