The expectations of sparrows

Mavis was contemplating death. The cemetery was shaded by century-old elms, so it was a pleasant place to walk on a hot day and she went there more often than was good for her, passing headstones for women who were variously the beloved wife of, beloved mother of, beloved nana of, beloved mother-in-law of, beloved sister of. Often this was all the same woman.

A rabbit shot across the path in front of her. The hole from which it sprang — under the broken slab of Joseph Ormiston Native of Co Cavan Ireland — implied a burrow. The white tail disappeared between weeping angels and Grecian urns, destination unknown.

It was always better first thing in the mornings when the cicadas didn’t din so much. Before the heat descended in earnest. Her loneliness would simply look like being alone to anyone commuting to work along the adjacent road. Lights changed somewhere; a stream of cars and utes growled past. She stopped to contemplate Annie, died 1924. A shadow fell across her.

“Excuse me, sorry, if you don’t mind me interrupting?”

Mavis felt her bones lifting clear of her leathery skin: leaping in fright.

“I’m not a ghost,” the boy grinned. He must have clocked the jump, the ashen face.

“It was the crowbar I was concerned about,” Mavis said. Boldly.

He looked down at his right hand as if confused. “It’s not for you. Sorry.” He actually blushed. “I saw you here on your lonesome last week and I just wanted to aks you a favour.”

Mavis was making judgements well before the mispronunciation of “ask”. From toe to head: muddy runners, mid-knee cargo shorts washed to raggedness, fanboy t-shirt with the logo cracked into a mosaic of colours making identification of the band name impossible. Pimples. Baseball cap. She just knew it’d be grimy on the inside. She didn’t have to “aks” if he hailed from up the way, from the suburb known as Stabbington — whether fairly or unfairly she felt she was about to find out — as the young man lugged his crowbar into a resting position across his shoulder.

“I’m Troy.” He thrust out his other hand.

Mavis hesitated. For fear, a throwback to the worst pandemic months, of germs.

He took his hand back. Said “sorry” again. She was now close enough to see his eyes and knew it was a word often on his lips, for what, seventeen or eighteen years?

“It’s just,” he said, “can you make a phone call for me?”

“If that would help.” Mavis felt a flutter of genuine relief that she would be able to help the kid. She fetched her phone out of her canvas bag and held it out to him.

This time it was Troy who hesitated about reaching his hand across the space between them. “No. I mean, can you make the call? It has to be you.” He nodded northward. “Come, the number is on the sign over there.”


The sign near the entrance to the cemetery resembled a road sign, one you had to read in minute detail to see if parking, standing, stopping, loading or variations thereof was allowed.

The sign warned of more than infringement notices. The local council was asserting that the Albury Pioneer Cemetery was a memorial. Mavis scanned the area around it: the tall native grasses gone wild, the rolls of hairy panic grass banked up in corners formed by crumbling graves, headstones that couldn’t be described as cared for. And yet, the sign went on to warn that anyone caught damaging this neglected memorial would be prosecuted. Destruction could even result in jail time. Moreover, in a move that suggested the council was entirely serious, a reward was offered for any information leading to said prosecution, with a telephone number appended. A not inconsiderable $500 offered.

Mavis read the sign carefully, reread the crowbar. Raised an eyebrow above the frames of her sunglasses.

Troy filled in the details of his plan. “So when I smash the headstone, you call that number at the bottom. Then we split the reward. You get ten per cent.”

“Ten per cent?” Mavis echoed.

Troy’s voice was at once certain and cautious, determined and doomed. “You can’t have any more. Ten per cent. That’s the deal.”

“No, that’s not what I meant. I’m not haggling.”

This was not how Mavis had seen her day going. But now it was going this way, she didn’t want to let the young man with a crowbar become agitated. He might say “sorry” a lot but there was desperation in the plan. And she was not of an age where making a run for it could figure into her calculations.

“How would you like a cup of tea?”

“We need to do it now,” he insisted.

“I have a thermos.” She slipped her mobile back into her canvas bag and retrieved the thermos from the very bottom where its weight had lodged it. Long, cylindrical, silver, it felt like a missile in her hand. “You can explain. Over a cuppa. Really, I want to know.”

Troy took off his baseball cap and wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. The day was already heating up. The inside of the cap was grimy.

“Over in the shade,” Mavis said as she set off without waiting for his reply.

He followed. Whether meekly or menacingly, she didn’t look back to check.


It wasn’t far back to the lichgate that formed the entrance to the Pioneer Cemetery. The cicada ache against her eardrums grew more uncomfortable the closer she got to the gate and the thick hedge of trees lining the boundary wall. It was a relief to get under the shelter. She sat on the bench on one side, Troy slumped on the bench opposite.

