If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 41
And, just as clearly, he needed a cup of tea or, even better, soup. Leafsong grabbed his hand, smiled, then tugged him gently.
She let go of his hand at a table, gave him a light shove to sit him down, then carried the veg into the kitchen, keeping her eye on him over the counter.
He looked pale. More than skin pale: as if the blood had been drained from everywhere, not just his skin. She boiled the kettle quickly, hoping none of the mums who’d just dropped their kids at preschool would come in for an early scone, and shoved two slices of yesterday’s pear cake in the microwave for twenty seconds. As soon as it dinged, she grabbed them, added cake forks to the plates, picked up a pot of tea and carried them out to put them on the table in front of him, then went back for the cups and saucers and milk. She pushed a slice of cake towards him, and lifted an enquiring eyebrow.
But he said nothing. He took a mouthful, and then another. Which was okay by her. She preferred silence. Silence could bring you closer than words.
He finished the cake. She took the plate, then brought soup, mushroom and barley, and, as an afterthought, turned the Closed sign around on the café door. Which was another advantage of running your own business, even if people grumbled at the irregular hours.
Mark ate the soup, still in silence, sipped the tea, then sat back, looking out the window at the pots of herbs along their narrow strip of garden between the café and the Drapery next door, with its bolts of fabric, balls of wool, underwear and night attire for gents and ladies. At last he whispered, ‘It’s all going wrong.’
Leafsong met his eyes, but knew he was seeing Scarlett, not her or, rather, seeing her only as Scarlett’s friend. It didn’t matter.
Yes, no, it did matter. It mattered a lot, but not right now. Because Mark needed Scarlett’s friend, so that was what she’d be, because she loved him.
Scarlett saw the handsome young man. Leafsong saw Mark.
She tilted her head enquiringly, knowing Mark could only say this to someone who would never, could never, betray his confidence.
‘They’ve almost all left,’ he whispered, his voice aching with misery. ‘There’s only seven of us out there now.’
Leafsong touched his cold fingers with her warm ones, and gave him another enquiring look.
‘The Elders will be here in just over four months,’ he whispered. ‘They need to see proof that humans have the power to slough off weakness. I . . . I don’t know if seven of us will be enough. And I’m not whole enough to be counted among the Chosen . . .’
He shut his eyes, as if to shut reality away, then opened them. ‘I had another seizure last night. In my room. No one saw. I wondered . . . I was going to ask Scarlett if she thought I should go to the doctor to give me some medicine till the Elders come. The Elders will know how to cure me. But the Elders will know I’m not truly one of the Chosen . . .’
Leafsong nodded. If she took Mark’s hand now, would he look at her? She closed her fingers around his. He had a soft hand compared with hers. Butter from pastry-making kept her skin supple, but cooking made her hands muscular too, not to mention picking vegetables, or the years spent helping build Halfway to Eternity. Mark left his hand in hers, but he didn’t look at her.
At last he stood up. Her hand felt bereft. ‘Thank you,’ he said vaguely. ‘How much do I owe you?’ He looked at the blackboard menu, trying to calculate prices, failing, his eyes blinking rapidly in distress.
She wanted to hold him. Feed him more soup and warm bread and butter, till he was comforted and calm. But all he saw was Scarlett and Ra Zacharia and the future he couldn’t have.
A young man who loved an elf would never want a lump like her.
She accepted the two-dollar note he thrust towards her because without words, without him looking, there was no way to say all she gave him was a gift.
She heard the engine start, the ute drive away. Only then did she turn the sign to Open, and begin to make the day’s scones. No pinch of salt in them today. Her tears were salt enough.
12 August 1975
Ms Jed Kelly
I’m writing to you from London’s greatest heatwave ever, 32°C!!! The city has gone mad. I just saw a banker type take off his shirt on Fleet Street, and in Hyde Park businessmen are rolling up their trousers to paddle. How would they survive in 45°C Canberra?!
