The Family Farm
Author: Fiona Palmer
The old Holden ute squeaked and rattled as it rolled along the gravel road, leaving a billowing dust trail. Isabelle Simpson was glad to see the land around her home district hadn't changed during her absence. The same vast blue sky watched over her, and the unchanged trees were filled with pink and grey galahs and bright-green parrots. Her heart felt free and her skin tingled with eagerness. Not long now. She smiled at the familiar farm signs along the road as if remembering old friends. Izzy was glad that that the farmers she'd known her whole life hadn't sold out and moved on. It just wouldn't be home without them.
A high-pitched ringing interrupted her thoughts. Pulling over, Izzy picked up her mobile, saw who was calling and promptly pressed cancel before throwing the phone down. Why couldn't he just leave her alone? Didn't he realise what he'd done?
The phone began vibrating on the seat near her leg. A text message had arrived. Hesitantly, she picked up her mobile.
We need 2 talk. Can u please call me.
Like hell, she thought. Izzy had already told him all she was going to say on the matter. Suddenly a sob forced its way out from deep in her throat, catching her by surprise. Her shoulders shook as she clutched the steering wheel. Finally, the bottled-up tears fell in floods. He had ruined everything and she felt so betrayed. Izzy let the tears fall freely, hoping it might help her move on and be done with this whole cock-up.
The familiar road beckoned her when she glanced at it through blurry eyes. I'm almost home, she thought. Sniffing loudly, she wiped away the last of her tears and sat up straight. Izzy Simpson was made of rougher stuff than that. Besides, another few minutes and she'd be back home. Back to her parents. Back to the strong memories of her sister, Claire. Back to the close proximity of Will Timmins. Back to another man complicating her life.
Bloody hell. That's all I need, she thought, sighing.
Planting her foot on the accelerator and spraying gravel, Izzy drove her ute back onto the road. She headed through her local town, past the three large grain-storage bins. They were a towering icon of Pingaring and a marker point for Izzy. Her family's farm lay only ten minutes to the east. After days of travelling, it finally felt like she was coming home.
As she peered out of the open window, the breeze flicked her long dark hair about her face, tickling her skin. There was something about returning that made the landscape seem so much more beautiful and bright, highlighting the smell of the warm dusty ait, the hint of eucalyptus and the glorious blue of the sky. She knew this route like the back of her hand – the mallee trees and scrub bush that lined the road, and the places where the wildflowers grew in spring.
Taking a deep breath, as if she could suck in all familiar smells at once, Izzy glanced at her kelpie dog. 'What do you reckon, Tom? Good to be home, isn't it, mallee?'
His answer was to stick his head out the open passenger window. Tom's tongue flapped in the wind and his bottom lip blew down, revealing his yellow teeth.
Both windows were open, and the hot afternoon breeze provided the only relief from the stifling heat. Even though her ute was old, it still ran well. Brown vinyl lined the interior, well worn but clean and tidy, except for the dog hairs that coated the brown seat covers on the passenger side. On the floor below Tom sat his ice-cream container with enough water to wet his chops.
Yes, her old blue Holden was more than just metal and rubber. It was almost like a member of her family. Izzy had bought it when she was fifteen. After four long weeks working on Spud's crutching cradle she had earned enough money to buy it, off the local mechanic in town.
Izzy remembered that long month, many years ago. It had been the first time she'd worked off the family farm. Her first day's work was over at a neighbouring property crutching six hundred head of ewes, big fat ones too. It was a stinking hot day full of endless flies and large blowies. Spud, Johnno and Mick were on the crew back then. They crutched the wool off around the tail of the ewes to prevent them from being blown by flies, while she roused and pushed up sheep. She could still remember the clang of the metal flap as the blokes had pulled the ewes from the high race she'd just pushed them up into. The whirr from the hand pieces and the constant bangs, mixed in with Mick and Johnno yelling sick jokes to each other, had caused her ears to ring that day. Then there were the sharp prickles hidden in the wool that had made her already sore and swollen fingers sting as she grabbed the ewes by their thick, greasy coats, struggling to move the more stubborn ones up the race. Not to mention her aching back from bending over all day sorting the crutchings from the shitty dags and half-clean bits of wool.
