‘I think we need a new start.’
The words were spoken so quietly Liana thought she may have dreamt them. Her body was screaming for sleep, her eyes gritty, but she made herself roll over, so she could see her husband.
Darkness rested below his eyes, almost like bruises, but Liana knew he was as tired as she was. It was only when the last of the light had vanished from the sky that they had decided to call it a day. Stinking of lanolin and stagnant mud, they’d trekked back to the homestead for a simple dinner of cheese toasties, eaten on the veranda in the coolness of the night air. Once, she would have seen the romance in that, but not tonight. She was too damn tired.
‘What do you mean?’ she asked, turning her face into her pillow to stifle a yawn.
‘I don’t know how to make this work.’ Matt’s voice was a half whisper in the darkness.
‘Yes, you do. Your father wouldn’t have left this place to you if he didn’t think you could keep up with it.’
Liana rested a hand on his chest, taking a moment to feel his heart thumping beneath her palm, the smoothness of his skin against hers.
‘It’s just going to take a bit of time.’
Matt gently pushed her hand off his chest, and rolled over, so his back was facing her.
‘Goodnight, Liana,’ he muttered.
She couldn’t quite pinpoint where she’d gone wrong, but she was used to his withdrawal now. Pulling the cotton sheet over her shoulder, she rolled to her other side, staring at the neon numbers on her digital alarm clock until the heaviness in her body took over.
Liana waved a six pack of beer towards Matt in what she hoped was an inviting way. She was dressed in a pristine white sundress, foundation hiding the ever-multiplying freckles across the bridge of her nose.
‘You’re sure you won’t come?’
She’d hoped he would take the beer and grab her hand to lead her towards the car. They could forget about sheep, drought and dust. Dull the memory with a six pack. Maybe a glass or two of wine.
Instead, half an hour later, Liana was fumbling with the keys to the ute as she grasped a homemade hummingbird cake in one hand and tried to lock the ute door with the other. The heat was already making the icing slide from the cake in great globs, running onto the glass plate.
Beth stomped out onto the porch, waving a bottle of wine in her left hand.
‘Come on, Li, the barbie’s fired up already, love!’ she called.
Despite the dust that was swirling in the afternoon heat, Beth’s ranch style house still looked immaculate, the windows sparkling in the sunlight. Beth lived on the same long, winding road as Liana did. Technically, they were neighbours, even though they were twenty minutes apart. Beth pulled Liana close and dropped a kiss on her cheek, before ushering her along the side of the house to the back veranda.
Coarse chatter filled the air, punctuated now and then by bursts of laughter. Beth pushed a glass of wine into Liana’s hand and gestured for her to take a seat as she started to busy herself with the barbecue, flipping sausages and steaks.
‘Look, I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do with the thing. My daughter dropped it off, said to feed it twice a day and she’ll pick it up when she’s got herself settled in the city. Well it’s been living with me for two months now. I don’t think she’s coming back!’
‘Oh, come on, Col, it’s just a little dog! How hard can it be to look after it?’ laughed Beth, shaking her head.
‘Mate, she dropped it off with a bow in its hair,’ Col replied, emphasising the last four words with a sneer. ‘It’s useless, and I can’t get rid of the bloody thing! It follows me around like a bad smell, into the cattle yards, the dairy, you name it.’
‘That means she likes you!’
‘You don’t want a dog, do you Liana?’ Col asked gruffly, raising his beer bottle towards her. ‘Not much good with cattle, might be alright for chasing after sheep. Less chance of getting trampled on. Not that I’ve tried to stop the thing from getting squashed.’
‘Nope, all yours, I’m afraid,’ Liana smiled.
‘Maybe I’ll be able to convince Matty. Where is he, anyway?’
Liana stiffened and took a quick sip from her glass. When she’d started dating Matt, he had been in his element amongst his friends and neighbours. Confident. Sure of his place in their community. He was the one who first introduced her to Beth. It had been ages since he’d last met with anyone, even just for a beer. Still, Col always asked where he was without fail.
‘There’s a fence down in the side paddock, so he was working on that today.’
She was careful to keep her smile frozen in place but tried to make it obvious she wasn’t going to enter into a discussion about this. Col didn’t get the hint.
