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As published in The Sydney Mail, Australia, 27 December 1922

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BILL HARKISS was part-owner of the schooner Doris before she started on a career of mine sweeping in the North Sea. The business was not a healthy one for Bill or the Doris. One cold morning in February a jazz-painted cylinder of iron that looked like a chunk of ice floated under the Doris's keel and lifted Bill as far south as the Naval Hospital at Haslar. During moments of consciousness the doctor advised him not to talk about the war or the Kaiser. This young doctor, being afflicted with a sense of humour and a genuine desire for his patient's welfare, told us that Bill might indulge in cheerful conversation on subjects connected with pigs, farming, or turtles. Pig and turtle talk, the doctor inferred, were the most restful topics which the human mind could absorb.

From a civilian point of view Bill was the most wildly ignorant man that ever gripped a mine by the horns. But he knew more about the sea and the islands under the Line than he knew about pigs or haylofts.

The house surgeon and matron at Haslar had only one grievance against him, and this lay in Bill's violent fits of rage whenever he was asked to eat plum pudding.

"I'll eat cheese," Bill would say, "that'll climb trees an' hide from its pursuer. But I'll go back and ride another mine afore I touches plum duff. Not me!"

When told by an angry nurse one day that plum pudding was the food of kings, Bill sat up in his bed and asked for a cigarette. The eyes of the ward were on Bill as he smoked; bandaged heads craned forward to catch each syllable from his lips. And this was his story:

"I CAME pretty near makin' my fortune out of plum duff once, nurse. If you took the map, an' looked due north of the Queensland coast you'd see a smudge of islands called the Monday Group. On Thursday Island you get pearls an' them derned turtles the doctor wants me to yarn about. Wednesday Island is full of cockroaches an' rum. Well, about two years afore the war the white people of these islands went without Christmas pudding, because no one had shipped enough flour or raisins for that time of the year.

"I had a little schooner, the Vixen, lyin' in ballast at Sydney. My first mate was Jim Baxter, an' my second was a big loafin' chap named Mudden. There was nothin' special about Mudden except his appetite, an' when he was properly started he'd beat the rat boy at puttin' the stuff away. His blamed appetite was the only thing he ever owned. The struggle in keep his eatin' a hole in the pantry was hard on me and Jim.

"We owed about two thousand dollars for stores an' canvas to old McClusky, the chandler. So he threatened to put a sheriff aboard the Vixen if we didn't reduce our account by Christmas.

"'They'll be wantin' plum puddin's up Monday Island way,' he says to us one mornin' in November. 'Ye remember how they starved for dough up there last Christmas?'

"Jim Baxter looked hard at me. 'That's so, Mr. McClusky,' he says after a while. 'If we could fill up our holds with ready-made puddin's we could trade them through the islands for money or pearls.'

"McClusky thought it was a fine idea, and as he had a mortgage on the Vixen he wanted to see us earnin' money instead of idlin' alongside the pier eatin' into the insurance money. So McClusky retired to think it over.

"Next mornin' a van drove down the pier an' pulled up alongside our gangway. Before Jim or me guessed what would happen the fellers in the van started to unload hundreds of tins of ready-made plum puddin's in three sizes. There was the eight-pound father plum puddin's, price two dollars fifty, an' the four-pound mother plum duffs at one twenty-five, an' the little baby duffs at fifty cents a tin. All done up in red labels, with Father Christmas smilin' through his whiskers on every label. The van spread the tins alongside, while we worked like niggers stowin' 'em under the hatches.

"Next day we cast off with a late tide an' stood away for the north, with a steady breeze stiffenin' our sails. The steady breeze soon threatened to blow the sticks out of us before we sighted the Queensland coast. It was early on the eighteenth that we ran into an old-man cyclone. It struck us from the land side an' raged, for a whole week, until the cargo began to jazz in the forehold like a Chinese birthday party.

"All night the father an' mother puddin's kept up the harmony, while the little baby tins seemed to be 'avin' the time of their lives, ispecially when the old Vixen, dipped her nose thirty feet under an' almost stood en her head in the sheer joy of life, as the comic papers say.

"The situation on the twenty-fifth became worse, an' Jim said we might as well prepare for drownin', as there was no chanst of gettin' away in a taxi at that hour of the night.

"The only thing I remembered about the break-up was the awful clout we got from a sea that lifted us on to a submerged reef an' left us there split in halves, with the masts knocked clean out of us.

"I kept afloat somehow until I found myself grabbin' some tufts of spear grass that grew down the sides of a low sand-covered reef. I looked up at some scrubby trees above an' saw Jim Baxter an' Mudden emptyin' the salt water out of their jacket pockets.

