“How to live well has always been the question. Perhaps even more so in our complex modern world. Black Cow is a novel of our time. We follow the characters through all the compromises, adjustments and hard choices that must be made in order to live a life of wholeness and integrity. This is a life affirming story.”
Freya and James Archer live the high life in a luxury home in Sydney’s poshest suburb, with money, matching Jags, two beautiful teenage kids … and they couldn’t be more despondent. James wakes weeping each morning, dreading the pressures of a long and grueling work day ahead, and Freya is struggling with her foundering real estate career.
Global recession is biting in Australia, and the Archers are afraid.
In a desperate bid for happiness and security they shed the fragile trappings of success and cruise over into the slow lane to take an unmapped turn-off on a country road and live off the land in a remote old farmhouse on the peaceful southern island of Tasmania. But is this an end to their old misery or the beginning of an even greater one?
“Most people don’t simply wake up one morning and realize that they’ve veered away from their ideals and set themselves squarely in the middle of the path leading back to them. In reality such an awakening is gradual, fueled by series of seemingly disconnected incidents; and the road back, if one can even get there, is more like a game of Giant Steps than a straight trajectory. Black Cow examines the possibility of lifestyle change through the actions of the Archer family. Fast-paced, gorgeously-written and stunningly perceptive, Black Cow is not only a great read; it is a timely and important one.”
Freya awoke with the scent of dirt on her fingers. The words “cultivate our garden” played in her head, echoing out of the depths of troubled sleep. She heard the distant clink of garbage trucks doing their morning run, and couldn’t remember what she’d been dreaming about, other than that she’d been covered in dirt and it felt good. The image receded along with the sensation of hunger as her eyes opened.
Her husband James had the entire quilt wrapped around him, and she shivered, attempting to pull some of it back onto her thinly clad body.
“I can’t do it anymore, Freya.” James’ voice was barely a whisper, but it filled the bedroom. In the flickering light of his Blackberry on the bedside, his face looked otherworldly, shadows running in a line from forehead to chin, so all she could see were glowing teeth and the point of each cheekbone. She put her hand on his arm, and felt the tension vibrating beneath the tendons. “I haven’t slept all night. I’m nearly forty years old, love. I’m the bloody CEO, and I hate every second of it. How did this happen?”
His body shook against her as he attempted to contain his fear of another day in the office. Her own job wasn't much better. She hadn’t made a sale in several weeks and was dreading the monthly real estate ‘pep sessions’ that left her drained and frightened. The market was drying up, and her corporate clients and wealthy home buyers were becoming increasingly demanding. With the economy as it was, Freya felt that she and James had little choice. They couldn’t just walk away. James had to stay perfectly cool while laying off staff, knowing that his own highly paid job was tenuous and critical to their lives, with the kids’ school fees, mortgage, and car repayments. Freya put her arms around him, holding him
tightly against her as if he were one of their children.
“It’s okay,” she whispered. His face felt wet.
“Look love, why don’t you just quit? We don’t need all this.” She waved an invisible hand against their home, knowing that her words would irritate him.
James didn’t reply. Instead, he slipped out of bed, pulled on his pyjama bottoms and left the room. Freya closed her eyes as she heard the sound of James groaning behind the closed door of the bathroom. Her mind knotted with things she couldn’t say out loud, desire for change, fear for James’ health and a growing headache that had begun to work its way around the eyes as she called out, “Are you okay?”
It was his third morning in a row spent groaning on the loo. He needed a doctor. Between the sporadic pain in his shoulder, his almost continual stomach problems, and the increasing amount of alcohol he was drinking each night, Freya knew something was wrong. Many times she had begged him to get medical help, but years of leading a team towards quantitative results had dimmed his ability to see trouble in his own life. She felt her breath, dried by the cool night air, flowing in and out of her mouth and heard the bedside clock tick ticking gently, a soundtrack to their lives. By the time she woke again he was already gone.
Dressed in one of her designer suits, she walked into the kitchen, closing her eyes for a moment before the kids ran in. James' ghost filled the room with the warm smell of half drunk coffee, toast, and a neat line of cereal boxes ready for the children’s breakfast. She could imagine James in his black Jaguar, braving the traffic to Chatswood with corporate stoicism, turning himself once more into the ice man. He might reach out and finger the wood interior of the vehicle, thinking, with rising tension, that he deserved it. In her own body she felt James’ fear; felt the soreness at the corner of her mouth from the small holes she knew he’d be biting in the corner of his mouth.
