Rick and I sat outside The Shed’s sliding door, collapsed into the green plastic chairs and sipping beers, as we had many times before.
What was different this time was that we were finally home. This very afternoon we had staggered out of the car after the drive from Sydney – after two days of working with the removalists to load up all our possessions, after two weeks of packing, farewells and farewell parties.
We were beyond words.
On the big dining table in The Shed behind us lay a jumble of the treasures we had brought up in the car with us. There was a collection of cards and drooping balloons from a farewell party we’d thrown at the weekend, where sixty-some people had shown up to say temporary (perhaps some permanent?) goodbyes. Also on the table lay a bound book with my name embossed on the cover, given to me by work colleagues a few days ago at a wild and emotional shebang. The book was an anthology of greetings and memoirs from people I had worked with and loved, mementoes of a career which had defined me to myself for almost twenty years.
There was a tangle of computers, hard drives, cables and DVDs to help us maintain contact with our old world, as well as to provide us with entertainment of an autumn evening. Drooping among this technology was a little bouquet of Longueville hibiscus passed to us through the car window by a tearful Eve as we pulled out of our parking space to head north.
There was a cat cage, its former occupant currently in hiding under the laundry room sink.
And – a takeaway chicken and salad, which we were too tired to be interested in.
Early tomorrow morning the removalists would arrive. They would drop off our Longueville possessions, then take a truckload of furniture and boxes to a storage unit in Taree. I was dreading the several hours work it would take to get ready for them.
I thought about our housemates back in Longueville, settling down for an evening meal without us. They had successfully negotiated another twenty month lease on that beautiful home, taking them up to the November date that represented Daniel’s committed departure time. They had found someone who would use the space Rick and I had vacated on the lower floor as an office and occasional bedroom.
They say that among life’s greatest traumas are leaving a career and moving house, and we had just experienced both. I’d like to announce that we were flush with the possibility of the new life stretching ahead of us – but the truth is, we weren’t. Instead, we were exhausted, somewhat sad and a little edgy.
Which is not to say we didn’t enjoy the beer and the setting sun.
* * *
Within a few days Rick liberated the family lawn mower, unused for two years, from the collection of equipment we’d stashed in the old garden shed. He whipped it into shape and put it and himself to the task of reclaiming a half acre of what had been pristine lawn when we first bought the property four years ago. Several hours and many wheel barrowsful of clippings later, the property’s transformation by its new tenants was underway.
Much more daunting was the acre down the hillside where enough weeds were flourishing to threaten the entire local ecology. One day as I discussed this problem over the fence with our neighbour Steve, he recommended we hire Scrubby to do the slashing. Scrubby was depicted as a colourful character with a wholehearted approach to life – and reasonable rates for work with his tractor and slasher.
“Slashing” was not a term I knew in the context of farming. I discovered from Steve that it was a respectable activity involving a mowing device that dragged behind the tractor and could handle formidably rough terrain.
“Yew byoody!” Scrubby exclaimed when I phoned him. “Don’t you fret, me and the rig’ll be out there in a coupla days.” When I pressed him about his rate, he waved me off. “Awww, she’ll be right,” he said. “You’ll be so happy with the job you’ll pay me anything.” His enthusiasm was insurmountable so I finished the call with a light heart. Scrubby was obviously every bit the character he’d been billed to be.
Two days later Rick and I watched as Scrubby arrived and guided his big tractor off a flatbed truck. He gave us a wave and launched his slasher straight into the hip-high weeds at the edge of the driveway. When he drew closer to us, he dragged himself off the tractor and limped over to introduce himself.
We exchanged hellos and discussed his dodgy knee. Then, skilled as I was in the art of negotiation, I asked what it might cost to do the hillside below.
Scrubby just laughed and flapped a hand. “Oh, I’ll do everything I can get that slasher into,” he said. “Don’t worry your little head, it won’t break the bank. Might’s well get it all done while I got the tractor here. Nice spot you got,” he added, hobbling back to his rig.
I stopped worrying my little head. We were in the country, and the job needed doing.
Curious about exactly what Scrubby was up to, we found things to do outside while he wove his magic amongst the runaway underbrush. Once while he was far down the hillside there was a jarring crunch, followed by a deep ominous jangle and a sudden silence as the motor shut down. Seconds later, the valley filled with the sound of, “Yew BASTID!” There were thuds, clunks, heavy whacks, more heartfelt “BASTID!”s and some indecipherable growls.
