Second Place 2021 — ‘North Ridge’ by Arleen McCombie

All morning listeners had been phoning in, offering their suggestions about the shape of the cloud. Some said that it reminded them of a black swan, some said it had horns on it. One caller was cut off for saying it reminded him of a cow with dried-up old udders, adding that he was talking about his ex-wife. ‘She’s not going to shower on us,’ a lot of the farmers said in hard, careless voices. They seemed to think of the cloud as female in the same way they thought of the land as female: capricious, unyielding, ill-intentioned.

“If y’ask me,” a low voice from the Murrumbidgee basin groused, “it’s the same one we saw six months ago. That bugger hung around for ages as well, remember?”

Brett Riley looked down at his switchboard, saw the row of angry flickering red lights had all vanished, and flicked the switch for another commercial break. The familiar jingle for the closing down sale at ‘Sam’s Hardware store’ played out in the tinny shack of a station, the sound reverberating against the heat-stricken walls. Through the gap in the roof he could see the scraggy underside of grey cloud drifting eastward and found himself wondering if this time it really would burst or not, before shaking himself out of his reverie. He was getting to be like these crazed farmers, a complete cloud-spotting kook. Another six months and he’d probably be taken off the air for encouraging collective insanity. No one could even tell him if the station’s listening numbers were up or down but it was a safe bet they were down. So many people were quitting and leaving for the city, outposts like Bourke were barely clinging on to the dusty red earth.

Six months ago they’d had a reporter from Adelaide stop over then leave with her two-man T.V. crew and her six cases of luggage the next day. Nothing was going on, she said. “Tell that to the farmers, Barbie,” Riley had wanted to shout at her. The year before that a photographer had turned up seeking locations for a glossy magazine shoot.

“What I’m looking for is somewhere that’s doomed, environmentally speaking. Somewhere that’s so god-forsaken you’d think it’s on another planet. Look, here’s what I’m looking for.”

He’d left behind a battered copy of a book with black and white photographs of some American dust bowl inside it and Brett Riley had leafed through it during the long hours. There were words next to the pictures, but he didn’t read those: he kept staring at the defeated faces, and the acres of dust, and the broad aching skies. Skies like the one above him, with phantom clouds trailing them. During the interminable phone-ins about when it would all end—next year, another five years?—he found himself mentally checking out: it was like listening to inmates squabbling over their sentence in a giant open air prison. From time to time a caller would cut through the air waves and try to wrangle with him directly: Hey mate, why’s no one blaming the government, eh? Why don’t they give us compensation like they do those aborigines? They’ve got their weather gods, don’t they? Us white folks should get ourselves an officially-sponsored weather god, then maybe the ruddy government will take us seriously, for a change.

They didn’t have a weather god at the station but they did have the next best earthly substitute, Father Peterson, who hosted the Friday afternoon slot between two and five. A stork of a man with a face that was well suited to radio, he left Riley with the impression that the chunky wooden cross dangling from his neck was the most substantial thing about him. Yet despite his apologetic whisper of a voice and his meandering way of getting to the point the switchboard always lit up with female callers phoning in to pour out their woes. On his way to the station for the late afternoon slot Riley would sometimes stop his car on the deserted stretch of highway and listen to Father Peterson droning on. He would sit there and wonder where the comfort was because for the life of him he couldn’t understand it. Why did they unburden themselves to someone who’d probably never dirtied his hands in his life, a man who wouldn’t know one end of a tractor—or a woman—from the other?

After some thought he decided it was because Father Peterson noticed the little details instead of thundering on about the unfairness of it all. In his diffident way he would talk about the overlooked things, like hearing a kookaburra for the first time in months. A few minutes later the station would be flooded with phone calls from farmwives saying how much they missed the kookaburra’s call as well, they’d forgotten just how much they missed that cackle in the midst of their worries. Then Father Peterson would recount his journeys along the red, dusty roads to the outlying farms delivering food hampers. Just the other week he’d been to a farm when it looked as though it was going to rain so he’d helped to gather in the washing in case it got wet.

“It was like we were preparing for the wedding at Canaan, everyone was that fair excited.”

In his more uncharitable moods Riley suspected that the old man was gratified at the thought of all those quietly despairing women alone in their faded kitchens, hanging on his every word. What the priest never spoke about on air was that other visitor to the farms, the one who came in the early morning hours or late at night and then stole away again and left him with more work, in the form of another funeral to officiate. Riley knew Father Peterson was kept busy with funerals but they never discussed it between themselves, not until one Friday afternoon in the middle of spring.

It was one of those afternoons when everything inside the little room seemed primed and combustible, from the controls and the monitor to the metal frame warping over by the door. Even the fan started whirring again, goaded into duty by the heaviness of the air. As the older man raised himself from his seat at five o’clock Riley heard himself make an unusual request.

“Stay a bit longer, eh? We’ll have a drink when I finish my shift.”

