If blood should stain th.., p.18

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 18

 

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle
 



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  ‘Poor lions,’ said Tom, gazing at Nicholas as if he was responsible for poisoning the lions.

  ‘Poor horses,’ said Clancy, equally accusatory.

  ‘Everyone finished their gazpacho?’ said Jed brightly. ‘Scarlett, help me take out the plates.’

  ‘Jed?’

  ‘What, brat? Look,’ Jed nodded to the east, where a spark of lightning leaped across the sky, ‘the ants were right. More rain coming . . .’

  ‘Carol says they haven’t had to water the veg or fruit trees all summer. Sam is disappointed they haven’t had to use his ram pump.’

  ‘Sam’s lived through enough droughts not to curse the rain,’ said Jed. ‘What did you want to ask me? I’ve told you I’ll talk to the owners of the Bluebell,’ she added.

  And Jed always kept her word. ‘Jed, do you think Nicholas is happy?’

  A silence. Jed’s hands slightly tightened on the wheel. ‘Yes,’ she said at last. ‘He’s where he wants to be at last, even if standing for parliament wasn’t his idea. Making a difference. Seeing Australia change.’

  ‘I think so too.’

  ‘Then why did you ask?’

  Because he carefully doesn’t look at you, and then forgets, and does look at you, thought Scarlett. Because Felicity isn’t as pretty as you and hardly says anything at all. How could Nicholas want to marry someone who wasn’t even INTERESTING? ‘Why didn’t Felicity drive down to be with him tonight?’

  ‘Because Gibber’s Creek isn’t her home. Nicholas has friends here, and this is the centre of his electorate. Besides, he’s going to Rocky Valley next weekend. She’ll meet him there.’

  ‘How do you know?’

  ‘I asked,’ said Jed shortly.

  Which meant she and Nicholas had talked together when Scarlett wasn’t there. Had it been an accidental kind of talk, meeting in the hall? Or a deliberate kind of talk, one slipping out after the other?

  ‘Sam’s groovy. I like him,’ said Scarlett.

  Jed glanced at her, exasperated. ‘And so do Nancy and Matilda and Matron Clancy.’

  ‘That doesn’t mean they’re wrong. And Sam likes you.’

  ‘If one more person tells me Sam likes me, I am going to hop on the next jet plane and move to San Francisco and become a hippie. He’s a nice man. He builds good chook houses and puts up excellent solar panels.’

  ‘But, Jed . . .’

  ‘Shut up, brat.’

  Scarlett did.

  Chapter 28

  Earl’s Court, London, and the Centre of the Marvellous Universe!

  1 March 1973

  Darling Jed,

  Thank you for the coat! I didn’t really mean for you to buy me one! Especially not in the middle of an Australian summer. I love it, especially now the snow has turned to grey slush and no matter how gorgeous the shop windows are, working as a temp means I get paid peanuts, even by Most Important publishing houses like this one. But at least I do get continuous work, as Aussie girls are known to work hard, and I love it, I love it, I love it, even when a rat the size of a cat peers at me from the windowsill. But it’s hard to live on forty quid a week when I am so tempted by the feather boas and divine felt cloche hats Biba have in stock at the moment.

  But (she pauses dramatically) I might just get a permanent job here!!! Solely due to my chatting up a Very Important Author on the Underground who I didn’t recognise when she dropped her handbag, and as a Colonial I didn’t know you do not chat to strangers. The VIA, who is eccentric enough to talk to strangers too, suggested lunch in Soho (a divine Chinese place where they never serve sweet and sour and Paul McCartney passed close enough to almost touch). She told me about the book she’s writing set in Queen Elizabeth I’s time, and I told her about the anachronism she hadn’t noticed. We’ll see!

  Did you hear that Anthea’s been arrested again already? Another green ban, but this time . . .

  Gibber’s Creek Gazette, 1 March 1973

  Federal Voting Age Lowered to 18

  In a move that has shocked the wiser heads in Canberra, the Labor government has lowered the voting age to eighteen . . .

  JED

  When one was summoned by the dragon of Drinkwater, one obeyed. Although she had nothing else to do that day. Indeed, life was just slightly . . . boring? . . . compared with Julieanne’s accounts of swinging London.

