Eight Short Stories
Pick’n Season is an exploration of style. After writing the novel, Dance me, I was puffed with all the ‘she saids’, ‘he pondered’, ‘she exclaimed’. I wanted to try to write a story where there was none of that and little guide as to who was saying what except the context.
I hope you enjoy my experiment.
don’t worry gran
never used to miss, it’s this blasted wheelchair.
Where do you want to go now, gran?
Might as well go back to the house, bloody crows won’t come back now.
Gran, Ruth Blackwood, broke open the double-barrel shot gun, ejected two red cartridges and shoved the weapon into a leather holster tied to the side of the wheelchair. Whisps of gun-smoke danced and disappeared into the crystal-clear evening air. Rachael, her granddaughter, undid the brake and turned the wheelchair around and started to pushing it towards the unpainted farmhouse with the broken paling fence. The farmhouse sat on the side of a gentle slope that overlooking Cockle Bay. Ruth had spent many a happy hour on the verandah talking to Jack and watching her family grow.
That was then, but she didn’t regret a moment. Every day she looked back with happiness and pride. Ruth had lived life to the full and her heart was always giving. Jack always said that she had a heart the size of Tasmania. She could be and hard as nails if necessary, but if you needed a hand or just someone to talk to then she was there, shelling peas, peeling beans, cutting up chokos for the chutney or making a fresh batch of scones. She had been part of the district for nigh on sixty years. She knew everyone, and just about everything there was to know about the area. It was her world and it was enough.
There had been only one shadow, but that had come and gone, like a solitary cloud momentarily blotting out the sun on a beautiful clear day
Ruth Blackwood, pretty, sassy and always smiling, Jack told his mates at the local.
Why don’t y’ ask her for a date?
Yeah, ask her to the dance next Sat'dee.
Nah, she’d never look at me.
Don’t know if y’ don’t ask, doya, ‘nother beer?
Yeah, Cascade ta.
Same for the restofya?
Janice poured the beers and the three men each took a meditative sip.
Jack was a tall, lanky bastard. He’d just got rid of his acne after years of peering forlornly at the mirror during his teens. His straight black hair was starting to get a healthy sheen after hanging off his head like dead seaweed for those turbulent teenage years. He had to shave twice a day if he went out and seemed to have a permanent five O clock shadow. But his teeth were good and he was fit and graceful, particularly on the footy field where he was more than useful as a flyhalf. Intensely shy, he was never comfortable around girls and retreated to the safety of the pub or the footy club. He rode a huge black motorbike, a brand new 1955 Norton Model 88 Dominator, 500cc of raw power; to the consternation of his mother and the secret envy of his father and uncle. He’d seen the catalogue and lusted after it for the two years it took the dealer at Hobart to get one. When he got it he roared into town scattering chooks, people and dust with a smile that bounced off the shop windows and dazzled the magpies.
Better be getting back, got milking to do and I want to round up a few heifers.
Gunna be at the footy this Saturday
Yeah, wouldn’t miss it
See ya then.
A bark of mechanical noise followed by the deep throaty throb of a 500cc motor warming up, then a roar as Jack disappeared down the dirt track they called a main street. The men at the bar smiled and wished they had the balls to buy one.
Ruth was picking beans in her mother’s vegetable garden when she saw Jack ride past, not glancing right or left. He rode fast, but carefully and had the co-ordination and instinct to have raced, but it had never entered his head. She smiled as he disappeared around a corner, the dust slowly dissipating into the still afternoon air. Her mother came out leaning heavily on her walking stick, the arthritis was giving her merry hell today. She wasn’t old, early forties, but she had worked hard all her life and fate had decreed that she was not to be rewarded with a comfortable long life. As though the sheer joy of her only daughter Ruth was to be her lot. Her hair was almost white and her skin was translucent. The constant pain made her frown, which had caused deep permanent lines across her forehead and around her eyes. Yet it was a kind face, once strikingly beautiful. Now gifted to her daughter through those eternal lines to time.
Hello Mum, come out and sit in the sun while I pick these beans
I heard that damm fool motorbike go past. It makes such a racket. Daphne gets excited and tries to fly.
