Spindly and spikey spinifex rolled across the yellow floor, over and over it went at a dizzying speed into the barren beyond.
Howling winds picked up sand and carried it across the dessert plain, swirling it into the air.
It was hot and the fireball of sun glared down on the dry earth, scorching and drying everything beneath it.
“Windy again” the old bearded man spat out through toothless gums.
“Yep” she replied taking his money for the petrol he had just filled his rusty can with.
“Be seeing yer”.
Most of the old people in this desert town didn’t waste words. They said what they wanted to and nothing more.
Richmond was one of the lucky towns that sat on the edge of the main Highway, so passing traffic stopped for fuel, food and to use a bathroom. There was also a garage with a mechanic who could fix anything from a blown tyre to engines and crankshafts.
Jack had a huge shed stocked like no other mechanic anywhere. “Been picking up stuff’ for over forty years” he told people who were amazed at his huge collection – and fixin’ for longer”.
There wasn’t much else to see, especially at this time of year. No pretty oasis tucked away behind the few stores, and the pretty desert plants that bloomed in winter were now dry and brown.
Mary had lived in this town all of her life, was born here, along with her five brothers and sisters.
It had changed a lot since she was a child. As with all country towns, when the work dries up because mills and the like are shut down, then the people leave. The towns become a shadow of what they once were.
She was the only sibling who hadn’t left. Her mother and father were buried here in the small cemetery attached to the old stone church. Each week she would go to the graves and take off any rubbish that had blown onto them, adjust the plastic flowers and tell them that life was good, she was well and so was their grandson, Tommy.
She could never leave here. Her late husband was also buried in the cemetery , even before her parents were, and she wanted to be buried alongside of them all when the time came.
Mary had only been married for three years when a freak accident in the then working log sawing mill, killed her husband instantly. She had kissed him goodbye that morning not knowing it would be for the last time. By 11am that same morning she was a widow.
Mary had a two-year-old son who didn’t have a dad anymore and she knew then that this is where she would bring him up. She had parents to help raise him and at the time, lots of good friends.
Mary then got a job in the sawmill herself, in the office and her mother looked after her son. It was a healthy community in those days, lots of children, a small school, general store, a church and the town swimming pool.
The pool shut down not long after the saw mill did. With no one to look after it, it just became a green sludgy pond – housing frogs and amoebas. For a while some of the bigger kids in the town would jump down into the empty shell and play hand ball in it and at night time light up cigarettes they had pinched from their parents packets!
When the mill shut down Mary’s father was still alive and bought a great deal of the logs that were ready for sawing up. He had worked at the mill himself for over forty years and had most of the tools needed to do work himself in his shed.
When Tommy was old enough to use a saw - and Mary was sure he would come back home without all of his fingers - she would let him go to his Grandad’s shed and create things out of the wood. He loved it, and would come back home with wood shavings in his hair and hands dried out from handing the wood.
There were only a few littles kids at the school now and it wouldn’t be long until that shut down too. The bigger kids, of which there were six, were picked up by a bus in the morning, on the edge of town and taken to the next town, a much bigger place, about an hour’s trip away.
If you missed that bus then it was up to you to make your own way to school.
Tommy loved it when he missed the bus, his mum owned the petrol station and foodery and with only one other person working in it, she couldn’t afford to take a couple of hours out of her day, especially at holiday season when the roads were busy. So, on these days he would happily come back home and spend the day in the wood shed, whittling and shaving, usually whistling while he was working.
Once the mill stopped working it wasn’t too long until other stores started closing. The work dried up and people had to leave. ‘You have to go where the work is’ could be heard around town.
Mary’s mother and father died within five months of each other. Her mother passed from cancer but her father probably from a broken heart.
When the petrol bowser and store was put up for sale, the previous owners opting to pack up and leave Mary knew what she had to do. She had been left some money in her parents will and this was her only option if she wanted to give Tommy a secure home. So, she bought it. There wasn’t a long line of people wanting to buy it so it went for a good price.
It was hard at first, working only in school hours but as he got older, she could let him do his homework in the store at the back, by himself while she served. She’s not quite sure if he was actually doing any school work because his grades never improved and she would always find plenty of wood shavings on the floor.
