Dimple helped 3027 to her feet. The cow was too heavy for him to lift, but if he held the base of her tail he could steady her as her weak legs wobbled and found their place. Alongside, her tan, soft-eyed calf probed impatiently, nudging the flank, his tongue like a long, flat, rippling leech, survival its only agenda.
There was a bloke on the ute radio saying confidently that drought could be a good thing because it removed the bottom rung of farmers.
‘Wally frigging Oliver,’ Dimple muttered to the cow. ‘Trust an Oliver to insist on survival of the fittest.’
The cow lowed softly as her calf suckled. Reflex or instinct demanded she stay still while her calf drank. Her health bade she was capable of nothing more.
The scene pleased Dimple. At least cow and calf would survive. The birth had been assisted by Dimple and Ruthie, and it had been pretty rough. The calf had been big inside her, had presented with one front leg tucked backwards, and the cow was low on energy. In another year, she would have kept pushing: walking; getting up and down until she convinced the calf to slide into the world. In this season, all she could manage was to push the muzzle and one front foot out.
He’d found her sitting in the paddock, the hair on her shoulder and hip bone rubbed off from thrashing around, trying to give birth in between attempting to get up. They’d pulled the calf in the paddock, but it had taken five days for the cow to be able to push herself up onto her feet on her own. For the five days they had lifted her up with the tractor.
They’d helped cows plenty of times before. Not always with this amount of success. Some cows had a fatalistic tipping point: after being down for a couple of days, they gave up. One day of ‘give up’ took away their options: they didn’t eat enough, and then they couldn’t eat enough. They became too weak to stand, and then too weak to sit up. Dimple didn’t let them get to that last stage. And he had to stop himself from hating them for their obstinacy. As if he expected them to acknowledge his labours and to try harder.
Wally Oliver was now saying farmers were ‘business people making business decisions’. The pictures in the media of people in desperate straits, shooting their beloved animals, were not a fair representation of the industry. The insinuation, barely disguised, was that the struggling farmers were losers and should be treated as such.
‘Losers by definition,’ Dimple informed the calf. ‘They’ve lost fucken everything.’
But Wally Oliver was right. Farming was a business: a cutthroat business masquerading as a community project.
3027 and her calf would be sold when they were well enough. That was a business decision. Like selling all the others had been. It meant he and Ruthie had money in the bank, which stopped the bank manager’s monthly email asking when the interest and the agreed amount of the principal would be paid. But it wasn’t real money (except to the bank). It wasn’t money he and Ruthie could spend, because if they did they would never be able to buy cows back. Which meant they would never have enough income, which meant they would cease to exist. Who would employ a bloke in his fifties who had worked for himself all his life? He didn’t fancy working for another farmer, but that was probably what he’d end up doing. He kept his grip on the cow, not yet confident that she was ready to stand on her own.
Ruthie arrived with a bucket of water. 3027 pushed her muzzle into it and slurped like the pet she was not. 3027 had the kind of soft nature you wanted to build a herd around. That was not going to happen. Not here anyway.
The cow had accepted their offerings of water, hay, and cottonseed as if she understood they were trying to help her. Often as not, cows didn’t. They took feed and water but begrudgingly, certain the humans could not be completely trusted. They weren’t wrong. But death awaited every living thing. There was no way around that.
‘Don’t you get sick of being a good woman?’ he said, watching Ruthie turn and head back to the tap for more water. The cow should have been able to get to the trough on her own, but Ruthie wasn’t taking any chances. Dimple saw his wife smile in that tight way that meant restricted pleasure.
She looked back at him. ‘Is that one of your trick questions?’
‘No.’ He let go of the tail. ‘Don’t you ever think, Stuff it, I’m staying in bed today? I’m going to drink tea and flip through magazines? Eat a box of chocolates? Waste the day messaging the boys, my friends, my sister? ’
She shook her head at him and bent down to turn the tap on. Posing difficult questions and phrasing them as a joke was a game of Dimple’s that she didn’t always find amusing.
‘Or maybe take up with Fergus Bankbalance and spend the rest of your days doing whatever you wanted to do: travelling, redesigning his garden, holding soirees. We only get one go-around, after all.’
‘Go away.’ She took the bucket and offered it to the cow again. The calf took a break, and 3027 drank again, making sure they would continue to be amazed how much one cow could drink. Finished, the cow swayed and stepped forward, her legs holding, but only just.
Dimple reached down, picked up a length of baling twine, and wrapped it in on itself. He walked with Ruthie towards the ute.
‘I mean, sure, you’d have to put up with him, but all your money troubles would be solved. There’d be holidays, nice clothes, and a big house. You might even help the kids out with a bit of cash. And old age wouldn’t be a problem. Retirement would be a breeze …’
He saw the bucket swaying in her slim brown fingers. Ruthie relented: ‘Yeah, he does have his charm.’ She might as well play along. It was a game too dangerous to be taken seriously.
Dimple laughed quietly, and so did she. Fergus Banner was a friend, of sorts. One of the few divorced men in the district. The departure of his wife, Helen, for the city, hadn’t appeared to put a dent in his confidence, his wealth, or his lifestyle. Hence Dimple’s privately held nickname of ‘Bankbalance’. At local parties, with the help of alcohol, Fergus always paid special attention to Ruthie. He never overstepped the mark, but Dimple had a sense he was ready to, the minute the signals were right. Dimple didn’t know what he could do about it. If Ruthie took up with someone like Fergus, it would have been a decision long in the making. It would be too late to fight for her.
As they drove down the paddock to check tanks and troughs before he took her back to the house, he didn’t look at her because he knew she would ask: ‘What?’ But he thought how she must have at least fantasised about running away with Fergus or someone like him. The kids were grown up. She’d given their marriage a fair crack. Why keep bashing away at it? If you are capable of acknowledging that you only live once, then you have to at least consider an easier option. Don’t you?
‘I’ve never considered jumping ship. Even when you’ve been at your most painful.’
‘I didn’t say a word.’
‘Yeah, but I know you. I know what you’re thinking.’
A pause. Just the low rumble of the ute, the radio turned off.
‘I have imagined living on my own. Taking a house somewhere. Getting a job a couple of days a week. Having a little garden, coffee dates, and walking groups. Maybe going to the theatre or an art gallery in the middle of the day. Spending time with the kids. Suiting myself, basically.’
‘Sounds nice. You want to check that tank for me?’
Ruthie got out and climbed up the small ladder while he sat in the ute with the motor running. The float gauge had been stuck on empty for years. She came straight back, got in, and said: ‘It’s full.’
‘Great.’ At least they still had water. ‘So why didn’t you move to your little house?’
‘I’m still working on it.’
‘The old animal magnetism, eh? You can’t drag yourself away from me.’
She shook her head again. There was only so much of his nonsense she could put up with.
He didn’t need to look across at her to know she was as beautiful as she had ever been. A ludicrous assertion, but he knew it was true. There were wrinkles and the undeniable wear of gravity, but still. When he married her, she was beautiful for a 22-year-old. But that kind of beauty didn’t relate to what she was now. Even beauty had context.