Noel Burfitt had suffered his fair share of hangovers, great blinding things that rendered him useless for days. But the one-two punch of pain and regret he woke to that Sunday morning, when a fist started pounding at the front door as if at his sodden brain, was like nothing else. Because he’d done it again. Last night was hazy; he remembered only snatches. But he just knew.
The knocking continued.
‘Noel, can you get that?’ Lynette, knife clacking in the kitchen.
Groaning, Burfitt sat up in bed. With a grimace, he noticed he was still wearing the same clothes he went out in. Shirt, jeans, shoes—the lot. The stink of beer and cigarette smoke wafted about him in a cloud.
Another clobbering of fists.
‘Yeah, yeah, I’m getting it.’
Burfitt stumbled from the bedroom into the front passage.
It was only as he approached the door that terror struck him.What if this was about last night? No, surely not. Surely by the time it’d happened, everyone in the pub had been too far gone to have noticed.
The sunlight was blinding when he opened the door. ‘Ah, there you are. Thought you were never gonna come.’ Squinting, Burfitt found the hulking Ian Murchison, owner of the sports supplies shop in the town’s main street. Burfitt was in there only last week buying new cricket whites for his teenage sons. Had Murchison been at the Golden Fleece?
‘Big night, Noel?’ Murchison’s moustache straddled his upper lip.
‘Real big night, I’d say.’
The second voice belonged to the frizzy-haired Bevan Wright, standing next to Murchison. Wright manned the pub’s TAB corner on weekends, making him privy to all manner of drunken indiscretions. He smirked at Burfitt, finger ashing his smoke.
Despite his rising anxiety, Burfitt managed to stay calm.
‘Just a few beers, fellas. You know how it is.’ He smiled, although feeling he might vomit.
‘Things got away from you, mate,’ said Murchison. ‘Didn’t they?’
‘Oh, I don’t know—’
‘We’re here on behalf of the Committee, Noel.’
‘You’ve been charged, mate.’
‘Ian, please.’ He reached for Murchison’s arm.
Wright scowled his distaste.
‘Didn’t you hear him? You’ve been charged.’
The world was spinning and Burfitt felt suddenly choked for air. He wished he could slam the door in their faces, draw the chain and ignore the knocking. But he knew it wouldn’t go away. Not now it had started.
‘Righty-o, let’s get your hearing booked in.’ Murchison produced a notepad and pencil from the back pocket of his jeans. ‘How’s tomorrow sit with you, Noel? The Committee could do Tuesday at a pinch, but they’re keen to get the ball rolling on this ASAP. Big week coming up with the one-day cricket finals starting Wednesday.’
Burfitt stared at the doormat.
‘Seven o’clock start?’
Burfitt nodded, numb.
‘Beautiful.’ Murchison scribbled on the paper, then closed the notepad. ‘Be seeing you tomorrow night.’ He gave Burfitt a firm handshake. ‘All the best, mate.’
Wright didn’t offer Burfitt his hand, only a parting grin as the pair headed along the driveway, passing Burfitt’s yellow Datsun before disappearing into the street.
Burfitt locked the door and hurried back to bed, collapsing into troubled dreams.
It was after midday by the time he resurfaced. Heading for the kitchen, Burfitt retraced the steps that had led to disaster. It had been a normal Saturday. He’d worked at McEwans until noon, mowed the lawns at home, then ducked over to the cricket ground to watch a few overs of the senior match. Nothing out of the ordinary. And yet he’d felt it, hadn’t he—that familiar slide towards danger? He should have called it there, put off his usual Saturday drinks. Steered clear of the Golden Fleece, at any rate. But like a fool he’d ignored the warning signs.
He opened the kitchen door.
‘Nah, it’s alright, Noel.’ Lynette’s voice sounded from somewhere among the small army crowded into the kitchen and dining table area. ‘You go on sleeping. Put your feet up while we deal with the mess you’ve chucked us in.’
When Burfitt’s stinging eyes found her, she was crouched between their sons, Mark and Lucas. Both boys stood awkwardly in suits, refusing to meet his eye. Instead they watched the portable TV. On the screen, Bob Hawke was sculling a beer alongside cricket fans at the MCG, the drink gushing down the prime minister’s chin.
