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Start reading the powerful and moving, Cool Water.


PROLOGUE

When the houselights are switched off and the stage is lit. When conversation has crested and latecomers squeeze past with apologies; toffee apples crunching, parents shushing, seats creaking – the flimsy flop-down sort, shipped in for a short stay like everything else. When the clock strikes the hour. The town butcher deftly vaults onto the wooden platform, ignoring the five steps, and strides across to the microphone. 

Victor Herbert is imposing, even without apron and cleaver. A tall man in his mid-thirties, clean-shaven with short black hair, oiled, and startling blue eyes; a well-worn white shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbows; boots buffed bronze. He doesn’t clear his throat or shuffle to bring the room to attention – he never has. He folds his thick brown arms and stands perfectly still, looking out at the town. Horribly handsome.

They are gathered at the community hall this steamy Saturday evening in December 1956 for Seeing is Believing. The grocer’s wife, Beryl, punched 623 half-moons at the door – that’s more than half the township. Tickets were not cheap at seven shillings, but the show is a fundraiser for the Tinaroo Falls Welfare  Association, and the magician has come a long way by ship (that said, so has most of the crowd, one way or another). There are muffled whispers in half-a-dozen tongues, the hiss-crack of a match; tobacco smoke, violet perfume and the mingled tang of hard labour. An earlier downpour has vaporised and hangs heavy in the air, claggy on bare skin.

At three minutes past seven, Victor gives the audience a lazy smile. ‘Ladies and gentlemen of Tinaroo. Workers. Blowflies. Kids. Cosy in here tonight, isn’t it?’

There is a chorus of assent – too right it is! – and a good many smile up at the stage, reflexively, as if the butcher is speaking straight to them. He has that special effect. Some are surprised Victor Herbert has shown up tonight, given the string of letters in the local rag and word on the street, but he is still president of the Welfare Association, and popular with the people – none could deny it. The few who know him well are not surprised in the least: Victor was never one to retreat.

A low light, front of stage, throws the Herbert shadow back across the planks: long, lean and rippling ever so slightly, as if it were under water, pulling at a hook.

‘Over this past year,’ Victor says, ‘we’ve seen off a cyclone, put out a grass fire and poured fifty thousand tonnes of concrete.’ He pauses, allowing the magnitude of the substance to solidify. ‘And then they go and put up the price of beer at the wet canteen.’ A couple of men boo. ‘Rest assured that every last penny raised here tonight will be used in your best interests, starting with an upgrade of the swimming facility at the river bend.  Let’s get ourselves a damn diving board.’

The negative space Victor builds around ‘they’ – the Commission, the men in suits who pull the strings, who run the town and withhold its riches – is filled, now, with the promise of relief. Workers extract handkerchiefs from trouser pockets to mop their brows; women convert mimeographed programs into neat paper fans. They have been seen and heard: they are justified. 

‘It’s not often that we here in Tinaroo are treated to world-class entertainment,’ Victor continues. ‘Not that we don’t love your Beethoven, Beryl’ – laughter snakes through the crowd – ‘or your preaching, Reverend’ – a collective burst this time.

‘But that is what we have for you tonight: a class act. If any of you can tell me how the wizard makes the woman disappear, I will give you four legs of lamb and the ribs that held them together. God’s honour.’ 

A man guffaws. A woman hisses. Kids crunch. The townspeople, as a whole, lean forward a little in their seats, willing the wonder.

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