Probably it was much the same as any other summer’s day—the paddocks bleached; the hills blue as grapebloom; the sun burning down through the still, slow afternoon. And the car that rattled past raised a slanting plume of dust that hung over the paddocks—the way it always did in summer.
Della and I were on our way to the swimming-hole. And the swimming-hole was—well, just as it always was in summer—still and rushy-cool, an edge of damp clay above the water-line marking its shrinking.
I remember, too, how the dust puffed up between our toes with the feel of summer. The day was different though. Somehow we sensed it.
Della would have been about twelve then. I was a year or so younger. It must have been towards the end of school holidays, for I know we weren’t at school.
The morning escapes me. The day seems to begin with the afternoon—with our going to swim and the dust hanging over the paddock and puffing up about our feet.
Della was walking in front. Our towels were draped over our heads to keep off the sun. I remember we didn’t race each other to see who’d be first in. Nor did we try to out-swim each other. Instead, after a while Della pulled herself up on the big log that breasted the water near the end of the hole; and presently I did the same. We sat there with the sun on our shoulders, dabbling our feet, until suddenly Della said:
—The sea’ll be lots cleaner than this old hole.
—Yes, it must be wonderful, the sea. Better even than the river.
After that we lapsed into silence and Della continued dabbling her feet and counting how long the ripples took to reach the far bank.
—Melbourne must be wonderful, I said. What’ll we do there, Dell? Della gave a slight shrug of her thin brown shoulders.
—Look at everything…all the sights.
She looked away to where the cows were moving out again from shadow-pools along the creek, flicking the flies and nosing the dry, scant grass. We watched them drift away, then feet-first we slid into the water, letting its coldness slide up over our heads.
The far bank was of clay and wet and slippery, but we clawed up it and lay on the hot, dusty earth. We lay there for what seemed hours, the sun burning down on us, until Della said:
—I’m hungry. I wish it was tea-time.
Then we got to our feet; but we knew there’d be no tea until Dad and Dick got back.
Dick was only a couple of years or so older than Della, but to us he already seemed a man. He could drive the car, look after a team of horses, fix the wireless—almost anything.
We wandered homeward. The stillness of a summer’s afternoon was over the house, the paddocks, the world. At the back-gate old Darkie trotted out to meet us. He was Della’s—a big, black, rough-haired dog, part-kelpie. Della was fond of dogs. She took his head between her hands and said:
—Darkie’ll like living in town, won’t you boy? He gave a lazy wag of his tail, and I said:
—But there won’t be no rabbits there, Dell.
She only looked at me curiously. I wondered why as we wandered on to the house.
Mother would have been in her late fifties then. Her hair was greying and she seemed to be always working. She was making jam, and as we entered she lifted a stewpan from the stove. Her eyes were red and it wasn’t just from the fire.
She eyed us in a way she usually didn’t and wanted to know where we’d been for so long. Della protested we hadn’t been anywhere at all. She was easily hurt and rather quick-tempered. She tossed her head with a sort of childish defiance.
It brought a sudden flush to Mother’s cheeks. She struck at Della with the cloth in her hand. The table was between them and Della slid along it and out of reach.
It didn’t go any further. Mother threw aside the cloth and there were tears in her eyes.
Della stood there trembling. Then Mother turned suddenly away and leaned upon the mantel-piece. When she turned to us again, her cheeks were wet.
—Cut yourselves a piece, she said.
Della took the loaf from the bin and cut a round of bread and jam for each of us, and we took it outside and sat on the broken sofa under the pear-tree, munching in silence. The day seemed as if it would never end.
We sat there a long time, hardly a word passing between us, until the sun sank low on the hills. The cows had begun moving in towards the house and along the creek; galahs rose and wheeled and counter-wheeled in sudden sweeps of pink and grey.
Della threw aside her crust. Over the paddocks low veils of dust were growing gold in the late sun.
—It ain’t our place any more, she said. But I don’t care.
I looked at her, not understanding, and noticed she was close to crying. She wiped a quick hand across her eyes.
—You wouldn’t understand, Johnno. But I’m glad. I hate it and everybody too!
