‘Spider Town’, Frank Moorhouse’s first published short story, appeared in Overland #29, autumn 1964.
We’ve rescued it from the archives, because Frank is keen for it to find new audiences, and also because there is one change he wishes he could make. We’ve given him the opportunity here, by republishing the story below, along with his marked-up correction.
We’re also giving readers the opportunity to edit the story – to tweak, comment on, alter, transform, to even create new endings and back stories.
The word I wanted to change was ‘partial’ – about his university education – to something like ‘apart of university education’. I don’t have the copy with me at present but if it’s not too much trouble.
As I read the story, I want to know more about his young wife. The story was based on my high school girlfriend and my experience editing a country town weekly. A long way back. We had edited our school newspaper together.
Be interested in what readers want to say.
Ah, strange times.
Very best, Frank
A huge thanks to the courageous Frank Moorhouse, who donated this republication – and the opportunity for everyone to be involved in the editing and/or polishing of ‘Spider Town’ – for our 2017 Subscriberthon.
To edit the story, you’ll need to create a hypothes.is account, which will allow you to leave public comments throughout. It’s very simple to set-up: you just need an email address and password. A hypothes.is invitation will be automatically triggered as you scroll through the story. Once you’re signed up, you simply highlight the passages and click the annotate function, which looks like this “.
When they came there was a strong plains’ wind. It was strong enough to flap the calendar in the office and the dust was thick enough to feel on your face. And the wind blew dogs sideways.
He left his wife at the Smallton Commercial Hotel.
‘I’ll drop the typewriter and a few things at the office.’ People stared at him as he walked, but he did not know whether to smile at them. They were probably thinking that he was young to be editor of their paper. But then, they wouldn’t know that he was there to edit the paper.
In the office he looked around the careless editorial room and his mind spun backwards to the fluorescent-lit pastel-painted reporters’ room of the Sun in the city.
‘Are you Mr Stevens, the new editor?’ the girl at the counter said without a smile or a blink.
He said yes and introduced himself and she said the owner of the paper wasn’t in.
He ducked under the bowing counter and poked around. He leafed through the piles of old reviews and read the pasted cuttings of printers’ errors on the wall and picked up old zinc blocks which he looked at by slanting them to the light. The office was littered with paper and its furniture was broken and worn by human occupation.
The achievement of an ambition; yet unspectacular. A schoolhood ambition amounted to a letter of application and a dirty shabby office with a vacant chair. He didn’t feel much like sitting in the chair. He struggled for a quotation from the darkness of his highschooling which would describe his feeling but he failed tiredly.
Back in the hotel he found his wife irritable. Scared by being strange. Sticky from the heat. After all, the capital of the state to a three-hotel town was a breathless jump. In the red parlour of the Commercial the only other occupant was an old woman, possessive and boozy. She demonstrated her possessiveness by not moving to make his buying of drinks easier. He was hot too. He ordered ‘new’ beers and the barman told him drily: ‘It’s all Melbourne beer here mate.’ The woman in the corner sighed to a deaf world. His wife Sheila had soft perspiration on her brow and it highlighted the pores of her skin. ‘Yes, Melbourne, thanks.’
‘Drink this and you’ll feel better,’ he said. ‘It was the only answer: you wanted to get out of the city and I wasn’t going to work to death for a provincial daily.’
She nodded. ‘I’m not complaining, am I?’ she said.
He recognised vaguely that it wasn’t reality he was talking. But it was partly true. What else could a statement about yourself to yourself be, but partly true. Perhaps he had no future in the city. Perhaps he did have something to say – opinions worth publishing. Never had he been very influential in conversation. But perhaps he could write a paragraph with sting in it.
A man about sixty, thin and sick, well-dressed, came gingerly into the parlour.
‘Dennis and Sheila Stevens?’ He asked.
‘Manners, the name. Sorry I couldn’t meet the train. Dreadfully hot isn’t it? Come around to the royal for a drink and meet the townsfolk,’ the newspaper proprietor said.
‘Have one with us,’ Dennis said to his boss. He moved to the window where the drinks were served.
‘Whisky,’ Manners said, obviously uncomfortable in the red parlour. Dennis sensed that perhaps the red parlour of the Commercial wasn’t the place to meet the townsfolk.
‘I’ve always been told country towns are friendly places,’ Sheila said to Manners. Dennis juggled back with the drinks and noticed Manners glancing at Sheila’s breasts.
