She had a change of heart when undertaking her annual ritual. It was liberating.Read More...
This was a short story submitted for a competition. The rules were
- The first word must be NEW
- Must include the words NINETEEN, DESERT and PRESENT
- Needs to include some kind of list.
- no more than 500 words.
“New! Pfft. Nothing new about this place” as her eyes scan the place of her youth.
The wooden chairs recline askew, their colours faded and peeled. Few wooden slats remain on the jetty, crusty sea urchins making their home in the undisturbed crevices of the once lively port.
For a moment she allows the memories of that summernineteen years ago to creep into the present. Carefree sunbaking on that jetty, swimming under a midnight moon, flirty laughter, first kisses and teenage love. First love. Tom. Her body fires with the recollection. His hands charting her tanned summer body, gently nudging his fingers into unmapped territories before advancing further across her breasts, down her stomach and…
“Katie is that you? O-M-G it is you! What are doing back here? Its been a while since you suddenly took off to the desert?”
Kate turns to see a wiry bodied woman stumble across the long grass in her strappy heels.
“Josie? Hi. Yes, it’s me Kate. Got a few things to sort out after mum’s death”
“Oh yes, sorry to hear about your mum. We thought you would be back for the funeral but you didn’t make it?”
“No, I was out on muster, in that desert place and didn’t get the news for a few weeks.”
“Gosh. I don’t know if I could be so…nonchalant about not making it to my mother’s funeral. But then again you hadn’t seen her for how many years?”
“It’s been nineteen years since I saw my mother. Did you move away at all?”
“Me? No, never really wanted to” asserted Josie in a voice that was mercilessly strident. “I married Tom, you would remember him from school? We divorced a few years ago. He doesn’t know how to keep his manly parts in his pants. I’m living back at home and doing some work for Daddy.”
“You married Tom? Swim star Tom?”
“Yes, surely did. He was lovely at first but…well we won’t go there, its old news now.”
As Josie drones about changes around New Haven Kate processes Tom with Josie. Obviously, his appetite for older women had waned, or the desire for a comfy lifestyle more appealing.
“Actually, Daddy will be pleased you are here to finalise the sale of house. He is going to buy it and turn it into a resort for divorcees. He said I’m going to be the manager. We have already started a list of things that we will do the place to make it all modern. Who would have thought I would be a Resort Manager!”
“Woah! Your father thinks I’m selling?”
“Why wouldn’t you? You haven’t been here for years.” Slowly Josie realises Kate has other plans.
“You are not selling?”
“No Josie, I’m not selling.”
She wanted to shout I left nineteen years ago because of my mother. She was like Tom, couldn’t keep her legs together – they made a good pair.
It was time to let the past lie.
“I’m coming home.”
There was a long sigh as she wiggled deeper into Nana’s musty chair, searching for the hugging warmth in the early morning cool. It was the only piece of furniture she had brought into her marriage ten years ago. The rest of ‘her’ household carried the spirits and ghosts of five generations of Bartoo from the silver candlesticks hidden in the back of the century old cedar sideboard to the wooden tea chests from England, that now stored baby clothes, christmas decorations and old farm records.
Her mother-in-law had not approved of her insistence that Nana’s chair, with its wide, tea stained armrests and floppy pink paisley patterned cushions would have a home on their verandah, facing out to the house paddock and the farmland beyond. But she had rarely received her mother in law’s approval over the last ten years. Josie was used to the harrumphs, tongue clicks and eye rolls from Deidre. She had just chosen to ignore them many years ago.
Just like how her husband Dan had chosen to ignore the advice from his father for many years. Josie had lost count of the number of times Dan had charged into their kitchen, slamming doors, throwing his hat on counter and yelling.
“He won’t listen to me! The price for mung beans are sky rocketing, this country is perfect for them. All I want to do is sow 200 hectares and give them a go, but no ‘stick to what we know son’ is all I get. ‘Use the overdraft to buy a few more sheep’ he says.
I will never be allowed to run this place while he is around.”
Yet again Josie was the referee, spending the evening trying to calm Dan and getting him to see his father’s perspective. All the while cooking dinner, getting the boys fed, feeding the poddy calves their evening meal and finally settling the boys to bed with a story or three.
As she snuggled deeper around Nana and took a sip of her morning tea she remembered how Dan went ahead and sowed the mung beans while his parents holidayed on the coast for a few days. It if hadn’t been for that record-breaking week of above 47 degrees and those tough hot northerly winds it would have been a bumper crop. The cattle finished off the charred remains and looked in reasonable condition for sale. She wasn’t sure Dan was in as reasonable condition afterwards.
