Jack stood up tall on his quad bike and pushed his face forward into the rushing wind. The roar in his ears didn’t quite drown out out the shuddering noise of the tires on the steep, rutted race. As he crested the hill the morning sun blinded him, surrounding him with whiteness. His eyes adjusted and the view before him stole his breath. Brilliant blue, the ocean was smooth and vast, dotted here and there with grey green islands. He felt huge, expanded to fit the gap between sea and sky. Cold morning air flowed into him as he inhaled and he felt the chill deep in his lungs. It eased the dull ache between his stomach and his heart. “C’mon girls” he yelled and a stir went through the black and white patched cows gathered around the gate of their paddock.
He turned the engine off and silence spread out in a ripple, the soft sounds of shuffling cows and distant birdsong following in its wake. He opened the gate and they began to file through. They knew the way. A thermos of hot tea greeted his hands as he reached into his rucksack. They were strong hands, with a vice grip. Even other men of the land, their own muscles stringy and tough like bunches of number eight wire respected his handshake. Feeling its iron they would look him over, noting his ruddy skin and the beginnings of crow’s feet around his icy blue eyes. “Born to it,” they would say later over beers on their sun-drenched porches.
The scalding sweet brown tea returned warmth to his insides. His blue overalls, muddy gumboots and cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes had done little to protect him from the icy wind. He took another sip of tea and stared into his cup. He remembered.
The town hall was full of noise: music, laughter, the clinking of glasses. He was overwhelmed and had retreated to the bar. She appeared in front of him like a vision, an intoxicating mirage of curves and skin with a sunlight smile.
“You dance, cowboy?”
He was just drunk enough to say yes and they thrashed and jiggled to the rock covers of the competent live band. A slow song came on and she moved against him like a gust of warm summer wind.
He followed the cows back down the race, urging the stragglers along with beeps from his bike horn. The race was bumpy and potholed, scarred from generations of use. Jack’s great-grandfather had ridden the same path on his huge horses years ago, bringing the ancestors of the herd down off the hills for milking. The rocking of his bike on the uneven dirt was soothing and he stared at the ground passing slowly in front of him.
The kiss was hot and sweet and lasted forever. It melted the steel of him - it was all he could do to stay standing when she pulled away. The party was over; they were in the carpark beside his ute. It was winter and freezing but he didn’t feel cold at all.
“Don’t suppose I can get a lift home, cowboy?”
“Sure, get in.”
The cows milled impatiently at the twin entrances to the herringbone milking shed. Jack pulled the strings tight on his heavy apron, turned up the radio and let the first lot in. The sound of the milking machine was rhythmic and he joined in with his movements: step right, pull the cups off, turn one eighty, slide the cups on, dodge the shit splatters, grimace, repeat. For a while he relaxed and was just another component of the machine, letting the constant beat guide him.
She lay wrapped around him, her head on his chest. Her hair was sweet in his nostrils, her weight a comforting pressure. The windows were open and warm night breezes caressed them gently. She mumbled something sleepily into the heat between them.
“What was that?”
“I said I love you…”
His stomach dropped away and a strange heat flowed around him. He was silent for minutes, thinking of what to say and whether he even could. I love you.
Finally he replied, “Good.”
She laughed, “Good? You bastard!”
She punched him in the arm and they wrestled playfully in the heat and dark.
A cow kicked – number 274 as usual, the feisty bitch – and he dodged quickly. He stroked her flank, “Easy girl, you know the drill.” She settled and suffered the indignity of the milking cups. His stride was broken though, and his drifting thoughts returned to the morning’s conversation.
He sat on the edge of the bed, pulling on his thick work socks. She was already up, and came to the door, leaning on the frame. She paused for a long moment and he looked up at her.
He sat very still.
“Did you hear me? I’m leaving.”
“I heard you.”
“I’ll be moving out this morning. It’s easier if it’s quick.”
“Look, it was a good year, but it’s not turning out like I thought. I don’t know if I’m cut out for this.”
Cut out for me, his mind retorted.
“I just want more, I think. And we both know that things haven’t been right for a while. We never communicate.”
He was silent, but a noise like hundreds of bees was rising in his ears.
“I know that you can handle the farm just as well without me. Are you going to say anything?”
I love you, he thought loudly, but said nothing.
Finally he spoke, “I have to get the cows in.”
He stepped from the milking shed carrying a bottle of fresh milk, still warm from bovine body heat. Around rusted old broken tractor parts and scattering chickens he made his way back to the house. Inside he flicked the radio on and put the bottle on the bench, just as he had done hundreds of times before. He put the jug on and stared at it, hoping that it would never boil, that he could stay there forever. Eventually it whistled, starting low and building to a piercing shriek. He steeped a teabag and added two sugars and a splash of the milk. He took it to the table and sat, wrapping his hands around his mug, willing the heat to travel further than just his palms.
She came in from the bedroom like a mouse, the sound of her footfalls bouncing off the high ceiling. Trying not to make noise she finished packing up her books and magazines into cardboard boxes.
He watched her work; long dark hair, sun browned skin, lithe figure widened a little by good farm food. He loved it, loved to see her move, to have her familiar shape in his vision, to have her close. Emotions boiled inside him. He thought of her not being there anymore and wondered what to say.
He looked at the tea for a long moment.
He stood and took her firmly by the arms. She went still, her eyes large as they stared back at him. The tinny sound of the transistor radio blaring sports talkback echoed between them.
“Listen to me,” he said, his voice full of intensity. He spoke deliberately, looking straight into her eyes, “You’ve been so good to me. I’m sorry I couldn’t give you what you need. You deserve it. Go. Be happy.” He stopped, slowly considering whether he had anything else left. He nodded.
She hugged him goodbye and walked away. The scratching sound of tyres on gravel faded. Emptiness filled up the room. He sat down and again circled his strong, calloused hands around his mug. He sat unmoving, losing his sense of time, not noticing the slow sweep of shadows across the floor.
A long time later he tipped his cup out into the sink, watching the cold brown tea make a river down a crease in the steel, watching as it ran to the edge and dripped away down the plughole. He put the jug on.