Updated: Jul 19, 2021
By Caroline Tuohey
“Stone the flamin’ crows. Stop. Stop the car, Girly.”
Eloise, just about ready to burst into tears, braked, checked mirrors and gently pulled off the highway. If she was given one more driving order, she’d be turfing Grandpa Joe out at the next town, turning around and heading back to Sydney. How she’d ended up the chauffeur for this elderly family patriarch was still a mystery. She checked the time. Two thirty. They were three hours behind schedule. They’d never make Mildura by dark. Another small-town motel experience was looming. And Chinese takeaway. No wait, it was Monday. They’d be shut. Fish and chips. Even worse.
Sharp prodding on her arm alerted her to Grandpa Joe’s impatience.
“Turn around. I want to go and see it.”
“What woolshed?” Eloise felt a throbbing behind her eyes.
“The Dusty Plains Woolshed. We just passed it. You’d have seen it too if you’d been driving a bit slower. Hard to miss when you’re doin’ the speed limit.”
Hidden behind her Raybans, the piercing stare was lost on the old man. Silently, she eased the car back onto the highway, performed a gentle u-turn and turned into a bumpy track. A locked gate barred the way.
“Right. Where’s my stick?” asked Joe, hand flailing around the passenger seat floor. Eloise reached over and retrieved it – it had slipped between the seat and console, out of view of her suddenly energetic passenger.
“Grandpa, you can’t just climb over a gate and walk onto someone else’s property.”
“Of course I can. Who’s going to stop me? Besides, this was mine once. Well, should have been mine. The rotter didn’t pay up.” And out he clambered - slightly unsteady at first, but once at the gate, more sure of his feet.
Eloise sat staring. Did he just say he once owned this farm? She flicked back through the years of chatter she’d heard around the big family dining table that faced out to the great Pacific Ocean. No. Nothing about a farm or shearing shed. Perhaps it was his tiredness causing uncertainty in his thoughts. She’d noticed the stories were a bit more unbelievable at the end of the day. But suddenly, there were more important things to worry about – like Grandpa Joe climbing the locked gate.
“Grandpa, wait. You’ll hurt yourself.” Eloise reached the gate as Joe managed to fling his leg over the top of it and catch it mid-way down on the other side by wedging it into the wires. Lodged firmly, but still precariously astride the gate, Joe laughed.
“Well I haven’t done this for a while. Glad to know the old legs still have some life left in them. Now, Girly, help me with my other leg. You climb over to help steady me.”
Eloise, too frightened about what would happen if he fell, did as she was bid. Safely on the other side, and now, she silently noted, illegally trespassing, she placed her hands against Joe’s shoulders and back.
“Right Grandpa, I’ve got you. I’ll take your weight as you lift the other leg. But try and do it as smoothly as possible so I don’t suddenly have all your body weight on me.”
Slowly, Joe wheeled the other leg up and over the gate’s rusty frame and allowed Eloise to take his weight until his foot was firmly on the ground. Eloise put both her arms under his and held him still while the other foot was dislodged and planted next to hers.
“There, that wasn’t so bad was it?” said Joe. “Now, get my stick please and I’ll be right to manage.” Eloise grabbed the stick from through the fence and handed it to the old man. She stood and waited.
“Now, let’s see if we can get inside the place,” he announced. “It’s quite a sight, even when it’s empty.” Side by side, they shuffled up the track towards the shearing shed.
“Grandpa, what did you mean when you said this should have been yours?”
“Get me inside the place, find me a seat, and I’ll tell you the tale,” replied Joe. He waved his stick towards the building.
“Here’s the door – see if it’s locked.” Eloise stepped carefully into the long grass growing up around the building and turned an old handle. It creaked but worked. The door resisted.
"It will be warped. Give it a shove, Girly. Use those gym workouts for something useful,” Joe instructed from the track.
Eloise pushed harder and the door gave way. Cool air wafted into her face from the darkness. A set of steps led the way up.
Behind her, Joe shuffled through the grass and walked straight in, navigated the steps with familiar confidence and stood at the top.
“Exactly the same, Girly. It’s as if it were yesterday.”
Eloise, coming up the steps, peered into the cavernous space. Sunlight streamed up through the slatted floor and above the corrugated walls, light filtered in below the roof. As her eyes adjusted, Joe stepped forward and pushed through to one of the pens.
“This was my area – full of sheep, all day long. It was relentless. Thousands of them. Covered in wool.”
Eloise spied an old bench and went to investigate. It seemed solid enough and although dusty, would hold their weight.
“Here’s somewhere to sit Grandpa – you can tell me your tale now.”
Joe shuffled over, still taking in the scene – his eyes filled with memory.
“Well,” he said, sighing as he sat. “I won this farm, and this shed in a game of poker. It was the best night of card-playing I’ve had my entire life.”
