The Vintage and the Gleaning
by Jeremy Chambers
Smithyís childhood is spent in an orphanage in the outback not far from Melbourne, Australia. One day the nuns (robes flapping, hands holding down their wimples) line up the Aborigonal children at the orphanage (white shirted, washed and ironed), to welcome the wife of the Propector of Aboriginals. When she arrives, chauffeur driven and immaculately dressed, the nuns persuade her to stay safe and clean in the back of her big black car because the swirling red dust would ruin her clothes. So the window of the car is wound down and Smithy stands with the other children as Sister Bernard conducts them singing God Save the Queen, Land of Hope and Glory and For She's a Jolly Good Fellow. Then Sister Bernard stands Smithy at the open window of the car and he sings to this vision of beauty within. She is dressed in white, a satin sash round her waist, an embroidered blouse sewn with tiny beads of mother of pearl; her golden hair is softly waved; her hat, swathed in tulle, and a filigreed ivory fan lay beside her on the seat. Smithy had a voice of which Sister Bernard was extremely proud, and when he had sung to her, the beautiful woman kissed his forehead and her lace gloves lingered on his cheeks as she looked into his eyes.
You're an angel, she said. A true angel.
But her uniformed chauffeur pointed to the lowering sky, "the disc of sun dangerous, a smouldering, seething ember...the wind heaving and twisting plumes borne from the earth and towering", and the car rolls away, kicking up sand over the line of children, who cough and rub their eyes and wave their little crayoned Empire flags in farewell.
Smithy grew up illiterate but earned good wages as a sheep shearer. He could shear a hundred sheep in a day with scarcely ever a nick, dripping with sweat and aching in every muscle, the older men shaking their heads and saying you'll never last boy, spurring him on. And afterwards they drank together and laughed and fought and got legless. For Smithy it was the good life, for, unknown to himself he was institutionalised, at home in the herd, answering to his mates. He married Florence, bought a house and sired a son, but all his time away from work he spent at the pub. He was on a bender when Florence died of cancer, and he hardly knew his son.
The drink, however, got the better of him and now he is only strong enough to work in the vineyards, a holiday compared to shearing, sheep, and he can no longer drink any alcohol at all. Now that Smithy has more time to think about his life, he thinks about the convent and the day the wife of the Protector of the Aboriginals came in her big black car. What happened to his beautiful singing voice? What things might he have done differently? What places might he have seen? But he still does a good dayís work at the vines, clutching his illness to himself, still enjoying the company and the respect of his mates, and still has plenty of hair.
Then one day a young woman arrives at his door needing protection from her husband who is suspected of murdering a man and has beaten her up. Smithy is prompted to help but might yet regret his act of kindness...
Jeremy Chambers was born in 1974 and lives in Melbourne. THE VINTAGE AND THE GLEANING was inspired by summers spent working as a vineyard labourer whilst at school and university. It is a brilliant novel, written in prose that is harsh and spare as the Australian outback, yet, like that landscape, vivid and beautiful. Itís a delight to read and, hopefully, the first of many stories to come from the pen of this talented writer.
Maclehose Press 272pp.