Izzy had quickly learnt to pack her own toilet paper. It came in handy when you had to squat behind the ute or the cradle.
Yes, it had been hard work, but bloody good pay for a fifteen-year-old. Her HQ ute was her reward, she had had spent a special couple of days with her dad cleaning it up. That was before the accident, back in the days when he allowed her to help him around the machinery on the farm. Over the years she'd earned enough money to upgrade her ute if she'd wanted to. But strangely, she felt too attached to ever sell. It held a lot of good memories of times spent with her dad, and of cruising the paddocks with Claire in her newfound freedom.
Slowing down as the familiar turnoff approached, Izzy flicked on the indicator and turned left, stopping just short of a faded sign.
B & J Simpson, Gumlea was etched into a piece of ancient red jarrah, and faded white paint peeled out from the grooves. Gumlea was the name that had been given to the farm long before her grandad had bought it, named, she guessed, after all the salmon gums, which had been planted on the farm many years ago. The sign hung from two small chains off a thicker rusty frame. Her dad would've loved to see the words and Son up there. He'd wanted someone to pass his farm on to, and Izzy had wished with all her heart that it would be her. She'd dreamed of running the family farm nearly her whole life. She was twelve when she realised what she definitely wanted. Being away at boarding school had been hell and had proved how much the farm meant to her. The only thing standing in her way was good ol' dad. He could be like a mule sometimes, which was the main reason Izzy had been away from the farm she loved for the part few years. He's have a fit if he knew what kind of work she'd been doing.
Izzy sighed as she moved the stick into gear and headed down the corrugated gravel driveway, intermittently lined with the tall gum trees that she used to climb as a child. Her nerves started to twinge. Crap. What were her folks going to say when they saw her? She knew her mum would be ecstatic – Mum always missed her the most – but Dad was never too keen on surprises.
Tom barked as he spotted the farmhouse, bringing Izzy back from la-la land. Three large paddocks surrounded the farm buildings. Two were in crop, the Halberd variety of wheat making a golden-brown haze, nearly ripe for harvest. The other paddock was bare, and in the far corner sheep huddled in the shade of the nature reserve along the fence line. Large silver farm sheds rose into view like a pop-up book the closer she got. Izzy drove past ancient ploughs left rotting together in clumps – the same ones she and Claire used to play on.
Dad's Toyota Land Cruiser was parked at the house, with the sheep feeder attached behind. He couldn't afford to upgrade his ute like some of the other farmers around, but instead had to wait for a good year or until it died on him. Then they'd need to a get a newer one as half the farm work couldn't be done without it. Izzy had spent most of her childhood in that ute. She checked her watch. It must be about smoko time, she thought.
Parking next to the Land Cruiser she noticed the garden was still as amazing as ever. Her mum had planted native shrubs, grevilleas, bottlebrush and other plants that thrived in dry conditions. Water was always a problem, especially at this time of year. But she also had a section of plants that she tended to regularly, from the row of deep red roses to the clumps of irises and daylilies. Then there were the springtime pink and white everlastings and colourful Livingston daisies, which incredibly covered the hard ground throughout her garden, putting on a bright display worthy of any garden show. Mum always managed to find enough flowers in her garden to put on the table in Nana's vases.
Looking down at her worn blue jeans and tan singlet, Izzy wondered whether she should've dressed up. She flipped down the sun visor in the car, gawked into the cracked mirror taped on behind it, and applied some lip balm. She would've liked full lips and a larger smile, but at least she had straight teeth. Her blue eyes were vibrant against her clear olive complexion. Hastily she retied her hair back into a ponytail. Her hands showed signs of neglect. Deeply tanned, they were callused and dry, but that didn't worry Izzy. To her, each callus was like a gold star, showing how hard she worked. Poking her tongue out, she pulled a face at her reflection, then flicked the visor back into place.
