If blood should stain th.., p.12

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 12

 

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle
 



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  Why were humans so good at not seeing anyone who didn’t fit into their vision of how things should be?

  More cheers from the telly. And suddenly the reason for the cheers, Gough Whitlam, taller than any man in the room, and his wife, Margaret, equally imposing beside him, strode through the crowd towards the stage.

  The cheers grew, people standing, clapping, so without the Whitlams’ height they would have been hidden from the camera.

  Gough Whitlam stepped up onto the stage. He gazed around the crowd, as confident as a spider with a fly in its web. He thinks he is going to win, thought Leafsong. And then, no, he knows that we must all think that he can win.

  The big man on that screen was no fool. He had only just lost in 1969 when the anti-Vietnam War moratoriums had seen tens of thousands of Australians marching through the streets, but anti-war passion had dimmed a little now McMahon was pulling Australian troops out of Vietnam. It would be so easy for Gough Whitlam to almost win, again.

  The man on that screen knew it. He also knew that he would only win if Australia believed that he could.

  Whitlam raised his chin. The audience silenced, though the memory of the full-throated cheers still hung about him like a halo. ‘Men and women of Australia! The winds of change are sweeping across the Tasman . . .’

  Cheers again. Great stomping cheers. Whitlam smiled, controlling the cheers, controlling each person in the audience. He let the cheers build, then held up his hand.

  Silence.

  The speech continued. Point after point, the barrister turned politician hammering each fact to the jury of voters watching tonight. Medibank, pensions, schools, economic growth and an end to conscription. Short statements only, but made with the confidence that every aspect of this platform and how to implement it had been debated, evaluated and critiqued for years. Then it was over. Whitlam let the cheers shake the hall again. Even the television set seemed to quiver.

  The camera followed him and Margaret as they made their way back through the crowd, pausing this time to shake hands, exchange some words, though the camera and microphones were too far away for viewers to hear what was being said.

  And then Blacktown Civic Centre’s hall vanished. The television scene changed. A reporter clutched a microphone outside the Centre. Words, a switch to the studio, back again to the still-cheering Blacktown crowds.

  The screen went black. Silence. Leafsong had never seen a silent screen on a telly before. One second. Two seconds. And then words sang, spun from the darkness of the screen. A song . . . ‘It’s time for freedom . . .’

  A young woman’s face slowly emerged from the blackness, her hair an angel’s halo.

  Leafsong felt the stillness around her, the total focus on the small box on the stage.

  ‘Time for loving . . .’ sang the passionate young figure on the screen. The television showed flashes of Whitlam as a child, Whitlam’s historic visit to China the previous year, when neither Australia nor the USA recognised the largest nation in the world, a photo of Whitlam as a barrister, another of him holding up a baby.

  Now others sang on screen, men and women Leafsong vaguely recognised as celebrities, the camera bringing each one into the song. At last they were a chorus, joyous, determined, not there for money, but from conviction.

  A final camera shot of Gough and Margaret — intelligent, professional, but add a pair of crowns and they’d be emperor and empress.

  This advertisement had held few political promises, thought Leafsong, looking at the entranced, still faces about her. This song was a carefully constructed celebration of peace and progress. Words so easily manipulated people. Which was another reason she had abandoned them.

  No one had moved since the song stopped. A commentator’s face filled the screen again. Nicholas limped to centre stage and switched off the television. The audience watched, still in silence, waiting for his speech.

  That song had changed Nicholas too, thought Leafsong as Nicholas smiled. A confident smile for the first time, a smile of deep conviction, with a few drops of relief, like vanilla flavouring custard, that what he had been chosen to do was something he could do, with a whole heart and all of his ability.

  Nicholas’s smile became a grin. The audience grinned back, as if rehearsed.

  ‘You heard the man.’ His voice rang across the hall. ‘It’s time!’ And stopped.

  As Leafsong knew so well, most times you don’t need words. Or very few.

  It was perfect. The audience laughed. Someone clapped at the other end of the room. They all clapped, cheered, stamped and cheered again.

