Happiness - Chris Lee

Happiness fell from the roots of heaven, great clods of joy that dropped all over the world and missed us almost entirely. That's what mum used to say before the Parkinson's got real bad. She reckoned all we got was the rain the world wept over the tragedy around and about. You'll understand what that's like a bit now. Rain was okay though. Rain kept the grass green, the grass kept the cows fed, the cows made milk and we worked most of the daylight and some of the dark, milking and haymaking and fencing and a thousand tasks too many for a family of three short on money to pay for workers we needed. I doubt you've ever worked till dirt ingrained your callouses and that was about all the reward you got.

I did. From eight years old my day began long before dawn in the milking season. While Dad set up the cowshed I drove the four wheeler motorbike around the farm, setting gates so the cows would find the milking shed then opening the paddock and driving in behind the herd to chase them from the grass. I helped with milking until the time came to run from the shed to catch the school bus. At school the townie kids held their noses when I sat near them and they teased me when they saw cow dung on my clothes or hair. After school and weekends it all started again, milking, drenching, spraying thistles, moving irrigation units, always more work and never no mind for rain or frost or scorching heat. Other kids played rugby or football. Some got paid jobs. I worked harder than the lot for free.

Yep, happiness from anywhere missed our family altogether back then. The old man worked every waking minute, even if just gnawing over bills and stock losses and low milk solid payouts and the weather and old or broken machinery. Our share milking contract saw the farm owner Hamish Anderson driving new vehicles and holidaying in Europe and Asia while mum grew all our veges and bottled fruit and bought our clothes from charity shops.

A bit of good fortune looked like it was coming our way when I was fifteen. Twenty years of managed breeding saw the old man's herd producing the most milk ever. Rain fell regularly deep into summer so the grass grew thick and green and we were looking to milk longer than any previous season. The old man and old lady began talking about buying their own farm, about sending me to Lincoln University to study agriculture when my schooling was done. But planet earth had other plans. One small thunderstorm on a Sunday afternoon. Nothing we would notice much on a regular day, but the cows bunched like they do in the wind and rain in the corner of a paddock up close to the fence. Lightning hit the fence and jumped from a wire to a cow and then through all the animals touching each other. Twenty-nine milk cows were lying dead when I went to get them for milking. Dad shot six more by the next afternoon. Others dried off from the stress. A good milker was worth over a thousand dollars back then. The pet food company paid us around forty dollars for each carcass. The insurance company said it was an act of God so they didn't pay out.

Dad borrowed more money to restock the herd. The next spring was dry and cool, not much grass growth and then summer brought drought so we needed more money to buy feed. I left school and worked around the district driving machinery just so I could bring money in to help service the family debt. Dad and mum worked the farm. Another drought two years later and the bank sold the herd. Dad and mum came out debt free but not a possum-fart to keep for themselves after twenty-three years of working a herd. The old man got work as a farm hand. Same work but old Derek Jenkin's land and cows and his orders with manure for pay. The old lady milked free until her body shook too much to work properly.

You'll be thinking low of me because I left you sitting there in the field, but I've got my reasons and they go way back like I've been saying. I drive long-haul now. Seventy hours regular in the logbook but eighty-five and more behind the wheel most weeks. The company pays okay money under the table for the overtime but we live in the city and there's not much left after running a car and paying food and power and rent. The landlords are good sorts but it’s still a bummer knowing they'll retire early on me and Sherrie’s money. Sherrie's about as good as a woman can get, not a heifer anymore but still a hot looker and a good partner and mother too. I'd choose my kids and Sherrie over owning the best farm in New Zealand, but I don't see them much with my hours. Mary is in the school play tonight. If I get back to the yard on time, the boys can unload the truck and I'll take off to the show. That's why I'm in a hurry.

I stopped for you, and parking a b-train safely on a narrow country road isn't easy. I walked all the way back to the broken fence then across the field to your car. It beats me how you managed to crash it on a long straight, though by the looks of the wreck and the damage trail you went fast enough to turn a pebble into a judder bar. I'm picking your speed overtook your driving skills. Whatever, the farmer will be wild when he sees the dead sheep and the mess you made of his fence. Not that you'll have any trouble paying for everything. It was an act of stupidity not of God so your insurance might pay out, and driving a new Merc all suited up means you've most likely stashed a store of happiness away for stuff ups and what not.

You'll need a new suit as well as a car. That leg bone tore your pants and you blooded up your jacket from the cut on your face. But you won't die, unless you scream your lungs clear out your mouth. You begged me to stay after I phoned the ambulance. Most times I would, but like I said there's this young girl acting in town tonight. Little Bethany is coming out of the hospital just to watch her sister and my old man will be there too. He's getting past leaving the old folks home but he wanted to see Beth before we tell her the lump in her neck is cancer. He says he's planning on complaining to the big fellah that our lot didn't get a fair share of happiness in this world but I'm picking mum already did that as soon as the Parkinson's took her.

