Bill the Goose is a short story very loosely based on the life of William Shortland, an army veteran who was known as Bill the Goose. I came across William’s story while researching the ANZACs from Esperance for a short history piece I was writing, which you can find here. This story, of course, is a work of fiction. Here it is.
“Bill the Goose is dead.” Her grandmother said it, with little emotion in the words. Lucy paused with her spoon half way to her mouth, dripping milk back into her cornflakes. She couldn’t remember anyone who was related to her dying before. She thought she might feel sad, but she mentally prodded at her emotions, and nothing surfaced. Just a bit of curiosity, perhaps. Her grandmother paused, teapot in hand, staring through the window into the backyard beyond. Out on the porch was the tattered green armchair where Bill had sat, every day. Perhaps Grandma was staring at that? Lucy didn’t know what to say, so she took another crunchy mouthful of cornflakes, feeling a trickle of milk run down her chin. Grandma sighed, and poured a long stream of brown tea, neatly, not even a spash. Lucy noticed that this morning she used Bill’s old blue mug, not her usual tea cup. A flash of memory. Watching Bill as he sipped slowly from that tea stained mug, hands shaking as he lifted it to his mouth. “Uncle Bill, look at me! I’m a ballerina!” Spinning on the back lawn, dry grass crunching underfoot, the huge gum dappling the light on her face. Then a crash as he dropped the mug, tea and all, and stood, panting in fright, staring at a shadow. “No, no no! You need to be quiet, they’ll hear you.” Lucy ran inside and hid under her bed. It was a miracle the mug survived.
“Bill the Goose is dead.” Her grandmother was speaking on the phone now, straightening the tangles in the curly cord. Lucy lingered nearby, eavesdropping shamelessly, her book open to a random page. “Yes, that’s right. He was in the facility in Perth. He’d been there for a month, there abouts. Ever since he had that last episode. Yes, really took a turn, shouting and crying, and shaking like a leaf. Gave me a right scare it did.” The facility. Lucy turned the words over in her mind. The loony bin. That’s what Uncle Fred had called it. She had eavesdropped on that conversation too. Uncle Fred had wiped sweat from his face with a grimy handkerchief, leaning over the front gate. The sun was bakingly hot, and she remembered the dust that swirled as Uncle Fred stomped at the flies on his shin. They took old Bill away to the loony bin, hey? Poor bastard, really off his rocker this time.
Bill the Goose is dead. The words rustled down the phone lines, passed on from man to man. Some muted the telly, the soaps or the footy pantomiming in the background. Some got the call at work, took the rest of the afternoon off. One was golfing, one out on his tractor. They gathered, wherever they could, and drank a beer in his honor. Weatherbeaten men, most of them, wearing hats and boots. Wiping the beer foam from top lips with the back of their hands. He’s dead, ey? Poor bastard. You remember when…. Hah, yeah he was a right larrikin. Damn shame, damn shame.
Later, Lucy’s mum bustled in from work. She had bags of shopping and her concerned look pasted on her face. Also a dark smudge of something on her white shirt. Lucy wondered if she knew. She went straight to Grandma, wrapped her in a big hug, shopping bags dropped. “Oh mum, I heard about Bill. Oh, I’m so sorry.” Grandma wasn’t much of a hugger, she always said. She pulled away, wiping her hands on her calico apron.
”Yes, well. Was bound to happen sooner or later.” Her mouth was a straight, no-nonsense line, hands flying as she chopped carrots in accurate circles.
“Come on mum. I know he could be difficult, but he was your brother after all. Show a bit of feeling for once.” Grandma snatched up the tea towel from the bench top, and held it like a shield.
“Judy, I lost him years ago. There’s no point crying for him now. There’s no need to lecture me on what to feel.” And it was true, Lucy thought. Great Uncle Bill wasn’t there, even when he was sitting outside, head in his hands, or chewing his meals slowly at the table. His cloudy blue eyes sometimes scared her.
They gathered at the house, later that evening. Some men she’d never met: a tall man with red hair, a man with a round tummy and a booming voice. A very thin man, stoop shouldered, with his thin wife holding tightly to his arm. “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe Bill the Goose is dead”, boomed the loud voiced man. He blew his nose into a huge checked handkerchief, making a noise like a trumpet. “Oh Maude, our condolences,” said the skinny lady, grasping Grandma’s hand tightly. Her glasses perched on her long nose so precariously that Lucy was sure they would fall off. They filled the lounge room completely, leaving Lucy to sit on the floor, and her mother to bustle back and forwards to the kitchen, fetching drinks and snacks. The men drank frosty beers, and the ladies had cups of tea. The loud voiced man had his hair combed sideways over his head, and he kept smoothing it down with one hand. The stoop shouldered man, sunk deep into the floral lounge, with his bird-like wife perched beside him, sniffed loudly. Lucy looked up in surprise. The man’s eyes were shining with tears, and he dabbed at them with a handkerchief. His wife still held onto him as though she might at any minute float away. “Such a larrikin! Such a larrikin!” The loud voiced man was saying. “Did we tell you how he staged the boxing match? For a laugh? He was a pretty good boxer anyway, but Bill and one of the other men, can’t remember his name…”
“Tommy Jones, it was.”