He had been slowly withdrawing from everyone. He second guessed every decision and avoided his father even more than before. Alan would ring to speak to Dan and Josie was running out of excuses where he was. She had even gently suggested to Alan he just drive over to see Dan, but Alan didn’t think that would be a good idea.
“He will come to see me when he is ready, pet.” he would say. “He has always been a proud man, he needs some time to himself.”
Josie wasn’t sure how much time they had.
The overdraft was now fully drawn and the bank had made it clear last time that they were not going to extend again. The interest was breaking them, let alone the actual debt. All the businesses in town had stopped credit to them, until they paid some off their accounts.
The dry storm last night had kept Dan and Josie awake. Mother Nature showcased her power and might with scene after scene of electrical dancing against a bursting backdrop of earth rattling drums. The shadow of the storm clouds looked hopeful with each flash of light, the musty scent of rain toyed with their senses. They had leaned against separate verandah posts waiting to hear the saving sound of drops on their tin roof. They watched until the land grew still, the sky lightened to dawn a new day. They turned and left the show, a dry parching taste of failure mixed with a growing unease and hopelessness in the pit of their stomachs.
The new day with no rain. Their stock with no water or feed. Their bank account with no funds.
They knew the decision had been made for them by the Dry Storm God. The last of their stock had to be destroyed.
Josie bought the bullets after her day of paid work. The intermittent pay from casual teaching had been a saviour for the family and their expenses. It was good to be able to add pasta or potatoes and a bit of fresh fruit to the diet of lamb, lamb and lamb. She prayed nightly that they didn’t get sick, she knew she wouldn’t be able to buy the medicines without asking for help from Dan’s parents.
Frank at the feed store let her put the box of bullets on the account. Josie had taken the boys, fresh from an afternoon sleep into the store and let them loose. After pulling them off the stack of chicken feed and picking up the buckets that had come crashing down as Jake ran past them, Frank let her have the bullets just to save his store.
“I know what the bullets are for Josie, and I am sorry,” he said gently, a look of pity in his eyes “I cannot give you any more credit after this, I have a family to feed too. Please don’t come back until you have some money to pay off the account”
“Thanks Frank, appreciate it. Sorry to put you in such a terrible predicament” She had tried to keep her emotion in check, but her voice caught and her eyes welled up.
“Come on boys, Dad will be wondering where we are.”
She yelled at the boys on the drive home and was immediately remorseful. It wasn’t their fault, none of it was. She just needed to release some of the built-up emotion that was choking her, release the pressure in readiness for what was ahead.
Dan greeted the vehicle as it pulled up next to the house followed by a plume of red dust that had chased them down the road from town.
“Did you get them?”
“Hey dad!” the boys yelled. “There was a new kid at Mrs Jones’ today, his name is Toby. He goes for the Sea Eagles, but he was really funny. He said we could go to his birthday party next week. Can we go?”
“I don’t think so.” Dan replied without hesitation “We have too much work to do around here.”
“Oh Dad, that’s not fair. We never get to go anywhere fun! Mum, can we go? You can take us, can’t you?” they cried in unison.
“Just go inside boys, change your clothes. We can chat about it later.”
It was then the boys felt the tension riding on the wind. They immediately slid out of the vehicle and ran inside.
“Frank booked them up.” Josie explained as Dan unpacked the bullets from the back “but it was the last time he would give us credit. He said don’t come back until we can pay some off the account.”
“Well that is going to be bit hard without anything to sell isn’t it. I will have to try the mob over in Ginny Gully, see if they can give me some seed and fertiliser. Otherwise we will have to start to selling the machinery. Not that it is worth much.”
Josie leaned across to touch Dan’s hand whispering, “We will be OK, something will change soon.”
He pulled his hand away as if touched with a burning poker.
“Don’t Josie, just don’t. This is it. We have failed, can’t you see that?” and stomped into the shed to get the equipment ready for the morning.
Later in the evening Josie walked silently along the verandah having fed the boys and them tucked into bed. She drew a deep breath as she spied a new mountain of dirt in the far end of the paddock looming in the silhouette of the setting day. Dan had prepared the hole ready for the act in the morning. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the shed light glowing as Dan battled his own demons, the weight of five generations bearing down on him.
Dan shuffled aimlessly around the shed. He picked up the broken reading glasses of his grandfather, with their ivory frames and broken nose piece that caused them sit crooked on his grandfather’s face. Dan could see him tinkering at the bench “Don’t need a new one son, we can fix this with a bit of wire and paint.” drifted a crackled voice from the past.
