Gone Riding - Chris Lee

I had a headache last night.
    You weren't here and I won't tell you. I couldn't sleep much with that old woman up and down the hall all night. Her voice is like the cows lowing for their lost calves when the milking starts. I spent half the night wanting to put her in a paddock down the back of the farm, the other half remembering.
    Do you remember the competition we had on the bridge that first time we went out? I wanted to let you win but when it came to it you couldn't spit further than your foot so I showed you what a King Country bloke could do. I had a long ride home on the horse and all the way I worried you'd not want to see me again. I thought you'd think me crude. Well, that was thirty and more years ago and here we are. Looking back I reckon tragedy knocked any pretence from us both. My dad dying crushed by a tree and leaving six kids and Mum on the farm and your brother killed by the mill machinery when he took dinner to your dad, then your dad turning drunkard. I guess a girl who helped old Edward home drunk as often as you did could find a spitting competition fit courting.
     I wanted to chop wood last night. My competition axes are sharp and in the shed. I'd even use them on firewood now. I never told you but I chop wood on washdays so I can watch you work over the copper and washboard. You wiping sweat from your forehead, eyes all fiery with the smoke when the wind blows contrary and then with ire when I tell you to get a hurry on. There's nothing like the aching of muscles and sweat on his shirt and a blister or two to make a man feel he's used a day from his life properly. Being near you gave it all purpose.
    The headache's strong now. I'm closing an eye while I write. It'll be gone tonight or tomorrow, I'm expecting. I'll go riding then. Not on Judge, sadly. That old horse has jumped enough hurdles carrying my oversize frame to keep you polishing trophy cups for a lifetime.  I'll be riding though, you remember that.  I might go in the bush. Last night I remembered fencing on the bush line as a young fellah. I imagined you would have been picking coal up from train tracks beside your house with your dad or practicing your violin while I was felling totara, neither of us knowing the other existed or what we would become together. A long time gone now but the memories haven't faded at all. I can still recollect the scent of the sap and the feel of woodchips hitting my arms as I swung the axe and the dust falling into my socks from the two man crosscut saw Fred and I used on the big trees and to cut the lengths.  The sounds are still clear too, the tree tearing itself free from the stump, creaking and groaning, the leaves rustling on the way down, then the branches cracking and the thud of the trunk shaking the ground. I can even recall the rain dripping on the tent canvas beneath the tree canopy and the smell of bread baking in the camp oven when it was too wet to split the logs into battens or dig posts in and string wire. 
     I remembered building the house too. Four of us mates building four houses. Hard work. Evenings while the sun allowed and all weekends. You feeding us, speckled with paint. At the time it was the greatest achievement of our lives. Our own home on ten acres. A horse paddock, sheep and a milk cow. Then you brought Laura Kay home from the hospital, then Nanette. Everything else faded. You three are my life, and now Laura and Nan's daughters of course.
   Since I'm laying things out true for you I'll say I snuck lots of your preserves over the years. I gave the jars away when people down in the village struck hard times. Maybe some money went the same way now and then without anyone knowing, but maybe you figured that. Not sure if you know though, I don't much like photography.  I'm not saying it's burdensome. I enjoyed the time together looking for photo shots for you, the day trips and camping with the girls when they were young, always with a camera.  Sometimes on the farm I see a scene and I wish I could call you in that moment and watch you look through the viewfinder, all intense and purposeful. The dark room was different altogether, a private place for just you and I. I can feel you now, your arm against mine as we stand, red bathed and peering at the images coming from nowhere onto the paper.
      The simple things came back most vivid in the night. Horses stamping their hooves and blowing warm breath in the mist of a winter morning when I bring them feed. A fantail flitting in the trees around the camp. Getting a ewe to take an orphan lamb. Seeing the dogs bring the cows in on the whistle. But the best memories are filled with you. Thirty years. When I leave here I want you to take me to the back of the farm, where you and I walked, across paddocks grazed clean and smooth by sheep, insects flying through the air, bright in the sunlight, you holding my hand, sitting under a Kahikatea tree, drinking tea from the thermos and eating your sandwiches while the birds sang. 
    You visited just now. I wanted to talk more but the headache was strong.  Grumble all you like but I didn't tell you because I don't want you to worry. That's my last gift to you, Ivy my love, a few more hours of hope. 
     We knew it was a long shot, surgery into the brain. A man's face can travel almost anywhere in the country and appear on one of those new televisions, but fixing the inside of his head when it's broken is taming a different kind of animal.
    I don't want you upset when I'm gone. I know it'll be hard on you but I'll be content like I told you. It will be just like the book says. Everything good from here, none of the bad. You prattle on about paying the ferryman to cross the River Styx, but I know that's you being stubborn with God and prideful with the rest of us. I'll go riding. Maybe Dad will be there waiting with horses from his farm. Mum and your brothers Keith and Laurence too. 
    The headache's a six pound hammer now, almost as bad as your moaning for days on end the time I rode Judge through the house. I think maybe the nurse's voice won't be a bother tonight after all. It's getting hard holding the pen too, worse than shearing the last sheep of a twelve hour day, so I'll stop.  I'll think of you and the girls while I ride. It won't be right without you, but I'll wait.

Contributor's Note

Hobby writer learning new tricks. Thanks Dr Tracey Slaughter and the UOW English Department.


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