A short story based on Bruce Dawe’s “Drifters”

One of the brilliant aspects of my job is that I get to write. This year four new Year 12 English courses begin across South Australia, and to demonstrate what’s required I draft exemplars. A new task requires students to transform a text into another form. I selected Bruce Dawe’s “Drifters” as it’s a timeless poem of family tragedy and childhood hope. It could make a great film, play or song. I decided to write a short story.


Drifters- Bruce Dawe

One day soon he’ll tell her it’s time to start


And the kids will yell “Truly?” and get wildly

excited for no reason,

And the brown kelpie pup will start dashing about,

tripping everyone up,

And she’ll go out to the vegetable-patch and pick

all the green tomatoes from the vines,

And notice how the oldest girl is close to tears           5

because she was happy here,

And how the youngest girl is beaming because she


And the first thing she’ll put on the trailer will be

the bottling set she never unpacked from


And when the loaded ute bumps down the drive

past the blackberry-canes with their last

shrivelled fruit,

She won’t even ask why they’re leaving this time,

or where they’re heading for

—she’ll only remember how, when they came                 10


she held out her hands bright with berries,

the first of the season, and said:

’Make a wish, Tom, make a wish.’



Ten Years is a Long Time

It’s a scene to make you smile. Two girls and a brown kelpie pup jumping and running, laughing and barking as the late afternoon sun bends through the eucalyptus trees. Their hot perfume hangs in the blue air. All across Australia families like this one are enjoying their Sunday afternoons, as this exceedingly hot summer stretches out.

While these children appear happy in the golden light, the shadows are lengthening, for they and their mother live in a state of apprehension. At the insistence of their father, they are drifters.

Tom Smith meets me in the front bar of Cobar’s Railway Hotel. I offer to buy him a beer, and he says, “Fair enough too. With your fancy city job, you can afford it.” I decline to explain that as a cadet journalist I’m probably earning less than he is, and ask, “How long have you been in Cobar?”

He looks me in the eye, takes a long draught from his beer, and wipes the foam from his lip. “Let’s see. I reckon it’ll be four weeks next Tuesday. Time to go,” he clips. There’s defensiveness in his voice, a challenge, as if he’s daring me to argue. I imagine he’s exchanged fisticuffs in a Friday front bar before. “Why are you leaving?”

As the clock ticks towards six, the pace of drinking accelerates. It’s hot, smoky and the men yelling at each other is a slow-motion explosion of noise. I lean in towards Tom to better hear him. “Shearing’s nearly finished. Job’s done. We’ll head south towards the Murray. Grapes’ll soon be ripe. Plenty of work pickin’ ‘em. I know a bloke in Mildura. We were there four or five years ago. Not long after Susie had her accident.” Tom glances up at the clock. Quarter to six. Impossibly, it becomes louder in Cobar’s biggest hotel.

“Can I ask what happened?” Susie’s the youngest daughter of Tom and his wife Mary. To make ends meet, Mary gets what work she can too. Cooking for the shearers, helping out in the homestead. Both work long hours. Hard, physical labour. “Fell off a fence. Cut her leg badly on a rock, and ripped her calf muscle. Still walks with a bit of a limp. I’d told them girls to stay away from the fence- some of the timbers were loose.”

I study Tom again. His face is weathered brown from years of vicious outback sun, and his eyes are set in an endless squint – even here in the pub. There’s honesty in our conversation, but also a reticence to tell a city stranger too much.

Later as she cooks dinner for her family I talk to Mary, while Tom sits outside. Susie and her sister Jane are throwing a ball to the dog. Dusk descends from the sky. The meal is mutton chops, carrots, peas and mashed potatoes. Resting my elbows upon its laminated top, I sit at the table. “Are you looking forward to Mildura?” I ask. The chops sizzle and spit in the pan. Mary’s eyes scurry across to me. “Is that where we’re headed?’ Her question doesn’t surprise me. Outside in the dusty heat, I hear Tom cough.

“Yes, Tom told me at the pub. Does he…” I pause, worried about marching into their marriage. I’m not sure I’d like what I might hear. “…you know, does he usually ask you about where you’d like to go?” Mary wipes her hands on her apron, and turns to me. “Can I tell you something?” I lean forward. “Please.”

I see tears at the corners of her eyes. “I’m tired. We’ve been drifting for over ten years. Never been anywhere longer than a couple months. We met in Kingaroy. Queensland. Got married. Back then, Tom had plans. Wanted to be a fisherman, you know, get his own boat.” I take a sip from my cup of tea. “What happened?”

Mary pours milk in with the potatoes and starts rhythmically, but cheerlessly working her fork into the boiled vegetable. “A few months after we we’re married Tom’s best man Jim drowned. He was on a prawn boat off of Cairns. Huge storm swept in. They got caught in it. That was the storm of ‘53. Six boats went down. Twenty-three men lost. Tom vowed he’d never set foot on a trawler. We decided to head south and follow the work.”

I offer, “Ten years is a long time.” Mary wipes her eyes with the apron, and whispers, “The girls need friends. School. They could play tennis….” She stops, as if her words are forbidden, an unutterable prayer. Tom’s boots blunder up the corridor. He kisses Mary on the head. “What’s for dinner, love?”

