Welcome to the Sheila Stories, which chronicle the life of an Australian woman in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.
In episode #4, Chris Carbone—an attractive woman in her thirties—moves into the spare apartment, a development that Thomas finds awkward.
In Sheila’s world, she continues to expand her holdings by buying a cattle farm, which piques the interest of a stock and station named Colin McKechnie.
Here is the manuscript for episode #4. To listen to the episode with commentary, click the THE SHEILA STORIES tab.
Sheila Stories - Episode #04 - The Stock and Station Agent
“Wow!” says April, her eyes as wide as a cartoon character’s. “That was a scary story.”
“I wasn’t afraid,” says Natalie, quickly assuming the big sister role. “I knew everything would be all right.”
April says, “I’m glad we don’t have poisonous eastern brown snakes around here.”
“Me, too,” I say.
“You know,” says Natalie, “I’ve been thinking about it, and the whole series of stories is sort of about Sheila making new friends.”
“How so?” I say.
“She met the lawyer, Mr. Yates, and Tom and his family.”
“And the doctor,” says April.
Natalie nods. “Friends are good. I like to make new friends.”
April has a smirk on her face. They’re cooking up something. She says, “It’s important to make new friends. Isn’t it, Daddy?”
The answer is too obvious. I’m walking into a trap, but I can’t see it. “Uh huh,” I say. “I guess so.”
“A pet could be a new friend,” says April. “What do they call a dog? I can’t remember.”
“Man’s best friend,” says Natalie, grinning deviously.
Jeez. How did this thing turn around to bite me in the ass?
April says, “I’ve been thinking about Chris and Trixie.” She uses her big-girl voice. “You know how you said we could get a dog after we rented the apartment?”
“Maybe. I said maybe.”
“Well, if you rent the apartment to Chris, Trixie comes for free. It’s sort of like stunning two birds with one kite . . . or whatever.”
Natalie’s devious grin, which I still haven’t figured out, now turns into a bright smile.
“April’s right,” she says. “Chris would take care of Trixie, which means no extra work, or cost, for you. It’s a win-win.”
I stare at them, stunned by April’s kite. How did this happen? An even better question: how do I get out of it? My mind freezes. The image of Chris’s impossible smile pops into my head, those red lips. I jump on the first lame thought that occurs to me.
“She’s probably already found another place.”
With a few words, Natalie ends the debate. “You could text her. Who knows? We might make a new friend.”
So, after the girls are asleep, I text Chris.
Hey . . . Thomas Kelly here. I don’t suppose you’re still looking. My daughters convinced me to reconsider Trixie.
I put my phone down and open my laptop. I haven’t glanced at my newsfeed all day. Before I get past the headlines, my phone chirps.
What about . . . Rules are Rules?
I craft a quick response, edit it, and then start over. Minutes fly by. She’s probably staring at the bubbling dots on her phone, wondering how I could take so long.
Sorry. I’m not usually rigid with rules. Besides, I’m sure Trixie will be no problem. Are you still interested?
Her response comes seconds later. How can she type so fast?
It depends. What’s the rent?
I think back on the negotiation. She had offered six fifty, but I had held firm at seven hundred. What should I do?
I’ll take $650.
Her next response is even faster.
With no deposit?
Gosh. I think about the girls’ faces, so excited when I said I’d reach out to Chris. I type one word.
This time, she takes a full minute to respond.
When can I move in?
We some time off from the stories so I can think through the details to make sure I’m get them right.
In the meantime, Chris moves in, and it proves surprisingly easy to get used to her. We rarely see her, sometimes not at all for several days, and then she’ll appear in the kitchen to fix a meal or visit the laundry room to wash clothes. Whenever the girls sense her in the house, they find an excuse to move to the same room. Sometimes they ask questions: What are you making? What color is your nail polish? Do you have other tattoos?
And they always ask to take Trixie for a walk. They love that dog.
