Glenalpine Chrysanthemum, White-eye, Linga Longa Wattle Flower, Banyule Tiddlewinks, Pineapple, Enid, Fatty, Yarraview La Mode, Licker, Babs, Big Joyce, Wee Joyce, Pauline, Stumbles and the others. They gather by the gate in the half light, stamping their feet and swinging their hips into the wind. He can see the outline of their faces through the rain; their ears swivel towards him as he closes the back door. He splashes through the puddles to the dairy, his head cocked against the downpour. They watch him with the same deep attention every day. As if they have just seen a new species for the first time – a species that is not cow – and they mustn’t ever lose sight of it again. His milking clothes hang from a row of horseshoes behind the bails: matted overalls stiff with mud and faeces, a corrugated raincoat, a canvas apron florid with milk mould. Pails and buckets from the wash room, hay spread in each feeder, leg ropes kicked back and at the ready. He stands just under cover and looks out at the morning. There is more light now; he can see further across the paddocks. The rain is pooling badly in the low spots, if it doesn’t let up soon the pasture will drown. He spits a mouthful of tobacco bile into the mud, pulls on the raincoat and goes out to fetch them. Sip is anxious to follow, but for the rain. She whimpers, hops from one front leg to the other, then slinks along the eaves, only darting out at the last minute, her ears flat against her neck.
On these wet mornings the world seems close around them – Harry and the herd. It is the same greasy rain that hits them both, that sticks to hide and skin, that gushes down their legs and gathers in their eyelashes. Harry opens the gate and pushes in among them. Their blood is hot. Each cow gives off her own great heat and takes in the heat of her sisters. They are urgent with milk and hunger, stamping and bellowing and thrusting out their necks. The damage is done here, when they are bagged-up and waiting – an udder squeezed against the fencepost, trodden on, torn or ripped. Harry flicks an old towel across their dented rumps, choosing who should go first and who should hang back. Sip lets off a few hoarse high-pitched barks from the sidelines. He has ten out now. They are docile into the bails, quick to get their heads down to the mash. The first cow brings back the feeling in his fingers. He slides his hands up and along the warm skin between her udder and her belly, throws up a mug of wash from the pail, sluices the whole thrumming organ, feels for the cups, tests the pull of suction and threads them on. Fat udders with bud teats, small, fruity udders with long spiked teats like landmines, slack udders, tight udders. Every day, twice a day, often with the help of young Michael from next door or Mues from over the road, Harry milks his herd.
Babs snorts pollard through her nostrils and swings her wet tail from side to side. Harry rinses her teats and pulls the cups off her. The rotary chuffs and swings overhead. They are slower to back out when it rains, hanging on for a few extra licks of the empty bucket, ignoring his voice and the flick of the towel, but when the balance tips and there are more out than in they start to hurry again. They don’t fear Harry. They don’t fear any man or dog, even a proper farm dog. What they fear is being alone. Being left behind. The last cow steps back. She looks in front of her at the long stream of cows ambling back to the paddock. She turns her wooden neck and looks behind her at the holding yard – empty. Her hooves scrape on the wet bricks. She bellows. Then she digs her back legs into the mud and runs out into the rain, her empty udder swinging slack and crumpled between her legs.
A whippet can’t ride pillion on a motorcycle. Many farm dogs can; not a whippet. The whippet is too leggy, has no balance, insufficient courage and not enough fur. Harry takes his bike out for a weekly spin to clear the fluids and prevent the engine from getting stale. When he changes up to third the wind pulls at Sip’s sparse coat. She leans hard against his chest for protection. She shivers violently, causing her bony bottom to lose traction with the saddle, causing her to tumble off sideways as they take the curve on Saleyards Road. Harry has never stopped faster. He nearly puts himself over the handlebars. He has to walk all of the way home with Sip hoisted over his shoulders. Mues isn’t home so he asks Betty from next door to drive him back out to the bike and guide him home because the headlamp has blown and it’s getting dark. The children want to come too, but Betty is firm with them. Michael has the dishes to dry and Little Hazel has her reader. Harry expects a bit of teasing; about the dog and the Waratah too.
‘It’s a constant labour of love,’ Harry says as he gets out of the car and runs his hand over the leather saddle.
Betty looks at the motorcycle. The spray of red flowers painted on the petrol tank reminds her of a sewing machine, and there’s Harry’s birdwatching binoculars hanging from a special bracket he’s welded onto the frame. There’s nothing particularly masculine about it.
‘It’s just a constant labour, if you ask me,’ Betty says. Then she turns the car around so he can ride in her lights on the way home.
