BEN GETS ON the phone immediately and rings his brother who farms two hours' drive away. It's raining! he yells. Really raining. It's raining! What's it like at your place? Nothing here, replies his brother in a subdued tone. Ben then rings his neighbour whose three thousand acres share a boundary with his three thousand acres. How's it comin' down at your place? he asks. It's not, replies the neighbour...I can see the black clouds in the distance, about over your place I reckon, but nothing here at my house yet. Not even sure that it will rain here...not much of a breeze but what there is, is blowin' away from my place.
Ben hangs up and rings his neighbour on the other side, whose property doesn't actually adjoin his – there is a large granite nature reserve between them – but is the next on down the road. Not a drop, mate, and it doesn't look like it's coming our way. And I'm starin' at the wall barometer, and nothin's changed. Same as yesterday, the day before, last month. There's bitterness on the other end of the phone, and Ben doesn't know what to say, so he just hangs up and walks back to the window to watch the rain bucket down.
It continues to rain. It rains all day and through the night into the next morning. And into the afternoon. He rings around again. Same story. We're not even seeing any run-off mate, your place is like a sink, all flows into the middle and then down the creeks into the river. By the time it hits that dry river bed it sinks into the sand. You're the only bloke gettin' weather and the run-off stops at your boundaries!
What starts as a joy, a reason for celebration, becomes disturbing. Ben has stayed inside during the rain, having been a bit crook of late. But he is feeling better, and decides he'll go and check over his property. He kits up in his wet-weather gear and heads out through the back door to make his way over to the machinery shed, where the ute is parked. He checks the rain gauge. An unbelievable fifty points! Then it dawns on him that the rain has suddenly stopped – that it stopped the moment he stepped out into the open. A few drops hit his hands and then it stopped. This surprises him. He looks up at the sky and it starts to clear. It swirls and convulses and the sun breaks through the clouds. Then he notices that where the rain has touched his skin the skin burns slightly, guiltily.
Driving along the fence line of paddock after paddock, he finds it's the same story everywhere. A strong green carpet of growth has appeared on his side of the divide. He will start seeding immediately. There's been no thought of it for the last couple of years. He's put crops in, like everyone else, but other than some short light falls there's been nothing. His immediate neighbours have culled their sheep flocks for want of feed. Distant neighbours have auctioned off plant to meet bills. Ben has hung in there, bringing feed in from his brother's place, which has managed to yield enough hay for that purpose – enough to feed his own animals and to sell to friends to keep theirs alive – but that's it. He's held on to all his machinery.
Ben sees a measure of how much it has rained when he arrives at the salty ground in the dead centre of the property. It is indeed a sink, with the two creeks that branch out of its heart winding their way down through the rubbish dumped as ‘landfill' there over the years, like a rush of blood through clogged arteries – an arteriosclerosis of the farm. Rolls of fencing wire, old spray drums, wood, even a seized truck motor. It doesn't look healthy, Ben whispers to himself, so quietly he can hardly hear it.
Arriving back at the house paddock, he starts planning the seeding. He has enough seed grain and the machinery is all in good working order. He has had nothing much to do other than mess around with it and keep it working. He will lightly work the soil, then seed and fertilise. He heads back up to the house.
The moment he steps inside, he hears the rain on the roof again. It spooks him, because he glanced up at the sky before he stepped onto the veranda, and it had pretty well cleared. Barely a cloud.
Now he stares out of the window at the black swollen skies and the hard driving rain. Harder than during the days before. A deluge. He feels giddy. He sees the farm under water. He sees the green carpet become the algal floor of a fetid ocean. He sees the corpses of a thousand sheep marooned on the granite outcrop, with the ocean of his farm lapping at their hooves. He collapses into a chair and cries. He hasn't cried since he was a small child. His mother forbade him to cry because his father found it embarrassing and she never liked to see her husband, whom she loved so much, upset. Your father is such a good provider, she'd say again and again, a mantra. It's unbecoming to cry, son. Ben's tears rain down over the slightly greasy tablecloth, and he can't hold them back. A deluge.
I must stop, he yells, to no one but himself. He pauses. Then he cries: It! It It! I must stop it! The house resounds with the words, the gravel out of his throat. The lampshade vibrates overhead, disturbed. The lampshade he's done so many farm accounts under; that he did his school homework under while his mother prepared the dinner in the kitchen before telling him to set the table because father was due in from the paddocks...I must stop it!
Ben tears his clothes off piece by piece. He can hear the rain driving into the tin roof so hard he sees nails. He sees fencing wire stretched so taut it snaps. He hears a wheel nut sheer from being over-tightened and a bullwhip being cracked at the show. Everything taut and tense finally reaches its point of no return. He prays for the rain to cut through the roof, through the ceiling insulation, through the ceiling itself, to cut up his now-bare body. He raises his arms to the deluge and speaks as he imagines a great Biblical figure would have spoken when confronted by the harshness of God's judgement: Why have you chosen me; why have you left me in the wilderness so long only to reward me when it is too late? He demands to know. He pleads.
Naked, he runs through the back door and out into the rain. He feels the rain strike his body and burn away the dry, flaky outer layer of skin. A snake shedding its skin. A moulting.
And then the rain stops.
Ben looks around. He hears the parrots laughing in the York gums. He covers his burning nakedness with his hands and slinks back into the house. The rain doesn't start again. Nothing. He dresses and goes to bed without eating, sleeps all night and through the next day. When he wakes, there is no rain on the roof. He rings his brother. Been no rain here, Ben, says his brother in the same limp voice. He rings his two neighbours. No rain, mate. No rain, mate. They ask how it's going out at his place – must be good with all that rain he's had. Ben can taste their bitterness. Most of it just rolled off the surface into the creeks – made it look like more than there really was, he says. Only a few points in the gauge for a couple of days, in the end. Not enough to start seeding, I'm afraid.
Ben wants to reassure them all. He keeps talking: Well, just enough rain, I guess...but it's not worth wasting my seed grain when there's no chance of any weather down the track. The long-range forecast is for dry days and cold nights. Thought my ship had come in, but it hadn't. You can't bet your life's savings on such long odds...Hah, nah, didn't amount to much. Not so strange after all...really.
He wanted to stop reassuring them – his brother, his neighbours, himself – but his skin still tingled with the burning of the rain.