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  • Published: 19 March 2018
  • ISBN: 9780143787525
  • Imprint: Bantam Australia
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 416
  • RRP: $19.99

The Woolgrower's Companion

Extract

Longhope Railway Station, New South Wales
10 January 1945

The train carrying the prisoners of war was overdue. Kate sheltered in the shade of the station shed, wary, and watchful of her father, who stood along the tracks with the other graziers. Beyond them, pepperina trees flanked the road. The train tracks ran on across the valley bed with its handful of myalls and eucalypt gums, climbed up into the low hills at the edge of the tablelands and disappeared in a glint of summer heat on the southern horizon.

With her gloved hand Kate brushed away a fly. A drop of sweat ran between her shoulder blades and caught at the waist of her good frock, the wool crepe prickly and damp. Her father had asked Kate to come with him today and she’d worn her pink striped dress when he’d asked, her pearls too: it was easier to do as he said. But she felt like a barber’s pole in the dress.

Down the tracks, her father, Ralph Stimson, stood ramrod straight, his grey hair short and neat. He wasn’t concerned about the prisoners – glad to get them, even. But Kate was worried. To take in soldiers? Men who’d fought Australians in North Africa, fought her husband, Jack? To her, these POWs were still the enemy, even if Italy had changed sides.

She scratched at the nape of her neck. Kate had her plait up to come into town, pinned in place under her hat but keen to escape. Her wayward hair always reminded her of her mother. At fifteen, Kate had cried in her arms, cried that she was stick-like with a head of No. 8 fencing wire. Her mother had hugged her. ‘But you are pretty,’ she’d said. ‘Just in a different way. And anyway being fair-haired and curvy doesn’t get the washing in.’

A pair of black cockatoos watched from a branch of a dead pepperina tree. Kate felt the sweat gathering in her nylons between her legs and shifted her feet apart a little. It made no difference. She moved deeper into the shade and glanced again at her father. She loved him dearly but he was volatile – excitable, her mother had called it. He should be all right for the moment, though, as he stood with his men, Ed Storch and Keith Grimes. Grimes was their manager. In his fifties, he was about the same age as her father, and they were both returned servicemen from the First War. But Grimes looked younger, not yet grey and without her father’s weariness. And Grimes was taller and broader, with heavy eyebrows and a firm mouth. The other man, Ed, Kate liked. At twenty-one he was younger than Kate by two years. He had arms the size of tree trunks, but with his gammy foot he wasn’t fit for service. You’d never know about the foot once he was on a horse, though. He’d been their head stockman since the war started. He was dark, with olive skin that went black in the sun, and Grimes reckoned he must be part Aboriginal. But her father liked Ed, and respected him, so Grimes kept quiet.

Ed waved at her and pointed towards the horizon. A shape expanded from a dot into an engine and carriages, smoke and dust trailing behind. Soon she felt the first vibrations in the ground under her feet. As the tremors welled, the din merged into a swell of steam and power. The train’s engine, an outsize bottle-green drum, pulled two passenger carriages and a long, long line of empty cattle wagons, ready for stock to feed the troops.

The vibrations, the funnel of the train and its black smoke brought it back to her, the time a bit less than two years before when Kate had been there at the station to farewell Jack. Met and wed and then he was gone, all in just five months. Her mother wanted to see Kate settled before she died, and Kate was glad to do that for her. She loved Jack too, of course, and wondered what he was doing right at that moment, whether he was out in the heat of the afternoon. Probably shouting orders at new soldiers, cranky to be in Sydney training men instead of fighting.

A blast of the train whistle jolted her, and steel shrieked against steel amid fumes and heat. Coughing lungfuls of thick air, she put her hands over her ears as the train screeched to a stop. Through the smoke and steam, she saw an Army staff car coming in from the main road.

The smoke drifted away to show weary soldiers standing guard on the end platforms of the first carriage. Garrison battalion, to guard the POWs. The windows of both carriages, heavy with soot, had been fixed shut but for a slit of two inches at the top. The carriage next to the graziers looked empty except for a small shape moving along inside. But the first carriage, the one stopped close to Kate, was full, the inside a solid block of plum colour. She’d read that the bright colour was chosen to make it easy for the public to spot an escaping prisoner of war. Magenta, the Tablelands Clarion had called it.

Bella,’ Kate heard from the carriage. ‘Eh! Ciao, bella!’

The meaning was clear and she ducked behind the shed.

Aw, bella!’

Her face hot, Kate had a narrow view through the gap between the shed and the tank – of a soldier on the dirt by the carriage – but with luck the POWs couldn’t see her.

Key in hand, the soldier waved his clipboard for attention. ‘Afternoon, all. I’m Corporal Boyle.’

