Romance Fiction posted February 12, 2015


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This work has reached the exceptional level
romance is kindled in the most unlikely places

The Echoes of War

by mfowler

Valentines Writing Contest Contest Winner 

A shrill whistle interrupts my viewing. 'Eh, you, get away from the cows.'
 
I see a tall, thin man moving quickly in my direction. 'Listen, mate, what's the big idea of comin' on my property?'
 
I turn, smile. 'I'm your Land Army assignee,' I say with as much sunshine as I can muster.
 
'Aw! Whadya mean? I was expectin' a young bloke. Not a sheila. Sorry, ma'am, no offence, but the farm's no place for a woman. It's dirty work.' Judging by the stains on his overalls, I'd say it is way grubbier than that.
 
'There's no blokes in the Land Army, Mr Brennan. They're all fighting the Japs. We're all girls wanting to put something into the war effort.'
 
'Never do,' he mutters.
 
'What do you want me to do, Mr Brennan?'
 
'S'pose you'd better have a cuppa,' he mumbles.
 
I follow the flies and Dan Brennan towards the house. I'm wondering if this assignment isn't quite what I'm hoping for. Since the evacuation from Darwin, I haven't done any real work apart from helping in the billet's  home in Adelaide. This opportunity sounded like a good way to restart life after the bombing, but my enthusiasm is getting lost among the stench of mud and manure.
 
Inside, the light is poor, and it's clear immediately that no woman has set foot in the place in ages.
 
'Don't mind tank water, do you missus?' he asks.
 
'Thank you.'
 
'House is bit of a dump. Man alone, if you get what I mean.' There's a feeling of lonely decay pervading this kitchen. Dishes are stacked high and a row of shabby lace curtains hang limply above the sink.
 
The farmer rinses two chipped teacups as we wait for the kettle. 'Don't get visitors. Not much call for hospitality, Miss.'  
 
'Call me, Jenny.' I say, 'My name's Mrs Jennifer Cardwell. I'm here to help on the farm, Mr Brennan. That's how the Land Army works. You put in an application for help. Well, here I am.'
 
The tea is surprisingly good. I haven't had a thing to drink since the truck picked us up from the hostel.  He seems lost. Can't be more than fifty years old, but his eyes portray a man beaten down by the world.
 
'Mmh. No men. Mmh. I suppose I could do with help in the house. Needs a good spring clean. Can only pay a guinea a week, mind. The cows don't squeeze out another pint just cause there's another mouth to feed.'
 
'No, Mr Brennan. I'm not a housekeeper. I came to work the farm, help you keep up your quota at the dairy.'
 
'No woman can handle those cows. Specially no city slicker. Mary could drain twenty an hour 'fore she died, but, nah, you won't do.'
 
I'm not easily put off. Working in the Officers' Mess in Darwin taught me one thing. Men say a lot of things, but often don't say what they mean.
 
'Mary was...' He looks at me like I've opened a page on his story that I wasn't invited to hear.
 
Dan Brennan stands, walks to the door. 'S'pose you'd better see the cows before ya take off. If the job don't put ya off, the smell in that shed prob'ly will.'
 
We wander around the farm. The paddocks are lush and the low folding landscape feels like my home in England. The Friesian cows are busily filling up for their afternoon's work and casually move aside as we walk among them. 'You know cows at all?' says Dan.
 
'My father ran twenty head when I was a kid back in Dorset. He let us watch him milking, but our jobs on the farm were more like feeding chickens.'
 
He stops. A smile of sorts creeps across his thin lips. 'Mmh. So ya know somethin' 'bout cows. Ya might be useful.' It's the kindest thing he's said.
 
In the shed, the teat cups of milking machines hang like spiders from the ceiling. 'They're why I needed help.' says Dan, 'Damned things are no good. The engine won't go. Bought it just before the war. Helped a lot when Mary got sick. I could cope. But, it broke down. Had to do it by hand ever since.'
 
'Mary was sick?'
 
'Tumour. Nothin' they could do for her. She lasted a year. I couldn't look after her properly. She deserved better.'
 
This isn't territory that either of us have planned to traverse, so I change the subject. 'You mind if I have a look at the engine, Mr Brennan.'
 
'What for, woman? Told ya, it's broke. Do what ya like.' He's lost in thought as I tinker with the rusted kerosene engine in the small adjoining room.
 
I've seen similar engines at Fred's garage. I used to surprise him with my interest so I became quite a dab hand with all sorts of engines before the war. This one can only be a few years old. The surface rust is easy to scrape away, but the basics are all in good order.
 
'How the hell did you do that?' says Dan Brennan as the milking machine kicks into action. The secret isn't that complicated. A dead rat skeleton was jammed into the crank wheel near the engine. A good cleanup has freed up the whole system.
 
'My husband, Fred, was a mechanic before the war. Taught me how to do just about anything with engines.'
 
Dan's so stunned by the sudden noise in his dairy that he works hard assembling the machines ready for the afternoon's milking.
 
'You're hired,' he says with grudging admiration.
 
The following days are tough. Dan's not a man to spend a guinea a week and expect nothing for it. He keeps me busy cleaning the shed and maintaining Mary, as he's christened the milking machine. It seems like its resurrection has kick-started life on the farm again.
 
<><><><> 
 
Sundays are rest days at the hostel. The girls are exhausted after six days of hard labour. We wash clothes, listen to news from the front, and swap stories over a cigarette.
 
