If blood should stain th.., p.40

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 40

 

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle
 



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  ‘Almost?’ Jed said to Sam.

  Sam grinned. ‘She’s quite a girl.’

  Jed nodded. She wondered if Nicholas knew.

  Nicholas and Felicity said their goodbyes by the ute. Jed wondered what Nicholas felt about being stood up for a wombat. Suddenly she liked Felicity, enormously.

  What did Felicity really think about Nicholas’s political career? Did she love him no matter what he chose to do? Nicholas was so very easy to love.

  Sam began to help his parents clear away with the expertise of one who had known where the cups went all his life, discussing composting toilets and microbial growth in wastewater and possible health precautions with his father.

  Jed drifted out onto the back veranda.

  Yes, there it was, the long boom of the powerful owl. Their territory was massive — she bet it was the same one who called at Dribble, or its mate . . .

  ‘Watching the night?’ Nicholas limped along the side of the house.

  ‘And escaping the inner life of a composting toilet. How was the wombat?’

  ‘Extremely angry, by the sound of it.’

  ‘I’m sorry you won’t get to go camping this weekend.’

  ‘We may get a decent ride on Sunday before I have to go back.’ He leaned against the rail, then turned to her. ‘Jed, I’m worried.’

  ‘About the wombat? If Felicity says she can manage it, I’m sure she can.’

  He gave a half-smile. ‘I’m worried about a bit more than a wombat. More than worried. I don’t like the way the government is going. Don’t get me wrong. This is one of the world’s truly great reformist governments. But some things . . .’

  ‘Like Morosi?’

  He shook his head. ‘Cairns and Morosi are just a symptom. Too many ministers are out of touch not just with people in their electorates, but with what this country really needs. There’s talk of not renewing the Pine Gap Treaty.’

  ‘The one about the US having a communications base in Australia?’

  ‘At least you didn’t call it a spy base like half the Labor Party. No, make that ninety per cent.’

  ‘Is it a spy base?’

  ‘Of course. Of a sort. Every country collects intelligence. And needs to. And like it or not, we need to be allies with the US.’

  ‘Do we really?’

  ‘Think of it this way. There are going to be submarines collecting intelligence along Australian coasts. They can be from America, China or the Soviet Union. Which would you prefer?’

  ‘American, of course.’

  He shrugged. ‘Well, there you are.’

  ‘I’d rather there were no submarines at all.’

  ‘Unfortunately that isn’t something Australia can choose. We’re too small to stand alone. World War II showed us that.’

  ‘Switzerland does.’

  ‘Switzerland doesn’t have our natural resources, and it suits Europe to have Switzerland neutral. But our iron, aluminium, coal, wheat — we are too attractive to ignore.’

  ‘Have you said this to others in the party?’

  ‘Till I’m blue in the face. Which hasn’t won me any popularity contests. If my majority wasn’t so big, they might not even give me preselection next time.’

  ‘Can they do that? Give another Labor candidate your seat?’

  ‘Of course. I could stand as an Independent. I might even get in. But I wouldn’t do that to the people who have supported me.’

  ‘Nicholas,’ she began slowly, ‘have you discussed this with Felicity?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘Because Felicity is my escape. Felicity, and the mountain air up at Rock Farm, and Flinty’s apple pancakes.’ He gave a rueful smile. ‘No matter how hard it gets they keep me going.’

  ‘You really intend to live with Flinty? Not build your own place?’

  ‘She needs us. And she’s an incredible woman.’

  She wanted to say, ‘I know. I’ve met the young Flinty as well as the old one.’ Instead she said, ‘Does Felicity ever get jealous of you and Flinty?’

  ‘No,’ he said shortly.

  Something in his tone made her say, ‘But she is jealous. Of your work?’

  He shook his head.

  ‘Of what then?’

  ‘Of you,’ said Nicholas.

  Chapter 67

  Gibber’s Creek Gazette, June 1975

  Vietnamese Orphans Leave Hospital

  Vietnamese orphans airlifted to Australia after the fall of Saigon have now been released from hospital to their adopting families . . .

  JED

  ‘Me?’ The world twisted. ‘Why?’

