My name is Satan. Satan Smith, to be exact. I’m a rough, tough Aussie bloke and nobody messes with me. Except my mother. But then, she’s a force of nature and even the real Satan would have feared her.
Right now I’m living under the shadow of Ma full time because I got evicted from my crummy flat. My black t-shirts have knife edge creases ironed into them. My coolest old jeans all have nerdy patches on them. The dog’s been washed so white he hurts your eyes. It’s hell. It’s hell, and that’s why I’m off after work to some suburb that is almost in the sticks to check out a share rental. Anything has to be better than living back with your parents when you’re twenty-seven.
Da’s already up and at the kitchen table, even though I leave for work pretty early. “I’m going to shoot off, now oul’ Feller,” I tell him, my Scouse accent much thicker than usual. He understands you better if you use the accent of his hometown in England.
“In a bit, son,” he replies, waving a hand vaguely, eyes on the paper. He’s already wearing his budgie smugglers and nothing else, just waiting for Ma to show up from whatever thing she is cleaning around the place and come with him to the beach. He already looks like a piece of wrinkled beef jerky. More sun is the last thing he needs, but he and Ma spend most of their time down there. I think they reckon if they aren’t at the beach all day every day then they’ve wasted their emigration or something.
I shove my wallet in my back pocket and Ghost, my white German Shepherd, sees that as the sign it is and slips out from under the table, a happy jabber starting up straight away. Geez, that dog. Talks more than any human I ever met. His long fluffy tail wags from side to side so hard it hits his own sides as he precedes me down the hallway to the front door, his nails clicking on the tiles. I’m glad that someone is happy the day is beginning, because I’m not.
It’s five thirty in the morning, but I’ve got to be right up to Perth from Bunbury by seven thirty. That’s the other reason why I have to move; the commute is a killer. Even though I love driving my ute, four hours a day on top of a hard day’s work gets to be too much really fast, and the fuel bill is a killer. At least now summer is here it’s light already. Doing the drive in the dark was the pits.
In the double driveway of my parent’s beachside bungalow, I squeeze past the old folk’s Prius, beep the lock on my ute and open the door so Ghost can jump into the passenger seat. In no time The Nazgul; beautiful, black and powerful, my greatest pride and joy after my dog, is purring up the South West Highway en-route to my job. I’ve got Led Zep lll going full bore to ease me into the drive and wake me up at the same time. I’ve got the passenger side window cracked enough for Ghost to get his head out so he can yodel his way up the highway. Maybe the commute isn’t so bad. Beats being home with Ma and Da all day. I’d kill myself in a week if they didn’t smother me to death first.
Zep is followed by a bit of Kill ’em all by Metallica, and then I slip on a bit of guilty pleasure and listen to the Chieftains while we’re on the main drag with no need to stop and no-one to hear it but me. By the time I pull up outside the shed I work in, the Zep is back on. I wouldn’t want my boss thinking I was a folk-loving woose.
It’s one of a row of similar big shed/workshops in the Canning Vale industrial area. They all start pretty early around here, so you can already hear angle-grinders and hammering and all sorts going on. My boss won’t be in for a while yet, so Ghost and I have the place to ourselves while I unlock the front and back doors for a bit of a breeze through and get going taking out yesterday’s newly moulded statues.
Yep, I’m a rough, tough Aussie bloke, who makes birdbaths and statues for a living. Gnomes too. And worse. What can I say, I fell into the job and I’ve got few qualifications to get anything better. Anyway, I like it. Derek, the boss, leaves me pretty much alone and he likes to have a bevvy as much as the next man. I get to have Ghost with me, which is helpful because the silly sod would trash the house if I had to leave him home.
I like it, too, because I get to spend plenty of time outside, even if it is only in the tiny, fenced, baking-hot yard out the back where we run the cement mixer and keep the sand and blue metal. My tan is nearly as good as Ma and Da’s after being out there a few hours a day. The whole family tans dark brown at the slightest bit of sun anyway. A touch of the black Irish, my Da says, like a lot of Liverpool has.
I heave the first statue up onto the wheely stand. Ouch! Good morning, sore back. It’s the base for a cherub birdbath. Heavy and awkward. It’s a layered conglomerate of half-cured concrete, which has been poured wet into rubber to make the details on the concrete. Over that goes a heavy fibre-glass casing, which is bolted onto the whole lot to stop the rubber bulging out and letting the finished product get miss-shaped and weirdly fat. We usually do the birdbaths first but sometimes I get wild and do something different. Variety being the spice of life and all. I get the battery drill and start undoing all the bolts that hold the casing together, dropping each nut and bolt into a bucket as I go. There will be hundreds more of these undone by midmorning.
Ghost goes into the little yard and sun-bakes in the early morning sun, laying on the dirtiest bit of concrete dust he can find. He’ll be grey on one side when he gets up, and by the end of the day he’ll be grey from dust all over. Take that, Ma!
Once the pieces of the fibre-glass cover have been carefully wedged away from the rubber mould underneath, I start peeling the rubber up. My knuckles start to bleed straight away, the sores from yesterday and and the day before and day before soon opening up again. You have to get your fingers under the mould as you drag it up and your knuckles rub against the half-set concrete. It’s as good as sandpaper, with the added fun of burning lime. If I wasn’t so rough and tough, I’d wear gloves, but I wouldn’t want Derek seeing me do that. He’d think less of me. He’s got knuckles like bits of raw meat.
I’ve got the mould partway up the birdbath, so I pick it up and put it back on the floor. Hello again, sore back. It’s not warmed up yet. Soon it’ll be warm, and by the end of the day it’ll be freezing back up and I’ll feel a hundred.
You need some leverage to get the rubber off, which is why I get it back on the floor. It’s like a huge, tight yellow condom and tends to stick where the concrete is driest too. Then if you pull too roughly, the damned top of the birdbath breaks off and you’ve ruined it. If you do that too often in a day, Derek gets mad, or as Da would say, “gets a cob on.” Derek mad is a scary sight, even though he’s only about five foot ten or so tall. He’s one of those nuggety Scotsmen who grew up fighting and his eyes flash flame when he’s angry. It should be him with the nickname of Satan, not me. I’m not giving it up, though. I earned that name.
I put my feet both sides of the statue’s base, mindful not to put boot marks on it, bend over and take the rubber in both my hands, then slowly stand up, peeling the mould off as I go. Phew. In one piece and not too many air bubbles either. One down, a couple of hundred different things to go before I can start mixing the concrete to make the batch I’ll take out tomorrow morning. Ah well, I’ve got my dog, I’ve got the radio blasting, and the Jiffy food van will be along soon. Life could be much worse.
I’ve done it all so many times before, I’ve got time to let my mind drift to think about this afternoon and the share house I am going to look at. I know they let you have a friendly dog because that was in the ad. Wouldn’t bother to look if they didn’t. Ghost is friendly. He looks a bit intimidating but he’s really a total woose. Not that you’d blame him. Poor sod must have had a rotten life before we found him out the back here one morning, cowering in the corner between the fence and the big rubbish bin. You could hardly tell he was white, he was so filthy. He was about five months old, the vet reckoned. His half-mast puppy ears looked like they might never come up and he looked a right mongrel. Maybe that was why he got dumped.
All I know is that I coaxed him out of his hidey spot and into my arms and he’s been my soul mate ever since. Once you have the love of a Shepherd, you know what real love is. And the joke’s on the dumpers, because his ears grew up to stand tall, and he filled out into the most handsome dog I’ve ever seen. I’m biased, but you’d have to be blind not to see it. He looks like Rin Tin Tin, only white. He has the wisest brown eyes, a black nose and grinning mouth, and his coat would put a polar bear to shame. He’s never got over being scared of strange men, though. I don’t mind. I’m a bit the same. You never know what the bastards will do.
Anyway, the share house is on acreage, so that will be a first for me and for Ghost. I hope he’s not a sheep chaser or anything. Not that he’d get far enough away from me to chase a sheep. He’s got separation anxiety to the max.
There’s three girls in the house and another guy. I dunno. Should probably call them women if they are my age. Three women. And something the guy said on the phone about a second house on the same block with a couple in it. Hope it’s not a hippy commune. They aren’t going to like my musical tastes one bit, or not all of them anyway. I’m desperate enough to give it a go if they’ll have me, though. Anything would beat the bungalow by the sea and the sense of failure of having to move back with your parents at my age.