The whole world seems mad just now, with Carlos hunting Yehudi Menuhin — the world’s greatest violinist targeted by a terrorist! And the Birmingham Bomb trial and the stable boys are on strike. As my history teacher used to say of everything from the French Revolution to World War I: ‘Things were grim, girls.’
Can I tell you a secret? I long for brown hills. I want blue sky so high you want to jump into it, and wine I can afford to drink, even if it’s in a box.
I saw Sunday Too Far Away and I cried because I was homesick, and because Australia is suddenly making brilliant movies and I’ve missed it all, and maybe, just maybe, I am missing the most exciting time and place to be young. Or maybe I just want Vegemite toast and a Violet Crumble and roast pumpkin leaving little black bits in the gravy.
Even more secret: I went to Australia House last week to look at the newspapers for jobs in Australia. I’m not coming back till I have a decent job . . . which means I’ve decided, haven’t I?
It probably won’t be for months yet, but if you want to visit me here, it had better be soon.
Love, hugs and a few homesick tears,
PS I thought of Drinkwater when I watched Sunday Too Far Away and suddenly it didn’t seem Deadsville at all. All that golden light. And those gorgeous shearers’ muscles.
PPS Did you hear that Anthea is shacked up with a builder’s labourer in a squat in Glebe?! What a coalition for the Green Bans: Nobel Prize-winning Patrick White and Jack Mundey, who is rather a dish, and Anthea and her Bruce, or whatever he is called. Anthea being Anthea she didn’t tell me his name in the letter, just what union he’s in!
‘I’m sorry,’ said Mark 40 quietly. ‘But the pain has been too bad. I’ve handed in my resignation at River View.’
The world cracked. Ra Zacharia took a calming breath and rightened it. ‘My dear girl, I am sure a few days of meditating here . . .’
‘I’m going back to Sydney. My mother’s made an appointment for me with a rheumatologist.’
This time the anger was too sharp to dissipate. He forced his smile to keep sailing. ‘In less than three months all ills — including yours — will be vanquished. But only if —’ He stopped. If the girl realised that he knew she was not truly one of the Chosen, that he only needed her to get that small boy here, at the right time, she would be even more determined to leave. ‘Do not stop meditating,’ he said at last. ‘Even in Sydney, every day, remember you are one of the Chosen. And as you realise that doctors cannot help you, as you feel the strength of the Elders build as they come closer,’ he took her hand, held it warmly, ‘then come back to us. The boy needs us. You are his only hope!’
‘Perhaps,’ said Mark 40 softly. Ra Zacharia watched her limp down the stairs, and into her small white Hillman Imp.
So. He had to face it. Six members of the community left, and none of the six a perfect Sacrifice, except himself. And he was too valuable for the future of humanity to create a pathway for the Elders, to bring them to earth, to Gibber’s Creek.
But he still had Mark 23. And Mark 23 still had the trust of the wheelchair girl, meeting her every Saturday, he reported, just as he’d been instructed. But would she be enough? Ra Zacharia gazed through light that seemed too bright, as if the edge of every object might shatter if he touched it. Somehow, he must get the boy too.
Gibber’s Creek Gazette, 17 August 1975
The Gurindji Own Their Land Once More
In a moving ceremony yesterday Prime Minister
Page 4: Royal Commission declares that women in the public service are underpaid and have poor chances of promotion.
‘Dinner’s in the oven,’ said Scarlett, looking up from her physics textbook on the dining-room table. ‘It’s cheese and potato pie, and there’s a bag of asparagus ready to cook on the table. And lemon tarts except I ate all but one. How did the stocktake go?’
‘Very, very boring.’ Jed collapsed in a chair. ‘I am so looking forward to handing all this over to a manager. I am not, repeat not, cut out to be a businesswoman.’
‘Just a business owner?’
‘An investor,’ said Jed with dignity. ‘This will be Sam’s project, not mine.’