Daphne was Kathleen’s old budgie. It’s feathers were faded and she spent most of her time sitting on her perch, except when she heard the motorbike roar past. Then she would step from side to side in excited agitation and flap her short wings.
Ruth smiled and arranged the chair so her mother could watch her and chat. The black and white cat wandered out to the house and lay in the sun beside Kathleen, it had long ago given up waiting for the budgie to escape. Before settling down, it cocked one leg in the air and licked its balls.
Are you going to the dance of Saturday?
No-one’s asked me, mum
I don’t believe it. What you mean is that the right bloke hasn’t asked you
Ruth smiled again
Careful me girl, don’t get too fussy, there are plenty of good men out there
There’s plenty of time, mum
Yes, I spose so. I got married too young. But that’s what you did in those days.
Ruth thought of her dream of escaping to the mainland and going to University to study to be a primary school teacher. Then dad had died in the last year of school and that was that. She didn’t pine after it, or even think in terms of regret. Her mother was important to her and she didn’t begrudge a minute. My time will came she thought, when it’s good and ready. People sensed in her the inherent kindness and rare ability to totally give of herself.
The cat turned over and Kathleen reached down to pull her knitting out of the bag, which hung permanently from her shoulder.
Ruth picked some more beans and looked at the lady-bird beetles landing on the passionfruit vine. Wonder how I can meet Jack before the weekend she thought.
Mum, how about I invite Dot Reynolds for a cup of tea on Thursday afternoon when she comes in to do her shopping?
I haven’t seen Dot in ages, I’ll give her a call when I go in.
Kathleen was not oblivious to the fact that Dot’s son, Jack, owned the motor bike that had just roared past, causing her daughter to look up and follow it wistfully as it disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Jack rode the bike into the shed he'd constructed at the side of the barn. He threw a tarp over it, gave the seat a pat and walked over to the farmhouse. His mother, Dot, was in the kitchen talking to his father who’d just come in for a cuppa.
Did you get the parts for the milking machine?
Yeah, good as gold.
I’ll fit them this arvo while you round up the heifers.
Frank and Dot ran a dairy farm on 400 acres that bordered The Channel. The farmhouse was unpainted weatherboard with a corrugated iron roof dented from a hail storm that blew up from the bay and nearly wiped them out. Faded red-lead roofing paint curling up in places, the rest, a dull-grey iron with patches of apple-red rust. Frank’s father had hewn the farm out of virgin bush. Frank and Dot had steadily improved it over the years.
Jack was the eldest son of the family, he had three brothers and two sisters. It was understood that Jack would inherit the farm and look after Frank and Dot. Tom was doing a plumbing apprenticeship, Ian was in his final year of school and itching to go. Eileen had started nursing in Hobart and young Meg was just finishing primary school. It was a strong family imbued by Dot’s optimism and Frank’s capacity for hard work.
The family was sitting around the breakfast table on Thursday, Frank was sitting back with his feet on a chair reading the paper, his thick woolen socks steaming from the heat of the combustion stove.
I’m going to drop into Kathleen’s on the way back from shopping to have a cup of tea.
Don’t forget to order the molasses said Frank blowing on his cup of tea.
Could you take me into town today Jack?
Jack finished chewing his toast, yeah, rightho, you won’t be long will you?
No, just a quick cup.
The black 1950 Dodge pulled up outside Kathleen’s house.
You coming in to say hello?
No, I’ll go around to the footy club
Come on, I won’t be long, I’d like you to
Of course Mum.
Dot smiled at the obvious reticence in Jack’s voice, he hauled himself out of the Dodge like he was going to a funeral, his own.
Ruth came around from the back of the house when she heard the car doors slam shut. Her step faltered. She unconsciously brushed her hair and pulled back her shoulders when she saw Frank. Gestures totally missed by Frank but observed with interest by Dot. Ahh, she thought, that’s why Kathleen invited me.
Hello! greeted Ruth. Her voice was strong and radiated an inner smile; it invited you not only into her home, but into her life. It was an invitation extended to all, and never regretted.
