If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 31
‘Where will you be?’ demanded Scarlett.
‘I’m going up to Nimbin for a while. There’s a mob there working on alternative technology. Designing inverters, small hydro systems, all sorts of things. A bloke I met gave me a call yesterday, asked if I’d like to work on a project with him.’
‘You’re getting bored with installing solar hot-water panels,’ said Scarlett.
He smiled at her. ‘Got it in one.’
‘But you’ll be coming back?’ Scarlett again. Jed couldn’t seem to find her voice.
‘Of course. I’ll hitch a ride with Santa Claus. Can’t miss New Year’s at the river either.’
Was he talking about a Christmas visit, Jed wondered, or coming back for good? ‘When were you going to tell me?’ She tried not to sound wounded.
‘Tonight. I know it’s sudden. But I don’t have anything on that I can’t cancel.’
Including me, thought Jed.
He turned into the Dribble driveway. ‘I won’t come in, if that’s okay. I need to pack.’
And there’s nothing here he needs to take, thought Jed. Except, perhaps, me.
Scarlett leaned over Jed and kissed Sam’s cheek above his beard. ‘Good luck. And send us an address to write to. And don’t stay away too long.’
Sam hugged her back. ‘I’ll write,’ he promised. Jed noticed he didn’t also promise not to stay too long.
Jed stayed in the front seat as Scarlett lowered herself into her chair and wheeled inside. She waited till the front door shut behind her, then turned to Sam, shadowed in the moonlight. ‘I wish you weren’t going.’
‘I thought you’d be glad I had the chance to do something interesting.’ He hesitated. ‘Do you want to come with me?’
‘Just like that?’ Indignation sent the words tumbling. ‘I can’t! What about Scarlett? I’m responsible for her now. She can’t change schools now, not if she wants the marks to get into medicine. She still needs therapy three times a week too.’
And what about Matilda? she thought. Matilda was physically independent. But now that the farm management was in the hands of Michael and Nancy, her hours with Jed, talking about the past, teaching her the lore Auntie Love had once shown her, were obviously more and more important to her.
‘Your choice,’ said Sam lightly.
It wasn’t fair, Jed thought. Sam was making it seem as if she didn’t love him just because she couldn’t say yes to everything he wanted. And what if she had agreed to marry him? Would he expect her to uproot herself and traipse up to Nimbin, leaving all her responsibilities here?
He hadn’t even said whether this was just a visit, or if he might stay there permanently. Perhaps he didn’t know.
‘I’ll miss you,’ she managed. That at least was true. Desperately, deeply true.
‘Of course. I do love you. More than I can say.’ She tried to find the courage or words for more. But her mind seemed blank.
‘I love you too.’
But the kiss that followed was a farewell embrace. She watched his ute as it vanished into the tree shadows, then turned. The river gleamed back moonlight.
How did that poem go?
So, we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night
Though the heart be still as loving
And the moon be still as bright.
No more platypus hunts. No more Sam’s face at the back door, grimy from the day’s work, to haul her down to the river for a swim.
Was this what would always have happened, no matter what answer she had given him up in the mountains? Would Sam still have left for Nimbin, while she was bound to this land? Or had she created this future when she said no, the future where one day she would love Nicholas again?
Whichever, she thought drearily, trudging inside. For the future was the future, and all were bound by it.
Well, I got up here okay. Tuntable Falls is fascinating — so much built and changed since I was here last, so many people with all sorts of ideas, though still no one can build a dome that doesn’t leak. Have met an incredible bloke who’s built a Pelton wheel out of old silver spoons. A few of us are meeting this afternoon to do some tinkering.
Wish Nicholas good luck from me in the election. John and Annie send their love, and love from me to you and Scarlett,
Jed sat on the Town Hall’s new brown and beige striped sofa — donated on the unspoken understanding that it was for Mrs Thompson’s use whenever she might need it — and stared at the TV screen on the stage as the election results were collated down in the Canberra Tally Room, trying to feel some genuine enthusiasm. She missed Sam. Nor was this night a true victory.
