John lingered with his friend Brian as high school students fled from classes for the day on their bikes. They were heading for pleasures of sports grounds in other parts of town or just hanging around Main Street to sample assorted delicacies before tackling homework in the evening at home.
But in John’s case there was the eleven-kilometre hard slog up and down hills until he reached home at Macintosh Creek. His father was trading his way out of a difficult financial situation after exhausting savings on a Mooloo farm venture. It had been a heartbreaking time with constant drought since moving from the city to that farm.
Initially it had seemed to be a good investment. Rains had come in abundance, animals had thrived in the lush grasslands on their two hundred and seventy acres, crops had given high yield, the huge dam had been constructed and swept away in a deluge but had been rebuilt stronger to withstand future flooding from the hills.
But then things had changed abruptly. Year after year the drought had sapped the energy of land and animals until at great cost remaining animals had to be fed with fodder from far-away places and the ground produced practically nothing of value in crops for sale. They watched as the level of the dam reduced year by year until it was a pathetic expanse of muddy water requiring animals to fight their way through knee deep mud to get to water.
So, a lesson was learned. Farming is not for the faint-hearted individual, it was the beginning of an era when corporate giants would swallow lands and amalgamate them into vast holdings building agricultural factories with storage and facilities taking advantage of good years and storing for the bad.
But John’s father Rick was not one to lie down and let fate put him back at the bottom of the ladder. He’d not sell to the corporates. He’d survived the depression in a family minus father and come through it all with a belief hard work and guts could solve almost any problem encountered.
He’d walked the streets as a salesman during the depression with new cardboard to cover holes in the sole of his shoes each morning and urged people to buy his stuff. He was a survivor! So, he realized there was more money in buying and selling improved farms than there was milking cropping and selling what the land produces. Macintosh Creek was just another of those ventures, repairing fences, stocking, planting corps and selling the farm.
John was now adept in handling farm chores to do his part. He’d been put on a tractor at age twelve and informed he was part of a family and had obligations to contribute to their survival. So, he couldn’t linger longer talking to friends. It was time to make that journey home and do his part with chores before evening came and kerosene pressure lamps were lit for the evening meal and homework afterward.
Going home was always a time of anxiety for John. There were two possible routes to get to the farm. The Jones Hill route was one mile shorter. Either alternative required a crossing of the Mary River and considerable hard slog over washboard dirt road to Macintosh Creek on leaving sealed roads with an occasional tyre puncture requiring a long walk home pushing the bike. But the Jones Hill route had less of that kind of road so was favoured.
Anxiety stemmed from the fact boys from a Neanderthal family who lived on the way to Jones Hill were home at that time of day and delighted in darting out to poke sticks into wheel spokes totalling out the targeted wheel. They were of a size and quantity not to be messed with by trying to defend oneself. Once immobilized they’d torture the rider like a cat plays with a mouse leaving them to walk bruised and battered the rest of the way home pushing their damaged bike as far as the Jones Hill shop where it was left to be retrieved by angry parents in their farm vehicle. As there were no witnesses police were unable to prove they were the culprits. A conspicuous police presence for a few days after a complaint would result in a peaceful transit home, but once that police presence was removed the game would recommence. On a snap decision John decided that would be the route home. It would save that extra slog over the alternate dirt washboard road.
The few kilometres from river to Jones Hill were accomplished with extreme effort, speed and furtive glances in the direction of the Neanderthal home, but fortune smiled and the rest of the ride home was accomplished with minimum stress.
It was always good to lift the latch on their farm gate and enter the track leading to the farm homestead. His brother and sister would be home by this time. As they were pre-high school they were fortunate to attend school at Jones Hill. The school auditorium doubled as entertainment centre for surrounding farming communities. It was there functions were held and dances enjoyed and surrounds were beautifully kept. It was only a couple of kilometres from the Macintosh Creek farm.
With farm chores completed the family sat around kerosene lights in the evenings eating and sharing happenings of the day. There was no electricity delivered to farming communities in that area and no diesel motor to light up buildings at night as was the case on Mooloo property. Parents would listen to news on battery radios and children sit at the table completing their homework assignments before retiring for the night with only the moon and stars to give light. The boys occupied a veranda at the back of the home where beds had been installed and in winter time blankets piled on to keep cold at bay.
After the meal as dishes were being cleared Mother spoke.
“Yan Gusthoffen was over to see us today John, he issued an invitation to lunch on Sunday at his farm.”
It was a common thing for farm folk to invite. Farming is a full-on experience leaving little time for socializing, so the periodic dance is an important event well attended despite folk being bone tired after a hard day work. The dance is also the primary event bringing farm young people together and facilitating a meeting of young men and women often leading to marriage. Entertaining neighbours is a similar way to counteract the tedium of routines on a farm or perhaps to bring young people together in the hope of a similar outcome.
Something in the back of John’s head sounded warning bells, for the Gusthoffen girl it was whispered around the community had not been endowed with the looks of a Hollywood actress. However, it was a family invitation so he’d be able to melt into the background as parents shared their common farming experiences. It was a neighbourly thing to do.