‘Dennis and I have dreamed of coming to the country – no traffic jams and landlords.’
‘No need to get poetical,’ Dennis said with a grin.
‘Yes, oh yes,’ Manners said drinking his whisky quickly, ‘it’s a little of both, you know, but a really decent bunch of people. We must go around to the Royal and meet some of them.’
‘What’s the town’s politics?’ Dennis asked.
‘We have a fine chap in as Country party member in the state and a Liberal, Wallace, as Federal member – very good war record. The ALP doesn’t meet any more and I do believe we have one Communist who sells vegetables from a truck. Not a local though.’
Manners looked Dennis over. He liked him. Thought him capable-looking. Nearly had rejected him because of his partial university education. It took away smartness from a man’s thinking to have too much book-study.
‘I’m leaving for Melbourne at the end of the week,’ Manners said. ‘It’ll be all yours then. I’ll be away from Smallton about eight months and then I’m returning to grow orchids. I’m finished with newspapers. I’m not giving you much time to settle in but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it. There’ll be no interference as I told you in the letter. Mr Smithers, our accountant, will be the man to talk with if you need advice – I’m sure you won’t.’
The farewell to Manners was a formally drunken party at the Royal in the back lounge. The town’s respectables were there to make facetious speeches and to preview the Stevens.
Smallton was edged in yellow daisies and blue Bathurst burr at this time of the year.
The first steps were obvious to Dennis. He changed the layout of the paper – compartmentalised it; gave it shorter sentences; and used bolder headlines. He was uneasily unsure of the town. He didn’t have many clues to what people were thinking or what they said when they sat beside their wireless at nights. Or what sort of human weaving was done in groups and associations which carried national labels such as ‘Legacy’ and ‘P & C,’ but which were different things in different places according to the human variety of each set of people. He didn’t know who was scheming or who was profiting. For these reasons he preferred first to play with the tangibles of blocks and type.
The Stevens were well received socially. But of course it was the society of non-committal talk and controlled intoxication.
In the third week Mrs Gamble, the president of the CWA, came into the office with a great noise of feet and voice and hands.
‘Mr Stevens?’ she enquired, holding her hand towards Dennis and smiling radiantly.
Dennis ambled across.
‘Mr Stevens – I’m disgraced. Really I am. I’m your neighbour and I haven’t made a move to meet you until now. But I really am pleased.’ She introduced herself.
They chatted – the crops, the road to their part of town, the fruit fly, and whether Sheila was interested in CWA.
Mrs Gamble told him that she hoped they would both be very happy in the town. ‘We need young blood you know. Us oldies have made a mess of things in some ways and now it’s up to you young people to carry on.’
Then eversosweetly – ‘And which Church do you and Mrs Stevens attend? Jim and I could probably give you a lift on Sunday mornings. We usually leave about 9 and we have such a large car.’
She stood waiting for her answer with a little smile on her powdery face.
‘My wife and I don’t attend any church,’ Dennis said.
‘Oh,’ said Mrs Gamble, ‘never mind. Don’t think – please – don’t think that we were prying. Most folks have a church and we were only trying to be neighbourly. We all have our own ways of worshipping Him don’t we? You must have dinner with us when you are settled in.’ And with a smile she clattered from the office. They’d ‘settled in’ of course in the first two days. An invitation with no time and date which would never have a time or date. He shrugged. What did it matter?
But he didn’t know that the only people who didn’t attend church lived in the shacks near the railway line.
Dennis soon heard the local prejudices and wisdom around the pubs and at dinner parties. And he soon felt that the town was easy going and welcoming and warm to newcomers. But his professed ideals would not let him remain non-committal as he did in the social activities of the town. The professed ideals reared hungrily, like animals, now and then, wanting the food which was due to them if they were to be kept as part of his character. If in bed at night, while Sheila slept, he wanted to say wordlessly to himself that in fact he had opinions and wasn’t frightened to express them, then, sooner or later, he had to express them. He had to face the animals.
So in the sunlight next day he sat and tapped out an editorial on the royal birth. He condemned the excessive publicity given to the birth of a royal baby as ‘stupidly excessive’ and he felt that the royal family involved the construction of a dangerous fairy tale in a world of H-bombs and economic poverty. He pointed up the political insignificance of the royal family.
