If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 29
No! Tonight was . . . tonight. With Sam, and his relatives, and a Flinty who was fifty years past that meeting with the young crippled soldier. And Nicholas and Felicity who were a couple like she and Sam were a couple. Now mattered, just like Fred the ghost had said.
She inspected the house in front of her. It was a good house, solid stone, with a wide stone terrace looking down the valley. It was already filled with short-back-and-sides men in moleskins, checked shirts and polished boots holding stubbies, women in not-quite-mini skirts with punch and shandies.
Kids ran, holding balloons. Blokes holding more stubbies helped turn two spits, each laden with a whole sheep carcass, the juices spitting over pits of glowing red coals. The air sang of meat and whipped cream and cold rock, and a scent that was pure mountain, the oily perfume of tiny snowproof shrubs, and earthiness from soil that never properly warmed.
‘Sam! How lovely!’ Flinty limped down to them as they got out of the ute, leaning heavily on her stick, held up her cheek to be kissed, then offered the same cheek to Jed. ‘Very good to see you both,’ she said, with heavy emphasis on very.
Yet another who thinks we’re the perfect couple, Jed thought.
‘You must take Jed out to see the horses tomorrow,’ Flinty added. ‘The new foal is quite something.’
‘Grandma, the kangaroo is in the bathtub with the jelly!’
‘Then get her out,’ said Flinty calmly. She turned back to Jed and Sam. ‘Sorry, it’s just an orphaned joey. Felicity rescued her last holidays, but guess who has to feed her? I’d put the jelly in the bathtub to keep it cool. Excuse me while I check on the damage.’ She limped away.
‘I reckon that means don’t eat the jelly,’ said Sam as they climbed the steps to the door.
‘Sam!’ Felicity strode out and hugged him, hesitated, then hugged Jed too. A Felicity dressed in worn moleskins and checked shirt with the only hint of trendiness being the pointed collar, her hair in two low pigtails sitting beneath her ears, her face bare of make-up and glowing like the last of the sunlight on the rocks.
A Felicity who would be easy to love, Jed realised dazedly. As easy to love as the mountains.
‘Happy birthday!’ Sam handed Felicity a present wrapped in leaf-dappled recycled paper. ‘Don’t drop it. It’s fragile.’ The gift was a bowl by a new local potter.
‘Thanks! I’ll open it later. Have you set up your tent yet? I thought you could camp down near Dusty’s old hut. It’s private there, except for Bad Bart.’
‘Who’s Bad Bart?’ asked Jed.
Felicity grinned. ‘Bad Bart the Biter. He’s a wombat. Don’t bother if he growls,’ she added, ‘but don’t turn your back on him either, or you might lose a knee.’
Jed stared. Was she serious?
‘Bad Bart was an orphan. Gran and I raised him so he still thinks humans are his servants and should provide carrots on demand. He’s not trying to really hurt you. Just a nip to get your attention. He doesn’t realise we are more fragile than wombats.’
‘So if I lose a knee, I’ll know he didn’t mean it. Great. Sounds like the perfect place to camp,’ muttered Jed, gazing at Felicity as she led them inside. This was not the insignificant girl she had seen at the election parties and the Blue Belle. Or rather it was the same girl but with the lights on, her feet on her native soil, alive and confident.
Nicholas’s love for Felicity was no longer a mystery. She realised with relief that she could like this woman too.
But Felicity must love Nicholas very much to go to political functions. Or perhaps she was as protective of him as she would be of an injured wombat.
‘Hey, Felicity!’ The yell came from a young man out on the terrace. ‘Where’s Nicholas?’
‘Still in Canberra,’ Felicity called back. ‘He had to go to a sudden urgent party meeting this afternoon. He should be here about nine o’clock.’ She turned back to Jed and Sam. ‘Why don’t you go and set up your tent now? Or would you like a drink first?’
‘I think I’d rather meet Bad Bart in the daylight,’ said Jed.
‘I’ll give you some carrots, just in case, to bribe him. He’s a sweetie really.’
‘I’m sure he is,’ said Jed.
