Romance novels would have had Lydia believe that there was a swathe of handsome thirty-something farmers waiting patiently for a sophisticated city woman to fall for the charms of country life.
This wasn't an accurate representation of country life. For starters, the farmers around here had an average age of fifty. Secondly, most were married. Thirdly, most of the locals, both male and female, did not view her as sophisticated, but as someone who was rather stupid and on the verge of inflicting serious injury upon herself.
They stopped her when she was jogging to let her know she was going to get heatstroke. In the past week she'd been questioned countless times about what she was doing. There hadn't been a single vehicle that had driven past her without pausing to inquire after her health.
The man at the feed store, after spending twenty minutes extracting her life story, had been appalled that she was wearing an old pair of running shoes when she went out to feed the cattle. He told her horrifying stories about melanomas being cut out of farmer's faces, and feet being mangled by cantankerous livestock.
He'd worked his way into such a frenzied soliloquy that she'd promised to go to the local clothing store and purchased work boots and an akubra. She now wore her newly purchased boots almost twenty-four seven. They were proving more useful than she'd anticipated.
Dylan, the local mechanic who came in to help Cyril with the cattle, took one look at her bumping down the dirt road to Cyril's house in her hatchback, and told her she was going to kill the shocks in her car. He also made a comment about the sound the brakes were making. He suggested she start borrowing Cyril's ute when she made trips around town.
Lydia lit a cigarette and shrugged. 'The car's dying, anyway. It's not even close to being roadworthy.'
'Do you want me to have a look at it?' he asked.
Dylan was built like a bull and hadn't shaved in a week. He had a good, thick head of hair and nice hazel eyes, but that was the end of his attributes. He was overweight, wore dirty blue shorts and a stained gray shirt, and the way he spoke to her suggested he thought she was a moron.
'No, it's fine,' she replied. 'I'll keep driving it until it dies.'
'Or until you write the damn thing off and kill yourself in the process.'
'That's a possibility,' she agreed. 'But I'm kind of hoping for a more glamorous death.'
He shook his head in disgust. 'It's your life.'
'Can't argue with women,' Cyril chimed in.
'Don't I know it,' Dylan agreed. 'But I keep trying.'
'You still arguing with the ex?' Cyril asked him.
'Hell hasn't frozen over yet, has it?'
The men laughed.
Lydia, on the other hand, mentally started re-writing the article she'd been sent for one of the journals she edited. It was a quality piece content-wise, but it was almost completely unreadable in it's current format. The problem was that the author was incredibly protective of his work. She couldn't let it go to print as it was, but on the other hand, she had to figure out how to communicate this to him without offending him.
'Lydia needs a husband,' Cyril offered. 'She's nearing thirty and she lives alone, works alone and has a cat. She wanted to bring the damn thing here, but I told her she'd have to leave it with her parents or the dogs'd end up tearing it apart. You two should go to the pub for dinner tonight. It's two-for-one schnitzel night.'
Dylan looked at her quizzically. 'What do you do for a living?'
'I'm an author and editor. Self-employed.'
'Is it true that authors use things from real life in their writing?' he asked curiously, his eyes quickly running over her figure.
She realised he was attracted to her. Christ. The first fucking person to have shown a whiff of interest in her in months and it just had to be him, didn't it? She decided to let him down gently.
She planted a smile on her face. 'Yeah, but don't worry, I don't write romance and even if I did, discount chicken schnitzels wouldn't be a feature.'
He grinned and blushed at the same time. Lydia found herself inexplicably amused by his response, and she grinned back, genuinely this time, and flicked her cigarette butt onto the ground.
'Stub that out. You'll start a bushfire,' Cyril barked.
'I thought you wanted me to organise schnitzels with your friend,' Lydia argued. She crushed it out, anyway. 'Seeing as, you know, you're the expert on long term relationships.'
Cyril's only long term relationship was a sex-for-money exchange with a local prostitute. She was forty years old and Thai. She'd come to the area fifteen years ago as the bride of a seventy year old geriatric, who'd died of a heart attack ten years into their union. She'd run through his money in record time and now supported herself by screwing lonely farmers. It seemed to be a reasonable trade, from what Lydia saw of it.
'I've told Dylan to give Suchada a call,' Cyril argued. 'But I don't think he likes the brown ones.'
'It's got nothing to do with skin colour.' Dylan pointed out. 'It's just that if I wanted to have sex with a woman who didn't want to have sex with me, I would've stayed married.'
Yeah, this was definitely no romance novel.
'So are you going to be helping?' Cyril asked her.
'What are you doing?'
'Moving about thirty head of cattle.' Cyril explained. 'The creek in their paddock is running low. It's been a hot summer.'
Until a few days ago, Lydia had always thought of cattle as peaceful creatures. They always looked so serene when they were in the paddock, munching on grass or staring at her with their large, dark, eyes. With the benefit of experience, she realised just how large and powerful they were. She'd kept her interactions with the cattle as infrequent as possible, and had always fed them from the other side of the fence.
'I can't imagine I'd be much help,' she replied, a hint of anxiety in her voice.
'You'll be fine,' Cyril argued. He didn't eat much, and he didn't seem to have much energy. It had been a shock to realise just how downhill he'd gone. He'd always been an incredibly hard-working, active man. 'They're not going to hurt you.'
Lydia felt guilty. She'd come here to help him, hadn't she? Not make excuses. 'Maybe I can give it a go, I guess, as long as the cows don't come too close to me,' she offered.
'They're placid,' Dylan said. 'We'll probably be able to move them just by showing them a bit of feed. Come with me. We can leave your Uncle here. We can always go back for him if we need.'
