Ned Kelly: Soldier of Future Time

How queer and foreign it must seem to you and all the coarse words and cruelty which I now relate are far away in ancient time. Peter Carey, The True History of the Kelly Gang


My father is an empty iron suit, a trash-can of quarter-inch metal as crude and dented as a hobo’s cup. I have pasted a clipping of this pitiful thing (threatening all the same) on the front of his manuscript. And kicked it under the bed in anger. I cannot kick it any further for the bed is up against the wall and if I sent the package of hooch-sodden excuses and poor Paddy poetry downwards into Conway street, I would only be showing that I have inherited his temper.

The newspaper shows a dent at the right temple, and one on the left cheeck, two on either side of the breast, one athwart the ribs and another, which has pierced the plate, just above the appendix. Sadly, there is not a single dent in the rectangular plate looped over his waist and below. I quite like the image, for it makes me feel less aggrieved to think that there was clearly at least one person other than myself who wanted to wound Edward Kelly in each place I would have.

A trash can on his head! It covers his ears (his eyes are left visible through a slit like a letter box), his mouth and nose. So he could not hear or speak to the woman he abandoned, if she cried out to him as she does, all day and far, far into the night. He could not smell her, wasting and rotting as she feeds a cancer (newer than the one that settled in her heart when she sailed from Port Melbourne), a cancer I cannot stop or treat.

‘How queer and foreign it must seem to you,’ he writes, ‘and all the coarse words and cruelty which I now relate are far away in ancient time.’ It is wonderful to be addressed as some kind of bucolic fool, reading his bag of similes and wind in my bower, swinging on a flower-decked loveseat and ordering tea! Wonderful in particular when the writer of this steaming pile of self-pity and paper heroism is the father who delivered himself of me and fled.

Perhaps I should have read the thing when I was less tied. We strive to be the readers our authors hope for – that much is just good manners. What did Edward Kelly hope for in the daughter to whom he writes? Sympathy, for certain. Sympathy from poverty and the bad, wild blood of the pagan Irish who landed in that forsaken scrub continent after the old world had jettisoned them.

But we’re not poor. We’re not rich either, but we’re not poor, nor wild, nor angry, nor wily. We work hard and when someone above us – which in this country just means someone with more money – tries to profit themselves at our expense, we shake the dust off our feet and take our labour and our business elsewhere. This is America.

And yet. And yet. I’ve seen a roan mare in a shaft of sunlight, prancing under some richer woman who can’t handle her, and my blood has played a rare reel in my veins and I’ve met that great rolling eye with my own and felt light-fingered for the bridle. But I turn away and head back indoors and stamp out the ghost of Kelly and all his charm and lying promises that lead to the gallows. I blacklead the fireplace. Again.

It’s a terrible thing to distrust your own blood.

I see it in Mamma, as death creeps up all over her, loosening her holding knots from within, making her less than a pile of leaves. It’s the blood. Riot and debauch, shock-and-ride-away blood, the singing-in-the-gutter-of-a-Monday-night blood that is nothing but an inconvenience. Mamma rages and lies, weeps and laughs, roils in her bedsheets and sweats like a bubbling pot and I know that it’s the cancer but I also know that it’s the ghost of Kelly calling her across years and oceans and desertion and death, and damn the woman, but she’ll never leave off loving him.

She looked at the clipping – I showed it to her after I pasted it on the cardboard cover of his manuscript – and even though she was twisted up in pain likea sheet going through the mangle, she laughed. It was like a girl’s laugh, but something else as well – something dreadful and forlorn. Wind playing across the lip of an empty bottle. I was angry with her and said, ‘Can’t you see it for what it is? The cold empty shell of an eejit who reckoned he could bypass his crimes with this…this charade of armour!’

I was so angry at her for laughing (at me, I thought), that I tossed the thing onto the floor as if it were a rag. It spilled open and all the pages were strewn across the boards like so many fliers for the cheap Chinese shops on the quay.

When I came back, sorrowful and ashamed, she had hauled herself out of bed to gather the laves together and hold them close to her with a shaking hand. I cannot get the picture of it out of my head, for it shows how terrible is love, and why I do not want it, nor shall ever have it near me. Eaten with cancer and years, she held that package of excuses closer to her heart than she could have held me, and she longed for him – I saw it, plain and clear and terrible – longed for her lying, horse-stealing, pitiful and penurious husband, my hanged father, Edward Kelly.

I will stop this. Ned Kelly and all his lies are no more to me than the wind and darkness inside his empty iron suit.


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