John Simpel knows his worms.
At high school he takes an uncommon amount of interest in worms. He tends the only worm terrarium in biology class and with his constant cares the worms multiply quickly.
When the principal insists all worms must go, John left school too. The worms overwhelm the terrarium and John Simpel cultivates outside school. People call him ‘Little John Simpel” because he is so tall and skinny, looking wormier day by day.
The really disconcerting aspect of his slender stature is watching his Adam’s apple bob up and down when he is extra excited about his favorite subject – worms.
One may observe that the most famous attraction of Mount Gambier is its profusion of wormholes. No one really appreciates it, except Little John Simpel. He knows in careful analytical studies that nowhere in the world are found as many wormholes. It is easy to overlook small wormholes, but Little John often says to anyone listening: “We do have several really grand holes of major scientific interest.”
Then, with eyes misting, he will laconically gaze over the horizon, Adam’s apple bobbing up and down and predict: “Learned people will flock to see our wormholes one day.”
Few people can stand his conversation about worms and they dismiss him as harmless, a worm.
On his daily round of especially significant wormholes Little John Simpel walks alone, a lonely figure carrying his worming shovel. This long handled shovel shines black and it tapers to a brightly honed edge. Little John Simple bought his big black shovel at the Mitre-10 store on White Avenue. The sales representative sorted through the fast array of perfectly good shovels, until he retrieves an older model from the rear of the warehouse.
That one suits Little John, who excitedly says: “My worming shovel needs to slice neatly to do no damage. Worms distress easily, you know.”
The stressed salesman retires to the Park Hotel bar for the rest of the day, claiming he does not feel at all well and his worms need drowning. Little John Simpel always affected people somehow on his wanderings.
On his daily ramble around the Blue Lake Little John talks to all visitors who gaze at the colour of the water. “Everybody has a theory why the lake turns blue,” Little John states: “Everyone has different ideas about it.”
With Adam’s apple bobbing menacingly he warming to his favorite subject: “The truth of why that water goes blue is simple. Billions of microscopic squirming little worms are afloat in those waters. Blue worms. Billions of blue worms.” Then he gazes over towards the distant ranges, his eyes misting: “Why that should be, is unknown, but I refuse to drink the town water. It’s full of live worms.” The city council received more than one complaint about Little John Simpel’s effect on tourists at the Blue Lake, but they can do little about it.
One day Little John marches onto the Hoo-Hoo lookout over the Leg of Mutton Lake. Parking his big black shovel he says to a visiting group: “Many scientific publications suppose all these holes are due to volcanic activity thousands of years ago. Well, any fool can see that, you know. What they fail to explain is the occurrence of holes in the rock and in the ground. You should see the holes I’ve seen with my own eyes. They are not an everyday sight. No, they are holes that worms ate!”
Then he would lean over the lookout guardrail and sigh emotionally: “I have no doubt about it.”
The tourists visit the triage department at the hospital and promptly leave the city with phials of worming syrup.
The CES employment caseworkers try very hard to place Little John Simpel in a suitable work position, but unfortunately there is no demand for worm specialists. Sometimes prospective employers persevere by giving him tasks, like concrete mixing at a building site. He is recommended with his very own shovel, you see.
It never lasts long and Little John Simpel’s dismissal is for persistent spotting worms in the mixing sand.
The building contractor books in for weekly counseling at the local psychiatric clinic, complaining the end is near. He sees worms crawling and wriggling over the construction sites and even over the entire city. A bad case of neurotic anxiety disorder caused by worm phobia.
Little John Simpel finds it difficult to exist on the Government Dole and he strives to better himself. He follows local civic affairs with keen interest, aspiring to be a tour-guide at the Lakes Nature Reserves. Tourism to the region declines due to national economy problems. Rising travelling costs mean fewer people go on holidays. Everybody expresses their deep concern and a public meeting to discuss the matter sees many civic-minded people attend. Little John Simpel decides he has a major contribution to make too. Following fine speeches presented by various officious types the meeting opens to the public forum and several citizens offer their opinions.
“I believe tourist numbers will increase when we offer more attractions,” the manager of a local business says: “I think the government should do something about it.”
“Yes, we think so too.” Several other people agree: “We think the government should do something about new attractions.”
“What we need are more variety to enhance the tourist development of our city,” speaks another person: “Something more that can be considered a regional resource as well.”
“Too right,” somebody yells out from the rear: “I want to see something concrete for the financial support of business people. We are give frequently and returns are down”.