On the following Friday Tom and Mary, their daughters and the dog leave Cobar, the ute’s exhaust coughing out bluish smoke as it bumps down the driveway. Tom flicks the turning indicator and steers south.

In Mildura, seven hours away, there are red and white grapes, ready for picking.

About Mickey Randall

Favourite film: The Shawshank Redemption Favourite song: Khe Sahn Favourite holiday destination: Gold Coast Favourite food: steak Favourite beer: VB Best player seen: Dogga Worst player seen: Frogga Last score on beep test: 3.14159 Favourite minor character in Joyce’s Ulysses: Punch Costello


  1. Ghosts of Tom Joad. Love the way Mr Dawe implies a story rather than tells it. Allows the reader to colour in the gaps, as you have done in your essay.
    I admired the way you told the story “straight – but interesting” for your student audience. None of the usual MRandall rhetorical flourishes and flights of fancy. Teach them a good forward defence, and they can work out the attacking shots for themselves.

  2. Neil Anderson says

    If I was lucky enough to be a Year 12 student in South Australia, I would jump at the chance to convert your short-story into a play. The style and characters remind me of Hannie Rayson’s play ‘Inheritance’.
    I hope the students appreciate your wonderful short-story and Bruce Dawe’s poem which will hopefully kick-start their imagination to produce their own special pieces of work.
    It would be interesting to get some feedback on how the students approached this new curriculum initiative Mickey.

  3. PB- thanks for this. I’ve always enjoyed how Dawe uses dramatic context to tell stories, and rarely preaches. And there’s plenty of light and space in his verse for us to wander. Writing for teachers and students in a most public fashion has its challenges- the mute button is generally on. I prefer the freedoms found here on this site!

    Neil- cheers. I’m not aware of any adaptations of Dawe’s poetry, but reckon many of his poems could work. With their very human concerns and timelessness, I’m surprised a playwright hasn’t delved into this. There’s a challenge for you Neil!

  4. Ripper interpretation MR. This poem and songs such as My Elusive Dreams are today almost small records of a distant time. Beyond what can be analysed through sociological or feminist or even identity studies Dawe paints a very poetic image of yearning. Every character in this short poem yearns. Trouble is, everyone has to follow one person’s yearning. And there the trouble starts. That is what i really enjoyed about your story. That tension becomes palpable.


  5. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Exemplary Mickey.

    But be prepared for a deluge of nitpicking motor vehicle enthusiasts questioning whether a 50s built ute (as it surely was) would have had indicators. You can thank me later.

  6. Rick- thanks for that. The family dynamic is tragic and compelling and I recall students being outraged at the father, Tom and his monolithic behaviour. There’s much to be made of the various critical perspectives you identify too- sociological, feminist and possibly biographical given that Dawe uses aspects of his childhood in the poem. Of course if a film of the poem had been made in 1985 Bryan Brown would’ve played Tom!

    Swish- very good work on the blinker anachronism! Early this morning I dropped some friends at the airport- in their car before bringing it home. A late model BMW, its tech features contrast sharply with my decidedly Spartan vehicle, built in Korea- if I can mix the Greek and the Asian! I was given a quick lesson in operating all of its toys and tricks, and invited to drive the car for the next few days. Terrified, I promptly parked it in our garage. If I can pass the necessary online TAFE course I might take it out over the weekend. And yes, I will thank you soon!

    Cheers, chaps.

  7. Thanks for this Mickey. I loved it.
    I’m a huge Bruce Dawe fan.
    Your story was it was too short. I wanted it to go on and on.

  8. Chips Rafferty would have played Tom in 1965. John Meillon in 1975.
    Robin Nevin is my vote for Mary.

  9. John Jarratt if made in 2010 but, you know, the story takes a twist that Bruce Dawe didn’t quite intend.

  10. Thanks Smokie. The task I was writing for is capped at about 800 words so this was a challenge. I initially wanted the journalist to also talk to the girls- probably last for some closing poignancy, but space didn’t allow. It was fun to write.

    PB- I like the John Meillon suggestion. Of course in the obligatory pub scene we would have John inhaling beers with a black and white TV above the bar playing a VB ad- You can get it driftin’ etc.

    Rick- the 2017 version features the winners of the Bachelor and the Bachorette in the lead roles. I weep for the present!

    Thanks everyone.

  11. *The Bachelorette. I take it as a sign of my good televisual taste that I misspelt this.

  12. Love it, Mickey.
    The imagining.
    The story.
    The idea of writing the story.
    Lucky students. Well played.

  13. Thanks E.r.

    I used to like teaching So Much Water So Close To Home by Raymond Carver and then connecting it to the film Jindabyne and finally of course Paul Kelly’s Everything’s Turning To White. Exploring the forms and purposes of each was fun. I’d also tell them about Altman’s Short Cuts although time meant we didn’t watch it. Interesting that Huey Lewis was the antagonist in the matching story.

    It’ll be fascinating to see watch teachers and students transform during the coming school year.

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