He spied the pile of manuals and ledgers, left forgotten under a corner bench. Every manual for every bit of machinery on this place was stacked in that corner under a layer of fresh dust settled from the recent dust storms. Dan almost laughs.
“Ha! That’s where my topsoil got to!” Then the profound hopelessness razes him again.
“I have no choice.” he yells, to the ghosts of the ancestors, to his sons, to his wife, to no one in particular. “You don’t understand how hard this is.”
Josie whispered, “I do understand Dan, you just won’t let me help you.” and folded herself into Nana’s chair on the verandah to watch the end of the day.
She could hear the call of the cockatoos as they jostled for prime position to roost for the night, the distant bellow of cows, the whisper of foreboding riding on the dusty draughts. She sits to wait for Dan to come across to the house.
The phone startled her as it shrilled from the lounge. She jumped to answer before it wakes the boys.
“Hi, Josie?” whispered the female voice on the end of the line. “Is that you Josie?”
“Yes, it is. Is that you Deidre?” What was Dan’s mum doing ringing her this late in the evening?
“Yes, dear its me. How are things? Haven’t spoke for a while.” Deidre’s voice was clearer now.
“How do you think Deidre? The crops have failed, the sheep are starving to death, there is no water other than what is in the house tank. I have little food in the cupboard and cannot even afford to buy myself tampons.
“Other than that, we are fine. Thank heavens we are healthy, as there is no way we could afford any medical bills. And you?”
“Oh Josie, there is no need to be like that. I’m sure it is not that bad, dear.”
“Oh it’s that bad Deidre. Anyway, no Dan is not around. He is out in that shed polishing the rifle and preparing for tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? What’s happening tomorrow? Is he doing something special for his birthday, is he?”
Josie’s knees crumple. A rock hits her chest. Bells clamour in her head. She searches the desk for a calendar. She could hardly remember the day, let alone the date.
“Josie? Are you there? What is going on?”
“I’m here.” she said, distracted as she continued to search through the pile of bills and letters discarded across the desk.
“Well I thought I would come over and take the boys in the morning. We could cook a cake and have a little party for Dan? You and Dan could do something nice for the day and come over for dinner? How does that sound?”
There was a long, silent pause.
“If you haven’t got anything planned already that is.” Diedre added to fill the silence
“Ahh, look Deidre we have had a bit going on lately. With this drought we are busier than ever hand feeding and watering the stock we have left. You know how it is.”
“But it’s his birthday. Surely you have something planned?”
Josie’s mouth was moving, no sound was coming. Her hands squeezed the phone, her knuckles white. She felt like a hunted kangaroo backed into the corner of a paddock, no where else to go but forward. Into the gunfire.
“We are shooting all the sheep tomorrow. Hole is dug, bullets are at the ready.” Josie fired, factually.
There was silence on the line.
“Oh, I’m sure you don’t need to do that. Alan will come over in the morning and see Dan. Won’t you Alan?”
There was a muffled grunt and then a ‘tsk’ from Deidre as she came back to her call with Josie.
“Oh, I don’t understand why those two cannot get along. If Dan could just apologise to his fath…”
“Dan apologise?” Josie yelled before Deidre could finish her sentence “Dan apologise?”
It was then her hardened exterior burst apart. The emotions that she had kept in check for months shattered and sprayed towards Deirdre.
“Apologise for what? For not being able to be all the son HE wanted him to be? For not being the one that drove to town that day instead of staying to shear the sheep because golden son was too lazy? For not being the son that wrapped himself around the tree? For not being able to step up and farm this god forsaken land that has been hammered to death by five generations before him? For ditching all his own dreams to come back here, to be yelled at, beaten down until he questions his own worth?”
She knew she needed to stop, but the shards kept flying
“Apologise for marrying the drunken drover’s daughter instead of someone with better social standing? Apologise for wanting to stand on his own two feet?
“Just what exactly does Dan need to apologise for Deidre? Can you tell me?”
As Josie drew breath a booming heavy voice filled the temporary silence.
“I think you should hang up now. We will be there at 7 in the morning.”
The click of the receiver echoed through her ears. She slowly fell to the floor and wrapped the last of her emotions in close as she hugged her knees to her chest.
Dan had still not come back to the house.
She had never felt so broken.
“Mum, mum, MUM!” the boys yelled as they shook Josie, still curled on the floor.
As Josie stretched and struggled to open her eyes the boys cheer.
