jack and The Wheel –

Australian Short Stories

“Find Jack and he’ll have what you want,” said Andy Gorrie, stooped and peering through the open car window.

William thanked him for the map and Olive for the tea, then eased the panel van gently forward, reminding himself of the trailer behind.

As he drove through the gate, he glanced in the mirror to see Olive still standing and waving goodbye and Andy already back staring under the bonnet of one of his cattle trucks.

Andy had commented a month or so earlier, while loading stock from William’s farm in the pre-dawn light, “That wagon propping up the iron shed beside your stockyards is in really good condition and it wouldn’t take a lot to restore it and get it working again.”

“The offside back wheel can’t be rebuilt,” William replied. He too had thought about bringing the wagon back to life. “Sheet of roofing iron must have come off long before I bought the place. Half the felloes are rotted and so are the spokes–and the hub is not usable. The iron tyre is good but not much use without a wheel.”

There was silence but for an occasional far-off cow calling her offspring, now securely penned on Andy’s truck.

A thin ribbon of light was starting to silhouette the tops of the Mountain ash on the distant ridge high above the farm, and further up the valley kookaburras called joyfully to the new day.

“Go and see Jack Jones.”

“Who and where is Jack Jones?” shouted William.

Andy shone his large torch on the truck as he moved slowly around making a final check of the load which was mainly William’s grass-fattened vealers.

“They should fetch top dollar,” Andy muttered out loud.

An aged dairy bull and half a dozen dry dairy cows stood stoically silent in a separate pen, listening to the sounds around them. A red Dairy Shorthorn, the house cow from the Pearces’ place was there too. William wondered what the Pearce kids would say when they found out that Big Red had gone; or did they already know? He had seen photos of little Rosie Pearce as a laughing baby sitting on the back of one of Red’s calves being held by her father while Red licked the calf’s face lovingly with her long tongue. Rosie was now in grade six at school. Perhaps they would all pile into the school bus without noticing that Red was missing from the house paddock and then be told the news at dinner that night.

Feeding a large and no longer productive cow on a small farm, especially through winter, was too costly for the Pearces’ to contemplate. So was the pain of telling the six children, thought William.

Andy checked inside the truck cabin with his torch and shone it quickly on his pick-up sheet.

“That’s it,” he said.

Turning to William in the grey moist air, Andy relaxed into conversation mode for a moment.

“Jack Jones is the wife’s uncle. He never married and lives on a block at the edge of the bush about six miles south of Lavers Hill. He must be in his late seventies. Worked most of his early life on the roads. Jack’s got everything at his place. Sure to have a wheel. Talk to Olive. She’ll tell you how to find him.”

With that, Andy climbed into his truck, started the motor and ever so slowly moved away to the sound of stamping hooves on steel flooring.

William stood and listened as the truck sounds died away down the valley, then turned for the walk home along the narrow contour track around the hillside. Yes, he thought to himself. I will go and talk to Jack Jones.

It was mid-morning when William drove into the clearing at the front of Jack Jones’s farm house. The weather was sunny and the mists that settled over the valleys each night had lifted early.

William drew up on a track that led to the back of the house. As he switched off the motor he noticed movement a hundred yards ahead, near the rim of low scrub where the forest began.

A tall figure was walking swiftly away from the house and into the forest.

Without stopping to think, William jumped from the car and called over the top of the car door in his loudest voice–the one he used at home for calling cattle down from the hills–“Jack Jones?”

The figure stopped quite still, then turned, stopped again for a moment, then slowly walked towards the car. The man was very tall and straight and as he came closer–he seemed to move in slow motion–William felt overwhelmed by his size.

“Who wants him?” growled a deep voice.

“Your niece Olive and her husband Andy said I should visit you,” William said self-consciously in his best-explorer-meets-the-king-of all-these-lands voice. “My name is William and I have a wagon that is in good condition except it needs a rear offside wheel. Andy said you might be able to help me.”

Jack Jones turned away slightly and stared into the forest. His hand took something from the pocket of his heavy black top coat. William saw it was a straight-stemmed smoking pipe. Jack fondled it gently, still staring into the trees.

