“Sheila is coming over tomorrow. We are going to see some friends of hers, then we’re heading on over to a house in Wauchope that she’s thinking of buying.
“Colin is bringing over the stock we bought on Thursday so you will need to be here to help him unload. Keep them in the yard until I get back and they’ve settled down. Make sure they have fresh water but don’t feed them any hay. They won’t need it.
“Oh, and by the way, Sheila will drop off her daughter Cynthia here so you will have company for the day. There’s plenty of food in the cupboard so the two of you won’t starve. We should be back late afternoon.”
Paul’s uncle Rodney was ironing a shirt. As the ladies of the town were known to remark, “… he might not have a woman in the house but he manages to keep himself looking smart.”
“How come I haven’t met her daughter before?” Paul enquired.
“She lives on a property north of the river with her father and his sister and family. He manages the place. She goes to school in Albury and only comes to stay with her mother in the holidays. I reckon she’s about your age, maybe a bit older. She’s been around livestock all her life so the two of you will have similar interests. Be nice to her. Sheila says she thinks Cynthia gets a bit lonely on the farm.”
Sheila arrived early the next day and tooted the horn as she rounded the machinery sheds and pulled up outside the back door.
Paul followed along as Uncle Rodney went out to greet her, not with his usual passionate kiss and energetic hugging, but with a brief hug and peck on the cheek. Paul instantly saw the reason for his uncle’s hesitant welcome. A thin suntanned girl with blonde wavy hair stood beside the car surveying the scene.
“Rodney and Paul, this is Cynthia, Cynthia this is Rod and that is Paul his nephew, who lives here with him.”
The girl stood very still. Then she looked first at uncle Rod and then at Paul.
“Hello both of you,” said Cynthia. “Great place you’ve got here.”
Then without another word, she headed down towards the creek that ran below the cattle yards.
“She will explore everything and drive you crazy with questions,” said Sheila, looking at Paul as she spoke. “But you won’t find her boring, I can assure you. She can do anything a man can do on the farm. And don’t worry if she doesn’t answer your questions immediately. She will be thinking about what you said. And she won’t always give the answer you expected.
“I’m told Cynthia is a bit different from most fourteen-year-olds. Probably too bright for her own good sometimes. But you will soon get to know her. Best of luck!”
Rod climbed into the driver’s seat. He turned the car around and Sheila got in.
Rod leant out of the window and yelled above the noise of the motor, “Don’t forget Colin is coming. We should be back between four and five but don’t worry if we are late. Enjoy yourselves and we’ll see you later.”
The tourer leapt forward, then almost stopped before shooting off in fits and starts and disappearing around the corner.
Silence prevailed for just a moment. Then Paul heard a voice calling from what seemed a long way off.
“Can you help me with this please?”
Cynthia waved to him from the far side of the creek. She was hanging onto a rope which was attached to the crayfish trap, except she probably didn’t know what was on the end of it. It was snagged on something.
Even at a distance, Paul could see that she was very wet and looked bedraggled. Her clothes clung to her and her hair looked crazy.
Paul headed down to the creek.
“Are you all right?”
“It’s snagged,” she answered in a low voice. “If it is a crayfish trap, we should get it up and check it.”
“It’s not a problem. The door is closed when we’re not using it so there won’t be anything in it, although sometimes an eel manages to slip in.”
Paul untied the thin rope that he used to pull in the heavy rope hanging from the big gum tree, which they swung out on over the water hole on hot days. This time he wasn’t using it to drop into the water but just to get him onto the far bank.
Paul dropped to the grass gently, just a few feet from where Cynthia sat. She watched him intently, checking his every movement while cleverly hiding her interest.
“Shouldn’t you keep it out of the water when you’re not using it?”
“I do, but we had big rains a week or so back and it looks as if a floating tree branch may have dragged it in. I’ll get it out now while you are holding the rope. That will make it easier.”
Paul waded into the water with his right hand following the taut rope and his left gently moving leaves and debris away in front of him. He quickly located the submerged tree limb and with great effort succeeded in raising a part of it above the water level so that they could see where the rope went. Then the cage appeared, and with a bit of pulling and pushing Paul freed the contraption from its captor. He called to Cynthia to pull the wire net up to the bank.
The two of them stood looking down at the net. Then Paul dragged it further away from the water, all the time watched by the girl.
“Follow me. There is a tree across the water just around the corner. You won’t need to get wet again. Are you comfortable, or should I get you a towel to dry off? I’m supposed to look after you. Your mum would be furious if she came back and found you had died of pneumonia.”
Paul’s attempt at humour had been ignored and he turned to lead them to the river crossing.
Halfway along the track that led up to the house, Cynthia yelled “Chickens!” and ran off towards the fowl pens nestled beneath the two giant peppercorn trees that gave afternoon shade to the homestead.
