This historic Wimmera town in rural western Victoria is home to the Stawell Gift, a famous footrace. But, apart from that and some very fine gold rush–era buildings, there’s not a lot else here.
Mark Twain came through this district of Victoria in 1896 and said of Horsham that ‘it sits in a plain that is as level as the floor.’
I stood near the doorway of the Stawell gun shop like so many other city-boy tourists with their fancy clothes and soapy-soft hands. The shopkeeper looked me over and dismissed me and all my kind in the same world-weary blink of his eyes.
‘All that matters,’ he was telling a man standing at the counter with his back to me, ‘is how the bullet travels through the air.’
I bet these guys didn’t have soft city-boy hands. These were working men. Men of the land. And while I wouldn’t have thought there’d be too many variables involved in the flight of a bullet through the air – velocity, direction and conceivably atmospheric conditions – I know I am no expert. So I thought it better not to get embroiled in this particular conversation and I’m not sure my input would’ve been appreciated anyway.
Against the long side wall of the shop were the guns – perhaps a hundred of them – all with buffed-wooden or dull-black stocks and enamel black-metal bolts and barrels. This wall of guns radiated a potent kind of dissolution and lasciviousness that I found wholly confronting and intimidating. Had I approach this ticketed and tagged shiny arsenal of latent and yet-to-be-actualised violence, I knew, just like Icarus approaching the sun, something of me would’ve been lessened and weakened. I might have begun disintegrating there on the spot.
So I stood away, still in the doorway, like every other chicken-shit city kid that steps in off the street with only money in his pocket for a meat pie and vanilla slice.
Standing close to the wall of firearms was a man, perhaps my own age, speaking to his teenage son. They wore the brimmed hats of farming people and had dusty scuffed steel-capped boots.
‘If ya don’t smoke…’ the dad was saying.
‘I don’t smoke!’ said the boy indignantly.
‘…and ya don’t drink.’
The boy was staring at the guns like they were girls, all curvy and gorgeous. His top lip cricked in a salacious grin as he ran his hands over the contours and cracks of the weapons erect in their racks.
‘…and ya don’t spend yer money on gamblin’ and cars,’ the dad said, ‘then…then you can have a gun!’
The logic was inescapable – gun ownership is self-evidently more valuable than ciggies and booze and cars and gambling combined! It’s a thing a man must make sacrifices for, worthy and aspirational. This moment of father-son tenderness nearly brought a tear to my eye.
I thanked my lucky stars that this wasn’t me and my own young-adult son, and yet lamented that I could not articulate my own values and world view quite so simply. (I know you’re thinking. And you’re probably right. And, yes, I know that farmers need guns for…for shooting farm animals and trespassers and the like.)
In my pocket was money to buy a pie. And I left the gun shop and I walked up the road to the famed local bakery.
That’s what I am doing with my life – buying pies and food and booze, overpriced cars and a house in Melbourne’s leafy suburbs.
I was up in Stawell reprovisioning the three-day weekend I was enjoying with a bunch of other mid-40s dads playing bad ukulele music and chess and cooking extravagant meals in a wood-burner stove. One of our fellas owns a tumbledown ‘weekender’ in a ghost town outside Stawell. We go there sometimes. We don’t have any guns.
There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.