A unique adaptation of the author’s novel ‘The Voices of Crabtree Lane’ which was launched at the London Book Fair in April. ‘Voices from the Vale’ is set in the western foothills of Australia’s spectacular Blue Mountains and has different vernacular, geography, wildlife and ending.
A brilliant, evocative book for baby boomers and senior primary schoolers. Journey back to the golden years of teenage innocence. Set the senses, memory and emotions ablaze.
It’s 1958. For adults, life is tough, making ends meet, an endless battle. For children, life is simple. When school and household chores are done, it’s back to their friends and on with the business of… just being kids.
Their sweet-smelling playgrounds of rolling fields, haystacks and ancient caves, echo with laughter. They frolick in their worldy wealth of towering gums and sandstone cliffs, of cockatoos and kookaburras, of their beloved pets and of gobstoppers and sherbert dabs. Above all else, they treasure mateship and loyalty.
It’s another blissful, carefree year for the colourful characters of Gang Gang Lane in the sleepy Vale of Clwydd in the western foothills of Australia’s Blue Mountains. Fun with The Gang is life itself. But then … Johnny goes missing.
In the dawn of a bitter winter and a cruel, new world, teenage trust and innocence are lost forever; life and laughter frozen like the valley swamp.
The young Voices from the Vale cry out in shock and grief as they defy their dictatorial parents and search for their missing friend.
‘A wonderfully observed tale of a teenage boy’s adventures, full of pace and mystery with lovely humourous touches. The writing is rich with descriptions, some of which are visceral. In particular, descriptions of the countryside brim with life, allowing the reader to experience the sights and the smell' -UK Literary Consultant Joan Byrne
Kindle copy (click on) http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009B43W88
3 ~ Blind Love of Henry Hartfield
Henry hated being alone. After a few hours of waiting and watching there was nothing left to do but get into trouble. Since early morning, the scampish little feller had done his level best to behave, but time and patience ran out.
He’d chewed-up a few agapanthus, gnawed a couple of laces and was now entertaining himself down by the compost heap, furiously uprooting a healthy tomato plant.
He was wet and shaggy from the day’s downpours as well as the exertion, with small clumps of earth and fragments of russet leaves clinging to his nose. Not once had he chosen to rest inside his very own little wooden box home on the back verandah. He was a soggy doggie who, just like Peter and Mike, always knew when he’d over-pawed the mark.
Henry had some serious issues. Obsessive, compulsive and impulsive behaviour were three of them and acute stress disorder born from apparent abandonment was another. But his biggest most immediate problem was virtual blindness. He could only see anything if he was speeding with the wind pushing his long terrier hair aside, or if someone pulled back his curtains to smile into his tiny, sparkly eyes.
The household always knew where Henry was by the regular thumping sound of head against wall or door. Life for Henry was wonderful, but a headache was part of the deal.
Henry Hartfield had joined the family at Number 5 only a few months earlier as Sally’s super special fourteenth birthday present. He was as bouncy as his mistress and sported exactly the same grey and white hair as Sally’s grandma. He fitted in perfectly and didn’t ever disturb his deaf neighbour, old Mr Gregg.
A tomato pip in one nostril was driving him mad. With his chin flat on the ground, Henry was using both paws to scratch and probe for it, all the time thinking of his day’s carnage and the likely repercussions.
Suddenly, his frown vanished and his pointy ears and hidden eyes leapt to attention. Yes…yes… it’s them, he thought…at last.
As he rocketed around to the front of the cottage, the troublesome pip flew right up his nose and down into the back of his throat. Nothing mattered. He could see again and his mistress was home.
The feeling didn’t last long. His rope snagged on a sturdy sapling, hurtling the puppy backwards with his biggest jerk yet and leaving him in anguish, out of sight around the side of the cottage.
Henry’s hearing was far better than his eyesight. The purring engine of the old dark blue squeaky Morris Minor was more than half a mile away, travelling along Coxs Road near The Swamp beside Blackfellers Creek.
“I hope he’s going to be alright,” said mum, Sarah. “He doesn’t know what’s happening.”
“He’ll be fine,” said dad, Stan. “Don’t fret.”
“But he’s so little,” said Susan, “and he can’t see.”
