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Authors: Stephen Orr

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The Hands

BOOK: The Hands
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Wakefield Press

Stephen Orr is the author of five previous novels. He contributes essays and features to several publications. A fascination with the dynamics of families and small communities pervades his fiction and non-fiction. Stephen Orr lives in Adelaide.

Wakefield Press

16 Rose Street

Mile End

South Australia 5031

www.wakefieldpress.com.au

First published 2015

This edition published 2015

Copyright © Stephen Orr, 2015

All rights reserved. This book is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced without written permission. Enquiries should be addressed to the publisher.

An earlier version of the cowards' list story appeared
in
Meanjin
4—2008

Edited by Margot Lloyd, Wakefield Press

Cover designed by Liz Nicholson, designBITE

Ebook conversion by Clinton Ellicott, Wakefield Press

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

Creator:    Orr, Stephen, 1967–    , author.

Title:    The hands / Stephen Orr.

ISBN:    978 1 74305 159 7 (ebook: epub).

Dewey Number:    A823.4

Publication of this book was assisted by the Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.

For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time,

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,

The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts.

T.S. Eliot, ‘The Dry Salvages' (from
Four Quartets
)

In what way were we trapped? where, our mistake? what, where, how, when, what way, might all these things have been different, if only we had done otherwise? if only we might have known.

James Agee,
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Part One

2004

1

Trevor Wilkie knelt in front of the fence. He pressed and released the top wire and it vibrated before settling. A sea of haze faded in the offing, and if he dropped his head the wire settled on the horizon. He looked up at a boy in the distance and called, ‘You okay?'

His son waved back. ‘What is it?'

‘Nothing.' He stood, gathered a roll of wire and a strainer and headed back to his ute.

The fence line was straight, diminishing towards a distant corner where it spread out to form yards. Posts, perfectly spaced every twenty metres, single box, four wires and the spacers he trusted his son, Harry, to insert. As a fence, it was a marvel, but he guessed it didn't help him make money. It didn't put protein in the grass; it didn't find water, and if it did, it didn't pump it up; it didn't make it rain; it didn't make the price of beef any higher.

‘All done?' he asked his son.

‘Yep,' the eleven-year-old replied, wiping his hands on his trousers.

‘We better get you home. What time's your lesson?'

‘Mr Anderson said it didn't matter.'

He looked at him suspiciously. ‘Yeah?'

‘It's just history. Egypt. I don't care about Egypt.'

‘So he said: You, young Harry Wilkie, don't bother about tomorrow's lesson?'

They stood and looked out across their farm. A light breeze moved through the grass. Trevor could sing its song through his cracked lips, feel it in his ears, his nostrils, on his face. He pushed his dog-chewed hat onto his head. Looked at his son, his expression full of an understanding that this was a place to be tamed, made to yield, more than his own intuition that it was nothing more than a sensation, the feel of sand in his boot.

He pointed to the canola meal on the ground. ‘They're gonna trample that,' he said. ‘You should've put it in a straight line.'

‘It doesn't matter.'

‘At two hundred dollars a tonne, it matters.' He noticed two of his big steers trampling meal into the soil-sand that made up most of Bundeena. ‘Did you sweep out the ute?'

‘Yep.'

‘Well … we better get you back to King Tut, eh?'

‘Dad.'

‘Yer mother will be waiting.' He noticed his son's pants were too big, worn on the knees, ragged around the cuffs. He looked at his boots. ‘When was the last time you polished them?'

They returned to the ute. Bundeena was marginal country. It could carry cattle, sparsely. To Trevor, this was where Australia became desert, where man—following the east-west railway, before it seriously set its sights on the Nullarbor—had given up on agriculture. Most men, at least. Except for them: sixth-generation Beef Shorthorn producers who'd wrestled with the land for 130 years. This was country that hadn't asked for farmers but had got them anyway. On the southern edge, the railway line, and to the north, nothing. They had neighbours to the east and west, but they might as well have been living in New Zealand.

They drove along the fence line. ‘Did you notice that animal's eye?' he asked.

‘What?'

‘Pardon. That cow, eating the canola?'

Harry stopped to think. ‘She looked okay.'

‘Yeah?' He slowed through a gate. ‘Cancer eye.'

Harry's teeth were bone-white and there was a space between the top incisors, just big enough for a toothpick. ‘I didn't look.'

‘There are too many old girls out there.'

‘What'll happen to her?'

‘What happens when you get cancer?'

‘You die?'

‘Not always.'

They drove, silently.

‘But she will.'

Harry wiped dust from his lips and cheeks.

