(People's Choice Winner in the Newcastle Herald Short Story competition 2023)
It was hot, the day we drove to Bingleburra. Dad thought we’d be late, which didn’t sound promising to me stuck in the back with panting dogs flicking saliva on the windows. It wasn’t their fault the car didn’t have air conditioning; few cars did back then. At least not ones my parents could afford.
Didn’t he say it was a sealed road, Dad had asked, while failing to miss the largest potholes in the road. Mum promised it wasn’t far as we passed a mileage sign hidden in the overgrown verge. Dad’s reply was masked by a wheel hub scything its way into a neglected ringlock fence.
I wasn’t allowed to open the car window because of the dust so to keep my mind off the heat I played with the Swiss Army knife I’d been given as a “moving to the country” present. Armed with more lethal edges than a seven-year-old should be allowed to handle without supervision, I’d taken the tweezers and white plastic toothpick out a dozen times since leaving Sydney. Then been left wondering what to do with them after I’d used the toothpick to clean my fingernails and couldn’t find any use for tweezers in the confines of a Toyota station wagon. A near miss between my left thumb and the blade remains, to this day, a secret between me and the dogs. The first thing I was going to do when we stopped was find a piece of wood.
Which, when we eventually arrived, turned out to be a half-rotted pinecone. I was industriously digging into its core as my parents spoke with the real estate agent, when I learned that Swiss Army knives don’t have a locking mechanism. Oldies drone on about life being the sum of lessons built through success and failure. I fall into what you’d call the slow learner category.
After the estate agent left us, muttering about needing to return to town and collect something from a store with the beguiling name of Dalgety Widgecombe, my parents took the liberty to wander through, with increasing abandon, what was looking like becoming our new home. In hindsight, it was lunacy on their part, although I didn’t think so at the time. I was thrilled by their drive to escape to the country, and their readiness to take on what the man with the unusually white teeth had called a doer upper. He was telling the truth, as most of the house was on the ground and in pieces; indeed, the only direction available was up.
There were no signs of squatters for two reasons, the first being the state of the house. Where doors existed, most didn’t close and those few that could, wouldn’t seal. I even found a room without a floor. Sane trespassers had shunned this draughty, leaking, run-down house on the top of a rise in the barren windswept hills where in midwinter the nightly temperature dropped to a brisk -5⁰C and the wind chill factor ratcheted down to a life threatening -15⁰C. Hardly Siberian numbers, though contrary to the image of a sunburnt country. Mind you, the hot part was still to come.
The second reason the house hadn’t been used by those seeking shelter was the stark fact it was nowhere near a supply of people. The nearest town was thirty kilometres away, along the same filling-releasing and wheel nut-loosening gravel road we had travelled to get there. Other farmhouses were hazy smears in the distance. Suffice to say the place was neglected, seemed of great antiquity, and as the saying goes, was in the middle of … well, let’s just say, nothing.
Never have I been so excited as the day my parents bought Telegraph Hill.
Black cattle would look smart on green grass, Dad had announced one day as he held a dripping paintbrush and grandly surveyed the rolling hills in all directions. He was taking a break from painting the corrugated tin roof hoping to breathe new life into the house. The choice was an oddly nautical metallic grey, which when summer duly arrived, raised the temperature inside by five degrees above the threshold of comfort.
Stunned into silence, the three of us shared the panorama for a moment. Finally, Mum remarked that the paddocks for miles around appeared to be solely occupied by flocks of contented sheep. There wasn’t a solitary cow in sight. But look at all that tall grass, he’d cried. It’d be a shame to not use it!
Unsure how an up-and-coming pastoralist obtained cattle, Dad called the only local we knew. With snake-like speed, the estate agent named a stock and station bloke who would not only find the animals but also organise to have them delivered. For a small fee, of course.
Better still, leave it with me, said the grinning agent.
Dad was beaming by the time he returned to the verandah. Already his mind’s eye saw paddocks dotted with fat ruminating cattle. He’s a fellow worth knowing, Dad said.
Which brings us to today; year four of the drought. Last Sunday, we were the only family to take flowers to church. Mum keeps the roses alive by bucketing out the bath water when everyone’s finished. Although the grass has vanished, Dad still smiles and says, chin-up! it’ll rain soon. I don’t mind the dry because he’s paying me to clear the house paddock of rocks, now we can see them. Mum reckons she’s buying Dad a hat for Christmas to hide the new creases on his forehead.
I’m the only one who still enjoys getting on the back of the ute and throwing out hay for the cattle. They’ve become so tame I can scratch them. Now that my feet reach the truck pedals, Dad has promised to teach me how to drive so I can feed them myself. That is, at least until it rains and the grass returns.
And Mum has stopped saying sheep would have been a better idea.