By Wayne MacauleyFictionText Publishing

Simpson Returns

Ninety years after they were thought to have died heroically in the Great War, the stretcher-bearer Simpson and his donkey journey through country Victoria, performing minor miracles and surviving on offerings left at war memorials. They are making their twenty-ninth, and perhaps final, attempt to find the country’s famed Inland Sea.

On the road north from Melbourne, Simpson and his weary donkey encounter a broke single mother, a suicidal Vietnam veteran, a refugee who has lost everything, an abused teenager and a deranged ex-teacher. These are society’s downtrodden, whom Simpson believes can be renewed by the healing waters of the sea.

In Simpson Returns, Wayne Macauley sticks a pin in the balloon of our national myth. A concise satire of Australian platitudes about fairness and egalitarianism, it is timely, devastating and witheringly funny.

Portrait of Wayne Macauley

Wayne Macauley

Wayne Macauley is the author of the highly acclaimed novels: Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe, Caravan Story and, most recently, The Cook, which was shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award, a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and the Melbourne Prize Best Writing Award. Demons is his most recent book. Wayne lives in Melbourne.

Judges’ report

Ninety years after Simpson and his donkey were thought to have died in WWI, the duo return. They are on a journey through country Victoria, seeking out the mysterious inland sea and its healing properties. On their way, Simpson performs ‘miracles’ on people for whom help from other sources is withheld: a single mother; a Vietnam veteran; a homeless man with a serious mental illness; a couch-surfing teenage runaway, numb to feeling. Simpson Returns sometimes makes for difficult reading in its unflinching depiction of modern-day issues told through the ghostly, near-forgotten voice of Simpson. 

This novella is allegoric and satirical, yet it does not mock old traditions or national legends. Instead, Wayne Macauley unpacks and re-contextualises the story of Simpson and his donkey in order to question what enduring legends mean and how they can influence a national psyche.

Extract

THE SITUATION EXPLAINED

I, Simpson, and my donkey, Murphy, eighty-eight years resurrected, are still on the road, still together, still looking for the Inland Sea. This trip looks like our last. Fair weather the barometer said, then two days out of Melbourne it rained. We were a little short of Diggers Rest, on the Toolern Vale road. It came upon us quickly, boiling black clouds on the western horizon and a great blast of wind from the south. Murphy got bogged in a roadside ditch and I could not get him out. He squawked, irascibly, each time I tugged at his rein and for one terrible moment I thought he was giving up on me and wanted to go home. But I got him out in the end. That night as he slept I saw the shiver coursing through his flanks and knew he had caught cold. The next day the shivering grew worse and small rivulets of green snot fell from Murphy’s nostrils. I have plied him with all possible cures but he takes them reluctantly; since north of Crowlands I’ve carried the pannier bags myself. I still hope to make the Sunset Country before the summer ends—perhaps the dry air there will put him back on his feet? All the best laid plans.

He’s a good animal, I can’t deny it, a little on the mulish side at times but old enough for me to forgive him his irritating ways. We’ve been through a lot together, Murphy and I, but the beast has stuck by me where many other donkeys and no doubt many more humans would have given up years ago. He’s from India, originally. What he thinks of our enterprise, I cannot say: not even I, his lifelong companion, can penetrate that inscrutable look. Perhaps he simply has nowhere else to go, nothing else to do: better a futile journey than a more futile staying at home. I’ve studied his face often these past few days for a sign of his present thinking but the look is more inscrutable than ever. Can anyone understand a donkey, what goes on in a donkey’s mind? I am more qualified than most, but no wiser than a century ago.

This is our twenty-ninth attempt; the other twenty-eight, I don’t mind saying, have been somewhat less than successful. We have never got out of the state of Victoria. Last time it was the wasps—Murphy has a fear of wasps, among other things, and in attempting to clear a path through them he caught my chin with his hoof. I could not eat for days. That was just past Burnside. Bad luck is often like bad weather, I find: one minute you’re free of it, the next it’s falling on top of your head. We returned again to Mrs Fowler’s place in Richmond with our tails between our legs. Mrs Fowler’s daughter asks no questions; the gate to the back lane is always open, as with her dear mother before her. When we wake in the morning fresh straw is waiting outside the stable door and a small breakfast has been prepared. Most of the stables in that street are gone now, converted to garages and studios, but ours has been kept more or less unchanged since the day we first moved in. It’s comforting to know that blood ties still run deep and old debts are still dutifully discharged. Apparently I had done some good turn for the widow Fowler’s husband: the man with the donkey, he said, in his last letter to her, be sure you repay the debt.

The daughter’s name is June. Her husband suffers me stoically. On my triennial visits ‘home’ he studiously avoids the backyard and lets his wife attend to our needs. Are the man and the donkey back again? he asks, looking out through the kitchen window with a smile. He doesn’t see us, of course, but through her silences he reads our presence. I try to keep out of their way and do what I can not to overstay my welcome. She never fusses about us too much, though; it is enough for her that she keeps the promise, in deference to the father she never knew. She was conceived on the eve of Mr Fowler’s sailing and is now in her eighty-ninth year. We are all getting old. If this trip should somehow prove successful I hope she will be the first to profit from it.

I wasn’t always looking for the Inland Sea. Helpmate to the dying, that was the lot I was burdened with and one which (with no false modesty) brought me some measure of fame and a steady supply of good-quality cigarettes in those earlier, far-off days. I still wear the Red Cross armband, threadbare now with age. We brought the bloodied racks of bodies back to the hospital tent, drank what little hospital brandy we could find, then journeyed out into the terrible cacophony again. A man and his donkey. I have a photograph of us somewhere, in my pannier bags I think: me a rough-headed youth smiling a smile that could almost be a grimace, Murphy looking disdainfully for God knows what reason at my foot. That was the Great War, they called it the Great War, and I’m sure it was great for some, but somehow the greatness of it got past Murphy and me and we had to content ourselves with the trivialities of blood and broken limbs.

Then one day down at the clearing station a few weeks in a wounded soldier with half his guts missing called me over to his bed. Lasseter was his name. He said he’d heard of the work I was doing, that I was the one man here who could not afford to be lost. From inside his pocket he took out a vial, a small glass vial, with a clear liquid, water, inside. Rub a little on your forehead, he said, if ever you get in trouble—I could use it myself but I’m past caring, I’ve seen enough these last few days to know that life is not worth living. A good man. I hung the vial on a string around my neck and set off into the maelstrom again. When I came back later that day, Lasseter’s stretcher was empty.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist