- Published: 1 September 2020
- ISBN: 9781760894986
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 384
- RRP: $32.99
The Bush Telegraph
Madison Locke’s heart lifted like the birdsong that woke her that morning – joyous, clamouring, excited. All because of the red, yellow and black scrub, scattered rocks and hillocks, and the blaze of early November sun in the rear-vision mirror as they’d driven out of Longreach. It was barren to some, but to Maddy it felt like home.
Maddy savoured the wide gibber plains, the occasional twisty gullies, and the scattering of wallabies and emus they passed as they drove. The tension of leaving one life and moving to another lifted from her shoulders like the roadside eagle she spotted soaring gloriously into the cyan-blue heavens.
Her mood dipped briefly as memories of the last time she’d lived out here flashed through her mind. But despite the past heartache, a feeling of homecoming expanded under her rib cage. She’d enjoyed her years on Lord Howe Island, but who knew she’d feel this way back out here!
‘I do love this land,’ she murmured, more to herself than to Bridget, who sat next to her in the passenger seat, unusually silent. Maddy glanced at her eleven-year-old daughter, or rather the back of her red pony-tailed head as she pressed her face against the window, staring drearily out.
Poor Bridget. The outback’s obvious difference from the tropical paradise of the island had hit hard. But a change would be good to help ease their grief. They both missed Alma like an amputated limb. And surely a year away wasn’t too much to ask when Maddy had been working towards this goal since Bridget’s birth.
Though she hadn’t known then she’d need to return to Spinifex to lay her ghosts to rest. The sudden realisation that she wanted to save a town she’d been invisible in, and show that she was worth noticing, had come some time later.
The town, in far-western Queensland, needed rescuing like Maddy had been rescued. The new multi-million-dollar Wellbeing and Primary Health Centre had been considered for possible closure because no one had been found to run it. She’d read the stories of nurse managers coming and going within weeks, leaving the town with reduced resources, threatening the viability of the new centre.
She’d heard the town was dying.
People were dying.
As a skilled emergency nurse and qualified nurse practitioner, Maddy could bridge the gap between the nurses and the doctor they didn’t have. She could prescribe, diagnose and refer on, and she had strong skills to help keep people alive until the Royal Flying Doctor Service could arrive to fly them out. Even more, she was desperate to be an inspiring role model to her daughter – to show her how to be an independent woman of strength and resilience.
Not a mother who shrank in shame from memories of her younger self. Who ran away from the town she was now squaring up to face.
Maddy straightened her shoulders and forced a smile, for her own sake as well as her daughter’s. Once she’d proved her mettle, maybe in a year or so, and Spinifex saw the person she’d become, they could move on to a place that suited them both. Of course, Maddy quietly hoped her daughter would be captured by the distant horizons and never-ending sky by then and appreciate the subtle beauty Maddy was revelling in now as she drove.
But they’d see.
They’d decide together.
And if Spinifex didn’t prove to be interesting for Bridget, at least Maddy would know she could do it – she could face her fears.
Everything would be fine.
The wind howled and the dust swirled as Connor Fairhall gripped the worn rail of Rangeland’s back verandah and watched the topsoil blow off in small red clouds towards the town of Spinifex.
The idea that he’d let his whole family down pressed into him like brutal elbows from a cheap massage. How could it have already been a month since his mum died? Her ashes sat on the mantelpiece to wait for her sons to decide on her final resting place.
They couldn’t scatter them. Where would she end up with the topsoil blowing like this?
He knew his own life was in the toilet, but he hadn’t realised his family was suffering this badly.
He needed to decide if he and Jayden were staying for the summer or going back to Sydney to rebuild his shattered reputation. For a man who’d done Honours in Human Resources, he sure was without resources right now. But it wasn’t physical help he needed, it was a little moral support. Fortunately, he’d never been a fan of alcohol, or he might have taken his brother’s route and drowned his sorrows.
The Fairhalls at least had bore water in the backyard that they could use – they didn’t have to buy it. Not everyone was as lucky as they were. Last time he’d had the bore tested, maybe two years ago, they could drink it. He needed to get that done too, before he left.
If he left.
He turned his head and tried to eke out some peace from the crenellated, standing cliffs of the distant mesas, which in the past had made his soul sing and drawn him to exploration like the croon of an outback siren.
Not today. Not a note could be heard.
It wasn’t working.
Nothing was working.
His twelve-year-old son, Jayden, had spent the night next door at his brother’s rundown station and come home in a black mood.
So maybe he was a failure as a dad, too?
His brother’s drinking sessions would start out with the bonhomie Kyle was locally famous for, great-bloke-Kyle, and end up twisted and vicious with his alcohol-inspired tongue. His brother was not a good drunk. But when had that change happened?
Connor brushed his work-roughened hand across his nose to wave away a fly. He should never have let Jayden go yesterday afternoon, but his son had been moping and persistent and missing his mates in Sydney. Kyle had been having a Melbourne Cup party that Connor had declined to attend. He’d known he’d be buried all day under the bookwork now that the estate was settled.
He straightened, then shook himself like one of the galahs on the wire. His own problems were minor compared with the drought his mother had been living in out here, which could shrivel the most resilient spirit.
