By Alan Reid
She sat with her legs stretched across the floor of the car, hunkered between the edge of the seat and the door, leaning on her hands as she clutched the seat belt, turning her head to gaze out the window at the passing landscape. Looking without seeing, watching without observing.
She wasn’t sure that agreeing to join Norman on this trip had been the right decision as the car bounced over the dusty road. It was two hours since they had left the bitumen and the road had become progressively narrower, the bumps, the twisting bends and switchbacks more frequent. She just wanted to get wherever it was they were going.
“How ya travelling?” Norman asked enthusiastically.
The woman turned her head without releasing her hold on the seat belt and smiled grimly at the driver. “Fine, thanks.”
“We’ll be there soon,” Norman bubbled without really hearing the woman. “Over the ridge there in the distance, down the spur, across the plain and we’re there.”
“That’s good,” his passenger said flatly and turned back to the window to continue staring vacantly at the passing landscape.
She wasn’t a country person; she was city born and bred and had no interest in the country. As far as she was concerned there were only trees in the country, kilometres of never ending trees. No houses – just trees. And where there weren’t trees there wasn’t anything. No buildings – no people, just trees and animals. And all the animals did was stand there and look or run away, or in some cases hop away, it all depended on what size and shape they were. It was no wonder most people lived in the city, there was nothing for them in the country. She couldn’t understand what Norman saw in the place. All his talk of majesty and grandeur; it was just trees, trees, and more trees or frightening open spaces of nothing, and stupid animals.
Norman had been encouraging her for some time to visit Ben and the country where he lived. Norman had enthused about his friend interminably, telling of his exploits and achievements like a loyal chronicler. He waxed ad nauseum about the area’s beauty and what he called its hypnotic splendour. For her part she couldn’t understand why Ben didn’t come to the city to visit Norman. It would be a lot easier if he just came to them. He was only one and they were three. She’d only come this time for Norman’s sake.
“G’day Ben,” Norman shouted over his shoulder to the man on the veranda as he scurried around the other side of the car to open the door. The woman almost fell out as Norman dragged at her arm, lifting her out of the car before her high-heeled shoes could secure the ground. She staggered sideways, crashing into Norman and slamming him against the door.
“You’ve had dinner then.” Ben said.
“No. Why?” Norman asked as the woman stumbled around the car, hanging askew from his arm like a shore-leave sailor.
“Doesn’t matter,” Ben said, throwing a glance towards the woman.
“Ben, this is my wife Susan,” Norman said enthusiastically. “Susan, this is Ben,” he continued as he dragged the woman towards the house. “Ben, Susan; Susan, Ben.”
“Hello,” Susan said quietly.
“Pleased to meet you Sue,” Ben returned, touching the brim of his hat with his thumb and forefinger.
“My name is Susan – not Sue – Susan,” she said pointedly.
She was a trim, lighter than average woman who could best be described as small, but with that inbuilt tenacity which befits so many women of her slight stature. Her freshly combed, cropped hair fitted neatly around her square face which was highlighted by high cheekbones and slightly sloping brows above her deep brown eyes. Her exposed tanned hands and arms revealed a carefully timed exposure to the sun, and, even though she had been travelling for hours, her well fitted white blouse and tailored blue slacks retained their carefully pressed lines. She was someone who was aware of her appearance – and her image.
Ignoring the icy response Ben turned his attention to the small boy emerging from the back seat. “G’day Charlie. How’s the riding going.”
With Charlie detailing his exploits at riding school Susan surveyed Ben as he stepped lightly, almost floating down the three stairs from the porch and crossed to the luggage Norman was piling at the rear of the car. She saw a confident man, placing each foot deliberately, quickly engulfing the short distance between the steps and the car. She saw his big, weather-scarred hands swallow the handles of the luggage and the muscles ripple along his arms as he lifted them from the ground. She saw his wide back uncoil as he stood erect, taller than she’d perceived initially. She saw he was a man who attracted attention without uttering a word. Susan understood immediately why Norman admired him and called him friend, but she was puzzled why a man like Norman was Ben’s friend.
Charlie had gone to bed and Susan felt better after the shower, but all the talk about animals, fishing and people she didn’t know was of no interest. All she wanted to do was go to bed with a good book, but that infernal engine thumping continuously would make it impossible to concentrate or go to sleep. She always read before she went to sleep, and it was ridiculous Ben said she couldn’t read in bed.
