Ellen Sutton squinted up at the crystal-clear sky, the sun shooting shards of light like a polished chandelier. Above, the thrum of Ashley’s small aeroplane echoed across the empty horizon but she struggled to spot it in the endless pale blue. She craned her head out the open window of the little red bull buggy just as she hit a crab hole, smacking her skull into the doorframe. ‘Bastard,’ she grunted through gritted teeth, wishing she could rub her head, but both hands were needed on the steering wheel. It would have been worse if her messy blonde bun hadn’t acted as padding.
A twiggy shrub appeared, one too big to drive over. Ellen gave a split-second jerk on the wheel and then another as she cut a path through the scrub like a pinball on the Indiana Jones machine she used to play at the Bowling Arcade as a kid. She never could beat her older brother’s score. A flash hit her eyes, light reflecting off metal as Ashley flew low over the treetops hunting for more beasts to her right. The loud rumble of his plane gave her goosebumps. She wondered what it would be like to swoop low looking for cattle. Was it just work for Ashley or was it exhilarating? Ellen needed excitement and hard work to keep her mind from wandering down the dark path she’d been trying to avoid. Unsuccessfully. At least the flies kept her busy. With a wave she shooed the buzzing mass gathering at the corners of her mouth, chasing moisture in the bone-dry air.
It wasn’t the gazillion flies or the intense heat. It wasn’t the red dirt, crimson as if blood had soaked the soil, nor was it the sparse bushes – the only visible green until you came upon a small pocket of grass where the cattle liked to graze. It wasn’t any of these things that made her feel so far from home.
It was the isolation. She had gone from Albany – crammed full of retirees and tourists – to this mammoth cattle station just out from Mount Magnet in Western Australia, with less people than she could count on both hands. And yet when she’d left Albany, she’d felt alone, trapped in her own internal prison. Her family and friends were pushing in the walls on her cell with each passing day, not that they realised nor understood. Even though the isolation made Albany feel like a world away, it was that same isolation which felt like freedom.
Escaping to Challa Station felt like a move to Mars. Disconnection was what she’d been seeking, and she’d certainly found it. About 600 kilometres north-east of Perth and 206,000 hectares in total size, Challa was truly remote. And yet Ellen wasn’t alone here. Especially with the mustering crew Ashley and Debbie had on now, plus there were over a thousand head of Santa Gertrudis-Droughtmaster cattle, with hides the colour of burnt caramel and cute faces she just wanted to smoosh with kisses. More so the gorgeous calves, so full of life and antics. They reminded her of her own cow, Carla, the most awesome pet a kid could have, and seeing these guys made her heart ache for a much simpler time in her life.
And just when she felt like she was starting to find some sort of calm and peace to work through her feelings, this impending family trip to Karijini was about to ruin it all. Why couldn’t they just all stay in Albany?
‘I need you to get here as quick as you can,’ Ashley radioed. ‘There’s a mob of about twenty here. Watch the plane...under my left wing...right now.’
Like a big-eared Santa Gertrudis flicking away flies, Ellen tried hard to shake away her thoughts and planted her foot, her adrenaline notching up as she felt more like a rally driver than a cow herder. Branches slapped the old Suzuki, its body groaning as it rolled and twisted over dormant water courses, the little engine singing its heart out. Thank God her dad had taught her how to four-wheel drive growing up. She clenched her jaw, grinding her teeth together so she didn’t accidentally bite her tongue with all the jolting.
‘El, Gazza, I need you over here now,’ called Ashley.
‘On my way, boss,’ she muttered, driving as fast as she possibly dared through the minefield that was station country. A blur of white appeared on her right; Scott was flogging along in his tiny bull buggy heading for the same location. The rest of the crew were dotted about, managing mobs in other places.
Ahead the ground unexpectedly vanished. Ellen jammed on the brakes just as her front wheels tipped over the edge of the sharp embankment of a dry riverbed. Like a pen seesawing on the edge of a desk, she felt the buggy rock precariously.
Bloody hell, she was driving like she belonged in a Fast and Furious movie. Shoving it into reverse, she made ochre plumes as the wheels spun sending her back to safe flat land.
That was a lucky save.
She rested her head on the steering wheel and sucked in deep hot breaths, but she was still smiling. Adrenaline was as good as any drug.