  Nicholas looked at the night, not Jed. A wallaby bounded softly between the tussocks, glanced up to assess if the humans were a threat, then bent to graze on Blue’s azaleas. ‘I can talk to you. I just have, if you hadn’t noticed. I’ve never been able to talk to anyone as I do to you.’

  ‘Then you need to! Nicholas . . . Have you told Felicity about what happened in Vietnam?’

  ‘No,’ he said shortly.

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘Because she doesn’t deserve to share my nightmares.’

  ‘And I do?’

  ‘Sorry. I meant . . . you already knew horrors happened. You’d faced them. Felicity has just known love and joy.’

  Jed thought of the girl’s strong hands capturing the wombat, her certainty, her strength. ‘Happiness creates strong people too. Felicity is much tougher than you think. She’s like Flinty, after all.’

  He smiled. ‘You never knew Flinty as a girl. She grew up in the shadow of World War I, saw her parents die, cared for her brothers and sister all by herself, even from her wheelchair. Flinty is like the rock of the valley. Felicity is my refuge from all the bad things. I don’t want to share them with her. She’s . . .’ He hunted for words. ‘Laughter. Gentleness.’

  ‘You can be gentle and strong at the same time. And you can’t dictate who she’s allowed to be either. You need to talk to her.’ She touched his arm to make him look at her, to force him to truly listen to what she was saying. ‘And I have met Flinty —’ She broke off as Sam came out, then took a quick step back.

  Sam looked at them, expressionless, for perhaps a second too long, then smiled. ‘Ready to go? I’m expecting a call from the German suppliers at some impossible hour in the morning.’

  ‘I’ll get my coat,’ said Jed. She left them both on the veranda.

  The wind had teeth on the way home, despite Boadicea’s hood.

  ‘Should have brought the ute,’ said Sam.

  ‘Mmm. Sam, what you saw back there . . . I was just trying to tell Nicholas something.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘That he should share his problems with Felicity, not with me.’ She suddenly realised that sounded anything but reassuring. ‘Sam, I —’ She braked suddenly as they approached the track to the billabong. ‘Did you see that?’

  Sam gazed into the darkness. ‘That flicker? Campfire, I think.’ He blinked into the darkness. ‘No. It’s gone.’

  ‘Do you mind if we check?’ For some reason no one camped by the billabong these days, possibly because unless you knew the land there seemed to be no good site along the rutted track to pitch a tent. Or possibly because Fred had his own ways of making unwelcome visitors uncomfortable.

  ‘Hunting for ghosts again?’

  ‘Of course,’ said Jed lightly.

  Boadicea bumped along the track until Jed pulled over and stared into the mirrored stars of the billabong. No fire. No tent. No ghosts from the past or visions of the future.

  ‘It must just have been moonlight on the water.’

  ‘No moon tonight. And I saw it too,’ said Sam.

  ‘Can you smell sausages?’

  ‘Not this time.’

  ‘Me either. Fred fed me sausages that first night. Sorry, I’ve told you that before. It . . . it changed my life. Gave me my life. I hadn’t eaten in days. Not properly for weeks. Months even. I don’t think I’d
have survived without those sausages. Without Fred. He was an incredible old man.’

  ‘I read about what he did in the war.’

  ‘I bet whatever you read didn’t say he survived.’

  ‘No. But Mum said she was pretty sure he had. We used to ask for circus stories all the time, when we went to bed, or on car trips. The skeleton in the House of Horrors. The trapeze brothers who were really women. Madame and her caravan. Wonderful stories. Jed . . .’

  For a moment she wondered if he was going to ask her to marry him again. Instead he said, ‘Do you love Nicholas?’

  ‘No. I’ve told you that before.’

  ‘You said you didn’t want to marry him,’ said Sam gently. ‘Not that you don’t love him.’

  ‘Okay. I . . . what I feel doesn’t fit in any box. Even when we were . . . together, I suppose, I didn’t even love Nicholas the way I love you. I don’t love him now.’ Should she tell Sam that she had seen a future where she did love Nicholas? No. She had to shoulder that one alone.

