RILEY’S BILLY LIDS
© Tom McIlveen

Winner, 2018 FAW Eastwood/Hills ‘Boree Log Award’.

I’d met him out at Riley’s farm when we were only kids,
and pushing brooms around the shearing shed.
The local hands had dubbed us as old Riley’s ‘Billy Lids’,
and worked us till our palms and fingers bled.
 
We’d swept a ton or two of wool from every nook and space,
and must have filled at least a thousand bales.
We kept those greasy floorboards just as clean as Riley’s place,
despite the gaping holes and rusty nails.
 
The shearers said that Jimmy’s folks were both Kamilaroi
from somewhere out the back of Narrabri,
and though the hands had tagged him as ‘The Cocky Koori Boy,’
he was in fact, conservative and shy.
 
He’d told me once, he’d bolted from a Burren Junction slum,
and wrote a note to say that he’d be back.
He’d left behind a brother and an alcoholic mum
who’d never coped with being labelled black.
 
He’d hitched a ride to Tamworth with a drunken drover’s cook,
who’d rambled on and paid him little heed.
He’d dropped him out at Riley’s for a speculative look...
to find a job and rustle up a feed.
 
Old Riley with his heart of gold, had taken Jimmy in
and taught him not to cower down at heel.
He wasn’t one to judge a man by social caste or skin,
nor shun a tarnished apple for its peel.

He liked to quote the bible when he felt the pious urge
to right us when we’d acted untoward.
‘The road to exaltation will undoubtly emerge
for those who seek the glory of the Lord!’

When shearing time was over and the mob returned to graze,
we’d take a spell at droving for a change;
as Jimmy loved the cattle and their unfamiliar ways
and craved the tranquil silence of the range.

When Riley died last summer, we had grieved him for a while,
then buried him behind the shearing shed.
We’d carved a granite headstone with a rusted metal file,
and buffed it till our palms and fingers bled.

As if to mourn his passing, there was pestilence and drought,
with half the country crying out for rain.
So Jimmy packed his swag and wandered off on walkabout
to guide old Riley’s spirit home again!


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