She glanced around, hoping no one had witnessed her near demise. Lord knew she didn’t need to rack up any more points today, especially after Joel caught her bogged in some sand earlier. That probably got her ten points.
Ellen navigated a better route over the riverbed, selecting a less extreme decline, and that’s when she spotted old Gazza in the light blue buggy, its nose speared into the bottom of the bed like an old fence post.
Snatching up the radio, she gave him a call. ‘You alright, Gazza?’ Her nursing instinct kicked in, imagining the trauma he may have sustained and the steps she’d take to help him.
‘Yeah, I’m fine, El. I managed to stop me head from smacking the steering wheel.’ A deep dry laugh followed. ‘Damn, I was hoping no one would see me.’
‘That looks like fifty points coming your way,’ she teased. ‘Maybe more if you need help getting out.’
Ellen sat idling a hundred metres away, torn between helping Gaz and getting to the cattle. She liked ol’ Gazza. She liked the whole crew. Especially because they didn’t dig into her past; most kept to themselves and just shared a joke every now and then.
‘I’m coming, Gazza, hold tight,’ the radio blared.
Scott’s white rocket shot right across her path, kicking up dust like a passing willy willy, causing her to jump.
‘I’ve got a tow strap. El, you head on to the cattle,’ Scott added.
‘Rogie,’ she replied before putting the buggy into gear and heading to where Ashley had last indicated with his wing tip.
‘Get some photos, Scott – we need proof for tonight,’ Ellen called.
The reward for getting the most points for the day was a lovely satin pink nightie to be worn the next day by the winner . . . or in this case the biggest loser. Yesterday it was Joel who collected the most by forgetting to take his radio – thirty points; cutting off a mob – ten points and then his tyre rolling past his buggy while he was driving along – forty points. Today Joel had the pink nightie wrapped around his Akubra hat. It didn’t have to literally be worn, just on you at all times. Getting bogged today would have guaranteed her points, but Gazza having to be pulled out of his vertical descent, well, that might just be enough to take the pink nightie.
Three hours later, she’d slowed from the previous fast and furious adrenaline to meander behind a group of cattle. Thinking time. It was the hardest part of mustering for Ellen. Sure, the scenery was nice, cows’ butts excepted, but the sluggish crawl seemed to highlight the heat, flies and the voices in her head.
Voices of her sister, her brother, their partners, her parents, and worst of all, herself. It was almost laughable that she’d come all this way to escape them only to find out that it was herself she needed to escape. If only that was possible.
The rumble of the buggy and the moos of the cattle had a rhythmic warmth that lured her mind into the murky history she was trying to forget and the imminent future that goosepimpled her skin, even in this heat. It made her feel stuck in this moment, afraid to look back and too scared to go forward. How was she supposed to sort her life out in limbo? She couldn’t hide from her family forever, as much as that seemed like the easiest option.
She’d never run from anything in her life before. Oh, there were times she’d wanted to, but she’d stuck it out like a true steadfast Sutton. She’d been accused of spreading herself too thin and being obsessed with making things the very best they could be (just ask her sister). Carrie liked to call it ‘analism’ – perfectionism at its worst. What was wrong with wanting to do something to the best of your abilities? So, she may have rearranged her bedroom countless times until she had it just right, but once she did, it had stayed that way.
‘You look deep in thought, El?’
The voice had come from the radio, but she glanced around, realising the buggies had grouped closer together as a few mobs of cattle had joined up and were keeping a now bigger herd contained as they moved them to the designated collection point. Nearby, a small Suzuki idled along, a handsome silver fox smiling at her. His tanned face was like a map of the ground with worn creases and marks, the years having taken their toll, and yet he was nonetheless stunning. Mick was twelve years her senior, not that it was an issue when a man looked that good. And he had kept her warm on more than one occasion (like the nights weren’t hot enough already) but they both knew what this was. He was here until mustering was over, and Ellen...well, she was selfishly using him to forget.
Her heart may as well be the red sand beneath the hundreds of hooves, trampled to dust. It felt like there was nothing left of it; the fact it still kept her alive was almost a miracle.
‘You been thinking about me?’ Mick yelled out as he drove closer, one eye still on the cattle out front.
‘Always, Mick,’ she replied with a smile. Ellen played his game – after all, Mick was the Panadol for her headache. In those moments with him, her mind was silent. And silence was golden.