'C'mon, Tom.' She whistled, then slammed the door behind him as he jumped out. They walked side by side towards the fence and the open wooden slat gate that beckoned you towards the house. Izzy slid her hands into her back pockets to settle her nerves. The soft patter of Tom's paws against the earth led them towards the back of the house. The front door was hardly ever used, only by the odd travelling salesman or Jehovah's Witness. Each step seemed to take forever, but soon she was standing in front of the familiar flywire door. Slipping off her Rossi boots, she placed them neatly beside a rugged pair of her father's. She smiled. Everything on the verandah was how she remembered it. The wooden table that her mum had stripped back still stood in the same spot, covered with old tins and bottles that contained various cacti. A couple of rusty rabbit traps and shears hung on the wall above the table, souvenirs of days gone by. Terracotta pots with large leafy plants were scattered along the wall. At the end stood three large steel wheels from old machinery, which her father had bolted together to close of the verandah.
Tom sighed as he settled himself down in his old spot just left of the door. Reaching for the handle, Izzy called out, 'Hello. Anyone home?' Taking a step inside, she called out again. 'Mum?'
'Izzy, is that you?' a voice from the cool darkness and her mum appeared. Izzy had inherited her tall, lanky, almost boyish figure from her mum. Jean's curly brown hair, highlighted with soft grey, sat on her shoulders. Her blue eyes shone with excitement and her wide smile emphasised her laughter lines. Small crow's feet in the corners of her eyes made her look wise and beautiful. The plain cream shirt she wore was spotless, and around her neck hung a treasured gold locket that enclosed a small photograph of Izzy's sister, Claire.
'Hi, Mum. I missed you,' said Izzy, stepping into her mother's open arms.
Jean Simpson pulled out of Izzy's embrace, held her daughter at arm's length and gave her at once-over. 'It's so good to see you too, sweetheart. Why didn't you tell me you were coming? How long are you home for?'
'I wanted to surprise you, Mum. But let me get in the door first before you bug me with questions, okay?' Izzy teased.
'Come on, then. Your dad's having a cuppa. I'll make you one too.' Jean placed her arm around Izzy's shoulders and led her into the heart of the house.
Izzy's thick socks muffled her footsteps on the old floorboards as they walked the few steps down the corridor into the open kitchen. Over the sink, light flowed in from a large window, through which the garden was visible. The cupboards in the kitchen were the classic mission brown of their era, with coordinating green benchtops, and they were as tidy as ever. The brown stoneware tea, sugar and coffee bowls sat neatly lined against the wall, and she knew there would be no dust on them or grains of sugar or coffee spilt nearby. Her eyes ran over the empty sink that shone from a recent scrub. Izzy had inherited the cleaning gene. When she worked on a tractor, everything sat in an organised spot and the inside of the cab was always cleaned before she started and again when she'd finished.
The solid frame of her father, Bill Simpson, sitting at the breakfast bar captured Izzy's attention. A faint trail of steam rose up from the mug of tea he held in his wide, deeply lined hand. His dark blue, almost black, piercing eyes glanced up as he sensed someone's presence.
He nearly knocked his stool over and spilt his tea as he scrambled to his feet. 'Isabelle! My God, what are you doing here? 1 heard someone pull in, but 1 thought it was just Will.' He embraced Izzy in a tight bear hug and kissed her cheek, his stubble scratching the surface of her skin. She almost had to stand on tippy-toes to reach her arms up over his burly shoulders. It wasn't that he was taller than Izzy, he just had a much bigger frame and a barrel chest.
Izzy wondered for a moment why he'd be expecting Will, but let the thought slip from her mind as she hugged her dad. Gee, I love this old geezer, even if he does try to run my life, she thought. Bill Simpson smelt just how she remembered him, with a hint of sweat and grease mixed in with his deodorant. His tufted-up short, greying hair had thinned slightly at the front. Deep-set wrinkles stood out on his ruddy skin, and that familiar tiny dimple appeared as he smiled, along with his old set of dentures.
Izzy let go of her dad and pulled out a stool alongside him. Jean placed a cup of tea down in front of Izzy and slid a plate of scones.
'Now, tell me, darling, how long are you staying? Did you get time off from work?' Jean asked eagerly.
Izzy couldn't hide the smile that grew large and wide. 'I'm home for good, Mum. If that's okay! Is my old room still up for grabs?'
