As Deep As The River Flows
Story 2 - Foreign Fields
No brother and sister were ever closer than Callen and Jen McCray, even though they were related by name only.
The McCrays had always produced big families, except for the family Lou grew up in, coming about when his father’s first wife left her husband while he and his brother were only young children. Only young, but still old enough to lend a hand; their father raised them both on his own and did not remarry again until in his 50s to a woman also in her 50s, so children of course were out of the question.
John, the older of the brothers by two years, studied law, as Lou rightly thought ‘just to get away from the farm’. When John left for the city, his visits became random and drifted further and further apart until one day, though it wasn’t spoken, everyone realised that John would not be returning. But Lou was devoted to the place where he’d been raised, and stayed to work his father’s farm. When the time was right Old Stan – their father – would hand the reins over, keeping a watchful and approving eye on his youngest son and the work he did, just as his father had done with him.
When Lou married, Old Stan as much as anyone looked forward to seeing the rooms of the huge old homestead filled with the sounds of children’s laughter echoing through the halls as it had with past generations of the McCray clan. Unfortunately, it was a sight he would never see, or know to be possible. A couple of years after their marriage Lou and his wife Helen visited the doctor and went through some tests. They were told that Helen could never carry a child of her own. This brought a time of grief, confusion and coming to terms with the fact. It also coincided with the death of Old Stan.
Time went by, however, and on 29th September 1974 Lou and Helen brought home a child whom they’d loved from the moment they’d first laid eyes on him at the adoption home, and whom they now called Son, as much as any boy child born of their own flesh.
Sunshine now filled the halls of the house that had been growing ever duller with time, and its name was young Callen Joshua McCray, only three months old and already with his life planned out before him by Lou, a man who now saw a promising future ahead once again.
Callen’s mother, a single Italian girl of just 17, had asked that her child be given the name Callen when she had handed him over. Lou and Helen were happy to do so and had added the name Joshua, after Lou’s grandfather – a man Lou loved dearly. And so it was that the McCrays spent the first of many happy Christmases together as a family. As they watched Callen grow, try to speak, and crawl around the floor, it fulfilled their marriage and Lou and Helen wondered how they had ever lived without their son. Callen was theirs, and no one could ever take him away, not as long as they lived.
By the time of their second Christmas together, Callen was quite a handful. His inquisitive nature led him to venture everywhere. John and Margaret, Lou’s brother and sister-in-law, had come to stay over Christmas with their four children spaced but a year apart; the youngest still a baby. It was an exhausting time for Helen, cooking and looking after Margaret’s children almost as much as she looked after Callen. It was the first time that John and Margaret had met their nephew, and Helen could not help but show a glimmer of pride when Margaret looked at Callen quietly sitting in his mother’s arms while her own sweet child cried and wouldn’t be hushed.
“It must be the drive and the heat,” Margaret had said.
But her other children were the same in and out of the house, always finding something to fight over or complain about. Helen liked her in-laws but was pleased all the same when their children had gone.
Is this what I have to look forward to? she thought with an exhausted smile on her face. However, the years that were to come would prove that all her concerns were for nothing.
She had felt particularly tired all through Christmas and put it all down to the extra work and the stress of such a houseful, but when it was over and the relatives were all safely back at their own homes, she still felt no better. Then, after two mornings of throwing-up, she went to her doctor.
“Probably just stress and a touch of this virus that has been going around,” he explained. “You also work too hard. We’ll run some tests anyway and make sure that nothing’s vitally wrong.”
The next afternoon Helen impatiently rang to find out the results.
“Are you feeling any better?” the doctor asked as he opened his patient file.
“No,” was Helen’s sullen reply.
Her doctor was very surprised at the answer to Helen’s problems.
“Well, don’t expect this condition to go away, not for another few months. The results of one of the tests I threw in came back positive. You’re pregnant,” he told her with delight in his voice, knowing her circumstances as do all country doctors of their patients.
“What? I can’t be,” Helen said, shocked.
“We didn’t think so, but you are. No doubt about it,” the doctor reassured his patient, himself still amazed.
Helen could hardly believe the news. It was the best of the many good things that had happened since Callen had arrived. It was like he had brought good luck to the family.
Seven months later a second miracle arrived – Jennifer. Now the McCray family was truly complete.
Helen and Lou had made sure to pay extra attention to Callen when they had brought Jennifer home from hospital, including him in everything. He helped to look after their precious new bundle of joy and the boy knew that they still loved him just as much as when it had been only the three of them. Now, maybe even more. Callen, being the older and the male of the two children, looked after Jennifer like a favourite puppy as they grew up together. And over the years life grew better for the McCray family every day; joy through the good times and comfort through the not so good times. How could they have known that one night their children’s lives would change forever?
At 19, Callen had grown into a handsome, respectable, fun-loving young man with the easy-going, hard-working McCray nature; just the sort of son that every father would want. Callen had gone through to Year 12 in his studies at school but his heart, as Lou had hoped it would be, was with the farm, so there had been no point in taking his schooling any further.
The days spent in the hot sun had brought out the best of Callen’s European coffee-coloured skin, and the heavy work had made his muscles ripple beneath it. This, along with his dark hair and emerald-green eyes, made him a handsome figure. To watch him as he worked, agile and speedy, or to watch him breaking in a young horse as he gently stroked its neck and made friends, was pure joy.
Jen, the flightier of the pair, had also grown into a beautiful young woman, with looks totally different to Callen’s of course. She took after her great-grandmother, with blonde hair and a fair skin covered in fine freckles. She had a good nature, and made her parents very happy. In her final year of school she was still unsure what she wanted to do with her life and so she planned to continue her studies at college.
It was late on a Friday afternoon, mid-spring, as Georgie stood on the verandah at the open front door of the high old Queensland homestead. In so many ways, it seemed oversized for the family of four which lived within a belly that once knew generations of 10 children and even more racing through the halls. Stockmen by the dozen had once eaten their meals at tables strewn along the verandah when the mustering was on, and two or three hands in constant employment had eaten on the polished wooden table in the kitchen daily. Ah, and the dances and gay events that had been held on floors still as solid today as when the first nails had been hammered in. The house stood on spreading lawns amongst a few ancient fig trees. It could have been on any station property 200 miles from nowhere, but instead it stood beside a small town in central Queensland, not far from a much larger town that was growing and spreading out with every passing year. Four generations of McCrays had lived here and Callen and Jen were the fifth.
As Georgie knocked on the wall beside the entrance, she saw Callen peep his head around the corner from the lounge room.
“She’s in her room,” he said politely, then disappeared again.
Georgie knew the house well as Jen was her best friend and sometimes she would stay over on the weekends to go out riding.
“Thanks,” she called back to the young man she thought was very cute.
Down the hallway Georgie found Jen showered and sitting in front of her duchess with her curly, blonde, shoulder-length hair dripping all over the fluffy white rug.
“Aren’t you ready yet?” Georgie asked, worried that they might miss the start of the movie.
“Sorry,” Jen answered.
“What are you wearing?” Georgie asked.
“Don’t know. What do you think?” Jen said, needing some help.
“What about that pink dress?” Georgie suggested. “You know, with the white spots.”
“Mmm, okay. Can you get it? It’s in the wardrobe somewhere,” Jen said as she blew her hair dry, using a little mousse to keep her casual-looking style perfectly in position.
When she was satisfied with her hair, Jen put on some face cream and powder, and then a little eye shadow and rouge she had bought last week at the chemist. Then she began to search.
“What are you looking for, Jen?” Georgie asked, wishing that Jen would hurry up and hoping that she could help her friend so that they might yet be on time.
“Lipstick; that lollipop pink one. Can you see it?” Jen asked, searching frantically.
Georgie fumbled over the cluttered duchess in front of them and told Jen to slip into the dress.
“The bathroom...” Jen said as she did up the zip on the back of her pretty pink dress. She flew down the hall to where the bathroom door was closed. Thinking Callen was in his room where she could hear the music still playing and knowing that her mother was in the kitchen and her father under the house working on his latest project, she burst through the door. Callen had just finished showering and stood on the bathroom mat, naked in front of her, about to dust powder all over his spectacular body.
“Oh,” the pair gasped as Callen turned and grabbed for a towel to cover himself.
But it was too late. For both, in a moment of accidental discovery, they had brought to the surface a truth that had been hidden, even to themselves. Shocked at what they felt, yet unable to deny it to themselves, or to each other, Jen let the door close behind her and slowly she walked towards the boy she had grown up with. With an open palm she reached out, gently touched Callen’s chest and began to run her hand over the muscular curves of his broad shoulder. His skin was soft, warm and clean with a fragrance she could almost drink. He had never smelt so good before, and though the deodorant he wore was always sweet, this time, this was truly Callen. He took her arm, knowing that he should push her away but his feelings for his sister were strong; he loved her, just as she loved him. Lips met and plunged into passionate, soft kisses, throwing away all rights, wrongs and beliefs, placing them a world away, before Callen found all the strength he had in him and spoke.
“Jen, Jen,” he whispered, holding her away from his yearning body. “We can’t. You’re my sister. We can’t do this.”
“But you’re not, not really, not by blood,” Jen found herself saying both to Callen’s surprise and her own.
“That’s not what counts, not to everyone else – our parents and friends. To them we are brother and sister. We’ve spent our whole lives that way. It can’t be any different,” Callen told her responsibly.
