For Barbara Baynton
Beth gets up early and puts the kettle on the stove to boil. It’s too hot for slippers or a dressing gown and she stands in the kitchen in her slip, inspecting her teeth with her tongue. She didn’t brush them last night – a bad habit of hers. Without Pete and without much to do she has become lazy.
She’s often alone on the farm. Stretching out her legs to the sound of tin clanging and wind. There have been two crops now that haven’t harvested well, and the air is reaching out for rain. Pete has to leave often – to Woomelang, to Beulah, to Melbourne. He’s trying to meet with the right bank: someone who has faith in farmers, who understands Australian farms. When he gets back his face is so tired she wants to hold it up for him. He’s sad that no one seems to understand.
She has dreamt of wheat three nights in a row. When she wakes up, she looks first to see whether there are tiny cuts on her hands from stroking the golden stems. Each morning her hands have been soft, dull. She wishes the dreams were real and Pete’s body was here, next to her; that he was sleeping well instead of tossing and calling out as he does these days.
She lay in bed from the afternoon yesterday and only got out to put baked beans in the microwave. The bowl is still sitting on the bedside table – she can picture the congealed red sauce she will have to scrub at later.
There are slight messes in each room she has used: a puddle of clothes in the bathroom, a half-read book folded over beside the bath, a plate and wine glasses waiting patiently in the lounge, her doona a sleeping animal on the couch. She will clean it all up the morning before Pete is due back. No point now, when it is just her, with the weight of heat and boredom in each limb.
Telly in the morning. If she wasn’t supposed to be having a break, now that the men had gone and there were no lunches to be made or teas to be brewed in thermoses, she would feel she has given up. But it is all over, for now, and she likes to watch the morning news shows.
She flicks between each beaming face. She can’t watch these shows for long, but when she does there is a certain permission she gets to stop worrying. It feels good for a little while.
The telly also puts off the tasks she promised herself she would tackle today: ringing her mum, ringing her sister to ask after her new, tiny niece, and booking Jonah the sheepdog in to see the vet. He has a gluey eye and she doesn’t want Pete to come home to a blind pet.
She’s never liked calling receptions to book in for things. It brings anxiety from where it hides in her belly up to her chest. She wishes there was internet here and she could do everything online. She would email her mother if she could. Dear Mum, I’m okay. I hope you are too. Love, Beth. She imagines her mother’s replies to be like her: exacting, impenetrable. To Beth, thank you for your email. I was glad to receive it. We are going along. Mother.
She takes Jonah for a late morning walk, over the hill in the closest paddock towards the dried up dam. It looks like a crater now, and the earth is buttery yellow in its creases. She feels lonely whenever she walks over here. Even with Jonah panting and crying just a little beside her, she feels like she is the only one on Earth. Apocalyptic, the Mallee could be. The end of the world seemed to have been and gone, and what was left was dehydrated.
The end of the world seemed to have been and gone, and what was left was dehydrated.
She told Pete this once when they had walked this way together at dusk, and she had worn thongs and dust had covered her toes. He had not understood, she could tell by the almost laugh he made when she said that the empty dam made her feel alone. Pete didn’t feel lonely; Pete was at ease with the realities of the world, and did not imagine. He had taken her hand though, and kissed it warmly and thickly and long. She had reminded herself, she still does, that that was enough.
Jonah’s milky eye is not so milky today, and Beth decides he can wait, as he does dislike the car and the road and the vet, and she is feeling anxious in her fingers and along her arms, like pins and needles. They sit together on the balcony and eat a sort of lunch – Beth a chunk of watermelon, Jonah a chunk of Pal. Then Jonah falls asleep, or at least closes his eyes and turns inwards from the day, and Beth has nothing to do and no one, and the sun is grey.
She is picking up the bowls to take them inside when she sees movement from the corner of her eye. Beth stands and looks out past the front gate to where a tall figure is standing. The figure is too far for her to see detail, and when she puts her hand up to shield her face from the sun, the figure moves, then waves just a little with its hand.
She can see she will have to say hello to this person, who is now moving towards her and Jonah and the verandah. And she is only dressed in her pyjama shorts and one of Pete’s old wife beaters – how she hates that word but it sticks – with her hair tied up to avoid a shower.
Beth wonders who would be visiting while Pete is away. They have few friends around here, and the men who help Pete with the crops know that he has gone to try and get some money. They have no work because of it, and Beth expects they are at home cracking open midday beers or down at the Watchupga pub, not wasting time visiting Pete’s girl and his dog.
As the figure nears, she sees that it is Bryce, one of the younger men who helped Pete out last crop. She recognises his arms first, the tired look of the skin and the length – as long as water pipes. He walks in a strange way, Bryce, as though his arms are dead weights and they are pulling him forward. They are too long for him, even such a tall man.
