The Usual Life of Charles McGill

Above WaterCreative

On the morning Charles McGill was born, the 28th of November 1945 to be precise he had no idea how truly ordinary his life would be. The extraordinary part of history was over for the time being. The war had just ended, and he was far too small and round and chubby to be part of anything extraordinary at the time. Instead, Charles McGill grew in the small country town of Uralla, hundreds of kilometres away from anything out of the ordinary. He was the son of two quietly loving parents: Barbara and Stephen, who lived in Australia, like so many others, because their ancestors were caught with a piece of bread that wasn’t theirs.

Charles, or Charlie as his occa mates referred to him, grew up playing in the fields of nearby farms, attending school in his polished black shoes, and walking into town once a week to help his mother with shopping. Uralla felt like a little English village, surrounded by farms. Of course, there was Mount Mutton, not a real mountain in the way that the Andes or the Himalayas were, more of a hill that poked its head up gently and then said, “Ah well that’s far enough”, where Charlie and his friends would run amuck on weekends, chasing dragons, and pretending to shoot rabbits. Charlie learned to ride horses at the horse school at the bright age of four. His mother, Barbara, wanted him to start earlier but Charlie had to first concur his fear of being trampled by the horses before he could master being atop one. The headmistress of the school would take Charlie into the stables to help her clean the horses down after riding, brushing them, feeding them, and loving them into noble steads. Charlie fell in love with the sweat of the horses that perfumed the stables, that sweet mixture of earth, straw and hard work tangled in his nose and fuelled his riding.

When Charlie turned thirteen his father took him out the back of the farm, presented him a chicken and a knife and told him to ‘Be a man’. Charlie found he didn’t like that being a man equated to having to shove a cold, sharp blade into a warm living thing and never ate meat again. His father and him remained peaceful with the lingering wounds of betrayal that thankfully never quite boiled over or became anything more than leaving in a huff from dinner with each other. When Charlie turned fifteen, he started telling everyone that he’d be off soon to Sydney to study Arts, or Law, or Medicine and he’d be out of this no-good-for-nothing-shit-filled-town. Charlie and his friends all did this, they, like many people from a small town, were under the assumption they could leave and never come back. That the pull of a town like Uralla, sweet, simple, kind, connected, wouldn’t stop him from eventually moving, which of course it did.

When Charles finished school at 18, he became a cobbler and he cobbled until Nike, Timberland, Doc Martins, ADIDAS, and the lot made no more need for a cobbler. Then he became a leatherworker. He made saddles, he made jackets, he made shoes for those who asked. He loved the clean smell of leather, he loved the feeling as it softened under his hands and shaped itself into something new, something useful. In a town like Uralla, he was well known and well liked. He had beers every Friday with his mates at the little wooden tavern, that had served bushrangers and convicts long before Charles ever came round. This simple repetition gave Charles a long life. The ordinary day in day out of wake up before dawn, watch the sunset, feed the birds, water the garden, go to work, smile at people, work the leather, home before six, kept air in his lungs and purpose in his hands. Those hands slowly becoming more and more like the weathered leather that he worked. He never married. Of course, he had crushes, flings even! But his propensity for shyness, hanging in the corner of parties with a blushed red across his cheeks, meant that all the people who were interested eventually were taken or left. He had his birds though and his trusty strawberry border collie named Gary, who he went on walks with every day from six till seven. For the sixty years Charles never broke his routine once. 

And then one day Charles McGill came home to find that ‘The Shadow’ had moved into Charles’ front yard. It was only known round the town as ‘The Shadow’, no one could ever articulate anything more. It was taller than a two story house, making it stand out for a thirty kilometre radius. The only thing bigger than it was the not-really-Mount Mutton. ‘The Shadow’ had the consistency of slowly drying paint. Meaning that it oozed from standing to sitting to lying down. If you were to look at it just right and for long enough, provided it stayed still, you would almost take it for some piece of modern art. Modern art probably by an artist called Sven who had short blonde hair that arced in a mohawk, black metal piercings on their eyebrows and talked in a way that made every syllable feel important. That was if ‘The Shadow’ had been an art installation about human’s relationship with depression. Instead, it was just a heavy mass that lived in Charles’ front yard.

Something to do with the council I expect, Charles thought pleasantly to himself upon taking in the enormity of the great ‘Shadow’ before him. It is so often easier to accept life changing moment when you make them someone else’s problem. Charles went inside his house, ate his normal Thursday dinner of lamb chops and velvety mashed potatoes, took Gary for a walk and then came home, read for half an hour, and went to sleep.

When Charles woke the next morning, after his shower and morning cup of coffee he walked his way into Tom’s Leatherworks and found, to his surprise that ‘The Shadow’ followed. It moved like molasses, not stepping through the town and down the streets, more bleeding, like a wound with pressure bandages. ‘The Shadow’ seeped after Charles and stood outside his work until he was done for the day and then it dribbled its way home after him. It never said a word or made a sound. It didn’t seem to have weight and left no footprints. It just simply moved from one place to the next, all after Charles McGill. Wherever it wandered, in its wake it would leave the faint smell of musk sticks.

The towns people asked, “Why you?” “What is this thing?” “Is it here to destroy us?” “Why would it follow you!?” “Is it following you?” “Why doesn’t it have a face?” “What is it?” “Should we be scared?” “What’s so important about you?” To which Charles would reply, even-handedly without any sign of offence: “Not much” and “I don’t know, it isn’t bothering anyone”. There was even a brief media storm as reporters from all over NSW came to see ‘The Shadow’ but after days of camping out, watching it follow Charles around on his unchanging schedule, they eventually decided that nothing was out of the ordinary and the nation and even the townspeople seemed to forget that ‘The Shadow’ even existed in the first place. All writing it up to something in the water of Uralla.

When Charles McGill died at the ripe old age of 78, he was out on his afternoon walk with Gary. Close to home he stooped low to water some succulents growing in an outdoor garden. He did so with the last of his water, not needing it to get him the last block home as it wasn’t too warm. When Charles stood up, he found that he didn’t and that he was in fact lying on the pavement, his water disappearing into the dried earth of the succulents. They would grow on his death bed and so Charles McGill passed of a heart attack in the late afternoon of October 3rd. ‘The Shadow’ watched him from above and in the twilight of his mind he could have sworn it smiled at him, like a father or a mother who was proud of what their child had done.

Charles is buried in the cemetery. Friends visited for several years, ensuring that the tombstone was washed clean of dirt and new flowers were brought every month. Eventually everyone moved on, his friends passed too, becoming friends in the graveyard, standing next to him, or down the road. ‘The Shadow’ never left Charles’ side. It’s still sitting there today, looming beside the tombstone that reads:


Here lies Charles McGill

A hard worker and lover of leather

Never worried, always loved.

1945 - 2023

‘The Shadow’ can be seen, if you squint your eyes at sunset, picking petals from daffodils and lying them on the grave bed. The grave still smells faintly of musk sticks.


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