Oil, the locals had christened him. He checked his clipboard and then called into the crowd, ‘Amiens!’ He pronounced it properly, the s silent. Kate’s father had named their property for the First War battle in France, where he’d lost so many friends.

‘Ami – bloody – en!’ Oil yelled again.

‘Yes,’ Keith Grimes replied, curt. The big man went through the crowd, in his uniform of sorts: riding boots, moleskin trousers and blue shirt. Shotgun in arms, Grimes stopped in front of the corporal, his face set. Grimes had been a POW of the Germans in the First War, one of the few Australians to have that honour. He had no time for enemy of any kind.

Ed limped over to stand behind Grimes, moving his bad foot up to the good.

‘Where you going, Twinkle Toes?’ Oil said to him.

‘That’ll do, thank you, Corporal.’ A captain had come out of the staff car and through the crowd. He was older, with a handsome face ruddy from the sun. He climbed the ladder to the carriage-end platform, the khaki cloth of his uniform jacket taut across his back.

‘Afternoon, gents. I’m Captain James Rook, head of the new POW Control Centre. A few words. First, we expect you will find these men willing and inexpensive.’

A voice floated from the back of the crowd: ‘They’re costing us Australian jobs.’ Frank Jamieson, the editor of the Tablelands Clarion. He was at the back of the crowd, his unlit pipe in his mouth as always. Jack’s crude description of him popped into her head: Big temper, small dick.

Jamieson moved his pipe about like a horse with an uncomfortable bit. ‘We should ship them home now. Before the Eye-ties switch sides again,’ he shouted.

Kate sympathised. His son Doug was in a POW camp in Singapore, a prisoner of the Japanese.

‘Your paper’s reported it, Mr Jamieson. Italy might’ve joined the Allies but all Italian POWs remain prisoners. We are putting them to work, here and in other districts, to relieve the labour shortage in essential industry.’

Jamieson shook his head. ‘They’ll stay after the war too.’

‘All POWs will be shipped back to Italy when the war’s over.’ The captain kept his eyes on Jamieson, and the editor said nothing more.

‘Most of these men were conscripts – they’re gentle and easily led. You’ve been issued the Army phrase book for talking to them, yes? And you might find the words “Hai capito?” handy. They mean “Do you understand?”’ He repeated the words for the crowd. ‘“Hai. Capito.” You should expect a lot of handwaving too. Normal with these blokes when they talk. All right?’ Speech over, the captain dropped to the ground from the first rung of the ladder. ‘Get on with it, Corporal. Get em outta there. That carriage must be hotter’n Hades.’ He moved a few feet along the tracks.

Up on the narrow platform, the corporal unlocked and slid open the door. ‘Orright, you blokes. Step lively when I say your name. Canali,’ he called into the carriage, his eyes on his clipboard. ‘Luca Canali. Get your boots out here.’

A man appeared, compact and neat in the plum-coloured POW uniform. But he was most foreign-looking, with a very dark complexion, black, black hair cut close to his head, and a five-o’clock shadow under a substantial nose. Kate had seen foreigners before, of course: Chinese vegetable growers and Indian hawkers. She knew Aborigines too, lots of them – their stockmen and Daisy, their half-caste house help, the other little ones at the Domestic Training Home. But this man was different. Young, in his mid-twenties perhaps, the only evidence of his long journey was the sweat ringing the armpits of his uniform and the battered portmanteau he gripped in one hand.

He set the case down next to him on the transom, and moved straight to attention, eyes front. He seemed to rest on the balls of his feet, ready, sinew and force. More soldier than prisoner, he didn’t seem ‘gentle’ or ‘easily led’. Then with shock Kate realised that he was looking at her. She pulled back, embarrassed.

‘Off the train, Canali,’ the corporal called. ‘Hai capito?

Unhurriedly, the POW climbed down the ladder. Grimes moved forward at the same time, shotgun in arms. Still facing the train, the POW lifted his case down. He turned and looked into the muzzle of Grimes’s shotgun, pointing at his chest from three feet away.

Half a head or more shorter than the man with the gun on him, the POW didn’t flinch. He stood, locked still, his eyes on Grimes, though his knuckles were white on the suitcase handle.

The captain moved towards the two men, carefully, purposefully. ‘You can put the shotgun away.’

Grimes stayed where he was, the muzzle aimed at the POW’s chest until the captain stepped between them. He reached for the muzzle and steered it dirt-wards. ‘You’ll put it away,’ he said again.

Grimes resisted. Then with a grunt, he stepped back.

‘Carry on, Corporal.’ The captain stayed next to the POW.

‘Bottinella. Private Vittorio Bottinella,’ Oil called.

A second prisoner appeared on the carriage-end platform, clutching a grey duffel bag against his bright uniform. This man had a thick beard but was swarthy and skinny like the first.

