Welcome to the Sheila Stories, which chronicle the life of an Australian woman in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.
In episode #5, Natalie and April will surprise Thomas as they seek to bring Chris closer into the family.
Later in the episode, Thomas will tell the girls a Sheila Story, in which Sheila will take a prospecting trip into the Western Downs and encounter wild dingoes.
Here is the manuscript for episode #5. To listen to the episode with commentary, click the THE SHEILA STORIES tab.
Sheila Stories - Episode #05 - Dingos
“Daddy,” says April, “is Colin becoming Sheila’s boyfriend?”
I shrug and say, “I don’t know.”
April squints at me, unhappy with my answer. Natalie frowns.
“Yes, you do,” says April. “You do know. You just won’t tell us.”
“You teaser,” says Natalie, then she lunges for me. She tickles the side of my belly and tries to get under my armpit. She knows my weak spot. April joins in on the other side. I collapse on April’s bed, writhing in mirth, but then I get my fingers on the back of Natalie’s neck. She jerks away, out of the fight. I turn on April, my fingertips skimming her tummy. She collapses in a ball of giggles. I win decisively and only stop when they’re both short of breath.
Natalie lies on her back, breathing hard, mock anger on her face. “That’s all right,” she says. “We’ll get you back.”
April laughs, her head on her pillow. “You’re in for it now, Daddy.”
“What? What have you girls done?”
Natalie makes the zipper move across her lips. April shakes her head.
“You better tell me,” I say. I lift my arms with my tickle fingers wiggling like crab’s legs.
April’s eyes grow big.
A smirk appears on Natalie’s face. “We invited Chris to dinner. She’s going to eat with us every Thursday.”
My eye twitches.
I’ve tried to avoid Chris since the thong incident. When I do see her, I can’t think of anything to say.
My knee starts bouncing. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“No, it’s a great idea,” says Natalie. She goes into sell mode, counting on her fingers. “Point number one, she’s in the kitchen most nights anyway. Point number two, it’s more efficient if we cook together. And most important, point number three, it’ll be fun.”
“Yeah,” says April, piling on. “It’ll be fun!”
I open my mouth but no words come forth. I work my lips like a fish. When I can speak, I offer no counterargument. “Why Thursday?”
“It’s close to the weekend,” says Natalie, “but it isn’t the weekend. Weekend nights are no good because, in case you haven’t noticed, Chris goes out a lot on the weekends.”
April nods her emphatic concurrence.
“Goes out?” I say.
“You know,” says Natalie, “like on dates. Most adults go out on dates.”
“Yeah,” says April. “On dates.”
Dating. Do people still date? Or do they just hang out? What is hanging out, anyway? I haven’t been on a date in forever, not since Julie and I first got together our junior year in college.
I realize people do date. I’m not clueless. And I have had opportunities, I guess. Over the years, certain teachers have cast certain kinds of glances my way. There have been a few lightly disguised overtures, but I’ve never responded. I have too much work to do, and truthfully, I have no interest. I’m perfectly happy spending all my non-work time with the girls.
But there’s something different about Chris. I don’t know what exactly, something about her laugh, maybe, or the way she walks across the room—confident, purposeful, yet also with a kind of, I don’t know, a sway—that is most definitely feminine. I need to steer clear of that, and this Thursday-dinner thing makes me nervous.
And then I remember the thong incident. Yikes, what a boob head.
I blink and realize I’m sitting there not saying anything to the girls. I snap out of it and kiss them goodnight.
It’s Tuesday, two nights from Thursday.
We decide on spaghetti with marinara from a jar, something simple, although it occurs to me too late that with a name like Carbone, Chris might be an expert on pasta and sauce. The girls do the cooking, and I focus on the salad—leafy greens, chopped apple, walnuts, and a tangy sauce.
When Chris arrives, her hair is damp, and her face looks a tad flushed. She works out a lot, and I guess she’s just showered. Her jeans have a manufactured tear in one knee, and her top hangs off her shoulder. Over dinner, she compliments everything, even the wine, a third-shelf pinot noir with an interesting label.
