The story of Steele Rudd’s whirlwind trip to Sydney in 1899—which is a corker, believe me, you’re going to love it—begins with the writer on a train. He sits by the window of his compartment, trembling fingers preening his dark moustache. Slouched beside him is his travelling companion, a young man with a bushman’s hat drawn over his snoring face. Rudd watches him, frowning, before returning to the window. The tall buildings of Sydney dominate the view ahead, like ladders to the clear morning sky. Somewhere below is the station, and at that station will be the men, waiting. What Rudd wouldn’t give to make the train stop. Make it turn around, have the driver repeat the journey across the simmering plains, returning him to the weedy platform in outback Queensland, where less than twenty-four hours ago he waved goodbye to his cheering family, determined not to let this trip be the end of him.
The train roars, spitting cinders as it charges for the station.
The letter arrived at the farm a week ago. Rudd knew it was trouble from the moment his mother handed it to him, as she sat peeling potatoes in the kitchen. Filthy from a day spent building a new fence around the house, hoping to finally keep the rabbits out, Rudd stepped onto the back porch. With dirty fingers, he opened the envelope. His heart sank when he withdrew the contents: a return ticket to Sydney, the departure date stamped a week from then. No words of greeting. Just the ticket.
Rudd closes his notebook and springs to his feet. He paces the compartment, short of breath like a spooked horse, until he catches his reflection in the glass and stops. He rehearses a smile he hopes himself capable of emulating when he meets those waiting for him on the platform. He smooths the suit he had fitted last week in the town half a day’s ride from the farm. Not for the first time, he’s struck by the fear that he could well be the victim of some elaborate practical joke. Farmer catapulted to national celebrity after publishing his first book of short stories, many of them influenced by yarns his father told him as they felled trees and herded livestock? It seems far-fetched. Like one of the tall tales his brother specialises in, holding audiences back home in thrall. But it’s true. His ability to foot the bill for the suit is proof.
The train slows, the first passengers move along the corridor. Rudd presses against the window, sighing when he spots the bustling platform.
On Our Selection had not long been out when the telegrams started showing up. The book had entered a second print run. Shortly after, a third. The wires were sent by AG Stephens, publisher of Rudd’s collection and bigwig at the prestigious Bulletin magazine, in whose pages Rudd received his start. The writer must drop everything and come to Sydney to celebrate with them, insisted Stephens. Them being the entire Bulletin fraternity, publishers and editors and writers and artists, all of whom were clamouring to meet the man from the sticks who’d taken the writing world by storm. But Rudd always found an excuse. A mare with foal, flooding rain, a family member struck down by snake bite.
‘Bohemians’. That’s what Rudd has read the Bulletin men described as. He didn’t know what a Bohemian was until he searched the family dictionary, the first thing he did after receiving the ticket from Stephens. Even then it served only to ramp up the tension of his nightmare week, making sleep impossible in the humid Queensland nights; tossing and turning, he envisioned the myriad ways he could humiliate himself in the company of the city men, ending a career that was only getting started.
The train’s brakes begin to squeal. In the final minute before he enters literary society, Rudd attempts to gather himself.
He will maintain his g’s. He will find appropriate synonyms for the vulgar language commonplace on the farm. He will, above all, give the Sydney men no reason to throw their heads back and howl with laughter, as he’s imagined multiple times, one instance of which, while he was dripping sweat building the rabbit-proof fence, made him swing the hammer so wildly that he split the webbing of his hand.
Below, Rudd’s travelling companion is awake and stretching in a yawn. ‘Well, mate,’ he says. ‘What’d’you reckon? Let’s give these city bastards what for!’
Rudd swallows, his momentary sense of conviction dying in the arse.
A delegation of Bulletin men waits on the platform. They make a beeline through the departing passengers for Rudd, having no trouble identifying the writer, his photograph printed alongside glowing reviews of his collection. He’s met by handshakes amid rolling clouds of steam. One of the men, a bearded fellow in a tweed jacket, says he hasn’t read a better book than On Our Selection all year. Another, stuffing his pipe, asks Rudd if he’s at work on a follow-up. Before the writer can answer, his bag is taken by a third man, and they’re chaperoning him up a flight of stairs to a carriage in the street. Driver in top hat, horses with feathers in their manes. Rudd feels as if he might explode with joy as he slides into the upholstered interior.
Then the bearded man speaks, about to close the door.
‘Hey, who’s this kid with the bushman’s hat?’
Rudd’s smile vanishes. He turns to the doorway with the others.