One evening, I go into the laundry room to dry clothes I’ve just washed. Chris has left a load in the dryer. What to do? Natalie asked me to launder her special jeans by the morning. Simple, I’ll move Chris’ things to a laundry basket and leave them on top of the dryer.
I reach inside to retrieve dry clothes.
Bras. Lingerie. Panties. With two fingers, I lift a lacy thong. I haven’t seen clothes like these up close in seven years. I hold the thong spread wide and imagine Chris wearing it.
“Did you want to try that on?” she says from behind me.
I drop the thong in the basket.
“Oh, gosh no! I . . . You know. I’m not used to . . .”
She laughs and punches me in the shoulder. “Relax. I’m kidding you.”
My face feels hot. Is it red? It must be, at least a bright pink. I jostle around her in the close quarters, desperate for a way out.
“Well,” I say, “I’ll just . . . leave you to it.”
“I’ll be done in a second,” she says.
But by then, I’m out of the room and hurrying through the kitchen.
Leave you to it?
What is that? Military-speak? How lame. Yikes, that was embarrassing.
This is so not working out.
The Stock and Station Agent
In 1938, Sheila bought a rifle and several hundred rounds of ammunition. David had come across dingo scat on the cattle farm, and he feared they might someday attack a calf. She had no desire to hunt dingoes, but thought it wise to have a weapon on hand.
The merchant in Toowoomba showed her the basics of how to fire the rifle, and said she’d have to practice to become a good shot.
There was no point in owning the thing if she didn’t know how to shoot, so one day, she drove the truck to a corner of the cattle farm and built a firing range out of bales of hay at the base of a hill.
For targets, she used wooden blocks six inches square. Once the range was in place, she stepped forty paces back and lay on the ground with the rifle steadied against a large stone. With a racing heartbeat, she lined the sight in the notch on the rifle’s barrel and gently squeezed the trigger.
The rifle kicked her shoulder.
Her ears rang from the blast. The merchant had given her cotton to deafen the noise, but she’d forgotten to use it.
To make matters worse, the wooden block had not moved. Had the shot gone high, low, left or right? No telling.
She worked the lever action to chamber another round and tucked the rifle butt snugly against her shoulder. The merchant had said something about breathing. She had to steady her breathing, because any movement would send the shot wide.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then lined up the sight and closed her left eye.
She missed the target again, but saw a puff of dirt against the hill behind the range. The bullet went high. She chambered the next round, steadied her breath, and aimed a hair lower.
The block flew backward off the bale of hay.
She practiced for the next hour from a range of distances. She tried to shoot standing but found it difficult. When lying prone, she could reliably hit the target from sixty paces. While standing, she was lucky to hit it from thirty. If she forgot to steady her breathing, she missed altogether.
She used half her ammunition and then stopped. Her shoulder was sore, and her heart thumped so hard she could feel it. She couldn’t wait to tell David her results. She’d teach him how to shoot, too.
The cabin was a half mile away, and as she approached it, she saw a white truck parked outside. The truck belonged to Dalgety’s stock and station agent, a man named Colin McKechnie. Stock and station firms served as middlemen between farmers and end markets for wool and other products. The various firms competed by putting traveling agents in the field, but she had only met Colin a few times. Dalgety tended to service the bigger stations, and she’d always worked with one of the smaller firms. Nevertheless, she never missed a chance to talk with an agent, for they often gave tips about the latest innovations.
David and Colin McKechnie stood side by side and watched her drive up. David had grown tall and begun to broaden in the shoulders and chest from the constant work. He was always in a hurry. He walked fast and moved fast and got an enormous amount of work done every day. He ran the thousand-acre cattle farm like it was as easy as serving tea, and she and David had already discussed how to manage a much larger station.
She pulled the truck to a stop and got out.
“Hello, Colin,” she said, as she reached to shake his hand.
“G’day, Sheila. Nice to see you.”
“Do you want me to fix you two glasses of water?” David asked.
“No, I’ll handle that.”