Sheila said that it was right. The linotype operator set it slowly. He stopped and called the compositor over and said: ‘Here, read this.’ And the apprentice pulled a proof immediately and read it as he did the cricket scores.
The editorial was not of the Smallton Review tradition.
He stayed longer in bed on the day of publication. He felt tired and sick and scared. Printing something which would make some people angry made him feel sick and unhungry. He lived a million situations of defence.
He walked down in the sunny afternoon. Outside as usual the newspaper boys’ bikes were leaned against two of seventy wooden verandah posts which segmented the main street. The Holdens and the Fords rested continuously along the street with their noses in the gutter. The municipal peppercorn trees were officially shading the gossipers and Williamson, the communist, was selling vegetables from the back of his Dodge truck, giving away an occasional Tribune and a slogan. Out-of-date rodeo and travelling show posters stuck to the pub walls, bright and overlapping in a fight for people’s eyes. With no message for them.
‘A good paper this week,’ Williamson called from the vegetable truck and threw Dennis an apple.
He walked with conscious firmness into the office and wisecracked the office girl.
‘Here’s an apple,’ he said tossing it to her.
He was relieved to be in his chair in his room with the door closed. He feared the official town, Mrs Gamble, the RSL and the others.
Within a few days three or four letters arrived. They came from the loyalist groups – the CWA, the RSL and the Red Cross. They said that the editorial was ‘insulting to all good Australians’ and ‘disloyal’.
Dennis stayed near his home and office for the days immediately after publication but at last he felt that he should make a sign of courage.
He went to the RSL Club after work about four days later. In the frosted glass doors he walked, across the polished wood floor; past the carved wood flame and slogan ‘Peace through Vigilance’; past the Women’s Weekly framed portrait of the Queen, into the bar.
‘A beer thanks, Bert,’ he said to the steward. He looked around – no-one seemed to notice him. He saw no group he could join. Then he saw Smithers, the newspaper’s accountant. He walked over with his beer tightly clutched.
‘Greetings, Dennis,’ Smithers said. ‘Haven’t seen you for a few days. You know Tom King, the headmaster, don’t you?’ And he introduced Dennis.
Dennis found himself in a group of pally round-for-round clubsters. Two wore RSL badges.
‘Doing a good job with the paper,’ King said. ‘Much brighter.’
How did these people play their parts without animosity? Why didn’t they snub him? They hung the Queen in their club. He didn’t know how to understand it. They didn’t discuss the editorial and Dennis didn’t mention it. Glad for a time to be drinking with others.
Dennis felt that he was gaining the respect of the town even if he was disagreeing with them. He welcomed editorially the rebirth of the paper as a public forum of issues. To maintain the interest he tore another hole in the town hide by publishing an editorial criticising the magistrate for closing the local court to the press and public during a sexual misbehaviour case involving local girls and the football team. Dennis said that the magistrate was treating the townspeople like children and that the rumours were damaging more than the truth.
He thought that the editorial would have the town’s support but he was disturbed to find that he was wrong. People told him that they felt that the case should have been dealt with ‘quietly’. Despite this, he found that almost everyone had a wild story to tell about it.
Now, when he attended football matches he found himself scanning the gallery of faces for a smile or a nod. He quavered at turned-away faces. He would find an acquaintance and cling to him, making talk. Talking, talking weather, talking to maintain the semblance of contact which he knew he had to make. Or freeze to death in the town. The thing he felt now was the failure he and Sheila had made to penetrate very far the living of the town. They had made some acquaintances, and Casey the local constable was almost a friend.
As Dennis stood at the sideline’s railings he would appear to watch the match, but his eyes would be trailing glances either side to see if he knew anyone or if anyone wanted to know him. He like to take Sheila with him because she was able to attract conversation and then he appeared to his inner eyes to be in a crowd laughing and talking, sensing that perhaps the whole town was watching and seeing him as much a part of the town as the Anzac Memorial. But he only felt this way at first after coming out of his aloneness to a crowd.
‘Don’t you reckon that Stevens woman is a sexy bitch? Wouldn’t mind a bit myself.’
‘They reckon that Casey is on with her. He hangs around her like a dog around a bloody bitch.’
‘Yeah. Smithie reckons he saw him coming out of their house at 3am while Stevens was in Dubbo – lucky bastard.’
‘What was Smithie doing hanging around there at 3am? Trying to get a bit for himself?’