Eloise raised an eyebrow. She knew Grandpa was fond of cards, but to win a farm was still somewhat unbelievable. Especially since it appeared he didn’t keep it.
“Well, what happened?” she asked.
“I was new to the shearing team – my first time at this shed. It had been a gruelling few weeks and rain was forecast, so there was pressure to get the last of the sheep done before the wet set in. The noise in here as we all worked was incredible. Anyway, somehow, we got the sheep shorn. But we were tired and sore. The young boss arrives and says he’s putting on a few drinks to celebrate. Well, free grog was free grog, so everyone got stuck in while we played poker. Except me – I never could understand the need to fall over silly to feel good. However, a little trick I’d learnt was to fill my whiskey bottle with cold tea – I got sick of being ribbed about not drinking, so to all around, it looked like I was as drunk as the rest. Anyway, as the night wore on, I was the only one winning at cards. I had quite a pile of cash and stone cold sober could see I’d made a pretty penny. Eventually it was just me and the boss and I knew I had a good hand and given how much he’d drunk, I figured luck was on my side. Then, when he’s eventually out of cash, he says ‘the farm, I’ll wager the farm!’ Well, the team just went crazy and are egging him on, so I shrug and nod, confident I had a winning hand.”
“And did you?” asked Eloise.
“Of course I did,” laughed Joe. “So, when the cheering from the team died down, I said to the boss, ‘guess I’ve just won myself a sheep station’. But then, the boss went crazy. Stood up, knocked the table over, stormed off and basically told me to get off his farm. He staggered back to the homestead and the team pretty much all fell asleep where they were. I sat there in the dark and considered my position. The next morning, before everyone woke, I went up to the homestead to claim my farm – I’d decided a deal is a deal and I meant to hold him to it – even if all my witnesses probably couldn’t remember it. The boss greets me at the verandah – an open bottle of whiskey in one hand and a gun in the other. Still drunk, he again orders me off his farm. I say ‘Sir, I won fair and square and I am here to ask you to honour your bet’. He’s swaying a bit by now and steadies himself against a verandah post. Eventually he says: ‘You’re right Joe. I should honour that bet. But I cannot give you my farm. And you know that. However, as a show of goodwill I will give you the deed to a small parcel of land an old aunt left me – it’s no good to me, no good to anyone probably – coastal scrub full of weeds and snakes. But it’s yours if you want it.”
"Well, I stand and think for a bit, then agree – I figured that land is land and until that point, I had none. So, he scrawls a note stating he’d transferred the deed to me, I sign, he signs and he hands me what does indeed look like a title to a piece of land. I beat a hasty retreat out of there, away from that gun and out here onto the highway, which by the way, was a dirt track Girly. I hitch a ride north and work my way to where this useless coastal scrub land is."
“And then what happened?” asked Eloise, completely enthralled.
“I met your grandmother and that was that,” laughed Joe. “You see, I arrived in this tiny town that’s listed on the Deed, still having no idea about anything, so I thought I’d better get some legal advice – you know, about the block. Where it was for a start! I go into the town’s solicitor office and at a fancy wooden desk is the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.”
Eloise smiled. She knew her grandparents had shared a life filled with love.
“But what about the block?” she pressed.
“Well, your grandmother made me wait for an appointment – I reckon she was checking me out while she typed, but eventually she shows me into the office and the solicitor sorts it all and gets me the address – if you could call it that – it was just a coastal scrubby paddock, but when I stood in it, knowing that beautiful girl was just down the road, I figured I’d stay awhile."
"So, with my shearing money and a few jobs here and there about the place, I managed to scrape together enough money to build a little house. When I wasn’t working, I cleared the weeds, made a bit of a path from the road to the front door and eventually, asked your grandmother out. We walked along the beach below my coastal scrubby paddock and that was that.”
He stared into the woolshed’s emptiness and Eloise smiled. A card game made it all happen. Before she could say anything else, Joe decided he’d done enough sharing and cleared his throat loudly.
“Righto Girly, you’ve had your story and I’ve had a trip down memory lane. Now it’s time to get going.” He stood up slowly and headed to the door.
Eloise helped him down the steps, pulled the door shut and turned towards the track. Joe was waiting patiently – looking tired.
“I’m not sure I can manage the gate again. You might find a spot in the fence that’s loose – you can push down the wires for me. Might be easier for you. And me,” he added.
Eloise nodded – she knew Grandpa Joe was putting on a brave face – his arthritis was probably causing a lot of pain. She wandered along until she found a loose section of wire and was indeed able to push it lower – Grandpa Joe would be able to step over with relative ease.