Derek is in by now and gives me a greeting yell over the loud radio, “Good morning ye bastard,” or some such. Then he goes into his office and shuts the door. Going to do the crossword and drink Pepsi for an hour. He’s been to golf like he always does every Tuesday and Thursday. What he’d do without me I don’t know. Have to actually work, I guess.
Ghost goes over and scratches on Derek’s door until the door opens a crack to let him slip in. Going to share Derek’s morning Crunchy bar. He likes Derek and his sugar habit. Not sure which he likes most.
I accidentally pull the head off a gnome and curse as I chuck the grinning half-dry head at the back support pillar of the shed. There’s a pile of broken bits there already. Fuck it. Chucking them makes you feel better and you can use the smaller bits as filler when you pour concrete into the biggest moulds. Gnomes weird me out. What have they got to be so cheerful about anyway?
Hey, if I move out to the sticks, I might be able to find somewhere quiet to play my tin whistle. Yeah, yeah, Satan plays a penny whistle. I never do it where anyone can tell it’s me, though. I haven’t played it since I lost my flat a couple of months ago and I’ve got withdrawals. My big clumsy fingers are aching to dance over the holes and knock out a few rollicking jigs or maybe a ballad. Da taught me when I was a little kid. He doesn’t know I still play. He thinks I stopped when things began to get tough at school, and I did, for a lot of years. I never lost the urge, though.
I don’t prance around like a faun or anything. I’m not doing it for show and I’m too big anyway to make prancing look good. I don’t know where it came from, but while my whole family is tall, the girls as well, I’m not only tall, I’m also broad shouldered and tend to bulky muscle and some chub, where they are all rake thin and have muscles like a skinned giraffe. Girls… women… tell me I’m good looking, in a rough kind of way, but I can’t see it myself.
I do like my hair. It’s black and straight and I let it grow down my back. Mostly it’s tied up all the time or it falls in my eyes. I have brown eyes. Just brown. Nothing else to say about them. My nose is pretty long and has kind of agro nostrils. I have long lines that go down my cheeks that show up more when I smile, but mostly I don’t smile. My hands and feet are huge and knuckly. My mouth is a mouth. Usually I have some sort of beard growth because I can’t be bothered shaving for weeks at a time. Even when I’m not tanned I’m pretty dark-skinned.
The other thing I like about myself is my tattoos. Would have to have been a bit of a dill if I didn’t since I chose and paid for them. Some of the early ones are pretty crappy, like ‘Ma’ written in a heart (I liked her more when I didn’t live with her!) but they all have meaning for me, and the newer ones I really love, like I have Finn McCool, the Irish hero, tattooed on my back in blackwork, complete with a big knobby shillelagh raised ready to whack somebody, and besides him is a white German Shepherd. Obviously it’s not white because it’s just an outline, but I know who it is. I’ve got celtic knotwork down my arms and onto my hands. All the recent stuff is just blackwork. It’s tougher looking. No pansy colours for this big black duck.
I’m not much for dressing up. I’ve got a dozen t-shirts of varying colours, from black to faded black. I’ve got a few pairs of jeans. In winter I wear checked flannel shirts. I don’t seem to get any colder than that. I wear my steel-capped work boots all day every day, hot or cold. My feet look like albino cave-dwelling fish.
Anyway, you can see why I might not feel comfortable prancing around tootling away on an eight dollar tin flute. And why a house full of hippies might not suit me. Or find me suitable once they get a look at me. Still, I have to give it a go. It’s that or me descending to patricide, matricide and fratricide, all in one go.
The day goes along pretty much as normal, and I knock off at four pm. I try to have a bit of a clean up, but the concrete dust is well ingrained into my clothes, and I have browny-grey stains up my arms from dipping the dry statues in this oxide stuff that brings out the details. Probably going to kill me in the end. God alone knows what toxins are in it. Even after scrubbing it is still in all your hair follicles. Then there’s the Bondcrete we seal them with. I’ve got that up my arms and on my clothes too. It dries so stiff I sometimes feel like the tin man when I leave work.
So, I wash fairly uselessly, and I give Derek, who is an doing an inventory check over in the back storage racks, a bit of a shout that I’m shooting off, and Ghost and I hit the road. It’s been a hot day and The Nazgul’s been parked in the sun for all of it, so it’s pretty uncomfortable in there until the aircon kicks in. Ghost still has his window down. If I don’t he stands looking out the windscreen with his tongue hung out and drooling down my arm and he yammers in my ear until I’m even more deaf than usual. Metal fans are all at least a bit deaf, but this dog owner is just that much deafer.
We’re heading for a district, suburb, shire, I don’t know what, called Karragullen. We head off up Albany Highway until we get to Brookton Highway and turn up into the hills east of Perth. I haven’t been up here for years and had forgotten how lovely this road is, even on a baking hot day like today. It rolls up and down and winds through hills that are mostly settled by fruit growers and gardeners, with the odd horse or alpaca property. It’s still pretty green out here even though Christmas is knocking on the door. Lots of trees, both Aussie gum trees and English style ones. When I start seeing more bush on my right, it’s time to turn left and then right again, and we go down to the end of a long narrow road. It’s out of the way alright. Suburban Satan might get scared and lonely up here. Ghost will love it though.
The sign on the gate says, “Avalon,” and it’s carved in fancy script on a huge old bit of tree. Can you get more hippy than that? I nearly turn around and go back to Bunbury there and then, but the trees all around us, the sense of calm, send me down the driveway. I could do with more of both in my life.
We’re traveling between fenced paddocks with bits of bush and bits of cleared areas full of dry, yellow grass with wispy heads that have bent over all in the same direction as if in a wind. On my left are three horses. A palomino, a grey and a dark brown. Yeah, I know, bogans don’t know about horse colours, but I wanted one all through my kid years and read all about them and dreamed of having my own pinto just like Tonto’s. I still remember a bit of theory, even though I’ve hardly ever touched a real one. I know the theory on a lot of stuff I’ve never got to do in real life. I’m a reader. And yes, bogans aren’t readers either. What can I say. I have a hidden nerd self.
I, the secret nerd, and my dog, pull up beside the first house we come to, as instructed. At first impression, the house is massive, with huge raised verandahs on two of the three sides I can see, with stairs going up to the wooden deck at the central front door. It’s all made from wood, apart from the walls, which are grey stone. Local granite? Anyway, it’s big rough chunks of rock mortared together. The wood they’ve used is equally gigantic. Even the verandah railings are as thick as my thigh. They still have bark on them. The door, deep in the shadow and hard to see through the hot white glare of the afternoon sun around my car, has designs carved so deeply that I can almost make them out from here. There’s a pair of almost life-sized figures carved on it with their arms up. There’s a big old brass ship’s bell by the door.
I can’t help but like it even though I’m trying to be cynical. It looks safe and homely. I can see me and Ghost with our feet up, sitting on one of the old-fashioned armchairs that line the walls between the windows along the verandah.
“Well, mate, I’d better see what’s what,” I tell him. It’s too hot to leave him in the car, so I let him out as well. They said friendly dogs ok, and he is friendly. I just have to hope any other dogs are the same way. I leave the ute door open in case he needs an escape route and we both head for the deep shade of the verandah. Ghost goes straight to the door and looks up at it, waiting for the magic opening thing to happen. I give a tentative dong of the ship’s bell, hoping it won’t be too loud, and study the door while I wait for someone to come. I can hear barking inside that started up before I even rang, so it shouldn’t be long.
Ghost thinks twice about going inside where there might be Ghost-eating dogs, and goes to lie on the nearest armchair, his head resting on the arm so he can still see me. His ears are back and he yawns at me. Good, Grasshopper. Go for higher ground, get your back to the wall. A few basic principles of self defense there. I’d like to say I taught him, but he is a natural A-class student of doggy language skills. Maybe he stayed with his litter-mates for a long time. The books say that makes for a dog good at dog/dog relations. If so, it didn’t make him braver with them. Must have been bottom of the pecking order.
