Sarah Taylor took a deep breath of the chilly late-autumn air and wrapped her coat tighter around her as she dropped coins into the parking meter outside the hospital. It was much colder here in Dunedin than it had been in Wellington, and in the few years she’d been away, her body had adjusted to the warmer weather. Southern New Zealand wasn’t all that far away from Antarctica and right now she could tell as the freezing air whipped through her, chilling her to the bone.
She bit back a yawn. She’d driven through the night to get here, with only a brief sleep on the ferry ride across Cook Strait, and Harriet, her bright orange Suzuki Swift, wasn’t the most comfortable car in the world to drive. Especially not on the narrow, winding mountain pass that had barely enough room to avoid the trucks that made her little car shake as they went barrelling past. The mountain road had not been designed for the volume of traffic that it was currently withstanding since the earthquake had shut the main arterial route, and the journey south had been hair-raising, to say the least. What she needed was caffeine and a good sleep, not a visit with her father who was grumpy at the best of times and would undoubtedly be like a bear with a sore head now.
The automatic doors opened at her approach. Her mother, Karen, met her in the hospital foyer, looking pale and wrung out, with dark circles under her eyes. But despite her obvious exhaustion, her arms were strong as she drew Sarah in for a warm embrace.
“Thank you for coming,” she said quietly.
“Did you think I wouldn’t?”
Karen sighed and looked away. “I know you and your father aren’t the best of friends,” she conceded.
Sarah snorted. That was an understatement!
“But he’s still your father, and he does love you, in his own way.”
“Yeah.” Sarah didn’t believe it, but if it made her mum feel better, she’d pretend she did.
As she followed her mother through the maze of long corridors, she wondered why she’d come, really. Would her father appreciate her efforts? Or would he brush them aside, like he normally did? Ever since Jason’s death, she got the impression that her father would rather she’d never existed.
Sarah took a deep breath as she trailed her mother into the hospital room and up to the bed where her father lay. He was a mess; his face and what she could see of his body were badly bruised, there were tubes everywhere, and a machine blipped and beeped next to his bed, monitoring something, but she wasn’t sure what.
“Hello, Dad.” She injected a warmth into her voice that she didn’t feel, and sat down on the bed beside him. She picked up his hand, being careful of the needle stuck into the back of it, and held it gently in her own.
“You took your time coming,” her father rasped, his voice hoarse.
The lack of affection in his words didn’t surprise her, but they still stung. Not even a greeting, just launching straight into the criticisms… nice one, Dad. But she didn’t expect anything else, not really.
“I came as soon as I could,” Sarah stated softly, trying to be patient. “It takes a bit longer now, you know, with the road through Kaikoura shut.” She sighed. “Anyway, it’s only been what… two days? Not even that.”
“She’s here now, Jack, that’s all that matters,” Karen soothed.
Her father just grunted and closed his eyes. She studied him; his face was weathered and lined, he seemed to have aged so much just in the few years she’d been gone. He was no longer the fit, strong man she remembered from her childhood. The years of hard work and the grief and anguish that he’d endured was written into every crease on his face. He didn’t look frail exactly, but he definitely looked older.
Releasing her grip on her father’s hand, Sarah placed it gently down on the bed, tucked softly against his body.
“Anyway, you just concentrate on getting better,” she told him, trying to force an encouraging tone into her voice. “I can take care of everything at home for as long as you need.”
Jack’s eyes flew open violently. “You? Don’t be stupid.” His voice, although raspy, was strong, and his tone was cold.
You won’t even give me a chance, will you? You’ll never forgive me. She couldn’t help the bitterness that sprang up inside her at her father’s rejection. But she blinked back the tears that stung her eyes and forced a cheery smile to her face.
“Someone’s going to need to feed the dogs, though, aren’t they? I can do that.”
“And a fine job you’ll do of it, too,” Karen chimed in, far too cheerily. Sarah tensed as her mother touched her shoulder. “Come on now, love, he’s tired, let him sleep. I’ll walk you out.”
Back in the foyer, the sadness on her mother’s face gave Sarah chills. “How long can you stay for?” she asked.
Sarah shrugged. She couldn’t stay at all, not if she wanted to pass this semester. She’d wanted to be a vet since she was a little girl. And the more days she missed, the harder it would be for her to pass.
“Because your father is going to be in hospital for a very long time,” Karen said, her tone serious. “It’s likely he’ll be paralyzed from the chest down. They won’t know that for certain for a few days, but it’s not looking good.” Her mother’s voice sounded strangled, but she kept talking. “Even when he’s out of hospital, there’s going to be months of rehab. He’ll never return to the farm, Sarah.”
