If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 42
‘Sorry I’m late,’ he said to Jed and Leafsong. Leafsong smiled, as if to say, ‘We are never closed for friends.’ She vanished without waiting for Nicholas’s order. The microwave dinged. She appeared with a bowl of chicken and vegetable soup, and a basket of warmed bread.
Nicholas looked at it as if he had forgotten that the main purpose of lunch was food. ‘Thanks, I hadn’t realised I’m starving.’ He picked up his spoon.
Jed let him eat half the bowlful and two pieces of bread. ‘What did you want to talk about?’
‘Nothing. Everything. Just talk. I still can’t talk to anyone except you. Not really talk. Not anyone in my office, either here or Canberra, or in the Labor Party, or they’d think I was disloyal. Not anyone who might tell the media what I’d been saying . . .’
Jed glanced at Leafsong, innocently rolling pastry. Too innocently. Did Nicholas assume that because Leafsong couldn’t speak, she couldn’t hear or communicate in other ways? But Leafsong betraying a confidence, writing a letter to a newspaper about what their local MP really believed? Impossible.
‘I told you: you need to start talking to Felicity. Really talking to her. Or Flinty, at least.’
‘Flinty’s like Matilda. They’ve waited so long for this it’s like their own personal Camelot. How can I tell them it’s got feet of clay?’
‘Mixing metaphors,’ she observed. ‘Though I suppose Camelot might have had clay foundations.’
‘The trouble is almost the opposite. This government’s foundations are good. Incredibly good. It’s the bits on top. The silly bits. The Cairns and Morosi bits. Poor Rex Connor’s desperation to do good before he dies.’
‘And a financial mess.’
‘That is scarcely our fault. Every western nation is in the same fix. It’s a worldwide recession caused by the oil cartel, not just an Australian one. But the Labor government is being blamed. It would be even worse if we didn’t stimulate the economy.’ Had he changed his mind about that? thought Jed. But she made no comment as he continued. ‘We can’t even do that with Fraser blocking Supply. How can any government govern if the Senate won’t pass the Supply bills? We won’t even be able to pay the salaries of public servants.’
‘Is it going to come to that?’
‘No, of course not. Fraser’s fumbled it. Which will be the new bumper sticker next week, by the way. Pick up yours from my electoral office. Malcolm Fraser will have to give in soon, and he knows it. If push comes to shove, we have the numbers in the Senate — there are at least two in the Coalition who’ll cross the floor to vote with Labor rather than see the country grind to a halt.’
‘Then why is Fraser doing it?’
‘To make us look incompetent. To make it look as if the Coalition still holds the real power in this country. They did for so long they can’t believe they don’t have it now.’
‘Nicholas, are you regretting standing for parliament?’
He looked up from his soup in surprise. ‘Of course not. It’s the one thing I can do for Flinty.’ He smiled. ‘Well, this and making sure that Rock Farm will continue, not just in her lifetime but for her great-grandchildren. But it’s not just that.’ He struggled for words. ‘It is the most extraordinary time to be alive. To be young. A whole nation changing. And we are its engine, changing laws — and how people think. A caring, just society, multicultural and proud of it.’
‘You don’t have to make the speech to me,’ said Jed, mildly amused. ‘I believe it all, remember? I even wrote some of those very words.’
He laughed. ‘I know.’ He sobered. ‘You understand because you suffered when it was different. And so did I. Sometimes I think you and I understand each other better than anyone else in the world.’
No, thought Jed as Nicholas paused to eat more soup. That might have been true six years ago. But I don’t truly know the man who spent a year meeting a girl from 1919 and falling in love with her, knowing they could never be together.
Nor did Nicholas know the Jed Kelly who no longer had nightmares because Sam lay warm beside her and Scarlett was just down the hall, the wombat scratching itself under the floorboards and the powerful owl stretching its wings above them all.
She regarded Nicholas thoughtfully. ‘How’s the wombat?’
