When I was superannuated out of the firm at fifty-five I stayed at home for what I imagined would be a well-earned rest. No such luck. Although my children had grown up and had kids of their own, that didn't stop them dropping in to get their lawn mower repaired, or the trailer spray-painted.

   Marge gave me no rest. Now I was home she found endless jobs for me around the house and yard: blinds to fix, gutters to repaint, windows that jammed, stairs to bolt down, thousands of old photos to be sorted, furniture to sand and paint. It was never ending. Then there were the seminars on HOW TO SAVE FOR YOUR FUTURE, HOW TO SAVE FOR YOUR CHILDREN'S FUTURE, HOW TO SAVE FOR YOUR GRANDCHILDREN'S FUTURE, roll-over lectures, annuities, fixed interest versus variable interest, property investment, overseas markets, the effect of fluctuating oil prices on the dreaded Nikkei Index. And of course if I got sick of all that I could always go to a lecture on PROPHECY IN THE MIDDLE EAST!

   Life was worse then going to work. I was forbidden to watch TV during the day or to drink before dinner. All my mates were still at work, so there was no escape from being dragged through supermarkets, pushing Marge's trolley like a pair of newlyweds. Then it was on to the End of the Month sales, Closing Down sales, Opening Up sales, and Super-Stock-Taking-Sell-Out-sales. We had to buy baby clothes and toys for the grandchildren. And all the while, night and day Marge hounded me, until I thought of the answer.

   I would return to the old farm for a month's visit.

   I had not seen the farm since the day I left it forty years ago. Western Australia was just too far away; visiting was something I had thought about but never done. My younger brother still lived there, and although he had visited us three times in the forty years, I had never returned to my birth place.
   I was brought up on a farm in remote Western Australia, near Broome. There had been four children and each of us had left except for the youngest, Rob. He stayed on and looked after the place when mum and dad died. Although he had married years ago and had three children, I had neither met his wife, or seen his kids.

   I remembered the good old days. Rob, although two years younger than me, was always the practical joker. He was the one who put frogs down girls' blouses, connected the beer taps up to water in the basement of the pub, and put big rocks under the police car wheels. They were the days when we lived for fun. School was an adventure, we worked the farm, we shot crows, we swam in the creek, Friday night was dance night, Saturday night was pictures night. It's true we had no television, no air-conditioners, no videos, no microwave ovens, no computers, but life was simple. People made their own fun, and enjoyed themselves without everything being done for them.

   The Commodore was cruising at 110 kph, the air-conditioning working hard, the windows up, heading out through the dust to the farm. I was thinking about what it would be like. Things must have changed in forty years. Rob had once told us he was giving the cattle away and prospecting for titanium or some other metal. But I'd never heard any more about it. I could only assume it had fallen through.
   As I drove closer and closer towards the farm I began to wonder whether it would be spoilt by progress. Would they live in a world with video, TV, computer games, frozen pizza, ruled by the clock. I feared perhaps they would have three PCs connected to the internet via broadband, and spend their time buying and selling shares.
   That wasn't how I remembered things. I remembered the simple life, the peace and quiet of the farm, no crowds, just friendly neighbours willing to lend a hand.

