Plough Logo

Shopping Cart

0 item items

Your cart is empty, but not for long...

      View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    Checkout
    an Australian farm at sunset

    The Final Round

    A Christmas Story

    Chris Voll

    January 4, 2021
    1 Comments
    1 Comments
    1 Comments
      Submit
    • Sally Gerarad

      Wow, what a powerful story. Something I needed today, here in the US. It is hard to be so discouraged to the point where you feel out of options. But then some tiny glimmer of hope reminds you that you are loved still and you still have love to give.

    He woke on Christmas Eve in the harsh light of morning that cast shards on his bedroom floor where the lace curtains moving in the breeze couldn’t contain it. He woke with a pounding head, and a clarity of purpose he had not felt for the longest time. I’m that tired, he thought, that if I close my eyes again, there’s a chance I’ll drift back into something like sleep, even with the sun. But he knew exactly what he wanted to do, so he swung his booted feet to the floor, to get on with it.

    A wagtail sang in the cypress tree outside the open bedroom window. The air the breeze pushed into the house felt hot already, and carried the familiar tart smell of bushfire smoke. A south wind, then, dragging across the still-smouldering bushland miles away, back in the hills, where flames had ripped through weeks ago. He registered these things in the same way he registered his headache, and the sour feeling in his gut. They were what they were, as too the dirty boots, the socks, sweat-stained T-shirt and mud-crusted jeans he had fallen asleep in and which he now pulled off. He accepted that the headache and the sour gut shared a connection, the commonality of the better part of a bottle of Bundaberg rum downed the night before. He remembered vaguely standing at the paddock gate at the far corner of the house yard, one hand accepting the gate post’s offer of mateship and stability while the other shook the bottle’s last drops into his upturned mouth. He remembered, too, how at that moment, his face tipped skyward, the moon above the paddocks beyond the gravelled lane had startled him – so big, and red through the perpetual smoke, so final.

    Awake now, he showered, groomed, and dressed. He chose clean clothes: he wanted that. Fresh underwear, and black dress socks; denim jeans, a long-sleeve, half-button, dark green work shirt. To fetch his dress boots from the shoe rack at the back of the walk-in robe meant brushing past the coats and garments his wife hadn’t been bothered to send for and he hadn’t found the resolve to move on. He took the boots – rum-leather R.M. Williams Craftsman’s, a gift from her from a Christmas when the effort of gifting still held the false promise of compensation for things unsaid, everyday courtesies easier left undone – and dusted them off with a corner of the cherry red silk blouse with ruffled sleeves he’d given her that same Christmas, or one like it. For a moment, her scent was with him. She was still his wife, he thought; nothing changed that. He took the matching belt from its peg above the shoe rack, and stepped back into the bedroom.

    His dressing finished, he moved into the hallway that connected the two bedrooms, at the back of the house, to the lounge room at its front, off the dining room and open kitchen. He paused for a moment outside the closed door of the second bedroom. But he did not go in.

    He would leave a note, he decided. No need to break tradition. Besides, the boy, at least, deserved to know.

    The lounge room drapes were closed, and the room cool. He crossed it and flicked on the light above the desk, littered with unpaid bills and unopened junk mail. A blowfly buzzed behind a drape. The clock above the woodstove thunked hollow seconds. It might be any time of day, or night, on any date of the year, he thought. But he knew it wasn’t. The time was now.

    Notepad and pen. The boy. For the boy. For the boy who was man enough to have made up his own mind to get out of the house and try his luck on a station up north, taking his faithful blue dog, Sook, with him. For the sandy-haired boy who left with a handshake and an awkward hug, and whom, once gone, he had cursed for leaving him short-handed and alone, and for never guessing the fearful darkness of that aloneness. He wanted to tell the boy he could have it all.

    But what was there to have? Five thousand red dust acres mortgaged out of sight, and the bank with a boot on his neck. Three dry bores, all of which had carked it months ago. Two brown snakes, and a kookaburra in a pear tree. And, since yesterday, not one single head of cattle.

    Yesterday.

