Patrick Kelly


Sheila Stories - #02 - Darling Downs

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SS COVER EP02 Darling Downs.png

In Thomas’s world:

Natalie and April beg their father to allow them to have a dog like the one in the first Sheila story, but Thomas is reluctant because of the cost.

And in Sheila’s world:

Sheila struggles to ride a pony and realizes she needs the help of Tom and his family to survive as a farmer.

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At the end of the first story, Natalie and April’s eyes are shiny and big.

“What do you mean she’s going to raise sheep?” says Natalie. “That’s crazy. She’s only eighteen, and she has a home and a family.”

“Where is Sydney, anyway?” asks April.

“About five hundred miles south of Queensland. Sydney is in New South Wales, and Queensland is a bordering state.”

“But what about her parents?” says Natalie, shaking her head. “How can she leave them behind?”

“Sheila feels she has something to prove,” I say, “not to the world, but to herself. In 1935, lots of men, like Sheila’s father, would say to their daughters, ‘Girls should do this,’ or ‘Girls can’t do that.’ That kind of talk would bother Sheila. She believed girls could do anything boys could do.”

Natalie shakes her head. “I could never do anything like that.”

“You’re only ten,” I say. “Give yourself time.”

 And then April says, “Why does Sheila live in Australia?”

It strikes me as a peculiar question, as if she believes I could set the stories anywhere: England, California, or even the suburbs of Philadelphia.

“That’s just where she lives,” I say.

“Didn’t you and Mommy go to Australia on your honeymoon?” says Natalie. Natalie never forgets anything. She remembers the smallest of details from years ago: the dress April wore on her first day of school, the hideous wallpaper that hung in the half bath before I ripped it down, and the dialogue from every scene of her favorite movies.


Natalie gives an understanding nod and says, “And you went surfing. I’ve seen the pictures.”

“Well, your mom did. I always had trouble with balance, but I loved that trip. We stayed on a beach south of Brisbane called Surfers Paradise.”

April says, “Tell us another story.”

I shake my head. “Sorry, girls. Only one Sheila story per night.”

“You mean there are more?” says Natalie.

“Uh huh. Quite a few more.”

They want to talk about the story again, but not about Sheila’s plan or the beautiful landscape or Tom or his family. No, they want to talk about the dog, King. What color was he? Did he run everywhere? Did he have floppy ears?

“Daddy,” says April, “I want a puppy.” She bounces on the bed holding Spot by the ears. The poor animal’s legs flop left and right. I fear his seams will burst and send stuffing everywhere.

“Please,” said Natalie, her eyes lifting in hope. “Can we have one?”

I shake my head. “Girls. Girls. We’ve discussed this. Dogs are expensive and create a lot of work. Someone has to walk them in the morning and at night. And they shed hair, too, which creates more work.”

“I’ll walk him,” says April, her face pleading, her brown eyes softening in a way that always tugs at my heart.

“Me, too,” says Natalie. “We’ll split the work.”

“Who is going to walk him when we’re all at school?”

“You could build him a small fenced yard,” says Natalie.

“Yeah,” says April, “with a doggie door into the garage.”

“More work,” I say. “And I repeat—dogs are expensive: food, vet bills, and chewed-up furniture.”

They brood, all frowns. The money argument always works, because they can’t counter it.

I think I’ve won, put the doggie debate to rest, but then April’s face brightens again.

“How about after we rent the apartment? We’ll have more money then, and you’ll have time to build the doggie yard.”

For an eight-year-old, April is a darn good negotiator. When she’s seventeen, she’ll run me in circles.

We have an apartment above the garage with a separate entrance. Ten years ago, when Julie and I bought the house—a real fixer-upper—the extra room was unfinished. Over the last year, I have added plumbing and electricity and heating and drywall. I’m finishing the painting now, and it’ll be ready in a day or two.

A tenant will mean extra money. I glare at April. She has the devil’s gleam in her eye.

“Maybe,” I say, “after we rent the apartment.”

I give them goodnight kisses and then walk to the river bench to sit for a few minutes. It’s late spring. The air is sweetened by the fullness of the foliage. House lights from the opposite side reflect on the surface, and the flowing water ripples over rocks at the foot of the bank. A breeze scoots along the surface of the river and chills my arm.

I will finish painting tonight and then put the apartment on craigslist. I’ve used most of the savings account to buy a full-size refrigerator and a microwave.

My asking price for the rent is seven hundred a month, but I’m willing to take six. Julie always earned more than me, and money has been tight since she died. We get by. I make the mortgage every month, but we don’t eat out much.

My parents have a beach cottage in Brigantine, New Jersey. We spend a couple weeks there each summer, which is great, but I have always wanted to take the kids someplace special—Disney World, maybe, or a week in Washington, DC.