He blinked. ‘What wombat? Oh, the one Felicity took back. Fine, I think. She told me she’d be able to bring it back for release by Christmas.’
‘She asked me to come up and see her animal hospital one day.’
‘Animal hospital? I suppose it is. I’d never thought of it like that.’
Jed shook her head. How could Nicholas be so blind? This man who had loved Flinty for her strength, who loved Flinty’s granddaughter but had failed to see the same strength there, differently expressed. ‘Nicholas, you need to — Oh, hi, Scarlett. You’re early.’
Scarlett wheeled her chair up next to them at the table. ‘It’s a free study period. I can study better here or at home than at school. I think I’m the only one in Form Six taking the exams seriously. Did you KNOW,’ she said to Nicholas, ‘that only four students in Gibber’s Creek want to go on to uni? Out of a class of thirty-three?’
‘It’ll change,’ said Nicholas. ‘It is changing. Free education for everyone.’
‘If they want it,’ said Scarlett. She looked at her watch, an obvious hint for Jed to drive her home so she could get back to her textbooks.
Jed stood, then, on impulse, bent and kissed Nicholas’s cheek. ‘Look after yourself,’ she said quietly. ‘And talk to Felicity.’
‘We do talk. On the phone, every night.’
Jed shook her head again. She waved to Leafsong, put a ten-dollar note on the counter and followed Scarlett out the door.
Gibber’s Creek Gazette, 16 October 1975
Senate Refuses to Pass Supply
For the first time in the history of Australia the Coalition-dominated Senate has refused to pass the Supply bills that provide the money for all government expenditure. Opposition leader, the Honourable Malcolm Fraser, stated that the Whitlam government has been ‘the most incompetent and disastrous in the history of Australia’. He remains firm in his resolve to stop the Supply bills becoming law.
Ra Zacharia smiled carefully at Matron Clancy, even more studiously avoiding looking at the limp child across her shoulder. ‘I would be happy to help with any of the children. What greater privilege is there than to help young people in need? Taking them for walks, reading to them — any job that might take the pressure off your more qualified staff. Though my own US qualifications may be useful.’
‘Mr Zacharia, excuse my being blunt, but there is no need to waste either your time or mine. While we welcome volunteers, we do not welcome any talk of faith healing.’
He would have welcomed sheep dogs to herd his smile into place. ‘Guided meditation is not faith healing, Matron. And —’
‘Good morning, Mr Zacharia.’
The new secretary, dressed in a burgundy jersey pantsuit and many coloured Indian bangles, held the door for him to leave.
Gibber’s Creek Gazette, 20 October 1975
Gibber’s Creek Residents Urged to Apply for Heritage Grants
Local MP, Nicholas Brewster, has urged Gibber’s Creek residents to apply for grants from the new federal Heritage Commission.
‘Grants may be used to help preserve any building, street or area that we Australians feel is an important part of our heritage.’
The Gibber’s Creek Pub and CWA Rooms will be among the first local applicants, with plans to replace the vast iron verandas removed in World War II when iron was needed for the war effort, and to repaint both buildings.
Editorial: No Resolution for Supply Crisis. Has Fraser Fumbled It?
Matilda sat on her veranda and studied the white highway, the creamy clematis flowers that hung from native fig trees or pittosporums along the hills around Drinkwater and Ove
Tens of thousands of years earlier, women like her had planted those flowers. Plant in the right place and when one vine dies another grows to take its place.
Every spring the road of white appeared for the young women to follow to the ridges where the right stringybarks grew, at exactly the right time for their young bark to be ready to strip and plaited into string. Run that string through a flame and the resin sizzled and the string became waterproof, and so strong it would carry the weight of a man.
She had been fourteen when Auntie Love showed her the highway and how to plait the string, though she hadn’t realised the significance of it for decades, as old Mrs Clancy tactfully showed her the meanings of Auntie Love’s lessons.
String was not just string. It connected you to your ancestors, to all other women who used it or might do so, to the land itself — so harsh if you did not know it, so generous once you could read its moods and gifts.