    Don’t look at their eyes, he’d tried to warn himself. But how to imagine diagonal lines running from the top of each ear to the opposite eye and aim at the point of intersect and steady yourself and exhale and pull the trigger and hear the .308 rifle crash and see the black brute slump, and not look at its eyes?

    Seven cows were all he’d had left, and why he’d kept them at all, he couldn’t say. The rest of the mob was long gone, even the calves – sold when cutting losses seemed better than continuing to fork over unsupportable sums for truckloads of hay. They were gone, and the years of careful, selective management that had gone into making his Angus herd the envy of the district had gone with them. The seven remained as a memory, but as memories do, they faded, to hips and ribs, alarmed eyes in pronounced skulls. Carnivorous-looking drought cows. So he’d opened the creek to them, what was left of it, and they’d made short work of the last desperate grass tufts and snuffled the shallow, stagnant pools as though daring their fatted alter egos to rise from the water and be consumed.

    When the last grass was gone and the mud of the creek bed parched and cracked, the cows ruminated their way through the bulrushes along the crumbling creek bank.

    It was their bellowing that got him there, late in the day, to find the lot of them on the far side of the creek, and three beasts belly-deep in churned-up mud, floundering, going nowhere. Fix this, their eyes seemed to say. You did this to us. Fix it. But he knew he couldn’t. With no strength in reserve, they’d never survive if he attempted to winch them out with the Landcruiser. Besides, how was he, on his own, supposed to handle that?

    He knew then that it was hopeless. All of it. Just hopeless. He’d driven the old ute back across the paddocks to the house, pulled up at the work shed off the carport, and fetched the Winchester from the gun safe. He checked the magazine. Eight rounds. He’d only need seven.

    a man driving a ute

    Photograph courtesy of Norann Voll

    Methodically, he’d driven back to the creek. Methodically, he’d chambered the first round, levelled the barrel at the nearest cow, at the whorl of hair on her forehead, and watched helplessly as her big, dark, unblinking eyes pierced him through and tore an exit wound out of his soul.

    Seven rounds, and it was done.

    He drove back to the house, unfeeling. He parked, and went to the shed to get rid of the rifle. He removed the magazine, and stood for a moment looking at the one cartridge it still held. The tapered brass seemed to glow, alluringly. When the boy was small, he used to take spent shells and string them up for Christmas tree ornaments, polishing them until they sparkled. He thought of that now, and of the boy, and of her, and of everything that was broken and lost and dried up. He zipped the rifle into its boot, stood it in the safe, placed the magazine in the ammo cabinet above, and locked up. Then he went into the house, not bothering to stop on the veranda and take off his boots, to the liquor cabinet in the lounge room with the bottles he seldom touched. He kicked in its glass door, because he could, reached for the Bundaberg, and tracked back outside twisting off the cap as he went . . .

    And all I have to do now is finish it, he thought, as he stared at the blank notepad.

    There was nothing to give the boy. Nothing to leave to anyone. Nothing to say. Not to him, not to her; and they were all the people in his world, and his world was over. Let’s do it then.

    He had decided on the bathtub in the guest bathroom. But as he stepped outside into the white light of the morning and stood on the veranda looking over the pink oleander blooming in the yard and out across the gum-lined lane and the dead dirt paddocks and the smoke-shrouded gums beyond, the overwhelming stillness thudded in his chest. Behind him, the screen door closer sighed, and the latch clicked. He listened for other sounds, for any sound – a cockatoo’s screech, or a truck shifting gears on the highway beyond the hill, anything. He’d left the house door open, and through the screen the sound of the lounge-room clock came to him, metronomic. That was all. I am the last man on earth, he thought, and the world’s ending. He stepped off the veranda and walked to the shed to fetch the rifle.