I hear feet in the hallway inside. The dog keeps barking and gets closer too, then is silenced with a quiet word, and the door opens. It’s a woman. And some sort if creamy-orange, scruffy-coated Pug cross with bulging eyes and a curly tail. It gives me a perfunctory tail wag and shoots straight over to sniff noses with Ghost, who looks horrified but wags his tail and squints appeasingly. I watch for a second, but the Pug’s tail is wagging too and it seems to be inclined to think of Ghost as its newest BFF. Ghost is looking relieved and so am I. Phew, one hurdle over with.
I look back at the woman and finally actually look at her instead of the dogs. She doesn’t seem to mind. She’s been watching the dogs too. There’s little so important in a new housemate as making sure your dogs get on, and let’s face it, a Shepherd would worry you a bit if your dog was as small as that Pug. She can’t know that Ghost is the Shepherd equivalent of Gandhi.
“Hi, I’m Margie,” she says, shaking my hand. “You’re Gill, right?” Yes, Gill. You don’t expect me to tell her she is thinking of letting someone more usually called Satan move in, do you? And yes, Gill is my real name or an abbreviation thereof. I’m not telling you the full name. You can work it out for yourself.
I nod and crack my face in a rusty smile. Must… appear… normal, I remind myself in a strained fashion. “And that’s Ghost.” I say, falling back on the one topic I seem able to connect with people over. “He’s a powderpuff, so no need to worry about your wee one there.”
“He’s a beauty!” She says, and earns my undying devotion there and then. If you have the good taste to like my dog, you’re in as far as I am concerned. I smile much more naturally and actually take in her face for the first time. She’s a little older than me, probably early thirties. She’s got one of those bodies you’d could probably describe as ‘lush’: Big, soft breasts that move under the dress when she moves her arms, a smaller waist that flows out into broad hips. She has masses of that curly hair that is a cross between blonde and brown, all different shades. She’s wearing bare feet and some sort of indian cotton dress arrangement with tie-dyed designs on it. She’s a hippy alright, but then she likes my dog, so she can’t be all bad. Her face is quite broad, with open features and a wide mouth that seems to smile easily, unlike mine. Her eyes are blue. She’s wearing no makeup.
She’s been looking me over too. Probably wants to ask me to leave. Most of the time I like looking intimidating. It’s my armour against the world. It goes against you when you are house hunting though, no doubt about it.
“Would you like to come in and see the place?” she asks, seeming not to be put off at all. Maybe they’re desperate.
“Yes. I… I love the outside,” I say, following her into a cool, polished jarrah-floored hallway. Mellow light shines across it from doorways on either side. This place is bloody huge if the hall is anything to go by. I wave a hand to Ghost to come in too, but he is already coming, the little pug gamboling along at his side. Once you get over the poppy eyes, the little guy is kind of appealing. Ghost seems to think so too. He is smiling and his ears are up.
“I’ll show you your room first, well, I should say it would be your room if you decide to move in. It’s right here,” Margie says, pushing the first door on the left open further and preceding me in. Bloody hell, it’s a huge room, with a sash window that opens out onto the shady verandah. The ceilings are high, the walls are a soft yellowy, beigey-cream, and there’s a big old double bed, just right for me and Ghost to sprawl out on.
Margie sees me eying the bed and says, “It’s a bugger to move but if you have your own bed we can get it out for you.”
“No, no, it would be fine,” I say. My last bed was so crappy I took it to the tip when I moved out of the flat. I’ve been sleeping in the old single bed I slept in as a kid, with my arms and legs hung off in all directions, and the dog’s hot back pressing me off the wall till I spend all night hung in my sheet like it’s a sling, trying not to fall off. This one looks like heaven by comparison.
There’s a book shelf too, and a bedside table and a desk and chair. “It will all be fine,” I say, trying not to sound too eager. It’s all old mellow wood that matches the mellow room. I would be so peaceful in here, I just know it.
“Shall we go look at the communal areas?” Margie says. I nod, and she leads me back to the hallway where Ghost and the pop-eyed Pug are lying on the floorboards playing mouthy games.
“They’ve hit it off,” Margie says as she steps over them. “There’s another dog but she’s at work with her dad. I shouldn’t think there’d be a problem, with her being a bitch and all.”
Talk normal, I say to myself, and rack my brain. “Is, is this little guy yours? What’s his name?”
“He’s mine. His name is Bugs. Short for Bug-eye. I know it’s a bit obvious, but really, I couldn’t get past those eyes when he was a puppy. They were even scarier when he was little.”
“Bugs. Ok,” I say thoughtfully, like there’s going to be an exam later and I have to commit it to memory. I’m such a dork.
“Here’s the kitchen,” Margie says, passing other closed doors before going right down the hall to the end and disappearing. I follow her down and find myself in a big room with picture windows right across the back. They face east and a cool-looking shady lawn and behind that I can see trees marching up a hill behind the house, then nothing but blue sky.
On the left is the kitchen counter and stove and stuff, and a huge rectangular dining table that would seat ten. It’s made out of the same sort of chunky rough-hewn wood as parts of the actual house and looks like it was built right there, never to be moved. On the right of me is a lounge area with mismatched couches in a circle around a big coffee table. No tv. I’m not sure if I’m sorry or glad about that.
The two dogs come rarring down the hall and skitter into the room still playing. Ghost looks at home already. That might change once the other housemates get in. Looks like there are about a dozen from the size and set-up of this room.
“How many other people live here?” I ask.
Margie laughs. “I know!” she says, “It looks like some sort of guest house lounge, but really there’s just four of us, plus you if you decide to move in, and then there are Claudia and Walter who live further up the driveway. They own the place but they reckon they’re too old to look after it now. Their place is much smaller and so cute. All built from recycled timber. Wait till you see it.” Such hippy enthusiasm! She gestures at the table and couches. “All this stuff belongs to the house, and we tend to be pretty social, so sometimes we even fill it up.”
Social people! Spare me! Oh well, I can always hide in my room. I have a feeling that once I got into that amazing room, I’d like to stay in it forever anyway.
Margie takes me through a different door that comes off the lounge-room end of the kitchen, and I find myself in a TV room, once more with a lot of soft chairs in it. It looks cosy as hell. There’s even a fireplace. A second door in that room leads back into the hall, from where Margie shows me the bathroom I’ll be sharing with the couple. I hope he’s not an asshole.
The bathroom is big too, with black and white checked tiles on the floor and a claw foot bath you step into to have a shower. The window is open. It’s pretty big and looks north, past a shady Cape Lilac tree and more lawn, towards where the driveway passes this house and carries on, but the glass is frosted, thank goodness. I’m not much of an exhibitionist.
After that we do a tour around outside. Margie shows me the open-sided old farm shed where all the housemate’s cars park nose-first in a row. There’s only a predictable blue VW bug in there just now. Margie’s, she says. Bugs and the bug. Ha.
Near that there’s a horse area with four yards going into an old barn-style arrangement with doors looking into a central aisleway. The horses are all out in the paddocks for the day, Margie tells me, but the barn still smells of horse and hay and sawdust. Really peaceful in there too. Ghost thinks the smells in there are great and trots around with his nose on the ground while Bugs follows along wondering what all the interest is about.
“Have you had much to do with horses?” Margie asks.
“No, but I always loved them as a kid,” I admit.
“Oh, me too!” she says as it if it makes us instant kindred spirits. “It’s great living here with horses around, even though I’m too scared to do more than give them apples and carrots over the doors. The other three all own a horse, and Walter and Claudia have quite a few, but we don’t see them much. They’re kept up by the cottage and their paddocks run out further east. I’m a bit glad about that. They have these massive draft horses. They even have a stallion. They worry me a lot even though they are supposed to be very gentle. As soon as they see you, they start coming towards you at a run, and, the ground shakes and I can’t help thinking they’re going to go right through the fence and flatten me into a pancake,” she laughs. “Owen and the others think I’m silly, but if you haven’t grown up with them they do seem very big and unpredictable.”
I determine then and there to show no fear about being around the horses if it is going to make Owen think of me as silly too. I’m not going to claim to know what I don’t, but I’m not going to let them scare me either. That’s as good as asking to be bullied, in my opinion.
Margie is looking a little embarrassed at admitting her fear as we make our way around the south side of the house towards the back yard area. “I always wanted a pinto like Scout, you know, Tonto’s horse from the Lone Ranger’s show,” I tell her to make her feel a little better. “My Da is a huge fan of old Westerns.”
