It was all going so well, this date with Francine. Then I bogged the Valiant. I mean, I should have known what was happening straight away, but Francine was taking all my attention. I was showing her the farm, the whole ninety-five acres. It looks like more, though. They’re all single paddocks, stacked end on end, running between a road that comes off the highway and a railtrack that runs on to Horsham. The other side of the tracks, it’s all Mahoney’s land. Miles of sheep.
I know what you’re thinking. Showing a girl the farm, what a great first date. I should have taken Francine to the coast: milkshakes, fish and chips from Jimmy’s and then a movie at the Capitol. Something funny, like that new one with Bill Murray. Groundhog Day. But throw a tank of fuel on that and I’m up for fifty bucks. Well, that’s part of the problem. Ninety-five acres gives you all of the work of Mahoney’s land with none of the money come sale time. We tried running everything here, but none of it came through. These smallholdings are okay if you’re a doctor or a lawyer from the city playing farmer on weekends, but for us they’re just holes in our boots and two-tooth stew.
So I’m stone-motherless broke and showing Francine the farm, which truth be told is pretty in winter, before the stock eats everything to the dirt and we’re paying through the nose for hay. I drive real slow to the end of it and Francine goes, “Oh!”
I’m thinking how Chrysler Corp. made it hard for guys like me with these big bench seats. They look cosy and all, but they’re about a paddock wide. I’d need arms like Andre the Giant if I wanted to reach ‘round Francine’s shoulders. “Yeah?” I say.
“Up there.” She points to the bull gum at the top paddock, where the rail and road cross over and dock our acreage to a triangle point. It’s one of two trees on our working land, the other being a willow in the bottom paddock, the one that’s mostly marsh ‘cept in summer. I reckon the old man might run his chainsaw through the gum this winter or the next, before it sheds a branch on our fence-line. When you’ve got ninety-five acres you need all the flat dirt and free firewood you can get.
At first I don’t know what Francine’s talking about. I ratchet the wipers up a crank, and see the eagle just as it divebombs. Its wing fringes fold back and it drops, fast. Something small and grey flips into the air and then the eagle is on it. “All she wrote,” I say.
Francine just about has her nose smeared against the passenger window. Her breath fogs up her view, and she shifts forward and scrubs the window clean with the arm of her jumper. I can smell woolwash and perfume over the old man’s rollie butts and the dog sacks in the back of the wagon. Eucalyptus and something floral. “You gonna get your jumper filthy,” I say. “I can’t remember when those windows got washed last.”
She turns to me. Francine’s got these big features—lamplight eyes, chin like a man—but her mouth’s gone small and there’re patches on her cheeks. She’s beautiful. “Can we stop?” she asks. “I want to see it take off again.”
So I pull over. I see a stock truck rattling in the rear vision mirror, and without thinking I pull over too far. Course, I don’t notice – I’m thinking that if I stop the car I can scoot over the vinyl a little and that’s making me nervous. Not nervous like being cooped in the house with the old man all day while he makes work on a carton of tallboys, but nervous like my arms’ve suddenly grown too big for me to use properly. I can’t stop glancing at how Francine’s watching for the eagle, how her red cheeks have balanced out her face just right.
The eagle launches. In its claws, four rabbit paws flap at a place in the paddock where things just went wrong. It strikes for the gum, and there’s another eagle up there, waiting for it to bring dinner home. I say the first thing that pops into my head, which is, “I hope them eagles are gone by spring or they gunna be dodging loads of four-ten to get at those rabbits.” Then I hear what I just said and screw up my eyes a little. Francine keeps watching the birds and although it’s her turn to say something she doesn’t. Meanwhile the Valiant is sinking into the shoulder of the road and I’m thinking about the best path across the vinyl. So I try again.
“Let’s get closer,” I say to Francine. Her cheek bunches into a smile. Yeah. That’s when I fire up the Valiant and hear the slipping sound of wheels digging themselves to China and the day turns to shit.
I cut the gas before I bury the fucker up to the axles. Swear and lean against the wheel a little. “What’s wrong?” Francine asks. She’s grown up around here and all. This marshy land, in the middle of winter, you can bog anything. I seen three tractors bogged trying to get the first one out, like that family that got caught in the rip down the coast, kept trying to save each other until they ran out of swimmers.
“Ah, won’t take a moment. Might need you to scoot across here and drive, though. Don’t worry, it’s a column shift.” I get out and have a look. Maybe I can push it out? But the first time I try to rock it, I sink into the shoulder halfway to my knees. My old Blunnies fill with mud. So I try another tack. In fact, I try several: let the tyres down a bit, even twist the dog sacks in the back into crude rope, but I can’t get enough purchase under the drive wheels. Eventually I climb back into the dry and slump on the bench seat, squeaking against it, and close the door against my legs to keep the cold out. The old man’d kill me if I got mud everywhere. Francine doesn’t look happy either.
“Look,” I tell her, “I’ll run home and get the four-by-four. Drag us out of here in a jiff.”
“I’m meant to be home by six. I’m meant to have dinner ready when my parents get in.”
“Well, it’s too far to walk. It’d take you best parter two hours.”
She frowns at her watch, then up at me. Those red patches on her cheeks have long gone. They’re milk white now. “Why don’t I come with you? You could take me home before you come back here. Or at least I could ring home. We got a machine.”
I nearly tell her that’s no good because our phone got cut off. Which would be pretty silly given I rang her to ask her out yesterday afternoon. Instead, I say, “Prolly my old man’s gonna be too cut to drive anything, so I’m gonna need you to follow me down the road in this. Besides, chances are someone with a tow rope might go past while I’m gone and it won’t help if no-one’s here to steer the car while they pull it out.” Francine peers out at the sodden gloom. I should’ve told her I didn’t want her to get wet. Too late. “I’ll be back, have this out inside half an hour. Have you home in less than forty-five.”