“I’m going to cuddle him all night….and throw a ball for him,” said Sally.
As they rounded the corner and headed towards home and to a harrowed Henry, the girls spotted Mike and Peter’s equal first best friend, Master Johnny Button, being taken for a walk by his powerful brown and white boxer.
Like Mike, Johnny had to summon all his strength to hang on to his determined pet, which right now was tugging the lad in jerks and as usual, threatening to escape.
They all waved and the girls wanted to stop to explain why they’d not been able to attend the funeral service.
It had been a long day and everyone was tired. The family’s Sunday plans had all gone haywire late on Saturday evening when Sarah’s mum had phoned to say Grandpa was in hospital at Parramatta. He’d collapsed in his garden, clutching his chest and with an excruciating pain in his right arm.
An early start had seen them head off after breakfast, negotiating slippery streets and never-ending roadworks. The feeble wipers on their two-door Morris had struggled all day to swish away the heavy rain and had given Stan Hartfield a headache from straining to see through the windscreen.
The gear lever had persistently jammed and crunched; the girls in the back had laughed too loud and needed a toilet too often; and no-one knew how poor Grandpa was until they got there. In decent weather along the winding hills of the Great Western Highway, the journey would have taken maybe two hours each way. This sodden day, it took almost three.
Nothing ever got the Hartfield family down with the whole valley regarding them as the happiest most cheery folks around. They were God-fearing and always had kind words and actions for everybody, whether they knew them or not. Unlike most families, the children were, within reason, allowed to be heard as well as seen, though expressing views on ‘adult issues’ was strictly forbidden.
Sarah was the daughter of a frequent-swearing, hard drinking journalist who always had a fag stuck in his mouth and any possible words of kindness stuck in his throat. Nicotine and bile were catching up with him and had now landed him in hospital.
Grandpa had reason to be bitter and cynical. He’d seen, smelt and touched all the horror and hell of World War Two as a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald. The only things that had stood between him and a more senior position had been copious amounts of whisky and its debilitating effects on memory and a steady hand.
Long-suffering Grandma was an absolute angel who danced in her husband’s all too often weaving, alcoholic shadow. Despite her subservience, she held her head high and walked and talked with grace, working tirelessly to pass such attributes on to her four children. Sarah occupied the largest portion of her heart.
While Grandpa’s heart and probably liver and kidneys were in trouble, Sarah’s constantly burst with compassion and commitment to her fellow humans, especially daughters Susan and Sally.
Mum Hartfield was blonde like her eldest, with the vivid blue eyes and the same zest for life as her ‘baby’ Sally. She walked on fine slender legs and carried a waistline that displayed little outward appearance of having borne two children. A cutedimple adorned her right cheek and was frequently poked at by her husband for humour. The left cheek had missed out.
Her kindness and mission to never upset anyone saw her buy eggs one week from Rachel Richards; the next from Mary Peacock.
Stan- the suave, sophisticated former Army engineer - was not only a husband and a father; he was still Sarah’s lover.
Stan’s war hadn’t been so easy, but he’d managed to return home with his humour intact and with most of his limbs. Two fingers and one thumb were lost along with some of his friends in the sweaty, mosquito-infested swamps of Borneo.
A constant smile stretched across Stan’s finely chiselled face. After being mopped up and demobbed, he’d wasted no time learning to wave with his remaining digits and stumps …. and getting a firm grip on life.
The only quirk in his character was a strange obsession with his front and back lawns. He was always trimming, watering and fertilising them with tenderness; forever looking back to make sure his lines were straight, which they always were…. until he looked back.
He worshipped his three girls, all of whom were magnets for males. He even adored ‘that little larrikin’Henry. Not having a son of his own, when Mike and Peter delivered their eggs, there was always a convivial arm around the shoulder and an invitation to chat and indulge themselves from the Arnott’s tin that sat temptingly on the mantlepiece.
Although he didn’t share the same familiarity for the shy giggling George next door at Number 4 or the Diamond boys at Number 1, he never failed to smile his smile and wave his wave and enquire about their welfare. Susan and Sally thought they had the best parents in the Vale …nay… the world; and their world seemed to agree.