    His hands tremored as he undid the padlock, opened the gun safe, and unbooted the Winchester. He laid the rifle on the steel workbench, and braced himself against it, hands pressed flat against the cool metal. He breathed in, out, in. Opening the ammo box went easier. One round still in the magazine. Job done, he thought. Get the job done and the rest is easy. Rest is easy. I’ll rest in the rocking chair on the veranda. That way if they do come looking, they’ll find me sooner. And the floor’s slatted. He snapped the magazine into its well and thought the rifle had never felt so heavy. He’d loved this weapon, with its American walnut stock buffed to a sheen and its precision bolt action, loved it for its no-nonsense approach to business, perfect for the feral deer and pigs he and the boy had kept honest back when there’d been crops to protect along the creek flats. He felt none of that now. As he turned from the bench and began to walk one last time to the house, he realized he felt nothing. He reached the veranda. Nothing at all.

    “Hi, Ken – Mr. Roberts!”

    A woman’s voice, bright and cheerful, from the bottom of the yard. He started at the sound of his name, and cursed. He didn’t need this. Not now. His head swam, and he let himself collapse into the rocker, the rifle across his knees.

    “Sorry to bother you, Mr. Roberts, but I’m hoping you can help me.” She was standing at the gate to the house yard, balancing a child on her hip with her left hand while her right unchained the latch. “I blew a tyre just past the creek crossing,” she said as she let herself in and walked up to the house. “The wheel brace handle isn’t long enough, or something. Can’t budge the lugs.”

    She was on the veranda now, looking at him. “It’s good to see you, Mr. Roberts. I was worried you and Clare might not be home and I’d have to walk all the way to our place. Joshy’s quite a chunk to haul around.”

    She let out a quick laugh, and dug under the kid’s chin. It gurgled and kicked its heels into her.

    He sat silent, both hands on the rifle. He saw her, and the kid, as a shape in front of him. He heard her laugh and saw her sweep her hair out of her face, where the kid had tugged it. It’s the same colour as my rifle, he thought. Walnut. He said nothing, and felt her eyes on him.

    “You heading to a party at the gun club?” she asked. “Funny, the things you forget about, being in the city.”

    “Me? Nah, I . . . ” What were words good for? he thought.

    “You okay, Mr. Roberts?”

    “Sure. Fine.”

    “You know me, right?” He looked at her then, and at the kid. She was young and round faced, tanned, in a grey T-shirt, khaki shorts, and well-worn trainers. The kid shared her face, topped by a few wisps of oat-straw hair. It wore a cartoon top and a disposable nappy. That was it. And when it giggled, as it did now while it looked right through him, its chubby arms and thighs and baby-fat feet quivered. He couldn’t place her or the kid. She smiled at him when he made no reply.

    “I’m Sam. The McCoughlins’ girl.” That name he knew. James McCoughlin ran sheep on a scruffy block some sixteen kilometres up the lane, just about where it petered out in the scrub.

    “Yeah, that’d be right,” he said. “Never had much to do with your people. Don’t let ground lice on my place, ya know.”

    She grinned. “Haven’t heard ’em called that for way too long. Dad used to get cranky about that,” she said. “Used to get cranky about a lot of things.” She looked at the kid as she said this, and swung it to her right hip. Then her eyes returned to him, to the rifle in his lap, its barrel pointing away from the house, away from all of them. “Sorry for putting you to any trouble,” she said. “I’d really appreciate a bit of pipe or anything to help with that wrench. And,” she tipped her head at the kid, “if we could have some water, that’d be great, too. Filthy hot.”

    “Sure. Help yourself,” he said, indicating the house door. “Kitchen’s on the left, glasses above the sink.”

    “Thanks a lot. Clare inside?”

    “She’s not home,” he said.

    She and the kid went into the house, the screen door swinging closed behind them, while he sat. Just sat. He heard the tap running, then stop, then run and stop again.

    “Gosh, we needed that,” she said as she returned. “Thanks,” she said again, and then stood waiting.

    “No worries,” he said. “Anytime.” He looked at the kid. She’s washed his face, he thought. Poor bugger’s handling himself like a champ. Couldn’t be hardly six months old. Too hot to be outside with a bub.

    “It’s Sam, right?” he said.

    “Yes.”

    “And him?”

    “Josh.”

