My two daughters sat one on either side of me holding my hands, and quite honestly holding me up, at the funeral. They had lost their beloved father, and I had lost the love of my life, Brian Symington. He was only seventy three, but had died from a massive heart attack when he was out in the north field, driving the tractor. He’d fallen off and we found him dead on the ground next to the stalled tractor. The doctors said nothing could have been done to save him. I couldn’t concentrate on the burial service, and my mind wandered among scenes from our life together.
Brian and I met on one of Sydney’s beaches, when I was chasing my nephew Billy’s little dog, trying to catch it. Dogs were not allowed on that beach, but the dog had other ideas and didn’t want to be caught. Suddenly a man ahead of me jumped sideways and caught the squirming dog in his strong arms. He looked like a vision to me, standing tall in the sun, smiling and glistening with sea water. A crumpled towel was at his feet. I remember running up to him and breathlessly thanking him. I also remember that I looked up at his face as I reached out to take the dog, and realized how tall he was, how suntanned, how well-muscled, how altogether gorgeous, and I blushed at the thoughts running through my head. Then I remembered his deep, gentle voice asking,
“Do you want a hand with the little fella, I’m pretty good with animals.”
Of course I had said yes, please, and invited him to come home with us for a drink. I was staying with my uncle, who lived in one of the beautiful and expensive houses with a view of Sydney Harbor. Brian met my family and told us all be lived and worked on his parents’ farm about four hundred miles west of Sydney, but was visiting his computer whiz kid brother, who lived in the City. My uncle was starting up a computer company and wanted to meet Brian’s brother, so our families got together, Brian’s brother Kenny got a better job, and Brian and I were thrown together often. We had not needed any help. We were a perfect match for each other. It was often a long-distance relationship, but we talked on the phone a few times each week, and we wrote to each other. The internet and emails have taken a lot of joy out of life. I remember well how exciting it was to get a letter from Brian. He also took to visiting his brother Kenny regularly, which meant he had to take a trip to the city, and he often took me to visit Kenny and his wife Jean. We had fun at their house and Jean and Kenny dropped hints all the time that we would “make a lovely couple.”
Our wedding took place on October 7, 1963, and the reception was held in my uncle Tom’s garden. Brian took me home to live and work on his parents’ farm, Leaning Rock, in the Barwon River Valley, where the nearest village was twenty miles away and the nearest town sixty miles away. I loved it. I had always wanted to live in the country, on a farm with animals. Brian’s parents, Rob and Norma, were very kind and welcoming to me.
A city girl, I didn’t know one end of a cow from another, and everything was new and an adventure, and I was determined to learn how to be a good farmer’s wife. The farm was a stud pig farm: other farmers paid a lot to have their sows serviced by the Tamworth or Berkshire boars at the Symington Stud Farm at Leaning Rock. They also kept a small herd of sheep for their own meat, a few cows for milking, a couple of horses, and several chickens. Brian and his father Rob were experimenting with a small herd of Santa Gertrudis cattle from Texas, to see if they would get along well in the area. My wish had come true and I had lots of animals around. Slowly, I learned how to take care of them all. My favorites were the cattle, with their dewlaps and strangely shaped heads, the foreigners I called them. I was really a foreigner to that kind of life, so I felt a kinship with the slow, gentle creatures.
The farm did well and although we were not rich, we loved the farming life. And then I got pregnant with my oldest girl Kathleen. The whole family waited excitedly for the new arrival. Farming had its ups and downs, of course, and in 1966 we were in the middle of the worst drought for many years. The wheat planted for stock feed gave a very small crop, the grass and scrub were brown and crisp. But the trees, mostly gum or pines, were alright. Rob and Brian took their Santa Gertrudis cattle to the southern part of the property, which was mostly bush with trees and scrub, to let them forage for what they could find, and one of my favorite chores was to take bales of hay and some oats to them at the bore hole watering tank. I would stop and talk with the cattle, who answered me with their soft mooing.
Rainwater was collected from the roof of every house and building to be stored in big round tanks, but it had been used up, there had been no rain, and our family and the stock were now surviving on bore water. It had a strong mineral taste, but was clean and good.
I remembered the time the phone lines were busy between the widely separated farms around us, as rain and storms were forecast, and everyone was keeping an eye on the weather. Storms south of us had produced lightning that started a fire in the bush, which was spreading fast because everything was so dry, and the storm had come in with strong winds, but very little rain. It began to look bad, as the lightning and winds continued and increased in strength, fanning the flames and whipping the fire along at stunning speeds, spreading it to the southern part of our farm.
Brian, his father and all our neighbors were members of the local volunteer fire brigade, and they set out to make a fire break by burning a wide strip to stop the fire in its tracks. Brian’s mother Norma worked on the two-way radio, keeping in touch with the firefighters, local weather spotters, and wives. Brian told me to pack a bag and drive into town to stay with friends in case the fire got out of control.
I did pack a bag and drive off in the old Jeep, but I didn’t drive into town. I drove back, out through the bush towards the fire because the small herd of cattle were out there. I thought Brian had forgotten them, out there in the bush with the fire getting ever closer to them. I planned to bring them home to safety, then I’d go into town. I brought along a bale of hay I could use to lure the cattle back home. I could smell the fire almost as soon as I drove into she bush and bumped along the dirt track, hoping the jostling didn’t upset the baby in my womb. I though he was probably enjoying it and I was convinced it was a boy because it kicked so much. Eventually I spotted one or two cattle in amongst the trees, and started blowing the horn and calling them. I drove up to the water bore, and cleaned out the debris floating in it. Most of the herd were now surrounding me, so I cut open the hay bale and spread some out on the bed of the jeep, holding it out to them in handfuls. It worked. They came up to the Jeep and started eating, so I slowly eased the Jeep forward and steered them back the way I had come. It was a long, slow drive back, and the bush was getting more and more smoky, making me cough, so I took off my shirt and tied it around my nose and mouth. It was getting worse though, and I began to cough again and to feel dizzy. I hoped and prayed I would make it home before the smoke made me pass out.
Norma, meanwhile, had been talking to people in town, and nobody had seen me. She relayed this message to Rob and Brian, who had ridden the horses out to the fire break. Rob told Brian he thought I’d gone to get the cattle, because I was fond of them. Brian almost panicked, his father told me, but he took an oxygen tank, turned around and rode off to find me. The others finished the fire break and rode home.
Brian found me slumped over the wheel of the stalled Jeep, surrounded by cattle sounding the alarm with their bellows. He put the oxygen mask on me and I came round enough to drive slowly back through the trees, as Brian rounded up the cattle, urging them on as fast as they could move. The smoke lessened as we neared home, and we moved the cattle into the big front field which had a couple of big water troughs. and spread the rest of the hay and oats on the ground for them. Brian checked every one of the cattle, and all seemed to be no worse for their adventure. He let his horse drink, then took him home to his stable in the barn, and I remember the horse, his name was Ben, whinnying happily to be home.
Then Brian took me inside, washed my soot-blackened face, and couldn’t stop hugging and kissing me. I think I remember he was angry at me for what I did, but he was so happy he had saved me from the fire. I was foolish, I know, and I could have died from the smoke if Brian hadn’t come along to save me. But at least I had saved the cattle.
I remember Rob, Norma, Brian, and me sitting round the table and enjoying a big mug of tea. Rob held up his cup of tea and said, “Here’s to Katie, who saved the cattle from the fire today.”
And I held up my cup of tea, “And here’s to Brian, who saved me from the fire today!”