Two little girls dance across a paddock in search of a man, their long hair casting streaks of gold over the grey afternoon. They zigzag between the cowpats and dandelions, skip over puddles of sludge and come to a pond that is covered in a thick blanket of slime. Paperbark trees surround the pond like watchful parents, protecting it from the gaze of the casual trespasser. Kimberly circles the trees, stripping sheets of bark from them as she goes. Later she will present them to her mother, who will help her to paint and then glue them to an outside wall of the shed.
Sal watches Kimberly and she’s as sharp-eyed as the crow who watches them both. Through the undergrowth that separates them, she sees her sister making her way to the pond’s edge.
‘No, Kim.’ She grabs her around the waist, pulling her from the mud that sucks at their feet like hungry slugs.
They keep moving, alert to the snap of a twig, yet ignoring the sleepy-eyed cow who grunts at their presence. They arrive at the fence that separates the paddock from the nursing home and sit down to wait.
‘There he is,’ says Sal, jumping to her feet.
The man is a giant, with tattoos on his arms that swirl and intersect like snakes. The girls watch the snakes’ progress as he pushes the mower back and forth across the grounds. He smiles at them and waves, says something they don’t hear over the sound of the motor. The girls stand, noses pressed through the fence, until the grass is almost gone. They leave without a word.
The house is a slate-grey weatherboard and has three small bedrooms, a living room with a fireplace, and a tiny kitchen. It stands on uneven stilts with stairs at the back leading to an outhouse and shower. It creaks and expands during the summer months of heavy rain, shrinks back into itself like a hibernating creature in winter. Only the cement patio remains solid, while the veranda, the newest addition, lends an impression of majesty.
‘What do you think, love?’ Duncan had asked his wife.
Francine checked the windows and cupboards in each room, noting the cracks in the ceiling, the cobwebs, the draughts. She felt for loose floorboards, fiddled with the phone connection.
‘It’s rustic, I suppose,’ she said.
‘Cheap though . . . bought for a song,’ said Duncan. ‘And the paddock? I talked the owner into selling one of the cows and he said we can keep her there for nothing.’
Fran would go wherever he decided but the cow, he knew, would win her approval.
‘The girls will love it,’ she said.
He sits on the patio surrounded by shells. In his right hand is a hammer, which he slams repetitively. Another shell cracks, a whip of sound slicing the air. He places the residue into a bucket and again moves to strike. He does this until the bucket is filled.
‘Girls!’ His voice carries far. Minutes later they appear in front of him, faces shiny with sweat, grime covering their arms and legs.
‘Go nuts,’ he says, the hammer finally laid to rest.
Sal and Kimberly reach dirty hands into the bucket and grab fistfuls of macadamias. They sit, one on either side of their father, and count their haul.
‘One, two, three, four . . . six,’ says Sal. ‘I’m nearly six!’
‘So you are,’ says Duncan. ‘Did you see the mower man today?’
‘He’s got snakes on his arm,’ says Kimberly.
‘Does he now.’ Duncan looks at the sky. ‘Gonna be a storm.’
Dark grey clouds are gathering in mobs and from somewhere comes the eerie cry of a curlew.
‘Daddy, where do the cows go when it rains?’ asks Sal.
‘Under a tree . . . they’re okay,’ says Duncan.
The first drops of rain fall and the girls run into the yard. They wait for the torrents they know will follow, eager for the relief that a cool drenching will bring. The paddock will flood and soon the pond, usually green and stagnant, will overflow with stormwater. The girls will not be allowed near the paddock again until the water subsides and the pond resettles.
They move to the veranda and watch as the wind picks up, buffeting the banana trees and flattening the overgrown grass. To the left of the fence, a rusty swing shrieks with a tuneless grind of chains.
‘Got dark quick,’ says Duncan.
Francine reaches out a hand to catch a stray drop of rain. ‘The fence needs painting,’ she says.
‘Always something needs doing,’ says Duncan. ‘We’ll have to get your mower man around, girls.’
‘Why?’ asks Kimberly.
‘Because if we don’t, a snake will bite. Like this.’
Kimberly squeals when her father grabs her knee.
‘Are there really snakes?’ says Sal. ‘How come we never see them?’
‘They’re scared of you . . . you girls make a lot of noise.’
‘Mowerman has snakes,’ says Kimberly.
‘They’re not real, silly,’ says Sal. ‘They’re just paintings.’
‘We’ve met a few people now, haven’t we,’ says Francine. ‘There’s the mower man . . . we’ll have to stop calling him that.’ She looks at Duncan. ‘Who else have we met?’
‘Mowerman!’ says Kimberly, and Sal giggles.
‘Mowerman, Mowerman, Mowerman!’
At six feet six inches, Pete Tomkins is the tallest resident in town and has the physique of a heavyweight boxer. He’s no fighter though. He’s a fixer and a fitter; he’s a painter and a cleaner of pipes. Word has it that he’ll correct anything at a moment’s notice. He will repair a broken fence, drain a clogged pipe, crawl through a ceiling. He’ll fish out a rat, remove a frog from a toilet. The kids in the neighbourhood come up with names for him—names that reflect the work he’s done on their parents’ properties: Tileman, Frogman, Pipeman; Snakeman, Ratman, Mowerman. He’ll answer to them all.
‘God awful time,’ he is saying to the dishevelled teenager before him. ‘My wife’s fielding calls from half the town. Electrics all out, there’s a lady nearly drowned. Shouldn’t be out in this, kid.’
