She had lived there for almost 20 years and she had never openly questioned her husband’s or his father’s wisdom when it came to the operation of the business of the farm. Apart from the fact that she –who’d been a city girl- had no interest in tonnages per hectare, bloodlines, pesticides and tractors, Jenny had simply taken it on trust that Malcolm and The Old Man would always act in the best interests of the property.
Besides which, Jenny’s was the domestic domain, and she had had enough to do to keep the house in order and the kids well clothed and fed. She had cooked for teams of shearers and packed snacks and sandwiches for Malcolm and The Old man at seeding and at harvest times. She had washed and cleaned and kept the pantry stocked, stewed the backyard fruit into jars of jam, handspun wool and knitted jumpers, darned socks, patched shirts and pants.
She had fulfilled her role as farm wife and mother, faithfully, for all that time. And all those years she had fulfilled another vital role within the working of the farm: as part of the Morgan Family Trust, she had saved the business many thousands of dollars in tax. It was a simple arrangement, whereby the farm’s income was split four ways, with equal shares to Jenny, Malcolm, The Old Man and his wife, Pat. The four incomes were taxed seperately, and the combined total tax payment was far below what it would have been if taxed in one lump sum.
Each Christmas they would gather at the Homestead to play out the charade of dividend payment and reinvestment. Full of ham and turkey and seasonal bonhomie, they would each receive a dividend cheque from The Old Man, in his capacity as Trust Secretary. Then each would hand back the cheque and sign the register to reinvest the proceeds in the Trust.
It was a game they liked to play with formal rules, but with an underlying flow of fantasy: on receipt of their cheque, each of them would express some wildly profligate desire –Jenny would say, for instance, that she was planning an extensive holiday in Europe; Malcolm, that he had his eye on a new Mercedes- then they would each decide, in turn, to forego their selfish wants for the collective good of the farm.
It was a good system, smooth and simple, and it meant that there was always plenty of capital available when a harvester broke down or a truck needed replacing, or a big bill came for superphosphate fertiliser. Jenny and Pat were silent partners, working behind the scenes, while Malcolm and The Old Man ran things their way –and thereby the balances were maintained.
Until that first Christmas after the kids had grown up and moved to the distant city, when Jenny felt deep changes happening around and in her. With less to do in the house throughout the year, she had tried a host of ways to fill her time. She had joined a pottery circle and the weavers’ guild, and taken drawing lessons from an art teacher in town. She had become a member of the local Book Club, and rekindled her adolescent interest in the piano. And every now and then, unknown to Malcolm, she would read one of his books on soil agronomy, or parasites in sheep, or Department of Agriculture literature on improving lupin yields.
That Christmas morning she had checked the progress of the thawing turkey and peeled the vegetables and filled the bowls with nuts and nibbles. She had set the table with the best lace napkins and the finest crystal glasses, polished the good silver cutlery and filled the china vases with the best blooms from her garden. Everything was right, and properly in its place, she reassured herself. Everything was the same –except the kids would not be there, that was all.
The lunch itself seemed like a dull dream. Jenny felt removed from the experience of it. As she served it up and sat to eat, she felt the kids’ absence hovering over all, like an empty echo of Christmases past. After pudding, Malcolm and The Old Man pushed their bowls away, and their wine glasses, and opened cans of beer, and Pat sipped dry sherry while she chatted to Jenny about crochet. Jenny’s mind filled lazily with snowflake patterns of crochet cotton.
Then she heard The Old Man, clearly –over Pat’s detailed description of a flaxen doyley- telling Malcolm that they’d have to clear The Wedge. The words woke Jenny up, broke her out of her domestic reverie.
“We’ll just have to clear The Wedge,” she’d heard the weatherbeaten voice, cracked like sun-dried creek mud, most at home when commanding working dogs. Jenny shook her head and frowned. It was a ridiculous notion.
“The Wedge” was the last substantial patch of native bushland on the property, a narrow triangle of tangled shrubs and trees and wildflowers that stretched between the Back 400 paddock and Riley Road. It had been spared the chain-and-tractor, slash-and-burn assault that the rest of the property had suffered since The Old Man’s Old Man had taken up his selection in the ‘30s, when the banks had made him loans at premium rates on condition that he’d cleared more land for crops and pasture. The Wedge was left as a haven for the birds and animals that nested in its stand of copper-trunked mallets, unmolested by the hard-hooved sheep, uncolonised by wild wheat. It stood as a reminder of what the farm once was, and it was Jenny’s favourite, sacred, place.
Right from the beginning of her marriage she had loved to walk there, alone; on spring days, in search of orchids, or to spy on families of tiny timid numbats, nesting in a fallen log. She had taken the children there, one by one, and pointed out the hollows where bright red-chested rosellas had been raising chicks for generations. Just last spring she had set up her easel and her oils there, and painted spindly spider orchids and sweet boronia. Now her sanctuary was under threat –condemned in that single laconic sentence.
“I’m sorry, Pat,” Jenny excused herself. She turned towards the men. “Err… I’m sorry to interrupt, but what was that you said? About The Wedge?”
The Old Man looked down his long, sun-scarred nose at her with mild surprise. “We’re gonna have to clear it, Jen,” he told her, holding back a sneer. “We’ll be bulldozing the lot.”
She held his eye. “But… why?”
The Old Man scratched his head and looked sideways at his son. Malcolm lowered his eyes to the tablecloth. Pat’s eyebrows arched.
“Well, Jen, we need more space,” her father-in-law explained, speaking slowly and emphasising all the key words, as though she was a child. “More room for wheat and sheep.”