“I don’t care,” Jen pleaded, letting her emotions take control.
“Not now, not ever,” Callen said.
He had that decisive look in his emerald eyes. Jen had seen that look in her brother a few times in the past. It was not cruel, not even harsh, but she knew for certain that Callen’s mind was made up and would not be shifted, regardless of anything she might say or do.
“Jen, did you find it?” came Georgie’s call from the doorway of Jen’s room.
There was a moment of silence as Jen and Callen stood facing each other, aware once again of the world around them. Then Jen answered as she glanced at the tube of lipstick in plain view sitting beside the basin.
“Ha! Oh yes, it’s here,” she called back to her friend. “I’ll only be a minute.”
They had been words spoken without realising that she’d spoken them.
Still captured by the steadfast look in Callen’s eyes, Jen felt the grip of despair as she understood that he was right and that she would have to live with his decision somehow for all eternity. And now, this time in love, in friendship, in understanding and respect, they fell into each other’s arms once more. As he stroked her soft hair, she lay her cheek on his tender heart. The pair hugged as if for ever, knowing the forbidden truth, knowing that these feelings would never leave the four walls of the bathroom, knowing that this moment would never come again. Finally, the two drifted apart, their empty souls as naked as Callen’s body. Jen closed the door behind her again as she left, wishing she could rush back in and make him change his mind. But the blood that flowed through Callen’s heart and every vein was as pure as the wines that flowed from the vineyards of his Italian heritage. Jennifer knew that for Callen the book was closed.
Reaching her bedroom, Jen realised that she had forgotten the lipstick, and couldn’t go back no matter how she wished she could. The lipstick didn’t really matter now; nothing really mattered now; and so trying to find her voice, she said to Georgie as she returned to her room, “It was the wrong colour.”
“How about this one?” her friend asked, picking up the peachy lipstick from the top of Jen’s duchess and handing it over.
“Yes,” Jen agreed, trying to lose the distant look in her eyes by smiling brightly and hoping desperately to look as though nothing had happened.
Georgie did not ask questions and Jen was pleased. She was in no mood to make up answers for questions she could not answer truthfully.
All through the movie Jen could not stop thinking about what had happened in the bathroom, and afterwards when Georgie and Jen stopped for coffee before going out on the town, Jen still had only that moment on her mind. When Georgie said that she felt sick, Jen was actually relieved. Not for her friend being sick, but for the excuse to go home and call it a night.
“I’m not sure if it’s something I ate or what,” Georgie said. “Do you mind too much?”
“No, if you don’t feel well, the best thing is to go home. I just hope you feel better in the morning,” Jen answered.
“I’m so sorry,” Georgie said. “How about we do this again next Friday night, only I won’t get sick,” the girl added with a chuckle and a grin.
The two girls agreed; it was a date. It seemed like such a slow drive back to the homestead for both girls. Georgie dropped Jennifer off and then was glad she had not far to go before she herself was home. Callen had also gone out for the night, and Jen hoped that her parents would be engrossed in some hideously boring old movie and that she could go to bed quickly without a long conversation about her night, and without suspicion.
Sleep did not come easily for Jennifer that night. She heard Callen come home just past one o’clock and she wanted to go to him and talk it over, as she always did with her problems. Up until now there had been nothing the pair couldn’t talk about, but this time she held herself back. It wouldn’t be right, not in his room. Not that it had ever mattered before but not now with all that had happened tonight between the two of them. Jen had only one question. How? How did their feelings ever get to be at the point they were at now? And she had no answer, only a tangle of memories that came flooding into her drowsy mind.
Her first true memory of admiration for Callen was the time when she had fallen from the swing under the Poinciana tree halfway across the yard. The first summer their father had made a swing for them, Jen’s mother had always been with her, and in the shade they would swing together while the hot sun beat down outside the spreading branches. And Jennifer would look up at the bright orange-red flowers and pretend that they were fairies dancing on tiptoes from branch to branch as she swung.
Through winter the swing hung motionless until Jennifer longed to feel the breeze in her face again as the weather warmed. She was supposed to wait for Callen but ran ahead. She was a big girl now, and thought she could manage by herself. Instead, in all her excitement and haste as she sat down, the seat jerked forward and Jen tumbled over the back of it. With a sudden scream that frightened even herself, Jen hit the rock-solid ground beneath her with a thud. Scraping her elbow and with one leg still stuck over the swing, she yanked free and the swing swung over her head, missing it by only inches. A flood of tears came from the young girl’s eyes and she lay there in shock and pain. Blood dripped from her elbow onto her white dress, staining the finely woven fibres, and her crying became louder. Callen had rushed to her side as he saw the incident happen, and now, kneeling beside his sister, was taking the large blue handkerchief from his jeans pocket to wipe away her salty tears. Jen’s face trembled as the tears kept flowing and now Callen turned his attentions to her injury. Taking her slender little arm in his hand, he began to wipe away the dirt and gravel from the wound. Ever so gently, piece by piece, he worked at it until none of the grit remained. Jen’s crying had eased now and as Callen wrapped his handkerchief twice around his beloved sister’s arm, she tried to raise the corners of her mouth and smile through the clouds that covered her eyes. Callen smiled for the both of them and hugged her injured body for a moment before helping Jen to her feet and escorting her back across the lawn and up the endless flight of steps to the kitchen where their mother was baking. She had not heard the scream above the noise of the electric beaters. That day Callen had become Jen’s hero and had remained so ever since.
What if she had never fallen? Then maybe everything would have been different. But she knew it wasn’t just the fall that had made her feel this way; there were so many times when Callen had been there for her – there to listen, to give good advice, when she felt she could not talk to anyone else, and sometimes just there to hug as siblings do, for comfort or in jest. This time though she would have to deal with the pain as best she could – alone. Finally, sleep came.
When Jen awoke the next morning and went to the kitchen for breakfast, the room was empty. The only sign of Callen was a mug in the sink – the one he always used – and a few dishes stacked neatly beside it. Callen had risen early and gone to work in the paddock with his father as he always did. Jen could faintly hear the washing machine working downstairs on the other side of the house. Her mother would be down there too. The whole house seemed emptier than normal. Jen poured herself a glass of juice, took the almost burnt toast she had made from the toaster and sat at the table. Running her hands through her hair, she wondered how she would face Callen when he and their father came in for smoko.
God, if only I’d knocked! she thought to herself. After breakfast she washed, dried and packed away the dishes before returning to her room. She hit the books, trying to study herself away to some other place. Smoko came and went. Her mother called to her but she told her she was still studying, avoiding the inevitable until lunchtime.
When Jen finally emerged, Lou and Helen were immersed in conversation about what to do with the next crop of lucerne. Should they sell it? Prices were still alright. Or should they store it until next winter?
Callen smiled. “Thought you’d been eaten up by those books,” he said, always the one to know just what to say.
Lou and Helen kept their conversation going with Callen, asking for his opinion what should be done with the hay. Lunch went smoothly despite the fact that Jen had been as tense as a pig in a trap when she had first come to the table.
All that weekend Jen tried desperately hard, and for the most part succeeded in being herself, as much as her parents could tell, but emotions and hormones were running through Jen’s body at a million miles an hour.
On Sunday Jen told her parents that she wanted to spend the week at Georgie’s so they could do some extra study together. It was no big deal; Jen had stayed over there a few times; the two girls always seemed to be hanging out together. Callen of course knew the true reason for the stay-over, so finding a quiet moment together Sunday night, he told his sister that she didn’t have to stay in town because of what had happened. It was awkward, but he was sure things would get back to normal soon. For Jennifer it didn’t. Weekends she began to spend more and more away from home, and of a night she would study.
“It’s close to the end of the year,” she would tell her father when he told her to ease up a little on the books. “This is important. If I don’t get good marks, I won’t be able to do whatever I end up deciding I want to do.”
“Okay,” he said, backing down to her rational argument. “But don’t burn the candle too late.”
All the long, hard hours of study did pay off. Jen got scores she had only hoped for, and better. On the downside, the major cause of her success was the hardest emotion she had ever had to deal with in her life, and as it was – all alone. She couldn’t even express her true feelings to her best friend in the world but the result, as far as her education went, was a good one. Now she had the marks to take her wherever she wanted to go.
Christmas holidays were rough on Jen. With her studies finished for the year, she had nothing to fill her days and so, though she would rather have been outside, she helped her mother around the house – cleaning and baking. Jen was quite the cook, though one may not have thought so by first impressions. She could whip up anything from morning tea to a full meal in just the time it took the men to wash up before coming to the table.
One day, when her father and Callen were working outside the machinery shed fixing the hay baler, Jen found herself staring down at her brother from the kitchen window. Callen was covered in dust and grease; the hot sun was beating down on him and a line of sweat ran down the back of his shirt. It seemed to Jennifer that his body was becoming more lean and wiry every day. Tears filled her eyes and she had to turn away. She had to stop thinking about him like this, she scolded herself.
That afternoon Jen went down to one of the small horse paddocks behind the shed and caught her horse. Bobby was a lovely brown gelding, as gentle as any horse she’d known. Callen had broken him for her over a year ago and what a fine job he’d done.