Susan talked more than Sally and thought her mouth and legs were too big, her hips too wide, her teeth too crooked and her eyes too far apart. She was wrong on all counts. The young and older boys of Clwydd and Little Hartley thought she was just fine.
While the older men of the region longed to get closer to Rachel Richards, the younger ones leered awkwardly at the sixteen year old Susan whose body was innocent but beginning to wish it wasn’t. Father Stan was aware and not so pleased.
At two years younger, the ever effervescent baby sister stole the show, however Sally Hartfield didn’t know she had that glorious je ne sais quoi factor.
Her glistening brunette hair curled and bounced off her shoulders as she herself bounced through life. She didn’t need to speak. Her face and magical eyes spoke a million words of love. She was 24 carat gold and every gem in the crown. Everyone thought so, particularly Mike and Peter.
Sally’s pubescence found her frequently in front of mirrors, with many questions of self-doubt and criticism, yet she still tripped gleefully through life and along Gang Gang Lane. She knew she was popular, and without displaying any signs of conceit, she lapped up the attention poured out by Master P. Peacock junior and Master M. Richards, almost as deliciously as Henry did his nightly bowl of water.
Sally had inherited much from her mother, including a magical dimple which for some reason had chosen to decorate herleft cheek, the opposite to her mum’s. It too was the frequent object of jest and touch by her two closest admirers.
It was the first time Henry had been left alone for a whole day, so Stan, Sarah, Susan and Sally expected a problem or two. The moment dad turned off the engine, they all heard a tragic whimpering and whelping, interspersed by an occasional pathetic little yap.
“That’s Henry…oh what’s happened?” shouted Sally. “Let me out Mum… quick, please.”
The whole family raced around to the side of the cottage to find their hapless pup wrapped up in rope like Houdini, but without the required intellect and skills to escape.
As dogs do, he’d desperately tried to disentangle himself by walking around the sapling half a dozen times making the rope so short he’d all but hanged himself. Henry couldn’t see a thing, but he heard and smelt his family rushing to the rescue. His little pink tongue panted and licked his mistress while he wriggled in a blend of excitement and fear.
Within seconds, Henry was a free puppy, shaking with ecstasy and dribbling love and tearing around the garden in circles. The occasional thump of head against shed or rubbish bin told a joyous family that Henry Hartfield was fine and back to his usual boisterous, buoyant self.
Half nibbled agapanthus, chewed laces and a tomato plant were scattered throughout the garden of Number 5, but no-one would complain as long as the
lawns were intact. Everyone was tired and it was time to turn on the copper and drag in the bath tub.
It hadn’t been the best week-end for the Hartfields, including Henry. Grandpa had suffered a much-deserved, hard-earned heart attack; they’d driven for hours in torrential unrelenting rain; the gears of the car were terminally ill; Sally had missed the bird cemetery funeral service and her precious puppy had narrowly escaped asphyxiation and was now in a state of heightened neurosis; possibly psychosis. But in the glass half full home of Number 5, everything would always be better in the morning.
Because he was horribly self-conscious of his protruding front molars,Keith Diamond often muttered. He spoke looking downwards, sometimes even with one hand half covering his mouth. The fact that his big brother Matt called him ‘Teeth Diamond’ did little to boost his self esteem.
Just as Peter had a permanently curling top lip, Matt wore a semi scowl beneath the pudding bowl haircut he hated. He was angry that his smaller brother was four inches taller than him with thick wavy hairthat simply could not be fashioned by a bowl; and furious that he had to share two arrogant white cats with his elder sister Diana and was not allowed to have a dog of his own.
Complementing his demeanour was the inescapable fact that Diana and Keith were popular while he was not. Yes, he did have Garry Richards to play with, but Garry showed more interest in sister Diana than in him, while Diana had a best friend in Susan Hartfield. Nothing seemed fair.
His dad, Derek, who always looked angry too, worked as a labourer at the nearby Morris Farm.His escape from the fields and furrows came via the wireless and novels, particularly crime thrillers and especially Agatha Christie. When he became absorbed, he’d fantasise about being either a senior detective or a ‘worshipful judge’.