"'Beat ye by thirty seconds, cap'n,' Jim calls out to me. 'An' that's sayin' nothin' about the tiger shark that wanted to walk the rest of the way home with us.'

"'Don't believe him, skipper,' says Mudden. 'The fishes round here wouldn't eat Jim, not if you b'iled him in honey. Let's get on with the wreck.'

"We waited till the sun came out to dry our clothes an' look round. We had been washed on to a bare shelf of rock that had nothin' on it but a few spindly trees. There was a big hollow in the middle, full of fresh water from the monsoon rains.

"The schooner lay on her side about a quarter of a mile from our reef. She was half-covered in the out-going tide, an' it seemed to me an' Jim as if she ripped her keel off on the shoal. A crowd of hungry birds had settled on her rails, but as far as the eye could reach there wasn't a sign of anything between us an' Judgment Day.

"We were castaways on a barren reef two hundred miles from the Australian coast, and as far as I could make out another two hundred from the next whisky an' soda.

"All of a sudden Mudden started to develop his five barrel appetite, an' the only sign of grub on that blessed reef was a small pink periwinkle stuck to the side of the rock. We had some loaded dice with us, an' I told Mudden we might throw for the periwinkle. But on reflection I ordered him to eat it an' say no more about it. Instead of ixpressin' his gratitood he threw him self into the water an' started swimmin' to the wreck. Jim an' me sat down an' waited hopefully.

"'He's after that pig's fry we left hangin' in the galley, sir,' the mate laughed. 'Or them two sweetbreads an' sausages we was to have 'ad for breakfast.'

"'I hope he'll find 'em,' Jim,' I said. 'But I'll wager my wet plug o' baccy against your nickel watch that them seafowl have cleaned out the pantry.

"Jim said it was no time for gamblin'. He referred to me as a hardened sinner for tryin' to bring the workin's of fate into disrepute. At the same time he ixpressed a hope that there might be just one little cask of rum left in the storeroom.

"Mudden reached the wreck. We saw him climb through the rent in the schooner's side an' disappear in the direction of the pantry. It must have been half an hour afore he came scramblin' out with a dozen tins of puddin' fastened round his neck.

"He almost fell into the water but bein' a good swimmer he battled hard an' reached the reef, where we stood ready to help him out with the puddin' tins hangin' round his chest like derned gasometers.

"'Nothin' else but puddin's Dave?' Baxter asked him with a starved look in his eye. 'Nothin' else in all the pantry?'

"Dave shook the water out of his eyes an' ears while we broke the cord that held the tins together. He looked at Baxter severely. 'Yer couldn't ixpect me to swim ashore with a bunch of pig's fry round me neck; he said. 'Even if the fry hadn't been swallered by them derned birds, over there.'

"We sat down an' cut open with a clasp knife a big father tin of puddin', price two-fifty.

"'Let me help you, Dave,' I says, choppin' out a piece of puddin' about the size of his foot. 'An' may you have a hearty Christmas when it comes.'"


'Let me help you, Dave,' I says, choppin' out
a piece of puddin' about the size of his foot.

"Dave looked at the piece of hard puddin' for about ten seconds, an' then bit it for all he was worth.

"'I'd have brought the sausages if they'd been there,' he says in his downhearted way. 'But just as I climbed into the galley a big bird with feathers down his legs flew out with the sausages round his neck. I hope,' he says, chewin' the puddin' fifty to the minute, 'the sausages didn't choke the beggar. I'm a Christian in that respect. I don't wish harm to man or bird.'

"'I won't ask the reason why Dave didn't bring the rum, Cap'n,' the male chipped in. 'It might savour of ingratitood.'

"'It would,' Dave growled, with both hands well down in the puddin' tin. 'It would saver of ingratitood to ask me to swim half a mile with a small barrel of licker under my chin. I ain't a blamed Hercules, Mr. Baxter, even if I do relish my food.'"

"ANYHOW (went on Bill), everybody relished the puddin', an' everybody asked for more; so we broke open one of the four-pound mother tins, price one twenty-five. Things might have been worse, we argued. Ships' crews had been known to die of hunger on these reefs, an' we felt mighty pleased when Dave told us that there was hundreds of more tins in the schooner's hold, ready to be lifted out. All the flour an' meat was in the sunken end of the Vixen, and as that couldn't he helped we were prepared to sit tight on the reef an' wait for a passing sail. So we opened a third tin of puddin' an' prepared to let the time pass pleasantly. All we wanted was a mouth organ and a pack of cards, an' we'd have been as happy as niggers at a picture show.

"The day grew hot as we fossicked round the reef in the hope that the bird what had stolen the sausages had left a few eggs behind. Nothin' doing. We might as well have looked for a blue rhinoceros.

