If blood should stain th.., p.19

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 19

 

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle
 



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  And the negotiations for the Bluebell were going well too. Thank goodness she was now twenty-one and Jim no longer had to give permission for her to spend her money. She was grateful for his investment advice, but a run-down café that had been a failure for each of its successive owners for nearly a century was not his idea of a good investment. But this was a people investment, more than a money one.

  ‘You were saying, dear?’ said Matilda.

  ‘Thank you, Mum. The first item on the agenda is to ratify the minutes of the last meeting. You have all read them? Any changes?’

  ‘I propose they be passed,’ said Michael.

  ‘Seconded,’ said Matilda.

  ‘Excellent. The motion is passed unanimously. The second item.’ Jim smiled at Jed. ‘We would all like to welcome Jed Kelly onto the board of Thompson’s Industries.’

  A small round of clapping. Jed flushed. She hadn’t expected that.

  ‘Are there any questions about last year’s chairman’s report? No? Then I declare this meeting closed . . .’

  Jed put up her hand. ‘May I add two more items to the agenda? Maybe as Other Business?’

  ‘What? Well. Yes. Of course.’

  ‘I’d like to propose two motions.’ Jed had learned a lot from meetings of the Student Union and a single encounter with an optimistic student-workers revolutionary group that lacked both workers and any possible hope of fomenting a revolution, whose meeting she’d (only just) managed to sit through without giggling. ‘First, I propose that Thompson’s Industries accept the principle of equal pay for equal work. When the same jobs are done by men and women, the women should receive equal pay.’

  Jim blinked, then smiled. ‘Very well. Any seconders?’

  ‘I second it,’ said Michael.

  ‘Those in favour? Those against? Carried unanimously.’ Jim’s smile grew. ‘Thank you for your contribution, Jed,’ he said smoothly. ‘You’ve moved Thompson’s Industries towards the next millennium. Now, I declare this meeting —’

  ‘The other motion,’ said Jed. ‘I propose that all jobs at Thompson’s Industries, including apprenticeships in all areas, be open to female as well as male applicants.’

  ‘What? That’s impossible! The men would never stand for —’

  ‘They don’t have to,’ said Jed. ‘They can quit if they don’t want to work with women. Or strike.’

  ‘We’d be opening the door to, well, exactly the sort of people Thompson’s Industries certainly don’t need. No respectable girl would ever want to be a welder. Or a mechanic.’

  ‘You forget the war, darling,’ said Matilda gently. ‘Quite a lot of women did both extremely well.’

  ‘That was different.’

  Jed shrugged. ‘If no “respectable” girls apply, then there won’t be a problem. I’m not suggesting Thompson’s employ anyone unsuitable, male or female. Is there a seconder?’

  Matilda held up her hand.

  ‘Those in favour? Those against?’ Jim hesitated. ‘The motion is carried three to one.’

  Jed grinned cheekily at Jim. ‘Now you can close the meeting.’

  ‘Not yet,’ said Matilda. ‘I would like to propose that the Thompson’s Car Radio calendars no longer feature scantily clad young women.’

  Jim looked shocked that his mother even knew about such calendars. ‘Mum, every firm with male clients makes calendars like that. They’re meant to be hung in male-only areas where women won’t see them. Garages, workshops —’

  ‘Which may not be male-only much longer,’ pointed out Jed.

  ‘Every flaming garage in this country has a calendar of half-naked women . . .’ began Jim hotly.

  ‘Well, they won’t be in ours.’ Matilda smiled sweetly. ‘Motion seconded?’

  ‘I second it,’ said Jed.

  ‘Those in favour?’

  Two hands went up: Matilda’s and Jed’s.

  Jed gazed at Michael. So did his mother. Michael slowly put up his hand. ‘Under protest,’ he said. ‘Because if I don’t vote for this, Nancy will make my life hell.’

  ‘Motion carried,’ said Matilda. ‘Now if you’d like to declare the meeting closed, darling,’ she said to Jim, ‘there’s a lovely curry for lunch, with pappadums. Just the way you like it. Will Nancy be joining us?’ she asked Michael.

  He shook his head. ‘She has business at River View.’