Three hours later the tent was up, the swags inside, and a teepee fire set to light if they felt like its warmth or flames later. There had been no sign of Bad Bart, apart from square droppings on every rock or log nearby, and a pungent scent of recent wombat.
Now Jed sat in one of the circles of chairs as the chatter swirled around her, full of barbecued lamb and slabs of buttered white bread, a dozen salads and German apple cake. Sam waved at her from across the room, checking she was enjoying herself, then slid back into conversation with half a dozen cousins.
There had to be at least a hundred of them, McAlpines, Macks and Sam’s Auntie Kirsty’s brood too. Sam had said his aunt and her husband had done incredible secret flights during World War II. These days they owned a regional airline up in Queensland, though neither worked as a commercial pilot any more.
It would be fascinating to talk to Sam’s aunt, hear some of her stories. Surely World War II stuff couldn’t be secret still. But not in this crowd, with this noise, with everyone except her knowing exactly who everyone else was and where they fitted into the McAlpine family jigsaw.
She stood, smiled an apology to the strangers on either side discussing the genealogy of a horse called Snow White — at least she hoped it was a horse — and made her way over to Matilda, ensconced in a high-backed armchair in a corner where no one would trip over her feet. ‘You look tired.’
Matilda’s eyebrow went up. ‘Thank you for the compliment.’
Jed laughed. ‘You look beautiful too.’
‘Flattery,’ said Matilda, pleased.
Jed shook her head, smiling. Matilda was beautiful, her hair pure white, her skin soft despite her decades out of doors, due, Jed suspected, to her careful use of hats and the Miss Mackenzie’s Cucumber Lotion that sat on her dressing table. ‘Why don’t you have a nap for a while?’ As the oldest guest, Matilda had been allocated a bedroom.
‘If I fall asleep now, I’ll sleep all night. I want a word with Nicholas when he arrives. Why doesn’t that government of his get on with things? They shouldn’t let the Senate block them.’ For a moment the dragon’s voice sounded almost querulous. ‘We need a double dissolution now, while voters are still enthusiastic. If Labor keeps waiting, they’ll be seen as a lame duck government.’
‘Good point,’ said Jed, carefully not mentioning this was the third time in a week that Matilda had made exactly the same comment. ‘How about I bring you a footstool, at least?’
‘Perhaps,’ said Matilda.
Jed took that as a ‘yes’. She displaced a small McAlpine with an apology and dragged it over. Matilda rested her feet on it with obvious relief. ‘Now, go and enjoy yourself,’ she ordered. ‘I want to sit here quietly. At my age there is a lot of remembering to do.’
‘Of other times in this house?’
Matilda nodded. ‘In the days when our hair was brown,’ she said, which sounded vaguely familiar, like a quote. ‘Off you go.’
Jed moved through the crowd, though not to find some younger friend to invest in for her old age. If Flinty was about twenty years younger than Matilda, then potential younger friends for her would still be in nappies. She needed quiet, for a while, away from the threads of unfamiliar family connections. She slid unnoticed out the back door, away from the deck and its merriment.
Sam was right. The stars were brighter up there. So bright they almost cast shadows. Easy to see the massive slab of rock, hunched in its fringe of mist. And Felicity was there too, sitting with her legs dangling from the rock ledge. Was she waiting for Nicholas’s car lights to appear? It suddenly occurred to Jed that Felicity too might see people from the past or future on this rock.
She found herself walking down to meet her. It would be . . . reassuring . . . to get to know the woman Nicholas was going to marry, here where she was most
‘Hope I’m not interrupting,’ she said, then stopped as the young woman turned to face her.
This was not Felicity. Uncannily similar, but unless Felicity had changed her clothes and cut her hair in the past half-hour, this wasn’t her. The young woman inspected her, then smiled. ‘Hello. I’m Flinty. From the expression on your face you know exactly what’s just happened.’
‘I . . . I think so. We’re not from the same time?’
The younger Flinty nodded. ‘But you don’t look like you’re from the past. Or from the future.’
‘What? Oh. It’s my clothes,’ said Jed. ‘I’m from the future, your future. I borrow my great-grandmother’s clothes sometimes.’
‘Is that me?’