So that's why I left you there. Drought's coming again and me and mine are going to need a good memory or two to get us through the next months. You won't understand me leaving you alone in the cold with just my torch but they'll cut you out of the wreck soon enough anyways. You'll be speeding again in a couple of months. In the meantime you can stare at the stars while you moan. When I was a youngster Mum used to say they were holes in heaven letting the glory shine through.

Wasted - Chris Lee

I got hard words for you, Son. Harder than the house foundations we dug by shovel back in your first summer on the tools so I'll work up to them.

The doc says you can't hear nothin. He thinks I'm wastin words but he's just a man an he's got wrong in him same as the rest of us. Give him a nail gun on a building site an he'd be a five-hundred an hour menace. Back when you were twelve I sat at your homework desk in the dark. I watched you sleep deep for a while then I whispered I'd take you pig huntin next time I took the dogs out. Next mornin you were at my bedside all dressed an waitin with your air rifle for me to wake up. Your mother spat nails but I took you into the Pirongia forest like I'd promised; showed you how to stick a pig an gut it. Somehow you heard me that night an I'm hopin you can hear me now. Sue reckons people in comas can hear easy as. She found it on the internet an she's right about most things, your sister.

If you can hear me I know you'll man-up and take it. You’re young yet, twenty-four is a pup when you look from the back end of your forties. You’re tough enough though. I bred that into you. Rugby and boxing hardened you more than most. That time in the Stag Bar when you punched it out with that biker you didn't back down when his mate up an swung the bottle into your head. You floored them both. Proud I was standing with you drinkin from jugs; blokes an skirts all around watchin bikers groanin in puddles of spilt beer on the floor an you with blood on your face an knuckles. You were hard at nineteen. You'll cope son.

Your mother helped put good in your bones that's still there. The time you thieved from your Uncle Allen's wallet she made you volunteer at the hospice for three months. 'Theivin's a short cut to jail, Dean!' she raved over and over. You volunteered an extra month just to put the smile back on her face an to see that old soldier you made friends with into his grave. Proud you made us. She taught you the rewards of work too. Years of pestering you into practicin the guitar then one day you're eighteen an in the pub jumpin around with your band playin that indie rubbish an you stop mid-set to come off the stage an thank her public. You grew into a good bloke, Dean.

The hard part's comin, Son. For me an you. I've always been straight-up with you. Showed you how to build everything from a dog kennel to a mansion. Made sure you respected women an property. Taught you tools an life I did, but I taught you wrong some an now it's payin us back big time.

I always liked my green. I kept you off it till you quit school an came on site with me then I thought it better you learn from me than young fools hoonin their way to court and jail time. It sure was fun that first time. Stoned around the campfire after a hunt in the Puriora forest. Tokin primo head an drinkin the hard stuff beneath the stars. Eatin slabs of venison cooked over coals and workin out how to fix the world with my son.

I tried to do you right. I never let you drive after a smoke or a beer. I took all the risks, drove slow so cars honked an we laughed till I could hardly see an had to pull over. I always bought the weed an carried the stash on me so you couldn't get busted an convicted. Didn't matter in the end. I dug the foundation in you Son, gave you the taste for a high. I warned you against taking that P crap. Wish now you'd listened longer than you did. One taste at that prick Gav's tinny house an it had you. You changed son. Six months an I have to speak words no father ought to.

You dropped the ball Son. Did real bad. The papers and TV news blame the police for chasin you at high speed but you took the meth an drove an I taught you how. It was me that crashed into that bus stop even if I wasn't there and you were drivin. A little girl an her mother died, Son. We killed them.

Your girlfriend Amy's in a rehab in Auckland now. She called your mother an sends her love. She got cut on her face in the passenger seat but she'll be okay - not so pretty but that’s her bill for using P with you. We're all paying heavy, Dean. Your mother sits up nights cryin an watchin your clips on the internet. Sue stays out all night or comes home drunk. I'll visit that Gav one day with the dogs an see he gets what's due him. He won't be dealin that crap anymore.

There's more, Son. You lost your right arm an most of that shoulder along with a chunk of rib cage when the car busted into the building behind the bus stop. Your head on that side was stove in too but the docs fixed it so it'll look okay when the bandages come off. It's not so good on the inside though. The doc says your brain's munted an the machinery's breathin for you. He says keepin you alive will take resources from others who can be saved. He wants your mother an I to let you die. I almost punched him out. All he sees is a stoner who's killed people. He never seen you pick flowers for your mum an girlfriends or give half your holiday job pay to earthquake victims over in some country you'd never visit. He can't hum the songs you wrote an he never seen you score a try or work eighteen hours to see a job through. He can't remember you laughin in the firelight on the top of Mount Pirongia like I do.

The cops say you'll go to jail if you ever wake up. The doc says you'll wither away lyin in bed for decades an then die young anyway. Your mother an Sue want to turn the machinery off an let you rest - but I won't let them, Son. If you can't hear me it won't matter a damn but if you can then you'll spend years in darkness. Those are the hardest words for me Son. I been a lucky man havin my best friend an son all wrapped up in one. I can't kill them both - not when I put you here.

Contributor's Note

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


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