THE BROTHER’S WIDOW

Must be getting soft in the head, old mate, he muttered to the kelpie at his feet. What would she want with a pair of rough diamonds like us?í

Jack tossled the dog’s floppy ears, smiling at the raucous laughter of a kookaburra further up the ridge. The dog, warming to the calloused hand’s ministrations, rolled back onto his master’s laceless boots and implored that the massage include his belly as well.

He sat on the edge of the packing shed bay, taking in the familiar panorama, and sighed appreciatively. Down at the foot of the banana slope, the cottage already lay in shadow, nestled amongst the rounded domes of avocado and mango trees. Framed by two hills to the east, the sea shimmered, still basking in sunlight.

A wedge-tailed eagle intruded into view, drifting at eyelevel parallel to the silver horizon. It cocked a feathered head towards the two figures in the shed, then continued to scan the earth for signs of prey. The man’s gaze followed its path, squinting to keep sight of the great bird as it blended with the rainforested escarpment away to the north. His bushy eyebrows quivered in concentration, and a tracery of wrinkles trailed away from narrowed eyes to lose themselves amongst the grey stubble of beard and thinning temples.

Having missed the eagle against trees and cliffs, Jack wearily struggled to his feet, whistled unnecessarily to the dog, and clambered into the battered Land Cruiser. Cursing when the starter motor failed, he released the handbrake and rolled the vehicle into life with a shudder and puff of blue smoke, back-firing most of the way down the zigzag track to the house.

Famished from a long afternoon humping bananas on the slopes, Jack scrunched a sheet of newspaper into the firebox, tossed in a mess of wattle twigs, then a bundle of bloodwood kindling. He struck a match to the paper, and the wood caught fire almost instantly. He paused to watch the larger pieces flare, place a couple of larger logs, slammed the door and reached for the heavy skillet. Each movement was performed in unconscious ritual, practised nightly and with little variation for two decades. His mind though, was preoccupied with thoughts of tomorrow. He turned from the stove to the door, where the dog was inevitably lying, head nestling on paws, eyes watchful of his master’s every move.

“So what’ll we cook for tomorrow, old mate? Do you think we’d better rustle up something special? What do you reckon a city sheila might fancy? Not that I’m to put myself out mind you. That’s what she said.”

The letter had arrived a week earlier, a surprise, despite his invitation at the funeral. The offer of a break in the country had been extended, moreorless, as a clumsy conversational cue to the widow of his younger brother. He had felt awkward, dealing with her loss. Jimís sudden death had shocked him of course, but he felt little grief, for the brothers had spent little time together since the wedding twenty years earlier. Now she was coming to stay for two weeks.

The slab of steak sizzled, Old Mate sniffed keenly in anticipation, and Jack conjured up in his mind the sauce he would create for tomorrow night’s meal. His hand automatically sliced the bread, spread the butter, quartered the tomatoes, halved an avocado, and tore off a few lettuce leaves. Instead of simply bundling them indifferently onto the plate as usual, he took extra care arranging the leaves, placing the tomatoes neatly. Inspired by his handiwork, he sliced the avocado and painstakingly divided the strips amongst the tomato wedges. He sliced the bread in two and placed a slice either side of the salad. Standing back, he appraised the arrangement, then chuckled derisively at the unaccustomed artifice.

“Strewth Old Mate, I’d better just behave myself, acting like a flip. She’s my brother’s widow, after all.”

There was an edge of bitterness to the statement, and he shook his head, banishing the emotion. As a young man, Jack had been making the first shy gestures towards romance when Jim, younger and bolder, had swept into the fray, and rushed her off her feet, with dreams of wealth and excitement in the city. Within a month they were gone. Two weeks later the news of their registry office wedding dominated the town gossip for several days. Jack had taken some comfort in the sympathy extended him by the few sensitive enough to recognize a shy man’s loss. It had taken some months before his life had regained much spark. Then Jack had set about working his bananas and leading a solitary but contented bachelor’s life. The impasse with his brother smoothed and passed with time, although he hadn’t bothered to explore romance again. Sex had long faded from his consideration, but with her impending arrival, he recognized a disquieting stirring. He slept less soundly than usual.