On crashing back to earth, Derek Diamond’s menial job on the soil earned little money and even less respect. Bonuses came in the shape of a free bag of apples or a sack of potatoes. When the crops needed picking or the soil tilling, he had to be there in whatever weather prevailed.
Such had been the case this week-end with the relentless rain and his boss demanding ‘all hands at the ready’. It had been a race against the water-logging of the spuds, so the wives and children of all the farmhands had been commandeered.
For two drenching days, wearing the unhappiest face he could muster, dad Derek supervised his entire family as they stood in the slushy potato fields and toiled to help rescue the crop.
Mum Daisy was delighted, laughing like a kookaburra at the thought of how she’d spend the two shillings she was earning a day. New stockings and a hairnet. Dianagiggled along cheerfully and decided her hard won gains would secure face powder and some deep red lipstick.
Alas, Matt’s money was earmarked for debt repayment. A few days earlier he’d had to borrow three shillings and sixpence to replace the filament in the kettle after blowing up the old one.
“You’ve got to learn to listen boy. How many bleedin times have I told you to make sure its got water in it before you turn it on,” bellowed grumpy dad who, though not so perfect himself, verged on paranoia about his family getting everything right and putting everything back from whence it came.
“A place for everything and everything in its place,” he’d boringly demand. This most definitely included his wife Daisy, whose three allotted places were the kitchen, the washroom and the bedroom - except of course when potatoes and arguments needed picking.
Keith was a little distressed he’d had to miss the funeral at the bird cemetery, but four shillings soon resolved his dilemma. He’d be spending his money on some fantastic new battery-powered indicators for his push bike. It would mean no more lifting of the arms, plus everyone would be green with envy at his bright orange blinkers.
As for miserable Matt, he’d picked as many arguments and as few spuds as he could get away with. By the end of Sunday, after hearing farmer Morris praise his brother’s hard work, all he wanted to do was punch Keith’s teeth in and kick Ned and Kelly all the way up – or rather along - the back passage.
While it hadn’t been the best week-end for the Diamonds, it hadn’t been the worst either. Keith knew it wasn’t his fault he’d had to let down Mike, whom he considered his best friend, but whom he understood only considered him his second best friend in return.
Keith also knew he was constantly suspected of ‘dreaming up’ stories about himself and his life, primarily because it was true.
It’ll be ok in the morning, he thought. Mike can check out the truth with Matt and Diana.
Half a mile away, a bedraggled Johnny hauled himself out of the swollen Blackfellers Creekthat gurgled alongside Coxs Road. He was drenched from head to toe, boots water-logged, cold shirt and trousers clinging to his skin. His mouth was bleeding and one front tooth hanging by a thread after smacking onto a submerged rock.
There was no sign of Brutus, the ugliest dog in Hartley that he loved and hated so much.
“Bugger… bugger, bugger, bugger... not again,” he shouted to the bushes and cows. “What the bloody ell appened this time?
What had happened was the Hartfields had driven by and distracted him. While he was waving to Susan’s and Sally’s pretty faces peering out of the back window, he’d not noticed the pesky Jack Russell dashing in a guerilla raid towards him from across the road. Johnny should have known better. He walked past the damn thing almost every day, constantly battling to restrain the snarling, drooling Brutus.
On seeing the girls, Johnny had let down his guard, relaxed his grip and yet again paid the price. In a flash, Jack had launched his terror attack and sped to safety, thus enraging the heavyweight boxer to memories of old bloody bouts. One massive jerk of the leash spelt freedom and sent young Master Button hurtling backwards into the creek.
The canine escapades were an all too regular a weekly saga, guaranteed to give Brutus much pleasure and his young master an equal measure of pain.
Most freedom bids were launched during the evening walk, though successful escape attempts still happened during the early morning pre-school toilet break, giving Johnny a much bigger headache. Button household law dictated the son had to return home with his pet no matter what, yet still be on time for the school bus, no excuses accepted.
It took a lot to upset Johnny, who displayed a mix of Mike’s humour, Peter’s devilment, Sally’s charm and his parents’ cheeky London Cockney heritage.
He hated his red hair and his freckles but his mum assured him he’d ‘grow out of them’.
He wasn’t exactly sure how he’d achieve that, yet he was trusting by nature and always beamed an endearing smile to the world.
