If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 20
He grinned down at her. ‘Why what?’
‘Why does someone like YOU want to have a milkshake with someone like ME?’
He didn’t pretend to misunderstand. She liked that. ‘Because you look at interesting books. Not romances.’
‘You want to have a milkshake because I read interesting books?’
‘No. Because I thought you might be interesting too.’ Scarlett caught sight of a small, star-shaped pendant on a thin silver chain about his neck. ‘So far you are.’
A good answer. But Scarlett knew from watching Jed, who never lied but could still be very good at hiding the truth, that this young man’s answer was not the whole truth either.
But why would a young man like this bother to obfuscate just to pick up a girl like her? A girl who would LOVE to be seen with anyone who looked like him?
‘I’ll try to keep being interesting then.’ Scarlett found her voice trembling. Stop it, she told herself. You are the girl who defied the doctors to go to an ordinary school, to sit up by yourself instead of remaining helpless and in need; you are the girl who tops everything at school — everything IMPORTANT anyway. So what if he’s tall and so wonderfully straight and has velvet eyes . . .
She kept her hands steady as she wheeled herself down the street, then waited as the young man opened the door of the Bluebell Café for her.
The café was almost empty, as usual. Two girls from Form Two drank redback spiders, the ice cream and cherry topping swirling in the dark glass of cola. They looked at her, astonished. Scarlett smiled. Yes! Every barbarian would be whispering about it. Scarlett Kelly-O’Hara had a milkshake with a handsome young man!
It would have been even better if Barbie herself had been there, but the only other customers were the flies, more of them inside than out, as well as an unfamiliar woman like a large grey mouse eating a toasted cheese and tomato jaffle, which was the only kind the Bluebell offered, just as their only cakes were rock cakes dotted with what might be sultanas or deceased flies.
They each ordered at the counter: a chocolate milkshake for her, a vanilla one for him.
‘White like your clothes?’ Scarlett asked, wheeling towards a table by the window, where everyone who passed could see them. She remembered the man in the white suit who had offered her a lift the year before. She had seen him a couple of other times, but he hadn’t spoken to her again. Was this young man connected to him in some way?
The grin again. Lovely teeth! So many of the kids from River View had teeth stained or crooked from the medications that had saved their lives, or the conditions that had crippled them. ‘No. White because I like vanilla. And they only use chocolate-flavoured syrup here, not real chocolate. I like chocolate too much to put up with fake stuff.’
‘You’re right. I should have ordered vanilla too.’ She considered him. He looked as good sitting down. Better really now that their faces were more level. ‘My name’s Scarlett Kelly-O’Hara.’
He smiled. ‘A film star’s name!’
‘No, you’re thinking of Gone with the Wind. The book and the movie. I went through a stage of choosing a new name every week. Scarlett stuck.’
‘It suits you.’
‘Thank you.’ She supposed it was a compliment. ‘What’s your name?’
He hesitated. ‘Mark 23.’
‘You’re kidding!’ She regretted the words as soon as she said them.
He flushed. ‘It’s the name I was given when I joined the Chosen of the Universe.’
Mark 23? The Chosen of the Universe? Was he SERIOUS? Were the ‘people in white’ some kind of cult? Which possibly answered the ‘Why are you sitting here with me?’ question. He was certifiably nuts . . .
So much for intelligent conversation. But at least she could be smug at school tomorrow, even if she never saw him again. ‘You mean people actually say, “Hey, Mark 23, do you want Froot Loops for breakfast?”’
‘They mostly call me 23. It means I was the twenty-third to join the Chosen. And we have a specially designed muesli for breakfast, not Froot Loops.’ The smile was back now, curiously sweet and almost innocent. ‘Scientifically designed to be low in fat, high in vitamins and roughage.’
‘What does it taste like?’
He laughed, so infectiously that the woman with the jaffle looked up. ‘Luckily, delicious. Or not just luckily. Why design a food that doesn’t taste good?’
That made sense, even if not much else did. And, no, he probably was not nuts. Possibly deluded, but so was all of humanity, including herself. She just hadn’t found out the bits she had got wrong yet . . .
