Last of the Swagmen
An Australian Story by Kay Christine Steward
“Have we met before?” I called to the old man leaning on his bicycle. He was taking a breather under an old gum tree that shaded the dusty, red road.
“Don’t think so mate. Don’t know people from around these parts,” he replied.
We passed the old man for the first time at 9.30 on a Sunday morning fifteen miles west of Morgan. He was wheeling an old, heavily laden bicycle away from the railway siding at Mount Morgan Mary, where he told us later he had spent the night. As he was traveling in the opposite direction, away from the Murray River, we did not stop. We camped on the banks of the Murray that night.
My first impression of the old man had been that this was some trick of the mirage, for the belt of the mallee scrub and bleak sand drift from which he emerged likewise seemed to have little relation to modern Australia. I assumed that the swagman had vanished long ago, like the skippers of those few remaining paddle steamers rotting along the Murray banks. Late the same afternoon, returning to Adelaide, we caught up with him again. In those seven hours he had covered a mere four miles. Not bad going, for a man so aged and frail.
I half expected him to scorn conversation with the occupants of a new camper van. Instead the floodgates opened. It was as if he were starved for contact with other humans, even if we took small part in his half-hour’s monologue. I had the feeling that everything that had long been simmering in his lonely mind was suddenly brought to the boil.
“Charlie Guest … it is you! How did you know to stop?” The swagman took his dusty hat off, slapped his thigh, wiped his hand and beckoned us to come over to him.
“We passed you for the first time at 9.30 on a Sunday morning, fifteen miles west of Morgan. You were wheeling your bicycle away from the railway siding, and I said to my wife – I’m sure and certain that is my old boss Jimmy Cappriano, from my grape picking days in the Barossa Valley in Adelaide.”
“I spent the night there, got to find shelter where I can.” He smiled his toothless grin. “Struth! How long would it be since we worked together in the vineyards?”
“Crikey, must be forty years ago now. How long have you been on the road?” I climbed down from the camper and crossed the road to where he sat. Jenny busied herself in our UBeaut campervan kitchen.
“Dunno, I left civilization and decided to do some foot sloggin’, see the country so to speak. Suppose I’ve been on the road near on …dunno!” He pulled out a dirty red bandanna and wiped his face.
He used his bicycle only for support. The pedal mechanism was beyond repair. Even had he the strength to mount it, he could not have done so for the mass of gear piled and strapped on saddle, mudguards and handlebars. In addition to bluey and camp sheet, it carried a huge camp oven, billy can, frying pan and several neat bundles wrapped in waterproof sheeting. Jenny, my wife, observed that his folded towel was scrupulously clean.
He stood aloof even from the costly mechanism of the Welfare State. He said that he lived by occasional handouts. How could anyone have refused this ancient and undemanding man of 82, tottering along the roads with his weighted bike and only a threadbare jacket in the sharp Mallee winds? No, he said he had never troubled to apply for the old age pension. It was his way of ignoring bureaucracy’s refusal to recognise the needs of anyone who would not renounce the freedom of the road for a permanent address and the expenses this entailed. His one concern was to know how far off was the next railway siding. We told him at least two miles, and it was as if a cloud had crossed the sun.
Where was he going then? Futile question. He had been traveling the Mallee and the Murray for half a century, had outlived three depressions and worked neither for bosses nor himself in all that time. Only philosophers try to pinpoint the beginning of a circle.
“In the last resort there’s only one boss a man ever works for,” he said reprovingly to the matron of our party. “And that’s a wife and kids. I pick up work where I can and they feed me, that’s all I need.”
“Cuppa’s ready, fella’s, and some fresh scones with jam and cream.”
“Won’t say no to that. Women are good for some things.” Jimmy winked at me.
Jimmy stood up slowly, placed his hands on his hips, and stretched his aged back muscles; he tottered slowly across to our camper van.
“Never seen one of these vehicles, so bloody big!” Jimmy walked around the camper and admired the interior from outside the door. “Won’t come in. Needs a bath, I does.”