“Right, Bill and Tommy Jones. They set up this fake boxing match, for a laugh. Played at punching each other round and round the ring. War can be a right tedious thing, that’s one thing they never tell you. But Bill was always trying to liven things up, boost morale, that sort of thing.” The men talked on, voices tumbling over each other. Bill this, Bill that. When we were at the front. Can’t believe he’s gone, so soon. Lucy looked up at her grandmother, seated on a straight backed kitchen chair. She was gazing out of the window into the dark back yard, lips pressed into a straight line.
The day of the funeral, Lucy dressed in her best dress, white with a pattern of cherries all over it. She remembered, suddenly, the day her mum had bought the dress for her, and she had twirled in the kitchen, showing off. Bill had been sitting in the corner, near the lacy curtains, and he had watched her, a slow smile lifting the corners of his mouth. “You look beautiful, Lucy. A real little lady.” She felt like a real lady today, smoothing down her skirt and slipping her feet into new patent leather shoes. She wished Bill was there so she could show him how well the shoes matched her dress. Uncle Fred picked them all up in his Range Rover. Lucy had never seen him wear a tie before, and he had tried to neaten his flyaway hair, too. Lucy held her mother’s hand as they walked into the church, and Grandma walked on ahead, her back straight and her chin lifted, dark blue hat pinned fiercely into place on her grey curls.
Men and women began to fill the church hall, many of the men in neat uniforms. They filled the wooden pews and kept on coming, women with delicate hats and red lips, men with colourful medals pinned to their chests. Lucy sat next to her grandmother in the front row. On top of the shiny wooden coffin was a picture of Bill, straight backed and with his head held high. He didn’t look like the pale man who sat in that chair every day, starting when the crows cawed. The man in the picture looked like Grandma, but smiling. Voices rustled all around her. Wounded in action, during the war. Wasn’t really right…. Yes, post traumatic… Lived with Maude. Could have married but he never…. Lucy strained to hear. Then Uncle Fred’s big voice, near her ear. Yeah, his ticker gave out in the end. Kind of a mercy… Grandma wasn’t talking, she stood with her back towards the people and their noise. She was standing as still and as stiff as a statue, grey hair and grey wool suit motionless.
The man in long black robes ascended the stage, like a gaunt angel. Lucy let his words wash over her. They sang a song, and then, slowly at first, people stepped to the front to talk about him. Bill the Goose. Lucy closed her eyes and strained to picture this man that they spoke of.
“Larrikin, always having a laugh, playing practical jokes. Like that time he switched the sugar for salt, when the reverend was coming to visit.” A ripple of laughter.
“A real ladies man. So many pretty girls in the world, he told me, so why not get to know them all?”
“Oh, he kept the teachers on their toes. Dipped my braids in the inkwell a few times, too. All of us girls fancied him at school.”
“Used to make light of everything, even the way they marched, like this…” and here, the tall man goose stepped across the stage, exaggerated high steps followed by a dainty leap, and a neat click as his heels came together. The audience roared with laughter, and more men came forwards.
“Knew how to be serious when the time came. He was a good soldier, and I’m proud to have served with him.” This from the thin, stoop shouldered man. Too right, rippled the crowd. Did us proud. His wife hovered nervously by the stage, as though she might float away without him. Then, she stepped lightly onto the stage and spoke as well. “I nursed Bill.” Her voice was high and flutelike, her hands twisting. “Such a horrible injury, but the injury to his mind and heart was even worse. Still, he loved his family and couldn’t wait to go home to them. And Maude always gave him the very best of care…”
A persistent memory tugged at Lucy’s thoughts. “Anyone else want to talk about their memories of Bill?” said the man at the front, lifting his black robed arms like wings. She stood, then quickly skipped forwards, before her Grandma could stop her. He used to bounce me on his knee, she wanted to say. He would give me horsey rides, a gallop-a gallop-a gallop-a down-in-the-ditch. He spun me up in the air, sometimes, on his good days, so I was light as a feather, and smiled so that the corners of his eyes creased. He would give me ice cream when Grandma wasn’t looking. Or let me sip his tea-he’d add more sugar, to sweeten me up. She remembered more things, in a jumbled rush. But then the man was holding the microphone in front of her mouth. “He used to call me his princess. And his eyes were the colour of the sky.” And then tears filled her eyes, and she couldn’t say any more. The stage blurred, and she sat back down, folded tightly into her grandma’s arms.