‘What’s happening, love?’
‘What’s it look like?’ Lynette shot up, tape measure in hand. ‘Can’t have the boys showing up to your hearing tomorrow in shorts and thongs, can we?’
‘Oh.’ A sinking feeling, way down in the pit of his stomach. ‘So you’ve heard.’
‘Of course we’ve bloody heard.’ On cue, the telephone started its shrill ring. Lynette threw an arm towards it. ‘No shortage of people lining up to tell me.’
Burfitt glanced sheepishly around the room. A handful of Lynette’s friends were there: washing dishes, preparing the next day’s lunches, rounding up a load of washing. Each woman shot him a look of contempt. He bit his lip.
‘I’m sorry, Lyny.’
She glared at him, jaw clenched, before softening.
‘I know,’ she said, and hugged him. ‘We’ll get through this. We’ll find a way.’
A hand gripped his shoulder.
‘A word outside if you don’t mind, Noel.’
Turning, Burfitt was confronted by the glowering eyebrows of his father-in-law. In his early seventies, Jock had lost none of the fierce authority he’d used to police the town until his retirement only a few years ago. When he spoke, people listened. Burfitt listened.
Out back, the porch was a hell of flies and forty-degree heat.
‘Congratulations, Noel,’ Jock said as soon as the screen door banged shut. ‘You’ve successfully gone and made your wife and sons the laughing stock of town. I mean, did you even think of them when you went and did what you did?’
‘No.’ Burfitt’s voice was tiny. ‘I suppose I didn’t.’
‘Of course you didn’t.’ Jock slid a Marlboro between his lips and lit up. ‘Okay, so Lynette tells me you’ve had just the one official warning in the past? Day of the neighbourhood BBQ, around the time Mark was born?’
Burfitt turned away from him.
‘Noel, this is crucial. You’ve only had one warning from the Committee, right?’
Burfitt stared at the back fence a long time before answering.
‘There’s been two.’
He still remembered the morning after his eighteenth: snatched from bed at dawn, blind-folded, driven a short distance and bundled up a flight of stairs. At the end of a corridor he’d been shoved into a room. There, a chorus of thundering voices had denounced his behaviour the previous night, letting him off with a warning under the proviso he performed one hundred hours of community service.
‘Two? Noel, you know the punishment they’ll be pressing for.’
Burfitt nodded grimly.
‘Lunch’s ready!’ called one of the women.
Jock came in close, stamping out his smoke.
‘Listen, as a former cop I don’t say this lightly.’ He scanned the fence line then the screen door. ‘Run. Tonight. Just get in your car and go. Wendy and I’ll see that Lynette and the boys are taken care of.’
The door opened and Lynette looked out, downcast. ‘Lunch.’
‘Coming.’ Jock put an arm around Burfitt, patting his shoulder as they walked.
All night, while Lynette snored beside him, Burfitt tossed and turned, the bedside clock flipping numbers in a countdown to his reckoning. At two, he left the bed and opened the curtain. The Datsun waited in the driveway, gleaming in the moonlight. He glanced at his sleeping wife, then back at the car, stiffening when he noticed a speck of glowing orange, then another. Shifting in the window, Burfitt saw two men smoking in a white Holden station wagon parked across his driveway. He went back to bed and pulled the blankets high about him.
Morning came, and despite his night Burfitt felt renewed optimism. He showered, dressed and joined Lynette and the boys at the breakfast table.
‘So, what’s the plan?’ Lynette asked, cocooned in her dressing gown.
‘I’m going to track down someone from the Committee.’ Burfitt drank from his second cup of coffee. ‘Speak some sense into them.’
Mark scoffed, the yellow school shirt tight across his burgeoning chest and arms.
‘Find someone from the Committee? Yeah, good luck with that, Dad.’
‘Brendan Parker reckons his dad’s on the Committee?’ Lucas looked to his father with searching blue eyes that reminded Burfitt too much of his own.