She was told by another mum that there were always plenty of wooden whistles being blown in the school yard!
Even when it was dry and hot during the day, as the sun began to sink behind the horizon, the dessert winds would rip through town, banging doors and shutters closed, picking up any loose papers, and wrapping them around prickly bushes in the vastness beyond, sometimes the temperature would drop a few degrees
Mary and Tommy would sit in front of their open fire, huge logs hosting dancing flames of reds and yellows. One thick piece of wood could last for hours. Crackling and popping noises would emanate from the heat, and they would sit with hot cheeks and warm fingers, talking about the future.
Mary knew that her time was running out with Tommy living with her in this tiny town. He had less than one year left of school, and then he would probably want to leave.
He needed to go. What future was there here for him?
She had some good friends who lived what they called ‘a normal life’ in a bigger town. She thought her life was normal but her friends still tried to get her to leave. She never would, but that didn’t mean she wanted Tommy to stay once he had finished school.
Tommy had actually saved up a bit of money since he began selling his wooden furniture. It started when one of the families asked him if he could make a small wooden chair for their daughter’s birthday. He did, and even though they were very happy with the finished chair, he wouldn’t take any payment for it.
“Tommy, you have to take something. It’s perfect and I want another chair and a table now!”
Soon word got around about the craftsmanship of young Tommy Chapman and the orders began to come in. Before long he was making furniture for the next town too.
His mother had to tell him that she didn’t need any more boxes with hinged lids or side tables – her small house was getting cluttered and she had nothing to put on them!
One cold evening when they were sitting in front of the fire, she asked him if this was what he would like to do for a living. “I would love to Mum, but I don’t want to do it here, and I don’t want to leave you”.
Tommy, I’m happy here. I never want to leave and as much as I love you, I would like you to go and fulfil your dreams. This isn’t the place for a young man. You sell your wooden furniture to the next town, to passing cars that stop for fuel but you can do better than this. They love your work around here, so imagine how well you could do selling it in the big cities.
They finished the conversation and sat in silence, each with their own thoughts, watching the curling tongues of flame shoot up the chimney and disappear out into the cold night.
“One last thing before I go to bed Mum” Tommy said standing up and walking towards his mother, “Do you think Dad would want me to leave here, to leave you and the only place I’ve ever known?”
“Tommy, your father saved nearly every dollar he earned. His dream was to one day leave here and buy a farm. He had his eye on a big piece of land, and the plans we had for our future were so exciting. We would picture it in our mind, knowing that the only way we could ever achieve this dream was to work hard. Your dad was one for following dreams but sadly he wasn’t on this earth long enough to do that. He would be so proud of you and your work... and I don’t mean school work!”
“Night Mum” Tommy said after listening to her “Love you”.
Life in a desert town this size never changes much. The only things to make a difference to some people is a death, a birth or the weather.
There were no births and probably wouldn’t be unless there was a resurrection of mines and mills, and younger people coming here to live. There hadn’t been a death for about two years, the last one being Billy Wright. He had lived in the town for seventy-five years and passed away just shy of his 99th birthday.
The weather did make a difference to life here. It could be mild and beautiful or fierce and destructive. In summer months there were scorchers of days when the sun blazed down like an orange fireball, burning everything that wasn’t prepared for its intensity. Most town people tried to stay inside or at least under cover between the hours of 12 – 2pm. It was just madness to go outside in such intense heat.
The summer evenings were balmy and warm, sometimes still quite hot later on. In the early days Mary recalled the BBQs at friends’ houses, all the children running around in just a pair of undies, no shoes and splashing in a large tub of water that was sitting on the sandy ground.
Families would wander home later in the evening, full of food and drink, the children tired out, and into a still warm house.
It never seemed to cool down in Mary’s house, and probably everyone else’s, until the wind blew in off the desert in the early hours. Her net curtains would blow furiously and the loose shutters rattle. Together with the one ceiling fan twirling around on high speed, the warm air in the house would gradually escape making it easier to sleep.
