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  • Published: 2 January 2018
  • ISBN: 9780143782056
  • Imprint: Bantam Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 304
  • RRP: $32.99

Stella and Margie



Their high-pitched squealy calls come first. Approaching from the north, behind the fig tree, black cockatoos fly slowly and settle into the silver wattle. They’re a sign rain is coming, and I want that to be true. Someone told me that each bird represents a day of rain. So, sitting on those thin branches is a week’s worth. Maybe a hundred millimetres. I hope so, yet it’s hard to imagine wet ground, rivulets, cows having their backs washed.

I drag the hose across the parched lawn, thinking that this is a waste of my time. Standing, waiting, counting to fifty, sometimes a hundred. Even so, there’s something satisfying about a wet garden on a hot day. The shade trees and roses manage best; it’s the shrubs that struggle. I’ve spoken to Ross about putting in an irrigation system – underground pipes, sprinklers and a button to press so I can walk away. He says that’s a complicated thing to do in an old garden like this. That means it’s too hard for him to work out, he’s got enough on his mind, and I suppose that’s fair enough.

It just needs to rain. I look up into the glare of a flat white sky.

When I’m standing at the wilting hydrangeas, the cockatoos take flight. They have a secret language; the way they uplift together and head in one direction. It’s in this vacancy, the birds gone, that my mind delivers its list of tasks. Take the cream cheese out of the fridge. Search for birthday candles. Go online and check out the New York Times review of The Moment. It’s a production about life and the choices people make, and shares similar themes to the play I’ve written. And there it is, as I straighten up and move along to an azalea – the notion of a possible other life where I wouldn’t be holding this hose.

From an open window comes the faint strike of Isobel’s finger on a piano key. A rapid scale follows.

And my phone rings. Felicity.

She launches into telling me about an email she’s just opened. ‘Three nights in late April. Thursday the twenty-eighth. Friday the twenty-ninth. And Saturday the thirtieth. What do you think?’

I stare into the azalea. ‘That’s only six weeks away.’

‘They want nine hundred and forty-five dollars for the three nights. Extra for rehearsals. Plus, costs for insurance and cleaning. And there’s a bond.’

This is when I feel fully alive.

I twist the nozzle off.

‘Let’s do it,’ I say. ‘It’s our chance.’

Before I go inside, I pull a lemon from the tree.

My study is the high-ceilinged dining room with three bronze chandeliers. Heavy furniture sits against the walls. There are two fireplaces with identical slate mantels. The morning sun shows that I only occasionally dust my desk, the twenty-seater mahogany dining table. It’s covered with hundreds of play scripts, which I collect and read like some people do books. Around the table are twenty high-backed dining chairs, and the one I’m sitting on has a red-tasselled cushion on the seat.

I log on and attempt to download a Victorian Rural Arts funding application to see if our theatre group, the Yellow Box Players, is eligible – and if I can make the deadline. The internet is so slow. Sunday morning and everyone on the tableland is online.

I open my hands, resigned. While I watch the bytes tick over, I give my nails a quick file. Then sit back and keep waiting.

My view across the room is into the faces of Ross’s male ancestors. The women are nowhere to be seen; only the Ballantine men have their portraits displayed – five generations of father and eldest son. Each wears a dark suit and a self-important expression. They’ve all got that creamy Scottish skin. Four of the five have brown curly hair. Two have beards.

The portrait closest to the light switch is a colour-tinted photo graph in an oval-shaped, polished maple frame. It’s of Ross’s late father, Norman. There’s a striking resemblance between them; handsome in an urbane sort of way, they look as if they belong in a city somewhere, not here in the north-east. What I mean is, they don’t look like farmers. Although I will say Ross has grown into himself, and these days mostly looks the part.

On the other side of the swing door is our wedding photo. We have happily-ever-after grins. I’m wearing a knee-length dress of ivory lace with a petticoat of coffee-coloured silk – an inspired choice, because after fourteen years I still love it.

The funding application opens and I start reading. Its criteria are more detailed than I expected. I jot down notes, already doubting I can do this. The question about my artistic concept puzzles me. Do they want to know that my play is about an angry mother trying to explain her life to her kids? Or are they looking for the subtext of one woman’s guilt and regret? I need to think about it, so I get up and push through the swing door to the kitchen.

