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  • Published: 12 April 2022
  • ISBN: 9781761046650
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • RRP: $32.99

The Mallee Girl

Extract

Pippa Black stared out the kitchen window at the dusty sun-beaten paddocks beyond. How could it be this hot at eight o’clock on a mid-September morning? Such early heat didn’t bode well for the coming summer. She used a cup to bail some washing-up water from the sink for her collection of potted plants on the sill. Basil, parsley, rosemary and thyme. African violets for colour and aloe vera for soothing bruises and sunburn. The only green things in sight.

The tiny town of Kilpa had recorded its lowest winter rainfall on record and, so far, the spring rains had failed too. Cade, Pippa’s husband, had given up on harvesting what was left of the wheat crop, and had turned their starving sheep into the paddocks. They were dirty brown blobs surrounded by dirty brown stubble. Even the few stunted mallee trees were brown, their customary grey-green foliage layered with topsoil from last week’s monster dust storm.

Their farm, ironically enough, was named Fairview. But there was nothing but sheep and dust and more sheep for as far as the eye could see. Even Pippa’s friends, the magpies, had fled. She missed their dawn chorus. Now she awoke to the cawing of scavenging crows. Dying sheep were easy pickings.

Pippa opened the window wider, hoping for the hint of a breeze. Sweat trickled down between her breasts, making her shirt cling uncomfortably. The house would be an oven by the afternoon. She wiped plastered strands of fair hair from her face. Pippa wanted to cut it short for summer – it would be so much cooler – but Cade liked it long. She sighed in resignation. There was no arguing with Cade.

Pippa slapped a ball of dough onto a floured board, working it with the heels of her hands. Drought meant Cade had slashed their household budget, insisting they could save money by baking their own bread. It was all right for him – Cade didn’t have to fire up the range in sweltering heat. And he wouldn’t even buy her a little fan for the kitchen.

Pippa fanned herself with a Women’s Weekly kept on the bench for that purpose. Her mother, Ruby, passed the magazines on when she’d finished with them. She loved their fashion and beauty tips, but Pippa couldn’t relate to the glamorous women gracing their pages. She was tall, blonde and thin, but there the resemblance ended. The models dripped with style and confi­dence. Pippa wore Salvation Army clothes, was shy as a mouse and her chin was too long.

She switched on the pocket radio sitting on the sill and kneaded the dough in time to Not Pretty Enough by Kasey Chambers, waiting for it to become smooth and elastic the way Mum had taught her. She winced as she worked; her wrist still ached where Cade had grabbed it. Pippa paused to rest her hand, worries churning through her head on repeat. She was her own worst critic. Blaming herself for the mess of her marriage. Wishing for the millionth time that she’d made different choices, better choices. What was it they said about hindsight? Always twenty-twenty.

Cade had found employment in the sand mine at Millburn, an hour’s drive away. There’d been no choice but for him to take outside work – the farm was running at a loss. Pippa had offered to help by resuming her old job at the Kilpa general store where she’d worked before they were married. The humble position that she’d once looked down her nose at now seemed like the height of fun. But Cade didn’t want his wife to work outside the home. It would be a humiliation, he said, so they were making do on his small wage and by selling off the odd pen of skinny sheep.

Duke, their clever red kelpie, scratched at the back door then opened the flyscreen with his paw. ‘You’re getting spoilt,’ she said as he trotted in. ‘Don’t get used to sleeping on the bed. Cade will be home for dinner.’

Cade had stayed overnight in Millburn to have a Friday night out with the boys. It had happened a few times lately. Pippa didn’t mind. It meant she could sleep curled up beside Duke’s warm, protective form. She could relax and dream. She could sleep late instead of rising at five to cook Cade’s breakfast and pack his lunch. He didn’t want her making sandwiches the night before and leaving them in the fridge. He said they had to be fresh. Yes, Pippa liked it when Cade didn’t come home.

The sound of a car in the distance interrupted Pippa’s reflec­tions. She looked out the window to see a plume of dust billowing up the long, straight driveway towards the house. It was Cade, and he was in a hurry. What on earth was he doing home at this time? He normally slept in until lunchtime on Saturday mornings after a big night out. Duke began his loud guard barking. The big dog, who’d been a wedding present from her mother, always warned of Cade’s arrival as if he were a stranger. The habit had earned Duke plenty of clouts during the past four years.

The black Ford ute screeched to a halt in front of the house, spraying gravel and nearly slamming into a verandah post. Cade threw himself from the cab, mounted the porch steps in a single bound and burst inside. Pippa stared, wiping floury hands on her apron and taking in his filthy face, dishevelled clothes and dusty hair. Cobwebs clung to one ear.

He fixed wild eyes on her and grabbed her arm. ‘We have to get out of here, babe – right now.’ His voice was low and urgent.

Pippa pulled away. ‘Cade, you’re frightening me.’

He scrubbed one grimy hand over his face while holding her tight with the other. ‘There’s no time to explain. Trust me, we have to go this very minute.’