In winter Mary wished for a bit of the summer heat as she walked around in her warm slippers and thick dressing gown. It was cosy sitting in front of the open fire, but when it was time to go to bed, the drop in temperature away from the front of the smouldering logs, was huge!
She hadn’t really maintained her house either, mainly because she didn’t think it mattered. She would look at the gaps around the windows and doors and look away, but each winter she vowed in spring she would fix the house up. It didn’t happen and she wasn’t sure if it ever would.
The question of what Tommy would do in the future was brought to the fore by a stranger.
Mary was preparing dinner and Tommy had the responsibility of closing up the store.
Outside Mary could see through her kitchen window and wondered who it was in the car stopping outside her house.
A tall man, neatly dressed in long pants and a shirt, stepped out of the driver’s side and looked up and down the street. He didn’t have many houses to choose from, whoever he was looking for, and the numbers didn’t go in the right order either!
She watched while stirring a pot on the stove. He locked the car door, push his hair back with his hand and headed for Mary’s front door.
She turned the stove off, took off her apron and headed for the front door.
Standing on the other side of it as he knocked on the outside, she moved to open it.
“Hello, Mrs. Rogers?” he asked and gave her a wide smile.
“Yes, that’s me. Can I help you?”
“I’m here to talk about your son.”
Mary was never afraid of strangers and thought herself a pretty good judge of character, so after feeling quite at ease, asked the man if he would like to come inside.
They both walked through into the lounge and she offered him a seat, which he sank into, and then a cordial.
Looking at him, she could see he had a kind face and honest eyes. She really did get positive vibes from this man.
“Well, as I said, I’m actually here to talk about your son Tommy>”
“Really, what about Tommy?”
“I own a company in Banville. We sell wooden furniture, unique and hand made. All types of furniture, indoor, outdoor, formal, leisure.”
“Yes” was all Mary could think to say, but hoping it might be what she wanted to hear.”
He sipped on the lime drink that Mary had made for him and continued “I happened to see a table and chairs that my sister had brought while she was passing through this town”.
“That my son made?” offered Mary, her interest piqued.
“Yes, quite right, and I was very impressed with the workmanship of the furniture. It’s been quite a while since I have seen furniture built so well to be honest.”
“I’ve been making enquiries, and I believe your son makes all of his furniture by hand in a shed, here?”
“Yes, he does” Mary answered “it’s a real love of Tommy’s, furniture making, and he’s been doing it since he was quite young.”
She didn’t want to add that she thought it would be the best thing for Tommy to leave this place and get out into the wide world, doing what he has always loved. She didn’t want to say anything until she heard what he was going to say!
“I can see some things that your son has made in this room” he said looking around at the abundance of tables, and they both laughed.
“If it’s alright I would like to meet Tommy. I’m not sure how he or you feel about him coming to Banville and working for my company?” he told her, thinking that the lad was far too talented to stay in a place like this but knowing it wouldn’t be an easy decision for either of them to make.
When Tommy came home, he was surprised to see a shiny and expensive looking car outside his house, and walking inside he saw a man sitting sipping a cool drink, who looked like he should be driving that kind of car.
“Hi Tommy, this is Geoff Turner and he has seen some of your furniture, his sister bought some when they passed through, and he wants to talk to you about it”.
Tommy felt a surge of excitement course through him.
They shook hands and after a short discussion, Geoff was taken to the shed to see where Tommy worked and some of his finished furniture. He was most impressed.
After they all walked out to Geoff’s car he said to both Mary and Tommy “I know it’s a lot to think about and I appreciate that, but if you could let me know what you decide, we can go from there”, and he handed Tommy his business card.
It was turning cool. Mary pulled her shawl around her shoulders and Tommy lit the fire, the tiny little blue flame jumping into life in no time. Outside the wind had picked up and the front door gently banged.
They sat and ate dinner in front of the fire, informal and relaxed, plates on laps. They had a little table each that Tommy had made for their drinking glasses.
“Tommy” his mum said looking at him next to her, “I will miss you enormously but I will never be lonely. Apart from you my lovely boy, I have everyone here that I will ever need, AND even though I love it here, and my friends probably don’t think so, I do know how to catch a coach, so I will visit.”