Over their shoulders, the place of the dead spread in both directions. Troy looked towards the road — beyond the angels and obelisks — which was quiet now peak hour had passed. Mavis’s view was interrupted by a line of eucalypts, a remnant of the trees that had long followed the Bungambrawatha Creek, the course of which had been straightened and cemented to create a stormwater drain, because pioneers brought “progress” with them.

Mavis readjusted her crisply ironed shirt once seated. “Biscuit?” she offered, after a picnic-style tea ceremony. He had the thermos cup so she’d taken a swig from the bottle, feeling momentarily like a homeless alcoholic. “Homemade biscuits, good to dunk.” By which, Mavis meant, the biscuits were a bit stale. Baking for one always ended up that way.

The sparrows arrived on cue, cocking their heads from side to side on the expectation of crumbs. They waited patiently as Mavis pried Troy’s story out of him.

First, she asked, “Is the phone number even valid?” The sign was rusty at the edges so there was reason for doubt.

Troy nodded, his crowbar at his feet with a sparrow perched on the business end. “I wondered that myself, so I tried it. Goes through to the council.”

She took another swig of tea, hesitated — was this too personal a question? Still, he wanted her to collude in illegal activity. “So, what do you need the five hundred for?”

“Four hundred and fifty after your ten per cent.”

“To be negotiated.”

His eyes emptied.

Emboldened by having her weight off her feet and food in her mouth, Mavis clarified. “I might waive my fee if it’s a good enough story.”

“My girlfriend had our baby this morning. Three fifty-two am, two point two-eight kilos,” he recited. “Not due yet, bit preemie, and her mum’s gone and chucked her out. Doesn’t approve.” He smiled for the first time of their acquaintance. A wry smile. “Obviously.”

Mavis smiled too because news of babies deserves joy. “Congratulations. Boy or girl?”

“We’re calling her Andi so they don’t get pigeonholed so quickly.”

Mavis readjusted her prejudices. How dare she assume Stabbington was stuck in the past.

“There’s bills. Hospital pays most but there’s drugs — I mean the ones the doctor prescribes — and things the baby needs.” He looked bewildered as the reality ran up and mugged him again.

“Did you sleep at all last night?”

“I’ll sleep later in the cells after the police pick me up.”

“If they pick you up.”

He ignored her comment, which sounded like a threat. “What we really need is a pram and a cot and a change table. You wouldn’t believe what little ones need and you should see the cost of the stuff. Even second-hand on Gumtree. My girlfriend’s tough, she can disinfect the viruses they’ve got on them.”

The cicadas provided a monotonous background drone. As Troy’s voice blended into them, Mavis was flooded with regret. She’d kept her kids’ pram at the back of the garage for decades but when their own babies came, they weren’t going to have second-hand, and she’d reluctantly sent everything to St Vinnies. Years ago now. Where had all the years gone?

The father of her children had accused her of smothering them. Told her she had to let them be. Now her grandkids were out of their expensive new prams and at school and she hardly saw them. Could she ask any of her kids if they had a pram stored in their garage to give this young father? They were in different states, so there’d be the logistics of getting it here … It’d give her an excuse to ring each of them at least.

She realised Troy had fallen silent.

She said, “You know it’s a prosecutable offence because smashing graves is wrong? The dead deserve our respect.”

Troy threw a crumble of Anzac biscuit, setting five sparrows aflutter, their wing movements too fast to be registered by the human eye.

“I wouldn’t do nothing disrespectful,” he said. “It’s my family’s grave I’ll have a go at. There’s lots of them in there. My grandad told me stories about the old folks, they won’t mind.”

“You are from an old pioneer family?”

“Not all pioneers were squatters. We never owned nothing.”

And clearly he’d inherited all they’d ever had.

“So,” Mavis tried to understand, “this would be a case of the ancestors looking after the living.” He nodded. She reconsidered. “I don’t know whether that’s a thing in western cultures.”

“It is in my girlfriend’s.”

Troy took a second biscuit and gave a nod towards the Chinese Burning Tower in the far corner of the cemetery, its red roof gleaming in the strengthening sun. “Her family were here before mine but I figured I’d get a worse sentence if I had a go at the Chinese graves. They’d think I’m a racist cunt.”

The sparrows hopped at their feet like wind-up toys, feet together, hop, hop. Stubby beaks rat-at-at-at-ing against the crumbs she too offered.

“And what if the police lock you up?”