"Finished the rest of the puddin' by night. Dave said he'd swim back to the wreck followin' mornin' an' get some more. We slept under a shelf of rock, with Dave moanin' in his sleep about raisins and dough an' the bird what blew off with the pig's fry. Jim woke him up an' asked him kindly to talk about somethin' else. Dave said he'd try, but only succeeded in ravin' out more pomes on puddin'. A dismal night.

"Poor Dave looked worried an' blown up under the eyes when he waded into the water for another go at the wreck.

"'There's a keg o' salt beef in the after hold, Dave,' Baxter yelled after him. 'Do yer best, me lad!'

"'An' a five-ton iron safe in the storeroom, Jim,' Dave hollered back. 'Don't be stoopid, man!'

"He reached the schooner in good time an' disappeared inside the break amidships. To our surprise he appeared again pushin' the schooner's dinghy through the openin' in the bows. It had evidently got jammed between the wreckage, but Dave managed to find an oar an' load her up with tins of puddin', on top of which was a fryin'-pan from the galley, some salt in a jar, some mustard, an' three bottles of vinegar.

"Baxter's face was a study when the boat arrived.

"'What became of the beef an' pork, Dave, an' the bananas, an' the tinned fish we stored in the pantry?' he asked.

"Dave tumbled out of the dinghy and grabbed the pair of dry trousers I held out to him. 'There ain't no bananas, an' there ain't no tin or iron fish, Mr. Baxter. Being light weights they got blown or washed away. The on'y stuff left is puddin', he says, pointin' fiercely to the pile of tins in the boat. 'It was so derned heavy the cyclone couldn't shift it. We've gotter eat it or die—tons an' tons of puddin'.'

"Dave Baxter looked hurt.

"'If yer wasn't a pessimist, Dave, you'd have been President of a Pork Pie Republic. You'd like to be cast away on a desert rock with no end of luxuries at hand, such as lobster maisonettes an' cow's-feet jelly. There's nothin' wrong with plum duff if yer eat it in moderation. It's the finest diet in the world.'

"I'm not sayin' it isn't provided you've enough turkey an' roast beef to help it down. But, bein' castaways with on'y a fryin'-pan an' some vinegar an' salt, we can on'y do our best from keepin' the puddin' from eatin' us.

"We fried it an' we boiled it. On Thursdays we stewed it in vinegar, an' on Saturdays an' Sundays we ate it with salt—cold. Plum puddin', as Dave said, is the finest diet in the world, especially when you're fresh from school or bein' livin' in one of those boardin' houses where it's a crime to have more than three raisins to every yard of dough. Yes, nurse, I uster like plum puddin' onct, but not on a desert rock. In the first week of our maroonin' we ate half a boat-load of it. After meals Dave uster stagger about the sea front wishin' he was a bird, so's he could fly away to a place where they lived on tripe an' onions. Sometimes we'd make up our minds not to eat any more puddin', an' we'd go for a whole day without tastin' any thin' except a few pink shellfish we picked up on the rocks. Next day, feelin' hungry as wolves, we'd go back to the plum, plum, plum.

"AFTER a month of it I got to feel that we were robbin' the whole world of Christmas puddin'. There were birds flyin' about the reef, but they were like the fowls mother uster keep. They never left a single egg about. They were so quick you couldn't kill 'em with a stick or stone. Blamed if I'll ever believe the yarns you read about men bein' cast away on islands growin' fat on turtles and birds' eggs. It's my firm belief that if Robinson Crusoe had been wrecked good an' hard like us he'd have been killed for tellin' stories by the pore old goat what uster bake his bread. I believe Robinson would have started to build a railway to carry his chicken food home if old man Friday hadn't belonged to a labour union. Why, Dave an' me was fools enough to try an' imitate Robinson. We picked some raisins outer the dough an' planted 'em in some soil, an' there wasn't so much as a plum leaf grew outer the spot.

"I'm tellin' the truth, nurse, not a goat an' fish yarn. An' this tinned plum diet supplied us with more nightmares than would kill a real horse. An' speakin' of nightmares we had a competition as to which of us could dream the prize nightmare. Mudden won easily. One night, after a extra big supper, tin-ditto, Mudden dreamed he was locked in a cage with five lions an' thirty full-grown puddin's. In this nightmare Mudden said the lions uster eat him an' the thirty puddin's. Immediately after, the puddin's uster come to life again an' eat the lions. Mudden said he had to eat a lion a minute. An' so the nightmare continued, lions eatin' puddin's and Dave eatin' both. Mudden uster wake up with a blown-up expression under the eyes, sayin' he didn't feel disposed for breakfast. He was one of those fellows that couldn't stand lions in his sleep, especially, when they got mixed up with the dough an' raisins an' a blame time-limit.

