THE SWAGMAN’S GHOST
© B.J. (Beryl) Stirling

Winner, 2013 Hunter Bush Poets 'International Cowboy Competition' - Humorous Section, Morisset, NSW.

Defiant to the last was he –
“Free I was born and I’ll die free!”
And drowning, his last words would be:
“Matilda, come and waltz with me.”
The squatter and the troopers failed
To see their victim tried and jailed.
His failure to submit belongs
In legends, yarns and camp fire songs.

Now, some who pass the billabong
Will swear they hear the swagman’s song.
Clairvoyant folk have said they see
Him by the camp-fire brewing tea.
Though sceptics say that that’s absurd,
It’s just a bird they must have heard
And as for visions – well – there’s some
Who just can’t handle Bundy Rum.

But these tales reached the avid ears
Of Smith, whose funds were in arrears,
Whose overdraft was overwrought,
Whose auditors could not be bought.
Who, needing funds for speculation,
Got involved in peculation –
Built a motel on the site
Frequented by the swagman’s wight.

A wheeler-dealer, high achiever,
Smith, although an unbeliever,
Meant to get out of the red,
Cash in on the quiescent dead
And vindicate his guests’ expense
With paranormal evidence.
Procured a muso wannabe
To sing “Matilda, waltz with me.”

The barman at the local pub
Gave a glass a token rub;
Announced that he, too, planned a joke
To fool incomers from the smoke.
“It’s ghosts they want?” he laughed and said,
“I’ll raise that swagman from the dead!”
Employed an actor, local boy,
To dupe the tourist hoi polloi.

But meanwhile, in a beat up shack
Just off the road and down a track,
The elders of the local tribe
Engaged in angry diatribe.
“All right! It’s not a sacred site
But bloody hell! It isn’t right!
That billabong belongs to us
Not gubbas* in a tourist bus!

The water isn’t fit to drink
The fish are belly up and stink!
Pollution levels grow an grow –
That bloody motel has to go!”
The tribal chief now took the floor –
Cried: “Though it’s banned by tribal law,
We’ll give ‘em ghosts! We’ll let them see
The Bunyip’s Rage Corroboree!”

So now the elements converged
As three contrasting plots emerged.
First Smith’s; his was an arcane choice
A disembodied, eerie voice.
The barman, too, had paid a bloke
To act the swagman as a joke,
While what the angry elders planned
Might win them back their tribal land.

The new motel of tiles and glass
And five star food to give it class,
Had offered for its premiere
A floorshow in the open air.
All waited by the billabong,
Expectant, hoping for his song –
The spectral swagman of romance;
Matilda summoned to the dance.

At midnight in the spangled sky
An orange moon blazed from on high.
The coolabahs threw darksome shade
And now the comedy was played.
The captive audience grew tense
And as they waited in suspense,
Matilda’s hand again was sought
To join the swagman in his sport.

But unexpectedly was seen
A spectral figure glowing green!
A swaggie with a death’s head grin –
You could have heard a dropping pin
Till came the stamp of naked feet,
Loud chanting and the click stick beat –
As stone age culture suddenly
Changed waltz time to corroboree.

A dream time creature, long asleep
Arose in anger from the deep.
The surface of the billabong
Boiled over, sprayed the fleeing throng!
It sought to hunt, destroy and maim,
Breathed fire, set the bush aflame.
And those who lived to tell the tale
Would ever falter and grow pale.

Next day the tribe took off. No doubt,
Upon a lengthy walk-about.
While at the pub, the publican
Had placed an almost total ban
On overtly theatrical
Things shown to be impractical.
But smiling, Smith surveyed the mound,
His new motel burned to the ground.

It seemed he would recuperate,
Be really in much better shape
Since though it was reluctantly,
Insurers ineluctably
Surrendered. They could find no way
To wriggle out, refuse to pay.
But still, it’s long been understood
An ill wind must bring some-one good

Full fathom five the bunyip sleeps,
His heavy breathing stirs the deeps,
For those who flouted tribal law
With sacred smoke have closed the door
Have exorcised the dread immortal,
Sealed again the Dream Time portal,
While rejoicing, ever free,
The swagman sings:  “Come waltz with me!”

*Gubbas derogatory aboriginal term for white men, derived from ‘Government’.

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