I start adding it up—the rental income, minus the cost of maintenance and utilities. In a year, we’ll have enough for our own vacation.


Two hours later, I’m in the apartment. After a last brushstroke of paint, I take a moment to inspect my work. The main room is twenty feet square with a kitchenette on one end. The bathroom is downstairs, complete with a walk-in shower. The recessed lighting updates the look, and the turquoise accent wall brightens the space. Not bad at all.

“What do you think, Jules?”

I press the brush against the inside rim of the can to force out the excess paint.

“It won’t take much to cool this room when it gets hot. I figure a window AC unit should do the trick.”

It’s a little weird, I know, talking to Julie like that, but I don’t do it all the time, only occasionally, when I’m alone. I’m not actually having a conversation. I think of it more as talking out loud. And maybe . . . just maybe, she’s listening.

Darling Downs

Three days later, Sheila woke up moments before dawn. She sat and stretched in her big bed in her farmhouse and then stood at the open window. In the soft light, a flock of sheep grazed a quarter mile away. David and Jon, Tom’s two boys, talked softly as they walked the dairy cows to the barn. A light breeze brought the smell of morning dew.

Gray sheep on Sheila’s farm.

Gray sheep on Sheila’s farm.

A creek ran along the edge of her property and wound west toward a small river a mile away. The sun struggled to crest the hills to the east. The rooster crowed from his pen next to the chicken house.

At her bureau, she examined the mirror. Her dark red curls cried for a brush. She washed her face using cold water from a basin and frowned. It would be hard to get used to outdoor plumbing, not to mention the absence of electricity.

The smell of bacon rising from the kitchen made her feel useless. On each of the prior two days, she’d eaten a full breakfast prepared by Hazel, Tom’s wife. Afterward, she had spent hours following Tom around, watching, studying, but never helping. She had asked many questions, but had no suggestions of her own.

At night, by lantern light, she had studied the financial books left behind by Robert Sloan. As a land dealer, he employed questionable tactics, but he kept meticulous records of the farm’s revenues and expenses. She made lists of questions to ask, goods to purchase, and things to do. Today, she would cross a major item off the list, because Tom would teach her to ride a horse. He toured the property on horseback every day to make sure all was in order. She had skipped the daily tour so far, but not after today.

She hurried to get dressed.


While eating a meal of eggs, bacon, biscuits, and tea, she watched Hazel, feeling guilty. Hazel had to work hard to make her breakfast, firing up the woodstove, pumping water in the sink, and then cooking everything.

“Hazel, you don’t have to make me breakfast every day.”

“Stop saying that, Miss Sheila. This is part of my job.”

“Not Miss Sheila. Just Sheila.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

A cool breeze blew in through the window. The summer’s heat was fading. For the first time since the age of six, she would not return to school with the fall.

“When do David and Jon go to school?” she asked. Hazel’s daughter, Maisie, was only five, probably too young still.

Hazel’s skin was lighter than Tom’s. Wearing plain clothes and her hair pulled up in a blue scarf, she washed dishes in the sink. “The boys went to the mission school at Jondaryan, but they’re finished with school now.”


Golly. What a dummy Sheila was. Aborigines weren’t allowed in the public school system. Aboriginal schools, if they existed at all, were designed for different purposes: boys studied to be farmhands; girls trained for domestic work.

“Our boys will work on the farms like Tom and me. They don’t need a lot of schooling.”

“Do they know how to read?”

Wiping her hands on her apron, Hazel nodded with pride. “Jon was a good student. He likes to read, but we don’t have any books.”

“What about David?”

Hazel shook her head. “David never liked school. He missed a lot of days, always said he’d rather work.”

Sheila stopped prying for fear she would embarrass Hazel. Could Tom and Hazel read? Sitting in the chair, watching Hazel clean the counter, she guessed the answer was no. Tom could manage and oversee the physical work of the farm, but he couldn’t read or write correspondence, and he couldn’t add up the revenues or costs.

At that moment, Tom came in the back door. Hazel frowned at his shoes, but he smiled broadly.

“Miss Sheila, do you still want to learn to ride a horse?”

“Not Miss Sheila. Just Sheila. And yes, I do.”


Next to the barn, Tom had saddled the big horse for himself and the pony for her. David and Jon stood nearby dressed in identical brown pants and white shirts. David’s arm lay draped over his younger brother’s shoulder. They watched in silence. Neither had yet spoken to her. They either feared her or were shy. The sheepdog, King, ran up and barked at the horses. Jon kneeled by the dog and played with his neck to keep him quiet.

The sheep dog, KING.

The sheep dog, KING.

