Her head hit the floorboards, bounced, and a fog of ash billowed, thrown so by the motion of her spade. She was slight of figure, slim with a quiet softly coloured face. She crashed and the spade rang and the thrown ash found volume then fell on her hair and her faded pinafore. Beside the kitchen’s great red-brick hearth Maria looked the size of a child. Her light hair slowly dulled to grey under the raining grit. She lay senseless.
When William Toosey came into the kitchen he did not see his mother lying among the cinders. He had a hessian sack on his shoulder, which he placed on the table. One by one he removed half a dozen beer bottles from inside and lined them up. He looked about nervously. He’d scratched the labels off each bottle but by the caps you could tell where they’d come from. What he hoped was that she’d drink the beer and not ask. Stepping away from the table he saw his mother on the floor and gave a start. He smiled.
I’ve brought somethin, he said.
Ash drifted. His mother lay as before.
Ma, he said.
He crossed the floor and crouched near her. The coals crunched beneath his knees. Her eyes were closed, her mouth ajar.
Ma, he said.
He wasn’t smiling now. He tried to lift her and when he got around behind and pushed her upright she was as slack as a straw toy and fell forward at the waist and rolled.
Ma. Stop it!
He shook his mother by the shoulders. Her head lolled and she gave off a fine cloud of dust that he could taste on his tongue as he breathed. He eased her to the floor and stood. This was stupid. She was shamming. He looked around the kitchen, his fists balled by his sides, and an instant passed where he wanted to hit her. He nudged her with his boot.
Get up for God’s sake, he said. There is beer for you.
Then she coughed and winced.
What’s the matter? he said.
He brushed the ash from her cheeks. Her throat seemed to be pumping beneath her skin. She turned her head, heaved, and let forth a thick liquid over the floor. Her eyes fluttered open and for a brief time she gaped at the ceiling as if looking through it to the sky, the great blue above, but they closed again and she grew still. William wiped her cheek, her lips, with the sleeve of his shirt. He felt the heat from her brow. For a while he just knelt there. His mother wasn’t shamming. She was sick and she needed seeing to. He had to think about that. About what it meant. There was a doctor on Brisbane Street and he thought he might know the house, and that was all he could think of.
He ran. The worn road led into town, flanked by homes of weatherboard and brick. Ahead only the inner streets of Launceston, a stretch of rooves studded with church steeples, the river winding through like a wide leather thread. The dawn sun perching beyond the water was already white with heat. He ran and his pulse thudded in his head. His boots hit the dirt with a puff of grit. A man in a tweed coat walked the road and turned, startled, as William shot by, and called, Ease down, for the love of God! William never even looked back.
The town park filled acres of grassland skirted about by an iron balustrade and planted in a pageant of English willow and oak and pine that was wildly contrary to the sombre gums covering the hills above. He knew every inch of that park. The cubbies, hidey holes, blind switchbacks. The routes in, the routes out. All of it. But today, bundling through the gate with his breath firing in the hot dark of his chest, it seemed made new. He passed the ornate water fountain depicting naked cherubs at play in a pool and felt no cheer for the sight of it. The glass conservatory for the keeping of flowers gave his reflection differently, a huge-eyed boy, hair full of wind. He lowered his head and ran harder.
At the far side of the park he spilled onto Brisbane Street and skidded on the dirt footpath as he changed direction. A gig rolled through the crossing, its lamps still lit from dawn, and he ran into the haze it made. With his eyes pinched and searching he studied the street, the neat white-limed houses for that which belonged to the doctor. Plum trees was all that he remembered: two of them in ceramic pots by the door. Yet many had fruit trees, many had brass plaques, the residences of barristers, of bankers and insurers. He ran along a road that was lined with tall stucco or stone places, sucking back the smokey air of morning and scanning every house he passed, and just at the corner as he saw the doctor’s house, the potted trees by the door weighted with blue summer plums, just as he felt that small relief, a pair of constables primly uniformed in black stepped from a side lane into the full sun and looked right at him.
He stopped. They were crossing the road each dragging his dawn shadow for yards behind, the taller one waving off flies while resting his other hand upon the butt of his billyclub. William breathed hard. This man was called Beatty and the low sun in his eyes made him appear to smile. He’d drawn his long billyclub, black and gleaming like a greasy crowbar, and was tapping his thigh with it. William glanced up at the doctor’s house and clenched his jaw.
Lovely mornin, the constable said. Just lovely.
William kept his eyes on the doctor’s place.
Wouldn’t you say so, William?
Beatty prodded his mate in the chest with the point of his club. This other fellow was young and pale in his freshly pressed uniform. Beatty prodded him and then gestured at William.
Not one of your more helpful sorts, this one, he said to the fellow.
No, sir. Looks a rough one, sir.
Rough? Jesus, man. He’s a lad of twelve. You can handle a lad of twelve, can’t you, Webster?
Yes, sir. I expect so.
You expect so. Well, God help us.
William looked from one to the other. He looked at the doctor’s house.
So, Beatty said. How’s about this brewery then. Terrible business.
William backed away.
Don’t move. I aint said you could move.
William paused. He was breathing even harder. Mr Beatty, he said. Me ma is sick.
The constable winced in disgust. What a load of mullock, he said.
She fell down. I was goin in there for the doctor.
But Beatty wasn’t listening. Where’s Oran Brown? he said.
Beatty tucked his stick in his armpit. They are shy quite a few cases, he said. Down at the brewery. As you already know.
Mr Beatty, somethin is wrong with her. She needs a doctor. That’s God’s truth.
Beatty was grinning but he grew sober as he leaned towards the boy. I have Lally Darby under charge for it, he said.
She never went near the place, William said.
Young Lally is as guilty as a Jew and that is a fact.
It’s a slanderous lie. She don’t even drink.
Beatty grinned. He turned to his mate. Proper little solicitor, this one.
To Name Those Lost is published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99. Grab a copy in your local bookshop on on Allen & Unwin's website.