Its 1921 and two boys are growing up in opposite parts of Australia. One ends up repairing steam trains in Eveleigh Railway workshops, a dangerous and soul-destroying place, where personal hatreds flourish in a culture of rough justice and paybacks. Reggie O’Rourke believes through a fluke of inspired logic he can escape the dirt and grind of the workshop floor by becoming a singer. When he meets Hughie Stevenson, a self-taught poet working as a shepherd on a sheep station in north-west NSW they discover things about each other that change both their lives. Not always for the better.
There were three notable things about that day at St Patrick’s Sunday School, the day Reggie first heard a piano. Firstly, Father Bourke had given everyone a sheet of paper with a scrawled outline of a fluffy shape that Reggie thought at first was a cloud lying on the ground. Next to it was the outline of a person in a long dress holding a stick rounded at the end like a hook. Was it a man or woman? An older boy pushed along the rows giving out crayons and, sneering at Reggie, told him it was a picture of Jesus and the Lamb of God for them to colour in. God had a lamb?
Secondly, a frumpy woman with thick legs and a grey cardigan with sagging pockets, like his father’s, had appeared on the pokey stage above him and walked toward a large dark object on the side. What was it? Some kind of wardrobe?
It was a mottled brown colour, dark and solid with straight sides and a rounded ledge sticking out the front. Right near the bottom he could see two pedals pointing towards him.
‘We’re lucky, kiddies, to have Mrs Maguire here to play for us today.’ Father Bourke nodded towards the woman. ‘Be sure to mention her in your prayers tonight.’ He smiled indulgently.
Mrs Maguire turned towards the object and with one hand flung open the lid and revealed a shiny row of black and white pieces. Reggie was only six years old and wondered if this was some sort of magic trick, like the ones he’d read about in his Mandrake the Magician comics. He could see the pieces were perfectly formed little shapes, all the same size.
He lost interest in everything else, the meanness of the boys around him, the snooty girls who looked down their noses at him, sheilas who wouldn’t last five minutes on the street where he lived, the dank smell of the hall with its walls made of wooden palings so rough and badly matched there were razor-thin slits of open sky all over the place. Even the towering statue of Our Lady the Virgin Mary, with her outstretched arms, flowing robe and slightly eschew halo disappeared from his mind.
Mrs Maguire settled herself on the stool in front of the object, raised her arms, lowered them and, from out of nowhere, it seemed to Reggie, the room was full of cascading sounds, tinkling like bells and deep thumps that seemed to go on and on, making the walls rumble until his whole body seemed to be vibrating.
His gaze shifted upwards, almost like slow motion, to the faded picture of men around a dinner table right above Mrs Maguire’s head, which was bobbing up and down in time with the music. He’d seen the picture before in Bible Stories for Children that their neighbour, Mrs Kilkerry, had shown him once, and had rather liked it. Something about the spirit, almost jovial, appealed to him. The men, all of them, looked like they were having a good time. The man in the middle with the long hair and downcast eyes was, of course, Jesus. Everyone knew that. First thing they drummed into you if you were born Catholic like everyone was around Redfern. Jesus and his mates were having a slap-up meal. People were turning this way and that, throwing their arms around, pointing at things. There were little round bowls on the table, bits of food, he supposed, like the peanuts they put in chipped bowls on the bar at the pub, although Jesus wouldn’t stand for anything chipped, Reggie knew that. Everyone was helping themselves to the wine. Why wouldn’t they? He knew his father would be the first in.
He knew the picture was called The Last Supper but that was about all. When Mrs Kilkerry had told him the name had rung a bell all he could think of was Chook O’Neill’s father, Doug, that everyone had read about in the Daily Mirror. He’d done a runner when Chook was a kid, not that it was a loss, people said. Especially Chook who was glad to be away from his beatings and having to call out to Mrs Cassidy who lived next door to come and fix up his mum after she’d copped a beating, too.
Turned out he ended up in the cane fields in northern Queensland. Reggie had never heard of the place, no idea where it was except that it was a long way away. He’d been fighting up there in the pub one night with a bloke who was trying to jump the line and take Doug’s place for the season’s burning. Doug wasn’t having that, they got paid double wages for that part, the reason any of them were up there to do such a lousy job, like being in hell. Fire and soot, burning embers and flames all around you.
They said Doug waited till the bloke pushed into the line the first day the cane was going up, let him get in, friendly like, then gave him a hefty push on the shoulder.