"One mornin', after a terrible storm overnight, a three-masted schooner flyin' the American flag hove in sight, an' seein' our signals bore down an' sent off a boat to the reef.

"The three of us yelled for joy, cuttin' capers on the rocks like Fijians in a movin' picture. Well, nurse, up comes the boat, an' out jumps an officer, in clear white spick-an'-span clothes.

"'Hullo!' he calls out cheerfully, an' his eyes got busy wanderin' over our fireplace. 'You guys seem to ixpress the simple life from every angle. Is there much furniture an' effects to move, gentlemen?' he says in a matter-of-fact way. 'I'm sorry we can't shift the tin mine you've discovered,' he told me, as he pointed to the mountain of puddin' cans on the hearth.

"We all climbed into the boat an' pushed off for the schooner, while the American officer eyes us an' all that was left of the old Vixen, with her stern stickin' out of the water an' the sea-fowl climbin' all over the flooded hatchways.

"'We ran short of food,' the American told us, with his eye on Mudden. 'You see,' he says thoughtfully, 'we left 'Frisco with a big consignment of Christmas puddin's for the islands hereabouts some six weeks ago. We'd heard that the whole of the Archipelago was yellin' for puddin's last Christmas; so we loaded up good an' plenty, an' I reckon we're here just in time to stop a famine. You'll agree with me, gentlemen, that it's a wicked thing for people to be deprived of puddin' at this time of the year.'

"Mudden looked at me an' I looked at the sky. I started to wonder whether this joyful nightmare belonged to me or Dave.

"'An' we ran out of provisions,' the American says in his nice way, 'havin' been blown two thousand miles out of our course. We must be thankful, I suppose, for small mercies in the way of something to eat, although I agree with Captain Anderson that it is a most disagreeable thing to have to broach the cargo to feed the crew.'

"'The cargo?' says Mudden, turnin' white at the gills.

"The American looked him hard in the face.

"'Our only cargo is Christmas puddin's. I think I mentioned the fact away back on the reef.'

"Dave fanned himself with the end of his neck-cloth. Dave was too derned polite to have a fit, but I knew that the poor feller was feelin' like one of the lions after he'd swallered the fifth puddin' in the nightmare.

"'I'm really sorry you're not feelin' well,' the American says to Mudden. 'Anyhow, here we are,' an' he steers the boat right under the big schooner's gangway. 'I trust you'll all be feelin' better after you've tasted some of our real delicious Christmas puddin'. Come aboard, gentlemen; come aboard.'

"The midday meal was bein' got ready. Without wastin' precious moments on ceremony the officer led us downstairs to a cabin, where a table had been laid for four.

"'The best service a Christian gentleman can render three castaways is to give them nourishin' food an' comforts,' says the officer, takin' his seat at the head of the table an' wavin' us to our chairs. 'You know, my pore fellers,' he went on, slow an' solemn, 'what day it is?'

"I said we'd lost count, an' when he told us it was Christmas Day we felt like pipin' our eyes an' holdin' each other's hands.

"Then all of a sudden a steward came in with a big silver tray; on it was four small dishes of curried chicken an' rice, follered by a lavish helpin' of roast duck an' turkey.

"You see, nurse, that officer had sized up our situation after one look at the wreck an' another at the unholy litter of puddin' tins scattered over the reef. So he reckoned he'd give us a bit of a surprise. He sat back in his chair an' smiled quite homely like, helpin' us one after another to sherry an' port.

"We all put our ears back when the steward came in at the finish carryin' the biggest plum puddin' I'd ever set eyes on. It was sprigged with real holly an' covered with almonds an' brandy sauce. The officer's eyes just twinkled as he looked us square in the face.

"'Which of you gentlemen will honour the day?' he says, pointin' to the puddin'. 'We have the best cook west of the Golden Gate. Now, please let me help you,' he says, takin' up a silver knife an' spoon.

"Mudden closed his eyes as if he was dreamin' about lions. 'You'll excuse me, sir,' he bleated; 'I'll fight a bit of cheese instead.'

"'An' you, sir?' the officer says, lookin' hard at me.'

"'Just a trifle,' I answered, feelin' that it would be scurvy to refuse.'

"'An' you, sir?' the officer says, lookin' quite sudden.

"'As much as you like, sir,' Jim says promptly. 'Mother always uster say plum puddin' was the right stuff to give a sailor man.'

"Well, he got a piece about the size of a baby's hat, an' Jim ate it to the last raisin.

"So that was the end of our trip, nurse. If ever I'm wrecked again it will be with a cargo of curried chicken an' ham, with plenty of bully beef in the forehold.

"The moral of the story, nurse, is that there ain't nothin' wrong with sage custard until you're axed to live with it. Then a feller starts wishin' he'd been married to some other kind of puddin'... D'ye see, nurse?"


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.