It was filthy hot!
It was always filthy hot! There had been no wet season in the Outback town of Bonboon for ten seasons. That was almost Bobby Burdekin’s entire life! He’d never known anything except drought and dust and families leaving.
Today was no exception. He stepped into the library to escape the relentless heat, which was funny, because he didn’t remember there ever being a library. The old timers told him there was one before the funding dried up with the creek bed. Yet here it was, cool, inviting.
Most things in Bonboon were something once. Dusty, empty buildings that were; a butcher’s; a post office; a hardware store; a second petrol station, your neighbour. A funny little man with glasses and a big, woollen scarf, (even in the heat!), greeted Bobby Burdekin at the door of what was once the old boot store.
“Hello, hello my good Sir! Welcome to the Bonboon Library! My name is Professor Ploink? With a question mark, yes, yes.”
“A question mark?” said Bobby.
“Indeed, indeed! It’s all in how you pronounce it. Ploink?” insisted the little man.
“For real?” Bobby Burdekin grumbled. He was a miner’s son – third generation. They didn’t put up with too much fancy stuff.
“Absolutely,” said Professor Plonk? “I think. Is what for real? My name, or this place?”
“All of it.”
“Oh, as I said, then: Absolutely. This is a pop-up library.”
Bobby rubbed his face. This was nuts! With the drought the waterhole was too low. He only wanted a place to escape the Outback sun!
“Pop-up. That’s a fad. It means I’m turning this old boot store into a library for a bit. Then I’ll be gone. Indeed.”
Professor Ploink? let Bobby through the door. Inside was empty.
“Help me put these labels out, will you?” Professor Ploink? said.
Bobby Burdekin read: Dreamtime stories. Australian history. Detective yarns. Books for Tweens About Bums and Farting and Snot. Sport. Magic. Poetry. Romance.
“I don’t get it,” he said, placing them here and there.
“Yes, yes, well,” Professor Ploink? muttered, on his way to opening a side window.
The Aboriginal elder stepped through the window first, followed by the opera singer, the truck driver… Then there was a teenager who’s skin was white, hair black and long and down over one side of his face, wearing a black jacket, and lots of jewellery.
“A Goth…?” said Bobby. “Out here!?”
Next was a girl detective, then a big, bearded man who wore a Viking costume, a netball player, a zoologist, a scientist who uses facts to predict the future, and the smallest lady, dressed like a fairy, and many more.
They stood behind their appropriate labels, like statues, and stared.
Creepy, thought Bobby.
“I don’t get it. If this is a library where are the books?” he asked.
Professor Ploink? was using a weird little invention to dust off one of several labels no-one was standing behind: Children’s Books.
“I thought that would be obvious,” he replied. “You’re looking at them. Sign in, and ask one for a story.”
The terms and condition pages went forever. Bobby Burdekin ticked the ‘I Agree’ box, pressed his thumb down, leaving a nice little fingerprint in the ink, then set about choosing which book to read.
He stood in front of the Aboriginal.
“G’day, Bruz,” the man said.
“Dreamtime, will you tell me a story?” Bobby asked.
The Aboriginal man then told a tale of the goanna that lay down and formed a mountain range, where an emu and kangaroo fought over the emu’s egg. The egg was thrown into the sky, where it caught fire, and formed the sun.
“That was great! Do you have another?” Bobby asked.
One story flowed into another. They all involved the land around him, as if it was a living thing – a place of giants, gods! Legends! Every gorge was a monstrous snake, every storm had something to say. Every small, croaking frog knew something Bobby didn’t. He was hooked.
Eventually, though, Bobby was spent.
“Thank you,” he said. “I only came in here to escape the heat.”
As he turned to leave he noticed Professor Ploink? standing in his way.
“Blather, pop. Didn’t you read the terms and conditions?” the weird man said.
“Nobody ever reads them,” Bobby laughed.
“Well, you should have. Indeedy. You’ve been told a tale, without fail. Now, if you want to leave, you have to write it.”
Bobby Burdekin looked around. The lighting of the library wasn’t quit right. It was dark. The bulb in the far corner flickered.
“What if I leave anyway?” he asked, bravely.
The Aboriginal man looked down on him.
“We’ll set the bunyips after ya.”
