Everyone knew it was coming – everyone, that is, except Dad.
Mum had been pulling her hair out for months, working away at the kitchen table with her accounts and her calculator.
‘It’s no good,’ she said, one night. ‘There just aren’t enough customers. I can’t keep running at a loss.’
Uncle Mick had no hair to pull out, so he just pursed his cracked lips and shook his sunburnt head.
‘No people, no houses to build. Time I started thinking about moving on.’
Even Jimmy and Joey, my twin younger brothers, knew something was up.
‘We heard Mrs Reynolds talking to Mr Collins,’ Jimmy said, excitedly. ‘They reckon there won’t be enough kids next year to keep the school open.’
‘Yeah,’ said Joey. ‘Then we’ll have to catch the bus to the city every day, and that’ll take hours and hours. There won’t be time to learn anything!’
My older sister, Beth, knew all about it, too, but she didn’t care.
‘This town sucks anyway,’ she sneered. ‘I’d rather go and work somewhere else, instead of being stuck out here like a loser.’
As for me, Tammy, my dance teacher had just left Nanky – that’s what we call Nankervis, our town – so I knew something was definitely up. I want to be a famous dancer, you see, and always have. Think Ginger without the Fred. That’s Ginger Rogers, of course, just in case you haven’t watched as many old musicals as me.
If you haven’t, you should!
Anyway, now you’ll know why my friend Ron calls me Red, even though my hair is medium brown. His real name is Marron, but no-one calls him that except maybe his uncle. Ron dances as well as me, but he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to do anything, really, just to wait and see. His family has lived around here a lot longer than mine, and his mum and aunt do these great dot paintings, which they sometimes sell to tourists. Nanky doesn’t get many visitors, which I suppose is part of the problem.
Okay, okay – I was coming back to that. As I was saying, everyone knew about the town’s trouble but Dad. Until, that is, the night the phone rang and the whole crazy thing got started. We’d all had dinner and were lazing around the lounge room, trying to keep cool. The doors to the verandah were open, letting in what little breeze there wasn’t. The Big Three – Mum, Dad and Beth – were drowsing in front of some lame show on TV, while the twins messed around with a video game on the floor. Me, I was stuck sweatily to the beanbag in the corner, dreaming my way through a book about dancing.
Well, what’d you expect!
The phone rang at about eight o’clock and Dad got up to get it, with a groan. He was only gone for a minute, but he came back looking like a different man. Not a better one, either, because his face was white and his eyes had gone all goggly.
‘Crikey,’ he croaked, before collapsing into his chair with a crash that made Mum look around.
‘What’s up, Nev?’ she asked in a hurry.
Dad stared into space.
‘Turns out there’s trouble in town,’ he finally got out. ‘That was Demon Dale. Reckons he can’t scrape together enough players for the team this year, because a few of the stalwarts have gone and there’s no-one to replace ’em.’
We kids looked at each other in alarm, as Dad went on.
‘I told him that once upon a time blokes were lining up to play cricket for the Numbies, but he said, Nev, this isn’t a fairy tale, and that the only line he sees these days is the one leading out of Nanky.’
Always a woman of action, Mum jumped up out of her seat.
‘I’ll get us a cuppa,’ she said, turning off the telly as she went.
‘I’ll need something pretty strong,’ Dad called after her weakly. ‘Better make it black.’
There are three things my dad loves: his family, his farm and cricket – though not always in that order. He married my mum in the early 1990s, I think, back when they both still lived in the city where he and Uncle Mal were working as builders. Beth was born in 1995, the year before they took over the farm from Grandpa, and they didn’t get around to having me until eight years later. Mum says that’s because for a while there they didn’t know if they could keep a roof over three heads, let alone four, or more. Grandpa had been sick for a bit, so the farm wasn’t in great shape. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, they made a go of it, though, and that’s when me and the twins came along – when all was safe. Now Dad is one of the best farmers around. Here at our farm, ‘Dalgleish’, he mainly grows wheat and runs a few sheep. Mum got bored with farming when things settled down a bit, so she started a café in town with her best friend. Now she’s
one of the best cooks around!
I don’t know when Dad became a leg-spinner, but as he reckons he taught Warnie a thing or two, it must have been back when he was about three-and-a-half. If you ask him, Dad’ll tell you that life is a lot like cricket, because you’ve got to have a good googly to get on. Actually, he’ll tell you that anyway, even if you don’t ask.
