Welcome to the Sheila Stories, which chronicle the life of an Australian woman in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.
In episode #3, Thomas interviews a woman-Chris Carbone-as a prospective tenant for the spare apartment, but he is intimidated because she is attractive. However, Natalie and April fall in love with Chris’s dog, Trixie.
In the next Sheila Story, Sheila expands her operation by purchasing a dairy farm that needs a lot of work.
Here is the manuscript for episode #3. To listen to the episode with commentary, click the THE SHEILA STORIES tab.
The next day is Saturday, and a potential tenant—Chris Carbone—answers my craigslist entry via text. He says seven hundred is more than he budgeted but he still wants to see the place. I brace myself for the coming negotiation.
On a last inspection trip through the apartment, I adjust the blinds and wipe the counter. From the top of the stairs, I admire the new carpeting, fresh paint, and shiny appliances. The apartment will never look this good again. He’d be a fool not to take it.
Tires crunch on the gravel driveway outside, and I rush down the stairs. Outside, the air is warm for late April, the sunshine bright in a cloudless sky. A drop of sweat trickles down my side.
He’s in a red Hyundai hatchback with the windows rolled up. The engine dies, the door opens, and a woman gets out, Chris’s girlfriend perhaps, or his sister. I peer past the open door to the interior, looking for Chris, but see no one else.
The woman strides toward me. She’s medium height with strong legs and wide hips. An explosion of auburn curls cascades around her shoulders. Bright red lips part to reveal an impossibly big smile.
She reaches for my hand and shakes it with a firm grip.
“Chris Carbone,” she says, “Great to meet you.”
“Oh . . . Yeah . . . I’m Thomas. Thomas Kelly.”
“You seem a little surprised.”
“Ah . . . It’s silly . . . I thought with the name Chris—”
“You thought I was a guy. Don’t worry. I get that all the time.” She gestures with her arm toward the windows above the garage. “Is this the apartment?”
The tour lasts five minutes, and she’s all business: tests the hot water at the sink, inspects the refrigerator, and opens the windows. She talks as she walks, offers a few compliments, and brainstorms where to put her bed and other furniture. She likes it, particularly the bathroom with the frosted window, patterned ceramic tiles, and shower enclosure.
We go outside, and she turns to the river.
“Fantastic view,” she says. “You should have mentioned that in the listing.”
I can’t think of anything to say, so I just nod. She has a diamond nose piercing and a green bracelet tattoo.
My breath runs short. I smooth the hair above my ear. My weight shifts forward slightly as if to prepare for a sudden move. These are strange sensations, not unknown but long neglected, like memories of old school classmates.
“What about laundry?” Chris says.
“Yes, let me show you the house. You would have full use of the utility room and also the kitchen. As you saw, the apartment only has a microwave and a fridge.”
A covered walkway connects the apartment to a side door of the house. We pass through the utility room into the kitchen, where the girls are making cookies.
April stands on a stool to better reach the ready-made cookie dough. Natalie is holding a baking sheet.
“Hello,” says April, all of her attention now on Chris.
I make introductions, and Chris shakes their hands.
“I like your top,” says Natalie.
“Oh, thank you. I found it at a thrift shop, if you can believe that. Anthropologie. It was like new.”
Anthropology? The study of human cultures? What does that have to do with clothes?
After a quick tour, we make our way to the front room. I assume she’ll want some time to think it over, maybe negotiate. We reach the door, but April holds me back.
“Daddy, I need you. Right now.”
I turn to Chris. “Can you give us a minute?”
“Sure. Take all the time you need.”
She closes the door behind her, and her boots stroll to one of the rocking chairs on the front porch, where I imagine she sits. She puts her hands on the armrests and rocks. She wears faded bellbottoms.
Natalie rushes in from the kitchen. “She is so cool. Did you see her lipstick? Is she going to rent the apartment?”
“I don’t know. She’ll probably check out some others.”
“You have to get her to live here,” says April. “She’s pretty, and she shook my hand.”
“Well, she’ll probably want to negotiate.”
Their faces are upturned and shiny. April nibbles her lip.
I breathe in, but instead of air, my chest fills with dread. I had imagined a confirmed bachelor or an older single woman, someone who would spend most of their time alone.