  ‘All going well?’ asked Matilda.

  Michael hesitated. ‘Everything’s fine. They’ve just accepted another child, that’s all. A baby really.’

  ‘What’s the baby’s name?’ asked Jed, to make conversation.

  ‘Gavin,’ said Michael. ‘The baby’s name is Gavin.’

  Chapter 30

  Ms Jed Kelly

  Dribble, Australia

  17 March 1973

  Darling J,

  I did it! Don’t you dare say I do nothing in Deadsville. Today I changed Thompson’s Industries. Equal pay. Equal opportunity.

  I am going to celebrate with a dinner here tonight, cooked by Leafsong. Carol is coming, because I can’t ask Leafsong to stay for dinner without her, and Sam McAlpine, who built the chook palace.

  Have enclosed a photo of said palace. The girls are Queen Mary, Elizabeth I, Elizabeth II and Catherine the Great. They are giving three eggs a day, which is more than enough for me and Scarlett. Catherine the Great’s eggs are blue-green, because she is an Auracana, which is a wild breed from South America.

  And there is nothing emphatically nothing between me and Sam.

  Love and three cheers for women’s lib,

  J xxxx

  PS And I can’t believe you saw Germaine Greer on a bus in Regent Street! Shame you didn’t have your copy of The Female Eunuch with you so she could have signed it.

  NANCY

  Nancy stared at the baby in Moira’s arms. The too-small baby, even though he was six months old, his head supported, his arms and legs unmoving, though the eyes were bright and intelligent. ‘Moira . . .’

  ‘I know,’ said her sister-in-law stiffly. ‘I shouldn’t have accepted him. The doctors say it’s Spinal Muscular Dystrophy. He’ll never be able to sit, or even feed himself. He’s taking the place of another child and there’s nothing we can do for him.’

  Nancy reached out and pressed her hand against Moira’s and the baby’s warmth. ‘We can give him love.’

  And watch him die, she thought. Children who developed SMD so young rarely lived more than two years.

  The baby looked at her. He’s . . . interested, Nancy thought. Excited by the change of scene. Not scared at all. A bright intelligence imprisoned in that unresponsive body.

  ‘I . . .’ Moira’s face collapsed in tears. Tears unshed for more than a quarter of a century, since her four-year-old son, Gavin, was killed by a Japanese hand grenade, just as the war ended, and their prisoner-of-war camp was liberated.

  ‘It’s not just his name,’ she managed at last. ‘He was in a horrible place. Just horrible. The stink of urine and, and . . . untrained staff. I couldn’t leave him there. And it’s not hopeless. Scarlett was almost as helpless, and look at her now.’

  At six months Scarlett had been able to lift her head, move her fingers and toes. But it was true her prognosis had been terrible. Like Moira with this helpless baby, Nancy had been unable to turn away, even though River View policy was to take older children.

  And no child was hopeless. When you loved kids, there was always hope. Had to be hope. And if this baby was to have only a year or two of life, then all the more reason to fill that time with love.

  Nancy had fashioned a sling for the baby Scarlett, though that wasn’t her name then, of course. The sling supported her floppy body so she could see the world; it must still be in a cupboard somewhere. She made a note to check their respirator, to make sure it was suitable for a baby.

  ‘Can he swallow?’

  ‘Yes. His swallowing reflex is weaker than normal, of course, so feeding takes longer. But, Nancy, they said he was feeding bett
er all the time. Not worse. That means he’s getting stronger. And his lung function is good. No distended abdomen . . .’ A distended abdomen was often a sign that the diaphragm was doing the work a baby’s lungs could not.

  Nancy forced herself not to cry at the hope in Moira’s face.

  The baby’s green eyes watched her, almost as if he knew her thoughts. Almost as if he were smiling.

  ‘We’ve had our share of miracles,’ she said softly. ‘Let’s see what we can do with Gavin too.’ It was strangely good to say the name again, after so many years.

  Gavin, their butterfly child, loved, and lost, but still so deeply loved.

  And this small Gavin? Nancy managed a smile. They would love him too.