  Nicholas laughed and clapped too. Felicity joined him, shyly taking his hand. Mr Johnson, who owned the garage on the edge of town, the president of the Gibber’s Creek branch of the Labor Party, got up on stage too, with his wife in her new purple mini dress, all linking hands, raising them in celebration. Below, Matilda held herself straight, so that no one would see her tears, Jed fiercely holding her hand.

  And, watching them, Leafsong realised that until that moment not one single person had quite believed it was possible for Australia to tear itself free of twenty-three years of Coalition rule.

  It was time.

  Chapter 16

  Gibber’s Creek Gazette, 14 November 1972

  Letter to the Editor

  Dear Sir,

  On my last visit to Gibber’s Creek someone told me your paper was referred to as The Gibberer. Reading your election coverage I can see why. Thank goodness for the articles by Ms Jed Kelly. Perhaps ‘it’s time’ for decent journalism in The Gibberer too.

  Yours faithfully,

  Julieanne Durand (Ms)

  JED

  Jed and Julieanne sat in the (illegal) outside seats of Gus’s, slurping iced coffee against the heat breathed down by concrete walls and bitumen, ignoring the flies and the wolf-whistles from the construction site across the road.

  The wolf-whistles would stop when smoko was over. The flies would not.

  ‘You’re really leaving before the election?’

  Julieanne nodded, using her spoon to scoop up the ice cream in the bottom of the glass. ‘Three thousand calories well spent. Yes. Jed, darling, new government or not, Australia’s a backwater. It always will be.’

  Jed had a sudden vision of the leaf-dappled billabong, the song of frogs and time. ‘Backwaters can be peaceful.’

  ‘I may be anti-war, darling, but I don’t want peaceful either. I want challenge. A place with a movie industry, a proper publishing industry. I need to be where things are happening.’ She scraped out the last of the coffee froth with her finger. ‘And you are still going to bury yourself in Gibber’s Creek.’

  ‘Scarlett needs me. And Matilda . . .’

  ‘You’ve said yourself that Scarlett can stay at Nancy’s. Look, why not come just for six months? After the election, if you really want to stay for it. We could have a white Christmas together.’

  ‘Does it snow in London at Christmas?’

  ‘Who cares? We’ll hire a car and drive till we find snow. What’s the use of having money if you don’t use it? You could fly back in a couple of days.’

  For the first time temptation nibbled. It had been hard, handing in her last assignment. She did not want to become an academic. Probably. But just a few months in England . . .

  ‘We could take the ferry over to France too. Christmas in Paris instead.’

  Just a few months. And if — when — Nicholas was elected, she would be away till all the fuss died down. Would not have to see him, hand in hand with Felicity . . .

  The breeze changed. A waft of wombat, more pungent even than Gus’s coffee. The scent of sausages and wood smoke. She didn’t even look over at the construction site to see if someone had lit a fire.

  A voice whispered, ‘Stay. Stay . . .’

  The mutter of Canberra cars faded. She heard once more the deep long boom of a powerful owl.

  ‘I need to be at home for a while. Maybe I’ll come to England nex
t year. I don’t know. Julieanne —’ She stopped, unwilling to say the words weighing on her tongue.

  ‘What?’ asked Julieanne gently.

  ‘Don’t forget me. You’re the first true friend I’ve ever had. Will you write? Telephone even. Reverse charges.’

  ‘You’re the first true friend I’ve ever had too. I don’t think friendship ever vanishes.’

  ‘But as our lives grow apart?’

  Julieanne took her hand. ‘Everyone always has vanished from your life, haven’t they, until the last few years? Which is why you want to go back to Deadsville. Look, you idiot, you and I are as different as possible already, except in the ways that matter.’

  ‘Which are?’

  ‘We are brilliant, beautiful, can stop a male chauvinist pig with a flick of our fingers, have impeccable taste in clothes, and know what friendship means. And I’ll write every week, I promise. Friends forever.’

  She would not cry. ‘Friends forever,’ said Jed.

