Lois' wonderful post at the Mystery of the Dead man's Chest inspired me to post this old story of mine. I had such admiration for pioneer women, their courage and their tenacity, and wondering how they managed to live at all through an Australian summer in those heavy clothes was the starting point for the story. I tried to imagine what it must have been like and the rest just fell into place.
The horse and rider had long since dissolved into the shimmering borderline between earth and sky, but Mary Mulgar remained on the verandah, her hand shading her eyes.
She could feel the rivers of sweat running down beneath the cotton fabric of her blouse, into her armpits and down from the crease of her breasts into the waistband of her stiff linen skirt.
Her hair felt as if it was full of creatures, wriggling and snaking their way between the soft brown strands, slithering worms of sweat scuttling down into her collar.
She moved stiffly across the verandah, dragging her skirt like a chain.
The heat in the house was even more oppressive, for the fire in the stove was still glowing from the morning's baking. The bread had cooled, and must be stored away. The cake, which had taken the last of the oven's heat, was turned out and covered with a crochet cloth to protect it from the flies.
She dusted the small table, and covered it with a clean cloth. Carefully she laid out the last surviving pieces of the china tea set she had brought with her from England--how many years ago? She frowned, perplexed that she could not remember.
She had kept a calendar on the door but five years after she had started it, a flood had carried it away. Since then she had lost track. She wasn't even sure what season it was. Here in the Australian Colony in the 19th century, it got hotter, then colder, with no discernible change in the seasons. When it rained, the river overflowed and the land went under water. When it didn't rain, the days dragged on like this one, stiflingly hot and dry.
But there was no time to reflect on the vagaries of colonial weather. Tom had faded from the horizon, and soon her visitors would arrive. Quickly she washed off the dust of the day with a rag dipped in water. After months of dry weather there was no water to spare for the luxury of a "proper wash".
"Children!" she called, as she patted her hair into place. "Come and get dressed. They'll be here any second."
Mary smiled as her children came running in from the back verandah, faces dirty, legs and arms thick with red dust.
"Here, Henry," she admonished, handing her eldest the damp cloth. "Clean off that muck. Let me see to you, Miss Molly," she added, catching hold of the lively little girl.
Somehow, with the help of the damp cloth and some clean clothes, she had Henry and Molly looking presentable when they gathered on the front verandah. The track stretched away into the seemingly endless Australian horizon, treeless and silent. In the distance a small eddy of dust stirred, and soon a pony and trap appeared, heading for the house.
The two women seated in the trap called and waved, and the children escaped Mary's grip and ran down to meet them.
The older woman in the trap leaned down and took Mary's hand, allowing herself to be helped to the ground.
"Grandma, Grandma, what did you bring us?" Henry and Molly cried.
"Ask Aunt Alice," Grandma puffed, fanning herself vigorously with a Chinese paper fan.
Aunt Alice, a younger version of Mary, climbed down from the trap and opened her pretty handbag.
"Taffy apples!" Henry cried. He snatched his and ran off, leaving it to Molly to curtsey and say thank you.
"Henry is becoming quite unmanageable," Mary murmured apologetically as she helped her mother into the house.
Amelia Aburne lowered herself into a chair and let out a hissing sigh.
"Oh my, this heat." She said. She glanced appreciatively around the room. "Mary, dear, this is remarkable. You've managed to make a home in this wilderness."
"It's the way you raised her, Ma," Alice said, dropping a kiss on the old woman's gray head.
"It is a harsh country," Mary said, pulling out a chair for her sister. "It's not only the children's manner I fear for, but their health, as well."
"All a child needs is good food, a clean bed and a mother's love," Mrs. Aburne said firmly. "And where is your good man?"
The irony was not lost on Mary. She knew that her mother had little love for Tom Mulgar.
"He is working," she said. "This is a poor selection, mother."
"What's a selection?" Alice wondered, taking off her gloves.
While Mary explained that the Australian Government had made small farms, or "selections", available to willing workers like Tom and herself in the outback, Mrs Aburne listened with her lips pursed.
"Who could make a farm in a desert like this?" She asked when Mary had finished.
"It isn't always dry, mother. We had a flood last season. It was very terrible."
"It is always terrible here, one way or another," Mrs Aburne said. "Come back to England with us, Mary."
"I can't. My place is here with Tom." Mary busied herself laying the table, and the women exclaimed over the daintiness of the cake, produced from that ugly potbelly stove.
The children came in again, Henry apologized for his rudeness, and they all had a nice tea. The women shared gossip, secrets and worries in a long, enjoyable trivial conversation.
The children soon got bored and ran outside again, but Mary enjoyed every minute of it, replenishing the cups as soon as they emptied of tea, fearful the heat would dry up the flow of conversation.
As the sun dipped down to the horizon, Mrs Aburne and Alice prepared to leave. Mary and the children clung to them.
"Please come again," Mary begged.
"Of course we will, dear." Mrs Aburne said. "As often as we can."
The pony and trap clattered away down the track, and Mary squeezed her children's small, damp hands as she watched it go.
* * *
Tom Mulgar settled his horse for the night, and walked slowly back to the house. It was still warm from the day's heat, buzzing with flies, and the lamp had not been lit.
Sighing, he glanced at the remains of a tea party on the table. He recognized the cups as being from a tea set Mary had received from her mother as a wedding present.
He guessed where she would be. He walked through the darkened bedroom, out onto the back verandah and down the steps into the garden.
Mary's garden was looking much the worse for wear. The dry spell had killed most of her flowers. He saw her sitting on the bench he had made for her, near the apple tree she had tried to grow, but which was dying.
He watched her for a moment, a lump in his throat. This harsh outback country was cruel on women. They grew old before their time, or went crazy from the heat and the loneliness.
Somehow Mary bore it all, even though she had not seen or spoken to another woman for almost a year now, not since Kathleen Geoghan from the next selection had left her husband and gone back to England.
Nor would there be any more letters from home. The last they had heard, diphtheria had taken both Mary's mother and younger sister.
"Mary, I'm home," he said softly.
She stirred, and looked up at him.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot to light the lamps again. Hasn't it been hot? I just came out for a moment to sit with the children, and I think I fell asleep."
"Come on into the house," he said. "I'll light the lamps."
He helped her to her feet and they walked back to the house in the gathering dark, stepping carefully around the two small mounds in the dusty earth. Mary straightened the wooden marker, on which Tom had written, in an unsteady hand, "Henry and Molly, our dear ones, taken in a flood."
"Goodnight, children." Mary murmured.
Then she straightened her back, smoothed her skirt, and followed Tom into the house.