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Forty-one short stories
by Holly Gramazio

About | Stories by date

23 across


Anthony knows more local history than he can keep inside his brain, so he takes visitors on long walks around the city, ten dollars a head or twenty-two for a family. He used to do it for free, but people kept confusing "free" with "worthless": leaving the group the moment they saw a cafe they liked the look of, falling behind and never catching up. At ten dollars each, they pay attention. They take photos, they listen, they follow, they look wistfully at other people's coffee as they pass but they stay with the group anyway, and they do as they're told.

Sometimes. They won't step out into the rain, though. Instead, they're crowded under an office building's verandah, aimless and circling. Across the road, sparrows hop the dry patches under parked cars.

"Oh, come on, don't be such a bunch of wusses," Anthony calls over the rain. "There's only four streets to go. It'll be over in half an hour. It's not all that wet. Average rainfall in March is only twenty-two millimetres, that's barely enough to get your shoes damp."

The old man tilts his head towards his son for a translation. One of the women leans against the wall and lights a cigarette. "Hey," the man in the green shirt says. "You don't want to get wet either. Just wait and see if it quiets down. There's no rush, it's not like it's a big city."

His wife takes a photo. "I think it's cute."

"Sure it's cute," her husband says, "but we can see most of it from here."

Anthony sighs. They do take coaxing sometimes; maybe he should increase his prices again. "This street," he says loudly, and checks whether they're listening.

They're not. The leaning woman is looking at the sparrows under the verandah roof; she blows smoke towards them. "We're running out of space on the camera," the woman with the camera says to her husband. "I'll delete the protest."

"Maybe the Botanic Gardens. We got bigger trees than that back home."

"This street," Anthony says again, patient.

"Street?" an old man asks. His son leans over and translates.

"This street," Anthony repeats once last time, "was named after Edward Gibbon Wakefield." He skips the joke about gibbons to make up for lost time. "Wakefield's an interesting one, he was born in England and at one point he abducted a fifteen-year-old girl, took her to Scotland, married her, and ended up in Newgate Prison for it. But that's not why we named a street after him. Does anyone know why?" Usually someone would at least have a guess. "No? It was because he did a lot to encourage people to come from England to settle in South Australia. Don't do that, please," he adds, turning to the old man's granddaughter, who's squatting on the footpath and feeding biscuit crumbs to the sparrows. "They're pests."

"They're just hungry," says the woman with the camera, squatting down to take a picture.

Tourists, he thinks; they do mean well, feeding sparrows, giving money to buskers, but they have to be told. "They're not natives. Someone brought a few of them over in 1869, and nested them in the Botanic Gardens. By the 1870s they were everywhere. 'They do not even furnish us with a song, while their size precludes the use of them in a pie', the newspapers said."

The old man leans over again, and his son murmurs: something something passero something. Most of the group's paying attention again. The sparrows are hopping, bulbous, pecking, though the girl's stopped dropping crumbs and is sitting back on her heels to listen.

"They shoot them on sight in Western Australia," Anthony says.

"The poor sweethearts," says camera-woman to her husband.

"In fact," Anthony says, "for a while there was a bounty. You could collect it at the post office. Sixpence for each sparrow head." He's caught their attention now, and he strides toward the end of the verandah, the building's automatic doors sliding open as he passes. The path's like rubber, bouncing sparrows away from his footsteps. Most of them roll back in once he's passed, but a few get through into the building.

"Now," he goes on, "we're heading towards Victoria Square." He doesn't look behind to see if the group's following; don't let them see your fear. As he steps out into undiminished rain, though, he hears the clatter of footsteps behind him. "Also known as Tarndanyangga, which means "red kangaroo rock". Don't get your hopes up about seeing any kangaroos, though. There used to be a rock there shaped like a kangaroo, and that's where the name comes from. I do run tours of Cleland Wildlife Park on Mondays if you're set on seeing a real one, though."

When he gets to a pedestrian crossing he finally looks back, and he's lost a few, but more than half of them have followed, hair matting against scalps, the Italian still murmuring translations to his father, the woman with the camera shielding it under her jacket to keep the rain off.

"We'll see the Victoria Square fountain too," he calls out, happy. "They turn it off during storms, but a little drizzle like this shouldn't stop them. There's also the town hall and the Supreme Court, where most of our murderers have been tried. I do run a tour of our best murder sites on the first Tuesday of every month. And soon we'll be coming into sight of the post office, where you can turn in any sparrow heads you might be carrying." The crossing starts to beep, and he turns around and leads them triumphantly west.