The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Autumn 2008 Results

Morris Dancing, Wheat Seeds and Trouser Cuffs

Copyright © Bob Sugden 2008

Ralph Tertium Quid Corrosion died quietly and quickly.

Ralph decided to take lunch in the buffet car of the Gumbalgong Thunderbolt, which was bulleting back to Sydney town at the rail melting speed of twenty-two miles per hour.

Mr. Corrosion selected, from the extensive New South Wales Government Railways Refreshment Rooms and Buffet Cars menu his favourite meal, a meat pie floating in a sea of pea soup with a Teague’s bun on the side. Haute cuisine and a specialty of the N.S.W.G.R.R.R. & B.C.

Through the window of the buffet car, Ralph saw the two hundred and forty seven mile ‘Griffiths Brother’s Teas’ sign lashed to a barbed wire fence. At this point Ralph began his death.

There was no noise, no agony screams or death rattles, no gurgling, thrashing or waving of arms just a beautifully executed head plunge into the bowl of pea soup with pie floater and side bun.

Death was rapid and completed at twelve thirty eight post meridian, just before the two hundred and forty six mile sign.

Ralph Tertium Quid Corrosion (sometimes known as Twinkletoes) was dead.

His soul left its soul case, got off the Gumbalgong Thunderbolt, and hitched a ride to the great dance hall in the sky.

Mrs. Rose Corrosion was a widow.

The coroner said that Mr. Corrosion didn’t drown in his delicious pea soup or choke on his ‘What You Eat To-day Walks and Talks Tomorrow’ Teague’s bun – his body just stopped working correctly when his heart refused to continue doing whatever hearts are supposed to do.

Windsor, the Commissioner for Railways, passed onto Ralph’s widow his condolences, an autographed copy of the N.S.W.G.R. Regulations and Bylaws, a recording of ‘Beyond the Blue Horizon’ with vocal refrain by Windsor, a portmanteau, a bowl of pea soup with a pie floater and bun and an official letter.

The letter explained that, as the bowl was the property of the N.S.W.G.R. it must be returned to any Railway Refreshment Room or train Buffet Car within forty-eight hours. If the bowl was not returned widow Corrosion would be charged with the theft of one R.R.R. bowl, which could incur a minimum penalty of two years hard labour on Devil’s Island or six weeks periodic detention in Canberra.

But enough of death, Railway By-laws and Regulations and things that are ‘Beyond the Blue Horizon’ – what about Ralph ‘Twinkletoes’ Corrosion – why was he on the Gumbalgong Thunderbolt?

Gumbalgong in 1947 had lots and lots of wheat but not a lot of cultural activities, and what cultural activities there were, mostly occurred in the local watering hole on Saturday nights.

Activities such as drinking fall down amounts of brown ale and getting up off the bar-room floor were paramount. On the walls of the hotel were hundreds of trophies recording the annual winners of the previously mentioned cultural activities.

The good ladies of the Gumbalgong School of Arts and The Gumbalgong Centre for Culture got together to see if the tone and variety of the cultural activities of the town could be raised just a little.

Enter Ralph ‘Twinkletoes’ Tertium Quid Corrosion.

Twinkletoes was a well known Morris dancer and teacher of the stick banging terpsichorean art, and had been since 1923, the Grand Master of ‘The Royal Antediluvian Order of Morris Dancers,’ the body controlling Morris dancing in Australia.

The popularity of Morris dancing peaked in 1927 with over one hundred thousand certified dancers; this number had fallen to about eighty thousand by 1947. Sixty years later in 2007 the number of licensed dancers in the land down under had fallen to about four – give or take a few.

Anyhow, back to that corrosive dancing fool, Mr. Corrosion.

The good ladies of Gumbalgong decided that Mr. Corrosion should be invited to come to Gumbalgong to teach the locals a few steps.

Chook raffles and lamington selling raised a tidy sum of money and Mr. Corrosion was enticed. He packed his bags for a three months stay in Gumbalgong.

See Gumbalgong and die. On the other hand, if you happen to die before you see Gumbalgong, don’t worry too much as the result is the same.

In Sydney town, the Gumbalgong Thunderbolt was loaded with coal, water and fire, its water was boiled until the steam pressure rose to one hundred and sixty pounds per square inch.

The engineer, Bertram Soot, stood nervously by the throttle polishing a brass thing with an oily rag.

The fireman chosen for this trip was the renowned Ernest Firedrake, possibly the most fierce coal shoveller ever to grace the footplate of a New South Wales Government Railway steam locomotive.