‘Righto, Blackbeard. On the dirt,’ the corporal said.

The man hesitated, looking at Grimes. The captain waved him along with a frown and the POW dropped his bag over the side, climbing down after it. When he turned towards the crowd, his head was drooped and he clasped shaking hands together.

The officer reached up for the clipboard. ‘Mr Stimson? Ralph Stimson of Amiens?’ he said to Grimes.

As her father went forwards, Kate shuddered. That first man would surely come to Amiens.

‘You got these two, Mr Stimson.’ The captain flipped over a page on the clipboard, and pulled a thin file from under the list. He opened it. ‘Basic information. Canali’s a sergeant, twenty-four. Bottinella, the one with the beard, is a private. He’s twenty-one. He arrived here in ’41 from a camp in India. The Canali chap’s only been in Australia since last year.’

‘Any English?’ Kate’s father asked. He frowned, knocking one boot against the other to shift some manure.

The captain looked again at the file. ‘You’re in luck. Canali – no beard – he’s got some. Guard at the Hay Camp taught him, apparently. Not the other fellow.’

‘They ride?’

‘Yes, according to this.’

‘Orright,’ Kate heard her father say. ‘These blokes’ll come in handy. Amiens carries eight stockmen plus a manager usually. Now I’m down to four men and I’m counting two Abos in that. Better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick.’

She hoped there’d be nothing worse from him today, with so many people about. But her father took the file he was offered, and walked away towards their truck. Grimes motioned for the POWs to move along as well. He cradled his shotgun in his arms, ready enough.

When Kate could no longer see the Amiens men through the gap, she followed but round behind the crowd. She hoped her father remembered they were collecting a boy, too, off the train: a distant relative of Grimes’s from Wollongong.

The calling of the POWs went on and another pair of grim, skinny men jumped down onto the dirt by the train.

At the second carriage, Ed Storch pulled himself halfway up the ladder, hopping his good leg up one rung at a time. He yelled, ‘Harry Grimes! You about?’

A boy of ten or so appeared, mostly hidden by an old suitcase, with a scruff of fair hair visible above and skinny legs below. He lowered the suitcase, and Kate could see he needed to wipe his nose.

She wanted to think his frown was a squint against the sun. This boy’s mother had died when he was born, and his father was killed at Tobruk. The grandmother was too ill to look after him, which left only Grimes. Grimes might have his hands full, and he had no experience, no wife or kids of his own.

The suitcase slipped from the boy’s hands and landed on his foot. ‘Bugger,’ he said.

Kate’s father raised his eyebrows and looked across at Grimes, but the manager had not heard; his eyes were on the POWs. The boy shoved the suitcase off the edge of the carriage platform and it hit the dirt next to Ed with a hollow thud.

‘Hullo, Harry. I’m Ralph Stimson from Amiens. That’s your uncle over there. Great-uncle, is it?’

Grimes nodded a greeting but the boy kept his eyes down. Kate’s father went off towards the Amiens car and truck. Ed followed, then the POWs, with Grimes behind.

Kate went over to the boy. ‘Hullo, Harry. Shall we go?’

The boy scuffed at a near-dead tuft of buffel grass. ‘Who are you then?’

‘I’m Kate – Mrs – Dowd. I live on Amiens, too.’

‘So?’

He reminded Kate of a baby magpie, never still; peck you soon as look at you. She watched the POWs and the others walking towards the truck.

‘Thirsty, eh,’ Harry said.

‘What’s that?’ She was distracted. ‘There’s a water bag at the truck.’

Above them, the cockatoo pair wheeled off, black dots on the cloudless sky, but they turned south. East would have been better, east towards the coast. Black cockatoos headed for the shelter of the seaboard before a big wet. They needed rain, as the drought was in its fifth year.

The suitcase banged against the boy’s leg as they walked. Kate was surprised to see Addison, the local bank johnny, speaking to her father at the truck.

‘I will be clear. You must —’ Addison stopped. ‘Mrs Dowd,’ he said. He looked back at her father. ‘We’ll take this up again, Ralph.’

They watched Addison get into his car.

‘What’s wrong, Dad?’

‘Nothin. Addison’s a drongo.’

Grimes usually drove, but today Ed got behind the wheel, as Grimes stood guard in the truck tray with his back against the cab, the prisoners at his feet. Up close, the two POWs looked sullen and dusty, the younger one with a piece of grass caught in his beard. Canali, the other one, wiped at the sweat on his brow with the back of his hand and stole another glance at Kate.

‘Let’s get going, Ed,’ Kate said, trying to ignore the POW.


The Woolgrower's Companion Joy Rhoades

Set over ten tumultuous months in 1945, The Woolgrower's Companion is the gripping story of one woman’s fight against all odds, and a sweeping tribute to Australia's landscape and its people.

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