A galah fluttered to the ground outside Maggie Skillion’s hut, a tiny and ramshackle building by even the standards of the area. The parrot, with its pink and grey plumage, began to peck at the tufts of grass that sprouted from the compacted earth. Maggie’s toddlers Ellen, four, and Jim, one, watched the bird through the window. The bird was a flash of colour in the otherwise jaundiced landscape. Suddenly a voice boomed from the other end of the hut.
“Whadda ye staring at?”
It was uncle Jimmy Quinn, who Maggie had asked to babysit while she rode into town to pick up some items from the store. He stood, swayed, and lifted a bottle of cheap brandy to his lips to suck out the last dregs of booze. His high cheeks and hooked nose were rosy and his eyes refused to focus. He shuffled to the door with purpose. Looking outside he noticed the galah.
Stomping out of the front door he threw the empty bottle at the parrot and struck it. The bird was killed instantly. This was not so much of an attestation to Quinn’s freakish precision so much as a bizarre fluke. Quinn chuckled to himself and staggered to his kill. He raised the bird and waggled the corpse at his great niece and nephew who were distraught.
An hour later Maggie came up the road to her selection with a bundle on the front of her saddle and bulging saddlebags. As she dismounted from the horse her children came rushing towards her and clung to her like limpets. She gave Ellen the bundle to carry inside and took the bags in herself, Jim toddling behind. On the kitchen table was the dead galah with its feet curled up, its feathers a mess. Maggie swept her gaze around the hut and found it empty.
“Where’s uncle?” Maggie asked the children. They guided their mother outside where they soon found Jimmy passed out behind the woodpile with an empty bottle in his hand and two more beside him. There was a large urine stain on his trousers and what appeared to be dry vomit clumped in his beard. Maggie moved close and saw he was still breathing. She knew better than to try and rouse Jimmy Quinn from a drunken stupor. Women were an easy target for his flying fists. Instead she left him there and thought to herself, he can drop dead for all I care.
Grabbing a shovel from the tool shed at the rear of the hut, Maggie dug a shallow grave and allowed the children to lower the galah into it. The bird had been given a rudimentary winding sheet in the form of a muslin rag. Ellen wiped tears from her eyes as she gazed at the ground. Jim could not comprehend what was happening.
Maggie filled the grave in and turned to the children, “Do you want to say anything?”
The only response came from Ellen who simply said, “No,” with a pout as she tugged at her dress.
To lift the spirits of her offspring Maggie opened the treacle she had just purchased and allowed the children to snack on bread dipped in the sticky, sweet goop.
A few hours passed and the only activity outside had been the odd snore from Jimmy Quinn that filtered through the walls of the hut. It was dusk when Maggie heard hooves pummeling up the hill to her home. She opened the door and saw Tom Lloyd approaching. Mounted on a bay gelding, Tom sat proudly in the saddle with his hat tilted forward, the chinstrap under his nose in the larrikin fashion. His outfit was busy with chequered trousers, a brown sack coat and a long red sash wrapped around his waist. Maggie strode out to meet him.
“Hello, Cuz,” said Tom, coming to a halt. His blue eyes sparkled as he gave Maggie a wink.
“Hello, Tom, what brings you here?”
“I was just having a little jaunt around the place and thought I’d swing past and visit my favourite cousin. Besides, Ma would skin me if I didn’t check in on you.”
“Would you like to come inside?” Maggie offered. Tom smiled.
After putting his horse in Maggie’s paddock, Tom saw Jimmy, now lying face down in the dirt. He went over to him. The smell of urine and alcohol was potent. He touched the drunkard on the shoulder.
“Hey, Uncle,” Tom said gently. Jimmy sat up and slammed against the wall, hitting his head hard. He slurred incoherently and swung his fist at the boy. He missed by a wide margin. Tom rolled his eyes and muttered to himself before going inside. He sat at Maggie’s dining table where Ellen and Jim were eating stew.
“Smells good, Mag’,” Tom chimed.
“I’ll dish some up for you,” replied Maggie, spooning stew onto a plate with a side of soda bread. She placed the meal in front of Tom with a smile.
“You’re a gem. You know how much I love your cooking,” said Tom. He sat patiently as Maggie dished out a meal for herself and sat opposite.
“Well, tuck in,” said Maggie.
“I was waiting for you,” Tom said.
As the group sat eating, a commotion could be heard outside. The sound of things being knocked over was soon followed by uncle Jimmy attempting to open the front door the wrong way.
“Wherzmah dinnerr?” Jimmy slurred, finally working out that the door opened inwards. He had caught a whiff of the cooking as it wafted through the window and had decided he needed something more filling than booze in his stomach.
Finally pushing the door open, Jimmy staggered in covered in dirt and bodily fluids. He reeked as he made his way to where the family were eating. He looked at Tom and grabbed his shoulder, jerking him around. Tom looked up at his uncle, startled.
