The nose of the old Holden rolls onto the gravel shoulder. Jane watches the front-end shudder before it dies. Matteo has overhauled the engine. She knows how much work he’s put in, how much work he puts into everything: the tractor, the slasher, the generator. Everything seems to be in perpetual disrepair. They are living in a sea of half-broken possessions. Like that island of rubbish, she thinks, out in the Pacific. I am floating on a pile of junk.
Twenty-two-month-old Mia is in the back seat, her cheeks like two red crab apples on her olive skin.
‘Something’s happened,’ she tells her. ‘I’ll just be a moment.’
The bonnet up, Jane scours the filthy motor and has nearly given up when she sees it. The fan. One of its blades. Bloody thing has sheared off. She looks under the car and back down the road. Where the hell did it go?
Shunting through her is the knowledge her mobile phone is dead, had cut out while she’d been talking to her mother. Actually they’d been arguing, fighting about nappies, the fact she washes cloth ones like a hippy! That’s what her mother had said, dispatching the insult expertly after which the phone – equally on target – had run out of battery. Jane knows her mother will assume she hung up on her.
Looking up and down the road, Jane is aware it could be some time before anyone drives past. Her vision shifts over the rolling paddocks. A white homestead is nestled in the yellow hills about a kilometre away. She’ll have to walk. Mia will roast if she doesn’t find some shade, and apart from a few lone manna gums there’s hardly a tree to be seen.
Mia’s little body clings monkey-like to her hip as she grabs a bottle of water from the front seat and pockets her wallet under her bra-strap. Leaving the hood up, she sets off towards the gate. Mia looks ahead. Already overheated, her little face is a frown of concentration.
John Crowley snaps the rope, testing its strength. He shimmies the ladder into the middle of the shed and climbs its rungs. The temperature rises as he ascends. He’s careful these days, aware of his age and all the changes that have incrementally taken place because of it. Still, it doesn’t mean he isn’t prone to a moment’s distraction, a flash of recall. He must have been thirty or so, his son below him, the child’s generous four-year-old expression turned up eagerly to listen to him. John Crowley would have been issuing an instruction, a request about a socket or a ratchet, something he wanted the boy to get him.
Dismissing his reminiscence, he raises his eyes to the roof only for light-headedness to jigger through him. In a jerky, abrupt movement – his heart leaping – he grabs at the sides of the ladder. Nearly bloody fell! He gulps, notes the rush of his blood before he shifts his gaze upwards again, slowly this time. He throws the rope he’s holding over the thick beam above him with care. Fully absorbed, he feeds it for length.
Back on the ground he stares at the new engine. Changing them over is a big job. His son is meant to be here with him, helping. But they argued and he left. Shot through. He is staying in town with friends. John Crowley has telephoned Christopher six, maybe seven times this morning, but it’s these new phones with their digital displays; his son knows it’s him and he isn’t answering.
He raises his arm, manages to pinch the length of rope between his fingers. The chains are around the body of the motor already. Just got to attach the cord, he instructs himself. Not as if I haven’t done it before.
Jane watches her feet hit the yellow-gravelled driveway. The water bottle swings like a pendulum in and out of view. She’s struck a rhythm and her body is pumping heat, generating kilowatts of energy that could run more than a few LED lights, probably fire up her phone if she could plug it into herself.
Jane’s head dips. She regrets the argument with her mother. Afterwards it always feels like this. The problem, she tells herself, trying to reason it out, is that Mum has no trust in me: her own daughter. And Matteo, it’s not that he’s Italian, he’s the son of Catholic peasants. And, well, it’s just not right! Not for her daughter.
Jane wishes she’d said something sensible when she’d taken him home that first time, something calm and mature. We’re going to be fine, or, he’s a good, capable person. But she’d screamed at her mother as deliriously as her mother had screamed at her, and a furious yelling match had taken hold, complete with tears and flushed faces.
‘You can’t tell me what to do.’
‘You’re too young.’
‘You were married at my age.’
‘To your father!’
‘That’s your argument?’
‘You don’t even know this man.’
‘No, you don’t know him, or what you’re talking about.’
After fights this big there were always gaps, hiatuses, dead zones. Inevitably, something would bring them together: a family function, a birthday, a funeral. Reconciliation could only occur if they swept the disagreement under the carpet. But while guilt softened them, hurt was hardening somewhere else, somewhere deeper. What she’d come to realise was that with the quarrel buried, the whole long cycle would get underway again.
