Illustration by Matt Weismantel
The Gate | Jennifer Pritchard
The chain around her wrist pinched when she tugged, but it held securely, which was both frightening and satisfying. Eleven-year-old Lani had used padlocks and chains since she was old enough to jump from her dad’s farm ute to open and close the gates, but this was the first time she’d used padlocks on herself. The sun hadn’t yet climbed over the distant, dusty horizon when she’d chained her wrist, and her pony’s foreleg, to the front gate of her dad’s farm.
Lani’s pony, Nelson, snuffled impatiently and rattled the chains. Lani worried her last-minute decision to include him in her protest was a mistake, but too late now. Earlier, she’d driven the rusting old ute nearly two kilometres to the front gate. Peering up into the rear-view mirror from the sagging front seat, she’d seen Nelson trotting behind like a faithful dog. Now they were in this together.
Somewhere around the middle of that still-dark track to the front gate she’d thrown the keys to the open padlocks out the window. Now here she was, with the sun’s rising rays reaching out for her, bringing closer the daybreak and her time of protest.
Lani’s dad, Robert, bumped and jolted west in the Toyota along a rarely used stock track, taking a roundabout route to check the Number Three Bore. It was nearly 6 am. Lani would soon be up feeding the horses. The bloody Sampson company was starting this morning, their first test drill. He’d already driven past the fenced compound they’d bolted together, locking him out from part of his own land.
It had been a long two years of what the Sampson community engagement officer called consultation, but which was, in reality, just a series of deadlines he was forced to meet; dates he needed to sign papers, supply documents, have meetings, attend mediation, attend arbitration. On and on. After two years, he understood the process. He owned the land, but the government owned the resources beneath. There seemed to be nothing he could do to stop the exploration work going ahead today, or any day. There was no point locking his gate as others were talking about doing. In the end he barely looked at the compensation cheque before slipping it into the desk drawer. Some of his mates were disappointed in him, for folding. For taking the cheque. For selling out. He was not completely alone though; others folded too. The regular Friday night social pool competition at the Great Western Hotel in Talnurra hadn’t been held in months due to the escalating tension. The friendly competition disintegrated. Property owners either supporting or opposing locking their gates against the exploration work faced off over the pool tables.
Crossing a small dry gully, Robert glanced left, but the Toyota’s passenger seat was empty today. He’d expected to see the shadow of his late father sitting there again.
His father spent so much of his last years alive sitting in that seat. He’d started reappearing there, soon after the negotiations with the Sampson company started, soon after Robert’s wife, Leslie, had left. And if Robert were honest with himself, soon after he’d started wedging a bottle of Jim Beam wrapped in an old Driza-Bone coat under the Toyota’s front seat.
Robert’s father would rage about the exploration work that would stretch across so many fertile properties, and the risks to the groundwater below. He’d slap his hand on the dashboard and start every second sentence with, "I tell ya..." just like he did when he was alive.
Robert, glancing in the rear-view mirror as he drove, noticed dust blooming far behind him, on the road from town. It would be the small convoy of Sampson vehicles arriving from Talnurra, like a procession of dispassionate cousins to a funeral. Soon they’d be coming through his front gate.
Nelson flicked his tail against the first sticky flies of the morning. Lani sat huddled in the centre of the driveway, watching the vehicles approach. As they drew to a stop, dust from the tyres billowed forward, engulfing her. She buried her face in the crease of her elbow and heard doors slam. Peeking under her arm, a pair of large steel-capped boots was all she could see.
"Kid, what are you doing?"
Lani didn’t lift her head or answer, but Nelson gave a fretful snort, and with bulging eyes swung to face the strangers.
Robert hadn’t seen his wife in nearly six months. They’d disagreed about the Sampson exploration work. To Lesley, it was another income stream for the property, money for kitchen renovations. Money was much needed after years of the dry. After eighteen months of disagreements, Lesley announced she was taking a break. She was now staying with her parents at their vineyard a half-day’s drive away, presumably helping in the family restaurant, which was where Robert first met her years ago. Lani refused to go with her mum, saying she wanted to finish her school year and stay with her horses. Although not ideal, this seemed reasonable at the time, but Robert knew he’d been more capable of caring for Lani six months ago. Lani was now the one caring for him.
Before leaving, Lesley sadly asked, "Why are you so stubborn? They might not even find anything."
But Robert could only picture damage from the drilling, chemicals pumped deep into his country. His bores running dry, vomiting muddy sludge into the cattle troughs. He’d seen overseas footage on the internet of creek beds on fire, flames flaring straight from bores. He’d heard stories from other properties about workers driving fast on farm tracks at night, hitting cattle and horses. This was risking his livelihood, the land he was trying so hard to replenish, and the precious water flowing beneath. Although the lack of rainfall first started biting three years ago, he was slowly introducing new farming ideas, linking green corridors which skirted his grazing country, planning to establish reed beds in creeks to slow the water flow and filter it. He was even reintroducing some of the native grasses and tough, stunted gum species his grandfather struggled so hard to clear. If only the drought would break.
