If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 38
What would Tommy have said about closing the Gibber’s Creek factory?
‘I have been privileged to see the height of one age, and the beginning of the next.’ That was what Tommy had told her once, forcing his failing heart to beat until he saw a man walk upon the moon. It was as though she heard his voice, sitting across from her at the dining-room table. Jed grinned. For suddenly she knew exactly what Tommy Thompson would have done now. And she was his great-granddaughter.
Jim was right, but he was also very, very wrong. Times had changed. But then times always did.
She forced her voice to sound matter-of-fact. ‘Can I have an option on the Gibber’s Creek factory?’
Jim stared. ‘What?’
‘I want to rent — no, buy the factory. How much will you sell it for?’
‘A hundred thousand dollars.’
He’s already priced the company’s assets, thought Jed. ‘Far too high. Who’s going to want a factory at Gibber’s Creek these days?’
‘But I can buy Blue’s. Or build another.’
‘Twenty, and you are getting a bargain, because you won’t have it sitting empty, losing value, paying rates and probably never saleable. Not here.’
‘Shall we vote on it?’ asked Matilda. For the first time that day she sounded genuinely amused. ‘You’ll be outvoted,’ she added to Jim.
‘No. It will be unanimous.’ Jim held out his hand. Jed shook it. ‘Twenty thousand it is. What on earth do you intend to do with a building that size? Hold rock concerts?’
Jed grinned. ‘Open a factory.’
‘Making what? There’s no way you can make it pay.’
‘Yes, I can.’ Jed met his gaze. ‘If Australia can’t compete with four-cents-an-hour wages, we’ll have to invent something people need and which other countries can’t make.’
‘Photovoltaic panels,’ said Jed. ‘The most efficient in the world.’
‘What the flaming hell are photo— thingummies?’ demanded Jim.
Matilda smiled serenely at her sons and her great-granddaughter. ‘Won’t it be fun to find out?’
Gibber’s Creek Gazette, 20 January 1975
New Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to Protect One of the Wonders of the World
The proposed new Great Barrier Reef Marine Park will now effectively block Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s ambition to allow oil drilling along the world-famous Great Barrier Reef.
According to Mrs Nancy Thompson of the Gibber’s Creek Conservation Group (GCCG), the tourism income alone over the next few decades will bring in far more money than the royalties from oil drilling . . .
Sam sat on the veranda (timber cut on the property, banana-leaf roof that leaked, attached to a dome that dribbled even when it wasn’t raining, accidentally achieving something no engineer could manage) and tried to focus on his diagram. Instead of lines he kept on seeing breasts.
It was not easy to avoid breasts in a commune. Lately they had been everywhere: breasts that smelled of mozzie repellent on women in sarongs tied about their waists, instead of under their armpits, or breasts that smelled of sweat and cow-pat fertiliser on women working with shirts open, like a man, and braless. Breasts of every shape and size every time he went swimming . . .
And none of the ones there belonged to Jed. The fact that he was noticing other women’s quite so much was disconcerting.
He missed her. He had known he would miss her. Of course you missed the woman you wanted to marry and share your life with. But when she said no, you got on with life. The memory of one particular woman should fade.
It hadn’t. Even the scent of her lingered. He suddenly thought of his parents, apart for six years early in their marriage, his father in the army, then a prisoner-of-war camp . . .
They had both spoken of that time, from his mother’s casual, ‘You have no idea how good it is to be able to have sweet tea after the rationing in the war,’ to his father’s agonised admissions of what he had faced in the prison camp, as part of the remaking of his life as he faced his alcoholism and nightmares.
‘Thinking about your mum got me home,’ Dad had said back then. ‘No matter how bad things got, the starvation, the beatings, seeing friends executed because they staggered under a load . . . I knew your mum was waiting. All I had to do was survive, and I’d be with her. And so I did. Thinking about your mum, all three of you, got me through rehab too.’