Forever, it seems, Dad’s played cricket with the Nanky Numbats, the local side. And while his stats aren’t great (don’t tell him I told you that!), he’s won best and fairest for the last eight years running. It’s just the kind of person he is.
Right now, though, Dad was looking as if he’d been hit for a six. Come to think of it, that happens to him a lot, so maybe he looked more like he would if he’d taken a wicket. In total shock.
He stayed that way until Mum brought in the tea and some of his favourite cake. After a few mouthfuls, the colour began to come back into his cheeks.
‘Why didn’t anyone tell me,’ he grumbled.
‘You’re so busy with the farm,’ Mum said. ‘Still, you should’ve picked up on it by now, Nev. I’ve been talking about it for weeks, on account of the café.’
‘Yeah, Dad,’ said Jimmy. ‘We even heard the teachers talking about it.’
‘But they didn’t see us,’ Joey added.
Dad gave them a sickly smile.
‘Oh, come on,’ said Beth. ‘Nanky’s always been dead, so what’s new?’
Mum rolled her eyes at my sister.
‘Tam,’ Dad said, turning to me, ‘did you know?’
‘Not really,’ I replied. ‘I only worked it out last week, when Miss Campbell left.’
‘Kath Campbell? Your dance teacher?’
Dad looked over at Mum, eyebrows nearly falling off the top of his face.
‘People have been drifting away for a while,’ she said. ‘Ever since the bank closed its branch.’
‘Anyone know how to fix it?’
Mum shrugged. ‘It’s not a tractor, Nev. It’s not as simple as that.’
‘Nanky’s a great town, Dad,’ I said, with a glare at Beth. ‘It’s really pretty and the people are friendly and nice. If more outsiders could come and see it, some of them would want to stay, wouldn’t they?’
‘Mad not to, Tam, if you ask me.’
‘And it’s not like there aren’t jobs for them either,’ Mum said. ‘Or places to live. A hairdresser, farmhands, a nurse – we need them all, and more. Not to mention the café,’ she added, slyly. ‘I hear it needs a new waitress as well.’
‘Gee, thanks Mum,’ said Beth.
Dad leaned back in his lounge chair and absently began scratching his stubbly chin. The loud rasping noise went on for a while. A long while. So long that Mum got up to clear away the cups and plates, and the rest of us went back to what we were doing. Or tried to.
Jimmy and Joey had just started whispering when the scratching stopped.
‘Hmm,’ Dad said. ‘I can only think of one thing to do and it’s not very good.’
‘One’s better than none,’ said Mum, having come back from the kitchen. ‘What
Dad got up and took his hat from the table. He looked back at us from the doorway, as he pulled on his boots.
‘It’s talking to Grandma,’ he said. ‘Don’t wait up.’
And, cramming his hat on his head, he stumped across the veranda and out into the dark, whistling for our kelpie, Col.
Joey gave Jimmy a nudge.
‘Told you,’ he said.
It was a good thing we didn’t wait up, because we didn’t see Dad again until the next day, when he came in for lunch. It was Saturday, so Mum had gone into town early with Beth, to open up the shop, and me and the twins hung around at home. I did the washing and practised my turns, while Jimmy and Joey messed about in the garage, playing ping pong and darts. Every now and then I heard thuds and their shouts.
The funny thing was, though, that I could hear something else as well, and I kept wondering what it was. Well, not so much what it was but why. I knew it was the rumble of Dad’s tractor – I’d grown up with that sound, after all – and yet I knew
it couldn’t be.
‘I thought Dad’d done all the seeding,’ Jimmy said, as him and Joey came in to raid the fridge.
‘Me too,’ I said.
‘Want an ice block?’ said Joey.
I wasn’t going to fall for that one, so I shook my head.
‘None left anyway,’ he yelled, before racing out, two in his hand.
‘Savages,’ I muttered, and went back to my stretches.
Ron got a lift out to the farm with Mum and Beth, as he usually did on a Saturday afternoon.
‘Dad’s gone a bit bonkers,’ I said, filling him in before lunch. ‘He’s worried there won’t be any cricket side this season.’
‘He won’t want me to play again, will he?’
Ron’s a pretty good batsman, even though he tries hard not to be.
‘Probably. He’s been cruising around in the tractor all morning, so anything could happen.’
As usual, we were having bits and pieces from the café for lunch, seeing it would be closed for the rest of the weekend. Mum laid out the left-overs on the kitchen table – two types of quiche, a zucchini slice and a few salads. I poured us all some apple juice.