“Yay! We thought you were dead or something. Never seen a dead person before, we didn’t know what they looked like. Were you dead mum?”
“No, not dead.” she scrambled, dazed by the morning light.
“Grandpa and Ma are here. They want to take us to their place for the day. Can we go? Mum?”
“Ah yes, I suppose so. I will be out in a minute. Go ask them to come into the kitchen, I will just freshen up. Have you seen Dad?”
“Nah, haven’t seen Dad. Grandpa! Ma! Come in. Mum will be here soon. She just needs to pee.” they yelled in unison as they ran off down the hall, the clatter of their boots knocking on the wooden floor.
“Morning everyone” Josie chirped, way too loudly as she comes into the kitchen “How are you Alan? Deidre?”
“Hello Josie. Can’t find Dan, do you know where he is?” was the stern reply. Deidre glanced towards to Josie and then busied herself with filling the kettle and looking for mugs.
A gunshot was heard in the distance. Then another. And another.
Alan stood, grabbed his hat and started to head to the door.
“Alan, stop. I will handle this.” Josie said with more force than she was feeling.
She looked at the boys, then a pleading look at Deidre.
“Boys, why don’t you go get your backpacks and hop into Grandpa’s car. Have breakfast over at Ma’s place, it will be a big treat.”
“Come on dear.” says Deirdre, with more force than Josie had ever heard her use towards her husband. “Come with the boys. Let Josie deal with this.”
“Call me if you need me!” yelled Alan over his shoulder as the boys pushed him towards to the car, skipping and chanting, oblivious to the unease hanging in the air.
Josie stood in the drive and watched as the car turned down the road, the trail of dust slowly settling. The damn dust.
Its grains seeped into every crevice in the house, its sharp edges smashed the life from plants as it swirled on the wind. It wedged in her teeth, lodged in her hair, trapped in her ears. Damn dust, sucking the life from every plant and human on this place.
Another gunshot broke her reverie.
She grabbed an apple and headed off in the direction of the newly formed mountain in the bottom paddock. She could hear weakened bleating of the sheep, dogs barking and another gunshot.
And then nothing.
The sheep stopped bleating. The dogs stopped barking. The only sounds to break the morning air was the mournful craw of a crow and a faint rumble, like a train shunting.
Josie stumbled over the cracked ground in her haste to get to Dan. She looked to the sky and saw knolls of dark grey clouds moving quickly towards her. The rumbling became louder, the wind whipped up. The whole sky was filling with shades of black, blues and greys.
She could see Dan’s vehicle, the dogs now cowering underneath it, frightened of the thunder rolling towards them.
Dan must have stopped to see whether the storm was coming. She can see him sitting in the ute. She races to him.
“Dan! There is a storm coming! Do you see it? Dan!”
He doesn’t look her way. Surely, he can hear her, unless he has the radio on looking for a weather report.
She reaches the vehicle, and shakes him. “Dan, what is the matter? Can you hear me? Look at me!”
As she grabs the side of his head to turn his face towards her, confused as to why he is ignoring her she feels wet, hot, slimy liquid.
Her hand is covered in red.
“NO! Dan, no! Why, why, WHY?” But she already knew why. The signs had been flashing for months now, they had all chose to ignore them.
He was still breathing. She shakes him, tries to get a response.
“Dan. I’m here. Hold on, don’t you dare leave me. There is a storm coming, it looks a bottler.”
“I couldn’t do it Josie.”
“It’s OK Dan, we can talk about it later. Let’s get you to the hospital now.”
“I couldn’t look those sheep in the eyes and say ‘see ya’. Couldn’t even do myself in properly. God, I am such a failure.”
He started to thrash and push Josie away.
“Leave me be, let me die a slow painful death. I am not worthy to stay in this world. I’m hopeless. You would be better off without me.”
“No damn way Dan Bartoo, you are not leaving me and the boys with this mess. If you are going so am I. Hand me that rifle. We can go together. Leave Alan and Deidre to raise your sons, he will enjoy ruining another two lives.”
Her threats seem to the have the desired effect. Dan stopped struggling and crumpled with remorse.
“Dan Bartoo. You have two wonderful boys and a wife that loves you. We can walk away from all this if you like. Just don’t leave me to do this on my own. I need you.”
She was almost yelling now as the noise from the storm beat its drum overhead. She was shouting in a dusty whirlpool of misery and hope.
“Move over, let me get you some help. Here, hold this on your wound. We need to get out of here before we get bogged. That would be a stupid irony wouldn’t it?”
