Janet Newman

The Earth Below

Will stands in the concrete pit surrounded by cows and machinery. He has been here since long before dawn, eye level with eight hundred udders, swelled and pink turned to baggy folds of skin.

Outside, warm hides press inside a ring of rails. The herd moves slowly forward, sending clouds of steam under starry lights.

Inside, rubber cups suck and squeeze. Steel pipes lead to glass bowls swirling liquid white. The constant pumping fills two silver vats, tall as trees, with milk.

He rushes the last of the cows, catches a slosh of warm urine in his haste, curses, hits out at a thin hard leg. His fist jars. He wrenches the cups off before they drain mixing white splodges with the tang, yellow shower.

At last, he steps into the pale dawn. Earlier, he had felt the stars eyeing him meanly. Now they are gone and he is standing alone in the light.

He eases gratefully behind the Valiant’s steering wheel, cranks up the heater and the radio, turns onto the road.

To the east, dairy flats butt craggy mountains, to the west they meet the sea. Hectares of rye, clover and fescue glint in the early light. Post and batten fences stretch over hills and dips, their symmetry broken by untidy rows of macrocarpa hacked to fence height then left to bow and break. Solitary cabbage trees and flax bushes down by drains are the only remembrance of a bush-clad past on this plain of rippling grass.

Every few kilometres, small wooden sheds sag, empty or stuffed with hay. These are the old milking sheds. Once, they belonged to men like Will’s grandfather, Sandy, who milked seventy brown Jersey cows, each with a name. Now, great herds of black and white Friesians cross the emerald plains towards metallic rotary sheds that lie like beached fish against the solemn earth.

Will turns into the parking lot at the back of the supermarket, backs the trailer up to the row of blue plastic containers. He empties each bin carefully until the load of rotten fruit, vegetables and mouldy bread is level with the top of the tailgate. Driving steadily back to the shed, a dark trail of decay drips onto the empty road behind.

Five squealing Landrace weaners push pierced pink noses against wooden rails as he reverses into their muddy paddock. He slews the scraps onto the ground with a rectangle of wood nailed to a broom handle, drives out, opens the latch. The pigs push roughly through the gap.

The driver’s seat is still warm as he slides back behind the wheel. He thinks of Maria. This morning, restless with fever, she woke at the sound of his alarm. He leant over and whispered into her hot ear, “I’ll be back early.” She shook her head in disbelief.

It is eight o’clock and she is still coughing up phlegm, cheeks red and flushed, the baby latched to her breast, three-year-old Lucy asleep in her lap, small feet nestled into a pile of folded washing slipping gently off the end of the couch.

“Hey babe,” he says, resting a hand on her bright neck. She smiles up at him and they kiss. Her skin is pale without makeup. He remembers her flawless face when she worked in the cosmetics department at the chemist. Now, he likes seeing the freckles on her cheeks.

They met when he came back to help Sandy shift into town.

It wasn’t a shift so much as a wrench. He seemed pleased Will had come but there was no consoling the old man. It was all about milk volume now, he sneered, as the trucks taking his cows to the meat works rattled down the drive.

Most of his neighbours sold out years ago but Sandy clung to the belief that hard work would not go unrewarded. And he had done alright. Ralph Sedge paid a good price for the farm. The money would keep him comfortable for years. But he wasn’t used to comfort or to a life without the constant call of stock and pasture.

He moved into the war veterans’ home. Each day he sat in the low-slung chair by the window staring out at the row of pine trees along the boundary fence beside the new subdivision. It was the same chair he had eased into after each milking. Will brought it out from the farmhouse. The arms were still shiny from the constant rub of his arms and the headrest had a permanent hollow from the shape of his head. But it was too wide for him now. He wallowed in its bigness.

When Will was a child, he visited Sandy’s farm each summer. He loved squirting warm milk into his mouth from a teat fat as a finger, feeling it rush against his tongue and gums.

After he met Maria, he drifted into a job as a milker for Ralph Sedge. He had no argument with the man, though Sandy scowled at the mention of his name.

When Rory was born, Ralph said he could have one of the old farmhouses, a freezer full of meat, just take care of the power and the phone and maybe buy a dehumidifier on account of the mildew. It was an offer he was in no position to refuse though he choked when Ralph said it was Sandy’s old house. He hardly recognised it. A weatherboard shell.

