‘The Family Farm’- By Lewis Woolston

He leaves Ceduna on a hot day, driving east towards Adelaide, his car stuffed with literally everything he owns. Making reasonable time on the thin strip of tar which dignifies itself with the title of Highway, he reaches Wirrulla and pulls into the town.

The railway tracks make his car rattle as he goes over them a little faster than he should. He parks in the main street of the tiny town, one or two little shops in the shadow of the silos, and checks his phone reception. Three bars but no messages, they should have called back by now, he thinks and his already high level of anxiety goes up a notch.

He walks up the main street for a few minutes to stretch his legs. The town is so quiet he can hear traffic back on the highway in one direction and birds in the paddocks in the other . He looks up at the towering silos and wonders how long they’ve been there. Fifty years? It’s a guess but he takes it as gospel for lack of better information. He feels pretty sure that nothing has happened in this town in that time. The one little shop, the falling apart where it stands pub and the dusty Post Office tell him that much. Those silos have stood there like the Australian version of the pyramids over a few hundred people living in the town and literally nothing even remotely exciting has happened.

He idly thinks about the lives the local people must live. He tries to imagine the years and decades of not much happening in this little cluster of buildings surrounded by paddocks and watched over by the silos. He compares this to the chaos of his own life, currently running from Perth and the mess he left there as fast and as far as his limited funds can take him, and thinks that maybe these people have it better than him. Briefly he lets his imagination run wild, he envisions himself settling in this tiny town, finding a job, maybe meeting a local girl and living a long, quiet and happy life. He imagines himself sitting down years from now with his kids grown up and himself telling them the story of how he just happened to stop here and meet their mother.

He shakes his head at his own ridiculous imagination. If he can’t get to Adelaide tonight and if his sister won’t let him stay at her place for a while he is sleeping in his car for the foreseeable future. That’s reality, he grimly thinks to himself, no happy ever after in a little country town for me.

He contemplates his immediate future with soul crushing weariness. He’s sick of drifting through life, he’s sick of running from messes in different parts of the country and more than anything else he’s sick of being broke. Would it be so much to ask for a little stability and prosperity? The silence of the tiny town is neither comfort nor answer.

He gets back in the car and heads out to the highway again. Turns east towards Adelaide and the grim prospects of the future. The road winds a little and patches of scrub break up the otherwise uninterrupted farmland. Dry paddocks of wheat stubble are being slowly grazed by sheep under a sky so blue it almost hurts his eyes.

He tries to keep his mind off his troubles. He had to leave Perth in a hurry so he only has a couple of CDs in the car and he got sick of them somewhere near Norseman. He flicks through the radio until he finds something. It’s the ABC regional radio station, for lack of better options he listens to that for a while. The station is a country one so the news of markets, trade agreements and weather take priority over everything else. He hadn’t known there was so much discussion to be had about beef exports to China but the radio gets almost an hour out of the subject.

He checks his phone and notices that he’s out of range again. I won’t get anything until I get to the next town, he thinks and looks for a distance sign. One appears shortly and tells him that it’s fifty K’s from Poochera. He decides he’ll stop there, have lunch and maybe try calling again. If he has no luck contacting her it’s a night sleeping in the car for him, maybe several nights.

The first he sees of Poochera is the silos standing sentinel over the plains. They should stop bothering to name these little towns and just call them “Silo Town 1” and “Silo Town 2” and so on. It would make it more convenient.

He pulls in at the little roadhouse and tops up with fuel. He pays and then moves the car out of the way so he can sit in the little roadhouse café and make some phone calls while he eats a sandwich. He tries his sister again and finally gets hold of her. Turns out she had got his earlier message but didn’t really want to reply. She doesn’t say that of course, she’s too polite, but he can tell from her voice that she really doesn’t want to be having this conversation.

What is it now?’

Her voice lets him know that this is a burden well beyond anything that could reasonably be expected from a sister.

Well here’s the thing…’ He continues, knowing he isn’t convincing her.

He reassures her that he’ll only need to stay for a couple of days. He tells her his plan is to head back up to the NT. He left there on good terms just over a year ago and he can probably get one of his old jobs back, maybe that gig he had in the mines, if he makes a couple of phone calls. He swears he’ll be no trouble and stay out of her way, all he needs is a couple of nights in her spare room.

She reluctantly agrees and he thanks her profusely. Inwardly he curses her for the privileged selfish bitch she is. Mum and Dad’s favourite who always towed the line and never set a foot wrong. She will hold this over him for years to come and use it as ammo in family arguments whenever it suits her.

The immediate danger is passed. He got out of Perth and over the state border before they could get him. He has a place to stay while he plans his next move. Everything is going to be more or less ok. He repeats this to himself inside his head like a Buddhist meditating.

