Music. It was the link between them. After a couple of months working on the property he’d exchanged less than a dozen words with the boss’s wife. She seemed to live on the peripheral, barely visible like a skittish butterfly looping along the verandah, tucked in close as if allergic to the summer light. The boss had met him at the farm gate and directed him to the old quarters where there was a motley collection of bunk beds and uncomfortable chairs. He didn’t care. A season’s work would tide him over until it was time to move on again.
There had been no need to go to the house, and the clearing work that he’d been contracted to complete was in the outer paddocks. Food was supplied and a basket appeared every few days with fresh fruit, vegetables and a small loaf of grain bread. Meat was tucked into the fridge, another relic of a time when shearing brought an influx of workers to the far flung farm.
The boss was direct and not one for small talk, which suited him just fine. He liked the solitude and the space in which to think. He barely left the property although the nearest town was only twenty minutes away. Early one Saturday morning he glimpsed himself in the cracked mirror in the shower block and decided to head in for a haircut. Maybe even a shave. Barber shops were everywhere these days.
He coaxed his old ute into life, murmuring words of encouragement as he caressed the dashboard. With a dry rumble the engine finally turned and he headed out along the track. It was a couple of kilometres to the front gate and he was squinting up at the sky, scouring it for clouds, when a flash of movement pulled him up short. He jammed on the brakes, swearing as the ute fishtailed. He wrenched the handbrake, left the engine running and jumped out.
She was sitting beside the road, folded up. At first he thought it must be a kid, hiding or something, but there were no kids on the property. He crouched down, asked her if she was okay. She didn’t look up, just shook her head. He stayed beside her, waiting till she raised her face. ‘Jesus.’ The word was out before he could bite it back.
He got her into the ute, half carrying her. She didn’t speak and he didn’t ask. He eased the handbrake in and took off slowly. One of his favourite CDs was playing, and he reached out a hand to turn it off, the deep grooves of ‘New Orleans Stomp’ seemed inappropriate somehow.
His hand hovered before he gripped the wheel again. The song ended then there was Tex singing ‘The Honeymoon is Over’. When she joined in he glimpsed over and shot her a small smile.
‘We don’t have to go back, do we?’
It was the most she’d ever said to him.
With thanks to The Cruel Sea for a musical soundtrack that lingers on.