He stood by her, through thick and thin.
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She wanted to be a good woman to him too, after all this time. Stella knew, as she looked around the tiny shoebox farm cottage that had no air-conditioning, only ceiling fans that whirred very fast as if they would take the house high up into the blue, they were both striving together for a better life.
A home for themselves soon, on a second property. And who was she to complain? So, Stella thought, all she had to do was bide her time. For now, if the men wanted cake, they should have their cake. The only trouble was, after her tractor shifts ten years ago, she knew it was really only Nancy who wanted the cake. The men were happy with beer. She grabbed up her oven mitts just as little Ned, unable to sleep in this afternoon heat and too tired to reason with, screamed from his cot. His face and chubby limbs blotchy and red, his bottle cast on the floor, the milk already curdling.
Stella pouted to herself. The heat was bad enough for big people, let alone cherubic little Ned, who was such a good doer. He would be cooking in the tiny room that stood to the west of the house where the sun hung outside in a fiery blaze. She had learned from the stockmen that kids were like dogs: they needed plenty of praise, plenty of respect, loads of confidence building, but if they crossed the line and put themselves in danger, or busted out of a boundary, snap. Stella, the alpha bitch, would swoop, suddenly, with the conviction of a good strong leader, but with no malice.
Then all would be forgiven, the praise returning, the equilibrium found.
As a result, her kids and her dogs were happy and confident, but also, when needed, they knew how to behave. She was proud of them. Her dogs and her kids.
And she found times when she was proud of herself. Then Nancy would come calling and she would feel like the worst mother in the world. She thought of her poor darling Milly who would be on the school bus, melting along with her bedraggled, sagging classmates. Just the idea of getting in the ute and sitting on the cracked, roasting vinyl seats to make the drive to the highway to meet the bus made Stella sag herself.
Sometimes she could risk it for half an hour, while he was down for his afternoon sleep, but not today. A renewed wave of screaming from Ned travelled through the narrow hallway and met her thoughts in the kitchen. Not now, Stella thought. Times had changed. What would Nancy know about shaping young minds? Nancy had never worked a dog, never trained a pup. She had never had to reach deep within to look at how her own inner self played out in the physical world of communicating with creatures as sensitive as sheep, as cunning as cattle and as clever as dogs. What would Nancy think if she knew the principles of working-dog handling were also applied by Stella to the management of her husband, Tom?
Stella smiled. At times, Tom was as sharp and energetic as a kelpie, other times as dopey and lovable as a Labrador.
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All he basically needed was a good feed, plenty of praise and the occasional hump to keep him happy. But that was the sticking point. The hump. Stella had felt a slow corrosion take hold in the area of their lovemaking. It was the one area where her marriage felt as if it was fully weighted down with the burdens of life.
Where was there room for it amongst the dirty washing, the crops to sow, grow and harvest, sheets to change, floors to sweep and mop, head lice to combat, lunchboxes to empty of sodden crusts and half-sucked oranges, mouldy scraps to toss to the chooks, soiled nappies to shove in the already smelly wheelie bin….
Fifty bales of hay
Where was the spark in their marriage? Where was that girl who had craved her man? She had dissolved and, like a mirage on the horizon, the more Stella chased her in her mind, the more the girl evaporated when she neared. She thought about the early years of their courtship. The first year of harvest when she had stayed on the farm in the big house. Nancy had handed her the smoko basket and showed her on the farm map which of the right-angled roads to turn down to find the paddock where Tom was harvesting.
Gleefully Stella had lobbed into the clunky farm ute, started it up and raced down the driveway. That was back when the old yellow New Holland harvester was still going. Tom and Stella were three months into their relationship.
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She could see Tom in the header, the combs gobbling up the golden wheat that pushed out in front of the roaring machine, the auger spurting full-yielding seed heads into the bin towed behind the combine. Later, Nancy was curt with them. Stella had giggled and Tom had suppressed a smile. But that was years ago now. Those days, long gone. Stella opened the oven door and a blast of heat escaped to further thicken the air of the room. She swiped a strand of her jet-black hair from her eyes and stooped, with oven mitts on, to look at the chocolate cake within.
The cake sagged in the middle.
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As Ned cried out again, and Stella bent to retrieve the cake that resembled a sunken cowpat, she burnt her wrist on the oven and swore. Tom was standing there in his shorts and a blue singlet. He came up behind her and grabbed her by the hips.
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Fifty Bales of Hay
Remember, no balloon, no party. Stella glanced at her goddess, sticky-taped to the fridge. I just have to get the cake out of the oven. Please be patient. Where was there room for it amongst the dirty washing, the crops to sow, grow and harvest, sheets to change, floors to sweep and mop, head lice to combat, lunchboxes to empty of sodden crusts and half-sucked oranges, mouldy scraps to toss to the chooks, soiled nappies to shove in the already smelly wheelie bin… Where was the spark in their marriage?
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