“Ladies and Gentlemen, a big round of applause please, for the under 13 years Girl Riders, now circling the ring. Leading the group is the winner, Joanne Harper, on her pony Sunbeam. Second is…”
From her seat in the rickety wooden grandstand, Carol watched the winner trot very sedately around the arena. Once safely through the gate, Joanne Harper’s control vanished. She flung herself to the ground and wrapped her arms around her pony’s neck. A smiling woman, her mother, received a quick hug too, but the pony got most of the little girl’s kisses, because the pony was the best thing in the whole world! Carol knew, because a long time ago, she was that girl with pigtails.
How many years was it? Carol didn’t even want to think about it. She took a deep breath, inhaling the heat and the dust. The taste of the Australian bush. She hadn’t realised just how much she missed it, until she stepped off the plane last week.
Carol turned and wandered away from the arena. Her eyes moved slowly from side to side, drinking in the familiar sights of her childhood.
Tall gum trees shaded the broad shallow bowl that held the town showground. Each year, the whole district gathered here for the Agricultural and Pastoral Show, a five-day celebration of everything county.
Kids and ponies shared the main arena with competitors riding thoroughbreds. Nearby, livestock breeders paraded their cattle and sheep under the critical eye of the judges. Competition was fierce. A win here was money in the bank when sale time came.
In the far corner, the farm machinery display was a gleaming row of red and yellow giants. Walking among the machines, envious farmers mentally turned half grown crops into dollars and cents, while salesman smiled in anticipation of their commission.
The newly painted wooden halls to the left held the proud handy-work of the Country Women’s Association. Cooking. Sewing. Home grown vegetables. Common, useful things, given that extra magic this one time of the year, when friendly rivalry raged. Carol knew that some of the winners would be familiar to her. Her mother’s friends, or perhaps old school mates of her own.
A collection of sideshow rides attracted most of the younger patrons. Wide-eyed with anticipation, they queued for the thrill of sheer terror. The rides didn’t look so scary to Carol now, but her childish heart had pounded as she approached the ticket booth.
Along the dusty pathways between the exhibits strolled the people. Tall weather beaten men in elastic sided boots and broad brimmed hats walked beside smiling woman with work toughened hands. Wide-eyed town dwellers drank in the sights and smells of the countryside, while children bubbled over with excitement and energy. Old friendships were renewed and new ones made. The show was a major community event, an annual re-affirmation of everything that was important.
Days just like this loomed large in Carol’s childhood memories. How many hot chips had she eaten at those horrid food vans? How good they had tasted. She was sorely tempted… Well, why not? Before she could change her mind, Carol reached for her purse.
Perched back on the grandstand, Carol ate the chips, as another group of young riders entered the ring seated astride a motley collection of ponies, all gleaming in the early summer sun. She had seen ponies of bluer blood and longer pedigrees. But never had she seen ponies more loved, nor more proudly presented than those in front of her.
How many times had she and her pony circled this very ring? Where were the ribbons she had won, all those years ago? Carol had a sneaking suspicion her mother would have them carefully stored with all the other precious memories.
Carol left the grandstand, tossing the empty chip packet in a bin. Wherever she walked, more memories waited, so strong she could almost taste them, despite the ten long years since she last visited her home town.
She wouldn’t be here now, but for her father’s heart attack.
Four days ago, a late night phone call had sent her racing to the airport and a long intercontinental flight to her father’s side. Although the doctors said he would recover, his appearance had shocked her. He looked so old. And when did her mother’s hair turn so grey? With a shock, she realised it was more than two years since she had last seen them. She didn’t remember them as old.
If they were… what did that make her? Forty wasn’t old. Not even middle aged. She’d done all right for a girl from such a small country backwater. Travelled the world. Seen and done things most people only dreamed about. She was OK. Wasn’t she?
Carol stopped walking. She didn’t like the direction her thoughts were taking. Perhaps coming to the show had been a mistake. She looked around. Where was the exit?
Instead of a gate, her eyes stopped at the brown pony. He was standing in the inadequate shade of a tree, his back sagging under his saddle. His head hung listlessly, dull eyes almost closed against the sun’s glare. He was too tired even to chase away the annoying flies that buzzed around his face. Nailed to the tree was a sign that said “Pony Rides – $1:00”.
He was saddest thing Carol had ever seen.
No longer the pride of some little girl’s heart, this old pony had been tossed on the equine scrap heap. Carol reached out one hand to straighten his matted forelock, and stroke his dull, dusty coat. This was the last stop in a pony’s career. Too old for anything else, he would spend a few years being lead backwards and forwards in school fetes and country shows. After that? The knacker’s yard probably.
Carol knelt and looked deep into the pony’s big dark brown eyes. Did he know how far he had fallen? Tears filled her eyes.