Just like Callen she thought. All his work was done with pride and he seemed to have a way with horses, with all animals really. He treated them kindly and they respected him for it, though he could be tough and lay down the law if the need arose. Jen held out the bridle and Bobby placed his head in. This was just one of the tricks Callen had taught her horse to do. She did up the cheek strap and led the horse to the saddle room. Callen walked past as Jen brought the saddle out into the daylight and he took it from her, placing it neatly on Bobby’s back.
“It’s a good day for it,” he said, taking the twist out of the girth and buckling it up.
“Which way are you going?” he asked.
“Just along the river,” the girl in Jen answered awkwardly.
It seemed the river was where they all went to think – even Helen and Lou. It was peaceful there, and out of sight down a 20-foot drop to a small flat that ran alongside the water. You could just sit or walk until you were trouble-free.
“Thank you,” Jen said when Callen handed his sister the reins, and she turned and walked towards the gate.
Callen slapped Bobby on the rump as he turned, in a careless ‘Off you go, boy; take care’ sort of fashion. He wondered what had happened to the carefree young girl he used to know and enjoy joking around with. Deep down Callen knew the answer, and he wished he could make things as they were before.
Jennifer rode until nearly dark, weaving her way through the trees, mostly letting Bobby go along at an easy walk and sometimes breaking him into a slow canter to feel the soft breeze in her face. Bobby had not been ridden much with final exams and the hours Jen had been putting into her studies, but now he too felt free and enjoyed the ride just as much as Jen herself. Jen had forgotten how good the feel of a horse under her was. When at dusk she let Bobby go, she told him that they’d do the same thing again tomorrow, this time on the lower hills maybe. Nothing too hard, for she knew he was out of condition. And so it became routine – doing her chores in the morning and riding in the afternoons. With 20,000 acres to explore, horse and rider managed to find a new destination every day.
Georgie had gone away with her parents for a two-week Christmas vacation to visit relatives at some small town across the border. She had said where, but Jen had not been listening properly at the time, still shocked that this would be the first Christmas they had not spent together since both girls were 12.
With just three days to go before Christmas, Jen had taken Bobby out on their usual afternoon frolic. As the sun began to dull, Callen worked close to the saddle room, waiting for his sister’s return. At last Jen rode Bobby up to the door and Callen walked over to them.
“Here, let me help you with that,” he said, lifting the flap on the saddle.
Jen sensed Callen had something on his mind and she waited for him to continue. Finally the words came.
“You remember Tim O’Brian?” Callen asked.
“Yes,” Jen said hesitantly. “He went up north somewhere after he left school to work on some cattle station, didn’t he?”
To a lot of folks Jen’s parents place was a big cattle station, but to her and Callen it had always been just plain old home. The pair knew that there were cattle properties, mainly up North, bigger than they could even begin to imagine.
“That’s right,” Callen continued as he lifted the saddle from the horse’s back and took it into the dark room in front of them. “I got a letter from him last week,” he added, raising his voice slightly before he reappeared. “He says he’s having a whale of a time up there. The first bloke he worked for was a bit of a... well, not too good, but this guy’s okay.”
As Callen took his time, Jen wondered about the purpose of their conversation but listened patiently, her heart beating a little faster as she seemed to know how it would end before it did.
“The work’s hard but what farm work isn’t? The pay’s not bad either and there’s nowhere to spend it unless you get on the booze at the end of the week.” There was a pause in Callen’s speech, and then he continued. “Tim reckons that the country up there is something that’s got to be seen to be believed. The fishing’s good, and, anyhow, he reckons the boss will be hiring a couple of extra men straight after Christmas.”
There it was. Jen knew what was coming next and it did.
“Tim suggested I should go up there. He’ll put in a good word to the boss for me,” Callen finished.
“And are you going?” Jen asked abruptly, though she hadn’t meant it to sound that way, but it was said now.
“Reckon I will,” Callen replied.
“What about this place? Don’t you want to stay here?” Jen asked, almost begging.
“This place...” Callen paused before going on, “...I love this place but I reckon it’ll do me some good to go up North and see a bit of the country. It’s alright staying on one farm all your life but I’d miss out on a lot if I didn’t take this opportunity. The place’ll be alright while I’m gone; it’s pretty much shipshape. I’ll finish off the new yard before I go and Dad can hire someone to help when it’s time to get the hay in.”
Jen had been listening well enough but she couldn’t help feeling that Callen was leaving because of her. Such thoughts had never entered his head before, she was sure. His love had always been this place – their home.
“It’s because of me,” she said boldly as Callen was about to lead Bobby back to his paddock.
Facing back towards Jen, her brother spoke.
“No” he told her but could see that she did not believe him. “I’m doing this because I want to. Yes, the time apart will probably do us both good. I’ve thought about that, but it’s not the reason I’m going.”
As Callen said the words, trying to ease Jen’s mind, he only hoped that he could believe them himself. A part of it was true, but a part of it was nothing but an excuse. The unspoken friction between brother and sister since the incident had weighed heavily on Callen’s mind and his decision. They had been so close before, and now he couldn’t bear the timid, uncertain look on Jen’s face whenever he was around. He wanted to hold her and tell her that everything would be alright, just the way he had done when they were children, but that was the one thing he was afraid to do. Callen was scared that their parents had noticed a change, as much as he had tried to act normal since the whole darn thing. If they ever found out! It was no one’s fault. He hadn’t let it go too far, but it was wrong and now Tim’s letter had brought the solution he so desperately needed.
Christmas Day was a roaster, the temperature reaching into the high 30s just after lunch. Helen was glad there were only the four of them to cook for, as well as Mr Clarke from down the road. Mr Clarke – Jack to everyone who knew him – lived on his own, was 65 and had never married so had no family. He’d come to the district as a young lad to work for Ted Harrison, who was already getting on in years by this time and there Jack had stayed. Grateful of the hard work Jack had done for him, and with his own wife and three young nippers all lost to him at a young age with the flu, Ted had naturally left the place to Jack when he’d died. It was a surprise to no one but his own relations.
“Bludgin’ lot of buggers,” he’d used to call them. “None of them worth a pinch.” Now Jack worked for himself and bought out the neighbours when their properties came up for sale.
The men, Callen included, all sat on the verandah, a cool drop of ale in hand, discussing the usual topics of politics, cattle and the price of hay. In the kitchen Helen and Jen prepared the last of the salads. Helen always made too much, but at such a time as Christmas she always said, “You never know who might turn up,” and she was right.
Ten-thirty had just gone when up rolled the Maces. Gay and Jeff also had a son Callen’s age but Callen had not seen him much since they’d finished school. Callen had his work on the farm and Scott worked as an apprentice plumber in town. Scott was tall and good-looking but there the similarities between the two boys stopped. Callen had dark hair while Scott was blond, and while Callen had a gentle, calm nature, Scott did not. Jen had seen Scott’s temper flare up one day on the football field at a misplaced comment made by the opposing team, and a couple of times she had seen words turn to blows with an outburst of fists and tempers boiling. His father Jeff, on the other hand, was an always cheery, happy-go-lucky kinda guy and nothing seemed to faze him.
“Just came for drinks,” Jeff explained, patting the carton of beer he held in his arms.
“Would you like to stay for lunch?” Helen asked. “There’s plenty to go round.”
Jeff glanced at his wife who hadn’t yet said anything but ‘Merry Christmas’ when they’d first walked up the side stairs to the kitchen. Gay smiled, leaving the decision to Jeff as she knew he would make up his own mind anyway.
“Sure. Why not? Can’t have all this good food going to waste,” he replied, accepting the offer.
At Helen’s place good food – and it was always good – never went to waste. It always hit the table at the next meal, sometimes the same, sometimes added to or remade into another dish completely. Jennifer remembered once, when her mother was faced with a whole side of corned beef, she had made sandwiches, pancakes and meatloaf. Jen had never known of many different recipes that could be made from the same cut, and they all tasted better than the last.
“The men are on the verandah,” Helen told Jeff, pointing in the direction of the door with the knife she was holding at the time.
“Alright, alright, I can take a hint,” Jeff said, lifting his free hand in the air. With a grin on his face, he added, “Leave the women to their work. Come on, Scott. We’re not wanted here.”
All that was left to do was cover the salads with Glad Wrap and lids and place them in the fridge to stay cool. Helen and Gay stayed in the kitchen and chatted over a glass of the cheap wine that the Maces had brought with them. Jen left, saying that she had a job to do outside. Actually she just needed some time alone and went and sat on the fence to watch her horse. There would be plenty of time to catch up with friends later.
The hands of the clock turned round at double speed as the two women discussed their children, husbands and all that they would like to do one day when they had time. Soon it was time to eat.
“Lunch is ready,” Helen said as they brought the meat to the table.
Jen had returned when she’d seen by her watch that it was approaching twelve o’clock. She didn’t want them to come searching for her. She and Gay took their seats, followed by Helen, as the rowdy men jostled for their place at the table. When Lou was the only one left standing, he began to carve the turkey as Jeff said something to Helen about having Christmas more often. Finally everyone’s plate was full to overflowing with meats and a little of each of the half dozen different salads. Around the table silence fell except for the magpies squawking over sparse pickings on the ground below, and Lou said grace. Although it was not said at every meal, it was a tradition that on special occasions the family gave thanks. Scott, sitting directly across from Jennifer, ‘by his own choice’, watched her as she bowed her head with the others. He’d never really noticed her before; she’d been two grades below him at school and was his mate’s little sister. Now, however, there was a different air about her, like she was all grown-up, but maybe that wasn’t quite it either.