Would his image of Jed be as vivid in six years’ time? And what if in six years she still didn’t want marriage? Was he being ridiculously old fashioned, even wanting marriage at all? With, good grief, an engagement ring and everything?
No one on the commune was married, or not conventionally. They just lived together, or had ‘open marriages’, which in his observation meant too much open and not enough marriage.
Sam wanted . . . partnership: that was it. The kind of commitment that brought you home from a death camp, that meant you supported an alcoholic partner but also would not tolerate his violence.
Every generation faced its own challenges. Depression, war and its aftermath for Mum and Dad; the Cold War, Vietnam, the threat of the world running out of oil or drowning in pollutants for him and Jed. Nice or nasty, they’d face the future together. Which meant he had to face it: Jed did not want to come to Nimbin. Nor, even after nearly a year, did it feel like home to him. He was going to have to make a choice . . .
‘Sam? Phone call up at the gatehouse for you. She’ll call back in ten minutes.’
‘Who was it?’
Amber shrugged, which did interesting things to . . . something he was not going to even think about. ‘Ted, I think her name was.’
He shoved the notebook under his arm and jogged up to the old farmhouse by the road, the only place connected to the phone. It worked on an honour system, everyone putting in money for trunk calls, though mostly families and friends rang the commune, not the other way around. He sat and waited for the phone to ring.
‘Gibber’s Creek calling,’ said the operator as the line crackled and fizzed as it always did after rain. Gibber’s Creek might have an automatic exchange, but not this area, yet. ‘Putting you through now.’
‘Jed? Are you all right?’ He suddenly realised she might be calling with bad news. Dad with a heart attack, there’d been a bushfire . . .
‘I’m fine.’ She sounded high, but Jed never used drugs. ‘Or maybe I’ve gone crazy. I just bought a factory.’
He tried to decipher her words through the splutterings of the line. ‘What did you say? I thought you said you’d bought a factory.’
‘I have. I want you to build solar panels there. Photovoltaic ones. Design them and manufacture them and sell them in Australia and export them . . .’
‘Hold your horses! Jed, I can’t make photovoltaic solar panels. We had to import the ones at Halfway to Eternity.’
A silence. And then, ‘But you’re an engineer. You know about photovoltaic panels. You said they were the future, could power the world . . .’
‘One day, when the technology improves. It’s in its infancy now. I know enough to know what I can’t do.’
‘But I thought you were working with solar panels up there.’
‘We’re building inverters, Jed,’ he said patiently. ‘You need an inverter to convert the twelve-volt energy from solar panels into two hundred and forty volts so people can use ordinary appliances like radios and tellies. I can install panels, but we need to import them.’
‘We could use the factory to make inverters then,’ Jed said stubbornly.
He didn’t know whether to laugh or do a jig because she wanted to do something, even something impossible, with him. ‘Jed, we’ve sold exactly three inverters in the past month. That isn’t going to employ a factory’s worth of workers.’
‘Can’t you invent some
‘Jed, I’m not a genius like Tommy.’ It hurt to admit it; that he could never measure up to her great-grandfather, not in that way. ‘The best I can do is take other people’s ideas and come up with better designs. I can design composting toilets, but we wouldn’t get many orders for those either, not enough for a factory. I could even come up with a mini hydro-power system — we had some fun with one of those last week — I was going to write about it to you. But again, we’re looking at maybe two orders a week, at most.’
He listened to the hiss and mutter of the otherwise silent line. ‘Another three minutes?’ asked the operator.
‘Yes,’ he said impatiently.
More silence. At last Jed said, ‘What if we sold all those things?’ Her voice had lost its excited edge. It was focused now. ‘If we imported solar panels, both for hot water and photovoltaics, and stored them in the factory, and employed people to install them, or just to sell them on? And manufactured composting toilets and inverters. And sold things like gas fridges, because solar panels don’t give enough power for an electric fridge and Carol had to drive all the way to Sydney to buy her gas fridge from a boat-supply place.’ Her words flooded along the telephone line now. ‘What if we had a warehouse called The New Alternatives? We’d manufacture some things, be the retailer and distributor for others.’