“Mythical Dreamtime beasts,” Professor Ploink? said. “Regretfully, here, here, the punishment fits the story.”
The Aboriginal man squatted down to be Bobby’s height.
“C’m’on Bruz,” he said, all friendly. “I told yas some deadly yarns. Just write ‘em a little.”
Creatures moved behind the Aboriginal man, in the shadows. Shapes shifting in the light of the windows.
He knew that before whitefella, Australia used to be over 200 Aboriginal nations. That each one had their own Dreamtime stories, types of bunyip, their own history. When he was done, he handed his book to the librarian – The Dreamtime in My Corner of the Never-Ending.
“Great title!” cheered Professor Ploink? “But you didn’t do every yarn he told.” “There were so many!” Bobby wailed. Bunyips shifted and slid. He was frightened.
“Well, do the rest as homework, and bring them back when you next want to borrow a story,” Professor Ploink? smiled. “But, dope, dope, you have to do them.”
“As if!” Bobby Burdekin said to himself as his Dad and neighbours came to burn the library down.
“Hmm, hmm, yes, yes, no,” mumbled Professor Ploink? “This would be a good book title: The Attack of 100 Tractors,” even though there were only five of them. “If I tell the tale will any of you write if for me?” he called to the gathering mob.
“We don’t like weird stuff here!” Julie Jones shouted. “Life is already hard enough.”
“You kidnapped our child!” raged Bobby’s Mum.
“Me? Me that is I? I did no such thing!” scoffed the Professor. “This is a library, hoorah, Sir, Madame.”
“It’s a freak show!” the mob raged.
“A place of learning and giving…” Professor Ploink? continued.
“You tried to force our Bobby to-”
“I didn’t force any of your children to do anything.”
“BURN IT DOWN!” a rancher, Gerald Wakefield, thundered.
Two or three ranch hands rushed forward to wrestle with Professor Ploink? Objects began frantically darting about within the windows behind him.
“No, yes, no. Stay calm,” the librarian insisted. “Violence is the death of imagination, what, what.”
The rancher’s fire-starter was barely a foot from the library wall, when someone called…
“Hang on! What did he mean by; Any of your children…?”
Farmers Brown, Murphy and Lovisotto peered through the old boot store’s window. There, in the half-light, were all of their children. Some were listening to a lady dressed as a robot talk about the outer space. Others were writing furiously for an old bushman so they might finish the book they had been told, and hear another tale.
None of the kids noticed the shape of bunyips, though, moving through the shadows behind them. Watching. Guarding. Waiting.
Farmers Brown, Murphy and Lovisotto slinked back to the waiting mob.
“It’s a hostage situation,” they whispered.
“Call the police!” bellowed Julie Jones.
“I’m here already,” said Doug.
“G’day Doug,” everybody said. It may have been a crisis, but there were still Outback formalities.
“I’d need backup to go in there, but text nearest station is 300kms away,” policeman Doug drawled. “I tried ringing. No answer. Wahjata’s on duty, but the conditions are just right for Barramundi. I reckon he’s gone fishing.”
“Well, we gotta do something!” wailed farmer Lovisotto.
“I told yas! Burn it down!” insisted the rancher, Gerald Wakefield.
Meanwhile, the librarian had been cuffed to the bulbar of Sergio’s ute. Professor Ploink? and Bobby Burdekin were talking.
“You could have simply not done your homework,” the Professor said, casually picking the lock.
“Sorry, it’s the drought. Everybody’s short tempered and angry,” replied Bobby.
“Yes, yars, yup. You should talk about it,” Professor Ploink? told him.
“It’s weird, I guess. We could have got through the drought, physically. Maybe. But the grind, the constant battle… I dunno. It’s like something in them, in us, has been broken. So many people are leaving. There’s barely enough to hold the town together.”
“I have three replies to that! Blat, blat!” said the Professor, as they lazily snuck back into the library using one of the back windows. “1. That was very insightful for such a little fellow. Well done! Jot, jot, boink! 2. I didn’t say; ‘Tell me’, I said; ‘Talk about it’. In the library. And 3. How cool are submarines!?”
“Wha?” said Bobby.
“Submarines. They’re awesome.”
“What are you talking about submarines for?” Bobby blurted, waving his arms in frustration.
“Well, do you like them?”
“Of course! Who doesn’t?”