“Ye owe me mun-ny, ye grub,” Jimmy said jabbing his finger into Tom’s collarbone. His vision was blurred and he did not recognise his nephew, mistaking him for one of the deadbeats he usually hung around with in town.
“That’s enough, uncle!” Maggie snapped. The words went unheeded. Jimmy grabbed Tom and dragged him out of his seat. Tom was no slouch, though. He immediately swung his foot out, sweeping Jimmy’s legs out from under him. The drunkard landed hard on the dirt floor. When he got up his nose was bleeding freely, the crimson rivulets clogging up his moustache. Tom grabbed the man by the collar and dragged him outside.
“Go home, you stupid bastard. Leave Maggie and her kids alone until you can learn to stay away from the grog,” Tom barked once he was out of earshot of the hut’s residents.
“Shee neez me,” Jimmy slurred with great concentration. He stumbled from a standing position, pushed off balance by nothing discernible.
“You’re no good to anyone. Bugger off and leave us be,” Tom said, gesturing in the approximate direction of Jimmy’s own home.
Jimmy balled his hand into a fist but quickly changed his mind when he saw Tom bracing himself for combat. There was something wild in Tom’s eyes that made the older man realise his folly. He turned and began to search for his way home on foot. He would make it as far as the pub before passing out again.
Tom returned to the table where Maggie was attempting to comfort the children.
“Why was uncle so angry?” Ellen asked.
“He isn’t well. Don’t worry, he’s gone now,” said Tom. He glanced at Maggie whose eyes betrayed her fear, which was barely concealed by her calm exterior. Tom looked into her eyes and gently repeated, “He’s gone now.”
Suddenly there was a flurry of motion and Jim shrieked as a large moth fluttered towards the lamp on the table. The creature’s velvet soft wings of black and gold flitted wildly as it bumped clumsily into the glass. Tom reached out and clapped his hands around the insect. He felt it flutter in his cupped hands. The children looked at him with shock and wonder, so bravely and deftly had he captured the winged invader!
Tom rose from the table again, his hands still cupped around the moth. He gestured with his head for the others to come with him. The four of them went to the door, which Maggie opened. The moon was now climbing into the night sky and half the world was bathed in its ashen glow, the other half was awash with scarlet from the disappearing sun. Tom bent down on one knee and lifted his arms. He slowly separated his hands and the moth zipped away into the dark. There was to be no more bloodshed there that night. Jim and Ellen grinned and cheered. Tom looked up at Maggie with a broad smile.
“Thank you, Tom,” said Maggie.
“Anything for you, cuz,” Tom replied.
That night once the children were in bed, Tom and Maggie sat by the fire having a nightcap. Maggie was in a rocking chair, moving back and forth gently. Tom’s gaze drifted to a hole in the roof.
“You really need a man around to help you keep this joint together, don’t you?”
Maggie stopped rocking and gave Tom a hard stare.
“I beg your pardon. Are you suggesting I can’t look after this place?”
“No,” said Tom, “I’m saying I wouldn’t let you even if you could do it on your own.”
Maggie was confused for a moment. Tom sipped his brandy and sucked the residue from his soft, full lips.
“I don’t quite catch your meaning, Tom,” said Maggie.
“I’m going to help you out around here. I’ll start with the roof. I helped dad with the shingles at our place, I’m sure it would be nothing to do the same here. It’ll keep the moths out at least.”
“You don’t need to do that,” said Maggie, her expression softening.
“I want to,” Tom replied. He moved as if he was about to say something else but hesitated. He averted his eyes.
“What is it?” Maggie asked.
“Oh, nothing,” said Tom. He could feel his heart begin to beat faster. He knew it wasn’t from the drink because it seemed to get worse whenever he looked at Maggie. “It’s late, I suppose I should go so that you can sleep.”
Maggie looked disappointed and nodded. The pair rose and walked to the door. Tom gently opened it and felt the cool night air waft in.
“Thank you for everything,” Maggie said.
“Anything for you,” said Tom.
The pair lingered at the open door. As much as Tom’s heart was racing, so was Maggie’s. There was a fluttering in her stomach the like of which she scarcely remembered. She felt like there were a hundred wings flapping wildly in her belly. She started to tremble as she looked deep into Tom’s clear blue eyes.
Tom’s chest was heaving and he gently extended his hand to hold Maggie’s. She could feel now that he too was trembling. They slowly moved closer and closer until finally they lowered their resistance and kissed. It was a slight peck at first then a more forceful embrace.
Maggie pulled away to catch her breath. “Please stay,” she whispered.
Tom wrapped his arms around Maggie tightly and held her to his body. She had never felt such a passionate embrace, not even from her husband. She knew this was wrong but she wanted it more than she had ever wanted anything. She pressed her face into Tom’s chest, inhaling his scent. Quietly, Tom closed the door behind them with his free hand. He was here to stay.
Outside the hut a golden sun moth clung to the glass of the window, its antennae waving frenetically as it yearned for the light inside. It paid no heed to the figures embracing by the lamp’s light, only the allure of the flame.