From an early age, the pleasant looking little boy with freckles and speckles all over his body had learned how to poke fun at himself. He’d developed a delightful defence mechanism of apparent self deprecation, which worked in most cases and endeared him to everyone in the village.
He even used Brutus to distract attention from himself, claiming his dog was the ugliest ‘male thing’ on earth, Aggie winning the trophy for ‘female thing’.
Johnny was a good talker and listener who’d chosen Mike and Peter as his leaders and was immensely proud to be considered their equal first best mates. He never said a word about it, but he too held a secret passion for the divine Mistress Sally.
Like most fourteen year olds in 1958, he didn’t care less about having to wear hand-me-down clothes. He cared more about his missing tooth and the small brown blobs all over his body. He also wished - and sometimes prayed - for brown hair.
Johnny had a heart of gold; and for him, like the Hartfield family, every cloud had a silver lining.
The proudest day of his short life had come three years earlier when the boy from Coxs Roadin Hartley was officially appointed a member of the Gang Gang Gang. Such was his torment this inclement Sunday morning, when his mum had banned him from going outside because it was ‘too wet’.
“But Mum, I avter to go to the fooneral,” he’d pleaded in vain. “They moit kick me art the Gang”.
Johnny was an only child who would have loved a brother to play with and a sister to tease. Instead, he occupied much of his spare time sketching, or kicking around his beloved black and white soccer ball. Like his dad, he hero-worshipped the London club of West Ham United.
He was a brilliant dribbler of the round ball who every now and then managed to inspire his mates to abandon their oval balls for a while and have a go at soccer in the paddocks.
He was also a really good artist but lacked the knowledge and self-confidence to appreciate just how good his HB pencils were at capturing images and faces and landscapes.
On top of those talents, he could hold a good note and was often to be heard competing with songs on the wireless and telly, especially one of mum’s all-time favourites like Johnny Ray’s ‘Just Walking In The Rain’or Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’.
Mum and Dad were both small, only a few inches taller than Johnny in fact. They’d met and fallen in love as youngsters in primary school at Limehouse in London’s East End, when they’d pledged to marry when they were‘bigger’.
The marriage happened but the ‘bigger’ never did. Neither had ever had another partner so perspectives were somewhat narrower ….and shorter.
Before the war, old man Button had been a nuggety, bantamweight boxer, bashing and thrashing a living in screaming, smokey, beery halls throughout Britain. His little legs and arms had been so quick, he’d mastered the art of surprise raids, then dancing away to avoid retribution. He’d won more fights than he’d lost and lost more teeth than he could afford to replace.
He was a down-to earth, dyed in the wool Cockney who’d then gone on to do his part for Great Britain and the Commonwealth by single-handedly taking out a German gun emplacement in France.
At war’s end, a Victoria Cross and the glory couldn’t pay for the groceries. Bobby Button didn’t want to get back in the ring and take a further pounding, so he trained as a much needed bricklayer to help rebuild bomb-damaged London, particularly his own East End near the docks.
A few years and a million bricks later, he and his ‘plates and dishes’chanced upon a television programme all aboutthe ‘sunny life’ and ‘golden opportunities’ offered by a vibrant Australia. It looked exciting; a great place beneath bright blue skies to raise the half dozen kids they planned. Before they knew it, they were approved Ten Pound Poms and were steaming away from the Pearly Kings and Queens and the rubble of London’s East End.
It had been easy to find work as a brickie in Lithgow and even easier to buy a cheap shaky cottage with a decent plot of land, a couple of hundred yards off the highway at Hartley.
By 1953, he’d worked so hard that he celebrated the Queen’s Coronation by swallowing several flagons of ice-cold Aussie beer and launching his own building company. He and the ‘missus’ were now the proud owners of the valley’s only brand new brick veneer home and one battered but trusty Bedford truck.
Mates who shared the bar at the Donnybrook pub would ask him to tell of his war deeds, but he was far from a cocky Cockney. Like old man Peacock and old man Hartfield, he didn’t talk about the war, however his equally Cockney ‘trouble and strife’, Edna, did - to Mary Peacock, Sarah Hartfield and Rachel Richards.