“My good behaviour bond is up so should be right. They’ll give me community service. Maybe I’ll have to clean up the cemetery. It could do with some cash and muscle thrown at it.”

Mavis had to agree. His crowbar would be just another wave of vandalism, a tiny one, stacked up behind time and neglect. The wrought-iron fences around the individual gravesites were rusted to the colour of dried blood. Many of the names of the dead were obscured by scabby moss, their identities erased by time and grime clagging up the chiselled letters. The phrase written in stone did not live up to its dictionary definition hereabouts. These were forgotten people.

A pair of naked feet adorned the closest grave to where Mavis sat, the cherub having been knobbled at the ankles. It was probably face down in the high grass.

“What if — you really do need to consider this — what if the courts do give you jail time?”

Troy didn’t blink. “It’s not like I’ve got a job to lose or nothing. And I’d get three meals a day and a roof over my head so’s as it won’t cost so much keeping Jaz and Andi going. They can stay at my grandad’s until …” He stood up. Brushed down his cargo pants, setting the sparrows aflurry, necks stretching high in expectation. “Look, Miss,” he said, “you’ve been real nice but I’ve got to get on. I’ll do the smashing now.”

“There has to be another way. I can ask about finding a pram and the other bits and pieces.”

“I need the money now so I can get Andi off the ward. When you see me going at it, you’ll dob me in. You look too law-abiding to ignore it.”

He left then. Not a boy, a father.


Mavis fumbled getting her thermos and takeaway Chinese container with its remaining Anzacs back into her canvas bag. But Troy was slowed by lack of sleep and she’d caught up by the time he got to the Feely family headstone. It was a solid block erected on a plinth, making it taller than both of them. Plain as to funerary accompaniments: a high-density plot housing a number of generations, but with no angels, no Celtic crosses or doves of peace. No extra chiselling beyond names — was it pay by the letter in the nineteenth century? No Requiescat in Pace, pray for the soul of, in fond memory of. The weeds growing out of the flat slab were summer dead, would return to further crack the concrete with their roots as soon as there was rain.

Mavis and Troy stood side by side and read. Halfway down: Little Ethel. Died 25 December. Aged 4.

Mavis sighed deeply.

“That was my great-grandad’s sister. Christmas Day she went. Can you imagine?”

“Do you know how?”

“Grandad said it was from the burns. The washing copper tipped over. His dad was scarred all down one side and Little Ethel died ten days later. In pain the whole time, poor bugger. On Christmas Day,” he repeated.

They gave the child a minute’s silence.

“You can’t smash it,” Mavis said eventually.

“Little Ethel is dead. My Andi is alive.”

“I mean you can’t. You forgot your crowbar at the lichgate.”

Troy looked at his empty hands. “For fuck’s sake,” he mumbled.

“There is another way.” She’d thought it all through and was about to demand he follow her to an ATM in Lavington and let her give him $500. She patted his arm. He shrank under the kindness of her touch. Straightened again. Stood tall.

She realised charity would be too hurtful. He had his pride. Besides, wasn’t he right — the Feely ancestors were dead.

She pulled the crowbar from her canvas bag. It was heavier than she’d calculated and her shoulder was relieved to give up the weight. She held it out, her mind still scrabbling for a better way. He took one end, she held the other, as if this were a relay baton being passed between them. She was a schoolgirl again on a long-ago sports day running fit to bust. Then she remembered, finally, belatedly, fully, the girl in all this. The new mother in the hospital who surely needed the father of her child around.

“Your girlfriend was fine with your plan, was she?” she asked.

His grasp firmed, the bar vibrated. “She was asleep when I left the ward.”

“But you told her what you were going to do?”

His face held the answer. His grip relaxed and the weight tipped back to Mavis.

“This affects her too. Don’t you think you should talk to her first?”

She noticed darkening patches spreading across the top of his baseball cap. Looked down, and there they were on her sleeve too. Rain drops. Unexpected summer rain. It could have been raining for some time as they stood oblivious, grappling with the future.

Troy stood in front of her as still as a funerary angel, his line of sight blindly anchored in the tuffet of brittle weeds at the foot of the gravestone.

“This lot aren’t going anywhere, are they?” she said. “They’ll still be here when we get back.” Thinking, if not when. The length of metal continuing to join them for a moment longer.

Jane Downing

Jane Downing’s stories and poems have been published around Australia including in Griffith Review, Big Issue, Antipodes, Southerly, Westerly, Island, Meanjin, Canberra Times, Cordite, Best Australian Poems, and previously in Overland. Her novel, The Sultan’s Daughter, was released by Obiter Publishing in 2020.

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