HENTY by Jane Downing

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There was another storm coming but for now the sun was out and the mud from the rain the day before had hardened to the consistency of fudge. George strode down Sheep Dog Run towards a clot of spectators. His heart made a small leap when he saw Sam was there amongst them. The Henty Machinery Field Days were a welcome break in the humdrum of the farm. They were a chance to see Sam – to circumvent the long wait each week for the Saturday night trip into the pub.

‘Georgiana!’ called a voice from behind, with a pronounced elongation of every vowel at the end of the nickname. ‘Hey mate,’ the voice called more loudly. George turned back reluctantly. Scotto was a wedge of a smile under his greasy hat. ‘Long time no see. Life’s treating ya well?’ Scotto asked.

It was almost two years since they’d all come back from boarding school and started to get their hands dirty again. George and Scotto wore identical blue jeans and flannel shirts, only George’s were fresh and ironed and he smelled of the aftershave his sister had given him for Christmas. They’d never really been friends, Scotto and George, or only by virtue of being thrown together at school.

The crowds opened and closed around them as Scotto shot the breeze with a pellet gun of trivia. ‘You keep up with anyone from school?’ he asked eventually.

George had been edging away and was about to move off along Sheep Dog Run. He didn’t mention Sam though a loud shout would have breached the gap between them. He didn’t want a tag-a-long when he went over there.

‘Too busy. School’s a long way off.’ he told Scotto. He let that sink in. ‘Gotta get on,’ he added.
‘You watching the dogs?’ was Scotto’s last try.
‘Maybe.’ George meant yes, but only once he’d disentangled himself from Scotto.

On day two of the field days, the Pedigree Dog Trials were in full swing on the western edge of the huge temporary city. In a couple of days it’d just be another muddy paddock again; for now it was like that Hollywood movie about baseball. Like a field of dreams, a city had been built on the outskirts of Henty and the farmers came in droves to see what was now available in tractors and cultivators and quad bikes, in farming practices, in ostrich farming, weed control and future proofing, with some entertainment thrown in.

As George walked toward the competition field, a man and his Border Collie were negotiating the course. Together they had to herd three sheep through the run. Sam was leaning against the fence watching. George touched a bony elbow.

‘Hey mate,’ he said as a hello.
‘You made it.’ Sam turned and smiled.
‘Hectic day?’
‘Too right.’

George contained his own bursting smile by looking at the dog crouched low to the grass on her master’s whistle. ‘Molly will be off on maternity leave after these trials,’ quipped the commentator through a high tannoy. ‘She’s doing real beaut.’

Another whistle and a shout and Molly took the sheep forward.

‘Good day for it,’ George said, leaning his arm against the rail so the cloth of his flannel touched the crisp cotton of Sam’s corporate uniform.

‘The rains put some optimism in the crowd alright,’ Sam agreed. ‘The bank is run off its feet. Loans for tractors and headers and spreaders, bale wrappers, slurry tankers, you name it, you farmers are buying up big.’

George risked a look upward into Sam’s eyes. ‘You make it sound like poetry.’

‘There’s money in mud, none in dust, that’s what the manager told us this morning.’ Sam’s eyes kept steady on George’s.

A private school band marched down the pot-holed temporary road behind them. Two lines of boys and girls, all kilts and bagpipes and promises of something elite. The bagpipes moaned mournfully.

‘At least we didn’t have to learn bagpipes,’ said George without moving his eyes off Sam’s.

‘I wonder if we’ll ever look back and think of them as the good old days.’ Sam sounded thoughtful; doubtful. All that homesickness they’d shared at boarding school hovered like the dragonflies over the field.

‘Maybe.’ George looked into the middle-distance. A safe distance. Said quietly, ‘We wouldn’t have met otherwise.’

This statement was the closest George had ever come to confessing his feelings. He tensed for the answering silence, which came. A long silence as they turned their eyes back to the dog trial. Molly was having trouble getting the sheep into the last pen. The three of them kept breaking up – a pair going one way, with the last of the animals escaping around the other side of the rails. The owner’s dog whistle was swamped by a siren.

‘Her fifteen minutes must be up,’ said Sam.
‘Poor Molly,’ sympathised George.

The commentator announced the score. A poor score. The commentator also had his one joke ready. ‘One day rooster, next day feather duster.’

‘Real comedian,’ George quipped dryly. ‘Let’s see how the old steam engines are going.’

The suggestion hung there between the two as they watched a new set of sheep being released at the top of the field and another black and white Border Collie enter the arena. George didn’t want to move. He convinced himself that neither of them wanted to break the connection of the cloth of their sleeves, farm flannel against bank cotton.

Sam was the first to straighten from the long lean on the fence. He ran his hand the entire length of George’s arm as he did. The pressure was firm, deliberate. ‘There’s a storm coming.’

‘No wonder the sheep are narky.’ George’s voice wavered, uncertain.

They walked side by side for a few metres, jostling in and out of the Henty crowd.

The exhibit of last century steam engines was down the well-trodden 5th Farm Avenue, where George slipped in a mud wallow and fell gently against Sam, who caught him and held him a nano-second too long. Like some unspoken promise that he wouldn’t be setting him straight.

Jane Downing is a writer of prose and poetry, shopping lists and reminders of things to do, and not enough letters to her friends. She can be found at www.janedowning.wordpress.com


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