Maxi shoved her sleek head onto her lap. Matilda stroked her absent-mindedly, enjoying the Doberperson’s velvet fur beneath her hands. Good to have someone warm to hug and hold against you. Her arms felt empty sometimes.
Not that she was lonely, with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and the homestead still the heart of the farmwork every day. Nor was she alone, not with her ghosts to keep her company. But a dog gave you warmth as well as love. And if Maxi had little conversation, Matilda had ninety-three years of memories to relive.
And hills to climb, and bark to gather. She had managed to collect stringybark last year, with Nancy on one side of her, and Jed on the other. Strange to think that the only young woman to carry the knowledge into the next generation now was Jed, not her blood at all, but Tommy’s. But her heart’s blood — yes, Jed was that.
Which reminded her: that young woman had better have daughters, or to whom would the knowledge go after her? And the sooner the better too. She had started having children late, which meant that after two sons there had been no time for daughters. She would have liked more children . . .
But, of course, she did have daughters. Darling Nancy. Jed. It was high time Jed married Sam properly, not this ‘living together’, which meant nothing at all. A nice young man. Reminded her of Tommy. And good to think of her family linked to Blue’s and the McAlpines. Such a richness of years behind her, but she needed to see Jed settled and having children too. She had accepted that soon she would open the door that led to death. But she was not going to open it till all items on her list were ticked, and Jed settled was at the top. They would have such excellent children. And Tommy’s factory filled with work again . . .
Could she ever have imagined such fulfilment, back as a child in Grinder’s Alley? All the years of love and pain, for pain was the price you paid for love. Such richness in the hands of friends, the faces of her children, and her children’s children, so many seasons, and with each growing closer to the heartstone of her land . . .
She must have dozed. One minute? More? It didn’t matter. Maxi’s head still rested on her lap. ‘Good dog,’ she murmured, and saw the stump wag.
She must tell Jed and Nancy to collect the stringybark without her this year. Matilda smiled. They were probably waiting for her to do just that, instead of having to say, ‘You know, Matilda, it really isn’t a good idea.’
Once she had thought old age would be so hard, each day giving up a little more. But there had been no grief at any of the concessions she’d had to make, except the loss of friends, and that was temporary.
And so tomorrow she would not go up along the ridges, following the clematis, but sit there with a dog, as she had not sat since the days of Hey You, the dingo she had inherited as a child from Auntie Love, and breathe the doggy smell and watch the sheep in the far paddock.
She knew when she was gone the sheep would, most likely, soon vanish from Drinkwater as well, replaced by Michael’s cost-effective cattle. But she was glad he hadn’t told her so, and that she had let him think she believed her legacy of sheep would last a hundred years.
They were a good line of sheep. Perhaps he and Nancy would keep a few.
‘Mrs Thompson? I’ve left dinner in the oven.’
‘Thank you, Anita.’ She took her stick, dislodging Maxi, and heaved herself to her feet, though luckily these days there was little left to heave. She must ring Nancy while she remembered. A nuisance, this new automatic exchange. She had to keep remembering phone numbers, or look them up. But she’d still help Nancy and Jed plait the bark, of course. Drinkwater hay bales were tied with stringybark twine and always would be . . . though always, of course, meant less than it once had.
‘Good dog,’ she said again. Maxi gave her short ‘grff’. For with Anita gone, the Doberperson knew that dinner would be eaten on the sofa, not in the dining room, and half of it would be fed with loving fingers to a loving dog, while they listened to the wireless.
Oh, the stupidity of that man Fraser. Didn’t he know his time had gone? This was a new Australia, and she had lived to see it.
Matilda smiled. Life was full.
Gibber’s Creek Gazette, 31 October 1975
Letter to the Editor
Dear Madam Editor,
How long can this country survive the insane extravagance of our so-called leaders down in Canberra? Does our treasurer have any idea how much a bottle of milk costs this week compared with three years ago? Four times as much, that’s what!