The girls do the dishes, one of their daily chores, and I offer to top off Chris’s wine.
“Sure,” she says, “shall we sit on the porch?”
The light is fading, and the crickets have emerged. It’s May, and the air smells of mown grass. The rockers creak against the wooden planks.
It feels strange to sit next to a woman on my porch. When we bought the house, Natalie was an infant and April not yet conceived. One of the first things we did was to fix up the porch. Julie chose the furniture. She said every porch needed hanging plants and rocking chairs.
“Have you always gone by Thomas?” Chris says. “Never Tom?”
A playful tone has crept into her voice. She holds her wine glass casually to the side.
“My parents called me Thomas to avoid confusion. My dad goes by Tom.”
“What about Tommy?”
“My grandfather was always Tommy.”
“So, wait.” She sits straighter and turns toward me. Her earrings dangle, and the one on her left sparkles. “First came Tommy, then Tom, and you’re Thomas.”
“That seems backward. The formal name should come first, and then the nicknames.”
“Actually, my great-grandfather was Thomas, although I never knew him.”
“Four Thomas Kellys in a row?”
“What about your great-great-grandfather?”
“His name was Bob.”
“You’re making this up.”
I shake my head. “It’s all true. As a kid, I used to sign my name Thomas Kelly the Fourth, but I dropped that after high school. It took too much time.”
“I’ve never known a fourth.”
I can’t tell by her tone if she’s amused or impressed, and the light is too low to read her expression. But I can smell her perfume, a fragrance so faint it might have come from the flowerbed.
“What about you?” I say. “Have you always gone by Chris?”
“No, my parents called me Tina. My boyfriend liked Chris.” She pauses a beat. “My ex-boyfriend.”
“You must have dated a while for the name to stick.”
Why am I prying into her private life? It just sort of happened. The conversation was flowing. I sense tension from her now, as if her muscles have tightened.
“Ten years,” she says. Her voice is lower. She shakes her head as if to throw off a bad vibe, and then laughs nervously. “It’s so cliché. I kept thinking we were going to get married, and he kept stalling. Finally, I forced the issue, and he wouldn’t commit, so I broke it off.”
“Don’t be. It ended a year ago, and I am so over him. But I’m still mad at myself for wasting so much time.”
“Surely it wasn’t all a waste. You must have had some happy times together.”
She doesn’t respond. It’s a foreign concept for me that a long-term relationship could be considered a waste of time. I’m sure it happens in some cases, but in retrospect, my time with Julie still seems magical. I can sit in this rocking chair for an hour and replay in my mind a single afternoon. I try to remember precisely what she wore and everything she said. I have done this a hundred times.
“I was thinking,” says Chris, changing the subject, “if you ever need a babysitter, I’d be happy to watch the girls.”
“To cover for you when you go out.”
“I don’t go out much.”
“Like for a guy’s night, or to run errands, or . . .” She puts up air quotes. “A date.”
When was the last time I left the girls at home? I can’t recall. Oh, yeah, last summer in Brigantine. I left them with my parents and went for a walk on the beach at night, but after a while, I felt low, so I returned to the cottage and caught the end of the girls’ movie.
My lack of response causes Chris to lean closer. I can just make out her look of bewilderment.
“You don’t go out?” she says. “No adult time? Ever?”
So I share my math on the subject with her. “Here’s how I see it. I’m halfway to an empty house.” I snap my fingers. “Natalie’s ten. In eight years, she’ll leave for college. April will follow two years later. That decade will vanish like rain on the pavement when a hot sun breaks through the clouds. I don’t want to lose any time with the kids.”
“Pardon me for asking, but when did your wife pass away?”
“Almost seven years ago, on September 17.”
I drain my glass of wine.
Chris squeezes her eyes to slits. Her head tilts. “So you’ll wait another ten years before venturing out? No friends? No dating?”
“Do you think that’s healthy?”
“Yes.” I stand and turn toward the door. “I do.”
