Red dust kicked up around Billy’s scuffed boots as he trudged down the long track that led from the family homestead to the main road. The orange glow of the new dawn hung on the horizon and the cloudless sky promised another day of incessant dry heat. A murder of crows pecking at the corpse of a rabbit laid out on barren soil took flight as Billy approached – cawing loudly as their wings flapped slowly and lazily
A murder of crows Billy thought to himself. A siege of cranes, a band of coyotes, and a gaggle of geese. He had learned these and other collectives in the boarding school that he now attended in Adelaide – ten grueling hours drive away from the farm that had been in his family for more than 100 years.
Billy looked at the withered sticks and stubble of the trees that he had helped his father plant along the length of the track – or the driveway as his mother liked to refer to it. The trees were all long dead after the absence of rain. He remembered the backbreaking days six years ago planting the saplings with his dad. He was just eight at the time and he wore his grandpa’s battered Akubra hat – way too big for his little head - and he remembered his mother laughing at his stubborn refusal to take a rest from his labours. He remembers too her excitement and delight in the promise that the trees would provide shade all away along the track - right up to the house. Their grand promenade she called it. Billy remembered how his mum used to laugh all the time and how bright and beautiful and bubbly she was back then. He racked his brain trying to recall when he had heard his mother laugh since.
A loose corrugated sheet on the metal drum that constituted their letterbox rattled a little as it flapped in the rising hot morning breeze. Tumbleweed danced across the black asphalt as Billy lifted the back flap and let it bang close when he saw that there was no mail. He stepped onto the road that ran north to south and scanned the flat desolate vista in both directions for a sign of any vehicles. Even through his thick boots be could feel the warmth of the road rising - still incalescent from the previous day’s sun. A heat haze was already misting on the horizon making the short scrubby saltbush shimmer. The gnarled white bleached trunks and dirty brown foliage of the stunted vegetation offered a stark contrast to the burnt ochre soil.
Billy sighed and walked to the sun bleached rock that was semi buried next to the letterbox and he sat himself down. He could barely make out the name “Kealey” painted on its flat face. Billy remembered carefully painting over the letters – when was it only a couple of summers back? He made a mental note to add the re-painting of it to his already lengthy list of holiday chores. As he hunched over to watch an orderly trail of bull ants march tirelessly across the desert sand the flies appeared and he absently swatted them from his face. Beads of perspiration gathered on his forehead and his eyes stung from the salt.
After only ten minutes or so Billy heard the sound of a distant engine approaching above the angry buzz of the flies and he stood up and saw a dark dot way off down the road. The putt putting of an engine grew louder as the shape took the form of a battered four-wheel drive. The vehicle rattled to a halt at the Kealey driveway and with the engine still idling the smeared driver window wound down and a ruddy-faced red-nosed man stuck his head out. Billy took a couple of steps forward and the cool blast of the air conditioning from the vehicle sprayed his face. The acrid smell of stale tobacco smoke wafted out.
“Gidday young Billy mate youse are home for the holidays then are you?”
“Gidday Mr. Carson yeah I got in on Saturday”
“’How’s your Mum and Dad then?”
“They are all right thanks. Mum sent me down to check the mail. Said she is expectin’ a parcel”
“Only this from the Bank mate. Suspect it is not good news and all. Never is with those fuckers”
Billy accepted the official looking envelope that was handed to him and eyes downcast he shuffled his feet and kicked at the loose gravel on the side of the road.
There was an uncomfortable silence for a few seconds and Billy heard the crackle on the car radio and the depressingly cheerful tone of the announcer saying ‘Yes it’s going to be another hot one today folks with the mercury already hitting thirty two degrees and the Woomera recording a record 2000th straight day with no rain. Stay cool folks and stay strong all you farmers out there. Here’s a little Slim Dusty classic to brighten up your days’
Mr. Carson reached over and turned down the volume.
“Yep its gonna be another hot one today Billy. Hope youse aren’t too uncomfortable comin’ from your big fancy city school an’ all that”
“She’ll be right Mr. Carson, any chance of some rain you think?”
The postman laughed.
“Geez mate we haven’t had any rain ‘ere for nearly six years. I deliver mail not fuckin’ miracles. Little Gemma Shaw over at the Kipling property ‘asn’t seen rain in ‘er life time son. Dunno ‘ow your old man and the other farmers around these parts make a livin’ anymore. Better get youse a fancy degree and talk to those buggers down in Canberra. Politicians fuckin’ up the world with global warming and climate change and shit. There’s no future in farmin’ anymore son. None at all”
Billy shuffled his feet again and kicked at the dirt - not really knowing what to say.
“I remember when your old man was a little nipper Billy. All the dams was full an’ the rains came in like clockwork every season. Things are really fucked up now. Won’t stop rainin’ in some parts of the world and won’t start rainin’ here and other places.”
“Thanks Mr. Carson. I better go and take this back to Dad”
Billy waved the envelope and stepped back from the road.
