Work in Progress - Excerpt From A New Short Story

October 31, 2016

A wattle Seed, a stingless bee, a crow’s feather, a cicada shell

By Dallas John Baker

For once, winter came on time that year, right on the first of June. The sun rose just as high as it had the day before, but it had a touch less heat to it, and the sky was a clearer, colder blue. When the magpies sang in the dawn that morning, their song had a chilly sound. As did the whistle of the morning freight train from out west, which had carried farther over town than normal. Josh couldn’t count how many times over the eleven years of his life he’d heard the neighbour ladies say Winter’s early this year, it’s gonna be a bad one, or Winter’s late, we won’t get the cold we need for the peach trees to fruit. Today they said, It’s getting cold already, and I don’t know anybody who’s had time to air out their blankets. It seemed no matter whether winter came early or late or right on time, the neighbour ladies found some reason to complain about it.

Every Friday afternoon these ladies, including Josh’s grandmother, congregated under an old mulberry tree that stood where the corners of their four yards met. There the four women chatted while they waited for their husbands to come home from work with Friday night dinner, fish and chips or barbeque chicken from The PF Chicken Bar. No more than a few years in age from each other, all of them were salt and pepper haired. Except for Josh’s grandmother, whose waist-length hair was a cold white. The other ladies said her hair turned white when she found Josh’s father dead in the old timber shed, felled by a bite from a brown snake as long as he was tall, and he was six foot. But they never said that to her face. The shed wasn’t there anymore, Josh’s gran had hired some men to pull it down, but the outline of it was still visible even though the grass had grown over where it once stood. The shape of it in the lawn was like the shadow of a grave. Josh’s gran never walked over it. He made a point of not walking over it either.

Sometimes Josh listened to them talk while hidden behind the old ute that’d sat in the backyard for decades. Wheelless and windowless, the ute was a brown, rusty wreck. Josh’s grandfather refused to have it towed away. It was his first car, once a shiny new FJ Holden, and he said he would fix it up someday. A silver-leafed wattle tree had grown up through the collapsed tray bed. When the wattle flowered, which it did in mid-winter, it covered the old wreck in a sheen of fine pollen the colour of gold dust. A few years back a heavy frost came right after the wattle flowered – making the old ute look like a golden relic on a field of tiny, tiny pearls. Josh was eight then. That was the year his mother had left him there to go live with the barman from the Newtown Hotel. Bernard, the neighbour ladies said the barman’s name was, but mostly they just called him That Man.

Since then Josh had hidden in many places to listen to those fence line conversations. Deep in the shadowy leaves of the choco vine that grew along the back fence. In the chicken coop that, though empty for as long as he could remember, still smelled of feathers and grain and droppings. Under the water tank amongst the fronds of a fern that grew giant-sized from the damp that always lingered there. But the rusted-out ute was the best vantage point to eavesdrop on the ladies’ often whispered talk, which focused on the various sins of their neighbours just as much as on the weather.

From his position beside the ute’s empty wheel well, where he crouched like a thin-limbed, blonde-haired cave hermit, Josh had learned many things. The guy who owned the corner store had been caught wearing his wife’s clothes. His wife mightn’t have cared so much, one of the ladies joked, if he hadn’t stretched out her best high heels. The preschool teacher was having an affair with the butcher. Not a surprise, one of the ladies said, he does a very good sausage, but they ain’t cheap. Mr. Taylor down the street hadn’t spoken for two whole months after having to shoot George Ferguson Bowen, his old crippled dog. A tragedy all round, they said, but still, at least poor old George wasn’t suffering anymore. Dally McPhee, who lived two streets over, was still playing with dolls despite having already turned thirteen. It’s just because Dally likes combing the doll’s hair, Josh’s grandmother said in Dally’s defence, might want to be a hairdresser. This didn’t sit well with the others. That’s all well and good, one of them sniped, but thirteen is just too old to play with dolls, especially for a boy.

The thing Josh had been most excited to learn was this: Abigail Hill, a cock-eyed woman who lived in a falling down house next door to the racetrack, was a bona fide witch. Abigail Hill, the ladies said, cured people of all kinds of things and, for a price, could make wishes come true. It was common knowledge the mayor paid Abigail to make it so that the embezzlement charges against him couldn’t be proved in court. A fifty year old divorcee, whom the ladies described as twice as homely as she was hoity-toity, had hired Abigail to make a young man she fancied fall madly in love with her. There’s no way that kid could ever have fallen in love with that woman naturally, one of the ladies said, as handsome as he was and thirty years her junior. And the whole town still whispered about how Abigail put a curse on the policeman who’d called her ‘spastic’. His lips had grown so bloated, bruised and infected that he could barely mutter a word, let alone another offensive one.

Josh’s heart had quickened as soon as he’d heard that word: witch. He hadn’t known it until he heard the neighbour ladies talking about Abigail Hill, but he had need of a witch. A desperate need. There was something he wanted badly, something he wanted so much his gut ached when he thought about it. Something he was certain only a witch could give him.