I had not contemplated an attractive woman in her early thirties, a woman with charisma and a heartwarming smile.
My forehead begins to throb. I press a palm against my eye.
I only need one woman in my life. Though only a tenant, Chris’s presence would represent a threat to the balance, a danger I can’t afford. She is far too attractive. Of course, I’m not prejudiced against attractive women per se; in fact, I’m not prejudiced against anyone, but in my particular situation, the near presence of such a woman might cause tension.
My neck feels tense already.
Turning her down will disappoint the girls, but given enough time they would forget Chris, and I have no choice.
I made a promise I intend to keep.
The girls stand next to me just inside the front door.
“Can we come with you?” says April.
Their eyes are hopeful. After a face-to-face meeting that lasted all of two minutes, the girls made a snap decision: Chris Carbone is the perfect tenant.
A rocking chair creaks on the porch.
“Please,” says Natalie, “we won’t say a word.”
“No,” I say. “This is a business conversation. It’s best for you to stay inside.”
I open the door and step onto the porch. Behind me, small feet hustle across the room. Two figures appear behind the sheer curtains of the front window, spies. Fortunately, they won’t be able to hear the words I say.
And what will I say? I can’t refuse her application because she’s attractive.
I remind myself to breathe.
She’s relaxing with boots on the deck pointed forward and arms on the armrests. At the sound of the door, she lifts her face toward me, eyes beaming, and her lips open in a big smile again.
“So,” I say, “what did you think of the apartment?”
“I like it, a lot. It’s exactly what I’m looking for, away from the crowds of the apartment complex. I work at home mostly. I’m a graphic designer, and the constant noise of delivery trucks, leaf blowers, and parties on the weekend drives me crazy. You don’t have a lot of parties, do you?”
“Uh, not lately.”
“Good, I want to formally apply, but like I said in my text, the rent is higher than my budget. Would you take six hundred?”
The answer is simple. Applications are rejected for all sorts of reasons. And I don’t feel like negotiating.
“Sorry. I need the full seven hundred to make my plan.”
“What do you have, like a spreadsheet or something?”
I don’t answer, holding the line.
“How about six fifty?” She says.
I respond with a shake of my head.
She rocks forward and stands in one fluid motion, so graceful, like a dancer, or a yoga expert.
“Well,” she says, “I’ll think about it. I had hoped to finalize something today, but I’ll check out a few other places first.”
“Sure,” I say. “I understand.”
She seems surprised by my abruptness, and I can understand why. Most landlords would negotiate off a craigslist price. Renters consider it standard practice.
She steps down to the yard and turns toward the driveway. I accompany her out of courtesy.
“You’ve done a great job with these flowerbeds.”
“Thank you. The girls helped.”
Chris looks to the house. Can she see the girls behind the window?
“They are darlings. You’re lucky.”
At the car, she opens the door, and a little dog runs out.
“Trixie. Come here.”
Trixie runs in a mad circle on the grass, breathing heavily. She’s some sort of terrier.
“You have a dog?” I say, the simplest answer of all coming to me.
“She’s a tiny thing. Hardly ever barks. Totally housebroken.”
“Sorry. No pets in the apartment.”
“Really?” Chris looks surprised again. “The craigslist entry didn’t say that.’”
“Neither did it say, ‘Pets Allowed’”
“I’ll pay a deposit.”
Trixie runs to sniff my leg. She’s no more than ten pounds. I resist the urge to squat and scratch her behind the ears.
The front door opens, and Natalie and April run out.
“What a cute dog!” says April.
They reach the yard, and Trixie goes wild, running from person to person, sniffing, her tail flapping like the wing of a hummingbird.
When Natalie kneels on the ground to pet her, Trixie stands on two legs and kisses Natalie’s face. April laughs.
Chris comes closer but makes no move to reach for Trixie; instead, she introduces Trixie to the girls and gives me a big smile again.
“She’s funny,” says April. “She can’t stop moving.”
“Can I pick her up?” asks Natalie.
Natalie lifts Trixie, one hand under her middle and the other behind her haunch. April pets her head.
“I can’t risk it,” I say to Chris. “It’s a brand new apartment.”
