If blood should stain th.., p.30

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 30

 

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle
 



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  The phone rang in the kitchen. ‘I’ll get it.’ Felicity strode from the room. Jed forced herself not to follow, to listen to the call. Was it from a hospital, to say there’d been a car crash? Had Nicholas’s prosthetic legs slipped from the pedals as the car took a corner?

  Jed watched the doorway instead, till Felicity returned ten minutes later, her expression hard to read. She tinkled a fork against a glass to get everyone’s attention. ‘Ladies and gentlemen! That was Nicholas. He sends his apologies.’

  ‘So he ought,’ said Matilda, from her armchair. Flinty now occupied the armchair next to her. It took Jed a moment to reconcile the old woman in her pearls and navy blue twinset with the younger woman down on the rock.

  ‘He has a good excuse.’ Felicity took a deep breath. ‘It’ll be in all the papers tomorrow. Gough Whitlam is calling a snap election for the eighteenth of May. A double dissolution, Senate as well as the House of Representatives.’

  ‘Excellent!’ said Matilda, clapping. ‘Control of the Senate at last.’ A scatter of claps dutifully followed her lead.

  But only if Labor gets enough votes in both Houses, thought Jed. But of course they would. The surge of popularity that had given Whitlam the House of Reps would surely give him the Senate this time. All that blocked legislation would pass. The election promises and dreams would finally become reality.

  Flinty stood, leaning on her stick. ‘Then if we’re not waiting for Nicholas, it’s time for the birthday cake. Nicola, could you . . . ?’

  But Felicity’s mother was already pushing the trolley, a three-layer cake with Happy 21st Birthday written in fancy script on it.

  And also, Jed noticed, Congratulations! For Felicity’s birthday? Or because Nicholas and Felicity had been going to announce their wedding date?

  Weddings. Once she had hoped that Nicholas would ask her to marry him. But that had only been because asking her to marry him would have meant he truly loved her, and she had so badly needed to be loved.

  Jed hadn’t thought much of the institution of marriage back then, trapping two people together long after love had gone. The five years since had shown her that marriages could be good, warm, steady rocks to build a life on, like Tommy and Matilda, Nancy and Michael, the McAlpines. But her parents had never managed happiness with either of their partners. Was she too much her parents’ daughter to succeed in all the conventions and responsibilities marriage would bring?

  Far better to live as she and Sam did now, knowing that every day they were together from choice, not tied by a wedding ring, a mortgage and the law, even one that would soon offer no-fault and swifter divorce. Two people who loved each other. Love freely given every day was far better than the chains of a wedding vow.

  Poor Felicity, her evening gone awry, though it had still been a good party. Jed guessed wedding plans would have to wait till after the election now.

  She felt a sudden stirring of excitement. More articles would be needed for the Gibberer. She’d missed an excuse to write. Cheryl at the Gibberer was good, but Cheryl had to pretend to have no political opinions. Jed Kelly wasn’t so bound. Should the election party be held at the Blue Belle? No, the Town Hall was better — didn’t look as if Nicholas was the Thompsons’ candidate as well as the Labor Party’s, though everyone knew he was.

  Jed grinned. Another election triumph. And a punch in the nose for every senator who wouldn’t pass a bill that let the elderly or pregnant women with no money see a doctor.

  It was going to be fun.

  Chapter 49

  Gibber’s Creek Gazette, April 1974

  Green Grass and Liver Fluke After Floods

  The tragic floods of January from Queensland to Victoria have now subsided, leaving families still homeless, but also green grass — and liver fluke. Local vet, Reg Sampson, recommends that all sheep and cattle be drenched and warns against anyone eating watercress from local streams. ‘The tiny snails in creek water carry the fluke. It’s not just stock who get it!’

  SAM

  Life could get no better. Stars like a speckled banner up above, a campfire snickering, the scent of gum leaves and Jed’s faint perfume, perhaps a remnant of Matilda’s when she had worn that nightdress. Had anyone ever camped in a mauve silk nightdress trimmed with embroidery and lace before?

  The carrots had been eaten when they returned, but there had been no sign of Bad Bart beyond a torn corner of his swag. Both sleeping bags now rested inside the tent, in case the wombat decided to show further disdain for stinginess with carrots.

