Sam Locke took the keys from the young real estate agent and pumped his hand. Beside him, his daughter Louella watched in silence as the agent backed away to his shiny new sedan, bidding farewell with an oily smile. Louella saw him wipe his hand on shiny new trousers as he climbed in.
Sam waved until the car was out of sight then turned to Louella. He looked a little awkward.
“So… here we are then.”
“Yep,” Louella replied, looking around at the property. The fibro house sat on a small grassy block scratched out from the bush, which leaned in on it from all four sides. Although the January chorus of cicadas was constant and loud, the place somehow felt silent.
After a minute, Louella said, “Can we get a dog?”
“A dog?” Sam gave a relieved laugh. “Sure! Chickens too, if you want.”
Louella imagined a dog by her side and chickens scratching in the scrub and felt like there maybe something to look forward to here.
Sam had purchased the block when he split from Louella’s Mum in October of the previous year. Margie Locke was Canberra born and bred, a low-ranked public servant who liked the club, the pokies and, as it turned out, a plumber called Waz from Wanniassa. Ring Wanniassa Waz for all your plumbing needs! Margie had heard the call and answered.
Sam gave up the marriage without a fight. He wasn’t the most insightful man who ever lived but he knew his wife well enough to know that they were at different points in their lives. On different paths, Margie’s mother had said by way of apology to him.
He suggested that Louella come and live with him, and on this point, he’d been prepared to dig his heels in. Margie was in some ways almost adolescent herself, and he knew that his daughter would inadvertently suffer in the sole care of her self-absorbed mother, or at the very least be prematurely crowbarred out of her childhood.
Margie, who’d been pregnant at 19 and missed out on all the fun her friends had been having at the time, didn’t argue too strenuously. If she was a butterfly, her daughter was a moth, a mild disappointment of a child who didn’t share her fun-loving, outgoing nature or love of clothes, shoes and parties.
They sold their house in the southern suburbs of Canberra and, with his share of the money, Sam bought a 300-acre property in Yaouk, an hour or so south into alpine country. It backed onto Scabby Range Nature Reserve and was surrounded by bush. It had the added appeal of a $90-an-acre price tag.
When he first visited the property with the agent, Sam pictured himself like Tom Burlinson in The Man from Snowy River, galloping at full tilt down a steep embankment after a mob of brumbies. Or riding the fenceline checking his stock. Never mind that he had never ridden a horse in his life and didn’t know a solitary fact about beef farming aside from what a good steak tasted like. At 42, it was time for a new start. He signed the contracts, purchased 40 head of cattle at the Cooma Saleyards and a fencing manual from a Canberra bookstore before he left.
The timing was good for Louella too, he thought. She had finished year 6 and would be heading into high school. He was a little nervous about the logistics. The nearest high school was almost 70 kilometres away, an hour each way on a bus, but he reasoned that kids had been doing that and more for decades. It would be good for her.
He worried too about how she would fit in. But then, he would have worried about that in Canberra too. She was a quiet kid, passive, bookish. She got that from Sam. She was a solitary child, and struggled to find common ground with kids her age. She was nondescript, neither tall nor short, pretty nor ugly, a little on the thin side. She could be forgettable.
Louella had been teased a little here and there, but most of the kids she went to primary school with had known her all her life. She avoided sports days and swimming carnivals, preferring to stick her nose in a book. Margie nagged her about getting out and seeing friends, buying new clothes, and so on, but Sam just let her be.
The day was warming up and Sam suggested they take a look inside. They had packed up their station wagon with a few suitcases and comforts from home but the rest of their stuff would come up in a van later.
Louella hadn’t seen the house until today, when Sam took possession of the keys. He had gone ahead and made that decision on his own, perhaps reasoning it was easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
With Louella beside him Sam suddenly saw all the flaws he had been blind to on earlier inspections. Rust striped the corrugated iron roof and an old water tank perched on weathered hardwood legs beside a wall at the side. The front steps were overgrown with kikuyu and the once-white outer walls were stained and discoloured. He had a momentary crisis – what the hell had he been thinking bringing her up to a place like this?
