Spare a Dime Mister
My character, depicted around the time of the great depression during the 1930s, seems to be saying, “Spare a dime mister.”
Fortunately these days we see little of those who, for whatever reason, lived on the streets or continually trudged the rural byways.
While I do not have first-hand knowledge of those difficult years, some readers may well have. As a boy, I can remember some of the colourful characters that made their way through the Mackenzie during the early 1940s.
Stories related to me, while they may have told of pain and heartbreak, they told of a colourful era, where men and women, through no fault of their own, were forced into a life on the road.
Familiar names, such as Paddy the Pig, Russian Jack, Polly and Bram, John the Baptist, Tim Lyons, Happy Jack, Harry Parry, Bone Ring Man, Concertina Charlie, Freddie Ambrose, Jimmy the One, and The Shiner, to name just a few. All had a story to tell of life on the road.
While most may have been of doubtful authenticity, an element of truth lies in all their tales.
Polly and Bram for instance, originally from England, had the most sorrowful tale to tell. Bram, as he became known, was the son of a cotton mill magnate. He fell for Polly, a pretty little girl with flaxen hair and a complexion of peaches and cream, who worked at the cotton mill.
This relationship was a complete mismatch, according to Bram’s family; the young lady did not fit into the family’s social structure. To make matters worse and to the dismay of Brams aristocratic family, Bram took Polly to Gretna Green, where they were duly married.
As a result, they were promptly shipped off to New Zealand, where they could never cast a shadow over the families respectability.
Forced into a life of exile, that deeply devoted couple wandered the countryside, living off the funds regularly paid in their absence. Because of their plight, that couple became a legend in their own lifetime.
A story goes they ended up drinking their regular funds and eventually selling their most personal possessions. Although their hair silvered with time, they never lost their good looks or their neat and trim appearance.
Bram died first, but as we know with many devoted couples, they were not separated for long; Polly soon followed.
John the Baptist, he was described as a little swagman with a love of music, never failing to produce the mouth organ from his pocket, wherever he went.
Accompanied by his little dog ‘Cobber’, some say John would play his harmonica, ‘till the cows come home’.
Tim Lyons is said to have graduated as a lawyer. Apparently, he was a large man who lived in a hut on the Waimakariri riverbed. In his well-tended garden around a neglected hovel, his hobby was growing parsnips. When harvested, that crop of parsnips became ‘parsnip wine’.
Tim was known to have worked on various farms in the area, cutting fences, grubbing thistles and gorse. The call of that parsnip wine was strong and a halt called to proceedings, on many occasions, until his vision returned.
Penniless, Tim died in that hut at the age of 79. Just goes to show that growing your own vegetables prolongs life. Yeah...Right.
Ned Slattery is said to have derived his name ‘The Shiner’ from Father Cahill in the town of Lawrence. The Shiner’s exploits have been thumbed through over the years; a con man if ever there was one. The Shiner could turn the most unlikely story, without flinching, into such plausible detail.
Father Cahill, so the story goes, caught up with Ned in a pub in Lawrence.
Ned had, the day before, conned a widow out of some money for whiskey, vowing to return and chop the wood; of course, he never did return to the woodpile.
“I’ll chop it tomorrow,” said Ned when Father Cahill accosted him.
“You are a shiner, a shiner, shiner, but I’ll take the shine out of you,” the preacher shouted, as a well-aimed kick landed on the seat of Ned’s pants.
To me, the best of Ned’s ‘cons,’ was when he swindled a publican out of some whisky.
“Where’s your money?” demanded the publican, as the Shiner breasted up to the bar.
“I’ve no money,” the Shiner declared, “but I’ve got plenty of stamps”.
Eventually, the Shiner wheedled a whiskey out of the publican; “a few stamps could be useful,” he declared.
The Shiner downed that whisky before there was any change of heart. When asked for payment, he stamped his foot on the floor. “One, two, three," the Shinner said with a smile, "how many stamps do you want?"