– Runner-up of the 2018 Grace Marion Wilson Prize for Fiction –
It was hard to hear Vanessa’s voice over the phone. There was a bit of background noise – she was at a champagne breakfast or something. Plus, as usual, coverage wasn’t great at the farm. He wanted to hear how it was all going, what she thought of his new play and how much she missed him but all she kept talking about was Binky. Binky. He asks her if Binky’s parents are koalas but she doesn’t find it funny. Binky, she answers, has just been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and everyone is reading his work. It seems to resonate, she says. People are yearning for this type of thing. Peter had read the blurb for Binky’s book. It was about a retired Cold War spy moving to the Lake District and falling in love with a woman who raised goats. He couldn’t imagine how anyone could relate to that – apart from retired spies or goat fans – especially when the author was some sort of weirdo marsupial.
But Vanessa doesn’t listen. She says that Binky’s writing is beautiful, his descriptions of the landscape so evocative that local hotels can’t keep up with avid readers rushing to find the place where Spencer McLaren first spied the beautiful Maisie Jones and her goats.
Peter holds the phone away from his ear. He can’t stand this type of talk and the thought of Binky makes him want to punch something very hard. Had Binky cast some sort of stupid spell on Vanessa? She wasn’t normally so inarticulate. She must be drunk, he decides, and when he asks her, she says that yes, she is – very much so – and she must hang up the phone because she wants to drink some more.
He says goodbye, puts the phone back in his pocket and feels for the first time the full force of distance between them. Five hours drive to Melbourne, a day on a plane and an hour on the tube to Kilburn. Thirty hours, say, not including wait time for some storm hovering over the city or a terrorist scare. He squints toward the drive. It is even a good twenty-minute walk to get to the gate. He sighs. ‘I may as well be in Pura Pura,’ he says in his best theatre voice. ‘But hang on a minute,’ he continues, ‘I am in Pura Pura. What a fucking coincidence!’
He laughs a kind of crazy laugh and remembers when Vanessa last called his work beautiful. It seems an eternity, but in reality, it would have been five years ago, when he first moved to London. He’d written a play called ‘Prints’ about a dying man, reliving his past, looking a photographs of the landmarks that surrounded his home: a low hill, parched paddocks, dank dams and the troubling scars in the canoe tree. ‘Prints’ was an instant success. He won the Australian Emerging Playwrights’ prize and within a week was on a plane to London, economy class packed with Contiki tourists, business class chocked with cricketers and ex-‘Neighbours’ stars, all headed for the Euro dream.
He picks up the bottle of scotch beside him, stolen from his father’s house, and takes three large slugs. Bloody Binky with his fluffy ears and his big paws trying to write his next book. Good luck with that one, mate. He drinks more, coining some advice he’d give to Binky if he had the chance: stick to your own country and write about things that your fellow country men and women understand.
The Brits get cold war spies. They don’t get isolation unless it includes a serial killer and they don’t get beauty unless there’s a little cottage and a running stream or some girl reaping wheat. It’s got to be manageable beauty for them, beauty to behold. The French don’t get humour. The Saudis don’t get fun.
Stick to what you know, isn’t that the great tenet of writing, after all? ‘Prints’ had been popular among the judges and acclaimed throughout the Australian literary scene. His one success. But, he knows, a major part of the appeal for the metro critics had been his rural charm. His kid-from-the-sticks freckles and his big handshake, his ‘how you going, mate?’ type conversations. It was more than that, too, because in their pale critic eyes, he could see a kind of longing. In this country, doesn’t every man secretly want to be from the bush, like Clancy of the Overflow? What greater honour is there in Australia than riding down some mountain on a brumby at break-neck speed? What greater honour? He takes another slug, alarmed to feel a sob coming on.
He can already see that his new play will be a failure. No one wants to read comedies, especially satirical ones set in Syria. What did Vanessa always tell him? Write about what you love.
Suddenly, Peter crumples like a third-world building. His poorly constructed self lies broken on the earth and he cries a little through his nose. He kicks off his shoes, wriggles out of his black jacket and discards his tie. He lies in the warm brown dirt feeling the sun warm his face. He runs his fingers through the soil and thinks about nothing. He moves his arms up and down, he digs his heels into the dirt. He makes little castles in the dust. He rolls onto his stomach and back again. He rolls onto his stomach and back again. And then he’s rolling, rolling in the dirt. He’s rolling, rolling in the dirt and it’s just one of the best things he’s done in ages. His face is getting gritty – sharp grass scratches his cheeks and there are granules in his eyes. He’s flattening the earth, then roughing it up, getting it all over him. His black pants and white shirt are brown and red and he doesn’t care. He doesn’t bloody care! He’s on his stomach now, poking out his tongue and licking the earth. It’s gritty and hard and gets stuck in the back of his teeth. He spits a globule onto the ground and moves it about with his finger, making a dark red paste.