‘Oh,’ he says in a low voice. ‘This is my brother. Darryl.’
‘And he’ll be travelling with us today, Mr Rudd?’
Rudd clears his throat. ‘Yes. If that’s alright?’
‘He won’t pull a stockwhip on us, will he?’ says one of the men, which is followed by snorting laughter. Rudd joins them uneasily.
The bearded man sits forward. ‘How old are you, son?’
‘Well, I suppose you’d better come up.’
Darryl piles in, all arms and legs, fourteen years the junior of his brother but already larger in every respect. The man beside him has to shift to avoid his hat.
Given the signal, the driver shakes the reins and away they go. By cafes of music and conversation, parks of green where people sit and read. A packed tram rattles past, a ten-storey hotel with a bell tower looms over a busy intersection.
Presented with a copy of On Our Selection to sign, Rudd tries to brainstorm a clever inscription. But he finds it impossible to concentrate.
It happened two nights ago, nearing the end of Rudd’s farewell dinner. One of his sisters was talking of her experiences in Brisbane when his father stood at the end of the table. He was sorry, he announced, but with the way his back was he couldn’t afford his son gone from the farm. Hobbling around the table, he took the shoulder of his youngest of thirteen children. There, Rudd’s father reiterated his decision. But, he added, his mischievous grin returning, he supposed if one son had to go, then why the hell not make it two. Confusion reigned, until, producing a ticket from his pocket and slamming it on the table, he cried that the brothers were Sydney-bound.
‘Me?!’ said Darryl.
‘Him?!’ said Rudd.
Signing the book, the writer tracks his brother in the corner of his vision.
So far, so good. Darryl is silent, awed by the city. Unlike yesterday, when from the moment they boarded the train he got on the beers and went waltzing up and down the aisles, bailing up a lawyer returning to Sydney with one of his stories, dancing to a man strumming a guitar, announcing in his loudest voice that his brother—‘that fella over there! that shy bloke up the back!’—was none other than the legendary Steele Rudd.
When Darryl stiffens in the corner, Rudd’s eyes dart for the object of his brother’s attention. A couple on the footpath, open-mouthed kissing.
Please don’t, he says or thinks. But to no avail.
Darryl scrambles out the window, startling the kissers with a lecherous cry, reeling off a comment about there being no mucking about in the Big Smoke.
He flops back into his seat, beaming. Humiliated, Rudd returns the book.
‘He’s the Joe character from your stories, isn’t he?’ The bearded man breaks the silence. ‘And here I was assuming at least some exaggeration.’
As soon as the carriage stops outside the Bulletin offices, and the others leave to ensure those inside are ready for the writer’s visit, Rudd swoops.
‘Darryl! We need to talk!’
There are things you can do and say in the presence of city people, he hisses, and things you most definitely cannot. Like hanging out a carriage screaming at people in the street. Their policy going forward, therefore, is to remain as quiet as possible.
‘As in, keep the lid on a bit?’
‘As in, keep the lid jammed shut! No air escaping!’
‘No air escaping? Strewth.’
‘See!’ Rudd snatches a handful of his brother’s shirt. ‘That word! That’s exactly the kind of talk we have to avoid. It’s farm talk, Darryl. Not city talk.’
When Rudd notices his brother’s chin is bleeding, he releases his shirt. ‘I’m sorry it has to be this way. But I need you to help me, Darryl. Can you do that?’
This brings us to a pivotal stage in the story, doesn’t it? There’s a part of us that thinks it really poor form of the writer—whose real name isn’t even Steele Rudd, but Arthur Hoey Davis—to fail to defend his brother, then harangue him like that.
I mean, look at Darryl will you—a teenager with acne who’s wearing cowboy boots, spilling from the carriage into the mad clamour of Pitt Street. His eyes are as wide as if he were under chemical influence, and he might well be, the sensory bombardment of inner Sydney sparking a dopamine overload. Yet despite having so much he wants to say, so many emotions he’s dying to act out, as per his instructions, he doesn’t.
But put yourself in Rudd’s shoes. The Sydney situation was daunting already. Now, he has the Darryl situation too. And the Darryl situation, no matter what way you look at it, has raised the odds of mission failure a thousand-fold.
Oh, Rudd loves his kid brother. Loves him like a son in a lot of ways. He took care of Darryl growing up, their mother busy with her other kids.