She’s barely spoken to Bryce and doesn’t remember what he is like. There are so many men through the house during those months that she only really remembers the friendly ones, the flirty ones, the ones who cause problems or help out in little ways with winks.
She does remember Bryce would stare sometimes when he arrived with the others for his morning tea, holding his afternoon stubby in his hand. He had stared until she looked at him, and that was it. She had felt him liking her body with his eyes, but he hadn’t held on.
Now he’s seen that she’s seen him, and she’ll have to wait here and say hello. The opportunity to hide and pretend she is not here has gone, so she braces herself for human contact like an actor off-stage – gritted, purposeful. He’s moving along quite quickly now, and Jonah has heard the gate open and has lifted his tired old head. Jonah is indiscriminately warm, and his tail starts wagging as he lies there, banging against the hardwood as if he is scared, rather than happy for a new face, the possibility of pats.
She smiles as Bryce nears her in the small front farm garden, pulling aside plum tree branches.
‘Hello,’ she says.
He doesn’t really smile. Not quite. The effort isn’t there, and his mouth only moves slightly upwards. She sees that his eyes are circled in dark and he stops just beyond the verandah, nodding a little, as if they had planned to meet here.
He doesn’t really smile. Not quite. The effort isn’t there, and his mouth only moves slightly upwards.
‘Hey.’ He smiles, a little now, at himself, eyes towards the ground.
Jonah jumps off the verandah and wags around Bryce’s legs: panting, huffing, wobbling. Beth watches Bryce’s hand reach down to pat him, and wonders what she is supposed to do.
There is silence, and it is hot, and Jonah is the only one moving. Then Bryce clicks his tongue. ‘Thought I’d see how you were going. With Pete away.’
This seems fine. Beth’s heart breathes just a little in her chest and she gives him her best face. ‘Wow, thank you! You didn’t have to come out all this way. But thanks. I’m fine.’
She wants him to know that she is fine, that the words are real and her and Jonah are ruling this space with their eyes closed, like two wise farmers in overalls and straw hats, like weather-beaten men with few words but hands that could skin a goat.
‘We’re fine.’ She bends down and gives Jonah a swift pat.
‘Cool. Well I’m just down the road.’
He looks at her straight on for the first time. They stand for some seconds, looking. Jonah musses at their feet.
‘If you need anything.’
Beth nods, and smiles again. Her face feels old. She watches Bryce kick the dirt a little with his feet, and then he leaves, after they say goodbye to each other and she thanks him again, and he pats Jonah, who swoons.
She notes as she walks back inside the house that there is something about Bryce that makes her feel like having a shower. He has a quiet sleaze about him that warrants asking Pete to tell him to kindly piss off when he is back. In the meantime, she decides, she will keep busy.
Nights on the farm are so quiet that Beth does not like to disturb them with music or television, and when she can’t sleep she does not even like to wake Jonah in case he whines or barks. There’s a certainty to the quiet that she has grown to like since Pete left in the ute, taking his snoring and restless legs and sleep-talking with him. Beth is used to trying to find the good in things that are not good, and being alone each night on this farm is beautiful in its simplicity.
Beth is used to trying to find the good in things that are not good, and being alone each night on this farm is beautiful in its simplicity.
Tonight she cooks herself a proper dinner and then reads until the moon stops lighting her page and Jonah has fallen into a slumber in the living room on his bed. She is tired, and decides she will sleep early because there is nothing else to do, and it’s not so warm that she can’t get in under the covers.
She’s been sleeping easily, since Pete’s body hasn’t been warming too much of the space beside her, and enjoying the time in bed with her legs diagonal to her arms, her head on all the pillows. It’s lonely and satisfying, having the bed to oneself.
As she settles down between the sheets, feeling her messy teeth with her tongue, Beth hears something break the quiet. It’s not Jonah, and it’s not another dog come to visit. It sounds like something crunching against the ground – like human.
She gets colder, quickly, and then hot, her body now very still beneath the cotton covers. She remembers to breathe, and strains her ears to hear if there is anything more, or if she has imagined it. The crunch comes again. Behind her out the window someone is walking. She can tell now, and can almost hear breathing that isn’t hers, another heartbeat.
Suddenly Jonah is in the room, growling softly near the door, then right next to her head, panting and whimpering. She reaches out her hand and places it on his head, willing him to know that this means quiet. He stills, and Beth can again listen for whatever is out there.
She is angry now, at Pete, for leaving her here over and over, because he cares too much about something that is so clearly dead. She feels like she is the owner of this farm now, while he is sleeping somewhere with more lights and more unassuming noises and threats that he could protect himself from anyway.