Dot replied with equal warmth and gave Ruth a kiss
Jack's voice was strong but did not quite mask the uncertainty he felt at seeing Ruth.
Why don’t you two have a walk in the garden and leave us to gossip for a while.
Jack had been sitting awkwardly all through tea his faced that of a man whose only desire in life was to escape. Ruth busied herself with the tea. She could see that Jack was totally out of his depth.
Would you have a look at our mower please Jack she asked.
Jack almost leapt out of his seat
Yeah, I’d be glad to, where is it?
In the shed, I’ll show you.
They married a year later.
The children grew up in the sixties. A good time for growing up, on the cusp of a brave new world yet still with the values that forged a nation. The big events swirled around them, Cuba, the assassination of J.F K, Vietnam, conscription in Australia, men on the moon, Martin Luther King, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Woodstock, pot, LSD and all that jazz. In the eye of the hurricane, Ruth and Jack’s family remained largely un-affected.
There was never much money but Ruth always found other ways to give, even if it were only a smile and a kind word. But you couldn’t take her down. It wasn’t softness that made her kind, it was her innate spirit.
They planted an apple orchard in the early sixties and built it up. It adjoined the Crowley’s, who had established their orchard in the early 50’s. The two families played as one.
Jack was sitting on the verandah picking the fleas out Menzies coat, the blue heeler, when Ruth came out to join him.
They sat sipping their tea, the sounds of the farm and the kids gave them a sense of place. They were used to each other, comfortable, trusting.
I was thinking of getting a stud bull and building up a beef herd.
There’s a sale on next week and John Reed is selling one of his Angus bulls, I thought I’d try to get it.
Ruth smiled, it will be good to have the diversification.
Then a stranger walked into their life and changed things utterly, terribly.
True tragedy is unforeseen, unforeseeable, a random event.
Tom Howard was that random event.
He was the sort of man who got on with everyone and was everyone’s friend. Always willing to lend a hand or go that extra mile, his smile and ready humour engaging everyone. Yet Jack sensed a shadow, which Ruth dismissed, wanting to believe good of everyone, always looking for the positive.
Tom walked onto the farm at the end of the sixties, spent a season pick’n apples then stayed on to help around. He was tall and well proportioned from hard physical work. His eyes transfixed you, holding you in their intense gaze, making you feel as though you were the centre of the universe, special. He would laugh readily, throwing back his head and putting his arm around you to include you in the great lark he had just discovered. People felt good around him, relaxed. On that level, he was a more intense form of Ruth. Jack sensed the immediate connection between Tom and his wife, a rapport he could not match.
Tom was standing beside the vet, Ian Macintosh who had his hand well inside a cow searching around for the calf. Jack walked back with the rope he had just fetched from the vet’s stationwagon.
I’ll get the rope around it’s neck, you steady the old girl Tom while I pull.
The job done, all three men walked back to the stationwagon.
Are you going to the dance this Saturday?
Yeah, the whole families going
Reckon I’ll give it a whirl too said Tom.
Country dances were a big event in the town. For many, it was the only event. It was held in the town hall, a large timber building, pus yellow, with the obligatory corrugated iron roof, painted a faded mercurochrome red. It had been built in the 1920’s after a prosperous couple of years, then allowed to deteriorate ever since. Mostly no-one seemed to think of spending time or money on the hall, it was taken for granted. Every decade or so there would be a rush of blood and a committee would be formed, the hall would get a new coat of paint, a working bee would be called, and after the brief rush of enthusiasm the committee members would start to argue and it would soon fall apart in acrimony. Then another decade or two of neglect. The last committee was in the mid sixties. Doug Brown had suggested painting it mission brown after seeing Jesus Christ Superstar in Sydney, but he was a cranky old bastard and no-one took any notice. He’d still pester anyone he could get into a corner. He’d drone on about forming a committee and how good Jesus Christ Superstar was until they could get away. Now most people told him to fuck off if he started.