For a while, as the New South Wales and Victorian figures came in, it had looked like there’d be a landslide victory for Labor. But then the South Australian and Western Australian numbers began to emerge. The seats Labor looked like it might win in the east were more than cancelled out by losses in the west.
Labor was going to be returned. Nicholas’s seat was safe too, though his majority would probably be less than it had been in 1972.
And the Senate? No one would know for days or even weeks who would hold the balance of power there, as it took longer to count those votes. But unless people across Australia had voted against Labor in the House of Representatives and for Labor in the Senate, there was little chance of getting the majority needed to control both Houses of parliament.
‘It’s not fair,’ Jed whispered.
Matilda was hard of hearing these days — not that she’d admit it or even consider a hearing aid. If people would just speak clearly, there’d be no problem. But either Jed’s whisper had the required clarity, or she’d read her lips.
‘It’s perfectly fair. Just deeply foolish. Don’t those stupid people know they are voting against their own wellbeing? People need to be given just two things in life: a decent education and proper medical care. After that it’s up to them to sink or swim. Medibank is one of the most important pieces of legislation this century . . . How can people work hard if they can’t afford to see a doctor to help with their arthritis? Or if they need to stay home to tend a child taking a year to recover from the measles?’
It was the speech Matilda should have made before the election, and had assumed wasn’t needed. Around them the crowd ebbed and muttered, trying to smile at the overall victory and ignore the losses. Jed managed a smile. ‘You’re the most unlikely socialist I’ve ever met.’
‘A socialist? Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘But the Labor Party is a democratic socialist party.’
‘I doubt many of its supporters regard themselves as socialist,’ said Matilda dryly. ‘Nor are Liberals “liberal” these days. And if the Country Party deserved its name, then Nicholas would not have been elected tonight.’
Jed watched him, back among the crowd now, holding a bottle of good workman’s beer, his arm around Felicity. She hadn’t spoken to him, apart from a quick, ‘Good luck.’ She supposed she should congratulate him now. But it was his fault Sam was not with her now . . .
She shook her head at the absurdity. Nicholas had no idea she expected they would love each other at some unspecified time in the future. He had never behaved as more than a friend since they had met again. It was not his fault, but hers. And maybe Sam’s. And maybe time itself, which should behave in a more orderly fashion and not confound her with perhapses.
She was tired, not just from setting up the booth and handing out how-to-vote cards since early morning. She managed a smile for Matilda. ‘I’ve seen enough. We won’t know more till counting begins again on Monday. Maybe not even then. Would you like a lift home now?’
‘In that contraption of yours?’
‘You can even have a front seat. Scarlett is staying at the Blue Belle tonight. Leafsong has fixed up a bed for her in the larder.’
She glanced across the room to see Mark hovering protectively over the small figure in the wheelchair, Scarlett’s face animated as she discussed something with Dr Rogers, the new young assistant at the surgery. Possibly the early symptoms of Hansen’s Disease, knowing Scarlett, or dissection techniques for white rats.
Scarlett had described with scorn a hideous scene at school where a supposedly chloroformed and deceased white rat had woken up mid-dissection and vainly tried to escape from Barbie’s scalpel. Barbie had been sick, one of the barbarians had fainted and Scarlett was furious at the cruelty.
Jed looked at Mark instead. He looked slightly bored. Not the not-dead rat scene then. Mark was the only one of the Chosen who was there tonight, although all had duly voted, as the law required. But Ra Zacharia clearly felt that the universe, aliens and all, was more important than a mere Australian election.
Had Scarlett asked to stay with Leafsong so she could spend the night with Mark? Jed wondered suddenly.