‘Too many old girls,' Trevor repeated. ‘I can't afford to waste any more feed.'

He screwed the knob onto the stick and changed gears. Slowed around a clump of acacia. ‘What I don't get,' he said, taking off his hat, letting his hair fall down over his forehead, ‘is why they'd teach a kid, living on a station, six hundred kilometres from the nearest town, about Egypt.' He looked at Harry, and he shrugged.

‘What about something relevant?'

‘Like what?'

‘You know, explorers. Sturt, Stuart … even Burke and Wills. But Nefer-bloody-titi.'

‘We've learnt about them too.'

‘Yeah?'

‘And how they only survived because of the black fellas.'

He looked surprised. ‘What about the white fellas?'

‘Most of them didn't know what they were doing. They got sand blindness. They followed their compasses, not the creeks, the birds, the songlines.'

‘The songlines?'

‘The way the black fellas went.'

Trevor was tired of songlines, and explorers. They weren't real—anymore, at least. An afternoon of welding in the sun: that was real. Numbers, too. Solid and reliable. Maths didn't lie. No one was teaching his son anywhere near enough of that. Liabilities, post spacings, humidity, days since last rain, protein percentage in feed—all real, knowable, helpful. Not like Ramesses II, rooting his sister.

Real: the fact that he'd worked out he was carrying 1800 less cattle since the drought had started; that their mortgage was taking on water, and sinking; the price of diesel; groceries; labour. As the voice on the radio droned about Howard Carter.

As they drove the broken clock rattled in its too-big receptacle. His eyes settled on a pocket of ground peeling away from the earth in the mid-distance. He felt himself falling, until he wasn't in his ute. This place—the fences, the cattle, their hunger, their thirst—seemed to have nothing to do with him. All he had to do was keep his foot on the accelerator. That would lead to arrival, eating, sleeping, vaccinating, ranting about government and stock agents driving Jaguars. But beyond all this, he felt smaller than a spider. ‘You need a haircut.'

Harry ran his hand through his dusty blond hair. ‘The snippers again?'

‘I'll do it. Don't let your mother.'

‘I'd rather just have it shaved.'

‘I don't think so.'

Trevor turned onto the road that led to the house. He drove up a gentle incline, lined on both sides with native pines. On long, hot evenings the shade provided an escape from the house, sitting proudly on the hilltop, soaking up the last of the day's sun. He'd come down with Harry, and when he was home from boarding school, Aiden. They would spread out on a rug to read, or talk.

Then Carelyn would come down from the house, asking him to unblock the toilet or speak to his dad, Murray, who lived with but apart from them in his east-facing sleep-out. He'd complain, but go back in and tell his father to stop playing his Bing Crosby so loud it shook the walls.

He stopped in front of the house. Their old dog, Yanga, lifted her head, but didn't think it worth getting up.

‘You better clean up for lunch,' he said, and Harry went inside. He could hear Carelyn calling him, something about lessons and helping Chris with his sudoku. Sitting in his ute, he tried to lift himself out of his seat. Took a deep breath, held it, and let go.

It didn't help. He had to convince himself to go in, to face the dozen details that would have accumulated since his departure. There would be technical tasks—things involving wires and gap-filler and two-inch nails—but there would also be matters of words, something Fay (Murray's older sister, who shared a room with her disabled son, Chris) had said to Murray; or a look she'd given Carelyn; or the way Carelyn had crossed her arms as she watched Chris walk, naked, to the back line to fetch his singlet.

He looked across to the machinery shed: a trailer with portable yards; the boys' trail bikes; the brick walls, burnt black, from when he'd left a pile of greasy rags on the bench. A hot day, and night, waking up to Yanga barking and an orange flicker through the bedroom window. ‘Fuck.'

As Carelyn stirred, and managed, ‘What?'

As he pulled on his shorts and ran from the room, followed down the hallway by his two young sons. ‘Aiden, get the hose.'

‘Where?'

‘Christ, I dunno.'

Now, Carelyn stood at the back door of their old bluestone villa. ‘You comin' in?' she said. ‘Lunch is on the table.'

He stepped out of his ute. ‘Just puttin' me gear away.' Took his roll of wire and strainer and walked across the compound in front of the house. Went into another, smaller, shed. It was built from leftover stone from the house, its roof supported by old wooden beams. It was his favourite spot, dark when he closed the door, musty, away from the business of the house and its various dramas. It had its own bench, three inches deep with wood shavings and tools and almond husks left behind by his great- and great-great-grandfather. He pulled a string and yellow light splashed across the bench. Hanging his wire from a hook, he added his strainer to the mess of tools and looked at a photo of the boys (Harry still in his nappy) above the bench.