Louella didn’t see any of that. As she stepped up onto the verandah she soaked in the feeling that this place – this postage stamp of Australian bush straight out of a Banjo Paterson poem – was theirs. Inside it didn’t look a whole lot different from the houses she was used to growing up, although it was older and more run down. It comforted her. There was brown lino on the floor and an open fire with soot stains up the wall. The departing owners had left some old furniture and thin faded curtains on the windows. The whole place needed attention but it was liveable.
Louella liked the bathroom the best. The walls were painted blue and the bathtub was blue as well, with a marbled pattern, and overlooked some apple trees in the side yard. With no neighbours for miles in any direction, she imagined herself lying in a bath of bubbles with a good book and the scent of apple blossoms wafting in the window, though it would be months before they flowered.Late in the afternoon, they ate sausages and bread on enamel camping plates on the verandah, overlooking Mount Scabby. They spotted some kangaroos in the scrub while the birds sang their evening chorus.
Louella looked over at Sam and smiled, “You did good, Dad.”
“Yeah, I like it here.”
The removalist truck from Canberra arrived on Wednesday with their belongings, a little over an hour late.
“Well ain’t this the middle-of-fucking-nowhere, mate?” the bloke driving the truck said. His voice had an edge that suggested he had taken more than one wrong turn.
Sam smiled, trying not to let his irritation show; he didn’t like exposing Louella to swearing. He had argued countless times with Margie about her language, which reminded him of a wharfie’s, but Margie would just laugh and call him a fucking prude.
“Oh, it feels like that the first time you come,” Sam said, forcing a friendly tone. “Once you’ve done the drive a few times it doesn’t feel like that at all. It’s really not that far from Canberra or some of the larger towns.”
“Well, I’m not gonna find out, given I won’t be coming back this way again ever,” the truck driver said. “C’mon Meat, let’s get this stuff unloaded.”
‘Meat’ was aptly named, a silent hulking sidekick who appeared to be able to lift solo any piece of furniture Sam owned. He was all economy of movement, and had the entire contents of the truck disgorged and inside the house within half an hour. He barely sweated. Sam offered them a drink when they finished but the driver shook his head. Meat got back in the truck without having said a word.
“Wouldn’t want to run into him in a dark alley,” Sam said to Louella once they’d left, quoting a favourite of Margie’s Mum.
Louella and Sam spent the rest of January moving in, enrolling her at school and organising her school uniform, books and bag. Sam constructed a chookhouse out of some timber and chicken wire he bought at the local hardware store, and filled it with a couple of layer pullets from the rural supplies outlet with promises of eggs about four months from now.
The two young Rhode Island Reds were christened Henrietta and Layla, and Louella fed them on starter crumble and the vegetable and toast scraps that she collected each day from their kitchen. When she would bend down to pick them up, they would flatten themselves down and shuffle their feet rapidly – some sort of bizarre defence tactic, she supposed, and totally ineffective, but it always made her laugh. She liked to sit on a log in the corner of the chookhouse and nurse them until they relaxed enough to shut their eyes and sleep.
Towards the end of January was Louella’s 12th birthday and she spent the weekend in Canberra with Margie and Waz, who had wasted no time in moving in together. They took her to see Flashdance at the new Manuka Cinema and had a cake. After that, they ran out of ideas – Margie wasn’t particularly hands-on even when the family had been together – so she suggested her daughter get an early night. Louella was grateful. She escaped to her ‘bedroom’, a small studio room in Waz’s house that contained Margie’s exercise bike and his homebrew equipment. She lay in bed and gazed unseeing at the ceiling. She felt a pleasant nothingness – no anxiety, no sadness, no discernible feeling at all. The sounds of the backyard drifted in: Margie’s shrill laugh, rock music from the portable stereo and occasionally the sound of a bottle hitting the bottom of the galvanised iron bin. She closed her eyes and imagined she was Alex, the feisty loner played by Jennifer Beals in the movie that day. She loved that she was a welder and a dancer, that she lived alone with her dog Grunt, and shared her dreams solely with him. Well mostly. She loved how she worked hard to make it on her own, and repeatedly knocked back Nick’s advances, making him work hard too. She doubted her Mum knocked Waz back even once. Even as a newly minted 12-year-old, she knew that flattery would get you everywhere with Margie, and that her Dad just hadn’t had the goods for many years, if ever. Sam was no smooth talker, but he was gentle, dependable and decent. For many women that was a letter of recommendation; for Margie it was a marital death sentence.
