Felton sat on the bench against the wall of the pub, watching evening darken through the gauze windows. He’d just returned from a month in the city for work and the quietness of the country town was a relief. Back in his empty house, however, it would become oppressive.
A young woman pulled up outside on her motorbike, her black cattle dog leaping from the seat behind her. Felton straightened. It was the girl who’d moved in next door to take care of Maxwell’s farm while he battled with his liver disease. The checkout chick at the grocery store said she’d been there for a couple of weeks.
The dog jumped onto the verandah and drank from a plastic icecream bucket of water, then flopped beside it. The woman strode into the pub, a newspaper beneath her arm, and nodded to the bartender. She was tall and thin, with honey-coloured hair bundled into a rough knot at the nape of her neck. Her shoulders, broad and angular, strained against her khaki shirt, which was rolled up at the sleeves to show freckled forearms. She straddled a stool at the end of the counter and unfolded the newspaper.
The bartender placed a tall glass of beer before her and said loudly, ‘No trouble tonight, orright Ellis?’
She gazed at him, but didn’t reply. The barman gave her a long look and resumed his conversation with a pair of farmers at the other end of the bar.
Felton wondered if he should introduce himself. The girl’s jeans gripped her hips and stretched tightly over her round arse. Jake, a pig farmer from the north side of town, was also watching her. Felton drained his beer and went to the bar for another.
‘Heard from that wife of yours, eh Felton?’ Jake called. ‘We’re still waiting to bank our money!’
Felton ignored him and slid a five dollar note across the bar. The girl frowned over the crossword in the newspaper, her shirt open far enough to show the slope of her breasts. She had chewed her pen, staining her lips with ink.
‘Need any help?’ Felton asked, but she didn’t look up.
The bartender broke away from his conversation and poured him a drink. ‘She can’t hear you, mate, she’s deaf,’ he said. ‘You’ve gotta get her attention first.’
Felton, feeling awkward, instead took his drink to his seat by the wall.
An hour later, the pub was filled with people, cigarette smoke and Jake Robertson’s loud, grating laugh. Felton decided it was time to go. As he reached for his hat, Jake made a beeline for the girl and wedged himself onto a stool beside her.
‘Nice arse,’ he said, in a voice too low for her to hear. Then he shouted in her ear, ‘Are you deaf or something, Ellis?’
He laughed uproariously, but she didn’t respond.
'Didja hear what I said? I know youse can hear some things.’
Ellis didn’t move, and Jake’s leer faltered.
'Ah, fuck you,’ he spat.
Ellis turned and rammed her fist into Jake’s pudgy jaw. He reeled, but quickly recovered, his swing connecting with Ellis’ cheek. She stumbled, then found her balance and landed a hook in his pudgy side. As he staggered, she kicked him in the crotch.
There was whistling and calling, the men spraying beer as they laughed.
The bartender pulled Jake away and shoved Ellis out the door to the dusty carpark. ‘Christ, I told you no trouble, young lady.’
There were low guffaws from inside. ‘Young lady, huh!’
Ellis stumbled down the verandah steps and fell to her knees, lowering her bruised cheek to the ground.
Felton followed her out and stood over her prone form, wondering if he should take her home. He’d never seen so much excitement in a pub since the slug-eating competition up north three years before, after which two of the participants had been rushed to hospital with rat lungworm disease.
‘Don’t worry about her, mate,’ said a grazier named Campbell, clapping Felton on the shoulder. ‘She’ll be right. Happens every week. It’s that bugger in there you should be worried about.’
Felton smiled faintly, listening to Jake’s groans.
Ellis’s dog had taken up sentry near her body. Felton let the dog lick his hand, stroked its head, then headed for his ute.