He sits for a while in the tacky little café and watches the slow drip of highway traffic go past out the window. The rather dull woman at the counter idly restocks the fridge while the TV in the corner has a midday talk show playing.

His mind wanders and he finds himself daydreaming about life in a little town like this. Maybe he could work in this roadhouse. Live like a hermit in this little town. Refuse to ever get involved in anything remotely dodgy again. Grow old and become one of those old men who potter about little towns. He smiles to himself. This latest drama in Perth has made him world weary, he recognises that in himself, once he’s stable again and back earning decent cash he’ll chase action again. Then maybe a year or so from now he’ll find himself doing a runner across the country again. That last thought sobers and depresses him. He gets up and decides to get back on the road.

The woman behind the counter looks up as he leaves and mumbles something vaguely pleasant at him. He pulls out onto the highway and picks up speed as he leaves the little township of Poochera.

A sudden urge to piss makes him pull off the road. He parks in the front gate of a farm, there isn’t a soul in sight so he doesn’t worry about being seen, he relives himself and then pauses to look around. The gate is open and there is a dirt track leading through seemingly endless paddocks. In the distance he can see a house and some sheds, presumably where the farmer and his family live. There is a sign right next to the mailbox at the gate it reads:

Whitby Downs

T.J Whitby and sons

EST 1904

He reads and thinks in the harsh sunlight and empty silence of wheat paddocks. This family have been here since 1904 according to the sign. They have a place, they belong somewhere, they have roots.

He looks back at his car parked in the dust. The boot and backseat are piled high with everything he owns in the world. He will sleep in his sister’s spare room tonight and endure her resentment and probably get a small lecture about what he’s doing with his life in the bargain.

He looks at the sign again. He envies the Whitby family with all his heart. He would do just about anything to trade places with them. But he knows you don’t get to choose. Life gets handed to you on a plate like leftovers at a soup kitchen and you have to eat it and be grateful.

He gets back in the car feeling worse than ever. He still has a long way to go before he reaches Adelaide.

 


Words by Lewis Woolston

Lewis Woolston grew up in small beach bum town in Western Australia. He left as soon as he could and travelled around the country, living in several cities as well as the bush. He spent years working in remote roadhouses mostly on the Nullarbor and in the NT. He currently lives in Alice Springs with his wife and daughter. His short fiction has previously appeared in Flycatcher Magazine.

Photo by Jake Blucker on Unsplash

‘Sparkles’ by Denise Picton

Audra didn’t attach diamonds to the walls of public conveniences to begin with. That came later.

One day, sitting in the first cubicle of a public toilet situated in the centre of the town of Keith, she realised she was waiting for the other ‘customer’ in the block to leave so she wouldn’t be forced to interact with her. She imagined what would happen if they emerged and walked towards the sink at the same time.

‘Hot,’ the other woman would say.

‘Very,’ Audra would reply, grimacing, rather than smiling, because smiling was not a talent that came naturally to her.

‘Come far?’ the irritating Everywoman would ask.

‘From Melbourne,’ Audra would admit, because she was raised to be polite.

‘Where’s home?’ Mrs Interference would ask.

‘Adelaide,’ Audra would reply.

‘Travel safe,’ the woman would call out cheerily.

‘And you,’ Audra would insincerely offer.

No, it was better to stay put until the coast was clear.

She looked around. The walls were mission brown brick and surprisingly unscarred with messages from dissolute youth. There were two toilets between Adelaide and Melbourne she was prepared to use because they were reliably cleaner than most. The other was at Kaniva in a quaint little Victorian building just off the main road.

She stared at the brick wall to her left. Was anything interesting happening on that wall? Any little bugs making a home? Could she make out animals or faces in the roughness of the bricks? No, it was just a wall, and she had probably stared at the same set of bricks twenty or thirty times now as she travelled regularly to and from the Capitals. If those bricks could bear witness, they would comment on her increasing girth, and the way gravity was forcing her mouth ever more into a downward arc of disappointment and detachment.

Audra thought about why people made their mark in public places. That led her to muse about what message she would leave behind. No point putting a name or a number because they would be cleaned off. But a little secret fingerprint would be fun. At each visit she could see if it had been noticed. Like a little spy message left for someone to collect. A testament to the fact that she’d been here before.

When she returned to the car, she rummaged around in the boot. She fished out a bottle of crimson nail polish, and walked back to the cubicle. She locked herself in again. Putting her ear to the cubicle wall, she paused, breath held, listening for approaching footsteps.

Studying the bricks for a moment, she chose one just above eye-level, close to the hinged door. On it, she carefully painted a box, about half an inch square. She returned to the car, thrilled. All the way home, she wondered whether that little red square would still be there at her next visit in a month’s time, when she drove back to attend a patron’s dinner at the Gallery.