“Amen,” Lou said.
“Amen,” the people around him repeated.
“Two, four, six, eight. Bog in, don’t wait,” Jeff said as his fork hit the plate with such a screech that it made shivers run through everyone’s skin.
“Dad!” Scott admonished, sitting beside him and copping the full brunt of the noise.
“Yes, son,” Jeff said with a twinkle in his eye.
Scott shook his head and proceeded to ask Jen if that was her he’d seen out riding the other afternoon when he had driven past. Jen said that it probably was and then Scott continued the conversation, boring her with his talk of plumbing and football. Jen feared it might never reach an end, though she was doing well not to show her concern.
Meanwhile, the politics had ended with the last of Jeff’s beers and now yarns were being spun of the lifetime adventures each of the three men had experienced. Callen listened, and the women listened, only occasionally drifting off into their own private conversation. Quickly they would be brought back to more important matters by “You remember, don’t you dear,” or “What was that place called?” or “Isn’t that right, love?”
“Hmm, oh yes,” they would reply, sometimes having only caught part of the story.
Lunch was a long and jolly affair, ending only with the obligatory large portion of cold plum pudding drowning in ice cream and custard. Jeff was first to ask for second helpings for he had a sweet tooth, and one which he was not at all embarrassed to display.
“Callen, you’re rather quiet, my boy,” Jeff, who had been holding onto most of the conversation, now commented. Callen, with his mouth full, just looked up and shrugged his shoulders.
“Well, who could get a word in edgeways with you doing all the talking, Jeff Mace,” his wife said with a voice and a smile that drove her point deep, all the while still maintaining her female dignity and softness.
Everyone laughed, Jeff included.
“She’s got you there,” said Lou.
When lunch was finished, the women began to clear the table.
“I’ll carry those for you, Mrs McCray,” Scott offered, whisking the large stack of dishes away from in front of Helen.
“Since when did you ever help with dishes, son?” Gay asked.
“Well, you’re always telling me I should, so I thought now was as good a time as any,” Scott answered.
“Hmm,” his mother said with a smile as she suspected the true reason for her son’s sudden delightful behaviour, and she was right.
While Helen scraped the scraps from the dishes and packed the leftovers in the fridge, Gay washed and Scott heroically helped Jen with the wiping-up. For most of the time Scott made jokes and Jen had no option but to laugh for fear that she would insult him otherwise, though this may not have been such a bad thing Jen was thinking by the time they were finished with the dishes. About an hour later, Jeff and Gay said they really should be going and Scott said that he hoped he would see Jen around. Jen smiled politely though she thought to herself, ‘in his dreams maybe.’ It wasn’t long after that Mr Clarke left too. He thanked the McCrays for the lovely day he’d had, and Helen begged him to stay for dinner.
“It really wouldn’t be an intrusion,” she told him.
But Jack declined graciously by saying that a family should have some time alone together on Christmas Day. With a shake of Lou’s hand, a tip of his hat to the women folk, and a word of encouragement to Callen, he was gone. All was quiet now; a peaceful hush had entered the house, and Callen still had not told his parents of his plans for the future.
Late that afternoon Helen and Lou sat alone on the verandah and reflected on the year past. It had been a good time for the family, for the hay, for the whole farm.
“Callen has been such a help,” Lou told his wife. “I don’t know what I’d do without that boy.”
“Neither do I,” Helen told her husband.
At tea that night in the kitchen, the house came alive once more with the voices that filled the room every day, though Callen sat more quietly than usual. His parents had noticed it. Helen had even asked him if everything was alright, but Callen had quietly said that it was, and it had been left at that. She knew that he would speak when he needed to, and he did. When dessert was placed on the table, Callen knew that if he did not speak now, he would never find the courage to say what he needed to say. Before he took a mouthful, he began his speech. The words came out shy and hesitant, though he wanted to sound as confident and excited as a part of him was.
“Dad...” Callen said.
Lou looked at his son and saw the seriousness in the young man’s eyes. For a moment Callen looked down at his plate of ice cream and pudding, summoning the courage to proceed. Then he did.
“I got a letter...” he said, “...from Tim. I went to school with him, you remember.” He paused as it was a hard thing to tell his parents, the people who had taken such good care of him all these years, who had loved him, and whom he loved too. Callen felt in some way he was letting them down, but this was something that he needed to do so much, and for so many reasons. He continued. “Well, he’s asked me to go up North to where he is for a while. Just a few months, ‘til the wet season’s over and all the branding’s done. I thought it would be good, you know, to see a bit of the country up there.”
Callen told his parents about the station up North and what a good experience it would be. Unless Lou had plans that really needed him to stay, then, he really thought that he should go. Lou shook his head when Callen had finished; there were no plans; no jobs that one man couldn’t handle alone if he had to, with the help of his wife. Lou wanted to keep his son by his side. He knew too how much Helen would miss him, but he could also see that Callen truly wanted to go and all the things his son had said were true. He told him that it would be a good experience; he should get around and see the country; he most likely would pick up some useful knowledge; and it was better to do it while he was still young and able to go, if that’s what he wanted.
During the conversation Helen had stayed silent, but when Callen turned to her he saw the tears welling in his mother’s eyes.
“We’re all going to miss you,” she said, and with that came an uncontrollable explosion of tears.
Callen raised himself from his chair and went to kneel beside his mother, hugging her as she cried on his broad shoulder. Helen was not the type easily prone to tears, but the thought of her first child leaving was too much for her at that moment.
“It’s not for long,” Callen said, trying to calm her. “It’s only for a few months, and then I’ll be back.”
“I know,” Helen sobbed, easing herself from his body and wiping away the tears from her face with a thin bony hand. “I’m just being foolish. I... I don’t know what’s come over me.”
Callen returned to his seat and Helen began to ask questions about what else Tim had written. Where was this station exactly? How many men worked there? Did they have decent beds to sleep on at night? Did they have a cook? She didn’t want her son starving.
When Callen had finished his dessert Helen gave him a second helping.
“You don’t know when you might get your next one once you go all the way up there,” she said.
Callen wasn’t hungry but he ate to please his mother, scraping his plate clean for the second time before he told her that he would miss her cooking dearly, and that he was sure the food would not be anywhere near as good where he was going.
“And Jen’s too,” he added, smiling at the girl who had for the most part sat in silence, letting her mother ask all the questions.
“It sure will be an adventure,” Jen answered when she was asked what she thought of it all. Then she added with a smile, to mask feelings that she herself was not sure of, “You’ll probably forget about the rest of us down here.”
“No he won’t,” Helen quickly said. “I expect a letter every week.”
“I don’t know how often they get the mail out there,” Callen explained, sure that there would be times when he was both too busy and too tired to write.
“Every week,” Helen repeated.
Callen could see that there would be no escaping his duties, and knowing his mother, she would want everything in detail; two or three pages he expected.
The week between Christmas and New Year seemed to fly by, with so many preparations and final jobs to finish. There were also goodbyes to be said to friends and what with all the comings and goings, Callen didn’t have a moment to himself, or to speak to Jen again, not in private, not the way that he had wanted to. When the bus pulled out of the depot with Callen on board, many things were left unsaid. Lou and Helen waved from the footpath, and so did Jen, with the bond between sister and brother still as frail as it had been since that night, neither of them knowing exactly how the other felt.
When Callen wrote, the letters were always addressed to his mother though in his first words he always asked how his father was, said that he hoped things were still well on the farm, and how Jen was. Was she still enjoying college? Was it hard work or a bludge like some of his friends had made it out to be? Helen kept all of Callen’s letters in the bottom drawer of her dresser and sometimes at night she would pull the latest one out and read it over again. She said it made her feel closer to him. It seemed that he was enjoying the life; it was hard work in some ways, as he had expected it to be. Being the new guy, he received more than his share of pranks played upon him in the first month, but it made him grin, and he took it all in his stride. It was good to be hanging around with Tim again. He had shown Callen the ropes when he’d first arrived, and now the boss kept them together because they worked well as a team and didn’t slack off, as some blokes do working with their mates. Though Callen had spent most of his days working on the family farm, he had done some work here and there for chaps nearby who needed a hand for a day or two, and he had never forgotten what his father had told him.
“You remember, son. You earn your day’s pay and another for the boss too.” Those words had always stood well by Callen.
When the wet season came to an end, the rivers ran slower and the giant lake became many smaller lakes. As the waters receded, the grass moved in, covering its shallow retreat, and fences broken and laid on the ground under the weight of the debris became visible again. So began a time of boundary riding – on horses, on bikes, and in the ute. On the furthest boundaries the boys would head out with pliers and wire and strainers and crowbars and the like, along with plenty of grub, and they would camp out, for as long as it took to do the job. When the fencing was all done, Callen would return, back to his home.
Back at the farm Georgie had come out after lunch to take the horses riding with Jen. Then they would go to town to see a movie and eat a late supper. But as the weather would have it, things did not go to plan. The two girls barely made it home from their ride when the skies burst open in a sudden downpour of rain that had seemed to build from out of nowhere in all of half an hour. Georgie and Jen unsaddled their horses and let them go in the closest paddock before making a dash for the house as the first droplets of ice-cold rain began to prick their skin.