Every Friday since he’d first learned that there was more to Abigail than her lopsided eyes let on, he made sure he took his place by the rusty wheel well of the old ute. He waited, barely breathing, until his grandmother came out and joined her three friends beneath the mulberry tree. He’d sat there so often and for so long that his hair and skin had been infused with the smell of old oil and wattle, so that even after a bath he could still smell it on himself. But the ladies had not mentioned Abigail Hill again, nor anything else supernatural, not until that first day of winter, that cold clear day that snuck up on them and had every clothesline in the neighbourhood weighed down with blankets hung out for a last minute airing.


Mad Squirrel Waxes Lyrical

November 20, 2014
I was recently invited to participate in a talk-back radio discussion on the topic “Are writers born or made”. The invitation came after an article I co-wrote about the benefits of creative writing programs was published in The Conversation. The discussion was on ABC radio. The announcer was Sonya Feldhoff. It went okay, except I was talking very quickly and saying lots of not-quite-on-topic things and sounded like a mad squirrel hopped up on backyard methamphetamines. Shouldn't have had ...
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Cities of Dust

July 25, 2013

It was 1985. I was a 17 year old boy with a shock of died auburn hair and heavy, smudged eyeliner when I first heard this song.

I was living back home in Toowoomba, famous then only as the Garden City with its Carnival of Flowers, infamous now for its carnival of unsolved murders. It was about an hour after dawn on an autumn day. I was alone, walking slowly down a silent country road.


The road was a damp black line that curved gently here and there to pass at a distance between the larger...

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The Genteel Art Of Birding

January 12, 2013

The Ivory Billed Woodpecker

When I think about bird-watching I think first about Jane Hathaway, the gangly, tweed suited secretary to Mr Drysdale on The Beverly Hillbillies.  I picture spinsterish women with bottle thick glasses and bumbling English vicars whose dialogue includes phrases like ‘Jolly good what!’ I picture hats with furry earflaps.

When I think about bird-watching, or birding as it is more often called these days, I think of eccentric old fellows who wax lyrical about speci...

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Book/Journal Reviews

December 12, 2012
Hello my friendly (blog) rollers, Just a bit of an update. My book America Divine: Travels in the Hidden South is featured in Books from our Backyard, the Queensland Writers Centre's overview of books written by queensland authors in 2011. On another front, I've recently been getting into writing book reviews. Book reviews are not easy things to write and so I'm not great at it yet. Recently, two of my reviews appeared on Angela Meyer's Literaryminded blog. Angela is THE rising star of Austra...
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Blast from the Eighties Past

October 16, 2012

Here are some pics (not great quality) of me in the Eighties. A picture says a thousand words as they say and these speak quite articulately about the gender-bending generation. In the one above, I am second from the left, I've been caught mid wink/sneer/stoopid eighties pose. I think I'm fifteen years old in this. Cheers, ciao, enjoy.

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A Rose By Any Other Name

April 15, 2012

So, after getting asked again about my name I thought I might write a post about it. It might come as a surprise gentle reader but people often ask me if 'Dallas Angguish' is my real name. It's a bit tiring answering that question over and over again but I suppose my name is unusual enough to warrant the curiosity. The answer I normally give is a variation of this:

The full name on my birth certificate is Dallas John Angguish Baker. In the early eighties, when I was a deeply anxious and sad ...

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Is it possible to become a writer, or is writing ability an inborn talent?

March 25, 2012

I was on a panel at the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival recently and made one of those rather glib and throw-away statements that are becoming a rather predictable part of my repertoire when in public. It’s not that I want to be glib; it’s just that being in public spaces provokes acute anxiety and nervous exhilaration in equal measure so that I’m not really myself. It’s a bit like being a Catholic priest at a Gay Pride parade.

So, what I said was that I didn’t believe in ...

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February 4, 2012

A Couple of photos of the Bellinger valley. The church is in an area called Glennifer and is described in Peter Carey's novel "Oscar And Lucinda".
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Writing in Pixels

January 17, 2012

Ask any writer how they do what they do and you'll get a diverse range of answers. Most writers however will agree that their writing practice is fed by these three things:
  1. Reading
  2. Introspection (which sometimes requires solitude); and
  3. Social interactions (which often requires alcohol).

Some writers, especially those for whom writing is as much an act of reflection as an act of communication, say that music and visual art both play a part in inspiring, sustaining and reinvigorating th...

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About Me

I am a writer, editor and academic based in Australia. I have been published in a number of journals including TEXT Journal, Lodestar Quarterly, Retort Magazine, Bukker Tillibul and Polari Journal (of which I am the editor). My work has also appeared in the anthologies Bend, Don’t Shatter (2004), Dumped (2000 and US edition 2002) and Sensual Travels (2013). A collection of my short works, Anywhere But Here, was published in 2006 and received very positive reviews. My collection America Divine: Travels in the Hidden South was published by Phosphor Books. I have a PhD in Writing from Griffith University.