Through the train window, she stared at the moon, a pale yellow crescent almost touching the jagged silhouette of the western horizon. She remembered a gawky young man making awkward overtures to her. At a local 50-50 dance, he had stuttered a red-faced request to dance, then apologetically trampled her feet for the last three dances of the night. The only sequel had been a meal at the local cafe, with movie to follow. Both had been on their best behaviour. And equally matched in shy reserve.

In the morning the train slowed to a halt. She wrestled her suitcase from the rack and manoeuvred it along the corridor into the glare of the open platform. Blinking into focus, she recognized Jack instantly, rushing through the gate. Seeing her, he stumbled to a halt, waved and walked towards her. Her shoulders and legs had broadened and thickened with years of hard work, but his gait was the same awkward amble. He was sweating profusely, and blushing redly.

“G’day. Good to see you. Sorry I’m late. Truck troubles. Gear linkage …”. The words tumbled out disjointedly. He grasped her hand and shook it vigourously. She was bewildered by his garbled assault.

“Thanks for your invitation,” she offered nervously. “You’re not late at all.”

He breathed a sigh of relief that the ice had been broken, then tried desperately to smother his embarrassment.

“Really pleased to get your letter.í He swallowed hard, and resumed in a speech-ish mode.

‘I want you to know that you’re my brother’s widow, and you should treat me like a brother.í

The words blurted out, and Jack’s cheeks reddened again. He lunged gallantly for her suitcase and led her back through the tiny station building, smiling coyly at Charlie, the old station attendant, who smirked a lecherous leer.

The road to the farm was long overdue for patching, and the springs of the rusting Land Cruiser were still unreplaced for last year’s registration. They bounced and bumped along the winding road, making halting small-talk, while she tried not to show alarm at his indifference to the road.

The frantic morning spring-cleaning effort did not go unnoticed, ans she was touched by the flowers placed strategically in fist-sized bunches in Vegemite jars still wearing their red and yellow labels. She protested in vain when she saw that he had sacrificed his room for her, having made up a bed for himself on a decaying lounge out on the verandah.

‘Go on with you,” he chided her. “I’ve fallen asleep so many times out there that it’s my second bedroom anyway.í

She accepted the situation gladly, for the lounge looked extremely lumpy and uncomfortable. The house was small; a bachelor’s cottage with a middle-aged farmer-bachelor’s simple requirements.

Night fell quickly, and Jack set about preparing the meal, while she sat on the verandah out of his way, listening to the unfamiliar sounds of the countryside. She was well aware of his nervousness, but not surprised that he would find a guest in his home slightly daunting, for she knew he was a solitary man. Delighted to find an extensive library, she determined to make herself quietly useful while he went about his routine.

Jack pored over the stove, absorbed in the preparation of his ‘special’ sauce. Two steaks were in the pan, and vegetables simmered gently on the back corner of the stove. He stirred the sauce intently, pausing to taste and, unsure if it was sufficiently cooked, stirred for a few minutes more. Eventually he called her to the table, where two equally enormous platefuls of food steamed. The vegetables were long overdone, and the steak was submerged under a slurry of grey mushrooms and potatoes. He looked doubtful. They began cutting their steaks simultaneously. Together they sawed at the leathery slabs, and continued sawing. He was the first to stop, and she a moment later. Their eyes met, lips pursed, then both burst into laughter, rolling out in unstoppable peels until tears rolled down their cheeks.

Each struggled to apologise, he for the food, she for her mirth.

“Look Jack, I don’t want your life to be thrown into chaos just on account of me being here. I only need the space from the city and all my people, to gather my thoughts. Why don’t you have yourself a holiday of sorts, and let me do a few things about the place?”