How strange to talk to someone else who took speaking out of time so much for granted. Jed found herself seated on the rock beside her, her own legs now dangling into the dark. ‘No. I’m not related to you. I know your nephew though.’
‘Ah, so you are one generation away. What year are you in now?’
‘I’m in 1932. I’ve never met anyone from quite so far in the future before.’
‘I’m here for —’
Flinty held up a hand. ‘Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know if I’m still alive in 1974, or Sandy or the children. I’m pretty sure Mrs Mack won’t be, but I don’t want to hear it.’
‘Not even the very good stuff?’
Flinty smiled in the starlight. ‘No, not even that. I think there was only one thing I ever needed to know about the future.’
‘What was that?’
‘That I had one. There’d be bad things, but then there’d be good. Grit my teeth through the bad, and wait for the good to begin. And it did.’
‘But you’ve never wanted to know more?’
‘The other side of love is always grief,’ said Flinty gently. ‘Nothing comes without a cost. I already knew that, at seventeen, when I stood on this rock and first met a stranger from another time. By 1974, unless the future is more magical than I expect, many of those I love will be dead. Friends, family. I’ll live those griefs when they come, not before. And you’ve already told me there is good stuff as well. See how easy it is to give things away? No. Seriously. Don’t tell me more.’
‘All right. But will you tell me something?’
‘About the past? I suppose that’s safe enough. What do you want to know?’
‘Were you and Nicholas in love?’
Even the air seemed to thicken with silence. ‘That is quite a question to throw at someone you’ve just met.’
‘I’m sorry. Don’t answer it if you don’t want to.’
‘If I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t.’ Flinty looked up at the black shapes of the mountains, not at Jed. ‘We loved each other. Two people, both with our lives ripped apart by war. Two wars, but I think all wars have the same horror in their heart. I told Sandy about Nicholas before we were married, by the way. He understands. I always loved Sandy, even while I loved Nicholas. Loved him as the man I wanted to share my life with. That wasn’t what I felt for Nicholas. Never would have, even if I hadn’t loved Sandy.’
‘What about Nicholas? Did he love you the same way?’
She had expected a nod. Instead Flinty gazed out at the soft moonlit contours of the valley, the casuarinas along the creek, a black snake leading to the highway. Or what would one day be the highway.
‘I don’t know,’ she said at last. ‘Nicholas always knew we couldn’t be together, just as I did. He told me he had found someone too. But I had so much — Sandy, my home, my wonderful neighbours. Nicholas was lost. My injuries would heal, but not his, not just his physical loss but the mental scars. I’m afraid he might have reached out as much in loneliness as in love.’
Jed looked at the woman’s face in the moonlight. No wonder Felicity’s parents, and the older Flinty herself, had forbidden the marriage till Felicity was older, worried that Nicholas really loved an echo of the girl from 1919. The Felicity she had met a few hours ago — the real woman underneath the nervousness among crowds of strangers — deserved a love exclusively for herself.
‘Do you still love him?’ Jed found herself asking.
‘Yes.’ Flinty laughed suddenly. ‘I didn’t know that till you asked me. I suspect I’ll love Nicholas all my life. It’s going to be . . . hard . . . to meet him again, when he is still the young man I fell in love with, and I’m an old woman in 1969. That’s what Nicholas told me will happen. No love is ever free. But it changes too. Probably by then I’ll love him as a grandson.’
‘But you love Sandy more?’
‘More. And differently,’ said Flinty gently. ‘Sandy is my moon, my rock, my buttered bread at breakfast, the shared breath at night. Loving Nicholas was a falcon’s flight. Breathtaking, for a while, but never solid. Not like my love for Sandy. And I’ve always known that now matters more than the past or future.’
A falcon’s flight, thought Jed. That was it exactly . . .
Flinty inspected Jed again. ‘Are you the girl Nicholas loves now? In your time, I mean?’
‘No,’ said Jed quietly, then wondered if that was the wrong answer. When had Nicholas told Flinty he loved someone in his own time? Had he just possibly been speaking about her, when he first came to these mountains? Or had he met Felicity? ‘Nicholas is engaged to . . . But you didn’t want to hear of the future.’
