This is one of the Newcastle Herald Short Story Competition 2020 finalists. For a full list of the finalists revealed so far, head here.
Lunch hour in Darby Street finds the cafes crowded as the locals gather to catch up and break bread. On the footpath an aspiring musician busks with the hope that someone might appreciate his folksy rendition enough to drop a few dollars in his strategically placed hat. The aroma of garlic and onion coerce Paddy and Bill inside of the trendy eateries.
They opt for a corner table and people watch over, 'the catch of the day'. The clinking of cutlery and buzz of animated voices lend to the vibrant atmosphere. The enticing scent of coffee granules linger as they make their way to the nearby beach. They procure a posse alongside the young sun worshippers who don't swim as much as work on their tans as they idle away the afternoon.
Beads of perspiration mix with the sand, clinging to their bronzed bodies. It has been claimed that a map of the world had once adorned the bottom of the paddling pool. The children squeal as the waves crash before gently rippling to the shore. The white foam lapping around their toes before receeding away. Surfers on boards with uniformed hair, bleached from the sun and sea, paddle into the deep, chasing freedom.
The salty air tickles Bill's nose. He squints upwards as the cotton wool clouds float overhead. All too soon their hiatus is at an end. It was time to make tracks back to the farm and bid farewell to paradise.
Bill rode shotgun as the ute meandered along the winding road leaving a trail of dust in its wake. Upon arrival at the homestead the droughts fury was evident as far as the eye could see.
The salty air tickles Bill's nose. He squints upwards as the cotton wool clouds float overhead. All too soon their hiatus is at an end.
A sign, faded and embedded with rust bid them, 'Welcome to Treetops.' The property stood amidst rolling hills, barren, kissed by summer's scorching rays. High above in the ghost gums the cockatoos screeched their raucus greeting before exploding into flight, wings flapping in unison. The ground smouldered underfoot as Bill hobbled alongside Paddy to examine the livestock.
Paddy chanced upon his forever home after taking a wrong turn an eternity ago. He was the quintessential Irishman with hair as black as boot polish. His ivory skin was now tanned a rich golden brown. When the talk turned to farming, he'd see you and raise you.
Bill was a grafter. It wasn't a job as much as a calling. He had been tireless in his pursuits, a perfectionist. He was never one to sweat over the small things in life. Folk described him as easy going and likeable.
Bill's only nemesis had been Rambo, the overly vocal cockerel; a bully with a brooding disposition. It was the daily cycle of crowing that drove Bill to distraction. The rooster would more often than not approach his enemy with hackles raised. On the assumption that, fortune favours the brave, he confronted the bird who proceeded to circle him and lead him on a not so merry dance. Feathers would fly and mayhem would ensue. An uneasy truce would prevail until the cantankerous crower would engage in his final battle. His comeuppance would be delivered via the swift fell of the axe. Rambo was then displayed in all his finery upon the kitchen table accompanied with a side of mash and gravy. Bill mused that the Rambo had never appeared more palatable.
In his youth Bill had entertained a slight flirtation with Maggie. She had definitely won the Olympics in the looks department. Naive to the nuance of the chase, he embarked on a thwarted charm offensive. He would become breathless at the mere sight of her. Spittle would form at the corners of his mouthm trapping him in a sea of saliva. Nervous excitement would bring his dilemma with flatulence to the fore.
It was silent but deadly.
The prevalent aroma of methane, as it wafted through the air, had been known to clear the room in seconds flat. The romance had been doomed before it had commenced.
Those halcyon days were at an end. Bill's life was on pause. He was a pale reflection of his former self and much too old for this malarkey. His eyes that had once sparkled were now tired and weary.
As time and arthritis began to creep up on him he sensed that his working life was over. Fanciful notions of, 'the good life', began to invade his reasoning. The velvet sand and crystal blue surf seemed to whisper his name.
When he left it was with little fanfare. As the hours rolled by he became hopelessly lost. Regardless, he proceeded along the path of uncertainty. Without warning the heavens opened and the rain tumbled down in earnest. Saturated, he grimaced, as the freezing icicles lashed his face.
Paddy eventually discovered him lying by the roadside, shivering, oblivious to the furore that his disappearance had caused. Of late there had been a notable decline in Bill's demeanour. He was becoming more confused, even snarly on occasions. Back in the day they had made a winning combo. If keeping a herd of cattle under control could be likened to conducting an orchestra, Bill had been the maestro.
Bill stirred as he was gently wrapped in a blanket. As they headed for home the old dog tentatively wagged his tail. Slowly, he cocked his head and licked Paddy's hand. His lip curled to reveal his teeth as if he was smiling.