She frowns at her watch again. “You better promise it’s less than forty-five.”
“Yeah,” I sigh. “Will do.”
The real reason I don’t want Francine to come back with me is most likely planted behind a forest of bottles in the kitchen. See, I never asked the old man for the Valiant to take Francine on a date. I did tell him I planned to meet some of the footy team for a bit of kick-to-kick. It’s true I do play, sometimes. But we’re the league whipping post, can’t hardly field a full team, sometimes forfeit, sometimes three or four short and half of them phlegmy farmers red-faced and staggering five minutes into each quarter. These pennants from thirty years ago hanging over our heads.
A few times a year I kick a goal and face it, whoever kicks a goal gets into our best, so there’ll be my name in the Tuesday paper. It’s the only time I get a smile from the old man. “You done good there,” he’ll say through a mouthful of lamb and cheese sandwich. But I know why he gets happy over that. It ain’t me. It’s the name. Keep our name good around, and some of the big farmers throw out a bit of fencing work here, a couple of weeks rouseabouting there. See, when you run double-figure acreage without being a doctor or a lawyer, that’s what puts the bread and cheese around your lamb.
That’s why I run myself ragged every winter: a surname and an initial in the paper. Those pennants and a bunch of farmers all moo-eyed about the past, wondering why all their kids bolted for the city and bitter as fuck they don’t have the moxy to do it themselves. I see people burning all sorts of flags on telly and I wonder how quick those pennants would go up if you touched a match to ‘em.
So I’m thinking this jogging squelch squelch home and hoping the old man’s left the keys in the four-by-four but no, that’d be too fucking easy. He’s in the kitchen. Smoke twists in the air. There are five empty tallboys on the laminex and he’s working on the sixth. He started at lunchtime and usually after a few hours he drinks himself asleep, but it must be a lean week.
“You’re late,” he slurs. Something mean squirts out of the radio. “Didn’t hear the car, either.”
“Yeah,” I say, scanning the table for his keys. “Had some trouble with it. Got stuck up by the top dam.”
“Well, I been waiting for you to fry up some of them chops ‘n spuds.”
I was hoping, seeing he was sitting here all afternoon, he might have moved the twenty feet from the table to the fridge to the stove. Course, I don’t say this. I’m thinking about dinner here and dinner at Francine’s and how one of us is on track for a hiding. “It’s getting dark and the Valiant’s on the side of the road. I don’t want to leave it there ‘til morning with the stock trucks barrelling past.”
The old man grunts. He’s told me before that he’s proud he’s got a farm car and a town car, no matter how bad things get. “So go fix it, then.”
“It’s bogged. Need the ute up there to pull it out.”
The old man shakes his head, like it’s my fucking fault we live a foot above the water table. Then he stands and pulls the keys from his pocket. “Let’s go then.”
“It’s coming down pretty hard. And there’s a highway cop been pulling people over near the pub today.” It’s the second lie I told in an hour, but this one’s thudding in my chest.
He shows me a row of stained teeth. “I want my dinner before morning. Get in the car.”
He’s wandering all over the median, even though the road’s straighter than a Mahoney fenceline. I don’t say anything. He grunts again, cranks the airvents to full, rubs a big cracked hand over his face. Cold air whips around the cab and my clothes bloody near set into a suit of ice, but I still don’t say anything. I’m thinking of what to say about what happened without setting him off but my head’s just damp and cold air. Nothing.
I’m signalling for Francine to stay in the Valiant. It’s pretty much dark and the old man’s drunk enough to not notice her, but of course she’s full of country manners and he near keels over when she gets out. He shakes her hand and his eyes roll yellow at me.
“I’m really sorry if I’ve caused any–”
“No trouble.” His lips are pressed and now we’re all lying. Sure as the sun rolls around, I’m gonna hear about this. “Silly bloody place,” he says to me. “What made you pull over here?”
Francine must think he’s still talking to her, because she opens her mouth. I bunch my face and shake my head. What does she want, feathers for a bloody Cup Day hat? Because if she mentions those eagles I’m spending the evening here, holding a spotlight while the old man plugs wood with the three-o-three.
He sees my little head-shake. “Francine, you should get out of the rain.” To me, he just says, “Rope.” Yeah, I’m tying it.
When I finish he says, “Now untie it and do it properly.”
Course, I should’ve just done what he said. But I’m wet and cold and he’s making me do things twice in front of Francine like I’m a little kid. “It’s tied good enough,” I say.
My nose feeling chopped off is the first I realise he’s clouted me one. “Don’t be a smartarse,” he snarls. Then my ear goes whing and I’m staggering over to the Valiant. “That’s for lying.” He’s always had arms like a tiger snake. You’d think after eighteen years of getting whacked I’d be able to dodge, but no.
For a second, I think I’m gonna fly him. Francine’s face is a white blur behind the glass. But where would I go? No money, no dinner, wet clothes. So I retie the tow-rope. Thin blood makes hashes on the rainsoaked backs of my hands.
We pull the Valiant out. The old man drives Francine home, back to her parent’s fifty acres. You can bet if that was Emma Mahoney instead of Francine in the car the old man’s hands wouldn’t have swung so fast at me. She might tell her dad or something. But Emma Mahoney’s away at uni, and what would she be doing in a Valiant with a deadshit like me, anyway. I don’t know what the old man says to Francine, but she doesn’t call again. But those eagles are smarter than I thought. I never do see them come back.
‘Smallholdings’ won the Grace Marion Wilson Prize, and was first published in The Victorian Writer.