She whistled the dogs up into the back and turned the vehicle towards the homestead. The storm tailed them all the way back, she could see the cacophony of dirt, hail, heartache and despair swirling in the clouds through the rear-view mirror.
As she tied up the dogs and turned towards town the heavens opened and released the golden droplets of life.
“Keep awake Dan, talk to me!” she yells over the noise of the storm. “Dan!”
“Its no good Josie. We are broke, we are broken.” utters Dan, with little strength. “Nothing can fix all this. Not ten inches of rain, not one good crop. I’m done.
“Sell the farm, get some money for it. Take the boys somewhere that rains, where it is green all year round.
“Tell them I tried hard Josie, I really did try.”
“No, Dan. We can fix it. We are not broken, just a little warped. We can straighten.” Josie pleads as she turns onto the highway to town, driving well above the speed limit.
“We are rich with two crazy boys who love you without judgement. I still love you, have never stopped. Richness is more than the money Dan.
“You just need to believe in yourself. Believe in ‘us’. We can sell and go somewhere green.
We can do this together. We need you to come with us.”
“Dan! Dan, stay with me” she yells as Dan slumps forward, blood dripping to his knees. “No way Dan Bartoo you are not leaving me. YOU HEAR ME! YOU-ARE-NOT-LEAVING ME!” as her foot pressed harder on the accelerator.
The town never felt so far away.
Josie is distracted by the hospital cat as it struts across the low brick fence, exuding confidence and royalty. She had got to know the routine of many over the last few months, from nurses to doctors, cleaners to this resident cat. The voice on the phone became a little louder.
“Josie? Are you still there? So, he will be OK then?” Alan asked, a touch of emotion in his voice.
“Yes, Alan he will be OK. We will be OK.” Josie hesitates “One day, we will be OK.”
“When are you heading? Can…” there was a short pause. “Can we see you all before you go?”
“Ah, we are packed up ready to leave. Just waiting for the Doc to sign the papers.” Josie was full of regret, she had tried to get Dan to see his parents. His counsellor thought it best not to push it for the moment. Dan had a lot of healing to do, inside as well as out.
“Oh. well let us know how you are doing. Let us know when we can come to visit.”
“I will Alan. The boys want to write you letters, I will make sure they do when we settle. You will have our address.
“Be patient. We will mend. Dan will mend.”
“It’s good he is finally seeing someone. Not easy for a Bartoo to admit they need help.” Says Alan, almost with some pride.
“Not easy for any farmer to admit, let alone a Bartoo. Hopefully the boys will grow up knowing that it is OK to ask for help.”
“Yes, we all need to change. I’m sorry it took this long and…ahh…an incident to realise”
“An attempted suicide Alan. Call it what it is. Don’t make it shameful and sweep under the carpet with all the other family ghosts. Talk about it, admit it, tell your friends exactly how it is.”
“Let me know when Dan is ready to see us. Be safe Josie, look after yourselves.”
“We will, I will Alan. Send our love to Deidre.”
“Thanks for saving my son.”
Like most days for the past six months she had been trying to keep busy. Being industrious kept the mind from wandering to depths of sadness and loneliness and would tire her weary body in the hope sleep would come easy each night. She has yet to experience the deep sleep she yearns for but she remains optimistic the time will come soon.
And there was always something to do.
In the first months the task looked enormous and they all struggled to find the start let alone a path through. Bit by bit she was making progress. First around his chair, going through the piles of papers, medicines, bills, notes. Then giving some order to the pile on the cupboard near the dining table. She is trying to downsize the freezer and cooking up whatever is next when she opens the heavy lid, knowing she is now cooking for one.
The farm will have to wait until her children and grandchildren can help. Her joints are frustratingly arthritic, her weakening limbs burn with pain, her resolve is fragile. She can work her way through each room of their house while she waits.
Today she decides to sort through the bookshelf in the back room. Decades of school textbooks fill one of the shelves, novels from last century another. She pulls off The Web of Life Biology textbook. Its cover is faded and scruffy, the corners of the pages curled and marked.
She is taken back to a winters evening in the old kitchen, father and daughter pouring over the book together in front of the warming wood stove. Teacher and student solving the mysteries of the plant kingdom together while she hovered close and kept a check on the vegetables for dinner. His rich, authorative voice gently explained the intricacies of the plant flower while she absorbed and trusted his teachings. Cherished times now locked away as memories.
As she leaned to place the learned book on the ‘donate’ pile a yellowing sheet jutting from the heavy pages caught her eye. She steeled herself, not sure what this glimpse from the past would tell her. Families tended to keep a few secrets hidden in the back of closets, or books. What was this breadcrumb of life from yesteryear about to reveal?