‘Why wear white?’
‘To bond us as a team. But mostly to make us careful. When you’re doing important work, experiments, you have to be exact. Wearing white reminds us that spills matter. And being careful reminds us to think of what we are doing, focusing on the “now”.’
Which also made sense, of a sort. ‘I can’t call you by a number. How about Mark?’
‘That’ll do. For the moment.’
He could have been flirting. Scarlett hadn’t enough experience to know.
The waitress put their milkshakes in front of them. Scarlett watched as Mark sipped his, then pulled a face.
‘It’s one of life’s great mysteries,’ he said lightly. ‘How can the Bluebell make everything taste awful? Even vanilla.’
‘It’ll get better soon. A friend of mine is going to take it over soon. My sister’s buying the building, but she says it will take about three months for the sale to go through.’
‘Really?’ But Mark didn’t look surprised. Nor did he ask who Scarlett’s sister was, or how she could afford to buy a café. Which meant Mark had known who Scarlett was before he met her, and who Jed was too.
Gossip bred like rabbits around here. And even in a town that was used to kids in wheelchairs from River View, Scarlett was conspicuous. Jed, the heiress who’d arrived as a tatty-looking hitchhiker, even more so.
Perhaps this was the answer to ‘Why are you sitting here with a girl in a wheelchair?’, thought Scarlett gloomily. Money. Jed’s money attracted people like bushflies were drawn to daggy wool. Did Mark’s guru want money from Jed? If the newspapers were right, gurus usually did want money.
‘What’s the Chosen of the Universe?’ she asked.
‘A community, out of town. It’s a place of healing. All of us have been healed when doctors have given up.’ Mark looked at her so intently that she flushed.
So that was why he had asked her for a milkshake. It was worse even than being singled out because her sister was rich. Even protected by River View, by the Thompsons and Jed, Scarlett had still met all too many people — mothers of girls at school, even a bus driver — who knew of some miracle, herbs that knitted bones together, goanna oil or some weird liniment that would cure her. But none of them could make bones that did not exist grow.
‘My back can’t be healed,’ Scarlett said flatly. ‘My muscles will get stronger — maybe — if I keep on with the therapy exercises, but parts of my spine are too small to ever bear my weight.’
‘That’s what the doctors have told you?’
‘Doctors have a vested interest in keeping sick people sick. No patients, no money.’
‘Most of the doctors who have helped me donate their services.’
‘Then maybe their minds are closed to alternatives.’
‘That’s what happens out at . . . your place? Alternatives?’
He nodded. ‘Look at me.’
She looked. He was good to look at.
‘I developed epilepsy when I was in my last year at school. Had a seizure right in the middle of my final exams. It was —’ He stopped.
‘It’s okay,’ said Scarlett gently. Johnnie at River View was an epileptic. She had only seen one of his seizures, the eyeballs rolling up, the drool, the stiffened muscles, the spread of urine through his jeans and onto the ground. Even if Mark hadn’t been aware
‘The doctors put me on drugs. No more seizures. But the medication made me so sleepy I couldn’t focus on anything. I knew I was going to fail my first-term exams at uni and be chucked out. Then I heard Ra Zacharia give a lecture at the Student Union. I went up to him afterwards. He looked into my eyes and promised that within a month I’d never have an attack again.’
‘How long ago was that?’
‘Three years. I’ve been off the medication all that time. And I have been fine.’ Mark smiled at her. It really was a gorgeous smile. ‘Better than fine. Fulfilled. Happy. Part of something that will change humanity. A new world . . .’
Vaguely she wondered just how many ‘new worlds’ one planet could contain. Gough Whitlam’s new world, Halfway to Eternity’s, and now this Ra person’s . . .
‘Why do you call him Ra?’
‘It’s ancient Egyptian for doctor.’
She had a feeling it probably wasn’t. Ancient Egyptian was written in hieroglyphs, not letters, so no one knew how it was pronounced. But maybe they’d extrapolated the ancient language from modern Egyptian . . .