No. Scarlett clearly liked Mark’s attention, and his company at the movies. But beyond a single kiss on the lips at her birthday there had been no other signs of physical affection, though she suspected that Mark would like more. Scarlett referred to him as ‘my friend Mark’, not ‘my boyfriend’. She didn’t even have a photo of him on her dressing table.
‘Thank you. I would like a lift home,’ said Matilda, interrupting her thoughts. She held out a hand to be helped to her feet, surprising Jed still more.
‘Jed?’ It was Carol, in her usual overalls and boots, which enough locals forgave to have their wills drawn up by someone who was young enough to still be practising when those wills were read. ‘I’m expecting the information you wanted on our, ah, mutual friend to arrive in the mail in the next couple of days. I’ll give you a call when it arrives.’
‘Great. Thank you,’ said Jed as Carol made her way back to the group she had left.
‘Our mutual friend?’ asked Matilda. The eyebrow was exercised again. ‘Presumably you’ve been having the Chosen of the Universe investigated?’
‘Yes,’ said Jed.
‘Good girl. I should have thought of that. I’m getting old.’ A pause, and then she added, ‘You are supposed to say, “No, not at all,” to that.’
‘So you can wither me in return? You are ancient and magnificent,’ said Jed. ‘And if you don’t mind, I’d love to rummage through your dressing room again.’
Matilda glanced briefly at Jed’s bell-bottom jeans and resurrected It’s Time T-shirt and the wooden clogs on her feet that would have to be kicked off when she drove. ‘An excellent idea. I’ll look forward to reading the report,’ she added as Jed waved to Michael to indicate that Matilda was with her, then took her arm to help her through the crowd. A year ago everyone would have stepped back to let Mrs Thompson of Drinkwater pass. Their respect and affection had not lessened, but this smaller, frailer Matilda might not be noticed, especially after several stubbies and a long emotional day.
The Southern Cross had turned over by the time Jed reached Dribble, four more outfits ‘borrowed’ from Matilda, including a pale peach slip she could probably get away with wearing as a dress in summer. Sam would like —
Sam was gone. And might still be gone when summer arrived, except for the brief trip back at Christmas.
The powerful owl boomed from somewhere her side of the river, the first call she had heard that year. She listened, but there was no answering boom from further away across the vast territory that powerful owls needed.
The house was so silent she could hear the ticking of the grandmother clock in the hall. It had sat in Tommy’s study, then become her housewarming gift. Sam had tinkered with it somehow so it only chimed the hour from ten am till eight at night.
She slipped in a cassette of Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence, nestled into a beanbag and watched the night beyond the window. Trees black against starlight, gum trees and the fruit trees Sam had planted two years earlier, more than head height now. Was that swish of black the powerful owl? It was too large to be a fruit bat or a barn owl or mopoke.
She had been alone most of her life, even when ostensibly in the care of parents or stepmother. Why should she feel lonely now?
And Sam had been right to leave, though possibly not quite so suddenly. What did Gibber’s Creek have to offer him, besides herself? Even the commune was no longer communal. This was a land for boots and moleskins, not cheesecloth and beads. Fruit trees and vegetables grew only with watering and determination.
The land around Nimbin would give crop after crop, leaving time for . . . what had Sam called it? Tinkering, with people who knew what a hydraulic ram was, and why it wouldn’t work if you tried to use polypipe and not rigid steel. Sam could be part of inventing the future up there.
But it was not for her. And here, with the comfort of the owl’s long booms, she could admit why she had never even considered going up there with Sam, even for a few weeks, while Scarlett stayed with Nancy. Nimbin was close to the town where she had miscarried her baby. There were too many memories for her to wish to face those green volcanic hills again.
And this was her land now. She knew the small hole in the shaly ground that meant a wild bees’ nest and thin green honey below, and the slightly larger hole made by the black and yellow striped native wasps that only bit under severe provocation, like when you sat on them, which she had accidentally done once.
These were her people too. Not just her newly discovered family, but people like Mrs Weaver, Matron Clancy, Leafsong and even Carol. And this was her house.