“Five foot six or six three is it?” Jack asked suddenly.

For a moment William’s mind went blank.

“Oh, five foot six inches. I brought the tyre with me if it’s any help.”

Jack Jones returned his pipe to its pocket, walked past William to the trailer and stared at the iron ring lying on the floor. Moments later he reached over and clutched the tyre with both hands. He held it as if he’d just found something he thought he’d lost forever.

Again there was silence. Jack stared at the tyre intently.

Just as William began to reflect on what life might be like for this man, living alone and some distance from other people, Jack Jones took off at a fast walk along the path that led to the back of the house. He said nothing and it was as if he had forgotten William, and had suddenly remembered something he had to do urgently elsewhere. He walked with great purpose, disappearing around the back of the old weatherboard.

William remained standing in the same spot for a moment. Then, just as he began to contemplate his next move, Jack reappeared, stared at him, beckoned to him to follow and again disappeared.

Behind the house the area cleared of bush was bigger than William had anticipated. Not only that, there must have been an hectare at least, of corrugated iron and slab timber shedding set in three long lines and double-sided, not unlike horse or cattle shedding at country show grounds. The sheds were open at the front.

At first it seemed the sheds all contained ancient motor vehicles and rubber-tyred trailers–like those one saw in films set in the times between the wars–but as William followed Jack, horse drawn vehicles became more common until, in the buildings furthest away and facing south, every shed held an old wagon or dray or cart of some sort ranging from very small stylish sulkies, in which the wealthier farming families would have driven to town or to church, to huge juggernauts that were built to carry wool bales and were most likely drawn by bullock teams.

Jack had disappeared inside what looked to be a much larger shed at the end of the row. It was the only closed-in shed. William stepped through the small door after him and found himself in a vast and dimly lit workshop. It took only moments to realise this was no simple farm workshop but a complete vehicle repair shop.

William moved quietly up behind where Jack was standing. Before them, housed in a huge rough-hewn timber frame some eight foot high and thirty feet long, were wagon wheels of every size. Wagon restorer’s heaven, thought William.

Jack stood with a hands on two wheels as though assessing the qualities of each one. Then he unhooked the chain that held the chosen wheel and, leaning heavily against it with his shoulder, allowed it to slowly roll forward a few inches off its ledge and free itself from the rack.

Jack stood back, still looking at the wheel, and said, “That’s our baby.” Then, in the same quick voice, “Cup of tea?” And he turned and headed for the bright outdoors.

Jack did not live in the house, but in a small cabin behind it. A cut-down milk churn with holes punched in the sides sat on bricks on the brick floor in the centre of the cabin. It contained a smouldering fire on which sat a blackened iron kettle.

Jack pushed dry leaves and twigs into the coals then added three blocks of wood. In a few moments a crackling fire made the dark wooden room bright and cosy.

Jack removed the lid of the kettle, lifted it off the fire and disappeared out the door, presumably to add more water.

“Do you get many people wanting help with repairs, Jack?” William asked casually when Jack returned.

Jack finished setting mugs for the tea, got some biscuits from a tin and put them on a small plate.

“I don’t see people usually,” he answered. His voice was low and quiet.

“I did a lot of repair work, but then the tractor come and straightaway, folk didn’t want their wagons fixed. Didn’t want their pulling horses any more either. Thousands of good horses suddenly disappeared off the farms and came back as fertiliser or got sent to feed city cats and dogs. The tractor changed everything.”

Jack gently tamped fresh tobacco down in the pipe then got up and poured water from the kettle into the teapot. The two men sat side-on on either side of the table and facing the fire.

“I get the impression you’ve been here a long time, Jack,” said William.

Jack reached for the teapot. He partly filled the mugs, then reached for the kettle to top-up the black brew with hot water. He placed a mug in front of William and pushed a sugar bowl and the plate of biscuits closer.

Jack drew on his pipe and settling back in his chair said, “I suppose I have.”

So began an afternoon that William would remember for ever after.

