The sun was warm on the cow’s back, the day had been mild, and she was making her way into the yard for the afternoon milking. The new grass was coming through now, watered by rains from the south and dried again by the cool winds that followed.
Today the pale heat was tugging at it, rousing it from its sleep. The cow’s hooves moved slowly, her udder swinging its old rhythm and her brown eyes cast towards the troughs of feed by the cowshed.
Deirdre Broderick was waiting there for her impatiently. Here she came, slow as you like. Deirdre tut-tutted and rubbed her bony knuckles. Arthritis. Here she was for milking. It was the same routine every day of their lives, in a rhythm demanded by nature and duty. Just as surely as the sun rose to start each day, the cow needed to be milked. Month after month, year after year, the warm milk flowed through her udder. It was an endless bounty that Deirdre had sworn to collect despite her age, her frailty and a resentment, which had never left her.
‘Cow,’ she snapped. ‘Get a move on, you smelly old thing.’ The beast ignored her and dropped her head for a mouthful of fresh wild-oats that had sunk under the fence line after the rain. Cow gazed up at the elderly woman, who rolled her eyes. ‘Always a greedy-guts,’ she grumbled. Eventually Cow found her feed bucket and nosed through it until the hay stuck to her nose like sprinkles on a cake.
Deirdre sighed heavily and lowered herself onto the milking stool. She grasped Cow’s teat and ran her index finger and thumb down it, hardly hearing the first sharp twang as the milk hit the metal bucket. She found her pace and pulled again with her left hand, down, spurt, down, spurt. The milk was flowing now, squeeze by squeeze into the bucket, and Cow contentedly ate her dinner. Deirdre looked up to the horizon. The tired sun would be going down soon. It was the end of the day.
She settled to her task and pulled the milk forth, thinking about the warm flank in front of her, the rhythmical sound of the cow’s chewing, the scent of fur, and the man she’d made a promise to sixty years ago.
When Teddy Broderick kicked her boot off at the front door, it performed a neat triple somersault and landed in the old rose bush that had been growing in front of the farmhouse for at least a generation.
‘Sorry,’ she muttered to no one in particular. She fell through the front door, and kicked the other off towards the laundry where it landed with a thump. She pulled off her jumper and was blindly working her shirt over her head without undoing the buttons when she realised she may not be alone.
‘I’m sorry . . .’ a deep voice said from nearby.
Teddy shrieked and pulled her arms back in as quickly as she could, popping at least two buttons on the way down. ‘What the hell!’ She shook her auburn hair out of her eyes.
There was a man sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and a surprised expression. They took a moment to regard each other. Actually, she reasoned, he had taken a couple of moments already because she’d had her head wrapped in a shirt until a second ago. He looked tall and slightly shaggy. His dark brown hair was pushed back off his face and his hoodie had seen better days, probably back in the nineties.
‘Would you like me to wait outside?’ he asked, his deep blue eyes on hers. ‘Deirdre told me you’d be back soon and to make myself at home.’ He assessed the jumper she’d ditched. ‘I didn’t realise you would, uhh, be so –’ he gestured towards her – ‘like that,’ he finished.
Teddy pulled her shirt closed and folded her arms, red-faced. ‘Why did my grandma send you over here?’
‘So you could show me where I’m staying. I’m here for a couple of weeks.’
‘Really?’ Teddy said, ‘Here on Stretton? I’m sorry – she never mentioned it to me.’
The man stood and crossed to her, his arm outstretched. ‘I’m Will. Will Hastings.’
He had nice hands. She extended her own and greeted him.
‘I’m here to dig up your old house.’
He smiled and that was nice, too. Hang on! ‘Sorry? You mean this house?’
‘No, I mean the old house buried over by the sheep yards.’
Teddy went blank.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
Will glanced about uneasily to where a black and white cockatoo had landed in the bougainvillea outside the kitchen window and was bouncing up and down on a slim branch.
‘Maybe you should speak to Deirdre,’ he suggested. ‘I’m Audrey Higgins-Devine’s relative. I’m kind of her nephew. She and your grandma cooked up this idea that when I was free, I would come and dig up the old house for you.’