Minutes went by. “Do you think he could use a hand?” Rick asked apprehensively.
As he cast about for a pair of work boots, the welcome sound of the tractor starting again came up from the valley. Rick gratefully went inside to work on his computer, leaving the baffling work of the rugged outdoors to the man of the land.
After a couple of hours of wrestling his tractor up and down the steep hillside, every now and then encountering stumps that hung up the slasher, Scrubby made his way back to The Shed.
“Now, don’t that look terrific?” he beamed, looking over his work approvingly. The hillside did indeed look wonderful, almost as manicured as Rick’s freshly mown lawns.
We agreed it was a vast improvement.
“So,” I said somewhat apprehensively, “What do we owe you?”
He named a sum that did indeed take me aback. I thought, that’s half what I paid for my last haircut and colour in Sydney. My hairdresser had worked on a few square centimetres, spending ten minutes on the colour, five on the wash and fifteen on the cut. Scrubby, on the other hand, had put in two back-breaking hours, slashing over an acre of steep and unforgiving land, using expensive and dangerous equipment. It was a startling lesson in country economics.
“Would you prefer cash?” Rick asked.
“Cash? What’s that?” said Scrubby. Rick paused, startled. “Ah, mate, what else would I take?” he said, clapping Rick on the back.
As I watched Scrubby wrestle his tractor onto the flatbed of his truck, I couldn’t help think: no wonder country people think city people are senseless. Even fresh from The Big Smoke, I was beginning to see urban values as somewhat askew.
We waved him off, thinking he was someone we’d like to see on our property regularly.
* * *
In profound and unexpected ways, we began to make this property our permanent home.
On one warm November day, I was alone at The Shed, standing in the doorway. I had in my hand a small blue ceramic pot with a tiny lid that snuggled into its mouth. My heart was skittering inside my chest; I calmed myself by listening for a few moments to the first of the year’s cicadas. I stroked the little pot.
Inside it were some of my father’s ashes. I had brought them back to Australia with me after his funeral in Canada several years ago. They had sat on a shelf here or a mantle there in the intervening years, with no one suspecting that anything of value to me lay within those curved blue ceramic walls. That was the way I wanted it because that’s the way Dad would have wanted it.
But something had changed this morning. As I’d dusted the little pot a few minutes ago, lightly caressing it and chatting to him as I often did, my father spoke. Let’s do it, he said. Get these puppies scattered. It’s as good a day for it as there’s ever going to be.
“Here?” I said, aghast. “This isn’t the perfect place.”
Look around you, Kiddo. Does it get any more perfect?
I looked out through The Shed’s sliding door. Although I hadn’t seen it before, I understood this spot could well be my final resting place, and would serve as Dad’s as well. Just because he’d never set eyes on it didn’t mean he couldn’t rest happily here. I loved this piece of land and hadn’t realised until this moment that was good enough for him.
Then I recognised what the problem was. “I don’t think I’m ready, Dad.”
He didn’t reply. I thought about letting him go. That was a hard one.
I asked my father if he wanted a little ceremony with others around while we did the deed. Nope, just you, Kiddo. And let’s not be too sentimental about it.
“Okay, Dad,” I said. “Then let’s just do it. I’ll put on some shoes and off we go.”
My father’s ashes were secured in a plastic bag, so, there on the wooden doorstep of The Shed, I began by opening the bag and pouring the ashes directly into the little urn. A tiny cloud spilled onto the rough wooden steps that led into our home. The process had begun.
“All right,” I said. “Well, let me take you on a tour. Behind us here is the shed where Rick and I will be living for a year or so. It’s comfortably set up; we’ll be fine there.”
Yep, I know that. Of course you’ll be fine. Your mother and I lived in a much shabbier house on the farm for a longer time than that.
I thought about the house I’d lived in as a young child. “Nothing wrong with that house, Dad,” I said. “And look ahead here. This level spot is where our new house is going to be built. It’s going to be a swish new home for three families, and I’ll be the one responsible for getting it built properly.” I looked into the distance. “I sure could use you around supervising while that happens, with all your building experience.”
He was quiet for a moment. I’d love to be, Kiddo, but you’ll be fine.
