This story is by Alex Blair and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The graceful old lady that was Tenterfield, had donned her most sublime gown of russet and gold. Even naked, the poplars were majestic. Emily braked the rental to savour this almost ceremonial welcome through the avenue. It was still early, and in the field to her right she saw kangaroos cropping the dew-dropped new grass. A song line played in her mind,
“Ride again jackaroo, think I see kangaroo up ahead.”
Emily parked in front of George Woolnough’s saddlery; she knew it so well from pictures, she couldn’t have missed it. Crossing the veranda, she imagined eleven-year-old Peter Allen tap dancing up and down, as he was said to do. Inside the heritage monument were all manner of old leather working and saddlery tools, along with other artefacts and curios from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Emily felt transported in time and silently mouthed, “time is a traveller”.
The sound of conversation drew her from reverie. Emily glanced right and immediately did a double take. There was a tall man speaking softly with the curator. What had surprised her was the tall man’s face. He could’ve been Peter Allen’s brother. Feeling her gaze, he turned and smiled,
“Hello,” his eyebrows silently adding “Can I help you?”
“Please forgive me,” she responded graciously, “I can’t help but be curious about your resemblance to Peter Allen.”
“That’s a long story,” he said, “My name’s Henry. I’m a cattleman from hereabouts.”
“Nice to meet you Henry. I’m Emily, an ER nurse from New York,” Emily smiled.
“How about we get a coffee and talk?” suggested Henry.
At the Coachman cafe, they sipped coffee and began talking of Allen and his family, the Woolnoughs. “My name is Henry Woolnough,” he said.
Emily’s delight was evident, “So, you ARE related to him!”
“I don’t know the exact relationship,” said Henry, “maybe 2nd or 3rd cousin … I manage my parents’ cattle station – what you call a ranch – just outside town. Dad had a bad fall from a horse some years ago, and lost the use of his legs, so I took over the management.”
As he spoke Henry searched her eyes and admired Emily’s face. Her hair was the colour of autumn leaves, her eyes sparkled emerald. The piece de resistance was the heart-racing spray of freckles across her cheekbones and the bridge of her nose. It was as though a painter had flicked a brush in front of her face.
“So, Emily, why so interested in the Woolnoughs?” Emily’s cheeks reddened slightly, which Henry found becoming.
“It’s like a pilgrimage,” she smiled, “I’ve had a crush on Peter Allen since I was twelve. I’ve read everything about him that I can find, and finally been able to come to his home town.”
They chatted on, the hours melting away. Emily had identified some common ground – love of animals, travel, music, hiking and orchids. Apart from that he was a very handsome man, in a more rugged way than Peter Allen.
“I wish this didn’t have to end,” she said sadly, “but I’d better go and check-in to a hotel.”
“Why not come out to Timbarra? I think you’ll like it, there’s a couple more Woolnoughs there for you to grill,” Henry said, smiling, “and you’ll save some money.”
“Oh, I couldn’t impose … “
“Nonsense, I’m not taking no for an answer.”
Timbarra Homestead was beautiful and imbued with a colourful colonial past. It was of sandstone blocks with surrounding bull-nosed verandas. The high ceilings were ornate plaster, glass chandeliers dropped strategically and the floors were highly polished timber. Henry introduced Emily to Maggie and Peter, his parents.
“Henry, to what do we owe the pleasure of this lovely young woman in our midst?” asked Maggie.
“She was asking so many questions about the Woolnoughs, I thought Dad would be the best one to answer them,” Henry answered.
“Really?” That’s the reason? … Don’t worry Emily, he’s not fooling anyone,” quipped Maggie as she winked at Emily, whose cheeks tinged again.
“Hey, I’m not the only one with famous forebears,” added Peter from his wheelchair. Maggie is descended from Sir Henry Parkes, the first political leader to promote Federation of the six Australian colonies. He made his great speech in Tenterfield, which is now known as the ‘birthplace of a nation.’”