  She met Sam’s shadowed gaze. ‘Nicholas and I have shared a lot. I can talk to him, and he can talk to me. But I love you. And I can talk to you, even if Nicholas is too much of a twit to talk about his problems with Felicity.’ She smiled. ‘You make me happy. Nicholas never did.’

  ‘I’d better be satisfied with that then,’ Sam said lightly. ‘Come on. Let’s get you home. You look done in. And I have that phone call.’

  The campfire flames glinted in the rear-vision mirror as Boadicea made her slow way back to the road through the ruts, as the figure grilling sausages gazed thoughtfully at the vanishing car. But this time Jed didn’t look back.

  Chapter 68

  Gibber’s Creek Gazette, 3 July 1975

  Cairns Dismissed!

  Treasurer Jim Cairns was dismissed as deputy prime minister yesterday over his attempt to raise nearly $200 million for improvements in Melbourne’s struggling western suburbs . . .

  Editorial: Labor Cabinet in Turmoil

  As Prime Minister Whitlam ousts long-time supporters Dr Cairns and Clyde Cameron from his cabinet, and with the resignation of Mr Barnard, it appears that rifts and secret deals continue to dog the government . . .

  MATRON CLANCY

  Moira Clancy sat in River View’s office with Gavin in her arms as the adoption inspectors, Ms Fellows and Mr Castelli, gazed at their paperwork. Gavin was large for her lap these days, but this way she could hold his arms, and his legs could mirror the movement of hers, a vital sensory workout in addition to his daily therapies.

  ‘I assure you, I am entirely qualified.’

  ‘Matron Clancy, we accept both your qualifications and experience,’ said Ms Fellows gently. ‘We are mostly concerned about your single status and . . .’ she looked faintly embarrassed ‘. . . your age.’

  ‘I believed that the age and marriage qualifications for adoptions were not enforced with children classified as “disabled”.’

  ‘True,’ said Mr Castelli. ‘But forgive my being blunt. You will be sixty this year. Gavin will need lifelong care.’

  Moira automatically began to clap Gavin’s hands together, so routine now she rarely thought of it. ‘My sister-in-law and partner at River View, Mrs Nancy Thompson, will take on his guardianship if anything happens to me.’

  ‘But Mrs Thompson is,’ he coughed, ‘not a young woman either. Ms Clancy, you don’t quite see . . .’

  Porridge words, deceptively wholesome. You couldn’t fight porridge, too amorphous to take hold of. This porridge, so well meant, would deprive Gavin of any legal family at all, condemn him to be a ward of the state forever.

  She turned Gavin to gaze into his eyes, the only way this child could communicate — so far. He gazed at her with trust. But what did she have left to fight with? Her experience and qualifications had not forced the porridge back, not even the Thompson name and money.

  ‘Please,’ she pleaded, for that was all she had left.

  ‘Excuse me, Matron?’ Jed Kelly stood at the door. ‘I brought you the swimming therapy reports. I’m afraid I couldn’t help overhearing.’ She turned to the two inspectors. ‘My name is Jed Kelly. Matron Clancy is my great-aunt by marriage.’ Several marriages, thought Moira, dazed. What was Jed doing? A testament from her would be kind, but would carry no weight at all.

  ‘I would be delighted to take on any future guardianship of Gavin. Though the Thompson women do live a very long time, as my great-grandmother will tell you. I don’t have any formal qualifications in childcare or therapy, but I’ve worked here as a volunteer for six years. I have my own house and am financially independent.’

  ‘Are you married, Ms Kelly?’ Ms Fellows looked pointedly at her bare left hand.

  ‘My partner, Sam McAlpine, recently asked me to be his wife,’ said Jed with a deeply innocent smile.

  Moira buried her face in Gavin’s baby-scented hair to hide her expression. All of Gibber’s Creek knew Jed had refused Sam.

  Mr Castelli smiled. In relief, thought Moira dazedly, for this was a good man who had not liked dealing in porridge. ‘I’m quite sure a girl like you will be married long before there is any issue with Gavin’s guardianship. We would need to inspect your house, of course, if you’re prepared to put your name on the documents too. Just a formality.’