‘Where’s Dad,’ I asked.
‘Not sure,’ said Mum, taking lasagna out of the oven. ‘He came in late last night and must’ve had an early breakfast. You didn’t see him this morning?’
‘We didn’t see him—’ Jimmy began.
‘—but we heard him,’ finished Joey.
‘Maybe he left town,’ Beth said, just as Dad himself bustled in.
‘Maybe,’ he said, pecking Mum on the cheek and pulling up a chair. His face was brown again now, and his eyes looked normal, all sunny and blue like the sky.
He reached for the bread. ‘I’m so hungry I could eat some of this fancy tucker. All of it, in fact. What are you lot having?’
Ron and I grinned at each other.
‘We’re having a hard time working you out, Neville Mackenzie,’ Mum said sharply. ‘That’s what we’re having.’
‘Yeah, Dad,’ said Jimmy. ‘We could hear you in the tractor.’
‘But we thought you’d done all the seeding,’ Joey said.
Dad held up a hand, the one filled with bread.
‘Okay, okay. So I owe you all an explanation, as they say in the movies. Before that, though, I want to say hello to Ron, ’cause he’s looking a bit toey. Gooday, mate.’
‘Hey Mr M.’
‘Worried I’m going to get on your back about playing for the Numbies?’
‘That’s right, kiddo, play it cool. Well, I’m not going to push you today. And why not? Because we’ll soon be turning away players, that’s why.’
Hearing this, we all nearly choked.
‘And now,’ Dad said, looking pretty pleased with himself, ‘would someone toss me that salad.’
Mum put her hand over the bowl.
‘Explanation first, Mackenzie,’ she said in the flinty voice that no-one ignores, least of all Dad. ‘And make it fast.’
Dad looked around the table, eyes jumping from face to face. He shrugged.
‘All right,’ he said, leaning back in his chair, ‘I’ll give you the basics.’
He started with his visit to Grandma, which had been short and painful, as they usually are, but had ended up, Dad said, being surprisingly productive.
Grandma Iris lives in a bungalow Uncle Mal built for her down by the river. She calls it ‘Bufferton’ because she reckons it’s just about the last stop on the line. We’d like to ask her what she means, but as she’s always threatening to throw her false teeth at us if we talk too much, we save our questions up. You’ve probably guessed already that Grandma is the biggest grump ever. Grantankerous, she calls it. Uncle Mal reckons he would’ve build her a houseboat and let it loose on the river, only he didn’t want to curdle the water. Grandma tells him he’ll be sorry one day.
‘She’s said she was asleep,’ Dad was saying, ‘but she still had her false ones in when answered the door, so she was lying through her teeth as usual. I told her about the town going down the tube, and she blamed everyone born after the year Buzz Armstrong walked on the moon.’
‘Neil Armstrong,’ I corrected.
‘Him too,’ Dad said. ‘Don’t tell me her memory’s going as well. Anyway, she eventually quietened down long enough for me to get her properly stirred up.’
‘How?’ Mum wanted to know.
‘Told her the bowls club’ll be next to go if we don’t do something soon.’
‘Brilliant, Dad,’ said Jimmy.
‘Totally unnecessary,’ said Mum.
‘Stroke of genius,’ said Dad. ‘She lowered herself into a seat and sat there for ages, pulling at her beard.’
Mum scowled at him and said, ‘Nev!’
‘I would’ve made her a cup of tea,’ Dad ploughed innocently on, ‘but I’d just had one, see. Anyway, after a while she got up and told me to grab the torch. Out of the house we went, across to her little shed, where she dug around for yonks in all that junk she won’t throw out.’
‘You mean that you won’t let her throw out,’ said Mum.
‘Yeah, that stuff. Underneath it all was a sack of seed I don’t ever remember seeing before. Real old bag, all dirty and dusty. Half-empty too. Just touching it kinda gave me a thrill.’
‘What,’ Beth said, ‘just because it was old?’
‘Maybe. According to your grandma, who heard it from Granddad just before he died, it’s been around since the first days of the farm. So that makes it a hundred years old and some. Here’s the best bit, though. He told her to pass it on to me if the town ever got into trouble, because the seed had somehow come in handy in the past. Helped out Granddad’s dad, apparently, and his dad’s dad too.’
‘I’m confused,’ said Joey.
‘I’m not,’ Jimmy said. ‘Much.’
Mum had a frown on her face.