Her mind was awhirl as she watched her mum dab at her eyes with a crumpled lace hanky. Paralyzed churned around and around in her brain as she struggled to come to terms with what she’d just heard.
She swallowed hard. “Oh.” No more words would come, she was speechless. But her father’s prognosis changed everything. Her old man had always seemed infallible; immortal, almost. But he wasn’t. Her heart broke, thinking of the effect his paralysis would have on her hardworking, physically active father. It would destroy him. It would destroy him even more than Jason’s death had. But her staying here wouldn’t change things. She may as well go back to Uni and get on with her life.
“What’s the point, Mum?” Her voice broke, her breath catching in her throat. “He doesn’t want me here.”
“You know that’s not true,” Karen insisted. “He just deals with his grief differently than we do.”
“He still blames me for Jason’s death, you mean.”
Karen didn’t argue, she just sighed and looked down. When she met Sarah’s gaze again, there were tears in her eyes. Sarah blinked back her own tears. Truth be told, she did feel some sense of responsibility for Jason’s death, but guilt was never going to bring her brother back. He was gone. They all had to move on.
“What you do is up to you, of course, but I wanted you to know the truth of your father’s condition before you make any decisions.”
Sarah shook her head slowly. She couldn’t even think. Not right now; she was too tired and still shocked. “Okay,” she mumbled, but it wasn’t. Not really. Nothing was okay at all.
It was mid-morning by the time the sunlight filtering through the curtains woke her up. Her stomach growled; when was the last time she’d had a decent meal? She’d stopped at the petrol station for a pie on the way home from the hospital, and before that… her mind drew a blank. She’d been too exhausted to do anything last night except crawl into the bed she’d hastily thrown together in what had been her old bedroom, but it had taken a long time before sleep had claimed her. What her mother had told her about the state of her father’s health kept tumbling over and over through her mind.
She’d been too tired to even bring her suitcase in from the car last night so she’d slept in her undergarments and as soon as her feet hit the floor she pulled yesterday’s clothes on over the top of them to combat the chill. Despite the sun, the air was cold. Throwing back the curtains, she looked out the window, onto her mother’s garden and beyond it, to the stretch of green farmland that didn’t seem to end. She felt a smile slowly creep across her face. She was home.
These fertile hills could grow anything, including the fragile sense of belonging that was beginning to bud inside her again. It was a long time since she’d felt anything like it. Not for the rolling green hills that had been in her family for generations, not for her coldly distant father… not since before Jason’s death. Her gaze drifted to the woolshed and the yards, now standing empty, but hosting so many memories. Millions of sheep had passed through those rails; even as a kid she’d been out there helping push the woolly creatures up, rattling her tin dog for all she was worth, the smell of sheep dags permeating through her. Opening the window, she inhaled deeply. If she closed her eyes and concentrated, she could still smell the pungent odour now.
He’s not coming back to the farm. Her mum’s prediction turned the warmth of the early morning sunshine instantly cold. What was she going to do? Last night, her first reaction had been to return to the capital, finish her degree, become a vet, follow her dreams. But now… right now, in the light of day, surveying the land that ran deep in her blood, she was so much more uncertain. Her great-great-grandfather had cleared the scrub from this place by hand, with the help of his team of horses. Her great-great-grandmother had raised her children here, and her grandchildren. With little ones clinging to her skirts she’d grown the food to feed her family while her husband cleared and farmed the land. The Taylors had worked hard and flourished here, ever since they’d disembarked the ship that had brought them out from England all those years ago. She’d grown up here, with her brother. And now she was the only one left. How could she turn her back on all she’d ever known? Her mother hadn’t said as much, but to her, it was obvious: without her father running this place, it would have to be sold. She couldn’t let that happen.
Closing the window against the cold, she shook her head, then turned away and headed off in search of breakfast.
Sarah spent the rest of the day with the dogs, checking the stock in the old red farm Hilux that had seen better days, making sure the animals all had enough grass and that the troughs were working properly, and checking the horses. She laughed out loud at the young colts stamping their feet and rearing, challenging her to a battle. They’d need to be broken in soon. At least that was one thing she’d be able to do—she’d been helping her mum break in horses for as long as she could remember. Backing a young horse for the first time was as natural to her as breathing. Stretching her hand out, she smiled as the nearest colt sniffed it, his whiskers tickling her palm, then he snorted and backed up nervously as she stroked the velvety muzzle. Looking around at the land she’d grown up on, she smiled. Being with the horses was good for her soul.
