Because it was he, because it was I
Meredith had watched the 560 un-milled mountain ash and yellow gums roll into town. She’d watched them being hauled upright in straight lines, a mock forest next to the train tracks. Each of the tree trunks was carefully measured and placed so the angle of the roof – when it was placed on top in the full heat of summer, its corrugated iron blistering to the touch – would be exactly the natural angle at which wheat settles. For a moment the shed was empty. By the winter of that year, that bountiful, awful 1942, the giant grain store was filled to the brim.
Meredith’s belly started to grow. It mirrored the angles of the grain store. In the war years, these images of fertility and abundance did not ensure a happy ending. Meredith was knitting for the troops as much as for the layette. The wool snagged on the needles, thick and coarse with her sweat in summer and her anxiety by winter. She finished too many standard socks and wrist-mittens from the Australian Comfort Fund’s ‘Guide to Knitting’ before starting on bonnets and bootees.
The baby came early.
Preston paid the woman under the straw hat and followed a small trickle of tourists toward the Murtoa Stick Shed, everyone keeping their distance. When he was growing up it’d been a working grain store not the heritage listed site he’d seen on a recent Landline. Now restrictions were lifted, they were finally allowed travel again. It was his first time back in town for years; since his mother died.
He had to duck low to get into the empty building. When he straightened awkwardly, the majesty and wheat dust combined to take his breath away. The statistics did nothing to explain it. Each of the 500-odd eucalypt trunks glowed orange in the filtered sunlight. They dwarfed the humans wandering through, clustering in human-sized circles, setting up tripods and cameras that could never hope to capture the full immensity of it.
‘Like a cathedral,’ a woman two metres to his left murmured.
To think this existed on the dry plain on the edge of his home town.
‘Put all that away,’ the older Mrs Crossley said. ‘The war’s over now. We don’t need reminders.’
Meredith found a chaff bag big enough to take the half-balls of wool and the half-finished balaclava, a skull-like wide-eyed beast. She didn’t want to argue with her mother-in-law: now the war was over Lewis had promised they’d find a place of their own. She’d keep the peace until then. Besides, how could she explain her obsession with sending parcels to the troops when her own husband had been safe home the entire war?
‘And the pattern book,’ Enid Crossley reminded the next time she swept through the built-in verandah. It was Meredith’s favourite spot, away on the edge of the house. From it, she had a full view down the road into Murtoa and the towering grain store.
She had hawk eyes, Lewis’s mother, to see the dog-eared corner of the knitting booklet poking out from under the Woman’s Weekly. A woman with a tennis racket smiled out from the cover of the magazine. It was time to smile and get on with it. Even the single men were being demobbed now.
‘There’ll be dances in town when they’re home, Jack Hodges, John Jones, Mick…’ Enid Crossley said at dinner.
Meredith started to hum softly to herself so she wouldn’t hear Patrick’s name in the list.
Preston, still so small his chin touched the tabletop where he sat, joined in tunelessly. They shared a smile.
‘Thirty-four million bushels of wheat,’ Preston heard a guide tell one small family group. Necks craned backwards to view the elevator and conveyer system that delivered all these bushels. Preston moved under it, along the middle of the shed. He walked up the central aisle on a hushed carpet of accumulated bird shit and under-feathers. He wondered whether the story about his parents meeting here was just a bit of romance. It seemed too big and grand a setting for the grey couple who’d sent him on his way to university, following him with countless letters as his career took him anywhere but home.
Theirs had been a war story. The current battles with a virus were different despite the media’s overwrought analogies to the sacrifices war. He stared upward, let his eyes adjust.
After so much self-isolation it was probably not well-thought out to visit a huge empty space.
Patrick had come back only briefly between army training and deployment. He met Meredith at the school gate and if anyone had asked her why she loved him she wouldn’t have been able to answer. Some things needed no reason, they just were because he was who he was, and so was she.
He was there to pick up his sisters. Their dark heads bobbing amongst hugs and kisses.
‘Goodbye Miss Powers,’ the girls shouted as they left on either side of their big brother. His eyes held Meredith’s five heartbeats too long. The memory of his hands on her bare flesh burned her skin.
He was already at their secret place by the lake when she got there. Waiting in the shade of the sugar gums. ‘Who would have thought you’d be a teacher,’ he said.
‘Who would have thought you’d be a soldier.’
‘It’s just helping out in the classroom.’
‘It’s just until the war is over. We’ll be home for Christmas.’
They were tongue-tied, no longer the school friends who did everything together. This is what a war did to the young, Meredith thought, much later after too much time had been wasted.
‘What are they doing down by the tracks?’ he asked as they walked side-by-side.
Meredith passed on the town gossip, quoting phrases wholesale from her father and her uncles. ‘They’re building a store for all the wheat we can’t export. The Japanese have blocked the shipping channels.’ She didn’t look at Patrick while she talked because unsold wheat and bullets were really two different things altogether. ‘Write to me,’ she whispered.
