Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 2
Before the Jubilee
Before the Jubilee
"No nuts" cried Sid, "and, huh, sleets tow." The ginger-head tightened his eyes and twisting his lips, flicked his marble away from the hole. "Huh, sleets again" said Sid but Ginger only flicked his marble even further from the hole.
"No! You can only do sleets as many times as you say the first time. Have your shot."
Sid took his marble in his special way and pinged it in towards Ginger.
"Dribbles!" cried Ginger.
"Hub, nuts!" cried Sid.
"Beat ya," said Ginger with a gleam in his red eyes, and shot by shot he moved Sid's marble to the hole and popped in himself.
"Kills!" he cried and came out again ready to finish off Sid.
"Dirts! cried Sid and drove his marble hard into the dust with his foot.
"That's cheats," said Ginger, but there was nothing he could do about it, so he fired in vain at the spot where Sid's marble and been standing. He missed. Sid dug the marble up out of the dirt and taking careful aim knocked Ginger's glassy for a roll in a cloud of dust.
"Got to go now," said Ginger, his mouth drooping.
"but, huh, won't you play, huh, some more," said Sid.
"I'll be back after school," said Ginger, "and you see if I don't win them back," and he jumped on his bicycle and shot off down the dusty road over the wooden bridge and in the school gates as the bell rang.
Sid sat down slowly on the ground with his back against the old boards of the pub wall and the "Holey" pit between the outstretched legs of his ragged and patched trousers. It was just after one o'clock and the sun was coming down pretty hot on his shining, brown, baldhead. Underneath his tan the deep skin glowed with a soft muddy fire, quiet and hushed, like the fine warm skin of a baby, and when he dreamily shifted his head the dust dropped from his crusted eyebrows and scattered down the smooth surface of his ageing cheeks. Nobody else was moving much in Hamlock and Sid was the only one still out in the sun. Even the dogs had enough feeling for the heat to get under a hedge. Over the fence in the paddock all the birds were quiet now. The only noise you could hear was the grasshoppers click-clacking in the long grass and the Wainakarua stream gurgling as it ran over the rocks under the bridge. Inside the Pub there was a small school of five taking the long handles in steady rotation from Woll Murphy, owner and barman of the golden Horse. Usually Sid would sit just there in that place till about 3.15 when school came out. "I've got a cold, huh, and I need the sun," he said.
"You're next, Smith," said Ramsput.
"Right!" said Smith. "But make mine ponies Woll."
"What? Ponies! What's the matter? Your wife sick or something?"
"Whoever heard of ponies at the second round!" said Ramsput.
"All right, all right, calm down," said Smith, "but I've about 200 more tails to feel this afternoon. All right for you fellows with the whole afternoon and nothing else to do." Smith was a fat-lamb buyer. Ramsput, a retired and emaciated school teacher, regular and firm chairman of the afternoon school at Murphy's. There was no scabbing with Ram.
"Sticking to ponies?" said Murphy with a leer at Smith, as he banged down five fullsizers on the counter.
"All right," said Smith, "but last round for me. I've got to get going."
"What I always wonder is what does Sid Gum do all the time just sitting out in the sun?" said Leach.
"How do you mean?" asked Murphy.
"Well, every afternoon I come down here he seems to be just sitting outside there, or if it's wet just sitting in the porch."
"What else could he do?" said Ramsput.
"Dumbest kid I ever taught at school."
"Why isn't he in an institution, Murphy?? Asked leach.page 20
"I knew his mother. She was at the bar here in my father's time. Sort of felt I owed it to her." Said Woll.
"Bit of a nuisance, isn't he?"
"Not a bit. Quite useful actually. He sleeps in the old shed out at the back and I give him meals in turn for sweeping the place out and doing a few things like that."
"Your round, Leach," said Ramsput.
"And that'll finish it," said Smith, "I've got to go."
"Right!" snapped Ramsput and they all upped their glasses and down their throats went the golden bubbles.
"Hooray," said Smith, and in the tight silence that answered his gesture, he left the room.
"I reckon that anyone as dumb as Gum would be a potential danger?" said Leach. "It's not safe!"
"He's no danger," said Murphy.
"Surely he's got some vice?" asked Ramsput.
"Well, to tell you the truth, the only thing he seems to do apart from his work and sitting in the sun is playing marbles."
"Yep, marbles. Plays all day with anyone who'll play with him. Mostly, of course, with the boys after school, but sometimes some of the older lads give him a game."
"Where'd he get the marbles?"
"Dunno where he got the first ones from but he's got a whole bag now. He's pretty good. I've played with him," said Murphy.
"For gosh sake! You haven't got any marbles, have you?" said Clapham.
"Of course not! He supplies the marbles and for everyone he wins I've got to give him three pence. Everyone I win I keep for the next time. At least, that's the idea but I haven't won any yet."