Fifteen miles west of Tara, the dirt road petered out at the edge of a flat landscape. Sheila drove the truck across the hard-packed earth. Occasional divots in the dirt made for a bumpy ride. When she misread the ground and crossed a shallow ditch, the seat beneath her fell away, and her head grazed the cab ceiling. She downshifted to a lower gear.
The sun had begun its descent long ago. After a full morning of work, she had driven two hours west of Dalby to tour a specific property, ten thousand acres in the Western Downs, sixteen square miles.
She should probably turn back, but first she wanted to eye the land from that gentle hill ahead. It rose forty feet from the surrounding terrain and would give her a panoramic view of the cattle farm.
The land was covered in scrub grass and trees, perfect for beef cattle. A creek ran through the backside of the property. With a bit of irrigation work, she could grow several hundred acres of hay and barley for winter-feeding.
She parked the truck at the base of the hill and hiked to the top. Sunlight sparkled on the creek a hundred yards west. Some forested hills lay to the north, their tree-covered sides a deep green in the fading light. She wanted to keep going, to inspect the creek for the full distance of the property, but the sky had begun to turn a darker blue. She looked east but could see nothing of the tiny town of Tara. By leaving now, she’d make it back to the sheep farm in time for dinner. Colin had said he’d try to arrive by late afternoon, and Hazel was making her special lamb stew.
“You don’t have to,” Sheila had said. “He might not get here until tomorrow.”
Hazel had smiled and said it was no trouble. She teased Sheila often about Colin.
“You like him,” Hazel would say. “I know you do.”
“No, we’re friends, and he’s my stock agent.” But she would turn away so Hazel wouldn’t see her blush.
Sheila took a deep breath. Sometimes, when she thought about Colin, it made her chest hurt. He left Toowoomba for weeks at a time, but he always came back, and he never missed a chance to stop by her farm.
His job took him west to deal with big cattle stations. He would drive hundreds of miles on poorly paved roads to reach the remote graziers. She had no ambition to buy a station that far west. The land dried up altogether, and each head of cattle needed a hundred acres to survive on the natural grasslands. No, the Western Downs was the farthest she would move from the sea.
She took one last look at the property from the hilltop. The stream would feed the cattle and irrigate crops too. Yes, this place would work fine.
Nevertheless, one change would make it even better. Although promising as a cattle station, the land left much to be desired as a home site. On the drive earlier, she had passed a small river valley that warranted closer inspection. She’d love to own a home with a water view, even if the view was only of a creek.
The thought of water reminded her of Sydney and the long days she had spent sailing in the harbor. She yearned to feel the spray on her face and to smell the salt air.
Had she made a mistake by leaving Sydney? She could have gone to university as her father wanted and learned to run a business in town. On the weekends, instead of riding Kirra across her properties, she could have sailed in club races and collected trophies.
But she never would have met Colin. She liked the feel of his arm around her waist as they danced in Toowoomba. She liked the way he chose his words, how he considered all the angles before reaching a point of strong conviction.
If she left now and drove fast, she’d make it back in time for a quick wash and a late dinner. Hazel would keep the stew warm, and Colin would wait until she arrived.
At the truck, she sipped from a nearly empty jug of water. The air had grown cool. She rubbed her arms and donned a sweater.
Inside the cab, she turned the key and heard a click.
The engine did nothing.
She flipped the key back and tried again.
Hopping out, she opened the hood to inspect the battery, but the connections looked fine. It was simply dead. If parked on a hill, she could pop the clutch while coasting to start the engine, but the terrain was flat. Nothing short of a boost would start the engine now. She needed another plan.
Twilight had descended. The breeze picked up, and she wrapped the sweater tighter. It would soon grow colder.
Tara was fifteen miles to the east. Walking would make her thirsty. She had the rifle but no lantern. In the darkness, she might grow disoriented. Earlier, she had seen a dingo in the bush.
Within moments, her hopes of seeing Colin that night were dashed. No lamb stew for her. She’d stay with the truck, build a campfire for warmth, and listen for an approaching engine.
