The Picnic

I was recently invited to read a short story at a writer’s event called Melbourne Sub. This event gave writers the opportunity to read their work in front of an audience. The Picnic is based on an event in my family in 1902. Emma and her ma, Hepzibah, were my grandmother and great-grandmother, respectively. They were pioneer women living on the Hay Plains in far west NSW. They were kind, resolute and stoic. I am proud of them both. This is their story.

The ground cracks under our feet as we walk on it in the noon sun. The cracks look like crevices. Fall into the red dirt and never come out. Gobbled up by the ground.

I look back at our house. It quivers in the heat. Last house on the edge of town. Last house, almost falling into the river. Our house, all pink board and corrugated iron that Dad got from somewhere.

Dad pounces. He holds the goanna by the tail and shows us its skin.

‘What’s the golden rule if you see a goanna?’ he asks, releasing it.

‘Lie down, or else it’ll think you’re a tree.’ We all chorus and watch as it crashes back into the scrub toward the river.

His eyes gleam just for a second. He grunts, picks up Jessie and bounds forward on the track. She plays with his hat.

Jim watches Dad and Jessie up ahead. ‘Emma, he’s worried about Ma,’ he says. ‘That’s why he’s taking us for a picnic.’

Photo: Erica Murdoch

I bite my plait, the plaits that Ma taught me to do. She is taking a long time to have this baby. She’s been in bed for a day. Still, it’s something she knows how to do. This will be her fifth in twelve years.

The hottest January since 1892 Dad said. The air is so heavy that it hits you in the face. Normally, Ma never lets us walk at this time of day. Instead, she lets us lie in the shallows of the river to keep cool. If it’s too hot to walk even to the river, we sit under the dripping Coolgardie safe.

Today, we sprawl under a tree and eat our lunch. Egg and lettuce sandwiches, all crumbled and torn. The water from the canteen is hot. We share the orange that Tommy got from the tree in town.  Dad puts his thumb on the top, presses and loosens the skin. He flicks off the white stringy bits of pith. It’s our last orange until the next trip to Hay.

‘When it’s this hot birds, drop out of the sky,’ says Jim, orange juice dribbling down his face.

Dad swats at the flies that surround Jessie’s bonnet. ‘Nah, who told you that?’

‘Geography reader,’ Jim says.

Geography I think. I looked at the black and tangle of the billabong and the reed beds. It’s not like the north where it’s all green and tidy and ordered.

The galahs scream and squawk over our heads. I wish I was back in my bedroom, reading.

Poetry. The little leather–bound book of poems by Coleridge and Keats sits on my mother’s table. She reads to us—Thomas and me. Dried rose petals fall from the pages. The petals are from her mother’s garden in Sydney.  I have never been there, as it’s too far away and there are too many of us.

Jessie begins to cry. Too hot. Too tired. She wants Ma. Usually, Jessie follows Ma everywhere from the kitchen to the outhouse to the chook yard and the garden.

‘Can’t we go back?’ said John. ‘The kid needs to have her afternoon nap.’

‘She can have it here,’ said Dad, his voice is rough and hoarse. ‘Your Ma needs peace and quiet.’

I bite my lip. As we had left for our picnic, Mrs. McDonald arrived in a cloud of dust in her horse and cart. She didn’t say anything, just strode straight into the house— her face was hard.

‘Glad you are here, May,’ Dad had said. ‘I can’t do much to help her. And it’s bad this time.’

Mrs. McDonald does what Ma does. She helps women have babies. When a man will come all white face and worried and say, ‘Her time has come,’ then Ma will saddle the horse and ride off to help the lady whose time has come.

Once I heard someone say that Ma and Mrs. McDonald are better than the doctor.

When Ma comes home from the ladies’ whose-time-has-come, she looks pale and worn and her apron will be speckled with dried-up blood.

Domestic Arts. Ma said that the best way to clean our whites is with lemon juice, sunshine and a good beat-through.