Father Peterson was half way out the door but he obeyed as if it was an order. Tucking his gangly frame into a fold-up chair over in the corner he stared out the dirty window, at the level brown fields which at that distance seemed hazy and faintly smoking in the heat. Next to him on the window shelf was the book the photographer had left; the title along its cracked spine read Let us now praise famous men.

Riley heard the priest murmuring to himself and was stirred into something approaching curiosity.

“Read that book before, have you?”

The priest looked at him.

“Oh no. I just recognise the quotation, from Ecclesiastes.”

As if suddenly prompted, he wetted his thin lips and out gushed a spate of words:

Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us. There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported. And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished as though they had never been–

He dried up, looked down at his hands awkwardly, and coughed. Brett Riley groaned inwardly. A dose of Ecclesiastes on a Friday afternoon, was this some kind of infernal punishment? All of a sudden his good intention to befriend Father Peterson had evaporated, now he just wanted to be rid of him and get home.

But at the end of the shift the old man surprised him by suggesting they forget the drink and go for a drive instead. Riley got in the four-by-four reluctantly. A crucifix was hanging from the rear view mirror and there was a sticker on the windscreen DON’T BOTTLE IT UP: TALK ABOUT IT. With the windows rolled down and the air-con blasting it still felt tight and airless, like a travelling oven. At the end of the dirt track the road branched off right to Bourke but the priest took the road away from town, into the back-country. Five minutes later they took a left turning again, down another unused stretch of road.

As they rattled and jounced along, raising clouds of red dust, it occurred to him to ask where they were going. He didn’t much feel like accompanying the old man on his pastoral duties if that was what this little trip was about, but he sensed somehow that it wasn’t. He noticed the bunched knuckles gripping the wheel next to him and the little slit of a mouth, firmly sealed. Over in the east more grey clouds were amassing with their promise—or was it a taunt?—of rain. For another four miles they trundled over the ruts, disturbing the barren sediment of several summers. Then Riley noticed, about two hundred yards off, the sign; as they passed it, the words ‘NORTH RIDGE’ loomed back, dirt-bitten and faded. The ramshackle fencing which had followed them now staggered to a halt and the young man looked round, wondering what he missed. Then he saw it.

Over on the right, in retreat from the road and the mangy long paddock, was a low-roofed farmhouse. But this building was so decayed there was no question it had been abandoned some time ago. Staved-in barrels rotted near what had once been a door and a post of discoloured metal thrust itself up in the centre of the yard. A rope, blackened and sinewy, hung from a post. From where he was sitting Riley thought he could see the relic of a boot propped up next to the doorway, almost as if someone had mislaid it in a rush to be gone.

“You know, I didn’t think I’d be talking about this but I’ve had a funny feeling all day. It’s coming up to the anniversary, you see. Four years ago next month it happened.”

Father Peterson’s voice was small and hesitant in the heat.

“The last time I visited their dog came bounding out to meet me and they showed me around, Mr Kilpatrick and his wife, Annie. She used to listen to me on the radio.”

He looked down at his soft, clerical hands, as if waiting for an invitation to continue. It felt like they’d swapped roles and Riley now was the confessor. How the hell did this happen? Riley thought. He kept his eyes fixed on the middle of the yard.

“They invited me in and gave me tea. It was a working dog, a kelpie, but they let it into the house. Fed it the best meat when they could. You don’t often see that.”

Always a keen eye for the details, thought Riley. He was feeling irritable and expectant at the same time.

“I remember them waving me off, Annie was standing in the doorway just over there.”

And then there was the phone-call to the station a few weeks later. Father Peterson was taking requests for Easter hymns and at first he didn’t recognise the voice, it was so low and whispering, almost urgent.

“I didn’t know what Mrs Kilpatrick was saying at first, I could hardly hear her. I kept on asking her to speak louder but she said that she couldn’t. It took me a few minutes to figure out the words.”

A pause.

“She was asking me to pray for her. He’d shot the dog first, then all their livestock—what they had left, anyway–and he was looking for her. She had hidden in a cupboard, she could hear him outside.”

Reilly looked across at the stretch of unturned red earth. Next to him Father Peterson fingered the wooden cross at his neck.

“My mind went blank, I can’t even remember what I said. There was a long silence and then a burst of noise. A door being banged and someone scrabbling against it, it sounded like an animal. Then I heard it.”

They sat for several minutes in the baking silence. The forgotten farmyard, silted in dust and memories, felt pregnant with something—absences, presences.

Brett Reilly coughed and asked if he could turn on the radio to hear the forecast, if it was finally going to rain this time or not. He thought the priest was going to quote Ecclesiastes to him again or sprinkle some words of hope on the barren ground but Father Peterson just smiled and nodded.

About the writer:

Arleen is a librarian from the north-east of Scotland with a Phd in 19th century literature. She has written a novel set in 19thcentury America and am hoping to find a literary agent for it.

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