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.”