“Oh!” exclaimed Georgie, rubbing her arms to warm them as the two ran up onto the verandah and turned to look at the large black clouds that swelled overhead. For as far as they could see, not a sneak of sunshine crept through and though it was only four in the afternoon, already the night had seemed to fall upon them.
“I could go a cup of cocoa,” Jen said. “What about you?”
“Mmm, sounds good,” Georgie replied.
“I was worried about you,” Helen said as the two girls walked into the kitchen, cold and slightly damp. “That storm’s only been building for 20 minutes and I’d say we’re in for a bad one.”
“It sure looks like it. I don’t think we’ll be going to the movies now,” Jen said to her mother gravely. “Is it alright if Georgie stays over?”
“Of course it is. Georgie, do you have to phone anyone? Best to do it now before things get too bad,” Helen told her daughter’s best friend.
Georgie shook her head. “No, it’s alright, thanks,” she answered.
“What about your mum? Best phone her and let her know that you are safe,” Helen suggested.
Georgie didn’t live with her parents anymore. Instead, she shared a flat in town with Jen but she did as Helen suggested, thinking it to be a wise idea on second thought.
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” Georgie said.
When Georgie came back to the kitchen, Jen said, “Cocoa’s made.”
The two girls went into the lounge. With the storm outside blocking the sun, it was so dark that they had to turn the lights on.
“You know, it’s been almost a year hasn’t it?” Georgie stated after making herself comfortable on the couch.
“A year? Since what?” Jen asked.
“Since you had a boyfriend,” Georgie replied.
“Oh, it hasn’t been,” Jen said, and then she stopped and paused a moment, thinking back. “Maybe it has, almost. What’s your point?”
“Well, you’ve been awfully quiet lately,” Georgie told her friend. “Danny and Jeremy both said they asked you out and you turned them down. What’s wrong with either of them? I wish they’d asked me out.”
“Nothing’s wrong with them. I just didn’t feel like going out, that’s all,” Jen answered.
“Well, I reckon it’s weird,” Georgie continued.
“Well, you reckon whatever,” Jen snapped, chopping her friend off mid-conversation and beginning to look a little hot under the collar.
Georgie dropped the subject and began to talk about other things.
“Five weeks until your birthday isn’t it, Jen?” Georgie asked. “Will Callen be home in time?”
“Not until the end of June,” Jen replied, again tensing up.
Jen thought that Georgie was asking because she had always liked Callen – a lot. But now Jen’s stomach knotted up with the feelings that still ran deeply inside her, feelings that she thought she might lose with him away. The rain poured down on the iron roof above and occasional rumbles of thunder were heard as they rolled somewhere in the distance.
“Want to watch a video?” Jen asked.
She turned the lights down until only dim shadows lay across the walls and Georgie found a tape she hadn’t yet seen. It was as good as the movies – almost.
The rain finally ceased in the early hours of the morning. When the sun rose, it was hot and bright and the world glistened with diamonds and miniature rainbows, which had formed in the after-mist.
“Are you having a party?” Georgie wanted to know.
“For my birthday?” Jen asked. “I hadn’t really given it much thought.”
“But it’s your 18th. Only one of those you know. I’ll help you plan it if you like,” Georgie offered, as she loved to plan parties.
“Okay,” Jen agreed.
It sounded like a good idea. A party was just what she needed, and besides, she couldn’t let Georgie down. Over the next few weeks Georgie became a woman obsessed, insisting that it must be a themed party and that they must invite all the most gorgeous guys in the district. Jen needed a boyfriend. Danny had just split up with Faith, but Jerry was taken now. Of course, Gary, Damian and Sam were all free agents, Scott too.
“Scott’s pretty keen on you, you know,” Georgie told Jen.
“In his dreams,” Jen answered. “You should have been here last Christmas Day; he was so full of himself, and trying to be so nice to Mum, ha.”
“Give the guy a break,” Georgie said.
“No, thanks,” Jen replied.
“Mrs McCray, what do you think of Scott Mace?” Georgie called to Helen who was busy with some sewing in the adjoining room.
“He seems like a nice young lad,” she answered.
“Thank you,” Georgie said. “You see, you have to invite him.”
Jen didn’t feel like arguing and so she agreed to invite nice young Scott. There would be enough other people there so she could probably avoid him most of the night anyway, and if she was lucky, he might even bring her a nice present. So Georgie’s planning, mixed with a little scheming, went ahead.
Up North they’d been fixing fences Callen told his mother when he wrote. He apologised for not writing the week before and it was too far to come back to the station at night. The nights were a bit more than nippy; most mornings a covering of frost lay on the ground, but the days were still quite warm. Jackie killed a snake, the biggest brown Callen had ever seen and had cooked it up for dinner. He looked like he was enjoying it well enough, said it tasted like chicken but Tim and Callen had left Jackie to his bush tucker and they had stuck with snags and a couple of tins of spaghetti. The camping was good. Callen got to see parts of the station he hadn’t yet seen, but it was nice, mind you, to get back to a proper bath. There were some good-looking waterholes up there but too many crocs lurking below the surface. You could see the tracks in the mud here and there where they’d come out to sun themselves and then slide down the bank back into the water again. Occasionally they even caught a glimpse of one; even Jackie stayed clear of the river and had his wash at the bores in one of the cattle troughs.
Callen had always worked hard, so the long hours and even the rough conditions they encountered didn’t worry him too much, but as time went by he found the life he was leading now grew better every day. He’d expected the thrill of something new to last for a while then thought that he’d begin to miss home, but it just hadn’t happened. Every week seemed to bring something new. This country was right for him and Callen felt that he was right for it. The days kept him busy, too busy to think of anything but work or sharing a joke at smoko with the boys as they boiled the billy on the open fire, flames blazing beneath the old milk tin they used to heat the water. The nights though were often lonely. When everyone was in bed, with only the moon lighting the tiny room he shared with Tim, his thoughts would go back to the farm. Back to his dad, as he wondered how he was coping, back to his mum and the cooking he missed, and back to Jen, he wondered most how she was coping. The letters Helen sent said that everyone was fine and happy and, well that they missed him, and that from the letters they received it sounded like he was enjoying himself. Through the lines Callen wished he could tell how Jen was really doing. If only he could see her, he would know. His heart wished he could ask in his letters, but his hand didn’t dare write the words, and so he would ponder over the thought for a time before the labours of the day took hold and his eyes closed to a peaceful place.
When the last of the fencing was done, the boss, a firm man, gave them all a week off to go into town.
“But make sure you’re all sober when you turn up back here for work,” he warned.
It was a good half day to go to town and the boys were wasting no time, scrubbing up to get ready for the trip.
“You’d better hustle, Callen or we’ll leave you behind,” Tim said as he noticed that Callen had not yet begun to clean up.
“Ah, you all go. I’m gonna stay here,” Callen replied.
“What?” Tim exclaimed, not believing the words he had just heard.
“You go have a beer for me, hey,” Callen said, putting across his point.
“No way! You’re coming, like it or not,” Tim insisted, walking to the cupboard, pulling out Callen’s good clothes and throwing them at his mate, who caught them mid-flight and stood there grinning.
“I ain’t goin’,” Callen said in good humour.
“You ain’t goin’,” Tim repeated. “Well, if you ain’t goin’, I ain’t goin’.”
“Suit yourself,” Callen told his mate, hoping to call his bluff.
“What? You’d make me sit out here moping about with you with nothin’ to do when we could be in town with all the beer and women and fightin’ we could want,” asked Tim.
Tim sure had hardened up since his days at home on the dairy farm Callen thought.
“I ain’t makin’ you do anything. You go if you want to,” Callen said.
Tim looked at Callen with a face of defeat.
“I said I wouldn’t, and I won’t.”
“Won’t what?” asked Jackie as he poked his head through the doorway.
Since the camping trip Jackie had been like a hungry dog around the dinner table, always hanging around the two southern boys, but they didn’t mind.
“You boys ready?” Jackie continued before Tim had a chance to answer his first question.
“No. Callen here says he’s not going so I don’t suppose I am either. Can’t leave him here on his own. Don’t know what sort of strife he might get into,” Tim said with a quick joking stab at his mate.
Jackie shook his head at the news.
“You crazy, white fella,” he said.
Then he disappeared to join the other boys all loaded up and ready to go in the back of the cruiser. The horn beeped three times as a cloud of dust rose from beneath the tyres, fishtailing it towards the front gate, all for the benefit of letting Callen and Tim know what they were missing out on. Then they were gone. Tim threw the towel from his shoulder down onto the bed.
“See what you’ve gone and done,” he told Callen.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Callen replied.
“So what are we gonna do for the next week,” Tim asked, not expecting to receive an answer.
“Well, I gotta check it out with Mr Thomas yet,” Callen said. And that was all that he said.
That afternoon Callen walked across the 500 yards or more to the homestead. The lawns were green and the roses bloomed in a massive display of reds, pinks and creams, from all the care and attention given to them by Mrs Thomas. There was also an unlimited supply of good water from the bore by the shed. Callen had seen Mrs Thomas from a distance a few times but only once up close. She seemed a sophisticated woman, brought out from the city as a bride most likely. Callen could tell by the way that she wore her make-up, by her well-kept appearance, and mostly by her delicate hands. Obviously with the gardening she did, she was accustomed to wearing gloves as she weeded and tilled the soil; the heavy work of course was left to the help. Now she was sitting on the verandah, relaxing in one of those circular cane chairs that Jen had always said she wished she had. She watched Callen walk up to the house and as the young man drew close to the verandah she spoke.
