This is a strange thing for me. I’m not used to talking. Not into one of these yokes anyway. It’s not a natural thing to converse with yourself. Not out loud. Well… not indoors, at least. There might be something to be said for the open air of a cold morning. But that’s a very different thing.
I hope it’s working properly. Catriona tested the recorder just now. I can see a little red light glowing and those small tape wheels turning inside. So I suppose I’ll trust that it is. Foolish I’d feel if I was talking into the nowhere at all. No. Fuckin ape stupid altogether, more like.
But she asked me to do it. And I promised I would. So I will.
I can’t read. I suppose I should be open about that from the start. No point in trying to play it otherwise. I’m not ashamed of it, although others are. I don’t wear it proudly either, although I know others think different. People are quick to draw their own conclusions. And I’ve heard the whispered talk. I’ve seen the downcast looks.
I’ve tried to listen more than talk. If you listen you can hear. If you hear you can understand. People reveal themselves within every movement. And then you have the core of them laid out in front of you. That is how I got to where I am.
But the reading? Never could get the knack of it. Simple as that. Hadn’t a whole lot of use for school. But I’ve an ear for words. Comes from the listening. And I was out on the hills pretty early on. My father insisted. That was the way. There was no other. I’ve been asked a lot of times did I have my childhood stolen? But my youth was among the cattle.
I catch myself sometimes, more often now, looking back into those dark mornings up in the Cavan hills. Sheet fog slipping over the land. A blue chill icing your breath. A smug feeling of ownership over the sleeping towns below. And you are tempted. Yes. Sorely tempted to look back with utter fondness. But it does not deserve that.
It was tough, long work. That chill was bitter. It would get right into your fingers. Work them from the inside out. It was worse to try and warm them. You had to let them numb through until the sun came up. And the wet. You were sodden more likely than not.
And alone. But there was the cattle. And you’d talk with them.
You’d drive them up for grazing. Drive them down for milking. Drive them out to the mart of a Saturday. They were yours to herd. Yours to manage.
The father was not an easy man. He had a look and manner and mind that was hard. But he gave you your end and way when it came to managing your bit. In that way he played us off one another a little. We each had our own head of cattle. With him overseeing the lot from a remove. He’d keep the boy who’d worked the best beside him at the table. He’d tap his pipe off the wood and tell you to sit down there. The rest of us would shuffle into place and keep our eyes down. Any miss-step could be pounced upon. Sometimes you could feel him cruising for an opportunity. Those times were the most dangerous.
But at the mart it was up to you to handle the trade. Up to you to work the barter. Up to you to manage the sale. So you had to be good at the read when it came to people. And you needed to have a head for numbers. I have that.
Numbers come easy to me. They fit. I can hold them in my head. There’s no bother.
Take this as example. Currently I have 3.542million hectares grazing land split amongst five different stations throughout Queensland and the Northern Territory. There’s a total of 165,000 head of cattle in there. Longreach is 1.2million hectares with 50,000 head. Eromanga Station is 575,000 with 30,000 head. Spear Hill, Nanunga Plain and Farnham Estate have 1.767million hectares and 75,000 head spread between them. More than that I could tell you the splits between herds and breeds, the average price per head, the turnover, the margin and the wage bills on any or all of the above. And there’s more than that.
This is not to be boastful. This is to provide example. I’m good with numbers. And I don’t need to write them down. A guilty pleasure is to begin a conversation talking in math to my young and tailored assistants. I watch them blunder to catch up and I smile. They fluster between pages and electronics to figure out what I’m asking for. Call it petty. Perhaps it is. We all have our indulgences. And it keeps them working.
All this meant writing words weren’t needed. I got by so long without them they ceased to be important. I trust my family for the things that can’t be avoided. Now and before. I sign my name with an X.
All this meant I was good at the mart too. Back in the day, I mean. I could keep the prices and averages in my head. I could talk up a whirl of numbers if I needed. Brow-beat some cheap huckster who was trying to pass one over on me by drowning him in figures. The father was unforgiving about mistakes. So you needed to be quick and cute. I could do that. Too well, sometimes.
I still remember my canniest day at the gate-side of the mart. Turned three head into six through a sale and a purchase. Fine beasts they were too. High yields and good stock.
Came home that night with a smug head up on me. Full sure pride of place was preserved for me at the supper table. I’m still not certain what mistake I made. Too happy perhaps. Maybe I’d done too well. I don’t know.
We were lined up against the wall while the table was set. Waiting for him to take his place. He entered. You could tell he was thunderous. It was in his calm. But perhaps I was too caught up to notice. He strode by us. As he drew level with me he unleashed. Thrust a hand around my throat and hurled me back against the wall. My eyes bulged. The breath was knocked from me with shock. He kept his arm long and braced. He didn’t say anything that I remember. He just looked at me and sneered.
He let me drop and took his place. Tapped the wood with his pipe and looked at me to sit down next to him. The lads took their places. I struggled up and then carefully dropped myself into place. We ate in silence. I never had choke down a meal so much. My throat was raw.
The next morning on the hill I told the cattle what had happened. Never spoke of it again. I don’t know why I thought of it now.
I couldn’t tell you.
Written by Adam O'Keeffe © 2016
Illustrations by Stephen Galvin © 2016