“I’ll go,” he says, eating bacon, eggs, toast, drinking a mug of black tea. It was Maria’s turn to provide transport for the school trip but he didn’t mind. He hadn’t been to the city for years and Ralph owed him for weekends he worked because the relief milker didn’t show.

He slides back behind the wheel of the Valiant, Rory beside. At school, another two boys pile into the back, bags chucked in the boot.

The boys chat quietly. Will cocks his ear, curious about the private life of his son, catches talk of motorbikes, stories about riding four-wheelers in house paddocks, 7-year-olds swapping yarns like old timers.

The sun is high, the sky pale and clear. When they reach the bays there is quiet apart from the burr of the engine and hum of tyres. They round the bend hugged tight against the cliff and the windscreen fills with blue.

He sucks in his breath.

The expanse of water stretches like a sheet to seam with the brilliant sky. It is nothing like the moody countryside.

He likes the clean look of it, feels like stretching out his arms, would like to run out onto that wide top, to skip and jump until he falls through and down into the weightless silence. Sometimes he feels like cracking through the grey, wet concrete floor of the shed, sinking into the still dampness beneath, leaving behind the clickety clack jiggety jig suck swish swirl, the incessant line of humid cows, the green pasture.

The road turns inland, away.

As they near the city, grey clouds bundle over high-rises. Raindrops splatter the windscreen. The clouds and buildings press inwards. He parks and walks single file with the boys through a congestion of people and umbrellas.

In the cable car, Mrs Bartlett tells Rory and those two boys sitting in the seat behind to turn their caps round to the front and do it smartly. Will stands holding the pole beside two empty seats. He steps back when a woman in a brown trench coat brushes past.

They eat lunch huddled out of the rain under the covered area at the top of the hill. Will wanders to the edge, peers down, notices even the steep sides are mown. The children form lines on the grass.

“We’re going now, Mr Timbull,” Mrs Bartlett calls. He joins the end of the line, ambles along the narrow concrete path behind the chattering children.

He had imagined a vast domed structure but the observatory is a small, ordinary building set squarely on the side of the hill. The children line up in front of Mrs Bartlett and the parents stand in a companionable huddle on the grass. Will toys with the spiky leaves of a young tōtara tree. He looks at his watch. Nearly time to get the cows in. He feels like a kid wagging.

Mrs Bartlett says, “Parents, please space yourselves amongst the children to stop any fooling around.” 

Inside, it is like a movie theatre with reclining seats. He had imagined something bigger, something immense. The stars are pinpricks on the ceiling. The only shape he knows is the pot, three stars in a straight line the handle, two bright stars and a little one for the corners. It follows him indifferently across the farm each morning as the bike stutters behind the line of cows. The other stars seem to have been splattered at random, handfuls of light thrown into the air and stuck in splashes and puddles. They make different shapes depending on your point of view but are fixed, locked in place, destined to stay and shine.

It is comfortable leaning back in the seats and he falls asleep, waking at the sound of Mrs Bartlett scolding two girls to his right for giggling in the dark. He follows the children into the pale outside light. They make their way back to the cars.

When they reach the bays the light is dim, the sea grey, big as before but dull and uneven. The white tops of waves pound the rocks. His ears fill with roaring. The uncompromising sea. Its constant rising and falling against rocks that seem to sink and swim, to rest, to dive, to reappear fresh and wet then drown again. He is glad to drive past. This mass of energy and motion is too big for him.

He turns his eyes back to the road, away from the murky depths, drives until the countryside is moody brown, green and gold, the colours of the earth. He drives back to the familiar routine: the alarm in the morning when the world still sleeps, when the stars—hard frosty bulbs—follow him behind the line of cows into the belly of the shed. Back to the home where the baby cries and sucks in the house that smells of warmth, humidity and milk. Back to the small room by the pine trees that smells of lukewarm hospital food and the life going out of his grandfather. Back to the life where he has been flung.

Maria and Lucy are snuggled in the double bed like spoons, the baby in the bassinet beside. The sounds of their breaths mix with the warm smell of sleep. He slides between the sheets, reaches an arm up to the window, pushes it open. The stars stare down at him, flinty as stones.

Janet Newman

Janet Newman has a PhD in creative writing from Massey University for her thesis entitled ‘Imagining Ecologies: Traditions of Ecopoetry in Aotearoa New Zealand.” Her poetry, reviews, essays and short stories have been published in a variety of journals. Her poetry manuscript, ‘Unseasoned Campaigner,’ was a runner-up in the 2019 Kathleen Grattan Award and is forthcoming from Otago University Press.