If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 39
‘But I don’t want to be beholden! We never took a penny from anyone, me and Dan.’
‘I’ll go with you to the post office tomorrow, and help you fill out the pension forms.’ Jed signalled to Leafsong. ‘Another cup of coffee, with two scones and a chicken pie to take away. On my account. And a cup of coffee and a scone for Mrs Anderson, every day, on my account too.’
Leafsong nodded, expressionless.
Jed looked back at Mrs Anderson, expecting gratitude. The woman’s hopeless eyes stabbed her. ‘Never needed anything from anyone,’ the older woman whispered.
Jed stared at her, stricken. What had she done?
Today’s scones would be sawdust in Mrs Anderson’s mouth. But she would eat them, to be polite. Mrs Anderson would accept the pension too. She would even meet Jed tomorrow, to fill in the forms, and thank her afterwards. She might produce a Medibank card next time she visited the doctor. She had no choice, and knew it.
But she would never again enter the Blue Belle Café, to have charity coffee and scones.
Gibber’s Creek Gazette, June 1975
No More Discrimination!
Today the Australian Racial Discrimination Act 1975 becomes law. From today it is illegal to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin.
Opinions on the new laws are sharply divided, with employers stating they should have the right to employ whoever they like, and restaurants and hotel owners afraid that opening their doors to anyone regardless of skin colour may cause other customers to complain.
But if they do complain, from today onwards across Australia, they too will break the law.
The McAlpines’ house was on Moura, the property that had been Matilda’s first farm, before she began to acquire half the district. These days the original slab hut was just used as a sleepout for visitors, linked by a windowed hall to the new house built by Sam’s parents after their marriage, and added to as their children were born.
Jed straightened her blue velvet ribbon choker and made sure her slip wasn’t showing. She liked and admired Sam’s parents. But dinner at their house was always slightly awkward.
Sam might spend his nights at Dribble, but he still had his own house too, even if it was presently occupied by two of the beards, Billo and Nigel, who’d accompanied Sam from Nimbin. And thank goodness they had — for a while Dribble had been wall-to-wall beard. The other beard, Davo, had moved in with Carol, which seemed to suit them both, while Mack continued content with her teepee and her goat.
What was Jed’s role in the McAlpine family? Sam’s partner? De facto? Neither fitted. She and Sam hadn’t decided to live together instead of marriage. They hadn’t talked about what they were at all.
Jed suspected that Mrs McAlpine looked for an engagement ring on Jed’s finger every time they came for dinner. And if Sam asked her to marry him again, she would probably say yes. But he hadn’t asked. He knew her ‘yes’ would be because he wanted it, and she wanted to make him happy.
What was wrong with her? Women were supposed to want to get married! Or know that they didn’t want to get married, like Carol, because the state had no business in her bedroom. It couldn’t really still be about Nicholas . . .
Jed braked so suddenly Sam stared at her. There was Nicholas’s car, already parked in the driveway, as if her thoughts had conjured him up.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Sam.
Had he known Nicholas would be here? No, she thought. Sam didn’t even recognise his car. ‘Nothing. I thought a rabbit ran across the drive. Just a shadow.’ She drove into the space by the garage. They walked hand in hand up the path, then across the veranda. ‘Hello?’ Sam led her into the hallway that was warmed by a fawn-coloured shag-pile rug.
Mrs McAlpine’s face poked around a door. ‘We’re all in the kitchen.’
It was a big kitchen with new avocado-green cupboards and benchtops, a gleaming copper chimney for the wood stove, and a row of pottery canisters lined up like soldiers with cork lids. The wall between the kitchen and the dining room had been removed — no more Mum off in the kitchen on her own. Dr McAlpine sat at the breakfast bar, next to Nicholas. Nicholas with a new beard, grey flecked as she had seen it in her vision.
When had he grown a beard? thought Jed in sudden panic. Or got grey hairs? She’d assumed there would be years before Nicholas had grey hairs.
Felicity sat next to him. She looked neither as dowdy as she had at the electoral events, nor as radiant as up at Rock Farm. Relaxed, but also a bit worried, thought Jed, glancing at Nicholas, a glass of wine in his hand, a nearly empty bottle on the bench.
Jed scanned the kitchen. Dr McAlpine was drinking lime cordial; Felicity and Mrs McAlpine had glasses filled from the jug of home-made lemonade by the sink. Which meant that Nicholas had drunk that bottle of wine by himself. Nicholas who drank almost nothing . . .