  Chapter 31

  Earl’s Court, London

  21 March 1973

  Darling Jed,

  Thank you for the photo of the chook palace. I’ve stuck it up on my desk, though I have to keep explaining to everyone what a ‘chook’ is. And wacko for the blow for women’s lib and equal pay at Thompson’s!

  The new job is wonderful. I’ve met — okay, taken in a tray of tea to — three authors I adore this week alone! But I could do with a bit of equal pay myself.

  Not much else to tell you. There was what I thought was a lovely young man, but he turned out to be the biggest MCP in Europe. He asked me to dinner at his flat and there was this enormous pile of washing-up, and he said, ‘I was going to do this before you cooked dinner, but now you’re here you can do it.’ Can you imagine? And he takes his laundry down to his mum to do every weekend. I’m thinking of giving every likely lad I meet a questionnaire:

  Can you cook?

  Will you cook?

  Will you cook even if there is a female present?

  Can you iron your own shirts?

  Would you, just sometimes, iron mine too?

  If I ever meet a man who says ‘yes’ to all of them, I might even elope. Though not till they make me managing editor.

  Love and hugs,

  J xxxxxxx

  PS If there is nothing quote emphatically nothing unquote between you and Sam McAlpine, why do you need to say so? Also, can he cook and iron? And does he?

  RA ZACHARIA

  Ra Zacharia stared at the gaunt body on the bed. It was . . . inconvenient.

  Ra Zacharia had seen dead bodies before, of course. Death happened in his line of work. But just now, with things so delicate, so much potential so near, a death might be disastrous.

  Ra Zacharia subdued the flicker of anger. Anger interfered with harmony with the universe. A body was just a body. He must get rid of it.

  When he told the acolytes they must practise silent meditation in their rooms that night, there would be no one to see him wheel the woman’s body along the corridor. And when he asked 23 to dig a hole to plant a tree down by the herb garden, the young man would obey without question. 23 might even understand why the body must vanish. But it was safer, always, to tell people only what they needed to know.

  And Elders be blessed that 31 had no relatives to ask questions. If anyone in the community asked, he would simply say that 31 had, like 40, gone to pursue the needs of the Elders elsewhere for the time being.

  A pity though, he thought, looking at the wasted face on the bed. He’d thought 31 had potential. But she had not proved strong enough. She had been too old, even at forty-three, to remould her mind and body as the Sacrifice would require.

  That was why Scarlett Kelly-O’Hara was so perfect. The child had forced her body far beyond the doctors’ diagnoses. She would want more. She must want more! And that was how he’d trap her, offering her what no doctor ever could.

  And the baby! Ra Zacharia felt a smile like a radiant sun. 40 had told him about the new child at River View. A baby, and an even more hopeless case than the girl. So perfectly, wonderfully helpless, hopeless.

  What Sacrifice would be more perfect than a baby?

  Ra Zacharia smiled down at the body on the bed, his irritation seeping into the ether. With two such Sacrifices so close, 31 was easily spared.

  Chapter 32

  Gibber’s Creek Gazette, 22 March 1973

  Correction: The Gazette apologises for the misspelling of the headline ‘Visit of Brazilian Minister for Public Affairs’ in yesterday’s edition. No offence was intended by the inadvertent deletion of the letter l in ‘Public’.

  SCARLETT

  The wind chased the first autumn plane-tree leaves down Gibber’s Creek’s main road in twirls of dust and dog hair. The street presumably had a name, thought Scarlett as she manoeuvred her chair into the bookshop, careful not to catch the basket that held her schoolbag on the door. But to the locals it would always be simply ‘the main road’.

  One of the advantages of having a sister who had a bookshop account that was sent to Thompson’s Industries, given to her by her late great-grandfather, a sister who thought a wall was empty unless covered in bookshelves, and that a pile of books by the bedside was the best possible table for your evening cup of chamomile tea, was that you could buy ANY book that even LOOKED interesting, even if it turned out to be as boring as white cotton bras and underpants, which, now Scarlett had left River View, she would never, EVER, wear again. Buying books on Jed’s account wasn’t like asking her for things.