Cream cheese, butter, icing sugar, and lemon juice in a bowl. And by the time I’m spreading the frosting on the carrot cake, I’ve decided I’ll do whatever it takes to meet the deadline in five days. The door flaps as I return to the dining room.

The question about my arts background will go in my favour. I was a founding member of the Robinson Street Community Theatre and have worked on about twenty plays.

I start filling in the template. Page after page of required fields. Yes, we’re an unincorporated community group. Yes, we have an ABN. No, we don’t require an auspicing organisation. I follow the navigation.

When I’m trying to find the right words to summarise the project, I look up. Norman’s portrait is directly opposite me; the border between the maple frame and his staring face is a lovely apple green.

The drone of a motor is far away, a doubting thought, then growing certainty that Ross’s ute is approaching. He’s back earlier than expected. In between his jobs around the property it’s difficult to know when he’ll turn up, so I’m always half-alert, waiting to be interrupted.

They want to know my qualifications. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a nuanced question. It’d be so much easier if I could just eyeball someone and not fill out this thesis of an application. I keep four-finger tapping, testing different ways of explaining why I didn’t get the piece of paper from uni.

Beside me is an antique ceramic vase filled with long-stem roses, a mix of every colour and still gorgeous. They’re the third bloom after a long summer. An aphid crawls along a yellow petal, and I realise I’m overdue to spray the rosebushes. Actually, I’m overdue to do a lot of things.

I hear the ute pull up. Ross will want coffee. But will he come inside, or will he want to avoid taking off his dirty workboots? And there he is, a single knuckle-tap on the window behind me. He points to the side door and I know what he wants.

We sit in the courtyard outside the dining room’s double doors. Ross slowly scoops the froth on his latte with a teaspoon. His unhurried manner annoys me; I’m impatient to get back to my desk. I sip my herbal tea, a liquorice taste, trying to visualise where the video of Bed-alter is. Perhaps the buffet. And I’ll need to get it transferred to a CD so it can be uploaded as part of my portfolio. I want to tell Ross about all of this, but he’s saying that he needs to sell the last of the weaners. Prices are good; there’s been rain up north. ‘And there’s no feed in the cocksfoot paddocks.’

‘Ross,’ I say.

He licks the spoon.

‘I’m going for the maximum for a solo project.’

‘How much?’

‘Fifteen thousand.’

‘How do you think you’ll go?’

I shrug. ‘Just trying. There’s a lot involved.’

He sips his coffee while I tell him how detailed the application is, that it’ll take me every spare moment between now and the deadline on Thursday to complete it. I know by his slow moves that he’s ready to get going, back to the shorting electric fence in the Tullys paddocks.

The faraway sound of the gas gun.

‘I’ve made your mum’s birthday cake. Carrot with lemon frosting.’

He rubs his forehead as if easing pain.

‘No getting out of it,’ I say. ‘It’s her eightieth.’

‘What time?’

‘Visiting hours are at two.’

‘Kids coming?’

‘They should,’ I say.

There’s black mould on the concrete bench where he’s sitting. Underneath there’s a sprout of deadly nightshade and dry tufty grass. And cow shit on his boot. I toss my tea across to the garden bed. A fairy-wren flits onto a branch of the Japanese maple, then another joins it, and I wonder what it’s like to be a bird.

‘Can you give me a few minutes?’ Ross asks.

‘I told you I’m busy.’

‘Won’t take long.’

‘I’ve just started on the application.’

‘Fifteen minutes.’

I’m trapped. ‘Doing what?’

‘One of the Angus bulls has broken down. Need to get it to the yards.’

‘I don’t want to.’

He drops the teaspoon into the mug; it jangles. ‘Can’t do it on my own,’ he says quietly.

‘Get Eddie to help you.’

‘It’s Sunday. And I’m not getting him here for a small job.’

‘What’s involved?’

‘The usual. Drive him to the gate and try to block the others from getting there first.’

‘What will you be doing?’

‘Quad bike, working in with you.’

‘I hate the bulls.’

He stood up. ‘Just stay in the ute.’

‘All right. But it’s crap.’

‘Fifteen minutes, less if we get on with it.’

I go to the back porch and pull on my workboots. Of all the outside jobs, this is the worst. I feel afraid because I’ve seen the power of a bull intent on getting its way. But Ross and I work in together; it’s a responsibility.

