A Short Story by Sarah Gardiner
‘Hey-up,’ Warren shouts at the cows.
Black and white cut-outs on green paddocks, they swing their great necks, roll eyes and look away. Whip skinny tails against the heat and cloudy flies, saunter on. He’d have to go back up around to get them all. Bastards.
He starts the bike and is away over the straw hills. A blue-indigo dot gone.
Later he goes across to Beth Stewart’s to show his attentions, since Alf’s passed. He’d see her in the garden, plucking at some weed or dried-out thing. Hearing him, she’d straighten and turn to show him her clean round face. She would smile at him as she smoothed her skirt and tucked a wisp of crackly hair behind an ear.
After he’d put his hat in his hands he’d offer to chop wood. Though it was still morning she’d protest it was too hot, say she had enough wood to last through autumn, and all of winter. But you can never have too much firewood. Then he could swing the axe. He would lift it up and let it drop through the air to cleave the red wood apart. He’d show her the wet heart of the stuff then stack the pieces in neat piles till she invited him in: a cup of tea and a slice of sweet sweet lemon cake.
‘Coming to the show tomorrow, Warren?’ she asks, her lovely head bent toward him, ‘I’m entering my scones this year, hope to win Champion instead of Beryl getting it again.’
He’d look down her blouse when he got up to leave. Do it again tomorrow.
The next day he is ready too early and has to sit in his old too-tight best clothes waiting for the right time to leave. He plans to meet Beth when she first hears that she has won the Champion ribbon. He wants to be beside her when her eyes widen with the surprise of winning and she reaches out for his hand. Then how easy it will be to wrap her arm around his and kiss her soft cheek in congratulations. Lead her away to afternoon tea.
The ancient clock chimes the hour and at last he can leave. He drives to town and parks the ute, mindful and precise in his actions. He walks and enters the showground to climb the sand-slippery hill to the exhibition hall. He is still too early, and yet he is too late. The awards are yet to be announced, Beth is there but next to her is some snazzy bloke from the city. Bernie, Warren thinks he is called, one of the Wharburtons. Bernie Wharburton is tall and straight and finely dressed and he has Beth’s arm wrapped around his own.
Warren hangs back watching them being easy together. Then above the heavy thudding of his blood he hears they are announcing the winners of the cooking section. Beryl again is the Champion of the scones. The snazzy city bloke bends to kiss Beth’s hand and Warren sees that his face is that of a faithful well-loved Labrador and that Beth’s eyes are widening with the surprise of winning something else.
After that Warren goes to the pub. He stands by the window for his first beer, watching the quietening street as the day ends. He’s at the bar for his second drink, and there’s Ron, red faced, leaning in pirate-like, to catch a conversation.
‘Arrrgh…’ He says, pointing his good eye at Warren.
Instead of lemon cake and tea Warren gets Chinese take-away and four Vic Bitters.
‘I’m off then,’ he says, finishes his beer, reaches for his hat. He makes his way to the door, touches Phil’s shoulder, laughs with Dave.
‘See y’mate.’ He says this to anyone who would hear it.
He drives home against the setting sun. Whole portions of the road are blocked out to him by the shining of it and he has to pull over and start again many times. Up the hill and over the cattle grid and there is his house. Two dogs come bounding out and down the dusty driveway, a thin gunmetal grey and a quick black and white terrier. He likes for them to run and greet him, thinks he deserves that much.
He stops the ute and pulls himself out of the front seat. As he moves toward the house he turns to see the sunset: magnificent purple blood and bruise with sharp orange tinsel hung at the edges. Then a shifting and it is gone. The air turns thick. Now it is darkening and the dew falls. Time to go in and light the fire. Time to feed the dogs.
The smell of dog is in their food. Sticky raw meat on slippery bone. Shiny white knuckle, stretchy strings of sinew, blue bags of vein and villi. They’ll eat it all. And come back for more. Filths. The small black and white one licks his face.
After a poor dinner he listens to the radio and ponders on the urgency of the current affairs, the international news. All he knows is cows and dogs, the weather and perhaps Beth Stewart. He thinks of Beth Stewart’s breasts. The white of her skin. Her raspberry wrinkled nipples looking at him.
He rouses himself, bends to the fire and pokes at the glowing leftovers. He stands and gazes at the wooden threads of the mantelpiece, old and softly grey. There are the candlesticks given to his parents on their wedding day, dusty and unloved, and there is a blackened silver frame holding the family photograph: mum and dad, his older brother Roddy, with dad’s hand on his shoulder, then him, and the girls holding hands, standing next to their mum. He thinks that it could be a photograph of anyone, that you couldn’t guess at the meaning of any of them just from the looking, wouldn’t know of the sparkle of his brother or the push of his dad.