“That is correct,” another person adds: “We are continually standing up and counted on. I get the feeling like I am standing under a cold shower tearing up one hundred dollar notes. This whole meeting, the city, and its tourism are a disgrace! We need a new focus!”
“Yes, that is right! We need positive contributions!”
Everybody is yelling at the chairperson and the officials on the stage of the city hall.
The chairperson pleads for silence and he calls for ideas. New ideas to get the new focus everybody want to see.
“I like to see more board-walks over the water at the Valley Lake,” someone suggests.
“Why not stock up the many water holes with more catchable fish,” another person says.
“We must open the holes and caverns beneath the city and put in a small electric train for sightseeing”. This idea gains wide approval and everybody whispers between himself and herself, saying they thought of that years ago but were too timid to mention it.
At this point Little John Simpel overcomes his nervousness and he puts up his hand to catch the chairperson’s eye.
“Mr Chairman, I think that idea is brilliant. I believe many holes beneath our city are wormholes and therefore are of international significance.”
Little John Adam’s apple bobs menacingly as he warms to his favorite subject: “I believe we are sitting right now above billions of worms awaiting discovery!” He glances at the citizens of Mount Gambier for approval and he notices several individuals turning a peculiar colour. One lady rushed outside to be sick and the entire meeting disintegrates. Little John Simpel retreats as leading members of the city council evict him.
Worms are the talk of town, but no one thinks very favorably of the idea. The local psychiatrist counsels a growing clientele following the Mount Gambier public forum on tourism to the town.
Little John Simpel cuts a lonely figure on his rambles over the hills of Mount Gambier. Following the voicing of his ideas at the public forum, people of the city shun him. It did not really matter because his friends await discovery wherever he walks, carrying his big black shovel. He looks everywhere for new worm colonies.
At the south side of the Mount he discovers a patch of yellow worms, and on the north side he unearths juicy red worms. On the east side he digs up a huge colony of blue-black monsters and in the western slopes were many thin sleek varieties. Little John Simpleton calculates that he might be spending his whole life investigating the worm populations of Mount Gambier.
Everywhere he walks he discovers perplexing signs that once, long ago, the worms had been huge. Some wormholes gape largely at him, and he wonders about the size of the monsters that once ate their way through, long ago.
Walking along Lake Terrace West, he strolls by the home of a retired citizen who works in the garden. Little John Simpel’s reputation precedes him and when he pauses to watch he notices the mulch-heap.
“That’ll be mulch,” he says.
“Bugger off, you little creep,” growls the pensioner.
“You know, I think the worms burrow deeply in mulch. That is fine mulch, that is.” Little John Simpel’s Adam’s apple bobs in appreciation: “Worms generally swallow the mulch and deposit it as waste, by that enriching the soil.”
“Bug off, you are a boring little creep!” The retired man shouts loudly in his disgust.
He visits the doctor later in the day complaining of an inability to weed the garden because of worms: “I see worms crawling all over my mulch heap and they are now infesting the tool shed! I see worms everywhere and they haunt me,” he wails.
When the doctor uses his stethoscope the man screams: “Worms!” and he passes out.
On a warm day Little John Simpel loves to check the parklands. New colonies of worms often spring up there in the most unusual places, like those that burrow beneath the Cyprus trees growing near the city hospital. The avenue of trees is an attractive trysting place for young lovers and Little John often ambles by looking for fertile worming grounds.
Staring at the trees and the young couple he loudly observed: “You know, earthworms are hermaphroditic. They have two pairs of male organs, or testes, and one pair of female organs, or ovaries.”
The couple looks at him in their amazement.
“Yes,” Little John continues, his Adam’s apple bobbing crazily: “Two worms mate with their heads pointed in opposite directions.”
The woman screams and she runs away, while the young man, seeing the huge black shovel and the size of Little John, says: “Bugger off, you little creep!”
Then he follows his young woman who is screaming hysterically.
Both decide to migrate to somewhere with no worms, or worm specialists, after consulting the extremely busy psychiatrist.
The undoing of Little John Simpel happens on a fine warm day. He decides to look at the progress of the worm colony below the regional TV station, just beside the Mount Gambier Cemetery. While he busies at turning a sod or two of promising soil for careful analysis he notices a funereal cortège arriving and the coffin of the deceased being lowered into the grave. Approaching the gathering he looks into the hole and states loudly,
“Why, lucky fellow, that is certainly very good worming territory!”
The grieving family backs away from him and the widow screams before fainting. Several individuals grab Little John and gave him a hiding before dumping him by the caretaker’s cottage.