  ‘Of course.’ Jed’s smile would have sweetened an entire pot of rhubarb. ‘This afternoon if you like. Though you’ll need to excuse the mess of books on the dining-room table. My adopted sister is doing her HSC this year. She used to live at River View too, like Gavin. She was ten years old before she could even lift a spoon. Now she plans to do medicine. She may be the university’s first doctor to graduate in a wheelchair.’

  ‘We are incredibly proud of her,’ said Moira, shifting so Gavin could see Jed. You clever girl, she thought. Such a tactful way to tell them you know exactly what you would be taking on with the care of a limited mobility child. You extraordinary girl.

  But she would live to a hundred and twenty, if necessary, for Gavin. And now she did not have to tell the inspectors what, even when waking petrified at four am, she tried not to accept: that if there was no significant improvement soon, Gavin was unlikely to live even to ten years old.

  She tried not to cry as Jed gave the inspectors her address at Dribble and arranged to meet them after lunch, then walked them to the door, Gavin balanced over her shoulder, his eyes undoubtedly taking in every detail of the office, Miss Forty sitting at her typewriter, neat as always in her starched white dress.

  ‘Thank you,’ she whispered to Jed.

  Jed smiled. She bent and kissed the top of Gavin’s head. ‘You’d better be playing football by the time you’re Scarlett’s age, kid. And talking about it, or you’ll have to listen to her describe every appendectomy. I’ll leave the reports on your desk,’ she added tactfully to Moira, who carefully did not lean against the doorway, or sob, or cry for hours, days, at the tragedies of life, but held close its joys instead.

  One of which was warm in her arms. And damp. ‘Time for a dry nappy, darling,’ she said to Gavin. ‘Come with Mummy now.’ She felt Jed and Miss Forty watch her as she headed for the bathroom.

  Chapter 69

  Gibber’s Creek Gazette, July 1975

  Century-Old Family Farm for Sale

  The century-old McGorran property was put on the market today. Owner Jeff McGorran said, ‘The old place has been our lives. We’ve survived droughts, flood, fire and even the Depression, thanks to the help of our neighbours. But we can’t keep fighting fuel costs and inflation.’

  LEAFSONG

  Walking through the vegetable paddocks at dawn was different in mid-winter. Summer meant gumboots, because snakes lurking in the potatoes to grab a tasty bush rat for their next meal got annoyed enough to leap for your knees.

  You never quite knew what would be ready in summer, which tomatoes had ripened since the day before, how many cucumbers swelled, what monster zucchinis hid below the leaves.

  Winter was s
ofter, the sky faded and cold spiderwebs hanging on the dead corn stalks. That morning her basket was filled with silverbeet, spring onion tops, frost-sweet carrots and beetroots.

  Leafsong would make a ‘spinach’ quiche with beetroot leaves, and borscht for today’s soup, and ham and pea too, because half the blokes in Gibber’s Creek wouldn’t eat a beetroot unless it came in a tin and was drowned in sugary vinegar. And spinach pastry triangles, and vegetable fritters using carrots and potatoes and garlic chives. Both were quick to heat up in the oven.

  And fresh scones. Always scones and melting moments, and today’s cake would be the usual butter cake, but topped with quinces long stewed to ruby brightness. It had been pear cake yesterday. Apple cake tomorrow . . .

  She put ten dollars for the vegetables into the tin by Broccoli Bill and Susan’s shed — they’d decided to build their place from stone, which meant another year in the shed, at least. She shoved the veg into her bicycle basket. It wasn’t a big enough load for the car, and anyway, she loved the taste of winter air. She could feel her face glow as she dismounted by the café, even though her nose was numb, and her fingers prickled from the chill.

  Bother. Twenty past ten. Officially the Blue Belle opened at ten, but when you did most of the work yourself it was hard to keep to an exact opening time. She unlocked the door, then stopped as a figure stood up from the shadows under the stairs next to the outside wall.

  Mark!

  Was he looking for Scarlett? But it had been weeks since Scarlett’d had time to help her on a Saturday. And this was a Monday. Scarlett was at school. Leafsong smiled, shook her head at him, pointed at her watch then towards the school, hoping he’d understand.

  He did. ‘I . . . I’m sorry. I must have lost track of the days.’ He backed away, clearly about to go.

 

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