Paul stopped and watched her, then followed along. Cynthia had already let herself into the chook pens and he could hear the hens’ warning cackles as the stranger moved among the nest boxes and the hanging self-feeder drums containing wheat.
“No eggs,” came a voice seemingly addressed to itself.
Paul put his head against the wire door of the dark shed and called out. “I collected a dozen or so before you arrived. But I haven’t checked the guinea fowl nests yet. Let’s do that.”
The wacky-looking girl appeared.
“Show me guinea fowl!”
Paul beckoned Cynthia from the yard.
“We go into the scrub over there.”
He nodded towards a patch of casuarina trees and wattles, below which long yellow native grasses crowded the woodland floor
Paul led the way and Cynthia, her still damp dress now covered in short stalks of straw and spider webs from the chook shed, followed, all the time fighting back her usual desire to run in front to explore for new things.
As they approached the trees, Paul let out a series of cackling noises. Cynthia stopped and stood watching him.
Suddenly a bird that Cynthia had never seen before came out of the woodland in front of him followed by many others. Their feathers were blue-grey and interlaced with white ones. They had little necks and tiny funny heads with bluish white scaly skin behind the eyes that reached to the neck, and bright red wattles hung below their beaks. Among the dozen or more fowls there was one that hung back seemingly not wanting to leave the safety of the trees.
Paul pointed to the hen, directing Cynthia who immediately saw the four little chicks dashing in and out between their mothers legs.
Cynthia was thrilled and expressed herself in wild yelling, which Paul eventually made out was her calling, “Guinea fowls, guinea fowls, guinea fowls. I love you! Guinea fowls are so funny, so funny.”
“Where do they live?” Cynthia shouted above the fowls’ loud calling.
She came and stood beside Paul for the first time instead of standing at a distance somewhere else, as she had done so far.
“They roost over in the peppercorn trees. They are great at guarding the chooks. They make a lot of noise if a fox or eagle comes around. And they nest all over the place but mainly in here in the long grass. Let’s have a look.”
The two moved out of the sunlight into the shade of the woodland, looking around them as they went. Cynthia suddenly yelled out “Here’s a nest!”
Eight eggs lay in a nest of grass and feathers in a hollow among dead roots where a big tree once stood.
Cynthia gathered up the hem of her dress to make a pouch, into which she placed the eggs.
Paul looked appreciatively at her long legs, newly exposed above her knees. He found Cynthia attractive and he was conscious of feeling a pleasurable agitation when he thought about her.
It confused him just a little.
After delivering the eggs to the bowl on the kitchen sideboard, Cynthia dashed off to explore the house. Paul didn’t try to follow her, but instead brought some bread to the table and then sliced some lamb and found a jar of pickles. He called her name out in the passageway, realising as he did so that it was the first time he had spoken her name.
“Cynthia! Come and have something to eat.”
Cynthia was suddenly at his side, having come through the door that led to the wash house. She moved silently and surprised him.
“Who cooks?” Cynthia asked.
“Uncle Rod does and so do I.” Paul replied.
Cynthia picked up a piece of meat and laid it on a slice of bread, then wandered back outside. Paul heard the fly wire door bang. He did the same with bread and lamb but added pickle to the lamb, and then went to join her outside.
The girl had disappeared. Then he heard Cynthia’s questioning voice.
“Where’s your sow?”
Paul didn’t answer immediately but walked in what seemed to be the direction of the voice.
For a moment he thought he had come the wrong way, then saw movement up high and spotted Cynthia at the top of the ladder, which stood between two water tanks. She peered in to one then the other, then back to the first one again.
“We get dead possums in our tanks. Dad is always fishing them out.”
Paul walked over to stand and hold the ladder to prevent it from sliding over. Uncle Rod had always said he would tie the top of the ladder to the frame running between the tanks, but he’d never got round to doing it.
“We used to, until we put the strips of wire netting over the top. Now we don’t get them.”
Paul found himself gazing upward and seeing all the way up Cynthia’s dress to her knickers. Her brown legs seemed to go on forever and that was exciting. But the part of her body he was attracted to most, after her face and hair, was her perfect feet and ankles.
Paul thought how different life would be if they lived in the same house. Perhaps if Uncle Rod married Sheila, then Cynthia would come and be with them each school holiday. How wonderful that would be. He must think of ways to encourage Uncle Rod to settle down and marry Sheila.
“Where’s your sow?” came the question again.
“We don’t keep pigs. We go away sometimes for a week or more, fishing or shooting. You can be away from cattle and sheep and you can leave food for chooks, but pigs need daily attention. You can’t leave them alone on the place. They wouldn’t survive.”
Cynthia came down the ladder rapidly, then stood in front of Paul and just stared at him while she finished off her bread and lamb. Then she turned and headed off again, this time towards the row of wooden sheds.