"Well, I'll be damned!" said Ramsput.
"Hm, wouldn't mind giving him a game," said Clapham, "used to be a bit of good in my day, though I do say it myself."
"Reckon the boys nowadays aren't as good as we used to be," said Leach. "I saw my boy Joe playing the other day and all he could do was the dribble shot. You know, shooting from the middle of your finger.
They have a name for it. Funny Something or other."
"Funny shoots," said Clapham.
"Yes, that's it."
"No fear of Sid being like that," said Murphy; "he's got a special shot of his own."
"Let's go and play, then," said Clapham.
"There's no other customers. You could come, Murphy."
"I dunno that it's wise," said Murphy, Wrinkling up his face in a cautionary frown.
"You'd only lose your money."
"We'll see about that," said Clapham.
"What's it matter, anyhow," said Leach.
"What's a few bob?"
"Well, I said Sid's got no vices but that ain't quite correct. He has got one."
"Such as this," and Murphy plonked the empty beer-mug hard on the counter.
"Could be win enough off us to do much harm?"
"Yep, he could. If he wins a marble off each of us that's enough for two beers and a bit over. That's quite enough to get him drunk. He's not like a normal joker. Just can't take it. One beer O.K. More than one beer, no sir! You can't do it!"
"But we can see he doesn't win more than four," said Clapham.
"Sounds easy," said Murphy. "But he's sensible enough to know that he needs five marbles at three pence a head to get him the two drinks and he'll do it."
"I reckon it's worth a chance," said Clapham.
"What's he like when he's drunk?" said Ramsput.
"That's just the trouble," said Murphy. "He's not like you or I. He just goes clean mad with drink! Smashed all the windows in his shed and went quite loco last time. Have you seen his shed? The sacks are still hanging over the windows."
"Well, I think—"and they paused because this was the first time O'Connor had spoken. So far he had just nodded assent, grunted occasionally, and sucked his beer more or less in silence. "I think that, seeing that it is the Jubilee of the Golden Horse tonight, Sid Should have some chance to get shicker as everybody else. Howlett has agreed to lie quiet at Opaki. Can't see that Sid can get in any trouble."
"That sounds all right," said Murphy, "but he ain't an ordinary drunk as I said. He's mighty powerful and mighty dangerous in the right condition, and it only takes a couple of beers to put him that way."page 21
"Well, I don't care much about that side of it," said Clapham. "All I want is the game of marbles and I'm ready to bet I can hold my own against him or anyone."
"Not with a shot like his," said Murphy.
"You haven't a show."
"We'll see about that," said Clapham; "are the rest of you on?"
"Hey, hold on! Hold on! It's not as simple as that," said Murphy. "You're not just gambling a few shillings. You're gambling the whole Jubilee. If he got drunk, as likely as not he'd wreck the show. He goes real pongo when there's people round and he's drunk."
"You don't have to serve him," said Ramsput.
"Oh, yeah! He'd get mighty wild if iI didn't do that. Beer's the only entertainment he's got and he just doesn't like going without his rights."
"Seems to me it's worth the gamble," said Leach. "If we win the marbles the Jubilee goes on. If we don't, too bad."
"The odds are too strong for me," said Murphy. "I've got too many windows at stake. All right for you to talk."
"Tell you what," said Leach. "We'll stand by any damages if he wins; but he won't, eh, Clap?"
"Nope, guaranteed!" said Clapham. And he flicked his finger in the proper old knuckle-shooting fashion. "Why, my shot off the knee used to be a dead cert. Ten feet away!" he said.
"Right! It's agreed. Another round and we're off," said Ramsput. They upped their glasses again and down went the brown liquid bubbling and sucking, just as good as ever it was. Then feeling just a little bit squiggly about the eyes, out they all trooped into the sun. First went Clapham, erstwhile champion of the "Big Ring"; next was Leach, one-time of "Liney" fame; next Ramsput, the "Holey" king; next O'Connor, who favoured "leggings Out" and finally Murphy, who despite the jiggly condition of his eye-balls announced himself as a onetime noted "Eye-drop" champion at the sole charge school of Stag Point.
Sid had not moved. Apart from an occasional blow on an old rag handkerchief he remained sitting, eyes shut, in the blazing sun; a heap of brown flesh and dust. The birds were still quiet in the trees. Thirty minutes or so had not much changed their ideas about the sort of day it was. A hundred yards down the road one of Henderson's dogs barked as the road gate opened, but he only barked once.
"Hey, Sid!" called Murphy. "I've got some friends here who would like to play you a game of marbles. How about it?"
Sid looked up, blinked his hot eyes in a rather confused fashion.
"Oh, sure, huh, Mr. Murphy. Oh sure, huh." He scrambled to his feet and stood up, his embarrassed head lowered as the others gathered round him.
