Lydia arrived in the middle of nowhere on a hot summer's day. The sky was hazy and the air was dry. The sun beat down on fields that stretched as far as the eye could see, and the herds of cattle that occupied them barely looked up from their shelters to see who the newcomer was.
She stepped out of her Hyundai hatchback and lit a cigarette. Inhaled. It had been a long drive and she thanked Christ almighty she'd actually made it here. A kookaburra sounded and she cocked her head to listen to its cry. When had she last heard a kookaburra? It had to have been years.
There was an old weatherboard cottage perched on a circle of dry brown grass, and she made her way towards it. Cyril's house. Her father's bachelor brother. He was dying of cancer, and her Aunt, having lost patience with him after less than three weeks, had retreated to her home on the Sunshine Coast.
There was only one person in the family unencumbered by the responsibilities that came with having either a family or a standard job that could step in to care for Cyril. That person was Lydia. She'd promised to last two months. Cyril promised he wouldn't last more than one. They'd agreed to meet somewhere in the middle.
Lydia liked Cyril because he was a straight-talking, heavily-smoking misanthrope. He was her, in a fifty-six year old male body. And, she supposed, she was him, in a twenty-eight year old female body. From the moment she could talk on the phone, he'd called her the week before her birthday and asked what she wanted and, on the day, had delivered her requested gift. Her parents had been appalled. She'd been delighted.
Christmas bought extravagant amounts of money tucked inside cards he'd purchased from charities. They were good, solid cards. For years she'd kept a collection of them. She'd only binned them when she'd moved in with a man with an uncomfortably neat and clutter free house. She still regretted that - both the binning of the cards, and the cohabiting.
The door to the house opened and Cyril walked onto the front veranda. His two dogs stood by his side. They were good, working dogs. Friendly enough towards her, but not disobedient enough to run over for a pat.
'Lydia,' he greeted, a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. He looked tired and drawn, and his body was gaunt, but his blue eyes were as clear and inquisitive as ever.
'Long drive? How'd that little midget car of yours do?'
Lydia grinned. 'It's very fuel efficient, I'll have you know.'
Until three months ago, Cyril had been a truck driver. He'd driven the big rigs; B doubles and grain tippers and road trains, and he retained a mistrust of anything small or automatic. Lydia, whose car qualified on both accounts, was well used to the argument. They also bantered over the number of tattoos she had - 17 and counting - and the colour of her hair. Today, though, it seemed he was giving her a free pass on her hair and body.
'Bloody greenie,' Cyril sniffed dismissively.
Cyril's cattle farming had been a secondary career. He used to live in Toowoomba, having purchased a property in a neighbourhood which was once fairly rural but had become heavily residential over the years. The newer neighbours hadn't enjoyed having him park a truck in their street, and Cyril, annoyed at being effectively ousted by people who couldn't drive a car with manual transmission, let alone a prime mover, reacted by moving out to the country.
He bought several hundred acres of grazing country where he could park his truck in peace. He'd originally leased most of the land to farmers, but, annoyed at the price of beef, he'd decided to try his hand at raising a few cattle for private consumption in the paddocks closest to the house. The enterprise had grown since then. He now ran a hundred Droughtmasters.
It was pointless to add that Cyril also didn't hold vegetarians in high regard. Lydia, who had actually attempted veganism for an entire eleven months, agreed with him on this subject. Meat was a necessity.
Cyril took Lydia inside and made her a cup of coffee. He seemed awkward now they were alone together, as if he wanted to say something but wasn't quite sure where to start.
'So, what's the deal with looking after you?' Lydia asked. 'What do you need me to do?'
'Not much at the moment. Maybe help me with the cattle. It's getting harder to take care of them by myself. I have a young bloke come by and help me a few times a week, but he's got a job in Oakey as a mechanic and his own herd to look after, so I don't like to rely on him too much.'
Lydia had heard about the young bloke. Her Aunt Sarah had been dismissive of him. She'd made a comment or five about Dylan being more interested in Cyril's prize bull than Cyril's wellbeing. Lydia had privately thought it was ironic that someone who was interested in Cyril's entire estate would get so worked up over a bovine, but she'd kept this to herself.
'When do you need to see your doctor?' she asked.
'I need to go to the hospital weekly. That's a big trip, and it takes the better part of a day. I might go in for a few nights if the pain's getting too much, or I get sick. Everything knocks me around these days.'
Lydia surveyed the house. There was half a tray of mangos sitting on the bench, slowly fermenting. Above them hovered a cloud of black bugs. There was several days' worth of dishes in the sink, and the stovetop looked none too clean. Mentally, she added 'clean the house' to her list of chores.
'I go down to the local for a meal and a drink a few nights a week,' Cyril added. 'You're more than welcome to join me. Or, because I know you like your own time, you're more than welcome to have the evening at home by yourself.'
'Can you still drive?'
'I can, so long as I'm not going too far. I expect that'll change in the next while, but for now I'm fine.'
Lydia nodded. 'Okay.'
Cyril leaned across the table. 'Now don't you go worrying about what happens when it all gets too far advanced. I'm not going to die in a hospital. I have a tree picked, and a rope measured. I'll show you the area tomorrow. When the time comes, I'll leave you a note so you don't go worrying, and so you know where to find me. Got it?'
Lydia nodded again. 'Got it.'
Cyril visibly relaxed. 'Good. Because I can't tell my bloody sister that sort of shit and damned if I'm letting this get to the stage where I can't wipe my own arse.'