‘I thought you wanted to do it together.’
‘No. Well, maybe at first. I like talking over ideas with Sam. But the actual work bores me silly.’
‘What does Sam think of that?’ Scarlett halted as Sam came through the door.
He grinned, clearly overhearing. ‘Sam thinks that the sooner Jed Kelly finds us a manager the better. Do you know she added up every single order incorrectly today?’
‘I do not pretend to be an accountant or even an accountant’s bootlace,’ said Jed.
Sam kissed the top of her head. ‘Which is a good thing for the Australian economy. You’d collapse the Taxation Department trying to count the deficit on your fingers. Dinner ready?’
‘I just need to steam the asparagus. You need to learn to cook.’
‘Division of labour,’ said Sam, heading to the bathroom to wash. ‘I dish it out and wash the dishes. You cook. Or Leafsong does.’
‘That’ll teach me to let him know I can cook. You’d think Women’s Lib had never been invented,’ said Jed.
‘I heard that!’ The yell echoed from the bathroom. ‘Pre Women’s Lib you’d have done the washing-up too. And been barefoot and pregnant.’
Scarlett looked at Jed in sudden curiosity. ‘Jed, do you want kids?’ She spoke more quietly now, under the sound of splashing from the bathroom.
‘I . . . Yes.’ Jed’s face showed a flicker of pain, and then a careful lack of any expression at all.
Interesting, thought Scarlett. She had never realised quite how badly Jed DID want children. Then why wasn’t she marrying Sam, and having some of her own?
‘Why did you ask?’
‘Just wondered,’ said Scarlett. ‘There was another letter from Mrs Taylor today.’ She still found it impossible to use the term ‘mother’.
‘What does she say?’
Scarlett passed it over wordlessly.
I hope you are well. It was so good to hear that all is so wonderful for you. We are all good here, though your dad’s arthritis is playing up again, and Fluffy died, which was sad after so long.
Is there any chance that we could meet again soon? I would very much like to talk to you. There are things I urgently need to say that are hard to put in a letter. I work evenings at the local supermarket, but it is only a five-hour drive to Gibber’s Creek. I hope we can meet soon.
‘Who is Fluffy?’
Scarlett carefully didn’t look up from her physics book. ‘I hope it’s the cat. I’d hate to have a sister called Fluffy.’
‘And a deceased one at that.’
Scarlett shrugged. ‘I don’t know the Taylors. I don’t care if they die either.’
Scarlett flushed. ‘I didn’t mean it quite like that. I meant I don’t care about them more than any other family.’
‘So you won’t meet her?’
Scarlett felt . . . She wasn’t quite sure what she felt. Rage, at this stupid woman who had abandoned her and now wanted to upset her life right before the EXAMS, which were the most important ones in her life, the door to true independence, life by herself, well, at college anyway, in Sydney. Making friends who shared her passion for science and medicine.
Yet there was a faint taste of what might be pleasure that Mrs Taylor did, finally, want to see her. ‘I don’t know,’ she said at last. ‘Not till after my exams anyway.’
‘She said it was urgent.’
‘If it is as urgent as that, she can write to me. Or ring us up.’
‘I’m not in the phone book.’
‘Aren’t you? I didn’t know. Why not?’
‘Everyone around here knows my phone number, or can ask Nancy or someone else what it is. It was Matilda who suggested I not have it listed. Stops people asking me for money.’ Jed shook her head. ‘I don’t mean it like that. I don’t mind giving people money. But I can’t deal with dozens of appeals every week. That’s what Jim says happens — the business gets hundreds.’
‘I know you are generous,’ said Scarlett stiffly. Gratitude choked you, after a while, especially when there was little to give in return.
‘I didn’t mean you, brat! You’re my sister! What I have is yours.’
‘Even Boadicea? And the factory?’