'The Mrs won't let me near the house,' says Delores with a laugh,' she's so afraid I'll snaffle her poor hubby, that she keeps me busy doing jobs she's supposed to do.'
 
The girls laugh. 'I'm so sore from heaving bales of wool, my arms might come out of their sockets,' adds Phillipa.
 
'What's it like, just you and the farmer?' says Delores, 'Husband material?'
 
'No, not at all,' I say with a clear conscience. Dan Brennan is so deep in grief over Mary's death that he's hardly likely to fancy a middle-aged woman in dung-covered overalls. Besides, Fred was killed only three years ago. I'm simply looking for a way of building a new life. The war puts that on hold for now.
 
 
'Oh, come on, Jenny, Surely, you can't overlook a single man. Don't care if he smells a bit. There aren't too many able-bodied blokes left in Australia.' She's teasing, I think.
 
'Oh, leave her alone, Delores,' says Phillipa, ' there's news from New Guinea on the radio.'
 
<><><><> 
 
The winter rains set in around Mt Gambier. The job's become more difficult as the cows arrive to be milked in the gloom. I've helped Dan get the house spruced up.
 
'Mary'd like you,' he says over our eleven o'clock cuppa. 'Yeah, she would like the colour you bring to the house.'
 
'Thanks, Dan.' He's never connected my name and Mary's before, except when he swears at the milker and tells me to get her going.
 
'I'm sorry.'
 
'What for, Dan?'
 
'I've haven't been too welcomin', have I?... When Mary died, I wanted to give up. Almost did. If it wasn't for the girls turnin' up every day to get milked, I'd have chucked it in. I thought I might go to war, but they said no. Too old. Too valuable. Can you believe that?'
 
'Essential service to the war effort, I suppose?'
 
'Yeah. Can't be a man for wife or country...There I go, bein' a sad-sack again.'
 
'I was like you, Dan. You know, when Fred copped it. If it wasn't for the navy base in Darwin, I'd have sat at home crying every day. Then the Japs bombed, and here we are.'
 
'War's a bloody curse. Too many victims.'
 
'Yeah. But, hey Dan, we've got each other. I mean, you know, there's the farm. It's going well. And we make a good team, right?'
 
He looks at me with those pale blue eyes that seem forever sad. 'Yeah. A good team.'
 
<><><><> 
 
'They want us to go to Victoria,' says Phillipa, 'there's a shortage on the citrus farms. Now it's early summer, they want pickers.'
 
'I can't leave Dan in the lurch,' I say.
 
'So it's, Dan, now,' chips in Delores, 'getting close, are we?'
 
I'd not realised till this moment how I felt about Dan. The work, our own tragedies, and the war seem to have kept personal feelings in the background. The thought of leaving the Mount is overwhelming. It's become home.
 
<><><><> 
 
As I walk into the shed this morning, I hear a distressed cow in the stalls. I find Dan with his arms deep inside the cow trying to assist with a birth.
 
'Hold her head, Jenny. Keep her calm. She's too anxious.' Dan's concern for the mother is inspiring. He's clearly been at it for ages, but he hasn't lost the will to keep trying. The cow looks at me with dark eyes, almost asking my opinion of the doctor.
 
 
Fifteen minutes on, she delivers the calf, all wet and steaming; eyes, dark pools like her mother, but not quite ready for the world. Dan rubs the calf with dry straw and blows life through her nostrils. The mother turns her head, lowing with satisfaction, almost as if to say: he's a keeper, that one.
 
The birthing has tired Dan and I make him a cuppa. 'You were marvellous with that calf.'
 
'Thanks. You did well too. You're right, we're a good couple...team.'
 
I smile. 'That's kind, Dan. I have something to tell you.'
 
They want us girls in Shepparton by next Monday. I can't bear to say the words. Dan, sips on his tea. He reaches over and touches my arm. It's the first real touch I've felt from a man since Fred went to war.
 
'Jenny, let me speak first.'
 
A few moments won't hurt, especially while we share the afterglow of the morning's drama.
 
'Been thinkin'. Why don't you leave the Army? Got no official hold over ya. In fact, you're my guinea a week worker.' He looks at me seriously for a moment.
 
'That's what I wanted to....'
 
'Ssh..I want you to live with me. We're good together. I need you fix the machinery. And.'
 
I pull away. 'Dan, I might be leaving.'
 
He stands. 'Jen. I'm asking you to be my wife? I'm just no good at feelin's.' It's as if he's not heard a  word I said. 'Whadoya say?'
 
Truth is. Neither of us are much good at romance. I kiss his forehead. 'Thank you. Why not?'
 
A family of magpies trill outside the kitchen window. It's as if Dan's hired a choir to celebrate the moment.
 
The war seems a million miles away.
 

 


Valentines Writing Contest
Contest Winner

Recognized


On 27 July 1942, the Australian Women's Land Army (AWLA) was established as a national organisation, reporting to the Director-General of Manpower. The aim of the AWLA was to replace the male workers who'd gone to war, with women volunteers to help with the labour shortage on the land. The women lived in hostels and were hired out during the day to local farmers who paid the wages.

In February, 1942, a large Japanese force bombed Australia's most northern and strategic harbour. The town was laid to ruin and many vessels and armaments were lost. Many were killed and eventually Darwin's civilian population was evacuated southwards in case of imminent invasion.

Mt Gambier: large rural centre in the south-west of South Australia.
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