He turns away past the blank black window pane, marking that Tanter’s lights have gone out. Bill would be up early to milk his herd. His snot-nosed kids running with lengths of polypipe to beat the bony animals. Scuffing gumboots on the dusty road, hard as metal in the drought. Electric dawn lining the hills and early morning birds, hundreds of them, would start their crazy caws and cackles.
Every morning, out of bed, see the sky, boil water for tea. Every night light the fire, feed the dogs and watch dusk create itself. In between is the doing of the day: the getting and using of things, the fixing and the finishing, to hear dogs crunching bones and to think on Beth Stewart.
He wakes to the sound of screaming tin, angry wind shaking the windows in their frames and great clouds of soot blowing out of the fireplace. Outside long gusts send the grass shivering in waves over the hills, and push up at the ancient trees, showing bare branches like old lady’s legs, shocking and undignified.
And even so the sun is still there: splashes of pale yellow water this morning. Puffy white clouds race across the sky chasing their shadows, the harsh daylight shuttered by the movement. Everything agitated and thrashing, like a petulant child. Today would be especially demanding.
As he lifts himself from his bed he tries to remember the moment of waking. How had he slept? Did he snore or call out in the night? He never remembered any dreams, didn’t have any. What use were secret night time stories?
He stumbles outside to piss. The dogs rush to join him with their ears and eyes and tails to sniff the air and survey the morning paddocks.
‘Gitaway wivya,’ he grumbles as the gunmetal grey comes up to sniff his dick. The hot stream of urine splashing nose and paws.
‘Bloody animals,’ he tells them, ‘no respect…’
‘Gee up,’ he says and follows it with some kind noises and a few pats. He can’t bear to see them cringe from him, makes him feel mean and overbearing, reminding him of what it was like to be a kid. Satisfied with their morning greeting, the dogs skittle away, falling over each other in a tumble of legs and groans.
Cup of tea. Toast, butter, marmalade. An egg with some salt.
Another cup of tea. Burps, farts and snorts. Trousers and boots. Shirt and hat. And now, without any human acknowledgement of his existence, he goes to work. Hours fencing in the wind. His thoughts are focused on the job and time passes unnoticed till the morning’s task is done. Home for sandwiches and more tea then out again for another four hours. Red lines on his hands from the wire, nicks and cuts from the barbs.
Warren was an efficient worker. He took his time to do the job in his head first so that the doing was a simple unfolding of a plan. He had all the right tools and kept them in perfect working order. He never ran out of materials just before the day ended or worked on with a faulty tool. Otherwise the job would be second rate and more time consuming.
He felt the eyes of the community judging his efforts. He’d heard them in the pub mocking a fellow’s work and didn’t want to be included in such a conversation. Farming was like bearing your balls in public. Even though his paddocks were not easily seen from the road there were neighbours, and neighbours’ visitors and contractors moving about, looking and telling. He didn’t want that. Didn’t want people deciding things about him, thinking they knew better. They had no right to make a measure of him like that. They never asked, just told. Like when he was a kid, with his dad. His dad hadn’t known him, just told him who he was.
It hadn’t been that way for the girls of course. Helen and Jennifer had belonged to their mum. And somehow it hadn’t been that way for Roddy either.
Bright and shiny Roddy told everyone who he was from the start. Warren remembered that when he went to town on his own, his dad came with him as a heavy space dogging his steps, but when the brothers were out together Roddy would fill that space twice over being tall and straight and wearing his old clothes as though he were rich and important.
At the bank they called him Mr Thornley and at the co-op Warren would watch as the manager talked with Roddy about the weather, and the seed they had ordered, and what the stock agent might be looking out for that season.
For their mum he had been the exotic Roderick. He would sing along with her to the radio tunes, and dance her round the kitchen while his dad sat at table grumbling about the price of feeding his steers.
Then there was the day Roddy was lost. It had been a cold windy day of riding with trouble all through it. They’d had to bring the heifers down from the back paddock and put them in the yards for the night. The next day was the sales at Bega. Warren and Roddy had just pushed the groaning animals into the gully when a tree had fallen with a mighty crack and spooked the herd to scatter through the bush and over the hills again. They’d both taken off whooping and hollering their horses, fighting the sloping ground to bring the cattle back. Round they went and round again packing the herd in tighter and tighter till it flowed like a stream into the gully and then fanning out on the other side. Roddy and he had laughed when their horses brought them together, eyes shining with the pleasure of the chase and the knowing that they could make such a thing happen.