    He remembered then why she was there, and stood up quickly, his right hand gripping the rifle stock and swinging the barrel down and away as he rose. Reflexively, he checked the safety; it was still on. The rocking chair creaked back and forth, then settled down behind him. “Right,” he said, “about that tyre,” and he walked past her, off the veranda and into the shed.

    When he emerged, he carried a large red tool box, and no rifle.

    “I just need a bit of pipe,” she said, “shouldn’t take more’n that.”

    “Get into the ute,” he said. “You’re not walking.”

    “You don’t have to do this.” Her protest was unconvincing. “It’s only a couple hundred metres.”

    “I know where the creek crossing is,” he said. “Get in the ute, both of ya.” He threw the tool box into the tray, got in the ute and started the engine as Sam and Josh slid in beside him.

    “You’re too kind, Mr. Roberts,” Sam said. They turned onto the gravel and headed down the lane into the valley.

    “Don’t know about that,” he said. “And Ken’s fine.”

    “Ken,” she said. “Clare used to talk about you a lot. Would love to catch up with her while I’m back, if things work out at home. D’ya think she’d mind, sometime after Chrissie?”

    He paused. “How do you two know each other?”

    “Soccer,” she said. “Clare was the best coach ever. We loved her so much. She’d get so excited when we won, she’d bounce up and down on the sideline just like us girls, but she was the absolute best when we lost a game and thought life was over.” That laugh again. “Clare’s so upbeat, nothing gets her down, and she’s so great to be around. It’ll be good to catch up.”

    “Uh huh,” he said, and steered into the last bend before the creek. The car was off on the side of the road, just beyond the dry creek crossing, its left wheels in the dead grass. He pulled the ute up behind it and got out. The car listed, its weight on the rim of the left rear wheel, the back window filmed with the grey dust of the lane, and white bodywork streaked. A Holden Astra hatch that, judging by the scrapes and dings on the bumper, had seen action in an urban warzone. She’d left the jack sitting by the flattened tyre.

    He heaved the tool box off the ute, opened it alongside the car, and dug around until he found the extension handle. Sam stood beside him, Josh still on a hip. The kid might as well be a part of her, he thought.

    “I’ll be fine now, Ken. I’ve got this,” she said. “I’ll get it sorted and then get this back to you.” She gestured at the pipe in his hand.

    In answer, he stooped and picked up the brace lying in the grass beside the wheel, slid the pipe over its handle, crouched to place the socket over a wheel nut, and brought his weight down hard. Twice, three times he lunged against the wrench before the lug gave up. He spun it free with his fingers, and moved to the next one.

    One jolt on the handle, and another. All his weight, all his energy channelled through his arms and into the wrench. Something I can fix, he thought.

    A wave of nausea crashed over him. His head swam as he staggered up. He managed a few steps into the grey grass before he retched, coughing as he gagged and convulsed.

    “Ken – you okay?” Sam’s voice sounded far-off, concerned. He heard the kid start to cry. Josh, he thought. She said his name’s Josh. He spat twice, wiped his mouth and nose with the green sleeve of his shirt, gathering himself before turning around.

    “Fine,” he said, “I’m fine.”

    “You don’t look too fine, Ken,” she said. She came toward him, with Josh snivelling, and put a light hand on his shoulder. “Sun’s a killer after a big night, huh?” She gave his shoulder a commiserating pat, and winked at him. She’s got green eyes, he noticed. Same as Clare’s. He took the cuff of his unused sleeve in his fingers and lightly rubbed Josh’s cheeks.

    “Don’t cry, matey,” he said, “We’ll get you back on the road in a sec.”

    “Look,” Sam said, “Josh likes you. Why don’t the two of you grab some shade.” She indicated a spot in the bare grass near the front of the car, where the sunlight couldn’t hit. “I’m sure I’ll be fine from here. I know my cars.” She held Josh out to him and he felt his arms move away from his body and his hands close around the little guy’s waist. “Great,” Sam said.

    afternoon light on a dry paddock

    Photograph courtesy of Norann Voll

    He stood there, his arms extended, holding the child in suspension. He heard Sam’s grunt as she brought her foot down hard on the wrench, followed by “got it!” He held onto the child, and stared at it. “Josh,” he said. He knew he wanted to speak, and knew it wouldn’t matter what he said. “Ken’s my name. Ya goin’ okay?”