I lifted the lid and sprinkled out a few ashes. They caught the wind, landing on the building site where my father would help me make the right decisions about the upcoming house.
“I hope you don’t mind we’ll be sharing the house with other people,” I said. “I know it’s not exactly your way.”
You always did things your own way, Kiddo. And I always liked that about you.
My heart warmed to its task. I said, “Let’s go down the hill. It’s beautiful down there.” I headed into the deep grass that covered the hillside. Tall woody purple flowers brushed against my bare elbows. “We had a great old guy named Scrubby come and mow this a few months ago. It could use another visit from him,” I told Dad. A pair of birds startled into flight. “Eastern Rosellas,” I said. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
You’ve got fine-looking birds in this country.
I tossed a bit of ash into the wake of the rosellas.
I like that big pine, he said, referring to the evergreen giant still standing at the foot of the hill.
As I worked my way into the deep shade under the tree, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that pines aren’t considered our friends here on Mitchells Island and that big beauty probably wouldn’t be here much longer. I sprinkled a few ashes under its huge canopy and kept walking.
“Here on the hillside we’ll be planting a few fruit trees,” I said. “I will most certainly need your help with those.”
Whatever you say. A few more ashes caught the wind near where the fruit trees would grow.
I waded through the tall grass toward the barbed-wire fence separating our property from the farm next door. “I never look at those cattle without thinking about our farm at home,” I said. “This guy is named John Scott. He doesn’t have anything like the farm you did, but you have to admit those Herefords and Angus are pretty fat and sleek.”
He’s got a nice piece of property too, on the river like that. Would have liked to have a yarn with him. Always was interested in Australian farmers.
I threw a handful of the remaining ashes over the fence onto Farmer John’s property. It’s not something I would have thought to do before this, but I realised now it was just the right thing. My father belonged there. He belonged a lot of places, really.
After that, it was easier to find places to scatter the ashes. He didn’t talk to me much now; it felt like the bandwidth was cutting out a little. I tossed a few into the rough little garden I’d started, a few onto the driveway where our car would travel every day, and for good measure a few more onto the building site.
There were tears on my cheeks as I finished the task, but my heart felt light. I sat on the wooden steps by the shed, and tossed the empty jug back and forth between my hands much as Dad and I used to do with potatoes straight out of the campfire.
I thought about love, and I thought about loss. They are directly proportional, I realised. And would you ever give up some of one in order to have less of the other?
I thought about my children, now twenty-six and twenty-eight, both recently venturing to western Canada, and how much I missed them since they’d left. This was how my Dad, and my mother, would have missed me when I moved to Australia.
I thought about my Mitchells Island family, and how they were burrowing their way into my heart. We run a great risk when we come to love people.
* * *
As I settled into my new existence, I found I loved the relaxed quality of life, the bliss of quiet days, the joy of making my own choices about what to do with my time. To my surprise, I didn’t much miss the high-energy work I’d been doing in the city – but I did yearn for the people I’d worked with. I emailed back and forth with a number of them, and we chatted on Facebook, but eventually I decided it was time to discover some new kindred spirits. I deliberately took on a project to place myself inside a number of local communities.
I decided to start with what was staring me in the face each day outside The Shed door: a potential construction site that would someday need to be transformed into a garden paradise. It was going to take a lot of guidance to have that happen, so I checked the internet to see if there was a local garden club. That led me to phone the president of the “Old Bar Garden and Gourmet Club”. Joan was enormously welcoming and meticulous in describing what was involved. “Come to the meeting next week,” she said, in a voice that brooked no contradiction.
With nothing to lose, I went along to a meeting that was not quite what I’d expected. For one thing, I was younger than anyone else in the group, to the extent that I wondered if I had enough years to be considered a serious gardener. For another, there was very little talk about gardening and a great deal of discussion about the cafés that would be visited on upcoming outings. I learned the club members met each Wednesday at one of the local restaurants, had a formal monthly meeting, and went on a bus trip once a month. The women were as warm and welcoming as Joan had been. For forty cents, I bought two plants provided by members as part of the club’s routine fundraising.