“Oh wow!” Emily was truly amazed by this.
For the next few days, Henry played tourist guide to many attractions in the district. Emily was intrigued by the cave where Thunderbolt the Bushranger had hidden and was captured. “Bushrangers were like armed outlaws who robbed stagecoaches,” explained Henry. They also visited stunning National Parks with rock formations they could climb to spectacular views of New England. Somewhere along the line, their hands found a fondness for each other.
One evening, after a superb dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, Emily and Henry sat on the veranda enjoying the sounds of nightfall and each other’s company. Henry leaned in and gave her a tentative little kiss. Emily responded more passionately and they were soon both feeling their hearts convey the elation of their intimacy.
Next morning, Henry invited Emily to the stockyards to watch the pregnancy testing of some cows. She had jokingly asked, “Is it hard to get them to pee on the little stick?” At the yards, several stockmen watched the herd and pushed them up the race to be held in the crush in turn. The cattle dogs, Niska and Suzi helped with this. Emily watched attentively as Henry put on a disposable plastic apron and a disposable shoulder length glove on his right arm, which he then smeared with what looked like a clear jelly. Henry slid in behind the first cow through a small gate. He lifted the cow’s tail and plunged his gloved arm into her rectum.
“ARRGHH!” Emily screamed, covering her face with her hands, “Never kissing you again!” Everyone was laughing loudly. Even the dogs seemed to be grinning.
Like falling leaves of red and gold, the days were lived and passed. Emily and Henry sat together on the river bank, leaning on each other, knowing Emily would be gone tomorrow – on to Sydney, the next leg of her itinerary. Timbarra was such an incredible place – the soaring eucalypts, the granite boulder formations, the homestead, Maggie and Peter, the cattle, the horses, the dogs and the river. The river never stopped, coursing on till it found the sea. It too was a traveller, in harmony with time. She would miss all this, and him.
In Sydney, Emily visited all the great attractions – Sydney Harbour, the Opera House, quirky in design and yet so elegant, Darling Harbour, and “the Coathanger” – Sydney Harbour Bridge. She’d climbed to the top with a guide and encountered heart-stopping views. Yet, there was something missing. She wished Henry was there … no, she longed for Henry in the ambience of Timbarra. Emily cut short the rest of her journey and followed her heart back to Tenterfield.
Emily parked in front of the homestead and looked around for Henry. He came strolling across from the machinery shed with greasy hands. Walking towards him, she broke into a run. Henry followed suit and they came together, breathlessly embracing.
“So how was Sydney?” he said nonchalantly.
“It was nothing without you mate,” she grinned.
Henry responded, “Oh I do believe you’re turning true blue, Miss O’Farrell.” Niska was excited to see Emily, and was trying to jump up on her. Emily gave her a pat and a kind word.
“Look at that! You’re ruining my working dog,” said Henry in sham annoyance.
Some days later, they were by the river again. Niska was by her side and Emily fondled her ears. She would take as much of that as anyone would give.
Emily broke the amiable silence. “Henry, I want to talk to you about something.”
“Uh-oh, sounds like trouble,” he replied, frowning.
“Oh, be serious for a moment, would you?” said Emily in mock rebuke, “It’s about your parents. I don’t want to interfere but have you planned for their care?”
“Yeh, been thinking on it,” Henry said, “And I have a plan.”
“Really? Do tell,” said Emily quizzically.
Henry stood and took something from his pocket. He went down on his right knee and opened the box to reveal a glittering diamond ring.
“I’m going to ask a nurse to marry me and come live in the homestead.”
Through tears of joy, Emily managed to say, “OK but promise me you’ll let me handle my pregnancy testing.”
Eyeing the ring on her finger, Emily reflected on how rapidly things had changed in just over a month and how joyful she was with the upshot. This was where she wanted to be, and with whom she wanted to be. The only thing to do now was to explain everything to her fiancé back in New York. She sang the line “Time is a meddler, Tenterfield Saddler make your bed.”