‘We could have given a hand with that after lunch!’
Liana eyed the three empty beer bottles that were sitting on the ground beside his chair doubtfully.
‘It’s okay, better to get it done sooner than later.’
‘I heard those sheep are giving you a bit of grief, Liana,’ said Jason, one of the younger farmers sitting next to Col.
An urge to smack him in his open, friendly face took Liana by surprise. He’s just making conversation, she reminded herself. He doesn’t know.
He hadn’t seen the rift between her and Matt growing, leaving an absence of love where there once had been abundance. They barely talked anymore. She’d tried ignoring Matt until their house filled, room by room, with stale, suffocating silence and she couldn’t handle it any longer. She’d tried talking to him, pulling him aside after he’d finished working and sitting him down with a cup of coffee, explaining it was okay to talk about his feelings, like she was some sort of counsellor. She’d taken off, got in the beaten-up sedan she owned and driven until dirt roads turned to asphalt, and she was on her way to the city. Far away from worries about droughts and the mortality rate of livestock. Liana had been twenty kilometres away from the CBD, not intending to come back, when she realised her wallet was still on the kitchen table. If Matt had noticed she was gone, he didn’t mention anything. She sunk back into their predictable rhythm, waiting for a change in him, pushing aside the feelings of frustration that made her want to run.
Things started turning to shit when some of the sheep started showing signs of fly-strike, after a hard winter of blistering cold where many lambs died. Seemed to Liana the only thing sheep were good at doing was dying. Small misfortunes they once could have easily dealt with led to bigger issues, continuously expanding like ripples on a pond. Maybe they were cursed.
‘I can duck around if you like? Give him a hand?’
They were staring at her, waiting for an answer. She shook her head, telling Col to concentrate on the mutt that seemed to have an attachment to him. It did the trick. The eyes were off her, the knowing glances stopped being exchanged between her neighbours and they went back to laying into Col, who was doing his best to pretend he hated the attention.
She got home later than she meant to. The air was still warm, and the sky was fading to a dusky blue, with pink streaks of cloud spread across. She turned into the carport and turned the ute off, listening to the engine ticking as it cooled.
As she opened the door, a crack echoed, bouncing off the tin roof of the carport and the brick walls of the house, surrounding her, closing her in. Liana pulled the key out of the ignition slowly and stepped out, feet unsteady as they hit the gravel. She frantically glanced at her mobile phone on the passenger seat. She could ring Beth, ask her to bring the spare key. She would try to keep the shake from her voice and insist her house key must have fallen off the keyring at some point. She couldn’t go in by herself. Liana would let Beth go into the house first.
Another gunshot sounded, and a mix of relief and embarrassment flooded through her. She was just tired and strung out. She was sick of fielding questions all afternoon by herself, trying to gloss over the worst. Most of all, she was desperate for a cup of tea, and maybe some water. Beth had definitely been too generous with the red wine.
Matt met her at the front door, rifle in his hands. He gave her a perfunctory kiss, but neither asked the other how their day had been. They didn’t do that anymore.
‘I dealt with the sheep. It had to be done,’ he said, his voice quivering slightly as he scrubbed at a spot on the rifle.
‘It’s done. Could use the meat for the dogs, I suppose. Col might want some.’
‘Matt, you can’t be serious. Don’t we have contracts? We’ll be stuffed!’
‘Couldn’t do it anyway. Not with sick sheep.’
‘The vet might have…’
‘Liana, it’s done.’
Matt squeezed her arm and headed inside. Liana followed him into the silent house, wiping the beads of sweat from her upper lip. She answered Matt’s small talk, as if it were just a normal night, but she couldn’t stop eyeing the rifle. She kept the keys for the ute tightly gripped in her hand, steeling herself for the next ripple.
Words by Ash Leonard
Ash Leonard is a writer and editor from Bannockburn, Victoria. She holds a degree in Professional and Creative Writing from Deakin University, and has been published in various journals and blogs, including WORDLY magazine, Backstory Journal and two anthologies produced by the Ballarat Writers Association. You can find her on Instagram: @sundrenchedpage, or at her blog: www.sundrenchedpage.com.
Photo by Bin Thiều on Unsplash