  Not that Jed wanted to shop in Carnaby Street, or any other street. Or meet Paul McCartney or the Maharishi, or live in a flat in Earl’s Court. But life needed a focus, and she didn’t have one. All she knew was that the focus would have to be there, in Gibber’s Creek, because her feet had grown roots that wriggled down into the shaly soil. Sometimes, at two am, she even half woke to feel her fingers sprouting leaves, or her cheeks windblown and feathered from soaring as a powerful owl balanced on the darkness.

  Maybe Matilda wanted to give her instructions for her first Thompson Family Trust meeting. Now that would be interesting. Jed turned Boadicea into the Drinkwater driveway. Originally built to an English house and garden design, it had been mutated by sunlight, assorted droughts and a bushfire, till now it could be in no other place than Australia.

  Matilda sat on the faded cane chair on the veranda. She seemed to be there most days and even nights, the paddocks her floor, the stars her ceiling. Jed waited till they sat together in companionable silence, Anita’s tray with its tea cloth embroidered with rosebuds, the silver teapot, the fine, translucent china, the hot-water jug, milk jug, scones steaming in their napkin-lined silver basket, strawberry jam in its pot, butter in another.

  It’s as formal as any Japanese tea ceremony, thought Jed. We just don’t make our rules explicit. And Matilda had yet to say why she had asked Jed there. Did she just want company? Well, if they were just to sit there talking . . . ‘How did you get here from Grinder’s Alley?’

  Matilda sipped her tea. ‘Took the train.’

  ‘No, I mean . . .’

  ‘I know what you mean.’

  Of course she did. And the old voice, still with only the smallest of tremors, kept talking, softly and evenly, of those long past days. Auntie Love, and her gift of the land; old Drinkwater, who had title to the land, which was not the same thing, but who knew it in other ways; James, whom she had loved but always with an edge of terror she had never quite acknowledged; and old Drinkwater’s illness and her taking on the job of manager, daughter, eventual owner as she bought him out with her share of the profits, at a price that was as much gift as purchase.

  ‘I loved him. Stubborn autocratic old biscuit.’

  ‘I can see the resemblance,’ said Jed dryly. ‘Two peas in a pod.’

  ‘Yes. Well. I am his great-granddaughter.’

  ‘But what . . . ? How?’

  ‘He’d married Auntie Love. I only found out she was my great-grandmother long after she had died too. Though she didn’t die. She simply vanished. And yet every day I feel she is still here . . .’ Matilda seemed to shake herself out of memory. ‘They’d had a daughter, who married a white stockman, and died giving birth to my father. I suspect Auntie Love was the secret behind old Drinkwater’s early fortune. She told him where the grass would be, when the droughts, the floods, would come. When to buy and when to sell. She taught me too . . . and then she left him. I don’t know why, but I can guess.’

  ‘He was ashamed of her?’

  ‘Maybe. I don’t know. I do know he loved her as deeply as any man could do. But you can still be ashamed of those you love. I’ve seen my cousins refused even the vote in land they should own. Saw them hunted like kangaroos. Saw . . . saw many things.’

  ‘But it’s better now.’

  ‘It is getting better,’ said Matilda gently. ‘When the white people of this land can read it as well as they read a book, when all those with black skin can choose their own life and have the same rights as any white person, then perhaps . . .’ Her voice died away. She stood up. ‘Come on.’

  ‘Where are we going? I thought you were going to teach me how
to help run the family business.’

  Matilda laughed. ‘In a way. Today I’m going to teach you how to be invisible.’

  ‘What, really? Like the invisible man?’

  ‘Who is he?’

  ‘On telly. He has to wear bandages so anyone can see him.’

  ‘No,’ said Matilda matter-of-factly. ‘Not like that. This is what Auntie Love taught me. It’s what I’d have taught my daughters, if I’d had any. But Nancy probably knows more than I do, and Iris is a city girl.’

  ‘So you make do with me?’

  ‘No. Because whether you know it or not, this land has claimed you as a guardian, just as it did me. That friend of yours wanted you to go to England with her, didn’t she?’

  ‘Julieanne? Yes.’

  ‘Most young things want to travel. You have enough money. I did as well. And yet I didn’t go. And nor have you.’