“Mine too, she says, brightening. “John Wayne mostly. But I always wanted a palomino like Trigger. Linda’s mare, Pants, is a palomino. She’s beautiful but she’s a grot, and dirty so often you can’t see what colour she is most of the time,” she laughs again more cheerfully, stands on tiptoe on her bare feet, and puts her arm over a gate to lift its catch and let us into a fenced back yard.
“Pants?” I say. “That’s not very fancy for a fancy horse.” I’m getting more comfortable with Margie now she’s shown a human side. I’m always better with women than other men. Too much unpleasant past to be comfortable with many men. Margie is a genuinely nice, warm person.
“Bug-eye!” She calls as we go through the gate. There was no need, because Ghost is determined never to be shut away from me, so he is coming at the gallop with Bugs right behind him. “I can’t get over those two,” she says. “Pants is short for Smarty Pants. She’s got some sort of fancy name, but that’s the bit of it that I remember. This is the yard where we need to keep our dogs if we’re out or in the house. They can be inside with you of course, and no-one will mind if Ghost is inside while you’re out either ,as long as he isn’t a thief or anything. It’s just so the horses and chickens are safe. You know how dogs can be if you aren’t there to keep an eye on them.”
“It won’t be an issue with Ghost,” I assure her. “Where I go he goes. He won’t have it any other way. If I really have to leave him for some reason, I drop him at my parent’s place. He likes them ok and they can keep an eye on him in case he tries climb out of their yard. He’s really got a problem with being separated from me. Rescue dog. He has insecurities.”
“It’s kind of nice, really,” she says watching my handsome dog check out the boundaries of the yard. It’s big and grassed, with shady trees. There’s a patio off the back of the house that you can see the big kitchen opens out onto. “Even if it would be a pain sometimes. Some dogs don’t seem to care if their owners are there or not,” she goes on, mock growling at her little scruffy dog, who is obliviously trying to get Ghost to roll on the grass with him. Ghost won’t let his dignity down that easily, but he warbles at Bugs a bit to show him he is into the spirit of the whole thing.
“They’re very talkative, aren’t they, Shepherds,” Margie says. “Be nice to have a bit bigger bark around the place. We’ve heard some odd noises at night lately. We’re probably just being overly nervous, but it’s always when Owen is out and us girls are here on our own. Be nice to have another man around too,” she adds, eyeing me a bit shyly before turning and gesturing me back into the kitchen via the patio. Surely she doesn’t fancy me. I usually attract more the rock chick types, then they shoot off when they find out I’m not as tough as I seem to be. More likely she just wants a burly fellow around to scare off prowlers.
We leave the sliding door open so the dogs can get to us when they give up their rough-housing, and sit at the big kitchen table while Margie shows me the rental agreement. I scan it, but to be honest, I would almost give one of my legs to live here, nevertheless the perfectly acceptable amount of rent they want. It’s less than I was paying for my poky fourth floor flat with the windy outdoor metal stairs and the view of more flats. Ok, I didn’t have to share a bathroom there, but my bedroom there was the size of this bathroom, so I reckon that evens it out. I sign the form.
The old folks aren’t all that keen to see me move out. Personally I don’t feel that loveable and I’m certainly not always great company, but my Da really likes to have me around to chat to of an evening. Poor oul’ feller used to have a successful scrap metal export business in Liverpool before some bit of steel fell out of a cradle and hit him on the head. He’s been a bit gaga ever since, but in a nice way. He’s really gentle, and he pretty much forgets just about everything recent all the time. He’s restful company, though.
My parents are old to have a twenty-seven year old son. My oldest sister is almost exactly twenty-seven years older than me. Luckily for me, she stayed in England when they came over to Oz when I was two. She’s the bossiest of the three of them and married to the guy who runs Da’s company now. That’s Rita May Hitler. Well, not really Hitler, but she might as well be.
Then I have two more sisters, one, Louise, who lives pretty near Ma and Da here in Bunbury, twenty-two years older than me and busy being a single mum of four horrors, and Martha Mary, the middle sister, who is forty-six now, unmarried, a kindergarten teacher, and lives round the corner. She is in here all the time and manages Ma and Da these days the same way she and Ma used to manage me. Just my luck to not only have siblings twice my age, but all sisters and all taking after my bossy mum. I grew up hen-pecked to death, and that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was school, but I don’t really talk about that.
Anyway, it’s Friday and I’ve broken it to Da and Ma about moving out, and got my tiny amount of stuff packed. I’ll go straight there after work tonight. No time like the present, and I can’t wait to sleep in a bed where all my limbs fit. I’ll have my pay in my pocket and I can hand pretty much all of it straight to the owners for my bond and first fortnight’s rent, plus extra for the food kitty. I’ve had to pay an extra bond for Ghost, but that’s ok, I’ll get it back unless I leave him shut in my room when I’m not there. Then I’d come home to a scene of destruction. He doesn’t stop at soft furnishings either. He goes walls, door-frames, the works.
I’ve got mostly clothes and books. They fit in a couple of boxes that I tuck under the cover in the back of the ute. There’s Ghost’s bed and some bedding too, so I bundle those up into a couple of plastic rubbish bags and just chuck the whole thing into the ute as well. No finesse about the way I move house!
My middle sister, Martha May, has popped over to join Ma and Da at the beach this morning and catches me on my way out to go to work, so she she stops to lean on the ute and bother me about the move. “Don’t be getting yourself into trouble, dere, Gill boy,” she says. “You know how you are for the fighting.” She’s got her long leathery arms folded and her jaw jutted out and she eyes me with motherly concern. Damn all the Smith women and their strong character and nurturing addiction.
I sigh and she says, “You know you do. No point in sighing, Satan.” She flicks her greying black hair and gives me a poke in the arm where I lean on the ute beside her, our long legs stretched out and both crossed at the ankle. I nudge her back with my shoulder and pull a rueful face that makes her smile. I love my sister really. I’m sure I’ve been a great worry to her and the rest of them over the years.
My family has some sort of mistaken belief that all the trouble that went on in my boyhood was caused by me. I was kind of a lively kid and of course grown sisters find a new baby boy in the family a big pain in the butt. Hence the nickname, Satan, that I’ve had since I was little. It’s what my sisters called me all the time right from a scrappy, nappy-dragging toddler. “Look out dere, here comes Satan!” “Oh bejaysus, Satan’s nappy needs changing, it’s your turn, Lou!” “Ma, Satan got into our room and messed it up again!”
I’m pretty sure I was a normal little boy. I did get myself into a lot of trouble at school, and I guess it didn’t help that I wouldn’t talk about it much, and to be sure I did try to defend myself sometimes and usually ended up the one in front of the headmaster for it too. That Paul Gallagher, he was the golden boy of the school, and he was the same age as me and he went up all the damned grades with me. Blonde, handsome, assured, the leader of the year, he found my Scouse accent endlessly amusing, he took offense that I was smart at my schoolwork, and he found my appearance amusing too. I was always going to be a big man, but at school I was mostly just clumsy about manoeuvring my gangly limbs around, and I couldn’t fight or play sport for quids. Paul Gallagher led nearly my whole year’s worth of boys, and even some of the other kids, in making my school life a living hell.
I got rid of the accent as soon as I could work out an Aussie one. I couldn’t do anything about how I looked, but I could act dumb at school so I didn’t attract his attention for that any more. Later, much later, just before I dropped out of Year Ten, I did self defense classes and kicked his butt, but the damage was done. Shit grades and a strong desire to either avoid or fight every good looking arrogant, blonde man I see. Fuck, I hate those assholes. Think they’re god’s gift.
“Ma Two,” (That’s what I used to call this bossy middle sister since she acted like my second mother. It’s short for Martha as well so it kind of stuck.) “I’m not going to get into any fights. I’m not into fighting any more. I’m a grown man.”
“Then why do you go around looking like the sort of guy who’d want to start one with every man you meet?”
“Camouflage,” I say, and it’s nothing but the truth.
“Got to shoot off now,” I tell Ma Two, uncrossing my long legs and heaving my big self up off the ute. I find my bins in my top pocket and put them on, just to annoy her. They’re black biker sunnies. More camouflage. “In a bit,” I say, and call Ghost to jump into the car. “Look after the oul’ dears for me. I’ll pop back all the time, I promise.”