They stand on the dirt road that runs past the farm. It’s full of potholes at the best of times but now the road is slick with mud. Pete’s surprised the kid made it this far without getting bogged. There’s a herd of cattle by the side of the road, the fence behind them stampeded to smitherines. He can’t see the bull but imagines it’s probably angling for a piece of them. Pete hopes to finish the job quickly and get the hell out of there.
The rain has settled to a steady drizzle. The calf’s head rests on top of the bonnet, its chest crushed on impact, its legs collapsed and forged deep into the mud. The calf is dead; the kid’s in shock. His long hair hangs limp and dripping as he stares white-faced at the silent cattle.
‘You gonna give me a hand or look at cows,’ grunts Pete. He’s standing in a puddle of water with his arms around the calf’s neck. ‘Farmer ain’t gonna like it.’
The boy is shaking. ‘Sorry,’ he says.
Pete flicks water from his eyes, drops the calf’s head and attempts to push the car. The boy steps in to assist.
‘Did you tell him?’ says Pete.
‘Couldn’t find him,’ says the boy. ‘I had to run three blocks to the phone box.’
Finally the calf drops from the bonnet and they stand back to assess the damage. The Kingswood is a write-off.
‘Doesn’t look like it’s going to let up,’ says Duncan. The sky flashes; a roll of thunder immediately follows.
‘Girls, let’s get you in the bath,’ says Francine. She moves inside, feeling her way to the light switch. Another flash of lightning.
‘Lights are out! Duncan, can you get the torch please.’
He switches it on and directs the light on his face. The girls scream and then giggle and run towards their mother. Duncan turns the beam around and is about to give chase when he hears it. He looks up. Water is pouring through the ceiling.
‘Hold tight,’ he says. He runs to the shed and returns with a bucket and six candles. He positions the bucket on the floor and lights the candles. The tiny flames shiver and reflect back at them through the cascade of water.
‘Should we call Pete?’ says Francine.
The number rings out. Duncan tries again. On his fifth attempt, the harried voice of Pete’s wife answers. ‘Pete’s not here,’ she says.
Duncan tries to remember her name. Is it Sharon? No. Noreen . . . Norah. That’s the one.
‘Norah . . . we’ve got an emergency here,’ he says.
‘You and everyone else,’ she replies. ‘The SES is flat out. As usual we’re the last place they think of . . . dregs of the earth. If Pete weren’t here the town would’ve gone to the dogs years ago. He’s the only one does anything round here. If you ask me, the council need to lay down roads made of cement or whatever. Stop the cows taking a crap in front of the drivers. And the trees need . . .’
‘Do you know when he’ll be back?’ says Duncan.
There’s a pause while Norah thinks. Duncan taps his foot for what seems like an eternity.
‘Between jobs I’d say but who knows when that’ll be,’ she says finally. ‘I’ll tell him you called.’
Francine is standing on a chair, shoving towels into the hole in the ceiling. The flow of water slows a little but the bucket is still full within minutes.
‘What’s he doing?’ she says in frustration. ‘Did you offer to double his fee?’
‘Sal, get the nut bucket will you,’ says Duncan, handing her the torch.
‘I want a nut too,’ says Kimberly, watching her sister pop one into her mouth as she comes back.
Duncan shakes his head and empties the nuts into a biscuit tin. He gives Sal the bucket and tells her she can help.
‘Can Kim help too?’ she asks.
‘Just for a little while,’ he replies, knowing it’s an exciting day for them both.
‘What about getting on the roof and taking a look,’ Francine says to him. ‘It could be something simple.’
‘I dunno. Might be best to wait . . .’
‘Go on, love. Just take a look. If it’s not obvious, throw a tarp over it and come back down. At least we’ll have tried.’
Duncan starts to sweat. ‘I’ll call Pete again,’ he says. But Francine fixes him with a look and he knows he has lost. ‘I’ll fetch the ladder.’
He goes to the shed and stands there for some time, bracing himself. It’s been years since he climbed anything.
He positions the ladder against the house and begins to climb. Fran calls out to check on his progress and he hollers back as cheerfully as he can. He’s made it to the roof.
He takes the torch between his teeth, the tarpaulin tucked under one arm, and edges forward on hands and knees, digging his fingers into the tiles. He’s gone less than three feet when he begins to shake. He forces himself to focus on the tiles. They glisten like new in the dim light of the torch yet he knows this is an illusion. ‘Old as the hills but built to last,’ the estate agent had told him.
Gradually his eyes adjust but he looks no further than directly in front of him. He knows if he were even to glance over the edge of the roof he’d be gripped with paralysis. He thinks Francine must have lit the fire for there is now smoke as well as rain. He shivers, the wind strong in his face. Roughly six steps to the chimney, he thinks, and breathes long and slow.
He stands and takes the first step.
This is an extract from a novel in progress, which was developed during the Faber Writing Academy Writing A Novel course 2017.
After relocating to a rural backwater for her husband’s new job, Francine finds it difficult to make connections in the town. That is, until her husband is incapacitated in an accident. Suddenly the townsfolk are offering assistance but with one proviso. She must supervise their delinquent, dangerous children. Francine has no idea what she has signed up for. When a child dies—through no fault of her own—the people of the town turn on her and seek retribution. Francine must fight to keep herself and her family from harm.
Iseult Stephenson is a professional violinist who has performed both nationally and internationally. After many Australian tours, she felt compelled to write about her unusual—and often alarming—experiences. In 2016, Iseult attained a Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing at Deakin University. She is currently completing her first novel.
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