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A short story by Henry Lawson

Arvie Aspinall's Alarm Clock

Title:     Arvie Aspinall's Alarm Clock
Author: Henry Lawson [More Titles by Lawson]

In one of these years a paragraph appeared in a daily paper to the effect that a constable had discovered a little boy asleep on the steps of Grinder Bros' factory at four o'clock one rainy morning. He awakened him, and demanded an explanation.

The little fellow explained that he worked there, and was frightened of being late; he started work at six, and was apparently greatly astonished to hear that it was only four. The constable examined a small parcel which the frightened child had in his hand. It contained a clean apron and three slices of bread and treacle.

The child further explained that he woke up and thought it was late, and didn't like to wake mother and ask her the time "because she'd been washin'." He didn't look at the clock, because they "didn't have one." He volunteered no explanations as to how he expected mother to know the time, but, perhaps, like many other mites of his kind, he had unbounded faith in the infinitude of a mother's wisdom. His name was Arvie Aspinall, please sir, and he lived in Jones's Alley. Father was dead.

A few days later the same paper took great pleasure in stating, in reference to that "Touching Incident" noticed in a recent issue, that a benevolent society lady had started a subscription among her friends with the object of purchasing an alarm-clock for the little boy found asleep at Grinder Bros' workshop door.

Later on, it was mentioned, in connection with the touching incident, that the alarm-clock had been bought and delivered to the boy's mother, who appeared to be quite overcome with gratitude. It was learned, also, from another source, that the last assertion was greatly exaggerated.

The touching incident was worn out in another paragraph, which left no doubt that the benevolent society lady was none other than a charming and accomplished daughter of the House of Grinder.

It was late in the last day of the Easter Holidays, during which Arvie Aspinall had lain in bed with a bad cold. He was still what he called "croopy." It was about nine o'clock, and the business of Jones's Alley was in full swing.

"That's better, mother, I'm far better," said Arvie, "the sugar and vinegar cuts the phlegm, and the both'rin' cough gits out. It got out to such an extent for the next few minutes that he could not speak. When he recovered his breath, he said:

"Better or worse, I'll have to go to work to-morrow. Gimme the clock, mother."

"I tell you you shall not go! It will be your death."

"It's no use talking, mother; we can't starve--and--s'posin' somebody got my place! Gimme the clock, mother."

"I'll send one of the children round to say you're ill. They'll surely let you off for a day or two."

"Tain't no use; they won't wait; I know them--what does Grinder Bros care if I'm ill? Never mind, mother, I'll rise above 'em all yet. _Give me the clock_, mother."

She gave him the clock, and he proceeded to wind it up and set the alarm.

"There's somethin' wrong with the gong," he muttered, "it's gone wrong two nights now, but I'll chance it. I'll set the alarm at five, that'll give me time to dress and git there early. I wish I hadn't to walk so far."

He paused to read some words engraved round the dial:

Early to bed and early to rise
Makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise.

He had read the verse often before, and was much taken with the swing and rhythm of it. He had repeated it to himself, over and over again, without reference to the sense or philosophy of it. He had never dreamed of doubting anything in print--and this was engraved. But now a new light seemed to dawn upon him. He studied the sentence awhile, and then read it aloud for the second time. He turned it over in his mind again in silence.

"Mother!" he said suddenly, "I think it lies." She placed the clock on the shelf, tucked him into his little bed on the sofa, and blew out the light.

Arvie seemed to sleep, but she lay awake thinking of her troubles. Of her husband carried home dead from his work one morning; of her eldest son who only came to loaf on her when he was out of jail; of the second son, who had feathered his nest in another city, and had no use for her any longer; of the next--poor delicate little Arvie--struggling manfully to help, and wearing his young life out at Grinder Bros when he should be at school; of the five helpless younger children asleep in the next room: of her hard life--scrubbing floors from half-past five till eight, and then starting her day's work-- washing!--of having to rear her children in the atmosphere of the slums, because she could not afford to move and pay a higher rent; and of the rent.

Arvie commenced to mutter in his sleep.

"Can't you get to sleep, Arvie?" she asked. "Is your throat sore? Can I get anything for you?"

"I'd like to sleep," he muttered, dreamily, "but it won't seem more'n a moment before--before--"

"Before what, Arvie?" she asked, quickly, fearing that he was becoming delirious.

"Before the alarm goes off!"

He was talking in his sleep.

She rose gently and put the alarm on two hours. "He can rest now," she whispered to herself.