The big horse stood still waiting for Tom to mount, but the pony moved back and forth with quick steps, apparently nervous.

Tom stroked the pony’s shoulder to calm her. He showed Sheila how to mount and how to hold the reins.

“Don’t let her take you where she wants to go,” said Tom. “You’re the one riding her.”

Sheila had seen western movies at the theatre and thought she’d have no trouble. She lifted her left foot to the stirrup, swung her leg over the saddle, and nearly fell off the pony.

Jon laughed, and David smacked his head.

Tom grabbed her belt, and she scrambled back up. The stirrups were too long.

“That’s my mistake,” said Tom, to make her feel better. “I’ll fix them.”

She grabbed the saddle horn with both hands, her heart pounding. After Tom adjusted the stirrups, she felt secure enough to pick up the reins. “What’s her name?” she asked.

“Kirra,” said David. “She’s a good pony.”

Sheila’s pony, KIRRA.

Sheila’s pony, KIRRA.

Both boys smiled.

Tom climbed in his saddle, and his horse began to walk, but Kirra stood still. How did she make the pony go? She rose and sat in the saddle. She flicked the reins against Kirra’s neck. Kirra turned her head to look at Sheila as if asking a question.

A whistle sounded from the boys. David crawled on hands and knees while his brother rode him like a horse. Jon kicked his feet backward, and David crawled faster.

So that’s how you do it.

She pressed her heel against Kirra’s side. Nothing happened. David whistled again. Jon kicked his foot back sharply. Sheila copied him, and Kirra trotted after Tom and his horse.

Every part of her body jostled. Her butt rose as the saddle fell, and then they smashed against each other. One foot slipped from the stirrup, and she struggled to insert it again.

Tom stopped.

“Everything all right?” he asked.

“Oh, yes, it’s fine.”

But to her own ears, she sounded winded and anxious.

“You’ll get used to it,” he said, with the usual broad smile on his face.

They rode the perimeter of the fence, and Tom pointed out sections that needed mending. She took mental notes.

Gradually, she grew more comfortable in the saddle. She developed a rhythm with Kirra, at least when they walked. When Kirra trotted, which she did anytime Tom and the big horse got too far ahead, Sheila held the saddle horn with both hands. But when they sat still, and she stroked Kirra’s neck, the pony appeared to enjoy her touch.

Sheila leaned forward and whispered. “You’re a sweet pony, Kirra, and you’re my pony now.”

Kirra flicked her ears; but otherwise, she didn’t seem to mind making a new friend.

After the riding tour, Tom took Sheila through the buildings again, and they discussed materials they needed for repairs—lumber, nails, paint, and hardware. She made a list.

The sun rose higher and heated the air. She grew hungry and suggested they break for lunch.

Back at the house, Hazel had made a soup with chicken and vegetables. She served Sheila the soup with a plate of biscuits and raw greens.

What would Tom and the boys eat, and where? Would they have the same meal as her? Did they eat in the cabin? How would the soup stay warm?

But she didn’t ask Hazel those questions. If she asked too many questions, Tom and Hazel grew nervous.

“What sort of greens are these?” she asked. They resembled leaves from a small bush, but they tasted fresh and full of energy.


Sheila leaned back. Raw spinach? Her mother had served boiled spinach, and it had always tasted bitter.

“If you don’t like it,” said Hazel. “I can serve something else.”

“It’s delicious. Do you have any more?”

Hazel laughed. “You have a good appetite, Miss Sheila.”

She almost corrected Hazel again but gave up on it. One thing at a time.

“Will you show me your garden after lunch? I want to learn about what you grow.”

Hazel leaned back against the counter, hands on her hips, shaking her head.

“What?” said Sheila.

“You want to know everything, don’t you?”

“Yes, everything . . . I want to know everything in the whole world.”


The garden was a hundred feet on each side. The two of them walked through the neat rows of produce in the height of the afternoon sun. Sheila had donned a wide-brimmed hat. Hazel pointed at the different plants, clearly proud of her work. She grew squash, zucchini, spinach, kale, string beans, pinto beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and two rows of corn.

Certain crops grew best in early summer, and others in the fall, while still others grew year round. The garden produced more than they needed, so they traded the extra (vegetables plus milk and eggs) with other farms for foodstuffs they didn’t produce, like pork and apples.

“Do we have any fruit trees?” asked Sheila.

“No.” Hazel’s smile was forced. “Mr. Sloan never liked fruit.”

“Hmm. We might have to change that.”

After the garden tour, Sheila and Tom drove into Toowoomba for supplies. They stopped at the hardware store and lumberyard on the outskirts of town and then went to the general goods shop.

“Tom, I need some time on my own in here. Meet me at the truck, yeah?”

