Patrick Kelly

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Welcome to the Sheila Stories, which chronicle the life of an Australian woman in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.

In episode #6, Thomas and Chris have a second more intimate conversation.

In Sheila’s world, while riding her pony Kirra, Sheila wonders about Colin’s intentions and unexpectedly encounters great peril.

Here is the manuscript for episode #6. To listen to the episode with commentary, click the THE SHEILA STORIES tab.

Sheila Stories - Episode #06 - A Fast and Steady Ride

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I’m sitting at my desk reviewing homework assignments when Chris walks in.

“Do you have any fresh ginger?” she asks.

She’s wearing white shorts and a simple T-shirt with pink and black horizontal stripes. Her hair is gathered at the back. The shirt’s neckline modestly reveals the tanned skin of her upper chest.

“No, I don’t have ginger, fresh or otherwise.”

Her eyes grow a little tense. “I forgot to get it, and this recipe is nothing without it.”

“You want me to run to the store?”

“No. I know exactly what I want, but dinner will be later than I said.”

I shrug. “We have nowhere to go and all night to get there.”

While Chris is gone, the girls finish their homework, and I let them watch a show.

Dinner is worth the wait. Afterward, I help the girls get organized with the dishes and then head out to the porch to compliment Chris.

“That was the best stir fry I ever had.”

She snorts a laugh. “It was nothing special.”

“I’m not kidding. The next best was not even close.”

“The ginger is the secret.”

“Good thing you went for it.”

It is her first night to cook. She was relaxed in the kitchen. In fact, she is always relaxed—relaxed and confident.

“By the way,” I say, “I hope you don’t expect meals that good from me. If this turns into a competition, you’ll kick my butt from here to Cleveland.”

She shakes her head. “I’m not picky when it comes to food.” She straightens her shoulders and pats her tummy. “As you can tell, I like to eat.”

Her statement surprises me. She’s not fat, but neither is she skinny. She is healthy, with all the right body parts in all the right places, and her face and hair, whoa . . .

“I think you look great,” I say.

“Oh, thanks.”

But by her tone, I gather she doubts my sincerity. She pinches a roll of stomach fat. “No matter how many crunches I do, this tire hangs around.”

It is an awfully small tire, but I keep my mouth shut. I’ve ventured into personal territory and don’t want to say anything stupid.

We are both quiet. A breeze from the river dissipates the day’s heat. The bamboo wind chimes sing softly from the opposite end of the porch.

She asks about my work. The school year is nearly over, the kids antsy, eager for the summer break to begin.

Chris is a freelancer. She polishes Powerpoint presentations for bankers and consultants. She also designs websites for small companies. She probably earns more than me. I don’t begrudge her the income; that’s how the digital economy works, and I have no just cause for jealousy. As a teacher in a union, I’m building a nice pension over time.

April opens the door.

“We’re ready for bed, Daddy.”

“Okay, honey. I’ll be right in.”

April turns to go inside, and the screen door closes behind her. I stand.

“They get ready for bed by themselves?” says Chris. “You don’t have to hassle them?”

“Yes, they get ready by themselves. No, I don’t have to hassle them.”

“That’s hard for me to fathom. My parents went through hell getting me ready for bed. They finally gave up, left the decision to me. It took until college for me to understand the value of sleep.”

I flip my palms to the side to indicate it’s all luck and then open the door.

 


A Fast and Steady Ride

On a January morning in 1939, Sheila rose early and went to the window to check the weather. A welcome breeze came through the opening. The sun had begun to crest the horizon, and not a single cloud marred the sky. A rooster crowed to let everyone know he could.

She decided on the spur of the moment to explore a new section of Western Downs. After dressing, she went downstairs to make tea. An hour later, she had hitched the horse trailer to the truck and loaded Kirra inside.

Tom walked up. “Going for a ride today?” he said.

“Yes, unless you need me here.”

He shook his head. “Not today, but we will tomorrow. David wants to attend a dairy cattle auction in Dalby.”

“Excellent. I look forward to it.”

“You scouting for more land?”

“No, I’m headed out toward Tara. Do you think we need more land?”

He pushed his lips out in thought. “Every time we’ve gotten a handle on working what we have, you’ve bought more land. I’ve grown used to it.”

She nodded. They’d increased their holdings from four hundred acres to twelve thousand. She’d always craved more land, but lately, she’d begun to think they had enough.

Even so, she said, “Maybe you and I should inspect some properties when Colin comes through. We might manage another loan soon.”

That brought a smile to Tom’s face. He loved to explore new lands.

“Be careful of the storms today,” he said.

“What storms?”

He searched the four corners of the clear sky. “Yeah, it’ll rain good this afternoon.”

“I’ll listen to Kirra. She has a good nose for bad weather.”

Ten miles west of Tara, the land flattened out. It would take a while longer to reach the spot she wanted to see. Along the way, she thought about Colin. He stopped by to see her every time he came to Darling Downs, and they never skipped a dance in Toowoomba.

She missed him when he was gone. He made her laugh. He was eight years older, but she didn’t mind the age difference. He had told her he wanted to have a big family. Why had he said that?

Did she want to have a big family? Would he ask her to marry soon, and what would she say if he did? She had lived in Darling Downs for four years. Was she ready to settle down for good?

There were other questions to ponder as well. Worldly questions. What would happen with Japan? The Japanese had invaded Manchuria eight years earlier and now controlled huge swaths of territory in China. Editorialists said they had an insatiable appetite for expansion. Some believed they intended to invade Australia.