She hugs me and I hug her back. Then I get into The Nazgul and start it up, and she wags her finger at me to remind me to behave myself one more time, and goes in to find our parents. I’m glad she’s there, even if her managing drives me crazy most of the time. I have no idea what I did to deserve such loving parents, but there’s no doubt they’ll miss me badly, and rather than breathing a sigh of relief that I’m gone, like any sane people would, they’ll instead be feeling guilty for hoping it doesn’t work out and I move back. I am hoping like hell that it does work. I’m going to do my damnedest to make it work. I love that place already.
It’s Friday night and here I am in my new bedroom at Avalon. I’m lying on my new bed. It’s not bedtime, but Ghost and I are cooling off after the big move and set-up, and trying out the bed for size at the same time. There’s a ceiling fan, but I want to listen to the sounds of my new home, so I keep still and let the sweat dry on my body more slowly in the very slight movement of air coming in from the verandah. We’re high enough here to catch a bit of the Freo doctor, and it blows directly into my window from the west. Bonus!
Margie says it’s her turn to cook tonight so I’m lying here smelling amazing cooking smells and anticipating my first meal with my new housemates with a certain amount of interest and a larger amount of dread. I wish they were all women. I always did get on ok with the girls, even at school. Comes of having three sisters I guess.
I’m hoping this Owen isn’t going to be an asshole, and I’m really hoping he isn’t blonde.
Ghost is panting happily and making me hotter by pressing his back down my right side, having had a huge game with Bugs in and out of the house and back yard. Luckily no-one else is home yet. Margie said she works from home and that’s why she got to meet me to show me around the other day. She writes, I think. I don’t know what. I wasn’t quick enough in the social thinking department to ask. I will at dinner, though. I’ve got plans to ask the others about their horses and jobs too. It’s better if I plan these things.
The evening outside is just turning to dusk. I can see the sun setting behind trees if I sit up in bed. There are pink cockatoos flying around outside. I can hear them chattering to each other as they get in a last flight before night falls. Magpies are having their bedtime chorus too. They’re much more musical than cockies.
I lie on my back with my hands behind my head and think about how I can’t hear any traffic. A hint of sea breeze in the trees. Birds. Margie, very faintly, talking to Bugs in the kitchen. I’m a suburban boy. I’d never have thought I’d like it so far from the usual cars and crush, but I do, even if the thought of dinner has me crapping myself.
I’d better go get washed up. Won’t do to be covered in dust and Bondcrete as a first impression. I heave myself up off the bed and grab a towel and some clean clothes, all nicely pressed and folded courtesy of Ma the ex-nurse. Worked down at the “Ossie” as they called it, for years after Da retired injured, first in Liverpool and then in Perth. I think she thought she might go mad with only us lot to look after. She liked to spread the love around and she always has had more than enough for everyone, whether they wanted it or not.
Ghost pads along after me to the bathroom, then sits on the bathmat and watches me shower, his big ears pricked in interest. He has always found showering an interesting human habit. He often sticks his nose in for a closer look and gets his big boof head wet, which doesn’t bother him at all. Just try to bath him, though, and you have a different dog on your hands. Eels having nothing on a wet Ghost. Ma was his match though. He’s probably glad we moved out as well, although he’ll miss all the good food my Da used to slip to him when Ma wasn’t watching.
I dress in my clean t-shirt and jeans. I’ve picked the newest black one, which for once hasn’t got some heavy metal slogan or logo on it. I feel a bit odd about wearing my work boots, but the alternative is bare feet and I just don’t feel comfortable meeting new people with no shoes on, even if Margie seems to be permanently barefoot. My feet should not be the first thing people see. Ever, but especially when they don’t know me.
While I’m combing Bondcrete bits out of my wet hair back in my room, I hear Bugs go barking to the front door and Ghost, who is back on my bed, mumbles to join in. He won’t bark till he knows this is his home. At the moment he feels like a guest and so do I.
A car has come up the driveway and parked in the open-fronted shed off to my left. I can see it from my window It’s a white Bronco with a canopy over the tray. Two people get out, a girl and a guy. My stomach knots a bit and I remind myself what a tough fellow I am and how these are probably perfectly ordinary people who mean me no harm. The bloke lets a Kelpie out of the back of the Bronco, and the three of them make for the front steps. I watch from the safety of my dark room and get a flash of their faces as they come into the light of the front verandah. Phew, Owen is dark haired. He’s also short and bandy. I’m going to love him.
They’re talking in a lively fashion as they come in, their feet knocking hollowly on the verandah until they enter the hall. Then there is a deep snuffling sound from under my bedroom door as the kelpie puts her nose under to check out the smell of the new residents. The snuffle is followed by a questioning yip, but Ghost just pricks his ears and whines.
The voices recede into the house further and I hear a door open and close further down the hall. Now would be a good time to make for the kitchen if I don’t want to be the last person at the table, which I don’t. Nothing more intimidating than a room full of people turning to watch you enter.
“Come on, lad,” I tell my dog, and we go out of the room and down the hall, me trying to pretend I am relaxed, but really hoping like hell that no-one runs into me in the hall.
“Gill! Just in time!” Margie says gladly as soon as I enter the kitchen. “Quick, I’ve got the stirfry going and I still need to chop up this choy sum. Will you keep stirring so it doesn’t burn while I chop?”
I start stirring the vegies in the wok, feeling better to have a job. “I always do this,” Margie chats on. “I should have everything cut up before I start, otherwise I get in a muddle.”
Ghost and Bugs have got under the table and are playing mouth games around the chair legs. Their happy growling is added to the sizzle of the stirfry and the steady chopping sounds Margie is making. It’s noisy, but relaxing at the same time.
I eye off the mix of vegies in the wok with interest. I don’t like to tell Margie that I’ve never cooked a stirfry in my life, but I’m pretty sure I’d be in a muddle as well. I’m a handy enough cook, but it’s good old English fare, like Scouse stew and roast lamb. Stuff like that. I hope they aren’t going to mind that when my cooking day rolls around. At least with five of us the days won’t happen too often.
Margie brings her cutting board over and scrapes the green stuff into the wok while I stir. “I’ll just look at these while you’re still doing that for me, if you don’t mind,” she says, grabbing a tea-towel and opening the oven door while I move out of the way and stretch my arm out to keep stirring. In the oven she has chicken wings all lined up on a roasting tray. They look brown and appetising and smell amazing.
“Yum” I can’t help saying. “Actually, I was worried you’d be vegos.”
Margie shuts the oven door and gestures to say she’ll take the stirring job back off me, but I shake my head to show I’m happy to keep doing it. “Linda is,” she says, smiling to thank me for helping, then going to the sink to wash off the cutting board. “But she just eats whatever isn’t meat and chucks in tofu or eggs or something for protein. She doesn’t feel it’s fair to ask us to always be trying to make vegetarian food.”
“That’s pretty accommodating for a vego,” I say.
“Well, you have to be in a share house, don’t you,” Margie says, wiping off the board and going to put it away behind the bread-bin on the counter. “We usually wash up after the cooking stuff ourselves and then everyone does their own bits after dinner. That way you can be as messy a cook as you like and no-one to bother but yourself.
“Sounds really good,” I say. “Actually the share house thing is new to me. I’ve been in a flat in town ever since I moved out of home.”
“Well, it has good and bad sides to it,” Margie says. She starts laying out plates along the island counter. “And these guys are all really nice, which helps. On the good side, you always have someone to talk to, and mostly someone cooks for you. On the down side, you always have someone to talk to whether you want to talk or not, and not everyone cooks stuff you like, but we seem to rub along ok.”
I nod and stir the vegetables and worry about getting on with these four other people. I wish they’d all arrive so I can get the worst of it over with. Margie comes over to slosh some soy sauce and sweet chili into the stirfry. The smell gets even better. She tosses in a handful of sesame seeds. The way she cooks is so assured. It’s nice to watch her. I try to keep track of what she uses so I can have a go at it some other time.
Bugs starts barking and races off down the hall. I hear the front door open and whistle Ghost to my side so that he doesn’t follow Bugs. Don’t want to get off on the wrong footing with a housemate by scaring them with my dog.
