Blue Smoke

A short story by Bob Collins (Stumpy)

It was a typical small sawmill shanty township. The sawmill was built on a flat terrace above the creek about three hundred yards from the bush edge. On the straight road leading from the mill timber yard toward town the owners had built ten houses for the mill hands, five on each side of the road. Apart from a few privately built shanties along the bush edge and in the scrub, mostly occupied by single men, that was the town, and to look at it, paint had never been invented.

The party had started straight after pay out on a Friday afternoon in one of the houses, and after midnight Saturday, had come almost to a standstill. Most of the community had come and gone, and come back again, but now the pace had slowed right down. Syd was sitting on a sofa with his great mate Smokey, drinking rum. Syd was on his last legs, and Smokey who held the bottle was keeping his glass full, keeping him steadily drinking. Smokey himself had had enough, and though his glass was also full he was being very careful not to drink any more. Great mates, Syd and Smokey.

On the opposite side of the room, with its atmosphere thick with alcohol fumes, blue cigarette smoke and the kerosene stench coming from the Colman pressure lamp, on a kitchen chair sat Syd’s wife, near the open doorway. She was a real looker, she surely was! How had drunken old Syd ever got a hold of her? Perhaps a little hard of face, but she was most attractive, beautiful in fact, with a very shapely full figure.

She was watching the two men on the sofa opposite her, fully aware of what was going on. She was smoking as usual, chain smoking. She always did. Lighting a new cigarette from the butt she was about to discard. She never stopped smoking it seemed, day or night, but she was a looker!

Finally Syd could stand the alcohol, the pace, no longer, his balding head fell back in rest, his feet stretched out before him, his eyes closed, his mouth fell open, he began to snore loudly, this was his usual pattern on party nights. The moment Syd began to snore, his wife rose to her feet with a look of disgust on her face and walked out of the door, into the blackness of the night with its gentle drizzle of light rain.

Smokey watched Syd trumpeting away on the sofa with a protective smile on his face, and salvaged the half glass of rum from lifeless fingers just before it fell to the floor. His old mate Syd, running true to form, would be “out the monk” for many hours to come. Finally Smokey rose and walked out into the night.

He found her waiting for him out there on the wet muddy street in the drizzle and the darkness, no trouble at all, the ember of her cigarette could be seen for some distance; Syd’s missus. No word was spoken, arm in arm they trudged off to Smokey’s shack, three hundred yards up on the bush edge, built of totara slabs, with a steep corrugated iron roof. They had taken this walk many times before.

It was two hours later that one of the men at the party went out on to the back lawn of the house to relieve himself. Through the drizzle of rain he saw the angry red glow of a fire up on the bush edge. He rushed inside, “A fire! A fire up on the bush edge! Looks like it could be Smokey’s shack. Come on, we may be able to help! Wake up Syd, wake up, your mate Smokey*s shack is on fire!”

Everyone at the party went up to the fire, even befuddled Syd. After all it was his mate Smokey’s shack, wasn’t it? When they arrived, the would-be helpers could do nothing to extinguish the fire. The shack was well ablaze, the tinder dry totara walls sparking, and glowing, and billowing black smoke. There was no water to fight the blaze and the heat kept the men at bay, even from the corrugated iron water tank on its stand.

Frustrated men unable to help, and where was Smokey? He should be here. That worried them a bit. And how did the fire start at that early hour of the morning? It couldn’t be “smoking in bed”, Smokey didn’t smoke! Eventually the shack collapsed with a threat billow of sparks.

When dawn broke over the eastern range behind the bush edge, the drizzle had turned to rain which was landing on the hot twisted roofing iron and the grey ash which was all that remained of the shanty, with little puffs of steam and with hissing and spitting. The blue smoke of the fire, mingled with the white bush mist of the rain at about treetop level and hung like a soft shroud over the valley.

Finally the embers and the ash were cooled sufficiently by the rain to allow the men to sift through the debris. They soon found the two bodies blackened, charred,unrecognizable still in embrace, amongst the twisted ruins of the old iron double bed. They stood and looked with shock and horror.

Smokey still hadn’t turned up, but this had been his shack, his bed, one of them must be him, but who was the woman? Nobody knew.

Well, there was nothing they could do about it now. Best leave them where they were, leave them be, until the police arrived, it was their job now, they would sort it out, identify the victims, clean up.

The men who had remained at the fire to the bitter end turned and trudged back through the rain to the cluster of houses below. Syd, Smokey’s great mate, was among them. He was thinking of his friend. “Poor bloody old Smokey, what a way to end up. Fancy a good looking bloke like him never marrying in all those years!

But at least he didn’t die lonely, he died happy, contented, a woman in his arms. “Wonder who she is? There’s no strange women in the valley, so it must be one from the settlement. When that comes out there’ll be one hell of a to do! “Crafty old Smokey, I’m his best friend, but he never told even me he was trotting a woman. I would have thought that he’d have given me a hint. But I’m glad my old mate died happy.”

As he neared his own home Syd’s thought changed to his own situation. “Christ, I’m lucky. Good looking old Smokey never married and now he’s dead, yet ugly me with my bald head and whiskers, got the best looking missus in the valley, yes, a real dish of a missus. “She’ll be home now, getting the kids up and dressed, cooking my breakfast. Yes, poor old Smokey, but I’m lucky!”

Well content with his lot Syd walked up the garden path to the door of his house. And the blue smoke shrouded the sadness of the valley as the rain wept tears for the people.