Set in 1964, Jimmy, aged 18, leaves his life on a million acre sheep farm in central New South Wales, Australia, to take a job in the city. He meets Catherine, who is high society, beautiful and wants for nothing. Is there any future for them?1
Coming-of-age / Young adult fiction
Karin Bennett (Australia)
Words are inadequate when it comes to describing the utter isolation of growing up on a million acre sheep station; where you only know your neighbours by their voices on the telephone; where to borrow a cup of sugar is to hop in the Beech and fly over the nearest border. Truth is I was legally allowed to fly before I ever learnt to drive.
Upon the completion of my Leaving Certificate, I am doing just that, leaving, setting out to drive the 1700 miles that separates me from what has always been my home and Sydney, my future. I look out the windscreen at the twin tracks of rubber tread, all that remains of thousands of young men just like me, eager to escape, hungry for society, yearning for something different, anything really … and perhaps the chance to meet a girl.
“You’ll be back,” No-eyed Freddy had chirped, curved over his pint at the kitchen counter waiting for his grub. Fred had come looking for work in the summer of ‘46, fresh from the conflict overseas and injured to boot. For some twenty years he has worked for us, although I don’t know one person who could’ve said what it is he does. But we couldn’t have lived without him any more than he could’ve lived without us.
A hazy dome of light slowly appears on the horizon, an overture to the city. I stretch out my hand, expecting an amphibian web; I have crawled out of the swamp in search of my own evolution.
Despite what people say, it’s not quiet in the bush. There’s a whole orchestra of sound: the wind messing with the trees, the birds’ grand opera narrating their everyday minutia, the crickets heralding the dusk, and the sound of water, relentless in its reshaping of the earth. But the city’s sound has an urgency: birds are replaced by car horns, crickets by people’s voices, tree rustling by the static of electricity. Those voices, the music, the alarms and the ultrasonic hurrumm eagerly fill the void, packing more and more and more in, so that the density of sound begins to resemble a black hole.
In the bush, each light has its nexus, its surrounding chorus and its slowly diminishing lumen; each one is perfectly complete. In the city, the lights shake hands up close, talking over the top of one another, not satisfied until they contaminate every single possible space point with light. The night sky is barely visible beyond the neon haze, and the stars, once the masters of my universe, have taken a back seat.
I look up at the buildings, perfectly engineered and arrogantly parallel, their tops straining to commune with one another and I am overcome by my meagre existence, something I’ve never felt in the bush, where I have spent hours contemplating water walkers on a pond or ants going about their business. Here in the city, everything feels bigger than me.
It sounds fearsome, doesn’t it? Like I can’t wait to go home? Truthfully, it is everything I have hoped for and more. I am consumed by an alien fascination and an overwhelming sense of possibility. I throw myself into my new job, settle into the four-square cardboard box that is now my home and get on with my new life.
It seems somewhat incongruous to me that I have woken every day at 4.45am, up and ready for the day’s chores. Yet here in the city, the alarm is an ugly surprise; I peel back my eyelids from bleary, overexerted eyeballs and it is only dogged self-determination that pulls me from my bed.
Perhaps it is the social scene. In the outback, the social scene consisted of a monthly country dance some two hundred miles from the station, an overnight stay in a motel and a Sunday morning church service, before hopping in the plane to fly home. And sometimes we didn’t even get to go, not if shearing season was on. On every other day, my social scene would consist of playing with my five brothers and two sisters, tearing around the shearers’ quarters in fevered excitement when the itinerant workers were coming to stay or playing chess with No-eyed Freddy of an afternoon after school-of-the-air.
I’d once asked No-eyed Freddy why he was so named because it seemed to me he had two perfectly good eyes. He’d replied, “There were’n two Freds when I went ta school. So ta save confusion, he were’n called One-eyed Freddie and I got No-eyed Freddy.” I was about eight years old at the time and didn’t get the joke.
Where was I? The social scene. It isn’t the girls. Well, not entirely. It’s that there’s so much to do. I am a child who has entertained himself with a stick and a tin can, or by watching God chase His storms across a big sky. All of a sudden there are movies and parties and concerts and sport games, none of it requiring my imagination.
I’ve taken to smoking and standing nonchalantly at the edge of the halls, my clothes perfectly laundered and pressed, my dark hair brill creamed so that the precise paths of the comb tines are ever present. I hug the wall, not for security, but more for a James Dean air of mystery and brooding. And it’s working. I can see them noticing me, the girls, grouped together like flowers in a posy. They choreograph their promenade, eyes glancing towards me, then back, then tittering to their friends behind gloved hands.
I am being honest when I said it isn’t about the girls. That’s true. Because it is about one girl.
She is exquisitely petite, her dark, glossy head reaching less than shoulder height for the average man. Everything about her is perfectly regimented, her hair, her face, her figure. Even her dress dare not misbehave, falling in rigid lines about her slim legs. And, despite her youth, she is well schooled. She hasn’t permitted herself one single glance in my direction.
Catherine doesn’t belong to a posy of girls. She’d have outshone them, a blood red rose in its infant stage, against their daisy, showy prettiness. Instead, she stands to the side of the crowd and the young men come to her. Catherine is so overcome by the attention that she excuses herself to the ladies’ room for any other excuse would see scores of young men clamouring over one another to bring whatever she desired. Now they stand thronged about the lavatory, smoking and joking, just waiting for her to reappear.
I push off the wall, extinguish my cigarette and make my way to the bar. Resting one elbow on the waxed timber, I raise the ball bottomed glass to my lips and watch the doorway. Like every other man.
Catherine emerges eventually, her lipstick refreshed and her confidence renewed and the young men step aside in two straight rows before falling in her wake.
And there it is.
A single, giveaway glance. Not towards me, but to the place where I had been, where perhaps my shadow still lingers.
An anti-look, if you like.
And the smallest of sweet frowns crosses her forehead before she composes herself, annoyed at her ill-discipline. A blush creeps up over her cheeks and her pale complexion is slowly coloured in. I like that I have caused her consternation. I have no experience of love but I know that there will be a look for us, a real one and a realisation across a crowded room. Tonight, this anti-look is sufficient for my dreams.
But Fred’s old voice lurks at the edges of my mind, “You’ll be back, Little Jimmy.” And I can’t suppress the question, “How will Catherine adapt to life on the station?” From modern conveniences to hard yakka, her smallest of small waists thickening with the bearing of sons, her soft pearl pinked fingers chipped and rough from the washing of dishes and sheets and clothes and children.
And her mind.
Catherine. Now the centre of an admiring crowd, deported to a universe of one: me, a single moon spinning round and round her in increasingly predictable orbits.
I can’t do it do her. She, who could be high society and want for nothing.
For it has never really been a question of not returning. I’ve known that all along. We all think we can branch out and forge a different path upon the earth, but four generations of sheep farming takes a genetic toll. Like a river being corralled by its banks, I may wander but I cannot escape.
It’s not the wide-open spaces, the solitude, the absence of light and sound.
It’s not the wealth, the inheritance, the duty as the eldest son.
It’s the roots, the deep seated vines that have the thickness of a man’s arm.
I am tied to her, Mother Earth, from whence I came and to whom I must inevitably return.
Competition: The Pen Factor 2016, Round 1
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