‘Everyone reckons their dad’s on the Committee, you idiot.’ Mark shovelled another spoonful of Nutri-Grain into his mouth. ‘Except us, I suppose.’
Burfitt stood. ‘Well I’m going to find one of them.’ He said his goodbyes, setting off across the scorched nature strips for Main Street.
The town centre was busy despite it being a Monday morning. Men in blue denim picked up the paper on the way to work. Women pushed shopping trolleys with whining toddlers strapped to seats. Mostly they avoided him: ducking suddenly into shops, lowering their eyes in passing. Children were less tactful.
‘That’s him!’ A boy pointed at Burfitt outside Tuckerbag. His mother tried to hurry him along, but not before the boy cried, ‘My dad says they’re gonna have your head tonight!’ The mother hissed at him to be quiet, smiling red-faced back at Burfitt.
He went on, trying not to come undone. He’d been a similar age to the boy when he attended his first hearing. Main Street had hummed with a carnival atmosphere; the gutters ran with the urine of those assembled outside the pub. He remembered jostling for a view between the trousered legs of his father and uncles as the accused—a trembling rake of a man—had been led onto the podium to jeers. It had all seemed like a game until then, an elaborate piece of make- believe for adults. Then the guilty verdict was handed down and the punishment delivered, and it was a game no more.
He tried the shire offices, the police station, the information centre, the bank. But whenever Burfitt asked if anyone could put him in touch with a Committee member, he was met with the same stony silence. At the bottle-shop, Craig Evans told him that even if he knew the identities of those in the Committee he wouldn’t tell. ‘Bloke like you isn’t worth the air he breathes,’ he said.
Out of options, Burfitt headed to Murchison’s shop.
A loud beep sounded as he entered Frontier Sport. Immediately, Murchison strode to the counter with hands out in front.
‘Word’s all over town about what you’re up to, Noel. Don’t even bother asking, mate.’
Burfitt approached the counter.
‘Please, Ian. One name. I’m begging you.’
‘You know full well I can’t do that.’
‘Who gave you the order to charge me?’ Anger coursed his arms, hands.
‘Letter under the door, I swear.’
‘Bullshit!’ Burfitt snatched an SS Turbo from the rack, shaping to smash the bat against the counter. ‘I have a wife, Ian. Kids. You do, too. Same age as mine.’
Murchison’s eyelids clamped tight. His head tilted back. ‘Please, Ian.’
Murchison leaned over the counter, scribbling on the back of a docket. As he did, he shouted that he had no sympathy for anyone who refused to abide by the Act. When he was done writing, he slid the crumpled paper to Burfitt, then put a finger to his lips. ‘They’re listening.’ He gestured to a wall of red Sherrins.
Burfitt mouthed his gratitude. Murchison nodded, before yelling at him to clear out and never come back.
Outside Burfitt opened the docket, having to check twice when he saw the name.
He spotted the white council ute first, parked in the shade of gum trees lining the sports ground. Then Greg Smeaton himself, on the far wing, barrel-chested behind the wheel of the enormous ride-on, wearing a yellow high-viz shirt. When finally he noticed Burfitt waving up at him, he powered off the mower and removed his earphones.
‘G’day, Noel.’ A smile swept the face of the man who’d been Burfitt’s next-door neighbour for nearly two decades. When Noel had rushed Lynette to hospital on the night Lucas was born, it was Greg and his wife Sandra who’d looked after Mark. They watered each other’s gardens and collected the mail whenever the other was away.
Greg drank from a cordial bottle filled with water. ‘What can I do for you, mate?’
‘I just wanted to say thanks again for your mower on the weekend. I’ll have to do something about mine one of these days.’
‘Ah, no worries.’ Greg hunched over the steering wheel. ‘There anything else?’
‘Actually…’ Burfitt toed the grass. ‘I’m here about tonight.’
Greg winced. ‘Yeah, heard about that. Well, know that you have mine and Sandra’s full support.’
‘Look, Greg.’ Burfitt’s heart was a beating obstruction in his throat. ‘I know you’re on the Committee. And I’m here, mate, to ask you—to beg you, mate—for leniency. I know I did wrong, but—’
‘Noel.’ The smile had vanished from Greg’s face.