She’d have to go and see her dad tomorrow, if for no other reason than to appease her mum. Karen expected her to play the part of dutiful daughter, so she’d do her best. Anyway, she had a whole list of questions to ask him; different things had sprung to mind as she was driving over the farm. She might have grown up here, and helping with the sheep and horses was second nature to her, but not once had she actually been taught how to run the place. She’d never taken part in any decision-making process—her father had never believed farming was an occupation for a lady, and truthfully, she’d had no desire to learn. Besides, Jason was going to take over the farm one day. Just like their father had, and his father before him, and his father before him… it was tradition.
Though she dreaded the impending conversation, her father’s cutting resentment, his complete lack not just of forgiveness but of faith in her abilities to do… well, anything, Sarah knew she had no choice. There were huge gaps between what she knew how to do and the many things that truly needed to be done.
With one last look around the farm, she headed back to the house.
Sarah shivered as she fed coins into the parking meter outside the hospital once again. The heater in Harriet was more efficient than she’d realised and now the stark contrast of the chilly outside air was shocking. Clutching the notebook she’d scrawled the questions in that she needed to ask her father, she stuffed her keys deep into the pocket of her coat and headed for his hospital room. It felt horrible, going to meet her father like this, with dread lodged in the pit of her stomach, bracing herself with every step for the barrage of negativity she knew she would meet. Even in hospital, with his life changed forever, visiting with her father should be a happy occasion. It had always used to be, before the accident. But after that, everything had changed. She found herself more and more dividing life into two parts—’before’ and ‘after’ Jason’s death. ‘Before’ had been better, in every single way. Life without her brother was tough. They’d been close and she missed him. That’s why she’d gone to Wellington to University, instead of staying at home and going to Otago like she could have done—she wanted to move on with her life, she wanted a fresh start. But now she was back, and her father’s bitterness was holding her, them all, hostage in the past.
Forcing a cheery smile, she pushed open the door to the small private room of the hospital ward. Both her parents looked up when she entered; her mother smiled warmly, but her father scowled. Although half expecting it, to be greeted with such open hostility stabbed at her heart like a knife.
“What do you want?” he growled.
Sarah winced. “To see you, obviously. Is that not allowed?”
Her father grunted in response.
“And I have some questions about the farm. The stock.”
“I said, leave it. Just leave it all be. You can’t run that place, you’re bloody useless. You have no idea what you’re doing. You were never much good on the farm, always off in your own little world, dreaming about something or other.”
She felt her face pale as her father’s hurtful words sank in. She hadn’t been prepared for outright hostility. Her chest tightened and her mouth fell open in shock but when she tried to speak, no words came out. Tears stung the back of her eyes, but she blinked them back. She refused to let them fall in front of her father.
She took a deep breath, forcing air into her lungs, doing her best to pretend his words had no effect on her.
“So you want the animals to starve to death?” Squaring her shoulders, she fixed her father with a steely glare but she was met with silence.
“What do you suggest should happen to the farm then, Dad?”
Jack looked at her then, cold fury in his stare. “Jason should be running the place. And he would be, too, if you’d been where you should have been.”
“But Jason’s not here, is he?” she snarled through clenched teeth, every nerve and sinew in her body taut with anger.
“No, he’s not, thanks to you.”
Closing her eyes, Sarah willed her temper under control. He’s tormented with grief, she reminded herself, as she’d done so many times before. He doesn’t mean anything by it. For years, she’d been excusing her father’s bad behaviour by remembering how badly he’d been affected by Jason’s death. It was second nature to her now, dismissing the hurtful words, the unfair accusations that spewed from his mouth. He’d once been such a kind man, a loving father, but the man he was now was so far removed from the man he’d been then that he was unrecognisable.
She opened her clenched fists, flexing her fingers, forcing the muscles in her hands to relax. Taking a deep breath, she exhaled slowly through her nostrils, then did it again, feeling the tension slowly leave her body. The seconds felt like minutes as the hot fury that raged through her slowly cooled.
When she was calm enough to not punch anything, she eyeballed her father. “Your sheep, your cows, all of them, have about a day before they run out of grass. Now are you going to tell me what I need to do for them or not?”
“Fine.” She choked out the word, feeling as though her heart had been ripped out of her chest and trampled to shreds. Without looking back, she left the room, wiping away tears of frustration on her sleeve. She was trying, she was trying so hard. Couldn’t he give her any credit?