So Dylan had noticed how tired Cyril looked, too. Or maybe he was going to take her uncle's advice and hit on her. Lydia hoped it was the former.
'Okay,' she agreed. 'Lead the way.'
Cyril looked relieved. Lydia wondered if it had been his plan all along to have her help Dylan. Maybe the suggestion of two for one schnitzels had simply been to get them talking. Who knew?
At any rate, Dylan opened the passenger door to his ute and gestured for her to get in. The vehicle was a twenty year old Hilux with spotlights and antennas, and there was a dog sitting in prime position on the front passenger bench seat. It vaguely resembled a border collie, in the same way that her uncle's dogs vaguely resembled kelpies. Out here, function and performance seemed to rate much more highly than good looks.
Dylan whistled at the dog and gestured for him to move over. The dog reluctantly moved to the middle of the bench seat.
Lydia took the newly vacated spot and shut the door. She was wearing khaki shorts, her work boots, and a blue singlet. She could feel damp patches of sweat under her arms and down her back. Her bra was rubbing, too, but there was no way she was taking it off. God knows what sort of messages that would have sent.
'So how long are you staying with Cyril for?' Dylan asked as they drove off down a dirt track.
'Until he falls off the perch. He seems to think this is going to happen pretty quickly. I'm hoping it won't.' She patted the dog's chest and it licked her arm in gratitude. 'How long have you been helping him out?'
'Six, nine, months? He loans me his bull each year, so I've known him for a few years. He just rang me one day, out of the blue, and said he was feeling a bit under the weather and did I want a few hours work? I'm in the midst of a divorce so any extra cash comes in handy. It kinda just went from there.'
'Have to pay the lawyers,' she commiserated.
'Yep. It was all finalised six months ago. No kids, thank God. You?'
'No kids. I was trying, she was on the pill.' He pulled up at a gate. 'You want to go out and open that and let me through? Just close it after us.'
She slid out. The backs of her legs were wet with sweat and she tried to discreetly remove a wedgie and straighten her shorts.
Dylan looked unbothered by the heat. She supposed he was used to it. She wasn't. Her days at home were spent indoors, in the air conditioning, in her small flat. She thought longingly about her flat. The privacy. The coolness. The isolation. When she was inside her tiny study, tapping away at her laptop, there was no one to interrupt her and when she was sick of her own company, she could walk down the road to a cafe and pick up a coffee. Or, more realistically, she could walk to the bottleshop and buy booze.
There was no air conditioner in Cyril's house, and at night she'd lie on top of damp sheets in her underwear, watching the ancient fan blades spin around. Between the heat and her average blood alcohol content, it was a surprise she didn't spontaneously combust.
The ute passed through the gates. She shut them and returned to the passenger seat. The dog was as unperturbed by the heat as his owner, and he rested his hot, sweaty body against hers. Her skin prickled.
'What happened with the old bird that was looking after your uncle?' Dylan asked.
'My Aunt? She got the shits and left. Said something about Cyril wanting to leave his money to charity.'
'She used to bail me up about Reggie. That's the bull, Reggie. She thinks I'm going to pinch him.'
Lydia grinned. 'Are you?'
'No, but I've made the offer to buy him. Cyril said he'll think about it.'
They drove to the paddock where the cattle were currently residing. They stared at the ute, before returning to chewing their grass. Dylan jumped up on to the back of the ute and emptied pellet feed into two buckets. He took the feed and his dog into the paddock, gesturing for Lydia to follow. She hurried after him.
'We're going to open that gate there,' he gestured. 'We'll try and bribe them with food, and Ben will give them a bit of a nudge from behind. With any luck, they'll just amble on through.'
'And in a worst case scenario?'
'Keep away from them, particularly if they start running.'
'Jesus.' She could feel the blood draining from her face. 'How likely is that to happen?'
'Not very. As I said, they're placid. They're used to humans.'
The cattle did as Dylan had suggested they would. A few steers realised a better sort of food was on offer and happily followed him through the gate. The dog got the remainder moving in the right direction, and within twenty minutes, the job was done.
Lydia leaned on the fence and smoked a cigarette while Dylan moved his ute over and emptied the remainder of the bag of feed into a trough.
'So why did this need to be a two person job?' she asked.
Dylan leaned against the fence next to her. 'It was never a two person job, but if your Uncle tells himself it is, it means that he's got a reason for calling me in, and a reason to be out here helping me.'
They watched the cattle eat.
'So, what else are you doing while you're here?' Lydia asked.
'I'm going to cut some hay.'
Lydia dropped her cigarette butt and crushed it. 'You better take me back. I have some editing I need to do.'
He nodded. 'Okay. You want a drink first? I've got an esky in the tray of the ute.'
'I'd love one.'
She'd have loved a gin and tonic more, but the water he offered her was cold and clear. Wherever it was he lived, she knew he must be on tank water. She wondered about the ex-wife. I was trying, she was on the pill. That would have sucked. Almost as much as it sucked to find out your husband was cheating on you with a thirty-two year old waitress who was married with two kids. They were a couple now, her ex and the waitress. From what she heard, the waitress was pregnant.
As they drove back, she looked around his ute. It was filthy, and the passenger floor was littered with Coke cans. A packet of cigarette papers were lying, opened, on the dash. They didn't look old, and he didn't seem to be a cigarette smoker, so she wondered who was supplying him. Maybe he grew it himself.
When they arrived back at the house, he asked if she was seeing anyone.
'No,' she replied, hopping out. 'I'm not really in the mood for relationships, you know?'
She turned around and tried to discreetly pick out another bloody wedgie as she walked away. He wasn't her type, but at least he'd been good enough to ask politely.