Outside the French doors, Freya looked at the artistic garden below the terrace. That was James’ doing. He should have been an architect, or even an artist; something creative to capture his instinctive sense of colour and placement instead of a hard-nosed business man, struggling with his conscience between the axe and the chopping block.
When she first met James, he was leaning casually against a bar at a party, his boyish good looks and frayed jeans trapping her attention. He was doing Art History. A non-subject she laughed and he laughed back, his blue eyes crinkling up in the corners, mirroring her own.
“What do you do with an Art History degree?”
He continued to laugh for what seemed like ages while she waited, and then asked her about beetles, picking a ladybird out of her hair. “Take this coccinellid, for example ...” An art student who knew the Latin name for a ladybird was out of the ordinary, and Freya was impressed. The delicacy of that creature against his large, solid hand; his appreciation of the contrast of colours and textures as it stayed there, tiny against his tall, lanky frame captivated her. In the intensity of her stoned concentration, she knew this was the man she would marry.
Freya could never have guessed back then that James would end up with an MBA, talking in corporate acronyms and organisational charts, staying late for board meetings, and worrying himself into a mixture of tense blankness with the kids, and a hysteria which manifested itself in the wee hours of the morning. It was killing him, and the end would either happen the slow way, or in a quick death which might be just around the corner if they didn’t make a change. Nor could she, an idealistic left-wing science major in a white coat with a predilection for painting her specimens, imagine herself in the role of real estate agent, hawking overpimped buildings to people who already owned enough.
Somewhere in the heart of their shared darkness were those wide-eyed kids with frayed jeans and grandiose dreams. If she could find those dreams again, maybe she could rescue them from the world they now found themselves in: money and possessions a dangerous obsession rather than a means to happiness.
Her children Cameron and Dylan whirled into the room like cyclones with angry voices, competing with the electronic music on Cameron’s smartphone, the beeping microwave and the neighbour's barking dog. Refection was pointless. She shook her head and looked up. Fourteen year old Cameron was slight, with unbrushed hair hanging loose in front of her face. Her fingernails had been painted black.
"Cammie, what's on your fingers? You can't wear black nail polish to school. It looks hideous. You’ll get another infringement.”
Cameron waved her hands in the air, a crooked smile on her face, and then snatched the Weet-bix box from its spot in front of Dylan, whose legs were so long, they nearly went through to the opposite side of the table. He had always been shorter than other boys his age until he reached sixteen, and then he shot up suddenly, eclipsing his father and many of his peers.
“Hey, I was reading that. Quit it. Mum, Cammie stole my box!”
“Let Dylan have the box, Cam. You go take that polish off. Now!” Freya’s voice cracked. She felt a sore throat coming on, and softened her voice. “C’mon, you’ll be late.” “I’ve just poured the milk.” Cameron raised her spoon for the first time and spilled a big patch of milk on her three hundred and fifty dollar school blazer.
‘That’s a few hours spent coercing clients,’ thought Freya, ‘so you can look perfect at school, and now you’ve covered yourself in milk. The milk will smell bad by mid-day and I’ll have to dry clean it for another thirty dollars.’
She began wiping Cameron’s jacket with a yellow cloth.
“You kids have no idea about money. It just comes from the sky, handed over to meet your expectations.”
They had no sense of the pain behind it: the endless drain.
Dylan sneered. “Pig.”
“Go to hell, Dylan. You’re the biggest pig in this house.”
“Be quiet, both of you. Brush your teeth, and Dylan, tuck that shirt in.”
Dylan’s grammar school gave out infringements for untucked shirts, and Cameron’s had formal policies about nail polish or hair bands that didn’t match the uniform. Cameron was usually neat. When she was little, she cried if she even got a speck on her shirt. But lately she looked slovenly. Her eyes were rimmed with smudged black eyeliner, and the nails weren’t even done properly. There were bits of polish around bitten cuticles. Freya had offered to take Cameron to her manicurist, but Cameron didn’t even bother to decline. Instead she shook her head and put on her MP3 headphones.