And suddenly he could see it. ‘Compost bins,’ he said. ‘Even suburbanites can use a compost bin. We could print something like the Whole Earth catalogue but Australian . . .’
‘Sam?’ Her voice was serious. ‘Do you want to do this?’
‘Yes.’ He wanted it so much he felt like flapping his arms to fly to Gibber’s Creek.
‘And you think it could work?’
‘I have absolutely no idea,’ he said honestly.
‘You’re not saying you’ll do it because of me? I mean, you’d do this if someone else suggested it?’
‘Yes.’ He almost smiled at the thought of anyone else he knew having the money — or the gumption to risk it all — to start an alternative power and everything else company.
‘And you haven’t fallen in love with anyone else while you’ve been away? And you’re not going to miss living up there with people you can design things with?’
‘No, I have not fallen in love with anyone up here, and no, I am not going to miss the blokes I’m working with, because if you are offering a factory with precision tools — it is Thompson’s we’re talking about here?’
‘Yes. It’s going to close. That’s how I could buy it so cheaply. Well, cheapish. Much less than it’s worth.’ A pause, and then Jed added, ‘I didn’t think about the equipment. I’ll need to buy that too. But yes, it’ll be there.’
‘We’ve been working in a lean-to shed. Six leaks in the roof and a python who dislikes being disturbed when we turn an engine on. The blokes here will be down in Gibber’s Creek and eating you out of house and home in a fortnight. They won’t even stop to ask about wages.’
‘I . . . I hadn’t thought about wages. I hadn’t really thought about it at all, to be honest. I just offered to buy the factory from Jim and then came straight to call you.’
‘I guessed. How about we make it a cooperative? You lease us the factory . . .’ He shook his head. ‘I’m going too fast. I need to talk to Billo and the others. But we can do that on the way down.’ He grinned down the phone. ‘Put on your pink silk camisole, gorgeous, I’m coming home.’
Gibber’s Creek Gazette, May 1975
Minister for Minerals and Energy Refuses to Apologise
Minister for Minerals and Energy, Rex Connor, remains unrepentant over revelations that he used Tirath Khemlani, a Pakistani money broker based in London, as an intermediary to raise a $2,000 million loan in the Middle East, despite Treasury and Reserve Bank disapproval. It appears that Mr Connor did not fully inform the prime minister, nor his colleagues.
Ms Jed Kelly
Why did we EVER think having a woman prime minister would be so wonderful! Our fearsome leader of the opposition, Mrs Thatcher, is like Genghis Khan with hairspray. It almost makes me wish we women hadn’t got the vote. Not that there is any likelihood Australia will ever get a female prime minister, though I do like the sound of Susan Ryan.
What does your Nicholas feel about the fall of Saigon? Sorry, I know he isn’t ‘your’ Nicholas any more. But it must have been hard for him to watch. So much tragedy, to lead to this.
I’d better run. I’m heading off to the theatre to see The Mousetrap with one of my flatmates, Nigel Wincup, who is a junior producer at the Beeb. He’s introduced me to so many places I’d never have found on my own. We will most probably go to Ronnie Scott’s in Soho after the theatre as he’s mad about jazz — and I’m learning to love it too.
Have fun with your factory, dear friend, and your Sam. I need to inspect him to check he is right for you, but that will need to wait till I get home.
Oops, I just realised I said ‘home’. Maybe Australia has changed so much in the last few years that it’s become interesting. Maybe I’m just homesick. We’ll see.
Love and hugs,
An ancient bus turned caravan down the end of her orchard; three blokes with beards who didn’t seem to know one should knock before entering a bathroom — she’d had to buy a lock — and a woman called Mack with cropped hair, overalls and muscles as big as the blokes’ combined who lived in a red spotted teepee with a tethered goat and a collection of tools Tommy would have envied.