The envelope was friable, almost crumbling as she gently pulled from hiding. She could still make out the post mark, sent from Tamworth in 1933.
It was addressed to
Mr Clem Tunningley
The bookshelf was now forgotten as she was swept back to bygone days.
99 Belmore Street
November 13th 1933
Mr & Mrs C.B. Tunningley
Dear Nephew and Niece
We received your venerable little packet in due course, & we now tender our sincere thanks for same, & at the same time offer you congratulations & best wishes for success & happiness in your new sphere of life. I daresay you are quite settled now to your happy conditions by this time & enjoying the very nice season for a good start off in the way of crops & stock! I know what a lot depends on the weather to make a success of things on the land, & I trust this is a run of a few good seasons now in store for the chaps on the land. I have forgotten the name of your place, but I will chance this little scrap to reach you some day. Trusting you are both in the ‘pink’ of health as I write this, & I will now close. With all the best of wishes from your affectionate Aunt and Uncle
E.H & Will Donaldson
In the quiet of the afternoon she takes time to relish the long curves of the hand-written letters, the gentile language of the note. She smiles at the time taken to pen a thank you note to her in-laws after their wedding in 1933.
As if on cue her mobile phone beeps and breaks the repose. She is bought to the now, the books spread across the bed in various piles of keep – maybe – donate – recycle.
She smiles to herself as she reflects what this letter would be these days, in 2017. More than likely not even a letter but a simple text on a phone
Hey there! Got yr parcel. Thx. Congrats on the wedding. Good luck with harvest. Hope alls good, catch-up soon. Cheers!
Footnote: The farm books from Bellevue show that 1933 was indeed a great year for wheat – Clem’s income for that year much higher than others.
Photo credit: © Can Stock Photo / Grigorenko
Ellie flipped through the morning paper as she finished her cup of tea from breakfast. Such a luxury to have the paper and breakfast delivered to her room! She scans the cinema pages to see what other great shows they could attend while in this bustling city. There is a talking picture “The Good Companions” premiering tonight or maybe “Tugboat Annie” at St James theatre in Elizabeth St might be fun too. So many choices in this fine town.
Noises from the city street drift from below. She could discern the trams smooth clack as they made their way down George Street mingling with the horns and purr of diesel engines as the trucks delivered to the markets across the street. The city was coming to life on this September morning in 1933. The new bride enjoyed watching the daily performance from her window overlooking Sussex and Hay streets, their honeymoon getaway.
She looks up as her new husband chuckles to himself. “How does this sound Ellie – I’ll sign off the letter From your knew
brother and put kisses for mother and sisters at the end – that should give them a laugh!”
She smiles and nods “Yes that will make their day”.
Oh how lucky she feels at this moment. Here she was honeymooning at The Burlington in Sydney, enjoying theatre most nights and shopping for furniture to fill her new home with Clem. She knows she has quite a handsome catch there, the envy of her sisters and other young ladies back home.
They first met at a dance at Emerald Hill. The north west sky was a glow of orange and red with the sunset that evening she walked into the hall with her sisters. She spotted Clem and his brother Alan on the stage playing the recorder and tapping out the beat with drums as a few locals stand in small groups around the edge of the hall catching up with friends and the latest news of the district. Girls were giggling and teasing while trying to fill their dance cards. It would be the last dance in the district until after harvest so the hall was quickly filling with people from across the district, keen to have some fun before the hard work of gathering in the grain. She caught Clem’s eye and he winked back as her sister Ursula nudged her in the side.
“Ooh we should try to get a dance with those characters tonight. I hear they have bought the property Bellevue on the Clemisha Line” she suggests, buzzing with excitement.
That was a few years ago now and she is momentarily saddened as she thinks of Alan, dying unexpectedly of a burst appendix and never realising the dream he and Clem had for Bellevue. Clem instead had been left to clear the land and plant the first crops alone. She halts the thoughts and shakes the sadness away. This was their honeymoon, it was to be enjoyed!
“So my Ellie, are you going to write to the folk at home too? Let them know we are doing fine in the big city?” interrupts Clem. “I’ve told them we will head home about next Tuesday. Thinking we might go home on the day train if that suits you. Well, I might go downstairs for a bit now and see what the locals are doing”
Left alone in the suite she reminisces about their courting. The countless games of tennis on Sunday afternoons and group events over the last few years. She had not made it easy for Clem, she wanted to be sure he was the right one. Plus she had to compete with her sisters for his attentions– one of the down sides of such a big family.