He looked surprised for an instant, then relieved and amused.

“I do believe I’d like to take you up on that,” he grinned.

The laughter and the agreement broke the discomfort between them. Old Mate accepted the steaks greedily, Jack fried some eggs, and she prepared a salad.

They chatted the evening away brightly enough, getting to know each other, for she had been little more than a shadow in his brother’s presence. Both individually shy, they found that they shared similar tastes in music and books. By the time they turned in for the night, a warm rapport had been forged.

She lay in her bed, watching the moonbeams cast leafy shadows on the wall. The mournful coo-oo-ing of a mopoke was the only sound. She sighed contentedly, glad to be free from the cloying sympathy of the city. A smile creased her face as she recalled that brief thwarted ‘romance’ so long ago. The notion seemed remote; how different was his character than dear Jim – Jack was more like a sister than a brother-in-law, she decided, not unkindly.

He smoked half-sitting, half-lying on the old verandah lounge, imagining life as a married man.

She enjoyed her days alone while he went off working his bananas and attending to the cattle he ajisted down the road. Most of the time she spent on the verandah, or simply lapping up the serenity of the shady cottage. She watched the birds frollicking in the trees, lizards basking in the sun, a multitude of exotic-looking insects. Housework took very little time in such a small cottage, though she did clean the windows, as much for her own clear vision as to please him. He was easily pleased, for the novelty of having a mouth-watering meal waiting for him after a long day’s work was a change easily accommodated. She cooked biscuits too, and a cake which he praised for days. More significantly, she seemed to generate a brightness to his home beyond the extra light afforded by clean windows. She did not talk much, but she encouraged him to yarn about his life; he surprised himself at the ease and willingness with which he talked to her. He played his guitar, falteringly as always, and she actually sang a few bars with him, although very quietly. Otherwise, they both simply sat reading.

Up amongst the bananas, he spent many hours pondering thoughts which had not concerned him before. Matters of the heart. He wondered what she might think of him – she certainly seemed to enjoy his company. He found her presence a sheer delight. Her housework did not affect him particularly, as it was a minor and automatic duty and, although he enjoyed her cooking, his own spartan fare had never bothered him. Their conversations had no specially intellectual edge to stimulate him, nor boundless laughter. In fact beyond the first evening, they had spoken very little. Her mere presence though, seemed to lift him, although it had never occurred to him that his spirits were low.

After a week of pleasant co-habitation, Jack decided that he must be falling in love. But what to do about it? He vexed about somehow broaching the subject of ‘feelings’ and leading the conversation to a more personal level from there. Perhaps she would think him a fool. Maybe it was not love anyway. He had little experience to gauge such matters by.

A couple more days slipped by pleasantly. There had been no developments from Jack, although had even diffidently tried to convey his pleasure in her company. He had been obscure enough that her response indicated no more than that she was thoroughly enjoying her stay.

Jack, feeling out of his social depth, and frustrated by it, became moody, and even quieter about the house. His responses were short, and once he actually snapped quite sharply at her, apparently offended by her offer to darn some holey socks.

Deciding that her welcome had worn thin, she telephoned the station and advanced her return booking by two days. When she told him of her early departure ‘to attend to Jim’s personal commitments’, she was surprised that he appeared upset by her decision.

“You don’t know how good this stay has been for me,” she explained. “I just feel that the time has come for me to go home and start my life again. Perhaps I could come again some day?”

He brightened for a moment. “Why sure, whenever you like.” Then he fell silent again, and the melancholy seemed to settle on him once more.

As they bounced and bumped down the road to the station, their conversation was staccato small-talk, little different than the first day on the same road.

She waved from the carriage as the train gathered momentum, and he returned the gesture. Swallowing hard, a tear escaped from one eye and rolled wetly down his cheek; he turned and headed for the Landcruiser where Old Mate grinned at him fondly.

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