She’s an antler covered in warm velvet. Her legs are sticks; her yolky heart hangs in its brittle cage of ribs. She can’t walk in a straight line. When Harry holds the gate open for her she slinks through it. She doesn’t stand next to him like you might see a dog in a photograph, but with her back snaked around so it touches his leg. She’s useless with the cows. She spends the winter curled up like a cat, she yelps at thunder, she’s afraid of heights, she hates the rain. There’s something obscene, dick-like, about the way her tail curves between her hind legs. She looks wounded when they go to town and he makes her jump down from the Dodge because he always lifts her when they are at home. Her whole existence, every sinewy fibre of her, is tuned to the feel of Harry’s hand across the smooth cockpit of her skull.
The beloved have many names. Harry calls her sweetie, luvvie, goose and bag-o-bones. Mues calls her a dog-shaped object or rat-on-stilts. He says, ‘What’s it shit like, Harry? Does it shit like a pencil?’
That first day when he collected her, and in the Dodge on the way home took off his coat and tucked it around her shoulders … it went along the usual way after that. An alteration in the focal length – each fixed for the gaze of the other. The imbibing of odours. The warm soil of her head, the bread and vinegar of his crotch. A babble language followed quickly by regret for the first hard words. Physical changes. The sharing of personality and mannerisms.
All her expressions are known to him. Her squinted blink, the thwop of ropey tail against the lino, the shame-clamped jaw. Then familiarity. Indifference. Forgetfully, he sometimes runs his hand across her ribs. If it’s early on in the week, a Monday or a Tuesday, he’ll say, ‘That’s enough then. That’ll do you for the rest of the week,’ and she’ll lean into his knees, blissful at the sound of his voice.
Little Hazel walks to the Leitchville Road to catch the school bus into Cohuna. Her shoes scuff through the dirt. She carries her metal school tin with a date scone rolling around inside it. The sun is already high and strong in the sky behind her. She turns out of the driveway and into the road. The air smells warm and wet and faintly ripe like fruit just on the turn – a mixture of sun-baked cow shit and algae ripening in the irrigation channels of the dairy farm next door. She looks warily at a row of magpies on the wire fence. They aren’t looking at her, but it is nearly swooping season so she puts her school tin on her head just in case. She can see Mr Mues leaning on his gate up ahead. Her arm is getting tired holding the tin in place so she tries to balance it for a few steps like an African, but it drops and she bends over to pick it up from the dirt.
‘Michael not going to school today?’ Mues calls out to her.
‘Nope. He’s sick.’
‘How’s he sick then?’ Mues has a pouchy face and red-rimmed eyes with too much of the inner lid, the inner workings, on display.
‘He’s got the runs.’
Mues nods sympathetically.
Little Hazel walks on and is almost out of earshot when he calls out to her again.
‘Do you want to come in for a minute and see my pony?’
She stops and considers. Mues’s place is a mess of rusty old machinery and kennels and laundries and packing sheds. She’s never seen a pony, but perhaps he keeps it inside, or perhaps it’s new? She hears him sniff behind her and the sound of the chain jiggling on the gatepost.
‘It’s a Shetland pony.’
She follows him into a rundown shed – dim and thick with flies. She keeps her distance from him. He’s busy with something in the corner. She thinks he is shielding the pony from her to make it more of a surprise. It must, she thinks, be very tiny, probably just a foal. She is trying to look around him, into the corner, when he turns, his trousers slide slowly down his legs, the end of his belt curves around his ankles like a tail and she sees that he is not wearing underpants. That he is holding his shirt up on purpose to reveal his dick, all raw and swollen pink. It is hoisting itself up with wobbly effort like a mechanical toy. Little Hazel frowns, tries again to look behind him for the pony, then returns her gaze to the dick. She looks at the spot on the roof that the dick is pointing to. There are a few cobwebs draped between the rafters and several small shafts of light beaming through the holes in the rusty iron. Little Hazel doesn’t scream, doesn’t feel sick, doesn’t run away. She just feels disappointed. Hugely disappointed. She thinks that it has all been pointless – the cutting-out of pictures from magazines, the books borrowed from the library. The drawings attempted, rubbed out, attempted again in her treasured scrapbook where the Shetland’s neck was always too long or the Shetland’s legs too thin, or she’d had to use blue for the tail as the black had run out. At that moment Little Hazel understands that she will never, ever, get a Shetland pony. Her life will be no different to everybody else’s – made up of cobbling things together that are misshapen, ill-suited, imperfect. That wanting something badly is not enough to get it. And adults are part of this pretence – they hold one thing in their hand and call it another. Hazel picks up her school tin and leaves. She isn’t even late for the bus.
Excerpted from Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany. Copyright © 2012 by Carrie Tiffany.
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