As she grabs the paper and pen to compose the letter home she smiles at the thought of Ursula. After a night out at the cinema Ursula had questioned Ellie
“I’m not sure which one us Clem is keen on, he seems to be courting both of us”
“Well did he hold YOUR hand at the cinema tonight?” admonishes Ellie
“No, he didn’t.” Ursula had replied sullenly “Well I guess we know”.
As she begins her letter with “Dear family at home” she reflects that her Da seemed very pleased with her choice of husband. There was some doubt for a short time, until Clem agreed to become a Catholic to marry her. Her heart skips a beat just thinking about the time Da announced he had to change religion first as no daughter of his was marrying outside the church. She didn’t want to be like Stella who had lost her love as he refused to change for her. It had broke Stella’s heart and she still has a sorrowful appearance about her.
Ellie fills the letter home with news of cinema and shopping. She is excited for their trip tomorrow down to the harbour and hopefully a walk across the new Harbour Bridge that opened last year. Wont that be a story to tell when they arrive home!
Clem bursts into their honeymoon suite just as she is signing off her letter.
“Well I’ll be Ellie” he exclaims “you know those workmen we saw yesterday, down on the corner of Kent and Market Street? Just went down and had a yarn to them. They are installing traffic lights, first in Australia. I gather cars will stop when the lights are red and drive only when they turn green. That will be a sight to see if we come back down another time”
“It will be indeed. Maybe I will be able to drive by then” she laughs.
“You will, cant have my farmer wife not being able to help on the farm. Come on my love, grab your hat and gloves we have exploring to do”
His rugged hand reaches for hers, a sparkle in his eyes, only for her and their long happy future. Together.
Image sources © Can Stock Photo / washtay; http://www.visitsydneyaustralia.com.au/ and newspaper.com (Sydney Morning Herald September 13th 1933)
It was meant to be just a drive from point A to point B to share Christmas with the family. It had been one of those years that was best left behind and I was excited to spend time with special family members. Away from ghosts of the past.
Along the Newell Highway this drive took a turn. No longer was it just a means to travel the thousand odd kilometres across 3 states. It was my pilgrimage. One final trip with you across the land we treasured and admired its changing tides.
You would have been impressed with the miles and miles of golden paddocks. The grain now harvested and its gilded hue slightly fading as the stubble turns to earth. We would have both been intrigued with the individual wheat stacks across the Riverina as farmers were wrapping their wheat in plastic to store on farm. A clear sign of a very prosperous year.
My mind was taken back to driving the same road with you in the early ‘80s and how you wished you had travelled at night as the track was profoundly depressing with the ravages of drought – bare paddocks blowing in the summer winds, the sparse starving stock seeking water and feed to survive, the skies clear with little hope of saving rains.
I know you would have appreciated the difference now and noted the numbers of sheep, fresh off shears that roam the knee high pastures. I noticed. You had taught me to see.
We could have chuckled together at the farm mail boxes as we scooted down the Newell, many decorated for Christmas. You would have pointed to the water filling swampy low areas, now a wetland haven for multitudes of birds that chorus as we break for road works along the stretches damaged from the floods that now bring life to the region.
Ducks and turtles forage in the evening stillness as we stop for the night at Forbes. A few Willy Wagtails sing an evening lullaby in the fading light. A single tear trickles down my face as their song takes me back to the night not so long ago when the Willy Wagtails warbled a midnight melody calling in a sadness that settled as you took your last breaths. I knew I needed this pilgrimage to bid you farewell.
The story you told me on another trip a few years back springs to mind as we take the long stretch from Forbes to West Wyalong. I still find it hard to imagine how my grandfather Clem rode this same track on a horse in the 1920s. It seemed such a long expedition to buy another horse! I try to imagine the dusty tracks now replaced by sealed highways, the cleared cultivated land that would have been pristine and untouched, and the stars overhead as he rested his weary body and horse each night. I’m thankful you shared this piece of family history with me.
The West Wyalong truck stop is a welcome sight, not just for us but for many travellers on similar journeys to loved ones for the festive season. I strike up a conversation with a family eating their cereal in the carpark, the children’s hair still woolly and eyes still cloudy from the night sleep. In years past that was us. I have recollections of getting dressed in town parks, eating corn flakes from plastic cups as you and mum tried to get some miles in before we woke. Having had children of my own I appreciate how precious those quiet miles were.
You would have wandered around the busy carpark and struck up a few other yarns with fellow travellers. I only watched this time and envisaged the stories of voyagers along the Newell.