‘Are you sure Iris was fully awake,’ she said. ‘This all sounds pretty ridiculous to me. I mean, families hand lots of things down to their kids – jewellery, photo albums, wedding dresses—’
‘Stories,’ Ron said quietly.
‘Yes, Ron, stories too,’ Mum said. ‘But who ever heard of a sack of seed being passed on. And, anyway, how can it possibly help? People aren’t pigeons, Nev. They’re not going to stay in Nanky just because a few handfuls of shriveled old grain gets scattered around.’
Dad held up his hands in mock surrender.
‘You’re right, love, it doesn’t make any sense.’
‘What about a museum,’ I suggested doubtfully. ‘With the seed as the main attraction?’
‘Gee, Tam, I didn’t think of that,’ Dad said. ‘Listen, you lot,’ he went on, ‘it was my seed. After tucking Grandma in, I went and sat by the river with it. There I was, old bag on one side, Col on the other. I must’ve sat there over an hour, I reckon. It worked but, even though I got a sore bum.’
‘What do you mean?’ Mum said, ignoring the pun.
She’d taken her hand away from the salad bowl by now and crossed her arms.
‘Well,’ Dad said, lowering his voice. ‘That grain kinda grew on me – spoke to me, I mean.’
Mum snorted. ‘Stop it, Nev. The lasagna’s getting cold.’
‘Laugh if like,’ Dad said, ‘but listen to this. Grandma said that there was a story going around about the seed. That the founder of the farm – my great-grandfather to about the power of seven or eight – had swapped some sheep for it while on the way to market.’
‘Like the nursery rhyme,’ breathed Joey.
‘Fairy tale, you idiot,’ said Beth.
‘Right,’ Mum said, ‘that’s settled then. It’s clearly magic.’
‘My uncle’d be loving this,’ Ron whispered to me.
‘I’m not sure about that,’ he said. ‘But it was pretty productive. Gave me the makings of a great idea. And that,’ he added, speaking up a bit so that he could be heard over the hubbub that had erupted around the table, ‘is all I’m going to say about it, because I’m a tender soul and I know what you lot think about my inspirations.’
He was right. We thought Dad’s ‘great ideas’ were rubbish, pretty much. From the swimming pool in the back of the ute to the radio station on top of the windmill – they’d all been disasters. Now that I thought about it, though, I realised Dad hadn’t had one for a while, and that meant he was probably due for a doozy. Maybe this little doozy.
And, try as we might, we couldn’t get another word out of him.
In the end, we got stuck into the food. Everything except the lasagna, which really had gone cold, and which Mum put in the fridge for later.
That afternoon, Ron and me worked at the computer on a project for class: a set of photos showing things you don’t see even though you look at them every day, if you know what I mean. Rust on the water tank and the way the edge of the road crumbles into the dirt – that kind of thing.
While Dad drove Ron home, Mum made pizzas for dinner, and we ate them in front of a movie. Some trashy new thing. Everyone seemed to be avoiding the subject of – well, of you-know-what.
The next day was Sunday. At brekkie, Dad drank the last bit of milk out of his bowl before clearing his throat.
‘I said I wasn’t going tell you any more about my brilliant idea just yet, and I won’t. You simply don’t deserve it. I’d like to show you something, though, if you want to see it.’
The twins were keen, but Mum was doubtful. ‘I was hoping we could forget the whole thing,’ she said.
Beth and me were somewhere in between. In the end, we all decided to go.
‘Come on, then,’ said Dad. ‘It’s in the home paddock.’
We crowded out of the kitchen and stepped outside. Squinting in the sunlight, we traipsed up the track and through the gate, into the big flat field Dad kept stocked with sheep. Or used to, it seemed, because the first thing I noticed was that there weren’t any sheep in it any more.
The second thing I noticed ran down the middle of the paddock, from almost one end to the other. It was a dark furrowed strip of freshly sown dirt. Along the ridges, lines of little green shoots shimmered in the heat.
‘Abracadabra!’ Dad cried, with a flourish.
Whooping, the twins ran to the edge, just like they were at the beach.
‘We told you, Mum,’ Jimmy yelled back at us.
‘Yeah,’ shouted Joey, ‘it was Dad’s tractor all right!’
Hands on hips, Mum turned to Dad. ‘You sowed that seed? Here, in the home paddock?’
‘Course I sowed it, love,’ Dad said. ‘That’s what seed’s for.’
‘At this time of year? And in a big rectangle?’
Dad squirmed a bit under her gaze. ‘It felt like the right thing to do.’