Being married to a Ballantine carries a number of obligations. The primary one was to have a son, the next heir. We’ve got two daughters. Isobel is fourteen. Jemima is ten. Harry, our son, arrived at twenty-one weeks. He breathed for a short time before dying in my arms. That’s Ross’s and my private business: we didn’t tell anyone that he breathed or that we gave him a name. Ross wanted to try again, but I turned my back on him, saying I didn’t want another child if the prerequisite was a boy. What if we had another girl? And another? And what’s wrong with girls, anyway? It was all too hard, the devastation of Harry, those silent rosebud gasps.

I hear the quad bike ticking over. Ross is waiting for me at the shed.

Hurrying down the back path, my mind is full of the application. I’ll need to email the theatre group for their CVs. And who exactly are our primary and secondary audiences? I’ve never considered this before. Why the distinction? They want photos of previous work and I don’t know what I’ve got.

There are weeds in the veggie boxes. The zucchinis have finally finished. Green tomatoes droop withered from the wire trellis. I need to chase up the girls to get ready to visit Margie.

Through the avenue of silver birches, I head to the ute. Ross sees me and raises the revs. We don’t speak. I’ve got my instructions and have done this before. There’s a cobweb on the side mirror. The cabin is thick with dust. The passenger seat is cluttered with stuff that never gets put where it belongs: a thermos, a tangle of bungee ropes, a power drill, a mallet.

Ross is riding out in front, his shirt puffing in the wind; his shoulders are wide and open. The ute rattles down the lane and I pull up behind him. About twelve bulls are grazing in the paddock, white Charolais and black Angus. Ross lopes off on the bike, opens the gate and points to a black bull forty metres away, the one closest to the gate. I drive in and go wide around the beast, its neck as thick as a 44-gallon drum. Its green ear-tag says M41: M for Maryhill, our property name. It’s written in large cursive letters on a board at the entry to our driveway. The first Ballantines came from Maryhill, Scotland, in the 1850s, and somehow found their way here. Alice Ballantine’s sideboard still sits in the family room, beside the sixty-inch plasma.

The black bull slowly turns and studies the ute. Then it looks at Ross, who comes in fast and whacks its rump with a metre-length of poly pipe. It doesn’t move or seem to care.

In first gear, I edge closer, three metres from its shitty bum. Ross whacks it again, and M41 is suddenly interested. The bull lowers its head and scrapes its front foot on the ground. A bad sign. Ross sets about reversing. The bastard bucks up, trying for the front of the bike. Ross retreats, but the bull is going for him. It’s on.

My heart races. I accelerate and manoeuvre between them, and the bull abruptly turns away, outdone by the bigger force, and heads to the gate. I steer carefully, edging left and right to keep the bull moving. When it sees the open gate, it hesitates before sauntering through. Ross grins and gives me the thumbs up.

Another bull, a Charolais, is hurrying along the fence. The gate needs to be shut and I’m closest. It’s instinctive, a dumb impulse. I’m out of the ute. Running. Breathing hard.

The metal gate is in my hand and I hard-swing it to Ross. He’s waving at me to do something as he catches it and steps outside to safety. The white bull is fast trotting towards me, towards the closed gate. I’m trapped. Shit. My way back to the ute is blocked.

Ross’s voice is urgent, but I don’t understand what he wants me to do. The bull’s nose is wet and pink; its green tag number is M28 and dangles like an earring. It shakes its monster head as if disbelieving the gate is shut. But it still comes.

I close my eyes and cover my face with my hands. I’m stupid, stupid.

This is how I die. Isobel. Jemima.

It’s Ross who shoves me into the gate. His hands on my backside and leg, lifting. Dead grass and dry hard dirt as I drop onto the other side.

I can’t breathe and gasp up at Ross. Sweat on his face, he’s breathing hard as he pulls me up.

‘Don’t touch me!’ I scream, stepping away.

‘You okay?’

‘I told you I hate those fucking bulls!’

Already I’m on my feet, running up the lane towards the house. I don’t look back.

Stella and Margie Glenna Thomson

Stella and Margie is a piercingly insightful novel about love and duty, acceptance and reconciliation, and of a touching friendship that crosses the generations.

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