‘Trevor,' he heard his wife call. ‘Come on.' Some job, some piece of bad news he was missing. He looked out of a small, ill-fitting window above the bench. Could see the yards in the distance and the crush, waiting for his welder.

A rack held tools which reflected light back into the shed. Polished chisels waited for pine blocks sitting in a basket on the bench. He heard the shuffle of feet and his dad, standing in the doorway. ‘You comin' in?'

‘Yeah, just cleaning up,' he replied, noticing what looked like dried jam on his father's whiskers. ‘There was a whole fence down,' he continued, referring to the north paddock, stretching from the house to distant, desert reaches. ‘It's a miracle none of them wandered off.'

‘All fixed?'

‘Yes.' He smelt his father's breath, heavy with coffee and the cheap tobacco he kept in his pocket.

Murray came further into the shed, grasping the bench, trying to straighten his back. ‘Aiden rang.'

‘Yeah?'

‘Says he wants to come home on the weekend.'

He took a moment. ‘Why?'

‘That's what I said. Why? Stick to the exeats.'

He wiped his hands on a rag that only made them dirtier. ‘Probably in trouble again. Does he want me to call back?'

‘Didn't say.'

Murray Wilkie—the seventy-four-year-old patriarch of Bundeena, the old fella who could calm a bull just by looking him in the eyes, by singing to him (
… drifting down to dreamland, underneath the mellow moon …
) approached his son's carving bench and picked up the beginnings of a hand. ‘Who's this?'

‘Harry.'

He held the length of pine, turned it over, smelt it, and felt each of the four still-unformed fingers and a thumb. ‘You pick the hardest bloody thing.'

‘Why?'

‘Well … y' got bones and nails and wrinkles.' He studied his own hand. ‘And no one can agree on which finger's the longest, or how they bend.' He looked at his son. ‘You should stick to fruit.'

‘Trev … Murray,' Carelyn called again. ‘Come on.'

Trevor pulled the string and the shed darkened. They went out and he closed the door. ‘I can't get him this weekend,' he said.

‘Of course not. He can just stop there and do some study. It won't kill him.'

They walked across the compound. Trevor avoided looking at the salt damp and stone crumbling around the foundations of his house. Avoided thinking about how long he could put off repairs. Imagined Bundeena's walls collapsing, the roof falling in, Harry crushed, Carelyn dead, a dust-caked Murray crawling from the ruins. Then, as if telling him to stop, Yanga started sniffing and licking his pants. He scratched her head.

‘You getting deaf?' Carelyn asked, standing at the door.

‘Among other things,' he replied, as he went into the laundry, kicking off his shoes and washing his hands in the concrete trough. ‘Aiden rang?'

‘Don't worry, I told him … we haven't got the time or money.'

‘What was the problem?'

‘Nothing. Just thought he'd try it on.'

‘Probably got someone pregnant.'

Carelyn used her foot to push his boots into the mountain of RMs, sandshoes and thongs under the trough. She stood looking at him, her arms crossed. ‘All fixed?'

‘Yep … tight as a …'

Harry, sitting inside listening, already knew his dad's catalogue of sayings. Life in simple snatches. And probably the way it really was, he often guessed.

Carelyn smiled. ‘Good.'

Trevor grabbed her hair and gave it a tug. She had it in her stay-wet, slicked-back, I've-got-work-to-do mode. The style highlighted her forehead, cut by a single wrinkle; a nose that was always red, and peeling, despite the fact she never went out in the sun. And her eyes, black-rimmed and tired; always tired. Full of expectations. For renovations. Forty days and nights of rain.

He looked at Chris's yellow bed-sheets, soaking in antiseptic. ‘I told him to hang them out,' he said.

‘They're stained.'

‘Disgusting,' he muttered, but Carelyn just waited.

They went into the main living-dining area of the house—a room with twelve-foot ceilings and mortar walls, cracked in a dozen places from top to bottom. He'd managed to repair and paint one wall before losing interest in renovations. Before he'd really thought about whether he, and his family, would be here much longer. Murray, of course, was always on at him to keep up the work—the wiring he risked his life repairing, new floorboards—but enthusiasm, harder to muster every day, was the real problem.

Fay George, Murray's older sister, was already sitting at the table pouring tea. Still wearing her nightie and dressing gown. He wanted to say something, but didn't. Never did. Murray would just start in on him:
Unless it needs to be said, don't say it
 … or,
Who made you the model of perfection?

‘Morning, Fay,' he said.

‘Trevor …' She looked up, and spilt the tea. ‘You were off early this morning.'

BOOK: The Hands
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