Freya was getting tired of Dylan’s infringement notices too. He got at least two a week: for shirt tails hanging out, for swearing, for playing his guitar in the hall, for wearing his hair too long. Considering how much they spent on the kids’ education, she felt like sending in a few infringement notices of her own to the school. When she thought about what teenagers could get up to; heck, what she got up to when she was a teenager, an untucked shirt seemed pretty benign.
Cameron was shrieking from the bathroom. Freya walked slowly into the living room trying to avoid shrieking herself. Her kids were old enough to fight it out. They could scratch each other until blood ran and it probably wouldn’t make any difference to the overall day. She was sick of it. The cleaning lady was coming while she was at the office and there was hardly time left for her to tidy up the dining room table, a job she’d been doing almost continuously for the entire year, despite begging the kids to do it themselves. The minute she tidied the papers, half-finished homework, and pencils off the floor, the kids would empty their bags out on the table again.
“C’mon kids, get your shoes on.”
Cameron refused to take the bus. “It stinks,” she said, laughing at herself and knowing what a prima donna she sounded like, but still she didn’t want to go.
Freya got onto her knees and began scrubbing the bathroom floor, hiking up her Donna Karan skirt so it wouldn't get bleach on it. James’ harsh laughter rang in her head. “What’s the point of paying for a cleaner when you pre-clean for her? It's ludicrous." She mouthed the word slowly, flushing the toilet bowl. “Lud-i-crous.”
‘Get out of my head, James.’
She didn’t want the cleaner to think they were slobs. The same agency cleaned all the houses in this area and everyone pre-cleaned. If her house was the dirtiest, word would spread. When she finished the floor, she removed her rubber gloves, washed her hands, put her gold earrings on, and then quickly changed them for the pearl ones, checking the look one more time before running out into the living room.
“Cammie. Dylan. C’mon. Now! We’re late. Get in the car. Get. In. The. Car.”
James honked the horn several times. “Lane hogging slow drivers.” Why did people buy Range Rovers to drive along Sydney's Pacific Highway. He felt a longing for the woods: an open road to nowhere and a rocky path beneath his wheels. Instead he faced a few centimetres of unvarying bitumen and banged his hand against the window. Then he honked his horn again, even though he knew the car in front of him had nowhere to go. He changed the radio channel, gritting his teeth as he moved through the commercial channels he hated, full of shouting presenters trying to get him to buy something, finally settling on ABC FM, which calmed him. It was the Meditation from Massenet’s Thaïs. He hadn’t been to the Opera in ages, not since Dylan was born over sixteen years ago. It was Nathan Milstein on violin, an old favourite of his. When did he last listen to classical music? The sound travelled like nostalgia through James’ body, until his shoulders were down where they belonged. He sat back into the leather seat, and almost started to smile – the superb sound system was part of the joy of owning a Jaguar – until he noticed that he’d missed his turn towards the Cross City Tunnel.
“Fuck,” he screamed, nearly hitting a BMW X5. He’d considered getting one of those himself, or maybe as a second car for Freya now Dylan was almost old enough to start driving lessons. The boy couldn’t learn on her white Jag. That would be obscene. He changed lanes without signalling, the honking of cars replacing Milstein’s sensuous bowing: a new cacophonous movement that evoked the opposite response in him.
It was only fifteen kilometres to the office, but it took nearly an hour today, sitting in traffic that extended through the Cahill Expressway to the end of the Pacific Highway. At least half the cars he saw were four wheel drives, guzzling petrol or diesel, which was inching toward two dollars a litre this week, despite the recession the government swore they’d nearly gotten through unscathed. Anyone in the working world, and that didn’t include the federal government obviously, or their cohorts in the local councils, knew exactly what was happening in the economy as they continued to wait for the axe to fall, or wield it. He had to lay off all the casual employees last week – a corporate directive that had nothing to do with their performance. Of course they were still in recession. So why the hell wasn’t petrol cheaper? He was working just to afford to get to the office each day. Talk about Catch-22. Missing his turn would add an extra twenty minutes he didn’t have. He didn’t need this delay on top of everything else.
