He caught himself stirring his tea absently and for too long, stopped doing it, and drank. Even with his wife in the bathroom, he should stick to routine. Everything needed to be normal.
Since rising, he made a point of seeming relaxed, unemotional. Even while she was outside with the chickens, not only had he not approached the gun safe, he was careful not to cast a glance in that direction. He was tempted to invent a story about needing to shoot an ailing cow. No, she was fifth generation on the land. She would know there was no shooting to be done.
The best gun for his real purpose was in that safe, but the gun in the shed would do. It was his grandfather’s old single shot .22, and it lay, with ammunition, under a huge tarp and a multitude of heavy farm implements.
In fact, “the old gun in the shed” suited the occasion. It was the customary prop for a ritual, one which even had a name across rural Australia: joining the .22 Club. Perhaps he had joked about it, leaning on a bar with men. Certainly, he had known members of that club. The way into the .22 Club might be disease, incapacity, divorce, flood, grog, gambling, debt, or a combination of those.
But nothing worked for membership like drought.
Drought robs a man of more than money, crops, stock. Drought robs him of action. It is a slow, deliberate disaster, which makes him do less as it does more. It paralyses without constriction.
Drought, long enough and bad enough, draws you to the front door of that club you always believed was for others, that club you might have joked about, leaning on a bar with men…
She came back from the bathroom, after what she called her dry wash. He watched her approach the stove, tried not to watch too intently. His wife still had a groomed look, for all her drab clothing. Her body still had shape to it, so close to sixty. She was still the squatter’s grand-daughter, who had that thing people used to call “tone”.
It was hard, failing her. She would never call it that, of course. Her family went right back, easily spanning the half-century of rain deficit before the Big Wet of 1950. Some ancestor lost sheep in the Black Thursday fire of 1851, still the world’s worst known inferno. She knew they lived in the jaws of a monster called Drought. The jaws might loosen for a whole decade, as in the 70s, there might be floods in any year or season – but they would always tighten again, those jaws.
The morning sky outside the kitchen window was again dull with cloud; the air felt cool but a little clammy. It would be another day of watching storms break elsewhere, starting what fires they could in shrivelled scrub that had mostly been burnt out the year before. It was the mockery of the teasing storms of November, far more than the relentless dry westerlies of early spring, that had decided him. He expected something of the daily storms. After a month of them, with nothing but a few lethargic drops trying to be hail, they were the salvation he doubted, then finally came to hate.
He waited for his wife to speak.
“Forecasting rain and storms today?”
“Probably. If cattle could eat and drink forecasts, we’d be rich.”
“Maybe you should have been a meteorologist. Pay’s regular and you never have to depend on weather.”
He tried a laugh, then fell silent.
“So, what’s the plan for today, Lyle?”
He paused, for realism, then:
“Got a fence looking a bit shabby, down at Far Billabong.”
“Our old swimming spot. Fancy a dip still, Lyle?”
“Bit past all that. And there’s barely enough water in it now for the yabbies. But I won’t be letting the fences go, not one inch of them. Even if we’ve got no stock after next Thursday. Farm’s a farm. Cocky’s got to cocky.”
She turned with a forced smile, her face kind, as always.
“I know that. I’m the fifth in a row to be married to a farmer. Maybe the sixth. You go and fix that fence, Lyle. But be back for lunch.”
“I’ll just need to load up a few things from the shed.”
As soon as he made the unnecessary precision, he knew he was overplaying things. Maybe she had not noticed his unease – but she really was the fifth or sixth generation on the land. Those women notice.
Normally he would walk, when there wasn’t much to load up. This time, he drove the old ute to the shed, got out and walked in. Would she find that odd?
It took a while to move the tarp and implements to get to the old gun. It lay where he had left it years before, and the little box of ammo was next to it. He would only need a few rounds. Really, he would only need one. As he put a few into his top pocket he noted they were slightly oily, and was pleased with himself that he had thought to spray a little lubricant into the box, all those years before. Not that he could remember doing it, so long ago it had been.