Margie takes the door as a cue and gets the wings out of the oven. “That’ll be Linda. Can you divide that lot out onto the plates?” she asked waving a foot at the stirfry with her hands full. “Just put the same on them all. We don’t finesse it.”
There is a clatter in the hall and a lady comes in. Linda, I’m guessing. “TGIF, hey?” She says to the room in general, chucking her purse onto a sideboard and throwing herself onto a chair at the table. She’s stocky and strongly built. Her forearms have amazing muscles rippling in them as she reaches up to release her honey-blonde hair from one of those torture device type clips at the back. “Phew!” she says, shaking her hair out down her back and rubbing at her scalp. It’s long and beautiful, I note. I’m a bit of a hair man.
“What a day!” she goes on, “I had customers one after the other. Good for the coffers but I thought my arms were going to fall off by knockoff time!” She’s wearing a short-sleeved blue tunic that looks vaguely medical, and white pants. Her face is strong like her body, with a square jaw and healthy tanned skin. I’d guess she’s maybe the same age as me, but looking much younger with it. Good genes, I’d say, and clean living.
At this point she gives up rubbing her neck, finally looks over to the kitchen area and sees me. “Oh, hello. You must be Gill. Margie told us a new guy was moving in.”
“ Hi,” I say and get stuck.
Margie saves me by saying, “And this is his beautiful dog, Ghost.” She points down to my feet where Ghost is sitting behind me, worried about the new person and trying to be unobtrusive.
Linda, who is obviously one of those energetic, dynamic people, stands up again and leans over the island so she can see Ghost. “Oooh, he’s gorgeous,” she croons. “Come say hello, fella!” She wriggles her fingers at him and makes squeaky noises with her lips but Ghost politely declines her invitation.
“He’s a rescue,” Margie explains for me as she tongs the last of the wings onto plates. “He’s a bit shy till he gets to know you. Gill, grab any plate and sit in any chair. We try not to get possessive about chairs and such. It’s first come first served.”
Linda takes the plate that is obviously for her due to no chicken, and sits back in the chair she fell into earlier. I go around the island, my dog glued to my leg on the opposite side to Linda, and sit on the other side of the table to her, and down the other end, facing the door to the hallway. I’m not wanting to be at the head of the table, but I want to be able to see the other two as they come in, and Ghost would be happier if I stay away from Miss Loud and Cheerful.
“Jess! Owen! Dinner!” calls Margie, and comes to sit opposite me. There are going to be gaps around the table because we’re only half the number to fill it, but that’s ok by me. It gives me some space to take stock of folks. I’d be even more uncomfortable if I was banging elbows with these strangers the whole meal.
The door of the bathroom I’m to share opens, and the people I saw earlier come out, chattering together again. They come into the kitchen and you can just tell they’ve been having a bonk about two seconds ago. They are both flushed and pleased with themselves and can’t keep their hands off each other. She’s Asian, with wet, very-dyed blonde hair dripping onto her pink singlet and a pair of colourful board shorts on. He’s nearly as short as her, with a cheeky monkey face and curly brown hair to his ears. He’s wearing only jeans. He is amazingly buff.
They get their plates from the counter then come to sit at the table, choosing to sit next to each other opposite Linda, facing the kitchen island.
“Hi,” says the guy, reaching down the table to offer his hand for a shake. “I’m Owen and this is Jess.” Jess gives me a finger wave over Owens’ shoulder and a blinding smile. I shake Owen’s hand, waiting for him to squeeze hard or in some other way challenge me, but he just shakes, and then turns to his dinner. “Gill, right?” He says, digging into the stirfry on his plate. “Fuck I’m starving! Margie told us you were coming today. Lucky you got a Margie meal your first night. Won’t be so pretty when I cook, and Jess might poison you.”
“Depends what you call poisoning,” Linda says indistinctly, her mouth full. “Tomato sauce overdose is a real threat when you cook.” Everyone but me laughs. I don’t think you could overdose me on tomato sauce. Not with the background I’ve got. Da puts it on everything. Owen sounds like my sort of chef.
Jess waves a chicken wing at Linda. “Hey, tofu O.D. is definitely on the cards when you cook, thank you very much.” Her accent is pure Aussie even though her looks are very exotic. I tense up a little, I don’t want to find myself in the middle of an argument on my first night here. Linda laughs heartily, though, and the others join in. It’s obviously a well worn conversational thread.
“That’s love, that is,” Owen says. “Never thought I’d hear Jess defending my cooking!”
“Love…” Jess says dreamily, and they goggle eyes at each other, and Linda groans. “Get a room you two! Oh, you already did.” She laughs again and they smile at her with that smug couple-y togetherness.
“How was work?” Margie asks them. Damn, she took one of my planned conversational questions, or as good as.
“Good,” Jess says. “We were at a big Quarter Horse stud out at Brookton today, so we got to trim plenty without having to travel in between.”
“Really lovely horses,” Owen adds. “Well-bred and well-handled. Was a pleasure to break my back under ’em. They were happy with the job we did, so they’ve booked us for every four weeks, so it’s a nice bit of guaranteed monthly money.”
Ok, I can still ask my question. I swallow chicken a little convulsively and say, “What do you both do? Do you shoe horses?”
“God forbid!” Jess says, beating Owen to it. “We don’t nail iron to horses feet. We’re barefoot trimmers,” she says proudly.
“Yegods, don’t get them onto barefoot trimming,” Linda warns me. “They’re fanatics! Not that they don’t do a great job. My Pants has been happy as a lark since they took her shoes off and fixed her feet.”
“Are you horsey?” Owen asks me, and Margie smiles across the table at me in shared memory.
“No, but I loved them as a kid. I’m looking forward to spending some time learning about them,” I say, and mean it.
“Best thing in the world,” Linda says without any doubt in her voice, looking at Margie slyly.
“I like them!” Margie protests. “I’m just a bit scared is all.”
“And dogs are the best thing in the world to some people, hey Margie?” I surprise myself by saying. I’ve remembered how she said they tease her a bit about the horse thing, and I suddenly want to protect her by changing the subject.
Margie smiles warmly at me and reaches down to give a morsel of chicken to Bugs, who is standing up with his front feet on her knee waiting for it.
“Gill’s dog is a rescue,” Linda tells Owen and Jess.
“Where is he?” asks Owen, and when I point down beside me, he leans forward to see Ghost over my lap. “Wow, a GSD. Hi Guy, I didn’t see you there,” he says softly to Ghost, who wags his tail along the ground a little, drops his ears and squints at Owen shyly. “Awww, don’t worry, you’ll soon be at home,” Owen tells him. “It’s lovely for dogs here. Bob will be nice to you, I promise.”
I realise how lucky I am to have fallen into a place where everyone loves animals, and I relax a lot as I also realise that Owen is a genuinely nice guy.
“Is Bob your Kelpie?” I ask. Woah, Satan the conversationalist! “Margie said she was a bitch. How did she get a name like Bob.”
“Every sheepdog’s called Bob,” Owen laughs. “Or so we were joking when we got her, and suddenly that was her name. Never name a pup when you’ve been drinking.”
I find myself laughing along with everyone else. Ghost looks up at me as if he can’t work out what that noise is that I’m making.
“She’s fast asleep on the bed now,” Jess says. “She’s knackered because she spent all day playing with the other kelpies at the stud.”
“Were they all called Bob too?” I ask, and they laugh again. Satan makes a joke in new company. There’s a first!
They ask me then about how I got Ghost, and then they ask me about my job, which I just tell them is making birdbaths, and then I get the attention back off me by asking Linda what she does. She’s a masseur.
The talk goes on from there. Margie used to be an English teacher but now she writes teen novels with a paranormal flavour. She married young and was divorced by the time she was twenty-five.
Jess was studying to be a physiotherapist until she met Owen and dropped out to become a trimmer.
Her parents are still upset about that, but they like Owen now.
Owen used to work on stations up North, but got sick of the flies and the heat. He went to Tassie and studied to be a qualified trimmer instead.
The person who used to have my room was another woman called Trinny. She moved out because she got a new job over East. She had a horse that was good buddies with Jess’s horse, Teo, and she took her horse East with her, and Teo is still sad about it. Who knew horses could mourn the loss of a friend? Not me.