Pippa started to protest, but Cade’s brow furrowed menac­ingly, and she went quiet. He was too upset to reason with, that much was clear. She took off her apron. ‘I’ll just wrap the dough to prove and get my bag from the bedroom.’

‘There’s no time!’ He was shouting now. Duke began barking in a high-pitched frenzy until a vicious kick silenced him.

Fear rose in Pippa’s throat as Cade half-pulled, half-carried her from the house and bundled her into the ute. He slammed the door shut, climbed behind the wheel, then swore and punched the dash. Pippa knew better than to ask what was wrong. She cowered as he leaped out and dashed back into the house. Moments later he came sprinting back and hurled his precious laptop onto the rear seat. The Ford roared to life, spun in a tight circle and tore down the laneway that led to the back gate. Their farm bordered Hattah-Kulkyne, a vast, semi-arid national park known for its red dirt, native pine woodlands and mallee scrub. The park was popular with tourists, nature lovers and campers, which was something Pippa couldn’t understand. Cade and the drought had killed her childhood love of this harsh, ancient land. What was the attraction of poor sandy soil, sad stunted trees and searing hot summers? And why was Cade driving straight into that godforsaken wilderness like a madman?

‘Look out!’ called Pippa. A flock of startled emus raced ahead of them. The huge birds barely managed to dodge off the track in time.

Cade put his foot down harder and drove on with gritted teeth, heading who knew where. The old ute had next to no suspension, so each pothole and corrugation made Pippa’s teeth rattle. The kilometres flew past. When she finally plucked up the courage to ask Cade what was wrong, he didn’t answer. He didn’t even seem to hear, so lost was he in some private madness.

Pippa sank back in her seat. She wore shorts and her bare skin clung to the hot vinyl. Bulldust streamed in through the half-open windows, choking her and leaving an ever-thickening film of dust on the dash. She tried closing her window, but that was equally unbearable. Within minutes the cabin became a furnace.

The ute wasn’t in good shape. It had a lot of dings and Cade was too miserly to re-gas the air conditioning. When he’d sideswiped a gatepost, denting a front panel and cracking the headlight, he’d repaired it with gaffer tape. This small act of stinginess was a constant annoyance for Pippa. Her family were proud of their cars. However old, they were always well main­tained. On top of that, Cade said they couldn’t afford to fix her twenty-year-old Honda Civic, which meant she no longer had her own car to drive. She suspected that he liked it that way.

Pippa glanced at her husband, alarmed by his wide eyes, by his fixed staring at the road ahead. Frightened by how far he’d moved beyond her reach. Whatever had happened last night? Pippa coughed and gazed out the window. Nothing for it but to wait Cade out.

The nightmare drive seemed to last forever. How long had it been? One hour? Two? Hard to tell. The dash clock didn’t work. Pippa didn’t have her phone, and she couldn’t get her bearings in the featureless, flat monotony of red dust and mallee scrub.

At last a low line of trees appeared on their right – the Murray River. Cade headed for it and found a place to park near the riverbank, his frenzy apparently spent. Pippa glanced around. She knew this place – a remote branch of the Murray that was one of her father’s favourite fishing spots. He’d camped out here with Cade more than once.

Pippa looked across to where her husband was slumped over the wheel, head sagged on crossed arms. She eased the door open and climbed out of the baking cab, half-expecting Cade to give chase. When he didn’t move, she walked down to the boggy water’s edge to splash her face.

The once mighty Murray River that marked the park’s eastern boundary had been laid low by thirsty irrigators and years of drought. It flowed like a sluggish brown snake between dying red gums, imparting a sense of desolation and despair. Pippa closed her eyes and sank down in the shade with her back against a tree trunk, fanning herself with a switch of leaves. She felt naked without a scarf around her neck. She always wore a scarf.

A few minutes later Pippa felt a tap on her shoulder and jumped like a startled deer. Cade stood over her, offering a canteen. She gulped the warm water down greedily. When she’d had her fill, she stood up and inspected Cade’s broad face. His manic expression had been replaced by one of apprehension.

‘What now?’ she asked. ‘Can we go home?’
‘No,’ he snapped. ‘Now we wait.’
‘Wait for what?’ She kicked at the tree in frustration. ‘What’s happened, Cade? Tell me.’

To her utter astonishment he wrapped her in a great hug. He wasn’t a physically affectionate man. And were those tears?

‘I’ve done something, Pip.’ He let her go and moved rest­lessly from foot to foot.
‘Done what? Come on Cade, tell me.’
His expression soured. ‘The less you know the better.’

The sound of approaching vehicles made Cade stiffen. He ran to the ute and grabbed a rifle from the tray.

Pippa’s breath came in shallow gasps as she stared at the weapon. Her husband had lost his mind. Her first instinct was to flee, but to where? And anyway, she couldn’t outrun a bullet. So instead she huddled on the ground beneath a tree and made herself as small a target as possible.

 


The Mallee Girl Jennifer Scoullar

A heart-warming new rural romance set in the Victorian High Country by the bestselling author of Brumby's Run.

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