The air between them vibrated with a cicada ache.
Two musical notes reverberated off the timber. Preston hadn’t seen the Indigenous man sitting at the very centre of the Murtoa Stick Shed, a didgeridoo to his lips, his presence making a lie of the first insistence of emptiness when the wheat growers arrived. His introductory notes were followed by a long deep thrum that had the same resonance as the tilt of the roof – filling the space as those thirty-four million bushels of wheat once had.
The thrumming ended with a sob, which Preston worried came from his own throat.
The local musician continued as Preston moved to the right where the tree trunks grew progressively shorter and the space darker. He hadn’t expected such an emotional response, but the pandemic had left him shaky with the new understanding that the future is not set or even predictable.
Enid Crossley could name every citizen in Murtoa. This did not speak of a large memory, only a small town. She brought home the news of the dance at the Mechanics’ Institute. She insisted she babysit Preston so Meredith and Lewis could go, because all the young ones should be there now the war had ended.
Meredith was getting ready, taking the curlers out of her hair, when Preston came to her dressing table and vomited in her lap. His face was so bleak and pale that her initial irritation was impossible to maintain. She quickly undressed back to her slip and carried him to bed; lay with him until his sour breath calmed. There was no conscionable way she could leave a sick child for something as frivolous as a dance. She was flooded with relief.
It didn’t take much to persuade her mother-in-law to go in her place. There was life in the old battleaxe yet. Meredith listened to the Chevy’s engine roar and then fade into the distance. Preston was restlessly asleep, his lips moving to a dream. His was the small box room. Lewis had painted it pale blue. The boy lay there with the quilt under him, a patchwork of Meredith’s old dresses and Lewis’s old work shirts. Under his dirty foot was a hexagonal piece of cloth from the skirt she was wearing the last time she saw Patrick. She stroked the small clutch of pink roses at its centre. Then went to scrape and soak the vomit from her new best dress.
Preston stopped by a newly propped trunk halfway down the shed. It was termite hollowed and held up with strung wire, like a ship’s mast. He’d often suspected his parents’ marriage was hollow, that they did not love each other. She’d left a letter when she died. Discovering his father was someone else made no sense.
‘Lewis loved you from the moment you were born,’ his mother had written. ‘He knew the truth before he married me. He had no regrets. You gave us both a reason to live when it was darkest during the war.’
Two children playing tig in the Stick Shed as their father steadied his tripod and bent over it importantly. Maybe they had a story too, Preston thought. And everyone in here too.
The wind coming off the wheat fields of the Wimmera sang different songs according to the seasons. The night of the dance they were silent. Not a dead silence: a hushed silence that promises this moment will end.
She recognised Patrick’s whistle immediately. Almost five years: she should have forgotten the timbre of it, caught between a magpie warble and a possum grunt. Her name came next. ‘Meredith? Merry are you there?’
She came out of the laundry and startled him on the back doorstep. Coming up behind him gave her enough time to assimilate the changes. A broadening of the shoulders compared to the skinniness of his legs. He turned and was silenced.
‘I was out back,’ Meredith explained as she dried her hands down the sides of her cotton dressing gown. ‘Laundry.’ She knew the five years had not been kind to her. She was as washed out as her clothes. All her clothes except the green dress she’d planned to wear tonight to the dance, dreaming he would put one hand on its waist, the other on its shoulder. Round and round the Mechanics’ Institute under the coloured bunting.
He skipped down the three steps to where she stood. It took all the strength she had to not fall into his arms. She watched his teeth disappear. The smile was gone from his voice too. ‘Meredith, I’m back. You promised you’d wait.’
‘Five years with nothing?’ she asked.
‘I wrote again and again. Then I heard you’d married. The Cripple. I saw him now, at the dance. You can’t stay with him.’
A storm of moths and insects brewed around the light above the back step.
‘Why didn’t you write back?’ Patrick was close enough she could feel his breath on her cheek, but neither of them reached across these last inches that remained of the empty space between them that had stretched from Australia to Africa, Murtoa to El Alamein.
How could she have written back without the address he’d promised to send? Meredith searched his face but the shadows were too great in the evening garden. He’d never lied to her. It struck her then that the old rumours of the touch of the tar-brush in his family may have been too much for her father when it came to it. It would have been simple for her father: the war could be blamed for so many disappearances – undesirable beaus, their letters.
Meredith took a step backwards.
‘It’s not too late,’ the man she loved pleaded. ‘I know there’s a kid but I’d look after it like it was my own. Come away with me, now, while they’re out. We didn’t win the war just to lose our future,’
‘Mummy?’ Preston’s voice came from the kitchen. ‘Mummy?’ He was at the back door, a tiny shape blurred by the gridlines of the insect screen. ‘Sorry Mummy, I chucked again.’
