(Hunting for some documents today, I came across some writing from my Uni days. Thought I’d post this little story since my brain seems a bit dry of fodder right now.)
“Are you nervous, Pippa?” Grandpa Benjie stowed the picnic basket on the back seat, shut the door and climbed in beside her.
“No. Grandpa, how long does it take to get there?”
“Twenty minutes at the most.”
Grandpa started the engine and backed carefully out of the driveway. Pippa watched the squat brick house withdraw behind the tall garden. The little yellow marigolds that she’d watered since they were seeds bowed in farewell and vanished from sight behind the gardenias.
“What time is it now, Grandpa?”
“A little after half past ten.”
“What time are we meeting him?”
“Eleven o’clock, darling. I’ve told you that dozens of times. Have you got your seat belt on?”
“Yes, Grandpa. Will we be early?”
“Just a little. In case we can’t find the park quick enough.”
Grandpa swung the car out onto the road, directed it into first, and they were off. Pippa watched the brown grass tussocks move faster and faster past her window. Soon they were just a blur. Hundreds of tussocks melted into a great streak of brown.
“How fast are we going, Grandpa?”
“Sixty five kilometres per hour. See this windmill, Pippa? Your mother shot her first rabbit just below that. She showed her talent early. Ten years old, she was. In those days Pippa, all this land was ours. We had to shoot the rabbits or they ate the crops, dug burrows everywhere, caused terrible erosion. Do you know what erosion is, Pippa?”
“It’s when all the plant roots, from grass and bushes and trees and things, all go away. When that happens, there’s nothing to hold the soil together anymore. It gets big cracks, like horrible dry trenches. They can get really deep.”
“Did the rabbits do that?”
“Yes… But as I was saying, your mother never missed a rabbit after that first one. She shot them as if they were still as trees. Won all the shooting prizes at the local shows too. We were mighty proud of her. Did you clean your teeth?”
“Yes, Grandpa.” Pippa noticed that the fence posts did the same as the grass. Her eyes got sore from watching. All that motion. “Can we slow down, Grandpa? I feel sick.”
“But Pippa, darling, the road’s as straight as a crow’s left leg. And we’re only doing seventy.” But Grandpa slowed down to sixty. “Now, Pippa, see that old building on the left. Your side of the car. That used to be a jockey club before old Bill bought it. When I was about your age, there was a race track out the back there. My papa used to race horses there every week. A great jockey, he was. That’s why you’re so small, Pippa. Don’t ever let kids tease you about that. You be proud. Your great grandpa was a fine jockey indeed.”
“Did he win, Grandpa?”
“Oh yes. He had the fastest horses in the whole country. If ever anyone asks, you just tell them about Lightning Jack. Best stallion ever bred on our property. Your mother rode one of his descendants. We called him Jackie in honour of his line. But your mother never did like racing. She could ride though. To see her take those jumps… you’d think they were toothpicks all laid in a row, the amount of fuss she paid them.”
“Why didn’t Mum race?”
“Said it was cruel. I never could understand that. The horses love it.”
“How do you know, Grandpa?”
“They get all excited. Nervous, like. They get all lively… Are you nervous, Pippa?”
“Sort of. Did Mum like going fast when she was jumping?”
“Your Mum was the carefullest rider ever. That’s why she never went showjumping. Was too worried about the horse, Pippa. Too worried about the God-damn horse. Thought she might hurt it if she made it go to fast… why, Pippa, what’s wrong?”
Pippa shrugged and turned away, smearing her cheeks on the plastic blackness of the seat belt.
“Can we slow down? I feel sick.”
Grandpa slowed down to fifty. A ute indicated and overtook them. Pippa moaned.
“Please stop, Grandpa. Please stop.”
When the car stopped, Pippa rolled out of the door and knelt by the side of the road. The grass was still blurry, even when she was still.
“Is that better?” Grandpa smiled as she got back in the car. She nodded.
“Sometimes it’s best to get it all out before it gets churned up, like. My papa always said that that was the pity about horses. They can’t vomit. Ever. So churned tummies are a real trouble.”
“Are we nearly there, Grandpa?”
“About half way. We’re going a little slower than I planned. But it doesn’t matter. He won’t mind. Oh look, Pippa, there’s the cemetery. You know where we are now. We’ll stop there on the way back so that you can have a chat to your Mum. I’m sure there will be some flowers at the park. Now, Pippa, see that church? That’s a real fine old church. Looked just the same when I was a boy. Sandstone is the best stuff to make churches out of. I remember Father Johnston, the minister, he once said to me ‘Look, Benjie. If you ever become a minister, be one in a church made of sandstone. Those rocks are so porous, they just soak everything good right in.’ Do you know what porous means, Pippa?”
“Like a sponge, it is. Father Johnston was Irish down to his little toe nail. But he knew the Australian bush better than most. Can you see that cloud, Pippa? That’s just about directly above where we’re going. Problem is, clouds are prone to moving. Ah! A service station. We need some fuel. Pippa, please dig around in the glove box for my wallet. I won’t be a mo.”
Pippa found the wallet and sat clutching it while Grandpa talked to a man in baggy blue overalls. The man smiled at Pippa and waved. Pippa smiled by looked down and pretended to examine the leather of the wallet. Soon Grandpa came back, filled the petrol tank and got his wallet.
“Do you want an ice cream, Pippa?”
“Yes, please, Grandpa.”
“Better go and wash your face while I pay.”
“Yes.” Pippa slid out and trotted around to the side of the building. She washed her face and hands at a tap, rather than using the bathroom. In the grass, she found some small blue flowers. She picked three, carefully choosing the cleanest ones.
“You already been working?” Grandpa said when she got back to the car. “Here’s your ice-cream. Don’t spill any on your new jeans. Off we go. You know, I’ve known that man since he was five years old, Pippa. I was his school teacher many years ago. He’s got kids now. Was saying you might like to meet his little girl, Emma. I said I’d ask you. What do you reckon? She’s about your age, I think. Nice family. Wife’s a real sweetie. I taught her too.”
“How long ’til we get there, Grandpa?”
“Five minutes. Did you listen to any of that? Sometimes I feel as though I’m talking to a doll, Pippa.”
“That’s alright, love. Look, we’re coming into town.”
Pippa watched the houses grow up around them. Watched the houses become shops and then the shops peter out again back to houses.
“See that stock supply shed there, Pippa? That was your Mum’s favourite shop when she was a little girl all the way up to when she had you at nineteen. It smells marvellous in there. All leather and hay and wool. Real country girl was your Mum. Those things were home to her. Nearly died when she had to go to boarding school. You should be grateful for that, Pippa. The towns have grown that much. You’ll never have to go away to school if you don’t want. Ah! Here’s the park.”
Grandpa pulled into a parking slot near a wide, shady tree.
“You nervous, Pippa?”
“Glad to hear it. Wouldn’t be natural. Any girl meeting her Dad for the first time at eight would be. But your Mum liked him once so he can’t be that bad, right? Oh well. Deep breath and off we go.”