Mother paused with the hint of a smile on her face.
“The invitation is for you John, we said it was alright so you can ride over on Sunday and spend time with the Gusthoffens and join them for lunch. I’m sure you’ll be on your best behaviour. Try not to joke around like you usually do. These are sober people!”
There was a muffled snort of laughter from behind the paper on the other side of the table followed by snickering from siblings. John’s blood ran cold. He’d been thrown to the wolves abandoned by his own family. It would be unthinkable to refuse such an invitation. That was just not done in a farming community as the word would be spread their family was aloof and that would affect necessary interactions. Farmer folk shared machinery and helped each other in other ways so a slight to an invitation would be frowned on all around the community.
Mother paused to study her son. She came around the table and patted his shoulder.
“It will be good for you to learn social graces by accepting this invitation and being friendly. I don’t know why you had this invitation alone but make the most of it. Your Dad intends to move back to town now that you kids are at the age where you’re moving into higher education and these facilities are only available in town. I know that trip to and from High School has been difficult for you so you won’t have access to the Gusthoffens soon and we need to leave here with a good reputation in the community.”
The next few days John thought black thoughts of his family. The fact that it would be unforgivable to turn down an invitation in a rural community was another matter, and in reflective moments he acknowledged that. But it didn’t soothe his feelings of foreboding. He was alone, he was fair game!
But the fateful Sunday arrived despite him willing otherwise and he mounted his trusty bike and pedalled slowly over to the Gusthoffens. Mr and Mrs Yan Gusthoffen stood at the open door beaming with pleasure. Maria Gusthoffen sized him up. A bit lean, but given time she could do something about that. They motioned John inside and indicated the lounge where Helga sat reading the newspaper, she glanced up then continued reading much to the annoyance of Maria who chided her in a language John was unfamiliar with. Helga put the newspaper down crossly and stared at the floor.
John gazed at her incredulously. This was not the girl from hell whose fame was circulating in the rumour mill. This was a very beautiful teenager. Suddenly John had a change of mood, this lunch was going to be a good experience after all. Yan Gusthoffen motioned to the lounge and sat in his favourite easy chair looking disapprovingly at Helga. He began a rambling discourse labouring in adopted English language on the price of beef cattle, the state of the weather and the inefficiency of those in charge of repairing roads in the community asking questions of Helga to try and get a conversation going between the young people. Helga listened silently. Yan Gusthoffen made a gesture of resignation and headed for the kitchen to help Maria.
It was at that point Helga looked up and smiled. “I’m sorry! I’m sure this has been an embarrassment for you too. My parents need to do a reality check as this is 1950’s Australia, not Europe. I hope you won’t judge them too harshly.” She giggled and John’s heart skipped a beat.
The conversation was animated except for the times when Helga caught her parents peeping from the kitchen door at which times she’d revert to her stern disinterested look then return to animated discussion when she was assured they were not looking.
“How old are you?” Helga asked the question pointedly.
“I’m sixteen,” John said in surprise.
“Well I’m seventeen and I go to a girl’s school in Brisbane so we probably won’t be seeing much of each other after this unless I’m on vacation and you want to hang out. That’s unless my mother tries to marry me off before I finish my education.” She chuckled quietly. “My parents think you’re eighteen, I can hardly wait to see the look on their face when I report how old you really are.
This was too much for her and she laughed. Both heads poked around the kitchen door and smiled happily.
Helga continued her charade through the meal winking at John when she knew her parents were not looking. A crestfallen Mr and Mrs Gusthoffen showed John to the door that afternoon and he sailed home on his bike singing a happy song.
Mom met him at the door, she’d been looking out the window waiting for his return. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she? I’ve seen a picture of her on their mantelpiece.”
“I guess she’s OK!” John felt uncomfortable with this intrusion into his private thinking. It was unseemly for a teenager to look interested about anything, particularly girls, even if there were yearnings going on in the deep dark recesses of the mind. He was smitten by this teenage queen but should never reveal this or teasing from his siblings would be unbearable.
Soon after that Rick came home with the good news the Macintosh farm had been sold and we were on our way to live in town once more. Rick had moved on to an interest in the timber trade as well as investing in small farms in need of reviving.
Was there a happily ever after with Helga? There were moments when John thought of contacting the Gusthoffens school vacation time but then he remembered Helga’s caution her parents thought he was older than they’d imagined. Apparently, that had been their thinking and they were no doubt relieved nothing had come of the encounter, then again, there was the question of negotiating those washboard dirt roads again and the Neanderthal family. Three good reasons not to make contact.
Not too long after their reestablishment in town John received a letter drafting him into compulsory army national service training. At age eighteen he found himself in Brisbane where the army base was situated. At leave times, he’d head with other soldiers on leave pass to Cloudland Ballroom, hoping for a chance meeting with Helga he did the rounds looking for an opportunity to get reacquainted. All to no avail. Then into his line of vision other possibilities emerged. The Helga experience was confined to a dim memory of the past.
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