He drove slowly over the paddocks, toward where fence, river and billabong came together. The ground could have been tarmac, the clover was like corn-flakes. Dead thistles had remained upright, looking like little ragged devils, the rest of the vegetation was a brown fuzz stretching over hundreds of acres, with gaps of pale grey where nothing had survived.
The air blowing through the cabin window was not a hot blast, as it had been some weeks before. It was clammy with humidity that would never fall as rain. The overcast sky was dull, would probably perform its mockery of a storm later in the day. Humid droughts are the worst. No. The drought you’re having is the worst- and this one had turned humid.
Lyle arrived at the billabong, which was now a muddy sink. One or two rabbits scampered away at his approach.
He had already fixed the fence, some days before. It only remained to place the straining tools near the spot, to give the impression he had been working.
He sat on the back of the ute and considered, one last time.
The life insurance policy was an old one. His condition had been diagnosed medically and recorded in recent months. He had mentioned in town about needing to shoot some rabbits. There was every chance that his decision to join the .22 Club would be deemed spontaneous, resulting from a clearly diagnosed depression. The main thing was to avoid the appearance of any planning. Perhaps the shooting would even be called accidental. Whatever the case, he had given his wife the best chance of collecting the life insurance. The alternative was to go on living, with Christmas due within weeks. He would give her something pathetically cheap, which would only sap their income further. She would respond kindly and warmly, as always, as if she were above all material considerations.
She deserved everything, the squatter’s grand-daughter, the one crazy high aspiration of Lyle’s life that he had reached. Instead, she had a broken house on hard, dry, unsellable acreage that used to be worth the price of a Sydney mansion. She had one wild son dead from a wild Saturday night ute-trip with other wild bush kids. She had a depressive husband she spent her whole life straining to support, with wrenched smiles, with wrenched economies and wrenched borrowings.
She would say she missed him. She could not miss him. No, not really.
God, give her ten good years. Maybe fifteen, or even twenty? Give her something, God.
Promptness was the key. He walked to the fence with the gun. He crouched, placed the barrel in his mouth according to old bush directions. He pulled the trigger.
Nothing. Old ammo! Before thoughts of delay could intrude, he quickly expelled the dead bullet and put in another. Barrel to mouth. Click.
Nothing again! Never mind. Be prompt.
He fumbled amongst the few bullets he had left in his shirt pocket, chose the cleanest looking one – though they all looked okay. Now there were doubts, but he thrust them aside, loaded the gun, put it to his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Nothing. Really, even with very old ammo, this was impossible!
He hurled all the bullets into the muddy water of Far Billabong and stared after them.
Lyle began to weep for one more ridiculous failure.
What came over him next was a crushing fatigue. He was too tired even to walk to the ute and look for another bullet in the glove box or behind the seat. In fact, there was no point, since his wife had gathered up all loose ammunition about the farm after Port Arthur, and had kept checking subsequently.
He vaguely thought of drowning, and its advantages for the life insurance – but only vaguely. He was too tired to die. He was so tired from these last years of drought, as his energies and finances dwindled, as his body aged. He needed to collapse in a patch of shade, right now, till this tonnage of fatigue lifted a little. Death could wait.
There were some ragged old gums by the edge of the water, good for some shade at this hour. Maybe there.
As a boy, in hot summers, he had often stretched himself out on the ground at the edge of Far Billabong. He did so again. He lay, then slept, too deeply for dreams. When he awoke, he was drowsy, unable to move. The gums overhead smelt strongly eucalyptus in the heavy, windless air. Moving his head to the side he could see ants progressing across rocks. For lack of any thought or capacity for movement, Lyle watched the ants, nudging, rushing, gossiping: a tiny metropolis with lanes and traffic. He watched for a long time.
Lyle snoozed again, or so it seemed. Waking, he decided to sit up on his elbows, try to get mobile. His eyes were drawn to the muddy bank, just below water level. The little clouds of silt were from yabbies, cleaning their holes. He knew that from childhood, when whole weekends could be devoured in yabbie hunts. Wasn’t there a theory that yabbies cleaned their holes before storms? Well, that was one more rain promise for others to cling to. Probably there was a theory about the ants getting busy before a storm. Back when he cared, Lyle would cling to all that.