The band consisted of Clarry, who played the fiddle, George who played rhythm guitar, Ian who played a snare drum and Ross who played the clarinet when he was sober. Clarry did all the singing. The music was old time dance with a mixture of classics from the forties and fifties. The dance committee was ruled with a fist of iron by the Preident, Clarry, and all suggestions to have modern music were summarily dismissed.
The publican set up a bar and the country women’s association provided supper. Young Joshua, Clarry’s son, took the entrance money and issued small blue tickets from a roll. Children ran about, teenagers sulked, looking wistfully outside, the younger men compared the younger ladies, and the older men headed straight for the bar, their wives standing around with heads nodding in animated conversation like gaudy chooks.
Clarry tapped the microphone, causing it to whistle, then he announced that the dance was about to begin and would the men take their partners, he paused ..... onto the dance floor, then laughed at his own joke. The older men sighed and put down their beers, the younger men walked up to the younger women of their choice and were either accepted, rejected or giggled at. The children kept up their frantic pace. Then the first flat notes from Clarry’s fiddle, followed by a ragged drum roll, then the guitar, slightly out of tune. The clarinet remained on Ross’s lap, he had fallen asleep.
The dancers moved around the dance floor in random confusion, generally out of time, except for Dennis Hayden and his wife Thelma who were passionate dancers. After half an hour Clarry announced a short break, and the men headed straight for the bar, except for Tom who walked over to chat with Ruth.
After the next set Jack walked up to Tom who had been dancing with Betty Shorten.
Come over for a drink, mate.
She’s right, thanks, I’ll step outside for a smoke I think.
Tom found a dark place outside the hall and rolled himself a smoke, thoughtfully kneading the tobacco in the palm of his hand before carefully placing it in the cigarette paper. He lit the smoke and inhaled with obvious satisfaction, then stood quietly in the shadows, only the glow of the cigarette giving him away. The night had a chill and the frost was starting to settle. He shivered a little and blew in his hands, but he didn’t want to go back in just yet.
I’m surprised to see you here Tom, I thought you’d be having a drink with the blokes.
Tom turned around, surprised to hear Susan’s voice.
He smiled, aww, thought I’d have a few quiet moments to myself Susan.
Susan walked over and stood beside him.
Mind if I roll myself a fag?
Susan, Ruth’s daughter, had just turned fifteen and Tom looked at her in surprise.
I didn’t know you smoked
Yeah, we do it all the time after school.
Well, until you do it at home I don’t think I can give you any. I assume your parents don’t know
Susan shrugged in the coquettish way young teenage girls have, at once sexual and at the same time, dismissive. She thought that Tom was a lot of a spunk and she had bet the girls at school that she could seduce him, or at least, lead him up the garden path. This first small rejection only made her all the more determined.
She was not especially pretty, but her face had character and she had the ready smile of her mother and the strong, angular lines of her father. She had waited forlornly for her breasts to emerge and was somewhat disappointed at their size. Destined to go to University, she was surprisingly studious, yet at the same time a rebel, inquiring as to the reason for everything. She wanted to experience life to the full and was certain that there was little left to learn from the town school, and little that her parents could realistically impart to her. Tom was to be her experiment into the forbidden world of the carnal. Marijuana was old hat and alcohol distasteful.
She stood close to him and tried to make conversation. Tom did not respond and after a few minutes he threw the butt of his cigarette away.
Better be getting back inside, it’s too cold to be out here
He then gestured with his head to see if she intended to go in as well.
She had left her cardigan inside and her thin top was no defense to the chill night air and she was beginning to seriously shiver. There was one consolation, thought Tom, her nipples were startlingly erect.
Why don’t you dance with me?
Tom looked around the hall, most of the women were already on the dance floor with their partners, waiting for the music to start.
Yeah, right ho
He ushered her onto the dance floor.
Oh, hello Craig
Hello Mr Crowley, enjoying the dance?
Yes, this is Patricia, Patricia Edmonson
Ahh, you’d be Gary’s daughter, he did a good job fixing Jack’s pump the other day.
Patricia smiled in acknowledgment of the compliment to her father.
Wouldn’t you rather be dancing with someone your own age, Craig perhaps
No, he’s too immature
Tom barely suppressed a smile, which Susan chose to ignore.