“As I remember, Carol, you had a brown pony like that once. What was he called?”
“Mr Mischief – but I called him Spud.” So lost was Carol in her memories, the answer came without a moment’s thought. Quickly brushing away the tears, she rose and turned to face a tall smiling man. The twinkling blue eyes in the sun-browned face were unmistakable. “Tony Martin.”
“Carol Waters. It’s been a long time.”
“Yes. Yes, it has.” She was unaccountable pleased to see a face from the past.
The gangly youth she remembered hadn’t been handsome, but time had been good to him. The years and the strong Australian sun had given his face a strength and maturity that was very attractive. The blue eyes hadn’t lost their humour. The teenager’s shyness was long gone. The man looked at her in open appraisal.
He hadn’t looked at her that way all those years ago, but now his scrutiny made her feel like a schoolgirl. She knew she looked good in the blue jeans and checked shirt she was wearing, but was almost embarrassed that her clothes were expensive designer variations on the work clothes Tony wore.
“I heard about your father. How is he?” Real concern coloured Tony’s voice.
“Fine, thank you. He’ll be out of hospital in a few days. The doctors say he should make a good recovery.” Of course, Tony would know about her father’s heart attack. Everyone knew everything about everybody else in this small community. Years ago, that had annoyed her. Now, it didn’t seem so bad.
“It’s good to see you again, even if it wasn’t the best way to come home.”
“Thanks. It’s good to be … home.” Was it home? Carol wasn’t certain.
“I had best….”
“Would you like…”
The words tumbled over each other, and both started to laugh. Carol gestured for Tony to speak first.
“I was going to suggest a cold drink. Maybe something to eat, if you’re hungry. I’d like to catch up.”
“I’ve already had some chips, and they were truly horrid.” Carol smiled as she spoke. “But a cold drink would be nice.” So would his company, she thought.
Tony bought two cold beers at a nearby bar. They settled themselves atop the old wooden grandstand, and raised their drinks in salute.
“You know, I’m sure it tasted better when we were young and not allowed to drink it.”
“You were the wild one, Carol.” Tony smiled as he said it. “Always so determined to go away, and you did.”
“I saw it as an escape.” It was almost a confession, but Tony’s eyes were alight with interest, so she continued. “I had to see the rest of the world. I felt like this place would suffocate me. There was nothing here I wanted.”
“You still look pretty much at home here – for a jetsetting financial consultant.” He smiled as she raised a questioning eyebrow. “Your mother kept me up to date. And your Dad was so proud. He made sure we all knew that his little girl was treading the corridors of corporate power. They did miss you though.”
“I missed them.” She meant it. At first, she’d come back every year. But as her career flourished, she paid for her parents to visit her instead. For the first time, Carol wondered if they had really enjoyed visiting London and New York. Had they come just to see her, because she never found time to come back?
“That’s enough about me.” The conversation wasn’t helping settle the errant thoughts that had plagued her since the call had brought her back to her old home town. “Tell me what’s been happening here.”
Tony obliged, with a witty, yet insightful description of the town as it now was, still a farming community, but grown since she last lived here. “Not too big,” he laughingly assured her. “But there’s a movie theatre now. More shops. And they built an agricultural college.”
The college had invigorated the community. “Times haven’t been good for the farmers,” he added in a thoughtful tone. “The last couple of years have been pretty good, but before that, we had the long drought. Quite a few of the old family farms were sold. No… not mine,” he hastened to assure her. “But some. Your financial skills would be a big help to the people here.”
The words were casually spoken, but they raised an issue that Carol had been trying to avoid.
“So, what about yourself Tony.” She wasn’t just trying to change the subject. Carol really was curious about what life had handed to this familiar stranger at her side.
“There’s not much to say, I took over the farm when Dad died.”
Carol nodded. In one of her frequent letters, her mother had mentioned the accident. “You’re married.” Her mother had mentioned that too.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
“No. It’s all right,” he hastened to assure her. “She was a nice woman, certain that this was the only place she wanted to be. She didn’t want to see the rest of the world, she thought everything she wanted was here.” Carol heard her own words echoed back at her. “She was wrong.”
She was wrong, too. Carol heard the one extra word that Tony didn’t have to say aloud.
“We have a daughter, Helen. She spends most of her time with me; she and her mother aren’t very close. She’s a great kid.” Pride shone on his face. “She’s almost finished at school, and wants to go to the agricultural college. I think she’s more like me than even I will admit.”
Carol looked at the face of the man she knew as a boy, who was now a father. “If that’s the case, I’d probably like her.” She spoke without thinking. Tony’s smile changed, and Carol realised that he might read more in her words than she intended. “Where did they build the college?” She continued quickly, clutching at the first non-personal topic that came to mind.
“Out near the reservoir … ” Tony graciously followed her lead.