    The child grinned and bounced, his pudgy hands thumping against the strong arms that held him perpendicular above the earth. The child’s eyes met his, and the child’s eyes seemed to dance and sparkle with all the promise of life that exists for no other reason than to celebrate the moment that is itself.

    He held onto the child, held on with all the life that had ever been in him, and the child was light in his hands, and the burning sun on their faces as it should be.

    “Done!” Sam’s voice, triumphant, and the slam of the hatchback’s door called him back. “That was easy enough – just needed the right tool, some friendly persuasion.” She was beside him again. “What’ve ya done now, Josh?” she asked. “Made a mess?”

    He looked at his arms, still thrust outward, and the child dangling in his big hands at the end of them. How long had he been standing like that? He looked at the car. She’d got the donut on in place of the bad wheel, and she’d managed to stow that and the jack, all while he’d been standing there like a complete zombie. Suddenly aware of himself, he brought Josh in close, and snuggled him against his shirtfront. “No,” he said, his mouth near the child’s ear, “we were just talking.” He hugged Josh to him gently, and the sweet smell of the child’s sweat reached him as its light hair brushed against his fresh-shaved chin. Sam held out her hand with the brace extension handle. “Trade ya,” she said, and he gave Josh to her and took the pipe.

    “Gotta get this boy to his nan’s,” Sam said. “Mum’s dying to meet him, she says, even if Dad’s not sure he’s up for it. I tried ringing from the motel, but you know how rubbish the reception is, so I texted to say we’d be there for lunch.” She glanced at the watch on her wrist. “Might still make it, if another tyre doesn’t go.”

    “You’ll get there,” he said.

    She strapped Josh into his capsule in the back seat. Josh laughed and kicked. “Good boy,” Sam said. She closed his door, got into the driver’s seat, and started the car. She slid the window down. “It’s filthy hot,” she said. “Thanks again for everything. You really are too kind, Ken.”

    “Go on,” he said. “Happy Christmas to the both of you. See ya, Josh.” Sam waved through the open window as she drove off, dust rising as the tyres caught at the gravel. “Say happy Christmas to Clare for me, too. Can’t wait to catch up!”

    He stood in the road after the car had gone, listening until he could no longer hear it, and letting the dust drift around his shoulders like a benediction.

    I might just do that, he thought. Talk to Clare. Say g’day to my wife. He wiped his free hand across his wet forehead, and shook his head. Where’d that come from? he thought. Then he bent down and returned the pipe to the toolbox, hefted it back onto the ute, and drove home.

    As he swung the Landcruiser out of the lane and entered the yard, he saw, out of the corner of his eye, the empty Bundy bottle sitting on the hinge post of the paddock gate. He stepped on the clutch, and let the ute roll slowly forward toward the house, while he looked at the bottle and knew right then just how tired he was. Bone tired. It’s Christmas Eve, he thought. Jingle all the way.

     He pulled the ute into the carport and killed the engine. He dragged the toolbox off the tray and lugged it to the shed. He took up the .308 from the workbench where he’d left it, and carried it back to the veranda. He lowered himself into the rocker, chambered the round, and raised the rifle. Don’t miss, he told himself.

    The shot rang out and the glass bottle exploded into brilliant sunlight as the cockatoos in the big, laneside gums burst skywards, screeching their hallelujahs. He grinned, and placed the rifle down beside the rocker.

    The immutable, eternal life-dance of earth and sky saw the sun cross the roofline and track toward the horizon, so that by late afternoon the veranda was awash in unfiltered light. The breeze, swinging northward, had cleared the smoke, and now stirred the oleander blossoms. Ken Roberts knew nothing of this. He was asleep.

    Contributed By

    Chris Voll lives at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in New South Wales, Australia. He is married to Norann Voll @NorannV.

    1 Comments