Before making her return trip, she made purchases in a hardware shop. She distilled red and gold enamel into small glass jars, and packed a fine brush. Audra liked putting things into neat containers, including her life, and found in her cupboard a leather box with a fine patina into which her new kit fitted perfectly.

She had to stop herself from speeding from Adelaide to Keith. As she walked towards the toilets, she heard a funny noise escape from her mouth, and realised it was a laugh. She was shocked by its novelty.

Excited, she closed the cubicle door and checked. Yes! Her little square was still there. She carefully added a small gold spot to the middle of the square. She had spent hours deciding what to paint on the red square. It must be discrete.

She raced on to Kaniva, and in the first cubicle, looked for a place to paint a square. She chose the leg of the wooden door frame. Most satisfactory. It would have its gold dot on the return trip if it hadn’t been touched.

At the dinner that night in the gallery, Audra barely spoke to others. This was not unusual, and the young woman assigned by the board to ensure she was having a good time knew her silent ways and paid no special attention. The girl was more interested in trying to impress a middle-aged man at their table who was apparently someone important, and to whom Audra had been introduced, but couldn’t be fagged remembering. What was exercising Audra’s mind was what to leave behind at Keith on the way home. What should be the third level of the secret message?

She left Melbourne earlier than usual the next morning, keen to see whether her red square had survived at Kaniva. Her message was intact. She applied her gold dot.

She wasn’t sure what to add to her work in Keith, so she decided just to stop and visit what she’d done so far.

Taking position in the cubicle, she scanned the wall for her square.

She gasped. Surely in the right hand top corner of the red square was…. a little black tick. It looked as though it had been made with a texta pen. There was a thicker downward stroke and a lighter upward one that tapered away in a devil-may-care feathery hint of black. In the air, she practiced the way she would make a tick herself, and yes, that was surely what it was. Someone had received her message, and understood. Someone was leaving a message in return. She realised she was breathing nosily with her mouth open, and snapped it shut to think.

Returning to the car for the kit, she walked back to the cubicle and made another red square, this time on a brick close to the floor. She was due to return to Melbourne in three weeks’ time. Would there be some answering symbol?

She travelled home elated, turning over in her mind what her next message might be. Despite her financial support for galleries in two cities, she did not see herself as a creative person. This was the reason she admired and funded those who were. This adventure was such a departure from who she thought she was and it made her giddy with possibility and gratitude. Some force outside of her understanding of the world had fathomed the smudge she’d left behind, and tipped their hat in response.

Audra had known little recognition in her life. Her husband had married her for money and family connections, and had treated her as a grey, distorted shadow, doggedly and necessarily attached to his bright strides. She’d never lifted a loaded brush to make a commitment on the primed linen canvass handed to her by her parents. Now, for the first time, she had tentatively splashed a little colour at the easel, and something was taking shape. It was exhilarating.

The weeks until her next trip seemed to stretch like the endless summer holidays of primary school. Her preparations were in hand well before the time to pack the car. The necessary materials were acquired, and a visit made to the family strongbox.

When she reached Keith, the second square, even without its gold dot, sported another tick. She was ready. She carefully extracted from her kit a small blue diamond, and using the recommended jewellers cement, placed the gem in the centre of the first gold dot.

Racing to Kaniva, she found a tick on the red square. She extracted a small south sea pearl, and affixed it to the gold dot.

__

The next two days in Melbourne were agony. She stood on uncomfortable heels making minimal nods to pretend she was delighted with the latest acquisitions, purchases she knew she had largely funded. On departure she made it to Kaniva in good time, and ran into the cubicle.

She dropped to the seat, and leaned down to search for her square. The pearl was gone, and in its place was a word typed in seven font and cut to cover the hole. It read: “nice”.

She hadn’t been sure what to expect, but this was acceptable, intriguing and possibly wonderful. Opening her kit, she extracted a small opal and secured it in place where the pearl had been.

Back in the car, she found herself singing. She didn’t know many songs, so she belted out a few Sunday school hymns about sunbeams, farmers sowing fields, and all things bright and beautiful. She sang most of the way to Keith.

The diamond on the square in Keith was gone. There was no word glued over the hole, but she noted a scrap of paper wedged into the door frame. She pulled it out and read:

‘Adelaide to Melbourne is behind you. Where to next? I’ll find you.’

Audra exited the cubicle at the same time as another woman left hers.

‘Hot,’ the woman said.

‘Isn’t it though?’ smiled Audra.

‘Going far today?’ the woman asked.

‘Actually,’ said Audra, as she flashed the woman a rare smile. ‘I am.’


Words by Denise Picton