Jack began to talk. William interrupted only rarely and briefly, only to clarify a point. Occasionally, while Jack talked, William reflected on his host’s circumstances. Jack was born in 1900 and he was now eighty-two. He was the second youngest in a family of twelve children, two of whom were killed in the First World War.

He went to work on the roads at the age of twelve. His mother died when he was just sixteen and his father when he was nineteen.

William realised that Jack had not mentioned a wife at any time and he wondered if the man had ever been with a woman; he might never have experienced a woman’s love nor a woman’s wrath. Could Jack be that innocent? William wondered.

William found himself reflecting on his own life and Jack’s, but there was no way to compare them. The loss of Eleanor had cast a shadow of a different colour on William’s life and he often felt that he dwelt in a world quite separate from that of other people.

The holidaying couple had been driving on a country road in Bulgaria when a tractor towing a converted horse wagon swung out from a gate hidden in a high hedge. Eleanor had braked and swerved in the direction of the gate but couldn’t avoid hitting the massive rear wheel of the cart. She had died instantly. People’s lives can never be compared, he told himself abruptly, coming quickly back to the safety of the present.

It was now mid-afternoon and Jack, whose conversation had surpassed all of William’s expectations, began to slow but it wasn’t for lack of strength or will. It seemed to William that Jack was thinking deeply about something, but as yet there was no clue as to what it might be.

William suggested that maybe they could load the wheel onto the trailer and stretch their legs and Jack straight away replied, “Oh yes,” tapped out his pipe and headed for the door.

He seemed to enjoy the short ride in the car down to the workshop, where together they guided the big wheel through the double doors and onto the trailer.

Jack slid a large piece of lumber under each side of the wheel to stop it rocking. Then he gave William a short discourse on what to do with the wheel when he got it back to the farm.

“The wheel is big and heavy and it’s round. Make its weight and its roundness work for you when you’re moving it. Don’t ever put yourself in a position where you’re fighting it because it will always beat you. Even if you don’t get hurt, you’ll surely end up feeling silly,” he warned.

Then Jack pulled himself up to his full height to stretch and relax his muscles after the lifting.

Returning to the cabin, William carried in the box that Olive had sent to Jack, and after the excitement of unpacking Olive’s provisions they made more tea, but this time they sipped it as they nibbled on her rich moist fruit cake.

In a little while, Jack started to talk again.

“William,” he began. “I have a personal matter I wish to talk about and my observations of you suggest to me that I may discuss it freely with you and that you will be able to offer me some advice.”

William thanked Jack for his kind words and said that while he would do all he could to help, he was unsure about his qualifications to do so.

“So be it,” replied Jack. “Hear me out in any case. Even if you can’t help me, my being able to tell someone like yourself may help me set some things right.

“I think you already know, William, I never married nor spent any time in any man and woman living together situation.”

He paused and drew three fingers-full of tobacco from his tin and began to roll it around in the palm of his hand to make it ready for his pipe.

“I met a girl when I was a lad working on the new Great Ocean Road. I was sixteen and the road had only just reached Eastern View. The crew were about to push into real difficult cliff faces that would eventually get the road through to the big holiday resort town of Lorne.

“It was our monthly holiday weekend and we’d swim and play cricket on the Lorne foreshore with the local lads and in the evening we’d go to the hotel for drinks and a bit of supper and maybe a sing-a-long.

“It was there at the Grand Hotel that I first saw Kate and she saw me. She was fifteen then and the daughter of the publican, Darcy O’Malley and his wife Rose.

“We had eyes for one another the moment we met but her father noticed straight away and made sure that when us fellas came to town, Kate was kept busy with chores somewhere where she and me couldn’t see each other. But sometimes, when the pub was very busy and Darcy was a bit tipsy, Kate’s head would appear around a side door and she’d see me and wave and laugh before disappearing back to where she’d sneaked away from.

“Kate’s mother Rose was more understanding and after a year or so and when she’d got to see that I wasn’t a bad lad, she would send Kate on errands so that she could get away from the hotel for a while and we’d get to walk into town together–and in no great hurry either.