The meal goes so quickly. We sit and keep chatting over the empty plates. Linda goes to the fridge and opens a bottle of white wine, and even I have a glass, although wine is usually not my drink of choice. Actually, no alcohol is really my drink of choice. Too easy to get yourself befuddled and then bad things can happen to you. One glass is ok though. I mostly sit quietly and listen to the talk. It’s pretty easy to be a listener with this talkative lot.
Bob wakes up and comes out and has to be shown off. She is a black and tan, incredibly gamine and intelligent looking. You can see why they have the mythical name they have. Owen and Jess talk to her and she tilts her head this way and that, seeming to understand everything they say. Ghost is instantly smitten but she tells him he has no chance and he backs off. He hasn’t got the bits for it anyway. The vet talked me into doing the deed, and he’s been a lot happier since then.
The talk turns from Bob to things they plan to do around the place on the weekend. A fallen tree to cut up for next year’s firewood, who is going to sweep floors, the gutters need cleaning out. “Don’t worry, Gill,” Linda tells me and the others smile at me. “We always give new housemates a grace period.”
“I don’t mind,” I say, “Although I’m better outdoors than in.”
“You can help me cut up the tree, then,” Owen says. “We can go and be real men and bond together over a chainsaw.”
“Owen’s been dying for some male company around here,” Jess laughs. I’m not so sure on the bonding bit myself, but I like using chainsaws, and you can’t talk while they’re running anyway, so that’s ok.
They plan how and where to move the horses so that they don’t come and poke their noses into our work and get them cut off. Apparently they’ve all been on a holiday out in the paddock and aren’t being brought in at night or fed anything but the grass in the paddock at the moment. There is much talk about whose horse is currently fattest and laziest. I listen and enjoy being involved on the periphery of this new world of horse management. It’s all new to me. The books I read didn’t cover the realities of wire cuts, bot flies, thrush and founder. Apparently horses are just accidents waiting to happen, and if they don’t manage to kill themselves, some hideous disease or parasite will do it for them.
It’s well after nine thirty when Owen and Jess pass an unspoken message between each other and rise from the table, Owen with an old man groan and a rub to his back as he does it. “Time we were up and about,” he says. “It’s been a long day and we still haven’t been out to visit the geegees yet.”
I nod goodnight, suddenly wordless again.
“Would you like to come out and meet them?” Linda asks. “It’s a tradition that we always go tuck them in at bedtime.”
“Which at this time of year just means a carrot and a pat,” Jess adds.
I look at Ghost, worried that he will chase them and not game to leave him in my room because of the destruction that would ensue. Margie sees me, understands, and says, “It’s ok, they come up to the gate and Ghost can just look at them from there.”
“Are you coming too?” Linda asks, grinning at Margie in challenge.
“I don’t usually, “ Margie says to me, rolling her eyes at Linda, “But I will if you will.”
“I’d like to,” I say, and I almost mean it. In some ways I’d also like to go hide in my room and rest my social gland, which is feeling very overused. I said to myself that I wouldn’t act scared of the horses, though, so piking out now would give the wrong impression.
Owen passes out torches and he and Jess don head torches, then we all trek out the front door with Bugs barking excitedly. Ghost doesn’t feel brave enough to comment yet, but he will, he will. You can’t keep a vocal dog like Ghost quiet for long.
I hang back and turn off my torch. It’s so dark out here. There is no moon and the stars are amazing. There is a glow in the West where Perth is, obscuring the sky a lot considering that the city isn’t that big, but in the East you can see the sky in ways I never have before. You can actually see the Milky Way. The trees around the house make a darker edge against the sky and the wind blows gently through their tops. It’s got quite cool and I find myself with goosebumps, not just from the temperature. It’s like I’m actually in nature for the first time ever.
The others have almost made it to the barn, so I turn my torch back on and catch up, picking my way carefully to avoid falling over sticks or rocks in the rough front yard. Ghost leaves Bugs to come dance by my side and ask me to hurry. He’s a joiner. Maybe it’s the sheepdog in him. He likes to keep all the beasts in one spot.
Owen is passing out carrots from a big bag of them that is in the feed-room that is first on the left inside the barn aisle. I can hear horses making low snorty, snuffly noises off to our left in the dark.
“Keep your pants on, Pants, I’m coming,” Linda says, giggling a little at her own joke. No one else does and I figure she pretty much says the same thing every night. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?
I dutifully take a handful of carrots and tuck them into my pockets, then follow the others as they follow a track around the yards outside the barn. On the left of us are huge old gum trees, on our right, the rough weathered rails of the yards. At the end of the two yards on that side of the barn, there’s a fence and a pipe gate, and over the gate hang the three horse heads, whitey-grey, yellow and brown. Their eyes glow oddly in the torchlight and their ears are pricked, their noses wobble at us as they stretch their heads out.
Margie bumps into me as she stops suddenly. She’s soft and warm and I momentarily wish she’d stay there, but she moves away again. “Sorry,” she says. “They startled me for a second there. Their eyes.”
“Demon horses,” I agree.
The other three are feeling no fear. Jess is feeding a whole carrot into the mouth of the brown horse on the right. “Come give Teo a carrot,” she tells me. “He’s such a gentleman. He’ll be very gentle, I promise.”
The grey on the left is Owen’s horse. A proper Aussie Stockhorse, he’d told me earlier. Her name is Birdy, because she came from Birdwood Downs station in the Kimberley. She puts her ears back and does a snarly face towards Pants, who is next to her, and even inexperienced me can tell she is telling the other horses to bugger off and leave all the carrots to her. She looks even more demonic like that, but Owen gives her a slap on the neck and says, “Get out of it, you old bat,” and she goes back to doing a pretty begging face instantly.
Linda shoves another carrot whole into Pants’s mouth. “Ha! You’ve got her measure, Owen,” she says.
“She’s a pussycat,” Owen says. “It’s all bluff. Isn’t it, you silly old cow,” he croons to his horse, offering her another carrot. She fits it in even though it seems like there should already four up in there somewhere.
“Come on, Gill,” Jess says, and I know I have to do it now or be forever branded a chicken, so I step up on her right so I at least don’t have to watch Pants at the same time. Up close, Teo is very big and very dark. “Hold your carrot so lots sticks out of the top of your hand,” she instructs me. “Then he’ll have more to get hold of.” I do as she told me, and feel his big lips roughly wobbling around on my hand as he finds the carrot, then it is suddenly gone. Oh, that wasn’t too hard. I tentatively stroke his forehead as he chews. It’s silky and a bit dusty, and he smells nice.
“You could learn to ride on him, you know,” Jess tells me. “I was a beginner when I first got him and he looked after me so well. He’d be big enough for you too.”
“Oh, rather you than me,” Margie breathed from behind us.
“Come on Margie,” says Linda in what is obviously her usual hearty way. “Come give the beautiful Pants a carrot. You know you want to.”
Margie probably doesn’t want to, but she moves over and gives Pants a carrot, then goes on to give Birdy one as well. Owen has taken off his head torch and has it in his hand, using it to shine down around the horses’ legs, presumably to check for injuries. Dust rises up around their legs and the light hits it oddly. Linda is kissing Pants’s nose.
“I’d like to learn to ride,” I tell Jess quietly. Dream come true, actually. “As long as it wouldn’t be too much hassle for you.”
“None,” she says. “I’m pretty new to it myself, but if no-one’d taught me, I wouldn’t be getting to have such a great life now, trimming and riding. I wouldn’t have met Owen either. I’d like to pass on the favour. Anyway, it’s always good to have more housemates who are into horses. ”
Ghost lifts his white head and sniffs the great dark head of Teo, who blows air out of his nose gently at the dog while still chewing carrot. They have some sort of inter-species communication and both seem to decide the other is harmless. Ghost gives Teo’s nose a little lick, then Teo lifts his head to Jess for more carrot.
“Looks like he’ll be sensible about the horses,” Owen says, having caught the little exchange in his torchlight. “You’ll just have to watch him if they decide to run around. Even Bob finds it hard to control herself then.”
“I’ll be careful,” I say. I will be too. I don’t want Ghost kicked or trampled. I’ve still got a pocket full of carrot, so I give a bit of one to Ghost in case he gets jealous, then man up and go give one to Pants, then one to Birdy. They all take the carrot gently and let me pat their faces just like Teo. Odd creatures, really. So big and strong, and from the way the others talked earlier, prone to flight at the silliest thing, and yet here they are acting so gentle and fearless in the dark of night.