‘So people come to your place to be healed?’
‘No. Everyone in the community is there because we HAVE been healed. All of us, when the doctors gave up on us. We are there to learn to live well, as children of the universe. To learn what it is to be a true human being, because only then will we be able to meet the other intelligences of the universe as equals. To look at the skies and realise we are living on only one planet in an infinity of worlds and alien intelligences. The skies out here are relatively free of pollution — light pollution, not just smoke,’ he added, more prosaically.
‘Were you studying astronomy at uni?’
‘No. Mum persuaded me to study law, but that was just so I could get a nice job in a nice office afterwards. I’m happier where I am.’ He looked at her seriously. ‘Why don’t you come out for lunch on the weekend?’
‘So Ra can cure me too? Make me walk?’
The question had been meant to be facetious. Mark took it seriously. ‘Not straight away. But, yes, so one day you can walk.’
‘Mark . . .’ What if he really did like her, but only because he assumed that one day she’d be whole, perfect, able to run and climb stairs? ‘My spine never formed properly. It took years of work to strengthen my muscles so I could sit without being strapped in, and use my arms. I still need to do therapy three times a week, just to keep strong enough to do everyday things. But no amount of therapy will make me able to stand, or walk.’
He looked into her eyes, his blinking suspended. ‘Are you afraid to find out?’
‘I’m not afraid. Just . . . realistic.’
‘Mark 18 was in agony from a back injury. Now she can walk again. Mark 36 was crippled with arthritis. She cooks for us all now.’
And both conditions might be helped by the placebo effect, thought Scarlett, or by a charismatic healer’s hypnotic suggestion. WANTING to be cured, believing you WERE cured, could make you ignore the symptoms. Placebo healing had been well documented . . .
‘Mark 28 had bowel cancer. That was two years go. He works in the orchards now.’
Scarlett re-evaluated. Believing and hypnosis could not cure cancer. She thought Mark believed what he said. But what if this ‘Mark 28’ had never had cancer at all? Had it been properly diagnosed in the first place?
‘What cured you all?’
Mark took her hand. A young man was holding her hand! She hoped the girls were watching . . . it took seconds to focus on what he was saying. ‘We were healed the moment we realised we were part of the greater universe. The universe is so vast, so complex. It must be perfect, or it couldn’t exist. Once we align ourselves with that perfection, everything is healed.’
It sounded like a load of what Jed called bulldust, though not when Matilda could hear.
‘If it’s as easy as that, why is there still sickness in the world? And people like me?’
‘I didn’t say it was easy,’ Mark said quietly. ‘The process needs perfect trust and perfect insight. Sometimes that happens quickly, as it did with me, when I met Ra Zacharia. Other times it takes years of study. It took Ra Zacharia three years. He had a brain tumour,’ he added, his voice filled with wonder and joy. ‘The surgeon said they could remove it and save his life — perhaps. But the tumour was next to the optic nerve. If he lived, he’d be blind, maybe paralysed.’
She could imagine the anguish, she who had been so lucky in being given back most of a normal life. ‘So Ra Zacharia said no?’
‘He said, yes, they could operate. It was the only thing that would save his life. That night he sat on the back steps of his house. He looked up at the stars, knowing he would probably never see them again. One seemed almost to be winking at him. He watched it, unable to look away.’ Mark’s voice had the rhythm of one who had told, or been told, this story many times. ‘And suddenly the pulsing of that star made sense. Years before, when he’d been a Boy Scout, he’d learned Morse code.’
‘And this star was sending out Morse code signals in English?’ Scarlett tried to keep the disbelief from her voice.
‘I know. It sounds impossible. Till you watch that star yourself, count the beats, translate it from Morse code to English. And it’s not a star. It’s a spaceship, which is why the light moves, and gets stronger all the time. I’ve watched that light for three years.’ Mark’s face glowed with awe. ‘It still thrills me every time. We even know the date when the aliens will land, looking for the Chosen. People who are so in tune with the universe that no pain or illness can touch them. But it’s in the book. Read it. Find the star yourself. Go out tonight and watch it.’ He looked at her expectantly.