Presently Arvie sat bolt upright, and said quickly, "Mother! I thought the alarm went off!" Then, without waiting for an answer, he lay down as suddenly and slept.

The rain had cleared away, and a bright, starry dome was over sea and city, over slum and villa alike; but little of it could be seen from the hovel in Jones's Alley, save a glimpse of the Southern Cross and a few stars round it. It was what ladies call a "lovely night," as seen from the house of Grinder--"Grinderville"--with its moonlit terraces and gardens sloping gently to the water, and its windows lit up for an Easter ball, and its reception-rooms thronged by its own exclusive set, and one of its charming and accomplished daughters melting a select party to tears by her pathetic recitation about a little crossing sweeper.

There _was_ something wrong with the alarm-clock, or else Mrs Aspinall had made a mistake, for the gong sounded startlingly in the dead of night. She woke with a painful start, and lay still, expecting to hear Arvie get up; but he made no sign. She turned a white, frightened face towards the sofa where he lay--the light from the alley's solitary lamp on the pavement above shone down through the window, and she saw that he had not moved.

Why didn't the clock wake him? He was such a light sleeper! "Arvie!" she called; no answer. "Arvie !" she called again, with a strange ring of remonstrance mingling with the terror in her voice. Arvie never answered.

"Oh! my God!" she moaned.

She rose and stood by the sofa. Arvie lay on his back with his arms folded--a favourite sleeping position of his; but his eyes were wide open and staring upwards as though they would stare through ceiling and roof to the place where God ought to be.


Notes on Australianisms

Based on my own speech over the years, with some checking in the dictionaries. Not all of these are peculiar to Australian slang, but are important in Lawson's stories, and carry overtones.

bagman: commercial traveller

Bananaland: Queensland

billabong. Based on an aboriginal word. Sometimes used for an anabranch (a bend in a river cut off by a new channel, but more often used for one that, in dry season or droughts especially, is cut off at either or both ends from the main stream. It is often just a muddy pool, and may indeed dry up completely.

billy: quintessentially Australian. It is like (or may even be made out of) a medium-sized can, with wire handles and a lid. Used to boil water. If for tea, the leaves are added into the billy itself; the billy may be swung ('to make the leaves settle') or a eucalyptus twig place across the top, more ritual than pragmatic. These stories are supposedly told while the billy is suspended over the fire at night, at the end of a tramp. (Also used in want of other things, for cooking)

blackfellow (also, blackman): condescending for Australian Aboriginal

blackleg: someone who is employed to cross a union picket line to break a workers' strike. As Molly Ivins said, she was brought up on the three great commandments: do not lie; do not steal; never cross a picket line. Also scab.

blanky or --- : Fill in your own favourite word. Usually however used for "bloody"

blucher: a kind of half-boot (named after Austrian general)

blued: of a wages cheque: all spent extravagantly--and rapidly.

bluey: swag. Supposedly because blankets were mostly blue (so Lawson)

boggabri: never heard of it. It is a town in NSW: the dictionaries seem to suggest that it is a plant, which fits context. What then is a 'tater-marrer' (potato-marrow?). Any help?

bowyangs: ties (cord, rope, cloth) put around trouser legs below knee

bullocky: Bullock driver. A man who drove teams of bullocks yoked to wagons carrying e.g. wool bales or provisions. Proverbially rough and foul mouthed.

bush: originally referred to the low tangled scrubs of the semi-desert regions ('mulga' and 'mallee'), and hence equivalent to "outback". Now used generally for remote rural areas ("the bush") and scrubby forest.

bushfire: wild fires: whether forest fires or grass fires. bushman/bushwoman: someone who lives an isolated existence, far from cities, "in the bush". (today: a "bushy")

bushranger: an Australian "highwayman", who lived in the 'bush'-- scrub--and attacked especially gold carrying coaches and banks. Romanticised as anti-authoritarian Robin Hood figures--cf. Ned Kelly--but usually very violent.

cheque: wages for a full season of sheep-shearing; meant to last until the next year, including a family, but often "blued' in a 'spree'

chyack: (chy-ike) like chaffing; to tease, mildly abuse

cocky: a farmer, esp. dairy farmers (='cow-cockies')

cubby-house: or cubby. Children's playhouse ("Wendy house" is commercial form))

Darlinghurst: Sydney suburb--where the gaol was in those days

dead marine: empty beer bottle

dossing: sleeping rough or poorly (as in a "doss-house")

doughboy: kind of dumpling

drover: one who "droves" cattle or sheep.

droving: driving on horseback cattle or sheep from where they were fattened to a a city, or later, a rail-head.

drown the miller: to add too much water to flour when cooking. Used metaphorically in story.

fossick: pick over areas for gold. Not mining as such.

half-caser: Two shillings and sixpence. As a coin, a half-crown.

half-sov.: a coin worth half a pound (sovereign)

Gladesville: Sydney suburb--site of mental hospital.

goanna: various kinds of monitor lizards. Can be quite a size.