‘But you couldn’t, could you, Dad,’ I said. ‘That much seed wouldn’t go this far.’
Dad looked at me proudly.
‘That’s my girl,’ he said. ‘The farm’s yours whenever you want it, Tam, because you’re spot on. Normally half a bag of seed wouldn’t cover an area anything like this big. But I had a feeling there was more in the sack than it looked, and I was right. The stuff just kept on coming out. Enough for this space too.’
‘But a rectangle, Nev,’ said Mum. ‘And in the middle of the paddock.’
‘Think about it, Mum,’ said Beth. ‘It’s modern art, Mackenzie style.’
‘Is it a big cricket wicket, Dad?’ the twins wanted to know. ‘One you won’t be able to bowl wides on?’
‘Now there’s an idea,’ said Dad.
‘Dad,’ I said. ‘How could the seeds sprout so fast? I mean, you only sowed them yesterday.’
Mum went to have a closer look.
‘Tam’s right, Nev,’ she said. ‘These plants are at least an inch high.’
Dad held up his hands. ‘This was only meant to be show not tell,’ he protested. ‘So if you want to know any more you’ll just have to wait and see.’
With that, he turned and clomped away.
‘Come on, you lot,’ Mum said, with a sigh. ‘And don’t forget to shut the gate behind you or the fairies might get out.’
I went back to my room, where I lay on the bed and stared at the dancers in the posters on my wall. Funny to think they’d never move. Like it or not, though, I couldn’t get Dad’s crop out of my mind. Had those ‘magic’ seeds really sprouted overnight? Was Dad crazy?
I got up and did some homework, but that didn’t help much. It never does!
After lunch, I went to have another look at the newly seeded strip, and was even more amazed. This wasn’t about ‘seeing’ rather than ‘looking’, either. It was just that I’d never come across a wheat crop like this one before, and I’d seen a few, even though I was only twelve. Instead of standing up straight in rows, the plants had somehow bent over and woven their leaves together, making a kind of low matted carpet. What’s more, they’d tripled in size since the morning.
‘Crazy, isn’t it,’ Dad said, coming up behind me.
‘Do you know what’s going on, Dad,’ I said. ‘It’s a little bit scary.’
Dad put an arm around my shoulders. ‘I think I do, Tam,’ he said. ‘But I’ll know for sure tomorrow. Maybe don’t say anything to the others about it ’til then.’
‘Okay,’ I said, but only because he was my dad, and because dads sometimes deserve a second chance.
The thing about living on a farm is that everyone has a job to do, right down to the smallest animal. (Although Col was a sheep dog, he mainly kept Dad company and only pretended to round up the sheep.) My job was the washing, which isn’t very rural, I’ll admit. It wouldn’t have been so bad except that Mum was always telling me in the morning not to forget to take the clothes off the line when I got home from school, as if there was a storm or something lurking behind the shed, waiting to pounce. It hadn’t rained for months and yet she was still on my back!
Today, though, I had forgotten to take them off, thanks to all the excitement. Sure, it wasn’t a school day, but I didn’t want to give Mum any encouragement. Rushing out to the line, I started bundling the dried clothes and things into the basket, planning to fold them in my room, where Mum wouldn’t see me. I’d almost finished when Dad burst around the corner.
‘Tam,’ he bellowed, ‘I need a sock.’
‘Take the lot,’ I said, because there were always so many of them.
‘Only one,’ he panted.
‘No, Dad, they come in pairs, remember.’
‘Pairs, my foot!’ he cried, and we both laughed.
‘Here,’ I said, ‘here’s one of yours.’
‘Ta,’ he said, tucking it into his pocket. ‘That’ll do the trick, I reckon.’
I paused in my unpegging and looked at him.
‘What trick, Dad? Is this about those old seeds?’
‘Sure is, Tam,’ he said. ‘I knew something was missing and I’ve only just managed to work out what.’
‘A sock?’ I asked in disbelief.
‘You betcha,’ he said.
Just then we both heard Mum calling me from inside the house.
‘Gotta go,’ Dad said, and raced off the way he’d come.
As for me, I hid the basket under the tank stand and went to find Mum. I’d come back for the washing when the coast was clear.
Dad could barely contain his excitement that night, and I went to bed feeling the same way I had the night before we’d flown overseas from the city, on our way over to Scotland. I felt like I was about to start out on a giant adventure, in a big jet plane. And, as it turned out, I was almost right. The excitement was about to begin, only this time the planes wouldn’t be going but coming.