Mercury at full stretch
It’s a stinking hot summer – the hottest I have known. I am 12, thin as a rake, with freckle nose and scabby knees. It is 1983, a memorable year for all the wrong reasons. The worst drought of the 20th century has laid its dusty foundations and is punishing those who rely on the land for their livelihood.
Living on a farm has its advantages. You can yell and hoon as hard as you like, with no neighbours to annoy. There’s lots of trees to climb, an irrigation channel to swim in, and motorbikes and rusty utes to drive as soon as your feet can reach the pedals. But when the land rebels, and the rain does not fall, the tension is palpable. The heat is unrelenting. The flies are more insistent. Even the farm dogs struggle to keep their cool.
Mum and Dad are both short of temper this summer. The harvester has broken down. It doesn’t look good for the old girl. She is all we have to bring in the wheat harvest. The harvest we so desperately need to get in. Dad has nursed her back to the house yard and has parked her outside the workshop.
The workshop is a wonderful place. While it is only a tin shed with a dirt floor, it is where magic happens. It houses a huge old iron anvil that a grown man could not lift, numerous heavy vices, drills and tools of countless types, a cluttered bench space – and redback spiders in darkened corners. The floor is awash with ice cream tubs filled with nick nacks, bolts, hinges, shards of iron and lord knows what else. The day before my brother Andrew and I got up early and embarked on a mission to make a cricket bat. We scavenged a discarded plank from somewhere and took to it with a wood saw, to get the overall shape right. Then we used a large course file to shape the handle. It was crude but effective. We were proud of it and fought over who got to bat with it first.
Dad emerges from the workshop, with one of his toolboxes in hand. He waves me over.
I scurry. It’s too hot to keep dad waiting, and risk a scolding. He grabs a couple of old hessian wheat bags, and we crawl onto them underneath the lame International Harvester. It had been a trusty servant but now seemed to be more rust than metal.
It’s mid-afternoon, the hottest time of the day. The three-foot-high BP service station thermometer hanging on the wall of our back veranda shows the mercury at full stretch, at 43 Celsius. Not a breath of wind for respite.
Dad’s face is a sheen of sweat, and his work shirt and shorts are wet through and sporting all manner of stains –grease, dirt, wheat dust – you name it, he collected it. His eyes dart into the belly of the harvester from underneath, trying to find the source of the old girl’s pain. He is tired, but he’d never say as much.
The summer months are the busiest of the year. Daylight Savings lengthens the work day, and at night dad also has to attend to irrigating pasture. Our Kawasaki farm bike would splutter into life at all times of the night, a trusty shovel poking out of a piece of white plumbers’ pipe.
Only the previous week dad had told us a tale about when he was out irrigating a paddock one evening. He’d parked the bike, and as he went to grab the shovel he stood on a five-foot brown snake. He shit himself and leapt into the air to avoid its bite, jumped out of the way and promptly landed right on top of another brown snake. Once his heart had fallen back into his chest, I’m pretty sure neither snake survived the shovel.
I look at my dad. I really look at him, as he sucks in air, and fights gravity at full stretch.
I join dad underneath the harvester and he asks me to pass him a spanner. I am his dutiful surgery nurse. Efficiency and accuracy is everything. Pass him the wrong tool and I risk his ire. Sweat rolls down my face as I strain to intuit his needs.
As I lay there I can feel the gravel poking me through the hessian bag, and the harvester weighs on us with its radiant heat and the mystery of its trouble.
I can hear my brothers and sisters as they amuse themselves, languishing in the shade of an ancient peppercorn tree near our garage across the yard. We should go for a swim, I hear my twin sister Gabe mention to Marianne, my second eldest sister. It’s too hot, said Marianne. Our clothes will be dry before we get home.
The words hang in the air, begging for a response, but none comes.
We are a clan of nine, cut from generations of farming stock. Greg is the youngest at seven, and Claire the eldest, 18, about to go off to teacher’s college in Melbourne, three hours away. In between are Andrew, nine, myself and Gabe, 12, Shane, 15, and Marianne has just turned 17. A scraggly bunch of rowdy souls under the one farmhouse roof.
Dad grimaces as he puts full tension on the spanner. He is a ball of muscle, yet the nut refuses to turn. Give me that piece of pipe for leverage he commands. I pass it over quickly.
I can smell the beast above me. Its diesel, congealed grease, the fine wheat dust that coats every inch of its body like coarse hair. If I concentrate I can almost smell the long dead, almost non-existent paint as it is punished by the sun.
I look at my dad. I really look at him, as he sucks in air, and fights gravity at full stretch. His arm is matted with grease and grime, and while it shakes, it does not give in. Nothing can beat him. Not the drought. Not the harvester. Not the heat. Not the weight of keeping it all together, and feeding his many hungry mouths.