‘You keep your hands off Boadicea. You’ll have your own car, as soon as those blasted bureaucrats at the registry decide the new design fits Australian standards. As for the factory, you can be manager there with my blessing.’
‘No way.’ Scarlett relaxed. Sometimes — just sometimes — she worried about how much Jed gave her. Like today, when they were discussing maxi skirts and Barbie smirked and said, ‘Of course Scarlett can have as many new clothes as she wants. She only has to ask.’
But she DIDN’T ask. That was important. She and Jed were family. And Sam. She shoved the pinprick of unease away. ‘Hey, Sam,’ she said as he came out, towelling his hair. ‘Did you KNOW that forty per cent of power on the grid is lost in transmission? That means that decentralising the power system by installing heaps of solar panels would mean we need to make less power in the first place.’
‘Yep. Decentralisation makes sense from a power security point of view too. What if we get another solar storm like last century? The whole planet might lose its grids.’
Scarlett grinned. One successful detour away from Mrs Taylor, having children and exactly how much she owed Jed and the Thompsons successfully accomplished. Except she didn’t owe them anything, really, did she, because she was family? Family helped each other. Then why did Barbie’s bitchiness still niggle . . . ?
They had forgotten the cheese and potato pie. Scarlett wheeled over to the oven to save it before it turned to cinders.
Gibber’s Creek Gazette, 4 September 1975
QLD Forces Anti-Whitlam Senator
In a break with all established precedent, Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen has appointed anti-Whitlam public servant Albert Field to fill a previously Labor Senate place. This now potentially gives the Coalition under Malcolm Fraser control of the Senate. Canberra tipsters say that the prime minister is considering another double dissolution election.
The phone in Dribble’s living room rang just as Jed had finished totalling the order for photovoltaic panels from the supplier in Germany for the third time, and getting a third different result. She should put her pride back in the wardrobe and ask Jim’s advice about how to hire a manager . . .
It was also high time she found the right words to explain to Sam she had agreed to take on potential guardianship of a small, bright child who could not move. Admittedly it was unlikely to come to pass for decades, if at all. But still, it was the kind of thing you needed to share with someone who had asked you to share his life, and one day might do so again.
‘Jed?’ Nicholas said.
‘Hi,’ she said a little warily.
Of course I can, she thought. She was in love with Sam, safely, definitely. And she needed lunch. And definitely a break from these figures.
‘The Blue Belle in half an hour?’ she suggested.
‘Make it two o’clock. I should be free by then.’
And the café closes at two-thirty these days, she thought, as the morning tea and lunch trade were all Leafsong could handle without more reliable help. Staff who would take orders from a silent boss were hard to find. The café would be deserted, or almost, by then.
‘All right,’ she said more cautiously.
She changed out of a vintage embroidered nightdress she wore as a day dress into jeans and a checked shirt, the kind she might wear to help Michael or Nancy jet the ewes. Because the farm is my home now? she thought as she opened the café door. Or because I don’t want to make myself look attractive for Nicholas?
She shut her mind to either thought, and looked at the menu. She was too hungry to wait till two o’clock. Around her, other customers were finishing their meals, sipping coffee or wondering if they could fit in a piece of quince tart, with ice cream.
‘Vegetable spring rolls, please.’
‘How’s it going?’
Leafsong’s crooked grin splashed across her face. She held her hands up in an explosion of joy, customers and, Jed hoped, profit.
‘You need to get more regular help. Not just someone to clean and wash up or waitress on weekends. Someone who can cook.’
A shrug that said, ‘How?’
There’d be a lot more people looking for work soon, Jed realised. The biscuit factory would close next month, and Thompson’s at the end of the year. But would any of those employees suit the Blue Belle and its eccentric owner? Operating a mixing machine for squished-fly biscuits didn’t mean you could cook.
Jed began to eat. It was two-thirty, and her plate empty and a cup of coffee drunk, Leafsong moving to put up the Closed sign, before Nicholas appeared.
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