Louella didn’t resent Waz, though. She could see he was more her Mum’s style, more exciting, into the same stuff – and he was making a real effort to get on with her, even if he was trying a little too hard and coming across a bit goofy. There were worse crimes. And perhaps selfishly, she was enjoying it being just Sam and herself. She recognised that the high-pitched buzz that was life with her Mum had been replaced by a calmer, saner life now.
Sam came down from the mountain on Sunday to pick her up, and though she’d had a perfectly acceptable weekend, she was relieved to be back in his quiet steady presence and leaving Canberra. She wondered at how you could spend your whole life in one place yet feel that home was somewhere else entirely. A house where you had slept only a couple of dozen nights, a bush whose secrets you were still only just discovering. Yaouk was Louella writ large: quiet, isolated, wild and different. Her soul felt just right there.
As they drove down the driveway on their return to the farm, Louella noticed a dark grey puppy chained up on the verandah. She said nothing, just looked up at Sam and smiled a raggy little smile, her screwed-up nose giving her excitement away.
“Happy birthday, love,” Sam said.
Louella leapt from the car before Sam had cut the engine and bolted over to the pup. He was blue-grey, of no obvious breeding, and he was wagging his whole rear end furiously and pissing with the excitement of the moment. Louella squealed with delight and scooped him up in her arms, chain, piss and all.
Sam added, “He’s from the pound. I hope you like him.”
“He’s beautiful Dad.” She held him up at arm’s length and examined him. “I’m going to call him Willy.”
“Willy?” Sam seemed bemused. “Why Willy?”
“He just looks like a Willy,” Louella said, her eyes shining.
Sam turned a laugh into a cough and said instead, “OK, Willy it is then.”
Willy and Louella rolled around playing on the grass while Sam prepared some ham and gherkin sandwiches for dinner. They ate on the verandah looking over the bush, as has become their habit on the long summer evenings, and Willy lay exhausted at their feet. Louella kneaded his tummy gently with her toes as the sun sank towards the mountain range and the shadows lengthened.
Before it got dark, Louella threw the scraps to the chickens, saving any bits of ham for a grateful Willy, then hopped into the blue bath with a book, just as she had envisaged four weeks earlier and as she’d been doing every night since. Except now Willy lay beside the bath on the tiles. Every now and again she’d look up from her book, out at the apple trees and the fading light, and then peer over the bath at her sleeping pup.
Later she kissed her father good night and climbed into her bed, pulling the pup up onto the bed beside her. He stunk of ham and puppy piss but she didn’t care. She held him close and he wagged his little tail a few times half-heartedly before falling asleep. Occasionally he made little high-pitched yaps and his legs would jerk as though he was running. Louella wondered what he dreamed about.
She lay awake in the dark for a long time, thinking about tomorrow. School was starting, and she was dreading it. She wished she could just stay at home, playing with Willy and pottering around on the farm with her father forever.
Sam had offered to drive Louella to school on her first day and she was happy for the support. The drive took almost 50 minutes and they completed most of it in companionable silence. Once at school, he offered to come in with her as well. Walking through groups of friends catching up with each other after the summer break, she was glad of the slightly built man at her side. Being an unfamiliar face, many stole curious glances as she walked past with her father, but Louella just stared straight ahead and walked on. Sam stayed with her as she organised her class schedule and oriented herself on the school map. It wasn’t a big place, but he knew it would feel overwhelming and enormous to her. He looked at her studying the classroom map, forehead creased, and felt a rush of tenderness for her.