Dad falls asleep under a tree. The boys play knucklebones in the dirt and Jessie gurgles and plays with her feet. Down in the river bends, I hear a calf bawling for its mother. The bawling stops.

I want to go home and be by my mother’s side. Sponge her face, hold her hand and not stand outside the door. It’s a mile to the house if I go by the road, and two if I go by the river track.

I know she’ll be pleased to see me. Before we left for our picnic, we had all gone into the bedroom. The curtains were all drawn and the air was thick. She half sat up in bed, her hair had been all frowsy.  She smiled up at me and said, ‘Enjoy your picnic with your Dad. Look after Jessie. Come back soon.’

Come back soon. My heart begins to thud in my chest, but I think it has been thudding all day.

Etiquette. Ma had a book that she would let me read. About manners and stand-up and sit-down, forks and how to peel an orange.

The little boys are dozing off.  Dad’s asleep. I say to Thomas, ‘I’ll be back soon. Keep an eye on Jessie, don’t let her eat too much dirt.’

He nods, too busy pulling bark off and looking for tree-frogs.

One mile as the crow flies. The heat comes up from the dry cakes of cowshit that dot the ground. I think of the billabong, where we swim with the leeches and the river water, so muddy and so cool. Dad would light a fire and boil the billy. From the ashes, he would pull damper and charry potatoes. Ma will split the potatoes open, and spread them with butter. Dad would swing the billy—all of us lining up to have a go.

In the heat haze, I can see our house shimmer and dance. I break into a run and give up. Too hot to run. No trees on the track, just dust and lignum and cooch grass. Not even a bull-ant is out.

Photo: Erica Murdoch

Plod on, plod on. That’s what Ma says when we complain about too much work, too far to walk, too hot to sleep, too much rain, too much mud, too many of us.

The dogs begin to bark across the river at Nelson’s. Dad says they have ears like foxes and can hear a horse and buggy five miles off. Our dog, Alice, chained up under a tree, joins in. Why isn’t she inside? If Ma is inside, then Alice-the-dog is too. Ma and Jessie and Alice-the-dog.

I reach the gate. ‘Pimpampa’, is the name of our place. A small grey sign was painted by Dad on the crooked gate.

Dust clouds billow up as I trot along the home stretch. Mrs. McDonald’s horse is tied up under the shade of the shed.

The dogs begin to bark again at Nelsons. Alice-the-dog is silent. The cicadas rasp and screech. From inside the house, I can hear something else. Something that I have heard before. A cry that begins as a mewling whimper rising to a screeching, angry beast-like howl. It’s the cry I heard on the night of Jessie’s coming when I lay in my bed, with my fingers in my ears trying to block out the sound.

I push open the front door which leads directly to the parlour. It is, as we left it. The home-made canvas blinds are pulled down and the light is dim. Ma’s sampler is lying on the settee, still with the needle hanging in as she left it two nights ago,

The floorboards creak and shift as I move down the passage. I hear Mrs. McDonald’s voice, soothing and cajoling and the softer sounds of Ma’s voice.

Ma’s door is open. I smell something—fetid and sweet and strange. Ma is lying on the bed, her hair over her face, breathing deep and loud. Mrs. McDonald’s apron is covered in brown stains. My eyes flit around to the small bundle in the crook of Ma’s arm.

Mrs. McDonald sees me and frowns. ‘Another boy,’ she says. She moves closer to me, her eyes large and glassy. ‘I sent for the doctor two hours ago. Take my horse and buggy, go and get the rest of you. Make it quick.’

I nod. Unable to move. I want to see her.

She pushed me. ‘Go Emma.’

I head outside to the shed.  As I swing up into the buggy the cicadas screech in my ears.

6 thoughts on “The Picnic

  1. Thanks Robyn. You mean the story’s end? I know I left it hanging!( on purpose) Hepzibah died 3 days after giving birth to her 14th child. So sad about this as she was only in her 40s. As for the reading, it went well. Always daunting to read aloud to a group.


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