He cries: “What did I say! What did I do wrong?”
The black shovel they break into two pieces.
Next day’s newspaper headlines pronounced:
“Worming Menace in our City – he must Go!”
The paper editorial features a lengthy demand for the banishment of Little John Simpel. It recounts many disturbing aspects of his career with worms. It claims that tourism to the city fell away noticeably from the day he began wandering about the places tourists visit.
“This young man is a disgrace to the city and a menace to our public. He must go!”
The ranting against Little John Simpel is fierce and furious at an extraordinary council meeting called by the citizens’ lobby and councilors. A resolution to evict him from town is unanimously carried, effective for all time.
The police bundle Little John and his broken shovel in a lockup wagon and drive him into the country.
“Never come back, you little creep! Bugger off and do not come back to our city, ever!”
Little John remains standing, lonely and forlorn, the first citizen on record to be evicted from Mount Gambier. His Adam’s apple bobs up and down as he swallows and his eyes mist over emotionally.
Soon Little John Simpel’s banishment is yesterday’s news as Mount Gambier fails to attract tourists. It is a forgotten city with visitors rarely passing through. Mostly, those tourists who do visit depart hurriedly, going to more exciting destinations. Often heard in town is that visitors are bored to distraction here.
“Mount Gambier could easily win the accolade of the most boring city in Australia,” many people say. Anyway, the word gets around and people travel elsewhere.
They certainly do not visit the Mount.
With visitor numbers falling, somber moderation envelops those businesses relying on tourism. The Lakes Festival Company seeks protection in receivership. Some motels declare bankruptcy and quite a few leading faces about town vanish, rumored to have shot their brains out.
The mayor bluntly states that the city budget of $300,000 of ratepayers’ funds represents a growing subsidy when visitor numbers actually decline.
“This represents a subsidy of at least $4.00 per visitation. We are paying visitors to visit us,” he mumbles in exasperation. He rubs even more salt into the wound by claiming that he seriously considered withdrawing funding to the Art Gallery.
“The council is subsidising it at a staggering sum of over $50.00 per visitation,” he notes. “Further funding to new tourist projects and tourist promotions are out of the question. The council is not in the business of flogging dead or dying horses, and that is that.”
Some leading social luminaries complain, but they shut up when told the realities. The Mount was dying and they did not offer a solution to its slow asphyxiation. After all, they too were members of a very boring community and they could not expect special favors for pet projects like Art Galleries.
“Welcome to real life,” the Mayor of Mount Gambier grumbles at the art lobby.
Some interested parties try new ideas and the Government ‘Business Start’ Funding Program pays a business consultant to set up new tourist broadcasting material.
Many meetings follow and committees form to do certain tasks to achieve certain goals.
There is a main board relegating tasks to the ideas committee that relegates tasks to the brainstorming subcommittee. The local tabloid records everything faithfully and it seems that things will improve.
“The Government is actually doing something,” they say in admiration. Several ministers of the Government visit the city and make passionate speeches about the wonderful future they behold for the beautiful city.
“What we must attempt to do is to plan and take positive action to ensure that the future will be the way we want it to be,” said the Minister of the Future on his visit. Everyone applauds enthusiastically such wonderful speech making.
The tourism business consultant writes in his first and his final report to council;
“I say in conclusion that I would like to thank those on the Tourism Steering Committee who show a wonderful ability to work together as a team in the interest of the city.”
He leaves shortly afterwards and someone spotted him later in the Northern Territory, vehemently declining to return south.
“Only optimists go south,” he claims derisively.
In the winter months following, gloom befalls the Mount.
For the first time in living memory snowdrifts cover the town houses. Shops in the commercial street close their doors because no one buys anything. Banks foreclose on businesses and factories shut down.
“My beautiful city is dying!” The Mayor cries in despair, helplessly watching events unfold. As chairperson of the finance committee he faces the unenviable situation of not balancing the books.
The Government quickly sickens at the daily lobbying and finally they tell the people of Mount Gambier: “No one else can do it for you!”
The Mayor seriously begins to consider his resignation as the honorable exit.
“I could go north to Queensland,” and he makes plans for his sad departure: “My town is doomed.”
The Mayor of Mount Gambier faces another day of gloom in the Mayoral Suite at the Civic Centre when his secretary announces a visitor, a singular odd phenomenon these depressing times. He reluctantly receives the stranger, who introduces himself as Professor of Invertebrate Zoology and Chair of Research in ‘Animals without Backbones’.
“My dear Mayor,” the Professor says: “You have here the most wonderful city in the entire world!”
