Ned used his booted foot to open the screen door leading onto the porch, the door squeaked as he opened it and slammed shut behind him before flies and mosquitoes could sneak into the house, he made a mental note to oil the hinges. He carried the metal tray carefully, trying not to spill anything, placing it onto the weather worn table between two wicker chairs..On the tray a large white chipped enamel tea pot, Ned had scooped four teaspoons of Bushells tea into the pot adding a gum leaf for extra flavour, a tin of condensed milk, a plate of anzac biscuits and two large mugs printed with faded pictures of Sydney harbour bridge and issued on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the bridge. The faded image showed the bridge, affectionately known as the ‘Coathanger’ with the dates 1932 on one side and 1982 on the other with a gold 50 inside the arch. Ned and his wife Mary, had been there for the historic 50th anniversary ceremony along with thousands of other Sydneysiders who walked across the bridge that day and made their way to the harbour foreshore to enjoy the festivities. The two mugs were the remaining two from a set of six that they had bought along with a large tin of Bushells Tea from the market stall. The two of them had remained loyal to Bushells tea ever since and the old tin, now a piggy bank, was proudly displayed on the kitchen dresser.
He eased himself into his chair adjusting the cushion to relieve the ache in his lower back and stretched his long heavily tanned legs out in front of him. He put his hand out to stroke Bonnie on the head, his beloved companion who was curled up on Mary’s chair. The border collie was now spending more time sleeping as she was long retired from working the sheep on the station. Ned came from a family of sheep farmers and had worked the farm for well over forty years taking over from his Dad who had been killed in a tragic tractor accident when Ned had just come of age. Mary lived on the next door station and her and Ned had known each other forever. They formed a strong bond in childhood and no one was surprised when they asked their respective parents for permission to marry.
Mary had become an accomplished award winning artist over the years and she had established a strong following in Sydney galleries. Ned looked at the unfinished painting on her easel standing in the glassed in area of the porch which was her studio. Ned smiled as he remembered how particular she was about the layout of the studio, the built in worktops and cupboards that Ned had built and the size and setting of the windows to ensure that she had the correct light. It was her happy place and was her main solace when she fell ill. Mary had great plans when Ned decided to retire from farming. She wanted to run art workshops and convert the old sheep sheds and shearers quarters into an artists retreat. They had spent many hours drawing up plans but these were now gathering dust.
Ned no longer ran sheep and had leased off most of his land to the corporate commercial farmers who had acquired many of the surrounding properties. Ned had stubbornly decided not to sell but to lease the land on the proviso he was able to reside in the old homestead for his lifetime, he knew no other home and was reluctant to move into an 'Over 55's' on the coast despite all the nagging from his daughter Lizzie in Sydney, she had offered to have him move in with them but Ned was a child of the land. He loved the desolation and wide open spaces of the Far West and even in the harsh times of droughts or floods the red dust was in his veins and he couldn’t bear the thought of ever leaving it. ‘I will leave here in a wooden box’ he often said to anyone who suggested it would be better for him to be nearer civilisation.
Today was Friday and Ned had a tradition that dated back to as far as he could remember. His farm was that last drop off for the postal van and he and Mary had started the tradition of laying on a tea break for the postman before he headed home through the dusty landscape.
Ned looked over the expanse of yellow canola fields toward the distant horizon for the first sign of the dust cloud that would form behind the van as it sped down the unpaved road. The haze hovering over the horizon had dissipated in the cooler late afternoon making it easier to see the dust from several kilometres away. ‘No sign yet’ he said to Bonnie who looked up at him with her bright eyes and turned to look in the same direction as if understanding what he was saying. She licked his hand, sighed and put her head down between her paws looking up to him expectantly and ready for Ned’s command. It was the time of the day when they usually went for their walk along the dusty track down to the old shearing sheds and billabong.
The sheds now stood forlorn and empty. Ned would often walk into the sheds and imagine Mary’s dream coming alive but he knew little of the art world and would flounder on his own if he tried to fulfill Mary’s dream project. In the sheds he could still smell the sweat of the shearers and the sheep and hear the clicking sound of the shears and singing and banter of the young shearers and the bleating of the sheep.
The sheds had been a frenetic hive of activity during the season as the shearers hauled the round woolly animals between their knees, the sheep emerging a matter of minutes later shorn and looking confused as they joined their flock in the outer pens.A good shearer could shear up to 150 sheep in a working day, they worked under contract living in sparse accommodation behind the sheds and it had been the job of the women on the farm to ensure that they were well fed during their stay.