   When I arrived at the farm it was dusk. As the car rumbled up the dirt driveway it looked just like it had done forty years ago. Yet it was worse. Things had fallen into disrepair: the house needed painting, the chimney was crooked, the gate hinges broken; it looked abandoned.
   I got out of the car and the full force of the late afternoon heat and dust hit me, choking my lungs.
   Rob was sitting on the porch waiting for me. His hat was pushed well back, and he sat in rather dirty, ragged clothes. I called out: 'Hi ya, Rob! Good to see you! Where's Susan and the kids?'
   'Uh. Sorry Paul, I should of told you. She cleared out five years ago. Couldn't stand the life out here. Too hot and dusty.'
   'And the kids, where are they?'
   'They all went down to Perth. She took up with an accountant.'
   'I'm sorry to hear that Rob, but you could have told me. I would have understood.'
   'I didn't want you feeling sorry for me. Want a drink of home-made lemonade?'
   'Sure.' He poured a glass from the jug at his side. I tried not to notice there were two dead flies floating in the jug.
   'How's the prospecting going?'
   'Gave it up. No money in minerals. Something to do with GATT and the ECC. Don't ask me. I had to go back to cattle and donkeys, but pigs are the thing.'
   'The farm looks just the same as when I left it.'
   'I looked after it. Got a new kero fridge back in the late sixties, but it wore itself out. So now I just use the old Coolgardie safe.'
   'Yuck! What did you put in this lemonade?'
   'Lemons, grew them out the back, bore water, and a spoon of honey.'
   'Maybe I'm not used to the water. Could you get me a beer?'
   'Nope. Don't drink it, 'cause it'd be warm anyway. Don't have a fridge; no power out here, you see. Don't worry me none. It didn't used to worry you neither when you were growing up.'
   Suddenly I felt sympathetic to Susan.
   'These bloody flies! I can't stand them. How can you let them crawl on your face? Look there's three on your glass. And now the bloody mozzies are biting me. Where do they come from?'
   'The dam I guess. Not that I use it since the PCB got into the water.'
   'What! That's the most deadly poison you--how did that happen?'
   'Some fellas come out here one day, said they wanted to dump some old chemicals out of transformers. Said they'd pay me two hundred dollars. So they dug a hole and filled it up with some stuff. Later on it got washed down into the dam and killed all the cattle. Some scientist bloke came out and told me it was PCB. Reckons I shouldn't let anyone drink out the dam. But I figure when the rain washes the dam out it should be right.'
   'So that's why you use the bore water?'
   'Yep. I don't see why the flies and the mozzies bother you, the city must have made you soft.'
   'Why don't you put up insect screens, they're not expensive.'
   'Not much point really. I spend most of the day outside, so I figure I may as well learn to put up with them.'
   'You should get married again Rob. You'll go mad living out here by yourself.'
   'Nah. What women's gunna come out here to live? They're all soft these days. Like you.'
   'Me? I was born here. You think because I can't stand flies crawling in my mouth or drink brown bore water I'm soft?'
   'It don't matter. Let's get our dinner. I got a nice chook picked out for you. Come on and I'll show you.'
   'Where are you going?'
   'To the chook run.'
   'You mean it's still alive?'
   'Sure. If I hada killed it and plucked it this morning it would have gone off by now.'
   'But it'll take hours to pluck it and cook it.'
   'What do you want Paul, Kentucky drumsticks done in two minutes? We've got all night. There's nothing else to do. We've got to catch and kill our own food. That's how it is on the farm, have you forgotten? That's home cooking; remember that's what you always talked about in your letters.'
   'Yeah, I guess in the city you sort of forget chicken pieces were once alive. What else we got for dinner?'
   'Just boiled spuds.'
   'Okay, let's get it over with.'
   The whole business was ghastly. Chasing the poor terrified chook, killing it, plucking it, dissecting the dead body, cooking it. No wonder Marge bought frozen chickens. Then there was lighting the old wood-burning stove. The heat from it made the kitchen unbearable. How had Mum stood it for all those years?
   We sat out on the veranda in the light of a hurricane lamp. 'Why don't you get a diesel generator, then you'd have power to run a fridge and a TV and a--'
   'Don't tell me you miss TV already? I thought they were the things you came out here to get away from?'
   The mozzies were biting fiercely; I kept slapping them on my face and arms. I wished I had brought some insect repellent, but knew it was useless to ask Rob. 'Don't the mosquitoes worry you?'
   'Nope. They leave me alone because I only wash once a month. The smell keeps them away. You've probably got some fancy deodorant on.'
   'Shit! I can't stand them. I'm going inside. Maybe the chicken's cooked.'
   'Sure. Now that we're really hungry we should be able to eat it.'
   Although I was starving I had great difficulty eating anything. The chook was emu-tough, the potatoes had been boiled to mush, but in the dark I kept wondering if they were green. The bread was a week old, very hard and dry, spread with dripping. I dared not drink any water no matter how thirsty I got.
   'What do you do with yourself all day on the farm?'
   'Well I spent today ringbarking those big trees up on the far slope. Remember those big giants?'
   'You ringbark trees?'
   'Yeah, what's the problem? You haven't become a greenie have you Paul?'
   'No, but I thought farmers gave up ring-barking years ago.'
   'Not me. Those damn trees suck all the moisture up, take all the nutrients out the ground. Gotta get rid of them. There's no other way. Too steep to get a bulldozer up that hill.'
   'Rob, tell me why do you stay here? This place is a ... dump. I've only been here a few hours and I'm bored and fed up with it. There's no fridge, no TV, no screens, no water, no lights, there's nothing.'
   'Paul, don't upset me. I love this place. So do you, I have it in your own handwriting last month, or have you forgotten? Anyway, where would I go if I left here? What job could I get; I'm not trained in anything. Paul, this is all I've got.'
   'Rob, this place is practically the same as I left it all those years ago, the problem is that I never remembered it like this. Somehow in my memories it was always cleaner, bigger, like paradise. I'd completely forgotten about having tank water, and no electricity, no fly screens. Say, why don't you use the tank water?'
   'Got a dead rat in it. Say, how long you gunna stay here Paul? Couple months if you like. There's plenty of work to do around the house, and mustering, and fixing up the pig pen, and feeding and--'
   'I'm thinking of going home tomorrow, Rob. It's not you, but I don't think I can stand the heat, the dust, the lack of water, the flies, the food--you don't cook as well as Mum did. I'm just not used to this life anymore.'
   'Sure, I'm disappointed but I understand. That's why women won't come out here. I'll show you to your bed then.'