“What would you do in one?”
“I’d explore, what else!”
“And, dunno. I’d find a giant squid and it would use my submarine as a dart in a fight with a sea dragon. There’d be mermaids and dead pirates and sea gods, and I’d have to fart a lot, because hot air rises, to escape them all and get back to the surface,” Bobby huffed.
A stupid question deserved a stupid answer.
“What, what, yippee! A perfect reply. You’re a natural!” the Professor cheered.
“A natural what?” Bobby grumbled. “And why did you ask me about submarines?”
“Well, well, big bell. Second answer first,” said the Professor. “2. Even though my question was about a machine that needs copious amounts of water, you didn’t once stress about the drought while answering. The power of stories! And 1. A natural what? You’re a born storyteller.”
Being around Professor Ploink? made Bobby Burdekin’s head spin so much he was dizzy.
“I… What…?” he stammered.
“The last children’s storyteller did a bolter. Boo, boo, bummer, wah,” the Professor moped. “Do you want a job in the library?”
A few of the farmers went to get their rifles.
“Did you see the stuff moving about in there?” they roared to anyone trying to calm them.
“People with foot and mouth disease!” wailed the rancher, Gerald Wakefield.
“I saw big crocs!” said the fisherman.
“Are you both mad?” thundered one of the miners. “There’s an avalanche in there, just waiting to happen!”
Dad winced in the heat. Something wasn’t right. Jeez, none of it was right – but something was extra wrong, something in the air that was messing with people. When he looked through the old boot store windows, all he saw were kids talking to storytellers, and behind them, somehow, all the angry, weapon-carrying people that were right now beside him.
It was like a mirror image, as if they were about to go to war with themselves.
“Let’s go,” said the rancher, as the mob moved forward.
Bobby Burdekin felt guilty. At least 50 little books had been written since he’d been gone. History, science, a lot about the land. His efforts for the Dreamtime seemed so small.
How hard was it to write down a story someone else had told, anyway? Not at all.
He stood on a little platform behind the label: Children’s Books. He waited and watched as kids and now old people shuffled about the library’s twilight, searching for the stories that best suited their souls.
“Why’s it always dusk in here?” Bobby said. “It’s scary.”
“Ahh, yes, yes,” said Professor Ploink? “Dusk. The time of day that is both forever and a moment. When shadows grow long and imagination takes flight.”
“In which dreams rise,” said the Aboriginal.
“That time when fires are lit, and drive-in movies and bedtime stories start,” added Professor Ploink?
“Because dusk is a door,” said the magician.
Bunyips skittered around the edges of sight, making little Shrp, shrp, shrp noises. Bobby could see flames outside.
“Could you tell me a story, Mr Children’s Books?” a voice asked.
Standing in front of Bobby Burdekin was little, wide-eyed Pam Ponsford. The cattleman’s girl. Not seven years old.
“You know you have to write the story once I’ve told it?” Bobby gently said.
Pam held out a pencil and paper.
“I’ll draw stick figures!” she told him.
So Bobby told her about dinosaurs and rocket ships. Then about a library where the books read the people reading them.
Then, he told Tommy Tucker, from his class at school, about The Dragon That Breathed Letters. Then about The Honest Frog. And told Louise, from the service station, about a little girl’s search for The World’s Smallest Sound.
Meanwhile, the men with their fire had reached the library wall.
Bobby looked at the waking bunyips. Or were they big crocs? Or avalanches about to fall? He felt their strength. If the town’s people invaded, it would be a slaughter.
“Wait!” yelled Bobby’s Dad. “Our kids are in there.”
“So are my grandparents,” said a farm hand.
“And my neighbours,” said the ex-mechanic who’s shop had shut down.
“Let’s burn it down!” insisted the Gerald Wakefield. “Burn! BURN!”
More and more of the town were finding their way into the library, as if being swallowed. The mob were really freaking out about it! A plan was hatched. A handful of the crowd would climb through the window and try to save whoever they could.
Old Darcy was in his 70s. His foot got caught on the library window latch.
“Ouch!” he complained as he fell to the floor.
“Shh!” hissed Bobby’s Dad.
“Shut up!” spat the rancher.
Julie Jones looked scared.
The English teacher, Miss Moisten was wide-eyed.
“This is too much…” whispered one of the truck drivers, Sergio.