‘He went to war,’ his mother wrote at the end. ‘Your father.’
Preston had taken a while to work out which father she was referring to.
‘Then he came back. But you and your dad, I mean Lewis Crossley, how could I separate you – the way you were together? He left again. Your father. He never knew about you. It’d seemed for the best.’
Confinement had given Preston time to think. To judge. He’d never married. He now knew who to blame for his loneliness when the city shut down and he was alone in his apartment.
It took longer to realise his pre-pandemic self would have as harshly judged his own fears and darkness in the unprecedented times.
He was home, confused. No longer in isolation, still alone. ‘Time helps,’ his mother had insisted at the end of her letter. He tried to imagine her pain during her war. Preston watched another couple coming through the low door. He felt fearful that too many people would crowd in and spread death. The couple had identical expressions. Textbook, open-mouthed awe. Maybe, he considered, it was too soon for perspective on this war.
A starburst of flash-light dazzled. He’d forgotten his camera. How would he remember the stick shed?
The Murtoa grain store had been briefly empty, between the end of construction and the beginning of its life of duty and service to the wartime farming community. On a full-moon night Meredith slipped out of her childhood bedroom and under the fence into the rail yard. She walked slowly toward the shed so she wouldn’t trip on stones or tussocks of Patterson’s Curse.
There’d been no letter from Patrick and now no hope. The silence meant one of two things: either he was dead or he didn’t care. She didn’t know which hurt most. She did know if she curled up in a corner of the grain store she’d be buried in wheat tomorrow when the train came and the overhead conveyer rattled into life. And no-one would ever know. Her heartbreak would be buried with her. It couldn’t hurt more than this, now.
For a shed as tall as a mountain ash, as tall as a six storey building, it had low doors. She had to duck to get in. Then she straightened within the majesty of its vast space and gasped audibly. The access point where the conveyer entered above her was the only window, and through it the moon watched. Each of the un-milled tree trunks cast a ghostly moonshadow toward her. All 560 of them. She walked slowly into the centre of the building where the tree trunks towered above her, before turning and started up towards the uninterrupted white moonlight. It felt like walking up the central aisle of a cathedral from a history book. Pigeons cooed from above; always on the look-out for a good roost for their young, they’d stay until the place was full. The birds shifted. Movements echoed.
The heavy green smell of resin and wood cloyed in her throat. She could hardly breathe.
‘Miss Power, is that you?’
A figure came from the edge where the roofline dipped low. Meredith wondered what excuse she could give for trespassing. Then she recognised the lopsidedness of the man, his withered arm bound hard up against his side. ‘Mr Crossley? Lewis?’
The shock of recognition was not only in his crooked figure. They must have come here for the same reason, why else? They’d come and they’d both encountered the sublime in that brief moment when the inside of the shed looked like God’s work.
Preston had no way of knowing if it had been for the best. He had read her regret echoing down the years. ‘I thought you should know.’
So he knew. And he stood in the stick shed and pulled his windcheater tightly around himself to stop his shoulders juddering.
Lewis said goodnight to his mother, who was all tuckered out from the dance, and went straight to check on Preston. The room smelled of sunlight soap and stale vomit. He opened the louvers in the box room to their widest extent to let in more of the bluster of a hot day’s stormy end. The temperature immediately dropped a few degrees. He touched Preston’s forehead gently, wondered if the sweat was heat or fever.
‘My beautiful boy,’ he crooned, softly so as not to wake the child. He sat on the bed and sang, as he had since the day Preston came home from the hospital, a tiny skerrick who could fit the length of Lewis’ good hand. All through those long nights he’d sung anything that came into his head just to keep the baby coupled to the world. Silence, he’d felt, was dangerous. He didn’t know if the singing had helped, he was only a clerk on the railways not a knowledgeable doctor, but here was Preston alive and breathing easily, a child not a baby anymore.
There was a tune in Lewis’s head from the dance. Barney Ivers didn’t have the voice of Sinatra but he could belt one out. ‘Five minutes more, only five minutes more,’ Lewis sang. ‘Only five minutes more of your charms.’ He hummed through the words he didn’t remember, around and back to the chorus. It felt late. Past midnight.
‘And now where is your mother?’ he asked softly.
‘Are you okay?’ a young woman called softly over to Preston. The notes from the didgeridoo filled the dusty air around them.
‘I must look like a silly old man to you,’ he said without censoring himself.
‘Not at all,’ she reassured him. ‘It’d be a hard heart not to be moved by this place.’
Jane Downing has had short stories published widely at home and overseas, including in Southerly, Westerly, Overland, The Big Issue, Griffith Review, Island, Antipodes (US), Headland (NZ), Kunapipi (Denmark), Paris Transcontinental (France), and Silverfish (Malaysia). Her novel, ‘The Sultan’s Daughter,’ is forthcoming with Canberra publisher Obiter in 2020. She can be found at