“Those times together were precious to me and I believe to her, for it was only at the end of each month when I could get there, and even then we never could be sure of getting to be alone together.

“After a year or so, the new road got close enough to the town so that we could link up with a rough timber cutter’s track coming out from Lorne. At this time I got the job of driving the wagon to Lorne every Thursday, to collect the mail and bits and pieces of stores and produce that the camp may have run short of ahead of the regular shipment delivered by the boat, which called every month.

“Kate would always look out for me and sometimes she would bring me something special from the hotel kitchen. Sometimes she would laugh and tell me that I was too big for a normal wife to have to feed and look after and I’d need to marry a girl who had experience in cooking big quantities of food. A girl who had maybe worked in the kitchen of a hotel for instance. I would laugh and ask where she thought a bloke would find such a girl, then she’d yell and box my ears.

“I was very confident about my future but, for some reason, I had this feeling down deep that her father did not like me and, no matter what, would make our courtship as difficult as possible. These feelings fell away whenever I was with Kate. Being with the one you love drives away a man’s worst fears, I’ve noticed.”

Jack stopped talking for a while and refilled his pipe. When he started again, there was a slight wobble in his voice and he stopped and coughed a bit, then started again.

“It was a month or so after Kate’s seventeenth birthday. I went to Lorne to pick up extra oats and chaff for the horses and other bits and pieces. Winter had set in and the animals needed a bit more tucker each morning and night to keep them warm and working along those windy cliff faces.

“The town was quiet as I drove to the feed store. No one came out like they usually did when I pulled up. It was cold and windy and I went inside. The people working there, most of whom I knew, looked at me sort of funny if they looked at me at all. Some pretended not to see me. When I went to the counter with my list of stores, no one came to serve me. Usually they’d all say hello or yell out to ask how much road we’d dug this week.

“After a few minutes, the wife of the store owner came out to me. Old Mrs Johansson–or Florence as we were allowed to call her–was a stern woman but she was always kind to me. She somehow discovered that I had lost my mother not long before and, since then, I’d felt she took more interest in me. She never said very much but I knew she knew about me and Kate and I always felt that, behind her stern face, she liked us being together and looked out for us.

“Florence did something she had never done before. She came around from behind the counter and stood in front of me and looked directly into my face. Then she reached out and took hold of my hand and in a slow firm voice said, ‘Jack, there is something I have to tell you’.”

Jack stopped talking and gave another little cough. He stayed silent for a minute at least, then continued.

“I felt confused. This sort of thing had never happened when I’d come to the store before.

“Florence was dead quiet for a moment, then she said, ‘Jack, the O’Malleys have gone. They left in the middle of the night three days ago and nobody knows where they went. People are saying that Darcy O’Malley had got heavily into debt gambling and, in desperation, took the family and shot through. Kate’s gone, Jack. I’m so sorry.”

No sound could be heard in the cabin nor from the world outside. Jack was sitting upright, a hand on each knee, and staring into the fire. He seemed not to breathe.

“It was mid-winter, as I said, and work on the road was slow due to the weather, and sometimes stopped for weeks at a time. There would be occasional slips of shale and rock to clear as cliff faces we had created, newly exposed to the weather, came down following a week or more of heavy rains and wind.

“I got time off and went to Colac first, a day’s ride to the north. Then I went west to Camperdown then up and back to Ballarat, and then down to Geelong. I was away for about three weeks, which was what the boss said was all the time away he could give me. I checked every hostelry, farrier, wagon repair shop and I asked in police stations and poorhouses, visited priests and enquired at every general store I passed. Nothing!

“A year later I placed an advertisement in the personal notices in the Weekly Times: Kate O’Malley–Happy birthday wherever you are. Jack Jones c/o Post Office, Lorne. I ran this advertisement on her birthday every year for at least ten years, but nothing came of it.

“Ten years passed, then early in 1931 my brother Alfred wrote to me and said I should come up to Colac for the mighty machinery sales that were to be held. These special sales had been organised to help farmers through the Depression. Alfred thought it would be an opportunity to get together and for me to maybe get a few pieces of equipment for my repair shop.