“You didn’t go with the rest of the boys,” she remarked.
“No, Maam,” he replied. “Tim stayed behind as well.”
“That’s a turn-up for the books,” Mr Thomas added, stepping onto the verandah with a jug of something cool in his hand.
By the colour of the liquid Callen guessed it was iced tea. He had heard of people drinking it but never actually tasted it himself. Callen stopped at the edge of the verandah.
“Come pull up a seat,’ Mr Thomas said, realising Callen had something important to say.
Callen did as he was ordered, sitting uncomfortably on the edge of another of the circular chairs. He was glad that he had put clean jeans and a clean shirt on just before he had walked over, for he would have hated to leave a mark on the pale cream fabric.
“Are you liking it up here in this country?” the old man asked, starting the conversation before Callen had the chance to ask what he had come to ask. “It must be a great deal different to what you are accustomed to.”
“The country, yes,” Callen replied.
The words that came from Mr Thomas next surprised Callen greatly.
“You’re different to the other boys,” he said. “A different nature altogether.”
Callen looked curiously at his boss and judge.
“I mean that in a good manner,” Mr Thomas added. “You show good upbringing. Your father must be proud of you.”
Callen looked shyly down at the floor, before looking back at his boss.
“Thank you,” he said, lacking any other words to say.
Mrs Thomas handed Callen a glass of the iced tea she had just poured. He thanked her, though he wasn’t actually thirsty.
“So, what made you come to this part of the country?” Mr Thomas asked.
The station manager did most of the hiring and firing and usually such small details were of no importance to the owner. But this time Mr Thomas was curious.
“Well,” Callen replied, turning his glass in his hand, “Tim, sir. He wrote and told me you were hiring. We went to school together, Tim and I, and I thought why not? It would be a good chance to see this part of the world, and how things were done up here.”
“And what does your father think of this?” Mr Thomas asked in his casual, observant manner. “From what I’ve heard you used to work his farm.”
“That’s right, sir. He’s happy enough with the decision. He said he doesn’t want to hold me back if this is really what I want for now. Besides, it’s not for long; the place won’t run to rack and ruin in the time,” Callen answered with a fleeting smile.
“Well, I’ll be sorry to lose you next month. But you had something you wanted to ask me, I take it?” inquired Mr Thomas.
“Yes, sir.” Callen’s mind shifted back now to the reason he had made the walk across the lawn. “That cherry roan filly running with the other yearlings,’ he said.
“She’s lovely isn’t she?” Mrs Thomas interrupted, though she had sat in silence for most of the conversation up until now.
“She is that,” Callen replied, glancing firstly at Mrs Thomas then back to the floor nervously before he continued. “I take it that you will be breaking her with the rest of them this spring?”
“Yes, that’s right. I thought I might even keep her for myself if she turns out alright, but she’ll be broken,” Mr Thomas reassured Callen.
“It would be a shame to see her handled,” Callen paused briefly, trying to be tactful in what he said, “not right.” He quickly added, “And I thought if it’s alright with you, I might be allowed to break her. I could start in the morning.”
“You ever broken a horse?” Mr Thomas asked.
“Yes, sir, our own. And two for a neighbour up the road,” Callen concluded.
Mr Thomas lifted an eyebrow and stared back at Callen for a moment. Callen hoped that his boss would say that it was okay. His heart had been set on the filly from the day he saw her galloping across the flat in the lead of all her mates.
The old man had seen Callen with the other horses; he seemed to have a way with them.
“I tell you what,” Mr Thomas said when he spoke. “You and Tim go run the horses in before dark. They can all stay in overnight, but lock her on her own in one of the pens with water. I’ll be at the yards at nine o’clock in the morning.”
Already Callen found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. Here he was, a simple hand, about to tell the boss how he thought the horse should be handled.
“If it’s alright with you, sir,” he said, trying to show his respect for the boss, “I’d rather leave her off the water tonight. Just give her a slab of hay and in the morning I’ll water her myself. I’ve done it at home with a couple of the shier horses. It teaches them to look for you.”
“Hmm. Already he tells me how to do a job I’ve done, well, since I was a lad myself,” Mr Thomas said, grinning at his wife.
Callen felt a lump in his throat, and then relief when Mr Thomas said, “But you’re never too old to learn they say, so you show me your way and we’ll see how we go, shall we?”
“Thank you,” Callen said, grateful for the chance to prove his true worth. He felt a smile widen across his face. “I’d better go then and get them in,” he said, referring to the horses.
“You haven’t drunk your tea yet,” Mr Thomas told his new horse breaker, for there were more questions he wished to ask the lad.
Callen looked down at the glass in his hand and as he and Mr Thomas spoke more about the land and about horses, he carefully drank. The tea was sweet; he liked it, but after a while he once again suggested that he really should be going. This time Mr Thomas obliged and as Callen walked back across the lawn, he felt very pleased with himself.
“Come on, we’ve got to get the yearlings in,” Callen said as he walked up to Tim laying in a chair outside and tipped the hat right off his mate’s head.
“Huh? I thought we had the week off,” Tim queried before he took another swig from the stubby he had not long popped the top off.
“Not anymore,” Callen said.
“This was your idea, wasn’t it? This was your bloody idea. That’s why you didn’t want to go to town.” Tim asked, knowing the only reason for running in the yearlings would be to break them.
When nine o’clock came the next morning, Callen was already at the yards, offering the young filly a drink from a small plastic trough he had found in the shed. She watched Callen, facing him straight on from the far corner of the yard as he poured the water from two buckets over the yard rail into the trough. Callen spoke quietly to the roan and watched her ears flicker at the sound of his voice.
“You’re a worried little girl, aren’t you?” he commented. “You don’t know what’s happening, hey? Well, you and me are going to get on just fine once you learn. Are you going to have a drink? I bet you’re waiting for me to leave. Well, I’ll just be over here waiting for you,” he continued, and with that Callen turned and walked over to the shed where the filly could still see him, but was not so frightened as to inspect the black drum, now sitting full of water in her yard. Slowly the roan edged forward, blowing the air loudly out through her nostrils after taking deep breaths. She smelt the strange object and came closer, still with one eye on the shed and the man that stood leaning against its wall. The filly had only been yarded a couple of times in her life before and one of those times men had burnt her shoulder with red hot irons before turning her out separate to her mother. Suddenly she had found herself amongst 20 other young horses, all kicking and biting, all earning their place in the mob. Up jerked the filly’s head; at the same time Mr Thomas came into view. She watched and listened as the older man and the younger man spoke quietly to each other. When she realised that neither seemed to be paying her much consideration, she returned her attention to the water trough. The cool water was soft and refreshing as her muzzle tested the liquid, and she took a drink. Callen watched as the muscles in the filly’s neck pushed the water down her throat. The hay from the night before, the dust in the pen as she paced through the night, and the gallop to the yards had left her feeling dry. The two men waited until the filly had finished drinking before they went over to the tall fence that kept her in. Mr Thomas pulled the trough back under the bottom rail, to the outside, so as it would be out of horse and man’s way when Callen began to work with her. Callen slid between the rails, entering the roan’s world with a rope over one shoulder. The young filly raised her head, throwing it high in the air. Small streams of water flew from her nose as she snorted at the stranger, and on the ground puffs of dust rose from the stamping of her hoof.
“Don’t know what all this is about, do you, girl?” Callen said in a soothing voice as he took the rope from his shoulder. In his gloved hands, he made a clean loop in his right while holding the rest of the rope precisely in his left. He then lifted the loop above his head and began to twirl it round and round. The filly darted to the side, making a break for her freedom but as she did, the rope went out and fell directly over her head. With Callen’s sudden jerk as her front feet left the ground, she found herself caught. Fighting back at the rope, Callen stood his ground at the opposite end. The filly pulled backwards and Callen went with her, keeping the rope taught until her rump hit the fence she had been backing towards. With a massive leap forward and to the side, Callen pulled hard to stand her still. The filly stood, snorting at the imposing man in the yard with her. Callen took a step towards the mare and she tried to pull away. Again, Callen pulled tightly on the rope as the filly fought, and when she stopped fighting, Callen eased the pressure a little. So the game went until at last, with the pressure of the rope around her neck, the filly gave in and Callen was able to put his hand on her nose. The filly thought it a curious thing.
While Callen was playing his game with the horse, Tim had been finishing off breakfast and cleaning the dishes, since even the cook had gone to town. Now he too was at the yards and for the most part stood silently with Mr Thomas, just watching. It was something grand to see, the breaking of a young horse still with spirit and fire running through its body.
Once Callen had stroked the filly and gained a little of her confidence he stepped back to the centre of the yard, still holding firmly onto the opposite end of the rope. The filly stood and watched, wondering what would happen next. Callen whooshed the filly, sending her racing around the perimeter of the yard, first this way, then that. Then he made her stop. With a little give and take from both parties, they found a place to come together again. The sweat was dripping from a body that trembled sometimes, mainly through excitement, a little through fear, and so this process continued until Callen felt that he had reached some sort of an agreement with his newest friend.
“Have you a name for her?” Callen asked his boss as he poured more water into the trough at the end of the filly’s first lesson.
“Cinnamon Gay Girl is her right name,” Mr Thomas answered, a little surprised that he had asked.