Would she give them up for Sam? Luckily duty meant she did not have to make that choice. Her duty to Scarlett, and to Matilda.
The powerful owl boomed again, almost triumphantly. ‘Yes, you’re right,’ Jed informed it. ‘I’m staying here.’ She left the vintage outfits on the sofa to hang up in the morning and went to bed.
Gibber’s Creek Gazette, 20 May 1974
Lamb Producers Caught in the Squeeze
High interest rates are making it impossible for farmers to keep up with their mortgage repayments, according to Gibber’s Creek Chamber of Commerce president, Mr Graham Flint, made worse by spiralling farm fuel costs due to the oil crisis. ‘With inflation eating away people’s wages, most wage earners can’t even afford the humble weekend roast. It’s sausages instead, and hard times for farmers.
‘This year should have been one of our best. Instead it’s the worst I’ve ever known.’
The phone rang in the living room after their early dinner that Monday. ‘I’ll get it,’ said Jed as Scarlett looked up from her homework.
It was Carol. ‘Sorry it’s so late — I’ve been out all day helping get in the last of the pumpkin crop. The report’s here from the private investigator, if you want to look at it.’
The sensible thing would be to wait till tomorrow. But suddenly she wanted to know what kind of people her sister had become involved with. ‘When? Now? At your office?’
‘Can do,’ said Carol.
Jed put the receiver down slowly. ‘I’m just going into town for an hour or so,’ she said to Scarlett. ‘Want to come too?’
‘Sure. This isn’t due till Friday. Where are you going?’
‘The café. Carol’s been doing some work for me.’
‘Planning a takeover of Thompson’s Industries with Matilda? I’ll see if Leafsong wants a hand.’ The café closed each afternoon at four-thirty, as soon as the ‘must have a cup of tea after picking up the kids’ rush was over.
They parted at the narrow metal staircase that led up to the top storey of the café, replacing a similar but rotting wooden one. A staircase that Scarlett would never be able to get up, thought Jed, unless someone piggybacked h
Jed knocked at the paint-peeling door. As the landlord, she really should get this all repainted too. ‘It’s me.’
Carol sat behind an elderly but business-like desk, a clean and even-ironed men’s Pelaco business shirt under her overalls. Behind her was a wall of brick-and-plank bookcases filled with law books and equally elderly filing cabinets. Jed suspected that anyone in a big city would take one look at the office — or even the staircase leading to it — and find another solicitor. But Old McDonald’s office was reputedly as bad, with half an inch of dust and a carpet so worn that a small table had been put over the worst of the holes so clients wouldn’t trip.
‘Fourteen clients so far.’
Jed looked at her shrewdly. ‘How many of them pay?’
Carol grinned. ‘That’s confidential. But your bill is going to pay the rent to our landlord nicely.’ She nodded to a fat folder on the desk. ‘Do you want to read the report first, or will I give you the main bits?’
‘Main bits, please.’
‘Okay. Ra Zacharia is really Dennis O’Lachlan. He has a doctorate in herbalism from a private college in California.’
‘But he said he was a —’ Jed stopped. Ra Zacharia had said he was a doctor of medicine. Herbalism, at a pinch, might be described as that.
‘No police record in the USA or Australia. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t got one somewhere else.’
‘The money? There has to be money in this somewhere.’
‘There is. But I had to hire a Californian investigator to find it. They sent the copies of the press cuttings in your folder. The money — or part of it at least, anyway — seems to come from a bequest by an elderly widow in California, Mrs Ellen Tetlock. Mrs Tetlock believed Ra Zacharia had healed her ovarian cancer. When she died, he inherited her considerable estate. Which really was a lot. Her son appealed and settled out of court, presumably also for a lot, but there was a lot to share. The son also claimed that Mrs Tetlock had given Ra Zacharia a large part of her estate before she died.’
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