She twists her mouth, blows a fly from her cheek as she flaps a hand – bottle swinging – around Mia’s head. Poor kid is sunburnt. How could she have forgotten to put Mia’s hat in the car?
Condemnation wends about in her. Mothering is turning out to be harder and lonelier than she’d expected. Her day is full of repetitive tasks and small decisions: minutiae she must perform on her own.
Jane looks at her daughter. ‘Not far to go now,’ she says, hoicking Mia around to her other hip and hearing the false cheer in her voice.
Mia doesn’t answer.
‘See the house?’
The child nods, and Jane knows even that is an effort.
John Crowley watches the motor sway above the body of the tractor. He catches the snib against the flywheel he salvaged years ago from the old mill. He’s used the device before, winched all manner of things into the air, but – and it’s a sour thought – he’s never been on his own with half a ton of steel hovering over him. Even so… If he takes it slowly… He only has to get it to the ground and if he moves the motor-less tractor out of the way…
He’d nearly postponed the job, but with fire restrictions having been brought forward he needs to get onto the slashing. He sighs. My son isn’t here because of what I said, what I called his fiancée: The French Madam. The memory folds in him uncomfortably. He’d felt justified at the time; Camille is so French, and he’s certain she wouldn’t cope on the farm, what with the heat, the loneliness, the general lack of anything European. There’s also no way Christopher would last living in Europe, not as far as he can see. Besides, John Crowley had always assumed his son would take over from him. There are only the two of them: the girls have gone and Cath… Well, it’ll be six years next month.
John Crowley pulls himself into the cabin of the tractor, releases the brake, thinks about the tiny melanoma on her hip. It was beautiful the night he first saw it. He’d run his rough fingers across it. ‘Guess I should get it checked,’ she’d said, craning her head to look. And that had been the beginning. A pivotal point. Even though it was another three years before her death, that memory is the only thing that strikes him these days; as if he can’t bear the thought of anything having taken place in between. If Cath were alive, Camille might have been welcomed. That’s the meanest part, the ugly rampart of doubt in his chest.
Out from behind the wheel, he gives the tractor a small nudge and it shifts effortlessly backwards. Menzies, his old kelpie, raises his head, then lowers it again after less than a second’s consideration. John Crowley lets the lock off the flywheel and eases the engine to the ground.
Jane feels beads of sweat running under her dress, down her back and tummy. Mia is scarlet. Whoever heard of a fan blade tearing off, ripping clean away? This is what her mother is talking about. She and Matteo live as if luxury exists on a neighbouring planet and not all around them. She blows on Mia’s face, watches her daughter’s eyelashes flutter, the child’s expression smooth. Feeling a little giddy, she takes a full breath, wipes sweat from her eyes.
The house looks even nicer close up. She only wants to use the telephone, sit in the shade until Matteo can pick them up. Surely the owners will let her do that, country hospitality being what it’s meant to be.
Under the wide verandah, shade pours over them. She places Mia down, making sure her little legs are capable of holding her up. Both arms are throbbing and the spot where Mia has been stings. She knocks on the door. Even that hurts. After several attempts, she wonders if she should enter, but there’s something – perhaps the exactness of the place – that cautions her. The whole property, she thinks, is intoned with desertion. She can see the driveway snaking off and she remembers that she’d seen sheds behind the house as she’d approached. Someone’s sure to be out there but that means going back into the sun. She’ll sit for a moment. There’s a bench. If she can find a tap she’ll empty the warm water from the bottle, refill it with something cooler.
John Crowley has nothing left but the farm and his work. Beef. It’d taken a long time to build the herd up, keep them producing, and with the drought, lack of feed, nothing had gotten easier over the years. The dams had helped. Built on the place over time. A good planner. That’s what everyone has always said about him.
Somehow, though, none of these thoughts bolster his mood. He’s struck by the fact he might burst into tears if he spends another minute pondering the distance between him and his son. He wishes none of it – the arguments, the pressed silences – he wishes all of it had been a dream.
Pausing beside the new engine, considering it for the umpteenth time and knowing his mind is flitting about, it occurs to him he shouldn’t go ahead. But the thought drifts and he reassesses: when the new engine lifts from the ground it is going to swing like a demolition ball until it finds centre under the rafter. That’s the only tricky bit. Once it’s suspended, he’ll push the tractor beneath it, lower the motor onto its mount.