  ‘I might, one day,’ said Jed.

  ‘You might. But I bet that within a fortnight you are longing to be home. No matter what you face here, what flood or fire or tragedy, you will not leave.’

  There was nothing to say. Nothing she could say. Matilda was wrong. Or was she right? Could roots become chains that held you even when you didn’t want to stay?

  Of course I can leave, she thought. Maybe next Christmas. Just for a few weeks. A white Christmas, even if the snow is dirty slush in English streets, and rats peered from the windowsills.

  They walked along the river. Sheep looked up at them curiously, then continued eating. The land breathed out heat as the sun cast it down.

  ‘Are you sure you’re okay?’ asked Jed at last.

  ‘I’ve walked this way almost every day for nearly eighty years.’

  ‘That’s what I meant,’ said Jed pointedly.

  ‘I’m not going to drop dead. Not today, at any rate.’

  Jed stared at her. Matilda die? One day everyone died. Her parents, her grandparents. But not Matilda.

  ‘This will do.’ Matilda hesitated. ‘This isn’t the way Auntie Love showed me. She just . . . did it. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Rationalising it, trying to make sense of it.

  ‘The first thing I think is that most people don’t actually look around them. These days you need to learn to block out all the things that don’t concern you, the ugliness of billboards . . .’

  ‘The bloke bashing his wife next door,’ said Jed quietly.

  ‘That too. But it means if you don’t do anything that makes other people look at you, they probably won’t. Like when roos look at you. They just look for a two-legged human stance/posture, the close-together eyes of a meat eater that needs to judge the speed of its prey. Grazers have wide-apart eyes, so they can see the meat eaters coming.

  ‘If you don’t want a roo to notice you, stand on one leg. Disguise being two-legged. Look down, and never straight on. Look at them sideways. Same with humans. Don’t look at them directly. And stay still.

  ‘But not totally still. Trees move, just slightly. Watch the way they’re moving. Think you’re a tree . . .’

  ‘Does this work?’ asked Jed softly.

  ‘It works. You may never need it, unless you want to watch a mob of roos for a few hours. Interesting to see them relaxed. The does gossip, just like the CWA. But maybe one day it will save your life. It did mine, once. Try it.’

  Jed stood, awkward, head down.

  ‘The first person who comes this way will see you in half a second. Weird girl standing on one leg.’

  ‘But you said . . .’

  ‘You’re doing it all right. Now think it. Find a tree so your shadows merge. That’s it, now think tree . . .’

  I am a tree, thought Jed. I am a tree . . .

  She felt ridiculous. At last Matilda said, ‘Next lesson tomorrow. Time for lunch. I’ll tell you about ants on the way home.’

  ‘Did I pass?’

  ‘A one-eyed man on a donkey could have seen you a mile off. This isn’t easy, child.’ She prodded her stick at the ground. ‘Now, ants. You can learn a lot from ants. They cover their nests with twigs if there’ll be a big rain. The small black ones come indoors before a dry spell. Like to build a new nest in the bathroom if they can. The queens fly twenty-four hours before a rainstorm. But if a drought’s coming, they dig down, deep down. And if you’re starving, you can dig down and find the larvae . . .’

  A normal girl would say, ‘Yuck.’ Or giggle. Instead Jed felt the slow earth beat beneath her feet, the breath of sky around her. ‘Why are you teaching me this now?’

  ‘Because you need to find yourself before you can see around you.’ Matilda stumped along the track, made by wallaby paws and wombats. ‘Because I need to teach. Nancy will teach you more when I am gone. This is as much for me as for you. Life has its seasons, child.’

  Matilda concentrated on walking for long minutes, then found the breath to say, ‘It would be too easy to live my last years in an armchair, cut off by walls and windows. Never to feel the air change on my skin and know: rain coming. Fire wind approaching. Tomorrow the cherry blossom will open, or the wonga flowers.’ She glanced at Jed, and suddenly Jed saw pleading below the arrogance. ‘Do you want to learn?’

  ‘Yes.’ She meant it. She felt the old woman beside her relax, imperceptibly.

  ‘Two more lessons for you today.’

  ‘What are they?’

