A Bone of Contention | Terry Spring

A Bone Of Contention

Terry Spring

The First Rule of Nabokov Award

Beth watched her husband from afar. Sweating profusely, perspiration running down his forehead, she saw Jed flop into his chair on the wide veranda.

‘That sun’s got some bite in it today… a real blinder. ‘

The air seemed to shimmer across the vine-covered fields, even though the sun had almost set, and Jed wished ‘the wife’ would bring him a long, cool drink.

“BETH…BETH …Where are you?

With a sigh, Jed lifted his hat to the back of his head and wiped his wet forehead. He looked at his land, smiling at the green vines, recalling the trouble they’d had planting them. The kangaroos had jumped all over the tiny shoots and the rabbits had eaten them as fast as they grew. But this year the grapes are big and sweet…a good crop…will bring a decent price.

Where the Hell is Beth anyway? It’s time for a drink – it’s always time.

Watching the kangaroos in the far paddocks, Jed was about to shout her name again when Beth appeared, puffing and sweating from the side of the house, looking ruffled…upset.

‘Those bloody freeloaders are in the woods again. They’re still there.’

Jed sat up straight in his chair.

‘Why d’ye walk there – it’s too hot to walk, silly cow?’

‘Wanted to stretch my legs. Thought I’d be cool walking through the trees but it wasn’t and…they’re still there.’

Her husband scowled as he replied quickly, ‘Did ya tell them to bugger off?’

‘They’re on Crown Land – they’re entitled to be there – but…I do wish they’d go. They’re trouble.’

‘Did they say anything?’

Beth could see Jed’s dander rising. Here we go again, she thought.

‘No nothin’ she replied smiling quickly before he could explode.

Jed’s attention was drawn to their cattle dog running towards them. In its hurry to clamber up, the dog fell up the wooden steps and flopped onto Jed’s feet. He shouted angrily as the dog shook himself dry.

‘Stupid bloody dog, you’re all wet…been in the dam again. Sit -SIT. get away, you stink!’

Beth gritted her teeth and turned away from the shouting, the heat and the kick Jed gave her beloved dog. It was chicken for dinner and she set about cooking. She knew there was no love lost between them- after all his years of drinking…no respect. She fully intended to leave this marriage. One day. ..Why DOES he insist on this hot food? As she worked, Beth thought back to the brooding native men in the woods. They actually had frightened her due to the bad blood between them and Jed.

They had brought the horse to the farm last year, paying for one month’s board. It had been in a poor state of health; very skinny and its hooves were worn thin. She’d hand-fed ‘Midnight’ until the horse calmed down and filled out. They had left no forwarding address, and she and Jed had paid for the horse’s keep. When the men arrived at the farm, stealthily trying to take the horse, Jed had surprised them in the fields. They had no money so Jed, hunting gun at the ready, told them outright; if they wanted the horse, they paid him.

They had menaced Beth as she passed. She had been afraid they might attack her on the return journey but they had only jeered. These were young, rough, Aboriginals and she’d felt intimidated by their fist-shaking and aggression.. Shrugging off the memory, the cooking process took over. Jed liked his dinner hot, no matter what the weather – his chicken coated in spicy breadcrumbs, then deep-fried and served with, peas and thick gravy on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes.

Beth smiled as she watched Jed open a bottle of wine and scoff his meal with relish. She picked at her salad, not having much of an appetite after the frightening scene in the woods. Returning to the kitchen with her empty plate, she opened the oven to take out the pie and heard a loud coughing noise. It was Jed – his coughing became a strangled harsh sound. It dawned on her that he was choking.

Beth stopped what she was doing to rush back to her husband just in time to see him heaving and spluttering – turning blue in the face. He fell to his knees on the wooden veranda floor, clutching his throat, unable to breathe. All he could do was cough and gurgle and grab at his throat where a chicken bone had become lodged. Beth frantically banged him hard on his back but Jed continued to gurgle and choke, struggling to breathe. Panicking, Beth began to scream. She didn’t know what to do then it occurred to her that maybe she shouldn’t do anything. This would solve all her problems. Instead, she calmly phoned for an ambulance and waited.

The night merged into a dream. Too late, the ambulance arrived as Jed lay there grey and lifeless, on the wooden floorboards. The paramedics, the hospital, comforting arms around her…it was all so unreal, so final. She wailed and cried but knew she had helped kill her husband – it’s for the best. Beth was still in a guilty daze when the hearse with Jed’s body, and cars carrying the mourners, left the farm. From the car window she saw the Aboriginal group who sat glowering and silent under the trees.

Somberly the untidy bunch rose and walked along the dirt road. .

‘Man….that old time Dream-time stuff really DOES work. You don’t have to feel bad Jon.’

In silence, they nodded and held open the farm gate.

‘I thought that ‘point the bone’ ceremony was just…old guy’s talk… but the white fella’s dead.’

‘Powerful stuff, man but you did it – you killed ‘im. ‘

‘I don’t feel guilty, y’know. It wasn’t me – it was that Dream-time law …blows me away,’

Above, a kookaburra’s laughing call broke the silence as the men walked up the path to collect the horse.