The billabong had filled up with the recent rain and Bonnie loved it when Ned threw a branch into the water and even at her advanced age she would behave like a puppy as she jumped into the water to retrieve the stick. Ned would sometimes strip down and join her in the cooling waters.
‘Bill is late today’ he mumbled as he looked toward the large clump of gum trees near the pole and wire entry gates hanging lopsided from the gate posts and nowadays more often open than closed.
The cluster of gum trees marked the spot of the family graveyard and the newest granite headstone threw off glints of sunlight twinkling like stars. Ned smiled to himself, it was Mary winking at him and gave him comfort that she was still with him. Sometimes he and Bonnie would wander down to the graveyard. Ned would sit on the small rustic bench, never tiring of the intensity of the stars in the vast outback sky and talk to Mary’s spirit telling her of the constellations and pointing out shooting stars and the new phenomenon of satellites orbiting the earth which did not exist when he first started studying the heavens as a boy. In those days he and Mary had spent many evenings lying close together on a rug looking up at the massive canopy of stars as he pointed out the different planets and showed her how to identify the Southern Cross telling her how useful it was as a navigation tool for the ancient mariners and explorers. On one of these evenings, out of sight from their parents on the porch, was the first time that he had felt the thrill of Mary’s kiss.
‘At last’ Ned sighed as he saw the first smudge of dust on the horizon. He placed his hand on the tea pot and was satisfied that it was still piping hot, lifting the lid off he smelt the eucalyptus and tea aroma that was carried on the steam. He watched the dust cloud grow larger, Bonnie pricked up her ears as she heard the sound of the approaching vehicle at the same time that Ned caught sight of a glint of sunlight off the windscreen. The red van was now fully visible as it sped toward him, the dust billowing out behind. He stood up stretched and walked a few steps to the railing of the porch, leaning on it as he watched the van approach.
The sky was turning a shade of pink as the sun started its journey to the horizon, the fields orange and earth a darker shade of red, the distant hills silhouetting against the pink sky.
The vehicle slowed as it approached but it couldn’t fully shake off the cloak of dust behind it and as the van stopped the dust enveloped it completely. It was a moment before Bill emerged from the dust cloud.
‘Welcome mate,’ Ned said as Bill climbed the stairs onto the porch holding a bunch of letters which he handed to Ned. ‘I am sure you are parched, come sit yourself down’. Bill was short of stature shoulder height to Ned. He was jovial, always ready with a story and that’s what Ned enjoyed about his weekly visit. Bill would give him all the gossip from around the district. ‘Sit yourself down mate and have a cuppa’ Ned handed Bill a mug of tea and slid the tin of condensed milk over to him with a teaspoon balancing on the top.
Mary would never have allowed that as she always took special care in how she served up tea, putting out her best crockery and arranging the cake or biscuits properly on one of her special plates.
‘Great bikkies’ said Bill, dunking a generously sized biscuit into his tea. ’How are you getting along?’ he asked. ‘Going fine thanks mate still gets a little lonely at times but I have Bonnie to take care of and don’t want for much more.' Bill took a noisy sip of his tea. ‘You know we were talking sometime back about the artists retreat that Mary dreamed of having one day. Well I have a proposition for you. I’m done with this caper of delivering post and my super is substantial enough for me to retire and concentrate on my art. I would like to help you set up a retreat as you and Mary planned. If you'll have me of course' he chuckled. He looked at Ned expectantly who was gazing past him looking at the unfinished painting on Mary’s easel. Ned didn't say anything for a while then broke his silence ‘You know she was going to enter that one in the Wynne.'
Bill kept quiet and reached over to take another biscuit, he could see that Ned was lost in thought, no doubt picturing Mary at her easel. A while later he turned to Bill nodding with a smile saying ‘food for thought.’
Bill knew Ned to be a person who did not make snap decisions and thought ‘enough said for now’. ‘I must get moving before it gets too dark’ he said as he stood up and patted Bonnie who had anticipated that he would be leaving and was wagging her tail excitedly no doubt hoping for a walk once Bill had left. Ned and Bonnie walked Bill to the van. The men shook hands. ‘See you for tea at the same time next week’ Ned said. ``We will have a lot to talk about, I might even bake you a cake.' Bill patted him on the back. ‘See you later mate.’
Bill slowed down as he passed the weathered iron sheds, the rusting remains of an old truck and other farm implements dwarfed by the old gnarled gum tress around them. Mary had given him his first art lesson under the same trees and Ned was still running sheep, he smiled with the memory and his treasured friendship with Ned and Mary as he drove toward the sinking sun.