Through, I thought, but didn’t say – not yet. What does that mean exactly?
“Rose,” I said, “friend of mine. She – ah – comes here often then, does she?”
“Can’t say she does,” Colonel McOldentimes said.
“If she did, you’d probably know her name.”
“Bingo, buy that man a kewpie doll.”
“Please don’t, they almost always turn out to be evil. Um,” I went on quickly, “still, you let her carry on without, uh, detaining her, or asking her any questions, or … I don’t know, checking to make sure she wasn’t a prisoner attempting a breakout while wearing a hilarious disguise, for example?”
“Not my business if a private citizen chooses to pay a visit,” Colonel McOldentimes said, and looked at me again. “Of course, if a prisoner was going to attempt a breakout while wearing a hilarious disguise … ”
“Yeah,” I said, “he’d probably be more likely to dress up as me than he would be to dress up as Rose. I withdraw the question.”
“Better for all of us, really,” Colonel McOldentimes agreed, going back to his puffing and middle-distance-squinting.
“Um, could you tell me which way she went?” I asked. “You know, roughly?”
“What,” Colonel McOldentimes looked up at me again, “you mean, grab you by the scruff of the neck and give you a shake and push you in the general direction, with a kick in the pants to be going on with? That sort of roughly?”
Colonel McOldentimes was a comedian, I concluded. “Maybe just point vaguely with the stem of your pipe,” I suggested, “and then go back to puffing?”
“Sounds good,” Colonel McOldentimes said, drew the pipe from his mouth, and pointed out between two of the sheds, towards the fence and the heat-wavering sand-and-spinifex horizon. Then, as per our agreement, he went back to puffing.
I touched the brim of my cap, feeling inappropriately cowboy. “Much obliged.”
I stepped out from the tiny strip of shade Colonel McOldentimes was sitting in, adjusted my hat and sunglasses and took a moment to internally reiterate my regret over my choice of clothing, then strode on into the searing-hot yard.
All in all, Colonel McOldentimes had been much as I’d expected. But something about what he’d said … yeah, wait a minute. He’d said buy that man a kewpie doll.
I’m not a history buff by any stretch, but I’d say that by the 1850s or 1860s, convicts were no longer being shipped here and the whole thing had reached critical mass. And by “critical mass”, I mean “the population of law-abiding staff and the required infrastructure to run a penal colony was at a point where it was easier to just take the ‘penal’ out and pretend the country was yours”. Critical mass is, I feel, not only more elegant but also better describes the explosiveness of the situation.
The dolls, though – I had regrettable, nay nightmare-inducing, reason to know more about them than anybody should – they hadn’t really come into production until just before World War 1.
Now, it was entirely possible that a prison-and-or-forced-labour camp like Barnsley Prison Yard went on operating well into the Twentieth Century. Countries always had dregs, and tons and tons of salt weren’t going to mine themselves. Still, if Colonel McOldentimes’s cultural reference had been accurate – and there was no real way he could have messed it up, the only reasonable alternative was that I’d just misheard him somehow – then we were sitting on just about the time-period at which the inch or so of crusty salt sludge in Lake Philip finally gave up the ghost and dried up completely. The big land subsidence, in short, that had ultimately made city planners think this was a nice stable place to build a central business district.
Of course, Lake Philip probably wasn’t called Lake Philip right now, since Prince Philip wouldn’t actually be born until the ’20s … but the problem of what to call the salt lake wasn’t even in my top ten at the moment.
In fact, as long as I managed to find Rose and continue following her, I would wind up getting “through” and then none of this would matter at all because it would all be happening safely behind me. So I decided to call that problem 1, and let the rest of the problems take subsequent numbers and wait for problem 1 to either be solved or not be solved.
Whether or not there was something hideously screwy going on with time, and whether it meant this whole area was about to collapse and set the curse in motion, and possibly incidentally add my carcass to the ones welling to the surface of Prince Philip Street, didn’t really matter as long as I got the Hell out of here.