Edna Button had hair resembling a rusty brillo pad and a nose that dominated her entire squat, little body. Her thousands of freckles had melded into one giant one that looked more like a birthmark, which didn’t give Johnny a great deal of confidence in the future.
The move to Clwydd had been almost as traumatic as the buzz bombs that had regularly flattened the streets and houses of London’s E14. All they’d ever known were the docks and dirty old Father Thames. For generations their families had strolled the cobbled, windy streets in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and sung and swayed to the music of the Pearly Kingdoms in the dark corners of pubs that reeked of hops and sweat and tobacco.
For all the grime and soot-covered buildings and the never-ending struggle to make ends meet, Limehouse had always been a happy place. Neither the area’s inherent poverty or Hitler’s bombardment had managed to shatter the spirit.
Australia had been a dramatic decision - not without Cockney controversy - born out of desperation and aspiration. It had taken yet more Bobby Button courage, but it had paid off.
Edna and Bobby were both very small people from very large families, with most members being tragically wiped-out by a V2 rocket.
Sadly, freckle-faced Johnny was the only seed that Edna’s womb would accept. Miscarriages and tears had been many.
Johnny was certain Brutus was a surrogate brother, purchased to make him feel less lonely. He was, after all, a boxer like his dad, bearing numerous similar features and scars. Second son that he was, Brutus was only ever permitted in the house if he remained in the laundry.
For a rough ‘n’ tumble brickie who made his ‘bread and honey’from getting his hands dirty, Bobby Button - dubbed ‘Stubbie’ by his drinking mates - had a surprising fetish for cleanliness, which, he stressed was ‘next to Godliness’.
“Brutus…where are yer, yer rotten mongrel,” yelled an irate Johnny, nursing a badly bruised leg from his tumble. “Yer’ll git me inter big bloody trouble again.”
Johnny didn’t know in which direction his horrible mutt had fled. He just knew that when he caught him, he’d do his best to squash his already punched-up nose a little more.
It was time to think rationally and there were only really three choices.
West along the gravel would take Brutus the back way along the Gap Road towards Lithgow. He’d never been that far, so it was unlikely. South was towards home and that didn’t make sense. He’d been chasing that stupid little Jack Russell which could almost certainly outrun the lumbering boxer, so that only left an escape along Coxs Road, then east along Clwydd Road, past The Swamp towards the village.
Johnny hobbled off feeling sorry for himself, but not one bit sorry for how he planned to wound the dog that had wounded him. A tooth for a tooth.
Old Miss Sharpe lived directly opposite the reed-lined swamp that buzzed with life and was home to a delightful family of ducks. She was always to be seen sitting in her tall wicker chair on the front porch, huddled beneath a black shawl and staring into the middle distance. She almost always slept there too and was part of the village landscape.
To the village kids, Miss Sharpe was ancient. She rarely moved. When she did, the outlines of a brittle radius and ulna, covered by frighteningly thin mottled skin, snaked their way from beneath the black picnic blanket over her lap.
Always in her shaky hand was a stained silver-plated flask that, like herself, had seen much happier days of care and polish. She’d slowly unscrew the lid, then with the utmost resolution not to spill a drop, raise it to almost non-existent lips for a hearty gulp of neat gin.
Gossip had it that dear Miss Sharpe had once been a beauty queen or actress who’d turned to the bottle after having her heart broken. Some villagers reckoned that as a young woman she’d been jilted at the altar and had never recovered.
Her dappled pin-cushion nose scared most people, however it failed to frighten away her one and only regular visitor, who, every Friday at precisely 11.05 am, parked her two-tone Holden in the driveway and disappeared around the back, carrying a laden basket.
“Government Welfare” explained the nosy village folk. “It’s the same woman whatvisits Mr Gregg.”
It was time for young Johnny to be as brave as his Dad.
“Excuse me please Miss Sharpe. Av yer seen me dog?” he called out from a safe distance.
The wrinkled lady leaned forward, turned her head and lifted her other hand to a flaking ear. “What was that?” she croaked. “Have I seen what?”
“Brutus….eeze a big dog…. brarn n and woite…av yer seen im.. please?”
“Nah….seen nuffin’….never see nuffin these days,” came the response.
