One Ring

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Robin Hillard


If you drive east out of town, over the potholes of Ryan’s Road, you will come to a tiny settlement. Three houses. Where we live. When Duncan’s books began to sell we bought a little piece of land where I could make a garden while he wrote. We did not know what trouble we would have with our neighbours.

Like the morning our peace was shattered by banshee screams. Susannah burst out of the house next door, in her dressing gown, yelling at Annette.

I cursed. I did not want Duncan disturbed.

What was Susannah’s noise about? “My ring,” she screamed. “My beautiful sapphire ring!”

There was a story behind That Ring. As I had been told, it was left to “The Bulloch girl” by an elderly aunt, and Susannah claimed that it was meant for her, the will was drafted before her sister was born. Annette argued, with some reason, that a thirty-three-year-old was not a “girl,” the will had been rewritten several times, and she—barely out of her teens, should have the jewel. They went to court. Susannah won the case.

By now, Annette’s shrill voice rose over her sister’s scream. If it were not the ring, they would have been fighting about something else. We realised, almost as soon as we moved in, that they hated each other. Annette used to work in town, so why did she make that long, bumpy drive every day, to share a house with the sister she despised?

“It’s the will,” Duncan explained. “Jonsey told me all about it.” Jonsey lived in the other house on Riley’s road. A wrinkled old bushman, he scampered out of sight when I appeared, but he often chatted to Duncan.

That house had been the Bulloch family home, and as long as one of “the girls” lived there, it could not be sold. Neither sister would let the other have the house, so they stayed where they were.

“They could live anywhere,” I said, “with what they’ve saved.”

“Apparently there is a brother too, and he would get a share, if the house was sold. If we think the sisters fight, Jonsey says, we should see them with the Bulloch boy. The only thing those two agree about, is their contempt for him. So they have to stay in the place.”

Elderly spinsters in the family home. For sixty years. Out here on Ryan’s Road.

Maybe one longed to live beside the sea and the other dreamed of city life. But neither would let the other have the house! What a horrible story.

I made myself a cup of tea while Duncan paced in the study overhead. The uproar had broken his train of thought and he could not get back to work. Damn those two harpies.

I took a basket of washing to hang out. I had started our country life with plastic pegs, in the usual bright colours. Then the blue ones started to disappear. Something snapped them off the line, leaving my clothes to blow about in the dirt. Was this a peculiar kind of rural kink? Did it give some one a thrill—to take a woman’s clothes off the line and steal the pegs?

Then, one morning, I saw the thief. A beautiful glossy blue-black bird! When I found him in the illustrated guide, all was explained. He was a satin bower-bird, and somewhere, in the forest behind our land, he had a mound. There, according to the book, he spread pretty things, to attract a lady bower-bird. Blue was his favourite colour, and after his struggle to pull them off the line, I hope she liked those special ornaments!

I did not grudge a courting bird the pegs, but, when it breaks, plastic can make sharp splinters that could hurt a feathered Romeo. The bird would be safer with treasure he usually found in the bush. After our first mistake, we had learned to be careful of helping wild life.

We loved the birds, and when we first moved in, I scattered handfuls of grain every day, to encourage them. A couple of white cockatoos found the food and told their friends, the flock got larger and noisier, and our neighbours complained. We ignored Susannah’s invective and Annette’s whine, but when the sisters took their objection into town, a red-faced ranger came to visit us. He explained about the balance of bush life. “Attract too many predator birds,” he said, “and we lose the small species.”

We stopped feeding the cockatoos, and after a couple of protesting afternoons the flock disappeared, as the birds looked elsewhere for an easy feed. Then Annette complained about the blackberries, which were choking the native bush when we bought the house. Duncan’s brother had helped us choose the place, and kept his promise to help us clean them out. With the blackberries were gone, Susannah objected to our woodpile. It was too close to her fence. She was sure it harboured snakes. Duncan moved the wood, but the sisters found more reasons to complain and we tried to ignore the two of them.

Neighbours. Just what we left the city to avoid. The original owner of our home and the sisters’ grandfather had been good friends, which is why the houses were so close, both fronting Riley’s Road. When the sisters were not squabbling, they could lean on their fence and moan at us.