At the yards their dad saw the last of the cows through and closed the gate. Their work was nearly finished and Warren had started to relax himself into the ache of the day when Roddy pulled up his horse.
‘There’s some missing,’ he’d said, ‘the ones we got from Charlton’s…they’re not here… they’d be down the gully still…you know…separated from the rest?’
The spaces between his words were for his dad to fill, but that didn’t happen so Roddy turned and urged his horse away from them. Warren had dropped his eyes and turned his own way, unnerved and yet excited that it was Roddy who had decided to fix the count.
‘Stupid fellow,’ growled his dad, ‘be dark soon.’
And it was.
Warren and his dad went home without him and the time for Roddy’s return came and went. In the kitchen Warren saw his mum with strands of hair stuck to her sweaty face, bony fingers clawing at the curtain material she held back from the window to search the dark for her son. His dad sat in front of the range, legs stretched out, waiting for his dinner.
Roddy never came back. His horse had tripped and stumbled when pushed through a snarl of sticks and twisted branches that lay in the slippery dark. Roddy had fallen and rolled, his head hitting a rock placed just so to catch the soft spot of his skull and pierce the bone. Through the night and still on through the icy hours of the dawn Roddy’s life had run out onto the cold blank ground.
After that Warren saw his mum’s silence take on a shape. Cold and shining it was, a hard and screaming lump. Once seen, it couldn’t be unseen and he’d had to learn to sidestep the grasping of his mother’s love. His dad became more jagged. He could no longer stand back and square his jaw at a task he’d shared with Roddy and so his satisfaction had nowhere to go. His face took on the look of a working dog, confused and questioning, waiting to be told how to feel. A few times Warren had straightened from a task to find himself next to his dad and neither of them knew what to do with that.
The family settled into an uncomfortable rhythm and if Warren thought of Roddy it was the memory of an agitation that had passed. The girls grew, got married and moved away, Helen to a dairy farm up north, Jennifer to Sydney with a school teacher.
Warren thought about courting Mary Tomkin, but before he could start anything she up and married Alex Herbert’s grandson, a mechanic from out Wyndham way.
His parents withered away and eventually they died. One morning Warren had walked into the kitchen to find his dad crumpled and folded in on himself, all his puff and bluster had leaked away. A month or two later his mum went quietly in the night. She wasn’t one to make a fuss.
The house and farm were left to Warren, the girls showed no interest, made no claims; and after the solicitors and the funeral expenses Warren was left with a modest sum in the bank. It remained untouched.
‘Warren…yoohoo…Warren…’ Warren is leaving the co-op when he hears a sing-song call and turns to see Rose Wharburton scampering toward him. Her double chin, her big square chest and her quick little legs give Rose the appearance of a pug dog. And she is panting in the effort of reaching him.
‘Oh Warren, I am so glad I’ve caught you, I need you to do me a favour, I wouldn’t ask except that I have to get to see June at twelve and its gone half past eleven already. I know you see Beth most days, she is your neighbour. This letter is quite important, she should receive it as soon as possible. It explains the mistake we made at the show, giving Beryl two prizes. Beth should have been awarded a Champion prize and she has to come and sign by next week or it will be forfeit. I’d ask our cousin Bernie to go but he’s gone back to the city now. I wouldn’t ask except I know you’ll be driving practically past her door to get home…’
She is pushing an envelope into his hand, and, as he says nothing, she thanks him and hurries away.
He drives to Spicer’s Lane. Beth’s house is close to his across the paddocks yet a long way from the road and he has to steer the ute over many bumps and potholes before he gets there. The gate is closed and there is no shiny city car in the driveway, just Beth’s small Honda. He notes that the wood pile has shrunk, no one has replaced the used pieces and he sees that Beth is not in her garden but at the front door. She turns her clean round face to him and smiles as she reaches to tuck a wisp of crackly hair behind an ear.
‘Oh Warren,’ she says, ‘how very nice it is to see you.’
She stands waiting for him, smoothing her skirt.
Warren passes her the letter, puts his hat in his hands and waits till she invites him in.
‘Rose Wharburton asked me to give it to you,’ he explains, ‘said it was quite important.’
‘Well then,’ says Beth, showing her dimples, ‘I’d best find out what it’s about then.’
She finds her glasses hanging from a chain around her neck and tears at the envelope. She unfolds the paper and reads. Her eyes widen with surprise, her hand goes to her mouth and then she reaches out for him.