Next time he’d have to leave earlier. Now he wouldn’t make his meeting, and after the stink he made to his management team yesterday about timeliness, he’d look a right prat. If only he’d been able to get some sleep last night; no thanks to Freya, with her suggestion that he pack it all in. Sure, she’d just give up the house, the kids’ private school, the nice neighbourhood, the prestige.
There was a time when she was happy to get her hands dirty, digging for pupae in the small garden behind their first rented house.
She was a little naïve and idealistic, saving the world with insect morphology. But she looked so sweet in her lab coat and created such neat handmade graphs in her reports. He would trace the wiggly bell curve with his finger, and point out tiny errors or make design suggestions.
Her room was full of bug portraits that she’d done: mating tortoise beetles – Cassida compuncta – transparent with gold metallic centres, or two giant fighting neptune beetles, with blue eye middles and long hooked horns. They were very well done: realistic and even beautiful in a detailed, gruesome sort of way.
Then along came Dylan, whose gestation coincided quite neatly with the ending of Freya’s research grant, so she was able to walk away without guilt, clutching her Bachelor of Science like a talisman against the future.
Now some twenty years later, she was getting her brows waxed and making a living in real estate. Correct that: he was making the living. She wasn’t adding that much when you considered the cost of keeping her in designer gear and anti-aging products. It was a Faustian bargain for both of them, and the corporate lifestyle seemed like a small trade against the pain he felt each morning, or the daily traffic jam. Cool air blew in through the window as he sat, waiting for the car in front of him to start moving. Winter in Sydney wasn’t usually severe but he shivered and rolled up the windows, moving the heating lever to hot.
He pressed the CD button, flipping quickly through his collection until Steely Dan came on. It wasn’t quite the same as Massenet, but he could sing along, and he needed to generate a little energy for the day ahead. The Bowers and Wilkins audio system in his Jag never failed to cheer him up. The sound came through the car while he mouthed the words: “In the corner/of my eye/I saw you in Rudys/you were very high/you were high/it was a cryin’ disgrace ...” He reached out and fingered the shiny wood panelled dashboard, which felt as smooth as Donald Fagen’s voice melding with repetitive percussion: “Surely we’ll scream out in sorrow.” The consolations of hard work. For what he had to put up with, he deserved every bit of this luxury.
“Damn.” He swerved his car left, just brushing the bumper of a Commodore in the parking lot. Someone had taken his assigned space again. It was the third time this week. He parked in one of the open spots and got out, slamming the door so hard that a small piece of metal from the window fell off on the ground. Bending down to pick it up he felt a jolt in his left shoulder again. Freya’s voice was in his head. “Please get it checked, James.” He opened and shut his hand, squeezing his fingers into the palm tightly and then squeezing his left shoulder, rubbing it as if it were a cramp. “Out of my head, Freya,” he whispered. ‘As if he had time for doctors.’
"Magdalena Ball is a remarkable wordsmith. Her prose hovers above your skin like ‘need’ and never drifts away. Her latest novel, Black Cow, is yet another masterpiece which I will keep treasured on my bookshelf. The characters in this story are on the hunt for happiness, for refuge, clawing their way through the stark reality of unfulfilling wealth, corporate hierarchies, fatigue, stress-related illnesses, and family neglect. Ball’s seamless exploration of the faulty human-condition and the urgent notion that money means success is brilliantly interwoven with the gentle quietness of unconditional love, invoking sighs and gasps and the sudden realization that life is so much more than what we are conditioned to expect. Life is precious, and small enough to cradle in the palm of a baby’s hand." Jessica bell
Brillian expose of the life behind corporate success
"The Archer family lives The success lie. Black Cow is a brilliant expose of the life behind corporate success. James has to force himself to become the ‘iceman’ to function as the CEO of the company; Freya, his wife, leaves behind her scientific career to become a real estate agent to people with lives as shallow as her own has become; their children possess every gadget young teens could want, except quality time with their parents. In their attempt to rescue themselves before the family disintegrates totally, the members of the Archer family move from the affluent Eastern suburbs of Sydney to rural Tasmania, where they learn many hard lessons about life and how to be a family." Jan Mitchell
A modern Cannery Row
"The prose style is brilliant. It is clever and insightful in describing and personalizing the angst of the modern world. Classic...it reminds me of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row in its ability to capture the moment in history in a personal way." Doug Osborne