Waltzing Matilda

By Bethany George

Michael sat in the second row of the church pews. His elbows leaning on the row in front, head bowed towards his chest. He could not face looking at the sad-eyed portrait of his departed friend, nestled in an assortment of bold Australian natives on top of the majestic walnut coffin.

Michael found Dave’s body wedged between his tractor and the old white gum, at the border of their properties. The investigation concluded it was an accident. The tractor had rolled. Accident indeed.

He thought back on the alcohol-fuelled conversation they had only the week before. Both men had lost their main source of income. Their livelihoods stripped away, like the bark of a blue gum in summer. Rain was a distant memory, and they were drowning in debt and dust. Between the never-ending drought and malnourished stock, clients were opting to source produce elsewhere.The deeper they got into their drinks, the deeper the conversation progressed.

‘When my time comes, I hope it will be quick and painless,’ Dave said, the alcohol loosening his tongue.

Michael grunted in agreement, and then frowned. ‘I wouldn’t mind how I went, as long as I had Molly by my side.’ Molly’s tail wagged at the mention of her name and he patted her head in acknowledgement

Dave looked down at the bundle of black and white fur at Michael’s feet and laughed. ‘With any luck you’d have a woman on your other side.’ He nodded to the horizon. ‘Your shining star is out there.’

The night sky was a deep shade of blue. The hazy glow of the city’s light pollution masked the brightness in that direction, but the stars shone in abundance above them. It was one thing Michael liked about the country.

The chair creaked as Dave shifted uncomfortably, ‘She’s a good one, Mick.’ he nodded to Molly. ‘I have a feeling she will outlive the both of us.’ His face lost all expression as he glanced across the fire towards the ghostly gums.

Michael should have seen it coming.

Dave’s wake was a sombre event and Michael could think of a million places he would rather be; but it was right to pay his respects to Dave’s sister. Matilda had arrived from the city to coordinate the service. He hadn’t met her before, but recognised her golden hair and striking blue eyes hiding beneath her grief, from the portrait above Dave’s mantel.

‘I’m sorry for your loss, Matilda. Dave was a good man.’

She looked up at him, scanning his features, and he noticed the sad, lonely look in her eyes. He knew it for what it was, because he saw the same melancholy each morning in the mirror. His eyes intuitively cast down to her folded hands. No ring. He wondered if being in the city was just as lonely as being away from it.

‘Thank you. You must be Mick,’ she said, and he didn’t mind the sound of his nickname from her tongue. Her red-rimmed eyes glistened with tears yet shed. She had a slight tremor in her voice that almost triggered Michael, but he swallowed it down. ‘Davey always spoke highly of you.’ She reached out, and by instinct, he took her hand. The softness of her warm flesh was a refreshing contrast to his rigid working hands. ‘You’re his neighbour right?’

‘I am. I was.’ He didn’t have the heart to say more, and Matilda seemed to accept it.

He politely offered his assistance, should she need anything, before mourners pulled Matilda away. They exchanged curious glances from across the room, both pretending to listen to other conversations. When he finally lost sight of her, Michael decided to sneak away without saying goodbye. It was already noon, and he still had to get his own business affairs in order. It was probably better this way, he thought.

After the service, Matilda had taken Michael up on his offer, creating a daily habit of stopping by. He found it an unanticipated nuisance, and ill timed. He hadn’t expected her to accept what was only meant as a polite gesture. There was so much to the farming life she didn’t know, and at times he was certain that the basic questions were just an excuse for company. The mountain of bills and the mess in the shed required time he didn’t have to spare or waste. He was frustrated at the interruptions but the more she came, the more he looked forward to her visits.

Eight days passed since Matilda’s last visit—not that Michael was counting—and he was starting to think she had left for the city. The thought disturbed him. The town was buzzing with the nation’s generosity. He wasn’t much for accepting charity, but his sheep were wasting away. If his sheep were to sell, he needed to feed them. Already, their woolly coats were dull and brittle and buyers were turning away. He found two more carcases in a dip that was once a thriving dam. The hay was not enough to fill his dam with water, but it was enough to feed what was left of his flock.

