Well, he would, wouldn’t he, that man of mine, heart soft as butter in the sun, told them they could camp in the road paddock and then, when it rained, wanted them to come up to the house.
‘Not on your life,’ I say. ‘A couple of stray hippies, turned up out of the blue, all rags and tatters, and you want them up here for Christmas?’
‘Just until their tent dries out,’ he argues. ‘They’re nice kids, Meg.’
‘Sure they are, Alby, like everyone is nice, that garage fellow, and the nice contractor who sheared more than sheep. Alby, we’re not doing this. It’s two days to Christmas, I’ve got the rooms set up for the children coming home.’
‘I was thinking more of the sleepout,’ he says.
‘Sleepout?’ I flap the teatowel at him. ‘Alby! That’s where we’ve stored all the Christmas presents!’
‘There’d be enough space.’ He twists his hands, soft beggar, and I know he’s already told the campers they can move in with us.
‘They can sleep in the woolshed, Alby. Plenty of space there, and it’s dry.’
‘We got rats in the woolshed.’
‘You mean they’ve been living in a rat-proof tent? Oh, come on! The woolshed will be fine.’
He picks up the extra teatowel and helps me dry the dishes. I have to say this for him, he might be soft but he doesn’t give in easily. ‘Meg, I was thinking more of her, the girl, she’s young and she’s…’
‘Obviously old enough.’
‘The baby’s due in February. They’re going to her parents’ place in Rangiora.’
‘No,’ he says. ‘New Year.’
‘So where do they plan to spend Christmas?’
He doesn’t answer but I can hear his thoughts clear as a bell. I fold my arms. ‘Woolshed, Alby. You run the farm. I run the house. This is your problem, so you solve it.’
He goes quiet, walks out the door to put on his gumboots and next thing I see him ankle deep in spring grass, hiking off to the road paddock and the woolshed. The storm has swollen the creek, I can hear it roaring, and the steamy air is rising to lumps of cloud that promise more rain. They’ll be okay in the woolshed, their tent hung over the pens to dry, their sleeping bags spread on the floor. There’s even a kettle and a microwave in the smoko room, sheer luxury compared with a tent not much bigger than a wool sack. Anyway, they’ve been living at the Shoal Bay commune, so they’re used to roughing it. He’s what, 18, maybe 20, skinny kid with not much to say except ‘Cool man!’ and ‘Way to go!’ She’s younger, long hair, naively cheerful, a tight shirt, tight skirt. ‘Happy Christmas,’ were her first words, and I realised she had more than a turkey in the oven.
Alby comes back for a bucket and a mop to clean the woolshed floor. ‘They’re going to scrub it,’ he says. ‘We’ll need some detergent. Disinfectant.’ He waits, hoping I’ll back down.
‘You know where it is.’ I point to the laundry. ‘Make sure you bring it back.’
By the time he’s put it all together, the new batch of date scones is ready and I put a few in a bag in the bucket.
‘They’ll love those,’ he says, and away he goes. I wonder if he’s fed the dogs and shifted the lambs to the top paddock, or is he expecting me to do that.
After that he must have gone off to the farm chores because it’s the young couple who return the bucket and mop. ‘Thanks for the breads,’ the girl says.
‘Scones,’ I tell her. ‘Date scones.’
‘Whatever,’ says the boy. ‘Cool stuff. Big change from baked beans.’
I turn to the girl. ‘Surely you’re eating more than baked beans. You need a healthy balanced diet for – for your condition.’
The boy shrugs, ‘Oh yeah, man. We do all that health stuff.’
‘Fruit and yoghurt,’ she says. ‘Bananas. I got a craving for bananas but we’ve run out. Thanks for the lend of the cleaning gear.’
‘You’re all set up in the woolshed?’
‘Oh yeah, cool man,’ he says. ‘Tent’s drying. Nice of you guys. See you.’
They walk away, holding hands like children and I feel despair for them and others like them who are so careless about commitment and new life. You’d think Nature would know better that to have kittens bearing kittens. The thought of them spooning baked beans out of a can, turns me cold. I look through the pantry loaded up for Christmas, and fill a wine box with the kind of stuff she should be eating, muesli, milk powder, dates and raisins and nuts, a couple of tins of ham, a spare cake, a bag of dried banana chips and some fresh stuff from the garden. Alby’s not around so I walk down there myself, through the sheep gate and up the ramp to the top floor of the woolshed.
Well, I know I’m not carrying a winning Lotto ticket, but they could say more. They go casually through the box, saying ‘Cool’ and ‘Thanks’ and then the boy said out of the blue, ‘Got any rat bait?’
And she says, ‘Rats freak me out.’
‘I don’t know. Alby might have some. I think there might be traps in the garden shed. I’ll have a look.’
‘Don’t want you to go to any trouble,’ she says.
I notice that they’ve set themselves up in the corner near the smoko room and they’ve spread the tent and sleeping bags on the rails of the sheep pen. ‘Your sleeping bags got wet too?’ I ask.
‘They’ll be dry by tonight,’ the boy says.
I get the impression they’re kids not used to much conversation because their words are as scarce as summer rain, just a few spots here and there. But they do talk a bit about her parents in Rangiora and how her dad is going to get him a job on a building site. It’s a relief to know she’s been to a doctor and had a scan.
‘Boy or girl, it’s going to be called River,’ she says. ‘We were camping by a river when we got pregnant. Have you got any children?’
‘Four,’ I tell her. ‘Two boys and two girls, all grown up.’
The boy grins. ‘Cool man!’ he says. ‘Way to go!’
Back at the house, I rummage through the shed, no rat traps, no bait, although we’ve known since we lost the cat, there’s been a big infestation of rats in the woolshed, so bad they chewed through the bottom of the metal coffee pot in the smoko room.
When Alby comes in for lunch, I talk to him about it.
He nods over corned beef and salad.
‘If it were just those two – but there’s the baby. Alby, I think they’ll have to come up to the house.’
He looks up, his eyes going soft, daft beggar. ‘I’ll fix up the beds in the sleepout,’ he says.
‘Don’t worry,’ I tell him. ‘I’ve got it worked out. We’ll go in the sleepout and they can have our room.’ I reach for the salad dressing. ‘Remember when I was pregnant, how I always needed a good night’s sleep?’
Image: Joy Cowley addressing a ‘Conversation in a Pub gathering, November 2007.