April glances at me and then at Chris, slowly comprehending my meaning. “But Daddy! She’s little. She won’t be any trouble.”
“Look at her,” says Natalie. “Trixie’s a good dog.”
“Kids . . . please don’t give me a hard time about this.”
Chris reaches for Trixie. “Nice to meet you, girls. You take care.”
“Dad-dy!” They say in unison. Their faces move into whine mode, eyes drooping. They expect the worst.
“I said no pets.” I raise my voice, always a mistake, but in the heat of the moment, I can’t stop myself. “Rules are rules.”
For the rest of the day, they give me the silent treatment, one-word answers, disinterest in activities that would generally bring a cheer. It tears me up inside, but I can wait them out. Kids will forgive just about anything.
At five o’clock, Natalie wanders into the kitchen. I’m mixing the sauce for a family recipe.
“What’s for dinner?” she says.
It’s her favorite.
“Can I help?”
“Sure. Pull the meat from the fridge and wash it in the sink.”
April peeks in from the doorway to the living room. “What can I do?”
“Peel two tangerines.” I’m making her favorite salad, with pecans and pineapples.
By bedtime, we’re back to normal. They rush through the bathroom routine, dress in their pajamas, and jump in bed, ready for the next story.
I’d better make it a good one. Kids will forgive almost anything, but each time I play that card, I make a withdrawal from the goodwill bank, and everyone, even Natalie and April, has a limit.
Run Out of Books
Over the next few months, Sheila settled into a routine. She endeavored to learn a new skill on the farm every week. First, she focused on the boys’ chores: moving the dairy cows to pasture and back, milking them at dawn, and taking care of the chickens. The next week, she worked in the garden with Hazel. The summer vegetables had run their season, so they pulled the plants, refreshed the soil with compost from the scrap pile, and replanted with winter crops: grain sorghum, chickpeas, and beans.
Tom taught her how to mend the fence. They drove along the perimeter with new posts and wire loaded in the truck bed. She learned to dig a posthole and to cut wire to patch the weak spots.
At night, she taught the children at the dining room table. Jon recalled his letters quickly and finished reading his new book in no time. He then began reading over David’s shoulder, which irritated the older brother, so she had them take turns reading the story aloud. Every time Sheila and Tom drove to town for supplies, she stopped at the library for a new stack of books. She’d select adventure books for David and a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction for Jon, who had fast become a voracious reader.
When everyone else was occupied with their lessons, she studied her own subject, the business side of running a farm. She pored over the financial reports Robert Sloan had left, adding and subtracting the numbers again and again. She asked Tom more questions: When would they shear the sheep? How much pasture did a dairy cow need versus a beef cow? How many lambs were born each year?
She worked on ways to increase the farm’s profit. Robert Sloan had paid himself a fine salary so he could live in town, but she was happy to live on the farm. Gradually, she developed a plan. First, increase their profits using innovations she and Tom devised. Second, borrow money and buy more land, servicing the debt with the higher earnings from the sheep farm. Third, increase the production of the new property to make even higher profits. Fourth, keep expanding. Until what?
She had no ultimate objective, only to move forward. To do more with what she had and make things work better than they did today. More land. More wool. More produce.
A year later, Sheila bought a hundred acres adjacent to the farm. They dedicated the land to more dairy cows and added on to the existing barn. The next year, at the age of twenty, she bought a two-hundred-acre dairy farm close to her original property. The prior owner had run the operation poorly and lost money in the process.
Before buying the place, She and Tom spent a full day touring the farm to make a list of improvements. When she first entered the barn, the odor of old manure and urine mixed with sour milk assaulted her, and she nearly vomited. Her eyes watered from the thick air. Tom held a handkerchief across his face. The stalls were knee deep in rotted straw. Cobwebs hung across the rafters. A rat or some other critter rustled debris in the shadows.
After she closed on the property, the first task on their list was to deal with the barn.
“What should we do?” she asked, standing at the entrance. “Burn it to the ground and start over?”
Tom knocked a rake against a stall and shook his head. “The wood is still solid. We’ll clean it out.”
“Lord, that could take weeks.”