She had wrestled with these questions for months. They kept her awake at night, and she took long rides with Kirra to clear her head.

At a place called The Gums, she turned right, and the paved gravel road changed to dirt. Far in the distance, clouds blotted the sky. Soon the bush turned a brighter shade of green. Warm air blew through the open window. The steady rumble of tires against stray stones rose into the cabin.

The land grew hillier, and she approached a ridge above a small valley. She pulled to a stop and then freed Kirra from the trailer. The pony stomped at the ground, eager to begin. After saddling Kirra, Sheila had her walk slowly so they could savor the sights, and they made their way down a slight incline into the valley.

The creek bed was dry, and trees lined the walls on both sides up to the ridge. A flat spot on the ridge ahead would afford an excellent view of the valley. If she did marry Colin, they could build a home on that plot.

The valley was fascinating. With each turn, the floor grew narrower, and the walls grew higher.

At first, she had loved the thrill of expanding her farming business, but lately, her interest had waned. The process of buying land and improving the yield had become routine. She purchased the land, and Tom and the boys ran the operation; they did the hard work of integrating the new land with their existing properties. She had negotiated all the loans with the bank and Dalgety’s, but if bankers would work with aborigines, Jon could handle that part as well.

Unlike the bankers, her attorney, Frank Yates, enjoyed working with Jon. He didn’t seem to notice the color of Jon’s skin; in fact, he’d begun to teach Jon detailed aspects of real estate law, a subject in which she had little interest.

The valley was fifty feet across now. They’d covered two or three miles already. Did it never end? The walls were steep and blocked the view of the horizon, leaving only the blue skies overhead. Kirra pawed at the ground as if she feared dangers hidden around the next corner. Silly pony.

“Come on, girl. Let’s go a bit farther. I want to see the end of this valley.”

This land was more engaging than the flat range of the cattle farm. The cattle farm changed little from day to day, even from season to season. The grass and leaves grew brown in the winter, and the air turned colder, but the land stayed flat year round.

Not like the ocean.

She missed the ever-changing view of the ocean. No two waves were the same. When a storm came, the sea roiled in anger, salt water stung her cheeks, and the waves thundered. On a calm day, the sea beyond the surf looked like glass. She missed fishing and sailing and surfing.

The idea burst into her mind; she needed a long holiday. The thought had crossed her mind before, but she’d never acted on it. And why not? She’d worked hard for years to build her agribusiness. Why not take a month in Brisbane to dust off her surfing skills? Perhaps Colin would come, too.

Just then, as if to signal the brilliance of her idea, thunder sounded in the distance. A dark cloud had crept over the ridge ahead. Kirra stomped at the ground as if afraid she might get wet.

“Come on,” Sheila said, “one more turn of the valley, and then we’ll head back.”

Around the next bend, she met with an odd sight: a trickle of water appeared in the creek bed, six inches wide and flowing freely.

What the heck?

There had been no water at all in the lower valley. Where did it go?

Thunder sounded above. Kirra whined in fear and stopped, unwilling to move another step up forward. A lightning bolt flickered down from the black clouds, and the sky roared.

Farther up the canyon, the rivulet ran thicker, faster, and angrier.

As if by instinct, Kirra turned back toward the entrance of the valley. Sheila glanced over her shoulder. The trickle had grown into a stream two feet wide. The water touched Kirra’s hoof, and she jumped to higher ground.

No. Oh, no, Sheila thought.

Thunder clapped again.

FLASH FLOOD!

Water rushed at them from the canyon, and Sheila kicked Kirra’s thighs. Terror struck the pony’s eye.

Sheila leaned to say, “Steady, girl. A fast and steady ride.”

Six feet wide, the stream raced ahead of them. Kirra cantered. Sheila steered her around the rocks in the trail. Water a foot deep covered the creek bed now. The sound of it crashed against the valley walls.

The water reached Kirra’s hooves.

Behind them, a river appeared around the corner. It would carry them away. Her chest hurt. She gripped the reins tightly.

“Come on, girl! Gallop!”

Kirra’s hooves splashed and splashed.

The valley grew wider, but the river came faster. They must ride another mile to get clear of the flood.

Sheila leaned down and yelled.

“Faster! We both want to live.”

The river crashed against boulders and flew up in her face. Kirra ran through water a foot deep. Sheila tried in vain to see the rocks ahead. Only luck could save them now. The ground rumbled with the force of the water. The river was deeper a hundred yards back. If the wall of water reached them, they would drown.

The water rose to Kirra’s thighs, but she galloped on, fighting, dodging the boulders. She breathed hard, loud grunts of effort, and they sped down the canyon.

Kirra lost her footing. The water floated the pony downstream, and she began to swim. Sheila struggled to hang on, her feet slipping from the stirrups. Water soaked her clothes and misted her eyes. She grabbed the saddle with both hands.

There. Up ahead. The valley walls widened. The torrent slowed as the land flattened.

Kirra’s hooves found their footing, and she lunged against the river. Sheila clamored back into the saddle. The water rushed over the sides of the valley and into the flat land beyond. Kirra ran to one side until they were clear of the water, and then she slowed to a trot, her lungs heaving. Sheila’s heart beat so hard she could feel it in her chest.

She rubbed Kirra’s neck. “Good girl. Good girl.”

They walked slowly back toward the truck. Sheila’s clothes were soaked, and her mind was filled with thoughts of their narrow escape. She relived the drama over and over. Gradually, her heart rate and breathing slowed again, and she turned to survey the horizon. The skies were blue ahead, the land dry, not yet touched by the coming storm.

END OF EPISODE # 06