Jenny had set a table outside the camper and we all sat down for a hot cuppa and a fresh baked scone.
What he indulged in was not so much talk but a form of free association. With his pallid eyes, stubble of beard and sun-blackened skin he impressed, like an ancient prophet, speaking of things we barely understood. For him present realities were issues that had faded a generation or more ago.
Jimmy Cap, as we fondly called him, was an immigrant from Italy who started a small vineyard in the Barossa Valley back in the fifties. He called his wine growing business La Dolce Vita (the good life). Italians and Germans built the Barossa from the ground up – today, we have them to thank for the amazing wines and wonderful foods that they introduced from Europe. And so, what happened to Jimmy? My mind was spinning with questions. Why was he now tramping the roads and living like a bum? I knew my questions would be pointless, too long ago for the old man to remember. He must have just taken off, had enough of civilization as he had said.
“Good tucker, missus, thanks for the company and you, young Charlie, take care of the lady. Where ya headed now?” Jimmy stood up and rubbed his belly with sheer delight at being full of food for a change.
“Well, we thought we would do a run out to the vineyards in the Barossa, maybe visit our old stamping grounds and see how La Dolce Vita is going?” I was pushing him to talk.
“No bloody good now, a big fire burnt the place down.” Jimmy became solemn. “Gotta get going. Got two miles to get under me belt before the sun sets on old Jimmy.”
We shook hands and I saw tears in his rheumy eyes. This would be the last time we would see him. He reached into his shirt and from around his scrawny old neck, undid a gold chain with a medallion depicting Saint Christopher, patron saint of travelers.
“Here, you take it. I know you will find my son, Jimmy Junior. Give it to him and tell him I’m proud of what he has done with Wyndham Estates, biggest winery in the Barrossa Valley. This old fella’ don’t need no gold where he’s goin’.” He chuckled.
We watched as the old swagman pushed his bicycle towards the setting sun.
“Funny old chap, guess he will keep pushing that old machine until he dies,” I took Jenny’s hand and we stood watching until Jimmy was just a speck in the distance.
We climbed into the cab of the UBeaut and headed for the Barossa Valley wineries.
Early the next morning we set out for Wyndham Estates winery, determined to find Jimmy Junior and give him the gold medallion from his dear old dad.
“What can I do for you folks?” Obviously this was Jimmy’s son, he was the spitting image of his father at a young age.
“We ran into your dad on the road. He was humping his bluey towards the Murray River siding for the night. He passed on his regards and said he was proud of what you have achieved with Wyndham Estates.” I smiled at the young man.
“No, can’t be Dad. Dad died in the fire back in the seventies. He’s buried out back if you want to pay your respects.” Jimmy Junior shuffled his feet and busied himself with some wine glasses and cheese set out on a platter for tourists.
I fished in my pocket and found the gold medallion that Jimmy had given me, turned it over and saw the initials J. C. – Jimmy Cappriano.
“Well son, this I do know, he wanted you to have this.” I placed it in Jimmy Junior’s hand.
“I-I don’t know what to say? Dad always wore this. We never found it after the fire.”
“God works in mysterious ways. Who are we to question gifts from the other side? All I know is your dad is looking out for you, and he wanted me to let you know that he loves you so much.”
~ ~ ~Swagman or tussocker would be the equivalent of the American hobo. Billy can: Metal container for boiling water for a ‘cuppa’ tea. Tea leaves are thrown in the billy plus a gum leaf from a gum tree (if you can find one). The brave person removes the billy from the fire and swings it around and around with one arm – the momentum stops the boiling water from spilling all over the brave person (you hope). Bluey: Camping bedroll – thus the term ‘I was humping my bluey’ or carrying my swag or bedroll (sleeping bag.) Mallee: Type of shrub growing in certain outback areas of Australia. UBeaut: You beauty or you little beauty – the best. Struth: Shortened version of God’s truth (not swearing). Scone: Very popular cake-like eating – mainly flour and water – large ones are called damper and are cooked in a camp oven and eaten like bread with treacle (like honey).