‘In you go, mate. I’m giving you my spot.’
His sweaty hand held on tighter to the man’s shoulder, he pushed back, turning to tell Dougie to piss off, no doubt. What happened next no one will really know but what everyone does know is that the bloke suddenly found himself plunging headfirst into the thick row of cane as it went up in flame.
None of the men, even those next to Dougie, would dob him in, saying they had their eyes on the ground, were watering down their overalls, one even said he was looking at the sky watching a flock of cockatoos fly past.
But Dougie’s luck ran out. The jury found him guilty of murder and he was for it, off to Boggo Road Maximum Security and to the long drop. Just like Ned Kelly, his old woman told everyone. She was quite proud of it.
Anyway, Chook told Reggie a copper had grabbed him before his father got the chop. Told him his father had something good to look forward to, a treat. Chook had been scooting around the streets at the back of Redfern post office on his rusty old bike, minding his own business when the copper recognised him and, being a copper, wanted to shake him up.
‘Your old man, up there in Boggo Road. He’s getting his comeuppance next week. But, guess what?’ He was bursting with glee, cheeks glowing, wide grin.
Chook just wanted to get away, out of the sight of this copper, to be on his way. He had nowhere to go really but that wasn’t the point, he just wanted to be away.
‘I dunno. What?’ His feet were on the pedals, fingers tight on the handlebars ready to take off.
‘He gets a last meal. Anything he wants. Imagine. He just says it. Anything. If they haven’t got it, they go out and buy it. Doesn’t matter what. Pork chops, custard, cherries. Even a bottle of rum and a packet of Pall Mall cork tips. How would ya like that?’
Reggie had been mystified but, he had to admit, a little envious. A last meal with anything you wanted.
So when he gazed at the painting above Mrs McGuire of Jesus and his mates eating and drinking and having a right old time, he wondered what Jesus had done? Had he thrown someone into a fire? Maybe something worse?
He scanned the other faces in the picture with its faded colours of scarlet and deep blue and as he reached the pudgy man near the end of the table, his heart skipped a beat, and he couldn’t breathe. The man had white bushy hair with a straight part in the centre and a flowing beard, also snowy white. For a split second an image of Santa Claus flashed through Reggie’s mind.
But it was the man’s eyes that locked into Reggie’s. He was staring directly at him, from right out of the picture. Not taking any notice of the person sitting next to him at Jesus’ table with his hands outstretched. No, this man had searched Reggie out, had picked him out of the whole world. His look was piercing, knowing, coming across the ages directly from him to Reggie. He was giving him some sort of message, Reggie just knew.
The music rose and filled Reggie’s ears. Mrs Maguire paused for a second or two then turned and nodded sternly to the children:
‘Now. Start.’ She held the pause until a few wobbly voices started up. Reggie couldn’t believe it, it was the one song he knew. Another sure sign from Jesus and his mate.
He drew in a deep breath, staring all the while at the white bearded man at Jesus’ last supper, the man Reggie knew was put in front of him by Jesus to look out for him.
The words of the song slid off his tongue as smooth and sweet as melted toffee, his voice and the melody from the piano joined as one. He felt light and happy.
Jesus loves me, this I know, For the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong, They are weak but He is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes, Jesus loves me, The Bible tells me so.
He found out many years later that the man in the picture with the flowing beard, the man he felt had singled him out was St Jude, one of Jesus’ Disciples. Hand-picked by Jesus himself to do good things.
He was, however, also the Saint for Hopeless Causes, Desperate Situations and Impossible Visions.
The third thing that happened that day, apart from Reggie hearing the piano for the first time and being eyed by Jesus’ saint, was that Father Bourke realised he’d left the bible that he’d sprinkled with holy water from St Marys Cathedral, in his private rooms at the back of the hall.
When he returned holding the book, flustered and red-faced, he looked up briefly, began to speak. Then collapsed. Dead.
Reggie was sorry but also glad. It was the end of Sunday School for him. His mother thought it was an omen and told Mrs Killkerry there’d be no more Sunday School for Reggie. Besides, he was needed to help put his father to bed after his long shift at the Eveleigh railway workshops and the hours at the pub he spent trying to wipe out another hopeless day.
Judith O’Connor has worked as a journalist in Sydney and New Zealand. She has contributed to several books including History of the Sydney GPO and I Love You Santa. Her short stories have been shortlisted and longlisted for Fish Publishing Memoir prizes. Others have won awards and appeared in anthologies.
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