When Robert finally pulled up at the Number Three bore, the pump was silent. It should be humming, gently pushing water to the cattle across the fence line. He stayed in the vehicle, watching the morning take hold. The scraggly eucalypts, rock outcrops and grassy tussocks all losing their soft focus in the growing glare that promised another hot October day. A few kangaroos, startled by his arrival, lowered their heads and returned to grazing. The rounded curves of their haunches were just visible above the low scrubby grasses which, so far, clung to life despite the drought.
"Where’s your Dad? We’ve got work to do."
It was the Sampson community guy. He’d been to the house many times, talking to her parents when Lani was doing schoolwork in her room. He always sounded fake-friendly, like he was trying too hard. Lani couldn’t remember his name, but she remembered the fights her parents had each time after he left.
"He’d be in the shed, or maybe out at one of the bores. I don’t know. He doesn’t really talk to me."
"Does he know you’re here?"
"Like I said, we don’t talk much."
A few other workers stepped from the vehicles, stretching, curious. The community guy looked left and right along the fence line. Five formidable strands of barbed wire stretched between horizons, a barrier between him and the work for the day. This gate was the only access. Attached to the gatepost, but now hanging limply by one corner, a laminated “Lock the Gate” notice fluttered, taunting him. He stared at the padlocks on Lani and the horse.
"Where are the keys?"
"Look, I’ve got work to do. You need to get off the gate!" Today he didn’t sound fake-friendly, he sounded furious.
Nelson, backed against the gate and surrounded by a group of strangers, began to tremble and sweat. When one of the workers stepped forward to test the chain around Lani’s wrist, the pony lunged, lashing out at the nearest man and almost trampling Lani. The metal gate rattled at the hinges and the man jumped back.
"Leave it," the community guy ordered, "or someone will get hurt. We’ll go to the next property. I’ll sort this out later this afternoon when I get some phone range."
Robert, instead of grabbing the toolbox from the ute’s tray to fix the pump, reached for his empty thermos, half filled it with bourbon, and wandered falteringly toward the dusty tangle of trees lining the creek bank. A squawking curtain of yellow and white corellas lifted from a copse of she-oaks in annoyance. Thermos in hand, he settled on a smooth flat river stone in the dappled shade, chugging from the thermos which warmed his stomach. His light-blue eyes, as faded as the ancient river stones on which he sat, scanned the horizon for the dust of the arriving vehicles. Surely, they’d have passed through his gate by now?
The creek was almost dry, just a few crusty pools of water in the deepest depressions, but far below, from a branch of the artesian basin, water flowed clear, cold, and fresh. Although Robert tapped this water to use, he valued it. Barely a day passed without him feeling thankful for it. But only two bores could be sunk deep enough to reach it. Like the surrounding properties, his farm was so dry, suffering. His plans for property improvements had been on hold for so long.
The warm bourbon buzz spread through him and his breath came easy and gentle.
The paddocks are rotated now, rested ... the farm needs less water now than it ever has ... it will rain soon ... the grasses will re-establish ... the drought will break soon. It will be ok ... if only it would rain.
Then his in-breath caught as the warm bourbon glow was sliced through with white hot pain, crashing through his chest and down his arm. The thermos clattered to the stony creek bed. He lurched forward, clutching at nothing, mouth gasping, and fell face down on the flat river stones which were absorbing the sun’s gathering heat.
As he lay still in the dry creek bed, his ragged breathing began to slow. The corellas resettled to wait out another hot day, and much higher a wedgetail eagle circled slowly and missed nothing.
Hours later, Robert’s eyelids twitched as his mind wandered through semi-consciousness. He felt the sun striking his shoulders, the air sucking the moisture from his lips like he was standing at a just-opened oven door. His hands scrabbled beneath the smaller stones, searching for pockets of cool relief. He remembered swimming here at the creek as a kid and seeing platypus, paddling with Lani, camping overnight. Memories of water, here. And water far below, water bubbling fresh and cold, filtered through the sand for hundreds of years.
Visions of the Sampson drill filled his mind, piercing the watercourses beneath his land. Fracking it, fucking it. Fumes and fire erupting from cracks in the ground. He flinched and cried out. He saw in the future more and more of his country fenced off, damaged and dying, the worker ants in hardhats crawling over his land’s final carcass.
Like the eagle, Robert’s mind soared over his land, the paddocks, creek beds, ridges and rocky outcrops. He remembered it, knew it, and needed to protect it. He saw every detail. He saw the tracks and trails, the dividing fences, the boundaries, the cattle grids, the gates, the front gate. He heard his father ranting at him to lock the gate. Why hadn’t he locked the gate today?
And that’s when he knew. Lani. She’ll be at the gate.
He rolled over and struggled to his knees, hands bleeding, tongue fat, dry, and choking. With his head almost cleaved in two by pain he hoisted himself that first step toward the heat-hazed outline of the Toyota. The gate, gotta get to the gate.
Jennifer Pritchard is a student of Southern Cross University and is completing a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Writing. She grew up in regional NSW and has an interest in nature and the environment.