‘They’re both commos anyway. That’s why they’re so free and easy – one night when Stevens was a bit full he said he wouldn’t give a damn if someone was sleeping with his wife – as long as it made her happy, he said. Funny bastard. Keeps to himself.’
‘I bet he wishes his wife would keep to herself.’
And they would slyly say to Constable Casey in the club: ‘How’s Sheila Stevens? Hear you’re getting along with her all right?’
And Casey, heeding the signs of mateship – the smiles and backslapping – would grin back at them and tell them, with a wink, to mind their own business. He’d tell them to keep to their schoolgirls. He knew that he should have stopped them from talking like that. But he did wish he was sleeping with Sheila because he liked her very much and needed a warm friendship.
About two elbows away in the Club, King the headmaster said to Ericson the banker: ‘I don’t mind a man having opinions, but you’d expect him to keep within the bounds of decency. I hear also that Mrs Stevens isn’t too particular about her friends.’
They smiled knowingly and downed their beers.
‘No,’ said Ericson, ‘I’ve heard their both “players”. I’m like you – I don’t mind a man having opinions, but I don’t like them being rammed down my throat in the newspaper. Anyhow I don’t think they’re the type of people for this town’.
And after the club had shut and bars washed down, and the gas from the kegs turned off, and dogs started chasing bitches around the silent streets, Casey would lie awake wondering why he had allowed them to say things about Sheila; and King lay beside his fat rumbling wife and wondered if it was true that half the town was sleeping with Sheila Stevens and if so why wasn’t he; and he wondered why the person who always told the story was never one of the half?
On Friday nights after publication Dennis played Shanghai in the pub with Cohen, the local dress shop owner who was tolerated, but not liked. He was a Jew who had turned Church of England because it helped. Dennis was 200 ahead with seven middies in his blood when the local grocer, Harrison, came across to him and asked if he could talk with him ‘confidentially’.
They went to the corner near the Tooths’ poster advertising long bottle pilsner which hadn’t been available for years. The middle-aged gentleman in the poster smiled benignly from above his celluloid collar. But he appeared lost in the bawdy pub, unable to comprehend the passing of his time.
‘You’re only a young fella,’ Harrison said, ‘and I like you. What I’ve got to tell you isn’t nice but it’s for your own good. You might know, or you mightn’t, but if you’re any sort of man you’ll do something about it – Casey’s sleeping with your wife – everyone in town knows.’ His voice dropped to quietness as he finished. Harrison sipped his beer and looked grim and matey. Dennis felt hot, then tired in the stomach and then creeping anger grew up his body. He grabbed Harrison’s shirt and simultaneously put his beer on the window ledge.
‘You rumour-mongering bastard’, he said angrily and when he heard the angry words he grew fiercer. ‘If I hear one dirty word from you or your bloody mates again I’ll belt the daylights out of you.’
Dennis was boiling and Harrison was hurt. Harrison mumbled that he was trying to be friendly and tried to free himself from Dennis’ grip.
‘Don’t you threaten me,’ Harrison said, ‘you’ll find yourself in a mess quicksmart.’ He looked at his mates who watched but didn’t move.
Dennis let go, picked up his beer and drank it shakily as he walked back to his game. Harrison went back to his mates and fidgeted in his pocket nervously.
‘For Christsake where do they get this stuff?’ Dennis asked bitterly of Cohen. ‘Who makes it all up?’
Cohen could only look concerned because he believed Harrison, but he said, ‘It’s disgusting, disgusting. Don’t take any notice.’
They didn’t play any more darts, but Dennis became drunk. He drove home with reckless tiredness and frustration, to the partial comfort of a hot shower and a warm wife.
Dennis and Sheila lived in a homestead on a former merino stud property. The homestead was surrounded by a rambling garden which was the home of buzzing insects. A wide verandah spread out from the house into the garden. The lounge room was large and lined with trophies from sheep shows. Dark wood dimmed the house. A framed ‘honorable discharge’ from the First World War hung bravely from the dining room wall. One locked room, belonging to the daughter in her childhood, now contained her unopened wedding presents. A family scandal sealed up.
It was a dark quiet house surrounded always by the buzz of insects and the scratching of fowls near the water tanks. One of the homesteads of the large, intertwined families who owned acres and acres of soil, grass, dams and trees. The families lived in these similar, large, comfortable secure houses and lived close and tight.