He had been plagued with doubts these past weeks about the choices he’d made, particularly late at night when he was lying alone in his bed. The days were OK – he was busy cleaning the place up and she seemed to like mucking in with him – but at nights he wondered whether he had done the right thing bringing his pre-adolescent daughter up into this backwater where she knew no one.
He was glad it was him and not Margie escorting her to her first day of high school. Margie would have dropped her at the gate and be checking her eye makeup in the rear-vision mirror before Louella was out of sight. He didn’t kid himself it would be easy for her – she didn’t make friends readily – but he also felt it would be somehow better than the Canberra high school she been slated for. There would be farm kids here. He didn’t know why but he just assumed that they would be nicer. In his mind, country people were simpler, not so petty, more community-minded. More likely to look out for each other.
When the bell went for the first assembly, Louella hugged Sam and walked off in the direction of the hall. Sam watched her leaving, her new backpack listing slightly from side to side. She’ll be OK, he reassured himself.
By morning tea, Louella had had Maths and Agriculture, and had yet to speak to a fellow student beyond a few shy hellos. She found a shady tree and spent the break underneath it reading, her feet tucked up under her skirt and her book resting on her bag in front of her, placed unconsciously like a barrier to any approaches. Lunch was the same proposition, only this time she retreated to the library. It was getting hot, and being alone in the library was a lot less conspicuous that being alone in the playground.
The afternoon unfolded the same way. Class, bell, next class, bell and so on. When three o’clock came around, she waited down by the gate for Sam to come and pick her up.
“How was it?” he asked as she climbed in the car.
“Did you meet any new friends?”
“Not yet Dad.” She registered his concern and added, “It’s only the first day. Lots of the kids know each other from primary. I’ll be fine.”
“So what did you do?”
Louella moved onto more comfortable territory and told him a little of what she had learned, what subjects she would be doing, what her teachers were like and so on.
After the first week, Louella offered to start catching the bus. She was conscious that Sam was making a 140km round trip each morning and afternoon, or inventing things to do in Cooma all day so he only have to travel half the distance.
For his part, Sam had promised himself to drive her for as long as she wanted him to, but he was privately relieved when she offered to make her own way. He was itching to get into some projects at home, and the commuting had made momentum on these impossible.
The following Monday he walked with her to the end of their driveway and waited for the school bus to come. He spoke briefly to the female driver who introduced herself as Nancy and gave Louella a quick kiss as she got on. He noted only one other student on the bus – no doubt most lived much closer to town – sitting up near the back. He was an older boy, skinny. Perhaps year 10 or 11, with straight dark brown hair worn a little long and shiny olive skin.
Louella sat down in the third row, close to the front but far enough from the driver that she wouldn’t have to make conversation. She waved to Sam then pulled her book out of her bag. The bus pulled away from the driveway and the boy gave Sam a thin smile as they drove off.
The first few weeks of school rolled by and Louella made a few acquaintances. They were, if not misfits, girls similar to her. Disinterested in clothes, music, boys. Average scholars but trying, more out of avoiding social pain than a burning interest in academic achievement.
The girls wordlessly recognised that being alone will make you a target, so they drifted together. They spent their lunches reading and discussing what they were reading, in the library or on the Woodwork lawn, and each was glad of the protection the group afforded.
There were moments for Louella, of course. You can’t be a new face in a small town, on the cusp of adolescence, the only child of a single father and expect no one to notice.
Some of the apparently popular girls would target her with careless barbs about being a ‘Nige’ or a loser. She thought them astoundingly unimaginative, but it stung her nonetheless. She started to avoid any routes that would take her past their turf. If necessary she would skirt the perimeter of a building to get to her class rather than take the direct route across the quadrangle.