‘Okay.’ Watching a star wasn’t much to promise. Or even counting its pulses and trying to match them to Morse code, which might even be fun. But the rest?
No. Mark had picked her up in the bookshop because of her wheelchair. Because of what she couldn’t do, not because of who she was. And while she would never try to talk anyone out of illusions that might help them, she was too aware of the many ‘bulldust’ claims around to fall for this one.
‘Will you come out to the community? Meet Ra Zacharia? I could pick you up.’
Somehow she didn’t see Jed allowing her to be driven to a community called the Chosen of the Universe by a stranger, even just to have Sunday lunch. ‘I don’t think my sister would let me.’
‘Bring her too.’
‘Maybe. Not this weekend though. Jed’s busy right now, and I have a lot of study . . .’ Every kid who had lived at River View had been taught to be wary of claims like these. They had the best treatment possible there, paid for by the Thompsons, the most up-to-date research underlying their therapy. All of them knew the world abounded in snake-oil salesmen, eager to exploit the vulnerable. Those who so badly wanted to believe . . .
As she wanted to be able to go to the school dance so badly. Play volleyball. Tennis. Walk into the darkness with a boy after going to the movies and be kissed . . .
If a miracle happened, it wouldn’t be courtesy of a man who called himself Ra and wrote books about aliens. Mark was nice, even if he wasn’t as super intelligent as she had hoped. It had felt very good indeed to have the girls from school see them together, but she could not let herself be sucked into false hope. It was also far too obvious why he had followed her into the bookshop.
Mark seemed to realise the offer had been made too soon. ‘Don’t worry: we’re normal. Well, okay, not normal. We are eccentric, but only like the earth’s rotation is slightly eccentric, not quite a perfectly round circle about the sun.’ That sounded like a quote. Or a rehearsed answer. ‘We are also the most interesting company you are likely to find around here.’
Except for Jed, she thought. And Matilda and Nancy and Michael and Sam and Carol. But they weren’t her age. And Leafsong, w
Had Mark or Ra Zacharia made the same offer to Leafsong, so she would be able to talk again? And if Ra Zacharia could cure everyone, why hadn’t he come to River View to offer his services to Matron Clancy? Or perhaps he had, and she had sent him packing.
‘I’ll ask Jed if we can visit sometime,’ she promised. And she would. Because she WAS curious.
Mark seemed sincere. He almost certainly was telling the truth about his epilepsy. But she already knew enough about medicine to know someone might only ever have one epileptic seizure in their lives. Perhaps the stress of the exams, fluorescent lights flickering, heat, or light shimmering through the window had brought on the only fit Mark might ever have. Or he might only have fits every few years. Perhaps he had petits mals, tiny seizures too short to see. Which, come to think of it, might be why he blinked so much . . .
Was this Ra Zacharia keeping Mark from the medical help he needed? Scarlett fought down a sudden surge of protectiveness, an urge to tell Mark to see a doctor, now, to see if his epilepsy had really been cured. But that would be breaking faith with his Ra Zacharia. She tried to change the subject. ‘What was your name three years ago?’
He grinned. ‘Give you three guesses.’
‘Not . . . Heck, is your name really Mark?’
‘It’s really Mark 23 but, yes, my name used to be Mark. Mark Haverley. Fair exchange. What was your name before you chose Scarlett Kelly-O’Hara?’
‘Marilyn Monroe.’ She laughed when he blinked like a wombat trying to work out what a strange four-wheeled vehicle coming at him at sixty kilometres an hour might be. ‘That was the first new name I chose, when I was five. I was Tarzan of the Apes for a while, and Madame Curie, and Queen Elizabeth. The first, of course, not the second.’
‘Okay, I give in. The name you were born with.’
It seemed strange to even mouth the words. Sharon Taylor had ceased to exist when she was five years old, the day she had asked Matron Clancy why she never went home for Christmas and holidays like the other kids at River View, and why no one came to visit her.