Pony Camp

We drove up through Sandgate and Hexham to Bucketts Way then on through Stroud and Gloucester along Thunderbolts Way to Barrington and then over a razorback hill and down the other side to Cobark. There was mist along the tops and a river, lined with sheoaks, running through the centre of the valley; and down by the river the camper van, waiting for us. The ranch was owned by a sixty year old German Australian man who had grown up in Gloucester and spent his life between there and Tamworth before settling here and buying in horses—fifty, sixty, maybe more, of all shapes and sizes and colours—and hiring them out for kids to learn to ride on over three or four day camps during the school holidays. Let’s call him Adam, a big, ruddy, cheerful fellow with a loud voice who, with the notable exception of his skinny deputy Phil, spent his life surrounded by women. Like a stallion among fillies perhaps, or a bull among heifers. The ranch was still operating as a farm, there were cattle, but it couldn’t have survived, he told me, on beef alone; like most of his kind he had a persuasive line in misery-mongering, the unfairness of laws, the way governments tried to tax you out of existence, the impossibility of the market. I liked it in the camper van down by the river, at night I could hear water rushing over stones just as I did in my childhood; and in the morning, after my daily words were written, I persuaded M to cross the river with me and go exploring in the paddocks on the other side. We crossed an expanse of knee-high golden grass, squelched through a swamp, climbed a fence and toiled up a brown slope towards the white spoke of an old dead gum tree near the summit of the hill. There was that hush in the sky; the ranges, near and distant, with their green and secret horizons; the animal cries that hung a long time on the air. Across the valley we could see the children on their ponies in single file climbing diagonally up through a red field. On the third day we went riding ourselves, sway-backed, nervous, exhilarated, winding among the hills and gullies, the river flats, for six hours or so, passing through groves of trees where vivid parrots flashed among the grey-green leaves and snakes or lizards rustled away through the litter of fallen bark. At lunch time a stampede of horses in the home paddock leapt safely, miraculously over M’s daughter E where she lay huddled among grassy clods with her arms wrapped protectively around her head. Nothing broken! Adam boomed as he lifted her up and hugged her to him before his wife called him away up to the house for something. For days afterwards she showed off the colourful stages of the big round bruise on her left buttock where she hit a rock while falling instinctively to earth; but I kept thinking of Adam and how he couldn’t keep his hands off any of the girls who came close enough and were too shy or over-awed or inexperienced to get away; of his buxom wife and her buxom friend who handled the registrations and the money; of Phil with his lean and hungry look and his thin, mean mouth; and of the knowing young horse-women with their complicit smiles, their clandestine pleasures, their occult agendas. So that, when I lay in the camper van on the last night it wasn’t the river I listened to, nor the whispering sheoaks, nor the soft hiss of stars fading: but the bull bellowing in one of the paddocks across the valley, a sound full of inarticulate rage and longing, of desperation perhaps, the sound of avid, unappeasable pain.

 

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