'Of course it is, sweetheart. It's been waiting here since you left. Oh, I'm so glad you're back to stay, Izzy.' Jean reached over and touched Izzy's hand, a gesture of just how much she had missed her daughter.
'So, what happened to your job over east?' asked Bill, while looking into his tea. 'Didn't get the sack, did ya?'
That's just like him, thought Izzy. Assuming the worst all the time. 'No, Dad. I didn't. The kids are old enough now to take care of themselves and I just wasn't needed any more. Besides, my place is here with you and Mum on Gumlea.' She didn't think he needed to know the truth just yet.
Izzy thought about the Radcliffs. They - well, Rob - had given her a job on their farm, Cliffviews, in New South Wales. It was a good size farm - just over four thousand hectares - and they grew wheat, canola and barley, and ran sheep. It had started out as an 'everything job' - helping with their kids, the housework and the odd farm job when she could manage. But Izzy had told Rob from the start that she loved farm work. She was hoping to learn as much from him as she could - from fencing to tractor maintenance, spraying out chemicals and spreading of fertilisers, more or less anything to do with running a farm. When Rob's farmhand quit, Izzy quickly stepped into the position. She'd worked hard to prove how dedicated she was, and bit by bit Rob taught her more. Then her job had changed to permanent farmhand. He must have believed in her and the skills she had acquired, as they started to take holidays and leave her to run the farm in their absence. Rob even roped her into helping with the farm books, and they'd worked on the crop plan together. Whatever needed doing on a farm, Izzy could do it, and she was damn proud of what she'd achieved in the two and a bit years at Rob's. She was now well and truly ready to help run Gumlea.
She'd never passed this information on to her dad, of course. He'd have a fit if he knew she'd been doing farm work. As far as he knew, she'd simply been the house-hand. Otherwise he never would have let her go.
The Radcliffs had become like an adopted family and Izzy would always remember them for their kindness and love. She sighed heavily. She already missed Alice and the two kids so much. If only Izzy's own dad could be more like Rob; so understanding, and eager to teach her anything she wanted to learn. Rob never held back because she was a girl. It was just a shame he had to go and ruin it all. Everything had been so perfect, but now . . . well . . . every good memory was blurred by his betrayal. She could never go back.
Shaking her head, she tried to throw Rob from her mind. 'So, Dad, what's new on the farm?' Izzy rested her hand on his arm for a brief moment, drawing his attention back to her.
'The farm's the same, love. Not a lot happening. We're counting on this year's crop. It looks like the best we've had in a while. Just as well too. We need it to help payoff the new land and to replace the old header that's on its last legs.' He ruffled her hair. 'But don't worry your pretty little head over it. We have more important things to do. I think your coming home is cause for celebration, don't you, Jean? What say we have a barbie? It's been a while since we've had everyone over.' Bill scrunched up his brow, trying to remember.
'I think that's a great idea,' said Jean. 'I'll do a ring around and let everyone know. How does Thursday night sound, Izzy? That should give you enough time to settle in.'
'Yeah, sounds fine to me, Mum. I don't have a lot to unpack and I already feel settled in. Does anyone need a hand with anything or shall I just go and put my stuff away?' Izzy said, stuffing a large portion of scone into her mouth.
'No, I'm fine, Isabelle,' replied her dad. 'You go do your thing. I'm off to feed the sheep in the side paddock, and then the header needs seeing to.' He swallowed the last of his tea. 'I'm so glad you're home, honey. You've made my day. We'll catch up when you're done.' With a wink, he turned and headed to the back door.
'Come on, Izzy,' said her mum. 'I'll help you get your stuff.' Jean collected up the cups and put them in the sink, then placed the clingwrap back over the remaining scones and popped them in the fridge, which was decorated with the postcards Izzy had sent them from the towns close to Rob's farm near Merriwa. Some were from Dubbo, some from Newcastle, and a couple each from Tamworth and Bathurst. When Rob had given her a weekend 'off here and there, she'd taken off in her ute and explored New South Wales with Tom.
Walking out of the kitchen, Jean stopped in front of Izzy and smiled before pulling her into another embrace. 'Did I mention that I'm happy you're home?' she said.
'Maybe once or twice.'