Johnny was crestfallen. If Miss Sharpe hadn’t seen Brutus then he couldn’t have come this way. He waved a thank you and turned back towards Hartley, shuddering at the thought of returning home alone, which always meant verbal abuse and financial punishment.
“Wait ….wait,” yelled Mrs Sharpe “If it’s a dog yer looking for, yes… I remember now. I saw a big brown and white one running past here a while ago, chasing a small one. Yes…I’m sure I did.”
“Oh fanks,” said the happiest boy in the village, “fanks so much.”
The hobbling leg suddenly found new life and started to compete with its partner, but Miss Sharpe had more to say.
“The little white one was bleeding….there was blood all over its face.”
Johnny didn’t want to hear that, so he ran even faster to get away from the words. In record time he reached the junctions of Gang Gang and Lorikeet Lanes which led in opposite directions off the Clwydd Road.
Gang Gang led to all his friends and Lorikeet wove raggedly down to that murky stagnant pond at the bottom of the fields behind Mike’s house.
No-one ever understood why a flock of lorikeets lived and flew around the small forest at the end of Gang Gang Lane, to the north near old Tom’s railway carriage; and why a family of glorious gang gangs returned annually and faithfully to the willows and gums around the Lorikeet Lane pond. Someone had clearly got it all wrong.
There it was, a patch of dark blood on the track. Johnny’s world was collapsing. If that Jack Russell is dead then oim scarperin, he thought. No point in finding Brutus. Ee deserves it anyway.
It was close to dusk when the Button curfew would come into force. Johnny’s bravery deserted him and he began to cry. This aint fair, he sobbed. Snot moi fault. He felt very much on his ‘Pat Malone’.
His head in his hands and clammy clothing sticking to him, Johnny sat at the junction and listened to himself cry, his bruises starting to hurt again and his dislodged tooth dangling onto his tongue.
There seemed to be an echo. His cry was being returned, only with a higher pitch.
Yeah…it’s a whelp…that’s a dog, he thought.
“Brutus….is that you mate?…are yer there?” he yelled out in all directions and leaping to his feet.
The curtains of the Diamonds at Number 1 moved and Mrs Finn’s fat, round face appeared in the grubby poster-packed window of her shop. “What’s all this shartin and yellin abart?” she asked her husband, who, as usual, ignored her.
Brutus was there, licking his lips and crawling out from beneath the brambles and blackberries that hid the ditch opposite the homes in Gang Gang Lane.
Johnny didn’t know whether to punch him on the nose or hug him, so he remained motionless, watching his wicked, bloodied beast cower with guilt, edging slowly forward for his anticipated punishment.
Johnny wiped his face on his wet sleeve and bent down to stare his pet straight in the eyes. He’d been told dogs didn’t like that, but Brutus didn’t bat an eyelid. He was concentrating too much on watching his young master’s hands and feet to see to see if he was going to be belted or kicked.
Terrified that Brutus would run off again, Johnny cautiously leant forward and picked up the trailing leather dog lead. It was then he noticed two deep teeth marks in the side of the boxer’s snout. What a relief. The blood seen by Miss Sharpe and on the track was from Brutus, not from his tormentor the Jack Russel, who’d sent his nemesis off into the bush with his tail between his legs and his pride and nose severely punctured.
The sun was sinking while Johnny’s heart was lifting, sending renewed energy into tired aching legs that sped him and his nervous pet back towards Hartley and past The Swamp where Miss Sharpe was still sitting, her head slumped on her shoulder and flask inadvertently exposed. Johnny called out his thanks but she was deep in gin-driven slumber and dreams.
Now he had to negotiate the Jack Russell cottage which sat thirty yards back off Coxs Road. Instead of racing by, he tiptoed, ordering Brutus to do likewise. No pesky, frisky little dog to be seen so it was onwards to Johnny’s blonde brick home just a few more minutes away.
After days or rain, a heaven-sent streak of sunlight broke through the clouds just before the autumn daylight was switched off. For a brief moment, the flickering russet and pastel green leaves of the towering gums that framed the Button house, were bathed in sunset glory.
Johnny just loved to climb those trees. His dad had built a platform on the highest arch of the most yawning, stretching scribbly gum - stage one of his ‘real tree ouse’.