I didn’t understand. Della had never talked that way before. It was something I couldn’t follow at all. I took Darkie by the neck and wandered off to collect the eggs.
I heard the chugging of the car and watched it wind down the dusty track and swing into the yard. Dad got out and went straight inside.
When I came up, Dick was shutting the door of the shed.
—All sold, Johnno. It’s all old Bailey’s now.
And for the first time I began to understand what Della meant. I picked up the billy of eggs and followed Dick inside.
Della was setting the table and Mother standing at the dresser, slicing onions in a bowl. Dad was sitting at the end of the table, his tie slung over his shoulder, his shirt-collar unbuttoned, elbows resting on his knees, his chin cupped in his hands. He looked tired. Wisps of grey hair stuck to his forehead, and his blue eyes were looking out beyond the kitchen-door to where the home-paddock fronted the creek.
Presently he took his pipe from his pocket, lit it and drew on it in silence. He got up after a while and crossed to the stove and knocked it out. We pulled in our chairs and sat down.
The sun had set, but it was still hot. Only a faint rustle of air lifted the curtain and the table-cloth a moment and passed away again. Outside the dusk was settling slowly over the paddocks. The sky was dusty gold, and against it cockatoos drifted and tacked like scraps of paper tossed white on a wind.
After a long silence Dad pushed his plate away and said:
—Well, she’s all over bar shoutin’.
He glanced at Mother, but she kept her eyes on the fruit she was dishing out and he turned to look away across the paddocks.
Della passed around the dishes; but somehow I felt I didn’t want anything to eat. There was a tightness in my throat and I just wanted to go away and not talk to anyone. When I pushed my plate aside Mother asked:
—What’s ailing you?
I didn’t know.
All I knew was that I wasn’t hungry any more. Dick got up and went away to milk the cows, and Mother said tightly:
—I thought the forty-acres would’ve brought more?
And in a tired sort of way Dad began to catalog what the different paddocks had brought; how the bidding had gone; what they should have brought and how much less they did. Though a lot of it was beyond our understanding, it was clear they’d brought much less than had been hoped.
Mother got up and went out for what she called a ‘breath of air’.
Dad filled his pipe and looked at us. His eyes looked misty.
—It’s hard on you two, he said, then wandered away.
Della and I were left alone. We didn’t feel like talking. We cleared the dishes, washed and put them away, almost without a word.
Dick came in from milking to tell us the mail was down, so that soon after Della and I slipped out by the back-gate, taking the track that led to the mail-box.
The dusk was deepening but it was still quite light. Fowls were settling to roost on the drooping branches of the pepper-tree by the dairy, and the cows were down for the night. We swung them gently by the horns and called them by name as we passed among them.
The dust of the track was no longer hot beneath our feet. A coolness seemed to be creeping low on the ground about the creek, and the black vanes of the windmill made a softly rhythmic sound as they scarcely turned on the red of the sky.
We didn’t speak. It was as if we didn’t know how. At last Della said:
—Dad’s upset. Mother, too.
But I didn’t feel like saying anything, and we walked on, just slicing the air with a stick.
There were a couple of letters that Della slipped into her pocket, saying:
Her voice seemed grown-up; different.
From nowhere a rabbit scuttled into the blackberries spreading low over the creek. Suddenly, and for no reason at all, we both laughed and pulled ourselves up the farther bank and sat down the way we always did.
—Ain’t it still, Della said, her voice a whisper.
Low on the water insects hummed and hovered. A dimness was spreading over the paddocks and the cooling air drew a faint, sweet fragrance from the bruised grasses about us.
The water-hole below grew shadowy-dark. It was deep and treacherous with snags and the water was black and scummy. Always it had been the Bunyip Hole, and though we’d long since outgrown bunyips its black stillness could still, on occasions, evoke a passing fear.
A frog made a sudden plumping sound as it dropped from the rushes into the water, raising a little ring of ripples that caught a first glint of starlight. Della gave a little shudder and we got up and turned towards home.
