DENNIS woke earlier than usual. There was killing to be done.
He dressed in the dark and sat on the bed and put on his boots. He leaned over his wife and kissed her forehead. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn't mean to wake you.'
'It's okay,' she said, propping up on her elbows. 'I'll make you breakfast.'
‘No need. I'm not hungry. You go back to sleep.’
‘I'm so sorry.’
He took her calloused hand in his calloused hand and gently squeezed it. 'It's all right.'
'No, it's not.'
The floorboards creaked under foot as he limped along the hallway of a home that had been in his family for three generations. He stopped at the portrait of his late father hanging on the wall. It was like looking in a mirror: bushy black eyebrows, wide set, piercing blue eyes, high cheekbones that ridged across a weather-beaten face, thick hoary hair. ‘It's not my fault,’ he whispered. ‘I tried my best.’
He went to the kitchen and made a cup of black coffee and he went outside. He placed the coffee on top of the railing of a wide verandah, buttoned up a rugged winter coat, removed worn gloves from its pocket and put them on. He patted the old cattle dog sitting next to him. ‘Good boy,’ he said.
He sipped the coffee as the sun rose, illuminating an undulating farm that stretched as far as the eye could see. A mist enveloped the severely parched land. He shook his head slowly. ‘Bloody hell,’ he said. ‘Bloody hell.’
He threw what was left of the coffee on the ground, put the cup on the railing and pulled down the bridge of his worn Akubra. ‘Come on, boy,’ he said. ‘Let's get this over with.’
The dog shambled beside him as he limped towards a 2002 Landcruiser ute parked in front of the house. He opened the vehicle’s door and winced as he bent over and picked up the dog. The dog was placed on the passenger seat. He got in and started the engine and drove down a gravel driveway that joined with a dirt road.
He drove for a few minutes, stopping by a barren, flat field. He removed the rifle from the rifle rack on the ceiling. ‘You stay, old boy,’ he said, patting the dog. He got out and closed the door.
The sheep, 54 in total and dreadfully emaciated, were huddled together pathetically in a makeshift pen beside a large hole and an old bulldozer. He winced as he climbed into the pen. And he sighed heavily as he positioned the rifle on the highest point of the animal’s head and fired. ‘Bloody hell,’ he said. ‘Bloody hell.’
LATER that day at a nearby location, Debbie pulled up in the driveway of her rented home – lowset, brick and unremarkable on a street lined with unremarkable homes. ‘Please be okay,’ she said to herself.
She always uttered those words when she returned home late at night after finishing her shift as a cleaner. And the words were always accompanied by an anxiety that had found a permanent place in her. Like an unwelcome house guest who won’t leave. She alighted the 2005 Ford Focus station wagon and hurried to the front door.
When she opened the bedroom door she sighed heavily at the sight of her two children sleeping on single beds next to each other. She pulled the sheet over the youngest, Anna, 5, and kissed her lips.
Claire, 8, woke when Debbie kissed her. ‘Hi, Mummy.’
‘Hi to you.’
‘How was work?’
‘You know: same old, same old.’ She sat on the bed and brushed the fringe from Claire’s eyes. ‘Did you and Anna go to bed on time?’
‘Good girl. I don’t know what I’d do without you.’
Claire hugged her. ‘I love you, Mummy.’
‘And I love you. Now lie down and go back to sleep.’
‘You look tired, Mummy. Are you okay?’
‘Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. Now go to sleep. You’ve got school tomorrow.’
‘Dad’s not coming back, is he?’
‘No, sweetie. It’s just us three now.’
‘I miss Daddy.’
‘I know you do.’ Debbie kissed Claire and kissed Anna and left.
Debbie tried to reconcile the face staring back at her in the bathroom mirror with the young woman who had trapped numerous men in big brown eyes – an uncommon beauty from common stock. Unkempt brunette hair framed a make-up-free, blotchy complexion from which crow’s feet sprouted and lines cross-crossed the forehead. She sat on the edge of the bathtub and sobbed.
THE following morning at a home across town, Peter and Mary ate toast at a breakfast table. They were both wrapped in a blanket and mouth steam accompanied Peter’s lament: ‘I’m so sorry I haven’t been able to provide for you properly.’
Mary reached across the table and patted his age-ravaged, frail hand. ‘Now dear, don’t you go beating yourself up again. I won’t have it.’
‘I’m sorry. It’s just ...’ He sighed heavily.
‘I know. It’s lousy. But we’ve got to make the most of a bad situation. Besides, it won’t be winter for ever.’
‘Yeah, but we’ll be broke for ever.’
Mary rose slowly, using the table for support. ‘To hell with this,’ she said. ‘I’m going to shout you a cup of coffee and a slice of cake.’
‘We can’t afford that.’
‘I don’t care. We’re going to treat ourselves. Now, go get changed.’
Peter opened the cafe door for Mary to enter. ‘After you, as always, beautiful.’
She framed his worn face with her worn hands and kissed his thin, cracked lips. ‘I love you,’ she said.
‘And I’ve loved you from the moment we met.’
‘Romantic fool,’ she laughed.
They sat on stools at the counter. The cafe’s decor had a 1970s retro look. Debbie served them. ‘What can I get ya?’ she said.
‘Two cappuccinos, thanks,’ Mary said. ‘And what sort of cake is that?’
‘Two slices of carrot cake, too.’
‘Full-cream milk and sugar?’ Debbie said.
‘Full-cream milk for both, one sugar for me and none for my husband.’ She touched his elbow with her elbow. ‘He’s sweet enough.’
‘Ha,’ he said.
The doorbell rattled when Dennis entered the cafe. He limped to the counter and sat next to Peter and Mary. ‘How’s it goin’?’ Dennis said.
‘Good, thanks,’ the couple said in unison.
‘What can I get ya?’ Debbie said.
‘Flat-white coffee, thank you,’ he said.
A wall-mounted TV relayed a media conference with Prime Minister Morrison. Debbie watched it as she made the coffees. She scoffed.
‘What do you make of all this?’ Peter said to Dennis.
‘Out of touch dickheads, the lot of ’em,’ he replied.