“We’ll swing by the chooks, hey? Owen says. “We’ve lost a couple lately,” he says in aside to me. “Not sure what to. No signs of a break-in in the morning.”
We carry on to the left some more, and almost parallel to the back yard, we come to a high row of chook netting with an old security screen door set in it for a gate. The others shine their torches into the pen and I can see a mix of orange, speckled, white and black chickens perched on planks fixed into an old shed, tails and heads down. They bob their heads a bit and cluck softly in alarm, but settle as soon as the lights are off them again.
“All quiet on the chicken front,” Linda says. “Time for bed. I’ve got my yoga class first thing tomorrow.”
“And we’ve got manly chainsawing to do,” Owen says to me, turning away towards the house and putting his arm around Jess’s shoulders to tow her along affectionately.
Just we all turn the same way, we hear a loud rustle over to our East, and South a little from the back yard. It sounds like something pretty big has gone shooting up a tree. Bugs and Bob go running off into the night to bark at them, and Ghost pricks his ears but stays behind me. He isn’t sure about these night-time shenanigans.
“What the?” says Linda, as we all quickly shine our lights that way but see nothing.
“If that was a possum, it was the grand-daddy of all possums,” Owens agrees, leading way towards where the noise was but where all is now silent.
“Maybe we shouldn’t…” Margie begins, but Linda says,
“Come on Margie girl, no drop bears around here. We’ve got to go see in case it’s something that eats chickens.”
“A possum won’t eat the chooks,” Owen says, keeping his light shone up into the tree the two dogs are now standing under as he makes his way over to the edge of the treeline. “Foxes can’t climb. Chuditch might do both.”
“Chuditch?” I ask Margie as we follow the others over. Owen is standing under the tree and shining his torch up into the canopy.
“Native cat, marsupial, got white spots and eats anything” Margie explains. “There’s been more of them around since they started baiting feral cats and foxes. Oh, could be a feral cat, Owen?” she says.
“Could be. I think I can see some eyes glowing up there, but it’s too high to see anything but the shine,” Owen says. “Come give me some more light.”
Something in the tree makes more rustling noises as it retreats higher up into thick canopy. The tree has to be fifty metres easily and it’s well up there, whatever it is. “It’s gone further now, I can hardly see the eyes at all,” Owen says.
We all go to shine our lights in the same spot as Owen, and with the extra light you can indeed see a pair of glowing eyes reflecting back at us. They’re red as red, and for some reason the sight of them gives me the shivers.
“Brrrr, malevolent little beastie, whatever it is,” Linda says. “It’s made me come over all queer!”
“Everything has creepy eyes by torchlight,” Jess says wisely, but nonetheless it’s not just me who is very glad to call off the dogs and come away from that tree. The animal, whatever it is, is too high to be reached by anything but a gun and we have no gun.
“We’ll have to get onto making a roofed night pen around the chook’s shed,” Owen decides. “We can’t keep losing the old girls, whatever it is doing it, and whether it’s that beastie or something else.”
“One more job for the weekend,” Margie sighs as we make our way back inside via the back yard gate. The lights of the kitchen area glowing out on to the lawn are a welcoming sight. “It’s never all done on a rural place is it.”
“Shhhh, you’ll put Gill off,” Jess laughs.
“Work more scary than the red-eyed beastie?” Owen says, pushing open the sliding door on the patio and allowing us all to go in before him.
“No way,” I say. “I don’t mind hard work, and that thing’s eyes were pretty bloody creepy.”
The others laugh. Wow, two successful jokes in one day!
We hand torches over to Margie to be put back on top of the fridge, and everyone heads off to their rooms. Margie’s is closest on the left as you go back towards the front door. It must back onto the TV room. Linda’s is right down the front on the left, her door opposite mine. She must have a window facing out onto the front verandah as well.
Owen and Jess have the room that is closest to us on the right, on the other side of the bathroom I will share with Owen and Jess.
Linda and the couple have gone and I can hear water running as they clean teeth and so on in the two bathrooms that face each other across the middle of the hall. I don’t want to get in anyone’s way so I hover, and Margie says, “Do you want to have a bedtime cuppa while we wait for a chance at the bathrooms?”
“Seems best,” I say, although I feel shy about spending more time having to be normal. It’s been a long evening for me already.
“Just a quicky,” Margie says, seeming to know I am of two minds. “I’ll hunt out the cookie jar too,” she adds. “I feel like a bit of a sugar hit after all that excitement.”
I sit at the table facing the kitchen counters and she puts the kettle on.
“What do you think that was in the tree?” I ask her, as she puts out coffee cups and sugar and gets milk out of the fridge. I want to help but I don’t know my way around yet, and she seems happy to be bustling around. Ghost and Bugs are under the table again, both too tired to play but lying companionably side by side.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I’m really the city slicker out of all of us.”
“There’s me now as well.”
“True,” Margie says, pouring hot water into mugs. “Whatever it was, it creeped me out too. It sounded so big. You have to wonder if it’s that, whatever it is, that we’ve been hearing prowling around at night.”
She comes to sit opposite to me at the table, bringing tea in mugs and reaching behind her to bring the biscuit tin and sugar jar off the island. She slides my tea over, then pops the lid of the tin and puts it between us. Not offering but putting it within reach. I can see some Walker’s shortbread in there and suddenly a sugar rush is just what I need too, so I pick out a couple. Margie silently passes a teaspoon and the sugar my way but I shake my head. It’s quite a companionable silence as we sip tea and eat biscuits, while the bathroom sounds down the hall continue.
“It’s not usual that we all want the bathrooms at once,” Margie eventually says. “Usually everyone is off to bed or work at different times. There’s another toilet too, out the back, coming off the laundry, just in case it’s needed.”
“Thanks. I still have a lot of looking around to do before I work out where everything is,” I tell her. “The place is so huge.”
“I’ll take you up to the cottage tomorrow to meet the landlords,” Margie says. “Then you can wander around wherever you like and they’ll know not to shoot you,” she laughs but I must look a big startled, because she says, “No no, not really. They do have guns up there and they do tend to be a bit territorial, but they need to be, really. This place backs onto miles of forest and tracks and idiots come through the fences every now and then. Shooters, you know, or hoons. We don’t see much of it up the front of the property here, but they do. Better if you and Ghost meet them, anyway. They’re easy landlords, really. They never interfere down here or do inspections, and they always let us borrow any tools we might need and they pay for any material we use doing repairs or improvements. It’s better than owning your own place, really.” She nibbles a biscuit pensively.
I’m feeling skeptical about Walter and Claudia as perfect landlords, if there is such a thing, especially ones with guns, but I let it go. I’ll meet them soon enough and can make my own judgements.
“Do you write on weekends?” I ask her, changing the subject and going back to my list of job-based socially-acceptable questions.
“Only if I have a deadline I’m behind with.”
“Does it beat being a schoolteacher?”
“The pay doesn’t, but the lifestyle does,” she says and smiles. “I love this place and I love being able to stay here all day with my dog and write when it suits me. A few rushed deadlines and a bit of writer’s block don’t compare to sulky teen management or reading the thousandth story ending in… and then I woke up.”
“I think I wrote some of those,” I say, and she chuckles, her plump boobs joggling inside her indian shirt as she does. I avert my eyes and look into my empty mug instead. Those boobs are fine.
“All yours!” comes a voice from the hallway, and a last door shuts and there is silence.
“Well,” I say. “I’d better get to bed if I’m going to play he-man with Owen tomorrow.” I hop up from the table and carry my mug and the sugar up to the kitchen sink and look around for an obvious home for the sugar bowl.
“Leave it,” Margie says. “I”ll put it all away. You can start finding your way around tomorrow.”
“Sounds good,” I say, and Ghost and I make a brief visit to the back lawn and then the bathroom and then we go to bed. I’d meant to lie there and listen to the bush outside my open window some more, not sure if I am hoping or hoping not to hear the creature from the tree again. In the end, I am so exhausted that I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. Ghost has his own side of the bed and his own pillow and is asleep even before me. It’s been a long and unusually social day for us both.