He needed to get mobile, get back for lunch, but his limbs were refusing. Or maybe it was his mind refusing his limbs.
A movement to the side just caught the corner of his vision. He moved his neck slightly to see. A bearded dragon, a good sized one of a foot and a half, was staring at him from a flat rock, within arm’s length. Its beard was not puffed, nor was the lizard crouching, as if threatened by Lyle’s intrusion. It had both head and tail up, and swayed. Lyle knew the friendly and intriguing creatures well from childhood. But what was this posture all about?
Lyle scanned about for some green vegetation near the water’s edge. He saw a fat river weed of some sort. Moving his hand smoothly, he plucked a single leaf and slowly extended it to the lizard. The oversize triangular jaws opened, accepted. Lyle watched in silence as the dragon nibbled down the leaf. As if in gratitude, the creature moved a bit closer, again raising head and tail, with that peculiar sway.
Man and reptile stared at one another in fascination. For how long?
When Lyle woke again, the dragon was gone. This time he felt strong enough to move. His watch showed that he would be in plenty of time for lunch.
And the .22 Club? Later.
Lyle felt dreamy and heavy over lunch. He must have looked that way too. His wife regarded him with curiosity, maybe some anxiety. Respecting his fatigue – she respected all his moods – she said nothing till they had finished eating.
“So, what did you get up to this morning?”
“Oh, just the fence. But I must be getting old. I actually took a nap down at Far Billabong.”
“Do you good.”
“I did something I haven’t done since I was a kid.”
“I fed one of those poggies, those bearded dragons. They’re like pets.”
“They don’t need much to live. A few insects, a bit of green stuff.”
“We don’t need much either, Lyle. I certainly don’t.”
“It…I suppose it got me thinking along those lines…You know, this one kept sticking its tail and head up, and swayed about. Never seen that before.”
“I have. My grandfather said they do that before heavy weather.”
“Yeah? Another weather predictor, eh? What do you reckon, luv?”
“Ten times better than the Bureau of Meteorology, I’d say.”
“That’s ten times nothing.”
“You going out again, Lyle? You look so tired.”
“Maybe I’ll stay in. I should make final arrangements for selling the stock this arvo. Maybe tomorrow. Can’t put it off another week. Once animals start to suffer…Bugger me! I don’t know where this tiredness is coming from.”
“Air pressure? You’re a bit of a bearded dragon yourself, at times.”
“Don’t know how you live with me.”
“Five generations of us have lived with you bearded dragons.”
“Or maybe six.”
It started around the time they went to bed. Fat, lazy drops. Next a kind of dancing tap. Then the rattling sound. Then the crashing.
They waited for it to stop, to become yet another tease. It did not stop.
All night long, as Lyle drifted in and out of sleep, there was that delicious crash of rain on tin. It was on the roof, on his paddocks and all over the region. It was swelling the river and pushing Far Billabong to its brim. The rain was also in his dreams.
At around six, he woke again. His wife was beside him, awake and staring upward. Still the rain crashed on the roof, and made a dense grey curtain at the window. He went to get up, but she took his head in one arm and cradled it.
“Nothing to do now, Lyle. Let the clouds do it all. All the stock are on high ground. I’ve declared holiday. Just sleep again. Just sleep…”
And Lyle slept like an infant, his grey hair tickling his wife’s neck. She stared at the ceiling, pictured the shaken roof, and the blustering heavens over all. Lyle could not hear now, but she spoke on, hardly able to hear herself above the roar:
“We know about the shed, and about the shot that won’t kick too much: the .22 shot. We know about the Club. But we also have the recipe, don’t we? You start with warm neatsfoot oil, and soak them in that for a good six months, out in sun. That’s for penetration. Then six months in linseed, to clog them up well and truly. After that, a bit of a soak in washing soda to get the greasiness off them, then a drying out before a light slick-down with Singer oil…They say you can’t deaden a bullet for certain, so it will never fire…
“But five, maybe six, generations of us wouldn’t agree…”