But let’s get real for a minute. There’s no place, then or now, in civilised society for a man like Darryl. Aren’t we cringing already at the prospect of all that’s to come, as Rudd attempts to navigate his twenty-four hours in Sydney with his career intact? Wouldn’t it be better, we wonder, if his brother simply jumped a horse and fucked-off back into the bush? Isn’t that the destiny we secretly wish for him at this point? That Darryl, and all the other Darryls, just kind of disappeared?
Better yet, let’s hear the young man speak:
‘Gee, I’ll bet that one’s a bit of hot stuff. Wouldn’t mind taking a toss from her on a moonlit night.’
I’m not making this shit up. It’ll happen two hours from now, when after their flying visit to the offices—minus Stephens and Bulletin kingpin JF Archibald, locked in meetings on the second floor—the brothers are taken to illustrator Norman Lindsay’s studio. Shown Lindsay’s collection of nude studies, Darryl’s muzzle will slip and he’ll issue the above outburst. Rudd will stare daggers, Darryl lower his head. It’s on page 66 of Lindsay’s memoir Bohemians of the Bulletin, as well as the following, which doesn’t add anything new, but serves to remind us that this is the stuff of real life, not fantasies or wish fulfilment, nor reconciliation between irreconcilable brothers amid the social vortex that chucks up a fence between them:
Steele was to suffer one terrible indignity to his distinction as a literary man while in Sydney and was himself responsible for bringing it down on his head. He had brought with him from Queensland a younger brother, who I am sure was the Joe of On Our Selection, for he proved to be a cheerful, talkative, cocksure, and quite irrepressible lad of about seventeen.
But which direction will the story go?
Through the night-time streets the brothers travel, chauffeured for their final engagement, the pulsing metropolis outside their carriage like some shape-shifting creature of myth. In his seat, Rudd picks at the serviette he received in the downstairs bar they’ve just visited, where in the corner a man in a sequinned dress sang patriotic ballads. There to dine with the Bulletin’s top publicist, the writer could only smile and nod at the talk of author interviews and book signings, hyper-aware of his brother alongside him, itching to part the crowd and join the singer at the piano.
One more thing, Rudd tells himself, the clop of hooves like the drums of war. One more thing without incident and they’ll be headed home, his ordeal survived.
The problem is, that thing is their slated appearance at Paris House.
What is Paris House? A chalet in harbourside Darling Point? All-night cafe where the city’s thinkers and artists convene to get caffeinated? Nope. It’s just a house, and a small house at that, more like a cottage, on ragtag Lower George Street. Why Paris House, then? Well, it’s a long story I won’t go into here, except to say that Bulletin co-founder Jules François Archibald—remembered these days as the namesake of the Archibald Prize for portraiture—a man fond of slipping French into conversation, who got about boasting Parisian heritage, was actually born John Feltham in cow country west of Geelong. And we thought Rudd on the run from his provincialism.
Still, Paris House is where the Bulletin entourage welcomes visiting writers of note, and the outcome of these soirées carry weight. Men—because of course no women are invited to the boys’ club, nor anyone outside the brotherhood; this is, after all, a publication operating under the banner Australia for the White Man—will be endorsed or rubbished on the strength of an appearance.
The horses slow, the chaperones stand, the carriage arrives outside Paris House.
Rudd gulps, eyeing the house. His brother holds back a smirk.
Here we go.
Men swan into the wood-panelled room, shaking hands, providing updates on works-in-progress, asking after partners and children, on one hand totally ignoring the fact that Rudd sits there, yet on the other stealing glances at the farmer who’s invaded their ranks. Rudd, for his part, collects the beer that a waiter places before him on the lacquered table and takes a desperate drink. In a second lapse of discipline, he gives his brother a nod. Darryl snatches his own beer, downing more than half in one go.
Feeling braver, Rudd surveys the room. Figures of power and high standing, everywhere. Writer Henry Lawson with hand on hip, leaning into a conversation. Poet/solicitor Banjo Paterson delving into his pinstriped suit, checking the time on a gold pocket watch. But none are more intimidating than Stephens and Archibald, the twin makers and breakers of careers, conferring at the head of the table. Stephens, a fearsome prospect with his handlebar moustache and penetrating eyes, rises from his chair and claps the meeting to order. The others hurry to their seats.
It is their great privilege and honour, Stephens begins, to finally receive Mr Davis, aka Steele Rudd, all the way from sunny Queensland. Only today has Stephens been informed the book is set for yet another reprint, with sales figures exceeding even their lofty expectations. Waving down the applause, he says that he and Archie, plus the many others who’ve worked tirelessly to make On Our Selection a success, hope this is just the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship.