“We have?” The surprised Mayor quickly put up a blustering show of confidence, saying: “Yes, we have a most beautiful city. Yes, of course we do.”
“Yes, you do have a most beautiful city, a fascinatingly historical masterpiece. A fabulous place of international significance.”
The professor oozes enthusiasm: “Why I do believe that nowhere else in the entire world is there such a concentration of Zoological wonderment. Your town is placed right smack bang in the middle of prehistoric wormholes!”
“Wormholes!” The Mayor cries out in exasperation and in horror.
“Wormholes of the greatest international significance,” confirms the professor: “Why, I would have to shake your hand again, sir. Fancy keeping the secret from us for so long. Your city is a wondrous masterpiece of wormholes. Congratulations.” The professor pumps the Mayor’s hand and he slaps him on the back in excitement.
“Wormholes?” The Mayor whispers again in utter astonishment: “I know nothing of wormholes.”
During the hectic days of the visit by the professor the Mayor learns about worms, wormholes and the ancient good of worms, especially their contribution to contemporary society in a place like Mount Gambier. Apparently the concentration of wormholes here makes for uniqueness unparalleled anywhere in the whole world.
The local tabloid features a two-page column about the professor, who praises the city as a major archaeological discovery where living fossils, until then unknown to science, live and breathe.
“The world shall beat a path to this city!” The professor claims wherever he walks in his investigations and inquiries.
His enthusiasms catch and soon everybody starts to talk about the good worms that silently infest the city.
Then the paper reported a bombshell.
“Why?” It demands to know: “Why are there no worm specialists working here? Worms are a goldmine, the way to our prosperity!”
People ask each other if they knew any worm experts and someone remembers the sad banishment of that wonderful human being, Little John Simpel.
“He was uncommonly fond of his worms!” they recall.
The Mayor yells to his councillors, “Find me that man! I want to talk to him. Find Little John Simpel!”
It turns out the search party looking for Little John Simpel, the worm specialist, returns empty handed. His total disappearance creates dismay and people remember those who so savagely threw him out of town.
The vanishing of Little John is the talk of the nation and TV journalists beam programs around the world. The search for the missing worm specialist makes headline news everywhere and complete strangers arrive daily at Mount Gambier who claim to have special worm knowledge.
Certain ‘worming Gurus’ set up camp at the show grounds and charge admission to their ‘worm tents’.
Pet shops peddle worm packages and sell a range of specially constructed ‘terra’ tanks for worms. These range from your run-of-the-mill terrarium to huge glass constructions filled with mulching material in which different and colorful varieties of worms live idyllic lifestyles.
A ‘Worm Market’ made the news and magazines feature articles about the soothing therapeutic effects of pet worms and the children trade in worms at school.
A particularly pleasing aspect of the discovery of Mount Gambier as the leading centre of worms was a rapid increase in tourism.
Business flourishes and worms ‘value-added’ all sorts of local collectibles.
One enterprising individual chipped petrified worm from secret sites and polishes examples of his wares that sell in the millions to visitors hunting for memorabilia.
The Mayor of Mount Gambier beams in delight as he counts the rates returns.
Worms are a favorite topic of conversation, and he is refunded his one-way flight-ticket to Queensland.
The professor, who starts the ‘Worm-rush’, arranges an international convention of imminent Zoologists at Mount Gambier. He insists that Little John Simpel must be found and invited as the guest of honor.
So begins the greatest manhunt ever in the history of Australia, right here in Mount Gambier. A special task force of investigative police takes over the offices beside the Mayoral Suites and ASIO, Missing Persons International, Interpol, CIA, CIB, FBI and every Police branch in the country searches for Little John, the worm specialist.
Following the most thorough investigation they finally admit that he has totally disappeared.
“We regrettably must admit defeat in our attempts to locate this person,” the Chief of the Search Team declares.
“The convention of imminent scientists must do without our missing local worming expert.”
Worm Convention day begins with the unveiling of a statue of Little John Simpel. Government officials and local dignitaries praise this wonderful local hero, who unfortunately left so long ago in such sad circumstances. A statue seems apt, a way to respect the uncommon devotion he did show worms of every shape and colour.
At least eighty busloads of tourists shop up and down Commercial Street where buskers play worm mood music. The festive atmosphere infects everybody and the police call reinforcements to sort out the traffic congestion.
At the police station the sergeant in charge busies himself with directing patrols over the town to contain the revelers. The phone rings continually, but there are no major problems and people generally do behave themselves.
