Wind sweeps across the tall grass in bursts of hot breath. The desiccated stalks clack and ripple. Sue angrily sweeps them aside as she strides out and away from the house. She doesn’t see the stark beauty of the landscape, only feels the satisfying whipping on her bare calves with each step. She deserves this punishment for her callous words to her poor, tired mother, whose dry lips had pursed ever tighter as yet another of Sue’s harsh words had hit her.
Sue despises her mother’s meek compliance, the mute acceptance of her husband’s overbearing demands. She has pledged to never become trapped like her mother. Fear of that eventuality has made her determined and uncompromising. Tomorrow she is leaving, she is getting away from this barren existence filled with sheep, base animal needs and the harsh everyday repetitiveness of farm life. As she climbs the hill behind the shearing shed she begins to puff and the adrenaline pumps through her veins. She leaks rank sweat so that when she arrives at the top of the hill she feels cleansed, calm and almost elated.
She looks back down towards the farmhouse that has been the only home she has ever known. She feels a flare of anger at the sight of its drab paintwork and cluttered ramshackle outbuildings. The war has been over for some years but her father acts as if they are still on rations.
She turns away and looks out at the thin blue streak of glistening ultramarine in the distance. It looks like the future. The empty landscape between her and the sea looks daunting too, so she reaches into her pocket and takes out the bus ticket. For the 100th time she reads the details. Departure date, departure time, time of arrival. In 24 hours she will be on her way to Auckland. The very name of the city fills her stomach with both fear and excitement. She carefully folds and pockets it. Then, with a last fortifying glance at the horizon, turns back.
She sees her father stomping purposefully towards the woolshed. He looks like a wind-up toy, so tiny and insignificant on the brown grassy paddocks. The dogs leap and dash around him like electrons firing around their universal centre. How can something so small have so much power – over her mother, over the dogs, over her. In that moment, she hates her father with such ferocity that she screams wildly into the open auditorium of the sky. She sees her mother’s thin, washed-out figure pegging out clothes on the line. Every movement reflects the endless drudgery of her days – cooking, cleaning, washing. She is already stooped and wasted. To Sue, she has become a ghost.
Her heart tightens with pain and love. How can she leave her mother to bear the brunt of the angry outbursts, the punishing silences her father imposes after some tiny perceived infraction of his unwritten rules.
Earlier this morning she had heard her father’s angry tones through the bedroom wall and the slam of the door as he left the house. She had found her mother soundlessly weeping into the shallow, grey sink-water in the tiny dark kitchen at the back of the house.
“What’s going on? Why’s he yelling now?” she asked.
“It’s nothing, forget it,” her mother mumbled.
“It’s not nothing, Mum,” Sue remonstrated, awkwardly touching her mother on the shoulder. She was shrugged off. Touch is rare in this family.
“I shouldn’t have asked him, I know it’s busy here at the moment and he needs me.”
“Asked him what?”
Her mother released a shuddering sigh. “Graham rang. Min is really sick and I’m her only friend, I just wanted to go there for a few days to nurse her.”
Min is a cousin who lives in the next valley on another isolated farm. Sue’s father is deeply jealous of his wife’s close relationship with Min. He forbids them getting together.
“God he is a bastard, how bloody selfish.” Her mother cringed at the expletives. “Why don’t you stand up to him for heaven’s sake?”
“Don’t use that tone with me, young lady,” she snapped. “It’s all very well for you, you won’t have to deal with him when you’ve gone off and left.” Sue blanched, her mother must know about her leaving. She has had to squirrel her pennies away over months and buy the bus ticket in secret. She would never have been given permission to leave and couldn’t bear the fights that telling them would cause. Her mother laughed bitterly, “Don’t look so shocked – I found the ticket under your pillow.”
“How dare you go into my –”
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” her mother cut in. “I was getting your pillowslip for the wash because of your cold, so don’t you get uppity with me.” Sue went silent in guilty defeat. Her mother grabbed another pot and beat it into the tepid water.