He pushes the handle on the flywheel, listens to the rope tighten and the shed-roof creak. In the next minute – his hand carefully turning the lever and his eyes up at the rafter – he thinks he sees the truss move. He blames the vision on his mood. And then the shed groans and sighs and in one smooth arc, over it goes.
Jane hears the crash. It sounds like someone driving over a cattle grid, only much louder. The rumble that rummages through the earth is even more disturbing. She wonders if a tremor might have struck. Her breath catches and she takes Mia in her arms.
‘We have to go into the sun again,’ she explains. ‘I’m sorry darling.’
As soon as they round the house it is clear that the shed has just fallen. There’s a newly squashed tree, the branches broken but green. Whorls of dust are billowing and a piece of tin squeals, creaking as it folds further. For a moment she stands under the grapefruit sun struck by the notion it’s just as well she hadn’t strolled about. Then, without the thought fully forming, she runs back to the front of the house and inside. If the door had been locked she’d have gone around the back or broken a window.
The cool air is a tonic and she places Mia onto the polished boards. On a table, not far along the hallway, sits a phone. She picks up the receiver and punches triple zero into the handpiece.
‘Ambulance, police, or fire?’ A perfunctory but not unkind voice asks.
‘I don’t know. A shed’s fallen and there could be someone in it.’
‘Fire brigade first, then we’ll get you through to the ambulance.’
She tries Matteo next. But there’s no answer. She imagines the drill of the phone churning in their empty house and she hangs up.
Mia has tottered down the long hallway. Jane follows. The place opens out into an enormous living-room and kitchen. She goes to the sink and runs the tap. It could have been worse, she thinks: the house may have been locked; she and Mia might have been in that shed or at its doorway when it collapsed; and the car, instead of breaking down they could have had an accident. Something curls in her, softens. Grateful, she shakes her head. Bickering with my mother, she castigates, what sort of disease is that?
She lifts Mia onto the bench noticing how smooth its timber is, how rich and red and strong. Patiently, she holds a glass of water to her daughter’s lips. While Mia takes short sips in a slightly pathetic way, Jane sees, beside them, written in huge stark letters and numbers – the pen having passed over and over them – the name Christopher and a mobile phone number. Her eyes wander along the bench to where another phone sits. She realises that she should call this person; that they are probably well known to the owner. Placing the glass to one side, she stretches to pick up the hand-set. While steadying Mia, she is about to push the button that will bring up the dial tone when it starts to ring. Thinking it might be Matteo calling back, she answers it immediately.
But it’s a woman on the other end of the line. ‘John?’ she says. ‘It’s Camille. We’ve decided to come out to the farm to have it out with you, to answer all your questions.’
‘Oh!’ Jane is thrown. ‘I’m not him. But something has happened. One of the sheds has… fallen. I’m not sure, but… someone might be inside.’
‘An accident?’ Camille’s accent scarfs.
‘I’ve rung an ambulance. The fire brigade is coming too,’ Jane says.
‘Oh my God,’ the woman mumbles as the news sinks in. Then she’s shouting away from the phone, ‘Christopher, Christopher!’
Jane’s heart starts to race again. As it does, Mia’s legs start to swing in a good wide arc under the bench, quite gleefully. Holding her daughter from falling forward, her grip inches down to arrest their oscillation. She just needs Mia to be good for a few more minutes while she explains to this man what she’s doing in this nice house. Hoping to convey this, Jane glares at Mia. But just as she hears a male voice greet her questioningly, Mia throws her head back and squeals an ear-piercing joyful shriek, sending a painful note into both her and the man’s head so that a great swell of frustration rockets through Jane.
‘Mia!’ she chastises. And then into the phone, ‘I’m sorry. My little girl, picking the wrong moment as usual.’
She explains why she’s here and what’s happened. And it’s while she’s talking that it occurs to her she’s been disloyal to Mia, saying things she’d like to think she’d never say about her. What on earth, she wonders as she hangs up, just jumped out of me? Why in God’s name would I tell someone that?
She puts Mia on the ground. Rather than running across the room as Jane had expected, her little girl stands looking up at her plaintively, almost, Jane thinks, judging me, understanding fully the insult I’ve just delivered and showing her disapproval.
Jane turns, her head dropping between her shoulders, her arms spread as she props herself up on the bench. She tries to take a breath, a rejuvenating inhalation. But her lungs won’t expand properly despite her steadiness, despite her concentration on the flawless cross-grain of the wood, on its old long-growing interlocking layers.