Susan was surprised at how well Tom danced; she held herself close to him and made herself available, much to Tom’s discomfort. Ruth noticed and thought that she would have to have a word with her daughter. When the set finished, Tom stepped back waiting for Susan to go to her friends. She stayed beside him and grabbed his arm.
Let’s go and have a cup of tea.
No, thanks Susan, I promised your father I’d have a drink with him
O.K then, said Susan, walking off in a huff.
Tom walked over to Jack who was just accepting a beer from George, the publican.
Having a beer Tom?
.......... OK, thanks Jack.
Jack was midly surprised at the hesitancy in Jack's voice. Beer was not an option at a country dance, it was an integral part of it for the men. You stood well outside the group if you didn't drink.
George poured another glass and handed it to Tom
That’ll be a dollar
Jeez, George, there only forty cents in the pub
Well, go to the pub then.
Tom handed over a two-dollar note
She’s right Jack, I’ll get them
The two men stepped back from the bar
Tom took the first sip with obvious satisfaction, then he almost drank the whole glass in one draught.
Yeah, danc’n does that to ya
Know what you mean, another?
I’ll get it, mate
Haven’t finished this one, but you go ahead
Tom went over and returned with a fresh beer, he took another large draught and then sighed with satisfaction.
Three beers in quick succession then Tom turned to Jack.
Think I’ll see if Ruth wants a dance, said with a slightly belligerent tone in his voice.
Jack was momentarily taken aback, he hadn’t heard Tom being anything but considerate, he sensed a shadow that had been lurking, trying to break free.
She’d like that, better than me stepping on her toes
Tom had walked off by the time Jack had stopped talking.
Jack shrugged and walked over to talk to George.
Not dancing this one?
No, Tom’s taking Ruth for a whirl, thought I’d sit it out. Give us a beer wouldya.
Ruth was surprised when Tom strode up to her and took her hand.
Would you care to dance, Ruth?
Ruth glanced over to the bar, looking for Jack.
Jack said he’d sit this one out. He thought your toes might need a rest.
Ruth laughed and readily accepted the invitation. Like Susan, Ruth was pleasantly surprised at how well Tom danced. Unlike Susan, she kept her distance.
Tom became more animated as the night wore on, he was obviously enjoying himself and now he had a few grogs in him, he became even more gregarious. He made a few passes at the women, which were taken in good part. Susan stopped sulking after Craig took her outside and requited some of her passion with adolescent kisses and fondling. It had been a good night, and on returning home everyone went inside still animated and laughing. Tom waved them goodbye and walked over to his shack. Ruth flashed a smile at him as she walked with Jack through the broken garden gate. Tom sat on his bed and brooded on what sergeant O'Reilly had said to him. "Leave town and don't come back, you're nothing but trouble."
Sergeant O’Reilly had been suspicious of Tom from the first. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but his nose had twitched, and when Sergeant O’Reilly’s nose twitched he had learned to take notice. He had seldom been proved wrong. On the rare occasion there was trouble on his beat, the person usually turned out to be a wrong’un. He had sent off an inquiry and the answer was not pretty. Tom Henderson had spent time in gaol for the assault causing grievous bodily harm and for attempted rape. His plea was diminished responsibility due to alcoholism. It had not worked. The judge ordered that he receive counseling and gave him a stern warning that if he did not stay off the grog he would undoubtedly find himself in gaol again.
When he got out he drifted for a while, finding his feet, working on properties, picking up skills, staying off the grog and staying out of trouble….. and keeping to himself. Strangely, for a man who wanted to retreat from the world, he was always popular. He didn’t know why, it seemed he couldn’t help it. When things got too close and the men started wondering why he wouldn’t join them at the pub, he'd shoot through. It was a continual moving away from a painful past, hoping that it would never catch up with him. He had not learned that the only logical place he could find his dignity, find peace, was where he’d lost it.