  Jed watched the fire, her arms around her knees. What was she thinking of?

  Him, he hoped. The murmur of the creek and the singing of the stars. He reached into his swag and pulled out the box. ‘Shut your eyes and hold out your hand.’

  Jed laughed and obeyed. ‘If you put a frog on my hand, it’s going down your underpants,’ she said, her eyes shut. ‘Though that mightn’t be fair on the frog.’

  ‘Not a frog. Though I feel like a frog prince tonight. You can open your eyes now.’

  He grinned at her as she stared at the box. ‘Open it.’

  Jed obeyed, staring at the ring, its ruby and tiny diamonds flickering like the stars. ‘But . . .’

  He felt like dancing with the sparkles rising from the fire. ‘Put it on. It was my great-grandmother’s, but it’ll fit. Scarlett helped me tell the jeweller the right size.’

  ‘Scarlett? She knows about this?’

  ‘Darling, this is Gibber’s Creek. Probably the whole town knows I went to the jeweller’s to have a ring resized. Matilda told me you liked rubies . . .’

  ‘You mean everyone knows?’

  The mountain air suddenly felt cold. ‘Of course they know,’ he said quietly. ‘They care about you. About us.’

  ‘Us? But we’re . . . we’re not like this.’

  ‘Like what?’

  ‘White veils and church and confetti . . .’

  ‘We can get married by the river if you’d rather. Though Matilda and Nancy would probably like it to be in a church.’

  ‘I . . . I don’t understand. What happened with the withering away of the state and alternative lifestyles?’

  He looked at her steadily. ‘I never talked about the withering away of the state. That was Carol and Clifford. An alternative lifestyle for me means keeping the good bits of the past, as well as creating new ways. The best of both.’

  ‘No free love?’

  Sam stared at her. She was trying to make a joke of what he had thought would be the moment they would tell their grandchildren about.

  ‘Nothing is free. Nothing as important as love anyway. I love you, Jed. I thought you loved me.’

  ‘I do, but . . .’ She looked at him helplessly, then held the ring out, still in its box. ‘I can’t take this.’

  ‘You don’t want to marry me?’

  ‘I don’t want to marry anyone. Not now. Maybe not ever. I’ve only just found out who I am.’ Her voice shook a little. ‘I don’t think I’m ready to be man and wife, one flesh, yet.’

  ‘It doesn’t have to be like that.’ Sam took the box, then shut the lid on the bright stones. ‘Do you love Nicholas? Is that it?’

  ‘That’s not why I don’t want to get married.’

  ‘That isn’t what I asked. Did you love him? Do you love him now?’

  ‘In . . . in a way.’ He could see how much she would have liked to lie to him. ‘I don’t love him the way I love you.’

  ‘You can’t choose between us?’ Vaguely he was aware that part of his anger was the thought of the embarrassment to come, when they arrived back at Gibber’s Creek with no ring on Jed’s finger. Gossip was a safety net, but it could also be viciously intrusive.

  ‘I don’t want to choose. Don’t need to. You’re misunderstanding everything I say.’

  ‘You can’t choose Nicholas, because Felicity already has him. Or is a handyman too much of a comedown from an author and politician?’

  ‘Stop it! I don’t want to thi
nk about marriage, that’s all. To you or anyone!’

  ‘Not even think about it?’

  ‘I have thought about marriage.’ He could hear the truth in Jed’s voice. Jed never lied. It was one of the things he loved about her. He could trust Jed utterly.

  Sometimes the truth was not what you wanted to hear though.

  ‘I don’t want to get married yet. One day, perhaps. Maybe even probably.’

  ‘So should I wait till then?’

  ‘I . . . I don’t know.’ He heard the truth in her voice again, and felt his heart crack. ‘It’s not you. Truly. Maybe marriage and I just won’t ever fit together.’

  She turned and scrambled into the tent. ‘I’m going to sleep.’

  He sat by the dwindling fire and watched the stars’ cold winking light. A long time later he crawled into the tent too.

