Extract fROM In the HOT SEAT


On the High Seas

We are two days out from London docks and I’m feeling my way, getting to know the ropes in this alien world. And not everything is going right.

The cattle feed is down in the ship’s hold, it feels like the bowels of the earth. I take my life into my hands with a trip on the steel-runged ladder and only the single light to show the way. It’ll be better when we start to whittle away at the reserve and flush out the dark corners; but for the moment I’m having to convince myself a few dark corners shouldn’t frighten a brave young lad of 20 on his great adventure, nor should the creaking I hear. It’s only the cargo bedding in.

Or is it?

I’m sure I’m seeing something, could it be a face in the darkness, white against the blackness, and the shape of a body caught in the light as it swings to and fro. And that’s not the ship creaking, it’s breathing. Heavy breathing. It sounds tense and agitated. Almost desperate.

“Anyone there?” I try not to let my voice sound hoarse, betray my fear. “Come out so I can see you. Show yourself.” 
There’s that sound again, breathing, a shadow moves and a sack of cattle feed hits the floor, the nuts scattering on the hard steel plate beneath my feet. Then there’s the glint of something sharp, a weapon perhaps, something to take the life of a brave young lad of 20.

“Shut ya mouth or I’ll do for ya.” He has the knife in his hand, one more step and it’s at my throat, the cold hard blade, one more move and I’ll be slit open wide. Then the words, desperate words. “Just shut ya mouth. I’m hitching a lift back home, to Oz. Ya haven’t seen me. Right.”

Or have I?

First Day in the Bush

It’s my first taste of the Outback and I’m in the hands of Black Horse. We’ve got to find the herd and the herd is out there somewhere roaming a couple of hundred-thousand acres of barren land.

“Come on, Black Horse. We’ve got a job to do. I’m relying on you.”

There’s a kangaroo a hundred paces to our left going at full pelt. Byong, byong, byong… How they go! Back at the Homestead that evening and Clever Clogs kids will tell me they have been timed at 40 mph. That means Black Horse and I are doing 50 and close to the speed of light.

The roo has had enough, he’s taken fright. And then, out of nowhere we’re joined by a flying thing the likes of which neither Black Horse nor I have seen before, amazing he hasn’t panicked, thrown me off and galloped back to the Homestead and safety. It’s about the size of a Lancaster bomber – and making the same sort of noise – it comes in at an angle, flies parallel, takes a good look, and then buzzes off. Clever Clogs will tell me I have been acquainted with my first Queensland Sugar Wasp and after more laughter I’ll be told I should stay well clear of Queensland Sugar Wasps. “They have a nasty sting…” Laugh, laugh… “Yes, very nasty sting. Haven’t we told you?”

Now the next problem starts to hit home – it would be so easy to get lost out here. We’ve been going for the best part of an hour and still no sign of the herd. And one brown patch of dirt looks much the same as another and a pile of rocks is a pile of rocks no matter how you look at it. There is the occasional Gum, but they all look the same and the only visible sign of life is the magpies laughing at my predicament from a tree top.

Is this going to be my first and last day out in the Bush? Will we stumble on until exhaustion and thirst overtakes us? I can see the headlines: “Pommie lad and Black horse lost somewhere in the barren Outback.”

You’re a journo now!

“The Managing Editor will see you now.”

I am led in. Lamb to slaughter?

This is the one part of the office with full height partitions so that if he says “sod off” it won’t be heard by the rest. Desk, filing cabinets, drinks cabinet, bottle of Scotch. Coat stand, smart coat, pork-pie hat. Cane. These are the trappings of Managing Editors it seems.

Mr Stewart is businesslike. “Take a seat.”  I face him across an oak desk stacked with letters, papers and a pile of magazines. A tray that says IN can’t take much more. “What can I do for you?”

A dumpy little man but with a sharp eye. Strong Australian accent.

I unfold the Adelaide Advertiser and point to the advert. “I have no experience of journalism but I did well in English at school.”

“Which school?”

“Wallingford Grammar, Berkshire, England.”

I had been told Aussies don’t take much heed of English education, theirs being pretty good, but there is a definite lightening of the mood when I say Wallingford Grammar.

“And agricultural college, also Berkshire. I have a Diploma in Agricultural Management. And City and Guilds in Agricultural Machinery.”

Do I detect a half smile?

“And I’ve just brought out the Supreme Champion at the Royal Adelaide Show. The Beef Shorthorn for John Keynes. And the Reserve Champion. We swept the board.”

I have the feeling that if the pork-pie hat and cane could sing and dance they’d do a routine here… and now.
But the reply is still curt and straight to the point. “I have other applicants.  Leave your details with Miss Tuckworthy and we will be in touch.”  He waves a hand towards the door.

I am half-way there and he says “When could you start, Holdsworth?”

Souls of the Dead

Nick grips his beer, his knuckles going white. He looks terrified. The tale he’s telling is the cause.

“I still can’t believe it, Rich. I was rooted to the spot and these lights coming towards me. Flickering lights like fire-flies, incandescent, enacting some sort of wavering dance through the night. Min-Min lights, King Wally had called them, souls of the dead.”

My turn to clutch my beer. My turn to have white knuckles. I’m hoping Nick my story-teller is going to tell me it’s all a dream. “Perhaps you were mistaken, mate. A trick of the light as the sun goes down, or something else. There had to be a rational explanation.”

“Wish there was, Rich. Wish there was. I thought if I blinked hard enough they might go away.”

“And?”

