- Published: 6 August 2019
- ISBN: 9780143793724
- Imprint: Bantam Australia
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 384
- RRP: $32.99
The Burnt Country
When engaging an overseer for stock work, the prudent woolgrower shall first make discreet and specific enquiry, before any personal interview might be conducted, to form solid notions as to the character of the applicant. ‘Repent at leisure’ is an apothegm for the yards, as much as for the household.
THE WOOLGROWER’S COMPANION, 1906
Amiens, via Longhope, New South Wales
Afterwards, Kate Dowd believed that if luck had been with her, if Jack had been unable to find his way that night, things would have been different. But as it was, her husband had made it to Amiens, all of the sixteen miles out from Longhope.
It had been a quiet night, hot, the household off to sleep early as usual. Before turning in, Kate had curled up for a few minutes in one of the verandah wicker chairs, wrapped in a sheet she’d pulled off her bed. She loved to sit there. Even in the black milk of that night, Amiens was beautiful. Kate made out the hills along the horizon and the creek line marked with myalls. She preferred moonlight, of course. But there was none tonight, just some slivers of light from the Milky Way. Dust from a witch’s housekeeping, her father used to say.
She smiled, thinking of him, and pulled the sheet closer around her to ward off the mosquitoes. He’d built Amiens’s thirty thousand acres and seven thousand head of sheep from nothing, and he was proud of his ‘bit of dirt’. Her father loved the Milky Way too, even as he got older, as he got sicker. He’d stand on this verandah and show the stars to her, the saucepan and the Southern Cross. He taught her, when she was only seven or eight, how to find the two stars a bit to the side, the pointers for the Southern Cross. If you run a line, he’d say, out perpendicular from the pointers, and one out from the bottom of the Southern Cross, where they meet? That’s south. You can always find y’way, now, Katie.
Finding her way was hard. And it was hard, too, to think of her father without sadness, even now, years after his death. She pushed that out of her head and looked up again. There was something peaceful about that night sky, Amiens under it, as though the land itself slept too, along with the handful of souls in the homestead – the children, Daisy, Mrs Walters, the new housekeeper – and the men in the workers’ cottages half a mile off down the flats. Amiens was a little community, struggling to stay afloat, but good people, finding their way.
Calmed of her worries by the sky and the land, Kate took herself to bed, and, despite the heat, was soon asleep. But not for long.
It was the crash that woke her, a chair going over in the dark.
Kate was jolted upright. ‘Jack?’ she guessed, fearful. The air smelled of grog. She pulled the sheet up. ‘Jack? Is that you? Are you all right?’
‘Never bloody better.’ His words were thick, angry even. Kate worried for the four others asleep in the house. Jack had a temper when sober, and now he was drunk.
‘Cup of tea, Jack?’ Kate said. It sounded ridiculous, even to her.
His voice came back through the darkness. ‘You know what I want. We’re selling up.’
She listened hard in the dark. Was he moving? Coming towards her?
She went to get up but suddenly Jack was on her, pushing her back onto the bed, the stink of stale beer around them. She knew not to struggle. His breathing came through the dark but calmed a little against her stillness. He released her and flicked on the light.
He seemed to fill the room with coiled energy. A fair head taller than her, with a solid build, he looked ragged, older than his twenty-eight years.
Unsteady, he fished about and pulled a dog-eared piece of paper, folded longways, from his back pocket and threw it in her lap. Contract of sale filled the top of one side.
She didn’t move.
‘For a wife, I bloody drew the short straw.’
Kate didn’t speak.
‘Well? You have to sign.’
‘I can’t. I have to help Daisy and Pearl. They’ve no one else.’
‘Pearl?’ He almost spat the word. ‘There’s at least ten blokes in this district with black kids running round. You think they acknowledge those kids? Much less raise em.’
‘I must. Because Dad—’
‘Must? Your duty is to me. Duty, Kate. You don’t know the first thing about it.’
She knew to be quiet.
‘Honour and obey. O-bloody-bey. What if womenfolk didn’t do as they were told? Jesus H. Christ.’