Teddy was still confused.
‘I know, it’s a dumb idea but I owe the old girl. So here I am.’
‘Well,’ Teddy said, gently patting down her clothes to reassure herself they were still there, and crossed to the kettle. ‘Another tea?’
She set about making tea and pulling out lemon cake from the pantry. The familiar actions gave Teddy time to think. She had never heard the slightest mention of a buried house. Why on earth would someone bury it, anyway? If someone owned a house on the farm they didn’t want, why not just walk out and let it fall down later? Was the house Deirdre’s family home? She had assumed the neat little cottage she’d lived in for years was the home Deirdre had grown up in.
The afternoon light was streaming in through the window, making the steam from the kettle glow. It was soothing. She wasn’t used to having visitors just appear in her kitchen and she was fairly certain she didn’t like it, but she had been brought up to show hospitality to all – even if of late her mentor had been her grandmother. While with Deirdre the visitor would absolutely get cake, any smiles or sparkling conversation were entirely optional.
Teddy was used to her own space. Too used to her own space, her mother had said when she last visited from Perth. You need to get out more, she’d admonished. Catch up with the other young ones. Don’t let Grandma run your life – you’re young, Theodora!
She glanced back at Will to catch him watching her with undisguised interest. Rude.
Obviously Deirdre wanted her to put Will up in the shearers quarters; they were comfortable enough for visitors but she hadn’t been over there in months, and now Deirdre was off at a historical society committee meeting in town. Will was cutting a couple of pieces of cake.
‘So, you live here?’ he asked.
‘Yeah. I help out Grandma and my brother Hamish if stuff needs doing. He’s married to a girl on a farm about twenty k’s away, but he’s still farming the home property as well as his wife’s farm.’
‘Must keep him busy,’ Will observed.
‘We all like to be busy,’ she replied and placed a hot cup of tea in front of him. ‘But I want to hear more about who you are – and this house you seem to think I haven’t noticed for the past couple of decades.’
‘Well, it’s really not surprising you haven’t noticed it,’ he said. ‘It was buried years ago, apparently. Your grandma always wondered if anything was still surviving under there. And Audrey is always looking for an excuse to get me to come out to the bush.’
‘Old person thing.’
Teddy smiled. She liked Audrey Higgins-Devine, she was a gentle soul, artistic and wise. She’d had a number of well-placed private chats with Teddy over the years; perhaps Audrey thought she had something to offer her that Teddy’s own grandmother couldn’t.
‘She’s my great-aunt via some cousin – but, well, I owe her.’
Teddy stared at the man in front of her over her mug. Obviously Audrey’s influence didn’t extend to clothing or personal grooming. He was sprawled out happily in her kitchen like he was just coming back to life from a mild hangover, or he was thinking about getting his buzz on again. She wasn’t sure she approved of him. But maybe she could like him. That seemed entirely possible.
‘What do you do?’ she asked.
‘I dig,’ he said, and swallowed half a mug of tea.
‘Well, I’m an archaeologist. It’s how my name came up when the old girls were talking.’
‘Seriously? We need an archaeologist for a pile of crap?’
‘Piles of crap are exactly my specialty,’ he said. ‘Now I know you have actual piles of crap I’m starting to get excited.’
‘But seriously? Even if there is, as you say, a whole house buried next to the sheep yards, surely it wouldn’t take specialist knowledge to dig it up?’
He didn’t respond for a moment, just swilled the remains of his tea in the white china mug. ‘Nah,’ he said at last. ‘Not really, but I’m between jobs at the moment.’
‘You must be seriously freaking between jobs if you’re out here with a shovel.’
He smiled at her and shrugged. ‘I like to travel to exotic places, meet interesting people —’
‘And yet here you are in Windstorm with a squashed house and the world’s grumpiest octogenarian. Lucky you.’
‘Could be worse,’ he said.
She looked at him to see if he was joking. He gazed comfortably back at her like she couldn’t see him doing it. She picked up a newspaper and made herself busy. His eyes followed the movement.