Normally the blokes that worked on the station just gave their own names to the horses and it didn’t bother him.
Callen thought for just a moment and then asked, “Alright if I call her Cindy?”
“Sure, whatever you like,” Mr Thomas told Callen.
The three men talked and watched the filly for a while, then Callen said that he would give her some more of the same in the afternoon and he and Tim went back to their room to play cards.
The filly progressed quickly and by the third afternoon Callen was driving her around a large yard to the side in long reins. Cindy responded well to all that Callen asked of her – go right go left, stop and back up. Her mouth was soft and quick to obey as she played with the cold bit that lay across her tongue. Callen was pleased, and he hoped to be on her back and have her responding well enough before the rest of the crew came back.
Two days before the men were due back, after working the filly on the ground, Callen decided that she was ready. The boss agreed. Callen checked that the girth was still tight after the workout that he had just given her around the yard and then he stretched her out to make sure that nothing was pinching. This was always a nervous time for Callen; a time to find out just how well he had done the groundwork.
He gathered up the reins, laying across the roan’s neck, making the nearside rein a little shorter than the other so that the filly’s head was turned towards him as he slid his foot into the stirrup. If she tried anything as he got on, she would come under him and he would still be able to get into the saddle. Bouncing and putting only a part of his weight in the stirrup, Callen let the filly feel the weight of his body. She moved only a step and wondered what the hell he was doing. Then Callen lifted himself high beside her, still with his foot in only one stirrup. The filly sagged a little on the near side where Callen had all of his weight, then she took up the weight and straightened herself again. Callen stepped back to the ground and patted the filly, still watching him with a curious eye.
“Do you reckon she’ll buck?” Tim was heard to ask his boss.
Callen lifted himself above the filly again and this time slid into the saddle, his right foot instinctively finding the other stirrup.
“What do you think about all this?” Callen asked his Cindy.” “Not so bad is it?”
Cindy stood still, her head still turned a little from the short rein, and a little through curiosity at the foot now at her side.
“What do you say we go for a walk?” Callen asked when he felt she was right.
Callen gently touched her side with his boot; she didn’t move. He kicked again a little harder, this time a rein in each hand and leaning forward a touch to give her some slack in the short rein as she moved off. Slowly at first, but with gentle persuasion, she was soon walking at a nice pace, turning to the left and right as he asked. Callen got off and opened the gate into a bigger yard then closed the gate behind them and got on again. Gently Callen asked Cindy to move forward again, and she did. As the pair reached the further side of the yard, the filly arched her back and made a couple of crow hops but quickly Callen had her under control. Speaking to her calmly all of the time, as a friend would, and when he was content that she’d had about the right amount of work for one session, he rode the filly back to the gate into the smaller yard, and stepped down from his grand seating. The boss was pleased.
Sunday night, just on dark, the rest of the team rolled back to the station, pretty well sober and in good spirits. Callen was happy that he had already given the filly a couple of rides before they had returned, for the ribbing he received that night would have only been worse if things had not been working out with the filly.
“Couldn’t wait to tell ‘em, could you?” Callen asked his mate when they got back to their room after dinner that night.
“Well, they were gonna find out in the morning anyway,” Tim replied.
The next morning the boss came over to ask the manager how the men were faring.
“Pretty well,” the manager told his boss. “Harry might be a bit slow today, but he’ll be right by tomorrow. Did that pair give you any trouble while I was away?” he asked, glancing over to Callen and Tim as they waited with the others for his instructions. The manager never ate with the men, and so had not yet heard about the roan being broken.
Mr Thomas shook his head. “No, no trouble at all,” he replied, and then he gave the manager a verbal list of things he wanted done for the day. “Come over after knock-off and we’ll discuss the rest of the week,” he said. Then he called out to Callen and beckoned the young man to follow him.
“Your job is the filly,” Mr Thomas said as Callen caught up to him. “You can help out where you can through the day after you’ve worked the horse, but she’s your first priority morning and night until I say otherwise.”
Callen saddled up Cindy and got on with riding her around the smaller yard first and then out into the cooler where he had worked her the afternoon before. Mr Thomas watched as Callen pushed the roan filly through the trees, this way and that in wide circles, still getting her used to the unusual weight she carried on her back.
“I think she’s ready to take out into the paddock, don’t you,” the boss asked when he felt Callen had the filly under his control.
“I think so,” Callen answered.
He had walked the filly, cantered her, backed her up, and got her used to him waving his hat about on her. All that she needed was a lot of steady education. Mr Thomas walked across the big yard and opened the gate for Callen.
“Just take her steady,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” Callen answered.
Later as Callen hung the saddle back on its peg, he thought about the past week and what his boss had said to him earlier in the day, and he appreciated the chance he had been given.
Jen turned to look at the guy who had just spoken and as she did, he planted a kiss on her lips.
“This is for you,” he said, handing her a large box wrapped in silver paper and smothered in curls of pink ribbon.
“Thank you, Scott,” she said politely, taking the box from him. “I’ll open it later.”
“You look stunning,” he remarked, admiring the short pink and white polka dot dress she wore.
Jen’s birthday was actually the following day but she’d agreed with Georgie and her mother that Saturday would definitely be a better day to hold a party. They had considered a lavish affair, but Jen suggested that the nights were too cold and a simple lunchtime barbecue would be just as much fun. She and her mother, with some help from Georgie, prepared all the food they could on the Friday while Lou cleaned up the barbecue as it hadn’t been used in a while.
He mowed the lawn and erected a huge blue and white pergola they had hired to provide extra shade. Saturday morning was a last-minute rush, with tables and chairs to be placed and decorated with balloons and vases of roses, which was Georgie’s idea.
When everyone came – her father’s brother, his brats, her mother’s brother and two sisters and their families, the neighbours from all around, friends she had not seen in far too long – they were all overwhelmed by how stunning the yard had been made to look. It was just the result Georgie had wanted and Jen was happy too for the most part. Everything looked wonderful, and all the people she had wanted to come had, every one but Callen. Never before had she celebrated a birthday without him, and now she was alone.
“Sorry I’m late. The boss kept us working ‘til the job was finished,” Scott explained.
“Oh, that’s okay. You’re here now. Excuse me, it looks like Aunt Jean wants me,” Jen said, seeing her aunt glance in their direction.
Jen waved back as she excused herself then placed the box on the table with all the other unopened presents before joining her aunt.
“It’s a wonderful party, my dear. Are you enjoying yourself?” Aunt Jean inquired as Aunt Jean always did.
“Oh, yes,” Jennifer told her upmarket aunt.
“And who was that handsome devil you were just talking to?” her aunt asked.
“Who? Scott?” Jen replied. “He’s just the son of friends.”
“He looks like he would be a good catch, or have you got someone you’ve been hiding from us?” inquired the inquisitive Aunt Jean.
Whenever Jen’s aunt got together with Jen she always asked her about her latest boyfriend; it seemed to intrigue her. Sometimes Jen expanded the truth about her life and her relationships simply to see the pleasure in her aunt’s eyes. This time, she did not feel up to the task.
“There’s no one at the moment,” Jen told her.
“Oh, that’s what you tell me,” said Aunt Jean.
“It’s true,” Jen retorted, defending herself.
Today Jen could not even think of anyone that she liked and could tell her aunt about.
“That’s what you said last time too, my dear. You’re not getting any younger, you know. Today. Tomorrow,” Aunt Jean corrected, “eighteen. You’d better start having some fun. Lord knows I did at your age. Out nearly every night dancing or going to the movies. That’s how I found your Uncle Henry, you know.”
Jennifer smiled. She must have heard that 100 times; how Jean had gone to a dance and the moment she had walked in she had seen ‘her Henry’ standing by the punchbowl. They had stared at each other all night; even while she had been dancing, she watched as his eyes never left her, and at the end of the night with only one song left, Jean had decided that if he were not going to ask her, then she would ask him.
Afterwards they went around the corner to a café and then he walked her home. That first night they didn’t even kiss. It wasn’t until after several dates that Henry plucked up the courage to sneak a kiss, but Jean said she had always known from the first moment she saw him. Henry was the one she would marry and now after 32 years they were still as in love as that first night.
Lou lit the fire in the stone and mortar barbecue that Callen had built two years ago, and within minutes had Jeff by his side ready to help with the cooking.
“Your girl’s certainly grown up,” Jeff remarked.
“Yep. Seems like only yesterday we first bought her home from hospital. She was so precious. Helen was worried that Callen might be jealous of her, you know, but he wasn’t. He treated that kid just like a little puppy, taking care of her, always watching over her. He even let her tag along while the other boys gave him curry for it. Shame he can’t be here today,” said Jen’s proud father.
“How is Callen these days?” Jeff asked as he finished the stubbly in his hand.
“Oh, good, good. He says he’s loving it. He just broke in a horse for the boss. He loves his horse work, that boy,” Lou added, letting memories come flooding back to him. “Helen misses him. So do I for that matter, but he’ll be back in another couple of weeks or so. You’ll have to come around. I’m sure he’ll have plenty of stories to tell everyone.”
“The territory might have toughened him up a bit,” Jeff said, referring to Callen’s easy-going personality rather than his constitution. “He’ll probably come back cut from a scruff or two and swearin’ like a... like a ringer.”
“I hope not. For his mother’s sake as much as anything. Ah, but I don’t think a few months will have changed him that much,” Lou added.