Dennis and Sheila too found security in the big house, but they found solitary security. They lived well with chicken dinners and sherry and meals served in the large dining room. It was possible to slow down and live gently in the surroundings.
Sickly sober after the game of darts, Dennis spent the next day at home. In the afternoon he and Sheila sat on the verandah talking.
‘Of all Smallton this house is the only part which satisfies me,’ he said to her.
‘I never dreamed that we’d find such a beautiful place – its quietness is stunning after the city,’ she replied.
‘And how is the CWA younger set going? Planning any revolutions?’ he asked.
‘They’re terribly upright,’ Sheila said. ‘They start the meetings with a pledge to “God, Queen and the Country” and look very sincere about it. Then they sit down and talk gossip and tell scandal. They never read the daily papers, let alone a book.’
‘I hear that Julie Ericson is in the family way. Her parents are going to send her into a convent,’ Dennis said.
‘And you’re the one who complains about rumour-mongering!’ Sheila said loudly.
Dennis pained. ‘I’m sorry – it’s a bad habit I’ve picked up in the dull town.’
‘The town’s not as rotten as you think,’ Sheila said, ‘it has some wonderful people like Mr Radcliffe, the conscientious objector, and the manager of the Rural Bank’s OK.’
‘ … and the local constable – he’s OK,’ Dennis laughed.
‘What do you mean by that?’ Sheila said with quiet anger.
Dennis realised that what he had said was not a joke.
‘Come on – I was only joking.’
‘I don’t like jokes like that,’ she said and left the room.
Dennis sat still and felt tired in the stomach as he had with Harrison. He drank his sherry and then another. He went to the bedroom where Sheila was lying on her back with a serious expression on her face. She was crying.
‘I know there are rumours around. I’m not silly,’ she said. ‘Now you’re making cracks about it. Mike is decent and there’s nothing between us.’
‘We’re just friends,’ Dennis parroted vindictively, losing his self-discipline. His voice rose.
‘You must admit you see plenty of him. He’s in the office every day. He’s only a bloody copper you know.’
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Sheila cried. ‘I thought you’d have more sense than to trout out your stupid prejudices. Leave me alone for Godsake.’
He left her and sat on the cool verandah and felt miserable. Sheila cried. She was psychically innocent but yet there were yearnings which she had denied. To live she needed more than the love of a husband. No companionship was coming from the stony town. No friends from her own sex. Only dirty looks and dirty comments from youths; the clumsy tentative advances from drunken graziers at parties.
It was not until they touched in bed and their bodies linked slowly and they had whispered to each other that they could believe and comfort each other.
It was a stormy day about six months after their arrive when the maliciousness of the town flooded.
The day was one when the streets were almost deserted and the rain was noisy and steady. Water poured from rusted drainpipes and through holes in the roofs throughout the decaying town. It carried ice-cream sticks and cigarette butts along in its gutters. Children raced matchsticks on their way to school and walked in puddles.
The shopkeepers were either clearing their window displays or smoking at their doorways.
Chatting and joking the Stevens drove to the office, passing the sheep huddled in their coldness under the ill-protecting trees.
‘I think we’ll have a beer session today’, he said, ‘no-one will come to town today.’
‘We’ll lock the shop and sit in the dismal red parlour and sing dismal songs and finish crying,’ Sheila laughed.
He angle-parked in front of the office and went to open the door while Sheila took some things from the car.
He fumbled for the key and then noticed something on the door. He swallowed and felt tears seep up from his tissues – nailed to the office door was a woman’s suspender belt. Just a dirty suspender belt. It spelled its own message.
Sheila came up behind him.
‘Where’s your typewriters? Is it at home or …’ she stopped and then turned away, running to the car.
Dennis tore the belt from the door and threw it in the flowing gutter.
He glanced at Harrison’s grocery, at the boot shop, at the barbers – Harrison and the others were standing at their doors but looking the other way, or talking.
He wondered if they’d been waiting for the act.
Around he felt the town lie like a huge spider and he felt as if he was standing in the soft texture of its body.
He didn’t open the door but walked to the car where his wife was weeping.
‘We’ll go home and pack up. And then we will go away from here,’ he said, starting the car.
It was pouring and thundering and 80 points of rain fell the night they left the town and the newspaper boys never knew where or why Dennis and Sheila went.