Thirty minutes later, she approached the truck carrying several packages wrapped in brown paper. They made one more stop in town and then returned to the farm.

She asked Tom to assemble everyone on the front porch. When his family had gathered, she came out the front door holding a tray full of glasses of iced lemonade, the ingredients of which she had bought in town.

“Everybody take one,” she said. “You too, Maisie. Hazel and Tom, sit in those rockers. I’m going to make a speech.”

Was it possible the children had never held a cold glass? They clustered on the floor. David took a sip, and his eyes popped wide. His lips puckered at the sour taste, but then he took a bigger sip. Hazel rocked happily in the chair. Tom swallowed, and his trademark smile appeared.

“I’ve got plans for this farm,” Sheila said. “Big plans.”

Hazel nodded noncommittally. Tom’s smile faded, and he scratched his chin. Jon cocked an eyebrow at David as if to ask what the white woman meant by “big plans.”

“Look out there.” She pointed east to the hills. “Now look that way.” She pointed north across the pastures of three other farms.

Tom nodded. Maybe he could sense what was coming.

“Here is my dream: One day, the fences of this farm will stretch as far as you can see.”

Hazel’s eyes bulged. Tom coughed and spilled a little lemonade.

“But I’ll never achieve my dream without your help,” she said. “We’re in this together, but if we don’t act like a team, we’ll never win. Do you understand?”

Tom nodded, but no one else did. They just stared.

“Boys, do you know what a team is?”

They shook their heads.

“It’s like this. Before anyone can have eggs for breakfast, first, your father has to build a chicken house. Then you two fetch the eggs. Then your mother cooks them. Every person does his or her bit, but if you don’t act together, no one gets to eat breakfast. That’s a team.

“Here on the farm, we’re a team. But to achieve my dream, we have to change a few things.”

Hazel crossed her arms, as if she’d known all along there would be a catch.

“First, everyone eats together in the kitchen.”

David’s mouth dropped. Jon grinned like he’d heard a joke. Hazel shook her head.

“Stop shaking your head,” said Sheila. “We may want to discuss work over a meal. Besides, I hate eating alone.”

Tom’s eyes focused on the far horizon.

Maisie sat silent, not understanding.

“Second, everyone must become a teacher. Tom, I need you to teach me how to operate the farm. What if you get sick someday, or hurt? We can’t let the farm go without a boss.”

He bit his lower lip.

“Hazel, I need you to teach me gardening. Someday, I may live far away and all by myself. When that day comes, I’ll need to know how to grow vegetables.”

Hazel’s head remained tilted, still not sure, still evaluating Sheila’s words.

“Boys, I need you to teach me how to feed the chickens and fetch the eggs, and most importantly, how to milk a cow.”

They laughed, and then Jon said, “We will teach you things, but what will you teach us?”

Maisie shifted her gaze to Sheila.

“Fair question. I will teach you to read, write, add, and subtract . . . and one day, you can run your own farm.”

No one said a word.

“Tom and Hazel, I’ll teach you, too, if you want, but for the boys, it’s a key part of the deal. They have to learn to read well, and soon. And to get us started, I bought a few things at the shop today.”

She stepped inside, returned with her arms full of brown packages, and handed them out like it was Christmas.

David and Jon received new books and writing tablets. Jon opened his book to the middle and tried to puzzle out the words. Maisie received crayons and a coloring book, and the little girl dove right in.

Tom and Hazel rocked slowly while gazing at each other, perhaps thinking their children had a chance at a better life.

“So, team,” said Sheila. “How does that sound?”

“That sounds fine,” said Hazel.


After the story, we talk about what life was like without electricity or indoor plumbing. Then Natalie asks a question that has absolutely nothing to do with the story.

“Did Sheila wear makeup when she went into town?”

I almost laugh, but catch myself, because Natalie’s eyes suggest she was hesitant to ask the question. I have no answer. Did farmers ever wear makeup in 1935? Who knows? But my antennae are up. I need to choose my words with care.

“I’m not sure. Why do you ask?”

Natalie shrugs. “Some of the girls at school have started to wear makeup—Olivia Schufer, Emily Sykes, girls like that.”

Faces pop into my head, of girls from wealthier families. They undoubtedly watch more television.

“Do you want to wear makeup?” I ask.

“Should I?”

This is one of those times when I feel useless. I know nothing about makeup—nothing of types, brands, colors, or application. I don’t know when Natalie should begin to wear it, or how much, or how to put it on. A woman’s advice would come in handy.

But I don’t need a woman. I can meet this challenge, as well as other daunting challenges that loom in the near future, on my own. With Google and YouTube, I can figure out anything.

“Let me think about it, and we’ll talk later.”

Natalie nods her assent. She seems as willing to defer the question as I am.


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