  Chapter 17

  Gibber’s Creek Gazette, 14 November 1972

  Editorial

  The Gibber’s Creek Gazette speaks for the moral majority when we say ‘no’ to long-haired layabouts and peaceniks, and ‘yes’ to safe, responsible experienced government. None of the Labor candidates in this election have even held office. Leading scuffling students in a ‘moratorium’ that cost Australian industry a day of production, or visiting a communist country, does not equip a party to hold a chook raffle, much less lead the nation.

  NANCY

  Matilda was going to go bananas when she saw that editorial, thought Nancy as Moira’s secretary showed in the only applicant for the position of River View typist. Normally Moira interviewed potential employees, but she was in Sydney for a few days, reviewing applications for three vacant beds.

  There were always so many more than they could take, young people condemned to little life beyond the walls of their home, or even worse, a nursing home where everyone else was elderly, even suffering from dementia. If only they could take more . . . ‘Tom, darling, you can’t draw on the files. Here’s some paper.’

  ‘Don’t want to draw!’ said Clancy.

  ‘Pretend to be tigers then. Big fierce tigers in the jungle . . . Oh, I’m sorry, Miss Forty. No biting, Clancy. Here, play catch with the keys.’ She threw them the filing cabinet keys. ‘Matron Clancy will be back tomorrow. You must be thinking we’re terribly disorganised, Miss Forty.’

  ‘Not at all,’ said Miss Forty pleasantly. She was perhaps twenty-five, and neatly dressed in a white skirt, white blouse and white sandals, her long hair pulled back in a ponytail.

  Nancy glanced at the papers on Moira’s desk again. ‘Your references are excellent. You worked for Dr Zacharia for two years. Would you mind telling me why you left?’

  ‘Dr Zacharia decided to stop practising.’

  ‘Ah, I see. Well, your shorthand speed is excellent too. Tom, no climbing on the filing cabinets!’ She stood hurriedly, before the twins decided to try hanging from the light fittings again, and held out her hand. ‘Welcome to River View, Miss Forty. When can you begin work?’

  The young woman gave an eager smile. Extremely eager, thought Nancy vaguely, hauling Clancy down.

  ‘I could begin today if you like.’ Miss Forty’s eyes evaluated the office, lingering on the filing cabinets.

  She must need the money badly, thought Nancy sympathetically. ‘Wonderful. Tom, where did you put the keys?’

  ‘Don’t know.’

  ‘Clancy?’

  ‘Grrrrr!’ said Clancy, attacking the desk leg.

  ‘Don’t worry. I’ll find them. That can be my first official duty,’ said Miss Forty, still smiling. Was it permanently attached? wondered Nancy absent-mindedly.

  ‘The files are confidential, of course. All information on the children at River View is only released to medical staff or parents or guardians. But you’ll know all that from working for Dr . . . ?’

  ‘Zacharia,’ said Miss Forty pleasantly. ‘Dr Zacharia was always insistent on complete confidentiality.’

  ‘Excellent,’ said Nancy, glancing at her watch. She left Miss Forty on her knees, under the desk, hunting for the filing cabinet keys.

  Chapter 18

  Gibber’s Creek Gazette, 15 November 1972

  Goodbye Gerry Mander, by Jed Kelly

  I’d like you to meet an old friend, well known to all of us. His name is Gerry Mander.

  Gerry Mander is the reason that a vote in central Victoria is worth two and a half votes from central Sydney. Gerry Mander is the reason Bjelke-Petersen still reigns in Queensland. It was good old Gerry Mander who made sure that, despite winning a majority of the votes cast in the 1969 election, the Labor Party still did not get enough seats to claim government.

  But good old Gerry Mander is about to topple. Because when even more Australians vote the Coalition out on 2 December, a new Electorate Commission will examine the electoral boundaries, so that our democracy truly becomes one in which one man or woman casts one vote.

  It’s time!

  Editor’s note: The article above is a paid advertisement placed by this paper’s owner, Mrs Matilda Thompson, and in no way reflects the opinion of this newspaper, nor its longtime editor, nor the voting public of Gibber’s Creek.