I smile at the football ovals in each town with the four posts at either end. I’m not sure you ever played Australian Rules in your time in the south of the state? As we continue through Narrandera I seemed to recall you did play ‘proper’ football games out this way as you sought some Rugby League comps in the heart of Australian Rules country. I guess you spent some time in these towns along the Murray River and Riverina district and probably broke some hearts as a young single graduate in this area.
Stories from you faded as I crossed the swiftly flowing Murray River and headed into Victoria. I continued on this pilgrimage with a heavy heart, knowing that you would have truly relished in the changing landscapes as we zoomed towards Melbourne.
I have no doubt you would have repeated the story of trying to drive in Melbourne with your mother-in-law and her strong opinions in the back seat and how you unexpectedly ended up on the steps of Parliament House. I think the roads are better now – or at least with technology we made it the port in plenty of time for our passage across Bass Strait, where we gathered to make new memories with one less seat at our table.
You can rest. Our land is in good hands.
It was 3 am when they had arrived in the darkness of the early morning. The simplistic life of the Kingdom was evident from the first step onto Tongan soil. No colossal airport terminal with numerous guards and staff ordering the travellers to assorted lines. Just two simple passages where passports were stamped, a quick scan for quarantine and the group shown the door to enter the Kingdom.
As local families greeted their own back to country these western ladies were corralled past Tongan musicians who, despite the early hours of morning enthusiastically welcomed visitors with the traditional sounds of Tonga harmony. Their bus awaited. Their journey had begun.
Her neck stretched above the heads in front so she could see the road ahead. As
the bus quietly passed through sleeping villages she discerned the small simple houses in the shadows, trying to picture the families that lay within. Scruffy dogs played on the roads, only moving when the lights from the bus were upon them. An occasional pig joined in the game with the dogs. She smiled thinking the scene a contrast to the kangaroo, fox or koala she would normally see on the roads to home.
She could feel her heart pumping, her eyes wide open despite her weariness as the bus took the final turn to her home for the next six days. A small part of her was hoping this wasn’t some sort of TV reality show that now took one of those surprise turns and they were about to fight for their sleeping quarters and beg for food.
“Please just show me my room with clean sheets and running water” she silently prayed as the security guard led each to their abode, where she fell into bed in the hope she could revive her energy with just a few hours of sleep – there was lots to discover tomorrow, or was it already today?
The shackles of work and home were washed away in the tranquility of the morning. The azure waters of the Pacific Ocean expanded before her, the sounds as it crashed on the reef hypnotized her, the shadows of whales enjoying a morning play not far from the edge excited her. Her immersion had begun.
As the bus glanced through villages she observed the Tongan people industriously starting the day. Children strolling along the roadside edge to school, men heading into small fields to plant banana trees or clear land for another crop to bring a small income to the household, women setting up stalls outside the village homes to sell their frugal wares and produce.
She had expected to see streets of high rise buildings indicating the capital city centre so was surprised when Rick the bus driver said they had arrived in downtown Nuku’alofa. The larger country centres of home were busier and bigger than this she thought to herself. Despite its size, the place was a buzz with industry as the bus weaved through the morning traffic.
Vehicles with people stacked in every available seat, some taking passage in the back of the truck passed them by. Others were precariously parked by the road unloading watermelons, carrots, capsicums, yams ready for a long day of selling. Women watched over the stalls as younger children, scantily dressed ran along the dusty craggy paths. Older children, in their brightly coloured school uniforms giggled and chattered as they walked to school. She smiled as she thought somethings don’t change whatever the country it seems.
Her eyes worked overtime to capture these moments, her head darting from side to side to front to take in the scene of the morning bustle. A squeal from the front of the bus made her turn to see a scruffy dog dart through the traffic, to the right western fashion collecting the dust that was swirling along with the traffic was strung along a wire for sale. A large sow tramped along with purpose as her piglets danced around her feet, a few brown chickens scratched for some morsel of breakfast as vehicles of all shapes and vintage continued to pass by.
As they arrived at their destination she sat on the bus for a short moment. She was 3600 kilometres from home, with a group of women she hardly knew in a country she knew little about. She was a voyager in a foreign country, almost anonymous with no preceding tags except those she chose to share. She could barely contain the intrepid excitement growing within her. Her feet were tingling, her eyes wide, her ears tuned, her whole self poised to embrace every second of the next six days.
A broad smile greeted her, a welcoming hand outstretched “Mālō e lelei, welcome to Tonga”.