“I’ll come back for holidays, the time will just …” Sue trailed off before rallying. “Why don’t you just leave him, Mum? You hate it here too, so just come with me, for God’s sake. He’s so bloody cruel to you, but you just take it like a doormat. Mum, please …”
“Stop it right there Sue, just stop it. You have no ruddy idea.” Her mother fiercely scrubbed at the grimy pot. “Where would I go? I’m not like you. I can’t just leave. What in hell would I do?”
“You could come to the city, find a job.”
Her mother flung the pot down onto the dish rack. “I wouldn’t survive in the city. I have no money of my own, no skills.”
Sue tried to take her mother’s arm. “Well, what about moving into town then?”
Her mother pulled away sharply and grabbed the faded blue tea towel from the bench. “Oh for Christ’s sake! Imagine how they would all talk and whisper behind my back. I couldn’t bear it. And I would lose the only thing that has kept me going all these years.”
She looked up, seeking understanding, but Sue stared back blankly. “The holidays Sue – Christmas, Easter when your sisters come home and I have all three of you and the grandchildren on the farm – they love it here and I’d lose all that … No, I just can’t. I made my cross and I just have to keep bearing it.” She clutched the tea towel, her knuckles going white. Her slight frame stiffened with determination. “At least you will have a life, Sue. All you girls will have a good life.”
Sue heard her mother’s voice crack and watched aghast as her eyes glistened before she closed them tightly and turned quickly back to the lumpy Formica bench. As the mutton fat congealed into milky droplets in the sink water, Sue tried again. “Please Mum, when I’m gone you won’t have anyone to stick up for you, you’ll just be …”
Her mother turned, waving the sodden tea towel in Sue’s face. “You think I was always like this, don’t you!” she hissed. “You think you are so different from me.” The energy suddenly went out of her body and she looked down at her rough, water-sodden hands. Her voice quavered: “I was young once, I had dreams too. I danced in a red dress, I laughed … a lot.” She glanced quickly at her daughter. Sue held her gaze. She dared not breathe. Her mother had never spoken of her past. It was one of the many topics not open for discussion.
“My parents warned me about him, but I was only 19 and I wouldn’t listen. I was in love.” Embarrassed by the thought, she turned away, but managed to continue. “Your father was so tall, he seemed so dashing. Yes, quiet and aloof, but his eyes would follow me at those dances. He loved me, he still loves me.”
“Oh Mum, love isn’t controlling everything you do, it isn’t yelling at you or not speaking to you for days. You can still leave, you can’t let him –”
“No Sue, stop it. Now.” Her mother’s mouth tightened as she straightened her spine and took a deep breath in.
“I can’t leave and that’s final. Life is what it is and that’s all there is to it. You father isn’t a bad man, he just –”
Sue’s anger exploded. “Oh for Christ’s sake Mum, listen to yourself. Stop being such a bloody martyr, you let him walk all over you, you are so …”
Sue bit back the harsh words she wanted to slap her mother with. She felt such rage and contempt – her mother was just like the farm dogs – cowering and whining but unable to stop licking their master’s hand. The hand that then treated them so harshly.
Sue begins her walk back down the hill, as the sun climbs steadily above her. The farm workers will soon be heading in for their midday meal and she can almost smell the sickening mutton stench that pervades the farmhouse. To leave her mother drowning in that smell will be the hardest thing she has ever had to do, but she knows there is no choice. Tomorrow can’t come soon enough. She gathers speed as she careens down, shouting a stream of invective into the wind. She picks up a broken fence baton, black with rot, and beats her way back through the tall grass towards her past and into her future.
About the Author
Michèle Hine has been a professional actor, director and acting teacher for over 40 years. She has a Masters degree in Directing and co-founded both the acting department at Unitec and The Actors’ Program in Auckland. She has performed and taught all over the world. In January she received an MNZM for services to Performing Arts education.