“Yes, it could. We’ll get started tomorrow. I’ll bring David and Jon.”
“No,” she said. “I’ll work with the boys on this. You’re needed at the farm to oversee the shearing.”
She said, “We’ll bring a handcart and haul the rotted stuff to a burn pile down the hill. With a fresh coat of paint, the cows won’t recognize their own home.”
For the next two weeks, Sheila and David and Jon cleaned the dairy barn while Tom stayed back at the sheep farm to manage the shearing.
The work was mundane, and her thoughts wandered. Her dream to operate a larger farm remained, but the nearby land was all taken, and selling prices continued to rise. She had been lucky to find this rundown dairy farm.
Larger tracts of land were available farther west, but it would require branching into beef cattle, for the natural grass out there was too sparse for raising sheep.
While she daydreamed, David raked old straw and manure. Positioned in the middle of the stall, he pulled the mess from the sides. She stood at the entrance of the stall and raked the debris farther into the barn, where Jon shoveled it into the handcart.
She paused to catch her breath. David reached for the corner and raked back toward the middle. A piece of string became tangled in the tongs, and he stopped to unravel it. Something moved in the far recesses of the stall.
What was that? A rat? No. Something else. Wait.
David stepped closer to the corner, reached down, and a big snake bit him on the wrist.
“Aaagh!” he cried.
He staggered and lifted his arm. The snake clung to him and then dropped to the floor. David stumbled backward and shouted again.
The snake coiled in the corner. She dropped her rake and grabbed a nearby shovel. David stepped past her and fell to the ground. Jon knelt at his brother’s side.
She stepped into the stall and faced the snake. It was brown, four feet long, and thick in the middle. The snake slowly lifted its head to strike again.
With a quick motion, she swung the shovel over her head and smacked the flat of it on the snake.
The snake remained coiled but stopped moving.
Behind her, David cried out, “Owww! It hurts!”
She swung the shovel again.
Her second swing hit the snake full-on square. It uncoiled and tried to slither, stunned.
She turned the shovel in her hand, pulled her arms high, and brought them down in a fierce blow that chopped off the snake’s head.
David stood to leave the barn.
“Wait,” said Jon. “Let me see it.”
“It burns,” said David. “It burns!”
And then he fell to his knees. His head wobbled, and he sagged.
Sheila and Jon grabbed him by the shoulders.
“Where is it?” she said.
He held out his wrist.
Two small red holes about three-quarters of an inch apart glistened on his brown skin. The red dots resembled spider bites.
Most snakes were harmless, but David’s pain led Sheila to fear the worst. Everyone had heard of the venomous eastern brown snake. They killed dogs and sheep every year, sometimes people.
“Can you stand?”
Nearly sixteen, David was taller than her, broader, stronger, and considerably heavier. He tried to stand, but his knees gave out, and he pitched head first to the ground. Jon pulled on his arm, but David’s head hung slack, his eyes half-closed.
“Bring the truck,” Sheila said. “We’ve got to get him home.”
Jon ran from the barn, and she knelt to examine the wound again. The red dots had grown paler. The venom would travel into his bloodstream. In the movies, they always cut the snakebite with a knife and sucked the poison. Would that help?
He drew struggled breaths, clutched his stomach, and moaned.
“How do you feel?” she said.
“It burns awful. I feel sick.”
“Turn onto your back,” she said. “I’ll drag you.” She reached for his armpits.
The truck engine roared up and stopped next to the barn. She dragged David across the floor. His legs hung useless, his chin rolling on his chest.
Jon ran up.
“Get his legs,” she yelled. “Help me carry him.”
With a struggle, the two of them managed to get David into the truck cab. Jon climbed in beside him, and she drove like a mad person. The truck bounced over bumps in the paddock. When they reached the dirt road, she shifted gears and jammed on the gas pedal.
David leaned against Jon’s shoulder and lost consciousness. His mouth hung open and his chest heaved. Trees flew by on either side, and air rushed through the open windows. David vomited on the floor.
“God,” said Jon, “he’s sick.”
“Hold him,” she said. She yanked the steering wheel for a turn, and gravel spun under the tires.
Don’t let him die.
She corrected the steering wheel and brought the truck to the middle of the road.
