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You're Joking

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2nd FEBRUARY 1908

Jim Linton was whistling—a habit rather uncharacteristic of him, given that it was the first day back at school—as he strolled through the entrance foyer of School House.  The train ride down from Cunjee had been pleasant and unmarred by the faults that were typical of the Victorian railway system.  A new and exciting school year awaited, with only one negative: the absence of Jim’s father and sister, who for all his years to date had been his chief playmates and workmates.  His first year at school, without them, had been a hard one, but nevertheless bearable with his new chums about him.


At the sight of a rangy boy of a height with himself, Jim stopped.  The other fellow, whom he had not seen before, was inspecting the wooden board upon which was inscribed the names of House Captains of years past.  He wore grey trousers and the Grammar School blazer, with his straw hat set atop messy black curls.  His skin, like Jim’s, was tanned from years spent in the sun, and when he swung around to meet Jim his brown eyes sparkled with mischief. 


“Hullo!  I say, would you be able to help me find my room?  I’m in Year Seven, you see, not used to this place… you could get lost just wandering around!” 


Jim went forward with a quick step, shaking the stranger’s hand firmly.  “Welcome to Grammar, mate.  The name’s Jim Linton—and you are?” 


The other boy’s face lit up with a brilliant smile.  “You’re Jim Linton?  That is to say, you’re my roommate.  I’m Wally Meadows.”


“But they said your name was Walter?” 


Wally made a face.  “Only to my brothers, my sister-in-law and my aunt.  Personally, I hate it.”


“Understandable,” Jim laughed.  “Mine’s James, but not even my family call me that.  What about your parents?” 


“I don’t have parents.”  Wally shrugged.  “They died when I was a kiddie.  My aunt brought me up.” 


Jim felt a wave of sadness overtake him, and his heart seemed to reach out to the boy before him.  Imagine if Dad and Norah were to pass away—he shuddered at the thought.  “Come on, let’s get up to our room and dump your kit, then I can show you around.”


It was a short trek up two flights of stairs before Jim turned down a small corridor.  Rooms led off the corridor on either side, small plaques bearing their numbers on the front.  Eventually he came to a stop at number 23 and pushed at the door.  It swung wide to reveal a medium-size room, with two plain bedsteads on opposite walls and two desks nearby.  Each boy had a cupboard also, for storing their clothes.  The window, adorned with a simple white frame, was slightly open, the curtains blowing in the breeze, overlooking the large oval where they played sports. 


“Is this your family?”  Wally had put his suitcase on the floor beside his bed and dropped his day bag on his bed with no regard to whatever items might be inside, and crossed the room to inspect a photo on Jim’s otherwise bare desk of David and Norah Linton.  The two were on horseback, laughing at some unknown joke, Norah’s hair whipping in the breeze. 


“Yeah.  That’s my father and sister.  Mother died when I was three—Norah was just a baby, seven days old.” 


“So you understand.”  Wally set the photo gently back on the table.  “Is Norah astride in that photo?  That’s not a very common thing for girls.” 


Jim sat down on his bed.  “Dad always said he’d have her taught to ride properly, not sidesaddle like our aunts in Town do.  She’s pretty good at it too, and she can jump like no other girl.” 


Squatting down to unlock his suitcase, Wally’s voice was muffled as he peered into its depths.  “I’ll take your word for it, Jimmy.  Where’re you from?” 


“Northern Country,” returned the other.  “It’s north of Melbourne, but west of Morwell and Traralgon.  Near Gippsland but not quite in the scrub.  Dad’s got a station.  What about you?”


Wally’s head popped up again as he wielded a tennis racquet seemingly a million sizes too big for him.  “Queensland.” 


“You’re joking!” 


“I am not,” returned he, firmly, stowing the racquet in the recesses of his cupboard.  “Do I look like I’m joking?  South-western Queensland born and bred.  Not far north of the border with New South but still a good ten hours from Brisbane.” 


Jim eyed his new chum.  “That’s a pretty long way to come.  Why not go to Brisbane or Rockhampton?” 


Wally shrugged.  “I reckon Aunt felt like Melbourne was better for me.  She wasn’t too keen on raising me but with my parents gone there wasn’t much else she could do with me.” 


Silence settled upon the room for a few moments, before Jim bounced up off his bed and made for the door.  “Come on, I’ll show you around—and we’ll nick a racquet for you from the sports storeroom, yours is far too big.”