Ernie was also renowned for his cooking skills – he could whip up fried eggs, sausages and grilled tomatoes on his shiny shovel in the boiler firebox in less time than it takes to say ‘your boiler’s about to burst.’

Moreover, it was said that for morning tea, he was able to whip up in no time flat, a couple of chocolate éclairs from a lump of coal and an oily rag.

But enough of Bert and Ernie and back to Mr. Corrosion.

After a yawning fifty two minute Lord Mayoral farewelling speech, which seemed to last for a week, Mr Ralph ‘Twinkletoes’ Tertium Quid Corrosion boarded the Gumbalgong Thunderbolt to thunderous applause from the gathered unwashed and to the off key strains of ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window,’ rendered by the brass band of the ‘Shunters and Wheel Tappers Union.’

The music for the occasion was selected by Windsor Commissioner for Railways.

The station Master blew his standard issue N.S.W.G.R. brass whistle at precisely eight twelve AM.

Bert notched up the valve gear, released the train’s brakes, opened the cylinder drain cocks, blew his nose, shut down the blower, and carefully opened the Thunderbolt’s throttle.

The Thunderbolt, smelling hot and oily, hissed, burbled, and slowly moved one piston stroke closer to Gumbalgong.

The bunny was away and the Thunderbolt rocketed towards Gumbalgong at the sheep frightening speed of nineteen miles per hour.

At Sally’s Flat old Ma Murphy cursed the Thunderbolt for the little black spots of soot it threw over her lily-white washing.

“Yer know Ernie, a three cylinder locomotive in full song is music ta the ears – its bewdiful an’ I gits a tear in me eye when I hears it,” said Bertram Soot, N.S.W.G.R’s. finest locomotive driver.

“Maybe yer got some cinders in yer eye, Bert,” suggested Ernie, fireman, romantic and well-known tea drinker.

Ernie loaded the firebox with coal and put the kettle on. Time for a cuppa and an éclair.

Covered in soot and feeling as if he’d been pulled through a length of two inch water pipe, and with an improved understanding of long distance rail travel, Ralph Tertium Quid Corrosion fell off the Thunderbolt at the Gumbalgong railway station at ten fifty three PM on the fourth of November 1947 and went to sleep on a barbed wire fence.

The good ladies of Gumbalgong all agreed that the Morris dancing should be danced in the School of Arts and Mechanic’s Library Hall, and so before Mr. Corrosion arrived, the walls were painted and the floors cleaned and polished.

The sheep, death adders and drunks were moved, the week before, to the cake shop.

A lovely picture of the King, wearing his summer crown, was steam cleaned to remove fly spots and hung high on the back wall above the stage of the hall.

Curly crinkled paper streamers were made and looped from the Wunderlich pressed metal ceiling to the walls. Colourful flypapers and balloons were strategically dangled, and a large banner with ‘Welcome Mr. Corrosion’ writ large was draped from wall to wall.

Let the dancing begin.

* * *

It’s a long time ago now, and for about ten years after Ralph left Gumbalgong on that fateful day in 1948, the ‘Gumbalgong Stomping and Stick Banging Society’ won ten Australian and seven world titles, presumably for dancing the Morris.

Sadly, the pub went broke.

As did the cake shop, and its owner Miss T. Cayke is still wondering why her shop was chosen to store the drunks, death adders and sheep, and she still checks between the sheets for death adders and sheep before bedding down for the night.

However, not all is black and horrid for some clouds have a silver lining and Miss T. Cayke made quite a few quid selling sheep dip and snakebite kits.

* * *

It is the year 2028 and down in the woodshed Ralph’s widow Rose, very mindful that woodsheds often contain nasty things, is poking around in an old cupboard.

When Ralph danced out of life he had no life insurance or superannuation and to augment her meagre pension Rose sold the silver ware, a recording of Money Makes the World go Around, the window glass, Rodney the cat, her hearing aid and the back door.

In the dingy dusty cupboard, she discovers Ralph’s old portmanteau.

The very portmanteau that Twinkletoes took to Gumbalgong in 1947.

Now let’s nip back a few years to 2022.

During this year a test tube of silly misguided scientists announced to the farmers of the world that they should take great care if they planned to sow the new wonderful and exciting genetically modified wheat.

The modifiers of this wheat suggest that a window box planting could produce enough grain to feed ten thousand people for about a year.

However, warned the scientists, as this wheat was developed by crossing wheat seeds with herrings, there is a very good chance that cream buns, lamingtons, chocolate éclairs and cream horns could have a decidedly fishy flavour.