  SCARLETT

  ‘Time for freedom, time for changing,’ sang Scarlett, shoving a school uniform into her suitcase. EVERYONE was singing the song, even Mrs Blankenrod, who was at least one hundred and fifty years old and so, necessarily, a vampire as well as a maths teacher.

  As Barbie said, you almost thought it was ‘a proper song’, that is not a political advertisement. Even Mrs Weaver was humming the tune as Scarlett passed her in the street on the way to the bookshop, her hessian sack bulging as Joey grew even larger. Scarlett had almost stopped to ask her if the aliens would be voting for Gough Whitlam.

  Scarlett shoved the last nightdress into her suitcase. ‘Time for sisters, time to be normal, time to myself . . .’

  Because she would never sleep at River View again, never be just ‘one of the River View kids’. Jed was driving home for good today. And Scarlett would live with her, coming back to River View only for therapy.

  A proper home. A home with a small letter, not a Home. And Jed wanted her there, had offered to be her sister soon after they first met and Jed NEVER lied, which meant she wanted a sister and wanted Scarlett to be that sister even back when Scarlett couldn’t even go to the toilet by herself or eat a slice of toast unassisted.

  They fitted, her and Jed. Like they really were sisters, both a bit too quick-thinking for most people to be comfortable with, both refusing to be ashamed of being different.

  Scarlett could have left River View six months before, when the River View Board had at last assessed she could live independently, ticking off the requirements one by one, that Scarlett: could get back into her wheelchair if it tipped over (preferably onto something soft); could not just feed herself, but make toast and tea and open a fridge; could dress herself; and, most importantly, do all the manoeuvres necessary for using a toilet and bathroom that most of the world had mastered by the time they were three.

  Nancy had offered to have her come and live with them at Overflow as soon as she passed the board’s assessment, but Scarlett had said, ‘No, thank you.’ Three years earlier she had longed for Nancy to give her a home at Overflow. She had always assumed it had not been offered to her because Nancy and Michael didn’t want her as a full-time member of their family. It had hurt, a small kernel inside her every day, believing she had been rejected not just by her birth family, but by Nancy and Michael as well. Until the board finally did give their consent, she had no idea that consent had been necessary if she was to live elsewhere, or even visit anywhere for more than a few days at a time, and then, only with supervision.

  But now she HAD a proper family, because having Jed as an adopted sister meant all Jed’s relatives became hers too.

  ‘Time to e
at popcorn in bed if I feel like it; time to have my own lipstick and MASCARA! Time to sleep in, if I want to . . .’

  What if one day it’s possible to link prosthetic limbs to people’s brains and nerves? Scarlett thought, pausing with the suitcase handle in her hands. If a Mixmaster could move with electrical impulses, so could a leg. The human nervous system depended on electrical impulses, and muscles and tendons required electrical impulses to activate them too . . .

  ‘Hi, you,’ said Jed from the door. ‘I thought you’d be out the front, waiting.’

  ‘Sorry. I was dreaming.’ Scarlett shoved a dress into her suitcase and shut it.

  ‘I’ll carry it,’ offered Jed.

  ‘No, thanks.’ Scarlett had been carried to River View as a baby. She’d leave under her own steam. Helped, admittedly, by a special model wheelchair, but after four years the chair was almost a part of her.

  Down the ramp for the last time as a resident, along the gravelled paths. She would never need to come to the residential section of River View again.

  The River View gardens were strangely empty. She’d thought maybe Matron Clancy and her roommates would wave her off. No one even played wheelchair basketball in the quadrangle. The only person visible was a stranger in a white dress, waving pleasantly at her from the office door. Scarlett waved back.

  Jed watched, smiling, as Scarlett opened Boadicea’s door, swung herself in, then collapsed the chair and, with only a slight effort, lifted first her suitcase and then the folded chair into the back and strapped them in.

  ‘Home, James, and don’t spare the horses,’ said Jed, and grinned at her as she switched on the engine.

  Tears clustered in Scarlett’s throat. Because even if — even WHEN — Scarlett went to university, even if they both married, she and Jed would STILL be sisters, and Dribble would still be home.

 
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