Don’t let him die.
They came to the edge of their farm. Sheep took notice of the speeding truck. King barked and ran toward the house.
She honked the horn and kept honking until they stopped in the driveway. Tom stepped out of the barn with gloved hands, and she waved for him to come.
She tried to help Jon pull David from the truck, and the three of them fell in a heap. Tom arrived, his chest heaving.
“What is it?”
“Snakebite,” she said. “Put him in my bed. I’ll call the doctor.”
Thank God the phone company had laid lines to most of Darling Downs. She ran inside and phoned Dr. Holmes. When he answered, she explained what had happened in a rushed voice.
“Yes,” he said. “It sounds like an eastern brown.”
“What should I do? Should I try to suck out the venom?”
“No, that won’t help, and it might harm you. Keep him still. Moving him will make it worse.”
David had tried to walk when first bitten, and they had jostled him when he fell from the truck. Had she done more harm than good?
“What else can we do?” she cried. “We’ve got to do something.”
The doctor was quiet. She imagined him standing in his office, scratching his head.
“They have anti-venom now,” he said. “In Sydney.”
But Sydney was two full days of travel from Toowoomba. David’s arms had hung listlessly when Tom carried him into the house. Two days was too long.
Dr. Holmes said, “They might have some at the new hospital in Brisbane.”
“Call them,” she cried. “Call them now.”
“They won’t send anti-venom all this way for a black. They have too little of it.”
Prejudice reared its ugly head. Time and again she saw it. When would it ever end?
“Don’t tell them he’s aborigine,” she whispered. “Just tell them he’s a farmhand.”
He was silent again. In addition to his regular practice, he ran a clinic for aborigines on Saturdays. Surely he would help.
“He’s only a boy,” she said. The doctor had children of his own.
“All right,” he said. “What’s his name?”
The concept of last names did not translate well with aborigines. The only one Tom had ever used was Nockatunga—the name of a large cattle station where his family had once worked. But if she gave that name, the hospital in Brisbane would realize David was aborigine.
“Wright,” she said.
“David Wright?” The doctor said skeptically. “His name is David Wright?”
She didn’t answer. The next move was up to him.
“Stay near the phone,” he said. “I’ll let you know what they say.”
She ran upstairs to check on David, who had soaked the sheets with sweat. Twenty minutes later, the doctor called. The vaccine was on its way, and he would bring it as soon it arrived in Toowoomba.
“Keep him still,” he urged.
“He’s burning up.”
“Wipe him with something damp and cool, but don’t move him.”
The wait lasted forever. David vomited repeatedly and then grew delirious, waking for moments to call for Hazel, and then slipping out of it again.
By ten o’clock, Sheila feared he would die. He had ceased to move, and his breathing grew faint and slow. Hazel never left him. She dabbed his forehead with a damp cloth and sang in a soft voice.
At two in the morning, Dr. Holmes arrived and administered the anti-venom. The boy did not react. He lay still, barely breathing.
In the hall outside the room, Tom stood with tears in his eyes and thanked the doctor.
“Don’t thank me. I don’t know if it will work. All we can do now is wait.”
Sheila took the doctor downstairs and made tea. Jon and Maisie slept on the sofa, and the adults stayed up all night.
In the morning, David stirred in bed, the fever gone.
She had never seen Dr. Holmes smile, but now his whole face turned into a grin. “The boy will survive!” he shouted. He slapped Tom on the back and pumped Sheila’s hand. Hazel cried. They all celebrated over a big breakfast, and the doctor lingered over tea.
Before leaving he provided care advice. “Keep him in bed. Don’t let him out until he’s strong again.”
David couldn’t move or eat, but he took a small drink of water and kept it down. For two weeks, he slept in Sheila’s bed. Hazel and Tom took turns resting on the floor by his side, and Sheila slept downstairs.
David began to eat but was still too weak to walk, so he spent his days reading books, talking to his parents, and watching the day pass through the window. And then one afternoon, Sheila came into the kitchen and found him eating fried chicken at the table.
“It’s good to see you up and around,” she said.
He smiled. “I had to get well. I’ve run out of books to read.”
END OF EPISODE # 3