Her friends didn’t ask why they were walking that way. Possibly they too were avoiding a ‘Fatty’ or ‘Four Eyes’ or ‘Frizzhead’ label themselves. They understood the world they inhabited.
By and large however, and with their routes to class mapped out, school was bearable. She never invited her friends over, nor did they extend her an invitation, but that was the way they all liked it. They didn’t pretend they were bosom buddies; they all knew that the group itself was their life raft.
On weekends, Louella helped Sam with getting the place in shape. He had cleared a large area that was filling up with junk he wanted to get rid of: coils of barbed wire, old window frames, rotting fence palings, car doors. All the shit and detritus the departing owners couldn’t be bothered dealing with.
Sam told Louella he planned to torch it just as soon as the summer was over and the fire bans were no longer in force. Louella looked out over Scabby Range and imagined her Dad starting a fire that took out the Nature Reserve and large swathes of Namadgi National Park as well. She imagined the terrified wildlife and shuddered. Sam was getting on ok but he had a way to go in the practicality stakes. She thought she might suggest they wait until they got some rain.
And just like that, the summer was over. Days in the mid 30s and balmy nights with windows open and bedsheets flung off dropped 10 degrees within a week, and the nights were suddenly cool enough for a blanket. Louella added an old crocheted rug to her bed for Willy to sleep under.
At nights now the grass gave off its dewy perfume to signal the changing of the seasons. Louella loved this time of year. The temperatures were similar in Canberra but up here on the mountain the change of season was so unsullied. There were no exhaust fumes competing with the scent of the grass, no car mufflers to drown out the magpies carolling.
Life took on an easy rhythm, and Louella felt much freer away from her mother. Sam never scrutinised her in the way Margie did. Though Sam and Margie had agreed that she should spend every weekend in Canberra, he would often make excuses – the Cooma Show, a cattle sale – and Margie would agree, torn between a guilty relief and a genuine desire to stay close to her daughter. Soon it was only every second weekend, and then every third. Sam promised to bring her down for a few days in the school holidays and Margie said, “Yes, do that. I’d LOVE to see her.”
Two weeks into second term, out of the blue, the boy on the bus came and sat down on the seat behind Louella.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” she replied, uncertain.
There was an awkward pause before the boy jumped in. “I’m Holland.” It was as if it was her first day on the bus.
She blanched a little at the intrusion, but Louella was not rude. “Louella,” she said, and her out her hand to shake his. “Did you say Hollen?” She thought it a strange-sounding name, but with a moniker like Louella, she was not about to judge. Bad enough she should have a name that made her sound like a Beverly Hillbilly, although she was forever grateful that she had escaped hyphenation. Lou-Ella would have been too God awful for words. For someone whose life revolved around the written word, she imagined that innocuous little dash could have turned what was simply an unusual name into one of those wholesome but dreadful all-American names like Mary-Beth.
“Holland,” he repeated. “H. O. L. L. A. N. D. Like the country.”
“Oh,” she said, thinking that was a country mile better, almost cool.
He appeared poised to explain where his name had come from – he was obviously accustomed to curiosity – but Louella was content not to know.
Up close he was thin with oily skin, but otherwise not offensive. He broke the ice in the same way most people did when trying to speak to her for the first time.
“What are you reading?”
She held up the book. “Prince Caspian.”
“I haven’t heard of it,” Holland said, and waited for her to go on.
A few painful seconds passed, so Louella added, “It’s about some children who leave their life in England and visit a magic kingdom called Narnia. There’s another book that comes before it, quite famous. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?”
She said it like a question, to see if it rang a bell with him, but he didn’t respond. Instead he reached across slowly and took the book from her. Louella let it go reluctantly – she hadn’t marked the page she was up to – and he bent and examined the cover as if looking for clues. She waited for him to turn it over and read the précis on the back, but after a time, he just handed it back to her.