If he wanted to be like that, so stubborn and pig-headed, she was done. She’d go back to the farm tonight and open all the gates, give the animals as much of a chance as possible, before packing her stuff and returning to Wellington. Back to her flat and the flatmates who had become good friends; back to Uni, back to following her dreams. Her father could go to hell.
It had felt so right to be back on the farm. She’d actually felt like she was where she belonged. But clearly, she’d been wrong. It was breaking her heart, knowing she had to leave already, but with her father’s bitterness as strong as it was, there was no way she could stay.
She hadn’t noticed her mum had followed her out, but she felt the warmth of her gentle hand on her shoulder now. Angrily, she shrugged it off. Her mother hadn’t stood up for her in there, in front of him, what was the point of her trying to make peace now?
“I’ll go back to Wellington tomorrow,” she announced.
Her mother shook her head. “Please stay, just for a bit.” There was no mistaking the pleading in her voice, or in her eyes, but Sarah shook her head.
“Why? You heard him. He doesn’t want me running the place, he made that obvious. He doesn’t think I can do it and he doesn’t want me to try. He could help me, tell me what to do, but he won’t. It’s like he wants to see me fail, see the farm fail.”
“You know that’s not true.”
“Oh, it is so!” Sarah insisted, her voice raised. “Stop sticking up for him! We all miss Jason, but what good is his bitterness? Is he going to hold a grudge forever?”
The look of pain in Karen’s eyes twisted the knife in her heart again, and Sarah lowered her voice, softening her tone. “I can’t run the farm, not without his help, and he’s not willing to help me. I may as well go back to Uni now, and try to pass this semester, while I still can.”
Her mum placed a hand on her shoulder again, and this time Sarah didn’t shrug it off, but the tension remained stiff in her shoulders. She knew her mum could feel it too.
“Your blood runs thick in that place,” Karen said. “You’re the only one left.”
“Don’t turn your back on it now. This isn’t just about your father. That land, it’s all we’ve got left of Jason. That farm is where he is.” Karen’s voice broke and her hand went to her mouth.
At the mention of Jason, Sarah’s mind drifted back to that awful day; the day they’d said goodbye to her brother. She remembered scattering his ashes, releasing them into the wind from the highest point on the farm, and watching as the tiny particles of what remained of her brother floated away, drifting over the rolling hills of home, finally coming to rest in the paddocks Jason had loved. Once the ashes had settled, they’d dissolved into the ground, never to be seen again, but Sarah knew they were there, mingling with the ashes of many generations of Taylors past. Karen was right—Jason was a part of the farm.
She blinked back tears. She would not cry. Not here. “I’ll think about it.”
Her mother hugged her, but she was too stiff and tense to return the hug. She hurt too much, she was in too much pain, inside, to show affection.
“Thank you,” Karen whispered.
Your blood runs thick in this place. Her mum’s words echoed in her mind the whole way home. Try as she might to turn her thoughts to other subjects, she couldn’t get the image of her ancestors out of her head. Those strong, tough pioneer men and women who had gone before her, working the land by hand. She remembered the old scythe still hanging up in the shed. They’d used it for cutting hay, once. Even now, with a tractor just a few years old, it took them days to cut and bale the hay. How long had it taken them with a scythe?
The first thing she did when she got home was to fish the old photo albums out of the back of the bookshelf, sneezing as dust billowed up around her. It had been years since anyone had looked at them, but once, these pictures of history had been family treasures. The photos had been tattered and worn, the edges ripped and torn, long before her mother had painstakingly catalogued them into leather-bound albums to preserve them.
Carrying them to the table, Sarah smiled as she flipped the first heavy book open and ran her finger across the plastic-covered page, as though conjuring up the spirits of her ancestors. Although she’d never met any of these people, she knew who they were. Back in their happier days, her dad had told her about them, told her all the stories, and of the history their farm held. She remembered sitting on his knee, her on the left, Jason on the right, as he entertained them with stories of their ancestors, some funny, some sad. Life had been different back then, but her father had made the people seem so alive.
She flipped through the albums, one after the other, as the remembered stories told themselves in her head. She looked up at the ceiling—the Rimu tongue and groove timber her great-great-grandfather had cut and milled on the farm at the end of the nineteenth century. The old villa had undergone extensive renovations since its original construction but the beautiful timber ceiling had remained.
Karen was right—her blood ran deep in this place. And Jason was here. How could she just up and leave it, and hand it over to strangers?