David fidgeted with his hat and looked at the ground. He and Jon always grew nervous around white people they didn’t know well, and he likely wanted to be someplace else.
“David, could you drive the perimeter? A quick check?”
“Not ‘ma’am.’ Just Sheila.”
He hustled to the truck, and she turned toward the cabin. The prior owner had lived there. It was rustic, but the extended front roof made a comfortable place to sit in the shade.
“Like to take a seat?” She gestured toward a chair.
Colin McKechnie was a couple inches taller than her and wore khaki work pants and a brown, buttoned shirt. His hand gripped a broad-rimmed hat. Perspiration and the hat had pressed his curly brown hair close to his head.
His gaze turned to the truck driving away.
“Is he managing the cattle farm for you?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
She leaned the rifle against the front wall of the cabin.
“And Tom’s running the sheep farm,” Colin said it as a half statement, half question. He tilted his head, unsure what to make of the situation.
“We kind of all run everything together.”
He rubbed one palm against his chest.
“Do you have a problem with that?” she said.
He put his hands up. “No. No problem at all.”
“But, well, when a young woman buys a thousand-acre cattle farm and runs it with an all-aboriginal crew, it attracts attention.”
“Don’t forget the dairy farm.”
He pulled his earlobe.
“Can I bring you a glass of cool water?” she said.
“Yes, please. And thank you.”
She pumped two mugsful and returned to sit next to him.
“Why do you employ only blacks?” he said.
“I employ the best people I can find.”
He pulled on his earlobe again, but didn’t seem disturbed by her hiring practices.
“Were you shooting at anything in particular?”
“Targets. I bought a new rifle.”
“How’d you do?”
“If a dingo stands still for ten seconds, I can hit him, but if he moves, I’m in trouble.”
Colin laughed hard, and his shoulders shook. The sound made her chest feel warm. He was older than her, probably in his late twenties.
“My curiosity is piqued,” she said. “We’re small fry for the likes of Dalgety. I’m not complaining. I always like to hear the latest, but why are you here?”
The smile stayed on his face. He sat straight, his big hands encircling the mug.
“Someone in town told me you’d like to own a bigger farm. That piqued my interest.”
McKechnie must have spoken with her banker. She had asked about another loan a few weeks back. She wanted to buy a larger tract farther west, but her banker had turned her down. “Perhaps in a year or two,” he’d said. “After you’ve paid off more of your current loans.”
“I would like to buy a bigger place,” she said, “but I can’t get the loan.”
He held his hand out with his palm down. “Maybe you can’t get the loan.” Then he flipped his hand to turn it palm up. “But maybe you can.”
Was that why he had come?
He continued. “I’ve driven by your sheep farm and your dairy farm. They’re well tended. You’ve had this place less than a year, and it looks better than it did when you bought it. You run good operations. Dalgety likes to back good operators.”
“I’m listening,” she said.
“Tell me your current loan balances.”
She had all the numbers memorized. David’s brother, Jon, kept the financial ledgers now, but they reviewed them twice a month religiously. She shared the figures with Colin.
“The value of your properties has gone up,” he said, “partly because of the market, and partly because you run them better. We can refinance your current holdings at higher amounts and lower rates. With that additional leverage, you can finance the purchase of a cattle station farther west.”
Was McKechnie for real or a swindler of some kind? It sounded too good to be true, which made her extra cautious.
“I read skepticism on your face,” he said. “Don’t give me too much credit. Dalgety will make money on the loan, and I’ll get first shot at buying your wool and beef.” He rubbed his hands together. “We’re in this to make money.”
She couldn’t resist smiling. Colin was no movie star. He had a big nose and bushy eyebrows, but she liked his approach.
“I can show you some properties,” he said. “I know everything available.”
“All right,” she said.
“How about Thursday?”
Sheila toured three cattle stations with Colin McKechnie. To get there, they drove north to Dalby and then west about fifty miles. The land was flatter and not as lush as Toowoomba. The trees were scrubbier and the grass thinner, not suitable for sheep pasturing, but great for raising beef cattle.
