Fifty-five minutes late: short story by Paul Wenz

A short story about life in the Australian bush by French-Australian writer Paul Wenz of Nanima Station via Forbes, NSW. First published in 1910 and republished here as part of the Paul and Hettie Wenz Project. See below for more on the story’s publication history.

A minor branch line in New South Wales, and nobody knows why it was built except the few travellers it jostles every week – a twice weekly service which doesn’t even pay for the axle-grease.

The train stopped at a siding where there was a little shed and a water tank: the name Billingora was written imposingly on a long signboard. It was a station after all.

The passengers appearing at the doors looked hot and tired, dusty and rumpled. George, the guard, was the only one to get down, to give the mail bag to the woman who was acting station master and to get another in return. The two bags were limp and only a quarter full.

After a few minutes a salesman, doubtless on this line for the first time, asked in a loud voice what they were waiting for.

Even if they had known nobody had enough energy to reply to such a question. The heat had long since stifled any social instinct. So the city-type could only sound off at those who were “trying” to run the New South Wales railways.

Eventually, the train set off and soon reached its maximum speed: fourteen miles per hour. From the train, there was nothing to be seen but low hills which looked like red humps among the yellowish grass.

The plain was scattered with clumps of spindly trees, and whatever the miners had left behind them twenty years before. Three thousand men had made holes in this land as worms do in wood: they had accumulated all these piles of red earth, destroying a forest which was slowly rotting in the shafts. Now the burning sun mercilessly consumed these hills and no amount of clay lifted hastily from the depths could rejuvenate the stricken grass.

The train had been going for about thirty minutes when a man standing between the rails flagged it down and brought it to a sudden halt. George ran towards the engine to see what was happening.

“Is there a doctor on board?” the man asked anxiously.

“I don’t think so,” said George, who knew almost all the passengers and could guess who the others were. “Has there been an accident?”

“My wife took sick an hour ago.”

The passengers were all at the door; George soon knew for certain that there was no doctor.

Then, Mrs Kelly got down from a second class compartment (with more ease than her large person would have led people to think). She called the man to her and in a low voice, she asked him several questions.

“Yes,” he answered. “It started an hour ago, but the house is nearly a mile from here.”

After a brief moment of hesitation, Mrs Kelly made up her mind.

“George,” she said to the guard, “I’m going to have a look at this woman: you can wait for me or go on as you please; in any case I’m off.”

Turning towards the passengers who were dying to know what was happening, she demanded whisky. This appeal was not made in vain for several bottles of different shapes and with varying levels were produced straight away. Decisively she chose a bottle more than half full and began to follow the man towards a clump of trees which seemed to be wavering in the heat.

“Christ! That’s the end!” wailed the travelling salesman as he watched them go. “We’ve had it now!”

Nobody else complained: they all lived in the bush where time is not money, where a man is always ready to help his neighbour in case of need. The passengers got down from the train; farmers went to look at the sheep panting in their open wagon; three little children inspected the engine while others, strolling among the hills, gathered bits of quartz in the hope of finding specks of gold.

During this time, under a leaden sky, Mrs Kelly valiantly continued with her companion. The flies were terrible, it must have been at least 110°F in the shade, but the lady’s majestic frame showed not a sign of bad humour. The man did his best to explain what was wrong; he was a miner and his work in the long since abandoned shaft gave just enough gold to keep him alive.

Mrs Kelly was the undisputed Good Fairy of the district; her only preoccupation in this life seemed to be to do good, to give help to those who needed it. She could be seen on any road, at all hours of the day and night, going to visit someone who was sick, tending someone injured or helping some poor soul cross in the great beyond. Last month, she had saved Joe Smith for his wife and five children when he was brought in, his foot almost severed, cut by an axe. The number was not negligible of the sick and dying she had helped, or the voices which rose to bless her.

The miner’s hut was a miserable shanty patched together mainly with bark and old jerry cans; a grubby little boy and a puppy were playing in the dust. Both fled at the arrival of the visitor.

Mrs Kelly went into the hut and the man began to cut wood, looking steadfastly at the door. After what seemed a long time, Mrs Kelly emerged.

Her face was radiant; her joyful smile lightened his heart. “It’s a girl,” she called, “come and hold her now.”

The patient was resting and the man now that everything was going well, wanted to take Mrs Kelly back. He listened carefully to all her instructions; she promised to send what was necessary by the next day train.

The poor man could find no words to express his thanks; he did not know how he was going to show his gratitude. The he asked:

“What is your Christian name?”

“Elizabeth,” replied Mrs Kelly.

“Well, we are going to call our little one Elizabeth too, and God bless you!”

Mrs Kelly was greeted by the anxious passengers.

“What was the matter?” she was asked as soon as she was within speaking distance.

“It’s a bonny bouncing girl,” said Mrs Kelly, “and she is doing very well.”

The salesman forgot his troubles; he lifted his hat in the air and cried: “Three cheers for the little one!”

Thirty voices replied with three loud hurrahs, while the steam engine gave three thrill salutes. Then the miner, his voice thick with emotion, yelled: “Three cheers for Mrs Kelly!” Once again, the deserted plain resounded with hurrahs and strident whistles.

“All aboard,” shouted Georges!

The train resumed his journey and as the sun slid behind the horizon, the miner watched the carriages disappearing whilst handkerchiefs and hats continued waving to wish him good luck.

“Fifty-five minutes late,” said George the guard, looking at his watch. “That’s nothing – Australia needs its kids!”

PAUL WENZ, Nanima Station, Forbes, NSW

Copyright 1987 ALFA and Le Lérot for the French text. Copyright 1988 ALFA and Patricia Brulant for the English translation. Republished here with permission as part of The Paul & Hettie Wenz Project.

Publication history

1910 – first published in French in Contes australiens: sous la Croix du Sud [Australian stories: Under the Southern Cross], a collection of Wenz’s stories, by Plon.

1987 – republished in Paul Wenz, Français et Australien: A la recherche d’un écrivain perdu [In search of a lost writer], a collection of Wenz’s stories selected and introduced by Jean-Paul Delamotte, by Le Lérot.

1988 – English translation published in Australian Short stories N° 22, edited by Bruce Pascoe.

1990 – republished in Paul Wenz, Diary of a New Chum and Other Lost Stories, with a foreword by Frank Moorhouse, by Imprint, Angus & Robertson, Australia.

2004 – republished on-line as part of the Wenz Project on www.merrillfindlay.com

This short story was kindly contributed by Jean-Paul Delamotte, Paris.

Content revised 17 June 2005 and again 21 January 2008. Posted on this new site on 23 January 2011. Permalink http://merrillfindlay.com/?page_id=1681.

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