Jenny pursed her lips and shook her head, unconvinced,
“But why more?” she insisted. “Haven’t we got enough cleared land already?”
The Old Man looked at Malcolm, who shrugged and swallowed. It was his turn to explain in slow and simple terms.
“Well, the South 600 and the Soak Paddock have both pretty much gone to salt, Jen,” he told her patiently. “If we’re going to keep our sheep numbers up, we need more pasture.”
“And after a couple of years we’ll put a crop in, see?” The Old Man added.
Jenny thought for some time, imagining the screaming of the chainsaws, smelling the tractor’s diesel fumes mingling with fresh-ripped dirt and the high sweet scent of tree-sap. In her mind’s eye she saw the bright yellow petals of a donkey orchid mashed into a caterpillar track. She heard the revving of massive engines and felt the earth-shock as a taproot cracked.
“No, that’s crazy!” she told them all. They all looked at her, of course, as though she was the crazy one. There was something in the corners of her eyes they hadn’t seen before, and instinctively they disliked it.
“A couple of paddocks become salt-degraded, and your solution is to clear the last bit of bushland… That’s just ridiculous, when it was clearing so much land that caused the salt problem in the first place.”
For a moment there was silence. The Old Man took several long quavering breaths through his nose and, recognising this signal, Pat spoke up. “I think the men know what they are doing, don’t you, Jenny? I think they know best.”
There was another long silence as the family waited for Jenny’s reply. Together they had weathered droughts and floods and falling prices, rust in the wheat and dust in the wool. They had survived the sundry medical emergencies that were to be expected on a farm, pulled together in all the dark days. But this was, for them, a new kind of crisis. Jenny felt it keenly, felt herself a mutineer, a traitor. The weight of years spent deferring to dubious authority was shifting, upsetting the equilibrium they had always managed to maintain. She knew that now, quite suddenly, she had become the fulcrum. She was the tipping point.
“You’re right,” she said. “It’s men’s business. They know best.”
The relief in the dining room was palpable. The crystal glasses had been on the point of ringing with the friction and the tension in the air. Now The Old Man downed the remnants of his can of beer and clapped his hands and clasped them together with a smile.
“I think it’s cheque time!” He reached behind his chair for the cracked old leather satchel in which the farm’s most important documents were kept. Malcolm had already cleared a space on the tablecloth for the cheque book, the ledger, and The Old Man’s fountain pen. These items were laid out with almost reverential precision. The Old Man tapped a glass with his spoon.
“I now declare the Annual General Meeting of the Morgan Family Trust open.” He recited the words like a magic spell that conjured up his favourite game.
He peered at each of them in turn, announced “All Shareholders in the Trust are present” and made a florid note in the ledger. Jenny fought back a grin when she realised that The Old Man had actually counted them.
“Item One on the agenda is the distribution of dividends.” Jenny watched him lick his lips, his eyebrows dancing, and realised that at this one moment every year he was more animated than at any other. This was a role he relished, she could see –the provider, in control.
“I am pleased to announce a dividend for this year of $55 thousand per share –a 20 per cent increase on last year.”
Pat and Malcolm whistled through their family teeth, as the game required. But Jenny missed the cue: her mind was calculating.
“Would the Trust Secretary’s Assistant please prepare four cheques for that amount.” Pat pursed her lips and wrote out the cheques in her perfect copperplate and gave them to her husband, one by one, for his signature. The Old Man surveyed the cheques and handed one straight back to her.
“For you, my dear,” he said. “Now, what are you going to spend it on?”
“Oh?” Pat pretended to be flustered. It drew out the exquisite agony of their game just that little bit longer. “I was thinking I would get some new curtains for the living room…”
“Oh, come on Mum!” Malcolm urged. “You’ve just got 55 grand! Spend big!”
Pat smiled self-consciously. This was her one moment of the year.
“Well then, I think I will put in a swimmng pool for when the kids come back. With a heated spa for winter.”
Malcolm and The Old Man chorused their approval.
“Now, here’s yours, Mal.” The Old Man passed his son the cheque. “What have you got planned?”
Malcolm laced his fingers behind his head, leaned back in his chair, breathing deeply.
“This year I’m going to get a boat,” he told them, his eyes searching their faces for signs of approval. “A 25-foot cabin cruiser with a 60 horsepower motor, and all the electronics gear. And I’m going to go fishing in the Gulf.”
“Good for you, Mal!” said Pat.
“Sounds lovely, son,” The Old Man murmured.
“Hmmm,” said Jenny, not having heard.
The Old Man turned towards her now with a leer, a cheque dangling between his thick, calloused fingers.
“Now Jen,” he said, “here’s fifty-five thousand dollars. Spend it wisely, won’t you?” He looked intently at her face and tried to smile. She took the cheque in two hands and surveyed its every detail.
“I’ll spend it wisely, Dad. You can be sure of that.”
The others waited, but Jenny did not volunteer to elaborate.
“On what, Jen?” Malcolm prompted her, anxious that she follow the traditional pattern. “What are you going to buy?”
Jenny swallowed hard. The balance that had been teetering in her shifted suddenly, to a point beyond recovery.
“I’m going to buy the best legal advice I can get,” she told them. Her voice quavered with emotional release. “And I’m going to stop you clearing The Wedge.”
There was a heavy silence in the room again. The blood running into The Old Man’s face was almost audible as it hissed through the big vein in his neck. Jenny wasn’t playing by the rules, they all knew. In fact, she was playing, now, a very different kind of game .