If the stupid lights couldn’t work properly with the engine he had, he should get a bigger engine. At least there were good books to read, including some of the classics she would enjoy re-visiting. Her thoughts were broken when Ben announced that the engine was almost out of fuel and they had better get to bed.
“By the way,” he said turning to Norman after Susan had said her goodnights and departed. “The stockmen ran some sheep into the yard today and they’ve gone back up top so we’ll need to be up first thing and draft them before it gets too hot.”
“OK. It’ll be good to get back on a horse and feel the wind in my face again,” Norman said.
“What about Sue. Can she ride?” Ben asked.
“Yes,” Norman replied. “She’s been to riding school with Charlie a few of times and they gave her a certificate when she finished. She’s riding OK.”
“Right, we’ll put Charlie on Ulysses and Sue on Athena. They’re both quiet and shouldn’t be any trouble.”
The horses were already saddled when Susan emerged. She was a woman who always dressed for the occasion, and today, the occasion was horse riding. She was wearing a green velvet peaked helmet and a white linen shirt with a red cravat around her neck. A green tweed hacking jacket covered the ensemble, offset with beige jodhpurs tapering to a pair of polished elastic sided boots.
“You should wear a proper hat,” Ben said. “The sun up here will burn you to a crisp. You’ll finish up with ears like your old man’s nose if you wear a hat without a brim.”
“Thank you,” Susan replied flatly as Norman led Athena to the edge of the veranda and Susan stepped aboard. Norman handed her the reins and she took one in each hand, settled into the saddle and called on Athena to “Gee-Up.”
“Dig your heels in her ribs and let her have her head Sue,” Ben advised. “She’ll go along with the rest of us OK.”
There was a little more pointed ice in the returned “Thanks you,” from Susan as the horses moved off with Athena following obediently behind.
The quartet was moving at a comfortable canter across the plain when the fox emerged from the swamp. Ben reined in his horse and the others followed his lead.
“It hasn’t seen us,” Ben whispered, pulling out his off-side stirrup leather and swinging the iron like a medieval mall. “Let’s have a bit of fun.”
He motioned to Norman to go to the left and told Charlie to take the right, but forgot to include Susan who was sitting quietly behind, standing in the stirrups, straining to see what had attracted the men’s attention. The horses were familiar with the thrill of the chase and moved about in nervous anticipation, waiting for the signal.
Only Athena was disinterested. She was taking advantage of the stop to feed. Susan sat back in the saddle and pulled on the reins, trying vainly to lift Athena’s head, but the old mare refused all attempts to interrupt her feeding. Susan lent forward took a handful of mane and pulled, simultaneously dragging on the reins and calling between clenched teeth for Athena to lift her head. It was about that point Ben stroked his spurs along the yellow bay’s ribs and the horses leapt forward as one.
It was a good thing Susan had a good hold on the mane and both reins and was leaning forward when Athena followed the charge. She would have disappeared over Athena’s rump if she hadn’t. Her posture, clinging desperately to Athena’s neck with her feet stretched along the mare’s back wasn’t exactly riding school. Athena followed close behind the others at full gallop as the lead horses crashed through the swampy creek sending clods of sodden mud flying into Susan’s face and over her pristine garb. Athena continued to follow diligently as the lead horses swerved violently to the left in pursuit of the weaving fox. Susan on the other hand didn’t follow quite so precisely.
The centrifugal force sent her spinning out of the saddle to the right and it was only the death lock around the horse’s neck that stopped her from sailing into the swamp until the next swerve rolled her back into the saddle, but when another deviation by the fox caused Athena to wheel around, Susan was flung from the saddle once more, to hang like an Indian war chief from the side of the careering horse.
Despites the hunters’ determination, the fox evaded the swinging stirrup iron and escaped down a wombat burrow to end the chase and Athena stopped, standing motionless, allowing the rider to secure a handful of mane and clamber back into the saddle like a mountain climber gaining the top ledge before the old mare trotted gently after the retreating horses.
Athena followed the horses into the yard and Norman shut the gate.
“How do I get off this thing,” Susan said from her isolation in the middle of the yard.
“Easy Sue,” Ben replied, reaching up to wrap his arm around Susan’s waist, heaved her out of the saddle and placed her unceremoniously on the ground.
“Oaf!” Susan said quietly as she staggered backwards. “And my name’s Susan!” she added a little louder.