Jenny Clifton couldn’t quite bring herself to do it. Tom’s face was radiant with the promise of the future, with the certainty of spending it with her. She had agreed to get engaged at the end of a tumultuous love making session when her natural wariness was down and her love for Tom was at its height. He was still inside her and it was impossible to resist, impossible to say no. She could feel his weight on her, a delicious burden of sensuality, his body hairs prickling against her skin, the occasional trickle of sweat or seamen.
Your not marrying that no-hoper and that’s that!!
Her father dismissed the idea as not worthy of comment and stood glaring. Her mother was livid, her social expectations crushed. What would her friends think, marrying a Clifton.
She rounded on Jenny and shrieked again.
We’ll throw you out without a penny, my girl, you can rot in the gutter for all I care!
Her father stood still in dumb support of her mother, his face a dark, contemptuous scowl.
They all stood in silence while her mother regained her composure. Jenny was shaking. After a few minutes her mother walked over to her and put her arms around her shoulders.
What about Neal Budd, you used to like him, what happened there?
I met Tom
Her mother’s faces pursed like sphincter, her nose quivering.
Now you can un-meet Tom she hissed.
Jenny had been crushed by her parents all her life, what clothes, what toys, what television to watch, what friends, what subjects at school, what sport, what what what. Somewhere, deep inside her a small spark tried to flicker up into a flame of indignation. Instead, it died beneath the weight of a lifetime.
Jenny’s pretty face wilted, her whole body drooped and she walked from the room
Now, it was time to tell him. The desire welled up within her, the love, it over-whelmed her as he touched all the familiar, secret places that only true lovers know. Soon they were laughing together, making love in the bath, soap and water slashing about and the world forgotten, outside, held at bay, by their passion and their love. He lay back at the tap end, holding her foot and gently massaging it, she loved that. Then the world came flooding back and drowned her.
He just lay their, naked, holding her foot, still massaging it. Then she stood up, self-consciously, wrapped herself in a towel and opened the door.
I’ll see you outside, shall I.
He nodded, dazed, uncomprehending. This was not just another fling for Tom, and he had had more than his fair share of flings. No, this was love, the real thing, the lifetime one, the one that he was going to go to his grave with. The one that you only get once in your life and you had better cling to it because this is your one shot. And, you had better hope it is returned by someone strong enough to hang in there.
She was polite, un-engaged, distant as he tried to talk to her. She explained that it was impossible, that her parents had absolutely forbidden it.
Let’s leave, I can get a job in Hobart.
Their sending me to Europe for a year, and then to Melbourne University, to study economics and law.
Is that what you really what.
Jenny smiled, politely, she had long ago forgotten what it was like to get what she really wanted.
Tom stormed out, his life shattered, and headed for the pub.
Don’t you think you’ve had enough Tom?
I won’t give you anymore, mate
Fuck off then.
Tom sat in the park brooding, his thoughts unfocused and turning in to gnaw at his shattered soul. He could feel teeth tearing at his inner being, shredding him in exquisite pain.
Then he stood up, staggered over to his car and drove out to the farm.
Harold Robertson was a burly no-nonsense cane farmer. He was working in the shed, fixing the cranky starter motor on the tractor as Tom's car pull into the driveway, swerving to miss a tree, hitting chook, then lurching to a halt in a cloud of dust. Shortly after he heard Tom yelling, and his wife screaming.
Harold burst into the house and found Tom in the lounge room staring at Jenny’s mother who was writhing hysterically on the floor, her blouse torn. She was mouthing insults at Tom and telling him to go away. When she saw Harold she screamed that Tom had tried to rape her, then she collapsed sobbing. Harold rounded on to Tom and the men fought with a madness and a fury that was inhuman. Tom was being savagely beaten by the stronger man when he managed to grab hold of a heavy crystal vase and smashed it on Harold’s head. Harold fell to he ground and lay there, unmoving, still as death. Jenny’s mother screamed.
creak .... creak .... creak .... creak – the soft gentle lullaby of death – Tom’s body swayed from the rope, which was tied off to a massive rafter in the barn – he had used a galvanized milking bucket to stand on, kicking it away he was careful to make sure there was nothing to hold on to and not place to regain his footing.
creak, creak, creak, creak ... the lullaby of death ...