Paul thought she would most likely start at the first one and work her way along, but she didn’t. Cynthia in her usual rapid walking style headed to the corner shed, opened the door, went in and closed it behind her.
Paul wondered if this was her way of saying, “Don’t follow me” but he hesitated for only a moment before entering.
Cynthia stood transfixed.
This was Paul’s and his uncle’s training room. They called it the gym. The setup was very spartan, comprising two different sized hanging punching bags and a roped-off boxing ring with a canvas floor covering a thick layer of soft hay.
Hanging on one wall were two rows of boxing gloves. Those on the top row were larger and mostly the same size, while on the bottom row, the sizes went from the very small gloves that Paul had worn some years back to those that he now wore.
“I want to fight you!” Cynthia exclaimed.
“You mean you would like to put on the boxing gloves?”
“Yes, and you put some on too.”
Cynthia reached up and selected a small pair that looked to be her size and proceeded to pull them on. Then she stared at the long laces hanging from her wrists.
“What do I do now?” she asked, turning to Paul and holding her hands up.
“I’ll tie your laces so that the gloves don’t come off when you are boxing,” he answered.
“But I can’t tie yours while I’m wearing these. So what will you do?”
“Don’t worry. I can tie my own. I have a knack using my teeth. Usually there is someone around to do it for you when you are at a boxing match.”
Cynthia held her hands up in front of her and watched silently while Paul pulled the laces tight and wrapped and tied them around her wrists. Then he pulled his own gloves on and did a quick thing with his mouth to fix his laces around his wrists and out of the way.
“Are you ready to box, Cynthia?”
Cynthia eyed him with the now familiar stare of a person trying to get the measure of him.
He liked the way she spoke his name. But then he liked everything she said or did.
Paul took her upper arm in his gloved hand and led her to the ropes of the workout ring. He ducked under the top rope into the ring and Cynthia followed.
Paul moved them to the middle of the ring and showed her how to face him and hold her arms in a defensive stance. Then he backed away and stood in a similar position.
“So Cynthia, if you want to begin by hitting me, that would be a good start. Aim to hit my face and be ready to push my arm away when I try to hit you. Have you got that?”
Cynthia stared at Paul.
“Why would I want to hit you in the face, Paul?”
Paul fought back a smile and answered.
“Well, a boxer aims to beat his opponent by hitting him. They both keep doing this until one gives in or gets knocked unconscious.
“We are not going to do anything like that but you need to know that that is what boxing is about. The winner is the one who fights the best. You get that? Right now we are just sparring, or playing at hitting if you like.”
Paul moved his hands about to suggest sparring and Cynthia began waving her hands in a movement that seemed more like swimming.
“Oh yes! The other thing that boxers need to do is to keep their feet and legs moving as if they are dancing. This means that they are all the time changing their position and making it more difficult for the other person to land a direct hit on their chin or nose. Clear on that?”
Cynthia stopped pawing the air and stood and stared at him in her usual disarming way. Then she started to dance, swinging her legs backwards and forwards and side to side, added the swimming movement and so became a bizarre and amazing spectacle to behold.
Paul was mesmerised and slid totally under Cynthia’s spell.
If this had been a proper fight, she would have landed half a dozen significant blows to his head, which he might not have survived. As it turned out, he was unprepared for what happened next.
Cynthia suddenly launched herself towards him, and fell and crashed into his chest. Paul managed to catch her in his arms but not before he lost his balance. Together they fell to the floor, he on his back and she lying on top of him.
Cynthia by this time had a gloved hand pressed against each of his ears, and their noses were all but touching. If that wasn’t surprising enough for Paul, Cynthia pushed her face close to his and pressed her lips to his lips and they kissed.
The two lay there not moving. The kissing continued and Paul felt passion like nothing he had felt before.
He shook the gloves from his hands and ran them up her back to her shoulders and then down again and over her small buttocks. Cynthia pressed his lips even harder with hers, moving her mouth slowly as though savouring something delicious. Then Paul ran his hands back up her thin frame and out over her shoulders to her bare arms and pulled her tighter to him.
Cynthia shuddered ever so slightly and Paul’s body stiffened in response.
This magic moment for the two ended just seconds later. The huge roaring of a truck horn filled their space and a giant motor sounded as though it was about to come through the gym wall.
“Colin!” shouted Paul.
Cynthia rolled off and sat up looking confused.
“It’s the truck bringing the stock Uncle Rod bought at the market yesterday. I have to show him where to go.”
Cynthia stared at him, trying to take it all in. For the first time she appeared confused and Paul felt a momentary twinge of guilt. But it wasn’t really his fault.
He took off and met the truck outside, where it sat with the motor running and Colin waiting for someone to appear.
“This way Colin!”
He headed down past the sheds and round the corner and turned and pointed towards the second loading race.
By the time Colin had turned the truck around and backed up to the race, Cynthia had joined Paul. She stood beside him with her arms bent and her still gloved hands reaching forward.