There their kids were, in the dusk and flickering light, telling and listening to and writing stories. Small hand-written and drawn books everywhere.
“Irrigation Tips For Drought Stricken Farmers,” Sergio read a cover. “Hey, that’s handy.”
“Don’t be distracted,” the Gerald Wakefield growled. “Let’s find this scarf-wearing librarian and shut this thing down. Hard.”
Bobby’s father looked at the rancher. He could feel the hate coming off the man. It was terrible. His ranch was going under, sure. That was no reason to burn everything down.
“Look,” said Old Darcy, pointing to the only empty space in the room. A corner, fully lit, with the label; Local’s Stories.
Everybody moved on, looking for Professor Ploink? Some of them planning to tie him up, others to get their revenge. Old Darcy, though. Couldn’t help staring at the label.
Why are there no books about Bonboon? he thought. Where’s our history? Our adventures? Why were the kids always reading about somebody else’s tales, not their own?
“No wonder everybody’s leaving,” he mumbled. “No wonder we’re all breaking down.”
“Old timer, shut up!” cursed the Wakefield. “If you see the librarian, charge!”
But when he turned around, Old Darcy was on his little platform, in the local’s corner, telling his life story, while a handful of kids took turns at writing it down.
In all his years of truck driving, Sergio had never met a driver who didn’t like telling tales. They LOVED them! Some of the Outback pubs didn’t even have a town – just dust and roadkill. But they were kept alive, pumping, by the truck drivers stopping for hours, sometimes staying overnight, telling and listening to each other’s stories.
Of truck driving.
Of the land.
Of the people of the land.
Sergio was wrapped with the thought of somebody finally writing it all down. “The wet season fell. It just fell…” he said, mimicking buckets of water. “Suddenly, it was like I was driving over a shifting, flowing, red ocean. It was as if the land was gone…”
Everybody started telling stories that would never be made into books in the city.
Stories for the hard lives of the Outback. That made it a thing of pride.
“This room is evil! Evil!” cried the rancher, Gerald Wakefield, as he set fire to the nearest wall.
Bunyips screeched, kids ran, shadows leaped and fought to escape.
“Save the books!” somebody wailed, as people who agreed with the rancher started to light the library’s outside walls. Everything was smoke and chaos, but Professor Ploink just stood there, smiling, proud.
“‘Save the books!’ Did you hear that? What beautiful words,” he crooned to Bobby.
The heat rose, smoke thickened. Bobby Burdekin watched locals scrambling to save books and get out, as the storytellers seemed to run and vanish into shadows that were once bunyips and avalanches, but were only, really, ever shadows.
Shadows that now followed Professor Ploink? as he climbed out a window.
Damn Professor Ploink?! Bobby thought. “I… But… That is… Wah…!” His head was spinning in overtime!
“Wait!” he finally squawked. “Aren’t you upset!? Your library is burning down.”
“Yes, yes, ho, ho. Are you nutso?” the Professor was so happy he rhymed. “This is just an old boot hop, what, what!”
“But… that is…” Bobby floundered.
“Your town’s library is over there,” the Professor pointed.
Bobby watched the people of the town clambering to freedom, as bits of the roof started coming down. Old Darcy, Sergio, a handful of the kids, Julie Jones. Each one clutching the stories that had been written.
Things to gather around. To be proud of. Their lives.
“You’re not talking about the books, are you?” Bobby Burdekin said.
Professor Ploink just smiled. He was talking about the people of Bonboon.
A flaming beam fell towards Bobby Burdekin. He jumped and rolled and hit a smouldering wall, and was covered in water from the volunteer fire crew. Covering his face with his wet shirt, he ran himself clear, then, charging through rescue efforts, kept on running, just in time to see the librarian step onto a freight train.
“You never told me what you are a professor of!?” Bobby called.
Professor Ploink? just smiled again, his shadows tucked safely into the medicine bag he held. And the train was gone.
Bobby Burdekin walked back to the fire. His Dad was trying to strangle the rancher. Everybody not holding him back was laughing, relieved, exhausted, talking. Sharing, under the shade of nearby trees. Telling each other’s versions of the day. Stories that they would carry to the grave. And if they wrote them into books, beyond.
Suddenly, Bobby’s small Outback town seemed alive, full of colour.