It would be six months before Thompson’s officially shut down, but Jim had given her a lease on one of the big sheds and that was where they all worked, accessing the machine shop at night with keys the foreman had given them and Jim probably knew nothing about. But the foreman knew where the next jobs were coming from, and he had three kids and a mortgage.
At times Jed was scared it wouldn’t work; but mostly, even at two am, when a bad dream would wake her, there’d be Sam snoring beside her, and a feeling Tommy was smiling at her with perfect certainty.
Not make a Jim-type profit, perhaps. Maybe, even probably, never recoup her capital buying the factory. But as long as the still-unnamed business made enough to pay the blokes and Mack a living wage and to employ at least a few of the redundant Thompson’s workers to begin with, and to give hope to others, that would be enough.
Already some of the Thompson’s engineers had started calling in at the shed at weekends with ideas of their own, weird blue lines on graph paper, circuit diagrams that looked like racing tracks for ants.
And when she paused for breath (or stopped swearing at whoever had used the last of the toilet paper and not even told her much less bought some more . . . which reminded her, she’d need to get the septic tank pumped soon with so many using it. How come they designed composting toilets for the world, but hadn’t got round to installing one themselves?) she had never, ever, been happier.
It was one of Scarlett’s afternoons at River View. These days Scarlett did the regular supervised therapy, then worked for as long as she wanted to with the equipment. Waiting at the café for her usually meant friends to chat with, or at least newspapers to read.
But today the Blue Belle held only two travelling salesmen discussing cigarette supplies and a group of schoolteachers celebrating a birthday. Jed knew a couple of them slightly, but it was obviously not a party for outsiders. She exchanged smiles as she entered, then stopped as she passed the café’s only other occupant, one of the blue-rinse set, in her late sixties perhaps, well but quietly dressed. Today the woman gripped her handbag, suddenly stricken. ‘Mrs Anderson, isn’t it? What’s wrong?’
‘The coffee . . .’
‘Is there something wrong with it?’ Jed glanced at the counter. Had Leafsong been experimenting with spiced coffee?
‘No. No, I . . . I just fo
‘But . . .’ Jed glanced down at the handbag.
‘I meant my purse. I left my purse out of my handbag . . .’ The excuse was too obviously false. Mrs Anderson began to cry, soundless tears streaking through the powder on her cheeks, her face turned from the table of teachers, intent on cutting the birthday cake.
‘What is it? Can I help?’ Jed hesitated, then put her arm around the older woman’s shoulders. The damp powder smeared against her . . . Matilda’s . . . green brocade coat.
‘I’ve had a cup of coffee at the Blue Belle every afternoon since my Dan died,’ whispered Mrs Anderson. ‘Every afternoon. A cup of coffee and a scone. I so miss the scones.’
‘Leafsong still makes scones?’
‘Oh, she makes lovely scones. Those sweet potato ones are even better than my mother’s pumpkin scones. But I can’t have scones now.’
‘You’re diabetic?’ Scarlett’s medical monologues were rubbing off.
‘No. I . . . I . . . I can’t afford a scone now. Not every day.’ Shame smudged the voice to a whisper. ‘I don’t have enough money for this afternoon’s coffee either. I should have checked my purse this morning. I just didn’t think . . .’
‘I’ll pay. It’s no problem.’
More tears, a choked sob, as if Mrs Anderson hadn’t heard her offer. ‘Poor Dan. He thought he had left me all secure. A nice annuity. Two thousand a year. Plenty for coffee and scones . . .’
Two thousand dollars five years ago was worth about five hundred dollars a year now.
‘You’ve applied for the pension?’ asked Jed quietly.
Mrs Anderson looked as shocked as if Jed had suggested she swim nude. ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that. We’ve never taken a penny from anyone.’
‘But that’s what the pensions are for! Have you got your Medibank card?’
‘No. We’re independent. Always have been.’
‘Well, now you don’t need to be,’ said Jed gently. ‘Free healthcare for everyone. Free education, a pension you can actually live on.’
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