Two weeks later I joined them for dubious Chinese food at the Old Bar Tavern. President Joan told me she had a plasticised name tag made for me, so there was no question of dodging the next monthly meeting. Accordingly, I showed up again and listened to discussions about the restaurants they’d visited, about someone who’d gone to hospital, about thrips on tomato plants. Half way through the second meeting, I thought: I haven’t much in common with these women; I’m not learning a lot about gardening; I’ll make this my last meeting. I’ll pick up a couple more little plants at twenty cents each and that will be that. I settled back to listen as President Joan led us through plans for the next month’s activities.
But by the end of the meeting when several of the women stopped to ask me how we were settling in, where I’d planted the geraniums I got at the meeting last month, what kinds of plants we were thinking of for our gardens, what other clubs I might have joined – I realised there was something real, honest, solid and warm about these women. They had vast amounts to contribute to me – as I perhaps did for them. The expression “salt of the earth” was made for these women. Maybe I was a salt-of-the-earth woman myself. I put away our differences and started searching for similarities.
I set aside the time for the monthly meetings and at least one lunch date, and the Old Bar Garden and Gourmet Club became one of my new communities.
Over time, I joined a Taree writers group, helped start a book club and became a member of a local community choir. My life began to fill with people again.
* * *
Despite the tree clearing that had already been done in anticipation of building, there was still an abundant pine forest toward the bottom of the hillside. These pines continued to be a frequent subject of discussion among the Shedders. I still hadn’t managed to generate much enthusiasm about removing all of them, but my partners were less tolerant. We can leave a few at the bottom for now, they said, but let’s get rid of everything on the slope.
I contacted Warren, the terse fellow who had removed the previous batch of pines with some difficulty. Sure enough, he didn’t want a bar of the job. “Nearly did in my excavator on that stuff last time,” he said.
He recommended another operator, James, who had heavier equipment.
I rang James, who was happy enough to tackle the job, and showed up a few days later with a much larger machine. He worked for an hour, finally coming up the hill to let us know it was just too tough. He knew another guy who had a bigger excavator yet, and he’d see if he could get hold of it. It would cost a little more but he was pretty sure it could get the job done.
After James left, Rick and I stood at the top of the hill, looking down at the work done that morning. It felt as if we were witnessing the aftermath of a massacre. Deep tracks ripped across the hillside down to a battered treeline where a few pines lay tossed about like splintered toothpicks. This machinery with its lacerating metal tracks was bad enough – the thought of what larger, heavier pieces would do was unbearable. And the expense! It felt as if these trees might haunt me to my grave.
We were joined in our ruminations by our neighbour Trevor, who’d come out to tend his horses and spotted us in our glum tableau across the street.
“Bit of a mess, isn’t it?” he said, with characteristic understatement.
He didn’t get any argument from us. “Any ideas?” I asked him.
He wagged his head back and forth. “Well, you could just chain-saw ’em down,” he said. “Cut ’em close to the ground; limb ’em and then a bobcat with rubber tyres could stack ’em easy enough. No heavy machinery needed. Wouldn’t make a ripple in the soil.”
Rick and I glanced at each other, feeling a glimmer of hope.
“What about the stumps?” Rick asked.
“Yeah, well, you’d cut ’em low so there wouldn’t be much showing. They’d rot away after a few years.”
I sucked in a breath. “This something you could do?” I asked him, trying to sound casual.
“Sure, wouldn’t be a problem.”
Rick and I sent each other silent signals. Rick named the price the excavator operator had originally quoted us. “Could you do it for that?”
Trevor barely bothered to scratch his head. “Sure, that’d be fine.”
After Trevor disappeared across the street, Rick and I high-fived and raced into The Shed to call James, who sounded relieved to have the problematic job cancelled.
So it was that for several weeks after that, Trevor would amble over at some time during the day with his chainsaw in one hand and his dog Kelly at his heel. He would spend a couple of hours on the hillside. I got to know the patterns – there would be the roar of the chainsaw for a minute while he cut the first wedge, then another similar roar while he cut the second wedge, then a heartbeat’s silence before there was a loud crackle and the resounding thwack of a large tree striking the ground. I’d listen closely for the chainsaw to start up again soon, the surest indicator that Trevor hadn’t got himself pinned somewhere, was still alive and breathing, and was busy slicing branches off the newly fallen tree.