“You two’ve ad a good long walk, aintyer? Yer a good lad,” smiled Mrs Button, who didn’t look up from watering the flower pots that lined the path. “Crikey, yer pen an ink a bit son. Did Brutus drag yer into a ditch or sumfin?”
“Yeh Mum. Oil go and jump in the barf.”
The Button house was one of very few in the whole district to have a fitted bath with hot running water and even a plug to let the water out. It was made of porcelain and had claw feet. You could actually get your whole horizontal body in it, especially when you were a tiny Button.
Johnny always felt really sorry for Mike, Peter, Sally, Keith and George with their galvanised iron tubs which had to be filled by the copper then emptied by a saucepan.
It hadn’t been the best week-end for Johnny or Brutus. Young Master Button had missed the funeral service; not seen his best friends who he feared might now expel him from the Gang; and been hurled into a rushing creek, losing a tooth and causing severe bruising to the body and the mind. At least he’d found his dog and made it home by curfew.
Brutus had been humiliated by tiny Jack down the road; limping away with two extra nostrils and then forced to race home.
On the good side of the ledger, his bloody snout had won his master’s sympathy, duly avoiding serious retribution, plus to his sheer delight, he’d stumbled into a soggy ditch and upon a surprise meal, consisting of the decomposing corpses of one currawong, one galah and one eastern rosella.
For Brutus – with a feather stuck in his teeth - things weren’t so bad after all. For Johnny, they could easily have been far worse, yet they could still improve.
At Kildare, Mike Richards snuggled into his pillow. He was almost cleansed for another week, but for his own tiny feather fragment he knew nothing about, resting silently in one ear. He drifted into sleep whispering his nightly prayer of thanks to God for his dear friends; and wondering one last time why no-one had attended the funeral.
At Number 7, Peter Peacock junior collapsed from his bath onto his bed. The room was full of bunks and boys. As the eldest he was allowed to stay up an extra half hour, but after working like a slave all day, he was too tired to claim it.
A salty tear rolled down his cheek as he pondered the hours of strenuous egg and flower deliveries he’d have to do to pay for old Mr Gregg’s greenhouse. He could still smell him. Life was so unfair, but… thank God for his mates.
Under the tin roof of Number 5, Sally Hartfield carefully spread her freshly washed shiny hair out behind her on the pillow. It was still a little damp and it smelt fabulously clean with an apple shampoo aroma filling the room.
Her last thoughts of the day were for her grumpy smokey Grandpa and for her dear friends Mike, Peter, Keith and Johnny. She couldn’t wait until morning when she’d be able to explain why she’d had to miss the funeral service.
At Hartley, bruised Johnny climbed out of his royal bath, pulled on his newly ironed pyjamas which held that unique smell of fresh air, then climbed into bed. The aches of the day had been soothed away by a good soak in sweet smelling bath salts. Before he fell asleep, he sent a mental apology out through his window, along Blackfellers Creek and over the eucalypts to Kildare and Numbers 1, 4, 5 and 7 Gang Gang Lane.
He didn’t know Mike had been all alone, forced to act as rector, pall bearer and grave digger. I’ll make up for it next week-end, he promised himself.
On their blankets in their allotted corners and kennels, Sandy, Polly, Henry and Brutus growled at the night. Their radar ears kept guard over their domains, their talons twitching as they counted their lucky stars.
Sandy’s neck hurt from pulling; Polly’s heart ached from insufficient playtime and a lack of pats and love; Henry still had a headache as well as a sore neck from his near hanging; and Brutus had a stinging, munched nose and very little pride. They’d all had a bad dog of a day and things could definitely improve.
With their supercilious look at me attitudes, Ned and Kelly kept an eye each on Matt’s angry feet, licked their own and prepared themselves to prowl and purr the night.
Deaf Mr Gregg, Aggie the witch and an inebriated Miss Sharpe didn’t know a good weekend from a bad one. They were just days which they were all happy, or possibly unhappy to survive. For them, things could only get worse.
As Sunday ticked into Monday, everyone drifted into dreams. The voices of Gang Gang Lane and the Vale of Clwydd, fell silent.
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