  Chapter 50

  Gibber’s Creek Gazette, 2 May 1974

  Country Party Candidate to Stand Again for Gibber’s Creek

  Former local member Kevin Briggs will be standing again for the seat of Gibber’s Creek, presently held by the Labor Party member Nicholas Brewster with a margin of 8.6%. Speaking today at the launch of his campaign at the Gibber’s Creek Town Hall, Mr Briggs stated, ‘The people of Gibber’s Creek have had two years to see the mess Labor is making of the country. It’s time to go back to the traditional values that have made Australia great.’

  JED

  It was strangely familiar, knocking door to door, dressed in neat blue linen and sensible flat shoes from Lee’s Emporium rather than her usual vintage outfits or jeans. ‘Hi, my name’s Jed Kelly. I’m campaigning for Nicholas Brewster of the Labor Party, if you have a moment?’

  Everyone was so nice, even the Misses Hilbert who told her they’d voted Country Party for sixty years but insisted she stayed for sponge cake and two cups of tea, and Mrs Weaver who still wanted to know the Labor Party’s policy on aliens and gave her the latest joey to feed while she put the kettle on for what was possibly Jed’s three hundredth cuppa that day.

  Jed almost told Mrs Weaver to ask Ra Zacharia for advice about alien relations. But a con man like Ra Zacharia was the last person Mrs Weaver should meet. Darling old Mrs Weaver was too likely to make everything she owned over to someone who assured her he believed in aliens too.

  To Jed’s disappointment her offer of more articles for the Gibberer had been refused. Cheryl was staunch in her editorial independence. Nor were her articles needed. Cheryl almost obsessively gave all parties equal space to state their policies, but also wrote blistering editorials endorsing Labor’s right to enact the policies they’d been elected on into law. That ‘impossible to break’ twenty-three-year record of unbroken Coalition rule had been destroyed. Labor could stand on its record of achievement.

  As could Nicholas. Jed watched him in action at the campaign launch, confidently shaking hands as he moved through the crowded hall, Felicity once more shy, in bright red lipstick and clumsy Cuban heels with her hair in a French roll as though she were forty years old, drawn like a small rowing boat behind him.

  Felicity stood at the stage steps as Nicholas spoke with confidence and passion. The ghost young man Jed had first met had vanished, as well as the uncertainty of two years before. ‘Men and women of Gibber’s Creek, tonight I ask you to give the Whitlam government the chance you decided they should have had less than two years ago . . .’

  And over in an armchair Matilda watched, bright eyed and . . .

  Old, admitted Jed as Matilda’s eyes closed for a ten-second doze. She made her way through the crowd and sat next to her.

  ‘What . . . ?’ Matilda blinked and peered at her. ‘Just resting my eyes.’

  ‘No speech from you this time?’ Jed whispered. She regretted the words as soon as she said them.

  But Matilda smiled. ‘You think I’m too frail to make a speech? I can summon up the sinews if necessary, my girl. But my neighbours have all heard what I have to say. No need to repeat myself tonight.’ She looked around. ‘Is Sam here?’

  ‘Over by the door,’ said Jed, deeply conscious of Sam’s every move.

  ‘You’re still seeing each other?’ No one, from Scarlett to Matilda, had commented on the lack of engagement ring on her finger. Every single person, from Miss Lee at Lee’s Emporium to the smallest kid at River View and every single person as she doorknocked, glanced at her left hand, as if waiting for the ring to inevitably appear.

  ‘Yes,’ said Jed shortly. Sam hadn’t spoken of marriage again. They had driven back from Rock Farm early the next morning, not even staying to see Rock Farm’s horses, both carefully talking about anything other than the ring Jed assumed was still in his pocket.

  To her relief Sam still turned up for dinner most evenings, still took it for granted he’d maintain her garden, watering system, fences and the other jobs she had never realised came with a house that collected its own water, dealt with its own sewage and wastewater, and needed fences to keep stock in and out and drains to stop the driveway eroding away.

  The pain was in what wasn’t said: the ‘Hey, why don’t we . . . ?’ No plans to go to Europe together so he could finally meet Julieanne, no ‘Next Christmas let’s . . .’

  She hadn’t realised she’d just assumed Sam would stay part of her life, nor that she’d been stupid not to see he would want marriage as part of that.