Trevor’s approach did indeed make a light mark on the land. The stumps barely showed above the ground and the rubber tyres left no tracks in their wake. He did a careful, customised job. He avoided taking out the occasional gum tree that had managed to find a footing among the pines and work its way through the canopy. This left the hillside with a few skinny little soldiers that looked as if they might not survive a strong wind – but they were proper trees and Trevor wouldn’t dream of knocking them down. He also worked his way around a pine that was home to a family of tawny frog mouths until the day when the young were able to fly off.
Occasionally Rick and I worked with him, gathering up the branches and hauling them to a pile where we planned to surreptitiously burn them when the time was right.
One afternoon Trevor was working on a steeper part of the hillside. There was one especially large tree which he had felled on the deep slope; I had wondered about the challenge this tree would pose to the little bobcat when he went to move it. At one point, the bobcat noise cut out and, always alert to a potential breakdown, I watched out The Shed door. Sure enough, a few minutes later, Trevor climbed up the hill. I stepped out to intercept him.
“Finished for the day?” I asked off-handedly.
“Yeah, I think I’ll pack it in,” he said. He took a step toward home across the street, then turned back. “Had a spot of trouble there,” he said, waving in the direction of where he’d been working earlier. “Think I’ll leave it til morning.”
“‘Trouble?’” I repeated. “What happened, Trevor?”
He paused. Did I detect him weaving a bit?
“Ah, the bloody log was too heavy for the bobcat,” he said.
“And it rolled.”
“The log rolled?”
“The bobcat rolled.”
“The BOBCAT rolled?”
“Yeah, a couple times. Three times, actually.”
“Your bobcat rolled three times?” I looked at him, aghast. “Trevor, are you all right?”
Clearly he wasn’t quite all right. He was pale, slightly shaky, perhaps listing a bit.
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine. Shook up a little, but nothing a night’s sleep won’t cure. Scratched my head, I think,” he said, pulling off his hat. A nasty graze on the top of his head produced a small stream of blood trickling down his temple.
“I’ll walk you home,” I said, and saw him to his door.
After, I walked down the hill to see if I could retrace what had happened. The bobcat sat innocently enough on its feet at the bottom of the hill. Above it for 50 metres or so were a series of scapes and gouges exactly matching three tumbles of a bobcat this size. I looked at the little machine in disbelief. It had an open cab, and I could not imagine being inside this tinkertoy structure as it rolled several times.
The next day I followed Trevor down the hill, where he demonstrated how he had braced himself like a giant X inside the bobcat when it went over, holding this position as it struck again and again. He showed me the bent framework and three flat tyres. He sheepishly demonstrated his bruises and scrapes. I inspected the huge log that had brought him undone, still poised on the top of the slope. Clearly, he and his bobcat had bitten off more than they could chew that time.
As I walked back up the hill, I couldn’t stop myself imagining flashes of sound, colour, erratic movement as my mental bobcat rolled out of control. I felt nauseous at the thought.
I furtively checked our insurance policy (whew; we were covered), but there was never a word from Trevor. Over the next few days, he repaired the bobcat, got new tyres and finished the job.
That’s the country way.
* * *
Rick sat at the dining room table that doubled as desk and eating surface, working on one of the spreadsheets he used to manage our finances.
At one point, he looked up in wonder. “Do you know,” he said, “this is the first time in history we haven’t been paying rent or mortgage?”
“Yes?” I said as I digested the import of this statement.
“And other than when we go travelling overseas, do you have any idea how little we spend these days?”
I could see that our expenses had dropped significantly since moving to the country. We talked about the lunches we used to buy daily at work, multiple coffees, fashionable clothing, shoes, impulse buys at shops we walked past, dry-cleaning, bus and train fares – expenditures for things we didn’t miss at all.
We considered petrol. “We must be driving more than we used to,” I said. But as we discussed it, we saw that although we were now driving twenty kilometres for bi-weekly shopping trips, we were spending shorter times on the road than we had been in Sydney. Where a trip to Taree took us fifteen minutes, one to our local shopping centre in Sydney often had taken much longer than that – and furthermore confined us in stop-and-go traffic with little to entertain ourselves. Here not only were we having more fun on the drives, but we were likely using less petrol.
A city boy all his life, Rick was finding he loved the economics of country living. He summed it up, in a certain awe: What we’d been paying for a year’s rent in Sydney, we could now live comfortably on for a year in the country.
It seemed like a decent trade.