How hard had the fall of Saigon hit him? Did the memories of those who had died for nothing haunt him?
Would Felicity know, if they did?
‘Hi,’ she said awkwardly as Sam kissed his mother and hugged his father. Jed moved dutifully forwards to be kissed too. Mrs McAlpine smelled of rosemary and lamb, Mr McAlpine of wood smoke, from the fire in the living room that he must have been tending.
Should she kiss Felicity, as Sam was doing? She hardly knew her. But Felicity just smiled at her. Jed smiled back in relief.
‘We’re waifs and strays caught in the storm,’ said Felicity by way of explanation.
‘A Gibber’s Creek breakfast fundraiser tomorrow morning the office forgot to tell me about until two hours ago,’ said Nicholas shortly, pouring himself the dregs of wine from the bottle.
‘Auntie Blue saved us from the Jolly Jumbuck Motel.’ Felicity reached over and took a colander from the sink. ‘I can at least shell the peas.’
‘No need. Well, thank you.’ Mrs McAlpine pulled up one of the stools at the counter. Her thumbs moved swiftly down each pod, releasing the peas into the saucepan. Felicity’s were almost as fast.
‘Anything I can do?’ asked Sam. ‘Wood brought in?’
‘All done. I’ll put these on in another ten minutes when the potatoes are ready. What had you planned for the weekend?’ she asked Felicity and Nicholas.
Felicity’s hand crept over to take Nicholas’s. His face relaxed when he took hers and held it. ‘We were to leave Rock Farm before daybreak and ride to Chinaman’s Gully and camp there overnight. Nicky has never seen it. There’s a cave there — just a small one, full of bats. They say the Chinese dug it mining for gold, then bushrangers killed them, took the gold, and used the cave as their hideout.’
Dr McAlpine grinned. ‘You hope to find the treasure? Good luck. Kirsty and I used to look for it too.’
Felicity laughed. ‘We all did when we were kids. Grandpa found an old pistol half buried in bat dung once. It’s up at the farm.’ She turned to Jed. ‘It’s the ride in that’s wonderful, along the ridges, almost level with the sun as it rises. You and Sam must come too one day. There are so many lyrebirds in the gully you never know how many other birds are really there. Grandpa took his mouth organ once and a lyrebird sang back “Andy’s Gone with Cattle” to him.’
‘Truly?’ asked Jed.
Nicholas smiled at his fiancée. ‘I’m taking a mouth organ to test the theory.’
‘Can you play a mouth organ?’ asked Jed.
‘Nope. But if a lyrebird can copy one played well, it can imitate one played badly.’
‘Lyrebirds have more musical ability than Nicky,’ pronounced Felicity. Her face was fully alive again.
‘So what now?’ asked Dr McAlpine.
Nicholas shrugged, the light leaving his face. ‘We can still get up to Rock Farm tomorrow afternoon, if I’m lucky. Have a look at the old schoolhouse, at least.’
‘Grandma is thinking of buying it for a surgery when I finish my prac
‘You’re really going back to live at Rock Farm?’ Dr McAlpine’s voice was slightly wistful. Of course: it was where he grew up, with Flinty, Andy and Kirsty, the youngest of the family, as well as the older brother lost in World War I.
‘Still miss the valley, darling?’ asked Mrs McAlpine.
‘A little,’ he admitted. ‘That brilliant white on the mountains in winter. I thought I’d find Europe beautiful,’ he added. ‘But snow on pine trees can’t compete with snow among gums.’
Nicholas nodded. ‘Sometimes I feel I’m shrivelling inside in Canberra. Every time I go back to the mountains I breathe in the scent of gum leaves and rocks and feel alive again. I never really took to the city when my parents moved there.’
‘I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else,’ said Felicity simply. ‘And Grandma shouldn’t live by herself any more. It’s going to work well.’
‘Flinty says the house needs to be filled with kids again,’ said Nicholas softly.
Jed glanced at Felicity. How did she feel about being cast as the brood mare to provide a houseful of great-grandchildren for Flinty McAlpine?
‘How is work going?’ Mrs McAlpine asked Sam, obviously trying to change the subject.
Sam grinned. ‘We’ve found a supplier in Germany who makes compost spreaders. They’re mostly for biodynamic farmers in Europe, but the shipping costs are reasonable . . .’