"My God! It's hot here," said Clapham.
"Let's go round the other side in the shade. I couldn't shoot straight with this sweat in my eyes." And they field round to the other side of the pub with Sid at the back, holding tight to his marble bag.
"What do we play, Murphy?" asked Clapham.
"Holey for me." Said Ramsput.
"No, let Clap decide," said Murphy. "he's going to be our mainstay in this business."
Well, I choose the Big Ring," said Clapham, "and if Sid gives us two marbles each, one to shoot with and one to dub in, that'll be six in the ring and six playing for them. And I reckon that's pretty good odds for a smooth Jubilee, eh, Sid?"
":Huh, eh? Huh, yes, sir."
"Big Ring O.K. for you Sid?" said Murphy.
"Yesa, huh, Mr. Murphy.":
"Usual odds: threepence a head."
"Yes, Mr. Murphy, huh, like to fire with?"
"Make mine a pretty," said Clapham.
"A stinky for me," said Leach. "Always like a small one of a taw."
"Anything you like for me," said O'Connor.
"And an Alley for me," said Ramsput. Sid handed them round a marble each and then, standing on one foot, he swiveled round and drew a large leg-width circle in the dust with his other foot.
"Migs in," he said. They all put down their dubs and retired about 15 years to where he drew another line for the throw.
A momentary gust of wind scattered the dust from beneath the five arched bodies leaning intently towards the circle ready to throw. Above their heads a tree branch, heavy with leaves, arched in line with leaning bodies. A cloud of dust ballooned out from beneath their impatient feet and shot page 22 forwards, settling slowly on the circle. As the cloud faded the school bell rang out its dry, crisp notes on the afternoon air. It was playtime.
"Lasts," said Sid.
"How do you mean?" demanded Ramsput.
"He means that he's the last to throw up," said Murphy.
They all threw up. Clapham took the greatest of care. Sighting the marble along his arm to the circle, he carefully drew it back and let the marble to. But it fell a few feet short. The others were even worse. But Sid's shot struck the round by Clapham's marble, ricocheted first off Leach, then steadily carved the dust in a straight groove to the circle edge.
"A beaut!" exclaimed Murphy.
"No backs," said Sid.
"Eh, what's that?" demanded Ramsput.
"That means no repeats of the roll-up," explained Murphy."You're first shot, Sid."
"Now we'll see this special shot," said Clapham with a tinge of bitterness, chiefly because of the distance between his and Sid's marble. Sid took out his handkerchief and blew his nose rather hard.
"Excuse me, huh, Mr. Murphy, but huh, I've got a cold and it makes shooting harder than usual."
"Why does he do that, huh, stuff all the time, Ramsput?" hissed Leach at the back of the group.
"Not sure," said Ramsput. "But someone said Doc. Brown reckons it's a sort of speech impediment caused by spasmodic contractions of the chest muscles."
"Yeah! Well who'd have thought that." But Sid, who had earned first shot by his proximity to the circle, was preparing to fire. He lowered himself to the ground till his head was just behind the marble and his body outstretched flat on the ground alongside the circle.
"What the hell's he doing?" asked Clapham in astonishment.
"This is his shot," said Murphy in a whisper. "You'll see."
Sid carefully sighted a blood alley in the circle with his left eye on the ground behind his taw and the same side of his face browsing the dust. Then, pulling out his handkerchief one more and blowing his nose again, he inserted his taw, a blood alley, up his right nostril with a quick, sharp sniff that twitched his features in an agonized way. His cold was troubling him.
"Good God!" exclaimed Leach. Sid lowered his head nearer the ground, with his finger over the other nostril. He again sighted the alley down his nose, twisting his head back so as to get a straight delivery.
"Huh?" with a coughing spasm of the chest he blew his taw into the circle of marbles, effecting a cannon and sending two of them as well as his own marble right outside the ring.
"Another turn, huh, for me,": he cried joyfully, and hopped round to the other side of the ring, where he again picked up his taw, polished it with his handkerchief, then once more prostrated himself in preparation. Again with a mighty snort be knocked out two marbles.
"Gosh! That leaves only tow," said Clapham.;"One more and he gets the beer!"
One again Sid lowered himself carefully to the dust, polished his taw, and inserted it in the upper nostril. Cocking his head back he prepared to fire. Clapham looked dismally on. Not a Chance as yet to show his prowess. The pool cleaned out before he'd even started. But at this stage there was an interruption. It seems that Sid must have failed to wipe the dust completely from his marble, for a few particles sucked up into the cavities of his voluntary contraction with an involuntary sneeze. "Aitchooo," and his marble shot sideways across the ground before he had properly sighted.
"My shot!" yelled Clapham, triumphantly, before Sid could claim another shot. With prodigious care he took sight from his knee.