Jeff gave Lou a look, and then said, “Don’t be too sure. A change of culture like that can do a lot to a man. Hey, Scott, get us another,” he called.
Scott looked around and saw his father holding up an empty stubbly to him. He did as his father asked.
“Better not let Helen hear you talking like that,” Lou warned.
“She doesn’t mind a bloke wettin’ his whistle, does she?” Jeff asked, not catching Lou’s point.
“No. About Callen, I mean,” Lou corrected him.
“Oh, right. Still her baby, hey? Thanks, son. Why don’t you go over and talk to the girls,” Jeff suggested, pointing his son in the direction of Jen and Georgie.
Scott did as his father asked, and what he’d intended.
“Hello, ladies,” Scott said as he reached the two girls. Looking at Jen, he continued, “Your old man told me to tell you that lunch would be ready soon and not to miss out.”
“Oh, did he? Thank you,” Jen answered politely.
“Tell me, Scott, how’s work these days?” Georgie asked, picking up the conversation.
“Good, good. Old Denning just won the ballot on a job at that new resort on the coast, so that’s going to keep us busy for a while, I would say. The two of you should come down when it gets going. I can show you around,” Scott offered.
The offer was extended to both girls but each of them knew it was more specifically meant for Jennifer.
“How’s college?” Scott asked after a brief moment of silence.
“Jen’s doing well,” Georgie replied, “but I’m thinking of quitting.”
Scott was truly curious. “What would you do then?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” Georgie replied.
The first aromas of sizzling meat and onion wafted past their noses.
“Mmm, that smells good,” Jen said, verbalising her thoughts. “I always love the smell of barbecued onions. I think I’ll go over now. Are you coming, Georgie?” she asked.
“I’ll catch up in a minute,” Georgie told her friend.
“What’s wrong with that girl?” Scott asked when Jen was out of earshot. “Every time we start talking, she races off somewhere.”
“She’s playing hard to get,” Georgie replied, teasing him.
“You sure? I thought maybe I was wearing the wrong deodorant or something,” Scott concluded.
“Don’t give up,” Georgie said, patting Scott’s arm and putting a solemn expression on her face.
Georgie knew that Jennifer was not interested but she couldn’t help but hope that Jen might change her mind. There was no point in discouraging him anyway.
Jen tucked into the food and mingled with the crowd some more, thanking them all for coming and mentioning how good it was to see the ones she hadn’t seen for a long time. Meanwhile, the day remained a perfect blend of sunshine and occasional light breezes.
Finally, the crowd sang Happy Birthday; a variety of voices shining through but none so loud and low as Jeff’s. Then Jen cut the cake. It was a sponge smothered in mock cream – Jen’s favourite – with nuts around the sides and decorated with sugared violets over the top.
Jen made her speech, thanking her parents and everyone that came, remembering those that didn’t, including her brother. It had taken her a week to write it. Then she opened her presents. Carefully saving the wrapping paper, she acknowledged each and every person for their wonderful gift. Finally, she came to the large silver box which Scott had given her when he first arrived. Slowly, scared of what she might find, Jen unwrapped the box, hoping that it would not be something embarrassing, or worse, expensive. When at last the box was open, much to her dismay, Jen found a tall doll. It was a lady dressed in the old-fashioned way, wearing a pink and silver dress circled in layers of white lace. The bodice clung to the curves of the doll’s slender body, while the skirt spread out in a full circle, covering the layers of white petticoats underneath. There the doll stood on her polished oak base, umbrella and hat to match under a street lamp. Jen gasped for a moment. It was the lamp she had been admiring in town for the past month. How did he know?
“Thank you, I love it. It’s beautiful. But you shouldn’t have paid so much money,” she said, a little embarrassed.
Scott shrugged his shoulders. He had seen Jen one day admiring the lamp and had kept well out of view until she’d gone. Quickly he said in an easy-going voice, “It’s nothing. I can afford it.”
“Thank you,” Jen said once again as she stood the lamp carefully on the table.
It was nothing he had said, but it had made an impression, just as he had wanted it to. Jen had been totally blown away by the gift and she’d have to think better of him now, wouldn’t she? It was hard to tell when Jennifer had opened her present whose heart was beating faster. Everyone there said that it was the most beautiful present she had received. Jen opened more of her presents, amongst them a silver jewellery box from her Aunty Jean, who had moved over to talk to Helen, directly after the unveiling of Scott’s present. Jennifer marvelled at all of the beautiful gifts before her. Only one was missing. Callen had not sent a gift, not even a card.
“Jen, love,” a voice said as a hand reached out and took hold of her arm.
“Oh, Aunty Jean,” Jen exclaimed, not having noticed who she’d just walked past as she searched the crowd for her mother. “And Scott, thank you once again. You really shouldn’t have, you know.”
“Nonsense, my girl,” her aunt quickly interrupted. “If a nice young man wants to buy you a gift, let him. Isn’t that right, Scott?”
Scott stood and smiled at them, unsure of the right response.
“Are you enjoying the party?” Helen stopped to ask her daughter as she walked past.
“Oh, yes,” Jen told her.
“I’m glad,” Helen said, giving her daughter a hug.
Aunt Jean made an excuse to take her sister away for a quiet conversation, leaving Jennifer with Scott alone.
“Your aunt is cool,” Scott said, turning back to Jen though his eyes had never really left her.
“Yes,” Jen agreed. “She’s always been the life of the party in Mum’s family. Uncle Henry’s cool too once you get to know him and his strange sense of humour. Mostly he sits back and lets Aunty Jean have the floor though.”
“Mum’s always been sensible and so straight,” Scott said. “I sometimes wonder how she puts up with my old man, but he’s good fun.”
Jen smiled and the conversation fell dead for a moment, before Scott asked, “Do you like comedies?”
“I, um...” Jen hesitated.
“Funny movies?” Scott continued, breaking in on her answer.
“Oh, yes, yes. Most of them,” Jen replied.
“There’s a comedy on in town at the moment. Do you want to go next Saturday night?” Scott asked.
Jennifer thought for a moment. Usually she would make an excuse but this time she thought it would be impolite, and, for some reason it didn’t bother her.
“Alright,” she answered.
Scott felt butterflies in his stomach as months of planning had finally come to reality. Jen felt butterflies too at the realisation that now she would have to spend a night alone with the man opposite her.
He picked her up at six thirty as he’d promised he would. They laughed through almost the entire movie. As they sat at a table outside Hungry Jacks, the laughter continued as they recalled their favourite scenes. Scott had wanted to take Jen somewhere fancier – to a hotel or the restaurant by the river – but Jen had insisted that she was happier with a burger and fries. They talked about her college and his work, and Jen found herself actually interested for the first time in what Scott had to say. As they walked side-by-side back to his car more than an hour later, Jen expected him to take her hand or casually place an arm around her shoulder but he didn’t. Jen found herself almost wishing that he did, instead of playing the perfect gentleman so well. It was the same when they said goodnight. Scott came in, said a few words to her parents, asked Jen if she would like to go out again the following Saturday and then left. She found herself surprised by Scott’s actions but stunned by the fact that without hesitation she agreed to go out with him again. She didn’t even tell him that it would be ‘nice’.
That night as Jen lay in her room in the darkness and listened to a moth flying around, plunging its body against the ceiling, she began to think about what she was doing. The first time she’d said yes she’d found herself trapped in a sticky situation, but tonight she could have said no. She had all week, if she wanted, to think of an excuse not to go out again. The thought that she may have been going out with Scott to pay Callen back for not having sent a present crossed her mind for a moment, but then she realised that she really had enjoyed herself. What had annoyed her so much about Scott before this night? She couldn’t remember.
In the weeks that followed Callen did not return home, not even to visit. He’d written to his mother and apologised for missing Jen’s birthday. He hoped that the card and the silver locket he’d had Mrs Thomas pick up for him on one of her monthly trips to town would in some way make up for his tardiness. He had planned to deliver it in person. And then Callen informed his mother that the boss had asked him to stay on until the end of the year for the first round of branding, and that he had agreed. The roan filly was progressing well. The fellas had gone to town again, Tim going with them this time. They’d told him he was crazy sitting out there alone, but the peace was good. Finally, he’d written, ‘Say hi to Scott for me. Tell him I said he had better take good care of my little sister.’
Helen had told Callen in her last letter that Scott and Jen had been seeing quite a bit of each other since her birthday; nothing serious, Jen says. But her mother wasn’t so sure.
By the time Christmas arrived, Jen had found the comfort of Scott’s arms. It had been a relief the first time he’d placed his arm softly around her waist. They had been walking side-by-side into a movie as they always did, never encroaching on each other’s boundaries, and then he had made his move, and it felt right.
Callen arrived home as he’d left – on a Greyhound bus with two average-sized suitcases and a smile to brighten even the gloomiest of days. Lou, Helen and Jen had all made the trip into town that night. His mother raced to his side when she saw him step off the bus and she hugged him tightly for the year she had missed. Callen appeared a little thinner now, if that were possible, and his skin had darkened to its full potential. He seemed quieter than usual, but this would change once he’d got over the long trip and settled back in. Lou shook Callen’s hand and gave the boy a simple pat on the back.
“It’s good to have you home, son,” he said. Then he turned to Jen. “Haven’t you got a hug for your brother?”
“Of course I have,” Jen answered, and she did.