She liked the size of the first property—twelve thousand acres—but they both believed it too dry. The streams flowing through the land depended heavily on rain. During a drought, they might dry up altogether, which would strain a cattle operation.
The second place was beautiful, but too small. Colin showed her the land because he thought the owner might free up additional acreage to get to a deal.
But she liked the third property just as well, nine thousand acres in a square. A crop of trees in the middle would make for a lovely homestead, and from that spot, she would own all the land she could see.
“By the size of your smile,” he said, “I take it you’re interested.”
“Let’s make an offer.”
“I’ll call from your house.”
On the ride back, he talked about a wide range of topics: growing up on the sheep farm his family owned north of Dalby, how he stumbled into the stock and station agent job, and the growing tension between Japan and the rest of the world.
She enjoyed listening to him. He had a pleasant voice and laughed often, big guffaws that filled the truck cab. Sometimes, she laughed too, and when she did, he beamed, so pleased with himself.
He made a call from her house and learned the property had sold that morning. She made tea, and they sat at the kitchen table.
“Sorry,” he said. “We were too late.”
For some reason, she didn’t feel disappointed. “There will be other opportunities.”
Colin said, “I’m leaving Sunday and won’t return for three weeks.”
He covered a vast territory for Dalgety, from Toowoomba down to Queensland’s southern border and then west for several hundred miles. The stock-and-station-agent trade was a relationship business, and he spent most of his time traveling from one town to the next, meeting with farmers to share his knowledge and learn whatever he could.
Her spirits sagged at the news that he would leave soon. They had spent five hours together, and she realized, with some surprise, she wanted to see him again. When he returned from the west, he might be too busy to show her more properties.
“Would you like to go to a dance on Saturday?” he said.
He rubbed his hands down his pants legs and cleared his throat. “In Toowoomba.”
“Well, I, uh, I’m not much of a dancer.”
His eyes said he was more interested in her than the dance. “Me, neither. If you wish, we can stand on the side and watch.”
For an answer, she gave him a big grin.
She drove to town and bought a new outfit: a calf-length skirt flared at the bottom, a fussy blouse, and an ornamental tie.
Hazel helped Sheila get ready by brushing her hair. “You have such lovely curls.”
“Some people don’t like curly hair.”
“Dumb people, maybe,” said Hazel. “But Mr. McKechnie strikes me as a smart man.”
Colin would have to take or leave her curly hair. Some of the girls she had known in Sydney tried to straighten theirs, but who had time for that?
It seemed so long ago . . . her life in Sydney. She had lived in Queensland for three years. Three years and not a single dance. She had focused solely on work—the farms, acquiring more land, making the numbers add up. Her hands were rough. Her arms and neck and face were tanned. She looked in the mirror and tried to imagine how she’d compare to the girls with university degrees.
“You’re beautiful,” said Hazel, as if she could read Sheila’s mind.
The dancing was easy. Unlike back in Sydney, where people might criticize someone’s awkward dancing, in Toowoomba, it was all about having fun. The band of local musicians played a variety of big band tunes, and the partygoers danced in whatever fashion they chose. The younger couples opted for the popular swing dances of the day, whereas the older couples stuck to the traditional waltz.
Several hundred people attended, for a dance in Toowoomba was not to be missed. Occasionally, a man would pepper Colin with questions about farming, but he never gave them more than a minute or two.
“I didn’t come here to talk about sheep,” he told her.
“I don’t mind. I might learn something.”
“Yeah, but I do mind.”
And they danced to another song.
As the evening grew late, and people began to leave, Colin and Sheila strolled onto the balcony overlooking Margaret Street. A cool breeze from the east cooled her arms.
“I’d like to see you again,” said Colin, “when I return from the stations out west.”
Her chest lightened. A thrill rushed through her unlike any she’d ever known. She wished the time had already passed.
“Hmm,” she said, “I’d like that, too.”
END OF EPISODE # 04