‘Shut up that whining bloody voice of yours and listen.’ Rising tall on the mower, Greg told Burfitt he’d been watching him for years. In fact, as a young Eye coming up in the ranks, dedicated to upholding the laws set down by the early settlers, it had been his reporting of Burfitt’s second major offence at the neighbourhood BBQ (although he’d reported many more indiscretions over the years) that had brought Greg to the attention of the Committee. It was the first step towards his eventual ascension to the Committee itself.
‘You always were a wet drunk,’ said Greg with disdain. ‘Crybaby Burfitt. That’s what we call you. “Alright, fellas, keep a close watch on Crybaby this weekend. He’s bound to be up to his old tricks.” You should be ashamed of yourself.’
‘Mate, she’d have you strung up from the nearest tree if she had her way. No self-respecting bloke goes and behaves like that.’
Burfitt tried to interject, but Greg was having none of it.
‘Tonight it’ll be our allegation that you committed a Category 3 offence on Saturday. With two prior Cat 3s to your name, we’ll be seeking the ultimate penalty.’
It wasn’t until Burfitt was ducking the fence line, his every thought a fresh stab of terror, that the mower roared back to life behind him.
It was dinnertime before he knew it. Burfitt sat at the table, navy tie across a white shirt, suit jacket over shoulders that had refused to bulk up, no matter how many weights he lifted or heavy items he lugged through McEwans. Lynette sat opposite in a black dress. She was older now, he saw suddenly, twenty years condensed into a moment, her once smooth face invaded by wrinkles and dark pockets beneath her eyes. Yet in some way she was prettier than ever. Prettier, even, than that night in ‘63 when, in a room packed with brawny young men at the annual Farewell to Summer Bash, she’d crossed the smoky din of the town hall and asked him to dance.
He smiled over the table at her. And she at him.
‘Testing, testing, one, two.’ The echo of the PA system from Main Street.
Burfitt took in his boys, heads lowered over their meals. They looked handsome in the suits Lynette had spent the afternoon lengthening. How would they fare afterwards? What sort of men would they grow up to be? Like him? No, as much as it hurt to think, he couldn’t ever hope for that.
‘Testing, testing, one, two.’
Burfitt reached for his wife’s hand.
‘I’m sorry, Lyny. For everything.’
She shook her head. ‘Don’t you ever be sorry,’ and hit him with a look that penetrated the depths of his soul. ‘Okay? Not ever.’
That did it.
As his defences fell and tears streamed down his cheeks, the memory of Saturday night came flooding back. He’d been in the front bar of the Golden Fleece, several beers deep. Through the windows he’d witnessed one of the most glorious sunsets he’d ever seen—full of brilliant oranges and pinks, watched over by a wedge-tailed eagle, gliding with wings outstretched. In that moment he’d sat in ecstasy at the sheer existence of Lynette, his boys, their lives in this town. Then, in the blink of an eye—it had seemed like the blink of an eye, although it must have been a few drinks later—he’d looked to the windows and found it dark. Night had fallen, the bird was gone and it had hit him: how finite it all was. How sooner or later, no matter what anyone said or did, the whole thing would be swamped by a merciless tidal wave of black. He’d rushed to the toilets, locked himself in a cubicle. But someone must have seen or heard.
At the table, Burfitt sobbed uncontrollably.
He entered Main Street hand in hand with Lynette, the boys close behind. As was customary in the event of a hearing, the road was closed to traffic. Outside Toyworld, a red and yellow jumping castle thumped with shrieking kids. The chime of a Mr Whippy van sounded from further along. On the right-side footpath, the Golden Fleece had fashioned an impromptu beer garden. Townspeople packed the tables, cherry-faced, pot glasses chinking. Before them on a stage of milk crates, local singer Willie Rivers strummed his way through a version of the Committee’s unofficial anthem, a re-working of Slim Dusty’s ‘A Pub with No Beer’. Accompanied by the drinkers, Rivers threw back his head and bellowed:
There’s nothin’ so lonesome, so morbid or drear!