‘No. But I’m glad that Nicholas still has the girl he loves in 1974. I last saw him in his 1970, except for one glimpse of his far future. Though of course you never know what visitation will be the last. Maybe I’ll see Nicholas another fifty times before we meet in 1969, or after. But I don’t think so.’
Flinty hesitated. ‘I’ve sat at this rock a lot in the past dozen years or so. I’ve met others here from both past and future. I think seeing people here isn’t random. We see who we need to see. I don’t need to see Nicholas now that I know that he’s happy, as I’m happy.’
‘Why do you think we met tonight then?’
Flinty smiled. ‘Perhaps so I would know that Nicholas stays happy, after I last met him. Maybe so we both know that neither of us is two shillings short of a quid. Bats in the belfry,’ she added when Jed looked uncomprehending, then laughed and stood. ‘I’d better get back in case one of the children wakes up. Sandy’s been mustering all day. He’d probably sleep through a mob of brumbies invading the kitchen . . .’ She held out a calloused hand. ‘It was good to meet you . . . ?’
‘Jed,’ said Jed. Flinty’s hand was warm and strong and slightly rough.
‘A modern name? See you again, here or when I’m an old woman. Perhaps.’ Then Flinty was gone, striding up into the shadows, vanishing either among the trees or into time.
The mountains breathed cold down from the high slopes as Jed walked back up the hill. If Flinty was correct, then she had seen all her ‘glimpses’ for a reason. The idea fitted deeply, as if a jigsaw had only needed one more piece to be intelligible.
The first person from the past she’d seen, the little boy, had been a friend when she had badly needed one, as she knew he did too. The woman from the future — only a few seconds seeing her and her strange vehicle — had given Jed her love of sci-fi and imagined futures at a time when, like Flinty, she had needed to know a future might exist for her at all. Would she ever have thought to go to Honeysuckle Creek to be part of the mission to the moon if she hadn’t known, etched into her bones, that the future held technological wonders?
That image of an older, confident Scarlett, the stethoscope around her neck — Jed had known then that Scarlett would be able to sit and move independently, would become strong enough not just to study medicine but to practise it. Had Jed’s certainty helped Scarlett persevere till she’d gained today’s strength and comparative independence?
The vision of herself and a child
And the glimpse of the future Nicholas when they first met? Would she have had the confidence to penetrate his shell of bitterness without that glimpse, so that both could become the people they were now, if she hadn’t known that one day she would love him?
She bit her lip as she stepped into the circle of light around the house again. What she had seen then hadn’t just been her love for him. She had also felt Nicholas’s love for her.
Old Fred had called her a ‘grey ghost’ when he met her by the billabong on her first day at Gibber’s Creek, someone so scarred by life they turned from reality and didn’t care if they lived or died. Nicholas had been close to going ‘ghost’ too. That glimpse had — perhaps — saved them both.
Or did it mean more? For a glimpse of future friendship would have convinced her to hold out her hands to Nicholas. But she’d seen love. And, yes, she had loved him back then, though perhaps ‘had a crush on him’ would be more accurate. She definitely had yet to feel the depth of love she’d felt in that first glimpse. Nor had she seen Nicholas’s face gazing at her with love too.
She thrust the thought away as she climbed the steps. Now mattered. A night of happiness for Felicity and Nicholas, and for her and Sam, sitting by a campfire, watching the stars.
Sleeping outdoors before had meant so many dangers that she had tried only to nap in the daytime, when onlookers might — if she was lucky — save her from possible theft or attack. But tonight, with Sam, she would be safe. And the mountains would echo the song of the stars and the creek, and Sam’s warmth would enfold her . . .
The house breathed warmth too as she stepped into the living room. The party-goers mostly sprawled around on sofas and chairs, except a handful of men outside about the embers of the barbecue, including Sam, gesturing with the enthusiasm that meant he was talking about hydraulic rams or wind generators or how to build a framework for rammed earth.
And Nicholas had still not arrived, she realised, or she would have seen headlights moving up the mountain, or at least his car outside. She looked for Felicity, and found her over by the table of desserts. The girl looked faintly worried, and was trying to hide it. Jed thought of the road’s curves, the slipperiness of ice beneath the tyres. She hoped Nicholas would walk in soon.
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