Mrs Gerald Whatmore
Wirragoon Hereford Stud via Gibber’s Creek
It had been a long and strangely rich morning. Jed had only meant to drop off Sam’s chainsaw to his parents’ place — Dr McAlpine’s was being serviced, and a tree had come down near the water tank.
But somehow ‘staying for a cuppa’ with Blue after breakfast had turned into three hours of stories, startling ones about ‘harem girls’ at the circus, who included a young man and an old woman, with paddings, wigs, make-up and clever lighting; a pickpocket elephant called the Queen of Sheba; the 1960s drought and how the local businesses had let people’s credit run on for three years, till the rains came and they could pay their accounts again; the time Sam was eight and had climbed the cliff at Overflow to gather what he thought was wild bees’ honey as a Mother’s Day present for her, but the bees’ nest turned out to be a paper wasps’ nest and he’d had to plunge into the creek to wash them off. Luckily paper wasps didn’t sting as fiercely as European ones . . .
This was a land of stories. Nancy’s tales passed on from her grandfather, about how he had married the Aboriginal girl who had captured his heart and been cast out from Overflow — the reason for ‘Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving and we don’t know where he are’ — returning only after his father’s death to the property he inherited either because the old man had forgiven him or, more likely, never got around to changing his will.
The even harder saga of Nancy’s and Matron Clancy’s years in a Japanese internment camp: stories that should have been tragic, with the loss of Matron Clancy’s son and husband, the death of almost every woman there from starvation and disease. Somehow, though, in the telling they were more about the friendships and strength of the women there than about the atrocities they had experienced.
And the richness of Matilda’s memories . . .
Jed smiled. Matilda was generous with love, money and her incredible collection of decades of couture clothes, but possibly the greatest richness she had given Jed was the knowledge of the land around her, and how the nation of Australia had been built.
She’d just opened the fridge to make a sandwich for an overdue lunch when the phone rang. ‘Hello?’
‘Jed? It’s Carol. I’ve found out something you need to know. Okay if I come out to Dribble?’
‘Of course. Have you had lunch?’
Carol laughed. ‘My sister just made a hundred spinach triangles, two dozen melting moments and curried parsnip soup. Yes, I’ve had lunch. Can
‘Something for dinner would be wonderful.’
‘For three of you?’ There seemed to be no hesitation in Carol’s voice now at the thought of Sam and Jed together. Jed was glad.
‘Yes, three. No, make it four. I haven’t had lunch yet. Spinach triangles sound perfect. See you soon.’ There were distinct advantages in being the landlord of a café, and having an account at that café; and having a cook at that café whose food, somehow, was always exactly what you felt like eating.
Jed put the bread back in the fridge. She filled the kettle, then put tea leaves in the pot. She grabbed mugs in one hand, and milk in the other, turned . . .
Three women sat at her kitchen table. The first’s hair was white, short, curling about her face. She wore a psychedelic caftan, of the kind that had been fashionable ten years ago, and multicoloured bangles on her bony wrists. It was herself. How old was she? Seventy, perhaps? Or more like eighty, or even ninety.
The second woman’s hair was plaited white and mauve and twisted into a bun on top of her head. She wore a sparkling tailored dress. Julieanne, undoubtedly. The third’s hair was grey, left long, draped over purple overalls and T-shirt.
The kitchen wall behind them was painted pale mauve, instead of white, and outside the river ran with the gush and froth of flood.
For perhaps ten seconds she caught a twist of talk: ‘. . . and then we’re all going to meet at . . .’ The Jed of the future stopped. She met Jed’s eyes — the Jed of now, the Jed staring into the vision in her kitchen, the first such vision she had seen for years, and laughed. ‘Oh, I had forgotten this. Guys, look: I told you that one day we’d see us from way back last century.’
The white-and-mauve-haired Julieanne laughed. She gave a small wave of a hand still encrusted with rings, though these looked considerably more valuable than the ones she’d worn as a student.
The grey-haired Carol stared at the young Jed. ‘I never quite believed you.’
Other author's books:
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