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  • Published: 1 March 2011
  • ISBN: 9781864711622
  • Imprint: Bantam Australia
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 512
  • RRP: $19.99

The Bark Cutters

Extract

Autumn, 1982 
West Wangallon Homestead 
North-west New South Wales

Sarah stood quietly in the corner of the kitchen as her mother removed the piping hot scones from the oven and, wrapping a tea towel around them, rested them on the kitchen sink to cool.

‘Jam.’

Obediently Sarah walked into the large pantry, reaching between packets of dried fruits and glacé cherries for the large tin of strawberry conserve. Her mother was particularly quiet this morning.

She had barely complained about the colony of white cockatoos in the lemon-scented gum outside the kitchen window, even though they were intent on stripping the tree bare of its leaves. Already a layer of small branches littered the autumn paleness of the grass beneath. Sarah mentally reminded herself to tidy the mess up before dark, hopefully before her mother demanded to know why the chore had not already been done. Rummaging through the mess drawer, which held everything from egg flips to household screwdrivers, Sarah located the can-opener. Within a few seconds the conserve was deposited into a small porcelain dish on the centre of the pale green linoleum-topped table.

‘Cream.’

‘Gee, Mum . . .’

‘Yes?’

Sarah wanted to say that an occasional please would be nice but, at the sight of the deep frown lines between her mother’s eyes, she reconsidered. ‘The scones smell delicious,’ Sarah finished as she fetched the freshly whipped cream from the fridge. At that moment the back gate swung shut with a loud clang. Sarah relaxed, listening as her father and brother’s voices grew louder as they walked up the back path. Stopping to remove
their riding-boots, they washed their hands before entering the kitchen. Sarah smelt the familiar tang of sheep manure and the slightly less invasive scent of lanolin-rich wool. They had been classing the rams since dawn; deciding which ones should be retained for breeding purposes based on Wangallon’s strict wool characteristics and which would be considered culls to be sold.

‘Just wait for the men first, Sarah.’

Sarah was adept at waiting. Waiting for cups, saucers and plates to be put out, waiting for the jug to boil, waiting for her father to remove his work boots, to wash his hands, waiting for him to start eating whatever was freshly baked. Even Cameron, though older by only a few years, ate before her. For as long as Sarah could remember her mother ensured she was always last to begin at every meal. Eventually, glancing remotely in her daughter’s direction, she would give a sign and Sarah would take her seat at the table. Even now, at sixteen, she found it difficult to break the habit and ignore her mother.

‘Scones, hey Mum, they’re my favourite,’ Cameron beamed as he dolloped a large spoonful of jam and cream onto the steaming dough and stuffed the entire scone into his mouth. Sue smiled, ruffling his hair before pouring tea for him. She sat the blue teapot directly in front of Ronald who, with a sigh, proceeded to pour his own.

‘I know they are, darling.’

‘You not having any, Sarah?’

‘Of course I am, Dad.’ Sarah answered with a covert smile, sitting quickly at the table and pouring tea from the pot. As soon as they were finished, she would be able to rejoin the men outside. It was not that she minded being indoors, it was just that cooking wasn’t something she was really interested in. It was not a bad place to be when you were little, for biscuits, cakes and desserts were Sue’s speciality. Main meals were a little less enticing and usually consisted of at least three stews a week.

Unfortunately, if the recipe didn’t call for dried fruit, chocolate, flour or glacé cherries, you could be sure you’d be gumming your food like a baby.

Sarah helped herself to another scone and waited for her mother’s usual remark.

‘Save them for the men, Sarah. They need them more than you.’

Right on cue she smiled to herself, meeting her brother’s eyes as he crammed yet another scone into his mouth, winking at her.

‘Would you like a doggy-bag, Cameron?’

‘No.’ He lent back comfortably in his chair and patted his stomach. ‘I think I’ve had enough thanks, sis.’

‘We’ll move those sheep from the road paddock and walk them out to the big cultivation. Then you two can have the afternoon off,’ Ronald said between slurps of black tea.

Sarah beamed. She couldn’t wait to get out into the bush.

‘I’ve got to see your grandfather this afternoon,’ Ronald continued.

‘He’s just informed me that Wangallon is about to have a new jackaroo.’

‘When?’ Sarah and Cameron asked in unison, their slouching backs instantly stiff with interest.

‘He’s coming tomorrow. I’m to pick him up in Wangallon Town.’

‘That was short notice,’ Cameron replied. ‘Where’s he from?’

‘What’s he like?’ Sarah added.

Ronald grinned, arching a bushy eyebrow. ‘Well, I guess you two busybodies will know when I know.’

Sue coughed delicately into her hand. ‘Well I hope the boy comes from a good family, I don’t want any riffraff around my house.’

Bristling immediately, Ronald lifted his spade-like hand to scratch irritably at the thinning hair above his ear. ‘I hardly think my father would employ riffraff, as you put it, Susan.’