Kate listened, hearing nothing in the rest of the homestead. Hoping they’d stay asleep.
‘You do as you please, as if you were a bloke.’ He was incredulous. ‘And don’t think I don’t know about that Eye-tie bastard sniffing around you during the war.’
Kate steeled herself again not to react. She was now deeply ashamed of herself, of her wartime affair with Luca, even as brief as it was. The years since had shown her her madness.
‘I’m bloody away doing my bit in the war, and he’s here having a go.’
She cried then, trying not to make any sound for fear of getting him angrier. Jack had left her and gone to work in the Islands three years before. Why was he back now?
‘The bloody war put ideas in your head. And you’re burning off too much, I hear.’
‘You think you can run this place? You! Now you do something right for bloody once. Sign.’ He jabbed at the contract in her lap.
A wet circle formed on the deed, a tear fallen on the paper. Very slowly, firmly, Kate shook her head.
Backhanding her, he knocked her across the bedside table. She crashed onto the floor, the lamp with her.
‘You’re a bloody disgrace.’ His voice was thick with grog and anger.
Her face burnt, from shame and pain. In shock, her mind moved slowly. Please God, let the others stay away. Safe.
Jack picked up the deed. ‘Sign,’ he said again.
She shook her head. She couldn’t.
‘You’ll sign, all right.’ He started to unbuckle his belt.
Suddenly there was the sound of a shotgun breech snapped shut. Jack’s head spun round to the barrel as it was pushed into the room.
‘Mrs Walters.’ Kate’s voice was hoarse with fear, afraid for what Jack would do if he got to the housekeeper.
He moved towards the gun. The barrel swung away from him to point out the open verandah doors. BANG. A single shot filled the room, deafening them.
Kate could hear nothing. But she could see. Jack lurched back, fumbling with his belt, his eyes still on the gun. The shooter was hidden in the hallway but the gun barrel jerked, motioning Jack away, gone. He stumbled out the open doors.
Her ears still ringing, Kate followed onto the verandah and with a shaking hand threw on the yard lights, daylighting the homestead garden and yards of the house paddocks. Even lit up, Jack didn’t look back. He went over the homestead fence, running on towards the creek. Soon headlights shot into the darkness from the gully as a car swerved round and off towards the main road.
She turned inside, shocked to find it was Harry, not Mrs Walters, cradling the shotgun. Kate felt ill at what might have happened. Harry was just thirteen.
But he was grinning, a mouthful of bright white teeth. He was as tall as Kate but skinny, his blond hair in a short crew cut. ‘I showed im, eh?’ she heard through the ringing. Behind him was Daisy with little Pearl in her arms, and Mrs Walters in curlers and dressing gown.
‘You all right, Missus?’ Daisy rubbed one ear as Pearl cried, her head of dark curls against her young mother’s brown shoulder.
Kate nodded. Daisy might be seventeen, but she was resourceful. She had woken Pearl, scooped the two-year-old into her arms, ready to run.
Everyone was safe. ‘Is there another cartridge in it?’ she asked Harry.
She reached out for the shotgun and he handed it over, reluctantly.
‘Back to bed then.’ Mrs Walters’s voice shook but she took charge and shepherded them all into the house.
Kate turned off the yard lights, her face still stinging from the blow. For now, at least, Jack was gone. But she would never forgive him for tonight. Nor he, her.
What had become of them?
Longhope Railway Station, New South Wales 10 January 1945 The train carrying the prisoners of war was overdue.
Max looked at his watch, and a sinking realisation that he was late plunged through him.
Ethan Salt tip-toed to the very edge of the tenement rooftop, rolling his special poster into a perfect telescope.
After more than two weeks at sea to simmer the tension between them, Violet and Daisie Chettle couldn’t stand each other, let alone stand next to each other.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
In that crowded city, she had worked for a haberdasher and presided over the slow death of her mother, after which she’d discovered in herself an unexpected yearning to leave Ireland and see the world.