"No ups!" said Sid, still sprawled on the ground, his face red with disappointment.
"Aw, cut it out! Don't be too tough, Sid," exclaimed Murphy. "Let him have it."
Clapham continued to eye the marble carefully from his knee. Then, true to old form, he managed to strike one clean out of the Circle. That meant there was just one marble left. Just one chance of Sid's getting his five marbles if not forestalled by one of the other players. Clapham shot again, but much to his dismay, this time he missed. In turn O'Connor, Leach, Murphy and Ramsput had their shots, but with no better luck.page 23
Bit by bit Sid's face brightened and the redness disappeared from his dust-stained cheeks.
"Mine," he cried as Murphy, who was last, missed the solitary marble.
"Now we're sunk," said Murphy. "I hope you haven't forgotten what you said about the Jubilee, Leach."
"She'll be right," said Leach, but stopped dead in the midst of his confidence, for Sid was quietly lowering himself to the ground once more.
This time he polished the marble with extreme care. No speck of dust must spoil his chance again.
And then, though it is not certain how it happened, possibly a speck again caused it, just as Sid placed the marble in his nostril he was paroxysed by the initial stage of a sneeze and with one mighty sucking sound the marble was drawn hard up his nostril to lodge immoveably in the deep recesses.
"God, it's stuck," said Murphy.
"Huh, huh, ugh, huh, ugh,"
Sid gasped, rolling frantically on the ground. He struggled and heaved beside the circle, kicking up in clouds about him what looked like the last dust of a dying frenzy. His face grew redder and redder.
"For gosh sake, lie still," said Leach, and the four of them gathered round and held him down to the one spot, but he struggled and spluttered till the whole yard was full of dust.
"Somebody go and get Doc. Brown, quick!" said Murphy.
"I'll go," said Clapham, and he rushed off down the road, spurting up pockets of dust with his feet and disturbing the peace of the lying dogs as he went. "What can we do for him, Murphy?" said Leach.
"Just keep him quiet here. Don't move him. That's always the best in this sort of case."
"Huh, ugh, huh!" "Let's put him over in the shade."
"No! Don't move him. The marble might go right inside and get into his blood stream and that'd be the finish," said Murphy.
For a while they all knelt round Sid, who lay on his back in the dust, no longer kicking, but lying still as if in the last torpor before death. The redness of his face had quietened somewhat and down his dusty checks trickled, in steady succession, the tears of his exertions. Murphy had put a hat over his constricted face to shade his eyes. Up above, a cloud or two went slowly by, and as the afternoon drew on the sun eased a little in the pub yard. Standing on its own in the now forgotten circle the last "glassy" glinted slightly through its dusty coat. The dust ring was mostly intact, apart from the side where Sid had thrashed it, in his first spasm.
"Has he done this before?" asked Leach. Sid, his eyes shut, looked much as though he were now asleep, apart from the rather ugly bulge on the upper-side of his nostril.
"Not to my knowledge," said Murphy. "Though it's a wonder. I've seen him spend a whole afternoon blowing marbles out of his nose into a tin. He puts one in each nostril and then shoots them out ping-ping."
"That's what I thought and I asked him once, but no, he said, 'I'm, huh, milking a cow.'
" Milking a—? Good God!"
For a while longer they just stood there in the yard. Apart from an occasional sniff by Sid there was no noise until O'Connor said, "Look! Here's Clapham and the Doctor." Both of them were sweating and flurried. Doc. Brown's tie was only half on and his eyes were full of midday sleep. "All right now, where is he?" said the Doctor, and they moved away from the prone Sid, who quickly sat up eyeing the Doctor somewhat apprehensively.
"Huh, ugh, huh."
"That's all right, now, don't move," said the Doctor. "Let's see. Up the right nostril is it? All right, Sid, put your finger against the other nostril like this. Now I'll put my fingers in your ears like this. It won't hurt. Easy now." He drove his middle fingers deep into the wax pits of Sid's ears. "Now, Murphy, when I say 'Go,' I want you to give Sid a slap on the back; and, Sid, when you hear me say 'Go,' I want page 24 you to keep your mouth shut and blow through your nose. Got that? Right. Ready everybody—Go!"
Down came Murphy's hand and "Huh!" went Sid. And ping went the marble, leaping out of Sid's nostril on to the Doctor's arm and off into the "big ring," knocking the solitary "glassy" with a spurt of dust clean out of the circle.
"Good God!" said Clapham.
"Huh, huh, huh," said Sid, and he struggled to his feet, raised his arms in the air, high towards the blue sky, jumped up and down on the spot, and kicked clouds of dust up into the faces of the Doctor, Murphy, Ramsput, Leach, O'Connor, and Clapham.
"Huh, huh, huh, hurray," he cried. It's mine!"