Sarah barely slept. She alternated tossing and turning with lying flat on her back and staring at the ceiling, trying to make sense of her scrambled thoughts. When the sun first peeked over the horizon, casting a golden glow over the rolling hills, she reluctantly clambered out of bed feeling like she’d been run over by a truck.
Standing at the kitchen window, looking out over the farm as she sipped her hot coffee, her hands wrapped around the mug to keep them warm, reality hit her.
What the hell are you doing? her rational mind asked. You have no idea how to run a farm. You don’t even know how to drive the tractor! Shaking her head in despair, she tipped the last of the coffee down the sink. The taste of it suddenly made her feel sick as fear lodged deep in the pit of her stomach. Last night, buoyed up by the spirits of her ancestors and memories of her brother, she’d been determined to make a go of things here. But now, in the stark light of day, she realised what a ridiculous decision that was. There was no way she could do this alone.
After spending most of the morning on the phone, trying to muster up some assistance from the local farmers, reality looked even worse. Although the small farming community had been tight-knit and supportive when she’d been growing up, since Jason’s death, her father had managed to alienate every single one of their neighbours, and none of them were willing to help her. She shook her head sadly. Her father was a broken man; far more broken than she had realised. Men her father had known forever had turned their back on him, after he went crazy with grief and turned mean.
“Damn, this is a mess.” The cat looked up at the sound of her voice, then obviously deciding she was unimportant, resumed its lazy ritual of washing its paws.
Walking through the house in a daze, she stared out the windows without seeing, opened and closed cupboard doors without looking for anything in particular. The world was closing in on her. She didn’t know what to do.
She stopped outside the closed door of the bedroom that used to be Jason’s. Her heart stopped momentarily and she couldn’t breathe. Gingerly, she reached out and twisted the handle, pushing gently, hoping the door would be locked and prevent her from entering, but it swung open easily. She was trembling too much to let go of the door frame so she stood there at the threshold, unable to breathe, while her eyes darted around the room. All his things were still there. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought he’d just popped out for a bit and was coming back soon; his sunglasses were still sitting in the middle of his roughly made bed, Metallica posters still lined the walls, and his swimming trophies still held pride of place along the top shelf above his books and CD collection. His room was exactly as he’d left it; exactly as she remembered it always being. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to come in here since the accident, and hadn’t known what she would find. And now, as she looked around, she felt his presence strongly. Maybe it was her imagination, but seeing all Jason’s things just as he’d left them made her feel close to him. She wanted to touch everything, to pick them up, to feel them, to hold his clothes against her cheek and breathe in the scent of him that she hoped would still be there, even after all this time. But she couldn’t bring herself to do any of that. She couldn’t even stay in here; it felt like she was intruding.
Stumbling back out of his room, she pulled the door closed behind her and then slid down it, feeling the solidness of the wood against her back as wretched sobs racked her body. Hugging her knees, she buried her face in her forearms, letting loneliness, grief, and guilt overwhelm her. She missed Jason so much. She stayed there like that for a long time, tears of desperation and sorrow dampening patches on her pants. But finally, she pulled herself together and stood up, drying her tears with the back of her hand. Taking a deep breath, she strode purposefully towards her father’s office. She had one more phone call to make, and hopefully it would be enough. She had a farm to save.
Seated in her father’s swivelly black leather office chair at his antique oak desk, Sarah flicked through Jack’s old contacts book, trying to find the phone number of the elderly man who was her last hope. If he wouldn’t help her either, she didn’t know what she would do.
“Aha!” Holding the little book open and marking the spot with her finger, she picked up the phone and dialled. It rang and rang, before a raspy, vaguely familiar voice finally answered.
Sarah took a deep breath and crossed her fingers before she spoke, fighting to keep her voice steady. “Bert? It’s Sarah Taylor, Jack’s daughter. I wonder if you would be willing to help me?”
As the old man talked, the tension slowly drained out of Sarah’s shoulders. Her fingers uncrossed of their own accord and her breathing slowed and evened out as relief flooded through her. Help was coming. Bert was old, but there wasn’t much he didn’t know about farming. He was too past it to do much, but he could talk her through the stuff that couldn’t wait.
A smile lit up her face as she put the phone back in its cradle.
“Things might finally be looking up,” she announced to the cat, still curled up in his favourite chair, as she went past to get her boots on. “Bert’s going to get me through this next week, at least. That’s good, right?”
After opening one eye briefly to look at her in disdain, the cat went back to sleep. “I wish I could join you,” Sarah muttered, rubbing her eyes. They burned with exhaustion, but sleep would have to wait. Right now, there were more important things to take care of.