Furthermore, continued the scientific blokes, the seeds produced by this wheat may be sterile and not grow if planted.

This wonderful and exciting wheat, made especially for farmers, means that there is no need to store silly old seed wheat with attendant shed clutter.

The farmers could lease the newfound space and make a small fortune.

The seed companies said that this was done to benefit farmers and the money made from the shed leasing would more than cover the extra cost of having to buy seed wheat each year.

Anyone who says that this sounds like a bucket of horse rissoles is obviously a commo or a rotter or both.

In 2027, peak wheat occurred and the world had run out of growable wheat.

Searches were under way to try to find some wheat seeds that could be grown to make bread, cream-buns, noodles, apple turnovers and cream horns that didn’t taste like herrings.

If farmers can’t find suitable wheat seeds, then by 2029, cream horns, sandwiches and apple turnovers will exist only in photographs or refrigerated museums.

Back in 2028 widow Corrosion opens the dust and cobweb covered portmanteau to find a pair of Ralph’s 1948 trousers – the pair that he was wearing at his send off held in the Gumbalgong School of Arts and Mechanic’s Library Hall.

Now trousers in 1948 had big cuffs, in which were often accidentally stored small reptiles, odd coins, grass seeds, bird’s eggs and paper clips.

The wheat farmers and their wives were so happy that Ralph had taught them to dance the Morris that they threw wheat over him at his send off, some of which was still in bushel bags.

Rose Corrosion went through the pockets of the trousers looking for coins but found none and then remembered the big cuffs of the trousers.

Rose was an avid watcher of the ABC’s 7.30 Report and remembered Kerry O’Brien’s story about the peak wheat problem confronting the world and the money offered for wheat seeds.

A wheat seed, shaped like Saint Jude, auctioned on EBay, two weeks before Kerry’s report, fetched two and a half million dollars – for one miserable seed.

Rose turned down the cuff of the left trouser leg and out tumbled wheat seeds – “Heavens to red soil,” astonished Rose, “there must be twenty one seeds here.”

In fact in the left cuff there were forty-nine seeds and in the right one thirty-six, and a few more pairs of trousers to go.

Through the pockets of sports coats and the cuffs and pockets of trousers went Rose finding wheat, oats and barley seeds.

All up, she had salvaged four hundred and ninety two wheat seeds – about a cup full – and seventy-nine oat seeds and a similar number of barley seeds from Ralph’s dancing and going out clobber.

“I’m so sorry Ralph,” said Rose, with a tear in her eye and speaking directly to a faded sepia photograph of Mr. Corrosion in his dancing suit, “that I said that you were a tight arsed useless bastard for pegging out with no insurance or superannuation.”

Rose fired up her old wood burning computer and found that some more wheat seeds had been sold on EBay, they were found in a hollow tooth of a long dead and carefully bandaged Egyptian, named Ron, and they’d brought over three million dollars each.

With great skill and perspicacity, Mrs. Ralph (Rose) ‘Twinkletoes’ Tertium Quid Corrosion negotiated a one billion-dollar deal with an international coalition of cream bun, noodle, bread, sandwich, and cream horn makers for the sale of the seeds.

Rose Corrosion was filled to the brim with bubbling happiness and joy. She decided that the first thing she’d do, when she got this large heap of money would be to buy some silver ware, a recording of Money Makes the World go Around, some window glass, a cat named Rodney, a hearing aid, and a back door.

Rose, in a state of unbridled euphoria, grabbed a small novelty wheat bag and into it poured the wheat, oats and barley seeds. The very bag presented to Ralph the day he left Gumbalgong in 1948.

“Rose, Rose,” shouted Ralph from his heavenly perch, “check the bag Rose, check the novelty wheat bag.”

But heaven’s far away, and without her hearing aid, Rose didn’t hear Ralph.

Rose packed the little novelty wheat bag in a crush proof Australia Post wheat transporting box and danced the box to the Post Office and posted it to the cream horn coalition.

One week later Rose Corrosion received a letter in the mail.

In the envelope was a cheque for ten dollars and a note from Mr. John Dough, the president of the cream horn coalition, thanking Mrs. Corrosion for the two fat mice in the novelty wheat bag.

Mr. Dough said he would forever treasure the bag, the mice and the droppings.

As Rose read the note rain started to fall, and thunder that sounded like sobbing began – it was funny sort of rain – the drops were shaped like tears and tasted a little salty.