Resilience. Ha! At this moment, he felt like a toy for his newly inherited dog – flat, with the last of the stuffing leaking out.
Of all Connor’s concerns, his brother’s mood swings were the most worrying. They’d both grown up in an environment where a six-pack of beer after a muster was mandatory. And in front of the boys, a carton was impressive. Kyle loved to impress. He’d always been one of those men who drank until they threw up on the weekends, and then went to work on Monday with a smile as if his head wasn’t about to explode.
That culture of drinking had been no different for Connor as a young bloke in Sydney. Uni with the weekend benders, party nights in op-shop suits and race days when his mates pushed him into the cab and all of them could barely stand. He’d enjoyed it for a while but was glad to be out of it.
Looking at Kyle’s station, exactly the same size as Rangelands, Connor saw clearly that Kyle’s years of being one of the boys had done some damage. Kyle’s Run looked so desolate.
As desolate as Kyle’s pregnant wife’s face. Belle’s gentle country teasing had been absent when he’d called in that first day and he hadn’t seen it since. Connor missed the indulgent smile she’d always worn when she looked at his brother and he hoped like hell his brother would lift his game.
Connor compressed his lips. Their baby was almost due, so what was Kyle thinking to risk everything by going on a binge yesterday?
Nowadays, Connor declined a drink, mostly because he’d seen what it did to his ex-wife and because his son needed to see that being a non-drinker was an option in life. And the rest because his brain actually worked better if he didn’t fog it up with alcohol.
Being alcohol-free was quite liberating, he’d come to realise. Like the moment when you smoke your last cigarette and never have to worry about when the next one will light.
His ex’s alcohol-induced temper had been a huge factor in their divorce and certainly the cause in this latest disaster she’d heaped on him. Her eventual remorse was poor glue to a reputation broken beyond repair. Oh, she was sorry. Until next time. My bad.
Connor blew out a breath along with his inability to fix the world, clapped his hands at the pair of feasting cockatoos and watched the birds fly away.
And just like that he made a decision. He’d stay here and take charge of the station. His intention to return to Sydney was released for the time being. The manager at Rangelands had retired after Connor’s mother died, and the idea of putting a new manager on the place during this drought didn’t have merit.
Nor did the idea of leaving Kyle as he was. He couldn’t abandon his brother. Or Belle.
Connor swallowed the rest of the water he’d boiled and cooled, from the almost empty rainwater tank, and set the glass on the rail. He’d have to start drinking the bore water soon.
How had his mum coped before he came? She’d always been strong, but this place required so much that anyone, let alone a woman in her seventies who’d been ill, would find it tough. His dear departed dad would have been dismayed at Connor’s dereliction of duty, and the guilt he felt overwhelmed him.
Connor’s mother had always been his dad’s New Zealand pride, the bride he’d coaxed from the lush green of Waiheke Island to this austere and ochre landscape. The wondrous woman who’d worked for long days beside him while nurturing her garden, her home and her boys.
As for her two sons and the worry they’d caused – one had become an alcoholic and the other had been shamed and defamed by his city society for a deed he hadn’t committed. All that while dealing with her own mortality.
His poor mum.
Connor rubbed his neck.
He should have been here. Except nobody told him she was sick until it was almost too late.
He straightened and took the stairs to the dry grass below the verandah, heading for her garden. Working in the soil with his hands would help. His mum had agreed to live here on one condition – that her husband sink a bore to water her tiny garden oasis in this vista of desert. And she would have said that it was what he needed now. Let the land heal you. He’d been running on autopilot for the last three months. Cleaning, sorting and regretting the time he’d missed because nobody had seen fit to warn him that his mother had only months to live.
He’d had no clue anything was wrong until a nurse from Spinifex had rung and ordered him to get his backside out here to help. He’d left that very night. When he arrived he’d been shocked at how frail she’d become, the derelict state of the house and her sadness at her rift with Kyle. It made his own troubles seemed petty.
He’d dropped the ball with his son, though, while he’d gone all out to make their dwindling time together as special as he could. He’d created comfort out of austerity, tiny meals to tempt her appetite, and they’d even laughed a bit in the last month . . . except when she spoke about Kyle.
When she wept over Kyle’s drinking.
If Connor didn’t watch out, he might lose his own son in the process of saving his brother. Jayden’s mood had plummeted as his grandmother’s had risen and this new distance between Connor and his son seemed as wide as the far paddock. Wait till he told Jayden they were staying here for good.
The October wind twirled coffee-coloured willy-willies south across the Queensland border.
The red-and-white Mica Ridge Flying Doctor Service aircraft taxied past the window of her new office and Tess Daley recognised with gratitude the tiny wobble of excitement in her chest.
Ava May watched the big guy she’d seen at Sydney Airport fill the empty seat beside her in the aeroplane.
It wasn’t the happiest of beginnings. Tilly tried to pretend it would be okay . . .
My fifteenth birthday is stinging with a blistering heatwave. Balloons and streamers are dangling off the clothesline, motionless.
There aren’t many rules of singlehood, but I have made a few for myself in the two (if anyone asks, but really it’s four) years in which I’ve been single.