Then somebody calls to complain about vandalism at the Yahl cricket grounds. Apparently the entire ground is turned over!
“Always a smart-Alec when we are busy,” the police sergeant complains as he delegates a constable to check out the Yahl cricket ground.
“All right! What have you done?” The constable marches towards the lonely person who grips a big black shovel. “Did you turn over this cricket ground?”
“There are fine worms in this ground officer,” the individual replies. “I am uncommonly fond of the worms in this fine patch.”
“We all are fond of worms nowadays,” the constable says as he grabs the person and his shovel. “You’ll do a stretch for turning over public grounds. Now come along quietly.” The police constable bundles the man and his shovel into the cage of the panel van and locks the gate.
In the police cell many official forms regarding the crime of digging up the Yahl cricket ground needs proper filing. A magistrate, who had already been drinking during the morning’s festivities, sits on the bench.
“Who are you? Name?” The magistrate slurs his words slightly and wants to get it over with. Festivities are more fun than these menial chores in court at short notice.
“Name!” He demands again.
“Little John, Your Honor,” the person replies.
“What crime?” The magistrate asks rapidly of the constable attending.
“Digging for worms in the hallowed grounds of the Yahl cricket pitch, your honor.” The constable could hardly contain himself and he tries to suppress a snigger.
“That is a serious offence and no laughing matter, constable. You will take care to remember that.” The magistrate glares at the police officer and continues: “How do you answer to this accusation Mr Little John.”
“There are fine worms in that ground, Sir.” Little John answers honestly.
“Of course there are fine worms in that ground!” The magistrate yells furiously. “That there ground is the best cricket ground in the district. You can’t just go and dig it up! Are you mad?” The magistrate colours red in anger and loudly demands: “Take the boorish worm and lock him up! This is a full court matter and will be heard tomorrow by a proper judge. You will rot in gaol for digging holes in real cricket grounds. You should be in custody for life! Take him away! Oh! And get me a doctor. I feel unwell.”
Words whisper and the story gets around that someone named Little John has dug up the Yahl cricket pitch gazing at worms and he remains in the police lockup cells under armed guard. Someone, who attended the unveiling of the statue, sneaks a look through the prison window and runs to tell the truth.
“Little John Simpel is locked up in the police cells under armed guard!”
The news spreads like wildfire and everybody congregates outside the police station singing: “We want Little John! We want Little John!”
Placards scream: ‘Release our hero!’ and ‘Free Simpel!’
Busloads of tourists arrive to join in the fun, saying, “This is the greatest city in the entire world.”
Thousands of people clog up the main road outside the police station where, inside, the sergeant is turning noticeably nervous.
“This could become a riot,” he booms in concern, and begins to issue teargas canisters and riot shields. Senior officers arm themselves with shotguns. They peep over the partitions as they load rubber bullet cartridges into their riot control weapons. The crowd looks menacing to all inside the police station.
The Mayor arrives barely in time and he summons the aberrant magistrate who signs a release form. Little John receives a rousing cheer as he steps outside the lockup, clutching his big black shovel and blinking in the bright sunlight. He feels overwhelmed and his Adam’s apple bobs up and down emotionally.
He attends a special Mayoral reception for him in the city hall where he receives the freedom of the city.
Everyone applauds, yelling: “Speech! Speech!”
Little John Simpel begins his address nervously: “When I was a wee little boy, I always wondered about the many worming holes here about. I became uncommonly fond of every variety of worms. There are many worming holes and I discovered some quite beautiful holes. I discovered the big black squirmy ones and I loved the small yellow worms.”
Suddenly everybody is cheering loudly. They heard Little John go on about his worms before and people said years afterwards that the shortened speech by him was the best worming speech ever.
At the international convention of Zoologists Little John receives the ultimate scholastic honor of life membership of the organisation. He also gains a nomination for a Nobel Laureate for unselfish devotion to nature and his service to eco-tourism.
The world focus on Mount Gambier witnesses the growth of the city. Little John Simpel remains unaffected by all the fuss. Often he wanders around the Blue Lake talking to visitors.
“I estimate,” he will say to them, “that an acre of the Yahl cricket pitch contains 63,000 worms.”
His Adam’s apple bobs menacingly and his eyes mist as he warms to his favorite subject.
“I counted them myself, you know!”
When he is asked about his mysterious disappearance he simply shrugs and says: “The biggest worms are at the Mount.”
The tourists run away then, overwhelmed by conflicting emotions.
©Pieter Zaadstra 1995, 1996, 1997 edited 2019