“Tell your Mum an’ Dad gidday from me”
The postman wound up his window and the jeep drove away. Billy watched it disappear up the road and he waited until it once again became a blurred shape in the distance before he turned and started the long trudge back down the driveway. The sun had risen higher now and it was getting hot. Really hot.
His parents were arguing again. Despite their attempts to restrain their raised voices and the foam pillow that he clutched tightly over his head, Billy still could make out the odd word and get the gist of their conversation. “Bank” was uttered several times and he thought he heard the words “school” and “tractor” and “mortgage” as well. The hissed whispers were like angry snakes Billy thought. Poisonous adders. Terrible asps.
Billy then heard the front screen door slam loudly and he felt the thud of his dad’s work boots stomp across the veranda. As the roar of the engine of his father’s ute dissipated in the distance he thought that he heard his mother crying. He knew that he should get out of his own bed and go in and say something and maybe tell her that everything would turn out all OK but he was frozen in fear. Despite the heat he felt all cold and shivery and some part of him knew that everything would not be alight. It would never be alright. So he held the pillow as hard as he could over his head until the solace of sleep came and eventually took him. It was a restless and disturbed slumber full of dust and despair.
At breakfast in the vast homestead kitchen Billy’s mum had laid out the table with plates of toast spread thick with vegemite and the aroma of the steeping black pot of tea was delicious.
“No eggs for breakfast I’m afraid today Billy” apologised his mum
“The chooks aren’t laying what they used to anymore and we have had to eat some over the past couple of weeks”
“Where’s Dad Mum?”
“He went to town to see the Bank Manager. He won’t be long.”
“I don’t have to go back to boarding school Mum. It would save you and Dad heaps and I could stay here and help out around the place”
“Don’t be silly Billy. Your Dad and me want you to finish your schooling and go onto university. Make something of yourself”
“But I want to work on the farm”
“Just finish your schooling first love. No eat up the rest of that toast and off with you. Those jobs won’t do themselves”
Billy woke with a start and he sat up in bed. Icy dread clutched his heart as the realisation struck him that the wailing that he heard and that he thought was a part of his dream – his nightmare in fact - was real. He slipped on his jeans and pulled on a t-shirt and shoeless he ran down the hall and out the front door. He stopped at the sight of his mother kneeling in the dirt out front of the barn door - her whole body shaking with her sobbing.
He walked slowly towards her.
He looked past her and through the open door of the barn Billy saw the lifeless body of his father swinging from the rafters – his face all purple and bruised.
In a daze of disbelief – then grief - Billy staggered to his mother and then he dropped to his knees as well. His mother reached for him and they clutched each other tightly. The tears mingled as they fell to the ground and each droplet kicked-up red puffs of sand. The moisture evaporated immediately.
Billy shifted uncomfortably in the car seat. He pulled at the collar of his shirt and his feet hurt. Both his suit and his shoes were a size too small for his fast growing body. His ‘good’ clothes his Mum called them. Beside him his mother sat impassively in her black dress – her face as bleak as the landscape. On the car radio the announcers voice was sickeningly cheerful.
“If you hadn’t noticed it’s hot, hot, hot again folks with the mercury already sitting on thirty six degrees and still rising. We are expecting a top temperature of fourty two degrees with no respite in sight. The shire is has announced even tighter water restrictions with both the upper and lower dams nearly empty. In world news fierce tropical storms continue to batter the south pacific with three of the atolls of the Marshall Islands now nearly completely engulfed by rising sea levels. United Nations scientists released a statement claiming that there has been a ten-fold increase in natural disasters and that these are a direct result of global warming. They claim that there is mounting and now indisputable evidence that the global warming is man-made. What we wouldn’t do to get a little of that rain over here. Here’s a little country and western classic to cheer you up and get you through your day”
Tears welled up in Billy’s eyes and he turned to face away from his mother and gazed out of the car window. Through blurred and stinging eyes the barren red landscape flashed by.
It was arid and cracked and broken.
Uncle Dave held tightly onto Billy’s hand when the first clods of soil were tossed into the hole in the ground. The red dirt made a hollow ‘thwumping’ noise as it hit then spread across the sleek black wood of the coffin. There were no tears though. Billy’s stomach was all clenched inside and he wanted to cry but he just couldn’t anymore. He was angry with himself for this and he didn’t really know why.
The bright brass handles at one of the coffin provided a stark contrast to the soil surrounding it and as Billy stared down at the vessel holding his Dad he wondered why such beautiful shiny things were buried away with the dead. He had a flash of a distant memory of how he and his Dad used to polish up Grandma’s brass candlesticks for some special Sunday dinners they used to have – in those good old days when him and Mum were always laughing and fooling around.
It all seemed like a long time ago now.
Billy squeezed Uncle Dave’s hand tighter and then he jumped a little when there was a booming of thunder and a crackle of lightning that momentarily silenced the sound of the church organ playing up the hill in the distance. Even Father McNally paused in his murmuring of prayer and cast his eye to the skies.
Billy looked up and from almost nowhere it seemed black-blue clouds rolled in across the landscape. The first tears rolled down Billy’s cheek just as the clouds burst. He briefly tasted the salt of them before then rain fell and it washed the tears away.