Colin switched off the motor and jumped down to join the two, staring at Cynthia all the while.
“Gee Paul. I didn’t know you had a girlfriend,” Colin said with a broad smile.
Paul went red in the face and attempted to introduce Cynthia, but before he had finished saying her name Cynthia replied on her own account.
“I’m Cynthia and I will marry Paul and I will have four babies. That is if I don’t die of pneumonia beforehand.”
If Paul’s day with Cynthia had triggered an emotion akin to love, his second encounter with a girl–or rather, girls–took him somewhere else entirely, somewhere he would never have imagined.
Paul had moved to the city, where he boarded with his Aunt May and where he was apprenticed at the local brewery.
Leaving work one Friday afternoon, he was greeted by the sound of two voices speaking in unison.
“Hello Paul!” they called.
Paul looked across the street and saw the twins from the accounts department, Lola and Rosa.
“Hello!” he called back.
“We want to talk to you, Paul. We are going your way. Come and walk with us.”
Paul hesitated a moment, then crossed over to the corner where the girls stood. He smiled at the two as he approached. Their obvious face make-up and smart fashionable clothes made a strong impression on him and he felt he was entering a place he’d never been before.
Up close, he became aware also of the girls’ heady perfume. It reached out and enveloped him so that he felt enclosed in their world, a pleasant and exciting world that he knew he wanted to explore.
“We’ve been wanting to talk to you ever since we saw you win the apprentices boxing match last week. We had no idea that you were a boxer,” said the first girl.
“A ‘dark horse’ is what someone called you,” said the second girl.
“Stop. Please!” said Paul. “First you must tell me which of you is Lola and which is Rosa. I’m so confused.”
The girls laughed.
“Silly boy. Does it really matter?” said the first one.
“Well, yes it does. You are two people, not one person,” Paul replied.
The second girl spoke. “All right, it’s easy really. Once you get to know us you will notice many differences. But to help you out until then, just remember a couple of things.”
Paul stood still to look at the two and listened.
“I’m Lola and I have a small mole on my chin,” she said, placing a finger on her face to show him the spot.
“The other differences are that I usually speak first, though not always. Also, I’m left-handed and Rosa is right-handed. Another thing is that we always share things. Everything!”
“Everything!” repeated Rosa.
“So there you have it Paul,” said Lola.
“Simple isn’t it?” said Rosa.
Everyone laughed. Lola took Paul’s left arm in her right arm and Rosa took his right arm in her left arm and turned him and then all three wandered gently in the direction of Aunt May’s house.
As the trio meandered through the streets of tiny workers’ cottages in the late afternoon summer sun, the sisters proposed to Paul that the three of them should meet at the boat shed at Studley Park at midday on the following day for a picnic. They said that they knew a quiet spot among the bushes on the other side of the river close to a good swimming hole. “Don’t worry about food. We will bring enough. Just your swimming costume and a towel.”
Over the years that followed, Paul would remember the exact moment on returning from work on a Monday afternoon, when Aunt May suddenly began to treat him differently: when his aunt first spoke to him not as a lad, but as she would to any adult male like his uncle or the woodman. A different Aunt May now greeted him in the morning and on his return from work in the afternoon.
It was hard to say exactly what was different, but if Paul had been able to analyse the situation he would have noticed that Aunt May no longer made jokes or acted in a motherly fashion. No longer was Paul the recipient of pudding bowls when May made a chocolate cake. All he knew was that the change in her attitude was abrupt and he could never work out why. It wasn’t a problem in any way. Just a little odd; a mystery.
Deep down, Paul could not help linking this moment of change in his aunt with something momentous that had happened to him at the picnic with Lola and Rosa two days before.
But how could that be?
He had had one last swim in the Yarra River before arriving home well washed, his skin positively shining. And before he left his aunt’s house, he had told her simply that he was meeting friends and going for a swim.
What had he missed?
Monday was washing day at May’s house, as it was in every home across the country.
As May sorted the dirty linen into separate piles, she couldn’t help noticing the sudden waft of an unexpected scent when she picked up Paul’s towel. A woman’s perfume?
May paused, then laid the towel aside. She knew what she wanted to look for next. She found and dragged Paul’s underpants from the pile of dirty washing and carried them out the laundry door away from the smells of the rest of the washing.
Outside, Aunt May sniffed and yes, there was the same perfume smell. But this could have come from the undies being close to the wet towel for the past day or more. And who knows who might have borrowed and shared Paul’s towel?
Then May looked closely at the underpants and discovered three faint red patches near the fly buttons. May held the pants close to her face and sniffed again.
“Lipstick!” she declared out loud.
In May’s mind, Paul had come of age and she knew that from now on, his world would be very different.
Taken from Australian Short Stories by Richard Lee. Available from Amazon.