‘Arthur.’ Darryl tugs at Rudd’s trousers under the table. Rudd swats him away.
Stephens continues despite the disturbance, praising Rudd’s storytelling prowess and rare insight into the struggles of common people in outback Australia.
‘Arthur.’ Darryl’s hand is met with even firmer resistance.
Stephens stops mid-sentence. ‘Is anything the matter?’
Darryl shoots to his feet. ‘I need to be pointed in the direction of the pisser!’
Rudd white-knuckles his beer, imagining the glass is his brother’s throat, which he plunges into the dam at home, keeping it there until his body floats.
‘Who are you?’ Stephens asks.
In a subdued voice, Darryl explains who he is and why he’s there.
Stephens sizes the young man up, making a slow walk around the long table.
‘Tell me, Darryl,’ he says, arriving, ‘do you have any idea the trouble I’ve had getting your brother down? I was beginning to think I’d offended him.’
Darryl accepts the editor’s handshake, telling him not to take his brother’s stalling personally, it’s just that Arthur is the shy one of the family.
‘But wait till he warms up to you,’ he says. ‘He’s the best man I know.’
‘I’m sure you’re right.’ Stephens faces the others. ‘Now, if you don’t mind, gentlemen, we’ll take a quick adjournment. Our friend Darryl needs to use the pisser.’
There you have it. Not a very satisfying ending, is it? And after all that build-up? True, we’re relieved for Darryl. The kid’s a fraction uncouth, but we’re happy his head avoided the chopping block. As for Rudd—well, maybe what’s occurred in Sydney will kickstart a shift in how he sees his brother, and more crucially, himself. Three decades from now, not long before he dies at the age of sixty-six, after a career spanning two dozen books, Rudd will rail at the dramatisation of his stories in the popular Dad and Dave radio show, outraged by the transforming of his characters—i.e. his family—into comic hillbillies. So who knows? Maybe this trip was a turning point?
Still, I don’t think it’s wrong of us to want more. An altercation at Paris House. Fisticuffs, fire, murder. But what can you do? This is what happened that night in 1899, and as I’ve said, who are we to look to reality and expect miracles?
There’s a chance yours truly could have something to do with it as well. I’m more than a few drinks in here and have let the fire burn down low. I also had my first book published last year, a collection of short stories about rural life. A number of them were indebted to my dad, from yarns he told me on the banks of the Murray River. When the time came, I dressed in my best clothes, I took that jittery train ride from the backblocks to the city for my book. In the week leading up to it, dripping sweat as I walked about reading electricity meters during my day job, I focused on maintaining my g’s, dreamed my dreams of being met with howling laughter. Darryl was with me the whole time I was in Melbourne, if not in person then certainly in spirit.
Perhaps what we have then is a warning? Beware the adage write what you know. If you want to avoid being stuck with dud endings, at any rate.
Where does that leave us? With the brothers, I guess, boarding the train the next afternoon. Rudd’s the first to farewell Stephens and Co, vowing to send new work as soon as he can. Then Darryl, pried from his new friends by the conductor’s whistle. He lopes to the train and swings himself up, crying a raucous goodbye.
Then they’re going, the train belching steam as it begins its journey. The brothers dump their bags, take a seat together, wave a final time at the Bulletin men.
When they’re free of the city, Rudd releases a long, shoulder-drooping sigh. He’s so caught up in it that he flinches at the touch of a hand on his knee. It’s the same hand that clutched his knee years ago, when as a nine-month-old Darryl used it to pull himself up and begin walking. Rudd turns to his baby brother.
Darryl shrugs. ‘It’s hard yakka for sure, and probably won’t ever get easier. But maybe there’s somethin’ to be said about still standin’ at the end of it?’
A tear dribbles down Rudd’s face as his brother tightens his grip.
‘Well.’ Darryl stands eventually. ‘I’m off for a wander. You’ll be right?’
Rudd nods, says he might try for a bit of writing.
‘Till we meet again,’ Darryl says with a mock salute, and disappears from the story, gone to badger some unsuspecting passenger, or sneak into the driver’s cabin.
But I’ll hang out here by the window with Rudd, the outlying suburbs giving way to the first paddocks, the glorious fields of gold stretching as far as the eye can see. And it’s here I’ll stay, describing him wipe the tear from his bristled cheek, the smile that miracles his weary face like a rainbow after a storm, because who better to know the conflicted heart of someone wrestling their inner Darryl than a Wayne?
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