Norman steadied her stumble. “What happened to you?” he asked taking a handkerchief from his pocket and tenderly wiping spots of mud from her face.
“Your horses did it. Your’s and Charlie’s,” she said icily. “Look! It’s all over my good clothes. Just leave me,” she added in a quavering voice that bordered on explosion. “I’ll fix it myself. Go and do your sheep thing, or whatever it is you do.”
Norman stepped back. He knew the time wasn’t right to ask how she had enjoyed her ride, and he knew it definitely wasn’t the time to point out how well Charlie had ridden while chasing the fox. He’d leave that for later. He agreed it was time now to look after the sheep.
They had drafted the mob and enjoyed a cup of tea when they readied for the count and Susan took over the gate. She had received instructions from Ben on her duties and they had been reinforced by Norman, even though she understood what she had to do, and the instructions didn’t need repeating. It wasn’t difficult; just hold the gate and let the sheep through while Ben counted them. That shouldn’t be too difficult. After all she’d seen Norman doing it earlier.
Susan held onto the gate, watching the sheep hesitate and peer through the narrow opening as they leant against the driving tide of the mob. Norman and Charlie were positioned behind the milling sheep, shouting exclamations without meaning, calling on the woolly mass to “push up”; keeping them pressed, moving towards the gate. The dog kept running over the woollen moguls, encouraging the lead sheep to move through the gate. On Ben’s instructions, Susan opened the gate slightly and the sheep moved gingerly out of the yard into the adjoining paddock, springing through the air over an invisible obstacle, spitting dust from their hooves until it became a cloud swallowing the following horde – and Susan.
Ben moved forward and started to count the fleeing sheep as the mob surged against the gate. The dog ran around the back of the pack, causing it to swirl around as the outer guard pressed to evade the canine threat. Norman and Charlie continued to wave and yell, pushing the rumps of the sheep to keep them compressed and moving forward.
During the instructions on gate keeping no one told Susan she should stand on the far side of the gate; no one told her that once the sheep started to go through the gate the whole mob would crush and surge in an attempt to be next, and no one told her that the combined pressure from a mob of sheep could be enough to make holding onto a gate an impossibility. And, definitely no one told her that a driving mob of sheep rushing past could knock your legs out from under you. She found all that out herself.
Ben’s sheep counting was legendary, but not that good. His reputed ability to count through a fully swung gate was acquired when he counted a mob while the drovers responsible for them were at lunch and counted them again when the drovers returned – the second time through a wide open gate. That time the stockmen were perplexed, but his elevated status was experiencing a plummet akin to a stock market crash with Susan lying in the dust and sheep trampling over her to get through the gate.
Norman rushed to drive the sheep away and Ben rushed to force the gate closed. They spoke simultaneously, but Norman’s “Are you alright dear?” was totally drowned out by Ben’s. “Gawd, Sue. How the hell do you expect me to count them at that rate. I’m not a miracle worker. All you have to do is hold the gate. Get on the outside and lean against it or they’ll knock you over again.”
Norman helped Susan to her feet and began brushing the dust off her new linen, once white shirt and jodhpurs, repeating his query about her welfare.
“Don’t – touch – me,” she said, annunciating each word – precise, deliberate, icy. “Just don’t touch me. And keep that vulgar brute away from me,” she added, throwing an accusing finger towards Ben who was shouting directions to the dog returning the wayward sheep to the yards. “And tell him my name is Susan – not blasted Sue!” She shouted after her retreating husband.
The stock returned and Norman took up the station on the far side of the gate, calling to Charlie to keep the mob moving towards the gate while Ben started another count.
Susan had some bruising and was a bit sore from her pommelling at the bottom of the yard, but it had been good to stand under the hot shower; it’s soft spring water sluicing the dust from her hair, her ears, her mouth, her body, the soap purging all aroma of sheep and horses.
She was still drying her hair when she walked onto the veranda into the cool air and the half-light of evening to hear Ben speaking quietly to the poddy foal about the beauty of horses as it sucked on a bottle and Ben caressed it under the chin. Susan sat on the step, working the towel through her hair as she watched the stockman gently run his hand over the foal while talking about the long peaceful rides they would take in the mountains and the brumbies they would capture.
