Old Bob, at number 32, calls him a reffo, whatever that means. Joyce, who runs the mobile lending library, says she often sees him on the road when she’s doing her rounds. She reckons that back in England they’d call him a traveller. That’s “gypsy” to you and me. John Stevens, from the servo, thumped a couple of young punks one day when he saw them knock him over and try to steal his stuff.
His name’s Joe. My Dad knew him, knew his story, told me all about him. Dad said Joe was one of those millions of migrants who came out here after the war. He was a tough coot, a hard-worker, one of those blokes who don’t say a lot, but when they do people tend to listen. He had a young wife and a baby girl. Dad said Joe’s missus was a real blonde beauty, and the little one — just a toddler really — was always there, on Joe’s back or waddling along next to her mum as they worked away up the track clearing a piece of land no-one in their right mind would want.
The story goes that on a blistering hot February day Joe’s wife took the little one down to the riverside for a bit of a paddle, a bit of a cool down. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the mum dozed off in the shade of an old gumtree, probably thinking the kiddie was out to the count for her afternoon nap. That’s the trouble, though: she wasn’t. The little girl, I mean. While her mum dozed, she went down to the water, and — you can guess the rest. Mum wakes up, sees the little one floating face-down in the river, and screams. Dad reckons Joe was working two miles away at the time but heard it, and ran.
Poor bloke. His baby’s dead, and his wife’s gone crazy with grief, and guilt I shouldn’t wonder. How does anybody deal with that, eh?
Two weeks later, Joe’s missus goes back to the same spot by the river, fills her pockets with stones — a bit like that English writer, what’s-her-name — and walks out into the water and drowns. I guess she just couldn’t live with the pain.
So, here’s Joe, comes back every year and camps out under that gum tree for a couple of weeks. I guess it fits in with the dates when he lost them both. His sits on the riverbank, dangles his legs, and splashes water onto his face. He told Dad that their souls are there, right there, captured forever, and so he comes and tastes them, feels them. He tells them what he’s been doing, the places he’s been, the things he’s seen, and he sings them songs from the “old country”, wherever that may be.
I like Joe. I like the water. And sometimes, when I sit on that riverbank in the evening, I swear I can hear a little kiddie laughing.