  If even Scarlett said, ‘You’re an idiot not to marry him,’ it would be easier. She could explain why she loved Sam, but why marriage wasn’t necessary. And maybe convince herself once again . . .

  Matilda looked up at her from her armchair. ‘You’re an idiot not to marry him,’ she said, under the noise of the crowd’s clapping at the end of Nicholas’s speech.

  ‘I can’t,’ said Jed, too startled to evade the question. Up on stage Nicholas held his hand out for Felicity to join him.

  Matilda raised her eyebrow. ‘Why not?’

  Matilda of all people might just understand. ‘You remember when I told you I see people from other times, like seeing you as a girl down at the billabong, with your father and the sheep?’

  ‘The day my father died,’ said Matilda quietly. ‘In some ways the day my life began.’

  ‘I . . . I’ve glimpsed Nicholas in the future. Just for a second. He has a beard flecked with grey and . . . and I felt the love between us. That’s why I trusted him so easily. Back then I didn’t trust people much, and men hardly at all. But I knew I would love Nicholas sometime in our future. And so I did.’

  Matilda was so silent that Jed wondered if she was dozing again. At last the old voice said, low and distinct under the clapping of the crowd as Nicholas and Felicity left the stage, ‘So you’re giving up love with Sam now for a second’s love in the future?’

  Jed stared at her. ‘I hadn’t thought of it like that.’

  ‘What if you have twenty or thirty extraordinary years and three children with Sam and he dies, and you and Nicholas fall in love again after all that? Would you give up those thirty years with Sam just because it won’t go on forever? Nothing lasts forever, girl.’

  ‘What if I wreck our marriage and Nicholas’s as well?’

  ‘You are not a marriage wrecker, and never could be. My dear child, do you really think we are only destined to love one person in our lives?’

  ‘You’ve loved two men . . .’

  ‘I could have married at least a dozen,’ said Matilda tartly. ‘And been happy with them. Not as I am with Tommy.’ Matilda didn’t seem to notice she spoke in the present tense. ‘Tommy and I . . . fitted. One flesh, as the marriage service says. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t attracted to other men, or even felt the beginnings of love for them. Every time I met a man I knew I could fall in love with, I kept my distance, mentally and physically. Why do you think the marriage service has a vow of fidelity in it if people don’t need to make a conscious decision to promise it?’

  ‘You think what I saw between myself and Nicholas might be all there is to see?
Just a brief moment, a long way off?’

  ‘I think you love Sam McAlpine, who also deeply and honestly loves you, and you are a fool if you don’t marry him. I was a fool once and wasted over ten years. Don’t you do the same.’

  ‘But I still don’t know if I even want to be married,’ said Jed helplessly. ‘What Sam and I do is no one’s business except ours. We shouldn’t have to make a legal contract about it.’

  Matilda snorted. ‘Of course it’s our business, the family’s and the community’s. We live alongside you. We love you both. I might even get a great-great-grandchild to boast about if you’d hurry up.’

  ‘You have enough to boast about.’

  ‘I never boast,’ said Matilda. ‘Though I might about a great-great-grandchild. Marry him.’

  ‘No,’ said Jed. Then, ‘Maybe. Not yet.’

  The three of them had come in the ute. While the wheelchair fitted in the back of Boadicea, it was easier to carry it in Sam’s roomy tray. The silence sat heavy till halfway back to Dribble.

  She’d talk to him tonight, Jed decided. Try to explain she’d panicked at the mention of marriage, but that maybe, just perhaps, it was a good idea. Not mention loving Nicholas in the future, of course — Sam definitely didn’t need to know that. But she would tell him how much she loved him, how much being with him meant to her. How she wanted to feel the years unwinding in front of them again, a nation of two, not one.

  ‘Good speech,’ said Sam at last.

  ‘Yes,’ said Jed absently. ‘He’s learning how to speak in public. And how to carry a crowd.’ And to enjoy it too, she thought. ‘I’ll put us down to hand out how-to-vote cards at the school again.’

  Sam shook his head. ‘Sorry. I won’t be here.’ He kept looking at the road ahead as Scarlett and Jed turned to him.

 

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