I became aware of his presence when a horse nickered. From fourteen hands up in his saddle, a sun-browned face creased as he cordially lifted his Stetson and bid us good morning through our car window. It woke me with a start because I thought we were quite alone out here in the sticks. Probably the owner of a nearby property. My head pounded and I felt like I had a mouthful of sand. My twin brother Craig quickly roused from his stupor in the back seat and struggled upright blinking furiously. Fumbling urgently with the door, he cascaded out of the car and greeted the man on horseback with a series of gut-purging vomits. The bay mare stepped backwards skittishly to avoid the stench and bile created by excess malt whisky consumed on an empty stomach.
“What happened out here last night?” he drawled. His eyes scanned over the still smouldering embers of Uncle Wick’s “hotel”. Through the fog of my hangover, I was also trying to answer that question.
Wickham “Wick” Bloomfield was my grandmother’s brother. Family anecdotes pigeon-holed Uncle Wick as the weird relative that some families chortle about but don’t publicise. Mum had told Craig and I as kids that Uncle Wick was “different”. He was eccentric, quirky, pleasant enough, but rarely exhibited a fondness towards family or kids. Pursuing a bent towards fine arts, he’d attended the National Art School in East Sydney in the late 1950s and moved to London in the 1960s. Wick’s enthusiasm for art exceeded his actual success as an artist, and in the late 1960s he relocated to Sydney’s Paddington and set up a small antiquarian bookshop and art gallery. Many of Uncle Wick’s friends skewed towards the bohemian lifestyle, and Paddington in the 60s was a honeypot for them. At one of Wick’s notorious street parties, he rolled out a giant sheet of canvas in front of his terrace house on Caledonia Street. Nude guests painted their bodies then rolled around the sheet to create a “living” artwork. The infamous sheet, resplendent with multi-coloured genitals, was draped across his terrace for weeks. Such was the unique character of the great uncle I’d met briefly as a child but not in the past 25 years.
When Uncle Wick suffered a fatal cardiac arrest, Craig and I felt no emotion. He was just a name, an intrigue, an arched eyebrow in the family tree. Surprisingly, due to a dearth of living relatives, Craig and I inherited his “hotel” near Newton Boyd, a remote cattle producing valley at the foot of the range east of Glen Innes. Uncle Wick’s “hotel” was a family joke. It had been a tiny inn during the late 1800s, servicing Cobb and Co coaches on the unsealed Gwydir Highway. Thirty years ago, Wick had purchased the collapsing single-storey rough-sawn shack and its one acre horse paddock. He’d escape the city to reset occasionally, but mostly relished regaling his inner-city cronies about owning a “pub.”
Craig and I flew from Melbourne to Coffs Harbour yesterday, then rented a Subaru. With scant info or supplies we drove westwards on the Old Gwydir Highway, through historic gold mining areas of Buccarumbi and Dalmorton, in search of our newly inherited “hotel.” A cerise sunset began silhouetting the Great Dividing Range and our hopes soared. They plummeted promptly when we located our inheritance. What a sheer waste of our time and money! Roofing sheets were missing. There was no glass in rotting window frames. It was empty inside – no furniture, personal effects, nothing. Decaying walls leaned at an absurd angle, and somebody had futilely attempted to prop them up with fallen branches. The roof on the porch had collapsed and lay on the earth. The “hotel” was completely uninhabitable and dangerous. It seemingly begged us to put a gun to its head. If we hadn’t cracked up, we’d have wept.
“Why the bloody hell couldn’t we have inherited his Paddington terrace?” whined Craig.
“Nah, the other cousins got that. Lucky bastards. Must be worth two mill.”
In last night’s crisp darkness we lit an outdoor campfire using flooring timber. Uncorking a litre of Laphroaig whisky, Craig and I soaked up the warmth from the fire and whisky, made small talk. We recalled snippets about Uncle Wick. As the whisky flowed, we began identifying global problems. We solved them all quite easily. Discussion then veered towards the farcical, the philosophical, the metaphysical. Our increased laughter was inversely proportional to the decrease in the litre of whisky. I love talking crap with my twin, it occurs too infrequently these days. Towards midnight, while peeing into the darkness, then retrieving more firewood from inside the hotel, I had a brilliant drunken insight.
“Hey Craig, thish issh crayshy man! We bring Mohammed to the mountain every time we want shome wood. Lessh bring the mountain to Mohammed!”
And we laughed demonically as we carried burning floorboards to the “hotel” and ceremoniously threw them into and around the building. It belongs to us, we can do what we want with it. Yeah, thanks for nothing Uncle Wick.
And we watched with an arsonist’s fascination as the fire grew and engulfed walls and ceiling. The 130 year old structure stubbornly defied the blaze but eventually collapsed with a shower of sparks and swirling flame and quickly burnt down to almost nothing. And the hypnotic effects of smoke, fire and inebriation eventually drew us both to the Subaru and sleep quickly overwhelmed us.
“I graze beef cattle on a property nearby. I keep an eye on Wickham’s hotel for him,” drawled the man on the horse. “He paid me. Wish you’d spoken to me before doin’ what ya did, though.”
“Hang on, it’s ours. We can do what we bloodywell like!” I snapped narkily between throbs in my temples. “Why should we have to ask a hick on a horse?”
“Just thought you’d wanna know. Wickham kept some artwork wrapped and hidden in the walls. He’d come up occasionally, take one back to sell in his gallery. Maybe you don’t wanna hear this. But I’ll tell ya anyhow ‘cause I’m enjoyin’ this now. He collected them when he was at the National Art School in the old days. About fifteen paintings and drawings. They were painted by a friend of his, another student there. Now what’s his name? Aww yeah, that’s right…. Whitely. Brett Whitely.”