   He led the way, with the hurricane lantern, into our old bedroom. There was a dirty inner spring mattress, one spring poking through, on the floor. The windows were wide open, and I envisaged plagues of mosquitoes eating me all night.
   'I figured you wouldn't need a sheet. It's pretty hot at night. But if you'd like a shower I've got a bucket of bore water for you out in the shed.'
   I stared with dismay at the small bedroom. It was almost the same as forty years ago, and yet now it was decrepit, empty, dirty, just an old stained mattress on the floor.
   'Rob would you be offended if I slept in the car?'
   'The car? Why?'
   'The seat folds back, it'd be more comfortable, and there's no mozzies in it.' Yet I was dreaming of the coolness of the air conditioner running all night, if I had enough petrol.
   'It sounds like an insult to me, Paul. This dump not good enough for you? Let's have a look at this wonderful car with a lay-back seat.'
   We walked outside. He opened the door and sat in the driver's seat. 'What's this gadget then?'
   'A mobile phone. You can call anywhere in Australia with it.'
   'Yeah? Can I use it?'
   'Sure ... just dial the number.'
   He pushed the buttons confidently. 'Susan,' he said, 'start the generator and put all the lights on around the swimming pool. We'll be there in one minute for dinner.'

   He hung up grinning, almost laughing. And I knew I'd been had. I could hear the sound of a diesel generator start up, then in the distance I saw all the lights come on near the top of the rise.
   'You bastard Rob. You took me in again. I should have known you'd do this. You don't live here at all.'
   'Nope. Built a new house up on the hill about twenty years back. Susan's up there with the kids waiting to meet you. You'll be pleased to know we've got everything: TV, fridge, DVDs, swimming pool. But I just wanted you to know that the good old days were not as good as you remembered them.'
   'Drive me up the hill quickly. I can't stand these bloody mozzies. Hey do you really ringbark trees?'
   'Me? Nah, I prefer to spray them with agent orange, you see I got this bulk deal from the army.'


© Copyright Marcus Clark 2002

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