  Another pause. More steps. ‘Friends your own age go and die on you. Or you go and die on them. A good life has love from every generation. And the other . . .’ Stomp. Stomp. ‘Keep living until the second you die.’

  ‘Where have you been?’ Scarlett looked up from her anatomy textbook.

  ‘I told you. Visiting Matilda.’ Jed’s mind was still wobbling from the old woman’s revelations.

  ‘You smell like gum trees. And your hands are filthy.’

  ‘Digging for ants.’

  ‘What!’

  ‘Matilda was showing me things,’ said Jed slowly, remembering the fat white ant larvae, the taste of them on her tongue, the curious fattiness as she swallowed.

  For a year she had survived on humanity’s garbage and castoffs, foraging in supermarket dustbins. Now she knew the land about her was deeply, endlessly generous. Out-of-date cheesecake or ant grubs or goanna eggs dug from the termite mounds? No choice, she thought.

  ‘Teaching you bush stuff? Like Nancy does?’ Nancy had taught all the River View kids how to listen for the bird warnings about snakes, or to tell when the wind changed and what it might bring.

  ‘Sort of. Deeper.’

  ‘Will you teach me?’

  ‘Of course.’ Jed stopped.

  Because there was no way to teach a girl in a wheelchair how to be invisible. The girl herself might manage it — would manage it — given Scarlett’s determination. But a wheelchair in the bush would be the first thing anyone passing noticed.

  ‘I’d love to teach you what Matilda teaches me,’ said Jed slowly. Because Jed Kelly never lied and this was her sister, blood relative or not.

  ‘You can’t, can you?’ replied Scarlett flatly.

  ‘No. I can teach you some things, if Matilda gives me permission. I think she will. But not everything.’

  ‘Because I’m in a wheelchair?’

  Jed nodded. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said softly.

  ‘I’m used to it.’ Scarlett’s voice was carefully emptied of emotion.

  ‘Scarlett, you’ve come so far!’

  ‘I know. Your dear Mr Whitlam is even going to make it illegal to discriminate against people like me. But LIFE discriminates against people like me! I can’t go bush like you. I don’t even know if I can have kids —’

  ‘Scarlett —’

  ‘And even if I can, what if they’re born like me?’

  ‘Scarlett. Darling Scarlett.’ Jed held her while the younger woman sobbed. At last she pulled her face away from Jed’s shoulder.

  ‘It’s all right, I’m okay. I’m lucky. I know that. Concentrate on what you can do, don
’t grieve over what you can’t.’

  ‘That sounds like Nancy talk. You’ve even got her accent right.’

  Jed waited for Scarlett’s giggle. It didn’t come.

  Chapter 29

  Gibber’s Creek Gazette, 17 March 1973

  Abuse of Power by Attorney-General

  Commonwealth Police raided the offices of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation yesterday on the orders of the attorney-general, Senator Lionel Murphy. Senator Murphy alleges ASIO was withholding vital information on right-wing Croatian extremists in Australia, undermining security prior to the visit of the Yugoslav prime minister, Džemal Bijedić.

  This is the first time that an attorney-general has so highhandedly breached security protocols, causing many in high office in Canberra to wonder if Labor can be trusted with sensitive matters they know little about.

  See the Editorial: Labor Outrages Allied Intelligence Agencies, page 3.

  JED

  Jim Thompson sat at the head of the Drinkwater dining table, folders in front of him, fountain pen in hand. Matilda sat at the other end, acknowledging that the head of Thompson’s Industries should sit in the seat of power for a Thompson’s Industries board meeting.

  ‘Tea or coffee, anyone?’ asked Matilda.

  ‘Mum, perhaps after the board meeting . . .’

  ‘Leafsong has made a delicious carrot cake and some melting moments.’

  ‘Mum, perhaps later . . .’

  ‘Just a taste,’ said Matilda wickedly as Leafsong entered with a plate of freshly made apple fritters.

  She’s doing it deliberately, thought Jed, amused. I bet she hasn’t behaved like this at other meetings, or Jim would be used to it.

  Matilda was playing ‘old lady’. Why? Jed grinned. She could guess. She accepted an apple fritter from Leafsong and winked. She bit into it as the girl left the room. Crisp on the outside, warm apple on the inside, with just a hint of lemon. Delicious.

 
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