He remembers doing this as a boy. He pokes his tongue out again and has another taste. It’s no better, but it’s no worse. He lies on his side, knees up to his chest like a child and once more he thinks of nothing, just feels the little stones in his mouth and ears and the sand between his fingers and the sky is big and blue and the wind is low.
It’s been two weeks since his mother’s heart attack. She wouldn’t like to see him roll about in the dirt like this, but still he doesn’t get up.
Maybe he is his father’s son after all. Heart attack in the roses as she sprinkled them with grey water from the shower. Collapsed among the Holy Toledos, the Yvonne Kennys and the Wedding Belles. Years ago, she’d visited him in England, and he’d taken her on a tour of the famous rose gardens of London. Although they’d enjoyed their time together, he sensed her fretting the whole time, for her Holy Toledos, her Yvonne Kennys and her Wedding Belles. Peter suspects that when the time comes she would prefer to be buried under her roses, making herself into compost for them but he doesn’t suggest the idea. Not yet.
His father has taken the heart attack badly. It’s a rare farmer that considers the health of his wife before the farm and now his old man is facing the thought of what the next few years may hold. Like it or not, he’s come to the realisation that it wasn’t only the roses she kept alive all this time. And that question this morning from the family lawyer; ‘What Do You Want To Do With The Farm?’ – the deflated way his father looked at him … it’s another reason, he admits, why he finds himself drinking scotch and rolling about on the bare earth.
Peter can’t decide whether that look from his father was an improvement on the wary one his mother gave him when he visited her in hospital. He bent to kiss her and felt her move away, slightly, as if he was being overly familiar. Had they really been strangers for so long? Her hands looked paper thin and he touched one of them, feeling the dry skin crackle under his touch. He remembers those hands rubbing big circles on his back to help him sleep when he was a boy. Big warm circles and a half-remembered song about a mouse. In the hospital, with all the tubes and machines, it would have been difficult to attempt a big warm circle on her, impossible really, but he did think about it. Instead, he tried to regale her with gossip from the London theatre scene and news about his latest play, but this fell flat.
It was only when he mentioned Vanessa that his mother’s face seemed to loosen and her eyes focus on him. The two women got along very well when they met in London. Because, of course, it was grandchildren that she was after, little people running around the farm and feeding lambs with a bottle. ‘Wedding bells?’ he thought he heard his mother whisper, but he wasn’t sure whether she meant marriage or her rose bushes. In any case, he had no answer – he hadn’t fed her plants the whole time he’d been home. He digs his fingers into the soil, he makes circles in the dirt.
A scene comes to him. He’s twelve years old and sent to call his father in for tea. He trudges up the paddocks, thinking about the book he is reading, wishing himself away, when he sees his father kneeling beside a fence, tightening the wires. He goes to call out to him but stops when the man drops the tool he’s working with, clasps both hands together and rests them on top of the fence. Peter opens his mouth again but no words come. He watches and waits, half afraid of intruding. His father is staring across the paddocks, at the shadows widening and the orange ball of a sun descending fast. His weather-beaten skin is golden in the dying light and the expression on his face, radiant. In this scene, his father is not deflated. He is something completely the opposite.
Peter lets this image recede, then rolls onto his back. He opens his eyes and is horribly startled to see the large form of Ian Drummond, his father’s nearest neighbour, looming above. ‘Peter Finch,’ the big man says. ‘Well, fuck me sideways.’
‘Not if I can help it,’ he answers, words made difficult with the scotch and the dirt.
‘So, you’re back.’
‘The prodigal sun shining out of his arse.’
‘Been back long?’ Ian asks.
‘Shit, I didn’t know.’
‘Sorry to hear about your mother,’ Ian says.
‘Hope she pulls through ok.’
‘Yeah, well …’
‘Good woman and not a bad sort in her time.’
‘She’s not dead you know,’ Peter says.
‘Would have had a crack at her myself only had Beverley heavy breathing down my neck for most of the 70s. Hard enough keeping up with her carnal demands let alone your mother’s’.
Ian points to his gut. ‘God’s gift mate, god’s gift.’
‘Shit,’ Peter says, fumbling for the scotch ‘Whatever happened to some nice towels?’