“The Great Ocean Road was completed and now ran right through to Port Campbell, but I still got paid on contract to quarry stone and gravel and maintain a big section of the road. I was doing well and had saved quite a bit of money. But I had just suffered a setback. A mismeasured fuse had set off a blast before I’d fully turned away and I’d caught a load of fine grit in the eyes. It was painful in the beginning, but became just an irritation and sometimes reduced my vision.

“A visit to a doctor in Colac was already planned for the same time as the sales. I wrote back to Alfred and said I’d see him on the first day of the sale, late in the afternoon; and, if I couldn’t find him straight away, I would leave a message with the womenfolk at the Country Women’s Association tent.

“Well, I got to the sale as planned. The weather wasn’t the best. A dry north wind is never good for travelling. Horses don’t like it. As well, I got a bit of dust in my eyes along the way which made them worse than usual.

“I came around to the northern gate of the showgrounds and furthest from the busier town side, figuring my two horses would find it quieter there and have the sun and wind behind them, once they were properly tethered.”

Jack stopped for a moment and leant forward to get a lighted stick to relight his pipe. William watched in silence.

“As I went through the gate, I noticed a table under a canvas lean-to and womenfolk sitting like they were running a stall. Not seeing too well and not wanting to wipe my eyes in front of them, I walked up and asked in a friendly voice if this was the CWA booth, to which one replied that it was not but that she could point it out to me. She came around to my side of the table and standing beside me, pointed across the dusty paddock ‘See the big flagpole and the big tent? Head for that and when you get to it you’ll be right up close to the CWA.’

“I thanked her and without looking back, headed off in the direction her arm had pointed, squinting to see if I could find the flagpole and the big tent.

“I hadn’t gone more than about thirty paces when I heard a sound coming up behind me – someone running. As I turned to see what it was, a woman who I figured was from the group I had just spoken to ran past me with both hands to her face and sobbing loudly. I tried to look back to where she had come from but could not see any sort of trouble. Just the shapes of all the women standing looking towards me, or rather, at her as she disappeared. I didn’t understand any of it so I went on and left my message for Alfred with the CWA women, who kept messages in a big book.

“It was early evening by the time my brother and I caught up with one another. We hadn’t seen each other for almost two years and what with this huge sale and everything, there was a lot to talk about.

“Just when we’d got our animals together and sorted and fed, and as we finished our meal before laying out our bed rolls, Alfred said, ‘Oh Jack. Remember that sweetheart of yours from Lorne? Well, I saw her today. I’m pretty sure it was her. I didn’t try to speak to her. Only met her the once when we all came down to visit you after Mum died. Kate wasn’t it? Pretty girl wasn’t she? Still is. Look out for her tomorrow, Jack. I bet you’d both enjoy meeting up again.’”

The top of Jack’s body swayed from side to side and he lifted first one long leg up off the floor then swapped to the other leg, all the while looking into the fire with both hands firmly clasping each knee. The movements were not those a person would make normally. William saw that it was anguish and pain like the pain and fear of a beast imprisoned in his cattle crush before marking and tagging.

After a while Jack became still again, then continued.

“I knew then who the crying woman was. I knew she didn’t know that I couldn’t see. Did she think I didn’t recognise her or, worse, didn’t want to know her? Why wouldn’t she say some-thing to me. If she cared enough to cry when she saw me, couldn’t she have made sure that I knew who she was?”

Jack called out these last words like a man calling for help, just as William had called out in the darkness each night for almost a year after Eleanor’s death.

“And I never ever heard of her again,” said Jack softly.

Neither man spoke or moved. The cabin was darker now and William suddenly felt cold. Then Jack turned from gazing into the fire and looked at William and said in a clear and steady voice.

“William? I so want to see or hear from her before I die. Even if she has passed away–God forbid–I want to know where she was put to rest.

“Tell me if you can William, what should I do now?”


Taken from Australian Short Stories by Richard Lee. Available from Amazon.