Jed let the chat wash over her during dinner. They talked politics over dessert, or rather Dr McAlpine asked, and Nicholas answered. Evidently the old doctor didn’t catch the lack of enthusiasm in his soon-to-be-nephew’s voice. ‘And what about Junie Morosi? Is Jim Cairns really in love with her?’
‘The damage is done even if he isn’t,’ answered Nicholas wearily. ‘A treasurer appoints a married woman as his office chief and tells the press he feels “a kind of love” for her. And those photos of them together. Women aren’t supposed to be senior public servants!’
‘What do you think?’
‘That Jim Cairns is both a fool and one of the wisest men I’ve met. And a very bad treasurer. Or perhaps just not the treasurer we need to have when the Australian economy needs stability.’ Nicholas hesitated. ‘The press are saying that Whitlam has got to sack him.’
‘Over many things. Mostly being out of touch with what the public feel. And business. And the economy generally. I probably shouldn’t have said anything. I’m only a humble backbencher, you know.’
‘You’ll be Minister for Defence before you know it,’ said Dr McAlpine.
‘Maybe. This is wonderful apple crumble, Mrs McAlpine.’
‘Call me Blue. Please. You too, Jed.’
‘Not Blue Belle?’ Jed teased.
Mrs McAlpine — Blue — laughed. ‘You know, that really is what I was christened! All the girls in our family had flower names, until I had Jane. I put my foot down for her, even though the aunts complained. My parents called me Blue, but at the circus I became Belle.’
The circus where Fred had loved her, Fred who had helped Jed survive when he was a living ghost, before his death, whom she suspected haunted the billabong still. Jed wondered if Mrs McAlpine — Blue — had ever known how much Fred loved her all his life. And just, perhaps, for longer. If Fred’s ghost still whispered to her now, did he still hover protectively near Blue and his sister, Mah?
‘How’s Scarlett?’ asked Blue.
‘Glued to her textbooks. I’ll be glad when she’s finished her exams and knows for certain she’s got into medicine.’ Jed glanced at Dr McAlpine. ‘She will be able to manage the practical work, won’t she?’
He smiled. ‘It won’t be easy. Even getting up the stairs to lectures will be a challenge. But I’ve never seen anyone more determined than that girl. She’ll do it.’
‘Now the new anti-discrimination legislation is through, the university is going to have to make getting to lectures or pracs possible for her,’ said Nicholas. ‘And everyone like her.’
‘There is no one like Scarlett,’ said Jed with feeling.
Nicholas grinned, his face finally relaxing properly. ‘True. Scarlett is the only person in the world who could persuade me to read Captain Midnite to her five times in one night,’ he said to Felicity. ‘She even —’ He halted. ‘What was that noise?’
Jed heard it too, a scratching underneath the floor.
‘Wombat,’ said Blue. ‘The poor thing has mange. We’ve been trying to put it down. Maybe after dinner tonight —’
‘No!’ Jed was startled by Felicity’s passion. ‘Mange can be cured.’
Dr McAlpine shook his head. ‘Not when it’s this bad. The poor beast is blind, great gaping sores all along one side. Infected too. But every time I try to get a good shot at it, it runs to its hole.’ He stood. ‘I’d better try and get it before it bolts again. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll —’
‘Don’t!’ Felicity stood, looking around the table. ‘The infection — even the crusts on its eyes — can be cured too, if you know what to do.’
‘And you do?’
Felicity looked at him steadily. ‘And I do.’ She turned to Jed and Sam. ‘Could you help me?’
‘Of course,’ said Jed. Sam nodded.
‘You’re not going to try to catch it?’ demanded Dr McAlpine. ‘Girl, wombats can tear flesh as badly as a tiger.’
‘I’ve dealt with wombats for years. Sam, there’s a cage in the back of the ute. Can you get it? Dr McAlpine, show him where the wombat hole is. Is it the one just by the front gate? Or does it use another too?’
Dr McAlpine considered her, then nodded. ‘Just the one near here.’
‘Excellent. Put the cage as far down into it as you can, then come back here. Don’t go near the wombat.’
‘But . . .’ said Dr McAlpine as Sam saluted, ‘Got it,’ on his way out the door. Dr McAlpine shrugged and followed.
‘Can I help?’ asked Nicholas softly.