She is strong, she has known that since she was a teenager. But that doesn’t mean there are not people stronger. And men, she reminds herself, her hands becoming fists under the sheet, are almost always physically stronger.
She is strong, she has known that since she was a teenager. But that doesn’t mean there are not people stronger.
The noise has stopped. It has been at least five minutes, and Jonah has fallen asleep beside the bed. Beth lets the breath that has been waiting in her chest out her nose, slowly. She enjoys the feeling of her body starting to relax again, as if it is deflating, or defrosting. Then another noise hits her and she is up in the bed and Jonah is growling full and long now, on his feet, biting at the air.
She gets out of bed, not slowly. She doesn’t care if whoever is out there knows that she knows they are there. She is fed up with all of this. Sorry for herself for trying so hard. She pulls on some tracksuit pants and walks straight to the cupboard in the hall where the cricket bat and wicket and balls are kept, Jonah at her feet. The cricket bat is buried, and she can still hear the crunches of what are certainly footsteps as she pulls it out, telling herself she will use it. She is very alone, though she loves chubby Jonah beside her.
Now the footsteps are not crunches. They are just footsteps and she sees a figure move past the little window in the hallway. It’s a man – she can tell by the movement. The black shadow has a force that wants to push her backwards. She holds it back with her feet, which are bare, and which she now covers with the boots she slips on at the door.
In the kitchen she tells Jonah to stay. He understands; he is a good dog. He lies down and flops his head against his paws. She wonders if his reticence should be hers, that she should also agree to leave things be, as long as she possibly can, but then the noise is there again and she does not want to be the one trying to push back an intruder, so she kisses Jonah’s head and rubs his neck and leaves him.
Outside on the veranda the night isn’t so dark. Beth holds the cricket bat up against her chest so that she can make a mean silhouette if she needs to. She stomps along the side of the house, not letting herself be quiet or slow in her movements. She expects to see the man at any moment, and is sure that it is Bryce – long, dangerous, like a leech in the mud. Around the corner is the plum tree and she almost knows he is waiting just there.
When she rounds the corner he is there, just in front of her, closer than she imagined and smelling of bad beer and the last bitter puff of a cigarette. Her heart is telling her to get away from him, screaming out silently in her chest. The cricket bat doesn’t feel helpful or clever now, it just feels like she is encumbered and he is not.
She finds her voice. ‘What are you doing here?’ Tries to make it soft, almost friendly, as if she doesn’t assume he will rape her soon, or kill her. Better to give him a chance to change his mind.
He laughs a little, with the side of his mouth, and kicks the grass, or the dirt, or something she can’t see. The light of the moon sits perfectly on his face, his long body. She is meant to see who he is. He looks up at her and shrugs his shoulders. Bastard, she thinks. He knows he doesn’t even need a reason.
The light of the moon sits perfectly on his face, his long body. She is meant to see who he is.
‘I could hear you walking out here. I can hear when someone is outside.’
This feels like something a man would say, to another man. He’ll think she is silly for trying to warn him. What does it matter, that she can hear him, that he is not invisible? He knows this, probably prefers it this way.
She is starting to feel helpless now, and the feeling is a weight in her torso that is dropping to her groin. It reminds her that she is mostly a body. That there is another body standing in her boyfriend’s garden. That she would do well to go inside and try to lock as many of the doors as there are keys for.
‘I’m just checking in on you.’ He smirks. Or is it his way of trying to look friendly? She can’t know because she has never been given a chance to observe him properly, and now he is here, upon her.
Beth’s body decides to take action. She steps forward, maybe to show him she isn’t completely afraid, or to muck up his stupid rhythm. Then she taps the cricket bat at the ground twice, and smiles down at it.
‘Thought you were a stranger.’ She nods her head at the bat, looks up at him. Hopes he will understand that she is telling him he is not a stranger, that he is expected to act accordingly.
‘Yeah,’ he answers, hands in pockets now, smiling again. ‘You can’t be too careful. A woman out here on her own.’
Beth’s throat curls up at that. She hates him.
‘I was just checking in.’
Whatever it is, he leaves now. She can’t believe how easily he slinks out of the front gate, waving and whistling lightly as he gets into his ute. She has never known what to expect of men; can’t even truly trust Pete’s ministrations, his utterances, the adoration he proclaims to hold for her mind and her heart and the architecture of her body.
Her instincts have been known to be slightly off – friends have been amazed by her choices and her conclusions, and she has reached out for safety and received danger more than once. But this time it feels as if perhaps she has called Bryce’s bluff. It feels as if she has won, though there will be many more battles.
She walks inside on surer feet. It will be morning soon, and she feels like she will be able to tackle things better than yesterday, for whatever reason. She will start by making herself a tea, with sugar. Jonah is waiting patiently in the kitchen.