The Swaggie

Our home in Welby, artist Luberta Hendrina Philipsen/Dekker/Van de Pol

A man with dirty, shabby and ill-fitting clothes, entered our consciousness, and then our sightings were more frequent. He was about forty, or perhaps older, it was difficult to tell. He was of slight stature; his skin wrinkly, and it looked as though he had not had a wash in years. The man had a swag on his back and a billycan swinging at his side. We thought perhaps he was an indigenous Australian because his skin was quite dark, but we did not know for sure. 

Keep out of sight of the swaggie, Jos said, people are not to be trusted, some men do bad things to girls.  Like what?” I asked. “Don’t ask questions”, he said.  In any case, I don’t like the look of this guy. Regardless, I had a feeling the swaggie already knew about us. We kept vigilant.

Jos would say, I can see the swaggie in the distance, hide. We hid behind gum trees, or old car bodies, discarded in the bush. I had the feeling however, the swaggie knew we were there, well before we were aware of him. Our fear did not however stop us from noisily traipsing around the country side. After all, kids are noisy creatures.

Jos felt responsible for us. When dad died, he was only 13, and said to mum, “I am the man of the house now, I will take care of you all”. 

When we came face to face with the swaggie, we had this mixed look of shock, fear and disgust on our faces. How could we have let this happen. The man did not smile, had piercing eyes, examining each of us intensely. His skin was dry and wrinkled around his eyes, thick dirt stuck to him, his shoes were worn, wearing an old pair of trousers tied with rope and a flannel shirt, rolled sleeves to the elbow, it was a hot day. 

Jos’ mouth did not move when he ordered us to keep walking. “Do not look, do not stop”. But we had already done all of those things, in fear and dread.

We lost the swaggie as we headed along Cemetery Road, into our territory of our familiar bush, our sanctuary, where we knew the caves, gullies, trees and other great hiding spots.

It was a peaceful day at home with mum, we were at the dinner table, when the swaggie turned up at our door step.

Mum went to the door, Jos kicked me under the table. “You draw too much attention to us”, he whispered.

He’s homeless and harmless said mother returning from the front door, sitting back down to dinner. “So, what did he want?” I cried, anxious. “A hand out from a widow, who is struggling to make ends meet”, said mum. 

I thought that was the end of it, until he turned up again, and mum allowed him to set up his swag and billy in our little shed next to the chicken pen. “He’s homeless and said it is only temporary” said mum naively. God, how terrible. Collectively though, we had to agree, you couldn’t have a man sleeping out in the cold winter.

It’s funny how kids adapt. The swaggie had a name, Roy. No sooner had Roy moved into our shed, we simply continued our carefree adventures. We forgot about this mysterious man, who kept himself scarce, sometimes disappearing days on end, sometimes getting meals brought out by mum, and from time to time, he slept in the shed all day. Mother kept cold stores in the garage, separate to the swaggie shed. One day she saw a pot of potatoes sliding across full view of the kitchen window. She would not tolerate Roy stealing from her and kicked him out. 

It took such a long time for mum to clean out the shed and get rid of the smell of urine. We know not what happened to him since, because we never saw him again.

Jos the man of the house, with Robert and William
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