Homebush: Saleyard, market area in Sydney

humpy: originally an aboriginal shelter (=gunyah); extended to a settler's hut

jackaroo: (Jack + kangaroo; sometimes jackeroo)--someone, in early days a new immigrant from England, learning to work on a sheep/cattle station (U.S. "ranch")

jumbuck: a sheep (best known from Waltzing Matilda: "where's that jolly jumbuck, you've got in your tucker bag".

larrikin: anything from a disrespectful young man to a violent member of a gang ("push"). Was considered a major social problem in Sydney of the 1880's to 1900. The _Bulletin_, a magazine in which much of Lawson was published, spoke of the "aggressive, soft-hatted "stoush brigade". Anyone today who is disrespectful of authority or convention is said to show the larrikin element in the Australian character.

larrikiness: jocular feminine form

leather-jacket: kind of pancake (more often a fish, these days)

lucerne: cattle feed-a leguminous plant, alfalfa in US

lumper: labourer; esp. on wharves?

mallee: dwarfed eucalyptus trees growing in very poor soil and under harsh rainfall conditions. Usually many stems emerging from the ground, creating a low thicket.

Maoriland: Lawson's name for New Zealand

marine, dead: see dead

mooching: wandering idly, not going anywhere in particular

mug: gullible person, a con-man's 'mark' (potential victim)

mulga: Acacia sp. ("wattle" in Australian) especially Acacia aneura; growing in semi-desert conditions. Used as a description of such a harsh region.

mullock: the tailings left after gold has been removed. In Lawson generally mud (alluvial) rather than rock

myall: aboriginal living in a traditional--pre-conquest--manner

narked: annoyed

navvies: labourers (especially making roads, railways; originally canals, thus from 'navigators')

nobbler: a drink

nuggety: compact but strong physique; small but well-muscled

pannikin: metal mug

peckish: hungry--usually only mildly so. Use here is thus ironic.

poley: a dehorned cow

poddy-(calf): a calf separated from its mother but still needing milk

rouseabout: labourer in a (sheep) shearing shed. Considered to be, as far as any work is, unskilled labour.

sawney: silly, gormless

selector: small farmer who under the "Selection Act (Alienation of Land Act", Sydney 1862 could settle on a few acres of land and farm it, with hope of buying it. As the land had been leased by "squatters" to run sheep, they were NOT popular. The land was usually pretty poor, and there was little transport to get food to market, many, many failed. (The same mistake was made after WWI-- returned soldiers were given land to starve on.)

shanty: besides common meaning of shack it refers to an unofficial (and illegal) grog-shop; in contrast to the legal 'pub'.

spieler; con artist

sliprails: in lieu of a gate, the rails of a fence may be loosely socketed into posts, so that they may 'let down' (i.e. one end pushed in socket, the other end resting on the ground). See 'A Day on a Selection'

spree: prolonged drinking bout--days, weeks.

stoush: a fight,

strike: the perhaps the Shearers' strike in Barcaldine, Queensland, 1891 gjc]

sundowner: a swagman (see) who is NOT looking for work, but a "handout". Lawson explains the term as referring to someone who turns up at a station at sundown, just in time for "tea" i.e. the evening meal. In view of the Great Depression of the time, these expressions of attitude are probably unfair, but the attitudes are common enough even today.

Surry Hills: Sydney inner suburb (where I live)

swagman (swaggy): Generally, anyone who is walking in the "outback" with a swag. (See "The Romance of the Swag" in Children of the Bush, also a PG Etext) Lawson also restricts it at times to those whom he considers to be tramps, not looking for work but for "handouts". See 'travellers'.

'swelp: mild oath of affirmation ="so help me [God]"

travellers: "shearers and rouseabouts travelling for work" (Lawson).

whare: small Maori house--is it used here for European equivalent? Help anyone?

whipping the cat: drunk

[The end]
Henry Lawson's short story: Arvie Aspinall's Alarm Clock