Back in the car, she turned to him. “Thank you for sharing that story. Why haven’t I ever heard it before?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Once we married and moved to Sydney, life became even more exciting, and the rest got left behind. It’s life, Girly. It gets lived, then left behind.” He gestured towards her handbag.
“Now, use that mobile phone of yours to find us a motel and Chinese takeaway at the next town. I’m starving.
It was several months later when Eloise thought of the woolshed again. The phone call – the one the family had been expecting but not wanting, came. Grandpa Joe had passed away, aged eighty.
Eloise, crying, sat and remembered the fence, the shed and the happiness in her grandfather’s face as he re-lived that card game.
The funeral - a few days later - was filled with love and celebration. Stories were shared, and memories recounted. But no one knew about the woolshed. It appeared it had only been told to Eloise. While she felt honoured, she wondered why.
A week later, the family gathered again – this time at the solicitor. Grandpa Joe had instructed his Will be read with all present. Eloise arrived just as the rest of the family had settled themselves at the boardroom table. Martin Arthurs, the family’s solicitor smiled.
“Eloise, I understand Joe talked to you about his coastal property and explained how he’d acquired it.”
Eloise looked up surprised. “Yes, he did. Do you know the story too?”
“I do,” he replied. “It was my father’s solicitor’s office that Joe stumbled into that very first day.”
“Well, well,” smiled Eloise. “So it is true. I’m so glad.”
“But now, down to business. Most of you have a basic understanding of Joe’s wishes with respect to his assets and how he was planning to bequeath them….”
Eloise stared into space and the solicitor’s voice faded. She was back in that shearing shed, listening to her Grandpa laugh about that card game and his fake whiskey. What an honour to have been the one entrusted with the story. Suddenly though, she was aware someone was speaking to her.
“Eloise, Eloise. Are you listening?” It was her mother, eyes bright, peering at her excitedly. She looked around the table. The entire family were staring at her.
“Sorry, I was just thinking about Grandpa.”
Martin Arthurs nodded. “I was just explaining that Joe has bequeathed his coastal property to you Eloise. That road trip you took with him left quite an impression it seems.”
Tears welled in her eyes. The sneaky old codger! Clambering over gates, grumbling about her driving, insisting on Chinese takeaway and now, giving her his precious property. She didn’t know what to say.
“Um, is it still his little cottage in a paddock?” she asked.
Martin Arthurs smiled and opened a file. Extracting some photos, he handed them to Eloise.
The family leaned over as Eloise gasped. “It looks like a series of little shearing sheds.”
The solicitor laughed. “In a way it is. Joe’s initial cottage was basically that – a shed built from corrugated iron and wooden floors. He said it reminded him of how he’d acquired the land. But then, once coastal living became popular, Joe decided to make the most of the five acres and built all those units. He was decades ahead of the times in terms of building design and community living. All those little houses have basically been full for forty years. They were completely renovated about ten years ago, so they are still in good condition with full occupancy. And now, they’re all yours.”
Eloise flicked through the photographs. The final photo was of her grandfather with another elderly fellow. It looked recent.
“Who is this?” she asked.
“The final chapter in Joe’s shearing shed adventure,” smiled Martin. “That’s the man who owned Dusty Plains when Joe shore there.”
“What’s he doing in the photo?”
“Well, it’s funny you should ask, because I have a letter here from Joe that he asked I read to you.” He cleared his throat.
That man in the photo is Richard Muirhead. He’s the man I beat at cards that night at the woolshed. I thought I’d never see him again, but one day he turned up on my verandah – this time with no gun but still the bottle of whiskey. He ranted a bit about how the bank’s taken his farm, he’s stony broke and now he wants his block of land back.
Me being me, I still believed a deal was a deal and that block was now mine. However, I could see he was in a bad way, so I reckoned I should help the poor fellow. I told him that I couldn’t give him my block, just like he couldn’t give me his farm, but that I was shortly heading to Sydney to live and that I’d needed a caretaker for my house.
Although drunk, he understood enough to know he was looking at a friend, probably the only one he had at that stage, so he nodded, and we shook on it. It turned out that Mr Muirhead’s one true love was whiskey, but he managed to take care of my house and block while my life went from strength to strength in Sydney with your grandmother. When I decided to build my units, it made sense Richard would stay on – he had nowhere else and one less unit on my rental list didn’t cause me problems. Somehow the whiskey hasn’t killed him, so he’s a grumpy old man like me and unless he’s fallen off a cliff somewhere in the last few weeks, is probably still sitting on his verandah watching the ocean.
He lives rent free in my original cottage for as long as he’s able. I figured, although he’d fleeced me, the whiskey had fleeced him more, so in my mind, we’re even. Take care of my units Girly and next time you’re driving past the Dusty Plains woolshed, climb that gate, pop in and say hello to Grandpa Joe.
Eloise smiled. “Shall do, Grandpa.”