Than to drink in a bar with a bloke spillin’ a tear!
In the middle of the road itself was the wooden podium, presided over by two guards. The guillotine was in the centre. Lynette squeezed Burfitt’s hand as they parted the crowd. ‘Well,’ Burfitt said to her, reaching the podium. ‘In case this is goodbye.’ They kissed.
‘Good luck, Dad.’ Mark slapped him on the back.
Lucas looked up at him, choked with emotion.
‘I love you, Dad.’
‘I love you too, mate. Be good for your mum.’
Around them, suited officials were gathering. One by one, they trotted up the creaking steps and onto the podium.
The mayor, Bruce Sutherland, was last. He waddled to the microphone, the street falling to silence.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls.’ His voice boomed from the speakers. ‘Thank you for attending tonight’s hearing.’
Burfitt was escorted up the steps and onto the rise behind the guillotine as Sutherland outlined the Committee’s accusation, reading statements from more than two dozen witnesses testifying to the violation of the Waterworks Act. Each statement identified Noel Burfitt of Carina Drive as the culprit.
‘A plea will now be entered,’ said Sutherland. ‘In a loud voice, Mr Burfitt.’
Burfitt weighed up his options, then in a forlorn voice conceded his guilt. Wild cheers broke out, forcing Sutherland to call the hearing to order.
‘Mr Burfitt has been a valued member of our community. Retail assistant, husband, father. But with this latest offence, the Committee has lost patience. Therefore, Mr Burfitt, it is my solemn duty to hereby sentence you to death.’
Lynette cried his name.
Before he could answer, the guards had him on his knees, forcing his head inside the circular headpiece. His neck bristled at the prospect of the blade.
‘Let no one say the Committee shows no mercy,’ Sutherland announced.
The podium wobbled as a man mounted the steps. It took Burfitt a moment to recognise him as Ian Murchison, sporting two black eyes. He held a green can of VB.
‘Last drinks,’ said Sutherland, and those outside the Golden Fleece raised their glasses.
Murchison crouched beside Burfitt.
‘I’m sorry, Noel,’ he whispered. ‘Wish I could’ve done more.’
Sutherland returned to the microphone, moving through the final preliminaries. As he did, Burfitt noticed movement above. Craning his neck, he saw a procession of suited figures in top hats stepping onto the balcony of the Golden Fleece. For the most part they were old men, wrinkled faces arched by colossal moustaches, but there was one younger face among them, belonging to a man also wearing a suit and top hat. Joining the others at the railing, his neighbour Greg Smeaton looked down.
‘Well?’ Sutherland was holding the microphone to Burfitt. ‘Any final words?’
Burfitt stared up at the balcony. For the longest time he had feared these men, been decapitated by them in dreams, had secretly wished to destroy them.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Fuck the Committee.’
In the pandemonium that followed, Burfitt managed to wiggle backwards and free himself from the guillotine. Slipping the guards, he leapt from the podium and hit the ground running, crashing up and over tables, sending pot glasses smashing, before bolting beneath the awnings of the shopfronts and out of Main Street.
By the time he reached his driveway, the emergency siren was wailing across the town. Drenched in sweat, Burfitt tore open the unlocked door of his Datsun. He snatched the keys from the glovebox, cranked the engine and reversed, skidding into the street and bowling over several of the men in pursuit.
He sped forward, dodging a fire hydrant hurled at him by a young boy. Burfitt swerved left, then right, ploughing through a row of Road Closed signs, braking at the lip of Main Street. The engine idled.
At the opposite end lay the main road out of town.
Beyond that, the highway. But could he really leave Lynette and the boys? And to this tyranny?
Ahead, people scrambled from the Datsun’s path, opening the podium to view. Burfitt bashed the steering wheel in excitement when he saw them: the Committee, spread across the rickety podium, issuing orders to the mayor.
He revved the engine. The Committee wheeled at the sound.
‘You! Crybaby!’ Greg Smeaton was on the microphone. ‘Here! Now!’
‘Here I come,’ Burfitt said, and planted the accelerator, crying tears of joy.