Felicity hesitated, then shook her head. ‘The ground is too rough out there. If you fell, you might get hurt. Dr McAlpine’s right. Wombats can do a lot of damage.’ She gave him a quick sympathetic smile. ‘I wouldn’t want the electors of Gibber’s Creek to see their local member with a wombat bite.’
‘I can just see the headlines,’ said Jed. ‘Wombat Wins Surprise Local By-Election.’
Felicity’s smile grew to a grin. ‘All set?’ she asked as Sam and Dr McAlpine came back in.
‘Yes,’ said Sam. ‘It’s a great-looking trap. Got a one-way flap,’ he explained to Jed. ‘And a sensor plate —’
‘We need to work fast,’ Felicity interrupted. ‘Give me one minute to get to the hole. If the wombat decides to bolt past it, I’ll need to whoosh it in. I can’t stay there too long though, or my scent will be too noticeable and the wombat will head in another direction. Sam, Jed, you go out the back. Talk calmly and softly. Doesn’t matter what you say, just so the wombat knows where you are and doesn’t panic. Keep talking and walk towards it. Okay?’
Felicity vanished towards the front door. Jed looked at her watch, counted the seconds, then nodded to Sam. They moved out the back.
‘What do we say?’ Jed asked Sam.
‘Rhubarb, rhubarb,’ she agreed.
‘Rhubarb, rhubarb . . . rhubarb . . .’ They moved towards the scratching sounds.
The scratching stopped. Suddenly they could hear the wombat run, a galloping scramble out from under the house towards the front gate.
Would it smell Felicity? What if it attacked her? She could see the wombat in the light from the house now, thudding blindly across the front lawn. Dr McAlpine had been right. One whole side was white and bloody. It must be smelling its way home.
Where Felicity waited.
The wombat had almost reached the gate now. It hesitated for perhaps two seconds. And then the wombat charged again, into its hole . . .
The trap clicked sh
‘A pressure trap,’ explained Sam, exhilarated. ‘As soon as there’s any weight on it, the cage door shuts.’
The wombat gave a grunting snarl.
‘Watch your fingers,’ warned Felicity. ‘You don’t want to lose one. Wombats can turn round in tiny spaces.’
The wombat seemed frozen in the cage. Its injuries looked even worse close up. It stank, flies clustering in the wounds even at night. ‘Can you really help him?’ asked Jed quietly.
‘Yes. It’s a her, by the way. But I need to get her up to Rock Farm. She can’t stay in this cage all night. She’s terrified, poor thing.’
‘Is that why she isn’t moving?’
‘No.’ Felicity grinned. ‘A wombat’s reaction to strange things is to stay still till they can work out what to do. Any second now she’s going to try and bite my fingers off. See?’ She laughed as the wombat turned, its long teeth suddenly where its back legs had been, frantically trying to grab its tormentor. ‘It’s okay, old girl,’ she said gently. ‘You’ll be back here in a couple of months. I’ve got an enclosure up at the farm,’ she explained to Sam and Jed. ‘Grandma and I set it up a few years ago when the wombats in the valley began coming down with mange. It’s spread by foxes, we think. It’s one of the reasons I became a vet. People, even good people like Uncle Joseph, think it’s kinder to shoot them, put them out of their misery. But you wouldn’t do that to a person. You’d try to make them well.’
She gazed down at the wombat, still again, waiting its chance. ‘I’d better tell Nicholas I’ll have to head up to the farm tonight. I’ll drive down again tomorrow to pick him up after his fundraiser.’
‘It’s a long drive to do twice, both ways.’
‘It’s not that bad with the new highway. I’m used to long distances now anyway. Come on, old girl,’ she said to the wombat. ‘Let’s get your cage to the ute. I’ve got some delicious lucerne pellets and carrots for you there, and a lovely wombatty-smelling pen up in the mountains.’
‘I don’t think she’s grateful,’ said Sam dryly.
Felicity laughed. ‘Wombats don’t do grateful. It’s one of the reasons I love them. A wombat is always the centre of its own universe. Not like a dog, who tries to please you. I love dogs too. But when a wombat accepts you it’s, well, extraordinary. Being accepted by a wild animal is totally different from being loved by one humans have domesticated.’ She began to lope towards the ute. ‘I’ve got some thick gloves,’ she called back. ‘Almost wombat proof.’
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