Back inside, I had barely settled to my cup of tea when there was a loud cawing, and the rattle of a beak against flywire. I opened the screen and Jamieson, the crow, hopped in. When he first appeared we guessed, from confident way he came into the house, that he had been hand-raised. Somebody rescued a fledgling, then, as soon as it could fly, very correctly, set it free. Jamieson, now definitely a wild bird, still liked an occasional treat from a human fridge. He was the exception to our “don’t feed” rule.

Lately he had found a mate. Another crow—Duncan called her Jemima—who joined him in our tall gum tree. I hoped they were making a nest.

The tree gave our neighbours another excuse to complain. “It’ll be down, as soon as there’s a storm,” Annette said “And it’s too close to the power line. It’s dangerous.”

Duncan did not agree. “There’s only one branch near the wire,” he said, “I’ll get Rod to lend a hand, and we’ll trim it up. No need to wreck the tree.”

I wished he would get on with the job. Annette had worked in Government offices—suppose she reported our gum? Men—coming trucks and chainsaws, and they would not be as careful as Duncan and Rod.

Susannah had gone inside. I could hear her tearing the house apart while Annette added her shrieks to the noise. Then Annette rushed outside, Susannah following, and waving a knife. Both women were screaming. Sixty years of frustration boiled into the fight. The noise was worse that a thousand cockatoos. Duncan gave up trying to work and joined me in the yard. Another figure came trotting up the road. Jonsey wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

It took both the men to hold Susannah back, while I dragged her sister away. “I haven’t got your bloody ring,” she screamed. “You can search the bloody house.”

That Susannah would certainly do. I looked at my washing, and had a mischievous thought. Blue sapphire ring. Blue plastic pegs. If that was the answer it served the harridans right.

We bought this piece of land so Duncan could write, and he needed a quiet place to work. I would see that he had it.

Maybe Annette had taken the blasted ring. Maybe a tramp crept in, unseen, and snatched it from the bathroom windowsill. Or maybe—I thought of the blue pegs—the ring was part of a bower-bird display. I took my theory next door.

That gave them something new to think about, and while they thought about the ways of bower-birds, Duncan could work on his next book. He seemed to be getting the rhythm of a tale and, as usual when things are going well, he stayed up all night.

For once, I joined him for a late coffee and I could not sleep. There was noise next door. What were the women doing at this hour? I shoved on a pair of boots and stumbled out. If they were going to make a row at night I would complain. If I wanted to talk to the woman I was too late. It was Annette, heading down Riley’s Road in the old truck. Where could she be going at this hour? She turned off the road and onto a forestry track. The one that had been closed two months ago. Ten minutes later Susannah was in the yard, and starting the car. Was she following Annette?

They came back together, just before sunrise. Call me nosey if you like—but I was curious. I crept up to the fence, to their window, and listened. They shared my suspicion of the bower-bird, and Annette had crept out, while her sister was asleep, to find the mound. Susannah heard the truck and followed her. I could not believe my ears. To hunt for a bower-bird’s mound among the trees! In the dark! As if she had a chance of finding it.

The sisters must have realised how hopeless it was. Each trying to trick the other. Searching at night. I heard them make a pact. They would go to the forest together, in daylight and search until they found the ring. And when they retrieved the sapphire? They would have to share the ring.

The next day brought a monumental storm that tore a branch off our beloved gum. If the sisters had not been obsessed by their hunt, they could have made a genuine complaint. The tree was dangerous. A lump of timber had fallen across the fence, which would have to be fixed. But first we had to deal with the tree. Jamieson was flying around, cawing his distress, as if he expected us to save his home.

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Duncan said, phoning his brother for help. Rod came with ladders and chainsaw and they got to work. It took a couple of days but we ended up with a smaller—and healthier—gum tree.

“You’ll never guess what we found in Jamieson’s nest?” Duncan told me over a celebratory drink, “Something blue.”

“Not?”

He nodded. “Looks like there’s more than one kind of bird thief.”

“Will you tell the sisters?”

“And let them wreck our tree. No way. Let Jamieson keep the ring. Besides,” he grinned, “the hunt is keeping the neighbours out of our hair.”

He waved at the window. It was getting dark, and, next door, the old truck in pulled, bringing the sisters home. We watched them walking, together, into the house.

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Robin Hillard has lived in three Australian states as well as England and Canada. She has chosen to live in Toowoomba which is only slightly larger than a city ought to be. E-mail: robinhillard[at]ozemail.com.au.

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