In the fading light, she gathered fallen wood from nearby shrub trees and considered her predicament. Tom knew where she was. She had said, “I’m headed west of Tara to look at property and will return in time for dinner.”
But west of Tara covered a lot of territory, and she hadn’t mentioned the name of the property. She could be anywhere within a couple hundred square miles. The last farmhouse she had passed was more than three miles away.
The safest thing to do was to stay with the truck.
She watched the campfire. Her stomach growled. She resisted the temptation to drink the rest of the water. It would be a long night. In the morning, she would hike out to the nearest phone. She scolded herself for not bringing more supplies, but the battery had never failed her before.
The sun dipped to the horizon, and the western sky changed colors, first to orange, then purple, and finally black. A million stars kept her company, but no moon rose, and the temperature dropped another five degrees. She put more wood on the fire and sat closer. The wind shifted and blew smoke in her face, so she circled to the other side.
To pass the time, she thought about her childhood in Sydney. She laughed when recalling a day she’d skipped school to play at Manly Beach. She smiled as she remembered the red bicycle she’d had as a child. She hadn’t ridden a bike in years, only horses and trucks.
She had returned to Sydney twice in the past three and a half years. Her mother was overjoyed to see her. Her father looked older. They both listened with interest as she relayed the workings of a sheep farm.
“Aren’t you lonely?” said her mother.
“Sometimes,” she said, “but the work keeps me busy.”
She had mentioned Colin in a recent letter.
“This young man sounds special,” her mother had written back. “You must tell us more, and soon!”
Perhaps she should return to Sydney for a long break. Colin might come with her for a short visit, but he wouldn’t stay long. He’d traveled to Brisbane many times on business, but preferred to stay in farm country. He said he liked the people out here better. City dwellers moved fast and talked fast, but never seemed to do any real work.
Something moved in the dark, and her heart jumped.
“Who is that?” she cried.
She reached for her rifle with nervous hands and worked the lever action to chamber a round.
From the bushes twenty feet away, yellow eyes reflected the campfire light.
She lifted the rifle to her shoulder and sighted along the barrel.
A second pair of eyes appeared ten feet to the right of the first dingo.
A log cracked on the fire and sent sparks in the air. The dingo ahead moved left.
Scanning the perimeter of the campfire, she spotted two more dingoes. She inhaled through her nose and breathed out slowly through her mouth. They might be hungry, but she wasn’t about to become their evening meal.
Shoot to kill? She had six rounds in the rifle and a box of bullets in the truck. She could hit one with ease and probably kill it outright. Would the others run off or charge her?
Dingoes were little more than wild dogs. Some farmers shot them as pests; others turned them into pets by feeding them table scraps. Colin warned against the practice. “Dingoes are wild at heart,” he had said. “They’ll never be truly tame.”
Seated like she was, if they charged, she’d have to fight them on the ground.
The one on the left took a step forward.
“Don’t you dare!” she shouted.
The dingo stopped.
A low growl sounded from the right.
She had to shoot at least one to scare the others away.
With her heart racing, she moved one knee to the ground. The dingo in the middle stepped closer and growled.
Now or never. She aimed low, hoping to kick up a lot of dirt.
Breathe slow. Inhale. Exhale. Hold it.
The blast made her ears ring, and all the eyes disappeared.
She chambered another round and fired into the bush.
She laughed. Those silly dingoes had no idea. For insurance, she fired one more round.
She breathed hard, and her hand shook as it came free of the rifle stock. The air had grown still colder, and she heaped the last of the wood on the fire. When it burned down, she’d climb in the truck cab and try to sleep.
She sat on a rock next to the fire and held the rifle across her lap. Would the dingoes return? Not likely. She’d given them a good scare.
It was a lonely campfire. She checked her watch. Ten o’clock.
She thought about the land. Each new purchase had been like eating a filling meal. It took a year to digest them, but then she’d grown hungry again.
Perhaps this purchase would be enough. The earlier reminiscence of the sea returned. She loved the land of Darling Downs and the people and the work, but she loved the sea, too.