Demolishing another scone in one mouthful, he licked his fingers free of cream before pushing the wooden kitchen chair back from the table. ‘And as you rarely deign to venture outside the back gate I hardly see how our staff choices are going to affect you.’

Grasping her teacup with both hands, Sue placed it firmly back on the pale pink saucer. ‘Cameron, dear. Will you be a pet and give me a hand in the garden before lunch?’

‘He can’t, Sue, we’re mustering sheep.’

‘What about after lunch?’

‘Well, I –’ Cameron hesitated.

Sarah knew her brother longed for an afternoon off. One where he could sneak off to the creek, throw a line in and smoke one of the roll-your-owns he’d recently taken to.

‘I said he could have the afternoon off. Come on, you two,’

Ronald commanded flatly, getting to his feet so quickly that his chair squeaked across the surface of the worn vinyl tiles.

The jam and cream sitting in the pit of Sarah’s stomach curdled. It was always the same. Her parents could argue over the smallest thing but mainly they fought over Cameron.

Of course everyone held great hopes for him. As the eldest, his whole life was mapped out before him, and Sarah knew Cameron liked it that way.

‘Are you coming?’

It was Cameron flipping her long pigtails and stirring her from her daydream. He gave her his distinctive time to get out of here look, as the back door slammed shut after their father and their mother splashed crockery in the sink.

‘That’s right. Go. Don’t worry about helping with the tidying up,’ their mother called after them. ‘It’s far more interesting outside than staying inside with your boring mother.’

Screwing up her nose and moving her lips in imitation, Sarah grabbed another scone, as her mother’s rubber-gloved left hand reached for dirty crockery to plunge into the sink. A small tidal wave of bubbles and cream coloured dish water splashed over the edge to run forlornly down the door of the kitchen cupboard beneath.

For the briefest of moments, Sarah considered staying to help, but instead chose to follow her brother and father down to the stables, humming Michael Jackson’s Thriller. ‘What do you think he’ll be like?’ she asked when she finally caught up with their long strides.

‘Who?’ Cameron asked. ‘And can you sing something else. You’ve been destroying that album ever since it came out.’

‘The jackeroo, silly,’ Sarah answered, her long legs matching her brother’s fast walk. ‘How about Physical?’ She sang the first stanza. ‘You know, Olivia Newton-John.’

Cameron shook his head in irritation. ‘The usual: Two arms, legs. Dad, can you please tell her to stop?’

‘Half a brain more likely,’ their father called back to them as he entered the gloom of the stables to lead out their horses. A shaft of light filtered down from the roof through the open stable door where a piece of corrugated iron had recently lifted in the wind.

Sarah found herself momentarily intrigued by the play of light on the hay-strewn floor, the delicate cross-hatch of a tiny spider web highlighted by the glow. If she owned a camera she would have taken a photo of it.

‘I thought Grandfather said jackeroos were a waste of time,’ Cameron queried as he took his horse’s reins from his father.

‘He does think that. We stopped getting jackeroos here about fifteen years ago, mainly because your grandfather got sick of having learners on the property. He reckoned that it was rare to find someone with ability and common sense, who also fitted in with the family.’

Ronald led his and Sarah’s mares from the stable, tethering both next to Cameron’s mount on the old wooden hitching post that years ago carried ten horses with ease. ‘And that’s the calibre of men we’ve had in the past. Short of using the lad as a gardener . . .’

‘Mum will be pleased,’ Sarah interrupted, quickly noticing that her father’s violet eyes weren’t smiling.

‘Or as an odd-jobber,’ Ronald continued, ‘unless he has a bit of go about him, I can’t see him lasting.’

‘Well maybe Grandfather thinks Wangallon needs a younger workforce,’ Cameron added. He hoped he was a good bloke, this jackeroo, and wouldn’t mind hanging out with Sarah. You couldn’t hold his sixteen-year-old sister back with a stick if she wanted to do something.

Throwing the saddle blanket across the mare’s back, Ronald pursed his lips thoughtfully. ‘Whatever he’s up to, son, we will know soon enough’. He picked up the saddle.

‘Hey Dad, can I have a camera for my birthday?’

Ronald tightened the girth on the saddle and wondered what the girl was going to do with a camera. Although, as he’d dropped the last one in the cattle yards and broken it when he was taking shots of the bulls, a new one probably wouldn’t go astray. ‘If that’s what you really want.’

Actually what she really wanted was a pair of wayfarer sunnies, purple stirrup pants and some ice-blue eye shadow. But a camera would be cool. ‘Thanks, Dad.’


The Bark Cutters Nicole Alexander

A sweeping rural saga through four generations of the Gordon family, from bestselling author Nicole Alexander, whose novels go right to the 'heart of Australian storytelling'.

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