  Scarlett had read EVERYTHING that was even mildly perusable in the library AND all of Dr McAlpine’s textbooks, and even if the only vaguely appealing new non-fiction book was that weird one by Carlos Castaneda about discovering a deeper reality of drugs, which was STUPID as most people couldn’t even understand real life deeply with a clear mind, it was still better than a Georgette Heyer romance, like the ones Barbie’s barbarians poured over. Or Jed’s endless sci-fi. Scarlett wanted to create the future, not read someone else’s version of it . . .

  She took Bonecrack from the New Releases shelf, considered it, rejected it. Another thriller. She didn’t want thrillers — her life had challenges enough. She liked REAL books . . .

  ‘Have you read this one?’

  Scarlett looked at the book before looking up at the source of the voice. Alien Past, Human Future? ‘Isn’t that like the book von Däniken wrote . . .’ She stopped as she saw who held the book out to her.

  Not the shop assistant, but a young man. A good-looking young man just nicely a few years older than her, with brown eyes that maybe blinked a little too much, but lashes thick as kitten’s fur, as tall as Michael though not as well built. He wore white — not just an old-fashioned white shirt but the now-familiar baggy white kurta and trousers of the still-mysterious community members.

  The sort of young man Barbie and the barbarians would SWOON over.

  Scarlett automatically pulled her dreary maroon gingham school dress over her too-thin, useless legs. The rest of her looked . . . okay. Mostly. If you didn’t mind small and elfin. But not her legs.

  She had never had a young man smile at her. Not that way. She found her voice again. ‘Sam McAlpine says that most of von Däniken’s evidence is bunk. The pyramids and Easter Island statues were made using levers and rollers, the same way he and the others got the tanks up the hill at the commune. Did you know that Archimedes said, “Give me a big-enough lever and I’ll move the world”? And Jed says that the so-called maps of earth from space look NOTHING like the ones created by the Apollo astronauts who really WERE in space. Though, of course, von Däniken wrote the book before humans went to the moon . . .’

  She was talking too much. Spilling too much information like she ALWAYS did. But the young man’s smile stayed in place. ‘I agree with you about von Däniken. But I know the author of this book. His work is based on modern scientific analysis,’ the three words were said almost reverently, ‘not half-baked history.’

  Which explained why someone like him might speak to someone like her. He wanted her to buy his friend’s book. ‘Okay. You’ve sold me.’ It would be worth glancing through anyway, just for the fun of debunking its claims.

  She began to
wheel herself to the counter. To her surprise the young man accompanied her. He waited while she put the book on Jed’s account, then tentatively asked, ‘Would you like a milkshake or something? There’s a tea shop down the road.’

  Scarlett tried to keep her voice matter-of-fact. ‘I know. The Bluebell Café.’ Was this a DATE? Other girls had dates. Not Scarlett Kelly-O’Hara!

  Or did this young man think she looked hungry because she was so thin? Maybe he was just suggesting she get some food, but had no intention of going with her.

  She wheeled out of the shop and found him beside her on the footpath, as if it were normal to walk beside a girl in a wheelchair. Scarlett glanced around, desperately hoping someone from school would see them.

  She peered up at him. The good fairy who had given her twisted limbs had also handed her a brilliant brain. It wasn’t boasting to admit that of YOURSELF. Was this young man just possibly attracted to her because he was super intelligent as well? Because, let’s face it, super intelligent was as rare as chimpanzees in Gibber’s Creek. Or maybe as rare as double-jointed thumbs, because her adopted family, like Jed and Matilda, as well as Carol and Sam, WERE super intelligent, in their own way, but she was the only YOUNG super-intelligent being in the district . . .

  She wasn’t sure if her heart was beating fast from the excitement of just BEING with a handsome young man in public, or because he might just want a REAL conversation. Like whether Myxomatosis could mutate and spread to humans, or if a tram with ten people on it was going to crash into a building, killing hundreds, should you turn the switch to kill those ten, while saving even more?

  But whether he was handsome AND brilliant or just handsome, there was still a question waiting. A big question. Should she wait till at least two kids from school had seen her before she asked it? But the curious part of her, as always, could not be resisted.

  ‘Why?’ she demanded, halting the wheelchair.

 

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