“They didn’t. When I finally opened my eyes they were even closer. Much closer. I couldn’t believe it. I was rooted to the spot, sweating like hell.”

I could see it written on Nick’s face, the fear. Can still see it.

“I tell you, Rich, I was terrified and it wasn’t down to the hard stuff either. Never touched a drop. Stone cold sober. And bloody terrified.”

And this fear is getting to me too. I could have been there. Only the other night I was in the Bush, the blackness, in the staff car, the latest Holden FB, two-tone paintwork, flash wheel trims, chrome bumpers, the lot. None of that would have saved me. I could have taken the wrong turn and stumbled across these Devil-Devil lights of Nick’s. I’d done it once already, a wrong turn; it’s so easy out there in the dark, on a dusty track, no signs, nothing. Just the blackness. One more wrong turn and I could have been in amongst some of those flickering fearsome lights. And no sharp-shooting gun to defend me either.

“Cripes, mate, a gun wouldn’t have been much use. Not against an enemy you couldn’t see. Not against what was coming at me through the night.”

Nick decided the only thing to do was take the battle to the enemy. The Min-Min lights were almost upon him, dancing, silent, engulfing him. The souls of the dead Abbo warriors. “I turned the radio to full volume, Shake, Rattle and Roll, starting my own dance round the camp fire causing as much rumpus as I could, scarcely daring to look in the direction of King Wally’s Devil-Devil lights. And when I did, thank Christ they had gone, vanished, like magic.”

I’d have found this hard to believe if I hadn’t heard similar stories back in the newspaper office from Baz. These funny, frightening Abo lights. “Time for another beer, Nick. Now that it’s all over.”

But it isn’t.

“Worse to come, Rich. Worse was to come….”

Another Stirling Moss?

I move the Porsche up to the start line. My first competitive hillclimb. To my right the gaggle of officials stand around a pole with red light and beam that stretches across the track to a receiver on the other side. Smiling faces stare down at me sitting there, heart pounding, and me in my old-fashioned racing kit. And the very real possibility of making a fool of myself.

“When you’re ready.”  The light has gone green which means to say either the car that started before me has cut the beam at the other end or has flipped over and is rolling back to earth.

The art of a racing start is to get the revs up, propel yourself away at maximum speed, yet not so many revs as to spin the wheels and you sit there in a haze of smoke and ignominy. That is less likely in the Porsche with engine and weight over the back wheels; but it remains a very real possibility with the scant racing experience I have.

“When you’re ready.”  My steward seems very anxious to send me to my fate.

First gear, brakes off, revs up, clutch in with a wallop and we fly off like we’ve been hit in the back by a runaway train. Sharp up, near vertical, into second, over the brow of the rise, wheels off the ground. Down into the trough, bang as we bottom out. Up and up again and I’m on the wall of death. Porsche sticks to it like glue. Fast right, third, brake, back to second, hairpin left, hairpin right, then flash into third and I’m across the line for the flying finish.

Christ it’s over in a second. More to the point, under forty seconds. Under forty seconds? Goodness, it seemed like an eternity – on the other hand it seemed like no time at all.  “First time?” asks my steward when I’m back at ground level again. “Not bad, Old Chap. Not bad at all.”

Margaret, my girlfriend for the day, isn’t impressed. “Seemed like you were gone for ages.” But then she had been chatting to the swanky young lad with the real racing car. I don’t suppose she even watched me on the wall of death, me doing my Stirling Moss bit. All that to impress her.

The Future Mrs Holdsworth?

I am in the office lift when in steps Puss in Boots. No time to think, no time for the cracking witticism, something that will be remembered till eternity. I’ll be getting out at the next floor; ten seconds is all I have. Maybe 15 if I can fumble with the Doors Closed button for a few moments longer.

But I have to come out with something. A few arresting words. Something that will make her think, something that will strike a chord. As Tremaine said, miss the chance and you could be missing the future Mrs Holdsworth.

I’ve got it. “Going up?”

She turns and she smiles. A lovely smile. My heart is doing what it shouldn’t be doing. Thump, thump and THUMP. Her blonde hair worn up, rather than cascading down over her shoulders as I have seen before in the staff canteen. And high heels today accentuating lovely slender legs. She’s slim, trim and that smart business suit. And oh, that smile.

Yes she is going up. “Top floor.”

Top Brass, perhaps. A PA to a Top Man? I wonder.

But I can’t say that can I? Can’t say, “Top Brass.” That’s daft. But I can try the age-old weather thing. “Nice day, isn’t it?”

In fact it is not a particularly nice day. It is overcast, the 3DB forecaster forecasting showers before school’s out. I even threw a coat over my shoulder as I left the flat in the morning and hailed the Flinders Street tram.

“Yes, nice. Very nice.” And she gives me that smile again.

I am just about to add another weather witticism when the lift jolts to a halt, third floor, my floor, the door whooshes open and I’m gone, wishing I wasn’t.

I’m back behind my desk with my heart rate returned to normal while Stewart enquires about the party, the flat-warming party. “Who are you bringing?”

I play my cards close to my chest. “Maybe no-one. I don’t know many girls yet.” That is partly true; I haven’t been in Melbourne long enough to know many girls. Maybe I wouldn’t bring anyone. But I know who I’d like to bring. Puss in Boots.

RADIO INTERVIEW WITH DENIS WALTER

While in Oz, Richard was interviewed on the radio by Denis Walter. Click the forward arrow on the media player below to listen to the inteview.