Their conversation ranged widely – old friends, places Carol had visited, books, politics, economics. The sun moved slowly in its arc across the searing blue sky, as Carol enjoyed re-discovering an old friendship, with perhaps the tentative suggestion of something more.
Carol watched Tony’s face as he talked. A week ago, she would have described the people of this town as hicks – nice, but uninteresting. Country folk, with limited outlook and awareness of their world.
Tony Martin was nothing like that. Intelligent, aware and educated, he was no less interesting than any of the high-flying executives she occasionally dated. Perhaps more so. Most of the men Carol knew cared only about money, but the core of Tony Martin’s world was his abiding love of the land, and its people. Far from making him a hick, that gave him an integrity that other men lacked. Perhaps the richness of the land was reflected in the people who were part of it.
An unfamiliar contentment settled around Carol’s shoulders. Of all the places in the world, this was the one she had struggled hardest to leave. The same restlessness had driven her from place to place in all the years since. Now she was back, and for the first time in many years, she had no desire to be anywhere else but where she was – in this country town, sharing a joke with the tall man by her side.
The sun was low on the horizon, when the last class of ponies trotted from the show ring. Still Carol and Tony Martin talked, until gradually the failing light drew them out of their private world.
“I must go. Dad is expecting me at the hospital.”
“Of course.” Tony held out a hand to help her climb down from their perch. “Give him my best wishes.”
“I will.” Carol let go of Tony’s hand as soon as her feet were safely on the ground. It would have been too easy just to keep holding it.
They were nearly at the gate, when Carol spotted the pony rides sign. The brown pony was still there, his head hanging even lower at the close of a long hot day.
“Poor thing.” She murmured almost to herself. “It’s sad. He so needs to be rescued.”
Carol awoke to the sound of a kookaburra’s laughter outside her bedroom window. She opened her eyes and looked around the room, that was hers and yet not hers. She had grown up in this room, but it didn’t retain much of her girlish stamp. Her mother had redecorated, turning it into a comfortable and airy guest room.
She stretched luxuriously, and glanced at her watch. She hadn’t slept this late in a long time. A few minutes more wouldn’t hurt. If she returned to New York, there’d be few chances to sleep in.
Her eyes flashed open. IF she returned to New York? There was no question about her return. Her life was there. Too disturbed now for rest, she took her towel and headed for the shower. Perhaps it was time she called the travel agent, and looked for a flight to New York. Her father would be released from hospital in a few days. Then she had to go.
Of course, she’d see more of her parents in the future. Find more time to come back here. Any thought of moving back permanently was ridiculous. What would she do? She could put her business skills to good use. Helping to save this farming would be a fulfilling job. Better than helping some rich men become even richer. But everyone knows that you can never go back. She could never come back. Could she?
Throwing on jeans and a cotton shirt, Carol headed for the kitchen. Her mother was already busy washing soil from newly picked vegetables. Carol poured a cup of tea from the omnipresent pot near the stove. During the last week, she had weaned herself off strong American coffee, surprised to find how much she really preferred tea. As she sipped, she glanced out the window.
Her jaw dropped open.
“Mum, there’s a pony out there.”
“Ah, yes. Tony Martin dropped it by earlier. You were still asleep, but he told me not to wake you.”
“Well, I suppose he figured you were tired, travelling as much as…”
“No. Not me. The pony. Why did he deliver a pony?”
“He said you would understand. Something about rescuing you – I think that’s what he said anyway. ”
Carol walked onto the front porch. The pony was very familiar. She had seen him only yesterday. A small sad brown pony that no one loved.
Someone, Tony no doubt, had given the pony a brush since the day before, and he was happily munching his way through a slab of hay. He didn’t look quite so sad now. He turned his head to look at Carol, his eyes bright with interest. She reached out a hand, and felt the warm caress of the pony’s breath as he nuzzled her, looking for treats.
“Here. Give him these.” Her mother came up behind her, carrying a bunch of home grown carrots. Carol took them, smiling as she remembered feeding other carrots to another brown pony.
Carol’s mother watched as the latest addition to the family happily crunched her precious carrots. A look of speculation crossed her face. “I invited Tony around for lunch with us. I hope that’s OK.”
Carol caught her breath. What had he said? Something about rescuing her?
She smiled then, the decision made. You can’t go back, but you can come home. Even an old brown pony can make a new start.
“Yes, Mum. That would be great. I’ll come and give you a hand in the kitchen. But first, I’d better show my pony his new home.”
Published as “Where The Heart Is” by The People’s Friend – June 2002
Artwork by Majken Thorsen courtesy of The People’s Friend
Growing up in Australia, I had a brown pony called Dino. He wasn’t smart enough to win prizes at the agricultural show. That would come later with much bigger and better mounts. There was a boy, I remember, but I loved the pony more.
© Janet Gover 2002