He lifts his head and shoulders from the ground like a wounded soldier and has a sip before offering it up to Ian, who gives a sideward nod to indicate the stubbie of beer in his hand. In rural Australia, Peter thinks, it’s sufficient to communicate with nods, shakes and small flicks of the finger, himself giving Ian a sideward nod, inviting him to sit down next to him. Ian shakes his head. Peter shrugs. The two men drink deeply. The sun sinks on the horizon. It’s orange and yellow and the dams are pink shimmering lakes. Peter thinks about his father kneeling beneath such a sky. He leans up onto one elbow and takes a risk; ‘Ian,’ he says more drunkenly than he feels, ‘have you ever thought that it’s kind of holy how people feel about this land?’
Ian gives him a downwards, sidewards glance and burps. ‘How the fuck would I know?’ he says. ‘I’m a lapsed Catholic married to a Church of England sex addict. I’m not Stephen Hawking, you know.’
‘I don’t think even he’d know that.’
‘He knows everything there is to know, mate. Everything. Don’t believe the dribbling vegetable hype. I’ve seen the shows.’ Ian necks the rest of his can and throws it at a mob of sheep in the next paddock. ‘Seen all the shows,’ he says again. ‘But I tell you what he might say, or write, or whatever the fuck it is he does into that machine. He might say that we here live in a pretty nice spot of the universe. And he might tell us not to fuck it up by being the general fuck heads we are. That’s my ten cents worth for you.’
Peter is impressed. He likes a succinct argument. But there’s a message in there somewhere for him … or one coming. It is. Ian speaks.
‘Now I dunno what this rolling around in the dirt is all about. Maybe it’s some hippy Stonehenge shit you’ve got yourself into over there, but you might consider staying longer this time. Keep your old man company, help him out a bit. He’s not getting any younger and there’s only so many times I can drive over to show him how to use the new pump. Stay. You can do more of your rolling around. Even give the seconds a shot.’
Peter remembers playing football, all that half-hearted dancing around the pack and the fumbled marks. ‘They wouldn’t have me,’ he says. ‘Not even in the seconds.’
‘You’re right. They’re only bottom of the ladder, not terminal. Well, come and be a water boy if it’s not too much trouble for a Pommy dickhead like your fine self.’
‘I’ll think about it.’
‘And, for chrissake, get rid of the black suit. You look like some sort of shithouse spy,’ Ian says, nodding down at him. Peter nods up at him in return. Then the big man walks off, heading towards the house, giving a backwards wave with his big meaty hand. Peter rests one cheek in the dirt and watches till his father’s friend is a black speck shimmering in the heat.
What Do You Want To Do With The Farm?
He thinks about growing up and the old black-and-white photos of his family members and the stories of droughts and fires and locusts. He thinks about his parents telling him to stop reading and to help with the drenching, the shearing, the lambing and the fencing. He thinks about the fact that he’s an only child. He thinks about all that bullshit about his great, great grandfather settling the land and clearing it and making it profitable, about his great grandfather building the house and raising the money for the little bush school. All the bullshit that ignored the scars in the canoe trees and the perfect rocks smoothed into carved edges that the header sometimes pulled up. All that ignorant white bullshit that he scorned in Melbourne and London that now he couldn’t ignore and yet couldn’t reject outright.
He didn’t want the farm, didn’t want it, didn’t want it! And yet – now, he does. This farm, this land the brown soil, he wants to be part of it. He’s tired of resisting the urge and tired of travelling, which surely is another word for escape. He could live here on the farm with his old man and help out, learn about the seasons, grow some more trees. Despite what the doctors say, his mother could pull through and he could help her run the place, build a watering system for the roses and whatnot. He could come up here and lie like this, think about another play. Vanessa could hang up her high heels, move here and try her hand at farming – well, why not? He could try to find out who lived on this land before his greatgreat- grandfather and what they did. Forget his equine allergy, he could learn to ride a horse! It could work, it could all work.
Finally, as night closes in over the paddocks, he thinks of Binky and how perhaps Vanessa is right. That a man, an object of suspicion and fear, a man brought in from the cold to warmth and beauty and love might indeed be a story worthy of merit. As a fiction, it might even be beautiful.
About Margaret Hickey
Margaret Hickey is a playwright and author from North East Victoria. Her plays have been performed in regional Victoria, Brisbane, Melbourne and New York. Her short stories have been published in literary journals and have won prizes in several competitions.
Margaret has worked as an English and theatre studies teacher and a university lecturer. She has recently submitted her PhD on depictions of land in contemporary Australian literature.