He shielded his eyes, and reached into his pocket and touched the crumbled bank letter. The afternoon sun settled in the clouds above the peaks of the distant Blue Mountains, blanketing the land in shades of glorious orange and pink. He thought Matilda would relish this splendour, and then shook the thought off as he wandered to his old work shed.

Michael was measuring the ceiling height, ignoring Molly’s sorrowful whine when he heard the rumble of a ute ploughing up the dirt road. Molly’s ears perked, tail wagged, and she shot out the door.

‘Down, Molly!’ He heard the sweet feminine sound, followed by a joyous bark. ‘Oh, look at what you have done!’

He dropped his tape measure, threw the coiled rope from his shoulders over the beam above, and dashed outside. He smiled at the sight before him. Matilda’s eucalyptus-green shirt was smothered in dusty paw prints. She brushed the dust with her hands, but gave up when she noticed it was rubbing further into the fabric. She shrugged carelessly and lifted her head when she noticed him.

‘There is a celebration down at the pub this evening,’ her eyes darted past his shoulders into the shed and back. ‘I don’t really know anybody and I was hoping you might join me?’

Michael had heard about the celebration, but had no intention of going. The faces of the township were the last thing he wanted to see.

‘Please?’ she added at his hesitation, ‘There will be food and drinks and possibly some dancing…’

‘I’m really not much of a dancer,’ Michael said, but his tongue couldn’t form an excuse not to go, nor did he think he wanted it to. The thought surprised him. ‘But if you don’t mind two left feet, I would be happy to waltz with you, Matilda.’ Surely, he could spare an hour or two just for tonight.

The corner of Matilda’s mouth lifted slightly before the other side joined it. The sight turned his heart’s dormant clogs. ‘Great!’ she blushed as she tucked a stray strand behind her ears. ‘I quite like you, Mick.’

The clogs turned again. He noticed then the five-point shaped smudge on her wrist. He reached out to rub the dirt and hesitated when he realised what it was.

Matilda’s gaze followed his, and she rubbed the ink with tenderness. He recalled the soft feel of her hand and rebuked the temptation to feel it again.

‘I got it when I turned eighteen.’ Her eyes were focused on her tattoo, as her words drifted to a fond memory. ‘Davey always said I was a shining star. He said he could see the haze of the city lights from here and that it was so bright that he couldn’t see the stars. He said it was because of me that the city outshined the night sky.’

Michael blinked and this time, the clogs slammed with each turn, pumping his blood harder and faster and reminding he was alive. He almost stumbled back from the force, corrected himself, and stumbled forward instead.

‘Well I’ll be…’ He hadn’t realised he said the words aloud, nor how close they were now standing. He cleared his throat, ‘Shall I pick you up at seven?’

He watched her drive away, a flume of dirt at her tail, disappearing under the teasing dark clouds. He turned with a smile, floated back into his shed, and paused. For a moment, he had forgotten. A moment of hope had burst his plans, and he stared at the chair in the centre of the room. The rope, dangling above it; its noose cast a lifeless shadow against the wall. He rubbed his neck and swallowed. Molly barked, and a clap of thunder vibrated through the walls. A soft ting on the tin roof was followed by another, until a steady cadence of raindrops danced above him. He felt his chest quiver before he heard his own shaky laughter and he turned to look out to the drive.

The parched sunburnt soil quenched its thirst, and the bleating sounds of pleasure echoed from the paddock. Michael turned back, kicked the chair without hesitation and pulled the rope from the rafters, throwing it to the corner. He didn’t know how long he stood there revelling in his epiphany but the light outside had faded and dusk was advancing. He dashed to the house as the welcoming rains flooded the landscape.

A skip in his step, and a hum in his throat. A surge of adrenaline coursed through his veins and, for the first time in months, the future looked promising. He didn’t know when his humming became words, but as he left his house, dashing through the torrential downpour, he belted them out.

‘You’ll come a waltzing matilda, with me!’