“Want to feed him?” Ben asked, extending the bottle to Susan. She shook her head, but Ben had already reached to pull Susan from the step and place the bottle in her hand. “Come on, give it a go, It’s not hard. Just hold the bottle up like you’re feeding a baby. Stroke him and let him hear the sound of your voice.” Ben wrapped his arm around the foal’s neck, took Susan’s free hand and ran her flattened palm along the foals back. “There, that’s not hard,” he said, moving to sit back against the step. “If he gets too rough just stroke him under the chin. He enjoys that.”
“You did well today,” he continued. “I know it must have been hard, your first day and your first time in the yards. Norman tends to forget sometimes. He gets carried away with this place. If he had the opportunity he would live up here I reckon. Sometimes I think he likes it more than I do.”
“He certainly loves coming here,” Susan said.
“He has a view of this place that’s opened my eyes,” Ben said quietly. “I’ve lived in this country all my life, but he’s shown me a side I never knew existed. They say if you live in a place too long you tend to take it for granted and that certainly was true for me before Norman came along. To me it was just a lot of hills with a whole lot of trees and a few open flats between them. But your old man has shown me a whole lot more.”
“He’s certainly a romantic and waxes poetic at times,” Susan said.
“He’s even introduced me to that,” Ben laughed. “I find myself reading and quoting poetry all the time these days. But it’s not just the poetry and the books by Homer and Shakespeare and the others he’s shown me; I’d read some of that stuff already. No, it’s the special things about this place,” he said reflectively.
“It’s the land, nature, animals, birds; everything like that. I even look at the trees differently now. Before I met Norman all trees were the same to me, they had a trunk a set of branches and leaves, that’s all there was to them. But your old man doesn’t see them that way. To him each tree has its own special personality. Their trunks have individual markings and shapes, their branches are twisted into bizarre, tortured sculptures in a reflection of their growth through the seasons and their leaves come in colours ranging from iridescent green to a dull blue. He is constantly pointing out the variety of reds, browns, greens and other colours along with the different designs in the bark on tree trunks, and even the different bits of bark and leaves. He’s changed my outlook on all sorts of things.”
“Take this sunset we’re looking at, all the different colours reflected on the clouds; the reds, the yellows, the orange, the green; all painted against a backdrop of blue that extends from a pale, almost white on the horizon to purple above the clouds and a dark, blackened hue overhead,” he said. “Before I met Norman I saw thousands of sunsets and never took a lick of notice. They were just an indicator of the weather you could expect the following day, and even that wasn’t always reliable. Now, thanks to Norman, I never let one slip by without sitting here on the step, feeding a bottle to young Titus there and watching the display,” Ben said, nodding his head towards the foal.
“Each night I think of the sunsets I’ve missed, knowing that tomorrow the show will be entirely different and never be repeated. Each sunset is its own singular display. A unique spectacle without any chance of repetition or replication. You miss one, you’ve missed it for life,” Ben said, reaching to take the empty bottle as he pushed the foal away from the step.
“Without Norman I would never have realised that the daily phenomenon existed. He’s the same about everything. He sees the special inherent beauty contained in all sorts of things, even in snakes, which is a real breakthrough for him.” he laughed.
“He’s given me a whole new outlook on life,” Ben said. “He’s a great bloke; a bloke anyone would be proud to call his mate.”
The pair sat on the steps watching the changing sky in reflective silence, the scene intersected by birds winging across the sky; flights of galahs and grass parrots, silhouetted against the sunset as they headed for their night roost. They listened to the cacophony of white cockatoos and currawongs comparing notes on the day’s activities and arguing over the coveted roosting spots. They heard the far away call of the plovers and the orchestra of frogs as the day gave way to the night. They watched the first stars hang in the void as the darkening sky pushed towards the horizon.
“You pair ready to eat?” Norman called from the bowels of the house, destroying the serenity on the veranda.
“You didn’t let Norman prepare dinner did you?” Susan asked with alarm. “What are we having?”
“He likes to cook,” Ben replied, unwinding from his position on the steps. “We’re having casserole, I believe.”
“Not at home he doesn’t,” she said, adding quickly, “You don’t have any gladioli bulbs in the house do you?”
“No, why?” Ben asked from the top of the steps.
“Oh, nothing,” Susan said innocently as she ascended the stairs, wrapped her arms around Ben’s forearm, squeezed it tightly and said, “I’m glad you’re Norman’s friend.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Ben replied as the pair disappeared through the door.