‘Huh,’ he said, unable to think of anything to add. He didn’t suppose she would be too interested in his literary taste, which ran to MAD Magazine and the odd cricket biography, and he certainly wasn’t rushing out to read Prince Caspian or whatever the lion one was that she mentioned.
He changed tack. “You’ve just moved here, yeah? Where did you live before?” He noticed Nancy the bus driver glancing at him in the rear vision mirror with her eyebrows raised and ignored her.
“Canberra. Dad bought the farm up here at Christmas.”
“Where’s your Mum?”
“Still in Canberra. They split up.”
“Huh,” he said again.
He seemed to be having trouble thinking of something to say so Louella thought she should make a little more effort. “Did you grow up ’round here?”
“Yep, all my life.” He gave a little mirthless laugh, the reason for which missed Louella completely. She thought Yaouk was paradise.
“Where do you live?” It was a reasonable question. Holland could have been on the bus for five minutes or an hour before she got on.
“Down Lone Pine Trail, about 3 kays from your place.”
“Uh huh. What do your Mum and Dad do?”
“Mum works in Adaminaby, in one of the shops. Dad’s sick.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Just sick. He can’t work anymore.”
“Is he going to get better?”
“Dunno. Hope so.”
Louella sensed that he didn’t want to elaborate, so she moved onto safer ground.
“You got any pets?”
“Yeah, I got a dog. A little kelpie bitch, ’bout a year old.
“What’s her name?”
“Mum found her tied up to a silo in a paddock when she was a pup, so we just called her Silo. What about you? You got a dog?”
“Yeah. I got a little grey puppy called Willy. He’s only five months old. Dad bought him for me for my birthday.”
“When’s your birthday?”
“29th of January. The day before school started. Some birthday present, hey, going to school?” Louella smiled for the first time and Holland noticed her little crooked teeth.
“Yeah, not much of a present. Why’d you call your dog Willy?”
“Dunno. It was just the name that came into my mind when I saw him the first time. Dad thought it was pretty funny.”
I can imagine why, Holland thought and realised Louella had probably never heard a dick referred to as a willy. She was only in year 7.
“You got any brothers or sisters?” he asked her.
“Nup, just me. Have you?”
“I’ve got a sister a few years older. She’s away at uni in Sydney.”
“What’s she doing at uni?”
“Science. She wanted to do medicine but didn’t get enough marks to get in, so she’s doing science and going to try to get into medicine in a year or so.”
“Uh huh.” Louella wasn’t sure what year Holland was in, so she asked, “What do you want to do? Do you want to go to uni?”
“I guess. I’ve still got a couple of years to think about it. Gotta get through the school certificate first.”
So Year 10, she thought. “What would you do?”
“Dunno. Engineering maybe.”
Louella didn’t have the first clue what that would involve. It sounded like something to do with machines. She wasn’t really interested in finding out either, so she changed the subject.
“Do you live on a farm?”
“Yeah, we do. But we don’t farm anything anymore. Not since Dad got sick.”
Louella again wondered about Holland’s Dad. Was he bedbound? Who looked after him all day while Holland was at school and his mum was working in the shop in Adaminaby?
“What did you used to have on your farm?”
“Cattle, like everyone else.”
“Dad’s bought some cows. Herefords. He was so keen to be a real farmer that he got them all delivered in the first week. Now he’s trying to fix all the fences on the place to stop them ending up on the nature reserve.” She giggled.
“Not too many cattle in Canberra,” Holland said and snorted.
“Not where we lived, and he’s never had cows before. He says he hasn’t got a clue what he’s doing but he’ll just figure it out as he goes along. A lot of people are happy to give him advice, anyway.” She smiled again, and this time Holland smiled too.
“I’ll bet. No shortage of opinions around here.”
The conversation wound down and they travelled the rest of the way in silence, gazing out the windows at the passing bush. When she got on the bus for the trip home that afternoon, Holland was sitting in the fourth row again. Louella thought she’d probably lost two hours a day of reading time, but she didn’t really mind. She might have made an honest-to-goodness friend.