‘Also, I think Audrey wanted a visit, and your grandma said she thought your brother would smash all her old stuff with a front-end loader.’
‘And you’re going to trowel out knives and forks from the fifties?’
‘Nah,’ he said. ‘The thirties. And I’ve got a digger – a Dingo.
It should do the trick. You going to help me?’
‘I might be willing to now and then,’ she said. ‘How long are you staying?’
‘Probably just a few days. I’ve got a dig on in Devon shortly so I’ll be cutting it fine, but I know Audrey and your grandma were fixed on longer. I’ll play it by ear.’
Teddy finished her tea and stood. Will stood too, tall and ropey and looming over her.
‘Well,’ she said. ‘Let me find you some bedding and we’ll get you settled in the shearers quarters.’
‘Sounds great,’ he said, following her down the hall. ‘But don’t go to too much trouble – I won’t be here long.’
She dug out a couple of respectable sheets and some towels. ‘We’ll need to fire up the hot water system regardless,’ she told him. ‘We only turn it on when the house is being used. You’ll be quite comfortable but I’ll make sure you’ve got enough blankets, too. The nights are getting pretty cool.’
‘Thanks.’ He took the linen and followed her back to the front door, scooped up his overnight bag in one easy motion and walked out beside her. ‘Nice farm,’ he commented.
‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘We like it.’
‘Has your family been here long?’
‘My great-great-grandfather cleared it over a hundred years ago,’ she said. ‘Of course we’re planting trees back in a few places now. You learn from your mistakes.’
He nodded, looking over at the stand of pepper trees by the shearing shed, around where the old house lay hidden.
‘Yeah, you do,’ he said.
The shearers quarters were a few hundred metres from Teddy’s house at the top of the long driveway that led down to the road to town. There were other sheds lined up alongside them, almost in an untidy circle. Teddy’s and Deirdre’s houses sat on one side, with a view across to whoever was working in the yards, the workshop, or the cowshed. Dotted around the sheds were stands of trees: some old York gums, and a large clump of salmon gums, in which the pink and greys liked to gather for a chat in the afternoon. Most of the sheds were old and their metal shells moved in the wind, sometimes curling up a little in the heat like sunburned skin. The shearers quarters themselves were rarely used now that the shearers had a place in town, and they were pretty basic but Teddy figured Will’d slept in worse. The walls were strong enough, but there were cracks around the old opaque windows and they were stuffed with spiders. She didn’t like going in there much. Spiders freaked her out. She hoped Will didn’t accidentally brush against her because she’d probably faint or punch him in the face. She started shaking out the fresh sheets.
‘I can do that,’ he assured her.
‘No, let me. My grandmother will ask and I’ll hear about it if you so much as suspect the bed didn’t make itself.’
He grinned. ‘Sorry to make more work for you.’
She shrugged, embarrassed because he was looking at her, and because there was a bed nearby, which absolutely had not occurred to her till then.
‘No!’ she said. ‘It’s absolutely no trouble. I like to – to come over here now and again. And I’m sure Grandma will appreciate your help with the house.’
He continued his interested assessment of her face. ‘Yeah, well.
I hope so. I mean, I hope I find some stuff she’s interested in – it could be too late.’
‘My dad used to say, It’s never too late, Teddy.’
‘Where is he now?’
‘Oh, I’m sorry.’
She was bent over and tucking in the old doona she’d used at boarding school. ‘Not your fault. Anyway —’ she stood and brushed her hands against her hips to let him know they were done. ‘I’ll light the hot water system on the way out.’
‘I’ll help you.’
‘No need.’ He started to follow her and she felt a sudden rising sense of panic.
‘Really, I can do it myself —’ he said.
‘No need.’ She was already at the water system, striking a match from the box they kept on top, and striding away from him as fast as she could without running. She held up her hand in farewell as she disappeared down the path so he’d know she wasn’t strange. Except she was lying. Because she was strange. She was a bit strange and getting stranger all the time.