David and Jon were nearly men now. David was seventeen, only a year younger than she was when she bought the first farm. He had learned what he could from Tom, and now sought more knowledge. When Colin came to visit, David always found a way to corner him and ask questions about new equipment and the wool exchange and beef prices.
Jon understood the numbers as well as she did, perhaps better. With Tom’s supervision, the boys could run all her properties without her. This new purchase, the ten-thousand-acre cattle station, would take more hard work, but after a year, they’d have that running well, too.
What then? Would her appetite demand an even larger property? Was there no end to her dream?
No. She had always dreamed of owning a parcel of land extending as far as she could see. Ten thousand acres would fulfill that dream, and when she had it running, when the boys and Tom could manage it, she’d take a long break. She would return to Sydney for a few weeks, and then take a long holiday in Brisbane. Colin would visit in Brisbane, for it was only a short train ride from Toowoomba.
The newspaper had carried a story of the growing popularity of surfing on the beaches south of Brisbane. Would Colin try surfing? Sure, why not?
Where was he now? She squinted to read the time in the dying firelight. Eleven o’clock.
They’re worried by now—Colin, Tom, and the whole family.
What would they do?
Search for her.
Colin would pull out his map, open it on the dining table, and examine the stations west of Tara. He would study it meticulously and then devise a plan.
The fire was almost gone. A few embers glowed in the dark, and the warmth dissipated.
Something rustled the bushes nearby.
A rabbit or a field mouse? Doubtful. They were burrowed deep in the grass by now.
Something moved six feet from her.
She stared into darkness. The creature stirred again; it sounded like slithering.
Do snakes move at night? Would it crawl beside her for the warmth? She stood and hustled to the truck’s cabin.
After five minutes of sitting inside, she began to shiver. She bounced in the seat and rubbed her arms against her sides, but to little purpose. The cold seeped inside her clothes, and her teeth chattered.
Several empty burlap sacks lay under a tarp in the truck bed. Putting snakes and dingoes firmly out of her mind, she retrieved the tarp and sacks, and wrestled them into the cab.
She stuffed two musty sacks inside her sweater and placed the rest around her legs and back. Then she pulled the tarp tight until she had closed every crevice in her new cocoon. It smelled of earth—ordinary dirt, not unpleasant. Within minutes of trapping her body heat, she grew warm. She made a pillow from the last sack and leaned her head against the doorframe.
The warmth reminded her of the beach. The wind beating against the cab sounded like the breeze at Narrabeen, where she used to surf with a friend named Sean Riker. Sean was a fellow adventurer, and the two of them had made a competitive sailing team for the races in Sydney Harbor. They were good friends and might have become more than friends, but Sean’s dream was to move to Hawaii to surf full time, a dream she did not share, so they parted ways. They had exchanged a few letters and then lost touch. On her last visit, her mother had said Sean returned from Hawaii to attend university. You could only ride so many waves.
On that last day at Narrabeen, she had paddled out beyond the break and lain on her surfboard in the sun. The gentle bobbing of the waves had nearly lulled her to sleep.
In the middle of a dream, Sheila heard a noise. She had been dreaming of her mother’s baked chicken with mashed potatoes and cream gravy, and the taste lingered in her mouth as she blinked her eyes open.
Dawn was near. A faint light from the east softened the dark.
An engine struggled a short ways off.
She leaped from the cab and shouted, “Here! I’m here!”
The engine noise grew softer.
No. They can’t hear me. They’re leaving.
She climbed into the truck bed and then on top of the cab. Jumping up and down, she screamed for help.
There! Colin’s truck, a hundred yards off and headed in the wrong direction. She jumped higher, her shoes denting the top of the cab.
“Hey! Hey! I’m right here!”
The engine noise grew faint. No, no, he hadn’t seen her.
She remembered the rifle, climbed down to fetch it, and fired in the air three times.
The truck shifted into reverse, and the driver gunned the engine.
She tried to calm her racing heart. The truck drove up, and Colin got out. Tom smiled his broad smile from the passenger doorway.
She ran into Colin’s arms and gave him a big kiss on the lips.
END OF EPISODE # 05