It was the hour of half-light when often we’d invent strange creatures bent upon stranger errands. But now they seemed to belong to a different world. A rabbit bobbed away in front of us unheeded. Our feet found the twistings of the sheep-track as if by instinct, and we walked on in silence.
The day was ending. Mother or Dick had lit the lamp in the kitchen and its thin yellow ray reached out towards us in a world slipping quietly into darkness.
We went in by the back-gate. Dad was sitting at the table and Mother opposite him. A sheet of paper covered with figures lay on the table. Mother looked tired. The hot yellow lamplight drew harsh lines on her cheeks and her hair wisped loosely about her forehead. Beetles whirred blindly about the light and she flicked at them with a crumpled handkerchief.
Della handed her the letters and she slipped them inside her blouse.
—Get yourselves a drink, she said. You must be thirsty.
We had a drink and sat on the sofa. It was hot in the kitchen. The contracting iron of the roof made sharp ‘pinking’ sounds, and flying ants and other insects, drawn by the light, crawled and fluttered about the table.
Presently Dad picked up the sheet of paper and passed it to Mother, and she held it close to the light, pondering it. And I remember that as she put it down there was a defeated look in her eyes. She said quietly:
—We can only hope.
She folded the paper and handed it back.
—Hope something will happen.
Dad put it away in his pocket and drew himself slowly to his feet.
—I can’t see any way out, he said, and his limp seemed the more pronounced as he moved towards the door.
Mother watched him go. Her face was cupped in her hand. Della and I sat on the sofa flicking the pages of a magazine, half-looking at the pictures.
The clock on the mantel-piece struck and Mother said:
—You two get ready for bed now.
Her words seemed as if they were spoken without even thinking.
We said ‘good-night’ and went out. Our beds were under the pear-tree. We took off our clothes and climbed into bed.
The night was still. Beyond the creek a faint orange glow showed that the January moon was about to rise. Often we’d lain there and watched the moon drift over the hill like a great orange balloon. Della had invented fine stories of how the bunyip had stolen the moon’s fire as it stared down on him in his dark pool, so that it shrank and grew paler the higher it rose. But now Della was facing the other way, humming very softly to herself.
—Dell, I whispered, leaning towards her. The moon’ll soon be up.
But she didn’t answer me. She just kept on with her humming.
The trees grew black on the deepening glow of the sky. A bat went clicking past with nervous flutter, and from the apple-tree a wagtail ‘sweet-pretty-creatured’ once, twice, then again and again.
I lay still, listening, and presently Della raised herself on her elbows and called softly:
—Johnno! Willy’s awake.
I was waiting for Della to notice him. We sat up, hugging our knees and listening to the bird repeat its summery chittering, over and over again. Above us the moon fretted the pear-tree silver.
Suddenly Della gave a little stifled sob that startled me.
—I hate him, Johnno! I hate him!
Her voice was a shrill little cry like that of a bird itself. The words broke off sharply, and she sank down on the bedclothes, clutching the pillow to her face.
I watched the shaking of her shoulders against the pillow and tears came into my eyes.
—Dell, I whispered. But she didn’t answer.
I lay a long time, my thoughts awake, a feeling I had never known before upon me; a feeling I tried to understand, but which yet eluded me. And the warmth drained from the summer moon and the wagtail ceased its singing and the light went out in the kitchen and the world grew still.
Sometime in the night I woke. The moon was small and white and high in the sky, silvering the kitchen-roof and the trees and casting pools of blackness on the ground.
I could hear Della’s quiet breathing as she lay on the bed nearby. Her thin arm hung over the side and the moon was touching it with light.
A stillness was on the world—the house in shadow, the paddocks drifting white to the dark line of the creek. Not even a leaf stirred. High overhead, the stars of the Milky Way flickered in soft veils.
I lay there watching them, wondering strange thoughts about them, until far off a rooster crowed—once, twice, then again, and more distantly still, another. Soon it must be day, I thought, and turned towards the east. But there the stars were still glowing white and full and far away. I lay awake watching—watching for a first faint hint of day. A breeze went trembling through the leaves above me; and listening for its passing, I drifted into sleep again.